Category Archives: Non-Fiction

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank – Thad Carhart

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank – Thad Carhart

This was in the pile of books left by my neighbour and I picked it up thinking it was a novel. It’s not it’s non-fiction, bit memoir, bit piano history and a bit Parisian lifestyle.

Here’s the blurb …

Walking his two young children to school every morning, Thad Carhart passes an unassuming little storefront in his Paris neighborhood. Intrigued by its simple sign — Desforges Pianos — he enters, only to have his way barred by the shop’s imperious owner.

Unable to stifle his curiosity, he finally lands the proper introduction, and a world previously hidden is brought into view. Luc, the atelier’s master, proves an indispensable guide to the history and art of the piano. Intertwined with the story of a musical friendship are reflections on how pianos work, their glorious history, and stories of the people who care for them, from amateur pianists to the craftsmen who make the mechanism sing. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank is at once a beguiling portrait of a Paris not found on any map and a tender account of the awakening of a lost childhood passion

I liked it, it made me want to play the piano. It also made me appreciate the complexities of pianos.

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Ghost Empire – Richard Fidler

Ghost Empire – Richard Fidler

I bought this book solely for the cover and then ended up listening to it on Audible!

Here’s the blurb …

GHOST EMPIRE is a rare treasure – an utterly captivating blend of the historical and the contemporary, realised by a master storyteller.
In 2014, Richard Fidler and his son Joe made a journey to Istanbul. Fired by Richard’s passion for the rich history of the dazzling Byzantine Empire – centred around the legendary Constantinople – we are swept into some of the most extraordinary tales in history. The clash of civilizations, the fall of empires, the rise of Christianity, revenge, lust, murder. Turbulent stories from the past are brought vividly to life at the same time as a father navigates the unfolding changes in his relationship with his son.

GHOST EMPIRE is a revelation: a beautifully written ode to a lost civilization, and a warmly observed father-son adventure far from home

This book is part memoir, history and travel journal. It has a lovely story-telling feel to it – made all the better by Richard Fidler reading the audio version. I listened to it while running, gardening, knitting and cleaning – I grabbed any opportunity to listen (in fact my house is cleaner than normal because I manufactured tasks so I could listen).

A review here and this is Richard Fidler’s web page.

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Filed under History, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Recommended

The Narcissist Test – Craig Malkin

The Narcissist Test – Dr Craig Malkin

I was fascinated by this book. It was very accessible – easy language and case studies to illustrate his points.

Here is the blurb …

What exactly is narcissism? An incurable disease set to ruin your future, a habit to be curbed, or a trait to be nurtured? And how can you tell if your partner, child, or even you are a narcissist? Dr Craig Malkin offers a new picture of narcissism, showing us why being called a ‘narcissist’ isn’t necessarily such a bad thing after all.

Narcissism is all around us. We are a selfie-obsessed generation, surviving on a steady diet of watching reality shows that celebrate attention-seeking know-and-do-nothings and posting a whopping 500 million tweets a day to document our every thought and whim. But is narcissism really as bad as we have been led to believe?

In this groundbreaking book, clinical psychologist Dr Craig Malkin offers a radically new picture of narcissism, defining it as a spectrum of self-importance, and explaining that everyone falls somewhere on the scale between utter selflessness and total arrogance. He reveals why it is essential to embrace some level of narcissism in order to maintain a healthy sense of self-worth. Feeling special, to a degree, can make us better lovers and partners, courageous leaders, and intrepid explorers.

As supportive as it is illuminating, The Narcissist Test is the first and only book to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy narcissism, and offers clear, step-by-step guidance on how to promote the healthy kind in your partner, children, and in yourself. From advice tailored to parents, social media users and even schools, this is the definitive text to help you overcome the bad – and embrace the good – about feeling special.

Dr Craig Malkin is a clinical psychologist hailing from Harvard with over two decades of experience helping individuals, couples and families.

Definitely worth a read if you or someone you know (work with) is a narcissist.


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The Givenness Of Things – Marilynne Robinson

The Givenness of Things – Marilynne Robinson

I have enjoyed all of Ms Robinson’s novels and enjoyed listening to her on the BBC World Book Club. I was keen to read her essays.

Here is the description from Goodreads …

A profound essay collection from the beloved author of GileadHouskeeping and Lila, now including Marilynne Robinson’s conversation with President Barack Obama.

Robinson has plumbed the depths of the human spirit in her trilogy of novels – Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, Orange-Prize winning Home and National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Lila – and in her moving essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books.

Now, in The Givenness of Things, she brings a profound sense of awe and an incisive mind to the essential questions of contemporary life and faith. Through fourteen essays of remarkable depth and insight, Robinson explores the dilemmas of our modern predicament. How has our so-called Christian nation strayed from so many of the teachings of Christ? How could the great minds of the past, Calvin and Locke-and Shakespeare-guide our lives? And what might the world look like if we could see the sacredness in each other?

Exquisite and bold, these essays are a necessary call for us to find wisdom and guidance in our cultural treasures, to seek humanity and compassion in each other. The Givenness of Thingsis a reminder of what a marvel our existence is in its grandeur – and its humility.

I will say from the outset that I am not a christian and I think most of the world’s ills are caused by white, christian men, but if anyone could convert me it would be Ms Robinson. And if all christians were christian like her the world would be a better place.

It took me a long time to read this book and I am not sure reading it cover to cover is the best way of reading it. Each essay required focus and concentration and it might be better to dip into it from time to time reading one essay at a time.

It is academic, thoughtful and thought-provoking.

More reviews …

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Filed under Non-Fiction, Recommended, Serious

Encounters with Harriet Martineau – Stuart Hobday

Encounters with Harriet Martineau – Stuart Hobday

I hadn’t heard of Harriet Martineau until someone in my Victorian Literature study group announced she wanted to do a presentation on her – so in the interests of being prepared (I am still reeling from knowing nothing about Jane Austen’s military brothers and being put on the spot to lead that session) I decided to read something. I searched on my Kindle and this book came up and it was a good choice – well written, easy to read and containing a huge amount of research.

Harriet Martineau was a woman ahead of her time who has largely been forgotten by history because she was writing in time that was dominated by white christian men. She believed in universal human suffrage, education and evidence based science. She knew and influenced an enormous number of Victorian era luminaries – Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell …

She was out-spoken and radical and investigated things for her self – slavery in the US, religion in the middle east, etc.

We need an amazing historical novelist – Hilary Mantel perhaps? – to write about her and bring her to the world’s attention.

I haven’t been able to find any reviews of this book, but you can read more about it at Unbound


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Filed under Biography, Non-Fiction

The Button Box – Lynn Knight

The Button Box – Lynn Knight

I loved this book – social history, fashion history, contemporary literature and buttons! Here is the blurb …

I used to love the rattle and whoosh of my grandma’s buttons as they scattered from their Quality Street tin.

An inlaid wooden chest the size of a shoe box holds Lynn Knight’s button collection. A collection that has been passed down through three generations of women: a chunky sixties-era toggle from a favourite coat, three tiny pearl buttons from her mother’s first dress after she was adopted as a baby, a jet button from a time of Victorian mourning. Each button tells a story.

‘They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us’ said Virginia Woolf of clothes. The Button Box traces the story of women at home and in work from pre-First World War domesticity, through the first clerical girls in silk blouses, to the delights of beading and glamour in the thirties to short skirts and sexual liberation in the sixties.

I first heard of this book here and was intrigued – a quick pop to the book depository and a copy was winging its way to me. It then languished in my pile… however, I have been going through my pile picking and choosing what I want to read.

Each chapter starts with  a button (Jet button, glove button etc) but moves onto what is happening in the world at that time and also what was happening in women’s lives at that time. I particularly enjoyed the references to literature and now have a stack of new novelists I want to read – Barbara Comyns, Rosamond Lehmann, E. M Delafield and many more.

If you are at all interested in social history, fashion history or women’s history, then this is the book for you.

Another review …


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Filed under Memoir, Non-Fiction

The Good Life – Hugh Mackay

The Good Life - Hugh McKay

The Good Life – Hugh Mackay

A bit of a departure from my normal fiction reading – this was recommended by a friend and I took a long time reading it. I read a little bit at a time taking copious notes.

Here is the blurb …

“No one can promise you that a life lived for others will bring you a deep sense of satisfaction, but it’s certain that nothing else will.”

Hugh Mackay has spent his entire working life asking Australians about their values, motivations, ambitions, hopes and fears. Now, in The Good Life, he addresses the ultimate question: What makes a life worth living?

His conclusion is provocative. The good life is not the sum of our security, wealth, status, postcode, career success and levels of happiness. The good life is one defined by our capacity for selflessness, the quality of our relationships and our willingness to connect with others in a useful way.

Mackay examines what is known as the Golden Rule through the prisms of religion, philosophy, politics, business and family life. And he explores the numerous and often painful ways we distract ourselves from this central principle: our pursuit of pleasure, our attempts to perfect ourselves and our children, and our conviction that we can have our lives under control.

Argued with all the passion and intelligence we have come to expect from one of Australia’s most prolific and insightful authors, The Good Life is a book that will start conversations, ignite arguments and possibly even change the way we live our lives.

I think reading it a little at a time really helped me to absorb Mr Mackay’s message, which ultimately distills down to ‘do unto others as you would have done to yourself’. It is very readable with the occasional real life example.

Here are some quotes …

If you adopt a rigid world view – religious, anti-religious, political, economic, academic,  aesthetic or otherwise – you tend to see everything through the filter of your convictions, and, not surprisingly, you see what you are looking for.

Fundamentalism, religious and otherwise, is like a steel trap that imprisons the soul and inhibits freedom to wonder.

The integrity of any theory lies in its falsifiability – that is, its openness to the possibility of repudiation in the light of more evidence, fresh insights or a more creative interpretation of data whose significance was not previously understood.

Certainty is the enemy of reason and reasonableness. It fuels our complacency and arrogance, wrapping us in a cocoon of self-confidence, perhaps even self-righteousness.

Intelligence is not an achievement to be admired, or a goal to aspire to; it is mainly an accident of birth, plus or minus a bit of training and encouragement. We all have it, and some people have more than others, but intelligence in no way predicts the kind of person we are likely to become, the level of contentment we are likely to attain or the influence, good or bad, we are likely to exert on the lives of others.

The thing to nurture in our children – is not only the maximising of our intellectual potential, but the maximising of our potential for goodness.

[…] those who plug away, year after thankless year, doing their best to be faithful partners, loving parents, good neighbours and responsible citizens. These are the unsung heroes…

Painful as it can be to admit, an overly busy life – rushing here, rushing there – can be a highly effective insulation from engagement with the very people who made need you to stop running, listen to them and take them seriously enough to spend time with them.

Self-absorption is not a recognised path to goodness.

At its heart, that’s all morality is about; co-operation, mutual respect, a sense of community, a spirit of egalitarianism …

[…] we can nurture the goodness in us by associating with people whose goodness we recognise and admire, avoiding the close company of those whose self-interest infects everything they do and may infect our own thinking in the same way.

Here are some of the things I learnt while reading …

Power, wealth, status and fame have the potential to corrupt us in three ways
1.  Encourage a sense of entitlement based on an assumption of superiority
2.  Fuelling our greed.
3.  We judge people by the same criteria we use to measure our own success.

Each life has the meaning we ourselves choose to invest in it.

This book is well worth reading, but read it a chapter at a time and give yourself a bit of time for reflection before moving on to the next chapter.

Another review …


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Filed under Non-Fiction, Recommended

H is for Hawk – Helen MacDonald

H is for Hawk - Helen MacDonald

H is for Hawk – Helen MacDonald

Several people suggested that I read this, but I resisted. The blurb (see below) didn’t really appeal to me – I am not all that interested in birds and I had a terrible relationship with my Dad, so I didn’t want to be reminded of what I didn’t have, but eventually I gave in and read it. I am glad I did because it is not just about birds and grief, it is about finding your way to live in the world.

Here is the blurb …

When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer, Helen had never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk, but in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White’s chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her” tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity and changed her life.
Heart-wrenching and humorous, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast, with a parallel examination of a legendary writer’s eccentric falconry. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.

So this is about Helen MacDonald overcoming her grief by training a goshawk, but it is also a memoir of T.H. White. And both of those are about making peace with yourself (accepting your nature and desires) and making a contented life for yourself.

I am quite nosy so I do like reading about other peoples’ lives – how they live and what they thought etc. This is a very personal story – I am in awe of anybody who can put so much of themselves into the world.

More reviews …

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Filed under Memoir, Non-Fiction, Recommended

The Joy of X – Steven Strogatz

The Joy of X - Steven Strogatz

The Joy of X – Steven Strogatz

In my real life I have a Maths degree (a double major; one in Pure Maths and one in Applied) and I like to read the occasional maths book – like this one. I’m always hoping to find a better way to teach my students.

Here is the blurb for this one …

Maths is everywhere, often where we least expect it. Award-winning professor Steven Strogatz acts as our guide as he takes us on a tour of numbers that – unbeknownst to the most of us – form a fascinating and integral part of our everyday lives. In The Joy of X, Strogatz explains the great ideas of maths – from negative numbers to calculus, fat tails to infinity – and shows how they connect to everything from popular culture and philosophy to current affairs and business practice. He is the maths teacher you never had and this book is perfect for the smart and curious, the expert and the beginner.

I really enjoyed this book it is split into six sections: Numbers, Relationships (I made everyone in the house try the bath filling question), Shapes, Change, Data and Frontiers. Each chapter is quite small and written in a very accessible style (there are Notes at the end for anyone who wants to delve further into the maths). I’ve also watched some of Vi Hart’s You Tube clips – like this one on the infinity elephants.

I would say this book is for people who are interested in Maths, but haven’t studied that much of it. It is an overview – entertaining and interesting and I hope it encourages people to further reading.

More reviews …


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Filed under Non-Fiction, Recommended

Colette’s France Her Lifes Her Loves – Jane Gilmour

Colette's France - Jane Gilmour

Colette’s France – Jane Gilmour

This was a Christmas present – I have been learning French in part because I want to be able to read french novels. This is a beautiful book – thick pages and lovely illustrations. I have read the Claudine novels but nothing else and knew very little of Colette’s life.

Here is the blurb …

A lavishly illustrated biography of the lively and often controversial life of Colette, the French writer, artist, and intellectual. Colette’s France is a beautifully illustrated biography of French writer Colette, a key figure in French radical, artistic, and intellectual life in the early twentieth century. Told through the locations in France where she lived, worked, and loved, her lively life story moves along through her many different relationships and homes—from Burgundy to Paris to Brittany to St. Tropez and more—revealing her deep and personal love of France and the natural world. Colette’s life and writing spans a special time in French literary history, the renowned artistic period of Belle Époque Paris. Her companions were the great French writers, artists, actors, and intellectuals, and her life plays out against a backdrop of great creativity and style, liberation and rebellion. Colette wrote about love and experienced love in the most independent, sometimes outrageous, sense—numerous lovers, several marriages, a lesbian affair, and an affair with her seventeen-year-old stepson. Told through the authoritative voice of Jane Gilmour and complimented by stunning, rarely seen photographs and illustrations, Colette’s France brings Colette’s story to life and evokes the style and fashion of the times.

This book was quite an eye opener – she wrote this to her ten year old daughter…

‘I am waiting for something of your father and your mother to appear in you. And I find that I am waiting a long time. Do what you can so that this expectation is no longer disappointed. […] We didn’t bring you into this world to be just an ordinary little girls, to be mediocre’

I think this is a good first biography of Colette – it is quite short and not packed with information, so if you already know a bit you might know all of this. However, it is beautiful and might be worth a look just for the illustrations.

Another review

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