A sign in Wales on the A487 in Pembrokeshire between Newport and Cardigan.
Lateness is a thing I have in common with the White Rabbit. Rennie at WhatsNonFiction is hosting Week 1 of Non-Fiction November. Thank you Rennie. We were supposed to post on Monday.
I have read and reviewed 20 non-fiction titles on my blog since January of this year. Here are the questions and my responses for Week 1.
What is your favourite nonfiction title that you’ve read this year?
Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe
an extraordinary journalistic expose of the links between the Sackler family, a famously philanthropic familiy with acknowledgements (and pseudonymous galleries) in some of the most prestigious museums of the world. This is the family that owned pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, responsible for the production of Oxy-Contin.
In my review I wrote:
“This drug – basically heroine in pill form – had originally been developed to treat chronic cancer pain. But Purdue pushed the FDA (responsible for authorising new drugs in the US) to licence its use as a general painkiller.”
Not only meticulously researched, but hugely courageous, Radden Keefe’s book explains clearly the stages of the first hopeful development of Purdue Pharma, to its bitter end, the whole a seemingly diabolical process which started harmlessly in medication aimed at helping people with minor ailments, but led – step by devious step – to the turning of a blind eye to the mass opioid addiction crisis that swept the US in the 1990s.
It was clear from the cars with blacked out windows parked opposite Radden Keefe’s house, that there were people who did not want this book to be written.
Am I allowed two favourites? In case I am, Jan Caeyers Biography Beethoven: A Life
is magnificent, with its erudite discussions of the defining episode’s of the maestro’s life including the Heiligenstadt Testament and the identity of the ‘Immortal Beloved’. Most of everything we need to know about Beethoven is there in his music, but who doesn’t love to read about the great man for clues to his genius.
Is there a particular topic you’ve been drawn to?
Illness. Not that I go looking for books on this subject but there is a lot of it about at the moment. It’s hard to avoid. Also illness gives rise to attempts to overcome illness, which in turn leads to great stories of suffering and redemption.
I have read a number of books on addiction this year including Hunter (son of Joe) Biden’s biography which details his dark journey to the depth of addiction and his fight to leave drugs behind and save his own life. I have read other illness books too.. For example, Alice Hattrick’s ‘Ill Feelings’
published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, spoke out for all those undiagnosed, unsupported and unhelped people suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome.
Illness and art often sadly go hand in hand. Emily Rapp Black’s Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg detailed how the author found solace from her own life changing injuries in reading about Kahlo – that arch survivor of just about every trauma known to woman – and visiting Kahlo’s home in Mexico. I thoroughly enjoyed this attractive little book from Notting Hill Editions.
Another popular topic for non-fiction writers in 2021 has been the seeking of solace and cure in nature, including a re-issue of probably one of the first and best known of this genre (if it is one) Richard Mabey’s Nature Cur. In the same vein, Tamsin Calidas I am an Island.
What book have you recommended the most?
Not a book that I have reviewed on here but one that I never quite manage to stop talking about is Katherine Swift’s The Morville Hours.
A beautiful meditation on the philosophy of gardening, all tied in with the hours of the divine office. There’s no point in talking about this one, you have to read it. Utterly superb.
What do you hope to get out of participating in Nonfiction November.
This is an interesting question. The answer is not ‘reading more non-fiction’ which I already read a great deal of anyway. I enjoy looking at other people’s suggestions, getting ideas for new reads and generally taking part and joining in.
That’s about it for my round up. I’m currently reading The Long Field, a memoir by Pamela Petro, who arrived in the 1970s as a student from the US to study at the University of Wales in Lampeter. Petro investigates the meaning of loss, particularly in regard to ‘home’ and ‘language’ and the spaces left in our lives by absences – of those people and places we have loved and lost. Such complex notions so ably summed up in the Welsh word, hiraeth are woven into this collected narrative of thought and memory.