My appetite for non-fiction is pretty much equal to my appetite for fiction. I read memoirs, essays, and observations as I would read a novel, keyed into the author’s voice. When I read history, though, I read for the information, as though I’m auditing a course at my local community college. I underline the important parts, I try to process the information and place it in context. Sometimes I take notes. I read history when I want to know the facts, and that’s why I love John Keegan. His writing is clear, and he brings unassailable expertise to his books. I first discovered him a while back when I read part two of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in which the evacuation of British forces from France in the face of German invasion is described. McEwan’s vivid description of the grim realities of a small and somewhat forgotten event inspired me to read about World War II in search of more small, somewhat forgotten events. My knowledge of history comes from high school, a few courses in college, the History Channel, and a scattershot array of books I’ve read over the years. I know the big picture, the facts that we are all supposed to know, but, in the case of World War II, I didn’t know the nuances, the details, and campaigns and events that textbooks push to the background in the interest of smoothing out the narrative to assist in the learning process. I found that The First World War neither skimped on the specifics nor did it overwhelm with minutiae. I learned about the Greek campaigns and just how close the Allies were to losing the war. I learned about the British evacuation from France, and, in the end, understood the chronology of events and how all the pieces fit together. As an added bonus, Keegan every once in a while would pause the narrative to describe the realities on the ground, to explain what it was to be a soldier (or a general) fighting in this war. These invaluable nuggets are what make the book great. Naturally, I began adding Keegan books to the queue. The First World War is another great book, and a must read for anyone who wishes to have deeper knowledge of that cataclysmic event. Some fascinating insights: WWI represents a dividing line in history, and much more than the events that preceded it, WWI is responsible for shaping the world order of the last 90 years; this truly was a global war with campaigns in Africa and Asia; though the terrible nature of trench warfare is well-known, Keegan’s descriptions of the realities of the life of a WWI soldier are indispensable. If you are interested in military history, you won’t be disappointed by John Keegan.
The “Machine” in the title of Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 1982 is a minicomputer, but for anyone reading it now, it might as well be a time machine. The Soul of a New Machine takes the reader back 27 years, but in terms of the technology that is central to the book, it feels like we’re going back eons. Kidder’s book, once a riveting look into a fast-growing and mysterious industry, now reads as history. Kidder’s subject is a team of engineers at a now gone company called Data General (it was bought out in 1999). Under the brash instruction of their leader, Tom West, the engineers set out to design a computer even though the head honchos at Data General have put their support and resources behind another group. West’s Eagle group – made up of young, brilliant engineers – comes out on top. Though this book is quite dated now, I enjoyed it for a couple of reasons. Computer technology is so commonplace now that it is a part of our landscape, both essential and taken for granted. It was interesting to look back to a time before we had computers on our desks and in our pockets, when computers were as mysterious and awe inspiring as putting a man on the moon. The book was also compelling as a collection of character studies and a treatise on business theory. Kidder does a good job of putting the reader in the basement of the office building where this computer was born. If you’re interested, an excerpt from the book is available.
Understanding how people live with disabilities has engaged me since my father had a stroke. I grew curious about the gap between me and my father, and my father and his old self. I began exploring this gap through writing essays for a disability rights newspaper about my father’s, and my family’s experiences. I had the chance to snuggle close to another physical change when my husband had a bad work accident and almost lost his hand. I wrote about that until I felt my words were too invasive, and asked my editor for other assignments. He suggested I interview people, and I’ve had the chance to profile a number of people with brain injuries, an English teacher with MS, and a blind man who climbed Kilimanjaro and kayaked the English Channel. This month my assignment is to write about a deaf drummer, Dame Evelyn Glennie.
Reading is another way I try to bridge the human canyon between my temporarily able-bodied self and this broadly defined other. I’m not well-versed in the growing field of disability literature, but I am growing familiar with pockets of writers who tackle the subject of their disabilities. Poet Peggy Shumaker wrote a captivating and lyrical memoir, Just Breathe Normally that touches on moments from a nearly fatal bicycle accident and the slow process of recovering her physical and mental functions, including the very act of writing.
I fell for Anne Finger’s flat, frank self-examination when I read Elegy for a Disease: A Personal and Cultural History of Polio. Her assessment of her life with a disease, and the life of that disease, written in a very immediate present tense, brought me right into her experiences.
This same quick personal style grabbed me at the beginning of Anne Finger’s collection of short stories, Call Me Ahab. Her fifth title and the winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in fiction, the book imagines disability in the lives of many real and literary figures. As readers we know of Helen Keller from her teacher’s perspective, of Captain Ahab’s monomania from Ishmael. Finger serves these stories, and those of other disability icons, from the eye of the beholder, confronting ideas we are spoon-fed as a culture, that Frida Kahlo is sexy, but Helen Keller is a tamed animal.
Finger is a talented storyteller, delivering voices and situations with smooth conviction. The scenes she creates jump time and place without jarring the reader. An imagined Vincent Van Gogh, the lead character in “Vincent” traipses between Van Gogh’s lifetime and a modern New York City, where the painter’s brother Theo leaves him to the whims of the social services system. “Goliath” recasts the biblical tale of David and Goliath in a post-apocalyptic manner, dotted with habits and phrases from our present; a renewed medievalism carries its own odd language and realm, peppered with remnants of our destroyed civilization, like announcements of the weather mixed with ancient habits of studying dead animals to understand a person’s disease.
Vincent’s mental illness and Goliath’s gigantism are central to these stories but also incidental; the disabilities sit in the stories as elements that render and support each fiction’s emotional truth. The author is intent on carefully inhabiting her characters. Thus we get to speculate what Goliath might physically feel, and wonder how an artistic genius might have weathered a society with a hostile approach to the package of his person, deficits and gifts.
Graceful sentences, often with awkward or shocking subjects, flow throughout the book, such as this thought the narrator places in Helen Keller’s mind in the first story, “Helen and Frida.”
Her ardent young circle of socialists wants to do away with the sordid marketplace of prostitution – bourgeois marriage – where women barter their hymens and throw in their souls to sweeten the deal.
Later in the same story the narrator states, “When I was a kid I thought being a grown up would be like living in the movies…” The placement of such a universal line in the mouth of someone who deconstructs representations of people who use wheelchairs or are blind takes this story about identity politics and puts the question of identity, which is very much on the tip of the narrator’s tongue, into the reader’s lap.
While elements of some of the stories feel slightly obvious and forced, like the member of a Boston Brahmin family dying of AIDS, and Ahab waxing homosexual in his thoughts, these flaws do not reduce the weight and charm of the collection. Writers manufacture stories, and some parts of even the most deftly written stories will feel manufactured. On the balance, Finger has strength in her storytelling, and hopefully that strength will reach a wide audience.