Good Nonfiction That Wasn’t for Me

I find myself in a bit of a reading slump, and the only thing that manages to keep my attention at the moment is nonfiction. But even with that, I’ve become picky. It drives me nuts that I seem unable to finish most books I pick up, but they are simply not for me at this point in time. However, you might enjoy them. Judge for yourself…

Cannibalism, Bill Schutt

This was quite an interesting book about cannibalism in the natural world. It is well-written and entertaining. I learned that the female praying mantis does not deserve her reputation as a gruesome, mate-eating insect. While the cautious approach of the male at the beginning of the mating ritual hints at possible aggressive behavior by the female, the actual consumption of the male has only ever been observed in praying mantis that lived in captivity and were starved before the male was let loose. Is it any wonder she ate him? Now the Australian Redback Spider on the other hand… There is not much that phases me when it comes to animal behavior in the wild, but the graphic description of the effort the male spider goes through to mate—size difference makes it hard for him to go where he needs to be, and he is being eaten while mating—was too much for my poor stomach to handle. I returned the book without reading any further. I suspect that that’s my loss.

Blitzed, Norman Ohler

This book was mentioned several times during last year’s Nonfiction November, which put it on my radar. Drug use in the years before and during World War II, particularly by Hitler, is not a topic I’ve come across before, so I was really interested to pick this up. My problem was that the narrator of the audio edition has an irritatingly deep voice that made me constantly want to clear my throat. It was so bad that I couldn’t even really concentrate on the words I was hearing. Before I could get the printed edition from the library, I saw a documentary about this topic on TV, which left me rather unsatisfied. Was it really possible for mind-altering drugs to be so widely available in Germany during the war, when everything else had to be drastically rationed? Also, I suppose that it is possible that Hitler was a highly addicted, yet highly functional psychopath, but the documentary was unable to convince me. Based on the reviews I’ve read about this book, I don’t think it can make this argument any better than the film. 

Get Well Soon, Jennifer Wright

I seem to be fascinated by everything bad at the moment, and so this book seemed like a good choice: a discussion of all the plagues that have wreaked havoc on mankind. It’s an interesting perspective of history, if you ask me. Trouble is that I already knew much of what is discussed, at least in the first half of the book. Overall, the book was much less scientific than I had hoped for. The author spends an enormous amount of time trying to convince readers NOT to want to time-travel to the Dark Ages. I have never met anyone with an overwhelming desire to time-travel to a plague-ridden place, so Wright’s effort was unnecessary, in my opinion. Also, her flippant tone started to annoy me after a while. I’m sure I would have stuck with it, if I had learned anything new, but it only succeeded in convincing me that we really need more Stoics in the world. So, instead of forcing myself to finish this book, I’ll be moving on to Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider: all about the Spanish Flu of 1918. Obviously, my theory is that if I read enough about the miseries of the past, the present won’t seem so bad anymore.

If you have any recommendations for devastating historical nonfiction, let me know!

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16 comments

  1. I’ve heard some really great things about the book on cannibalism, but I have to admit that the topic has put me off! I think I’d be too put off by the graphic descriptions too.

  2. I’ve never read a more fascinating or morbid and heartbreaking nonfiction than a collection of true tales that make up Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls: True Stories of Castaways and Other Survivors by Edward E. Leslie. I read it about 15 years ago and I still think about some of the stories with a shudder!

  3. I was in a weird reading/blogging mood last week myself and barely read anything. I’m all in favor of abandoning books that aren’t working for whatever reason.

    Nonfiction takes me so much longer than fiction that I often get bogged down even when I’m enjoying the book and learning something. That said, last year I read a memoir that I wholeheartedly recommend that’s devastating in a slightly different way: Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison by Shaka Senghor. I don’t know if that kind of thing appeals to you at all but it really gave me a deeper understanding and more sympathy for people who make really bad mistakes and end up in the prison system in the US.

  4. Hm, okay, well, I don’t know if it’s devastating but it is certainly BONKERS, and I take every opportunity to rec it: Have you read The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio? It is this absolutely wild translated historical nonfiction book about nuns behaving badly at this one particular convent. It is a LOT. Or if you want to feel all the emotions about human resilience, you could read Juliet Gardiner’s book about the Blitz.

  5. Sorry these didn’t work out for you. Not sure their topics call out to me. I’m wondering a bit about a nonfiction one called Forty Autumns: A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall by Nina Willmer. Haven’t read it but just heard it might be good.

  6. I’ve been reading some pretty rough/heavy (subject matter wise) nonfiction for the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist shadow panel: The Butchering Art, about 19th-century surgery; and The Vaccine Race, about the history and science of vaccine development in the 20th century. The former is definitely only for those with a strong stomach, so you might choose to abstain!

  7. I love this post! I feel like I’ve been giving up on books left and right lately, maybe I’m just in the wrong mindset. But I love reading your experience with some titles too! I read glowing reviews of Cannibalism but I was positive I wouldn’t be able to stomach that one. At least you tried, blech. I had heard a lot about Get Well Soon too but I think you’re not alone in being turned off by the author’s tone and I guess a sort of chatty style in conveying information…like about time travel…very weird. I remember that from other reviews. Have you read The Ghost Map, about a cholera outbreak in London and how medical science finally came around to resolving it? It was excellent, reminded me when you mentioned Pale Rider. Maybe you’d like it, and it’s definitely distracting!

  8. I’m reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals right now and loving it! It’s not devastating, but I think I would rather read about the election of 1860 over cannibalistic animals….

    • I’m not sure I’ve forgiven Goodwin for her past plagiarism yet, but I would love to read about the election of 1860. I have a weak spot for the 19th century. Thank you for the recommendation!

      • I have only seen vague references about that so I don’t really know what book that was with… I figured a book that won the Pulitzer was hopefully written with academic integrity. 😅

  9. Haha – the spider thing does sound like nature went horribly wrong somewhere there! I was going to recommend Endurance since it devastated me so much I’ve barely complained about all the snow we’ve been having this winter, but then I remembered you’d already read it. I’m currently reading Chernobyl by Serhii Plokhy, and as you can imagine it’s not exactly a barrel of laughs… I’m only halfway but I think I’ll be recommending it… 😀

    • Endurance was wonderful. I was so happy when I read your review that you enjoyed it as much as I did. I am sure that Chernobyl is not a fun book. I read about it last summer and I will always remember that because they were short of the right insulation material during the building of the reactor, they simply used a different material that they had too much of, but that happened to be highly flammable. Makes perfect sense…

  10. Cannabilism – Talk about a desperate desire to pass on your DNA! Poor spider…

    Blitzed – I heard an interview on the radio about this book and it sounded interesting. Too bad you had no luck with the audio or the documentary. I remember thinking it made sense to me that many of those German soldiers were being drugged to keep them going. And how awful that must have been!

    Get Well Soon – I find plagues and epidemics fascinating, but I think I’ll stay away from this book, thanks to your warning. Pale Rider sounds good! Let us know how you make out with it!

    I totally get your theory, and think it’s a good one. I hope it works! 🙂

    • Yes, poor spider! You only have 3 months to live and die a gruesome death on top of it! It’s been interesting to read the very different reviews of Blitzed. One of the foremost historians on Hitler and Germany during WWII thought the research that went into the book was solid, so maybe I should put my skepticism aside. But I probably won’t… 🙂

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