These books, however, are still available in libraries and bookstores.
These books, however, are still available in libraries and bookstores.
Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer. Margaret Fox. ©2018. Random House. 220 p.
How the Post Office Created America: A History. Winifred Gallagher.©2016. Penguin Press. 326 p.
The Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us From Missiles to the Moon to Mars. Nathalia Holt. ©2016. Little, Brown. 337p.
Below are my reviews of three literary nonfiction books suited for high school English classes, with notes about other subjects with which the books correlate. Also included is information about the lengths of chapters, which is always a concern of the least fluent readers.
Geologist George Plafker arrived in Anchorage, Alaska, the day after the March 27, 1964, Good Friday earthquake devastated the southern half of the state, causing over 130 deaths, and unleashing massive tsunamis. Plafker had been in Alaska before, so he noted after a few hours flying that there was no disruption of the landscape to show the earth had moved. That bothered him. It suggested there was something different about the Good Friday earthquake.
Plafker would spend the rest of his life trying to figure out how and why, besides its huge strength—9.2 magnitude—the Good Friday earthquake was different. In the process, Plafker would confirm the then-controversial theory of plate tectonics.
Henry Fountain was a reporter and science writer for The New York Times. His journalistic training shows in the way he explains science for people with minimal background. For example, he describes a glacier “is like a giant milling machine moving across the landscape” and says at Valdez “the sediments the dock sat on turned to jelly and slumped during the quake.”
Fountain writes carefully and respectfully about the people who lost loved ones, their belongings, their livelihood in the quake and flooding it caused. For example, he reports on the difficulties small villages face in trying to rebuild: the costs of materials, the need to work quickly, and the emotional issues connected to the villages’ loss and fear.
The Great Quake would be a good complement to students’ studies in science and to students interested in emergency preparedness and crisis management.
The 15 chapters in The Great Quake average 17 pages long, but they are visually divided into sections by horizontal rules, so students’ reading could be conveniently split into smaller tasks.
The format of Bill O’Reilly’s The Day the World Went Nuclear might make students think the book is childish, but it’s not. It is an adult book designed to lay out facts in a readily understandable, straightforward way. O’Reilly leaves the speculation about would have happened if America had not chosen to use atomic bombs to other writers.
O’Reilly puts a multifaceted story in a very accessible format with short chapters, well-leaded type, and lots of pictures. The chapters are dated so it is easy for readers to keep the timeline of events in mind.
One interesting feature of the book is a list of key figures in the development and dropping of “Little Boy” on Hiroshima August 6, 1945, along with photographs of them.
A series of short articles after the text proper present related topics such as the decision to use the bomb, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and America’s incarceration of her Japanese citizens. The book also contains President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech, Emperor Hirohito’s surrender speech, and chapter devoted to the later lives of individuals associated with the A-bomb drop.
The Day the World Went Nuclear is obviously appropriate in connection with students’ study of American history or world history. O’Reilly’s book fills in gaps that students’ history texts omit.
Reading O’Reilly’s text should not be challenging for students eighth grade and above. Chapters are typically only five or six pages long, probably under 1,000 words.
Cover photo is of the execution of the plotters.
Let me tell you how good Nicholas J. C. Pistor’s Shooting Lincoln is: I stopped taking notes after the first 100 pages because I couldn’t wait to see how the story ended. I knew photographed story of the century wasn’t the assassination; there are no photos of that. So, what was the big story and who got it first?
The professional competition was between Matthew Brady, who considered himself an artist, and Alexander Gardner, who called himself a photographer.
Brady’s photographs of Lincoln are works of art. His photo of Lincoln standing, taken in New York City before the Republican Convention, may have been responsible for Lincoln’s nomination.
Gardner, an editor from Scotland, learned the basics of photography from Brady, doing grunt work while Brady got the fees and the acclaim. Gardner’s famous battlefield photos from Antietam, which Brady displayed in his studio, revolutionized battlefield photography.
Gardner became convinced that journalism’s future was tied to photography. He proved that in the summer of 1865 by taking the first live-news photograph of the story of the century. (Read the book to learn what that news event was.) Gardner also invented mug shots. They were first used to aid in the search for John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices.
Shooting Lincoln would complement study in American history, communications, journalism, and business.
Pistor’s book is 16 chapters averaging about 14 pages each, plus a prologue dated Feb. 5, 1865 that begins “The President looked like he was already dead” and an epilogue dated 1875, that’s about motion pictures.
I bought all these books from HamiltonBook.com. You won’t get the latest bestsellers there, but you can get deep discounts on books that have been in print a few years. All items are new, and all the books are hardbound unless marked otherwise. Postage and handling for up to 18 books is just $4. https://www.hamiltonbook.com/books
©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni
The untold story of the Mount St. Helens eruption that Steve Olson tells is not about volcanology. Olson’s book is about the choices people made before, during, and after the May 1980 eruption, and, by extension, about the choices they are making today that will influence what happens—who dies—the next time Mount St. Helens erupts.
Olson grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and although he’d gone East before the mountain blew up, he always wondered if he might have been one of the 57 people killed the morning St. Helens erupted. In Eruption, he looks at the stories of those who died and why they died.
Olson sketches the development of the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest which gave the region its prosperity. Weyerhaeuser, America’s biggest lumber company, was determined to keep logging old-growth timber in the Mount St. Helens area despite the rumblings of the volcano or conservationists trying to get protected status for the old-growth timber.
When the volcano began to rumble, outsiders came in to watch: gawkers, volcanologists, pilots, radio operators, and news people. Some of them were among the 57 killed (including former President Harry S Truman) when the mountain erupted. The descriptions of how people died are necessarily horrific; most people fortunately didn’t live long enough to suffer.
Eruption explores topics in science and history classes and in current events.Volcanoes, conservation, disaster preparedness, and the health of America’s lumber industry are all timely topics. Mount Nyiragongo in Congo erupted in June and is still disrupting life there.The US is due to hear from Mount St. Helens again soon: Volcanic eruptions in the Cascade Range occur on average every 25 years, according to Olson..
Olson divides his book into seven parts (plus a prologue and epilogue). Each part is subdivided into topics which function as chapters, although some of them are under three pages long. The longest subdivisions are between 11 and 17 pages; most are much shorter.
Killing the Poormaster is history that reads like a novel, keeping readers engaged and rooting for the underdog hero to triumph. Holly Metz opens the book with a three-paragraph description of the death February 25, 1938 of Harry Barck, Hoboken, New Jersey’s poormaster. The poormaster job gave him power to determine who got financial help duing the Great Depression and how much they got.
That morning in Barck’s office Joe Scutellaro asked for money to feed his family. When Barck refused, there was a scuffle. Scutellaro said Barck fell forward onto a spike used for holding papers, which was on the desk. Police said Scutellaro picked up the spike and stabbed Barck with it.
Scutellaro’s trial for Barck’s murder threw a spotlight on Hoboken’s corrupt government and the nation’s inadequate response to the needs of the jobless. Scutellaro was defended by a celebrity attorney, who turned the trial into an indictment of the American system of public welfare.
Killing the Poormaster is a literary nonfiction text with relevance to courses in the social sciences: history, social psychology, and economics. It also has connections and/or analogies to current political events.
Metz divides her book into 14 chapters plus a brief prologue and chapter-length epilogue about what happened to the main characters after the trial. Three of the 14 chapters are between 20 and 30 pages, but they are broken into sections by dingbats, so they wouldn’t be hard for students to read in two or three sittings.
At a cost of about $180,000, every year the citizens of Halifax, Canada, send Boston, Mass., a 50-foot Christmas tree, John U. Bacon says in his opening chapter of The Great Halifax Explosion. The tree is Halifax’s way of thanking Bostonians for coming to the Canadians’ aid when a ship loaded with six million pounds of explosives—one-fifth of the force of the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima—blew up in Halifax Harbor on Dec. 6, 1917.
In subsequent chapters, Bacon relates the often-frosty relations between the US and Canada before World War I. He tells about Halifax Harbor’s response when the Titanic sank April 15, 1912, and describes the effects the world war being fought in Europe was already having on the Halifax population.
Using local people as his lens, Bacon shows the series of misjudgments that led to the explosion and other misjudgments that resulted in needless tragedies afterward. He also relates tales of heroism and many more tales of dumb luck.
In telling his story, Bacon dips into topics such as diverse as forensic science, munitions, right-of-way rules for seaways, contingency planning, and experiential learning. Every student ought to find something interesting in Bacon’s text. What’s more, teachers should have no trouble coming up with a set of writing prompts based on the text.
Bacon “writes tight.” His chapters average eight pages. There are plenty of direct quotations. Readers can’t just skim the text, but it’s rare to find three consecutive paragraphs that require slowing down to understand some technical information.
I bought all these books from HamiltonBook.com. You won’t get the latest bestsellers there, but you get deep discounts on books that have been in print a few years. All items are new, and all the books are hardbound unless marked otherwise. Hamilton Book has a flat shipping and handling fee of $4 for an order of up to 18 books.
©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni
From my third quarter literary non-fiction reading, I have three paperbacks to recommend, which each use true historical accounts to illustrate each author’s thesis. None of the books is ponderous reading, but each is likely to present some challenge for teens or young adult readers, beginning with the fact that none of the three is about pleasant subjects. However, each of the books tackles an important topic and each could be used by teachers in several disciplines, either individually or as a team with each teacher contributing the perspective from their own discipline.
The Greatest Generation is TV journalist Tom Brokaw’s tribute to the men and women who served in America’s armed forces during World War II. Brokaw presents a scrapbook-like collection of his interviews with military personnel and the families they left behind. Combat plays a minor part in their war years’ experiences.
I’d hoped to find The Greatest Generation useful for classroom use, but I’m not sure today’s high school and college students would see the characters in the same light Brokaw does. His stories are snapshots of what would be today’s students’ great-great-grandparents. The names of most of the famous people Brokaw tells about would draw a blank stare from today’s students.
I’m not sure young people today would understand why Brokaw admires heroes who rejected the spotlight: American culture no longer values reticence. And in some ways, even to me, Brokaw’s adulation seems overly sentimental (as well as overly long).
Stories in the book that are most likely to gain traction with young people are those about people who were discriminated against during WWII: women, Blacks, and Japanese. Because Brokaw’s work is relatively unemotional reportage, students might not find even these true stories understandable unless a savvy teacher pairs them with fictional accounts of similar situations.
Blunder is a book about how people think and why their thinking goes wrong, even if they are very smart people with very good intentions. Zachary Shore approaches his topic as an historian, rather than as a cognitive psychologist, using famous (and some infamous) historical figures to show how and why leaders in fields such as government, the military, and business made bad decisions with widespread impact.
Shore devotes one chapter to each of eight different types of blunders. He gives the blunders memorable names like “Exposure Anxiety,” which he defines as the fear of being seen as weak, and “Static Cling,” the refusal to accept a changing world. Readers won’t have to look further than each week’s news to some authority figure somewhere in the world making the blunders today.
Shore draws heavily on his knowledge of 20th century events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam Conflict, and George W. Bush’s post 9/11 War on Terror. I suspect today’s teens and young adults would have little familiarity with those events. They probably would more readily grasp stories of individuals dealing with issues of narrower impact, such as unhealthy eating or depression.
Shore devotes a final chapter to how individuals can mitigate the effects of their own blundering impulses.
Blunder would be a good book for use by classes in two or more different disciplines, such as history, psychology, and English. Such use would allow students to get direction from three perspectives about how to understand and use Shore’s insights.
Anti-Semitism had a long history in Germany; Hitler made it government policy. Germans readily accepted it because they blamed Jews for their defeat in World War I. Anti-Semitism was Hitler’s way to make Germany great again.
Editor Jon E. Lewis arranges historical documents in chronological order, without comment other than to identify the writers, if known. Beginning with the years 1933-38, the documents reveal how outsiders initially saw the SS as a sadistic type of criminal gang, only later realizing they were getting ready for a war against their enemies, including the Jews within their borders.
Part II (covering events from 1939 until Jan. 19, 1942) shows Germany setting up its extermination program. Documents in this section include Rudolf Hess’s description of the Zykon B gas trial at Auschwitz on Sept. 3, 1941, at which a sickened Himmler, who had never before seen dead people, had to be led away.
Part III is devoted to the Final Solution, 1942-1946. It includes diary accounts of deportations to concentrations camps and descriptions of conditions in the camps. When the British arrived at Bergen-Belsen, there were 35,000 unburied corpses and about 30,000 living inmates.
One of the most poignant stories in Voices is that told by Franciscek Zabecki about an incident he observed at the Treblinka Railway station in which an SS man’s dog found a baby in a thicket beside its dead mother. The dog whimpered and licked the baby, refusing to kill it. The SS beat the dog, killed the baby, and finally dominated the dog into obedience.
Voices ends with a list taken from the Nazi’s own records of the estimated number of Jews killed, listed by both country and by the percentage of the Jewish population annihilated.
It might be good to pair Anne Frank’s Diary with Voices from the Holocaust to show students that Anne Frank’s misery was a broken fingernail compared to what other Jews experienced.
©2020 Linda Aragoni
My 2020 first quarter literary nonfiction reading included two books that focus on the formative years of two very different people: twentieth century aviation pioneer Beryl Markham and eighteenth century wannabe author—and surelywas forger—William-Henry Ireland. Both books are readily available, new and used, from booksellers and in libraries.
West with the Night is an autobiography written by a pioneering woman quite different from the calico and wagon train pioneer typically encountered in American classrooms. Beryl Markham was born in England but, from the time she was four, the motherless child was reared in Kenya where her teachers and playmates were the natives.
Markham’s story opens with her childhood adventures going hunting barefoot with her Murani friends, seeing “dik-dik and leopard, kongoni and warthog, buffalo, lion, and the ‘hare that jumps.'” She relates an incident which her friend Bishon Singh told her father Beryl had been “moderately eaten by the large lion.”
Markham’s father clawed a farm out of the land, in true pioneer fashion. It was beginning to be profitable when a drought killed it. Markham’s father moved to Peru to raise horses. Beryl, 17, decided to stay in Africa and try for a job training thoroughbreds. Her father advised she saddle up and move to Molo, a town where he knew a few stable owners would be willing to risk having a girl train horses. “After that, work and hope,” he said. “But never hope more than you work.”
Markham was becoming a successful trainer when a chance encounter with a pilot changed her trajectory for a few years. She took flying lessons and became a bush pilot.
In 1936 she decided to try to become the first person to fly solo from London to New York, which meant flying for more than 24 hours in the dark. In the cold atmosphere, the fuel tank vents iced over. Starved of fuel, her plane went down on Cape Breton Island. West became the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo from east to west, but hadn’t made it to New York as she’d hoped to do.
Markham ends her autobiography with that Atlantic flight, but she went on to have further adventures. She went back to Africa and resumed her career as a trainer, becoming the most successful horse trainer in Kenya for a time.
When first published, West with the Night was included in the U.S.A.’s Armed Services Editions, and Ernest Hemingway praised the book, but it wasn’t a great commercial success. The autobiography was rediscovered and republished in 1983. It ranks eighth in National Geographic‘s list of best adventure books. It’s a beautifully written story that both teenage boys and girls can appreciate.
Stewart, a freelance journalist, tells the true story of 19-year-old William-Henry Ireland who in 1795 began writing documents that he passed off as the works of Shakespeare.
His father, Samuel Ireland, who thought William-Henry a dolt, got him a job as an unpaid apprentice to a lawyer who was never in the office. Most of William-Henry’s work was sorting through old documents.
William-Henry’s father, an ambitious author and illustrator of a series of travel books, had a keen instinct for what appealed to the public taste and he was obsessed with everything Shakespearean. He collected memorabilia, particularly items associated with famous or notorious figures. Samuel was not adverse to fudging the truth when it was to his advantage to do so.
William-Henry was not stupid, but he had been a failure in school. He had seen no reason for learning Latin or math since he had no plans to use either. (Does this sound like anybody in your classes?) However, he read voraciously, was fascinated by the theater, and loved to copy verse by his favorite authors in an elegant, Elizabethan script.
William-Henry penned his first forgery more or less as a joke. When his father and his father’s friends were taken in, William-Henry was both amused and angry: He was amused that experts didn’t recognize the deception and angry that his father didn’t think him smart enough to have concocted the forgery and its cover story.
Samuel saw fame and profits if William-Henry could get him more manuscripts. Samuel particularly wanted something by Shakespeare: no handwritten copies of his plays were knows to exist. Samuel pushed his son to produce the desired scripts, not realizing that William-Henry would literally produce them.
Stewart takes readers on a tour through late 18th century London using the psychologically damaged William-Henry and his crazy family as the tour guides. Stewart’s text includes 16 pages of intriguing images, and his descriptions of the English playhouses at the end of the 18th century will entertain anyone with even a passing interest in theater.
The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare will probably be heavier reading for high school students than Markham’s story, because Stewart’s book requires wider background knowledge. You might to have students for whom the book is too tough read Stewart’s article about William-Henry Ireland’s forgery career “To Be…Or Not: The Greatest Shakespeare Forgery” in Smithsonian magazine. On the other hand, the emotional and personality issues that the book raises may make it worth the extra effort for students who have what are politely called “issues at home.”
© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni
I intend to recommend Garrett Peck’s The Great War in America: World War I and Its Aftermath among my second quarter literary nonfiction picks, but since Covid-19 has made Peck’s information about the “Spanish flu” pandemic that began during World War I timely now, I’ll share some passages that got my attention—who knew there was an army installation called Camp Funston?— and save my overall comments for July 3.
Because it’s hard to get books now, I’ve quoted passages that English or social students teachers in particular might find useful to help students look at current events in an historical perspective. (Book details below.)
As conscripts and enlistees were assembled to go to war, “close proximity became a breeding ground for infectious diseases. Measles struck the U. S. Army in late 1917, killing 5,741 soldiers from secondary infections, mostly pneumonia.” (p. 174)
The so-called Spanish flu “probably began in Haskell County, Kansas in January 1918, then soon spread to Camp Funston (now part of Fort Riley) in March.” The flu spread when soldiers were transferred, principally via New York City, for transport in cramped shipboard quarters to France. (p.174)
The name Spanish flu was given to the influenza outbreak because the King of Spain got sick from it. Prior to that, the flu hadn’t made headlines because the press in the U.S., Great Britain, France and their allies was censored. “Spain was not at war, their press was not censored.” (p. 174)
The initial flu outbreak wasn’t particularly deadly. “Most people recovered after three days.” (p. 174)
The first lethal strain of the flu virus appeared at Camp Devens near Boston.
“People suffered severe headaches and bodily pain. Bodies turned blue like they were being strangled, while victims coughed up blood and their eardrums ruptured. Many became delirious. The deadly influenza could kill someone in half a day. The flu was especially lethal for young adults, whose vigorous immune systems filled their lungs with fluid and white cells, resulting in higher numbers of deaths from pneumonia.” (p.175)
“Influenza struck the nation’s capital with a vengeance in fall 1918. Thousands were sickened….hospitals ran out of space…morgues soon ran out of coffins. Gravediggers were in short supply as well….About 3,500 people in Washington, D.C. died from influenza.” (p. 176)
In World War I, “more American troops were killed by influenza than by German bullets.” (p. 190)
“A third wave of influenza would strike [America] as the virus mutated again, but it was not nearly as deadly….People continued getting sick into 1920 and even beyond, though the virus was losing its virulence.” p. 176
“The influenza of 1918 killed at least twenty-one million people worldwide, more than the combat deaths from the Great War. Later estimates ranged from fifty to one hundred million deaths worldwide. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 675,000 people died from the flu. The influenza was the deadliest plague in human history.” (p. 176)
History and English teachers will find lots of “trivia” that they can use to make the events and the literature of the first quarter of the 20th century come to life for students.
People who care about book design will want to hold a copy of the book. The cover design is by Faceout Studio, Charles Brock. The photo is a familiar one of the welcome given troops returning from World War I. The lettering is embossed so you can read the letters with your fingers.
This content previously appeared on my PenPrompts blog.
English teachers have a problem with nonfiction: They think it’s boring. Frankly, a great deal of nonfiction is boring because it was never intended to be useful or interesting: It exists just to document forgettable facts.
An insurance policy and some of your school superintendent’s memos are boring because their entire purpose is to record information that you’d forget immediately if you just heard it. Such nonfiction accomplishes its goal if you receive the paper so you could look up the information later if you need it. It can be boring because nobody actually reads it.
The nonfiction we have students read and write in English Language Arts classes ought to be an entirely different species of writing than the forgettable facts documents.
The nonfiction for class use needs to be useful, memorable, and factual. Facts are the protoplasm of all nonfiction.
Nonfiction is presented by the writer as a factual record. Although a writer might not have had all the facts or may have inaccurately presented the facts, readers should assume that the writer is telling the truth as far as she knew it at the time she wrote it.
You must teach students that just because someone wrote a nonfiction text does not mean the author approves of or agrees with the beliefs or actions shown in that text. Some authors deliberately write about ideas with which they disagree. That’s those authors’ way of trying to understand how anyone could hold those ideas.
One species of nonfiction our students need to be able to read is what Sol Stein calls practical nonfiction. It’s purpose is to convey information so that readers can put it to use. Practical nonfiction is also the kind of writing you and I and our students are required to do, and thus it is the kind of writing you and I are required to teach.
A report on the success (or lack thereof) of the latest marketing campaign is an example of practical nonfiction. So is a book on how to clean your house in 15 minutes a day and an article in the Sunday newspaper about the potential uses the city council has identified for the old knitting mill property.
Each of those nonfiction pieces provides information which the recipient is expected to act upon in some way. The action might be to design a totally different marketing plan, or clean house in 15 minutes a day, or vote either to retain the current city council or throw the bums out.
Most of the nonfiction in newspapers, magazines, and books is practical nonfiction. Practical nonfiction is a several notches above useless nonfiction, but it’s still pretty prosaic stuff.
Literary nonfiction is totally different from the other two uses of nonfiction.
Literary nonfiction tells a true story. It presents unaltered facts about real people, real places and real events using the scene-creating and story-telling techniques of fiction to draw readers into being interested in a topic in which they had no previous interest.
Literary nonfiction is much more difficult to do well than fiction. Literary nonfiction is held simultaneously to two very different standards and must meet both of them.
First, it must be nonfiction and, as such, it is assessed by journalistic standards. That means, information in literary nonfiction must be documented facts that can be verified by independent sources. There can be no invented sources, no fabricated quotes. The literary nonfiction writer has to stick to facts. And one-source stories aren’t acceptable.
Although the literary nonfiction writer is denied the option of making things up, she’s required to set the story in scenes—at specific times in specific places—which are described well enough that readers understand how the time and place impacted the characters.
The literary nonfiction writer also has to use fictional techniques such as dialogue and carefully selected details to develop the story’s characters. That’s where the nonfiction writer must exercise creativity to bring alive revealing scenes without falsifying facts or inventing language.
You and I need to teach students to write practical nonfiction. Every student will be required to write practical nonfiction.
We should teach our students to read literary nonfiction. Literary nonfiction has the ability to make people interested in topics that they would not have suspected would interest them.
Literary nonfiction can open the world to students.
And it can open students to the world.