Sometimes, Do Judge A Book By Its Cover! Books Editor Orna Mulcahy chooses some of the best – and most beautiful – books to give this Christmas …
We’ve all made that dash to a bookshop on Christmas Eve, hoping to finish out the gift list but … so many books, so little time and will your giftee already have the latest Aisling book, the Colm Tóbín, the Fintan O’Toole? Chances are the answer is yes. But they might not have these beauties which you’ll find tucked away further back on the shelves, or just a few clicks away online.
Never has a hare sat so elegantly as on the crimson and gold cloth cover of Winter Papers 7, the latest of an annual anthology of Irish writing and arts edited by writer Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith. By far the most handsome in the series to date, the cloth-bound A4 sized book costs a hefty-ish €40 and won’t fit into your average stocking but it will look beautiful sitting around for the season. Inside, there are stories, essays, photo essays interviews and reportage, with many of the pages laid out in challenging full-page blocks of type. Expect some stunning writing – a great interview with photographer Deirdre O’Callaghan, Niamh Callaghan’s Notes on Ireland’s Generation X and, in particular, Colm O’Shea’s story “We Will Sin Together” – as well as some fairly baffling prose. (Curlew Editions)
Almost as sumptuous is Imelda May’s first poetry collection, A Lick and a Promise, Faber Music, €19.99, which has 100 of the singer-songwriter’s poems along with her sketches and doodles, mostly of the female form. All human life is in these pages: anger, sex, blood, tears, lust, feminism, love, heartbreak, birth, death, masturbation, romance according to The Irish Times in an interview where May explained that she wanted the book to look beautiful so it would have a chance to be displayed around the house, and not hidden away on a shelf. “I want (people) to open it and think, Oh, I will just read one more.”
History students, senior citizens or just about anyone will enjoy a read through The Colour of Ireland: County by County 1860-1960, Black and White Publishing €23.80, by Rob Cross. Ireland of old is brought to life in almost 200 colourised images set against their black and white originals. From sunbathers in Dun Laoghaire to traders in rural marts, weavers in the west of Ireland and fighters in the War of Independence, Cross’s careful colouring makes the characters real and relatable.
Two hundred years on, Mansfield Park by Jane Austen is still considered controversial with critics divided as to whether it is a profound and pioneering novel or Austen’s silliest, with its weak-willed characters and lacklustre heroine, Fanny Price. Here, it’s one of a beautiful pile of novels by Chiltern Classics (€25). A handful could make the beginning of a library for a child or just someone you know who likes a bit of opulence by way of embossed covers, gilded edges and heavy cream pages. Books to display outwards, rather than slipped in alongside the rest.
Penguin takes a fresher approach with its boldly coloured clothbound classics, a shelf of which would set up a reader for life with 93 titles in the series including Treasure Island, Don Quixote, Ulysses and Jean Rhy’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a smouldering shocking tale set in the Caribbean which can be read as a prequel to Jane Eyre. Most timely of all though is The Penguin Book of Christmas Short Stories in the same series with stories by Chekov, Saki, Elizabeth Bowen, Shirley Jackson and Truman Capote’s superb A Christmas Memory. €18.20.
Meanwhile, if you loved Rebecca on Netflix, Hodges Figgis has a gorgeous reissue of the Daphne du Maurier classic in hardback with a lustrous gold-trimmed front cover, while those who binged watched Lupin might like The Best Stories Arsène Lupin by the early 20th century writer Maurice Leblanc, which inspired the series. €15.90.
It’s the season of chill winds, a yearning for snow and also slight panic at the idea of having to have family and friends around for celebrations. Cabin Porn Inside, Penguin, €13, might appeal to anyone who wants to get away from it all to a tiny home in the wilderness but one with a decent kitchen and comfortable bedding. Editor Zach Klein has gathered together photos and stories from cabin owners around the world, showing page after page of shacks, huts, bothys and cottages with gorgeous woodsy interiors.
Buying for a friend who has just moved to a home of their own? Terence Conran’s Plain, Simple, Useful, Octopus €33.95, is a highly useful hardback full of solid advice and pictures from the man who created Habitat. Think simple pared-back room sets with carefully chosen classic pieces of furniture and good ideas for storage in every room of the house to make life simpler.
Words on paper can hardly do justice to the beauty of Harry Clarke’s stained-glass windows but Lucy Costigan and Michael Cullen offer great insights in the tiniest corners in the artist’s work in Dark Beauty: Hidden Detail in Harry Clarke’s Stained Glass, Irish Academic Press, €27.95. The authors spent many years photographing Clarke’s windows in Ireland, England, America and Australia, and the result is an accomplished analysis illustrated by 300 glorious images.
Nigel Slater’s The Christmas Chronicles, 4th Estate, is a book of mid-winter memories and recipes that will sit just as easily on the bedside table as in the kitchen. There’s no pressure here to cook a monstrous bird (though there is a recipe for a modest turkey). Instead, Slater muses on the importance of tree decorations and Christmas stockings, to setting aside whole days to make the perfect marmalade. A very soothing read – or listen. From €10 on Audible to €30+ hardback.
Tree Dogs, Banshee Fingers and Other Irish Words for Nature by Manchán Magan, with illustrations by Steve Doogan, Gill Books, €17.99, is part dictionary, part picture book and wholly entertaining. Magan, a writer and documentary programmer delves into the soup of Irish words to describe the natural world and comes up with the most expressive and interesting. The principle aim of the book, he says, is to highlight the poetry, wisdom, divilment, and insight contained within our glorious old tongue.
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