Most of the memorable books I’ve read in the past year are nonfiction. They’re good from the first page, so a quick browse will let you know if we share the same tastes.
Neil Young’s songs are often evocative and enigmatic, but his autobiography, “Waging Heavy Peace,” is as straightforward as a good conversation. This is no ghost-written series of interviews; Neil tells you what he thinks, what he was thinking back in the day, and what happened to everybody. Like Keith Richards, the legendary quirks overshadow the fact these guys have always been intelligent men and gifted writers. The foray into prose suits them both.
After James Bradley wrote “Flags of Our Fathers,” he began researching the events that set the stage for the war with Japan. “The Imperial Cruise: The Secret History of Empire and War” is an eye-opening account of Teddy Roosevelt’s conviction that manifest destiny should extend across the Pacific, with Cuba thrown in for good measure. Teddy was more complicated and interesting than we learned in school, a wealthy and privileged New Yorker who skillfully crafted a phony Western persona. His conservation vision proved to be far-sighted and progressive, but his foreign policy was a disaster. The plot centers on a lavish turn-of-the-century Pacific Rim cruise with Teddy’s celebrity daughter, “Princess” Alice Roosevelt and a contingent of dignitaries; an awkward diplomatic voyage that highlights the pivotal events preceding World War II.
The final three are basically adventure stories. “The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival” is John Vaillant’s follow-up to the outstanding “The Golden Spruce.” Vaillant parlays the true story of a man-eating tiger in the Russian far east in the late 1990s — and the wildlife managers who deal with it — into a fascinating exploration of tigers, humans, and our shared history as predators and prey. He weaves in the ecology of the taiga and the struggling, modern day peasants who live off that land, the fall of the Soviet Union and the opportunistic post-perestroika oligarchs who seized Russia’s natural resources, and the black-market Chinese and Korean trade in tigers and tiger parts. Through it all Vaillant keeps you very close to the 500-pound forest cats that can eat grizzly bears for breakfast.
“Where the Sea Breaks its Back” coincidentally highlights Russian history, this time the 1740 “discovery” of Alaska and the related harrowing seafaring adventures of Vitus Bering and George Steller, possibly the pluckiest but unluckiest captain-and-science-officer team in history. A brilliant naturalist, the German born, Cassandra-cursed Steller could read more from the flotsam in the foggy waters of the Aleutians than the Russians could on a clear day with a map and compass. Steller was repeatedly ignored out of spite as he tried to ward off scurvy, course misdirection, and unbelievably bad judgment calls, eventually keeping almost everyone alive over the winter after they shipwrecked. As engaging as “Master and Commander,” and as epic as “Endurance,” Corey Ford is the best author you’ve never heard of. Writing from the 1920s until his death in 1969, (this is one of his last works) he penned hook-and-bullet articles for Field and Stream, essays for the New Yorker, 31 books, and 10 screenplays for Hollywood.
The 1931 Miskatonic University Expedition was one of the first to use to aircraft to explore the remote mountainous regions of Antarctica. Well-equipped and meticulously planned, their discoveries in the ranges just west of the South Pole were incredible. Tragedy struck, calling the credibility of the survivors into question, and the story fell into obscurity. Howard Lovecraft’s prose describing the ill-fated trip is breathless at times, but his vivid descriptions merit the overuse of adjectives and run on sentences. Director Guillermo del Toro was slated to make a documentary based on Lovecraft’s 1939 book, “At the Mountains of Madness,” but the project has stalled. Too bad. If you‘ve read the original, you might appreciate del Toro’s screenplay based on Lovecraft’s book, available at lovecraftzine.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/at-the-mountain-of-madness.pdf.
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