Fen, Bog & Swamp by Annie Proulx (4th Estate, £16.99)
In my intro to my food and drink book recommendations I traced links between the health of our food and the wellbeing of our planet. Ecological devastation is now a subject occupying so many creative minds. So it is no surprise, with this slim volume, to see Pulitzer-winning novelist Annie Proulx enter the field – or should that be wetland? The book’s subtitle says it all: “A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis”. If that sound a bit grey, don’t worry. The glorious prose that infused novels such a The Shipping News is still present. The 87-year-old, now based in Washington State, is particularly acute in her lament for the draining of the UK’s own Fenlands. Such an eco-system, if treated better, they prove vital to the world’s salvation, she argues.
Ephemeron by Fiona Benson (Penguin pb, £12)
Poetry is so often a celebration of the natural world. Prime contemporary example: Alice Oswald’s Dart. I hugely admire the work of our current Oxford Professor of Poetry but there are the other outstanding female voices out there. Devon-based Benson has garnered awards for her previous two slim volumes but this is a step-up, bravely and tenderly confronting family shibboleths, the love, the fear. Central to the volume is her ‘Translations from the Pasiphaë’, which violently re-tells the Greek myth of the Minotaur, as seen from the point of view of the bull-child’s mother – the betrayed and violated Pasiphaë. Hard not to weep when she calls for her lost son: “They took him away from me/and they killed him in the dark, for years.”
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (Faber, £10)
Forget Sally Rooney, Elmear McBride, Anne Enright, the finest Irish female fiction writer de nos jours is Claire Keegan. If her miniaturist tendencies suggest a lack of ambition, consider what resonates most when reconsidering Joyce – Ulysses or Dubliners. Her latest work, a novella really, clocks in at 110 words but within is a whole universe of nuance. The story ought to major on the shame of a Magdalene Laundries discovery but at its core is a small town coal and timber merchant, disaffected with what life and family expects of him. Genius.
Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart (Picador, £16.99)
The New York-based fashion designer turned chronicler of the Glasgow of his youth has sold more than 1.5 million copies of his debut novel Shuggie Bain on the back of its Booker Prize victory. Superficially this follow-up might sound more of the same, especially with it depiction of a gay boy dealing with a feckless mother he loves. It has it own strengths, though, charting first sexual awakening against a backdrop of sectarian violence. The fishing trip to a Highland loch is a tour de force of numbing exploitation.
Act of Oblivion By Robert Harris (Hutchinson, £22)
I felt I ought to include a genre fiction best seller. The obvious choice was Ian Rankin’s A Heart Full of Headstones, but there was a melodramatic edge to it that seemed strained, as crime lost out to historical fiction in the shape of Harris’s gripping, at times hallucinatory account of two Roundhead colonels being hunted own across an untamed 17th century America. The fugitives’ crime that has put a price on their head? To be complicit in the execution of Charles I. It’s all based on real characters, though Richard Naylor the regicide fanatic on their trail, is an invention of Harris’s.
The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland (John Murray, £20 )
Another true story of escape and redemption that is all the more amazing for not being fictionalised. Aged just 19 in April 1944, Rudolf Vrba and a fellow inmate became the first Jews ever to break out of Auschwitz against terrible odds. The Slovakian had committed to memory every heart-wrenching detail of the camp and his mission was to alert a world that must be told the truth. Painstakingly researched and utterly gripping, it us up there with the great Holocaust accounts of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel.
Endless Flight by Keiron Pim (Granta, £25)
I’ve finally got round to reading The Radetzky March (Granta, £9.99) thanks to the spur of the first ever biography in English of the Austro-Hungarian writer Joseph Roth. The novel, his greatest, is a lament for the old Hapsburg order, banished forever by the Great War, in which Roth fought. His middle years were spent restlessly reporting from the frontline as the Nazis rose to power. From Jewish peasant stock in Galicia, he used Vienna as the launchpad for a lucrative but spendthrift journalistic career that took in Berlin, Prague, Moscow and finally Paris. Living in hotel rooms, taking root in bars, coping with his wife’s schizophrenia and his own infidelities, finding his fictional voice late. Apt then the title of Kieron Pim’s exemplary account of an undervalued genius. Roth died, an alcoholic, aged 44, in a Paris pauper’s hospital in May 1939.
Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self by Andrea Wulf (John Murray, £25)
Jena has always felt under the shadow of Weimar in the timeline of German culture. Think again. In the 1790s this tiny university town was the cradle of th Romantic movement with poets, critics and philosophers engaged in a free spirit whirl of relationships, both intellectual and sexual. My personal hero from this romp of a book is the more buttoned-up resident, Friedrich Schiller, who was addicted to the smell of rotting apples – “without it he couldn’t live or work,” his wife Charlotte told his literary soulmate Goethe, retching after discovering some in a drawer.
The Real and the Romantic: English Art Between Two World Wars by France Spalding (Thames & Hudson, £35)
It started with Eric Ravilious joining Paul Nash and Lucian Freud in my pantheon of 20th century English painters. I passed hours of lockdown dreamtime in their company via surveys by the like of Alexandra Harris and Martin Gayford. This substantial summing up is the icing on the cake, introducing me to some lesser-known byways of the English artistic landscape. Critic Herbert Read thought the Twenties and Thirties “more vital and experimental than at any time since the Renaissance.”
Faith, Hope and Carnage by Nick Cave and Sean O’Hagan (Canongate, £20)
Disaffection ought to be at the core of Nick Cave, coping with the untimely accidental death of his teenage son Arthur in 2015. The demons are all confronted in his remarkable Ghosteen album. But here in this extended ‘conversation’ with veteran journalist and mate Sean O’Hagan he finds solace in grief and traces the visionary, redemptive paths of his now epic musical career.
Holding Tight, Letting Go by Sarah Hughes (Blink, £16)
A book about terminal cancer that celebrates life. Sarah was one of my dearest friends and this posthumously published series of articles, full of her distinctive voice, resonates on every page. I could never share her passions for horse racing, bonkbusters or shoes; her hugely popular Guardian blogs about Game of Thrones and Line of Duty passed me by because I never fancied the programmes. Maybe I should have listened to her. In her 40s Sarah lived with terminal metastatic cancer for over three years and died in April 2021. Throughout that period she hymned all the small wonders and joys that made holding tight so important. Forensically she charted how the topography of her body altered during chemo. Dresses she fancied would now fit her! How rare to find a book with such an inevitable denouement bursting with such laughter and joy.