Sunday 18 March 2018

A year of publishing dangerously

John Spain picks the best non-fiction books likely to wind up under our trees

Although novels dominate the bestseller charts throughout the rest of the year, non-fiction comes into its own before Christmas. And that is particularly true this year with a really good selection on the shelves for Christmas presents.

It's a dangerous time in the always-challenging world of publishing. Irish publishers are feeling the pressure from the recession and non-fiction is seen as a lifeline to the other side of the downturn. In fact, one of the few growth areas in publishing here has been books that analyse our economic woes. If the economy was growing as fast as the number of titles on the banks and the state finances, we'd have no problem.

Best of the bunch over the past year was Wasters by Shane Ross and Nick Webb (Penguin Ireland). This one managed to be infuriating and compelling at the same time, detailing how public money was wasted by an army of quango members, semi-state managers, union bosses, consultants, lawyers and accountants, among others including politicians.

The fees, expenses and junket culture are almost as shocking as the sense of entitlement these people had as they played Buggins' turn with seats on boards and then failed to do their jobs.

And it's still going on, with the professional networkers supposedly becoming the solution to the problem they created. Guaranteed to give the reader indigestion after the turkey.

After so many books by local commentators, it's interesting to get an outside view on where it all went wrong. When the Luck of the Irish Ran Out by David J Lynch (Macmillan), economic correspondent of USA Today, is not an overly long book but it has real insight into how we lost the plot.

It's good on the grubby nexus between politics and business and it's withering on the bank bosses and regulators. Because it's for an international readership it gives a clear and concise overview.

Another business book which is a fascinating read is A Mobile Fortune by Siobhan Creaton (Aurum), the story of how Denis O'Brien made his millions. Apart from giving an insight into how he works, with a lot of personal detail, it's a lesson in opportunity spotting, risk taking and the single-minded pursuit of goals.

It was a good year for memoirs/biographies and, surprisingly, one of the best was Life by Keith Richards (Orion), mainly because it has the unpeeled honesty of the ex-junkie. It's a miracle that he is around to tell the story at all, of course, given his drugs intake. It's the ultimate sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll story, but for 'Keef' the music always mattered more then anything else. All the rest -- the groupies, the drugs, the busts -- was just background noise.

Almost as good is the new biography of Frank Sinatra, covering the first half of his life. Frank: The Making of a Legend by James Kaplan (Sphere), reveals the devastating long-term effect his violent mother (a backstreet abortionist) had on his life. Kaplan, an acclaimed biographer, ends this book in 1953 when Sinatra's career is rescued by his Oscar for From Here to Eternity. In spite of the rumours that it was his Mafia connections that got him the role (like the singer Johnny Fontane in The Godfather) Kaplan believes it was Ava Gardner's intervention with the studio bosses that swung it for him.

The Collins Press in Cork produces sumptuous coffee-table books every year and they have two in particular which are worth considering for presents this Christmas. Ireland's Animals: Myths, Legends and Folklore by Niall Mac Coitir has beautiful watercolours by Gordon D'Arcy and fascinating text for all ages (did you know the last wolf in Ireland was killed in Carlow in 1786?).

An Irish Butcher Shop by Pat Whelan, the Clonmel butcher who Rick Stein regards as a food hero, features information and recipes all about meat.

Talking about food, Jamie Oliver is again dominating the market this year. But one local cookbook deserves attention not least because Catherine Fulvio has to be the most natural cook on TV. Catherine's Italian Kitchen (Gill & Macmillan) is as unpretentious as her TV shows. She's Irish but married to a Sicilian and learnt her Italian cooking from his family and friends. And it shows. Plus the sun-filled pictures help in this miserable weather.

For people of a certain age, the old Leaving Certificate poetry book Soundings, with notes by the late Gus Martin, (reissued by Gill & Macmillan) would make a lovely nostalgic present. It's the one we used to hate and came to love, such as Patrick Kavanagh's stony grey soil, complete with the original cover. It first appeared in 1969 and stayed on the books' list for 26 years, so up to a million students have wrestled with it. This brings it all back. Passing it around for performances after the plum pudding would be far more interesting than listening to cracker jokes.

Also poetic and a lovely gift book is I Am of Ireland (Gill & Macmillan) which presents more than 60 of WB Yeats' best-loved poems alongside paintings by contemporary artists such as his brother Jack B Yeats.

A subscription to The Dublin Review makes a great present. It publishes prose of all kinds by world-class writers and new talents, including the work of regulars like Roy Foster, John Banville, Anne Enright, Andrew O'Hagan and Colm Toibin.

It often has sneak previews of forthcoming novels. Half the pleasure is in the book format of the little magazine and the heavy cream paper. See for details.

The Non-Fiction Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards last month was Neil Richardson's A Coward if I Return, a Hero if I Fall (O'Brien Press), featuring the stories of Irishmen who fought in World War One.

The veterans' stories are gathered from soldiers' families, military records, diaries, documents, letters and old photographs.

From 1914 to 1918, 200,000 Irishmen went to war and 35,000 never came home. Those who did were scorned rather than praised. This book pays a long overdue tribute. A visual treat and a great present for anyone interested in our recent history.

Irish Independent

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