Monday, January 16, 2012

Books of 2011 - Part 2 (But it's January...)

2011 was a standout year for non-fiction books of all misshapes and argumentative's even more difficult to put these into critical context than it is fiction writing.


Norton publishing released R P Crease's marvellous 'World in the Balance;' a history of weights and measures, their attribution and their adoption, or not, by various countries. Or not. Crease makes a potentially dry subject highly amusing, fun even, emphasising the differences, highlighting the similarities. Hell, there's even a section on brassiere measurement - and that's incontrovertibly no bad thing.

'Hemingway's Boat,' as reviewed by Allan Massie, is as quixotic a read as the man himself. Tremendously entertaining, the book is, in many ways, similar to Hemingway's own, 'A Moveable Feast,' written when he was a young objet d'art living in Paris (the book begins after Papa's formative years spent carousing there).

What differentiates Paul Hendrickson's book from so many other biographies is that it counterbalances the warts and the all of a man often beleaguered by life, at odds with his crucial self, with his headstrong humanity - in all its rumbustiousness.

Paul Shaw has written a delightful book about an even more delightful subject - the New York City Subway System or, more specifically, its signage. For years, New York's underground signs were an indecipherable mess; difficult to read, nigh impossible to follow. Impeccably researched and gracefully written, it's the story of how a font changed a small, imperfectly formed part of the world for the better and to a new way of seeing.

Paul Shaw 'Helvetica and the New York City Subway System' MIT Press

Jon Ronson has written a number of entertaining, enlightening and informative books. Ronson's latest, 'The Psychopath Test,' follows in these footsteps - albeit following them wearing a pinstriped suit, a pair of Trickers brogues and a mePad. Above all, as Ronson says and writes, it shows how eager many of us are to recognise the marks of madness in other people, and to steadfastly ignore these hallmarks in ourselves.

There have been other great books this year, too:

Daryl Gregory's collection of short stories, 'Unpossible and Other Stories,'

'Dream Repairman: Adventures in Film Editing by Jim Clark with John H Myers'

James Gleick 'The Information,'

In closing, it would be impossible not to mention Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon's magnificent 'Day Tripper,' published by Vertigo. Undoubtedly one of THE books of this or any other year, the story, unlike so many graphic novels, grabs and gripes you from the start and never lets go - Ba and Moon have been rightly compared to another Vertigo alumnus, Neil Gaiman; both in terms of story-telling and, crucially, realisation - but their visions are undoubtedly their own.

So, finally, an end to 2011. And a beginning to 2012.