12 Days of Boredom 2011 – Non-Fiction Books

Cover of "Only Yesterday"

Cover of Only Yesterday

When I read non-fiction, I stick to books that focus on historical events instead of memoirs, hagiography or, God forbid, self-help books. A non-fiction book needs to read like fiction and be written so well that you forget you are learning something while being entertained. The three books and one book series below accomplish that major feat.

Empire of the Summer Moon by SG Wynne – I could easily call this the best non-fiction book I’ve ever read. Wynne doesn’t take sides, he doesn’t gloss over the atrocities perpetrated by the Indians nor the destructive actions of the white settlers and US Army. It isn’t that there are no villains in this tragedy, its that everyone was a villain.

Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen – first published in 1932, Only Yesterday is a history of the Jazz Age or Roaring Twenties before it was distant enough in the past to receive those monikers. It was fascinating to read a contemporary account of what were recent events to Allen through the lens of 80 years of history. This was published before FDR, The New Deal, the worst of the Dust Bowl and Depression, before Pearl Harbor, World War II and the Red Scare of the 50s. What was so fascinating is how similar the political and social disquiet just after World War I (it didn’t have that moniker at the time) is to the social and political issues we are facing today.

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell – a funny little book about the author’s obsession with presidential assassinations. When I say funny I mean comical. Vowell has a great writing voice that makes reading about death not feel morbid. An interesting aside: Vowell voiced the character of Violet in The Incredibles.

The Old West by Time/Life Books – Raise your hand if your family had a set of encylopedias back in the day. *raises hand* With instant access to information through the internet, it is easy to forget that reference books were the way we learned about history and the world. Starting in 1961, Time/Life Books published series of books on different subjects and made them available through monthly installments. The list of subjects covered is impressive. My family didn’t have The Old West series, unfortunately. I discovered these books in a antique/junk stall when I went to Round Top, Texas, in April this year. The seller offered to give me 20 books for $50, a deal I regrettably turned down because I didn’t want to haul 20 books through the antique fair and to the car. Plus, I shamefully admit I was a little embarrassed to be buying encylopedias on the Old West when my friends were buying fun decorating stuff. After reading The Soldiers installment of the series I’m even more distressed I didn’t  buy the guy out. These books are fantastic. They are well-written and have great pictures from the time covered. I’m impressed with how evenhanded the history is; these were written in the 70s and I expected them to be more jingoistic than they are. Long out of print, my local Half Priced Books has them for sale for $8. So far, my collection includes The Soldiers, The Great Chiefs, The Indians, The Pioneers, The Townsmen, The Cowboys and The Railroaders. I will eventually get them all.

There were a few non-fiction books I started but did not finish, not because they weren’t good but because I got distracted by researching the Old West for my novel. The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan is an excellent book about The Dust Bowl…Last Call by David Okrent is about Prohibition and was what Ken Burn’s documentary about Prohibition that aired this year on PBS was based on…Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schlissel is a good reference for the language of the time but not something that is readable in the traditional sense…In addition, I also have a fair few books that I haven’t started but am anxious to, books on the roaring 20s and prohibition, mainly. There are too many books and too little time!

What’s on my bookshelf?

Cover of "The Devil in the White City:  M...

Cover via Amazon

When I returned from a girls trip the first weekend in April my house looked better than when I left it. This is not unusual. My husband is very good about cleaning the house before I get home. I can’t imagine coming home to a disaster area which I know from talking to friends is the usual state when homes are left to the management of husbands and kids.

I think I keep a pretty good house. I do laundry every other day, clean the bathrooms a couple of times a week, sweep the freaking floor every hour or two (or so it seems), dust, mop, etc., etc. We don’t have a lot of knickknacks and clutter as a general rule. But, there are a couple of areas that are magnets for clutter, the primary one being a built-in desk/bookshelf, the only bookshelf in the entire house. Which leads me to one reason we don’t have a lot of chotskies – we don’t have the wall/table/bookshelf space for stuff like that. Except for my three bookshelves.

Now, for someone who loves to read, like I do, having three shelves for my books has been a major pain. I typically only keep books I really like and intend to read again. But, it’s difficult to winnow down my books to fit on three shelves. As a result, books would be doubled up, laid down sideways in front, stuck above the row of books, etc. Basically shoved any way I could get it into the shelf. It didn’t look great but it wasn’t the first thing people saw when they walked into our house, anyway, so it didn’t bother me. The desk is tucked away so that the only people who would see it are coming out of the half bathroom or entering the house through the garage door, which no one does.

You combine my cluttered bookshelf with my husband’s cleaning verve and his propensity to shove shit into drawers, closets, attics and little used rooms so that our house has the appearance of being tidy* and you might guess where this is going…he moved the randomly placed books off of my bookshelf when I was out-of-town. Luckily, he didn’t do something as drastic as putting them in the attic. Instead, he put them on top of the chest of drawers in our guest room. They pretty much looked just like they did downstairs, the difference being that no one uses that room except my mother when she comes into town.

*This could probably be an entire post on its own – the difference between us in regards to cleaning. I don’t mind a but of clutter but when I put it up, it goes where it’s supposed to, and when I clean, I’m full on – scrubbing, etc. He hates clutter and just shoves it out of sight no do I think he’s ever wiped down the kitchen counter. There might be nothing on it, but it’s dirty!  I’m sure a therapist would have a field day with what that says about the two of us.

First off, don’t mess with my books. Ever. It’s akin to coming to my kitchen and moving my appliances (which he did as well). My home is my workspace and I need to know where things are. That random piece of paper on the desk? It’s there because I need to fill it out later. Knives on the right hand side of the stove? Spoons on the left? That’s where I like them. That’s where I automatically reach for them. I don’t go into his office and move his stuff around, I don’t want him to move my stuff around in my office.

I made a reactionary decision: I need bookshelves, I’m turning the guest room into an office. We have been debating this idea for a while. I have always wanted a guest room for my mom when she comes to town, and if we have out-of-town guests. We don’t have very many out-of-town guests and, since my oldest has a bunk bed, both boys can sleep in one room and she can take my youngest’s bed. I’m sure that the fact I spent my girls weekend at an antique market and the itch to decorate was strong had something to do with my decision. Long story long: I sold the bedroom furniture and bought three bookshelves from IKEA for my books. As you can see, I thought I had more books than I did. Don’t worry. I’ll fill those shelves up.

Now, almost 700 words later, the point of this post: what is on my bookshelf? I’ve decided to go through, shelf by shelf, and show you my books! I know, what a thrilling topic for a post. But, I’ve set a goal to post every day this month and I need ideas.

I promise, no matter how desperate I get, I will not take a picture of my lamp with the button filled base and describe every button and marble. (If you would like to suggest post ideas, feel free to do so in the comments.)

I haven’t organized my shelves completely yet, but I have separated out the non-fiction books onto their own shelf. So, that’s what I’m going to show you first. Please, try to control your excitement.

Starting from left to right:

Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen – I won this through a contest on Twitter. Yes, I started it. Yes, one day I will pick it back up again. No, I didn’t put it at the beginning to make myself seem deep and thoughtful. It just ended up there.

Gallipoli by Alan Moorehead – about the World War I battle; from the clearance bin at Half Priced Books.

Flu by Gina Kolata – this sat on the bedside table of my mother’s guest room for years. I would pick it up and read it when I was there without a book to read. It is really very good. I haven’t finished it but am fascinated by the Spanish Flu plague at the tail end of World War I.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain – an account of one woman’s experiences in World War I. A classic that helped “both form and define the mood of its time” it is a must read for anyone interested in how war affects the generation that lives through it. Recommended by my brother.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale – the true story about the investigation of the murder of a little boy in June of 1860 in the English countryside. A scandalous and horrifying crime, Scotland Yard’s best investigator, Jonathan Whicher, believed someone in the household was the killer. With a circumstantial case and no confession, the case was never solved and Whicher was the object of scorn for suspecting the family. Pretty interesting stuff if you like history.

Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin – the essential biography of Austen.

A Fine Brush on Ivory by Richard Jenkyns – another Austen biography.

The Devil in the White City by Erick Larson – account of the Chicago World’s Fair and the serial killer that used the fair to lure women to their death. Chilling.

This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust – Death and the Civil War.

An Incomplete History of World War I by Edwin Kiester, Jr. – excellent overview of the war. Short chapters on little known subjects, such as the color of the French uniforms at the beginning of the war (bright red and blue) making the soldiers easy targets and therefore evolving to muted colors.

Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen – written in 1931, an excellent history of the 1920s, before it became known as The Jazz Age and before FDR and his policies pulled the country out of the Depression.

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan – history of the Dust Bowl.

The Powder Puff Derby of 1929, Before Amelia, Mavericks of the Sky, Amelia Earhart’s Daughters, West with the Night – research on women in the early days of flying for a novel I’m going to write.

The Star Machine, Leading Ladies, Leading Men, Being and Becoming – from my classic movie immersion phase of life.

The Artist Way, How to Write Killer Fiction, The Elements of Style, On Writing by Stephen King, Police Procedure and Investigation, Creating Character Emotions, Heroes and Heroines, Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors – probably self-explanatory.

Three Copies of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly – because I’m a member of the Texas State Historical Society.

There you have it. My heavy reading. A good portion of these I’ve started and put aside for one reason or another. But, I will read them all eventually. I just need more time!

Now it’s your turn:

  • Have you read any of the books on my non-fiction shelf?
  • Do any of them sound interesting? If so, which one?
  • What non-fiction book would you like to recommend?
  • What would you like to see me post about for the next 25 days?