Non-fiction November 2018, Weeks 4 and 5

Non-fiction November 2018Well, bizarrely, I did the first three weeks from 2016 for my first Non-fiction November of 2018 post! I won’t revisit those – they’re similar topics to this year’s anyhow – but I’m back on track for this post. Non-fiction November, if you haven’t guessed, involves celebrating non-fiction for the month, with each week focusing on a specific issue, question or topic. This year’s meme is being hosted by Katie (Doing Dewey), Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Rennie (What’s Nonfiction), Julz (JulzReads), and Sarah (Sarah’s Bookshelves). 

As with my first post which covered weeks 1 to 3, I’m combining weeks 4 and 5 into one post and am publishing it during the weekend between the two weeks.

Week 4: (Nov. 19 to 23) – Reads Like Fiction (Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction)

This topic essentially asks whether we like a form of non-fiction called “narrative” or “creative non-fiction”, which Wikipedia describes as “writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives.”

Well, in a word, yes – I do – very much. If that makes me sound soft, then so be it, but I’d argue that non-fiction writer using literary styles and techniques to engage readers doesn’t automatically weaken the seriousness or worthiness of their content. Commenting on a previous post of mine, historian Yvonne Perkins quoted historian Penny Russell who said that “Writing history… is a creative art. It requires empathy, intuition, a keen sense of drama and pathos, a distinct narrative flair.”

Helen Garner, This house of grief book cover

So, who (or what) are my favourites? One of the internationally recognised exponents of this form is the Australian writer, Helen Garner, whom I started reading long before blogging. Her books Joe Cinque’s consolation and This house of grief are excellent examples, and she influenced, I believe, younger Australian writers, like Chloe Hooper (The tall man) and Anna Krien (Into the woods and Night games). In these books the narrative drive comes from the writer’s involvement in the “story”, in their taking us along in their thinking and investigation. And to be not entirely ethnocentric, I’ll name one excellent non-Australian author I’ve read, albeit some years ago – Erik Larson and his book Isaac’s storm.

Michelle Scott Tucker, Elizabeth MacarthurTurning to this year, most of my non-fiction reading has been biography, which lends itself to this “creative” approach though not all biographers do adopt it. Two that I’ve read this year did, however, Sarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner and Michelle Scott Tucker’s Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge of the world. Krasnostein achieves it by being part of the journey, by using a creative structure interweaving her subject’s past with her present life, and by evocative language which uses the sort of imagery more common in fiction. Tucker, on the other hand, takes the more traditional straight chronological approach, but she encourages us to engage with Elizabeth Macarthur the woman, rather than present her to us as a fait accompli. There are gaps in Macarthur’s story. For example, we might know what happened, but not, perhaps, how or why, so Tucker uses her imagination – and makes it clear she’s doing to – to consider the situation. Here’s an example:

No. The most likely source is Elizabeth Macarthur, once more trying to mitigate her husband’s wilder misjudgements. But we have to imagine it: a hushed yet heated conversation with Edward to send him flying out after Oakes and then a vain attempt to placate and soothe John …

This is a thoroughly researched and documented biography, but written with a narrative, dare I say, novelist’s flair.

Week 5: (Nov. 26 to 30) – New to My TBR (Katie @ Doing Dewey)

Unfortunately, like last year, and although I’ve been reading several participants’ posts, I haven’t added anything to my TBR as a result of these November posts, because – and it’s a big because – I have so much already on that pile, including, most recently:

  • Peter Ackroyd’s Dominion (History of England V)
  • Elizabeth Kleinhenz’s Germaine: The life of Germaine Greer (about which I have also posted recently)
  • Clare Wright’s You daughters of freedom (currently reading, and about which I have already posted)

However, if I were looking for book ideas, I’d probably go back to some of “expert” posts. What a variety of topics – from Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) on Empathy to Debbie (ExUrbanis) on Downsizing and Making Major Life Changes, from Buried In Print’s call for good non-fiction books on Indigenous Storytellers to Brona (Brona’s books) wanting more on the French Revolution (which reminds me that I must go recommend something!) To name just a few!

Meanwhile, I’d love your comments on any of the above, but particularly your thoughts on non-fiction that reads like fiction. Do you like it? And if so, do you have any you’d recommend?

27 thoughts on “Non-fiction November 2018, Weeks 4 and 5

  1. Thanks for the link Sue 🙂
    Helen Garner is a great pick for this category – I found House of Grief engrossing.
    Like you, I’ll show restraint adding to the TBR stack given there’s so much there already!

      • You didn’t comment but you did link 🙂
        Events like Nonfiction November are great but I struggle to get around to all the blogs participating.

        The thing that I remember about the Garner was the grind of the hearing – so much procedural stuff – with Garner knitting at the same time.

        • Oh good, at least I did that so you know I read it. I agree about getting around then all.

          As for Garner, yes. All that technical detail about the car and angles of tyre marks. I’d hate to be on a jury trying to take all that in.

  2. Hi, Sue! Our book group has just read and discussed ‘The Fighter’ by Arnold Zable, a biography of a forgotten prize fighter called Henry Nissen, in which Arnold has used ‘novelistic’ techniques. Henry grew up in Carlton, as Arnold did, and like Arnold was the child of Jewish refuges from Hitler. I think you’d enjoy it – it’s very moving.

    • Oh, yes, I remember hearing about that book when it came out, Teresa, but had completely forgotten about it. I like Arnold Zable – so you’re right, I think I would like it. (And, Hi back!!)

  3. I agree about MST’s Eliz MacArthur (doesn’t everyone). Have only read Garner’s non-fiction fiction. And now I can recommend Frank Moorhouse’s The Drovers Wife – Lit theory being my favorite non-fiction.

  4. Hi Sue, all great suggestions. The creative non fiction books that stay in my mind are In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, and King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hoschshild. Also, one that I read this year The Spider and the Fly by Claudia Rowe: A reporter, a serial Killer and the meaning of Murder. I do like the idea of creative writing in non fiction books, I think it is necessary. You just don’t want ‘facts’ – quite boring!

    • Oh yes. Meg, In cold blood was an early one I read in this style, and unforgettable I agree. I’ve heard of King Leopold’s ghost, but haven’t read it.

      I agree with you that without employing these techniques non-fiction can be dull.

  5. Goodness Sue, I’m humbled to be mentioned in such excellent company. Thank you. The book that opened me up to the possibilities of creative non-fiction was an American prize-winning one, called In The Heart of the Sea (by Nathanial Hawthorne). Meticulously researched, fascinating topic (19th C whaling ships), and an absolute page turner.

    • Well, Michelle, it is such a readable biography so it deserved being mentioned!

      I’ve never heard of The heart of the sea, but it sounds fascinating … oops, I’ve just checked it out because THE Nathaniel Hawthorne was a 19th century writer and I wasn’t sure whether you meant him or another Nathaniel Hawthorne. I think you meant: In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick?

    • Oh good … I’m sorry I haven’t had a chance to find Spargo-Ryan yet, but I haven’t forgotten, N@ncy. BTW Erik Larson has written several well-received books. I have another on my Kindle that I’m keen to get to.

      • Oh, you are so kind….perhaps a Ryan-Spargo will pop up in a second-hand bookstore of book fair! I am preparing the last post for NonFicNov with books I will try to read in the course of many years (TBR) Interesting to see the topics that attract readers true crime, politics, wellness, travel, parenting, food, science, theatre (me)…not many biographies this year!

  6. Thanks for the shoutout, WG: much appreciated. I’ve been trying to think of books, which might be available to you overseas, with a strong narrative thrust and an emphasis on women’s history, and I’ve come up with Charlotte Gray. She is very prominent here and often located with a mainstream publisher, and she chooses women-centric topics, and does a fine job of locating her readers solidly in time and place. But, I also completely understand that you are not looking to add to your TBR. So feel free to take this recommendation with a grain of sea-salt! 🙂

    • Thanks Buried … I will add Charlotte Gray to my virtual TBR – which is a start, eh? The only Charlotte Gray I know is the spy from Sebastian Faulks book (which I saw but didn’t read!)

  7. When I read Helen Garner’s The Spare Room I became an immediate fan. I’m looking forward to reading Everywhere I Look.

    I completely agree that “non-fiction writer using literary styles and techniques to engage readers doesn’t automatically weaken the seriousness or worthiness of their content.”. Thank you for making that argument!

  8. Pingback: #NonFicNov wk 5 Thanks for sharing your books! | NancyElin

  9. Re: comment on blog NancyElin TBR week 5 NonFicNov 2018
    I read your review ‘A Writing Life Helen Garner and Her Work’ (B. Brennan) dd. 29 Dec 2017 and was captivated! Reading about an author is one of my favorite non-fictin reads. The biography was intense and I was not sure I was ready for Helen Garner’s masterpieces…now I am. Erik Larson is a new author for me….so I hope it will be good! Love all your resource posts on WhisperingGums…. I use the so often!

    • That’s really lovely to hear N@ncy … it takes time to write the resource posts so it’s really nice to hear they have value for someone.

      Let me know what you think of Larson if/when you read him.

  10. Thank you for the shout out and thank you for the tip about which Larson I could start with (he gets so many rave reviews).
    And I cannot believe that I completely forgot to add Wright, Garner & Hooper to my recent posts! Like you I’m looking forward to Wright’s new book.

    • It’s so hard to remember them all, Brona!! I’m half way through Wright so, you know, you’ll eventually see it in your AWW list!!

      I think Isaac’s storm is wonderful – but many of his others probably are too. I have The devil in white city on my Kindle. Just have to find time to read it.

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