Month: February 2010

Three questions for… Simon Winder

Winder GermaniaSimon Winder has just published a personal and highly entertaining history of Germany and the Germans. In his preface to Germania, he writes:

“[this] is an attempt to tell the story of the Germans starting from their notional origins in the sort of forests enjoyed by gnomes and heroes and ending at the time of Hitler’s seizure of power.”

He admits up-front that Germany is “a sort of Dead Zone” for English-speaking visitors today, unless they happen to have a professional reason for being there. But Simon’s spirited and idiosyncratic exploration of the highways and many of the byways of German history may well be able to change that. It’s certainly a long time since a book on German history made me laugh aloud in public as this one did.

An audio interview is coming soon. In the mean time, as an appetiser, here is Simon’s contribution to our “Three Questions for…” series.

40. Charles Dickens – a writer’s life

Charles Dickens readingWe mark the birthday of Charles Dickens earlier this week with a special extended edition of my interview with his biographer Michael Slater from the end of last year, which originally appeared on Blackwell Online.

John Bowen, reviewing the book in the Times Literary Supplement, said:

“[it] immediately takes its place as the most authoritative, fair-minded and navigable of modern biographies. Slater, the most distinguished of modern Dickens scholars, is a master of detail and a stickler for dates (there are a dozen or so on the first page) and the book gives a vivid sense of the day-to-day, week-by-week bustle and productivity of Dickens’s life, its polymorphous inventiveness, its relentless juggling.”

Michael Slater: Charles DickensIn this extended version of the interview, you can hear how Michael Slater first became interested in Dickens, what persuaded him to take on the monumental task, and which aspects of Dickens personality and writing have fascinated him most. Click on the link above to listen to the podcast.

Le Monde diplomatique podcast – Barbara Ehrenreich

Smiley plugIn this month’s edition of Le Monde diplomatique I have a piece about US journalist and campaigner Barbara Ehrenreich and her latest book, called Smile or Die in the UK and Brightsided in the US.

I interviewed Barbara on a snowy evening in Bristol last month before she appeared at the Festival of Ideas to explore her thesis that the relentless promotion of positive thinking is undermining America and its effects are being felt all round the world.

If you’re unconvinced that positive thinking is creeping into more and more areas of life, here are some facts with which I began my article:

“George W Bush was head football cheerleader in his senior year at prep school. The most popular course offered by Harvard University in 2006 was positive psychology. The total US market for “self-improvement products” in 2005 was estimated at $9.6bn. Last month, during the Haitian earthquake, the top international story on – which publishes only good news – was “Prince William attracts crowd in New Zealand”. There are at least four different species of breast cancer awareness teddy bears. Sales of the self-help book The Secret (2006) (“the secret gives you anything you want: happiness, health and wealth”) by former Melbourne TV producer Rhonda Byrne exceed 7 million.”

Listen to the podcast by clicking here to make up your own mind whether there is something here to be worried about.

Books of the Decade – Rebecca Carter

Rebecca CarterRebecca Carter is an editor of fiction and non-fiction at the Random House imprint Harvill Secker, a list that aims to continue the tradition, once announced in an advertisement for Secker, of publishing “international quality literature with a wayward streak”. She has a particular love of unusual narrative history, and novels that explore hidden corners of the past (or present). Of her ‘books of the decade’ only Némirovsky’s Suite Française is published by her.

Other books she has edited include Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Atiq Rahimi’s Earth and Ashes, Gerard Woodward’s August trilogy, Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma, Javier Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow, Diana Evans’s 26a, Tom Reiss’s The Orientalist, Faïza Guène’s Just Like Tomorrow, Tim Butcher’s Blood River and Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese–English Dictionary for Lovers.

Saira Shah – The Storyteller’s Daughter: one woman’s return to her lost homeland (2003)

Saira Shah Storyteller's DaughterEarly on in the decade, post 9/11, there was a scramble among publishers to find books that would illuminate for readers the situation in Afghanistan. One of the first, and a book that taught me so much I didn’t know but should have done, was journalist Saira Shah’s intelligent and moving memoir, which intertwined the story of her own adventures in Afghanistan (familial, personal and journalistic) with a heart-felt history of the region.

Irène Némirovsky – Suite Française (2006)

Nemirovsky Suite FrancaiseWhen the French publisher of this remarkable, previously undiscovered novel about occupied France sent me a copy, I had no idea that I was about to embark on an extraordinary journey of discovery into the life and work of Irène Némirovsky. Through reading her novels, most of them published in France during the thirties and early forties, I have come to understand so much more about the Russian pogroms of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, and what it was like to sink or swim in the high capitalist society of early twentieth-century Europe. Many lessons for our own era. And such wonderful storytelling too.

Kamila Shamsie – Burnt Shadows (2009)

Shamsie Burnt ShadowsTowards the end of the decade, Kamila Shamsie’s supremely accomplished and gripping fifth novel reveals what a different place the Afghan/Pakistan border is post 9/11 to that crossed by Saira Shah in the eighties and nineties. Through Shamsie’s clever, interlocking narratives, which follow characters from India, just pre-partition, to Nagasaki in 1945 and contemporary New York, she shows how the past is always embroiled in the present.

Books of the Decade – Luke Brown

Luke BrownAlthough we are now in a new decade, we haven’t yet reached Chinese new year. I am taking comfort from this fact, since  I am still putting up Books of the (past) Decade choices. And of course the books that were worth reading in 2009 are still worth reading in 2010.

Enough self-exculpation. I promise that if you contributed to the series, your contribution is greatly appreciated and will appear on the site before long. Today’s guest chooser is Luke Brown.

Luke Brown is an editor at Tindal Street Press, where he’s worked since 2002, publishing such authors as Catherine O’Flynn and Anthony Cartwright. He was born in Fleetwood, Lancashire, and has lived in Birmingham for over a decade.

Cold Water by Gwendoline Riley (2002)

Gwendoline Riley“This is a dive-bar in the American style.” Carmel narrates a barmaid’s life of “wild disingenuousness” in some of the most beautiful, poetic prose I’ve read. Surrounded by romantics and fantasists, afflicted by a painful childhood and endless Manchester drizzle, she keeps herself together with superbly poised wit and her openness to the magic of friendships and love.

Short, melancholy and with descriptions that make you want to stand up and applaud, this is as perfect a novel as I’ve read.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño (1998 in Spanish, translated by Natasha Wimmer 2007)

Bolano Savage DetectivesEveryone talks about 2666, but my favourite is The Savage Detectives. It’s a long, polyphonic novel bookended by a virtuoso first-person from Madero, a cocky, seventeen-year-old student poet, who challenges his teacher with questions like “what is a rispetto?” in between describing multi-orgasmic sex with various girlfriends. The first section’s very funny.

Between his two sections, the novel tells the story of Madero’s two poet-heroes, the fathers of ‘visceral realism’, from something like fifty different characters’ voices, over thirty years in Mexico City and in their wanderings of the globe. It’s frequently absurd and often as sad as can be, with superb set-pieces; the overall effect is exhilarating.

Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow (2008)

Barlow Sharp TeethA novel about warring werewolf gangs in LA written in blank verse? I was suspicious, but it’s incredible. The verse works perfectly – quick to read, imagistic and hard-boiled, it flicks quickly between the perspectives of Barlow’s ensemble cast. There’s a noirish comic-book feel to it, but it’s serious too – about power, belonging, love and death. I didn’t think twice about the verse or the fact that many of its characters were werewolves – it’s very moving. I read it at a whacking great pace, completely enthralled by the plot. The novel that most surprised me this decade.