Today is the final post on some of the most compelling and interesting non-fiction books I’ve read. If you’d like to see the ten books I previously highlighted this week, please visit Post One or Post Two.
As you can see from the picture, the patrons at my county library have loved and worn this copy of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997) by Anne Fadiman. It is worth all of that love, and it warms me to know that so many people have read and likely enjoyed this book. I was recently reminded of this book when Fadiman gave a interview on NPR about the passing of Lia Lee, the Hmong child who is at the center of this book. It explores Lia’s dealings with epilepsy and her family’s frustrations with American doctors. Her Hmong parents dealt with this sort of illness much differently than modern medicine does, and this set up a culture clash between the family and the medical system that lasted several years and is documented eloquently in the book. Fadiman writes with precision, detail, and love. It is a story that anybody can enjoy, and it captures the essence of our human existence: the difficulties in getting along with one another. Those issues are magnified and compounded when it comes to culture, religion, hemisphere, and education.
Ballad of the Whiskey Robber (2004) is the rollicking tale of Attila Ambrus, a Transylvanian refugee in Hungary, who got there in 1988 by riding on the underside of a train. He was a young hockey player who found himself desperate to make ends meet. So in order to engage in his crime of desperation (when grave digging and animal pelt smuggling didn’t work out), he would dress up in wigs, sunglasses, and hats while brazenly robbing banks. He’s a sympathetic character, who was down on his luck and not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Yet, the police had a difficult (and long) time catching him. The story has been turned into a digital radio cabaret, if that gives you any idea of how entertaining it is (and if you know what a digital radio cabaret is, please inform me). And apparently, the charming and sympathetic Attila was released from jail in 2012.
Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, Wangari Maathai tells of her magnificent life in Unbowed: A Memoir (2006). She was the first woman in her country to earn a doctorate degree, in Kansas in 1964. She founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya and taught women to plant trees in order to improve their conditions and their landscapes. She worked tirelessly as a university professor and then as a women’s rights and environmentalist activist. My favorite part of her book is the end, when she relates the story of a hummingbird. She wrote:
“The story goes that one day, a massive fire broke out in the forest, and all the animals, finding the flames coming ever closer, decided to save themselves. They rushed to the edge of the forest and watched, overwhelmed and feeling helpless, as the fire engulfed their home.
“That is, all animals except one: a hummingbird, who said, ‘I’m going to do something about the fire!’ So she flew to the nearest stream and scooped up a drop of water in her beak and deposited it on the conflagration. Back and forth she flew from stream to the inferno, tireless and focused, without losing patience or speed. Each time she carried a droplet and let it fall on the flames.
“In the meantime, as the fire raged, the other animals looked on in amazement and disbelief. They were overwhelmed and dismayed. ‘You are too small,’ they said to the hummingbird. ‘You cannot hope to put out the fire. What do you think you’re doing?’
“As she prepared to dive again, the hummingbird turned to the animals and nodded her head. ‘I’m doing the best I can!’
“And this is what we are called to do, no matter who or where we are, or what our capabilities. We are called to do the best we can!”
Just reading that again brings tears to my eyes. This story captures the essence of Maathai’s life, but it also speaks to me. I am often too hard on myself, and I strive for perfection. Whenever those feelings overwhelm me, I return to this idea that I only have to do my best.
Maathai died in 2011, but she remains an inspiration to the women she taught and fought for. Her legacy lives on. And despite her personal failures, she made much of her life through this public and dangerous work in opposing her government and standing up for what was right.
At times, I admit, I found her tone to be condescending, but after reading the entire account, I have reversed my opinion. First, English is not her first language, or her second. Second, she went through a lot, and if she decided to use her memoir to vent a little bit, then I’m not going to hold that against her. Third, she’s just a magnificent person who has more guts than I do. Who am I to hold a few phrases that lack clarity and grace in her memoir against her?
Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003) by Azar Nafisi is one of those books you would think I would love. I mean, it’s a memoir in books! Hello! Right up my alley. Yet, the first time I picked it up, eagerly, I just couldn’t get into it. I took it back to the library, later acquired a used copy for myself, and I tried again. I’m so glad I tried reading it again, because it is now one that I treasure and for more than just the books part.
It is a shocking description of a female literature professor’s experiences while living in the Islamic Republic of Iran. She and other women were persecuted by the Islamic morality squads. She lost her job and had to gather her female students in secret to read the great literature of the world. The beauty of the literature through Nafisi’s thoughtful and careful analyses are stark reminders of the need for freedom from censorship and tyranny in order for the arts to survive and to be enjoyed. This lesson becomes especially poignant against the backdrop of political turmoil and gendered oppression that occurred in her everyday life.
One of my favorite parts of the book is when she meets with her mentor, whom she calls the magician. During one meeting, she recounts an essay on one of the books she is reading, which quotes the familiar line from Nietzsche: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you” (p. 180).
A Moveable Feast (1964) by Ernest Hemingway is a book better appreciated after having read some Hemingway fiction. I first heard about this book in my Master’s program when I took a seminar on Hemingway. We read most of his major fiction in chronological order. One of the other students kept raving about A Moveable Feast and using parts of it to relate to our class discussion of Hemingway’s life and work.
It is Hemingway’s memoir, but written more artfully than any memoir I’ve ever read, especially those that tend to get bestseller status. He recounts his life as an expatriate living in Paris during the height of the modernist movement. He is tutored by Gertrude Stein, tries to be a husband to Hadley, and hobnobs with Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I read this account from Hemingway’s own pen after I had read The Paris Wife (2011) by Paula McLain, a contemporary fictional novel about Hadley and Ernest Hemingway and their passionate and ill-fated marriage. As I read A Moveable Feast, I enjoyed comparing what I had imagined through McLain’s narrative and what had actually happened in Hemingway’s own words and memory. I also enjoyed reminiscing about the Hemingway class I had taken. It is an interesting account of his time as a young man destined to become an immortalized writer, a writer who truly represents his generation.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this week of non-fiction. It has been fun for me to reminisce about what I’ve read over the years and how or why it impacted me. What are your favorite non-fiction reads?