The books that writers and readers found enjoyable in December are what we’re currently reading.
Fiona Sturges is a writer and critic.
I have always been fascinated by scandalous stories of Hollywood celebrities, so Roger Lewis’s dual biography of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, titled “Erotic Vagrancy,” seems tailor-made for me. This juicy and extensive book is filled with tales of unlimited champagne, diamond jewelry as big as chess pieces, extravagant yachts for both humans and their pets (including a chipmunk named Nibbles). The title alludes to a remark made by the pope about the couple’s controversial behavior in Rome during the production of Cleopatra. The pontiff lamented, “Where will we all end up? In a never-ending state of tumultuous and reckless behavior without any safe harbor?” It’s worth noting that both Taylor and Burton were married to other people at the time (although they would later marry each other twice). Lewis recounts all of this with a mix of shock and delight, ultimately arguing that Taylor, who started her career as a child star at MGM, was forever trapped in a state of immaturity: petulant, constantly seeking attention, somewhat wild, and able to turn on the charm when necessary.
Shirley Collins, known as the voice of the 1960s folk revival, wrote “America Over the Water” which chronicles her journey through the American rural south in 1959. Accompanied by US ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, the pair collected music and made field recordings now stored in the Library of Congress. During their travels, they visited the Mississippi State Penitentiary, listened to the Alabama Sacred Heart Singers, and recorded “Mississippi” Fred McDowell, a blues singer who later inspired the Rolling Stones and toured the world. Collins’ memories are detailed and filled with awe for the landscape and cuisine (having grown up with rationing), while also highlighting the inequality and racism prevalent in pre-civil rights America. Interestingly, when Lomax wrote a memoir of their trip, he neglected to mention Collins. However, this book was republished last year after being out of print for 15 years, setting the record straight.
Just before the holiday, I heard Santaland Diaries, David Sedaris’s piece about being a Christmas elf at Macy’s Santa’s workshop. He saw “fistfights, vomiting, and amazing tantrums.” It’s good to read but even better to hear with Sedaris’s perfect comedic timing.
Rael, Guardian reader
On the 30th anniversary of its release, I suggest reading A Goat’s Song by Dermot Healy. Healy, an Irish writer who dabbled in poetry, fiction, plays, and fishing, wrote this novel. Those who are tuned in to literary discussions may be aware of the significant impact A Goat’s Song had on both readers and authors, such as E. Annie Proulx and Anne Enright, who have expressed admiration for the book.
A Goat’s Song is a multifaceted tale set in both the Republic and Northern Ireland. It follows the tumultuous love affair of two individuals fueled by alcohol, as well as themes of psychic breakdown and the impact of politics and violence on shaping lives. The novel has received numerous awards and is considered one of the great postwar European works. In his personal life, Healy was known for his love of conversation, human connection, and unending curiosity about others. His talent for capturing dialogue and human speech is evident in the book, which ultimately has a tragic ending. Although it is a novel rather than poetry, it is not surprising that Healy was also a celebrated poet, given his love for language and skill as a writer.
PD Smith, author and reviewer
Penguin has brought back its popular crime series in green, originally released 75 years ago. Currently, they have published 20 books, featuring a combination of well-known and lesser-known spy fiction. One of these titles is In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B Hughes. Hughes, who was born in Kansas City in 1904, wrote 11 out of her 14 novels in the 1940s. The story takes place in Los Angeles, a city consumed by terror as its law enforcement works to capture a serial killer responsible for six murders in just six months.
In the year 1947, a notorious event occurred in Los Angeles. On January 15th, in the Leimert Park area, the body of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short was discovered cut in half and abandoned on a sidewalk. Despite investigations, the killer was never identified and the incident served as inspiration for a novel by acclaimed crime writer James Ellroy, titled The Black Dahlia.
Hughes’s book is distinct from Ellroy’s, but just as thrilling. The main character, Dix Steele, was a pilot in the air force during the war. He recently moved to Los Angeles from the east and is attempting to write a detective story. When he reconnects with an old acquaintance, Brub Nicolai, he discovers that he is a detective working on a strangler case. Steele is given the opportunity to witness a murder investigation firsthand.
This gripping and evocative novel, adapted into a film noir featuring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, immerses the reader in the thoughts of the protagonist through the use of free indirect speech. The first chapter, where Steele is introduced as he navigates through the foggy streets at night, is memorable and builds tension masterfully until the climactic conclusion. A hauntingly relevant crime story from the noir era, it is exciting to see its republishing.
PD Smith has written four non-fiction books, including Doomsday Men from Allen Lane and City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age from Bloomsbury.
Jill, Guardian reader
I recently finished reading Still Life by Sarah Winman. The story takes place in London and Florence during the years 1944 to 1978, and the main characters include Ulysses Temper, a hesitant hero, and Evelyn Skinner, an art expert who was acquainted with EM Forster. While the book contains many allusions to literature and art, it is ultimately the personal journeys of the characters that drive the narrative. The story is filled with enchantment and heart. The characters have stayed with me, and I genuinely felt a connection to them, wishing they were real friends of mine.