Names For The Sea: In the Land of Fire and Isa
Names For The Sea by Saraha Moss, out now in paperback (Granta, £14.99)
Follow The Money by Steve Boggan, out now in paperback (Union Books, £12.99)
More and more these days, writers are coming up with interesting and intriguing non-fiction books that defy categorisation. Travelogue, memoir, nature writing, sociology, economic, political and social commentary – all these elements can be found intermingling on the bookshelves in 2012, and into that mix come a couple more fine examples.
First up is Sarah Moss’ wonderful Names for the Sea. The book is tagged on the back cover as being in the Travel Writing category, but that doesn’t really begin to cover Moss’ fantastic and perceptive work within the pages.
Moss is the author of two previous award-winning novels, as well as the co-author of Chocolate: A Global History, so she’s used to mixing things up, and she does it with aplomb in Names for the Sea – a book that uses as its starting point her rash decision to take a job as a visiting lecturer at the University of Iceland.
Moss uprooted her young family and headed to the island just around the time of the banking collapse and the fateful eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, and this book is a beautifully crafted account of that time.
Moss is at her best when describing the bizarre alien landscapes Iceland is famous for, but there is also a lot of good stuff about the islanders’ attitude to the unravelling of their financial situation at the hands of bankers, along with all sorts of other engaging insights about how the myths of that strange country still hold sway in the mindsets of the hardy and stoic people who live there.
In a lesser writer’s hands, all this material would be a hotchpotch of genres, a mismatch of writing styles, but Moss is so subtle and skilled at what she does, as careful and precise a prose specialist as you will find, that it hangs together seamlessly and brilliantly.
Equally as engaging in its mix of styles is Follow the Money by Steve Boggan. Boggan is a British journalist and the idea for this book grew out of a commission on these shores for an idea he then replicated over in the States.
The simple premise was to follow a single $10 bill around America for a month and write about the people and places he encountered along the way. Again, the timing of the project was key, as Boggan embarked on the journey just as the United States was descending into its biggest financial collapse since the Great Depression.
So what starts out as something like a Danny Wallace-esque piece of whimsy, the kind of
idea you might cook up in the pub over a few pints, gradually becomes a much more intriguing and serious piece of work about the relationship between people and money at a very basic and
Boggan’s encounters go across socio-economic boundaries and he meets up with everyone from the Amish to bankers, farmers, deer-hunters, a blues band and all points in between. The strength of Boggan’s writing is the clear, clean and non-judgemental prose style that lets the remarkable and disparate lives of those he encounters speak for themselves. Heart-warming, fascinating stuff.
And Another Thing...
The Edinburgh International Book Festival has thrown up some odd couples. Alex Salmond with English literary doyen Ian McEwan, anyone? Or my favourite: legendary musician Nile Rodgers’ event is being chaired by (an insider tells me) Irvine Welsh. Book quick.
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Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell (1848)
One of the earliest novels to portray the realities of working-class life to middle-class readers. Elizabeth Gaskell describes unstintingly what must have seemed horrifying and unbelievable scenes of depravation and starvation in the slums of Manchester; sadly, these conditions were all too common. The social commentary adds to the story, where Mary dithers over choosing between Jem, the impoverished man she loves, and wealthy Carson, part of a mill-owning dynasty and thus the chance for Mary and her widowed father John to enjoy a comfortable life. The disastrous consequences of Mary’s romantic dilemma soon unfold. www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2153
Words: Jenny Parrott