This month I’ll be participating in A Book Olive’s Nonfiction November Challenge. You can find her description of the challenge at the previous link and her book recommendations here.
I have long been a fan of nonfiction. In fact, over the past several years, I read nonfiction almost exclusively, and have only recently seen the pendulum swing in the opposite direction to reading almost exclusively fiction. So, I’m excited to dive back into nonfiction this month with the #NonfictionNovember challenge.
Olive provided four broad prompts for this year’s event:
Several books on my list fit multiple prompts, so I’m hoping to check off all four by month’s end.
Below is a list of the top nine nonfiction books on my physical TBR right now, as well as a look at five fiction books that might pull me off-course this month.
Nine Nonfiction Contenders
I have quite a backlog of nonfiction books I’m wanting to read, as well as a few new ones I picked up at recent book festivals, but I’ve managed to narrow my list of potential reads for this month down to nine. Based on my total page counts over the past few months, I don’t think I’ll come close to reading this whole list, but these are the books topping my nonfiction TBR right now (in no particular order):
- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013) – “As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer has been trained to ask questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these two lenses of knowledge together to take us on “a journey that is every bit as mythic as it is scientific, as sacred as it is historical, as clever as it is wise” (Elizabeth Gilbert). Drawing on her life as an indigenous scientist, and as a woman, Kimmerer shows how other living beings―asters and goldenrod, strawberries and squash, salamanders, algae, and sweetgrass―offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices. In reflections that range from the creation of Turtle Island to the forces that threaten its flourishing today, she circles toward a central argument: that the awakening of ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. For only when we can hear the languages of other beings will we be capable of understanding the generosity of the earth, and learn to give our own gifts in return.” I have read pieces of this book but never the whole thing, cover to cover. This month, I’d like to right that.
- Bayou-Diversity 2: Nature and People in the Louisiana Bayou Country, by Kelby Ouchley (2018) – “In this sequal to his previous exploration of Louisiana’s bayou country, conservationist Kelby Ouchley continues his journey through the vast ecosystems of the state with a fresh array of historical and cultural narratives, personal anecdotes, and reflections. Informative and entertaining, Bayou-Diversity 2 revisits familiar flora and fauna like endangered black bears, infamous feral hogs, and the ghostly bald cypress forest and also explores a new selection of plants and animals, including orchids, eels, bullbats, and cottonmouth snakes. Ouchley’s thought-provoking discussion considers the long-term human impact on Louisiana plants and wildlife and encourages proactive conservation of the state’s invaluable natural resources. Through education on conservation ethics, altered landscapes, and climate change, he asserts that we can and must improve our environment. ‘We are inextricably connected to the natural world,’ Ouchly writes, and ‘our mutual well-being is inseparably linked.’ With page-turning narration, Bayou-Diversity 2 provides a comprehensive look at this awe-inspiring ecosystem and encourages generations of readers to take on the responsibility of environmental stewardship.”
- Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, by Mary Roach (2021) – “What’s to be done about a jaywalking moose? A bear caught breaking and entering? A murderous tree? Three hundred years ago, animals that broke the law would be assigned legal representation and put on trial. These days, as New York Times best-selling author Mary Roach discovers, the answers are best found not in jurisprudence but in science: the curious science of human-wildlife confict, a discipline at the crossroads of human behavior and wildlife biology. Roach tags along with animal-attack forensics investigators, human-elephant conflict specialists, bear managers, and “danger tree” faller blasters. Intrepid as ever, she travels from leopard-terrorized hamlets in the Indian Himalaya to St. Peter’s Square in the early hours before the pope arrives for Easter Mass, when vandal gulls swoop in to destroy the elaborate floral display. She taste-tests rat bait, learns how to install a vulture effigy, and gets mugged by a macaque. Combining little-known forensic science and conservation genetics with a motley cast of laser scarecrows, langur impersonators, and trespassing squirrels, Roach reveals as much about humanity as about nature’s law-breakers. When it comes to “problem” wildlife, she finds, humans are more often the problem – and the solution. Fascinating, witty, and humane, Fuzz offers hope for compassionate coexistence in our ever-expanding human habitat.”
- Corrections in Ink: A Memoir, by Keri Blakinger (2022) – “Keri Blakinger always lived life at full throttle. Growing up, that meant throwing herself into competitive figure skating with an all-consuming passion that led her to nationals. But when her skating career suddenly fell apart, that meant diving into self-destruction with the intensity she once saved for the ice. For the next nine years, Keri ricocheted from one dark place to the next: living on the streets, selling drugs and sex, and shooting up between classes all while trying to hold herself together enough to finish her degree at Cornell. Then, on a cold day during her senior year, the police caught her walking down the street with a Tupperware full of heroin. Her arrest made the front page of the local news and landed her behind bars for nearly two years. There, in the Twilight Zone of New York’s jails and prisons, Keri grappled with the wreckage of her missteps and mistakes as she sobered up and searched for a better path. Along the way, she met women from all walks of life―who were all struggling through the same upside-down world of corrections. As the days ticked by, Keri came to understand how broken the justice system is and who that brokenness hurts the most. After she walked out of her cell for the last time, Keri became a reporter dedicated to exposing our flawed prisons as only an insider could. Written with searing intensity, unflinching honesty, and shocks of humor, Corrections in Ink uncovers that dark, brutal system that affects us all. Not just a story about getting out and getting off drugs, this galvanizing memoir is about the power of second chances; about who our society throws away and who we allow to reach for redemption―and how they reach for it.”
- The Fishermen and the Dragon: Fear, Greed and a Fight for Justice on the Gulf Coast, by Kirk Wallace Johnson (2022) – “By the late 1970s, the fishermen of the Texas Gulf Coast were struggling. The bays that had sustained generations of shrimpers and crabbers before them were being poisoned by nearby petrochemical plants, oil spills, pesticides, and concrete. But as their nets came up light, the white shrimpers could only see one culprit: the small but growing number of newly resettled Vietnamese refugees who had recently started fishing. Turf was claimed. Guns were flashed. Threats were made. After a white crabber was killed by a young Vietnamese refugee in self-defense, the situation became a tinderbox primed to explode, and the Grand Dragon of the Texas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan saw an opportunity to stoke the fishermen’s rage and prejudices. At a massive Klan rally near Galveston Bay one night in 1981, he strode over to an old boat graffitied with the words U.S.S. VIET CONG, torch in hand, and issued a ninety-day deadline for the refugees to leave or else “it’s going to be a helluva lot more violent than Vietnam!” The white fishermen roared as the boat burned, convinced that if they could drive these newcomers from the coast, everything would return to normal. A shocking campaign of violence ensued, marked by burning crosses, conspiracy theories, death threats, torched boats, and heavily armed Klansmen patrolling Galveston Bay. The Vietnamese were on the brink of fleeing, until a charismatic leader in their community, a highly decorated colonel, convinced them to stand their ground by entrusting their fate with the Constitution. Drawing upon a trove of never-before-published material, including FBI and ATF records, unprecedented access to case files, and scores of firsthand interviews with Klansmen, shrimpers, law enforcement, environmental activists, lawyers, perpetrators and victims, Johnson uncovers secrets and secures confessions to crimes that went unsolved for more than forty years. This explosive investigation of a forgotten story, years in the making, ultimately leads Johnson to the doorstep of the one woman who could see clearly enough to recognize the true threat to the bays—and who now represents the fishermen’s last hope.”
- The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard (2005) – “The River of Doubt—it is a black, uncharted tributary of the Amazon that snakes through one of the most treacherous jungles in the world. Indians armed with poison-tipped arrows haunt its shadows; piranhas glide through its waters; boulder-strewn rapids turn the river into a roiling cauldron. After his humiliating election defeat in 1912, Roosevelt set his sights on the most punishing physical challenge he could find, the first descent of an unmapped, rapids-choked tributary of the Amazon. Together with his son Kermit and Brazil’s most famous explorer, Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, Roosevelt accomplished a feat so great that many at the time refused to believe it. In the process, he changed the map of the western hemisphere forever. Along the way, Roosevelt and his men faced an unbelievable series of hardships, losing their canoes and supplies to punishing whitewater rapids, and enduring starvation, Indian attack, disease, drowning, and a murder within their own ranks. Three men died, and Roosevelt was brought to the brink of suicide. The River of Doubt brings alive these extraordinary events in a powerful nonfiction narrative thriller that happens to feature one of the most famous Americans who ever lived. From the soaring beauty of the Amazon rain forest to the darkest night of Theodore Roosevelt’s life, here is Candice Millard’s dazzling debut.”
- Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, by Clarissa Pinkola Estés (1989) – “‘Within every woman there is a wild and natural creature, a powerful force, filled with good instincts, passionate creativity, and ageless knowing. Her name is Wild Woman, but she is an endangered species. Though the gifts of wildish nature come to us at birth, society’s attempt to ‘civilize’ us into rigid roles has plundered this treasure, and muffled deep, life-giving messages of our own souls. Without Wild Woman, we become over-domesticated, fearful, uncreative, trapped.’ In her now-classic book that spent 144 weeks on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list, and is translated into 35 languages, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., shows how woman’s vitality can be restored through what she calls “psychic archaeological digs” into the ruins of the female unconscious. Dr. Estés uses her families’ ethnic tales, washed and rinsed in the blood of wars and survival, multicultural myths, her own lyric writing of those fairy tales, folk tales, and stories chosen from her life witness, and also research ongoing for twenty years… that help women reconnect with the healthy, instinctual, visionary attributes of the Wild Woman archetype. Dr. Estés collects the bones of many stories, looking for the archetypal motifs that set a woman’s inner life into motion. Her “La Loba” teaches about the transformative function of the psyche; in “Bluebeard,” we learn what to do with wounds that will not heal; in her literary story “Skeleton Woman,” we glimpse the mystical power of relationship and how dead feelings can be revived; “Vasalisa the Wise” brings our lost womanly instincts to the surface again; “The Handless Maiden” recovers the Wild Woman initiation rites; and “The Little Match Girl” warns against the insidious dangers of a life spent in fantasy. These and other stories focus on the many qualities of Wild Woman. With them, we retrieve, examine, love, and understand her, and hold her against our deep psyches as one who is both magic and medicine. In Women Who Run With the Wolves, Dr. Estés has created a new lexicon for describing the female psyche. Fertile and life-giving, it is a psychology of women in the truest sense, a knowing of the soul.”
- The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and Its Citrus Fruit, by Helena Attlee (2014) – “The Land Where Lemons Grow is the sweeping story of Italy’s cultural history told through the history of its citrus crops. From the early migration of citrus from the foothills of the Himalayas to Italy’s shores to the persistent role of unique crops such as bergamot (and its place in the perfume and cosmetics industries) and the vital role played by Calabria’s unique Diamante citrons in the Jewish celebration of Sukkoth, author Helena Attlee brings the fascinating history and its gustatory delights to life. Whether the Battle of Oranges in Ivrea, the gardens of Tuscany, or the story of the Mafia and Sicily’s citrus groves, Attlee transports readers on a journey unlike any other.”
- Mutinous Women: How French Convicts Became Founding Mothers of the Gulf Coast, by Joan DeJean (2022) – “In 1719, a ship named La Mutine sailed from the French port of Le Havre, bound for the place the French called ‘the Mississippi.’ It was loaded with urgently needed goods for the fledgling French colony, but its principal commodity was a new kind of export: women. Falsely accused of sex crimes – some for reporting rape, others because their families were obscenely poor and it was financially expedient to imprison them – these women were prisoners, shackled in the ship’s hold. Of the 132 women who were transported this way, only sixty-two survived. Even though most were of modest origins, many achieved unlikely triumph across the Atlantic. They managed to carve out a place for themselves in the colonies that would have been impossible in France, making advantageous marriages and accumulating property. Many were instrumental in the building of New Orleans and in settling Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, and Mississippi. With each generation, their tens of thousands of descendants have spread ever more widely across this country. Drawing on an impressive range of sources to restore the voices of these women to the historical record, Mutinous Women introduces us to the Gulf South’s founding mothers.”
‘Gang Aft Agley’
Now, despite all my best efforts to stick to my TBRs, the truth is I’m just a mood reader at heart. So, whether I will read the nonfiction books on my list – or even stick to nonfiction at all – is yet to be seen. If I do stray from nonfiction this month, here’s a look at the top five fiction books on my physical TBR that are most likely to pull me off-course for #NonfictionNovember:
- Here Lies, by Olivia Clare Friendman (2022) – “Louisiana, 2042. Spurred by the effects of climate change, states have closed graveyards and banned burials, making cremation mandatory and the ashes of loved ones state-owned unless otherwise claimed. In the small town of St. Genevieve, Alma lives alone and struggles to grieve in the wake of her young mother Naomi’s death, during which Alma failed to honor Naomi’s final wishes. Now, Alma decides to fight to reclaim Naomi’s ashes, a journey of unburial that will bring into her life a mysterious and fiercely loyal stranger, Bordelon, who appears in St. Genevieve after a storm, as well as a group of strong, rebellious local women who, together, teach Alma anew the meaning of family and strength. With poignance, poeticism, and deep insight, in Here Lies Olivia Clare Friedman gives us a portrait of motherhood, friendship, and humanity in an alternate American South torn asunder by global warming. This is a stunning first novel from a unique and inventive writer.”
- Wingwalkers, by Taylor Brown (2022) – “A former World War I ace pilot and his wingwalker wife barnstorm across Depression-era America, performing acts of aerial daring. ‘They were over Georgia somewhere, another nameless hamlet whose dusty streets lay flocked and trembling with the pink handbills they’d rained from the sky that morning, the ones that announced the coming of DELLA THE DARING DEVILETTE, who would DEFY THE HEAVENS, shining like a DAYTIME STAR, a WING-WALKING WONDER borne upon the wings of CAPTAIN ZENO MARIGOLD, a DOUBLE ACE of the GREAT WAR, who had ELEVEN AERIAL VICTORIES over the TRENCHES OF FRANCE.’ Wingwalkers is one-part epic adventure, one-part love story, and, as is the signature for critically-acclaimed author Taylor Brown, one large part American history. The novel follows the adventures of Della and Zeno Marigold, a pair of Great Depression barnstormers who are funding their journey west by performing death-defying aerial stunts from town to town, and braids them with the real-life exploits of author (and thwarted fighter pilot) William Faulkner. When their paths cross during a dramatic air show, there will be unexpected consequences for all. Brown has taken a tantalizing tidbit from Faulkner’s real life – an evening’s chance encounter with two daredevils in New Orleans – and set it aloft in this fabulous novel. With scintillating prose and an action-packed plot, he has captured the true essence of a bygone era and shed a new light on the heart and motivations of one of America’s great authors.”
- When Women Were Dragons, by Kelly Barnhill (2022) – “Alex Green is a young girl in a world much like ours, except for its most seminal event: the Mass Dragoning of 1955, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary wives and mothers sprouted wings, scales, and talons; left a trail of fiery destruction in their paths; and took to the skies. Was it their choice? What will become of those left behind? Why did Alex’s beloved aunt Marla transform but Alex’s mother did not? No one knows. It’s taboo to speak of it. Forced into silence, Alex nevertheless must face the consequences of this astonishing event: a mother more protective than ever; an absentee father; their upsetting insistence that her aunt never even existed; and watching her beloved cousin Beatrice become dangerously obsessed with the forbidden. In this timely and timeless speculative novel, award-winning author Kelly Barnhill boldly explores rage, memory, and the tyranny of forced limitations. When Women Were Dragons exposes a world that wants to keep women small – their lives and their prospects – and examines what happens when they rise en masse and ake up the space they deserve.”
- Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel (2022) – “Edwin St. Andrew is eighteen years old when he crosses the Atlantic by steamship, exiled from polite English society following an ill-conceived diatribe at a dinner party. He enters the forest, spellbound by the beauty of the Canadian wilderness, and suddenly hears the notes of a violin echoing in an airship terminal – an experience that shocks him to his core. Two centuries later a famous writer named Olive Llewellyn is on a book tour. She’s traveling all over Earth, but her home is the second moon colony, a place of white stone, spired towers, and artificial beauty. Within the text of Olive’s best-selling pandemic novel lies a strange passage: a man plays his violin for spare change in the echoing corridor of an airship terminal as the trees of a forest rise around him. When Gaspery Roberts, a hotel detective in the black-skied Night City, is hired to investigate an anomaly in the North American wilderness, he uncovers a series of lives upended: the exiled son of an earl driven to madness, a writer trapped far from home as a pandemic ravages Earth, and a childhood friend from the Night City, who, like Gaspery himself, has glimpsed the chance to do something extraordinary that will disrupt the time line of the universe. A virtuoso performance that is as human and tender as it is intellectually playful, Sea of Tranquility is a novel of time travel and metaphysics that precisely captures the reality of our current moment.”
- The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V. E. Schwab (2020) – “France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever – and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets. Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world. But everything changes when, after nearly three hundred years, Addie stumbles across a young man in a hidden bookstore and he remembers her name.”