Non-Fiction

  • Witches of America

    Alex Mar

    Image of Witches of America

    Alex Mar first met the witch Morpheus while making her documentary American Mystic, about three people on the fringes of organized religion. After finishing the film, she felt a personal curiosity about witchcraft and paganism and continued speaking with Morpheus; through her she connected with other witches to dig further into the occult world, and Witches in America is mostly the document of that process.

    While it may sound broad and encompassing by its title, the scope is narrowed by her firsthand experiences and the specific paths her interests outlined. She covers a fair amount of historical background of how modern paganism was revived beginning in the 1970s, but the book uncomfortably straddles anthropology and memoir realms. It...more

  • The Half-Known World

    Robert Boswell

    Image of The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction

    While mainly written for writers of fiction, The Half-Known World is almost like a literature class in a book, as each chapter references certain novels or stories, indicated at the beginning, though reading them is also not necessary to understand the concepts presented in the essays. I hadn’t read most of the referenced pieces, or hadn’t read them recently, but can see how that may have elevated the experience.

    The first few essays are really great, but the themes feel less profound as the book progresses. Boswell’s theory of “the half-known world” in the opening essay is that writers can try to know too much about their characters and scenes at the outset, to the point where the writer has...more

  • The Fire Next Time

    James Baldwin

    Image of The Fire Next Time

    Still powerfully resonant today, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time was one of the most influential books about race in America in the 1960s. It is tough to read this now and note how little has changed and easy to understand why this book inspired Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and The Fire This Time, a recent book of essays edited by Jesmyn Ward. The book is comprised of two essays: first, “My Dungeon Shook,” the well-known letter to Baldwin’s nephew on the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation; and second, “Down at the Cross,” another longer letter addressed generally that focuses largely on race and religion, including Baldwin’s experience as a Christian preacher and later...more

  • Reading My Father

    Alexandra Styron

    Image of Reading My Father: A Memoir

    Alexandra Styron is the daughter of William Styron, the novelist best known for Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner. Her book Reading My Father is part memoir and part biography, focusing at times on her experience growing up with a well-known writer as a father, and at other times providing a straightforward narrative of his life. Every so often it gets meta and zooms in on Styron’s research of her father while writing this book, finishing with a few chapters that detail his long decline in health related to two episodes of severe depression and his long-time alcoholism. All these different parts are interesting individually, but they don’t entirely cohere.

    Though the general conceit of...more

  • When Skateboards Will Be Free

    Saïd Sayrafiezadeh

    Image of When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood

    “A memoir of a political childhood,” Saïd Sayrafiezadeh writes of growing up as a child of an Iranian father and a Jewish mother who are members of the Socialist Worker’s Party. His parents separated when he was very young, so for most of his early years, his father was absent fighting for the revolution, while he stayed with his mother attending party meetings and selling The Militant on street corners. It’s an intriguing look at how political ideology can be confusing to a child, as when Sayrafiezadeh doesn’t understand why he can’t eat grapes during the 1965 boycott in support of striking workers. Eventually his mother relents, to a degree, by encouraging her son to eat them in the produce...more

  • The Mother Knot

    Kathryn Harrison

    Image of The Mother Knot: A Memoir

    It felt appropriate to read this directly after Annie John since they are both beautifully spare books about difficult mother and daughter relationships, although they are very different stories beyond that. Twenty years after the death of her mother, Kathryn Harrison weaned her third child, setting off a depression with unclear origins. She begins to unearth feelings and experiences from her past — eventually in a very literal manner. Her mother had essentially abandoned her to her grandparents when she was a child, going so far to phrase it as providing Harrison as a stand-in hostage for her parents to control, although this hadn’t turned out quite as her mother planned. Inevitably Harrison’s experience of being a mother pulled her back...more

  • The Warmth of Other Suns

    Isabel Wilkerson

    Image of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

    Isabel Wilkerson’s book about the migration of African Americans out of the South is appropriately epic considering it spans the greater part of the 20th century (from 1910–1970). She interviewed over 1,200 people and spent fifteen years researching and writing this book that is part oral history, part narrative non-fiction focusing on three migrant’s experiences in detail (basically each person’s entire life story), and the rest historical contextualization of it all. Aside from some research done by sociologists in the 1920s on those who landed in Chicago, this phenomenon has been largely unstudied with such depth and historical scope.

    I won’t attempt to summarize the entire book, but there were two moments from Wilkerson’s contextualizing that stuck in my...more

  • The Odd Woman and the City

    Vivian Gornick

    Image of The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir

    I picked up a dog-eared copy of this book from the library, which came in handy, as I didn’t have to feel too bad about refolding corners down on the existing creases as I made my way through it. A memoir of New York City and walking and relationships, both romantic and platonic, Gornick meanders through the divide between the fantasies of our lives and their actualities through vignettes of experiences of those themes, quotes from writers, as well as overheard conversations. She takes a lot of walks with her friend Leonard, referring to she and him together as “a pair of solitary travelers slogging through the country of our lives, meeting up from time to time at the outer...more

  • Between the World and Me

    Ta-Nehisi Coates

    Image of Between the World and Me

    Ta-Nehisi Coates has contributed some of the more tendentious analysis on African-American identity and history in the US, including his Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations.” This book came about after he reread James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which includes, in part, an open letter from Baldwin to his nephew.

    Between the World and Me is written in a similar style, but as a letter from Coates to his teenage son in which he speaks frankly about the plight of being black in America, including stories of his West Baltimore upbringing and the idealism of his college years at Howard University. Despite dips into history and memoir, the book is rooted firmly in current moments....more

  • Speaking and Language

    Paul Goodman

    Image of Speaking and Language: Defence of Poetry

    I can’t remember how this book arrived on my to-read list, but I went through the trouble of tracking down a used copy, so it must have been a convincing recommendation.

    The “Defense of Poetry” subtitle is largely a tease — a reference to other works with similar titles that Goodman was apparently thinking about when he wrote this. Most of the book is about linguistics and speech, and it’s not uninteresting, but I still struggled to get immersed in the ideas presented. Eventually he proceeds to looking at language in literature (not just poetry), and I found a little more to latch on to there, but only in disparate pieces. Strangely Goodman himself explained exactly my experience in reading his...more

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