non-fiction

The World’s Religions by Huston Smith – Book Review

I initially read this engaging and erudite book about the world’s predominant faiths many years ago, but I felt like a refresher, and, just like the first time around, I found myself humbled by the realisation of how much I didn’t know. In truth, it would probably take me a few more readings to fully absorb the dense layers of information presented here, but you’re still left with a decent understanding of the world’s main religions even if you can’t hold on to all the points.

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Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed – Book Review

I really enjoyed the film adaptation of this best-selling memoir with Reese Witherspoon in the lead role from five years back. Now I finally found the time for the original book, the entertaining, emotional and at times harrowing account of a young woman who hiked 1,100 miles alone along the Pacific Crest Trail in the USA.

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Blowing the Bloody Doors Off by Michael Caine – Book Review

This offering from the screen legend Michael Caine is not a straightforward autobiography, but rather a mix of memoir, practical advice for the aspiring actors and general life lessons, drawn from Caine’s 60-something years in the acting business. It’s an entertaining and breezy read, with Caine emerging as an unpretentious, charming and likeable person.

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How Music Works by David Byrne – Book Review

An eclectic and often engrossing collection of essays from David Byrne, best known as the principal songwriter and lead singer of the iconic American band Talking Heads. In this book, Byrne offers his perspective on the subject he’s been involved with for his entire life, music, blending social and technological history, autobiography, business strategies, technical knowledge and personal philosophy.

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Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera – Book Review

I finally got around to reading this excellent biography of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, which I picked up, appropriately enough, during my trip to Mexico almost three years ago. I’ve been a fan of Frida’s striking, intensely personal paintings for a long time, and during my trip I was lucky enough to visit Casa Azul, the Frida Kahlo Museum in the neighbourhood of Coyoacán in Mexico City. In retrospect, I almost wish I’d read the book and got more insight into Frida’s life before the visit, but ah well.

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The View From the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman – Book Review

I’ll read (almost) anything by Neil Gaiman, so I’m the perfect audience for this non-fiction collection of random bits and bobs Gaiman produced over the years: essays, introductions for other writers’ books, album liner notes, speeches given at professional events, autobiographical pieces and many more. I’ve enjoyed Gaiman’s writing over the years, but in addition to being a wonderful writer Gaiman is an interesting character with a distinctive voice and many things to say, which he does, passionately, in his trademark articulate, thoughtful and often humorous way. Many of his books I’ve read came with introductions that give you an insight into the man behind the words, so this is basically 500 pages of similar.

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Educated by Tara Westover – Book Review

Our latest book club reading was this extraordinary, beautifully written memoir about growing up in rural Idaho in a family of Mormon survivalists.

One frequent comment in the discussions I had was that to many Educated felt like reading fiction rather than a memoir. This is in no way a swipe at its credibility, but rather a compliment to the quality of Westover’s writing, which is a few notches above your typical memoir or autobiography. The impression could also be partly due to the voice of the narrator, which is rather distanced, matter-of-fact and remarkably perceptive. Perhaps it comes from looking back at a life that feels like a different life altogether. In many ways, this memoir is a book about memory and its fragility, and trying to piece together a portrait of the family from the often contradictory recollections.

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Philomena by Martin Sixsmith – Book Review

This book left me with mixed feelings; though I found it mostly enjoyable and touching there were two big things that didn’t sit well with me and somewhat soured the reading experience.

One is the blatantly misleading cover and title. I haven’t watched the 2013 film Philomena starring Judi Dench, but I’ve heard enough to expect, as the front cover puts it, “the poignant true story of a mother and the son she had to give away”, or as the back cover puts it, “the touching story of a mother’s fifty-year search for her son”. At first Sixsmith’s book seems to back it up, opening in the 1950s Ireland with the story of Philomena Lee, a young girl who gets pregnant out of wedlock and gets sent to a convent. After giving birth to a baby boy, she is forced to work at the Magdalene laundry to “pay for her sins”, and eventually give up her son for adoption, with no hope of ever contacting him again. A truly tragic story that makes your blood boil.

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The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer – Book Review

I haven’t seen much of Amy Schumer’s comedic material, but her turn in Trainwreck was memorable enough for me to read this enjoyable autobiographical collection of essays and recollections, told with frankness, humour and quite a bit of raunch and cussing. There’s always a measure of scepticism when one reads a memoir by a celebrity – particularly a performer – in how much of it is a carefully edited performance and how much is genuine. As far as my impressions went, Schumer at least doesn’t come off as a person who pretends to be someone they’re not.

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Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush by Lael Morgan – Book Review

One of the joys of travel is finding things you’re never going to encounter at home. I spotted this book at a supermarket checkout while in Alaska, and I think it’s safe to say I wouldn’t have come across it anywhere else. I’ve read quite a few stories about the famous Alaskan gold rush, but this book offers a very unique perspective on the time and place, focusing, as the title suggests, on the women of the demimonde who flocked to the Far North’s gold camps in the late 1890s and early 20th century. It aims to shed light on the “off the record” history of the pioneers, and women who in their own ways influenced the frontier life.

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