The Books I Loved in 2012–Nonfiction

I didn’t read any political books this year, even though there were so many published. Reading the newspaper or the online news was enough politics for me. The seven books listed below are either history, memoir, or biography.


The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain  by Maria Rosa Menocal. 2002. Menocal starts by telling about the young Arab, Abd al-Rahman, only survivor of the massacre of his family–the Umayyad caliphs–in Damascus in 750, by their rivals, the Abbasids. Several years later, he turned up in the Iberian Peninsula, or al-Andalus as it was called in Arabic. This dramatic event set the course for the history that followed–the Islamic Empire in Cordoba known for its tolerance and rich culture. Jews and Christians participated in Arab culture, each group enriching the mix, creating art, translating the classics, and creating fabulous buildings like the Alhambra and the Mezquita in Cordoba. Not only was this a fascinating look at medieval Spain, but it provided insight into later European history–political and intellectual.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo. 2011. Boo immersed herself in this slum community next to the airport in Mumbai, where competition for food and shelter makes people into adversaries of their neighbors rather than co-competitors. It’s  a painful book to read but Boo’s attachment to the denizens of Annawadi makes for riveting characterizations. Your heart breaks for the young adults who yearn to escape. Winner of the National Book Award.

When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine by Monica Wood. 2012. Wood’s story of growing up in a company town in upstate New York doesn’t contain violence or addiction, just the insights of a good writer telling about a particular time and place, the 1950s and 1960s in a small town. Perceptive and rewarding.

Thrumpton Hall by Miranda Seymour. 2008. I was intrigued by the reviews of this, but my local library never bought it so eventually I put it on my nook and was delighted with Seymour’s memoir of growing up in a beautiful country house in Nottinghamshire with a father who made her life miserable. Of course, he made his own life miserable too. Funny, sad, and very entertaining.

1493: Uncovering the New World that Columbus Created by Charles Mann. 2011. The discovery of the New World had far-reaching effects, as species of plants and animals were transported from the Old World to the New and vice versa. This Columbian Exchange, as it’s called, shaped the world we live in today in so respects. Every chapter had an “aha” moment for me. Mann connects the dots, puts in perspective things that we may know as isolated incidents or events. Just a few of the things I found fascinating: that there was trade between South America and China in the 1500s; that there was a “Little Ice Age” in Europe from 1550-1750; that the glut of silver that flowed from South America to Spain in the 1500s made it easy for Spain to go to war in Europe; that until the end of the 18th century African slaves outnumbered Europeans in England’s American holdings by 2 to 1.  Mann repeatedly makes the point that 1492 was the beginning of globalization in so many areas, especially agriculture, which in turn led to massive cultural changes that we’re still experiencing today.

Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton by Sara Wheeler. 2009. If you’ve read and loved Isak Dinesen’s classic memoir Out of Africa, you’ll remember Denys, the romantic young Englishman that Dinesen loved and lost. The movie, with Robert Redford playing the role only made him more appealing and romantic. He was charismatic, but the truth, according to Wheeler, was somewhat different than the memoir and the movie would have us believe. Finch-Hatton was a charming, charismatic figure, inspiring love and loyalty in all he met, but he was a wanderer, never certain of what he was meant to do, never able to commit to anyone or anything. He left no diaries so Wheeler has put this bio together from the stories told by his contemporaries and her own astute surmises. She isn’t afraid to insert herself in the narrative, commenting occasionally on the process and I loved this informality.

My Korean Deli: Risking it All for a Convenience Store by Ben Ryder Howe. 2011. What a great New York story this is! Ben Ryder Howe and his wife move into his Korean in-laws’  basement in Staten Island to save up some money but decide to use their savings to purchase a convenience store in Brooklyn for his wife’s mother, Kay.  Howe works at the convenience store by night, keeping his day job at the very highbrow Paris Review, where he works for George Plimpton. The contrast between the two aspects of his life is hilarious, as is Howe’s descriptions of life at the deli. Only in New York.

One response to “The Books I Loved in 2012–Nonfiction

  1. I agree with you about Boo’s book. It was painful to read, but well worth it. The characters are still with me many weeks after closing the book, as are the characters in My Korean Deli. That was a joy to read and even more delightful was hearing the author speak at The Strand. Thanks for setting up that event, and thanks for sharing your favorite reads.

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