Featuring Rabbits – 10 March 2024

Last week, I had Maeve Brennan, The Long-Winded Lady, on the brain. This week, it’s short fiction. Not that the contrast is as stark as that would suggest: Brennan’s columns in The New Yorker were concise where most New Yorker articles make The Domesday Book look like a raffle ticket.* The real contrast has been in moving from the observation of diners in New York to depictions of picnics and cricket in the English countryside. For I found myself indulging in The Rabbits, a collection of sketches by A. A. Milne, originally published in Punch, of an utterly silly group of friends. The narrator, instigator of ill-planned sailing trips and semi-reluctant participant in improvised plays, has the charm of William Brown and is not much more mature. Sometimes one just wants to read about a group of friends playing cricket with the wrong hand and refusing to take anything too seriously.

And sometimes one wants to be unsettled by a haunting short story which leaves you with a stomach ache and sends you running to close the curtains and switch on all the lights. That has been the experience of reading Now You Know It All by Joanna Pearson, a book I ordered solely for the heron on the cover and which has turned out to be irresistible for its writing too.

I am planning to read Mary Costello’s new collection, Barcelona, next. A first look suggests quietly brutal depictions of domesticity and an exploration of what happens when the things people usually keep silent seep into conversation.

If you are looking for slim yet weighty novels:

  • Hangman by Maya Binyam follows a man returning from a country in which he has become a citizen to the country of his birth. He is not named, the places are not named, the people he meets are not named. He may be there to look after his brother or to mourn his brother – he is not quite sure. One has the sense early on that this game of hangman is already lost but one must keep playing. I think it’s an exceptional novel (and one of the best on the Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist).
  • Caliban Shrieks by Jack Hilton is also a story about wandering and home and lost senses one cannot recover, which in turn makes the story of the book’s rediscovery all the more enjoyable.

My non-fiction choices this week are perhaps a little longer in form. In fairness there is quite a lot to say about spending ten years as a strict Carmelite nun, until the habitual power struggles become too much leading to an escape carrying little more than a viola. Cloistered by Catherine Coldstream pulls back the wimple on this extraordinary story.

There is also much to discuss on the subject of How to Win an Information War and Peter Pomerantsev does so brilliantly. He recounts the role of Sefton Delmer, a British propagandist and remarkably convincing character actor, in combating the Nazi propaganda machine and draws out what we can learn from this today in the response to Putin’s monstrosity and lies.  

Revolutionary Acts by Jason Okundaye offers an, often joyful, account of the lives of Black gay men in Britain in the 80s and 90s. Okundaye celebrates the activists who fought for recognition of their identity. There are raw and traumatic reflections, especially when he writes about the HIV epidemic, but there is also tremendous fun.

It’s almost impossible to choose my favourite children’s books this week. World Book Day brought with it the publication of so many good titles and tales of inspired dressing up though I’m yet to hear of anyone attending school as Vile Virginia from Vile Virginia and the Curse That Got Worse by Issy Emeney. However, those who enjoy a slightly darker picturebook will thoroughly enjoy meeting her and her purple bicycle… I must also mention:

I look forward to seeing you at one of our upcoming events or in the shop soon.

May your Sunday involve tea, a drink with jam and bread,

*To misquote Victoria Wood. Cassette tape from which I misquote not (yet) found…

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