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.
...something short (but good!)
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.
Although a short read, Indelicacy by Amina Cain is a delightful, thought provoking novella about socioeconomic amelioration, the complexities of marriage, and female agency. Following main character Vitória who, longing for the economic and temporal freedom to write, climbs (and falls down) the hierarchical ladder from gallery cleaner to kept wife to independent singleton. Indelicacy celebrates the arts and female friendship above the apparent ‘need’ for a woman to produce, commit to and maintain a marriage.
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.
The artist Marina Abramovic’s endorsement of Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima in the FT last week piqued my curiosity and, sure enough, this book really is something else. A fast-moving, surreal noir novel originally published in 1968, Life for Sale is about a man who offers his life up for sale. What he expects to be a carefree, albeit lethal, experiment, turns out to be a whole lot more complicated involving gangsters, vampires, hallucinogenic beetle powder and poisoned carrots. Darkly comic and totally twisted, this book will appeal to all fans of surreal fiction and Japanese literature.
‘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.
The Life Before Us by Émile Ajar is a heart-breaking story narrated by Momo, a ten year-old Arab immigrant to France. Momo, who lives in an orphanage run by ex-prostitute Madame Rosa, has seen things no ten-year old should see and is far too advanced for his age. Darkly comical and wonderfully poignant The Life Before Us deserves to join the ranks of rediscovered classics. Why no UK publisher has given its cover a face-lift and republished this wonderful novel is a mystery to me. Read full Review
Wow…is all I can say about The Notebook by Agota Kristof. This is one of the more disquieting books I’ve read but it’s also impossible to put down. It’s the notebook of two nameless young twin brothers somewhere in Eastern Europe, sometime at the end of the Second World War. Calmly and unsentimentally, the boys tell us what war does to people. It’s not a pretty story but it leaves an indelible impression.
Surge by Jay Bernard is a poetry book composed of many different voices. At times confidential, at others longing, prophetic or lyrical, it weaves together the voices of the past, allowing the dead and forgotten to speak to the present. Through it all we hear the clear voice of Bernard, fearless, tender and unflinching.