Life & Style

Candle Lit

As the nights draw in, the desire to ignore party invitations in favour of a cosy chair and a good book is hard to resist. Now, we’re heaping temptation upon temptation with a list of our favourite fireside reads, curated by Collagerie’s very own library mistress, Katie Law.

Curated by Katie Law

Image: Thilak Mohan via Unsplash

The Golden Mole and Other Living Treasure by Katherine Rundell

A swift flies two million kilometres in a lifetime, the American wood frog freezes solid in winter (and then thaws again), dolphin mothers teach their young to recognise their whistling patterns while they’re still in the womb, elephants hate bees, there’s a black and white spider named after Karl Lagerfeld, crows punish and reward, a pangolin’s tongue is longer than its body and the golden mole, which is not in fact a mole at all, has such good hearing that it can tell the difference between the footfall of an ant and a beetle. Rundell’s short factoid-filled essays, each about an endangered animal - are enhanced by Talya Baldwin’s illustrations come bound in a gorgeous gold-edged volume.

Lessons by Ian McEwan

It takes time to get into, but readers who stick with this panoramic novel, which McEwan wrote during lockdown, will be well-rewarded. Lessons tells the story of a man’s life, from childhood and an intense adolescent affair to the breakdown of his marriage and into old age, set against world events, from the Cuban Missile Crisis and Chernobyl to Brexit and the pandemic. McEwan has always been interested in what he calls “the pure luck of consciousness” and no one describes better the strangeness of thoughts and memories, and the workings of the mind, “a deep pool into which everything fell and disappeared but remained, irretrievably present, dark shapes in deep water exercising their gravitational pull…”. It’s brilliant.

A Gift from Artists, Poets and Photographers (under 13) edited by Julian Rothenstein

When I was four, I painted a railway station. Here are the tracks. There is the train. This is the smoke. These are the people. I could see everything clearly as I daubed in bright acrylic paints and still have the colourful splodges my mother proudly framed and called art. It came to mind as I leafed through this compilation of pictures and writing by children aged five to thirteen. A note from a boy to his parents is signed “From the saddest person in the world”; a picture of dinosaurs enjoying a rainbow sky and lots of stick figures holding hands are all reminders of what it feels like to see the world through the eyes of a child.

The Romantic by William Boyd

True to form, Boyd begins by telling us that he came across a few pages of autobiography and some sparse remnants belonging to a man called Cashel Greville Ross, and decided to turn the material into a novel. Balderdash! It’s all made up. What follows is an old-fashioned, historic saga, almost Tolstoyan in breadth, telling the story of Ross’s life spanning the 19th century. He travels across the globe, fights in the Battle of Waterloo, serves with the East India Company, meets Shelley and Byron, journeys across Africa to discover the source of the Nile, and falls in love. Boyd has always had a terrific knack for a sweeping narrative, and never more so than here.

Nightwalking: Four Journeys into Britain After Dark by John Lewis-Stempel

This short volume takes the reader deep into the countryside at night, to “a dark, adventurous continent from which one returns with an explorer’s tales of wonders”. Moonlight over pastures, a glow-worm trying to attract a mate with her bioluminescence, a sultry night sky gauzy with haze, the lingering night music of a tawny owl, the leather-whisper of bats’ wings and a snowstorm of moths… It’s sheer poetry. But there’s a more serious side to Lewis-Stempel’s writing. Not only does light pollution muck up our circadian rhythms, it prevents us from seeing the magnificent night sky as it truly is. You’ll want to switch off the lights when you’ve finished reading.

The Wolf Hall Picture Book by Hilary Mantel, Ben Miles and George Miles

Just before her sudden death last month, Mantel’s new book was published. Written in collaboration with Ben Miles - who played Thomas Cromwell in the stage version of Wolf Hall, and his photographer brother, George Miles, it began as a project when the brothers started visiting Cromwell’s haunts, from Wolf Hall to the Tower of London. “The object was always to sneak around a location and get behind the obvious…” Absolute catnip for Mantel fans, this is far from being another plush picture book. The images, in which past and present collide, are accompanied by excerpts from the novels, together with Mantel’s essay about how we interact with history. Incidentally, Ben Miles’s unabridged reading of Wolf Hall, from Audible, is a treat.

The Year of Miracles: Recipes about Love + Grief + Growing Things by Ella Risbridger

This grief memoir with heartfelt recipes is the follow-up to ‘Midnight Chicken and Other Recipes Worth Living For’, and picks up the thread of Risbridger’s remarkable life where her award-winning debut left off. Her world was shattered by the death of her partner from cancer at 28, but, as she relates, she chose to believe in miracles. “Cooking, and the people who love you: the two greatest and most practical miracles of all.” Recipes are charmingly meandering. Most of the ingredients for her Leftover Pie are optional, she writes. Stock pots are a genius invention, and her oven-roasted cabbage with honey and sea salt sounds delicious. Elisa Cunningham’s loose, watery illustrations make the perfect side dish.

Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout

Hard on the heels of the wonderful, Booker-shortlisted ‘Oh William!’ comes this next instalment: Strout’s response to the pandemic. Lucy is whisked away from Manhattan to the Maine coast by her first husband, William, as the city goes into lockdown. Weeks turn into months. She is still grieving for her second husband, who has died; William is grieving for his recent divorce. They are both trapped in emotional as well as physical isolation, together. Strout has always excelled at writing about the complexities of the interior life. Here, against the devastations wrought by Covid, she shows us yet again how we are all, in fact, trapped inside ourselves. A rare skill.

The Secret Heart, John le Carré: An Intimate Memoir by Suleika Dawson

“An irresistible fizz had bubbled up between us, that champagne-cork-about-to-pop atmosphere I sensed when I first arrived…”. She was fresh out of Oxford and abridging audiotapes when they met, he was a world-famous thriller writer and former spy. Now, two years after Le Carré’s death (and that of his poor wife) comes this riveting kiss-and-tell account of their love affair in the ’80s and its brief reprisal 14 years later. Talk about acts of treachery! Dawson (not her real name, obviously) describes their sex life and his priapic appetites in toe-curling but compelling detail, and she absolutely nails Le Carré’s obsessive need for secrecy and subterfuge in absolutely every part of his existence.

San Francisco: Portrait of a City edited by Reuel Golden with texts by Richie Unteberger

The beginnings of a West Coast boom town in 1868. A crowd looking on at the aftermath of an earthquake in 1906. A WW2 ship being launched from one of thirty shipyards in 1941. A woman being blown about, getting into her Riley convertible in 1953. Porn shops advertise their wares on Broadway in 1976. Three hundred thousand people flocking onto the Golden Gate Bridge when it first opened to pedestrians in 1987. Cable car tracks and masked pedestrians in 2020. This massive pictorial compendium tells the story of San Francisco, from its gold-prospecting beginnings to the present day, through the lens of hundreds of fabulous photos by Ansel Adams, Slim Aarons, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange and many others, alongside a series of essays.