Truth can be stranger than fiction, as we’ve proved in our selection of non-fiction titles this month. (Who would believe in disappearing teaspoons or an organization that set out to collect people’s underwear for “smell samples“?)
To finish on a high note, let’s take a look at some of the real-life stories and strange truths uncovered in three non-fiction books recommended to me this week.
Would you believe that an eighteenth-century French woman disguised herself as a boy and sailed around the world for two years on a famous botanical expedition? Can you accept that a cult leader was so charismatic that he was able to convince over 900 people to abandon their homes, move with him to the jungles of Guiana, and then poison themselves with cyanide? And lastly, who would believe that a man would willingly abandon his family, move to the other side of the world with another woman and her children, and pass his second daughter off as his first child, Susan, in a deception that lasted more than twenty years?
This wonderful collection of 19th century books is one of my favourite apps. What’s not to love? The British Library is one of the world’s great libraries, and they’ve digitized thousands of books and made them available ‘online’ for free. At the touch of a button and the tap of a finger, a reader can have the book that they want to read up on the screen – in its entirety (no ‘selected pages only’ here) and as a facsimile (no bland, boring eBook pages that make every book look the same.) Continue reading
The Disappearing Spoon is a wonderful book about “madness, love and the history of the world from the periodic table of elements”. The title refers to a trick teaspoon made of gallium, a metal with a low melting point, which disappears as it stirs a hot cup of tea.
Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, a tale of love and fallout begins with a quote from Marie Curie: “There is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life”. Lauren Redniss, the author, apologises. Because in fact Radioactive is all about connections, drawing fascinating parallels between the Curie’s personal lives and their laboratory work. Each of the book’s nine chapters is a double entendre; titled for a scientific effect with an equally applicable colloquial meaning. For example, in Magnetism she addresses both the Curie’s work on electromagnetic properties and their blossoming, passionate romance; in Isolation she addresses the application of nuclear research, the horror of Chernobyl, Pierre’s death, and the experience of abandonment.
How long is it since you heard a library praised for its true value?
“One test of a democracy, they say, is whether it grants equal access to the tools that make knowledge possible. The Freedom Charter certainly understood the significance of access to knowledge – and information – to a democracy. All the cultural treasures of mankind shall be open to all, by free exchange of books, ideas and contact with other lands.” (1)
I can’t remember the last time I heard the words ‘democracy’, ‘knowledge’ or ‘culture’ used in relation to Australian public libraries; the biggest issue seems to be their ‘relevance’ to the community (services like cafés, dog registration, parking permit clearance and speed dating.) (2)
Like many of my friends, I have a love-hate relationship with food writing. Love : Elizabeth David, Barbara Santich, Mark Crick. Hate: molecular gastronomy, pretentious writing, Australia’s Biggest Loser:
‘This brings me to my all time FAVOURITE part of the competition MAAAAKKEEEOOOOVVVEEERRR!!!!!!!’
I admit that reality TV show blogs are a soft target, and I can deal with my complaints about molecular gastronomy and pretentious food writing easily enough (they so often go together.) In recent Australian sources ( blogs, newspaper articles and restaurant reviews), I have come across the dubious molecular pleasures of ‘truffled hen’s egg with blood orange and dill pollen’, licorice foam and chocolate sand. You only have to look at images of molecular gastronomy and, say, Italian food to see that froths, foams and blobs are not nearly as delectable as simple cheese (unfrothed), vegetables (whole) and seafood (yummy).
David Crystal is one of my favourite linguists (is it possible to have a favourite linguist?) : he is erudite , enlightening and a lot of fun to read. He’s also quite prolific: last year he published the paperback edition of Begat: the King James Bible and the English Language as well as Internet Linguistics and 100 words. It seems unlikely that he ever gets time to ‘chillax’ (p. 251 of his latest book).
This month we’re taking a break from literary fiction to look at non-fiction, a category of reading that dominates bookshops and libraries, and gives many people hours of pleasure. I’m thinking of absorbing and demanding books, such as well-researched history and biography, as well as entertaining topics like food and travel. Two Reading Women have promised me posts on scientific writing, a genre that demands exceptional clarity and skill in the explication of complex subjects and specialized terminology.
I read and review quite a lot of creative non-fiction, an increasingly popular type of non-fiction that tells true stories using traditional literary techniques (evocative settings, characterization, plot). Paul French’s Midnight in Peking is an example of this, as is John Berendt’s award-winning Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Anna Funder’s remarkable book Stasiland is one that we’ll look at soon on Reading Women.
Hoax non-fiction is another area that, rightly or wrongly, is fascinating in its own bizarre way. Why any author would pretend to be writing non-fiction when they had plenty of good material for a novel (Norma Khouri) or deliberately manufacture an identity for themselves (Helen Demidenko) is a mystery to most of us. In fact, it’s the subject of many non-fiction books in its own right.