I thought I’d share some recommendations to pass the time in lock-down, as so many people (four) have suggested I should, and I’d clutter up Twitter forever if I tweeted all of this.
Of course, you already have Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & The Light - the concluding part of her trilogy on Thomas Cromwell, which I will personally be enraged if it doesn’t see her nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Quick question to those reading it: have you, too, got terrible wrist-strain from holding a 800-page book for hours at a time? I suspect we will see the syndrome “Mantel tendonitis” trending over the next few weeks.
Simon Rich has written a variety of collections of short-stories, all of which are so economically droll, they read like masterclasses. His masterpiece is the novella The Sell Out, about how Rich’s great-great-grandfather, a Jewish immigrant, fell into a pickle-barrel in New York in 1920, and then emerges a hundred years later in hipster Brooklyn - only to be alternately confused and enraged by his solipsistic, neurotic great-great-grandson, Rich. It’s like a non-problematic Woody Allen for the 21st century.
And although it’s technically a childrens’ book, E. Nesbit’s The Story Of The Treasure Seekers still has the best unreliable narrator in history: Oswald Bastable tells the story of how he and his siblings tried to seek their newly poor family’s 'fortune' during one long, English summer. His conceit is that you aren’t supposed to know he is the narrator - 'It is one of us that tells this story – but I shall not tell you which: only at the very end perhaps I will. While the story is going on you may be trying to guess - only I bet you don’t.' The fact that nearly every page contains some anecdote about how heroic and noble Oswald is, and how everyone else is a clod or an idiot, is still funny 250 pages later.
If you’re in more of a non-fiction mood, then Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women is a game-changing piece of research: gathering together, for the first time, all the information on the 'data gap' on how sex affects almost every aspect of our lives. The symptoms of heart attack are different for women than men! Public transport systems are designed for male commuters - not women dropping off kids, caring for relatives, then going to the shops! New drugs tend not to be tested on women - because our hormones 'complicate' things! All the reasons why it often feels so much more difficult to be a woman are explained here, and written up in such an engagingly breezy, yet slightly furious, manner, that you’ll find yourself quoting it endlessly to friends. A properly enlightening book.
Continuing in a feminist vibe - as I have for the past 45 years - Helen Lewis’s Difficult Women is a history of feminism told through eleven fights conducted by the titular 'difficult women'. Marriage, abortion, worker’s rights - we have all gained from the efforts of these women who weren’t simple and saintly enough to be officially sanctified as feminist heroes, and are all the more relatable for it. Like Criado-Perez, Lewis is an author you just enjoy hanging out with on the page, as she tells you all she’s discovered.