#nonficnov: Immigration reads



It’s week 4 of Nonfiction November! You can find all the details here

This week’s topic:

Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert: Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

Immigration and citizenship has been on my mind of late.

I read a lot of fiction about the immigration experience (like Americanah, The Namesake, The Book of Unknown Americans), but not much in terms of nonfiction. These are some of the books I have read that fit into this category.



The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian was a short read about ‘citizens of the world’ including the buying and selling of passports, and the Bidoon, who are the stateless people of countries like the United Arab Emirates.


I read The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea a while ago (it was published in 2004) but I still remember the horror of reading this book about this group of men who attempt to cross from Mexico into Arizona.
The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream by Patrick Radden Keefe was a fascinating tale about a $40 million smuggling business run by a middle-aged woman known as Sister Ping.

Some books I would like to read:
Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives (Voice of Witness) compiled by Peter Orner

Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them by Philippe Legrain

In the Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero

The Boys from Little Mexico: A Season Chasing the American Dream by Steve Wilson

We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future by Deepa Iyer

The Making of Asian America: A History by Erika Lee

Do you have any recommendations?


#nonficnov – fiction-nonfiction pairing


(All the details for Nonfiction Nov are here)

Book Pairing: This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

I always love when bloggers and book sites do this, but when I sat down and thought about it, I realize that this isn’t an easy task. Maybe it’s because I don’t read much nonfiction? But here are some attempts!

If you liked: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (a fantastic story set largely in space with strong female characters)

try: Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt

Seveneves is one of those the Earth is doomed kind of books but with women in the key roles. Hooray! That made me think of the Rocket Girls, women who worked at Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL) as “computers”. That was the term used for their jobs in the 1940s and 1950s – they did calculations (velocities, trajectories) and all the math behind getting these rockets into space. And it was pretty much an all-women team of human computers. 

If you liked: The Wangs vs the World by Jade Chang

try: The Chinese in America by Iris Chang

and The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

 I recently read Wangs and loved this smart and funny book about a family whose fortunes have fallen. I thought a good nonfiction pairing would be one about Chinese immigration to America as well as one that talks about the 2008 financial crisis. I haven’t read The Big Short yet but want to after reading the Wangs. 

If you liked: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

try: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick  and In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park

Another two-fer. I picked Orphan-Master’s Son as that’s the only popular fiction I’ve read set in North Korea (if you’re interested, Hwang Sok-Yong’s The Guest is set in North Korea, but I’m guessing he’s not a familiar name to many). Barbara Demick has written an unforgettable book about life in North Korea and Yeonmi Park relates her own experiences growing up in North Korea in her book. 
And now for the most obvious pairing of all…

If you liked:
The Princess Bride by William Goldman

try: As You Like It: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride by Cary Elwes. If you can get hold of the audiobook, even better!


#nonficnov – choosing nonfiction



(All the details for Nonfiction Nov are here)

Choosing Nonfiction:

What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book?

Sometimes I pick up nonfiction after reading a fantastic work of fiction. So I think the answer to that would be that I pick up nonfiction as a distraction from the fiction I’m reading. I know that’s not really the kind of answer the question is looking for, but that’s my answer!

Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to?

I like books about travel, diaspora and immigration. And also, foodie nonfiction! Sometime this year I started listening to celebrities narrate their own audiobooks and really like that – like Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes, and Yes Please by Amy Poehler.

Do you have a particular writing style that works best?

I like narrative nonfiction. I like when the writer’s personality is very much infused into the book. Like in The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries by Jessa Crispin, who is writing about historical figures, but also very much about herself, her relationship and her own ‘exile’ of sorts to Berlin. Oh and I like when books are funny (but not necessarily funny as in written by comedians), like Mary Roach’s works.

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

Smoke gets in your eyes  is for the title. While the other two are for the covers.

#nonficnov: My year in nonfiction



Almost forgot all about Nonfiction November! You can find all the details here

Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions –

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?


I read more nonfiction than I thought I did – 24 books! And a good number of them were audiobooks, which is very unusual for me. It’s hard to pick just one!

I loved listening to As you wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride that was just an absolute treat for the ears! Bluets by Maggie Nelson was, at 113 pages, so short but so beautiful. And The Song Poet

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?


The Song Poet by Kao Kalia Yang, a Hmong American writer, is a book that more people should read. First of all, the story of her father and his family struggling to survive, having to flee their village is moving, emotional. Their stay in a refugee camp in Thailand, where Yang was born, was painful. But it was even harder to read about their life in America, where they work day and night to make a new life for their family in this strange new land. 

What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet?

Science-related nonfiction!

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

More recommendations please!

TLC Book Tours: Run the World by Becky Wade

Run the World cover

Let’s begin at the beginning. Here is where I tell you I don’t run.

(And there you go, with a horrified “what?” and go find a book blogger-runner whose review you’d rather read.)

Yes I don’t run but I sometimes read running-related things. So this is a review from a non-runner’s point of view. I hope you will bear with me!

So Becky Wade is an American. A young American runner. Who has never left the country. I always am fascinated by that. But that’s probably because the country I’m from is so tiny you can drive from one end to the other and still be in time for breakfast.

But Wade is a resourceful one. She gets hold of a yearlong fellowship (the Watson Fellowship) which gives its recipients money and then tells them to get lost. Really. As in they are not allowed to enter the US (or their home country if they’re not from the US) for a year. They don’t get a whole lot of money though so it’s not about living it up in fancy hotels but it’s enough to buy some plane tickets and do some traveling and pursue their interests. What a truly amazing thing to be able to do!

It is brave of her to do this. Not everyone would be willing to give up a year in which they could be starting a career for instance, which most college graduates are looking to do, or, in her case, putting her training on hold, to go out into the world for a year. When I first heard of this I had thought woah how fantastic, wish I could have done this! But as I thought about it more, traveling the world for a whole year isn’t easy. You have to be able to adapt to your always changing situation, to be ok with living out of hotels/motels/strangers’ homes. And be content living out of a backpack. I can imagine that being extroverted would really help too! (So not me).

Also here I should add that Wade was a very successful athlete already when she left on her yearlong adventure. She had multiple NCAA All-American Honours and two Olympic Trials qualifiers to her name. But she wasn’t contented with that. She wanted to learn how runners in other countries train.

So Wade wants to Run the World. She visits 22 countries including Nigeria, Ethiopia, New Zealand, Japan, Switzerland and more over 12 months.

Runners will definitely gain some insights from this book. When she runs with some Kenyans, they start off at a stroll, oh about 20 minutes or so, then a leisurely jog, not much faster than a walk, then all of a sudden, break into a run. That is, they run by feel and warm up naturally, something that Wade wasn’t used to at first. It is interesting to learn of how runners are so well-respected in Japan, how important races are broadcast on public TV, and some athletes and events can even bring Super Bowl-like ratings.

But non-runners like me will also find it a pretty good read as she delves into different cultures, learns about different cuisines around the world, and even provides some recipes from her new friends, like brown soda bread from Ireland, Rosti from Switzerland, and Anza biscuits.

I especially enjoyed reading about her stay in Ethiopia, where running is once again, by feel. Time, distances, speed is rarely predetermined. And the line leader uses snaps and finger points to warn of obstacles such as roots and cracks were in the way. And their coffee ceremonies, a wonderful tradition that revealed their communal culture.

I was a bit disappointed that her stay in Japan was mostly via Japanese expatriates. She did stay with a Japanese family in Kyoto  for a few nights but her experience in Japan was largely through the expat (i.e. white) scene. It sounds like it may have been hard for her to break into the Japanese running scene and that is a pity.

Five months after her year-long world adventure, Wade  won the California International Marathon in 2 hours, 30 minutes and 48 seconds, gaining her a qualifying time for the Olympic Trials and a sponsorship from Asics. So all that knowledge and insight she gained from her world tour may have helped in her success!

Run the World is a bit of a different read for me, and while I may not really fall into its target audience, it was an enjoyable read. It allowed me to marvel at the passion people have for running. And to realize that what had always seemed to me like a simple sport can differ in so many ways around the world. From the way warmups happen, to the food that fuels runners, to the different styles of running. It was definitely an eye-opener.

Go Becky!

tlc logo

I received this book for review from its publisher and TLC Book Tours.

Don’t forget to check out the rest of the tour stops

Becky Wade AP photo by Deborah Kellogg-1Becky Wade is a professional long-distance runner who competes for Asics. At Rice University she was a four-time All-American and the winner of the Joyce Pounds Hardy Award, Rice’s highest athletic honor, and the Conference USA honoree for the NCAA Woman of the Year award. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Rice with a triple major in history, psychology, and sociology, Becky traveled the world on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship and visited 22 countries to explore long-distance running cultures.

In her 26.2-mile debut in December 2013, Becky won the California International Marathon, qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Trials. Currently, she is fulfilling her dream of running professionally and chasing Olympic aspirations, while coaching and working part-time at a shelter for homeless youth.

Connect with Becky on Instagram and Twitter.


Swimming to Antarctica



Recently Kim Chambers, a New Zealander, made the news here by swimming from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge. A marathon swim of 30 miles of shark-infested waters. Something only four other people (all men) have done before. Just a few days before her successful swim, her swimming partner Simon Dominguez had to stop his own attempt (in the reverse direction) when a great white started circling him. Sadly he was within sight of the city at the time!

One amazing thing about these swimmers is that they do these long-distance swims in just a swimsuit. Not a wetsuit or any protective gear. Just a swimsuit, googles and swim cap. They are not allowed to touch the boat or anyone. Any food or drink to be consumed must be thrown to them from the boats accompanying them. Or their swims could be disqualified.

Reading about Chambers’ successful attempt and Dominguez’s sadly unsuccessful one made me want to write about a recent read of Swimming to Antarctica by open water swimmer Lynne Cox.

Lynne Cox is one amazing woman. As a young teenager she already had two channel swims under her belt. In 1971 she crossed the Catalina Island Channel in California with a group of young swimmers. She crossed the English Channel in 1972 and 1973 when she was just 15 years old. Not long after that , she went on to become the first person to swim the Straits of Magellan in Chile, and to swim around the Cape of Good Hope.

Then in 1987 she made history by swimming the Bering Strait from Little Diomede in Alaska to Big Diomede in the Soviet Union. This was during the Cold War so things were tense. Everyone was suspicious, she couldn’t get any answers until one day things just clicked and she did her historical swim, a swim mentioned by Mikhail Gorbachev himself.

She even swam the Spree River between East and West Germany, which once had mines, razor wire and sheet metal in the river, and which the Germans weren’t sure if everything was removed.

And then, as the title of the book suggests, she swam to Antarctica where icebergs and the freezing cold water were big dangers, oh and so were the killer whales. She even had to protect her teeth and eardrums from the freezing cold water.

“I looked down into the water; it was a bright blue-gray and so clear that it appeared as if I were swimming through air. The viscosity of the water was different, too; it was thicker than any I had ever swum in. It felt like I was swimming through gelato.”

Thirty-three, thirty-two degrees Farenheit. Or 0 degrees Celsius.

“I began to notice that the cold was pressurizing my body like a giant tourniquet. It was squeezing the blood from the exterior part of my body and pushing it into the core. Everything felt tight. Focus on your breath, I told myself. Slow it down. Let it fill your lungs. You’re not going to be able to make it if you keep going at this rate.

One thing that amazed me throughout the first half of the book is the support she received from her parents, as well as her determination to set herself these challenges and accomplish them. I mean, how many 15 year olds do you know who say to their parents that they want to break the English Channel record?

“They believed age was important, but they also believed that you could achieve almost anything in life with hard work and talent. I was lucky that they were open-minded about this, because I’m not sure what I would have done if they had told me I was too young; I probably would have worked on them until they couldn’t stand it any longer and finally gave in. They knew I was determined; my father called it stubborn. Still, they also knew how important it was to have dreams and goals and a path in life. And they instilled this in me.”

Her story is simply told. Sometimes quite intensely so. Plenty of times I want to stop her and say, hey, relax you’re only a teenager! Do you really need to cross yet another channel? But apparently she does. Although the why isn’t exactly something Cox really puts into words. And for an average person like me, who is happy to be in a swimming pool (and honestly, a bit terrified at swimming in the sea) and the only marathon I want to take part in is a reading marathon, I just have to sit back and admire what she – and all these other open-water swimmers – have done. Bravo.


H is for Hawk


If you had told me that I would pick up a book about hawks and loved every single minute of it, I might have laughed. For sure, hawks are lovely, almost regal birds, but they’re not something I’ve ever given a second thought to. I’m not very fond of birds, having been woken up by one too many monstrous seagulls squawking just outside my window when I lived in Brighton for a year. Hawks and birds of prey aren’t exactly my (or most people’s) idea of a pet.

So what drew me to H is for Hawk? The intriguing woodcut cover perhaps? Its winning the 2014 Costa book award.

Well whatever it was that actually made me download the library e-book and open it up on the kindle to read, it was meant to be.

How to begin with this book?
Yes there is an actual hawk. A goshawk in particular. One named Mabel.
Also there is intriguingly a lot about TH White, author of the Once and Future King, which I read many years ago but didn’t think much of. (I do realise it’s a classic. Doesn’t mean I have to like it, right?)
And there is grief. Essentially this is a story of how Macdonald coped with her sadness, her grief of losing a loved one. Some people turn to alcohol or therapists, she decides to get a goshawk.

But the way her life changes with the goshawk is fascinating.

Their existence gives the lie to the thought that the wild is always something untouched by human hearts and hands. The wild can be human work.

“As I sit there happily feeding titbits to the hawk, her name drops into my head. Mabel. From amabilis, meaning loveable, or dear. An old, slightly silly name, an unfashionable name. There is something of the grandmother about it: antimacassars and afternoon teas.”

What fascinates me is that she would bring her hawk out. Can you imagine, walking around the streets of Cambridge, a hawk at hand? Oddly she is ignored by most people.

He nods, and I do too, and in some wonder, because I am beginning to see that for some people a hawk on the hand of a stranger urges confession, urges confidences, lets you speak words about hope and home and heart. And I realise, too, that in all my days of walking with Mabel the only people who have come up and spoken to us have been outsiders: children, teenage goths, homeless people, overseas students, travellers, drunks, people on holiday. ‘We are outsiders now, Mabel,’ I say, and the thought is not unpleasant. But I feel ashamed of my nation’s reticence. Its desire to keep walking, to move on, not to comment, not to interrogate, not to take any interest in something peculiar, unusual, in anything that isn’t entirely normal.

The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life. I was turning into a hawk.

And while I didn’t quite enjoy White’s book – although I am now thinking that I ought to give it, or at least his other works, another try, because if Helen MacDonald talks so much about it, I feel like I should read it too – I loved how books and other authors are related to in H is for Hawk.  

It reminded me of Philip Pullman’s children’s fantasy series His Dark Materials, in which each person has a daemon, an animal that is a visible manifestation of their soul and accompanies them everywhere. When people are separated from their daemons they feel pain. This was a universe very close to mine. I felt incomplete unless the hawk was sitting on my hand: we were parts of each other. Grief and the hawk had conspired to this strangeness.

H is for Hawk was a surprisingly absorbing read, a thoughtful and unflinching chronicle of bereavement. Is it memoir? Nature writing? Literary? It’s a little of everything and it is brilliant.