Many of the non-fiction books I read educated me about a subject on which I realized I knew very little. Sometimes historical fiction has that result as well. The best of these personalize the topic, taking it out of the realm of didactic and into that of life. While I like to think of myself as knowledgeable about the world around me, I often am dismayed to realize how much my knowledge skims the surface. Books take me deeper into history and events and into the lives of those who lived them.
Some years ago I interviewed a woman who was approaching 102 at the time. She spoke about the Dust Bowl period and the effect it had in Minnesota, how one couldn't hang clothes on the line because they would be covered with dirt. I was surprised to learn that Minnesota was affected as I thought it was confined to such places as Oklahoma. I knew about the Dust Bowl more through photos than narrative so decided to pick up the book The Worst Hard Time (2006) by Timothy Egan. Now this book has been around for awhile, but I was interested because I had loved the more recent book by Timothy Egan, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher (2012) on Edward Curtis. That brief recollection in my interview aroused my interest in this topic and I soon learned that my knowledge was cursory at best. Egan tells the story through interviews and documents that give voice to those who were affected. It gives insight into the unintended consequences of government policies, both good and bad.
Another book that was an education was Rez Life (2013) by David Treuer. This book explored the experience of life on an Indian reservation as well as the history behind the reservations. He writes specifically of those that are in Minnesota so I was especially interested in this regional tie. Again I realized I knew little of Native American history and its culture that is such a presence in this area. I came away with a much better understanding of the broken promises of the US government and the history behind today's Indian casinos.
My bookclub selected the book Being Mortal (2014) by Atul Gawande which explores the bias that we have for extending life under any circumstance rather than considering the quality of life. With so many of us losing parents this becomes achingly real and I must confess to thinking of it when we had to make decisions regarding my mother as her body failed.
The Faraway Nearby (2014) by Rebecca Solnit drew my attention because I had read other essays by her in Field Guide to Getting Lost (2006). Her work speaks to me and makes the wheels turn. This book was in part about her mother's loss of memory, an experience that my mother's life was echoing. While her essays may meander they are united by some key metaphors, the harvest of an apricot tree tying the stories of memory together. She writes in a stream of consciousness style sweeping diverse subjects into the same net, then finding the subtle connections between them.
The Family: A Journey into the Heart of the Twentieth Century (2014) by David Laskin was on a topic on which I had much greater knowledge. It traces the journey of three branches of his Belarussian family. One leads to the camps and death, one to early Palestine and the third to the United States where his great-aunt created the Maidenform bra, the first bra of its kind. While I've read many family stories, Laskin is an accomplished writer and captured the flavor of this familiar story writ large.
A Mountain of Crumbs (2011) by Elena Gorokova explores life in the Soviet Union and the ultimate immigration of the author to the United States. It is a beautifully written memoir. While I know stories of life in the Soviet Union from Russian Jews, this memoir broadened my understanding of life in the Soviet Union for its non-Jewish citizens.
So those were the non-fiction books, but the fiction seems to have many of the same qualities of informing through personalizing. A book that has been around for some time, but seems especially relevant in these times of ethnic divide is Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (2009). This book looks at the experience of the Japanese banned to camps during WWII through the eyes of children who are caught up in these historic events.The Gift of Rain (2009) by Tan Twan Eng is set during WWII on a Malayan Island. Its main character is a young man who is half British and half Chinese who forms a deep friendship with a Japanese diplomat. This friendship faces a challenging road as the Japanese occupy the island. His choices have far reaching consequences as he tries to find the path of both morality and friendship. The history of this time and place was new to me and richly conveyed within the vehicle of story.
How would you live your life if you knew you would live it over and over, able to refine it based on your memory of each prior life? The only drawback is you have to die each time and then live those tedious years as a child over and over as well. This is the premise of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (2014) by Claire North. I have a penchant for time travel and this is a clever and intricately constructed novel. While each person is restricted to their one segment of time, they have learned how to connect with others from different time periods who share this unique ability.
I have been captivated by stories set in Nigeria since I fell in love with the writing of Chimamanda Adichie. When I discovered The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives (2010) by African-born poet Lola Shoney, I read it with high hopes. I was not disappointed in this story of four wives and the life circumstances of each that led them to this polygamous marriage. Written through the voices of each wife and their erstwhile husband it presents a story of how women survive in challenging circumstances.
The Invention of Wings (2014) by Sue Monk Kidd is fiction, but based on the true story of the Grimke sisters from Charleston who were abolitionists despite, or perhaps because of their childhood in a slave holding family. A friendship is imagined with a young black female slave that alters the life journey of each of them. I spent a lot of time Googling the lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimke as I read this engaging novel.
When I review this list I note that many of the authors address a different culture, often through an ethnicity that informs their efforts. Whether it is American Indian, Malaysian, Nigerian or Russian these authors are guides into the unfamiliar yet universal. Others address a different time period, be it slave-holding Charleston, the Dust Bowl, turn of the century New York or America during WWII. All skillfully remind me of the universality of the human experience regardless of time or place.