Posts filed under ‘Non-fiction’
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…)
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…)
I can’t say I went into Rosemary Mahoney’s excellent Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff completely unbiased. The book may well be the first book about contemporary Egypt I’ve ever read and my first book about rowing and, sure, I’d never heard of Mahoney before picking up the book, so there are a few reasons I ought to have gone into Down the Nile with no pretensions or expectations.
But, the plain truth be told, I’m an Egyptian travel narrative junkie. I can’t get enough of them, particularly female-authored Victorian travel narratives of Egypt.
Late in her book, Mahoney quotes early Egyptian traveler Charles Sonnini, who wrote in 1777, that,
“…this frequence of travelers cannot exclude my pretension to a place among the rest, and I am not to be deterred from speaking of Egypt by the number or renown of those who have trodden the ground before me … Objects do not present themselves to all observers under the same point of view.”
And perhaps that is why I’m so drawn to the form, as much as why people throughout time cannot seem to stop writing about Egypt—objects do not present themselves to all observers under the same point of view. Egypt has, for all intents and purposes, been the same tourist destination for centuries (same sites, same ruins, same tombs, etc.), but people keep writing about it, as if the Sphinx will somehow be better understood for one more description of it. (more…)
Per my earlier chagrin at forgetting how excellent nonfiction can be, I got me to a library a couple of weeks back and scoured the nonfiction shelves, purposelessly abandoning myself to the serendipitous library gods. Happily, they did not fail me and I came up with the wonderful A Dog’s History of America: How Our Best Friend Explored, Conquered, and Settled a Continent by Mark Derr.
First of all, it’s a great topic and one which I feel has been too often neglected by historians. The topic of dogs in history appears universally derided as a fluff-topic, best confined to the little coffee-table books on offer by the check-out (probably next to things like Inspirational, Famous & Hilarious Quotes About Dogs and You Know Your Dog Owns You If…).
But this shouldn’t be! Dogs, by virtue of being humankind’s constant companions for the better part of human history, have been present at practically every meaningful historic moment, big and small, and have inserted themselves into the narrative of history even as established History refused them access.
Mark Derr to the rescue, ladies and gents, and not a moment too soon. (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…)
Since Eva was so nice as to request such a post and because my new canine buddy Millie is the thing foremost on my mind, I now present LT’s first ever dog post! In the interest of staying true to the blog’s mission (so to speak), this is not just a “hey, meet my dog, y’all!” post. It’s also a series of short reviewlets about dog books I’ve read in the past few months.
Those of you who have met me in person have probably noticed that, in addition to my propensity to try and steer any conversation towards books, my love of dogs comes up in pretty short order. Maybe there’s a dog taking his or her walk I must gasp over while we’re talking. Or maybe there’s some vaguely relevant story about a news-worthy dog I’m able to (gracefully, of course!) slip into our conversation. Or maybe I’m totally tactless and just start yammering on about a cute dog I saw or how something reminded me of my old dog earlier or just wouldn’t it be great if I had one and what do you think of these breeds? (more…)
“I don’t want to die, Mommy, but I feel so guilty…I ate a whole Popsicle and I wasn’t even hungry. I ate a piece of fish. I’m a pig, Mommy.”
“‘I’m supposed to be smarter than this,’ she says. ‘I’m supposed to be able to figure things out without screwing up.’
“‘So you think you’re supposed to be better than everyone else in the world?’ I ask, smiling so she knows I’m making a joke. Clearly I am no comedian, because she hears my words as criticism and stalks off.
“The answer is yes, she really does believe she’s supposed to be perfect in a superhuman way.”
“‘If I choose to eat something I don’t have to, then I’m bad,’ she explains. If I choose to eat something I don’t have to. Anorexia is a prison sentence for a crime you didn’t commit, a crime that fills you nevertheless with guilt and dread.”
This book should be mandatory reading for everyone who 1) has an eating disorder, 2) knows someone with an eating disorder or 3) thinks they know something about eating disorders.
Brave Girl Eating is a partial memoir written by a journalist who watched her daughter struggle against anorexia (and a very severe case of it) for over five years. Over the course of six months, she watched her daughter turn from a bright, cheerful 14-year-old girl into an emaciated wreck possessed by guilt, fear and desperation.
Brown writes for a living, and it shows. Her story opens with a parable of sorts; a vivid vignette in which she asks the reader to imagine him or herself in a bakery, starting at french pastries, chocolates and even simple things like sourdough bread through glass cases. (more…)
As I’m sure loyal LT readers know, I am an absolute books-about-books nut. I’ll read almost anything if it claims to be about books in general or bookstores or the history of books or even typography.
But as much as I love the genre, it is not a love of total abandon. For every amazing bookish book, there are ten others that have somehow missed the “books are magic” memo and checked their love of the medium at the door.
So, after a few books-about-books disappointments, I’ve started judging the genre by what I call the Fadiman Gold Standard, set by the wonderful Anne Fadiman in Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. In short, the Fadiman Gold Standard starts with the obvious (affection for books and appreciation for them in terms of both form and content), but then also incorporates felicity of expression, erudition, perfectly-formed essays, general well-readness, and whimsy. Yes, the Fadiman Gold Standard is super-subjective, but so is reading itself.
This week I randomly discovered Jacques Bonnet’s lovely Phantoms on the Bookshelves and, I am pleased to say, it comes pretty close to the Fadiman Gold Standard. (more…)