Edmund de Waal’s moving exhibition The Library of Exile at the British Museum has reminded me of his magnificent book The Hare With the Amber Eyes which has stayed with me ever since I read it in 2011. If you haven’t read it yet, now would be a perfect time. It’s a memoir of de Waal’s family, the Ephrussis, Jewish bankers, grain traders and intellectuals. Pillars of early 20th century Viennese society and possessors of unimaginable wealth; grand palaces in Vienna, pink chateaus on the Cote d’Azure and priceless art collections. Then came Hitler. The Hare With the Amber Eyes is an absorbing book, not only in learning about the tragic destiny of the Ephrussis but also to understand central Europe in the run up to the Second World War. An absolute must-read.
Before museums start closing down due to the Coronavirus, don’t miss ceramic artist and author Edmund de Waal’s Library of Exile opening today at the British Museum. It’s a temporary library, located in one of the British Library’s gorgeous oak panelled reading rooms, which houses 2000 books written by authors in exile. The idea came about as de Waal, while scanning his own bookshelf, realised how many of the books there had been written by authors living in exile, far from home, surrounded by a foreign language and sometimes hostility, as we see in our own times. It’s also a celebration of libraries (amidst a wave of closures in the UK) and a monument to destroyed ones (many are named on the walls of The Library of Exile). After a six month stint at the British Museum, the books in the library will end up in Mosul, Iraq where the university library was burnt to the ground by ISIS in 2015. A poignant and moving piece of book art. Go see it.
I’m reading South Korean bestseller and #MeToo novel Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo at the moment and can’t think of a better novel to recommend on International Women’s Day. The novel tells the story of a South Korean woman’s life and how it’s shaped by systemic sexism from the moment (actually, even before) she is born. It sent shockwaves through South Korea’s patriarchal and traditional society and fired off a hefty debate which, judging by this book, can’t be a bad thing. Full review to follow.
Truly original novels are few and far between. All the more reason to hail the wonderfully quirky Summer Light and Then Comes the Night by Jon Kalman Stefansson. It’s the portrait of a remote Icelandic town set in the 1990s and if that fails to excite you, I promise that this unexpected, humorous, warm story is worth reading. Stefansson describes dreams and aspirations, crushed or fulfilled; love and desire, unrequited or reciprocated. Life, basically. His tone in playful, conversational and above all, funny. A breath of literary fresh air.
Bookstoker Young Readers
Of these 16 books we suggest starting with Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman is in Trouble, Weather by Jenny Offill and Girl by Edna O’Brian. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is not out until the 31st March but that would be next on my list. If you feel brave (it’s 900 pages long), Hilary Mantel’s last book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, has had amazing reviews. What will you pick from this list?
Going through a painful break up? Then try one of these
Librarian Lizzie Benson lives a pretty ordinary life in New York City with her husband Ben and son Eli. What’s happening around her, however, is anything but. Climate change, Trump, threats to democracy, artificial intelligence, drug addiction – there’s plenty to worry about. How to absorb it all while going on living is the question. Weather by Jenny Offill puts words to what it’s like to live right now and thanks to her playful, fragmented writing style, this book is not nearly as depressing as it sounds.
I’ve come across a little treasure of a poetry collection that I wanted to share with you. Odes by Sharon Olds, an American T.S. Eliot Prize winning poet is one worth reading. With poems such as ‘Blow Job Ode’, ‘Ode to the Tampon’ and, ‘Ode to the Penis’, don’t tell me you’re not curious. There are also the more melancholic ‘Ode of the Withered Cleavage’ and ‘Ode to Stretch Marks’. Olds celebrate women’s bodies in all their gore and glory, in youth and old age. If this little collection doesn’t put a smile on your face and make you love (and forgive) your body just a little bit more, nothing will.
Odes by Sharon Olds is published by Jonathan Cape, 128 pages.
Five people plunge to their deaths when an old Inca bridge across a gorge in Peru snaps. Who were these people? And why these five? That’s what Brother Juniper, a Catholic priest, sets out to investigate in the glorious little novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. ‘Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan’ Brother Juniper reasons. So which one is it?