recommend me some books!
February 23, 2013 11:07 AM   Subscribe

I enjoy memoir-style books written by people who have lived in interesting places/cultures and provide a political and historical perspective of the events in their lives. I have a gift certificate for Barnes and Noble that's burning a hole in my pocket. I'd like some recommendations.

A few examples of what I'm look for would be Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, and From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe. Just about any geographical location or time period is good. I'm not really looking for memoirs by well-known people, just regular people who have experienced interesting cultures and/or historical events.

I prefer non-fiction, but good fiction (like some of Amy Tan's earlier stuff) is good too.

I also prefer gorgeous writing, and the kind of narrative that makes a book hard to put down.

posted by phoenix_rising to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (22 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
This is close to what you're looking for, but not exactly. I've really been enjoying Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. It chronicles the authors spiritual (and geographical) journey through Buddhism, and from England to India, to China and Tibet, to Korea and to France -- it's in quite an interesting read. You should probably have more than zero interest in Buddhism, but it's much more a memoir than a 'philosophical/spiritual' book.
posted by wrok at 11:18 AM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've never forgotten Under a Cruel Star: A Jew in Czechoslovakia under the Nazis, Kovaly spent the war years in the Lodz ghetto and several concentration camps, losing her family and barely surviving herself. Returning to Prague at the end of the war, she married an old friend, a bright, enthusiastic young Jewish economist named Rudolf Margolius, who saw the country's only hope for the future in the Communist Party. Thereafter, Rudolf became deputy minister for foreign trade. For a time, the Margoliuses lived like royalty, albeit reluctantly, but then, in a replay of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, Rudolf and others, mostly of Jewish background, were arrested and hung in the infamous Slansky Trial of 1952. Kovaly's memoir of these years that end with her emigration to the West after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 are a tragic story told with aplomb, humor and tenderness.

I need to reread this.
posted by rtha at 11:21 AM on February 23, 2013

Nothing to Envy - by Barbara Demick

It's a journalistic account, not a memoir, but the author follows the lives of 6 North Koreans who left their country. I found it very moving while also educational on the history and politics of North Korea.
posted by Asparagus at 11:37 AM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Going Solo is Roald Dahl's memoir of his time working for an oil company in Africa just before WWII, and then his service in the RAF once the war broke out. It's compact, well-written and very entertaining. (And less of a kids' book than the previous entry, Boy.)
posted by pete_22 at 11:40 AM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Are you familiar with the Mitford sisters? 6 daughters of minor British nobility whose lives were caught up in many significant events of the early 20th Century.

The eldest was a popular novelist who was friends with Evelyn Waugh and had a long affair with a key member of the French resistance, but the second-oldest married famous British Fascist Walter Mosley. The third girl was a friend and devotee of Hitler -- her divided loyalties made her shoot herself the day war was declared between England and Germany. Another sister went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, became a member of the American Communist party and Civil Rights movement, and ultimately an accomplished journalist, while the youngest girl became the Duchess of Devonshire and close friends with the Kennedys.

Lots has been written by and about them, but here's a starting point:

I think almost all of them wrote memoirs, and most of them were pretty good writers.

Oh, and if you're in the mood for a light, funny novel, Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love is a charming, breezy read, parts of which are autobiographical.
posted by pocketfullofrye at 12:00 PM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

You may be aware that Alexandra Fuller wrote another memoir. Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. I haven't read it but want to.
posted by Fairchild at 12:13 PM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also by Alexandra Fuller: Don't Let's go to the Dogs Tonight.
oops....sorry. I see you know about this already.
posted by BostonTerrier at 12:23 PM on February 23, 2013

Uhh, how are you with books that are depressing? That might be relevant re: Nothing to Envy. I was reading it and got a migraine so my sweet husband came over to read to me. I happened to be reading a chapter where a few characters starved to death. This did not sell him on the book, though it was very good.

If you liked Don't Let's Go to the Dogs, Peter Godwin has written two books about Zimbabwe that were good but again, depressing - When a Crocodile Eats the Sun and The Fear, which is more recent and more focused on the Mugabe regime. While they're arguably about Zimbabwe, the latter is also about his father and family.

More recently, I heard an interview with the author of Heads in Beds and it sounds entertaining.
posted by kat518 at 1:01 PM on February 23, 2013

The Caliph's House, by Tahir Shah
Boychiks in the Hood, by Robert Eisenberg
Birds Without Wings, and Corelli's Mandolin, both by Louis de Bernieres (fiction; delicious writing)
The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, by Lucette Lagrado
I'm Perfect, You're Doomed, by Kyria Abrahams
Finding George Orwell in Burma, by Emma Larkin
This is Paradise!, by Hyok Kong
The Corpse Walker, by Liao Yiwu
The Electric Life of Michael Faraday, by Alan Hirschfeld
Wild Swans, by Jung Chang
Factory Girls, by Leslie T. Chang
The House on Sugar Beach, by Helene Cooper
A Sense of the World, by Jason Roberts
Socialism is Great, by Lijia Zhang
Bold Spirit, by Linda Lawrence Hunt
In the Name of Salome, by Julia Alvarez (fiction)
Dreaming in Hindi, by Katherine Russell Rich
Among the White Moon Faces, Shirley Geok-lin Lim
My Century, by Gunter Grass (fiction)
Lipstick Jihad, by Azadeh Moaveni
Red China Blues, by Jan Wong
Looking for Trouble, by Leslie Cockburn
Two Lives, by Vikram Seth
The Lemon Tree, by Sandy Tolan
Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
posted by Corvid at 1:15 PM on February 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Little Red Guard by Wenguang Huang is a fascinating memoir about the Cultural Revolution as it affected three generations: the author was a child and later teenager, his father was a loyal Party member, and his grandmother was very traditional and focused on having a traditional burial in her home village (which was not viewed positively at all by the Party during the Cultural Revolution, so it was a source of family conflict and concern). It's beautifully written, and often very funny.

My First Coup D'Etat, an engaging memoir by the President of Ghana, John Dramani Mahama, combines the personal and the political and gives a picture of Ghana (and Africa) during what Mahama calls "the lost years". Lots of great stuff in this, from his reminiscences of how much he and his friends loved James Brown's music to his analyses of political upheavals in Ghana in the 1970s.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:56 PM on February 23, 2013

Seconding the Mitford sisters - Jessica is one of my personal heroes, and I particularly enjoyed A Fine Old Conflict.
posted by naoko at 1:58 PM on February 23, 2013

I really liked Last Night I Dreamed of Peace. From Amazon:

In 1970, while sifting through war documents in Vietnam, Fred Whitehurst, an American lawyer serving with a military intelligence dispatch, found a diary no bigger than a pack of cigarettes, its pages handsewn together. Written between 1968 and '70 by Tram, a young, passionate doctor who served on the front lines, it chronicled the strife she witnessed until the day she was shot by American soldiers earlier that year at age 27. Whitehurst, who was greatly moved by the diary and smuggled it out of the country, returned it to Thuy's family in 2005; soon after, it was published as a book in Vietnam, selling nearly half a million copies within a year and a half. The diary is valuable for the perspective it offers on war—Thuy is not obsessed with military maneuvers but rather the damage, both physical and emotional, that the war is inflicting on her country. Thuy also speaks poignantly about her patients and the compassion she feels for them. Unfortunately, the writing, composed largely of breathless questions and exclamations, is monotonous at times, somewhat diminishing the book's power. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
posted by spunweb at 3:02 PM on February 23, 2013

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin. It's fiction, about a Tanzanian woman in Rwanda after the genocide. Very well written look at a horrible event from a regular persons perspective. Not depressing, I promise!
posted by SyraCarol at 4:02 PM on February 23, 2013

These are all books I read in my youth and found fascinating - perhaps they are a little old-fashioned. You can look all the authors up in Wikipedia, from whence I've cut and pasted the info, and see if you're intrigued enough to seek the books out.

"Rebecca West, or Dame Rebecca West, was an English author, journalist, literary critic and travel writer. A prolific, protean author who wrote in many genres, West was committed to feminist and liberal principles and was one of the foremost public intellectuals of the twentieth century. Her major works include Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), on the history and culture of Yugoslavia;" etc. Her son by HG Wells, Anthony West, is also a writer.

"Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, CBE, DSO, FRAS, FRGS (3 June 1910 – 24 August 2003) was a British explorer and travel writer born in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Thesiger is best known for two travel books: Arabian sands (1959) recounts his travels in the Empty Quarter of Arabia between 1945 and 1950 and describes the vanishing way of life of the Bedouins. The Marsh Arabs (1964) is an account of the Madan, the indigenous people of the marshlands of southern Iraq. The latter journey is also covered by his travelling companion, Gavin Maxwell, in A Reed Shaken by the Wind – a Journey through the Unexplored Marshlands of Iraq (Longman, 1959)." Also worth looking up is The Danakil Diary: Journeys through Abyssinia, 1930-4

"George Eric Newby CBE MC (6 December 1919 – 20 October 2006[1]) was an English travel author. Newby's best known works include A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, The Last Grain Race, and Round Ireland in Low Gear." Newby is great fun.

"Alexandra David-Néel born Louise Eugénie Alexandrine Marie David (born in Saint-Mandé, Val-de-Marne on 24 October 1868, and died in Digne-les-Bains, on 8 September 1969) was a Belgian-French explorer, spiritualist, Buddhist, anarchist,[1][2][3] and writer, most known for her visit to Lhasa, Tibet, in 1924, when it was forbidden to foreigners. David-Néel wrote over 30 books about Eastern religion, philosophy, and her travels. Her teachings influenced beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, philosopher Alan Watts, and Theosophist Benjamin Creme." You could look out for Of Mystics and Magicians in Tibet - you might be able to get it on Amazon.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is probably the most serious bit of literature in that list. But the others are pretty good too.
posted by glasseyes at 4:04 PM on February 23, 2013

For a fascinating overview of the lives of all six of the Mitford sisters I highly recommend Mary S Lovell's 'The Mitford Girls'. Fascinating family, in a story told well.

For something completely different, AB Facey's 'A Fortunate Life', about a poor boy (literally) who fights in a war totally alien to him (WWI) and who lives a very interesting life.
posted by goo at 6:49 PM on February 23, 2013

Thirding the Mitfords, and specifically Jessica's Hons and Rebels. It starts out as a witty, rather elegiac memoir of upper-class Edwardian childhood and suddenly turns into a gripping adventure story when she runs away to the Spanish Civil War. If you like the Mitfords, you might also like Naomi Mitchison's autobiography, As It Was.

Emanuel Litvinoff's Notes from a Small Planet is an entertaining account of his coming of age in a very working class, very Jewish quarter of London.
posted by zeri at 8:25 PM on February 23, 2013

A Primate's Memoir by Robert Sapolsky. One of the best nonfiction books I've ever read.
posted by sweetkid at 10:30 PM on February 23, 2013

Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi.
posted by ourobouros at 6:50 AM on February 24, 2013

Two really great autobiographies I forgot:
A Country Boy by Richard Hillyer. I've linked to somebody's blog post about him as I don't think I could do justice to the story. It is a very very very good book, concise and beautifully written and you will look in vain on the internet for anything more about this author. He sums up a moment of time just before massive irreversible change in the UK. I couldn't believe he hadn't written anything else but the blog post has some more information.

Things Worth While by Evelyn Cheesman. The bits describing her fairly idyllic middle-class childhood in pre-WW1 London are just as compelling as the bits about her solo insect-collecting expeditions to Papua New Guinea in the 30s and 40s. An amazing woman and an inquiring scientist who took her extraordinary lifestyle and accomplishments entirely for granted.

Oh, and fourthing Hons & Rebels.
posted by glasseyes at 8:19 AM on February 24, 2013

Seven Pillars of Wisdom by TE Lawrence.

This is a fascinating account of his stint in the Middle East during the WWI era. He was a brilliant writer, and an amazing man. The movie was spectacular, of course, but it didn't do him justice. Any version of the book works, but if you can get hold of one of the illustrated volumes you'll find it will add much to the flavor of the narrative.
posted by mule98J at 8:54 AM on February 24, 2013

I just finished Bad Times in Buenos Aires by Miranda France and thought it was great.
She is a British journalist who moved to BsAs in the 1990s when the economy was really broken. Her writing was funny and she weaves in a bunch of history and interesting facts about the city in a way that doesn't seem forced.
posted by rmless at 1:30 PM on February 24, 2013

Into the Whirlwind, by Eugenia Ginsberg, is about the author going to the gulag under Stalin. It is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read.
posted by Surprised By Bees at 8:31 PM on February 24, 2013

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