My non-fiction addiction is like a runaway train – I’m just motoring through them now. So quickly, in fact, that there’s no hope of individual reviews. So instead, here are some baby reviewlets, in hopes that – from this eclectic spread – there’s a little something for everyone’s tastes.
Lynsey Addario, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War – Assuming you’re not a war photographer (given that there are probably few individuals with the courage and commitment to follow such a career path) and you have a fascination with reading about people whose ‘work’ couldn’t be more different to the norm, this is a fantastic book. Equal parts heart-in-mouth accounts of being on the front line and more sober reflections on the impact of such a life on her personal relationships, I found this to be a truly insightful read. The images that people like Addario bring to the public’s attention shed light on some truly horrific and awe-inspiring stories. This book reminded me that there are also stories to be told behind the lens. While it’s beautifully written, I was pleased to see that the publisher had invested in the story of someone whose life’s work is about visual media with lovely shiny photographic paper so that Addario’s powerful, full-colour images could be presented alongside her words.
Larissa MacFarquhar, Strangers Drowning: Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity – Like many people I give a little money to charity every month. I’ve given my time by volunteering at our local Oxfam bookshop and by clambering around in hedgerows for the National Trust. I’ve sponsored friends doing swimathons and once walked the length of the Thames Path to raise money for the Renal Unit that looked after my mum. I consider that those with privileges have a certain duty to try and give something back. I also consider myself pretty average when it comes to giving. But average is boring when it comes to altruism. This book is about people who – with no hyperbole whatsoever – give all of themselves for others. To the point where it crosses a hazy moral line and stops being an unequivocally ‘good’ thing. The title ‘Strangers Drowning’ comes from a well-known philosophical question. If there were two strangers drowning and your mother was also drowning but you could only save either the strangers OR your mother, who would you save? What about if there were 10 strangers? Or 1000? Do the numbers matter? When do they start to matter? MacFarquhar weaves essays attempting to tackle the various issues around modern-day morality with real-life stories from people who have taken ‘giving’ to an uncomfortable extreme. This isn’t a book for answers, it’s one for questions.
Lawrence Hill, Blood: A Biography of the Stuff of Life – As the title suggests, this is a book about blood. But in so doing, it also ends up being a book about identity, race, biology, health, the legal system, injustice, prejudice, history, culture and much more. As a diabetic born of one black and one white parent, Hill has some really interesting personal insights to bring to his exploration of what blood means to us. Apart from a little repetition, I found this to be a quick and absorbing read.
Ben Highmore, The Great Indoors: At Home in the Modern British House – The funniest read of the quartet, Highmore’s book also comes with a generous dollop of satisfactory, curtain-twitching ‘snooping’, albeit in a literary sense. Drawing heavily on the archives of the Mass Observation project, with many verbatim descriptions of homes through the ages, this book acts as a history of the modern house by moving through each room in turn and pulling in relevant developments to show how our houses reflect the evolution of our society. So the chapter on the kitchen explores our changing relationships with food and that of children’s bedrooms discusses the creation of the modern teenager. I found this book hugely entertaining and it was a good lesson in how even the most mundane of objects, made invisible through over-familiarity, has a fascinating tale to tell.