Last year in books: non-fiction

Thanks to a late-December bout of strep, I made it to 79 books last year. When I scanned back over the list, many of the titles that jumped out at me were non-fiction. So, in case you’d like to start 2017 with some brain fodder, here are a few of my top picks:

1. Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? by Timothy Caulfield

The title alone is enough reason to read this. But, should you need more, it’s a book about celebrity culture and how it influences our views on science. And it’s funny. Strangely, even as I was reading the debunking of Gwyneth Paltrow’s juice fasts, I was simultaneously thinking, “ooh… that sounds good” and even as I was learning about the zero research done on anti-aging creams, I was making a mental note to buy some. But Timothy Caulfield doesn’t judge. He simply warns that anyone promising to cleanse your adrenals is selling something.

2. Grunt by Mary Roach

Mary Roach is one of my favourite non-fiction writers and I happily read anything she writes, even if she happens to be writing about war and soldiers and technology. Who knew I would find myself interested in penis replacement surgery? This is the magic of Mary Roach.

3. The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison

This is a beautifully written, thoughtful, wise collection of essays, and I could happily read the title essay again and again. The book is like that gem of a story collection you can’t wait to pass along to your friends, except these stories happen to be true.

4. North of Normal, by Cea Sunrise Person

I wrote about North of Normal when I read it last summer, and I’m still in love. You should read it no matter where you live, but if you happen to have spent any part of your childhood in the woods, you should read it today.

5. Symphony for the City of the Dead, by M.T. Anderson

This is supposed to be a young adult book and it’s really, really not. It’s a massive tome of Russian history and biography. But it is fascinating. As someone who admires obsession, I couldn’t help but marvel at composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who wrote and created throughout the Seige of Leningrad in 1943-44. The book itself must have been a work of obsession for the author. Who writes 464 pages about Russian history, for kids? I say definitely read this one… unless you’re 14 and want any hope of maintaining a normal social life.

Happy reading!

My Russian tour

I’ve been taking an accidental course in Russian history. I started with The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming. It’s all about the last tsar of Russia and his family, muddling their way through a quickly changing political world. The book is wonderfully written, sort of a sweeping family saga except tragically true.

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The Family Romanov served as the perfect appetizer for the what turned out to be the main course: Symphony for the City of the Dead, by M.T. Anderson. This is another (supposed) children’s book about Russian politics and history, all carefully woven around the life story of composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

Shostakovich was first loved by the Russian people, then targeted by the government and treated as a pariah, then loved once again. He survived the siege of Leningrad during World War II. The symphony he wrote while starving in his beloved city became an international symbol of hope and humanity.

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The book was fascinating. My only issue is… it’s about a billion pages long. And it’s about Russian history. Are kids really going to read it? I devoured every possible book as a kid, but I can’t see my 13-year-old self choosing this one. And my daughter, avid reader that she is, didn’t make it through the more palatable Family Romanov.

What makes a non-fiction book a kid’s non-fiction book? That’s what I’ve been wondering, in between marvelling at the machinations of Russian politics. The prose in Symphony for the City of the Dead is clear and compelling… but shouldn’t that be a mark of good adult non-fiction as well? Anderson doesn’t assume the reader has prior knowledge of history, geography, or politics, and he offers plenty of background information… but wouldn’t more adults read Russian history if that were the case in all non-fiction books?

I have no real answers to these questions, except to say that both kids and adults should be choosing more non-fiction and these books are a wonderful place to start (for adults) and an impressive challenge (for younger readers).

I’m off to continue my Russian education with Stalin’s Daughter by Rosemary Sullivan. I’ll let you know how I do with my transition to actual grown-up biography.

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