I posted a first non-fiction list last week, after I happened to see a non-fiction November hashtag. More in the human behavior category. This week I was reading on the challenges of writing memoir and decided to do another list. I’m not a big reader of memoir. Good memoir draws the reader in and has them asking themselves what they would do if they were in the same place. If the reader can see an easy way out, they’ll get bored with the author not seeing the solution. The same way a character who struggles and keeps making the same mistake can have you going from rooting for them to giving up on them. As I went over my list of picks, I realized not all memoir, and this is certainly because they are about real people, has that perfect uplifting ending. A few of these don’t, but are certainly a testament to human resilience.

1. Surviving the Survivors by Ruth Klein

The author’s research is excellent and she places memories and anecdote from her parents in historical context.  Ruth Klein’s parents were Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust. They both grew up in wealthy families, her father had aristocratic ties and her mother studied medicine with her first husband and went to Paris regularly for dress fittings. When the Nazis invaded Poland, they both fled east into Russia. Her father was taken prisoner by the Russians, like many others, suspected of being a spy for the Germans. Her mother nearly starved and gave birth to her sister in atrocious conditions. Although they survived, Ruth’s parents remained irreparably damaged, inflicting their own torment on their children. I suspect they both had severe PTSD and her father obviously suffered the effects of cranial trauma, from beatings in the Russians prison.  

He was unable to hold a job and prone to fits of rage making him extremely violent. He beat Ruth and her siblings throughout their childhood. Her mother, who could best be described as overwhelmed and at worst deeply in the throes of PTSD and/or heavily medicated, failed to protect her children. Surviving the Survivors is a tragic story.

2. Ru by Kim Thuy

Kim Thuy left  Vietnam with her family as one of the thousands of boat people who came to Canada. The story moves between her memories of her childhood in Vietnam, abandoning everything and fleeing the country, arriving in Canada as refugees and rebuilding their lives, and her present day life as a wife and mother to two boys, one of whom is autistic.

Ru was very well received and Canada where it has  won several literary prizes. It has also been published in 18 other countries.

3. How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams

If you read last week’s non-fiction November blog you know that I’m a big Scott Adams fan and recommended Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter. Adams talks about the importance of setting up systems as opposed to goals how to develop your skill set. He also has an interesting take on the part manifestation and just plain dumb luck play in success.

But there’s a lesson here also: never miss an opportunity to learn and build your skill stack. Adams went from a job in corporate America to one of the best know comic strip creators. Mostly because when opportunity arrived, he was ready. 

4. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar is Plath’s semi autobiographical story of a young woman suffering from depression. Told in the first person narrative, it begins when 19-year-old Esther wins a month-long internship at a magazine in New York and continues upon her return home to New England. Her behavior becomes stranger but she doesn’t seem to realize how much or what it means. There’s always a rationalization. It’s a perfect ‘show don’t tell’ narrative where the reader, from their objective standpoint, sees what is happening even if the character doesn’t. It’s a very interesting take on depression from a purely subjective point of view. Sadly, Plath committed suicide at the age of 30. 

Have you read any of these? What non-fiction do you recommend?

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