Twelve Great Nonfiction Works
Nonfiction works tell us --- supposedly --- the many truths of life.
Many, we've found, don't make it in the reality sweepstakes,
but here we've sorted out a dozen or so
from the last year or so
which manage to cut the mustard.
At the bottom of each excerpt,
you'll find a link to the complete review.
The Anatomy of Addiction
Sigmund Freud, William Halstead,
And the Miracle Drug Cocaine
Swift had pains in his head.
Johnson dying in bed
Tapped the dropsy himself.
Blake saw a flea and an elf.
Tennyson could hear the shriek
Of a bat. Pope was a freak.
Emily Dickinson stayed
Indoors for a decade.
Water inflated the belly
Of Hart Crane, and of Shelley.
Coleridge was a dope.
Southwell died on a rope.--- Roy FullerSamuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 - 1834) was indeed a dope (and Robert Southwell indeed was hanged by Good Queen Bess in 1595), but Coleridge chose laudanum over martyrdom as his preferred poison. Markel tells us that laudanum is "a tincture of macerated raw opium in 50 percent alcohol," and, apparently, it cranks up the creative juices. Coleridge claims to have written his great "Kubla Khan" while blitzed on a laudanum martini, stirred not shaken.
The Anatomy of Addiction focuses on the dopey habits of two contemporaries: Sigmund Freud and William Halstead. Freud we all know about, with his weird ideas about mothers and fathers and sexuality (which may, in retrospect, not be so dopey, if you had had to put up with my mother and father). Halstead was the American counterpart of Freud, operating out of Johns Hopkins University. Along with three other medical professionals, he practically dragged American medicine into the present precise, ritualized practice that we know today.
A Celebration of
The Grand Canyon State
We've always found it passing strange that some of our brothers and sisters were intent on dismantling the gothic American code known as "Don't Ask / Don't Tell." For a few, DADT was an excellent excuse not to have to go trundling about in the pestiferous battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East. When asked to join a strange, dusty war in some vile country, one could simply say "I'm gay" and thus be excused from such a fray.
By the same token we are befuddled by our friends in the Mexican-American community who are annoyed at the recent laws of Arizona that allow search and seizure of any and all --- when questioned by the police --- who turn out to be not 100% American. (In that state, all men, women, children, dogs, cats, and other living beings must provide rigorous proof of citizenship and --- when not forthcoming --- can be banished from the state forever.)
We can't think of a more laudable reason for sane people of Mexican descent to vacate the premises asap ... to get the hell out, to relocate to benign California, or gentle New Mexico ... even Utah. Only a masochist, we think, would choose to continue to live in a place so antediluvian.Go to the complete
40th Anniversary Edition
(University of Notre Dame Press)The author is a fine novelist, but he also has the eyes and ears of a poet. This, on going to sleep in his village: "I listened to the chirping all around the cottage and thought it came from the stars. They and the crickets always came together after dark, the cricket calls blinking in the silence just as surely as the stars seemed to chirp in the darkness far above us."
Or this on learning to pronounce what he has previously called a "boo-ter-flee."
Miss Ryan called for attention. "Ernesto has learned how to pronounce butterfly!" And I proved it with a perfect imitation of Miss Ryan. From that celebrated success, I was soon able to match Ito's progress as a sentence reader with "Come, butterfly, come fly with me."
§ § §
I can't tell you how merry Barrio Boy is but it is not a pollyanna tale of getting integrated into early 20th Century America. There is the hope that was America in 1915, but there was also poverty and filth and days of drudgery without food or money and with lost relatives (some of whom were barred from entering the United States) and being treated badly by straw bosses. But Ernesto was always bien listo and when it was time for him to run errands, he ran errands; when it was time to go to school, he went to school; when it was time to learn how to dismantle a tractor, he did that; when it was time to grow up, he did that too. Very quickly.
In the winter of 1918 - 1919, he was sick --- the whole family sick --- with what was then called "The 'flu." We are offered this vignette,
Late one afternoon José came into my room, wrapped me in blankets, pulled a cap over my ears, and carried me to my mother's bedside. My stepfather was holding a hand mirror to her lips ... She had stopped breathing. In the next room my sister was singing to the other children,
"A birdie with a yellow bill
hopped upon my windowsill
cocked a shiny eye and said
shame on you you sleepy head."Learn World CalligraphyMargaret Shepherd
(Watson Guptill)What the author is eager for us to do is beguiling: she wants us to see high art in the script of Japan or Morocco or Armenia. She'll even teach us how to hold the pen, how to shape the letter, how to use the calligraphy brush.
"The brush stays upright," she explains: "Your wrist can flex less when you sit, stand, or kneel higher than your writing surface to write larger letters. Whatever your position, your forearm should not rest on the paper."
Each page here is a riot of color, of lettering, of exquisite design, a rich mix of Roman with that of, say, Mongolian. She first defines the character of it:
Mongolian, unlike any other alphabetic script in the world, is written and read vertically. Its eighteen consonants and five vowel signs join each other to spell out sounds; as in Arabic script, they take different shapes at the beginning, middle or end of a word.
Architect of Elegance
Mark Anthony Wilson
(Gibbs Smith)The Mistake House. The architect said he wanted to build an English village, but what he designed was a merry jumble of styles spread about on a huge campus, Gothic mixed with Medieval, touches of Rustic and Craftsman, a dash of Tudor, all edged in slate, shingle, brick and stone in the form of 17th Century Cottages.
Where Maybeck always excelled were the ceilings, which at times can put one in mind of the Alhambra. Most dynamic here is the ceiling of Anderson Hall's living room, "king posts and trusses ... formed out of molded concrete, textured to simulate hand-carved wooden timbers." It soars over the whole like a giant bird.
Maybeck's fireplaces were always massive, and grand, as befits a time when nearby forests were available for pillaging. Atop the pile would be a profusion of pilastered brick chimneys, hipped roofs, and stucco walls filled with half-timbering and gables. It's the kind of architecture that never lets the observer forget who is boss: the structure itself is in charge; the rest of us are but temporary visitors.
My favorite of exterior oddities at Principia is Rackham Court, with gothic windows surrounded by arbitrary chunks of mortar, what was called "oozing mortar." There is the Buck House rainspout, a sinuous supine gargoyle laid out on the roof. Finally, there is Sample House, an "old English thatched-roof cottage." Maybeck used it to test materials and construction methods that were meant to survive the humidity of Missouri. Because many of these experiments failed, what he had dubbed as "Sample House" was renamed "Mistake House" by the workers. The name stuck.
War and Ideas
(Routledge)Mueller is a contrarian's dream. And his statements might peg him as a madman if it weren't for his singular weakness as a historian: he backs up his facts with exquisitely detailed citations. Think the world is getting more warlike? He defines wars as conflicts within or between nation states as (an arbitrary figure) causing more than 1,000 deaths. He has a chart that shows thirty "intra-state wars" in 1991, then less than ten in 2006. Extra-state wars reached a high of ten in 1971, have tapered off since. The same with inter-state wars.
"No matter how defined," he avers, "there has been a most notable decline in the frequency of wars over the last years." Maybe it's a matter of definition, such as, "ethnic conflict," "new war," or perhaps "drug violence."
Most ... have been nearly opportunistic predations waged by packs --- often remarkably small ones --- of criminals, bandits, and thugs engaging in armed conflict either as mercenaries under hire to desperate governments as independent or semi-independent warlord or brigand bands.
One of Mueller's most salient points is the necessary ability of nation-states to institute firm police and military forces to keep in hand the "thugs, brigands, bandits, highwaymen, goons, bullies, criminals, pirates, mercenaries, robbers, adventurers, hooligans, and children who seem to be the chief remaining perpetrators of a type of violence that can be said to resemble war."
The Vagabond's Breakfast
(Alcemi)The Vagabond's Breakfast is ostensibly about bumming around Europe, but it's more like that famous journey of Susan Sontag's between land of the ill and the land of the well. Gwyn lives in the former: has hepatic encephalopathy --- Hepatitis C --- and it's killing him.
We get to trail after him through the places where he may have picked up this disease. He takes us on a whirlwind series of drunken journeys though France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Crete --- and perhaps into some of the hidden harbors of the soul.
He is a dyed-in-the-wool abuser of mind and body, one of those guys that wander around the city smelling of bad whiskey, old vomit, and last year's BO, eyes glazed with some unimaginable combination of drink and drug ... a charter member of that shambling mob of bums that live in the seedy streets of Barcelona or Paris or Milan or Athens ... demanding that you hand over your francs or lira or pesetas or drachma. Or a drink; or a toot.
In brief, he's a general blight on the human race.
Gwyn is not your typical vago, however. This guy studied anthropology at the London School of Economics, writes poetry, can play the piano, the violin, the accordion. He can pick up a language in no time, has written studies of modalities of patients (and staff) in hospitals. "I have a PhD in the narrative construction of illness experience," he tells us, improbably.Silence50th Anniversary Edition
Kyle Gann, Editor
(Wesleyan)John Cage was much taken with silence. And noise, too. According to Gann, he was able to mix the two with no effort. His apartment once had a malfunctioning fire alarm "that beeped all night." No one slept but Cage.
I remained in bed, listened carefully to its pattern, and worked it into my thoughts and dreams; and I slept very well.
He told Gann that a baby crying in a concert hall --- especially during a concert of modern music --- was there to be enjoyed.
It reminds us of Joseph Goldstein's story, about studying in India. Some workmen were making considerable noise with their hammerings and yelling right next to his meditation space. When he went to complain, his master asked him, "Did you note it?" Of course, how could I miss it, he thought. The question was repeated: "But did you note it?"
For fans of Cage, this book is all she wrote of note. Also, because it is by Cage, much of it makes no sense whatsoever, but then again, there is still a fair distance between Silence and Dada. Dada is a babble; Cage's presentations seem to be a babble with purpose ... so much so that it often irritated his audiences. A recent article by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker tells us that "Sometimes I thought that if I heard Cage or one of his followers banging a stick on a stick or blasting static on a sound system one more time I would run screaming from the theatre..."A Winter in Arabia
A Journey through Yemen
(Tauris Parke)One of Stark's greatest virtues --- at least to this reader --- is her ability with the language, her keen turn of phrase. This on meeting with a local dignitary: "The Mansab comes out from his carved doorway in a green turban and cloak, green jacket gold-buttoned beneath it, the men of his family behind him; he is so holy, people do not kiss his hand, they bend over and sniff at it audibly, so as to breathe up a whiff of the sanctity as if it were snuff."
She is obviously fearless. I don't know if that word is capable of conveying what she goes through (the purpose of her journey, we gather, is mostly with collecting plant species and searching out ancient inscriptions). She not only comes down with a pernicious sickness, she then passes through civil war, slave raids, destitution, shootings, and has always to deal with attempted blackmail and constant besiegings by crowds of the curious, "cheerful and determined to get money if they could."
The bodyguard of 'Azzan had turned out behind me, indistinguishable to all outward appearance from the enemies they were supposed to deal with: in these bedouin crowds it was always difficult to tell one's own protectors from one's foes.
She's tough, wily, resourceful, and well informed (she hopes) by her bedouin companions. But at one point, all seems in vain. Her guard 'Ali turns obtuse, leaves her just outside the village of Lamater. The crowds press in on her, cutting her off. She thinks of turning back, just getting out.
The thought of more trouble with him, and the fatigue of twenty-two hours of camel in two days with a saddle that rubbed, together with the nagging of the bedouin renewed by fresh reserves in an unending stream, all so acted, that I suddenly felt tears rolling down my cheeks, a spectacle which sobered 'Ali in one instant.
The one time in her journey when she shows her fear, a fear that would have haunted the rest of us nonstop, is the moment that saves her; it is the moment when she lets down her disguise of almost knight-like bravery.
Finally, when she arrives in her resting place for the night, she finds her friends waiting for her, "rejoicing over the success of our adventure at Kadur."
To them in their day-to-day fight, it was a victory over the bedouin; prestige, it appeared, had been maintained. "If you had turned back," they said, "no one in this country would have believed you when you said that you belong to the nation of the English."Go to the complete
From Coal Miners to Cowbys,
An Extraordinary Exploration of
The Unseen People Who Make
This Country Work
Jeanne Marie Laskas
(Putnam)And in one of the unlikeliest of places, in Yuma, in Sprague's, she ends up in the shooting range, testing a Ruger .22. She shoots, and asks for more bullets, and shoots, and asks for more bullets, and shoots, and asks for more bullets ... and when she leaves, she buys a Glock and an assault rifle. At home, the rifle goes in the basement, but she, one who would never say casually to anyone "I have a Glock in my handbag," keeps a Glock in her handbag and "it was heavy."
It was inside a little nylon holster and it bounced around the bottom of my purse, where I got spearmint gum on it. I worried constantly about losing it or someone stealing it from me.
Leading us to believe ... no, leading us to know that Laskas has an addictive personality She gets addicted to the people or things she is supposed to be studying and coolly writing about, whether it's a black truck driver or a coal miner or a testy roughneck on the North Slope or some cowboy out in the Texas hill country or a guy who does garbage for crumb's sakes. Or even getting involved in a love affair with a Glock 9mm semiauto.
Laskas is an addict, and I guarantee you that after you spend some time with her you'll be an addict too ... an addict to one who can write about an air traffic controller passing off an airplane "with a bit of love;" or a coal miner in "a dance with all the machines;" or observing a bull named Revelation, who was expected to become "a superstar" to semen collectors; or explaining to us that February in the Arctic is "mid-death;" or who can write of workers who speak of a landfill garbage dump in terms of "pride and admiration and even thanks."
Laskas is a writer's writer, building into a throwaway passage a paean to all those people whom she should be writing about, who deserve our love and respect ...and can and will never get it; the people who fall so easily into the pool of invisible Americans:
When I think about the women of hidden America, all the labor that traditionally falls on the shoulders of women, I think they are an enormous army of soldiers hidden in camouflage. The caretakers, the nannies, the maids, the sisters and the surrogate sisters, the mothers and the surrogate mothers, all those people tending hearts.My CIA
(Telling Our Stories PressMs. McCord is a charming writer, and I was knocked out by my CIA, oops, I mean, My CIA. There is a mix here of the normal and ordinary life, and the very exotic if now existentially threatening previous life. When I read the title and author and started in on the book I naturally thought that she was somehow related to James McCord. For us ancient fans of the Watergate, McCord was a key figure in the unraveling of the whole mess. But no: this McCord was not that McCord, at least I think not (when it gets to this spy business, things are never what they seem to be so I may be wrong.)
Withal all this hush-hush stuff, there is something else going on: that McCord is someone that you and I would enjoy visiting and having a glass of wine with and talking about taking care of children and the spooks out there in the government and those panics that sometimes bloom up inside of you larger than life. She's a stylist well capable of blending the banal and the scary. Take this brief absurdist rant --- being the entire contents of page 102 which follows an aside on page 101 ("I clip an article out of the paper. 'Emergency Preparedness: The First Three Days.'")
I reread the article on emergency preparedness and take note. Rain gear. We need rain gear. We also need coins. For plugging into smashed vending machines for stale crackers and Moon Pies? I think. Why not just tip the machines over? You anarchist, I think. Criminal. Looter. The girls and my husband shaking their heads. All geared up and standing behind me in their raincoats.
A Natural and
(Norton)If there are villains in Breast, they are those who contaminate our bodies and our world and are permitted to do so by the government agencies who were supposed to protect us from these progress at-all-costs types.
The heroes in this book? They would be the few scientists who are working on their own to identify the chemical and biological threats to us and our children. Those who toil on despite an indifferent public, and an even more indifferent government.
At one point we learn about hundreds --- perhaps thousands --- of cases of breast cancer that developed in one locale. It befell marines who served at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina for thirty years, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s. They were drinking and bathing in water that came from well number 602, water thoroughly contaminated by a plume of underground petrochemicals, water that served eight thousand people, water that "yielded a reading of 380 parts per billion of benzene," which was "seventy-six times the legal limit for benzene, a human carcinogen."
So far, countless ex-Marines have developed breast cancer among other illnesses (their children and wives were exposed as well). As one ex-marine said, "I felt like a freak. I got no breasts, how can this be? I'm a marine. I'm a bad ass. I work out all the time, I ate good, I exercised, stayed fit my whole life, never smoked or did drugs, and you try to figure out how can this have happened?"Go to
The Patagonian Hare
Frank Wynne, Translator
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)It is this eccentric horseplay that helps to tip this book over from the merely interesting into the fascinating: a fascinating man who sees every thing he chooses to do as crucial, the end, the ultimate. This is a man of no little passion, following the nurse of his dreams. And blowing it. It's all very odd. And quite bewitching. As odd as his first criminal act. Which came about when he was a student in Paris.
He stole a book. And not any old book. "I only steal philosophy books," he writes. In the PUF bookstore, he passes over the volumes of Guéroult and Blondel and Lachièze-Rey. No: it has to be Jean Hyppolite, the two volumes of L'Évolution at la structure de la doctrine de la science chez Fichte.
When I was his age I was stealing Captain Marvel comic books ... or Sin City or I Can Get It for You Wholesale. And here's this French juvenile snitching two volumes of the philosopher Hyppolite. And getting nabbed for it.
But you know Paris, that den of intellectuals. Turns out that Hyppolite lives not far from Lanzmann's parents' apartment, and so the kid's step-father finds a lawyer, and the lawyer says that they might beat the rap if they can convince the philosopher to attest on his behalf, since "a guilty verdict would ipso facto lead to a criminal record, meaning I would be ineligible to matriculate at the École normale supérieure."
So his stepfather and the lawyer arrange for a meeting with Hyppolite, and Lanzmann tells us, "I never imagined that such complicity could exist between victim and thief."
The old man's first words were, "So you like my book so much you're prepared to steal it?"
Lanzmann, never at a loss for words, says, yes, he had no choice, and later ... finally ... admits that it was even maybe worth buying. "Which is what I had to do in order to read it."