It's pretty uncommon for me to be reading two nonfiction books at the same time, but here I am, tempted by a prison book club and octopuses, and finding patterns--probably not in nonfiction in general, but at least in this kind of book.
My friend Lily pointed me at Maximum Security Book Club, by Mikita Brottman. As the title implies, it's about a book club that takes place in a men's prison. Lily's dad teaches in a college program in prisons, and if you want to tear up you should watch one of the videos of the commencement ceremonies for this program. I've been reading and thinking about prison reform lately, but that's not really what this book is about; the author is not (at least in the context of the book) an activist. She's working within the system, running a book club-slash-English class for these men.
I'm enjoying the book, because I mostly enjoy reading about people discussing books. The prison history, characters of the convicts and their thoughts on the books, and the stories of Brottman's experiences going to the prison--being reprimanded for wearing red or very short sleeves, kept waiting for no discernible reason, interrupted by guards. It's a really interesting book.
I'm not sure how I feel about the narrator, though--or rather, about the teacher. (I hate talking about memoirs--there's author as narrator, author as character, and author as author, and it's hard to pick them apart.) She starts the book with some disclosure about how she doesn't romanticize the convicts and is very aware of how much coincidence went into the differences between her life and theirs, and I believe that. And I do admire that she completely respects them as people.
But sometimes it seems a bit disingenuous, or to work against her. The first book she chose for book club was Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. She says she chose it because the themes of alienation and isolation from the human race might appeal to the men, but she also talks about how damned hard the book was to read when she read it the first few times--studying literature in grad school. Even completely acknowledging that these men are equally intelligent and worthy of respect as yourself, it seems like setting them up for failure to pick a book that she only came to appreciate after years of education on how to read hard books. Her first few choices are all like that--hard books that even she struggled with a great deal.
The other book I'm reading is The Soul of an Octopus, by Sy Montgomery, which I got from Netgalley ages ago because OCTOPUS! but which I put down almost immediately because, again, the author/narrator/main character bugged me a little. In this case it was the narrator, really; she spent a long time trying to convince me that octopuses aren't creepy, to the point where it felt more like she was trying to convince me that I thought they were before.
She also drifts off into talk about Jung and the collective unconscious, or the meaning of souls, or the transcendent experience of touching an octopus. It's all very woo, and assumed that I had to be talked into liking octopuses--which is ridiculous. because I love them and that's why I'm reading the book. (I eagerly await the arrival of our squibbon overlords.) She takes her title as a mission statement; this is about the question of whether animals--particularly "lower" forms of life--might have souls.
The reason I came back to the book recently was because someone suggested in the comments thread on a Reading the End post about a different book about animal intelligence (which I'm also eager to read), and I was reminded how much I love octopuses. And sure enough, as the poster said, once I got past the introduction, the stories about the octopuses and other inhabitants of the aquarium are totally worth it.
At times there are parts where she starts sounding like she's anthropomorphizing--even when she's making points that are totally valid. The idea that an octopus has moods and that you can perceive them when you know it well enough is completely believable. When you start comparing them to your own moods and attributing facial expressions to fish, I begin to doubt you. And there are times where it lapses into memoir, or even worse, long vacation recaps, listing off the animals she saw scuba diving. Her experience with sea life is not as interesting to me as sea life itself.
Still, it's a fun book, and I really do love animal stories. We've been watching a bunch of BBC nature documentaries lately, and they are absolutely delightful; this book fits in with that pleasure.
I'm still reading both books, more than halfway through each, and I'm enjoying them. But I am reminded that spending time with a book is spending time with its author, and that not every author is my favorite person to hang out with. In a novel, there are layers that hide the author's personality from you, though you may get hints and make guesses. In nonfiction, their agenda and even their thoughts are more clearly on display. I wonder if this is part of why I don't read more nonfiction.