A lot of my reading in 2021 has involved catching up on books published in 2020 or earlier, particularly among non-fiction. Hungry by Grace Dent and Bookworm by Lucy Mangan were among my favourite memoirs this year, and take a nostalgic look at the authors’ childhoods defined by food and books respectively. A Promised Land by Barack Obama was a hefty but impressively readable political memoir by the 44th President of the United States covering most of his first term, and hopefully it won’t be too long before the second volume is published.
Elsewhere in non-fiction, Square Haunting by Francesca Wade is an absorbing group biography of five modernist women who all lived in Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury at various times between 1916 and 1940. Blood on the Page by Thomas Harding is one of the most unique and compelling true crime books I have come across in a long time, and follows the first murder trial to be held in secret in modern British history.
Downing Street has been in the news rather a lot this week, so it seems rather timely to have been reading Number 10: The Geography of Power at Downing Street by Jack Brown recently. Brown was the first ever Researcher in Residence at No. 10 and his book examines how the role of the Prime Minister and the architecture of one of the most famous addresses in the world have influenced each other. Originally built in the 1680s, significant reconstruction was undertaken in the early 1960s and much of the book focuses on how the prime ministers of the second half of the 20th century lived and worked there. Security reasons presumably prevent clear diagrams of the interior of Downing Street being included to accompany the text which is slightly unfortunate. However, Brown’s analysis of how the iconic residence projects soft power to its visitors and its strengths and weaknesses as a modern office and living space offers a convincing argument that successive prime ministers have impacted the building as much as the building has shaped their way of working. Continue reading
This summer has mostly been a non-fiction reading binge for me. Blood on the Page by Thomas Harding is one of the most unique and intriguing true crime books I have come across in a long time. Photographer, writer and expert on the playwright George Bernard Shaw, 86-year-old Allan Chappelow was found beaten to death at his home in Hampstead in north London in June 2006. He was also a recluse and hoarder and his house was so cluttered that it took the police three days to locate his body buried under four feet of paper. Harding outlines Chappelow’s life, the investigation into his death and the background of the main suspect, Wang Yam, a Chinese dissident. The final part of the book covers Yam’s murder trial, which was the first in modern British history to be held in camera – that is, totally secret with no reporting of the defence case in the press. Even speculation about why the trial was held in this way remains completely banned. Despite the obvious limitations posed by this, Harding makes good use of the available background material to produce a gripping account of a truly bizarre and unique case.
Hungry by Grace Dent shares many thematic similarities with A Half-Baked Idea by Olivia Potts in that they are both memoirs about the joys of food, starting out in competitive careers in London and difficult family circumstances. While Potts’ memoir detailed her enrolment on the Cordon Bleu culinary school patisserie course after deciding not to pursue a career as a barrister following her mother’s unexpected death, Dent’s is about the childhood nostalgia of cheap beige comfort food in the 1980s, finding her feet as a journalist in her 2os and her father’s health problems including vascular dementia. Continue reading
‘A Promised Land’ is the first of two volumes of Barack Obama’s memoirs of his two-term presidency. Published in November last year, this part covers his path to becoming the Democrat candidate in 2008 and then rattles through the main challenges he faced during the first two-and-a-half years of his presidency including the financial crisis, military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, healthcare reform, climate change, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Arab Spring and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Like many political memoirs, ‘A Promised Land’ is on the wordy side, clocking in at over 700 pages with another volume still to come. Obama is self-aware enough to realise that his verbosity was an issue in his early campaign speeches which focused too much on policy detail and sometimes saw him struggle to connect with voters on a personal level. Thankfully, his writing on the page is engaging even when he is explaining complex policy background, although if you’re more interested in life behind the scenes at the White House, then Becoming by Michelle Obama generally offers more insight on that side of things. Continue reading
There are a lot of new books coming in 2021. Here are the titles I am looking forward to reading the most, although I probably won’t get round to all of them this year. All publication dates where known apply to the United Kingdom only.
High-profile debut novels out in early 2021 include Luster by Raven Leilani and No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood whose memoir Priestdaddy I reviewed last month. Several of the books I will be looking out for are second novels by authors who have written impressive debuts. Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley is set in modern-day Soho in London and sounds like a real departure from the Booker Prize-shortlisted Elmet. The High House by Jessie Greengrass is the second novel by the author of Sight. It addresses climate change and is out in April. Panenka by Ronan Hessian sees the author of the word-of-mouth success Leonard and Hungry Paul return with his new novel in May about a man who is living with mistakes he made in the past. Out in February, Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford tells the possible stories of five children if they hadn’t been killed by a V2 bomb in London in 1944 – a very different concept and setting from the 18th century New York depicted in his debut Golden Hill.
The Fragments of my Father by Sam Mills is a memoir about the author’s experience of being a carer for both of her parents in different circumstances. Her father has had mental health problems including schizophrenia since she was a child. Her mother was later diagnosed with cancer and died in 2012, after which Mills became the main carer for her father. Mills interweaves a bit of literary biography of Virginia and Leonard Woolf and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald and how their relationships were shaped by caring responsibilities. I might have expected the literary biography elements to feel like unnecessary padding to the book, but Mills makes a convincing case that Leonard has sometimes been unfairly portrayed as a controlling husband when Virginia’s illness meant that he had to make difficult decisions in her interests in his role as her carer. Mills also explores the impact of being a carer on her own creative life as a novelist as well as setting up and running the indie publisher Dodo Ink. She is very frank about the guilt she feels when taking even the briefest break away from her caring duties and how this has affected her relationships with other people. With around 6.5 million unpaid carers in the UK alone, ‘The Fragments of my Father’ makes an exceptionally strong case towards the need to improve financial and emotional support for those making personal sacrifices every day in order to provide care for their loved ones.
In between books from the Young Writer of the Year shortlist, I have been reading a lot of non-fiction during the November lockdown. The Cubans by Anthony DePalma is a narrative non-fiction account of the everyday lives of Cuban citizens in recent decades. It follows a handful of families based in the Havana suburb of Guanabacoa including an artist called Arturo, an engineer and company vice-president called Cart, and Jorge, who lost several close relatives when the 13 de marzo tugboat sank off the coast as dozens of Cubans attempted to leave for the United States. DePalma explains he has “set out not to bash the Cuban regime but to give voice to individuals whose lives have been overshadowed by those towering historical figures”. It is certainly true that Fidel Castro is instantly recognisable outside Cuba, whereas the dire economic consequences of the Special Period in the early 1990s and the reality of the restrictions placed on Cuban citizens are not as widely known or understood. This is reflected in the range of English-language books about Cuba which almost always focus on the country’s leadership rather than modern Cuba more generally, and this excellent account is a step in the right direction towards redressing that balance. Continue reading
I didn’t read much in the way of medicine or health-related books during lockdown, but I have recently started thinking about books which will be eligible for the Wellcome Book Prize next year following its “pause” this year. The three books I have read so far are all powerful and memorable if far from cheerful in their chosen subject matter.
Coming Undone by Terri White is the author’s memoir of her addiction issues and subsequent mental breakdown. The book opens with an account of her admission to a psychiatric ward in a New York hospital. She then details the abuse she suffered during her childhood growing up in poverty in Derbyshire before embarking on a career as a magazine editor. She moved to New York in 2012 where her problems with substance abuse spiralled and her outwardly successful life eventually unravelled. It is difficult to review a book, particularly a memoir, on this subject without using the same old adjectives: raw, honest, brutal, painful. ‘Coming Undone’ is all of those things, but for all its rawness and honesty about White’s state of mind, there does seem to be a lot held back too, especially about her career and more recent relationships, although I expect that this is mostly due to the necessity of protecting those close to her as well as her own privacy and recovery. Continue reading
‘Gotta Get Theroux This: My Life and Strange Times in Television’ is Louis Theroux’s memoir reflecting on over twenty years of making television documentaries. His career began in 1994 with a one-off segment on Michael Moore’s ‘TV Nation’ on apocalyptic religious sects followed by the ‘Weird Weekends’ series which focused on odd aspects of Americana. More recently, he has moved towards documentaries about hard-hitting topics such as eating disorders and addiction. Continue reading
I had heard of ‘Educated’ before it was longlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize but hadn’t considered Tara Westover’s widely acclaimed memoir of her childhood growing up in a Mormon fundamentalist family in rural Idaho as a possible contender. Although not immediately obvious from the title or basic premise of the book, there are numerous connections to the main thematic criteria of the prize related to health. Isolated from mainstream society by radical survivalist parents, Westover and her six older siblings didn’t attend school and the family never saw doctors – even serious incidents like car accidents and third degree burns were treated at home with her mother’s herbal tinctures rather than at hospital. She didn’t receive a birth certificate until she was nine years old and spent most of her time working at her father’s junkyard, later studying independently at home. Continue reading
The 12 books longlisted for this year’s Wellcome Book Prize are:
Amateur by Thomas Page McBee
Astroturf by Matthew Sperling
Educated by Tara Westover
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Heart: A History by Sandeep Jauhar
Mind on Fire by Arnold Thomas Fanning
Murmur by Will Eaves
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Polio: The Odyssey of Eradication by Thomas Abraham
Sight by Jessie Greengrass
The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein
This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein
Among the five fiction and seven non-fiction titles, the judges have noted that gender, identity and mental health have emerged as prominent themes this year. I will be shadowing the shortlist of six books which will be announced on 19th March with fellow book bloggers Rebecca, Annabel, Paul and Laura and we will also be covering the longlist between us over the next few weeks. Continue reading
Shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize, ‘Mayhem’ is Sigrid Rausing’s family memoir about drug addiction. Her younger brother and heir to the Tetra Pak fortune, Hans Kristian, met American businesswoman, Eva Kemeny, when they were in rehab together in the late 1980s. They later married and became well-known philanthropists based in London. However, they relapsed and in 2007, Sigrid was granted custody of Hans and Eva’s four children. In July 2012, Hans was stopped by the police after driving erratically through London and was found with drugs in his possession. When the police searched his Belgravia mansion, they discovered Eva’s remains hidden under a mattress. She had been dead for approximately two months. Continue reading
The last event I attended at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Monday was Maggie O’Farrell in conversation with Hannah Beckerman. The discussion during the first half focused on her latest novel This Must Be The Place which I read last year while the second half explored her new book and first work of non-fiction ‘I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death’ which is published in the UK this week. Continue reading
Shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize earlier this year and winner of the Wainwright Prize, The Outrun by Amy Liptrot is a memoir about her descent into alcoholism and subsequent recovery after returning to her childhood home of Orkney at the age of thirty. There is a stark contrast between Liptrot’s hipster lifestyle in east London in her twenties where her addiction to alcohol led to relationship breakdowns, job losses and a driving conviction and the contemplative days spent observing corncrakes and living on the remote island of Papa Westray with a population of just seventy. Above all, it is a book which explores the meaning of connections, whether it is through people, places, drugs, wildlife or technology. Much like the excellent H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, it successfully brings together a moving narrative of trauma with nature appreciation and could be a contender for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction (formerly known as the Samuel Johnson Prize) ahead of the longlist announcement next month. Continue reading
Jean Lucey Pratt was born in October 1909 and began writing her journal in 1925, filling up 45 exercise books until her death in 1986. Her diaries have been edited by Simon Garfield in the collection ‘A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt’. As a young woman, she lived with her widowed father in Wembley before going on to study architecture and pursuing a career in journalism in London. She moved to a cottage near Slough in 1939, taking a job in the publicity department at a metals company during the Second World War and later ran her own bookshop. However, it was her ongoing search for a husband which preoccupied her the most throughout much of her adult life. Continue reading
I really enjoyed reading Alan Johnson’s first memoir This Boy which recounted his childhood growing up in poverty in north Kensington during the 1950s and 1960s. In the second volume, ‘Please, Mister Postman’, Johnson reflects on his early career as a postman while bringing up a young family in Slough. During the 1970s and 1980s, he became more and more involved in trade union activities at work, thus setting him on the path to a long and eventful political career. Continue reading
‘Dead Babies and Seaside Towns’ is Alice Jolly’s memoir about her attempts to have a second child. When her first son Thomas is two years old, Jolly falls pregnant again but a scan reveals that the placenta has become partly detached. Her daughter, Laura, was stillborn in 2005, twenty-four weeks into the pregnancy. After several miscarriages, rounds of IVF treatment and failed attempts to adopt, Jolly had a daughter named Hope born in 2011 to a surrogate mother in Minnesota using a donor egg. Continue reading
‘In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom’ is Yeonmi Park’s account of how she escaped from North Korea when she was thirteen years old. Born in 1993, Park left Hyesan with her mother in an attempt to track down her older sister Eunmi who had already defected. However, they were sold to traffickers in China where they both experienced horrific abuse. Two years later, they fled across the Gobi desert to Mongolia before arriving in South Korea where Park has since become a leading human rights activist. Continue reading
I’ve been reading more non-fiction and more translated fiction this year but not very much translated non-fiction. After reading Flemish author Erwin’ Mortier’s ‘While the Gods Were Sleeping‘ earlier this year which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, I got hold of a copy of ‘Stammered Songbook: A Mother’s Book of Hours’ which is Mortier’s personal memoir documenting his mother’s diagnosis, decline and death from Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 65. Originally published in 2011, it has recently been translated from Dutch into English for the first time by Paul Vincent and has been longlisted for the Green Carnation Prize this week which celebrates LGBT writing.