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Review

Best non-fiction reads 2011

My pick of non-fiction books is, as you would expect, mostly a reflection of my own particular obsessions and interests. However, one of the pleasures of being a regular reviewer of non-fiction books is the discovery of gems you would not otherwise have stumbled across or even thought were your thing.

One such discovery was How to Cause a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behaviour by Laura Kipnis (Scribe). This book could have been a supremely trashy exercise in schadenfreude were it not for Kipnis’s witty razor-sharp analysis of the unconscious forces that drive those who scandalise and those who feed on these public fiascos. Taking her cue from Freud, Laura Kipnis tackles four case studies – the spurned female astronaut bent on revenge, the judge who created alter-egos to stalk a former lover, the false friend who snitched on Monica Lewinsky and the fibbing memoirist. As she follows the convolutions of these lurid plots, she lays bare the basic psychic ingredients of scandal: the impulse to self-sabotage, the capacity for self-delusion, the revenge imperative, the flimsiness of rationality and the collective hunger for a scapegoat. Her psychoanalytical approach, fascination with human foibles and feel for narrative make Kipnis akin to Janet Malcolm on overdrive.

This is the highest praise I can give, being a long time admirer of Janet Malcolm’s writing. While I haven’t yet read her latest book Iphigenia in Forest Hills, I recently tracked down her 1992 selected writings The Purloined Clinic (Vintage), comprised of pieces written for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. Malcolm is probably best known for her scathing critique of the morally dubious relationship between journalists and their subjects in The Journalist and the Murderer. All of her work is informed by an abiding interest in psychoanalysis and Malcolm invariably puts her subjects on the couch – although never in an obvious or crass fashion. These intellectually demanding essays, reviews and articles, however, bring to mind the pathologist’s slab more than the couch. There’s something of the forbidden thrill of watching a brilliantly executed post-mortem during which a subject’s or book’s diseased viscera are dissected for our edification. Malcolm makes her incisions with such clinical elegance and precision – exposing subcutaneous contradictions, blind spots and bad conscience – that even when she draws blood, it looks like a string of beads.

This combination of sharp-eyed, cool analysis and fine writing also distinguishes Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences (Icon). Claims of hardwired differences in the brain which account for the gender status quo have been around for centuries. But as Fine shows, the mind is not vacuum-sealed in the brain. It is shaped by culture and society. To talk about a ‘female mind’ and a ‘male mind’ is another form of the ‘biology is destiny’ argument dressed up in new clothes. While there are sex differences in the brain, the complexity of our grey matter means that these differences are not simply blueprints for gender. Sadly, this doesn’t stop the so-called experts all too eager to use neurosexism to reinforce cultural beliefs. From the performance of male and female students in maths and science, to the apparently stereotypical behaviour of young children, Delusions of Gender challenges us to consider how unconscious cultural assumptions about gender shape our behaviour, abilities and desires.

When you’ve been in the dark for a long time about a persistent health problem, finding a book that sheds light on your particular ailment is an occasion for celebration. I wouldn’t, however, be recommending Tim Park’s Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing (Vintage) unless it weren’t also an extremely well-written, bracingly honest and often funny account of the author’s journey from chronic pain to a kind of enlightenment. Just as good writing can redeem the cliché, so too does this book redeem the clichéd, self-help narrative about the quest for physical and spiritual health. Parks, the British author of many prize-winning novels and non-fiction, was in his forties when persistent abdominal pain began to dominate his life. The more he learned about his condition, the more it required him to profoundly rethink his identity as a writer –‘All writing is a sin against speechlessness’ Beckett once said – and his understanding of the relationship between body and mind. There’s none of the mawkish earnestness that often besets this genre. In fact, no one is spared Park’s irreverence. He shadow-boxes with J. M. Coetzee and Christopher Hitchens, wrestles with the ghost of his father who was an evangelical Anglican minister, and even pokes fun at the Vipassana guru on a meditation retreat.

Talking of irreverence, I don’t know of anyone who understands its subversive power better than the British graffiti artist, Banksy. I bought Banksy’s Wall and Piece (Century) for my son as a Christmas present but it was as much for me as for him. If there’s one thing I miss in contemporary, image-dominated street art, it’s the verbal playfulness of an earlier phase of graffiti. Banksy’s hybrid work often combines the two elements to brilliant effect. One example is a stencil of a rat – an animal he has made his own – holding a roller and can of paint with ‘Because I’m worthless’ scrawled above. The caption to the photograph reads: ‘They are hated, hunted and persecuted. They live in quiet desperation amongst the filth. And yet they are capable of bringing entire civilizations to their knees.’ His most poignant and politically telling work was done on the wall between the occupied territories and Israel – a girl lifted into the air by a bunch of balloons, two boys beneath a cut-out image of a tropical paradise and a child painting a ladder that reaches over the wall. I particularly like the way Banksy gives graffiti its due without taking himself too seriously. ‘A wall,’ he writes in this feast of sly images and trenchant observations, ‘has always been the best place to publish your work.’

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Fiona Capp is the author of three novels and three works of non-fiction, including That Oceanic Feeling, which won the Kibble Award for life writing.

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