My year in non-fiction for #NonFicNov 2021

Taking a look at the non-fiction books I have read since November 2020, picking my favourites and the ones I hope to read for this month’s #NonFicNov and #NovNov. Plus the Brand New Books I have lined up for next year.

One of the reading/blogging challenges set for this month is Nonfiction in November or #NonFicNov. I have had an excellent year of non-fiction this year and will be taking the opportunity to fit in a few more during the #NovNov Novellas in November challenge. Due to various distractions, I’m afraid I’m posting late in response to the first prompt:

Week 1: (November 1-5) – Your Year in Nonfiction with Rennie at What’s Nonfiction: Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favourite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?  

What have I read since last November?

This year I’ve being making a concerted effort to read books that have been stuck on my shelf for years. They were not necessarily picked because they were the ones I wanted to read most but because they’ve been waiting the longest, making me feel vaguely guilty. This has thrown up some real surprises, most of them good ones.

You may ask why I want to read books that aren’t calling to me or why I even have them. Some of these older books are ones that I bought/acquired at some point in the dim and distant past. Some arrived in 5 boxes of books from the now defunct expat club. Many are books I picked up at BookCrossing meetings, so somebody else will be delighted when I finally write a BookCrossing review (a.k.a. journal entry), at which point they will hear back from their long-lost book. These are the ones I feel somewhat guilty about hanging on to for years, but I feel more or less the same about books I registered myself. After all, I ought to have read and passed them on by now, otherwise why register them? I’ve listed all this year’s non-fiction reads at the end.

My favourite non-fiction this year

In recent years, one of my favourite non-fiction reads was The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, but this year’s unexpected favourites have been:

The Orchid Thief (1998) by Susan Orlean

This was intended to be a simple interview with a man who had stolen rare orchids from a nature reserve in Florida. However, Susan Orlean met so many fascinating people during her investigation that it turned into a whole book. You can read my blogpost about it here. She became somewhat obsessed herself with orchids and collecting stories about the eccentric people in the plant growing and collecting world, many who live in this untamed area of Florida. This whole book spoke to my ADD, fact collecting, trivia-loving generalist brain. As I often translate texts about horticulture and am a keen gardener, it also fitted perfectly into my own interests. To a lesser extent, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren did this too, but I enjoyed The Orchid Thief more, probably because Orlean herself was so enthusiastic, whereas Jahren often complained about the difficulties of ‘being a scientist while female’ which didn’t ring entirely true with me as she somehow managed to start up her own lab after qualifying, not something most postgrads can expect to do, surely.

An Unreasonable Man by Henrie Mayne

I have passed over this book so many times because I thought it was going to be an uninspired slog of a novel like The Diary of a Nobody or Willem Elschott’s Kaas (Cheese), both supposedly humorous books about boring men with boring lives. To be honest, I only kept it because I like the cover. Instead, An Unreasonable Man is true: the portrait of a man who, whilst he was an eccentric pedant with strange habits and a difficult marriage, lived a fascinating life. The book was written by the daughter who was closest to him, I suspect as a response to her mother’s feminist book which painted their marriage as a trap and a disappointment. The reason I thought it was fiction was that she changed most of the names. This gave me the opportunity for many happy hours of scrabbling round the internet trying to find references to the family.

Arthur Mayne’s adult life spanned the Indian Civil Service at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century, retiring to Europe but diverted to Canada due to the outbreak of the First World War. His wife nagged him to do something useful so he became a Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy and was seconded to Switzerland where he used his organisational talents for sending care packages to POWs, replacing mould-prone bread with a rusk that could be rehydrated and baked briefly. He then went to Berlin where he set up an incredibly efficient system for tracing POWs and refugees – I assume the basis of the Red Cross system still in use today. His repatriation system was so effective that all British POWs were back home within ten days of the end of hostilities and other countries asked him to do the same for them. This is all interleaved with personal anecdotes and tales of the family’s travels and hostilities between Arthur and his wife, who had been one of the few women to go to university and had expected more of life, and the oddness and eccentricities of a man who was almost certainly autistic. All told with much affection by the daughter who shared her mother’s exasperation, but who could see her father’s strengths, particularly as he summoned her to help his work in Switzerland. He wasn’t just an unreasonable man, he was misunderstood and made very little effort to fit in. Read my full review here.

The nonfiction I’m really drawn to

Given I already have such a ginormous TBR, I try not to buy too many new books myself, nor even second-hand ones. If I do buy something new, it’s because I really want to read it. And that’s the disadvantage of reading my oldest books first, because these shiny new books are still sitting there looking pretty without being read. I think I shall have to instigate a Brand New Books amnesty and read one a month next year. The topics that really interest me are travel, particularly to remote places, mountains and peoples. If that is mixed in with history and/or nature, then all the better. I also love a good biography or memoir that illuminates social history, not necessarily by someone famous.

Non-fiction read from November 2020 to October 2021

The Girl Who Smiled Beads (2018) – Clemantine Wamariya 5* As a small child, Wamariya and her sister became refugees from genocide in Rwanda, travelling through 7 countries before being granted asylum in the USA.

Annie John (1985) – Jamaica Kincaid 2* Memories of a childhood in Antigua. Read in Dutch.

Een zachte dood (Une mort très douce) (1964) – Simone de Beauvoir 2* Memories of the hospitalisation and demise of de Beauvoir’s mother. Read in Dutch.

Het sexleven van kannibalen (The Sex Life of Cannibals) (2003) – Maarten J. Troost 3* A young American who aspired to be an author went to live in the tiny Pacific island of Kiribati with his girlfriend who was working as an aid worker. Spoiler: the title is misleading! Reviewed in Dutch.

The Lost Heart of Asia (1994) – Colin Thubron 4* Respected travel writer Thubron travelled at leisure through the Central Asian states in 1991 to 1992, soon after they had gained independence from the Soviet Union. Fascinating.

Out of Africa (1937) – Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen 4* The fascinating account of life on a remote farm in Africa. Not as romantic as the film made it out to be. Not yet reviewed.

An Unreasonable Man (1976) – Henrie Mayne 5* Everyone thought Arthur Mayne was odd, yet the life of an administrator could be fascinating if you were born as a man in the right era and could work for the Indian Civil Service, the Red Cross in the First World War and travel the world.

The Drunken Forest (1956) – Gerald Durrell 4* A humorous account of an expedition to South America that did not go at all to plan. From the Johnny Morris school of naturalists.

In een sluier gevangen (Not Without My Daughter) (1987) – Betty Mahmoody 3* When American Mahmoody’s husband took her to his native Iran to meet family, his personality changed and she was virtually imprisoned and her daughter taken away by family. This is the story of how she tried to fit in and finally escaped. Better than I had expected! Read in Dutch. Not yet reviewed.

How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division (2020) – Elif Shafak 3* A mishmash of thoughts about the dangers of becoming so identified with a single belief or identity tat we no longer listen to other points of view. “Perhaps in an era when everything is in constant flux, in order to be more sane, we need a blend of conscious optimism and creative pessimism.” I read this too quickly to take in properly, but most enjoyed the parts about language and having multiple identities. I suspect I will prefer her fiction. I hope so; I seem to have recently acquired three via the library and second-hand bookshops.

The Insect Man (1949) – Eleanor Doorly 4* A children’s biography of scientist Jean Henri Fabre who made great advances in the study of insects using simple equipment and the power of observation and experimentation. Not yet reviewed.

Lab Girl (2016) – Hope Jahren 4* Trees, science and scientists.

The Olive Farm (2001) – Carol Drinkwater 3* Stories about renovating a dilapidated farmhouse and olive grove in the south of France. Not the best of its sort that I’ve read, but I will read the sequels because I have them on the shelf. Not yet reviewed.

Sarajevo Days, Sarajevo Nights (1996) – Elma Softic 3* Eye witness diary entries about life in Sarajevo during the Bosnian conflict. Read in Dutch. Not yet reviewed. It was fascinating, but I lost interest when it got to letters Softic wrote.

Freshwater (2018) – Akwaeke Emezi 4* A fictionalised version of Emezi’s own life as someone who feels different and ‘othered’ in Nigeria and strongly identifies with the traditional concept of the mischievous ogbanje spirits that tempt the person they inhabit to die and return to the realm of spirits. Themes of sexual identity, gender dysmorphism, suicide, self-destructive behaviour. Now I want to read more by this author. Not yet reviewed.

De orchideeëndief (The Orchid Thief) (1998) – Susan Orlean 4* Full of fascinating facts about the flora and fauna of Florida and other things that don’t start with an F.

Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976) – Maya Angelou 4* The third of her autobiographical novels.

The Salt Path (2018) – Raynor Winn. After losing their home and discovering that Winn’s husband Moth has a degenerative disease, the couple take a small tent and walk the South West Coast Path, wild camping and often going hungry. The walking is a huge struggle yet strangely healing. Only half-read so far because I want to save the rest for later.

Non-fiction I hope to read in November

As it’s also #NovNov (Novels in November) time, I’ve picked short non-fiction, all under 200 pages:

Autobiographical

Under the Eye of the Clock (1988) – Christopher Nolan. A profoundly handicapped boy writes about his life.

Conundrum (1974) – Jan Morris. A famous travel writer transitions to become the woman that she has always felt herself to be.

Rebel voor het leger [Rebel for the army] (1985) – Eva den Hartog. Memoirs of a Dutch Salvation Army officer who spent her life working abroad, particularly during the decolonisation of the Belgian Congo, but later in Asia and the USA.

Nature

Winterbloei [Winter flowering] (2019) – Jan Wolkers. Excerpts from various books and letters, all around the theme of nature, by one of the Netherlands’ most prominent authors.

History, society, immigration 

Doe maar gewoon: 99 tips voor het omgaan met Nederlanders (Just act normal: 99 tips for dealing with the Dutch] (1994) – Hans Kaldenbach. Handy for expats/immigrants, providing they can speak Dutch.

What If Solving the Climate Crisis is Simple? (2020) – Tom Bowman. Something tells me it’s not that easy… One of my Brand New Books.

Finding a Voice (1978) – Amrit Wilson. Essays by Asian immigrants in the UK in the 1970s. A new edition of this appeared in 2018 with a new chapter about what the book meant to South Asian women in Britain and comparing their lives to the women in the original interviews.

52 Times Britain Was a Bellend – James Felton. An irreverent horrible history of the things that should make Britons feel ashamed.

Brand new non-fiction to look forward to

As well as the short non-fiction above, I also have some chunkier non-fiction on my TBR with themes of nature, climate and colonialism. Sadly I probably won’t get to these amazing books on my TBR this year, but I’m looking forward to reading all of them. These are the Brand New Books I need to give myself permission to read, as well as continuing to read from my backlist:

Wilding (2018) – Isabella Tree. All about rewilding a farm.

Utopia for Realists (2017) – Rutger Bregman. Changing how we run the world to make life better. The original Dutch title was Gratis geld voor iedereen: Free money for all!

Invisible Women (2019) – Caroline Criado Perez. The subtitle says it all: exposing data bias in a world designed for men.

Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain (2021) – Sathnam Sanghera

Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016) – David Olusoga. The historical connections between Britain and Africa.

Salt on Your Tongue (2019) – Charlotte Runcie. Stories of women and the sea.

The Old Ways (2012) – Robert Macfarlane. Meditations on walking ancient footpaths.

Light Rains Sometimes Fall (2021) – Lev Parikian. A diary of British nature observations mapped on to Japan’s traditional microseasons, each lasting six days. 

Vesper Flights (2020) – Helen MacDonald. Essays about birds.

Whatever happens, I will always have some non-fiction waiting for me, much as I love fiction. There are just so many interesting facts to learn and history and life stories to read about. I don’t only read non-fiction in November, but the challenge is a good way of taking stock of what I’ve read throughout the year, seeing if themes are emerging and savouring the books I still have to read. If nothing else, this blogpost will be a good place to look back at in a year’s time and see how many of those Brand New Books I have actually read.

Have you read any of the same books I have, or the ones I have yet to read? Are there any you would recommend I bump up my list?

Dublin 4 (1982) by Maeve Binchy for Novellas in November #NovNov

In the expectation of a taster of the Maeve Binchy magic in novella form, I was surprised to find four unlinked stories, all set in Dublin.

When I started reading this book, I had no idea it contained a quartet of unrelated short stories. I would have known if I had read the first part of the back cover text, but as it started with ‘From the bestselling author of’, I skipped that bit. In fact, I was well into the second story before I realised it was never going to have any connection with the first. The only connection is that they are all set in Dublin.

Themes

The main protagonists in all four of the stories are starting afresh in one way or another. The demon drink or drunkenness is also mentioned in every story, with the final one being about a recovering alcoholic. Another odd link between two of the stories is that there are characters who use their master bedroom for another purpose, either an office or an artist’s studio. I wonder if that was Maeve Binchy’s own dream. She definitely made use of her own experience as she moved to a Dublin bedsit in 1971.


Dinner in Donnybrook

A woman who has been wronged and retreated into depression finally takes control and uses her intelligence to get what she wants, rediscovering her enjoyment of life in the process, much to the confusion of all around, who are used to the dowdy, passive, middle-aged version.


Carmel is uncharacteristically arranging a dinner party on October 8th, the day of the opening of Ruth O’Donnell’s exhibition and has invited Ruth. The problem is, Ruth has been having an affair with Carmel’s husband Dermot, though they are having a two-week trial separation. The affair seems to be general knowledge, but nobody wants to tell Carmel. Everyone is tiptoeing around her because she has had some unspecified mental health issues: depression or a nervous breakdown.


Dermot “laughed wryly to himself. It was most people’s idea of a married man’s dream: an unquestioning wife and an unquestioning mistress. But it was a bad dream, he could write a book on what a bad dream it was. You were happy in neither place, you were guilty in both places. The very fact that nobody was making any move made it all the more insoluble. If Carmel had threatened and pleaded, perhaps, if Ruth had issued ultimatums, perhaps. Perhaps it might have been better. But nothing ever happened. Until now. Until Ruth had been invited to dinner.”

Dermot thinks he is keeping both women happy, but really he’s manipulating both of them. Ruth, on the other hand, feels guilty that she is cheating, that she is not showing solidarity as a woman.


Not only does nobody else know for sure if Carmel knows, but we don’t either for a long time. Carmel is the only one who doesn’t seem worried about what’s going to happen. She has everything planned out, everything under control, as we soon find out when she talks to her old friend Joe, who has returned from London to help her carry out her plan. The fact that he is gay plays a pivotal role in the backstory of how Carmel resolves the problem of her husband’s mistress.


This story is classic Binchy, with conversations that feel real, sharing with the reader the inner thoughts and doubts of all the characters. Sadly, she left the story open-ended, without describing what happened after the dinner party so carefully arranged, but in retrospect, that was the right decision as I suspect it would have been a perfectly civilised affair, thanks to Carmel’s cunning plan.

Flat in Ringsend

Jo, a girl just at moved to Dublin from ‘up country’ finds herself a flat with two other girls, but is upset to find they will not provide the friendship and social life she enjoyed at home. She regrets moving out of the hostel run by nuns where she first stayed; then she could go to the cinema with the other girls or play card games or talk. Now she sits alone in her room or feels out of place when she bumps into the other two girls in the shared kitchen. Binchy has a good feel for the loneliness and sense of dislocation when you first move and know nobody, especially in a big city. Jo, however, is a true innocent abroad and is too timid for her own good. Working at the post office, she imagines she will get to know the customers, but
“She had never expected the miles and miles of streets where nobody knew anyone, the endless bus journeys, the having to get up two hours before she was meant to be at work in case she got lost or the bus was cancelled.”


It reminds me of how I felt the first Saturday at university when everyone else had gone out to the Freshers’ disco and I was left alone. I soon decided that, much as discos ‘weren’t my thing’, I would join them. I was wrong about the disco; I loved it and… that was the night I met my husband! Jo also realises that she has to be proactive, so goes to a pub where a well-known band, the Great Gaels – fictional, I assume – is playing. But then two men start buying her drinks and she is too naive to deal with the situation. This could turn very, very bad…

Decision in Belfield

The story begins with Pat, a university student who has fallen pregnant and is feeling desperate in an Ireland where having a child out of wedlock is a scandal and abortion is illegal. “She had been reading the Problem Pages for years. One or two of them always said things about having done grievous wrong in the eyes of God and now the only thing to do was to Make Restitution. Most of them said that your parents would be very understanding. […] Not in Pat’s home. There would be no support, no understanding. […] She knew that Mum and Dad would not be a bundle of support and two big rocks of strength. Because they hadn’t been any of that five years ago when her elder sister Cathy had been pregnant. There was no reason why their attitude should have changed as time went by.”


The majority of the story is about what happened after Cathy went off to England after breaking with the family. Pat, still a young teenager at the time, desperately tried to find out what had actually happened; had she had an abortion or given the baby up for adoption? Her parents were bitter, she couldn’t ask her eldest sister who was a nun in Australia and the father of the child seemed oblivious. Gradually she found out more and, by talking to her parents, discovered their side of the story, which was more nuanced than we are at first led to believe.“People were really behaving more and more peculiarly, Pat decided. The older they got the vaguer they became. […] once people got any way settled they seemed to lose touch with reality and built themselves a comfortable little world like a Wendy House entirely of their own creation.”


Now, Pat is pregnant herself and it’s time for her to take control. There’s a tiny twist in the tail about how she got pregnant and the slightest doubt about what she’s going to do about it, but the point of the story is more about families assuming things about each other and not talking about their feelings.

Murmurs in Montrose

Gerry, a notorious drunk, formerly a successful advertising photographer, is about to leave the nursing home where he has spent the last six weeks ‘taking the cure’. His wife and children are apprehensive, as is the parish priest, who has always supported the family when he came home drunk. Only his mother thinks the drinking was due to stress; she is the only one who doesn’t understand that he needs to stay away from alcohol. We’re privy to everyone’s feelings about his return. It’s a huge strain on everybody. Can his wife Emma support them all until he manages to find some commissions? Will he stay dry? How will they all adjust?


This was the least successful of the four stories, although it does reveal the stresses and strains put on a family in this situation and the feeling of stepping on egg shells. We’re left in limbo, knowing it will probably go spectacularly wrong. It’s all rather unsettling and feels an odd way to leave a book. It’s almost as if it’s a challenge to write your own ending. I dare say Binchy covered the same ground in one of her novels, but the ones I have read, I read so long ago that I can’t be sure. In any case, it has reminded me how well she wrote, so I may return to one of her doorstopper novels in the future.


An excellent start to Novellas in November, even though it was really Not a Novellas in November!

Run by Rebecca at Bookish Beck
and Cathy at 746 Books