You’ll grow to love winter, both the seasonal and the emotional, after reading the soothing Wintering by Katherine May. I adored this little book, written by May after a break-down caused by a cocktail of undiagnosed autism, an ill husband and an exhausting job. Leaving her job and the pressures of daily life behind, May retracts from the world and cocoons herself with her young son in almost hibernation. There she finds the peace she’s been desperately craving and learns to love herself – and winter, the most unlovable of seasons.
The non-fiction book The Wager was one of my reading highlights this summer so when I heard of Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann I jumped on it. This time, Grann takes us to early 20th century Oklahoma, a state established to house the many displaced Native Americans. After being forcibly moved away from fertile land, the Osage tribe were assigned a rocky patch of no apparent value until, that is, oil in large quantities was discovered. The Osage became immensely rich – at the time they were the wealthiest people in the world – and lived comfortable lives. For a while.
I’ve just devoured a superb non-fiction book in the you-couldn’t-have-made-it-up category. The Wager by David Grann is the story of a doomed secret mission during England’s conflict with Spain in the 1740s. It’s a barely credible story of shipwreck, murder, in-fighting and hardship on an epic scale in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Fuelled by a combination of imperial ambition and arrogance, the mission of the Wager exposes one of the more megalomaniac periods in British history. An unmissable read.
One Sunday in summer, a bereaved American writer wanders the streets of London, finding echoes and shadows of her dead mother in a city beloved to them both. The writer is our narrator and the book is most definitely not a memoir. Her mother didn’t believe in memoirs about parents, and anyhow the book’s blurb is keen to tell us that it’s a novel. In The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken, the lines between fiction and biography are blurred in a cerebral, generous and absorbing read.
I’ve always wondered how so much priceless European art from the Renaissance onwards made its way to major American museums. In the engrossing Duveen by SN Behrman, we learn how. The greatest art dealer of all time, Joseph Duveen, courted and cajoled American robber barons into spending millions of dollars on old master paintings, most of which eventually ended up being donated to museums. The story of Duveen is absolutely fascinating, even if you’re not passionate about art.
There’s nothing like a pandemic to give you a taste of loneliness, but as The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (written long before the Coronavirus) shows us, incredible art can come out of a solitary existence. Laing takes us on an absorbing journey of New York City through the eyes of artists who lived lonely lives – sometimes by choice, most often not. She investigates the lives of artists like Edward Hopper, Henry Darger, David Wojnarowicz even Andy Warhol, whose art ‘is surprisingly eloquent on isolation’ despite his famously social lifestyle. Highly recommended.
In Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux, France’s most celebrated memoirist and newly minted Nobel Laureate, distils her two year long, passionate affair with a married man into a punchy 48 pages. Those familiar with Ernaux’s writing will know she’s the master of dissecting emotions, condensing them into something almost clinical which has the unexpected power to make you cry. I challenge anyone not to recognise some part of themselves in this book. An unashamedly honest portrayal of desire.
The Years by Annie Ernaux is an unusual book, a sort of communal memoir mapping the personal story of Ernaux alongside the social and political history of France (and the world) between 1940 and 2006. This might sound a bit dry and academic, but The Years is strangely compelling, mainly because it speaks our own memories, of time passing and things changing. There were references here that went above my non-French head and I’m sure a native French would find this book even more poignant. It didn’t lessen my enjoyment of it though. The experience of time passing seems as universal as anything.
First emerging from the oceans to live on land over 350 million years ago, the humble moss plant is an evolutionary pioneer. The natural world is blessed with an amazing 22,000 varieties, and yet its entry in the English Dictionary insults with its miserly wordage. The splendid Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer seeks to introduce us to these beautiful ‘rainforests in miniature.’ A scientist and proud Native American, Kimmerer combines biology, cultural history and indigenous philosophy. In this deliciously unexpected bestseller, we learn not only the history of an unsung plant hero, but the forgotten practice of true attentiveness.
The spirit of George Orwell hovers over the memoir A Waiter in Paris by Edward Chisholm. Indeed when Chisholm first arrives in the city in 2012, a copy of Down and Out in Paris and London is nestled in his suitcase, set to provide succour for his subsequent years of living unexpectedly on the brink of destitution. His account of life as a poorly paid, highly stressed waiter, surviving almost literally on coffee, cigarettes, and filched bread rolls, deglosses the elegant façade of one of the world’s most iconic cities.