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Tag Archives: nonfiction

A Long Way for a Notable–“Travels in Siberia”

Earlier this week I finished Ian Frazier’s “Travels In Siberia,” one of the nonfiction titles on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list.

It made an excellent companion to “The Tiger” by John Vaillant, my most recent Notable, also nonfiction. “The Tiger” happens in far eastern Siberia, and as I wrote previously, captures the entire geography and history of that particular region within the story of one tiger.

Frazier, one the other hand, is all over Siberia. And it’s an awfully long way across. This book describes several trips he makes into Siberia, the largest by far a trek with two guides along the route of the Trans-Siberian highway.

I hadn’t read Frazier before, though many of my reading friends recommend him highly. I expected that the book would be as much about him as about Siberia, which was fine. I appreciated his often self-deprecating humor, and his ability to recognize when he was inserting just a little too much of himself. I also enjoyed his “birdwalks” of distraction into details or stories about the places he was visiting. Just when I lost track myself of why we were going down a particular narrative path, he would once again connect his story to the place at hand. It seemed effortless, but is a mark of a strong writer.

Frazier refers to a kind of “Russia fever” that he caught, a condition that kept him from ever feeling quite finished with the country. Even after the primary journey of the book, a months-long journey across Siberia, he has to go back.

A question I usually ask myself when I finish a book is–what image will I keep from this? And in Frazier’s case, it’s his description of the smell of places, especially Russian airports and restrooms. I think this explains part of his popularity–he plumbs the depth of his travel experience, and employs every sense.

The key to my enjoyment of “Travels in Siberia” was to relax and enjoy the telling, and not be in a hurry to get to a destination. I did enjoy the reading, but I never felt that luscious compulsion to return to this, the compulsion that I always hope to sense when I crack open a new book.

I’ll certainly recommend this to people who enjoy travel books, who have a particular interest in Siberia, or who enjoy stories of cross-cultural experiences.

This Is Why I Love Nonfiction, “The Tiger” by John Vaillant

I just finished “The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival” by John Vaillant in my journey through this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list. It’s a perfect example of great nonfiction, and perhaps also of a nonfiction book that many fiction readers would enjoy.

On the one hand, it’s the story of an Amur tiger in present-day Siberia, a tiger who has taken to attacking men. And now the tiger is being tracked.

On the other hand, it’s the story of Siberia, its geography, history, and culture, especially in terms of how the area has changed for wildlife.

And (would that be the third hand?) it’s the story of each man touched by the tiger, as well as those men who join together in the hunt.

Vaillant manages to weave all of this together without losing the narrative thread.

I learned a lot about tigers, of course, but also about the interesting cultural crucible that is Siberia. Plenty of native people live there, along with  Russians and others. Their various views of the role of people within nature, combined with the recent history of Soviet government, rolled together with an immense nearby Chinese market, have created a place where poaching is common. It is a place where many people have next to nothing, other than their skill at the hunt.

I’ll recommend this to my friends who are intrigued by science, who are interested in the environment, who maybe have a particular interest in this part of the world, or who are just up for a fresh way of seeing a place, through the eyes of this remarkable tiger.

Two Notables–“Nashville Chrome” and “Nothing to Envy”

I was sick last weekend. In fact on Saturday for most of the day I was too sick to read. But on Sunday I got to do one of my favorite things–start and finish a book in one day. “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick is included in the nonfiction portion of this year’s Notable Books List from the American Library Association. Full of people’s stories, it reads quickly.

“Nothing to Envy” chronicles the journey of several North Korean people who defected out of the country, all of them from the area around Chongjin, a northern industrial city. Demick uses them as examples of the many ways in which life is difficult in North Korea.

Their stories typically begin with a life that while difficult is predictable and seems safe. As the Communist world changed in the late 1980’s, the aid that the North Korean government received from other governments also changed or stopped completely. Eventually, factories didn’t function. People had no work. They had no way to receive food. There was no food. The descriptions of people’s resourcefulness in finding something to eat on the one hand, and the agony of starving  on the other, will stay with me from this book.

I’ve had many conversations with people about why we read “difficult” books. I’d describe this as “difficult” even though most of the stories are remarkably hopeful. I’d say that for those of us who have grown up in the United States in the midst of peace and (at least relative) prosperity, we need to be aware of how different life can be. I’ll recommend this to readers who want to know about the world and to those who look for the stories behind what we see on the news. There’s also an appeal to the stories of people who have suffered and prevailed, and that is the power behind “Nothing to Envy.”


I also recently finished a title from the fiction portion of the list, “Nashville Chrome” by Rick Bass. This novel is based on the life of The Browns, a family musical group from the late 1950s and 1960s. Maxine, Jim Ed, and Bonnie Brown grew up in hardscrabble Arkansas, their father a lumber miller. That life was a hard one, with accidents in the mill amputating fingers, hands, and worse. Their father functioned with just one leg.

But the children had a remarkable gift for singing the kinds of tight harmonies that some country songs are known for. People could not believe how they could sing. Chet Atkins took up producing their records, and he made the most of their distinctive sound. Eventually, though their gift remained, their audience waned, and they broke up their singing group.

Bass tells this story in bits and pieces, moving through times and places. Bass often waxes into poetic prose about their sound, their surroundings, the sense of the people. But largely he works through Maxine, the oldest. He frames it with many scenes of an elderly Maxine, still grasping for success, still believing in a comeback.

I tend to prefer a nonfiction book that straightforwardly tells about people, over biographical fiction. I feel the same way about biopic movies–just give me a documentary, please. But in this case, Bass does a great job with the material. While he bases the novel clearly on these people’s lives, he adds so much, goes so deeply into their hearts and minds, shapes their stories into one coherent piece, that he creates a whole new thing.

I’ll recommend this to people who are interested in music, to those who are patient through ample description, and to those who can stand to see a good thing come to an end.

Another Notable–“Just Kids” by Patti Smith

This was my second try for “Just Kids” by Patti Smith, her memoir of friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe in New York in the late 1960s and 70s. When I checked it out last fall, it hadn’t yet been named a National Book Award winner, and it hadn’t been included in the American Library Association Notable Books List.

Because I’d gotten at least halfway through the first time, I accomplished the reading quickly this time. (An irritating by-product of reading books off of a list is that sometimes I’m more invested in marking a title off the list than in relaxing and savoring the book itself.)

Patti Smith is a poet, artist, and rock star legend, enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Robert Mapplethorpe became a renowned and groundbreaking photographer (some might add notorious for the shocking sexuality of his work) before his death due to AIDS in 1989.

This true story of their friendship, if a novel, would seem past belief. They first met in New York City. Patti encountered Mapplethorpe when she was looking for one of her friends, someone she hoped might help her out and give her a place to stay. Instead at first she lived on the street, homeless. She ran into him again when she needed a friend badly. They became friends and lovers, people who saw possibilities in each other often unseen by outsiders, friends who nurtured the artist in each other. For a time they lived in the Chelsea Hotel. They rubbed elbows with the likes of Janis Joplin and Diane Arbus. But they had difficult times, with too little money for food or medical treatment. Smith describes those times straightforwardly, not romanticizing them except in the sense of how she and Mapplethorpe pooled what they had, and in the deepest sense, took care of each other. This story is before they knew success, though Mapplethorpe had a sense of his gift, and Patti gradually began to sense her own.

What a great book group book this is–issues of feminism, of artists developing, of following one’s dream, of choosing to be vulnerable, of falling in love.

My own reservations about the book mainly involve writing that sometimes seems off-kilter. In general, Smith writes in a deceptively simple conversational way. However, she descends or ascends stairs, never just goes down or goes up. She often uses the “for” where typical conversation would use “because,” as in, “I was good at tending the sick, bringing one out of fever, for I had learned that from my mother.” (p. 97)

Now that “Just Kids” has won the National Book Award and is probably being read by a wide audience, I wonder whether it needs a foreward to provide context. People of a certain age or with a certain background know of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, and are familiar with their remarkable positions in our culture. Some readers may need that context.

Given the attention that this book has received, I don’t know that I’ll much need to recommend it to others. I will keep it in mind for my friends who enjoy memoirs, for people who like to read about artists, and to those who will recognize and revel in the sense of being an outsider.

“The Hare with Amber Eyes” by Edmund De Waal

Well, THAT was a lovely weekend–I started AND finished a book, “The Hare with Amber Eyes” by Edmund De Waal, the first full book I’ve read from this year’s Notable Books list.

It’s nonfiction, De Waal’s family’s own story of a collection of netsuke, small Japanese figurines, that were purchased by a great-uncle in Paris in the 1870s, presented as a wedding gift to a young couple in 1899, and then very nearly lost when the Nazis took control of Vienna in 1938.

The story is much more than just the netsuke, it’s the story of a fabled Jewish banking family, the Ephrussi’s. They rose to prominence beginning with grain futures in the mid-1800s and rose to wealth and prominence, to have businesses in Odessa where they began, then Paris and Vienna also. De Waal looks back on their social prominence, the impact of their being Jewish, and how it all came crashing down with the Nazis. He creates a lovely braid of family memory, cultural life, and history.  I felt such a sense of doom as the story approached the era of Hitler.

Looking back on what I will remember most from this book, three things come to mind. One is Charles Ephrussi, the young art collector, with an apartment jam-packed with Impressionist paintings and almost countless other art objects. De Waal contrasts that image of art-on-top-of-art with what we typically see in art museums now, one painting well-separated from another on a plain wall. The second, an image of the Ephrussi home in Vienna ransacked, priceless furniture dumped from one floor to another. Finally another is the return of the netsuke to an Ephrussi who makes his post-warhome in Tokyo, the collection restored to a lovely display case in the country where they were created.

What a great story. De Waal tells it well, though from time to time the pace seems to founder. De Waal, a ceramic artist, seems so practical and so down-to-earth in contrast to his wealthy ancestors. That alone provides a shot of energy at several turns.

I recommend this book generally, and especially to people who are interested in art, in history, or in collecting.