Saturday, December 29, 2012

2012 Non-Fiction Reads

This antepenultimate day of 2012 begins my year-end book roundup.  My 2012 reading was not limited to this year's publications.  It's whatever caught my attention enough to find and read between January 1 and now.  These are my non-fiction picks:

The Beauty and the Sorrow:  An Intimate History of the First World War, Peter Englund (2011)
This is war up close as seen in the detail of diaries from all sides and ranks, officer and enlisted, reluctant conscript and enthusiastic patriot, cynic and idealist.  Also a Scottish nurse, a Venezuelan cavalryman and a 12 year old German girl.  The detail is combined with extensive research on the war’s social and economic impact, military operations, weapons and tactics to give the reader a granular account of an event that of far eclipses its many individuals.  It is this detail that allows a reader to experience the First World War as an individual.  At that level, the story is timeless.

The Essays of E.B. White, E.B. White (1977)
White is the master of the essay form and a master of style as well.  This collection spans 40 years mid 20th century life, culture and society in settings diverse as rural New England, New York City and Florida.  The essays seem at first glance gentle--largely due to White’s economical writing and ability to cradle serious thought into seemingly mundane events—but the gentleness masks a sharp edge that cuts to the heart of the matter.  White is in turn serious, humorous and always understanding. 

Rainbow Bridge to Monument Valley:  Making the Modern Old West, Thomas J. Harvey (2011)
A thoughtful history of how the modern old west was created in the Colorado Plateau along the Arizona-Utah border, a land I know well.  The narrative traces how successive occupants wove the landscape into their spiritual and national identities.  First came Navajos who found Rainbow Bridge on the land they inhabited and recognized the great arch as a key to their own emergence stories.  Zane Gray sought authenticity for his novels.  John Ford extolled American myths in the backdrop of Monument Valley.  Environmentalists fought to preserve unspoiled places even as modern tourism changed those places forever.  Throughout all these changes Navajos remain, living in two worlds.  The tale

With All Disrespect, Calvin Trillin (1985)
This collection of Calvin Trillin’s “Uncivil Liberties” column for The Nation covers the years 1982 through most of 1984.  The columns are is just as funny now as when Trillin first wrote them.  When he is on target, as in his 1984 column on Ronald Reagan’s “disengagement” from the affairs of his office, Trillin is laugh-out-loud-funny.  Even when he isn’t that funny, his columns are suffused with a wry and clever humor that encourages readers to think after they’ve chuckled.   I don’t know how these columns would appeal to readers who do not have direct memories of those early Reagan years.  With that memory Trillin’s essays tell me that things haven’t changed much.  The dollar figures are higher now but the human foibles and peccadilloes are unchanged. 



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