Sunday, January 9, 2011

If You've Been Avoiding Non-Fiction, Try These

Posted by Simcha 2:45 AM, under | 7 comments

A while back there had been a meme about reading habits that many different book bloggers participated in, including myself, and I had really enjoyed reading everyone's responses. But I was surprised by how many of the participants commented that they don't read much non-fiction.

I personally love reading non-fiction books, particularly memoirs and humorous travelogues, and many of my favorite books fall into these categories. For me, someone's real-life account of their adventures or personal experiences are often more exciting and fascinating than a fiction novel (though I obviously enjoy those as well). And although this is predominately a blog about speculative fiction books I've decided to also begin offering recommendations of non-fiction books that I've enjoyed in the hope that you will give them a try as well. I think I'm going to set aside my weekend posts (since I don't usually post then anyways) to do this.

This week I'm going to begin by listing a few of my favorite non-fiction books, along with just a short description. These are books which I'm continentally recommending to my friends and frequently reread myself.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson: Anyone that knows me is familiar with this book because it's one one of all-time favorites and I insist that all my friends read it, even if I have to force my copy on them. Bill Bryson is known for his ability to write about any subject in an interesting and humorous manner and he outdoes himself in this account of his hike through the Appalachian Trail with his friend, Stephen Katz. This book is so funny that it's a danger to read in public but it's also interesting and informative and so well-written that you will imagine that you yourself are tramping around the woods with Bryson and Katz.

Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin: I read this book about five years ago but it was such a powerful and moving story that it has stayed fresh in my mind over the years.

This is the memoir of Li Cunxin who was raised in extreme poverty during the Cultural Revolution in China. When Madame Mao decided to start up a dance company Li was determined to be chosen by the delegates who were combing the schools for potential recruits. Due to his willingness to have his body bent into all kinds of painful positions, young Li was accepted to the dance academy and sent to the city for rigorous training. The book follows Li's rise to fame as a world-renown ballet dancer who later escapes to the US and marries a fellow dancer.

My Sergei by Ekaterina Gordeeva: I was never a big follower of the Olympics and so I wasn't familiar with the story of Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov before I read this book. If I had been I might have avoided it, knowing the sad events that take place towards the end, and so I'm glad that I didn't, because it's such a wonderful book.

My Sergei Ekaterina Gordeeva tells the story of how she and Sergei met when they were paired up as children by their ice skating instructors and how through years of training together became best friends, and then fell-in-love. Just thinking about their story, which is both beautiful and heartbreaking, always makes me tear up a bit (and I'm not much of a crier). If you love a good romance then I highly recommend you read this book, even if it doesn't have the Happily Ever After of a fiction novel. But it still ends off in a hopeful tone and is a wonderful commemoration of a talented skater and a beautiful romance.

All Rivers Run to the Sea by Eli Wiesel: This memoir by Eli Wiesel always leaves me feeling awed and inspired. It's not so much a book about Wiesel's experiences during the Holocaust but about his life before and after, though it does touch upon his time in the the Concentration Camps. Though it's mostly about his homelife, his friends and his experiences in Paris and America, after the war. And what always amazes me when reading this book is how frequently Wiesel's path is guided by events of happenstance and coincidence. Like the way he gets a job writing, when he has no previous experience, which later leads to a successful career. Or when he gets hit by a car and is given a blank check by a stranger to pay for his hospital bills.But after everything Wiesel had been through he certainly deserved each windfall that came his way, it just amazes me of how many such events there were.

But it's also an inspiring account of a man who had lost everything he had in the world and somehow manged to pick himself up and continue forward, becoming the well-known and respected man that he is today.

We Shook the Family Tree by Hildegarde Dolson: This is an older book which belonged to my mother, until I snuck away with it, and so I'm not sure how easy it would be to find a copy. But if you do come across it then you must read it because it's wonderfully fun.

humorous memoir is a collection of stories told by Hildegarde Dolson about herself and her family, from her youth in the early 1900's until she goes away to New York to become a writer. Some of these stories had me laughing so hard that I had tears running down my face, such as Hildegarde's account of the time she experimented with a beauty mask, for which she had saved up all of her allowance money, but then left it on so long that she couldn't get it off.

And now that I've gotten to thinking about this book I think I'm going to go read it now...

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl: I had gotten this ebook out of the library a couple of weeks ago and was enjoying it so much that when I saw the paperback version in a bookstore I immediately bought it. And then when I finished it I ran out the next day to buy her memoir, which I had remembered seeing on the bookshelf as well. So to say I liked it would be a bit of an understatement.
Garlic and Sapphires includes almost everything that I like in a book, descriptions of food, recipes, disguises and secret missions (of the food-related kind). It was just such a fun book that I never wanted it to end.

When Ruth Reichl first arrived in New York to take up the post as a New York Times food critic she discovered that word of her arrival had preceded her and all the restaurants were on the lookout out for someone of her description. And so Reichl went undercover with a series of disguises which allowed her to dine at the restaurants unrecognized. Each of Reichl's disguises had a story to them and Reichl was surprised to find her personality adapting to the guise that she wore, and sometimes the results were more pleasant than others. I loved reading about each of Reichl's dining experiences as well as the reviews that she wrote up afterwards and recipes that she included of her favorite dishes, some of which I even made myself. This is definitely a book that I will be frequently rereading.

So these are just a few of my favorite non-fiction books and perhaps next week I'll list some more of them for you. I hope that you will enjoy these books as much as I did and if you have any of your own to recommend I'd love hearing about them.


I saw the Mao book at the bookstore and wanted to read it. I do not read a lot of non-fiction but sometimes something comes along that looks really good

Well this is a case of perfect timing! One of my resolutions for the year is to try and read more non fiction and this books sound like just my cuppa tea. Thanks!

I wish I'd known about Garlic and Sapphires last year! My friend who spends Christmas with us loves foodie books, and this would have been a great gift for her.

Blodeuedd: Oh, I hope you read it. It's a fantastic book.

FairiesNest: Well I would be delighted to help you find some good books to read. If you do read any of these come back and tell me how you liked them.

Jenny: While I'm not much a foodie myself for some reason I love reading other people's well-written descriptions of food. Though I don't think I could ever appreciate food as much as Reichl does. I wanted to eat everything she described, no matter how unappealing the dish might otherwise seem.

My reading list last year was sorely lacking in nonfiction so I'm very interested in these recommendations, especially Garlic and Sapphires.

In the last two years it seems like I've read nothing but PNR, UF and Romance, but prior to that, I was on a nonfiction kick and I've been starting to feel that urge again. I'd love it if you reviewed some non-fic books.

If you liked Mao's Last Dancer, I have two recs for you - Red China Blues by Jan Wong and Wild Swans by Jung Chang, both memoirs set in Maoist China. Another book I'd recommend set in current day China is Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie Chang.

As for Ruth Reichl, when my book club was first getting started 10 years ago, one of the first books we read was her memoir Tender at the Bone and we all adored it. I'll definitely have to check out Garlic and Sapphires. Thanks for the rec.

JenM: Yeah, I also went through a non-fiction stage a couple of years ago before I got back into fantasy and I've been craving those books again.
I have read Wild Swans but not the other books that you mentioned. I'll have to check them out.
I read Reichel's memoir after finishing Garlic and Sapphires and it was good, but a very different kind of book.

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