Ten Mini-Reviews of some Great Nonfiction Books

As you may or may not know, when I’m really deep into editing, I tend to only read nonfiction history. There are a few reasons for this. First, I don’t want to “cross streams” between what I’m editing and what I’m reading. Secondly, I have to get so into whatever I’m editing, that I just get kind of burnt out on the genre after a while, so I turn to my other love: historical nonfiction.

I am always reading. Always.

I’m trying to catch up on some reviews, and some books in general, so I spent some of this morning reviewing books on Goodreads, and I figured I’d move those mini-reviews over to my website. I hope tomorrow, or Thursday, to have a review of a book by epic fantasy author Ulff Lehmann on my website.

Anyway, here are some mini-reviews of some great nonfiction books I’ve read recently. You should really check them out.

This is one of those books I had to think about for a while. In truth, I think I’m still thinking about it. It tells the story of the epic migration of African Americans from the south, to friendlier skies, often in the north. It’s harrowing and heartbreaking and educational. Taking place around Jim Crow, it’s just a huge part of history I knew nothing about, and I honestly think that’s really, really tragic.

Part storytelling and part journalism, The Warmth of Other Suns spun a web around me, and before I realized what was happening, I was too engrossed to stop reading. Now, I will say that it is not an easy read. There are a lot of horrifying things that are discussed here, like lynchings, and things of that nature. The start of the book really moved me, and made a huge impression, just because it is so brutal, and the author does not shy from that.

But this is ultimately the story of people, and the things they had to endure, and the reasons why they left everything behind in an attempt to find a better life, elsewhere.

We are such a divided country right now, such a polarized nation. These stories form the fabric of who we are as a nation, and I think now, especially, it is important to examine books like this so we can better understand who we are as a nation, where we came from, and where we are going.

Pivotal. Groundbreaking. Eye-opening.

5/5 stars

I have to admit, if you tell me to go read a book about forensics, I am not going to be excited. I don’t know why, but while that sort of thing may interest others, it does almost nothing for me. So, going into this, I read this book because of the poison, not because of the forensics.

That being said, holy crap was it interesting. The chapters are broken up by poisons, and the author tells readers how the poisons were used, some specific cases of said poisoning/incidents, and how this incident transpired and impacted the evolution of NYC’s forensic medicine, and all of this happened during prohibition.

So, selling points: prohibition, poisonings, forensics.

Is it perfect? No, but this book was really, REALLY interesting and a hell of a lot of fun.

4/5 stars

Okay, so I know nothing -NOTHING- about this time period, really, though I’m finding myself suddenly fascinated with prohibition and all the things that happened during that time period. I kind of fell on this book when I was at the library, so I picked it up and I’m really glad I did.

I do think that sometimes the author got a little too lost in the weeds, a little too focused on everyday tedium, but by and large, this book really impressed me.

Al Capone is a hell of a character, and it makes sense why, when you say his name today (nearly 100 years after his hay day in Chicago) everyone still knows exactly who he was, if not the details of his life. On the other side, you’ve got the law, the men who were trying to enforce prohibition and try to stop all the gangs and violence.

I really enjoyed seeing how Capone and Ness really balanced each other out in some ways, though it took me some time to become as interested in Ness’s story. I have to admit, the guts that Capone had to do some of the stuff he did was just… amazing to me. Like, a reporter spurned him, so he bought the newspaper the reporter worked for, for example.

This book really brought to life a lot of the prohibition issues, but mostly it really showed me a side of Capone that I (not knowing much about the man) wasn’t aware of before. While I do think the author gets kind of lost in the weeds, and Ness didn’t ever interest me as much as Capone did (which might just be who I am. I tend to like villains more than heroes), and I would have liked to see a bit more of prohibition as a whole, I really, really liked this book and I’m currently on the search for more of this nature, in this time period.

4/5 stars

I really sort of get a weird kick out of the strange things people have done (and do) to improve their health (like Gwenyth Paltrow’s vagina eggs) and this book is seriously right up my alley. Each chapter is broken into a different substance, and then the author goes through that substance and talks about how it works, how people used it, side effects, and how it’s handled today (if it’s handled at all).

And look, it’s FASCINATING, but also REALLY FUNNY.

You learn about things like puke cups, and how “wandering wombs” were treated, and what happens to people who decided that eating gold would cure stuff, and how lead was used as a medical treatment, and cocaine, and arsenic and all sorts of stuff.

This book really went fast because I just couldn’t stop listening, and I was bothering my husband constantly with “Wait, listen to this weird thing I just learned…”

Listened to this on audible. Superb narration just sent it over the top.

5/5 stars

I listened to this on audiobook and to say I couldn’t put it down might be the understatement of the year. The narration was superb. The story itself was also just… wow.

I have a degree in one of the health science fields, so stuff like this just interests me. I like learning about how things were done back then, how lives were impacted, how science evolved. The Victorian standard of medicine is just… repulsive, but more than that, this book is just FULL of stories of how things were done and how Joseph Lister became so fascinated by medicine and science, and how he eventually took the way things WERE and changed them, dramatically improving the standard of health practice at that time.

And you’ll learn about the only surgery in medical history with a 300% mortality rate and trust me, you want to know about it because… wow.

Seriously. If you want to read one book about this sort of stuff, I’d settle on this one. It’s captivating, and if you do audible, superbly narrated.

I am so glad I was not alive back then. 

5/5 stars

I really, really enjoyed this book. I randomly decided to read it when I saw it on Audible and I realized that I basically know nothing but the highlights of Washington’s life. I think, over time, the man has become sort of a cardboard cutout. We Americans don’t seem to know much about him. He’s that stern political figure who crossed the Delaware, was the first President, and had wooden teeth. Not much else. So, I was really, really interested in learning more about the man. Learning how HUMAN he is after a lifetime of seeing him as basically anything but.

Chernow does a FANTASTIC job at fleshing out this man, showing how he became who he became. He had a fraught relationship with his mother. He fought like hell to try and bring his older brother through TB, he made some military mistakes in Ohio, he surveyed land. He was staunchly loyal to England until he wasn’t. He wasn’t as educated as many of his peers, and so was looked down on from time to time due to that.

For some reason, learning that he never wore a wig, rather just powdered his hair to look like a wig really got me going because… why? I mean, I get it. It was fashion and all that but that’s a lot of powder. Must have sucked to clean his hair.

Just all very interesting, and told in such a way that had me glued to my chair. I’m not really one for military books, and most of those details seem to fly over my head but this was just INTERESTING and told in such a way that I could visualize what was going on, and how, and why, and the people involved. Chernow has a knack for writing in an accessible way, without losing any of the interesting points.

Highly recommend.

5/5 stars

This is one of the best books I’ve read all year. Well, actually I listened to it, and the narration was wonderful, so if you’re an audiobook person, can’t go wrong here.

This tells the life stories of the women Jack the Ripper killed, and I honestly could not stop listening to it. She doesn’t go into their deaths at all, rather talks about their lives and the struggles they faced. So, while you’re learning about the very human, very real struggles of these women, you’re also learning a lot about working-class Victorian life in London, which is something I knew nearly nothing about. You learn about the workhouses, the dirt, the sickness and inability to treat it, the impact of a lack of birth control had on women, the crime, the poverty, how women earned safety and stability in this world.

You also learn some surprising facts, like I was under the impression that Jack the Ripper only killed prostitutes, but only two of the women killed were known to be sex workers, and there is no evidence that the others were at all.

There is so much I could say about this book, but I’ll leave it here for now. It is one of the most human, fantastic books I’ve read in a long, long time and I really, highly urge everyone with an interest to read it.

5/5 stars

This is another book that I wasn’t sure I’d like to read but then I ended up listening to it and I just became totally and completely obsessed, not only with the book but all the google searches I did to learn more about stuff that was discussed in the book.

First, Rachel Maddow narrates this, and her voice is basically everything I ever want to hear. It’s fantastic.

Secondly, this book is just… impressive in scope. It is really focused on the oil industry, but also largely on the “resource curse” which is a concept that has always interested me. That’s when a country, (and there are a few covered in this book, as well as Oklahoma) finds a nonrenewable resource (like oil) which should, in all likelihood, make this country very wealthy, but instead the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and WHY that happens. That kind of stuff really sticks my ass in the chair and gets me listening. I’ve always found social stratification very interesting, but Maddow has a way with boiling things down, while using dry humor, and really picking at the core of the issues.

She’s a fantastic storyteller, and by the time the book was over, I was honestly mad that it was over. It is just that good.

5/5 stars

When I told my husband I was reading this book, he said, “Sarah, that sounds like the most boring book on the planet,” and yeah, it might because it’s literally about a rock. However, microhistories can really kick your ass if you find the right ones, and this one had me hooked from the first page.

So, as you can guess, this book is about… uranium. That rock that so many want. The author goes through history, starting out with a mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and then moves a few hundred years back in time to this small mine in the Checz Republic where silver was mined and coines were made from the silver, but at the end of these veins of silver would be uranium. No one knew what it was, so they thought it was junk. They’d chuck these rocks out into the forest to get them out of the way. Nearby villagers started getting sick, and no one knew why. Fast forward a few hundred years in the future, and you have the Curies, who bought a wagonload of this rock for really, really cheap (the locals were anxious to get rid of it because who wants a big pile of rocks in their back yard) and then they discovered how valuable it was. A hotel was built advertizing radium baths, and you could stay there and go find your very own uranium to take home with you (yikes).

Anyway, it goes from there, but it’s really, really interesting to see where this rock came from, and how it has become such an interesting, and important part of our world.

4/5 stars

I happened upon this book at the library when I was picking up western history books for research for Of Honey and Wildfires. I didn’t really know what it was about, but I figured “why not” and went with it.

First, let me say, Hampton Sides is one hell of a writer, and I am now slowly working my way through everything he’s written. He just has this engrossing, captivating use of words that was almost as interesting as the story itself.

Blood and Thunder tells the story of the battle for New Mexico. When Polk was President, his goal was to see a nation spread from sea to sea, and he gave himself four years to accomplish that goal. The first big thrust of this was to get Texas and New Mexico away from Mexico and make it part of America. Well, Mexico didn’t like that idea, and so shenanigans ensued. However, it’s not really that simple. Into this story you’ve got a clash of powers, you’ve got trade routes, mountain men, explorers, Kit Carson, entire armies moving, and the Navajo Nation.

This is not a little book, and it tells a fascinating, relentlessly moving story about the quest for land, and the people who got sucked into the conflict sometimes willingly, sometimes not, and how it impacted lives.

It was, quite honestly, one of the most gripping United States history books I’ve read, and about a very specific point of US history that I knew less than nothing about, written just beautifully.

This is how history should be written.

5/5 stars


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