I enjoy following the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction (previously known as the Samuel Johnson Prize) because it is the one book prize which consistently picks winners I actually agree with: Chernobyl by Serhii Plokhy, How to Survive a Plague by David France and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald to name a few from recent years. I had just finished ‘The Five’ by Hallie Rubenhold when it was announced as this year’s winner on Tuesday and, once again, I think it is another book which really deserves this prestigious award. It is about the “untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper”, namely Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine “Kate” Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly who all died in 1888 in Whitechapel in east London. Continue reading
Tag Archives: Non fiction
I have read two memoirs written by actresses recently, namely Zawe Ashton and Mara Wilson. Despite their very different career paths, both clearly have mixed feelings about the industry and how it operates.
Zawe Ashton’s memoir ‘Character Breakdown’ has an unusual but brilliant structure switching between prose sections about different auditions and roles she has played, and scenes from her life in the form of a play script as she makes the transition to roles in Hollywood. Each chapter begins with the “character breakdown” of the audition – in other words, a short description of the role and the type of actor they are looking to cast. Some chapters are about the auditions or roles themselves, and others draw on events in her life at the time. Continue reading
‘Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages’ by Gaston Dorren takes the reader on a fascinating tour of the most popular languages spoken across the world today. Out of approximately 6,000 different languages currently in use, over half of the world’s population speak at least one of the top 20 as a mother tongue, from Vietnamese (85 million speakers) to English (over 1.5 billion speakers), spanning all corners of the globe. 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
It’s been a while since I’ve been to a literary event, and three years since I last went to Chiswick Book Festival in 2016, so another visit was long overdue. Yesterday, I went to two events: Sadie Jones talking to Cathy Rentzenbrink about her latest novel ‘The Snakes’ and Sonia Purnell discussing her book ‘A Woman of No Importance’ with Julia Wheeler.
‘The Snakes’ tells the story of Beatrice, the thirty-something daughter of multimillionaire property developer, Griff Adamson. Having more or less cut herself off from her parents and their money, she works as a psychotherapist and lives in a small flat with her husband Dan, an estate agent from a working-class background who doesn’t know the full extent of Bea’s family’s wealth. They plan to use their savings of a few thousand pounds to travel across Europe for a couple of months and stop to visit Bea’s brother Alex in the dilapidated hotel he runs in the south of France. However, Bea’s parents drop in for a surprise visit and when tragedy strikes, Bea is forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about the family’s past. Continue reading
If you enjoyed The Diary of a Bookseller, then the second volume of Shaun Bythell’s account of running a large second-hand bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland will definitely appeal. It is very much more of the same in terms of content, format and sense of humour with bizarre customer queries and the trials and tribulations of book dealing providing the main focus of his diary entries from 2015. Continue reading
“Fake news” had yet to become a common term when ‘Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia’ was published in the UK in 2015, but the concept is very much present in Peter Pomerantsev’s anecdotal depiction of post-Soviet Russia. Raised in London, he moved to Russia as an adult and his work as a reality television producer allowed him access to all sorts of people and places at the peak of the television industry boom years in the 2000s. However, Pomerantsev quickly discovered that the media remained heavily state-influenced and he was not always free to produce the content he had planned. It is no surprise that his account of his time there shows how the boundaries between truth and reality were constantly blurred. Continue reading
I have read two non-fiction books recently which both draw on regular newspaper columns penned by their authors. In April 2010, at the age of 52, journalist Melanie Reid broke her neck and fractured her back after falling from a horse, spending nearly a year in a high-dependency spinal unit. She is now a tetraplegic, permanently paralysed from the top of her chest downwards and will spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. She has documented her experience of adult-acquired disability in her ‘Spinal Column’ in the Times for several years now. Her memoir ‘The World I Fell Out Of’ draws on those articles but also provides a fuller account of how her life changed following the accident. Continue reading
I saw Francesca Segal in conversation with Amanda Craig at the Jewish Book Festival in March 2018 and was immediately intrigued when she said she was writing a non-fiction book about the premature birth of her identical twin daughters ten weeks before their due date. Published in the UK this week, ‘Mother Ship’ is presented as a diary of the 56 fraught days the babies (initially known as A-lette and B-lette) spent in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in the weeks leading up to Christmas 2015. Continue reading
Emily Maitlis has been a journalist and broadcaster for over twenty years and is currently the lead presenter of the BBC’s Newsnight programme. Her first book ‘Airhead’ is a collection of her most significant and memorable TV interviews, with an explanation of the planning and thinking behind each one, as well as the build-up and aftermath off camera. Sometimes the interviews are carefully planned and structured in order to tease out the most telling response from the person being grilled. More often than not, though, the most effective and surprising ones are brought about by happy accident such as her encounter with Anthony Scaramucci. Coupled with the constant sense of unpredictability associated with live television (which is more cock-up than conspiracy, according to Maitlis), the subtitle “the imperfect art of making news” is certainly fitting. Continue reading
‘The Ten Types of Human: Who We Are and Who We Can Be’ by Dexter Dias explores the best and worst of human behaviour – how and why people can be utterly selfless and also commit terrible atrocities. Dias is a human rights lawyer and part-time judge who was presented with a case in which a 15-year-old boy died in a young offender institution when three officers restrained him. ‘The Ten Types of Human’ is the result of years of research combining psychology, philosophy and the neuroscience of decision-making in which Dias seeks to explain the factors which led this to happen.
‘The Library Book’ by Susan Orlean documents the devastating fire that raged for seven hours at Los Angeles Public Library in April 1986 and destroyed or damaged over one million books. Investigators quickly concluded that the fire was probably an arson attack but the cause has never been solved and the main suspect, Harry Peak, was arrested but never charged. Continue reading
I am championing Ashleigh Young’s collection of essays ‘Can You Tolerate This?’ as part of the Rathbones Folio Prize blog tour today. The eight books on this year’s shortlist include four novels, a novella, two non-fiction books and a collection of poetry whittled down from a list of 80 works published in the UK in 2018 chosen by members of the Folio Academy.
‘Can You Tolerate This?’ is Young’s non-fiction debut (she is also a poet) and tackles a diverse range of subjects, mostly leaning towards her own personal experiences of growing up in Te Kuiti in New Zealand as well as a smattering of historical portraits and other topics too. The 20 essays in this collection include her experience of working as the manager at Katherine Mansfield’s birthplace (‘Katherine Would Approve’), Japanese recluses known as hikikomori (‘Sea of Trees’), 19th century French postal worker Ferdinand Cheval (‘Postie’) and her resentment towards a childhood pet (‘Black Dog Book’). However, the main recurring theme in her work is the body, from the short opening essay about a patient with two skeletons (‘Bones’) to musings on her own body hair (‘Wolf Man’) poor eyesight (‘Absolutely Flying’) and yoga and her eating disorder treatment (‘Bikram’s Knee’). Continue reading
I am taking part in the Wellcome Book Prize blog tour today with a review of ‘Heart: A History’ by Sandeep Jauhar which is the final book I will be shadowing from this year’s shortlist. Jauhar is a cardiologist and director of the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Jewish Medical Center and his third book combines memoir, case studies and the history of cardiology. In the opening pages, he recounts his family history (both of his grandfathers died as a result of sudden cardiac events) and how his own CT angiogram revealed signs of early coronary artery disease. Jauhar’s obsession with this vital and remarkable organ is therefore a very personal one. Continue reading
I am approaching the end of shadowing this year’s Wellcome Book Prize, and I have followed two books which explore gender as the central theme (The Trauma Cleaner and Amateur) with two books primarily concerned with mental health. ‘Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery’ by Arnold Thomas Fanning is a memoir which outlines his experience of bipolar disorder in the late 1990s. Having first suffered from depression at the age of 20 following the death of his mother, he had a breakdown in his late twenties while living in Dublin after quitting his job to concentrate on writing in 1997. He was hospitalised several times and also spent time homeless in London amid periods of mania. The narrative has been pieced together from his own fragmented memories, medical records and interviews with those who were involved at the time. The opening section is a frank stream of consciousness told in the second person while the rest of the narrative is told primarily in the present tense. Continue reading
With Parliament still in the grip of deadlock over Brexit, a book with the title ‘Why We Get the Wrong Politicians’ might sound particularly timely. However, even Isabel Hardman admits that the provocative title is slightly misleading. Rather than a populist takedown of lazy and self-serving MPs, her examination of the political class is more sympathetic, as she shows that it tends to be the structural flaws in the system which have caused so much political dysfunction in recent years. Continue reading
‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama is already one of the bestselling memoirs of all time selling nearly 10 million copies just four months after it was first published towards the end of 2018. Rebecca, Laura and I optimistically attempted to get tickets for the former First Lady’s sell-out talk with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the Southbank Centre in December along with a mere 44,000 other people. We were, of course, unsuccessful, but I eventually got hold of a library copy of the much talked-about memoir which is split into three parts. “Becoming Me” covers her childhood growing up in the South Side of Chicago, college years at Princeton and Harvard and early legal career. “Becoming Us” begins with her meeting Barack Obama in the late 1980s through to the 2008 presidential election and “Becoming More” which covers the two terms spent at the White House. Continue reading
Gender is a notable theme on this year’s Wellcome Book Prize longlist and two of the books shortlisted this year (by the official judges and by the shadow panel) look at the lives and experiences of transgender individuals. ‘Amateur’ by Thomas Page McBee was also shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction last year and is an exploration of modern masculinity told through McBee’s training as the first trans man to fight in a charity boxing match at Madison Square Garden. From a childhood dominated by male violence in which he was abused by his stepfather from the age of four, McBee untangles the tricky relationship between masculinity and violence, questioning if aggression is an exclusively “toxic” male trait. Continue reading
Winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction last year, ‘Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy’ by Serhii Plokhy is a comprehensive account of the worst nuclear accident in history. The small Ukrainian city will forever be associated with the explosion which occurred on 26th April 1986 after a failed safety test. It is now a key destination for “disaster tourism”, despite the 30-mile exclusion zone which is still in place around the site of the reactor which will remain unfit for human habitation for 20,000 years. The technical statistics are staggering – the radiation released by the explosion was equivalent to 500 Hiroshima bombs spreading rapidly across Europe – and the human cost of those affected by radiation sickness is incalculable. 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