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.
...something short (but good!)
A novel of doomed love in 1920’s Berlin, Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali is a Turkish treasure. It tells the story of Raif, an introspective and solitary young man who leaves Turkey for the bright lights of Weimar Berlin. In this city of flourishing intellectual and cultural freedoms, he encounters Maria, an enigmatic artist who will come to transform his melancholic life. Told in two parts by an unnamed narrator, we follow Raif’s journey of discovery, as the free-thinking Maria challenges his notions of romantic love, gender roles, and self-reliance.
Set in 1985 in an Irish seaside town, Booker Prize long-listed Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan feels like it might as well have been set in 1885. We meet protagonist Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, as he delivers goods to his freezing clients in the run up to Christmas. Poor but happily married with five bright daughters, Furlong takes nothing for granted. Bill was born outside wedlock and owes his relatively harmonious upbringing to the kindness and acceptance of his mother’s employer. Up at the abbey, not everyone has had the same luck.
Michael Miller lives a comfortable East Coast life as a retired diplomat. One day, a padded envelope arrives which will rip open a part of his past he’d rather forget. As a young man, Michael was a paper pusher at the American embassy during the final days of the Vietnam War. Ostensibly a benign role which became less so as he fell under the spell of hawkish CIA analyst Ignatius Donovan. Spies in Canaan by David Park, follows on from his exquisite Travelling in a Strange Land, and, again, Park creates a complete and gripping fictional universe within a mere 200 pages.
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.
A female English professor and writer loses her best friend and sometimes lover to suicide. A few days later she’s asked to take over the care of his dog, an enormous Great Dane. No small ask as the writer lives in a tiny flat in a Manhattan building where dogs are prohibited. This is the plot of the otherwise plotless but strangely mesmerising The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, a story about love, loss and being an artist, which, had my flight not been over, I would have read in one sitting.
Leo Gazzara is hovering on the brink of both turning thirty and plunging into an existential crisis. Keen to avoid respectability, his days are spent avoiding hard work, his nights indulging in the hedonistic thrills of city life. Originally published in 1970, Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich is an Italian cult classic. Here translated into English for the first time, it captures those heady days when Rome was the capital of glamour. A boozy, smoky and intoxicating novel, it tells the story of the year Leo’s dolce vita turned sour.
A punch in the stomach is the best way to describe International Booker Prize 2021 winning At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop. We’re dropped right onto a WW1 battlefield where the narrator watches his adopted ‘more-than-brother’ Mademba as he dies a violent, agonising death. The ‘I’ is Alfa, a Senegalese soldier fighting on behalf of France in a war that makes even less sense to him that the ‘blue-eyed’ French soldiers. When war gets the better of him, the racist stereotype of the black man as a savage rears its ugly head.
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.
Mr Ethan Frome still cuts an imposing figure in Starkfield, despite being left ‘but the ruin of a man,’ by a terrible accident some years previously. As mute and melancholy as the wintry New England landscape he inhabits, Ethan stoically shoulders the burden of a cruel past. In Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, we uncover the story of his joyless existence and his one shot at blazing, beautiful love. An intense and compelling addition to our Classics archive, this certainly isn’t a tale for lightweights.