I quite enjoy reading nonfiction, but I especially enjoy novels that have their roots in real-life history and teach me about a particular point in time. This week’s list is going to be a mix of those two things, and are, of course, a reflection of my personal interests.
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua
This book took me ages to read, not because it was slow or boring, but because it is so incredibly dense with amazing information about its subjects: Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, and their work in math and computing. The beginning is a short and sweet biography of the two, and then we go into an alternate “pocket universe” in which they succeeded in building the Difference Engine. While the basic story is fiction, it’s steeped in history and full of footnotes describing the people who make appearances and real-life events or circumstances that inspired each short story. The short stories are presented in comics format, and besides the footnotes you’ll also find plenty of informative appendixes and super detailed diagrams. Also, cool thing: the creator made an effort to include more women of that time period (and sometimes a little outside of it – alternate universe and all) and their significant contributions to their fields.
Remembering Roy E. Disney: Memories and Photos of a Storied Life by David A Bossert
I’m not usually one to read biographies, especially ones that, on the surface, appear to be a eulogy because of the title. But this book offers a fascinating look at Roy’s life and Disney history in the form of easily digestible chunks and stories. It’s evident from the text that he was beloved and respected among his peers and fans, and best of all, the author doesn’t shy away from describing less savory periods in Roy’s career. This is a quick and easy read with loads of pictures, letters, and quotations to support the text.
X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon
Ilyasah Shabazz lovingly presents the story of her father, Malcom X, and the events throughout his life that led up to the point when he became the figure of human rights we remember him as today. It’s super engaging, and for anyone who is curious about life when zoot suits were in vogue, when mixed-race couples couldn’t be seen in public, and when you could show up at a new town, change your name, and rock the dance halls on weekends. All the events of his gripping story are present in Malcom X’s autobiography, so the overall structure and the people you encounter here generally happened or existed. It’s just presented in a way that’s really exciting.
Verdict: Buy (and lend it out to everyone).
Conversations With Beethoven by Sanford Friedman
This book opens with, as a play might, a cast of characters. In this epistolary novel, we read the story of Beethoven’s last year of life in the form of letters and notes from his various notebooks through which people had to communicate with him because of his deafness. He often spoke in response, and one can only imagine what those were based on the text that continues on the page. Often hilarious and also sad, this is one of those reads I simply couldn’t put down once I started. It offers an intimate look at the end of his life as well as the lives of those around him. It also focuses quite a lot on his relationship with his beloved nephew Karl.
Verdict: Borrow (unless you’re a Beethoven lover, in which case: Buy).
Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
This memoir is absolutely in my top five, and not just because I love Steve Martin’s humor and work. In this book, Martin talks about his life and career, of course, but like many comedians who write excellent memoirs (looking at you, Carlin’s Last Words), he talks a lot about other people who were in the game and the landscape of entertainment throughout his career. It’s a great look at how comedy has changed over the years and if you’re familiar enough with Martin’s work you’ll find his voice narrating this in your head (or in your ears if you listen to it on audio). Also, and this is a theme with me, did you know his career started at Disney?