The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables
I am re-reading Waterland by Graham Swift (Picador) for my book club, having first read it in the early 1980s when it was published. Set in the watery world of the Fens, it is essentially, it seems to me now, an inquiry into the point of History - do we ever learn from it, or are we doomed to go on repeating the same old mistakes again and again? And even though the style feels very much of its period (do you remember those books where the narrator talks directly to their reader?), the themes seem to me to be eternal, particularly when political rhetoric is again harking on about returning the country to early, better times. The story encompasses the rise and fall of the Atkinson brewing family, and the parallel - and eventually co-joined - history of the Crick family, with the last of them being Tom Crick, teacher of history to a class of less than interested teenagers. His unfolding of the family history, alongside that of the Fens, is gripping stuff.
As I'm about to decamp to Cornwall for the summer holidays it seemed the right time to read The Salt Path by Raynor Winn (Michael Joseph). It's a memoir not a guidebook, but her experience of walking and wild camping along the South-West Coast Path - all 630 miles of it - seemed like something I could take adventurous spirit from. While I did pick up a touristy tip or two, this book, as everyone knows, is not really about selling England's coastal splendour. Winn describes losing it all to a business investment gone wrong: her home, farm and business - as well as the prospect of her husband, Moth, to a terminal illness. They begin walking the path because, without a roof over their heads, why not? It's as gut-wrenching as friends told me it would be. Yet what's lingered is a polemic slipped in between chapters about what it means to be homeless. Since that's essentially what she and Moth were; walking with no fixed address. Winn asks us to confront our prejudices and look at the facts. Who deserves our sympathy and help? Your opinion may change like mine did.
I don't wish to be dramatic but surely the Cazalet chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard are the best and most underrated books of all time? I'm on my fifth reread and enjoying them so much. I'm halfway through the second volume, Marking Time (Pan) and it is just delicious. There are so many characters but somehow it's incredibly easy to keep track of who they all are, and to feel intensely that you know each one of them well. The books begin just before World War II, and follows a family of three brothers, their parents, their wives, and all their children - along with some servants and some more peripheral family members. These books are so funny and so unexpectedly heartwrenching at times. I don't know if there's another author who is so excellent at summing up a complicated feeling with such precision. I've recommended these books to so many people over the years, and everyone has absolutely loved them - I am jealous of anyone who gets to read them for the first time!
Henry 'Chips' Channon: The Diaries 1918-38 (Hutchinson) is, quite literally, a heavywight piece of publishing. This, just the first volume of a planned trilogy, is over 1,000 pages long and weighs in at nearly 1.5 kg. (Or, and using the imperial measurements that Simon Heffer, the editor and right-wing journalist, would doubtless prefer, at 3lbs 14oz). It is the unexpurgated version of the Bowdlerised first edition, published in 1967, and now safe to publish as you can't libel the dead. So far I have only got to the end of the first section, which sees Channon in some lowly role in the US embassy in Paris. Here, his main job seems to be having lunch/dinner/tea with an endless stream of French duchesses, Polish princes and exiled Romanovs. He brings to life a lost world of balls and grand houses, all against a backdrop of German bombing and shellfire that at times sees him brushing brickdust off his black tie between social engagements. One memorable dinner finds him sat between Marcel Proust and Jean Cocteau. Channon is candid, well-informed, stupid and funny all at the same time, and Heffer's footnotes are a master-class in concision and academic snobbery. More next week, and very probably the week after; I am enjoying it enormously.
The Hummingbird (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) by Sandro Veronesi had a wonderful review in The Guardian recently. In my ignorance I had not heard of this author who is the only writer to twice win the most coveted Italian literary prize, the Premio Strega. This book was described as 'magnificent', and a work produced by Italy's best living (known?) novelist at the peak of his powers. As if this was not reason enough, thank you for the treat in the post, Orion! It's a wonderful book that covers so many bases, while the protagonist keeps his position and moves little in relation to all that is happening around him - he is 'the hummingbird'. The structure is inventive and varied, and contains a rainbow of emotions, played pizzicato across a lifetime of families at their best and worst. It's wry, eccentric, perceptive, creative, nostalgic - you name it, there's many a bell inside the pages that will ring just for you. It really is as good as the stellar list of authors on the back (Ian McEwan, Howard Jacobsen, Jhumpa Lahiri etc) who line up to sing the praises of both the author and this extraordinary book. A special note for the translator Elena Pala - my Italian is not good enough to rate her accuracy, but conveys a wonderful tale.