Secret Curious Readers Page (nonfiction)

Subscription for Curious Readers: December 2023

Books And Islands in Ojibwe County, by Louise Erdrich

The prospect of travelling across the multitudinous lakes and islands of Ontario and Minnesota with only a vague idea of geography and itinerary doesn’t sound like an immediately relaxing or indulgent one. Even more so when you’ve got an 18-month-old baby with you. But somehow, against the odds, Louise Erdrich’s account of just such a journey becomes effortlessly engrossing as she haphazardly traverses the islands of her ancestral stomping grounds and reconnects with family both known and unknown in this spectrally gorgeous part of the world.

Discovering the deep recesses of her ancestry by literally rowing through it, Erdrich’s connection to Ojibwe culture is guided also by the mysterious figure of a former partner (and the father of her 18-month-old), and their unique relationship with each other and the landscape. At its heart, though, this is a book especially for book lovers themselves, and Erdrich’s eventual arrival at the Mecca-like location of Mallard Island, the site of an eccentric and idiosyncratically-stocked library of antiquarian books across a series of ramshackle buildings, feels like a miracle. We hope it’s something to curl up with over the festive period in your own dedicated book hovel.

If you liked Books & Islands of Ojibwe County, try…

Previous subscription picks…

November 2023

Stay True, by Hua Hsu

Fresh out in paperback, this Pulitzer-winning memoir focuses on the college years of aimless music obsessive Hua Hsu, wrestling with how best to present himself to the world as a second-generation Taiwanese-American who also happens to be preoccupied with pop culture minutiae. At this seemingly unremarkable time in his life, he builds a friendship with Ken, a fellow student who forces Hsu to reconsider his own attitudes to authenticity, relayed in simple but aching prose that neatly sidesteps nostalgia at all times. This gentle narrative is upset by a tragedy, however, and that’s when the book dissolves and rearranges itself as something else, something strangely hopeful in the face of immense sadness. 

It is beautiful, compulsive and yet unsentimental writing, perhaps the only reasonable response to an ongoing grief for a writer. In the book’s title (an unexplained and idiosyncratic letter sign-off the author shared with Ken), Hsu quantifies its whole philosophy – authenticity is so important to his past self, and that adolescent desire to be completely authentic, to be non-phoney, morphs into a wider attempt to instead be completely honest about the type of friend we can be. To make such deeply-felt sentiments so cogent and readable is a small miracle, and one that defines this gem of a book.

If you liked Stay True, try…

October 2023:
Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen, by Rebecca May Johnson

Small Fires feels like a much needed contribution to food writing, which can so often feel like an exercise in indulgence or trying to prove how inaccessibly extravagant the writer’s diet really is. This is so completely not the case with Rebecca May Johnson’s brilliantly homespun and honest memoir-slash-manual for cooking to live. Sure, it’s about cooking, but it’s also about cooking as a creative act, classics, friendship, bad news potatoes, depression, class and – very memorably – a tomato sauce cooked many, many hundreds of times over the years.

We loved how tied to life the simple act of cooking is in Johnson’s hands. She recognises that sustenance is not just the biological function of keeping people satiated; for her, cooking is an act of human connection that can evolve just as much as we do. In a way it sounds esoteric enough to be guilty of the worst excesses of so much writing about food, but trust us when we say it’s really not that book: it’s warm and welcoming but with a lot of depth – just like a good tomato sauce.

If you liked Small Fires, try…

September 2023

Voyager, by Nona Fernández
trans. Natasha Wimmer

‘Voyager’ is certainly an apt title for Nona Fernandez’s memoir. Just like the Voyager Golden Records which were launched into space in 1977, it contains a remarkable amount of information in a rather small material object. As in her previously published novels, Fernández’s first venture into non-fiction considers the politics of memory and memorialisation in the aftermath of the Pinochet regime. This would be a hefty enough topic on its own, but the book, expansive as the night sky it considers, explores the science of memory, the brain, neuroscience, astrology and the titular Voyager mission, care and mother-daughter relationships.

We remain uncertain of how Fernandez managed to pack all of this in just over 100 pages – it’s certainly an awesome feat, which few but Fernandez could accomplish. Voyager is a special book from which readers will surely learn a lot – it feels almost as if emerging from a dream, from which one awakes infinitely more knowledgeable than before. Anyone familiar with her fiction will hear a chime of recognition in that unique feeling on reading her work, but the power of this shift to the personal only enhances the experience.

If you liked Voyager, try…

August 2023

I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki, by Baek Sehee
trans. Anton Hur

This curio was a runaway bestseller when it was originally published in Korea, and with its impeccable cover design in 3 colour-ways and English translation by Anton Hur (translator of Storysmith favourites such as Love in the Big City and Cursed Bunny), we were instantly intrigued.

Part memoir, part psychological study, I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki presents transcripts from 12 weeks of the author’s therapy sessions during a period of depression. Baek Sehee talks openly with her therapist about her anxieties, the pressure to succeed and feelings of general dissatisfaction and exhaustion involved in living in a society where you are made to reflect on your own actions constantly. There is little judgement or even self-reflection: the text is presented as the honest musings of an ordinary person who, in a way that is universally relatable, finds the pressures of everyday life too much sometimes.

It’s hard to pinpoint why this is such a compulsive read, but the magic of the book, for us, comes from Baek Sehee’s vehement ordinariness. It’s also a rare and incredibly generous insight into a person’s unfiltered thoughts and feelings, an antidote to the polished world of the Instagram persona, and this is what makes it such a comforting and thought-provoking read (and had us googling where we could get tteokbokki in Bristol).

If you liked I want to die but…, try…

July 2023

Having and Being Had, by Eula Biss

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from poring over her increasingly brilliant oeuvre, Eula Biss is not one to shy away from difficult subject matter. In her previous book, the prescient ‘On Immunity’, Biss considered our conception of immunity, and the related condition of fear. Here, in the remarkable follow-up, using her recent purchase of her first home as a jumping off point, Biss considers the fraught and nebulous topic of capitalism itself.

In short, almost aphoristic chapters – ranging from topics like Beyoncé and Ikea to Pokémon and university as an institution – she interrogates the value system she has bought into. What might in other, less nimble hands be a dull, heavy text is instead an incredibly witty, revelatory and generous book, which invites us to consider alongside the author our financial as well as our imaginative ‘investments’. Because her discomfort is so fresh and lived-in on the page, it is a remarkably immediate reading experience, and one that causes you to reassess the things we’re all guilty of ignoring.

If you liked Having And Being Had, try…

June 2023

How to Read Now, by Elaine Castillo

We’re not ones to make lofty claims too often, but this book could permanently change the way you read. If you’ve ever thought about doing an English Literature degree, How To Read Now will fulfil your dreams and might prove, frankly, a more useful education. In this searing series of essays, Elaine Castillo contemplates and critiques our reading culture (not only with respect to books, but generally how we are encouraged and have learned to ‘read’ the world) and the white supremacy which it champions, ultimately arguing for something ‘better’, a more engaged and thoughtful way of reading stories. She takes to task lauded (and not-so lauded) figures such as J.K Rowling, Joan Didion and Peter Handke, and writes about others with awe, care, and admirable incisiveness. 

The exhilarating takedowns are not the work of a cultural party-pooper, however. Castillo celebrates as much as she rightly interrogates – even if you haven’t encountered the works she happily valorises, the rigorous approach is infectious, and may lead to you beginning a binge-watch of Wong Kar-wai movies. As the connections between her subjects and Castillo’s own life begin to deepen, this work of criticism takes on a more profound quality, as if the very act of appraising all these knotty subjects is changing her attitudes in real time. 

If you liked How to Read now, try…

May 2023

Porn: An Oral History, by Polly Barton

With its knowingly grandiose title, Polly Barton’s remarkable project of a new book is already one of the most talked-about releases of the year (we mean nationally, not just us chattering about it incessantly in the shop). In the book’s brilliant introductory chapter, Barton lets the reader know that if the book’s title alone causes blushes of embarrassment, then she is right there with us – the book is in part designed to remove barriers like this, to embrace one of the most universally ignored topics in modern society. 

It makes for propulsive reading: taking the form of 19 frank and sensitively edited conversations about pornography – attitudes towards, benefits of problems with, ethics of – Barton coaxes gleaming truths from her carefully chosen interviewees thanks to her brilliant command of tone and knowing the precisely correct question to ask. It is resolutely not a comprehensive or arch history of pornography (surely this exists somewhere else), but it is an eye-opening banquet of knotty ideas presented with anxieties and humanity completely intact.

If you liked Porn: An Oral History, try…

The Butterfly Effect, by Jon Ronson (podcast)

April 2023

The Premonitions Bureau, Sam Knight

From a gifted truth-teller, this is a painstakingly researched and beautifully written history of a little known government department which logged reports of premonitions submitted by the general public through the 1960s and beyond. Like all our favourite history books, it hits that perfect intersection of ‘I can’t believe this is true’ and ‘it’s so ludicrous it must be true’. Tragedies like the Aberfan disaster, plane crashes, assassinations: all predicted if you look at the premonitions from a certain angle, and Knight’s knack for relaying them sensitively, analytically and with a nose for the absurd, gives this book the dynamic feel of a well-plotted thriller.

As Knight lingers on the more poignant, unusual or downright esoteric stories, a picture of an exquisitely tinpot organisation is gently created, one staffed by dedicated and under-appreciated experts in a field so nascent it barely existed. To use a worn description, it is a painfully British endeavour, but with an international persuasion that in the story’s latter stages lifts the whole book into a surreal space where you may yourself begin to believe that thoughts do indeed control reality, and not the other way around as we generally perceive it. Any book that forces a reader to double-check their surroundings in such a way must, we think, be read by more people.

If you liked Premonitions Bureau try…

March 2023
Nina Simone’s Gum, Warren Ellis

Regardless of your areas of specific interest, we are confident this sumptuously produced and evocatively realised curio will appeal to anyone with a soft spot for smashed violins, tales of rock excess, exploratory beards, and high-quality photography on high-quality paper stock.

It begins in 1999, when violinist Warren Ellis jumps onto the stage at Royal Festival Hall after a triumphant, defiant set from Dr Nina Simone and swipes the half-masticated chewing gum she slammed onto the piano. His book then tells us what happened to this hallowed item in the following 20 years, and also wends beautifully through Ellis’ life as an elemental musician. This is no potted history of Dr Simone’s incredible career – it’s an esoteric, dogged and delightful romp that feels like a rummage through Ellis’ turned-out pockets. 

On the way Ellis speaks in illuminating and approachable prose about his inspiration, tantalising snapshots of a life spent scratching meaning out of a musical instrument and the nomadic temperament required to exist as an artist. It’s a remarkable thing, something that will make you feel anxious for and protective of a mere slab of Wrigleys as it eventually, with a little help from Nick Cave, finds its way to an exhibition case in Copenhagen. Ellis says in the book that he can’t stand the thought of writing a straightforward memoir, but Warren – with all due respect – we disagree, and we humbly demand that you write one.

If you liked Nina Simone’s Gum try…

February 2023
In Defence of Witches, Mona Chollet
trans. Sophie R. Lewis

Do you love to be outraged by cultural and historical facts?

Well, even if you don’t, these compelling and insightful essays from prominent Swiss journalist Mona Chollet guide us elegantly through the trials of women in history who have been persecuted for refusing to follow societal norms.
Chollet follows women who embrace ageing or dress and behave differently. It’s an intelligent and measured study of witches, misogyny and feminism through the ages.

There are no easy conclusions in this whole affair, but in Chollet’s telling it’s the small rebellions that allow women to assert their power – these are celebrated righteously, but you are aware throughout the book’s entirety that, despite the historical bent of the content, this is an ongoing issue.

It is that effortless yet rare thing, a book that uses history to comment on the present without overtly hammering home the obvious. It also contains a great intro from Carmen Maria Machado who hooked us in with the line: ‘you are surrounded by witches; you might even be one yourself.’ Yes, it will make you scream, but it will also make you cheer for witches past and present!

If you liked In Defence of Witches try…

January 2023

A Horse At Night, by Amina Cain

Reaffirming our strong belief that books of the greatest heft and insight more often than not arrive in small and unassuming packages, this sliver of a tome is packed with countless ‘YES, CORRECT!’ moments on every page. Amina Cain treated us a couple of years ago with her sublime little novel Indelicacy, and to follow she has written this gentle and truthful account of her own reading habits, the books that shaped her own writing sensibilities and the thoughts that race through her mind when in the midst of creativity. It’s like a non-invasive rummage through a very smart friend’s diary.

The good news is that to enjoy this book you need no experience of Cain’s previous work, nor any of the books she refers to. All the pleasure is derived from the nuggets of truth she brings forth from them, the passages she highlights and the way they extend beyond the page and into your own sense of potential. If you know the feeling of waiting for the creative muse to strike, this is the book that might make it happen that tiny bit faster. And even if you’re not afflicted with the need to create, your shopping list for new books might just increase after reading.

If you liked A Horse At Night try…

December 2022

Woman in the Polar Night, by Christiane Ritter

translated by Jane Degras

It might seem a bit superficial, but we’re always a sucker for a book with a map. It’s the perfect setup for this kind of wintery read – you’re immediately in the mood for adventure (but, actually, safely tucked up at home under a blanket). And this is a proper, old fashioned adventure, too. Comforts are in short supply, food is grim at best, bear attacks are a real hazard. It’s 1934 and life in the Arctic is hand-to-mouth.

In comes Christiane Ritter: a well-to-do Austrian painter invited to spend a year on a remote island of Norwegian Svalbard (yep, where the polar bears in His Dark Materials live…) by her husband to live as his, who’s spent years in the arctic hunting and living in almost complete isolation. Their nearest neighbours are hundreds of miles across the tundra and their only company is Karl, a brusk Norwegian who doesn’t speak any German. Her husband informs her their hut needs a “housewife”.

But despite domestic challenges, and almost everyone on the journey warning her not to go, Christiane is undeterred: and Woman in the Polar Night is surprisingly free from interpersonal drama. Ritter’s prose is refreshingly stark and unintrospective. It’s a far stretch from the trend of contemporary nature writers, in which nature is half of the topic, while the rest is personal and internal. Instead, it’s almost transcendental. In the lead up to the Second World War, the bleak, beautiful, dangerous arctic wilderness is framed as a tonic to European society.

This book has never been out of print in German and it’s easy to see why: it’s a short, beautiful, cold, revelatory read.

If you liked Woman in the Polar Night, try…

November 2022
Boy Friends, by Michael Pedersen

Although the very existence of this book is in no small part due to a huge tragedy, specifically the loss to suicide of the author’s dear friend and artistic collaborator Scott Hutchison, we defy you to read a more empowering and heartening document. Michael Pedersen, a poet of international renown and a wonderfully idiosyncratic style, gently uses his experience to create an assessment of the platonic male relationships in his life, assembling them for us with often-hilarious anecdotal reportage, contextualising them within his own life, wondering just what each one has meant or will mean to his own personality.

We were so happy to welcome the Michael himself to Storysmith in October, where he delighted and moved a shopful of rapt readers (you’ll notice that your copy is signed by the author) by performing key passages for us. And while that experience was special, the power of Boy Friends resides in the pages, in the unique insight of the book itself. You may be inspired to pick up the phone to an old acquaintance, you may equally be moved to excommunicate another – the point is that you’re thinking about it. Male friendship is presented here not as a list of futtering, abandoned failures, but as an essential and ultimately joyful experience to be celebrated.

If you liked Boy Friends, try… 

October 2022:
When Women Kill, by Alia Trabucco Zeran
(trans. Sophie Hughes)

Female murderers are irresistably fascinating, and this Chilean curio deals with the central theme of its title in a brilliantly creative way, turning the tropes of ‘true crime’ into something rather more profound than merely glamorising the four women it profiles. Detailing their shocking crimes and the repercussions with commentary on the research process itself, Zeran’s methods are exhaustive but eminently readable. 

Using reimagined and fictionalised accounts of key moments in these stories, she explores how the criminals are judged and punished differently purely because they’re women. She also lays out some of the surprising reactions in the media and society at the time, and the way in which the crimes were subsequently mythologised in literature, theatre and songs.

This is a perfect mix of compelling crime and intelligent investigation to get your teeth stuck into this Spooky Season!

If you liked When Women Kill, try… 

The Nation of Plants, by Stefano Mancuso

(translated by Gregory Conti)

There’s very much a time and a place for the respectable, English, button-down form of nature writing: flowery prose, poignant observations, the still contemplation of streams, ponds, a particularly fantastic piece of bark on an exemplary tree. This is not that kind of nature writing (if it is even strictly nature writing).

Which is not to say that this book is not one of serious, deep-level plant-preciation. But rather than aesthetic or spiritual, plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso opts for social, political, organisational, and moral appreciation. Can you learn about ethics from plants? Should plants have rights, a constitution? Is there even such a thing as plant “behaviour”?

It’s all up for debate of course, but like all the best philosophical ramblings, you start by accepting a slightly unexpected premise. But from this springs a remarkably playful, yet actually deadly serious, intellectual extrapolation. Open borders, non-hierarchical governance structures, and mutual aid are some of the seemingly unlikely (but actually watertight) ideas that flower from this fertile soil. While light on page count, this is the kind of book that makes you see the world from a different perspective.

If you liked Nation of Plants, try… 

August 2022

Everybody, by Olivia Laing

An unbelievably broad topic somehow woven into a tight but meandering cultural-history/memoir. That’s Olivia Laing’s bread and butter: beautiful genre-ambiguous non-fiction. For those of you who have read any of her previous books, such as The Lonely City, a simply gorgeous meditation on cities and loneliness in the modern age, you’ll already know what I’m talking about. She gravitates towards a unifying theme, but then explores the lives of artists, writers and thinkers whose work best exemplifies it.

Everybody is her most ambitious work to date. In it, she tackles the most personal of all possible themes: the body (and its discontents). Starting with the psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich and his wildly influential and extremely wacky pseudo-scientific concept of “orgone energy” (which could supposedly be channeled to cure any and all bodily ills through isolation in an aggrandized wooden box sometimes referred to as the “orgasmatron”), Laing tracks a wide-ranging course through the 20th century by way of civil rights, the sexual revolution, faith healing, prisons, McCarthyism, and some of its greatest thinkers and renegades: Kathy Acker, Nina Simone, Freud, Susan Sontag, William S Burroughs. 

Everybody doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects or their uncomfortable relevance to our world right now, but this is levelled with a tone and style that is reassuring, cathartic, and ultimately hopeful, coming together to make a book which reminds us of our most basic freedoms and why we can’t afford to lose them. 

If you liked Everybody, try… 

July 2022

Days in the Caucasus, by Banine

(translated by Anne Thompson-Ahmadova)

This delicious memoir of a childhood spent in the Caucasus region of Azerbaijan is by turns heartwarming, funny and troubling. Our narrator, the inimitable Banin (or Ummulbanu Asadullayeva, to give her her full name), tells us her story of growing up in a wealthy oil-rich family in Baku in the very early 20th century as the city undergoes profound revolutionary changes. Her family are her constant companions throughout the trials of her childhood and early adolescence, with their vividly complex personal connections and eccentricities, along with various interlopers – a German governess, friends with temptingly liberal Western leanings, a dishy and mysterious Bolshevik soldier…

Despite the chaotic and exotic setting which can seem so remote from modern life, there are commonalities of childhood which resonate with all of us. Banine is in thrall to her family but frustrated by it, she can’t wait to leave her home behind but is still utterly bound to it – the evocative way she tells us her story will make you nostalgic for and slightly fearful of a time about which we knew so little. A true relic, and only published in English for the first time in 2019 since it first appeared in French in 1945, this story is quite unlike anything else we’ve read.

If you liked Days in the Caucasus, try… 

June 2022

My Father’s Daughter, by Hannah-Azieb Pool

This is an incredible memoir of lost and reconnected families, told with such clarity and warmth that it can be easy to forget just how momentous the story itself is. When Hannah-Azieb Pool discovers that the Eritrean family she never thought she’d meet desperately wants to see her, she decides to travel across the world to a community and culture remotely distant from her own comparatively comfortable, even affluent adoptive UK upbringing.

The interactions are charged and intense, knotty and difficult to process, but Pool’s prose is so engagingly approachable that these deeply complex events are made eminently readable, spinning the history of an area of immense geopolitical strife seamlessly alongside the more immediate and emotionally raw family drama. As her family begins to reveal its true entanglements, we are carried along as if we have exclusive emotional access to the predicaments, deeply connected.

If you liked My Father’s Daughter, try…

May 2022:

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders

Don’t be immediately put off by this, but you are about to experience a truly unique academic lecture. Taking the form of four annotated short stories written by the Russian masters of the form (Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol), this is a truly enlightening insight into the nuts and bolts of writing stories and – at a deeper level – the nature of creativity. George Saunders is a giant of the short story in his own right, and his gentle yet learned approach to these classic works sheds light on the process of their composition, and on the wider rhythms of how stories in their essence are told.

Saunders himself runs one of the most prestigious creative writing classes in the US (at Syracuse University), and it’s easy to see why young writers flock to his teachings. The tone is beautifully generous, his writing dotted with pearls of lightly-worn wisdom on matters specifically creative and more general, and the feeling on reading the book is not so much of being lectured but being encouraged to read more deeply, for more pleasure. And the stories themselves – well, there’s a reason Saunders selected them, and each one has its own distinct charms. This is a joyful and exploratory book about the meaning we unknowingly attach to fiction, and one we hope makes you feel more connected to everything else in your reading diet.

If you liked Ruth & Pen, try…

April 2022

A Little Devil in America, by Hanif Abdurraqib

So many books about pop music cater directly to a very narrow stereotype of a reader – white, male and with a well-organised collection of vinyl across a surprisingly vanilla spread of genres. That’s one reason why Hanif Abdurraqib’s joyously grandiloquent and poetic examination of black performance is such a breath of fresh air. Another reason would be that it also happens to be irresistibly readable, organised into essays that hide their rigour and assuredness in personal reflection and melancholic humour.

The range of subjects is electrifying, and we discover so much through Abdurraqib’s searching questions: who sang backing vocals on ‘Gimme Shelter’, and why don’t we know that? What is the cultural legacy of the now-forgotten phenomenon of the dance marathon? What is a ‘magical negro’? And perhaps most surprisingly: was Chewbacca black? Almost imperceptibly weaving in autobiographical detail (and not in a mawkish way), this is a thoroughly unique read, and the the perfect riposte to the staid culture of most music writing. A book of praise in the best possible sense.

If you liked A Little Devil in America, try…

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