Clio is a very good friend of mine who is a historian and loves reading (you should check out Clio’s Board Games, it’s BRILLIANT and the latest post is about women’s enfranchisement and it’s *chef’s kiss*). So obviously I was going to explore this, and Clio kindly agreed to write a recommendation post for Non-Fiction November! I’ve just posted my amateur recs if you want to check them out. Now, I give the word to my esteemed guest!
Sometimes, when you read or watch something exciting, it sends an additional shiver down your spine to see that little note “Based on a true story”. That’s what I love about reading non-fiction – all of it is a true story! Now, you only have to find those true stories that are exciting in the first place. And that’s where this post comes in. Based on my reading record of roughly two thirds non-fiction to one third fiction, here are some books which are insightful, relevant, and at the same time, riveting. For the most complex characters and most captivating plots, I encourage you to read history – but there are gems found to be elsewhere in non-fiction as well.
Elaine Weiss: The Woman’s Hour
We’ve just gone through one heckuva election in the United States. If you need a book to help you cope, this account of the ratification of the 19th Amendment on women’s suffrage might be it: On the one hand, it’s comfort reading – you know that eventually, the amendment will pass, and women in the US will get the right to vote nationwide. And yet, it’s a total page turner. I, for one, was nailed to my chair until I was done. Weiss manages to weave together all the strands, personal and structural, local and national, moderate and radical, suffragist and anti-suffragist, and yet maintain a clear narrative. All of that comes together in poignant prose and with lots of ironic wit.
Mary Elise Sarotte: The Collapse
When my older sister was born, the world – and our native country Germany – was neatly divided in two blocs, one liberal and capitalist in the west, one authoritarian and socialist in the east. It had been so for 40 years, and it seemed unlikely to change. When I was born not much later, that eastern bloc had just collapsed entirely, and Germany was on the eve of its reunification. All of that had been achieved by peaceful protest which overcame the power of the entrenched ruling party of East Germany and its vast security apparatus. Sarotte’s account of small activists taking great risks will take your breath away – not least because it is based on a plethora of interviews the author herself conducted with the protagonists of her book, from the street protesters to the state security officers.
Michael J. Neufeld: Von Braun
Wernher von Braun was a pioneer of American rocketry, starred in Disney specials about spaceflight, and headed the program that eventually got the first human on the moon. Cool, huh? – Before that, von Braun developed rockets for the Nazis that killed thousands of British and Belgian civilians in the last months of World War II, and even more of his own manufacturing laborers drawn from the concentration camps. Not so cool. Neufeld’s biography presents him in all his facets, held together by his monomania with rockets – and, through one life, sheds light on some of the most dramatic events of the 20th century.
Laurie Penny: Bitch Doctrine
I guess this book is the reason to label the post “non-fiction recommendations” instead of “history book recommendations”. It’s a collection of essays by feminist, journalist, activist Laurie Penny. As collections of essays go, there are stronger and not-so-strong ones among them, but Penny’s ceiling is higher than that of most others, and her passionately acerbic prose shines in any case. As the book was published in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, there are a few chapters on that, so I think by now it also counts as a historical document. Dang it.
Kaya Şahin: Empire and Power in the Reign of Süleyman
Okay, you have patiently gone through this selection of non-fiction books on topics generally agreed upon to be cool – feminism, people’s protest, space. None of them dealt with things much more than a hundred years ago. But now, for the last book, follow me into the deepest nerdery. This book is set in the 16th century Ottoman Empire and follows an administrator – an Ottoman Thomas Cromwell, if you want – through his life of service in the budding imperial bureaucracy which emancipates itself from the noble military commanders and religious scholars on which the empire rested before – developments similar not only to those in Europe, but also Persia and India at the same time. It is thus a truly Eurasian history and a very insightful read.
Happy non-fiction reading!