What We're Reading - 14 May 2021

Opinion - Books Friday, 14th May 2021

The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables


Nicholas Clee
Russell Banks has long been considered among literati to be one of America's leading novelists, without that estimation permeating to a broader reading public. The US reviews of Foregone (due in the UK from No Exit on 22 June) hint at a breakthrough - though the term seems inappropriate for an 81-year-old delivering his 19th work of fiction. Foregone is the apologia of Leonard Fife, giving his last filmed interview as death from cancer approaches. The filmmaker, a former student and acolyte, wants to get the definitive word on Fife's own, acclaimed, radical documentaries, and on the draft-dodging that brought him to Canada from the US; what he gets is Fife's account of his abandonment of two families and of the bad faith at the root of his career. With great technical expertise and in weathered prose, Banks explores flight, moral ambiguity, and the dictates of art.

Neill Denny
We go on a journey in Mrs England by Stacey Halls, following young Norland nurse Ruby May as she exchanges the bustle of Edwardian London for a mill owner's house deep in darkest Yorkshire, his adorable children and remote and mysterious wife. There are hints that Ruby too has secrets from her past, that her feelings for the engaging Mr England may develop in non-professional ways, and that there may be something nasty in the woodshed. Halls' third novel, published by Bonnier's Manilla Press, builds its tension slowly and carefully, replete with gothic flourishes and revelling in the Upstairs/Downstairs world of a vanished age. Great title, gorgeous cover, this will fly off the shelves in June.

David Roche
Another audiobook memoir that comes with strong recommendations recently is Greenlights (Headline), written and read by Matthew McConaughey. He's not your normal name-dropping, Hollywood anecdote telling narrator. Very few stories are related to films he has made or famous actors or directors that he has worked with. He takes you through his chuck 'em in the deep end childhood, his harsh but fair (as he sees it) family relationships with their strong bonds, his philosophy for life, and lessons he learned the hard way. And I couldn't help but like him for his honesty and straightforward telling it as it is - or at least, again, as he sees it. Not many 'A' list stars would go into the detail of how wet dreams led him to make decisions on routes he should take; the 'greenlights' are the 'GO' moments in his life that took him forward at key pinch points. I was slightly taken aback at the beginning and absorbed by the end. 

Jo Henry
I had heard of David Sedaris but knew nothing about his work. Hearing him read something on the radio the other day sparked my interest, so I downloaded the audiobook of Calypso (Hachette), chosen at random from among the impressively long list of books he has published. His humour is possibly something of an acquired taste. The stories here range from the death of his sister Tiffany (who committed suicide) to what to do when you've got a stomach complaint but need to stand on stage for a couple of hours, but there are laugh out loud moments too as he probes the intricacies of life with his long-term partner in Sussex, his obsession with his daily step count, and how (not) to enjoy vacations with his family at a house he has bought on the Carolina coast. His father alone provides endless comic material, and I will definitely be up for more slices of Sedaris' life.

Lucy Nathan
I love Mhairi McFarlane, and pre-order all of her books. Her latest, Last Night, was published by HarperFiction in April. A little different to her other books, it tackles grief in a savage and uncompromising way when Eve suddenly loses her best friend. That doesn't mean it's a miserable book - it's also incredibly bright and funny, with just as many laugh-out-loud lines as McFarlane's other novels. She has a brilliant way of delivering honesty and home truths, of describing intricate and complicated feelings in a clear and relatable way. Although the romance in this book was delicious, I loved most of all the fact that this book is, at its core, about female friendship.