Top 10: Non-fiction reads
With Christmas only 10 short months away, you really ought to be thinking about what to buy for your well-read loved ones. Novels are easy (just go for the Man Booker shortlist or pick from the ‘classics’) but outside of fiction is a tricky navigational path. Below is a quick rundown of 10 non-fiction reads that may come as a welcome surprise. Read on.
Pete Earely is an investigative journalist who decided to spend a year or so documenting life inside Leavenworth penitentiary – America’s most notorious federal prison, known for its volatile combination of high security inmates. The result is electrifying. What Earley does so well is to let the characters and situations speak for themselves. He documents the activities and histories of a broad range of colourful characters, ranging from inmates to guards, gradually delving deeper into the psyche of the criminal mind. The old cliché of truth being stranger than fiction couldn’t be truer here, Earley presenting us with unbelievable truths in a surreal world. Fascinating and terrifying in equal measure. I’ve been twice tempted to turn this book into a script for a comic book/ graphic novel, which would be great. Watch this space.
There aren’t many 500+ page biographies that I expect I’ll read cover to cover, but this is one of them. Muhammad Ali is one of the single most compelling sports personalities of the 20th century, simply because he was such a prodigious talent, lived through such politically volatile times and embodied such a range of juicy contradictions. Thomas Hauser explores all of this with careful dedication and genuine affection, but takes great care to avoid flattery. What we are left with is an open and honest account of a seriously remarkable life, made up entirely of first-hand accounts from all sorts of people Ali met along the way. Obviously, boxing is a key aspect of Ali’s existence, but it soon becomes clear that it’s most useful to view the sport as a metaphor for his struggles as a man. Basically it’s a rich detailing of a fascinating life.
It’s a shame that this autobiography has been marketed as a kind of coffee table, ornamental glossy, because it is in fact a far more important work than its aesthetics suggest. Jay-Z, a rapper and entrepreneur the top of his game, has compiled a detailed study of his own lyrics, a lens through which he documents his own life and times. Now this wouldn’t be so remarkable if Jay-Z was not such a gifted critic and astute thinker. Which he is. Decoded is actually a careful exploration of US social history since the late 80s, documenting and discussing socio-political issues with academic frankness and a deeply personal insight. Carter (I’ll call him that because that sounds about right in this context) is a natural critic, touching upon the philosophy of ‘the hustle’, the poetry of words, the nature of hip hop as a movement and the careful links between art and politics.
To be honest, I find this work to be far more compelling than his music, which is largely ‘product’ manufactured for sales. It is a testament to Carter’s creative skill and analytical insight that he can start off trying to move a few units and celebrate hip hop, and end up forming genuinely profound conclusions on the human condition. I’m not joking. Read it and see.
I remember studying Nazi Germany for my GCSEs and I remember being taken aback by just how extreme that period of Europe’s history is. But it was in that GCSE student kind of way, where I’m too busy getting through each poorly researched essay to let the magnitude of it all really sink in. Which, to be honest, is probably the way most of us cope with the kind of inexplicable acts humans are capable of. In Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’, Laurence Rees makes it impossible to do this. In fact, he holds a magnifying glass up to the whole situation and does not flinch in the face of what is revealed. This book should be compulsory reading – hidden in its pages are some of the most truly shocking, distressing and implausible stories of crimes against humanity that you will ever read. Rees details the development from political manoeuvring to mass murder in painstaking slow-motion, making sure that the reader is fully informed as to the whats whens wheres whos and whys. I won’t bother outlining any of the tales contained in this book because you wouldn’t believe me anyway, but I would highly recommend you read it and see for yourself.
Another from Laurence Rees. As above, the fascinating thing about this work of historical fact is that it almost reads like historical fiction. Rees draws out the details that make for a compelling narrative, paints rich and absorbing characters and then hits you with high impact ‘plot’ developments that leave you wide-eyed and worried. Again, compulsory reading.
Found this in a charity shop a few years back and picked it up on the strength of an anecdote about Bobby Fischer I’d heard from a friend. Good move. If you don’t know, Bobby Fischer is a US chess savant who was kind of drafted by the government to go head-to-head against Russian chess Ace Boris Spassky in the 60s, y’know, when USA and Russia were one button away from nuking the shit out of each other. If this is starting to sound like some kind of Hollywood thriller/ heist movie, that’s because it basically is. Writers David Edmonds and John Eidinow ramp up the tension towards the culminating moment of the match itself, which, when it arrives, is rub-the-back-of-the-neck-teeth-clenched tense. Even if you don’t care thing one about chess, by the time you reach the half way mark you will be dry-mouthed at the thought of a six-move check or whatever. Ultimately, this slice of 20th century history is a thriller with a dangerously misanthropic hero. Seriously fun.
I’m including Christy Brown’s novel about growing up in 40s and 50s Ireland because it’s pretty much an autobiography, albeit a highly stylised one. Now, the whole impoverished Irish upbringing thing is nothing all that special in itself, even when you throw in a disability (Brown is a ‘young cripple’ who watches on as a detached observer). What sets this apart is the warmth and vitality with which it is written. It’s really, really beautiful. Brown has this poetic way of writing that brings scenes to life in a cinematic storyboarding that doesn’t simply put us in the moment, but creates a whole new reality. It’s surreal and touching and tense and dramatic all at once, laced with that classic Irish sense of tragic humour.
Andrea Levy’s debut novel would actually make a good double-header with ‘Down all the Days’, come to think of it. Like Brown’s book, it’s a stylised autobiography outlining Levy’s childhood as a second generation black Briton of Jamaican heritage, growing up in North London, and eventually watching her father cope with cancer as an elderly man. Naturally, the novel is (delete as appropriate) touching/ poignant/ moving/ human/ heartfelt, but (as above) its specialness (real word?) comes from the style of the narrative. It’s so full of personality you kind of feel like you’re having a chat with little Angela herself. It works.
Controversial, I know, but if this is in any way an historical text, you have to admit it’s got some excellent tall tales in there. The Old Testament is particularly crazy, with its stories of a vengeful god, plagues, floods, mad kings and all that. The New Testament is pretty compelling too, in its careful detailing of one man’s struggle to live out his destiny (yes I’m making it sound like a DVD release…) with plenty of morality tales to learn from. And if they ever find/ get round to writing Jesus: The Missing Years, we’re all in for a treat. What does a magician who knows his fate DO between the ages of 12 and 33?
“When you build a house, every brick counts, When you build character, every thought counts.”
Now, I’m no subscriber of self-help spiritualism of the kind that the quote above alludes to, but there is something about Companion of God by Dadi Janki that cuts right through my cynicism, and it will do yours too. Years ago, I attended a press release thing for Save the Children when Dadi Janki was visiting the UK for some reason. I had no idea who she was, but she seemed very nice. I think I spoke with her press people and, long story short, ended up getting a copy of this book. Life changer. It’s that simple. Profound spirituality divorced from any religious dogma, just offering words of wisdom on how to cope with being a person in this mad world. Such a refreshing read, and genuinely made me feel… better. After reading I immediately gave my copy to a friend, who then went on to buy his own. He carried it around with him for months, just for solace or whatever. I gave my copy away again. It’s that kind of book. If you’re reading, thank you Dadi Janki. (If you know her, please pass on the message.)
For obvious reasons.