Nonfiction November 2019 Week 3: Be the Expert

Last week Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves hosted Nonfiction November and this week another great blogger, Katie of Doing Dewey has agreed to host.

Three ways to join in this week! You can share 3 or more books on a single topic that you’ve read and can recommend (be the expert); you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you’ve been dying to read (ask the expert); or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

Last year I wrote about women leaving religion, featuring seven memoirs by, and two anthologies about women who’d left various versions of Christianity, Judaism or Islam. The year before that I discussed books about Iran by Iranian authors. This year I’m going to talk about my six favorite prison memoirs.

Why I have a fondness for prison memoirs is beyond me. Although at times I suspect it might be related to my fond memories as a young child watching a made for television adaption of The Count of Monte Christo one night on TV. (Incidentally, Linsel Greene, the son of the movie’s director, David Greene would go on to be a buddy of mine, as well as one of my favorite bartenders.) So without further delay, here’s six prison memoirs I have no problems recommending.


  1. Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos – While Jack Gantos might have made a name for himself writing fiction for young adult audiences at one point in his young adulthood he was a wannabe drug smuggler. His brief life of crime earned him a spot in a prison cell but it also served as a wake-up call to get his life together. Most prison memoirs aren’t funny but this one is.
  2. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover – One of the many cool things about this memoir is it’s from the perspective of a guard. Conover went undercover as a guard in one of New York’s largest and most infamous penitentaries in to learn what it’s like to  work in the prison system.
  3. The Gulag Archipelago Volume 2: An Experiment in Literary Investigation by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn – This book was assigned reading for my Russian literature class in college centuries ago. Many have argued it’s  the best prison memoir ever written and I have a hard time disagreeing. (By the way, if you end up reading The Gulag Archipelago Volume 2 you MUST follow it up with Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History.)
  4. Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman – I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never scene the Netflix series based on this great memoir. I used to be skeptical whenever I heard calls to radically reform or even abolish the so-called drug war – until I read Kerman’s memoir.
  5. Brother One Cell: An American Coming of Age in South Korea’s Prisons by Cullen Thomas – Cullen Thomas thought he could make some easy money smuggling drugs into South Korea. After getting busted he was sentenced to three and half years in a South Korean prison where he rubbed elbows with a number of imprisoned foreign nationals from the United States, Pakistan, Nigeria and the Philippines.
  6. Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg – Sick of writing death notices for a local newspaper, Steinberg, a Harvard-educated Orthodox Jew went to work as a librarian in a Massachusetts prison. Much to his surprise he ended up hating the guards and respecting the inmates.

The Russian novelist Dostoevsky once said the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. If that’s the case, then there’s much to learn about humankind by simply reading these six memoirs.

Nonfiction November 2019 Week 2: Book Pairings

Last week Julie of Julz Reads hosted Nonfiction November and this week another great blogger, Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves has agreed to host.

It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

In past years I listed a number of fiction and nonfiction parings but this year I’m taking a different approach. I’d like to feature two outstanding books, one fiction and one nonfiction I feel not only compliment each other but are dear favorites of mine.

Set in the indeterminate near future, Kirsten Bakis’s 1997 science fiction novel Lives of the Monster Dogs is the horribly tragic but beautiful story of what happens when a group of artificially enhanced canines possessing human-level intelligence, speech, bipedalism and manual dexterity emerge from their secret arctic colony and descend upon New York City. Created to be super soldiers by the followers of a mad Prussian surgeon, after revolting against their former human overlords the dogs make New York their new home, becoming instant, albeit reluctant celebrities thanks to their astounding nature as well as their substantial wealth and old-world sophisticated charm. The story is told through the eyes of Cleo Pira, a young college student turned journalist tasked with writing an article about Gotham’s newest exceptional residents. Jeff Vandermeer, writing in the Atlantic 20 years after the novel’s publication praised both its beauty and the important questions it raised. “The horror and unease in the narrative derives in part from its verisimilitude in conveying the grotesque and in part the blurring of the animal and the human, resulting in a fascinating exploration of both.”

For years we’ve always assumed what separates humans from animals is our greater intelligence, exemplified by a number of attributes including our tool usage, ability to communicate and sense of self. But what if the honest evidence shows us throughout the animal kingdom there are examples of creatures acting intelligently. Would it not, to quote Vandermeer point to a blurring of the animal and the human?

No work of nonfiction explores this blurring, and with it the fascinating world of animal cognition like Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? In his 2016 book (which easily made my 2017 year-end Favorite Nonfiction List) de Waal makes a convincing case the gap between many species of animals and humans, cognitively speaking, is surprising narrow. Understandably, this threatens our species’ sense of exceptionalism and primacy. Moreover, the latest research shows us this gap is growing narrower all the time.

There you have it, two great books that go great together. Now do yourself a favor and read them both.

Nonfiction November 2019: Week 1

Nonfiction November has arrived. One of my favorite bloggers, Julie of Julz Reads has agreed to help kick things off by hosting Week 1.

Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

I’ve decided to go slightly rogue and just list my favorite nonfiction books of the year. (Although to be honest, I should say this year so far, since I could discover a few more outstanding books before the end of December.) I read some great nonfiction books this year, all but one courtesy of the public library. I’d like to limit my list to just 10, but I just can’t. So here’s 12 books in no particular order of preference I have no problems whatsoever recommending.

  1. A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres
  2. If All the Seas Were Ink by Ilana Kurshan
  3. The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey
  4. The Global Age: Europe 1950-2017 by Ian Kershaw
  5. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance
  6. Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich
  7. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss
  8. The Library Book by Susan Orlean
  9. 1924: The Year That Made Hitler by Peter Ross Range
  10. In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi
  11. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
  12. The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World by Paul Morland

Add to this list a slew of honorable mentions like T. J. English’s Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution, Ken Silverstein’s The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor and Nathan Miller’s New World Coming : The 1920s and the Making of Modern America and the more I think about it, 2019 has been a pretty decent year for nonfiction.

About Time I Read It: The Swede by Robert Karjel

For the last few months I’ve been wanting to branch out when it comes to my fiction reading. Specifically, I wanna read more Scandinavian crime/Nordic noir and spy  thrillers. Imagine how intrigued I was when, at the public library when I came across a Swedish novel that looked to be a blend of both genres. Taking advantage of my good fortune I helped myself to a copy of Robert Karjel’s 2015 novel The Swede

Swedish security police officer Ernst Grip has been ordered to semi-classified military base on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. According to FBI agent Shauna Friedman, he’s there to interrogate a high value prisoner known only as “N”  to determine if he’s a Swedish citizen. Grip is told almost nothing about the mysterious man, other than he’s a suspect in an Islamist terror attack on American soil. Showing obvious signs of extensive torture, N refuses to speak. Slowly however, Grip gets him to talk and when he finally does, starts at the beginning, on the beaches of Thailand after the disastrous 2004 tsunami. N and three other survivors, each from a different country and strangers to each other until just recently, are recruited by a shadowy deep-pocked American (think The Blacklist’s Raymond Reddington character without the charming amorality) to inflict bloody revenge upon the pastor of a Westboro Baptist Church-like cult for their hateful gloating in response to the tsunami. The more he tells Grip, the more he suspects the Americans aren’t telling him the whole story, including the reason he’s really there.

The Swede is a novel of firsts, starting with its author. Karjel is a Lt. Colonel in the Swedish Air Force and the first, and so far only Swedish helicopter pilot who has trained with the U.S. Marines. It’s also his first novel. Lastly, to the best of my knowledge it’s the first thriller to feature a male protagonist who’s bisexual. According to a piece Karjel penned for The Guardian, Ernst Grip was inspired by Hugh Swaney, a legendary American homicide detective Karjel interviewed just before he died of Aids. “He was the toughest man I’ve ever come across (including many in the special operations community I’ve met over the course of my military career).”

It took me a while to get into The Swede but once I did I enjoyed the ride, finding Karjel’s thriller smart, tense, full of surprises and satisfyingly entertaining.

About Time I Read It: Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr

Last March I was saddened by the news that British novelist Philip Kerr passed away from bladder cancer. Famous for his Bernie Gunther series of historical detective thrillers set during World War II and the Cold War, even though I hadn’t read any of his books, considering my reading interests I figured it was just a matter of time before I did. A few weeks ago at the public library I found myself in the mood for a little fiction, preferably something for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. While strolling along the shelves I noticed my library possessed what looked like the whole Bernie Gunther series. Not knowing where to begin, and needing something to read set in what’s now the Czech Republic I grabbed a copy of Prague Fatale.  Looks like I made the right decision because for the most I enjoyed Kerr’s historical whodunit and I now I wanna read more books in this series.

In the  fall of 1941 Bernie Gunther, much to his relief has escaped the SS killing fields of the Eastern Front and is back to work as a police detective in Berlin solving murders. Just as Gunther’s diving into his latest case he’s been ordered to Prague by the newly appointed Reichsprotector of Czechoslovakia Reinhard Heydrich to serve as his personal bodyguard. Because he’s a rising star in the Nazi firmament, and already survived one attempt on his life Heydrich wants Gunther on his staff to make sure he’s not assassinated by a jealous fellow Nazi. One night to celebrate his new appointment Heydrich throws a big shindig and invites a houseful of high level SS officers. But when one of Heydrich’s staff members is found dead in his room the next morning with the door and windows bolted from the inside Gunther is tasked with solving his murder.

This was my first experience with the locked-room mystery subgenre and I must say I enjoyed it. My only knock on Prague Fatale is a minor one, in that the novel’s initial quick pace slowed down considerably around the half-way point, but fortunately picked up later on. Also, I found myself wondering just how plausible it could be for Gunther to have such strong anti-Nazi attitudes given the degree so many Germans bought into the official ideology and world view. The cynical side of me thinks Kerr just cast the novel’s heroic protagonist as a “good German” in order to make him a more likable character. But all that aside, I’ll be reading more books from this series.

Soviet Spotlight: Where the Jews Aren’t by Masha Gessen

Growing up I had a fondness for old atlases, almanacs, stamps, encyclopedias and the like. Probably because I had nothing else better to do I’d pour over these artifacts for hours on end, losing myself in a forgotten world of vanished countries, colonies, semi-idependent realms and puppet states like the Free City of DanzigTannu Tuva and Manchuku. One day while looking over an old map I came across an odd sounding place deep in Soviet Asia called the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. From what I could tell, it looked like at one time anyway the Jews of the USSR had their own designated homeland. Intrigued, I wondered how I could learn more about this strange place. Alas unfortunately, this was in age before the Internet. So, unless I wanted to hop a bus downtown to my city’s central library and enlist the services of a talented and helpful reference librarian I had few resources at my disposal. To me anyway, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast would remain a mystery.

But few things are able to remain a mystery forever. After hearing great things about the writing of Russian-American journalist and LGTBQ activist Masha Gessen I went searching for her books on Overdrive where I stumbled across an available Kindle edition of her 2016 book Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region. Here after all these years was entire book devoted to this place I’d heard of so long ago. Naturally, I borrowed a copy of Gessen’s book and quickly went to work reading it. I mean come on, what else am I supposed to do?

According to Gessen, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, (to makes things somewhat easier in her book she refers to it as Birobidzhan, after its capital) was born in an era when the newly proclaimed USSR, despite its many authoritarian excesses, instead of persecuting the Jews like its Tsarist predecessors had done, saw them as yet another nationality to be incorporated into the Soviet Union realm. For the greater socialist good Yiddish writers were encouraged to produce pro-Soviet literature while Yiddish theatre flourished thanks to Soviet patronage. Before long Communist leaders set aside a slice of territory in East Asia on the border with China to be the Jews’ new Soviet homeland. Despite its remote location, swampy terrain, and complete lack of infrastructure the Jews of the young USSR were strongly encouraged to make Birobidzhan their new home, with the government supplying one-way tickets and enlisting the services of Jewish writer David Bergelson to sing the praises of the new Jewish Socialist paradise. Later, after World War II with their villages destroyed and families wiped out many Soviet Jews who’d survived the Holocaust migrated East to Birobidzhan in hopes of rebuilding their shattered lives.

Sadly, once Stalin turned against the Jews in the twilight of his reign Birobidzhan became an empty dream. Jewish leaders were imprisoned with many, like Bergelson executed on bogus charges of treason or “rootless cosmopolitanism.” Eventually, Birobidzhan became a Jewish territory in name only.  Even after Stalin’s death in the early 1950s Soviet Jews saw little value in living in Birobidzhan. The modern state of Israel became the preferred Jewish national homeland as evident by the roughly one million Soviet Jews who immigrated to Israel once given the chance.

Where the Jews Aren’t is great book for people like me who love reading about those quirky and forgotten parts of history. It also makes great follow-up reading to Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry Lev Golinkin’s memoir, A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka and Paul Goldberg’s 2016 debut novel The Yid. I enjoyed Gessen’s book and look forward to reading more of what she’s written.

Immigrant Stories: Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

For the last month or so I kept noticing Edwidge Danticat’s book Brother, I’m Dying whenever I’d stroll through the section of my public library containing all the biographies, autobiographies and memoirs. With each passing I grew curiouser and curiouser until one day I’d had enough so I grabbed it. After letting it sit ignored by my bed for about a week I cracked it open and began to read. I finished it in what felt like no time, thanks in no small part to Danticat’s fine skill as a writer.

Published in 2007, Danticat’s family memoir begins the day she learns she’s pregnant and her father is dying. From there, she looks back on her life and that of her family, Haitians who were forced to leave the Island nation because of its grinding poverty, political instability and chronic violence. While her parents and two of her siblings were able to seek refuge in the United States it would take eight more years before Danticat and her young brother could join them, during which they were cared for by her uncle, a former political activist turned Protestant minister. While living in New York City her father drove a gypsy cab to help make ends meet and her uncle served his congregation back in Haiti. But as drug-fueled gang violence and urban warfare intensified, her uncle, now with a price on his head was forced to flee the country. Sadly, without revealing too much let’s say his attempt in seeking political asylum in America, like so many others we’ve heard of late, would end in tragedy.

I’m glad I took a chance on Brother, I’m Dying. Not knowing what to expect, Danticat’s writing left me surprisingly impressed. I’d like to read more her stuff like The Farming of Bones and The Dew Breaker. Don’t be surprised if you see more of her books featured on my blog.