Non-fiction

Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig

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The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

Bringing order to the wilderness inside our heads

Curiously beautiful and unique, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig is that rare thing, a book you didn’t know you needed but one destined to bag a lifelong space on your bookshelf. A dictionary in six parts, Koenig’s labour of love is a compendium of new words for emotions. Woven from fragments of a hundred different languages, these are words that give expression to those thoughts and feelings that hover ‘on the cusp of language.’ In the vein of established words like schadenfreude and hygge, they convey the universal experiences that we cannot adequately articulate alone.

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Being Mortal

Surprisingly reassuring on a grim subject

I’m not sure how I’m going to convince you to read this book. Most of you will, understandably, want to look the other way. There are details about dying in Being Mortal by Atul Gawande that will make you shudder and stories about elderly people’s lives that will make you want to cry. But, for me, this book was an eye-opener and surprisingly reassuring, despite it’s grim subject matter. Gawande is an Indian/American surgeon, health-care researcher, a Harvard professor, author, journalist, in short: a brilliant man whose books on health care issues regularly climb to the top of non-fiction bestseller lists.

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Inheritance by Dani Shapiro

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Inheritance

Finding your genes

At the age of 54, author Dani Shapiro discovers that her father is not the man who raised her. The Ancestry.com genealogy test results show that not only is she fathered by someone else, but she also has a lot less Jewish DNA than she thought. Having been raised in an orthodox Jewish family, this raises all kinds of questions about identity and belonging. I was enthralled by Shapiro’s detective work as I joined her emotional rollercoaster to find out why, how and who. Inheritance by Dani Shapiro is a human story which raises some compelling ethical dilemmas and is well worth your time.

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Wintering by Katherine May

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Wintering

A comfort blanket of a book

You’ll grow to love winter, both the seasonal and the emotional, after reading the soothing Wintering by Katherine May. I adored this little book, written by May after a break-down caused by a cocktail of undiagnosed autism, an ill husband and an exhausting job. Leaving her job and the pressures of daily life behind, May retracts from the world and cocoons herself with her young son in almost hibernation. There she finds the peace she’s been desperately craving and learns to love herself – and winter, the most unlovable of seasons.

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Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

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Killers of the Flower Moon 

Gripping true story of murder and greed

The non-fiction book The Wager was one of my reading highlights this summer so when I heard of Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann I jumped on it. This time, Grann takes us to early 20th century Oklahoma, a state established to house the many displaced Native Americans. After being forcibly moved away from fertile land, the Osage tribe were assigned a rocky patch of no apparent value until, that is, oil in large quantities was discovered. The Osage became immensely rich – at the time they were the wealthiest people in the world – and lived comfortable lives. For a while.

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The Wager by David Grann

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The Wager by David Grann

Stranger than fiction

I’ve just devoured a superb non-fiction book in the you-couldn’t-have-made-it-up category. The Wager by David Grann is the story of a doomed secret mission during England’s conflict with Spain in the 1740s. It’s a barely credible story of shipwreck, murder, in-fighting and hardship on an epic scale in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Fuelled by a combination of imperial ambition and arrogance, the mission of the Wager exposes one of the more megalomaniac periods in British history. An unmissable read.

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The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken

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The Hero of This Book

Grief, memories and blurred lines

One Sunday in summer, a bereaved American writer wanders the streets of London, finding echoes and shadows of her dead mother in a city beloved to them both. The writer is our narrator and the book is most definitely not a memoir. Her mother didn’t believe in memoirs about parents, and anyhow the book’s blurb is keen to tell us that it’s a novel. In The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken, the lines between fiction and biography are blurred in a cerebral, generous and absorbing read.

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Duveen by S.N. Behrman

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Duveen

The Story of the Most Spectacular Art Dealer of All Time

I’ve always wondered how so much priceless European art from the Renaissance onwards made its way to major American museums. In the engrossing Duveen by SN Behrman, we learn how. The greatest art dealer of all time, Joseph Duveen, courted and cajoled American robber barons into spending millions of dollars on old master paintings, most of which eventually ended up being donated to museums. The story of Duveen is absolutely fascinating, even if you’re not passionate about art.

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The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

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The Lonely City

When loneliness turns into art

There’s nothing like a pandemic to give you a taste of loneliness, but as The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (written long before the Coronavirus) shows us, incredible art can come out of a solitary existence. Laing takes us on an absorbing journey of New York City through the eyes of artists who lived lonely lives – sometimes by choice, most often not. She investigates the lives of artists like Edward Hopper, Henry Darger, David Wojnarowicz even Andy Warhol, whose art ‘is surprisingly eloquent on isolation’ despite his famously social lifestyle. Highly recommended.

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Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux

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Simple Passion

An unashamedly honest portrayal of desire

In Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux, France’s most celebrated memoirist and newly minted Nobel Laureate, distils her two year long, passionate affair with a married man into a punchy 48 pages. Those familiar with Ernaux’s writing will know she’s the master of dissecting emotions, condensing them into something almost clinical which has the unexpected power to make you cry. I challenge anyone not to recognise some part of themselves in this book. An unashamedly honest portrayal of desire.

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