Nonfiction November: My year in nonfiction


Hooray – the Nonfiction November challenge is back! This was my favourite blogging event of last year – so good that it’s got me back here to my blog after many months away.

The focus for this first week is to review my nonfiction reading this year. I’ll stick with the questions Kim over at Sophisticated Dorkiness has posted.

What was your favourite nonfiction read of 2015?

Do I really have to choose from so many great reads this year? Lingo was brilliant if you’re as fascinated by languages as I am, as was Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking – a brilliant ‘memoir of food, family and longing’. And I’m loving my current read so much too: The Warmth of Other Suns, a book that came onto my radar through last year’s Nonfiction November.

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

I don’t often recommend the books I read because I’ve long recognised that I have quite an eclectic reading style and other people aren’t necessarily into reading the books I choose for myself. But with my vicar’s hat on, I did recommend two seasonal reads this year, and will be recommending them again this time around too: Walking Backwards to Christmas and The Journey.

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

I always feel I don’t have nearly enough time to read everything I want to read, so I’m pretty selective about what I do make time for. I realise I read nonfiction to read the world, so I particularly love reading memoirs about life written by people who live or lived in places and/or times very different from my own (I read a lot of fiction that fits this description too!). I never quite get around to reading as many straightforward histories or biographies of politicians and other leaders as I would like. Also, I often come across titles that speak to my other interests – especially languages and popular psychology – that never quite make it to the top of any TBR pile I might construct!

What do you hope to get out of nonfiction November?

Just simply to read as much nonfiction as I can fit in. I’ve got several ‘country’ books lined up: Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor, The Discovery of France by Graham Robb and Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia by Peter Pomerantsev. I’ve also wanted to read The Underground Girls of Kabul for over a year now and The Secret Classroom has been similarly near the top of my must read soon list.

And I will love reading other people’s posts and adding some of their recommendations to my own impossibly long TBR list. And I’ll be encouraged, just as I was last year, that there are so many people out there who share my love of reading nonfiction.

Nonfiction November: New to my TBR

imageIt’s the final week of the Nonfiction November challenge and this week’s topic – New to my TBR – is being hosted by Katie over at Doing Dewey. Participants are invited to list the new nonfiction books that have been added to their TBR lists during Nonfiction November.

Just as I predicted in my post for Week One of this challenge, one of the main outcomes of joining in with Nonfiction November is that my TBR list is even longer than it already was. I’m afraid I can’t link to the blogs where I first came across these books because I didn’t note them down at the time. Also, with some of these new-to-me books, they are recommendations I’ve come across again and again, so I know they’re books I need to read.

It’s been a great challenge and has reminded me just how much I love reading nonfiction and why.  And it’s brought even more possible reads onto my radar than I knew about before.  Great challenge – thanks to all who have hosted it and taken part!

Here’s the top ten list of new TBRs I’ve identified for now:

Lingo: A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe by Gaston Dorren and Alison Edwards. This one is top of my TBR list now. I can’t think of a better read than a book that ‘combines linguistics and cultural history … and takes us on an intriguing tour of the continent’.

Trip of the tongue: Cross-country Travels in Search of America’s Languages by Elizabeth Little. Another take on languages but this time it’s a ‘language-themed road trip across America’ taking in native American languages, the creoles of the Deep South and various of the languages more recent immigrants brought with them.

Secret Classrooms: An Untold Story of the Cold War by Geoffrey Elliott and Harold Shukman. Here we read the story of the Joint Services School for Linguists which pushed 5000 British National Servicemen through intensive training in Russian so as to meet the needs of Britain’s signals intelligence operations.  As someone whose own learning of Russian began in the Cold War years, I think this will be a fascinating insight into our recent history.

The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall by Mary Elise Sarotte. This book, written by a prize-winning historian, tells the unlikely story of the unexpected, and certainly unplanned, opening of the Berlin Wall on the night of 9 November 1989.

The Underground Girls of Kabul: The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys by Jenny Nordberg.  The title and subtitle say it all here.  I’m just fascinated to read the experience of living life in permanent disguise.

A Long Way Gone: The True Story of a Child Soldier by Ishmael Beah.  Another true story memoir, but this one is the story of a boy from Sierra Leone in West Africa who fought in the war there as a 12-year-old boy.

First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood by Thrity Umrigar.  Another childhood on another continent – a girl growing up in 1960s and 1970s Bombay/Mumbai.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and the Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi.  This is an Iranian childhood – through the eyes of the author who was 10 at the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson.  Social history is another interest for me so I know I’ll enjoy this Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s account of the migration of black citizens from the South who fled to the northern and western cities in search of a better life.

I’m Off Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago by Hape Kerkeling.  I’m fascinated by the El Camino experience and would love to walk it myself some day, though back problems make that unlikely.  So I’ll settle for this translation of one German man’s pilgrimage across the Pyrenees to the Spanish shrine of St James in Santiago de Compostela.

I can see some common themes in this list that are typical of my reading habits – a fascination with languages and linguistics, an interest in history, spirituality and faith, and a love of real-life memoirs by people from different countries and cultures. It’s a typical list for me, but I would still want to argue that, in the spirit of Week Three of this nonfiction challenge, there’s nevertheless a good bit of diversity in the books that have made my top ten here.  I realise it’s more heavily weighted towards female authors.  I did have another male childhood memoir – Take this Man by Brando Skyhorse (the fascinating-sounding story of a young boy of Mexican parentage growing up in California under the guise of Native American ancestry) – but it just lost out in the final cut to keep the list down to ten.  The full TBR list – out of sight here – still contains this one and many others!

So, these are the top ten nonfiction reads I’ve discovered during Nonfiction November. Any thoughts on this list?  Have you read any or all of the books I’ve chosen here?  And what do you think I should read when I’ve finished this lot?!

Nonfiction November: Diversity Week

imageIt’s week three of the Nonfiction November challenge. And this week’s topic, being hosted by Becca at I’m Lost in Books, is diversity in nonfiction writing.

Becca offers a few questions to consider: What does “diversity” in books mean to you? Does it refer to a book’s location or subject matter? Or is it the author’s nationality or background? What countries/cultures do you tend to enjoy or read about most in your nonfiction? What countries/cultures would you like nonfiction recommendations for? What kind of books besides different cultures do you think of as books of diversity?

‘Diversity in books’ surely has to mean reading a wide and varied range of fiction and nonfiction. A diverse reading list would cover different genres, books written by both male and female authors of different ages, ethnicities and nationalities, and books from and about different parts of the world, different time periods in history and diverse local contexts. Such local diversity could include those from different social, cultural, and religious backgrounds covering a spread of political beliefs. A good diverse book list would include authors from minority groups in any society.


Recent and fairly diverse nonfiction reads

So how do I rate according to my own diversity definition? Firstly, I’m rarely intentional about ensuring diversity of authors, settings, genres etc. Having said that, I do love to read many different kinds of books – both fiction and non-fiction. I particularly love reading narrative nonfiction about people, cultures and lives very different from my own. You can see from the library shelf photo above that my recent nonfiction reading has covered countries that no longer exist – the former USSR and the former GDR – as well as Italy, the USA and Iran. And you can’t see the e-books in the photo, which also took me inside North Korea. If I added fictionto the list, there would be good coverage of Africa and other parts of Europe as well. So I think I’m quite a diverse reader on countries and cultures etc. However, I’ve only recently begun to look at the authors I choose and be a bit more intentional about including a bigger range of writers with more diverse origins.

I think I also do reasonably well in diversity of subjects. Other people, places and cultures will always win out, and will include both modern and historical settings, but I also enjoy reading about other subjects I love.  This includes languages and linguistics, social issues (especially poverty, justice, asylum seekers), popular psychology (Susan Cain’s Quiet remains an all-time favourite nonfiction read) and travel.  I also read a lot of Christian theology, though less than I was doing a few years ago when I read little else while in theological college.  These days I focus more on practical theology – books about church leadership, mission, spirituality and creative worship seem to dominate my ‘new books’ shelf.  And I still dip into biblical commentaries whenever I’m preparing to preach.

I notice most other participants in this challenge have invited suggestions for other categories and books to consider.  I hardly dare do this as my own TBR list is already so unrealistically long, it seems unlikely I’ll ever get through it all.  And, in the meantime, exactly as a I predicted in week one of this challenge, I continue adding to it daily as I come across other books and other readers’ recommendations.  So do feel free to offer me even more suggestions – I love all kinds of nonfiction books. And I think it’s possibly even true to say that I almost love discovering new titles and adding them to the list even more than I do actually getting around to reading them.  Is that just me or is that something you do too?

Nonfiction November: The Berlin Wall

imageIt’s Week 2 of  the Nonfiction November challenge being hosted by Leslie over at Regular Rumination. The challenge is either to Be/Become/Ask The Expert. You can either choose to share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

I love reading nonfiction, but I read such a variety that I can’t claim to be an expert in any one area. So my list is more of a Become the Expert list of books on a subject that I really want to read more of for myself right now.

Last Sunday (9 November) was the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and I really enjoyed seeing Berlin celebrate as I remembered that incredible night a quarter of a century ago. Then, as now, I had to watch it on the small screen rather than in real life, but it really caught my imagination because, having studied both German and Russian and visited both Eastern European countries and the former Soviet Union, it seemed impossible that this could be happening at the time. Only three years earlier (1986), I’d crossed over into East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie to spend a day in another world.

And so I’ve put together a (long!) list of books – a mix of memoirs, history and photographs on the general theme of : The Berlin Wall and life in the GDR.  


Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the wall by Hester Vaizey

This is a book I have already read and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. It brings together 8 very different stories of East Germans who lived through the fall of the Berlin Wall and these personal memoirs give a real insight into the range of different experiences people went through.

Red Love: The Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo

Another autobiographical memoir I have also read but with a focus on just one family over a longer period of time.

The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall by Mary Elise Sarotte

This book comes highly recommended and has been described as the definitive account of the chaotic series of events and decisions that led to the sudden and unexpected opening of the wall on 9 November 1989.

1989: The Berlin Wall: My Part in its Downfall by Peter Millar

This is billed as a humorous memoir by this British journalist who found himself caught up in the events of the night of 9 November 1989.

In Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge

This one shouldn’t really be on a nonfiction list but this novel sounds very close to a fairly factual memoir of an East German family across four generations and it has already won so many awards.  This version is a translation of the German author’s original: In Zeiten des Abnehmenden Lichts.

Berlin: Imagine a City by Rory MacLean

An unusual history in which the author covers 500 years of the ups and downs of the great city of Berlin through biographical portraits of a very varied cast of characters.

The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi by Gary Bruce

This book is described as an accessible history of the Stasi and gathers evidence from both archives and oral histories to provide a thorough and accessible English-language study of East Germany’s infamous secret police.

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder

Another journalist’s account apparently written with ‘wit and literary flair’.  It gathers together more stories of the human experience of the GDR, a country where, after the fall of the wall, its inhabitants soon learned that one in 50 East Germans had been informing on their family members, colleagues, neighbours and friends.

Within Walls: Private Life in the German Democratic Republic by Paul Betts

The previous two books have emphasised the surveillance that characterised life in the GDR, but this author seeks to take a different tack by illustrating the very many different ways in which privacy was expressed in that communist society.

Berlin: Portrait of a City by Hans-Christian Adam

This is one German photographer’s own photographic journey into Berlin’s history.  His nearly 700-page book brings together photos, aerial views and maps from 1860 to the present day.

The Wall: The People’s Story by Christopher Hilton.

This journalist has chosen to bring together another set of memoirs of the divided city.  But, while other books focus mainly on those who lived on the GDR side of the wall, he has chosen to include the individual stories of other people whose lives were affected by it, including international politicians and soldiers.

The Berlin Wall Story: Biography of a Monument by Hans-Hermann Hertle

This book combines ‘previously unknown’ photographs and true-life stories to tell the story of the construction, years of existence and eventual fall of the Berlin Wall.

I did try to keep this list down to ten books, but I just couldn’t shorten it.  Experts out there – Did I miss any essential books off the list?  Has anyone read and/or reviewed any of them?  Anyway, enough for now and Auf Wiedersehen! I’m off to make a start on my next book before another 25 years have gone by!




My nonfiction year

Fatal! Had a cup of tea and a bit of a blog browse when work was done for the day and came across (yet another) reading challenge: Nonfiction November. Totally irresistible to this lifelong lover of non-fiction – even though I’ve made a real effort to get back to reading more fiction this last year or so, and have loved doing that too. I posted before on how, for me, I can only conclude that there’s no great divide between fiction and non-fiction.


So, the good bloggers running the challenge set a week one discussion prompt which involves answering a few questions:

What was your favourite nonfiction read of 2014?

That has to be the one I just finished a fortnight ago: Born in the GDR by Hester Vaizey.  But I’ve enjoyed all of my nonfiction reads this year: Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927; Maxim Leo’s Red Love: The Story of an East German Family; Stephen Cherry’s Beyond Busyness; Phil Potter’s Challenge of Change; Michael Mitton’s Travellers of the Heart; Tim Park’s Italian Ways; How to Write Great Blog Posts that Engage Readers by Steve Scott (probably need to re-read that one now I’ve actually started my blog!) and The Book of Boaz by Dave Smith. And I’m loving both my current nonfiction reads as well: Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran.

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

Along with many other people (hence the book’s bestseller status), I love to recommend Quiet by Susan Cain.

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

All of them! I have such a long and ever-growing TBR list of nonfiction books and I read across quite a few topic areas so I cover quite a few Dewey Decimal categories anyway. I’d never deliberately exclude any book that looked interesting, but I do still have my favourite topics: biography, social and political analysis, history, travel and other countries, culture and languages, theology – especially church leadership, Christian spirituality, popular psychology . .  . the list goes on!

What do you hope to get out of nonfiction November?

I’d like to see it as an opportunity to focus on reading some of the many nonfiction books I already own but haven’t yet read. I realise I’ve downloaded loads to my kindle but I just always prioritise paper book reading, so the list is growing. And yet when I skim the titles and cover pages, I want to start all of them right now! I suspect, in reality, the main outcome of taking part in the Nonfiction November challenge is that I will simply end up with an even longer list TBR – I’ve already added one new book to the list because it came up on so many readers’ blogs: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.