Posts filed under ‘Biography’
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…)
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…)
Now that I’ve finally got myself back on the reading bandwagon (oh, reading, I missed thee!), I’ve stumbled into another challenge: I can’t seem to stop reading novels!
At first, I was inclined to blame this glut of fiction on my recent release from graduate school. The freedom associated with “real life” reading was intoxicating—you mean I can read whatever I want whenever I want without guilt? Sweet, dizzying liberty! Suddenly, the whole world of non-academic text was open to me and I gorged myself on novels. (more…)
Lois Schwoerer’s biography of Henry Care, despite its title, is more preoccupied with following the various battles of the press during the latter parts of Charles II’s reign than necessarily telling Henry Care’s story. Henry Care, in case you were curious, was an interestingly divided writer who died in 1688 after a prolific career alternately disparaging (to put it lightly) Catholics and defending James II. He was intricately tied up the “battle of the presses” and Schwoerer’s convincingly (re?)establishes him as a major player in shaping public opinion of the day. (As you can probably tell, he’s been largely forgotten and discredited in the centuries since his death.) What Schwoerer fails to do, unfortunately, is actually provide a strict biography of the man. (more…)
I just finished reading The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh by Linda Colley who is probably my favorite historian out there today. Her Britons honestly changed my life and propelled me towards becoming a British historian myself. Happily, her latest, Elizabeth Marsh, did not disappoint: in good form, Colley did some impressive historical digging, pieced together this obscure woman’s life story, and tied Marsh’s experiences into movements within the British empire to lend broader significance to an interesting individual life. And all throughout, Colley maintains her perspective on her subject, not succumbing to any of the foibles of biography and recognizing any weaknesses in her argument and the holes in the source material. In short, an excellent read.
I’ve been spending most of my time lately reading novels, but revisiting Colley and discovering Elizabeth Marsh reminded me that there are some awesome nonfiction writers out there who I often ignore in favor of a fictional yarn. If I had to pick, Anne Fadiman, Simon Winchester, Linda Colley, Alison Weir, and Nicholas Basbanes would probably comprise my top five (in no particular order!) nonfiction authors. Who are yours and which of their books do you recommend?
In Written Lives “Spain’s leading writer” Javier Marías (this according to the jacket copy, so no one tell Arturo Pérez-Reverte) put together a series of mini-biographies of various authors. In each, he tells both the overarching tale of the author’s life while also focusing on some little quirk that is not usually associated with said author. (For example, for Isak Dinesen he discusses what she was like in her old age post-Africa and for Oscar Wilde he completely ignores Wilde’s high-flying days in London to focus on his Parisian exile.) (more…)
I love bread-and-butter pudding. I love its layers of sweet, quivering custard….I love the way it sings quietly in the oven; the way it wobbles on the spoon….You can’t smell a hug. You can’t hear a cuddle. But if you could, I reckon it would smell and sound of warm bread-and-butter pudding.
Despite what Peter Mayle may say, post-war English food couldn’t have been all that terrible. Though Mayle begins French Lessons by describing how bland and dull everything he consumed during his childhood was, Nigel Slater has managed to write a substantial book about the foods he ate as a boy in 1950′s England — not all of which were terrible.
Sure, there were the eggs he wouldn’t eat, the tapioca that looked disgusting, and the milk Slater projectile vomited all over his shoes one fateful afternoon. But each of those atrocities is countered by a chapter on the wonder of his mother’s flapjacks (a really dense bar made of oats and other things), his father’s cheese on toast, and the neighbor’s walnut cake.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a food porn book. (more…)
I think I should probably preface this review with the bald statement that I adore Julia Child. I think there are few things that could diminish my affection for her (although one which came to the fore in reading My Life in France is her apparent love of cats over dogs, which was a sad realization for this canine aficionado, but by no means a deal-breaker), so I can safely say that my reading of My Life in France started affectionately, continued in a rising state of adoration, and ended with my loving Julia Child possibly even more than when I started, which was no mean feat. My Life in France was, quite simply, completely delicious. (more…)
Christina Hardyment’s Malory: The Man Who Became King Arthur’s Chronicler, a delightful biography of Sir Thomas Malory, seeks to dispel the prevailing invisibility of Malory to the general masses. This was an invisibility of which I was completely unaware until I started reading this book. I (mistakenly) thought that Malory was a god of English literature, known as equally well as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and perhaps even Dickens. As I would find myself exclaiming in a rather panicked high-pitched voice to more than one person, “But he wrote Le Morte d’Arthur! How could you not know him?!” to which almost all demoralizing replied, “The Morte de What?” Thank god for Christina Hardyment, is all I have to say at the end of this travail. Thank god, I thought, that someone has stepped up to fill this educational void that I didn’t even know about. (more…)
While I am currently in the middle of a wonderful biography of Sir Thomas Malory, I’m going to hold off writing a full review until I’m finished with it. Until then, I give you Henry V. One of the wonderful things about biography, or at least one of my favorite things, is the incidental cast of characters you end up learning about and oftentimes falling in love with. In the Malory book, Henry V has absolutely run away with the story and turned out to be my new favorite English monarch. (more…)