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Five Books chosen by Brian Theodore Ralph

Following my very enjoyable experience reading Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales on 7th December 2022 I am delighted to talk about five books that I have read recently. They are not the most recent, as that would include The Evening and the Morning Ken Follett’s prequel to Pillars of the Earth, and the re-reading of J. B. Priestley’s Bright Day, and Mary Renault’s The Alexander Trilogy.

So on to the five I have chosen, in no particular order.

How to Live : A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell

The extraordinary thing is that I bought this book about ten years ago on a friend’s recommendation; I dipped into it, selecting one of the ‘questions’ at random. I was not gripped. I tried another question with the same result and the book was shelved. Some years later, having read Call Me By Your Name, by André Aciman, I was keen to see the film adaptation. Here, a line from the dialogue leapt out at me: ‘Parce-que c’était lui; parce-que c’était moi’. On researching the quotation, I discovered that it was written by Montaigne. I returned to the Bakewell Life of… started at the beginning and couldn’t put it down. A fascinating account of the Montaigne’s, his life, lived in the perilous years of religious conflicts in 16th century France and his philosophy. I was so pleased that my friend’s recommendation had been thoroughly vindicated and I emerged impressed by the man and his thinking. Why do we not study him on the school curriculum?

Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale

I have read most of Gale’s output as a result of which I rushed to get a copy of his latest work. I believe this to be his first biographical work and his subject was known to me in name, but shamefully, through little of his work. Charles Causley lived a very sheltered life in the town of Launceston until his service in the navy during World War 11 brings him in contact with danger, the possibilities of death and with the risks of illicit love. The book is more concerned with the private nature of the man and his relationship with his shielding mother. I find Gale’s style of writing so easy, he is a wonderful storyteller. I also have gained some insight into a much loved and respected poet.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

This was a wonderful read. O’Farrell paints such a vivid picture of Shakespeare’s Stratford and of his family. Of course, there is so much here that is speculation and guesswork as there is so little available evidence. But this a very convincing and absorbing account of the short life of Shakespeare’s only son, fraternal twin to Judith, and who died at the age of eleven. I was so moved at one point that I had to stop reading, so raw and affecting was the writing. I was interested, seeing the film All is True, dealing with the final years of the playwright’s life, which has a different take on Hamnet’s death. I invite you to draw your own conclusion, but you will, I am sure, delight in O'Farrell's account.

Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci

This was gifted to me by friends who know of my love of cooking and of my love of Italy and Italian food. I shall not comment upon my thoughts on Mr Tucci’s career as an actor, but he has an engaging style as a writer, if you are not offended by what is occasionally rather ‘spicy’ language. It is an interesting account of a life rich with incident, but whatever your thoughts on the actor, if you enjoy Italian food you will certainly enjoy the wealth of information, hints, advice and several very good recipes. It’s an easy read and worth it for the recipes alone.

The Young Pretender: The Dramatic Return of Master Betty by Michael Arditti

As an actor, I was intrigued to learn about this child phenomenon who was lionised by audiences at the beginning of the 19th century. Michael Arditti is another writer whose work I read avidly. Interesting that two of my favourite authors’ most recent works have been biographical. In response to a request, Michael wrote to me: ‘I first discovered Master Betty, the phenomenal Georgian child actor, who dominated British theatre from 1804–1806, about forty years ago. He lodged at the back of my mind and, ever since, I’ve wanted to find a way to tell his story, which apart from the record of his performances, is full of lacunae. I finally found a way to do so, by setting it during his abortive comeback at the grand old age of twenty, and making the nature of memory itself an art of the narrative I hope I have gone some way to rescuing him from the shadows and putting him back in the limelight, where he once stood so proudly’. This was a fascinating account which Arditti writes with a nice suggestion of Georgian speech and with delightful detail of the world of Georgian theatre. There is also a hint of melancholy in the message that it is wise to know when to quit.


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