Month: August 2010

Summer Reading Choices: John Grindrod

John GrindrodJohn Grindrod was born in 1970 in Croydon and still lives in South London. Last year he published Shouting at the Telly, a book in which a host of comedians, actors and writers wrestle with such weighty issues as:  Is Freddie from Scooby-Doo a colossal pervert? What does Howards’ Way tell us about the eighties? How do you win America’s Next Top Model? Which programmes do you only watch when you’re off sick?

 I spoke to John about the book for the Blackwell Online podcast when it came out. You can listen to it here.

Here are John’s holiday reading choices:

Wish You Were Here cover The most obviously summery book I’ve been reading has been Travis Elborough’s hilarious and hugely informative Wish You Were Here: England on Sea, a cultural history of seaside resorts and our national obsession with piers, paddling and penny arcades. Travis grew up in Worthing and his disdain for the place colours the book, but this is as much a reconciliation with his own seaside demons as it is a gloriously eccentric travelogue around England’s largely Georgian and Victorian pleasure palaces. It’s like Coast, only with lots more laughs, no wildlife and the best footnotes you’ll ever read.

Kynaston Family Britain coverI’ve also been slowly working my way through David Kynaston’s mighty Family Britain: 1951-57. I’ve read most of the post-war histories going, but I think this series might be my favourite. There’s so much charm and personal detail in these books, with diaries and letters illuminating everyday human stories alongside the major events of the times. How he’s managed to marshal such a range of material is a mystery: for me, only Juliet Gardiner comes close in terms of the detail of research and enthusiasm for the subject matter. There’s so many gems on every page, one of my favourites being his inclusion of Kenneth Tynan’s review of The Deep Blue Sea in 1952: ‘Kenneth More is our best answer to Marlon Brando so far’.

How I Escaped my Certain FateI have to mention Stewart Lee’s beguiling How I Escaped My Certain Fate: the Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian. It’s not the sort of book you’d ever expect to read by a comic, one where they mercilessly dissect three of their most popular shows and reveal the inspiration behind jokes and the telling of them. But if you were to pick a comedian who was up to the task, it would be Lee, who is famous for deconstructing his act on stage as he goes along. It’s a unique marvel, an intelligent, provocative insight into a perverse and often self-sabotaging mind.

Summer Reading Choices: Maria McCann

Maria McCannMaria McCann’s first novel, As Meat Loves Salt, set in the English Civil War was published  in 2000 to great acclaim. Her second, The Wilding, appeared earlier this year and was also very warmly received; the Guardian, for example, called it “taut and compelling” and the Independent a “tour de force”. It is set in the West Country during the Restoration, when a reckoning has to be made of acts committed during the turbulent time that preceded it and well-kept family secrets begin to unravel.

The paperback of The Wilding is out next month. You can listen to my interview with Maria in which she talk about writing the book by clicking here.

And here is her Summer Reading selection:

Oscar and Lucinda coverAt some point in the eighties, working as a library assistant in London, I came across Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda and the surreal image of a glass building floating away downriver has haunted me ever since. In those days, surrounded by library stock and with no work to do in the evenings, I read novels more or less when they came out, but nowadays my reading is much more chaotic and I’m forever catching up, so I was very late in reading Jack Maggs and only this summer did I get round to reading Theft. In each case, I was kicking myself for having waited so long and not thrown aside everything else for the joy of reading Peter Carey.

Theft is the story of Michael (‘Butcher’) Boone, a once-fashionable painter from Bacchus Marsh, Australia, and Hugh Boone, his damaged brother. One of the things I love most about Carey is his tender interest in misfits and self-destructive types, something in which he oddly resembles Thomas Hardy. The Boones are good examples of this interest, Hugh as an ‘idiot savant’ and Butcher as a frustrated yet cunning man caught between his upbringing and his aspirations (which are also his fears). The relationship between these physically strong, emotionally repressed men is essentially loving but fraught with tensions, wittily explored in their parallel narratives. Butcher has massive self-belief, an equally massive chip on the shoulder and a genius for antagonising anyone whose help he might need; Hugh’s account, bizarre and childlike as it is, often reveals his brother’s blind spots.

Theft Peter CareyInto this complex dynamic comes Marlene, beautiful and mysterious, with contacts in Japan and America that can revive Butcher’s flagging artistic career. What follows is compelling: a love story, a novel of suspense, an exploration of identity and art and much more, with a complex plot which constantly wrongfoots the reader’s expectations.

Butcher’s description of Marlene as ‘a lovely series of revelations which I prayed would never end’ can just as well be applied to Theft itself. To be honest, it may not be an ideal book for reading on the beach, but then I don’t like beach holidays. If you think of the holiday as a time when you can indulge in some undisturbed reading, it’s perfect.

Summer Reading Choices: Marcus Chown

Marcus ChownMarcus Chown is cosmology consultant of New Scientist. His books include Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You, Felicity Frobisher and the Three-Headed Aldebaran Dust Devil and We Need to Talk About Kelvin, which has just been long-listed for the 2010 Royal Society Book Prize.

I interviewed Marcus about We Need to Talk about Kelvin for the Faber podcast. You can listen to the interview by clicking here.

Here are his summer reading selections:

Tash Aw coverIt is probably odd to recommend a book so far only half-read but I knew from the opening page that Tash Aw’s Map of the Invisible World was going to be special. The story of two orphaned brothers adopted by very different families, set amid the political turmoil of post-colonial Indonesia, its prose is rich and atmospheric. Reminds me of Graham Greene. Aw, a Malaysian writer based in London, deserves to be far better known than he is.

I had never before read anything by Rose Tremain but, after putting down The Road Home, I wanted to read more. The novel charts the experiences, of Lev, an Eastern European migrant in Britain, recovering from the death of his wife. It has so many lovely touches, like the depiction of a deeply depressing old people’s home transformed by the introduction of a little humanity and fun. This is a wise, humorous and ultimately uplifting novel.

Chris Cleave coverWhat can I say about The Other Hand by Chris Cleave? It is the most perfect book I have read for years and even bears comparison with To Kill a Mockingbird. Cleave’s Incendiary, about the terrorist bombing of Arsenal football stadium, was excellent but The Other Hand is on another level altogether.

A window on another world, where fear is the bedrock of life, it follows the fortunes of asylum seeker, Little Bee, inadvertently caught up in a war over oil in West Africa. One day on a remote beach in Nigeria, her life collides with Westerner Sarah in a truly traumatic way. The catastrophic and inevitable consequences echo down the pages of this book. This is a powerful, beautifully written novel, but it is also upsetting. It made me think: How can we treat asylum seekers this way?

Summer Reading Choices: Graham Farmelo

Graham FarmeloGraham Farmelo is Senior Research Fellow at the Science Museum, London, and Adjunct Professor of Physics at Northeastern University, Boston, USA. He edited the best-selling It Must be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science in 2002. His biography of Paul Dirac, The Strangest Man, won the 2009 Costa Biography Prize and the 2010 Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize.

You can listen to my interview with Graham about The Strangest Man by clicking here.

And here are Graham’s summer reading choices:

David Mitchell Cloud AtlasSummer reading seems to be synonymous with light reading. Not for me. These relatively quiet months often present the best opportunities to read challenging, off-piste books that I tend to put on the shelf invisibly marked “when I have time”.David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas has been there for too long. It took an appreciative review of his latest, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by the notoriously sniffy James Wood to nudge me into taking the plunge. I’m glad I did – though Cloud Atlas is not always easy to read, Mitchell’s virtuosity makes it strangely compelling. I’m still waiting to be moved, though.

Is it my imagination or are good scientific biographies becoming a bit thin on the ground? An exception is Oren Harman’s hefty The Price of Altruism, a cross between a biography of the American population geneticist George Price and a history of the origins of altruism. Here is a biography with intellectual bite, worth multiply rereading.

Ian Sample Massive coverThis is a good time to prepare for the Klondike of fundamental scientific insights soon to arrive, fingers crossed, courtesy of the Large Hadron Collider. Ian Sample’s lively Massive is a first-rate curtain-raiser. This is a science book you can read on the beach, as refreshing as a giant choc-ice but conscience-free: it makes light of heavy stuff. An ideal summer read.

Summer Reading Choices: Helena Markou

Helena MarkouHelena Markou has the enviable title of Publishing Innovation Manager for Blackwell’s (the retail chain).

When she isn’t making or selling books she can be found in the printmakers studio covered in indigo ink, in the dojo shooting arrows, or in a karaoke-box hogging the mic.

Here are her summer reading selections:
Holiday reading is a bit of a dilemma for me. Torn between the desire to laze around doing nothing and not waste a second of the day, I tend to avoid the all engrossing page-turners if I want to get out of bed. So with me to a 17th Century Bakehouse in Devon came the following selection of non-fiction.

Ward Lock Guide inside

Ward Lock Red GuideA 1939 Ward Lock Red Guide to Torquay and South Devon purchased especially for the trip. Complete with original 1930s advertising, fold out maps (a la Jolly Postman), and eloquent descriptions of all holiday resorts accessible by rail or bicycle at the time of publication. In addition to bringing the history of a town to life, the author’s witty commentary often had us laughing out loud. I cannot recommend these Guides enough for anyone taking a UK break (NB: When buying second-hand online do ask if any maps are missing/damage and that price is discounted accordingly).

Hodgekinson How to be FreeHow to Be Free by Tom Hodgekinson This is a book that should come with a warning label. I was given a copy earlier in the year, read the first chapter, allowed myself to be persuaded by Tom that I should rid myself of all work related shackles, and spent the following day at work fighting the urge to hand in my notice. Having safely tucked the book away until I was no longer a liability to myself, I found it stimulated a well needed holiday audit of the work life balance.

Meditations Marcus AureliusMeditations by Marcus Aurelius. I have to confess I am slightly addicted to the Penguin Great Ideas series, and bought this (along with eight others) on the arbitrary basis of how much I liked the cover design. Fortunately, this lucky dip selection process throws up some gems. The calm and considered words of wisdom of Aurelius are easy to read, thought provoking, and for the most part, as relevant today as they were 2000 years ago.

“At dawn’s first light have in readiness, against disinclination to leave your bed” It is reassuring to know that even Roman Emperors struggled to find the motivation to get up in the morning.

Le Monde diplomatique podcast – Chase Madar

FenceOmar Khadr, 15 years old when he was captured in Afghanistan in 2002 and imprisoned first in Bagram, then in Guantánamo, will at last face trial next month on charges never before brought in the history of war – “murder in violation of the laws of war”.

In this month’s Le Monde diplomatique podcast I talk to New York civil rights lawyer Chase Madar about some of the troubling issues raised by the Khadr case. To listen to the podcast, click here.