Recommended Reading – Essays

I love essays. My favourites I read again and again, letting whole chunks of text leech into my blood. Many of the writers on this list are, or would rather have been, known as great novelists but for me, the mixture of unfiltered insight and immaculate prose found in their essays sings higher.

Joan DidionSlouching Towards Bethlehem I am baffled by the hostility Didion rouses in many commentators. She is berated for writing about silk curtains and sundresses from Madeira, accused in so many words of being brittle and elitest. Reading Slouching I am sure there is no potential criticism, just or otherwise, Didion failed to consider. Her outstanding characteristic is gleaming honesty, and her ruthlessness begins at home.

Hunter S ThompsonThe Great Shark Hunt HST is so much more than Fear & Loathing and I love this collection of his early writings. The dispatches he filed during his year in South America have all his acid humour and righteous outrage, along with a keen moral sensibility that was later blurred by drugs and frustration.

EM Forster – Two Cheers for Democracy Reading Forster essays in bulk is like eating ice cream, there is a point where it gets sickly, but its so delicious you press on. What shines through is his refusal to accept “how things are” and his absolute prioritisation of the personal over the ideological. If it is a choice between betraying my friend or my country, he writes, I hope I have the guts to betray my country.

Virginia WoolfA Room of One’s Own Simply one of the finest essays about writing ever written. Beautiful, biting, and superbly argued. The image she evokes of an Oxford dinner is one of my favourite pieces of descriptive writing.

George OrwellFacing Unpleasant Facts Forster, a contemporary of Orwell, noted that George found many things to be unhappy about with the world, and wanted to share them. Something for which the world should be grateful, because Orwell’s ire was never expressed in less than astonishing prose. Who else could write that the Christian conception of heaven resembles “choir practice in a jewellery shop”?

Truman CapotePortraits and Observations Truman Capote is a descriptive genius and an unsparing chronicler of human emotion. Reading his essays is like watching Muhammad Ali warm up. The profile of Marlon Brando is particularly audacious and brilliant.

Natalia GinzburgThe Little Virtues I only “met” Natalia in a writing seminar last year, but she is already an old friend. The essays collected here include Silence, Human Relationships and the title piece, which is probably the best child-rearing advice I’ve ever encountered.

Martha GellhornThe Face of War Gellhorn was a heroic war correspondent. She covered every major 20th century conflict from the Spanish Civil War to the Central American conflicts of the 1980s. Fierce, fearless, and apolitical in the best way, she excoriates war without sloppy pacifism or jingoism.

Germaine GreerThe Madwoman’s Underclothes Germaine Greer is so provocative people feel the hard edge but tend to miss the sparkle of her diamond sentences. These short pieces are more personal than the majesterial The Female Eunuch, but equally blunt, polemic and rewarding.

Michel de MontaigneComplete Essays Last but far from least, the daddy of all essayists, Michel de Montaigne. I picked him up on the recommendation of Virginia Woolf and there was an instant flash of recognition. He writes about love, fear, sex and death with remarkably modern, mordant glee.


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Ibiza’s Best Road

View from the Sant Joan road

Portinatx to Sant Joan, Ibiza, Spain

Hotels cling to the cliffs at Portinatx like acrylic nails, a perfect backdrop to sunburnt kids and beery parents. A small brown sign points the way out: Sant Joan. Sharp right, down-shift. The road lifts you above the roofs of the holiday apartments and turns its back on the dive school. Flirt with third, settle for second. No need to rush along the ribbon of asphalt unwinding in a haze of pine boughs. You’re following a track carved out over centuries by peasant feet and donkey carts. Only the surface has changed. Above you, a jewel-bright sky. Pull over and inhale the silence. Beyond a shimmering basin of green, the Mediterranean gift-wraps the view with a band of silver.

Recommended Reading – Novels

Needing a Business Case for Reading Novels is an alien – and slightly depressing – concept. Nevertheless, any case for reading is a good one and Anne Kreamer’s argument that novel-reading can boost workplace fortunes by improving people’s ability to relate to others is admirably lucid. Her list of suggested reading is unfamiliar, apart from Something Happened, which is diabolically bad, so – hey – try my recommendations instead!

In no particular order…

Kazuo Ishiguro The Remains of the Day – Before you ask, the book is better. Ishiguro’s magnificent writing gradually reveals the depth of the narrator’s self-delusion, creating a complicated character who is deplorable, pitiable and ultimately heart-breaking.

Willa Cather The Professor’s House – Willa Cather was one of Truman Capote’s favourite writers, which is reason enough to read her. This compact tale is a beautiful reflection on aging, family life and responsibility.

Truman Capote Answered Prayers – Hilarious, salacious and brimming with Capote’s characteristic mix of mischief and malice, this unfinished novel infuriated his posh, real-life social circle by gleefully baring their secrets. Society murder, infidelity and lots of drinking is involved.

William Golding The Lord of the Flies – I put off reading this for a long time because I thought I knew what it was about. Mistake. It isn’t what it’s about that makes this brilliant, it’s Golding’s blinding use of perspective. You know what’s coming but the end still makes you gasp.

EM Forster A Room With A View – A compassionate but sharply observed account of the “muddles” people create when they lie to themselves. Essential reading for anyone who is ever tempted to do what they should, rather than what they feel (which is, I’m pretty sure, all of us).

William Faulker As I Lay Dying – Faulkner said he intended to create a masterpiece when he sat down to write As I Lay Dying, and did he ever. Each wretched detail of the Burden’s odyssey to bury their mother springs from the page, by the end you think you’re beyond shock, but you’re not.

Virginia Woolf To The Lighthouse – A clear-eyed, yet subtle look at emotional interplay of family life. The stream of consciousness narrative heightens the effect by demanding attentive reading.

Henry James What Maisie Knew – Any James will do, but this is my favourite. His virtuouso prose reveals what Maisie knew, and a great deal more, without ever being so uncouth as to say it directly.

Edith Wharton The Age of Innocence – Wharton is another author you can’t go wrong with. She seems to know everything about human nature and the countless little ways we betray ourselves and each other.

F Scott Fitzgerald The Beautiful and Damned – The writing isn’t quite as spectacular as The Great Gatsby but this earlier novel is well worth a read for its handling of love, greed, vanity, ambition and failure.

How To Decide

The media loves to tell us what to do. We absorb advice and values from TV doctors, faceless web commentators, celebrity Tweeters, and the front page of the daily papers almost without thinking about it. We are so used to this that we routinely mistake hectoring for empowerment. When faces on the TV tell us how we should dress, what we should feed our children, what kind of car to drive, and where to go on holiday, we accept the underlying message that: you’re not smart enough to figure this out on your own. The expert bullying has been around for a while. Back in 1965 Mick Jagger snarled about a man on the TV telling him how white his shirts could be and the barrage of advice has grown faster and more furious since.

It is a sneaky form of authoritarianism, where social imperative is dressed up in the guise of helpfulness. Like the old US Army sloganeers, the media promises to help you “be all you can be” but in doing so undermines your ability to think and choose for yourself. The problem is that the media does not look out for the best interests of anyone apart from the corporations who profit from it. If we are to absorb what is useful from the media without being brainwashed we need to reclaim the courage of our convictions. We need to start asking: “What’s right for me?”

When in doubt, saying “no” is often more important, and more definite, than saying yes. Sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote: “There are a thousand ways of hitting the bull’s eye, only one of hitting it.” If we entertain all possibilities it becomes almost impossible to hone in on what it is we want. Philosophically, this raises the question of whether it is better to be in a perpetual state of anticipation, or whether we prefer simple fulfilment. This is a matter of education, preference and, to a large extent, personality. Whatever one’s tolerance for uncertainty and imprecision, we all have to make decisions. In order to make decisions that are right for us, and not made out of a sense of social duty, we need to have clear priorities. We need an ordering scheme – call it morals, values, goals, or a life plan – but we need something meaningful to inform our choices.

JD Salinger’s precocious creation Seymour Glass suggested that: “Every man, woman, and child over the age, let us say, of twenty-one or thirty, at the very outside, should never do anything extremely important or crucial in their life without first consulting a list of persons in the world, living or dead, whom he loves.” It is a mild prescription, hardly the antidote to a lifetime of advice-taking, but it is subversive in a small, gentle way. Replacing the anonymous buzz of cultural imperative with the specific voices of people who do know us and care about our happiness is a baby-step towards autonomy. A step that, once taken, puts us on a path not in relation to a particular decision, but towards a way of being that has the potential to transform our decision-making process and, by extension, our lives.

Originally published at Snipe

A Very Happy Thanksgiving


Across the pond its Thanksgiving and various friends and family are getting set to tuck into some serious eating. Luckily, I get to skip the dead poultry element of the day and focus on the best part – things for which I’m thankful. This year has been such an adventure and it’s not over yet. In no particular order, here are a few of my many reasons to be grateful:

o Being lavished with love and support by my wonderful friends who have literally welcomed me back to London with open arms
o A terrific job interview for an internal communications role at Three yesterday
o Spending time with my family this summer and, especially, meeting Rayann and Carolina – two beautiful, generous women who I’m so happy to know
o A superlative road trip with Sarah which took in all kinds of highs and lows and taught me so much (Thank you for your patience sweetie x)
o Two glorious months in Ibiza with Ruth: sunshine, salads and smoothies
o Wendy’s return from Shanghai and being able to share a month with her in Galway
o The opportunity to work on some great projects with Bo Rinaldi & team
o The generosity and wisdom of my book interviewees: Nancy @Family On Bikes, Raina @MindBody Fitness, Ruth Heidrich, Matt @Walden Project, Kathy Blume, Geordie Stewart, Kerry & John @La Muse, JJ Tiziou and Navina Khanna – all inspiring people doing amazing things with their lives.

Writer’s Letters – F. Scott Fitzgerald

F Scott Fitzgerald


Reading writer’s letters is one of my great pleasures. It is like finally getting to hang out with the cool kid you heretofore only watched enviously across the playground and discovering he is even cooler than you imagined. I’m working my way through F. Scott Fitzgerald’s A Life In Letters, a collection of witty, desperate, frightfully intelligent correspondence. Despite success and fame he had a hard run of it, but was never too miserable to be brilliant, as the following note to close friend Ernest Hemingway demonstrates…

Just taken another chapter [of Tender Is The Night] to typists + its left me in a terrible mood of depression as to whether its any good or not. In 2 1/2 mos. I’ve been here I’ve written 20,000 words on it… I’ve paid for it with the usual nervous depressions and such drinking manners as the lowest bistrop (bistrot?) boy would scorn. My latest tendency is to collapse about 11.00 and with the tears flowing from my eyes or the gin rising to their level and leaking over, + tell interested friends or acquaintances that I havn’t a friend in the world and likewise care for nobody, generally including Zelda and often implying current company — after which the current company tend to become less current and I wake up in strange rooms in strange palaces.

Quote of the Day – Robert Penn Warren

It was one of Hunter S Thompson’s favourites so, after buying and carting it from Glasgow, I finally got around to sinking into All The King’s Men. According to the New York Times blurb on the back it is: “The definitive novel about American politics.” Which is on par with saying Macbeth is the definitive play about Scottish politics, and therefore not entirely inaccurate. All The King’s Men has a distinctly Shakespearean sweep and stride, with its fine language and inexorable tragedies. Warren conjures a world always just beyond the control of its occupants:

The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can’t know. He can’t know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can’t know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge which he hasn’t got and which, if he had it, would save him.