I devoured Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace when they came out quite a few years ago, but somehow missed The Handmaid’s Tale. That was a mistake. Atwood’s dystopian, futuristic story about a totalitarian regime where women’s bodies are political currency has become a modern classic since it was published in 1985. Even more relevant now with religious and political extremism on the rise, The Handmaid’s Tale is about to come out as a TV-series. I suggest reading it first. It’s creepy, it’s dark and it’s a page-turner that will keep you reading long into the night.
Ready to escape the grey, cold winter for a few hours? Try this sensual and sensuous Italian classic set in the 1860s amongst the arid hills, frescoed palazzos and turquoise seas of Sicily. It’s the story of the aristocratic Salina family’s decline, of ageing and mortality, of politics and passionate love all mixed up into a fabulous Italian literary feast.
I was inspired to pick up this set of books after hearing snatches of the Radio 4 adaptation this year, and reading reviews of Artemis Cooper’s new biography of the author, Elizabeth Jane Howard – about whom I knew little apart from the fact that she was unlucky enough to have been married to the old devil himself, Kingsley Amis. How glad I am that I did, particularly in the dying days of this particularly dismal year. The experience of reading the Cazalet series (The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off and All Change) is like stepping into a warm bath. Comforting, life-affirming, immersive – and you absolutely don’t want to pull the plug.
Novels don’t come more English than this: boys at boarding school, stately homes, social class, unspoken rules. Leo Colston, our narrator, looks back at his 12-year-old self during the summer of 1900, a summer that would shatter his naivety and change his life. A great English classic and an ominous, intense, coming-of-age novel. Highly recommended!
Tea with us became more than an idealisation of the form of drinking; it is a religion of the art of life.
This is not just a book about tea. It is an exceptional book about life, philosophy and beyond. Japanese philosopher and historian Kakuzo Okakura initially wrote the book 110 years ago, aiming to dispel the Western myths of Japanese barbarianism. He recalls the origins of tea, its philosophical ties to Zen and Taoism and the nuances of tea as an allegory for a philosophy of life. A unique book full of a wit and sagacity that makes it impossible to ignore and one of my favourite discoveries this year.
The Book of Tea is published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 54 pages.
After reading a few contemporary duds, I’ve taken refuge in the haven of mid-20th century American literature and read The Easter Parade by Richard Yates. I adore literature from this era for it’s well-edited, unpretentious yet profound writing and I haven’t been disappointed this time either. We’re in 1930’s New York. Sarah and Emily are sisters and the children of divorced parents Pookie and Walter Grimes. The opening sentence sets the stage: ‘Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.’ Expect no happy ending.
A treat for you on Women’s Day! Austrian author Stefan Zweig (The Post Office Girl, Beware of Pity and many novellas) was once the world’s most translated author. No wonder. This steaming hot novella about a woman and her whirlwind 24 hour affair with a much younger man is absolutely spellbinding, even more so when you know it was written by a man and almost 90 years ago!
There’s something seductive about Fitzgerald’s writing, it’s so gentle and light that it almost seems effortless. It’s not, of course, and that’s the genius of it. No wonder Fitzgerald has become a writer’s writer, with hoards of author fans. If you enjoy a well-written book, I suspect you will like her novels too. Be warned, though, Innocence, like her other books, is not action packed, but rather a funny, contemplative story where a lot more goes on than meets the eye.
The Blue Flower is based on the true-life love story between the 18th century German philosopher and poet Georg Philipp Friedrich (Fritz) Freiherr von Hardenberg and a young girl, Sophie von Kühn. Sounds dreary? No, it’s not, actually! It’s a great book, thanks to Penelope Fitzgerald’s light, funny and authentic writing. No wonder her horde of fans include Jonathan Franzen, Allan Hollinghurst, Julian Barnes, James Wood…I could go on and on…who all hail this as a modern classic.
I’d forgotten how good John Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men really is. Just re-read it after many years and what a gem of a little story! In a mere 120 pages, Steinbeck dives deep into themes such as loneliness, dreams and loyalty while portraying the nomadic lives of ranch hands in America during the Great Depression. To top it off are the most exquisite descriptions of landscapes and farm life.