Wednesday 24 April 2019

The best non-fiction books for Christmas presents

From magical musical memoirs to cook books, our Books Editor rounds up his top choices from 2015

Carly Simon on stage with her former husband James Taylor in 1978.
Carly Simon on stage with her former husband James Taylor in 1978.
The Happy Pear's David and Stephen Flynn.
Patrick Wallace on Fishamble Street site during the Wood Quay excavation in Dublin.
Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner.

John Spain

This year the displays of non-fiction books for Christmas in bookshops are dominated by all the titles on the 1916 Rising and its aftermath published in advance of next year's centenary (see our guide on the next three pages). But of course there is so much more to choose from instead of all the history - and the favourites, like every year, will be biographies, cookbooks and music books.

There were several interesting ones by or about music legends this year, four of which stand out. Just published is Carly Simon's memoir Boys in the Trees (Constable) which is a terrific read and not only because of all her famous lovers, including James Taylor, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Kris Kristofferson - she reveals that Beatty was just one of three partners who inspired her hit song 'You're So Vain' and that his antics in the film Shampoo were how he really was. But her privileged background (her father was the Simon of publishers Simon & Schuster) and her difficult childhood (she had such a bad stammer she had to sing what she wanted at the meal table) are just as interesting mainly because she is such a good writer.

Sinatra: The Chairman (Sphere) is the second part of James Kaplan's monumental biography of ol' blue eyes (part one was called The Voice) and coincides with the centenary of Sinatra's birth this month - this one takes up the story from 1954 when he confirmed his comeback with an Oscar for his role in From Here to Eternity.

A fascinating read for anyone interested in the early days of rock is Sam Phillips - The Man Who Invented Rock 'n Roll (W&N). Written by Peter Guralnick who did the definitive two-part biography of Elvis, this also has lots about the King and those historic sessions in the Sun Studios. As well as discovering Elvis, Phillips also gave a start to Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash among many others.

Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink (Penguin/Viking) is the autobiography of the other Elvis, Declan MacManus, who became Elvis Costello. Costello's book is a doorstopper at 670 pages but it's never boring, jumping forwards and back in time as he exposes himself and his promiscuity (echoed in the title), the music business (he has worked with everyone) and the mysteries of songwriting.

Like music, books on cooking are always big sellers for Christmas. Most of the big TV names had new books this year, endlessly trying to reinvent what they do, which is a challenge when you've done so many books already. So it was refreshing that the bestseller in Ireland this year was The Happy Pear (Penguin Ireland) a vegetarian cookbook by David and Stephen Flynn, the twins who run the restaurant and veg shop of the same name in Greystones, Co Wicklow and who didn't have a TV show to promote their book.

Since most people already have a basic cookbook by Jamie or Nigella or Rachel on the kitchen shelf, a good choice for a present is something a bit different. Japanese Food Made Easy (Mercier) is by Fiona Uyema, an Irish woman who lived in Japan for three years and married a Japanese man. The basis of Japanese food, famous for being healthy, is fresh natural ingredients which we have here in abundance, so eating Japanese style makes sense. Favourites like ramen, tempura, miso soup and sushi are included and are easy to prepare as well as being delicious. Plus there's a section on bento boxes for school lunches.

In the same vein there is Eileen Dunne Crescenzi's Festa - A Year of Italian Celebrations (Gill & Macmillan). She's an Irish woman who lived in Italy for a few years and married an Italian and they now run authentic Italian restaurants here. This book covers the kind of meals Italians serve up at all kinds of events and family gatherings - and there's a story to go with each one from her own time there.

Probably the most engaging cookbook this year is Nigel Slater's A Year of Good Eating (4th Estate), which is the third in his kitchen diaries series. It's a novel size book, not a coffee table tome, and it's full of stories, asides and wry observations as well as recipes, perfectly reflecting the calming effect of a few hours spent cooking a good meal. It's a welcome relief after all that faux excitement from some TV chefs.

A few Irish non-fiction titles stand out. First there is the coffee table book of the year Viking Dublin - The Wood Quay Excavations (Irish Academic Press) by Dr Patrick Wallace, the story of the Save Wood Quay campaign in the 1970s and the Viking treasures found during the excavations. It's pricey at €60 but it's worth every cent - a stunning 600-page production full of beautiful colour pictures, maps, and drawings - and it's just been published.

Another one that would make a beautiful present is Winter Pages by Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith (Curlew), a cloth bound, large format book that is the first of what is to be an annual arts anthology. It has stories, essays, reportage, photography, visual arts, and interviews about film, theatre, television, music and more. Kevin (the novelist) and his partner Olivia (an arts writer) have assembled a very impressive contributor list which makes this a fascinating one to dip in and out of after the plum pud has gone cold.

Thanks to his contacts in the gardaí, Paul Williams' Almost The Perfect Murder (Penguin Ireland) is an insider account of the life and death of Elaine O'Hara and the murder trial that shocked everyone earlier this year. It might seem like an odd choice for a Christmas present, but it's an absolutely compelling read.

It might also be said that Niall Breslin's memoir Me and My Mate Jeffrey (Hachette Ireland) would be an odd choice for a Christmas present since this is Bressie's account of learning to live with "Jeffrey", the name he gave his crippling depression and anxiety. But his honesty in telling his story so openly makes it uplifting rather than a downer, as well as being an important window into what people who suffer with depression and panic attacks go through.

In the sports section of today's paper you will find a complete guide to the many sports books - always a popular choice for presents - which appeared this year. Also, Myles McWeeney looks at the thrillers of the year. In these pages recently, John Boland presented the best fiction of 2015 with presents in mind and Sarah Webb did the same for children's books. Both can be found on But a special mention has to go to the title that won the senior section of the children's books category at this year's Irish Book Awards. This is the very large format hardback Irelandopedia (Gill & Macmillan) a compendium of facts and figures, trivia and traditions from all 32 counties in the country. Each county is given a two-page spread and the whole thing has a Did You Know appeal. It's the work of retired primary teacher John Burke who travelled all over the country on his bike compiling the contents and his daughter Fatti, an acclaimed illustrator. With haunted houses, deep caves, unusual sports, young readers can also climb the tallest mountain, fish in the biggest lake and learn about local delicacies. Guaranteed to keep them quiet for hours after all the presents have been opened.

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