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The Truth About Non-Fiction: 4 Recommendations

I have been so focused on fiction and discussions about cultivating ideas, characters, plot and pacing that I have ignored the whole non-fiction side of the aisle.  Not all writers “make stuff up.” I have to confess that as a kid I wasn’t much of a reader and I certainly wasn’t going to waste my teenage years balancing a non-fiction book in my lap. That would be too much like school.  However, my appetite for books increased exponentially after getting married 32 years ago. Included in my diet of novels has been the occasional non-fiction work.

In high school and college I was not a history buff.  The subject matter never seemed to connect with me.  I couldn’t remember names and dates, events and consequences, reasons and ramifications. History was all that stuff that had happened in the past and frankly I didn’t care enough about it. Then Ken Burns and his camera burst onto the scene with his documentary The Civil War and showed us that history doesn’t need to be a dull parade of dates and places, that history can be engaging, touching, and riveting.

That is when I seriously started making forays into reading more non-fiction.  The other thing that helped rope me in was a growing personal interest in genealogy.  To understand your ancestors, you need to put their lives in the context of what was going on around them.  Why did they pack up and come to the New World? What was life like when they got here? How did they make a living? What did they do for entertainment?

There are seemingly limitless choices in the non-fiction field.  There are explorations of history, biographies, memoirs, true crime, political affairs, science, economics, the arts and so much more. Today I offer up a look at four non-fiction books that have taken up treasured spaces on my bookshelf and that I can personally commend to you.

The Endurance: Shackelton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander

There have been a number books written about Sir Ernest Shackelton’s “failed” trans-Antarctic expedition but the one that captured my interest is the account by Caroline Alexander. This is a harrowing story of a crew of 28 who embark, right at the outbreak of World War I, as they attempt to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent on foot.  Their ship, the Endurance, however, becomes trapped in frozen waters before they make it to the polar continent and is slowly reduced to splinters under incredible pressures of the advancing and shifting ice floes. 

In three 22-foot open life boats the crew of 28 men with meager provisions made a five-day journey to the remote and uninhabited Elephant Island.  Once there, it became evident that a rescue from there was highly unlikely, so Shackelton and 5 other men made an 800-mile open-ocean journey through a ragging hurricane to a small whaling village in the territory of South Georgia to alert the world to their crew’s plight and arrange for a rescue of the 22 men left behind who had pinned their hopes on Shackelton’s success.

The bonus of this specific book are the 170 photos made from surviving glass plate negatives made by expedition photographer Frank Hurley. They are beautifully reproduced and illustrate the conditions that the men were under during their two-year ordeal. This is an incredible tale of leadership, survival and, yes, endurance, and I fervently recommend it.

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose

I am a sucker for stories about overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  The journey of Lewis and Clark who embarked on an unprecedented  search for the fabled Northwest Passage is a tale that is filled with drama and struggles as the expedition is faced with challenge after challenge.  This book paints a vivid portrait of the determination of a group of men, honestly portrays the relationship between the encroaching white man and Native American Indians and showcases the rugged beauty of an unspoiled and often harsh wilderness.

Stephen Ambrose is a master of pace and detail. I found this book filled with such adventure that I tore through the pages at breakneck speed (and I’m a slow reader).  I even found the beginning, which meticulously catalogs the planning and preparation phase for such a massive undertaking, to be intriguing.

It is unfathomable to think how these brave men made it through uncharted territory and back again with only one death (attributed to appendicitis). If you have not done so already, pick up this book to get an honest sense of what that expedition was all about. You will not be disappointed.

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

Erik Larson does a masterful job of storytelling in this very real and in turns gruesome tale of architectural vision, hope and murder as Daniel Hudson Burnham found himself racing against time in efforts to design and oversee the construction of the 1893 World’s Fair facilities and fairgrounds in the adolescent metropolis of Chicago. Against this backdrop is the astonishing story of H. H. Holmes who constructs his very own hotel of horror and is responsible for the cruel and calculated death of at least 27 people (some estimates, although highly disputed, went as high as 200 deaths).

The methodical and cold-blooded monster, Holmes, lured mostly unsuspecting women into his deadly lair and when they had outlived their usefulness he dispatched them in his homemade gas chamber. At the same time Burnham was fighting to deliver an audacious plan for the World’s Fair in under two years and despite looming deadlines he refused to compromise his vision for the fair.  There are also cameo appearances by the likes of such celebrities as Buffalo Bill, Susan B. Anthony and Albert Einstein. This book reads like a novel but is all the more chilling for the fact that it all actually happened.

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson

The name John Wilkes Booth conjures up images of the actor sneaking into the presidential box, shooting the President, jumping to the stage and allegedly injuring his leg in the process, shouting, “sic semper tyrannis” (Latin for Thus always to tyrants) and making his hurried get away.  The book chronicles Booth’s successful attempts to evade arrest for nearly two weeks as he makes his way to rural Virginia where he is eventually tracked down and killed.  In addition, Swanson provides much detail about the life of Booth before his infamous attack and what drove him to it. He also sheds light on the fact that the President’s assassination was only part of a planned three-pronged attack in an effort to decapitate the government (with simultaneous attempts on the lives of Secretary of State Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson) and makes an effort to debunk a number of myths and misconceptions surrounding John Wilkes Booth.

This is a well researched and wonderfully presented look at the man and the event that changed this country as the Civil War came to a close. It gives us a focused look at the ensuing search for our 16th President’s killer who miraculously eluded authorities for 12 days and I found it to be a deftly and meticulously rendered book that was far from dry or pedantic.  There is plenty of intrigue and unfamiliar details that keep this story moving at the pace of a fugitive on the lamb, and both the novice and expert Lincoln historian should find enough to chew on.  I found it fascinating.

Your time is precious and hundreds of thousands of authors are pitching their wares at you. I hope that these recommendations provide you with at least one book that you might consider adding to your “to-read” list. I am sure that most of these books are available as e-books but I would urge you to try to find the print version of Caroline Alexander’s The Endurance in order to fully enjoy the photographs included in the book. Thus ends today’s history lesson…

Question: What non-fiction have you been reading?

Thanks again Steve…
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