Tuesday 25 June 2019

Best of summer non-fiction: Take a host of real-life heroes and villains away on holiday

Summer reading is traditionally the preserve of novels and genre fiction. But non-fiction is often where the best stories and the most vivid characters reside

Hillary Clinton reading Fire and Fury
Hillary Clinton reading Fire and Fury
Donald Trump reading his own book
All the pieces matter
Fascism: A Warning by Madeline Albright
The Great Cover Up: The Truth About The Death of Michael Collins by Gerard Murphy
Wild Atlantic Way by Neil Jackman
The Cow Book by John Connell
Tony 10 by Declan Lynch

Hilary A White

Holiday reading tends to revolve around literary and genre fiction, stuff that is direct, entertaining and compulsive to thumb through during your precious time off.

Spare a thought, however, for non-fiction. It is here, after all, that the best stories reside, a place where heroes and villains, breakthroughs and dilemmas, affect the very world we live in. And just because their subjects may be plucked from the real, rather than the imaginary, world, it doesn't mean they should be any less juicy or page-turning.

Politics seem to be all around us at the moment, and, as ever, comes tightly knitted into the fabric of history. Titles concerning both subjects are thus tinged with an immediacy that is compelling.

While no one would wish to take Donald Trump on holiday with them, the US always prompts meaty non-fiction discussion. Ronan Farrow's War On Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence (William Collins €16.99) sees the former US State Department advisor and investigative journalist offer a rigorously researched polemic on toxic US foreign policy over successive administrations.

Donald Trump reading his own book
Donald Trump reading his own book

Meanwhile, Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream (Bloomsbury €21.99) sees London-based academic Sarah Churchwell examine the long pathway that brought the US to the ugly modern incarnation it assumes today.

For those wishing to bask in what could have been, Chasing Hillary: Ten Years, Two Presidential Campaigns and One Intact Glass Ceiling (William Collins €16.99) is probably for you. Here, Amy Chozick brings candour, humour and intuition to her personal account of covering Clinton's dramatic presidential defeat in 2016.

If you wanted to go right back in US history, there is a strong case for Barracoon: The Story of The Last Slave (HQ €10.99). Zora Neale Hurston is considered one of the seminal voices of African-American literature. Almost 60 years after Hurston's death, this never-before-published account of Cudjo Lewis, a slave transported to Alabama 50 years after the abolition of slavery, sees her depict his remarkable life through interviews she conducted in 1927.

The lurch to the right we've seen of late makes Fascism: A Warning (HarperCollins €16.99) a timely publication. Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State and US ambassador to the UN, outlines how the war between fascism and democracy is as fervent as ever, and how to spot political movements that could ultimately remove our human rights, or worse.

Albright was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937, a year before Hitler's Kristallnacht confirmed how dangerous Germany had become for Jewish people. Her family escaped, as did the subjects of Bruce Henderson's The Ritchie Boys (William Collins €11.99). These were young German Jews in the US who were retrained as part of a top-secret Pentagon intelligence mission and sent back to the frontline. A story crying out for a Hollywood depiction, if ever there was one.

Maybe Esther (Fourth Estate €14.99), Katja Petrowskaja's multi-generational memoir of her family's fortunes during 20th Century European history, is also rooted in that era and comes highly recommended.

Wild Atlantic Way by Neil Jackman
Wild Atlantic Way by Neil Jackman

Here in Ireland, history's chime is never diminished. And the events around Michael Collins's assassination have always had an element of uncertainty around them. In The Great Cover Up: The Truth About The Death of Michael Collins (The Collins Press €19.99), Gerard Murphy examines the Big Fellow's ambush in Beal na Blath with forensic detail and uncovers new information.

Also digging in style is Des Ekin, who gave us 2006's excellent The Stolen Village. Here in Ireland's Pirate Trail (The O'Brien Press €16.99), he divulges the fruits of extensive research to suggest that Ireland was once a world capital for pirates, buccaneers, swashbucklers and sea-bandits. I can think of no better non-fiction beach read if you're "staycationing".

Similarly, if you're heading west of the Shannon, be sure to pack a copy of Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way: A Guide to Its Historical Treasures (The Collins Press €17.99) by Neil Jackman. There's also Ireland's Seashore: A Field Guide (The Collins Press €14.99) by Lucy Taylor and Emma Nickelsen for rock-pooling families.

Good nature writing is hard to beat. Adam Nicolson's The Seabird's Cry (William Collins €11.99) has just been longlisted for the Wainwright Prize for nature and travel writing, and is a rich and elegant exploration of puffins, gannets and other ocean-goers likely to wing past you if you're at sea.

Same goes for Eagle Country (Little Toller €16.99), Sean Lysaght's "prose map" of the wildlife, landscape and people of the west coast as he seeks out the reintroduced golden and white-tailed eagles trying to secure a foothold here after a long absence. In Curlew Moon (William Collins €16.99), BBC Natural History Unit producer Mary Colwell raises awareness of the curlew, that enigmatic species with its haunting call that is now the subject of major conservation concern.

No one, not least author John Connell, could have predicted the success of The Cow Book (Granta €14.99). The Longford scribe is now readying this pastoral memoir's release in the US where its redemptive, old-country feel and rural wisdom should go down well.

A meditative quality also runs through Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces (4th Estate €11.99), Michael Chabon's ode to being a dad.

Zadie Smith is always fine company, and Feel Free (Hamish Hamilton €16.99), her newest collection of essays, reviews and articles, is occasionally sublime and easy to dip into.

True crime fans are urged to grab a copy of Tony 10 (Gill €16.99), Declan Lynch's rollicking real-life caper about the rise and spectacular fall of Carlow postman Tony O'Reilly who compulsively gambled (and lost) eye-watering amounts of other people's money.

Darker fare is located in Hunting El Chapo (Harper Collins €16.99), as DEA agent Andrew Hogan and author Douglas Century recount the seven-year chase to bring down the notorious Mexican drug baron of the title.

Finally, pop culture buffs are advised to seek out All The Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire (No Exit Press €14.99), Jonathan Abrams's inside look at the superlative TV drama.

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