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Category Archive for 'Non-fiction'

For those who have always seen Edgar Degas’s most famous ballerina statue as a sweet, romantic symbol combining dreams of the past with dreams of the present, this study of the model, the artist, and the environment in which the sculpture was created may be a shock. Author Camille Laurens spent over two years doing research on this sculpture and its little model as part of her PhD. thesis, and she became totally consumed with the little dancer’s victimization. In 1880, the girl who became the model for the sculpture, Marie van Goethem, was the fourteen-year-old child of Belgian immigrants, unschooled and working as a “little rat” in the Paris Opera, a child in training for the corps de ballet and earning almost no money. Harsh reality comes alive as Marie is needed by her family to help support them, and she eventually follows in the footsteps of her older sister, accepting a modeling job with Edgar Degas, in addition to working at the ballet. When Degas finally exhibits “Little Dancer” in 1881, it is a shock to viewers and critics. No one likes it – for many reasons – discussed in detail by the author. Ultimately, she feels sorry for the little dancer, and decides to do additional research on her life. Fascinating story of an intriguing sculpture by an author who has “done her homework.”

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Everyone is familiar with the novels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Watson. In this book, however, Conan Doyle does not appear as an author inventing a story, however clever and astute those novels may be. Here, in a beautifully presented and carefully developed study of a murder case from 1908, Conan Doyle becomes a participant in the real life events. Like Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle must carefully examine all aspects of a confusing case, the motivations behind the actions of all the people involved in it, and the end results, even when those differ from what he believes they should have been. Conan Doyle becomes human here, a man involved in trying to help an immigrant he believes has been used as a pawn by the police and public officials, one who has been the victim of false testimony by “witnesses,” and one who will eventually serve eighteen years of a life sentence before he is released from Peterhead Prison where he has spent his life at hard labor, mining granite. Conan Doyle was largely responsible for his release.

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Despite its cartoon caricature of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg working the resistance tubes on the cover of this book, The RBG Workout is no joke – Justice Ginsburg has been working with Bryant Johnson, her personal trainer and author of this book, for almost twenty years, and she credits him for much of her bodily recovery and her dramatically increased strength after two bouts of cancer during that time. She works out with Johnson for an hour, twice a week, has increased her bone density in the process, and, according to Johnson, “she’s graduated from doing push-ups against a wall to push-ups on her knees, to full-on standard push-ups the way I learned them in basic training for the Army. In fact, she’s gotten so strong that we’ve recently added ‘planks’ to her routine.” Johnson’s success has become so widely known and the public has become so interested in his program that Justice Ginsburg not only agreed to his writing this book about his regimen for her but also wrote the Foreword for this book.

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Established in 1854 and billed as “the oldest bar in New York city,” McSorley’s, an Irish ale house, serves only dark and light ale. Owned and operated by only three families during its entire history, McSorley’s has existed continuously at the same location in the East Village since its inception, and many of its employees have been there for decades. Rafe Bartholomew, the author-son of Geoffrey “Bart” Bartholomew, appreciates the McSorley mystique which has attracted famous people from the arts. Poet e. e. cummings wrote a poem about McSorley’s, Dylan Thomas and Eugene O’Neill spent time there, Woody Guthrie sang there in the 1940s, artist John Sloan painted five scenes of McSorley’s in the years just before World War I. Abraham Lincoln stopped there in 1860 as he was campaigning for office, and an authentic WANTED poster for John Wilkes Booth from April 1865 is displayed on the wall following Lincoln’s assassination. Houdini left a pair of handcuffs there, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a letter from the White House, and a copy of the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Babe Ruth upon his retirement from baseball appears behind the bar. A high point of the book is the strong relationship between Rafe Bartholomew and his dad, a story of love and good humor, especially during Rafe’s mother’s two difficult bouts of cancer, fifteen years apart. Despite its many episodes of humor, its quirky personalities, the loving relationship between the Bartholomew father and son, and its revelations about this old ale house, the book does have a down side. Bathroom humor and crude language spoils the mood in the first part of the book, but as the father-son relationship grows, the book takes off.

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The scale, scope, and significance of this magnificent biography by National Book Award-winner Timothy Egan are only slightly eclipsed by the immense scale, scope, and significance of the work of photographer Edward Curtis (1868 – 1952). Curtis, at age twenty-eight, took his first photograph of a Native American when he did a portrait of “Princess Angeline,” an aged woman who was the last surviving child of Chief Seattle, for whom the American city was named. By 1896, when Curtis took this photo, it was illegal for Princess Angeline and other Indians to live within the city named for her father, and Curtis was all too aware of that sad reality. Though he was married with several young children, Edward Curtis spent the next thirty-three years investigating the remaining cultures of Native Americans throughout the West, determined to record every aspect of their cultures before they vanished completely from history. Ultimately, he traveled on a mission that took him to virtually every remaining tribal area and state west of the Mississippi River. Totally devoted to his self-imposed task, he gave up virtually everything of personal value, working for no money at all, and living most of his life hopelessly in debt in order to fulfill his personal mission. As Egan presents his insights into Curtis’s personality, quirks, and even blind spots, this biography becomes a rarity – a biography closer to a classical Greek tragedy than to the more familiar saga of a man’s life.

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