Thursday, April 9, 2009

not just maps and beautiful pictures any more

I've been on a nonfiction reading binge, adding to the nonfiction reading list on my library's website. I've read some wonderful books but last's night selection really knocked me between the eyes. It was published by National Geographic, which has been putting out incredible children's fiction, on a huge variety of subjects, over the last ten years or so.

Stretched out on my daybed, I devoured Ain't nothing but a man: my quest to find the real John Henry by Scott Reynolds Nelson. Nelson was fascinated by the folk song about John Henry and decided to get to the bottom of it, hoping to discover a kernel of truth in its verses. The book takes you through his research process and, you soon discover, how much happenstance and just plain luck is involved in historical research. First, there are so many different versions of the song that need to be sifted through for clues, then there are problems gaining access to historical materials (archivists and librarians can be very protective/possessive of their treasures). Being of the library persuasion, the steps he took were fascinating to me--it is stunning what is available on the internet and beyond. When he actually discovered a "John William Henry" on a microfiche of prison records, my heart started beating faster. Please, read this book--it is fabulous!

A few of my other National Geographic favorites are:

Curse of the Pharaohs: my adventures with mummies by Zahi Hawass. Dr. Hawass if the director of antiquities in Egypt and is responsible for current excavations in the country as well as studying/protecting the artifacts--he is a bit like Indiana Jones (but handsomer, sorry Harrison Ford!). He writes about his experiences in excavation sites that are infested with cobras, scorpions and other creatures that don't experience universal love and popularity. His description of a dig when he pounded a hole in a wall only to see two big dark eyes staring back at his is unnerving, to say the least.

African critters by Robert B. Haas. Haas is a wildlife photographer writing of his experiences, including long periods of waiting for the animal, the light, the pose to be just right. His pictures are full of life--the pictures of a cavorting baby elephant are funny and delightful.

Genius: a photobiography of Albert Einstein by Marfe Ferguson Delano. This book almost made me understand the theory of relativity!

I've also read about African-American polar explorer Matthew Henson, Ben Franklin, Elizabeth I, Washington Irving, poetic tributes to the monuments (the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, etc.) of this world, King Tut, Annie Sullivan who served as Helen Keller's eyes, a young Dutch girl interned in a Japanese prison camp during World War II. I'm awaiting Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker, the story of Mary Todd Lincoln's friendship with her African-American seamstress (anything to do with Lincoln fascinates me).

Aren't you glad that National Geographic is more than the magazine with a yellow border that nobody seems able to throw away?

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