Category Archives: Non-fiction November 2023

November wrap-up

As is often the case, my posting petered out towards the end of the month. We had a family vacation to Disneyland planned for the 13th through the 18th, and that completely blew up my reading & blogging. When I travel I stay off the internet as much as possible, to focus on my family and on the experience itself. In addition, theme parks are a physically demanding experience – I walked between 8 & 10 miles a day all 5 days we were there.

Then, of course, once we got back, it was Thanksgiving week, so I spent a lot of time catching up on my work contract and cooking for the holiday.

I ended up finishing 7 non-fiction books:

  1. Hell’s Half-Acre by Susan Jonusas
  2. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
  3. Homegrown: Timothy McVeigh and the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism by Jeffrey Toobin
  4. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
  5. Ultra-Processed People by Chris van Tulleken
  6. The Great Dechurching by Jim Davis & Michael Graham (with Ryan P. Burge)
  7. Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova

I am also currently reading The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein. It’s a long one, and I only have 12 more days on my loan, so I’m trying to read 100 pages a day, because if I don’t finish it, I will have to put it on hold again, and wait for a copy.

I also read a number of novellas this month, for #NovNov23:

  1. Foster by Claire Keegan
  2. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (I’m not sure that this one actually counts, since it’s technically non-fiction, but the page length is right)
  3. Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold
  4. Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
  5. A New York Christmas by Anne Perry (all of Anne Perry’s Christmas stories are novella length)
  6. A Christmas Escape by Anne Perry
  7. A Christmas Hope by Anne Perry

I’m still not going to claim to be the biggest fan of the novella, but in terms of technical virtuosity, Claire Keegan is an amazing writer. Both of her novellas are beautifully written, without a word out of place.

December is going to be noteworthy for two things: Dean Street December – because the lovely blogger Liz Dexter at Adventures in Reading . . . is reprising her wonderful event from last year – and Christmas mysteries! This is a favorite time of my reading year.

Book Pairing: The Mutual Admiration Society + Gaudy Night

The Mutual Admiration SocietyThe Mutual Admiration Society
by Mo Moulton
Rating: ★★★½
Publication Date: November 5, 2019
Genre: non-fiction
Pages: 384
ReRead?: No
Project: halloween bingo

A group biography of renowned crime novelist Dorothy L. Sayers and the Oxford women who stood at the vanguard of equal rights.

Dorothy L. Sayers is now famous for her Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane detective series, but she was equally well known during her life for an essay asking "Are Women Human?" Women's rights were expanding rapidly during Sayers's lifetime; she and her friends were some of the first women to receive degrees from Oxford. Yet, as historian Mo Moulton reveals, it was clear from the many professional and personal obstacles they faced that society was not ready to concede that women were indeed fully human.

Dubbing themselves the Mutual Admiration Society, Sayers and her classmates remained lifelong friends and collaborators as they fought for a truly democratic culture that acknowledged their equal humanity.

Gaudy NightGaudy Night
by Dorothy Sayers
Series: Lord Peter Wimsey #10
Publication Date: January 1, 1935
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949)
Pages: 528
ReRead?: Yes
Project: 2024 read my hoard

When Harriet Vane attends her Oxford reunion, known as the Gaudy, the prim academic setting is haunted by a rash of bizarre pranks: scrawled obscenities, burnt effigies, and poison-pen letters, including one that says, "Ask your boyfriend with the title if he likes arsenic in his soup." Some of the notes threaten murder; all are perfectly ghastly; yet in spite of their scurrilous nature, all are perfectly worded. And Harriet finds herself ensnared in a nightmare of romance and terror, with only the tiniest shreds of clues to challenge her powers of detection, and those of her paramour, Lord Peter Wimsey.

My second book pairing is focused on Dorothy Sayers and her circle of friends at Oxford during WWI. I read The Mutual Admiration Society last year and really enjoyed it a lot. It’s not just focused on Dorothy Sayers, who is definitely the most well-known of the women who are profiled with its pages, but it also followed the lives of her other friends and associates. They lived during a time of extraordinary culture change, and the book chronicled how they reacted to, and benefited from, those cultural changes as individuals who sought meaning in their lives.

Any of Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey series would pair well with this book, but I chose Gaudy Night specifically because it is Sayer’s manifesto, arguing that educating women is valuable, that women can be scholars, that work is work whether it is performed by a man or a woman, that intellectual work is valuable and that women should have the personal agency to do the work they are best suited to do, whether that work involves marriage and children, or not, and whether society approves of women doing that work, or believe it should be reserved for men. It is a book that I have read, and re-read, and will continue to read in the future.

Book pairing: My Life in Middlemarch + Middlemarch

by George Eliot
Rating: ★★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1871
Genre: classic
Pages: 853
ReRead?: Yes

George Eliot's Victorian masterpiece: a magnificent portrait of a provincial town and its inhabitants

George Eliot's novel, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, explores a fictional nineteenth-century Midlands town in the midst of modern changes. The proposed Reform Bill promises political change; the building of railroads alters both the physical and cultural landscape; new scientific approaches to medicine incite public division; and scandal lurks behind respectability. The quiet drama of ordinary lives and flawed choices are played out in the complexly portrayed central characters of the novel--the idealistic Dorothea Brooke; the ambitious Dr. Lydgate; the spendthrift Fred Vincy; and the steadfast Mary Garth. The appearance of two outsiders further disrupts the town's equilibrium--Will Ladislaw, the spirited nephew of Dorothea's husband, the Rev. Edward Casaubon, and the sinister John Raffles, who threatens to expose the hidden past of one of the town's elite. Middlemarch displays George Eliot's clear-eyed yet humane understanding of characters caught up in the mysterious unfolding of self-knowledge.

This Penguin Classics edition uses the second edition of 1874 and features an introduction and notes by Eliot-biographer Rosemary Ashton. In her introduction, Ashton discusses themes of social change in Middlemarch, and examines the novel as an imaginative embodiment of Eliot's humanist beliefs.

I have read Middlemarch three times. The first was in college, the second in my thirties, and the third was earlier this year. Each time I read it, I find things that I missed the other times that I have read it.

This last time, I found myself in sympathy with Tertius Lydgate, more than I ever had before. He made such an unwise decision when he married Rosamund, and she slowly smothered the life from him. Dorothea, eventually, finds a way to a real marriage built on respect and affection. Poor Lydgate, on the other hand, is just stuck in an arid, sterile marriage with a childish, vacuous, deceitful woman of no understanding. Rosamund never changes. How awful would it be to be married to someone utterly incapable of emotional growth or insight?

My Life in MiddlemarchMy Life in Middlemarch
by Rebecca Mead
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 28, 2014
Genre: memoir
Pages: 293
ReRead?: No

Rebecca Mead was a young woman in an English coastal town when she first read George Eliot's Middlemarch, regarded by many as the greatest English novel. After gaining admission to Oxford, and moving to the United States to become a journalist, through several love affairs, then marriage and family, Mead read and reread Middlemarch. The novel, which Virginia Woolf famously described as "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people," offered Mead something that modern life and literature did not.

In this wise and revealing work of biography, reporting, and memoir, Rebecca Mead leads us into the life that the book made for her, as well as the many lives the novel has led since it was written. Employing a structure that deftly mirrors that of the novel, My Life in Middlemarch takes the themes of Eliot's masterpiece--the complexity of love, the meaning of marriage, the foundations of morality, and the drama of aspiration and failure--and brings them into our world. Offering both a fascinating reading of Eliot's biography and an exploration of the way aspects of Mead's life uncannily echo that of Eliot herself.

I love bookish memoirs, and all the better when the bookish memoir focuses on a book that I have loved. I don’t think that I would recommend this book to a person who has never read Middlemarch, or who has read and disliked it. In order to really enjoy My Life in Middlemarch, it’s necessary to be at least moderately enthusiastic about the primary source material. However, I found that reading it while I was reading Middlemarch added a lot of enjoyment to my reread.

The book itself is a blend of criticism and personal essay, and includes a fair amount of biographical information about George Eliot. This makes it really helpful as an adjunct to Middlemarch itself.

NF November Week 3: Book Pairings

Pairing fiction + non-fiction is something that I really enjoy. It’s quite serendipitous and usually starts when I read a fiction book and it piques my interest in a specific subject. In a sense it’s an analog variation on the internet rabbit hole.

I also like to pair author-specific fiction projects with biographies or other critical materials. So, for example, I’ve not only read all of Austen’s novels, I’ve also read a couple of biographies about her, and some non-fiction focusing on the regency era.

This week, I’m going to give some suggestions for pairings that I’ve found really enjoyable! I hope that something sparks your interest!

NF Topics I love: the bibliomemoir, books about books, and other bookishness

Are there readers who don’t love books about books and other people’s experience reading them? Maybe – I don’t know. For me, though, this is major comfort reading. I don’t think I’ve ever read one I didn’t at least find tolerable, and I’ve read a few that I return to again and again. Here’s a collage of covers.

I am always looking for new books on this general topic, so if you know of any good ones, let me know below!

NF Topics I love: injustice, poverty and America

It’s not exactly correct to say that I “love” this topic. It’s really more accurate to say that I feel compelled to look my own country, culture and systems directly in the eye, and acknowledge where they (we) fall short. And they (we) fall short. A lot.

One of the ways that I do this is through non-fiction. Earlier this year I posted about three books that fit into this general topic, which you can find here (the books are Glass Houses by Brian Alexander, Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond & The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters upon Your Shore by Jared Yates Sexton). I’m not going to revisit them here, except to say that they were all worth reading, but Poverty, by America was the stand-out that I think everyone should read.

I’ve picked eight other books to highlight here, as well:

  • Race in America, I think that Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration is absolutely indispensable. It’s long, but it’s also incredibly readable, heartbreaking and unforgettable.
  • Housing unaffordability and the housing crisis, Nomadland by Jessica Bruder and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond both address the issue, although from different perspectives.
  • America’s overdose crisis: I haven’t read Dopesick by Beth Macy, although I intend to, but I have read both Dreamland: the True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic and The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth by Sam Quinones and thought both were worth reading.
  • Politics and democracy: The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer, and, as a bonus, The View from Flyover Country: Essays by Sarah Kendzior
  • Income Inequality: Squeezed by Alissa Quart

In addition, my TBR on these topics is quite long – here are a few recent additions. These are books that I haven’t read, so I can’t really recommend them. If you have read them, let me know your thoughts!

  • Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism by Anne Case & Angus Deaton
  • Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream by Alissa Quart
  • How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America by Priya Fielding-Singh
  • Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health by Marion Nestle
  • America, the Farewell Tour by Chris Hedges
  • American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of America by Jon Meacham


NF Topics I love: narrative non-fiction

According to the website Masterclass:

Narrative nonfiction, also known as creative nonfiction or literary nonfiction, is a true story written in the style of a fiction novel. The narrative nonfiction genre contains factual prose that is written in a compelling way—facts told as a story. While the emphasis is on the storytelling itself, narrative nonfiction must remain as accurate to the truth as possible.

Using this definition, I think that probably the first book using this style that I read was A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr, which I read around the time it was published, in 1995 (all title links are to the GR book page). It’s sometimes difficult for me to distinguish “narrative” non-fiction from just garden-variety non-fiction, though. For the most part, when I think of narrative NF, I think of books that are sort of pot-boilery, that more obviously sets out to hold the reader’s attention by using devices like suspense, foreshadowing, irony and vignette, as opposed to it’s dryer cousin.

Here is a round half dozen suggestions for great narrative non-fiction that I would recommend to anyone, even readers who primarily read fiction, or who are generally turned off by the dry reputation of non-fiction.

  • Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen: there was a point where this book was everywhere, back in the early 2000’s, and for good reason. It is a ripping story.
  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson: this is the only book by Bill Bryson that I’ve read, and I don’t know why because it was hilarious. I still remember sitting on my couch reading next to my husband, who was watching t.v., and laughing to the point that he made me read part of the book out loud to him because I was being so annoying.
  • Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer: I have also read Missoula, Into Thin Air and Into the Wild by Krakauer, and his books are riveting. I will concede that I have heard him criticized for presenting a biased perspective, especially in Into Thin Air, so YMMV.
  • Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann: Martin Scorsese recently adapted this for film, although I haven’t seen it yet. The book is really good, although also deeply infuriating. Grann also wrote The Lost City of Z, which is also terrific.
  • The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan: I actually mentioned this book in my review of Fever in the Heartland. It’s a deep dive into the dust storms of the 1930’s, and is bleak, heartbreaking, but also a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Egan won the Pulitzer for it in 2005.
  • Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams: This is the only book on my list that I’m not positive really belongs here. I read it a long time ago, and it’s a memoir as well as a piece of nature writing, but I remember being transfixed by it.

I’ve tried not to overlap with the other topics I am planning to discuss later in the week, so I’ve left off some books that would definitely fit here that I’m planning on talking about in a future post.

NF November Week 2: Choosing Non-fiction

The topic for this week is: choosing nonfiction.

What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

I haven’t ever really given this much thought, so it was interesting to sit down and try to figure it out. There are a few things that come to mind when I think back on how I’ve chosen my non-fiction reads.

  • One way of picking up a piece of non-fiction, for me, is the serendipitous way that a book will sort of make it’s way in front of me. Maybe it’s a topic I’m interested in, and I see it come up on Goodreads a couple of time because some of my friends are reading it. Or, I’ll listen to a podcast and it will be mentioned. Or, and this is especially true of narrative non-fiction, a particular book can just be everywhere, all at once. This is how I ended up reading Killers of the Flower Moon, which has now been adapted to film. I came across it on GR, and, as well, I had a friend in my “real” life who was reading it, who really sold me on it.
  • But, there are also a lot of times that I get interested in a topic from a piece of fiction, or a specific author, which will lead down the rabbit hole of non-fiction. I have some posts already drafted to talk about this “book pairing” process, because that’s the theme for next week, but one example of this would be my love of WWI, interwar & WWII British women’s fiction, which is what caused me read The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson, and to seek out war diaries, like A Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain and Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson.
  • Unlike fiction, where I am an unapologetic cover hound, I don’t really think that covers or titles influence me when I’m picking non-fiction. It’s all about the theme or the content.

When it comes to themes or topics, I can’t get enough of:

  • Bibliomemoirs. I love them so much that I think I will probably write one at some point, just for myself. And, in a way, isn’t a book blog just a long form, endless bibliomemoir? I love to read about other bookish people and their reading experiences.
  • Cult memoirs: I am strangely fixated by books written by (especially women) authors who have escaped from authoritarian or fundamentalist religious organizations. I went through a month or so a couple of years ago where I basically mainlined them like heroin. Maybe this is because, as a godless heathen, reading about fucked up religious experiences (that too often seem to involve actual sexual abuse) makes me feel better about my choice to leave religion behind as a young woman.
  • Golden age mystery: I love vintage, Golden Age mysteries (especially Agatha Christie), so I love picking up pretty much anything that goes behind the scenes of those authors, publishers, books, etc. Martin Edwards, in particular is brilliant at this (The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, The Golden Age of Murder and Life of Crime are all exceptional, and are TBR exploders) and , but I also really enjoyed John Curren’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, Poirot by Mark Aldridge, David Suchet’s Poirot and Me, and A is for Arsenic by Kathryn Harkup. I also read Lucy Worsley’s new Christie biography Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman in April and loved it. If I see a new book on this topic, I buy it. Immediately.
  • History: I have a range of historical topics that interest me – far too many to list here. Suffice it to say that if I want to read something non-fiction, I’ll often turn to a time period or historical event that intrigues me and find a book to match it.
  • Narrative non-fiction: especially around social justice, environmental, or social history issues.

That’s not all, but that’s enough for now!

The month so far: NF November and #NovNov23

First of all, today was clock switching day for us in the U.S., which always discombobulates me a little bit. In the fall, when we “fall back,” the discombobulation is all positive. I get an extra hour! Yay!

So far, I’ve read two novellas and finished on non-fiction book:

Hell's Half Acre: The Untold Story of the Benders, America's First Serial Killer FamilyHell's Half Acre: The Untold Story of the Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
by Susan Jonusas
Rating: ★★★
Publication Date: March 1, 2022
Genre: non-fiction
Pages: 345
ReRead?: No
Project: non-fiction november

A suspense filled tale of murder on the American frontier—shedding new light on a family of serial killers in Kansas, whose horrifying crimes gripped the attention of a nation still reeling from war.

In 1873 the people of Labette County, Kansas made a grisly discovery. Buried by a trailside cabin beneath an orchard of young apple trees were the remains of countless bodies. Below the cabin itself was a cellar stained with blood. The Benders, the family of four who once resided on the property were nowhere to be found. The discovery sent the local community and national newspapers into a frenzy that continued for decades, sparking an epic manhunt for the Benders.

The idea that a family of seemingly respectable homesteaders—one among the thousands relocating farther west in search of land and opportunity after the Civil War—were capable of operating "a human slaughter pen" appalled and fascinated the nation. But who the Benders really were, why they committed such a vicious killing spree and whether justice ever caught up to them is a mystery that remains unsolved to this day. Set against the backdrop of postbellum America, Hell’s Half-Acre explores the environment capable of allowing such horrors to take place. Drawing on extensive original archival material, Susan Jonusas introduces us to a fascinating cast of characters, many of whom have been previously missing from the story. Among them are the families of the victims, the hapless detectives who lost the trail, and the fugitives that helped the murderers escape.

Hell’s Half-Acre is a journey into the turbulent heart of nineteenth century America, a place where modernity stalks across the landscape, violently displacing existing populations and building new ones. It is a world where folklore can quickly become fact and an entire family of criminals can slip through a community’s fingers, only to reappear in the most unexpected of places.

I liked this one, but I didn’t love it because there was something missing for me. I think it’s probably just the basic reality that there weren’t a lot of sources available to the author, so some of it felt like speculation, and it felt incomplete. There wasn’t much meat on the bones; I don’t really feel like I know a lot more than I would have from reading a long form article in a magazine. It’s a fast read, though, and is entertaining enough to keep me turning pages.

In PatagoniaIn Patagonia
by Bruce Chatwin
Rating: ★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1977
Genre: travel and geography
Pages: 199
ReRead?: No
Project: non-fiction november

An exhilarating look at a place that still retains the exotic mystery of a far-off, unseen land, Bruce Chatwin’s exquisite account of his journey through Patagonia teems with evocative descriptions, remarkable bits of history, and unforgettable anecdotes. Fueled by an unmistakable lust for life and adventure and a singular gift for storytelling, Chatwin treks through “the uttermost part of the earth”— that stretch of land at the southern tip of South America, where bandits were once made welcome—in search of almost forgotten legends, the descendants of Welsh immigrants, and the log cabin built by Butch Cassidy. An instant classic upon its publication in 1977, In Patagonia is a masterpiece that has cast a long shadow upon the literary world.

My second non-fiction this month is shelved on Goodreads under multiple categories: travel, non-fiction, history, adventure, memoir, biography, nature. All of them fit, and, really, none of them fit. A favorite – and overused – descriptor of book reviewers is “genre busting.” Yeah, it fits here. There’s also a fair amount of mythologizing happening in this book, I think. How much of the information about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is based in fact? No idea. I’m reminded, just a little bit, of A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, although I found Fermor quite a bit more charming than I found Chatwin.

Patagonia is an odd place, though, and the thing that I did like about this book is that I feel like it did justice to the oddness. It is a place that was repeatedly colonized, and Chatwin introduces the reader to many of the different cultures that are represented there, and the effect that the geography is having upon the individuals involved. I’m not sure that a book like this would be published today, in our era of sensitivity to colonialism. The indigenous people of Patagonia are not entirely absent, but a lot more time was spent with the settlers. I kept thinking about Agatha Christie’s character Arthur Hasting and his foray into “the Argentine” as a cattle rancher, and, as well, the former Nazis who fled to South America at the end of WWII.

I don’t think I’ll be reading more by Chatwin, I didn’t enjoy this enough to make me seek out more of his books. I am reminded, though, that I want to read the other two books in Fermor’s trilogy of travel memoirs: Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road: from the Iron Gates to Mount Athos.

Maigret Defends HimselfMaigret Defends Himself
by Georges Simenon
Translated from: French
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Inspector Maigret #63
Publication Date: January 1, 1964
Genre: mystery: silver age (1950-1979)
Pages: 160
ReRead?: No
Project: inspector maigret

For the first time in his career Inspector Maigret receives written summons to the Prefect's office where he learns that he has been accused of assaulting a young woman. With his career and reputation on the line, Maigret must fight to prove his innocence.

Penguin is publishing the entire series of Maigret novels in new translations. This novel has been published in a previous translation as Maigret on the Defensive.

I have ready so many of Simenon’s Maigret mysteries over the last couple of years. This is a later Maigret (number 63, which really just seems nuts that someone could write 63 books using the same character), published in the 1960’s. Maigret is 3 years shy of the French mandatory retirement age of 55, which makes him 52 years old. It feels like Maigret was around 50 years old at the start of the series 33 years earlier, in 1931. Apparently, Simenon wasn’t particularly interested in character growth.

This is a bit of an odd one, although admittedly, I feel like I often close a Maigret and mutter to myself “well, this was a bit of an odd one.” This is probably a testament to Simenon’s skill as an author, that I don’t feel like his stories are formulaic. We are in Paris for the entirety of this book, and Maigret is investigating . . . himself. Someone is trying to set him up, and he has to figure out why. At a slender 160 pages, this was my first novella of #NovNov23.

by Claire Keegan
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 2007
Genre: fiction, novella
Pages: 128
ReRead?: No
Project: #novnov

Claire Keegan's piercing contemporary classic Foster is a heartbreaking story of childhood, loss, and love; now released as a standalone book for the first time ever in the US

It is a hot summer in rural Ireland. A child is taken by her father to live with relatives on a farm, not knowing when or if she will be brought home again. In the Kinsellas' house, she finds an affection and warmth she has not known and slowly, in their care, begins to blossom. But there is something unspoken in this new household--where everything is so well tended to--and this summer must soon come to an end.

This was definitely the standout book of the week for me. Keegan has two novellas that I’m planning to read this month – this one and Small Things Like These. She is a beautifully economical writer, and Foster was compelling, sad, and impactful. A perfect gem of a book, without a word out of place, it gave me all of the feels.

When I read a book by an Irish author, I always want to read more books by Irish authors.

A Katherine May Duology

Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious AgeEnchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age
by Katherine May
Rating: ★★★½
Publication Date: February 28, 2023
Genre: essays, non-fiction
Pages: 212
ReRead?: No

From the New York Times-bestselling author of Wintering, an invitation to rediscover the feelings of awe and wonder available to us all.

Many of us feel trapped in a grind of constant change: rolling news cycles, the chatter of social media, our families split along partisan lines. We feel fearful and tired, on edge in our bodies, not quite knowing what has us perpetually depleted. For Katherine May, this low hum of fatigue and anxiety made her wonder what she was missing. Could there be a different way to relate to the world, one that would allow her to feel more rested and at ease, even as seismic changes unfold on the planet? Might there be a way for all of us to move through life with curiosity and tenderness, sensitized to the subtle magic all around?

In Enchantment, May invites the reader to come with her on a journey to reawaken our innate sense of wonder and awe. With humor, candor, and warmth, she shares stories of her own struggles with work, family, and the aftereffects of pandemic, particularly feelings of overwhelm as the world rushes to reopen. Craving a different way to live, May begins to explore the restorative properties of the natural world, moving through the elements of earth, water, fire, and air and identifying the quiet traces of magic that can be found only when we look for them. Through deliberate attention and ritual, she unearths the potency and nourishment that come from quiet reconnection with our immediate environment. Blending lyricism and storytelling, sensitivity and empathy, Enchantment invites each of us to open the door to human experience in all its sensual complexity, and to find the beauty waiting for us there.

Enchantment by Katherine May is my second book by Ms. May, which I checked out from the library earlier this year when it was published in February. Like Wintering, it’s a bit difficult to pigeonhole, being a memoir, a book of essays, and, as well, a bit of straight up science writing. Unfortunately, it didn’t resonate with me quite so well as May’s first book, which I read back in 2022.

by Katherine May
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: November 10, 2020
Genre: memoir, non-fiction
Pages: 241
ReRead?: No

Sometimes you slip through the cracks: unforeseen circumstances like an abrupt illness, the death of a loved one, a break up, or a job loss can derail a life. These periods of dislocation can be lonely and unexpected. For May, her husband fell ill, her son stopped attending school, and her own medical issues led her to leave a demanding job. Wintering explores how she not only endured this painful time, but embraced the singular opportunities it offered.

A moving personal narrative shot through with lessons from literature, mythology, and the natural world, May’s story offers instruction on the transformative power of rest and retreat. Illumination emerges from many sources: solstice celebrations and dormice hibernation, C.S. Lewis and Sylvia Plath, swimming in icy waters and sailing arctic seas.

Ultimately Wintering invites us to change how we relate to our own fallow times. May models an active acceptance of sadness and finds nourishment in deep retreat, joy in the hushed beauty of winter, and encouragement in understanding life as cyclical, not linear. A secular mystic, May forms a guiding philosophy for transforming the hardships that arise before the ushering in of a new season.

There was something about this book that really worked for me – I think there was a bit of serendipity in my decision to read it. I was, myself, in a bit of a difficult time, experiencing a period of dislocation. It was the tail end of the pandemic, and work was really getting me down. Things were pretty miserable, I was pretty miserable, it was the dead of winter (literally and figuratively – it was January, 2022) and I stumbled onto the book.

I wish that I had read it ten years ago. Maybe even twenty years ago. This would have been difficult, because of course, it wasn’t published until 2020, but nonetheless, May’s open acknowledgment that some years are light and some years are dark, but both are normal, was an extraordinary insight that I had somehow avoided making on my own. I’m very GenX – I’m a buck up. shut up and get it done sort of person. But, of course, there are times when all of the bucking up, shutting up, and getting it done don’t really make me feel any better. Sure – I feel better about the thing that was the issue, but that doesn’t mean that the issue has gone away.

A good example of this was my career, from which I am now retired. There were years when I was able to handle the stress, manage my caseload with aplomb, get my work done and support my colleagues. And then there were years when I pretended that I was able to do all of those thing, but underneath, I was a frigging mess. It would have helped me, personally, to be able to offer myself some grace when things were bad. Maybe I wouldn’t have burned out. More likely, I would still have burned out, because my work eventually burns out everyone, but I would have been kinder to myself along the way.

So, of the two, Wintering was the one that worked for me better, although I liked both of them.