Non-fiction November 2019, Weeks 4 to 5

Meme logoAs for my first Nonfiction November post this year, I am concatenating my last two posts, and posting them in the middle of the two weeks.

The meme is jointly hosted by Julz (Julz Reads) (Week 1), Sarah (Sarah’s Book Shelves) (Week 2), Katie (Doing Dewey) (Week 3), Leanne (ShelfAware) (Week 4) and Rennie (What’s Nonfiction) (Week 5).

Week 4: (Nov. 18 to 22) Leann (Shelf Aware) Nonfiction favourites:

What makes a book you’ve read one of your favorites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? 

I’ll start with what I don’t look for, which is tone. That is, I don’t look for any particular tone over another. The important thing is that the tone matches the subject. I am not put off by serious, sad or confronting tones, but I can also enjoy (who doesn’t) a humorous tone. I also don’t gravitate to memoir, though I do read a select few each year. This year, for example, I’ve read Ros Collins’ Rosa: Memories with licence (my review), Anita Heiss’s anthology Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (my review), Vicki Laveau-Harris’ The erratics (my review),  and Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Unconditional love (my review).

What I do look for are subject matter and author’s approach or style. My favourite subject matter would have to be literary biography (and to a slightly lesser degree, literary memoir) but none of this year’s books have been such. I like essays, of which I’ve read a few this year, some stand-alone, some in collections. And I particularly like reading authors who explore form, who don’t stick to the tried-and-true. This doesn’t mean I don’t read and enjoy the tried-and-true if it’s well-written and a topic I’m interested in. Two standout non-fiction books this year for me were:

  • Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic (my review), which she says is not a collection of essays, though I’m not sure what else to call it. This is a humane, provocative books that forces us to rethink those axioms, those cliches that we too often resort to in an effort to not confront uncomfortable truths and situations.
  • Clare Wright’s You daughters of freedom (my review) for its well-researched but highly readable history of the women’s suffrage movement in that late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, and Australia’s significant role in it. Wright has done a wonderful job of bringing a hidden history to the fore.

Note: I have only included books I’ve read from November 2018 to October 2019. Any read this month will be in the running for 2020’s meme!

Week 5: (Nov. 25 to 29) Rennie (What’s Nonfiction) New to my TBR:

It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it onto your TBR? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book!

I’m afraid that I haven’t really had time to take note of many books posted by other meme posters, though I have read several posts. So, I’m listing here a small selection of non-fiction books I am keen to read, not just ones that have appeared via this year’s meme:

  • Larissa Behrendt’s Finding Eliza: Power and colonial storytelling, which is in fact old on my TBR but which I’m going to make a concerted effort to read by next Nonfiction November.
  • Peter Carey’s Wrong about Japan, because I love Japan and am interested in what Peter Carey has to say. Brona (Brona’s Books) posted about this in her Be the Expert post.
  • Annie Cossins’ The baby farmers, because I’m interested in colonial Australian women’s history. Shelleyrae (Book’d Out) included this in her Be the Expert post.
  • Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell’s Half the perfect world: Writers, dreamers and drifters on Hydra, 1955–1964, which won this year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Nonfiction. It’s about the post-war international artist community on the Greek island of Hydra, which included our Aussie literary couple, Charmian Clift and George Johnston.
  • Chloe Hooper’s The arsonist, which has been shortlisted for several awards and has been on my TBR most of this year. It seems an absolute must given the early start to this year’s bushfire season here down under.

And there you have it. Another Nonfiction November completed in two posts. I apologise for not giving it the attention it deserves, but I am glad I was stimulated by the meme to spend a little time thinking about nonfiction this month.

Any nonfiction favourites you’d like to share? (Not that my TBR pile needs them, mind you, but other readers might like to hear of them!)

Non-fiction November 2019, Weeks 1 to 3

Meme logoI’m a relative latecomer to Non-fiction November, but I like to take part in some way because I do like and read non-fiction. However, I don’t have the time to fully take part, so as in previous years, I plan to do a couple of concatenated posts.

The meme is jointly hosted by Julz (Julz Reads) (Week 1), Sarah (Sarah’s Book Shelves) (Week 2), Katie (Doing Dewey) (Week 3), Leanne (ShelfAware) (Week 4) and Rennie (What’s Nonfiction) (Week 5).

Week 1: (Oct. 28 to Nov. 1) (Julz ReadsYour Year in Nonfiction:

There are several questions for this week, but I’m just going to answer a couple …

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

My year starts at the end of last November. I’ve not read a lot of non-fiction, but have read a lot of really interesting non-fiction! I’m choosing three highlights:

  • The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (my review): because it’s a biography that also explores the history and ethics of science, as well as social justice and racism. It’s the whole package really.
  • Axiomatic, by Maria Tumarkin (my review): because, again, social justice is at its core, and it forces us to rethink those maxims that we trot out, often without thinking about them too deeply.
  • You daughters of freedom, by Clare Wright (my review): because it illuminates how progressive Australia was at the time of our Federation, and the significant role played by women, nationally and internationally, in that progressive thought and action.

Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?

I wouldn’t say this is a topic I’ve been particularly attracted to this year, but I have had a long, ongoing interest in the stories and rights of Indigenous Australians, and try to keep my reading up in this area. This year, in terms of non-fiction regarding Indigenous Australians, I read Anita Heiss’s anthology Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (my review) and Stan Grant’s On identity (my review). I also read Neil H Atkinson’s The last wild west (my review), in which he chronicles his enlightenment of the injustices under which Indigenous Australians live.

Week 2: (Nov. 4 to 8) (Sarah’s Bookshelves) Book Pairing:

“This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.”

Clare Wright, You daughters of freedomI love this week of the Challenge, because for as long as I can remember I’ve enjoyed seeing connections between my reading. However, because I’m doing three weeks in one, I’m going to do just one pairing, and it pairs two books I’ve read this year, Clare Wright’s You daughters of freedom (my review) which chronicles the women’s suffrage movement in Australia with Sue Ingleton’s Making trouble: Tongue with fire (my review) which tells the story of two women’s rights advocates, Harriet Elphinstone Dick and Alice C Moon.

Book coverBoth these books focus on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, though Ingleton’s ends right at the beginning of the twentieth century. Ingleton’s Dick and Moon weren’t actively involved in the suffrage movement, but they were passionate advocates of the rights of women and of women’s ability to live independent lives, and they, particularly Moon, met and associated with early Sydney leaders of the suffrage movement, like Rose Scott and Louisa Lawson, who feature in Wright’s book.

Week 3: (Nov. 11 to 15) (Doing Dewey) Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert:

Either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert) … [or] put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert) or … create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

Hmm, except that I wouldn’t and couldn’t call myself an expert, I could choose Indigenous Australian rights and lives, and repeat the three books I listed under Week 1’s particular topic question. I will stay with this idea, and share some more books I’d like to read, but with the proviso that I, as a non-indigenous person, could never actually become the expert. Some non-fiction indigenous works I’d like to read include:

  • Larissa Behrendt’s Finding Eliza: Power and colonial storytelling (Lisa’s ANZLitLovers review): this book which explores/exposes early writing about Indigenous Australians has been on my TBR for a few years now. I hope to read it for Lisa’s 2020 Indigenous Literature Week.
  • Stan Grant’s Australia Day (my post on a conversation with Stan Grant): having heard the conversation, I’d now like to read the book!
  • Alexis Wright’s Tracker (Bill’s The Australian Legend review) which won the Stella Prize in 2018, and which appeals for its story of a strong but controversial Indigenous Australian activist and for its “take” on biography/memoir.

(I am early with Week 3, but I figure that balances the fact that I’m very late with Week 1. I hope I’ll be forgiven.)

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?

Non-fiction November 2018, Weeks 1 to 3

I’m not sure how long Non-fiction November has been happening in the blogosphere, but I first became aware of it last year. It runs for a month, with a different set of questions posed for each week of the month. Last year I concatenated my responses into two posts, one for weeks 1 to 3, and the other for weeks 4 to 5. I’m going to do the same this year.

The meme is jointly hosted this year by Katie (Doing Dewey), Lory (Emerald City Book Review), Sarah (Sarah’s Book Shelves), Rachel (Hibernator’s Library) and Julz (Julz Reads).

Week 1: (Oct 31-Nov 4) (KatieYour Year in Nonfiction: 

There are several questions for this week, but, like last year, I’m just going to answer a couple …

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

Now, last year, I read a disproportionate amount of non-fiction (in terms of my reading preferences, that is), and said that I would like to right the balance somewhat this year. I like non-fiction – a lot – but I don’t want it to overtake fiction as it nearly did last year. Well, this year I sure have righted it, with, so far, non-fiction representing around 15% of my reading to date – mostly biographies and autobiographies/memoirs.

There are three standouts: Michelle Scott Tucker’s Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge of the world (my review), Nadia Wheatley’s Her mother’s daughter (my review), and Sarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner (my review). If I were forced to choose just one, I would have to go for The trauma cleaner for the sheer chutzpah of its subject against terrible odds and for the clever structure Krasnostein uses to tell the story.

What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet? 

The same as last year – literary biographies – closely followed by Australian history.

Week 2: (Nov 7 – 11) – (Rachel) Choosing Nonfiction

Again, there are several questions and I’ll share them all: What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

Book cover, The forgotten rebels of EurekaThese are complex questions that could take a whole post, but I’m going to keep it succinct, with the following answer encompassing the first three questions above! The two main things I look for in a non-fiction book are subject matter and engaging style. For example, I like biographies (particularly of writers and achieving women) and Australian history, but I don’t like dry factual this-happened-and-then-that-happened writing. I particularly like something called creative non-fiction. However, while I want to be engaged, I also want to feel that the writing is authoritative so I like to see the author’s sources. Clare Wright’s histories, such as The forgotten rebels of Eureka (my review) and You daughters of freedom, are excellent examples. Wright writes with the narrative instincts of a novelist and yet her claims and statements are thoroughly cited.

Covers are never hugely important to me in selecting books. Of course, a good cover can catch my eye, but I will never buy a book by its cover. With fiction, it’s the author or a recommendation from a person I respect, that will decide me once I’ve seen the book. With non-fiction, the cover is even less important to me, which is just as well, because in general I’ve found non-fiction covers to be less interesting. Non-fiction covers seem more literal, more determined to capture the “facts” of the book – an image of the subject of the biography for example or of a war scene for a war history – whereas fiction covers can get a little more creative and look to capture an emotional response rather than depict content.

PS I also like Helen Garner’s non-fiction. She could write about grass growing and I’d be there.

Week 3: (Nov 14 – 18) – (Sarah) Book Pairing

I’m a bit ahead of the game here, but as I’ll be away from November 14 to 16, I’m going to sneak in my response now. The challenge is to pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction one – via whatever sort of connection seems fit. I loved this challenge last year, and found it fun again this year.

My pair is:

Yes, it is Clare Wright’s latest history, You daughters of freedom, which I’m still reading, and EM Forster’s Howard’s End which I reviewed just a week or so ago. You daughters of freedom is about the achievement of women’s suffrage in Australia, from the late 19th to early 20th century, and the role Australian suffragists played in worldwide suffrage movements, particularly in England.

Howards End was published in 1910, and its two main female characters, Margaret and Helen Schlegel, are well aware of and support women’s suffrage, though, as you’d expect from their personalities, Margaret is the one who is clearer about its meaning and impact. The novel opens with Helen writing from Howards End where Mr Wilcox easily demolishes her arguments for suffrage and equality:

He says the most horrid things about women’s suffrage so nicely, and when I said I believed in equality he just folded his arms and gave me such a setting down as I’ve never had. … I never felt so ashamed of myself in my life. I couldn’t point to a time when men had been equal, or even to a time when the wish to be equal and made them happier in other ways. I couldn’t say a word. I had just picked up the notion that equality is good from some book – probably from poetry, or you.

Later, when Margaret holds a luncheon party in Mrs Wilcox’s honour, suffrage and women’s rights come up. Margaret sees the issue as wider than just “the vote”:

“Aren’t we differing on something much wider, Mrs. Wilcox? Whether women are to remain what they have been since the dawn of history; or whether, since men have moved forward so far, they too may move forward a little now. I say they may…”

Howards End provides a fascinating study of England during this time of political and social change – and gender is one of the issues which recurs throughout.

Non-fiction November 2017, Weeks 4 and 5

Nonfiction November 2017 bannerIn my last My Literary Week post, I took part (sort of) in the Non-Fiction November meme, giving my responses for the first three weeks. Because the last two weeks ask some questions, I’d like to answer, I’ve decided to combine them is a second post. It’s probably cheating, but …

Week 4, Nov. 20 to 24: Nonfiction Favorites

For this week the question is to discuss our favourites and what makes them so. Is it to do with the topic? Or the style, or tone? Or what?

Helen Garner, This house of grief book cover

Courtesy: Text Publishing

I can name some non-fiction books that I remember years after I finished them, but can I find some common threads in them? Well, perhaps, and it’s not the topic. For example, a non-fiction work that stands out for me is one I read before blogging, so that’s more than 10 years ago. It’s Erik Larson’s Isaac’s storm about the lead up to and aftermath of the damaging 1900 hurricane in Galveston. It’s told through the eyes of meteorologist Isaac Cline, and is in that style loosely called creative non-fiction, which means it uses many of the techniques of fiction to tell its story. I discovered long ago that creative or narrative non-fiction is the non-fiction style that most appeals to me. If that makes me shallow, then so be it!

Other books using this style that I’ve read in the last decade include Chloe Hooper’s Tall man, Ann Krien’s Into the woods (my review), Richard Lloyd Parry’s People who eat darkness (my review), and Helen Garner’s First stone, Joe Cinque’s consolation and The house of grief (my review). The topics vary in these books – there’s a natural disaster, an environmental investigation, a sexual harassment case, and four very different true crime stories (including an Aboriginal death in custody, a serial killer and two focusing largely on court cases) – but they all use a narrative approach.

Book cover, The forgotten rebels of Eureka

However, there are two topics that are likely to attract me, regardless of style – Australian history and literary biographies/memoirs. Of the former, books like Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with strangers and Clare Wright’s The forgotten rebels of Eureka (my review) appeal, partly because they explore history from different angles, from angles that question existing paradigms (if I dare use that word), and partly because both historians share the process of their research with the reader as they write. I like this direct engagement with me. Not only do I find it more readable, but importantly this more personal approach reminds me that this is one historian’s view of the past – a well-supported valid view (hopefully, and in these two cases, absolutely) but their view nonetheless.

My favourite recent literary biography has to be Karen Lamb’s Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather (my review) because I love Thea Astley and because Lamb’s book, though clearly positive about Astley, provides a “real” picture of an intelligent, passionate and sometimes prickly woman, of the woman, in other words, that I imagined Astley to be.

Week 5, Nov. 27 to Dec. 1: New to My TBR

Bernadette Brennan, A writing life Helen Garner and her workI think here we are supposed to mention books that we’ve read in other posts on this meme – and link back to the blog which inspired us. However, I’m afraid I’ve been a bit remiss in keeping up with all the posts, and with noting the books that have appealed when I have read the posts, so I’m going to start with a book that I’ve recently added to my TBR because it’s a must for me to read. It’s a literary biography, Bernadette Brennan’s A writing life: Helen Garner and her work. I will read this in the next two months!

And, just to show I did read some Non-fiction November posts, I was attracted to a book posted by Buried in PrintTanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death and Hard Truths in a Northern CityBuried described it as “a gripping story, bound to appeal to readers who appreciate elements of true crime, history, memoir, social justice and narrative-driven journalism.” If you’ve read my Week 4 above, you’ll know exactly why this book appealed to me! It’s about the deaths of students who were attending an Indigenous-run high school in Thunder Bay, Ontario (a fairly remote place which daughter Gums visited three or four years ago). Buried explains that “to understand the importance of this educational opportunity (even with the challenges of students’ adjustments to city life and the embedded racism in the community), it’s useful to have some understanding of the residential school system, which was wielded like a weapon against Indigenous communities from the later nineteenth-century until 1996.” With our own problematical treatment of indigenous people, and my ongoing interest in racism, this book sounds particularly interesting to me.

POSTSCRIPT: Oops, I clicked the Publish button before writing my conclusion! I wanted to say that I’ve read a lot of great non-fiction in the last few years, so it’s been hard to name just a few in this post and the previous one. Different Non-fiction November questions could very well have resulted in my naming different books.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian women’s non-fiction writing

Today’s Monday Musings was inspired by a post last month in Overland literary journal’s blog. The topic – Women and non-fiction writing – is a big one, bigger really than I have time for now, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to make a start.

In the Overland post, which comprised an interview with writer, Rebecca Giggs, Giggs discusses the issue of authority in non-fiction and the notion that “nonfiction writing is supposed to have a fidelity to the real world. Disgrace comes to the author who adds too much of the unreal to their mix”. She talks of how it is believed that “things must be stated, accounted for, and settled. Declared. The unknown turned into the known” and sees this view very much as a gendered thing. As male, in other words. And then she continues

But of course, this is not how the world actually is. Inner and outer worlds are not so easily divided! And permitting that fact – allowing such things as the corporeal, the uncertainty, the experiential in – doesn’t just make clear that falsity, it also lets in other modes of authority. It questions the role of women’s interior lives in our political discourse.

So much to unpack here that I fear getting bogged down, so will just keep to the surface (more or less). I have always been intrigued by the subjective in history, ever since I read EH Carr‘s What is history in which he argued, convincingly for me, the interpretive basis of history, that the role of the historian is significant in terms of what we come to know as “history”, as “fact”. I have no idea how Carr is viewed now as I’m not an historian but it would take a good argument to shake my belief in Carr’s basic premise.

And so, I like the changes I’m starting to see in non-fiction writing. I like the fact that the role of the historian – or, let’s broaden this to non-fiction writer – is becoming more transparent in the (in some anyhow) writing. And it seems that a lot of this is being driven (championed, even) by women writers (although my impression could be skewed by the fact that I’ve read more non-fiction by women over the last decade or so. I would love to hear whether you agree). In the rest of this post I’ll discuss a few of the writers who have come to my attention, in roughly the order I’ve read them.

Helen Garner

Garner was the first to confront me with a new personal way of writing non-fiction. She put herself in the picture and told us exactly what she thought about the subjects she was writing about: college master-student harassment in The first stone, murder/manslaughter and duty of care in Joe Cinque’s consolation. Garner caused quite a furore with these books, particularly the former, but I’m not going to go into that here. Google if you are interested. My point is that she was fearless in putting herself in the frame, and in documenting her process. It’s exciting writing – and it’s honest. I like that, whether or not I agree with her views and conclusions. I like the fact that she allows us to see her thinking and to engage in the discussion – and engage we surely did.

Chloe Hooper

Chloe Hooper.

Chloe Hooper (Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

In a way, Chloe Hooper in her Tall man did for Cameron Doomadgee‘s death-in-custody what Garner did for Joe Cinque. Chloe Hooper is less emotional, less heart-on-sleeve, than Garner but she does also put herself into the story, taking us with her as she researches the situation, and admitting her sympathies. She specifically raises at one point the issue of “historical relativities” which I read as meaning that the facts can be seen from different angles depending on where you are in the spectrum – in many often overlapping spectrums in fact, the historical one, the black-white one, the power one, to name a few.

Anna Krien

Krien’s book Into the woods and essay Us and them work very much like Hooper’s book. She’s there in the story she is investigating. She researches all sides as best as she can. She makes her sympathies clear as they become clear to her, taking us, like Hooper, on her journey.

Francesca Rendle-Short

The Garner, Hooper and Krien books I’ve mentioned above are all pretty straightforward. They put the “I” in their nonfiction writing, something that was once a no-no. But they still focus on the “facts”, albeit recognising the subjective and/or interpretive aspect to them. Francesca Rendle-Short’s memoir-cum-fiction, Bite your tongue, though, is quite a different matter. And it is, I think, a good example of what Giggs is talking about when she talks about “letting the experiential in”. Rendle-Short’s story is powerful and no less valid or true because she has chosen to write most of it through a fictional voice. It’s a clever book. Most of it is told in the voice of the fictional Glory because “some stories are hard to tell, they bite back … [so] I’ve had to come at it obliquely, give myself over to the writing with my face half-turned” but the “real” Francesca has the odd chapter which comments on, validates, Glory’s experiences. The truths in this book are palpable.

Anna Funder

Funder has said that she initially planned to write Stasiland as fiction but for several reasons turned it into non-fiction. One was that she wanted to honour the people whose stories she was telling, that in fact “it didn’t feel right” to turn those stories to another purpose. But, another reason was that she felt the stories were so far-fetched at times (such as the story of the “smell samples”) that they would not be believed in fiction. And so Funder wrote Stasiland as non-fiction and she, too, put herself in the book. When she interviews her subjects we don’t get a dry reportage of the results of the interviews, nor do we get a simple interviewer-interviewee style presentation. What we get is her in the room – reacting to the person as a human being while also reacting to, and reporting on, the facts being presented. The result is something rich in which the particulars lead to a complex universality (or truth) that encompasses both sympathy and horror.

Oh dear, I have gone on haven’t I … so I will close here on Giggs’ point about these new approaches letting in “other modes of authority”. I’m not 100% sure what she means by that, but what I take from it is a recognition that this new “authority” can encompass something beyond the mere “declaration” of facts, something that encourages us to empathise, something that might force us to confront the moral dimension to the stories being told. And this is, to me, a good thing. What’s more, in the right hands, it can make for darned good reads.

I’d love to know whether you read non-fiction and what you look for in it, particularly in terms of “authority” or, dare I say it, “truths” …