Reading out of my comfort zone part II: Life Writings


I’ve been loving my year of Russian reading, but I realise that this has meant other books have had to wait for quite a while to get noticed.  As 2016 approaches, I’m lining up some new volumes to tackle and this time I’ve decided to branch out, slightly.

Rather than just novels, I’m aware that I have a lot of non-fiction that does genuinely appeal, despite being far from my usual reading.  When grouped together, they form a really attractive book list, made of biographies and letters, spanning the globe (and beyond).

In no particular order I’m really looking forward to:

Persepolis ReturnPeople have been recommending that I try out ‘Persepolis’ for ages now, usually right after I say something clichéed like “I don’t usually read graphic novels, but I really like ‘Maus'”.  By all accounts, this powerfully illustrated autobiography is a must read.  It charts the experiences of Satrapi, first as a child in Iran and then as a teenager in Austria.  I’ve already been won over by the first chapter, ‘The Veil,’ in which the 10 year old Satrapi brings brilliant humour and depth to her depiction of a girls’ school in 1980s Iran. (It shouldn’t have taken me so long to get round to this one, I reviewed it in March and you can read the post here).

imgres-3.jpgI was incredibly excited to pick up ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands’ at a library book sale a couple of weeks ago.  Seacole is generally remembered as a contrast to the white, privileged Florence Nightingale.  She also cared for British casualties during the Crimean war; unlike Nightingale however, she worked with the soldiers, not the bureaucracy.  She went on to become a beloved and revered figure in British society.  The above is what I know, but I can’t wait to find out more, and written in her own words, in this 1857 classic.  (I reviewed this in April as ‘The Best Biography So Far‘)

imgres-4.jpgI can’t help feeling I’m not the target audience for this one.  I know very little about science in general and the space missions in particular.  Still, I couldn’t help but notice the number of astronaut autobiographies that have come out in recent years.  In keeping with the retro tone of my usual reading, I’m going for this 1974 biography.  It was sold to me as ‘the  most candid of all the Apollo biographies’ and I’ve been promised a fascinating mixture of genuine emotion, behind the scenes drama and technical insight.  (This was my February non-fiction read, you can see my full review here).

imgres-5.jpg I first learned of this medieval couple through Flanders and Swann: ”Who’s Abelard?’ said Heloise / He’s not my fella / He’s a friend, just a friend.’  While I’m sure the actual letters themselves are less flippant, there is something wonderfully appealing and Gothic about reading the translations of the very lines written by the philosopher monk and his female pupil.  Their romance included an illegitimate child followed by a secret marriage, an escape to a nunnery and a castration.  Now I just need to see how many of these shocking events are mentioned in the letters themselves!
(The answer is: all of them.  See my full review here)

imgres-6.jpg This is probably going to be the first of the list that I’ll actually read, because I need to have finished it for book-club at the end of December.  It ticks all of my literary boxes, not only for the wonderful title, but for its promise of a book imbued with a love of language.  On page two, Hoffman describes leaving Cracow: ‘I am suffering my first, severe attack of nostalgia, or tęsknota– a word that adds to nostalgia the tonalities of sadness and longing.’   I already want to know more about her experiences and about how these tie in to the very language with which she can describe them. (It was the first – and you can read the review here).

imgres-2.jpgThis doorstopper of a volume is actually the abridged memoir of the famous Venetian.  Still, over 1000 pages seems like a good place to start at getting to know this most famous seducer.  It’s going to be an action-packed ride through eighteenth century society; along with his sexual conquests, Casanova also travelled around Europe, meeting the most public of figures, including Catherine the Great and Rousseau.  After reading the breathless blurb it’s no longer a wonder to me that this memoir is quite so long, in fact, I’ll be interested to see how everything can possibly be squeezed in! (See full review here).

Lest this collection look a little European/Western tradition heavy, I’m also going to include Jung Chang’s ‘Wild Swans’ which has been on my Kindle all year and on my reading list for far longer.  Spanning a century, this epic family biography tells China’s history through the lives of three women.  Like the best biographies, it will teach me about people, about cultures and about different ways of seeing the world. (See my full and very enthusiastic review here)


I don’t usually read non-fiction, which explains why these books have stacked up so much, but the pile suddenly seems less daunting and more like the best kind of reading fun.  I’ll be looking out for encouragement with this off-my-beaten-track reading, and also more recommendations, what great life-writings have I missed off and which of the list do you think I should be prioritising?

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29 Responses to Reading out of my comfort zone part II: Life Writings

  1. What a great plan – you are definitely very courageous to keep stepping outside the comfort zone (have a great friend who says we should all do that in even a tiny way every single day of our lives, easier said than done!). Suspect you will continue to love Persepolis, which is the only one of your cluster I’ve read so far, although I did want to read Wild Swans likewise and will await your review. I’ve got “Testament of Youth” in my sights, partly due to the film. And the Malala story is a brilliant one. Good luck with your challenge. x

    • I read ‘Testament of Youth’ years ago and remember really enjoying it, I look forward to hearing your views. As for me, Persepolis does look pretty wonderful. I nearly bought it when in NY, based on your recommendation, but I realised my suitcase wasn’t big enough for non-New York reading too!

  2. I think I can promise you wondrous things from Persepolis, and Wild Swans is an intensive, fascinating read – Start with Persepolis as you have two genres – a memoir and viewpoint on Iran, and a graphic novel too. I am interested in the Hoffman and the Seacole.

    And if you really want reccs, an excellent read last year – another memoir, really, plus a wonderful book about the natural world was Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, a most soulful, emotionally deep and beautifully written book, which again is one which covers a lot of ground.

    I also really rated Tim Parks The Novel: A Survival Skill, a wonderful marriage between literary criticism and psychology, it touches also on the lives of writers, including Parks’ own

    You know I’m SO impressed that you stayed faithfully Russian this year

    • I remember all of the praise heaped on ‘H is for Hawk’ last year. You’re right, I haven’t included it yet, but it would fit in really well as a more contemporary memoir to add to the list. Being out of the non-fiction loop, I hadn’t even heard of ‘The Novel: A Survival Skill’, but it sounds really interesting. It is, after all, about a topic fairly close to my heart!

  3. Geoff W says:

    Yes. Yes. Yes, to Persepolis, I’d love to hear your take on it.

    • I’m a bit scared at the idea of writing a review for a graphic novel – yet another ‘out of comfort zone’ moment to look forward to…

      • Geoff W says:

        You’ll be great! And honestly if you find yourself reading it pretty fast, read it twice and write two different parts of the review: the graphics and the text. From what I remember it was easy enough to take in both in this one.

      • Thank you for the encouragement! I’m curious about the whole etiquette of graphic novel reviewing – how do you give quotations when at least half of the review will deal with images which presumably are under copyright?

      • Geoff W says:

        Haaha I never thought about that. I usually quoted text and almost always had at least one image I took with my phone or on my iPad of something specific. Probably should’ve thought about that.

  4. Stefanie says:

    Persepolis is great! I hope you like it! I’ve had the letters of Heloise and Abelard on my shelf for ages and haven’t managed to read them yet. Perhaps you will inspire me to finally pick them up!

    • I recommend taking a quick peak at the introduction if your edition contains one. The story behind their love is so crazy it makes you realise how poorly the bland title sells the book…

  5. BookerTalk says:

    what an astounding coincidence. I had never heard of Mrs Seacole but last night watched one of the Simon Scharma episodes which talked about her. An extraordinary woman.

  6. I can highly recommend Persepolis and Wild Swans, even though I read the latter 20 years ago! I remember it being very moving. I’m excited to read your reviews of the rest, they all sound fascinating and I’m a big admirer of Mary Seacole 🙂

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  16. Jao says:

    Great list ! thank you 🙂 now i’m tempted to read “Persepolis”.
    i love reading your reviews, and btw i came here from your review of ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’ which made me want to discover the nordic litterature, so i took note of the titles you mentioned in your Plans for 2017 ‘s post. I did the same with your reading list for 2016 too ! i still didn’t read AMERICANAH ( sacrilege ??! ) . Oh ! and it’s time for me to read Laila Lalami !

    • So many books, so little time! I’ve got piles of books waiting to be read after being tempted by other bloggers – this year I was going to catch up with them, but instead I’ve found myself side-tracked by my Nordic reading project – maybe I’ll start making progress when the weather gets warmer…
      Persepolis is great, and you’ll be able to take advantage of reading it in the original language too! Both ‘Americanah’ and ‘The Moor’s Account’ are really interesting. Coming after your lovely review of ‘Kitchen’ it sounds like you’re doing some wonderful reading travelling this year!

  17. Jao says:

    Yeah, Frank Zappa is absolutely right ! but i consider this, as a chance. To have more books than time is better that its opposite 🙂 ( it would be unbearable! ) .

    Thank you for liking my review of “Kitchen”, it’s due to it that i diascovered your blog. I was looking for an image for my post about it 🙂 And reading your review i couldn’t not to subscribe. Your blog is so inspiring and motivating to discover new genres and world litteratures. So keep up the good work (and vibes!) .

    • Thank you – and also thank you for the reviews you’ve written. You’ve actually been really helping me because one of my non-blog projects for the year is to improve my French and I’ve decided that reading reviews of books in French is probably the most enjoyable way I can do this!

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