Underrated Non-Fiction Books: Ten Picks

I adore reading non-fiction books, and am always trying to find more unusual picks.  I have, of late, discovered a wealth of fascinating reads, which are high on my wishlist, which I thought I would showcase on the blog.  Their topics are varied, and range from holidaying to a biography of Mary Shelley.  Ten non-fiction picks, which I believe to be underrated due to the mere fact that I either hadn’t previously heard of them, or have seen no reviews about them, are below.

1. Holidays in Heck by P.J. O’Rourke 9781611855852
‘P.J. O’Rourke is one of today’s most celebrated political humorists, and has been hailed as “the funniest writer in America” by both Time and The Wall Street Journal. Two decades ago he published the classic travelogue Holidays in Hell, in which he traversed the globe on a fun-finding mission to what were then some of the most desperate places on the planet, including Warsaw, Managua, and Belfast.  In Holidays in Heck, P.J. embarks on supposedly more comfortable and allegedly less dangerous travels–often with family in tow–which mostly leave him wishing he were under artillery fire again. The essays take O’Rourke on a whirlwind of adventures, beginning at the National Mall in Washington, which he describes as having been designed with the same amazing “greatest generation” aesthetic sensibility that informed his parents’ living room. We follow him as he takes his family on a ski vacation (to the Aspen of the Midwest–Ohio–where the highest point of elevation is the six-food ski instructor that his wife thinks is cute). And later he experiences a harrowing horseback ride across the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.  The result is a hilarious and often moving portrait of life in the fast lane–only this time as a husband and father.’

2. The Nocturnal Naturalist: Exploring the Outdoors at Night by Cathy Johnson
‘A lyrical and expertly illustrated presentation of the plants, animals, insects, and natural environment that emerge between dusk and dawn.’

3. The Edwardian Turn of Mind by Samuel Hynes
‘The Edwardian age stands in a pivotal position between the nineteenth century and the twentieth. Professor Hynes sees the brief stretch of history between the death of Queen Victoria and the outbreak of the First World War not as a golden age but as a time of waiting, a time of anxieties, a time of conflict between the old and the new. A growing awareness of social problems resulted not in action but in worry, not in solutions but in feelings and in turmoil–turmoil out of which contemporary England was born.  In this portrayal of the intellectual climate of Edwardian England the author chooses representative (sometimes little-known) figures and issues to define the typical crises and habits of thought of the age. He draws upon such diverse materials as the diaries of Beatrice Webb, the novels of H. G. Wells and Galsworthy, Baden-Powell’s boy scout handbook, the government report on “Physical Deterioration,” the literature of invasion, long-forgotten plays, and the writings of Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis. He treats the areas of conflict that seem to him most crucial–politics, science, the arts, and the relations between men and women. The cast of characters is large and varied: one finds here Tories, Liberals, and Socialists, artists and reformers, psychoanalysts and psychic researchers, sexologists, suffragettes, and censors.’

97816114579714. The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg
‘”As far as the education of children is concerned,” states Natalia Ginzburg in this collection of her finest and best-known short essays, “I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but a love of ones neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.”  Whether she writes of the loss of a friend, Cesare Pavese; or what is inexpugnable of World War II; or the Abruzzi, where she and her first husband lived in forced residence under Fascist rule; or the importance of silence in our society; or her vocation as a writer; or even a pair of worn-out shoes, Ginzburg brings to her reflections the wisdom of a survivor and the spare, wry, and poetically resonant style her readers have come to recognize.’

5. Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places by Ursula K. LeGuin
‘“I have decided that the trouble with print is, it never changes its mind,” writes Ursula Le Guin in her introduction to Dancing at the Edge of the World. But she has, and here is the record of that change in the decade since the publication of her last nonfiction collection, The Language of the Night. And what a mind — strong, supple, disciplined, playful, ranging over the whole field of its concerns, from modern literature to menopause, from utopian thought to rodeos, with an eloquence, wit, and precision that makes for exhilarating reading.’

6. Rebel Girls by Jill Liddington 9781844081684
‘Rejecting the deadening conventions of their Victorian elders, the rebel girls demanded new freedoms and new rights. They took their suffrage message out to the remotest Yorkshire dales and fishing harbours, to win Edwardian hearts and minds. 16-year-old Huddersfield weaver Dora Thewlis on arrest was catapulted onto the tabloid front-pages as ‘Baby Suffragette’. Her life was transformed. Dancer Lilian Lenton waited till her twenty-first birthday – then determined to burn two buildings a week until the Liberal government granted women the vote. Rebel Girls shows how this daring campaigning shifted from community suffragettes to militant mavericks.’

7. A Life With Mary Shelley by Barbara Johnson
‘In 1980, deconstructive and psychoanalytic literary theorist Barbara Johnson wrote an essay on Mary Shelley for a colloquium on the writings of Jacques Derrida. The essay marked the beginning of Johnson’s lifelong interest in Shelley as well as her first foray into the field of “women’s studies,” one of whose commitments was the rediscovery and analysis of works by women writers previously excluded from the academic canon. Indeed, the last book Johnson completed before her death was Mary Shelley and Her Circle, published here for the first time. Shelley was thus the subject for Johnson’s beginning in feminist criticism and also for her end.  It is surprising to recall that when Johnson wrote her essay, only two of Shelley’s novels were in print, critics and scholars having mostly dismissed her writing as inferior and her career as a side effect of her famous husband’s. Inspired by groundbreaking feminist scholarship of the seventies, Johnson came to pen yet more essays on Shelley over the course of a brilliant but tragically foreshortened career. So much of what we know and think about Mary Shelley today is due to her and a handful of scholars working just decades ago.’

8. Here’s Looking at Euclid: A Surprising Excursion Through the Astonishing World of Math by Alex Bellos
‘Bellos has traveled all around the globe and has plunged into history to uncover fascinating stories of mathematical achievement, from the breakthroughs of Euclid, the greatest mathematician of all time, to the creations of the Zen master of origami, one of the hottest areas of mathematical work today. Taking us into the wilds of the Amazon, he tells the story of a tribe there who can count only to five and reports on the latest findings about the math instinct–including the revelation that ants can actually count how many steps they’ve taken. Journeying to the Bay of Bengal, he interviews a Hindu sage about the brilliant mathematical insights of the Buddha, while in Japan he visits the godfather of Sudoku and introduces the brainteasing delights of mathematical games.Exploring the mysteries of randomness, he explains why it is impossible for our iPods to truly randomly select songs. In probing the many intrigues of that most beloved of numbers, pi, he visits with two brothers so obsessed with the elusive number that they built a supercomputer in their Manhattan apartment to study it. Throughout, the journey is enhanced with a wealth of intriguing illustrations, such as of the clever puzzles known as tangrams and the crochet creation of an American math professor who suddenly realized one day that she could knit a representation of higher dimensional space that no one had been able to visualize. Whether writing about how algebra solved Swedish traffic problems, visiting the Mental Calculation World Cup to disclose the secrets of lightning calculation, or exploring the links between pineapples and beautiful teeth, Bellos is a wonderfully engaging guide who never fails to delight even as he edifies. “Here’s Looking at Euclid “is a rare gem that brings the beauty of math to life.’

97804650823779. Why Beauty is Truth: A History of Symmetry by Ian Stewart
‘At the heart of relativity theory, quantum mechanics, string theory, and much of modern cosmology lies one concept: symmetry. In Why Beauty Is Truth, world-famous mathematician Ian Stewart narrates the history of the emergence of this remarkable area of study. Stewart introduces us to such characters as the Renaissance Italian genius, rogue, scholar, and gambler Girolamo Cardano, who stole the modern method of solving cubic equations and published it in the first important book on algebra, and the young revolutionary Evariste Galois, who refashioned the whole of mathematics and founded the field of group theory only to die in a pointless duel over a woman before his work was published. Stewart also explores the strange numerology of real mathematics, in which particular numbers have unique and unpredictable properties related to symmetry. He shows how Wilhelm Killing discovered “Lie groups” with 14, 52, 78, 133, and 248 dimensions-groups whose very existence is a profound puzzle. Finally, Stewart describes the world beyond superstrings: the “octonionic” symmetries that may explain the very existence of the universe.’

10. The Great Crash of 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith
‘Of Galbraith’s classic examination of the 1929 financial collapse, the Atlantic Monthly said:”Economic writings are seldom notable for their entertainment value, but this book is. Galbraith’s prose has grace and wit, and he distills a good deal of sardonic fun from the whopping errors of the nation’s oracles and the wondrous antics of the financial community.” Now, with the stock market riding historic highs, the celebrated economist returns with new insights on the legacy of our past and the consequences of blind optimism and power plays within the financial community.’

 

I did not lie about discovering a wealth of books; the second instalment will be up soon!

 

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