Fresh perspectives

by Dale Williams / 22 December, 2014
Dale Williams surveys the latest international non-fiction.
International non-fiction

Linda Tirado is sick and tired of a social and political system that works hard to keep the poor from climbing out of poverty, and in HAND TO MOUTH: THE TRUTH ABOUT BEING POOR IN A WEALTHY WORLD (Virago, $34.99) she details with wit and clarity the gritty day-to-day experiences of living near or below the breadline, trying to help us understand how the system cumulatively breaks the spirit as well as the health of those caught in the poverty trap. Tirado may be American, but her savvy life lessons apply worldwide. Fiery, enlightening.


One mining disaster that ended more happily than most was the 2010 collapse of Chile’s San José mine, which trapped 33 miners far underground for 69 days. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Héctor Tobar could not have done a better job of writing the story of the international effort that led to their rescue in DEEP DOWN DARK (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $39.99). He gets to know the miners and their families and vividly recreates their emotional endurance test. There’s also a short follow-up on what happened next.


Victoria Glendinning pretty much nailed the topic in her 1983 book Vita: The Life of Vita Sackville-West, concerning the English writer and creator of the famous garden at Sissinghurst Castle. Now Matthew Dennison tries for a fresh angle, and in BEHIND THE MASK: THE LIFE OF VITA SACKVILLE-WEST (HarperCollins, $54.99), he accents her many (mostly lesbian) love affairs, portraying her as leaving behind a trail of damaged marriages and broken hearts. Dennison falls distinctly out of love with his subject, finding her grandiloquent and out of sorts with a world that rewards her for light gardening articles instead of her ambitious poetry. This augments but does not surpass Glendinning’s work.


The peasant girl who in 1429 heard voices from God and went on to lead an army into battle became a highly coloured legend and a saint to the French, but to the English she was a blasphemous whore fit only for burning. Cambridge historian Helen Castor reintroduces us to the real Maid of Orléans, and the character and motives of those who used her for their own ends in JOAN OF ARC: A HISTORY (Faber, $49.99). Castor’s insightful and gripping account asserts that it’s useless to try to psychoanalyse Joan from a modern viewpoint; it’s first necessary to understand the complex landscape of belief within which the medieval power struggle was taking place.


Former Time magazine editor and CNN chairman Walter Isaacson ponders what makes some pioneers fail and others triumph, and in THE INNOVATORS (Simon & Schuster, $45) he looks at the development of computers, charting the inventive steps that led to today’s communications revolution. Detailing and analysing digital inventors from Ada Lovelace to the Google team, his surprising conclusion is that the “brilliant individual”, heroic model of creative genius is seldom as effective as creatively led teamwork, because humans make the fastest and surest creative progress when collaborating. Well researched and thought-provoking.


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