Books of 2017: our writers choose their top non-fiction titles
In the second part of our books of the year special, our writers choose their top non-fiction titles of the last 12 months - with gift ideas for political junkies, science lovers, cookery fans and much more
At the start of the year, we knew that 2017 would be dominated by the fallout from two unexpected events - the election of Donald Trump and Britain's Brexit vote. Our preoccupation bordering on obsession with these momentous occurrences is reflected in publishing output through the year.
In Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency (Penguin) Joshua Green explores how Trump hooked up with Bannon, an Irish-American ideologue with sympathies on the far right. As Green puts it, Trump's chief strategist (who left the White House during the year but still has influence) was the man who encouraged Trump's worst tendencies in the ultimately correct belief that his rabble-rousing would get him elected. Green colourfully describes Bannon as an internet-era update of the Slim Pickens character in Dr Strangelove who rides the bomb like a rodeo bull, whoopin' and hollerin' all the way to nuclear annihilation. This book is highly entertaining until the moment when Trump takes charge. Then, it becomes disturbing.
On this side of the Atlantic, we were obsessed with Brexit just as much as Trump. As RTÉ Brussels correspondent Tony Connelly says of the UK's 2016 vote in his lucid account Brexit & Ireland (Penguin), "This was not an Irish referendum but it might as well have been." Connelly shows in meticulous detail how the Brexit vote will affect us in countless ways, from the complex trade of dairy products across the border to the removal of a neighbour that for the most part has been a strong ally in the EU. He likens Ireland's plight to being blindsided by a souped-up Bentley, driven by a drunk driver with no insurance. When we crawl from the wreckage to catch the number plate, we discover that it belongs to our next-door neighbour.
In Fall Out, A Year of Political Mayhem (William Collins), Tim Shipman delineates with gossipy relish Theresa May's attempt to grapple with the complexities of Brexit and bolster her support by calling a general election. This is a pacy behind-the-scenes account of how she almost broke down on the hustings and in the aftermath of the election that leaves her dependent on the DUP to prop up the government. As Shipman tells it, Boris Johnson's response to the election setback was plain: "Christ, Brexit. This is going to cause massive problems. We've f***** Brexit. We've f***** Brexit." So far, his summary has proved accurate.
Mary Manning's Striking Back (Collins Press) was a fascinating memoir of the Dunnes Stores strike against apartheid South Africa and its aftermath. Manning readily admits that when she refused to ring two South African grapefruit through the till on a summer day in 1984, she knew little about the evils of Apartheid. She gives an intriguing account of how she and the other strikers became accomplished campaigners, lauded by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. She was prepared to face down Dunnes Stores management, politicians, elements within the Catholic Church, gardaí and even her own union. There are interesting asides about well-known figures of the time including Bishop Eamonn Casey and John Bruton.
In The Struggle for Catalonia: Rebel Politics in Spain (Hurst) Raphael Minder, the New York Times Spain correspondent, gave plenty of useful background insights into a crisis that blew up in autumn. Although the book appeared just before the October vote which led to a constitutional crisis, Minder explains dispassionately and with admirable clarity how the government in Madrid and secessionist leaders in a prosperous region came to such loggerheads, after decades of accommodation. Taking in views from all sides, he argues that the separatist challenge is so volatile that it raises questions about the future of the European Union.
Top pick: A Force for Justice: The Maurice McCabe Story
Clifford’s riveting account of the plight of garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe presents the disturbing backdrop to political events that are still unfolding in the Charleton Tribunal. The book, published by Hachette, gives us the compelling story right from the start, telling how the Bailieboro sergeant tried to expose gross incompetence and corruption in the force, but faced oppressive opposition from the upper ranks.
With the amount of tumult in the world - Brexit, Trump and Islamic terror - looking at the roots of events has never been so important, with many excellent history books helping to satisfy our curiosity.
The title of Peter Conradi's Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War (One World) asks a self explanatory and provocative question: did we, in the West, needlessly antagonise and isolate post-Soviet Russia and drive into being the aggressive Putin-led neo-imperial power that it is today? He argues that we have, and it's hard not disagree. From rushing former Warsaw Pact states into NATO to US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the West didn't exactly ease the post-Soviet global transition.
However, Russian academic and gay activist Masha Gessen argues differently in The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (One World). Gessen asserts that Russia was never a full democracy and this tendency was reinforced by Communism, and by lost opportunities after Communism collapsed. Her compelling account, in an evocative lyrical style, weaves the personal stories of specific Russians with hard-hitting analysis and history. It should be said that Peter Conradi, in Who Lost Russia?, also describes the increasing authoritarian tendencies under the recent Russian presidency. Both authors have very interesting perspectives on the Ukraine crisis, and the ineffectual response of the West, and especially the EU.
But a more benign view of Russian Communism and of the sacrifices made during the great struggle against the evils of Nazism (for which we should all be grateful) is contained in Avenging angels: Soviet Women Snipers on the Eastern Front (1941-45) by young Lyuba Vinogradova (Quercus). She describes in powerful detail how hardened Soviet female soldiers became ruthless crack shots behind enemy lines on the bitter Eastern Front and this made a great leap forward for women's position, at least in the barrier-breaking Communist society.
An interesting perspective on the rise of the Nazis and World War II, which has so shaped our continent, is contained in Jürgen Tampke's A Perfidious Distortion of History: The Versailles Peace Treaty and the Success of the Nazis (Scribe).
The Australian historian challenges the received wisdom that Germany was too harshly punished after World War I, which they were blamed for starting, and that in fact, in many ways, it got off lightly and almost immediately started rearming for another conflict. Tampke does not make a totally convincing case, but it makes for a fascinating read and reminds of the often restive power of Germany at the heart of Europe.
The fact that today a defanged Germany has become a peaceful but powerful powerhouse is something we take for granted, but for many decades it was far from the case, and it is a tribute to subsequent Franco-German cooperation and then the European Community that this has become the case.
It is just a pity that the EU, and the West, could not have created as positive a relationship with the great power of Russia, and not allowed the tension and incipient conflict that now exists, and which is so vividly described by both Conradi and Gessen in the books cited above.
Top pick: The civil war in Dublin: the fight For the Irish capital 1922-1924
After the self congratulation of the 1916 centenary, and the same for the War of Independence, John Dorney’s reminds us of the difficult memories and legacies we still have to face with his excellent account published by Merrion Press. Torture, ambush and execution — it was a squalid and bloody struggle with long resonance.
In A History of the Future, Queen's University academic Peter J Bowler examines the field of futurology, specifically here from Victorian times to the 1960s. Bowler identifies the major technologies of the period, and how the key seers - some rather more clairvoyant than others - in press and sci-fi novels reacted, extrapolated and predicted.
New York biologist Bill Schutt has a lot of fun, while informing and educating, with the cheekily titled Eat Me: A Natural and Unnatural History of Cannibalism. It's full of enjoyably grisly, and scarcely believable, stories of autophagy in animals (much more widespread than you'd suspect) and humanity (not quite as widespread as horror movies have led us to believe… but real, nonetheless).
Dubliner Mark O'Connell turned from literary criticism to pop science with his first full-length book, To Be a Machine. It's a globe-spanning odyssey in search of the "visionaries, billionaires, professors, and programmers using groundbreaking technology to push the limits of the human body". Transhumanism is the game; some sort of eternal life - whether that's in cryogenic freezing, a robotic body, or your consciousness downloaded to a computer hard drive - is the aim. It's overwritten at times, but To Be a Machine is intellectual, witty… and kind of horrifying in many ways.
In Time Travel: A History, James Gleick explores the notion of time itself, our perceptions of it, cultural representations of it, and even, ultimately, whether it can be said to exist at all. (Short answer: yes, it does - but for God's sake don't try to define what exactly time is.) It's all enjoyably mind-melting stuff: thought-provoking and lyrically written.
Mask of the Sun: The Science, History and Forgotten Lore of Eclipses does exactly what it says on the cover. A lunar scientist and astronomer, John Dvorak isn't the world's greatest prose stylist, but his book more than compensates with a wealth of interesting titbits and cogent explanations of the mechanics behind these beautiful natural phenomena.
Damion Searls' The Inkblots tells the true story behind one of the most famous, instantly recognisable images in the world: the Rorschach test. In fact it's a series of images - 10 in all - painstakingly created and painted by Hermann Rorschach, a pioneering and brilliant Swiss psychiatrist. The images have become part of the warp and weft of our culture; meanwhile the test remains sublime in its simplicity and irresistibility. Look at this card - what do you see?
Top pick: The Zoomable Universe
Subtitled ‘A Step-by-Step Tour Through Cosmic Scale, from the Infinite to the Infinitesimal’, this is literally the greatest journey imaginable. Scharf goes through 62 orders of magnitude, from the universe itself — at 1027 metres, or some 93 billion light-years — to the tiniest, the Planck length (10–35 metres), at which time and space basically cease to exist, or at least obey any comprehensible rules. The figures involved are mind-blowing, the illustrations by Ron Miller are lavish and very helpful. And the whole thing is awesome, in all kinds of ways.
Every year it's the same - too many books to read yet too little time. There may not have been an 'anchor' music book like last year's Bruce Springsteen autobiography, but there's more than enough here to keep you occupied. In no particular order, we begin with the best book on David Bowie you'll ever need or read. Essentially an oral history of the man, David Bowie: A Life (Penguin) sees GQ editor Dylan Jones corral many people who had insider knowledge on the Thin White Duke. The result is more revealing and insightful than you might think.
One of Bowie's friends shares the best-of-2017 plaudits via Lou Reed: A Life (John Murray). In this well-judged biography, Anthony DeCurtis shrewdly and unsentimentally defines what made Reed tick.
Staying in a New York frame of mind, Lizzy Goodman's Meet Me In The Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011 (Faber) is the kind of oral history that matters when you really need to know what music feels like, rather than how it sounds.
One of NYC's contemporary music/art founding figures is Patti Smith. Her slim (100-plus pages) book, Devotion (Yale University Press), replaces previously elegant biographical writing with a triptych of compact, heartfelt essays on discovery, solitude, and writing.
These days, more musicians are writing their life stories without the need of a ghostwriter. The best examples of that this year include Some Fantastic Place: My Life In And Out Of Squeeze (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), by Squeeze songwriter Chris Difford. Amidst stories of growing up in a close-knit east-London community, performing at a birthday party for Lou Reed, and drinking vodka for breakfast, Difford weaves yarns that are as reminiscent as his lyrics. Evocative in a different way, Art Sex Music (Faber), sees Cosey Fanni Tutti - aka Christine Newby, former co-founding member of 1970s industrial music pioneers Throbbing Gristle - get to grips with her past in what can be occasionally a gut-wrenching read. Equally hard-edged, and eloquent with it, is First Time Ever (Faber), which sees 82-year-old US folk singer, feminist figure and political activist Peggy Seeger thumb through her back pages with all the bolshy 'who-cares-what-people-think' attitude of a teenager.
Finally, two biographies worth mentioning: Michael Owen's Go Slow: Julie London (Chicago Review Press), which sheds welcome light on the virtually forgotten, underrated jazz torch singer, and Gold Dust Woman (St Martin's Press), in which Stephen Davis efficiently details the life and times of Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks.
Tony Clayton Lea
Top pick: Grant & I: Inside and Outside The Go-Betweens
Australian band The Go-Betweens are regarded as one of the most literate and eloquent of the post-punk era (1979-83). It’s little surprise, then, that co-founding member Forster has written, quite exquisitely, in this book published by Omnibus Press about his creative and personal friendship with the band’s other co-founder, Grant McLennan.