Posts tagged ‘Non Fiction’

January 22, 2017

City of Lions by Józef Wittlin and Philippe Sands

by Team Riverside

josef-wittlin-and-philippe-sands-city-of-lions

Paperback, £12, Pushkin Press, out now

This beautifully made small book is an excellent companion read to Philippe Sands’ award winning East West Street: on the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity (see my review here, https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/east-west-street-on-the-origins-of-genocide-and-crimes-against-humanity-by-philippe-sands/).  It comprises two essays on what is now known as the city of Lviv, in Ukraine.  Exile Józef Wittlin, writing in 1946, recalls the city when he knew it before the Second World War.  Human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, whose mother’s family were from Lviv and whose story is told in East West Street, gives his account of the city in 2016.

The book’s striking cover shows the many names the city has had over the last 100 years – Lviv, Lwów, Lvov, Lemberg.  Europe’s sometimes brutal twentieth century history has overrun this place over and over again.  Evocative black and white photographs and maps add a ghostly and sometimes melancholy note throughout.  Small publisher Pushkin Press can be proud of this book – read it, then read their republished The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig from 1942 (http://www.pushkinpress.com/book/the-world-of-yesterday/).

Both Wittlin and Sands’ accounts show their great attachment to the city, while dealing with the terrible things that happened there. They speak to each other, providing a vivid addition to the literature on exile and belonging.  Wittlin writes: “Balabans, Korniakts, Mohylas, Boims, Kampians – what sort of a motley crew is this?  That’s Lwów for you.  Diversified, variegated, as dazzling as an oriental carpet.  Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Saracens and Germans are all Lvovians, alongside the Polish, Ruthenian and Jewish natives, and they are Lvovians ‘through and through’” (p. 49).  Visiting the local museum 70 years later, and thinking about Wittlin’s quote, Sands asks: “… where were the spaces devoted to the former residents of the city, the Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Saracens and Germans?… What of the legacy of the Polish and Jewish inhabitants whose presence had been eclipsed?” (p. 130).

These memories of and reflections on the City of Lions, where many of Wittlin’s streets and buildings remain though their names and occupants have changed, help us to process and acknowledge the past. In our troubled present, inhumanity and change continue.  But there is also hope, as Sands concludes: “We too can play at games, as the world erupts once more.  We too can close our eyes, and imagine that beyond the dark clouds that settled over this unhappy city, a ray of light broke through, and that it still offers hope today” (p. 130).

Review by Bethan

October 16, 2016

The Return – Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between, by Hisham Matar

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Penguin:Viking, £14.99, out nowhisham-matar-the-return

Hisham Matar’s father Jaballa Matar, an active opponent of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, was kidnapped in Cairo in 1990 and imprisoned in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim jail.  After 1996, there was no word of what happened to him.  This beautifully written memoir concerns not only Matar’s memories of family life before his disappearance, but also the desperation of those left not knowing their loved one’s fate.  Read on Radio 4, the book has received remarkable reviews from (among others) Colm Tóibín and Hilary Mantel.

The book is particularly moving on the effect of the disappearance on everyday life.  Matar’s mother continued videoing football matches for her missing husband for years after he disappeared.  In their exile, Matar and his family do everything they can think of to find out what has happened to Jaballa.  At the same time, Matar develops as a novelist, publishing among other things the well-reviewed Anatomy of a Disappearance.   After Tony Blair’s rapprochement with Qaddafi in 2004, Matar, who was living in London, notes: “none of us felt safe.  Officials from the Libyan embassy attended the first reading I gave from my first novel.  A report was sent to Tripoli and I became a watched man.  It was deemed no longer safe for me to visit my family in Egypt, which caused a second exile” (p. 174).  While the book concerns Matar’s relationship with his father, his mother also stands out as a remarkable woman in her own right.

I learnt a lot about Libya’s history from this remarkable book, and its impacts on those who live through it.  While The Return gives some truly horrendous accounts of human rights violations, it is also a book about deep resilience and love.

Review by Bethan

June 19, 2016

Gratitude, by Oliver Sacks

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Picador, £9.99, out nowOliver Sacks GRATITUDE

Gratitude is a final gift from the excellent neurologist and writer of popular science, Oliver Sacks, who died in 2015.  These short but beautiful pieces encapsulate all that is best about his writing.  Humane, kind, interesting and funny, they offer his reflections on a life well lived from one who knew its end would come shortly.  Shortly after finding out his cancer was back and inoperable, he wrote: “Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts.  This does not mean I am finished with life.  On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight”.

Probably best known for his books Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Sacks’ own life has not been without bumps, as his two volumes of autobiography show.  Here, we learn more about his deeply personal love of science.  How excellent that as an 11 year old fan of the periodic table, he was delighted to be able to say “I am Sodium” and remained equally pleased at 79 to say “I am gold”.  His reflections on his different experiences of Jewish family life, in London and beyond, are intriguing.  A book to read, and read over.

Review by Bethan

May 31, 2016

East West Street – On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, by Philippe Sands

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Orion Books, £20, out nowPhilippe Sands EAST WEST STREET

International human rights barrister Philippe Sands opens his remarkable new book with a quote from Nicolas Abraham: “What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others”.  Sands tries to fill some of these gaps in the stories of both his family and two lawyers who developed the legal concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity that featured for the first time in the Nuremberg tribunal – Hersch Lauerpacht and Rafael Lemkin.  Remarkably, there turn out to be connections between all of these people and the (now Ukrainian) city of Lviv, a site of mass murder of Jewish residents during the Second World War.

The best thing I’ve read this year, East West Street is both personal and international in scope.  Sands undertakes remarkable archival and other research and succeeds in uncovering surprising and illuminating stories, which help to explain both how international law developed as it did and why it was important that it did so.  In this he echoes the approach of Hartley Shawcross, British prosecutor at Nuremberg, who in his closing trial address used a single devastating case study to force home the inhumanity of Nazi war crimes (Sands recounts this at p. 346-7).  It takes a skilful and confident writer to manage the risks involved in bringing the huge themes of history back, over and over again, to real individuals.  He does so seamlessly, creating a book that reads as compulsively as a detective story.  The photos of people and original documents scattered throughout the text make it even more engaging.  The related film, My Nazi Legacy: What our Fathers Did, is also well worth watching (http://www.wildgazefilms.co.uk/my-nazi-legacy-2015/) .

Sands’ perspective as a lawyer involved with the International Criminal Court and war crimes tribunals from Rwanda to the former Yugoslavia makes the work highly relevant when thinking about human rights now.  70 years after Nuremberg, how do we deal with crimes against humanity?  Do we have the courage required to remember that real individuals are caught up in these huge convulsions, and the greater courage not to look away?

Review by Bethan

November 3, 2015

Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter about People Who Think Differently, by Steve Silberman

by Team Riverside

Allen and Unwin, £16.99, paperback out now

A worthy winner of the Samuel Johnson non-fiction book prize, this is a fascinating and highly readable history of autism. We alsSteve Silberman NEUROTRIBESo get to meet several interesting people affected by autism, and an invitation to reconsider what we think we know about it.

Silberman, a journalist for Wired magazine, became interested in autism in 2001 when he heard of an ‘epidemic’ of autism among the children of Silicon Valley employees – parents who tended to be computer programmers and engineers. The book opens with The Wizard of Clapham Common Henry Cavendish, genius 19th century scientist and inventor, who Silberman retrospectively diagnoses as autistic.  Silberman is an informative guide through geek culture, disability in Nazi Germany, faulty diagnoses of toxic parenting, Rain Man and more.

Critically, the author is respectful of autistic people. Oliver Sacks in his foreword notes that Silberman particularly sought out autistic people for his research.  A further mark of quality is that it is dedicated to Lorna Wing, a psychiatrist and doctor who transformed thinking about autism for the better first in the UK and then internationally both through her work and her involvement in the establishment of the National Autistic Society. He concludes: “Designing appropriate forms of support and accommodation is not beyond our capabilities as a society, as the history of the disability movement proves. But first we have to learn to think more intelligently about people who think differently”.   This is an excellent, accessible book, and a worthwhile call to consider the riches that can come from diversity.

Review by Bethan

October 19, 2015

Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories, by Thomas Grant

by Team Riverside

John Murray, out now, £25

A child of the Bloomsbury group, Jeremy Hutchinson became a leading QC at the criminal bar in postwar Britain. Fellow lawyer Thomas Grant has written Hutchinson’s life in an unusual style – a shortish biographical sketch, followed by in depth accounts of Hutchinson’s most famous cases. This approach successfully illuminates not only a well-spent life, but alsThomas Grant JEREMY HUTCHINSON'S CASE HISTORIESo the contribution of an exceptional advocate at pivotal moments of change in British social and cultural history.

As a lawyer who often defended the unpopular or those in conflict with the establishment, much of his work concerned freedom of expression. Obscenity trials feature – he represented Penguin Books in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial as well as the National Theatre concerning their production of The Romans in Britain. He also defended the rights of journalists Duncan Campbell and Jonathan Aitken when they were prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, and also represented the notorious cold war spy George Blake. The movement towards a more open and freer society is traced through Grant’s well drawn studies.

Hutchinson emerges not only as a great advocate, but as a genial and thoughtful man. Now 100, his postscript to the book shows him to be as committed to the principle of access to justice as ever: “When at long last in 1950 the Legal Aid Act was passed, the idea was that everyone should be able to obtain legal advice if unable to pay for it because, after health, the most important element in a civilised society is the ability of every citizen to assert and protect these rights: in other words a ‘national legal service’.” He notes that “real prison reform calls for imagination, courage and determination; the dismantling of legal aid a mere stroke of the pen”. Recommended.

Review by Bethan

August 19, 2015

Gods of Metal, Eric Schlosser

by Team Riverside

Penguin, paperback out now £1.99Eric Schlosser GODS OF METAL

Somehow I had stopped really thinking about the piles of nuclear weapons placed all over the world: owned, operated and sought by fallible humans. In this substantial and important new piece of reportage, Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation, Executive Producer of There Will be Blood) updates us on the threats posed by nuclear weapons today.

He describes repeated security breaches at US nuclear bases, spending time with anti-nuclear weapons campaigners imprisoned for breaking in. He reflects on their pacifist and radical forerunners.

Looking to the future, he details attempts made by non-state actors to gain access to nuclear weapons and weapons-manufacturing materials: “In October 2009, ten militants entered the central headquarters of the Pakistan Army in broad daylight, wearing military uniforms and carrying fake IDs. They took dozens of hostages, killed high-ranking officers, and maintained control of a building there for eighteen hours. The two leading commanders of Pakistan’s nuclear forces were stationed at the base.” (p. 73).

Published by Penguin 70 years after the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this thoughtful and thorough work is a must read. Get ready to have your consciousness raised: as the author writes when thanking experts for their help, “I’m not sure how they sleep at night”.

Review by Bethan

August 1, 2015

The Fish Ladder – Katharine Norbury

by Team Riverside

Bloomsbury Circus, out now

Katharine Norbury was abandoned as a baby in a Liverpool convent, raised by caring adoptive parents, and then had a family of her own. The book opens as she starts a series of British nature journeys with her young daughter, prompted by bereavement following a miscarriage.

In this nature memoir, Norbury describes her life and her relationship with nature with candour and flair. She is compelled to trace her biological mother, and takes us to the end of this difficult journey.

She heads off alone to remote spots: as a woman who often walks out alone, it pleased me to have another woman walker describe her own experiences so effectively. “The more space I put between myself and the wakeful inhabitants of the mainland, the better I felt. The sea shone pearl-grey, opaque, and the sky lightened above it with a bloom as soft as a plum”.

Mixed in are stories from Celtic mythology, andKatharine Norbury THE FISH LADDER thoughts about adoptive families (and non-adoptive ones). The theme of those who are grieving finding some solace, distraction or balm from the natural world has been covered in much recent writing, perhaps most famously in H for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. If you liked that, this will appeal. But it is also very readable for anyone thinking about what family means, how marriages can work, and how nature can be a part of our everyday lives.

July 4, 2015

The Last Act of Love – Cathy Rentzenbrink

by Team Riverside

Growing up in Yorkshire, brother and sister Matty and Cathy are ordinary teenagers living in a pub with their parents. Their family is close, loving, and funny. Everything changes when Matty is knocked down in a hit and run, and suffers devastating brain injuries. Matty’s life is saved, but he enters what turns out to be a Persistent Vegitative State (PVS).

In Cathy Rentzenbrink’s courageous and illuminating memoir, she charts what happens to Matty but also to herself and her parents as they deal with the consequences of one life changing moment. A very readable narrative, it Cathy Rentzenbrink THE LAST ACT OF LOVE is also a personal and thoughtful account of a complex and difficult situation. She shows that what may be right is not always evident and may change over time, and details the pervasive effects of grief, guilt and trauma. Using press cuttings and legal reports as well as family memories, we get a useful and unflinching analysis of the very human difficulties that can arise in cases of PVS. While the subject is bleak, the strength, love and commitment that sustain the family run throughout. Highly recommended.

Review by Bethan

July 12, 2013

Buy eBooks from the Riverside Bookshop

by Andre

The Indie eBook Shop banner

Readers still love real books. But we understand that for some of you there’s also a time and place for reading on a screen. So we’ve partnered with The Indie eBook Shop to enable you to purchase eBooks from a website that supports independent bookshops.

The Indie eBook Shop is an online store you can trust – it’s managed by the people behind National Book Tokens – and you can even purchase eBooks with your Book Tokens. We also sell eBook Cards from National Book Tokens in our shop if you’re looking for a gift for someone you know is dedicated to digital reading (the cards are still valid for physical books in bookshops nationwide if they do want to try the real thing).

There are a few rules with The Indie eBook Shop – the main one being that it does not support the Kindle, which is a ‘closed’ device limited to its own online store. Otherwise, The Indie eBook Shop allows you to browse by genre or search by title for eBooks that will work across many tablets, eReaders, phones, PCs and Macs. Click on the banner above to start browsing and check out this page for any queries. We may not be able to answer any technical queries in store – but we do know quite a lot about books.

March 7, 2013

Richard III: biographies and classic crime

by Andre

David Baldwin RICHARD IIIJosephine Tey THE DAUGHTER OF TIME

The surprise reappearance of Richard III, dug up in a Leicester car park, is a timely opportunity to try and disinter the truth about a king portrayed as a Machiavellian villain by Shakespeare. “We have to concede the curved spine was not Tudor propaganda, but we need not believe the chronicler who claimed Richard was the product of a two-year pregnancy and was born with teeth,” as Hilary Mantel said in her (unfairly) infamous lecture on royal bodies. “The king stripped by the victors has been reclothed in his true identity.” If you want to learn more about the last king of the Plantagenet dynasty, there are a pair of updated historical biographies that feature the car park dig: David Baldwin’s Richard III and – not so snappily titled – The Last Days of Richard III and the Fate of His DNA: The Book that Inspired the Dig by John Ashdown-Hill.

Perhaps the most enjoyable piece of historical revisionism for Richard III, though, is Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, a unique and classic crime novel in which a bed-ridden Inspector Alan Grant decides to investigate the real facts behind the murderous ‘hunchback king’ after seeing a contemporary portrait of Richard. Could such a sensitive, noble face really belong to one of the most infamous villains of history? It’s a fascinating premise for an exquisite crime novel which, 62 years since publication, is more inventive and adroit in its plotting than almost any modern genre author can manage.

October 6, 2012

2012 Samuel Johnson Prize Shortlist

by Andre

The six titles up for the UK’s leading non-fiction prize include some popular and much admired books here at the Riverside Bookshop. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, by Robert Macfarlane, is lyrical nature writing that draws deep on literature, myth and memory; a book for walkers or indeed anyone who’s felt their imagination stir as they put one foot in front of the other.

The other nominees are:
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by Katherine Boo
Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis
The Better Angels of our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity by Steven Pinker
The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain by Paul Preston
Strindberg: A Life by Sue Prideaux

The winner will be announced on 12 November.

August 5, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut: A Man Without A Country

by Monika

A bitter and poignant account of a wise old man who asks questions about human responsibility for the fate of the world but knows how hypocritical the answers would be so he doesn’t even want to wait to hear them. “Man without a country” is a mosaic of simple thoughts, perceptions and sharp reflections on human condition, a forthright, poetical and modest quasi-autobiographical ‘teeny-weeny’ form, Vonnegut’s last book. With his unmistakably searing and penetrating sense of humour, Vonnegut intersperses anecdotes from his life with bitter reflections of American post 9/11 politics, expressing for example his deep humanistic disappointment that cigarettes have failed to kill him (as promised on every package) so he is bound to live in a world where ‘the three most powerful people on the whole planet are named Bush, Dick and Colon’.  This is one of these books that even though very short, one needs to read slowly to thoroughly taste and enjoy every bite of it.