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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Biographies of the year

Gabriele D'Annunzio On Horseback Italian poet and writer Gabriele D'Annunzio, subject of Lucy Hughes-Hallett's prize-winning biography The Pike. Photograph: Mondadori/Mondadori via Getty Images

Three kinds of biographies make ideal Christmas presents – the political or theatrical legend; the literary restoration; and the maverick life. This year has turned out to be a bumper one in all three of these categories. Despite widespread predictions about the death of biography, lives are back with a vengeance.

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not For Turning (Vol 1)by Charles Moore Tell us what you think: Star-rate and review this book

As momentous as the passing of Lady Thatcher was Penguin's publication, through its Allen Lane imprint, of the first volume of Charles Moore's "authorised biography" (some 860 pages) within days of her death. Margaret Thatcher: Not for Turning takes her life story up to victory in the Falklands in 1982. Moore has made an exemplary job of providing a lucid, sometimes thrilling, political analysis of Thatcherism, an oddly British fudge of theory and pragmatism.

Thatcher's indifference to the unexamined life gave Moore extraordinary freedom, and he's made the most of it. Few authorised biographies are as searching and candid. If, like many of us, you are one of Thatcher's children, and think you know it all already, you would be wrong. This is a biography full of revelations, large and small.

Moore is especially good on the transition from Margaret Roberts to the wife of Denis Thatcher ("not a very attractive creature … " she wrote, "but quite rich"). His account of the disasters of Thatcher's first administration, up to the leadership crisis of 1981, is superb. And, of course, he can hardly fail with Thatcher's conduct in the Falklands war, the event that transformed her into the Iron Lady and symbol of Britishness. Moore is an entertaining writer. Not many prime ministerial biographers would pay tribute, as he does, to his hunter, Tommy, an animal who "jumps everything" and is "essential to my sanity".

In another year, Philip Ziegler's Olivier, (MacLehose), the life of another British giant, might have excited more interest. There is plenty of theatrical gossip, some useful accounts of the starry high points, but (compared to Moore) Ziegler has not really got under the skin of his subject. Ziegler, a distinguished royal biographer, is less at home with greasepaint and the footlights, and it shows.

More entertaining is William Cook's account of the intertwined lives of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, One Leg Too Few (Preface), which might provide that impossible relative's seasonal gift.

From the political biography of the year to the literary life that everyone's talking about – Penelope Fitzgerald by Hermione Lee (Chatto) – is a short step. "Mops" Fitzgerald (nee Knox) and Margaret Roberts were near contemporaries. But Fitzgerald's life was, until her 60s, a succession of failures, a haunting tale of blighted hope, personal tragedy and rare, late fulfilment. Together with a brilliant portrait of a complicated, elusive woman, Hermione Lee's biography also holds up a mirror to the 20th century, casting memorable light on the literary world in the age of ink and paper.

A more conventional literary life is Andrew Lycett's biography of Wilkie Collins (Hutchinson), author of The Moonstone, the friend and contemporary of Charles Dickens. Credited with pioneering the detective novel, Collins has attracted many biographers over the years, drawn to his extraordinary life and work in the hope of levering open a new understanding of the Victorian psyche. Lycett, who has written excellent lives of Ian Fleming and Conan Doyle, is well-equipped to do this, but his subject gets away from him. Wilkie Collins certainly lived "a life of sensation" (Lycett's claim), but he remains the Macavity of literary Victorians, a mystery cat.

Among the bizarre and sensational, it would be hard to beat Gabriele D'Annunzio. The Pike by Lucy Hughes-Hallett (Fourth Estate), a life of the Italian poet and self-promoter, is the acclaimed winner of the 2013 Samuel Johnson prize for nonfiction, and a biographical tour de force.

Even by Italian standards, D'Annunzio is stranger than fiction. Bestselling poet, aviator, showman, war hero, libertine and fantasist, he was the proto-fascist manifestation of that strand in Italian life that flourished under Mussolini (whom D'Annunzio despised). But he was also a European phenomenon. James Joyce compared him to Flaubert, Kipling and Tolstoy. Hughes-Hallett has previously written about heroes and supermen. D'Annunzio is the subject for which she has long been in rehearsal.

Small, self-obsessed, with very bad teeth, D'Annunzio is not an appealing character. His treatment of those close to him was shocking. His ideas were ridiculous. Hughes-Hallett justifies her interest by claiming, perhaps correctly, that D'Annunzio's story illustrates how the glorious classical past can lead to the jackboot and the fascist manganello.

D'Annunzio was also obsessed with sex and with the smell, taste, texture, and sensation of his lovers' bodies. His letters are replete with detail which Hughes-Hallett, who revels in sensuality, has mined voraciously. The Pike, an off-putting title, is nevertheless a rich, voluptuous treat. She rightly says her subject is "half-beast, half-god". Confronted with an unreliable subject she has adopted a method more common to novels than biographies. The result is a triumph, the biography of the year.

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Friday, December 27, 2013

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

"If we burn you burn with us."

Katniss Everdeen has survived the Hunger Games twice. But she's still not safe. A revolution is unfolding, and everyone, it seems, has had a hand in the carefully laid plans - everyone except Katniss.

And yet she must play the most vital part in the final battle. Katniss must become their Mockingjay - the symbol of the rebellion - no matter what the personal cost.

I have loved and truly enjoyed every single book in the Hunger Games trilogy and I think it really develops as a story. The first time I read Mockingjay I found it very confusing and hard to understand... but reading it again I properly understood it and it made a great book; it was much better the second time round, I thought. There should be more books like the Hunger Games, it's a truly amazing trilogy! It's sad and depressing but at the same time a really enjoyable book. I think I could read them again. Not any time soon but I think they're the kind of books you can read over and over and over and they never get dull.

It's great fun to re-read them again and re-live all the moments of the Hunger Games. I can imagine it getting as big as Twilight, if it isn't already there. It's sad that it's only a trilogy and there aren't going to be any more. I was compelled the whole way through it, although there were moments I thought I was just going to stop reading it because I had already read it and I have so many other books; I then picked up the book and it was like I wasn't in my own living room anymore - I was wherever Katniss Everden was, I was Katniss Everdeen, The Girl On Fire.

You get so caught up in reading the Hunger Games it's like the real world doesn't exist anymore, the Hunger Games is the real world. And it's very rare to get a book that actually does that. It's very rare to get so lost in a book to the extent that you feel you are actually the one experiencing everything that you're reading. And that's what I love most about the Hunger Games.

I think anyone who hasn't already read them should definitely read them, and anyone who has read them and enjoyed them should definitely think about re-reading them because the experience is just as satisfying the second time round. I would rate the entire trilogy 5 stars!! Without a doubt.

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Thursday, December 26, 2013

History books of the year – review

Story of the Jews Simon Schama: 'learning, wisdom and humanity'. Photograph: Tim Kirby/ BBC/ Oxford Film and Television

Alfred Hitchcock defined drama as life with the boring bits left out. These days publishers are trying to produce history books with the boring bits left out. The public still wants to read history, goes the thinking, but no longer has the time or stamina to wade through doorstops – huge books on big subjects that take weeks to digest. But reduce it to serviceable chunks – single out a year, a moment, or an individual – and they'll go for it.

It's easy to be snobby about this: the American historian Douglas Brinkley has dismissed One Summer: America 1927 (Doubleday), Bill Bryson's bestselling romp through the year that Lindbergh flew the Atlantic and Sacco and Vanzetti were finally executed as "remedial pseudo-history", composed of "stray anecdotes", "cliches and hokey summations", even while saying "America needs more accessible, easy-to-read history". I don't think Bryson and Messrs Doubleday will be missing sleep over that.

Actually, the publishers are right: the market has changed. The difficulty is that books produced to a formula aren't necessarily easier to write than other kinds; and they don't always work. In 100 Days to Victory: How the Great War Was Fought and Won (Hodder), Saul David reconfigured a familiar narrative into 100 beautifully sharp snapshots and made a huge subject accessible to a broad readership within a reasonable compass; but the exercise left an unsatisfied feeling – a taster menu, not a proper meal.

Two recent books on the Holocaust were also written to a formula. The detective story approach worked well in Thomas Harding's Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz (Heinemann) but in Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (Chatto) the needs of narrative forced Wendy Lower to tell an important story hastily and through a few individuals. It would have worked better at greater length.

These things are subjective, of course. As a general reader I'm quite happy to let others guide me through the labyrinth. And good writers develop their own formulae. Graham Robb's preferred method of travel is the bicycle and 15,000 miles in the saddle lie behind The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe (Picador), an extraordinary book that uses digital mapping and modern software to revive the old thesis about ley lines and straight tracks in pre-Roman Gaul and Britain – Asterix as road engineer. The sources on the period are so limited that it is hard to know whether Robb's speculations about the druids are revolutionary or crackpot. The Romans, by contrast, left a heavier footprint, even in benighted Britannia, and in Under a Different Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain (Cape) Charlotte Higgins set out in a camper van to explore and reflect on the remains – an elegant addition to a long antiquarian tradition.

In Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia's History (Allen Lane) Catherine Merridale approached a huge subject via a single building, the Kremlin, that gloomy tyrants' lair in the centre of Moscow. Conspiracy and claustrophobia under the onion domes is not normally my thing – I loathe Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible – but here the sharp intelligence and atmospheric prose kept me absorbed.

The truth is, though, that our best historians, being touched with madness, transcend publishers' formulas and assume that readers will happily spend weeks sharing their obsessions. This year several of the big beasts of the jungle were strutting their stuff.

Max Hastings easily saw off his rivals in the battle for the first world war centenary market, which took place a year ahead of schedule. His Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 (HarperCollins) was old-fashioned military history, shamefully readable and spiced up with jibes at the defence policy of Blair and Brown. There were more insights into current debacles in William Dalrymple's Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan (Bloomsbury), another book unafraid to retell an old story with enormous gusto, but greatly enhanced by Dalrymple's mastery of Afghan sources and his passion for the subject.

I haven't always been Simon Schama's greatest fan: he can be glib and self-satisfied. But The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000BCE-1492CE (Bodley Head) found him at his best. Perhaps because he was on home territory, the mannerisms were under control and the extraordinary breadth of Schama's learning, wisdom and humanity was allowed to shine through.

Rana Mitter's China's War With Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival (Allen Lane), a book that has long cried out to be written, provides Anglo-Saxon readers with an authoritative account of one of the cornerstones of the second world war. But why should we welcome Richard Overy's The Bombing War: Europe 1939-45 (Allen Lane), a veritable doorstop of a book, when there is already a vast library on the subject? Because this topic has reached the point where it needs to be pulled together and Overy, by combining Herculean archival work with lucid writing, has done just that. If not the last word on the subject, the last for while. David Caute's Isaac & Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic (Yale) used a minor spat between two refugee Jewish intellectuals, Isaac Deutscher and Isaiah Berlin, as the pretext for a fascinating tour of the cultural battleground of the cold war.

Not many laughs here. So, for my lighter nominations I'll go for O My America! Second Acts in a New World (Jonathan Cape), Sara Wheeler's entertaining account of women who left these shores for the United States in the 19th century, and The Author's XI: A Season of English Cricket from Hackney to Hambledon (Bloomsbury), a delightful homage to the days when the likes of PG Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle and JM Barrie put willow on leather. It'll make the perfect antidote to grim news from Australia.

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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Fatima Bhutto: 'Pakistan produces women with extraordinary spirit'

fatima bhutto 2 Fatima Bhutto, photographed in London by Sophia Evans for the Observer.

The author Fatima Bhutto has had a lifetime of being asked about her surname. She comes from the "cursed" political dynasty in Pakistan: her grandfather, the former president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was executed in 1979, three years before Fatima was born; her father, the radical politician Murtaza Bhutto, was shot dead by police in 1996; and her aunt, the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was killed in a bombing in 2007.

Not surprisingly, Fatima has no desire to enter the political arena. "No," she says, "I always wanted to be a writer. I was very lucky to have a father who was a feminist and as a child I was always told I could do what I wanted to do and I loved to write. I'm doing my dream job! There's no way I'd surrender it."

At 31, Bhutto has just published her first novel. The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is set over the course of one morning in a small town in Pakistan's tribal regions, close to the border with Afghanistan. It follows the story of three brothers who are forced to make difficult choices against a backdrop of continuous war. But the heart of the novel, for Bhutto, lies in the female characters.

"In my mind, it was this story of three brothers and then these women took over, just like Pakistani women do," she laughs. "There is such a singular view of Pakistani women and it's such a shallow and very unfair view. There's an impression of how differently we do things, how downtrodden we are. Millions of women suffer but they [also] struggle, they resist and fight. It's a harsh country, an unfair country, but it also produces women with extraordinary spirit."

In fact, it produces women such as Bhutto herself, who lost her father when she was 14. She was convinced that her aunt, who had fallen out with Murtaza and was prime minister at the time, was responsible. Bhutto wrote about Pakistani state-sanctioned violence in her memoir, Songs of Blood and Sword, which was published in 2010 and became a bestseller in her home country.

When I ask how she feels about her aunt's legacy now, she politely declines to expand. "The nice thing about doing fiction is that I don't feel I have to answer all these heavy political questions."

Could Benazir have done more to empower ordinary women when she was in power? "The only safety that women have in this country is with each other," Bhutto replies. "They've never had it from power."

At one point in her novel, Bhutto writes of a character feeling trapped by "the ghosts of history". Does she feel the same? "I don't think it's just me," she says. "This is a very young country – only 67 years old. With any country negotiating the future against a very turbulent past, you can't escape your heritage. Those ghosts of history are everywhere."

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher - review

Welcome to the mind of Hannah Baker. No… wait, she's dead. What happened? She took her life. Maybe not the cheery beginning you were hoping for.

Moving on, Hannah is dead but she is still alive in 13 different tapes. 13 different tapes with 13 different people on, and not for the best of reasons. These treasured tapes have the 13 people that caused her to take her life. Then, of course, they are passed along the line of people injecting guilt into each and every one of them.

Then, here comes number 9. Clay Jenson, the secret admirer of Hannah Baker. But what did he do?

I adored this book. The author seems to be able to observe normal people to inject into his characters, because everything else I've seen has not managed to do so. They seem to have made what would have been simple a maze of the character's thoughts. It's not the plot that I loved so much, although it's original in its own right; it's the complex thoughts and emotions that the character expresses.

It's not the action itself but what follows after it which is what I think this novel is all about. The little things add up to big things which, in this book, went out of control and spun into death.

However, there is one fault. I did not like the ending. Yes it made you feel hopeful for Clay Jenson but it came to an abrupt stop; not a tantalizing cliff hanger, just a stop. It left your mind to wander not settle on an ending, whether happy or sad.

Finally, let's not let that drag down a great book done by a great author.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

Architecture books of the year – review

torre david brillembourg Heaven up here: life in an abandoned Caracas office block is explored in Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities. Photograph: Iwan Baan/ Urban-Think Tank

I don't know why, in these end times for communications made with dead trees and days of general impoverishment, but the market for sumptuous, fat, beautifully illustrated books of architecture and design seems as strong as ever. This year saw a Taschen tome on the great Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza, by Philip Jodidio, which is over-bright for its subject but still welcome, and an impressive volume on the Italian master Carlo Scarpa from Phaidon and Robert McCarter. Also from Phaidon is a delightful work, with text by Deyan Sudjic, on Shiro Kuramata, a furniture designer simultaneously fanatical, esoteric, postmodern and minimalist. Zeuler Lima's book on Lina Bo Bardi (Yale), the once overlooked, now hugely resurgent genius of mid-20th-century Brazil, is exceptionally fine.

Scarpa, Siza, Kuramata and Bo Bardi are all well known in the worlds of architecture and design, less so outside, and each book is a good way (at a price) of getting to know them. Also educational, and engagingly so, is the second volume of Makers of Modern Architecture (NYRB), in which the American critic Martin Filler deftly summarises the likes of Le Corbusier, Eero Saarinen and Rem Koolhaas.

The most compelling books of the year offer contrasting perspectives of cities. In The View from the Train (Verso), we are offered perceptive, educated, un-obvious musings on place and inhabitation by the film-maker Patrick Keiller. The Italian Townscape (Artifice) is a reprint of a 1963 book by Ivor de Wolfe, the pseudonym of the publisher of the Architectural Review Hubert de Cronin Hastings. It is rich in black-and-white photographs, made haunting by the passage of time, that show not only crumbling marble, but also advertising signs, road markings, the shine of a smart car. It is animated by de Wolfe/Hastings's text – pithy, witty, passionate, sometimes florid, sometimes eccentric.

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Bradley L Garrett has academic credentials (Oxford, University of Californiacorrect) in geography and archaeology, with a parallel life as an urban explorer. This means that he and his associates break into places usually off-limits – tube tunnels, abandoned mental hospitals, the tops of skyscrapers – and photograph their experiences. Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City (Verso) documents their adventures, combining erudite references (Montesquieu, Walter Benjamin) with compelling photographs of men in hoodies in strange places.

If its appeal is its celebration of the unofficial, Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities (Lars Müller) goes much further. With photographs by the great Iwan Baan, it documents a skyscraper in Caracas, left as an incomplete concrete frame and then colonised by squatters, who improvised a multistorey city, complete with churches and brothels. The book, my book of the year, is a breathtaking document of human society and human ingenuity.

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Caroline Criado-Perez: 'I don't know if I had a kind of breakdown'

Caroline Criado-Perez photographed at her home in north London. Caroline Criado-Perez photographed at her home in north London: she thinks the attacks were provoked by 'a combination of misogyny and fear'. Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Observer

Caroline Criado-Perez never expected it to be that big a deal. It was just that when the Bank of England announced in April that the social reformer Elizabeth Fry was to be dropped from the £5 note in favour of Winston Churchill, she realised our banknotes would have an all-white, all-male line-up and "it pissed me off".

She didn't have a big game plan, she says, talking in the kitchen of her north London flat with a small, excitable dog on her lap. "I just thought: This is bollocks."

Criado-Perez, an Oxford English literature graduate who is studying for a master's in gender theory at the London School of Economics, set up a petition and threatened to sue the bank under the 2010 Equality Act. Within days, it had attracted 35,000 signatures.

Her campaign worked. When Mark Carney became governor of the Bank of England in July, he swiftly announced that Jane Austen would be the new face of the tenner. Carney, she says, was "very smooth".

And that might well have been that. But overnight, the 29-year-old found herself a target for a violent outpouring of misogynist bile on Twitter. She received a stream of rape and murder threats. It lasted for days.

"The immediate impact was that I couldn't eat or sleep," she says. "I lost half a stone in two days. I was just on an emotional edge all the time. I cried a lot. I screamed a lot. I don't know if I had a kind of breakdown. I was unable to function, unable to have normal interactions."

She thinks the attacks were provoked by "a combination of misogyny and fear" from men "who have been brought up to think the world is theirs to inherit… They see a dissonance when they see a woman who is making herself heard."

The police were "a bit flummoxed". Eventually they took her seriously enough to investigate, but she remains "frustrated" that they don't seem to be looking into online rape threats received by other women.

"Our society always tells the victim how to behave, not the perpetrator," she says. "It's easy for me to change my behaviour. It's much harder to make them stop attacking me."

Yet, in spite of what she has been through, she insists that it has been a good year for feminism. Projects such as (a website that allows women to share details of sexist incidents) are "making sexism visible [and] opening people's eyes to the fact that we're not equal yet", she says.

These days, she is "a lot better, more able to cope". Her boyfriend, Matthew, has proposed. She is thinking of writing a book. And then there's that Jane Austen £10 note. What, I wonder, is her favourite Austen novel? "Persuasion," she says. It's hard to think of a more suitable reply.

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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Art books of the year – review

Il Duomo in Florence 'A soaring airborne breast': Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence. Photograph: Jeffrey Blackler/Alamy

Now that books are shedding weight and dematerialising into electronic pads, I worry about the fate of coffee tables. Books of a certain kind need to be bulky, and they also cry out to be displayed. Leafing through them can be as much of a tonic as the coffee on the table beside them.

The Vatican: All the Paintings: The Complete Collection of Old Masters, Plus More Than 300 Sculptures, Maps, Tapestries, and Relicsby Anje Grebe, Ross King Tell us what you think: Star-rate and review this book

A prime specimen is Anja Grebe's huge, heavy The Vatican: All the Paintings (Black Dog & Leventhal). The subtitle is almost a threat: yes, every last painting is here. Grebe conducts you on an exhaustive tour of the ecclesiastical spoils, concluding with an unexpected display of modern religious art. Ross King's introduction calls the papal HQ "a place sacred to the arts"; I'd say it was a place sanctified by the arts, since the Catholic church almost atones for its iniquities by its habit of commissioning artists. It's good to know that the genius loci predates Christianity: the hill behind St Peter's was once the symbolic resort of Apollo, the god of poetry and music.

Jonathan Jones's The Loves of the Artists (Simon & Schuster) is an antidote to Grebe's pious inventory. For Jones, Renaissance painting is a pornotopia, and the artists he studies are sexual radicals, flagrantly disrupting convention. Their scandals, in his racy telling, are tabloidesque: the erect penis of Fra Lippo Lippi is a symbol of Christ's resurrection, and Donatello's David sports kinky "bronzie lingerie". A painting's "tactile values", as Berenson called them, are only too palpable when Jones appraises the mammaries of Titian's models or the "bulging codpiece" of a figure in Giorgione. Sometimes he gets overexcited. I find it hard to envisage Brunelleschi's dome in Florence as "a soaring airborne breast", and do Venetian windows really resemble slit skirts?

After the worship of Eros in Jones's Renaissance, Vic Gatrell in The First Bohemians (Allen Lane) deals with the late 18th century and its rowdier urban delights, exemplified by Boswell picking up hookers in Covent Garden and adjourning to Green Park for consummation. Jones sees artists as libertines; Gatrell comes close to equating them with whores, since both lived off rich patrons. This is dense, jostling, ripely enjoyable social history, a memento of a time when central London, not yet an over-priced shopping mall, had its own raffish left bank.

Michael Petry's Nature Morte (Thames & Hudson) is equally lively, despite being about corpses. The fauna in this anatomy of contemporary still life is perverse – a two-headed sheep knitted into a jumper by Elaine Bradford, a china dog made of cigarettes by Sarah Lucas – and so is the flora, which includes Petry's own shamelessly randy flower sculptures. Still life, however, is a euphemism, and the final section about death includes work "by the artist who goes by the moniker Jim Skull". Petry's book is a cabinet of curiosities, both beautiful and weird – and it's the first I've ever seen with a lenticular cover.

Turner & the Sea by Christine Riding and Richard Johns (Thames & Hudson) is about the pictorial challenge of a subject that does not stay still and has no fixed form or colour. Contemporary reviewers who grumbled that Turner's works underwent "dissolution" before they reached the canvas paid him an inadvertent compliment. His chaotic storms, blurry mists, smudged rain showers and shimmering rainbows captured the most unstable element and transformed bad weather into great art; even Nelson's naval victories disappear into a luminous haze.

Norbert Wolf in Art Deco (Prestel) begins by rounding up the usual icons – the beaky gargoyles on the Chrysler building, the sharp sleek prow of an ocean liner – but then extends his survey to include Christ extending his arms on a mountain above Rio de Janeiro and Lenin with upraised arm on a design for the Palace of the Soviets. The predatory German eagle, spreading its wings in a Third Reich poster, also qualifies for inclusion. The book is large and lavish, but its sober text saves art deco from the frippery of all those multi-coloured Miami hotels and Erté mannequins: this was the style of the machine age, coldly dehumanised, and Wolf finds in its mannerisms a chilling prognostication of war.

Derek Jarman's Sketchbooks (Thames & Hudson) began as little leatherbound volumes bought in Italy. Jarman painted over the covers, blackened the pages and wrote on them in gold ink, turning them into profane missals that he stuffed with stray feathers, pressed flowers, newspaper cuttings and saucy male pin-ups, even a £10 note, which was his entire fee for directing a film of Britten's War Requiem. This facsimile is a precious relic of an era that was "pre-latop, pre-PhotoShop", when creativity was manual not digital; it is also an entrancing vindication of the book – whether handmade or printed – as an object of art.

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Friday, December 20, 2013

David Simon: 'There are now two Americas. My country is a horror show'

The Wire creator David Simon in Baltimore David Simon, creator of The Wire, near his office in Baltimore. Photograph: Stephen Voss/Redux / eyevine

America is a country that is now utterly divided when it comes to its society, its economy, its politics. There are definitely two Americas. I live in one, on one block in Baltimore that is part of the viable America, the America that is connected to its own economy, where there is a plausible future for the people born into it. About 20 blocks away is another America entirely. It's astonishing how little we have to do with each other, and yet we are living in such proximity.

There's no barbed wire around West Baltimore or around East Baltimore, around Pimlico, the areas in my city that have been utterly divorced from the American experience that I know. But there might as well be. We've somehow managed to march on to two separate futures and I think you're seeing this more and more in the west. I don't think it's unique to America.

I think we've perfected a lot of the tragedy and we're getting there faster than a lot of other places that may be a little more reasoned, but my dangerous idea kind of involves this fellow who got left by the wayside in the 20th century and seemed to be almost the butt end of the joke of the 20th century; a fellow named Karl Marx.

I'm not a Marxist in the sense that I don't think Marxism has a very specific clinical answer to what ails us economically. I think Marx was a much better diagnostician than he was a clinician. He was good at figuring out what was wrong or what could be wrong with capitalism if it wasn't attended to and much less credible when it comes to how you might solve that.

You know if you've read Capital or if you've got the Cliff Notes, you know that his imaginings of how classical Marxism – of how his logic would work when applied – kind of devolve into such nonsense as the withering away of the state and platitudes like that. But he was really sharp about what goes wrong when capital wins unequivocally, when it gets everything it asks for.

That may be the ultimate tragedy of capitalism in our time, that it has achieved its dominance without regard to a social compact, without being connected to any other metric for human progress.

We understand profit. In my country we measure things by profit. We listen to the Wall Street analysts. They tell us what we're supposed to do every quarter. The quarterly report is God. Turn to face God. Turn to face Mecca, you know. Did you make your number? Did you not make your number? Do you want your bonus? Do you not want your bonus?

And that notion that capital is the metric, that profit is the metric by which we're going to measure the health of our society is one of the fundamental mistakes of the last 30 years. I would date it in my country to about 1980 exactly, and it has triumphed.

Capitalism stomped the hell out of Marxism by the end of the 20th century and was predominant in all respects, but the great irony of it is that the only thing that actually works is not ideological, it is impure, has elements of both arguments and never actually achieves any kind of partisan or philosophical perfection.

It's pragmatic, it includes the best aspects of socialistic thought and of free-market capitalism and it works because we don't let it work entirely. And that's a hard idea to think – that there isn't one single silver bullet that gets us out of the mess we've dug for ourselves. But man, we've dug a mess.

After the second world war, the west emerged with the American economy coming out of its wartime extravagance, emerging as the best product. It was the best product. It worked the best. It was demonstrating its might not only in terms of what it did during the war but in terms of just how facile it was in creating mass wealth.

Plus, it provided a lot more freedom and was doing the one thing that guaranteed that the 20th century was going to be – and forgive the jingoistic sound of this – the American century.

It took a working class that had no discretionary income at the beginning of the century, which was working on subsistence wages. It turned it into a consumer class that not only had money to buy all the stuff that they needed to live but enough to buy a bunch of shit that they wanted but didn't need, and that was the engine that drove us.

It wasn't just that we could supply stuff, or that we had the factories or know-how or capital, it was that we created our own demand and started exporting that demand throughout the west. And the standard of living made it possible to manufacture stuff at an incredible rate and sell it.

And how did we do that? We did that by not giving in to either side. That was the new deal. That was the great society. That was all of that argument about collective bargaining and union wages and it was an argument that meant neither side gets to win.

Labour doesn't get to win all its arguments, capital doesn't get to. But it's in the tension, it's in the actual fight between the two, that capitalism actually becomes functional, that it becomes something that every stratum in society has a stake in, that they all share.

The unions actually mattered. The unions were part of the equation. It didn't matter that they won all the time, it didn't matter that they lost all the time, it just mattered that they had to win some of the time and they had to put up a fight and they had to argue for the demand and the equation and for the idea that workers were not worth less, they were worth more.

Ultimately we abandoned that and believed in the idea of trickle-down and the idea of the market economy and the market knows best, to the point where now libertarianism in my country is actually being taken seriously as an intelligent mode of political thought. It's astonishing to me. But it is. People are saying I don't need anything but my own ability to earn a profit. I'm not connected to society. I don't care how the road got built, I don't care where the firefighter comes from, I don't care who educates the kids other than my kids. I am me. It's the triumph of the self. I am me, hear me roar.

That we've gotten to this point is astonishing to me because basically in winning its victory, in seeing that Wall come down and seeing the former Stalinist state's journey towards our way of thinking in terms of markets or being vulnerable, you would have thought that we would have learned what works. Instead we've descended into what can only be described as greed. This is just greed. This is an inability to see that we're all connected, that the idea of two Americas is implausible, or two Australias, or two Spains or two Frances.

Societies are exactly what they sound like. If everybody is invested and if everyone just believes that they have "some", it doesn't mean that everybody's going to get the same amount. It doesn't mean there aren't going to be people who are the venture capitalists who stand to make the most. It's not each according to their needs or anything that is purely Marxist, but it is that everybody feels as if, if the society succeeds, I succeed, I don't get left behind. And there isn't a society in the west now, right now, that is able to sustain that for all of its population.

And so in my country you're seeing a horror show. You're seeing a retrenchment in terms of family income, you're seeing the abandonment of basic services, such as public education, functional public education. You're seeing the underclass hunted through an alleged war on dangerous drugs that is in fact merely a war on the poor and has turned us into the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind, in terms of the sheer numbers of people we've put in American prisons and the percentage of Americans we put into prisons. No other country on the face of the Earth jails people at the number and rate that we are.

We have become something other than what we claim for the American dream and all because of our inability to basically share, to even contemplate a socialist impulse.

Socialism is a dirty word in my country. I have to give that disclaimer at the beginning of every speech, "Oh by the way I'm not a Marxist you know". I lived through the 20th century. I don't believe that a state-run economy can be as viable as market capitalism in producing mass wealth. I don't.

I'm utterly committed to the idea that capitalism has to be the way we generate mass wealth in the coming century. That argument's over. But the idea that it's not going to be married to a social compact, that how you distribute the benefits of capitalism isn't going to include everyone in the society to a reasonable extent, that's astonishing to me.

And so capitalism is about to seize defeat from the jaws of victory all by its own hand. That's the astonishing end of this story, unless we reverse course. Unless we take into consideration, if not the remedies of Marx then the diagnosis, because he saw what would happen if capital triumphed unequivocally, if it got everything it wanted.

And one of the things that capital would want unequivocally and for certain is the diminishment of labour. They would want labour to be diminished because labour's a cost. And if labour is diminished, let's translate that: in human terms, it means human beings are worth less.

From this moment forward unless we reverse course, the average human being is worth less on planet Earth. Unless we take stock of the fact that maybe socialism and the socialist impulse has to be addressed again; it has to be married as it was married in the 1930s, the 1940s and even into the 1950s, to the engine that is capitalism.

Mistaking capitalism for a blueprint as to how to build a society strikes me as a really dangerous idea in a bad way. Capitalism is a remarkable engine again for producing wealth. It's a great tool to have in your toolbox if you're trying to build a society and have that society advance. You wouldn't want to go forward at this point without it. But it's not a blueprint for how to build the just society. There are other metrics besides that quarterly profit report.

The idea that the market will solve such things as environmental concerns, as our racial divides, as our class distinctions, our problems with educating and incorporating one generation of workers into the economy after the other when that economy is changing; the idea that the market is going to heed all of the human concerns and still maximise profit is juvenile. It's a juvenile notion and it's still being argued in my country passionately and we're going down the tubes. And it terrifies me because I'm astonished at how comfortable we are in absolving ourselves of what is basically a moral choice. Are we all in this together or are we all not?

If you watched the debacle that was, and is, the fight over something as basic as public health policy in my country over the last couple of years, imagine the ineffectiveness that Americans are going to offer the world when it comes to something really complicated like global warming. We can't even get healthcare for our citizens on a basic level. And the argument comes down to: "Goddamn this socialist president. Does he think I'm going to pay to keep other people healthy? It's socialism, motherfucker."

What do you think group health insurance is? You know you ask these guys, "Do you have group health insurance where you …?" "Oh yeah, I get …" you know, "my law firm …" So when you get sick you're able to afford the treatment.

The treatment comes because you have enough people in your law firm so you're able to get health insurance enough for them to stay healthy. So the actuarial tables work and all of you, when you do get sick, are able to have the resources there to get better because you're relying on the idea of the group. Yeah. And they nod their heads, and you go "Brother, that's socialism. You know it is."

And ... you know when you say, OK, we're going to do what we're doing for your law firm but we're going to do it for 300 million Americans and we're going to make it affordable for everybody that way. And yes, it means that you're going to be paying for the other guys in the society, the same way you pay for the other guys in the law firm … Their eyes glaze. You know they don't want to hear it. It's too much. Too much to contemplate the idea that the whole country might be actually connected.

So I'm astonished that at this late date I'm standing here and saying we might want to go back for this guy Marx that we were laughing at, if not for his prescriptions, then at least for his depiction of what is possible if you don't mitigate the authority of capitalism, if you don't embrace some other values for human endeavour.

And that's what The Wire was about basically, it was about people who were worth less and who were no longer necessary, as maybe 10 or 15% of my country is no longer necessary to the operation of the economy. It was about them trying to solve, for lack of a better term, an existential crisis. In their irrelevance, their economic irrelevance, they were nonetheless still on the ground occupying this place called Baltimore and they were going to have to endure somehow.

That's the great horror show. What are we going to do with all these people that we've managed to marginalise? It was kind of interesting when it was only race, when you could do this on the basis of people's racial fears and it was just the black and brown people in American cities who had the higher rates of unemployment and the higher rates of addiction and were marginalised and had the shitty school systems and the lack of opportunity.

And kind of interesting in this last recession to see the economy shrug and start to throw white middle-class people into the same boat, so that they became vulnerable to the drug war, say from methamphetamine, or they became unable to qualify for college loans. And all of a sudden a certain faith in the economic engine and the economic authority of Wall Street and market logic started to fall away from people. And they realised it's not just about race, it's about something even more terrifying. It's about class. Are you at the top of the wave or are you at the bottom?

So how does it get better? In 1932, it got better because they dealt the cards again and there was a communal logic that said nobody's going to get left behind. We're going to figure this out. We're going to get the banks open. From the depths of that depression a social compact was made between worker, between labour and capital that actually allowed people to have some hope.

We're either going to do that in some practical way when things get bad enough or we're going to keep going the way we're going, at which point there's going to be enough people standing on the outside of this mess that somebody's going to pick up a brick, because you know when people get to the end there's always the brick. I hope we go for the first option but I'm losing faith.

The other thing that was there in 1932 that isn't there now is that some element of the popular will could be expressed through the electoral process in my country.

The last job of capitalism – having won all the battles against labour, having acquired the ultimate authority, almost the ultimate moral authority over what's a good idea or what's not, or what's valued and what's not – the last journey for capital in my country has been to buy the electoral process, the one venue for reform that remained to Americans.

Right now capital has effectively purchased the government, and you witnessed it again with the healthcare debacle in terms of the $450m that was heaved into Congress, the most broken part of my government, in order that the popular will never actually emerged in any of that legislative process.

So I don't know what we do if we can't actually control the representative government that we claim will manifest the popular will. Even if we all start having the same sentiments that I'm arguing for now, I'm not sure we can effect them any more in the same way that we could at the rise of the Great Depression, so maybe it will be the brick. But I hope not.

David Simon is an American author and journalist and was the executive producer of The Wire. This is an edited extract of a talk delivered at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney.

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Dodger by Terry Pratchettt - review

I hadn't read any of Terry Pratchett's books before, but when my granddad bought this book for me for Christmas I got straight into it. From the front cover I was intrigued, about the look of murder in his eyes and the look of mystery of it, from the clothing that he was wearing to the razor or knife in his dirty left hand, and the brown scruffy matted dog showing its ribs leaning next to him.

Dodger is a tosher; he walks around the sewers all day every day collecting money, and pickpocketing people on daily basis just to make a living. Everybody who is nobody knows him - anyone who is anyone doesn't. But when he rescues a young girl from a beating, things start to get rougher and dirtier than they already are. Everyone who is anyone now wants to get their dirty little hands on the now famous dodger.

It's a 335 page book that is brilliantly written with awesome wordplay. However unfortunately for you younger ones I recommend this to 11+ as it has quite a bit of swearing and violence and some other not very nice stuff.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The enduring legacy of Elizabeth David, Britain's first lady of food

Simon Hopkinson first met Elizabeth David in 1984, or thereabouts, at Hilaire, the Chelsea restaurant of which he was chef. She came for supper with Valerie Eliot, and the widow of the poet was wearing – he remembers it vividly – a polka-dot dress. "I was very excited," he says. "Because I was a fan." By this time, David was in her early 70s and a little frail (in the early 1960s, she had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage, and in the 1970s, she was in a serious car accident). As a result, she had a miniature appetite. "She ate like a bird. But I remember that I'd made a consomme, very clear and gorgeous, from some prawn shells. She asked for a second helping, and I was so pleased." Made brave by this, at the end of her lunch, the young Hopkinson left his kitchen, clutching a copy of An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, David's collected journalism and the book of hers that he loves the most. She duly signed it for him, and so began a friendship that would last until she died in 1992.

At first, their relationship consisted mostly of conversations snatched when she came to lunch at Hopkinson's next berth, Bibendum, of which she was very fond (she sometimes came with another pal, the food writer Richard Olney). In time, though, the two of them became closer, and Hopkinson would take her out, or visit her at home in Halsey Street, Chelsea. On one occasion, they went to the River Café: its chef-proprietors, Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, having been warned, were wearing T-shirts with David's recipe for chocolate – or was it almond? – tart printed on the back (she took this in good part). On another, they celebrated her birthday at home with Jill Norman, David's long-time editor, and a bottle of Dom Pérignon, nibbling all the while on her favourite Roka cheese biscuits. Hopkinson was even able to introduce her to one of his most famous regular customers, Francis Bacon. The artist was – this seems so wonderfully unlikely – another fan of David's, and kept her books, as so many people do, beside his bed. "That was exciting," says Hopkinson. "Two completely different geniuses shaking hands." Oh, that he had pulled out a camera and taken a photograph.

David could be difficult; this is no secret. But Hopkinson knew how to handle her. "Well, I knew never to bring up the Carrier word," he says [a reference to Robert Carrier, the American cook and television presenter whose recipes were almost as rich as his to-camera style]. "And if you didn't agree with her, those little, beady eyes would pop right open. She could be … vociferous. One was on one's mettle, put it like that. She could be pedantic, too. My thing about crisp and crispy [he loathes the latter word] came from her in the beginning. She pointed it out one day, the fact that the extra 'y' is completely unnecessary, and I thought: yes, you're right. But I had huge respect for her. She was so learned and intelligent, and I loved the way she looked. Those eyes. She was so delicate. I remember seeing her tucked up in bed, recuperating, Post-it notes everywhere – all the things she wanted to moan about – and the room full of beautiful things."

Somewhere in his flat is an ancient answer phone, on which there remains the last message she left him. David died in the early hours of 22 May 1992, having enjoyed a good bottle of chablis and some caviar brought to her bedside by friends. A memorial service was held at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 10 September, after which a lunch was held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in the Mall, the food provided by the chefs Sally Clarke, Martin Lam and, of course, Hopkinson. What did he make? "Piedmontese peppers, and spiced aubergine salad, a particular favourite of hers." The recipe for the latter – fragrant with cumin, allspice and fresh coriander – can be found in his book Roast Chicken and Other Stories. It is completely delicious and, if you follow the quantities exactly, somehow magically abundant.

A book of Mediterranean food

What does Hopkinson make of David's legacy now, in the month of the centenary of her birth on Boxing Day 1913? He can only speak personally. "The writing had a big impact on me; you have to really want to cook to use her, it's not just a case of following a recipe. You have to pay attention. I loved the short ramble around, and then the perfect recipe within. But someone once told me Jamie Oliver had sold more copies of just one of his books than have been sold of Elizabeth's entire oeuvre, and what can you say about that?" He sighs, theatrically. As to her wider influence, the powerful effect she famously had (or not) on British palates, he believes this was as much a question of timing as anything else. David, whose first book, A Book of Mediterranean Food, was published in 1950, arrived on the scene at just the right moment: the British middle classes, exhausted by austerity, were longing, even if they did not precisely know it, for the taste of sunshine. David was, moreover, able to forge her career in an environment more suited to her particular talents and personality: "She wouldn't have been able to do television, and she wouldn't have wanted to do it either." The life of the celebrity was not for the redoubtable Mrs David. Hopkinson could no more have imagined her posing for the cover of a glossy magazine, dripping spatula in hand, than he could dashing to the nearest McDonald's for a Big Mac and fries.

To understand Elizabeth David, and her place in the history of the mysterious eating habits of these islands, one must have some sense of what it was like to live through the second world war. Last summer, I spent several days in the British Library reading austerity cookbooks: survival manuals for housewives who had to cope with the rationing that would outlast the war by several years (butter, cheese, margarine, cooking fats and meat did not come off the ration until 1954). In my locker downstairs, my (Elizabeth David-approved) lunchtime sandwich of prosciutto and brie patiently awaited my return, but even so, it was a dispiriting business. Before me were the least appealing recipes ever written: mock marzipan cobbled from haricot beans and almond essence; "eggs" that were tinned apricots fried in bacon fat. I opened one book, and realised with a horrible gulp that I was looking at advice for cooking crow. "Boil it up with suet," said the writer, "to keep the meat as white as possible." There was a recipe for sparrow pie too – though the Ministry of Food did not "encourage" the eating of these tiny birds.

David was abroad for the duration of the war. A restless and independent young woman – after St Clare's Private School for Ladies in Tunbridge Wells, she'd tried unsuccessfully to become an actress, and had briefly worked as a junior sales assistant at the fashion company, House of Worth – in early 1939, she and her lover, Charles Gibson Cowan, had set sail for Greece in their boat, the Evelyn Hope. When war broke out, they were in the south of France, and it was in Antibes, where they wintered, that she met her mentor, the writer and traveller Norman Douglas (the sybaritic Douglas would be the single biggest human influence on David when it came to food). She and Cowan set sail again in the spring of 1940, a decision that led to a brief internment in Italy and the loss of their boat, which was impounded. For a time, they lived on Syros in the Cyclades, but when the Germans invaded Greece in 1941, they were forced to flee to Cairo. She spent the rest of the war in Egypt, and there she married Anthony David, an officer in the Indian army, though the relationship was doomed from the start, and did not last.

Elizabeth David Elizabeth David. Photograph: Elizabeth David Estate

No wonder, then, that when she returned to Britain in 1946, she was so appalled by what she found; in Egypt, she and Suleiman, her servant, had wanted for nothing, foodwise. She had even been able to hold regular lunch parties, at which she served lavishly seasoned kebabs and ice-cream, churned in an ancient and noisy ice bucket. "She couldn't believe it," says Norman, of what she found back at home. "I think she was really upset: shocked, even." Having moved in with her pregnant sister (Anthony was by now back in India), David took over the shopping: "One day, I took back to her, among the broken biscuits and the tins of snoek … one pound of fresh tomatoes. As I took them out of my basket to show her, I saw that tears were tumbling down my sister's beautiful and normally serene face." Elizabeth asked Diana what on earth was wrong. "Sorry," came the reply. "It's just that I've been trying to buy fresh tomatoes for five years. And now it's you who've found them first."

The winter of 1946 was exceptionally harsh; the snow drifts were so deep the country's meagre coal supplies struggled to reach power stations, causing many to close down. By way of escape, David headed for a hotel in Ross-on-Wye with an old lover, George Lassalle. This establishment was fabulously warm: according to David's biographer, Artemis Cooper, a coal fire burned in its public rooms, and maids provided the beds with hot water bottles. But the food was beyond bad: insupportable, in David's view, even allowing for the shortages; she was overcome with a sense of "embattled rage that we should be asked – and should accept – the endurance of such cooking". To comfort herself, she scribbled down lists of the things she most missed: apricots, olives, butter, rice, lemons, almonds…. This, then, was how she first began to write. Her notes and recipes were an expression of her yearning, a way of assuaging something that was not homesickness exactly, but which must have felt a lot like it.

In 1949, she began writing a cookery column for Harper's Bazaar, and soon after this, her first recipe collection was sent out to publishers. At first, she received only rejection notices. But at John Lehmann Ltd her manuscript found its way into the hands of Julia Strachey, a niece of Lytton who was then working as a reader at the company. Strachey liked the book, especially its seeming extravagance; its commitment to ingredients that were impossible to buy. A Book of Mediterranean Food was, then, duly published by Lehmann in June 1950, with a cover and illustrations by John Minton. Among its pages were recipes for such exotic delights as moules marinières and spanakopita, bouillabaisse and brandade, boeuf en daube and dolmades. In her introduction, David quoted Marcel Boulestin, the French chef and cookery writer: "It is not really an exaggeration to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking." In spite of this – in 1950, garlic was widely and sincerely feared by most British cooks – the reviews for the book were rather good.

French country cooking French country cooking

And so David's career as Britain's greatest food writer began. She followed A Book of Mediterranean Food with French Country Cooking (1951), Italian Food (1954), Summer Cooking (1955) and the book for which she is still best remembered, French Provincial Cooking (1960). She also continued to work as a journalist, at Vogue and at the Spectator. All the same, it was some time before her name was widely known. Hardbacks were prohibitively expensive; only when Penguin began to publish her in paperback did her work become more accessible (Summer Cooking was the first). Even then, her influence was limited to cognoscenti – intellectual and metropolitan. David, remember, was a woman who chose to cook – the granddaughter of a viscount, she had grown up in a house with staff - and as such, her work appealed to the upper middle classes rather than to the massed ranks of housewives in their new Formica-filled kitchens. Among her admirers, after all, was Evelyn Waugh. Certainly, she was an evangelist for olive oil, good bread and seasonal eating, but her writing, like her manner, could be patrician. It is important to remember, too, that cookbooks speak more loudly of our aspirations than our daily lives. David's ideas were only felt fully in the 1960s and 70s, which was when regular families like mine – and yours, probably – began tentatively eating such things as lasagne and avocados.

Harvest of the cold months Harvest of the cold months

In 1965, she opened a shop, Elizabeth David Limited, in Pimlico, London, where she sold Le Creuset pans and other hard-to-get-hold-of kit. The store, with its marvellous window displays, was as influential as her books would eventually be, pioneering a new generation of shops devoted exclusively to kitchenware. But it was also a business disaster, and she severed her links with it in 1973. Thereafter, she devoted herself to a more scholarly kind of writing: English Bread and Yeast Cookery was published in 1977, and Harvest of the Cold Months: the Social History of Ice and Ices appeared posthumously, in 1994. She became a vociferous critic both of the supermarkets, and of the 80s "foodie" culture as satirised in The Official Foodie Handbook by Ann Barr and Paul Levy, a volume she loathed ("To be sure they are skilful enough in the arts of toadying to their public and providing it with a little giggle at itself, but the meaning of satire in the true sense eludes them," she wrote in her review for Tatler).

Towards the end of her life, she was famously irascible. She drank too much, too – frustrated by her inability to get around, and perhaps a little lonely: since her affair with Peter Higgins, the dedicatee of French Provincial Cooking, had ended in 1963, she had been single. The death in 1986 of her sister, Felicite, with whom she shared her house, was a terrible blow, plunging her into depression. But she was also able to see, by this point, that others would carry the torch she had passed to them: Jane Grigson, Jeremy Round (until his early death in 1989, David had hoped Round would write her biography), Simon Hopkinson. And others felt it, too, this passing of the baton. Her work would not be undone. Among the baskets of lilies, blue iris and violets at her funeral at St Peter ad Vincula in Folkington, East Sussex, on 28 May 1992, someone placed a loaf of bread, and a bunch of herbs tied up in brown paper.

I've read both biographies of David (the authorised volume by Artemis Cooper, and the unauthorised version by Lisa Chaney), not to mention most of her own books. Yet mysteries remain. Why did food, of all things, became so important to her? In some ways, she was so austere, abstemious even. Her passion for Nescafé and Roka biscuits seems more of a piece with her personality than a vast bowl of osso buco. And to what degree is she still an influence on the way we cook? Does the Jamie Oliver generation even know her name? I wonder, too, about her personality. Cooper makes her sound perfectly terrifying, but what kind of cook doesn't care for other people? Isn't the whole point of food – particularly David's kind of food – that it is to be shared?

"If she were about to join us now, I'd be feeling a combination of concern and enthusiasm," says her nephew Johnny Grey, a kitchen designer, with a mournful laugh. "I hate this portrayal of her as a drunken, cross person, but I would be quite nervous, yes." For a time, he and his aunt fell out. About three days before she died, though, they talked. "She held my hand, and she said: 'I want you to know that I love you.' I was, perhaps, her honorary son. Certainly no one else in the family had the connection with her that I did." So is he able to answer my questions? "Well, you're right about the importance of food in her life. I'm still pondering that one myself. She was quite an ascetic person. Not at all greedy. She must have had her sensual side, but we didn't talk about sex, and her affairs were illicit anyway. The nearest I've got to an answer is to say that food conjured up other times, other places." He pauses. "But even that's shrouded. If she was longing for the sun, why didn't she go and live in Europe? Why did she live in a damp, dark house in Chelsea? Her last kitchen was in the basement. I think it must have been that she didn't want to be an expat, to be identified with that kind of posh, idle person."

Celebrity cook Elizabeth David David in 1969. Photograph: Empics/PA

He remembers David as quite shy and modest. It was a pleasure to cook for her, or with her (she required guests, seated at her kitchen table, to perform various tasks). She could be hilarious, when she put her mind to it. Rosi Hanson, who worked in David's shop for two years, agrees. "People say she was difficult, but I didn't find that. She was the sort of person you wanted to please. We worshipped the ground she walked on. We wanted to be around her. She was good fun, and the shop was magical. She rather loved being a shopkeeper, perhaps because it gave her a rest from writing. If someone wanted some very specific piece of equipment, I often heard her say: 'If you could come back, I think I may have one at home.' On evenings when we stayed late to do the windows, she would make a picnic for us all to eat: terrine, things in jelly. Fantastic. If it was your birthday, she would give you a recipe, typed out." She rifles through a drawer, and pulls out several of these precious documents. One is for loin of pork spiced with green peppercorns. "A most original and subtly spiced dish," it begins. Floating beside it, in ink, are the words: "For Rosemary, with love from ED." Were recipients meant to try these recipes? "Oh, yes. But if something didn't work, she never admonished you. She was interested. She wanted to know why."

I ask Norman, who looks after David's estate, how she sees the legacy of her "beautiful, elegant, reserved, witty" friend (we have this conversation, incidentally, at a table that once stood in David's house in Halsey Street: a pine affair bleached pale with years of use). "I remember Prue Leith telling me that at a catering college soon after Elizabeth's death, she asked students how many of them had read her, and not a single one raised a hand. Prue was quite shaken. But the books do sell – I see the royalty statements – and you see her influence in the cooking of Jeremy Lee, Shaun Hill and Rowley Leigh. I think she would have loved the food at restaurants such as Moro and Ottolenghi. Towards the end of her life, she did get a bit bitter and cross, but she had reason. Fiddling about with food, over-garnishing; she hated that. She felt there was too much bad food about – the way the English made pizzas, she was always complaining about that – and some of the things on television, she would have been scornful. Elizabeth never, ever promoted herself."

All these conversations are interesting, and vivid in the telling. In the end, though, you can only go back to the books, to David's stern, crystalline prose – "I was once present at a learned discussion between two stubborn gentlemen, who were arguing as to the respective merits of the snails of Bourgogne and of those of Provence … simply absurd" – and to the recipes themselves, as familiar and as cheering as old pop songs, if a good deal more useful. They will always be with us. They mark a turning point in British food, it's true, but they talk to the present, too, and the future. Some things are unimprovable, and the best of her recipes are exactly that. Norman says the one she uses most often is the daube de boeuf, "which works for everybody and is so good". Grey loves her way with courgettes (grated, to be made into fritters) and her gratin dauphinois. Hanson points me in the direction of snow cheese, a confection made from double cream, sugar, lemon and egg white that should ideally be served in a heart-shaped porcelain dish as once sold by Elizabeth David Ltd. For myself, I will take the recipe for champignons à la grecque, as it appears in Summer Cooking – an oily and delicious dish of my childhood, when my parents, in their flares and cheesecloth shirts, first began experimenting with "foreign food". Even as I type I can feel the coriander seeds crunching delightfully between my teeth.

To order Rachel Cooke's Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties for £14.99 go to or call 0330 333 6846

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Science books of the year – review

Marine nuclear bomb explosion Serving the Reich and Churchill's Bomb study Germany and Britain's failure to win the nuclear arms race. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

We have always lived in a material age of one kind or another. It is just the nature of the dominant substance that has altered — as we can see in the names we have given to the world's key stages of civilisation: the stone age, bronze age and iron age. And the process has continued, says Mark Miodownik in his splendid Stuff Matters (Viking). "Steel was the defining age of the Victorian era … while the 20th century is often hailed as the age of silicon," he points out.

Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made Worldby Mark Miodownik Tell us what you think: Star-rate and review this book

Today a vast library of modern materials underpins our lives and makes them bearable: from chocolates that are artfully structured to explode like taste-bombs in our mouths to carbon-fibre technology, which has transformed sports including cycling, tennis and Formula One, and which might be used one day to construct a "space ladder", a passenger elevator that would rise from Earth's equator to an orbiting spaceship.

In short, stuff matters – for without modern materials, "we would quickly be confronted by the same basic struggle for survival that animals are faced with," argues Miodownik in this artfully crafted, hugely enjoyable study.

Serving the Reich (Bodley Head) by Philip Ball, and Churchill's Bomb (Faber) by Graham Farmelo, look at how Germany and Britain respectively lost the race to be the first nation to build atomic weapons. Ball's narrative reveals a nation stuck in an ethical quagmire in which its quiescent, subservient scientists – including several Nobel prize winners – proved fundamentally lacking in morals and intellect. For his part, Farmelo provides us with a vision of a great leader, Churchill, who hesitated fatally when Britain was given, by the US, the offer of an equal share in the development of the A-bomb. Both books offer intriguing insights into the pursuit of science then and now.

Finally, in What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? (Profile), Tony Juniper gives the reader a readable, timely vision of the natural world as a recycler of waste, controller of disease and mighty carbon storage system – a living entity that we take for granted at our peril.

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Monday, December 16, 2013

Maya Angelou writes poem in honour of Nelson Mandela

Maya Angelou Maya Angelou, who first met Nelson Mandela when she was living in Cairo in the 1960s. Photograph: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for AWRT

The American writer Maya Angelou has written and recited a poem in honour of Nelson Mandela, whom she met in the 1960s when she lived in Cairo.

In the poem, His Day is Done, Angelou mourns Mandela's death, praises him as a modern-day David who slew a mighty Goliath and a Gideon, who freed the South African people. She also marvels at his endurance of racism and imprisonment.

Angelou, best known for the novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was also active in the civil rights movement, and worked with both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Mandela read Angelou's books while imprisoned at Robben Island and also recited her poem Still I Rise at his presidential inauguration in 1994.

Angelou, 85, has allowed the US state department to circulate the poem in 15 languages, as a tribute to Mandela "on behalf of the American people".

In the YouTube video, Angelou, wearing dark glasses, says Americans send their souls to South Africans "as you reflect upon your David, armed with a mere stone, facing down the mighty Goliath – your man of strength, Gideon, emerging triumphant."

She continues: "No sun outlasts its sunset, but will rise again and bring the dawn.

"Yes, Mandela's day is done. Yet we, his inheritors, will open the gates wider for reconciliation. And we will respond generously to the cries of blacks and whites, Asians, Hispanics, the poor who live piteously on the floor of our planet," she says.

"Nelson Mandela's day is done. We confess it in tearful voices. Yet we lift our own to say thank you. Thank you, our Gideon. Thank you, our David, our great, courageous man. We will not forget you. We will not dishonour you. We will remember and be glad that you lived among us, that you taught us and that you loved us all."

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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Looking at the Stars by Jo Cotterill - review

Looking at the Stars is one of the best, if not the BEST book I have ever read. With great descriptions and a gripping plot, I think it should win an award - my highest compliments to the author!

This book is all about a thirteen year old girl called Amima and her
imagination. She lives in a country (which I guessed was somewhere in the Middle-East due to the traditions spoken about in the book) that has a very strict government, meaning that one step out of line equals big trouble. But when her brother joins a secret underground movement he brings trouble to the whole family. The brutality of government officials means that their mother decides that it is best for her and what is left of her family to leave Tala for a hopefully better life. At the checkpoint, newly-installed government laws mean that not all of the family can make it through, so Amima and her sister must continue their journey alone. Once they gain entry to the only refugee camp in the country they meet Aron, his brother Leon and their mother, who have been through similar experiences. But Amima only has one thing on her mind: reuniting her family. She begins to tell her stories and slowly she brings the whole camp together.

I love this book, particularly the characters; my favourite one would have to be the main character Amima. She speaks her mind and is bold and imaginitive. I particularly like the way her character develops and how she grows to be much more compassionate towards her sister and Aron in particular!

The imagery and description is something I would also like to compliment the author on; I always knew the scene and what was going on, which in my opinion is quite hard when you are writing about something like this.

In conclusion, I think that Jo Cotterill is an amazing author and I shall be very upset if there is no sequel; when there is, I shall be first in line to buy it!

Thank you very much for this book, I seriously do mean it when I say that it is one of the best that I have ever read!!!!!

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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Observer Food Monthly's 20 food books of the year

XMAS 2013 Cookbooks Christmas Cookbooks. Photograph: Katherine Rose for Observer Food Monthly

Proper Pub Food by Tom Kerridge
(Absolute Press, £20)

Proper Pub Food

Crowned king of the Best Restaurant in the UK, with a hit BBC series and astonishing sales of this accompanying book: 2013 has been good for Tom Kerridge. Packed with delicious, do-able recipes from a man who clearly loves creating, cooking and eating food, this is a book to read, to savour, to be inspired by. Big flavours and a big idea from the big man: much loved British pub classics with a simple yet sophisticated twist. As he says: "Chillaxo relaxo, feel good about whatever you prepare." The OFM book of the year from the cook of the year. Proper lush!

Eat, The Little Book of Fast Food by Nigel Slater
(4th Estate, £26)

Eat: The Little Book of Fast Food

Beautiful, small, packed like an explorer's journal, Eat, like all Nigel Slater's books, is as much artefact as cookbook, though, of course, it comes with "over 600 ideas for dinner". With recipes written almost as extended tweets, this feels the most "modern" book on the list: the food is comforting, clever, though with a feel for what we are eating now. A perfect stocking filler.

Levant: Recipes and Memories from the Middle East by Anissa Helou
(HarperCollins, £20)


The photos intended for this book were stored on a laptop that was then stolen – and it is a measure of the evocative beauty of the writing that they're not really missed as Anissa Helou guides us through the food and family stories of her home region and childhood. Perfectly crafted recipes – with the instruction you follow them carefully – from a gifted cook.

Simon Hopkinson Cooks by Simon Hopkinson
(Ebury, £25)


A new collection from many peoples' most trusted recipe writer, tied to his recent TV series but with added menus and deliciousness. It is constructed as a collection of meals – A Sunday Lunch, A Continental Supper – with trademark attention to detail. This is after all a man who peels the chickpeas for his hummus. Worth buying for the tomato curry recipe alone.

Traditional Recipes of Laos by Phia Sing
(Prospect, £20)

Traditional Recipes of Laos

Originally published in 1981 by Alan Davidson's Prospect Books (Davidson's last posting as a career diplomat was as British ambassador to Laos before becoming a food writer and author of the Oxford Companion to Food). It contains 124 recipes from the late master chef at the royal palace plus an account of Lao cookery and ingredients by Davidson and his daughter Jennifer. An exquisite insight into a largely undiscovered food.

The Paris Gourmet by Trish Deseine
(Flammarion, £22.50)

The Paris Gourmet

An essential guide to the food of her adopted home town by Irish food writer and "eat-girl" Trish Deseine. A product of many years of enthusiastic research, it is all here: the places to eat, to shop, to stay, with recipes and insider tips by a talented writer who wears her depth of knowledge as lightly as a Pierre Hermé macaron. The perfect companion to a Eurostar ticket.

DOM: Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients by Alex Atala
(Phaidon, £35)

Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients by Alex Atala

Part mantra, part meditation, part manifesto, and perhaps the most important food book of the year. Not because you will be able (or maybe even want) to make meals from ants, or the fermenting fruits, roots, fish and fauna of the Amazon, but because he introduces his reader to a cooking style and culture that is intensely foreign and yet familiar. Any book that has a "treatise on caipirinha" deserves respect. Atala has arrived.

A Work in Progress: Journal, Recipe and Snapshots by René Redzepi
(Phaidon, £39.95)

A Work in Progress: Journal, Recipe and Snapshots

Something for everyone's attention span: part Instagram fest, part recipe porn, part intimate diary. For food lovers, it is in the journal where the real joy is found: pages saturated with an intense love of cooking and insight to maintaining creativity, plus an occasional "pressed leaf" of meadowsweet or shepherd's purse. An intimate glimpse into the interesting head – and heart – of the most influential chef on the planet. Inspirational.

Mange Tout by Bruno Loubet
(Ebury, £25)

Mange Tout

A book to cook and cook again by perhaps Britain's finest French chef. Packed with bistro classics retooled for modern palates, with occasional nods to the rest of the world ("lime pickle and yoghurt aubergines"). Rooted in Bordeaux, remade in Brisbane, Loubet brings enthusiasm, curiosity and knowledge – he was schooled at La Tante Claire and Le Manoir – to his recipes and it shows.

One Good Dish: the Pleasures of a Simple Meal by David Tanis
(Artisan, £17.99)

One Good Dish

A deceptively simple idea from the writer of A Platter of Figs. As you would expect from an alumnus of the Chez Panisse school of cooking who keeps a place in Paris, there are flavours of Europe and California, with north African and Asian influences, gathered together with an understanding of what makes for a good plate of food. A cookbook in the real sense, one that deserves to be well-thumbed and kitchen-stained.

Master it, How to Cook Today by Rory O'Connell
(4th Estate, £25)

Master it: How to cook today

A series of private cookery lessons from Ballymaloe's pre-eminent teacher, the next best thing to a residential course. Unjustly overshadowed by his sister Darina Allen, O'Connell offers an elegant template to an understanding of good food. A grounding in everything you need to know, effortlessly explained. The man is revered by Claudia Roden – need we say more?

Restaurant Babylon by Imogen Edwards-Jones and Anonymous
(Bantam, £14.99)

Restaurant Babylon

How did it take the author of the gossipy Hotel, Fashion and Pop Babylon so long to get around to the restaurant business? Apparently, "only the names and some of the circumstances have been changed to protect the guilty". The OFM verdict? Very thoroughly researched.

A Greedy Man in a Hungry World by Jay Rayner
(William Collins, £12.99)

A Greedy Man in a Hungry World

This is OFM's own Jay Rayner in iconoclastic mood – chapter headings include Supermarkets are not evil, Is small always beautiful? – challenging sacred tenets of ethical eating not for the sake of it, but to highlight the complexities of feeding a planet whose population will soon reach 9 billion.

Cooked by Michael Pollan
(Allen Lane, £20)


Pollan heads back to first principles, the processes – use of fire, water, the exposure to air that aids fermentation – all of them fundamental to the act of cooking itself. It's a serious read, quoting Nietzsche, exploring the food industry's relationship with feminism and spending quite a long time on the pro and cons of chopping onions. But ultimately it's a book about transformation: how turning base ingredients into food shapes the way we live.

The Green Kitchen by David Frenkiel and Luise Vindahl
(Hardie Grant, £25)

The Green Kitchen

Inspired vegetarian dishes, developed from the authors' cult blog Green Kitchen Stories: the Decadent Beetroot and Chocolate Cake and the Beet Bourguignon are already classics. Beautifully designed and photographed (Frenkiel's day job is as an art director), this is vegetable-led eating as a pleasure, never, ever a chore.

No Time to Cook by Donna Hay
(Hardie Grant, £18.99)

No time to cook

Having children prompted Hay – an institution in Australia – to work out how to juggle deliciousness with being time-poor and retaining proper family meal times. No Time to Cook is the result, full of invention and variety, with recipes such as nori-wrapped wasabi salmon with mushy peas, Chinese chicken hotpot, and crispy fish with avocado-lemon salsa.

The Ethicurean Cookbook
(Ebury, £25)

The Ethicurean Cookbook

Seasonality is key at Somerset's Ethicurean, whose trump card is its 100-year-old walled garden. Winner of an OFM award for Best Ethical Restaurant, the team's beautifully packaged first cookbook doubles as celebration of their surroundings, although you don't need to live in the Mendip Hills to cook a beautiful roasted tomato and liquorice basil soup, or salsify and Ogleshield gratin.

Tapas Revolution by Omar Allibhoy
(Ebury, £20)

Tapas Revolution

Allibhoy has two restaurants of the same name – one in the Shepherd's Bush branch of Westfield, the other in Bluewater – both good enough to visit even if you're not on a shopping trip. The revolution he's talking about is actually more like fervent enthusiasm for simple, beautiful Spanish dishes: peas with serrano ham and eggs, cod with piquillo peppers, and tarta de Santiago.

Pitt Cue Co: The Cookbook by Tom Adams et al
(Mitchell Beazley, £20)

Pitt Cue

For the meat lover in your life. The team behind Pitt Cue are obsessed, rearing their own herd of fatty rare-breed pigs in Cornwall, crucial to the beautiful pulled pork that helped establish them as one of the best barbecue restaurants in the country. You'll find the recipe here, alongside clever fruit ketchups, great slaws, pickling and cocktails.

Under a Mackerel Sky by Rick Stein
(Ebury, £20)

Under a Mackeral Sky

Dealing with his father's suicide by heading for the outback, catching a freighter from New Zealand to New York, running a nightclub: Stein has plenty to talk about before he gets to fish restaurants in Padstow and becoming a fixture of food TV. His fine autobiography never shies away from that defining tragedy and how it rippled through his life, even revealing his sudden need, last summer, to swim to the Cornish cliffs where his dad died.

To order any of these books for a special price, go to

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Friday, December 13, 2013

Fiction books of the year – review

shriver big brother Lionel Shriver: ‘exciting, infuriating and very funny’. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

One of the most exciting and infuriating books I have read this year is Big Brother by Lionel Shriver (HarperCollins), a very funny, ultra-original tour de force about a woman's relationship with her obese older brother. Loosely based on Shriver's own "big brother" (he died in his 50s), it plays on the "what if?" themes Shriver covers so perfectly. What if you had a sibling in that condition? Is it wrong to intervene? Or wrong not to? It has an extraordinary narrative twist that had me throwing the book across the room in disbelief and reluctant admiration.

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld (Doubleday), the "novel about psychic twins which is not really about psychic twins", is a must-read: it's the best dissection of a life spent among small children I've ever read. Equally original and daring is Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs (Virago), an extraordinarily brilliant book, fizzing with anger and wit, which reminded me of the energy of Zoë Heller's Notes on a Scandal (even though the ending made me very cross).

For an elegant meditation on war and its impact on family life, Elizabeth Day's lyrical Home Fires (Bloomsbury) comes highly recommended. Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings (Chatto & Windus) is a complex, cleverly interwoven analysis of the moment when the lives of six friends begin to unravel. Mark Lawson's The Deaths (Picador) is a must for anyone who hates their own obsession with Waitrose, a satire on Middle England where "every home is almost a village of its own".

Unexploded by Alison Macleod (Hamish Hamilton) is a quietly poetic deconstruction of a marriage imploding in Brighton during the second world war. Lion Heart by Justin Cartwright (Bloomsbury) is a madcap revision of Richard Coeur de Lion: think The Da Vinci Code for intellectuals. Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant (Virago) is a wonderful reimagining of the lives of the Borgias.

And, if you must have another doorstop in the year of the doorstop (after Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries won the Booker), then go for Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch (Little, Brown): a literary page-turner about love, betrayal and the art world. My own 500-pager of choice? Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things (Bloomsbury). Don't read anything about it (spoilers are too easy with this novel), just read it. In some ways 19th-century botanist Alma Whittaker sees all life has to offer. In other ways she gets trapped in a binding closet. Hugely enjoyable.

From the Costa shortlist, Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell (Headline) is a reliably great read, like all her books. This is the saga of an Irish family in London set in 1976. O'Farrell has a wonderful ear for dialogue and an eye for the irritating quirks of domestic life. Far less cheering but just as much of a page-turner is All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld (Jonathan Cape), a weird and wonderful novel about isolation, memory and a dog called Dog. It tells the story of a young woman trying to run away from a complicated past. She ends up on an unnamed island off the coast of Britain, tending sheep which keep mysteriously disappearing.

Of all the novels on the prize shortlists, I most loved two books which have been around for a while and are now in paperback. Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple (Phoenix House, shortlisted: Baileys prize), is a dazzling comic novel about a misunderstood architect. It's an eccentric and brilliantly accomplished story with a real screenplay quality to it. Just as funny (and just as American) is May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes (Granta, winner: Baileys prize), a hilariously clever analysis of two brothers. Of the two, AM Homes has more serious aims and her work just gets better. Great stocking fillers. Or get AM Homes's whole back catalogue for a more substantial gift.

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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Psychology books of the year – review

Malcolm Gladwell examined how setbacks can aid the underdog in David & Goliath. Malcolm Gladwell examined how setbacks can aid the underdog in David & Goliath. Photograph: Archivo Iconografico, S.A./ Archivo Iconografico, S.A./CORBIS

Ever since its origins in the late 19th century, psychology has been a double discipline. There are the laboratory experimentalists who look "objectively" – from the outside – at behaviour, emotions, perception, or thought. Imaging technologies have turned them into neuroscientists who can now follow the routes of all this in the brain. Then there are the psychologists with a more literary or philosophical bent. They probe experience, listen to the inner human story, and may, like Freud, think that this, too, is scientific, even therapeutic – arguably more so than any fashionable diagnostic classifications. This year the most interesting books have come from the latter camp.

Darian Leader's Strictly Bipolar (Penguin) is a passionate attack on the rise of bipolarity as a diagnostic category. Big Pharma's mood-stabilisers have meant that diagnoses have gone up by 4,000%, while pop-cultural evocations have bred unconscious imitation. What is taking place, he argues, is a shoehorning of a complexity of experience into a sloppy paradigm defined only by highs and lows.

Psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz's The Examined Life (Chatto & Windus) is a finely honed rendition in some 30 vignettes of what passes in his consulting room. There's 21-year-old Matt, reckless in his behaviour, who can't seem to feel his own emotions; Amanda, who imagines terrorists in her flat; Graham, who bores for England. The always surprising "whys" of all this, teased out in the analytic hour, may be individual but they implicate us all.

Doubling as a literary academic and a psychoanalyst, Josh Cohen is well poised to engage in acts of interpretation – of texts, patients, the culture as well as himself. In The Private Life (Granta), he examines some of the tensions in our current snooping- and celebrity-obsessed world, where privacy is in danger of becoming a dirty word. At the same time he journeys into that cloudy terrain of the unconscious to probe the uncanny stranger within, that ultimate guarantor of privacy.

Any list of the psychological best has to include a new volume from Adam Phillips. One Way and Another (Hamish Hamilton), with a brilliant introduction from John Banville, brings new essays together with some selected old ones, to reflect on narcissism, obstacles, compromise, tickling, being bored and more. It doesn't really matter what Phillips puts his mind and prose to. To use Virginia Woolf's words on the essay, he can always "sting us awake and fix us in a trance, which is not sleep but rather an intensification of life".

Naoki Higashida's The Reason I Jump (Sceptre) is an extraordinary account of how autism feels from the inside, written by a 13-year-old boy. The book, in one way, underlines the theme of Malcolm Gladwell's David & Goliath (Allen Lane), an energetic, counterintuitive exploration of why (and how) underdogs succeed, and how disabilities, traumatic childhoods, and other seeming lacks can sometimes trump power.

The year also brought us the excellent Life Lessons series (Pan Macmillan). These popularising pocket volumes highlight quotations from the great thinkers of the past and interweave them with interpretation that brings them closer to our own times. Brett Kahr's Freud is both elegant and useful in this respect, as is John Armstrong's Nietzsche.

Finally, neuroscientist Giovanni Frazzetto's How We Feel (Doubleday) perhaps signals a trend towards a less imperialist neuroscience. He takes us on a journey through anger, guilt, anxiety, grief, joy, love – and underlines just how far science can now go in its explanations before we have to call in those other kinds of explorers of the inner life, the poets and the philosophers.

Lisa Appignanesi's King's College debate series can be seen at Her next book, Trials of Passion: Crimes in the Name of Love and Madness, is published next April by Virago

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