Five Nonfiction Review Books: Hammond, Iorio, Rault, Riley & Rutt

A diagnosis of motor neurone disease; a father’s dispiriting experience of censorship trials. An illustrated history of fonts; an essay on grief; a cold weather-appropriate record of geese-watching. I gear up for Nonfiction November by catching up on five nonfiction review books I’ve been sent over the last couple of months. You can’t say that I don’t read a variety, even within nonfiction! See if one or more of these tempts you.

 

A Short History of Falling: Everything I Observed about Love whilst Dying by Joe Hammond

Hammond, a playwright, takes a wry, clear-eyed approach to his diagnosis of motor neurone disease (ALS) and the knowledge that his physical capacities will only deteriorate from here on out. “New items arrive almost daily and I am unexpectedly becoming the curator of the Museum of my own Decline.” Yet he also freezes funnier moments, like blowing his nose on a slice of bread because he couldn’t reach a tissue box, or spending “six hours of my fiftieth birthday sat on this hospice toilet, with a bottle of good Scotch wedged between my knees.”

Still, Hammond regrets that he’s become like a third small child for his wife Gill to look after, joining his sons Tom and Jimmy, and that he won’t see his boys grow up. (This book arose from an article he wrote for the Guardian in 2018 about making 33 birthday cards for his sons to open in the years after his death.) Although I wasn’t as interested in the details of Hammond’s earlier life, or his relationship with his narcissistic father, I appreciated his quiet acceptance of disability, help and impending death.

Favorite lines:

“I’ve waited all my life to know this peace. To know that I am nothing more than this body.”

“my place in all of this is becoming smaller, historic and just the right size of important.”

With thanks to 4th Estate for the free copy for review.

 

An Author on Trial: The Story of a Forgotten Writer by Luciano Iorio

The author’s father, Giuseppe Jorio, was a journalist and schoolteacher who wrote an infamous novel based on an affair he had in the 1930s. Using italicized passages from his father’s diary and letters to Tina, who was 19 when their affair started, Iorio reconstructs the sordid events and unexpected aftermath in fairly vivid detail. Tina fell pregnant and decided to abort the baby. Meanwhile, Giuseppe’s wife, Bruna, got the truth out of him and responded with more grace than might be expected. Giuseppe was devastated at the loss of his potential offspring, and realized he wanted to have a child with Bruna. He bid Tina farewell and the family moved to Rome, where the author was born in 1937.

Giuseppe’s novel inspired by the affair, Il Fuoco del Mondo (The Fire of the World) was rejected by all major publishers and accused of obscenity in a series of five trials that threatened his reputation and morale. It’s a less familiar echo of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial, and a poignant portrait of a man who felt he never lived up to his potential because of bad luck and societal disapproval. I enjoyed learning a bit about Italian literature. However, inconsistent use of tenses and shaky colloquial English (preposition issues, etc.) suggest that a co-writer or translator was needed to bring this self-published work up to scratch.

With thanks to the publicist for the free copy to review as part of a blog tour.

 

ABC of Typography by David Rault

[Translated from the French by Edward Gauvin]

From cuneiform to Gutenberg to Comic Sans, this history of typography is delightful. Graphic designer David Rault wrote the whole thing, but each chapter has a different illustrator, so the resulting book is like a taster course in comics styles. As such, I would highly recommend it to those who are fairly new to graphic novels and want to see whose work appeals to them, as well as to anyone who enjoyed Simon Garfield’s book about fonts, Just My Type.

I found it fascinating to explore the technical characteristics (serif vs. sans serif, etc.) and aesthetic associations of various fonts. For instance, I didn’t realize that my mainstay – Times New Roman – is now seen as a staid choice: “Highly readable, but overexposed in the early days of the Internet, it took on a reputation for drabness that it hasn’t shed since the ’90s.” Nowadays, some newspapers and brands pay typeface creators to make a font for their exclusive use. Can you name the typeface that is used on German road signs, or in Barack Obama’s campaign materials? (You’ll be able to after you read this.)

With thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.

 

Time Lived, Without Its Flow by Denise Riley

What Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill” does for sickness, this does for bereavement. Specifically, Riley, whose son Jake died suddenly of a heart condition, examines how the experience of time changes during grief. “I’ll not be writing about death, but about an altered condition of life,” she opens. In short vignettes written from two weeks to three years after her son’s death, she reflects on how her thinking and feelings have morphed over time. She never rests with an easy answer when a mystery will do instead. “What if” questions and “as if” imaginings proliferate. Poetry – she has also written an exquisite book of poems, Say Something Back, responding to the loss of Jake – has a role to play in the acceptance of this new reality: “rhyme may do its minute work of holding time together.”

Max Porter provides a fulsome introduction to this expanded version of Riley’s essay, which first appeared in 2012. This small volume meant a lot more to him than it did to me; I preferred Riley’s poetic take on the same events. Still, this is sure to be a comfort for the bereaved.

Favorite passages:

“I’ll try to incorporate J’s best qualities of easy friendliness, warmth, and stoicism, and I shall carry him on in that way. Which is the only kind of resurrection of the dead that I know about.”

“I don’t experience him as in the least dead, but simply as ‘away’. Even if he’ll be away for my remaining lifetime. My best hope’s to have a hallucination of his presence when I’m dying myself.”

With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.

 

Wintering: A Season with Geese by Stephen Rutt

Rutt’s The Seafarers: A Journey among Birds, one of my favorite recent nature/travel books, came out in May. What have we done to deserve another publication from this talented young author just four months later?! I didn’t enjoy this as much as The Seafarers, yet it does a lot of the same things well: it provides stunning word portraits of individual bird species, explores the interaction between nature and one’s mental state, and gathers evidence of the cultural importance of birds through legends and classical writings.

Here the focus is on geese, which the author had mostly overlooked until the year he moved to southern Scotland. Suddenly they were impossible to ignore, and as he became accustomed to his new home these geese sightings were a way of marking the seasons’ turn. Ethical issues like hunting, foie gras and down production come into play, and, perhaps ironically, the author eats goose for Christmas dinner!

Rutt’s points of reference include Paul Gallico (beware plot spoilers!), Aldo Leopold, Mary Oliver and Peter Scott. The writing in this short book reminded me most of Horatio Clare (especially The Light in the Dark) and Jim Crumley (who’s written many short seasonal and single-species nature books) this time around.

A favorite passage (I sympathize with the feelings of nomadism and dislocation):

“I envy the geese their certainty, their habits of home. I am forever torn between multiple places that feel like home. Scotland where I live or Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk: the flatlands of golden evenings and reeds, mud and water and sand. The distant horizon and all the space in between I grew up with, which seems to lurk somewhere, subconsciously calling me back.”

[Neat aside: My husband and I both got quotes (about The Seafarers) on the press release for this book!]

With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the free copy.

 

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

22 responses

  1. Ooh – look at you both, getting quotes on the press release! That must have felt very cool indeed!

    I am interested in the ABC of Typography and the Rutt (why didn’t you think it was as good as The Seafarers? Too samey, too soon?) but you’d kind of know that, wouldn’t you. I liked how the amended type covers of the first two reads echoed each other, though.

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    1. In comparison with The Seafarers, this felt somewhat slight. Not many words on a page at all; I read it in just a few days. So there wasn’t the same quality of reflection or engagement with history. But it’s still very well written, and I’m sure those who have read his first book will want to read this too.

      Good point about the first two covers — I hadn’t even noticed!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Such a wide-ranging selection! I’ve seen a lot about the Hammond on Twitter which caught my eye partly because my partner’s PhD supervisor also had ALS. He lived for far longer than expected and, like Hammond by the sound of it, managed to keep his sense of humour to the end. Extraordinary.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wasn’t able to confirm, but I think Hammond is still alive.

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      1. I think he is. I’m sure I’ve seen something to that effect on Twitter.

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    2. I’m relieved to hear that.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. News of Hammond’s death just came through today 😦

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      1. Oh dear. I’m sad for his family but I do hope it wasn’t a struggle for him at the end.

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  3. I read Hammond’s article in the Guardian and thought it was very moving.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I missed it when it first came out; I’ll have to go back and find it.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. “I think a terminal diagnosis is the very finest tool a writer can have; it’s the view from an escarpment of both the beginning and the end. It has enabled me to write with a lightness about my life and this time.” Beautiful!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The ABC of Typography is the one for me in that bunch. But I’d also read The Short History of Falling.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Typography and Seafarers for me. And congratulations on the quotes!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do think you’d love Rutt’s pair of birdy books. And perhaps The ABC of Typography could be the book to get you into graphic novels 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Definitely worth a try! Thanks.

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  6. This is a really great, eclectic mix of nonfiction! I think I’ve been letting myself read in my comfort zone lately and I’d like to get back to reading more broadly. Definitely adding this birding book to my list as well. How fun that you and your husband were both quoted in the press release; very cool!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m adding the first three to my list 🙂 Thank you for this blog. I’m amazed how much you can read and review 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you found some books that appealed! Thanks for stopping by.

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  8. […] *ABC of Typography by David Rault: From cuneiform to Comic Sans, this history of typography is delightful. Graphic designer David Rault wrote the whole thing, but each chapter has a different illustrator, so the book is like a taster course in comics styles. It is fascinating to explore the technical characteristics and aesthetic associations of various fonts. […]

    Like

  9. […] nonfiction books entitled Wintering: Katherine May’s is about depression and Steven Rutt’s is about […]

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  10. […] there were multiple artists involved (as in one of my favorite graphic novels of last year, ABC of Typography, where the text was written by one author but each chapter had a different illustrator). But no, […]

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