Last month I gave you my top historical fiction recommendations of 2020; this month I’ll focus on some of the non-fiction I’ve been reading. Many of them of course have an historical element to them. Many of them blew my mind. Suffice it to say, it’s been a mind-blowing year. Now that the weather has turned chilly and the leaves are in full regalia, it’s a perfect time to curl up with some good books.
(Amelia Earhart historical side note: When my husband and I were researching the name for our daughter, we of course had to delve into the history of the most famous Amelia in the world. While American, Earhart did live and work for a few years in Toronto, Canada very close to our home is now. Turns out while nursing soldiers through the pandemic, she too caught the flu but eventually did recover.)
(Spanish flu epidemic sidenote: Irish author Emma Donoghue’s novel The Pull of the Stars makes a great fiction companion piece to The Great Influenza.)
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry – Fake news? Check. A leader trying to downplay a disease’s effects for political advantage? Check. Some believing the disease can be cured by injecting bleach? Check. Mass quarantining? Check. Mass hysteria? Check. Society changed dramatically? Check. Are we talking about the year 2020 or 1918? Turns out to be both. This book is an exhaustive (sometimes exhausting) look at how and why the flu epidemic rampaged through the world in 1918 and 1919 in several waves, killing 50-100 million people in often agonizing and lonely conditions, making it even deadlier than the Black Death of the 14th century. Part of the reason this epidemic was so deadly is because of the leadership of Woodrow Wilson, who after being a longtime pacifist became obsessed with victory in WW1, at literally all costs. Part of it were the symptoms themselves, which targeted the young and strong (which is unlike our current pandemic, at least so far). At times a bit too heavy on the science for me and it could use a better edit, the history itself is riveting and saddening. Lesson learned? We’ll eventually get through this and life will return to normal…. someday.
Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose – I read this book because I had started watching the series TURN: Washington’s Spies on Netflix (excellent four-season series by the way). At one point in watching the opening credits, I saw it was based on this book. Wait, what? This was all based on true events? I could not get that out of my mind so had to get my hands on this tome. A group of friends, all from a tiny agrarian village on Long Island, created a spy ring amid the British Army and Loyalists; reported directly to George Washington throughout the Revolutionary War; and were instrumental in helping to win the war through intelligence and subterfuge. Even more fascinating, the truth of the ring did not emerge until centuries later. A must read for anyone interested in the early history of the United States. (The featured image above is of actor J.J. Feild as Major John Andre in TURN.)
The End of Gender by Debra Soh – This book was a real eye-opener, based on a deep dive into the scientific evidence, written by a liberal, non-gender-conforming PhD in sexology (research about sex). Gender (or what we used to call “sex”) is binary, and 99% of people are either one or the other, though falling along a spectrum of traits, sometimes gender-non-conforming. That doesn’t mean we should discriminate against people, just recognize the differences and not delude ourselves. She raises a great point: Why do people say they follow the science when it comes to things like climate change or Covid, but when it comes to gender, they don’t? (If you really feel really brave about this topic or like opening your mind even further, try this book.)
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff – Ever wonder just what in the heck is going on at universities and even high school these days? Particularly when it comes to stifling speakers and cancelling legitimate research? Why do students need trigger warnings and are opposed to debate? Why is Jordan Petersen either universally reviled or revered? And why is that mindset trickling throughout society and into the wider world? This book provides an answer, and it has to do with the three “great untruths” we have all taught this current generation: 1) feelings are always right, 2) one should never feel pain or discomfort, and 3) faults always lie in others, not oneself. Nietzsche, of “What does not kill me makes me stronger” fame must be rolling in his grave. Just as we need to argue for diversity and inclusion in terms of race, class, and gender, this book makes the case for why viewpoint diversity is also critical for all of us as a society. Also gives a shoutout to the effectiveness of cognitive behavioural therapy (according to the Mayo Clinic (and you’ll learn more about why the Mayo Clinic exists after you read The Great Influenza), “CBT helps you become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking so you can view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way”).
The History of Literature with host Jacke Wilson – this is a cheat because it’s a podcast but it is nonfiction – about fiction. I stumbled across it during the summer, and now I listen to it whenever I take my thrice-weekly power walks. At first, I dipped into a couple of recent episodes, thinking it was a great way for me to brush up on works I’d read, learn more about ones I’d missed, and help decide which of those I should actually read, all in the hopes of becoming a more educated reader and writer. I became immediately hooked by Wilson’s sonorous voice, winning personality, and explications of literary works, mostly famous but sometimes obscure. Then I started at the beginning, which really does start at the beginning with the Epic of Gilgamesh and carries forward mostly chronologically, with a few detours here and there. I continually marvel at how erudite Mr. Wilson is, yet also so accessible, with many contemporary cultural references. At the beginning, I didn’t really like how in his later episodes he always started with emails from his listeners. But now as I lag behind him and them, I understand their love of and devotion to this podcast and hope someday that he may read mine.