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Book Review, Books, Listings

Books of 2020 – Non-fiction

As we haul ourselves towards the end of the January that makes other Januarys look good, I’ve had to remind myself that while I don’t have people to see or places to go, I do have a blog to run.  I didn’t read much non-fiction in 2020 so this pick of the titles that resonated with me most (and the reasons) is a short one but it includes my overall favourite book of the year.  

1.  HOUSE OF GLASS – Hadley Freeman (Harper Collins, 2020)

My Book of 2020: a moving family memoir that is also a fascinating piece of European history, with the beauty of expression and narrative arcs of a first-class literary novel.  I mean, wow, any one of those is hard to pull off!  After the death of her French grandmother, journalist Hadley Freeman was inspired by her keepsakes to find out more about Sala’s life and those of her three brothers and the revelations cut deep. This book has such richness and texture, linked to place, faith, culture, right down to the fabric of both haute couture and everyday life.  I listened to the audiobook narrated by the author on my walks during the first lockdown and was so emotionally invested in the characters’ fates that I often remember them when I tread the precise stretches where, as it feels to me, they came back to life.

2. WHY I’M NO LONGER TALKING TO WHITE PEOPLE ABOUT RACE – Reni Eddo-Lodge (Bloomsbury Circus 2017)

This is one of the rare books read by all four members of my family and we are much the wiser for it.  I think most white people would learn something important from what’s become the Go To title, if only that it’s not just those who are actively, openly and wilfully Racist who play a part in perpetuating structural racism, discrimination and inequality.  A decade on social media has made me realise that attitudes of my own which I genuinely considered inclusive or anti-racist were not, but rather a reflection of my white privilege and ignorance or (cutting myself a break) lack of exposure to the perspectives of those whose lives are affected daily by racism in its different forms and contexts – and here they are. Lots of good books change the way people think; this one has the potential to do more than that.

3. NEGATIVE CAPABILITY – Michèle Roberts (Sandstone Press, 2020)

The Anglo-French author Michèle Roberts is an inspiration to me, both as a writer and as a woman; nobody whose workshops I’ve attended has left a deeper impression. Her memoir would have caught my attention anyway because it deals very openly with a harsh reality that Voula Tsoflias and I flag up in our Resilience for Writers work: that even very experienced and successful authors are susceptible to setbacks at any point in their career.  This book catalogues a year dominated by the pain of rejection, split between London and Michèle’s home in France.  She writes with moving honesty about this and the other vagaries – financial, for example – of the writing life, but also of her personal life, and joys and sorrows large and small.  This book is a generous gift to writers or anyone missing France – you will be able to taste it.

4. UNTRUE – Wednesday Martin (Scribe, 2018)

Female sexuality is a big interest of mine and I’ve read a lot of non-fiction and research on the subject. I was drawn to this book at the popular, accessible end of the scale because it takes on a particular bête noire: sexual double standards, well illustrated by the author’s focus on monogamy and infidelity and clichés like ‘men stray, women stay’. She has a background in anthropology and challenges deeply engrained perceptions in industrialised Western culture concerning female sexuality, desire and behaviour and how these are viewed – and judged – in relation to men’s. We all know who usually comes out on top in that equation but the true picture, both from societies with other moral codes and from American women willing to speak off the record and without social stigma, appears different. I found this an interesting and revealing overview, drawing on lots of related research. I was less keen on the incongruous ‘tall, vivacious blonde with red lipstick’ descriptions of the academics, and however relevant to the question as framed, the endless references to men began to grate after a while. I perked up whenever Lisa Diamond’s ground-breaking Sexual Fluidity (Harvard University Press, 2008) was mentioned; I’m reading this fascinating account of her research findings at the moment and it explains a lot.

Have you read any of these or any other good non-fiction lately? If you missed it, my Books of 2020 (Fiction) post is here.


As I wrote this post (getting time at a desk is half the battle) my enthusiasm for the blog began to return. I’m planning pieces on my discovery of Headspace and meditation (sceptical beginner turns convert); why writing my new novel Scent was such a different experience to writing my debut, and to welcome Neema Shah, author of superb debut Kololo Hill to the Sofa with a Writers on Location on Uganda. I’ll also be doing another fiction round-up in the first half of February – there are some fantastic new novels coming out.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


9 thoughts on “Books of 2020 – Non-fiction

  1. So great that you are refreshing your blog space and sharing things reading and writing and whatever else related.
    I was given House of Glass for Christmas and will read it very soon, I can’t wait! My Aunt raved about it and said she was sure I’d enjoy it too.

    I enjoyed reading a lot more nonfiction in 2020 than ever and my top read of the year was the wonderful memoir A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa, unsurpassed, unique, I’m in total awe of her accomplishment.

    I also really enjoyed Sara Baume’s Handiwork and Dr Alice Tarbuck’s A Spell in the Wild.

    In translation I adored Sanmao’s Stories of the Sahara and Renzo & Carlo Piano’s Atlantis, a wonderful father/son voyage that was strangely compelling and made me wish more duos came together like this to express and share their talents for all.

    Thanks for sharing these for, the Michele Roberts memoir also looks like it offers insights, they all do in fact. Happy Reading.

    Posted by Claire 'Word by Word' | January 25, 2021, 13:33
  2. I listened to Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race on audiobook in 2019 and agree it is challenging and eye opening, especially the first few chapters. The chapters on intersectionality were very interesting as I’d not expected white feminists to come in for so much criticism.

    Looking forward to your posts on writing your novels.

    Posted by Mike Clarke | January 25, 2021, 14:13
  3. Thanks for sharing! I haven’t read any of these. Will have to check them out. You prompted me to check my Goodreads 2020 list and I read a lot more non-fiction than I thought! Educated and Maybe You Should Talk to Someone were probably my favorites.

    Posted by candidkay | January 25, 2021, 19:22
  4. Haven’t read any of these but can heartily recommend The Windrush Betrayal by Amelia Gentleman.

    Posted by Anne Goodwin | January 26, 2021, 09:09
  5. Spoon Fed by Tim Spector is good for health and diet (and he’s also doing sterling work on Coronavirus tracking). I’ve listened to a fair number of music biographies and autobiographies during the year on audiobook (for reasons that may become clear one day).

    The Bananarama autobiography, Really Saying Something, is good for people of a certain age, like me. Face It by Debbie Harry was interesting. The Beatles book by Craig Brown was a bit patchy (rather too much of the author and many facts were well known already) but just enough new information and perspectives to make it worthwhile.

    It Takes Blood and Guts by Skin was interesting as unusually I knew none of her band’s songs (at least by title). I’m currently listening to Becoming Mariah Carey, which is definitely not the backstory that one might imagine.

    A very well written book reflecting on life and music in the mid-late 70s and early 80s is Broken Greek by Pete Paphides. I went to an actual literary event in a real theatre in Cheltenham in September to see him talk along with John Niven. I was in the bar having a coffee before the event and a woman wearing some leopard skin came in and loudly asked for a glass of the most expensive red wine they had then sat down for a while next to me. The people on the other side seemed to recognise her and I worked out who she was as I’d been interested in getting a ticket for her event earlier in the day but it had sold out. (It turns out the wine was for the organiser of the festival, not her). She sat right behind me in the auditorium and it seemed she had a close rapport with Pete Paphides and was very invested in what he had to say. I thought maybe they knew each other from music journalism days and were supporting each other as they were both on at the festival that day. I only found our a week or so ago that they are married to each other. Any guesses as to who she was — a very popular non-fiction writer herself.

    Posted by Michael Clarke | January 26, 2021, 11:47
  6. Thanks Isabel. I’m going to order Why I’m no longer talking to White People.

    Posted by Michelle Scorziello | February 4, 2021, 20:25

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