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Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction’

Bill Bryson apparently wanted to write a book about baseball legend Babe Ruth, who had a phenomenal year in 1927, but then discovered so many other things that happened in America during the summer(ish) time of that year. Consequently, while the book does focus a lot on Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees, it also talks about aviation, specifically Charles Lindbergh’s legendary transatlantic flight; the deeply unpleasant Henry Ford; the trial and execution of the possibly innocent Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti; the reticent president Calvin Coolidge; the beginning of the Mount Rushmore carvings; the events that led up to the Great Depression of 1929; boxing great Jack Dempsey; and the rising popularity of talking pictures, and the beginnings of popular television.

I enjoyed the book a lot – Bryson tells the story of the summer, which he extends for the purposes of the book until October, month by month. This means that he might talk on one subject and then switch to another, but in the next section, he circles back to the first subject again. I don’t mind this, but some readers might prefer a less disjointed narrative. That said, Bryson is an engaging narrator, and I particularly enjoyed reading about the amazingly talented baseball player Babe Ruth, who fortunately was one of the bigger subjects covered in the book. I definitely feel like I learned a lot, and it was all presented in an interesting way…Bill Bryson would have been a great history teacher!

My one niggle is that the book is perhaps a bit too long. It’s 600 pages, plus a bibliography, and I would suggest that a fifth or so could have been trimmed. But overall it was an enjoyable read, and I will look forward to reading more by Bill Bryson.

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This book tells the heartbreaking and horrific story of the British prisoners of war who were forced to build the Burmese Railway during World War II. When Reg Twigg joined the army at the outbreak of the war, he expected to be sent to fight the Germans in Europe, but ended up in Singapore when it fell to the Japanese.

The conditions that these mainly British, Australian and Dutch soldiers endured were beyond imagining, and they died in the thousands – either murdered by the sadistic guards, or were so starved that their bodies couldn’t survive. Dysentry and Cholera were rife in the prison camps and it became commonplace for the soldiers to find themselves burying their former comrades.

That Reg survived is partly due to luck, and partly due to his own resourcefulness. He harvested illicit pumpkins from the kitchen rubbish (a risk that could have seen him punished by death if he had been caught) and trapped snakes and lizards to eat.

I don’t know if I could say that I enjoyed this book – given the subject matter, it’s not exactly a pleasant read. But it’s fascinating and gripping in the same way that a horror film can be – except that this was real life for so many.

I learned a lot about the famous bridge over the River Kwai (for example, it wasn’t over the Rover Kwai at all!) and a LOT about the Burmese Railway which Reg and his fellow prisoners were forced to build. It was an absorbing insight into a dreadful time. I do recommend this book, but be prepared for some upsetting scenes.

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This book is a collection of essays about the transformative and healing power of running. Phil Hewitt has been a runner for many years, but after being mugged and stabbed in South Africa it became a kind of therapy for him.

Here he publishes the stories of many other people around the world who have also gone through their own trauma or tragedy, and who found solace through running.

I dipped in and out of this book, reading it between other, longer books, and for me that was the best way to read it, as I think if I had simply set out to read it from beginning to end, it could have brought me down somewhat. All the people featured have gone through something terrible, and as much as they have found a way of dealing with it, it’s still not always easy to read about.

As a runner myself, I can certainly attest to the therapeutic powers of the sport – especially in 2020 during the first Covid-19 lockdown, when I was on furlough and running was the one chance I got in the day to not screw my mind up with fear and worry about what was to come. However, I would say that yes, running is great – for SOME people. For others, it might be swimming or walking, or something non-physical like knitting or doing a jigsaw. And whatever it is that helps, if you are going through a particularly hard time, it probably won’t be enough on it’s own. (This book does state that, but it does veer towards putting running on pedestal.)

Phil Hewitt does write well, and also comes across as a thoroughly lovely man; however for me, I far preferred his book Keep on Running, about his addiction to marathon running, as it was just much more light-hearted than this one.

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Journalist Marianne Power decides to get her life in order with the use of self-help books. She plans to read one self-help book a month and follow their suggestions for the whole of that month to see what, if anything, actually works.

I expected a light-hearted tongue-in-cheek look at the huge self-help market, and although the book started off that way, it soon became apparent that this experiment was causing more problems than solutions for Marianne, and in fact there were some upsetting moments. It was a fascinating read, and definitely helped sort the wheat from the chaff – there are a LOT of people out there making a lot of money out of other people’s desire to improve or change their life, and some of them just made me really angry as they are so obviously taking advantage of their readers. Tony Robbins for example, who promises to change your life at one of his events – where the cheapest tickets are £500!! And ‘The Secret’ by Rhonda Byrne, which tells you that if you want something to happen, you just have to imagine that it has. Send yourself a fake cheque for a lot of money, and actual money will be bestowed! Yes, seriously.

Marianne Power is an engaging and likeable narrator, and this book certainly provided a lot of food for thought. I recommend it to all.

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In February 2013, journalist Del Quentin Wilbur spent a month with the Homicide Squad in Prince George’s County, which borders Washington DC. PG County (as it is referred to in the book) is in a fairly deprived area with a high crime rate, especially gun crime.

Wilbur gives details of the cases that the detectives investigate during the month of February, with maybe extra focus on the particularly heinous and apparently unmotivated murder of a young female in her own home.

I loved this book. The descriptions of the crime scenes, and how they affected the detectives was so well described, and more than just giving details of the work that these incredible people do, it also demonstrated how it affected them personally. I did feel that it must have clearly been influenced by David Simon’s ‘Homicide: Life on the Street’ (which for my money is one of the best non-fiction books ever written), and indeed, Wilbur does reference this book and explains that he wanted to see how the job of homicide detective had changed since Homicide was written in the late 80s.

This book made me thankful that I live in a country where gun crime is not prevalent – in PG County it’s basically part of life, and many innocent people get caught up in it – and made me wonder what it must be like to live your life constantly in fear.

Anyway, my review cannot do this book justice, but I do highly recommend it, especially for fans of true crime. There is no sensationalism here, just an interesting narrative of the facts, showing how the detectives go about their jobs, while trying to keep their own lives and minds intact.

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I’ve been a fan of Dave Gorman for a long time – his tv shows and stage shows (I’m lucky enough to have been him live) are always witty and entertaining, and his books are always a good source of amusement. In this book, he basically travels around England playing games with strangers. He plays traditional games such as Cluedo, Ping Pong, Darts and Poker, and some other games which were – to me at least – unknown, such as Khett, Kubb, Smite and erm…Rod Hull’s Emu Game (I know who Rod Hull and Emu are obviously. I did not know that there was such a game. And neither did Dave!)

Gorman is an affable and engaging narrator and while the book is not constantly hilarious, it is amusing and made me laugh out loud on a number of occasions. There is at least one episode which took both myself and Dave Gorman himself by complete surprise, and when you’ve finished the book I am sure you will know which one I mean.

Overall, a lovely read which I would definitely recommend. Also, I now would love to find a local Smite team to join!

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In a nutshell: Journalist A J Jacobs decides that it’s time to get healthy, but rather than gong down the more conventional route of eating better and moving more, he decides to focus on a different part or area of the body each month and investigate how to make that particular part the healthiest it can be. This involves learning about lots of differing and (often contrasting) health theories and experiments/studies, and speaking to several experts. There’s a fair amount of quackery going on, but Jacobs takes note of everything he hears, and is prepared to give anything a try.

It’s definitely entertaining and often amusing. For my money, it was not “riotous, madcap” as one review on the cover put it, and it did not make me “laugh my ass off,” as claimed by another review. But it was engaging and easy to read – it explored the science and thinking behind the studies and claims, but did not get too bogged down in technicalities. Jacobs is clearly a huge worrier and he knows it – something that I identify strongly with – and catastrophises a lot, always imagining the worst case scenario (again – this was hugely relatable to me). He’s very engaging and very likeable, which heightened my enjoyment.

One thing to note is that Jacobs lives in New York and this book is very American leaning. Not a problem for me, but some of the things that he tries might not be so accessible to people who don’t live in such a metropolis where everything conceivable relating to health is pretty much on the doorstep!

It’s not a healthy living book, and certainly not to be taken as guidance, as he himself makes clear.

Im summary, if you are looking for a hilarious madcap adventure, then I would not say that this is it. But it was an enjoyable and if you like (mostly) light-hearted non-fiction, then you might well enjoy this.

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First, a couple of points to be aware of regarding this book: (1) You do not need to be a fan of Jimmy Carr to appreciate and enjoy it. That said, I am a Jimmy Carr fan – in fact he is probably my favourite comedian – but even if I had never heard of him, I would have really liked this. (2) This is not a joke book. It’s a book *about* jokes. There is a joke (typically a snappy one-liner) at the foot of every page, and at the end of each chapter there are about four pages of jokes related to the subject of that chapter, but essentially this is a book about the history of jokes, the purpose they serve, the way they evolve, and the value of jokes in various cultures and across generations.

It’s a fascinating read, told in an engaging style by Carr and Greeves, and each chapter held my interest. They manage to keep the tone light but also really informative, and cover such subjects as why clowns are scary, and how different cultures have mythical japesters, some of whom are not only funny but also fairly sinister. The politics of joking is covered, and also a chapter on where (and if) humour should draw a line. Are there for example, some subjects which it is never safe to joke about?

I found this thoroughly absorbing and very well written. Hats off to both authors for a terrific read.

 

 

 

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Here’s a basic rule of thumb – if Mark Kermode writes something, I’ll read it. I’ve read – and loved – his three previous books, and therefore looked forward to reading this one. It’s co-authored with Simon Mayo, who is his co-host on Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review (broadcast on BBC Radio 5 on Friday afternoons).

Happily I was not disappointed, but for anyone else who has read Kermode’s previous works, it may be worth noting that this is much more of a dip-in-and-out type book, if you wish it to be. That’s not a criticism – I enjoyed it a lot and would definitely recommend it.

The premise behind the book is that movies are able to cure many of life’s ailments and dilemmas. (Obviously, they are not suggesting that you eschew proper medicine!!) So there are movies to pick you up when you’re down, movies to help you decide whether you want to have children or not, and movies to bring down an excitable mood. They also look at movies which in themselves could do with some ‘medical’ attention – for example, those which would have benefitted from being shorter in running time.

There are several chapters, each with an essay discussing the subject of that particular one, which delves into the histories of some films, and tells some interesting and amusing anecdotes. There are interludes where the ‘doctors’ are in their surgery attending to a patient, and usually end up prescribing an appropriate movie. There are also lists of films for every topic. Be prepared for your watchlist to grow!

If you like movies, this one is definitely worth a read. You can do what I did and read it straight through, but as I alluded to earlier, you can also dip into this book between other books.

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Bad Feminist is a collection of essays by American writer Roxanne Gay, all of which are more or less related to feminism. It is split into sections and I would say my favourite section was where she discusses various films from the point of view of a black woman. I love it when someone makes me look at something from an entirely different angle. An example is her anger about the film The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s book. I also enjoyed the part about crime and racial stereotypes.

I read it over a period of more than two years because I would read an essay or two between other books. However, I read the last quarter of the book in a couple of days and I actually found it more enjoyable than just dipping in or out.

The last essay, where she talks about being a bad feminist – essentially she, like pretty much all of us, is a mass of contradictions – resonated the most, because it’s a struggle that a lot of us can identify with, to a greater or lesser degree.

Overall, this was an interesting and enjoyable read. I would like to try more works by Roxanne Gay.

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