Maybe I wasn’t paying attention in the past, but these days non-fiction reading can be positively shape-shifting. There seems to be a whole new category of what I call “fictional biography” where you don’t find out until the end that what you thought was true was actually largely the author’s creative fabrication (looking at you, Marie Benedict). And history? Welllll…let’s just say, trust but verify. For instance, there’s a so-called “history book” by Howard Zinn that’s a staple in classroom curriculum that features so much spin the thing ought to be marketed as a gyroscope.
Just as many journalists no longer consider themselves bound by ethics of objectivity, so, too, have many “historians” and biographers become enchanted with the pleasures of injecting politics, point of view and the occasional flight of fantasy into works that are labeled non-fiction. Doesn’t mean it won’t be an enjoyable and even enlightening read, it just means we might need a new category: “non-fiction-ish”.
I tried to order my non-fiction straight this year, but a little bit of -ish managed to sneak in here and there. Oh well, reality is overrated anyway, right?
The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz
Audiobook read by John Lee: 9 hours 35 minutes, 288 pages
Per the above rant, I was halfway into this “true story” and enjoying it immensely when I discovered that oh, it probably wasn’t a true story at all. And oh, by the way, we’re pretty sure it was ghost-written. Come again? The book is made up, and the author didn’t write it?
Well, never mind. It’s a great story. World War II, guy is in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up in a Siberian prison camp, from which he and a few others make a miraculous escape and walk across the Gobi Desert and across the Himalayas to ultimately be gratefully taken into custody by British soldiers in India.
The story is so captivating it was made into a Peter Weir-directed film, as you can see by the photo. Hey, if Colin Farrell is in it, who cares if its real?
Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country by Sierra Crane Murdoch
Audiobook read by the author: 14 hours 56 minutes; 400 pages
This Pulitzer Prize finalist generously chronicles the misadventures of Native American Lissa Yellow Bird, “a fanatic with a bleeding heart”. This might also somewhat aptly describe the book’s author, who bends very, very far backwards to justify Lissa’s propensity for poor life choices. Lissa, a member of the Mandan/Hidatsa and Arikara Nation tribes, has five children by five different fathers, is a self-described former crack and meth addict and went to prison for drug dealing. This, however, is tidily explained away by the bogeyman of “intergenerational trauma”. When Lissa channels her fanaticism into tracking down the disappearance of a young oilworker on the Fort Berthold reservation, she, and the reader, dive deeply into the politics and divided loyalties of Native Americans whose hard-won land glistens with oil. Non-fiction, yes, but spiced up with a great deal of point of view.
Agent Josephine: American Beauty, French Hero, British Spy by Damien Lewis
Audiobook read by the author: 16 hours 40 minutes; 512 pages
A New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Book List “best book” of 2022, this biography of legendary performer Josephine Baker focuses on newly unveiled information that reveals her to have been a French and British intelligence asset during World War II. In the “truth is stranger than fiction” department, I must have researched this book three or four times to determine whether it all really happened! Josephine Baker’s rise from the slums of St. Louis to celebrated Parisian chanteuse who strolled the Champs Elysees with her pet cheetah was already an incredible tale. Long cherished as the crème de la crème in her adopted country of France, her cool and courageous efforts on behalf of the Allies puts a big dollop of crème on top.
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate; Discoveries From a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben
Hardcover, 251 pages
What could be more real than a tree? Well, when they start talking to each other you start to wonder, but Wohlleben makes a strong case for trees as “social beings”. Since the author is a forestry manager in Germany, the focus is on beeches and spruce – did you know there is a spruce in Sweden that is almost 10,000 years old? According to Wikipedia, Wohlleben’s “argument for plant sentience” is a controversial one, so we’ll have to wait a few lifetimes to know for sure if this book is non-fiction. Still, it is an interesting read – I never before realized that “a fifth of all animal and plant species…about 6,000…depend on dead wood” or that nutrient exchanges between trees keep ancient stumps alive. And we should all be taking walks in the woods given the author’s claim that Korean studies of “older” women walking in the forest have improved blood pressure and lung capacity. I don’t know if the author can objectively see the forest for the trees, but I enjoyed the book.
The Zimmermann Telegram: America Enters the War, 1917-1918 by Barbara Tuchman
Paperback, 182 pages
Just the facts, ma’am. That’s pretty much what you can always count on from Barbara Tuchman. A storied historian with impeccable credentials, you will suffer the intricacies of her deeply researched books but emerge the better for it. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century was a crucible to read but worth every page, as was The Guns of August.
In The Zimmermann Telegram, Tuchman peers through her historian’s microscope and teases out every thread of the ramifications from the 1917 British interception of a coded telegram in which German Foreign Secretary which proposed a German/Mexican alliance in the event the United States entered World War I. And there was even a murmur that the Japanese were in on the deal. The carrot Germany dangled to Mexico was a promise to help them regain their former territory in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. It seems almost too fantastic to be real, doesn’t it?
Thankfully, Tuchman can be counted on to stick to the historical narrative and while that can be ponderous, it is convincing. And suspenseful, as President Woodrow Wilson doubles and triples down on American neutrality and his insistence on a negotiated peace for Europe all while “U-boats were making a cemetery of the sea approaches to the British Isles.” An incandescent Teddy Roosevelt “raged against Wilson’s failure to lead and act…” Not an easy read but a fascinating contemplation of how differently geopolitics might have gone had the telegram gone its way without detection.