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Category Archive for 'Non-fiction'

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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“Deep in Honduras in a region called La Mosquitia, lie some of the last unexplored places on earth. Mosquitia is a vast, lawless area…of rainforests, swamps, lagoons, mountains…and the thickest jungle in the world….For centuries, [it] has been home to one of the world’s most persistent and tantalizing legends. Somewhere in this impassable wilderness, it is said, lies a “lost city” built of white stone. It is called Ciudad Blanca, the “White City,” also referred to as the “Lost City of the Monkey God.” No one knows whether this place actually exists and, if it does, whether it was built by the Mayas or some other, unknown indigenous group, but Mosquitia’s thirty-two thousand square miles, filled with rainforests, swamps, lagoons, rivers, mountains, ravines, waterfalls and roaring torrents have been virtually impassable throughout modern history, and early maps have labeled this place “Portal del Infierno,” or “Gates of Hell.” Any adventurer willing to test himself against these natural barriers would also have to be willing to deal with deadly snakes, jaguars, catclaw vines, with their hooked thorns, and hordes of insects and flies carrying unknown, possibly virulent diseases. And if someone were still determined to look for this lost city, s/he would also have to deal with equally dangerous human problems: Much of the area surrounding Mosquitia is ruled by drug cartels. In February, 2015, an expedition of researchers decides to investigate this area, fearing that the on-going clear-cutting of the land could lead to the inadvertent discovery and destruction of ancient ruins and artifacts from the “lost cities” in Mosquitia. Author Douglas Preston joina a small group of researchers headed into a part of the jungle which “had not seen human beings in living memory.” This is their story.

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If you think that the machinations, the rumor-mongering, and the outright lies we have seen in the latest election cycle in the United States is as bad as it gets, take a look at journalist John Preston’s latest book of non-fiction about a scandal in England in the 1960s and 1970s. Subtitled “Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament,” Preston’s thoroughly researched and dramatically presented study of MP Jeremy Thorpe and his small coterie of friends and family, both in and out of government, gives new meaning to the idea of political egotism, at the same time that it illustrates a British sense of reserve and a respect for privacy that has now vanished from the press and our own twenty-first century lives. At a time in which there was no internet, no reality TV, and no desire to destroy lives in order to sell newspapers with stories based solely on rumor, Jeremy Thorpe’s crimes would not come to a head and result in a trial until seventeen years had elapsed from his first contact with Norman Scott. Scott claims to have been a victim of rape by Thorpe when he was twenty, followed by several years of homosexual contact, both of which were against the law in the UK in 1960 when the relationship began. NIneteen years would pass before Scott would be vindicated. During that time Jeremy Thorpe came close to being named Prime Minister.

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Author Nellie Hermann’s recreation of two years in the life of Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890) breathes with Van Gogh’s earnest attempts to live a productive life while he is also burdened by crushing sadness and isolation. Depicting Van Gogh before he became an artist, she focuses on the years of 1879 and 1880, when Van Gogh was living in a coal mining village in the Borinage mining area of southwest Belgium, near the French border. The young twenty-seven-year-old son of a Dutch Reformed preacher had worked for several years in the Goupil & Cie gallery and its showrooms in the Hague, London, and Paris, before studying theology to become a minister and missionary, like his father. His letters to his younger brother Theo, used as resources by the author, provide intimate glimpses of his life in the Borinage, including the misery he shared with the miners and their families, which his own depression may have exacerbated. Throughout the novel Vincent’s own life develops in great detail, and readers interested in his biography will have plenty to keep them involved and intrigued here. His references to existing paintings that epitomize what he himself is seeing and to scenes which he himself eventually brings to life in his own paintings will please art historians. He puts so much heart into his actions, giving up everything he can from his own life so that the miners can benefit, that he becomes emotionally ill and spiritually at loose ends, and requires intervention from his father and family. A dramatic and insightful novel of a man whose sensitivity exceeded what his heart and mind could bear.

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