We couldn’t be happier to wind up for the year and curl up fireside with a good book. Here’s our Port Eliot pick of the newest and freshest in papery brilliance for your last minute presents (to yourself), from Colin Midson who curates our literary programme.
You’ll likely know Robin Ince from his regular appearances alongside Professor Brian Cox on Radio 4’s The Infinite Monkey Cage. And if so, you won’t be disappointed by this new book I’m a Joke and So Are You: A Comedian’s Take on What Makes Us Human. In it, he revives the nature/nurture debate, looks into brain activity, asks where creativity comes from and dabbles with the idea of free will – all in a consistently amusing and gently erudite tone. He also debunks various myths about comedians too (that they’re all sad clowns; that they had traumatic childhoods; that they’re sociopaths). The great joy of someone like Ince, who can communicate scientific ideas with such clarity, is that he makes you feel unaccountably clever. For a little bit, at least.
One of the most beautiful pieces of writing all year was All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison. More than anything, she has proved herself in recent years as one of our greatest nature writers and the landscape in her new novel is a character in and of itself. But more than that, the book is an evocation of a time when Britain was undergoing an identity crisis not dissimilar to the one we now find ourselves in – caught not only between wars but halfway between the reassuring hierarchies of the Victorian era and the impending promise of modernism and radical social change. This is powerful writing and Harrison is an important voice.
There was a time when Michael Palin was best known as a Python but it’s as a travel writer – and arguably, a national treasure – that most people know him these days. Erebus, then, is a departure. Under the captaincy of Sir James Franklin and alongside its sister ship Terror, Erebus famously ended its life – and those of their 130 crew – in the icy grip of the Arctic Circle, in search of the Northwest Passage. Palin tells the ship’s full life story and paints a rich portrait of life on board – you can feel the cold and smell the whiff of excitement in the air. More than anything it harks back to a time when adventure was not the stuff of leisure time but an endeavor in which the brave, and occasionally the foolhardy, truly risked life and limb.
The idea of going back in time and murdering Hitler as a child is a philosophical conceit that’s been overdone in contemporary culture. But it overlooks one important question: what was Hitler like as a young man? Was he an actual monster? Inspired by the real memoir of Hitler’s childhood friend August Kubizek, Glenn Skwerer’s debut novel The Tristan Chord brings Hitler’s adolescence vividly to life. Weekly trips to the opera, a failed attempt to study art in Vienna, conversations about architecture and identity – they all play out over a backdrop of political upheaval and social unrest. Hitler emerges as a discomfiting presence – troubled and troubling… but no one could have imagined the horrors to come.
What would Boudicca Do? By E.Foley and B.Coates is, you will be pleased to hear, not a manual on 1st century English living. The authors have taken 50 inspiring women from throughout history and pitted their wits against the trials of modern life. So, for example, Mae West’s wisdom is brought to bear on the question of body image; Emily Dickenson debunks the Fear of Missing Out; and Catherine the Great explains how to deal with gossip (she draws on some pretty good experience…) This is a superior gift book, which works as a great primer on some truly inspiring women and provides some salutary lessons along the way. The best piece of advice arguably comes from that great wit Dorothy Parker: never ‘put all your eggs in one bastard.”
Max Porter’s debut novel Grief is the Thing With Feathers became the literary sensation of 2015 and has since been translated into 27 languages and adapted as a one-man play featuring Cillian Murphy. It was bold, experimental and strangely moving – so expectations are high for his follow-up. With Lanny Porter has built on the strengths of his debut, while giving us something different. Again, there is a sinister, morally ambivalent creature that provides a commentary; again there is playful typesetting (text that swirls around the page, providing a chorus of banal but compelling snatched conversations). And again there is some wonderful writing about the relationship between parent and child, and the secret language that defines it. But there’s more of a narrative – it is, dare I say it, suspenseful. And as the pages race towards a denouement, you will find yourself catching your breath. It is also, occasionally, incredibly funny, but mostly it is quietly perfect. This is what literature is meant to be…
The books of PG Woodhouse, and particularly those featuring Bertie Wooster and his gentleman’s gentleman Jeeves (NB he’s not a butler), have always been my go-to texts when the nights draw in and the spirits need lifting. In 2013 the Wodehouse estate invited Sebastian Faulkes to revive the duo on the page and now the task has fallen to Ben Schott, he of Miscellany fame. But is a man who’s never published fiction before able to fill Wodehouse’s shoes? The answer is a resounding yes. In Jeeves and the King of Clubs, all your favourite characters make an appearance (I was particularly happy to see the ridiculous Spode resurrected) and the plot is suitably twisty and turny. But it’s with the language and the authorial voice that Schott excels. I’ve not had as much fun reading in years.