Apeirogon by Colum McCann is a book unlike any I’ve read before; part fiction, part non-fiction. Facts and myths, history and politics, memories, even photos, are woven together to create a rich tapestry. At its heart lies the true story of two men, at either side of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, whose young daughters are killed. After being hit by the same devastating loss, Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan become friends and decide to take their message of reconciliation and forgiveness out to the world. An original, clever and deeply moving read.
This may seem a perverse time to be reading The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal by Horatio Clare; however, I have my reasons. I first met the author and broadcaster in Munich. The Literaturhaus is a glorious place to meet like-minded artistic folk. Yet, it was a few days later in the beating heat of the German countryside that we talked openly and with that rare candour which seems only ever to emerge – fleetingly – in moments of stillness. Nantesbuch is a small stretch of wilderness, some few miles north of Penzberg. Clare puffed on a cigarette and described his journal as a process of reflection upon his seasonal depression. I countered that summer was in fact the most sobering time of the year for me. He smiled – lit a further cigarette – and that was the end of that.
I was born in Britain in the mid-nineties; as such, I am fortunate enough to know very little of war and her brutish seams. Instead, I see explosions on television and sleep safely in my bed with only the rumbling Northern Line to stir me. And All the Trumpets by Donald Smith is enlightening, troubling and overwhelmingly humbling. The autobiography recounts Smith’s years as a Japanese prisoner of war. It is a story of almost incomprehensible suffering; daily torture, rampant disease and total psychological discombobulation come to define Smith’s lived experience in a story too far-fetched for fiction.
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.