How to Live: A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell (Chatto & Windus, £16.99)
The concept of this book is hard to get your head around. It’s a biography of the 16th-century essayist, Michel de Montaigne – the first one in 50 years. Yet it’s also a self-help book. Entitled How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and 20 attempts at an answer, it relates the story of his life by way of the questions he explored in his essays and the answers he came up with. All of these questions, according to the author, Sarah Bakewell, are different version of a bigger question: how to live. And so each chapter attempts to answer that question: for instance, “Q: How to live? A: Don’t worry about death” (that’s chapter one) and “Q: How to Live? A: Wake from the sleep of habit” (chapter 10).
Meanwhile, the chapters trace his bizarre upbringing (made to speak only in Latin) and his life as courtier, traveller and wine-grower. All in all, How to Live is an intriguing addition to the Montaigne canon.
House of Treason by Robert Hutchinson (Phoenix, £8.99)
Following his well-received The Last Days of Henry VIII Hutchinson turns his attention to the leading Recusant family, the Howards. The first Howard Duke had fought on the wrong side of Bosworth and his son, Thomas, had been stripped of his Dukedom by Henry VII before regaining it, presiding over the trial and execution of his best friend, the Duke of Buckingham. The third Duke was Henry VIII’s faithful servant, a groveller to the powerful and bully to the weak, a Catholic who suppressed the Pilgrimage of Grace, gained from the theft of Church land and helped to execute two nieces, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. Eventually, England’s worst tyrant turned on this Norfolk, had the duke’s son Surrey executed after changing his coat of arms, and sentenced the Duke himself to death. Luckily at this point the king himself died. A riveting book.
On God by Norman Mailer (Continuum, £12.99) It’s hard to imagine now the furore, controversy and indignation that novelist and journalist Norman Mailer caused in his heyday. His novels have not fared well in the 21st century and his non-fiction only slightly less so. Yet 50 years ago Mailer was seen as one of the most important novelists and thinkers of his time.
This, his last book, was instigated by J Michael Lennon, the novelist, who wanted to know what Mailer thought about God. Presented in Q&A format, Lennon transcribes hours of interviews he conducted with Mailer in his final years. Mailer presents his views on God and religion, faith and the problem of evil in easy-to-read soundbites. He’s somewhat overly obsessed with a Manichean view of God and some of his ideas about divinity are mind-boggling in the extreme yet this book is always thought-provoking, if bizarre. Newcastle and Gateshead by Grace McCombie (Yale, £10) Back when I was studying Art History, the name Pevsner struck fear into the hearts of us students for his many-volumed set of dry tomes detailing every single conceivable architectural structure in Britain.
These days, like everything else, Pevsner guides have been sexed-up and look glossy and sleek as any guide book. Yet they still retain their core value despite the homogenous look. This isn’t a guide to Newcastle per se but rather to its buildings and structures, urban centres and looming estates.
This guide is an exhaustive look at a small corner of our country, from the wonderful nave of St Mary’s, designed by Pugin, to the monstrosity that is the Millennium Bridge, through the grand Victorian red-brick factories, Edwardian town houses and old mills renovated into trendy wine bars featuring exposed brickwork. The Wives of Henry Oades by Johanna Moran (Harper Press, £14.99) The impeccably respectable Mr Oades of the title is a late Victorian gentleman who ends up in California with two wives despite doing nothing wrong.
Nine years earlier Oades is on his way to New Zealand with his wife and children but it’s not long before disaster strikes. A native tribe, upset at their treatment by the whites, kidnaps his wife and four children, and after a fruitless search for them Mr Oades gives up and heads to San Francisco for a new life.
But while Henry has settled down with a new wife, Margaret endures slavery in the back of beyond, smallpox and starvation. Five years later they make their way back to civilisation and then to the United States.
Interestingly enough, this debut novel is based on a real case which Moran discovered through her father, a law professor.