Going West and my year of nonfiction

Three Sisters and a golden bowl of sun 


Nonfiction November, a month-long book blogger celebration, just happens to coincide with an anniversary: one year ago my husband and I left our long-time upstate New York home and set out for the Pacific Northwest, not sure where we’d ultimately land.

And now we’re studying permaculture and Oregon’s eco-regions and learning how to take care of horses (maybe alpaca, too) on 4 1/2 acres in a small town near Bend.

On our cross-country trip, by car and train, my reading didn’t stop, of course. Does it ever? It was so much fun to curl up with a good book in a sleeper car and look up now and then to see western horizons that were completely new to me.

Book Blogger Kim @ Sophisticated Dorkiness poses these questions about what we’ve read in the way of nonfiction in 2018:

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

I can never pick just one favorite book. Here are four that stand out:

EducatedEducated. This is an extraordinary memoir by Tara Westover, who grew up in a family of survivalists in Idaho. Tara wasn’t allowed to attend public school, but she wasn’t home schooled either. Denied an education, she managed to gain admission to Brigham Young, and from there Harvard and then Cambridge University in England, where she received a Ph.D in history

Tara’s interior journey is just as fascinating as her outward journey from backwoods Idaho to the halls of scholarly erudition; and from fundamentalism, a dangerous brother’s physical abuse, and parental mental illness to the cultural mainstream. As we come of age, we construct a self. Tara’s coming of age was a kind of trial by fire.

Educated has proven to be a controversial memoir. Tara’s parents, through their lawyer, have said that Tara’s portrayal of the family is largely false. Memoirs can be a minefield for writers and their families.

GreatTideRisingGreat Tide Rising: Toward Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Climate Change. It was an honor to correspond with Kathleen Dean Moore this year, read two or three of her fine and important books, and enjoy a writer’s residency at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, where she helped establish the Long-Term Ecological Reflections Program. The title of Great Tide Rising says it all. Every literate person on the planet who has access to books should read it.

The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, by Douglas Brinkley. The time is ripe for another Roosevelt. Are you planning to vote in the mid-term elections?

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Jaron Lanier is a brilliant humanist who believes our unhealthy, manipulative culture of technology and screens is robbing us of our free will. The solutions aren’t technological, he says, but humanitarian. (He is not against social media per se, but how it currently operates.)

In the months since I’ve read his book, the title seems even more urgent. The internet, and even social media, have greatly enhanced my life, but the bad currently outweighs the good. If I could, I’d withdraw from the online world completely, at least for a while. As it is, I’m trying to limit my Facebook time to when I have a new Books Can Save a Life post. I post on Instagram less frequently these days.

Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?

It’s more like a continuation of my interest in the best nature and ecological writing, given our current challenges. Maybe what’s different this year is realizing I’m attracted to nonfiction and fiction with a strong humanitarian bent and a vision for how we might bring about a better future.

Now’s the time when everyone needs to be talking about climate change and deciding what we, personally, are going to do about it. It’s more important than ever to support our libraries, librarians, teachers, and schools. We can support our best journalists, newspapers, and news outlets, as well.

When we’re online, when passing on a link, we can make sure it’s a credible source first. We can be savvy and discerning, do some digging, and read between the lines.

It takes time to become a truly literate citizen these days – to understand exactly what we’re consuming online, how it might be manipulating us, and how to contribute to online conversations responsibly, in an informed way.

Spending time with good – and great – books can help!

Nonfiction November is being hosted by some excellent book bloggers. I’ve long enjoyed Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) and Katie’s (Doing Dewey) excellent commentary and wide-ranging knowledge about what’s being published, and I’m looking forward to exploring Julie, Sarah, and Rennie’s blogs.  Stop by and visit Kim @ Sophisticated Dorkiness, Julie (JulzReads), Sarah (Sarah’s Book Shelves), Katie (Doing Dewey), and Rennie (What’s Nonfiction).

What’s the best nonfiction you’ve read this year? Let us know in the comments.

22 thoughts on “Going West and my year of nonfiction”

  1. Loved this! Your new place sounds amazing! I would love to be able to plan a proper permaculture garden, my city lot is just too small, but I still manage to incorporate some of the ideas. I do what I can! Alpacas are so adorable and useful animals too. You totally need some 😉 Completely jealous you have been corresponding with Kathleen Jean Moore! I have been slowly reading Wild Comfort this year–a chapter or so about once a week–and love it so much. I find myself attracted to the same sorts of fiction and nonfiction you are these days. It is more and more difficult for me to engage with anything that doesn’t in some way discuss our current crisis or imagine solutions for the future; everything else seems pointless.

    1. Thanks so much Steph. And I always love to hear about you are doing in your yard – and many of the people in my class don’t have big yards at all. Kathleen Dean Moore -what can I say, she is amazing, and I’ve only just begun to read her books! Yes, it seems like things are finally closing in on us, and I hope this all brings about a quick change in attitudes and action. I find that so many people agree we have to change our ways, but I don’t see the action and commitment and activism that we need – not sure why,

      1. I know what you mean about people agreeing we have to change but not committing to it. I have a coworker who constantly worries about the future of her two small children yet she continues to do the same old thing. I know change is hard, but I have this fear that people are waiting to be saved or won’t change until they are forced to.

      2. Stephanie Having almost finished the permaculture class, I realize that permaculture is still on the fringe. I’m wondering if on your street there are other neighbors doing what you do? I think that it is hard for most people who are stressed and have little time and few resources to do these types of things, but on the other hand, I would have thought it would have caught on more by now.

        On Sun, 25 Nov 2018 at 14:03, Books Can Save A Life wrote:


      3. There is no one I know of on my street doing permaculture or any other kind of extensive gardening though there are people in my broader neighborhood who have large gardens. However, I have a coworker who does and she also volunteers at an urban farm that does. I attended a book group last year run by a neighborhood transition group (sadly not my neighborhood) and there were a number of folks in the group who gardened extensively. In Minneapolis there is a permaculture institute and urban farming is a big deal. The city just passed an ordinance allowing for food gardens in public parks and the city golf course has been declared unsustainable as it is. It is being shrunk down from 18 to 9 holes and there are a whole bunch of people including myself who are advocating for a food forest on the rest of the land. I think the city might eventually be convinced since last year they allowed a group to plant cherry, plum and serviceberry trees in a park that is next to the golf course. There are loads of resources around here for anyone interested in permaculture or gardening in general so it’s coming to be more widespread and accepted in my area. I think I might be lucky to live in a progressive area when it comes to urban food growing.


    SALUTI AFFETTUOSI FROM CARINI-SICILY ________________________________ Da: Books Can Save A Life Inviato: venerdì 2 novembre 2018 23:31 A: pinosansone@live.it Oggetto: [New post] Going West and my year of nonfiction

    Valorie Grace Hallinan posted: ” Nonfiction November, a month-long book blogger celebration, just happens to coincide with an anniversary: one year ago my husband and I left our long-time upstate New York home and set out for the Pacific Northwest, not sure where we’d ultimatel”

  3. A very interesting post, Valorie. First, congrats on the anniversary! You took a risk.
    Second, I agree that memoirs can be minefields. Mine was different in that I asked all key persons named in the book to read the draft and help me fact-check. I also wanted to know their own views and insights into certain people and events, and that made for a richer book. But I can understand that in a case where you felt abused or damaged by others, that’s not the best avenue.

  4. I find Cal Newport’s blogs quite insightful on the question of how we engage with social media; most of them are framed around work but have application to daily life. One of the things he points out is that constant engagement and reaction is quite damaging to our psychological health. I think his views chime well with Lanier’s. This entry seems particularly pertinent: http://calnewport.com/blog/2018/10/28/the-mona-lisa-doesnt-tweet/

    All of the books you write about are interesting. I think Education interests me in particular because here we have a person who understands what their education was for, whereas for most people now it is simply delivered and accepted unthinkingly. If education doesn’t help us learn how to think, what is it for? And perhaps linked to the habitual use of social media, it is more important than ever to be able to think.

    Lovely, thought-provoking blog, as always 🙂 Thank you.

    1. Thanks so much for these great comments. i’d read Cal newport a while back when he recommended not using social media. Thanks for mentioning him i think he’s important to read. i agree about that aspect of the memoir Educated – i think she really elevated her memoir in considering what her role was as historian – that is one of the things i think that sets her memoir apart. She is such a brilliant and thoughtful person at such a young age, and she’s made an important contribution already. i so appreciate that you’ve read this post – i always enjoy what you have to say on your site, too, which is excellent.

  5. Hi Valorie and thank you for these excellent suggestions of new books to read and new book bloggers to check out. Wonderful stuff.
    This year I haven’t read a lot of non-fiction (I always plan to read lots, but get seduced by the pile of fiction next to my bed) but I did enjoy How to be a Boy by the English comedian Robert Webb. In this memoir/autobiography (what is the difference exactly?) he reflects on his childhood to explore how his masculinity was constructed.
    I’ve asked for Educated to be on our booklist for my reading group next year and I’m looking forward to reading it.

  6. So many people recommend Educated I must get to it at some stage. I think I’d try to listen to it. Ten Arguments about Social Media sounds very interesting too. Although I know that I’d agree with it, but think I’m doing ok with social media usage (on the whole, paring back FB helps).

  7. It sounds like you read some really fascinating nonfiction – I’m particularly intrigued by the deleting social media book. I have Educated as my main read for Nonfiction November, so great to read such positive thoughts on the title from you. Happy reading this November!

    1. Jade, let me know what you think about Education. Re: the social media, I think it’s good that we learn about what is going on in the background with the algorithms. My adult sons don’t use much social media, which makes me think I don’t have to either!! Altho I don’t think social media is going away.

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