Meet Elias Rukla, teacher of Norwegian to a bunch of bored teenagers at Fagerborg Secondary School in Oslo. Elias is about to destroy 25 years of hard work and his reputation, publicly and humiliatingly, in front of the whole school. Why is Elias boiling over? Find out in this darkly funny, captivating deep dive into the psyche of a man who comes face to face with his entire existence.
...something short (but good!)
Our unnamed narrator, the second wife of a successful Wall Street bond trader, is consumed with jealously for the first wife – ‘she’ – in this short novel, where the classic direction of jealousy is reversed. She is composed, blonde, tall and ‘lovely’, a talented musician with two exceptionally bright kids. ‘I’ is everything she’s not. A stirring portrayal of jealousy, emotional neglect and obsession, easily read in one sitting.
The story behind The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck World War II novel is as fascinating as the book itself. Steinbeck, a world famous author by the start of the war, was deeply concerned about the rise of Fascism in Europe. He’d noticed the Fascists’ clever use of propaganda and urged the precursor to the CIA, for whom he worked, to create their own. In 1941, Steinbeck wrote The Moon is Down, which is largely based on conversations with people who’d fled their occupied countries. The book would become one of the most read underground novels of the war, with thousands of copies printed clandestinely in France, Denmark, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands. Judging by its success, it must have played a role in mobilising resistance and keeping up morale.
Do yourself a favour. Take a moment out from whatever you have to do (now is the perfect time, as we approach the Christmas rush at work, school and home) and read this little book. It’s written by Erling Kagge, a publisher, writer and the first person to reach the North Pole, South Pole and climb Mount Everest. Kagge knows a thing or two about silence, having spent 50 days alone on his trek to the South Pole.
Did you know that Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Hallelujah’ took him two years, ‘ 50,000 cigarettes and several swimming pools of whiskey’ (to deepen his voice) to make? Or that ‘Amazing Grace’ was not actually written by a slave but a repenting slave trader. Or that Ronald Reagan used Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ on his campaign trail, promising that he, just like the song, would make the electorate’s dreams come true, without realising that the song was actually about a Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, unable to find work? Neither did I, until I stumbled upon Cheal and Dalley’s compelling little book The Life of a Song, a compilation of the stories of 50 well-known songs written by music critics. A perfect present to your music loving friend, or even yourself.
The Life of a Song is published by Financial Times and Brewer’s, 208 pages.
I’ve just been through one of the longest good book ‘droughts’ in my reading career. In the end I decided to reach for a classic, sometimes the only way out, and grabbed hold of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. It’s a short book that is more like a portrait of a community than a linear narrative, but within it are sublime little stories, descriptions of people, places and atmosphere that only an old hand like Steinbeck can conjure up.
As I’ve just discovered, it’s never too late to read this brilliant Booker Prize Winner from 2011. Before you see the film, just out in the cinema in the UK, read this marvel of a book about interpreting the past, suppressing memories and coming of age. It’s a book that will make you question your own past and wonder how differently others might perceive it.
Ready to escape the grey, cold winter for a few hours? Try this sensual and sensuous Italian classic set in the 1860s amongst the arid hills, frescoed palazzos and turquoise seas of Sicily. It’s the story of the aristocratic Salina family’s decline, of ageing and mortality, of politics and passionate love all mixed up into a fabulous Italian literary feast.
A heavenly combination of one of my favourite authors writing about one of my favourite cities: Javier Marías’ little essay on Venice. For reasons unknown (a failed love affair?), Marías spent a great deal of time in Venice in the 1980s. His reflections on how history and geography have shaped Venice and Venetians are captivating. ‘Venetians see life from “the view point of eternity” ‘, not surprising perhaps when you grow up in place that’s hardly changed for 500 years? The decay, the dark back alleys, the smells, the sense of doom, the colours of the water (‘blood red, yellow, white’ by day, ‘like ink’ by night) combined with dazzling beauty, Marías perfectly evokes the city’s atmosphere and hands you a delicious sliver of Venice.
Venice, An Interior is translated by Margaret Juul Costa and published by Hamish Hamilton, 64 pages.
I have no idea why I haven’t picked up this gorgeous little book sooner. It’s the story of a young dad with two boys who loses their wife and mother in a freak accident. As they struggle to digest the loss, enter Crow, a giant black eyed, yes, crow, who stirs up everything, who pecks and shits and who refuses to leave or to be ignored, just like grief itself. Crow, a potent symbol in Ted Hughes’s poems (the dad is a Hughes scholar), is here to stay – ‘I won’t leave until you don’t need me any more’ – but as time moves on, straight-talking Crow becomes less of a nuisance, more of a therapist, helping them overcome their loss. Rarely have I seen grief been described more lyrically.