The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables
I have enjoyed watching the three part TV mini-series Write Around the World which features Richard E Grant travelling through southern Italy, southern France and Andalucia, and talking about books that inspired him and are written about these areas. As a result, I finally caught up with The Talented Mr Ripley (Virago), by Patricia Highsmith which wasn't about what I thought it was at all! It's a wonderful book written in the mid 50s about Tom Ripley, a young man sent to Naples to try and persuade his friend (who he barely knows) to go back home to the US to his stiff but wealthy parents. Needless to say, the healthy stipend they give him makes this suggestion unappealing, particularly compared to freedom and the attractions of Italian life. So much so that Tom rather fancies this life for himself and in rather shockingly unpremeditated way, he goes to extreme lengths to get it. His plan is all a bit clumsy and made up as he goes along - surely he can't get away with it? Yet, an anti-hero is born.
My favourite bedtime reading is the short stories of John Updike. I have the collections on permanent rotation. The Music School, Updike's third, includes stories about the break-up of his affair with Joyce Harrington ("Leaves", "The Stare", "Avec le Bébé-sitter"); the Olinger story "In Football Season" (based on his childhood in Shillington, PA); a story that combines the two veins (the somewhat mysterious "Harv Is Ploughing Now"); an entertaining story based on his Harvard experiences ("The Christian Roommates"); a story from his period at the Ruskin School in Oxford ("A Madman"); two Maples stories ("Giving Blood", "Twin Beds in Rome"); and the first appearance of Henry Bech ("The Bulgarian Poetess"). (They're all in Penguin's The Early Stories.) But you don't need to know the author's biography. These are jewels.
Have now finished Sally Rooney's Beautiful World, Where Are You, and, spoiler alert, it has a happy ending. So what lifts this commonplace tale so far above your standard Mills & Boon? One element is the epistolary strand, with Eileen and Alice discussing 'big thoughts' in long emails, about Marxism, the climate crisis, the unfair housing market etc etc. Most of their thinking is cliched and predictable, which may of course be the point. Another plus point is the needle-sharp ear for dialogue, and I think the Irish setting helps too, since this novel's social fluidity would be hard to pull off against the background of the English class system. The descriptions of gatherings, parties, conversations and journeys conveys precisely that drifting moment in your 20s when the possibilities are endless, but also impossible, and self-absorption is the only way to live. At times, and I mean this in a good way, I also detected faint echoes of DH Lawrence in Rooney's themes and scope, her references to nature, weather and God. We are a long way from Mills & Boon.
Having recently seen the (fascinating) Nero exhibition at the British Museum, I wanted to learn more about his mother, Agrippina the Younger, cousin, sister, wife and mother to Roman emperors. Appearing on imperial coinage, and with a colonia named after her (now Cologne), she has a claim to being the most powerful ancient Roman female ever. Step forward Emma Southon, an academic with a passion for ancient history, and her irreverent take on the Julio-Claudian dynasty Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore (Unbound). Racily told (I'm not sure this would be suitable for a maiden aunt!), but with great insight into the limitations of the ancient sources, which only mention women when they are misbehaving themselves, she puts together a compelling and moving portrait of an extraordinary woman, from birth to her bitter end.
For around sixty pages into No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (Bloomsbury), shortlisted for both the Women's Prize and the Booker Prize, I was not incredibly impressed. I thought this book was funny and extremely clever, and the way it captured being a person who is extremely online was great (if a little too close to home). But I didn't feel much of an emotional connection, and I didn't feel the urge to pick up the book to continue reading whenever I put it down. But then last night I read the rest of this novel in one go, and it was absolutely stunning. It's autofiction, loosely based on what happened in Lockwood's own life: while pregnant, her sister was told that her baby had Proteus syndrome, and her niece died when she was six months old. These sections of the book are written with so much love and tenderness that they are heavy and aching. The way the baby experiences the world in a physical way, with kisses and touches, instead of in the narrator's ironic online way, makes her a genius. I think the end half of this book will stay with me for a long time.