The best non-fiction books of 2015
Music, memoir and the magic of Peanuts can be found in the year’s finest factual reads
Schubert’s Winter Journey, by Ian Bostridge (Faber) Schubert’s haunting 24-song cycle, completed during the final months of his short life, has tested generations of singers. English tenor Bostridge has performed it many times and here he lovingly and engagingly places it within its artistic, historical and cultural context while also looking at Schubert and the censorious society in which he lived.
Stammered Songbook, by Erwin Mortier, translated by Paul Vincent (Pushkin) Few memoirs approach the beauty of this strange, angry and quite astonishing account of a mother’s tragic passage at 65 into dementia. Although he is a celebrated novelist, nothing else that I have read by this Dutch-language Belgian writer compares to it. The writing is simply extraordinary: exact, tender and very real in describing the disintegration of the forthright woman he once knew. The Cobbe Cabinet of Curiosities, edited by Arthur MacGregor (Yale) Concern for his family’s history caused Alec Cobbe to rescue the contents of an extraordinary museum based on collecting done by his ancestors in the 18th and 19th centuries. The objects were kept in a room at Newbridge House, Co Dublin. When they were about to be sold off, he stepped in. This fabulous volume is also exciting social history and celebrates the passion and curiosity once lavished on natural history and the past.
The Fly Trap, by Fredrik Sjoberg, translated by Thomas Teal (Penguin) Natural history as memoir is a genre at which British writers believe they excel – they don’t. This Swedish entomologist, who lives on an island east of Stockholm, is witty, learned, knows how to tell a story and use source material and is splendid company without resorting to confessional bunkum. Life Embitters, by Josep Pla, translated by Peter Bush (Archipelago) Catalan writer Pla often regretted that he “could not” write fiction. He didn’t need to: his observations of life surpass those of many novelists. This wonderful volume, which includes A Boarding House: Central Barcelona, gathers his impressions of a changing Europe. Easy to see why Pla (1897-1981) is often compared with the master, Joseph Roth.
O Sing Unto the Lord, by Andrew Gant (Profile) A highly enjoyable, informed, anecdotal survey of English church music, a glorious tradition which often saw inspired composers confronted by churchmen more interested in sanctity than art. Thankfully music tended to win.
The Bauers: Joseph, Franz & Ferdinand – Masters of Botanical Illustration, by Hans Walter Lack (Prestel) Biography of a trio of Austrian brothers born in the latter half of the 18th century who travelled widely and perfected their craft of botanical and zoological painting: Franz was to spend 50 years at Kew Gardens. Lack’s splendid book places the work within its social, political and scientific context.
One Wide Expanse, by Michael Longley (UCD Press) Longley the distinguished poet is also a master of prose as readers of his delightful Tuppenny Stung: Autobiographical Chapters (Lagan Press, 1994) will know. That same flair shapes the three lectures given as Ireland professor of poetry, from 2007 to 2010. A Stranger in My Country, by Hans Fallada, translated by Allan Blunden (Polity) Imprisoned in September 1944, accused of attempting to kill his wife, Fallada requested paper and wrote some stories and The Drinker. He also drafted this witty and subversive account of life under Hitler, which he smuggled out of jail and kept. It effectively disappeared for decades then was rediscovered. The slow road to publication is a saga in itself.
Berlin Metropolis: 1918-1933, edited by Olaf Peters (Prestel) Germany’s evolution is reflected in the dramatic developments of an artistic revolution explained brilliantly by specialists.
There is Simply Too Much to Think About: The Collected Non-Fiction of Saul Bellow (Viking) Masterful stuff from five decades of serious thinking by Bellow – and in this, his centenary year, far more valuable and insightful than a bloated biography.
The Bumper Book of Peanuts, by Charles Schulz (Canongate) Bewildered by life? Seek no further.