What’s New in Nonfiction

Every now and then I love a good nonfiction read and here is what caught my eye recently.

“[E]veryone finds their own version of Charles Dickens [1812–1870],” concludes award-winning British biographer Tomalin: Dickens the mesmerist, amateur thespian, political radical, protector of prostitutes, benefactor of orphans, restless walker—all emerge from the welter of information about the writer’s domestic arrangements, business dealings, childhood experiences, illnesses, and travels. Bolstered by citations from correspondence with and about Dickens, Tomalin’s portrait brings shadows and depth to the great Victorian novelist’s complex personality. Tomalin (Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self) displays her deep scholarship in reviewing, for instance, the debate about Dickens’s relations with Nelly Ternan, concluding that the balance of evidence is that they were lovers. She also highlights the contrasts between his charitable actions toward strangers and his “casting off” of several relatives from father to brothers to sons, who kept importuning him for money: “Once Dickens had drawn a line he was pitiless.” By the end of this biography, readers unfamiliar with Dickens will come away with a new understanding of his driven personality and his impact on literature and 19th-century political and social issues. Tomalin provides her usual rich, penetrating portrait; one can say of her book what she says of Dickens’s picture of 19th -century England: it’s “crackling, full of truth and life, with his laughter, horror and indignation.” Illus.; maps.

 

Much of Iran’s relationship with the West—and their mutual antipathy—stems from the muddled events of a single day: November 4, 1979, when Iranian militants overran the U.S. embassy in Tehran, launching a 444-day-long hostage drama. What’s often forgotten is that six Americans evaded their would-be captors and were protected and eventually extracted from Iran by Canadian diplomats. In this fascinating account of spycraft and compassion, Wright (Three Nights in Havana) puts newly unclassified documents to excellent use in recounting how Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor hid the Americans who had slipped out a side door and gathered intelligence for the U.S. government. Wright sketches the historic grievances that lay at the heart of the embassy takeover and dispels lingering myths—among them, that the occupiers were “idealistic student amateurs”—crafting an absorbing story of genuine heroism and suspense.

 

Known as the “Corrupting Sea” for the way the dense web of commercial relationships spanning its shores inexorably changes local cultures, the Mediterranean has seen the rise and fall of many of the world’s great empires, aided in the spread and propagation of the three great monotheistic faiths, and carried countless millions of immigrants and adventurers to a new life or a watery grave. This epic tome by Abulafia, a professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge, is a political history of the Liquid Continent–another of the sea’s monikers–tracing how the spread of ideas, goods, cultures, and armies across the sea has helped shape the modern world. Engagingly written, precisely documented, and liberally studded with tales of the fantastic and absurd, the book has much to offer the casual reader and is indispensible for specialists in the region. In such an expansive work, however, occasional frustration regarding the rapidly changing cast of thousands is inevitable, and nearly every page contains minor details deserving their own entire books. Abulafia’s central thesis, that human cultures shape their own destinies rather than live beholden to the currents, climate patterns, and natural ecosystems described by Fernand Braudel, the other great chronicler of the Mediterranean, is convincing. Maps.

Let us know what you think.

Happy Reading

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About thecompleatbookseller

I love Books.

Posted on November 23, 2011, in Authors, Book Review, New Hardback, Non-Fiction. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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