Robert Goodwin writes an interesting, if a bit disjointed, account of the “first African-American” in Crossing the Continent 1527-1540: The Story of the First African-American Explorer of the American South. It’s interesting simply because of its general topic: one of the many failed Spanish attempts to explore Florida and the American southwest. Add the “first African-American” into the mix and you’ve got something particularly unique.
What makes the book a tad disjointed is its organization and style. (more…)
Thank god for Giles Milton! I can’t even tell you how much I fretted over the fate of those poor colonists on Roanoke for years, but suffice it to say that it was one of those burdens you don’t notice is terribly heavy until it is lifted. And suddenly you feel free.
In this case, free to worry about other abandoned colonists throughout the Age of Exploration, most of whom I hadn’t even thought to fret over until reading Giles Milton’s excellent Big Chief Elizabeth: The Adventures and Fate of the First English Colonists in America. (more…)
To the Heart of the Nile: Lady Florence Baker and the Exploration of Central Africa by Pat Shipman is a excellent example of why non-historians should not write history books. Or perhaps why non-historians interested in history should confine themselves to writing historical fiction since, apparently, there are people out there who fail to understand some basics of nonfiction. These include, but are not limited to:
1. No dialogue.
There is simply no way to verify conversations between historical figures and a biography should not attempt to “recreate” them.
2. No first names.
When referring to your subjects, it should be by last name, or first and last to save on confusion when dealing with a family who all have the same last names.
2a. Certainly never, ever use nicknames.
3. Support your statements. Quote your sources whenever possible.
Don’t just say so-and-so was much taken with something if there is no evidence to support such a statement. If you’re assuming or imagining, say so. (And then delete the whole sentence, because you really shouldn’t be imagining in a nonfiction book. That’s for novels.)
4. Correctly assess your sources.
If there isn’t enough source material to write a book on a topic or person, don’t write it. You should under no circumstances attempt such a book with spotty source material and just fill in the rest with what you imagined probably took place or was felt by your subject.
5. Leave feelings out of it. Both yours and the subject’s.
Tell us what happened, postulate on why it happened, discuss the aftermath, but please don’t ever assume to know how everyone felt about it happening. And don’t get carried away by your own feelings on the matter to project onto your topic.
I just found reading this book extremely trying, obviously. (more…)
In the continuing adventures of “The Grimms be crazy,” I present their story “The Dog and the Sparrow.” I should note that this would more aptly be named “The Narratively-Pointless Dog, the Loyal and Vengeful Sparrow, and the Enraged, Totally Idiotic, Comeuppance-for-you-mister Man.”
This version translated by Edgar Taylor and Marian Edwardes from the Grimm’s original Kinder- und Hausmärchen.
A shepherd’s dog had a master who took no care of him, but often let him suffer the greatest hunger. At last he could bear it no longer; so he took to his heels, and off he ran in a very sad and sorrowful mood.
On the road he met a sparrow that said to him, ’Why are you so sad, my friend?’
’Because,’ said the dog, ’I am very very hungry, and have nothing to eat.’
’If that be all,’ answered the sparrow, ’come with me into the next town, and I will soon find you plenty of food.’ (more…)
This review should start with the bald fact that Neil Gaiman may just be the most naturally creative person on the planet. He writes good stories. They’re totally unique, even when he’s retelling something, and they’re all frustratingly inventive.
But, even though his apparently bottomless well of creativity is plenty impressive, that isn’t actually my favorite part of reading Gaiman’s short story collections. Instead, I really enjoyed that oft-skipped part of books: the author’s preface. Because, however interesting the stories themselves are, it’s marvelous to be given the inside story of where they came from, what their original context was, and, in some cases, how pleased the author is (or isn’t) with the outcome. And unsurprisingly, Gaiman is just as good at explanatory notes as he is at stories. (more…)
I’ve always been struck by how affected we are by books we read (or, more likely, read to us) in our early years. The ones we read ourselves in our remembered childhoods are less surprising; of course they resonated—they were the first books we actually, personally devoured. But the ones I find truly shocking in their emotional and psychological effect are the ones we don’t necessarily remember. The ones read to us before we have particularly firm memories of anything, let alone books.
I think fairy tales often fall into this category since they are so commonly (and strangely, considering much of their content) read to children. There’s plenty of opportunity for subconscious internalization with stories like these, but even I didn’t know how much until some recent chance book encounters. (more…)
One of the fruits of my nonfiction library spree back in March, George Cruickshank’s London’s Sinful Secret: The Bawdy History and Very Public Passions of London’s Georgian Age proved well worth the read. It isn’t a quick read by any stretch (coming in at 2 pounds and 672 pages according to Amazon), but it is a fascinating one and an eye-opening one to boot.
Cruickshank himself is an architectural historian, which lends an interesting lens to an already-scintillating topic. The overarching argument of the book is that the sex industry was pervasive and vital to London as an economic hub of eighteenth-century Europe, but, because of his training, Cruickshank is able to take the book beyond basic history and standard “my topic is important and unique!” statements. Throughout the book, he includes fascinating examples of the ways in which the architecture of London was shaped by London’s prominent sex industry and how what remains of Georgian architecture in contemporary London can provide us with vital clues about the city’s often sordid past. (more…)