A Book for Christmas: Love, Style, Life

A Book for Christmas: Love, Style, Life

 

A ‘lifestyle manual’ sort of book that is actually positive and inclusive seems to me a very rare thing. They so often feel like they’re just a marketing exercise in telling you to buy a Mulberry bag or a pair of stupidly expensive shoes in a very cunning side-eye quasi-inclusive way. But not this one. This particular one is a total joy; beautiful photographs of interesting-looking woman who all do interesting things, and beautiful and honest writing which is very funny.

The author’s blog has been going for years and has always excelled in its witty, light-worn awareness of the slight absurdity of the idea of blogging, and its potential to project a completely unreal version of a perfect life and cause untold angst in others. I had high expectations for the book, and I wasn’t disappointed. Reading it is like going for a drink with your most proper friends who lift you up and make you feel perky, no matter what else is going on. I’m buying it for my teenage cousins who are just getting really into clothes and make up and discovering BOYS, as well as my girlfriends.

 

 

A Book for Christmas: The Hungover Cookbook

A Book for Christmas: The Hungover Cookbook

images

I’m very sorry that there wasn’t one of these yesterday, but I was in the depths of the most acute hangover, thanks to a very serious party for Vintage’s 25th birthday. Today’s recommendation is rather led by yesterday’s debilitating pain, which was solved only by wear my hair in bunches (I truly believe that there’s some magic acupuncture-y pressure thing that happens. Try it. You’ll see) and cooking the shakshuka from this book for supper.

I have a massive fondness for THE HUNGOVER COOKBOOK, and believe it to be the perfect present for students and impossible-to-buy-for teenagers. It is gloriously witty in a sort of Wodehousian way which is always exactly what I want when hungover, and more than that, the recipes really really work. They’re short, simple, cater to all tastes and I’m not ashamed to admit that whilst at uni it was the only thing I ever managed to cook from. I was given it along with a Bloody Mary kit the morning after my 21st birthday party and have never looked back since, a present combination that I highly recommend for its immensely pleasing ‘this feels so very grown up’ properties. What are you waiting for?

A Book for Christmas: Spool of Blue Thread

A Book for Christmas: Spool of Blue Thread

xSpool_of_blue_thread_325x500.jpg,q1435925031.pagespeed.ic.vNRttUrxbj

I’m lucky in many things, and especially in Christmas. It is great in lots of way as far as I am concerned: days of hanging with my family who I never see enough of, endless food, booze, family games of Scrabble and Snatch (BETTER THAN SCRABBLE. LOOK IT UP), a hockey match between 6 families on Boxing Day that I pretend to hate but actually love. One of the absolute best things about Christmas is the fact that everyone else has stopped working too. Now that I am in love with a corporate lawyer I know that this isn’t necessarily true for all professions (sigh), but publishing is great for it. There’s a lovely proper pause between Christmas and New Year, and you can hibernate somewhere and read all the books you meant to read over the year.

Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread is one of the ones you probably meant to read this year, whether you worked in publishing or not. If you haven’t meant to read it, may I politely suggest that you really ought to, and pick up her whole backlist whilst you’re at it. She is a wonderful writer, brilliant (in Spool, particularly) on cracks running down and down through generations. But not significant tragic cracks, necessarily — just the small fissures of every day life that make every family slightly bumpy and entirely their own. It is beautifully observed, cleverly written and the perfect novel for curling up by the fireside. If you don’t fall in love with one of the Whitshanks (the family in the book) then I shall worry a bit for your heart. There’s three generations to choose from, and the novel unspools (arf arf) back, revealing the truth behind the stories passed down through the family. I’m not normally a fan of unlinear narrative, but I am a big fan of this, because it makes you think about your own family, see your own long-gone relatives as people who had relationships, made mistakes, did all the stuff you do too.

Plus it is now in paperback, so available from all good bookshops at an eminently reasonable price. Like you need a better reason, but here is one anyway. It was shortlisted for both the Baileys and the Booker this year, which is kind of a big deal. Kablam and pow, one might say.

A Book for Christmas: The Fox and the Star

A Book for Christmas: The Fox and the Star

9781846148507

My beloved father has very sweetly kept every one of my birthday and Christmas lists, a habit I developed aged 3 and have yet to grow out of. There have been two constants over the years: a pony (ages 4-12, when I got one, which was the best day ever) and books of all sorts (still going strong aged 28, though the request for War and Peace for my 10th birthday stands out). Ever since I’ve worked in publishing, I’ve found myself asked ‘What book should I get so-and-so for Christmas?’ The inevitable conclusion of these two seemingly unrelated facts is this: that it might be nice to relieve my constant material desire for more books by writing about what people might like for Christmas here. So, every day until Christmas, that’s what I’ll be doing. A book, a day, with a bit of writing about why I think they’re worth the money.

Today’s inaugural book for Christmas is THE Christmas book this year. It isn’t just me who thinks this — Waterstones have just named it their Book of the Year, and they really know books, I guess.

It is a beautiful fairytale of sorts with the most astonishingly vivid illustrations, by a very talented Penguin designer. It’s charming, it’s touching, and if you don’t believe ME, then please observe my highly scientific findings as follows. So far I’ve given it to an 8 year old (‘A FOX THE FOX IS SO ORANGE’), a 54 year old (‘Oh, it’s got a bit of Angela Carter in it. How beautiful. I didn’t realise people were bothering with books like this’) and there’s one that sits on our big tea chest in our sitting room, which I might have to move because people keep asking if it is ‘one of mine’ (new readers: I’m an editor of non-fiction and cookery) and I feel twinge-y with envy whenever I have to confess that it isn’t. Conclusion? It is a book for everyone. What’s more, it is a real bookshop book: there’s no way, if you pick it up and just open it to any one of the amazing pages, that you won’t then find yourself poddling up to the till and buying it for a very reasonable £14.99. And what’s nicer than unwrapping something entirely beautiful and unexpected under a tree? Nothing, that’s what.  Go and buy one now before everyone else does. In fact, buy two, because you’re going to want to keep one all for yourself.

Friday favourite: Brooklyn (the book, of course)

Friday favourite: Brooklyn (the book, of course)

banner-brooklyn-Brooklyn_Film_844x476

Floating around the edges of my brain in this very very busy week has been Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn. I keep glimpsing the movie posters (it feels like it ought to be called a movie, not a film) as I stride along tube tunnels rushing from one meeting to the next, and there was a lovely unignorable article on the costumes in last week’s New Yorker. The posters niggle at me: it looks so beautiful, the characters look well-cast, and everyone who is anyone says it is Very Well Done, but I won’t be going.

Ever since the bitter disappointment of the Harry Potter film franchise, where the Hogwarts staircases looked wrong and the Weasley twins weren’t hot, I am beyond wary of adaptations of my most beloved books. All it takes is one detail which doesn’t match how it all looks in my head, and I’ll be out. And as this is pretty much impossible to avoid, I shan’t be going. Another worry is that people will watch the film and not read the book. So this is, I suppose, a plea to read the book. And then see the film if you want, but, please, oh, please please please, read the book first.

It is a truly superb novel about love, disappointment, growing up somewhere far from home, told with such care and in the most beautiful prose you’ll ever read (unless of course you then go on to read Toibin’s latest, Norah Webster, which is more than a match for it). The bare bones of the story are this: Eilis, a young woman, is unable to find work in her native Ireland, so off she goes, all alone to Brooklyn. It is set in the 1950s; but not the whizzy 1950s technicolour of Grease and Happy Days, but the muted, one-good-dress-to-go-dancing-in, women-struggling-against-repression-actual 1950s. I don’t want to say any more because the plot is so simple and so perfectly told that you should just go and read it.

I wish someone had given it to me when I went off all alone on my gap year, to somewhere completely unknown to me, and without the comfort blanket of my best best best love-them-never-ever-apart-girlfriends and my mobile phone. Sure, millenial 2008 Senegal is a rather different prospect to 1950s Brooklyn, and I had a choice in what I was doing, and I had things like email and Facebook before it got clogged with the unecessary bumph of other people’s lives, and most importantly of all the book hadn’t actually been published yet, but still: it is the best book about leaving home and being far far away that I have ever read. It makes you realise it is all going to be OK, but not without you putting in some work, taking a deep breath, getting out and finding your own way of quelling the insistent tug of home, whilst showing that actually, that’s never ever going to go.

In the novel, Eilis ends up taking a nightime book-keeping course in Brooklyn and is very good at it. In Senegal, I started running a weekly breakfast for street kids, which sounds far holier-than-thou than it actually was. Like Eilis, I never thought that’s what I’d end up doing. She makes mistakes: the sort of mistakes anyone could make, and anyone does make, because when you’re young, or actually just when you’re human, you do make mistakes. But this isn’t a book about falling in love with a hapless naughty heroine: Eilis is just an ordinary girl, making her way through her own quiet life. That you care so much about her is the perfect testament to Colm Toibin’s quiet, utterly assured genius in taking a simple every day story, and making it into so much more. She isn’t special, but the book makes her so.

So I didn’t read it in Senegal, or when I went off to uni, or when I moved to Paris all by myself, which all would have really been the perfect times to read it. I read it on a sunlounger in Sardinia a year or so ago, in a heady 3 hour rush, sipping on Aperol Spritz, and that was still pretty perfect. Our bookshelf always has three copies on, ready for the inevitable dinner party query: ‘I need a really good novel to read: what can you recommend?’ No matter who asks, I’ll always recommend it. And surely, there can be no higher praise.

Friday favourite: The Lacuna (and others)

Friday favourite: The Lacuna (and others)

Baileys20th-880x440

This post has mainly been inspired by the big (and excellent) push by the good people behind the Baileys Prize and their current celebration of 20 years of the prize. They’re doing a ‘best of the best’ thing, which is to say a wonderful dicussion around the last ten books to win the prize, and which is the ‘best’. I’m not sure I’m quite OK with the word ‘best’: the reason these posts are called ‘favourites’ is because, for me, different books mean entirely different things to different people and so to say somethign is unequivocably the ‘best’ somehow stops any discussion around the book and rubberstamps it away in a glass case, which is bum out. As I am in a deeply fretty mood, on little sleep and piles of work, so there is a high possibility that I have overthought this concept, particularly as I am so enjoying thinking about the 10 diverse, rich novels again. The stack is pictured above and it makes me realise that I’ve loved them all, apart from Marilyn Robinson, whose books I’ve never got on with, definitely through some strange fault of my own rather than her writing.

My favourite, out of all of them, is The Lacuna. I have only read it once, which is odd for me and my favourites, but it has stayed with me ever since. I read it at a time when I was stubbornly and stupidly resisting all reading recommendations from my Mama — foolish in the extreme, as she and I have near-identical taste and she is one of the best read people I know, but there you go. I was a French and English undergraduate and I was very busy knowing more about literature than her and reading Beckett in English and French and thinking he was the greatest thing (I mean, he is, but still. That was too far). I think it slipped through the net of my pretentiousness because it has most of my ever-favourite things in: Frida Kahlo! Old school passionate politicians! LOVE, both romantic and amicable! Waterfalls! (I’m actually a bit over waterfalls now, having moved onto lakes, but still)! Intrigue! Fictional characters cleverly woven into actualy historical events! Let’s also, at this moment, pause for the lack of Mantel in the stack above. How, why, she woz robbed etc. Moving on. Barbara Kingsolver can write about place like nobody else, and the story is glorious and gripping, even if my brain, hungover and tired as it is, can’t wrap its head around going into it. If you’re looking for a novel to take you away from the autumnal gloom and really make you think, then this, this really is the one.

Sometimes, good things happen to the best people

Sometimes, good things happen to the best people

CQvr3suWUAQ2l1w.png_large

Last night I got home late, and then stayed up watching the final of GBBO. Then I watched the last 10 minutes on loop about 6 times, weeping profusely, and then I woke up my sleeping boyfriend so he could watch it too. It was PURE JOY, at 1am, hunched over a laptop.

Other people have written about Bake Off brilliantly, so brilliantly, in fact, that me writing about it at any length feels a little fruitless, so instead I’ll just give you my two favourites: Charlotte Higgins did a fantastic long read for the Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2015/oct/06/genius-of-great-british-bake-off , and Jean Edelstein was great for the Pool https://www.the-pool.com/arts-culture/tv/2015/40/this-year-s-bake-off-is-like-a-brilliant-time-capsule .

There’s not much to add to either of those things, so I’m just going to toddle off and watch the bit where she wins and her whole family go nuts and her husband whispers in her ear that she’s amazing and Mary Berry cries again, because there has never ever been a better 10 miuntes of telly, ever.