non-fiction

READ THE WORLD: Norway – One of Us: The Story of a Massacre and its Aftermath by Åsne Seierstad

On 22 July 2011, Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 of his fellow Norwegians in a terrorist attack that shocked the world. Many of his victims were teenagers. Following this atrocity, questions began to appear; how and why could this happen? And who was Anders Breivik? One of Us does it’s best to answer these questions and more with extensive witness testimonies and interviews.

One of Us is a very tough read, but it’s a compelling and emotional one too. The book follows Breivik’s life, from growing up with his single mother and half-sister, to being an adult where his grand plans don’t always work out for him. This way you get an insight into his mind. It is often unsettling as you begin to almost understand why he is the way he is, but it’s still difficult to comprehend how someone can have such a hatred for those with differing political views, religion, and social ideals.

Something that I wasn’t expecting was the book to follow a few of Breivik’s young victims; Bano Rashid, Simon Sæbø, Anders Kristiansen and Viljar Hanssen. By following these teenagers from childhood, Rashid and Sæbø especially, you get to see how their lives and beliefs are the complete opposite to Breivik’s, it makes some uncomfortable and upsetting reading sometimes as all these young people had bright futures in front of them.

One of Us is made from Breivik’s own accounts that he published online, as well as interviews from friends, family and any officials that came into contact with Breivik at any point in his life. This gives you a comprehensive picture of Breivik’s mind when he set out to attack the government quarter of Oslo and the AUF-run summer camp on the island of Utøya.

There’s a sense of foreboding as time passes and the account gets closer to the day of the attack. The way the attack is described is both distressing and gripping. It’s a proper page-turner and you need a breather afterwards because of the tension and how graphic the violence is, though there’s an air of distance that allows you some breathing space, however small. There’s also a feeling of frustration as you learn about how the emergency and security services reacted on the day and the failings they had, you get the sense that there could have been less casualties if there’d been better communication between the various services.

One of Us not only covers the lead up to the attacks and that day, but the subsequent trial and how families of those who died and the survivors are, or aren’t, coping with what happened. It allows for a feeling of closure, even if those grieving may never get it themselves. One of Us is an emotional rollercoaster that offers an insight to an event and all those involved that I knew very little about. It’s a tough read but I feel it’s an important one.

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READ THE WORLD – Bulgaria: Street Without a Name by Kapka Kassabova

Kapka Kassabova grew up on the outskirts of Sofia during the last years of Cold War Communism in the 1980s until she left as soon as she could. As Bulgaria gets ready to join the EU (the country joined 1 January 2007) Kapka Kassabova returns to her home country, to retrace her childhood steps and discover what’s become of the country, and discovers how much both it – and she – has changed.

Street Without a Name is a mixture of a personal memoir and a study of country’s history. As Kassabova states with a disclaimer at the start of the book, while it is a work of non-fiction and depicts real historic and political events, they are her take on them and how events affected her and her family. The book is split into two parts, the first is Kassabova’s childhood growing up in Sofia, and the second half is when she returns after 15 years away from Bulgaria, living in various countries including New Zealand, exploring both places from her childhood and parts of the country she’d never been to before.

I really enjoyed Street Without a Name. The way Kassabova writes about the effects of growing up in Eastern Europe with Communism being such an overbearing force in their lives is sometimes both uncomfortable and farcical. It is honest in the difficulties her parents faced, the lack of food and clothes available, and the tough examinations she had to go through in school and the dilemma of being so good you get noticed and not doing well enough.

I knew nothing about Bulgaria before I read this book. It was a country I knew the name of, probably because of the Eurovision Song Contest to be honest, but that was it. Street Without a Name is a really great insight into Bulgaria’s history, not only is time as a Cold War Communist country but it’s history in the First and Second World War and conflicts with countries in the region spanning hundreds of years. It’s interesting to see what nationalities and religions make up Bulgaria, the way different people see others and how being way from a country for so long can – or cannot – change your perception of it.

I feel I have learnt a lot from Street Without a Name. It’s an interesting insight into the complexities of nationality, belonging and understanding. Kassabova is a good storyteller, weaving mini history lessons into the places she’s visiting whether that’s a town or a church or any place of historical significance so well that they seldom feel out of place or jarring. I really enjoy this type of non-fiction book, it offers a personal take on a country and its history that makes it more engaging than perhaps reading a proper history book on the same subject.

If you know very little about Bulgaria and the effects of Cold War Communism that are still prevalent today but want to know more, I’d definitely recommend Street Without a Name.

REVIEW: Nasty Women

Nasty Women is a collection of essays and accounts on what it is to be a woman in the twenty-first century, that was originally funded on Kickstarter (I was one of the many backers).

Nasty Women is a really interesting collection of writing. While they could be called essays, the way a lot of them are written feel more like an insight into someone’s like and how their experiences relate to society as a whole. Naturally there is a focus on feminism here, but there’s also writing about racism, sexuality, class, disability and how all those things and more intersect with feminism and what it means to be a woman today.

Naturally there were some essays I related to more due to shared experiences, but it was great to have my eyes opened to things I wouldn’t normally notice as an able-bodied white woman. The thing I really liked though, was each essay managed to make me empathise with the writer as it was clear they were writing from the heart, often sharing personal fears and tragedies. that being said, some of them were quite funny and some were like hearing a friend talk rather than it being a “proper” essay.

I liked that there were essays I didn’t really expect. A few of them talked about the Punk scene, whether that was being a part of a band or just enjoying the music and atmosphere, and there was one essay, Foraging and Feminism: Hedge-witchcraft in the 21st Century by Alice Tarbuck, that talked about wise women and witches from the past to modern day – it was something I’d never really thought about before.

One line from The Dark Girl’s Enlightenment by Joelle A. Owusu, the final essay in the collection, that stuck with me was the following: ““Not everything is about race.” “Not everything is sexist.” Perhaps not. But enough of it is for it to be an ongoing problem that we simply cannot sweep under the carpet anymore.” It encapsulates that there is so much still to be done for women in this world, even in the West where sometimes the narrative is “women in X country have got it worse than you” Women around the world suffer in different ways, some may seem small to outsiders looking in, but it all hurts.

Nasty Women is a great collection of writing from twenty-two different women. Those essays that talked about Trump’s election or living in a post-Brexit Britain were often the ones that hit home for me, but there are so many touching and interesting essays in here and they are accessible too. 5/5.

MINI COMIC REVIEWS: Fun Home, Power Man and Iron Fist Vol. 1 and Filmish

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

This is a graphic novel memoir from Alison Bechdel (yes, she’s the woman who the Bechdel test is named after) about her childhood and adolescence living in her family’s Victorian home with her rather eccentric family. The memoir is mostly about Bechdel and her relationship with her father, which was both very distant and unusual, neither of them understanding one another until she came out as a lesbian, and learning from her mother that her father was a closeted homosexual.

Fun Home isn’t a linear story, with scenes being revisited when you have been given new information. It’s also both funny and farcical at types when Bechdel recounts her dysfunctional family life. I liked the moments when Bechdel looked back on different events with hindsight, you got to see what the teenage her thought at the time and her own ideas of what really happened now she’s older.

Fun Home features a lot of themes including sexuality, gender roles (Alison preferred to wear “men’s clothes” from a young age) suicide and emotional abuse. It’s an interesting and quick read but I never really felled compelled to keep reading. 3/5.

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Non-Fiction November TBR

November begins next week and that means Non-Fiction November is back! It’s a readathon/challenge hosted by ABookOlive and NonFicBooks on YouTube. As the title suggests, the aim of the challenge is to read more non-fiction than you normally would in a month.

There are four challenges for this readathon. They are four words that can relate to the books you read and they are Scholarship, Substance, Love, and Home. You can apply these words to non-fiction books however you like but the challenges are a choice, you don’t have to use them.

I’ve got a few unread non-fiction books sitting on my shelves but I’ve just chosen just three for my TBR as I like to vary what I read. None of them really fit the challenges as I picked the books before the challenge words were revealed, but I’m not too fussed about that.

One of Us by Asne Seierstad
One of Us is about the terrorist attack in a Norwegian summer camp in July 2011. I got it for my Read the World project and it’s a bit longer than I thought it’s be (it’s a bit over 500 pages) so Non-Fiction November definitely gives me an extra push to read it sooner rather than later. I can imagine it being a tough read, especially as it has testimonies and interviews with those involved with the attack and the subsequent trial.

Nasty Women
This is a collection of writing from various British female writers that I backed on KickStarter. It was put together as a response to Trump’s election and the general attitudes women are facing in in the twenty-first century. I’m really into feminist writings and just generally learning more about what different women go through in day to day life.

Know Your Place
This is another essay collection I backed on KickStarter (I love backing books on KickStarter) this one is essays on the working class, by people who are a part of the working class. I suppose you could say I’m a part of the lower middle class, so I haven’t had it as difficult as many people, so I’m keen to learn more about what life in the UK is like for such a big proportion of the population.

I’m looking forward to reading these books, as I always say with readathon challenges, if I read one book from my TBR I’ll be happy. Are you going to be taking part in Non-Fiction November? The hashtag to use on all social media channels is #NonfictionNovember2017 and there’s a Goodreads group as well.

READ THE WORLD – Nepal: Gurkha: Better to Die than Live a Coward by Colour Sergeant Kailash Limbu

A memoir from Colour Sergeant Kailash Limbu on his time in the army, the tough training he went through to become a Gurkha, and what it was like during the thirty one day siege in the town of Now Zad in Helmand, Afghanistan during the summer of 2008.

I hadn’t really heard of the Gurkha’s much, not until when actress and comedian Joanna Lumley became the public face of the campaign to provide all Gurkha veterans who served in the British Army before 1997 the right to settle in Britain, in 2008. This led me to learning more about the Gurkha’s and I was fascinated by how determined and fearless they were.

Colour Sergeant Kailash Limbu’s story definitely puts across what the mentality of the Nepalese soldiers who become Gurkha’s is like. Only a handful who apply each year actually make it through the three stages of the tough selection process to become Gurkha’s and join the British Army. He recounts the things he went through in training and how being a Gurkha, like his grandfather and uncle, was all he ever wanted to be.

The book almost seamlessly goes between Kailash Limbu’s childhood and training to what was happening during the siege in Now Zad at regular intervals. This means that while the parts on the Gurkha selection are no less interesting, they are slower paced compared to the action in Afghanistan. I thought it explained military terminology very well, along with things like Nepal’s caste system. There’s a lot of information to take in really but it’s all pretty easy to understand.

The sections on the siege are tense and compelling. It does a great job of putting you right into the action and how relentless the attacks on the small compound the Gurkha’s were based in. You get to know the men Kailash Limbu fought with and how they do all get scared sometimes but they fight through it and do the job that needs doing.

Gurkha: Better to Die than Live a Coward is a great memoir. It is interesting and exciting and is a great insight into what it means to someone to be a Gurkha and why they are so revered in the military. 4/5.

REVIEW: Men Explain Things to Me and Other Essays by Rebecca Solnit

A short collection of feminist essays looking at rape culture, family, Virginia Woolf and everything else in between.

In 2008 Rebecca Solnit wrote an essay titled “Men Explain Things to Me” which struck a chord with people. Through other readers sharing their experiences, that essay was the catalyst of the term mansplaining. It’s was an interesting and relatable essay and it was great to see where the phrase mansplaining came from. As Solnit explains “I love it when people explain things to me they know and I’m interested in but don’t yet know; it’s when they explain things to me I know and they don’t that the conversation goes wrong.” I agree with that statement wholeheartedly and that’s what’s so frustrating about mansplaining.

The other essays are pretty good too. Naturally there’s some I like more than others for instance, I didn’t really enjoy the one inspired by Virginia Woolf’s writings as I’ve only read one of her books so don’t have much of a connection to her.

I like how Rebecca Solnit writes and her essays are all accessible, no matter what your background knowledge on the various subjects she talks about. It’s an interesting collection as they’re essays from 2008-2014 so some of the events she talks about I didn’t really remember, while others like the Delhi gang rape in 2012 are still fresh in my mind.

I did enjoy “Pandora’s Box and the Volunteer Police Force.” Written in 2014 it’s all about how feminism and women have got a long way to go but they’ve still made some headway. It’s also about the idea that the Pandora’s Box full of equality for men, women, LGBT+ people and all races has been opened and people won’t be able to stuff those who once were (and in many cases still are) back in a box and away from the general public. I don’t know if I’ve described it very well but I like the idea that the world is becoming a more tolerant place no matter what people may say or do and it can continue to, slowly but surely, get better.

That’s the thing with this collection of essays, like most feminist literature it makes you angry at the injustices in the world but it also offers a spark of hope that things will indeed get better. 4/5.