Tag Archives: non-fiction

Recent Reading: Thomas, Shannon, Shaw, Hoose

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

Does my Nice White Lady opinion about this book matter at all? Probably not. But sometimes you read something so good that even though it isn’t meant for you, it is worth talking about. And for whatever it’s worth, I loved Bri’s story.

It’s about the pressure of family history and making your own choices, about ambition and achieving your dreams. There were moments when as an adult I was concerned about the choices Bri was making, but I also understood why she was making them and they felt very realistic for a teenager under pressure. Personally, I found the conclusion very satisfying, and I appreciated where Thomas chose to end the story.

Although I’m not someone who tends to listen to rap, I really admired how well Bri’s skill is shown. Having that first person narrative during her rap battles showed her talent and quick wits, and kept it engaging.

Some authors have one great book in them–and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that–but I think On the Come Up proves that Angie Thomas is here to stay.

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

I wanted to like this one a lot! But it didn’t quite fulfill my expectations, despite being full of things that I should have, in theory, loved. Dragons! Historical fantasy! Spies! Ladies being friends and/or falling in love. Somehow the characters never quite felt fully inhabited and, in a common failing for epic fantasy, it felt weirdly conservative in its undertones even when it seemed to be about remaking the world. I don’t know! I read the whole doorstopper book, so I wouldn’t say it’s bad, but I would also say it never quite reached its full potential. On the other hand, lots of other people loved this one, so it’s entirely possible that this was a me issue.

Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw

This is a great example of a book that I liked and just don’t have much to say about. It’s a supernatural mystery featuring Greta Helsing, doctor to mythical creatures (vampires, gremlins, etc). Meanwhile something bad is happening in London–a murderous cult who worship a mysterious object underground. It’s perfectly fine and competent and I liked the inclusion of some classic vampires who were, the book argues, very misunderstood by Bram Stoker, etc. I will probably read the next one. 

Attucks! by Phillip Hoose

While I kind of wish that this book had not been written by a white guy, I did really appreciate the look at sports and Indianapolis history. Obviously, I have a connection to the location, and I thought Hoose did a good job of laying out the history of the city and state’s racial tensions, as well as the resilience and community of the Black residents during the 1920-1950s.

The text was based heavily on interviews with the surviving players and I felt that overall their voices and memories were showcased. I’ve driven by Crispus Attucks High School many times and been vaguely aware of its history, but now the history of both the high school and area have been really brought to life–in a bittersweet way, since so much of it has now been lost. I’d recommend this for basketball fans, but also for almost anyone from Indianapolis who wants to learn a little more about our history.

3 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

January 2019 reading

I did not read as much as I wanted to this month, but I read some really awesome books. A few of these I suspect will end up on my end-of-year favorites list! As I mentioned the other day, I’m trying out a new system for my active TBR, and I’m hoping it will result in getting more books either read or passed on.

The Winged Histories –  Sofia Samatar [review]
Sawkill Girls  – Claire Legrand [review]
The Prince & the Dressmaker – Jen Wang
Nate Expectations – Tim Federle
I, Claudia – Mary McCoy [review]
Frederica – Georgette Heyer
Begone the Raggedy Witches – Celine Kiernan [review]
Merci Suarez Changes Gears – Meg Medina
The Dinosaur Artist – Paige Williams
Sanity and Tallulah – Molly Brooks
A Spark of White Fire – Sangu Mandanna [review]
The Girl with the Dragon Heart – Stephanie Burgis

Total books read: 12

Total rereads: 2

Favorites:

  • The Winged Histories
  • I, Claudia
  • Begone the Raggedy Witches
  • Merci Suarez Changes Gears
  • Sanity & Tallulah
  • A Spark of White Fire
  • The Girl with the Dragon Heart

Other posts:

6 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, monthly book list

November 2018 books

The Death of Mrs Westaway Ruth Ware 11.29

This was on the NPR Book Concierge and it sounded like the kind of mystery I’d like. It was! I’m always a sucker for the “assuming someone’s identity” trope, and Ware plays nicely with that here. I also liked Harriet a lot. It feels very old-fashioned on several levels, I think intentionally, and I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about that aspect.

Pride Ibi Zoboi 11.29  (review tomorrow)

Girl at the Grave Teri Bailey Black 11.25 [review]

Darius the Great is Not Okay Adib Khorram 11.17  [review]

The Language of Power Rosemary Kirstein 11.16  [review]

Mariam Sharma Hits the Road Sheba Karim 11.14  [review]

Making Friends Kristen Gudsnuk 11. 9  

The Witch Boy Molly Knox Ostertag 11.8 

The Proposal Jasmine Guillory 11.9  [review]

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster Deborah Hopkinson 11.7  [review]

 

Total books read: 10

Total rereads: 0

Favorites:

  • Darius the Great is Not Okay
  • Pride
  • Witch Boy

Weekly reading roundups:

I kind of stopped doing the weekly roundups towards the end of this month, but I could be persuaded to try them again if anyone is interested!

5 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, monthly book list, reviews

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson

In Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, Deborah Hopkinson weaves together first person narratives from passengers and crew of the Titanic, to give a picture of the first and last voyage of the ship. It’s published for children, but written in an accessible enough way that adults might enjoy reading it as well.

I read this one because I had scheduled it for my homeschool book club at work and then realized I’d never read it. Due to reasons, I ended up reading most of it as an ebook.

Reading Titanic so soon after reading Patricia Sutton’s Capsized! was an interesting experience. There are certainly some similiarities between the books–children’s non-fiction focusing on a disaster, with an emphasis on the experiences of the survivors. Obviously, the sinking of the Titanic is much more well known than the sinking of the Eastland, and therefore the amount of material available to Hopkinson makes for what I think is a slightly more complex read.

I will say that although I’m familiar with the story of the Titanic, the progression of events has never quite sunk in for me. Having the information presented the way Hopkinson does here was actually very helpful and informative! It does make for a tough emotional read because, whoo boy, a lot of this tragedy could have been mitigated had things turned out slightly differently.

Overall, Hopkinson focuses on narratives from survivors, which makes sense on several levels. First, because there were almost no things saved from the Titanic–unsent letters, diaries, etc, most likely went down with the ship. Second, because it’s obviously the survivors who afterwards contributed the most to the historical record of narratives and remembrances. But also, I thought it made a nice way to approach this story for kids, in a way that engages with the reality of the disaster and the effects it had on the people who were present without being too horrifying.

The book also includes some information about myths that have sprung up around the Titanic and its sinking, with a quick summary of what historians and primary narratives say actually happened. I liked the approach here, which wasn’t to spend too much time on the myths while also debunking them.

I’d say that Hopkinson is a very strong writer of narrative non-fiction. There’s a decent balance of different types of people represented here, including some of the crew and some third-class passengers. I haven’t read a lot of Titanic non-fiction to know how she compares to others. But I’d recommend Titanic: Voices from the Disaster as a solid primer on what happened to the Titanic, or for any fans of non-fiction with an emphasis on the people involved.

See also: Capsized! by Patricia Sutton 

_______________

Previously, on By Singing Light

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (2014)
What to read After Howl’s Moving Castle (2013)
The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner (2009)

2 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

October 2018 books

A Scholar of Magics Caroline Stevermer 10.31

Fake Blood Whitney Gardner 10.28

Border Kapka Kassapova 10.27 [review]

Exit Strategy Martha Wells 10.26

Jade City Fonda Lee 10.23 [review]

Summer Bird Blue Akemi Dawn Bowman 10.21 [review]

Capsized! Patricia Sutton 10.18 [review]

Monstrous Regiment of Women Laurie Russell King 10.17

Drum Roll Please Lisa Jenn Bigelow 10.14

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice Laurie Russell King 10.13

The Wild Dead Carrie Vaughn

Midnight Robber Nalo Hopkinson 10.12

Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea Lynn Rae Perkins 10.12

Spinning Silver Naomi Novik 10.9

She Loves You (Yeah Yeah Yeah) Ann Hood 10.9

The Lost Scroll: The Book of Kings Sarah Prineas 10.4

 

Total books read: 16

Total rereads: 1

Favorites:

  • Spinning Silver
  • Midnight Robber
  • Drum Roll Please
  • Border
  • Exit Strategy

Weekly reading roundups:

Leave a comment

Filed under bookish posts, monthly book list, reviews

Border by Kapka Kassabova

In Border, Kapka Kassabova returns to Bulgaria, where she grew up, hoping to explore the border region where Bulgaria meets Greece and Turkey. Partly driven by the desire to flout the old Soviet restrictions, partly by the wealth of folklore and myth there, she finds a land that is strange and beautiful, full of ancient secrets and modern tragedies.

I must have heard about Border somewhere, because I don’t usually just find non-fiction books. But I don’t know where it could have been. I’m sure I was intrigued by the mention of Bulgaria–I’m part of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, after all–and the premise of Kassabova’s travels. Borders and liminal spaces are fascinating to me in fiction, so why not here as well?

Kassabova’s prose is astounding here; the descriptions of not just the landscape but the emotion behind it are entrancing. Much of what the book revolves around are the ways the specifics of these lands come to inhabit the people who live there, and the trauma that happens when political motivations force populations to leave the place they are so deeply connected to. And so it makes sense that the land itself is a force, that some of the best writing in this book is about the landscape she encounters, both natural and manmade.

There is a personal aspect to the story she tells, but the portrait of herself are always a bit cagey. It’s not that I don’t believe what she writes, but rather that she invites ambiguity and uncertainty. This isn’t exactly a memoir, because the people she encounters and the places they encounter each other are both given more weight than herself, except for a few moments here and there. 

The stories those people tell are sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying, but most often they are sad. This is a book full of sad things and yet there’s also a sense of celebration to it. A commitment that even if this way of life is dying out after all these thousands of years, we can take a moment to remember and savor it. Both Kassabova and her friends talk a lot about surviving in the face of adverse political powers, in a way that is obviously relevant to our political age but did not feel too on-the-nose. While she doesn’t forget the overall movements of the major players, this is history focused on the personal level and the effects the national and international decisions have on individuals.

I loved a lot of the book, not only the prose, but the sense of age. Of time going on and on, and of the depth of history and belief. I didn’t always agree with the stances here, particularly her opinion of the Orthodox Church, but it remained a very emotionally effective book for me. Perhaps this is because of how the mythology and the folklore of the places are treated; each section is prefaced with a brief explanation of an aspect of history or folklore that will be expanded on in the following pages in a more personal and lived way. In some ways it felt like a fantasy novel–or maybe it’s just that at imes the feeling reminded me quite a bit of The Winged Histories

There’s a lot here, between history, the stories of people she meets, and the way their stories interact with the story of peoples and nations in the 21st century. This is not a book that’s researched so much as felt and lived, but it’s also erudite and I wasn’t surprised that the back contains a list of scholarly resources. And she keeps the focus clear by following the path of her travels, circling through the ancient forest called Strandja, circling the border. 

All in all, this was not quite like any book I’ve ever read, and it will stay with me for a long time. If you are interested in Eastern Europe, or in liminal places, in the forces of landscape or history, I recommend it.

Background reading: an interview with Kapka Kassabova

4 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

Capsized! by Patricia Sutton

Capsized!: The Forgotten Story of the SS Eastland Disaster by Patricia Sutton (Chicago Review Press, July 2018) is a children’s non-fiction book about a largely forgotten disaster–the capsizing of a passenger-laden steamboat in the Chicago River in 1915. It’s a fairly slim book with a fair number of contemporary photos of both the people and the actual events of the capsizing. Sutton’s author’s note indicates that she has been fascinated with the story for a long time and I’d say this book shows how much research she has done to uncover eyewitness accounts and reports.

I thought that I picked Capsized!  up because I had challenged myself a while back to try to read (or at least attempt) the middle grade books from the Publisher’s Weekly best books of summer 2018 list. But it turns out, it’s not on that list! It did receive a Kirkus star, so I may have seen the review there and thought it looked interesting.

The SS Eastland story is one I think I was vaguely familiar with but certainly didn’t know much about. And oh wow, this is a tough one! The details of the disaster are pretty much horrifying. It’s one of those examples of how a bunch of small mistakes can build up to a situation that goes really, really awry. So the first part of the book is full of a sense of impending doom since you know what’s about to happen and all the people in the book are blithely getting ready for a company picnic.

Part of what’s so devastating is the fact that most of the victims were from a very close-knit community who lived in neighborhoods around the Western Electric factory where they or their families worked. Towards the end of the book, Sutton mentions that on one street there was not a single house without mourning ribbons on the door. The narrative follows a couple of families, giving a sense of how they fit into the overall picture of Western Electric employees and families, through their part in the disaster, and wrapping up with what happened to them later. The inclusion of photographs from the capsizing and the aftermath strengthen the power of the text nicely.

The book does an excellent job of painting the background picture: the history of the SS Eastland, the immigrant communities that many of the workers were part of, the pressure from the management of Western Electric to attend the picnic. That being said, I felt that the bulk of the book focused on the lead-up to the accident, and I wished that a little more time had been spent on what happened afterwards, although since Sutton notes that war news replaced the reporting on the capsizing almost immediately this may be partly an issue with the historical record.

Overall, this is a powerful and devastating read that I would recommend for grades 5+. Hand this one to anyone who loves reading about forgotten history or disasters, especially the kids who are into the Titanic and ready to branch out.

__________________

Previously, on By Singing Light:
Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow (2013)
Libraries and Life Preservers (2014)
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (2015)
Joan Aiken Reading Notes: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (2016)

3 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

June 2018 books

I read quite a bit in June. For one thing, we weren’t moving, and for another, we’re doing a staff Summer Reading at work this year and it’s bringing out my competitive side. 

Jolly Foul Play Robin Stevens (reread) 6.29

Snow & Rose Emily Winfield Martin 6.25

Beasts Made of Night Tochi Onyebuchi 6.25

Wild Beauty Anna-Marie McLemore 6.24

From Twinkle With Love Sandhya Menon 6.23

Akata Warrior  Nnedi Okorafor 6.23

The Black Tides of Heaven JY Yang 6.21

Cuckoo Song Frances Hardinge (reread) 6.18

The Way You Make Me Feel Maurene Goo 6.18

The War I Finally Won Kimberly Brubaker Bradley 6.15

Furyborn Claire LeGrand 6.14

An Enchantment of Ravens Margaret Rogerson 6.11

No Time to Spare Ursula K Le Guin 6.9

The Jewel & Her Lapidary Fran Wilde 6.8

Enchantress from the Stars Sylvia Engdahl 6.5

Some Kind of Courage Dan Gemeinhart 6.5

Wolf Star Tanita Lee 6.5

Tell the Wolves I’m Home Carol Rifka Brunt 6.2

The Saturdays Elizabeth Enright (reread) 6.2

Tess of the Road Rachel Hartman 6.2

 

Total books read: 20
Total rereads: 3 (The Saturdays, Cuckoo Song, Jolly Foul Play)

Favorites:

  • Tess of the Road
  • Furyborn
  • The War I Finally Won
  • From Twinkle With Love
  • Wild Beauty
  • Jolly Foul Play

1 Comment

Filed under bookish posts, monthly book list

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk is part memoir, part how to guide, part biography. It weaves together Helen Macdonald’s experiences training a goshawk after her father’s death, her observations about her grief and journey through it, and T.H. White’s experiences training his own goshawk almost a century earlier. It’s a very compelling and also very peculiar book. 

While I was in the middle of reading it, an internet friend of mine summed up her own experience of it as “brilliant but uneasy” and I keep thinking that this is the perfect way to encapsulate the tensions that pervade the book. Macdonald’s narrative voice carries the reader through the sometimes jagged connections between the threads. She has keen insights into grief, herself, the birds, the landscape she encounters while training Mabel–and a lovely turn of phrase. 

At the same time, I keep circling back to the sections about T.H. White. Macdonald includes his story because it fascinated her as a child, because it operates as a warning of how not to train your hawk, because White himself fascinates her and she often defines herself in opposition to him. But it’s an uneasy fascination; as far as I know, and based on the self-portrait in the book, Macdonald is straight, so is it fair for her to take on the subject of White’s tortuous feelings about his own sexuality? I don’t know. She is certainly sympathetic, but sympathy is not everything, and I still just don’t know how to take the comparisons she seems to draw between her grief and White’s self-loathing. There’s perhaps a failure to consider the external cultural forces that are present in White’s case which are not present in her own. Or am I simply oversimplifying what is meant to be a more complex relationship? I do know that I remain uneasy about this aspect of the book.

On the positive side, Macdonald has a great ability to show why she loves hawking while also interrogating its questionable history and less beautiful moments. She’s writing from a position of some privilege and that sometimes shows in ways I suspect she’s not entirely aware of. At the same time, she is willing to engage with the complexities around her, including one of the best passages on the problems with nostalgia for landscapes that I think I’ve ever read.

Despite my overall occasional ambivalence, I would say this one is worth reading for the beauty of the language, that voice which starts in the first sentence and pulled me right in. H is for Hawk is not always an easy book, not always one I agreed with, but I’m also glad that I read it.

Other reviews:

Kathryn Schulz (New Yorker)

Vicki Constantine Croke (NYT)

Katy Waldman (The Slate)

Previously:

The City in the Lake by Rachel Neumeier (2011)

How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle (2014)

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (2015)

Ursula Le Guin Reading Notes: The Tombs of Atuan (2016)

2 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

In the Great Green Room: The Bold and Brilliant Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary

After finishing Amy Gary’s biography of Margaret Wise Brown, In the Great Green Room, I have two major conclusions. 1) Margaret Wise Brown was clearly a brilliant, complex, fascinating character who would benefit from a great biography about her. 2) This is, sadly, not that biography. While I’m glad to have read more about Wise Brown and her life, this book suffers from a couple of huge flaws that made it intensely frustrating as a reading experience.

What we’re given here is a recounting of the events of Margaret Wise Brown’s life. This is done in a narrative style, which results in a rather breezy read, organized by years. Unfortunately, that same style also lends itself to the lack of contextualizing and critical thought which hampers the biography in several ways.

First, there is the absence of sourcing and citation. There are no footnotes or proper endnotes in this book. We are given a list of sources in the backmatter, separated by chapter, but they are not explicitly linked to any specific line or claim in the text itself. Nor are there any actual quotations within the text. It is a stream of assertions–Margaret said this, thought this, did this–with no background. Are these based on memories from her friends and family? Published or unpublished memoirs? Newspaper articles? Are the sources trustworthy or biased? It’s impossible to say.

I am writing this review having just read several excellent biographies of challenging and complex women, whose authors took great care in approaching source material and presenting it in a helpful context. I recognize that this has perhaps spoiled me, but the absence of that care made me send furious text messages to friends. (You know who you are, sorry not sorry.)

Gary’s biography seems curiously immune to any attempt to locate Wise Brown within her familial, social, or historical background. We are given the bones of her relationship with her parents–with a bonus shaming of both her mother and sister for their mental illnesses–but Gary doesn’t even try to look at why Margaret might have felt so estranged from Maude, what social pressures might have been weighing on Maude herself, or what wider cultural patterns are reproduced in Margaret’s warmer feelings for her brother and father as opposed to her mother and sister.

While this is generally annoying, on occasion it leads the book to repeat wholesale some really harmful attitudes. As I mentioned above, the characterization of both Maude and Roberta Brown as people who enjoyed using their depression to make those around them miserable shows up several times. (“At first, Margaret attempted to cheer her sister, but saw that, like their mother, Roberta relished layering a foul mood over happy occasions.”) It shows up again in Margaret’s sexism towards Bill Gaston’s other lovers (“Margaret’s name for women like this one was Slitch”). It is possible to show a person’s problematic attitudes while also making it clear that they are in fact problems. But this never happens–both of these attitudes are simply stated as if they are true, and without any primary source quotes to give them background, they weigh the text down with their casual cruelty.

Even a look at Margaret’s emotional state with regards to her own personal life and sexuality barely appears, aside from a factual recounting of her affairs with Bill Gaston and Blanche Oelrichs/Michael Strange. The historical context of queer relationships in the 1930s and 40s apparently isn’t relevant. Her last romance with Jim Rockefeller Jr, just at the end of her all-too-brief life, is given a total of about 20 pages, despite the fact that he wrote the forward for the book.

The lack of depth holds true for issues of class, as the emotional and social implications of the Brown family’s place on the edge of high society (connected to but not part of the Carnegie/Rockefeller clan) only comes up to contrast Margaret’s positive feelings towards the Carnegies with her attitude towards her own family. Further, the biography barely even attempts to trace the impact of Margaret Wise Brown on children’s literature, even though ostensibly this is one of the major threads of the book.

There’s an odd lack of connection within the text itself. Moments which should have been linked, either in reinforcement or in contrast, are left to stand on their own. For instance, at one point Gary tells a story about Margaret’s bungled reaction to learning that Esphyr Slobodkina (her friend and frequent collaborator) was Jewish, and her subsequent regret and attempted apology. Then, a bare four pages later, we’re introduced to Margaret’s eventual lover, Michael Strange, who was a prominent isolationist and vocal member of the America First Committee. It’s not that Gary dismisses the tension between these two moments; it’s quite simply that she doesn’t seem to think there is any tension there to dismiss.  What are we to make of Margaret Wise Brown’s complicated and contradictory self? This biography doesn’t seem to ask this question, let alone try to answer it.

In fact, because we only see Wise Brown at second hand, she remains a curiously opaque figure. At the very end of the book, Gary quotes a brief passage from one of Margaret Wise Brown’s journals–the only direct quotation from anyone in 240 pages–and that moment shines the brightest for me in memory. For the first and only time in the entire biography, I felt I had a sense of who Margaret Wise Brown was and how she thought. Had her words been allowed to tell her story, it would have been so much more powerful.

A good biography tells the story of its subject, fully and accurately. A great biography not only does that well; it also contextualizes and illuminates that subject. It presents a deeper understanding of the person, their life, and their world. And so, in reading, a great biography gives also a deeper understanding of ourselves. I hope that someday one is written about Margaret Wise Brown.

_________

Other reviews:

Biographies I do recommend:

  • James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips
  • A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII by Sarah Helm
  • The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley
  • Lady Byron and Her Daughters by Julia Markus

 

Save

3 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reviews