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.
A hero for some and villain for others, Haile Selassie cuts a controversial figure. Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, Selassie stood up to white imperialism, introduced a wide range of reforms and courted Western powers who showered him with foreign aid. He’s considered God by some in the Rastafarian movement. He also ignored millions of starving Ethiopians while spending lavishly on himself and his courtiers, imprisoned or executed his own people on a whim and built up a considerable fortune in Swiss bank accounts. The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski, is a collection of interviews with some of his surviving courtiers, conducted clandestinely after Selassie’s fall. It’s an absorbing study in what power does to people and of a court which makes the courtiers at Buckingham Palace seem like pussycats.
In 1804, when William Wordsworth was wandering lonely as a cloud across the Lake District, he couldn’t have envisaged how his work, along with a merry handful of nineteenth-century artists and writers, would shape public perception of this beautiful landscape for centuries to come. In The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks, we’re given an alternative vision. This beguiling book describes Rebanks life as a sheep farmer. In it he reveals a traditional world, often out of step with modern Britain, and a unique perspective of his beloved Lake District and the invisible, hardworking families who sustain it. Read full Review
After lying around my house for several years, I finally decided to read perennial bestseller Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall, and what a serendipitous time to pick it up. The very first page dives into the Russia-Ukraine relationship which the author predicted would end in conflict (the book was first published in 2015 and updated in 2019). Marshall explains how mountains, rivers, ports and climate play major roles in shaping economic prosperity and political power in this accessible and surprisingly enjoyable introduction to the dry sounding topic of geopolitics.
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.
Briefly an 80’s pop star before becoming a vicar and beloved broadcaster, the Reverend Richard Coles was often teasingly referred to by his late partner, David, as ‘a borderline national trinket.’ It’s a rueful irony that this book has likely propelled him from trinket to treasure, for The Madness of Grief by Richard Coles is an eloquent, incredibly affecting, and often beautiful account of David’s death. Providing solace for similarly bereaved readers, this poignant memoir is also a testament to abiding love.
Stefan Zweig – Diaries by Stefan Zweig, covering the period from 1931 to 1940, has just been published in English for the first time. Die-hard fans, like me, will want to read this but if you’re new to Zweig’s writing, I’d start with his books or short-stories instead (The World of Yesterday, Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman or short-story collections). As a companion to his other works, I found this an interesting peek into the author’s mind; as much for the things he doesn’t say as for what he says.
The World of Yesterday by Stephan Zweig is his autobiography, finished two days before his and his second wife’s joint suicide. It’s a lament for a lost world, a love letter to creativity and artists and an eloquent analysis of events that led up to both the first and the second world wars. The parallels with aspects of our own turbulent times are hard to ignore. Zweig, an Austrian Jew whose wonderful novellas (The Royal Game, Amok, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman) many of you will know, was the world’s most popular author in the 1920s and 30s, until Hitler banned his books. Highly recommended.
In his acclaimed poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, Dylan Thomas exhorts us to resist death when it comes knocking, to ‘rage against the dying of the light.’ But did he take his own advice? We find out in The Violet Hour by Katie Roiphe, a curious and captivating look at the end days of five famous writers, namely Dylan Thomas, John Updike, Sigmund Freud, Maurice Sendak, and the seemingly inextinguishable Susan Sontag. Selecting writers who she feels were ‘especially attuned to death,’ albeit in extremely different ways, Roiphe considers whether their personal insights can bring us consolation and courage.