#tobyreads: Three Nonfiction Works, Plus Medieval Crime

St. Elizabeth's Flood

St. Elizabeth's Flood

This week? This week, it looks like we’re talking nonfiction. Mostly. One work of artistic discussion and personal reflection; one sharp look at literature through the prism of dozens of talented novelists; and one look at a very particular music scene in a very particular city. And there’s also a gritty crime novel set in the 15th century, because: why not?

Let’s start with the novel. That’d be Jesse Bullington’s The Folly of the World, set in Holland just after a massive flood reshaped geography, turning cities into lakes, upending the social order, and aggravating a populace already on the verge of civil war. Pieces gather slowly: a man, about to be hanged, effects his escape but spends much of the following months hallucinating; a bitterly cunning con man seeks out a young woman whose ability to dive is second to none, and a fraught not-quite-partnership ensues. As the shape of the book slowly reveals itself, it’s clear that this is a very stylized caper narrative, where the three main characters’ skills will repeatedly come into play, and where questions of trust and loyalty will inevitably be raised. It’s an enjoyable and briskly-moving work, though the presence of a few dangling plot threads does make me wonder if Bullington is planning to revisit any of these characters in the near future. Admittedly, it’s likely that I’ll read that if he does.

From the brutal to the poetic: Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby is a cyclical narrative, taking the reader into spaces like Iceland’s Library of Water and the coldest reaches of Canada even as Solnit narrates a wrenching account of her own life: notably, her mother’s progression into dementia, and Solnit’s own surgery and the questions that it raised. Also woven in there are stories of flawed figures real and fictional, from Victor Frankenstein to Che Guevara — and it’s to Solnit’s credit that a narrative touching on so many subjects is cohesive, though-provoking, and thoroughly moving.

John Freeman’s How to Read a Novelist focuses on a number of author profiles (and a handful of interviews) written by Freeman over the years. There’s an impressively wide range of writers featured here, and Freeman’s ability to condense significant bodies of work to essential themes, works, and moments is impressive. The handful of longer pieces in here left me hoping that we get to see more of his work at this length, however — as good as Freeman is in the shorter mode, he also has a terrific eye for detail and a laudable sense of empathy.

Steve Miller’s Detroit Rock City is an oral history that focuses — as you might guess — on rock music in Detroit. Impressively, nearly all of the (living) musicians discussed here are represented: MC5, The Stooges, Ted Nugent, Destroy All Monsters, John Brannon, Jack White, and many more. (Promoters, sound engineers, and scenesters are also represented, which helps.) The participants are given plenty of room to breathe, and arcs — whether bands’ rise and fall, or gritter narratives of addiction and crime — play out in full. And, yeah, it left me wanting to listen to a whole lot of the music discussed — never a bad thing.

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