It’s an annual event now. October comes, and with it the “memoirs” of a politician unceremoniously chucked out of office in the past decade. First we had Nick Clegg, whose Politics: Between the Extremes didn’t much change prospects for Britain remaining in the EU, but attracted the attention of Silicon Valley. Gordon Brown’s largely turgid memoirs reminded us all of why he had trouble communicating with the public. David Cameron’s exhaustive For the Record took up nearly 700 pages before he could bring himself to write about the referendum. A Promised Land by Barack Obama does not depart from these efforts in its mission, but it is refreshing in its style.
Feline Philosophy – Cats and the Meaning of Life by John Gray might sound like a whimsical self-help book but is actually a subtle, engrossing and revealing read about what it is to be human. People suggest that that there is no instruction manual to life, and you would be better served discovering Meaning (with a capital M) in the great works of literature. John Gray thinks there is no such thing as Meaning. An eminent author, he has spent his career trying to rubbish the idea that there is any “meaning” to life.
More Than a Woman by Caitlin Moran comes nine years after her bestselling How to Be a Woman which I, and many of you, absolutely loved. Can she pull it off a second time? Yes, I think so! More Than a Woman is a slightly more serious book and has fewer scream-out-loud-laughing moments (or perhaps it’s me) than its predecessor but is still very funny. Life for Moran, as for most of us, has got a bit more serious with age. She too has got wiser with time and has some very worthwhile reflections around womanhood, parenting, feminism and marriage that are not only entertaining but ring true. Perfect comfort reading.
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.
‘Exterminate All the Brutes’ by Sven Lindqvist has been in my to-be-read pile for quite a while (perhaps explained by its depressing title). Those who’ve read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness might recognise the title as the last sentence of that book and this is Lindqvist’s starting point. This history-cum-travel book investigates the dark history of European colonialism and brutal extermination of indigenous peoples. It’s a distressing but highly recommended read and one which explains some of the systemic racism which still haunts the Western world.
With the onset of COVID-19, Norwegians found themselves suffering from a peculiar kind of cabin fever. Cabin-owners across the nation were no longer allowed to stay at holiday houses outside their home municipality, something that led Norwegians closer to civil disobedience than they had ever ventured before. This obsessive attachment to our holiday homes is explained well in The Cabin in the Mountains by Robert Ferguson. Enamoured with Norwegian culture, the English writer has lived in Norway since the 1980s, and is well equipped to present his compatriots with the many curious aspects of his adopted home country.
The terrible killing of George Floyd in America has reminded me of Ta-Neshisi Coates’ stirring Between the World and Me which I reviewed a few years ago. A must read.
Once in a blue moon you come across a book that changes your perspective. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ open letter to his 15-year-old son about race relations in America, is such a book. An eye-opening account of what it’s really like to grow up as an African American in America’s poorest neighbourhoods and a book that – at the risk of sounding patronising – everyone ‘should’ read.
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.
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.
The Five – The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold won the Baille-Gifford prize for non-fiction in November. And what an incredible book this is, despite its miserable subject matter. Thankfully, there’s no revelling in the gruesome murders at all, in fact, this book is all about humanising the victims who’ve been so despicably treated by history. I was glued to the page from the start, impressed by the incredible research Rubenhold has undertaken and moved by the terrible plight of poor women in Victorian times. Highly recommended.