Learning From Other Biographies

I awaited the publication of Karin Sveen’s  The Immigrant and the University: Pedar Sather and Gold Rush California with great anticipation because it is set in Gold Rush California and follows the life of Pedar Sather, for whom Sather Gate, the Campanile, two professorships, and the Sather Center at the University of California at Berkeley are named.  Sveen’s book boasts a preface by Kevin Starr and has been beautifully translated from Norwegian by Barbara J. Havelund – beautifully because the author’s voice clearly shines through with dreamy passages such as this from page 20. “I picture him in his cabin, head bowed over his grammar book and dictionary, in calm weather and when storms tore at the sails and tugged at the rigging. I...

A most dangerous book: Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich

When I was in my early college days, rather than wasting time on boys, I spent my time in libraries immersing (you’ll get the pun shortly) myself in tomes on the bog people – iron age corpses beautifully mummified in peat bogs throughout northern Europe. If you’ve known me for any length of time I’m sure you’re aware of my connoisseurship in mummies. Anyway, in my research I was referred to Tacitus’ short and entertaining ethnography Germania about the ancient tribes inhabiting the region “east of the Rhine, roaming an area enclosed by the Baltic Sea to the north, the Alps to the south, and the Vistula River to the east”. Christopher Krebs’ volume A Most Dangerous Book: Tactitus’ Germania From the Roman Empire to the Third Reich analyses the use and abuse...

Someone made a mess on the way to the Forum, bring a sponge!

Ever since the 6th grade, after a particularly enthralling section on ancient Egypt, I’ve been fascinated by the ancient Mediterranean.  Due to circumstance and good sense, I studied a “practical” subject in graduate school, but a work of Classical literature or history is always at my bedside. I am lucky enough to be able to indulge this vice during working hours by buying the new books in that subject area.  One such purchase was Blood in the Forum by Pamela Marin.  Don’t let the salacious title and blood spattered book-jacket fool you – this is a serious work of scholarship about the tumultuous last decades of the Republic. The author, who studied at Oxford and University College in Dublin Ireland, organizes her research in a unique manner.  First she...

African American Memoirs from the Civil War Era

I’m reading a lot of Civil War era histories and novels these days, trying to immerse myself in the period so that I can get a feel for the heavy politics of the time. When my mother said she was going to see the new film Twelve Years a Slave, I immediately ordered myself the e-book to read on my Kindle. The narrative was mesmerizing and while I was forced to put my Kindle down to work and sleep I found it hard to focus on my daily tasks – eager to know what happened to Solomon Northup. Two days later I read the final chapters sitting on my toilet whilst my three year old happily splashed in the bath with her toy fish. When I got to the scene where Solomon is found, working in the cotton fields, by a delegation of men who were there to liberate him, I cried out...

The Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge

When browsing the shelves for a book to bring with me on a trip, I picked up Victor Serge’s Unforgiving Years.  I’d never heard of the author but the disturbing figure of the burning man on the cover piqued my interest.  Unforgiving Years is not an easy read but it is well worth the trouble.  It is an amazing account of survival, war, and political intrigue with a distinct dystopian tang reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 and hallucinatory imagery that remind one of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.  Much of the story is drawn from Serge’s life experiences so to understand the book you first must know a little about the author. Victor Serge was the pen name of Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, an ethnic Russian born in Brussels in 1890 to peripatetic, intellectuals...

Mustering the mettle to write a book proposal

I am entering my first writing contest – it’s actually one specifically calling for biography book proposals. Though I started an outline a year ago and starting writing a few months ago I haven’t had a reason to shuffle my scribbling and random Evernote notes into a coherent package. With the deadline only five weeks away I have been furiously revising what I’ve written so as to become the “Sample Chapter” and creating a table of contents – a useful exercise as I now know where I’ve been and where I’ve still got to go! Like most emerging writers I’m sure, the idea of compiling a book proposal has me terrified but I’m pretty confident about where to go for advice. As I have hosted numerous classes...