In 1998, David Bowie was asked to answer Proust’s famous questionnaire for Vanity Fair. His idea of perfect happiness? Simply: reading. We agree.
An offshoot: GIVING the books you love to the people you love. Here’s some of our go-tos:
Initiate a child into the art of the mud pie with legendary avant-garde composer John Cage and textile designer Lois Long’s Mud Book. Equal parts art object and recipe book: tactile, direct, and vaguely satirical, it does the job of every good children’s book – no preamble and plenty of room for magic.
One of the greatest gifts you can give a new mother is the knowledge that she is not alone. Surround her with a whole host of literary mothers, grandmothers and non-mothers alike, including Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Grace Paley and Mary Gaitskill, via the memoir, fiction and essays collected in Mother Reader. As editor Moyra Davey writes in the introduction: ‘I read to break the isolation, for inspiration to keep going and to do better, for the gratification of seeing my own experience so vividly mirrored, and without a doubt, for the unsurpassed enjoyment of extraordinary literature.’
For the lovers, E.E. Cummings, anytime. Dive deep with the Complete Poems, 1904-1962 edited by George James Firmage, or better yet, focus in on his Erotic Poems, edited by the same, complete with the poet’s own exquisite sketches. Get lost in the language, the way it fumbles and soars, whispers and screams. Not everyone can write good sex but E.E . Cummings sure can.
Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking for anyone who has loved; for anyone who has lost. Written in the year after Didion’s husband’s unexpected death, with their only daughter gravely ill, it is Didion’s attempt to make sense of the ‘weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness … about marriage and children and memory … about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.’ The way Didion thinks, the way Didion writes … if you’ve not read much of her work, let this be the gateway.
Finally the gift we wish we could give everyone: Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Written in the years between 1903 and 1908, Rilke replies to a young man wrestling with life’s big questions. His answers: so thoughtful, so kind, so full of clarity and grace, so unimaginably ahead of their time – even, frankly, ahead of ours. So brilliant it’s almost too hard to write about. Here is a book for those who question, who are uncertain, who long for love, and sex, and solitude. For those who want to DO something. For anyone who wants to embrace whole humanness. Here is a friend for life.
There are certain films that feel like gifts.
Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s delicious nod to the French New Wave, is one of them. Frances is twenty seven, an apprentice at an entirely-New York modern dance company, and living in the city with her best friend (love of her life) Sophie. Told as a series of expertly shot black-and-white vignettes, this is Frances’ hero’s journey – epic but on the smallest of scales. The ‘Meryl Streep of mumblecore’ (in which this film has its roots), Greta Gerwig is perfect as Frances – fun and funny, gawky, almost unfailingly social awkward, full of hope and lethargy, on the cusp of everything and nothing at all. She is so relatable it’s almost painful to watch – the dinner party scene a case in point. Wonderfully observed, light hearted and deft, chock full of dialogue that you’ll wish were yours, this film won’t change your life but my goodness, it’s great.
Another: Spike Jonze’s 2009 reworking of Where The Wild Things Are. Taking the much-loved children’s classic as the jumping off point for a film about childhood, this fantasy film, shot documentary style, literally quakes with feeling. When Max, struggling with his parents’ divorce and all of the confusion, sadness and uncontainable, uncontrollable realities of life, runs away to the land of the Wild Things, he meets a family of downbeat, intensely vulnerable monsters that mirror the storms inside. Achingly beautiful in scene, soundtrack and sentiment, this film sticks with you for way longer than its running time.
Much more introverted but no less magic: Naomi Kawase’s Sweet Bean. When the disheartened Sentaro, owner of a tiny pancake hut in the cherry-blossom soaked suburbs of Tokyo, reluctantly hires the elderly, irresistibly joy-filled and persistent Tokue as his kitchen assistant, it is not only her recipes that crack open his heart. Slow moving and subtle, intimate and sweet, as visually rich as the best of food documentaries, this is one for a cold winter’s day, nestled up indoors with the blankets piled high. Profoundly gentle, while not shying away from some of the hardest parts of life, this film is a gift through which charm steals in quietly.
Time is how you spend your love.
The later months of the year can be some of the busiest. Here’s some of the ways we’ll be banking time with the ones we love:
A trip to Noguchi at The Barbican. Having always wanted to visit the Noguchi Museum in New York, it was with great glee that we heard about the Barbican Art Gallery’s latest exhibition celebrating Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, on show until Sunday 9th 2022. We’ll spend a glorious few hours discovering his incredible range of sculptures – made in stone, ceramics, wood and aluminium – as well as the theatre set designs, playground models, furniture and lighting. Noguchi saw art ‘as something which teaches human beings how to become more human’. We’re in.
Heading canal-side in Hackney to visit Max Rocha’s new restaurant Café Cecelia. Having previously worked at The River Café and St John Bread & Wine, his warm and appetite-whetting Instagram posts plus tales of his glorious lockdown delivery kitchen run out of a flower shop on Chatsworth Road, make this somewhere we’re even more desperate to feast at.
Watching the sun rise. Sometimes the best things are free and impromptu. We’ve decided the next time we wake up in the early hours and can’t fall back to sleep, we’ll bundle up, grab our lover/best friend/child, fill our Thermos with strong black coffee, and head out for one of the last sun rises of 2021. For added goosebumps, we’ll be listening to Kalimenkou Denkou sung by the Bulgarian State Television Female Choir as we watch dark turn to dawn.