Recent Reading, Part 3: Non-Fiction


On to non-fiction, a shorter list.

Those Wild Wyndhams by Claudia Renton is extremely readable non-fiction and I do recommend it to anyone who enjoys historicals. The Wyndhams were, as the title suggests, considered a bit wild—three sisters who moved comfortably through high society while defying many of its dictates. It’s also the story of three sisters who moved in political circles, who boasted of their intellectual tendencies, but were ultimately content to fill only the most traditional roles in the lives of the powerful men they knew: mother, mistress, wife, party planner. The woman who decided how many seats belonged at a table and then chose who to invite wielded a lot of power, I don’t want to underplay that, but it wasn’t anything new.

The strange thing is that this is a book about failures, about young people who don’t live up to their promise, about idealism fading into conventional ideals. And yet it’s incredibly fun to read. Many of the people that Renton writes about left behind journals and letters which prove that they were, if nothing else, excellent writers. So this melancholy story—it ends with World War I, and you can guess how that goes—is full of hilarious anecdotes and asides, jokes and witticisms and sharp observations, parties and pets and interior decorating and gossip. Highly recommended.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. This is an absolutely excellent book, a style of history-writing that’s become popular, and which I love: it singles out a handful of real people, all North Koreans who ultimately sought asylum in South Korea where they volunteered for extensive interviews, and tells their life stories. As the subtitle says: ordinary lives in North Korea. But Demick hangs a history of the nation on those threads, broadening the scope with context, research, all the hard data she can cobble together. The result is both a pleasure to read and incredibly informative.

Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole. This is a collection of essays, and the pleasure of reading came largely from the variety of topics they cover—jumping from book reviews to politics to travelogue and back again. By the end, you feel like you’ve had a wander through Cole’s pleasantly vast intellectual universe. One constant is that he focuses on race, both as a critic—his eclectic subject matter might shift from artists to authors to playwrights but he always includes African creators—and on a more personal level. He writes a lot about the experience of being a black intellectual. I nibbled on this book for a few months—the essay format is great for that—and really enjoyed it.  

One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli and the Great Stink of 1858 by Rosemary Ashton. I read this mostly for research, as my new series spans most of the 1850s, but it was enjoyable. If it sounds a bit random—why Dickens, Darwin, and Disraeli? Why 1858?—that’s because it is. The only things Dickens, Darwin, and Disraeli have in common are 1) they’re men 2) whose names all start with the letter ‘D’ and 3) they were adults in 1858. But that’s what makes the book fun, in the way that certain movies or plays can be fun: three different stories that play out on the same stage, inhabiting the same very specific moment in time. It’s slice of life storytelling meets history book.