Tag Archives: Nonfiction

Writing On The Edge: Great Contemporary Writers on the Front Line of Crisis by Tom Craig

Writing On The Edge: Great Contemporary Writers on The Front Line of Crisis

By Tom Craig, Edited by Dan Crowe

Published in association with Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres

Rizzoli, New York, 2010

Tom Craig, a documentary photographer, wanted to do something more than just take pictures.  He wanted people to tell the stories behind the pictures.  He invited authors to join him on trips to some of the most dangerous places in the world, and they said yes.

Things were elemental.  I knew it was cold in Armenia when the piss in our toilets froze, and I knew it was hot in Chad when the donkey next to me dropped dead like a cartoon cutout.  I knew I was frightened when I wanted my mum, and I knew I was doing the right thing when I overheard a girl on a bus in London crying as she described one of our stories in The Sunday Times Magazine. I learned that war was pointless, and that bad water kills nearly everyone, and if that didn’t get you the mosquitoes did.  I learned things about myself I could never have understood without the hardship and death I witnessed, or the instances of human fortitude and kindness I observed.  This is where hope comes in.  From the introduction by Tom Craig.

Some very fine writers  joined him on journeys to medical outposts set up by Medecins Sans Frontieres, in places far out on the borders of human existence.  Places like Burudi, Palestine, Cambodia and Congo.  People like Martin Amis, Tracy Chevalier, Hari Kunzru and Ali Smith.  They took these journeys and wrote about what they experienced.   These essays, along with Craig’s photographs, are gathered in this collection.

I picked this up off the “new book” shelf in my library,  not really knowing about it but intrigued by the names listed on the cover.  The essays are astounding, the photos are beautiful and disturbing.  Sometimes I just need something to help me get out of my own little bubble.  This book does that.


Filed under Culture, Current Events, Nonfiction, Photography

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Twelve, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

This book as won multiple awards and been on many Notable and “Best of”  lists.

I waited a long time to read this book.  Even though I had no desire to revisit this horrible event I kept hearing and reading about Dave Cullen’s in-depth study of the 1999 Colorado high school shootings.  I finally borrowed a copy from the library and discovered that Columbine is so well-written and well-researched that I couldn’t put it down.

I remember Columbine, I remember the two shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and the horrible images that came over the television.  The stories of how these two students snapped and went after jocks, seeking revenge for bullying and harassment and how the “Trench Coat Mafia” was the group behind the murders was all over the media.  Turns out everything they told us about the Columbine shootings was wrong.

Dave Cullen,  reporting for Slate.Com, first visited Columbine High School at around noon on April 20th, 1999, the day of the shootings.  He spent 9  years researching this book, listening to tapes, watching videos, reading journals and conducting interviews. Talking to students, parents and teachers, investigators and police.   He dug deep and his reporting shows it.  It come across as clear and balanced.

Cullen gives us background on Harris and Klebold, in a way he makes these “monsters” human.  Reading their journals and listening to their friend,s investigators on the case believe Eric Harris was a psychopath and that Dylan Klebold suffered depression.  Reading their backgrounds and histories gives a very different view from the one the press reported.  The things I found most interesting in Columbine are Cullen’s analysis of the media circus surrounding the incident and the fact that the police covered up information they had on Harris and Klebold.  It turns out that this incident could have been avoided if certain people had communicated with other people, including some student who had hints of what was going on but never took the boys seriously.  Isn’t that always the way?

Columbine is not easy to read, the descriptions of the shootings and the suffering of the victims is intense, but I found it very worthwhile.

Other review:

Reading Rants

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Have you read and reviewed this book?  Leave a comment so I can link you.


Filed under History, Nonfiction, Notable Books, Review

The Collectors of Lost Souls by Warwick Anderson

The Collectors of Lost Souls: Turning Kuru Scientists into Whitemen

By Warwick Anderson

John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2008

Bought a used copy.

Those of you who have visited this blog in the past may know I have a love of anthropology and a love of science.  This intriguing book fills the bill on both counts.

It is the story of the Fore, a group of people who live in the isolated highlands of Papua New Guinea, and the mysterious disease that affected their villages. When white people first met the Fore in the 1930’s and 40’s,  they found them suffering from an illness that caused muscle weakness, tremors, lack of coordination and eventually death.  They also discovered that the Fore eat their dead as a sign of respect and that they believe in sorcery. It was mainly women and children who were ill and the Fore attributed this frightening, wasting sickness to very evil magic.  They call it Kuru.

Warwick Anderson, a medical doctor and science historian,  through years of research, travel and interviews with Fore people, medical researchers, anthropologists and others,  brings together all the different elements of the study of Kuru, that includes cultural anthropology, virology, epidemiology, colonial history and leads to the science of medical anthropology and to questions of medical ethics.  He follows the research of many anthropologists and epidemiologists and tells of their discovery  that, by eating their loved ones after death, the Fore where actually spreading the disease.  All this research, and the many scientists taking part in the study,  lead to the idea of a  “slow virus” and eventually to the discovery of Prions, the same biological cells that spread  “Mad Cow'” disease.

This book is also a record of the Fore, a previously isolated people, and how they made contact and adapted to the world by engaging with scientists, researchers and administrators.  How they struggled to make the meeting of the modern and the “primitive” something other than the usual colonial process.  How, once they realized that their blood and flesh was of value to modern science, they began to demand to be part of the undertaking.

We might also learn from the Fore how to understand the social dynamics of global science.  Kuru research occurred in the shadow of World War II and on the edges of the cold war.  It took place a scientific institutions flourished in advanced settler societies such as the United States and Australia, extending their reach into “primitive” colonies like Papua and New Guinea.  The traffic in specimens, equipment, reagents, and texts linked laboratories in large metropolitan centers with bush huts where autopsies were performed and tissues prepared.  Scientists came and went between these diverse sites, becoming cosmopolitan as they made their careers.  Parts of the Fore circulated, too, turned into globally available specimens.  Fore thus became medicalized even as they were first colonized.  They found themselves caught up at this striking conjunction, though never completely subsumed in it.  Rehearsed at a multitude of local sites, yet performed as though on a global stage, kuru research dramatized claims and contest over territory, bodies, and persons.  It shows us hoe science travels in the modern world and what it does when it arrives…

Anderson gives everyone, scientists, researchers and Fore alike, a say in the story.  He also exposes the moral and ethic dilemmas  involved with this type of medical research.  Who owns the findings?  The researchers, the biomedical companies or the people who donated their blood and bodies to the study of this disease?  It is a very important question as we delve deeper into the human body and its genetic makeup.


Filed under Nonfiction, Science, Science Books 2010

Roberto Bolano: The Last Interview

Roberto Bolano: The Last Interview & Other Conversations

Introduction by Marcela Valdes

Melville House Publishing, Brooklyn, 2009

I bought this one.  It now sits on a shelf next to my copies of 2666 and The Savage Detectives.

“Literature is not made from words alone.” Roberto Bolano

A small book, containing four interviews and explanatory notes on Hispanic and Latino authors and book titles that may be unfamiliar to English readers.

I particularly appreciated the introduction by Marcela Valdes which goes into Bolano’s writing of 2666 in some detail.  Great for readers of that massive work.

As for The Part About the Crimes,  Bolano was in contact with Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez, a Mexican journalist who wrote about the horrors taking place in Juarez.  Gonzalez Rodriguez’s book about the murders, Huesos en el desierto, has not been published in English.

I loved finding out that Moby Dick was one of Roberto Bolano’s favorite novels.


Filed under Authors, Nonfiction, Review

The Music Room by William Fiennes

fien0330444409.01._SX140_SY225_SCLZZZZZZZ_ The Music Room by William Fiennes

Picador USA, New York, 2009

Borrowed from my local library.

In September I read and reviewed  The Snow Geese by William Fiennes.   I loved it so much I wanted to read his new book.

The Music Room is memoir written in narrative style.  It is the story of the house, actually a castle, where Fiennes grew up.  It is also a tribute to his brother, Richard.  Richard, eleven years older than William and suffering from epilepsy, was the family’s emotional center as well as it’s focus, but never in a way that detracted from anyone else.

The Music Room describes the great house, part of which was open to the public, and the people who cared for it.

Mid-morning, they came into the kitchen for coffee.  I’d last seen them passing through the door to the public side: it seemed they lived in that other world of portraits, plaster ceilings, suits of armour, swords.  In the corner, under domed wire-gauze fly guards that hung on nails like fencing masks, Joyce sat on her high stool, feet on the rung.  The kitchen was her domain.  She put a pan og milk on the hob, a china puck sitting in the bottom to stop it boiling over, and made milky coffee for Mrs Upton, Mrs Green and Mrs Dancer, and hot chocolate for Bert, who arrived with the cut-grass smell on him, unhitching his dentures so his teeth floated out towards me on his tongue.  By half-past ten they’d have gathered in the kitchen, Joyce perched on her stool like a tennis umpire, a bowl of cake mixture in her lap while Mrs Upton, Mrs Green, Bert and Mrs Dancer too sat round the green Formica table, delving into the Victoria biscuit tin, Joyce like a mother hen presiding over her chicks, providing for them.

If I wasn’t at school, I’d sit with them.

“How old do you think I am?” Mrs Dancer asked.

“I don’t know,”

“I’m about the same age as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth.”  from page 39.

This house is filled with history, the people who live and work there have lots of stories to tell.  There are all sorts of events held on the grounds,fairs, concerts and festivals.  Sometimes film crews show up, bringing with them actor and other interesting people.  Fiennes tells of the history of the land and of the house.

But the book is also an accurate description of the difficulties of  living with someone who suffers from epilepsy that has caused brain damage, the ups and downs of an illness that has no cure.  Fiennes intersperses his narrative with the history of the study of electricity and its effects on the brain, including the famous story of Mr. Phineas Gage.  He also includes descriptions of Richard’s bouts with anger, depression and lack of impulse control, and the amazing patience and love shown him by his parents.  I am awed by the graceful way Richard was accepted and included in their lives.

Whenever he was fully engaged in some physical task, his tongue dropped in front of his bottom teeth and pushed out his cheek below the corner of his mouth like a wad of dentist cotton wool.  Certain epilepsy drugs can cause unusual facial movements called extra-pyramidal movements, and for a while Richards pills caused him to circle his jaw unconsciously, as if he were chewing a cud, his lower lip enlarged and blubbery.   Now his tongue already probing his cheek in concentration, he leaned into the branches, fitted the blade and wrestled the saw back and forth until there  was only an inch of trunk intact.  We heard the first splinter-cracks as the tree teetered.  From page 61.

The Music Room is also filled with images of being a child and an adolescent  in such an amazing place, with such a challenging brother. Fiennes describes the private and the public spaces.  I had great fun just imagining an eight year old boy with free run of a castle, it even has a moat!

I start to look for ways of being alone, self-reliant, away from Richard and my parents.  I want, even within the circle of the moat, to be beyond observation.  So I disappear into the Barracks or out onto the castle’s roofs, scrambling across leads and stone slates, settling in secret enclosures like pockets among dunes, rooks crossing overhead between the worm-rich park and their rendezvous trees. From page 152

This little book is a loving  tribute to Fiennes’s brother and his family.  I found it very well written, lyrical and a bit melancholy.  I enjoyed it,  and look forward to other books by this fine British author.


Filed under Memoir, Nonfiction

The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands

wol1605980331.01._SX140_SY225_SCLZZZZZZZ_ The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands

Pegasus Books, New York, 2009

I’m not really sure where I heard of this book, or why I chose to read it.  Maybe it was the beautiful photo of  the wolf on the cover or my initial, very negative,  reaction to someone keeping a wolf as a pet.  And philosophy?  I never really understood it’s purpose.  I suppose because I never had a teacher or mentor who explained it to me, or maybe I never asked what it was all about.  After reading Mark Rowlands’  book I have a much clearer understanding and admiration for those who follow this discipline. Perhaps because he writes in a way that is interesting and accessible.

The Philosopher and the Wolf is Rowlands’ memoir of living with Brenin, an Alaskan wolf, for over a decade.  It is the story of the bond that can exist between a human being and a wild animal.  Rowland dedicates his life to this relationship. Just that story would have  made it a wonderful book, but it is so much more than that.   I found it an amazing and educational read.

One of the thing I really appreciate about Rowlands’ writing and his philosophical position is that it is anchored in real life, it the events that happen to him, and those around him, every day.

His bond with Brenin allowed him to look at human evolution in a new way, comparing simian (ape), and therefore human, social development with lupine (wolf) social development.  There were times when I felt this comparison was a bit heavy handed but I need to do more reading of the latest research in animal behavior to be clear on this.  There were parts of his argument that really struck me.

If we humans place a disproportionate weight on motives, then to understand human goodness we must strip away those motives.  When the other person is powerless, you have no self-interested motive for treating them with decency or respect.  they can neither help you or hinder you.  You do not fear them, nor do you covet their assistance.  In such a situation the only motive you can have for treating them with decency and respect is a moral one: you treat them this way because that is the right thing to do. And you do this because that is the sort of person you are. Page 102

Mark Rowlands writes about morality, happiness, memory and time, always reflecting back on the years spent with Brenin. What he learned and experienced in that relationship has changed him in many ways.  This book is the result of those changes.  I really enjoyed it.

To learn more about The Philosopher and the Wolf visit Mark Rowlands’ blog.

Other reviews:

Moving Back, Moving On

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Filed under Animals, Nonfiction, Review

Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures In The Search For The Origin Of Species – Sean B. Carroll

Rem015101485X.01._SX140_SY225_SCLZZZZZZZ_Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures In The Search For Origins Of Species by Sean B. Carrroll

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston & New York, 2009

A 5 out of 5 ScienceBook 2009 rating.

A book to fill my head with thoughts of fieldwork!  Great stories from the history of geology, zoology, anthropology and genetics.

Carroll, a professor of molecular biology and genetics,  follows scientific explorers from naturalist Alexander Von Humbolt to geneticists Vincent Sarich and Allan Wilson as they pursue the geological history of earth and the evolution of life over time.  Covering the past 150 years he charts the development of, and changes in, the understanding of  human evolution.  Carroll is a wonderful writer and frames this book like a detective story, following the adventures of people who are familiar, like Charles Darwin, and those who are unfamiliar, like John Ostrom.

This is a wonderful book for those familiar with the sciences and those who just like a good adventure story.  My only problem with it is now I have a list of about a dozen books to add to my to-be-read pile!


Filed under Challenges, Nonfiction, Review, Science, Science Books 2009

Finding Beauty In A Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams

Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams


Pantheon Books, New York, 2008

First of all,  I need to say that Terry Tempest Williams is a hero of mine.  I have felt that way since reading  Refuge and that admiration doubled after she wrote The Open Space of Democracy, published by The Orion Society.  I find her writing lyrical, beautiful and filled with strength.

When I first started reading Finding Beauty in a Broken World I was not sure where it was going.  What was the author doing in Ravenna,Italy,  learning an ancient art form?  I found I wasn’t letting myself really take in what Williams was saying.  I had to stop and start over, bringing the attention to the words that Williams asks of her readers.  Then I got it and had to take it in like a cool drink after a long, hot hike.

Mosaics are made of things that are beautiful and broken, much like human beings.    Williams creates a mosaic of words, bringing together disparate ideas, her travels to Italy, the fragility of a Prairie Dog populations and the struggles Rawanda faces after genocide.  There is much sadness and suffering here and yet, through the work of human hands, the same hands that are so capable of destruction, something lovely is built and healing can begin.

The author shows us stories from her own life, tells of her own fear, her own breaking apart through personal and national loss.  It is a beautiful, difficult book and. in the end, miraculous.

“We cannot understand social problems without looking at historical roots.  It is impossible to change society without changing the societal stories.  We must listen to the stories being told on the ground by those who have survived the abuses of power, those who bear witness and embody the resiliency of the human spirit.  And resiliency is what I see in Rawanda.” from page 285

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Filed under Culture, Nonfiction, Review

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel L. Everett

51bgzr4cupl_sl160_1A 4 out of 5 ScienceBook 2009 rating

I was excited to read  Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes because it covers two of my favorite topics, anthropology and linguistics. It is well-written, fast moving and filled with great stories about life in the Amazon jungle .

Daniel L Everett is the Chair of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Illinois State University. He has written a book that is the story of his young family’s stay with the Piraha, a small group of people who live in the Amazon basin. Everett went to the jungle as a missionary. His original purpose for going was to learn the language so that he could translate the Bible. It is a strategy Christian organizations use, hoping for religious conversions. The Piraha culture is very different than that of their American visitors and Everett struggles to understand it. His visit and the work he did with this group of people changed his world view completely.

This book is also an anthropological study of life among the Piraha and the other groups that share the land along the Maici River. It tells of their daily life, their knowledge of their environment and their relations with their neighbors. His observations of their daily life are filled with a a sense of excitement and interest.

From page 100: It is interesting to me that in spite of a strong sense of community, there is almost no community-approved coercion of the village members. It is unusual for a Piraha to order another Piraha about, even for a parent to order about a child. This happens occasionally, but it is generally frowned upon or discouraged as indicated by the remarks, expressions and gestures of others watching. I cannot recall having seen an adult intervene to stop another adult from violating community norms.

Most importantly \”Don\’t Sleep, There Are Snakes\”, tells of Everett\’s study of the Piraha language. He describes his struggle to understand their language, the differences he found between Piraha and other languages and his reevaluation of his own linguistic education.  I enjoyed reading about his struggle trying to figure out what these people were telling him, and his analysis of his own misconceptions.  His conclusions about the Piraha language run counter to the prevailing understanding of linguistics and have caused researchers to reevaluate beliefs about the relationship between language and culture.

I was fascinated by Everett’s eventual reevaluation of his own beliefs. This is a very honest book and a perfect  book for those interested in a very different way of life.


Filed under Review, Science Books 2009