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June 1, 2017

What is Creative Nonfiction?

Filed under: History,Reading life — rmlblog @ 9:28 pm

While the term, Creative Nonfiction, is not new, I recently heard about it from a writer in my swimming group and thought it was a wonderful description of some of the best nonfiction I’ve read recently.

Lee Gutkind of the Creative Nonfiction magazine describes it this way: “The word ‘creative’ refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques fiction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonfiction — factually accurate prose about real people and events — in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy. Scenes are stories are the building blocks of creative nonfiction. Writing in scenes represents the difference between showing and telling. The lazy, uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject, place or personality, but the creative nonfiction writer will show that subject, place or personality, vividly, memorably — and in action. In scenes.”

Some people include memoirs in this form, but I don’t. I would hope that people writing memoirs would be able to capture the personality and scenes of their lives.

Here are so wonderful examples of this type of writing. Even if you don’t usually like nonfiction, you may find yourself captivated by these stories.

  • Bill Bryson: One Summer
  • Jonathan Harr: A Civil Action
  • Caroline Alexander: The Endurance
  • Jon Krakauer: Into Thin Air
  • Laura Hillenbrand: Unbroken; Seabisquit
  • Robert Kurson: Shadow Divers
  • Candice Millard: Destiny of the Republic
  • Dave Eggers: Zeitoun
  • Michael Pollan: Botany of Desire
  • Rebecca Skloot: Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
  • Margot Lee Shetterley: Hidden Figures
  • Erik Larson: Devil in the White City; Dead Wake; In the Garden of the Beasts
  • John Berendt: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
  • Truman Capote: In Cold Blood
  • Michael Lewis: Moneyball
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October 24, 2016

Fear of Books: Book Burning May 1933

Filed under: History,Reading life — rmlblog @ 12:57 pm

My husband and I went to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on our recent vacation to Washington, DC. One of the events that I did not know anything about was the May 1933 book burning by the National Socialist German Students’ Association. From the USHMM website:

In a symbolic act of ominous significance, on May 10, 1933, university students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books, presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture. On the evening of May 10, in most university towns, right-wing students marched in torchlight parades “against the un-German spirit.” The scripted rituals called for high Nazi officials, professors, university rectors, and university student leaders to address the participants and spectators. At the meeting places, students threw the pillaged and “unwanted” books onto bonfires with great ceremony, band-playing, and so-called “fire oaths.” In Berlin, some 40,000 persons gathered in the Opernplatz to hear Joseph Goebbels deliver a fiery address: “No to decadence and moral corruption!” Goebbels enjoined the crowd. “Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Gläser, Erich Kästner. 1

book-burning-may-332

The lists of some of the authors whose books were burned is interesting: Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, John Dos Passos, Sigmund Freud, André Gide, Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, Jack London, Karl Marx, André Malraux, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, H. G. Wells, B. Traven, and Erich Maria Remarque.

While all of these authors are old (several where on my parents’ bookshelves), many are still read today. What was so scary to the Nazi regime that they felt the need to destroy the words and ideas of this writers? It might be interesting to read some of them with an idea to trying to understand what would have made them degenerate, decadent and indecent. In September we have Banned Books week. Maybe we should also have a Burned Books week.

It made me think more about the First Amendment and Freedom of Speech. There isn’t a corresponding Freedom of Thought, but that is probably because it would be hard to enforce the negative. In this age of highly charged political conversation, we are pressed even more on the need for freedom of speech, even speech we disagree with. The German people were denied this freedom because the government wanted to control all of their lives. I hope the United States sticks to the Constitution and allows us our diversity.

1 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Book Burning.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005852 Accessed on October 19, 2016.

2 Books and writings deemed “un-German” are burned at the Opernplatz. Berlin, Germany, May 10, 1933. — National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md.

March 27, 2014

Connect to Books!

Filed under: best books,Favorite Books,History,Narrators,Reading life — rmlblog @ 12:45 am

I have been noticing interesting connections with some of the books I’ve been reading lately. It made me think of a hyperlinking in websites that would take you to somewhere else for more information. Here are some of my recent connections:

boys in the boat

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel Brown is the story of the 1938 USA Olympic 8-man crew that won in Berlin. The story is actually exciting, even though you know how it will end. (In fact, it led me to try the rowing machine at the Y.) In the early sections when the book tells about the boys’ earlier lives, it reminded me of Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America 1927. The main character Joe in Brown’s book lives part of the time in Squim, Washington, which was a destination in The Wildwater Walking Club by Claire Cook which we read for book discussion. The descriptions of what was happening in Berlin leading up to the Olympics reminded me of the book Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. At one point, Joe works on the Grand Cooley Dam. One of my favorite authors, Ivan Doig, has some books set at Montana’s Fort Peck Dam.  The information I had learned from each of these other books gave The Boys in the Boat an extra depth.

perfume collector

Another book I really enjoyed was The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro. This book jumps around in time as we learn more about a mysterious woman who leaves a legacy to Grace Munroe. Some of the book is set in New York in 1927 (see Bryson book above!) and deals with life in a hotel in New York. That reminded me of The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell, a suspenseful book about a couple of typists in New York during Prohibition. (The narrator in that book is definitely unreliable.) Grace, however, is a newlywed in London just after WWII — shades of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer When she travels to Paris to get her legacy, she discovers how the Nazis are involved with the perfume collector. This part reminded me of Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay.

All in all, I encourage everyone to sample both nonfiction and fiction books that intersect with each other. The result is richer in all ways.

What books have you found that intersect well with each other?

March 17, 2014

Rewriting History

Filed under: Big Read,History,One book — rmlblog @ 1:27 am

Rewriting History

In 1984 the main character Winston Smith has the job of rewriting history every time that the government changes its position. When a citizen falls out of favor with the government, anything positive about the person needs to be expurgated from the newspapers, files and histories.  While the United States probably hasn’t been going to this extreme, we still live in a society that does rewrite history, depending on ideology, political correctness, regionalism and new research.

When I was in school, Betsy Ross was still the woman who designed the American Flag and George Washington had wooden teeth. Neither is true and most textbooks reflect this now. Pluto used to be a planet, but recently lost that title.

As you discuss the two books for the Community-Wide read, think about the history that has been rewritten for these two societies. If we were a plebe in 1984, what would we think about our past? If we had lived on a reservation in Brave New World, what would we tell ourselves about the outside world? In The Giver, one person is given the true history that is denied the rest of the people. Do you rewrite your own history every time you tell a story? Why do no two people in a family remember things the same way?

In the King and I musical the King ponders life in the song, A Puzzlement: “When I was a boy; World was better spot. What was so was so, What was not was not. Now I am a man; World have changed a lot. Some things nearly so, Others nearly not.”  Maybe most of history is just “nearly so.”

March 8, 2014

Thank You to Kade Crockford and Peter Ubertaccio

Filed under: Big Read,History — rmlblog @ 11:37 pm

The program Thursday at the High School on the NSA and Privacy was fascinating. Kade Crockford had a wealth of information to share about the workings of the Executive Branch, in particular the career people involved in the security agencies. These people are there regardless of who is president, which may explain why policies seem to stay the same from administration to administration. Peter Ubertaccio explained that while we have often put aside our rights during war time, the war on terror has no end. Rights we lose now are not coming back unless we make a stand.

Some of the current action on reining in the government’s collection of our private information has come down to the states proposing laws that bring us up-to-date with the digital age. In Massachusetts there are proposals to stop the police from saving the license plate information indefinitely, to stop the use of drones without a warrant, and more. There is also a proposed law that would make eavesdropping on digital devices even easier for law enforcement. Check out the ACLU website for more information.

The two speakers were asked to recommend books to read. Crockford suggested The Burglary about the 1971 break-in of the FBI office in Pennsylvania and Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. Ubertaccio recommended the Constitution and the Federalist/Anti-Federalist papers. We don’t always know or understand what rights the Constitution created and the Anti-Federalists were worried about many of the things that have come to pass.

Thank you to both speakers for the thought-provoking evening.

March 3, 2014

How Can We Tell?

Filed under: History,One book — rmlblog @ 1:46 am

In 1984 the protagonist Winston Smith works in the Ministry of Truth where he was one of many who would rewrite history to match the current government position. In State of Deception by Ryan Lizza (The New Yorker, Dec. 16, 2013) we hear that the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, lied in front of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (March 2013) when asked about whether N.S.A. was collecting any type of data on millions of Americans. Edward Snowden’s subsequent revelations showed us what was behind this curtain.

The problem is — and was for the people of Oceania in 1984 — how do we know when the government is keeping secrets for our protection and whether it is necessary to keep those secrets? Certainly we’ve all been horrified by accounts of kids turning in their parents for treasonous talk to the Nazis during the times leading up to WWII. Will the government use computers to sift through our email, posts, and tweets for “treasonous” messages or contacts?

Join us on March 6, at 7 pm, at the High School Media Center for a discussion of what is happening. See the One Book Page for more information.

November 25, 2013

Frustrated Ambitions: Is It For Women Only?

Filed under: Book Discussion Group,History,Reading life — rmlblog @ 7:44 pm

I was reading our November evening book discussion choice, Girls Like Us, about Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and Carole King in which the author spent a lot of time talking about the 1950s and 60s when women seemed to put everything aside for “their man.” It dawned on me that most of the recent books we’ve discussed covered the same theme of women frustrated with their own talents by the roles they had to assume. There was Age of Desire, a fictionalized account of Edith Wharton; Movement of Stars, a young woman astronomer in 1840s Nantucket; The Astronaut Wives Club and The Doctor and the Diva, in which a talented singer leaves her son (and loses him) to follow her career. Even The Good House — which is a modern-day story — has the main character abuse alcohol to help her deal with her inner struggles.

I didn’t mean to pick out books with the same basic theme; it just happened. But it made me wonder if the frustrated woman has become a stock character in books. Given that some of these novels are based on real people or are nonfiction, the theme may say more about the writers than the characters. Maybe stories about frustrated men have already been told. John Updike comes to mind.

Can anyone think of any current books that deal with a man’s frustrated ambitions?

May 24, 2012

Nonfiction that Reads Like Fiction

Filed under: best books,Favorite Books,History — rmlblog @ 7:29 pm

We just had a book discussion of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, a true story of a man’s and his comrades’ experience in the Pacific during WWII and afterwards. All of us were struck by how the book was a page-turner. Hillenbrand’s writing is descriptive without being flowery, her characterization and pacing keep you wondering what was going to happen next. And the plot was definitely an example of truth being stranger than fiction.

While not quite in the same category, books such as Shadow Divers, Flyboys, The Professor and the Madman, Galileo’s Daughter and Blind Side are also nonfiction books that pull you into the lives of the people involved.

Overbooked listed these nonfiction titles for their Nonfiction that Reads Like Fiction 2011 page:

Oath: The Remarkable Story of Surgeon’s Lfe Under in Chechnya by Khassan Baiev

Blue Blood by Edward Conlon

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Leblanc

Truth and Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Name All the Animals: A Memoir by Alison Smith

Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan

Love in the Driest Season: A Family Memoir by Neely Tucker

Blood Done Sign My Name: A Memoir by Timothy Tyson

September 26, 2011

Stories of Amazing Women

Filed under: History,programs — rmlblog @ 7:02 pm

I was privileged to attend “They Called Me Lizzy… from slavery to the White House” at the Attleboro Art Museum. It was a one-woman show about Elizabeth Keckley, a slave who earns her freedom as a seamstress and becomes the “modiste” for Mary Todd Lincoln. Stephanie Jackson, the actress, made the pain and the triumphs of “Lizzie” come alive. The story does not end happily — for either Mrs Keckley or Mrs. Lincoln — and was all the more moving because of this. Keckley’s grave has only recently been rediscovered.

In October, Rhode Island (many different organizations within the state) is celebrating Louisa May Alcott with Living Literature performances, showings of the movie Louisa May Alcott: the Woman Behind Little Women and book discussions of Harriet Reisen’s biography. Louisa May Alcott was much more than a children’s book author. She was a nurse for a short time during the Civil War, a European traveler, a writer of “pot-boilers” and the mainstay of her family.  I look forward to seeing the Living Literature performance, since I am “portraying” Alcott for the Attleboro Area Civil War Commemorative Committee’s Nov. 5th program at the First Baptist Church in North Attleboro.

If you would like to read about Elizabeth Keckley — or have your children read about her — check out these books.

For Louisa May Alcott, try Harriet Reisen’s book.

For books about Mary Todd Lincoln, try this one by Jean Baker.

I’m only up to 83 books for the year. The George R. R. Martin book I’m reading, A Dance with Dragons, is over 900 pages. I am probably going to have to bring it back unfinished and check it out again later. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to read 17 more books in the next 3 months. I’m listening to Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh which I hope to have for our December Evening discussion. I just hope it doesn’t become too popular so that we can’t get the copies I’ve placed on hold!

 

July 28, 2011

Historical Fiction Look at Police and Justice Systems

Filed under: History,Mystery — rmlblog @ 6:54 pm

I have been listening to a Victoria Thompson mystery, Murder on Sisters’ Row, set in late 19th century New York City. One of the most interesting features of the story is the look at how the police operated during that time. Crimes were solved by those who could pay to have them solved and the upper-class, rich criminals were not brought to justice. Teddy Roosevelt is police commissioner, set upon rooting out corruption, in the early books of the series.

It made me think of other historical mysteries and books that deal with the development of our system of justice as we know it today. While the police departments didn’t come into existence until 18th and 19th centuries, there were other people in government who were assigned the task of meting out justice.

Early Civilizations

Saylor, Steven             The Gordianus the Finder mysteries take place in 1st century BCE Rome. The first book is Roman Blood.

Robinson, Lynda        Lord Meren is the Eyes and Ears of Pharoah, in this case King Tut. The 1st book is Murder in the Place of Anubis.

Reed, Mary                 John the Eunuch is the chamberlain of Emperor Justinian in 6th century Byzantium. Emperor Justinian decided that existing Roman law be collected into a simple and clear system of laws, soon called Justinian Code. The 1st book in the series is One for Sorrow.

Middle Ages

Doherty, P. C.             Hugh Corbett is a clerk to the King Edward’s chancellor in 14th century England and Scotland. The 1st one is Satan in St. Mary’s.

Tremayne, Peter          Sister Fidelma is an Irish brehan, or judge, in 7th century Ireland. The Irish or Celtic Catholic law is different from the Anglo-Saxon and  Roman Catholic law that she sometimes comes into conflict with. The 1st book is Absolution by Murder.

Franklin, Ariana          Adelia, an early medical examiner called a Master of the Art of Death, is sent for by Henry II, who is reforming the justice system of England. The 1st book is Mistress of the Art of Death. The author has recently died.

Sedley, Kate               Roger the Chapman is a former monk turned peddler in  The 1st book is Death and the Chapman.

Peters, Ellis                Brother  Cadfael was made into a wonderful PBS series. The monk solves mysteries during the English war with Maude and Stephen in the 12th century.

Van Gulik, Robert      Judge Dee is the magistrate in 7th century imperial China. The 1st is The Chinese Maze Murders.

Renaissance

Alexander, Bruce        Sir John Fielding is a blind magistrate and brother to Tom Fielding who founded the Bow Street Runners in 18th century England. The 1st book is Blind Justice.

Buckley, Fiona            Ursula Blanchard, during the time of Queen Elizabeth, is a lady-in-waiting and an investigator for Elizabeth’s secretary of state. The 1st book is To Shield the Queen

Rowland, Laura Joh    Sano Ichiro series, an samurai detective for the 17th century Japanese shogun. The 1st book is The Fire Kimono.

Victorian Age

Perry, Anne                 William Monk and Hester Latterly and Thomas and Charlotte Pitt. The politics of the police force is a major character in the books set in Victorian London. The Pitt family series starts with The Cater Street Hangman and the Monk/Latterly series begins with Face of a Stranger.

And, of course, Sherlock Holmes.

Early 20th Century

Winspear, Jacqueline Maisie Dobbs works with the police, using psychology, to solve mysteries in post-WWI Great Britain. The 1st book is Maisie Dobbs.

Thompson, Victoria    Sarah Brandt and Sgt. Frank Malloy solve problems in late 19th century New York City. The 1st book is Murder on Astor Place.

A new nonfiction book that might be interesting is The Big Policeman by J. North Conway. It is the story of a New York City policeman, Thomas Byrnes, who became “one of the most celebrated detectives in American History, and paved the way for modern-day police methods, both good and bad.”

Book count: I’m up to 69 books for the year, but I’ll probably finish another one by Sunday. I feel like I’ve started a lot more, but didn’t enjoy them much. Still no classics read this year, however.

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