Sunday, May 23, 2010

Do you read non-fiction?

by: Joelle Charbonneau

I don’t. Well, sometimes I do, but as a general rule, when I want to throw myself into a book, I pick fiction. And I read just about every genre – mystery, thriller, noir, fantasy, historical fiction, young adult, romance, etc… I can’t help myself. I love a good story. A lot of non-fiction just doesn’t give me that.

Not that there isn’t great stuff to be had between non-fiction covers. There is. I just have a harder time finding the ones that really grab me. Until two weeks ago.

My husband loves buying me books, especially since my awesome agent sold mine. Between my birthday, our anniversary, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, I have an entire Minotaur Books library of recent releases. (Yep, that's my version of the intimidating TBR pile Scott was talking about in his post yesterday.) And I’ve enjoyed making my way through the stack. But for Mother’s Day he bought me one that was different. A non-fiction book that he thought I might be interested in since the subject matter coincided with my current work in progress. The book is Gang Leader For A Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets by Sudhir Venkatesh.

The title is a bit dry and while it gives the facts of what lies inside, it doesn't fully capture the essence of the book. Yes, he did get a chance to be a gang leader for a day, but that took all of about 15 pages. The rest is a rich detail of a graduate sociology student who was interested in plight of Chicago’s poor. In trying to take a survey about their lives, the grad student ends up meeting a high ranking member of a gang who is willing to offer protection. This gives the student a unique view into the gang, the housing projects and the life of those who live there. I'm really simplifying here, but you get the point.

This story wasn’t told with dramatic prose. There wasn’t rapid fire action or high body counts. In fact, the lack of that type of story telling was what made this book so intriguing. It would have been tempting to pump up the drama considering the subject matter. But Sudhir Venkatesh showed great restraint with his turn of phrase. Instead, he gives an honest telling of his younger self’s naivete about gangs, his ethical dilemmas and his strange, but very real friendship with a man who controlled an entire community through drugs and fear.

Through the book, Sudhir is honest about the questionable morality of many of his decisions. He looked the other way when perhaps he shouldn’t have. He saw illegal activities and didn’t report them. There was always a reason why he didn’t call the police or tell his professors. Sometimes they were good reasons. Other times not.

The best crime fiction always has moments of blurred morality. Shades of gray are always more interesting than those that are black and white. This book isn’t fiction, but I believe most lovers of the genre will find this story compelling for many of the same reasons. If you read it, let me know. I’d be curious to see what you think.

And for all of you lovers of crime fiction – tell me – do you read non-fiction? If so, what is the most compelling non-fiction you’ve read? I’m ready to read another one.


Unknown said...

Perhaps its a bit obvious but an awesome non-fiction book is Homocide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon

Jerry House said...

I greatly enjoyed Clark Howard's non-fiction: Brothers in Blood, Six Against the Rock, Zebra, etc. Fascinating stuff.

Scott D. Parker said...

As a trained historian (two degrees; was to be my profession), I love non-fiction. History, in particular, fascinates me. There are enough, well-written history books out there that make me want to throw in the fiction-writing towel and just do NF, so captivating are the true events. In fact, when I was reading the newer book, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, the most tense part of the book was the non-fictional account of the assassination. Moreover, popular history books by such authors as David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, Stephen Ambrose, and Michael Beschloss read so well as to be like novels. That's what I dig so much about history.

In recent years, I've branched out my NF reading to include books on food. Never would have saw that coming ten years ago. In Defense of Food is one of my favorites while Fast Food Nation will make you think twice about ordering any fast food. My only step into sociology is David Brooks's Bobos in Paradise.

Right now--just in time for our 4th of July celebration--my radar is circling a new history of the American Revolution by Jack Rakove, well known for his Andrew Jackson work.

David Cranmer said...

Gang Leader sounds like a very good read.

I like to throw in a non fiction every once in a bit to shake things up. Right now, I'm reading the new Patricia Highsmith bio which is a page turner.

Bryon Quertermous said...

I read a little non-fiction, mostly writer and artist biographies and books about Vegas and gambling. My non-fiction drug of choice is documentaries. I love them all and have seen some great ones, crappy ones and downright strange ones.

I also agree that Simon's Homicide is fantastic.

Chris said...

Up until a year ago I had been reading NF almost exclusively, but now that ratio has been reversed. I love history books as well, and I'm a big fan of travel books too. I would second Scott's comments about food books, with The Omnivore's Dilemma right up there with Fast Food Nation. I'd also recommend The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

As far as crime NF books go, The Black Hand by Chris Blatchford, about the Mexican Mafia, was good.

Jay Stringer said...

Never read it much when i was younger. The more writing i do though, the more NF i read.

I need to know whats going on in this world that i write about.

Travener said...

I recently read The Death of American Virtue, about the Clinton vs. Starr battle. It was astounding. There were so many moments when the whole thing might have gone another way. And it's pretty clear there's no question there was a huge right-wing conspiracy to get him, even though Starr himself comes off pretty well in the book, if totally unsuited for the job, never having been a prosecutor.

Raymond M. said...

I co-sign on the recommendations of Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon, however, you should also consider his follow up book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighbourhood (written with Ed Burns, a former Baltimore Homicide Detective who was not in Homicide). David Simon and Ed Burns spent about a year hanging around a drug corner in Baltimore, getting to know the residents, the dealers, the addicts, the kids and tells their stories. But it also argues about the futility of the "war on drugs". In the same way that Homicide inspired the NBC show "Homicide", The Corner inspired not only it's own HBO miniseries, but also "The Wire". (Just an aside, during the last two seasons of "The Wire" Sudhir Venkatesh would watch the episodes with drug dealers he had met and blogged about their perspective on "The Wire" for the NY Times)

I'd also recommend Woodward and Bernstein's All the President's Men and The Final Days. All the President's Men tells the story of their investigation into Watergate. If you've only seen the movie, you only know the half the story. The Final Days is an facinating inside account of Nixon's resignation.