Friday, 19 November 2010

My favourite non-fiction books

The literary blog hop hosted at The Blue Book case asks the question;

Is there such a thing as literary non-fiction? If so, how do you define it?
I have never thought about categorizing non-fiction in this way so have instead given my opinion on what I consider a good non-fiction book and what makes a bad one.

When I was younger the only kind of books I would read were non-fiction. This was probably a habit I picked up from my father, who still only reads non-fiction. I think he considers fiction silly (bah humbug!)

Over the years I've read a lot of non-fiction covering a vast variety of subjects from the Second World War to the Persian Empire from sharks to the American boyscout who built a nuclear reactor in his back yard.

What I like the most about non-fiction is that it can often be as varied, exciting and bizarre as any work of fiction with the added bonus that it actually happened. I have always had a healthy interest in subjects such as history and the natural world and books have always been the best way to learn about the world. I also believe reading non-fiction ensures that things that have happened in the past are not forgotten, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes if we don't learn from them and non-fiction books are the best way of doing this.

Of course non-fiction has its flaws. I have read several works of non-fiction that are as dry as a teetotaller, some writers believe that just because they have all the facts in front of them ready to present that they don't need to work on the presentation. This is quite incorrect as I can read two different books on the same subject but enjoy one more than the other because of the way they are written. Also sometimes a work of non fiction can appear interesting from the subject matter or product description but when you start reading you realise it was anything but.

Some of my favourite non fiction books are;

Notes From a Big Country by Bill Bryson
This book is hilarious and never fails to cheer me up when I'm down. Bill Bryson has a wickedly dry sense of humour which I really appreciate and here he applies it to America in describing his experiences after returning to the US after a long absence. Genuinely funny stuff.

Stalingrad by Anthony Beevor
When Adolf Hitler's troops arrived outside the Soviet city in July 1942 it marked the beginning of one of the most brutal and bloody battles of the entire conflict, it was also the beginning of the end for Hitler.

The book does a fantastic job of describing everything that happened during the battle. It doesn't just focus on the fighting but also describes the struggle to survive the extreme temperatures of a Russian winter with hardly any food, basic supplies or appropriate clothing and how Soviet troops felt about being shot by their own officers if they tried to retreat. It also highlights the plight of the civilians trying to survive. The book also covers the battle from the German point of view so you get a well rounded view of the whole period. The anecdotes are fascinating, as an example; the Soviet forces trained dogs to run underneath German tanks. These specially trained dogs would have high explosive mines strapped to them which would detonate, disabling the tank. This was the theory anyway, in reality if a tank was moving or firing its weapons (which they almost always were) it would scare the dogs who would run back to their handlers. This would result in the mine exploding and killing soviet troops by accident. This forced the handlers to start shooting their own dogs if they attempted to return to the Soviet lines. Do you see what I mean about the brutality of the battle? (and that's just against dogs!)

Very informative, exciting and horrifying to read. A true depiction of the senselessness of war.

Berlin by Anthony Beevor
This book covers the final battle which took place in the German capital city shortly before the suicide of Hitler and the downfall of Nazi Germany. In January 1945 Berlin was surrounded by Allied troops and the Germans were fighting a desperate last stand to prevent Soviet forces from capturing the city before the Americans. During the battle of Stalingrad German troops committed terrible atrocities against Soviet soldiers and civilians alike. As a result the Russian troops had a seething hatred of the Germans and when they finally took Berlin they only had one thing in mind; revenge.

I won't list the unspeakable acts the Soviets carried out in Berlin but needless to say Hitler's stubborn refusal to allow the large scale evacuation of German civilians from Berlin meant that when the Soviet army finally broke through and took control of Berlin they found the city full of defenceless women...

I wouldn't say I enjoyed this book in any sort of entertaining sense. In fact a good deal of what I read horrified, angered and disgusted me however I think it was worthwhile and important to read as, once again, Beevor effectively demonstrates how utterly brutal, senseless and bloody war is, not just on the soldiers fighting in it but the helpless civilians caught up in the midst of it.

A poignant and crushing read which had a profound effect on me.

Duel by James Landale
This book is not widely known about or read which I think is a terrible shame because it was so good.

The book essentially gives a history of pistol duelling at a time when it was illegal, but still widely carried out by men when they felt their honour needed defending

Overall a very interesting, fun and entertaining book. Made all the more interesting by the lack of waffle and the anecdotes and first person accounts contained within. One of the most interesting aspects is that a relative of the author himself fought in a duel with a local merchant and survived.

Posted by Chris


  1. You mentioned some good literary non-fiction. I like Bill Bryson!

    Here is my Literary Blog Hop post!

  2. Nice post about nonfiction! I know there are some nonfiction books I return to from time to time because I enjoy them so much --- like Antonia Fraser's The Wives of Henry VIII, and Mary, Queen of Scots. That last book you listed sounds interesting --- I'm marking it down to check for in our library (or will get it through interlibrary loan).

  3. Bill Bryson is sadly lacking in my reading repertoire.

  4. Definitely some interesting choices that I've not previously come across. I will look into those. I see you're also participating in the Daphne du Maurier Challenge, which I've only just begun with some of her short stories, and I've really enjoyed, particularly "The Apple Tree." Here's my Literary view...: Coffee and a Book Chick -- Literary Blog Hop...

  5. I recently got a copy of Stalingrad. I'll move it towards the top of my TBR pile.

    I think there is such a thing as literary non-fiction. M.F.K. Fischer and George Orwell wrote it. Virginia Woolf did some, too. Rebecca West as well. I do think it leans towards memoir, but it's out there.

  6. some books I've not come across & the duelling book looks interesting. Other good nonfiction is Murakami's Underground or Iain Banks Raw Spirit although the last is improved by a love of single malt whisky.
    enjoyed your post.

  7. I've had a memoir kick lately, particularly David Sedaris' Holidays On Ice, but I've been reading this great HR book, From Gatekeeper to Trusted Advisor by Andria Corso. It has numerous tips that are relevant to everyday life.

  8. "What I like the most about non-fiction is that it can often be as varied, exciting and bizarre as any work of fiction with the added bonus that it actually happened."

    Agreed! My husband still only reads nonfiction, and I think he's missing out on a lot of great books... but to each his own. Good examples, too. I really need to read Bill Bryson!

  9. So you stepped away from the question? Good strategy, I think.

    Not sure I know what literary nonfiction is, but I have some ideas. Here's my post on literary nonfiction. I'd love to hear what you think.

    And if you have read any wonderful literary books
    published in 2010, I urge you to nominate your favorites
    for The Independent Literary Awards. The awards
    include categories of Literary Fiction and Literary Non-Fiction.
    Nominations close December 15.

  10. Ooh, looks like we have a similar taste in books. Stalingrad looks particularly interesting to me.

    Here's a question for you though, why would you say that knowing the events actually happened is an "added bonus"? What do you think that adds to the reading experience?

  11. I ought to read more non-fiction than I do. I like autobiographies of literary figures and collections of letters, that's about it! Love the design of your blog, by the way!

  12. Thanks for the info on Duel. James Landale has been on local tv (Scotland) talking about his ancestor who lived in Kirkcaldy. I hadn't realised that the book is out now.

  13. I'm a nonfiction junkie! I've never heard of Anthony Beevor though, so I'll look into his books.