Non-Fiction November 2018: Week Four (Carol Off)

Non-Fiction November is hosted this year by Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Julie (JulzReads), Sarah (Sarah’s Book Shelves), Katie (Doing Dewey) and Rennie (What’s Nonfiction).

It’s a month-long celebration of everything nonfiction with a different prompt and a different host each week.

Week four’s theme is Reads Like Fiction and it’s hosted by Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction.

“Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction. Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel? If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling? Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques? What are your favorite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?”

The non-fiction I most enjoy has a solid narrative drive. The literary elements which I most appreciate when I slip into a book of non-fiction are the “sound” and “sense” that were the stuff of my high-school English teachers’ lectures. Even though I am not much of a visualizer when I’m reading fiction, when I’m reading non-fiction, I want to know how things smell, how the light strikes, and how fast someone’s heart is beating. Creating a scene with sensory details draws me into the reality of a situation more quickly and completely: that’s the kind of non-fiction I am most likely to recommend.

Carol Off’s Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet (2006)

This was a casual pick from a display table in the public library, but there was nothing casual about my reading of it; the author has a real knack for pulling you hard and fast into the experiences of many individuals with connections to this industry so that I read the book like a page-turner rather than a work of investigative journalism.

You are conscious of reading about people rather than issues, which only makes the stories that much more powerful. In particular, the experiences of one young farm worker, a boy picking cacao, were fascinating.

But even beyond the individual stories, I really appreciate the balance between detail and summary, which allowed me to feel as though I had some kind of understanding of this business at the industrial level and not just in the twenty-first century but historically.

In such capable hands, it is entirely possible to make connections between past and present, even with such wide-sweeping subjects as colonial trade (in sugar and humans), social patterns of consumption, and deeply entrenched battles between profit and morality.

This book took our family’s day-to-day and celebratory routines to another level of consciousness, changing details like which café we visit for a slice of chocolate cake to what we offer on Hallowe’en. And this is not an exercise in deprivation; I eat far, far more chocolate now than ever.

Are you reading with Non-fiction November in mind? Or, are you always in non-fiction November, even in the other eleven months of the year?



  1. annelogan17 November 28, 2018 at 12:08 pm - Reply

    obviously this book would directly up my alley!!!! And I love Carol Off, I listen to As It Happens quite a bit 🙂

    • Buried In Print November 28, 2018 at 2:23 pm - Reply

      When I read the book, I didn’t understand how likely it would be that I would enjoy her work: now I’m a fangirl!

  2. Deb Nance at Readerbuzz November 25, 2018 at 10:01 am - Reply

    I love to read books about food. Thank you for sharing this one.

  3. raidergirl3 November 22, 2018 at 8:37 pm - Reply

    Carol Off – I checked my library for Bitter Chocolate and found several books by Carol Off. I’m excited to check out some books by this great Canadian.

    • Buried In Print November 25, 2018 at 5:00 pm - Reply

      I’m looking forward to hearing about more of them: I hope you find Bitter Chocolate as remarkable as I did!

  4. The Paperback Princess November 21, 2018 at 11:08 pm - Reply

    Definitely not a book I would probably even have noticed but it sounds incredibly interesting! I’m glad it didn’t ruin your love of chocolate – did you eat a lot reading this? I’d have to have a bunch of it on standby. Only the really quality stuff though, of course.

  5. callista83 November 20, 2018 at 10:27 am - Reply

    It’s nonfiction November year round over here as I only read nonfiction. I love the sound of that chocolate book.,

    • Buried In Print November 20, 2018 at 12:16 pm - Reply

      And I’m sure it would be available in your library system, easily, as a fellow-Canuck!

  6. WordsAndPeace November 20, 2018 at 9:52 am - Reply

    ooh, sounds goo!

  7. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review November 20, 2018 at 9:43 am - Reply

    Discovering people’s stories is one of the things I love most about nonfiction, and of course one of the things that brings it close to fiction. I think that both can help us learn about the world and grow in compassion and understanding, as it sounds like this one definitely does.

    • Buried In Print November 20, 2018 at 12:15 pm - Reply

      That’s just what it does: you’re right. And I see from your post that you prefer a fine balance between use of elements like dialogue, but I don’t think you’d find that problematic at all with Off’s work. She fleshes out the scene so there is a very strong narrative, but also you never forget that you are reading the work of a journalist who has done her due diligence along the way.

  8. Brona November 20, 2018 at 6:17 am - Reply

    I love how a chance find turns out to be an amazing read that you want everyone to know about – thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Buried In Print November 20, 2018 at 9:05 am - Reply

      It reminds me that I must occasionally put aside my reading lists and projects and just grab something on a whim!

  9. whatsnonfiction November 20, 2018 at 4:00 am - Reply

    “Even though I am not much of a visualizer when I’m reading fiction, when I’m reading non-fiction, I want to know how things smell, how the light strikes, and how fast someone’s heart is beating.” I love this, so well said! It’s the same for me, I love when nonfiction includes these details that make it a more sensory experience, and such a great angle to highlight.

    And what an interesting book to recommend! I’m intrigued by anything that changes how you do Halloween 🙂

    • Buried In Print November 20, 2018 at 9:04 am - Reply

      I wonder, too, if, since they say that our memories store information longer if there’s an emotional element tied to the information, if that means that we are more inclined to remember the non-fiction we read, because it’s struck a chord at another level too.

      The book has definitely impacted our daily lives and priorities. She’s also a reporter for CBC and her new book looks very interesting as well. (Details here.) I’m curious about this too!

      • whatsnonfiction November 20, 2018 at 1:11 pm - Reply

        That’s such a good point, it does seem like there’s more potential to retain something when there’s an emotional component somehow.

        All We Leave Behind sounds fascinating, what a story…

  10. Michael November 19, 2018 at 11:20 pm - Reply

    Nice post! It is interesting how compelling writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, tends to rely on evoking strong “sound” and “sense.” I enjoy less descriptive nonfiction as well, but I find that I really have to be invested in the topic to do so and that, even then, I read it very slowly.

    • Buried In Print November 20, 2018 at 9:02 am - Reply

      That’s true for me as well; if I already have a keen interest in the topic, I’m less concerned with the presentation of the information. There are some nuts-and-bolts-just-the-facts-ma’am books about books (or libraries, or collectors, or publishing houses) that I have found interesting that haven’t drawn in the less-bookish readers in my life.

      • The Reading Life November 21, 2018 at 12:25 am - Reply

        I sometimes try to match my Nonfiction Reading with my current fiction reads. This month I’m reading German Literature. Tied to that I’m reading Weimar in Exile- The Anti- Fascist Emigration in Europe and America by Jean Palmier. Very long and detailed it goes into a lot on German writers reaction to Nazi rule.

        I normally read several books at once. I was recently given a review copy of a biography Mel Brooks Funny Man by Patrick McGillgan. I love his movies and am grateful to learn about how they were created.

        I like biographies of writers. I am currently also reading Neruda: The
        Poet’s Calling by Mark Eisner. I bought it marked down short time as a kindle from $16.95 to $0.95. (Now sale over ).

        • Buried In Print November 21, 2018 at 9:16 am - Reply

          Wow, more than 800 pages long for the Palmier, I see: I can imagine how much of that must be endnotes and index but, even so, that’s a lot of reading. (Although I bet he still felt like he had to edit as there must be a tonne of source material as well.)

          Of the nonfiction books I have on my shelves, the majority are women’s lives (either history or biography, mostly literary biography but a few others) and books about books and writing. But when it comes to the non-fiction books I borrow from the library, most of them are writers’ letters and journals.

          I don’t know much about either Mel Brooks or Neruda but I imagine they would both make very interesting – and different! – subjects. Have you started to plan any possible projects for 2019 yet?

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