July Days and Nonfiction

I hope everyone is enjoying their summer … as much as one can during these strange Covid times. Perhaps while sheltering in place you are reading more? Or is it less? I seem steady but not overly quick these days. And the past couple of weeks I’ve kept busy with nonfiction books, which is a bit unusual since I usually prefer fiction. Go figure. Of nonfiction, I mostly like the genres of: memoirs/biographies, histories, and natural histories … which by chance are the three I picked up recently. Which nonfiction do you prefer? I know there are a lot of cooking gurus out there, but unfortunately I am not one of them. I enjoy gardening and sports though seldom read books about them … unless they’re in a good novel, right?

Meanwhile last week was my book assistant’s birthday; Stella turned 8 on July 3, which in dog years is getting up there (like me). She’s been having a good summer with twice daily walks and swims in the river on warm days. In general she’s a spoiled girl with food and attention. She overlooks what I read but is usually put to sleep by most books I pick up. I try not to take it too personally. Meanwhile I hope everyone had a pleasant holiday last week. Did you see fireworks or have a barbecue? It seemed pretty subdued here though tennis games and bike riding were in full swing. And now I’ll leave you with a few reviews of books I finished lately. 

A Bookshop in Berlin: The Rediscovered Memoir of One Woman’s Harrowing Escape From the Nazis by Francoise Frenkel / Simon & Schuster/ 287 pages 

I listened to this woman’s short memoir as an audiobook twice and thought her story was amazing. I love that her book was rediscovered in 2010 apparently at a charity sale … after it had been forgotten about since its original publication in 1945 under the title “No Place to Lay One’s Head.” It was just published in English last year. 

Born in Poland, Jewish, and educated in Paris, Francoise Frenkel’s true desire was to become a bookseller and own a bookshop, which she did when she opened a French bookstore in Berlin in 1921. As a lover of French literature, she managed her bookshop with all her gusto and joy, making it soon a beacon to various poets, writers, scholars and ambassadors of the day. But with the decade’s passing, life for Jews and international immigrants grew dim in the mid-1930s with the rise of the Nazis … and in 1939 after the brutalness of Kristallnacht, she finally abandoned her Berlin bookshop and fled to Paris and later to the south of France, first to Avignon and then to Nice. 

Told in first person narration, the memoir is a compelling eyewitness account of her life in Berlin during those years and later in Occupied France, where at first she finds things endurable but later after the 1942 census and the roundups started, things turned to hell. She recounts the arrests she witnessed, the deportations to concentration camps, the suicides … and her own efforts to survive, slipping from safe house to safe house, hiding out and trying to get viable documents to first stay in France as a Polish refugee … then to try to flee on a visa to neutral Switzerland.

The French police and militia, like the Nazis, in her account are barbarous and brutal, though she also spotlights the courage and kindness of the French people who helped hide her along the way. How she evades being caught and deported to the camps is at times miraculous and a white-knuckle experience. Eventually all the hardships she endures (all the while worrying about her family in Poland) and her ingenuity pay off as she’s able to make a few attempts to get away, which is such a relief by the time it finally comes that it sort of made me feel like balling. 

I found her memoir to be an important historical document and account of what happened from 1939 to 1943 (first in Berlin then in southern France) and it increased my understanding of those brutal days during WWII. I know there are many worthy Holocaust and Occupied France memoirs out there, but I was glad a blog pointed me to this one as not to miss … it’s by a bookseller no less with a particular vantage point — as a Polish refugee, a one-time Berlin bookstore owner, and a patriot of France. 

PS. It’s interesting to note: that nowhere in this memoir does she mention her husband who apparently started the bookstore with her in Berlin but then fled to France in 1933 (years before her) and eventually perished at Auschwitz in 1942. Hmm, perhaps it was due to a falling out or because of some other mystery. 

She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman by Erica Armstrong Dunbar / 37 Ink (part of Atria Books) / 176 pages / 2019

Next I listened twice to this lively biography of another amazing woman as an audiobook narrated by actress Robin Miles and wow I learned so much. From school history I knew Tubman escaped slavery in Maryland and then returned to lead other enslaved members of her family and friends to freedom along the secret Underground Railroad (of abolitionist shelters) to the North … but other particular details of her life and accomplishments were a bit hazy to me. 

That’s where this book and author (a history professor at Rutgers) really brought Tubman (born Araminta “Minty” Ross around 1822) to life in an accessible and three-dimensional way. Afterwards I rented the 2019 film version “Harriet” but didn’t like it nearly much as this book, which gave a more accurate and fuller historical picture of Tubman’s life story, which involved her doing much more than I ever remembered. 

Tubman’s daring trials are all played out here — her brutal life in slavery, her dramatic 1849 escape and journey of 90+ miles to reach freedom, and her many return trips in the 1850s to lead and help approximately 70 family members and friends escape to the North. I didn’t realize she was a petite 5-foot-tall woman who possessed a lot of strength … but also endured a serious head injury (a fractured skull) early in her life from a heavy object that was thrown and hit her that put her into a sleep at times. She believed these episodes gave her visions that she interpreted as revelations from God.

It was also interesting to know about her meeting with abolitionist John Brown and that she helped him recruit supporters for his 1859 anti-slavery raid on Harpers Ferry, as well as her role in the Civil War as a nurse and scout for the Union Army, who in 1863 guided an armed mission on a raid along the Combahee River in South Carolina, which liberated more than 700 slaves. Tubman also knew the great orator Frederick Douglass and other notables of the day and  gave lectures to abolitionist audiences and later supported the suffragette movement. In 1859 she bought property in Auburn, New York, from U.S. Sen. William Seward, and went on to earn wages and a military pension that were — with a lot of effort — finally awarded to her late in her life for her efforts in the War. She married twice (being 22 years older than husband #2), and had many relatives, but only one adopted daughter. 

Though much has been written about this iconic figure before, I thought this short but enticing book gives many fascinating details in a fresh way that kept me captivated throughout her life. Perhaps I hadn’t realized that: (a) so much was truly known about her, and (b) Tubman was involved with many things beyond the Underground Railroad. 

She had come out of a world of slavery and the oral tradition and some particulars of her life and the routes she took and people along the Railroad were kept secret or are unknown. Still she became widely known and respected during her lifetime, fighting for notable causes and assisting others for most of her 91 years until her passing in 1913. She wasn’t one to give up or back down, and despite all the slaveholders trying to catch her during her years guiding slaves to escape on the Underground Railroad, she says:  “I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”

The Hidden Life of Owls: The Science and Spirit of Nature’s Most Elusive Birds by Leigh Calvez / Sasquatch Books / 224 pages / 2016 

Finally, I’ve gotten into owls lately. They’re just the coolest birds that can, among other things, turn their heads 270 degrees and they have a knack for nearly silent flight. I came across this book that turned out to be a good intro into learning about them through 11 different owl species the author goes out to watch and learn about mostly in the Pacific Northwest but also in Montana and Alaska. Some of what is described and discussed is: where owls live and nest, where they migrate to, what they eat, how they raise their young, how males and female duties differ, what terrain they like, when they’re active (mostly at night) and what survival challenges they face. 

As an owl novice I didn’t know, for instance, that owls eat their prey head first (many times whole), and the indigestible parts of their prey become pellets that are regurgitated about 6 to 8 hours later. Most female owls are bigger than males, and they don’t build their own nests but use other birds’ nests or cavities they find. The females alone sit on the eggs in the nest for many weeks at a time, while the male brings her food. And most owls hatch their eggs asynchronously, making the chicks different ages within the nest. I was amazed too how far ranging owls migrate during different seasons from various places including: Russia, Mexico, the American West, and Canada. At times they can arrive in places never expected … like when Snowy Owls were seen in the parking garage at Dulles Airport … perhaps just taking a rest break before heading on their way.  

I have a new appreciation for owls after reading this and hope to go on some hikes to see some around here. So far since they are quite elusive, I’ve only seen the Great Horned Owl but there are many other kinds around the area to look for. The book also introduces various owl experts and conservationists in the field who are working to band the birds to research them to see where they go and measure and weigh them in an effort to study and try to help them. 

It was interesting to see the techniques used for trapping the birds to put a band on their leg, which included: nets and playing recorded owl calls; and trapping others in their burrows with recorded calls; or feeding them mice. The scientists seem to know quite a bit about their behavior by spending years tracking data about them. All in all the book was a helpful primer for me, though it doesn’t include photos of the various species just an illustration at the beginning of each chapter. It’s also not too strong on narrative other than the author’s quest to learn about various owls, though the book is filled with a good sense of wonder and appreciation for these magnetic birds.

That’s all for now. What about you — have you read books on any of these subjects? Stay well.

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38 Responses to July Days and Nonfiction

  1. Lesley in OR says:

    I definitely read more fiction than nonfiction, but when I do read the latter, I lean toward memoirs (including culinary and travel memoirs) and some history. If you enjoy gardening, you might like an older book that I loved. It’s called Around the House and In the Garden by Dominique Browning. All three of your books sound fascinating. Adding them to my list!

    We had a very quiet 4th which is fine with us. It’s so nice to live in a place where there really isn’t any noise (or smoke) from all the fireworks, which is unlike where we used to live in Nebraska. Our poor dog really suffered around the 4th (which was “celebrated” for days and days prior and after the actually holiday), so it was a stressful holiday. Now we get to enjoy the sound of the waves crashing on the shoreline and the wind in the trees. Bliss.

    Be well and happy reading!

    • Susan says:

      Thanks Lesley. Good to hear from you and I’ll look for the gardening book you suggest. I do enjoy being out in the yard. I only heard a few neighborhood fireworks here and I was glad it was pretty quiet. Like you, I enjoy memoirs which seem to have really taken off over the past 5 or 10 years. Your waves on the shore do seem like an idyllic place. Enjoy!

  2. Judy Krueger says:

    All of these books sound great. I have seen A Bookshop in Berlin around lately. Now I am truly interested. I too saw the movie, Harriet. I liked it but husband thought it was too “Hollywood.” I also came across Harriet in Ta Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer. If you say the book is better than the movie, I’m there. And, I love owls! We hear them often at our current home and used to see them perching on the top of tall cypress trees at our last home. I would love to know more.
    Your reviews are wonderful. I wondered why you listened to both audio books twice.
    Happy Birthday to Stella!!

    • Susan says:

      Hey Judy, these audiobooks seemed to only take 3 or 4 days each and were quite interesting so when they ended I started them again, ha. I wanted to remember all the factual details. Thanks for saying that about the reviews … my nonfiction reviews tend to be long-winded … but sometimes I can’t seem to help it. I like keeping the info for reference. Gosh I’d love to see an owl in a cypress tree … I’ve heard owls in the middle of the night in California … hooting, probably hunting all the gophers. Enjoy your week.

  3. Ti says:

    Happy Bday to the Book Assistant! Mine turned 10! Mine LOVES when I read. She hears me sit on the couch and comes running. Sometimes, I just get up to get water and she thinks I am reading so she runs downstairs… false alarm. She likes it best when I read on my Kindle because my hand is free for belly rubs.

    I had a nice lunch outside today with my daughter and her friend. We tried to celebrate this girl’s graduation many times and finally booked the lunch only to have dining rooms close. BUT this was a tea house and they have a lovely outdoor garden area so they were able to accommodate us. I felt very safe. Plus had delightful tea and sandwiches.

    However, there is a dark storm cloud over my head over how high school will be this year. I won’t go into details but the two options we have do not really work for my daughter.

    • Susan says:

      Hey Ti, your Otter Pup is great. I like that she is with you when you read. Mine likes to nap right by my side on the couch. She likes belly rubs too.
      It’s nice you got to celebrate your daughter’s graduation for her today. Nice to have lunch somewhere, on an outside patio! Which grade will she be in for fall? What kind of options are they offering? Online or in class? It’s so hard these days knowing what to do. Blah, I’m so sorry about her upcoming year. take care.

  4. Brian Joseph says:

    An interesting bunch of books. I have been reading a lot of non fiction myself.

    Here on Long Island we are opening most things up. The virus is mostly gone. Overconfidence can bring it back fast, but Cuomo is very aggressive with this thing and it is clear he will lock things down fast at the first sign of a resurgence. Hopefully it will not come to that

    • Susan says:

      Hey Brian: glad to hear that Long Island is looking good. We also have a low amount of cases in western Canada … and the border remains closed which I think Canadians like since most of the U.S. is not looking good. I hope they can reign it in. Perhaps nonfiction reading is easier right now … to concentrate on. Hmm. just a theory!

  5. I love that you are reading about owls. They really are the coolest of birds. It’s interesting that you are turning more to nonfiction these days. I’ve done just the opposite. I’ve hardly read any nonfiction this year and I really do need to work some into my reading schedule. However, I find that truth is often illuminated by fiction and I tend to prefer it for that reason.

    A belated happy birthday to the beautiful Stella. My own two reading assistants turn 9 this year.

    As for the pandemic, it is not looking good in Texas. We are led by idiots, except for the local officials in Houston who are doing their best to protect people with no help at all from the state or from the federal government. We are still staying home, only going out when absolutely necessary.

  6. Susan says:

    Hi Dorothy, so sorry about Texas. Good grief, glad you are staying at home. I worry about the hospitals there filling to capacity. I hope it goes back down.
    You’ll have to post a new photo of your two reading assistants. Do they sit with you while you read? I find animals like that.
    The weird thing is I don’t know how I got into this nonfiction binge. I’m a fiction girl at heart. But maybe my head just wants facts now, & no more lies! This WH is driving us to the brink. Enjoy your garden! & books.

  7. At the wildlife refuge near us, our naturalist group keeps owl pellets. Children separate these and analyze the remains of the creatures the owls eat.

    I’d love to read that book.

    I generally read much more nonfiction than fiction. This year I’ve made a strong effort to try to read more fiction. The effort has failed with me. I’m finding that I’m enjoying my fiction reads less than I did in the past. I think I need to go back to my old habits. They were more satisfying.

    • Susan says:

      Hi Deb, I didn’t realize you read more nonfiction than fiction, interesting! You should go with what is satisfying to read during these times. And that’s very cool about the wildlife refuge nearby and the children studying the Owl pellets. Wow it’s great they are getting into the Owls’ lives. This book helped me understand the Owls’ ways better. I had no idea some of the stuff. Stay well.

  8. Harriet Tubman really was a remarkable women! Sometimes nonfiction just hits the spot. I just finished The Only Plane in the Sky: an oral history of 9/11, which was fantastic.

    • Susan says:

      Hey Helen: great to hear from you. Yeah I must get to Only Plane in the Sky. I’ll stop by your site to see what you say about it. Tubman was a ninja warrior! Have a great week.

  9. Marg says:

    Happy birthday to Stella!
    It is very rare for me to read non fiction. Maybe next year I will make more of an effort in that regard. For this year, I am looking for comfort, and that means fiction.

    We have recently gone back into lockdown, but I haven’t been reading that much anyway, so maybe I will get some solid reading done during this time.

    • Susan says:

      Thanks Marg, Stella enjoyed her bday. I hope your city can get the cases back down again. Nonfiction usually isn’t big with me either. Strange days. Good luck with your reading.

  10. JaneGS says:

    Wasn’t Bookshop in Berlin amazing? I agree, it is a very important historical document–there are so many novels about this time period, but reading about a real person’s experiences in her own words was compelling and moving.

    She Came to Slay sounds amazing – I agree that I had no idea that much was known of Tubman’s life. Will be getting a copy of this book.

    I love owls too. I also feel a thrill when I see or hear one. In addition to the Great Horned Owls that live near us, I’ve seen a Barred Owl in Point Defiance Park in Tacoma and Burrowing Owls in Bear River Nature Preserve in UT and a Northern Saw-Whet Owl (one of the pygmy owls) in Rocky Mt National Park. Whenever I hear about the Snowy Owls showing up around the country, I want to drop everything and try to go and see them. Enjoy your new interest!

    • Susan says:

      Hey Jane: great to hear from you. Wow you’ve seen some great owls! I would love to see those kinds … I think I need to do more exploring in the evenings (though while it’s still light) … so hopefully I can see more. I will report back. Glad to hear you also read A Bookshop in Berlin … it was quite a story, and I was amazed by her perseverance … and everything else. The Tubman book is also very good. I will stop by your site soon. Cheers.

  11. My sister and brother-in-law have an owl nest in their yard and every year they get a small type of owl laying her eggs in it. I should consider that Owl book you are reading as a gift for them. This year one of their neighbors called and said one of the owlets was on their porch. My BIL took it to a raptor rescue site and they think the bird can be fixed up and launched! Cool huh? Have a good week. My Sunday Salon

    • Susan says:

      Hi Anne: Wow that’s good to know. So glad they think the owlet can be saved. Gosh finding an owlet on one’s porch would be worrisome …. great if it can be rescued. I hear some owls like to return to the same nesting areas year after year. Though the Great Horned Owls near here … did not return to their nest near the river this spring …. so we were bummed. But we continue to look. Enjoy your week.

  12. Happy birthday to Stella! I’m reading more this year than I did last year, but it probably won’t be my best reading year ever. That owl book looks really interesting. Have a great week!

    • Susan says:

      Thanks AJ: Stella enjoyed her day! Sounds like you are getting a lot of reading done there. I’ll stop by your site to see what your books are. Cheers.

  13. Interesting post. I generally read more fiction, but my nonfiction numbers have climbed to 40% over the past few years. This year is different (!) and I find myself escaping more and more into fiction. Any nonfiction I am reading needs to be, for now, on the lighter side or totally unrelated to the immediate issues we’re facing. Happy Birthday to Stella!!

    • Susan says:

      Hey thanks JoAnn, Stella had fun. Your switch to (escape) fiction these days makes more sense. Not sure why I’m reading nonfiction now … though these books did take me to worlds far from here. I’ll stop by your site to see if you’ll be on your road trip soon … I hope you take a break from Florida … the cases there are all over the news. Stay well!

  14. I too enjoy nonfiction which is what I host the Nonfiction Reader Challenge 🙂 Thanks for adding your links. I like a variety but it’s often memoirs, history, true crime, social and medical subjects that attract my attention.

    Wishing you a great reading week, stay well!

    • Susan says:

      Thanks Shelleyrae, it’s odd for me to finish three nonfiction in a row … over fiction but I guess it’s just the times. I’m glad you do the nonfiction challenge and will watch for the other reviews. There are a bunch of great books. Have a great week.

  15. Heather says:

    Those are some great non-fiction books you’ve read! I’ve Harriet Tubman’s book on my shelf. I’m excited to get to that one soon. I’ve been able to get more reading in the last few weeks. I’ve been rolling with it and I’m just all over the map about what I’m reading. But the last week or so I’ve been able to sit and get a couple of books completed or have gotten a lot read on some bigger books I’ve been reading.

    I hope you have a great week!

    • Susan says:

      Hey thanks Heather. Sounds like your reading is going better. I’ll stop by your site and see what you’re into now. Neat that you have the Tubman book. I hope you have a great week!

  16. Happy birthday to Stella! Interesting that your reading tastes shifted during this time. Mine have too. I’m avoiding anything too dark or contemporary and reading more historical fiction. I’m adding A Bookshop in Berlin to my to read list because I’m researching an historical novel set in that period but about Jewish refugees who fled the Nazis to the Dominican Republic. I also have a couple more diverse young adult galleys that publishers sent me. The Tubman biography and Owl book sound good too. Great reviews!

    • Susan says:

      Thanks Sarah, glad to hear from you. You’ll definitely want to read A Bookshop in Berlin for your research. Interesting about refugees fleeing to the Dominican Republic. That will be a good book. Good luck with your writing. Stay well.

  17. Catherine says:

    I have GOT to read the Bookshop memoir! It sounds wonderful. I’ve been reading and listening to more nonfiction these days. I’m not sure why it’s working so well for me, but it is. Even better than fiction.

    You know how I am. More disgusted every day and furious that there is nowhere to go to escape. Canada won’t even let us in! I’m sure we’re facing a second lockdown, thanks to people partying on houseboats at the many lakes in northern MI. Numbers have already doubled from June.

    • Susan says:

      Hi Catherine: yeah the Covid world in the States does not sound good at all … sorry to hear about Michigan …. and now I’m traveling across the border to Los Angeles on Monday, yikes. Western Canada is doing so much better. More on the trip later. You’ll like the Bookshop memoir on audio. I can do some nonfiction on audio … but not dense stuff or histories usually. But both the Bookshop & Tubman audios were easy to follow … and kept me attentive the whole time. Be careful out there!

  18. Judee says:

    I’ve been doing a lot of reading and a lot of Netflix watching too. Three of the books that you reviewed interest me: A Bookshop in Berlin, She Came To Slay, and The Hidden of Owls- Thanks for the reviews.

    • Susan says:

      Hi Judee: glad these books interest you! I thought they were all quite good … and I don’t read nonfiction that much. Go figure. Cheers.

  19. Pingback: 2020 Nonfiction Reader Challenge: Monthly Spotlight #7 | book'd out

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