Summer 2017 Reading List: Non-Fiction

Summer 2017 Reading List: Non-Fiction

I like very few things more than making lists and buying books, so instead of one summer reading list, I’m going to have three. We’ll kick things off with non-fiction, mostly because I think fiction is getting a little arrogant, always coming first. And also because I don’t yet have many of the books for the genre list, as my tastes are a tiny bit too niche for Brussels Waterstones.

As always, I’m not making any promises about getting through every single thing here – it’s more an inspiration than a rigid TBR. I hope to read a good chunk of this pile, though, unless work gets totally horrendous (which it probably will, but there might be some respite in August). Anyway, here are the books of the Estonian jury:

1. Superhero-Related Historical Epicness: Amazons by John Man. With his deep interest in Mongols, Central Asia and the history of communication, Man is a man after my own heart (pun originally not intended, but then gladly kept). And now he’s doing Amazons – ancient warrior women from the steppes. I cannot think of more appropriate reading for the summer of Wonder Woman.

2. Philosophy, But Bearable: At the Existential Cafe by Sarah Bakewell. This is a bit of a cheat, as the list should only contain books I haven’t read and I’ve already started this one. I wanted to include it, however, as I’m very impressed so far. It seems a great fit if you are someone who kind of wants to know more about the existentialists, but don’t really like them that much. There is zero pretentiousness that I tend to associate with French philosophers, only intelligence and readability. That might have something to do with the fact that the author herself isn’t a French philosopher.

3. The Controversial One: The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy. People love to hate Levy’s book about her privileged but cool life falling apart. There are those who genuinely love it, though, and I’m curious. The praise for her style is almost universal and I’m interested in her take of “having it all” (or otherwise). I expect it to be equal parts brilliant and frustrating.

4. The Obscure Masterpiece: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West.
I’m going to come clean right away and confess that this is the most likely candidate for remaining unread this summer. First, it’s so long, and second, I feel I want to read it before going to the Balkans (definitely not happening this year). I wanted to give this book a shout-out, as it’s quite amazing that a 1000 page travel/history book about Yugoslavia written before the World War II by a woman novelist seems to be universally admired by everyone who has read it. Some of those people are very difficult to please.

5. Japan Throwback: The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.
After reading Lost Japan and The World of the Shining Prince (both highly recommended) when visiting Japan last year, I was looking for something in the same vein. This classic book by Benedict about Japanese culture and character kept coming up, but I could not find it anywhere. I have it now.

6. The One People Will Proudly Carry Around and Leave Casually on the Table in Cafes: Homo Deus by Yval Noah Harari. I have not read Harari’s much-praised Sapiens, although I own it and it sounds exactly like my kind of book (history of humankind!). Why? Because Kate, who is infinitely better than me both at critical thought and applying eyeshadow accused it of a “totally uncritical everything-and-the-kitchen-sink bombastic macho Big History approach”. I’m pretty convinced she is right and everyone else is just being too enthusiastic, but I still kind of want to read it. So I’ve compromised by deciding to read Homo Deus (future of mankind!) instead. It makes sense in my head.

7. Non-Superhero Related History: Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert.
I still remember learning that the wealth of Estonian peasants in the 19th century was directly connected to the American Civil War: as cotton disappeared from the European markets, homegrown flax shot up in price. Beckert’s history of cotton is not only a history of cotton, but also a history of capitalism. Although I would still be interested if it was just the first.

8. The Mandatory Middle East Entry: A Line in the Sand by James Barr. I get unreasonably excited by books about the history of the Middle East, especially the ones not focussed on Israel-Palestine. The only downside of those books is that I’ll get extremely angry at the Brits and the French, so A Line in the Sand is going to be a tough one for me. By all accounts, it’s excellent, but it also focuses on how the Bs and the Fs divided the region between them. I foresee much indignation.

9. A Book by an Intelligent Woman: A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit. I kid, of course. Most of the books on this list are by intelligent women – a few are by intelligent men. There is, however, a special type of intelligent woman; someone for whom being an intelligent woman is basically a profession. I’m thinking of people like Maggie Nelson or Olivia Laing (I recommend their books, too, especially The Lonely City by the latter). As the intellectual mother of the term “mansplaining”, I think Solnit deserves a special place in this group. I liked her “Men Explain Things to Me” a lot and thought it’s time to read something else by her.

10. The Mandatory Central Asia Entry: Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk. Displaying remarkable cunning, I’ve managed to get two books about Central Asia on this list (as this is where the Amazons lived). I’m obsessed with the region and the Silk Road and although I found Hopkirk’s The Great Game somewhat stereotypical, it was a lot of fun. Hence this.

11. Lazy Point-Scoring: South and West by Joan Didion.
The shameful truth is that I have never read anything by Didion. The short-term solution to this is to read South and West that contains bits of her diary. This being Didion, we’ll get not just a diary, but an insightful look at America. I’m well aware, though, that this will not replace reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The Year of Magical Thinking.

12. SCIENCE! Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
I have probably read every book in the Physics/Cosmos for Dummies category – I’m nothing if not optimistic. Tyson’s version is wonderful and yes, I’m cheating again, as I’ve already finished it. In my defence, I had not yet started the book when I took the photo yesterday, so that should tell you something about how easy it is to read. Does exactly what it says on the tin and does it very well.

13. The Relaxing Reread: My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. This book is here mostly because there is a new series about the family out and a new book about the Durrells in Corfu, called, creatively, The Durrells in Corfu. I planned to buy and read the latter and then thought it would be great to reread the original book – I loved it as a child and reread it obsessively. Somehow, I ended up only buying My Family and Other Animals and forgetting to get The Durrells in Corfu. So I will remain – at least for a bit – in ignorance of how much of it was actually true.

Do you plan to read any non-fiction this summer? Let me know.


Add yours
  1. 1

    Yes. Of course. If I wasn’t somebody should call a doctor on my behalf because my head’s not right. Always with the non-fiction this one (“truth is stranger than fiction” and all that jazz). A time of gifts by Patrick Leigh-Fermor is first, then the Schiaparelli bio (love a fashion book) and I finally got my hand on a copy of Witches by Stacey Schiff. The story of what went down in Salem 1962 is a story of sex,lies and power. Should be a good one ( have already heard an IOT episode about it so I’m primed and ready to go. That podcast has ruined me forever and made my TBR as long as Hadrians Wall). The Montefiore book about the Romanovs is still something that I want to read but feel it might be better suited for winter.

    • 2

      I didn’t doubt you for a second! Several Montefiore books are kind of vaguely on my TBR, too, but I’m thinking Romanovs work better for winter, no? And don’t even get me started on IOT, they even make me want to read books that I don’t much want to read, if you know what I mean. I was just listening to the podcast about Christine de Pizan and am beyond fascinated. Not sure if her books actually exist in English? Must check.

  2. 3

    Nice list – I’ve enjoyed a couple of books from your selection. If the Rebecca West is a bit daunting (lengthwise) I can really recommend Kapka Kassabova’s recent Balkans book, Border. She is from Bulgaria originally (lived in NZ and now Scotland ) and is an accomplished poet and nonfiction writer (and tango enthusiast). Border focuses on the frontier area of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. I was just wondering if you’ve ever read much Janet Malcolm? She is probably my favourite essayist/ journalist…and a very intelligent woman!!

    • 4

      I had never heard of Janet Malcolm, so looked her up – she sounds very intriguing! Noting down Kassabova as well. I also wanted to say that I’m aware that I haven’t replied to your previous comment: not because of laziness, but because I didn’t know how to address it. This situation illustrates why I’m careful with writing about politics on my blog. I worked very closely with the Greek crisis in my previous job. I could rant about this for hours, but let’s just say that while I don’t doubt Mr Varoufakis’ intelligence and his rhetorical prowess (I’m petty certain he wrote the book himself), I cannot say the same of his integrity.

      • 5

        That’ so interesting about Varoufakis, and thank you! Love hearing the other side of the story. I think you might like Janet Malcolm. I really like three of her books in particular: The journalist and the murderer, In the Freud archives, and 41 false starts – which is a nice dip in introduction to her work. The journalist and the murderer is probably the most interesting re. the ethics of writing/journalism. Love your list though. I’m currently reading Laurent Binet’s latest novel – about Barthes (kind of). Easy to spend time reading when it’s winter and cold and dark.

  3. 6

    I love your eclectic selection- I wI’ll definitely mine it in the future. I’ve declared this summer to be the summer of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels (I’m currently finishing the 1st) and Saul Bellow. Not much planned on the nonfiction front except maybe The Gene by Mukherjee and possibly a reread of Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday. Pretty skimpy plans but I am at the mercy of a not so benevolent little two year old dictator who controls my every move with an iron fist. A quick and very well written piece of fascinating nonfiction by a Pulitzer winning journalist can be found in the Atlantic story “My Family’s Slave”. Here is a link

    • 7

      I STILL haven’t read Ferrante and frankly don’t seem to be in the mood for it at the moment at all. Let me know what you think of the books, that might inspire me! The Gene is great, although maybe not the easiest reading ever and I’ve been thinking about reading Zweig, too (I’ve only read some minor work by him). I read the beginning of the Atlantic story when it came out, really should finish it. Thank you!

  4. 8

    This is a special selection of books that you wont encounter easily and that makes it more intriguing for the avid book reader. Amazons and Empire of Cotton are definetely on the reading list for the summer. Have you read Samarcande by Amin Maalouf (hope I got his surname right).

    • 9

      I haven’t read Maalouf, but the book sounds wonderful (I have a very, very soft spot both for Samarkand and Persia). Thank you so much for mentioning it! And thanks for stopping by, too.

  5. 10

    You are most welcome! Actually I have been to Samarcand recently and would recommend Uzbekistan as a destination if you like Persian architecture without needing to go to Iran. Same goes for the traditional costumes and the food. Definitely give Maalouf a try then :). Your blog is very interesting and Im slowly discovering it so there will be more visits!

    • 11

      Samarkand is one of my dream destinations, the only problem is that I try not to travel to places with regimes that are clearly undemocratic. Which makes my love for Central Asia very platonic at the moment? I apologise for the late reply, but my work life is extremely intense right now and I’m struggling to post and comment as frequently as I usually do.

    • 12

      Not sure if you’re checking back here (probably not), but I bought Samarkand when in London! I of course bought 15 other books too (on top of my huge already existing TBR), so not sure when I’ll get to it.

  6. 13

    Thank you for this list/suggestion. I have actually started reading some of the Bakewell and so far have found it incredibly accessible – given it comes hot on the heels of reading dense but excellent accounts of Western and Classical philosophy it is exactly what is needed. In terms of other non-fiction I am tempted by Edward Luce The Retreat of Western Liberalism and Yanis Varoufakis’ Adults in the Room. A treat I can’t wait to read is Adam Nicolson’s book The Seabird’s Cry: The lives and loves of puffins, gannets and other voyagers (described in the TLS and sounds utterly different to what I normally read and so refreshing and tempting as a result). I shall no doubt also dip in to some of your suggestions as I have not come across them other than the Bakewell and Yval Noah Harrari. In particular ‘A Line in the Sand’ really interests me and will n doubt get bought and read soon. Finally I recently read Helen Rappaport’s accounts of the start of the revolution in St Ptersburg (before I went) and would recommend that for a series of interesting snippets of eye witness accounts of the way events gained a momentum and what it was like as experienced by foreign journalists on the ground (which of course only presents one side but still interesting).

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