Category Archives: Reading challenges

Stocking The Non Fiction Shelves

It’s the final week of Nonfiction November. The week where we confess how much we’ve been tempted by the books showcased by all the other blogger participants.

 I did add a few titles to my wishlist though haven’t yet bought any since I’m still hoping to get my list of ‘owned but unread’ books down to the level they were at end of 2018.

Here’s what I’ve added

Memorable Memoirs

My request in Week 3 for your recommendations of stellar memoirs, resulted in several suggestions which look promising. The are two I am definitely adding to my list .

The first is In Order To Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park . OrangUtanLibrarian who recommended it commented that it was “One of the best books I’ve read this year. It was so informative and moving!”

I’m looking forward to learning from this book how far we can trust the snippets of info we get in the west about life in North Korea. It sounds awful and such a contrast to life in the South.

The other recommendation that resonated with me was from CurlyGeek from TheBookStop who proposed Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas, It documents the experience of the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist as an undocumented immigrant in the USA. I hadn’t heard of Vargas but his story does sound engrossing.

A Dose of Medicine

I’ve become all too familiar with hospitals and doctors in the last few years. That may lie behind a recent interest in books written by medical practitioners. Thanks to Non Fiction November I’m going to end up with quite a collection of these books.

One book now on my radar is When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi., as recommended by Frank Parker. Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon who, on the point of becoming head of his department was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. This book is his account of how he confronted his own mortality after years of helping others cope with theirs. Frank;’s review is here

Kate at BooksAreMyFavourite persuaded me to add Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig has also gone onto my wishlist. It’s another book about a health crisis but in this case it was mental rather than physical. Matt uses his own experience to look at the bleakness of depression and the means of dealing with it, an inch at a time, and to feel alive again.

And finally in this category we have the cleverly titled All That Remains: A Life in Death, by Sue Black as recommended by this week’s host What’s Nonfiction?

Sue Black is a forensic anthropologist who was the lead specialist for the British Forensic Team’s work in the war crimes investigations in Kosovo. She was one of the first forensic scientists to travel to Thailand following the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 to provide assistance in identifying the dead.

Courage In War And Conflict

My interest was captured by a several books mentioned by bloggers that relate to different theatres of political conflict and war during the twentieth century. I’ve limited myself to just two books however.

From neverenoughnovels I heard of Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by Lynn Olson which relates the story of a 31-year-old French woman born to a life of privilege, who became the became the leader of a vast intelligence organization during World War 2. .Her network was the longest lasting and considered the most effective across France.

Coming more up to date from Sarah’sBookshelves I added Forty Autumns by Nina Willner. Willner was the first female US Army intelligence officer to lead sensitive operations in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. When the Berlin Wall came down members of her family who had lived in Communist East Germany. were re-united with those who lived on the Western side. This sounds like an extraordinary story of courage and resilience.

I think I was exceptionally reserved by adding just seven books. I could easily have doubled that number. What would your recommendations be in these categories – any books you consider very special that you think I shouldn’t miss? Do leave me a comment with your suggestions.

Be the Expert: An Introduction to 21st Century Feminism

I have spent my entire academic life focusing on gender history: any essay that I could manipulate to have a sex and gender angle, I most definitely would. It’s the area of study in which I’m most well read on, the idea of feminism (and particularly the world of academic feminism), can be intimidating to many people.

I’m not going to try and define modern feminism here (that would require a thesis word count), but the books I’ve detailed below provide an initial way entry point in exploring different aspects of feminism in the twenty-first century

Now, I admit that all of these books are targeted at a younger audience – particularly towards millennials and Gen-Z in the case of Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Everything I Know About Love. And I know that I am a millennial myself, but I do feel that there is a universality and inclusivity to each work, that hopefully makes them accessible to a wide audience.

Each is flawed in its own way – these are not academic texts, and I’m not claiming that any of these are a bible which provides all of the answers, or is even representative of all types of feminism or all women.

But they’re a good jumping off point.

How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran

Caitlin Moran

Ah, old reliable. Caitlin Moran’s memoir seeks to make feminism more approachable for every woman by telling stories from her own life, and this is the book which first ignited the strident feminist in me.

Mr O’Neill, my Government and Politics A Level teacher, declared to his class of nine seventeen-year-old girls that before we could start studying feminism as a political ideology, we all had to read How to Be a Woman.

By the time we reconvened a few days later, all of our outlooks had changed, and none of us have looked back since that point over six years ago. (I do see the irony in being introduced to the topic by a male teacher!)

The entire book has Moran’s signature style, using humour to tackle serious topics, to make issues such as abortion less intimidating. It’s a riot from start to finish, and is still as relevant as it was when published in 2011.

Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (and Other Lies), curated by Scarlett Curtis

Feminists Dont wear Pink

Considering I have just written an MA dissertation with this book as a case study, there are many things I could say (and have said) on the topic of Scarlett Curtis’ curated collection of essays.

Published in 2018 to an enormous amount of fanfare, the collection Feminists Don’t Wear Pink sees contributions from fifty-two different authors, from many walks of life. Some authors give their verdict on 21st century feminism, others muse on the female body, or offer insight into their own journey to feminism.

So we have Keira Knightley discussing the interpretation of women as the weaker sex. Activist Amika George considers the power of the menstrual cycle while academic Claire Horn provides a ‘short history of feminist theory’.

I do have quite a few issues with this publication which could warrant a blog post of their own (or a dissertation!). Overall however, the contents are inclusive and wide-ranging, and thus provide a more varied introduction to feminism than you would normally get in a singular book.

Everything I Know About Love, Dolly Alderton

Potentially a slightly odd choice, as it is not a book explicitly about feminism. Dolly Alderton’s intimate memoir recounts the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of growing up and navigating a multitude of different types of love along the way.

In its entirety, Everything I Know About Love is truly a testament to female friendship, and the power that comes with realising that you alone are enough. Personal stories, satirical observations and even recipes all weave together to strike a note of recognition with women of all ages – whilst genuinely making you laugh.

To be honest, I also had a series of little cries along the way.

This is just a shortlist of books on this vast topic. If anyone wants some further reading suggestions, particularly on the academic side, I would only be too happy to oblige! I have many bibliographies to call on…

Please comment below if you have any additional suggestions for a jumping off point – it’s a topic I will truly never be tired of, and I would encourage some healthy debate!

Non fiction november

This is the second of two posts for week 4 of Non Fiction November 2019. You can find the first post which is a request for recommendations of top notch memoirs here

Bring Me Your Favourite Memoirs

The Nonfiction November topic this week is an opportunity to take advantage of the wisdom of the crowd. The host, Katie at Doing Dewey, suggests we can “Be the Expert/Ask the Experts/Become the Expert”). 

I’m going to take the “Ask The Expert” path and ask for help with a newly- acquired reading interest I want to develop further.

Memorable Memoirs

Most of my non fiction reading this year has been in the form of memoirs. I never planned it that way and in fact until this year I wouldn’t have even predicted this genre would be a favourite.

But that’s how it’s turned out.

I’ve read some stunning books, vastly different in scope but every one of them written by a person with insight and the ability to let me into their world.

From Adam Kay’s This Is Going To Hurt, I learned how medical practitioners get burned out to the point they give up the profession despite their passion for healing. Through The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, I appreciated how easily you can lose everything – home, money, career – and yet maintain your dignity and courage. And from Becoming by Michelle Obama I saw how, even when you have a high profile role on the world political stage, you can still have doubts about your abilities.

I know I have barely touched the tip of an enormous iceberg. But my appetite has been whetted and now I want more.

So here’s my request to you all.

Give me your recommendations for killer memoirs.

i’m looking for the memoirs that are breathtaking, spell-binding, unmissable etc etc They could be But – and it’s a very big BUT – you’ll have to avoid those from so-called ‘personalities’ or people in sports, show-business or politics. The reminiscences of a member of a girl-band/boy band have zero appeal to me. Nor am I particularly fond of the ‘misery memoir’ which deals with the abuse someone experienced as a child (I find them too painful to read sorry).

What I’m really looking for are books by people who witnessed or achieved extraordinary things. And they can relate this to me in a way that is memorable, engrossing and thought-provoking.

If you know just the thing to fit my requirements, do leave me a comment and tell me why you think your suggestion is special.

Countries in Crisis As Seen In Fiction & Non Fiction

Week 2 of Non Fiction November brings us one of the most stimulating and thought provoking topics of the whole event.

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.

Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves)

I got the idea for my topic from television news reports over the past week. It was full of stories about conflicts and protests. Police and protestors squaring up to each other on the streets of Hong Kong. Catalonian separatists taking to the streets in Barcelona. Thousands of Extinction Rebellion supporters camping out in central London.

People around the world are challenging the status quo, resisting authority and campaigning for change in increasing numbers.

So I thought I’d take a look at books that can enlighten us about some of the most significant social movements from the last century. Ones that represented a paradigm shift for the country concerned.

Racial Equality in South Africa

I’ve chosen three books which deal with different periods of time in South Africa’s troubled history of relationships between the various ethnic groups within its population.

Cry, The Beloved Country  was written in 1948 just a few months before the South African government introduced the apartheid system, effectively a form of racial segregation. It was a policy that remained in place until 1994.

Through the different voices in the novel Alan Paton dramatises the differing attitudes within the country that would lead, he believed, to hatred and disharmony.

He wasn’t wrong, as Nelson Mandela’s acclaimed autobiography Long Walk to Freedom shows. Mandela reflects on his role in the campaign against the apartheid regime, which became increasingly violent with brutal crackdowns by the government. But Mandela also talks about the importance of reconciliation between the country’s racial groups  and how he sought to embrace that principle when elected as the country’s first black head of state.

Did he succeed? The picture of post apartheid South Africa depicted by one of the country’s leading authors, J. M Coetzee, is rather bleak. His Booker prize winning novel Disgrace is set at the time of Mandela’s government and shows a country in transition where the shifts in power between the different racial groups have created new tensions.

Communism In China

For 10 years until 1976. the lives of people in China were governed by the dictats of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The objective was to preserve Chinese Communism by purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society. But it caused huge damage to the country’s economy and led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people (some estimates put the death toll as high as 2 million.)

Wild Swans by Jung Chang is a must- read work for anyone interested in modern day history of China. Through the experiences of 3 generations of women in her family, Chang reveals a tragic tale of nightmarish cruelty but also shows the extraordinary bravery of the country’s citizens.

I’m pairing this with a memoir. Mao’s Last Dancer recounts how Li Cunxin was plucked from a poor village to become a ballet dancer, part of an experiment by Mao’s wife to put China on the world stage. Having endured a brutal training regime in which every aspect of his life was controlled, he was allowed to go to the USA as an exchange student. And there he discovered everything he had been told about the West was a lie.

Madeleine Thein’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is my fictional choice for two reasons. Firstly because like Mao’s Last Dancer it deals with the effects of an oppressive regime on creative and artistic talent (in this case, musicians). But more significantly because it gives us a sense of the instability that continued in China long after the Cultural Revolution came to an end. Thein builds the tension powerfully, showing how it culminates in the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989 when troops and tanks fired at demonstrators.

Nationalism In India

I’m slightly cheating here because The Jewel in the Crown is actually the first book in the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott and to get the full benefit, you do need to read all them. Scott’s novels take place in the concluding years of the British Raj in India; a time when tensions are running high between the colonial ‘masters’ and the people they are meant to govern.

The quartet begins in 1942 and ends in 1947 as India gains its independence, marking the end of decades of violent and peaceful protest. 1942 is significant because it’s the year when the man who had lead the nationalist movement –  Mahatma Gandhi – launched the the Quit India movement demanding an end to British Rule of India.

So it’s only fitting that my non fiction choice is a book which focuses on the man synonymous with Indian independence. The Words of Gandhi is a selection of the man’s letters, speeches, and published writings giving his thoughts on daily life, cooperation, nonviolence, faith, and peace. It’s a great book to dip into and a source of motivation and inspiration.

Peace sadly did not come to India as my fiction choice shows. Neil Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, is set against a background of the Naxalite movement in the West Bengal region of the country. It was a Communist Party of India armed struggle against large landowners to forcibly take away their lands and re-distribute it amongst the landless. One of Mukherjee’s main characters gets swept along with the spirit of the movement.

I suspect I’ve left out many books that would make good reading partners on this topic. Anyone have some recommendations for me?

2019 In Non Fiction

The time for vacillation is over. My dilemma whether to join Nonfiction November, was resolved by all the reassurances from bloggers that there’s no expectation to read any more non fiction than normal. So I’m diving in with the first week’s discussion topic.

Julz Reads has given 4 questions all on the theme of Your Year In Non Fiction

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

I’m cheating here by choosing two books. They’re both memoirs which deal with sobering social issues (homelessness and health provision) but do so with a huge dollop of humour.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn . This is a spectacular book which traces the way Raynor and her husband Moth dealt with the loss of their home and business. Just days after Moth received a devastating medical diagnosis the couple embarked on a 630 mile walk along the South West Coast Path. They experienced the kindness of strangers but also hostility.

This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay . Who would have thought gynaecology could be so funny? Kay reveals some of the bizarre medical emergencies that confronted him as a junior doctor (read this book and you’ll be astonished the things people manage to insert into their bodies). But this book has a serious message – the unbelievable strains imposed on these doctors through lack of funding and indifference.

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

I’ve read 6 non fiction books this year and will shortly finish another; Becoming by Michelle Obama. They had nothing in common except that all but one of these books was a memoir.

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

The Salt Path .

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

There are loads of novels that feature historical figures or episodes I know little about so I’m hoping to get some ideas for non fiction books to help fill in those gaps. Next week’s topic is in fact ‘book pairings’ where the idea is to match a fiction and non fiction book on the same topic. I suspect my wishlist will grow as a result.

Reading horizons: Episode 22

Reading Horizons: September 2019

What I’m reading now

I’ve just started a book that was an international best seller in 2018. I’m honestly not sure I want to read this but it was loaned by a friend so I feel obliged to at least give it a try. Whether I finish it remains to be seen.

The subject matter alone makes The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, a challenging book. It’s described as the ‘true’ story of how a Slovakian Jew fell in love with a girl he was tattooing at the concentration camp. But I’ve also seen articles challenging the accuracy and authenticity of the ‘facts’ presented in the book. And that’s making me feel particularly uncomfortable.

Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance was on my #15booksofsummer reading list but I ran out of time. It was going to go back into the bookcase but so many other bloggers commented that it was a wonderful novel, that I changed my mind.

A Fine Balance

I’m really glad I did because this turned out to be exactly the kind of novel I love. It’s a long book – more than 600 pages – but it’s so well written that it just zips along.

A Fine Balance follows four strangers whose lives intersect at a time of political turmoil in India. The government’s declaration of a State of Internal Emergency sparks a wave of arbitrary violence and brutal repression. This is a story of the hopes and dreams of three men and one woman and how they discover friendship in adversity.

What I’ll read next

Now this is never an easy question because I’m such a ditherer.. Right now I have a hankering for a classic so could go for one of the books from my classics club list . When I was having a root around the bookcase a couple of nights ago I came across Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent which was published in 1932.

All Passion Spent

I’ve seen this described as her best and most popular novel, “irreverently funny and surprisingly moving”.  All Passion Spent is the story of an 88 year old, newly widowed woman who refuses to let her children dictate how she spends the rest of her life. I’ve dipped into the book and liked what I found on the first few pages.

It could be interesting to follow this up with something by her friend and lover Virginia Woolf. A re-read of To The Lighthouse is long overdue but I also have The Voyage Out which I’ve never read.

Or I could go down the path of gardens given Sackville-West’s status as a garden designer par excellence. Maybe Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim would be a fitting companion read.

Invariably I don’t make the decision until right at the moment when I’m ready to start reading something new.


Those are my plans – what’s on your reading horizon for the next few weeks?


This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

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