Category Archives: Nonfiction — general

Harry’s Last Stand, by Harry Leslie Smith

I realize the last two books I reviewed are ones about which I’ve said, “People really need to read this!” but people also, really really really need to read Harry’s Last Stand. Yes it gets a bit ranty in places, but the author was well into his 90s when he wrote it and he had every right to get ranty.

Harry Leslie Smith was born into abject poverty in 1920s England. His childhood was like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes but without any veneer of beautiful writing or sentimentality — just poverty, disease, and hunger. Harry fought in the RAF during WW2, married a German girl after the war, eventually emigrated to Canada and ended his life as a solidly comfortable member of the middle class. But this is not a rags-to-moderate-riches story where the moral is that things got better because Harry worked hard, or was blessed, or even lucky. No, Harry Smith’s thesis is clearly that things got better after WW2 for people of his social class because governments in the UK and elsewhere put together a social safety net of programs that provided health care, education, and the means for people to get out of dire poverty. And when, as an elderly man, Smith began to see those same governments rolling back those safety nets and stripping away those protections in favour of unregulated capitalism and tax breaks for big corporations, he became an activist. In his 90s. He began writing and speaking about the importance of governments that are by, of, and for the people, and how we need to get back to those values.

Anyone who believes in the claptrap that we all automatically become conservative as we age, anyone who hearkens back for some imagined “good old days” when people didn’t complain and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, needs the good harsh dose of reality provided by this admittedly cranky old man. Harry passed away a couple of years ago but his message is as relevant today as when he first took up his pen, and we all need to listen. Read the book.


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Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, by Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse

This audiobook, which Jason and I listened to on a drive to Bonavista and back (just the right length!) is a companion volume to Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse’s BBC TV series about, well, two middle-aged entertainers taking up fishing after they have both experienced serious heart problems. Narrated by the two authors in alternating chapters, the book is a hybrid of a memoir, a comedy routine, and a serious book about angling in the UK. It’s definitely entertaining to listen to (not sure what it would be like to read without Bob Mortimer’s comic delivery), but the best vehicle for this material is definitely the TV series, which includes all of the above plus stunning nature photography and more.

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The Meaning of Everything, by Simon Winchester

All I have to say about this history of the Oxford English Dictionary is that it was fascinating and it made for great listening as an audiobook. I had never really stopped to think before about how a dictionary gets made, and particularly how such a huge, sprawling project as the world’s greatest dictionary, which took many decades and a vast team of (often highly eccentric) people. This was interesting, informative, and a thorough joy to listen to.

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Charlotte and Leopold, by James Chambers

charlotteandleopoldFor anyone, like me, who watched the series Victoria and wondered if there was a reason why Uncle Leopold (king of Belgium, and uncle to both Victoria and her husband Albert) was so over-invested in Victoria’s life and her marriage, this nonfiction book provides the backstory you may not have known. (Of course, if you’re a hardcore 19th-century European history buff, you already knew this story, but I’ll freely admit I didn’t).

20 years before Victoria ascended the throne, there was another young princess who was far more directly in line for the throne, who was the most popular member of the then-quite-unpopular British royal family, and whose sensible arranged marriage to a Coburg prince turned into a deep romance. The princess was Charlotte, daughter of the Prince Regent (later George IV), and in the large family of King George III which produced many illegitimate grandchildren but hardly any legitimate ones, she was the daughter of the heir and herself the heir apparent. Her marriage to the Coburg prince Leopold quickly led to a pregnancy, and everything seemed to be going smoothly until Charlotte died in childbirth bearing a stillborn son. The subsequent scramble to see which of the heirs to the throne could produce a viable heir led quite directly to the birth of Victoria, and the grieving Leopold spent much of the rest of his eventful life guiding the education and career of his niece.

This book tells of Charlotte’s childhood, her parents’ famously unhappy marriage and how she was used as a political pawn, her own marriage, and then Leopold’s life after her death. It was very informative and interesting, but I do have to add that it is the only audiobook I almost gave up on because the narrator’s voice annoyed me so much. It wasn’t so much Jilly Bond’s regular narrating voice, which was sort of crisp-English-RP and fairly unobjectionable — it was the voice she used when quoting any of Charlotte’s words or writing, which was this awful high-pitched simper with a very obvious lisp. I’m glad I stuck with the book, but the Charlotte-voice irritated me throughout, and I really wish the narrator had made a different choice, since it made the character I was supposed to be most invested in the most annoying to listen to.

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Never Caught, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

nevercaughtI’ve been intrigued by the story of Ona Judge ever since I first heard of this enslaved woman who escaped from George and Martha Washington and was hunted down by them for the rest of their lives (she long outlived them). The book’s title makes it clear there’s no real suspense about how the story ended: they never recaptured her, and while Ona Judge’s life was hard, she lived decades as a free woman.

I listened to this audiobook during a long day of driving from Memphis, Tennessee to Williamsburg, Virginia. It was an interested setting to be listening to this while driving through the American South, an area where the scars of slavery are by no means healed and where slave-owners like the Washingtons are still honoured for their accomplishments while the enslaved people who built their plantations and their fortunes are largely forgotten. I was listening to this while I drove past a sign for a hotel named after Martha Washington, and I thought, “Where is anything named after Ona Judge? Why don’t we celebrate the people who fought so hard for their own and others’ freedom?”

Ona Judge lived a life of poverty and hardship after her escape — in fact, it would be possible for someone to argue that her relatives who remained in captivity to the Washingtons had objectively “easier” lives in some ways, in terms of access to food and shelter. But it’s telling that Judge never once considered returning to slavery — nor did, to my knowledge, any of the thousands who escaped slavery, despite the hardship of their free lives. It reminded me very much of a scene from the movie Gandhi where one of the British officials warns the Indian independence leaders that they face “chaos” post-independence and Gandhi says:”There is no people on Earth who would not prefer their own bad government to the good government of an alien power.” (I don’t know if this is based on an actual Gandhi quote, but it certainly sounds like a sentiment he would have agreed with). Likewise, the people who escaped chattel slavery preferred the hardships and uncertainties of freedom to being someone else’s property — and more of their names should be known and celebrated for this.

This was a very enlightening and important book.

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A Land as God Made it, by James Horn

landasgodmadeitI read this as part of my research for the trilogy I’m writing, and much like Savage Kingdom and Pocohantas, it gives a good overview of the Jamestown, Virginia colonial experiment, which nearly ended in disaster many times. Like many recent accounts of English colonization in North America, this book is unsparing about the colonists’ attitude towards the native population and very much aware of the exploitative nature of English settlement, and the indigenous people are portrayed with greater understanding and sympathy than might have been the case in an earlier story about the “birth of America.” Good,

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Fascism: A Warning, by Madeleine Albright

fascismIf anybody is qualified to talk about twentieth-century fascism, it’s Madeleine Albright, both from the perspective of her personal life experience and from her professional experience. As a child growing up in Czechoslovakia, her family had to leave their home country twice because of dictators — first during the Nazi takeover, because of her father’s ties to the previous Czech government (the family was also Jewish, but converted to Catholicism during the war; Albright and her siblings were raised not knowing about their Jewish heritage). Then, after returning to postwar Czechoslovakia from the UK, they moved to the US after the Communist takeover of their country.

Later, of course, Albright famously became the U.S.’s first woman Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton. Working in that key role in the turbulent world of the 1990s, she witnessed first-hand the fall of the Soviet Communist system and the regimes that have risen to replace it. She’s had the ideal life experience to be able to analyze how the fascist dictatorships of the 1930s and the aftermath of the Second World War led to the world we see today, where the rising tide of right-wing populism threatens a new wave of fascism.

Albright analyzes many different twentieth and early twenty-first century totalitarian movements to see what their roots are and what they have in common. One thing that surprised me is that she doesn’t give a particularly specific ideological definition of what she means by fascism. Beginning in the 1920s and 30s, she explores the standard fascist dictators of the era — Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco — but in many cases lumps Stalin’s rule of the USSR into the same category, despite the differing ideological roots. Later, she does the same with the Kim dynasty in North Korea, so clearly her definition of fascism has more to do with totalitarian dictatorship rather than with whether a government is on the left or on the right of the political spectrum.

Naturally, she has some warning notes to sound about some of the populist movements today that show tendencies towards totalitarianism, and it would be great if her warnings could be heeded.

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