Listen to this article
White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World, by Geoff Dyer, Canongate, RRP£16.99/Pantheon, RRP$25
A companion piece of sorts to his excellent Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It (2003), White Sands offers Dyer’s trademark blend of literary non-fiction, fiction and philosophy. Both astute and wry, White Sands takes us from the Lightning Field in New Mexico to the haunts of Gauguin in French Polynesia via Los Angeles and Beijing’s Forbidden City in search of experience.
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, by Olivia Laing, Canongate, RRP£16.99/Picador, RRP$26
Laing’s last book, The Trip to Echo Spring (2013), explored the nexus of literature and alcohol through pen portraits of writers who drank (and, in some cases, drinkers who wrote). Here she offers similarly brief lives of artists on the fringes of New York, where she moves, alone, while meditating on the seemingly contradictory state of urban existence: loneliness in a crowd.
A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip, by Alexander Masters, Fourth Estate, RRP£12.99
Masters, already the acclaimed author of two biographies of obscure lives — a homeless man and a reclusive prodigy — brings his postmodern playfulness to the story of the (initially) anonymous author of 148 diaries retrieved from a skip in Cambridge. This unedited, unselfconscious record is slowly revealed by Masters in his fascinating and funny book.
The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between, by Hisham Matar, Viking, RRP£14.99/Random House, RRP$26
The kidnap of his father, a Libyan dissident, from Cairo in 1990 by Colonel Gaddafi’s secret police has already loosely inspired Matar’s two superb novels (one Man Booker-shortlisted). In this subtle and elegant memoir, he now explores his own experience to offer meditations on grief, exile and the bond between a father and a son. Extraordinary.
1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, by James Shapiro, Faber, RRP£9.99/Simon & Schuster, RRP$30
To mark the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, Shapiro tells the story of 1606, when Shakespeare wrote King Lear, placing this sublime creative act within its historical and social context: the gunpowder plot, plague and fears of witchcraft. “Literary creation is a mysterious, alchemical process,” wrote Jerry Brotton in the FT, “but Shapiro enables us to see how Shakespeare identifies a character, story or even a word from his historical moment and fashions it into compelling and enduring drama.”
The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918, by DJ Taylor, Chatto & Windus, RRP£20
Taylor offers a chronological survey of the English literary-industrial complex, from writing and reading to publishing, reviewing and even teaching. He explores how it has been shaped by economics and class over the past century through a broad history studded with critical sketches of key writers and critics in what the FT called a “richly detailed study of English literary life”.