Month: December 2009

Books of the Decade – Roger Luckhurst

Roger LuckhurstRoger Luckhurst is professor of modern and contemporary literature at Birkbeck College, University of London. His many publications include a study of J.G. Ballard’s fiction, editions of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for Oxford World’s Classics, and many works on Victorian and genre fiction. He is currently working on The Mummy’s Curse and other Dastardly Tales of Egyptian London, of which he says:

“This book will explore the true story of the curse of the British Museum mummy, first brought to prominence in about 1904 with the death of the journalist Fletcher Robinson, and which haunted the Edwardian imagination, preparing the way for the later frenzy around the tomb of Tutankhamen.”

To see which books Roger has chosen as his books of the decade, click below:
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Books of the Decade – Keith Kahn-Harris

Keith Kahn-HarrisKeith Kahn-Harris works as a sociologist, researcher, writer and music critic. He is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society at Birkbeck College, an associate lecturer for the Open University and the convenor of New Jewish Thought.

He has written on a variety of topics, including Judaism, music scenes, heavy metal, transgression, Israel, communities, dialogue, religion, ethnicity, political discourse, and denial. You can find his contributions to the Guardian’s Comment is Free here.

Tove Jansson, The Summer Book (2003)

Jansson: The Summer BookOkay, this was first published in 1972, but the English translation appeared in 2003. If she is heard of at all, the Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson is known in the English-speaking world for the Moomin books. The Summer Book shows her to have been (she died in 2001) an author of mature works of extraordinary subtlety and power.

The Summer Book recounts the conversations and “adventures” of an old women and her six-year-old granddaughter spending the summer together on a small island in the Gulf of Finland. It is a beautiful and profound meditation on age, love and life itself.

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005)

Diamond: CollapseIn a decade in which climate change finally became an issue that no one could ignore (despite the Bush administration’s best attempts), Jared Diamond provided a powerful reminder that the survival of any civilization is never guaranteed. Diamond displays an extraordinary range and depth of research in his historical account of societies that have collapsed.

Although he takes due account of specific circumstances, his discussion of civilizations as various as that of Easter Island, the Maya and Angkor Wat show with admirable clarity and force the importance of questions of environmental sustainability. Unlike the societies Diamond studied, we have the historical and scientific knowledge to adapt to the limits of our environment – but it is far from clear that we have the will to do so.

John Harris, The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock (2003)

Harris: The Last PartyIt’s been a pleasure to watch John Harris’s transformation from NME hack to one of Britain’s best political journalists. The Last Party catches Harris on the cusp of that transformation as he merges political history with rock history and criticism.

The story is a cautionary one of how enormous ambition and tremendous talent can be subverted into pomposity and hubris. Harris’s parallels the youthful promise of Blair and of the Britpop bands, together with the subsequent descent into love of riches and power (Blair) and cocaine-fueled excess (Britpop). A salutary tale, brilliantly told.

Books of the Decade – Mark Vernon

Mark VernonMark Vernon is a writer, broadcaster and journalist.  His academic interests led him from physics to philosophy via theology (he began his professional life as a priest in the Church of England). He went freelance ten years ago and now writes regularly for the Guardian, The Philosophers’ Magazine, TLS, Financial Times and New Statesman, alongside a range of business titles, including Management Today. He also broadcasts, notably on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time.

Plato's Podcasts coverMark’s most recent book is Plato’s Podcasts: The Ancients’ Guide to Modern Living. You can hear a podcast about that book by clicking here. His other publications include: Wellbeing, After Atheism, The Philosophy of Friendship, and Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life.

On Religion, John Caputo (2001)

Caputo: On ReligionThis book appeared in 2001. Had those folk who waged battle in the God wars of the decade read it first, we might have had a more informed debate.

Caputo aims to do a difficult thing: define religion. He does so with great verve, seeing that at heart, religion is a form of love – for good or ill.

The Athenian Murders, José Carlos Somoza (2001)

Somoza: Athenian MurdersIt is rare for a novel to combine the excitement of the thriller with the insight of great philosophy.

Umberto Eco manages it, and Somoza does too, in a plot that starts with an apparently minor conundrum and ends up engaging nothing less than the secret of knowledge itself. Brilliant.

The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Around Your Head, Raymond Tallis (2008)

Tallis: Kingdom of Infinite SpaceI read this book whilst taking a long train trip, and it was so engaging that when I got off, I’d swear I saw the world in brighter colours.

Tallis combines the science of the body with the philosophy of consciousness and, pulling no punches, produces a truly remarkable exploration of what goes on with our heads.

Books of the Decade – Andy Beckett

Andy BeckettAndy Beckett studied modern history at Oxford University and journalism at the University of California in Berkeley. For his first, widely praised book, Pinochet in Piccadilly: Britain and Chile’s Hidden History (2002), he was nominated as Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year.

When the Lights Went Out CoverIn 2009 he published a major new history of the political landscape of Britain in the 1970s: When the Lights Went Out. Reviewing the book, Hanif Kureishi praised Beckett for his “avid eye and novelistic flair for detail” and concluded “Beckett’s excellent account of the 1970s is a necessity if we want to understand now as well as then”. You can hear an interview with Andy Beckett in which he discusses the book here.

Since 1993, he has written for the New York Times, the Economist, the Independent on Sunday and the London Review of Books. For the last twelve years, he has been a feature writer at the Guardian. He lives in London.

Click below to see which titles Andy has chosen as his Books of the Decade.
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Books of the Decade – Tony Bruce

Tony BruceTony Bruce has spent pretty much his entire working life in books. First at Stockbridge Bookshop in Edinburgh (still going strong), followed by a stint at the epicentre of bookselling at Waterstones, Charing Cross Road (sadly no longer) before becoming manager of Waterstones at Goldsmiths College.

Having had enough of bookselling he moved to Routledge in 1994, where he is now Publisher for the Philosophy list. He enlivens the routines of academic publishing by occasionally commissioning trade books, most recently with The Philosopher’s Dog by Raimond Gaita and The War for Children’s Minds by Stephen Law. He lives in Bath.

A Lie About My Father, John Burnside (2006)

Burnside: Lie about my FatherA deeply thoughtful book, full of hurting, damage and repetition. It is a searing portrayal of first a father and then a son caught in an alcoholic and drugged loop of self-destruction. Yet it is as far as one can imagine from the recent slew of self-indulgent  “misery memoirs”. Burnside’s compassion  comes through on every page; he does not forgive his father but somehow refrains from judging him.

Perhaps what lingers most in the memory, aside from the miracle of Burnside’s survival,  is the way he writes. You can smell the damp  woods, housing estates and pubs first of Fife then Corby, yet every page has a poetic beauty to it.

Epileptic, David B (2005)

Epileptic, David BForget what you think you know about graphic novels.  This is a coruscating and moving account of one family’s search for a cure for their epileptic son, as narrated by his brother, translated from French. It’s an odd book, brilliantly and terrifyingly illustrated with an occasionally rambling structure. Yet the account of the ever more surreal quest undertaken by David’s parents, through traditional medicine to macrobiotics and voodoo, never fails to grip and there is even the odd, really odd, comic fragment.

The Rider, Tim Krabbé

The Rider, Tim KrabbeThe Tour of Mont Aigoual never happened, but after reading Tim Krabbé’s book I can remember every kilometre. Forget the science of lactate threshold and “VO2 max” that dominate modern cycling, this is old school stuff and what every rider experiences in a bike race: pain, boredom, envy, hunger, elation, despair,  all related by one-time racer Krabbé.

Ostensibly a fictional account of a bike race, it’s really an existential thriller with the occasional  Bunuel-like detour: have you ever imagined cycling along a road made of mashed potato, leaning down from your seat for a forkful?  Probably not. The names of Krabbe’s adversaries are legends for any proper cyclist: Barthelmy, Reilhan, Kleber, Lebusque and the rider from “Cycles Goff”. Who can forget them?

Books of the Decade – Katy Derbyshire

Katy DerbyshireKaty Derbyshire is a translator and co-editor of city-lit Berlin (with Heather Reyes, who recently featured in Podularity podcast 36). She writes biased and unprofessional reports on German books, translation issues and life in Berlin at her blog, love german books.

Katy fell in love with German literature despite studying it at university, and was lured to Berlin in 1996 by a man, music and low rents. She stayed and now has a different man, a daughter and a lack of shelf space.

Inka Parei, Die Schattenboxerin

Inka Parei: Die SchattenboxerinThis is a wonderfully confusing short novel about a woman losing and finding herself in post-1989 Berlin. At first it reads like a detective story, but the psychology becomes more and more complex until the reader is just as disoriented as the protagonist.

What I love about it is the way it captures the sad settings of East Berlin in the early 90s: decaying factories, a tumbledown former fairground, an all but vacant house. And the interim mood after the Wall had fallen but before the city became quite the vibrant place it is today. All in beautiful, inventive language. Translated into 16 languages so far, I hope to start work on it myself very soon.

Selim Özdogan, Die Tochter des Schmieds

Ozgogan: Die Tochter des SchmiedsThis has to be my all-time favourite. It’s a “backstory” for Germany’s large Turkish population, the tale of a girl growing up in rural Anatolia in the 50s and 60s. It’s told with huge love and affection, with occasional flashes of Gül’s future life in Germany.

The story is made up of episodes and anecdotes, perhaps a little like a Turkish-German Laura Ingalls Wilder, if there can be such a thing. Özdogan takes great care to avoid cliché, and the novel even plays a cameo role in Fatih Akin’s award-winning film Edge of Heaven. This is the book I’d most like to translate myself. There’s a sample translation on the publisher’s website here (click on Download at the foot of the page for pdf).

Clemens Meyer, Die Nacht, die Lichter

Meyer: Die Nacht, die LichterClemens Meyer is an exceptional young talent, and this collection of short stories rightly won him one of Germany’s most important literary awards in 2008.

Heavily influenced by 20th-century American writing even down to some of the titles, the stories look at the darker side of life in Germany. Drug abuse, violence, gambling, alcohol – Meyer sweeps us along with the highs and lows involved. His characters are taciturn, down on their luck, unpleasant – and incredibly well drawn with just a few strokes of the pen. Again, it’s a book I’d love to get my teeth into – and you can read my translation of one of the stories in the Guardian.

Books of the Decade – Steve Lake

Steve LakeSteve Lake is a producer for the Munich-based jazz and classical music record label, ECM, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year, and co-author (with Paul Griffiths) of a book about the company, Horizons Touched (Granta, 2007). He has written about music for many international magazines and newspapers, and about literature for Germany’s Akzente. His recent record productions include albums with saxophonists Evan Parker
and Roscoe Mitchell, and with singer Judith Berkson, whose ECM debut will be released in 2010.

Shirley Collins, America over the Water (SAF Publishing, 2004)

Collins: America over the WaterTouching memoir of Sussex singer Shirley Collins’s personal and professional alliance with Texan folklorist Alan Lomax, and of their revelation-packed collecting trip through the American South in 1959.

In Como, the then-unknown Fred McDowell walked out of the Mississippi forest to dazzle them with his bottleneck guitar playing. In Virginia their tape reels captured the rippling clawhammer banjo of Wade Ward.  On the Parchman Farm prison camp Lomax recorded work songs (which would resurface –half a century later – on the “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack). They taped singers on the mountains, on the railroads, in black churches and white churches…

A year on the road together would strain Collins’s relationship with Lomax to breaking point, but what an inspiring preamble to a life in folk music.

Phil Lesh, Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead ( Little, Brown, 2005)

Lesh: Searching for the SoundPhil Lesh had already been an orchestral violinist, jazz trumpeter, classmate of Steve Reich and composition student of Luciano Berio before being drafted, in 1965, to play bass guitar for the embryonic Grateful Dead.

His undimmed enthusiasm for music – from blues to the avant-garde – drives this book, just as it powered the Dead’s improvisational flights though more than two thousand concerts. “Music can define life itself, and it has indeed defined my life. In life, as in art, there are recurring themes, transpositions, repetitions, unexpected developments, all converging to define a form that’s not necessarily apparent until its ending has come and gone.”

Albert Ellis, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (Prometheus Books, 2004)

Ellis: Rational Emotive Behavior TherapyYou think you’ve got problems?  In 2003, Albert Ellis, nearly 90 years old, was hospitalized for major surgery to remove his colon. At the time, he was also isolated by increasing deafness, his girlfriend of 37 years had just left him, and members of the psychology institute he founded were voting to remove him from its board of directors. Against this challenging background, Ellis did what he had done so often before: wrote a book to help others, with stoicism and gruff humour intact.

All of Ellis’s books (there are over seventy) are worth reading. This one, with its confessional tone and clear-eyed self-criticism, can be considered part of an important late trilogy that also includes The Myth of Self-Esteem (2005) and The Road to Tolerance (2006).

Three questions for… Robert Rowland Smith

Breakfast with SocratesThis is the second in an occasional series in which I ask an interviewee three questions – no tricks or traps, but no forewarning either.

This time my guest is writer, Robert Rowland Smith, who has just published a book entitled Breakfast with Socrates: The Philosophy of Everyday Life. I rather like the exclamation mark and semi-colon behind Robert’s shoulder, unintentional though they were!

Click on the book cover above to find out more about Robert’s book. A podcast interview – in which I get to ask Robert more than three questions – is coming soon.