Non-fiction

Non-fiction

Latest reviews

How Do We Look: The Body, the Divine and the Question of Civilization
Mary Beard
Reviewed by Phil

Mary Beard describes her latest book, How Do We Look, as an exploration of art, and our reactions to it, over thousands of years and across thousands of miles. The title refers to Beard’s intention of “putting the viewers of art back into the frame”.

The book is split into two parts. In Part One, Beard explores the art of the body. She focuses on some early examples of art and asks the questions: Why were these men and women depicted in this way, and how were they seen by the people of the time? In Part Two, Beard reflects on the problems faced by world religions in picturing the divine.

Beard makes the point that some of what we view today as great art was in fact mass-produced in its time. She gives the example of some beautifully painted Greek ceramics, now carefully preserved in a museum, that were once just ordinary household crockery.  

“So much depends on who is looking… and so much depends on the context in which they look.”

The book is peppered with interesting snippets, such as Hadrian’s visit to Thebes in 130 CE to see a singing statue, one of the greatest tourist attractions of the ancient world. The statue still exists but, sadly, no longer sings. Posing at the statue, Beard remarks that “there is something touching about being able to tread in the footsteps of Hadrian’s party”.

How Do We Look, is intended as an accompaniment to the PBS series Civilizations, but it stands alone as a beautiful and very accessible introduction to art history and an exploration of what we mean by the term “civilization”. It is filled with glorious photographs of art through the ages, and very readable explanations of what this art meant to the people of the time.

Mary Beard is a professor of Classics at Cambridge University. Her earlier book, SPQR, was a New York Times best seller.

The Order of Time
Carlo Rovelli
To be released 8th May
Reviewed by Phil


I enjoyed Carlo Rovelli's earlier book, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, and was really pleased to receive an advanced reader's copy of his latest book, The Order of Time. It did not disappoint. How could it, when it poses such wonderful questions as "Why do we remember the past and not the future?" and "Do we exist in time or does time exist in us?"

This is a lyrical exploration of some of these big questions, and more. It's a beautifully written book. Rovelli deftly pulls together thoughts and ideas from philosophy, literature and science to create this masterpiece. He clearly is passionate about his field, theoretical physics, and writes in such a brisk and precise manner that you are quickly swept along. From the opening paragraph to the very last page, this book is a delight. There are so many thought-provoking moments: Did you know, for example, that time passes more quickly the higher you climb? Hah! Or that time stands still at the border of a black hole? Fascinating stuff. Please don't be put off by the subject matter - this book is more poetry than science. Well worth the time spent reading, whatever time might be.

The Soul of an Octopus
Sy Montgomery
Reviewed by Phil

I have a distinct childhood memory of the first time I encountered grasshoppers. I was four and a half and lying in a grassy field. The grass stems were alive with these strange creatures rubbing their hind legs together so that the air was filled with a glorious buzz. I was filled with a sense of wonder: What were these fabulous insects singing the summer away? Twenty years later, I felt the same sense of awe when I visited Australia for the first time: with its koalas, echidnas and platypus, Australia is a place of wonder. Everything was so new and different. It was like being a child all over again, discovering the world for the very first time.

The Soul of an Octopus is about wonder. It’s been out for a while, tempting from the shelves, and recently made it back onto the bestsellers list. The book is full of curious facts about octopuses – not octopi, as the author points out on the very first page. Did you know octopuses have three hearts? That they can regenerate limbs if they lose them to a predator? That they are masters of disguise, changing not only the colour of their skin to hide, but its texture, too, and the shape of their bodies? This book had me going to you tube repeatedly to play videos of octopuses shape-shifting to become a piece of coral, or a rock, or a clump of seaweed. Fascinating.

Montgomery details her interactions with four octopuses through her time spent at the aquarium in Boston over a period of several years. The book is at times funny, at others sad, but, overall it’s a heart-warming read about the connection that can form between different creatures. It’s about intelligence, and personality, and love, and loss and life.

Note: The Soul of an Octopus was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Her latest book, Tamed and Untamed, recently came out in paperback.

Conscience of a Conservative
Jeff Flake
Reviewed by Linda
 
Senator Jeff Flake, the junior Senator from Arizona, has written a book that articulates his conservative views and values and takes issue with President Trump and the Republican Party. His treatise is fashioned after a book by the same name written by Senator Barry Goldwater in 1960. Senator Flake accepts responsibility for his role in initially not speaking out about the lies, incivility and denial of truth and science that have plagued the Trump administration. This is an important book for our times and should provide thoughtful information for individuals on both sides of the aisle who are dismayed by the policies and rhetoric of the current administration.

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body
Roxane Gay
Reviewed by Linda


This is a book about weight, trauma, shame, and a woman's relationship with her body. It is bold and haunting -- the "most difficult writing experience of my life" -- Gay writes in the memoir's beginning pages. Gay is a prolific author of essays, short stories and a novel, and often provocatively explores issues of race, gender, and sexuality. This memoir is much more personal and raw -- she shares horrific details of a gang rape at the age of 12 and her desire to protect herself from further harm by making her body as large as possible. Gay also explores the cultural norms and expectations imposed on women's bodies and the resulting harassment and microaggressions directed at women who do not measure up to those norms. 

This is not a book about a woman who would like to lose 20 pounds; this is a book about a woman who has been 300 or 400 pounds overweight for all of her adult life. Gay was interviewed recently by Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air and Gross asked Gay where she is now in her relationship with her body. Gay responded, "I would definitely like to tear down this wall I've built around myself, because I don't need it anymore."

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body is not only a candid exploration of trauma and its aftermath, but also a reminder of every person's right to be present and respected in public spaces.

The Fact of a Body
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
Reviewed by Phil

This is a haunting book, part memoir, part true-crime. It is beautifully realized. Some passages left me breathless – the writer’s touch so light, the revelations so deftly handled. The true crime is the murder is of a young boy, Jeremy Guillory, at the hands of Ricky Langley. The memoir is that of a young law student, Alex, the author, interning through the summer at an anti-death penalty law centre in the south. As she delves into Jeremy’s death and Ricky’s life, she is forced to face her own childhood, and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her grandfather. The details are at times harrowing, but so skillfully managed, and so honestly confronted that there are lessons for us all here. This is a gripping read.

The Rules Do Not Apply
Ariel Levy
Reviewed by Linda

When thirty-eight-year-old New Yorker writer Ariel Levy left for a reporting trip to Mongolia in 2012, she was pregnant, married, financially secure, and successful on her own terms. A month later, none of that was true. Levy shares the story of how she built an unconventional life and then watched it fall apart with astonishing speed. Levy reveals that she was raised to resist conventional rules—about work, about love, and about womanhood.

I wanted what we all want: everything. We want a mate who feels like family and a lover who is exotic, surprising. We want to be youthful adventurers and middle-aged mothers. We want intimacy and autonomy, safety and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. But we can’t have it all.

In this powerful memoir, Levy chronicles the adventure and heartbreak of being “a woman who is free to do whatever she chooses.” Her own story of resilience becomes an unforgettable portrait of the shifting forces in our culture, of what has changed—and of what is eternal.


Reviews by title

Born to Run
Bruce Springsteen
Reviewed by Linda

I have been a Bruce Springsteen fan since the age of 14 and have followed his career with interest. His concerts are amazing -- full of great music and soulful energy. I was eager to read his new autobiography, Born to Run

The book did not disappoint. Springsteen shares not only his musical journey, but reveals intimate details of his childhood, difficult relationships, marriage and fatherhood, his creative process and his struggle with depression. Written over a 7-year period, the book is engaging and brings depth and insight into an artist who has entertained and inspired many over the past five decades.


A Brief History of Time
Stephen Hawking
Reviewed by John
 
It really is as good as you've heard. Stephen Hawking takes truly extraordinary ideas and puts them into easily understood words. A great book on what, and how, we are beginning to understand the universe.
 
Daring Greatly
Brene Brown
Reviewed by Linda


Brene Brown is a researcher on shame and vulnerability at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. Her work is eye-opening and inspirational. She uses humor and storytelling to show how being vulnerable can change your life. Her TED talks are fabulous - check them out on YouTube. If you are lookng for a book that will challenge you to shake things up, then look no further.

 
Devil in the White City
Erik Larson
Reviewed by John

A brilliant mix of wonder and fear. Larson contrasts the construction of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair - The White City - with America's first serial killer H.H. Holmes, who lurked in its shadow. Meticulously researched, fascinating at every page, Larson constructs an unforgettable narrative of a lost century.


The Fact of a Body
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
Released in May
Reviewed by Phil

This is a haunting book, part memoir, part true-crime. It is beautifully realized. Some passages left me breathless – the writer’s touch so light, the revelations so deftly handled. The true crime is the murder is of a young boy, Jeremy Guillory, at the hands of Ricky Langley. The memoir is that of a young law student, Alex, the author, interning through the summer at an anti-death penalty law centre in the south. As she delves into Jeremy’s death and Ricky’s life, she is forced to face her own childhood, and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her grandfather. The details are at times harrowing, but so skillfully managed, and so honestly confronted that there are lessons for us all here. This is a gripping read.

 
Love Warrior 
Glennon Doyle Melton
Reviewed by Linda
 
This is a deeply personal memoir about one woman's journey to rebuild her life and her marriage after betrayal. Doyle Melton shares her struggles with intimacy, love, body image, addiction, and trust. She explores the the difference between romantic and spiritual love and discovers what she needs to have both in her life and in her marriage. This book is an act of courage and many will find parts of their own story reflected in her words.
 
Glennon Doyle Melton is an author, public speaker, founder of the online community Momastery, and creator and president of Together Rising, a nonprofit organization that has raised more than four million dollars for families around the world.
 
Mathematics: An Illustrated History of Numbers
Edited by Tom Jackson
Reviewed by Phil

This is where my inner Math nerd makes an appearance. This book is an absolute treasure, filled with all kinds of delightful snippets of mathematical interest. You can approach the book in a couple of ways. I like to just delve in – open a page at random: For example, let’s see – four color theorem. Who knew such a theorem existed! And the explanation begins with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn arguing about their progress on a balloon flight from St Louis. Or measuring the earth - a feat achieved with 99% accuracy 300 years BCE simply by measuring the length of a shadow cast by a pillar at noon on the summer solstice and then applying geometry! The other way to approach the book is as a simple guide to mathematical contexts. Not sure what Fermat’s Last Theorem is? The index will lead you to a concise explanation… This book is a joy for people interested in math, and is an ideal reference for all those people who feel math passed them by first time around.
 
On My Own
Diane Rehm

Reviewed by Linda
 
I eagerly awaited the publication of Diane Rehm's new memoir, On My Own. I am a longtime listener and fan of her NPR radio program, The Diane Rehm Show. The memoir did not disappoint -- and it surprised me with its honesty and insight into her 54-year marriage to John Rehm. This is a book about marriage, love, loss, grief and Rehm balancing her various roles as wife, mother, daughter, friend and public figure. She describes the often turbulent and difficult relationship with her husband and the healing that came as the end of John's life drew near. He had Parkinson's and she writes about the physical, emotional and spiritual effects of the disease on each of them and their relationship. Her willingness to show us a glimpse of her vulnerability, imperfection and struggles is brave. As Rehm approaches her 80th birthday and retirement from The Diane Rehm Show, I look forward to her next chapter.
 

The Rules Do Not Apply
Ariel Levy
Reviewed by Linda

When thirty-eight-year-old New Yorker writer Ariel Levy left for a reporting trip to Mongolia in 2012, she was pregnant, married, financially secure, and successful on her own terms. A month later, none of that was true. Levy shares the story of how she built an unconventional life and then watched it fall apart with astonishing speed. Levy reveals that she was raised to resist conventional rules—about work, about love, and about womanhood.

I wanted what we all want: everything. We want a mate who feels like family and a lover who is exotic, surprising. We want to be youthful adventurers and middle-aged mothers. We want intimacy and autonomy, safety and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. But we can’t have it all.

In this powerful memoir, Levy chronicles the adventure and heartbreak of being “a woman who is free to do whatever she chooses.” Her own story of resilience becomes an unforgettable portrait of the shifting forces in our culture, of what has changed—and of what is eternal.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics 
Carlo Rovelli
Reviewed by Phil

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics could easily go under the title Seven Brief Love Affairs with Physics. This is a beautifully written book. Science isn’t so much explained as admired. Rovelli touches on relativity, quantum theory, the architecture of the cosmos, particles, probability and time and the heart of black holes. But don’t be daunted! The language is approachable and thoughtful. Here’s a quote from the Third Lesson:

The universe began as a small ball and then exploded to its present cosmic dimensions. This is our current image of the universe, on the grandest scale that we know… Do other similar universes exist? We do not know.

On finishing the book, I was left not with the feeling that I better understood our world, but that our world was truly a place of awe and wonder and that I was privileged to be alive. A remarkable achievement.

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
Ruth Franklin
Reviewed by Phil

I am not normally a reader of biographies, but this book demanded reading and I quickly found myself absorbed and engaged.

As a resident of North Bennington, I was particularly drawn to this section of the book - I drive past Jackson's former residence on my way to the bookshop each day. There are some fun snippets for the locals - Jackson used to shop at Powers Market, still in existence today.  There's a lovely request from the administration of Bennington College asking students to clear their windowsills of incriminating bottles before Parents Day. And was Jackson's most famous story, The Lottery, really based on actual people in North Bennington?

Franklin's book draws on previously undiscovered correspondence and dozens of new interviews. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life is an exploration of astonishing talent shaped by a damaging childhood and turbulent marriage. Franklin clearly loves her subject. It comes through in her writing, which sings.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating
Elisabeth Bailey
Reviewed by Phil

I bumped into this book while roaming the aisles of the bookshop, opened it at random and found this quote from the poet Billy Collins: 
      
       I said the word gastropod out loud,
       And having no idea what it meant
      Went upstairs and looked it up
      Then hid in the woods from my wife and our dog

Well, of course, that made me want to read more. The author was suffering from an incapacitating illness, living life vicariously through the life of a snail a visitor had brought in with a bunch of violets. Unable to move, Bailey takes joy in observing the activities of the snail, and on reading up on the biology of snails. The book is filled with extraordinary snippets: One species of snail has up to 3000 fine teeth; about 30% of snail species fire love darts at potential partners which hormonally enhance their passion for one another. (Surely, the origin of the story Cupid and his arrow!) And snails can hibernate through adverse conditions for up to four years!

Each chapter begins with a small quote, many of them haiku by Issa, one of the great four haiku masters of Japan. Issa himself seemed fascinated by snails, writing some 54 haiku about them.

I enjoyed this book not just for the unusual facts it presented, but also for its joyous meditation on life and how much we can learn from simple observation of nature. Here’s one: Bailey says the relationship between time and the snail confused her. She says “The snail would make its way through the terrarium while the hands of the clock hardly moved – so I often thought the snail travelled faster than time. Then, absorbed in snail-watching, I’d find that time had flown by, unnoticed.”

And one more, as Bailey is recovering, and the snail has been released into the wild: “The snail had been the best of companions… it had entertained me and taught me… leading me through a dark time into a world beyond my species.”

An absorbing read.