Non-fiction

Duveen by S.N. Behrman

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Duveen

The Story of the Most Spectacular Art Dealer of All Time

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.

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The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

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The Lonely City

When loneliness turns into 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.

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Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux

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Simple Passion

An unashamedly honest portrayal of desire

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.

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The Years by Annie Ernaux

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The Years

WINNER OF THE 2022 NOBEL PRIZE - A trip down collective memory lane

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.

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Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Gathering Moss

Small is beautiful

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.

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A Waiter in Paris by Edward Chisholm

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A Waiter in Paris

Low pay and high drama

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.

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The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski

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The Emperor

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.

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Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

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Travels With Charley

On the road with an American great and his beloved French poodle

First published in 1962, Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck captures a momentous period in the writer’s life. Ageing, ailing, and concerned that he has lost touch with the American spirit, Steinbeck invites us on a road trip. Complete with customised camper van and a poodle named Charley, we motor thousands of miles under wide skies, in search of the essence of modern America. From his love affair with Montana, to misgivings about Texas, Steinbeck considers the ways that his country has changed since his wandering youth. In this gem of a travelogue, we’re in the finest of company.

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The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks

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The Shepherd’s Life

Eloquence, integrity, and lots of sheep

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

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

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Prisoners of Geography

Fascinating introduction to geopolitics

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.

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