My Year in Non-Fiction - Non-Fiction November: Week One

I’d never heard of Non-Fiction November before last week – but it sounded a lot easier than NaNoWriMo, so I thought I’d give it a try.

The first week’s (1-5 November) topic is Your Year in Non-Fiction. I didn’t think I’d read many books that would qualify – I’m much more of a fiction reader – but when I looked back I found I’d read four, of which three were excellent, so here goes:

Writing at the Kitchen Table by Artemis Cooper

This is a biography of the famous cookery writer – and later, shop owner – Elizabeth David. As a child I remember the Elizabeth David shop in Pimlico (not that we ever went inside, it was way beyond our budget, and indeed our aspirations – we were probably just the sort of people of whom David would have despaired.)

Mrs David was a beautiful woman and she led a colourful life. She lived in many countries, had lots of lovers, and could, by all accounts, be extremely difficult. But numerous modern day cooks, from Nigella Lawson to Nigel Slater, cite her as one of their greatest influences, and she is frequently credited with revolutionising the parlous state of British post-war cooking.

While I remain dubious about this latter statement – she really only changed the eating habits of the urban intelligentsia, and made no difference whatsoever to the rest of the population – her writing lives on, and her cookery books are of the kind that make great reads, even when you have no intention of using a single recipe. She was primarily a journalist, a very good writer who can summon up a location, a climate, and of course a food or drink, like few others.

Artemis Cooper has done her research, and although I’m not sure I’d have liked to meet David, Writing at the Kitchen Table is a very good book, and one which I enjoyed greatly. My full review is here.

Nature Cure by Richard Mabey

This is an extremely popular book, but I have to say I found it disappointing. (I listened to it as an audiobook read by the author.)

Mabey grew up in the Chilterns. For various family reasons he suffered a nervous breakdown and sank into a severe and long-lasting depression. He eventually moved to stay in a friend’s house in Norfolk, where he met his partner, Poppy, and gradually recovered his equilibrium. The book is well written, and there’s plenty about nature, but I felt that it didn’t ever really explain the connection between nature and recovery.

I know this may well be unfair, but I also felt that Mabey’s recovery had been made easier by the fact that he had money, and a lot of connections to people who just happened to have a spare house, etc.  I was also slightly bothered by learning that, when he left the Chilterns, he simply put the woodlands he then owned on the open market – though he was of course fortunate to have two friends who were able to set up a trust to buy and preserve them.

Richard Mabey is well known for his contributions to nature conservancy, and his books have won, or been nominated for, many awards. Nature Cure simply wasn’t for me.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl by John Quinn (editor)

This fascinating book is a slim volume of interviews with nine Irish women writers talking about their childhoods. They include Joan Lingard, Molly Keane, Dervla Murphy, Mary Lavin and Edna O’Brien. I so enjoyed reading about Molly Keane’s eccentric Anglo-Irish family, and Joan Lingard’s trips, with her mother, across the border to buy clothes - clothes which they then treated with talcum powder to make them look used, thus avoiding the customs officers’ scrutiny on the way home.

The interviews were originally broadcast on RTE Radio in 1985, and as the author of the introduction, none other than Seamus Heany, points out, people are far less restrained and ordered when talking than in a written memoir. They sound chatty and relaxed, and their stories are full of small, illuminating details. 

'When they talk about their childhoods, writers come close to the centre of the mystery they are to themselves....the invention of a narrative for one's childhood is therefore to some extent a creative discovery of the self.'

I’m not sure if this book is still available, but I recently came across a copy in a charity shop, so it’s out there somewhere. My review is here.

Wild Winter by John D Burns

John Burns is one of my favourite outdoor writers. He moved from England to Inverness many years ago, and has published several books about his life spent walking and climbing in the Highlands, the Lake District, and overseas, in Europe and further afield. The Last Hillwalker is an often hilarious account of his youth on Merseyside, his first (school) trip to the Lakes, and his subsequent adventures with his two equally unprepared friends, Martin and Joe.  It goes on to describe subsequent expeditions – by now rather better equipped – and his concerns about what he perceives to be the decline in interest in hill walking.

Wild Winter was intended to be John’s investigations into the wildlife of Scotland’s remote places – animals and birds that he had seen on his numerous trips into the mountains, but in which, until now, he had taken only a passing interest. He wanted to find out about mountain hares, otters, eagles, beavers, seals and wildcats.

Mountain Hare (c) James Roddie

Life had other ideas though, and just a few weeks after he started his research trips the UK was in lockdown. 

For some time he was a prisoner in his small city centre flat; the only walks available were strictly urban. Burns learned to make the best of this – the birds at his window, the otter he saw swimming in the Ness as it flowed through the city (this after he had singularly failed to see one in the wild places he thought they’d favour.) As lockdown eased he was able to meet with experts working in the field, from acclaimed wildlife photographer James Roddie to Ben Ross, manager of the Knapdale Beaver reintroduction Project. And despite his initial pessimism about the historic and in some places ongoing exploitation and poor management of the Highlands, he eventually sees glimmers of hope. Landowners – or at least some of them – are embracing ecology, rewilding and sustainability. New generations are demanding change.

'I breathe in the smell of the wind and the wild, and I am free at last.'

My review of Wild Winter is here

Of these four books I think my favourite is Wild Winter. John Burns is such an accessible writer. Things go wrong for him all the time. He falls face down into sheep poo. He gets 0 out of 10 in a wildlife quiz. He goes on a whale watching trip and never sees a whale. It could happen to you.

The book I’ve recommended most is, however, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, as it gives us so many great insights into the childhoods of such brilliant women, and also into ways of life now long gone. For a book of less than 150 pages it has had a profound impact on me; I reread it often, and always with pleasure.

You can find out more about Non-Fiction November here.

Next week: Doing Dewey, or book pairing (non-fiction + fiction)


  1. I've not read anything by John Burns but plan to as I've had Bothy Tales and The Last Hillwalker on my Kindle for a while now. Love the sound of Wild Winter so I'll grab that too at some stage.

  2. Too bad Nature Cure was disappointing, such a promising title!
    Here is my list

  3. I've got the John Burns to read, so looking forward to that even more now. I hope you enjoy Nonfiction November, I do read a lot of nonfiction but I find all the different things that people talk about so fascinating!

  4. Wild Winter has piqued my interest, thanks for the recommendation!

  5. This is a nice selection of NF. I am adding the biography to my TBR as I am a fan of Elizabeth David's writing but know nothing about her life. Glad you found #nonficnov!

  6. Portrait of an Artist as a Young Girl sounds absolutely terrific. I really enjoy reading about how authors develop their craft and artistry. I've only read Edna O'Brien so this will also be a good intro to female Irish authors.

  7. Writing at the Kitchen Table sounds really interesting! I'm trying to get into Elizabeth David's books because I love food writing. I've only read Summer Cooking so far, but I own two others which will hopefully motivate me. I haven't quite fallen in love with her writing yet but I really want to see in it what so many others do, and have done for so long! It sounds like her life was a fascinating one, I might have to check out the biography.

  8. Thank you so much for featuring Writing at the Kitchen Table! I adore good food writing, so this is definitely one that I'll be checking out.


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