This year I read a lot of books. Not nearly as many as I wanted to. Books that came to me easily (attending the book launch/tour/cocktail party), unexpectedly (an Indian priest handing me an obscure anthology of 19th century French missionary diaries), warm-summer-daily (the annual literary rummage sale known as Word on the Street); by word of mouth or bookstore drop-in or a wife who appreciates my insatiable appetite for the genres of literary/creative/narrative non-fiction.
Here are 7 memorable non-fiction books I read in 2014—not necessarily that were published in 2014, although one of them actually was—and recommend, plus a belated attempt to derive meaning from the choice or chance to devour them.
1. The Book of My Lives, by Aleksandar Hemon
The Balkan War was my adolescent war. The summer of ’92, when Serbian tanks and paramilitary units encircled Sarajevo, I got my driver’s license and discovered NPR. I recall listening to wailing interviews with Bosnian refugees and intrepid journalist Robert Kaplan trying to make sense of it all. By the time the guns went silent in the graveyard of Treskavica as the Dayton Accords were signed, Kaplan had published his influential Balkan Ghosts and I was in university reading the news on a computer screen.
In The Book of My Lives, novelist Aleksandar Hemon remembers Bosnia as a childhood lesson in the politics of multiethnic federalism and the war as the violent rebellion against the spirit of uncertain togetherness which characterized Yugoslavia after Tito. When he inadvertently insults a boyhood friend by insinuating that his choice of clothing painted him a Muslim, the writer feels for the first time the unbearable sadness of othering; no longer is there such a thing as one for all.
Hemon, author of four novels including the much-celebrated The Lazarus Project, grew up in Sarajevo but found himself in the liminal space of the war as a refugee in Chicago. His accented voice was like those I remember on NPR trying to explain to Americans what Bosnia was, where Serbia began, where Yugoslavia ended.
The author as memoirist is at his most poignant when he inhabits the disfigured memory of others. Most notably that of his adolescent best friend, Veba, whose father was taken as a POW by his own country’s army on suspicion of being not Bosnian but Montenegrin Serb. After two years of anguish, Veba was offered the chance to visit his father provided he agreed to participate in a propaganda stunt to demonstrate the humanity of the Bosnian military. The camera crew that accompanied the cautious, tearful reunion between father and son felt to Veba like its own invasion force, and years later he tried to expunge his lingering trauma by tracking down those who had been present. As Hemon writes:
Veba remembered that the name of the man who interviewed him and his father was Zvonko Maric. He’d been a well-known TV reporter during the war, and Veba had a precise and detailed memory of Maric standing with a microphone between the two of them. He called up his father to rake his memory. “What man?” his father asked. “I never talked to a man. A woman interviewed me.” Veba had no memory of a woman whatsoever. Moreover, his father said, they had been interviewed separately, not together. Veba’s memory of the TV interview was completely false.
Years later, Veba, now a visual artist living in Montreal, and Aleksandar reunited to travel across Eastern Europe in what became the seminal moment of The Lazarus Project.
Like many great books we end up accidentally loving, I didn’t find The Book of My Lives; it found me.
What this book says about 2014 me: That I’m hopelessly attracted to the storytelling of fiction writers who write elegiac memoirs (like Charlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt) that satisfy my addiction to lyrical, boundary-pushing, stream-of-consciousness narrative while making me feel (slightly) less guilty about my 7:1 non-fiction-to-fiction reading ratio.
2. A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape, by Candace Savage
If you’re over 30 and under 80 and reading this, I’m guessing your bookshelf shares a characteristic with mine: a stack/row/shelf of crisp, unread narrative non-fiction that makes you realize with each sidelong glance the depressing fact that you’ll never have as much leisure reading time as you did when you were 23 and stop-starting your way into adulthood in the collector lane.
I bought Geography of Blood—a magnificent introspection of a writer’s Proustian relationship to place— at Book City a year or two ago as part of my longstanding policy to read (or at least purchase) the winning non-fiction books of the Hilary Weston Prize, the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize, the Edna Staebler Award, the BC Book Prize, the Charles Taylor Prize, and the Governor General’s Award. (Yes, I agree, that’s a lot of awards.)
What this book says about 2014 me: That my aforementioned pile of unread non-fiction books has got so high that this much-loved, award-winning narrative journey somehow didn’t make it off the shelf until last spring, despite the fact that almost every review of the book in 2012 included a variation on the phrase “it will change the way you view Canadian history” (and as a longtime ex-pat in America my view of Canadian history is woefully foggy to begin with); that the best books about place make them imaginary in the most elegant sense of the word.
3. The Wayfinders, by Wade Davis
The debate could last all night: the Massey Lecture, better on the radio or in a book? I’ve taken Margaret Atwood, Thomas King and Ronald Wright in book form; Neil Turok, Adam Gopnik and Lawrence Hill via the ear bud. But there’s really no wrong answer.
Wade Davis’s Massey entrée—a five-part meditation on what, collectively, indigenous culture and learning can teach the Western tradition about its own unwittingly single-minded pursuit of progress (a narrow assumption, but let’s leave that)—is worth the read, even if it is, admittedly, 30% (or so) re-purposed content from The Serpent and the Rainbow, Light at the Edge of the World, and other Davis gems. Also a WOTS purchase.
What this book says about 2014 me: That I will read anything by celebrity anthropologists whose job title includes “explorer in residence” and whose writing abets subconscious feelings of discomfort in my own skin, in this case as a white, middle-class man self-doubtingly of no particular worthwhile culture. Also, this is what Wade Davis’s writing studio looks like; the revelation of which has positively altered the scale and frequency of my daydreams about my ideally architected writing cave.
4. Emma Goldman, by Vivian Gormick
It might not take five fingers to count the number of non-work or –school-related biographies I’ve read, but this two-dollar purchase at Word on the Street made a compelling case for the shortlist: effortlessly smooth prose; under 150 pages; and starring one of history’s most underrated political superstars.
What this book says about 2014 me: That a year after arguably the world’s most influential contemporary intellectual-activist (and avowed anarchist) Noam Chomsky received some belated justice in the form of the CIA admitting it had illegally spied on him during the 1970s, when we are experiencing a political society in which democratic governments censor science, spy on citizens, militarize their police forces, suppress labour rights, etc, etc; the life, times and irrepressible passions of America’s greatest anarchist—Emma Goldman—are as stirring a story as ever. And we all need to be stirred.
5. Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens, by Andrea Wulf
A collaboration between history and science in the adventurous story of a global, eighteenth-century competition to map the dimensions of the solar system by triangulating the transit of Venus across the sun, a theory proposed by Edmund “The Comet” Halley. Okay, it is almost as dry as it sounds, but IFL Science, right?!
Seriously, more than two hundred years before the births of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, a motley host of professional and hilariously rich and amateur scientists worked together to travel, often dangerously, to various points of the globe (taking months or years or decades of their lives) to observe a rare celestial phenomenon that might help give the world the gift of longitude and thus an accurate map of the planet, at last.
What this book says about 2014 me: That Simon Winchester fatigue has a cure in dry, fact-heavy scientific historical narrative that is still more entertaining than an introverted Friday night home alone with Wikipedia; that I vicariously live through any writer who spends the bulk of her time in archives “interviewing” dead people instead of talking to live ones.
6. To a Mountain in Tibet, by Colin Thubron
A shoe-in to make this list based solely on the fact that I bought it randomly from the travel book section of the legendary Powell’s Books in Portland. The story of a late-in-life successful English travel writer who undertakes a contemplative journey through Nepal and Tibet to Kailash, the holy mountain of Buddhist and Hindu tradition, during which he extrapolates and shares a personal theory of spirituality from his encounters along the way.
What this book says about 2014 me: That scheduling books according to hypothetical travel plans—in this case buying the book in Portland one year; reading it while walking in the Himalaya foothills of India the next—is rewarding both as a reader and as a compulsive scheduler. (Cf. David Macfarlane’s The Danger Tree patiently waiting for my TBD trip to Newfoundland. Waiting is tough; obviously I couldn’t hold Geography of Blood until I visited Saskatchewan.)
Also, put “walking in foothills”—any foothills will likely do, so long as they’re contemplative—on your 2015 to-do list.
7. Our Ice is Vanishing, Sikuvut Nunguliqtuq, by Shelley Wright
My wife brought home an advance copy of this book of Arctic history, politics and science from her work and I decided to read it during an August heat wave and pitch its review to a magazine. To find out why you should read this book, pick up the November-December issue of This Magazine. (Or subscribe: it’s a great magazine!)
What this book says about 2014 me: That sometimes the perfect book comes along just as I’m feeling frustrated at my prime minister’s dramatizing of a mildly interesting but narrowly significant event (in a region, the Arctic, that needs more significant media coverage), and then the editor of my favourite little magazine says she’s short one book review for the next issue and she’ll take one; that this entire minor episode encapsulates why I feel so needy with non-fiction literature and love to read, write and read. There are so many more books I want to tell you about, but I’ll have to stop here.
Happy new year, and happy reading in 2015!