My 10 Year Blogiversary

Maphead’s Book Blog turns 10 years old this month. It feels like only yesterday I decided to import my old Vox blog over to WordPress after growing increasing frustrated with Vox’s technical limitations, especially its inability to filter spam. Happy with the look of my new blog and its advanced features I quickly settled in and started blogging away with reckless abandon. And as they say, all the rest is history.

Almost immediately after creating my new blog I discovered an entire world of book bloggers. I was quick to learn as far as book bloggers go I was a bit of an outlier since I’m male, at the time over 40 and reader of mostly nonfiction. But it didn’t take me long to learn there were others out there who enjoyed nonfiction. Looking back, those early days of blogging were heady ones filled with promise. It felt like ever other day I was stumbling across a new book blog. Almost every new post I created elicited multiple comments from intelligent and engaging readers from around the world.

The blogosphere felt alive with book bloggers, many of my them hosting reading challenges encouraging us to read and review books about the Middle East, Europe or Africa, or books borrowed from the public, or just any books as long as they were nonfiction. Some hosted weekly Library Loot forums allowing bloggers to showcase the books they’d recently borrowed from the public library. A talented group of them banded together to create Nonfiction November, a month long celebration of nonfiction writing which I’m happy to say I played a small part.

Looking back on my decade of book blogging my blog for the most part feels the same today as it did 10 years ago. I’m only on my third template with the basic layout remaining fairly consistent. Feeling the blog needed a slight makeover a few years ago I upgraded to the Hemingway Rewritten template and added the new header picture of a pint of beer and an old book, namely Adam W. Miller’s An Introduction to the New Testament, published in 1946. (As luck would have it, it happens to be open to the chapter on my namesake, the Gospel of Mark.) Today, just like 10 years ago the overwhelming majority of the books I read and discuss I’ve borrowed from the public library. However, over the last few years I’ve been borrowing more ebooks through Overdrive to read on my Kindle. Honestly, I was slow to embrace this technological practice but when I did I fell in love with it passionately.  Lastly, most the books I’ve read and blogged about over the years have been nonfiction. But starting three or four years ago I’ve found myself reading more fiction, especially stuff with an international focus.

As for what the future holds, I have no clue. Even though I came close to retiring from book blogging on several occasions, I’m won’t be shutting down Maphead’s Book Blog anytime soon. I’ve been wanting to start some kind of podcast and if I do, you’ll read all about on my blog. Who knows, I might even launch a spin-off blog with a literary bent, filled with feuilletons, op-ed pieces and the like. I guess only time will tell.

2019 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

With 2020 mere days away, I need to finally announce my favorite nonfiction books of 2019. 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. Educated by Tara Westover

Sadly, I haven’t been able to review all the books on this list but hopefully I can post the rest in the next few weeks or so. This year, proclaiming an overall winner has been agonizingly difficult. After much consideration I’m going to go with Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets.

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 was a pretty decent year for nonfiction.

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 Best American Essays 2016 edited by Jonathan Franzen

Some of you might remember at the beginning of this year I vowed to read more long-form writing. Immediately afterwards I posted my reviews of The Best American Essays 2015 and The Best American Essays 2013 but since then my zeal for such collections has cooled. Fortunately, I’ve been reading some great individual stuff here and there and even joined a long-form discussion group that meets every two weeks to discuss articles dealing with international politics and related topics. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit I’ve read only one additional essay collection since February. Through Overdrive I dowloaded a Kindle edition of The Best American Essays 2106, more or less to see what kind of essays editor Jonathan Franzen would assemble for 2016’s offering. Like just every essay collection there’s stuff in here I loved, stuff I thought was OK and stuff that made me wonder why in the world was it included in the first place.

Some are by familiar writers like Oliver Sacks, Joyce Carol Oates and Sebastian Junger but the rest were unknowns which is perfect because I was introduced to new voices and that’s why I read collections like these. Of these unknowns, Jaquira Diaz’s “Ordinary Girls” in which she recalls her turbulent childhood raised by an abusive, schizophrenic mother was a favorite piece of mine, as was Francisco Cantu’s “Bajadas”, his firsthand account of life as a border agent. In previous essay collections featured on my blog it was the LGTBQ-themed essays that made for surprisingly good reading. This time around it was Alexander Chee’s “Girl” recalling his maiden experience in drag one Halloween evening in San Francisco’s Castro District, and Mason Stokes “Namesake” in which he looked back on the life of his beloved uncle, a life-long bachelor and saw many a striking similarity between his uncle and himself, a gay man. Both pieces were among the best in the bunch.

Before the end of the year I’d like to round things out with a few more collections like this one, perhaps one or two focusing on crime or science and nature. We’ll just have to wait and see.

20 Books of Summer: Final Thoughts

When I signed up for the 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge I figured on two things. One, as much as I’d like to read 20 books over the course of summer I probably wasn’t going to read that many. While I fell short of my goal of 20 books at least I read 16 and really, that’s nothing to complain about. Two, I knew I wouldn’t stick to my original selection of 20 books and four alternates and holy cow, I sure didn’t. Of those books I read only six. The other 10 I either borrowed from the library, downloaded from Overdrive, or in the case of one book (Roger Scruton’s Kant: A Very Short Introduction) I bought for my Kindle off Amazon.