Friday 20 July 2018

Autumn yields rich non-fiction harvest

After a strong summer showing, a bounty of non-fiction releases this autumn looks set to enlighten and inspire

Hilary A White

Following this summer's bumper crop, there looks to be no let-up in non-fiction titles to enlighten, entertain and widen our understanding of the world around us. That is their purpose, and it is part of the reason non-fiction sales have remained so robust (2016 saw a 7% increase in the UK) when those of their fictional counterparts have wavered slightly.

Already, some of the best titles of 2017 have displayed not only a diversity of subject matter but also much flair in style and voice as well. Rowan Somerville's Beat (Lilliput) saw the Anglo-Irish writer wade deeply and honestly into the Israel-Palestine conflict and mine timeless truths from tangled hatreds. Similarly, David Blake Knox's Hitler's Irish Slaves (New Island) got a timely reprint given Ireland's self-reflection in the wake of last year's 1916 centenary.

Lighter territory yielded incredible results as well. There was a wealth of fun to be had with Meet Me In the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011 (Faber), Lizzy Goodman's wild but journalistically rigorous telling of how a city shell-shocked by 9/11 reconfigured pop music via The Strokes, DFA Records and a plethora of bands in their slipstream. Philip Judge's recently published In Sight of Yellow Mountain (Gill) is highly recommended, such is the richness of its pastoral insight and the hoots of laughter it effortlessly incites. Judge locates a rare tone, encompassing charm, whip-smart humour and gentle wisdom in this memoir about a city-slicker and his family adapting to Irish country life.

Donald Trump's shambolic presidency can be thanked for one thing at least - boosting the career of the excellent RTE Washington correspondent Caitriona Perry who has been at the coalface of the entire carnival. In America (Gill, November) sees her reporting back from the epicentre of Trump's America and relating her own first-hand experiences of his supporter base.

Trumpism is fuelling certain sub-genres of non-fiction and looks set to continue doing so. His administration's unwillingness to ratify the Paris Agreement means that attitudes to climate change are being brought back into sharp focus. A collection of writings by leading scientists and academics in Carbon, Capitalism and Communication (Palgrave Macmillan, September) seeks to make sense of the constantly changing nature of the climate discussion. Unlikely to be the feel-good hit of the autumn.

Natural disaster is given a jarringly human constitution in Ghosts Of The Tsunami (Jonathan Cape, August). An award-winning correspondent and The Times' Asia editor, Richard Lloyd Parry was based in Tokyo when the devastating 2011 Tsunami struck. This is "literary non-fiction", full of gilded language and sensations as Parry recounts the scene he was met with when he travelled up the coast of Japan to where the giant waves had hit. A transcendental reading experience.

Fergal Keane (below), meanwhile, embarks on a historical journey as tragic as it is macabre. Wounds: A Memoir Of Love And War (William Collins, September) delves into a story Keane's father would tell about a soldier shot in cold blood by an IRA unit outside his grandmother's house in Listowel during the Civil War. Ghosts both spectral and moral still haunt the community. Thus, with typical scrutiny, the BBC correspondent and Sunday Independent columnist opens up old wounds and takes an unflinching look at the truth behind this hushed-up act and the nature of rebellious murder itself.

Biographies of towering individuals and lesser-known note-worthies are also lining up this autumn. The long shadow of Eamon de Valera continues to fall on the historical conversation in this country.

Fresh air is provided in extensive fashion by the first of a two-part reassessment of the Fianna Fail totem by RTE politics hound David McCullagh. De Valera Volume 1: Rise 1882-1932 (Gill, October) will be followed in 2018 by Rule: 1932-1975, and, together, they should reinvigorate analysis of de Valera's legacy for a modern context.

David Attenborough feels like one of those 20th-century figures whom it's hard to imagine a world without. The tireless 91-year-old is now as precious and finite as the species and habitats he has been showing us over a peerless seven decades in broadcasting.

We take a seat with the great one in Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions (Two Roads, September) as he recalls in his inimitable tones those early days in search of exotic wildlife as a young TV presenter for the BBC.

Meanwhile, leading architect of his generation, Richard Rogers reflects on his life and work in A Place for All People (Canongate, September), a beautifully designed memoir which mixes personal history with polemics and projects for a better society.

A TV personality closer to home is woman-of-the-moment Stefanie Preissner. Since erupting onto the scene with Can't Cope/Won't Cope, the screenwriter, playwright and actress has become a staple of TV and radio panel discussions, especially when millennials are in the frame.

The Life magazine columnist and all-round wit sets out her existential findings in book form in Why Can't Everything Just Stay The Same? (Hachette, October) as she negotiates the rocky road to adulthood.

Remarkable lives are often uncovered by diligent non-fiction writers. Mary Elmes is one we're looking forward to getting to know in A Time To Risk All (Gill, October). Journalist Clodagh Finn (formerly of this parish) tells the saga of a Cork woman who in 1942 risked much to smuggle some 200 Jewish children out of Hitler's reach in the boot of her car.

Having also volunteered to help children in the Spanish Civil War, her valour is extraordinary. Elmes never spoke of her experiences, and 15 years on from her death, as racism and terror infect the fabric of western society once again, it feels more important than ever to learn about courage and selflessness in real-life members of our society.

Non-fiction, it would seem, is the realm of truly great heroes.

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