Life & Style

Chapter & Verse

How often do you get the chance to slip off – not just escaping to a secret home hideaway but inhabiting a whole other world, conjured on the pages of a book? Next time this opportunity arises, lose yourself in one of these captivating literary landscapes…
Curated by Katie Law

The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner

Australian novelist Helen Garner, writer of wonderful, pitilessly sharp-eyed domestic dramas, deserves to be better known, and this reissue of her 1984 novel, with an introduction by David Nicholls, is a corker. Meet Dexter and Athena Fox, seemingly happy living in middle-class, bohemian comfort on the outskirts of Melbourne with their two sons. One day, Dexter runs into an old uni friend, Elizabeth, who turns out to live nearby with Vicki, her much younger teenage sister. Vicki envies the relaxed atmosphere of the Fox family ménage and wants to move in with them, while Elizabeth’s on-off lover, musician Philip, has a roving eye that will have consequences for all. It’s hard to distil the plot line, since there isn’t really one. Characters appear randomly, without names, while places and times intersect oddly; yet Garner writes delicious sentences and is crystal clear that life is a messy business.

The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Murder and Mutiny by David Grann

I have to admit that I first came across this ripping seafaring yarn on Radio 4, read aloud as its ‘Book of the Week’ a couple of months ago. I was enthralled. It’s 1742, and a battered vessel washes up on the shores of Brazil. It contains 30, barely-alive sailors who claim to have survived a secret British Navy mission that went wrong two years earlier, after their ship, The Wager, was wrecked. Six months later, a smaller vessel washes up off the coast of Chile with three more sailors, also survivors from The Wager. Their account of what happened is very different. Accusations of mutiny, treachery, murder and cannibalism fly to and fro, and eventually a court martial is convened back in Britain by the Admiralty, with the guilty facing the death sentence. Grann, who wrote Killers of The Flower Moon, scoured original material to create this spellbinding narrative that grips from the start.

Polar Vortex: An Illustrated Story by Denise Dorrance

How do you write about the perils of caring for elderly parents, especially those with dementia, with humour and sensibility? Artist Denise Dorrance has pulled off this seemingly impossible task with her bittersweet graphic novel about Susan, who must decide what’s best after her widowed, 91-year-old mother falls over and needs urgent care, having become what my own mother described as “rather forgetful”. Susan, like Dorrance, is based in London, and her mother in the American Midwest, while Susan’s sister is in California, so she faces the additional challenges of long-distance travel and dealing with the horrendous US healthcare system. There’s a poignancy tinged with sharpness to Dorrance’s drawings that reminds me of Posy Simmonds, as she captures with a mere flick of her pen the complex emotions between an adult daughter and her increasingly frail, childlike mother – the guilt, the uncertainties and the early stages of grieving.

Wellness by Nathan Hill

If you’re looking for a chunky, literary page-turner that’s witty and relatable, this is for you. Hill’s follow-up to his acclaimed The Nix describes the life of Jack and Elizabeth, who first meet as students in an artsy area of Chicago in the early 1990s. He’s an abstract photographer, skinny and awkward, with a heroin-chic look; she’s an ambitious multi-tasker from a rich family, a girl who’s as interested in neuroscience and psychology as she is in art and poetry. Fast forward almost 20 years and they’ve turned into everything they never wanted to be: suburban-dwelling, aspirational, married gym-bunnies, obsessed with everything from finding the perfect parenting style and detox diet to ruminating on their unfulfilled career ambitions, boring sex lives and seething cushion envy. Hill’s skill in balancing the satirical and the serious is pitch perfect. I adored it.

An Opinionated Guide: Women Painters by Lucy Davies

A lot has been written recently about the plight of gifted but undiscovered or unacknowledged female painters throughout the history of art. So it’s a nice to see a book on the subject that, as arts journalist Davies says, does not seek to “recuperate” them, but rather to present a snapshot – make that 66 snapshots – of them on their own terms, as thinkers and creators. From Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century Benedictine nun and illuminator of manuscripts to Flora Yukhnovich, still in her early thirties and a rising star of the British art scene, Davies takes us on a whistle-stop tour of female artists, with a page of text and a picture per painter. It’s a beautifully produced little volume, from a lovely private press; charming and giftable with its crisp green cover… my only gripe being that it is not quite as opinionated as I’d really have liked.

The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – 50th Anniversary Edition

Solzhenitsyn remains a monumentally important figure, one whose books some of us know we should have read, but never have. In light of Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment in the Polar Wolf gulag, his subsequent murder, and the overall state of “freedom” in Russia today, we must, and this handsome new edition of Solzhenitsyn's masterpiece, The Gulag Archipelago, is a great place to start. Originally published in three volumes, the work was later abridged into one volume, making it easier to dip into. Solzhenitsyn was jailed for eight years in 1945 for criticising Stalin in a letter. He was sent to the gulag (the collective name for the Soviet forced labour camps), where he endured horrific conditions. The descriptions of his and other prisoners’ ordeals – how they were arrested, interrogated, imprisoned, punished, starved and so on, make for grim but terrifyingly relevant reading. As he wrote: “Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.”

Maurice and Maralyn: A Whale, A Shipwreck, a Love Story by Sophie Elmhirst

In 1973, Maurice and Maralyn Bailey woke up on their small wooden yacht in the Pacific Ocean to a sound like a loud gun going off. A floundering, wounded whale had crashed into the side of their boat, and as water began to seep in, they realised they probably had less than half an hour to bail out. Grabbing whatever supplies they could, they climbed aboard the tiny life raft and would spend the next 118 days drifting on the waves with just turtles, dolphins, birds, fish and a whale or two for company, until they were rescued by a Korean fishing trawler. A story of survival, yes, but at its heart this is a story of an ordinary couple – he’d been a typesetter, she’d worked in a tax office – doing extraordinary things. Elmhirst drew on the Baileys’ memoirs and diaries (both are now dead), archives and interviews, and narrates their story with nuance and grace.

Easy Wins by Anna Jones

Lemons, olive oil, vinegar, mustard, tinned tomatoes, capers, chilli and harissa, tahini, garlic, onions, miso and peanut butter. These are the 12 ingredients Anna Jones describes as her basic “easy wins” – all relatively inexpensive and guaranteed to give flavourful hits to her wide range of easy-to-follow recipes. She may be a vegetarian, but this is no goody-two-shoes, lentil lover’s bible; there’s a recipe for a caper-brine margarita and she includes plenty of craftily tasty ingredients such as Marmite, smoked salt, Old Winchester cheese and seaweed. There’s a chapter on the best kinds of salt to use and another about olive oil, and Matt Russell’s accompanying photographs are so mouth-wateringly unctuous that even this hearty carnivore finds herself tempted to try out pretty much everything in the book, starting with the Smoky Mole-Spiced Confit Tomatoes, the White Bean & Pickle Stew and The Potato, Cheese & Sticky Onion Pie.