How Words Get Good: The Story of Making a Book by Rebecca Lee offers a fascinating look at the journey of making a book from initial idea in the author’s head to finished copies on a bookshelf. It celebrates the huge number of people involved in producing books, including authors who choose to remain anonymous, ghostwriters, literary agents, proofreaders and editors, and the processes such as typesetting, translation, indexes, footnotes, cover design, printing and much more. As well as demystifying certain elements of the publishing industry, it contains lots of trivia. For example, Donald Trump asked his ghostwriter, Mark Schwartz, to cover half the cost of the launch party for ‘The Art of the Deal’ on the grounds that Schwartz received half of the advance and royalties (p.47), and the Japanese version of ‘Finnegans Wake’ by James Joyce “required three separate translators after the first disappeared and the second went mad” (p.216). Lee has worked as an editorial manager at Penguin Press for over 20 years and her wealth of experience shines through in her amusing anecdotes and encyclopaedic knowledge. Equal parts entertaining and insightful, this is highly recommended for bibliophiles everywhere, particularly those who enjoy weird trivia. Continue reading
Tag Archives: Non fiction
I am rather partial to memoirs centred around food and I read two excellent ones last month, one of which was Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci. Tucci’s grandparents emigrated to the United States from Calabria, so his childhood growing up in Westchester, New York featured a lot of traditional Italian cooking. Food has also been a big influence in his acting career, including his 1996 debut directorial feature ‘Big Night’ about two brothers running an Italian restaurant. As expected, there’s a fair bit of celebrity name-dropping, but Tucci also gives great insight into how catering works on film sets and he now has the luxury of being able to choose projects based on where in the world they are shot and whether the food will be any good. He also describes his diagnosis, treatment and recovery from a tumour at the base of his tongue which was discovered a few years ago, leaving him unable to eat properly. Less of a conventional chronological memoir and more about the importance of food in his life, ‘Taste’ is nevertheless a delectable read.
Time has run away from me again this month, so I am only just getting round to reviewing the books I read in February starting with No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy by Mark Hodkinson. His part bibliomemoir part cultural history details how he became a voracious reader in Rochdale in the mid-1970s in a working-class household with very few books, eventually succumbing to what Americans call BABLE (Book Accumulation Beyond Life Expectancy – I know I can certainly identify with this, and I’m sure many readers of this blog can too). The book also interweaves the story of his grandfather who suffered from mental illness. Hodkinson is very good at dissecting the mindset of a collector and I particularly enjoyed the latter half of the book which outlines his career as a journalist on a local newspaper, publisher and writer. Local journalism in particular has changed beyond recognition from what it was when Hodkinson was starting out. Overall ‘No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy’ is rather odd structurally and not as straightforward a bibliomemoir as I was expecting, but it is nevertheless very enjoyable and nostalgic to read. Continue reading
Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet is set in the 1960s and consists of a fictional biography of Arthur Collins Braithwaite, a radical psychoanalyst with a practice based in north London, interweaved with notebooks written by one of his patients which have been purportedly “discovered” by her cousin and passed on to the author. The patient believes Braithwaite is responsible for the death of her elder sister, Veronica, and poses as Rebecca Smyth in order to find out more about him. As with the Booker Prize-shortlisted His Bloody Project, Burnet displays his impeccable narrative skill in presenting the story as authentic source material. There is plenty of satire in the depiction of Braithwaite’s rivalries with his contemporaries, reminiscent of the spoof biographies in Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill, while pertinent questions about the nature of identity and reality are posed in “Rebecca’s” pursuit for answers. ‘Case Study’ is another outstanding novel by one of my must-read authors. Continue reading
Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe won the Baillie Giffard Prize for Non-Fiction last year and examines the history of three generations of the Sackler family. Radden Keefe is a journalist for the New Yorker and ‘Empire of Pain’ was developed from his 2017 article about the Sacklers. The Sackler name is mostly associated with philanthropy. Several universities, museums and galleries have wings named after the family in recognition of the substantial donations they have made towards the arts and sciences. However, the Sacklers’ role in the development of the highly addictive drug OxyContin in 1996 and the subsequent opioid crisis in the United States has only recently become subject to proper scrutiny.
My list of most anticipated books coming soon in 2022 is growing by the day, so here are some of the highlights. All publication dates where known apply to the United Kingdom only.
To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara is out this month and spans an alternative version of New York in 1893, 1993 and 2093. I’ve heard nothing but positive reviews so far, even from those who didn’t get on with her second novel A Little Life. I expect it will appear on several predictions lists for the Booker Prize later this year, along with Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart which is out in April, after the Scottish author’s debut novel Shuggie Bain won the Prize in 2020. Continue reading
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
I have read a lot of great books over the summer and I now have a massive backlog of reviews to catch up on. Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller tells the story of 51-year-old twins, Jeanie and Julius, who still live with their mother in rural isolation, until her sudden death forces them to confront some harsh realities of life in the modern world and the truth behind some dark family secrets. It’s quite a meandering novel, often melancholic in tone, but I really enjoyed Fuller’s richly descriptive prose which captures the oppressive atmosphere of the twins’ daily lives. ‘Unsettled Ground’ was shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and while it wasn’t too surprising that the judges crowned ‘Piranesi’ by Susanna Clarke as the winner last week, I think ‘Unsettled Ground’ would have been a worthy winner too, and I will definitely seek out Fuller’s other novels. 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.
Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell follows his Wellcome Prize-winning exploration of transhumanism To Be a Machine with another book about the future, this time looking at the ways in which people prepare for ecological and societal collapse. O’Connell travels to South Dakota to visit underground survival bunkers, attends a Mars convention in California, visits New Zealand to find out why it is the favoured location for billionaires to ride out the end of the world, and goes to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in which the post-apocalyptic scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster has become a popular tourist attraction in recent years.
In the paperback edition, O’Connell notes in a new foreword that the timing of the hardback publication in April 2020 was “impeccable”. Nevertheless, it does mean that certain parts read a bit differently from how they would have done without a global pandemic. For example, the actions of the “preppers” who stockpile supplies to live on in the event of a possible worst-case scenario now seem a lot less extreme these days. O’Connell’s writing is dense and cerebral and ‘Notes from an Apocalypse’ contains as much food for thought as his first book, albeit with an even larger dose of anxiety about the future this time round. Continue reading
The title of the book A Short History of London: The Creation of a World Capital by Simon Jenkins gives a fair warning to the reader that there is inevitably quite a lot left out of the city’s 2,000 year history in its 400 pages. The focus is very much on the architecture and planning of the city centre in the last century or so with a bit about its governance alongside this. As a lifelong Londoner, Jenkins is clearly passionate about his home city. He has witnessed a remarkable amount of change in his lifetime and doesn’t hold back on his forthright views about recent developments. Having already produced short histories of Europe and England, Jenkins is well-practised at the most important aspect of writing a deliberately short book which is that he writes with pace and is very good at conveying the general sweep of events succinctly in easily digestible chapters. Continue reading
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
Hello World by Hannah Fry, subtitled ‘How to Be Human in the Age of the Machine’ looks at the role of algorithms in modern life, from our everyday internet use to the justice system to creating works of art. Most of the discussion around algorithms tends to focus on the negative impact they can have with sat navs sending drivers off the edge of a cliff and data privacy concerns being two of the most well-known examples. Fry also looks at the positive benefits of algorithms as they are undoubtedly useful in research contexts such as monitoring cell patterns in order to diagnose cancer earlier. The real-world examples of how humans interact with algorithms are concisely written and this is an engaging popular science book which is straightforward enough for a layperson to grasp as an introduction to a complex topic. Continue reading
Bookworm by Lucy Mangan is a memoir of childhood reading, from her earliest memories as a small child reading ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ by Eric Carle, to her secondary school years in the late 1980s when Judy Blume books and the Sweet Valley High series were at the height of their popularity. Born in 1974 to northern Catholic parents, Mangan grew up in south east London and was a voracious reader from the start. Even though my formative years of childhood reading occurred over a decade later than Mangan’s, there is a significant amount of overlap in our literary diets. This isn’t very surprising given that Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and other staples have remained so popular over several generations, and it means that most readers will be familiar with much of what Mangan reminisces about here too. For the most part, we also have fairly similar taste in books – like Mangan, I prefer stories with fantasy elements to be at least partly grounded in the real world, and neither of us are great lovers of poetry (“All that feeling”). The exceptions are the ballet and pony stories favoured by Mangan and the late arrival of a series of books about a certain boy wizard which was a big part of my childhood reading.
Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre is an account of the life of Ursula Kuczynski, born to a German Jewish family in 1907 who later became a Communist spy codenamed Sonya. She moved to Shanghai with her architect husband Rudi in 1930 and was recruited by Richard Sorge at the end of that year when she was six months pregnant with her first child. Over the next two decades, she rose to the rank of colonel in the Red Army, lived in Poland, Switzerland and the Cotswolds in England, contributed towards a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and was later the handler of the Manhattan Project nuclear scientist Klaus Fuchs, passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union and influencing the path of the Cold War. Her spy career was so successful that her request to take early retirement was granted – an exceptionally rare honour. 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.
There are lots of reasons why 2020 has been an unusual year. One of them is that several books I have both read and enjoyed have won major literary prizes this year – more often than not, my longlist or shortlist preferences don’t get as far as taking the big cheques home with them. However, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart won the Booker Prize this year – a debut novel about a young boy growing up in 1980s Glasgow (and I’m still feeling smug about including it in my predictions post back in July before it was even longlisted). Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell won the Women’s Prize for Fiction for its moving portrayal of the death of William Shakespeare’s young son. And One Two Three Four by Craig Brown was awarded the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction – a brilliantly original and comic biography of the Beatles told in 99 short chapters. Continue reading
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.