Non-fiction gluttony

So 2011 has been for me The Year Of The Fiction Embargo. Not that that was the original intention; that just seems to be how it’s turned out. I’ve never been the type to go for non-fiction in general, and I certainly have never in my life read one those biographies masquerading as an autobiography, about somebody still so young that two Christmases later they have to write a sequel. A proper actual autobiographical sequel would be awesome, mind you. Something elucidating on the afterlife. Useful.

Anyway, I shall return to fiction with the publication of Terry Pratchett’s “Snuff” next month, but in the meantime, here are some gems that I have stumbled upon this year. I’ve rather self-indulgently given reviews to my top three.

The 4% Universe – Richard Panek

Panek’s account of the history of cosmology and the ongoing interest in dark matter and dark energy takes in a whole lot of material on the way to its denouement. Rather than expounding solely on oddly-named constants, Panek describes the primary players in the story as full humans, flawed and triumphant by turns. Their contribution to the quest for truth is made more astounding by their clear humanity and excellent portrayal. Add to this the tension of two competing teams across decades of research and this could almost be a novel. Of course, we’re talking cosmology here, and physics that even the top boffins don’t yet fully comprehend, so it’s not something you should read while you’re falling asleep. But it assumes no prior knowledge, so if you’re prepared to concentrate, you’re given all that you need to enjoy the book to the full. The most wonderful thing is that, of all the characters, the universe itself takes the central role, and with awesome majesty; the final page is a masterpiece of prose.

Stand Up And Deliver – Andy Kind

Ok – this is the closest I’ve ever got to reading an autobiography, and it’s because I’d seen the author doing stand-up a few times and found him to be extremely funny and – which is important for something like this – immensely likeable. The book, autobiographical though it may be, has two major things in its favour from the off: 1) it covers a single year only 2) it is a compelling, moving and hugely entertaining piece of work. Kind’s account of his first year in stand-up comedy, from the moment he decides it’s finally time to pursue his dream, is of course filled with highs and lows, and (as you might expect from a successful comedian) contains mountains of laugh-out-loud moments. But there is incredible honesty here, and at times he writes with powerfully eloquent emotion. If you’re still in doubt, it comes highly recommended by comedians Tim Vine and Milton Jones.

Flipnosis: The Art of Split-Second Persuasion – Kevin Dutton

This book is no self-help book in teaching you to be more persuasive – in fact, Dutton takes the reader on a tour of the psychology of con men, politicians, and top businessmen. It takes a lot to talk an uninitiated reader through the complexities of psychopathy (and he interviews some seriously disturbed criminals in the course of his research) so non-judgementally. The accounts included are fascinating and unsettling by turns, but his style, though factual, is thoroughly warm and engaging; it’s hard to say a great deal more than that, but it comes in my top three for sheer excellence of writing.

Below are the other books I’ve read this year that haven’t made it to this blog in full. Do let me know if you want to me say what I thought of them and why – but for now I’ve given them stars out of five.

  • The Virago Book Of The Joy Of Shopping – pub. Virago ***
  • God Collar – Marcus Brigstocke **
  • Luella’s Guide To English Style – Luella Bartley **
  • Art and Artifice – Jim Steinmeyer ***
  • Hiding The Elephant: How Magicians Invented The Impossible – Jim Steinmeyer ****
  • Yes Man – Danny Wallace ***** (SO nearly made the top three; if you’ve read this and enjoyed it, then Stand Up And Deliver is definitely for you.)
  • 59 Seconds – Professor Richard Wiseman ****
  • Paranormality – Professor Richard Wiseman ***
  • Quirkology – Professor Richard Wiseman ****

I have to say that I’ve enjoyed them all, regardless of how “good” I thought they were. That’s the problem with star-ratings.

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