Favourite books of 2017

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Nigel Slater’s Christmas Chronicles is just one of my favourite books I read this year. Some are new, some were published a few years ago but all are wonderful. I hope you find something to interest and inspire you on my list.

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One of the greatest living photographers, Fred Lyon, pays homage to his beautiful city of San Francisco and its noir heritage. Stunning and atmospheric photos.

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Two books about the darker side of Hollywood. Piu Eatwell makes a convincing case for finally solving one of the most notorious crimes of all time, that of Elizabeth Short, nicknamed The Black Dahlia. Gripping and well told with great compassion for the victim. While in High Noon, Glenn Frankel turns his attention to the blacklist and the making and influence of one the great westerns, High Noon. A revealing portrait of America which still resonates today.

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In Les Parisiennes, historian Anne Sebba looks at the testimonies of both ordinary and well known French women who lived through the German Occupation. So compassionate, fascinating and well researched that I couldn’t stop reading. I’m not a huge fan of contemporary fiction but I loved All The Light We Cannot See which is also set in Occupied France. A heartbreaking and beautiful book which I still can’t stop thinking about.

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Nicholas Ray’s adaptations of In A Lonely Place is one of my favourite noirs but I had never read the book which is actually quite different. One of the greatest books about Los Angeles too along with Slow Days, Fast Company. Eve Babitz was one of my discoveries this year. Her writing is deceptively simple but so good and I laughed out loud many times. Eve’s Hollywood by her is also highly recommended.

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I’ve posted quite a few photos by William Claxton on Instagram and then someone recommended me this book which features his journey across the States and experience of jazz. Brilliant photography as you would expect and such a magnificent and huge volume.

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The Essential Marilyn Monroe by Milton Greene features all the photos from their 50 sessions together, many beautifully restored and quite a few published for the first time. All are remarkable and revealing photos of a woman at her most beautiful by a friend and photographer who knew how to get the best from her.

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Gleb Derujinsky was one of the greatest fashion photographers of all time and this book is both a revelation and a joy. My friend Jan wrote a superb review of it here which I recommend reading.

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Robert Doisneau is one of my very favourite photographers but I had no idea about his work for Vogue in the post-war years. This stunning book is available in English and French and you can see more beautiful photos from it and read Jan’s excellent review on his blog here.

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And finally thanks to Jan’s blog, I discovered two wonderful books on Coco Chanel, including this one which you can read about in more detail here.

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A superb book about remarkable interiors inside the homes of the twentieth century’s most remarkable women with amazing photos and illustrations too.

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A deliciously gossipy book about film, fashion and Rome. Unputdownable and fun.

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The story of the Palazzo Venier and the three women who lived and transformed what is now the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. Beautifully written and endlessly fascinating.

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One of my favourite Instagrammers recommended this book. I can see the influence of John Piper in these remarkable illustrations and drawings which bring Britain’s lost buildings to life. Accompanied by a superb text.

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Extracts from Raymond Chandler’s works accompanied by atmospheric photos of Los Angeles taken in the 1980s which create the perfect mood. A must!

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I never thought I’d get the chance to buy a book of newly published Fitzgerald stories! Not all are masterpieces but some are exceptional and it’s an essential for any fan of his work.

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The story of the Riviera and those who graced it when elegance and sophistication still ruled makes for a fabulous read. At the Existentialist Cafe brings back memories of my own pilgrimage to these famous places and studying philosophy. The author explains the ideas clearly and makes you want to learn more.

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2017 was the year I officially became addicted to Joan Didion and her razor sharp prose. I bought this on a rainy day in Berlin and it was such a tonic to read someone use the English language so well and have a real understanding of the people and issues she encountered.

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Old masters

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My devotion to my cultural icons has always bordered on the extreme – once I even visited a museum devoted to the socialist politician Jean Jaurès, just because Jacques Brel wrote a song about him. So when my (then) long-term boyfriend suggested a trip to Austria, all I could think of was getting to Ohlsdorf, former home of one of my favourite authors, Thomas Bernhard. I had read his work practically non-stop since discovering the brilliant Alte Meister (Old Masters) some years before. I loved the musical structure of his sentences which makes him surprisingly easy to read in German with frequent repetition of phrases, his black humour and contempt for humanity.

My boyfriend’s idea of a great trip were days devoted to hiking for 8 hours, kayaking and rock climbing, camping in the wild at night as it was free, whereas all I wanted to do was visit museums, take pictures and sit in cafes which didn’t go down well as these things normally involve spending money. However, he did agree to take me to Ohlsdorf. I remember we set off on our trip at Easter and that I was astonished to find all shops open on Good Friday, unlike in Germany. That though was my mistake as the house was only open at Bank Holidays and weekends so as everything else was open, it was completely closed. My boyfriend was absolutely furious with me and refused to stay until the following day and waste another day’s kayaking. Sad and frustrated, I tried to make the best of things by peeking in through all the windows and exploring the countryside around to get an impression of Thomas Bernhard’s world.

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I did get to speak to his former neighbour though, a man who unsurprisingly wasn’t much liked by the author. The feeling was mutual as he explained what a misanthrope Thomas Bernhard really was and how he exaggerated everything.  I forget the exact details in Karl Ignaz Hennetmair’s ‘My Year with Thomas Bernhard’, but distinctly remember that this same neighbour figured in the infamous episode where TB almost cut off his own leg with a chainsaw. The man was deeply suspicious of all these literary tourists, especially of me as I had read so much of his work, yet was not an academic, although he did pay me the greatest compliment of my life by asking if I was German so obviously, I spoke quite well that day. I made a serious gaffe, however, when I asked where he was from. His eyes narrowed as my boyfriend whispered that he was a farmer and his family must have lived there for generations.

I won’t deny that I didn’t feel a pang of regret on leaving the village as it seemed unlikely I would get there again anytime soon. Strangely, I haven’t read any Thomas Bernhard novels for several years since finishing the autobiography. The man I found so funny turned out to have had the saddest life. Reading about his illegitimacy, his hatred for his stepfather, the death of his beloved grandfather, his own stay in a hospital for a serious lung condition from which he never fully recovered and then the death and destruction in Salzburg during the Second World War was truly harrowing. Opening one of his other books later, the laughter simply stuck in my throat. But he remains my favourite German language author and I hope to return to his books anew very soon. In the meantime, I’ll always have Ohlsdorf.

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A bookish Resolution

Loretta Young’s private library, 1943:

Loretta Young with her library

So first of all, Happy New Year! I can’t deny I was glad to see the back of 2016, even though I was lucky enough to make some wonderful friends which outweighs all the bad stuff for me. There is something a little daunting, as well as exciting, about being at the start of a fresh new year, wondering what it will bring.  Do you ever make New Year’s Resolutions? Mine have been the same for years – to be tidier, to throw things away I don’t use, to keep my papers in good order, to stop biting my nails, to buy fewer red lipsticks, to keep in touch with my friends regularly instead of just thinking about them often and then writing apologetic emails once or twice a year. I fail miserably with most or all of them, so this year have decided to make just one main resolution which is to read more.  I’m a slow reader but intend to take advantage of every opportunity available to open a book which means having one with me at all times whenever I leave the house, reading while the dinner is cooking and most of all, trying to stay awake for more than 10 minutes in bed each night to get through at least 1-2 pages. I don’t have a set list of things I wish to read this year because my book choice depends on my mood but here are some I’m hoping to get around to:

‘Brave New World’ by Aldous Huxley

‘Put out more Flags’ by Evelyn Waugh

‘Hunters in the Dark’ by Lawrence Osborne

‘Stoner’ by John Williams

‘Northanger Abbey’ by Jane Austen

‘Eugénie Grandet’ and ‘Le Père Goriot’ by Balzac

‘Les Trois Mousquetaires’ by Dumas

‘Buddenbrooks’ by Thomas Mann

‘Ungeduld des Herzens’ by Stefan Zweig

Let me know if there are any books you have your heart set on this year. To finish off this post, I thought I’d include some Old Hollywood stars enjoying some reading for inspiration.

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James Stewart who rightly understood the need of a comfortable place to read.

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Rita Hayworth

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The famous photo of Marilyn Monroe reading ‘Ulysses’ by Eve Arnold, 1955.

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Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint on the set of ‘North by Northwest.’

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Bette Davis with the morning papers in 1939

Fred Astaire via the tumblr Old Hollywood Stars Reading:

Fred Astaire

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Sophia Loren

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Marlon Brando by Cecil Beaton, 1946

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Clark Gable

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Barbara Stanwyck – I dream that one day someone will bring me breakfast in bed.

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Gene Tierney in ‘Leave Her to Heaven.’

Happy reading!

On reading

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Few things have marked my life quite as much as French literature. It all began back in December 1999 when I travelled to Paris for the first time, taking the Eurostar with my parents. We rented an apartment for a few days on Boulevard Haussmann, very close to Galeries Lafayette and Printemps with their aquarium like windows filled with magical Christmas displays, and very importantly, close to where Marcel Proust once lived (but more about him later).  It’s a total cliché but I fell in love with the city of light, walking down the Champs-Elysées and admiring the trees wrapped in white and taking a trip to the Eiffel Tower late one night and seeing the twinkling avenues spread out beneath my feet. Unfortunately, my poor mother did not enjoy the experience as much as me and started coming down with the flu.

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The Café de Flore by Jeanloup Sieff

Confined to her bed for our last full day, I insisted on dragging my father off to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the area made famous by Jean-Paul Sartre and my idol, Simone de Beauvoir. Needless to say, the first destination on our pilgrimage was the Café de Flore where in my then non-existent French, I ordered “deux cafés” and was astonished when the waiter bought two tiny cups of coffee, accompanied by two glasses of still water, realising too late that it was café au lait I had wanted. While leaving the Flore, I spotted a wonderful looking bookshop next to it which had a large window display devoted to Marcel Proust. Not only did I go in but, despite speaking no French at all, I gathered up all seven volumes of ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’ and also Stendhal’s ‘Le rouge et le noir’, for the simple reason that I liked the title and the cover. Grumbling that it was ridiculous to buy so many books in a foreign language you didn’t speak, my father nevertheless was kind enough to pay for them and put the experience down to one of my many eccentricities. Years later, when watching the film ‘Frances Ha’, I burst out laughing at the scene where she talks about learning French just to read Proust because that’s exactly what I did.

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The famous portrait of Marcel Proust by Jacques-Émile Blanche

Through a mixture of dogged determination and Francophilia, I taught myself French, first through basic language courses, then by reading grammar books, then by tackling the classic novels. There was ‘Madame Bovary’ and Balzac’s ‘Le Lys dans la Vallée’ (very challenging for a beginner), Camus’ ‘L’Étranger’ and ‘La Peste’ and tons of Marguerite Duras until I overdosed. Sometimes I agonised for hours over the meaning of a sentence or the use of a particular tense, but I never gave up. I finally devoted myself to Proust in the university library, arriving as soon as it opened in the morning to get one of the single desks by the window which looked out onto the park. I began ‘Du côté de chez Swann’ and lost myself in the neverending sentences with their quirky syntax and labyrinthine constructions.  No other book has captured my heart and imagination like La Recherche and I spent the next ten years not only ploughing through the other six volumes, but also reading everything about it and its idiosyncratic creator.

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Henri Beyle, otherwise known as Stendhal

And Stendhal? The summer of 2004 before I moved to Annecy, I finally opened ‘Le Rouge et le Noir’ and fell in love with the book and its author, buying everything by and about him and even giving an awful presentation in French about his famous crystallization theory from ‘De l’Amour’ to other students at the language school (funnily, my friend from Frankfurt remembers little else about her time there, except my talk) and making a pilgrimage to his hated birthplace, Grenoble.

Today these rather battered books by Proust and Stendhal occupy pride of place on my bookshelf and although it has been years since I’ve read them, opening a volume still fills me with excitement and takes me back to that cold but sunny afternoon in Paris all those years ago.

On the bedside reading table

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I’ll be honest, I don’t read for long in bed. As much as I’d like to get through whole chapters, my eyes often start to feel heavy after ten minutes and I switch off the light. Somehow it doesn’t feel quite right just to get into bed and not read anything though which is why I have a small pile of books I can dip into. Here’s the current selection:

Edward Thomas – Selected Poems and Prose.

I don’t read enough poetry but Thomas was a genius in his descriptions of the English countryside and nature. It’s nice to go to sleep thinking of long walks along country lanes and woods.

The portable Dorothy Parker.

A terrific mix of stories, poems, letters and articles. Dorothy Parker is famous for her brilliant wit but she was also an excellent literary critic and writer. This edition also has cut pages and a beautiful cover which makes it very inviting to pick up.

Permanent Californians

I love visiting graveyards when I travel, which is something my friends and family aren’t too keen on. I have never been to LA couldn’t hope to see all the ones included in this book so it’s the next best thing. So interesting reading about the lives of old Hollywood stars and musicians, plus people I’d never heard of.

Joseph Brodsky – Less Than One

I became fascinated with Brodsky after seeing the film about him and his parents, A Room and a Half. Exiled from Russia, he wrote many beautiful and fascinating essays in English and did so better than most native speakers. Sometimes sad, sometimes funny but always amazing in their depth and scope.