Monday, December 17, 2012

Non-Fiction Recommendations from MFB

I tend to read a lot of non-fiction, mostly in the evenings to "wind down" my day or for research.  If we're lucky we get sent some choice morsels to read but a lot of times I tend to buy books in as they pique my interest or I've heard good things about them from fellow bloggers or via social media (mostly twitter)

I know a lot of people are currently looking for items to buy as stocking fillers for loved ones, or for themselves and so I thought it would be a cool thing to do, as this is our final few weeks of blogging, to recommend some favourite non-fiction books of the past few years.

Monuments Men by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter 

As Hitler was attempting to conquer the western world, his armies were methodically pillaging the finest art in Europe, from Michelangelo and Da Vinci to Van Eycks and Vermeers, all stolen for the Führer. The Monuments Men had a mandate from President Roosevelt and the support of General Eisenhower, but no vehicles, gasoline, typewriters, or authority. In a race against time to save the world’s greatest cultural treasures from destruction at the hands of Nazi fanatics, each man gathered scraps and hints to construct his own treasure map using records recovered from bombed cathedrals and museums, the secret notes and journals of Rose Valland, a French museum employee who secretly tracked Nazi plunder through the rail yards of Paris, and even a tip from a dentist during a root canal.  These unlikely heroes, mostly middle-aged family men, walked away from successful careers into the epicenter of the war, risking—and some losing—their lives. Like other members of the Greatest Generation, they embodied the courageous spirit that enabled the best of humanity to defeat the worst.  This is their story.

Written in a conversational tone, the authors bring the past to life, giving us a glimpse into a world where the most audacious thefts took place, alongside murder and genocide.  They make these stories close and personal, by focussing on the people who were the Monuments Men and women during and after the war.  I dip in and out of Monuments Men even now, after I've read it some time ago, purely because some of the things you learn about are so unbelievable, that you need to go back and re-read it.  Definitely a book for anyone who is interested in WWII, but also art preservation, or those of us who merely wonder how it is that a handful of men could literally march into homes and countries and take whatever they want, by force.   I've chatted to one of the authors on Twitter and due to the large amount of information they gathered on Italy during these years, there will be a separate book focussing on the thefts in Italy in 2013, if all goes well.  Find their website here.

Reflections by Diana Wynne Jones 

I came to Diana Wynne Jones late in my reading life but she made such an impact that I press her books on anyone - kid or adult - who are keen to try something new and different.   David Fickling Books brought out this beautiful hardback by Diana Wynne Jones posthumously and it is one of the most amazing books I've had the opportunity to read. 

This is the write-up from the publisher:

Diana Wynne Jones is best-known for her novels and stories - of magical fantasy - written mainly for children. She received a World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2007, as well as two Mythopoeic Awards and the Guardian Fiction Award for Charmed Life. But she was also a witty, entertaining speaker, a popular guest at science fiction and fantasy conventions and an engaged, scholarly critic of writing that interested her. 

This collection of more than twenty-five papers, chosen by Diana herself, includes fascinating literary criticism (such as a study of narrative structure in The Lord of the Rings and a ringing endorsement of the value of learning Anglo Saxon) alongside autobiographical anecdotes about reading tours (including an account of her famous travel jinx), revelations about the origins of her books, and thoughts in general about the life of an author and the value of writing. The longest autobiographical piece, 'Something About the Author', details Diana's extraordinary childhood and is illustrated with family photographs. Reflections is essential reading for anyone interested in Diana's works, fantasy or creative writing.

Do not for one second think Reflections is sad or miserable-making or anything negative or dull.  It's a vibrant collection of charming essays and conversations between DWJ and you, the reader. The force of Ms. Wynne Jones' personality shines through and it is one of my biggest regrets as both reader and writer that I will never have the chance to tell her how much her writing has meant to me.  Reflections is aimed at long-standing fans, newcomers but also speaks vehemently to writers, both old and new.  I can't recommend it highly enough. 

Dinosaur Art: The World's Greatest Paleoart by Steve White et al 

Not the usual kind of thing we get sent for review but wow, Titan blew us out of the water by sending us a copy of Dinosaur Art.  We got talking to the editor who worked on it at an event and we kinda forced him to send it to us - I do confess. 

I mean, come on, who doesn't like dinosaurs? And this is so much more than pretty pictures.  It's a work of beauty and passion from the foremost artists working in paleoart.  Paging through it makes you realise how majestic and frightening these creatures were and how well adapted to the world they lived in. We are shown bone-structure, musculature, habitat, drawn with infinite attention to detail. Dinosaur Art is the kind of coffee table book you want two of: one to page through and read and get messy with as you try and copy the art and then one copy to remain pristine.  I'm not very knowledgeable about dinosaurs.  I used to be, as a kid, I wanted to a palaeontologist and archaeologist.  Then I grew up and realised that I'm not at all scientifically minded but I still love reading about dinosaurs and watching the shows about them. 

Both Mark and I highly recommend this title - it kept us paging and reading for a good few hours.  It's a high quality yet ridiculously affordable book for that dinosaur / art enthusiast in your life. 

I love this quote from the Smithsonian: 'an absolute pleasure to pore over, and almost every page is a window into a vanished world...the lavish art and interviews will undoubtedly inspire the next generation of great paleoartists.' Believe!

The Science Magpie by Simon Flynn

The Science Magpie: A hoard of fascinating facts, stories, poems, diagrams and jokes, plucked from science and its history, by Simon Flynn

From the Large Hadron Collider rap to the sins of Isaac Newton, The Science Magpie is a compelling collection of scientific curiosities.

Expand your knowledge as you view the history of the Earth on the face of a clock, tremble at the power of the Richter scale and learn how to measure the speed of light in your kitchen.

Skip through time with Darwin’s note on the pros and cons of marriage, take part in an 1858 Cambridge exam, meet the African schoolboy with a scientific puzzle named after him and much more.

This book is perfectly named.  When it turned up, unexpectedly from the publishers, I was all: what the hell? Do they secretly know of my Michu Kaku obsession? But it turns out it was just a lucky fluke. 

It's packed full of neat tidbits of information about science and discovery that make you go "hmmm". The Science Magpie I think is aimed at people like me who like the idea of science but who find it a daunting subject to tackle full on.  It's packed full of odd bits of information but presented in a way that's not ever patronising.  It balances neatly between complex ideas and concepts and allows us to smirk along with charming anecdotes. It doesn't take itself too seriously and it's written in a very low key style that puts across a lot of interesting information without it dragging - no mean feat.  Well done, Mr. Flynn! Find the Science Magpie website here. 

Now two great titles for younger readers: 

How To Go Wild - Smart Ways To Survive Anything by Dominic Utton 

This is the essential guide for every wannabe wild boy, packed full of the tools and techniques they need to get the most out of the great outdoors: building shelters, reading clouds, finding fresh water, and following trails. It includes tales of famous wildsmen from history and fiction: Scott of the Antarctic , George Mallory , Davy Crockett and Aragorn ! It combines elements of The Dangerous Book for Boys, Hamlyn Nature Guides and Boy's Own tales of great adventurers.

Aimed at younger readers (and their adventurous mums and dads) HTGW is great fun.  I like the size of it - it fits easily in my bag and it isn't heavy.  The font is slightly larger than usual, so it's easy on the eye (especially when reading it under the blankets with a torch) and the random and funny bits of artwork will definitely charm readers who haven't outgrown bits of googley eyed fish pictures in their books. The advice also is pretty solid, also funny:

Bacon: Just as with sausages, bacon won't keep too long in the warm.  The advantage of bacon is you can pack more of it.  This is my kind of advice! 

The contents covers common sense advice for before you head off into the wild wearing only shorts and a t-shirt.  The author explains how to navigate and live in the wild.  He also touches on extreme survival and how to fish and hunt.  But, as you can tell from the bacon extract above, he also tells you how to cook in the wild.  Other subjects covered are first aid and emergencies but also how to survive in the wild.  This book is aimed at readers who enjoy watching the mad bad Bear Grylls slide down mountains but who aren't entirely sure that's the most common sense and safe way to go about things. It's of course best to have mum and dad to hand, even if they are more a hindrance than a help, but this neat little book will be a handy camping companion, before bigger tougher terrains and adventures are tackled. 

The Complete Philosophy Files by Stephen Law

Is there a God, should I eat meat, where does the universe come from, could I live for ever as a robot? These are the big questions readers will be wrestling with in this thoroughly enjoyable book. Dip into any chapter and you will find lively scenarios and dialogues to take you through philosophical puzzles ancient and modern, involving virtual reality, science fiction and a host of characters from this and other planets. The text is interspersed on every page with lively cartoons, and there is a list of philosophical jargon at the end..

Stephen Law has a gift for communicating complex ideas. He offers few answers, but his unstuffy, highly personal approach will have the reader thinking and arguing with as much pleasure as he does himself.

As a kid I never knew what philosophy was. I thought it was something old men talked about whilst playing chess. In fact, I still sometimes think that, but The Philosophy Files made me aware of the important stuff I thought about as a kid. There were some stuff you couldn't really talk to adults about because they wouldn't understand and they'd think I was being weird(er than normal). 

I wish I had something like The Philosophy Files to hand growing up - it would have taught me it was okay to question things, to argue my point, to wonder about big things or the tiniest of things. Philosophy is not something that's really spoken about or handled when I was at school in South Africa, so stumbling across this title, aimed at kids blew me away.  I was so enthusiastic reading it and I got into a discussion about it some time ago on twitter.  It's lead me to fall in love with Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World which in turn blew my tiny mind.  

So definitely, if you've got an intelligent young person in your life who enjoys questioning things, this is definitely for them.  A warning though: reading this will make them ask questions!

Here are a few more links to a handful of non-fiction we've reviewed on MFB:

I hope these random non-fiction titles have given you some ideas for stocking fillers or for "from me to me" present ideas! 

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