The teenage Pearl and her artistic mother Mia move into a rented house owned by a wealthy family in a smarter area of the same Ohio neighbourhood. The lives of both families become entwined in healthy and not‐so‐healthy ways in a deceptively simple tale about motherhood, belonging, responsibility, and standing up for what you believe in.
James Wood’s annual list of literary discoveries from the past year is always an interesting read. This year he has chosen four books that he feels deserve more attention (particularly in America, from where he’s writing). I was drawn to his review of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, a book I’ve been circling in the bookshops without actually picking up. Perhaps because I found Erpenbeck’s previous novel The End of Days so excruciatingly sad? There’s nothing wrong with the quality of her writing, though, and Wood’s prediction (‘When she wins the Nobel Prize in a few years’) will probably come true. I think I will give it a go anyway. See what else Wood is suggesting here.
Accompanying me over Christmas were three glorious women all of whom, at different points, called a grand palazzo in Venice their home. An eccentric, reclusive countess, a gold-digging seductress and an art-collecting heiress. The Unfinished Palazzo is a hugely entertaining biography which firmly sits in the ‘you-couldn’t-have-made-it-up’ category. If you’re looking to brighten up January, this will do!
Bookstoker Young Readers
His debut novel took Matthew Thomas a decade to write. Was it worth the ten-year slog? In my opinion, yes. Thomas has simultaneously crafted an intimate story of an ordinary family and an epic of post-war America. Born in 1941, the product of a stormy Irish Catholic working-class upbringing in Queens, New York, Eileen Tumulty craves respectability. Coming of age in the early sixties, she meets and marries a young scientist named Edmund Leary. But while Eileen is deeply aspirational for her family, the quiet, unassuming Ed refuses to give up his teaching for a better-paid job. Eileen dreams of a different life: a better job, a bigger house, more respectability.
David Bowie’s son Duncan has just launched a book club in honour of his late father. Bowie’s list of top 100 books was first published at the time of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s exhibition in London a few years ago and, now, Duncan is making a book club out of the list. First up, Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor. Read it by 1 February and join the discussion on Duncan’s Twitter account @ManMadeMoon. Predictably, the list spans a wide range of authors, genres and countries. Many well known titles here (Sarah Water’s Fingersmith, Money by Martin Amis, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (of course!), Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, but also a whole lot of books I’ve never heard about before. Inspiring!
The story behind this short John Steinbeck World War II novel is as fascinating as the book itself. Steinbeck, a world famous author by the start of the war, was deeply concerned about the rise of Fascism in Europe. He’d noticed the Fascists’ clever use of propaganda and urged the precursor to the CIA, for whom he worked, to create their own. In 1941, Steinbeck wrote The Moon is Down, which is largely based on conversations with people who’d fled their occupied countries. The book would become one of the most read underground novels of the war, with thousands of copies printed clandestinely in France, Denmark, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands. Judging by its success, it must have played a role in mobilising resistance and keeping up morale.
Three wise books about growing old
Finding beautiful books to give as presents used to be tricky. Not any longer. The arrival of e-books seemed to have propelled publishers into spending more thought and money on striking book covers. So walking into a well-stocked bookstore these days is no longer only a treat for your mind but a feast for your eyes as well. The bookshops are brimming with temptations: colourful, intelligent, artistic even tactile book covers. Combine that with some clever content and you’re in gift heaven. If there ever was a place you could kill off that Christmas shopping list with one stab, it’s in a bookshop.