Wednesday, November 1, 2017

NonFiction November

This month will be the first time that I am participating in #nonfictionnovember. It was started by A Book Olive over on YouTube. I enjoy reading nonfiction, but like a lot of people I end up pushing them to the side in favor of fiction that I think will provide more entertainment. I'm not sure why I do that since I know that many nonfiction books can be just as entertaining as they are informative. Especially since two of my now all time favorites are The Warmth of Other Suns and Born a Crime. Not only were they not tedious to read or boring, I still think of them regularly almost a year later. 

I've pulled more than I need or will probably finish for the challenges for #nonfictionnovember, because I am not good with sticking to strict TBR's and this will at least make me feel like I have choices and am not fixed to certain books. The challenges this year are home, substance, love, and scholarship. For home, I chose Racehoss. For his entire life Albert Race Sample was in search of a place and existence where he could feel a sense of family and home. For substance, I chose Never Caught for it's look at an obsession by one of America's founding fathers. George Washington has been studied in depth, but I had never heard of his apparently tireless pursuit of one young runaway slave. For love, I chose Piece of Cake. Cupcake Brown's desire for love and her horrific journey while growing up is a story that I am sure will make an impact on me. For scholarship, I chose Killers of the Flower Moon. I knew nothing about this horrifying part of American history and it will definitely be educational for me. The other books I pulled are added to the mix just because I want to read them! I found out about many of the books that I have because of interviews on various shows on NPR. I have linked the interviews to all of them below. If you get a chance check them out, they are all wonderful!

My November will be busy, but I am sure that it will be a good reading month. If you are participating or want to participate in #nonfictionnovember let me know below what you are reading or link to your post so that I can check it out!

The first book that I will be diving into this month is The Cooking Gene. I saw this book on Instagram and fell for it right off the bat. I love food and history, especially family and regional histories. Mixing the two together rings all of my bells! I am reading this one as a group read with Didi from @browngirlreading, Somdah from @somdahsaysso, and Morgan from @morgan__gayle. I am very excited to read and discuss this one. If you don't follow these ladies on Instagram, you should! 

What it's about: A renowned culinary historian offers a fresh perspective on our most divisive cultural issue, race, in this illuminating memoir of Southern cuisine and food culture that traces his ancestry—both black and white—through food, from Africa to America and slavery to freedom.

Southern food is integral to the American culinary tradition, yet the question of who "owns" it is one of the most provocative touch points in our ongoing struggles over race. In this unique memoir, culinary historian Michael W. Twitty takes readers to the white-hot center of this fight, tracing the roots of his own family and the charged politics surrounding the origins of soul food, barbecue, and all Southern cuisine.

From the tobacco and rice farms of colonial times to plantation kitchens and backbreaking cotton fields, Twitty tells his family story through the foods that enabled his ancestors’ survival across three centuries. He sifts through stories, recipes, genetic tests, and historical documents, and travels from Civil War battlefields in Virginia to synagogues in Alabama to Black-owned organic farms in Georgia.

As he takes us through his ancestral culinary history, Twitty suggests that healing may come from embracing the discomfort of the Southern past. Along the way, he reveals a truth that is more than skin deep—the power that food has to bring the kin of the enslaved and their former slaveholders to the table, where they can discover the real America together.

I first heard about Killers of the Flower Moon on NPR's Morning Edition. The older I get and the more I read, I realize just how much I didn't learn in school. I was required to take history courses in college and I can tell you, unless you dig or take very specific classes you won't get a full and detailed look into American history. I never heard of this horrific incident and I am appalled at what lengths people will go to in the name of greed. You can read the article and listen to the interview of David Grann on Morning Edition. Be prepared to have your heart broken and to get more than a little angry. 

What it's about: In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.
     Then, one by one, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. Her older sister was shot. Her mother was then slowly poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances. 
     In this last remnant of the Wild West—where oilmen like J. P. Getty made their fortunes and where desperadoes such as Al Spencer, “the Phantom Terror,” roamed – virtually anyone who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll surpassed more than twenty-four Osage, the newly created F.B.I. took up the case, in what became one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations. But the bureau was then notoriously corrupt and initially bungled the case. Eventually the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only Native American agents in the bureau. They infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest modern techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most sinister conspiracies in American history.
     In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann revisits a shocking series of crimes in which dozens of people were murdered in cold blood. The book is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction, as each step in the investigation reveals a series of sinister secrets and reversals. But more than that, it is a searing indictment of the callousness and prejudice toward Native Americans that allowed the murderers to operate with impunity for so long. Killers of the Flower Moon is utterly riveting, but also emotionally devastating. 

Never Caught is another book that I discovered because of NPR. I heard an interview with Erica Armstrong Dunbar on Here and Now and knew that I was going to order this one. It's a very short book and shouldn't take long at all to read. 

What it's about: When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left behind his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation’s capital, after a brief stay in New York. In setting up his household he took Tobias Lear, his celebrated secretary, and nine slaves, including Ona Judge, about which little has been written. As he grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn’t get his arms around: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south just as the clock was about to expire.

Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, the few pleasantries she was afforded were nothing compared to freedom, a glimpse of which she encountered first-hand in Philadelphia. So, when the opportunity presented itself one clear and pleasant spring day in Philadelphia, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs.

At just twenty-two-years-old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property.

I've had Piece of Cake on my shelf for a while now and just never picked it up. It sounds like a gripping memoir and I look forward to reading this one. 

What it's about: This is the heart-wrenching true story of a girl named Cupcake and it begins when, aged eleven, she is orphaned and placed in the 'care' of sadistic foster parents. But there comes a point in her preteen years - maybe it's the night she first tries to run away and is exposed to drugs, alcohol, and sex all at once - when Cupcake's story shifts from a tear-jerking tragedy to a dark, deeply disturbing journey through hell.

Cupcake learned to survive by turning tricks, downing hard liquor and ingesting every drug she could find while hitchhiking up and down the California coast. At just 16 she stumbled into the terrifying world of the gangsta, dealing drugs, hustling and only just surviving a drive-by shooting. Ironically, it was Cupcake's rapid descent into the nightmare of crack cocaine addiction that finally saved her. After one four-day crack binge she woke up behind a dumpster. Half-dressed and half-dead, she finally realized she had to change her life or die on the streets - another trash-can addict, another sad statistic.

Astonishingly, Cupcake turned her life around and this is her brutally frank, startlingly funny story. Unlike any memoir you will ever read, A Piece of Cake is a redemptive, gripping tale of a resilient spirit who took on the worst of contemporary urban life and survived it. It is also the most genuinely affecting rollercoaster ride through hell and back that you will ever take.

Yet another book I heard about because of NPR. I heard about Racehoss because of Sample's interview on the Diane Rehm show. Alber Sample was an interesting man who had a hard but fully lived life. 

What it's about: “My mama was a whore, and a damn good one. Tricking and gambling put food on the table for the two of us. She was married to a black man. The day I was born he walked out on her ... and I got the blame.” Born in Longview, Texas in 1930, Albert Sample was the mixed-race product of Emma (a hard-drinking black prostitute and gambler) and Mr. Albert (a white cotton broker and one of her tricks). It is the classic story of the son of a troubled mother, of a young man gone bad, and of his tentative then tremendous steps toward reclaiming his own destiny. Sample emerged from an abusive childhood an angry young outcast, so it was no surprise when he became an alien of the free world. This book is the violent and triumphant story his journey to hell and back. Hell for Albert Sample was Retrieve, a unit of the Texas Prison System reserved for its worst black prisoners. A plantation prison where men slaved from dawn to dusk, it cracked the spirits of the weak and hardened the souls of the strong. For “Racehoss,” as Sample was called, it was a place to witness unbearable brutality, which he describes in awesome detail in the pages of this stunning book. His shattering and unforgettable story is told in all its stark reality, but without rancor or bitterness. Racehoss simply tells it “like it was.” A profound spiritual awakening in a solitary confinement cell changed his future dramatically — “My life was spent in darkness. And then there was Light.” Sample’s ability to understand the forces that drove him to prison and his devotion to helping others also see the light of change earned him a full pardon and restoration of all civil rights in 1976. He became a prominent voice in the field of corrections and rehabilitation of ex-offenders, receiving numerous high-profile humanitarian awards. A natural born storyteller, he recounted his deeply moving journey of resiliency, revelation, and redemption in the award-winning documentary film RACEHOSS. Produced and directed by Sean Hepburn Ferrer, this gripping one-man performance of Sample standing on a stage before an audience telling his remarkable life story is a powerful reminder that the human spirit can triumph against all odds.

I just showed Dorothy Dandridge by Donald Bogle in my October book haul. If I don't get around to reading this one this month, I will be reading it in 2018 for sure. 

What it's about: She captured America's hearts in such stunning films as Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess. Finally, the true story of America's first Black movie star is revealed in this brilliant, in-depth biography-from her turbulent childhood in Cleveland, to her Hollywood girlhood, her battles against racism, her rise to fame, her marriage and affairs, and her professional and personal decline. The first Black woman nominated for an Academy Award Dorothy Dandridge paved the way for thousands of Black women entertainers. She toured the South with "The Dandridge Sisters," appeared in dozens of movies and on Broadway, played the Cotton Club, and worked with such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and Maxine Sullivan. But Dandridge's stardom only seemed to exacerbate her deep-seated insecurities-shadowing her success until she died of an overdose at the age of 42. Filled with photographs, and rich with research as well as personal anecdotes from Harry Belafonte, Etta James and others, Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography is not only a fascinating study of the woman and the performer, but also a riveting look at Black Hollywood as it existed within the larger culture.

I know very little about Dinah Washington, however I couldn't pass up grabbing a copy of Queen by Nadine Cohodas. Dinah Washington died at only 39. She was a remarkable talent who performed with and knew some of the greatest performers of her time. I hope that Queen will be an interesting and informative book.

What it's about: A gospel star at fifteen, she was discovered by jazz great Lionel Hampton at eighteen, and for the rest of her life was on the road, playing clubs, or singing in the studio—making music one way or another.

Dinah's tart and heartfelt voice quickly became her trademark; she was a distinctive stylist, crossing over from the "race" music category to the pop and jazz charts. Known in her day as Queen of the Blues and Queen of the Juke Boxes, Dinah was regarded as that rare "first take" artist, her studio recordings reflecting the same passionate energy she brought to the stage. As Nadine Cohodas shows us, Dinah suffered her share of heartbreak in her personal life, but she thrived on the growing audience response that greeted her signature tunes: "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes," "Evil Gal Blues," and "Baby (You've Got What It Takes)," with Brook Benton. She made every song she sand her own.

Dinah lives large in these pages, with her seven marriages; her penchant for clothes, cars, furs, and diets; and her famously feisty personality—testy one moment and generous the next. This biography, meticulously researched and gracefully written, is the first to draw on extensive interviews with family members and newly discovered documents. It is a revelation of Dinah's work and her life. Cohodas captures the Queen in all her contradictions, and we hear in this book the voice of a natural star, born to entertain and to be loved.

I've had Negroland on my TBR list for a very long time and finally got around to getting myself a copy. I first heard about it on, you guessed it, NPR. The interview that Margo Jefferson did with Terry Gross on Fresh Air is an interesting look into Jefferson's perspective. 

What it's about: At once incendiary and icy, mischievous and provocative, celebratory and elegiac—here is a deeply felt meditation on race, sex, and American culture through the prism of the author’s rarefied upbringing and education among a black elite concerned with distancing itself from whites and the black generality while tirelessly measuring itself against both.
Born in upper-crust black Chicago—her father was for years head of pediatrics at Provident, at the time the nation’s oldest black hospital; her mother was a socialite—Margo Jefferson has spent most of her life among (call them what you will) the colored aristocracy, the colored elite, the blue-vein society. Since the nineteenth century they have stood apart, these inhabitants of Negroland, “a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.”
Reckoning with the strictures and demands of Negroland at crucial historical moments—the civil rights movement, the dawn of feminism, the fallacy of postracial America—Jefferson brilliantly charts the twists and turns of a life informed by psychological and moral contradictions. Aware as it is of heart-wrenching despair and depression, this book is a triumphant paean to the grace of perseverance.

I am also planning on listening to two audio books this month. The first is We're going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union and Mother of Black Hollywood by Jenifer Lewis. Mother of Black Hollywood doesn't release until November 14th, which works out great for me since hopefully I will be all done with Union's audio book by then. 


  1. Good luck! I think you picked some really interesting books. I might have to read that George Washington one. I love books about lesser-known parts of history.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

    1. Thanks, AJ. I 'm pretty excited about all of these books!


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