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I realized the other day that I have not ONCE talked about nonfiction on this lovely blog o’mine. I probably read 5-10 nonfiction books a year (which is not a lot compared to all the YA, Fantasy, HF, chocolate I consume annually), but that’s partially due to my ridiculously high standards for nonfiction. What might those be you ask?
- NOT BORING
- Characterization – you don’t have to fictionalize your characters, but using letters, eyewitness accounts, archaeological research that can be interpreted to provide this – SOMETHING so I connect to them.
- Be specific – books that cover all of Ancient Egyptian history or Scottish history from prehistory to modern are okay for history courses or as basis for further in-depth research, but if I’m reading for fun…. I have a brain like a sieve… I need it to be specific other wise I get to the end of the book and the answer is SCOTLAND IS NOW PART OF THE UK AND SCONES. Yep. THAT IS ALL I GOT AFTER A 400 PAGE BOOK. (<- ask me the plot of the Rook though and I can give you a play by play…. 😉 )
- Not too long, not too short – please don’t confuse me by leaving highly important details out so you can cut your word count…. but also DON’T tell me everything they had for breakfast, lunch and dinner for 40 years. There is a fine balance, but if you’re over 500 pages, you’re doing it wrong. (Unless it is fictional and then it is okay.. looking at you Rothfuss >.<)
These are the 10 books that have passed my persnickety perusal and which bookish people may enjoy (even if you’re skeptical about nonfiction). 🙂
How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman – FULL of day-too-day details about Victorian life, Ruth brings a personal touch to her book because she is a historian AND BBC presenter who does shows like “Victorian Farm” and “Victorian Pharmacy.” She’s worn the corset, used the meds, and can tell you how it really feels. This one was on the denser side, forewarning!
The Criminal Conversation of Mrs. Norton by Diane Atkinson – Authoress Caroline Norton was rung through the ringer when her difficult (and seemingly violent, aka TAMLIN-esque) husband George Norton sued her and the then-Whig Prime Minister Lord Melbourne for criminal conversation (Victorian slang for adultery). Even after the trial, Caroline fights for over 20 years to be legally separated from her husband and to make it LEGAL for her (and other women) to have access to her children and her property. The best part about this book is that the author weaves in sections from over 1,500 letters written by or to Mrs. Norton to make the book very readable. (<- the letters are in eyesore inducing type though :/)
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson – If you haven’t read a book by Erik Larson, HE IS THE BEST PLACE TO START. His books are incredibly well-researched AND conversational in tone. This book inspired the most feels out of any of the ones listed here, because you really feel like you get to know the people he writes about (I still REALLY DISLIKE the daughter….). This one revolves around the US Ambassador’s family in pre-WWII Germany as Hitler is coming to power, but he has written loads of books about different (European/US focused) subjects.
The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America by John Putman Demos – THIS BOOK WAS FASCINATING!! It was assigned reading for an Early America history course I took in college, but I had absolutely NO PROBLEMS reading it. Revolving around a colonial family in Massachusetts that were kidnapped by Native Americans – the puritan minister father and all family members except for one were returned home after a short while. The one who stayed chose to stay and fully adjusted to her new culture. I knew next to nothing about relations between the French, Native American groups in that area and the Puritans aside from the standard taught in school – so this one was really eye opening!
The Boys who challenged Hitler: Knud Pederson and the Churchill Club by Phillip M Hoose – a YA nonfiction book, this is the shortest on this list and the only one to deal with teens as the main focus (although there is a lot of focus on their bikes? All the bike riding, all the time). A Sibert Honor book (children book award for nonfiction… basically equivalent of finalist but not winner), this book highlights a group of boys who decided to fight back when the Nazis took over Denmark with little to no resistance from the Danish government. Sections feature quotes from Hoose’s direct interviews with Knud, but it isn’t quite as… eventful as one might expect? I got a little bored tbh, but it’s not a topic featured a lot in WWII books.
The Philosopher and the Druids: A Journey Among the Ancient Celts by Philip Freeman – I have no idea how I found this book, but if you are interested in the Celtic culture YOU SHOULD READ THIS BOOK!! Even if you’re not, it is super fascinating. Basically, you take one Ancient Greek philosopher, give him a boat, watch as he sails off into Celtic lands, and experience pre-Roman conquest Celtic culture. ❤ Posidonius (the philosopher) wrote up his journey and it instantly became the ancient equivalent of a bestseller (even cited by Julius Caesar as influencing his decisions towards Gaul although I think Caesar missed Posidonius’ point). Sadly, his actual writing hasn’t survived to modern times (<- this is why we need time travel pirates!), but the author does an extremely thorough search of Posidonius’ contemporary writers for quotes, the journey’s timeline, details, etc. After writing this, I basically want to go back and read this one again. *looks slightly scared at the angry TBR in the corner*
The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson – AND THEN THEY ALL DIED! Wait, that’s not right? Fudgecicles. Well, a lot of people die. Cholera does not play nice with 1854 London and their lack of infrastructure (no sewage removal anyone?), leading to Dr. John Snow to buckle down and discover something super important to modern medicine (aka, the way not to die from cholera is part of it 😉 ).
The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse: An Extraordinary Edwardian Case of Deception and Intrigue by Piu Marie Eatwell – GUYS THERE’S A CRAZY LADY IN THIS BOOK. Obsessed with believing that her dead father-in-law was actually the super secretive Duke of Portland (helpfully also dead), Anna Maria Druce sues in 1897 to have the grave of her father-in-law opened… and if empty, have it count as proof. You would think this would be pretty straightforward, but NOPE. The author lays out the facts/court cases/evidence as presented to the Edwardian public so that you kind of see the scandal that this situation caused.. and leaves you guessing as to what was true or not. Only by the end, do you finally have a sense of if the Duke and her father-in-law were, or were not, one and the same.
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott – Following four (surprise!) women, two on each side of the US Civil War, Abbott weaves their stories together with a large amount of storytelling skill! I read a fictional book about one of these women after reading this nonfiction, and I thought THIS BOOK was actually MORE entertaining!
1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C Mann – A good introduction to pre-Columbian native cultures in South and North America, this book is partially the reason I want more South American HF that is NOT focused on the European colonization. He goes into detail about different cultures and civilizations, but it is not dry or boring at ALL!
Are you in a book club? What type of books would you suggest?