Category Archives: Reading challenges
We’re into the final week of Non Fiction November 2018.
Katie @ Doing Dewey has asked us to highlight books that we’ve seen mentioned by other contributors that have tempted us to add to our TBR/wishlist.
I haven’t rushed out and bought anything yet but have been making a lot of notes about books I’ve seen mentioned by other participants in the last few weeks. I could have listed a stack of other titles but the chances I will ever read them are very slim since I seem to manage only a handful of non fiction titles each year. Consequently I have limited myself to three.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. I’m curious about life in this country. It’s such a politically controlled society that we get only smatterings of information. I’m wondering if this book digs a bit deeper. It was highlighted by Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction who described the book as a biography of loosely connected people from the North Korean port city of Chongjin. She added:
Demick painstakingly fleshes out the lives and memories of these successful defectors; the stories have stuck with me down to the minutest details.
I enjoy the odd spot of investigative journalism and true crime. There have been some excellent podcasts that have kept me enthralled this year but I haven’t read many books from the category. Fortunately Sarah at Sarah’sbookshelves.com had plenty of suggestions.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
The one that most appealed was I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara. McNamara, previously a true crime writer and blogger at TrueCrimeDiary.com, investigated the unsolved crimes of a 1970’s-80’s serial rapist and murderer that she dubbed the Golden State Killer. She died before her book could be published and before she learned that the killer was caught via DNA evidence.
The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones
This one comes via a suggestion by Helen at She Reads Novels . I’m familiar with the Tudors and Stuart periods of British history but my knowledge of the Wars of the Roses is somewhat confused. I’d be interested to read about the period but I don’t want a turgid academic work. Nor do I want something this is just superficial. Dan Jones’ book seems to fit the bill. He is a trained historian so I know the book will be based on accurate and detailed research but he is also a writer and broadcaster so knows how to convey information in a compelling and engaging manner.
These are books that will definitely feature in my letter to Santa this year (so if any members of my family are reading this, I hope they take the hint.)
It’s now Week 3 of Nonfiction November and we have a new host. Julie @ JulzReads has set a topic about sharing knowledge and expertise.
I don’t claim to be “an expert” on anything. But I do happen to know a lot about the practice of communications having been in that field for more than 30 years (gulp). I’m going to offer you a selection of books on different aspects of communication.
Think back to the last time you were in an audience where the speaker used Powerpoint slides. Give yourself a point if you experienced any of the following:
- Slide after slide crammed with so much information you couldn’t tell what was important
- Text so small you can’t read it even when in the front row and wearing you latest prescription glasses
- Graphics you’d seen used in a million other presentations. They weren’t even that funny the first time around
- The Jackson Pollock treatment. Every colour and type face available in the software programme had been applied.
- Capital letters everywhere so it felt like the slides were shouting at you
- You’d had enough by slide 5. Then you saw there were 20 more to come.
Over the last 20 years or so we’ve become so dependent on Powerpoint slides, It’s rare to be at any kind of meeting where there isn’t at least one speaker using this programme or something similar.
Most of them are deadly dull.
Powerpoint has been around for decades yet i think we’re getting worse at using it, not better.
If you want to make sure your presentation stands out from the crowd and actually gets your message across, you need this book.
Why Most PowerPoint Presentations Suck…and how you can make them better is packed with practical ideas such as:
- about how to cut down on the amount of text per slide.
- how to use photos and images more creatively and
- how to avoid a jumble of font sizes and colours.
There are also some very useful templates to download from Rick Altman’s website.
Even if you don’t think you need a copy yourself, do yourself a favour. Buy a few copies for your company/school/department. If they take the hint you need never sit through one of their excruciating deliveries ever again.
Speaking in Public
You’ve been asked to deliver an update on a project/ or share your knowledge on a specific topic. You’ve done your homework. Your slides and notes are in good shape. But now comes the moment that millions of people dread: the moment when you have to get up there and deliver those words of wisdom. The heart starts racing, your throat is suddenly so dry you don’t think you can croak out even a few words. And your memory has become completely blank.
Being a competent public speaker can put you on the pathway to success, whether you’re looking to teach, inform, persuade, or defend an idea.
But it’s just like any other skill. You have to learn how to do it and then you have to practice. Even the greatest orators started somewhere. Winston Churchill for example, whose speeches gave confidence to the people of Britain in the darkest days, wasn’t born a naturally gifted orator. He became one through dedicated effort. He learned how to use rhythm and cadence. He also practised delivery – rehearsing every one of his major speeches before he delivered them.
The Art of Public Speaking: Lessons from the Greatest Speeches In History is an excellent audio guide that uses some of the most famous speeches in history to show what makes a difference between a good speaker and a mediocre one. This is available in print form but I think its best to actually hear the examples rather than just read about them. They were after all intended to be delivered aloud, not read in silence
Communicating big ideas
If you’ve ever been given the lead role on a project to implement a significant change, you’ll know how hard it can be to persuade people that this change is the right thing to do. No matter how much you emphasise the benefits, they just don’t buy the idea.
You need to up your game in the art of persuasion.
Words at Work by Frank Luntz looks at the power of words to communicate big ideas and change opinion, affecting how people vote and what they buy.
Luntz talks through his 10 Rules of Effective Language (Simplicity, Brevity, Credibility, Consistency, Novelty, Sound, Aspiration, Visualization, Asking Questions and Context / Relevance) and shows them in use in the worlds of politics and business. He also has a chapter for those of us who are unlikely to ever become Presidential candidates – “Personal Language for Personal Scenarios,” recommends the best language for apologizing, requesting a pay increase avoiding a traffic ticket, and other everyday situations.
If you know of any other books on communications that you’ve found particularly helpful, please let me know. I’m often asked for recommendations by former colleagues so its good to know what else is around.
For Nonfiction November this week we’re looking at pairing up a work of fiction with a work of non fiction.
I’m feeling generous this week (it’s probably all those endorphins floating around after my session in the gym this morning) so am going to offer you not one, but two pairings. In a week that we will mark the end of one of the worst conflicts in history, I thought it was fitting that both are on the theme of war.
Couple #1: World War 1
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks follows two characters who live at different times. One is Stephen Wraysford, a British soldier on the front line in Amiens during the First World War. The other is his granddaughter, Elizabeth Benson, who more than fifty years later discovers his journals from World War I and seeks to learns about his experiences at Marne, Verdun and the Somme.
Faulks said that he wrote the novel partly because he felt that the First World War had not been discussed enough in both literary and historical contexts.
I’m not sure whether he thinks that has now changed. We’ve certainly seen “The Great War” feature more prominently in the UK school curriculum in the last few years and the 100th anniversary of the Armistice this weekend is appropriately being marked around the country.
Unfortunately so many of the people who returned from that conflict are no longer with us to share their memories and experiences. We do however have the archives of the Imperial War Museum who recorded thousands of soldiers, the families they left behind and people who survived the war. The results are available in The Forgotten Voices series of books. The one I read, the Forgotten Voices of the Great War contained some tremendously moving testimonies that helped me appreciate what my great grandfather experienced ( he was one of the lucky ones who returned home to his family). Highly recommended reading if you have anyone in your family who served in the war or even if you didn’t but want to understand more about the war that was meant to end all wars.
Couple #2: World War 2
Oskar Schindler saved the lives of more than 1,000 Jewish people during World War 2. His actions were brought to public attention through the book Schindler’s List (sold as Schindler’s Ark outside the United States) by Keneally. The book, which Keneally labelled a novel, won him the Booker Prize in 1982. The film version directed by Steven Spielberg, won seven Academy Awards.
But none of this would have happened it it had not been for chance encounter in Beverley Hills, Los Angeles between Keneally and Poldek Pfefferberg, a Holocaust survivor. Pfefferberg had tried for years to interest writers and film makers about the story of Schindler but it was only when Thomas Keneally walked into his shop that he got the response he wanted.
The story of that meeting and the visits the two men made to Poland, to talk to people whose lives Schindler saved, are recorded in Searching for Schindler. It’s worth reading this to understand some of the challenges Keneally encountered when he came to write his novel and the even bigger challenge of creating the film script. Here’s my review.
I’ve taken the plunge and joined Nonfiction November which is an annual challenge to read, critique and discuss non-fiction books for a month. There are five hosts who will take turns to post a topic for discussion each week.
This week’s topic comes from Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness is all about reflecting on the year so far via four questions.
What was your favourite nonfiction read of the year?
This is a toss up between two books with vastly different styles and topics. Do No Harm by Henry Marsh is the no-holds-barred memoir of a neurological surgeon in which he discusses some of the challenges of working with one of the most complex systems in the body. The Wicked Boyby Kate Summerscale is a hybrid of biography/real life crime that focuses on the case in 1895 of a young boy who killed his mother and was sentenced to spend an indefinite period in Broadmoor high security psychiatric hospital. On balance I’m going to settle for Do No Harm, largely because it was so different from anything I have read previously.
Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, the end of World War 1. The Royal British Legion in the UK has been marking that event by asking people to remember people who were killed while serving in the conflict. I’m trying to do my bit by researching the 22 men from the Commonwealth who share my maiden name and posting information about them on line. It’s meant I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading the war diaries; a day by day account; completed by commanding officers of battalions in the field. They can be uncomfortable reading at times – today for example I discovered one battalion lost more than 400 men in one attack in the final year of the war. I’ve also been dipping into a number of books which deal with different aspects of the war..
What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?
Do No Harm is the book I’ve talked most about this year. But my recommendation always comes with a caveat that this book does go into a lot of detail about surgical procedures. So if you are at all squeamish then this book is not for you.
What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?
The number of books of fiction I read each year far outweighs the number for non fiction. So I’m hoping that Nonfiction November will give me a bit of a nudge to get reading with the many books I have on the shelves. A lot of them are history related but I also have some about literature and culture.
The summer holiday season is in full swing now (at least in the northern hemisphere). Apparently this weekend is the big getaway when multiple thousands of us Brits depart this isle in search of warmer climes and sunnier skies. Even our Prime Minister has packed her bags and departed for a walking holiday and the Downing Street cat has been moved into temporary accommodation next door with the Chancellor. Those choosing to holiday at home just hope it stays dry but if not, then they’ll encounter merely the odd sprinkling of rain rather than a deluge. Nothing more guaranteed to the take the veneer off that camping holiday than day after day of rain fall.
Whether the destination is a lazy beach holiday in the sun, a trek through the mountains of Switzerland or a meander around French chateaux and vineyards, our national newspapers claim to have found exactly the right books to be your companions. I enjoy reading those lists of ‘summer holiday must reads’ and not simply to look smug at home many of them I’ve read (actually the answer this year is very few since I’ve been concentrating on reading books bought in past years so haven’t read much published in 2017). But I often get ideas for gifts to myself and for others when I see the recommendations.
So what do the professional reviewers/commentators think we should all be putting in our cases and backpacks?
The Daily Telegraph listed 15 titles in their ‘literary’ category.
- Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout: A sort of follow up to her highly esteemed My Name is Lucy Barton
- The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy: Her first novel for 20 years and it’s a scorcher apparently.
- Transit by Rachel Cusak. Second in a trilogy that began with Outline, and is built almost entirely in the form of conversations.
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whithead: I thought this was doing the rounds last summer so odd to see it pop up again in 2017
- House of Names by Colm Toibin: A retelling of an ancient Greek tale about Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Cassandra
- Moonglow by Michael Chabon: The (fictionalised) deathbed memories of Chabon’s grandfather, an American-Jewish rocket scientist.
- Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: This revolves around the ghost of Abraham Lincoln’s son who died aged 11, and his neighbours in the graveyard. A very large cast of characters who all get their moment in the spotlight.
- White Tears by Hari Kunzru: Two white boys, one an outsider, one a nerd, bond over their infatuation with black music.
- Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: To call this “a novel of American domestic life”, a description I’ve seen in multiple places, does a disservice to Patchett’s talent.
- Swing Time by Zadie Smith: Two female friends growing up on the same kind of housing estate in north west London where Smith herself spent her formative years.
- The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride: Expect the same kind of bewildering fragmentary narrative style as in her earlier A Girl is a Half Formed Thing.
- The Traitor’s Niche by Ismael Kadare: the only translated book to feature in this list. Set in the Ottoman era, a world where everything is subordinated to the needs of the state.
- The Power by Naomi Alderman: Winner of the Bailey’s Prize 2017
- First Love by Gwendoline Riley: A novella tracing the disintegration of a marriage
- Night of Fire by Colin Thubron: Fire breaks out in a large house divided into flats. Each tenant gets to tell the story.
- Reservoir 13 by John McGregor: Each of the 13 chapters covers a single year since a 13-year old girl goes missing when out walking with her family
- The Idiot by Elif Batuman: A comic portrayal of university life in the 90s
- Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: A debut work about four Dubliners in a strange relationship.
There’s a lot of overlap between this list and recommendations made in The Guardian‘s article where they asked some authors what they would recommend and in The Sunday Times list of 50 Beach Reads. Lincoln in the Bardo, House of Names and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness came up more than once.
How many of these have I read? OK I come clean – the answer is zero. I do have Commonwealth and Anything is Possible on my Goodreads wishlist and will now add two more as a result of these recommendations: Night of Fire and Reservoir 13.
I do enjoy peeking behind the curtain to find out what authors will be packing alongside their flip flops and sun hats but the real fun for me comes when the newspaper approaches our politicians to ask either for their recommendations or the titles of books they’ll be taking on their own holidays. I can only imagine the angst such a request triggers because it comes laden with minefields for the unwary. The ministers and Cabinet members will want to ensure their choices are suitably matched to the seriousness of our times so they’ll probably nominate something rather worthy about economic or social issues. Then they’ll think they need to mix that up with some choices that show they have the finger on the pulse so will pick one or two titles that ‘everyone is talking about’, probably from the top of the Sunday Times list. And just to show that they have a personality and are, deep down, just like you and me, they’ll finish off with something odd or witty. It wouldn’t surprise me to find some of these folks even get their public affairs advisers to put the list together so they don’t unwittingly trip up. What you never see is anyone brave enough to admit that they just want a darn good crime story or thriller. Where’s the harm in admitting that after a stressful few months, they simply want to chill out. I bet you that more than one of them sneaks an Ian Rankin or Jo Nesbo into their luggage.
How many of these ever so worthy titles they mention, actually get read? I now that’s something I’d love to know but we never get to find out. No newspaper ever seems to go back to these people and ask them for their reactions. I bet most of them come back with hardly a blob of suntan cream blemishing their pristine pages.
What will I be taking on my holidays? No flitting off to the sun for me yet sadly – I’m still in recovery from my last round of surgery and not yet allowed to fly. But I’m hoping to make it to a cottage in Derbyshire in a few weeks and since I won’t be constrained by luggage weight restrictions I can pack in quite a few options. As always I won’t decide until the night before we leave – or given my procrastination, it might be in the last 30 minutes before we head off.
What are you packing with your sun dresses and shorts this year? Anything from the list of recommendations that takes your fancy?