Month: January 2010

Le Monde diplomatique podcast – Obama and “smart power”

World map in lightMy guest in this first Le Monde diplomatique podcast of 2010 is Michael Klare, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts.

In his article in the January edition of the paper, “US turns persuader not policeman”, Professor Klare asks whether disappointment with the first year of Obama’s foreign policy is the right reaction, or whether we ought instead to see “smart power” as a pragmatic response to the US’s diminished role as world superpower – “assertiveness in the face of decline”.

In the interview we talk about the challenge posed by Iran to US smart power and also its implications for the domestic political landscape in the US.

To listen to the interview, click here.

39. On Monsters: An Unnatural History of our Worst Fears

On Monsters AsmaI first became aware of Stephen Asma‘s book on the fine Washington Post Book World podcast (which sadly is no more). The Post also chose the book as one of its top non-fiction titles of the year for 2009, calling it “a safari through the many manifestations of our idea of the monstrous”. Their reviewer went on: “I have seldom read a book that so satisfyingly achieves such an ambitious goal.”

And indeed the book is much more than a mere freakish parade of monsters (though that is a part of its pleasure) – it is rather an investigation of the meaning of monsters. Why do all societies have their monsters? What do they help us cope with? How has the significance of monsters changed as societies have gone from polytheism to monotheism and on through the Enlightenment? And which of our current fears will our future monsters embody?

Asma is clearly something of a polymath – not only did he produce many of the illustrations in the book himself, he also combines his academic career at Columbia College in Chicago, where he specializes in the philosophy and history of science, with playing music professionally (you can sample it here). And he has made his own entertainingly creepy trailer for On Monsters, which you can see here.

Click on the link above to listen to the podcast, or subscribe to Podularity on iTunes using the link in the right hand column above – it’s quick, free and easy.

Books of the Decade – Michael Bywater

Michael BywaterMichael Bywater is an author and broadcaster whose recent books include Lost Worlds (Granta, 2004), Big Babies (Granta, 2006), and – with Kathleen Burk – Is This Bottle Corked?: The Secret Life of Wine. He writes regularly for the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times and numerous other publications. He is a regular broadcaster for the BBC.

Scarlett Thomas – The End of Mr Y (2007)

Thomas: End of Mr YThe Noughties produced a series of fine and strange novels on the strange relationship between the living and the dead, starting with Will Self’s How The Dead Live (2000) and including Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black (2005), The Brief History of the Dead (Kevin Brockmeier 2007). But the star of the show was, for me, Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr Y (2007), an astounding, hypnotic compendium of computer-game, urban fantasy, dreamscape and sheer magic, incorporating a discourse on homoeopathy, a meditation on Heidegger and Derrida, a love stronger than death, and the sexiest, stroppiest, most wilful and clever heroine of the last decade, her first-person narrator Ariel Manto. I can’t tell whether I’m in love with Manto, with the book, or with Scarlett Thomas for creating them. Probably all three.

Howard Jacobson – Kalooki Nights (2007)

Jacobson: Kalooki NightsThe narrative of the Jew as the brilliant edition of a universal fact (as Walter Bagehot said of a princely marriage) has been a staple of fiction since Shakespeare, but never done better than in Howard Jacobson’s Kalooki Nights. Ostensibly the story of a Mancunian Jewish family in the late 20th century, it is by turns chaotic, melancholy, penetrating and hilariously grotesque. But above all Jacobson’s virtuoso writing and unique ear for the vast diversity of the human voice makes this an entirely original masterpiece.

Adam Nicolson – Power and Glory (2003)

Nicolson: Power and GloryWhen the socially unpolished King James VI of Scotland came to the throne of England, he commissioned what has become arguably the most powerful influence on the English (and English-speaking) mind and tongue: the “Authorized Version” of the Bible. Adam Nicolson’s Power and Glory (2003) account of how a committee produced such a work of art is simultaneously humane, scholarly and moving, simultaneously illuminating the inward lives of the Translators and the wider context of their work, in beautifully-measured prose of which they themselves would have approved.

38. Poland – a country in the moon

Polish Winter by Michael MoranMy guest on this week’s programme is Michael Moran, author of A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland.

Michael first visited Poland in the early 1990s after the collapse of Communism as leader of an ill-assorted crew of British teachers charged with introducing the Poles to the delights of market capitalism. As a pianist, he was attracted by the music of Chopin, but confesses that he knew little about the country. He little suspected that he would fall in love with the country and end up making it his home.

A Country in the Moon – the description is Edmund Burke’s and dates from 1795, but might still stand for a country which is very little known and all too often reduced to cliché in the West – achieves something very rare for a travel book: it manages to be genuinely funny and entertaining, and also deeply thought-provoking about the many terrible chapters in Poland’s history.

Moran: A Country in the MoonThe book has been widely praised; the Guardian called it “the best contemporary travel book on Poland, reminiscent in its finest moments of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s masterful Time of Gifts” and said “No thinking traveller interested in Poland should overlook this essential book”. The Observer admired how it  “triumphantly balanc[ed] humour with scholarship”, while the Spectator called it “well-researched and hugely entertaining…  a three-star feast”.

Click on the podcast player above to find out what Michael finds so attractive about Poland – and what it is like to tour the country in a venerable old Rolls-Royce.

Books of the Decade – Andrew Kahn

Andrew KahnAndrew Kahn is University Lecturer in Russian at the University of Oxford and Tutor and Fellow at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He has degrees from Harvard and Oxford in Russian and Classics. His scholarly research draws on his wide-ranging interests in European literature, most especially Greek, Latin and French.

In addition to writing about Pushkin, whom he talked about on Podularity in programme 21, “In Pushkin’s Library”, he works on Enlightenment literature in Russia and Europe, on the history of ideas, the comparative reception of European culture in Russia, travel writing, the history of translation, and twentieth-century poetry.

Here are Andrew’s three favourite books from the last decade:

Zbigniew Herbert, The Collected Poems 1956-1998 (2009)

Herbert Collected PoemsThe contemporary of Milosz, and somewhat overshadowed by him in the West, Herbert seen in the unity of his poetic creation is one of the most biting and elegant ironists of the twentieth century.  His alter ego, Pan Cogito, ranks with Kafka’s K. as a haunting witness to oppressive systems.  Yet many poems convey Herbert’s acute visual imagination and his flair for dramatic monologue.  A great classic of modern poetry.

Edward Said,  Music at the Limits (2008)

Edward Said Music at the LimitsThis collection of Said’s essays on music and performance shows him at his lucid, elegant best.  A masterful close reader of texts, he is also a close listener who has the rare gift of explaining the ideas of music and music of ideas in words.  The essay comparing Beethoven’s Fidelio and Mozart’s Magic Flute is a particular revelation, but every page here has fine observations on classical music from the classical period to the post-modern age.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, In the First Circle  (2009)

Solzhenitsyn In the First CircleThe publication in English for the first time of this complete, restored version of Solzhenitsyn’s literary masterpiece is an event.  A novel in the grand tradition of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, packed with ideas and an epic cast of characters, it is also a political thriller.  The chapters on Stalin must rank as one of the greatest and most chilling studies in the mentality of tyranny.

Books of the Decade – Andrew Kelly

Andrew KellyAndrew Kelly is the Director of the Bristol Festival of Ideas and other projects. He is the author and editor of 12 books including Filming All Quiet on the Western Front, Cinema and the Great War, Queen Square: biography of a place, Brunel: in love with the impossible.

Of the many hundreds of books I have read in the past decade, three stand out. But could I mention too the series of letters by T E Lawrence that Jeremy and Nicole Wilson at Castle Hill Press are producing. They are defenders of the Lawrence flame, and have already published the definitive and most elegant edition of Lawrence’s classic work, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. But the letters are something different and new. A painfully slow process – given the high standards of research and editorial work demanded – this is turning into one of the finest series ever published, bringing to life a complex and brave man. And can I thank the (mostly small) publishers of the works of Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig and Hans Fallada for bringing these authors to me over the past ten years.

To see Andrew’s book choices, click below. Read More

37. Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall jacketI’m delighted to say that the first Podularity podcast of 2010 is devoted to an in-depth interview with 2009 Booker prize winner, Hilary Mantel in which she talks about her remarkable novel, Wolf Hall. As far as I can tell, this is the most extensive interview about the book available anywhere on the web.

Here’s Hilary Mantel on her decision to write about Thomas Cromwell:

“Very much I wanted to write about Cromwell. There isn’t any other figure I would have picked; he was the main attraction because I was really interested in the path he took from very humble origins, to the Councils of State, to be the king’s right-hand man, to be an earl. Other people rise from a humble background but they invariably come through the Church.

“Cromwell didn’t take that path. He very much created the conditions in which he could succeed, but by doing so [also created] a huge backwash of resentment and ill-will, which I suppose in his own mind must have seemed indefeasible at times.

“He had the example before him of his patron and mentor, Cardinal Wolesey, and his fall from power. And so you might say that he must have known all along that he was bound not to succeed. And you know that saying, ‘all political careers end in failure sooner or later’. But he obviously thought the game was worth the candle, and with the odds stacked against him, he persevered.

“And if he had been able to do even a fraction of what he would have liked to do, the country would have been a very different place.”

To hear more about Thomas Cromwell and Hilary Mantel’s extraordinarily accomplished novel about him, click on the podcast player at the top of this post. Or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes using the right-hand column above.

Three questions for… Mary Beard

It's a Don's Life coverMary Beard is no stranger to Podularity. In fact, she may have appeared on it more times than any other author. This however is her Podularity video debut.

Last autumn, after recording an audio interview with Mary about her book-of-the-blog, It’s a Don’s Life, I asked her to take part in my “Three Questions for” series of short films. The format is as simple as the name suggests – three questions, no tricks or traps, but no forewarning either.

So click below to find out where Mary thinks the Elgin marbles belong, why she chose the Romans over the Greeks, and which book she thinks everyone should have to read before they leave school – it’s not, it turns out, a Latin one…

Books of the Decade – Roland Chambers

Roland ChmabersRoland Chambers studied film and literature in Poland and at New York University before returning to England in 1998. His first biography, The Last Englishman, won a Jerwood award from the Royal Society of Literature, and draws on his experience both as a children’s author and as a private investigator specializing in Russian politics and business. He currently divides his time between London and Connecticut.

You can hear my audio interview with Roland by clicking here.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz

Oscar WaoA fat, fantasy and science fiction nerd spread-eagled between New Jersey, his grandma in the Dominican Republic, and the voodoo of dictator Rafael Trujillo.

Messiah-cum-sacrificial cow, Oscar is devastating, as is his author, Junot Diaz: brilliance on every level.

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

Satrapi: PersepolisA so-called graphic novel (it’s an autobiography) which gives Iran since the Revolution through the childhood, adolescence and coming of age of Marji, author of perhaps the most influential comic since Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan

Pollan: Omnivore's DilemmaPollan shows how far we are from what we eat, how much of it either is or relies upon a single crop, how consuming that crop is like drinking petrol, and why American rednecks call their arseholes cornholes. The trick is understanding what’s for lunch.

“Where is everybody?”

We Need to Talk about KelvinHere’s an intriguing question to start the new year with.

Last autumn I interviewed Marcus Chown about his latest popular science title, We Need to Talk about Kelvin. At the end of the interview (which you can find here), we made this short video in which Marcus tackled a question famously posed by the Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi, who developed the first nuclear reactor.

Turning to his fellow scientists one day over lunch in 1950, he asked, “Where is everybody?” He wasn’t referring to absent colleagues, but the apparent absence of signs of other intelligent life in the universe.

Click on the video below to hear Marcus’s take on whether we are alone…