Month: November 2009

Books of the Decade – Kirsten Ellis

Kirsten EllisContinuing our series in which writers and publishers choose their favourite books of the past ten years, today’s guest is Kirsten Ellis.

Kirsten is the author of Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope (Harper Collins). She is currently writing an historical novel and completing her MPhil/PhD in Creative Writing and teaching at Goldsmiths University. From the reviews of Star of the Morning:

“In Ellis’s account… we have a very different Hester Stanhope [from previous accounts]: a woman who has inherited the mantle of her Prime Minister forebears (William Pitt the Younger was her uncle; Pitt the Elder her grandfather), showing due leadership, courage under fire, and a mission to count in the imperial power games being played in the East.”
Lesley McDowell, The Scotsman

Star of the Morning“Ellis has unearthed fresh material, and retells the story with idiosyncratic panache… Ellis is a vivid narrator with an eye for detail: the perfumed dinners attended by naked female slaves; the dusk return of the swallows to the Umayyad mosque.”
Sara Wheeler, Daily Telegraph

To see Kirsten’s favourite books of the decade, click below.

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Books of the Decade – Louise Foxcroft

Louise FoxcroftLouise Foxcroft is a historian of medicine and the author of The Making of Addiction: Opiate Use and Abuse in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Ashgate, 2007) and Hot Flushes, Cold Science: A History of the Modern Menopause (Granta, 2009).

Mary Crockett in the Scotsman called Hot Flushes a “gripping study of western attitudes to women of a certain age and older”. Hot Flushes, Cold Science coverShe went on: “The good news, sisters – and brothers, if you’re still reading – is that Foxcroft’s study, complete with extensive endnotes and an entertainingly compiled index, arrives at a constructive conclusion. The thrust of her message is: it’s time we changed our way of thinking on ageing. For starters, it’s a natural process, not a disease. Second, women aren’t in it alone, not everything being rosy in the male mid-life department.”

Louise appeared in programme 25, “Menopause and Medicine”, on Podularity to talk about the book. You’ll find that podcast here.

Philip Roth, The Dying Animal (Jonathan Cape, 2001)

Roth Dying AnimalHad I read this book when I was thirty I would have felt threatened and angered by the “emancipated manhood” of David Kepesh.

Inevitably, he gets caught out, but that’s not the point. The point is that reading it in my fifties has made me radically rethink my ideas about male autonomy.

Vic Gatrell, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London (Atlantic, 2006)

Gatrell City of LaughterGatrell is a rare sort of historian. This book roars, giggles, hums, farts, and penetrates polite society past and present.

Fabulously illustrated with ribald satirical prints, this is the best sort of history there is. It is clever, colourful, and frothing with humanity.

Anne Enright,  The Gathering (Vintage, 2008)

Enright GatheringUncomfortably comforting, bleak yet homely, The Gathering is a raw view of family life.

There are some things in families, between people, that have their own momentum and resistance, and Enright describes the love and the grief with a simple piercing beauty.

Books of the Decade – Elizabeth Speller

Whoosh! There goes the first decade of the no-longer-quite-so-new millennium.  To mark the decade’s end, we’re launching a new series in which writers, editors and publishers are given the agonizing challenge of choosing just three favourite books from the more than two million published in English in the past ten years.

Over the next few weeks you’ll be able to read the choices of a host of guest reviewers and, we hope, make some interesting new discoveries. And of course we’d be delighted to hear about your favourite books of the decade too. You can use the comment form on this site or else send me an email at george[at]

Elizabeth SpellerI’m delighted that the first guest to make her selection is Elizabeth Speller. Elizabeth has already won acclaim for her poetry – her poem “Finistère” was short-listed for the 2009 Forward Prize – and for her family memoir (2006), Sunlight on the Garden. Of this book a TLS reviewer said: “There are echoes … of Sylvia Plath’s ability to combine beauty with irony, and suffering with comedy.”

Return of Captain John Emmett

She is a classicist by training and her book Following Hadrian (2002) took her on a second-century journey through the Roman empire on the trail of the melancholy, ruthless Roman emperor.

In March 2010, she will publish her first novel, The Return of Captain John Emmett, set in the years after the First World War.

To find out which books Elizabeth has chosen, click below.
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Did the Vikings wear Viking helmets?

Hammer and Cross coverRobert Ferguson visited London from his home in Oslo earlier this week and I interviewed him at his publisher’s offices for the Blackwells podcast which will go out tomorrow.

Robert has just published a major new history of the Viking age called The Hammer and the Cross, in which he says he wants to “restore the violence of the Viking age”, but also to explain the context in which that violence took place – namely the enforced Christianization of the northern peoples by Charlemagne.

Is it, Robert wonders in the Blackwells interview, out of place to compare the dynamic driving those Viking raids to modern acts of terrorism?

I also made this short film with him in which I confess the questions were a bit more straightforward: so did the Vikings wear horned helmets? Click below to find out [3:37].

36. Berlin – city of “eternal becoming”

Berlin crossing sign This week’s podcast features an interview with Heather Reyes, co-founder of Oxygen Books, and co-editor of the latest addition to their City-Lit series, which appropriately enough in the week which marks the twentieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, paints a portrait in words of Berlin.

Although there are plenty of old favourites such as Christopher Isherwood, Alfred Döblin and Len Deighton, the emphasis of the book is on unexpected vantage points and new, less familiar voices. So there is no dutiful trot through the city’s history “from earliest times to the present day”, but instead themed sections which try to get under the skin of the city.

City-Lit BerlinOff the beaten track, some of the highlights of the book for me were: Rolf Schneider on the disappearing Berlin pub or Kneipe (it used to be said that every street crossing in Berlin had four corners and five corner pubs – but not any more); Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom‘s reflections on a city every inch of which is “steeped in history”, from the opening of his novel All Souls’ Day; Chloe Aridjis in Book of Clouds on the “ghost stations” on the underground – the deserted, embalmed stations which although on West Berlin lines, happened to lie beneath East Berlin’s territory.

Book of Clouds coverThere’s also an excellent piece by Iain Bamforth about Berlin’s sense of itself as expressed in its architecture (he coins the memorable phrase “hyperthyroid neoclassicism” for Hitler’s default style). He mentions Stephen Spender’s visit to Hitler’s Chancellery in 1945 and writes:

“Spender noted the reams of building manuals above the Führer’s bed. Hitler didn’t believe in much but he believed in architecture.”

And Berlin, it seems to me, is hard to better as an expression of what a city’s people – or its leaders – believed throughout its history rendered in stone, glass, brick and steel. One of my own favourite books on the city (not included in the City-Lit anthology) is Brian Ladd’s Ghosts of Berlin, which looks at how the city has come to terms with its past through the built environment. That may sound rather dry and specialist – it’s not, since the past that Berlin has had to come to terms with has so often been so raw and painful.

Finally, I wanted to mention Heather’s co-editor on this volume, Katy Derbyshire. Katy has contributed many new translations to the book, which adds considerably to its appeal. You can find Katy’s blog on German books (Love German Books) here. It’s well worth checking out.

To listen to the podcast, click on the link above, or go to Podularity’s iTunes page using the link in the right-hand column.

To see my photo essay on Berlin, click on the “more” link below.

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The cat and the cockroach

Jan ZalasiewiczI have begun asking my interviewees to recommend a book which is a particular favourite of theirs.

First up is Jan Zalasiewicz, who appeared in programme 34, “After We’ve Gone”, talking about his book, The Earth after Us. Here is his book choice:

When one digs for a living amid the rubble of deep geological time, then it’s a nice to ponder on other transmogrifications of time.  Or transmoggiefications, perhaps.  Of forgotten heroines, I have a soft spot for one of the feline world:  Mehitabel, that New York cat sure that she was Cleopatra reincarnated.

Archie and MehitabelHer exploits (mostly scandalous) were recounted by her comrade in spirit, if not in zoological affinity – Archy the cockroach.  This six-legged wit, philosopher and raconteur wrote by leaping from the top of the frame of an old-fashioned typewriter to strike, one by one, its keys with his head.

The hard-won biographical fragments, in free verse, were collected each morning by one Don Marquis and passed on to the astonished publishers (quite who trousered the royalties is unclear).   In these troubled and changing times, Mehitabel’s spirit can cheer us all.  It was one day up and the next day down, and always the devil to pay, but she was ever the lady (she insisted), ever the lady.

Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis still seems to be in print after all these years, thank goodness.

Jan Zalasiewicz

Georgian Secrets

Cruickshank: Secret History of Georgian LondonClick on the video below to hear Dan Cruickshank talking about his latest book, The Secrets of Georgian London. As Frances Wilson succinctly put it in her Times review:

“Eighteenth-century London contained more prostitutes than anywhere else in Europe. In this fascinating account of sex and the Georgian city, Dan Cruickshank suggests that one woman in five was involved in some way with the sex industry.”

There are many other jaw-dropping secrets of the Georgian underworld uncovered in this highly readable, but clearly meticulously researched book. Yet what stops it becoming a catalogue of humanity’s seemingly endless appetite for exploitation of its own kind is Cruickshank’s unmistakable sympathy for the women who became ensnared in the sex trade. For a lucky few, it could be a passport to a life of luxury, but for the vast majority the trajectory was the downwards one described in Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress.

Le Monde diplomatique podcast – “civilizations from different galaxies”

“After Iraq the ideas of the Bush administration – for example, the idea that you can remake the world in America’s image, that we can alter the condition of the whole Islamic world in order to protect ourselves – had become deeply unfashionable.

“But I think there is a danger of embracing the opposite idea – a kind of Orientalism, the notion of a primordial and timeless enemy.”

My guest on this month’s podcast for Le Monde diplomatique is Dr Patrick Porter of the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London.

Porter: Military OrientalismPatrick has recently published a book on military orientalism, and he pursues that theme in his article in this month’s issue of LMD with particular reference to the Taliban. To view them as medieval or even extraterrestrials as many in the West have done is to see no further than their rhetoric and overlook the extent to which their culture is constantly changing and adapting to circumstances.

To listen to the podcast, click here.