Favorite Nonfiction Books

 

This includes books I find excellent reference, and ones I enjoyed reading.

 

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

 

A study of science versus pseudoscience, covering a number of topics.  Includes extensive chapters on debunking alien abductions, psychic mediums, the vilification of scientists in popular media, and discusses how scientifically ignorant most people are.  An atheist, Sagan also discusses some religious and theological issues.



 

The Ecology of Fear by Mike Davis

 

A book by Macarthur (sp?) Genius grant award-winner, this is about the landscapes of Los Angeles; natural, racial and economic.  The basic premise of the book is that the landscape and climate of the area is not meant to hold a city of LA’s size, which results in repeated natural and man-made disasters.  Includes chapters on Earthquakes, floods, wildfires, storms and wild animals.  Also includes discussions of the destruction of Los Angeles in popular media (in movies like Earthquake and books such as Turner Diaries and Lucifer’s Hammer), uncontrolled urban growth, and white flight. (the chapter title for that subject is Ozzie and Harriet in Hell.  Gotta love it…)


 

 

Visions of Caliban by Dale Peterson and Jane Goodall

 

This is a very interesting, readable book about humanity’s various ways of interacting with its closest relative, the chimpanzee.  Includes chapters on how native Africans treat them, both as pets and a food source, about the business of selling them (the least interesting chapter, IMHO), about people who keep them as pets in Western countries (the most interesting chapter), about chimps in lab research, about chimps in language studies, and attempts to rescue and rehabilitate them.  This is not an easy book to read; the horrific treatment some of the chimps receive is shocking.  The only thing I wish for is an updated version where the fate of some of the young pet chimps we read about is discussed.  The author points out that although people with infant chimps say they’re going to keep them forever (which can be 50+ years), most of the post-adolescent ones seem to vanish.


 

 

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

 

An admittedly sensationalistic account of various Ebola virus outbreaks in Africa and Europe. It also has an extensive recounting of an outbreak among monkeys in an American research lab.  Includes some very gruesome descriptions of what happens to human victims of the virus.  You’ll never view a headache the same way again…


 

 

Helter Skelter  by Vincent Bugliosi

 

The famous book by the LA lawyer who prosecuted the Charles Manson case.  A new version has an afterward that describes at length the fates of various people talked about in the book, and solves some other mysteries that the original book couldn’t answer when it was written (such as where the body of murdered Spahn ranch hand “Shorty” Shea was buried.)  One thing that quickly becomes clear is that the (in)competency of the LAPD hasn’t appreciably changed in the 30-odd years between the Manson killings and the OJ Simpson case.  Helter Skelter includes one of the best opening lines to a book ever written:  “It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon.”


 

Animal editors: Don E. Wilson and David Burnie

 

Probably the best overall photographic reference for animals.  This covers everything, from mammals to sponges.  If you need to know what a degu, treecreeper or peanut worm looks like, this is the book to go to.  Expensive and bulky, but if you can only get one reference book for animals, this is it.


 

DK Eyewitness handbooks

 

An excellent series.  Both interesting to read, and invaluable for reference.  Very high production values, great photography and inexpensive.  The books furry or animal artists will find most useful would be Mammals, Birds of the World, Reptiles and Amphibians, Insects, Dogs, Horses and Cats.


 

Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer

 

A book not unlike Demon Haunted World, covering some of the same ground, and exploring things that Sagan only touched on, like Holocaust denial and Scientific Creationism.  Also includes an entertaining account of the author’s own ‘alien abduction.’


 

The Doomsday Book of Animals by David Day

 

This is the book that started my long-time interest in extinct animals.  Interesting and sad accounts of vertebrates extinct from the early 1600s on to the present day.  Most of the book is taken up by bird and mammal extinctions (including a number of wolf subspecies.)  The book is enhanced by excellent art by several different artists.


 

Extinct Birds (2nd edition) by Errol Fuller

 

A book that takes up and expands where Doomsday Book left off.  Illustrated with contemporary lithographs, photographs where available, and some excellent reconstruction paintings, this is a beautiful book.  It treats species more in-depth than Doomsday Book, and is highly recommended for anyone who wants to read more about the subject of extinct birds.


 

 

Eagles, Hawks and Falcons of the World by Leslie Brown and Dean Amadon

 

This book is only available as a very expensive collector’s item, and hasn’t been in print for years.  I lucked out getting a copy from a natural history book dealer, and I’ve never seen it for sale on EBay.  However, any serious artist of raptors should try to get a copy.  While the text is somewhat dated, but book is invaluable for its illustrations.  Featuring stunning paintings by wildlife art giants such as Guy Coheleach, Albert Gilbert, Don Eckelberry and Roger Tory Peterson, among others, this book has illustration of every single raptor in the world, plus range maps and illustrations of each species in flight.  If you ever wanted to find a picture of a Gurney’s Hawk or a black-chested hawk-eagle, this is the book.


 

The Best of Dear Abby by Abigail Van Buren

 

A self-explanatory title.  How can you not like a book with gems like this:

“… I have met a woman who is perfect for me in every way.  With her I can find the happiness I’ve always dreamed of.  However, I still feel an obligation to the woman I’m married to…”  and  “ …I joined the navy to see the world.  I’ve seen it.  Now how do I get out?”


 

Hummingbirds of the Caribbean by Esther and Robert Tyrrell

 

This book probably has the best photos of hummingbirds that I’ve ever seen.  Beautiful just to look at, and invaluable if you’re ever planning to draw or paint a hummingbird.  It also has a listing and photos of various plants that hummingbirds visit in the West Indies.  The introduction where the authors discuss the difficulties tracking these birds down is very interesting, as is their overview of the Caribbean ecosystem at the beginning of the book.  I heard the authors are working on a photographic book of Mexican hummingbirds, and I can’t wait to see it.


 

100 Greatest Disasters of All Time by Stephen J. Spignesi

 

The title says it all!  It covers well-know catastrophes such as the sinking of the Titanic, 9-11 and the Xenia tornado, but also far more obscure events such as "The English Sweating Sickness" (which killed 3 million people between 1485 and 1551) and the 1903 Iroquois Theater Fire in Chicago, which killed over 600 people.  The one thing I learned from this book is that God must really hate the Chinese, because they've been hit with more horrible disasters that have killed more people than any other place on the planet. Also, Stalin's farming policies in the 1920's and 30's killed far more people from starvation than died at the Nazi camps during WWII.  A fascinating book, if the subject matter interests you.


 

Walker’s Mammals of the World (6th ed) by Ronald M. Nowak

 

The most comprehensive volume available about mammals.  The black and white photos, sometimes of museum specimens, could be improved, but the book covers EVERY mammal known.  The text is fairly technical, but it also gives measurements of all mammals, and has pictures of most of them.  A must-have book for the serious animal artist or writer.


 

 

Insects of the Los Angeles Basin by Charles Leonard Hogue

 

While it may be specialized, if you live in the Southern California area and are interested in what those bugs are that get stuck to wet paint, or turn up in your bathroom, or buzz annoyingly around your face while you’re out hiking, then this is the right book.  I haven’t yet found a bug in this area that I can’t identify with this book.  This book is the career culmination for the author, who was entomologist at the LA County Museum of Natural History.  I wanted to write him and let him know how much I enjoyed the book, but it was published posthumously.  Oh well.


 

Wild Cats of the World by Barbara Sleeper

 

The title pretty much says it all.  Beautiful photos by Art Wolfe of nearly every species of

wild cat are worth the price of admission alone.  The text is nothing to get excited over, but offers a good overview of the subject for the layman.  Anyone who enjoys or draws wild cats should have a copy of this.

 



 

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

 

The Pulitzer Prize winning book about the evolution and shaping of human societies, and what enabled certain groups of people to dominate (and in some cases completely destroy) other groups.  In answers the question of how Europeans were able to take over the New World so quickly and thoroughly.  Of course the book is far more complex than that brief summary can convey.  A brilliant and highly readable work.



 

 

 

The Book of Lists by Amy Wallace and David Wallechinsky

 

I loved this book as a teen.  Very trashy, but difficult to put down.  I think they’ve done more recent versions, but I haven’t seen them.  Something I’ll need to look into…


 

 

After Man and The New Dinosaurs by Dougal Dixon

 

These are worth getting for the excellent artwork of fantastic creatures.  The first book is a speculation on what current wildlife would evolve into when/if humanity becomes extinct.  Some of the creatures are kind of far-fetched, but the book is entertaining to read and the animals are fun to look at.  The second book, which for some reason is much more difficult to come by than the first one, speculates on what dinosaurs, pterosaurs and birds would have evolved into if they had not become extinct and mammals did not evolve to world dominance.  More polished than After Man, and with wonderful artwork, this is worth getting by anyone who’s interested in dinosaurs or alien creatures.


 

Contacting Aliens: an illustrated guide to David Brin's Uplift Universe by David Brin & Kevin Lenaugh

 

This book won't be of much interest if you haven't read any of the Uplift books, but if you have, it's a fascinating and informative read.  The illustrations, while not on the level of Wayne Barlow or Michael Whelan, are certainly competent and nicely fit the text.  A great book to look through if you're interested in creating alien-looking aliens.


 

The Big Cats and their Fossil Relatives by Alan Turner

 

A must-have book for anyone who wants to draw or write about sabertooth cats.  The text may be a little too scientific for the lay reader, but there’s dozens of excellent illustrations by European artist Mauricio Anton, both in color and black and white.  Definitely worth ordering from Amazon if you can’t find it in a bookstore.