Nonfiction November 2019 recommendations

One of the most joyous things to have come out of my book blogging journey is discovering how much I actually do love nonfiction; so much so that I’m excited for Nonfiction November even though I’m not sure I’ll be able to participate.  My reading has been a bit slow lately, and hasn’t exactly been thriving when I set myself a strict TBR, so I’m not committing myself to anything, but I did at least want to make a recommendation post for others who are planning on participating.  Affiliate links to Book Depository on each of these titles.

Nonfiction November is hosted by Olive on booktube, and for the blogging version you can read Ren’s announcement post here.  In Olive’s announcement she laid out 4 prompts, and I’m going to recommend two books for each one; one that I’ve read, and one that’s on my TBR (again, not necessarily to be read this November… but maybe!).  The prompts are as follows: design, sport, true, and voice.

DESIGN

Read: Walk Through Walls by Marina Abramović
TBR: Old In Art School by Nell Irvin Painter

All of these prompts were created to be as flexible as possible, so you are welcome to take any of them in a radically different direction than I am – but when I hear ‘design’ my first thought is ‘art’ and ‘art history.’  Hence my two recommendations: Walk Through Walls is a stunning and provocative memoir by performance artist Marina Abramović, that challenged my own perceptions about how much of a line there is (or should be) between life and art.  I would absolutely recommend this if you’re already a fan of Marina or familiar with her work, but I don’t think that’s a prerequisite if you’re at all curious about picking this up.

Old in Art School is, from what I gather, a memoir about the author’s experience attending art school at RISD (Rhode Island School of DESIGN, just saying) in her 60s, and the ageism, sexism, and racism she encounters during that experience.

SPORT

Read: Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer
TBR: Beautiful on the Outside by Adam Rippon

Rough Magic is Lara Prior-Palmer’s memoir in which she recalls entering the Mongolian Derby on a whim, which she went on to win at the age of 19, becoming the first woman to win and the youngest person to ever finish.  If it’s slightly uneven at times, this is only a testament to how passionately Lara Prior-Palmer tells her stranger-than-fiction story.  She’s an unforgettable narrator and this book is a breath of fresh air.  I gave this 4 stars after finishing, but a few months later I’d say it’s one of my favorite things I’ve read this year.

One thing that I’ve learned in 2019 is that I actually don’t hate celebrity memoirs as much as I always assumed I would.  One of the most enjoyable memoirs I’ve read all year is Busy Philipps’ This Will Only Hurt a Little; I think I’m expecting something similar in tone from Adam Rippon’s memoir about figure skating.  I don’t really watch figure skating – I don’t watch any sports aside from tennis – but I enjoy Adam Rippon on social media so I’ll probably pick this up on audio at some point in the next few months.

TRUE

Read: The War that Killed Achilles by Caroline Alexander
TBR: Homesick by Jennifer Croft

I’m cheating a little here as I haven’t read The War that Killed Achilles in its entirety; I read half of it a couple of years ago, and I’m planning on starting it over from the beginning when I have more time because it’s excellent.  The subtitle is The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War, so I decided to go for something a little less obvious for this prompt than true crime, in choosing a book that excavates the true story behind one of the world’s oldest classics.  I also met Caroline Alexander a few years ago after listening to her give a talk about translating the Iliad, and she’s brilliant.

For Homesick, I’m employing a bit of irony with my use of ‘true’; though this is a memoir, it is written in the third person, with Croft blending the line between fact and fiction.  Apparently this memoir about sisterhood reads like a novel at times, and I’m so curious to see how Croft pulls this off.  I’ve heard so many fantastic things about it.

VOICE

Read: Know My Name by Chanel Miller
TBR: Voices from the Grave by Ed Moloney

I’m currently reading Know My Name and it’s exceptional; the memoir’s conceit is that Chanel Miller is giving herself the voice that the media storm denied to her throughout the Brock Turner case.  It’s candid and heartfelt and bold and beautifully written.

Voices from the Grave is a book that’s heavily referenced by Patrick Radden Keefe in his book about the Troubles, Say Nothing (my favorite book of the year so far).  The research in this book was gathered through extensive interviews with Brendan Hughes and David Ervine, two members of paramilitary organizations involved in the Troubles.  This is the longest TBR book on this list – over 500 pages – but I think it’s also the one that I’m most likely to pick up for Nonfiction November, as I’d love to read it before the details from Say Nothing start to fade in my mind.

Are you guys participating in Nonfiction November?  What books would you recommend for these prompts?

book review: Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer

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ROUGH MAGIC: RIDING THE WORLD’S LONELIEST HORSE RACE by Lara Prior-Palmer
★★★★★
Catapult, 2019

 

Rough Magic is a coming of age story, an interrogation of naked ambition, and a self-conscious meditation on English colonialism, all wrapped up in a thrilling tale of a 19-year-old girl entering and winning the most difficult horse race in the world. Lara Prior-Palmer’s underdog story couldn’t have been any more pitch-perfect if it were scripted: she entered the Mongol Derby on a complete whim, underestimated its difficulty, was dismissed by the other competitors early on, but still rallied to become the first woman to win the race and the youngest person ever to finish. But it’s far from the conventional sports memoir, as winning is never really the point, or even the goal, for Lara, whose motivation for entering the race is hazy even to herself.

This book’s greatest strength is something that often irritates me in memoirs: that Lara doesn’t have much distance from the experience she’s writing about (she won the race in 2013, her memoir was published in 2019). Had she waited 15 or 20 years to tell this story, it could have been more polished, more articulate, but that sophistication would have come at the detriment of its charm, its passion, its frenetic energy. Perhaps the most successful thing about this book is that due to her lack of emotional distance from it, Lara doesn’t place her own character development front and center; instead she takes us through the race step by agonizing step, showing us rather than telling us about the physical and psychological toll it was taking. This entire memoir cleverly circles the question ‘is naked ambition in and of itself a virtue or a vice?’ (a character trait she sees reflected in her main competitor, Devan) – and the few moments where Lara zeroes in on it have the emotional punch they’ve earned.

“Our pace slowed. I began imagining Clare and Kirsten catching us. Nothing is swift as thought—I felt it jumping through me. But riding in a big group just wasn’t efficient. It was a simple thought, and when it came, I knew the race had me.”

And then, shortly after:

“What if I wanted to win for myself, without wanting to beat Devan or please Charles or any other audience? It’s a lonely thought; I wish I were strong enough for it.”

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Photo credit: Richard Dunwoody

All that said, this book isn’t the easiest to settle into; Lara Prior-Palmer’s prose is almost a perfect reflection of her flighty, restless nature – she jumps from one thought to another with no preamble, she constructs an elaborate metaphor unnecessarily and follows it a bit too long. But there were also lines that I adored, that I found especially resonant (more than enough to compensate for the more awkward passages), like:

“I’m just so used to swallowing myself as I speak that I can’t help seeing self-assuredness as indulgent.”

So while I don’t think this was a perfect book (not that anything is a perfect book), I do think it was a really special one that I enjoyed reading immensely, that filled me with anxiety and excitement in equal measure. Lara Prior-Palmer is a fascinating, sympathetic, strong and vulnerable person who doesn’t spare herself for a second on the page, making this story as personal as it is informative about the Mongol Derby. I’d highly recommend Rough Magic if you like horses, coming of age stories, underdogs, memoirs about young women, or any combination of the above.


You can pick up a copy of Rough Magic here on Book Depository.