Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Nonfiction for poetry lovers

… And when I say “nonfiction,” I don’t mean memoir, which reads exactly like fiction. Nor true crime, nor anything else that is basically structured like a novel. I mean nonfiction that could not possibly be mistaken for fiction.

I have here a Top Five list of the nonfiction books I have in my house that I think are particularly likely to appeal to readers who love language and particularly readers who enjoy poetry. Which is not to say these books are much like one another, because no. They vary widely in subject and style. Even so, I think they all fit this list.

So, for example:

1) JE Gordon’s Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down, a wonderful book about materials science. I drew on this book very heavily to write Tehre in Land of the Burning Sands. Tehre is the woman she is solely because this book happened to be sitting on my coffee table while I was thinking about what to do with the sequel to Lord of the Changing Winds.

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And why did I read this book in the first place? Not because I meant to use it as background for a novel, but because it was fun to read, even though I have no particular interest in materials science. And the reason, or one reason, it was fun to read is that Gordon clearly loves poetry and literature, and worked that into this book, which is about as far from a textbook as can be imagined while still explaining stuff about materials science. As he writes, Gordon incorporates quotes from the Bible and Sophocles and Coleridge, on and on. But even when he isn’t directly quoting, Gordon certainly doesn’t write as though he writing a textbook. His dry sense of humor is always evident, as for example here:

Like many official explanation, this [about why stuff doesn’t break when in theory it should] has the merit of being at least partly true, though in reality it is very far from being the whole story. In many cases the stress concentration is by no means fully relieved by the ductility of the metal, and the local stress does, in fact, quite often remain much higher than the commonly accepted “breaking stress” of the material as determined from small specimens in the laboratory and incorporated in printed tables and reference books.

For many years, however, embarrassing speculations which were likely to undermine people’s faith in the established methods of calculating the strength of structures were not encouraged. When I was a student, Inglis’s name was hardly ever mentioned and these doubts and difficulties were not much spoken about in polite engineering society. Pragmatically, this attitude could be partially justified, since, given a judiciously chosen factor of safety, the traditional approach to strength calculations could generally be relied upon to predict the strength of most conventional metal structures. In fact, it forms the basis of nearly all of the safety regulations which are imposed by governments and insurance companies today.

However, even in the best engineering circles, scandals occurred from time to time. . . .

Okay, maybe this writing style might not appeal to everyone, but for me this was an incredibly readable book, especially considering my basic lack of interest in the subject. Plus, all through the book we have charming tidbits like this:

Children, you are very little
And your bones are very brittle;
If you would grow great and stately,
You must try to walk sedately.

A bit of doggerel from RL Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, about which Gordon observes, “But, of course, the bones of children are not very brittle and Stevenson was writing rather charming nonsense. . . . Naturally, young children are mechanically vulnerable, but on the whole they tend to bounce rather than break, as one can see on any ski-slope.” Then he goes on to explain the development of bones and relate this to Young’s modulus and so on, because Gordon isn’t just interested in materials like metals, he’s interested in biological materials, too.

For the fantasy writer, Structures is especially inviting because there’s a lot of stuff about catapults and bows and trebuchets and so on, as well as explanations of why it’s a good idea to put a lot of heavy stone gargoyles along the tops of walls and so on. When I think Nonfiction For Poetry Lovers, this one pops right to mind. Also when I think of Useful Background Reading for Fantasy Authors.

2) Another beautifully written book that touches on all kinds of topics related to science and history, is the collection of essays by Evan S Connell, The White Lantern, first published in 1980..

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Astronomy, linguistics, archaeology, exploration . . . these are wonderfully entertaining, and it’s the lively style that makes them so. Like this, about the mysterious Etruscans:

So often with Etruscan artifacts one does apprehend these long reverberations from Asia. Nevertheless, a good many prominent archaeologists refuse to buy Herodotus’ account; they consider it a fable. They reject the idea of an immense migration – half a nation sailing into the sunset – and insist unromantically that the Etruscans were natural descendants of some Italian farmers. What a gray thought. It’s like being told the Kensington runestone is a fake – that the bloody tale of a battle between Indians and Vikings in upper Minnesota never took place. One wants to believe.

Among the cold-blooded exponents of this autochthonous theory, none is chillier than Massimo Pallottino, professor of Etruscology and Italic archaeology at the University of Rome. Indeed, Professor Pallottino sounds exasperated that other professionals could be wrongheaded enough even to contemplate the migration hypothesis, which he goes about dissecting with meticulous disdain and a glittering assortment of scalpels.

Honestly, whatever your particular hobbies or interests, it’s hard to imagine you wouldn’t find something to love among these essays. The account of various journeys, successful and otherwise, to the South Pole, is particularly if horrifyingly compelling. This essay is absolutely certain to make you appreciate your comfortable home, which I presume is not situated at the South Pole and is therefore definitely, whatever its possible defects, comfortable in contrast. This essay also contributed the pithiest statement about luck I’ve ever seen, from Roald Amundsen: “Victory awaits those who have everything in order. People call this luck. Defeat awaits those who fail to take the necessary precautions. This is known as bad luck.”

As a side note, you know who that makes me think of? Janus bet Vhalnich in The Thousand Names by Django Wexler. I bet he and Amundsen would have gotten along.

Okay, a third nonfiction title that is particularly wonderfully written, and which I think I mentioned in another context recently, is:

3. The Essential Earthman by Henry Mitchell, and other books of his collected essays about gardening.

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All of the essays in these books are quite splendid because of Mitchell’s unique way with words. Opening The Essential Earthman completely at random, I find this wonderful bit about clematis, which catches my eye because I was just pulling out the grasses that are crowding the two I planted last year. It is too long to quote in its entirety, but on the other hand one doesn’t want to leave out any particularly wonderful bits, so let’s see:

Clematis may be planted in March in a sunny place (but well shaded at their roots by a shrub or stone) and there are only two problems:
— Which, among the dozens of sorts, to choose.
— How to make the dratted things grow.
The first problem, which kinds are most beautiful, may be glossed over, since they are all pretty glorious, but the second question – how best to grow them – will require several minutes of effort on the gardener’s part. It should be said, though without any intention of adding to the world’s already adequate store of guilt, that the average gardener is surprisingly lazy and, not to split hairs about it, pigheaded. Every book in Christendom says the ground should be “well-prepared” or “well-dug” or “in good heart” or “well-drained” and “reasonably full of humus.” The gardener, therefore, having thought about these things all winter, leaps forth in March, about the time the very first daffodils are blooming, to chop a hole the size of a coffee can in some godforsaken spot encumbered with couch grass and plops in his clematis or rose or what not, and sits back to await the promised splendor. . . .

Yeah, I wouldn’t know anything about that. Mitchell goes on a bit later,

Now there is the matter of clematis wilt. This is a disease that can carry off a clematis plant in the matter of a few days and it is, needless to say, the strongest argument against divine providence I can think of. Some put their faith in benomyl sprays and drenches. But it would be sheer perversity to worry so much about wilt (from which the clematis often recovers if you do absolutely nothing) as to forego the pleasure of growing these happy vines.

I don’t know how many plants I have because of Henry Mitchell. The clematis, to start with, and the Yulan magnolia (which he called supremely beautiful, and I agree) and the sophora (S. japonica), which fortunately seems to have survived our sharp April freeze this year, though it certainly did not appreciate that and had to start over leafing out.

Let me also remind you to admire the dogwoods quick while there’s still time. They have been quite something this spring, but probably won’t last another week here. Here is what Henry Mitchell says about them:

It is important, I read somewhere, for us to keep a picture image in our mind of something perfect, just in case there might be bumps, so to speak, along life’s highway. Nothing, probably, serves that purpose any better than the dogwood.

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Okay, so, moving on to a book I love very much that I doubt is as widely known as it deserves – of course that is true for all these books –

4. Should You Leave? by Peter Kramer, published in 1997.

Should You Leave? is a most peculiar book.

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It is sort of fictionalized nonfiction. The frame story is fictional, the individual cases are fictionalized, a bit of nonfiction commentary can suddenly turn out to be another kind of story, only you didn’t realize there were multiple layers to the commentary until long after you read that bit.

This is sort of an advice book, sort of a behind-the-scenes look at how a psychiatrist views psychiatry, sort of a history of psychiatric thought. As you no doubt infer from the title, it’s a book about relationships, but it is extremely . . . what is the word . . . indirect? Ambiguous? It’s structured as carefully as poetry, certainly. It takes one point of view and then another, and then recasts both, in a way that is guaranteed to make the reader look at a situation one way and then in a completely different way.

Kramer uses metaphors as though he’s writing poetry. He shows you why a metaphor is apt. Then he extends the metaphor, then he shows you why it doesn’t really apply after all, then he shows you that it really does apply, sort of.

It’s difficult to take a quote out of context. The whole book is so tightly written in context. I keep trying to take a tidbit out and deciding, not that one. However, how about this?

The moral of the typical stories of our culture is that the true marriage requires, as a precondition, the achievement of some hidden potential – call it adulthood – that can emerge in the course of negotiating the relationship. We have dramas of marriage and remarriage, couples meeting first as dependent, proud, selfish, unformed pseudo-adults and then, after an adventure, rejoining as differentiated selves. Shakespeare’s comedies often have this form. Stanley Cavell would trace the story to our earliest literature – when are Adam and Eve, and their marriage, complete?

So you see, Kramer is explicitly drawing on literature as he frames this . . . advice . . . book.

If the above description is intriguing and you still think so after looking at the cover copy on Amazon or wherever, pick it up and just try it. I would kind of suggest not opening it at random and dipping into it wherever. This book is probably best read straight through, the way the author structured it.

One more:

5. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.

I have several books by Dillard, and honestly I don’t know how to describe them. You could say, like it does on the back cover, that Pilgrim is “the story of a dramatic year in Virginia’s Blue Ridge valley,” but although that’s true, in a way, it is also almost totally misleading.

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You could say that this book, like some of her others, is a series of linked essays that touch not only on observations of the natural world, but on observations of the transcendent. Or you could say, and I think this is closer, that Dillard is trying to capture the transcendent via meditations on the natural world. But I think it is closer still to say that Annie Dillard is trying to capture the transcendent within the lines of poems that happen to be in the form of mediations on the natural world. Here she reaches almost directly for the transcendent:

I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.

I read that quote, or some part of it, when I was a teenager. It stuck with me. I looked up this book one day when I happened to recall that one line out of the blue – you can probably pick it out of the above – I mean: I had been my whole life a bell and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. Then, once Pilgrim arrived, I read it a little at a time, as one should read poetry, which is more dense than prose. I still love this passage, but there are many such passages and I could have opened the book practically anywhere and started quoting.

This is also a book that makes it clear how very different our experiences of life can be. I think I have almost nothing in common with Annie Dillard. I suspect Emily Dickenson would have understood her better than I do, and I suspect that if you love Dickenson’s poetry, you might be likely to love Dillard’s prose.

So, that’s five wildly different nonfiction titles. Anybody got another nonfiction titles – remember, not memoir either – that might appeal to those who love language and poetry?

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4 Comments Nonfiction for poetry lovers

  1. Evelyn Alexie

    This was a bit more of a challenge than I had expected. Every title I thought of led back to memoir. (Peter Matthiessen’s ‘The Snow Leopard,’ for example.)
    Some of the essays in Ursula LeGuin’s ‘The Language of the Night’, such as ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’ would qualify.
    Must ponder further.

  2. Craig

    G.K. Chesterton is one of the great essayists in English, although his style is by no means to everyone’s taste.

    Avram Davidson’s _Adventures in Unhistory_ are essays on elements of folklore — sort of like the O’Donnell pieces, but a step farther out.

  3. Mary Beth

    I read very (very little) non-fiction, and that mostly of the historical variety. However, as soon as I read your review of STRUCTURES, I was off to Amazon to purchase it for my engineer brother-in-law. Maybe he’ll let me read it when he’s done. :)

  4. Rachel

    Mary Beth, I hope you and your brother-in-law both like it! I got my copy based on the review of a non-engineer, who recommended it for the style and readability, so I have high hope you as well as he will enjoy it.

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