Category Archives: Nonfiction

“The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life”

Francis Parkman

In 1846 a young, privileged Bostonian spent two months in the West. He traveled with Oregon-bound immigrants, lived rough, and spent a few weeks with the Oglala Lakota. The book Francis Parkman published two years later launched his literary career.

I admit it took me a while to read “The Oregon Trail”; I put it down a few times a left it sit for weeks at a time. But when I tuned my mind to Parkman’s slow — by modern standards — pace, I was able to enjoy it as pure time travel.

“We Make Beer: Inside the Spirit and Artistry of America’s Craft Brewers”

Sean Lewis

Beer geeks like me will enjoy this behind-the-fermenter look at a number of craft breweries. Lewis has the advantage of having worked as an intern in a brewery. While his visits to breweries and interviews with their owners and brewers provides the structure of the book, it’s obvious that he’s done a lot of research as well, research he weaves seamlessly into the interviews and tasting accounts.

“The King of Skid Row: John Bacich and the Twilight Years of Old Minneapolis”

James Eli Shiffer

John Bacich, known as “Johnny Rex”, owned a bar, liquor store, and cage hotel in Minneapolis’ infamous “Gateway District” until urban renewal destroyed it in the early 1960s. Shiffer uses his stories and photos, along with contemporary sociological studies, to describe this lost era and place and the men (mostly) who inhabited it.

(This book makes a good companion to “Augie’s Secrets: The Minneapolis Mob and the King of the Hennepin Strip“, whose subject, Augie Ratner, did business only a few blocks — though not in skid row — from Bacich.)

“The Athenian Trireme: The History and Reconstruction of an Ancient Greek Warship”

John S. Morrison, John F. Coates, and N. B. Rankov

If, like me, you’re the kind of person who will, when visiting Athens, take a side trip to Piraeus to see a reconstructed trireme, you’ll love this book. That ship, the Olympias, is the subject of this book.

The Olympias is a large-scale experimental archaeology project. The exact arrangement of oars and rowers on these ships was a mystery. None of them survive — not even as underwater wrecks — and the few inscriptions and statues that show them are open to many interpretations. The Olympias represents a best-guess about ancient trireme design. Since “The Athenian Trireme” is the second edition of this book — the first having be published before the ship was completed — it includes info about where the modern version’s designers went wrong (resulting in a ship slightly slower than ships in ancient accounts).

The book surveys the evidence about trireme design, the history of their use, the design of the reconstruction, and the results of the reconstruction’s sea trials. It goes into detail about crew size, battle tactics, and performance of these ancient vessels. What surprised me most was the trireme’s ability to accelerate quickly, turn sharply, and stop quickly.

I really liked this book. That probably says something about my level of history geekiness. (By the way, right next to Olympias in Piraeus is the 1907 cruiser Georgios Averof; yes, that was an awesome travel day.)

“Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings”

Diana Pavlac Glyer

There are two groups of writers I always enjoy reading about: the Beats and the Inklings. This book is about the Inklings’ writing processes, especially on the ways they influenced each other. It is interesting, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I enjoyed “The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings” which covers the same ground (and more) in much more detail. In particular, Pavlac Glyer’s attempt to boil down the Inklings’ methods into simple rules of thumb for successful writing is simplistic and not very useful.

(“Bandersnatch” is apparently a popularization of another, more academic, book by the same author: “The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community“. I suspect I’d find the weightier tome more satisfying.)

“Café Neandertal”

Beebe Bahrami

This is a fascinating look at some particular Neandertal researchers and excavations and at the current state of knowledge about Neandertals. Beebe Bahrami conveys the sense of mystery surrounding these humans who aren’t “us” without straying from scientific facts (and theories). It’s striking how much can be learned from the tiny bits of evidence that survive from thousands of years ago.

“The Long Death”

Ralph K. Andrist

I bought a copy of this book years (OK, decades) ago and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since. I packed it for trips out West several times. This year I packed it once again, telling myself that if I didn’t read it on this trip I’d get rid of it. Well, I finally read it and… it’s a great book I should have read years (or decades) ago.

“The Long Death” covers the history of Native American and white military interaction from Minnesota’s U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 to the Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota in 1890. It has a nice balance between the big picture and local details.

The thing that distinguishes this book is its evenhandedness. While the US was clearly the aggressor, and is portrayed as such, the book doesn’t gloss over the faults of the Native Americans.

“The Romanovs: the Final Chapter”

Robert K. Massie

This was the perfect book to read after “The Romanovs: 1613-1918“. It tells the story of the discovery and forensic identification of the remains of czar Nicholas II and his family. The bodies had remained hidden near Yekaterinburg, where the family was murdered in 1919. The topic is still controversial and the bodies of the czar’s son and one of his daughters have yet to be buried alongside their parents in St. Petersburg’s St Peter and Paul Cathedral (which I will be visiting in a few weeks).

“The Romanovs: 1613-1918”

Simon Sebag Montefiore

This is a really long book that’s perfectly described by its title. I read it in preparation for a trip to Russia and it provided a nice overview of three centuries of Russian history.

The chapters about the Romanovs up to Peter the Great — with the exception of the story of Ivan the Terrible — are a bit of a slog (not least because there are too many people sharing too few names). The chapters devoted to the end of the Romanov dynasty and the fall of Czarist Russia are gripping.

One thing that really jumped out at me was how seldom transfer of power in Russia, even within a single family, and even before the revolution, was peacefully accomplished.