Non-Fiction November: Be the Expert: Recent Biographies/Memoirs/Reportage

Week 3 of this year’s Non-Fiction November has the theme of ‘Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert’ in which we can either “share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert)”.

My recent non-fiction reading has been biased towards biography and memoir of well-known figures from screens and galleries large and small. I love a good showbiz memoir, so I shall ‘Be the Expert’ and share them with you.

Airhead by Emily Maitlis

Subtitled, ‘The Imperfect Art of Making News’, Maitlis’s book is mostly reportage with some memoir, comprising a collection of behind the scenes looks at stories she has covered over her career so far, mostly for BBC News and its flagship news programme Newsnight on BBC2 where she is currently a main presenter.

Each chapter features a different interview or event, from a pre-Presidential interview with Donald Trump, to being on the scene at Grenfell Tower helping with the donations, doing a live to air report as the disaster was still unfolding and interviewing Theresa May two days later. Maitlis tells all about how the interviews happen, the planning, the drafting, the structure, hoping to get a good response from the interviewee. But live TV is unpredictable and interviews can go off in the wrong direction, or they can be of the moment, requiring the interviewer (and the team behind her) to think on their feet. It’s heady stuff.

Maitlis writes very engagingly, she wears her cleverness lightly, preferring to chat with the reader, with seriousness when needed, with humour at other times. The life of the news reporter is so much more than we see on screen, and the whole was absolutely fascinating. Later in the book, she tells us about the stalker that plagued her for over twenty years, putting herself as the focus of a news story being reported, a personally difficult, but useful experience in her job.

I shall leave you with her encounter with the Dalai Lama, in which she struggles to get anything meaningful about China and Tibet at all from the giggler supreme:

Nope, I’m thinking. Not a sausage. He’s managed a five-minute answer – with gestures – in which he has neither condemned the Chinese regime not praised it. And yet, unlike with a British politician, I cannot press him to define his answer without looking like I’m making fun of his language problems. I am stuck. […]

I am loving our chat, and his ebullience and humour and warmth, but I start to feel – dare I say? – conned. As if really this Living God is like any other kind of parody politician. Obfuscating. Indirect. And prone to a mid-sentence change of subject. Is it our fault, I wonder, for setting him up to be something he cannot possibly be? Would I get a different response from any other spiritual leader? We rarely get the chance to find out. Should I really hold the Dalai Lama responsible for having no discernable views just because he seems more media friendly?

I thoroughly enjoyed this well-written and erudite yet charming book, being disappointed when it ended! (9/10) See also Clare’s review here.

Source: Library. Emily Maitlis, Airhead (Michael Joseph, 2019) now in a Penguin paperback 384 pages. BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s (affiliate links)


Biographic Audrey by Sophie Collins, illus Matt Carr

Ammonite Press’s ‘Biographic‘ series now numbers 32 volumes, of which the one I encountered, about Audrey Hepburn, is a recent addition. Each book takes ’50 defining facts’ about its subject and presents them as infographics. If you like your biographies as snapshots, this is the style for you.

Sadly, although I do like a good infographic, a whole book of them about one subject was both too much and too little. Audrey made 27 films, but only five, you can probably guess which, were discussed at any length (OK, they were: Gigi, Roman Holiday, Funny Face, Breakfast at Tiffanys and My Fair Lady), each given a double spread. Some other great films, like Wait Until Dark and Robin and Marian get the briefest mentions outside the filmography list (presented on clapperboards of course).

Her childhood in WWII, her family, her partners/husbands, her later charity work, get good spreads too. But pages are wasted on things that aren’t to do with Audrey at all – there’s a double spread about Cinecittà, which would be fair enough, given that Roman Holiday and War and Peace were filmed there, but why a side-bar about the Burton/Taylor Cleopatra? Grace Kelly gets a whole page of compare and contrast – there are few true similarities in their careers, and Marilyn gets most of a page about why she was wrong for Holly Golightly, doing The Misfits instead. Audrey loved flowers, and there’s a page about various blooms named for her – faced by a whole page of other celebrity roses. Yes, there are her haircuts, her outfits, some quotes, and more, but there’s not enough Audrey. But the life and times of Audrey – yes, I guess it fits that bill. There are some fascinating nuggets in this book though – for instance, I didn’t know that Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was modelled on Audrey, but blonde of course.

There are no photographs, so no reproduction permissions needed. All the infographics contain outline portraits with little shading, everything is quite vivid and blocky. The choice of background colour on some pages renders the text unreadable without good light which was disappointing. While each book is illustrated by the same team in the same style, the authors are different. I’m glad I got this book from the library – if I see others in the series there which now includes many artists, pop stars, film stars and some authors, I’m intrigued enough to look at them, but I wouldn’t spend my pennies on them (5/10).

Source: Library. Biographic Audrey: Great Lives in Graphic Form (Ammonite, 2019) hardback, 96 pages. BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s (affiliate links)


Home Work by Julie Andrews and Long Drawn Out Trip by Gerald Scarfe

And finally, brief mentions for two super memoirs that I’ve reviewed / will be reviewing for Shiny.

Julie Andrews’s second volume of memoir has been eleven years in the waiting, but beginning as she goes to Hollywood to take on the role of Mary Poppins for Disney, the story of her Hollywood years (co-written with her daughter) is warm, funny, touching, and often warts and all, with a great balance between home and work. Having grown up with her in my first cinema experiences (as Poppins, then Maria), I loved it, even if she is too nice! (8.5/10)

However, I enjoyed her first volume, just called Home, which recounts her childhood and early career in vaudeville and on the West End stage even more. See my review of Home, one of the first books I reviewed on my blog, here. 

My full Shiny review of Home Work is here.

Source: Review copy. Julie Andrews, Home Work (W&N, 2019) 340pp. plus photos, hardback. BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s (affiliate links)


For an artist who tends to deal mostly in the grotesque, Gerald Scarfe is such a nice chap. Once his pen comes out to draw though, the images that come out on the page can be very rude! If you’re in a bookshop, just peek underneath the dust-jacket – you’ll be quite shocked, and simultaneously entertained by the covers of this book. From Scarfe’s asthmatic childhood to his first job at his uncle’s advertising agency, through reporting on the Vietnam War, being regular cartoonist for the Sunday Times, and making documentaries for the BBC, he takes us through his career, its highs and lows. As a memoir, it’s light on his family, being more focused on his fascinating career, but he is definitely a good guy, even if he has a warped imagination! I shall be reviewing this book for Shiny very soon. (9/10)

Source: Own copy. Gerald Scarfe, Long Drawn Out Trip (Little, Brown, 2019) hardback, 288 pages + photos. BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s (affiliate links).

10 thoughts on “Non-Fiction November: Be the Expert: Recent Biographies/Memoirs/Reportage

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Definitely biography-lite, but some of it is presented in an interesting way. It would be good for swotting up for a movie quiz night though.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The title was a calculated self-dreprecating risk that didn’t entirely come off I think. She is fascinating, and all her travels as a news reporter, her skill at languages, politics and thinking on her feet make for a super career retrospective. I really recommend it.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Many male journalist’s similar books are a bit dry. Maitlis’s thought processes are great to read, and often funny, plus she really tries to understand the people she’s talking about – even Piers Morgan!

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