As lockdown days linger on, THE GLOSS team share what they’re reading now …
Sarah McDonnell, Editor
Friends and Enemies, A Memoir by Barbara Amiel
I do love a celebrity memoir and that of journalist Barbara Amie (wife of disgraced Canadian publishing titan Conrad Black) does not disappoint, romping though the publishing world of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, riddled with excess and intrigue, boardroom tussles and epic bitchiness. Ariel is herself thoroughly self-serving and frankly odious (as were many of her social circle) and takes the opportunity to call out in two lists at the end of the book those who were decent when the axe fell on Conrad for fraud (which resulted in a long prison sentence, plunging the couple into – relative- penury), and those who were not. It’s hard to feel sorry for her. Still, if you’re a sucker for wild extravagance and accounts of overblown egos, you will love it.
Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart
Barry is a high-flying New York hedge-funder who, fleeing from financial authorities, his wife and their autistic toddler son, embarks on a Greyhound bus road trip to discover himself. This is a man with zero self-awareness, no empathy, and dubious moral values. After several very funny episodes, each revealing another aspect of his non-character, Barry is back where he started, only marginally less shallow than he used to be but more aware of his shortcomings – and the possible reasons for them – and determined to be a better father.
Orna Mulcahy, Contributing Books Editor
Sybille Bedford An Appetite for Life, a biography by Selina Hastings
“A world class writer and a world class freeloader” is how the New York Times headlined its review of Sybille Bedford An Appetite for Life, a biography by Selina Hastings (Chatto & Windus, hardback €28.80). Bedford, who died in 2006, lived a long and fascinating life shuttling between England, France and Italy with a series of female lovers and influential friends that included Martha Gelhorn, Maria and Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh who made a fuss of her debut novel A Legacy. Bedford’s output wasn’t huge and she herself is said to have remarked late in life: “I wish I had written more books and spent less time being in love.” What she did write was largely autobiographical such as her superb Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education, a fictionalised account of her teenage years living on the Riviera both alone and with her mother and her lover. It was shortlisted for the Booker prize in1989. Hastings – whose previous subjects have included Nancy Mitford and Somerset Maugham gives a fairly forensic account of a life lived in influential circles, with troubles regularly eased by lavish invitations and cheques from wealthy friends.
The Other You by Joyce Carol Oates
What if you’d taken that other path in the wood? Done things differently, not lost that person, followed your dream, left rather than stayed? The characters in Joyce Carol Oates’s latest collection, The Other You, take the blame or wrap themselves in a series of keenly melancholic stories about how things might have been. (Ecco, an imprint of Harper Collins, hardback €22.35)
Sarah Halliwell, Beauty Editor
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
Like many people, I’ve found reading a great escape this year – and an essential switch-off from screens. I read and loved James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room years and years ago but only got round to If Beale Street Could Talk in the past few weeks. It’s simply an essential read – the love story set in Harlem with young couple Tish, 19 and pregnant, and Fonny, in prison accused of rape. It’s searing, vivid and burning with life and fury. A story that, like The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, really cuts through everything else in your head, and stays there. I also read Danielle McLaughlin’s The Art of Falling last week after reading many good reviews for this first novel, but I really didn’t enjoy it. I’ll be tuning in to some Mountains to Sea festival events at the end of March, particularly Max Porter in conversation about his new book about Francis Bacon (March 28, www.mountainstosea.ie). And I listened to the utterly brilliant writer Eimear McBride in conversation with Edel Coffey last week.
Síomha Connolly, Digital Editor
Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan
I’ve been anticipating this debut novel by Irish author Megan Nolan since last year and I’m so glad to say it didn’t disappoint. The novel follows a nameless narrator in her 20s who is strikingly self-aware. Living in Dublin she struggles with her identity, her place in the world, her reliance on alcohol, her mediocre unfulfilling jobs – and her dependence on men and relationships to make her feel whole. Exploring themes of victimhood and abuse, the novel is dark and unsettling at many points and it is often her own complicity in – and even manufacturing of – harmful situations that feels most troubling. The main narrative sees her in a toxic relationship with a troubled, older man who is cold and cruel and likely cheating on her. She finds herself in a sacrificial role doing anything she can – or must – to make this man love her. The book is unputdownable as the narrative flows easily and is interspersed with reflective sections that take place many years after the events of this relationship. After finishing it I felt bereft, and instantly wanted to talk to someone who had read it – always a sign of a good book!
Daddy by Emma Cline
I also recently read Daddy by Emma Cline, a collection of short stories. This phase of lockdown has felt longer and more drawn out than any of the others and I felt myself struggling to concentrate on big reads (I attempted Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stewart but had to give it up – too grim for a rainy February in lockdown) so dipping into a collection of short stories each evening was perfect. I love Cline’s writing, her 2016 novel The Girls has stayed with me ever since.
Penny McCormick, Deputy Editor
Born To Be Mild – Adventures for the Anxious by Rob Temple
There’s nothing better than getting books as gifts and I have been alternating birthday presents with my own selection in the last few weeks. I enjoy Rob Temple’s columns in The Telegraph and my brother gave me his recent memoir Born To Be Mild – Adventures for the Anxious. In this, Temple is honest about his depression, his increasing introspection and social insecurities. At the start of the book, he states his aim “to become a little less Bear (Pooh) and a little bit more Bear (Grylls)” and we follow his mild-mannered adventures as he pursues this goal. I found it relatable and really funny in places, in addition to yet another example that social media validation does not equate to automatic happiness. Temple runs the @SoVeryBritish Twitter account, which has more than one million followers.
The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin
As for Irish novels, two recent favourites have provided a full overview of the art world – its tensions and temperamental egos. Set in Cork, The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin provides backstage access to what it’s like curating a sculpture exhibition. It’s told from the perspective of the curator, Nessa, whose personal and professional life is unravelling. She is coming to terms with her husband’s affair, her truculent teenage daughter, the reappearance of her dead friend’s son and a former boyfriend to name a few … I found it a slow burn, quietly told.
The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey
Also quietly impressive and suspenseful, is Christine Dwyer Hickey’s highly acclaimed The Narrow Land – loosely based on the life of realist American artist Edward Hopper and his wife Josephine. (Yes, I’m a bit late to the party on this novel). It’s set in the summer of 1950 in Cape Cod and gives an insight into post-war America, especially President Truman’s initiatives with German orphans (part of the Marshall Plan) – one of whom, Michael, is a main character. The narrative shifts between Michael, Josephine and Hopper. After reading the book it sent me on a quest to learn more about Hopper. He is sensitively portrayed, unlike his wife, though I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt. I couldn’t help but wonder if this portrait of a marriage mirrors many other increasingly passive aggressive lockdown relationships …
Dear Reader, The Comfort and Joy of Books by Cathy Rentzenbrink
Another life-affirming memoir I was gifted is Cathy Rentzenbrink’s Dear Reader, The Comfort and Joy of Books. A prolific reader, Rentzenbrink categorises and describes her favourite books under every conceivable theme from historical fiction to diaries, and from crime to childrens’ classics. It was interesting to see how and where our tastes converged and I’ve added many of her recommendations to my TBR pile. Rentzenbrink also weaves tragic family history with her career as a bookseller. She also worked for QuickReads to support wider adult readership – in part inspired by her (Irish) father who didn’t learn to read until he was 30. By the way, Rentzenbrink is running an interesting online course “Writing A Memoir” beginning on April 15, see www.curtisbrown.co.uk for details.
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