Edmund de Waal’s moving exhibition The Library of Exile at the British Museum has reminded me of his magnificent book The Hare With the Amber Eyes which has stayed with me ever since I read it in 2011. If you haven’t read it yet, now would be a perfect time. It’s a memoir of de Waal’s family, the Ephrussis, Jewish bankers, grain traders and intellectuals. Pillars of early 20th century Viennese society and possessors of unimaginable wealth; grand palaces in Vienna, pink chateaus on the Cote d’Azure and priceless art collections. Then came Hitler. The Hare With the Amber Eyes is an absorbing book, not only in learning about the tragic destiny of the Ephrussis but also to understand central Europe in the run up to the Second World War. An absolute must-read.
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It’s been a long, strange year and summer holidays can’t come soon enough as far as I’m concerned. Luckily there now seems to be light at the end of the tunnel and some sort of new normality feels within reach. I’ve struggled to find books that excite me lately and have noticed I’ve veered towards lighter reads which should tie in well with some beach reading. Here are the ones that captured my imagination. Happy summer!
The Hare With the Amber Eyes transported us to the rarefied world of the unimaginably wealthy Ephrussi family. Letters to Camondo by Edmund de Waal follows another Jewish family, the Camondos, neighbours of the Ephrussis and, eventually, family by marriage. In 1936, following the death of Count de Camondo’s only son, their grand residence was donated to Paris as museum and remains untouched to this day. This is their story.
Opening its doors for the first time on Easter Monday 1881, the beautiful Natural History Museum in London was conceived as nothing less than a ‘cathedral to nature.’ Today, its galleries continue to brim with treasures, from the tiniest specks of DNA to the bones of the colossal blue whale. In Wonder – The Natural History Museum Poetry Book by Ana Sampson, a glorious selection of poems inspired by the natural world is created, and even the great museum itself.
A bildungsroman unlike any other, Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq takes us to the Canadian Arctic and a landscape of boundless terrain and immense skies. It’s the 1970’s and a young Inuk girl tells of her childhood in this extraordinary environment, where deprivation and discrimination sit uneasily beside a magical northern world of nature and mythology. When puberty arrives, it will bestow a shamanic gift upon the girl and prompt her, incredibly, to seek communion with the Northern Lights.
Early on in Enter the Water by Jack Wiltshire, we’re casually told that there’s no hero story to be found here, but by the end of this exhilarating verse novel, you may well disagree. It tells the story of a vulnerable Cambridge student, evicted from his flat and sleeping on a park bench. Setting out on an odyssey to the coast, accompanied by pigeons, a blackbird and the forces of Nature itself, his story is a clarion call for appreciating the natural world and cultivating stoicism in our infinitely troubled times.
One snowy night, a little girl named Otilla runs away from home, into the deep dark woods. She runs all through the night, escaping we know not what, but in the best tradition of spooky tales, she comes upon an old and neglected house. Here lives a lonely skull, separated from his body and in need of a friend. We join this odd couple in The Skull by Jon Klassen. Adapted from an obscure Tyrolean folktale, it’s a strange and charming story of facing fear and finding friendship in unlikely places.
Miss Marple once reflected that ‘One does see so much evil in a village’. But even the famously unflappable sleuth would surely have raised an eyebrow at the goings on in the usually somnolent village of Barbourough. Here, teenage friends and Agatha Christie fans, Kerry and Annie, are called upon to investigate a diabolical murder, after their frankly unpleasant classmate, Selena, becomes possibly the only person in history to have been suffocated with a menstrual cup. A laugh-out-loud girl-powered whodunnit awaits in Murder on a School Night by Kate Weston.
Daniel Costello, Irish celebrity chef and proud holder of two Michelin stars, is headed for the high court, the victim of a patently false rape claim. At least, that’s what he tells us. His distressed wife, Julie, doesn’t know what to think, and ex-waitress, Hannah, is harbouring secrets that she is not ready to share with the world. In the nuanced and compelling Service by Sarah Gilmartin, the story is told through their alternating voices. Three versions with shifting perspectives and perceived truths, provide a fascinating portrait of the frenetic restaurant scene of Dublin’s boom time and an incisive exploration of power dynamics and toxic masculinity.
Cursed Bread by Sophie Mackintosh is a wonderfully enigmatic and mesmerising read, by an author whose presence sings from the Granta Best Young British Novelists 2023 list. An acknowledged purveyor of disquieting fiction, here Mackintosh introduces us to Elodie, a frustrated baker’s wife in post-war provincial France. Spending her days mired in gossip and domesticity, the bored young woman is ripe for seduction. It comes in the form of a dashing young ambassador and his wife, the beautiful and damaged Violet, their arrival heralding a sultry, sexy summer, and a rash of darkly peculiar goings on.