History, Non-Fiction, Spies, Writing

Non-Fiction Roundup

March 15, 2011

By and large, my reading is so fiction-centric that I sometimes forget about non-fiction.  Or maybe it’s just that reading fiction is a more focused and deliberate activity, while reading non-fiction just kind of happens.  In the Information Age, you can trip over non-fiction walking down the street; I tend to read it in snatches.  But from time to time I do read full-on books of the stuff, and five in particular come to mind from recent months.

Easily the longest is The Deceivers by Thaddeus Holt.  I would call this a comprehensive history of military deception practiced by the Allies during World War II…except that the word “comprehensive” just doesn’t cut it.  How about “exhaustive?”  (My copy is 1,148 pages, and over 300 of them are references and appendices.)  Either way, it’s a fascinating subject, and particularly in the early stages reads briskly in its detailed depiction of how British and U.S. military intelligence used tricks and ruses and subterfuge to misdirect their enemies in Europe, Africa and Asia as to their military capabilities and intentions.  In its mission to cover everything, it’s sometimes a bit difficult to see the wood for the trees, and Holt clearly has a better memory for code names and operations than I do — at times I found it difficult to keep everything straight.  But as a source of information on this interesting topic, it’s an impressive work and, I suspect, an indispensable reference.

On a completely different tack, on Jenn’s recommendation I’ve been reading Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, which is a how-to screenwriting book.  Am I getting back into screenwriting?  Not at the moment, no, but Snyder’s thoughts on structure and plot are proving useful for fiction-writing as well.  In general I’ve been a “plot pantser,” working from a rough outline but basically letting the story occur organically and tweaking the outline as necessary.  This book isn’t exactly going to change my method, but its ideas are helping me considerably with turning my clumsy rough outline into something with more shape and focus.  (And who knows, maybe some day it will come in handy for a screenplay project…)

On both of our recent long road trips, Jenn and I have also been listening to Stephen King’s On Writing audiobook.  I’ve never been a huge horror fan, and haven’t read much King:  I loved The Stand, didn’t much care for The Shining, and for some reason haven’t gone back to him.  But I find his thoughts on writing and the writing life engaging and often thought-provoking, and his homespun, straight-shooting reading style rings authentic.  We’re only halfway through, and whatever you think of the writing advice — I like some of it, anyway — it’s pretty entertaining.

Changing gears again, I read Laurence C. Smith’s The World in 2050:  Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future, an interesting read taking a look at the next forty years and, in particular, how current trends will impact the world’s cold, water-rich northern areas — in particular, Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Russia.  Smith’s writing is personable and compelling, and he paints an often bleak but important geographic picture of near-term challenges and opportunities, focusing on four main forces of change:  demography, natural resources, globalization, and climate change.  Plenty of grist for the science fiction writer’s mill in this one.

Finally, I’m just getting started but so far I’m enjoying Stella Rimington’s Open Secret, an autobiography.  Rimington was the first Director-General of MI-5, the British Security Service, and her life story begins with childhood memories of the Blitz before moving on to her education, marriage, a posting to India, and a gradual, and surprisingly haphazard, recruitment into the intelligence world.  As in her fiction, Rimington’s writing is clean and straightforward, with a sharp eye, and her story is an intriguing glimpse into the intelligence field as well as the struggles of being a woman in a male-dominated world.

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