We kick started the year off with just two books reviewed in the non-fiction pile but now we have a total of 22 reviews covering 21 books, come the end of April and this leads me to reflect on reading habits.
More specifically, do we read the fiction first and then the non-fiction titles on our “to-read” lists, our library bags and our “when I have spare time or go on holiday” buckets?
It’s been interesting to see what exactly within the non-fiction genre we read as well. Out of 22 reviews, seven were about historical subjects, six were either anthologies of writing or writers discussing the writing life or process, four were definitely destined for the self help shelf, two were actually about very specific subjects and I had to classify one as a memoir, one as a spiritual book and one as a story about a place though not quite a travel piece either. I have decided to term it a geographical book for the sake of convenience.
So then what are we then when we come to being non-fiction readers, the little stable of regular reviewers that dabble in this genre? We seem to be interested in the past, particularly in matters of justice and perhaps we have a desire to set things right for we read voraciously about other writers and devour their work, their thoughts and their advice. Maybe we want to set things right and write wonderful books about the past as well or maybe we just want to dispense advice that we know the world needs or possibly divulge the contents of our head when it comes to that one subject that we seem to be one of the few experts in the world on. These are the books we gravitate to so do they reflect who we are? As the year goes on, will we reveal more about what kind of readers we are when we choose to play in the factual non-fictional end of the literary pool?
Kaz Cooke and Janine Burke tied for the most read non-fiction authors with two books each reviewed, Cooke thereby dominating the self help sub-genre with the ever popular Up The Duff and Mind your Mental Health. Lara of This Charming Mum informs us that the latter is actually available as a collection of eBooks (the future beckons!) and that: “Cooke describes the symptoms, indicators and outcomes of the major mental health problems likely to be experienced by women – as well as reminding us that some conditions don’t have a clearly defined label, that vague and nebulous symptoms may well be part of a bigger problem (those afflicted are not ‘putting it on’), and that we are still a long way from a cure for social stigma.” Lisa of Lisa’s Life Lately, tells us how Cooke‘s most popular work was for her: “It was like having an ally who knew it all in my corner.”
Annabelle Brayley‘s book The Bush Nurses was the most popular with two reviews and with good reason. Marcia of Book Muster Down Under stated that: “these stories put together by Annabelle Brayley will sometimes raise the hairs on the back of your neck, some will have you howling with laughter and others will make you cry but the one thing that is almost certain is that they will make you wonder at the dedication shown by these people who choose to work “out there” and ShellyRae of Book’d Out: “Their stories are heartbreaking, amusing, inspiring and incredible.”
And I wonder, do we skitter away from reading non-fiction because it can be confronting? Because it can deal with hard, cold facts and subject matter that if our historical reviews are anything to go by, to put it rather nicely, a tad bit icky? Want examples? We have Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man which is about an Aboriginal man’s death in police custody, Robin Bowles’ Rough Justice about Australian murders and the sometimes unsettling results of the court cases (reviewed here by Vicky), and the theme of the justice system failing appallingly continues in Meaner Than Fiction edited by Lindy Cameron. Sally of Books And Musings From Down Under tells us that: “Books like MEANER THAN FICTION make me really angry – not at the editor or any of the contributing authors – but at the justice system.”
But lest we continue the myth that a collection of facts is all that makes up non-fiction, Nalini Hayes writing for the Dark Matter online zine points out that what makes Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man a good read and all the more compelling is the actual narrative thread vending its way through the story: “Hooper tells the story in narrative form describing scenes unfolding before her during her investigation interspersed with exposition and narrative from historical records and eye-witness accounts.”
But now to the non-fiction we really seem to want to sink our teeth into when we aren’t railing at wrongdoings in the past or the failings of the justice system: writers, what they do, how they live and how, why and what they write.
I have to admit that it might be my fault entirely this year as my review of Ann-Marie Priest‘s Great Writers, Great Loves was the first of this sort of non-fiction to pop up. But Priest‘s subject matter was too enticing to not delve into – the love lives of writers such as Woolf, Sackville-West, Lawrence, Plath and Mansfield explored and compared to the work they wrote to see how love and work informed and impacted each other. I may have got a trifle carried away: “It’s a book that reminds us that above all else, these writers were human, they were people, struggling to be themselves often in a world that was clinging onto a way of being that didn’t allow for new ideas without an immense fight. That they had flaws and that intentionally or otherwise, their beliefs, ideas and experiences coloured the stories they would write with subtle shading and subtext or with glorious rainbow-like tapestries.”
But the torch once lit, kept going. Tarla of Tarla’s Blog reviewed Kate Llewellyn‘s The Waterlily, an account of her first year writing in the mountains, encompassing all the tragedy that befell her then, the landscape outside her window and how her daily life unfolded, piece by piece, movement by movement: “Her opening lines have way of racketing around in my brain. “When I came to live in the mountains I was determined to be happy. Sparrows were pecking the pale green and white shoots from the tree outside the kitchen as I made the first cup of tea for the day.” Each journal entry contains little observations such as, “The first tulip is out today. It is red with a black heart like a Norse helmsman. If it were a person it would be called Eric.” An unhappy affair is also woven into the story of her garden.”
Writereaderly then got into the act with not one but two reviews: of Marion Halligan‘s edited anthology Storykeepers and Kate Grenville‘s exposition of her writing process in Searching For The Secret River. Writereaderly casually drops in the fact that the Storykeepers has, of all things, an acrostic poem in it which only makes one even more keen to find a copy of it.
But from writers, writing and all things connected to it, let’s move onto the point at which it all starts for someone putting pen to paper for the first time.
This blog exists to promote female Australian authors and their work in an effort to address a perceived gender bias. How exciting is it then to come across this book, the one I placed in the so called “geographical non-fiction” category?
The book is My Home Broome. It is written by Tamzyne Richardson, who when she wrote it was nine. Nine. My Home Broome as Louise of A Strong Belief In Wicker tells us is a poem Tamzyne wrote when home sick from school about the place she lived in, the place she calls home. Eventually, the poem was added to with factual information and turned into a book.
When a nine year old schoolgirl can write a poem celebrating all that she holds dear about the specific spot on Earth that she calls home and it can be turned into a book, you know you must be doing something right. As Louise states: “My Home Broome is a great book, and is a fascinating glimpse into life in a special part of the world.”
Right here is the point at which Tamzyne can decide that this, this writing gig, is what she wants to do. Right here, this is where we all start, writing about what we know to be true before we use what we know to extrapolate and examine the bits of the world we don’t fully understand yet. Right here, we can say, we have given a child a voice and a chance to write.
And as non-fiction readers, this is what we do – listen to those describing and narrating the factual parts of the worlds they inhabit. And this is how we learn, more about ourselves and others.
Marisa Wikramanayake spends most of her time writing. This was never going to change so she thought she should at least get paid for it. Now she geeks out with scientists, debates journalism practice and if that wasn’t enough she tries to write novels while editing other writers’ work. Occasionally her demanding cat sends her out for caviar. As a journalist she has been in ground zero of a bomb blast twice, had her phones tapped and been freaked out by the Scientologists. Publishing wise, her first book came out at 17 and her natural habitat is either a secondhand bookstore, a library or a literary festival (she’s covered the Galle Literary Festival with Richard Dawkins and has just finished organising IPEd‘s latest national editing conference). She writes for the ABR, contributes her two cents as non-fiction editor at Australian Women Writers and lends her geek goddess expertise to the Guys Read Gals project and the Society of Editors (WA). You can catch her on her blog at marisa.com.au or on Twitter @mwikramanayake