A non-fiction selection box

I mostly get my non-fiction fixes from news and media, but by mid 2020 I’d become tired of Covid related items. I wanted more varied food for thought, and entertainment. Also Novel 3, despite wonderful, polite, positive comments (“a beautiful and bracing read” said an editor from one top publisher) wasn’t finding a contract. I needed to reconsider what makes a book readable and saleable, whatever the subject. So I turned to five popular non-fiction bestsellers published or revised since 2018.

In my school chemistry and biology lessons, I pushed worms aimlessly round Petri dishes, larked about with Bunsen burners and stayed ignorant. Now being stalked by Covid rang alarm bells. I’ve passed (my) existence in this warm wobble of flesh and yet taken it almost entirely for granted. It was time I learned how my body works and I decided Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants would be a good teacher. He is full of awe and wonder: The brain exists in silence and darkness, like a dungeoned prisoner. It has never felt warm sunshine or a soft breeze…and yet, everything else (in your body) is just plumbing and scaffolding.” I can’t remember all the details, partly because as Bryson tells me, my ageing cells are pre-programmed to die. But the book has an excellent index and I should have time to reread it because compared to other animals, we are awfully good at surviving.” Bryson is always a comforting presence for grim times.

I bought Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race months ago, because I thought I should tbh. Having been paid extra in urban schools to develop diversity policies, I smugly thought I knew what Reni Eddo-Lodge would say in this book derived originally from blogposts. (Although I did at least realise my white person’s racism awareness came from study that I could drop at will rather than from personal daily experience.) Then I heard her on Woman’s Hour, when she took the UK non-fiction number 1 slot as Bernadine Evaristo headed fiction, saying this double black success was more bitter than sweet in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in the US. She writes from a perspective white people can only imagine. She’s rightly angry that the aggression that killed Stephen Lawrence in 1993 is still rampant. She dismisses handwringing like mine. She links feminism, class, and racism. She relents somewhat, suggesting how white handwringers can help. She does see positives ahead, though rightly commenting (and note my preamble above): “So much of touring this book has involved regulating other people’s feelings”. Anyone who wants to comment on race should read this book first and remember, as quoted: We are here because you were there”. I’d be amazed if your comments didn’t alter in the light of it.

“Something you may not ever have given any thought to is how you would fund a criminal defence. But you should.” The Secret Barrister also began as a series of articles about injustice. This anonymous practising barrister-author is alarmed by how little the public understand the law. He’s amusing, informative and angry. The system can destroy, bankrupt, or madden anyone: defendant, witness, legal professional or plaintiff. This book explains anomalies, anachronisms, and the effect of underfunding, overwork and random priorities from headline chasing governments, analyses serial offending and reveals shocking court and prison conditions. Defending a client in the magistrates’ court is often like “pitching to the admissions board of a 1980s country club”. Politicians and sentencing guidelines get even more stick. This isn’t (mostly) a dry read. He’s compassionate towards the accused and passionate on their right to a fair defence. Individual case histories, humour and the lucidity of a disillusioned expert channel Dickens, but 150 years later, our legal institutions should serve and be served better. “How we treat..ordinary men and women who have been fed into the justice machine, mangled, battered, confined and, years later, spat back out onto the streets, is inexcusable.”

We all need light relief. I find The Crown entertaining and, never a royalist, don’t really care whether it’s a true account. So I lapped up Lady in Waiting. Author Anne Glenconnor grew up in a stately home so huge that raw eggs in a bain-marie would be perfectly boiled by the time a footman had carried them from the kitchen to the nursery. Her account of working for Princess Margaret isn’t exactly warts and all – the worst you hear of Margaret is that she was so fascinated by everyday gadgets she once gave another lady-in-waiting a loo brush for Christmas. “’I noticed you didn’t have one when I came to stay.’ In fact, Jean had hidden the loo brush when Princess Margaret had visited and was rather upset by the gesture.” The reader is granted fly-on-the-wall privileges and this fly was buzzing, especially on the trips to Mustique.

The Five: The Untold Lives of Women Killed by Jack the Ripper isn’t (quite) as miserable as it sounds. Historian Hallie Rubenhold, one of whose other books became the TV series Harlots, deliberately doesn’t focus on the Victorian murderer. I regularly pass the London pub where some of his victims were last seen and the advertised tourist walks and memorabilia are ghoulish. Rubenhold remembers the women instead, describing “respectable” backgrounds, not the prostitutes the press dubbed them, with skills, children and circumstances shared by thousands (I recently discovered a relation who also had to leave a violent husband, only a few miles from Whitechapel at the time the Ripper was active.) Each individual woman is, in a sense, brought back to life in these accounts based on meticulous research and contemporary evidence, having first been driven like piles deeper and deeper into the ground in order to bear the weight of everyone else’s demands”. Despite The Five selling so well, the pattern continues. The BBC was recently heavily criticised for trailing a documentary series about Oscar Pistorius without once mentioning his murdered girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, and in fiction we still analyse Othello’s tragedy more than Desdemona’s.

How could five such different books have bestseller appeal? Well, they all have variety. There is tragedy as well as royal gossip in Anne Glenconnor’s life; science and wisdom well as humour in Bill Bryson’s bodyscape. Humour lightens the injustices found in the court room and Eddo-Lodge has calm suggestions to balance her anger. The Ripper victims’ stories include fascinating social history of homes and workplaces, clothes and speech, and unexpectedly colourful episodes in apparently ordinary lives. Effective popular non-fiction spins yarns like any novel and plotting is key. Glenconnor is the heroine of her own story, childhood to old age. Bryson’s journey round the body includes medical heroes and villains, good and bad microbes, happy accidents and fateful events. My other choices have the compelling interest, emotional involvement and quest for resolution of well recounted true crime. These are valuable models for the fiction writer too.

With Christmas coming, I hope you’ll find something to your taste in my selection box and I’d be happy to hear your own non-fiction choices.   

©Jessica Norrie 2020


37 thoughts on “A non-fiction selection box

  1. An interesting selection, Jessica. I’m currently reading Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense by Jenny Uglow. It’s fascinating but it’s huge and will probably take me until Christmas to finish it. And, of course, as I’ve contributed to it I must recommend ‘Writedown: Lockdown in the Galloway Glens at the Time of Covid’ 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s very kind of you Mary, but I just checked and I’ve already bought it and it’s on my Kindle, I just haven’t got around to it yet! I have to be honest that along with preferring to read in paperback atm my preferred reading (and writing) is away from the subject of lockdown – my way of coping I guess. But will certainly review it when I’ve read it. I’m sorry if that sounds ungracious and I’m sure I’m missing a treat and I will appreciate it all the more when I get there.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I saw a review of the book about Jack the Ripper’s victims on another blog, Jessica, and I think it looks very interesting. Life was very hard for people, and especially women, back then. Bill Bryson is a terrific writer and his book looks like a winner.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for recommending and reviewing these really interesting books, Jessie. I am sure they are all a great read, and will – remarking the others – start with Bill Bryson’s “The Body”. Have a beautiful weekend! Michael

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting selection thanks for sharing. I think Bill Bryson book intrigues me the most. I heard that our cells are programmed to renew ( die) every seven years. And I have read our body always wants to heal, we just have to feed it right.

    Thanks for this great selection.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was quite frightening to find out how likely it is you’ll need such knowledge – you only have to have fall out in a local shop, it seems, or car accident with the wrong other driver and off you go down an expensive and stressful slope. Made for dramatic reading though! Thanks so much for the reblog. Hugs x

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  5. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord Blog Magazine and commented:
    Jessica Norrie introduces us to some thought provoking non-fiction reads that she recommends.. They cover a diverse range of subjects including the human body, race, Jack the Ripper’s victims, the royal family and the law… Sounds like a great gift package for those who enjoy exploring today’s issues in more depth than the sensational media headlines..#recommended

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Love the selections you’ve shared, Jessica. I have “The Five” and “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” on my list to read. Thanks for reminding me about them. I read more nonfiction than fiction. I’m reading “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***” right now. It’s been on my list for a very long time. Hahaha! Hope you’re having a lovely weekend!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Camilla, nice to hear from you. I may have a look at that thought the title puts me off as it’s probably supposed to. Who wants prissy old readers like me? I think you’ll enjoy “The Five”, and the “….about Race” is not a comfortable bedtime read but then nor should it be.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome, Jessica. I’m almost finished with the book, and honestly I’m not learning any new thoughts or ideas from it, and the inside is smack full of similar language as the title. I’d spend my time reading other goodies, if I were you. HA! I just recently finished The New Jim Crow and How to Be an Antiracist. Both incredibly informative and educational. However, The New Jim Crow was a difficult read as it made my head want to explode. I learned much from it. All the best to you!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. An interesting selection, Jessica. We have three of those at home, but I haven’t read any of them yet. I read a lot of non-fiction, in particular, travel and natural history. A really good non-fiction book can be as good as a work of fiction in my opinion, provided there is a story to tell and the narrative is good.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting. Yes, it’s good to change from one’s usual preferences from time to time and also interesting to see how poplar non fiction uses the same tension/conflict/drama/ climax devices that fiction does. Perhaps I should rename this post “Truth is stranger than fiction”!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I read very little nonfiction, but the books you’ve profiled sound intriguing. The last nonfiction book I read is Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities by John Warner. I highly recommend it to writing teachers and anyone interested in the state of education in the US.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Liz. I find I go through phases and sometimes its god to get away from the made up world and travel other places or times or ideas instead. The writing book sounds a useful recommendation, thank you – although I’m fairly happy that my teaching days are over!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome, Jessica. The Warner book basically addresses the unintended fallout from the No Child Left Behind legislation in the US. NCLB was an exercise in politicans thinking they knew better than educators.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ah! I think the UK equivalent was probably Every Child Matters – which was fine as far as it went, but lip service really. Such slogans shouldn’t be necessary as they should go without saying. There’s a new phrase here “virtue-signalling” which I don’t like because of the people who use it, but properly used it would apply here. Oops! I’ve gone off -piste – thanks for your comments as always and take care.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Interesting review, Jess. I read a lot of non fiction and have read and enjoyed the Rubenhold and Secret Barrister books, though for different reasons. The barristers second book ” Fake Law” includes a mostly well informed and hefty chapter on how a politically biased campaign to denigrate Personal Injury law and lawyers has resulted in a massive disenfranchisement of ordinary folks from their legal rights. Its worth read!!

    Annie recommends ” All That Remains” by pathologist Sue Black. Its subtitle ” A life in death” is a bit grim, not to mention Grim Reapery but Annie loved the book.

    Apart from works of military history, which I don’t think will interest you , any more than would books about Jimmy Greaves I can heartily recommend both Mary Beards ” Women and Power” and John Sopels ” A year at the Circus”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do like it when people take my requests seriously and, as in your case, start off the comments with some recommendations. I’ve had my eye on the Sue Black book for a while, tell Annie. Mary Beard – perhaps. The Sopel I can’t face, it’s bad enough swearing at the telly here. Jimmy Greaves? Each to their own!

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