Guardian top 10 book lists, part 4 (Sept. 2011 onwards)

É uma continuação do tópico Guardian top 10 book lists, part 3 (2009 onwards).

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Guardian top 10 book lists, part 4 (Sept. 2011 onwards)

Nov 7, 2023, 5:57 pm

Megan Abbott's top 10 novels of teenage friendship
Guardian, 2011-09-07.

Megan Abbott is the Edgar Award-winning author of four crime novels. She has taught literature, writing, and film at New York University, the New School, and the State University of New York at Oswego. She lives in New York. Her new novel, The end of everything, is published by Picador.

"Novels of adolescence are heavily weighted towards tales of the "friendless" – loners, malcontents, social outcasts in the Holden Caulfield tradition. It is, after all, an age of peer horrors and humiliation and a fixation on romantic or sexual connections rather than platonic ones. Friendships, when illuminated, tend to be characterised by rivalry, betrayal and the complicated nodes of identification and desire.

"Teenage stories tend to chart the harrowing passage to adulthood where no relationship is ever so uncomplicated again. In my novel, The end of everything, 13-year-old Lizzie's best friend Evie disappears just at that noisy hinge between childhood and adolescent tumult. Lizzie still believes, bone-deep, she knows Evie as she knows herself. But, as it turns out, she knows neither, and the revelations that follow thrust her into a painfully adult awareness.

"Given such a tortured terrain, it's no surprise this is a list, in no particular order, dominated by the most exquisite of teen emotions: angst."

1. Stephen King, The body.
It's hard to imagine a tale more affecting (or romantic) about that moment when boys pass from boyhood to adolescence, facing the terrible awareness that the friendships one has at 12 are never to be repeated. The novella shudders with the knowledge that something has been lost, forever.

2. Daniel Woodrell, Winter's bone.
Life is an ache and struggle for Woodrell's mighty teen heroine Ree Dolly, but her relationship with her friend Gail is the salve. And, like many intense teen friendships, it hovers powerfully into the romantic, erotic. Everything Ree feels seems summed up in these intimate lines: "(She) brushed her fingers into Gail's hair, pulled the long strands apart and picked between them, picked gently and many times."

3. Toni Morrison, Sula.
In the tradition of friends-as-opposites, Nel and Sula, two African-American girls in the Midwest of the 1920s, grow up fierce intimates but choose different paths. Nel marries and raises a family, while Sula embodies the rebel self Nel has rejected, embracing a bohemian life and suffering from the town's judgment, and Nel's. "Talking to Sula," Nel remembers, then fatefully forgets, "had always been a conversation with herself."

4. Carson McCullers, The member of the wedding.
If the lonesome Frankie's relationship with Berenice, the family maid, grounds this heartbreaker of a novel, her friendship with her six-year-old cousin John Henry West bares its battered heart. Many comment on the friendship of the younger Scout and Dill in To kill a mockingbird, but the particular fervour of tomboy/delicate-boy friendships have never been so evocative as here.

5. Laura Lippman, The power of three.
On the surface a thriller about an act of school violence in a serene American suburb, Lippman's 2005 novel keenly probes the incendiary nature of teen-girl triads.

6. S. E. Hinton, The outsiders.
In Hinton's swooningly dramatic novel of "delinquent" youth in 1960s Tulsa, 14-year-old Ponyboy's friendship with the Robert Frost-loving Johnny is as romantic as a schoolgirl dream, but his bond with Dallas, the toughest of the "greasers", speaks to the long tradition of "brotherly" tales where one young man can still make good, while the other teeters, gorgeously, over the abyss.

7. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre.
This is a cheat, because Jane is years from adolescence, but the beatific Helen Burns is a few years older and their feverish bond at the punishing Lowood School seems to reflect many a passionate teen friendship founded on feelings of shared loneliness, and the respite to be found in burrowing, as Jane does with the dreamy Helen, against an older friend's neck, holding on for dear life.

8. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield.
We can't help but share David's admiration for the charismatic James Steerforth, his teen saviour at boarding school. He is the friend you love for the complicated way his virtues clash with his vices. You hope he will be better than he is, that he will rise above his moral limitations, his own self. When he does, and it marks a heartbreaking book's most heartbreaking moment.

9. Donna Tartt, The secret history.
A book that explodes with all the terrors of peer influence (or infecton), class distinctions and the seductions of the clique. Like Lord of the flies, the dangerous power of group dynamics among adolescents rattles loud throughout Tartt's appalling tale and we all recognise it.

10. Larry McMurtry, The last picture show.
For Sonny and Duane, two 1950s high school seniors in the one-stoplight town of Thalia, Texas, the big moments of life are necking sessions, fistfights over girls, killing time. But through their joint friendship with Sam the Lion, the white-maned town elder, they touch something deeper and more haunting about life. He sparks in them the harder fire of a true rite of passage. "Is growing up always miserable?" Sonny asks Sam. "About eighty percent of the time, I guess."


Some interesting-looking suggestions and some usual suspects BTL - All the pretty horses, The Rotters' Club, The book thief, Huckleberry Finn, Little women (Jo and Laurie), Anne of Green Gables (Anne and Diana), His dark materials, Matched, Harry Potter - plus several people who probably ought to have known better being rude to each other re. The catcher in the rye

Nov 7, 2023, 7:18 pm

Just wanted to say thank you for continuing to post these. They are a treasure trove of recommendations.

Editado: Nov 8, 2023, 6:41 am

Children's Books Top Tens / Charlie Higson's top 10 fantasy books for children
Guardian, 2011-09-15.

Alongside his work as a writer and actor in TV comedies like The Fast Show, Charlie Higson is also the bestselling author of the Young Bond series of novels, as well as adult crime novels including King of the ants. In 2009, he began writing horror fiction for teenagers with The enemy, a tale of teenagers defending themselves against a zombified adult world. The dead followed last year, and this week sees publication of the third volume of his zombie series, The fear.

"I have a confession to make. This is not the list I originally intended to write. I wanted to come up with my top 10 children's books. My first attempt, however, left me with an almost entirely fantasy-based selection. That's what I loved as a kid – being plucked out of my mundane suburban existence and taken off on an adventure into other worlds. I tried balancing my list with some "realistic" stuff, but I was in danger of putting in books I hadn't actually read. So, I have changed the brief."

1. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.
Potter is classic fantasy. An ordinary wimpy kid in glasses suddenly finds out that he is something special and enters a magic realm via flying motorbike and enchanted station platform. Who among us has not dreamed of finding a hidden door to another reality? Kids' books are full of them, whether it's in a wardrobe, down a rabbit hole, or, as in Steven Butler's recent book, The wrong pong, down the loo. And who among us has not dreamed of developing superpowers? I won't hear a word against JKR. She's done more for children's books than any writer since, I don't know, Enid Blyton. She'd got kids reading and adults talking about children's books. She's a great writer for kids. The books are engrossing, exciting, detailed and it's as if she's used a secret page-turning magic spell on them. I wouldn't have started writing for kids if it wasn't for Jo, so I will always thank her for that.

2. Roger Lancellyn Green, Tales of the Greek heroes.
It was reading the Greek myths and legends as a boy that first instilled in me a love of storytelling. They contain the archetypes for just about every story told ever since, especially in the hero department. Without the Greek myths we'd have no Marvel comics, for instance. Any good collection would do, but I've gone for the version I first read as a boy. Roger Lancellyn Green did so much to make these ancient stories accessible for children. I also loved his versions of King Arthur and Robin Hood.

3. Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan.
Having worked my way through Achilles, Lancelot and Little John I moved on to historical fiction and fantasy. Any story in which the hero had a sword was all right with me. Inevitably I got around to Tolkien. He's missing from the list, as are the Narnia books, because I suppose they're taken as read. It's a bit like how I might leave the Beatles out from a list of favourite music. I've heard them too many times and they hardly need my recommendation. I discovered Tolkien at about 14 and spent many happy months in Middle Earth before emerging, blinking and bereft into the harsh light of reality. After that I looked for anything fantasy-based. There wasn't a lot around in the early seventies. Nowadays, every American with access to a computer seems to have churned out a sub-Tolkien quasi-mediaeval fantasy book with a dragon in it and a title that sounds like a heavy metal album. It will be full of characters whose names have pointless apostrophes and say "aye" instead of "yes". Mervyn Peake was in a different league. Although set in an unimaginably vast rambling gothic castle – the "Gormenghast" that gives the series its title – it is something of a shock to discover, about halfway through, that the books take place in a sort of alternative 1930s. The books are dense, horrific, funny, massively detailed and contain the greatest disaffected teenage outsider in fiction – the psychotic yet seductive Steerpike.

4. Michael Moorcock, The Knight of the Swords.
Alongside Peake, I also devoured Michael Moorcock's fantasy books about the Eternal Champion. Unlike most fantasy series, where the quality of the books seems to be judged on their inordinate length, each of Moorcock's books are a considerably less daunting and more manageable 150 pages or so. (He compensated by writing lots of them.) You can start anywhere, but I've chosen the one I first read, about the last prince of a doomed race who is forced to become a reluctant hero. Moorcock's universe is one that is engaged in a ceaseless bipolar battle between the stultifying, life-denying Gods of Law and the anarchic, destructive Gods of Chaos. His hero is reborn in many guises in many different worlds where he has to try to restore the balance, sometimes fighting for law, sometimes for chaos. It is a hipper, more morally complex world than Tolkien, with lots more sex and violence. His heroes are conflicted, and their magical weapons and attributes all have a terrible price to pay.

5. Ursula le Guin, The Earthsea quartet.
The bookshelves are groaning under the weight of stories about teenage wizards learning their skills and/or training dragons. It didn't start with Harry Potter, though. Ursula le Guin was there before anyone else with these wonderful books about a world in which magic is commonplace but must be learned and mastered.

6. Philip Reeve, Mortal engines.
Philip Reeve is my favourite living children's author. He's a great writer and a fabulous storyteller. I particularly love his Mortal Engines series. The central concept is irresistible – In the distant future cities have become mechanised and they trundle across the dried-up oceans on caterpillar tracks hunting down smaller towns and cites and consuming them for spare parts. The books mix properly inventive scientific detail with swashbuckling high adventure and include many memorable characters. Reeve is ruthless and unsentimental and really gets kids. (He has also written the best modern take on the Arthurian legend with his brutal Here lies Arthur.)

7. Darren Shan, The vampire's assistant.
Did you know that the biggest selling kids' book of all time is not Harry Potter, or even Enid Blyton, it's The poky little puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey. You remember it? You must have read it! What do you mean you've never even heard of it? It is inevitably American and obviously aimed at younger readers than the books on my list, but things have changed drastically since Poky's day. Perhaps we shall soon see The poky little zombie puppy? With his Vampire's Assistant series Darren Shan ushered in a whole new era of children's fiction. His gruesome, gory series about a boy who becomes a vampire and the adventures that follow are horror stories a million miles from the Famous Five and their bloodless thrills. When my eldest was 10 he tore through the first nine books in this series in about a month. Shan writes directly for kids, he's not bothered about pleasing adults and he knows what kids like.
(Series touchstone: Cirque Du Freak).

8. Susanne Collins, The Hunger Games.
The feeling I got reading this book was similar to the one I got when I first read Darren Shan – we're not in Oz any more. The Hunger Games doesn't pull any punches. There are echoes of Greek mythology – the innocent young being sent off to ritually die in order to atone for the sins of the fathers. In a distant future (I know, I know…) the poorer provinces of North America are punished for daring to rise up (vainly) against the ruling elite by having to send children to compete in the annual hunger games. You keep thinking, oh well, I'm sure no one will actually get hurt, but the games are a fully armed fight to the death – and deaths there are a-plenty. A strong heroine, a well-realised society (with parallels to our own reality TV and celebrity-obsessed culture) unflinching violence… Fantastic.

9. Philip Pullman, Northern lights.
Pullman's great trilogy has already achieved classic status and you feel it will be read for years to come. I almost didn't put him on the list, because, like C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, he makes it on to everybody's list, but I fear that some people might have been put off reading him by the frankly awful film version of The golden compass (the American title of the first book in the trilogy). The film managed to get just about everything wrong. The book is really special. Read it.

10. William Gibson, Neuromancer.
This is sci-fi rather than fantasy, and not really a children's book at all, but it's my list, so I can put what I want on it. Neuromancer was probably the most influential sci-fi book of the late 20th century, because in it Gibson pretty well came up with the whole idea of the internet and our plugged-in future. The story goes that a US general came into the Pentagon one day with a copy of this book, slapped it down on the table and said "Build me this!" And we have built it. So much of what Gibson envisaged has come true, which means he's written himself out of a job. Its story of a bunch of renegade tech-heads trying to play God and create artificial intelligence is hip and witty and cool and sexy and will appeal to any techno-obsessed teenager.


I really thought this was going to be a by-the-numbers, thoughtless, off the shelf list, tossed off for the book-launch media round for Higson's The fear. I mis-judged him, his explanations more than his choices.

I have to ask: has anyone outside of the USA ever heard of The poky little puppy (1942)? I'm guessing it's a fore-runner of Eric Hill's Spot series (no. 1, Where's Spot? pub. 1980), or at least fills the same slot in the market.

There are no BTL comments on the original Guardian column, as per usual with children's books top tens.

Nov 8, 2023, 6:59 am

Labelling Titus Groan as a children's book is ... an usual choice.

Nov 9, 2023, 12:38 pm

>4 anglemark: I've thought the same of some of the others labelled as children's books!

Nov 9, 2023, 5:06 pm

Madeline Miller's top 10 classical books
Guardian, 2011-09-21.

Madeline Miller was born in Boston and grew up in New York and Philadelphia. For the last 10 years she has taught Latin and Ancient Greek to high school students. The song of Achilles, published by Bloomsbury this month, is her first novel.

"The classics are back, and with a vengeance. In the past few years there has been a Vesuvius-sized explosion of translations, adaptations and re-imaginings of the ancient works. For lovers of Latin and Greek literature, it has been hog heaven, a chance to revisit the thrilling adventures, beautiful poetry and unflinching psychological insights the ancient stories offer us.

"The Greek myths have been close to my heart since childhood, particularly Homer's Iliad, yet I never would have considered telling one myself – I simply loved the originals too much. But something about Achilles and his beloved companion Patroclus's story took hold of my imagination and wouldn't let go. I wrote academic papers about the Iliad; I directed plays; it still wasn't enough. Then one day I found myself in front of my laptop, typing furiously. The words on the screen were Patroclus's, and 10 years later they became The song of Achilles. In celebration of this Latin and Greek revival, here are ten of my favorite classical works."

1. Ovid, The metamorphoses.
Ranging from the farcical to the deeply moving, the Metamorphoses presents hundreds of myths of transformation, all in Ovid's witty and passionate style. Perhaps this is perverse of me, but I particularly enjoy some of Ovid's most disturbed heroines, like Myrrha, who falls in love with her father. Ovid manages the tricky manoeuvre of awakening our sympathy to the girl's desires without diminishing our sense of horror at her actions.

2. Aeschylus, Prometheus bound.
The kind, wise and thoughtful god Prometheus (his name literally means forethought) might be considered the first advocate of social justice. He defied Zeus's injunctions against aiding humans, daring to steal fire on our behalf, teach us the arts of civilisation and show us how to protect ourselves from the gods' greed. For this he was punished cruelly: chained to a cliff and condemned to have eagles tear out his liver every day for all eternity. Aeschylus's Prometheus is a figure of tremendous strength and dignity, who gladly suffers for the good he has done. Sadly, we only have the first of the trilogy that tells his story.

3. Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red.
Loosely inspired by the myth of Geryon and Heracles, this "novel in verse" conjures heart-stoppingly beautiful images on every page. Its deceptively simple language has a fiery, unearthly clarity and bone-deep wit: Carson's sentences ring out like bells. The story is moving, and its hero, Geryon, a little red boy with wings who falls in love with the wrong person, is unforgettable. There is no book I have read quite like it.

4. Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Is it cheating to include them both? The first is Homer's action-packed and psychologically acute paean to a single man's rage. The second is the tumultuous journey of a war veteran struggling to get home to his family. Both are bursting with incident, poetry and amazing characters that grab the attention. When I began writing my own novel, I found myself constantly having to rein in digressions trying to include them all.

5. William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida.
When I was in college, a friend asked me to direct this "problem play" set during the Trojan war. I knew little about Shakespeare at the time, but fell quickly in love with this outstanding and challenging play. Its dark comedy and bitterly satiric portraits of Homeric heroes have a startlingly modern sensibility. Arguably its most famous figure is the scurrilous soldier Thersites, who comments with acid precision on the folly he sees around him: "Wars and lechery," he sneers. "Nothing else holds fashion."

6. Sappho (transl. Anne Carson), If not, winter : fragments.
Sappho's gorgeous, gem-like poems limn their subjects in gold. Whether the focus is a young woman, an apple on the highest branch or the narrator's jealousy, Sappho brings them all to life with sensual, visceral and breathtaking beauty. No wonder that Plato called her "the tenth muse".

7. Euripides, The Bacchae.
I have loved this particular tragedy since I first read it as a teenager. Pentheus, prince of Thebes, refuses to worship the new god Dionysus, and the god takes bloody revenge. What makes the play so gripping is how eminently sympathetic Pentheus is: a stubborn, underdog rationalist who stands up to a bullying zealot. Haven't we all felt like drawing the line sometimes? In one memorable ancient production, Pentheus's head-on-a-spike was played by the real life head of Crassus, member of the first triumvirate with Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar.

8. Aeschylus, Agamemnon (The Oresteia Trilogy).
The story of the Greek general's disastrous return home after the Trojan war. I have never been a fan of Agamemnon, so I tend to cheer Clytemnestra on as she readies the murderous bathtub and axe. What does move me is Cassandra – the Trojan princess cursed to tell the truth and never be believed. Now Agamemnon's captive, she is doomed to knowledge of her own imminent death at Clytemnestra's hands. The famous opening scene, where fire beacons signal to Clytemnestra that her husband is returning, surely influenced JRR Tolkien's own use of fire beacons in The Return of the King.

9. Virgil, The Aeneid.
Virgil's tale of arms and a man and so much more. A gorgeously crafted piece of poetry, a story of adventure, a moral examination of violence and a plea for mercy, Virgil's masterful Roman founding myth provokes and haunts long after you've finished. The characters are drawn with sympathy and sensitivity, and above all total humanity: Virgil never shies away from their faults as well as their virtues. I particularly love book two, the tale of Troy's fall; its brutal portrait of Achilles' son Pyrrhus inspired my own.

10. Sophocles, Philoctetes.
The ageing hero Philoctetes, once a companion of Heracles, is bitten by a venomous snake on his way to join the Trojan war. The wound festers and the other Greeks, fearful of the bad omen, abandon him on an island. For 10 years, Philoctetes survives alone, embittered and in physical agony. I first read this play when my grandmother's health was failing, and I wept at Philoctetes' grief-stricken monologues. His pain at being forgotten by the world and despair at his body's weakness could have been my grandmother's own. But Sophocles chooses to close the play with hope: reconciliation, and a long-awaited end to the hero's suffering.


Not my field I'm afraid. The best I can claim is binge-listening to BBC Radio 4's Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics during lock-down. Thoroughly recommended.

Nov 10, 2023, 11:04 am

Children's Books Top Tens / Chris Riddell's top 10 author/illustrator double acts
Guardian, 2011-09-22.

Chris Riddell has created over 20 books with his own double act, Paul Stewart. They include the bestselling Edge Chronicles series and Muddle Earth, which has been made into a CBBC animation. He has twice won the Kate Greenaway medal for his work. As well as illustrating children's books he is a renowned political cartoonist and his work regularly appears in the Guardian, the Observer and the New Statesman.

"When I left art school and went in search of work, visiting publishers and showing them my drawings and illustrations, I was met with a polite and sometimes enthusiastic response but no commissions. Finally, I found myself in the offices of a small but distinguished publishing house sitting across the desk from the publisher himself. He was a lovely but slightly intimidating man with a German accent and mesmerisingly bushy eyebrows that went up and down like hungry caterpillars as he talked. He looked through my work, student life drawings, charcoal sketches and a series of illustrations to fairy tales, and made encouraging comments in a voice that belonged to one of the brothers Grimm. Finally he looked up at me and his eyebrows bristled like two caterpillars fighting over a lettuce, and said, "Your drawings are fine, but where are your stories?" I went home that night and started writing stories. It worked and I got my first picture book published. A little while later I met a writer picking up his son from my son's nursery. We got to talking about the work we had done and the books we liked and I realised that I had stumbled across that most valuable thing for an illustrator - a source of stories. Paul Stewart and I have worked together ever since. We're not the only ones. There are plenty of double acts like us, authors and illustrators getting together to bring their stories to life. Here is my top 10 ..."

1. Lewis Carroll and Sir John Tenniel.
The greatest collaboration of them all, though Carroll and Tenniel worked apart and seldom met. This, I think, was the key. Tenniel, a celebrated political cartoonist, responded to Carroll's text in his own way, giving it a mock serious weighty consideration that perfectly matched the absurdity of Wonderland and the looking glass world. As an illustrator and a political cartoonist, Tenniel has been one of the greatest influences on me since childhood and one day I'd love to take up the challenge of illustrating Alice.

2. Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake.
Roald Dahl worked with other illustrators but it was only when he teamed up with Quentin Blake that the chemistry began to fizz. Quentin Blake is Britain's greatest living illustrator and has that special talent all the great illustrators have, of unobtrusive brilliance. He never grandstands, or overpowers the text, but quietly breathes a visual life in to it and, in so doing, makes it his own. Dahl appreciated that and held on to him for the rest of his career. A great collaboration!

3. A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard.
One of the all time great collaborations, Milne's funny, poignant tales of Winnie the Pooh and friends and Shepard's fluent elegant ink drawings. The depth of characterisation and setting is breathtaking, with Shepard placing Milne's characters in real locations in the woodlands of Sussex and animating their every movement with the eye of a master. Shephard was also one of Britain's greatest political cartoonists.

4. Holly Black and Tony Deterlizzi.
These two work together in the same way as Paul and I do. The stories and pictures come together side by side, sketches informing the writing and providing inspiration. The Spiderwick Chronicles have the feel of illustrated books from another era and Tony Deterlizzi's fluent cross-hatched style and skillful draughtsmanship really catch the eye.

5. Florence Parry Heide and Edward Gorey.
Go out and find a copy of The shrinking Of Treehorn and its sequel, Treehorn's treasure. Written by Florence Parry Heide and illustrated by the great Edward Gorey, master of the gothic and the macabre, these books are small masterpieces. They are also very funny and beautifully strange and examples of what can happen when two imaginations meet in the pages of a book.

6. Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.
This is another perfect partnership where words and pictures are so perfectly matched that they seem inseperable. Axel has a gift for characterisation, gentle, humerous, but utterly engaging and his masterpiece has to be his illustrations to The Gruffalo. Genius!

7. Jacqueline Wilson and Nick Sharratt.
Paul and I have had dinner with the great Jacqueline Wilson, and she is the nicest writer I've ever met. I have also taken my daughter to afternoon tea at Nick Sharratt's house and was dismayed to see how much more impressed she was his work than her father's. Together, Jackie and Nick have created a genre that is as unmistakeable as it is popular. Paul and I aren't bitter.

8. C. S. Lewis and Pauline Baynes.
The Chronicles of Narnia have been favourites of mine since my childhood when I misread "Aslan" as "Alsatian" and was struck by the genius of naming a lion after a dog! Pauline Baynes's delicate cross-hatched illustrations, straight out of the 40s, were equally captivating but her real genius was for maps. I spent hours pouring over the map of Narnia with its jagged mountains, dense woods and magical islands and always yearned to see what lay beyond its margins.

9. Andy Stanton and David Tazzyman.
They don't come any madder or funnier than Andy Stanton's Mr Gumm. He is just one of a cast of gloriously warped and silly characters that fill Andy's world and that are brought to life by his illustrator, David Tazzyman. His sketchy, impulsive line captures the eccentric tone of the writing so perfectly that I can't imagine one without the other - the sign of a great double act.

10. Norman Hunter and William Heath Robinson.
Continuing the madcap theme, William Heath Robinson is one of my favourite illustrators, famous for his beautiful line drawings of madcap inventions: labour saving devices for stirring cups of tea that fill entire rooms with cogs, pulleys and wheels and employ armies of serious little men in suits and wire frame spectacles to operate them. Norman Hunter's stories about the equally madcap inventor, Professor Branestaum, couldn't have been illustrated by anyone else. A marriage made in heaven!


Pity there's no BTL comments, as it is an interesting subject.

Nov 11, 2023, 5:19 pm

Andy McSmith's top 10 books of the 1980s
Guardian, 2011-09-28.

As well as journalistic career that has included spells as chief political correspondent for the Observer and Daily Telegraph and his current role as senior writer for the Independent, Andy McSmith is the author of five books: biographies of John Smith and Kenneth Clarke, a collection of short biographies called Faces of labour, and a novel, Innocent in the house. His latest book, just out in paperback from Constable, is No such thing as society – a history of Britain in the 1980s.

"Each decade leaves its imprint on the memory. Images from the 1980s suggest a time of excitement and bustle – Live Aid, Princess Diana, the Falklands War, mass pickets outside Rupert Murdoch's new Wapping plant, testosterone-driven yuppies doing frenetic trade on the floor of a deregulated stock market, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Berlin Wall coming tumbling down, apartheid in its final throes. The western world saw more social change in those 10 years than in any other decade since the war.

"But the much used cliché about the curse of interesting times did not apply to the average person. It was bad for those who joined the very long queues, especially in former mining villages or steel towns, but the majority went about their daily routines, finding themselves better off as the years went by, and would not have known they were living through exciting events without the expanding newspaper industry and increasing number of television channels.

"In the bookshops, you could find some very good books firmly located in the 1980s which dealt with topics like the rise of Thatcher or the causes of the Brixton riots, but equally there was escapist fiction or interesting non-fiction that took out of everyday life. Not a year passed without something new and memorable landing on the shelves."

1. Douglas Adams, The restaurant at the end of the universe (1980).
As the decade began, it seemed that everyone was talking about the radio series that became a television series and a sequence of books of which this was the second. Adams thought it was his best, though some prefer the original Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy. Anyway, it is beautifully written nonsense with an occasional hint of social satire.

2. Lord Scarman, The Scarman report – the Brixton disorders (1981).
Scarman's investigation into why Brixton went up in flames one weekend in April 1981 was the first official government report since Lord Denning's investigation into the Profumo affair to enter the mass market. It does not read like the normal output of Her Majesty's Stationery Office, but uses clear, succinct language to create a vivid picture of a new community coming into existence.

3. Alice Walker, The color purple (1982).
This is the 1980s novel still read by schoolkids in the part of the country where I live. The format is innocent, 90 letters addressed to God by a semi-literate 14 year-old black girl from Georgia; but the content, from the stunning opening onwards, is shocking. It can be read either as a treatise on black emancipation, or as a "women's novel", or an old-fashioned tale of love overcoming adversity.

4. Umberto Eco, The name of the rose (1983).
The decade's most unlikely bestseller was a murder mystery set in Italy in the year 1327, with a monk taking on the role of detective and lot of other monks turning up dead all over the monastery. It was first published in Italian, but after the English translation went on the market, in 1983, sales reputedly topped 50m. It is very erudite, so you can treat it either a slight summer reading, or a history lesson. The solution is a bit of let-down, but it was worth the journey.

5. Pat Barker, Blow your house down (1984).
During the trial of Peter Sutcliffe, the "Yorkshire Ripper", the prosecution notoriously pointed out that while some of his victims were prostitutes "perhaps the saddest part of this case" was that others were "totally respectable". It was this assumption that the death of a prostitute was less "sad" than any other human being's death which provoked Pat Barker to write a brave and grim novel focusing on the humanity of the women who rent their bodies to strangers.

6. Oliver Sacks, The man who mistook his wife for a hat (1985).
Written by a neurologist about the case histories of some of his patients, the book describes some of the very odd things that physical conditions such as brain damage can do to the human mind. Most of the subjects live in a world of mental confusion, as the engaging title implies, though Sacks was struck by the instinctive wisdom of a group of patients watching Ronald Reagan on television, who laughed at his strange mannerisms as the president mimicked sincerity.

7. Richard Dawkins, The blind watchmaker (1986).
It might seem that there was no need for Dawkins to argue his case. Most people believe Darwin's theory of evolution to be correct, and the minority who do not are not open to persuasion. Yet it is intellectually satisfying to read a ruthlessly logical defence of Darwin, which not only explains evolution but throws light why we are so amazed that elaborate organisms could have come into being without an intelligent designer.

8. Caryl Churchill, Serious money (1987).
This is the script of the play that was the theatrical event of the decade, dramatising the greed and speed of the City of London, post Big Bang. Most audiences thought it was a biting satire, but some heads of the finance houses seemed to think it was a celebration and bought out entire performances for their employees to enjoy.

9. Vasily Grossman, Life and fate (1988).
Grossman's masterpiece should not have been a 1980s novel. It should have been the literary sensation of the early 1960s, and should have turned its author into the world's most celebrated living novelist, but the authorities in Moscow solemnly ruled that it should be banned for 300 years. That was a backhanded tribute to the magnificence of this tapestry of life under Stalin, which takes the reader to some very dark places. Sadly, Grossman was long dead before it breached the censorship.

10. Hugo Young, One of us (1989).
It was not easy to write a dispassionate, critical biography of Margaret Thatcher while she was at the height of her power, given the passions she roused on both sides. But in other respects, Young was blessed by his subject, because her government had done so much, for good or ill, that he could write a book about a politician and her policies, instead of indulging in the modern concentration on gossip about a politician's private quirks and enmities, and still hold an audience.


Other titles from the 1980s suggested BTL, criticised in-column for ignoring the non-fiction in the column and pretty much going all-out for fiction, including:
Martin Amis, Money.
Salman Rushdie, Midnight's children.
Robertson Davies, The Cornish trilogy.
Margaret Atwood, The handmaid's tale.
Milan Kundera, The unbearable lightness of being.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the time of cholera.
Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the vanities.
Sue Townsend, The secret diary of Adrian Mole.
J. G. Ballard, Empire of the sun.
J. L. Carr, A month in the country.
Roald Dahl, BFG.
Various authors, Viz annuals.
William Gibson, Neuromancer trilogy.
John Kennedy Toole, A confederacy of dunces.
Kazuo Ishiguro, Remains of the day.
Alistair Gray, Lanark (1981)
E. P. Thompson, Writing by candlelight (1980)
Peter Wright, Spycatcher.
Salman Rushdie, Satanic verses.
Thomas Harris, Silence of the lambs.

Nov 13, 2023, 10:02 am

Children's Books Top Tens / John Agard's top 10 poetry books for children
Guardian, 2011-10-06.

John Agard is a mainstay of the Poetry Live! roadshow bringing poetry to about 75,000 teenagers every year, and has travelled extensively throughout the world performing his poetry. He is the author of many children's books including The young inferno, a retelling of Dante's Inferno, which won the CLPE poetry prize, and Goldilocks on CCTV, illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura.

"To choose a top 10 poetry books is no easy task. It's a bit like having a party and deciding to invite no more than ten friends. I keep thinking, only 10? Out of all those books of poetry, out of all those soul-companions sitting on a shelf, and always there for me, how do I begin to say "you, but not you"?

"Anyway, let's give it a go. And by the way, these 10 are in no particular order."

1. The Opie book of nursery rhymes.
Iona and Peter Opie were a couple who had a rich collection of children's books, games and toys. They also collected schoolyard rhymes and chants, and in this treasure house of nursery rhymes, you'll be enchanting your ear for life. Nursery rhyme rhythms are perfect for rolling off the tongue. Besides, you'll meet some interesting people like Old Mother Hubbard and Georgie Porgie Pudding and Pie.

2. Charles Causley, Collected poems for children.
This beloved son of Launceston, Cornwall, where he lived most of his life, once said: "A poem has to match its subject. But really the whole thing is just as much a mystery to me now as when I started." He said that when he was 80, and having written poems for decades! In Causley you'll return to the oral music of nursery rhymes, ballads, and the storytelling tradition. Can't go wrong, can you? "Jeremy Peep/When asleep/Walks the level/And walks the steep…"

3. Adrian Mitchell, Umpteen pockets.
Mitchell was a passionate and much-missed voice for peace, unafraid to express rage at injustices. In this fat, compassionate collection, you can get your poetic teeth into all sorts of treats, from spells and nonsensical teasers to brave poems that move you and make you think about the state of the planet and the creatures that share it – two-footed and four-footed alike.

4. Ted Hughes, Season songs.
Hughes was a strong champion of writing by children themselves and started the WH Smith Young Writers Competition. Known for his muscular language and keen sense of the dark power and beauty of nature, he is the bard of the seasons in this collection. My favourite is Leaves. from the autumn section. "Who killed the leaves?/Me, says the apple, I've killed them all/Fat as a bomb or a cannonball/I've killed the leaves." Do you recognise the sound of Who Killed Cock Robin? Told you you couldn't go wrong with nursery rhymes.

5. James Berry, Only one of me.
Berry, who was born and grew up in the countryside of Jamaica, has been living in England for more than 50 years and is rightly considered a pioneer of British/Caribbean poetry. He marinates his English in Jamaican rhythms and folk talk, including proverbs and worksongs. Begin with his charming letters by pets to their owners. In these scribbled notes, the animals get things off their chest and express their innermost hopes. "You know I'm so big/ I'll soon become a person." So dreams the special big-puppy-dog.

6. Jackie Kay, Two's company.
A great celebrator of her Scottish/Nigerian heritage, she holds Burns Night (January 25), in honour of the much loved Scottish poet, Robbie Burns, among her most cherished childhood memories. In a very real and believable voice, like that of a mate confiding a secret in the playground, she reveals those inner adolescent fears and fantasies. Like having a crush on a schoolteacher. "I'm scared of my own heart beat/it's so loud someone might say/'who's on the drums?' and I'd blush/(not exactly beetroot) but blush/ all the same."

7. Elizabeth Jennings, A spell of words : selected poems for children.
Jenning once said: "Only one thing must be cast out, and that is the vague." Good advice. And in her own poetry there is a directness and a wisdom delivered with a calm and measured musicality. Even when gazing up at clouds, there's nothing imprecise here, but a concrete meditation. "A folding of clouds/ Is kind to the eyes, is a painted lullaby/ And there are few words to say why/ Colours and ruffs and bubbles and bold balloons/ Take our hearts, lift our spirits and glow/ In our faster-beating hearts, in our minds also?/We need new words for the sky."

8. Grace Nichols, Everybody got a gift : new and selected poems.
Nichols was born in Guyana, South America. It just so happens that I was also born in Guyana and it just so happens that she's my wife. Am I a little biased? Perhaps. But in this collection, you'll find a lyrical breeziness where rainforest meets English landscape as well as a robust marriage of Caribbean Creole and so-called straight English with echoes of nursery rhyme and rap. Even when delighting in a delicious raspberry, her memory flashes to the tropics, a child of two cultures. "But raspberry/why does one of/your tiny pulps-all aglow/Remind me so/of a full-blooded/mosquito?"

9 . Roger McGough, An imaginary menagerie.
After leaving sixth form at my Roman Catholic secondary school in Guyana, I came across McGough in the landmark Mersey Sound anthology, which had a freeing–up effect on me, especially after studying more formal poetry for exams. In Roger's menagerie here, you can expect animals that are hybrids of mind-tickling wordplay. In Roger's prankish hands, caterpillar becomes "catopillow" and beware the allivator, that reptile that swallows shoppers at the top of the stairs.

10. Carol Ann Duffy, New and collected poems for children.
As poet laureate, Duffy is behind Anthologise, a national poetry competition for secondary schools to put together their own anthologies. But she's also busy writing and her solid New and collected will amuse as well as challenge in edgy uncluttered language. Here's how she invites you to see the familiar moth with new eyes: "A moth is a butterfly's dark twin/dressed in drab wings/She isn't scary/Think of her as a different thing-/a plain-clothes fairy." This collection is a cauldron of surprises.

Nov 14, 2023, 6:03 am

Belinda McKeon's top 10 farming novels
Guardian, 2011-10-12.

Belinda McKeon was born in Ireland in 1979 and grew up on a farm in County Longford. She lives in New York and in Ireland and writes about the arts for the Irish Times, Paris Review among others. As a playwright, McKeon has had work staged at the Abbey and Project Theatres in Dublin and at 59E59 and PS 122 in New York. She is currently under commission to the Abbey. Her first novel, Solace, is published by Picador.

"In university, I interviewed the novelist John McGahern for the campus newspaper; in the article, I mentioned that McGahern divided his time between farming and writing. Then I wrote something very earnest about how those 'twin arts of nurture and gestation' suited each other well. As a farmer's daughter, I should have known better. Nurture and gestation: what about drudgery, shit-shovelling, and swift kicks from irritable hindquarters? And as for the farmers, well, you know the rest.

"But it's true, I think, that there are parallels between the rhythms of farming and those of writing fiction; rhythms of watching, of waiting, of rearing things - of killing them off, when it comes to that. The farm is a self-contained world, and within its intensities and its rituals, an idiosyncratic language will evolve.

"And, given these resonances of process or of atmosphere, it's not hard to see why novels which take farming itself as their subject or their setting can be so powerful. There's a sense – and this may be only to do with the contemporary Irish novel – that a farm setting is somehow embarrassingly passé, shackled to a dreary mood, to an unadventurous style, and, most of all, to the past. But to conflate the rural or the agrarian with the past is a foolish oversimplification. The authors of these books – some written in the 1930s, some in the last few years – found in the farm an unclouded, unflinching lens for the realities of human experience. Nurture, gestation, and manure. The works."

1. John Williams, Stoner.
The farm on which William Stoner grows up in the early 1900s is bleak and dirt-poor; his father sends him to the University of Missouri to study agriculture, in the hope of bettering the family's circumstances. There, Stoner instead falls in love with literature and forges for himself an altogether different – though perhaps no less difficult – life. An extraordinary, underrated novel. Not a word is out of place.

2. Patrick Kavanagh, Tarry Flynn.
Though limned with contempt for the small-mindedness of rural life, Kavanagh's 1948 novel is in fact something of a love song for the life of the farm; his young protagonist may be trapped by the land which he works, but this doesn't stop him from seeing its peculiar beauties. Kavanagh's graceful prose is grounded by an unbruisable wit.

3. Willa Cather, O Pioneers!
To riff on Kavanagh, Alexandra Bergson knew the plight – the plight, that is, of taking a punishing stretch of prairie and turning it into a prosperous farm. In the young immigrant woman who takes on the land after her father's death, Cather found a heroine through whom, in 1913, she could write about a country. But in the farmland of Nebraska, she finds one of her most compelling characters.

4. James Agee & Walker Evans, Let us now praise famous men.
No, it's not strictly a novel. But neither is it the straightforward journalistic assignment envisioned by Fortune magazine in 1936, when it sent Agee and Evans to write about and photograph Southern sharecroppers. The two men focused on three tenant farming families, and Agee's prose climbs to a stunning pitch as he strives to capture the stark and miserable particulars of their world. Fortune wouldn't publish it as a finished piece; now we understand the Depression through its lens.

5. John McGahern, That they may face the rising sun.
In The dark, children work like slaves on their father's farm; in Amongst women, steel-souled patriarch Michael Moran feels, at the end of his life, as though the land has used him. But Joe and Kate Ruttledge farm their fields around the lake not because they need to, but because they take sheer pleasure in the rituals of the farming year. The pampered cattle, the pheasant which survives the blades of the mower, the good prices at the mart; this ease and contentment seemed new territory for McGahern. It turned out to be his final novel, but it saw him come closest to the stylistic aim of inner formality and calm which he had set for himself in The leavetaking.

6. Meg Rosoff, How I live now.
This novel – which seems to be set in the near future – was written for older children but must have its most haunting effect on adult readers. The narrative voice is that of Daisy, a New York teenager, who is sent to stay with cousins on a remote English farm. Soon after her arrival, her diplomat aunt goes to Oslo for urgent peacekeeping talks, leaving the children to fend for themselves. This becomes an altogether more complicated matter when, days later, war breaks out and the country is invaded by an enemy army. It's the setting of the farm, I think, which truly heightens Rosoff's vision; the sense of life everywhere becoming death everywhere is terrifying.

7. Claire Keegan, Foster.
Keegan herself describes Foster not as a novella, but as a long story. The book should not, therefore, be included on a list of farming novels, and I've tried to persuade myself to leave it out. But I cannot. Once you've encountered it, there is no shaking off the power, the clarity, the dark beauty of the world which Keegan creates out of this story of a young girl sent to spend the summer on the farm of relatives, a childless couple who treat her with a gentleness and dignity that she seems never to have previously encountered. The farm, it turns out, has wounded her foster parents terribly, but the girl's time there is a tentative step towards healing.

8. Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm.
Another one in which a young woman comes to stay with her farming relatives in the middle of nowhere. This, like every other trope of the farming novel, is booted up the yard with fond irreverence by Gibbons in her 1932 satire. Broke, orphaned Flora Poste has decamped to Sussex, to the farm of the Starkadders, where the cows have names like Pointless and Aimless and the dialogue is so earthy as to be worm-eaten. Those of us who love our farming novels need to check in with this one every once in a while.

9. Ross Raisin, God's own country.
His father's farm has become a prison for Sam Marsdyke, the Yorkshire teenager who is the wily but disturbed protagonist of this debut novel; accused of the rape of a classmate, he no longer goes to school and spends his days immersed in the hours of the farming day, the increasingly-gentrified moors offering his only escape – until the arrival of new neighours with a teenage daughter. Sam's eye is tack-sharp, his language intoxicatingly vivid. Raisin's depiction of the night of lambing is among the most beautiful scenes I've read in years.

10. Gerbrand Bakker (transl. David Colmer), The twin.
Of the Van Wonderen twins, Henk was the boy favoured to take over his father's farm; Helmer is the boy left behind when Henk dies in a car crash. He is also our narrator, and it's almost 40 years later; he and his invalid father are still on the farm. Helmer's life is twisted by resentment; it stunts his yearning for change. Then the woman who was Henk's girlfriend writes to ask whether her teenage son – Henk – can come to work alongside Helmer on the farm, and Helmer comes to see what change really looks like. Bakker's prose has immense control and deeply unsettling psychological reach.

Editado: Nov 16, 2023, 5:49 am

Children's Books Top Tens / Philip Webb's top 10 pulse-racing adventure books
Guardian, 2011-10-13.

Philip Webb had a happy childhood, roaming and exploring and being fascinated by the local rubbish dump where he played out lots of post-apocalyptic adventures with his friends. His first novel, Six days, is published by Chicken House, and comes with a competition to feature in Philip's next book.

"When I set out to write Six days, I was clear about one thing – that the plot had to rattle along so fast your heart would be pounding to keep up with it. These are the sorts of books I loved as a teenager – ripping yarns that absolutely refused to be put down.

My whole childhood was spent dreaming about (and occasionally getting into) adventures. I loved Tarzan so much I made serious plans to run away to Africa when I was eight. I got as far as packing a water bottle, food, pen knife and antiseptic, and waiting for my friend at the rendezvous at four in the morning. We were going to walk to Dover and become stowaways. I was mortified when my friend didn't show up.

Anyway, adventure books are the next best thing. Here are my top 10 page-turning, heart-stopping, killer adventures. Well, OK, there are 11, but who's counting? Some of them aren't specifically written for teenagers, but in the best traditions of adventure tales, they appeal to all ages from 10 to 100. Beware – they'll make you want to turn your back on that safe career your mum and dad want you to pursue and take to the high seas instead!"

1. Suzanne Collins, Hunger Games.
It's a sci-fi dystopia, it's a romance, it's touching and brutal and real. But most of all it's a perfect adventure. Bow-wielding ass-kicking Katniss goes into the Hunger Games arena to save her younger sister from certain death. It's survival of the fittest –a terrifying fight to the death, so addictive and so exciting you'll be gnawing your knuckles to the bone by book two.

2. Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island.
Jim Hawkins, the young son of the owners of an inn in Cornwall, comes of age in this fabulous tale of intrigue and mystery and treasure. It was published in 1883 and it's the original and best pirate adventure of all time. All the great elements are there – the treasure map (X marks the spot), the Black Spot, the desert island in the tropics and, of course, wonderful villains. Long John Silver steals the show. He is one of the finest baddies ever created, so charismatic that you never know which side you're on!

3. D. B. C. Pierre, Vernon God Little.
You can't help but identify with 15-year-old Vernon Gregory Little – he's trapped in a nightmarish small town in Texas, surrounded by people he doesn't understand and who don't understand him. When his only friend commits suicide after killing 16 bullying schoolmates, the finger of blame turns Vernon's way. The resulting adventure spree on the run to Mexico is a rollercoaster of emotions. This modern-day Catcher in the rye is a masterpiece, and it's also the funniest book I've ever read, bar none.

4. Louis Sachar, Holes.
Stanley Yelnats winds up in a juvenile detention centre for a crime he didn't commit. He and the other inmates have to dig one hole a day each in the dried up bed of Camp Green Lake, Texas. It's back-breaking work but it soon becomes clear that the vile warden Mr Sir is looking for something and he'll stop at nothing to get it. The characters are terrific and the twists and turns are even better. On top of that, there are some great one-liners:

Warden: Are you trying to be funny, or do you think I'm stupid?
Armpit: I wasn't trying to be funny.

5. Robert Westall, The machine gunners.
When I wasn't planning to run away to foreign climes, I was building dens in the woods out of turf and timber and defending them to the death in re-enactments of war. This gripping tale set in the second world war is about a group of children who find a machine gun from a crashed German fighter and 2,000 rounds of ammunition and play out those fantasies for real. They build their own fortress to defend their town from Luftwaffe air raids and take an enemy airman prisoner. The dilemmas and horrors of war are explored with real verve and skill – this is one of the first books that made me want to become a writer.

6. Geoffrey Household, Rogue Male.
This classic thriller written in 1939 is steeped in tension and suspense. An unnamed Englishman goes on the run after his plans to assassinate the dictator of a European dictator are foiled. In desperation, the Rogue Male must dig deep to find the resolve and resources to outwit his hunters. The plot is sensational – exciting, inventive and utterly convincing. The hero's never-give-in attitude helped inspire the action in Six days as Cass goes head-to-head with her nemesis.

7. John Wyndham, The chrysalids.
Another spellbinding sci-fi tale from the author of Day of the triffids. Wyndham conjures up a cruel post-apocalyptic world where any genetic deviation from the norm is ruthlessly punished. David and his friends have a deviation – they can communicate through thought alone. But how long can they keep it a secret from the stifling religious community around them? The sense of alienation and forced conformity is bleak, which makes the children's eventual flight all the more exhilarating.

8. Paul Watkins, In the blue light of African dreams.
Paul Watkins writes adventure of the highest order. I could easily put five of his books in this list, but I'll settle for two. The first has a lyrical title but don't let that put you off – it's pure Boy's Own. Airman Charlie Halifax is shot down in 1918 and badly wounded. His exploits as a deserter, as an exile in the Foreign Legion and attempting to be the first man to fly non-stop across the Atlantic took my breath away when I first read them. Reminiscent of Hemingway, this classic will propel you into a bygone age of true explorers.

9. Paul Watkins, Calm at sunset, calm at dawn.
If you've ever wondered what life is like as a trawlerman, look no further. As clear an account of wanderlust and the draw of the sea as I have ever read. James Pfeiffer learns the hard way about joining the crew of a deep-sea trawler off the coast of New England. All the mystical terror of the sea is condensed into this wonderfully paced novel. The descriptions of James trying to pull his weight on deck after his jaw's been shattered will make you thankful to be on dry land!

10. Joe Simpson, Touching the void.
Joe Simpson's gut-wrenching true-life account of his disastrous mountaineering expedition to the Peruvian Andes pulls no punches. It lays it out pure and simple – what do you have to have inside to survive when all the odds are stacked against you? Stranded alone in a remote crevasse with a horribly broken leg, most of us would give up. This wonderful piece of writing lays bare both the triumph and the dark side of climbing.

11. Jack London, Call of the wild.
Seen through the eyes of a dog flung into the wilds of Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush, this is riveting old-school adventure at its best! It's the story of a tame dog called Buck who is stolen and sold into a sled team and his transformation from pet to working dog to wild freedom is raw and powerful. London is great at describing the relationship between men and dogs in the harsh Alaskan wilderness. Like all the great adventure novels, it plants a seed of yearning – one that cannot be ignored – a yearning to see these places for yourself.


1. My elder daughter devoured Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy as they came out, 2008-2010. In fact they are what dragged her away from Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. And the first 'Hunger Games' film is still a year in the future when this column came out. How time flies.

10. As >4 anglemark: put it above: "Labelling (insert book title here) as a children's book is ... an usual choice", although fair play, the body-count is less than that of most (all?) of the other books.

Nov 16, 2023, 7:06 am

Adam Thorpe's top 10 English translations
Guardian, 2011-10-19.

The poet, playwright and novelist Adam Thorpe was born in Paris in 1956 and now lives in France. His translation of Madame Bovary is published this month by Vintage Classics.

"Choosing the best translation is essentially a matter of trust. Unless you know the original work very well, it is impossible to judge a translation – even by the lodestar of fidelity. A literal, academic version may reproduce the meaning, but everything else is likely to be missing: nuance, humour, music, tone, colouring … exactly what made the work worth translating in the first place. On the other hand, a free translation may betray the author's intentions, however subtly.

"And are versions, with their 'after' get-out clause (as in 'after Rimbaud'), really translations? Not quite, even though the results may be as compelling as Ted Hughes's Tales from Ovid or Christopher Logue's retake of the Iliad, War music. The translator's job is so gruelling that it would be unfair to place these in the same category. In the end, accuracy – in all its forms – must be the gold standard. There again, smuggling a text over the linguistic border involves a lot of cunning as well as compromise. No two languages have the same grammar, for a start, let alone the same music. You have to accept inevitable loss. If the hippo is the sperm whale's closest relative, then that's as close a resemblance as even the finest translation can hope to achieve … but it is, at least, its own creature.

"Ultimately, I've chosen the following for a number of reasons: because they have been important to me over the years, are great achievements in their own right, and vibrate with an energy that seems to be derived from the ur-text, rather as a vinyl mysteriously keeps the warmth of the live recording. The flame has been revived in the carrying, even where the distance – between Chinese and English, say – is vast."

1. Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney (Faber & Faber).
Heaney's magnificent rendering of the earliest English epic has its roots, ironically, in his Northern Irish background: its local voices enabled him to "find the tuning fork … the note and pitch for the overall music of the work". The result is pitch-perfect. My grisly memories of university days ploughing over Old English assignments have been banished.

2. Russian short stories, translated by Robert Chandler and others (Penguin Classics).
The indefatigable Robert Chandler is now best known for his masterly translation of Grossman's marathon Life and fate, but this volume is a superb introduction to the Russian genius for the literary sprint – in all its variation of subject, style and mood. From Gogol and Chekhov to lesser-known figures such as Platonov or the tragic Shalamov, there is always a streak of pain.

3. Wang Wei, Poems, translated by G. W. Robinson (Penguin Classics).
I have treasured this selection of the great eighth-century Chinese poet and painter for decades. With their tonal intricacies, rhymes and strict patterns, his poems are fiendishly hard to translate, but here they are lovingly rendered by a far-eastern scholar for whom this was virtually a life's work. Wang Wei, civil servant and recluse, feels very close to us, murmuring of the tiny miracles of nature as he watches "white clouds curl on the blue hills".

4. Thomas Mann, The holy sinner, translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter (Penguin Modern Classics).
Mann's last novel (published in 1951) is a disturbing, incest-seamed exploration of original sin and redemption based on the medieval legend of St Gregory. Written in appropriate period style, it has extraordinary force in this rendering by Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter. The translation is itself a masterpiece, right from the opening line: "The ringing of bells, the surging and swelling of bells supra urbem, above the whole city …"

5. Ezra Pound : translations (Faber & Faber).
Claiming modernism's timelessness, Pound favoured pre-modern poems from the Chinese, Provençal, Greek, Latin, Old English and Tuscan. As in his dire politics, he broke the rules, cheekily favouring sound over meaning (see his salt-encrusted rendition of The seafarer). Yet he somehow managed to be uncannily accurate to the original's spirit, to its far-off gleams and shadows, whether those of Bernart de Ventadorn or a mischievous Catullus.

6. Goscinny & Uderzo, Asterix, translated by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge (Hodder Children's Books).
Humour is usually the first casualty in translation, but by some miracle (no, by sheer hard work and imagination) Bell and Hockridge salvage most of the jokes, some of them sophisticated puns. And the names are just as good in the English: Idéfix to Dogmatix, Agecanonix to Geriatrix …

7. Homer, The Odyssey, translated by T. E. Lawrence (OUP).
Lawrence felt he was uniquely qualified to translate Homer's epic as he had "hunted wild boars and watched wild lions … built boats and killed many men". He was right, it has to be admitted: this lyrical prose conversion has the seaworn smoothness of battered driftwood.

8. Tyndale's Bible.
Translation can be dangerous, especially if the results are widely disseminated in print. Much of the King James Bible (which contains some of the finest prose poems in the language) is drawn from William Tyndale's scrupulous translation, the success of which ultimately cost him his life. Unfortunately, the Protestant word meant the wholesale destruction of the Catholic art of these islands; overall, I'd have preferred the art.

9. The essays of MontaigneJohn Florio (1603).
Montaigne invented the meditative humanist ramble known as the essay. Sadly, France was to follow the dry, classical rigours of the likes of Descartes. Florio rendered Montaigne's philosophical soliloquies into chewable Elizabethan English at about the time his (likely) friend Shakespeare was writing Hamlet

10. The epic of Gilgamesh, translated by N. K. Sandars (Penguin Classics).
More than 20 years ago, I spent weeks in the British Library ploughing through word-by-word translations (from the Assyrian) of this epic tale – the first literary work of the ancient world – in a futile attempt to transpose it into verse. But Sandars's prose version, scrupulous in its scholarship and quiet poetry, is still unbeatable: "O Shamash, hear me, hear me, Shamash, let my voice be heard."


Shout-out to Penguin Classics, publisher of three out of ten of the above, and the backbone of classical and world literature in my library and surely that of many others. My favourites are probably Penguin Classics's translations of Icelandic sagas by Magnus Magnusson (best remembered by those of a certain generation as the quizmaster on 'Mastermind') and Hermann Pálsson.

There is an interesting discussion in the BTL comments (get-at-able, as always, by clicking on the word 'Guardian' at the top of this message), ranging from the Moomintrolls to Brian O'Nolan's An béal boċt, translated by Patrick C. Power as The poor mouth, to David Bellos's translation of Life : a user's manual from George Perec's La vie : mode d'emploi.

Nov 17, 2023, 8:44 am

Alexandra Fuller's top 10 African memoirs
Guardian, 2011-10-26.

Alexandra Fuller was born in England but moved to Africa with her family when she was two. Having lived in Rhodesia, as it was then known, Malawi and Zambia, she left Africa in 1994 with her husband to move to Wyoming. Her debut book, Don't let's go to the dogs tonight : an African childhood, was a finalist for the Guardian's first book award and the winner of the 2002 Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize. Her 2004 Scribbling the cat : travels with an African soldier won the Ulysses Prize for Art of Reportage. Her latest book, Cocktail hour under the tree of forgetfulness, continues her memoirs to focus on the life of her eccentric and charismatic mother.

"The memoirs that have come out of Africa are sometimes startlingly beautiful, often urgent, and essentially life-affirming, but they are all performances of courage and honesty. Far from the tell-all confessionals more usual in western memoirs, the African memoir lays bare the bones of what it is to be a child, survivor, or perpetrator of oppression and conflict.

"What is often shocking, but very effective, is the humour evident in so many of these works, laughter being an essential survival technique for so many Africans (and of her writers). The act of writing is also a defiant way of asserting, "I was born. I am here. I will remain." In places of chronic instability, the memoir is an anchor of words to an experience and place and a way to bear witness; to expose and perhaps even explain the atrocities of war, racism, tribalism and cronyism. Don't let's go to the dogs tonight, and Cocktail hour under the tree of forgetfulness, my own memoirs of Africa, are written from a white African point of view, but explore the ways in which the land possesses all of us who love it – regardless of ethnicity – and the ways in which laughter can make palatable life's unendurable losses."

1. Albie Sachs, The soft vengeance of a freedom fighter.
Not everyone can be a Jewish-born, anti-apartheid, South African lawyer and self-proclaimed freedom fighter. But that was Albie Sachs in the 1980s. And that in itself would be enough. But to be, in addition, a writer of gorgeous, uplifting sentences seems to be something heaven-sent. Sachs's remarkable memoir transcends its time and even its place with its universality and ultimately (and this sounds odd in the context of a man who was blown up by pro-apartheid forces in 1988 and lost an arm and an eye) its message is hopeful. A "re-membering" rather than a "dis-membering" is what Sachs would say, both about the act of violence which threatened to kill him and his life thereafter.

2. Binyavanga Wainaina, One day I will write about this place.
This wonderful memoir about Wainaina's journey from book-devouring east African boy to African Caine prize-winning author is brimming with virtuoso insouciance and it is utterly resolved. Wainaina has done all the soul-searching of a young-man-in-flux for us, and we are left in awe of his jazzy, fresh use of language and his gentle guidance. Wainaina's Africa is not all glamorous poverty and backlit giraffes. It's an Africa in which the lost are perpetually leading the blind, and yet still somehow find their way home.

3. Helene Cooper, The house at Sugar Beach.
One of the most memorable memoirs of childhood written in the last decade. Honest, informative and very restrained, this is the story of one woman's journey from a child of Liberia's elite ruling class, to refugee from the war that saw her mother horribly attacked, her cousin (a member of the pre-coup government) shot, and her family torn apart. I read this book in one greedy helping and have held it up as an absolute must-read ever since.

4. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, This child will be great.
A true story of Sirleaf's ascent from ordinary Liberian child to leader that reads as much like an awful whodunnit on a catastrophically awesome scale, as it does like the memoirs of an ambitious and brave woman. This autobiography from the woman who is Africa's first (and, at present count, only) female head of state, is as inspiring as it is page-turning.

5. Aminatta Forna, The devil that danced on water.
This memoir manages to be at once one of the least sentimental books ever written about an African childhood (in this case, Sierra Leone) and yet so utterly moving that one finds oneself almost constantly welling up, not just with shock or sadness, but with awe at Forna's courageous telling of an incredibly difficult story. This is a story of war, loss and ultimately redemption, written with formidable grace and poise.

6. J. M. Coetzee, Boyhood.
Here was a refreshing splash-in-the-face recounting of a white southern African childhood shorn utterly of any romance or excess emotion. Refreshingly cured of any diseased nostalgia for the good old days, Coetzee's memoir sears with an almost dry-iced precision.

7. Nelson Mandela, Conversations with myself.
This is a book you will find yourself going back to and thumbing through, not just for the historical perspective that this collection of essays, speeches and conversations that this memoir provides, but for the shot-to-the-heart wisdom of one of the greatest and most inspiring leaders of our time.

8. Toyin Falola, A mouth sweeter than salt.
This Nigerian coming-of-age memoir is irreverent, poetic and filled with the kind of ordinary information that makes Nigeria feel oddly familiar, even in its loud, exuberant foreignness. It's easy to see the influences of both Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka in these pages, and yet Falola has a voice all his own too. Something modern and jazzy and shoulder-shrugging and altogether itself.

9. Dave Eggers, What is the what.
Eggers' biographical novel of Valentino Achak Dang's nightmarish flight from his country's civil war in the 1980s and 1990s, to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, and eventually (but far from safe-and-soundly) to America reads like a Victorian epic. Dang's courage and humanity shine through these pages in first-person brilliance and Eggers is nothing if not the master of language. It's a spine-straightening read, and ultimately something that lends a very human face, and a very human need for hope, to one of the most brutalised corners of our modern world.

10. Zakes Mda, Sometimes there is a void.
Mda's electric honesty is a live current through his remarkably gorgeous, urgent, poetic, matter-of-fact memoir. But don't get lulled into thinking this is the book of one bravely truthful man's journey into self-expression. Mda has shaken off calcification, identity, ego and walked us all into sovereignty and selfhood. Read this, and be prepared to examine your own soul as never before.


Wow. A continent with a population of 1.08 billion people in 2011 (roughly the population of Europe and North America taken together) knocked off in one column. LT tags suggest: South Africa (1, 2, 6, 7, 10), Kenya (2), Liberia (3, 4), Sierra Leone (5), Nigeria (8), Sudan (9), Liberia (10).

Nov 18, 2023, 7:21 am

Children's Books Top Tens / Chris Priestley's top 10 scary short stories for Halloween.
Guardian, 2011-10-31.

Ever since he was a teenager, Chris Priestley has loved unsettling and creepy stories, with fond memories of buying comics like 'House of Mystery' and 'Strange Tales', watching classic BBC adaptations of M. R. James stories every Christmas and reading all manner of assorted weirdness from Edgar Allan Poe to Ray Bradbury. He is the author of the Tales of Terror series which won the Dracula Society's Children of the Night Award for best book with a Gothic horror theme, and his latest book. Mister Creecher, picks up where Frankenstein left off.

"When I was a teenager in the 1970s we did not really have books written especially for the teen market. When we felt like moving on from children's books, we moved into accessible adult fiction. I read some fantasy - Robert E. Howard's Conan series for example - but I was always much more interested in SF and horror. There was much more access to old movies on television in those days and they led me to classics like Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But I have always loved short stories, and that format seems particularly well suited to horror. I'm a sucker for compilations of macabre and uncanny stories and have many on my shelves. They are like creepy literary mix tapes (or whatever the digital equivalent is). Here are 10 that could feature in any good anthology."

1. Graham Greene, A little place off the Edgware Road.
This is a superbly creepy and grotesque short story by the great Graham Greene. It has more than a little Edgar Allan Poe about it, scuttling among the shadows at the edge of madness. A trip to the cinema proves to be a nightmarish experience for Craven as he finds himself seated next to someone very disturbing indeed in the darkness. Horrible. And I mean that in a good way.

2. W. W. Jacobs, The monkey's paw.
Surely any list of creepy short stories would have to include The monkey's paw? It is still the best of the 'be careful what you wish for', sting-in-the-tail stories. A old army comrade of Mr White comes calling one cold, rainy night. He tells the family about a mummified monkey's paw he is carrying - a magical object that can grant the owner three wishes. And so the nightmare begins. If you haven't read this you're in for a nasty treat.

3. Aleksei Tolstoy, The family of the vourdalak.
I only read this quite recently, although I have it in several collections. It's a very unsettling story. A father goes off, hunting a Turkish bandit. He tells his family that if he hasn't returned within 10 days to assume him dead. If he comes back after 10 days then they are on no account to let him in, for he will have become a vourdalak - a vampire. Luckily for us, they don't do as they are told. Creepy. Very, very creep.

4. Edgar Allan Poe, Berenice.
There were so many Edgar Allan Poe stories I could have put in the list. Although Berenice may not be as famous as say The tell-tale heart or The pit and the pendulum, I think it sums up what the best of Poe is all about: an obsession with the dead and the not-quite-dead, and a nightmarish descent into madness. Poe's writing is very florid and not to everyone's taste, but if you just go with it, you will find yourself sucked into the weirdest of weird worlds. And what a grisly ending this story has! Sleep-troubling strangeness.

5. Charles Dickens, The signalman.
I first became aware of this story through the Lawrence Gordon Clark-directed adaptation in A ghost story for Christmas on the BBC, back in the 1970s. It is a lot sparer than most Dickens stories. There are no eccentric caricatures here. This is a very dark tale. A signalman tells a stranger a disturbing story of haunting and premonition. Everything, from the vividly imagined setting of that signal box at the mouth of a dark tunnel, to the story's grim conclusion, is flawless. Genuinely spooky.

6. M.R. James, Lost hearts.
James is often thought of as a bit of a cosy writer, his stories set in country houses and cathedrals - the kind of author who would be read at a National Trust Halloween event. But they are often darker and more disturbing than expected. If you have never read M. R. James, this would be a good place to start. A boy goes to stay with his guardian, an elderly gentleman who seems obsessed with boy's age for some reason. M. R. James at his most sinister.

7. Robert Aickman, The inner room.
I was lucky enough to have this story read to me – very skilfully – by Jeremy Dyson at the Halifax Ghost Story Festival last year. I did not know Robert Aickman, but after this story I realised I had examples of his work in several collections. Like Poe or H. P. Lovecraft, it is almost impossible to describe what makes his writing style so hypnotic, but once sampled there is no turning back. This tale about a doll's house is deeply unsettling. A creepy Toy story.

8. Ray Bradbury, Fever dream.
This is a deliciously creepy story by the master of the uncanny tale, Ray Bradbury. Like all the best short stories, the premise is a simple one: a boy on his sick bed feels that his body is being taken over by more than a mere disease. But he can't make the adults believe that, of course. They think he's making a fuss. And then, suddenly, he feels much better. Don't read this if you are going down with a cold.

9. Saki, Sredni Vashtar.
Saki is a curious writer. He veers between whimsy, humour and a surprising amount of cruelty - often in the same story. His stories deserve to be more widely read. They often - as in this one of a boy's devotion to his ferret - involve precocious children getting the better of adults. "Sredni Vashtar went forth. His thoughts were red thoughts and his teeth were white ... " Saki at his nasty best.

10. John Collier, Thus I refute Beelzy.
I have a few John Collier stories in various collections. They are always very crisp and satisfying. This story of a little boy's invisible friend and his father's ill-advised attempt to persuade him (by force) of Mr Beelzy's non-existence is a very fine thing indeed. "'You are not going to beat the child?' cried Mrs Carter. 'No,' said the little boy. 'Mr Beelzy won't let him.'" A story that bites back.

Nov 19, 2023, 5:43 am

Philip Connors's top 10 wilderness books
Guardian, 2011-11-02.

Philip Connors worked for several years at the Wall Street Journal. In 2002, he left the paper for a seasonal job with the US Forest Service in New Mexico, where he has worked 10 summers as a fire lookout in the Gila National Forest. That experience became the subject of his first book, Fire Season : field notes from a wilderness lookout.

"'Wilderness books' go a long way back. You could make a case for Don Quixote and portions of the Bible falling under the heading, as well as Robinson Crusoe and Moby-Dick, not to mention a great deal of ancient Chinese and Japanese poetry.

"My list is mostly comprised of books I've read recently as I grappled with how to write such a book in the 21st century, as we've come to understand, rather starkly, that all of life on Planet Earth is affected by global phenomena. Wilderness books once focused on how an encounter with wild nature altered the human soul and human consciousness; now, they tend to ruminate on how wilderness has been altered and diminished by human tools and patterns of consumption.

"Wilderness in its purest sense may be gone, but wild remnants remain, and many of my favourite books in the genre celebrate a particular place (often in America), cherishing what is native and mourning what's been lost."

1. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County almanac.
The book that did more than any other to spark the modern environmental movement in America, this is an indispensable text for students of the natural world and a human land ethic: "I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?"

2. Cormac McCarthy, Blood meridian.
Based on real-life events along the Mexican-American border in the 1840s, McCarthy's novel about a group of bounty hunters reminds us that the European encounter with untamed frontiers in America was a very bloody business. The leader of the group, very learned but wholly barbarous, sums it up this way: "If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay."

3. Edward Abbey, Desert solitaire.
An impassioned, tactile, acidly funny memoir of Abbey's seasons as a park ranger in the rugged Utah wilderness: "We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis."

4. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping.
While not a "wilderness book" per se, this novel makes the outdoor world of the northern Rockies as much a character as the unforgettable sisters at its heart, whose hometown "was chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere."

5. Cabeza de Vaca, Adventures in the unknown interior of America.
The strange and wondrous account of a Spanish explorer's wanderings in 16th century America, one of the great adventure stories of all time and an underappreciated classic: "We passed from one strange tongue to another, but God our Lord always enabled each new people to understand us and we them."

6. Ellen Meloy, Eating stone.
A slyly humorous, beautifully observed account of her obsession with a band of elusive desert bighorn sheep: "The fear of being humble has walled all of us into separate geographies. Nature is a place 'out there,' the not-home place, much as history is 'back then,' the not-us time."

7. John Fowles, The tree.
In this elegant essay, Fowles ruminates on his attraction to untamed trees, wild copses, and abandoned pastures, exploring the link between wildness and creativity: "What I gain most from nature is beyond words. To try to capture it verbally immediately places me in the same boat as the namers and would-be owners of nature: that is, it exiles me from what I most need to learn."

8. Jack Turner, The abstract wild.
This collection of essays shows a razor-sharp mind grappling with the meaning of wilderness in the modern world: "Something vast and old is vanishing and our rage should mirror that loss. Refuse to forgive, cherish your anger, remind others. We have no excuses."

9. Laura Bell, Claiming ground.
In this beautifully-observed memoir of her years herding sheep in Wyoming, Bell tells a classic story of a stark confrontation with the self in a harsh landscape: "Below us the ground falls away unevenly and leaves us stumbling through the air over sage and rock and the holes of prairie dogs. I lose my sight to wind and tears and close my body around the centre of what there is to trust and trust it."

10. Gary Snyder, The practice of the wild.
This and all of Snyder's works are beautiful meditations on wildness, ecology, humility, and the search for meaningful play and meaningful work: "Perhaps one should not talk (or write) too much about the wild world: it may be that it embarrasses other animals to have attention called to them."

Nov 22, 2023, 4:32 pm

Children's Books Top Tens / Liz Pichon's top 10 funny books with pictures
Guardian, 2011-11-09.

Liz Pichon studied graphic design at Middlesex Polytechnic and Camberwell School of Art in London. After working in the music industry as an art director she began creating picture books and My big brother Boris, published by Scholastic in 2004, won the Smarties book prize silver award. Her first illustrated story for older readers, The brilliant world of Tom Gates, won the 2011 Roald Dahl funny prize. The Roald Dahl funny prize is managed by independent literature charity Booktrust.

"Some of the books my children would ask me to read at bedtime were so dreary I'd be the one falling asleep! I'd often make up my own story to go with the pictures, but that only worked when they were little (and couldn't read). It was soon … "You missed a bit" or "you turned over four pages" … "did I? Are you sure?"

This might seem a bit sneaky on my part, but it's not easy making fairy fluff stories sound interesting after the 15th time of reading them. So the trick was to try and find books that we all enjoyed reading. Funny books worked a treat for that. I could even get my son (who's older) to come and listen too.

The below list isn't in any particular order. They're just all very funny …"

1. Spike Milligan, Silly verse for kids.
I've got an original copy of this book – the one with the orange cover - and Spike's face looming out on the front. It always made me laugh as a child as it's a great book to read out loud. The drawings are deceptively simple but match the poems perfectly. Packed full of character, it's completely bonkers but I love it.

2. Roald Dahl, The Twits, (illus. by Quentin Blake).
I often wonder if some of Roald Dahl's books would get published today?
All that talk of beer and various horrid deeds being inflicted on small children.
This is probably my favourite Roald Dahl book. Quentin Blake's drawings are just so brilliant and gruesome, you can almost smell Mr Twit with all that disgusting food stuck in his beard. And Mrs Twit's eye appearing at the bottom of the beer glass … it's still genius.

3. Jon Scieszka & Lane Smit, The stinky cheese man and other fairly stupid tales.
These are traditional fairytales with quirky slightly dark twists. The brilliantly combined text and illustrations use all the pages of the book in wonderfully imaginative ways. The whole feel of the book is slightly weird and unexpected, with lots of details and odd-looking characters throughout. 'The Very Ugly Duckling' that just grows up to be …. a very ugly duck, made me laugh out loud when I first turned the page.

4. James Marshall, The Fox books.
My friend Mike introduced me to these books. He read them to his sons and thought my son Zak would like them too. Boy, did he! We bought the whole set they were so funny. I love James Marshall's turn of phrase. The stories are set in America and revolve around a group of friends at high school. They are all different animals drawn simply in pen and ink. Fox's character is very deadpan and he's always getting into scrapes and bumping into Mrs O'Hara. The stories have loads of nice little twists, like Fox's mum telling Fox to put on his tie on one page, while Fox point blank refuses to do it. Then on the next page Fox is wearing his tie with mum looking pleased and there's no explanation, you just know what's happened. He's also done a collection of fairy tales that are equally funny.

5. Lauren Child, Clarice Bean that's me.
Clarice Bean was the first book I bought by Lauren Child and I could quite happily live in the houses that she creates for her characters. I love her conversational style and wonderful use of textures and text throughout the book. Her work was a breath of fresh air in the picture book world. Combine her art with funny, truthful storylines and it's already a classic.

6. Dr Seuss, The cat in the hat.
Some books don't seem to date and Dr Seuss's books still look as fresh and bright and crazy as they did when they were first published. To be able to make children laugh while getting them to remember and learn stuff too is amazing.

7. Andy Stanton, You're a bad man, Mr Gum!, illus. by David Tazzyman.
I met Andy Stanton last year and because my daughter is a massive fan of all the Mr Gum books I asked him to sign a postcard for her. He wrote "To Lily you outrageous mango". I think that sums up why these books are so brilliant. Along with David Tazzyman's drawings that are so packed full of energy they almost zip off the pages, it's a fantastic combination for a funny book.

8. Oliver Jeffers, Stuck.
I WISH I could paint and draw like Oliver Jeffers. He's not only a fantastic author; he's an amazing artist too. He does proper paintings that are exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery and everything! He also has a wonderful gentle sense of humour that comes across in all his work. Stuck is his latest book and it is just gorgeous to look at on every page.

9. Roald Dahl, Matilda, illus. by Quentin Blake.
More wonderful drawings and descriptions. I just couldn't miss this one out.

10. Babette Cole, Princess Smartypants.
I couldn't decide between this one and Dr Dog. Read them both if you can - they're both very funny. Twisted fairytales are a good source of humour (I've done it myself). But Babette Cole's characters and names for her characters are always hilarious. I particularly admire her non-schmaltzy endings. The Prince turning into a warty toad …what's not to love?

Just one more ... Dav Pilkey, The adventures of Captain Underpants : an epic novel.
Reading Dav Pilkey's website you get a real feel for the kind of stuff he likes and makes him laugh. He put one of the first books he wrote that didn't get published online. Do take a look. It's one of the funniest things I've seen for ages. My son loved all of the Captain Underpants books. I also like: Dog breath : the horrible trouble with Hally Tosis. The green breath and looks on the burglars' faces when they get licked by Hally is wonderful.

Nov 23, 2023, 1:36 pm

Michel Schneider's top 10 books about Marilyn Monroe
Guardian, 2011-11-16.

Michel Schneider is the author of three novels, including Marilyn's last sessions, which was the winner of the Prix Interallié (2006) and has now been translated into English by Will Hobson, published this month by Canongate. He has also written many essays on psychoanalysis, music, literature and the psychopathology of politics.

"Hundreds of books have been written about Marilyn. My personal reasons for writing a novel about her were probably quite different from those which had previously inspired so many biographers and authors. My interest was: why was she so intensely caught between public and private, words and images, trying to escape from the icon she became and cure herself with her own words? I was deeply moved to find her so desperate to match Polonius's advice 'To thine own self be true', and her solitary death made me rephrase this idea of the great psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott: 'Sometimes, to save your true self, you have to kill your self as a whole.' The good Marilyn books – ordered here alphabetically – are those in which she appears as a person; the bad ones, those that treat her as a sex idol trapped in the mess of Hollywood."

1. Eve Arnold, Marilyn Monroe.
Arnold was the only woman to have photographed Marilyn extensively, and the two became friends after a photo shoot for Esquire magazine in 1952. At the end of Marilyn's life, Arnold spent two months photographing her while she was shooting 'The misfits'. Her photos are far from serving the myth of the too obvious sex symbol; accompanied by a moving text, they give a tender portrait of the fading star.

2. Truman Capote, Music for chameleons.
Truman Capote wrote several portraits of Marilyn, his close friend – a tender and cruel series of depictions of the blonde with whom he had drunk "white angels" in Manhattan bars. He quoted the following pun by the smart though unintellectual Marilyn: "When that day will come, I would like to be delayed attending my own funeral."

3. Andre de Dienes, Marilyn, mon amour.
In 1945, fashion photographer Andre de Dienes met an aspiring young brunette model named Norma Jeane. He instantly fell in love and transformed her into Marilyn Monroe over the course of a series of road trips which they took together. He wrote secret memoirs, which were discovered when Monroe fans ransacked his house after his death in 1988. From their trip to see her mother in a mental hospital to Marilyn's visit to his home a few days before her death, De Dienes recounts all of the emotional moments they shared. A beautiful story of friendship and love.

4. Stephen Farber & Mark Green, Hollywood on the couch.
A kind of bible. The first, and probably only, book ever written on the strange love affair between psychoanalysts and moviemakers in the 50s and 60s. The book offers a portrait of Ralph Greenson, whom I transformed in my novel into a kind of dark prince of the analyst's couch, ruling all aspects of Marilyn's life.

5. Ralph Greenson, On loving, hating and living well.
Greenson was a great Freudian clinician and he left a series of remarkable theoretical essays in psychotherapy. Some of them were secretly inspired by the case of his most celebrated patient.

6. Andrew O'Hagan, The life and opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his friend Marilyn Monroe.
Maf is a dog Frank Sinatra gave to Marilyn. With his new owner, the lucky pup has a period of perfect companionship in New York city, attending shows, sitting in on analyst appointments, witnessing Sinatra tantrums, and attending bookish soirees. Maf's bitter ruminations accompany Marilyn's decline.

7. Barbara Leaming, Marilyn Monroe.
Until she died, Monroe wasn't just a "candle in the wind" – an abused, confused girl from an orphanage with a mother in a madhouse. She was also an ambitious actress, who knew how to craft a persona and play power games. Leaming fully describes her tragic fate, rising from sexual party favour for showbiz men to the movie superstar who pushes them around, until she crashes, a victim of self-loathing and drug addiction. She even apparently solves Monroe's suicide with clues from the letters written by Greenson to Anna Freud. Her last overdose may have happened just because on an August Saturday night her shrink went to dinner with his wife and she felt abandoned.

8. Marilyn Monroe, My story.
Icons rarely speak, and never write. Usually. Written at the height of her fame but not published until more than a decade after her death, this autobiography poignantly recounts her childhood as an unwanted orphan, her early adolescence, her rise in the film industry from bit player to celebrity, and her marriage to Joe DiMaggio. In this intimate account of a very public life, Marilyn reveals herself as a gifted, vulnerable, sensible writer. In vivid scenes, she tells of her first (non-consensual) sexual experience, her repeated romantic failures, and her prescient vision of herself as "the kind of girl they found dead in the hall bedroom with an empty bottle of sleeping pills in her hand".

9. Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde.
Guess who Blonde is? She has no name in this compelling 700-plus-page novel based on Monroe's life. Only great writers have the talent to let us imagine we understand Marilyn's enigma. Murder, plot, suicide, hallucination, reality? Maybe all of these at once: great novelists being those that leave you with more questions than answers.

10. Donald Spoto, Marilyn Monroe : the biography.
Using more than 150 interviews and some 35,000 pages of previously sealed files, including Monroe's diaries, letters, and other personal and revealing documents, this is certainly the best and most accurate biography of Marilyn. Spoto reveals new details of every aspect of her life, and her mysterious death. No, Marilyn was not killed by the Kennedys. Her suicide may have been accidental, after being fed all those barbiturates by different people over the years; and Greenson and her housekeeper, Eunice Murray, may have had a hand in it.


Marilyn Monroe, besides much else, was a reader. She has a LT Legacy Library. As the LT LL profile page explains: "Although the library contained around 400 books, the auction catalog did not list complete bibliographic information for all lots, so only around 250 books could be entered". The Booktryst blog article (2010) lists of all 430 books is much more user-friendly than the original Christie's auction catalogue (1999).

Nov 24, 2023, 4:58 pm

Children's Books Top Tens / Conn Iggulden's top 10 books about tiny people
Guardian, 2011-11-17.

Conn Iggulden is a bestselling author of historical fiction for adults and co-author with his brother Hal of The dangerous book for boys. His Tollins books, about the adventures of tiny creatures with wings who aren't fairies and are about as fragile as a house brick, are his first foray into children's fiction.

"Perhaps because we've all been small, books about tiny people are perennial favourites. Which of us hasn't imagined having a tiny character we could take to school in a pocket? I did that once with a mouse and a pocketful of droppings is no substitute for fairy dust, let me tell you. I'm sure Peter Pan never had that problem with Tinkerbell. I hope not, anyway. Here are 10 of the best-loved children's books about short people."

1. Terry Pratchett, Truckers, diggers and wings.
A trilogy about very small people living in the walls of a department store. With a sense of awe and wonder, they slowly discover that the world around them is greater than Haberdashery and Kitchen Appliances. As always with Pratchett, the dialogue cracks along, peppered with wit – while incidentally exploring our own ideas of reality. Pratchett is loved by millions for very good reason.

2. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's travels.
Yes, you will hear that it's all a clever satire on politics, but this readable classic is a great story as well. Classic books for children are not often read in the original any longer, because what was once considered normal vocabulary is now surprisingly difficult. Thank you, education experts. Yet somehow, old Gulliver survives. Swift gave us the word "Lilliputian" and another I like even more: "Brobdingnagian".

3. T. H. White, Mistress Masham's repose.
Better known for his wonderful Arthurian work for children, The once and future king, this book by White involves the very same Lilliputians that tied Gulliver to the ground. This time, they are discovered on an island by a lonely little girl named Maria. It is a touch of wonder and magic in her life, as she tries to keep them safe from her governess and an evil vicar who want to exploit the Lilliputians for profit. As you would expect from someone of T. H. White's stature, this is an exciting, witty adventure suitable for 7-10 year olds.

4. Mary Norton, The Borrowers.
I don't think these charming little people ever gave anything back, but "The Thieves" would not have become such a family favourite, I'm sure. This is an early example of what Douglas Adams called "the old five books to a trilogy ploy". It involves the Clock family of Borrowers living under floorboards and coming into contact with the "Boy" and the world of "Human Beans".

5. Lynne Reid Banks, The Indian in the cupboard.
The key here is the cupboard itself, which brings toy figures to life. Personally, I would not have stopped with a few plastic figures. My hamsters dropped like flies when I was a boy and they'd have been straight in there for a spruce up.

6. John Peterson, The Littles.
This American series was very similar to The Borrowers, though the main characters are quite mouse-like. As near as makes no odds, they are mice with human intelligence. Around 16 sequels followed, so if you like the first one, you're onto a winner.

7. Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men.
A completely different type to his first little folk, as these are blue and say "Jings!" and "Criminy!" a lot, while attacking anything that moves. Small people with a bit of bite – or at least the danger of running straight up your trouserleg. The Nac Mac Feegles, as they are known, are another wonderful creation – and a way into the Discworld series for younger children.

8. Tom Thumb.
Attributed to various authors over the years, but the earliest known version is from the 16th century and has a reasonable claim to being the first English fairytale in print. It's a certainty that many of the books on this list took inspiration from those before, but this is the first one, a tale of Merlin using magic to create a tiny boy for a childless couple. Pleasant adventures follow, such as falling into a pudding bowl, as well as less pleasant ones, such as passing through the digestive tract of a cow or being puked up by a giant. Children's tales were a bit livelier then.

9. Terry Pratchett, The Carpet People.
Yes, it's the third one of his in the list and it's definitely not in order of greatness, because this is a first-rate, charming and funny story of truly tiny folk, who must journey across the vast landscape that appears to be the carpet in a single human room. As small as they are, they have only hints of the reality of the world, much as we do ourselves. An instant classic and suitable for children of 10-14 and up.

10. Vincent Cronin, Napoleon.
Because I simply could not resist putting Napoleon into a list of books about short people.


The Wikipedia article says: "The earliest surviving text is a 40-page booklet printed in London for Thomas Langley in 1621 entitled The History of Tom Thumbe, the Little, for his small stature surnamed, King Arthur's Dwarfe: whose Life and adventures containe many strange and wonderfull accidents, published for the delight of merry Time-spenders. The author is presumed to be Londoner Richard Johnson (1579*-1659?) because his initials appear on the last page. The only known copy is in the Morgan Library & Museum, New York."

This may be Conn Iggulden's no. 8, in which case The History of Tom Thumbe may be LT's touchstone, tagged as a facsimile.

(*recte 1573 as per his own Wikipedia page and the LT Richard Johnson (2) author page).

Nov 25, 2023, 11:24 am

Nile Rodgers's top 10 music books
Guardian, 2011-11-23.

Songwriter, arranger, producer and guitarist Nile Rodgers is one of the most influential pop musicians of the last 40 years. As well as scoring multi-platinum hits with his band CHIC, Rodgers's songwriting and production has been a defining component of hitmaking work from the likes of David Bowie, Madonna and Diana Ross. His autobiography Le Freak : an upside down story of family, disco and destiny has just been published.

"Frank Zappa is supposed to have said that 'writing about music is like dancing about architecture'. I agree with that 100%, and if you look at my book, it's really about my life: music just happens to be a large part of it. And the books I love are also about people's lives – all of the titles I've chosen offer real insights into the personalities behind the music.

"As a musician, music is my main source of enjoyment and income but the truth is that I have many other interests and I wanted to show people that my life was this weird, multifaceted, complicated thing. And all of these books share that DNA."

1. Miles Davis & Quincy Troupe, Miles.
This is the all-time heavyweight champ of musician biographies for me. Having known Miles and his no-nonsense inability to edit himself, I can see the man, the child and the innovator in every paragraph. Miles takes you on an in-your-face journey more outrageous than any you've ever travelled. Before I read this book, I worshipped his musical genius. This bold and revealing book validated my eternal devotion to the man himself.

2. Fredric Dannen, Hit men : power brokers and fast money inside the music business.
This is an amazing look at the dirty underbelly of the recorded music business. It mainly examines the highly lucrative boom years in the 80s. At that point, the profits were so big that the deals became more complicated, chaotic, and crooked. Elektra Records president Joe Smith's introduction of recording industry luminaries at a charity dinner says it all: "With this group of cutthroats on this dais, every one of you would be safer in Central Park tonight than you are in the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel." This book is jaw-dropping.

3. Bob Dylan, Chronicles : volume 1.
I worked with Dylan on the film 'Feeling Minnesota' and thought I had a good sense of who he is. This book revealed many things I didn't know. Dylan was one of the main spokesmen for the 60s counterculture. He confesses he was reluctantly drafted into this position. His greatest motivation was simply to be a musician/songwriter and earn a living doing so. The Americana he wrote about so passionately were mainly events that had happened long ago – but he wrote about them as if they were "current events". This is a fascinating look into a fascinating musical mind.

4. Beethoven's letters.
Whenever I've seen the famous bust of Beethoven, he looks like the ultimate tortured soul. A genius who'd be cantankerous, reclusive, and cynical - but his letters are anything but. They reveal a tender, kind, and loving man, the antithesis of the glaring-eyed bust. They were never written to be read by anyone other than their addressees, and this intimacy makes them great to read. This sign-off to his friend Pastor Amenda is typical of their poetic humanity:

"Two persons alone once possessed my whole love, one of whom still lives, and you are now the third. Farewell, beloved, good, and noble friend! Ever continue your love and friendship towards me, just as I shall ever be your faithful BEETHOVEN." I read these letters over and over again.

5. Frank Zappa & Peter Occhiogrosso, The real Frank Zappa book.
When I was younger one of my roommates was obsessed with Frank Zappa. I liked some of Zappa's work and opinions but was mostly a fair-weather fan – until I read this. It is brilliant: sharp, clear, witty, and very entertaining. He's not your average rock star. Frank saw the world in a very interesting way. He told it like it is, was, and maybe always will be. Period.

6. Raynoma Gordy Singleton, Berry, me, and Motown.
This is the story of Motown Records, as told by the ex-wife of its legendary CEO Berry Gordy. They say, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" and Raynoma is furious here. The things that kept me reading are the familiar songs, characters, and the detail. Being a musician herself, Raynoma's writing has a very lyrical and – dare I say hooky? – quality. If half of this salacious material is true, which she says, "As god is my witness", every word of it is – it could change the way you feel about some true music icons.

7. Vladimir Simosko & Barry Tepperman, Eric Dolphy : a musical biography and discography.
I became very aware of Dolphy aged 17, when he'd already been dead five years – but his music sounded like the future. I found it fitting that the book starts with his death. He was a compulsive, focused, and driven man who suffered from diabetes. I couldn't help but wonder if he had a sense that his days were numbered, hence the compulsivity.

The book has a detailed discography and a record of his performances that I found almost textbook-like – not a bad thing because there doesn't seem to be a lot written about him. The cast of characters is a virtual Who's Who of innovative musicians – and in this crowded pool Dolphy stands out.

8. Mark Ribowsky, He's a rebel.
The story of Phil Spector, "rock and roll's legendary madman", as the author puts it. When I first met Phil at a recording studio in New York, he had a gun sitting on the desk in front of him. I thought it was a little odd, but when I read this book a few years later it made a lot more sense.

Phil was the creator of the famed Wall of Sound, and a genius hitmaker. He had a difficult childhood, which seemed to be a direct result of his father's early death. When you read about the massive number of hits he made it's almost mind-boggling. The discography at the end of the book puts his work in perspective.

9. John McDermott with Eddie Kramer, Hendrix : setting the record straight.
This book is interesting to me personally because I know so many of the people, places, and things involved. I put it on my list because I liked reading about the recording sessions, technical decisions, and the Hendrix studio mindset. He was portrayed as a taskmaster who also suffered from something akin to ADD. It was fantastic to see that sometimes beautifully-crafted creations came from persistence, virtuosity – or wonderful accidents.

10. Paul Robeson, The undiscovered Paul Robeson : an artist's journey, 1898-1939.
Last summer I workshopped a musical at the Alabama Shakespeare festival, where there was a giant portrait of Paul Robeson. When I think of him, I only think of his basso voice singing "Ol' Man River". But as this book shows – moving from his childhood as the son of a runaway slave to his time as a pioneering black graduate from Columbia University, his superstardom as an actor and his struggles with the McCarthy witchhunts – he was so much more.


Phil Spector's career, of course, went from bad to worse, committing murder in 2002, starting displaying symptoms of Parkinson's disease in the mid-2000s, sentenced to 19 years to life for murder in 2009, and finally dying of Covid in 2021 while still in custody.

Solon (per Herodotus) : "Count no man happy until the end is known".

Editado: Nov 27, 2023, 3:50 pm

Children's Books Top Tens / Nick Crane's top 10 books about the planet
Guardian, 2011-11-24.

Nick Crane is a cartographer, explorer, writer and television presenter. As a child, Nick explored the Norfolk countryside armed with a bicycle and a map and he has been journeying the world ever since. In 1992-3, he walked 10,000km across Europe, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea. Since 2004, he has written and presented four popular television series for BBC Two: Coast, Great British Journeys, Map Man and Town.

"All the books on this list make me feel very lucky and happy. Just think: there are around 100 billion stars in our galaxy, and most of them have planets. We don't know how many of those planets support life, but ours does, and these 10 books tell part of that story."

1. Richard Dawkins, The magic of reality.
Ever wondered how rainbows got their colours, or what happens if you cut something into ever smaller pieces? This stunning book tells it as it is. Dawkins (the author of serious books such as The selfish gene) and the gifted illustrator Dave McKean (whose CV includes designs for Harry Potter characters) have teamed up to prove that scientific reality is far more exciting than myth and make-believe. Read this and you become a believer in our greatest miracle story - the story of our own planet. And it's all true!

2. Kirstin Dow & Thomas E. Downing, The atlas of climate change.
Winner of the Planeta Environment Book of the Year award, this is a really accessible global primer on "the world's greatest challenge", and an ideal starting point from GCSE upward. It has lots and lots of maps, charts, photos, tables. Towards the back of the book, there's a page on personal action, and this is where you find out how to reduce the greenhouse emissions created by your home and car. A great book for the family bookshelves.

3. Katie Daynes & Peter Allen, See inside planet Earth.
With over 80 flip-up panels, and packed with cheerful, cartoonish illustrations, this is an enjoyable, geographical starting point for age six upward. How can any youngster lift a flap in this book and not want to save the world! Winner of a silver award from the Geographical Association, when it was published in 2009, it's jokey and enticing, and 20p from every copy sold goes to Friends of the Earth.

4. Dawn Casey, The barefoot book of Earth tales.
Seven folk tales illustrating how different cultures on various parts of the planet's diverse surface try to live in harmony with the natural world. Each folk tale is followed by a hands-on activity that backs-up the eco-themes of the stories. Ideal for ages 5 to 11. It is illustrated by Anne Wilson, whose passion for print-making and collage wins the smiles of every child who peeks into its colourful pages.

5. Bill Bryson, A short history of nearly everything.
Bill's a national treasure, though we've borrowed him really, because he's American. Every school library in the land ought to own a copy because this is core science at its most fun. Bill takes his readers on a journey, and we meet a lot of very strange, brilliant people like Edwin Hubble, Henri Becquerel and a chap called Einstein. The clever thing about Bill's book is that he visits many of the places he writes about. So hydrothermal explosions are explained during a trip to Yellowstone with a geologist called Doss, who rides a Harley Davidson. Why weren't my school science books like this, please sir?

6. Andrew Byatt, Alastair Fothergill & Martha Holmes, The blue planet.
The book we all treasure as a souvenir of the wonderful Blue Planet BBC series, fronted by Sir David Attenborough. Written by the show's producers, with a foreword by Sir David and over 400 colour pics, this is a celebration of oceans and their incredible wildlife. When I was young, I read a book about a gigantic man-eating octopus and for years I couldn't swim near a rock without imagining an encounter with a long, sticky tentacle. Page 211, with its pink, suckered 16-foot Pacific octopus, still makes me shiver.

7. Gerardus Mercator, Atlas.
A cheeky inclusion, because I wrote the first major English-language biography of this inspiring 16th century Fleming - the world's greatest mapmaker and the man who invented the atlas. But he's my great hero, and although he wrote and drew his atlas 500 years ago, it's still available, with an English translation, on CD. Have a look, and you'll find that the world he thought he knew hadn't been fully explored; there are four islands at the North Pole!

8. Yann Arthus-Bertrand, The Earth from the air.
Who hasn't dreamed of being a bird? A team led by French photographer, Yann Arthus-Bertrand, flew in helicopters above 75 countries gathering 100,000 photographs, which they slimmed down to the 195 in this gorgeous book. Rubbish heaps and rainforests are turned into the kinds of still life that force the reader to think about the impacts that we're all having on the precious, spinning ball of rock and water that we call Earth. You can't care about a place until you grasp its beauty.

9. The Times atlas of the world.
My sister gave me this book as a present many, many years ago, and it's never beyond arms' reach while I'm sitting writing my own books. Everything about it is just right: the colouring of the maps, the range of scales, the clarity of the printing, and there are some really useful pages about things like population, climate and vegetation. I've spent a measurable amount of my life leafing through the mountains and plains of these pages, dreaming. Expensive, but then it's a book for life.

10. Theodore Gray, The elements.
Oh I wish I'd seen this book when I was at school! Instead of failing chemistry O level, I'd have turned into a mad scientist and saved the world. It was published in 2009 and it's a sumptuous production, stuffed with gorgeous photos and a stunning layout. Recently it became a top-selling iPad app, too. Its subtitle is 'A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe'. Did you know that lanthanum oxide makes camping-lanterns glow brightly? Or that some of our planet's iridium arrived on an asteroid 65 million years ago? Me neither.


As per usual with the Children's Books Top Tens, the Guardian did not open BTL comments on the original column.

Nov 28, 2023, 6:10 am

Harry Mount's top 10 essays
Guardian, 2011-11-30.

Harry Mount is a journalist, author and editor of the Notting Hill Editions Journal, which commissions a new essay every week. The latest series of essays are published this month.

"There's not much point in trying to define an essay. Its parameters are so broad and slack that they encompass practically any shortish passage of non-fiction which makes a general argument. As a rough rule of thumb, I'd say anything that creeps over 40,000 words is entering book territory; and anything too autobiographical strays into memoir. But, still, you could write 50,000 words about yourself, and it could be an essay in every regard. It sounds banal, but all that matters is quality of writing and thought. Here are 10 that are exceptional in both departments."

1. George Orwell, Why I write (1946).
Not an original choice of writer, or of essay. But it would be churlish not to include the man who, more than any other writer over the last century, fine-tuned the form. He applied his essayistic touch to an extreme variety of subjects – the ideal pub, school stories, what makes England England - but this one, on how he became a writer, is my favourite.

The word "intellectual" often brings a lot of dull baggage with it. But Orwell's honesty and humour mean that you're never in danger of being bored. His four reasons for writing - aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, political purpose, sheer egoism - still seem unassailably true today.

2. Martha Gellhorn, Eichmann and the private conscience (1962).
You might call Gellhorn's account of Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem reportage. But that just shows up the flexibility of the essay. A routine bit of reportage remains reportage; brilliant reportage leaps its chains and becomes an essay.

Gellhorn's essay begins with a straight description of the conditions in the court, albeit an atmospheric, closely-observed description: "The air conditioning was too cold, and yet one sweated." But she constantly jumps from factual observation to general, philosophical thought. The seamlessly stitched combination of facts and thoughts becomes a compulsive essay.

3. Evelyn Waugh, A call to the orders (1938).
Evelyn Waugh considered life as a printer, cabinet-maker and carpenter before becoming a novelist. He maintained an interest in the visual arts throughout his life; this plea in defence of the classical orders of architecture appeared some time after his literary success began.

The essay is full of angry argument, deep architectural knowledge and lyrical description. "The baroque has never had a place in England; its brief fashion was of short duration; it has been relegated to the holidays – a memory of the happy days in sunglasses, washing away the dust of the southern roads with heady southern wines." You don't have to agree with the argument to be compelled by it – a rare thing in an essay.

4. Michel de Montaigne, On the cannibals (1595).
Montaigne is regularly wheeled out as the father of the essay. Debatable, I'd say – the baggy definition of the essay includes much older works.

Still, as well as being early on the essay scene, Montaigne was a natural essay-writer. His essay on cannibalism introduces devices that crop up again and again among the essayists that followed through the centuries. Taking the cannibalism of the Tupinamba tribesmen of Brazil, he uses it as a general analogy for barbarism. "Every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to," he writes, expanding the subject into a discussion on the ideas of primitivism, natural purity and perfection.

5. J. M. Barrie, Courage (1922).
If you thought Steve Jobs's address to the graduating class of Stanford in 2005 was impressive, prepare to be even more deeply moved by Barrie's speech to the students of St Andrews University in 1922, where he had been voted rector. Ostensibly about courage, the essay is really about how to deal with the loss of friends and brothers in the first world war; it's aimed at those "who still hear their cries (of the war dead) being blown across the links".

It opens up from the particular to the general, to the qualities needed to deal with such loss, and all with astonishing prescience: "By the time the next eruption comes it may be you who are responsible for it and your sons who are in the lava."

6. Truman Capote, The duke in his domain (1957).
Capote is best remembered for his novels, but his non-fiction was exceptional: acidly witty, to the point of nastiness; hyper-observational, to the point of even deeper nastiness. But what is more enjoyable – or, often, truer – than nastiness?

This is the essay-as-interview - in this case with Marlon Brando, at the height of his fame. There's a good deal of nastiness, and racism – "You come see Marron?" says Capote's Japanese guide. But it also gives a rare insight into the perils of celebrity: of too big an entourage, of isolation, of too many appetites being too readily satisfied. For dinner, Brando, on a diet, orders soup, beefsteak with French-fried potatoes, three supplementary vegetables, a side dish of spaghetti, rolls and butter, a bottle of sake, salad, and cheese and crackers.

7. Jonathan Swift, A modest proposal (1729).
Extremely well-known, but that doesn't take away from the effectiveness of Swift's satirical suggestion that the way for the Irish to beat their poverty was to sell their children to the rich as meat and leather.

The best essays, like Swift's, use wit – not just to sugar the pill of heavy prose, but also to ramp up the argument beyond the merely prosaic statement of a thesis.

8. Thomas Paine, Common sense ; addressed to the inhabitants of America, on the following interesting subjects (1776).
Paine's pamphlet, anonymous at the time of publication, had a direct effect on the Declaration of Independence. An argument in the real sense of an argument, it's as if Paine is shouting at you as he rips into the unfairness of a king on one island ruling a continent on the other side of an ocean: "If we will suffer ourselves to examine the component parts of the English Constitution, we shall find them to be the base remains of two ancient tyrannies, compounded with some new Republican materials."

The course of a couple of centuries often turns writing a bit Olde Worlde and quaint. Not here.

9. Isaiah Berlin, The hedgehog and the fox (1953).
For all his reputation as the planet-sized brain of the 20th century, Isaiah Berlin was better at the short sprint than the magnum opus. His lectures stick in the minds of those who heard them half a century ago. This essay is just as memorable. The inspiration came from the Ancient Greek idiom: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

Berlin then sifts through his storage room of a brain to divide writers into one or the other category. Tolstoy, who forms the heart of the essay, wanted to be a hedgehog but was really a fox. Other foxes include Aristotle, Montaigne and Shakespeare. Plato and Proust are hedgehogs. All a bit reductive perhaps, but really enjoyable, and a useful boilerplate when it comes to considering the ideas of other writers.

10. A. N. Wilson, In defence of gay priests (2003).
Normally, a newspaper comment piece would never be long, or substantial, enough to constitute an essay. But this article – justifying the appointment of Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, as Bishop of Reading – went way beyond tomorrow's-chip-wrapper material. The personal anecdote and light, jokey manner disguise serious thought and a deeply convincing argument; and the article becomes an essay.


As you'd expect, not all essays are LT titles. Lots of suggestions and comments BTL, including what seems like the eternal "Only one female voice, can we have another perspective then?"

Nov 29, 2023, 5:57 pm

Philip Gross's top 10 writings from the edge of language
Guardian, 2011-12-07.

Philip Gross has written for radio and stage, 10 novels for young people, opera libretti and collaborations of all kinds, but he is best known as a poet. His collection The water table won the TS Eliot prize, the photographic collaboration I spy pinhole eye (with Simon Denison) was Wales book of the year and Off road to everywhere won the CLPE award for children's poetry. His new collection, Deep field, has just been published by Bloodaxe.

"I've just got back from Friesland / Fryslân in the north of Holland, hearing a language spoken that is so close to English that it's like looking at a face through a rain-drenched window. One good wipe, you feel, and you'd know them. Now I'm about to drive from south to north Wales, where two languages lie alongside each other, oil and water, mixed rather than merged. I don't speak Welsh or West Frisian – no other language, in fact, well enough to dream or write a poem in it – but that ragged edge of language is familiar to me.

"I grew up with it: on the one hand, English, on the other, my father's language – he was a wartime refugee from Estonia – which he never spoke. All the things about his wartime experiences that he did not say … In his old age, we found each other, maybe better than ever before, across the edge of language as he lost his words to the cruel attrition of aphasia.

"My book Deep field is some record of that. I have always been alert for the places where language fails us; as a child with a stammer, I had no choice. The writing that's stuck in my mind walks that edge, too. Much of it is poetry – always a conversation between words and silence – but doesn't any good writer feel, and sometimes relish, the faultiness of words?"

1. The ruin, by an unknown Anglo-Saxon author.
This poem stands on the far horizon of English poetry. It is about a ruin (probably the Roman city of Bath) and is itself one, trailing off in fragments where sections have been burned away. The surviving scattered words in these lines, and the spaces between them, are if anything more eloquent than the lines that are intact.

2. T. S. Eliot, The waste land.
"These fragments have I shored against my ruin," says a stray voice near the end of Eliot's epic of disintegration (cultural, personal and in the lost concord of its voices). Don't be misled by the scholarly notes at the end. It's in the moments just before the intellect can trace the references and grasp the meanings that The waste land really speaks.

3. Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker.
This is a novel that reads like a poem. In a post-nuclear Dark Age, language is fractured, stunted, partly lost, like everything around it. From these materials we see a new mythology being assembled, because that's what human creativity will do, with commonplace phrases and everyday images being reborn rich and strange.

4. Theodora Kroeber, Ishi in two worlds.
Name? "I have none, because there were no people to name me," said the last of the Yana people of California, the final Native American to have lived out of contact with European culture. The name Ishi is Yana for "man". When he came in from the hills, the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber made him his partner in study and in research. This respectful curiosity about the otherness of other people's worlds carries over to the novels of Kroeber's daughter, the magnificent Ursula Le Guin.

5. Gwyneth Lewis, Keeping mum / Llofrudd iaith.
These are two books, or the same book written separately in Welsh and in English, by a major bilingual poet whose collections can be multi-layered as a novel. The Welsh title means 'The language murderer'; set partly in a psychiatric hospital, it is also a detective story, investigating deep harms done by loss of language, celebrating survival in the end.

6. Frank Kuppner, A bad day for the Sung dynasty.
Not so much a translation as a witty teasing of the mannerisms of translation… This wry philosophical Glaswegian-Polish poet gives us an imaginary ancient Chinese text whose square bracketed lacunae [something something something] come alive with hints and echoes.

7. Tony Harrison, The school of eloquence.
Both personal and political, this combative long sequence uses Harrison's formal skills and ear for Yorkshire speech to break up, repossess, renovate and extend the traditional sonnet, reclaiming it for the voices of the unheard everywhere. He links loom-breaking Luddites, his stammering uncle who became a printer, and this warning from old Cornish: "The tongueless man gets his land took".

8. Paul Celan (transl. Michael Hamburger), The poems of Paul Celan.
This Jewish-Romanian survivor of the Nazi Holocaust made his home in France. In a heroic act of restitution, he chose to write in German, teasing apart the fabric of the language which had once carried his oppressors' rhetoric, cleansing it and restoring the power both of what's said and the huge amount that Celan, scrupulously, leaves unsaid.

9. W. S. Graham, The beast in the space.
Almost any of Graham's later poems would do, but here's one to speak for them all, a wry fantasy of the poet's reaching for connection into the gulf between him and whoever might read him. Between them, "the beast that feeds on silence" lumbers to and fro, and is the carrier of … what the poem becomes in someone else's mind. All the literary theory you need, translated into human language. It ends: "Above all, give him your love."

10. Lewis Carroll, Jabberwocky.
Compulsively memorable, in spite of the fact that half the words are invented, this poem speaks to children and adults equally. Is it simply a parody of folk/heroic ballads? No way. As any imaginative child knows, words can breed monsters. The jabberwock might seem to be slain by the vorpal sword, but it's still out there somewhere – beware!

Nov 30, 2023, 1:08 pm

Children's Books Top Tens / Mary Hoffman's top 10 Christmas books for children
Guardian, 2011-12-07.

Mary Hoffman has written over 90 books for children that range from picture books to novels. Her latest, Grace at Christmas (Frances Lincoln), celebrates 20 years since the publication of her classic picture book, Grace. Other 'Christmassy' books by Mary Hoffman include the picture books Three wise women and An angel just like me as well as the short stories Bump in the night and Stepfather Christmas. Mary Hoffman's latest book for older readers is David (Bloomsbury).

"Christmas and books go together like mince pies and rum butter. For years as a teen I would read Dickens's A Christmas carol on the day (OK – I was a bookish teen). Only now does it occur to me it might have been a bit galling for my mother to see me curled up in an armchair with a book instead of cutting crosses in the stalks of brussels sprouts or peeling potatoes. Now I'm the mother and make the Christmas dinner myself, there is not much time for reading during the festivities but I still think A Christmas carol has all the ingredients for a good Christmas story: ghosts (because ghost stories and Christmas go hand in hand), a huge celebratory meal and that reminder that there should be some element of helping others.

"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," wail the March sisters when their mother appeals to their better natures in Louisa M. Alcott's Little women. And presents for me have always included books, both given and received. Even this year, as I struggle to come up with suggestions for what my loving family might like to give me, it is books that spring first to mind. So here are my personal top ten to give or read to children from little ones to older readers – and perhaps borrow them when you can."

1. Judith Kerr, Mog's Christmas.
Who doesn't love Mog? Even though Kerr made us accept that the tubby tabby is now chasing mice in the sky in Goodbye Mog, she lives on in the earlier classics. My daughters loved the Mog books and the expression on her face in the picture on the page with the "walking tree" entering the house, is priceless.

2. Jan Pienkowski, The first Christmas.
Recently re-issued in a special mini-edition, this is a gorgeous book, with Pienkowski's signature silhouette illustrations. The text is taken from the King James Bible, which is hard to beat when it comes to the nativity story and reads like a service sheet for a traditional carol service.

3. Raymond Briggs, Father Christmas.
In complete contrast, here is the secular side of the story. Father Christmas or Santa Claus, as he is known across the Pond, doesn't have much in common in this version with the Saint Nicholas his legend is based on. In fact he's a grumpy old man with a cold who does not relish his job at all! "Bloomin' reindeer, bloomin' cat" he grumbles.

4. Allan & Janet Ahlberg, The jolly Christmas postman.
As you might expect, this is a lot jollier! The new edition has the strapline: "A present full of presents" and it certainly lives up to the original Jolly Postman, in which the Allbergs came up with the inspired idea of including real letters in envelopes because children love mail and hardly ever receive any. Here the postman is delivering to fairytale characters as before, 20 years after he first heaved his sack on to his back.

5. Chris van Allsburg, The Polar Express.
This Caldecott medal-winning picture book is a huge classic in America but not nearly so well-known here in spite of a film starring Tom Hanks. In it a man remembers that once, when he was a boy, a mysterious steam train appeared on Christmas Eve and transported him, along with other children to the North Pole to meet Santa. It's as sentimental as that other Christmas classic, It's a wonderful life, but the pictures are extraordinarily elegant.

6. Beatrix Potter, The tailor of Gloucester.
Who can forget that little mouse sitting on a reel of red thread on the front cover? Over a century later, the story still speaks to children, as the little tailor, running out of food and materials struggles to complete a grand waistcoat for the town's mayor to wear at his wedding on Christmas Day. The miracle is worked by a team of mice who live in the dresser and have to avoid Simpkin the cat.

7. Rumer Godden, The story of Holly and Ivy.
"A story about wishing" – written 50 years ago, this still has the ability to bring a tear to the eye and lump to the throat of all but the meanest Scrooge. A little orphan girl (Ivy) wants a doll; a doll (Holly) wants a child and a woman longs for a little girl to look after. With such a premise, you can guess the rest, but if you can't have a happy ending at Christmas, then when?

8. C. S. Lewis, The lion, the witch and the wardrobe.
The first to be published and the best of the Narnia series and possibly the best title of a children's book ever! Do get a version with picture by Pauline Baynes and step into the world where "it is always winter and never Christmas." The actual arrival of Father Christmas has always jarred with me but it's worth it for the White Witch, Aslan, Mr Tumnus et al.

9. Philip Pullman, Four tales.
Christmas books should be beautiful and this one is stunning, with its sumptuous dark blue jacket and silver decoration by Peter Bailey. It contains four already published stories by the author of His Dark Materials: The scarecrow and his servant, I was a rat, Clockwork and The firework-maker's daughter. These will be enjoyed by children who are not quite ready for the big trilogy. And you can start with I was a rat, which has a twist on a familiar story associated with Christmas...

10. Geraldine McCaughrean, Forever X.
A Christmas book set in the middle of summer? Yes, but this is by the ever-versatile Geraldine McCaughrean, one of the most original writers for children today, who has won every possible accolade and deserves them all. A family car breaks down on a summer holiday and the family are forced to take refuge in a B&B called Forever X, where it is always 25th December. Mysterious and sometimes sinister happenings follow.

"And so I've reached 10, without even mentioning Tolkien's Father Christmas letters or Raymond Briggs's Snowman – Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without Aled Jones singing 'Walking in the air'! Or Dylan Thomas's A child's Christmas in Wales. Or any version of 'Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer' or 'The twelve days of Christmas' ....

It reminds me of when I was small and a stocking wasn't big enough for our presents, so my sisters and I graduated to pillowcases. There is just too much good stuff to squash into a choice of 10. I hope you find one to read with the mince pies and rum butter."

Dez 1, 2023, 5:36 pm

Children's Books Top Tens / H. M. Castor's top 10 dark and haunted heroes and heroines.
Guardian, 2011-12-15.

H. M. Castor had her first book published by Puffin when she was 14. She has written historical non-fiction and fiction for younger children but her latest novel, VIII, which tells, in the first person, the story of how a young, idealistic and talented boy became the tyrant we know as Henry VIII, is her first novel for teens and young adults. She has been obsessed with the Tudors since primary school.

"Henry VIII was a particularly dark hero to write about, and in my version he is haunted as well – though whether by real ghosts or his own demons is left for the reader to judge. So it'll come as no surprise when I say I love books that draw me into identifying with a character who's not all good (to put it mildly), or who has some particular fault-line running through his or her personality. After all, beneath our social smiles we're all pretty complicated – it's part of the human condition. We all have our dark side.

"I'm sure you'll be able to think of lots of dark and haunted heroes and heroines. These are just my favourites. The line dividing good and evil is hovering at different places on each of these hearts – some are good but stumble into trouble, others are pretty thoroughly bad. But all are haunted – either literally by ghosts, or by things they've done, knowledge they want to deny, or hopes they daren't admit."

1. Heathcliff in Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights.
Heathcliff is an astonishing creation. Some films have turned him into a rugged, romantic hero but read the original and you'll find he's much darker. Brutal, passionate and with an incredible strength of will (whether bent on making himself a fortune or wreaking revenge on his enemies) he is described even by Cathy, who loves him, as "a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man". After Cathy's early death, he is haunted by her ghost, and he longs to join her in the grave.

2. The Vicomte de Valmont in Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Dangerous liaisons.
A thrilling page-turner written in 1782 entirely in letter form! By a soldier who only wrote one novel and incidentally happened to invent the artillery shell! Yes, unlikely but true. Valmont is the lizard-like, cynical and amoral hero who, along with his ex-lover, delights in ruining others' reputations for sport: he seduces women and abandons them. Then, against all his own rules, Valmont seems to fall in love. He treats the woman cruelly, but appears haunted by what he has done – even to the point of giving up on life. However, Laclos never makes it entirely clear whether this is yet another charade. The fantastic 1988 film (with John Malkovich, Glenn Close, and a very young Keanu Reeves and Uma Thurman) gives a more definite romantic ending. Read the book and decide for yourself if Valmont really loses his heart.

3. The Duke in James Thurber, The 13 clocks.
If anyone ever says they're too grown-up for fairytales, throw this book at them. It's the most entertaining, dark and hilarious fairytale I know. And the villain – the Duke – steals the show. He's haunted by a creature called the Todal, which is an agent of the devil and half looks like "a blob of glup" (though, as the Duke remarks, "The other half is worse. It's made of lip").

4. Kit Watson and John Askew in David Almond, Kit's wilderness.
Here my hero needs to be two people, since for me they're indivisible. Kit Watson, the new boy in town, and John Askew, the wildest kid in school, seem complete opposites. Light and dark; "Mr Perfectly Behaved" and "a lout, a cave man". But they share a deep and ancient bond, and both are haunted by the ghosts of children killed generations before in the local mines. Askew shows Kit how important it is to embrace the dark, and the past. Kit shows Askew how to live in the light.

5. The four Melford sisters in Diana Wynne Jones, The time of the ghost.
The Melford sisters aren't unusually dark themselves, but they unwittingly conjure something very dark indeed. Wynne Jones puts at the centre of this brilliant book the extremely creepy idea of an old rain-soaked rag doll taking on ancient evil properties and power. The story is narrated by a ghost, who is one of the Melford sisters, but doesn't herself know which one.

6. Gwyn in Alan Garner, The owl service.
Gwyn crackles with resentments, frustrations and half-strangled hopes. His mother is spending the summer working as a cook at a house in a Welsh valley; the English family who own the house look down on them both. But an ancient power in the valley has other ideas about who is important. "You are the lord in blood to this valley now…" the old gardener tells Gwyn. "You are the heir."

7. Antoinette in Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea.
Antoinette is a lonely girl, living on a tumbledown Jamaican estate after the emancipation of the slaves who used to work it. Her mother, as a white West Indian, is rejected both by the English community and the ex-slaves, and when Antoinette makes a marriage that seems to offer security, she finds herself cruelly trapped. This whole book is haunted by loss, isolation and the terrors of madness. It also acts as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. About whose story (if you've read it) you will never feel quite the same again.

8. Dr Jekyll in Robert Louis Stevenson, The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
The basic premise of this story is famous, though I won't spell it out here in case you don't know it (lucky you – reading the book will be an even more exciting!). The story's short, and a gem: a dark and prowling tale of foggy London streets, mysterious horrible crimes and dangerous scientific experiments. Dr Jekyll is a respected pillar of the community, but he seems to be in thrall to an altogether less pleasant man named Mr Hyde. What dark secret lies behind their connection?

9. Francis Crawford of Lymond in Dorothy Dunnett, The Lymond chronicles.
This is a series of six superb historical novels, but with a single hero throughout, so I'm claiming it as one choice! It's set in the mid-16th century and Lymond, a Scot, starts the series as an outlaw on the run. He is constantly tougher, more wily, more daring and audacious than anyone else. But he's also haunted by very personal demons which take an increasingly vicious hold of him as the series progresses.

10. Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens, A Christmas carol.
You may well have an idea of the Christmas Carol story, and of the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, without having read the original yet. If so, go grab it – you're in for a fantastic treat. Scrooge is so deliciously dark, so grim, and he refuses to believe in ghosts even while having a conversation with one (he insists that it is a bit of food he hasn't digested properly: "There's more of gravy than of grave about you"). What's more, Dickens even claims to be haunting you as you read. Brr!

Dez 2, 2023, 8:06 am

Selma Dabbagh's top 10 stories of reluctant revolutionaries
Guardian, 2011-12-21.

Selma Dabbagh is a British Palestinian writer of fiction based in London. Her writing is mainly set in the contemporary Middle East. Selma's first novel, Out of it, is published this month by Bloomsbury.

"The Palestinian struggle has been present throughout my life. As a result, I have always been drawn to novels, stories and accounts where a major social or revolutionary movement is going on. Frequently the central characters are on the peripheries of the action, agonised and reluctant to become involved. Not all of these characters remain reluctant. Others, who start off zealously, become increasingly disinclined to take part. What interests me is how much guilt, frustration, self-sacrifice or self-righteousness they feel once they have made up their mind – if they ever do – about the degree of participation they should have. When I started writing, living in the corporate world of the Gulf, it was these characters in a halfway position that appeared in my writing: those who felt that the revolution had failed them, or those that felt they had somehow failed the revolution. In my novel, Out of it, three siblings have distinctly different approaches to the floundering Palestinian revolution: Sabri, an old school revolutionary has been badly let down by his former leadership, Iman becomes increasingly radicalised with the events around her and the unassuming Rashid wants shot of it all, until he finds that even he could have a critical part to play in making their world a better place."

1. Emile Habibi, The secret life of Saeed the Pessoptimist.
"The fact is I've disappeared. But I'm not dead. I wasn't killed at the border, as some of you imagined. Nor did I join the guerrilla movement, as those who knew my virtue feared." No, the fact is that Saeed is the office boy who lives through two decades and several wars. He is haplessly well-meaning, but unable to keep up with the state of Israel that has grown up around him. The allusions to Candide are constant, as is the humour and intelligence in one of the most important books in Palestinian literature.

2. Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road.
No one describes the grind and malice of marriage better than Yates, but what this novel uniquely touches upon is how damaged expectations for involvement in society in a loosely revolutionary sense can be entwined with how a wife views her husband's integrity. There is sexual infidelity in this novel, but that act is of no consequence compared to the betrayal April Wheeler experiences when her husband Frank is reluctant to break out of their comfortable middle-class existence to make a go of it in Paris. Presented as a chatty suburban novel, this novel is as tightly bound as a steel cable.

3. Waguih Ghali, Beer in the snooker club.
In Ghali's only novel, a semi-autobiographical one, the central character Ram comes from the croquet-playing class in Egypt, where he happily involves himself in "strikes, fighting, policemen, shouting slogans, stealing sulphur and nitrates from the lab." However, it is when he comes to London that he feels he is where the real action is, in a pub with "the intellectuals". "Here you are Ram … 'life'," he tells himself. Ghali here seems to be gently mocking the lingering mental colonialism that expects solutions, even those for rebellion, to be directed from outside.

4. Ivan Turgenev, Virgin soil.
Turgenev's tenderness towards both nature and humanity sensitised him to the gross injustices of early 19th-century Russia. His writing conveys his fascination with the machinations of political movements that were striving to change society and the personalities attracted to them. In Virgin soil, central character Nezhdanov's ambiguous response to revolutionary fervour becomes increasingly doubtful and culminates in a farcical episode where he dresses up as "the people" and gets completely drunk.

5. Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental education.
This novel contains scenes of pamphleteering, meetings and demonstrations that transcend the century in which it was set. Flaubert wrote of his concern that the history and heroics of 1848 would "eat up" the foreground of this novel. To prevent this from happening he chose to have the most critical events of the protagonist's private life coincide with the most dramatic events of that year of revolution. This solution works, with this master novelist resisting the temptation to allow a history that he has researched minutely to take over, when he has a main character who is, at the end of the day, in love.

6. Fawaz Turki, Soul in exile : lives of a Palestinian revolutionary.
Many criticisms have been made of Turki, faulting his politics, questioning the factual accuracy and lack of consistency in his autobiographical writings, but he writes so well and has lived with such voracity that the reader is likely to disregard all this and go along with him for the ride. This book is a page-turning account of a refugee childhood in Lebanon, a hippy youth in India and Australia followed by an unusual insight into the extremes of life within the PLO.

7. George Eliot, Middlemarch.
A scientific, not a social or political, revolution drives Dr Lydgate in this classic novel. He is a man who is ultimately ground down by the materialistic ambitions of his wife and the reactionary stagnation of Middlemarch. His wife Rosamund, is a precursor to the suburban wives who were depicted as being the anchors of conformity and superficiality by the Beat Generation and other 1950s American writers. In the same way that the husbands in Mailer and Salinger are pulled back from realising their potential for personal freedom and social change, Dr Lydgate's idealistic momentum, forward-thinking plans and fervour for reform are ultimately laid waste by narrow domestic concerns.

8. Charles Dickens, A tale of two cities.
It is not his country, let alone his revolution, and he would probably rather be having a drink, but instead Sydney Carton, "idlest and most unpromising of men," ends up sacrificing himself for an ideal. Carton is a fictional example of a character carrying out a heroic act that anyone is potentially capable of when greater circumstances demand it. Carton, the classical figure of unrecognised and unanticipated heroism, directly influenced the development of the character of Rashid Mujahid in my novel Out of it.

9. Jean Genet, Prisoner of love.
Written 10 years after the two-year period Genet spent with the Palestinian fedayeen in the refugee camps of Jordan in 1970, this is a compilation of intricate sensory recollections thrown together in no particular sequence, for memory is, as Genet says, "… unreliable. It unintentionally modifies events, forgets dates, imposes its own chronology and omits or alters the present of the writer or speaker." Genet's depiction of the training camps carries a poignant sense of the fecundity of the land, and the life lost by the fighters, most of whom were originally felaheen, or peasant farmers, prior to the expulsions of 1948 and 1967.

10. Sahar Khalifeh, Wild thorns.
This is one of the few novels set in the occupied West Bank that is available in English. The reluctance here is not shown by the central character Usama but by those around him. He returns to the West Bank from the Gulf, Syria, Portugal, Jordan and Algeria where he has been deported, detained and tossed around like an unwanted grenade, to find the Palestinians of the West Bank apparently unwilling to rebel. Usama is disgusted on his arrival by the Palestinians' integration into Israel's economy and their obsession with the cost of living. Written more than 10 years before the first intifada of 1987, this pacy, humorous account is a frank appraisal of Palestinian society in political abeyance.


Several comments BTL, including a few complaining about a reductionist, misogynistic interpretation of Middlemarch, and "Of George Eliot's works (and she was a highly political animal), Daniel Deronda fits better - half of it being about the complexified and alienated young Daniel discovering his Jewishness and eventually getting into Zionism".

Other recommendations include:

Tibor Fischer, Under the frog. (Hungarian uprising).

Graham Greene, The quiet American. (Vietnam).

Ivan Klima, Judge on trial. (Czechoslovakia's velvet revolution).

Orphan Pamuk, Snow. (Turkey).

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Devils. (Russian nihilist revolutionaries).

Antonio Tabucchi, Pereira maintains. (1930s Portugal).

Jaroslav Hašek, The good soldier Svejk (First World War). ("The title character is sort of a reluctant revolutionary, possibly, or maybe he's a massive idiot who has adventures. I've only read about 1/3rd of it").

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Summer will show. (Paris revolution, 1848).

Herbert Read, The green child. ("It's pretty bonkers, in a good way").

Nadine Gordimer, Burger's daughter (apartheid South Africa).

Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin. (Second World War).

Hanif Kureishi, The black album. (London, 1989).

Henry James, The Princess Casamassima. (Hyacinth Robinson in late 19th century London).

Rawi Hage, De Niro's game. (Beirut, 1980s/1990s).

Editado: Dez 4, 2023, 8:35 am

Simon Lelic's top 10 lawyers in fiction.
Guardian, 2012-01-04.

Simon Lelic is a novelist. His books are Rupture, The facility and, published this month, The child who. He lives in Brighton with his wife and two young boys.

"It was never my intention to write a novel about a lawyer. The law, I always suspected, is dry; its agents, dull. And The child who, as I first imagined it, was to be a book about children. About parents, too, and what can happen when we, as fathers and mothers, fail. There was no place in the tale, as far as I could tell, for a man of law.

"But then I heard Jon Venables's former solicitor talking on the radio. Venables had just been returned to jail for committing offences you can't have failed to read about in the national press. This was 17 years after the James Bulger case, and Lee had no professional involvement any more. What was clear from his tone, however, was how emotionally engaged with Venables's fate he remained.

"My story, as I'd imagined it, suddenly turned inside out. The novel would still be about the things I'd suspected it would be, but finally I'd found my way in. Lawyers, after all, work right at the heart of things. They bring an objectivity to events that was precisely the perspective I was looking for. And yet, contrary to rumour, lawyers are people too. They see, hear and cannot help but feel. They are, in many ways, the perfect protagonists, challenged daily by rights and wrongs. No wonder, I suppose, that lawyers appear in fiction as frequently, and as memorably, as they do."

1. Atticus Finch in Harper Lee, To kill a mockingbird.
A shoo-in at number one. Heroically decent, Atticus is the lawyer you would want on your side – if only because you could be certain, if he was, that you were in the right. He's a pretty good dad, too. My dad is great – I've no complaints – but I think even he would understand why I would choose Atticus as my fictional father-figure back-up.

2. Matthew Shardlake in C. J. Sansom, Dissolution.
Not the kind of bloke you would choose to go for a drink with (the night would end early, I suspect, with everyone at the table in a funk), but you wouldn't want him sniffing around your dirty secrets either. A melancholic hunchback with a heart, Shardlake is a terrific guide to the seedy politics of the 16th century.

3. Sandy Stern in Scott Turow, Presumed innocent.
Rusty Sabich is the main protagonist – in Presumed innocent as well as the sequel, Innocent – but Sandy Stern is the star of the show. If you'd done wrong, and Atticus had refused your case, you'd call Sandy. His cigar habit means he doesn't come cheap, but he'd be worth every cent. Just ask Rusty.

4. Sergeant of the Lawe in Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury tales.
Again not a man you'd call on for a pint, but prudent and wise ("war and wys") and knowledgeable to the point of self-importance. "Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas / And yet he semed bisier than he was." The Man of Law uses all his lawyerly tricks to invoke sympathy for the heroine of his tale, almost as if her were pleading her case in court. You still wouldn't want to have a drink with him, though.

5. Dr Gonzo in Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Now here's a lawyer you would have fun in a bar with. His legal skills are questionable, however. Or perhaps that's unfair. Perhaps it's just the "… two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-coloured uppers, downers, screamers, laughers … and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls …" that he and his client carry in the trunk of their car that have blunted his professional edge.

6. Sydney Carton in Charles Dickens, A tale of two cities.
A young, self-pitying, but brilliant lawyer, unlucky nevertheless in life and love. His redemption in Dickens's tale is complete when he takes his former client's place on the guillotine, declaring, "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." One of the great last lines.

7. Tom Hagen in Mario Puzo, The godfather.
It's impossible to think of Tom Hagen without picturing Robert Duvall. A "family" lawyer who has only one client, Tom is the man you call even if your problem isn't exactly … legal. An all-round fixer and consigliere, who only shows his limitations when it's time to go to the mattresses.

8. Mitch McDeere in John Grisham, The firm.
Callow and loaded with debt, Mitch is seduced by the promise of more money than even a lawyer could shake a stick at. His decision to join Bendini, Lambert & Locke, however, almost costs him his life. Ultimately he proves himself as being more capable than even his employers had hoped. He did a pretty good job for John Grisham, too: The firm was the novel that launched its author into bestsellerdom.

9. George Edalji in Julian Barnes, Arthur & George.
A lawyer accused, this time, and championed by a writer: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, no less. George is a Birmingham solicitor, content in hardworking obscurity until he is swept to national prominence – and infamy – by The Great Wyrley Outrages. His story reads like a thriller, all the more gripping because it is based on real events.

10. Herr Huld in Franz Kafka, The trial.
A man with "a considerable reputation as a defending counsel and a poor man's lawyer" according to Joseph K's uncle, in reality Herr Huld is pompous, verbose and, from K's point of view, worse than useless. Huld is ostensibly on K's side, but turns out to be very much a part of his nightmare. The advocate, to finish on, you wouldn't want to end up with.

Editado: Dez 4, 2023, 9:35 am

Children's Books Top Tens / Megan Miranda's top 10 books set in a wintry landscape
Guardian, 2012-01-06.

Megan Miranda was a scientist and high school teacher before writing Fracture, her first novel. It was inspired by her fascination with scientific mysteries, especially those associated with the brain. She lives in North Carolina.

"While writing Fracture, it quickly became clear how much a winter setting can affect a story. From Stephen King's The shining and Misery to Stieg Larsson's The girl with the dragon tattoo, so many books with wintry settings fall into the adventure or thriller category. A snow storm can trap people - friends or enemies - together. An icy road can alter the course of a story, or create a story on its own. So often the setting works hand-in-hand with the plot. Other times, the landscape can set the feel for the book. The winter setting can leave you feeling utterly cold - as is the case in the adventure/thriller stories - or, in some cases, it can leave you feeling surprisingly warm.

"For me, the following books are defined as much by their wintry landscapes as the stories set within them. These 10 books are guaranteed to either thrill, chill, or warm up your soul on a cold day."

1. Maggie Steifvater, Shiver.
This is a great example of a story where the winter setting actually feels like a character. The werewolves of Mercy Falls shift from human to wolf as winter approaches and, as the years pass, they stop shifting back. Sam fights to hold onto his humanity and remain with Grace as winter approaches. Here, the approaching winter is something to fear. It is a clock that cannot be stopped. As the temperature ticks down, the tension ticks up.

2. Jack London, The call of the wild.
With the Klondike Gold Rush in full swing, there's a high price for sled dogs to guide men through the winter landscape. This is the timeless story of Buck, a dog who was stolen, sold, and beaten into submission in the Alaskan winter. But it is also the story of love, loyalty, and a new awakening as Buck feels the pull of both worlds: the bond between the man who saves him and the call of his roots, from the wild. This is a book that has stayed with me for nearly 20 years and will probably stay with me for another 20, at least.

3. John Green, Maureen Johnson & Lauren Myracle, Let it snow.
A blizzard on Christmas Eve, three hilarious stories, three different romances, each told with overlapping characters in the same setting. This collection of short stories is such a feel-good read. Though set in snow and ice, this is nonetheless a book that will warm you up on a cold day.

4. Simon Holt, The devouring.
Drawn to heat and fear, the Vours can take over a body on the winter solstice, devouring its fears but leaving another being in its place. Reggie believes her younger brother has fallen victim, and the only thing more dangerous than living with a Vour is knowing he exists… By the end of this book, you won't know whether you're shivering from the fear or from the cold.

5. Jean Craighead George, Julie of the wolves.
This is another book that I first read as a child and has never really left me. Miyax, or Julie, as is her given American name, is a 13-year-old Eskimo girl caught between the old and the new world. After her father is presumed dead she spends an unhappy few years with her aunt and, promised marriage at 13, she sets off on her own, journeying across the tundra of Alaska, learning to survive by interacting with wolves - her destination changing, just as she does.

6. C. S. Lewis, The lion, the witch and the wardrobe.
Narnia is a land covered in perpetual snow and ruled by the White Witch. That is, until four siblings pass through the wardrobe into Narnia, thereby fulfilling a prophecy with the potential to break her spell. With enemies petrified in ice, battles in the snow, and a thawing landscape marking their victory, this was the ultimate fantasy novel for me as a child.

7. Carrie Jones, Need.
Zara collects phobias, which doesn't help her psyche much when she discovers she's being stalked by someone - or something - after she's sent to live with her grandmother in cold, snowy Maine. Kids start disappearing, an evil pixie king is after her, and the friends and family around her may be something other than human as well. This series (followed by Entice and Captivate) has plenty of romance, thrills, wit, and chills.

8. Lisa Schroeder, Far from you.
This novel in verse begins in the fall and quickly transitions to winter with a brutal snowstorm. Alice is stranded in a car with her stepmother and infant half-sister for days with very little food and even less warmth. The wintry landscape here is alternately terrifying and beautiful, as Alice and her stepmother look for a way out, and find much more. This is a touching story of loss and hope, and one I won't soon forget.

9. Gregory Galloway, As simple as snow.
Anna is complicated: she speaks in riddle, or in code, or with quotes. Anna's boyfriend, however, believes he is the opposite of complicated. "As simple as snow", he says, as the snow piles up around them. But there's nothing simple about the snow, or what Anna had been telling him. Especially when she disappears one day, leaving behind nothing but a hole in the frozen river they used to meet at…and clues for the nameless narrator to follow.

10. Tim Bowler, Frozen fire.
This book feels cold. Dusty receives a seemingly random phone call from a boy who claims to be dying. But when she follows his footsteps outside her house, they eventually disappear. Who, or what, is that boy? And what does he know about the disappearance of her brother years earlier? Her search for the stranger is tied to the search for the truth about her brother. The landscape is chilling, the nameless boy unsettling and elusive—just like the truth about her brother. The story itself feels much like the details of the setting: like footprints disappearing, covered by layer after layer of snow.


Arthur Ransome, Winter holiday would be top of my list:

And that night there were no lantern signals from Holly Howe or the observatory. The sky was clouded over and the astronomer and his assistant sat in the farm kitchen, trying to learn the Morse code by writing letters to each other in dots and dashes. Softly, at first, as if it hardly meant it, the snow began to fall.

And something from Discworld. Probably The fifth elephant scenes set in Uberwald, rather than Wintersmith, although it's a close run thing. I was brought up to the morris, and the dark morris feels so right.

Dez 5, 2023, 5:11 pm

John Naughton's top 10 books about the internet.
Guardian, 2012-01-11.

Professor John Naughton is an Irish academic and journalist based in Cambridge who is also well-known as a historian of the internet. His new book, From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg : what you really need to know about the internet, is published this month by Quercus Books.

"I've been an academic and a journalist all my working life, so you could say I've got a foot in both graves, as my famous countryman, Conor Cruise O'Brien, used to say. Unusually for someone working in UK newspapers, though, I'm also an engineer – a profession generally patronised by British media elites which in the 1990s used to deride the internet as 'the Citizen Band radio de nos jours' (as a leading newspaper editor put it to me once). Irritated by the ignorance implicit in this, I wrote A brief history of the future which told the story of how the internet came about. And this in turn led to many conversations over the years with politicians, policymakers and business leaders. What astonished me in these conversations, as the internet morphed from something exotic (like space travel) to something mundane (like mains electricity), was the extent to which it was misunderstood – even by people who were otherwise knowledgeable and well-informed. So, in the end, I asked myself the question: what would you really need to know in order to understand the significance of the internet? The answer is that you need to understand a smallish number of Big Ideas. But how many? Then I remembered a famous paper published by the psychologist George Miller which argued that on average people can hold seven discrete ideas (plus or minus two) in short-term memory. This led to the idea of a book with nine chapters – the nine things you really need to know about the net. If you're interested, it's a good idea to read the following 10 books as well."

1. Manuel Castells, The internet galaxy.
Manuel Castells is the leading sociologist of cyberspace, and much of his scholarly writing is hard going for amateurs. But this volume, distilled from a series of lectures he gave in Oxford, provides the best overview we have of the internet phenomenon.

2. Yochai Benkler, The wealth of networks.
A self-conscious tribute to Adam Smith, whose book The wealth of nations became capitalism's bible, with its argument that free market economies are more productive and beneficial than any of the alternatives. Benkler's massive book is the most comprehensive analysis we have of the significance of "peer production," – creative activity enabled by the internet that takes place outside of the market system. Among the book's many attractions is the fact that if you don't want to buy it in the normal way from Yale University Press you can download the pdf free from

3. Jonathan Zittrain, The future of the internet, and how to stop it.
A great analysis by a Harvard legal scholar (and former geek) of how the internet came to be such an enabler of disruptive innovations – and a sobering treatise on how its success at disruption may contain the seeds of the network's destruction – or at any rate its "capture" by the established commercial and political order. Available from all good bookshops – or as a free pdf download from

4. Hari Kunzru, Transmission.
Hari Kunzru's second novel more or less single-handedly created a new genre – what one might call Geek Lit. One of its more striking features is the casual way it accepts the internet as the unremarkable, taken-for-granted background against which the adventures of its geek hero, Arjun Medha, are set.

5. Neal Stephenson, Reamde.
Stephenson is the Thomas Pynchon of the internet, a writer of sprawling, compulsively readable, fiction with plots into which the network is inextricably woven. Reamde (a play on a common filename – Readme – in computer systems) takes in online gaming, cybercrime, MI6 and the Russian mafia, inter alia, in an intriguing blend of thriller and nerdy realism. Unusually for a novelist, Stephenson is also very knowledgeable about computing. His essay about Linux, In the beginning was the command line, for example, is a terrific read.

6. Jaron Lanier, You are not a gadget.
If you wanted a powerful antidote to technological utopianism then this manifesto is it. What gives it its special power is the fact that Lanier is not your average technophobe. On the contrary: he was one of the pioneers of Virtual Reality (VR) technology in the 1980s and later became a developer of medical applications of VR. He is also a composer who has recorded with artists like John Lennon and Philip Glass. So his tirade against the dehumanising, dumbing-down impacts of networked technology – as in the way "Remix culture" is parasitic on genuine creative activity, for example – is well-informed and acute, as are his attacks on "hive mind" and what he calls "Digital Maoism".

7. Cass Sunstein,
Technological optimists see the internet as a prime enabler of a free market in ideas, a space in which anyone can have access to the best thinking and the best arguments. But sceptics like Cass Sunstein see the burgeoning technologies of "personalisation" – the software that enables Amazon to make recommendations specially tailored for you, or the filtering systems that enable you to construct the "Daily Me" from a set of RSS feeds from sites of which you approve – as a countervailing force heading in a different direction. They foresee an online world in which you see only what you want to see and hear only what you want to hear – in other words the fragmentation of the internet into a multitude of ideological echo-chambers, a development which would be dangerous for democracy. And if you think that's a far-fetched fear, just look at the Tea Party in the US.

8. Evgeny Morozov, The net delusion.
Another brisk, readable antidote to cyber-utopianism. Morozov is exceedingly unsentimental about the net. He doesn't buy the argument that it is intrinsically an emancipating technology, for example. On the contrary, the Chinese have already demonstrated that authoritarian regimes are perfectly capable of adapting it to their own ends, making full use of its potential for comprehensive surveillance. And he is also sceptical of the idea that important questions about politics and society can invariably be framed in terms of the network. Reading Morozov, one has the impression of a man busily setting up straw men for intensive target practice, but his book is provocative and disturbing nevertheless.

9. George Dyson, Darwin among the machines : the evolution of global intelligence.
One of the most original and intriguing books of the last two decades. Dyson argues that intelligence is always an emergent phenomenon – that is, a property of whole systems that cannot be inferred from studying their components in isolation. Thus human intelligence "emerges" from a collection of unintelligent neurons. Dyson pushes this idea to what he sees as its logical conclusion: if the internet is (as indeed it is) a global system of densely interconnected computer networks – together with the intellects of their users – then this global system should exhibit a new kind of "collective intelligence" as an emergent property. It's a sobering – and exhilarating – thought.

10. Lawrence Lessig, Remix : making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy.
The best book yet written on the fundamental contradiction implicit in our emerging networked environment. We have Intellectual Property (IP) laws framed in an era when copying was degenerative, difficult and expensive and are trying to apply them to an era in which copying is perfect, easy, ubiquitous and free. As someone once observed, copying is to digital technology as breathing is to animal life. Lessig argues that not only is the attempt to put the IP genie back into the bottle misguided and futile, but it will turn out to be economically foolish as well because it will exclude us from the creative possibilities of digital technology. An intriguing and thought-provoking read.


I'll leave you to decide whether there's anything more than industrial archaeology here. There's more fiction in the BTL comments compared to the original column.

Dez 9, 2023, 4:58 am

Ian Stewart's top 10 popular mathematics books
Guardian, 2012-01-18.

Ian Stewart is an Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Warwick University and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He has written over 80 books, mainly popular mathematics, and has won three gold medals for his work on the public understanding of science. In collaboration with Terry Pratchett and Jack Cohen he wrote the Science of Discworld series. His new book, 17 equations that changed the world, is published by Profile.

"'Popular mathematics' may sound like a contradiction in terms. That's what makes the genre so important: we have to change that perception. Mathematics is the Cinderella science: undervalued, underestimated, and misunderstood. Yet it has been one of the main driving forces behind human society for at least three millennia, it powers all of today's technology, and it underpins almost every aspect of our daily lives.

"It's not really surprising that few outside the subject appreciate it, though. School mathematics is so focused on getting the right answer and passing the exam that there is seldom an opportunity to find out what it's all for. The hard core of real mathematics is extremely difficult, and it takes six or seven years to train a research mathematician after they leave school. Popular mathematics provides an entry route for non-specialists. It allows them to appreciate where mathematics came from, who created it, what it's good for, and where it's going, without getting tangled up in the technicalities. It's like listening to music instead of composing it.

"There are many ways to make real mathematics accessible. Its history reveals the subject as a human activity and gives a feel for the broad flow of ideas over the centuries. Biographies of great mathematicians tell us what it's like to work at the frontiers of human knowledge. The great problems, the ones that hit the news media when they are finally solved after centuries of effort, are always fascinating. So are the unsolved ones and the latest hot research areas. The myriad applications of mathematics, from medicine to the iPad, are an almost inexhaustible source of inspiration."

1. Robert Kanigel, The man who knew infinity.
The self-taught Indian genius Srinivasa Ramanujan had a flair for strange and beautiful formulas, so unusual that mathematicians are still coming to grips with their true meaning. He was born into a poor Brahmin family in 1887 and was pursuing original research in his teens. In 1912, he was brought to work at Cambridge. He died of malnutrition and other unknown causes in 1920, leaving a rich legacy that is still not fully understood. There has never been another mathematical life story like it: absolutely riveting.

2. Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach.
One of the great cult books, a very original take on the logical paradoxes associated with self-reference, such as "this statement is false". Hofstadter combines the mathematical logic of Kurt Gödel, who proved that some questions in arithmetic can never be answered, with the etchings of Maurits Escher and the music of Bach. Frequent dramatic dialogues between Lewis Carroll's characters Achilles and the Tortoise motivate key topics in a highly original manner, along with their friend Crab who invents the tortoise-chomping record player. DNA and computers get extensive treatment too.

3. Martin Gardner, The colossal book of mathematics.
In his long-running Mathematical Games column in Scientific American, Gardner – a journalist with no mathematical training – created the field of recreational mathematics. On the surface his columns were about puzzles and games, but they all concealed mathematical principles, some simple, some surprisingly deep. He combined a playful and clear approach to his subject with a well-developed taste for what was mathematically significant. The book consists of numerous selections from his columns, classified according to the mathematical area involved. Learn how to make a hexaflexagon and why playing Brussels sprouts is a waste of time.

4. Joseph Mazur, Euclid in the rainforest.
A thoroughly readable account of the meaning of truth in mathematics, presented through a series of quirky adventures in the Greek Islands, the jungles around the Orinoco River, and elsewhere. Examines tricky concepts like infinity, topology, and probability through tall tales and anecdotes. Three different kinds of truth are examined: formal classical logic, the role of the infinite, and inference by plausible reasoning. The story of the student who believed nothing except his calculator is an object lesson for everyone who thinks mathematics is just 'sums'.

5. Robin Wilson, Four colours suffice.
In 1852 Francis Guthrie, a young South African mathematician, was attempting to colour the counties in a map of England. Guthrie discovered that he needed only four different colours to ensure that any two adjacent counties had different colours. After some experimentation he convinced himself that the same goes for any map whatsoever. This is the remarkable story of how mathematicians eventually proved he was right, but only with the aid of computers, bringing into question the meaning of "proof". It contains enough detail to be satisfying, but remains accessible and informative throughout.

6. Reuben Hersh, What is mathematics really?
The classic text What is mathematics? by Richard Courant and Herbert Robbins focused on the subject's nuts and bolts. It answered its title question by example. Hersh takes a more philosophical view, based on his experience as a professional mathematician. The common working philosophy of most mathematicians is a kind of vague Platonism: mathematical concepts have some sort of independent existence in some ideal world. Although this is what it feels like to insiders, Hersh argues that mathematics is a collective human construct – like money or the Supreme Court. However, it is a construct constrained by its own internal logic; it's not arbitrary. You choose the concepts that interest you, but you don't get to choose how they behave.

7. Persi Diaconis & Ron Graham, Magical mathematics.
Both authors are top-rank mathematicians with years of stage performances behind them, and their speciality is mathematical magic. They show how mathematics relates to juggling and reveal the secrets behind some amazing card tricks. Here's one. The magician mails a pack of cards to anyone, asking them to shuffle it and choose a card. Then he shuffles the cards again, and mails half of them to the magician—not saying whether the chosen card is included. By return mail, the magician names the selected card. No trickery: it all depends on the mathematics of shuffles.

8. Karl Sigmund, Games of life.
Biologists' understanding of many vital features of the living world, such as sex and survival, depends on the theory of evolution. One of the basic theoretical tools here is the mathematics of game theory, in which several players compete by choosing from a list of possible strategies. The children's game of rock-paper-scissors is a good example. The book illuminates such questions as how genes spread through a population and the evolution of cooperation, by finding the best strategies for games such as cat and mouse, the battle of the sexes, and the prisoner's dilemma. On the borderline between popular science and an academic text, but eminently readable without specialist knowledge.

9. Rudy Rucker (ed.), Mathenauts : tales of mathematical wonder.
A collection of 23 science fiction short stories, each of which centres on mathematics. Two are by Martin Gardner, and many of the great writers of SF are represented: Isaac Asimov, Gregory Benford, Larry Niven, Frederik Pohl. The high point is Norman Kagan's utterly hilarious "The Mathenauts", in which only mathematicians can travel through space, because space is mathematical – and, conversely, anything mathematical can be reality. An isomorphomechanism is essential equipment. Between them, these tales cover most of the undergraduate mathematics syllabus, though not in examinable form.

10. Isaac Newton, The mathematical principles of natural philosophy.
There ought to be a great classic in this top 10, and there is none greater. I've put it last because it's not popularisation in the strict sense. However, it slips in because it communicated to the world one of the very greatest ideas of all time: Nature has laws, and they can be expressed in the language of mathematics. Using nothing more complicated than Euclid's geometry, Newton developed his laws of motion and gravity, applying them to the motion of the planets and strange wobbles in the position of the Moon. He famously said that he "stood on the shoulders of giants", and so he did, but this book set the scientific world alight. As John Maynard Keynes wrote, Newton was a transitional figure of immense stature: "the last of the magicians … the last wonderchild to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage." No mathematical book has had more impact.


John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) on Isaac Newton (1643-1727): "the last of the magicians". Keynes could usefully read this column; elementary mathematics suggests Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920; no. 1 above) comes handily later than Newton. Keynes probably knew of Ramanujan at Cambridge, even if he didn't know him.

The usual BTL comments and recommendations. The only one mentioned that I've read is A. K. Dewdney, The planiverse.

Dez 12, 2023, 2:06 pm

Ian Marchant's top 10 books of the night
Guardian, 2012-01-25.

Before taking up writing books, Ian Marchant sang in various unimaginably obscure bands, wrote up the results of horse races in bookmakers' shops and ran a secondhand bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. He has published six books, including two acclaimed memoir/travel books, Parallel lines and The longest crawl. He's also a playwright, whose work has been performed everywhere from Woman's Hour to the National Theatre of Sweden. His latest book, Something of the night, is publilshed by Simon & Schuster.

"It strikes me as odd that the vast majority of reading gets done in bed, but that so few people have sat down to write about beds, reading in bed, or, indeed, the night itself. People write about sex in bed, of course, often at night, but this strikes me as a huge mistake. Firstly, because when you write you should try and avoid doing anything which might put you in line for the Bad Sex award, but secondly because our circadian rhythms mean that most people are at their horniest at eight in the morning, when they are probably out of bed and on their way to work.

"Twenty per cent of the world works at night, and most of the other 80% play by night, and yet prose writers have had little to say on the subject. I guess this is because most people, after they have played, are asleep and dreaming, and, as Henry James said, 'write a dream and lose a reader'. So perhaps it is me that is odd in wanting to write about the darkness in which we spend half our lives. But if you fancy reading about the night when you are tucked up with a hottie and a mug of Horlicks, here are some recommendations."

1. A. Roger Ekirch, At day's close.
Subtitled 'A history of night-time', this is a jaw-dropping piece of scholarship investigating what Europeans have been up to under cover of darkness over the last 600 years. Ekrich spent 20 years researching what he calls "the missing half of history", and he's not going to be bettered for a long time. Highly readable, and packed with fascinating stuff beyond your wildest dreams.

2. Al Alvarez, Night.
This is the book that I set out to write, and when I found it and had flicked through the pages, I put it down at once, and waited till I'd written my book before actually reading it. I was right to do so; it is very good, though he takes the opposite approach to crime from the one that I took, in that he hung out with the bizzies, while I got on with doing a little mild crime myself. It would hurt to recommend it if Alvarez weren't such a great writer. Before I write another book, I'm going to check that he hasn't been there first.

3. Sukhdev Sandhu, Night haunts.
This is another book which scared me when I read it because, once again, this was the kind of thing I had in mind when I embarked on writing about the night. The book is beautifully written, but it had its origins in a blog about what Londoners get up to at night, from cleaners and the "panoptic" police helicopter to urban fox hunters and exorcists. The book, though, is much better than the blog, because as well as sharing the quality of writing, it is also a rather lovely artefact.

4. M. R. James, Ghost stories of an antiquary.
I found this in my school library when I was 14, which makes it sound like my school was a venerable institution where this kind of thing was commonplace. Nothing could be further from the truth. All the other books were about woodwork and home economics and what to do when you're arrested. More than 100 years since it was first published, there is still no writer better at making the dark dreadful.

5. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Worst journey in the world.
This is an account of Scott's expedition of 1912, brilliantly written by one who was there. The title might lead you to suspect that the doomed attempt on the South Pole would be the eponymous journey. Not a bit of it. Compared to the so-called Winter Journey, going to the Pole was a bit of a spree. Apsley-Garrard, Edward Wilson and Birdie Bowers travelled 130 miles in temperatures as low as -60C to collect emperor penguin eggs. It was so cold that the pus in their frostbitten fingers froze. And all under cover of the Antarctic winter night. Astonishing, and never out of print since publication in 1922.

6. Ursula Le Guin, The left hand of darkness.
I wonder if the wonderful Ursula Le Guin had read The worst journey in the world before she wrote this, arguably her masterpiece. The climax of the book is a terrifying journey, also undertaken in Arctic darkness and temperatures. But it takes place on the distant planet Winter, and the travellers are an ambassador from a galactic civilisation and the ex-prime minister of a decadent kingdom. Le Guin's twist is that the inhabitants of Winter are all of the same sex, which gives her a chance to explore what gender means while telling a gripping story about love under different stars from our own.

7. D. T. Max, The family that couldn't sleep.
I was fascinated by this sympathetic account of a family with a terrible prion disease called Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI). From the first symptoms, victims stay awake and fully conscious until their death from exhaustion around a year later. Although sufferers from FFI are very rare, Max uses the investigation of the disease to tell the intriguing story of the rivalry between the scientists who were working to discover the nature of prions.

8. Jim Horne, Sleepfaring.
By far the best popular account of the science of sleep. Horne is head of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University, but he wears his learning lightly as he takes the reader through what science can and can't say about sleeping. You might learn how to sleep better after reading Horne's book, but you'll learn lots of other invaluable facts along the way. For example, that the main cause of disturbed nights for men over 50 is going to the toilet. And the main cause for women? Their partners getting up and going to the toilet.

9. George Plimpton, Fireworks.
George Plimpton was for many years the editor of the Paris Review, best known for its "Writers at Work" interviews. Plimpton part-funded the journal by being one of the top US sports writers of the 1960s and, in later life, an occasional actor. He was also the self-appointed Fireworks Commissioner of New York; this engaging and funny book is the story of his pyromania.

10. Isak Dinesen, Anecdotes of destiny.
Writers should take any opportunity they can to urge people to read Isak Dinesen, aka Karen "Out of Africa" Blixen, so here we go. If you've never read Babette's feast., then I think you should get up out of your chair, put on your coat, and get thee to a bookshop, to remind yourself that the blessèd night is a place of companionship, community, love and wonder.


BTL comments and recommendations include:

Caradog Prichard, One moonlit night ("a troubling tale of disturbed youth based in 1920s North Wales"). I've not read this English translation, but the Welsh original, Un nos ola leuad, is a fixture of the Welsh literature GCSE reading list.

Edna O'Brien, Night ("very strange and beautifully written").

Angela Carter, Nights at the circus ("reeks of the mysteries of the night, from London brothels to the perpetual darkness of the Arctic Circle").

Craig Koslofsky, Evening's empire : a history of the night in early modern Europe ("recently won the Longman History Today prize or somesuch is great").

W. S. Graham's long poem The nightfishing ("wonderful").

Cecil & Margery Gray, The bed ; or, the clinophile's vade mecum.

&c., &c.

Dez 13, 2023, 3:17 pm

Alex Preston's top 10 literary believers
Guardian, 2012-02-01.

Alex Preston was born in 1979. He lives in London with his wife and two children. His first novel, This bleeding city, was published in 2010. His second, The revelations, is published this month by Faber and Faber. He also writes reviews for The Observer and the New Statesman and a regular panellist on the BBC Review. He tweets as @ahmpreston.

"Steady, plodding relationships are not the stuff of great literature. As we all know, happiness writes white. Friction, fissures, flaws – love stories take their energy from impediments, they thrive under the heat of conflict. The same goes for belief. Quiet, placid faith fails to stir us. It's the dark night of the soul that we want in our fiction, the adolescent torment of Salinger's Franny or the guilt-ravaged Bendrix coming reluctantly to God in The end of the affair.

"In previous centuries authors would have presupposed both faith and familiarity with the scriptures in their audience, but now religion has withered in the bright glare of science (at least in Britain), and our churches are increasingly Larkin's 'accoutred frowsty barn(s)'. Yet we still, some of us, feel the God-shaped hole, and courses and cults have sprung up to cater to those looking for meaning disenchanted world.

"I have always been fascinated by the outer reaches of religious experience, by the titanium-plated smiles of the born-again, by the visitations and mass-hysteria of Christian evangelicals. It's not only the secrecy and intrigue of those closed worlds; it's the way their members seem to have found an answer to so many of life's great questions. Frankly I'm envious. So when I read and write about believers, it's partly that I'm trying to find an authentic way into what they've got. So far I've not had much luck. Perhaps this is why it's characters in books who struggle with, rather than revel in, their faith who attract me.

"The four young friends in The revelations all believe, but their conviction is tested to breaking point by the tragedy that unfolds over the course of a weekend religious retreat. Doubt stalks their every footstep, the charismatic priest who leads them suffers his own crisis of faith; that some of them are still believers at the end of the book is a kind of miracle."

1. Franny in J. D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey.
Marcus and Abby Glass, two of the heroes of The revelations, take their surname from Salinger's precocious family. Franny's breakdown in the second story perfectly captures the headrush of adolescent spirituality (and its resultant comedown). I have always been a little bit in love with her which is, I suppose, creepy, now I'm over 30 and she's still at college.

2. Alyosha Karamazov in Fyodor Dostoevsky, The brothers Karamazov.
Alyosha is a novitiate Russian Orthodox monk, Jesus-like, compassionate but totally powerless. He clashes with his brother Ivan, a rationalist and an atheist. Alyosha isn't divorced from the real world, though; he is a realist. As Dostoevsky says: "Faith, in the realist, does not spring from the miracle. But the miracle from faith."

3. Samad Iqbal in Zadie Smith, White teeth.
Literary grandees from Updike to DeLillo tried (and mostly failed) to represent the east/west cultural clash in the post-9/11 years. The most nuanced and sympathetic portrait of the experience of British Muslims comes earlier, in the form of Samad Iqbal, a devout believer attempting to fit his faith to his adopted nation. When tempted by his children's music teacher "he felt a cold thing land on his heart and knew it was the fear of his God". A character funny, touching and tragic in equal measure, through Samad Iqbal we understand the burden of the comfort of faith.

4. Sir William Gull in Alan Moore, From Hell.
A high-ranking Freemason who suffers an extraordinary theophanic episode when the god Jahbulon is revealed to him in a vision, Sir William Gull uses the prostitutes he kills in the East End of London to satisfy an ancient religious blood rite. The image of the future in which a vast City skyscraper rears up above the crazed royal physician seems strikingly relevant as we survey the wreckage of the post-crash financial system: Gull's mystical cult seeks to perpetuate male dominance of society. Written at the start of the bubble that just burst, testosterone-fuelled derivatives traders were the offspring of Sir William Gull's gruesome satanic rituals.

5. Herr Naphtha in Thomas Mann, The magic mountain.
A Marxist Jesuit practicing a kind of religious fascism, Naphtha is one half of the dialectic duo that will bring Hans Castorp to his Bildung. The dark mirror of Settembrini's rational humanism, for Naphtha piety and cruelty are inseparable. Naphtha struggles with his inability to achieve the "graveyard peace" which he sees on the faces of his fellow believers. His death, like his life, is shockingly uncompromising.

6. Oscar in Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda.
Brought up by a fundamentalist father from the Plymouth Brethren, Oscar sees "God's hand everywhere about", whether in gambling dens, at the racecourse or in the fate that brings him to Lucinda. "Our whole faith is a wager," he tells her. "We bet that there is a God. We bet our life on it."

7. Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix in Roberto Bolaño, By night in Chile.
A Chilean priest and member of Opus Dei, Lacroix is the narrator of this deathbed novella of religious compromise and hypocrisy. A priest for the ease of lifestyle it offers, Lacroix's real calling is literature. He meets Pablo Neruda and Ernst Jünger, gives lessons in Marxist theory to General Pinochet, and then, in a brutal final scene, realises that Santiago's principal literary salon has been held above a torture chamber. As he slips towards death, a hesitant truth begins to reveal itself …

8. Esti Kuperman in Naomi Alderman, Disobedience.
Esti is the barren, lesbian wife of an Orthodox Jew, Dovid. Although only a foil (and lover) to the ballsy heroine, Ronit, this frail, silent character carries the heart of the novel with her. Esti is trapped with a paunchy, neurotic husband she doesn't love by her devotion to her religious belief. A book about a world that is at once bafflingly alien and surprisingly familiar.

9. Maurice Bendrix in Graham Greene, The end of the affair.
While his lover Sarah's faith is stronger, Bendrix's tentative, stumbling epiphany brings the novel to its breathtaking end. Greene pits the jealous lover against a jealous God; there will only ever be one winner. Bendrix's lament of "I hate You as though You exist" finally, reluctantly, becomes a prayer: "O God, You've done enough, You've robbed me of enough, I'm too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever."

10. Margery Kempe in The book of Margery Kempe.
Kempe's autobiography, dictated to an amanuensis, is the occasionally hilarious record of her attempts to relive Jesus's life. Her visions are full of male genitalia and gore, but they are also surprisingly touching (particularly the scene in which she makes a hot drink for the Virgin Mary to comfort her after the crucifixion). We read of Kempe's meeting with that other great medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich. Julian's Revelation of divine love is more spiritual and pious; The book of Margery Kempe is more fun.


Half a dozen of the earlier BTL comments and recommendations include:

Zola, The lapse of Father Mouret ("the spiritual struggles of a rather fanatical young priest in a society that has very little use for celibacy. Superb").

"Thomas Covenant, surely. The whole trilogy centres on his need to act heroically to save a world he doesn't believe exists."

Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy, Blood meridian ("a kind of demonic, almost mythical presence representing pure human evil ... yet wrapped around an Old testament prophet and alchemist").

Miguel de Unamuno, San Manuel Bueno, mártir ("a beautiful and sad novella - the deceased priest, Manuel, had lost his faith, but felt compelled to retain the pretence for the sake of his community").

Graham Greene, The power and the glory and Monsignor Quijote ("both have a priest of great personal faith struggling to come reconcile his faith with institutional relgion. Both beautiful books").

Charles Smithson in The French lieutenant's woman ("confused by faith, life, lust and social convention - a wonderful re-imagining of the end of the Victorian religious revival as Darwin's ideas spread").

Dez 14, 2023, 8:23 am

Children's Books Top Tens / James Dawson's top 10 books to get you through high school
Guardian, 2012-02-02.

James Dawson grew up in West Yorkshire, writing imaginary episodes of Doctor Who. He became a journalist and then a teacher. He now writes full time and his debut novel Hollow Pike, a dark teen thriller, is published by Indigo/Orion.

"Whatever your experience, good or bad, I have come to believe that no one ever 'gets over' school. Bury them as you may, those days stay with you forever. School is the perhaps the most intense, unique and competitive chapter of our lives. Whether you enjoy school or not, the hallways and playgrounds have a law of their own, and complex rules to adhere to.

Luckily, there is an escape route – books. Retreating into a fantasy land got me through a pretty rough time at school, and that was in the days before the boom in young adult fiction. These days, bookshops are overflowing with books tailor-made for high school survival purposes. You can't always control real life, but you can certainly select what happens in the land of fiction. To me, books were a haven. Here are my personal favourites along with newer titles that'll help anyone keep their head up when the going gets tough."

1. Louis Sachar, There's a boy in the girl's bathroom.
Sachar is better known for the bestselling Holes, but this earlier work is perfect in its simplicity. Bradley Chalkers is a true outcast – he's a bully, a pathological liar, he spits, he hurts people. And yet you will fall in love with him. As you realise that Bradley is as much a victim as a bully, you begin to understand the complexity of his situation. The story documents the gentle relationship between Bradley and the school counsellor, Carla. You are completely on Bradley's side, and feel every up and down of his journey. As with Holes, you'll laugh and cry in equal measure, often at the same time.

2. Stephen King, Carrie / Roald Dahl, Matilda.
Nothing got me through school more than the glimmer of hope that I might one day develop telekinetic powers and kill everyone. Luckily for my classmates, that never happened. Two similar stories, with very similar heroes – you'll be rooting for both Carrie and Matilda right up to the equally moving (albeit quite different) finales.

3. John Green, Looking for Alaska.
Green was allowed to get away with things my editor would never allow, and perhaps presents the most life-like addition to this list. Miles 'Pudge' Halter starts a new boarding school and soon befriends potty-mouthed sex-fiend Alaska Young, beginning a Skins-esque coming-of-age story as Pudge falls for the complex titular character. Rich in philosophy and dripping with pithy quotes.

4. David Walliams, The boy in the dress.
Anyone in need of an inspirational battle cry should look no further than the Little Britain star's debut novel. It tells the simple tale of a boy called Dennis, who loves Vogue and the problems this presents. Hilarious and very, very British. What I love about this book is that it actually has nothing to do with sexuality, instead looking at the freedom to be who we want to be.

5. Paul Magrs, Strange boy.
The only book on the list not set in a school, this is a semi-autobiographical account of a boy growing up in South Shields. David knows he's different, he's just not sure how, so decides the only rational explanation is that he has secret super powers. Actually, young David is gay and has fallen for John down the road. I so wish I'd read this when I was 12 – things would have made a lot more sense.

6. Malorie Blackman, Noughts and Crosses.
This was the book that made me want to write young adult fiction. A powerful look at racism in a parallel world where young Callum is about to become the first white pupil at an elite all-black school. Things only get worse as his friendship with a black girl, Sephy, deepens. Injustice, discrimination, violence…a rollercoaster ride and a book to make you think.

7. Jerry Spinelli, Stargirl.
Leo's world is rocked when mysterious and quirky Stargirl arrives at his school one day. Is she a breath of fresh air or a fake? As the pair begin to fall in love, the novel examines the pros and cons of Stargirl's individuality and the power of peer pressure. Spinelli's prose is poetic and dreamy - imagine reading a Sophia Coppola film.

8. Niccolò Machiavelli, The prince.
"It is much safer to be feared than loved," wrote Machiavelli. Now, I grant you he was referring to the royal courts of 15th century Florence, but the only place more complex than that is high school. His guide for social domination is an essential for anyone seeking to topple a tyrant or dethrone a Queen Bee.

9. Jill Murphy, The worst witch.
Long before that other wizard school rocked up, poor Mildred Hubble was struggling away at Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches. Ok, it's aimed at younger readers, but this is still one of my favourites. Everyone loves an underdog, and Mildred always saves the day, albeit in her own clumsy way. These stories are uplifting whatever your age.

10. Graham Gardner, Inventing Elliot.
A darkly intelligent story about a cruel secret society that rules over an ordinary school. It's into this mess that poor Elliot Sutton arrives, fleeing bullies at his old school. More than any other book, Elliot explores the painful intricacies of bullying and the importance of being noticed "the right way". Harrowing at times, but ultimately an optimistic read.

Dez 15, 2023, 4:18 pm

Lars Iyer's top 10 literary frenemies
Guardian, 2012-02-08.

Lars Iyer is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He is the author of two books on Blanchot (Blanchot's communism and Blanchot's vigilance : phenomenology, literature, ethics) and his blog Spurious. He has also written two novels, Spurious and, published by Melville House, Dogma.

"'In your friend you should possess your best enemy', Nietzsche writes. What a remarkable thing to say! This is a concept of friendship radically different from the smugly narcissistic friendship collectives of Facebook. Nietzsche's true friend is someone who challenges you deeply, who badgers, bothers, enrages and insults you – an antagonist who is not content to leave you be. In the last few years, a bit of slang that describes this relationship has wormed its way into the Oxford English dictionary : a frenemy.

"My novels, Spurious, Dogma, and the forthcoming Exodus, relate the adventures of two such frenemies, maverick philosophy lecturers W and Lars, who travel through Britain and overseas, bantering and bitching as they go. Of the two characters, it is W who is more obviously cruel, claiming that Lars is lazy, morbidly obese, and has a low IQ, as well as terrible sartorial sense. But Lars, it has been suggested, shows a special cruelty of his own, his frenmity apparent in the deadpan way he narrates the novels, allowing the wildly idealistic, failure-loving W to hoist himself by his own petard. For my part, I find their fren-ship a refreshing alterative to the bland support networks of 'kidults' locked in positive feedback loops of mutual reassurance. True friendships should contain an element of the cruel and cutting. The oddly refreshing antagonism of frenemies is something I look for in life, and in the literature I read."

1. Cervantes' Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
Tall, thin Don Quixote is full of deluded imaginings, believing himself to be a knight-errant riding out to restore the bygone values of the age of chivalry. His comic foil Sancho Panza is short, fat, and ignorant, who, although aware of Quixote's delusions, lets himself be caught up in his companion's pursuit of honour and glory, albeit because he thinks he might get some personal gain from their adventures. Theirs is a sunny kind of frenmity, with Sancho as the comic sidekick, an everyman realist to his master's idealist, spouting what have come to be called sanchismos, a humorous mixture of ironic Spanish proverbs and put-downs.

2. Samuel Beckett's Vladmir and Estragon.
Waiting for Godot or, Frenemies: A Love Story. Two bowler-hatted old men wait by a leafless tree, much as they waited the day before, and as they will doubtless wait the next day, too. In Beckett's play, there's all the time in the world to occupy – time for old jokes and pratfalls, for bickering and recriminations, for nostalgia and wistfulness; anything "to hold the terrible silence at bay". Vladimir, the more philosophical of the two, tends to muse on abstract matters; Estragon, the more mundane, is more concerned with the whereabouts of his next meal. But they are united in the push and pull of their frenmity, as their waiting threatens to erode all hope.

3. Thomas Bernhard's Glenn Gould and Wertheimer.
In The loser, Bernhard presents his fictionalised Glenn Gould as the very embodiment of the great artist, which makes life very difficult, and, in the end, impossible, for Wertheimer, a fellow piano student at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. Wertheimer gives up his studies for good when he overhears Gould's terrifyingly great rendition of Bach's Goldberg variations. But it is when Gould casually labels his friend a "loser" that Wertheimer is sent into a vortex of self-loathing, and, eventually, suicide.

4. D. H. Lawrence's Gerald Crich and Rupert Birking.
Lawrence's Women in love is also a novel about men in love, and, indeed, in love with one another. Rupert Birkin, the central male character, has an evangelical sense that he must reckon with "the problem of love and eternal conjunction between two men". His nude wrestling match with Gerald Crich, so memorably staged by Oliver Reed and Alan Bates in Ken Russell's film, is a homoerotic tableau of the frenemy, with both men struggling at once for and against one another.

5. J. G. Ballard's James Ballard and Robert Vaughan.
In Crash, when James Ballard is hospitalised after a car accident, he finds himself drawn into the orbit of a sinister former scientist, Robert Vaughan, who is obsessed with re-staging the car crashes of celebrities. Vaughan frightens Ballard even as he fascinates him, and their increasingly uneasy friendship tips over into something macabre. When Vaughan takes his last death drive, Ballard writes his hagiography, paying an ambivalent tribute to this Lucifer of the motorway.

6. Thomas Mann's Lodovico Settembrini and Leo Naphta.
Set in a sanatorium in Davos, in the decade leading up to the first world war, The magic mountain features a microcosm of the pre-war European intelligentsia, including the frenemies Lodovico Settembrini and Leo Naphta, the former embodying the positive, hopeful ideal of the Enlightenment, and the latter, the more chaotic, order-threatening aspects of fascism, anarchism and communism. The two men debate furiously, and end up fighting an improbable duel, foreshadowing the coming clash of ideologies that would tear the continent apart.

7. Gene Wolfe's Badlanders and Dr Talos.
Gene Wolfe's epic science fiction series The Book of the New Sun has its share of mysteries. One of them is the strange friendship between Baldanders, the permanently exhausted giant who won't stop growing, and the wily, diminutive Dr Talos who beats, bullies and cajoles his larger companion. Initially, the seemingly slow-witted giant appears to be Talos's charge, but things turn out to be the other way around: Baldanders is actually a scientist allied with sinister alien forces, who built his frenemy Talos for obscurely masochistic purposes of his own.

8. Patricia Highsmith's Bruno and Guy.
Patricia Highsmith is a master of the perverse friendship, and her first novel Strangers on a train was no exception. Hitchcock's film version portrays Bruno as merrily murderous and Guy as morally upstanding, but the novel presents the two men intertwined in a twisted friendship that is more significant than any other in their lives. Guy may be disgusted by the drunken, vicious Bruno, but when Bruno falls overboard at sea, Guy instantly dives into the waves, unable to imagine life alone without his cruel friend.

9. Saul Bellow's Charles Citrine and Von Humboldt Fleisher.
In Humboldt's gift, Charles Citrine makes a fortune from writing a successful Broadway play, based on the life of his older friend, the poet Von Humboldt Fleisher. Big mistake! Although his manic depression, alcoholism and pill-popping mean that he's never delivered on his early talent, Humboldt still upholds the loftiest ambitions for art – ambitions, which, he claims, Citrine has utterly betrayed. Citrine's success means that the easy friendship this pair enjoyed has gone, with Humboldt wounding his now frenemy with accusations of sell-out and crass commercialism.

10. Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Stoppard famously sets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead in the interstices of Hamlet, elevating two supporting characters from Shakespeare's play into leads. His focus is on how the pair occupy themselves when they are offstage in the parent play, which appears to be by aimless banter and mock-philosophical arguments. But there's an existential twist: Stoppard's characters seem to be aware that they are unimportant fictional characters, each casting aspersions on the other's comparative degree of reality, each claiming that the other doesn't really exist. Such acts of frenmity grant them what little sense of reality they have in a world which seems, to them, to be absurd and out-of-control.


Half a dozen comments and recommendations from the twenty-one BTL messages:

("I just read Martin Kohan's Seconds out as my Argentinian entry for A Year of Reading the World. That has a marvellously pugilistic friendship at its heart, built around a disagreement about boxing").

("I prefer Beckett's Mercier and Camier to Vladimir and Estragon in its portrait of individuals who find friendship essential and insupportable. There are are moments in M&C that are genuinely moving").

("Perhaps add Dilbert and Dogbert. "Lie to me." "Nice haircut" ).

Leonard Cohen, Beautiful losers. ("I think the relationship between F and the narrator ... deserves a mention").

("Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek deserve a mention, I fancy. And Harry Angstrom and Charlie Stavros in the Rabbit novels").

Felix and Oscar in Neil Simon, The odd couple. ("Most comedy double acts have this kind of relationship, from Laurel & Hardy onwards").
I'd go along with that, remembering Morecambe and Wise and, as other BTL commenters add, Blackadder and Baldric, Dave Lister and Arnold Rimmer (Red Dwarf), and Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (The Trip).

Dez 17, 2023, 4:40 pm

Children's Books Top Tens / Kathryn Erskine's top 10 first person narratives
Guardian, 2012-02-09.

Kathryn Erskine, a lawyer-turned-author, grew up in six countries. She is the author of Mockingbird, the story of how 10-year-old Caitlin Smith, who has Asperger's syndrome, deals with a double bereavement. It has won the 2010 American National Book Award Winner. Kathryn Erskine will be appearing at the Edinburgh international books festival this summer.

"The key to a lasting book is that instead of being an observer, appreciating the quality of the writing or a clever story, the reader unwittingly becomes a participant, sucked into a completely different reality. For that to happen, there has to be more than just a great story; there has to be incredible voice. We have to connect with or be awed by the storytellers. We have to believe them. They become the Pied Piper and we cannot help but be drawn into their world. Such books can be identified by their power to take us out of our ordinary lives and make us lose all track of time, resulting in groggy mornings, occasional missed deadlines and even lulls in texting.

True confession: I am not one to read a book multiple times. I am, sadly, too slow a reader and, with all the great books out there, cannot afford to give myself that luxury. However, the following books are so powerful, enjoyable, or both, that I've had to read them more than once. If you haven't tried them, you're in for a treat . . . but prepare a large pot of coffee for tomorrow morning."

1. Markus Zusak, The book thief.
What could be more fascinating than a story narrated by Death himself? Set in one of the most gruesome of human arenas, the Holocaust? In a real tour de force, Zusak has created empathy for our ultimate enemy, death. As cold as Death tries to be, there's a crack in his armor, a begrudging respect for humans, or at least good humans. One might even accuse him of caring about brave young Liesel, the book thief, who fiercely seeks knowledge and understanding in a time of agony and ignorance.

2. Karen Cushman, Catherine, called Birdy.
For anyone who is a teenager or who has ever been a teenager, this snarky voice will have you smirking; that is, if you're too cool to laugh out loud. How could the story of a 13th century girl, who is about to be married off, possibly appeal to 21st century readers? Attitude, you addle-pate, and plenty of it! Oh, and you might just learn a bit about the Middle Ages, as well. Corpus bones!

3. Emma Donoghue, Room.
Only a child's sweet, innocent voice could make this shocking story of kidnap (and worse) approachable. Horrifying but gripping, we are right there in that Room with Jack and Ma, cringing at the questions he asks her, marveling at how she has created a normal world for him out of such madness, and rooting for them as they attempt to make their escape and re-enter the world outside.

4. M. T. Anderson, Feed.
Brilliant. Feed is a chilling treatise on uber-technology and consumerism. Read the first paragraph and you'll be hooked; by the bottom of page two, you'll have a distinct gnawing in the pit of your stomach. Titus, like everyone in this world, has an electronic feed fitted in his head and is controlled by his advert-driven world. With limited vocabulary and even less will to think, his vacuous existence is summed up by the inane popular show: "Oh! Wow! Thing!" Bitingly funny, the story will also cause readers to stop and question.

5. Christopher Paul Curtis, The Watsons go to Birmingham - 1963.
Curtis masterfully creates the quintessential kid voice, fresh and funny, complete with humorous digressions, reflecting the way a child's mind often works. It's hard not to love affable and wise Kenny as he narrates the story of his hilarious family. As funny as the story is, however, it also packs a punch since it deals with a sickening part of America's civil rights history: the horrific bombing of a black church leaving four girls dead.

6. Francisco X. Stork, Marcelo in the real world.
Marcelo has Asperger-like symptoms including an engaging awkwardness and wonderfully frank take on life. It's a delight to be in Marcelo's shoes as he is forced to work at his father's law firm while he tries to navigate that world with funny and thought-provoking comments. While some try to make him a pawn in office politics, it is Marcelo who ultimately controls the board and forces checkmate.

7. Anne Lamott, Bird by bird.
As a writer, I can't omit this classic - part writing manual, part memoir, and completely hilarious in true Anne Lamott style. Honest, heartwarming and funny, Lamott will cheer you on as you write your first draft and learn to approach life bird by bird.

8. Common with Adam Bradley, One day it'll all make sense.
He had me at the opening: "When I was eighteen months old, my mother and I were kidnapped at gunpoint. My father held the gun." This coming of age story of the socially conscious rap artist, Common, is an autobiography that reads like a novel, or perhaps an epic poem. It's gritty, honest, enlightening, and beautifully written. The man has a way with words. His chapters are interspersed with those written by his mother, who is frank, no-nonsense, and eminently wise.

9. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali gives us an eye-opening look into Islamic culture, tribal importance, the role of women, and the spread of refugees in northern Africa. She may have started off quiet and obedient, even going through a strict religious phase as a teenager, but she always questioned her world and exhibited great social and emotional intelligence. Abused by so many in countless ways, she tells her story with immense dignity and courage, head held high. (Meanwhile, my jaw hung open in both shock and admiration.) An enlightening and inspiring story, her life is a testament to the resilience and determination of the human spirit.

10. Harper Lee, To kill a mockingbird.
While it's the classic American novel, it's also a universal story of tolerance. Atticus Finch may be fighting a losing battle in the courtroom and the community but he knows his action will have an impact in the overall war, maybe not today, maybe not in his lifetime, but he gives us hope to keep striving for that goal of human decency. The voice of the young narrator must have haunted me all my life because she unwittingly crops up in my character in Mockingbird, a fresh voice who sees the world with no filters and calls injustice what it really is - something that demeans all of us.

Dez 18, 2023, 9:47 am

Will Eaves's top 10 siblings' stories
Guardian, 2012-02-15.

Will Eaves is the author of three novels, The oversight (2001), Nothing to be afraid of (2005) and This is Paradise (2012). His chapbook of poems, Small hours, appeared in 2006. A full collection, Sound houses, followed last year. For many years he was the arts editor of The Times Literary Supplement. He now teaches at the University of Warwick.

"The sibling bond is probably the most readily sentimentalised of family relationships. Soaps commonly appeal to the saving intimacy of the blood-tie ('we're family, yeah?'), and the unnameable hubris of the gangster flick is usually the betrayal of one brother by another ('you broke my heart, Fredo!'). But of course good and bad alike are old news to those of us who love, and suffer, our families, because we know that brothers and sisters are competitors as well as relatives. Each childish row ('but she always goes first! I want to go first!') when we're growing up together – and indeed for the rest of our lives – is a dramatisation of two things: the fight for resources (parental love, time, attention, food, inheritance) and the slow, largely unspoken revelation of why co-operation works to our advantage. I think it's also something else, which can't be reduced to Darwinian socio-economics. When there is division between siblings, something painful is being aired from which we may, if we choose, draw a deep lesson: all are not equal, and the world isn't just in its allocation of riches, but rivalry can conceal co-operation. The dearest enemy is often our best teacher. Strangers will become family members, and family members will become strangers. Rejection forces us to look beyond the tribe.

"The early sibling bond is a preparation for other adult relationships, of course – though it's by no means equivalent to them, and corruption or disaster generally befall those who make the mistake of clinging to it as a model of dynastic rule or sexual union (Siegmunde and Sieglinde in Wagner's Ring). Incest taboos are there to prevent corruption of the line; they crop up all the time in revenge tragedies. But the tales about brothers and sisters that appeal to me address something simpler: how there is no such thing as a given intimacy in families, though we often insist on it and feel entitled to our version of a shared past. That sense of entitlement, and the way we use it to dodge the simple fact that we don't always like those to whom we are bound, is a source of endless pain and comedy."

1. The Book of Genesis.
Chapter Four: Cain and Abel. Or Birth of the Underdog. Abel gets the livestock, and the pets presumably, and poor Cain has to make do with a bag of seed. The Lord likes Abel's choice-cut offerings, but isn't as impressed by Cain's "fruit of the ground". Cain decides to do in Abel – no one likes a show-off – though it's not clear why and the economy of suggestion is terrific ("And Cain talked with his brother Abel"). The Lord has backed himself into a generative corner, however, and ends up having to protect Cain after the murder, because Adam and Eve haven't yet had Seth, their third child, so the future of the species depends at this point on the gloomy fratricide.

2. Sophocles, Antigone.
Antigone has two dead brothers. One is a Theban war hero, the other Polynices, a traitor whose body has been left to rot on the field of battle. When she performs burial rites for the latter in defiance of King Creon, she outrages the rule of law but satisfies the older, chthonic gods, who defend bonds of blood. Or so she claims. Her motivation is ambiguous: I think what she spots, and hates, is the triumphalism of city politics. Antigone may or may not have loved her brother. What she definitely loathes, however, is the state. She wants semi-divine Families back in power.

3. Jane Austen, Persuasion.
The conclusion to the delayed romance between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth is Austen's most satisfying – beautifully plotted and paced, and dependent for its powerful effect on the wonderful distractions throughout the novel of the sibling relationships. We could not feel as we do for Anne, and for her desire to break free, were we not convinced of her plight as the undervalued middle child. Elizabeth, her unmarried older sister, disdains her. Mary, younger and married, is a shrill comic gabbler, though perhaps not as silly as she appears. Her happiness for Anne, in the end, while it springs from vanity, comes as a touching surprise.

4. Laura Ingalls Wilder, The long winter.
This is the best of the Little House books, and a good psychological study as well as a terrific depiction of hardship and desolation. In the bitter winter of 1880-81, a South Dakotan community is cut off from food and supplies. Laura is naughtier than Mary, but she is also, for the moment, more useful: Mary, good and beloved, is blind. Laura can help her father twist hay to burn as fuel; she can grind wheat. Her wilfulness is turned to account. Responsibility brings with it authority, a future (she meets Almanzo, her husband-to-be), and compassion.

5. William Shakespeare, The tempest.
All the critical emphasis on the island, colonialism, and the is-it-in-his-head aspect of Prospero's realm, tends to overlook the fact that this is really a story about sibling usurpation and "favourites". Prospero, the Duke of Milan, has been displaced by his brother, Antonio. But the exiled sorcerer has done a fair amount of displacing himself, dumping the brutish Caliban, after he made a confused lunge at the magician's daughter Miranda, in favour of the sprite Ariel. Caliban and Ariel are best seen as pseudo-siblings, treated unequally by a capricious stepfather.

6. Davis Grubb, Night of the hunter.
The film (directed by Charles Laughton) of this great slice of mid-century American gothic has long overshadowed the source material, which is a shame. Grubb's novel is hawser-taut. John and Pearl Harper are the young children of the hanged Ben Harper. They know where $10,000 is hidden and the terrifying Preacher (Robert Mitchum in the movie) comes after them to get it. "Hansel and Gretel", I suppose, but lyrically transposed to Depression-era West Virginia.

7. Federico García Lorca, The house of Bernarda Alba.
The last instalment in Lorca's rural dramatic trilogy, Bernarda Alba is the horrible but compelling story of a widow whose diabolical morbidity ruins the lives of her six, sex-starved daughters. Pepe el Romano, a man never seen on stage, is interested in the rich, eldest daughter Angustias, but he's actually having an affair with the youngest, Adela. This isn't a family, it's a repressive regime – and in a regime, where spies are everywhere, even siblings will inform on each other. Emily Mann's new version of the play, currently showing at the Almeida in London, is set in Iran.

8. Henry James, Washington Square.
Like Austen's Persusasion, this is another example of a novel in which the main plot – Catherine Sloper's sad love for a handsome but feckless suitor – comes about, in part, because of resentment between siblings. Catherine's father, Dr Sloper, forbids her match; his sister, Mrs Penniman, is a willing pandar to the couple. The egotistical doctor enjoys inspiring terror in his silly sister. He is quite sure he can intimidate his daughter out of her infatuation in the same way. But he can't.

9. Nancy Mitford, The pursuit of love.
The Radlett girls, growing up in a windy manse, being hunted by their father on horseback, and dreaming of love and escape, are lightly fictionalised versions of the Mitford sisters, and Nancy's famous 1945 novel is one of the funniest depictions of childhood and young adulthood ever written. It's kind, sharp, and unafraid to look hard at disappointment. Mitford kills herself off at the end. "The great advantage of living in a large family is that early lesson of life's essential unfairness."

10. Shirley Jackson, We have always lived in the castle.
Constance and Merricat Blackwood are sisters and neighbourhood pariahs who live in the shadow of scandal: Constance was once arrested for poisoning the rest of the family. She has been acquitted, however, and seems to have settled down to a quiet life when a money-grabbing cousin knocks on the door. Merricat, whose fidelity to the idea of family unity no one is in a position to question, comes to her aid. Scary, mad and gleeful, Jackson's marvellous thriller is also a clever meditation on sibling protectiveness. And insanity.


Half a dozen of the BTL recommendations:

James Baldwin, Just above my head ("his epic novel about his fictional gay soul singer, Arthur Montana, told by his adoring elder brother").

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina ("The difficult relationship between Konstantin Levin and his brother Nikolai is one of the most moving I can think of").

Ian McEwan, The cement garden.

Wally Lamb, I know this much is true ("A story of identical twins, one of whom is schizophrenic, and their relationship. Excellent book, even though Oprah Winfrey put it in her 'Book Club' and it became a best-seller. No snobbery here - but why are your selections are predominantly 'literary' A-listers?")

Dorothy Baker, Cassandra at the wedding ("about a young woman, Cassandra, who is out to sabotage her twin sister's wedding").

Penelope Lively, Moon tiger. ("I have a younger sister and we make up lists of books to read that we can then talk about. We give each other five titles at a time that are linked in some way other than by genre; to expand our reading horizon. Moon tiger was part of a list with animals in the title. Imagine each of our separate horror when a book chosen in a brother-sister book group contained an incestuous relationship! Awkward! I've just had another near paralyzing shudder of disgust. Compelling to read though").

Editado: Dez 19, 2023, 6:53 am

Paul Mason's top 10 books about China
Guardian, 2012-02-22.

Paul Mason is the BBC's Newsnight economics editor. He is the author of Live working or die fighting : how the working class went global (2008), Meltdown : the end of the age of greed (2010) and, this year, Why it's kicking off everywhere : the new global revolutions. His first novel, Rare earth, has also just been published.

"If you're trying to understand China the language issues are secondary. The real problem is this is a country ruled through the suppression of historical memory. The Communists' legitimacy rests on the claim that only stultifying bureaucracy and patriarchy can keep it together; that it is "not ready" for democracy; indeed that it was never ready.

"But delve into Chinese literature, and history, and a more much more complex picture emerges. After the May Fourth 1919 protests, the intelligentsia embraced modernity and fought for it. The early 20th century produced the Chinese Dickens and a whole legion of Orwells. The late 20th century produced a generation of novelists whose sufferings during the Cultural Revolution pushed them towards everything from magic realism to cyberpunk.

"What follows are 10 books that influenced me in the writing of Rare earth: five must-read Chinese novels, five western-authored non-fiction books worth reading."

1. Lu Xun (transl. by Julia Lovell), The real story of Ah Q.
Between 1911 and 1927 China had a democratic revolution, then an abortive workers' revolution. In the process came a cultural revolution, of which novelist Lu Xun was the central figure. His fictional character Ah Q entered popular culture of China as a symbol of bureaucratic stupidity, self regard and obsession with hierarchy. Today, China is once again run by men of Ah Q's calibre, and Lu is out of favour.

2. Mo Yan, Big breasts and wide hips.
This is Mo's masterpiece: China's 20th century told symbolically through the story of one man, from birth to maturity; an adult who cannot wean himself from his mother's milk, assailed by wave upon wave of misfortune, poverty, war, imprisonment and finally release into the grubby capitalism of the 1990s. Mo Yan's China is a world of magic, sexual exploitation, ignorance and senseless violence.

3. Gao Xingjian, Soul mountain.
This fictionalised memoir of a journey down the Yangtse River was acclaimed as a landmark in Chinese literature when he won the Nobel prize in 2000. It's a novel of introspection and loneliness. Gao's plays have been banned from performance after the authorities condemned his drama about the Tiananmen Square massacre as "a fabrication" on the grounds that he had not been there at the time.

4. Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng (transl. by David Tod Roy), The plum in the golden vase.
This classical novel has spent much of the time since 1610 on the banned list, as pornographic. For once, the censors may have a point. It's a novel of manners, set amongst noblemen and concubines, which makes Fanny Hill look Presbyterian and the artefacts available in Ann Summers look distinctly unimaginative. You can trace the influence right through to modern Chinese fiction …

5. Xiaobo Wang, Wang in love and bondage.
… for example. Wang, who died in 1997, and was modern China's Genet. Haunted by his suffering during the Cultural Revolution, Wang's fiction is, well, strange: gay sadomasochism, casual satire against the state, surreal sex. When his character Wang, and paramour Chen, write a confession of their secret love affair, Wang admits his lover "looked like a koala bear. She admitted she was very excited that night and really felt like a koala bear." So it goes.

6. Jonathan Fenby, The Penguin history of modern China.
Jonathan Fenby's scholarly volume manages to escape the biggest pitfall of contemporary history writing about China, which is anachronism. Too many studies see the modern, stagnant polity and deferential culture as simply the return of normality in China, after an interruption that began on May Fourth 1919 and ended with the death of Mao. Fenby tells it as a story of modernity and democracy - attempted and defeated.

7. Philip Cunningham, Tiananmen moon : inside the Chinese student uprising of 1989.
This memoir of the 1989 student rebellion captures the senseless beauty of the rebellion from close up: Cunningham was a foreign student freelancing for the BBC, who knew many of the protesters and witnessed the main events. As events spiral out of control, his prose becomes filmic, poetic, disturbed.

8. Hsiao-Hung Pai, Chinese whispers : the true story behind Britain's hidden army of labour.
Investigative journalist Hsiao-Hung documents the lives of Chinese migrant workers in the UK, prey to a vivid, near surreal panoply of gangsters, traffickers, pimps and middlemen whose defining feature is that they appear to be invisible to the British authorities. She explains the push factor too: writing with brutal honesty about conditions for Chinese workers in the PRC, and the criminal networks all too ready to offer the solution of semi-slavery in Europe.

9. Charles A. Laughlin, Chinese reportage : the aesthetics of historical experience.
In the 1930s, China seemed headed for democracy, national liberation and modernity. On the periphery of Chinese communism and liberalism a strong tradition of reportage journalism developed, represented above all by Mao Dun, the Chinese Orwell. By the time Orwell got to Wigan Pier, dozens of Chinese writers had already journeyed to the depths of industrial squalor. Their work is intelligently explained and translated here by Yale professor Charles Laughlin.

10. Emily Honig, Sisters and strangers : women in the Shanghai cotton mills, 1919-1949.
A sidelong glimpse into the lost world of inter-war Shanghai. While Hollywood stars and jazz legends cavorted on the neon-lit river-front, the largely female factory workforce did something their great grand-daughters are still not able to: formed unions, marched out on strike and, temporarily, seized power. This (1986) study is part of a canon of Chinese social history rediscovered by western scholars.


And half a dozen from BTL:

Ma Jian, Beijing coma ("a novel banned in China").

Jonathan Spence, The Chan's great continent : China in western minds ("an endlessly fascinating work of non-fiction").

Cao Xueqin & Gao E, The story of the stone ("sometimes known as The dream of the red chamber, which I read in the admirable Penguin translation by David Hawkes and John Minford) is a truly wonderful 18th century novel of upper-class family life, full of incident and drama, with a huge cast of characters and fascinating detail about everyday life. It has rather more sex than one finds in novels regarded as "classics" in the Western canon but is none the worse for that. While parts of the story are full of a somewhat rumbustious humour it is in other places deeply moving. I can't recommend it too strongly").

Ma Jian, Red dust, and John Pomfret, Chinese lessons ("Both of these books deal with the period of the early 1980's when China began it's 'reform and opening'. ... Of the approx ten or so books I've read dealing with modern day China I regard these two as being pretty much the best of the bunch").

Peter Hessler, Country driving ("an excellent view of the forces at work in the Chinese economy and an insight into the lives that ordinary people lead").

梁曉聲 (Liang Xiao Sheng), "誰是醜陋的中國人" (Who is the ugly Chinese) ("An unflinching examination of the dark sides of contemporary Chinese culture, including the lack of compassion and regard for one's fellow citizens, the rife corruption infecting every facet of Chinese society, the genuflection before officialdom and power, etc. etc").

Edited to force the touchstone from Anne Summers (worthy, but ...) to Ann Summers (on the nose).

Editado: Dez 22, 2023, 5:10 pm

Shalom Auslander's top 10 comic tragedies
Guardian, 2012-02-29.

Shalom Auslander is the author of a story collection, Beware of God, and the memoir Foreskin's lament. His first novel, Hope : a tragedy, follows the travails of a man who discovers Anne Frank, still alive in the 21st century and working on the follow-up to her bestseller, living in his attic.

"There is a clothing brand in the United States named 'Life Is Good', a monstrous lie which is emblazoned on all their products. It is an enormously successful brand, and I'll tell you why: because life isn't good. 'They give birth astride of a grave,' wrote Samuel Beckett, 'the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.' He was only half-right; he left out the part about there being banana peels on the ground beside the grave, so that from the moment we are born, we slip, and drop our coffee, and everyone points at us and laughs, and then there's a Holocaust, and then, and only then, is it dark once more. Books that cry at the tragedy are easy and, in my view, lazy; these books look into the abyss, smile, and give the abyss the finger. That's much more difficult."

1. The Five Books of Moses.
Funniest book ever. We open on a man being told that his future is going to be awesome, if he'll just travel to Egypt. So he goes to Egypt, where his children are enslaved and put to hard labour. For 400 years. The family at last escapes, enters a forbidding desert and gets lost. For 40 years. Finally, five volumes later, they reach the promised home, only to be relentlessly attacked, invaded and chased away. The End. Hilarious. If this really is the writing of God, He and I are going to par-tee.

2. Voltaire, Candide.
A young couple dreaming of an idyllic future get chased from their home into a dark, forbidding, well, planet: everything sucks, everywhere. They are separated from each other, beaten, robbed, raped. There are wars, conflicts, disasters of every kind, and by the time the once-happy couple reunites at the end, his naive optimism is all but gone, and she is but a haggard, broken shadow of her former self. The End. Hilarious.

3. Evelyn Waugh, A handful of dust.
Waugh is a dark writer, God bless him, and this might be his darkest. Suffice it to say that if I tell you "The kid dies," it doesn't begin to ruin it. In a crumbling old Victorian home, a family crumbles while doing their best to maintain appearances and lie to themselves. There are affairs, shams, deceptions, death, and a version of Hell that involves being forced to read Charles Dickens for eternity. It doesn't get much worse – thus better – than this.

4. The Book of Job.
For 90% of this book, it is one of the darkest, funniest cris de coeur ever composed. A dick (God) decides to test a good man (Job), destroying all his property, killing his family and covering him with boils. Job loses it and goes off on a fantastic tirade against God, even as his friends tell him to watch his mouth or else. "Or else what?" Job asks. Then, the best part: God comes down and gives Job an ass-kicking, shouting at Job, declaring Himself so wonderful and amazing and awesome that Job will never know, all the while, in His arrogance, confirming every bad thing Job accused him of. It's awesome. Then they focus-grouped it or something, and tacked on an apology from Job and a bullshit happy ending. Publishers! Tear out the last 10 pages, and it rocks.

5. Hans Keilson, Comedy in a minor key.
Answering to their better natures, a young Dutch couple decide to hide a poor Jew from the Nazis. They put him upstairs, feel pretty damn good about themselves, and then he drops dead. Up there. Hilarious.

6. Joseph Heller, Catch-22.
If you don't already know this one, you should be reading a Murdoch-owned paper and screaming about socialism (which you also likely don't know anything about). Too long by half, perhaps, this book made it almost impossible to go to war without feeling just the tiniest bit silly. Unless you read Murdoch-owned papers. AWOL as a happy ending. Hilarious. Joseph's Something Happened is even darker, but I figured I'd start you off in the shallow end of the murky Heller pool. But read that one, too.

7. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the end of the night.
Nothing I've ever read attempting to describe this book has ever come close. Just read it. Trust me. It's so goddamned dark and pained and furious and sad and funny, you almost forgive Louis for having been a Nazi sympathiser.

8. Anything by Samuel Beckett.
Joyce, Beckett's mentor of sorts, was a dick. He knew everything, and wanted everyone to know he knew everything. Until Sam was 40, he tried to do the same thing. Then, one day, he realised he was the opposite of Joyce: he knew nothing. He didn't know why we are here, what we should do, how to go on, and what to think. Nothing mattered, nothing made sense, and, worst of all, he didn't have enough rope to hang himself. And so Beckett spent the next 40 years writing just that. Despair has, and never will be, any funnier.

9. Anything by Flannery O'Connor.
Guilt-ridden sons, overbearing religious mothers, serial killers, thieving pastors, one-legged men: Flannery was nuts, in the best possible way. There is darkness in these stories, a heavy palpable darkness, but if you're missing the comedy, you're missing the part Flan liked best: she never did readings, because she couldn't stop laughing.

10. Anything by Franz Kafka.
Everything Kafka wrote began as a joke, that Franz, in his wisdom, took very seriously, taking it, in the words of Milan Kundera, into the "dark depths of the joke". Singing mice, talking apes, men who turn into bugs, cops who arrest you for no reason. This was Kafka's hilarious idea: life itself is a joke, and a joke we have no choice but to take seriously. That, however, doesn't mean it isn't funny.


The column for 29 February 2012, the day I signed up to LibraryThing. I'm looking forward to my third Thingaversary this coming 29 February. Books and cheese will be involved. After all, a Thingaversary doesn't come around every year.

I hope that I've got this touchstone right. 'The Five Books of Moses' appears to be what English-language Christians call the Pentateuch, Jews call the Torah and Arab-language Muslims call the Tawrat.

Haleliwia. A book of the Bible with a touchstone to 'Bible author' or similar, rather than only to a bunch of modern commentaries.

A (baker's) half dozen BTL recommendations, when the commentators stop criticising each other for slagging off the column's author for writing, and the Guardian for publishing, in such a vulgar register:

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five ("Black comedy at its best. Rooted in tragedy and barely imaginable horror, it is irreverent, profound, surreal, and deeply moving").

Knutt Hamsson, Hunger ("a misanthropic tramp with delusions of grandeur and elevated literary pretentions starves to death").

Abdourahman A. Waberi, In the United States of Africa ("a brilliant laugh in the face of the narrow prejudices of the 'developed' world. In it, Waberi reverses the world order, making Africa the superpower and Caucasians refugees from war-torn, disease-ravaged and corruption-rife nations. The result is witty, memorable and shaming").

Hans Fallada, Little man, what now? ("comedy and tenderness served up during a very grim period of German history").

Bernard Malamud's short stories.

Magnus Mills, particularly Restraint of beasts, All quiet on the Orient Express and Explorers of a new century ("They are all comic deadpan wonders").

Matthew Kneale, English passengers ("another great black comedy. The Manx sailors are hilarious").

Dez 23, 2023, 6:57 am

Children's Books Top Tens / Derek Landy's top 10 villains
Guardian, 2012-03-01.

Derek Landy is the author of the bestselling Skulduggery Pleasant series and has written a special Skulduggery Pleasant for World Book Day – The end of the world. He is currently working on the final three books in the series. He has won numerous awards including the Irish book of the decade and the Red House book award.

"There's a largely inescapable rule about storytelling: the better the villain, the better the hero. There's a reason why Batman needs the Joker, or Indiana Jones needs all those Nazis - it's because without them to truly test his or her resourcefulness and skill, the hero would face a new adventure, stroll through that new adventure, and would probably be texting his mates the whole time.

Villains define the heroes. Sometimes those villains, like the Joker, have been set up as the perfect counterpoint to the good guy. Sometimes they're set up as the personification of a primal fear that lurks within us all. But the great villains, the truly great villains, exist beyond the page. They live on after you've closed the book. Here are 10 of my favourites..."

1. Voldemort in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.
But of course. How could such a list be compiled without the daddy of modern-day villains? He's everything a bad guy should be. He spends the first few books as a sinister figure in the background, always threatening to emerge... and then when he finally does return he's as evil as everyone has been saying. It's so satisfying when the reality lives up to the myth, isn't it? A truly great character, fuelled by hatred and bitterness, following an incredibly powerful agenda of ethnic cleansing. Classic.

2. Christopher Carrion in Clive Barker, The Books of Abarat series.
The Prince of Midnight in Clive Barker's Abarat, Carrion is a terrifying vision of a man whose nightmares swim in a glass collar that surrounds the lower half of his face. While he is prone to killing the odd henchman for failing him, there is something more to Carrion than mere evil - something incredibly sad and broken.

3. The Other Mother in Neil Gaiman, Coraline.
Some villains are bad. Some are scary. And some, and thankfully these are few, are truly terrifying. The Other Mother is one such villain. At first, she's the perfect substitute for Coraline's real mum, who is just too busy to pay attention. The Other Mother is her exact duplicate - apart from that creepy buttons-for-eyes thing, of course. But as Coraline spends more and more time with her, the cracks begin to show, and she discovers that this wonderful alternate life could have some serious downsides.

4. Mrs Coulter in Phillip Pullman, His Dark Materials series.
This was a hard one. Mrs Coulter: hero or villain? Certainly, she displays some redeeming characteristics as Phillip Pullman's classic trilogy unfolds, but for the most part she is power-hungry and cruel, and seeks to sever the link between children and their souls. I'm pretty sure that means she deserves to be on this list.

5. Sauron in J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings series.
I'm not entirely sure that The Lord of the Rings could be classed as children's literature, but The Hobbit certainly was, so Sauron gets his place. You all know him by now. Big guy. Wears armour. Turned into an eye. The Monocled One lusts after power for power's sake, and will crush anyone and anything who stands in his way. There's a whole lot of allegory going on here that impresses people who like allegories, but I just like the crushing bits.

6. Rictus in Clive Barker, The thief of always.
More of a henchman than the evil mastermind of the piece, Rictus appears to young Harvey Swick with an offer to take him away from his drab and boring life. Delivering Harvey to Holiday House, where his boss Mr Hood makes wishes come true, Rictus never ventures too far from the reader's mind. And as Harvey realises that not everything is as it first appears, we find ourselves awaiting the return of Rictus with dread- and not a little morbid anticipation.

7. The White Witch in C. S. Lewis, The chronicles of Narnia series.
No prizes for guessing that Her Imperial Majesty Jadis, Queen of Narnia would be sitting high and mighty somewhere on this list. Besides having the striking look and cold arrogance requisite of any great villain, she also knows just how tempting Turkish Delight can actually be. Cruel and vindictive, she commits the unforgiveable sin of never allowing Christmas to brighten the dark days of her hundred year winter. She secured her place in my top 10 years ago, when I saw the 1979 animated movie. Cutting Aslan's hair like that while he lay on the slab, doing her best to rob him of his dignity... oh I still hate her...

8. Count Olaf in Lemony Snicket, A series of unfortunate events series.
The books are amusing little jolts of oddball eccentricity, but the villain that the three Baudelaire children have to foil, time and again, resonates on a far more sinister level. A master of disguise with an army of nasty friends behind him, he is always watching and always plotting.

9. Archie Costello in Robert Cormier, The chocolate war, Beyond the chocolate war.
Poor old Jerry Renault. If only he'd sold the chocolates like all the other boys, he'd never have become the prime target of the Vigils, Trinity High School's secret society of students. Led by Archie, a highly intelligent master manipulator, the Vigils set out to ruin Jerry's life. He's bullied, intimidated and beaten up while Archie looks on in quiet, reserved amusement. Fascinating, corrupt, sadistic and yet utterly mesmerising, if Archie Costello was a real person you just know he'd be a politician by now.

10. Dolores Umbridge in J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter series.
Here we are, at number 10, with the most hateful of all the villains on this list. I would rate Dolores a more potent bad guy than even He Who Must Not Be Named, because she is a villain who can also exist in the real world. She's that passive-aggressive, condescending, patronising, conservative old witch that we've all met in our lives and had to bite our tongues whenever she simpers. One of Rowling's greatest triumphs is to make this odious little woman live and breathe. I can remember reading those pages and feeling my hate for her burn and grow. She loves pink cardigans and pictures of kittens and oh, how she loves her rules...


Pity the comments on the original column weren't turned on, as per usual with the Guardian's Children's Books Top Tens. Might have been an interesting discussion. Any thoughts on children's literature villains?

Dez 23, 2023, 7:33 am

>37 Cynfelyn: what >2 lilisin: said plus thanks for this list and commentaries. I'll be moving some stuff inside Mount TBR closer to the top.

Dez 23, 2023, 8:10 am

>37 Cynfelyn: One of my favourite lists so far! Diolch yn fawr ac Nadolig Llawen!

Dez 24, 2023, 10:02 am

Lloyd Shepherd's top 10 weird histories
Guardian, 2023-03-07.

"I've long been intrigued by the idea of the past as a fantasy world: a place where real things happened but also a place which is essentially beyond knowing; where worlds can be built and events created which play on what we think we know of what went before. My novel The English monster takes an awful historical event - the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811 - and provides a motive for them which is stolen from history, but which is also impossible.

"The trick is to do this without being a fraud. Inventing the past from scratch is simply invention. Re-inventing it within the confines of the known facts, as far as they can be known, is a much more creative and fruitful exercise.

"My list of books focuses on this central idea - that history is a fantasy which can be reestablished by the author - and takes it in all sorts of directions. An architect who might be a devil-worshipper; a codebreaker and a coder who between them create a new world; an imagined past where cultural artefacts and real events become so entwined that it is impossible to tell where one begins and the other ends - they're all here. I've called them collectively 'weird histories', but would want to remind those reading of the original meaning of weird as (according to the OED) relating to a person "claiming or thought to have the power to foresee and control future events; a witch, a wizard, a soothsayer." In other words, our future is created - culturally as well as politically - in our weird past."

1. Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor.
Few authors have immersed themselves in the past as fruitfully as Ackroyd, who adds a rich, palpable sense of place to his historical research (in this case, as in so much of his writing, the place is London). In Hawksmoor, Ackroyd connects the activities of brilliant 18th century architect Nicholas Dyer with modern police detective Nicholas Hawksmoor; the joke being, of course, that it was N. Hawksmoor who was the 18th century architect, assistant to Wren but also combiner of myths and traditions in strange, brooding buildings which seem to speak to more than they show.

2. Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon.
Stephenson's playful, fearless novel combines a second world war adventure story with mathematical puzzles and global geopolitics. It places three fictional characters - Lawrence Prichard Waterhouse, his grandson Randy, and American all-action hero Bobby Shaftoe - within a tale that describes how mathematics and cryptography created the digitised world. The novel includes a series of dazzling action sequences and hugely clever jokes; for instance, the sequence where Waterhouse and Alan Turing spend several pages knocking back and forth equations which are used to calculate the probability of the chain coming off Turing's bike. Stephenson repeated the dazzling tricks of Cryptonomicon with The Baroque Cycle, three massive tomes telling the story of the Royal Society, the beginning of science and the formation of the modern world through the creation of financial debt instruments (in these books, it is the invention of debt that allows England to defeat France - I wonder what Stephenson makes of that idea now). But read Cryptonomicon first.

3. Stephen King, 11.22.63.
Even those who don't like him - who consider him the white sliced bread of the modern novel - have to acknowledge King's mastery of longform storytelling, and the appeal of this enormous volume is that of observing a true narrative watchmaker at work. King takes a tired old theme - what if you could go back in time and stop something awful happening? - and then works it through with patience, charisma and hard-won skill. If H. G. Wells had written The time machine in the early 21st century, it would have looked something like this. It counts as a weird history, too, because it takes characters who have become two-dimensional myths - specifically, Lee Harvey Oswald - and makes them breathe again through the context of a modern narrator. Masterful.

4. Alan Moore, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
It's one thing to take a fictional character and place him or her inside a real history; it's quite another to take a set of other people's fictional characters and then place them within a world that combines real history with the cultural artefacts of a civilisation. Alan Moore, the dark clown prince of comics, took Wilhelmina Murray (married name: Mina Harker) from Dracula and hooked her up with Doctor Jekyll, Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, the Invisible Man and Orlando (among others) and, in a series of comics which become ever more elaborate and intricate, propels them through worlds of imagination that take their internal logic from the myths and stories of the last 200 years. My personal favourite is The black dossier, which finds Harker, Quartermain and Orlando on the run from Bulldog Drummond and James Bond, who themselves work for a sinister organisation which arose from the ashes of Ingsoc and is run by old boys from Billy Bunter's Greyfriars. It's as mad and wonderful as it sounds. Note: any reference to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen must come with a health warning to avoid the film version at all costs.

5. David Mitchell, The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
Not entirely "weird", although plenty of odd stuff happens, but here because it describes a past in such a resolutely modern way that the vanished worlds come alive again, brightly and brilliantly (I could just as easily have chosen Wolf Hall). It is set in 1799 in Nagasaki Harbour, where the island of Dejima is joined by a gate to the mainland and is the only connection between Japan and the outside world. The Dutch East India Company holds the trading rights on the island, and it sends along a new employee, Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk from the Netherlands who falls for the disfigured daughter of a samurai doctor. An extraordinary achievement of research and style, this is a book which describes a moment and a place in history that are so surpassingly odd as to be distinctly weird.

6. Len Deighton, SS-GB.
Unsurprisingly, given the binary good vs evil narrative of the second world war, "what if?" stories based on the period are legion. Robert Harris notably mined the seam with Fatherland, but my favourite is SS-GB. Douglas Archer (a name which resounds with both Bader and Agincourt) is a homicide detective working in Nazi-occupied Britain, who uncovers a London murder case which, inevitably, leads to the upper reaches of the Nazi occupation government. I read it as a teenager, and was horrorstruck by it.

7. Max Brooks, World War Z : an oral history of the zombie war.
Ah, zombies. Zombies, zombies, everywhere. Why exactly? Perhaps because zombie stories lend themselves particularly well to establishing a world which is both real and shockingly different; zombies are like us, of course, only much, much weirder. World War Z is here as a pastiche history of the Zombie War, which (as I'm sure you remember) came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Brooks creates a set of invented interviews and documents to describe the growth of the zombie plague, and the dispassionate documentation works brilliantly as a means of establishing and then slowly ratcheting up horror. Zombies work in comics and movies, in books not so much - apart from this one.

8. Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates.
Powers struck commercial gold with his novel On Stranger Tides, which was used as the source material for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film. But he's made his name by writing weird histories, specifically as I've defined them: taking documented historical events and then adding a supernatural twist to them, either to fill a gap or to explain the inexplicable. In The Anubis Gates he goes to town on this idea, his hero a modern Coleridge scholar who finds himself trapped in 1810 battling a cabal of magicians and ancient Egyptian gods against the background of rising British military power in the Middle East.

9. Kazuo Ishiguro, Never let me go.
Kazuo Ishiguro is the master of small things beautifully described, and in Never Let Me Go he takes a well-established archetype - a boarding school in the English countryside - and slowly subverts it. His characters live in a world which is quintessentially English and yet somehow exquisitely different. The location of this difference gradually becomes apparent, and allows Ishiguro to ask a simple question: what would a world look like in which a major biological breakthrough had happened in the recent past? His world is one reeling from an ethical explosion which works its way out, beautifully and very, very sadly.

10. Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, The holy blood and the holy grail.
No weird history is as satisfying as a conspiracy, and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail is here as the archetypal expression of perhaps the biggest conspiracy of all, one which connects popes, scientists, presidents, prime ministers, Christ and even Dan Brown in a chain of association ("what if this meant this?") so elaborate and persistent one can only admire the authors' stamina. The core assertion - that Christ did not die on the cross, but sired a line of "children of God" who are protected to this day by a secret society - was taken by Brown as the engine of The Da Vinci Code, featuring a character called Leigh Teabing whose name, of course, is an amalgum of two of the authors of The Holy Bloody and the Holy Grail. Brown was sued by the authors for lifting whole parts of their book for his own; the presiding judge said this could not be plagiarism, as they had presented their book as a history, the facts of which should be available to other authors to use. The irony of this is so exquisite Christ himself would crack a smile.


Wot a lot o' touchstones. And the only one that needed forcing was 1984's Ingsoc.

Well, that's dis-spiriting. I already knew that The Lord of the Rings was new-series no. 2, which is fair enough, but to find that The Da Vinci Code, real name Robert Langdon, is new-series no. 4, somehow just takes the shine off it.

The regulatory half a dozen BTL recommendations. For the rest click through as usual from the word 'Guardian' at the top of the message to the original column:

"If you're placing an imaginary character in a historical setting and playing around with the possibilities then look no further then the Flashman novels of George MacDonald Fraser. Great stories and also very revealing on parts of British history that are often overlooked."

Kim Stanley Robinson, Years of rice and salt ("It is both an alternative history of the world. What if Europe was wiped out by the Black Death? And a story about the passage of souls through reincarnation and how changing beliefs over time effect the cycle").

William Gibson, The difference engine?.

Philip K. Dick, Man in the high castle ("deserves at least a mention here").

Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials trilogy ("While of course technically it's not an alternate past but a co-existing alternate universe, the world ruled by the orthodoxy of the Magisterium, the alternate Oxford, the steampunk/Jules Verne vision of an alternate technological development - surely these things are square in the sights of the kind of thing you're aiming at?")

Philip José Farmer ("has done some interesting wrinkles on the idea. In the Riverworld series everyone who's ever lived is resurrected together, so you get some strange interactions: Richard Burton with Alice Liddell, Cyrano de Bergerac with Mark Twain's wife, ... As I remember, one of the spin-off stories featured Jesus and Tom Mix").

And, finally, just in case I don't get to post tomorrow, Nadolig llawen i chi i gyd.

Editado: Dez 27, 2023, 8:04 am

Jeffrey Archer's top 10 romans-fleuves
Guardian, 2012-03-14.

Roman-fleuve sounds a very French sort of thing. Britannica defines it as "a series of novels, each one complete in itself, that deals with an era of national life, or successive generations of a family". There are of course French examples, but the novels I've chosen are all English, with the kind of solid storytelling and unforgettable characters that inspire me.

And I can't talk about romans-fleuves, without mentioning my own five-book series, the Clifton chronicles. The first book, Only time will tell, opens in 1920 and takes Harry Clifton, a docker's son from the backstreets of Bristol, through to Oxford University, after he wins a scholarship because of his magnificent singing voice. He meets Emma at the age of nine, and she decides they will be married. And although, years later, they reach the church, the marriage never takes place. Book two, The sins of the father (published this week), picks up the Clifton and Barrington family saga and takes Harry and Giles through to the end of the second world war, when they have to make decisions that will affect the rest of their lives.

1. Anthony Trollope, The Palliser novels.
The Oxford companion to English literature tells me that "Trollope established the novel sequence in English fiction". Many would choose his Barsetshire novels for a survey of this sort, but I've preferred the six Palliser novels because the Palace of Westminster is more to my taste than the cathedral close. A large cast of characters is common to all six novels, but Trollope ensures that each can be enjoyed on its own. Trollope stood unsuccessfully for parliament and did not enjoy the experience – and he uses this first-hand knowledge with great verve.

2. John Galsworthy, The Forsyte saga.
The Forsyte Saga was the greatest success of Galsworthy's career, and largely responsible for the exceptional honours he received – among them the Nobel prize for literature in 1932 and the Order of Merit in 1929. Much of the social detail has dated, and the passing of time has made some of his characters' concerns less immediate, but the characters themselves are recognisable and compelling, and Galsworthy still hits his targets – materialism, selfishness, insensitivity, possessiveness – with force and accuracy. And the first mini-series set new standards for television drama.

3. Evelyn Waugh, The Sword of honour trilogy.
Recognisably based on some of the author's own experiences in the second world war, this trilogy has at its centre the figure of Guy Crouchback, an upper-class English Catholic in his 30s. The failure of his marriage and a general weariness with life disposes him to see war as a noble thing and a welcome opportunity to do something worthwhile with himself. Over the three novels, Waugh deftly strips him of this illusion in ways that are tragic, touching and savagely funny. Probably the best thing in English literature to be inspired by the second world war.

4. C. P. Snow, Strangers and brothers.
The 11 novels that make up Strangers and brothers appeared between 1940 and 1970, and trace the career of Lewis Eliot, a barrister, who progresses from provincial origins to positions of influence in national life; this progression to some extent mirrors Snow's own career. Perhaps the most successful of the novels are The masters, a well-informed account of the election of a new head of a Cambridge college, and The affair, about a scientific scandal. The title of one of the novels introduced a useful phrase into the language: "the corridors of power". Together, the sequence presents a vivid portrait of British academic, political and public life. Snow was that rare thing, a scientist and novelist.

5. C. S. Forester, The Hornblower novels.
These 11 magnificent novels trace the naval career of Horatio Hornblower, from teenage beginnings to his appointment as admiral and award of a peerage. Along the way, Forester's mastery of his subject tells us much about British history and society in the 18th and 19th centuries. Hornblower's character is plausibly developed, and Forester's handling of the war scenes is skilful and exciting. Like the work of all great storytellers, it transfers well to the screen.

6. Anthony Powell, A dance to the music of time.
Twelve novels make up A dance to the music of time, probably the most ambitious scheme in postwar English writing. Through the eyes of the narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, we see the English upper-class and bohemian life as it was lived by a generation growing up in the shadow of the great war and then grappling with the horrors of another conflict and the profound social changes of a postwar world: the years covered range from the 1920s to the 1970s. Powell's characterisation and dialogue are deft, his eye for detail is sharp, and he is often very funny, but in truth I found it quite a struggle.

7. R. F. Delderfield, The Swann saga.
Delderfield was a particularly skilful writer of multi-volume sequences. The three-book A horseman riding by was a great success in the 1960s, and he followed it between 1970 and 1973 with the three volumes of the "Swann saga": God is an Englishman, Theirs was the kingdom and Give us this day. The story of the Swann family and their haulage business runs from the latter half of the 19th century into the early 20th, and the pace never flags.

8. John le Carré, The Smiley trilogy.
In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The honourable schoolboy and Smiley's people, Le Carré achieves a perfect blend between the novel of manners and the sophisticated spy story. Future generations will be able to learn all they need to know about the attitudes and obsessions of a certain part of British society in the 1960s and 1970s from these novels. At the centre stands the unforgettable character of George Smiley – decent, intelligent, thoughtful, relentless, self-questioning – who uncovers a mole in the secret service, attempts to restore the service's prestige and takes on the great Soviet spymaster Karla. When it comes to spies, Le Carré has no equal.

9. Paul Scott, The Raj quartet.
You could fill a good few shelves with novels concerned with the relationship between Britain and India, but not many would come close to Paul Scott's achievement. Covering a fairly short time-span (the rape that is the key event in the first novel takes place in 1942, and the series ends only five years later, with the partition of India in 1947), Scott nevertheless probes deeply into his story's conflicts of cultures and loyalties. Ronald Merrick, presented by Scott as an epitome of what was wrong with British rule in India, is a memorable villain, but generally Scott's treatment of his characters is insightful and even-handed.

10. Arnold Bennett, The Clayhanger novels.
Bennett was a contemporary of Galsworthy, and the four novels that make up his Clayhanger series were published between 1910 and 1918, at the same time as the Forstye Saga was appearing. Bennett's main literary inspiration was the writing of French realists such as Zola and Balzac, but nothing could be more English than the industrial Staffordshire setting of the Clayhanger novels. They are rich in memorable characters but the principal ones are Darius Clayhanger, a domineering self-made man; his son Edwin, whose ambition to become an architect is frustrated by his father; and Hilda Lessways, whom Edwin loves and who becomes the innocent victim of a bigamous marriage. Good old-fashioned storytelling.


Having demolished enough pigs in blankets to pull Hogfather's sleigh, let's get back in harness ourselves. Even though it's still a fair while until Hogswatchnight itself.

Jeffrey Archer! Ha!! Now there's a name from the past, with a thoroughly besmirched escutcheon! Although, looking back from the vantage point of late 2023 ...

Perhaps someone who knows their John Galsworthy would care to decide whether LT really needs both The Forsyte Saga ( and The Forsyte Chronicles series?

I've said it before, and I stand by it: the 1979 BBC TV mini-series Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) and Smiley's people ( (1982) were the perfect television. They capture the grubbiness of the early Thatcher years perfectly.

And the obligatory sample of half a dozen BTL comments and recommendations. Go to the original column for the full 90+ comments, although a fair few of them relate to Archer himself and the concept of restorative justice:

Asterix ("Definitely a Roman flavour if not fleuve").

Yukio Mishima, The Sea of Fertility.

Robertson Davies ("He wrote four seperate trilogies (the last unfinished), and the Deptford Trilogy in particular is brilliant. Anyone who likes John Irving will see where he got his inspiration (and perhaps pinched a lot of his ideas...)").

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman and Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander ("two obvious choices").

"Never heard of the Clifton novels; strange that a poor Bristolian boy should carry the name of the poshest district of the city, though."

James Herriot, All creatures great and small ("does James Herriot count? Loved them as a kid").


Edited to work around a couple of unco-operative series touchstones.

Dez 28, 2023, 9:23 am

Glenn Patterson's top 10 Belfast books
Guardian, 2012-03-28.

The first "Belfast" book I read was Harry's game, by Gerald Seymour, who had been an ITN correspondent here for a time in the 1970s. Back then my city seemed to be the preserve of other people's thrillers.

Fortunately, not long afterwards, I heard Frank Ormsby read in the Ulster Museum, across the road from my school, up the road from the school where Frank himself taught: poems that spoke of "the knowledge of the city / At a different angle". It was only when I left school and started work in a city-centre bookshop, however, that I realised how much catching up I had to do, not just the poets, but the critics, the geographers, the historians – social, political, architectural – and, yes, the popular as well as the literary novelists, tourist and indigenous. And, of course, no sooner did I think I had caught up than another lot came along. The team below therefore are picked from a large squad any member of which could, with ease, slot in to the first 10.

1. Michael McLaverty, Call my brother back.
Last year 15 local writers, interviewed for an app called Literary Belfast, were asked to name a writer now dead whose work had influenced them. (Worryingly, for all concerned, one named Van Morrison.) Michael McLaverty topped the list. Set in the Troubles of the 1920s, Call my brother back is in many ways a model for novels of the later Troubles, approaching political violence through the experience of one family, the MacNeills. Amid the police raids and gun battles, the passages that linger are of school life, of kickabouts on waste ground and Sunday walks in the mountains above west Belfast.

2. Robert McLiam Wilson, Eureka Street.
"All stories are love stories," begins Robert McLiam Wilson's third novel. The narrator is Jake Jackson, whose English girlfriend has gone back to "somewhere where politics meant fiscal arguments, health debates, local taxation", but it is Jake's friend Chucky Lurgan, of No 42 Eureka Street, who steals the show. Chucky, a Protestant, the latest in a long line of Lurgan "starfuckers", has his life transformed by a trip to Dublin to see the pope. His great-grandfather once met Dickens and that author's influence is all over this most affectionate and outraged depiction of the city.

3. Ciaran Carson, Belfast confetti.
Ciaran Carson is a poet, novelist, and writer of less easily categorised books such as The star factory – an associative, at times hallucinatory exploration of the city and its lore – but this collection from 1990 just edges it for me as his best take on Belfast (at least to date) and with its motif of unreliable maps undermines some of the more essentialist readings of (and writings on) the city.

4. Charles Brett, Buildings of Belfast, 1700-1914.
First published in 1966, three years before the annus horribilis that was 1969 (though anni '70 through to '75 were if anything horribiliores), it guides the reader around a Belfast that still retains much of its Georgian and early Victorian character. The revised edition, which is the one I have, published in 1986, has footnotes cataloguing the fate of the buildings: "bombed", "bombed", "demolished …" Come to think of it, I bought my copy of the book – and Jonathan Bardon's equally essential Belfast : an illustrated history – from a bomb-damage sale.

5. Forrest Reid, Following darkness.
Dedicated to E. M. Forster, a friend and near anagram, Following darkness is supposed to have influenced Joyce's Portrait of the artist, although the novel that it most prefigures is Brideshead revisited, with "Derryaghy", a County Down big house, introducing young Peter Waring to a world closed to his national schoolmaster father. The novel comes alive, though, in Belfast and the shop on Cromac Street over which Peter lodges with his aunt and uncle, his cousins George (possessor of an early porn stash) and Alice, who is given to putting dead mice in the soup.

6. Stephen Gilbert, Monkeyface.
One of the strangest of all Belfast novels, by one of its most overlooked writers, about an ape-boy brought back from a South American jungle to the east Belfast suburbs. Gilbert – a protege of Forrest Reid – also wrote Ratman's notebooks, filmed as 'Willard' (Gilbert himself wrote the screenplay), thereby completing an unlikely three degrees of separation between Michael Jackson, who sang the theme song, Ben, and the author of Howard's End.

7. Bill Kirk, The Klondyke Bar.
A photographic "day in the (1970s) life" of a bar in working-class Sandy Row, populating the kind of building that Charles Brett wrote about. The Klondyke suffered the fate of many of those buildings in being bombed by the IRA, on 30 January 1976. John Smiley, who appears in several photos, died in the blast. He stands for all those killed in the destruction of our "locals" at the hands of gunmen and bombers of all persuasions.

8. Brian Moore, The emperor of ice cream.
Moore by almost any measure is Belfast's most successful novelist. He spent his entire writing life in Montreal and California, but returned regularly to his native city in his novels, in this particular novel very close to his own experience as a youthful ARP warden in north Belfast. War for Gavin Burke is "freedom from futures" – an opportunity for licence, or as much licence as the local girls ("nuns in mufti") will afford him. And then the Luftwaffe come.

9. Patricia Craig, The Belfast anthology.
An attempt by one of Belfast's finest critics (and biographer of Brian Moore) to build up a "composite picture of the city, its atmosphere, exigencies and eccentricities". Most of the writers already mentioned feature, including Van Morrison. It's only the fact of his not being dead that ought to have excluded him from the app: 'Astral weeks' is one of the great Belfast literary works. Also represented are visitors such as Paul Theroux. "It was so awful," he writes in The kingdom by the sea, "I wanted to stay."

10. Lucy Caldwell, Where they were missed.
Maybe it's because we're hemmed in by hills, or maybe it's just that we're never done trying to get the measure of ourselves, but it's remarkable how many Belfast novels include a view across the city. Usually Cave Hill is the vantage point, but this first novel by one of the city's rising stars ends with a homecoming from a different angle, the Craigantlet hills (C. S. Lewis grew up at the foot of them) and a "sensation of falling, in sudden relief, towards the city's gentle lights". Stick that in your pipe, Paul Theroux.


Full disclosure: I've never been to Belfast, Northern Ireland, or anywhere in Ulster for that matter. The closest I've got was Leitrim on a hire boat on the River Shannon this last summer; thoroughly recommended. Think the reedy rivers of the Norfolk Broads linking some of the larger Scottish lochs, all set in the English Lake District hills ... with pubs. But (true story) around 2015 my daughter went on a week's trip to Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, a town at least as touched by the Troubles as Belfast. When she got back I asked if she had seen any signs left over from the Troubles? "What's the Troubles?" They may as well never have happened for all the younger half of the British population knows.

Only seventeen BTL comments, among them:

"I know it's not "literature" but two of the most exciting crime writers around ground their novels in Belfast - I'm thinking in particular of Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville."

Eoin McNamee, The blue tango ("a darkly evocative book").

Brian Moore, The lonely passion of Miss Judith Hearne ("full of shattered, hopeless souls").

Cathal O'Byrne, As I roved out.

"Ooh a whole thread about books on Belfast! Beyond delicious.. I much preferred Robert McLiam Wilson's Ripley Bogle to Eureka Street, which is fun but flabby. Also I'd mention Ring Road by Ian Sansom, which I read yonks ago but remember enjoying hugely. And another vote for Judith Hearne, though I haven't read the Emperor of ice cream. Must look it out.."

"Eureka Street is a decidedly dodgy/pointless novel and the Feast of Lupercal is far and away Brian Moore's best work. What about A bomb and a girl by Hugh Shearman to lighten the mood a bit?"

Jan 2, 9:08 am

Children's Books Top Tens / Tony Bradman's top 10 father and son stories
Guardian, 2012-03-29.

Tony Bradman is a children's author who has written poetry, picture book texts and fiction. In recent years he has co-authored a number of titles with his son Tom Bradman – the Space School series, Spartacus, a dramatised biography for kids, and Already dead, a zombie apocalypse play for secondary schools. Their latest co-production is Titanic : death on the water, a short novel for children about one boy's experience on the most famous ship in history.

"I will confess to having something of an interest in stories about fathers and sons, perhaps even an obsession. How could it be otherwise when I was lucky enough to be given by my parents that essential qualification for becoming a writer, a dysfunctional family background? I won't bore you with all the details – all you need to know is that my parents divorced in the early 1960s, long before it became a commonplace, and I didn't see my father for several years. Looking back I now realise this primed me to seek out stories about fathers and sons, masculinity, men, what it meant to be male and so on.

Anyway, I'm pleased to report that I've 'worked through' the 'issues around' my childhood and am now a fully functioning member of society, although being a writer does mean I'm probably still a little weird. I am a paterfamilias myself these days, with a lovely, long-suffering wife, two grown-up daughters with children of their own, and a son who announced a while back that he wanted to be... a writer. Once I'd got over the shock and disappointment (I'd been hoping for 'my son the barrister', or even 'my son the accountant' – and I don't remember his childhood being that dysfunctional), I began to see this might be a way for me to get a bit more time off. So now my son and I write together, and I like to think it's been a great experience for both of us.

So here is my top 10 list of father and son stories. They're all my favourites, by the way, not Tom's* – although I do know he's enjoyed several of these too. I discovered while I was putting this list together that dads often don't get a good press in stories – they tend to be mad or bad or missing, presumed dodgy/or misbehaving. But over the years I've managed to find a few fathers who might make good role models, the kind of men I want to be like when I grow up.

*I've talked to Tom, and he came up with Dune, with Duke Atreides and his son Paul; Game of Thrones with any number of fathers and sons; and Terry Pratchett's Mort, in which Death becomes a 'father figure' to the story's hero. But as senior partner here I'm going to ignore all of those in favour of my own selection."

1. Odysseus and Telemachus in The Odyssey.
Where else to start but with the Daddy of all missing father stories? Homer's Iliad is full of manly stuff, but as a boy I was drawn to The Odyssey and its tale of a son waiting for a father who went out one day with his mates and didn't come back for 20 years. Most people focus on the romantic idea of faithful Penelope waiting for Odysseus to return. Telemachus is far more interesting, though. He's the one who holds it together at home for his mum, seeks out his father, then bonds with dad by helping him to slaughter the suitors. If I were Telemachus I'd be asking why mum hadn't seen them off in the first place, and how come dad had dallied so long with all those comely, bewitching girls on the way home? Telemachus, of course, is far too well-behaved to do any such thing.

2. Rosemary Sutcliff, The eagle of the Ninth.
The eagle of the Ninth was published in 1954, the year I was born, but I must have read it for the first time when I was 12 or 13, just after my Tolkien phase. Like many other Sutcliff fans, I was gripped by this story of a young man travelling from the soft south of Roman Britain to the wilds beyond Hadrian's Wall where the Scots were still very independent indeed. Marcus Flavius Aquila is on a mission to find out what happened to his father's legion, the 9th Hispana, which marched north into the Caledonian mists and was never seen again. Of course Marcus is really trying to find out what happened to his father, and whether his dad died nobly or not. Essential reading for all boys worried that their absent dad might not always have been a paragon of virtue.

3. Russell Hoban, The mouse and his child.
A strange one this, but then strangeness is a defining quality of all Hoban's work. The mouse and his child is probably his second best-known book after Riddley Walker (which also features a boy and his dad, albeit a dead one). The eponymous heroes make up a single clockwork toy, a father mouse and his son, who are exiled from the safety of the toy shop when they are bought, and find themselves on a quest for the beautiful doll's house they once knew. It's a magical-realist tale, full of memorable characters and philosophy, but what stayed with me after I'd read it was the tender love of a father for his son.

4. Richmal Crompton, The William Stories.
Naturally as a young reader I always identified with Richmal Crompton's William, John Lennon's favourite fictional character. Who wouldn't? William has no equal for unbridled anarchy, and the way in which he blasts through the adult world's attempts to control him is a joy. Unless you happen to be an adult, of course. It was disconcerting (to say the least) to re-read William's adventures when I had become a parent and to find myself in deepest empathy with Brown père. I too had given lectures about behaviour, rolled my eyes and sought for strength in the face of childish mayhem. But what is most appealing about Brown senior is his tacit admission that he was once like William too.

5. Charles Dickens, A Christmas carol.
Scrooge is the headline act in our most famous Christmas story, and quite rightly so. Those of us interested in father-son relationships will however linger over the scenes featuring Scrooge's oppressed office slave Bob Cratchit, and Bob's son, Tiny Tim. Yes, Tiny Tim is deeply irritating, and I'm surprised there hasn't been a Hollywood remake in which Bob goes postal and takes Scrooge out with a few well-placed rounds before the ghosts can do their work. But as Pink Floyd once said, "hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way" and, in my view, Bob's willingness to put up with almost anything in his working life to ensure he can take care of his family makes him a real hero. Probably in his creator's too, as the young Charles ended up a slave in a blacking factory because he was unlucky enough to be the son of a dodgy, deadbeat dad.

6. Cormac McCarthy, The road.
My son thinks I'm a total wimp as I can only watch things like The walking dead and 28 days later from between my fingers, especially if any children are in danger. So you can imagine just how difficult I found The road, Cormac McCarthy's vision of a devastated, post-apocalyptic future in which a father is utterly determined to save his nine-year-old son from a fate much worse than anything Tiny Tim might encounter, the options being starvation or ending up as kebabs for some particularly nasty cannibals. The writing is extraordinary, and although it's clearly a fable, the characters are so clearly drawn they stay with you long after you finish the book. I've got the DVD of the film version, and one of these days I'll get around to watching it. But not just yet.

7. Michelle Magorian, Goodnight Mr Tom.
This could be construed as cheating, I suppose – the two main characters have no blood relationship. But I've decided to accord Tom Oakley honorary status as an adoptive dad, and like many men in that position he performs much better than some who are genetically linked to their offspring. Tom has an evacuee foisted on him in September 1939, young Willie, a boy who comes from the kind of poor London background in which plain old-fashioned neglect on its own would have been better than the treatment he actually received. Tom's heart was broken by the death of his wife, but gradually he and the boy draw each other out. Add a great plot and you have a guaranteed tear-jerking classic.

8. Blake Morrison, And when did you last see your father?.
Cheating again, I suppose, as this is not fiction but a classic memoir, an examination of a father by his son. However, I read it practically in one sitting, gripped by the unfolding of an account that uses all the arts of storytelling to keep you turning those pages. Blake Morrison re-creates his difficult, fascinating father Arthur and explores their relationship, and few men could read it without recognising themselves or their own dads. It's particularly fine on the embarrassment engendered by dads, an emotion that morphs into hostility and eventually some kind of understanding. That's what I'm hoping for, anyway.

9. William Shakespeare, Henry IV Parts I and II.
Fathers and sons is not a theme which immediately leaps to mind when thinking about Shakespeare, which is slightly odd as like Dickens, Will was also the son of a dodgy, bankrupt dad. Hamlet's story is really all about the boy, and King Lear is about fathers and daughters, another theme entirely. It's definitely there in the two parts of Henry IV, though. Prince Hal is William Brown writ large, and his father's disapproval of Hal's dedication to sowing his wild oats casts a long shadow over both plays. Falstaff of course is a substitute father and Hal's rejection of him comes in time for a death-bed reconciliation with his proper dad, which Hal almost spoils by pinching the crown before dad is dead. But it works out OK, so Hal doesn't need any family therapy or counselling.

10. Homer and Bart Simpson.
Last but not least, we return to Homer, but not the one who wrote The Odyssey. Generally Tom and I get on very well when we're working on a book, but there have been times when he's been grumpy after I've changed the plot we'd agreed on without consulting him. I don't see what the problem is, but our conversations tend to fall into a Simpsons-like pattern – "Eat my shorts, old man!" "Why, you little..." I haven't tried to strangle him for a while – the last time I did he pinned me painfully to the floor – but I think our relationship has parallels with that of Homer and Bart. Deep down, whatever happens, Homer and Bart are pretty close. Just so long as they don't start working together.


1. Odysseus and Telemachus in The Odyssey.
I'm going to disagree with Bradman's "Telemachus is far more interesting, though. He's the one who holds it together at home for his mum, seeks out his father, then bonds with dad by helping him to slaughter the suitors." I go with Natalie Haynes in her BBC Radio 4 series 'Natalie Haynes stands up for the classics'. She has two cracks at the Odyssey, from the standpoints of Penelope and Odysseus, and decides that Telemachus is a bit of a prick, what with telling his mother that a woman's place is with her slaves, weaving, and that without his mother's active protection, one of the suitors would certainly have long since killed him, clearing an impediment off the board. And he can hardly have been holding home together if he can be spared to go off gallivanting after daddy-kins. As I say, a Bronze Age Hooray Henry.

As per usual with the Children's Books Top Tens, there are no BTL comments.

Jan 4, 7:47 am

Michael Crummey's top 10 literary feuds
Guardian, 2012-04-04.

"Everyone knows how futile a feud is, how ridiculous and useless and nearly impossible to resist. A feud is as primal and irrational as falling in love, which is why there's no talking to people involved in one.

"In the grip of that idiosyncratic illness, feuders are immune to logic, threats, entreaties, bribes, empathy, and common sense. Like love, a feud creates a parallel universe where normal rules don't apply. And, like love, it makes for compelling reading – you might as well try to look away from a traffic accident."

1. John Milton, Paradise lost.
The mother of all feuds: God v Satan and his rebel angels who would rather rule in hell then serve in heaven. This is arguably the greatest poem in the English language, though it fails in its stated purpose to "justify the ways of God to man". The bad boy is the star here: eloquent, headstrong, and compelling. Milton's God, by contrast, is legalistic, domineering and dry as dust.

2. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet.
You can't discuss feuds without a nod to the Montagues and Capulets. The teen romance in Romeo and Juliet is, let's face it, a little hokey. Shakespeare's depiction of two families allowing old grudges to destroy their own children, on the other hand, is visceral. The spat in Milton's Paradise lost is a bit too highbrow to get worked up about, but this one is a kick to the gut.

3. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick.
Feuders have more than a whiff of religious fanaticism about them, and Melville's Captain Ahab is one of the fiercest in literature. His pursuit of the whale to avenge the loss of his leg (an injury he's convinced was wilfully inflicted by Moby Dick) becomes an all-consuming madness. And Ahab has the seductive gifts of a fundamentalist preacher, leading even the most level-headed and sane among his crew to adopt the madness as their own. Thar she blows!

4. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.
The real monster in Shelley's novel is the scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who believes himself capable of creating and controlling life itself. When his creation turns on the creator, killing family and friends out of loneliness and rage, Frankenstein is forced to seek his own revenge. His trek across the frozen arctic in an attempt to destroy his experiment-gone-wrong reads a little like Ahab's pursuit of Moby Dick. All feuds have their Dr Frankenstein, someone who plays God at the outset, taking a risky course of action without considering the ramifications. And the consequences are never simple or clean; inevitably, they end up with a monster on their hands.

5. Cormac McCarthy, Blood meridian.
Set on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, McCarthy's novel follows the fortunes of the Glanton gang, a clan of misfits and psychopaths hired to clear the west of its indigenous inhabitants. It's an unrelenting chronicle of violence and degradation that refuses to take sides or moralise. The thin line between victim and perpetrator disappears early in the story, and the Glanton gang descend into a hell of their own making. As in all blood feuds, violence begets violence until it becomes the end itself. McCarthy fashions a perversely lyrical ballet of the carnage.

6. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights.
The desire to "get even" is as ancient as it is childish. Scratch the surface of an ongoing feud, and like as not you'll find a youngster with hurt feelings. Emily Brontë's densely-layered narrative is famous for the love story at its centre. But it's driven by acts of tit-for-tat retribution between Heathcliff and various members of the Earnshaw and Linton families that have their genesis in irremediable childhood grievances.

7. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead.
Gilead is the story of three generations of preachers in the American midwest from the civil war to the 1950s. The patriarch is a firebrand abolitionist who wore a pistol in the pulpit and lost an eye fighting for the Union cause, his son and grandson are devoted pacifists. The feud is a bloodless conflict of opposing convictions, though the wounds inflicted are real and some are permanent. A book about the infinite possibilities, and the human limitations, of forgiveness.

8. Mark Twain, The adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
It's only one episode in Mark Twain's picaresque set in the American south, but the feud between the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons that briefly engulfs Huck Finn's story is a classic. Sparked by the elopement of a Grangerford daughter with a Shepherdson son, it reaches a head with a gun battle in which family members on both sides are killed. Gives a totally different twist to the notion of a "shotgun wedding".

9. Michael Ondaatje, The collected works of Billy the Kid.
A collage of poetry and short narrative, stream of consciousness, fake archival photos and imagined conversation, Billy the Kid is a hypnotic take on the legendary wild west gunfighter. It is by turns surreal, laconic and bizarrely hilarious. At the heart of the book is the feud between Billy and his nemesis, the hyper-intellectual and ruthless lawman Pat Garrett. Favourite line (from a dying gunfighter being pecked at by a hen in the street): "Get away from me, yer stupid chicken."

10. Mario Puzo, The Godfather.
The book that spawned the movie that spawned the mafia "whack" genre in American film. Killing is just business for the Corleone family until an attempt on the Godfather's life by the rival Tattaglia clan makes it personal.


Half a dozen BTL recommendations and comments:

Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty.

Christopher Priest, The prestige.

Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast: Abiatha Swelter and Flay.

"Realize it's a list of fictional feuds, but when I saw the headline I was expecting to see Paul Theroux vs V. S. Naipaul topping the list. I believe that one is now happily resolved however."

"My top 10 moronic top 10 lists: no. 1, this one."

Javier Marias, Your face tomorrow. ("Deza v. Tupra, more intellectual than physical, or maybe moral. Deza v. Custardoy, now that is a bit physical. Nothing like smashing the hand of a painter to bits with a fire poker. Though Custardoy may have beat Deza's wife, Deza and us readers never know for certain, but that doesn't stop Deza from violence.")

Jan 5, 1:54 pm

Children's Books Top Tens / Nicola Morgan's top 10 present tense books
Guardian, 2012-04-05.

Nicola Morgan recently won Scottish Book Trust's Scottish children's book award in the older readers' category with Wasted. She is the award-winning author of around 90 books for all ages, including Fleshmarket and Blame my brain – the amazing teenage brain revealed. She blogs about writing and publishing at Help! I Need a Publisher! and is the author of Write to be published.

"Children quickly learn to tell stories in the past tense. 'Once upon a time, there was…' At first sight, it seems natural: after all, a story is the telling of something that happened, or asks us to imagine that it did. Indeed, when I was searching my shelves for my favourite present tense books to tell you about, I found very few among the books for younger children, but many on the teenage shelves.

"But the past is not as natural a storytelling tense as you might think. It introduces a peculiar extra level of artificiality, an extra mental hurdle to leap: only rarely is the narrator telling the story after it has finished, but more often as it is happening, or from some point only slightly ahead of each episode. Therefore, the present tense would often be a more logical way to tell the story. The cognitive processes for the reader ought to be easier. But young children do manage the past well – the human brain and its capacity to grasp story is a fascinating thing. And teenagers often enjoy the way the present tense allows us deep into the reader's mind. Maybe this is the point: that younger children will find that aspect harder. They can leap in their imaginations, but it's harder to understand the direct emotions of another.

"I played with a present tense, unusually omniscient narrator in my latest novel, Wasted. I took some risks with the voice but there was no doubt in my mind that only the present tense would work for that novel.

Here, in no particular order, are my favourite present tense novels for children or teenagers."

1. Laurie Halse Anderson, Catalyst.
One of my favourite teenage authors, and I could also have chosen her earlier novel, Speak. Both books are raw portrayals of the anguish that some teenagers suffer on their way from the protection of childhood to the independence of adulthood. Something about being in the moment, in pain, self-focused and now-focused makes the present work so well for this type of story and for this age.

2. Morris Gleitzman, Once (and Then and Now).
A brilliant trilogy, set in Nazi-occupied Poland. There is a poignant naiveté and a perfect child's eye view, which adults can see through and appreciate on more than one level. The present tense gives it valuable simplicity, but this is a story told with all the nuances of past and present. And all the more devastating because the readers know what happened in the future.

3. Ally Kennen, Beast.
Kennen clearly finds the present tense a natural tool, as she uses it to equally good effect in Berserk and Bedlam. It's sassy, fast-paced, ultra-modern writing, and teenagers love it. She speaks their language.

4. Patrick Ness, The knife of never letting go.
Confession time: this book, hugely successful as it has been, has also been sitting on my To Be Read pile for two years. I picked it up just now, discovered it was written in the present tense, started reading and had to force myself to stop to write this article. It's weird (in a good way) and incredibly alive, and it's the present tense that gives the voice that sharp edge.

5. Keren David, When I was Joe.
Thrillers are more often written in the past tenses, and this one easily could have been, but it works in the present, too. In the manner of much writing for teenagers, we find ourselves right inside the main character's head. This is a tense psychological thriller, whatever the tense.

6. Julie Hearn, The Merrybegot.
It's quite unusual to find a historical novel in the present tense, and this also, unusually, uses the third person, and not only third person but also an omniscient or at least changing viewpoint. The result is a full-flavoured and unusual voice, which works enormously well.

7. Theresa Breslin, Whispers in the graveyard.
Published in 1994, this short novel won the Carnegie medal. In narrative terms, it would probably have worked just as well told in the past tense, but the present tense does feel wonderfully immediate, as the gripping, dark thriller unfolds.

8. Julia Bell, Massive.
Books about mental illness or any kind of internal distortion seem to work especially well in the present tense first person, taking us right into the almost unfiltered thoughts of the main character. Massive is about eating disorders, and Carmen's unreliable narration is pitch perfect.

9. Alan Gibbons, The edge.
Another thriller, and an intensely emotional one, this time told through the alternating third-person viewpoints of different characters. Again, I think it's the emotional intensity that seems to lend itself to present-tense narration.

10. Julie Bertagna, Exodus (and Zenith and Aurora).
A whole vast trilogy, set in the future, written in the present tense. I've given up trying to analyse why it works so well. It just does. Read it and see.

Editado: Jan 7, 4:59 pm

Seán McGrady's top 10 philosophers' novels
Guardian, 2012-04-11.

One fine Belfast day in the utterly crazy year of 1972, young Marius Moonston, The backslider, decides to take a fiver from his sister's purse. But, more important, he decides to take a stand. He cannot find a foothold in an utterly mad Ulster "evangelical" world, with his mad evangelical family and madder society-at-large smothering his questioning mind. His crime opens up a new way of looking at the world, and of acting in it, so his feet gradually find solidity in another mental milieu that better suits his questioning consciousness. His transformation through an act of "theft", his newfound ability to see what is questionable, is the nature of his backsliding, and it is what constitutes the philosophical nature of my novel.

The philosophical novel is the continuation of philosophical reflection by other means. To do justice to the nature of ontological concepts, Plato required a mythological approach in order to illuminate the distinction between essences and existence, which resisted conceptualisation. To do justice to the totality of human experience, existentialism denied objectifying knowledge. Justice was eminently done in some cases, their place in history of philosophical ideas assured and their literary merit lauded. Others failed to hit their desired target but were nonetheless notable for daring to articulate the philosophical idea in this form, and being popularly successful, if not philosophically original.

The backslider was born out of lived theological prejudice and unease, then philosophical and personal puzzlement that abstract philosophical reflection alone failed to make intelligible. Young Marius Moonston is suddenly a question unto himself: plunged into religious doubt in a country in an equally sudden state of turmoil. Problematical concepts, "salvation", "sin" and "guilt", "judgment" and "condemnation" are prominent. Marius is edging inescapably toward an ethical and ontological response; to resist a powerful milieu and affirm a new way. Important too is the notion of "virtue", which also resists understanding, but is most certainly a problem for philosophy. The theologico-philosophical framework did not necessitate literary approach, but was, nevertheless, given it.

1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus spake Zarathustra.
Spinoza wanted to purify philosophical language of all literary artifice in an uncontaminated Latin. By substituting dynamic Life for Spinoza's Substance Nietzsche required all that ordinary and literary language offered. Yet both thinkers are on the same page philosophically. Reading Zarathustra seriously for the first time, despite its literary form, its poetic vision, I treated it as pure philosophy. But nothing will quite prepare you for the deceptions you will experience with this language. "In order to understand Nietzsche properly you will need the opposite of what a first reading of his works might misleadingly suggest." (Karl Jaspers). The Nazis read it once or not at all.

2. George Santayana, The last Puritan : a memoir in the form of a novel.
"Providence did wonderful things through unworthy instruments." The first novel I read by a philosopher, it was described somewhere as a literary psychology, because of Santayana's attachment to William James's ideas on emotions. For James, the emotions are not the bodily processes but the perception of bodily processes. Eschewing a crude psychologism, Santayana develops this idea of the "observing" self philosophically. This work is also a memoir, and the "spirit" of Santayana hovers over it. It is a reflection upon his own understanding. Interesting is the philosophical distinction of the observing "spirit" of the person and the full person, which involves the self-knowledge in act and understanding. Tragedy awaits the person entirely of the spirit.

3. Jean-Paul Sartre, Intimacy.
Ordinary young lives. Lulu, Rirette, Henri and Pierre. What of them? Ordinary language. What of it? Familiar circumstances. No Zoroastrian prophet here. No awareness of a single philosophical idea in these minds. No genteel intellectual discussions. Sartre's phenomenology is at work. The idea of "intimacy" denies everything of the transcendental ego and affirms "intentionality", which a detached ego violates. Intimacy is discovered in reflection and interaction, which necessitates the connection to "others". It involves a sacrifice of freedom through commitment and participation, but it is also where we uncover meaning.

4. Voltaire, Candide.
Candide is perversion. Voltaire the perverter. Ill-informed about profound religious ideas, he proceeds with caricature. In the history of ideas, that line of "common sense philosophy" leads straight from Voltaire to the modern preachers and prophets of this perversion. Dawkins is an heir of Voltaire. In the name of enlightenment the Frenchman concocts a literary argument against an enlightened metaphysics. Here literature is cowardly. It is journalistic. The enemy of truth that Plato saw in certain literary forms. Voltaire failed to understand rationalist metaphysics and so gave to the world a distortion. The curse of "common sense".

5. Iris Murdoch, A severed head.
An entertaining piece, very funny with raving mad characters. Murdoch resisted the suggestion that her novels were works of philosophical fiction. Existentialism, for her, defined the whole genre of the philosophical novel. In general, she thought, philosophy clarifies, whereas literature mystifies. She didn't give herself sufficient credit for producing literary works with a subtle philosophical content. "Philosophy makes no progress," she said. So we find ourselves not only discussing the same profound problems we always have but living the same lives we have always lived. So in literature the writer writes about these "same lives" but great literature reveals meanings. A severed head is driven by ethical considerations. And we find this at every turn. The philosopher in Murdoch is so much more forceful than the novelist. Finally, a severed head may or may not refer to a disembodied spirit, the Cartesian seat of the emotions. Just a thought.

6. Maurice Blanchot, Thomas the Obscure.
One of Blanchot's aims was to break down the boundaries between genres. On the one hand this opens the door to philosophical fiction, but on the other it closes it by denying that it is a distinct class. Fiction is doing more than one thing. It seems that he wrote fiction in full awareness that it was, in part, a philosophical investigation. He described the fiction as ontological where the language of ontology departs from literal expression and resides in an area outside the subject and object divide. Ontology speaks analogously. Thomas the Obscure is not familiar literary ground. How could it be? For, essentially, it is a journey of consciousness, an expression of its several characteristics, the relation between ideas and ideas, ideas and their objects, and the conscious states of self-deception.

Anything familiar – plot, narrative, character – have no place here. Heraclitean paradoxes abound. The boundless Thomas is a man with no history. He wanders in a world without the familiar co-ordinates of ordinary experience. And there is no decisive end to it all. There is a circularity that is also epicyclical. Life is repeated in endless cycles.

7. Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, Marquis d'Argens, Thérèse Philosophe.
Dostoyevsky referred to it in The gambler as a "trashy little book". Trashy not in the sense that it was a pornographic paper, a work of light entertainment involving a sexual romp with Catholic clergy confusing sexual with spiritual ecstasy that should never have seen the light of day. Rather, his description points to deep philosophical objections to the intended message, a statement of enlightenment scientific rationalism, especially where it involved the devaluation of transcendent ethical values within a purely mechanistic world-view. De Sade, not a natural ally to Dostoyevsky, saw the very same thing when he says the book "gave us an idea of what an immoral book can do".

8. Albert Camus, The stranger.
The stranger combines splendidly with Sartre's The age of reason. In the latter, Mathieu, a philosophy teacher, is trying to find ways to rid himself of every form of human commitment, hoping that, by doing so, he finds freedom. In doing so, he risks himself, a freedom without a bond is empty and meaningless. It is total subjectivity. He is his own judge and his own victim. On the other hand we have Meursault, in The stranger, who has no such will to freedom. He is conditioned in every respect. He could not be his own self in his actions "like the mother is in the child" (Nietzsche). Rather than act, he is acted upon, and his world too is empty and meaningless as, in a sense, there is no self.

9. Umberto Eco, The name of the rose.
In the literary field, Eco was influenced greatly by the work of James Joyce, most notably Finnegans wake and Ulysses. Eco's novel (like Joyce's) expresses the finite and infinite in themes and meanings, but pinned down by what seems to be a simple and fairly accessible detective story set in a medieval monastery. Beyond that simple form, there are for the reader unlimited mysteries to solve and connections to make, in terms of references and relations inside and outside the text. The medieval Sherlock Holmes, William of Baskerville, in the process of his investigations, opens up a hornets' nest of theological interests bubbling under the ordered medieval surface, which, in turn, leads us into a labyrinth of "senses" for the reader to engage. Boundless communication from boundless diversity. Insofar as the philosopher's task is to make reality intelligible, the philosophical significance here is that reality itself, like a text, has that same openness, "an indefinite reserve of meanings" (Eco, The open work).

10. Alain de Botton, Essays in love.
Many readers misunderstood this work. I am not aware of de Botton's response, but mine is that they were off the mark. The complaints were, in the main, twofold. First, frustration that de Botton tells us nothing of what love is, only what it isn't. Second, on the status of this work as a novel, it failed as de Botton had not yet matured as a storyteller. His clever "commentary" is not sufficient compensation.

Both are unfounded. Like complaining that Plato failed in his dialogues to tell us what courage, love, etc. are. Or, in the second case, that Ulysses or Finnegans wake are failed novels as neither has a story. That the story is weak would recommend it to me. Even more if there was no story. Weaknesses there are, however. Those are philosophical.


Half a dozen BTL comments and recommendations:

"Great list, but very focused on metaphyics and moral philosophy. What about novels of epistemology? I'd nominate, for example, Beckett's Watt."

"What about the 70's staple : Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance? Quality."

"This guy has perverted the meaning of 'top' just so he can have a pop at Dawkins. Weak."

"If this is a list of philosophers' novels, where the hell is Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist?"

"Most of Dostoevsky's novels are philosophical (The Karamazov brothers is the best by far). In addition, I would recommend Camus's books and Nausea by Sartre."

"How about Gide's The immoralist or Turgenev's Father and sons as tracts on the rejection of held ideals and conventions?"

Jan 8, 8:47 am

Bryan and Mary Talbot's top 10 graphic memoirs
Guardian, 2012-04-18.

Bryan Talbot has written and drawn comics and graphic novels for more than 30 years and is currently working on his Grandville series of anthropomorphic steampunk detective thrillers. Dotter of her father's eyes is Mary Talbot's first graphic novel. Among her eight academic books are Language and gender and Media discourse : representation and interaction. Dotter of her father's eyes, their first collaboration recently published by Jonathan Cape, is a combination of personal memoir and biography. It contrasts two girls' coming-of-age narratives: the author's own, as the daughter of eminent Joycean scholar, James Atherton, and that of Lucia, daughter of James Joyce himself.

"The genre of the graphic memoir, either autobiographical or historical or biographical, has been around in one form or another throughout the history of comics. It has considerably expanded over the last 10 years, however, and it's now a substantial and popular presence in the wide spectrum of graphic novels. Like the word to describe the medium – "comics" – the marketing term "graphic novel" for comics-in-book-form is a misnomer, but it seems we're now stuck with it. Graphic novels dealing with a personal story are the subject of this selection. As a genre, these are placed in the nonsensical category "non-fiction graphic novels," which underlines the inadequacy of the term.

"The medium is an ideal vehicle for autobiography, with its distinctive utilisation of words and pictures to convey sometimes complex emotions and information in a direct and personal manner. Comics have many superficial similarities to film – the use of long shots, close-up, zooms and pans, for example – but, filtered through the perception and artistry of their authors, they are much closer to prose in the way they transmit a personal vision."

1. Justin Green, Binky Brown meets the Holy Virgin Mary.
First published in 1972, this was the first major graphic memoir in underground comics, the comics of the counterculture of the 60s and 70s, the existence of which led directly to the graphic novel form as we know it today. Highly influential on artists such as Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar, Green's book charts a life made surreal by obsessive-compulsive behaviour in an almost hallucinogenic blend of adolescent angst, Catholicism and sexual fantasy. It's a fascinating look into another world, alternately disturbing, nostalgic, dreamlike and sometimes downright hilarious.

2. Art Spiegelman, Maus.
Maus is both the biography of Spiegelman's father, Vladek, and an autobiographical account of Art's troubled relationship with him as he gets the old man to recount his experiences during the second world war in Poland and his harrowing time as a prisoner in Auschwitz. As well as documenting his father's terrifying experiences under the fascist regime, Spiegelman paints a vivid portrait of his holocaust survivor father, an irascible, stingy and, surprisingly, bigoted curmudgeon, sending the clear message "suffering does not ennoble, it merely causes suffering". Maus is a chilling and thought-provoking read and was rightly a bestseller, remaining the only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer prize.

3. Al Davison, The spiral cage.
Davison was born in 1960 with spina bifida, his parents continually told by doctors that he had a short time to live and would never walk. At once poignant, shocking, funny and uplifting, the book, the first British autobiographical graphic novel, tells his astonishing life story. It's a work of brutal honesty, laugh-out-loud humour, astounding images, experimental page layouts and single-minded determination as the author battles to forge his own destiny against frightening odds. Since chronicling his life in The spiral cage, Davison has worked in the comic industry for more than 20 years, holds black belts in both kung-fu and karate and is an art and storytelling teacher, theatrical choreographer, set designer and film-maker. So much for his doctors' prognoses.

4. Joe Sacco, Palestine.
Sacco was trained as a journalist and singlehandedly created the genre of reportage in graphic novel form. Immersing himself in a situation, his in-depth reports use the medium of comics to its full potential. Like his Safe Area Goražde or recent Footnotes in Gaza, Palestine follows his experiences as he investigates events and interviews residents, explaining the history, politics and dynamics of the place as he goes along. The palpable sense of place and the feeling that we're in the presence of the people who relate their experiences to him (and therefore to us) is a testament to his storytelling skills, his work being far more intimate than that of a filmed documentary. Sacco is a master of this medium.

5. Nicola Streeten, Billy, me and you.
The death of a child has to be the worst thing imaginable that could happen to parents. It's an extraordinary subject for a graphic memoir. Streeten kept a diary after the sudden death of her two-year-old son, Billy. She has used it as the basis for her debut graphic novel, so it provides insight into surviving what for most of us hardly even bears thinking about. It is a surprise then to find it provokes laughter as well as tears. The combination of journal format and naïve artwork somehow helps to make reading about grief and loss not only bearable but entertaining.

6. Marjane Satrape, Persepolis : the story of a childhood.
Originally published in French, this is a candid and compelling tale of growing up in Iran in which Satrape very effectively humanises her homeland for a "western" audience. This first volume of her autobiography spans the turbulent period when the Shah was deposed, when the revolution so long awaited by her Marxist family delivered intensified oppression at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists instead of the liberation they had anticipated. Drawn in simple, stark black and white, her own and her family's experience of the daily reality of public repression is conveyed with telling details of familiar ordinariness; the risk of alcohol in the house, the need to conceal a heavy metal poster, fear of being spotted wearing forbidden trainers.

7. Will Eisner, To the heart of the storm.
The term "graphic novel" was coined in the 60s, but only applied as a marketing category for the first time to Eisner's A contract with God in 1978. To the heart of the storm is his autobiographical account of American life in the 30s and 40s. The storm of the title is the war in Europe, to which he is travelling as a drafted soldier at the beginning and end of the book. But the train windows he gazes through frame his memories of childhood and adolescence and the history of his struggling Jewish immigrant family. This is a beautiful book with the vivid characterisation you expect from Eisner.

8. Raymond Briggs, Ethel and Ernest : a true story.
Briggs's loving tribute to his London working-class parents stretches from their first meeting, as a milkman and a lady's maid, in 1928 to their deaths in 1971. Both moving and funny, Ethel and Ernest is the personal story of a couple in a rapidly changing world that they often struggled to come to grips with. The Great Depression and the second world war were major events impacting on their lives, but so were the arrival in the home of radio, television and the washing machine. Winner of the British Book award's best illustrated book of the year, Briggs's Ethel and Ernest is as beautifully rendered in colour as his children's books such as The snowman.

9. Alison Bechdel, Fun home : a family tragicomic.
Bechdel has been known for her comic strip Dykes to watch out for since the 80s. Fun home, her first graphic novel, is articulate, rich with literary allusion and encompasses a range of interrelated themes: a daughter trying to understand her father, his repressed homosexuality and sudden death; her own coming-out as a lesbian in rural Pennsylvania; her obsessive-compulsive behaviour as a child. Described in the New York Times as a "slim yet Proustian graphic memoir", Fun home has a highly rewarding recursive narrative that progresses in repeated retellings of incidents in the light of fresh information. The book has won a clutch of awards, including the Stonewall Book award.

10. Rosalind B. Penfold, Dragonslippers.
Subtitled "This is what an abusive relationship looks like", Dragonslippers is a visceral account of domestic violence. For this memoir, Penfold draws on sketch diaries she kept throughout her 10 years of marriage to an abusive husband. Using a naïve drawing style, she recounts the gradual emergence of cruelty, its stifling effect upon her sense of self-worth, and her struggle to escape the stranglehold of a destructive abuser-victim relationship. It's hard to think of a more effective medium for communicating this kind of painful experience. Anyone who's concerned about the prevention of violence against women should read it.


And the statutory selection half dozen BTL comments and recommendations. See the original column for the rest of them (as always, click through from the word 'Guardian' at the top of the message).

"I'd add: Barefoot Gen, by Keiji Nakazawa; Epileptic, by David B., and Les Mauvaises Gens, by Étienne Davodeau (though unfortunately, as far as I know, this has never been translated into English)."

"My absolute favorite after Maus is Eddie Campbell's Alec. I've reread it numerous times and it always gets better. Campbell is just a charming guy to be around and I like that much of his time is not spent navel gazing but focused on his friends. Also would like to recommend the odd and awkward Paying for it, Chester Brown's memoir about and defense for spending time and cash with prostitutes. I don't think it could be done in any other medium."

Bryan Talbot, Grandville ("Inspector Le Brock is one double hard badger!").

John Clarke, Depresso ("a powerful memoir of mental illness, superbly drawn with a compelling story that manages to be both educational and entertaining, but is perhaps omitted because it is (very lightly) fictionalised. And while we're including reportage, Sacco is very good but I've got a softer spot for Guy DeLisle. His Burma Chronicles is a particularly timely read").

"I would recommend From Warsaw to Widnes, a pictorial autobiography of Andrew Bakowski's childhood years between 1940 and 1948, from his memories of occupied Poland to his circuitous arrival in England after the war. The illustrations are all the richer for having been drawn with his left hand after being disabled on his right side by a stroke ten years ago".

Craig Thompson, Blankets.

Jan 9, 1:10 pm

Children's Books Top Tens / Will Hill's top 10 vampires
Guardian, 2012-04-20.

Will Hill grew up around the North East of England, moving from Skegness to Gateshead and Tynemouth. The area is steeped in vampire mythology and, after studying history at King's College in London and working as a non-fiction publisher, Will turned his fascination with vampires and horror into a young adult thriller, Department 19, followed by its sequel, The rising.

"Vampires have been popular in literature since 1897, when Bram Stoker's Dracula received overwhelming praise upon its publication. Over the more than a century that has followed, hundreds of writers have turned to vampires to tell stories, each focusing on the particular aspect of the legend that interested them; religion, sex, death, romance, violence, eternal life.

"It could be argued that the huge renaissance in vampire fiction over the last ten years, fuelled by Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, represents the high water mark for the popularity of the supernatural species. But writers, artists and filmmakers have been telling stories with brilliant vampire characters for far, far longer than that. Here is my selection of the very best."

1. Count Dracula in Bram Stoker, Dracula .
Sorry to be obvious, but there's really nowhere else to start than with Bram Stoker's legendary creation. Everything that you think of when you hear the word vampire – drinking blood, stakes through the heart, holy water, sleeping in coffins, bats, Transylvania – was set in stone by Stoker in 1897. Dracula wasn't the first – The vampyre's Lord Ruthven and Varney the vampire preceded him, among others – but he was, is, and will always be the standard by which all other bloodsuckers are measured. Every subsequent vampire lurks in his shadow.

2. Claudia in Anne Rice, The vampire.
Living forever is one thing. Living forever in the body of a six-year-old is quite another. And that's the future that faces Claudia, a young girl orphaned by the plague in 18th century New Orleans and taken in and transformed by Lestat and Louis, an ancient vampire and his recently-turned companion. Together they form the vampire "family" that lies at the heart of Anne Rice's gothic classic. But her desperate desire for independence and control over herself, even as she remains tragically, eternally young, gradually threatens to tear the family apart.

3. David in Janice Fischer, James Jeremas & Jeffrey Boam, The lost boys (dir. Joel Schumacher).
Long before Jack Bauer saved the world for the first time, Kiefer Sutherland flew through the California night as the leather-clad, bleached-blonde leader of a gang of thoroughly 80s vampires in Joel Schumacher's gloriously ludicrous brat pack horror movie. Sutherland's David and the rest of The lost boys use their vampire abilities to party all night and stay young forever, and want brooding Jason Patric as the new member of their gang, leaving it up to The Two Coreys (80s icons Corey Feldman and Corey Haim) to try and save the day.

4. Danny Glick in Stephen King, Salem's Lot.
Toddler Ralphie Glick is the awful sacrifice that marks the arrival of the ancient vampire Barlow in Stephen King's classic novel. When his older brother Danny dies shortly afterwards from a mysterious blood disease, new boy in town Mark Petrie is devastated by his friend's death. Until one night he hears a gentle knocking on his bedroom window, and is confronted with the terrible, seductive evil that is spreading through his small town home. Danny is the quintessential vampire victim, his innocence gone and replaced with something sinister – the need to feed at all costs…

5. Count Duckula, created by Cosgrove Hall.
Don't laugh, Or rather, do. A lot. British production company Cosgrove Hall followed their classic animated series Dangermouse with the charming adventures of Count Duckula, a classic Transylvanian vampire in every way. Well, apart from being a vegetarian (his favourite food is broccoli sandwiches), having no fangs, being squeamish about blood and openly cowardly, and hating living in his dark, dingy castle, that is. The latest in a long line of vampires, he was resurrected using tomato ketchup instead of blood, leading to him being just a little bit different to his blood-sucking ancestors. Smart, subversive, witty and endlessly funny, he starred in his own cartoon for only 65 episodes, all of which are well worth seeking out.

6. Eric Northman in Charlaine Harris, The Southern Vampire Mysteries.
One of the endlessly compelling things about vampires is the idea of living, if not forever, for longer than any human being ever could. Eric Northman embodies this, having lived for more than a thousand years by the time he is introduced in Dead until dark. Born a Viking in 11th century northern Europe, he is incredibly handsome, arrogant, flirtatious, dangerous, untrustworthy and has quite literally seen it all before. Eric rules over Area Five of Louisiana (in Harris's books, the vampire society in the US is run as a collection of feudal states) a position that brings the series heroine Sookie Stackhouse to his attention time and again throughout the series.

7. Eli in John Avidje Lindqvist, Let the right one in.
It's difficult to know exactly what to make of Eli, particularly given that some information that is made explicitly clear in John Ajvide Lindqvist's brilliant novel is left ambiguous in Tomas Alfredson's equally brilliant film adaptation. Is she a lonely immortal girl, searching honestly for companionship, and possibly even love? Is she a ruthless monster looking for nothing more than the latest in a long line of servants? Is she even a she? I'll leave it for you to decide…

8. Cassidy in Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon, Preacher.
Garth Ennis's epic, freewheeling Preacher is one of the greatest comic series of all time – an outsider's examination of the myths and realities of the American Dream. At its heart are a Texan priest with the word of God, his assassin ex-girlfriend, and an Irish vampire called Cassidy. Who, even by the standards of the undead, has a few skeletons in his closet. Incredibly vulgar, irreverent and with a sense of humour as warped as they come, Cassidy is the classic vampire-as-immigrant, isolated and searching for somewhere to belong, but also hero, anti-hero and villain all rolled up into one incredibly foul-mouthed and drunken package.

9. Spike and Drusilla in Buffy the vampire slayer, created by Joss Whedon.
Two for the price of one, I know – but what a pair these two are. Buffy the vampire slayer was, in my humble opinion, one of the very finest TV series ever made, peaking in season two when Whedon introduced Spike and Drusilla to the unfortunate town of Sunnydale, letting all hell loose in the process. Spike was a brilliantly sarcastic bleached-blonde monster, who became integral to the entire remainder of the series. But it was Drusilla, the vacant, damaged, tragically childlike vampire psychopath, who was the real stuff of nightmares, and one of the most genuinely unsettling characters ever committed to the small screen.

10. Blade, created by Marv Wolfman & Gene Colan.
Half-vampire, half-human, all badass, Blade has all the strengths of the vampires he hunts down every night without any of their weaknesses. Couple that with an array of hi-tech weaponry and vehicles, a classic grizzled old mentor who helps him in his quest, and you have one of the few characters who not only isn't scared of vampires but actively chases them down and hacks them to pieces with samurai swords. Which is clearly awesome…
(The touchstone is to the series of spin-off films).


In the absence of BTL comments on the original column, let me just add that the only other vampires I can think of immediately are the Überwald vampires in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, especially Carpe jugulum.

Jan 10, 10:46 am

Ewan Morrison's top 10 books about shopping malls
Guardian, 2012-04-25.

Ewan Morrison is the author of three novels: Swung, Menage and Distance (Jonathan Cape/Vintage) and a collection of short stories. Tales from the mall, an enhanced ebook/app with video, fuses fictions and facts about shopping malls, and is released on 1 May by Cargo Publishing.

"There are, it turns out, few works of fiction set in shopping malls, or for that matter, about that subject in non-fiction. A disturbing omission in literary history given we live in a world that is being rapidly homogenised by these structures. There only 10 or so books I could find that, in any serious way, dealt with a world that has become "malled".

"Please, dear reader, help prove this is not the case and add your mall books to my list. Otherwise, I fear we may be living in denial, while at the same time, those branded buildings, and all they stand for, take over our countries and our lives."

1. Catherine O'Flynn, What was lost.
A fine novel in which a shopping mall is a character unto itself: a sinister haunted place. It begins with the eccentric, endearing observations of 10-year-old Kate, playing at being a private investigator in her local mall, Green Oaks. Kate disappears one day in 1981, and then the prime suspect in the investigation flees. Twenty years later, the prime suspect's sister, Lisa, and a security guard at Green Oaks discover the ghostly image of a little girl appearing on CCTV tapes and try to discover the truth about the missing girl. The novel cleverly twists the whodunnit genre to ask probing questions about modern alienation. What was lost – a child, or our sense of who we are in the era of the globalisation?

2. Émile Zola, The ladies' delight (Au Bonheur des Dames).
The ladies' delight was published in 1883 and charts the rise of the modern department store in the late 19th century. (Department stores, still to this day, are the key investors that guarantee the construction of shopping malls). Zola's realist classic charts a time in which the emerging class of bourgeois women became the dominant spenders, while paradoxically an underclass of women had to serve their desires and work like slaves to deliver "delight". Zola describes the horrific working conditions from the employees' perspective: 13-hour workdays, grey unnourishing food and sparce, shared lodgings, and tells the tale of a 20-year-old counter girl seduced by the department store owner, who with his perfumeries, exotic goods, makeup counters, mirrors and the latest foreign fashions aims to overwhelm the senses of his female customers.

3. George A. Romero & Suzanna Sparrow, Dawn of the dead.
"When there's no more room in hell the dead will walk the earth" – and when they walk, where do they go? – where else but to the mall? This novelisation of the classic zombie movie was a rare book for more than 20 years until it's republication in 2012. This was the first piece of art in any form to directly state that consumers ARE literally zombies. The story reads as if Romero had been boning up on his Marxism. Who can forget the rooftop scenes in which the survivors look down at the zombies staggering over the vast car park and amassing at the mall doors.

"Why do they come here?"

"Some kind of instinct, memory, what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives."

Hilarious satirical stuff.

4. M. Jeffrey Harwick, Mall maker, Victor Gruen, architect of an American dream.
An excellent illustrated biography and analysis of the man who invented the modern mall. Victor Gruen (1903-1980) was an Austrian-born architect; a utopian socialist who fled the Nazis in 1938 and emigrated to America "with an architect's degree, eight dollars, and no English". Gruen was disturbed by America's suburban sprawl and conceived of the shopping mall as "a crystalisation point for suburban life". He conceived of malls as vibrant social spaces that would put a stop to the social fragmentation caused by American consumerism. His designs were repeated the world over. In 1968 he returned to Austria, appalled by the "bastardisation" of his ideals.

5. Walter Benjamin, The arcades project (Das Passegen Werk).
The shopping arcades of the 19th century were the precursors to the shopping malls of the 20th century. Written between 1927 and 1940, Benjamin's plan was to create a history of the shopping arcades of Paris. His study took in architecture, shopping and layout, advertising, fashion, prostitution, city planning and literature. He invented a method of quotation and montage, mixing historical facts with observations made on walks through the arcades in the style of "the flâneur". Before fleeing the Nazis in 1938 Benjamin entrusted the vast incomplete project to his friend, the surrealist novelist Georges Bataille, then librarian at the Bibliothèque Nationale. Bataille hid the manuscript in a closed archive and as Benjamin had destroyed the only other copy before his suicide, the project was believed to be lost until its rediscovery after the war. The full text of Benjamin's unfinished magnum opus was printed in the 80s after years of controversial editorial work. The book is hailed as one of the milestones of 20th-century literary criticism and as a forerunner to postmodernism. It inspired the Situationists and led all the way to Will Self and Iain Sinclair with their "psychogeographic" walks.

6. José Saramago, The cave.
A late work by the Nobel prize-winning Portugese author of Blindness and The gospel according to Jesus Christ. The mall in the story is a vast structure called The Center, in which people live while at the same time it sucks the life from the surrounding countryside and towns. Cipriano Algor, an aged potter, is put out of work by the mall and forced to abandon his livelihood. He discovers mysterious sounds of digging beneath the mall and goes on a secret journey to discover their source. What he finds is an ancient cave, hidden for millennia, with terrifying contents, which threatens to shatter the edifice on which The Center is built. A powerful allegory of the decline in community values and the dignity of human labour, by one of the great imagists of the 20th century.

7. James F. Tyman, Ten spiritual lessons I learned at the mall.
What could be more perverse than the meeting point of global capitalism and wooly, chummy Christianity? I bought this as a joke and new-ager Tyman does deliver some corny lines: "Is it possible that the last person you would think of as your teacher – a person serving coffee or mending shoes or cleaning the office – could be the one who brings you the message of enlightenment?"; "They're all angels in here teaching me about God, and truth." But, actually, this book has more to it than new-age cliches. Tyman's question: "Could it be that everyday events occur that we just brush off but which, if properly understood, could help to remove the veil covering our eyes?" is actually not so far from the kind of questions that motivated Raoul Vaneigem's The revolution of everyday life or Benjamin's Arcades project.

8. S. L. Grey, The mall.
In a shopping mall in Johannesburg, a young couple delve into service corridors and hidden basements to discover a surreal parallel universe, the perverse mirror of our own. There is a pharmacy named Medi-Sin and a clothes outlet called Sweat Shop. Then there's the burger bar called McColons – where staff are chained to their counters and shoppers live in fear of failing to consume enough. A wry, tongue-in-cheek horror novel, heavy on the satire, which teeters on the edge of parody.

9. Anna Minton, Ground control : fear and happiness in the twenty-first century city.
An extremely well-researched work of extended reportage on the changing face of urban Britain. Minton tackles town planning and the takeover of formerly public spaces by corporations who are creating "malls without walls". Minton uncovers a wealth of statistics on the turning of city centres and riverside developments into anodyne "clean and safe" areas. An impassioned polemic and a plea to citizens and politicians to fight the growing privatisation and homogenisation of our country.

10. J. G. Ballard, Kingdom come.
Ballard's final novel before his death in 2009 depicts a dystopia with rioting football mobs, deluded shoppers and fascist youth fighting to the death for the only thing left to believe in – shopping at the Metro-Centre, a cathedral-like super mall off the M25. "Consumerism is running out of road, and it's trying to mutate. It's tried fascism, but even that isn't primitive enough. The only thing left is out-and-out madness." The plot hangs on one man's attempts to solve the murder of his father by a lone gunman. But unlike the great number of pulp novels about lone gunmen in malls, Ballard goes deeper to answer the underlying question – why in the popular subconscious are the pristine, benign spaces of retail associated with violence and death? The middle classes are behind it all, and their desire for conformism is the true founding act of violence. As with all great Ballard, it is how close his fantasy is to contemporary reality that's truly chilling.


The regulation (baker's?) half a dozen BTL comments and recommendations:

"Terry Pratchett's Reaper man has a sub-plot concerning a parasitic life that sucks the life out of cities. Its final developmental stage is a shopping mall."

"A rousing cheer for S. L. Grey's The mall. Very creepy and tightly drawn. Looking forward to the follow-up, The ward, out this year I think."

""I still have a soft spot for Tricia Sullivan's Maul."

"Truly bizarre that The mezzanine by Nicholson Baker didn't make it."

"Surely the best shopping centre novel is Elephant & Castle by Matthew Fuller, a book set in the permanent state of collapse and renewal of that most gorgeous of malls. For what comes after Ballard, with an even darker and more absurd sense of humour, this is your one stop bibliographic destination. The author may have been rather too diligent in his sampling of some of the local wares however, so the usual reading precautions are advised."

"If novelizations make the grade, then Kevin Smith's Mallrats is right on target, and what is Logan's Run about other than one man (and one fur clad woman) on the run from the ultimate mall?"

"He seems to have missed Jasper Carrott's 1988 epic, Shop, or a store is born. Narrowly missed out on the Booker that year."

Jan 11, 12:56 pm

Children's Books Top Tens / Sita Brahmachari's top 10 books that take you travelling
Guardian, 2012-04-26.

Sita Brahmachari's first novel, Artichoke hearts, won the 2011 Waterstone's children's book prize and her second novel, Jasmine skies, was published in March 2012. Sita is currently co-creating The arrival, a theatre-circus production based on Shaun Tan's graphic novel about migration.
(Read the first chapter of Jasmine Skies).

"These days when it comes to the school holidays my older children are keen to go off on adventures on their own. I remember the same feeling at their age of being desperate to travel the world without the rest of my family in tow. Often in novels, when young people go on amazing, daring and dangerous adventures, the author has to find a way of removing over-involved, responsible adults! You may have noticed that adult figures in children's books tend to be either: absent, very liberal, old and eccentric, alternative or hippy, or dead and therefore absent (orphans abound in children's literature).

"As a child I loved books where young people got to go on adventures and quests that changed them forever. Reading stories about travelling to far-flung places and making extraordinary journeys (either forced or through choice) allowed me as a young person to travel to places that I could have only dreamed of seeing and experiencing in reality, but even now I feel as if I've breathed the air of all the book countries I've travelled to and the memory of these stories still play about my mind. Here are some of my childhood favourites and some more contemporary odysseys."

1. Eva Ibbotson, Journey to the River Sea.
Open the pages of this book and you will be immediately transported. Set in the early 20th century, poor Maia's parents are tragically killed in a train accident. Her only living relatives, the Carters, live on an estate in the Amazon rainforest! So, if you've ever fancied going to Brazil and travelling up the Amazon River to live with an ancient tribe deep under the canopy of the rainforest, you get to travel there with Maia and her friend Finn. From the moment you open the pages of this book you will feel as if you are walking in Maia's shoes.

2. Esther Freud, Hideous Kinky.
This book is narrated by a five-year-old girl, Bea, but is meant for older readers. It's the 1960s and Bea's Mum and Dad are divorced. Mum's had enough of dull humdrum life in England and, without telling Bea and her sister where she's going, she whisks them off to Marrakech, Morocco, to join other Europeans on the "hippy trail". The book is semi-autobiographical and Esther Freud brings the vibrancy of Morocco to life. At one point Mum disappears completely to go and explore Sufism, leaving Bea with a family she hardly knows. Mum's absence allows the girls to explore what they want out of life. Both girls dream of having a more "normal" upbringing in an English school with stodgy school dinners. Be careful what you wish for!

3. Gerald Durrell, My family and other animals.
The narrator, based on Durrell himself as a child, is a completely free spirit and roams the island of Corfu observing plant, animal, insect and human life as if under the lens of microscope. The book is set in the 1930s and we are allowed to travel the island with the Durrell family, and their ever-growing collection of animals, and visit the three villas they lived in. If you think your family are eccentric … this book is laugh-out-loud funny!

4. Shaun Tan, The arrival.
This wonderful graphic novel encapsulates the epic emotions that go into leaving the land of your birth behind. The man in the hat in The arrival has to leave his family and migrate across the vast ocean and sky to find himself in a strange new city full of peculiar animals, a foreign language, food and culture. The extraordinary sepia images of flight, changing seasons, representations of fear and loneliness, as well as friendship, make this book of pictures speak louder than words.

5. Beverley Naidoo, The other side of truth.
Some journeys are undertaken out of choice and others are forced upon people, and in this novel Sade and Femi, the children of a Nigerian journalist are forced to flee their homeland, in secret. Gunshots are everywhere and a normal school day turns into a tragic nightmare. Sade and Femi need to face life in England, where everything is new to them, as they strive to find safety. This book made my heart race and my stomach churn for justice.

6. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The little prince.
This novella, written by a pilot, became one of the bestselling novels ever published. It's about an alien child prince, from another planet, who falls to earth and lands in the Sahara desert. This story will make you laugh and cry as the young prince meets various characters, like "fox". He starts to think about his own planet, which is only the size of a house. When I watch Dr Who I often wonder if some of the ideas behind the quirky doctor came from this wonderful book.

7. Homer, The Odyssey.
A simplified children's version of The Odyssey, with images of Odysseus's adventure, was the first book I had read about a truly epic journey. It takes Odysseus, the Greek hero, 10 years to return to his home after the Trojan War. On his way he faces many challenges, such as being enchanted by wicked sea sirens, or facing the angry Cyclops. Only when the Goddess takes pity on him does Odysseus finally find his way home. These classical myths laid the foundations for all great stories of adventure and quest.

8. Jamila Gavin, Tales of India.
The greatest journeying must be to the very beginnings of time. How was the world created? In this beautiful new book, illustrated by Amanda Hall, you will meet the multi-faceted Hindu gods and goddesses. Many people may have seen the film Avatar but when you read about the birth of Lord Krishna you will discover the true meaning of an avatar.

9. Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
This adventure, set in the India, is a quest for a young boy to help his father get back his storytelling powers. The story has a mythical feel to it, as if the young hero might have been a Greek or Hindu God. Haroun travels through the Mists of Misery, meeting magical creatures on his epic journey in search of the story.

10. Michael Morpurgo, Kensuke's kingdom.
This is a beautiful adventure story about family and roots and what home means to different people. After losing their jobs, Michael's parents decide to fulfill a lifelong dream of sailing around the world. They take Michael out of school and set out on their ship Peggy Sue. On an island in the Pacific, where Michael finds himself marooned with his dog, Stella Artois and he meets Kensuke, an old Japanese man who becomes his teacher and guide.


My goodness. Gerald Durrell, My family and other animals: set in the 1930s, first published in 1956, and I read it for GCE O-level English Literature in 1972-74. I probably enjoyed it most of the books we read for Eng. Lit. The longest gap is the half century since then, 1974-2024 !

The BTL comments column was not switched on, as usual with children's books articles.

Jan 12, 6:18 am

Shehan Karunatilaka's top 10 cricket books.
Guardian, 2012-05-02.

"It isn't surprising that a sport that goes on for days, often without result, inspires this much writing. There are as many tomes on cricket as there are dot balls in a Test series. Some examine the game's history, wallow in its scandals, or bask in its Zen-like aura. Others fetishise stats, turn players into gods or use cricket as a canvas for socio-political philosophiing.

"This isn't a list of the greatest cricket tales of all time. Rather, it's a list of the 10 most indispensible books if you're researching a novel about a drunk sportswriter on a madcap quest to find a forgotten Sri Lankan cricket genius – a selection of books that I've loved, studied and stolen from."

1. C. L. R. James, Beyond a boundary.
"What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?" The great West Indian theorist uses the tools of social science to link nationalism and cricket. And to analyse the game as if it were a Greek tragedy. Reveals that the gentlemen's game isn't really a game, and may not be all that gentlemanly. Worth a reread.

2. Marcus Berkmann, Rain men : the madness of cricket.
Far too much cricket humour isn't actually that funny. This includes jokebooks from the 1980s written by has-beens from the 70s. Rain men is splurt-out-whatever-you're-drinking hilarious and provides honest and often depressing insights into the amateur game. As Ian Hislop puts it: "A very funny book about some very sad men."

3. Lawrence Booth, Arm-ball to Zooter.
An entry-level guide for the uninitiated and a source of mirth and trivia for the diehards. It'll give you the basics, demystify the slang and shower you with useless but fascinating information. There are entries on Albania, John Travolta and the revelation that the first ever Test match was played between America and Canada in the 1800s. True fact.

4. Mike Marqusee, War minus the shooting.
Sri Lanka's finest moment written like the thriller it was. The 1996 World Cup may not have had the controversy or the homicide of subsequent tournaments, but it did deliver the game's most memorable underdog triumph. The literary equivalent of rewatching (Arjuna) Ranatunga smash that six off (Shane) Warne in the final.
(Wikipedia, for want of an LT touchstone: Arjuna Ranatunga).

5. Michael Roberts, Essaying cricket.
Charts Sri Lanka's journey from whipping boys to world champions with incisive essays from an all-star cast of cricketing brains. Includes rare photos of Sri Lanka's gentlemanly cricketers of yesteryear – and of Sanath Jayasuriya with a full head of hair.
(Wikipedia, for want of an LT touchstone: Sanath Jayasuriya).

6. Don Bradman, The art of cricket.
Worth it just for the unsolvable puzzle at the end. I believe it involves calculus and complex algebra. Essentially a coaching manual from the great man, it is filled with sage advice, physics-based diagrams of different deliveries, and an innocence of tone and earnestness of purpose that is all but extinct in today's game.

7. Simon Barnes, The meaning of sport.
This may be cheating. It's not strictly a cricket book, but then neither was the enchanting Netherland, that was widely acclaimed to be one. If I had my way, Ed Smith's What sport tells us about life, Nick Hornby's Fever pitch and George Plimpton's The curious case of Sid Finch would be cricket books, simply because they allowed me to write one.

Simon Barnes, the poet of British sports writing, suggests sport could be a glimpse into the soul of man, which of course it is. And there's sufficient gushing over the 2005 Ashes win to justify its inclusion. A brilliant read.

8. Simon Hughes, A lot of hard yakka.
Journeyman county player turned champion commentator gives us a peep into the life of a professional cricketer. It also reveals what goes on in the dressing room: mainly pornography, drinking, politics and tedium by the sounds of it. Funny, self-deprecating and filled with anecdotes and quotes. My favourite piece of cricketing analysis comes courtesy of England spinner John Emburey: "The fucking fucker is fucking fucked."

9. David Frith, By his own hand.
My favourite treatise on the dark side of the game. Frith ponders why cricket attracts a disproportionate number of suicides and profiles over 80 of them. They include tortured geniuses, alcoholics, hypochondriacs, depressives, and one man suspected of being Jack the Ripper. The introduction was written by Peter Roebuck, who, 22 years later, jumped from the sixth floor of a South African hotel.

10. Imran Khan, All round view.
There are probably better cricket biographies. Ones that are better written, funnier, more dramatic or more revealing. But who cares? For a kid growing up in Asia in the 80s, cricket heroes didn't come much bigger than the future prime minister of Pakistan. It was also the first cricket book I'd come across that had several chapters dedicated to Sri Lanka. Even though they were all about what big cheats we were.


A fairly global Top Ten from the Sri Lankan columnist, to a pretty parochial BTL message thread (incidentally, the first I've noticed to have attracted 100+ messages), including:

Mike Brearley, The art of captaincy.

Chris England, Balham to Bollywood ("very funny").

Nasser Hussain, Playing with fire : the autobiography ("good").

Frank Keating, Another bloody day in Paradise.

Peter Roebuck, It never rains.

Mike Marqusee, Anyone but England.

Jan 14, 5:57 am

Children's Books Top Tens / Megan Rix's top 10 wartime animal books
Guardian, 2012-05-03.

"Animal books set during wartime give readers the opportunity to experience the horror, tragedy and cruelty of war through the lives of the animals unwittingly caught up in it. They give a glimpse of what it must have been like; how ordinary people and animals thrown into extraordinary situations coped. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes and some of them have two legs and some of them have four. Some even have wings! My top 10 list includes fiction and non-fiction titles but all have unforgettable animals in them."

Megan Rix's latest book, The great escape, is set at the start the second world war and is based on a terrible statistic. In September 1939, after the announcement that Great Britain was at war, more than 400,000 cats and dogs were put down at their owners' request in just four days. Buster, Tiger and Rose make a daring escape but face danger at every turn as the trio make their way across the country as it prepares for battle. But can they cheat death for a second time and be reunited with their evacuated owners before the bombs start to fall?

1. Michael Morpurgo, War horse.
Michael Morpurgo rightly deserves his place at the top of this list as he is undoubtedly our best-known writer of animal books set during wartime. I read War horse for the first time in 2011 and initially thought I wouldn't be able to get past the first chapter, where Joey is treated cruelly as a frightened colt. But I did carry on, telling myself that the truth of what happens to animals is far more harrowing than anything we read, and I loved it. Morpurgo has written many stories about animals set during wartime. I'm now reading An elephant in the garden which is set in Dresden during the second world war and is about an elephant called Marlene who is saved from being put down at the zoo and goes on a journey with her new family. It's inspired by a lady from Belfast who really did have an elephant in her garden during the war.

2. Dick King-Smith, The crowstarver.
Another great writer of animal stories is the now sadly missed Dick King-Smith. He writes with so much love and compassion for both animals and people. In The crowstarver he tells of life in rural England during the second world war. This story has a good sprinkling of animals, in particular droop-eared, long-tailed, ginger-furred puppy, Sis. The beautifully written, unforgettable lead character Spider is a young boy with learning difficulties who is the Crowstarver of the title. I love this book but think the title is slightly misleading as no crows are starved - they're just frightened away by a shouting boy, a living scarecrow. In fact he's a boy who is horrified when Sis kills a hare – although he doesn't realise when he's given it for supper, which leads me on to my next leporid inspired book.

3. Mary Arrigan, The rabbit girl.
This book is set partly at the time of the second world war and partly in the present day. The rabbit girl begins with Tony and his love of rabbits, instilled in him by a picture on his mother's wall of rabbits in a field that she says they'll go to someday. I felt a true empathy for the horror Tony feels when he mistakenly eats rabbit stew, as I can remember as a child being served a pie by my grandparents only to be told, after it was eaten, that it was rabbit pie (a good way to turn children vegetarian!). In The rabbit girl present and past stories are linked by rabbits and a very famous rabbit illustrator.

4. Eve Bunting, Terrible things.
I first read Terrible things more than 15 years ago and it has stayed with me ever since. Eve Bunting has written many award-winning picture books; but in this book she focuses on the Holocaust with an allegory set in a clearing in the woods where the woodland animals live in harmony until the terrible things begin to happen. On the dedication page she writes: "In Europe, during the second world war, many people looked the other way while terrible things happened… The Nazis killed millions of Jews and others in the Holocaust. If everyone had stood together at the first sign of evil would this have happened?... It is easier to look the other way. But if you do, terrible things can happen." Stephen Gammell's pencil-drawn illustrations starkly show the Terrible Things as clouds of smoke that come, and leave fewer animals behind each time. A powerful and unforgettable book.

5. Karen Hesse, The cats in Krasinski Square.
The cats in Krasinski Square is a picture book, based on a true story, about how the homeless cats of Krasinski Square helped the Jewish resistance to outwit the Gestapo at the train station in Warsaw during the second world war. A young Jewish girl, who is passing as non-Jewish, and her sister try to help the ghetto Jews by bringing them food. The local stray cats are used to confuse the Nazi's dogs. The Newbery medal-winning author wrote the story in free verse and it is complemented perfectly by Wendy Watson's watercolour and ink illustrations.

6. Robert Westall, Blitzcat.
The Blitzcat of the title is a female cat called Lord Gort, and she's a cat on a mission. This book is beautifully written, rich in second world war historical detail and has one unforgettable cat! Robert Westall has to have been a cat lover to have written this; told from Lord Gort's viewpoint it tells of the cat's search of her owner, Geoff, who has gone to war. Her hunt for him takes her from Dover to Norfolk, Coventry and beyond. The horror of Coventry during the Blitz is particularly vividly portrayed, as is the very real fear in flying bombers over Germany, and the terror of being shot down.

7. Paul Gallico, The snow goose.
Written in 1941, The snow goose is a classic story of Dunkirk. On the desolate Essex marshes, a young girl, Fritha, comes to seek help from Philip Rhayader, a recluse who lives in an abandoned lighthouse. She carries in her arms a wounded snow goose that has been storm-tossed across the Atlantic from Canada. Years later, on the beaches of Dunkirk, the bird is seen flying with Rhayader and his boat, and brings hope to the desperate soldiers. This haunting, lyrical, strange story won the prestigious O Henry prize when it was published and has been continually in print ever since.

8. Katherine Roberts, I am the great horse.
This story, like War horse, is told from the point of view of the horse. In this case it is Alexander the Great's horse - fiery, battle-scarred stallion, Bucephalas. From their initial meeting there is a close bond between horse and 12-year-old Prince Alexander. For me, one of the many joys of this book was the voice Katherine Roberts gives to Bucephalas. "Climb on my back, if you dare, and let me carry you into the battles that changed the world." Surely no reader could resist an invitation like that?

9. Pen Farthing, One dog at a time.
The stray dogs of Helmand Province in Afghanistan are the unforgettable animal stars of Pen Farthing's memoir. There is Tali, who brings her pups through a hole in the fence and into the marine compound one by one; almost as if she knows they'll be safe there. And Nowzad, with his ears cut off, who went through so much but was still willing to trust again. These are just two of the dogs who are so clearly written I felt I knew them already. It's an exciting, funny and moving book. Once I started reading it I was hooked and am now looking forward to reading the sequel, No place like home. There's a little bit of swearing in One dog at a time but it's used in context and I feel if most people (and certainly me) were living in those circumstances there'd be a lot more. Nowzad, AK, Jena, Tali and their pups could melt a stone's heart.

10. Wotjek / Voytek he Bear
Voytek, a Polish war hero, has had numerous books written about him from Garry Paulin's picture book Voytek the soldier bear, written in both Polish and English, to Aileen Orr's Wotjek the bear. Put either Voytek or Wotjek into any search engine and you'll find pages of information about him. The story opens with a bear cub found inside a sack and adopted by the Polish army in Iran during the second world war. It's a funny, beautiful and bittersweet tale that I highly recommend in its many versions. A story of war, love and loss. Wotjek was an amazing cigarette-smoking, beer-drinking bear whose adventures finally ended when the war was over and he went to live at Edinburgh zoo. Animals, of course, are not the ones who decide to go to war, and often after the war is over their fate is horrific; as seen with the war horses of the first world war, war dogs in the Pacific that were euthanised as they were thought unsuited to return to life as pets, and Voytek who served so galliantly, brought hope wherever he went and of whom the zoo director wrote: "I never felt so sorry as I was to see an animal who had enjoyed so much freedom and fun, confined to a cage." Animals never choose to go to war but they often show us how to be true heroes.


Scotland has made something of a habit of giving asylum to rescue bears from eastern Europe. Only last Friday the Guardian was reporting that Yampil, an Asiatic black bear, one of the last surviving animals from a zoo in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, has found a new permanent home at Five Sisters zoo in West Lothian. This after Edinburgh zoo returned their rental giant pandas to China last month.

Jan 15, 4:40 pm

Children's Books Top Tens / Josh Lacey's top 10 pseudonymous books
Guardian, 2012-05-11.

Josh Lacey is the author of several books for children, including The island of thieves, Bearkeeper and the Grk series (published under the name Joshua Doder). His new book, The dragonsitter, is published in May.

"When I was wrote my first book, A dog called Grk, I was working for this very newspaper, writing and editing reviews for the books pages. I didn't want people to get confused about who I was or what I did, so I thought it would be sensible to have two different names, one for books and the other for journalism. I invented a new name for myself: a pen name, a nom de plume, a pseudonym.

"Many other writers have chosen to publish their books under a pseudonym, from canonical novelists such as George Eliot and Joseph Conrad to modern bestsellers such as Lee Child and John le Carré. Writing under another name is liberating; hiding behind a pseudonym allows you to shrug off the restrictions of your gender, your class, your ordinary identity, and become whoever you like.

"That's the idea, anyway. But I soon discovered that, for me, writing under a pseudonym wasn't a good idea at all. I got confused. Readers got even more confused. I realised I had made a terrible mistake. What was I going to do? Eventually I managed to wrestle my identity back again, and now my books are published under the name which is truly mine.

"In a few other countries (France, for instance, and Turkey) the Grk books are published under my real name, but they remain under my pseudonym in English. I've often asked my publishers to republish them under my real name. They always nod sagely and say, 'We'll think about it.'

"While I'm waiting for them to make up their minds, I console myself with remembering some of my favourite children's books that were originally published under a pseudonym."

1. Hergé, Tintin in Tibet.
Georges Remi originally signed his drawings with his initials. He then turned them around and used "RG" instead, which soon morphed into "Hergé". (It makes sense if you pronounce the letters in a French accent.) I've always adored the Tintin books and, without realising what I was doing, borrowed from them when I wrote my own Grk books, the stories of a plucky boy and a little dog travelling around the world, combating injustice and solving mysteries.

2. Lemony Snicket, The bad beginning.
Daniel Handler has written several novels under his own name, but none of them have achieved the fame and glory of A series of unfortunate events. The 13-book sequence sags a little in the middle, but the first few books are absolutely brilliant, particularly the first of them all, which is a masterpiece of character and comedy. Handler's greatest creation is his narrator, Lemony Snicket, a sad, lonely and utterly charming character whose melancholy tone pervades the series. Handler originally invented the name to hide behind when he baited neo-Nazis over the internet; his delicious mischievousness jumps off every page.

3. Mark Twain, The adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens took his pseudonym from the call of sailors on the Mississippi, shouting out "mark twain", the depth of "two fathoms". I was forced to read the story of Huck Finn at school and hated it. I picked it up again as an adult and fell in love. What could be a better spur to a story than this: "The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn't stand it no longer I lit out." All the best children's adventure stories begin in the same way: I was bored at home, tired of domestic life, so I set out to find some excitement...

4. Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.
The perplexing games, puns and trickery of Alice in Wonderland begin with the author's name. When Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was thinking of a new name for himself, he took his first two names and translated them into Latin. That gave him "Carolus Lodovicus". He switched them around and translated them back into English, ending up with Lewis Carroll.

5. Robinson Crusoe, The life and strange surprising adventures of Robinson Crusoe.
The first readers of Robinson Crusoe's extraordinary adventures believed that they were reading an autobiography: the title page said Mr Crusoe's book was "written by himself" and there were no hints to suggest any editors or ghostwriters had been involved. After 28 years on an island, he had dragged himself back to London and penned his life story. If it works, this is the best possible way to use a pseudonym: nothing stands between the readers and the truth of the story.

6. Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio.
Carlo Lorenzini was a journalist and satirist who thought his own best-known work was "childish twaddle", which may have been why he published it under a pseudonym, taking his new name from the village near Florence where he spent his childhood. He didn't like Pinocchio much, inflicting constant pain and humiliation on his fictional character, and had to be persuaded by his publishers to keep writing. The original story is much more rebellious and antagonistic than Disney's version.

7. Dr Seuss, The cat in the hat.
I once read a biography of Theodore Seuss Geisel and learnt one snippet of biographical information that I've never forgotten. Whenever a journalist asked where he got his ideas, Dr Seuss would reply that he found them on his annual visit to Über Gletch, a small town in the Austrian Alps, where he went each year to get his cuckoo clock repaired. Here's another nice fact about him: Dr Seuss didn't just invent his own name, he made up the name of an imaginary daughter too, and even dedicated one of his books to her.

8. E. Lockhart, The disreputable history of Frankie Landau-Banks.
Frankie Landau-Banks is a girl who finds herself confronted by a tricky problem: how can she be a teenager without being an idiot? She's a pupil at an expensive, exclusive American boarding-school, where the girls are expected to be pretty, polite and dumb, and the smartest boys group themselves into a club which forbids entrance to females. If Frankie wants to be liked - or even loved - does she have to hide her intelligence, suffocate her wit and stifle her own imagination? This is a wonderfully funny and clever novel about a teenage girl refusing to obey the rules. Having read it, I discovered that the mysterious E. Lockhart is also Emily Jenkins, the author of some excellent picture books.

9. George Orwell, Animal Farm.
Eric Blair apparently borrowed his pseudonym from the river in Suffolk and added George for its solid Englishness. I can't imagine Animal Farm was intended as a children's book, but I read it as a child; like a great fable or fairy tale, it speaks to all readers, whatever their age, allowing each of them to find different pleasures.

10. Saki, The storyteller.
This is the story of three kids on a train, whose aunt tells them a dull moral tale to pass the journey. Seeing how bored they are, another passenger takes over the narrative duties and tells a deliciously subversive story about a little girl who is so good that she's given a chestful of medals. A hungry wolf comes past. The girl hides, but her trembling makes the medals clink and clatter. Alerted by the noise, the wolf finds her and gobbles her up. The aunt is furious: "A most improper story to tell to young children! You have undermined the effect of years of careful teaching." Hector Hugh Munro didn't write "The storyteller" for children, but it is an example to anyone who does.

Jan 18, 12:47 pm

Fred Pearce's top 10 eco-books
Guardian, 2012-05-16.

Fred Pearce is an environment writer and author of The last generation : how nature will take her revenge for climate change.

"I am not a tree hugger. Nor a people hater. For me, as an environment journalist for 30 years, the story is about people and how they work, live and dream on planet Earth. And how we – seven billion of us, and counting – can keep up the mad dance of civilisation in an ever more crowded and resource-depleted world. Luckily, I am an optimist.

"These books contain some stories of potential horrors ahead, like Bill McGuire's Waking the giant. But we can and do step back from the abyss. John Hershey's Hiroshima, is a receding nightmare.

"I have spent the past two years researching the current global frenzy of land-grabbing for my new book The landgrabbers (Eden Project Books). It was a sobering journey. But I don't doubt that we can – as Lynas proposes – continue to live sanely and successfully into the future. Even so, if Lovelock is right that we are now Gaia's brain, then we have some hard thinking to do."

1. John Wyndham, The kraken wakes.
Something deep in the ocean has grabbed control of the Earth. Sea levels begin to rise. London floods. Our hero is on a mission to find out what is happening to the planet before it is too late. A tale of climate change? Well, no. Wyndham was writing his sci-fi thriller long before global warming was a gleam in any boffin's eye. But the story of how society collapses under the environmental onslaught is terrifyingly contemporary.

2. Oliver Rackham, The history of the countryside.
The British landscape is richer and more layered with the remains of human activity than almost any other. This is the classic telling of how a curious amalgam of nature and nurture has moulded moorland and fen, hedgerow and woodland. Much that is ancient persists. Simply country lanes turn out to be sunken "greenways" dating back thousands of years. But vital features such as dewponds, mires, sacred springs and wildwoods are disappearing. Rackham, a Cambridge botanist and landscape antiquarian who lives near Grantchester meadows, opens our eyes with wonderful humanity. They say a squirrel could once have crossed Britain without having to touch ground. Oh, but it's much more interesting than that.

3. James Lovelock, Gaia : a new look at life on Earth.
This is Lovelock's first, slimmest and best telling of his marvellous thesis that planet Earth is, to all intents and purposes, a living organism that has evolved to manage its environment to suit the living things that comprise it. Planet Homeostasis. Richard Dawkins hates the very idea, but no matter. How could selfish genes be so altruistic? But actually Lovelock proposes nothing more subversive to science than that the planet's organisms can act together as a super-organism, like bees in a hive. He ends with the proposition that Gaia needs a brain, and we may be it. This is environmental science at its best, rigorous but mind-blowing. A work of wonder.

4. Julian L. Simon, The ultimate resource.
To many, this is an anti-eco book. An economist tells why there are no limits to growth, why Malthus and Paul Ehrlich and the rest of the doomsayers simply don't understand the ability of humans to come up with answers. That necessity is the mother of invention. The past may not be an infallible guide to the future, and Simon's addiction to free-market economics may be absurd (markets are an invention of man not a law of nature, and should be cast aside if they fail us). But his optimism about our inventiveness (the ultimate resource of the title) is important. We may need environmental doomsters to point out the planetary perils, but we surely need optimists like Simon to encourage our response. Otherwise we may give up, head for the hills and party to the end.

5. Bill McGuire, Waking the giant.
Just out, and dreadfully alarming. Bill McGuire, a distinguished geologist and brilliant science writer, charts how changing climate may trigger not just wild weather but also volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis. Perhaps it already is. The last time that ice caps were melting and sea levels were rising, geology was in overdrive. Faults shuddered, magma melted and mayhem followed. As McGuire persuasively shows, it could be kicking off again. This is science so scary that even the climate scientists widely dismissed as alarmists do not dare speak of it.

6. Jane Jacobs, The death and life of great American cities.
Most of us live in cities. They are the environment we know best. This classic assault on town planners almost single-handedly destroyed the arrogance of 20th-century modernists who wanted to build homes and cities as "machines for living in". As if we too were machines. Cities don't need zoning and shopping malls and industrial estates; they need back alleys and unplanned corners, where humans can be human and a chaotic jumble can take over. She may have been writing about the US, but she makes you cry afresh for the vandalism inflicted on Britain in the past half century.

7. Jonathan Raban, Bad land.
I went to Montana, to the beautiful badlands on the American prairies, a couple of years ago. It is magnificently empty, dotted with abandoned shacks and haunted by big skies, the sound of wind and freight trains carrying coal west. I met a dentist who had a part-time ranch the size of the Isle of Wight. Raban's extraordinary bitter-sweet romance is about how this forgotten corner of America, once the new frontier for migrants, got this way. This empty. It is a story of broken dreams and recurring nightmares, of a socialist past and a sometimes rabid Republican present. It is about what happens when people and the land don't get along.

8. Mark Lynas, The god species.
This is a brave book by a green who changed his mind. After years writing about our environmental perils, Lynas decided that technology was not our nemesis but our saviour. Many greens feel profoundly betrayed. But Lynas has not renounced his concerns about climate change and the other "planetary boundaries" that he says threaten our life-support systems. He just thinks those concerns are so important we can no longer have the luxury of seeing being green as a lifestyle choice. Whatever we may feel, we cannot rule out GM seeds or nuclear technology. To say otherwise is dilettante foolishness at least as irrational as that of climate sceptics.

9. John Hersey, Hiroshima.
I was brought up in the shadow of the bomb. One day, before I went to school, my dad told me what to do if I saw a mushroom cloud in the sky during lunch break. This was during the Cuban missile crisis, when many though that what had happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki could happen any moment to Maidstone and Maidenhead. Hershey's contemporary report of what actually did happen to Hiroshima and its people – how an entire city was destroyed one bright sunny morning with one piece of munitions – is journalistic brilliance. These days, we are inclined to forget what nuclear weapons can do. This is a chilling reminder. Not even our worst climate-change nightmares can compare.

10. Alan Rabinowitz, Beyond the last village.
We hacks call him the Indiana Jones of conservation. Alan Rabinowitz goes out and finds undiscovered species in some of the most remote places on Earth. Places we thought the world was too crowded to sustain any longer. His narrative of a journey into the back woods of northern Burma, on the southeastern-most edge of the Himalayas, is beautifully written, sharp-eyed and mysterious. It feels like Conrad's Heart of darkness in reverse, as he escapes the "civilisation" of a brutal military regime to find peace and light in the farthest lands. A Shangri-la.


Para 2. "seven billion of us, and counting" : eight billion and counting since about Sept. 2022 (US Census Bureau estimate) or Nov. 2022 (UN Population Division estimate). All very different to the world population of 3 billion when I was born in the late 1950s. The increase in the UK population in the same period, from 51 to 62 million, is dainty in comparison.

I was glad to see Oliver Rackham, The history of the countryside (no. 2) and John Hersey, Hiroshima (no. 9) included. Two books I would have added to either the list or the BTL comments are Rachel Carson, Silent spring (1962), and David J. C. MacKay, Sustainable energy : without the hot air (2008). Both of them now dated to the point of being of only historical interest, but effective wake-up calls at the time. From the BTL comments:

Bill Mollison, Permaculture : a designer's manual, and David Holmgren, Permaculture : principles and pathways beyond sustainability ("classic works that focus on solutions-based thinking and design in order to create sustainable and abundant futures").

Dr Seuss, The Lorax ("My favourite piece of writing about pollution and greed").

"Wyndham was writing his sci-fi thriller long before global warming was a gleam in any boffin's eye." - No, he wrote it significantly later than the careers of Svante Arrhenius and John Tyndall.

"The kraken wakes is a bit of a strange choice, as it's about an alien invasion rather than being about man v. nature. The death of grass by John Christopher would have been better as it shows society collapsing and people turning on each other when, well, all the grasses and cereals die."

Jan 19, 7:48 am

Children's Books Top Tens / Elizabeth Laird's top 10 books about tough stuff from out there
Guardian, 2012-05-17.

Elizabeth Laird was born in New Zealand. On leaving university, she lived and taught for some time in Addis Ababa. In between her travels in Malaysia, India and Ethiopia, Liz has also lived for some time in Lebanon, Iraq and Austria with her husband and two sons. She has written over 30 books for children, has been shortlisted five times for the CILIP Carnegie Medal as well as every other major children's book award. Her latest book, The prince who walked with lions, is a historical epic, based on a true story, about an Ethiopian prince who is torn from his mountain home and must build a new life as an 'English gentleman'.

"What does a good novel do for you? Make you laugh? Make you cry, gasp, clutch the pages, miss your stop on the bus? Well, yes. All of those things. But I like a novel that also illuminates a corner of the real world that I hardly knew existed, and brings it to life.

"Good historical novels do that. Geoffrey Trease hard-wired ancient Greece into my imagination and Rosemary Sutcliff did the honours for Roman Britain. But some novels work the same magic for the world as it is today. They teleport us to live for a while in distant places we only hear about on the news. It's a risky business, and history might frown on some of these interpretations, but the dramatic stories they tell are every bit as poignant, exciting and memorable as the most action-soaked fantasies. In a world where ignorance of Out There is a real threat to world peace, they do an important job, too."

1. Anita Desai, The village by the sea.
Like most good children's books, this one starts with sick and enfeebled parents, and children who take their own fate into their hands and give it a good shake. Living in dire circumstances in their Indian village, Hari (aged 14) slips off to work in Bombay, leaving Lila (13) to look after the younger children. Their struggles and eventual triumphs are utterly gripping, and the book wonderfully evokes the scents, sights and sounds of India.

2. Gaye Hicyilmaz, The frozen waterfall.
When it comes to migrating cultures, particularly between Turkey and Europe, Gaye Hicyilmaz knows of what she speaks, and she writes about it wonderfully in this novel. Selda is uprooted from her home in Turkey to live in Switzerland, and her experiences of displacement and finding a new identity mirror that of tens of thousands of teenagers in this country and elsewhere. You desperately want Selda to make it through and be happy. She does.

3. Beverley Naidoo, The other side of truth.
This is a barnstormer of a book (it won the Carnegie Medal) and is imbued with Beverley Naidoo's passion for justice. It describes the experiences of a brother and sister who have to flee Nigeria at a moment's notice when their father is arrested. Abandoned at Victoria Station, they are picked up by the authorities and sent to foster homes. Their attempts to find their uncle, and save their father from a dreadful fate in Nigeria, make a thrilling story.

4. Francesco D'Adamo, Iqbal.
A true story about a real person, Iqbal, and a reality for thousands of children in today's Pakistan. Iqbal, from a poor Pakistani family, was sold as a child to work in a carpet factory. Living with other desperate and exploited children, Iqbal decided to take action. He organised brilliant acts of resistance and sabotage, until he finally escaped. I read this book 10 years ago, but I think of it with respect every time I pass a carpet shop.

5. Rachel Anderson, Asylum.
This novel isn't set Out There, but well and truly here, in a condemned tower block. Sunday, a 15-year-old asylum seeker from Africa, finds himself in the role of caretaker. He befriends Rosa, from Eastern Europe. Rachel Anderson can create a character out of a few wisps of words and dialogue who is quite different from anyone else you'll ever meet in fiction. In this terrific novel, Sunday makes friends with Rosa, and with a whole cast of other extraordinary people living on the fringe of society. They're funny, touching, unexpected, and unique.

6. Trent Reedy, Words in the dust.
Trent Reedy is a most unexpected children's author. He is an American National Guardsman who was called up to take part in the war in Afghanistan, and he has written a novel about a young Afghan girl with a cleft palate and a hopeless life ahead of her, who is operated on by good-hearted American surgeons. A recipe, you might think, for a whitewash of the United States' disastrous intervention in Afghanistan. You would be wrong. Words in the dust is a subtle, nuanced story, which shows a real understanding for family life in Afghanistan, and a respect for the people and their suffering. I couldn't put it down.

7. Khalid Hosseini, The kite runner.
And talking of Afghanistan, you couldn't find a story more real than this one. You may have seen the film but that's no reason not to read this wonderful novel. It's far from being a children's book, and has a depth and breadth of plot that is almost Shakespearean, but young and old alike will be enthralled by this tale of betrayal, loyalty, guilt and retribution. There is no more compelling guide to the inner workings of Afghan society.

8. Jason Wallace, Out of the shadows.
Set in the early days of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, when there was real optimism about the new multi-racial nation, this gripping story follows the experience of Robert Jacklin, an English boy, whose idealistic father has taken up a civil service post in Harare. Robert quickly abandons a nascent friendship with Nelson, a young African, in favour of Ivan, a charismatic boy committed to a violent and revengeful racism. Events unroll with frightening intensity. Jason Wallace never compromises his characters' views and statements, which makes for uncomfortable reading in places, especially in his descriptions of violence, but in the end he leaves the reader in no doubt about where the rights and wrongs lie. A harsh but deeply authentic story.

9. Ali Lewis, Everybody jam.
Ali Lewis's first novel, set in the Australian desert, is a hot blast of action and feeling. Written in the voice of 13-year-old Danny, who is obsessed with the young camel he is training, and is still grieving after the death of his beloved older brother, it takes us through the thrilling annual cattle muster, when thousands of semi-wild animals have to be brought in from the desert. Ali Lewis confronts Danny's racist attitudes towards his sister's Aboriginal lover, his first experiment with alcohol, and attraction to the Pommie girl helper with uncompromising honesty. The feelings are deep and true, but never wander into sentimentality. A beast of a book.

10. Gillian Cross, Where I belong.
In a story set in Somalia, you'd expect guns, bandits, hunger and drought, but you wouldn't expect high fashion and supermodels to enter the mix. There are wonderful ironies, superbly evoked, as the worlds of Gillian Cross's starkly different characters collide and interact. It all sounds fantastical, but it all really could be true, and when you've read this book, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing a whole lot more about a part of the world that's in the news for all the wrong reasons.

Jan 21, 6:52 am

Michael Bracewell's top 10 art books
Guardian, 2012-06-06.

The literature on visual art is vast, covers all genres and ranges in quality from the life-changing to the unreadable. In my experience, some of the most eloquent writing on both artistic practice and the history of art is also the most indirect – an example being the oral biography of Warhol "superstar" Edie Sedgwick, listed below.

How to transpose into a literary form an experience that is rooted in the visual has presented a rich opportunity for both writers and visual artists. The following selection is listed in no particular order.

1. Tom Wolfe, The painted word.
As contrary as it is hilarious, Wolfe's classic analysis of the world of modern art seems if anything to have become more astute since its first publication in 1975. The relationship between downtown talent ("warm and wet from the loft") and uptown patronage is described with a comedic verve that remains as relevant to our own era of supersized art fairs as it did to Manhattan's pioneer collectors of pop art. This is essential reading for any art student and all art teachers. Ironically, Wolfe's distrust of pop art is confounded by the fact that his own prose style seems surely to be pop at its most classic.

2. Jean Stein & George Plimpton, Edie : an American biography.
A biography created entirely out of interviews with those who knew the socialite, actress and one-time Warhol "superstar" Edie Sedgwick, this non-fiction novel seems to say more about the shadow of Warhol's obsession with glamour and money than any other treatise on the artist. Once read, you can never look at Warhol's work in the same way again. The ultimate tragedy of the tale is that Edie herself – so hopelessly desirous of a role and so unequipped to deal with life – remains eclipsed in death by Warhol's achievements as an artist.

3. Andy Warhol, The philosophy of Andy Warhol : from A to B and back again.
A handbook for living, Warhol's philosophy should perhaps be read in conjunction with Edie and preferably followed by a dip into his extensive Diaries – edited by Pat Hackett, who co-authored the Philosophy with film critic, biographer and socialite Bob Colacello. It is hard not to believe that Warhol pretty much prophesised our own times, fixated on wealth, consumer products, celebrity, glamour, scandal and death.

4. Honoré de Balzac, "The unknown masterpiece".
This short story – originally published in the early 1830s and mysteriously dedicated "to a lord" – has had a profound effect on artists from Cézanne to Richard Hamilton. In its conflation of artistic allegory and erotic love, this story of a master painter's deluded obsession with creative perfection appears to hold up a mirror to the darkest fears of artists – that their ambitions might be impossible to realise and their vocation a spiritual dead end. Seldom has the psychology of art been analysed with such insight, and with the page-turning drama of a thriller.

5. Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp.
Duchamp is generally regarded as either the saviour of art or its antichrist. In these compelling interviews, granted when Duchamp was over 80, the artist presents himself as drily affable, charmingly open and utterly inscrutable.

6. Richard Hamilton, Collected words.
The delight in Hamilton's writing is his clarity, enthusiasm, good humour and elegant wit. His various writings, gathered together in this volume with an autobiographical commentary, confirm his place as one of the great pioneer artist-intellectuals of modern and postmodern society. Refreshingly free of critical jargon, Hamilton explains his subjects in terms of technique, craft and design – revealing the workings of mass media and mass production through a detailed understanding of their mechanics and technology. The book was also designed by Hamilton, and is as visually cool as it is beautifully written.

7. Bridget Riley, The eye's mind : Bridget Riley – collected writings, 1965-2009.
"No painter, dead or alive, has ever made us more aware of our eyes than Bridget Riley." So wrote Robert Melville in the New Statesman magazine in 1971. In these essays, Riley recreates in prose the sensory and intellectual processes that have guided her development as an artist dedicated to the cause of abstraction and modern painting. Above all, these writings inspire anyone who is interested in art to return to the business of looking – an activity that is as simple as it is rewarding.

8. E. H. Gombrich, The story of art.
The title says it all. Essential.

9. David Mellor, A paradise lost : the neo-romantic imagination in Britain, 1938-55.
Mellor should be read for the sheer pleasure of his prose and the intellectual thrill of his cultural historical connection-making. This volume, along with Mellor's The Sixties art scene in London and No such thing as society, is the best survey of 20th-century British visual culture – bringing a past world to life through a bravura cultural history of its art, photography, cinema, illustration and mass media.

10. Hugh Kenner, The pound era.
Strictly speaking a book of literary criticism, The pound era explains the beginnings of modernism in terms of a series of cultural vortices, as one civilisation – brought to its conclusion at the end of the 19th century – gave way to another: the beginnings of our own times. It is a book that helps one understand the crisis and seismic shift that would shape the modern history of art. Kenner's prose style itself brings to mind sections of The waste land. An astonishing and brilliant merger of scholarship and poetics.


"Wolfe's The painted word is know-nothing tripe, and the Gombrich book is an elementary textbook, for pete's sake. Here's ten: Robert Hughes, The shock of the new, John Berger, Selected essays, Walter Pater, The renaissance, ..."

"The best art book I have read remains The lives of the artists by Vasari ... Matthew Collings is under appreciated I think. If you want to gain an understanding of the contemporary art world without having to wade through acres of bullshit Blimey! and It hurts cannot be beaten. ... Seven days in the art world by Sarah Thornton is also essential reading ..."

Jan 22, 5:36 pm

Children's Books Top Tens / Penelope Harper's top 10 great grandpa books
Guardian, 2012-06-19.

Penelope Harper was a breakfast radio show host in the UK for many years, and has also worked in broadcasting in Australia. She most recently worked as a secondary school librarian. The Lollipop and Grandpa series (Phoenix Yard Books) are her first children's books, inspired by her own relationship with her grandfather as a child.

"The idea for Lollipop and Grandpa comes directly from my own childhood and my own grandpa. He decided early on that 'Penelope' was too long a name for too small a girl and so he always called me 'Lollipop'. Hence 'Lollipop' is me when I was around four or five. There are few people that we come across in our lives who truly influence and inspire us. My grandpa was one of those people.

"He suffered with rheumatoid arthritis for most of my childhood but rarely grumbled and never let it get in the way of us getting into mischief. I had such great adventures with him … getting chased off country estates for climbing trees, getting lost in Welsh moors collecting flowers and, or course, we had fabulous 'back-garden safaris'. He would take me on tours of my garden, showing me a world I had never imagined before. In our little village of Water Orton just outside Birmingham he had me climbing, jumping, stalking and hunting wild animals...that were of course, trees, branches, pots and bags of compost. He always wore his trousers too high up. He had hair sprouting out of pretty much everywhere but he had the most brilliant sense of humour and of adventure. He really inspired me and my brothers to find adventure and excitement in the little things.

"I find a lot of the time that stories relating to grandparents concentrate on coping with death and frail old people. I don't think modern grandparents are like that and mine, 30 years ago, certainly wasn't."

1. Johanna Spyri, Heidi.
I was a huge fan of Johanna Spyri's books and as a girl I loved to curl up and be whisked off to the Swiss Alps. Heidi's about the same age as Lollipop when she goes to live with her grandfather. The reclusive old man is not overly enthused by the situation at first but soon mellows and their relationship blossoms. They're beautiful stories.

2. Roald Dahl, Charlie and the chocolate factory.
How can you not love Grandpa Joe? The poor guy hasn't been out of his bed for years, then leaps to his feet on hearing he's off to visit Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. He's the perfect companion for Charlie as they have the adventure of a lifetime. Grandpa Joe is funny, mischievous and full of joie de vivre; great inspiration for young-at-heart grandparents everywhere.

3. John Burningham, Granpa.
I love looking through John Burningham's window on life. He is a master of subtlety and whimsy. "Granpa" mistakes his granddaughter's imaginary strawberry ice cream for chocolate and indulges her fantasies of sailing to Africa. She is equally as enamoured with him; protective when he slips on the ice and understanding when he can't come out and play. The empty chair at the end of the book is truly heart-breaking, but the memory of him is indelible.

4. Jeanne Willis & Tony Ross, Old dog.
He may be an old dog, but there's no reason he can't teach you new tricks! This is a lesson for anyone who ever underestimated grandparents. With his droopy whiskers, he's still ready to show those "whippersnappers" a thing or too. This is a very funny book with a very mischievous Grandpa who's full of tricks and stunts to wow the younger generation.

5. David McKee, Elmer and Grandpa Eldo.
They say that an elephant never forgets, but Grandpa Eldo is VERY forgetful, or at least it seems that way! He and Elmer reminisce about when Elmer was a baby elephant. They revisit the places from his early childhood in a really warm and colourful tale of a relationship between the younger and older generation.

6. Linda Newbery, Lob.
I recently re-read Lob and once again I found I was thinking about it long after I'd turned the final page, because it's wonderful. Lucy's Grandpa shares the secret of his garden helper Lob who can only be seen by those who believe in him. Lucy learns all about the Lob-work that gets carried out when no one's watching; filling watering cans and weeding the beds at Grandpa's cottage. It's a wonderful story of trusting and believing in the unknown and keeping a legacy alive. You'll remember to look for Lob whenever you hear a rustling of leaves behind you.

7. Philippa Pearce, A dog so small.
Following on from Lob, this is another story where a grandfather plays an intrinsic part in fuelling the imagination of a grandchild. Ben wants a dog more than anything but instead he's given a tapestry picture of a Chihuahua for his birthday. He's bitterly disappointed but, turning to his own imaginings, he discovers a dog so small he can only see it when he closes his eyes. Only then can Ben's adventures truly begin.

8. Roy Apps, My vampire grandad.
Think you know everything about your family? Think again. Mum and Dad are off on a cruise and Gran's going to prison so Jonathan is sent to stay with his Grandpa in the rather ominously named town of Goolish. After a few days he thinks Grandpa would actually be quite cool to hang out with…if only he weren't a vampire!

9. Oisin McGann, Mad Grandad's robot garden.
I love the whole Mad Grandad series because it does exactly what it says on the tin. Mad Grandad isn't just mad, he's bonkers! One of my favourites is the Robot Garden where Mad Grandad has a robot doing all of his green-fingered work. Of course, it quickly descends into chaos. It's great fun.

10. Ian Whybrow (illus. by Sarah Massini), I'd rather go to Grandad's.
Little Cat loves his home but everything at Grandpa's is so much more fun! Grandpa lives in a lighthouse and Little Cat gets to go deep-sea fishing and even sleep in a hammock. It's a charming picture book about that embraces the fun that can come out of the grandfather/grandchild relationship. It totally reminds me of staying overnight with my own Grandpa. I love it.

Jan 23, 1:40 pm

Children's Books Top Tens / Jasper Fforde's top 10 bedtime stories
Guardian, 2012-06-21.

"Bedtime stories are vitally important in the same way as sitting round a table for family meals. It's part of the unspoken dialogue between family members, part of the glue that binds, an essential part of that long and slow journey to figure out what it is to be human. It also defines the simple notion that reading is essentially a force for good, is enjoyable, and is a habit worth forming. The golden age of bedtime stories ranges from almost nought to about eight, when the act of reading is moved from parent to child. I've found the most productive time for reading aloud is about the six-year-old mark, where children can figure out more complex plots, and we've made the move to chapter books with multiple characters and plots that while not overtly complex, certainly carry subtle and important ideas. This is my random top ten, in rough age order."

1. Giles Andrea & Nick Sharratt, More pants.
Like The Godfather Part II, this was better than the original – unsurprisingly titled Pants. For all those publishers who insist that children's books shouldn't rhyme (to make foreign sales more easy, it is claimed) all I can say is: Pants! Rhyming in children's books is, while not essential, important. It makes them readable, and easier to remember. More pants has a complex and delightful verse-form that ensure the words peel off the page: "Arty Pants, Party Pants, Black Belt in Karate Pants". My daughter could "read" this book by memory long before she could actually read. Oh, and in case you're interested, the book is about the different sorts of pants people wear. It's that simple.

2. Benedict Blathwayt, Bear in the air.
One of a series of exquisitely drawn picture books for younger children, the 'Bear' series follows the adventures of our stuffed hero through a series of dangers, threats, traumas and mishaps that must have kept Bear in therapy for a very long time, or might suggest that Mr Blathwayt wasn't too keen on him. In any event, Bear's adventures – being carried away by balloon, drifting out to sea, sinking to the bottom of the ocean and lord knows what else – allows us a clear and vivid picture of an idyllic world out of doors, seen from different viewpoints. The wealth in the meticulously drawn pictures allows vast scope for discussion, pointing and discovery. Also highly recommended: the Bramble series, about a helpful yet independently thinking cow.

3. Virginia Lee Burton, The little house.
This story by the American writer/illustrator is quite rightly viewed as a classic across the pond, along with her other tour de force, Mike Mulligan's steam shovel, but is little known over here. This has been a Fforde bedtime staple for over four decades, and has never failed to delight. Children like the same stories quite often, night after night, and the simple story of a little house living on a small hill surrounded by apple trees, does get asked for quite a lot. We like this book because it graphically illustrates the passage of time, and views the same place through the seasons, then with the march of technology and the encroachment of urbanisation – and the loss of simple things, like not being able to see the stars because of the glow from street-lamps. A childhood is incomplete without at least one reading.

4. Dr Seuss, The cat in the hat.
I could mention several titles by Dr Seuss but will plump for this one, probably his best known. Dr Seuss's work is quite simply bursting with invention, and his unique view of the world – of strange creatures with strange names doing utterly strange things – is both surprising and wonderful. In this first outing for the eponymous Cat, he attempts – with varying success – to have fun while the children's mother is out. The chaos escalates to near total destruction, but is luckily remedied before adults and normality returns. Psychologists would doubtless read all sorts of interesting stuff into The cat in the hat, but to be honest, it's just chaotic fun with a capital F.

5. Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler, Tiddler.
OK, I admit it, I wasn't swept off my feet by The gruffalo, but writer Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler are a quite formidable team, and I'll place three of theirs as one choice here, all of which are excellent: Tiddler, Stick Man and Tabby McTat. Tiddler is the story of a fish who always makes up some bizarre reason why he is late for school, but then gets caught in a net – shock, horror – and finds his way home by following the trail of his own stories. Perfect construction, a brilliant idea, and for early listeners, the notion of a plot – and a push at the fourth wall to end with. Inspired.

6. A. A. Milne, Now we are six.
Winnie the Pooh is an obvious choice, and much has been written about "the bear with very little brain", but have you tried A. A. Milne's books of poetry, Now we are six and When we were very young? All of the poems are delightful, but several deserve special mention: 'Disobedience', about a small child and the difficulties in looking after wayward mothers who will insist on going down to the end of town without assistance, 'Bad Sir Bryan Botany', whose aggressive tendencies toward fellow villagers leave him bruised and battered and wet when he gets a rude taste of his own medicine, and naturally enough, 'The king's breakfast', a small drama about a dairymaid, an Alderney (it's a cow, in case you're wondering) and a king, who wants some cream on his porridge. The order has to go down the chain of command as a king, quite rightly, can't speak directly to a cow.

7. Beatrix Potter, The tailor of Gloucester.
Many of Beatrix Potter's books are a bit twee, but some show considerable depth. This remains one of our favourites, and is a simple retelling of the cobblers and the elves. A darker and more lyrical story than Potter's usual, it is full of atmosphere and features a cat – Simpkin – who is portrayed as realistically as a cat as you might find anywhere: self-centred, and not at all pleasant. (I'm a dog person, as you can surely guess). A phrase from the final panel, which shows a note from the tailoring mice explaining that they couldn't finish the last buttonhole as there was "no more twist", has entered the Fforde lexicon meaning "a job not completed through no fault of your own".

8. Rudyard Kipling, Just So stories.
Another book of great tales that has fallen off parents' radar of late, the stories in this collection (penned in 1902, and none the worse for that) are exceptionally well told. The prose is delightfully eloquent and they are full of quotes that instantly find you back in the stories: "Down on the banks of the Great Grey-Green greasy Limpopo river, all set about with fever-trees". If you've never Rudyarded before, this is a great opportunity to share some of the magic – from an over inquisitive 'Elephant's Child' to the pride of a butterfly, this book has it all.

9. Tove Jansson, The Moomins.
Several series in at number nine, all equally good, and listed here as chapter books for advanced readers. The Moomintroll series by Tove Jansson. Bizarre, plot-driven stories about small creatures that look a little like hippos but walk on two legs. Proves that Finns are very bit as charmingly odd as we suspected. The Narnia series by C. S. Lewis. Good for kids, good for adults – if you've not been here since your own childhood. Much applauded, and for good reason. Don't be put off by the quasi-religious messages! The Paddington books by Michael Bond. Much better in print than on the TV, where his character is somewhat simplified, Paddington is the anthropomorphised animal to beat all other anthropomorphised animals – and the competition is pretty stiff.

10. Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr Fox.
Almost anything by Roald Dahl would be the last of my choices, and it's difficult to pick out a book that defines an oeuvre that is at all times charming, mildly seditious, full of wicked adults, savvy kids and fools getting their comeuppance – a winning combination if ever there was one. Fantastic Mr Fox is as good a place to start as any. The wonderful things about Dahl books is the simplicity of the prose, the ease of reading aloud (not always as easy a task as one might imagine) and their dark humour. Charlie and the chocolate factory would be a good follow-up, followed by The BFG and eventually, when your teenagers are reading on their own, a copy of Tales of the unexpected left in clear view by their bedside. It will be devoured as eagerly as Matilda.

Blast! I forgot The tiger who came to tea, which by long Fforde tradition has a Sean Connery voice for the tiger, and also not mentioned are the original Mr Men books, The adventure of the little wooden horse, Gobbolino the witch's cat, Lotta, My naughty little sister, The Borrowers, Mrs Pepperpot, The Worst Witch, Stig of the dump, The red balloon, Billy's beetle, Tintin, Mog … and so on. So many stories, so few evenings. Before you know it, they're at university.


For the last suggested series, 'Mog', rather than 'Mog the forgetful cat', as I imagine was wanted, LT's touchstone system auto-suggested Helen Nicoll's 'Meg and Mog'. Which isn't a bad suggestion either.

Editado: Jan 25, 6:40 pm

Graham Joyce's top 10 fairy fictions
Guardian, 2012-06-27.

"I'm very careful to avoid the "F" word. They don't like it. And anyway, I've stepped away from the obvious "retelling of fairytale" candidates. Recasting fairytales has become a publishing sub-genre in itself, and has been done both well and to the point of entropy. More interesting are those works where the structures of fairytales are abandoned but the world of "fairy" is imported as a delicate spice. In these fictions, magical and impossible content tends to be offered in a more naturalistic mode of storytelling. The effect for the reader is that of riding a shuttle between natural scepticism and open credulity. If there were a film paradigm it would start with Pan's Labyrinth. All of these authors are rule-breakers. I'd call them "fantasists" except that it's a word with an unstable currency; but a sense of awe and dislocation is upheld here, and a new way of knowing is always the prize.

"Here's my top 10 in no particular order."

1. A. S. Byatt, The djinn in the nightingale's eye.
Stuffed with marvels. Byatt doesn't re-tell fairytales, she creates her own and endows them with intelligent intention and original power. The heroine of the title story, Dr Gillian Perholt, is a scholar and a decoder of stories, and the narrative nests inside that detail. But it's not all cerebral fun. This story has a very large genie endowed with impressive and stinky genitals.

2. Kelly Link, The faery handbag.
To be found in the collection Pretty monsters. Throw away everything you think you know about short stories and read Kelly Link: her stories get bigger each time you read them. You think you know what's in the bag, but you don't. The rhythms of Link's storytelling evoke some very old cadence patterns, but always operate in a modern idiom. I don't always know what her stories mean, but I always know that they are a delight.

3. Keith Donohue, The stolen child.
Inspired by Yeats's poem about the legend of the changelings, The stolen child also owes a debt to J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, another fairy story that was not about fairies at all but about the loss of imagination and about growing up. On the surface, a clever novel about some rather degenerate Fair Folk. But while our backs are turned the author performs a switch and delivers a luminous novel about our humanity.

4. Angela Carter, Nights at the circus.
Her collection The bloody chamber might be more obvious but some of those stories come under the re-telling category. Nights at the circus is more anarchic and the chief protagonist is a peroxide blonde with wings called Fevvers, who was hatched from an egg laid by unknown parents. Yes, her wings are a metaphor but yes, her wings are real. Another landmark novel shunned by the Man Booker judges because it lacked, well, gravity. Many traditional fairytales are invoked and overturned throughout the novel.

5. Mark Goodwin, Shod.
The wildly inventive Midlands landscape poet won prizes for this brilliant collection. Goodwin experiments with ambient sound or acoustic context for recording his poems, many of which reference fairytales, or furry tales as the poet calls them.

6. Ali Shaw, The girl with glass feet.
This is a novel that draws on the great tradition of European fairytales but which offers us a shimmering romance for our modern world. A luminous work, about a girl's transformation into glass.

7. Alan Garner, The owl service.
Garner is one of the very greatest fantasy writers in the English language, though I admit that the categorisations of his work as "Children's" or "Fantasy" are meaningless. The owl service is set in Wales, and uses as its basis a story from the mediaeval Welsh epic, the Mabinogion. Published in 1967, in 2007 The owl service was selected by judges of the Carnegie Medal for children's literature as one of the 10 most important children's novels of the past 70 years. Really, I could pick anything by this writer.

8. Jane Yolen, Briar rose.
This is a young adult novel, but nevertheless, the book won the annual Mythopoeic Society Award for Adult Literature in 1993. It combines the Sleeping Beauty story with the Holocaust and themes of homosexuality. That's right. Got it banned somewhere in the American Midwest. Constantly surprises as the standard images of the tale of Sleeping Beauty dissolve into the realities of life under the Nazis.

9. Joel Lane, Winter journey.
A clever reversal of the feral-child story, first published in Black Static magazine, a terrific venue for this kind of writing. Joel Lane is another gem of a short-storyist. The narrator pursues some kind of fox-being, a creature that possesses one person after another, always travelling.

10. Kate Rusby, Sweet bride.
Can we have a song? Yes, let's break the rules and finish on a song. The Barnsley Nightingale singing her own composition. This song is an extraordinary tale of dangerous seduction and it calls on a pan-European tradition of willing abduction into the world of the Other.


"Obviously these lists are subjective but if it were me I'd have found a place for Terry Prachett's Lords and ladies."

Enid Blyton, Enchanted wood and Folk of the faraway tree ("should have got a mention").

Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist.

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell ("hands down").

"So glad Alan Garner is in there because he seems a tad neglected these days. By streets the best writer in his field. I think Elidor is my favourite, along with Red shift."

Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook's Hill ("I would have mentioned John Masefield, Box of delights, but when I came to read it to my son years of fond but very vague memories fell away. It was awful" ; "Box of delights: the TV series was amazing ... but I'm scared to check" ; "No, the Box of delights is wonderful! A bit dated in places, sure, but the fairy/magical elements (especially in the first half of the book) are spot on, in terms of being from the world that children can grasp and comprehend, and yet still mysterious and slightly haunting).

plus sixty-something other comments.

Jan 26, 4:22 am

Children's Books Top Tens / Anthony McGowan's top 10 global adventures
Guardian, 2012-07-05.

Anthony McGowan is a multi-award winning writer of fiction for adults and children. He is the author of four young-adult novels: Hellbent, Henry Tumour, The knife that killed me and The fall. His books for younger children include The Bare Bum Gang series, Einstein's underpants and The donut diaries of Dermot Milligan. This year is the 125th anniversary of Willard Price's birthday and Puffin Books asked Anthony McGowan to write a new tale, bringing the classic adventure series featuring brothers Roger and Hal Hunt up to date. Leopard adventure takes Roger's daughter, Amazon, and Hal's son, Frazer, on an action-packed animal adventure across the globe. It will be followed by Bear adventure, Shark adventure and Python adventure.

"Adventures can happen on a Leeds council estate or a bit of scrubby woodland on the outskirts of Slough quite as readily as in the Himalayas, and yet stories set amid faraway mountains and deserts, jungles and coral reefs can have a huge visceral and imaginative impact. They provide dangers that are both intensely thrilling and yet safely remote: the animals that stalk us in the forest or surge towards us under the waves may drive us to hide beneath the duvet, but they can't truly bite; the rope bridge may fray, and finally snap, but loving arms will catch you when you fall. There is also the chance for a genuine knowledge and understanding of the world to be imbibed, as long, that is, as the ethnology and zoology don't get in the way of a story that grips like the jaws of a jaguar."

1. Willard Price, Cannibal adventure.
I could have picked almost any of the stories featuring teenagers Hal and Roger Hunt as they roam the world in the now somewhat frowned-upon activity of collecting animals for zoos. Cannibal adventure is a particular favourite of mine. It features komodo dragons and salt water crocodiles as well as fearsome headhunters and, of course, the eponymous cannibals. It also has a truly memorable villain in the form of Merlin Kaggs, conman and killer. Crucially, although there is a certain amount of racial stereotyping (cannibals!), Price actually treats the indigenous Papuans with great respect.

2. Jack London, South Sea tales.
As a child I was entranced by the sharks and volcanoes, the hula skirts and the cannibals of the South Pacific. Jack London's South Sea tales are full of desperate characters forced into heroism, told in a prose that is vigorous and poetic by turns. Two of the stories in this collection - The House of Mapuhi and The seed of McCoy - are among the finest short stories in the language.

3. Michael Morpurgo, Kensuke's kingdom.
Despite the plodding obviousness of his sentiments (what, war's a bad thing? Really? I never thought of that…) Morpurgo can still write a ripping yarn, and Kensuke's kingdom is his finest work. While sailing round the world with his parents, young Michael falls overboard with his pet dog. They wash up on a classic Micronesian dessert island, occupied by some slightly unruly orang-utans, plus another, mysterious, human, who turns out to be a Japanese soldier, marooned since the war. A moving and exciting updating of Robinson Crusoe.

4. H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon's mines.
Africa is home to more things that want to eat you than anywhere else on earth, and so it has attracted many fine adventure writers from Antoine de Saint-Exupery to the excellent Joe Craig (Jimmy Coates : survival takes place partly in a uranium mine in the Western Sahara). But the greatest of all African adventures is the Rider Haggard classic. First published in 1885, it is rather dated - the hero is an elephant hunter, for heaven's sake, and at times the racial politics are somewhat suspect – although Haggard seems to have been relatively progressive for his time. But these shortcomings are soon forgotten in a narrative that brings together the quest for a fabulous treasure, the hunt for a lost relative, and a brutal civil war. Above all, it has Allan Quatermain, the template for almost all subsequent action heroes.

5. M. G. Harris, Invisible city (The Joshua files).
When Joshua Garcia's archaeologist father dies in a plane crash in Mexico, our 13-year-old hero finds himself in the middle of a massive conspiracy involving mythical Mayan cities, lost documents, torn letters, sinister secret organisations and, quite possibly, the end of the world. The pace never slackens, yet Harris still manages to create believable characters, and the whole thing is set in a Mexico that burns the eyes, so brightly is it painted. And if you like it, there are three more in the series...

6. Gary Paulson, The hatchet.
13-year-old Brian Robeson has to survive for over 50 days in the Canadian wilderness when the pilot of the light aircraft he is flying in has a heart attack, and the plane crashes into a lake. Brian has nothing but his clothes and the hatchet of the title to help him. Paulson brilliantly mixes the story of how Brian uses his meagre resources to keep alive, with poignant reflections of his earlier life. Full of fantastic tips on wilderness survival, but the adventure is as much internal as it is external.

7. Rudyard Kipling, Kim.
Kipling is now horribly out of fashion, but Kim works wonderfully well as both a gripping adventure and a wonderfully intense, vivid and penetrating evocation of the smells, sounds and sights of India. Set against the backdrop of the cold war played out between Britain and Russia in northern India and Afghanistan in the 19th century, the story follows the orphan Kim on his wanderings with a Tibetan lama in search of enlightenment, but also traces his journey from street urchin to master spy.

8. James Fennimore Cooper, The last of the Mohicans.
Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales are my favourite escapist literature. Spanning the second half of the 18th century, they are, of course, full of battles against the pernicious French and the ruthless Iroquois, fought in the endless forest of the American/Canadian borderlands; but they also carry a huge emotional weight, as Natty Bumppo and his Mohican companion Chingachgook move from glorious youth, to tragic old age. The greatest of them is The last of the Mohicans, with its abductions, massacres, and hot canoe pursuits, all taking place in a landscape of epic beauty and grandeur.

9. Eva Ibbotson, Journey to the river sea.
Orphaned Maia is sent out to live with her relatives, the uptight Carters, rubber planters straining to keep up appearances, on the banks of the Amazon. Two things stand out in this fine novel: Maia's irrepressible character, utterly open to both the majesty of the Amazon and the opportunities for adventure it supplies; and the pure quality of the writing. It's impossible to imagine the jungles and waterways of South America brought more vividly to life.

10. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The worst journey in the world.
Finally, a piece of non-fiction – written for adults but accessible to 10+. There are better general accounts of Scott's fateful final expedition to the South Pole, but you should read this purely for Cherry-Garrard's account of a side mission – a journey through the perpetual dark of the Antarctic winter to collect an Emperor penguin's egg. It was so cold that Cherry-Garrard's teeth shattered. Scott called the mission "the hardest journey ever undertaken", and it's hard to argue with that. And yet, despite the horror and the pain and the unrelenting physical battering, the descriptions of the sublime frozen landscapes are so entrancing that you'll long to be there, listening to the grinding of the pack ice, and gazing on the majestic glaciers, glittering in a million shades of white.

Jan 31, 5:28 pm

Jane Rogers's top 10 cosy catastrophes
Guardian, 2012-07-05.

The term "cosy catastrophe" was coined by the author Brian Aldiss and has a very specific meaning. "The essence of cosy catastrophe," he said, "is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off." It is a limited and insulting definition, and Aldiss was using it to put John Wyndham firmly in his place. Or at least, the Wyndham of his most successful novels, The day of the triffids and The kraken wakes: even Aldiss admits that this definition does not fit Wyndham's greatest novel, The chrysalids.

"Cosy catastrophe" is a term I've been aware of for years, but I only read Aldiss's definition when researching this top 10. I had attributed a rather different meaning to the term: I had taken it to mean, quite simply, fiction set in a recognisably realistic world, familiar and therefore cosy; a world that is blown apart by a catastrophic event. When the judges of the Arthur C. Clarke award suggested that my novel The testament of Jessie Lamb was a cosy catastrophe, I was very pleased, knowing the term had been coined to describe Wyndham's work, and being a great Wyndham fan. I hope their understanding of it was as vague as mine!

In fact, Aldiss's description is so specific and limiting that I can think of hardly a single novel it applies to, other than Kraken and Triffids. So here is a list that is, on the whole, closer to my definition than to Aldiss's: 10 great books where the world as we know it comes to grief.

1. Doris Lessing, Memoirs of a survivor (1974).
I read this when it first appeared in paperback (Picador, with a totally misleading Rousseauesque cover image). The novel has haunted me ever since. The catastrophe is unspecific – Lessing refers simply to "It"; its effects are a rapid polarisation of the population into "Talkers", who have jobs and money, and everyone else, who must forage for fuel, food and water, as supply chains break down and all transport grinds to a halt. Youths form roaming gangs who pass through neighbourhoods looting and burning, and the next generation – abandoned four-to-10-year-olds – have reverted to pure savagery and cannibalism. By the end, venturing outside is an invitation to murder, and the very air has become unbreathable.

The narrator, a middle-aged woman, lives in a cosy ground-floor flat. She is asked to take responsibility for an unknown and traumatised teenager, Emily. At the same time, the narrator discovers that a solid wall in her flat is permeable, and that at certain times she can walk through it into a range of other rooms and lives. Many are connected to Emily: on the other side of the wall, Emily is a little child in a well-to-do Victorian family, with casually cruel parents. Her appalling mother is reminiscent of Martha Quest's. The breakdown of society in the "real" world is reflected by a series of vivid tableaux in the world on the other side of the wall: when the real Emily tries to take on responsibility for the welfare of a group of wild and vicious children, Emily-though-the-wall battles to sweep up an unceasing flood of dead leaves. The narrator herself sweeps, tidies and paints disordered rooms, through the wall, only to find them reduced again to chaos in her absence. Minutely observed social realism rubs shoulders with a strand of poetic, image-driven fantasy reminiscent of The yellow wallpaper.

For me, one of the strongest elements of the novel is the steely recognition of the way one generation supplants the next: "You can hand over your life now, you don't need it any longer, we will live it for you, please go." My other favourites in this list, The chrysalids and Childhood's end, also feature a new generation who eclipse or annihilate the old.

2. John Wyndham, The chrysalids (1955).
Here, the catastrophe has almost certainly been nuclear war, several decades earlier. The tale is narrated by a young boy, David, living in a primitive farming community in Labrador. Fundamentalist religion has taken hold, and a terror of the mutations caused by radiation has led to a general belief that it is necessary to destroy any plant, animal or human who is not in "the True Image". But David can share thought-shapes: he is one of a group of youngsters in the new generation who have telepathic powers. Once their "difference" is discovered, they have to flee for their lives, into the Fringes where mutation is rife and sterilised humans whose shapes do not fit the ideal of the norm get by as they can with scant resources.

Wyndham explores discrimination, the threats posed by religious fundamentalism and the desire for racial purity. A woman from distant Sealand, who engineers the escape of the Chrysalids, explicitly describes the type of people who caused the apocalypse: "They were shut off by different languages and different beliefs … They aspired greedily … They created vast problems then buried their heads in the sands of idle faith." The children of the future are able to "think-together" and so can rise above the selfish violence and conflicting religions of the past. A cosy ending, perhaps, but at the expense of writing off the previous generation (us) as "an inferior variant". One of this novel's aspects I love is that the young narrator is innocent and open to experience, not muffled up in the slightly stuffy knowingness of Wyndham's other male narrators. I've recently been working on a new adaptation of The chrysalids for radio (Classic Serial on Radio 4, 29 July and 5 August).

3. J. G. Ballard, The drowned world (1962).
Ballard's novel, like The chrysalids, features our current world as a distant memory. Most of the earth is deep underwater. London lies below a vast lagoon, with only the tops of tall buildings protruding above the surface, providing homes for giant iguanas and monstrous insects. Temperatures have risen, to as high as 180 degrees at the equator. The novel slides towards Aldiss's definition: our hero, Kerans, is staying in the penthouse suite at the Ritz, and he does get the girl (the beautiful and useless Beatrice) – at least, in so far as anyone does.

The drowned world is described with such scientific precision and clarity that it becomes vividly real to the reader. Kerans finds himself becoming obsessed by the pounding, burning sun. It, and the primeval swamp around him, awaken prehistoric trace memories, layers and levels in his subconscious that draw him towards the heat, draw him south rather than north, where those still capable of rational thought are headed. This is a new Triassic age and the mind of man reverts to its deeply primitive state. Kerans desires, passively, to make himself one with this world. But in the interests of giving the novel some plot and action, Ballard pits his hero against the evil Strangman, white-suited looter of artworks, who arrives above London accompanied by a gang of miscreants and a herd (shoal?) of alligators, and drains the lagoon in order to search London's damp and silted-up ruins. Having escaped death at Strangman's hands, Kerans heads off on his own to certain death in the boiling tropical swamps. The plot is silly, but the images and the incredible sense of the power of the subconscious mind make this novel compelling.

4. John Wyndham, The kraken wakes (1953).
This novel also features rising sea levels, but they rise upon an initially cosy world. The trouble starts with fireballs raining into the sea, ships mysteriously sinking and sea tanks emerging from the depths to grab people. The Bathies are here to destroy humanity. Mike and Phyllis, our happily wed protagonists, are two jolly good eggs who battle through, trying to do the decent thing. In the end about one-fifth of humanity survives and begins to sort out the mess. It's a well-constructed tale, but the limitations of the characters prevent it from being much more than that. Cosiness lies in the voice, and I concede that Aldiss's criticisms have a ring of truth here.

5. Maggie Gee, The ice people (1998).
Gee's world is recognisably ours, though set in the near future. Temperatures have plummeted, rather than risen: a new ice age is on the way, and the only salvation lies in journeying to Africa. Fertility levels have dropped and the sexes have polarised. People find their sexual satisfaction in feathered robots called Doves, rather than in other humans. The narrator, an old man sitting in a crowd of wild cannibal children, retells the story of his life, and of the hatred that has grown between women and men, in return for a few more hours of time.

Gee uses her catastrophe to explore the age-old topic of the war between the sexes, to turn first/third-world ideas on their heads, to satirise contemporary politics, and to look in a clear-sighted way at relations between parents and children.

6. John Christopher, The death of grass (1956).
An ecological catastrophe: grass dies. All the grasses – not just fields and lawns, but rice, wheat, barley and so on. The novel opens with this problem safely remote, in the far east, causing starvation among the Chinese. But soon enough the virus spreads to Britain, and society starts cracking up. John Custance and his family and friends – a cosily middle-class group – receive inside information and decide to head for Cumbria, where his brother has a farm in a defensible valley and they can grow potatoes. The brother is the one who understands man's responsibility for the disaster: "For years now, we've treated the land as through it were a piggy bank, to be raided, and the land, after all, is life itself."

The veneer of civilisation falls away very fast. Custance starts by murdering a soldier at a roadblock, and kills numerous others en route, including an innocent farmer's wife, shot at point blank range, and his own brother, who has offered him shelter. In their rapid descent into murderousness, Christopher's characters are a lot less cosy than Wyndham's. This novel feels very rooted in war, demonstrating with chilling forthrightness that decency and moral scruples are swiftly dispensed with in a struggle for survival. If someone stands in your way, kill him. Our hero does survive, with his wife and daughter, and at the end they are about to try to start living in the old, decent way again. But Christopher has painted a bleak enough picture of their fall from grace to suggest that no happy ending is likely.

7. Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's end (1954).
The world here is similar to the one we know, except that giant spaceships of aliens known as Overlords are hovering above Earth and obliging humanity to behave well. Wars and discrimination have ended; all political problems are solved, so crime ceases; since no one is in need, no one steals or misbehaves. Work is mechanised, and all that's left for humanity is a ceaseless round of pleasure, travel and further education. The kindly Overlords refuse to show themselves for the first 50 years of their reign. When they emerge, they look like devils, complete with horns and tails, but their behaviour seems utterly benign. At a terribly cosy party where the rather two-dimensional characters mingle and drink, one group holds a seance, with two results. First, one man is able to discover the identity of the Overlords' home planet, and so can stow away on a ship and visit it; second, the Overlord who is present detects the power of telepathy in one woman. She and her children are singled out for special attention. The Overlords, it transpires, are in the service of a much greater Power, with which they are tasked with bringing humanity into union.

The role of the Overlords, as midwives to the destruction/transformation of entire races, is simultaneously ingenious and moving; this is a novel of ideas rather than characters, but the ideas are so impressive and sweeping that it is impossible not to be carried along. A generation of children are born who develop astonishing psychic powers: they can communicate, eat, drink, sleep and shift objects around, all without moving a muscle, by the power of their minds. They stand like rocks on the beach, unblinking, their clothing worn to rags, silently communing, until "Breakthrough" is achieved and they ascend in a trail of fire into the skies, to join the greater Power. Behind them, the Earth that has nourished them becomes transparent and dissolves. An Overlord explains that Homo sapiens is over. "All the hopes and dreams of your race have ended now. You have given birth to your successors, and it is your tragedy that you will never understand them – will never even be able to communicate with their minds. Indeed, they will not possess minds as you know them. They will be a single entity."

It may seem crazy to call this book cosy, but human life and society – where it appears – is comfortable, petty and foolishly self-important, which makes the metamorphosis of its children all the more shocking, extraordinary and moving. Clarke moves us up to a different scale.

8. John Wyndham, The day of the triffids (1951).
I defy anyone not to be gripped from the start by Wyndham's first great SF success. Bill Masen wakes up after an eye operation to find that virtually the entire population has been blinded by flashing meteors: he unpeels his bandages to discover a world full of stumbling, desperate, drunken or suicidal sightless people. Civilisation has collapsed overnight. Add in plants that have been genetically engineered to produce highly profitable oil, but have additional characteristics of being mobile, carnivorous and in possession of a deadly sting, and you have a bestseller.

It's cosy in two ways: the world and values we see destroyed are depicted with considerable sentimentality; and the narrator-hero has numerous little pangs about doing the decent thing, like helping other people. But he learns very quickly to look after number one. He also does get the girl, and lives with her for a while in a luxuriously decadent flat. But the resourcefulness and courage he displays in adapting to their new life are very engaging, and Wyndham's meticulous attention to the practical details of survival, of daily life, and indeed to the botanical development and behaviour of the Triffids, enable the reader to suspend disbelief in this wonderfully fantastic tale.

9. John Wyndham, The Midwich cuckoos (1957).
Here, for once, the catastrophe is narrowly averted. All the women in the village of Midwich are impregnated in a single night by aliens. Nine months later, the women give birth to a race of children with golden eyes – strangely precocious children who are emotionally blank, band together against the villagers, and are soon perceived to possess formidable and horribly threatening powers. The narrator is a Wyndham type – male, happily married, middle class, concerned and observant and thoroughly decent. In other words, cosy. But that doesn't prevent the story from being suspenseful and blackly humorous, and again there is that compelling mixture of terribly ordinary everyday life, with a quite fantastical big event.

10. H. G. Wells, The time machine (1895).
Granddaddy of them all. The catastrophe here is in the future, bookended by the cosiness of the present, which (the present being the late 19th century) is all drinks by the fire and helpful butlers. But the terrible future visited by the Time Traveller is sharp enough: humanity has polarised into evil, underground-dwelling Morlocks – descendants of the working classes, now evolved into vicious, pallid, carnivorous apes – and ethereal, intellectual Eloi, who float about on the surface, leading lives of vapid idleness in beautiful surroundings, and are helpless to protect themselves from attacks by the cannibalistic Morlocks.

Wells's catastrophe is, like many of the others in this list, man-made – but not by man abusing his environment. It is created simply by the evolution of the inequalities Wells observed in the society in which he lived, inequalities that, had he lived to 146, he could of course have continued to observe. His novel contains what I believe are the three essential ingredients of the genre: a brave and curious protagonist, a big-idea catastrophe, and meticulously convincing rendering of the practical details of everyday life.


"a new adaptation of The chrysalids for radio (Classic Serial on Radio 4, 29 July and 5 August)". John Wyndham: BBC Radio Drama Collection is currently the only radio adaptation on LT, with a version of The chrysalids first broadcast in 1981.

Half a dozen BTL recommendations:

Cormac McCarthy, The road. ("You are missing the key one here I think ... total poetry") ("... agreed, The road is an excellent book, but it is not cosy").

"I preferred The drought to The drowned world, it just seemed a bit more realistic".

"Big fan of Wells and Wyndham so this article was a great read for me. But, no mention for The war of the worlds?"

John Christopher, Empty world ("a 'cosy catastrophe' featuring teenagers trying to survive in a world depopulated by a virus causing premature ageing, and is written with a slow bleakness you simply don't find in teenage fiction today. ... It should be held in the same regard as Lord of the Flies, but sadly - like most of Christopher's work - is currently out of print").

"Would Z for Zacharia count?"

"Earth abides could be added to this list, and I never miss, on these occasions, the chance to mention Riddley Walker. By no means a cosy catastrophe, but a novel of stunning imagination and power."

Wow. Longest message so far by far.

Fev 1, 1:12 pm

Children's Books Top Tens / Sophia Bennett's top 10 stylish reads.
Guardian, 2012-07-12.

Sophia Bennett's debut novel Threads, about fashion and the plight of a young African refugee, won the Times/Chicken House children's fiction competition. A Nickelodeon TV series is currently in production. Her latest novel, The look, tackles the story of a girl who is spotted by a model agency at the same time as her sister is diagnosed with a serious illness.

"I thought, when I was writing my first fashion-based book for young teens, that the shelves of my local bookshop would be full of stories about feisty young heroines making clothes, putting outfits together and discovering new styles. After all, girls love fashion, don't they? And some boys do, too. Developing your image is one of the big challenges of growing up. But to my great surprise there were hardly any books that seemed to do justice to the joyful, and sometimes daunting, prospect of finding a style that fits.

"And so my choices of stylish reads range far and wide. Some were already classics when I was growing up; some are non-fiction; some are being written as we speak. These are the stories I have turned to when I've needed some style inspiration over the years. The newer writing tends to be on blogs, because that is where the fashion world's writing talent is happening these days. Feisty young heroines, I've discovered, are going online and doing it for themselves."

1. Dodie Smith, I capture the castle.
Dodie Smith wrote this book in America, in self-imposed exile during the war. Despite the sun and safety of LA, her nostalgia for home seeps into every page. Cassandra and Rose Mortmain are growing up in straitened circumstances in a decaying English castle, surrounded by faded grandeur, never sure where the next meal is coming from. 17-year-old Cassandra writes about her family with pin-sharp, unsentimental wit. She sees the holes in their clothes and the make-do-and-mend desperation of their artistic stepmother, Topaz, as she tries to send them out into the world. We see sea-green, home-dyed silk tea dresses and outrageous, inherited beaver-lined coats. The sisters can't help being glamorous, in true, eccentric English style. Vogue would adore them.

2. Style rookie.
Tavi Gevinson became an internet phenomenon when she started blogging about fashion from her home in Chicago, aged 11. Now, at the grand old age of 16, she is an established arbiter of taste. And that taste is kooky and off the wall, as indeed it should be for any experimental teenager. She writes like an angel, has an astonishing repertoire of pop culture references, and takes great pictures. No wonder all the fashion greats are queuing up to be a part of her world.
Blog (to 2016) :

3. Robb & Anne Edwards, The Queen's clothes.
I have had this book since 1977, when it came out in time for the Queen's silver jubilee. It is a record of some of the most important outfits worn by the Queen in the first half of her reign and it's special because it includes the original designs, examples of the extraordinary embellishment and an explanation of the symbolism that went into designing each state dress. It was the first book I read that took fashion seriously as a craft, and explained the thought that goes into presenting an iconic image to the world. Did you know, for example, that the Queen's skirts are weighted, so they don't fly up in the wind? Now you do.

4. Paul Gallico, Flowers for Mrs Harris.
Set in the 1950s, this little novel by Paul Gallico is my favourite fashion book of all time. Mrs Harris is a no-nonsense East End charlady. She wins a little money on the pools and manages to save some more by working extra hard and cutting out biscuits – her one luxury. Eventually she has exactly enough to fulfil her girlish dream of going to Paris and buying a Dior evening dress. If anyone deserves a fairytale dress, it's Mrs Harris, who transforms the lives of everyone she meets at the little House of Dior. But she hasn't saved enough money for Customs duty. (This was long before the EU.) How will she get it home?

5. Noel Streatfeild, Party frock.
"Inside was a box. It was tied up in the lovely way Americans tie up parcels, with yards and yards of fine scarlet and green ribbon. When that ribbon was taken off the box and the lid lifted there was a card lying on top of the tissue paper. The card said: 'I have just remembered that you are now tween-age, and must be ready for this.'"

In this lesser-known story by Noel Streatfeild, Selina Cole is growing up in post-war England, with no occasions to wear an organdie dress with a blue satin sash. So one is created: a pageant. Her can-do cousins take charge and the whole village comes together to make it happen. It's never really about the clothes: it's about what happens in the clothes. I'm quite sure the story of the dress, and the friendship, and the excitement of creating a big event, were at the back of my mind when I was writing Threads.

6. P. G. Wodehouse, The Jeeves stories.
I discovered Wodehouse in my teens, when I was busy with exams and needed some light relief. The stories of Bertie Wooster and his butler, Jeeves, were at least 50 years old by then and are now practically historic, but I would still recommend them as an antidote to teenage stress. And from a style perspective, the well-meaning, well-funded Bertie is probably one of the best-dressed young men to have lived in comic fiction.

'"Jeeves,' I said coldly. "How many suits of evening clothes have we?"
"We have three suits of full evening dress, sir; two dinner jackets –"
"For practical purposes two only, sir. If you remember, we cannot wear the third. We also have seven white waistcoats."
"And shirts?"
"Four dozen, sir."
"And white ties?"
"The first two shallow shelves in the chest of drawers are completely filled with our white ties, sir."
Carry on, Jeeves (1926).

Many of the stories revolve around Jeeves's disapproval of Bertie's more adventurous choice of hat, suit stripe or dress shirt collar. But given the extent of Bertie's wardrobe, peace is usually, if not always, restored.

7. Justine Picardie, My mother's wedding dress.
Justine Picardie is my favourite fashion journalist. This thoughtful collection of short pieces about clothes that have mattered to her is really the story of a family, more than a wardrobe. Which is as it should be. Justine captures the delicate relationship between clothes, people and the memories they make. The wedding dress in question was a corseted black cocktail dress, by the way. I have one very like it, inherited from my grandmother, and just as precious. Justine has a blog, too.

8. Sarra Manning, Adorkable.
Sarra Manning's new book for older teens has a touch of Tavi Gevinson about it. Jeane Smith is a school-age girl who runs her own dorky lifestyle brand, has half a million followers on Twitter and is a respected guru on all things teenage. What I love about her – apart from her nonchalant ability to wear grey hair, a ballgown and tiara to a sweaty gig in North London – is her no holds barred modern feminism. Jeanne says what she means, wears what she likes, questions what she's told and is ready to take on the world. She may have questionable taste in hair dye, but she's an icon for our times.

9. Claire Wilcox, Vivienne Westwood.
She is a dame, an iconoclast and a fashion goddess, and I gave her a speaking part in Threads. This book is based on a retrospective of Vivienne's work at the V&A in 2004. It describes her collections, from the early days of punk, through her Pirates collection in the 1980s, her Watteau-inspired ballgowns and notorious platforms of the 1990s. When I go to schools and festivals to talk about my books, we often end up talking about my shoes. They are pink plastic Vivienne Westwood Melissas, decorated with red hearts: the only heels you can wear in festival mud, and which are also infused to smell like bubblegum. Not a feminist statement at all, but I smile every time I wear them. (They're comfortable, too.) The woman is, frankly, a genius. We're lucky to have her.

10. Fashionista.
It's not all history. The bloggers at Fashionista manage to make several entertaining stories a day out of current events in the fashion world, without ever taking themselves too seriously. The site is sardonic. It has a feminist edge, taking issue with the lack of female designers to be honoured recently and recommending a list of its own. It celebrates the artistry and is happy to prick the pomposity of the world it loves. "Fashion is fun", it says. And if you do it right, and don't let it overwhelm you, this is actually true.
Website :

Fev 2, 1:27 pm

Stuart Evers's top 10 homes in literature.
Guardian, 2012-07-18.

Ideas of home are nebulous, ranging from "where the heart is", to the slightly less warming sentiment of Robert Frost: "The place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." Over the course of writing If this is home, I spent a lot of time thinking about how people attribute places, people and areas to "home". But for the purposes of this very personal top 10 I had to cut it down somehow. I decided to restrict it to traditional homes in novels – ie buildings in which fictional characters live. With regret, therefore, I've had to leave out William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, Richard Ford's Haddam, Patrick Hamilton's The midnight bell, Joan Didion's house in The year of magical thinking, every home that Alice Munro has ever described, not to mention the prisons, bars and hospitals that are as much homes as they are establishments.

1. Satis House, in Charles Dickens, Great expectations.
Miss Havisham's decaying lair is as much of a character as an intrigue as the character herself. Stopped clocks, rooms paused in time, a name that literally translates as "enough": Satis House is home, prison and memorial – a wonderfully realised expression of the contradictions of being at home.

2. Des Esseintes' country house, in Joris-Karl Huysmans, A rebours.
Possibly the most intricately detailed and described home in literature, the place where the Duc Jean des Esseintes heads to spend his life in decadent contemplation is a home of extraordinary richness, of obsessive attention to detail. It is a place where he can live out his aesthetic fancies and fantasies. It is, however, a house in which you feel that only des Esseintes could feel at home.

3. Bartlebooth's apartment, 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, in Georges Perec, Life : a user's manual.
Perec's masterpiece – and to my mind the greatest novel since Ulysses – takes place in a Parisian apartment block just after the death of eccentric Englishman Bartlebooth on 23 June 1975. Perec ghosts around the rooms, telling the stories of the inhabitants, showing the lives that have populated the place over the preceding years. It is Bartlebooth's that is the most interesting: a simple place of retreat; a home as a place of reflection on the rest of the world.

4. Thrushcross Grange, in Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights.
The scene in which Cathy and Heathcliff first come across their well-to-do-neighbours' house has remained, for me, one of its most enduring images. The Heights is a working farm, a place of labour; the Grange is about leisure, luxury, relaxation. In such a colourless and blasted narrative, the deep crimsons and golds of the Grange's decorations show class divisions in an unsubtle yet highly effective manner. Heathcliff's return and ownership – yet lack of residence – of the place also serves to show home, unlike wealth or status, as a place even more difficult to escape.

5. The island museum, in Adolfo Bioy Casares, The invention of Morel.
A home in a slightly less conventional sense, the island retreat in which the unnamed fugitive lives is nonetheless a compelling image of home. Bioy Casares's novel is part modernist triumph, part sci-fi thriller; part compelling novel of ideas, part a tautly sprung mystery. The events that take place there – to explain too much of the plot would spoil the joy of reading it for the first time – show home as a place of repetition and of playing host to the whole gamut of human experience.

6. Bucky Wunderlick's apartment, in Don DeLillo, Great Jones Street.
Bucky Wunderlick – a rock star modelled on Dylan and Jagger – retreats from the world to an apartment with a refrigerator full of records and a bath in the living room. The charged strangeness of DeLillo's third novel comes from this odd homestead, from its anonymity and from the fact that seemingly everyone knows where he is. It is the ultimate rock star crashpad.

7. Ruth's house, in Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping.
All of Robinson's books deal with home to a greater or lesser extent, but Housekeeping remains my favourite of her three novels. I first read it by a pool on holiday, and the chill descriptions of growing up in Fingerbone, Idaho, acted as a sort of literary air-conditioning. This is home as a collection of people under one roof, home as a place to escape from and to return to, home as a shifting sense of selfhood.

8. Dr Jekyll's house, in Robert Louis Stevenson, The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Only at home do Jekyll and Hyde coexist; segregated between the front, where Jekyll presents his public persona, and the back, where his laboratory has created Hyde. It is a home in turmoil – something brilliantly exploited by Valerie Martin in Mary Reilly – and yet it is the only place where Jekyll can truly be himself.

9. Karl's father's house, in Karl Ove Knausgaard, A death in the family.
The home of Knausgaard's father is terrifying; bleak and swirling with past misdemeanours and regrets. Its squalid filth, the result of his now-dead father's alcoholism, is foully, vividly rendered: the stink and decay becoming the physical embodiment of a man slipping from middle-class respectability into his own personal hell. It's a reminder that a home can not only be a place of sanctuary but also an indulgence that allows you to refuse the world outside.

10. 124 Bluestone Road, in Toni Morrison, Beloved.
124 Bluestone Road is perhaps the most celebrated of modern haunted houses, a home "full of a baby's venom". It's the vital constituent of Morrison's novel: a living, breathing, almost sentient member of the cast of characters; a true vector of the past and present.


And the commenterati's bonus half dozen:

Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of space ("Not a novel, but a beautiful idiosyncratic meditation on the spaces we inhabit - - - the psychological effect of different spaces: cellars, attics, wardrobes, nests, and so on").

"It's never explicitly described, but you do tend to build up a clear mental image of the cosy surroundings of Blandings Castle over the series of Emsworth books. Overall the book didn't really work for me, but the geometry-defying, reality-warping centrepiece of the House of leaves has certainly stuck in my mind."

Frances Hodgeson Burnett, The secret garden ("What, no mention of Misselthwaite Manor? The house ("with nearly a hundred rooms") is practically a character!")

Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure ("Jude Fawley's house, where his son hangs his two younger siblings and then himself. Memorable for the most awful reasons").

"Bag End and 221B Baker Street for me, please."

George Douglas Brown, The house with the green shutters ("much of the novel's action takes place in said house and its very appearance becomes crucial as the novel reaches its climax").

Fev 3, 9:38 am

Children's Books Top Tens / Cathy Cassidy's top 10 feel good books.
Guardian, 2012-07-19.

Cathy Cassidy wrote her first picture book for her little brother when she was eight or nine and has been writing stories ever since. She went to art college in Liverpool then got a job as fiction editor on Jackie magazine before teaching art in a Coventry secondary school for a few years then moving to Scotland with her husband to start a family. She continued to be an art teacher in the wilds of west Scotland for several years until becoming a full-time writer. Cathy Cassidy has two children and, together with her husband Liam, they live in a cottage in the Galloway hills in Scotland with sheep and cows for neighbours.

She is the bestselling author of Dizzy, Driftwood, Indigo blue, Scarlett, Sundae girl, Lucky star, Gingersnaps and Angel cake. Her latest book, in the Chocolate Box Girls series is Summer's dream.

"We all love a book that makes us feel all warm inside, glad to be alive, even though they are often touching, bittersweet stories. Here are a few of my favourites."

1. Jerry Spinelli, Stargirl.
Mica High School has never seen a student like Stargirl before. She captures Leo's heart with just one smile, and the rest of the students are enthralled too... to start with. Gradually, though, they begin to exclude her, and Leo, upset, tries to force the most gorgeously eccentric girl he has ever known to conform, to become just another schoolgirl. This is a modern day fairytale about individuality, first love and the magic of caring. One of my favourite books ever!

2. Frank Cottrell Boyce, Millions.
I love just about everything Frank Cottrell Boyce writes, but this one is perfect. Two boys whose mum has died are trying hard to adjust when they find a bag of money beside the railway line - and have just a few days to spend it, because the UK is changing currency to the euro. Laugh-out-loud funny, Millions is also clever, gripping and touching, and beautifully written.

3. Sharon Creech, Love that dog.
This is a BRILLIANT book. It's about Jack, his dog Sky and the way that poetry helps him open up and dare to say the things that need saying. It's set out in little chunks of non-rhyming poetry, so it's a quick read but one that will find a hotline to your heart. And that's a promise.

4. Gennifer Choldenko, Al Capone does my shirts.
Moose lives on the island of Alcatraz along with his mum, dad, sister... and a whole bunch of convicts. It's no surprise that trouble is never very far away, but Moose has a good heart - and he's determined to do the right thing. Quirky, cool and thought provoking - a fab read.

5. Michael Morpurgo, Kensuke's kingdom.
Again, I haven't met a Michael Morpurgo book I didn't like. Although my favourite of his is the tearjerker Born to run, for a "feelgood" choice I'd have to go for Kensuke's kingdom. It's a modern day take on Robinson Crusoe, an adventure story that is at once dramatic, scary, mysterious and full of warmth. Michael is shipwrecked on an island in the Pacific and befriends a Japanese man still in hiding after the end of the second world war. It's a modern classic.

6. Sarah Lean, A dog called Homeless.
Sometimes, a new book comes along that just blows your socks off. A dog called Homeless is different - simple, compelling, heartbreaking but totally wonderful - one of those good-to-be-alive books. It's about friendship, family and learning to heal and there's a big, unruly, wolfhound too! When I finished this book I turned back to the start and began reading again - I just didn't want to let it go.

7. Sophia Bennett, The look.
I wasn't sure I wanted to read a book about a girl who wants to be a model... but oh boy was I wrong! This is well written, warm, witty and so much more than a cool teen read. Sophia Bennett's Threads series is fab, but The look is better still. It tackles a very difficult and emotional subject with sensitivity and care, and mixes in plenty of smiles along the way and there's a happy ending. One of the best books of the year!

8. Frances Hodgson Burnett, The secret garden.
This is a book I read as a child, a story from a faraway time about hardship and struggle that ends in the most amazing affirmation of life. As orphan Mary's ability to love and trust begins to grow, so does the garden she is secretly caring for and those two things together can just about work miracles. I loved the glimpses of a time gone by, and also the glimpses of the natural world. This is an uplifting book about making a family (and a garden) from the ruins of hurt and sadness, and I still love it now.

9. Sam McBratney, Guess how much I love you.
I fell for this book when my kids were toddlers. I read to them over and over and I loved it just as much as they did. Yes, it's a picture book but it says everything that needs to be said about love. In our house, and thousands of others across the world I suspect, "All the way up to the moon and back" will always be shorthand for "I love you!"

10. Lisa Clark, Think pink.
If every girl had a copy of this book, the world would be a brighter, happier place! Think pink is about learning to see the world through your very own rose-tinted glasses, putting a positive spin on life and building your confidence and self-esteem. Lisa Clark, Mizz mag's life coach, knows exactly how it feels to be a muddled teen - and exactly how to help. Essential reading for every pre-teen/ young teen.

Fev 6, 4:28 pm

Children's Books Top Tens / Emma Barnes's top 10 books with wolves
Guardian, 2012-08-09.

Emma Barnes is the author of several books for children, including Jessica Haggerthwaite : witch dispatcher about a scientific daughter and her magic-mad mum, and How (not) to make bad children good, a comedy of morals about a naughty child and a Guardian Agent.

"The fairytale Big Bad Wolf has long been the archetypal villain of children's fiction: the ferocious predator with gleaming teeth that you might meet if you venture too far into the forest. He still lives on, sometimes in more subversive versions of the traditional fairytale. Meanwhile, his distant cousin, the werewolf, romps through countless films and young adult novels, showing that wolfish monsters still retain their ability to thrill and terrify.

But there is another side to the wolf. These intelligent, highly social animals, with their hierarchies and loyalty to the pack, also invoke strong feelings of sympathy in many humans. Pushed to the very edges of the human world, they represent a wildness that we seldom meet or experience for ourselves, but in which there is something appealing as well as dangerous.

My own book, Wolfie, sprang from the idea that a young girl might, as many children do, long for a dog...but end up with something rather different. Her new companion, Fang, is not the Big Bad Wolf of traditional tales, indeed in many ways she is a most civilized creature, but she retains that edge of danger that belongs to any wolf...yes, even the ones that talk."

1. Little Red Riding Hood.
First written down by Charles Perrault in the 17th century, this story has never lost its hold on our imagination. A little girl in a red cape, with a basket full of goodies, ventures into the big, dark forest...and what does she find? There have been many versions, some highly grisly (Red Riding Hood and Grandma both get eaten), others more cheerful and, of course, there is Roald Dahl's rhyming twist on the tale: "The small girl smiles. Her eyelid flickers. She pulls a pistol from her knickers." As long as people are telling stories, they will be telling and retelling Red Riding Hood.

2. The three little pigs.
Another outing for a Big Bad Wolf, this time in pursuit of three innocent little piggies. Who doesn't relish the words: "I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house down!" However, Jon Scieszka in The true story of the three little pigs has written it from the wolf's point of view, explaining how he only wanted to borrow a cup of sugar from his porcine neighbours!

3. Jan Fearnley, Mr Wolf and the three bears.
Mr Wolf is having a party for Baby Bear's birthday – only then spoilt brat Goldilocks turns up, determined to spoil the show. But she hasn't reckoned on Grandma Wolf, who soon gets busy in the kitchen... There's a very wicked twist to this story which young children enjoy (as might anyone who has suffered from gatecrashers). Although there are many subversive fairytales to choose from, I particularly like this picture book, with Grandma all twinkly-eyed in her cap and apron, and lots of yummy recipes.

4. Catherine Storr, Clever Polly and the stupid wolf.
In this marvellous collection of stories, Polly is pursued by a wolf who, in the traditional manner of fairytale wolves, is determined to make a meal of her. Polly, though, has enough native wit and resourcefulness to out-smart anybody, and at times you feel sorry for her opponent. Many of the stories are twists on traditional fairytales, although at one point the wolf is captured and put in a zoo, where he has to rely on Polly to come up with a plan to get him out. I especially love the wolf's favourite poem, which begins, "Monday's child is fairly tough, Tuesday's child is tender enough..." and which the wolf explains, "makes you feel like you understand life for the first time, like proper poetry".

5. Ian Whybrow, Little Wolf's book of badness.
Poor Little Wolf! He doesn't want to be bad, he just wants to stay at home with Mum and Dad and baby brother Smellybreff. But his parents reckon his worrying niceness must be nipped in the bud, and they send him off to Uncle Bigbad at Cunning College. Here he can learn the Nine Rules of Badness, and hopefully become as wild and wicked as Dad. This story, the first of a series, is told through Little Wolf's letters home, and is very funny.

6. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little house in the big woods.
A bit of a cheat this, as when I looked back over the book I realised that it was not as wolf-ridden as I remembered, with many of the encounters involving panthers or bears. But my abiding impression is of the child Laura, tucked up in her trundle bed, while outside the wolves howl in the snow around her log cabin. It's a detailed depiction of a vanished world where wolf and human lived in close proximity: trappers like Laura's father soon depleted the game, and the wolves and other creatures began their long retreat into the shrinking wilderness.

7. J. R. R. Tolkien, The hobbit.
Who can forget Thorin's company of 12 dwarves, Gandalf the wizard and Bilbo the hobbit, all perched in the pine trees, while below them circle the wild wargs? It causes Bilbo to frame a proverb: "Escaping goblins to be caught by wolves!" although, of course, they do escape the wargs, with the help of Gandalf's fire-throwing staff and the eagles of the Misty Mountains. Like much of The hobbit, it is an episode that manages magically to combine the funny and the frightening, although Bilbo has not seen the last of the wargs!

8. Rosemary Sutcliff, Warrior scarlet.
Drem is a Bronze Age boy with a withered arm. In his tribe, initiation into manhood requires the slaying of a wolf. Drem trains with a spear, one-handed, but when the time comes his wolf escapes, and Drem is sent into exile with the "half-people". Only as winter falls, and the wolves close in on the lambing pens, does Dream get another chance. Although the wolves are savage predators in this book, they are propelled by hunger, just like the men that hunt them. And one of Drem's closest friendships is with Whitethroat – his wolf-sired hound.

9. Jack London, White Fang.
This classic book was maybe the first to really try and enter the mind of a wolf (in fact a hybrid half-wolf, half-dog) in its own terrain. Jack London is wonderful at creating a feel for the wilderness, in its beauty and harshness, and the violence of both animal and human worlds. A compelling read – but not an easy or comforting one.

10. Michelle Paver, Wolf Brother.
The first book in the Chronicles of ancient darkness is set in a magic-filled hunter-gatherer world some six thousand years ago. Torak's father has been killed, leaving his son to confront an evil, bear-shaped demon. Wandering alone, Torak comes across an orphaned wolf cub, and adopts it as his companion. A fast-paced adventure, in which some of the story is told from the perspective of the wolf.

And a bonus one because I can't bear to leave it out:

Jean Craighead George, Julie of the wolves.
This Newbury Award Winner is the story of a 13-year-old Inuit girl, Miyax (or Julie, to her Americanised friends), who runs away from an arranged marriage, into the icy Alaskan wilderness. There she eventually learns to communicate with, and is adopted into, a pack of wolves. It is a beautiful but poignant novel about the changes brought by modern technology and civilisation, and of a girl stuck between two cultures. As you might expect, things don't go well for the wolves either.


As this is a children's top tens, with no BTL comments, I'm going to take the opportunity to mention Bryce Thomas's Rhamin. You know what? I have no idea of the plot, or the writing. But it was probably the first book my #2 bought (out of my pocket) completely independently of fashion and peer pressure, and certainly the first proper book she re-read off her own bat. So I can say it's a good read.

Also Eugene Trivizas's The three little wolves and the big bad pig, a twist on the familiar story with illustrations by the ever-wonderful Helen Oxenbury, available in various languages besides English, including at least Portuguese, Spanish, French, and in our case, Welsh.

Fev 7, 5:34 am

Children's Books Top Tens / Emily Gravett's top 10 animal picture books
Guardian, 2012-08-16.

Author/illustrator Emily Gravett has won numerous prizes for her work, including the Kate Greenaway medal, the Nestle children's book prize bronze award and the Booktrust early prize. Her books include Wolves, Meerkat mail, Orange pear apple bear, Monkey and me, Little mouse's big book of fears, The odd egg, Spells, Blue chameleon, Dogs, Wolf won't bite, The rabbit problem and Again! Her latest picture book, Matilda's cat, is an affectionate and funny look at the relationship between a little girl and her cat.

"There is no better combination than animals and picture books. Whereas sometimes using a human being in a book can feel a bit . . . wrong (just imagine substituting a man for Dr Seuss's cat in Cat in the hat!) animals can cross gender, race, age and species boundaries."

1. Alexis Deacon, Slow loris.
This picture book informs us that lorises are . . . very . . . slow, and spend most of their time sleeping. But this particular loris has a secret (which I won't ruin for you). You'll just have to read the book, which is no hardship as Alexis Deacon is one of the best illustrators working today. His drawings are so beautiful they make me want to weep.

2. Viviane Schwarz, There are cats in this book.
Ah! This book is such good fun. Viviane Schwarz's cats are bold and bright and very, very friendly. The cats in this book talk directly to the reader inviting us to help them turn pages and flaps, and generally get involved.

3. Judith Kerr, Mog the forgetful cat.
I think that I own the whole Mog series, right from my dog-eared 1975 edition of Mog the forgetful cat to 2002's Goodbye Mog (I'm so glad she lived to a ripe old age). I can't imagine any child growing up without Mog and the Thomas family in their life. Perhaps someone should pass a law? Anyway, Mog rules supreme when it comes to cat books. A "truly remarkable cat!"

4. Werner Holzwarth & Wolf Erlbruch, The story of the little mole who knew it was none of his business.
This is the tale of a little mole who emerging from his hole one morning has something rather nasty land upon his head. The book is his quest to find out "who has done the business on his head". The illustrations are sketchy and quirky with rather beautiful hand drawn text but, best of all, this book is very, very funny.

5. Dr Seuss, The cat in the hat.
I'm a Dr Seuss fan. When my daughter was young I could easily sit and read 10 Dr Seuss's back to back. Not getting tripped up on the tongue twisters was a matter of some pride to me. We still quote a passage from The cat in the hat at each other regularly. "It is fun to have fun, but you have to know how" - and this book epitomises fun.

6. Catherine Rayner, Ernest.
Ernest is the story of a moose who is so big that he can't fit inside the book. Poor Ernest "squidges, squodges and squeezes", but STILL can't fit in. The solution is very impressive! There is something beautifully soft and tactile about the illustrations in this book. If Ernest really can't fit in his book, I'm sure I could squeeze him into my house instead. I'd really like to stroke his nose it looks so velvety.

7. Ed Vere, Banana.
This book is brilliant. Two monkeys, one banana and very little text add up to a truly engaging book about sharing. Ed Vere uses bright colours and chunky drawings to play out this little drama to perfection.

8. Lauren Child, That pesky rat.
I've got a real soft spot for rats, and can identify with this street rat's desire to be someone's pet. There's something so endearing about him lying in his little crisp packet.

9. Pat Hutchins, Rosie's walk.
I can remember Rosie's walk being read to me as a child, and it was one of the first books I bought for my daughter. Rosie the hen goes for a walk, oblivious to the (rather clumsy) fox hot on her tail feathers. Rosie arrives home safe and sound and none the wiser, but we've had lots of fun along the way.

10. Polly Dunbar, Dog Blue.
I first saw this book when I was an illustration student and fell in love immediately. It tells the story of Bertie who loves the colour blue, and dreams of owning a blue dog. Polly Dunbar's illustrations are elegant and charming and although this book is simply drawn it is incredibly expressive.

Fev 8, 5:51 am

Children's Books Top Tens / Amnesty teen takeover / Debi Gliori's top 10 books with pictures that open your eyes to the world.
Guardian, 2012-08-22.

Debi Gliori is well-known for both her picture books and her novels for children and has been shortlisted for all the major prizes, including the Kate Greenaway award (twice) and the Scottish Arts Council award. Debi was the Shetland Islands' first children's writer-in-residence. She published her first book in 1990 and the title she has written and illustrated include No matter what, The trouble with dragons, Stormy weather, The scariest thing of all and, most recently What's the time, Mr Wolf? for Bloomsbury.

1. Quentin Blake & John Yeoman, Our village.
A glorious light-filled celebration of diversity; the characters stayed with me for a long time. Reminiscent of a bygone way of village life I'm certain still exists in parts of rural Scotland, I loved this book for its depiction of the wide variety of human characters. There's everyone you could imagine: farmers, washerwomen, bakers, watch-menders, a strange old lady living alone with too many cats, and the Podgsons who run the general store where you can buy everything from chocolate mice to one elastic-sided boot, and all rendered in Quentin Blake's deceptively effortless line. When my children were small, we spent many a happy hour spent naming all the disparate items in that picture. The final night-time skating scene is a work of genius.

2. Hans Wilhelm, Tyrone, the dirty, rotten cheat.
Tyrone is a bully with vast teeth and even vaster gums who picks on smaller dinosaurs. When the dinosaurs decamp to Swamp Island for a week of eating, playing and sleeping under the stars, the stage is set for Tyrone to wreak havoc. Great dinosaur expressions and a sympathetic but non-wussy message about bullying make this a winner for little boys.

3. Munro Leaf & Robert Lawson, The story of Ferdinand.
The best anti-bloodsports book ever. AND drawn in black and white. Proving, as if proof were needed, that less is more. If you haven't come across this classic from the 1930's, then acquire a copy now. No really, I'm not joking - this is an essential part of every child's library. The writing is pitch perfect, the drawings divine and the "heart" of the book is impeccable.

4. Cressida Cowell & Neal Layton, That rabbit belongs to Emily Brown.
Money and privilege can't buy you love. Emily has glorious flights of imagination when she plays with her rabbit, Stanley. The Queen has pots of money, flunkeys galore, a penchant for calling rabbits "bunny-wunnies" and no imagination whatsoever. Cressida has written a joyous winner here and Neal has worked his own particular brand of magic and together they have made a great book which we treasure here at Gliori Schloss.

5. Shaun Tan, The red tree.
Everything Shaun does makes me think, but this one made me cry. In public. In a bookshop. I'll stick myself out on a limb here and say that this book provides the most accurate map of the territory of clinical depression that I've ever seen. It's not a comfortable read, but if someone you love has suffered or is suffering from depression, it certainly goes a long way towards describing what it feels like to be inside their head. In my humble opinion. And the illustrations are breathtaking.

6. Martin Waddell & Helen Oxenbury, Farmer Duck.
Orwell for tots, but better. This is one of those texts that has entered our family lexicon. "How goes the work?" we yell if one of us is doing some particularly onerous task (rodding drains, peeling 20kg apples, stump-grinding or whatever) and back will come the reply "Quack!" - an echo of Waddell's lazy farmer's question to his hard-pressed animals. Like Orwell, the animals revolt, but in Oxenbury's wickedly observant hands, the story achieves almost vertical lift-off. Her hairy, reclining farmer in bed with chocolates and tabloids is a work of loathsome genius; her put-upon Duck ("sleepy and weepy and tired") makes one want to take him home for serious cossetting. Brilliant.

7. Bob Graham, Max.
Has one of the best lines ever written in a children's book; "Let's call him a small hero...doing quiet deeds. The world needs more of those." Superbaby Max, son of superheroes Captain Lightning and Madam Thunderbolt, doesn't quite conform to family expectations. At least, not at first... As ever, Bob Graham's books are deceptively gentle, but resonate powerfully for years after we read them.

8. Quentin Blake, Zagazoo.
All of life is here, skewered under the pointy pen of one of the finest illustrators ever to grace the pages of children's books. From babyhood – "a strange-looking parcel" - through the wailing bat and warthog years to the "strange hairy creature" of, I assume, teenagehood, Blake makes us see ourselves, in the words of Robert Burns, "as others see us". And thanks to the power of Mr Blake's pen, when I look in the mirror these days, the image that greets me is that of a pelican. Damn it.

9. Dr Seuss, The lorax.
I have to confess that I'm not a Seuss fan. Can I say that without being lynched? As a child, the drawings used to annoy and confuse me and thus, I never warmed to the books. The drawings still annoy me, but oh - this text - this should be required reading as part of the national curriculum. Here, in a nutshell is what went wrong with capitalism. Or, here in a nutshell is why we cannot keep on having infinite material expansion in a finite world.

And finally, since we're on that subject, I'd like to mention

10. Liz Garton Scanlon & Marla Frazee, All the world.
Lest we forget; the world is a beautiful place. "Hope and peace and love and trust. All the world is all of us." An affirmation, if you will. Life is precious. We are family. All the world is all of us.


Pre-moderated comments from the Guardian's (or Amnesty's?) panel of tame teens:

"A lot of books - Mockingbird, Harry Potter, When you reach me, and The underneath mainly. Books that are written by the main character in the story who has a certain disability (e.g autism) also make you see the world from a different point of view."

"I think Lily alone, by Jacquline Wilson, made me think differently about poorer people and how hard it is for them!"

"Wow, this is a difficult question!! Here are a few that popped into my head:
1) The curious incident of the dog in the night-time
2) Oranges are not the only fruit
3) Tuck everlasting
4) The perks of being a wallflower."

"I know that you mentioned The giving tree in the list, but I'd like to mention it again, because it has made me cry every single time :)
And on the same note, I love the book Guess how much I love you."

"Gregory Maguire's Wicked was one. The Absurdists: Waiting for Godot & R+G are dead. Harry Potter of course. The Great Gatsby. Meg Rosoff's How I live now. M.T. Anderson's Feed. Jean Craighead George's My side & Julie of the wolves."

"To kill a mockingbird."

"The little prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. My sweet-orange tree, by José Mauro de Vasconcelos."

"When I saw the discussion about books which promote and make you think about the human rights I immediately thought about The boy in the striped pyjamas by John Boyne. Through the eyes of two young children you really see the absurdity of war and racism."

Fev 9, 12:10 pm

Children's Books Top Tens / Amnesty teen takeover / Sara Grant's top 10 books that entertain and inspire
Guardian, 2012-08-22.

Sara Grant was born and raised in a small town in the Midwestern United States. Dark parties, her first young adult novel, is a dystopian thriller touching on human rights, diversity, identity, and forbidden love. Sara lives in London.

"One person can make a difference. It's the theme that runs through the stories I write and the books I cherish. It's also the foundation of the amazing work Amnesty International has accomplished over the years. Amnesty harnesses the power of ordinary people from around the world and encourages them to stand up for human rights.

"At the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I had the chance to discuss with teachers and librarians how books can serve as conversation starters on human rights, using my debut novel Dark parties as an example.

"For me, writing fiction is an exercise in creativity and debate. I want to challenge myself as a storyteller but also consider important issues. I write not because I have the answer but because I'm interested in the question. Dark parties asks – what would happen if a country closed its borders to people and ideas? I wanted to explore issues of personal and national identity as well as diversity and human rights.

"My 16-year-old main character Neva lives in a country that has closed itself for hundreds of years under an electrified dome. Its resources are dwindling and its citizens are dying. Neva and her best friend dream of a life outside this protective dome. They stage a rebellion and uncover secrets and lies that threaten Neva's friends, family and country. She must decide what she will sacrifice for freedom.

"I enjoy writing and reading books that entertain and explore interesting and timely issues. But there's a fine line between raising issues and preaching a point of view. Some teen books preach rather than persuade. Listed below are 10 books that strike the right balance between pace and meaning and dare their readers to think for themselves."

1. Janne Teller, Nothing.
Pierre Anthon stands up in class and declares "nothing matters". His classmates decide to prove him wrong with tragic and astonishing consequences. This book will shock you. There were moments when I wanted to put it down, moments that I swallowed back disgust at the truth being told, but it's a real meaning of life book and truly original.

2. Harper Lee, To kill a mocking bird.
Don't be put off by adults telling you this book won the Pulitzer or that it's good literature. I'm ashamed to say I only read it a few years ago and wished I hadn't waited so long. The story is captivating and honest. Its message of equality rings as true today – and is as important – as when it was written in 1960.

3. Davida Wills Hurwin, Freaks and revelations.
This book – based on a true story – is heartbreaking. I was absolutely sobbing by the end. Not choked up or misty-eyed but sobbing. Told in alternating perspectives, it follows two teens – one a neo-Nazi and the other gay – on their crash course to a hate crime that will change both their lives. It's tragic and yet hopeful.

4. Annabel Pitcher, My sister lives on the mantelpiece.
The voice of narrator 10-year-old Jamie leaps off the page. I loved his quirky way of looking at life. His family has been devastated by a terrorist act. The book tackles many issues – racism, injustice, and bullying to name a few – but at its heart is a wonderful story of friendship and acceptance.

5. Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games.
Sure, you can take this book at face value. It's an action-packed dystopian tale of a fight to the death. But there's also a commentary on society's perverse fascination with reality television. Heroes and villains are created and lives destroyed all in the name of entertainment.

6. Libba Bray, Going bovine.
This story takes you on an ab-so-lutely bizarre quest. Cameron, a teen boy suffering from mad-cow disease; a dwarf; a punk angel; and a garden gnome, who may be a Viking god, search for a cure for Cameron's fatal disease – and the meaning of life. You will need to read this book more than once to absorb its rich layers. Get ready for a real test of your imagination and, well, your sanity!

7. Malorie Blackman, Noughts and Crosses.
This is a Romeo and Juliet-style romance but it's so much more. Its premise turns prejudice upside down. It's one of those books that propels you to the final page but stays with you long after you've closed the book.

8. Jennifer Donnelly, A gathering light.
This is a story within a story about two young women whose lives link in the summer of 1906 at Big Moose Lake. The end of one life is revealed in letters discovered by the other. There's murder and romance, but at its core is one young writer struggling to realise her dream. I've read this book twice – once for sheer pleasure and the second time with pencil in hand. I wanted to dissect it and figure out how it captivated me in a way few books have before or since. I realised that I may be able to diagram its many plots and list its cast of characters but what Donnelly has created takes a little bit of magic.

9. Maya Angelou, I know why the caged bird sings.
This is the only non-fiction title on my list. The beloved American poet recounts her tumultuous childhood. It's an inspiring story of one girl's ability to overcome racism and violence and still be able to find beauty and poignancy in the world.

10. Shel Silverstein, The giving tree.
Ok, this isn't a teen book. I received this picture book when I was a child, and it still touches me every time I read it. It's about one boy's love for a tree and vice versa – and unconditional love. The plot may sound strange but the book demonstrates that few words and the starkest of illustrations are necessary to capture your heart.

And because it's difficult to stop at 10, I'd like to direct you to two other book lists. I'm part of a group of authors who create fiction for teens. We've joined forces because our books deal with important issues such as alcoholism, asylum seekers, knife crime and medical ethics. I'd recommend any book by EDGE authors. You can check out our books and our list of edgy reads at: Amnesty also has developed a list of inspiring books. Visit the education section of the Amnesty site for their reading list at

I hope these books will inspire you but I also hope you'll do more than read about rebellion. Be part of the change that Amnesty makes in the world every day. Amnesty campaigns to protect people wherever justice, fairness, freedom and truth are denied. I only wish the stories of injustice and oppression on their website were fiction. Visit and find out how you can make a difference.


The second part of the Amnesty International's "teen takeover" of Guardian's Children's Books Top Ten column. What a lot of apostrophe s's.

Fev 10, 3:47 am

Patrick Keiller's 10 favourite books with pictures
Guardian, 2012-08-29.

"Many publishers find it difficult to include visual material in books. Among the exceptions are Tate Publishing, which recently published The possibility of life's survival on the planet, a short book to accompany an exhibition The Robinson Institute, at Tate Britain, which includes 71 images, nearly all colour, and Reaktion Books, who published Robinson in space, with 217 colour images, in 1999. Here are 10 books that combine images and text, in the order in which I encountered them."

1. Beatrix Potter, The tale of Samuel Whiskers or The roly-poly pudding.
On page 47 (of the 1987 edition): "He groped his way carefully for several yards; he was at the back of the skirting-board in the attic, where there is a little mark * in the picture." The accompanying drawing is of the interior of an empty room, its door open, with an asterisk on the skirting board. Like many others who have created works that include both pictures and text, Beatrix Potter was already an artist before she began to write.

2. Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island.
Emma Letley's introduction to the 1985 OUP paperback quotes Stevenson's stepson Lloyd Osbourne: "… busy with a box of paints, I happened to be tinting the map of an island I had drawn. Stevenson came in as I was finishing it, and with his affectionate interest in everything I was doing, leaned over my shoulder, and was soon elaborating the map and naming it … "Oh, for a story about it," I exclaimed, in a heaven of enchantment, and somehow conscious of his own enthusiasm in the idea." In a footnote, Letley adds: "Stevenson, however, claims it was his map, and not Lloyd's, that prompted the novel."

3. Le Corbusier, Towards an architecture.
Of Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, the anonymous editorial of The blind man (assumed to have been written by Beatrice Wood) famously asserted in 1917 that "the only works of art America has given (us) are her plumbing and her bridges". Such appropriation of engineering was perhaps even more widespread among architects: in October 1920, "Three reminders to architects: first reminder: volume" by "Le Corbusier" – the newly-adopted pen name of the architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret – was published in the first issue of L'Esprit nouveau, the journal founded by Jeanneret, Amédée Ozenfant and Paul Dermée. The essay includes nine remarkable photographs of grain elevators, "the magnificent FIRST-FRUITS of the new age". It was the first of 12 reprinted in 1923, slightly altered, in Vers une architecture: 'This book is implacable. It is unlike any other', proclaimed its publicity. Reyner Banham described it as "one of the most influential, widely read, and least understood of all the architectural writings of the 20th century". In his translator's note in the 2007 English-language edition, John Goodman suggests that "the book is as much prose poem as polemic, and that its vital analogies with modernist French literature – notably Mallarmé, greatly admired by Le Corbusier – should not be played down".

4. D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, On growth and form.
This book, published in 1917, analysed the mathematical and physical aspects of biological processes to reveal, with the aid of indispensable drawings, how the forms of living things develop. In his 1961 abridgement, John Tyler Bonner wrote that Chapter IX "On the theory of transformations, or the comparison of related forms" is "the most celebrated chapter". The book has influenced generations of artists, architects and designers. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe were among its admirers. Jackson Pollock had a copy in his studio. As a student at the Slade, Richard Hamilton designed the Institute of Contemporary Arts' contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain, the exhibition Growth and Form, a celebration of Thompson's work, opened by Le Corbusier.

5. André Breton, Nadja.
Breton's novel begins "Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I 'haunt'." The flânerie that follows is located with a series of exemplary photographs by the photographer Jacques-André Boiffard, the first of which is captioned "My point of departure will be the Hôtel des Grands Hommes" and is an image of the Hôtel des Grands Hommes, 17 place du Panthéon, in front of which can be seen, on a stone plinth, a large bronze statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau that was melted down during the Occupation. Rousseau's unfinished Reveries of the solitary walker was published posthumously in 1782.

6. Laurence Sterne, The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, gentleman.
Sukhdev Sandhu writes: "Linearity, Sterne believed, amounted to little more than selfishness." Sterne's graphic innovations begin with the black page, on page 73 of Volume I – see – followed on page 169 of Volume III by the marbled page ('motly emblem of my work'); in Volume VI, an invitation to the reader to paint Widow Wadman on an empty page provided, and the famously digressive narrative diagrams; in Volume IX, the flourish Corporal Trim makes with his stick, and the blank pages of Chapters 18 and 19, and frequent graphic use of asterisks throughout.

7. Ilya Prigogine, From being to becoming : time and complexity in the physical sciences.
Each chapter of this book, published in 1980, begins with a page on which photographs by Fritz Goro – first one, then two and so on up to nine – demonstrate the evolution of the Belousov-Zhabotinskii reaction, in which chemical scroll waves can appear spontaneously or be initiated by touching the surface of the reagent with a hot filament. Elsewhere in the book, there are images of the development of spiral patterns in slime moulds, and the cover image is of large-scale eddies in Jupiter's atmosphere.

8. W. G. Sebald, The rings of Saturn.
In 1967, John Berger wrote: "It is scarcely any longer possible to tell a straight story sequentially unfolding in time. And this is because we are too aware of what is continually traversing the story line laterally." In September 1999, when I was convalescing from a brief unhappiness, a kind person gave me a copy of The rings of Saturn. I read avidly until the narrative reached Lowestoft, on page 41, where "not a living soul was about in the long streets I went through, and the closer I came to the town centre the more what I saw disheartened me" at which point it was no longer possible to suppress the joy of recognition, and I laughed. The photograph on page 184 of Michael Hamburger's jiffy bags is accompanied by another favourite passage.

9. Bruno Latour, We have never been modern.
Latour's book includes a number of diagrams, among which Figure 1.1 Purification and translation, and Figure 4.3 Them and Us are perhaps the most suggestive. The book also includes an outstanding denunciation: "Heidegger … and his epigones do not expect to find Being except along the Black Forest Holzwege … 'We don't know anything empirical (say the epigones), but that doesn't matter, since your world is empty of Being. We are keeping the little flame of Being safe from everything, and you, who have all the rest, have nothing.' On the contrary: we have everything, since we have Being, and beings, and we have never lost track of the difference between Being and beings."

10. Javier Marías, Your face tomorrow.
Berger's essay continues: "That is to say, instead of being aware of a point as an infinitely small part of a straight line, we are aware of it as an infinitely small part of an infinite number of lines, as the centre of a star of lines" (as a result of his enthusiasm for asterisks, Sterne was known as "The Vicar of Stars"). In 2001, the architect Iñaki Ábalos drew my attention to Javier Marías's All souls and to the latter's having translated Tristram Shandy into Spanish. Last year, once again demob-happy, I read with increasing enthusiasm the three parts of Your face tomorrow, which I must admit do not include that many pictures.


And BTL:

"The annotated Alice in Wonderland with the original illustrations by John Tenniel. Harvard University Press is publishing a new series of annotated Jane Austen novels with lovely illustrations. And of course, any modern reprint of Dickens is always more delightful to read when the text includes the original illustrations by artists like George Cattermole and John Leech. Oh, and Tolkien's great illustrator Alan Lee!"

"Derek Jarman's Garden - photos by Howard Sooley."

"Treasure Island as illustrated by Mervyn Peake. The perfect marriage."

"One fine example that springs to mind - Whale nation by Heathcote Williams."

"One that I would add is Millions of cats by Wanda Gag. It's a wonderful book and any child that I have read it to has loved it. The hand lettered text and the wonderfully detailed illustrations were carefully designed and supervised during printing by Wanda Gag."

"What about "the Cat in the Hat" series by Dr Suess?"

Fev 11, 4:21 pm

Simon Gough's top nine muses
Guardian, 2012-09-05.

Simon Gough was born in 1942. He is a former actor and antiquarian bookseller who now lives in north Norfolk and The white goddess : an encounter, the fictional retelling of the extraordinary events surrounding his relationship with his "Grand Uncle" Robert Graves is his first novel, available from Galley Beggar Press.

"No one and nothing can be more personal to a poet than the muse. To some – the lucky few – she is a reality, the manifestation of the Goddess in human form, able to be seen and touched and scented, gazed upon and inspirationally devoured at will (her will, it must be emphasised). To others, like myself, she can be no more than a figment of imagination, and yet a figment so powerful for the very detachment that I can bring to her conjured presence, undistracted by her "glamour", that however sporadic or shallow the poetic trance I may be granted, however short-lived the silence of mind in which she chooses to materialise, such tributes and sacrifices I offer are at least scrupulous in their integrity.

"For this reason alone, to list my (admittedly random) top 10 muses would be an appalling breach of manners – an Apollonian insult for which I'd never be forgiven, since the original models are only nine in number: "

"Lesbia", as Catullus dubbed his muse, was generally held to be the young Roman matron Clodia Pulcher, sister of the infamous (or famous, depending on your view of Cicero), Clodius Pulcher. She became "the dark muse" of Catullus, inspiring not merely ardent love, passion and adoration, but bitterness, hatred and regret. Apart from that, she also inspired some of the finest love poems (and most scurrilous lampoons) in the history of any language.

William Shakespeare and Mr WH.
There's no reason on earth why a muse should have to be female. Whatever the truth of the matter (and uncertainty still rages in the higher corridors of intellectual power), the identity of "the fair youth", to whom Shakespeare dedicated so many of his sonnets is almost immaterial. The one certainty is that he had a muse, who provoked

But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death drag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st.

John Keats and Fanny Brawne.
Despite their secret betrothal, Keats's unrequited love for the unruly, outspoken Fanny Brawne (whom he first described as a "minx!") drove him to write some of the finest sonnets in English literature , and inspired La Belle Dame Sans Merci, which may well have laid bare a facet of "the mixed exultation and horror that her presence excites". Having visited his bedroom as a boy, on the corner of the Spanish steps in Rome (the walls and ceiling having been scoured after the contagion of his death, and the floor replaced), I can't help but feel that his words "everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear" were written – or at least re-echoed from his deathbed, since such is the power of the muse to kill without pity.

Thomas Hardy, Emma Gifford and Florence Dugdale.
Whatever one might think of Hardy as a novelist, he wrote some remarkable poems. These were inspired more, perhaps, by the muses of guilt and remorse than either by his wife, Emma Gifford, or by his secretary and clandestine lover, Florence Dugdale – both of whom suffered a strange cruelty at his hands. This enigma of Hardy's true inspiration is an example of how the muse can manifest herself in any guise to her chosen amanuensis.

Yeats and Maud Gonne.
Like "Lesbia", Maud Gonne assured herself of immortality by putting her 23-year-old lover through agony: "I have spread my dreams under your feet / Tread softly because you tread on my dreams", wrote Yeats, but Gonne was already strapping on her hobnail boots. The poet proposed to her at least four times, but she refused as often. After 20 years of wooing she finally allowed Yeats to sleep with her. Once. After that, she began sending him letters insisting that artists – and poets particularly – were best inspired under the cruel spell of abstinence. "Why should I blame her that she filled my days / with misery?" Yeats asked himself. When one looks back at the poetry she inspired, why indeed?

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald.
Hemingway loathed Zelda Fitzgerald, claiming that she was an anti-muse to her husband, "constantly making him drink because she was jealous of his working well". But Zelda was one of Fitzgerald's most powerful inspirations. His tragic, flawed masterpiece Tender is The Night is not only about her, and for her, but even partly written by her, since Fitzgerald was famously keen on including excerpts from her diaries in his writing. Given the choice between the bombastic Hemingway and the flawed but touchingly sensitive Fitzgerald, I'd have left them both to sort it out, and invited Zelda out to dinner.

Bob Dylan and Sara Lowndes.
"Sara, Sara, so easy to look at, so hard to define, with her eyes like smoke and her prayers like rhymes" – and the whole of Blood on the tracks telling us what it's like to have to lose her. Her inspiration is undoubtedly seminal to Dylan's seemingly immortal reputation as a poet and songwriter.

Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac.
It was the over-excited, fulsome, improvised prose in a letter from Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac that inspired Kerouac's benzedrine-fuelled nights of automatic writing, and the manuscript which would eventually become On the road. Cassady was also the star of that novel, the instigator of the road trips that gave it its name and (as many say), of Kerouac's own hidden passion. Allen Ginsberg, meanwhile, made no attempt to hide his lust for Cassady, calling him "the secret hero" of his own poems.

Robert Graves and Margot Callas.
I leave my great-uncle until last, since of all poets he deserves the crown of myrtle for his endless quest into the history, meaning and powers of "The White Goddess", often at risk to his own life. As for his muses, I can only speak of Margot Callas, the most potent of all. Her effect on Robert and on his love poems was so devastating, so mesmerising to watch as his own prophecies were relentlessly and cruelly fulfilled, that even now, from a distance of more than 50 years, the agony he endured in a human sacrifice of his own (and the Goddess's) fatal devising, is as vivid and painful to me now as it was then. In order to escape the coming "bloodbath" as Robert described it, Margot chose to burn herself out, and to her everlasting credit has remained indifferent to her past ever since.


There are only seven BTL comments:

"It is perhaps worth noting that it is not just male writers who can have muses. Elizabeth Smart (By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept) had the poet George Barker, Marguerite Duras had the 'North China lover' of her teenaged years who inspired several of her books, and so on."

"James Joyce and Nora Barnacle."
"Up to a few months ago I would have agreed completely that was until I read Carol Shloss's Lucia Joyce This is a disturbing read for one who has always taken the trite explanation provided by the plethora of biographers concerning the relationship between James and his daughter Lucia. There is now no doubt in my mind that Finnegan's Wake was inspired by the unique character that was Lucia who appears to be one of the most misunderstood characters or should I say victims of the Joyce family decades of turmoil."
"Of course you mean Finnegans Wake..."

"How can you make a list of poets and their muses without including Petrarch and Laura?"

"Then, of course, you probably should have Dante and his ideal woman, Beatrice. The person he chose to be his guide through Paradise. He met her as a child and loved her from afar ever since. There's also a distinct lack of female writers on the list. I like Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Her Sonnets from the Portuguese are dedicated to her husband, the poet Robert Browning. Some of them are quite touching. Sonnet XIV is interesting because it shows us the relationship from the perspective of the beloved. There's no pursuit involved, it's more concerned with the anxieties of being loved than loving."

"Whenever I think of a Muse these days the first one that comes to mind is Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. Some years ago I read The lives of the muses : nine women & the artists they inspired which briefly examined the unusual relationship between Liddell and Carroll, unique to say the least."

Fev 12, 4:48 pm

Children's Books Top Tens / Andy Mulligan's top 10 school stories
Guardian, 2012-09-05.

Andy Mulligan was brought up in South London, and educated at Oxford University. He worked as a theatre director for 10 years, before travels in Asia prompted him to re-train as a teacher. He has taught English and drama in India, Brazil, the Philippines and the UK. He now divides his time between London and Manila. Ribblestrop was shortlisted for the Roald Dahl funny prize in 2009 and Return to Ribblestrop won the Guardian children's fiction prize in 2011.

"Everyone knows that writers send kids off to school to have unlikely adventures, and readers live lives of vicarious fun and horror. A teacher at my old school banned 'school stories', though. They were collectively preposterous, he said, because school was predictable, safe and filled to the brim with timetabled tedium. The teacher was cross that writers were pulling off some kind of con-trick, and yearned for a book that showed school as it really was.

"My own series, Ribblestrop would annoy him even more. It's a three-part orgy of crazed adventure, and as there's no timetable to get in the way, the children move at will from roof-construction to weapon-smelting, inventing their syllabus according to what's round them. They live dangerous lives, and as there are no rules they have to invent them. Ribblestrop, forever! concludes the series and is another romp through the health and safety legislation, ending – of course – in triumph and celebration."

1. Anthony Buckeridge, The Jennings series.
It was a revelation to me, aged 10, that you could read a book alone and laugh out loud – time and time again. Jennings goes to school is the first one, and they are pure, comic genius. Buckeridge was the Wodehouse of children's literature, conjuring a world set apart, harmless and joyous. Jennings tries so hard, and constantly comes to grief. His best friend Darbyshire is there to help and advise, but is equally lost. It's a world of stamp collections and fire drills, tuck boxes and Latin tests. It's slapstick, farce, misunderstanding, and it's filled with love. It was my first serious addiction.

2. Enid Blyton, The Malory Towers series.
I love these books for the innocence and simplicity of their non-adventures. The girls play jokes on teachers, enter the occasional talent show or dare to swim in the bay when they shouldn't. The joy comes from the friction of character, as the spoiled snob rubs up against the quick-witted lacrosse champion. Darrell is our guide – a rather earnest, obedient everygirl who wants to do well but gets distracted. I found them real, because it was about people struggling to get on with each other. There were no monsters or villains, and I had my nose pressed throughout to a world so intriguing.

3. Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby.
Some children read Dickens, I'm sure of it. In the first part of this epic, young Nicholas gets a freezing stagecoach to frozen Dotheboys Hall – he's to be the new teacher. He witnesses the terrible abuses of wicked principals Mr and Mrs Squeers, who flog the boys with terrifying sadism. It's a truly cynical school, based on real places the writer visited, and when Nicholas snatches the cane and thrashes the schoolmaster…oh, the scent of revolution!

4. J. K. Rowling, The Harry Potter series.
I love Hogwarts because it's a school that lurches from the incredible to the very ordinary, and the children have such human experiences while surrounded by the fantastic. I also love it as Harry's escape from the Dursleys (who I wanted more of, in every book) – there he was, imprisoned in a family that embodied every Dahl-ian vice, and the doors, and the wall, opened…

5. Roald Dahl, Boy.
Most of Dahl's stories carefully avoid school: his heroes go way beyond them. His autobiography, however, lets us glimpse his own school days and the adventures he had. We glimpse the cruelties he endured too, and meet some of the monstrous teachers who must have inspired the repellent, terrifying adults he loved to create.

6. Gene Kemp, The turbulent term of Tyke Tiler.
Tyke is rebel without meaning to be, and the adventures are witty and captivating. There are twists throughout, but the final one is storytelling genius.

7. Louis Sachar, Holes.
This school for bad boys, with Mr Sir and a psychotic warden, is a true chiller. There's a point when the new arrival is shown the absence of fences and gun-turrets. He's invited to run whenever he wants, because he'll be buzzard food in 24 hours. So begins a complex tale told with economy and enormous affection by a mesmerising writer.

8. Kenneth Oppel, Half brother.
This book made me miss a plane, I was so riveted by it. A scientific couple adopt a baby chimp, as an experiment in primate development. Their young son thus has a new brother, and the bonding is real and profound…but fraught with complications. The novel jumps from the boy's life at school, as he tries to negotiate new friendships, to his mesmerising life at the family home – which has become a school of a very different kind. His true, furry friend is growing strong and unpredictable, and we know the friendship can't last. Don't read it in a waiting room: you'll lose track of time.

9. Jill Murphy, The Worst Witch.
I love these books and have often read them aloud to enthralled classes of children. Such a light touch, and so inventive – I think Jill was at the Potter-mine years ago, digging up rich material!

10. Charles Hamilton, Billy Bunter.
No list of boarding schools would be complete without him, and Mr Hamilton is another Wodehouse / Buckeridge. An acquired taste, maybe? Is the language getting a little impenetrable, and the customs just too plain foreign? I hope not. The jokes are so good, and the Bunter character so pitiful…

Editado: Fev 14, 7:14 am

Children's Books Top Tens / My top ten: books of all time by nightfire88
Guardian, 2012-09-07.

1. Harper Lee, To kill a mockingbird.
This is an extremely famous classic about the racism in southern USA and how hard life was for Tom Robinson and his friends and family. It is a very moving book which cuts deeply into your feelings and thoughts.

2. Susan Collins, The Hunger Games.
I love the sense of hopelessness that you feel for Katniss and then the hope as she goes along. It is a classic adventure book involving love, horror and adventure.

3. Andrea Cremer, Nightshade.
A tale of fantasy about people who turn into wolves and are ruled by evil magical beings who use them for bad tidings. Completely engrossing and a roller coaster of a read.

4. Maggie Stiefvater, The scorpio races.
This book is like falling into a whirlpool of emotions. A beautifully written book, the words are well chosen. I love the plot and the strength of the ending.

5. Amy Meredith, Shadows.
A great suspenseful story of love, danger and heroic acts. As this series progresses, it starts to get more for older audiences. Still I enjoyed it all the same.

6. My next book is not entirely a book, at least I don't know if it's a book. The true story of Hachi, a dog who waited at the train station for 9 years, awaiting the return of his deceased owner. It shows the true meaning of loyalty and confirms the phrase 'Mans best friend.' The story brings tears to my eyes.

7. Susan Cooper, The dark is rising.
An epic tale involving magic and fantasy, I found myself completely lost in the story, my eyes hungrily scanning the page.

8. Michal Grant, Gone.
A great book for people searching for emotional books. It channels the emotions very strongly in a way that really effects the reader. You find yourself drowning in their feelings.

9. K. M. Peyton, No turning back.
A story set in ancient Rome. Not only an awesome tale but also full of facts that can teach you things about Rome.

10. L. J. Smith, The forbidden game.
It was a random book that I picked up and couldn't get out of it. A dark tale of kids getting sucked into a game involving their worst fears. I never did look at the author but its an amazing story all the same.

Fev 14, 8:15 am

Miriam Darlington's top 10 literary otters
Guardian, 2012-09-13.

"Humans have always used animals to tell their stories, and children often make their first connection with nature through fables and tales. Tarka the otter was the moment it happened to me. Then came Ring of bright water, and I was smitten.

"Recently I decided to set off solo around Britain in pursuit of otter sightings – I'd never witnessed a real one in the wild and my first port of call was the west coast of Scotland where the elusive mammal is easier to see. Otter country : in search of the wild otter was the result of my journey, and all these otter stories kept me company along the way."

1. Henry Williamson, Tarka the otter.
First published in 1927, Tarka must be the most famous otter ever caught in the pages of a story. The heart-ripping adventure in Williamson's fictional tale tells of a courageous hunted animal. Everything in the story prickles with the otter's-eye-view: Tarka watches the meandering river and listens to its language of sibilant sounds; he plays with the river's "paws of water" and tumbles between its "star-streaming claws". "From his couch of bitten and pressed-down hollow stems, Tarka watched the dragonflies which flew glittering over the water. On a reed beside him was fixed the brittle greyish mask of a nymph… it took the dragonish breath of noon and changed into gleams of scarlet; its eyes grew lustrous with summer fire." Tarka's peace is frequently shattered by the baying of hounds, and his heroism culminates in a dramatic 10-hour hunt where he battles with his terrifying nemesis Deadlock. Anyone who hasn't sprouted whiskers, webs and a tail by the end of this story needs to read it again.

2. Ted Hughes, 'An otter'.
Written years after Tarka but equally sonorous with watery excellence, Hughes's 1960 poem resounds with similar themes and atmosphere. Hughes remarked of Tarka that having read it repeatedly as a boy he felt "it entered into me and gave shape and words to my world". This effect comes through in the lines of Hughes's poem. Its "Underwater eyes, an eel's / oil of water body," dissolve and remake themselves into a "water-gifted" legend, which "Wanders, cries; / gallops along land he no longer belongs to; / re-enters the water by melting". The poem finishes with a poignant warning of the otter's fate at the hands of man, where it "reverts to nothing at all, / to this long pelt over the back of a chair."

3. Seamus Heaney, 'Otter'.
When Heaney published this outstanding poem, Ted Hughes sent him an otter pelt as a congratulatory gift. Interestingly, the poem is about a woman, not an otter, but the object of Heaney's admiration and desire has all the water-gifted qualities of the Lutra lutra clan: "When you plunged, the light of Tuscany wavered / I loved your wet head and smashing crawl, / Your fine swimmer's back and shoulders / Surfacing this year and every year since." Although this loved-one is human, under the poet's amorous gaze she is deeply otter-like in her out-of-reachness: "I sat dry throated on the stones, / You were beyond me." Heaney's thrilling poetry could inspire any woman to limber up and swap her swimsuit for the pelt of an otter.

4. Gavin Maxwell, Ring of bright water.
Although he was only a pet for a year, the adorable Mijbil is cosseted but devoid of wildness. Maxwell lovingly describes his pet otter's sleek beauty and clown-like behaviour: "He was boneless, mercurial, sinuous, wonderful… he was an otter in his own element and the most beautiful thing in nature I had ever seen." Mij was a rare Smooth-coated otter imported from Iraq to the UK by Maxwell himself. The warning signs came early that otters do not make good pets. Mijbil escaped his box on the aeroplane and created the havoc one would expect of a wild otter in an aircraft cabin. Maxwell endured comedy and domestic chaos for the love of his pet, and seductively described the idyll of their life together before it was brutally brought to an end for Mij with the blunt end of a road mender's mallet.

5. Gavin Maxwell, Edal.
Edal was the female replacement for Mijbil, and she too was not a native European otter, but this time a Cape clawless otter from the Niger Delta region of West Africa. She could be lovable, but Maxwell recounts that although she had a strong bond with her owner she would fly into a rage at his guests and famously savaged her young keeper Terry Nutkins so badly that he lost two fingers. She lived 10 years with Maxwell at Sandaig, but died when the house was destroyed by fire.

6. Kenneth Grahame, The wind in the willows.
In this children's classic, Otter and his son Portly are astutely portrayed. He complains disapprovingly of the noisy and materialistic behaviour of the other anthropomorphised animals on the river. He possesses one attribute in particular that is very ottery: he frequently disappears mid-conversation with no consideration for manners. Portly, meanwhile, goes missing and a search party has to be drummed up to find him. These well-observed characteristics of otters and their disappearances will be recognisable to anyone who has attempted to watch otters in the wild.

7. Phyllis Kelway, The otter book.
The story of Juggles, a rescued orphan otter. It is a dated but fascinating account by Kelway of her Damascene moment when as a young teenager she flings off her shoes and wades into treacherous depths to rescue the distressed cub as it is being swept downriver. Accompanied by heart-melting photographs, this is an authentic account of a hunter turned otter-protector and gives a charming glimpse of domestic England in the 1940s.

8. J. C. Tregarthen, The life story of an otter.
Thought to be the story that inspired Williamson to write Tarka, this is the meticulously imagined and realistic life story of a family of otters in West Penwith, Cornwall. The author was a Cornish naturalist, bard and writer who knew his home patch and its wildlife intimately. This story is brutally honest and gives a clear picture of how otters survived a century ago, living in fear of humans.

9. Tudor Humphries, Otter moon.
One of the best children's picture books about otters, this exquisite story is illustrated with dreamily beautiful dusk and dawn depictions of the North Devon landscape and the winding river Torridge, once inhabited by Tarka. The young otter Flibbertigibbet sets out on a fairytale journey to complete a task which takes him far from home. Read it and be enchanted.

10. Mairi Hedderwick, The utterly Otterleys.
Another warmly delightful and realistically portrayed otter story for children. The Otterley family live happily in their cosy burrow. One day Pa Otterley wakes up feeling dissatisfied and the whole family obediently uproots itself in search of a better home. A revealing fable which uses the otter to demonstrate some of the silliest human behaviour, illustrated by the inimitable Ms Hedderwick.


Some BTL comments; there aren't a lot of new recommendations:

"I do like a Tarka masala - like a tikka marsala, but it's a little otter."

"Always loved 'An Otter' by Ted Hughes. I particularly liked the line, "Re enters the water by melting." I'd always thought he was a genius to have come up with that line. It wasn't until I actually saw an otter do it that I realised it wasn't genius, there's simply no other way to describe it."

"Michael Longley, 'Otter cubs':
As I listened to their gasps and sneezes,
They reappeared in memory out there
Among the reeds, and at my feet milkwort's
Sapphire glimmer seemed retina-born."

"Of course, this was supposed to be a top 10 of literary *authors*, but somebody misheard."

Brian Jacques, Redwall ("plenty of crazy warrior otters").

Saki (H. H. Munro), Laura ("features the eponymous heroine reincarnated as an otter who then causes chaos amoungst her old friends and family. Contains Saki's defining icy wit").

Thornton W. Burgess, Little Joe Otter (1925) ("Wonderful children's author and conservationist. And very prolific. His little books should be in every child's library").

Fev 15, 11:51 am

Lawrence Norfolk's top 10 food books of the 17th century
Guardian, 2012-09-19.

"I've spent the past three years researching and writing a novel set in the time of Charles I about an orphan who becomes the greatest cook of his age. John Saturnall's Feast takes place in the vast subterranean kitchens of the (fictional) Buckland Manor where John learns his craft.

"I had thought the cookery of the time would prove crude, heroic rather than sophisticated. But as I read deeper, I realised the early 17th century had been a golden age for English cooking which gloried in such dishes as "Quaking Pudding" and "A Smoothening Quiddany of Quinces", in sauces called "Egerdouce" and "Bukkenade", in mad concoctions of marchpane and gum tragacanth. I discovered these wonderful dishes in the recipe books of the time and in the works of later writers. Here are 10 of the most mouth-watering, and weird."

1. The closet of Sir Kenelm Digby, open'd.
Sir Kenelm was the son of one of the gunpowder plotters who tried and failed to blow up James I. Perhaps surprisingly, his execution proved no hindrance to a friendship between the sons. He was a Groom of the Bedchamber to Charles I and a great collector of recipes, particularly of "Meath". The Closet contains more than 100 recipes for fermented honey-based drinks along with recipes ranging from wild boar to boiled eggs. His recommendation that "collops of bacon with eggs" make a good breakfast is the first reference, I believe, to that staple of English cuisine, the fry-up.

2. Elinor Fettiplace's receipt book.
Hilary Spurling edited this collection from a handwritten book passed down in her family dating from 1604. The recipes, remedies and preserving methods had been gathered over many years, almost like annotations in a family Bible. Spurling not only organises the recipes seasonally, she also tests many, a heroic undertaking in a modern kitchen. She only baulks at Syrup of Tobacco (contributed by Sir Walter Raleigh), originally made from the tobacco grown in large plantations all over the west country. The preparations range from a method of preserving samphire to Syrup of Roses which took either three or 27 days depending on how Lady Fettiplace's eccentric punctuation is interpreted. Tinctures are distilled, delicate cat's tongue biscuits are baked and light sauces and liaisons whisked up: a sophisticated cuisine but presented as typical of the time.

3. John Parkinson, Paradisi in sole Paradisus Terrestris.
The title of the greatest of the 17th-century herbals is a pun on its author's name (Park in Sun); its pages purport to describe and illustrate every plant cultivated in Britain. Thirty-three varieties of cherry are included (though there were more, so many kinds that "I know not well how to express them unto you") and 50 kinds of plum. Two hundred pages are devoted to bulbs. Parkinson was the first man in England to cultivate rhubarb and he describes how he did it. The woodcuts are beautiful (some are reproduced in John Saturnall's Feast) and as a record of the herbs, fruits, roots and leaves available to a cook the book is unsurpassed. Unfortunately it cost a fortune on publication in 1629 and hasn't got any cheaper since. Happily, Anna Parkinson (John's ancestor) has written a biography, Nature's alchemist, which describes the great work well.

4. Thomas Tusser, Five hundred points of good husbandry.
Tusser was a small farmer in Suffolk in the late 16th century who wrote a very long poem in rhyming couplets about farming and rural housekeeping. No one in their right mind would read Tusser for his literary merit but there are local pleasures. Tusser's 10 common faults attributable to cheese is a justly famous list and the verses are a fund of anecdotes on how people filled their bellies. But it is terribly dull.

5. Robert May, The accomplisht cook.
May was the Mrs Beeton of his time. His book is a vast compendium of recipes for just about everything from beef stock to "subtleties" (mad food sculptures themed to honour the highest-ranked guest) with advice on carving thrown in. The book was published in 1660 but the recipes must have been collected long before. May trained in Paris and in his preface he complains of the French cooks who "by their Insinuations, not without enough of Ignorance, have bewitcht some of the Gallants of our Nation with Epigram Dishes". So there.

6. John Evelyn, Acetaria.
Evelyn is better known for his Diary and more respected for his wonderful treatise on trees, Sylva, but his Acetaria (or "Things fit to be spiced with vinegar") is packed with information on "sallets". These were vegetable dishes in general, not just salads. Evelyn lists more than 70 leaves as fit for consumption and one substance – sylphium – that had been extinct for several centuries (but that does not stop him supplying a scholarly history). Sylphium seems to have resembled asafoetida.

7. Gervase Markham, The English housewife.
"Markham's literary reputation has never been high" writes his modern-day editor, but this was on of the great bestsellers of the early 17th century. Markham describes how to prepare remedies against fever, perform simple surgery, distill perfumes, clarify cloudy wine, weave wool, make butter and cook roasts, puddings and pies. A "complete woman", Markham asserts, could do all these things and more. All she had to do was read his book.

8. Through England on a side saddle in the time of William and Mary, being the diary of Celia Fiennes.
Celia Fiennes rode around England in the late 17th century, staying with relatives (she was a grand-daughter of Viscount Saye and Sele) when she could and in verminous inns when she could not. Her journal is not a cook-book but Fiennes' habit of recording the smallest detail, no matter how banal, affords a glimpse into the practicalities of feeding oneself on the road. The lobsters and crabs caught near Poole are very sweet, she tells us, and Somerset cider is plentiful, although she disapproves of the way the orchardmen "press all sorts of apples together". It seems there were "cuvées" of cider in Celia's day.

9. Dorothy Hartley, Food in England.
Hardly a 17th-century book but a classic account of English food that begins with what fuel to use, takes in dining-table design and specifies edible seaweeds before describing the bacteria necessary to make cheese. A vast, chaotic wonderful book.

10. Sir Thomas Browne, The garden of Cyrus.
Why Browne decided to compress the whole of human learning on the subject of formal and ancient gardens into 60 pages of dense convoluted syntax, I do not know. The late W. G. Sebald once told me that not even he could decipher all its sentences. But this strange tract stands as a monument to an age's fascination with the cultivation of the fruits of the earth. After all, however good the cookery, you first had to have something to cook.


Well, that's a first. They say "if you build it, they will come". This column's comments were opened, but comments came they not.

All ten 17th cenury food books featured above are already on LT, so perhaps LT members will have something to say, where Guardian readers did not.

Fev 17, 8:19 am

David Kaiser's top 10 books about quantum theory
Guardian, 2012-09-26.

David Kaiser is Germeshausen Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has received several teaching awards from MIT and Harvard. A fellow of the American Physical Society, his books include Drawing theories apart : the dispersion of Feynman diagrams in postwar physics (2005) and How the hippies saved physics : science, counterculture, and the quantum revival (2011).

"Quantum theory has been with us, in one form or another, for more than a century. Yet the subject still manages to fascinate - and occasionally befuddle - physicists and nonspecialists alike. Some of its central tenets seem outlandishly at odds with our common sense. Particles tunnel through walls; cats seems to hang suspended, at least in Erwin Schrödinger's description, half-dead and half-alive; tiny chunks of matter separated by lightyears retain some "spooky" entanglement. For all that, quantum theory remains the most precise scientific theory in the history of the universe, with some theoretical calculations matching experimental measurements all the way out to 13 decimal places.

"The history of quantum theory has its own richness as well, studded with eccentric thinkers who grappled with quantum theory as the world slid into chaos: scientists who strove to understand the quantum landscape amid the rise of Nazism, the conflagrations of the second world war, the stifling era of red-scare McCarthyism, or the efflorescence of the 1970s New Age movement. The subject's allure for me stems from the unfolding of this epic intellectual quest against the backdrop of all-too-human history. I caught the "quantum bug" as a kid from reading popular books on the subject, and I have long been interested in its surprisingly colorful history as well. One of my goals in writing How the hippies saved physics was to piece together why certain questions at the heart of quantum theory have moved into or out of the mainstream over time.

"The beautiful and beguiling concepts of quantum theory have attracted many expositors, several of whom have responded with grace and whimsy. Together, these books introduce some of the most interesting and consequential ideas of modern physics."

1. Richard Feynman, Robert Leighton & Matthew Sands, The Feynman lectures on physics, volume 3 (1964).
Feynman developed these lectures half a century ago; they remain among the most acclaimed introductions to the subject. With his famously clear exposition, Feynman lures readers into the quantum world: matter that behaves (in some sense) like waves; the role of probability; the implications of the uncertainty principle. Not exactly a popular book—later chapters delve more concertedly into quantitative calculation—this classic introduction rewards disciplined and curious readers.

2. George Gamow, Mr Tompkins in paperback (1993).
Gamow was an accomplished theoretical physicist who helped invent the big-bang model of the universe. He was also an inveterate practical jokester. In 1940 he created the endearing Mr Tompkins, a bank clerk with a hankering for science. Gamow's main trick was to play with the constants of nature so that Tompkins could experience its exotic effects on a human scale. Slow the speed of light, for example, and bicyclists' wristwatches betray all the effects of Einstein's relativity. Increase Planck's constant, and suddenly billiard balls in a pub dissolve into interpenetrating puffs of probability. These lighthearted stories offer a taste of the curiosities of modern physics.

3. P. C. W. Davies & J. R. Brown, The ghost in the atom : a discussion of the mysteries of quantum physics (1986).
This collection derives from a series of radio interviews with leading physicists. The opening chapter provides an accessible, brief introduction to quantum theory and broaches several competing perspectives on how best to make sense of its implications. The interviews capture a moment in time, during the mid-1980s, when several leading physicists began to grapple again with the interpretation of quantum theory, a subject that had largely been shunted aside.

4. David Cassidy, Uncertainty : the life and science of Werner Heisenberg (1992).
This life of quantum architect Werner Heisenberg captures the sweep and drama of his early years. A wunderkind who received his doctorate at 22, Heisenberg introduced his version of quantum mechanics just two years later and followed up soon after that with the famous uncertainty principle. On the heels of those triumphs, Heisenberg struggled to balance his abiding German patriotism with the realities of Nazism — a regime that tapped him to lead the still-controversial German nuclear effort.

5. Walter Moore, Schrödinger : life and thought (1989).
The two principal creators of quantum mechanics, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger, present studies in contrast. Heisenberg's physics were brash and bold, while Schrödinger endeavoured to graft quantum theory onto the familiar machinery of classical physics. Yet in their personal lives, their roles were reversed: Schrödinger was far more adventurous, even bohemian. Walter Moore's deeply researched biography reveals how entwined Schrödinger's scientific efforts were with his at-times shocking personal life.

6. Graham Farmelo, The strangest man : the hidden life of Paul Dirac, mystic of the atom (2009).
Although not as famous as Schrödinger and Heisenberg, Dirac was a master of the subject who clarified many of its early roots and pressed on to build a version that was compatible with Einstein's relativity. In this moving biography, Farmelo reconstructs Dirac's extraordinary scientific accomplishments and his tortured inner life.

7. Louisa Gilder, The age of entanglement : when quantum physics was reborn (2008).
Some of the most provocative features of quantum theory emerged much more recently. The notion of quantum entanglement — which Einstein had dubbed, dismissively, as "spooky action at a distance" — came into its own over the past 50 years. Gilder provides a creative rendering of the newer material with a series of portraits based on physicists' published writings, unpublished correspondence and interviews. Her account blends popular science writing with historical detective work and narrative flair.

8. Nick Herbert, Quantum reality : beyond the new physics (1985).
One of the first popular books to tackle quantum entanglement, this clear and witty account doesn't shy away from the philosophical stakes. Using thought experiments as well as accessible descriptions of real experiments, Herbert explores how several contending interpretations try to account for an underlying reality.

9. Robert Crease & Charles Mann, The second creation : makers of the revolution in twentieth-century physics (1986).
Quantum theory undergirds physicists' understanding of the building-blocks of matter: not just atoms or parts of atoms like electrons and nuclei, but deep into the structure the nucleus itself, into a teeming world of quarks, gluons, and — yes! — the Higgs boson. Though written long before the latest discoveries at the Large Hadron Collider, Crease and Mann captured the drama of physicists' long quest to tease apart the ultimate constituents and forces of nature.

10. Chad Orzel, How to teach physics to your dog (2009).
If physicist Chad Orzel's dog, Emmy, can get the gist of the uncertainty principle, Bell's theorem, and even quantum teleportation, so can you. An expert in the latest efforts to harness the weird features of quantum theory in the laboratory, Orzel has a knack for helpful analogies. Best of all, his book broaches many of the latest ideas and developments, delivering an accessible account every bit as engaging as classics such as Gamow's Mr Tompkins, now brought up-to-date.


My, my. The first of these comments columns with replies nested under the comment being replied to, rather than all just listed in chronological order. Progress. As the newsreader in the H2G2 put it: "Keep banging the rocks together guys".

Manjit Kumar, Quantum ("deserves to be included in the list").

Brian Cox & Jeff Foreshaw, The quantum universe ("the only book I have read that explains semiconductors properly").

David Deutsch, Fabric of reality ("also Ken Campbell's TV series 'Reality on the rocks', which features Deutsch explaining ideas about the multiverse").

"Books about people are a snare and a delusion. If you want to know about physics, any physics, read the people who did the work. They are nearly always much more transparent and illuminating than the stuff produced by others trying to explain what they did by overlaying it with their own struggles to understand. If you want to see Quantum Mechanics in the raw, read Dirac's book. Its leaps of faith and imagination are breathtaking, but it keeps getting the right answers."

Michael Crichton, Timeline ("a novel, that's about time-travel back to the middle ages ... it has an eminently comprehensible explanation of quantum theory as a preface").

Paul Davies, The mind of God ("a superb layman-friendly introduction into quantum physics, largely eschewing complex mathematical explanations in favour of instilling a sense of wonder and awe at how the universe works").

Fev 18, 8:22 am

Children's Books Top Tens / Belinda Rapley's top 10 horse books
Guardian, 2012-09-27.

Belinda Rapley is the author of the Pony Detectives series. She has been immersed in the world of horses since she was 11. She is a British Horse Society Instructor, has a National Diploma in Horse Studies and has spent time working in show jumping and flat racing. Belinda is currently training to be a social worker in children's and young people services between flying around the Norfolk countryside on a huge piebald horse.

"I grew up in London and didn't give horses or ponies a thought until I went for a hack on an Easter holiday in Cornwall. After that I became officially pony obsessed, but consistently failed to convince my parents that our back garden was big enough to keep a pony in. They did, however, let me have lessons and so my weekly jaunt to various riding schools began. To fill the time between lessons I pretended my bikes were horses, set up makeshift jump courses in the back garden to gallop over and ran a riding school and a racing yard in my imagination. Horses weren't particularly big in Croydon, so I found my horsey friends in pony books, getting lost in the pages as I gained my first insight into caring for ponies and dreamt of galloping over open moors and boldly flying huge stone walls. The books became well-thumbed, tatty-cornered familiars and it seemed natural after one inspiring riding holiday to pick up my pen and begin to write the horsey adventures accumulating in my own mind. I wrote my first story when I was up in my bedroom, promising that I was revising hard for my French GCSE.

"I left school and trained with horses, as a riding instructor, in a show jumping yard then at a racing yard. I returned to London to read English at UCL then stayed, writing for various horsey websites before landing a job in publishing. But the horse bug was in my blood and I missed them tremendously; I spent most of my time daydreaming about them. That's when I found myself ensconced in the cosy yard at Blackberry Farm with four new friends and their ponies. I decided to write the kind of stories I would have loved to have read when I was younger, full of pony detail, adventure, friendship and fun; and so the Pony Detectives were born. I write in my study, cat on my lap, still surrounded by the familiar pony books of my childhood."

1. Walter Farley, The black stallion.
Without even opening the front cover I can still picture each page of this book, it left such an impression on me. The version I have was based on the film, with photos throughout. After Alec saves the ferociously temperamental but talented black stallion from a shipwreck, the stallion saves the boy's life when Alec grabs the lead rope and is pulled through the sea to a deserted island. The pair strike up a bond as castaways before being rescued and shipped back to America. They finally end up on the racetrack and The Black proves his almighty speed, winning a prestigious race. For me the excitement and romance of the story is all at the start, when Alec forges a bond with such a creature as The Black. It reminds me even now of the privilege we as humans have of sharing time with such magnificent, powerful animals. The trust they place in us and we in them each time we spend time with them in the field, or sit on their backs, is awesome.

2. Anna Sewell, Black Beauty.
I can't read this book or watch the film without at least one packet of tissues next to me. It's a timeless reminder to me of the fate horses and ponies have – they're the only pet we have which is sold on when they're outgrown, get too old to carry on doing what they were bought to do, or when they're simply no longer wanted. They're likely to experience many different homes and different fortunes through their life. With each move they have to settle into new routines and yards, make new horsey friends and wait while their new owners work out how they tick. Although Black Beauty holds up to the mirror the thoughtless cruelty of the Victorian world she inhabits, I think her voice still serves as a modern day reminder for all horse owners to think of the world from our horse's perspective, rather than our own. My own horse, Zano, will stay in my care forever to avoid any of the fates Black Beauty endured.

3. Michael Morpurgo, War horse.
I read the book by master storyteller, Michael Morpurgo, many years ago and sat next to an unashamedly wailing woman during the awesome National Theatre production. This book is similar to Black Princess, the story of one of Black Beauty's descendents who is shipped off to the first world war before finding peace after its conclusion. Following in the hoof prints of both Black Beauty and Black Princess, this book is written in the first person, with Joey the horse as narrator. It doesn't shy away from the horrors of war for both the humans and horses. I can't read it without wishing that I could change the fate of Topthorn, and in doing so change the fate of some two million other horses who suffered as Topthorn did. Reading War horse is heart wrenching and exhausting, yet ultimately uplifting and it leaves an echo long, long after the last page is turned. For me it has the most powerful impact of any horse story ever written.

4. Ruby Ferguson, Jill's riding club.
The Jill books are enjoyable reads, with Jill and her friends getting into all sorts of old fashioned scrapes. Jill herself is great fun and very likeable, along with her two ponies, Black Boy and Rapide. In this story Jill's friend suggests that she starts up a riding club during the summer holidays. It's a bit of a shambles to begin with, but with some outside help in the shape of Major Hooley they begin to get organised and enjoy treasure hunts, gymkhanas and some jumping. There are lots of incidents packed into the pages and rivalries along the way until the end of the summer heralds the end of the club, and it comes to an end as simply and enjoyably as it starts.

5. Monica Dickens, Dora at Follyfoot.
Another series and it's again difficult to choose my favourite, but this one just edges it. I love Monica Dickens's style of writing and her descriptions of the various equine rejects which live at Follyfoot Farm, the wonderfully named Home of Rest for Horses. The regular horses, ponies and donkeys which feature are all lovingly familiar and their numbers are always being added to, despite the Captain's express instruction to the contrary. The farm's aim is to stop suffering and save lives and each story is filled with ponies and horses in need of both from their clueless or cruel owners. The farm survives on a shoestring and in this story a midnight chase has to be won to help pay for the most recently saved resident, and another recent addition – Barny – saved from the bullet by Dora, is their only chance of victory. I only have one criticism of this series – there weren't enough books in it!

6. Caroline Akrill, Ticket to ride.
This is the third in the Eventing Trilogy by Caroline Akrill. I hadn't read the first two when I bought this book but I became quite obsessed by it when I was younger. Elaine wins a scholarship to pursue her dream to become an eventer but she struggles to shake off the Fanes, who she previously worked for and who still claim a stake in Elaine's talented bay horse – The Legend. The depiction of the Fanes in their dark, dank ancestral home, with their threadbare livery horses and greasy mutton stew was so vivid, I can still picture it now. Elaine's ambition and determination to fulfil her dream also struck me and it was more adult in that sense than the other pony books I was reading at the time.

7. K. M. Peyton, Flambards.
I first read this when I was quite young, and I can still remember why I fell in love with it. It was all to do with Sweetbriar, the kind, gentle and quiet strawberry roan mare, who Christina learns to ride on when she first arrives at her Uncle Russell's house. She was such a sweet mare and I was desperate when she was to be sent to the hunt kennels at the end of what Christina's Uncle Russell deemed her useful life only to be overjoyed when Christina, stable hand Dick and one of Christina's cousins, William, help rescue her from her grim fate. Sweetbriar faded from the books after this, and although I enjoyed the rest, it was always this first, beautifully written and most horsey of the Flambards series with the presence of Sweetbriar, that I loved most.

8. Josephine Pullein-Thompson, Pony Club Cup.
I love the Pullein-Thompson sisters and this book by Josephine was the first in the series about the Woodland Pony Club. The Club's made up of a mishmash of riders who don't take riding too seriously and have disruptive ponies. But a new instructor arrives and stirs the Club into action. The "smashed up" ex-national hunt jockey with a moody temperament isn't exactly a popular choice amongst the riders, but the story charts the transformation of the club under his firm but inspiring leadership. At times it can be a bit too instructive but what made it for me was the feeling of reality the books evoked. There's a list detailing the main characters and their ponies at the start of the book, and the photos on the front and the back cover match them immaculately, all of which convinced me that somewhere in England, the Woodbury Pony Club really did exist. I would have given anything to have joined them.

9. Diana Pullein-Thompson, A pony to school.
Another by a Pullein-Thompson, this time Diana. This offers a window into a world gone by, filled with grooms, afternoon teas, and orchards for the ponies to roam in. It was a world I longed to inhabit. Each character had more than one pony to choose from. The names of the ponies enchanted me – Seaspray, Symphony and Daybreak – it's what inspired me to name all the bikes in my shed at home and go to the "stables" to choose which pony I was going to ride that day. It also has one of the most moving yet unsentimental moments when Seaspray loses her battle against tetanus, which still makes me cry to this day even after reading it a hundred times.

10. Patricia Leitch, The magic pony.
This book is part of the Jinny series, one of my all time favourites. It was so hard to pick just one because each book is gripping – they have so much gritty detail and Jinny's every thought about her life and her horse is shared with the reader; she was a real heroine to me, she was opinionated and made some bad decisions, as she does in this book, but that makes it even easier to identify with her. I desperately wanted to own Shantih, Jinny's arab mare; she matched Jinny's feistiness and was breathtaking and exotic with her circus background. I chose this book because the version I have has such a captivating, mesmeric pony on the cover, which matches the description of the pony in the book perfectly. Just glancing at it stirs up a memory, not of the detail of the story, but of the emotion captured within it.


As usual with the Children's Books Top Tens columns, BTL comments weren't opened.

My young ones really enjoyed Anwen Francis's Siani'r Shetland series, first published in Welsh in six volumes between 2005-2009. I'm fairly sure she then published English versions (not that there's any on LT), much to my childrens' annoyance, who would have preferred her to concentrate on volumes 7, 8 etc. Hey ho.

Editado: Fev 18, 11:18 am

>76 Cynfelyn:, a more recent one, Quantum Supremacy: How the Quantum Computer Revolution will Change Everything

>77 Cynfelyn:, she missed out on Marguerite Henry's tales of Chincoteague. I don't care a fig about horses but I loved those books.

A Smithsonian article about Henry's books and the true story they are based on:

Fev 18, 5:44 pm

> 78 I agree that she missed Henry's books. I wanted a horse when I was a child, and even though we lived on a farm, I couldn't have one. So I lived vicariously through Misty, Stormy, Mustang, and the rest. I wore out my copy of Album of Horses trying to figure out which kind of horse to get if my dad ever said yes.

Fev 19, 8:27 am

>78 Cecrow: >79 Hope_H: This "top 10 horse books" list is probably more parochial than most, with only Walter Farley's The black stallion from North America, and the rest from the UK. With overseas passages for Black Beauty and War horse.

Every country that subscribes to horse and pony books as a childhood genre could probably come up with a similarly parochial list. I'm guessing it's a worldwide genre, and not just an English-language thing.

Fev 21, 5:24 pm

Anthony Horowitz's top 10 apocalypse books
Guardian, 2012-10-04.

"Dystopia. Apocalypse. Death and destruction. There are two problems when you set out to write a book in this vein. The first is that you find yourself very limited as to what you can actually describe. After all, there are so many ways that the world can end – war, disease, alien invasion, zombification etc. And whatever the cause, the end result is going to be pretty much the same: mass starvation, anarchy, long-term suffering and slow death. Unless you're writing a screwball comedy (and there have been attempts), there's hardly going to be much variation in the mood of the book either.

"But for the writer, it's the second problem that is more intractable. The ground has been well covered. There are several masterpieces of apocalyptic fiction that have been produced over the last 100 years – indeed, over the last few thousand if you want to go all the way back to The epic of Gilgamesh. How can you possibly escape their shadow?

"I didn't. When I wrote Oblivion, the conclusion to my Power of Five series, I was thinking of several writers who had gone before me; what follows, my favourite dystopias, could be seen as a confessional. I did my best not to steal outright. But all writing is a form of assimilation. How can any writer not be influenced by what he or she has read before? This is what influenced me."

1. Cormac McCarthy, The road.
Published in 2006, this is the apotheosis of apocalyptic fiction, rightly appearing near the top of every list. It's a grim read, made perhaps grimmer by how little it tells you about the world it describes. The two protagonists, a father and a son, have no names. We never find out exactly what happened to reduce the world to ashes. They carry a gun and two bullets … to use on themselves if they're taken by cannibals. The writing is pared down and poetic. "Ash moving over the road and the sagging hands of blind wire strung from the blackened lightpoles whining thinly in the wind." It's a short, searing, unforgettable book.

2. John Wyndham, The day of the triffids.
I don't suppose children read this in school any more but when I was growing up it was pretty much mandatory. The end of the world is ushered in by a meteor display that blinds everyone who sees it. The hero wakes up in hospital. His eyes were bandaged and so he retains his sight (the same opening must surely have inspired 28 days later, Danny Boyle's excellent zombie film which begins in much the same way). Poisonous walking plants, triffids, then prey on the survivors. I will never forget the description of a blind man staggering out of a ransacked supermarket with what he thinks is a tub of food. In fact it is a pot of paint.

3. Nevil Shute, On the beach.
Another standby from my schooldays; it was written in 1957 and I think just about every young person of the time read it. It starts with a nuclear war between Albania and Italy (which seems rather unlikely in retrospect). The whole of the northern hemisphere has been destroyed and a cloud of poison and radiation is moving towards Melbourne, where the book is set. It doesn't end happily. Pretty much everyone accepts their fate and most of them commit suicide.

4. Stephen King, The stand.
In my view, King did much of his best work early in his career, and this supernatural thriller from 1978 is simply outstanding, particularly the opening section and the description of the manmade flu epidemic known as "Captain Trips", which sweeps across the world. King chooses his horrors with cold-blooded precision … the sequence that has one of the characters, Lloyd Henreid, dying of thirst and starvation locked up in a county jail is particularly vivid. The end of the book is a touch too biblical for my taste but it's still an amazing journey.

5. Meg Rosoff, How I live now.
A book for children – but far more than a children's book. It won both the Guardian and the Whitbread children's fiction awards, and will soon be even better known as it's just been filmed by Kevin Macdonald. The book takes place in the English countryside during the third world war, and centres on a love story between two cousins, Daisy and Edmond, with an unforgettable, bitter-sweet ending. I loved it both for its verisimilitude – the food shortages, the terror of everyday life – and for the fact that (like The road) it simply presents its world without trying to explain it.

6. Raymond Briggs, When the wind blows.
Also, very tentatively, for children, this graphic novel came out in 1982 and featured two stalwart, working-class characters – Jim and Hilda Bloggs – who had already featured in Brigg's rather more cheerful Gentleman Jim. The plot is simple. Jim and Hilda make it to a nuclear shelter just before the UK is bombed. However they have been exposed to radiation and despite their constant optimism and their fondness for each other, they slowly die. It's a brilliant exercise in pathos. What happens to the rest of the UK? We never find out.

7. Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's end.
This is the book that Stanley Kubrick decided not to make into a film. He did 2001: a space odyssey instead. I'm not a huge fan of science fiction but this is an extraordinary novel that starts with the arrival of aliens who, it turns out, exactly resemble the devil. In fact, they're not evil (an early, outstanding sequence has them causing a crowd at a bullfight to share the pain of the bull), but it turns out that they have come to witness the end of the world – which takes place in the final chapters. The final scenes still linger in my mind.

8. Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games.
This, of course, was a major hit both as a book and as a film; I was surprised that both the author and the film-makers were able to get away with such levels of violence. The book presents a brilliantly realised vision of post-apocalyptic America, a country now called Panem, where every year the young are forced to take part in vicious gladiatorial combats (inspired by the ancient story of King Minos and the Athenians). Katniss Everdeen is a great central character and there's a very clever love triangle at the heart of the action. The series ends with revolution and betrayal … the second film is already on the way.

9. Justin Cronin, The passage.
I rather enjoyed this 2010 novel, which adds vampire-like monsters and a lethal virus to the apocalyptic mix. Starting with a top-secret military stronghold in Colorado, where prisoners are being injected with some sort of serum to turn them into super-soldiers, the book leaps 90 years forward to a colony of survivors in a suitably ravaged world. A bit confusing in places, but I'm looking forward to the sequel and to the film which is apparently on the way.

10. The bible.
Perhaps a strange choice to finish with but this is actually where I began. "Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven." It may be short on description, but this still remains one of the most potent end-of-the-world stories, somehow ingrained in my childhood. For spectacular visuals to accompany it, you might look at the works of the Victorian painter John Martin. The story of Noah is equally compelling, but for real gut-churning terror you need to look at the Revelation of St John, with its teeming monsters and buckets of blood. At the end of the day, the bible was the main inspiration for Oblivion.


Hmm. The BTL comments column wasn't opened. So, let me say that of my twenty-nine books tagged "dystopia", "apocalypse" or "post-apocalypse" (half of them admittedly the children's series by Malorie Blackman, Suzanne Collins and Ally Condie), my favourites are probably the classics: Neuromancer, Fahrenheit 451, The chrysalids and The day of the triffids. And the one on top of my Mt TBR is probably Elisabeth Mace, Ransome revisited, where a group of runaway children use a copy of one of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons titles as a guide to bushcraft. (Full disclosure: Ransome is my go-to author).

Fev 22, 10:37 am

Teen book club / Sara Zarr's top 10 family dramas
Guarrdian, 2012-10-05.

Sara Zarr's new novel How to save a life is this month's Teen book club read, and as you all know by now (!) it is about two girls trying to figure out who they are and what family means to them. Here Sara lets you in on the Top 10 family dramas that inspired her story.

"Making lists of favorite things is, for me, a task ridden with anxiety. What if I've accidentally excluded something I love? What if I discover something new tomorrow that I love even more? And for this list, how I do define "family drama"? What is a family, anyway?

"That last question is one I ask myself often, and explore directly or indirectly in all of my novels. It might be the central question of How to save a life, as the three women in the story come together to make something new, something real, of the broken pieces of their lives. I'm sure I'm drawn to these types of stories because of my own background of finding family and home in unexpected places.

"Some of the titles on my list have to do with biological family, and some are about chosen family. Many are both. In no particular order:"

1. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping.
Ruth and Lucille are sisters who grow up without their mother, and are instead cared for by their grandmother and various other female relatives. We see them age from childhood to adulthood, change, suffer, and survive against the backdrop of their small town on a glacial lake. Robinson approaches these people and their strange, fragile lives with tenderness and extraordinarily beautiful writing.

2. Anne Tyler, Ladder of years.
Truly, I could put any book by Tyler on this list. She has made a decades-long career out of bringing families to the page in ways poignant, funny, and recognizable. I think of this story in particular because it follows one woman who thinks she doesn't want her family anymore or the responsibilities that come with it. She leaves, only to find herself almost immediately taking a mother-like responsibility for the strangers she encounters in her new life.

3. Rita Williams-Garcia, One crazy summer.
Every time I tell someone about this book, I start to cry. Delphine, eleven, and her two younger sisters Vonetta and Fern travel across the country to spend the summer with their mom, who they hardly know (and who happens to be a figure in the Black Power movement of the late sixties). Watching these girls try to figure out who their mother is and why she left them breaks my heart in the best way.

4. Sue Ellen Bridgers, All together now.
This is another story of a young girl sent away to stay with family that she doesn't really know. I first encountered it when I was ten or eleven, and the people who inhabit the world of the book made such an impression on me that I've re-read it every couple of years since. It's not well-known, and if there's one underappreciated book in my life that I could magically add to the literary canon, this would be it.

5. Carson McCullers, The member of the wedding.
"Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid." That's McCullers' introduction to the character of Frankie, who is restless and lonely and motherless, and dreaming of fixing her unjoined state via her older brother's upcoming wedding. She imagines herself as the third character in their marriage. As you may imagine, this doesn't go well. A wrenching book by an American master.

6. Anne Frank, The diary of a young girl.
Obviously, this isn't a novel, and it's so much more than a family drama. But it is definitely that, too. There is biological family, and there is chosen family, and then there is the family that's thrust upon you by tragedy or other circumstance. Anne's diary is full of her conflicted feelings about her parents and sister and the other people in the attic who she's been forced to share her life with. It's those conflicts that connected me to the bigger story about history and humanity when I read this as a teen.

7. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little house in the big woods (and all its sequels).
Ma, Pa, Mary and Laura and the rest of the Ingalls clan were as real to me in my childhood as my own family. This family of pioneers of the American West certainly encountered their share of epic drama (wolves! fires! drought!), but I think it was the way these things were woven through with the joys and trials and tasks of everyday life that captured me as a young reader.

8. Jeannine Atkins, Borrowed names : poems about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C.J. Walker, Marie Curie, and their daughters.
Speaking of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I love this collection of poems about her and two other prominent women in history who were born in 1867. Each of them had daughters at the start of the 1900s when culture - and especially women's place in culture - was going through rapid change. These are poems in the imagined voices of the daughters. It's unusual and moving and thought-provoking.

9. Jo Ann Beard, In Zanesville.
A more recent discovery, this story of 1970s girlhood (which happens to be my own growing-up milieu) made me laugh and also marvel. Beard's ability to recall the everyday details of what it looked and felt like to be a kid during that decade is boggling. The narrator's family exists almost as a backdrop, but also somehow as the most important thing in her life. I just decided I need to re-read this immediately.

10. Louisa May Alcott, Little women.
I'll finish off with the March sisters and their lives in pre-Civil War America. There's something timeless about her portrayal of the relationships between and among sisters - the daily roller-coaster of love and hate and just barely tolerating. And there is plenty of drama to go around, in and out of the household. I'm equally fond of Little men and Jo's boys as the March family saga continues.

Fev 23, 5:15 pm

Caspar Henderson's top 10 natural histories
Guardian, 2012-10-10.

"Where to begin? 'Nature has neither language nor discourse,' wrote Goethe, 'but she creates tongues and hearts, by which she feels and speaks.'

"Nature writing, surely, has its origins in song and storytelling but while Gilgamesh, the earliest known written poem, describes the terrifying guardian of the cedar forest it does not describe the forest itself."

1. The song of songs (200-100 BCE).
The song of songs, a sensuous love lyric attributed to Solomon but probably written much later, veers on occasion into similes as strange as anything in Philip K. Dick ("thy hair is as a flock of goats"). For wisdom Ecclesiastes is a better bet. But what surpasses it for sheer joy in nature? "My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For Lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come and the voice of the turtle (dove) is heard in our land… "

Great nature poets such as Walt Whitman and D. H. Lawrence were inspired by these verses, and the sense of affirmation they convey is no less valid than the ambiguity and darkness we also find in recent anthologies such as Earth shattering : ecopoems (edited by Neil Astley) and The thunder mutters (edited by Alice Oswald).

2. Michel de Montaigne, Of cruelty (c.1580).
Montaigne's essay is, at once, uniquely his voice and one of the great universal statements – an inspiration for all those struggling to create a better world. "We owe justice to men," he writes, "and to the other creatures who are able to receive them we owe gentleness and kindness." Even more radically: "There is a kind of respect and a duty in man … which link(s) us not merely to the beasts, which have life and feelings, but even to trees and plants."

There is an extraordinary leap of mind here, one that science has only strengthened. As Daniel Chamovitz shows in his recent, delightful book What a plant knows, greater understanding of the complex and subtle capabilities of plants challenges us not only to think in new ways about sight, sound and smell and what a plant is, but also what we are.

3. Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854).
Whether examining tiny bubbles in a sheet of ice over shallow water at close range or considering the most notable men and women of the day as "transient and fleeting phenomena", Thoreau's meditation beside Walden Pond sparkles with surprises and insights. The land ethic articulated by Aldo Leopold in A sand county almanac and the visionary transport of Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (both also essential reading) are prefigured here, as are elements of the radical, progressive and compassionate agenda of environmentalism at its best. "We are acquainted with a mere pellicle of the globe on which we live," writes Thoreau, "We know not where we are." Walden remains an essential companion on the journey of discovery.

4. Charles Darwin, On the origin of species (1859).
One of the masterworks of civilisation. It shows how, when sufficient pain is taken, precise observation and close reasoning can, cumulatively, lead to a revolution in our view of nature of world-historical significance. The reality into which Darwin plunges us is bracing – "the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life" – but refreshing too.

There's no denying that much of the Origin is a far-from-easy read – " the chelae of Crustaceans resemble in some degree the avicularia of Polyzoa, both serving as pincers, it may be worth while to show that the with the former a long series of serviceable gradations still exists..." – but it is absolutely worth the effort. (The annotated edition, edited by James T. Costa, is a help). "We see through the eyes of theory," writes the physicist David Deutsch, quoting Karl Popper. Darwin opened new eyes to see the world in all its gore and beauty.

5. D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, On growth and form (1917).
D'Arcy sought to understand living and natural forms through geometry, number and the optimal representation of physical forces: a theory that is, in the words of Stephen Jay Gould, "a strange hybrid of Pythagoras and Newton". With its fascinating illustrations of transformation and fine prose, this pioneering work is, among other things, a ringing celebration of what Pliny called Magna ludentis naturae varietas, "the great variety of nature at play", and it continues to inspire artists, scientists and nature lovers.

6. Jacquetta Hawkes, A land (1951).
Robert Macfarlane has described this book in ways that cannot be bettered: "It appears at different points to be a short history of Planet England; a geological prose-poem; a Cretaceous cosmi-comedy; a patriotic hymn of love to Terra Britannica; a neo-Romantic vision of the countryside as a vast and inadvertent work of land-art; and a speculative account of human identity as chthonic in origin and collective in nature … Its tonal range is vast. It possesses echoes of the saga, shades of the epic, and tassels of the New Age. It brinks at times on the bonkers … I can imagine it reperformed as a rock opera."

7. James Watson & Francis Crick, 'Molecular structure of nucleic acids : a structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid' (1953).
Literary types tend to be a little spooked by scientific papers. Pity. We should at least make an effort, if only as a Labrador does when, sensing that something important is going on without quite understanding what, it howls along to the sound of a piano. Watson and Crick's paper on the structure of DNA is a good place to start. This magnificent insight into the staggering beauty at the heart of life is fractionally over a page in length. Its consequences are huge but, as we increasingly appreciate thanks to the ENCODE project and more, even now we are only a few small steps towards understanding how life works.

8. Dr Seuss, The Lorax (1971).
The Gospel according to Theodore Seuss Geisel tells you all need to know: "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." Avoid the movie.

9. Lewis Thomas, The lives of a cell (1971).
From Loren Eiseley to E. O. Wilson, the scientist reflecting in essay form on the wonder, beauty and strangeness of nature and on human responsibility is a well-established tradition in the US. Few if any have matched Thomas, a physician who died in 1993 leaving six collections of essays. The lives of a cell, dating from around the time of the first photograph of the Earth from space and the discovery that whale song consists of complex organised patterns, is among the best. "We are not the masters of nature that we thought ourselves; we are as dependent on the rest of nature as are the leaves or midges or fish." And again, "We are alive against … stupendous odds … You'd think we'd never stop dancing."

10. Barry Lopez, Arctic dreams (1984).
It's taken until the last slot to get to a book that is by most definitions "proper nature writing" in the sense of sustained descriptive writing about the natural world affectionately satirised by Evelyn Waugh in Scoop with "Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole". But Arctic dreams : imagination and desire in a northern landscape is the real McCoy: a work of tremendous ambition that combines description of natural forms and processes in an environment that is among the bleakest and richest on Earth with profound thought on human dwelling and alienation. Arctic dreams is all the more remarkable in that, though published less than 30 years ago, the spectre of human made climate change is absent from its pages.


Some BTL recommendations and comments:

Jacques Monod, Chance and necessity ("An inspirational book").

"To consider" : Desmond Morris, The naked ape, Gerald Durrell, My family and other animals, Rachel Carson, Silent spring, Oliver Rackham, Woodlands, Richard Dawkins, The selfish gene, etc. etc.

Patrick Lane, What the stones remember ("The lyrical intensity of Lane's nature writing is as life affirming as anything in Thoreau or Dillard").

James Joyce, Ulysses ("for it's insight into the stream-of-consciousness thing").

Marcel Proust, Récherche ("for the way it teaches us to look at time and life").

Ontem, 11:01 am

Children's Books Top Tens / Sally Gardner's top 10 books for children with dyslexia
Guardian, 2012-10-10.

In Dyslexia Awareness Week, severely dyslexic award-winning author Sally Gardner chooses her favourite books and audiobooks that open up the world of stories to children with dyslexia.

"I am with Alice, who said 'what use is a book without pictures?' For me, as a child, pictures were vital as I am severely dyslexic and I couldn't read until I was 14. A book without any illustration was as good as useless. My fantasy as a child hungry for stories was that I had a kind actor living in my wardrobe whom I could take out when I needed reading to.

"Today many children are blessed in that respect. Not only are there graphic novels, there are audiobooks that encompass nearly all of children's literature, from classic to modern; there are apps and multi touch ibooks as well as ebooks. All of which would have saved me from the soup of letters that refused to stay still on the paper line. I am fully aware that some of this technology is still out of reach for many struggling families and here I would like to give a big hip hip hooray to the RNIB who recognise dyslexia. In days of old it was termed 'word blindness'. With a doctors or teachers letter you can join their amazing library of audiobooks for free.

"Now one in 10 children are diagnosed with dyslexia (and I think many remain undiagnosed) and I would like to make one plea to teachers and parents who often think that listening to an audio in a way is a second-class activity to reading a book. For someone who has done most of her learning through audio, I would like to say listening and listening well is just as an acquired skill as reading a line on a page. My only advice is never let any child listen to an abridged novel of anything. As a teenager I had bought an abridged version of Mansfield Park without realising my mistake. There seemed to be faults in the plotting and I found out why - the edition I was listening to had chopped out Lady Bertram completely. A major character. Never again an abridged book for me.

"The world of stories is here to be enjoyed, it is one of the supreme pleasures of life and as some one once said, I count my books, in whatever form they may take, among my greatest friends."

1. The flying books of Dr Morris Lessmore (app for iPad).
This brilliant app picture book drew me straight into its magical world. It's cleverly conceived, designed and with a strong, surprisingly poignant story at its heart. Interesting to note that this came out in app form first, and it's now been released as book. Well worth its price, bookworm Dr. Morris is a gem.
(Touchstone for the book: William Joyce, The fantastic flying books of Mr Morris Lessmore).

2. Hergé, Tintin : The Castafiore emerald.
When I was little, I just loved these drawings more than the stories - the colours, the fine detail. Although some of the "adventures" were fairly unPC to say the least. I couldn't read the words, so I used to make up my own theatrical tales to go with them.

3. E. Nesbitt, Five children and It.
Imagination, imagination, nothing quite like it for dragging in the most reluctant of readers, and E. Nesbitt had it in bucket loads. The Psammead is such a wonderful character. In spelling terms he's easier to think of as the sand fairy. Recommended to be read as an ebook where you can blow the text up to a size that works better if you're dyslexic, so the words stop jumping around on the page.

4. Edward Gorey, Amphigorey.
Mr Gorey of the fur coat and sneakers is my favourite illustrator. I fell in love with his pen and ink drawings when I was 16 and it is a love affair that has never died. This is a compilation of his work and the pictures have a thousand stories in them.

5. Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes.
A master whose work I love. It was Calvin and his friend that finally helped my son, who is also severely dyslexic, read.

6. Kay Thompson & Hilary Knight, Eloise.
Eloise is a great character, superbly realised and just the kind of child I would like to have tea with at the plaza in New York.

7. Frances Hodgson Burnett, The secret garden (unabridged audio).
I adored this book when I was little, it's deliciously dark but hides behind such a pretty title. I am a passionate supporter of the RNIB and if you are dyslexic you can join and have access to as many unabridged audible book as you can shake a stick at.

8. Brian Selznick, The invention of Hugo Cabret.
Wish I had had a book like this when I was young. For a start I could have read all those superb illustration very easily and may have been inspired to read the words as well. It's an outside of the box book and we need more like it.

9. Kenneth Grahame, The wind in the willows (unabridged read by Alan Bennett, or the new illustrated vision by David Roberts).
One trick to help you become a more confident reader is to listen to the unabridged book while following the word on the page. The delight about doing that is you have fab illustration to look at as well as Mr Bennett's lugubrious voice.

10. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the philosopher's stone, read by Stephen Fry.
Great story, great reader, the imagination soars…