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.
...something short (but good!)
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.
Set in 1985 in an Irish seaside town, 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.
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.
The Hare With the Amber Eyes transported us to the rarefied world of the unimaginably wealthy Ephrussi family. Letters to Camondo by Edmund de Waal follows another Jewish family, the Camondos, neighbours of the Ephrussis and, eventually, family by marriage. In 1936, following the death of Count de Camondo’s only son, their grand residence was donated to Paris as museum and remains untouched to this day. This is their story.
Dysfunctional doesn’t even begin to describe the family in My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley. There’s no violence or abuse going on, just a devastating inability to communicate, a staggering lack of empathy, and some more or less genuine attempts at reaching out which, like two repelling magnets, always fail. If Bridget, our narrator, is to be believed, it’s all her mum Helen’s fault. But is she to be believed? If you’re interested in complex family relationships My Phantoms has lots to offer, some of it very funny; just don’t expect lovable heroes because there aren’t any.
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.