5 books, Book lists

5 non-fiction titles for dads (and anyone else for that matter)

5-books-200pixNext Sunday (June 19) it will be Father’s Day in the UK, the perfect opportunity to buy your dad a great book. But what to get him?

Sadly, many retailers don’t have a clue. Their “books for dad” selections are often dull and uninspired, as this tweet by Sam Missingham demonstrates. I replied by saying, “Men reading about men #yawn #predictable”. Anyone would think men never read books by women!

I figured I could do a lot better than the supermarkets and WH Smith when it comes to suggesting what might make a suitable present. So here are just five suggestions. Note they’re all narrative non-fiction and written by women. In my opinion, they are truly great reads — some of them have even won prizes.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

If he’s interested in geopolitics:  

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

‘Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea’ by Barbara Demick (2010)
Barbara Demick, an American journalist, tells the stories of six ordinary citizens who defected from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is a gripping account of what it is like to reside in the world’s most secretive and repressive state.

If he’s interested in crime and the justice system:

This-House-of-Grief

‘This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial’ by Helen Garner (2016)
Australian journalist Helen Garner follows the trial of Robert Farquharson, who was charged with three counts of murder after his car ran off the road and plunged into a dam: all three passengers —  aged 10, 7 and 2 — were unable to get out and drowned. They were his sons.

If he’s interested in sport:

Night Games UK edition

‘Night Games: A Journey to the Dark Side of Sport’ by Anna Krien (2014)
This book examines the culture of male sport and the shocking attitudes many professional sportsmen hold towards women. While its focus is Australia (much of it follows the rape trial of a young Australian Rules footballer) it’s just as relevant here in the UK and any Western country where sportsmen are hailed as heroes and where sexism and misogyny are rife. (Note I haven’t forgotten the hyperlink; I read it last year but found it too profound to review.)

If he’s interested in the media and journalism:

The Journalist and the Murderer

‘The Journalist and the Murderer’ by Janet Malcolm (1990)
A classic of the narrative non-fiction genre, this book focuses on journalistic ethics. It examines a 1980s lawsuit between a convicted murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald, and a journalist, Joe McGinness, who wrote about the crime. It explores the relationship between journalists and sources and the difficulties which face both parties, and is just as scathing of the legal profession as it is of the media.

If he’s interested in War and the Middle East:

The Weight of a Mustard Seed

‘The Weight of a Mustard Seed’ by Wendell Stevenson (2010)
Written by an American-born British journalist, this book charts the rise and fall of one of Saddam Hussein’s generals, focussing in particular on the notion of moral culpability. It explores what it is like to live under tyrannical rule, albeit from the point of view of Saddam’s inner circle, as well as telling the story of Iraq’s recent bloody history.

Have you read any of these books? Are there any non-fiction titles, written by women, that you think would appeal to men?

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Iraq, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel, Wendell Steavenson

‘The Weight of a Mustard Seed’ by Wendell Steavenson

WeightofaMustardSeed

Non-fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 320 pages; 2010.

When it comes to non-fiction I seem to have made a career out of reading books that explore moral culpability*, and this book, which explores the life and times of one of Saddam Hussein’s generals, is no exception.

The author, an American born British journalist, never met the subject of her book, Kamel Sachet, but she brings him to life by interviewing an extensive cast of colleagues, family and associates. What emerges is a man conflicted by loyalty to his country and loyalty to his own individual faith, and, in turn, his conscience.

Using the techniques of literary fiction, Steavenson weaves a narrative that jumps backwards and forwards in time as she traces Sachet’s rise to power — and his later fall from grace. But, of course, she cannot tell Sachet’s story without also telling the story of Iraq, and, in particular, its recent bloody history, from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Often in this telling there are so many different battles and violent incidents recounted that it’s hard to keep track of exactly which war Steavenson is making reference to, until it becomes clear that it doesn’t really matter: this is a country with a bloody history and never more so under Saddam Hussein’s rule. (In fact, Saddam’s soldiers were in a lose-lose situation: they could be killed in battle, but if they lost a battle they could be executed under military order. It was up to them to decide which was the easier way to die.)

The book also explores what it is like to live under tyrannical rule, albeit from the point of view of Saddam’s inner circle, and how the all-pervasive fear turns good upstanding citizens into quivering wrecks who make poor moral judgements.

I’d like to argue that The Weight of a Mustard Seed is a sympathetic portrait of a man who chose to carry out Saddam’s orders instead of quietly resisting them, but I’m not so sure that is the case. While Steavenson develops a close friendship with Sachet’s wife and children, she refrains from making any overt judgement about the man. Ultimately it is up to you, the reader, to determine exactly how you feel about him. All I know is that I came to the end of this book feeling such a deeply profound wave of sadness, even writing this tears me up.

This is a powerful, well-written and moving account of the legacy left by Saddam Hussein and the American invasion of Iraq. Anyone interested in the so-called War on Terror will find plenty here to intrigue, outrage and shame you.

* Some of my favourite non-fiction books include Gitta Sereny’s incredibly powerful biography of Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth, and Sereny’s equally compelling book on Treblinka commandant Franz Stangl, Into That Darkness. I can also recommend Sereny’s The Case of Mary Bell: A Portrait of a Child Who Murdered (can you tell I love Gitta Sereny?), Blake Morrison’s As If (about the Bulger murder trial) and Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song (about murderer Gary Gilmore’s wish to be executed for his crimes). And that’s just for starters…