Category Archives: Nonfiction — general

Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson

davinciThis weighty biography of da Vinci took me awhile to read (partly because I had it out of the library, had to return it unfinished and then go back on the waitlist to get it again because it’s so popular), but it was worth the time it took to read. Like most non-art people I know a bit about da Vinci — the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, his notebooks, something about designing helicopters — but this book pulled it altogether and told me so much more about his life and his art. Things that surprised me: I didn’t know how few completed paintings da Vinci actually did; I wasn’t aware of Isaacson’s conjecture that a lot of his ambitious designs, like the proto-helicopter, were probably designs for theatrical special effects rather than things intended to be used in the real world; I didn’t realize how notorious he was for starting projects of all kinds and not finishing them. It was also interesting to see how his scientific inquiry and his art were so closely tied together; in a world where we so often make this artificial distinction between “the arts” and “the sciences,” it’s instructive to read about Leonardo painstakingly dissecting and sketching human bodies to better understand anatomy and then see how that translated into his drawings and paintings. Isaacson argues that the main quality that made Leonardo a genius was his overwhelming curiosity: the same passion that led him to start projects because they interested him also led him to abandon them uncompleted when they ceased to interest him and new things piqued his massive curiosity. This was a fascinating glimpse into one of the great minds of human history.

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Rock Paper Sex by Kerri Cull

 rockpapersexKerri Cull is a fellow Newfoundland writer whose book Rock Paper Sex has held onto an unshakeable position atop the regional bestseller lists for months. Some of this may be due to the fact that she peels back the curtain on a world few know much about but many are curious about. But it’s also a tribute to the fact that Cull has done a great job of interviewing a variety of people involved in sex work here in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and then stepping aside to let them tell their stories.

The interview subjects come from a variety of backgrounds and engage in sex work in many different ways. Whatever stereotypes you may have of sex workers — from desperate, abused prostitute servicing clients for drug money, to empowered woman managing sex work with entrepreneurial flair — you’ll find them all, to some degree, represented here, with enough variety and heart to remind you that the people involved with sex work are, indeed, human beings and not stereotypes. No matter where you stand on the legalization or morality of sex work, reading this book will be instructive in helping you remember that important truth: this is about human beings. Cull has done a wonderful job of allowing her interview subjects to speak in their own voices about the complex and often-misunderstood world they inhabit.

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We Were Eight Years in Power, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

eightyearsThis book was powerful and a bit overwhelming. I read it quite soon after Timothy Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till, so I was already thinking about racism in general, and anti-black racism in America in particular. Coates’ book covered some of the same historical ground as the Emmett Till book, but also ranged much farther, and focused on the eight years of the Obama presidency, which coincided with Coates rising from an unemployed would-be writer to a regular feature writer for The Atlantic and one of the most respected writers and thinkers on racism in the U.S. today. This book is a collection of eight of his essays (mostly if not all from The Atlantic), one for each year from 2008-2016, each prefaced by a short reflection about what was happening, both in the country and in Coates’s own life and thinking, when that piece was written.

The “eight years” of the title refers only secondarily to the tenure of the US’s first black president: the primary reference (a direct quote) is to the Reconstruction period in the American South after the Civil War, when freed black people were briefly allowed full franchise and a role in government, only to see their accomplishments rolled back by a resurgent white supremacist movement that instigated segregation and disenfranchised black southerners for a century. Coates’s point in drawing the parallel is that he views Obama’s presidency, like the Reconstruction era, as evidence that when African-Americans play the game of “respectability politics,” working twice as hard as white Americans to achieve the same goals and showing that they can succeed at the white man’s game, rather than winning the respect of white people they will instead be met with a backlash of white supremacy. The election of Donald Trump following eight years of the Obama presidency is, as he sees it, the clearest example of this. What white Americans fear even more than black people behaving badly, Coates points out, is black people behaving well — and governing well. Because that raises the spectre of true equality, which is what white supremacists fear most of all.

This is the central argument, but there’s so much more here — reflections on both Barack and Michelle Obama, on Bill Cosby and Malcolm X, on mass incarceration, reparations, and the failed “war on drugs,” on the author’s own sometimes-jarring rise to fame. This book offers searing critiques and condemnations, little optimism, and a great deal of material for reflection. It’s brilliantly written and hard to stop thinking about once you’ve read it.

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The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, by Stephen Greenblatt

adamandeverI was given this book as a Christmas gift and didn’t know quite what to expect, but I found it fascinating. The author takes the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and traces it through the centuries, beginning with when, where and why it was likely written and contrasting it to other creation myths from Middle Eastern cultures. He then looks at how the story has been understood by both Jews and Christians throughout the centuries, exploring both literal and figurative interpretations of the story. Plenty of space is also given to depictions of Adam and Eve in art and literature: the art history chapters are accompanied with beautiful full-colour illustrations, while three full chapters are given to John Milton and his epic Paradise Lost, which has shaped so much of how we see this story today, probably even more than the brief chapters in Genesis.

In the end, whether people throughout history have taken the story literally or symbolically, what we believe about our origins has a powerful impact on how we view ourselves. That’s the bottom line of this book and I found it really intriguing.

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The Blood of Emmett Till, by Timothy B. Tyson

emmettillThis was an amazing, powerful, searing account of a crime — the 1956 murder of young black man Emmett Till for daring to speak flirtatiously to a white woman in Mississippi — that I had heard of but did not know many details about. Tyson’s book provides a very thorough, detailed account, including an exhaustive journey through the court records and newspaper accounts, and interviews with as many as possible of the people involved who are still alive. Most importantly, it paints a harrowing picture, and one that’s important to remember, of segregation-era America, both in the South, where the crime happened, and in the North, where Till lived before his fatal visit to relatives in Mississippi. Though segregation in the South was overt, discrimination and practices that disempowered black Americans were rife in Till’s home of Chicago as well.

This is a chilling tale of institutionalized racism, as well as an inspiring tale of people, like Emmett Till’s mother, who refused to accept that racism and used this crime as a springboard to fight for justice. While reading it, I was reminded that though the overt and blatant acts of racism that occurred in 1950s Mississippi would not happen today (for example, the police finding and jailing two black witnesses who might have helped convinct the murderers, and holding them in jail under assumed names so they could not testify at the trial), there are still huge gaps between “justice” for white people and what passes for justice for people of other races. And not just in the U.S. We Canadians are often smug about the fact that we don’t have the fraught history of slavery and official segregation that plagues the U.S., but here, as in the Chicago of Till’s era, there has always been plenty of racism hiding behind the veneer of equal opportunities.

I read this book on the heels of the Colton Boushie and Tina Fontaine cases here in Canada, two high-profile cases where many of us feel that the white killers of young indigenous people were unjustly allowed to go free. Reading the book against that context made me feel that even though in some ways, society has come a long way since the days of Emmett Till, we kid ourselves if we don’t think there’s still a long way to go.

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Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia, by Lisa Dickey

bearsinthestreets.jpgI picked this book on a whim, judging books by their covers as one does in a bookstore, and really thoroughly enjoyed it. The concept is simple: journalist Lisa Dickey travelled across Russia in 1995, shortly after the collapse of the old Soviet Union, in the company of a photographer who planned the trip and was looking for a writer to accompany him. Ten years later, she went back with a different photographer, to visit the same places and the same people. Then, in 2015, she made a third journey, this time alone. In each chapter she talks about one of the places she visited and the people she met there, comparing her 1995, 2005, and 2015 journeys.

Things change, but it’s hard to draw generalizations. Most of the places Dickey visited were more prosperous and much more connected to the outside world in 2015 than they had been in 1995. Most individuals, but by no means all, were more prosperous than they had been 20 years earlier. Almost everybody loved Vladimir Putin. Some people were optimistic about the future of their country and the world; others were less sanguine.

Mostly, though, what made this book so readable was not just the birds’-eye view of 20 years of Russian history, but the personal element — Dickey’s relationships with the people she visited, and how those people’s lives had changed over the intervening years. The encounters were thought-provoking, funny, and sometimes deeply moving, especially in the chapter where Dickey (herself a lesbian, who worried about keeping her marital status secret in Putin’s anti-gay Russia in 2015) spends time with a group of mostly closeted gay Russians. 

If Lisa Dickey goes back to Russia in 2025, I definitely want to read about it.

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The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, by Joshua Hammer

badasslibrariansObviously, given the title, there was no possibility I was ever NOT going to pick up this book. Librarians racing against terrorists to save precious ancient manuscripts? I’m in! This was a very readable and well-researched tale of the effort to save a vast trove of manuscripts from extremist Islamic militants who took control of the historic city of Timbuktu. As with any book set in Africa, the main thing I learned was a humbling overview of how very much I don’t know. Not only had I only the sketchiest of ideas about the whole conflict in northern Mali beginning in 2012 (and I mean sketchy in the “I’m sure I heard something about that on the news” way), I also knew so little of the history of that region. I didn’t know why there would be such a vast store of medieval manuscripts in Timbuktu or anything about the empires that flourished there before European colonization. I now want to know much more about pre-colonial Africa, so hit me up with book recommendations if anyone’s got any!

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