The cynical, whiskey drinking, mac-wearing sleuth Philip Marlow is one of crime literature’s most enduring characters. Written in 1936, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler has stood the test of time despite a dash of homophobia and sexism which, today, seem so outlandish it just makes you laugh. The story involves the wealthy General Sternwood, his spoilt, unruly daughters Carmen and Vivian, and blackmail. Chandler was in a league of his own when it came to astute observations of people and places and it’s this that sets The Big Sleep apart from so many others in the genre.
I’m finding that bitesized, escapist fiction suits my concentration levels these days and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, perfectly fits the bill. The story of two mysterious sisters living with their ailing uncle in a grand, ivy-covered Vermont house is unsettling from the word go. We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Jackson’s – the American queen of ghost and horror stories – last and, many think, best novel.
As I’ve just found out, I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron can always be pulled out of the bookshelf and re-read. It’s the American screenwriter’s (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle) laugh-out-loud collection of essays about divorces, moustaches, the power of hair-dye, losing your eye-sight, why it’s pointless to bring a book to the hairdresser, and, yes, neck skin. Comic genius Ephron (the only woman in the White House JF Kennedy never made a pass on) knew a thing or two about turning tragedy into comedy and in her mid-sixties wrote a blisteringly honest book about ageing. She didn’t believe in upbeat books about old age. ‘Why do people write books that say it’s better to be older than to be younger? It’s not better.’ It might not sound like it but believe me when I say you’ll feel better after laughing your way through this book.
I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron is published by Doubleday, 228 pages.
Esther Greenwood hasn’t washed her hair for three weeks. Personal hygiene seems futile when the days glare ahead ‘…like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue.’ This sombre path is walked by one of literature’s most infamous characters in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. The iconic writer’s portrayal of a young woman’s mental breakdown ties in perfectly with our Read With Your Teen challenge. Time to put your preconceptions on hold while sharing cross-generational thoughts on the novel’s oft-cited morbid self-obsession and stirring feminist observations.
Sixteen people at a family birthday party are mowed down by gunmen in the shocking opening scene of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The sole survivors, Lydia and her 8-year-old son Luca, flee towards ‘el norte’ with Acapulco’s most feared narco baron, Javier Crespo Fuentes, and his henchmen at their heels. Sounds like an action film? Yep. And that’s both the appeal and the trouble with this gripping Mexican refugee novel.
Self-isolation. It means something different to each of us. Perhaps you are in the company of a partner, roommates, a clan of kids; perhaps you are entirely by yourself. Regardless, the experience of being confined to your household and cut off from the outside world is a lonely one. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson won’t cure loneliness, but it’s the perfect read in which to find solace amid these unusual circumstances. At its core, the book is a compassionate and beautifully-written meditation on solitude and the idiosyncrasies of domestic life.
Librarian Lizzie Benson lives a pretty ordinary life in New York City with her husband Ben and son Eli. What’s happening around her, however, is anything but. Climate change, Trump, threats to democracy, artificial intelligence, drug addiction – there’s plenty to worry about. How to absorb it all while going on living is the question. Weather by Jenny Offill puts words to what it’s like to live right now and thanks to her playful, fragmented writing style, this book is not nearly as depressing as it sounds.
Five people plunge to their deaths when an old Inca bridge across a gorge in Peru snaps. Who were these people? And why these five? That’s what Brother Juniper, a Catholic priest, sets out to investigate in the glorious little novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. ‘Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan’ Brother Juniper reasons. So which one is it?
Here’s one to set off a fiery debate around the dinner table. Now that the first storm around #MeToo has settled, This is Pleasure by Mary Gaitskill takes a step back and looks at the fallout. Quin, a successful, charming publisher, has been a huge flirt his entire adult life. While never explicitly abusing his power, Quin has always operated at the very edge of acceptable behaviour (sometimes overstepping it). It has now come back to haunt him. Many of us have had a Quin in our lives. What do we think of this one?
Toby Fleishman is divorcing. He’s had enough of his absent, high-flying talent agent wife, Rachel, who never seems to be satisfied with his job as a doctor, their flat in Manhattan or indeed have time for their two kids. He’s fed up. In his new-found freedom he’s going through a sort of sexual renaissance. New York, it appears, is full of middle-aged horny women who will do anything to get laid by someone like Toby, or, actually, just anyone. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner has descriptions of the befuddling world of online dating that had me, literally, screaming with laughter. But there’s more to this book than clever comedy and the turn to a more serious tone is both its strength and weakness.