Month: July 2010

Summer Reading Choices: Daisy Hay

Daisy HayDaisy Hay studied at Cambridge and currently holds the Alistair Horne Fellowship at St Antony’s College, Oxford.

I interviewed Daisy recently about her first book, Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives, which has recently won the Rose Mary Crawshay Prize. You can hear the interview by clicking here.

Here are Daisy’s summer reading suggestions:

My summer holiday usually takes me to the same spot each year: the house in the South of France which has been in my family since before I was born. Each year I take with me a new novel, something meaty and absorbing, which is much more satisfying to read in long shady sessions on the terrace than in the snatched minutes available in the working week.

Jacob de Zoet coverLast year I packed A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, and spent several glorious afternoons utterly engrossed in it. This year I took David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, which I’ve brought home to finish. I’d be further through it were it not for the fact that one of the great delights of the house is its bookshelves, which are in every room and which sag under the weight of thirty years of accumulated family reading and the childhood collections of my younger aunts.

Keane Time after Time coverThe shelves contain a veritable feast of children’s books, crime, classic and contemporary fiction and a good smattering of biography and history. So this year, as in previous years, I switched my brain off by re-reading L.M. Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott, and I also found a Molly Keane novel I’d never come across before, the brilliant Time After Time. I’ve come back determined to root out a copy of her Good Behaviour so that I can carry the delights of holiday reading forward into the rest of the summer.

Summer Reading Choices: Philip Hoare

Philip Hoare, author LeviathanPhilip Hoare was born and brought up in Southampton, where he still lives. His books include Spike Island: The Memory of a Military Hospital (2001), which W.G. Sebald praised for its “unique sense of time and place, and great depth of vision” and Leviathan or, The Whale which won the 2009 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.

You can hear my interview with Philip in which we talk about whales, Melville and Moby-Dick by clicking here.

Here are his summer reading recommendations:

Having just returned from a book tour of New England – a place haunted by its past, and by its whales – I’m deep in Mary K. Bercaw Edwards’ Cannibal Old Me: Spoken Sources in Melville’s Early Works, (Kent State University Press, $49).

Cannibal Old Me coverI picked up the book in the Whaling Museum in Nantucket, an island out of time where even billionaires’ SUVs are subjected to 18th-century cobblestones in the street, and where, courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association, I stayed in Thomas Macey’s house, where Melville himself dined in 1852. (I was woken in the small hours by a loud and inexplicable thud in my bedroom; perhaps Herman was making known his opinion of my own recent publishings on his work.)

Edwards is a writer steeped in the lore of the sea, and her book is a fascinating exposition of the way Melville played to Western fear of, and longing for, the Other, as represented by his titillating tales of anthropophagy in the South Seas. The subject rears its head in both Typee and Moby-Dick ­- indeed, the latter was based on the tale of the Nantucket whaleship, Essex, whose crew survived an attack by a whale, only to be forced to resort to cannibalism after they were shipwrecked.

In fact, the day after he dined with Thomas Macey, Melville met the retired captain of the Essex, Pollard – a man who had eaten his own cousin, Owen Coffin – and pronounced him “the most impressive man… I have ever encountered”. This ghoulish subject is further explored in Caleb Crain’s intriguing essay, Lovers of Human Flesh: Homosexuality and Cannibalism in Melville’s Novels, on his wonderfully named blog, “Steamboats Are Ruining Everything” ( But of course, the greatest cannibal was Melville himself, a man who shamelessly ate up his fellow writers’ words and presented them as his own – via his exquisite and subversive art.

Waters Role ModelsOn an equally subversive note, my beach reading this summer is positively filthy: John Waters’ Role Models (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25), to be published in the UK this September by Beautiful Books. Effortlessly and tastelessly switching from Manson murderers to Johnny Mathis, from Denton Welch to Comme des Garçons, it’s a self-help manual for trainee perverts, and it proves, once again, that Mr Waters is one of America’s greatest and dirtiest ironists.

Summer Reading Choices: Lucy Worsley

Lucy WorsleyBy day, Lucy Worsley is Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, which looks after The Tower of London, Hampton Court, and Kensington Palace inter al.

By night, she is a TV presenter and writer, most recently author of Courtiers: The Secret History of Kensington Palace. You can listen to my interview with her by clicking here.

Here are her summer reading choices:

American Wife coverI have felt like a junkie in need of a fix ever since I reluctantly finished the last page of The Secret History by Donna Tartt for the first time, fifteen years ago, so I was very excited to learn that Curtis Sittenfeld had written a ‘similar’ book about boarding school life.

Prep coverI’m a little slow on the uptake here as it was published in 2005, but after reading about her imagined secret life of Laura Bush in American Wife this year I fell in love with Ms. Sittenfeld, and looked up her back catalogue.

Prep is a mind-blowingly clever, funny and brilliant book. Unfortunately it made me a terrible, grouchy, uninterested holiday companion. Luckily I can blame my new favourite author rather than myself.

Summer Reading Choices: Louise Foxcroft

Louise FoxcroftLouise Foxcroft is the author of Hot Flushes, Cold Science: A History of the Modern Menopause, which won the Longman History Today prize for Book of the Year 2009.You can listen to my interview with Louise about this book by clicking here.

Here are her holiday reading recommendations:

In the early summer, ready to get away from the drizzle, I reread Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt and The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay. The English have always been very good at producing caustic aunts who can’t stay put but who can tolerate the young and irritate the rest of the family with their fantasies, politics, and unsuitable lovers. There was a distinct glut of them after the first world war and it was obviously difficult to know what to do with them.

Travels with my AuntOn the whole, the aunts seem to have made life up as they went along, so the first idea you have to expunge from your mind is that aunts are in any way dull or cosy. Graham Greene’s aunt appears late in the life of his bank manager hero and upsets his staid, suburban, rose-blighted bachelor existence with cannabis, South American criminals and papery love-making. Rose Macaulay’s aunt arrives on a camel, disappears into Communist Russia trailing a Catholic priest, and utterly fails to sympathise with her niece’s long and poignant love affair with a married man. Both books are cuttingly funny. Both can make your eyes brim. Dust swirls, foreigners confuse, and families maintain the closeness that distance can always provide.

Towers of Trebizond coverIn June I found myself at Glastonbury [no-one was more surprised than me. It was terrific: all you have to do is ignore the main festival stuff, Stevie Wonder and all that, and lurk around the periphery where very surprising things happen] and I was given a copy of Ismail Kadare’s The Siege. This is a bleak account of the blockade of an Albanian Catholic citadel by the Ottoman Army in the early fifteenth century. First published in 1969 following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Kadare’s Albania was feeling ‘the icy breath of the colossus on its doorstep’.

Kadare The SiegeThe paranoia of the siege mentality is meticulously picked over and man’s inhumanity to man is ruthlessly and cleverly exposed. The translator, David Bellos, describes the book as an anti-historical novel; it is frighteningly modern and present.

The rest of the summer, indeed year, has been devoted to slimming. Not because I too am a colossus but because I am writing a cultural history of diets and dieting, two and a half thousand years of losing weight (and how to do it). Of the many diet books I have digested so far, I am most fond of Eustace Chesser’s Slimming for the Million [currently unavailable], but this is mainly due to Chesser himself rather than his regime. He is the essence of doctorly charm and discretion, altruistic and gentlemanly, but even he came a cropper over his next book, Love Without Fear, which landed him in court on an obscenity charge in 1942. You get the feeling that all the maiden aunts in Christendom couldn’t shift the heavy hand of respectable mores. It would take another world war to pave the way for that.

Summer Reading Choices: Jan Zalasiewicz

Jan ZalasiewiczToday’s holiday reading selector is Jan Zalasiewicz, who teaches geology at Leicester University. He was a guest on the very first Blackwell Online podcast, in which he told me about his book The World after Us. You can listen to the interview here. I’m hoping to interview him again this autumn when his new book, The Planet in a Pebble, appears.

Here is his summer readiing recommendation:

Holidays! It’s off to the beach or café terrace or simply that rickety deckchair in the weed-strewn garden. Now – what to pack to read? Nothing too demanding or (the Gods forbid!) improving. An adventure that rattles along with zing and charm and fun and characters you can live with. But that’s so hard to find…

There are the staples, of course, that rarely disappoint: Terry Pratchett and George MacDonald Fraser and – a personal quirk, mostly from the charity bookshop, now – the early Saint stories of Leslie Charteris, admired for their style and craft by that other old dependable, P.G. Wodehouse. But more of that ilk?

Janissary Tree coverOne tries so many books, hoping for a new star to come into one’s personal firmament. But either it’s too serious, or too dull, or too clunky or clichéd, or (these days) too gruesome, with authors outdoing each other in their serial killers’ inventiveness at means to disembowel and flay. For me, thank you but no thank you.

But here’s one I lately found. The Janissary Tree, a first novel by Jason Goodwin, an engagingly Byzantine mix of history and harems, food, friendship, grue (just a soupçon, mind), politics and the mysterious requiting of love. It’s all set within the comfortably familiar frame of a nineteenth-century whodunit and I found le tout ensemble a delight.

There are sequels, too, so my spies tell me, so one can bring out the deckchair, put on the kettle and… enjoy!

Summer Reading Choices: Elizabeth Speller

Elizaberh SpellerToday’s guest selector of summer reading is Elizabeth Speller, author most recently of a highly praised debut novel, The Return of Captain John Emmett. She is also the author of several works of non-fiction – including a memoir, Sunlight on the Garden – and a prize-winning poet. Here are her choices:

Dragging a hefty suitcase of books to Greece to provide a whole summer’s reading tends to sharpen opinions about the contents; there is, literally, a heavy freight of expectation and hope.

This year three or four big disappointments have been balanced by three surprises. Only as I write do I realize that these are linked by a theme of war. This is perhaps not surprising as my own novels concern war, but my three choices are so different from each other that this almost irrelevant except that war changes everything and these are all novels of individuals whose certainties have been swept away.

Richard Bausch PeaceRichard Bausch’s Peace is a short novel set in a hard WWII Italian winter and focusing on one small, weary platoon of soldiers simply trying to survive. In poetically spare, poetic prose, Bausch is brilliant on the blurred morality of war, and a sense of place and season and of drawing out the fragile reality of each individual trapped in the inexorable machine of war.

Helen Humphrys CoventryHelen Humphrys, a Canadian writer, obviously delved deep into the archives for her account of one night of the Blitz – Coventry – yet although there is a documentary element here, her research is subtly woven into this novel of love, loss and loyalty in the face of danger and catastrophe.  She creates an almost an almost hallucinatory landscape as her characters chart their way through the familiar become strange and terrible.

Stettin Station coverDavid Downing’s Stettin Station is the most recent of a series of thrillers set in 1939 Berlin. Evocative without self-consciousness ornament, fascinating about how Germans saw the approaching hostilities, and with an intelligently complex Anglo-American hero,  a resident of Berlin, with a son who is enthusiastic member of  the Hitler Youth movement, it is also the nearest of my choices to a traditionally gripping, well-written holiday read.

Finally, I have just started Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey (also about war, in its way) and had an acute case of writer’s envy by the end of the first page.  So far this wittily imagined alternative Odyssey is near perfect. I wish I’d written it.

Summer Reading Choices: Michael Bywater

Michael BywaterOur next guest recommender of Summer Reading is Michael Bywater, author (of Lost Worlds and Big Babies, inter al.), broadcaster, and – as you will see when you read on – now writing for the stage…

This summer I’m too too utterly utterly up to my ears in queers, dears. Specifically the (slightly illusory) late nineteenth century London homosexual world and the point at which it collides, in a flurry of ortolans’ tongues and lilies, with the largely abortive English Aesthetes.

This is no indulgence – actually at times it’s hard going – but work: I’m writing (it may sound improbable) a musical about Oscar Wilde with (equally improbably) those two giants of American popular music, the songwriting duo Leiber and Stoller.

The work itself is a treat, but Oscar himself poses three problems: his literary work was something (in England at least) of a dead end; most of the legends about him are untrue; and the world is well-supplied with Oscar mavens who’ll be on the edge of their seats, not with delight, but with anticipation of my making a mistake. So if anyone should think the phrase “Actually, I’m researching a musical” is an oxymoron, let them think again.

Complete Letters of Oscar WildeApart from Richard Ellmann’s definitive biography (Hamish Hamilton, 1987) and Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis’s edition of Oscar Wilde’s Complete Letters (Fourth Estate, 2000), the two most enlightening books about him are Oscar Wilde by Martin Fido (Hamlyn, 1973) and the lovely, gossipy, meticulous and utterly humane The Unrecorded Life of Oscar Wilde by Rupert Croft-Cooke (W H Allen, 1972).

Ellmann Wilde coverCroft-Cooke himself did time, for the crime of being what he calls “a queer”. Here he is on Wilde’s co-defendant, Alfred Taylor: “[He was] an empty-headed invert, gossipy and good-natured, a talented pianist, ‘artistic’ with all the awful implications of the word at that time, and he was to show later that he was capable of a selfless loyalty and courage which made almost everyone in the sorry prosecution of Wilde look mean and treacherous . . . A vapid innocuous queen . . . who under any sane system of legislation would be mildly derided perhaps, or accepted as a harmless anomaly. In most European countries he would have existed happily enough with his own kind, but in England in the ‘90s he was told by a learned judge that he was guilty of the worst crimes he had ever tried and sent to two years’ hard labour.”

It’s hard for me, as a pretty unequivocal heterosexual, to understand the appeal of gay sexuality, and of course the feeling is mutual; but the idea that it should be criminalized (and there are still plenty of people who believe that) is simply incomprehensible. Terror, I suppose; pure terror. Heaven will be full of queers, no doubt, and also of judges, the devout, and family-values bigots, who will slowly begin to realise that they’ve been sent to Hell.

City of Veils coverOff-duty reading

In my off-duty reading, curiously, intolerance, fear and bigotry – under the guise of morality – persist. They pervade Zoe Ferraris’s two novels; City of Veils and Finding Nouf. Ferraris is an American who married a Palestinian Bedouin and lived in Jeddah.

Her subject is Saudi Arabia, that sink of unearned income, sexual segregation and the unmitigated supine terror-of-everything which is Wahabi Islam, and she draws it beautifully. To say that Ferraris enlightens her readers about the hidden life of Jeddah would be another oxymoron, because there is no light to be seen; but she does, brilliantly, make clear the reigning darkness.

The Finkler Question coverOur Roth

And next up: Howard Jacobson’s new novel, The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury, July 2010). Jacobson has not made a false step in the last decade or more. His energy and invention only increase with time.

I suppose when Jacobson is 96 and still producing masterpieces, we’ll eventually acknowledge that he’s a genius who puts the entire galère of hacks, poseurs and drivellistas to navel-gazing shame. He’s our Roth and we should acknowledge it. Until we do, though, just read his books. All of them. You’ll thank me for this advice.

Summer Reading Choices: Helen Rappaport

This is the first in a short series of summer reading recommendations from some of the authors I have interviewed in recent months. New posts will appear as they arrive.

Helen RapppaportOur first guest is historian Helen Rappaport. Helen studied Russian before becoming an actress, but in recent years she has developed a successful second career as an author, specializing in Russian history. You can hear my interview with her about book, Conspirator: Lenin in Exile on the Blackwell website by clicking here.

Here is her recommendation:

Girl with the Dragon Tatoo coverAs a historian in love with real people and real lives, and one who reads virtually no fiction – ever –  let alone contemporary fiction, I was totally gripped by the first two books of  Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy* like no other crime novels I have ever read. And for me that is saying something.

Why did they have such an impact on me? Simple: it’s all down to the brilliant, quirky, compulsive and utterly believable central female character, Lisbeth Salander, the best feisty heroine created by a male writer ever, in my humble estimation.

The Girl who Played with Fire coverAnd, weirdly, I just love all the technobabble about computers and hacking and the internet, probably because I am a Luddite who finds even laptops hard to work on. I am saving book three, like a guilty box of the very best chocolates, for hunkering down in bed with in the autumn.

* The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl  Who Played With Fire.

Israel and the NGOs- Le Monde diplomatique podcast July 2010

GazaIn this month’s podcast for Le Monde diplomatique, I interview Eyal Weizman about the article he co-authored with Thomas Keenan, entitled “NGOs are ‘the enemy within'”, which looks at how Israel has stepped up the pressure on human rights organizations and NGOs, particularly in the aftermath of their assault on Gaza at the end of 2008.

Weizman: Hollow Land coverEyal Weizman is an architect, originally from Israel now based in London. He is director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Before the interview, he explained to me that the Centre exists at the intersection of human rights, politics and the built environment. He has a particular interest in the way in which architecture is implicated in geopolitical conflicts “and how we can read the history of conflicts through the built environment”.

He is the author of Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation.

Click here to play the podcast.