Among the countless reading challenges I seem to be hosting or taking part in this month, one of my favourites is always Nonfiction November. Every time I take part, I really enjoy it and vow to make more time for nonfiction reading. That doesn’t always happen, but I usually come away from November with a list of great nonfiction books that I really want to read.
Here are a few of the other nonfiction books I’ve read this month.
The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life by John Leake
I was intrigued about this book after reading a great review over on Kim’s blog Reading Matters and managed to track down a copy from Ebay. The Vienna Woods Killer is a painstaking exploration of the life and criminal career of Jack Unterweger.
In 1990 Unterweger was released from prison following his conviction for the murder of 18-year-old Margaret Schäfer in 1976. He went in to prison a young killer but came out as a literary sensation, having published poetry, fiction and an autobiography while in prison. He had become a darling of the literary elite in Austria who campaigned for his release. Unteweger was a poster boy for the power of rehabilitation.
Life however, is never that simple and within the first year of his release, four prostitutes were murdered in Vienna, along with another three in LA while Jack was on assignment there. He was the first to write about these crimes but soon became the prime suspect in 11 brutal murders. How could so many intelligent people have been so wrong?
John Leake has written a painstaking exploration of Unterweger’s life and crimes, concentrating on detail but never succumbing to sensationalism. He explores the gullibility and disproportionate influence of intellectuals in Austrian society; how attractive to women a murderer of women could be and how impossible it is to assess in any ordinary way the personality and motives of a violent narcissist. Fascinating.
Trick Mirror: reflections on self-delusion by Jia Tolentino
I quite enjoyed Trick Mirror, but like many essay collections, I found it to be a bit of a mixed bag. As a writer, Tolentino is incisive and nimble, with a talent for unusual, intuitive tangents and juxtapositions and a keen awareness that her adult life and writing has been formed online. Her writing is marked by that immediate persuasiveness that comes from being a writer of online content – it is sharp and probing, convincing and questioning – and always happy to mine a life for writing material.
Tolentino is very aware of the dual nature of life, the one we lead and the one we present to the world and these essays explore the seductive yet somehow fragmented nature of the public persona that anyone who uses a social media platform will have.
A few of the essays here were really impressive. ‘Ecstasy’ is an incredibly well-structured examination of faith, drugs and morality, while ‘The I in the Internet’ is a sharp look at the image we create for online consumption. ‘We Come From Old Virginia’ is a hard-hitting exploration of sexual assault within the world of fraternities, which benefits from Tolentino taking a hard look at her old alma mater – the University of Virginia. ‘The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams’ is a humorous look at what Tolentino believes to be the best scams of recent times – Trump included – and details how we all want to live our desired reality but don’t necessarily want to work for it.
Other pieces in the collection didn’t really work for me, particularly the essay on Barre exercise and the flippant and throwaway discussion of marriage in ‘I Thee Dread’. ‘The Cult of Difficult Women’ falls into the trap of both decrying the judging of women on appearance and then doing just that, but there was enough here to make me interested in what Tolentino produces next.
Give Me Everything You Have by James Lasdun
When James Lasdun was teaching a creative writing class, he met a talented young writer called Nasreen. They had little interaction, but a few years later, Nasreen emailed him asking for publishing advise and an email correspondence began, which blossomed, Lasdun thought, into friendship. Soon after, the emails became more frequent and more flirtatious and Lasdun, who was uncomfortable and happily married, tried to distance himself from Nasreen. Nasreen hen turned angry and a her emails became dark, violent, antisemtic and unhinged. For seven years Lasdun was hounded online receiving upwards of 60 emails a day from Nasreen who spread rumours of sexual harrasment and plagarism against her one-time mentor and began contacting places where he worked to damage his literary relationships.
Lasdun’s book is eye-opening in its exploration of what it is like to be stalked. Aside from the fear and distress, his experience sounds utterly exhausting. The sheer thought of receiving 100 emails a day filled with anger and bile is incomprehensible and takes over his life. He realises that just as Nasreen cannot stop thinking about him, she creates a situation where he, through no choice of his own, cannot stop thinking about her.
Give Me Everything You Have isn’t entirely successful. Lasdun weaves in thoughts about other literary works and takes a trip to Jerusalem which don’t particularly cohere with the rest of the book and there is also a sense that this book is a defense as much as it is a statement (which is understandable). It also peters out at the end, mainly because the stalking begins to ebb, although he does note that he is still dealing with the situation.
I had a look on Goodreads and there seems to be quite a bit of anger towards Lasdun for writing the book at all and a suggestion that a lot of what happened was his fault because he admits to some mild flirtation with Nasreen. I find that hard to understand and I think had a female academic written this book the reaction would not have been to blame her. No one deserves what Lasdun was put through and he has every right to write a book about his own subjective experience.
Many thanks to Katie, Rennie, Julie and Leann for hosting such a great reading challenge!
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!