Tuesday 16 July 2019

Dive deeper into the unknown: Non-fiction holiday picks

From essay excellence to natural awe, non-fiction has a place in every holiday suitcase, writes Hilary A White

Summer reads: non-fiction sales are on the increase
Summer reads: non-fiction sales are on the increase

While a slight dip in fiction sales has been reported by the UK Publishing Association, non-fiction sales have grown by 24pc since 2014.

This might reflect increased concern about the health of the world we live in but also a hunger to find the last hidden, un-Googleable corners of our universe.

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Encompassing both is Underland (Hamish Hamilton, €21.99) by Robert Macfarlane. Having traversed peaks, eras and even language in his excellent back-catalogue, the great nature writer now descends into the caves and pits and subterranean realms that lie inches from the soles of our feet. A typically lyrical and mind-warping reading experience. Sharing some DNA is Origins (Bodley Head, €15.99), Lewis Dartnell's fascinating examination of how humans are sculpted by this planet's raw elements and minerals.

Digging of a different kind was seen in the homegrown essay-writing brilliance of Sinead Gleeson and Ian Maleney. The former's Constellations (Picador, €17.99) composed a series of deep dives into art, love, loss, feminism, motherhood and body politics that confirmed her as one of our leading women of letters. Maleney meanwhile linked his entries in Minor Monuments (Tramp Press, €14.99) under a common thread of his grandfather's Alzheimer's, the Midlands bog his family hails from, and some beautiful ruminations on recording and sound.

Another new illuminating new Irish voice was Aoife Abbey. Having helmed The Secret Doctor blog for the British Medical Association, the UK-based Dublin doctor caught the attention of Penguin. The result was Seven Signs of Life (Vintage, €13.99), which pulled back the curtain on working life in an intensive care unit better than any TV show. A more visceral medical memoir was found in David Nott's War Doctor (Picador, €20.99) as the London surgeon told of his experiences treating patients on the frontlines of war-torn locations such as Aleppo and Sarajevo.

Writer Rosita Boland also seemed to strike a chord with Elsewhere (Doubleday Ireland, €16.99). This collection of hearty backpacking anecdotes was lifted to another level by Boland's unflinching personal honesty. Kate Spicer took a more bemusing approach with Lost Dog (Ebury Press, €18.99), in which the journalist embarks on a colourful search across the city of London to find her dearly beloved lost lurcher, Wolfy.

UK farmer and nature writer John Lewis-Stempel has won much acclaim for his perfectly observed reflections on pastoral habitats and their residents. Still Water (Doubleday, €16.99) explored "the deep life" of ponds with characteristic wit and beauty from the two-time Wainwright Prize winner.

On these shores, Mark Boyle documented his extraordinary day-to-day life "off-grid" (no running water, no car, no electricity) in a small-holding. The Way Home (Oneworld, €14.99) is a lyrical and wry look at a lifestyle we all ponder when technology overwhelms us.

Having been completely vindicated of accusations of mishandling in the Garda whistlebower case, former Justice Minister Alan Shatter sets the record straight (and settles a score or two) in his new political memoir Frenzy and Betrayal (Merrion Press, €19.99).

Another biographical talking point (albeit for entirely different reasons) is Moby's Then it Fell Apart (Faber & Faber, €16.99). The electronic superstar's highly revealing, warts-and-all memoir landed him in hot water when his own memories of time spent with actress Natalie Portman didn't match hers. Lowborn (Chatto, €16.99) saw award-winning novelist Kerry Hudson go back to her impoverished (emotionally and economically) upbringing in Aberdeen, her memoir simultaneously becoming a call for greater action on child poverty and tackling domestic alcoholism.

In other examples of reviewing the past, military historian Max Hastings waded back into one of the most controversial conflicts in modern times with Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy (1945-1975) (William Collins, €12.99) with an extensive anthology of first-hand accounts and contextual analysis. Fresh air was blown into the case of London serial killer Jack the Ripper in Hallie Rubenhol's The Five (Doubleday, €18.99), marking the first time the killer's victims have received the full attention they deserve.

Blending true crime with literary interest is Furious Hours (William Heinemann, €18.99) by Casey Cep. It tells of To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee and her fascination with a brutal murder case in her native Alabama. And then there are books such as On Chapel Sands (Chatto & Windus, €18.99) where the author is immediately connected to the past crime. In this case, it is writer Laura Cumming looking back at the case of a child abducted from a beach in 1929. That child was Cumming's mother.

The pursuit of justice is a surging motivator to get books written and truths uncovered. Toni Morrison's essay collection Mouth Full of Blood (Chatto & Windus, €15.99) is recommended for anyone keen on lacerating but clear-headed analysis about human rights ills, but also art, language and literature.

Another fine primer is Introducing John Moriarty: In His Own Words (Lilliput, €11.99) which sees editors Michael W Higgins and Sean Aherne arrange a selection of key writings by the enigmatic but mysterious Kerry philosopher. Philosophy is there to be enjoyed but it must be packaged correctly.

The same goes for linguistics, hence the response to Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (Century, €14.99). Benjamin Dreyer's three decades working in copy editing have equipped him with a set of rules to live written life by, making this unashamed "gospel according to" by the Random House vice-president a must for anyone prone to losing sleep over bad grammar, spelling mistakes, Oxford commas, etc.

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