Recent Nonfiction Reads, in 200 Words Each: Black, Fee, Gaw

I’ve let months pass between receiving these books from the kindly publishers and following through with a review, so in an attempt to clear the decks I’m putting up just a short response to each, along with some favorite quotes.


All that Remains: A Life in Death by Sue Black

Black, a world-leading forensic anthropologist, was part of the war crimes investigation in Kosovo and the recovery effort in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami. She is frequently called into trials to give evidence, has advised the U.K. government on disaster preparedness, and is a co-author of the textbook Developmental Juvenile Osteology (2000). Whether working in a butcher’s shop as a teenager or exploring a cadaver for an anatomy class at the University of Aberdeen, she’s always been comfortable with death. “I never had any desire to work with the living,” she confesses; “The dead are much more predictable and co-operative.”

The book considers death in its clinical and personal aspects: the seven stages of postmortem alteration and the challenges of identifying the sex and age of remains; versus her own experiences with losing her grandmother, uncle and parents. Black wants her skeleton to go to Dundee University’s teaching collection. It doesn’t creep her out to think of that, no more than it did to meet her future cadaver, a matter-of-fact, curious elderly gentleman named Arthur. My favorite chapter was on Kosovo; elsewhere I found the mixture of science and memoir slightly off, and the voice never fully drew me in.

Favorite line: “Perhaps forensic anthropologists are the sin-eaters of our day, addressing the unpleasant and unimaginable so that others don’t have to.”

My rating:

All that Remains was published by Doubleday on April 19th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.


Places I Stopped on the Way Home: A Memoir of Chaos and Grace by Meg Fee

Fee came to New York City to study drama at Julliard. Her short essays, most of them titled after New York locations (plus a few set further afield), are about the uncertainty of her twenties: falling in and out of love, having an eating disorder, and searching for her purpose. She calls herself “a mess of disparate wants, a small universe in bloom.” New York is where she has an awful job she hates, can’t get the man she’s in love with to really notice her, and hops between terrible apartments – including one with bedbugs, the subject of my favorite essay – and yet the City continues to lure her with its endless opportunities.

I think this book could mean a lot to women who are younger than me or have had experiences similar to the author’s. I found the essays slightly repetitive, and rather unkindly wondered what this privileged young woman had to whine about. It’s got the same American, generically spiritual self-help vibe that you get from authors like Brené Brown and Elizabeth Gilbert. Despite her loneliness, Fee retains a romantic view of things, and the way she writes about her crushes and boyfriends never truly connected with me.

Some favorite lines:

“Writing felt like wrangling storm clouds, which is to say, impossible. But so did life. Writing became a way to make peace with that which was flawed.”

“I have let go of the idea of permanency and roots and What Comes Next.”

My rating:

Places I Stopped on the Way Home was published by Icon Books on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.


The Pull of the River: A journey into the wild and watery heart of Britain by Matt Gaw

A watery travelogue in the same vein as works by Roger Deakin and Alys Fowler, this jolly yet reflective book traces Gaw’s canoe trips down Britain’s rivers. His vessel was “the Pipe,” a red canoe built by his friend James Treadaway, who also served as his companion for many of the jaunts. Starting with his local river, the Waveney in East Anglia, and finishing with Scotland’s Great Glen Way, the quest was a way of (re)discovering his country by sensing the currents of history and escaping to the edge of danger.

Access issues, outdoor toileting, getting stuck on mudflats, and going under in the winter – it wasn’t always a comfortable method of travel. But Gaw’s expressive writing renders even rubbish- and sewage-strewn landscapes beautiful in their own way: “grim bunting made from discarded bags of dog poo,” “a savannah of quivering, moussey mud” and “cormorants hunched together like sinister penguins, some holding ragged wings to the wind in taxidermic poses.”

My favorite chapters were about pollution and invasive species, as seen at the Lark, and about the beaver reintroduction project in Devon (we have friends who live near it). I’m rooting for this to make next year’s Wainwright Prize longlist.

A favorite passage:

“I feel like I’ve shed the rust gathered from being landlocked and lazy. The habits and responsibilities of modern life can be hard to shake off, the white noise difficult to muffle. But the water has returned me to my senses. I’ve been reborn in a baptism of the Waveney [et al.]”

My rating:

The Pull of the River was published by Elliott & Thompson on April 5th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.



Have you read any stand-out nonfiction recently?

26 thoughts on “Recent Nonfiction Reads, in 200 Words Each: Black, Fee, Gaw

  1. Oh, I like the look of The Pull of the River! I think Run the World and What Editors Do have been my best non-fiction recently. Oh, and The Old Ways. I’ve been doing a lot of non-fiction this year so far, which is pleasing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The Pull of the River sounds rather good! I’ve been reading far more nonfiction than usual lately: The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, which had a lot of potential it didn’t quite live up to; Empire of Things, which I have yet to write a proper review of; Tiny Beautiful Things, of course; and Amateur by Thomas Page McBee, which I absolutely adored.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s fun if you want a ‘messing about in boats’ narrative 🙂

      Good for you! NF is usually 40% of my reading, but I imagine it’s often less for you. I’m glad you appreciated Amateur more than I did.


      1. I have felt very factual recently 🙂 In fact, a large number of the autumn proofs that I have lined up are nonfiction, in a way that slightly worries me; I get tired of reading it much more quickly. I suspect I’ll have to operate a policy whereby every NF book is chased with at least one novel…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes. I’m currently reading your gift to me, Rich in Years by Johann Christoff Arnold, who I learned is a controversial figure. He writes simply yet profoundly about the worth and beauty of old age, where I now find myself. I’m enjoying his real people examples. Especially significant are his observations about the care of Alzheimer’s victims, whom he contends should be cherished, and offers how they can be kept at home if possible.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The Pull of the River sounds very appealing and interesting. I have not read any standout nonfiction lately, mostly because I favor fiction so much. The last standout nonfiction I read was in June, the essay collection The Fire This Time edited by Jessmyn Ward.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. We do only occasionally. That reminds me, I DID just read some excellent nonfiction… but it’s a graphic (illustrated) memoir and so I didn’t think of it as nonfiction! Silly me. It’s Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do. It was our book group pick last month.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I very seldom stray away from literary fiction but last week made an exception and read The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein. Now there’s a lot that’s icky in being trauma cleaner, But don’t be put off. The story of her life is astonishing and the writing is just excellent. Hard to believe a debut writer has created such a good book.
    And I did enjoy your comment about the spiritual self help vibe of American writers – give me the British vibe any day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Indulgent” is a good word for it, yes. But I think it could mean something to people who are in that stage of life.

      Ah yes, that was a brilliant book. I’ve read a few about North Korea now and always find them so unsettling.


  6. I enjoyed Sue Black – maybe because I’d seen some of her TV programmes, so had a measure of her personality. I’ve just finished Mark Miodownik’s new science book on Liquids – which was fascinating. I’m up on my NF this year – 20% (mainly thanks to the Wellcome shadowing), but I’m loving it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think it’s interesting that the Sue Black has a blurb by a novelist (Kathy Reichs), which seems to hint at the readership she’s aiming to court. I can imagine the balance between memoir/exposition would be difficult to capture and wonder if other, more casual, readers might have enjoyed it more. It’s not necessarily something I would pick up, as I read less NF than you overall, but I did enjoy your thoughts on it, and the others as well. (I bet the tone of the essay collection would irk me too, but I might like the NYC-ness of it, as I hope to travel there before long.) A recent stand-out NF read for me lately was Charles Mann’s 1491 which considers what kind of civilization existed in North America before Columbus landed and which basically turned a bunch of my elementary school social studies teaching upside-down. Much of the time I caught myself reading mouth agape and as though it was a novel, so surprisingly engaging and strange (to my original thinking) and I regularly interrupted Mr. BIP with those “Did you KNOW…” snippets. (I’ve yet to read 1493 and perhaps that’s best, for now.)


    1. Ah, I reviewed his 1493 young people’s edition. It certainly was fascinating!

      I’ve read a couple other books on forensic science that I found significantly more compelling. I was surprised how little she put in about the tsunami — literally just a few pages — as that’s the event I would have been most interested in hearing about.


      1. I didn’t know that he has a young people’s version of that one; in some ways, I wonder if I wouldn’t have been better suited to that one. *giggles* Likely it would have had more illustrations: I always love that.

        That’s what I would have wanted to hear more about as well. How disappointing.

        Liked by 1 person

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