Tuesday 25 October 2016

Books: Smorgasbord of seasonal non-fiction stocking fillers for all

There is a whole world of books beyond the borders of The Land of Fiction. Anne Cunningham selects the best non-fiction reads of 2015

Published 14/12/2015 | 02:30

Henry Shefflin: The Autobiography
Henry Shefflin: The Autobiography
AP McCoy. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

Have you ever been discouraged from buying a book as a gift because of some well-intentioned, if somewhat addled, advice? Advice like "Jim's not a reader, just watches documentaries" or "Helen doesn't read, she paints" or "Nope - Gerry only likes his Sky Sports"? When we slap the misnomer of "non-reader" on a person, we usually mean a non-reader of fiction. But everyone's got a passion. And out there in that vast domain called Non-Fiction in the bookshops, I reckon there's a book for everyone. Here is just a soupcon of what you can find.

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Celebrity memoirs are ten a penny but 2015 was rich in literary biographies published. There were lives of Bellow, Vidal and Le Carre. The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964, v.1 by Zachary Leader (Viking €56.95) was judged 'terrific' by The Guardian and the Evening Standard quipped: "… it's so long {because} it tries to detail all his affairs. Just saying." Who could resist that?

William Boyd described Adam Sisman's biography of John Le Carre (Bloomsbury €37.50) as "exemplary" while Every Time A Friend Succeeds, Something Inside Me Dies (Little Brown €39.79) was welcomed as a much-needed chronicle of Gore Vidal's life and works. Erica Jong wrote: "Jay Parini has done the impossible-written about a monster of egotism with incredible empathy". I admit to gushing rather promiscuously in my review of The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and The Secret History of Wonderland by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (Harvill Secker €37.50) but I was in good company. AS Byatt described it as "startling and exciting…This book helps us to see, even while unravelling our innocence." Jonathan Bate must be admired for virtually re-writing Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life (Harper Collins €27.99) following an 11th hour withdrawal by the Hughes estate. Nonetheless, Hughes' friend Melvyn Bragg has described it as "a powerful and clarifying study, richly layered and compelling".

We all know a history "anorak", and they'd be very pleased to get one of these: A Nation Not A Rabble (Profile Books, €38.99) Diarmuid Ferriter's chronicle of Ireland's most tempestuous decade, 1913-1923, was reviewed here by Maurice Hayes: "… a wonderful book…Ferriter does his duty as an historian by putting (events) in context, by getting…to the voices of the protagonists".

The Secret War: Spies, Codes and Guerillas 1939-1945 (Harper Collins €27.99) is Max Hastings' tenth book on World War II and has been lauded as the finest history of WWII contained in a single volume while KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann (Little Brown €39.50) has been likened to reading a history of hell. For his groundbreaking, meticulous research and eminently readable narrative, Wachsmann has made his mark.

1916: Portraits and Lives edited by Lawrence White and James Quinn (Royal Irish Academy €30.00) is collection of 42 biographies of the lesser-known heroes (and heroines) of 1916, superbly illustrated by David Rooney. Lively, ironic, even racy at times, it's been published in advance of next year's centenary. And in A Woven Silence: Memory, History and Remembrance by Felicity Hayes-McCoy (Collins Press €14.99) documenting both political and personal history, the author traces her family's story from 1916 to the present, as well as exploring the dilution and manipulation of memory. In Eamon de Valera: A Will to Power (Faber €29.50) described as "a joy to read", Ronan Fanning has produced another volume for history fiends on both sides of the still - incredibly - extant divide.

Among the best of this year's art books are Francis Bacon In Your Blood by Michael Peppiatt (Bloomsbury €39.70) which follows the author reeling across London's bohemia in Bacon's shadow for years. Think of Nick Caraway's observing Gatsby, and you've got the general gist. Winter Pages edited by Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith (Curlew Editions, €40.00) is a new anthology covering almost every facet of the arts in Ireland. Beautifully crafted, cloth-bound, and selling out fast. Wilhelmina Geddes: Life and Work by Nicola Gordon Bowe (Four Courts Press HB, €50.00) is a lavish tome of a book, which has revived national and international interest in Geddes, our forgotten heroine of stained glass.

When it comes to cookery books, I'm like a small child - I just want to look at the pictures. But if it's intelligent text you're after, as well as lovely pictures, then I recommend The Virtuous Tart by Susan Jane White (Gill & Macmillan €19.99). The "queen of guilt-free gobbling" won a Bord Gais Book Award for this, her latest. Simply Nigella: Feel Good Food by Nigella Lawson (Vintage €30.00) is another hit from the woman who drove men into the kitchen - to cook! Beautifully written and illustrated. And in A Year of Good Eating (Harper Collins €30.00) Nigel Slater keeps us interested as he keeps it simple in his latest volume, with recipes, stories and ideas.

For the legion of sports fans, there is a staggering choice of biographies to choose from. Among the best are Pulling the Strings (Penguin €29.50) Peter Stringer's long-awaited autobiography; Winner (Orion PB, €22.50) AP McCoy's fourth autobiography covers the years up to his retirement. Until Victory Always by Jim McGuinness (Gill and Macmillan €24.99) tells a story of inspiration, dedication and courage and was a richly deserved Bord Gais Book Awards winner; in The Autobiography (Penguin €29.50) Henry Shefflin, one of Ireland's favourite hurlers, delivers a candid account of his life and his passion; Finally My Story by Stephen Gerrard (Penguin 32.50) is a must for soccer fans. Happy hunting!

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