A week for writers and lit lovers

Sunday, January 5, 2014

My non-fiction picks for 2013

I read some very good non-fiction this year, in books both old and new.  In no particular order, here were the ones I enjoyed the most.

 1.      Little Ship of Fools by Charles Wilkins. His best, a thoughtful book, a humanistic approach to the fools on board during this wild tale of misadventure on the Atlantic.

2.      Lost in America by Isaac Beshevis Singer. A memoir of his immigration from Poland to New York in April 1939, just months before the Nazi invastion.  He knows that the concentration camp will claim all the Jews. Singer  is young, nervous, swept by emotion,  strange whims and feelings, unable to fend well for himself, discouraged about his writing and yet, in spite of personal demons, his work remains fresh and vibrant today.
Gabor Mate, expert on addiction, his own and others

3.      In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Gabor Mate.  Descriptions of addicted people he works with on Vancouver’s East Side. He recounts his own strange addiction: a desire to buy classical CD’s, a strange form of shopaholicism. Mate says the addict cannot settle internally. The addiction damages parts of the brain that makes decisions.

4.      Time was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer. As a young man, Mercer lived at the famous Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris owned by George Whitman. A changing gaggle of drifters stayed there, doing chores and sleeping in the various rooms of this famous store which sprawls over many floors. Mercer, a Canadian newspaper crime reporter, fled after a death threat and found a haven.  I enjoyed this book very much.

The famous Parisian Bookshop, home to Jeremy Mercer.

5.      Belonging by Isabel Huggan. A gentle meditative book, an autobiographical account of her sojourns in many countries. Effortlessly, she moves the reader from place to place. Joan Clark calls her a careful writer.

6.      Stories about Story Tellers by Douglas Gibson. Well known Canadian publisher tells stories about writers. Very funny. The humour is so dry, you could throw it in a martini and drink it.

7.      The Massey Murder by Charlotte Gray.  Interesting history accompanies the tale of a murder in Toronto at the time of WWI. A young servant kills her boss, a member of the Massey family, and a sensational trial follows. A top read.

8.      Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hutchins.  Hutchins spends a lot of time refuting the various complaints against Orwell which come from the right and the left. After Orwell’s book, “Homage to Catalonia,” outlined the Communist destruction of the socialists, anarchists and Trotskyite factions in the Spanish Civil War which led directly to the victory of the fascist Franco, everyone on all sides hated him. The fact that communist actions in Spain caused the defeat of the Republicans, is not accepted even today.  Of course Orwell matters and we need his rigorous mind and his bed-rock integrity more than ever.

9.      The Orientalist by Tom Reiss– My best book of the year. A masterpiece. Reiss is on the hunt for Kurban Said, the author of the novel Ali and Nino, once a world-wide best seller and a great love story.  Reiss wrote about Said for the New Yorker a few years ago and his article prompted me to hunt for the novel. I found it in the Confederation College library in Thunder Bay.

In The Orientalist, Reiss recounts the fascinating tale of the author, Lev Nussimbaum, an Jewish émigré from Baku in Southern Russia who finally settled in Berlin with his father.

Nussimbaum took on the persona of an oriental and called himself Essed Bey. He was a successful writer of non-fiction and biography writing in German and often writing under the name of Kurban Said. His novel, Ali and Nino, was such a best seller in the thirties and forties  that the Nazis were unable to suppress it; so, instead, they claimed it was written by someone else instead of a Jewish author. The confusion over names was only one puzzle Reiss had to unlock while working on this biography.

Nussimbaum settled in Vienna in the thirties, married and divorced, and managed to flee to Italy to avoid the Nazis. He died there in poverty.
The joy of the book comes from the descriptions of the times, the politics, and the stories of those who influenced Nussimbaum’s life. The account of the writer’s last days is harrowing.
 Previous to reading this book, I had known almost nothing about the Caucasus or about the tolerant life in Baku, nor had I known about the passion for the orient which attracted many adherents. The book made me see once again how events of the past blot out knowledge of what came before. For instance, it is often forgotten that Mussolini allowed Jews to thrive and even rise to high posts in his government until he signed his pact with Hitler. Then they were persecuted. Yet previous to the pact, many Jews fled to Italy for, they hoped, safety.

The novel Ali and Nino is still in print in many languages. It can be ordered on line.

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