Posts filed under ‘Non-fiction’

Companion Reads: ‘The Monuments Men’ and ‘Agent Zigzag’


I’m not entirely sure why, but I often find myself reading about World War II when I travel. It isn’t a topic I usually find myself gravitating to, but for some reason when you put me on a plane destined for far-off shores, I turn to WWII.

For my most recent holiday, I ended up reading The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (by Bret Witter and Robert M. Edsel) and Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal (by Ben Macintyre) within a few days of each other. Unsurprisingly for two books about various intrepid “good guys” triumphing over various forms of Nazi horribleness, they pair together quite well.

Both books are what might be categorized as “popular history,” i.e. lighter historical fare intended for the general public. In addition to presenting big stories in a more digestible form, these books are liberally sprinkled with factoids and usually insert dialogue throughout to make the overall book feel a lot like an adventure novel. Accordingly, they’re easy, interesting, comulsively readable books. I devoured two in three days! (more…)

March 17, 2017 at 6:41 am Leave a comment

The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

81jorxit7slIt’s hard to review Kameron Hurley for a few reasons, not the least of which is that she’s bound to read that review at some point. Criticizing books is easy when you feel like the author won’t ever read what you’re writing, let alone care about some woman shrieking into the abyss of the internet. Hurley, as she points out, has been that shrieking woman, and so the odds of her hearing your wailing are markedly increased.

Pulling punches is not what this blog is about, however. And I genuinely enjoyed The Geek Feminist Revolution, Hurley’s manifesto (or so it’s described) about feminism in fantasy and sci-fi. Hurley is a prolific sci-fi writer with a day job who also happens to be a woman, which means she’s forced to defend herself on a daily basis from the legions of Sad Puppies who think that women shouldn’t write sci-fi. She must be exhausted. Seriously.

Sometimes, I thought she was being a little whiney or self-congratulatory. Why did she have to talk about how hard she works? I wondered. Why go on and on, and then brag about how much she writes and how great her characters are?

Prompted by Hurley’s book itself, I began thinking about how much differently I had just treated On Writing by Stephen King. The books’ goals are disparate: King’s work is half memoir, half instruction manual, while Hurley’s is meant to raise a little hell and push women to action. But both of the authors talk about their personal history of writing and how they came to be where they are. Both worked incredibly hard–both racking up debt, King as he tried to support a family and Hurley as she tried to escape abusive relationships, come to terms with her sexuality, and deal with a chronic illness.

Did I find King’s work a little self-indulgent at times? Sure. Did I ever think of it as whiney or self-congratulatory? No, not even when he’s talking about how he never plots stories out and just “lets the characters take him there.” (God, that’s annoying.)

And that’s where my own flaw in thinking comes in. Because even as I found Hurley’s tone off-putting, I realized that I found it off-putting because 1) I’m not used to hearing a woman express how proud she is of something she created, and 2) I didn’t like hearing that a woman has to work so hard to be successful. (more…)

February 27, 2017 at 1:34 pm Leave a comment

‘The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle’ by Russell Miller

adventures-conan-doyle
I’m ringing in the new year with biographies, which are proving an excellent ladder out of my non-reading pit of the last few months. Russell Miller’s The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle is the first on my list and it proved to be an appropriately entertaining biography to end 2016 and ring in 2017.

Miller, the first biographer given access to papers held by the Doyle family, divides Conan Doyle’s life into three, roughly equal parts: the Doctor, the Writer, and the Spiritualist. The first is the most satisfying as Miller’s unexcitable style fits best in retelling the childhood and early career of a country doctor. The latter two sections are slightly more dissatisfying as Miller continues to present the facts with little embellishment or noticeable excitement despite the increasingly noteworthy happenings in his subject’s life. (more…)

January 2, 2017 at 1:27 pm Leave a comment

‘All the Single Ladies’ by Rebecca Traister

all-the-single-ladies
Since it came out earlier this year, Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation seems to have skyrocketed to the top of every feminist booklist. And with good reason! Traister is curious, thoughtful, and thorough in her examination of the current state of affairs for unmarried women in America.

In All the Single Ladies, Traister explores the multi-faceted experience of being a single woman with sensitivity, insight, and more shocking statistics and facts than you can shake a stick at. Did you know the U.S. House of Representatives didn’t have a women’s restroom until 2011? That the median net worth of a single African American woman in 2014 was just $100? That the American marriage rate is dropping, but so is the divorce rate? All the Single Ladies is, if nothing else, a parade of thought-provoking factoids.

But it is so much more. Much like my reading of Only Child, All the Single Ladies made me think much more deeply about my own personal experiences, in this case as a single woman. Traister looks at every aspect, from the importance of female friendships to the choice to have or not have children to the effect of singledom on one’s career. Her sensitive, even-keeled approach to all these potentially explosive topics was revelatory.

Which isn’t to say there weren’t things that bothered me about the book. (more…)

August 18, 2016 at 6:39 am 1 comment

Short Thoughts on Recent Reads

I recently went through a spurt of serendipitous library reads. In keeping with the great stereotype of “beach reads,” I read these books quickly and fairly mindlessly, so I can’t say I have any particularly deep thoughts to share, but, all the same, I wanted to write a few warnings and praise for those wandering their own library aisles:

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Synopsis: The Secret History + baseball – murder
Short Thoughts: Enjoyable, male-centric summer book. You do not, repeat, do not have to like baseball to enjoy the book (says the reader who enjoys baseball), but a vague notion of Melville/Moby Dick will probably help.
More serious reviews: New York Times; The Guardian

In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Ovrent
Synopsis: Just My Type – typography + linguistics + Klingon
Short Thoughts: Terrifically engaging book about the inventiveness and dreamy tendencies of those who have invented their own languages throughout history. If you have ever feel yourself losing faith in humanity, read the chapters on Esperanto and you’ll feel a little bit better.
More series review: The Washington Post

First Impressions by Charlie Lovett
Synopsis: Any Dan Brown/Robert Langdon book – religious conspiracy theories + Jane Austen conspiracy theories + fan fiction
Short Thoughts: Charlie Lovett should not go within 100 miles of writing women. (Or, more accurately, trying to write women.) Basically, his utterly rubbish female protagonist makes a silly book even less palpable. Very disappointing for those who enjoyed his first book, The Bookman’s Tale.
More serious reviews: Kirkus Reviews; The Washington Post

Falling Upwards by Richard Holmes
Synopsis: BALLOONS
Short Thoughts: Few books were so entrancing and enjoyable as Holmes’ Age of Wonders, so I was disappointed not to feel any intellectual curiosity piqued at Falling Upwards. I barely made it through the first chapter before giving up.
More serious review (which suggests I should try again!): New York Times

What have you been reading lately? Chime in below!

June 30, 2016 at 6:12 am Leave a comment

Companion Reads: ‘The Invisible Woman’ and ‘Katherine Swynford’

This post is part of our on-going 2016 Spring Reading Spree. Kick off your own reading spree this spring by giving some love to the unread books on your shelf!

invisible-woman2

Ah, mistresses. They are a constant source of intrigue and interest throughout history, often holding unique positions of power and influence over their menfolk. And yet there is frequently a marked lack of information left behind them. Their identities becomes so sublimated to their romantic partners that little source material remains for historians to use to try and understand the women themselves.

I recently read one such book that triumphs over such source-related adversity and it reminded me of another triumphantly good “a woman lost to history” biography. I speak of Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens and Alison Weir’s Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt’s Scandalous Mistress, the latter of which I first read and enjoyed seven years ago. Both tackle the challenges of writing about mistresses with aplomb and historic precision and both share the goal of bringing vital women back from historic obscurity.

I’ve written about Katherine Swynford here before, but much like Swynford, The Invisible Woman is a terrific example of how to write a great biography when sources are few and far between. Basically, the rule of thumb seems to be: GO BROAD. (more…)

June 2, 2016 at 6:03 am Leave a comment

‘Just My Type’ by Simon Garfield

This post is part of our on-going 2016 Spring Reading Spree. Kick off your own reading spree this spring by giving some love to the unread books on your shelf!

just-my-typeOnce upon a time in college, I took a class where the professor stood up on the first day of class and said, “This course will change your life.” Half of the students stifled sniggers at such a cliched pronouncement as he continued on to promise that the course would completely change the way we looked at the world.

I remember looking around the cluttered workshop in which we were meeting and, for some reason, believing him. We were in a printer’s studio and the class was an introduction to letterpress printing. And I was right to believe my professor: he changed my life in the same way Simon Garfield’s Just My Type will change the way you look at the world: once you see fonts, you can’t unsee them.

Just My Type has a great topic at its heart: it tells the story of fonts and typographic design and printing history, spotlighting specific fonts for special attention along the way. It’s hard to articulate how interesting this is until you’ve actually taken a moment to stop and look around to see all the fonts surrounding you in their nearly infinite variety. Type is everywhere this days and it says a lot more than whatever it spells out in the literal sense. (more…)

May 26, 2016 at 6:55 am 1 comment

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