Holiday reading: The best non-fiction books for your summer break

From politics & current affairs to health & wellbeing, Scotsman critics give the lowdown on the best non-fiction books to take away with you this summer

Amy Liptrot PIC: Lisa Swarna Khanna
Amy Liptrot PIC: Lisa Swarna Khanna

SCOTTISH NON-FICTION

Time on Rock, by Anna Fleming, Canongate, £16.99

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Much more than a climbing memoir, Anna Fleming’s book is also a fascinating exploration of humanity’s timeless relationship with rock. The Edinburgh-based writer doesn’t have any harrowing near-death experiences to dramatise, and although she has become a very accomplished climber by the final chapters, she doesn’t claim to be at the cutting edge of her sport. The principal interest, then, lies not in the physical facts of her climbs but in their cumulative effect on her psyche – as she puts it, the way the rock gradually “becomes engrained into your being” – and her description of this process is both fascinating and beautifully expressed, in a series of glinting, lyrical epiphanies. RC

Author Darren McGarvey PIC: John Devlin

The Instant, by Amy Liptrot, Canongate, £14.99

Charting her adventures in Berlin in search of “new experiences, inspiration and love,” Amy Liptrot’s latest book manages to be even more experimental and daring than her acclaimed debut, The Outrun. Again, there is meditation on addiction, again there is rumination on how the natural world might make us transcend ourselves. But there is more going on here. Though some of what she writes might seem ephemeral, it is structured through 13 moons; lines, in a kind of poetry, intersperse the text; some of her writing about the built environment is almost like Iain Sinclair’s psychogeography; and the politics are intriguing. SK

In Search of One, Last Song, by Patrick Galbraith, William Collins, £18.99

Patrick Galbraith is a New Nature Writer of the old school: one who combines a detailed knowledge of his subject with a style that is at once evocative and precise. His book’s subtitle is “Britain’s Disappearing Birds and the People Trying to Save Them”, and while the birds he goes in search of are the focus, the people he meets in his efforts to encounter them provide much of the interest. The whole thing is written with an admirable objectivity, with the result that, rather than coming away with any overarching sense of what the author thinks must be done to preserve Britain’s endangered birds, the reader is left instead with a sense of the dizzying complexity of conservation efforts in these islands. RC

Professor Devi Sridhar PIC: PA Images

Homelands: The History of a Friendship, by Chitra Ramaswamy, Canongate, £16.99

Writer Chitra Ramaswamy is a fortysomething British Indian living in Edinburgh. Henry Wuga is a ninetysomething Bavarian Jew who arrived in Britain in the late 1930s on the Kindertransport, fleeing Nazi Germany. He has lived on the southside of Glasgow for most of his life, and that life is the subject for this book. Ramaswamy and Wuga’s ten year friendship is the springboard. Wuga’s life story unfolds in non-chronological order, and in immersive present tense, and the various strands are tied together carefully, building a personalised picture of the immigrant experience, from his childhood in Nuremberg to teenage evacuee to suspected Communist spy to settled domesticity. FS

Otherlands: A World in the Making, by Thomas Halliday, Allen Lane, £20

Otherlands is an ingenious hybrid form of a book. In part it is akin to contemporary nature writing, but the twist is none of the landscapes, fauna and flora now exist. To that extent it is a work of immense imagination, but it is rooted firmly in the actual science. Each chapter is a snapshot of a particular place at a particular time. Beginning in the Pleistocene, 20,000 years ago, in Alaska on the so-called Mammoth Steppe, we scroll back over the next 15 sections through the Cretaceous, Jurassic and Triassic, the Carboniferous and the Silurian, ending up in the Ediacaran, some 550 million years ago, in Australia. Along the way we encounter five mass extinction events. There is, of course, an afterword about what we might discern of the planet’s future by understanding more about its past. SK

Alan Davie at Gamels Studio, Hertfordshire 1970. PIC: Photo by J.S.Lewinski. Courtesy of Gimpel Fils

POLITICS & CURRENT AFFAIRS

The Social Distance Between Us: How Remote Politics Wrecked Britain, by Darren McGarvey, Ebury Press, £20

In this passionate and indispensable new book, Darren McGarvey offers eight powerfully-researched chapters on how disadvantage and social inequality are reinforced by existing systems in criminal justice, education, land ownership, housing, the treatment of addiction, wider health care, the welfare system, and attitudes to immigration; then four chapters of further analysis on the attitudes that underpin inequality. He documents how, out of sheer prejudice, we never heard the voices of those with most to tell us about how to heal a broken society; and how we succeeded in creating a complacent 21st century ruling class who are themselves, now, the principal source of the social problems they so confidently locate elsewhere. JM

The Ledger: Accounting for Failure in Afghanistan, David Kilcullen & Greg Mills, Hurst, £14.99

David Kilcullen & Greg Mills have served in Afghanistan as advisers to armies, diplomats and politicians, and they were there in August 2021 when Kabul was abandoned to the Taliban. Their introduction describes what it was like at Kabul Airport as they helped as many as they could to escape, including the Afghan President’s private secretary, who had been abandoned by his boss. But The Ledger is not a book of dread and sensationalism. It is a cool and forensic dissection of what a disaster the search for Al-Qaeda following the attack on their Afghan hosts, the Taliban, was to become. As one commentator once remarked, “You can’t have a war on terror. It’s like trying to have a war on fog.” And so it proved. The writers find fault with senior commands of the armed forces, the Afghan government and aid agencies too, but it is the leadership of the United States, from George W Bush to Joe Biden, that comes in for the most withering criticism. VA

The Age of the Strongman, Gideon Rachman, Bodley Head, £20

This brilliant and profoundly alarming book by Gideon Rachman offers a comprehensive survey, written with pace, clarity, and a superb, page-turning narrative fluency, of the gradual collapse of the fragile post-Cold War consensus into a new age of authoritarian dictatorship, mainly characterised by the historically familiar spectacle of ageing male leaders pumping up a rhetoric of war, threat, national destiny and “traditional values” to the point where actual armed conflict becomes difficult to avoid. Rachman takes us on an unforgettable global tour of resurgent authoritarianism, from Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China to Narendra Modi’s India and Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Most chillingly, he also charts how the strongman model of authoritarian reactionary government has begun to corrode the world’s traditional bastions of liberal democracy, with chapters on Trump’s America and Brexit Britain. JM

The BBC: A People’s History, by David Hendy, Profile, £25

David Hendy remarks that the BBC has transmitted “somewhere between ten and twenty million programmes”, so all the historian can do is pick out some of the more popular plums and comment briefly on them. He does this sympathetically, but many will look in vain for his view of things they have enjoyed or disliked, approved or been angered by. That said, Hendy has written an engaging and very fair book. It is very much the case for the corporation, but he isn’t blind to the BBC’s failures. If the earlier chapters, covering the early years when John Reith was director-general, are of particular interest and have a narrative sweep missing later on, this is surely because it was then a much smaller organization with a more clearly-defined character than the great, sprawling animal it was to become. AM

After Brexit: The Economics of Scottish Independence, by Gavin McCrone Birlinn, £8.99

In the debate over the economics of Scottish independence, no name resonates more loudly than that of Gavin McCrone, economist, academic, and veteran public servant. Born in Ayr in 1933, McCrone is now approaching 90; and back in 1974, when he was Chief Economic Adviser to the Secretary of State for Scotland, he wrote a confidential briefing paper about the vast sums likely to accrue to the British treasury from the UK’s North Sea oil and gas wealth, once it was fully developed. From the future of defence to the complexity of disentangling Scottish mortgages and pensions from the UK system, this study of the economics of independence offers plenty of insights, but no easy answers. JM

HEALTH & WELLBEING

Recovery, by Gavin Francis, Wellcome, £4.99

This brief, useful book is written with Edinburgh GP Gavin Francis’s customary blend of case study and literary precedent. As Francis shows, there is no definite boundary between being sick and being healthy. Often, a clear diagnosis – such as “that leg is broken” – does not map neatly onto recuperation. There is some good, practical advice on how to recover from illness, but where the book really shines is on the nature of being in medicine or care, and the sense that being a medical practitioner can be more akin to being a gardener than a mechanic. Even if you are not at present ill, it is worth reading this book because the gentle guidance it gives is actually applicable to being healthy. There are things we can do that will make life, even a life without pain or fatigue or anxiety, richer. SK

This Mortal Coil, by Andrew Doig, Bloomsbury, £25

This Mortal Coil: A History of Death does exactly what it claims, charting the causes and intricacies of death throughout human history, from scraps of knowledge about the very earliest humans to the present day. There are moments when you need a strong stomach, but it is far less morbid than the title might suggest. A professor of biochemistry at Manchester University, Doig delves into a fascinating history of scientific and medical knowledge as he charts humanity’s slow progress towards discovering the causes of disease spread and the hygiene measures and vaccines which can prevent it. Famine is also high on the list of lethal concerns, and a particularly interesting section of the book offers a whistlestop education on genetic diseases. Being a history of death, however, this is also a history of life, and a brilliant, fascinating one at that. EM

The Year the World Went Mad, by Mark Woolhouse, Sandstone, £16.99

Mark Woolhouse is one of Scotland’s leading epidemiologists. Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Edinburgh University, he is a member of the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 advisory group and SPI-M, a subcommittee of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies which advises the UK Government. In this “scientific memoir” he offers an insider account of the pandemic, giving readers behind-the-scenes insights into some of the decisions, advice and concerns of scientists during the early months of the crisis. Instead of the usual complaints that governments simply acted too slowly or too recklessly, Woolhouse argues that decision-makers “went mad”, and that lockdown was a mistake. It is hard to read a book arguing that some of the greatest sacrifices made in 2020 and 2021 were for nothing, but he puts forward a compelling case. EM

Preventable, by Devi Sridhar, Viking, £20

Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at Edinburgh University, has advised both the Scottish and UK Governments on pandemic policy, been interviewed countless times by news outlets in Scotland, the UK and across the world, and has kept up a steady presence on social media. In Preventable, she she lays out a fascinating menu of the different pandemic responses taken in countries across the world, from the initial “hammer” of fast, harsh lockdowns in China, to highly sophisticated contact tracing in South Korea, effective public health communication in Senegal, attempts at herd immunity in Sweden and elimination in Australia and New Zealand. It is clear she values communicating directly with ordinary people about public health, and Preventable is yet more proof that she is very good at it. EM

ARTS & CULTURE

Alan Davie in Hertford, by Mark Hudson, Unicorn, £30

Alan Davie was one of the most significant Scottish artists of the 20th century, but from an art historical point of view he remains problematic. As the art critic Mark Hudson points out in this very readable and cogently argued reappraisal of his output, part of the difficulty is that Davie appears to be two different artists rolled into one. In the 1950s and 60s, his huge, energetic and apparently abstract canvases seemed to fit under the umbrella of Abstract Expressionism; from the mid-70s, however, he was producing more figurative works, in which he set out to explore ideas of universal symbolism. Focusing on Davie’s life at Gamels Studio near Hertford – the centre of his creative universe for some six decades – Hudson suggests that the huge body of work he left behind will help to dispel the idea of some sort of break between his earlier and later output. RC

Alternatives to Valium, by Alastair McKay, Polygon, £20

Fans of Alastair McKay’s wry, thoughtful, precision-tooled writing, which graced the pages of The Scotsman in the 80s, 90s and early Noughties, are in for a treat, because almost 300 pages of it are now available in one place, sandwiched between acid green and pink covers. Alternatives to Valium – How Punk Rock Saved a Shy Boy’s Life is a book of two halves. The first takes the form of a relatively conventional memoir, if you can describe the story of a bright but painfully shy kid falling in love with punk in 1970s North Berwick as conventional. The second half is also memoir, but memoir once removed. In this part of the book, McKay revisits old recordings of interviews, mostly with rock ‘n’ roll royalty, conducted during the golden years when the cassette recorder was the journalist’s weapon of choice. It’s all killer, no filler – and it is all, as McKay himself might say, very punk. RC

Themes for Great Cities - A New History of Simple Minds, by Graeme Thomson, Constable, £20

With this self-styled New History of Simple Minds, author Graeme Thomson is upfront in his aim to “remystify” a band with a reductive reputation for mainstream pomp and stadium stomp by zeroing in on the prolific pre-hits times, specifically spring 1979 to autumn 1982, a period in which Simple Minds produced the six albums most beloved of connoisseurs and commentators. The book is at its most interesting when tracing an origins story, as childhood chums Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill form ragtag punks Johnny & the Self-Abusers, soon to be reborn as “an art school band without the art school”. FS

The History of the Beano by Ian McLaughlin, Pen & Sword, £19.99

The Beano isn’t what it used to be. And that’s a good thing, as Iain McLaughlin explains in this look at eight decades of Britain’s longest-running comic. It’s a good thing because a children’s comic that’s set in stone is as relevant as a cave painting. DC Thomson’s humour weekly wouldn’t still be with us today if the doughty men – and eventually women – behind the gags didn’t reflect their readership. A 1982 ruling in the Court of Human Rights banned corporal punishment in state schools, but The Beano had been phasing out whackings and thrashings since the mid-Seventies. And the Beano has continued adapting to the times – today the characters aren’t all white, they’re not all able-bodied… they’re Britain’s kids in a far funnier world. MG

Kingdom of Characters, by Jing Tsu, Allen Lane, £20

A book about China’s century-long fight to make its language accessible to the modern world might sound dry, but thanks to its colourful cast of engineers, novelists, monks, rogues, brave librarians and imprisoned geniuses, Kingdom of Characters is anything but. In the 19th and 20th centuries, many intellectuals began to wonder how China might embrace Western technologies and educational practices without losing its distinct identity? As Jing Tsu eloquently shows, from typewriters to telegrams to digitisation there has been a paradox at the centre of China’s infrastructure. On one hand there is the “adopt and adapt” school, on the other “do it ourselves, but better”. This book humanises what might seem like a fringe concern, and it also gives the reader insight into the geopolitical dilemmas around what was once brush-marks on paper. SK

HISTORY

Daughters of the North: Jean Gordon and Mary, Queen of Scots, by Jean Morag Henderson, Sandstone, £24.99

Jean Gordon was born in 1545 and lived until 1629, marrying three times and devoting her life to the promotion of family interests. She also played a small part in the drama of Mary, Queen of Scots. Henderson has written more than her biography, however. Her book is “not just Jean’s story; it is also the story of her family, and the story of the north of Scotland – history seen through one person’s life.” The first half of the book deals with her role in Mary’s story, and Henderson makes a good job of telling it from Jean Gordon’s point of view, even while admitting that she was only a bit-part player. The second and longer half lacks the intensity and drama of her account of the first, but it is still of considerable interest, telling a more personal story, one of Jean’s efforts to nurture and promote the interests of her family. AM

Embroidering Her Truth, by Clare Hunter, Sceptre, £20

Clare Hunter’s first book, Threads of Life: The History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle, spanned continents and centuries to create a cultural history of needlework. Here, she homes in one story through the same lens: the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, as revealed in textiles. For 16th-century aristocracy, she explains, material culture carried a symbolic language of power and status, from the canopied tents kings took into battle to the intimate embroideries kept in a lady’s bedchamber. For a woman like Mary, often denied a voice in a man’s world, it gave her a means to express herself more boldly than she could by other means. Hunter’s retelling illuminates Mary’s life in unexpected ways, and hints at a much larger field of historical discovery in the hidden world of textiles. SM

Stalin’s Library, by Geoffrey Roberts, Yale University Press, £25

Geoffrey Roberts is best known for his work on Stalin and other Soviet leaders at war, but in Stalin’s Library he offers a new perspective on the dictator: his intellectual curiosity, his reading, his studying and his accumulation of 25,000 books along with journals and pamphlets. The books were kept in an outbuilding at Stalin’s dacha with all the volumes catalogued and shelved according to subject matter. He annotated his books extensively and marked spelling and grammatical errors. Favourites on his fiction shelves included Balzac, Cervantes, Shakespeare’s plays and Guy de Maupassant’s short stories. But Roberts also cleverly uses the library as a way into a wider discussion of Soviet arts and culture. VA

The Stasi Poetry Circle, by Philip Olterman, Faber & Faber, £14.99

This engrossing exploration of a very exclusive poetry circle in the former East Germany doesn’t just shed light on cultural life behind the Iron Curtain, but also offers fascinating insights into the nature of poetry itself. Finding a key collection of poems written by members of the Stasi, Philip Olterman identifies the creative writing tutor leading the class, Uwe Berger, and examines some of the poems written. The sonnet was an important poetic form to use because its structure was that of the Marxist view of history, argued one returning exile. Military metaphor was expected and praised, but Olterman finds that the results sometimes merged into the love poems the teenagers wanted to write, with comic effect. One amorous young poet declares himself “the lance corporal of love”, patiently waiting “for my next promotion / at least / to general”. VA

Fugitives: A History of Nazi Mercenaries During the Cold War, by Danny Orbach, Hurst, £18.99

In 1944, Hitler’s Head of Intelligence for the Eastern Front, Reinhard Gehlen, could see the writing on the wall and started making plans. He microfilmed his notes on the Red Army put them in water resistant crates and buried them in various locations. For months, he identified like-minded staff, and in 1945 he offered the Americans, then the fledgling West German government, the services of his team, the “GehlenOrg”, along with his intelligence on the Soviet Union which now occupied East Germany. Drawing on declassified documents and interviews with retired intelligence officers, this account of the Cold War activities of Gehlen and others like him is a compelling and eye-opening book about a grubby time. VA

Reviewers: Allan Massie, Elsa Maishman, Fiona Shepherd, Joyce McMillan, Martin Gray, Roger Cox, Stuart Kelly, Susan Mansfield and Vin Arthey