Well, what a week!! My old news addiction dies hard and I’ve been finding the end of Boris almost as compulsive as Love Island – top telly on Thursday night, Boris resigning and the return from Casa Amor. My cup overfloweth!
This week’s letter from me is a bit different. I am constantly being asked book recommendations for summer reading, so what follows is the pick of everything I have loved reading recently – some new, some new to me – including some of the books we’ve covered at the Noon Book Club.
All of the books we feature have a midlife theme and an amazing Queenager author. So far we’ve had everyone from Curtis Sittenfeld to Ruth Jones, Anne Youngson and a plethora of amazing others. This month, we are going to have the privilege of chatting to Andrea Mara whose novel All Her Fault is an intensely gripping crime title that follows the aftermath of a child’s disappearance and the rumours that spread about the four women potentially involved. This one’s a kicker from the get-go – you won’t want to put it down.
My favourite book of the last few months is Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead – on an epic scale about a female aviator. It has it all, love, complexity, drama, adventure. I couldn’t put it down and have been giving it to everyone I know. Next in your pile should be the brilliant Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus – this novel is a wonderful satire on women in the 1960s, following a brilliant chemist who is barred from academia because of her sex and becomes a day-time TV cook instead and enthrals all the stay-at-home housewives by giving them the eponymous lessons in chemistry. I loved its positivity, its cheek and its ebullient heroine.
For a very different perspective on the world try The Book of Echoes by Rosanna Amaka, a wonderful interlocking story of Nigeria, Brixton, slavery and a love that lasts centuries. Compelling. It reminds me of the brilliant Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
And you’ve probably already read them but if you missed out I defy anyone not to enjoy Delia Owens, Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver and Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. Another very different but similarly magnetic read is Piranesi by Susannah Clarke, a weird gothic book about someone trapped in a labyrinth – it is short and feels dreamlike. I couldn’t put it down.
Also for the holiday list Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen (if you haven’t read any Franzen, do, he does big books about how we live now, always readable, following American families, kind of John Updike or Saul Bellow but contemporary). And The Every by Dave Eggers is brilliant on surveillance capitalism and the madness/amorality of the huge digital corporations, a good pal who worked in silicon valley (I put in the name of the company but then felt paranoid and took it out!) says the parallels are scary. It takes a new recruit to the eponymous company who is trying to bring it down by making ridiculous suggestions but the crazier the ideas the more they love it!
If you haven’t read it yet, do read Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo and her brilliant Manifesto (essential Queenager reading on ageing). And for the plane or easing into holiday mode, try Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce, a fantastic romp taking in exotic islands, a search for a golden beetle, a curious platonic love affair and two women who come into their prime at fifty. And a similarly wonderful next-chapter-in-midlife read is Three Women and a Boat by Anne Youngson about a motley trio who set off up the Grand Union Canal in a what the fuck, moment. We all need a midlife adventure or two!
My book of the year is The 100 Year Life by Lynda Gratton and Andrew J Scott – it is the reason I called Noon, Noon. In the hundred-year life, 50 is only halfway through. It is about living and working in an age of longevity and how we need to rethink our expectations and skills to move through different life stages. Truly essential reading.
This week I have been devouring Hagitude by Sharon Blackie. She wrote If Women Rose Rooted all about the Celtic female heroines our culture has forgotten. This new book is about reclaiming the hag (have to say I would rather be called a Queenager) but she is brilliant on the Irish and Scottish goddesses of mountains and forests, lakes and seas who were all women and how their erasure has diminished our sense of the value of the older women. I am in danger of violently agreeing with almost every sentence she writes! And I am also working my way through Feminine Power: The divine to the demonic by Belinda Crerar and The British Museum.
I also loved Managing Expectations by Minnie Driver – a kind of memoir of her crazy ‘70s childhood. At one point Minnie, 12, has a big row with her LA-based dad and is sent back to England to her mum on the next flight. Except it didn’t go to London but to Miami, so she ends up stopping off by herself in a louche hotel. As a mum it made my blood run cold, as a tale of Queenager survival and the thoughts of a highly intelligent woman on life, celebrity and the way women are conditioned, it is excellent. I interviewed her on Noon if you want to watch it the link is here.
One of my other favourite memoirs of the last year or so is not midlife-related at all but is just one of the most beautiful books I have read in years. It is called On Earth We are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, a Vietnamese American man. It totally changed my view of the Vietnam war, of women who work in nail bars and of the opium epidemic and the prose is heartstoppingly good (he is also a poet). Try it
And while we are in the memoir zone do read Left on Tenth by Delia Ephron another heartwarming tale of going through the worst – leukaemia which her sister Nora Ephron of Heartburn fame died of – and coming out the other side and finding a new love affair in the process. I wept (in a good way).
A lockdown discovery of mine is A.M. Homes (through my great pal Jake Lushington, the man who made the BBC submarine show Vigil, is godfather to my daughter and he and his glorious partner, Hania Elkington whose first-ever screenplay was commissioned by Netflix called The Innocents, gave my girl a box of their favourite books for her 18th birthday). I guarantee you won’t get through The Book Will Save Your Life, or May We Be Forgiven without chortling on your sun lounger. They have some dark themes but are so wonderfully real and comical about life in LA and modernity generally – they definitely deserve a shout-out.
I was given Vladimir by Julia May Jonas by one of my oldest and dearest friends from Oxford (we studied English there together, she was way cleverer) Tree Sheriff (nee Garnett) handed me Vladimir saying: “Els, you HAVE to read this: Sex, shame, fantasy… Vladimir has got it all. Sharp, intense and super-sophisticated, this is the story of a female English professor whose husband has a long history of seducing his students. As the fifty-something protagonist becomes obsessed with a new and younger colleague, Vladimir fiercely challenges us to reassess midlife sex and female power over the course of a woman’s life.” It is a great subject matter: are the heroine’s students right to accuse her of ‘abetting rape’ because she let her husband have affairs with adoring adult females? It’s a wonderful clash of generations. I’m not sure it totally works as a novel, but it is a gripping read and will spark loads of good chat!
Tree also recommends Oh William by Elizabeth Strout saying “The slim and quietly brilliant Oh William is Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel in her Lucy Barton trilogy. Gentle and deftly drawn, it is about pretty much everything, love, marriage and how our past will hijack us again and again over the course of a long life and long marriage. Strout’s narrator is a woman who comes ‘from nothing’ and has always felt ‘invisible.’ Diagnosed with PTSD in later life, she grapples with the fact that she cannot, we cannot, arrive at any clear answers. With kids grown and husbands gone, we are left facing ourselves.” It’s a winner. And To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara. “Magnificent, dense, wildly imaginative, this three-part novel is worth reading for the first section alone. Covering three centuries and three different versions of America, it conjures worlds that have at their heart fragile mental health, the Aids epidemic and totalitarian rule. Throughout these worlds and informing them are the themes of loss, loneliness and the aching, impossible dream of utopia.” Personally, I couldn’t read A Little Life (the author’s last book), it was just too depressing (and I had a lot of grimness in my own life at the time, but lots of people I love swear by it).
I want to mention a few books written by our illustrious Noon Advisory Board – top of the list and a great companion to Hagitude, is Tamsin Calidas’s highly praised memoir I am an Island – a searing account of leaving publishing jollity in London to live on a Scottish island, her return to nature, love of the sea and the wild, and an incredible story which can’t fail to move you. Also brilliant is Our Bodies, Their Battlefields by Christina Lamb – warning, not a light read, all about how war impacts women from the Yazidis to child rape in the Congo. She is the first historian to look at how rape is used as a tactic, particularly now. I’m proud to have commissioned quite a few of the stories which are now sections of the book in my former life as Editor of the Sunday Times Magazine. Also great on new chapters in midlife is Lucy Kellaway’s brilliant Re-educated: How I changed my job, my husband, my life and my hair. And if you are someone who is prone to self-criticism then you need to read Julia Bueno’s Everyone’s a Critic: How we can learn to be kind to ourselves.
My dear friend the genius interviewer Decca Aitkenhead has just emailed me saying I have to read The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley. That is next on my list. If Decc says it’s good, it will be.
I reckon that is enough to be getting on with!
By Eleanor Mills