Non-Fiction Review 2017
Working in books, I feel like it helps to have a Thing. I’m envious of my colleagues who’ve got specialisms — they know all the big new books, are well-versed in poetry, blog about YA; they’re the go-to for sci-fi or the ones who’ve already read all the books on the shortlist by the time it’s announced.
I’ve never really had a Thing before (at least not one that would ever be useful to selling a book) but this year I sort of realised how into non-fiction I am. I’ve always loved reading it, and this year I ended up judging on The Portobello Prize. I moved slightly from books with theories or arguments to books about experience, and went back and read incredible things like Behind the Beautiful Forevers, The Grass Arena, and The Journalist and the Murderer.
But non-fiction isn’t a Thing. Defined solely in opposition to the popular and market dominance of fiction, it’s a non-genre (nonre?) that encompasses essays, memoir, academia, popular science, celebrity biography, accounting textbooks, self help, literary criticism, language courses, and so on and so on. It’s the lion’s share of writing, it’s our history of ideas — and yet it bears no scrutiny.
Even less of a Thing is the idea of pulling together any kind of best non-fiction of the year. But I’ve read some great not-fiction books this year that I want to shout about — books that I think rival the best of the year’s fiction for attention — so here it is. It’s a necessarily personal list, and I’ve gone mostly for the kind of narrative or creative non-fiction that, I hope, could be picked up and enjoyed by anyone just looking for an impeccable read.
To be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death
Take a wild ride with journalist Mark O’Connell as he meets the dubious pioneers looking to prolong the human condition by freezing heads, splicing machine parts into their bodies, and going full digital. It’s nice to read a tech book that doesn’t mindlessly advocate the inexorable march toward the Singularity, and explores what it means to be human and reflects that maybe there’s something irreplicable in it after all. Similarly rounded are the characters he creates: going beyond the simplified rhetoric of success, these people are weird and flawed, and our guide depicts them in ways routinely hilarious and occasionally actually quite tender.
Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class
Having spent the majority of my life — at school, at uni, at work — attempting to pass for middle class, I was so on board for this crowd-funded collection of essays on working class experience by writers who identify as working class. Happily, it’s not just a great concept: these essays — on growing up, accents, race, sexuality, food, writing, holidays and more — are fascinating, funny, discursive, and together mottle a portrait of a multifaceted, shifting, underrepresented, but hugely important social identity.
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
I’ve been meaning to read Ta-Nehisi Coates for a while now, and this book — eight essays on the Obama era, with new introductions — has wowed me straight off. His frank and rigorous writing dazzles, and his articulation of the racial divide at the heart of the USA, today and at pretty much every point since the birth of the nation, sends devastating peals in both directions through time. It shifted my perspective, not just in learning about black American experience, and looking at what Obama and his administration did and didn't represent, but by looking closely at a period of political history just behind us — to investigate how we got to where we are, by looking at where we very recently were. It’s not always a pretty picture, but I figure that’s what writing is for.
The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial
Back when Nelson was about to finish a book of poetry about her aunt, who was murdered by a serial killer before the author’s birth, DNA evidence from the case was scanned for the first time, a match was found, and the case was reopened. The result was a trial, and The Red Parts: Nelson’s deeply personal story of the case, the murder, the suspect, her family, the fallout, two books, dreams, relationships, therapy, gender, TV appearances, and plenty more. The read blew me away with a force I wasn’t expecting; it’s a tightly-packed knot of interior writing and ‘true crime’, and is fiercer and more dazzling than pretty much any other entry into either genre I can bring to mind.
The Red Parts was actually written back in 2007, but only published in the UK this year. So if this is eligible for my list I can probably also mention Joan Didion, James Baldwin, Elizabeth Hardwick, Audre Lorde, and Umberto Eco.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race
Elaborating upon a post the author wrote on her blog, Eddo-Lodge’s devastating, urgent book on race and racism in the UK is an absolute must-read (and our non-fiction Book of the Year). With piercing clarity she explains how in the UK we live in a system in which racism and race are routinely denied, but that is, structurally, deeply disadvantageous to people of colour. Black history, and its absence in our education system; white privilege, and bias in employment and education; ‘colour blindness’ and the idea of a ‘post-racial’ society, and the damage these ideas do; the intersection of race with gender and class — basically, if you plan to leave your house or talk to anyone in the next sixty years, you should probably read this book.
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir
Never before have I so wanted at once to put a book down forever (because of its subject matter) and yet turn the page (because of the writing). Beginning with her involvement, as a law student, in the case of a Louisiana paedophile child-killer, Marzano-Lesnevich’s book unpicks her protagonist in ways reminiscent of the true crime classics. But it’s the addition of her intercalary memoir, building to its own abhorrent zenith, that makes this a truly remarkable book; the two narratives come together in awful ways that explore memory, silence and identity. Not for the faint-hearted, perhaps, but profoundly affecting, rapturously written, and an expertly crafted book.
What I expected to be a relatively academic series of essays on the subject of the essay developed, becoming something even more interesting and wonderful, into a personal memoir-in-parts on the writer’s life, career, relationships and mental health. It’s a book about form, useful for anyone thinking about writing, it’s a reader of great writers, and it’s a man laid bare in front of a mirror. One last thing: a digital image of the book cover doesn’t do justice to how exquisite Fitzcarraldo Editions’ books are in real life.
Too Much and Not the Mood: Essays
“Being wowed by fruit or cake batter… ought to disqualify me from ever writing about wonder,” writes Durga Chew-Bose in the first essay in this collection. But this is the perfect summary of her mellifluous, digressive writings: the little things, the everyday things, and the sublime. This is a writer in love with everything for existing and, ultimately, with being alive, and I lived for her surprising articulations and cadence. “And yet, despite claims, no writer hopes for ideas to take complete shape. Approximation is the mark.”
The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms
Solnit has been one of the leading practitioners of non-fiction writing, across a broad swathe of subjects, for years now, and this volume of Further Feminisms — following on from the recent Men Explain Things to Me — is as state-of-the-art as ever. She articulates in perfect ways things the rest of us would spend our lives pawing vaguely at, she’s uncompromising and funny, and her advice to us as individuals and a society is golden; reading these essays there were so many bits I wanted to somehow bear in mind, as a mantra, that I thought about getting a tattoo — but I don’t have enough skin for this wisdom.
How to Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS
At multiple points over the past twelve months I've balked at the prospect of tackling this 600-page book about the AIDS crisis. It came in proof with rave reviews; my colleagues loved it; it won the Lambda, the Green Carnation, the Baillie Gifford Prize. And now I'm finally reading it, I wish I'd started earlier: yes, it's long, but it's fabulously readable, an incredibly ambitious narrative told with great accomplishment; yes, it's serious and sad, but it's also epic and tells the stories of pioneers and heroes who fought to find a way to stop themselves and their loved ones from suffering and dying. I am going to savour every remnant page of this great history.
I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death
A memoir told across seventeen morbid near-misses, from the ‘Oh that's totally happened to me’ to the ‘How are you still alive..?’ But this set of reflective vignettes isn't just a killer conceit; as gripping and deft as you’d expect from a successful novelist like O’Farrell, it’s also a rich, interior pageturner. It’s immediate but never shortsighted, and the ways she renders scenes in memory and mind makes you feel like you're there with her, as her, as profound as her.
Brolliology: A History of the Umbrella in Life and Literature
Full disclosure: I mightn’t have gotten round to reading this had I not known the author, a former employee here at Foyles. But this time, space, and puddle-jumping history of the umbrella is exactly the sort of literary curiosity cabinet I love; freewheeling, informative and reflective, it’s full of novel facts and connections about an object I didn’t know I was interested in — with the double perk of making me think I’m as interesting and as clever as this clever and interesting little book.
There are also four books that went into paperback this year, which I just can’t leave out:
Known and Strange Things
I would devote the rest of my life to the craft if I knew for certain that one day I’d write half as well as Teju Cole. Whenever I return to this collection of essays, on books, art, race, the world, I am invigorated -- by his brilliance, by his powers of observation, by his ability to articulate with economy what previously felt vague, indeterminate -- and by his triangulation, his haunting, in every piece, of the sublime.
The Good Immigrant
Twenty-one writers on what it means to be a person of colour in the UK today: this is the book that lit a fire under the book industry, proved naysayers wrong, and became a bestseller. It’s also funny, enlightening, damning, proactive, depressing, and essential, essential, essential. I truly believe this is one of the most important books to have been published in our times.
You Could do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat]
I read this in one night and it screwed me right up. Told in the second person (‘You shoot him in the head’), Hankinson’s account of the murders, manhunt, and mindset of Raoul Moat puts you, the reader, in the head of an unhinged and violently angry killer, and on the run. It’s a brilliant book, and I can’t say it better than Louis Theroux: “Both an experiment in empathy and an exploration of the limits of empathy.”
Another Day in the Death of America
Journalist Gary Younge picked a day at random, and wrote the lives of all the minors killed by gunfire in the States on that day. It’s a heartbreaking read, but there’s also a colossal beauty to it, as it renders a society through its victims -- through individuals, and those they leave behind, in a nation where only mass killings seemed to make the news. This for me is exactly what makes a great non-fiction book: conscientious, deeply affecting, expertly structured, richly researched and creative, and elegant and concisely-written.
And if you would like even more inspiration, take a look at the list of books below that were highly recommended to me, or that I still really want to read.