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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd – review

ackroyd three brothers Peter Ackroyd: chronicler of London and the layers of history that haunt it. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod

Ackroyd's 15th novel and 54th published book is a family saga that develops into a murder mystery, but human relations and plot twists have never much interested the author, who has won major awards for biographies of TS Eliot and Thomas More. At heart, it's a creepy, melancholy love letter to London and the layers of history that haunt it, breaking into the present as hallucinations and spectres.

Three brothers are born into a working-class neighbourhood in 1950s Camden: ebullient journalist Harry, bookish academic Daniel, and aimless, antisocial Sam, who has mystical visions. Abandoned by their mother as children, they drift apart as adults, and although their paths cross in unlikely, perhaps preordained ways, each is stuck in his own fog of loneliness. For Sam: "The days passed, one like another… If nothing mattered, then he could exist like this."

Ackroyd picks out vibrant details: Sam's face "seemed to flinch" without glasses; the terraced street of the brothers' childhood smells of bonfires, petrol, dust and rain. He steers his characters through Fleet Street offices and Limehouse slums, and bumps them against expertly drawn literati, pickpockets, prostitutes and politicians.

None of this is new terrain for Ackroyd, who has already written a stack of imaginative nonfiction books about London, and Three Brothers doesn't have the energy and inventiveness of earlier novels like Hawksmoor. Ackroyd recently said that he works on history in the mornings, biography in the afternoons and fiction at night, and while this book is suffused with his intelligence and learning, it's comfortably within his capabilities.

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

An agnostic defends religion | Andy Fitzgerald

Muslim evening prayer A Muslim man attends an evening prayer marking the beginning of Ramadan. Photograph: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

When I was little, I attended church every Sunday. My entire extended family is Irish Catholic, so baptisms, first communions and confirmations made up a fair share of family gatherings. I recall remarking to my father one Sunday – while still young enough that my mother carried a bag filled with toys to keep me occupied and quiet – that the droning recitations of prayer sounded almost zombie-like. Oddly, though, my gradual loss of faith and shift to agnosticism was counterbalanced with a growing appreciation for the positive source of meaning and empowerment that faith, spirituality, and collective religious practice can be in people's lives.

In his rather brilliant essay, "Why I am not a Christian", Bertrand Russell writes:

I do not think that the real reason that people accept religion has anything to do with argumentation. They accept religion on emotional grounds.

I consider his position accurate, and appeals to emotion have no direct relevance in debates of national policy or ethics. But to claim that organized Christianity "has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world" – or to go further, as Christopher Hitchens did, when he said that "religion poisons everything" – is to ignore the positive power that even an "irrational" religious act or belief can have.

The first sign that religion and I might have a rapprochement was at a funeral I attended in high school. A choir teacher and mentor's husband had passed away, much to the sorrow of the school and community. A mass was held in a large and gorgeous Catholic church, with hardly a pew vacant.

I was seated with the choir in the loft, and with each hymn we sang and each prayer spoken by the faithful around me – the delivery didn't feel so rote this time – I began to feel a greater attachment to the meaning religious practice held for many around me, and to being present for a ritual that gave that meaning palpable form, even to a nonbeliever. When the time came to take communion, I felt a strong desire to do so, yet I did not. After this, my lack of faith was not shaken, but my tendency to dismiss transcendent spiritual experiences as irrational, or religion as oppressive, was.

This newfound appreciation was deepened by my experiences while studying in the Middle East. Religion and culture are thoroughly interwoven in the countries I primarily stayed in, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The omnipresence of the minarets and the muezzin's call – particularly around 5am – are a vivid reminder for the non-devout of the dominant deity's importance. Even for an agnostic, they are also beautiful and moving.

Many, perhaps because of my beard, would ask if I were Muslim. When I identified as either "raised as Christian" or "without belief", I never received a discourteous response, and had only one individual attempt to convert me during a discussion in the back office of his market. After sitting down, he and a number of his associates asked me what I knew of Islam, and why I would not consider conversion. While a tad unsettling, it was an interesting exchange, and I appreciated their effort.

But while many of my interactions were relatively cursory engagements like this, I was also able to absorb the deeply positive meaning a number of people close to me drew from their faith. For example: the prayer of my host father and sister in northern Jordan at dinner and at the regular daily intervals; a Saudi friend teaching my class of foreign students the process of pre-prayer cleansing, called wudu, and then leading the steps of prayer (I, again, did not participate in the actual act); and another Saudi friend gifting me a tapestry inscribed with the 99 names of Allah – his one request being that I treat it properly and hang it in a place of respect. The sincerity and, frankly, the clarity with which these individuals expressed their beliefs and shared with me the power they draw from them drove home why I would not wish to see religion disappear from human life.

Religion has undoubtedly been a reason for countless deaths, mutilations, torture, war; and it has impeded scientific advancement as Hitchens, Russell, and some militantly atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins rightly point out. Hitchens responded to counter-examples of secular tyranny in the Soviet Union and China by saying:

It is interesting to find that people of faith now seek defensively to say that they are no worse than fascists or Nazis or Stalinists.

But Hitchens and the others err in ascribing this to an inherent authoritarianism of religion, rather than seeing it as spirituality's social power being appropriated for despotic temporal ends. There can also be an emancipatory bent to religion. It can come at the systemic level, such as Catholic liberation theology, as well as the interpersonal level. I witnessed this during a Passover seder I attended in Amman, where a friend and member of the Palestinian diaspora living in Jordan participated, while the Jewish individual leading the group finished with the phrase "Next year in Jerusalem … for everyone". This was perhaps one of my favourite and most powerful memories.

In the afterword to a recent edition of his book, God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens laid out a challenge:

Name an ethical statement or action, made or performed by a person of faith, that could not have been made or performed by a nonbeliever.

Whether or not his challenge can be met is irrelevant, for it pegs the legitimacy of any positive argument for religion on a zero-sum game against his construction of "pure" rationality – the singular force for Good untarnished by superstition.

It's likely that religion's popularity is a product of emotion, fear of mortality and the unknown, and yes, fealty to tradition. But just like scientific and social inquiry, religion can serve a meaningful and positive role in individual and collective struggles, from the banal to the seemingly unbearable. I do not have any religious belief, but I also will not disparage the benefits many draw from theirs.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Probability of Miracles by Wendy Wunder - review

"If you believed thoughts were energy, and energy is matter (e=mc-squared) and that matter never disappears, then a person can never truly leave you unless you stop thinking about them - everything you once shared with a person is still there, swirling around there in the universe!"

Meet Campbell Cooper, age 17. For the last seven years, she has been fighting a disease that threatens her very existence. And now, after all the chemotherapy, the trials, and the hospitals, the doctor says she's done. That is, unless, a miracle occurs.

But, of course, Campbell doesn't believe in miracles: how can she? Her father and mother split up and then he died, and her mother didn't even cry at his funeral. And now, through all of her mother's flings, numerous cancer trials that give her yeast infections, shingles, blueberry spots, destroy her immune system and what-not, the doctors tell her she won't live through the summer, to see her eighteenth birthday. Miracles, in her world, simply do not occur - there has to be a logical explanation for everything.

Although she does not believe, Cam moves 1,500 miles away anyway, from everything she knows to a new everything because, although her life sentence is unfair and terrible and just plain sad, there are others (her family) that just need to believe - either through acupuncture, reflexology, a herbalist, hypnotism, Samoan medicine and even a distance healer. Just to believe, to have a little bit of hope even for a little bit of time!

When you think about it, when someone writes/reads a cancer book, the only thing you can focus on, or rather, a reader can think about, is the big C and whether the protagonist lives long enough to find love, or just to live. The Probability of Miracles, on the contrary, is not one of those books.

I won't ruin it for you; it won't be just as fun and amazing and bittersweet as it was for me when I read it!

The Probability of Miracles is about death - how you can, if you want to, make yourself more than the disease that threatens your life; one that will probably take it away too.

It's about family, and home, and crossing the ends of the earth to do anything for that unconditional love that grounds you and will continue to do so forever. It's about love, and how everyone wants it, but not everybody stays long enough to find it and one very special boy!

It's about friendship and how sometimes that one special friend always knows exactly what to say and when to say it - and how you have to fight, till the end of (your) time to hold on to something that is that strong.

It's about a list: A Flamingo List - a list of things to do before you die.
But mostly, and this is what touched me the most - it's not about how long you have to live, but LIVING in that time - no matter how unfair!
It's romantic yet heartbreaking, it will make you laugh and cry and will leave you thinking about it for a long time to come!

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Monday, October 28, 2013

In 'We Are Water,' Wally Lamb plumbs new depths

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We Are Water By Wally LambHarperCollins, 576 pp. 4 out of 4 starsFamily secrets submerge and nearly drown the Oh family in We Are Water, the latest great novel from Wally Lamb.Lamb has always shown an uncanny

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Family secrets submerge and nearly drown the Oh family in We Are Water, the latest great novel from Wally Lamb.

Lamb has always shown an uncanny ability to inhabit the skin and psyches of his characters, no matter the age or gender. Water's characters are as captivating as those in previous Lamb best sellers I Know This Much Is True and his first Oprah-anointed novel, 1992's She's Come Undone.

Lamb skillfully mines the darting, banal, petty, random and innermost thoughts of artist Annie Oh, her ex-husband Orion, their children and a few secondary characters. He also gets inside the head of a child molester, to squirming effect – it's not a head you really want to inhabit.

Annie's impending marriage to Viveca, the chic, slightly chilly art gallery owner whose marketing skills rocketed Annie to art world stardom, propels the plot. Annie's vague pre-wedding jitters prompt her to re-examine her life. Annie loves Viveca, but worries about how her family will react to her marrying a woman.

When Annie was 6, her mother and baby sister drowned in a freak flood in her hometown of Three Rivers, Conn. Her heartbroken father stumbled into alcoholism, leaving Annie in the care of her strange cousin Kent, who abuses young Annie just as he was abused as a boy.

Annie escapes Kent when she's sent to her first foster home and claws her way to adulthood with a series of dead-end jobs until she meets Orion, who is smitten by the fragile but feisty Annie. They marry and have three children, but domesticity takes a toll on Annie that she can only exorcise through her art.

The Ohs are complicated and compelling figures. Annie thinks she is protecting her family by not revealing the pain of her past, but hidden truths only beget more secrets and sorrow.

Art's power to provoke is a theme that wends its way through We Are Water. Annie and her family are periodically visited by the specter of Josephus Jones, an African-American primitive artist who lived on their property before he fell – or was pushed – into a well after painting a local white girl in his version of Adam and Eve.

It's the sign of a good novel when the reader slowly savors the final chapters, both eager to discover the ending and dreading saying goodbye to the characters.

We Are Water is a book worth diving into.

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

'Duke' reveals the music behind Ellington

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Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington By Terry Teachout Gotham, 364 pp. 3 stars Bill Desowitz Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout follows up his acclaimed Louis Armstrong biography (Pops) with a thorough

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Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout follows up his acclaimed Louis Armstrong biography (Pops) with a thorough and fascinating portrait of the greatest jazz composer of the 20th century, Duke Ellington (1899-1974).

Teachout peeks behind Ellington's elegant if enigmatic persona, explores the strengths and weaknesses of his celebrated musical craft in great technical detail (which might be frustrating to follow for the casual reader) and offers a larger African-American perspective.

Best-known for such standards as Sophisticated Lady, Mood Indigo, Take the A-Train, It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing and Don't Get Around Much Anymore, Ellington helped popularize jazz around the world with simple yet dynamic melodies. Although he had a voracious appetite for food, drink and women, he lived for his music and was in his prime in the '30s, '40s and '50s. He let nothing distract him: composing, recording and performing with a talented if temperamental band (progressing from the Cotton Club to Carnegie Hall).

The son of a butler and genteel, churchgoing mother, Ellington grew up pampered in a middle-class neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Indeed, his stylish dress and "princely" manner earned him the nickname "Duke" as a youngster. He was drawn to ragtime and played piano at dances and parties before moving to Harlem in 1923 at the height of the cultural renaissance.

Ellington wasn't formally trained or even well-versed in classical music, so he found it difficult to write hummable tunes or structurally develop themes with any complexity. But he could meld together disparate musical fragments from his band members' solo performances, mastering a "mosaic method of composition." While not a flagrant plagiarist, Ellington still took most of the credit.

Ellington's best collaborator, though, was Billy Strayhorn, a young, talented, classically trained composer, who represented the musical refinement that Ellington sought. When they first met in 1939, Ellington gave Strayhorn directions to his Manhattan apartment from the A-Train, which the protégé quickly turned into the popular song. For nearly 30 years, Strayhorn helped elevate Ellington's craft.

But Ellington was nothing if not ambitious and for a decade struggled with his answer to George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, eventually composing the magnum opus, Black, Brown and Beige, which he premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1943. The 45-minute symphony, which was critically panned by the classical establishment, was Ellington's most personal statement about the African-American experience.

Teachout suggests that Ellington extended beyond his reach, but at his best painted pictures in sound "with a feel for orchestral color as sure as anything to be heard in the music of Debussy or Ravel."

The biographer also finds it significant that the "status-conscious child of the black middle-class" chose to draw a direct parallel "between self-image and skin tone in a work that celebrated the history of his race."

Now that Teachout has written about these two jazz giants, how would he characterize them? While Armstrong was open and unguarded, Ellington revealed only what he wanted you to see in an effort to maintain respectability. Not surprisingly, Teachout finds mystery more intriguing than likability.

Bill Desowitz is the author of James Bond Unmasked.

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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Pynchon, Lahiri among National Book Award finalists

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The prestigious literary awards will be handed out on Nov. 20.

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Thomas Pynchon, the famously private novelist who has avoided reporters for 40 years, is among the five finalists for the National Book Award for fiction.

Pynchon, nominated for The Bleeding Edge, set in New York between the dot-com boom and 9/11, is the most celebrated of an unusually well-known group of finalists for this year's fiction prize. They were announced Wednesday.

He faces competition from Jhumpa Lahiri (The Lowland, about an Indian-American scientist who brings his brother's widow to America), James McBride (The Good Lord Bird, which imagines a young slave joining John Brown's raid) and George Saunders (Tenth of December, a short story collection that deals with sex, class, loss and war).

Three of the finalists have been on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list this year: Lahiri (peaked at No. 9), Saunders (No. 26) and Pynchon (No. 29).

Pynchon would shock the literary world if he attended the black-tie awards ceremony in New York on Nov. 20.

In 1974, when Pynchon won a National Book Award for Gravity's Rainbow, his publisher arranged for "Professor" Irwin Corey, the double-talking comedian, to accept the prize on Pynchon's behalf.

Many of the guests, who didn't know Corey and had never seen Pynchon or even his photograph, assumed it was the novelist himself. It may be hard to top that this year. Pynchon's publisher didn't immediately respond to questions about his plans.

The fifth fiction finalist is Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers, about a young female artist fascinated by speed and motorcycles who gets entangled with a group of Italian radicals.

In the three other categories, the finalists are:


Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin; Wendy Lower, Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields; George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America; Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832; and Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief.

Young People's Literature:

Kathi Appelt, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp; Cynthia Kadohata, The Thing About Luck; Tom McNeal, Far Far Away; Meg Rosoff, Picture Me Gone; and Gene Luen Yang, Boxers & Saints


Frank Bidart, Metaphysical Dog; Lucie Brock-Broido, Stay, Illusion; Adrian Matejka, The Big Smoke; Matt Rasmussen, Black Aperture; and Mary Szybist, Incarnadine

The National Book Awards, which are supported by the publishing industry, have made a concerted effort in the past few years to attract more attention for the prizes, which some consider the book world's version of the Academy Awards. After criticism the awards had become too high-brow, booksellers and book critics were added to the five-member judging panels that used to be made of of just authors.

For the first time, The Contenders: Excerpts from the 2013 National Book Award Finalists, will be released as a free e-book series that can be downloaded at

At the awards ceremony, the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters will be presented to novelist E.L. Doctorow. And Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison will present the Literarian Award for Outstanding Contribution to the American Literary Community to poet and memoirist Maya Angelou.

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Friday, October 25, 2013

Books: New and noteworthy

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USA TODAY's Jocelyn McClurg scopes out the hottest books on sale each week. 1. Sycamore Row by John Grisham (Doubleday, fiction, on sale Oct. 22) What it's about: In this sequel to A Time to Kill, Mississippi

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USA TODAY's Jocelyn McClurg scopes out the hottest books on sale each week.

1. Sycamore Row by John Grisham (Doubleday, fiction, on sale Oct. 22)

What it's about: In this sequel to A Time to Kill, Mississippi attorney Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey in the movie version) is embroiled in a controversial trial involving a wealthy white man and his black maid.

The buzz: The new novel arrives just as a high-profile stage version of A Time to Kill opens on Broadway.

2. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown, fiction, on sale Oct. 22)

What it's about: The adventures of orphan Theo Decker, which begin when he is 13 and his mother is killed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a terrorist attack.

The buzz: "Glorious, Dickensian… a novel that pulls together all (Tartt's) remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole and reminds the reader of the immersive, stay-up-all-night pleasures of reading," says The New York Times.

3. This Is Your Captain Speaking: My Fantastic Voyage Through Hollywood, Faith & Life by Gavin MacLeod (Thomas Nelson, non-fiction, on sale Oct. 22)

What it's about: Memoir by the actor, now 82, who played Murray Slaughter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Capt. Stubing on The Love Boat.

The buzz: Covers the lows (depression, alcoholism, divorce) and highs (sobriety, remarriage, finding religion) of his personal and professional life.

4. Allegiant by Veronica Roth (Katherine Tegen Books, fiction, on sale Oct. 22)

What it's about: Conclusion of the best-selling dystopian Divergent trilogy, set in a futuristic Chicago; teenage Tris must make choices as a revolution threatens her "perfect society."

The buzz: The movie version of the first book, Divergent, starring Shailene Woodley and Kate Winslet, hits theaters in March.

5. If Kennedy Lived by Jeff Greenfield (Putnam, non-fiction, on sale Oct. 22)

What it's about: Subtitle: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History.

The buzz: "Kennedy-era followers will enjoy this book," says the Library Journal.

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Thursday, October 24, 2013

Jung Chang: 'They should take down Mao's portrait from Tiananmen Square'

Jung Chang: 'I care deeply what happens in China but London is home'. Jung Chang: 'I care deeply what happens in China but London is home.’ Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer

What made you suspect Empress Dowager Cixi was ripe for a biography?
When I was writing Wild Swans [Chang's memoir of three generations of Chinese women], I described my grandmother's bound feet as "three-inch golden lilies". I'd assumed foot-binding had been banned by the communists but discovered that it was, in 1902, the Empress Dowager who outlawed it. That got me interested in her. Also, researching my biography of Mao, I was astonished by the freedom he enjoyed growing up [he was born in 1893 when the Empress Dowager was in power – she died in 1908]. For example, he could travel with a girlfriend, checking into hotels. He had sexual freedom, along with other freedoms that I, growing up in China, couldn't dream of. There was press freedom too. I had thought the Empress Dowager a diehard conservative despot – her reputation in China is still as a vicious villain.

Why has that hung on?
Because as a woman she was not allowed to rule in her own right. She ruled from behind the throne of her son and adopted son. Without research and study, it is not straightforward to decide what her position was. Barely three years after she died, China became a republic. And later Mao and the communists wanted to accuse her of leaving China in a mess. Articulate foes abroad created lies against her.

How trapped was she?
When she came to power in 1861, China was medieval. She wasn't allowed to see her officials. She hated the Forbidden City but was not allowed out of it. She wanted to travel. Yet she had the acumen to judge what was possible. She did not let her personal wish for freedom divert her from reforms.

She got more radical as she got older…
When she came to power she was 25 and from a secluded environment. She didn't know what the west was like. But she had shrewd judgment. She knew an open-door policy would benefit China – her greatest contribution. She had an open mind and was attracted to western ways. She was semi-educated but because she hadn't spent 10 years imbibing incomprehensible classics, her intuitive intelligence wasn't smothered.

You make a fantastic case for her but cannot gloss over her murder of her adopted son. How can this be defensible?
That was not the most painful thing. After all, he had plotted to murder her. She realised that if he survived her, China would land in Japan's lap because they had a hold over him. There would be the nightmare scenario of Japan, which was developing towards being a fascist country, dominating east Asia. It would have been a nightmare for the world – an incredible moral dilemma. I forgave her this act.

How complex was the book to research?
In the Forbidden City there are 12 million documents about her and her dynasty. Teams of scholars and archivists have been analysing and digitising them. Her imperial decrees can now be downloaded. I could look at them from the comfort of my study.

Will the book be banned in China?
If it were, it would be because the regime would not want to promote me. And my conclusions are new, so the book is bound to create waves. But I hope it will be allowed in China.

I'm struck by your descriptions of the oppressive order of palace life. To what extent is ordinary feeling repressed by organised Chinese structures?
Very repressed. What appalled me was the ban on music. After the emperor's death there had to be four years of silence – unbelievable. She loved music. How would you live? There were books but they were classics.

When did you move to the UK and how Chinese do you feel now?
In 1978. My mother lives in China, and a brother and sister. I care deeply what happens there but London is home. I found things I loved here: flowers, grass, pretty clothes, people being nice to each other. In the Cultural Revolution, people were condemned for saying "thank you" too much – it was thought bourgeois, as were books. London was freedom and a lovely life.

Are clothes important? You dress beautifully…
Yes, they are. But the Empress Dowager would spend two hours dressing up… and I never… [she laughs]

You worked with your husband on the Mao book. Has it, though banned in China, made an impact there?
It is the most fantastic thing: a huge impact. The Chinese edition is published in Hong Kong, sold in Taiwan. Many copies have gone into China. Information from our book is on the web and people are debating it.

How did you and your husband meet?
In the 1980s I'd finished my doctorate at the University of York and was making a TV series about China. Jon [Halliday, an historian] was working on a documentary about the Korean war. He was told I might open doors in China. I did nothing of the sort.

What has your mother's influence been?
My mother is 82 and fearless, which gives me courage. She never cautions me. She lets me do whatever I see as right. And it is courageous because she could be affected by what I do.

What one thing would you change in China?
Say goodbye to Mao. Take down Mao's portrait from Tiananmen Square.

You were in the Red Guard at 14. Do you feel as if you were another person then?
No – I was very much me. When I go back to China, my schoolfriends say my personality has hardly changed. I never was a fanatic. Extreme actions make me afraid. I was a reluctant Red Guard. Like the Empress Dowager, I was radical but no extremist.

It sounds like you identify with her…
I admire her for bringing off an incredible revolution in China with minimum bloodshed. I empathise with her.

Jung Chang will be speaking at the London Lit Weekend at Kings Place, London N1 on Saturday

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On my radar: Dave Stewart's cultural highlights

Dave Stewart Dave Stewart: 'Some of the most rewarding experiences of my life have been with people on the margins.' Photograph: Rex/Sipa Press

Dave Stewart is a musician, record producer, songwriter and photographer, best known as one half of Eurythmics. Born in Sunderland in 1952, Stewart began performing in his teens, securing a record deal at the age of 18. In the late 1970s he formed the post-punk band the Tourists, and when that band split in 1980, he and singer Annie Lennox formed Eurythmics, going on to sell almost 80m records worldwide. Since their split in 1990 Stewart has collaborated with numerous other artists (including Terry Hall, Paul McCartney and Bono) and has had several successful solo projects. Two years ago he and Mick Jagger formed the supergroup SuperHeavy (which also includes Joss Stone, Damian Marley and AR Rahman). His album Lucky Numbers is out on 7 October, and Ghost the Musical is on a national tour until March 2014.

Thomas Lindsey. Thomas Lindsey.

There is a lot of old and current music I could talk about, but I thought I should take this opportunity to talk about a singer no one has yet heard of, tomorrow's music rather than today's. Thomas Lindsey is an unknown singer who I genuinely believe will be hugely important. He has a voice that borders on the ethereal one minute and massive power the next. It's tinged with sadness, but also a feeling of hope, rather like Sinéad O'Connor, or Nick Drake, or even Nina Simone. It's very beautiful and very emotional. I got him to send me some of his songs and instantly fell in love with the voice. He is from a small town in Louisiana and I got him to fly out and do a support slot before my show and he blew everybody away. He had never been to a major city or ever flown in a plane before so it was a pretty daunting experience but he was amazing.

Anthony Bourdain. Anthony Bourdain.

It's ostensibly a cookery programme, but what I love about it is him – Anthony Bourdain, a chef who travels the world truly immersing himself in other cultures. He is fascinated not just by food, but by the people he meets, their ways of life, their customs and traditions. You get the sense with him that he believes that another culture's food is almost like their language, and to understand both properly, you need to understand the people and their culture and fall in love with that. He's brilliant with words and extremely well read. He is the reverse of the macho, misanthropic chef throwing his weight around – the diametric opposite of Gordon Ramsay.

Greil Marcus Greil Marcus. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty

I'm rereading this, Greil Marcus's history of rock'n'roll. It's an incredible, beautiful book that puts the work of great artists in the context of other arts, particularly literature. It was written in 1975 and is hugely optimistic in the sense that you get the idea that he believes music can change not just people but the world. And music has done that. It did that for me, and I still really believe it has the power to change the world.

Silver Linings Playbook - 2012 Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook.

I love this film. It is an independent movie that got a fairly modest release, but has won a number of awards. It's a love story concerning two people with bipolar disorder who fall in love. Everyone around them warns them their relationship isn't just doomed but dangerous. What appeals to me is that I have always liked outsiders, people regarded as wayward or even crazy. Many of the people I've had the most fruitful, creative relationships with have been considered difficult or even nuts by others, and I have often been warned against them. And yet, as I say, some of the best and most rewarding experiences of my life have been with people on the margins. Maybe it's because I am a little that way too.

Artwork by Kehinde Wiley. Artwork by Kehinde Wiley.

He's an artist who lives in New York City, but I went to see his work at a gallery here in Los Angeles after a friend of mine showed me one of his paintings. He's a brilliant renaissance technician. He places his African-American subjects entirely out of context, wearing sneakers, track pants, tank tops, and team caps but within the visual language of classical European portraiture. I bought a piece of his titled Jonathan I. I own quite a few paintings by my late friend Eric Scott and years ago he did a series of African tribes people set within Picasso-like blue line paintings; they have a similar feel to Wiley's work. I suppose I'm drawn towards these juxtaposed worlds in art, music and life. Online mag

This is supposedly a blog, but really it works as one of the greatest online magazines about popular art, fashion, music and photography ever produced. It's about people, places, products, clothes, photography, painting, anything that interests the guy behind it. So you'll have an item on the day Elvis met Led Zeppelin, followed by something on Sharon Tate's modelling career, then an article on photography, or a photographic piece about classic motorcycles. They did this immense item on Japanese tattoos which I spent hours looking at. It's utterly eclectic, and proves that if you commit yourself to a vision without compromise you can create great things.

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Command and Control by Eric Schlosser - review

Command and Control, books 'An accident waiting to happen': nuclear missiles from the cold war on display at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Ohio. Photograph: Alamy

In the 1980s I joined the crowds of anti-nuclear demonstrators, driven into a state of terror by the last years of the cold war. Ronald Reagan, a man we held to be a warmonger and a religious fanatic, had matched the deployment of short-range missiles in eastern Europe with short-range missiles in western Europe. We could imagine Armageddon coming by accident and design and describe how the world would die. Scientists did not warn of global warming 30 years ago, but of a nuclear winter falling as the debris from thermonuclear war blocked out the sun.

Then Reagan pulled off a miraculous achievement. The Soviet Union realised that it could no longer compete in the arms race he was running. Gorbachev took power. The west seized the moment and a conflict that had threatened to exterminate a large part of humanity stopped – just like that.

Worries about nuclear weapons have had a dusty feel to them since then – for Europeans at any rate. And at first glance, Eric Schlosser appears to have produced a history of the world we have lost. A brilliant history – anyone who has read his Fast Food Nation will have admired his ability to combine the patience of the scholar with the vigour of the investigative journalist – but a history nevertheless. His digging has already produced a scoop. The US news networks have followed up his discovery that the nearest America came to a nuclear catastrophe was not the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 but a hitherto unknown moment in January 1961, when a B-52 flying over North Carolina exploded. Every safety mechanism on the hydrogen bombs it was carrying failed, except a basic switch. If it had been set on the equivalent of "on", most of the citizens of Washington, Philadelphia and New York would have been wiped out.

If they had detonated, JFK's words in his inaugural address that Americans would "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship... to assure the survival and the success of liberty" would have been more than stirring rhetoric. (And Kennedy would not have been in a position to deliver any more speeches.)

Accounts of potential disasters, carefully reconstructed from the files and from interviews with old servicemen, punctuate Schlosser's grand narrative of the United States' attempts to manage nuclear weapons. The near misses are not a distraction from his account of high military strategy or an aside, however. They are all of a piece with the uncertainty the possession of nuclear weapons brings: an instability that the apparently rational phrase "the balance of terror" concealed.

What to do with the brutes? After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, General Henry H "Hap" Arnold, commander of the US army air force, warned that nuclear weapons made destruction "too cheap and easy". An air raid that had required hundreds of bombers now required one. Like many of his colleagues, he argued for a kind of world government that could stop their spread and use. But an international force with the power to disarm was as fanciful then as it is now, as the example of the world's response to the Iranian nuclear programme shows.

If they could not be abolished, could they be used in a winnable war? In the 1950s, the US organised vast civil defence exercises, which told credulous citizens that they might survive if only they learned to take cover. Americans would have been less cheered if they had known that President Eisenhower had watched the exercises and privately concluded that a nuclear war could never be won because "there aren't enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets".

No stable balance of terror followed from the threat of mutually assured destruction. Instead, the fear grew that a first strike by the Soviets could destroy the US command and control centres that would authorise a counter-strike – and vice versa. The reader's mind reels as we go through the dangers of political control breaking down in a conflict, the illusion that tactical nuclear weapons could be used in a conventional war without sparking a conflagration, the fallibility of computer systems, the risk of a rogue pilot or general starting a war on his own and the inability of American and Soviet leaders to talk to each other until well into the 1970s.

"We escaped the cold war without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion," said General George Lee Butler of the US strategic air command.

In his conclusion, Schlosser emphasises that the catalogue of close calls he records happened in the US, the richest nation on Earth, with the best scientists money could train. Now, not only do the US and Russia still maintain huge arsenals but North Korea, Israel, Pakistan and India have joined the old club; societies that may prove far less able to control demonic weapons. The speed of the arms race between India and Pakistan in particular is matched only by the absence of safeguards that might stop a cold war turning hot.

Schlosser breaks from his neutral tone only in the final sentences. "Right now thousands of missiles are hidden away,'' he says, as he allows himself one grim flourish. "Every one of them is an accident waiting to happen, a potential act of mass murder. They are out there waiting, soulless and mechanical, sustained by our denial – and they work."

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Bridget Jones's Diary fans aghast as Helen Fielding kills off Mr Darcy

Colin Firth as Mark Darcy, the definitive romantic hero of Bridget Jones's Diary. Colin Firth as Mark Darcy, the romantic hero of Bridget Jones's Diary. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Sportsphoto Ltd

Bridget Jones lives on, counting calories, alcohol units and hair nits but discounting years – 51 but answering to 35 – but this is no consolation to legions of fans who have learned some devastating news: Mr Darcy is dead.

Whether he was smothered by a Christmas sweater or died of pneumonia from a wet shirt remains to be revealed when Mad About the Boy is published next month, but the shocking news has been broken in extracts in the Sunday Times magazine.

In the final pages of her last dispatch, more than 10 years ago, the definitive chick-lit romantic hero – dark, handsome, rich, funny, clever, devoted – proposed to Bridget. Alas, while the marriage did produce little Mabel and the nit-infested Billy, evidently the couple did not live happily ever after.

In extracts from the new book, the third volume of Bridget Jones's Diary, the international best sellers by Helen Fielding that became hit movies starring Renée Zellwegger and Colin Firth, it is tragically clear that Mr Darcy is no more. Jones is now tracking texts from and "minutes spent obsessing" over her 29-year-old toyboy, Roxter.

Fielding's publisher, Jonathan Cape, said the new book would "give a voice to the more mature social media-obsessed concerns of the women who grew up with Bridget", but fans were aghast.

"What?? No!" said a grieving Holly Adderley, one of many – including the novelist and former Tory MP Louise Mensch – who took to Twitter in shock. Anne Robinson added: "Mark Darcy is dead. Bridget Jones is a widow!! This is all too much for a lazy Sunday morning."

Another tweet said: "I really hope this isn't true", but from the extracts it does seem to be all too true.

Jones laments: "Has it really been five years? Oh Mark, Mark. What am I doing? Why did I start all this? Why didn't I just stay as I was? Sad, lonely, workless, sexless but at least a mother, a widow, and faithful to their father."

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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Dracula – review

Translating fiction into dance is dangerous. Cliched set pieces, plots shorn of nuance, naff period-costumed duets: the regular dance-goer is wearily familiar with them all. But Mark Bruce's thrilling, atmospheric Dracula proves that it can be done. Bram Stoker's novel is highly physical; its narrative strands wind like shrouds around the bodies of its characters. Bruce retains the skeleton of Stoker's plot, but spins out the physical stories with bone-dry wit and florid sensuality. He also rescues the piece from absurdity – laughter is to the gothic as garlic is to the vampire – with a deft reversal of emphasis. His version is at heart a romance, which sees Dracula (Jonathan Goddard) and Lucy Westenra (Kristin McGuire) finally united in an eternity of perverse mutual desire.

Mark Bruce CompanyDraculaTobacco Factory, BristolStarts 25 SeptemberUntil 28 SeptemberTouring to Exeter, Bournemouth, London, Oxford and Frome

Bruce sets up this denouement by painting his male, human cast as self-regarding and ineffectual. Jonathan Harker (Chris Tandy) idolises and infantilises Lucy, and Mina Harker's sexual appetite is evidently unstirred by her rich but smugly insensitive fiance (Alan Vincent). The men's Victorian posturing looks very pallid indeed when contrasted with the barely concealed ferocity of Goddard's Dracula, whom we encounter first in introspective mood, whirling fleet-footed and melancholy to Ligeti's Atmosphères.

There's a sense of rift, of a creature at once ecstatic at his power and appalled at what he has become. Later, Goddard performs a doleful soft-shoe shuffle to Down at the Old Bull and Bush (Bruce's musical choices are, as ever, nothing if not eclectic).

He and Bruce are playing with us, tricking us into empathy. We will soon see Goddard's sad gaze twist into demonic fury and his lyricism transformed to savagery. One of the best moments occurs when Dracula finds his vampire brides (danced with splendid, snarling lubriciousness by Hannah Kidd, Nicole Guarino and Cree Barnett Williams) bloodily toying with Harker. One moment, Goddard is a creeping shadow, with vestiges of the man he once was clearly evident in his body language. The next, he is the Beast, feral and pitiless.

Dracula could have gone so wrong, but it's by far the best thing that Bruce has ever done – a real breakthrough work. And Goddard is nothing short of brilliant. The current UK tour takes in just six venues, none of them large, but I'd be surprised if I saw a more entertaining piece of dance theatre this year. Kill for a ticket.

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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Sleeping Keys by Jean Sprackland – review

sleeping keys 2 Jean Sprackland's fourth collection describes ‘an ambivalent relationship with domesticity’. Photograph: Trigger Image / Alamy

Jean Sprackland's poems are an uncommon pleasure to read. They are defined by their hospitable grace. They're easy to take in yet anything but superficial: they repay return visits. Sprackland has been highly regarded from the start of her career perhaps because she makes the reader welcome – the clarity is a tonic. In 1998 was shortlisted for the Forward prize for her first book and then for the TS Eliot and Whitbread prizes for her second. She won the 2007 Costa poetry award for her third collection, Tilt, and on the strength of this, her fourth, she deserves to become a household name – not least because her work is rooted in ideas about home.

Sprackland writes about how we inhabit our lives, and describes an ambivalent relationship with domesticity. There are poems about unblocking drains, about cupboards that stubbornly refuse to clear themselves of the past, and about the slicing of bread and apples. And there is "Opening a Chimney", a delicately judged poem about finding her voice again, a new broom with which to sweep clean. Once her chimney, which has been like "a stopped throat", is open, the outside world is allowed in: "Now something falls, soft as a thought – / a clod of soot, or the bones of an old nest – / and the dreaming house stirs." Sprackland is also stirring – it's a time of change. The mundane is transformed but never falsified, and she writes in a way that would not disgrace Virginia Woolf, quoted in the frontispiece.

The collection begins with the end of a marriage (much furniture removal, including a piano: "The frame looked quaint as a spinning jenny./ It stank of old felt and lamentations") and ends with new love ("Sea Holly" is a beautiful, guarded poem in which she offers an unconventional bouquet: "I stood in the street, spiked with all my warnings/ And he opened the door, and the flowers and I went in."). Here, as always, she treads lightly, is not clunkily autobiographical.

Sprackland is at pains not to force things to be more than they are, and there is discipline in making herself scarce. So in "Discovery" she writes: "The apple she took from the bowl and cut in half/ has a name, and a green skin flushed with red./ No need to think of temptation, original sin, etc./ It's just an apple, and she would ask nothing of it/ except for sweetness…" But then she cuts herself by accident with a knife and a chance symbolism emerges: "the welling blood, the apple halved and glistening./ Autumn, the quiet house, the marriage done." In "The Birds of the Air", similarly, she is content to be vague about the birds' names to "keep them free". The determination not to appropriate or overdress what she sees persists – she is more a witness than a manager.

Sprackland's poetry is a perfect companion piece to that of Philip Larkin, to whom her work is indebted. One cannot read her without thinking of his "Home is So Sad" and "Days". "We Come Back to This" – a wonderful poem – seems at first to be on a Larkinesque path. Her question "Where else to return but here" echoes Larkin's "Where can we live but days?" But he is brilliantly depressing: "Home is so sad. It stays as it was left./ Shaped to the comfort of the last to go/ As if to win them back… " Sprackland's house, by contrast, is less servile, more enticing, less of a frump: "You can stay up all night with a house as with a lover…" And yet it's her last lines that are most satisfying, with the sudden inspiration of giving a house its liberty (not so different from her approach to birds and apples). The house is unburdened by association with "rooms full only of themselves".

the tremulous mantra of pigeons,
impetuous dogs
and the chatter of night trains.

Now the closed room is elemental.
Still air quivers with freshness.
The wind makes skittering incursions,

throws down hailstones
racketing into the grate
accurate as coins in a chute.

For years it was shut and intimate.
It forgot the outdoor sounds,
the smell of sky.

Now something falls, soft as a thought –
a clod of soot, or the bones of an old nest –
and the dreaming house stirs.

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Friday, October 18, 2013

Poems and National Poetry Day: news and teaching resources round up

Giant knitted poem Bring poems to life on National Poetry Day using our selection of news stories and teaching resources. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Poetry has made the headlines this week, with the death of Ghana's most famous poet Kofi Awoonor in the Kenyan siege followed by Michael Gove's call for pupils to give up sexting in favour of sending each other love poems.

As it's National Poetry Day on Thursday 3 October, marked this year with a water theme, we have pulled together news, teaching resources, multimedia and recommended websites to help your make your celebrations inspiring.

Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor among Westgate mall victims
One of Ghana's most famous poets has been killed in the Nairobi shopping centre attack, after travelling to Kenya for a literary festival. Find out more about this incredible poet in his obituary

George the poet 'Go Home' – video
Performance artist George the Poet takes on the government's campaign against illegal immigrants. Thought-provoking video to play in class.

Top 10 most requested poems
Poetry Please, the world's longest-running radio poetry show, reveals its 10 most requested poems. Great reading for your students, plus raises interesting questions of the purpose of poetry. Why do we continue to want to hear poems written by long-dead poets?

To Autumn – poem of the week
One of the most widely published of John Keats' poems, To Autumn is laden with meaning – and is the Guardian's poem of the week. Read the poem and commentary here, great stimulus for your students' own autumn-themed poetry.

Typhoons in the news
The theme of this year's Poetry Day is water, so your students may want to do their own news-based research on the impact of water on people's lives, as super typhoon Usagi hits the western Pacific.

Romantic rhymes to Michael Gove – share your sentiments
As Michael Gove tells young people to scrap sexts for love poems, we ask teachers to tweet us their verses for the education secretary. Share your verses with us in the comments thread.

Mermaid's Lament poster
Gorgeous watery world poster to celebrate National Poetry Day inspired by Mermaid's Lament by Rachel Rooney.

Squirting Rainbows by Shirley Hughes
A classic poem by the legend that is Shirley Hughes, beautifully presented for classroom display for National Poetry Day 2013.

Born of Water key stage 3 lesson plan
This reading and writing activity by Mandy Coe is based on poems by Rachel Rooney and Carl Sandburg.

Splashing out with poetry in reception
Based on poems by James Coe, this is a reading and performance activity for early years.

Jelly fish cut out
Great idea for responding to this year's National Poetry Day watery theme for early years and primary students.

Into the Deep
Flotsam, Jetsam and the Deeps are explored in this stirring lesson plan aimed at key stage 4 based on Michael Symmons Roberts' poem.

The Whale Watcher
The Scottish Poetry Library has created a wonderful set of resources in partnership with Scottish Water, including this one on Kathleen Jamie's Whale Watcher.

Cut up and shuffle
This imaginative idea to encourage close-reading and collaboration can be adapted for ages 7 to 16.

Think of a Flood
Notes and activity-based ideas to explore Jackie Kay's poem Think of a Flood, itself an English version of a Gaelic poem by Myles Campbell, Rudan a nì uisge, which can be adapted for all ages.

Notes and ideas for teaching Don Paterson's poem Rain.

National Poetry Day animation
Leo Crane's watery-themed animation is absolutely beautiful and will only take up 30 seconds of your day. Unmissable viewing.

Scottish Poetry Library
This site aims to bring people and poetry together and has an engrossing learning section with great downloadables.

Poetry Society's Poetry Class
Fantastically inspiring resources and ideas here. The society also runs a poetry cafe in London for those craving old-school contact plus open mic sessions.

National Poetry Day website
Lots of help and ideas here here for National Poetry Day and beyond.

Apples and Snakes
Poetry site with a bite – spoken word, poetry slams and lots of collaboration to engage students.

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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Matchbook: one giant leap towards a virtual book collection

kindle matchbook amazon Yesterday’s mews: the CueCat was the first device to link books and the internet.

Back in 2007 the hot thing in connecting your books to the internet was a handheld device in the shape of a cat. The CueCat barcode scanner was a relic of the first dotcom bubble: a device for scanning barcodes in newspapers and linking them to websites. When the original manufacturer went bust, the online reading community LibraryThing bought a job lot and sold them cheap to its members, allowing them to scan the back of their books and add them to their LibraryThing accounts. I once spent a happy weekend scanning and uploading more than 750 books: a laborious and, in hindsight, somewhat pointless process. I don't appear to have updated my LibraryThing account since 2009.

This isn't digitisation. Putting my paper books on a digital bookshelf didn't allow me to read them elsewhere, search inside them, share bookmarks or any of the more useful actions possible with ebooks.

Nevertheless, the urge to connect paper books to the digital sphere remains a strong one. We're still not at the stage where we can "rip" our own books at home, as most of us have done at some point with our CD collections, transforming them into weightless digital MP3 files and dragging the now pointless shards of plastic to the nearest charity shop. But last week Amazon announced a service to reduce the gap a little bit more.

Matchbook is a new service launching next month which allows Kindle owners to purchase cheap ebook editions of any paper book they've previously ordered from Amazon – ever. Amazon's records, of course, go back to its launch in 1995, and they remember everything you've bought. Like Apple's iTunes Match service, it's another step towards replicating all of our physical, cultural media in the cloud – Amazon's cloud, of course, but no less tempting for it.

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Stella's Story by Sarah Hawkin's - review

This book is about a dog called Stella. Stella is a Staffordshire bull terrier with black fur, dark blue eyes and a white patch on her belly. She is a happy and lively dog.

In the book Cara, Stella's owner, breaks her leg while running a race in the rain, so to cheer her up her mum lets her have a dog and they get Stella. What I enjoyed about the book was when we found out that Stella broke her leg too!

Want to tell the world about a book you've read? Join the site and send us your review!

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Monday, October 14, 2013

Marie Donovan obituary

My mother, Marie Donovan, who has died aged 88, was a battler for whom life was never easy, but she brought harmony through her consideration of others and a desire never to leave a situation worse than she found it.

Born Marie Cooper in London, she suffered the loss of her mother when she was 10 and was then placed in the "care" of a governess, who beat her. The governess was only dismissed when it was found she had been stealing from the neighbours. Marie was so traumatised by the experience that years later, on a day out from school, she fainted upon spotting her former adversary in the street.

However, she enjoyed the great support of her aunt, who ran the Logan Rock Inn, near Penzance, in Cornwall. She spent many happy holidays at the pub, working behind the bar as she got older. Among the customers was Dylan Thomas, a firm favourite with Marie, though her most vivid memory was how he told her she would not make a great poet.

Marie had her first brush with serious illness when she caught pneumonia in her early 20s, then often fatal. However, it was the early days of penicillin and she became one of the first people to try it. Fortunately it worked.

She went on to become a primary school teacher, first in Portsmouth, then in Newham, east London, where she taught for more than 30 years at Kensington primary school in East Ham. There she met Denis Donovan, whom she married in 1956. In the early 1960s she took a break from teaching to have her sons, Andrew and me. She had a real love of teaching and seeing children progress through education. Marie also had a great affection for Newham as a borough which she felt did the best it could for some of the poorest children in the country.

Marie and Denis retired in 1983, then moved to Eastbourne, East Sussex. Shortly after that, Marie was diagnosed with cancer. She underwent surgery and survived. However, there was later a steady deterioration in the quality of her life as she suffered arthritis and her hearing and eyesight worsened.

As a mother, wife and friend, few could have been more loved. Denis died in 2008. Marie is survived by Andrew, me and a grandson, Christian.

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

This week in books: Richard Flanagan, Stephen King, William Boyd on Bond

Stephen King at his home in Maine, US Stephen King at his home in Maine, US. Photograph: Steve Schofield for the Guardian

Why do male authors still dominate our book reviews pages? This week, the Stella Count was released – Australia's equivalent of the US's highly publicised VIDA results. The statistics, revealing how many books by men and women were reviewed in our major newspapers and literary magazines, highlight a striking disproportion, and you can read my analysis of the disparity in the results here.

A fascinating examination of the history of publishing innovations consders how entrepreneurs such as Penguin founder Allen Lane would have reveled in the opportunities of the digital revolution. “Lane's brainwave was the biggest single book innovation of the 20th century, and in its day the equal of the ebook. For a while, his idea dominated the market. Households across Britain began sprouting those colour-coded spines. A format that at the outset seemed to threaten vested interests became an object of veneration.” Read Robert McCrumb on what Allen Lane would have made of Amazon.

"After writing a novel what is there to say? If a novelist could say it in a maxim they wouldn't need 120,000 words, several years and sundry characters, plots and subplots and so on. I'd much rather listen always." In a beautiful interview, Richard Flanagan talks to Michael Williams over dinner, discussing his relationship with his father through his new work, his discomfort with the literary establishment, and his new novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, in which the figure of Weary Dunlop looms large over the book. "Dunlop is too extraordinary a character for fiction. God gets the great stories. Novelists must make do with more mundane fictions," he says.

William Boyd climbs into the interviewer's chair – and back in time – this week as he interrogates the subject of his latest book, Solo, secret agent 007, James Bond. "It was strange being back in Chelsea in 1969, the year of the moon-landing, the year of my first summer in London. Stranger still to be going to interview James Bond," he writes as he walks us through London to Bond's flat. "The door was opened by a rather severe-looking young woman with her brown hair styled in a schoolmarm's sexless bob. I introduced myself and said I had an appointment to interview Mr Bond for the Guardian newspaper. 'I'm afraid we don't take the Guardian, here,' the young woman said in a strong Scottish accent. I said I would make sure a copy reached Mr Bond, somehow."

In our Guardian Books Podcast we’re joined this week by Pulitzer-winning Jhumpa Lahiri who talks about her collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, her favourite short story authors and the challenge of writing from the male perspective. This week was Banned Books Week so we asked readers to send us a photo of their favourite censored books. View our gallery of readers’ favourite banned titles from JD Salinger to Henry Miller.

A book whose “deepest shiverings depend on no made-up devils,” Stephen King’s anticipated new work Doctor Sleep is a sequel to one of his most disturbing novels, The Shining. It follows Dan Torrance, the little boy from the first novel, now grown up. Stephen Poole reviews the latest book from an author who has “grudgingly been admitted by lit-crit folk into the ranks of ‘actually good writers’ as opposed to mere megaselling dimestore artists.” (And if you missed the Guardian's interview with King, you can catch up here)

“The race is now on to write the Worst. Book. Ever. And this may be it.” Lucy Ellmann skewers Worst. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland, a work with a “total immersion in the banality it purports to expose.” It may be a critique of mass culture, “but if this book is satirical, it hides it well. An ironic hamburger is still (usually) a hamburger.”

In a similarly “good bad review” in our non-fiction section, Geoff Dyer applies his biting tongue to The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong by Guido Mina di Sospiro: the story of a man's deepening love of ping-pong with philosophical ruminations about the nature of the game. “And remember the match-winning point of the book: what we discover about spin in ping-pong can be found in 'other fields too'. Not in Mina di Sospiro's writing though. His prose is so lacking in spin and bounce the half-awake reader can see where a sentence is headed before it's left the author's pen.”

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Saturday, October 12, 2013

Would you like your vinaigrette shaken or stirred, Mr Bond? | David Mitchell

Illustration by David Foldvari. Illustration by David Foldvari.

There's another James Bond novel out. Its launch has been surrounded by a bit of a fanfare, presumably because the publishers hope and expect it'll be bought, and in some cases read, by thousands of people who haven't got any of the Fleming originals. It'll be snapped up by those looking for a recent bit of Bondanalia, some more up-to-date Bond, rather than all that old Bond from the 50s and 60s, which isn't really relevant to a multi-platform media environment.

The fanfare is also a sign that, as a culture, the British are quite proud of the whole Bond thing. It's become a symbol that we haven't let go of everything about the past that was successful. High street shopping, manufacturing industry, free higher education, affordable railway travel and a reliable post office may all have been sacrificed, but at least we've clung on to Bond. Bond has endured – possibly because it's been under foreign management for decades.

Good old Bond. Or new, reimagined Bond. Either's great. We can either enjoy Bond doing the same things again, or enjoy Bond being all different and contemporary. Or bemoan either. But very few of us will bemoan both.

The whole world admires Bond because it represents the key creative discovery that's been made since the turn of the millennium: that it is possible to flog a dead horse back to life. Never give up on a franchise, we have learned. Inject enough energy into its corpse and it'll be up and at you with the strength and tenacity of the sort of zombie that can run.

Where Bond led, Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes, Battlestar Galactica and all those superheroes followed. No franchise must be left unexploited, no film unremade, no TV series unreimagined in our commercial desperation to avoid the undignified recourse of trying to think of a new idea, and then trying to get the public interested in it. Our civilisation echoes to the sound of the bottom of barrels being industriously scraped.

And so, out of the Bond barrel, comes another book – to even out the revenue-stream and give the publicists something to work with during a long gap necessitated by the painstaking process of filming Daniel Craig falling off things. In line with the recent trend, they've got a proper novelist to write it, rather than a hack – which is a bit like paying an actual film star to have sex with you rather than a prostitute. So not necessarily more fun.

Written by William Boyd, the book is entitled Solo and is described everywhere as James Bond's "latest literary outing". I presume a literary outing doesn't form the basis of the plot. "A coach trip to Brontë country goes awry for Bond when al-Qaida laces an eccles cake with plutonium."

Some feathers were ruffled by Boyd's decision to give Bond a new recipe for dry martini, superseding Ian Fleming's one from Casino Royale. But my eye was caught by news of another recipe that 007 shares with readers in Solo: a recipe for vinaigrette. "That vinaigrette," explains Boyd, "which is precisely detailed, is my vinaigrette which I've lent to James Bond." He sounds worried about getting it back.

This is no work of fan fiction. This is an officially sanctioned addition to the Bond canon. As a result of his own work, William Boyd can now truthfully boast that he dresses a salad like James Bond. But I worry that this takes Bond's already slightly grating clothes, cocktail and wine fastidiousness a stage too far. He's now getting all prissy about his salad dressing. He should be shooting men and shagging women – and then maybe shooting the women afterwards. By pausing to drone on about walnut oil, he may be pushing his luck.

Then again, perhaps I'm out of step with new Bond. I'm the dinosaur that Judi Dench accuses Bond of being in Goldeneye, while 007 is thoroughly up to speed with modern gastro-Britain. If Paul Hollywood can refer earnestly to creme patissiere without anyone casting aspersions on his masculinity, then surely Bond can pull it off. (Now there's a piece of fan fiction waiting to be written.) We all have to eat. We all like to eat lots of different things. Why shouldn't Bond immaculately dress a salad in between killings? Its very incongruity is what makes it real.

Here are a few culinary gems enjoyed by some of the nation's other favourite characters when they allow themselves to be "off message" just for a moment.

The world's first consulting detective devised this recipe for the New England classic when, having successfully resolved the "Case of the Disappearing Billingsgate Swordfish", he was paid entirely in seafood. Watson was suspicious as Holmes cooked it in the same boiling flask he'd recently used to study the effects of hydrochloric acid on human hair. But Holmes rejected the criticism, claiming that the "funny taste" Watson referred to was "nothing more sinister than parsley, you idiot".

As the symptoms of type 2 diabetes became more evident even to Pooh's very little brain, he began to look for dietary alternatives to hunny. "It was Eeyore who first told me about havver-car-doh but I don't think he expected me to like it," explained Pooh. "In my first batch I actually put a little bit of mole in it, before discovering that Mole was one of Rabbit's Friends and Relations."

"Aunt Dahlia was always talking about the Quorn Hunt so I became determined to catch one myself," Wooster explains. "Then Jeeves told me they lived in main sewers and looked exactly like sofas. Many long and smelly nights later, I returned in triumph with an arm and half a cushion that, when boiled up with a ton of rice, hit the spot like concrete being poured on to a corpse."

"It appeals to me because it sounds like the sausage has been murdered," the sleuth told the Observer, "which, in terms of cuisine, it has. I first encountered one many years ago when Captain Hastings showed me his. He could take it down all in one go. The things they learn at the English boarding schools never cease to amaze me. My recipe includes a pinch of paprika in the batter so that it tingles."

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Friday, October 11, 2013

Simon Schama: a man always making history | the Observer profile

simon schama Simon Schama, respected academic and popular historian. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

In a speech to an audience in London last week, the historian Simon Schama joked about why he didn't need a microphone. "My father always used to stand at the back of the room and say, 'Louder, Simon, louder.' It explains my whole life."

Loud, passionate, ambitious and above all visible, Schama is the antithesis of the ivory tower academic. He has no truck with secluded contemplation. Instead, he thrives on debate, noise and, most of all, people. When he's not on television – and when is he not on television? – he's giving radio lectures, filing op-ed pieces for various newspapers, writing about food for GQ or promoting his latest historical bestseller.

He is a prolific writer who, for all his love of the crowd, has also served his time in the study and the archives. The author of 16 books that cover territory as diverse as slavery, the French Revolution and a three-part history of Britain, he has somehow managed to make 10 major documentary series for the BBC in the last two decades. By many accounts, his latest, The Story of the Jews, is also his greatest.

A towering achievement that demonstrates Schama's finest qualities to exhilarating effect, it is at once epic yet intimate, intellectually commanding but instantly accessible. It is also tremendously moving, both as a document of suffering and a celebration of struggle.

There is a tendency when considering any historical documentary series to hark back to the glory days of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, as if it were itself the embodiment of civilisation after which the barbarians were let loose. But Schama's five-part series stands by itself without any need to invoke earlier cultural high points. It is not just a bravura piece of television, but an astonishing recapitulation of a 4,000-year story.

In 1989, to coincide with the bicentenary of the French Revolution, Schama published his first big selling book, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. No less an authority than Eric Hobsbawm praised the author for his erudition, describing the book as "exceptionally stylish and eloquent", while also criticising Schama's tendency to focus on particular individuals at the expense of a more systematic approach.

What that book demonstrated above all is that Schama is a natural storyteller. He can do analysis and sift facts, but his greatest strength lies in creating a powerful narrative out of the churning, chaotic drama of historical events. History may be one effing thing after another, to paraphrase Alan Bennett, but for Schama the job of the historian is to unearth the effing storyline that links them together.

As he says in The Story of the Jews: "We are our story." Schama said in the first episode that it was what made him want to be a historian in the first place. His own story is that he was born in the closing stages of the Second World War, on the night before the Allies bombed Dresden. He grew up in Essex and north London and his father, who had held dreams of becoming an actor, was a businessman in the rag trade. Schama once said that his childhood home was a removal van, because his father was always going broke.

But his father passed on an interest in Jewish and British history, taking the young Schama on boat trips along the Thames as he spoke about Disraeli and the characterisation of Jews in English literature. By his own account, the household was a lively and voluble place and the family were known in the neighbourhood for "overdoing it". Schama recalls his mother singing Ethel Merman very loudly at the breakfast table.

"'There's no business like show business' while I was eating my yoghurt and putting my coat on."

Schama was a precocious and talkative child, the kind proud parents liked to see perform. But at the age of six he stopped talking for a period.

"My parents liked to show me off as a little mad talker with an amazing memory. I would have to recite the Latin names of flowers. And I remember deciding to refuse them this. It was a prolonged sulk that went on and on to become a kind of brief childhood madness. I enjoyed the power certainly, but it couldn't last."

No, it couldn't. Schama was born to talk and since that brief word strike, his mind and mouth have been working overtime. He read history at Cambridge and gained a starred first, followed by stints as a history lecturer at Cambridge and Oxford before making his decisive move to America to take up a chair at Harvard.

Schama was a friend of his critic Hobsbawm and is also friendly with the late historian's daughter, Julia, for whom he speaks at her Names Not Numbers talking heads events.

"He's very gregarious, warm and intense," she says. "He feels things very deeply. He doesn't pull his punches. He thinks life is important. But he's thoroughly egalitarian – he wants to chat with anyone who comes into his orbit. I think he should be cloned. The world would be a better place."

By the mid-90s, Schama was art critic for the New Yorker, had a chair at Columbia University and had written and presented two series on art for the BBC. Since then, he's balanced his post in New York, from which he took a sabbatical to make The Story of the Jews, with making films in Britain, trailing an ever-growing army of fans in his wake.

With popularity, however, comes envy, particularly in academic circles, and Schama has not escaped the accusation that he has "dumbed down". It's a charge that he vehemently rejects.

To his accusers, he says he wants to say: "'Try it, Buster. See how unbelievably demanding it is.' Anyone can write an academic piece directed at other academics. To write something that delivers an argument and a gripping storyline to someone's granny or eight-year-old takes the highest quality of your powers. I am completely unrepentant. One should not feel shifty."

With his robust opinions and emphatic delivery, Schama isn't shifty, but he isn't necessarily easy to place. A liberal, he isn't a historian of the left or right. He's not divisive like, say, his fellow TV historian, Niall Ferguson. As one observer puts it: "The liberal left like to think that he belongs to them and the liberal right think that he's one of theirs." This uncertainty was highlighted when he took up an advisory role to Michael Gove, as the education secretary set about reforming the teaching of history in schools. Schama was in agreement with Gove that history had lost its binding thread and become a series of unrelated greatest hits – the Tudors, the Nazis etc.

In 2010, he said that the way that the subject was taught threatened to cut "the cord of our national memory", explaining that "chronology is very important".

His fear, he wrote, was that unless children could be won over to history, "their imagination will be held hostage in the cage of the eternal now".

Never one to remain in her own cage, Mary Beard, the Cambridge classicist, suggested Schama's role was "an insult to history teachers" and dismissed the man himself as "not only glitzy, but also cheap".

But earlier this year, after Gove published his draft curriculum, Schama delighted his audience at the Hay festival by deriding the proposals. "It's 1066 and All That – without the jokes," he quipped.

Aside from history, Schama's great passions are food, art and conversation. By his own admission, he has a magpie mind that has led him to write on subjects far divorced from his specialities. "There are one or two things I know I can't write about," he has said."DIY, cricket, automobile repair. I could study it for a lifetime and not produce a word on the carburettor."

With The Story of the Jews, however, he is solidly on home turf. It's the story he's been working on and towards since he started out in academia. In an exam when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge, he had to select between three essay titles. "I chose 'The Manor' and wrote not on feudalism but on how I remembered my Uncle Harry describing Golders Green as his manor."

He set up a Jewish reading group when he lectured at Cambridge, then lectured on Jewish history at Oxford. In the 1970s, he embarked on extensive research with the intention of writing a Jewish history, but daunted by the scale of the task, he eventually gave up. It's to the credit of BBC's Adam Kemp that four years ago he was able to persuade Schama to return to the story that has haunted the historian his whole life.

"It was not just that Jewish history was inexplicable without everyone else's history," Shama recently wrote. "It was that the history of the world was inexplicable without Jewish history." Never has this point been more persuasively argued than in Schama's spellbinding The Story of the Jews.

Born 13 February 1945 in London. His parents were Jews with both Ashkenazi and Sephardic roots.

Best of times The publication of Citizens in 1989, which made Schama's name and won him the NCR Book award.

His twin achievements at the BBC. First, the 15-part A History of Britain to tie in with the millennium celebrations and this year's The Story of the Jews, expected by many to be his greatest yet.

Worst of times It's been a story of unbroken success, but Schama has been repeatedly criticised for his Zionism, most recently coming under attack from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign for making a "moral" case for Israel.

What he says "You wouldn't know it but I'm good at... singing. I have a lounge-lizard repertoire. I do a croaky Tom Waits, but need to drink and smoke more to get it right."

What they say "This book shows Schama at his best… a labour of love, as full of memorable incident as a Bellow novel and wittier than a Woody Allen movie." Journalist Daniel Johnson on The Story of the Jews, the book.

"Simon Schama is the most personable… of telly historians… he is bigger on screen than off… his voice… speaks as if to the sound of violins."

Television critic AA Gill.

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Gone by Michael Grant - review

Imagine a normal day; you wake up, half-asleep, forcing yourself into the regular routine, the normal day-to-day procedure of getting into school uniform, going downstairs to grumble a 'hi' to your parents and then hurriedly eating breakfast as you realise the bus is about to leave any minute.

You run out of the house and collapse onto the bus seat, and you embark on a long journey to school with the unpleasant prospect of history class looming over your head. Then it hits you that you didn't even say 'bye' to your mum,but you shrug it off; after all, you're going to see her at the end of the day – it's not a big deal.

That's what you'd have thought, anyway.

But in the town of San Perdido, things have strayed far from 'regular' and 'normal.' In a flash, everyone over the age of fourteen has disappeared, they're just... gone. To the confusion and surprise of the children who remain, a giant forcefield of sorts now encircles the area of Perdido Beach, preventing anyone from entering - or leaving.

The stranded children find themselves exposed to the threat of conflict, danger and death, as the idea of living in a world devoid of adults quickly becomes a hard-hitting reality. With no phones or televisions working either, the town soon becomes a prison for these 'survivors', and with no way to get help, time is running out for each remaining individual: the day you turn fifteen is the day you disappear, just like everyone else.

Whilst this isn't an immediate problem for the younger ones, for 14 year old Sam Temple and his friends, each day brings them one step closer to meeting their fate and disintegrating into absolutely nothing.

Then there's another twist; as if the whole idea of an impenetrable shield coupled with the disappearances isn't enough, some kids start developing strange powers – some being more deadly than others – which are strengthening as the days go by. In the meantime, resources are quickly becoming depleted, sides are being chosen, people are being manipulated; it won't be long before a catastrophic fight ensues.

In my opinion, Gone and its sequels, all the way to the final installment Light, are highly dark even for the young adult audience they are aimed at. Grant is successful in writing a brutal, unforgiving account of the reality within the sphere in which the children are now restricted: scenes of death, mutilation, and moral dilemmas form the basis of the plot in each book.

However, the characters, introduced in Gone, are all deliciously complex and relatable, and despite the ostensibly unbelievable concept of the novels, Grant is able to craft a surprisingly realistic setting. What I love the most about the characters in Gone is that despite all the terrible actions that happens in the series, and the unimaginable torture suffered, Grant always reminds the reader that these are just kids, like you and I, which helps to put the plot into perspective.

I am certain that the fast-paced and frighteningly gripping Gone, and the successive novels in the series, will not fail to delight many readers, ranging from fans of The Hunger Games, to hard-core Stephen King admirers, to those who prefer the modern classic Lord of the Flies.

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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Stage Blood by Michael Blakemore – review

blakemore Michael Blakemore, right, directing Tony Matthews in Michael Frayn's Noises Off in 1982. Photograph: Conrad Blakemore

Vengeance is the very stuff of theatre, a pure example of the first law of dramatic physics, which decrees that any action has to provoke a reaction. But the real revengers are probably backstage. While Hamlet wastes time fretting about the moral complexities of his vendetta, in offices and dressing rooms knives are inserted between the shoulder blades of competitors without namby-pamby hesitation.

Sometimes no weapon is necessary, since a facial smirk can be lethal. Early in this memoir, Michael Blakemore looks at Laurence Olivier, with whom he is arguing about the terms of his appointment as an associate director at the National Theatre in 1971. Olivier listens to Blakemore's complaints "with a smile on his lips that was razor-blade thin"; Blakemore realises he is daring to contradict Richard III. In the event, he kept his head, at least until Olivier was ousted by Peter Hall in a bout of establishment skullduggery. Hall, uttering endearments and compliments, then proceeded to make Blakemore's position untenable. In 1976 Blakemore quit, after accusing Hall of running the company dictatorially and questioning the occult arrangements that had been made for reimbursing him.

The stage blood that Blakemore sheds – in any case a concoction of corn syrup and dye, since luvvies lead charmed lives and must be ready to expire again at the next performance – should have dried long ago: his career did not suffer after his departure from the National, and when Hall's regime ended a few years later his criticisms were vindicated. Back then, Blakemore demonised his smirking enemy, and nicknamed the Barbican block where Hall then lived Satan Towers. Now he and Hall are both octogenarians, with no excess energy left to fuel a private war, and in his account of a recent meeting Blakemore acknowledges Hall's "persuasive charm" – though he is hardly forgiving, and describes Hall as "the greediest man I had ever known", an omnivore who gobbled up other peoples' ideas along with heaped plates of expensive nosh.

What makes Blakemore's book valuable is the historical hindsight it brings to its recollections of that remote feud. Forty years on, the personal tiffs and whispered denunciations hardly matter; Blakemore is now able to see that the interregnum between Olivier and Hall marked a turning point for the nation as well the National. His reading of events is almost an historical allegory. Olivier, who boosted morale by performing Henry V at the Old Vic during the blitz, is a Churchillian figure. Sacrificing his health and accepting a niggardly salary, he dwindled into an administrator because he believed he was performing a public service by founding a theatre that would be – and at its best still is – the envy of the world. Hall, a shrewd fixer and busy multi-tasker who absented himself from the National to direct operas or make television programmes, seems to worry most about maximising profits from his productions when they transferred to the West End or to Broadway. He belongs, in Blakemore's estimation, to the nastily rapacious Britain that Margaret Thatcher soon ushered in.

Blakemore considers Hall "a politician first and foremost", an impresario rather than an artist. Thatcher may have disliked him but the grocer's daughter from Grantham and the stationmaster's son from Suffolk were secretly akin. She challenged the miners, Hall called the bluff of the unionised stagehands who delayed the National's transfer from the Old Vic to the South Bank; both despised England's creaky hierarchy, but in toppling it and stripping its assets they did away with a sense of communal obligation "without which a National Theatre, and probably a health service, would never have come into being".

Backstage backstabbing is distanced by time, and also by Blakemore's physical retreat from London. The book's subplot concerns his discovery and renovation of a wrecked house in Biarritz, where he still lives. As concrete is poured to construct Denys Lasdun's fortress beside Waterloo bridge, Blakemore and his family camp out in the shell of a home that is being rebuilt around them. The contrast is piquant. Theatre happens inside architecture, as Blakemore says, but there is no affinity between the two arts: the one is ephemeral, almost accidental, while the other pretends to permanence. Domestic architecture makes us feel snug and existentially secure, yet Blakemore's French home is haunted, like a theatre, by spectres who have passed through it before him, and he wisely accepts his own transitoriness. He is only there, he admits, to look at the mountains and to plunge into the sea, and he is aware that both will outlast him, along with all the other poor players who strut and fret onstage for a few hours.

A book that I feared (and half hoped) would be merely vituperative turns out to be warm, wise, and even sternly moralistic as it looks back, more in sorrow than anger, at a defunct England. For me, best of all, it vividly recalls the great performances I saw, by Olivier and others, in productions by Blakemore and his colleagues during the 1970s. Theatre is evanescent, yet it can provide us with experiences so intense that we gratefully retain them for the rest of our lives. Memory compulsively preserves ancient grudges; more importantly, as Blakemore demonstrates, it is the impregnable archive of our affections.

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Malcolm Gladwell: 'If my books appear oversimplified, then you shouldn't read them'

Malcolm Gladwell at his home in New York. Malcolm Gladwell at his home in New York. Photograph: Tim Knox for the Guardian

Malcolm Gladwell is in his natural habitat – a cafe in New York's West Village, down the street from his apartment – engaged in a very Gladwellian task: defending Lance Armstrong. The bestselling author of The Tipping Point and Outliers, who despite all appearances just turned 50, has a tendency to hoist both arms aloft like a preacher when a topic inflames him. And the topic of doping in sports does. Why, he wants to know, is it OK to be born with an abnormality that gives you surplus red blood cells, like the Finnish Olympic skiing star Eero Mäntyranta, but not OK to reinfuse your own blood prior to competing, as Armstrong apparently did? Why are baseball players allowed performance-enhancing eye surgery, but not performance-enhancing drugs? "Imagine," Gladwell says, "if all the schools in England had a rule that you can't do homework, because homework is a way in which less able kids can close the gap that Nature said ought to exist. Basically, Armstrong did his homework and lied about it! Underneath the covers, with his flashlight on, he did his calculus! And I'm supposed to get upset about that?"

This argument enraged various sports pundits when Gladwell made it in The New Yorker, where he's been a fixture since 1996. But it will presumably only enrage them more to learn that he doesn't fully believe it himself. "When you write about sports, you're allowed to engage in mischief," he says. "Nothing is at stake. It's a bicycle race!" As a serious amateur runner himself (just the other day, he finished the Fifth Avenue Mile race, in Manhattan, in five minutes and three seconds) he's "totally anti-doping … But what I'm trying to say is, look, we have to come up with better reasons. Our reasons suck! And when the majority has taken a position that's ill thought-through, it's appropriate to make trouble." His expression settles into a characteristic half-smile that makes clear he'd relish it if you disagreed.

Gladwell has always excelled in this role as intellectual provocateur. At their best, which is often, his articles and books force you to reappraise assumptions so deeply held that you didn't realise you held them, and millions have found the experience intoxicating. What if the most successful entrepreneurs aren't the risk-takers, but the risk-averse? Might the world's intelligence agencies be better off firing all their spies? Is there a good reason why there are multiple kinds of mustard, but only one major brand of ketchup? The point isn't necessarily to accept his conclusions, but to be jolted – even if via the improbable medium of ketchup – into seeing the whole world afresh. This galls some critics, who'd prefer it if Gladwell made smaller, more cautious, less dazzling claims. ("The problem with the Malcolm Gladwell Piece," a New York Observer journalist once wrote, "is that it always seems to contain phrases like 'the problem with the Malcolm Gladwell Piece.'") But it's also what stimulates audiences in such vast numbers: Outliers reportedly commanded a $4m advance, and dominated bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic for months; while his live lecture events, which reliably sell out, have made him the only person about whom the labels "rock star" and "journalist" are both routinely used. He's also responsible more than anyone else for the birth of the modern pop-ideas genre, in publishing and beyond. "Without Gladwell," Ian Leslie wrote recently at, "no Daniel Pink, no Steven Johnson … no Brainpicker, no TED. I exaggerate, but only slightly."

Gladwell in 2005. Gladwell in 2005. Photograph: Rex Features

Gladwell will perform four more such events, in London, Liverpool and Dublin, later this autumn. The occasion is the publication of his new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, which is published in the UK on Thursday. There's a case to be made that it's his best yet: on the counterintuitiveness front, it's classic Gladwell, but it's also more socially and morally engaged than his previous work. That title might smack of how-to-get-ahead-in-business, but he's no longer focused on the secrets of marketing or corporate success. David and Goliath explores when, and why, apparent disadvantages – poverty, personal setbacks, military weakness – turn out to be advantages, and when advantages, like wealth or status, aren't what they seem. "The fact of being an underdog changes people in ways that we often fail to appreciate," Gladwell writes. "It opens doors and creates opportunities and enlightens and permits things that might otherwise have seemed unthinkable."

The outcome of the original David-and-Goliath clash wasn't a miracle, he argues: it's just what happens when the weak refuse to play by rules laid down by the strong. (Sample sentence: "Eitan Hirsch, a ballistics expert with the Israeli Defence Force, recently did a series of calculations showing that a typical-sized stone hurled by an expert slinger at a distance of 35m would have hit Goliath's head with a velocity of 34m per second – more than enough to penetrate his skull and render him dead or unconscious.")

"With each book that passes, I think my personal ideology becomes more explicit … and this one is a very Canadian sort of book," says Gladwell, who was born in Fareham, in Hampshire, but grew up in Ontario. "It's Canadian in its suspicion of bigness and wealth and power. Someone told me – did you know that there's never been a luxury brand to come from Canada? That's never happened. That's such a great fact to have about your home country."

Difficulties and afflictions, the book shows, frequently foster creativity and resilience. Studies on "cognitive disfluency" have shown that people do better at problem-solving tasks when they're printed in a hard-to-read font: the extra challenge triggers more effortful engagement. We meet dyslexics whose reading problems forced them to find more efficient ways to master law and finance (one is now a celebrated trial lawyer, another the president of Goldman Sachs); we learn why losing a parent in childhood forges a resilience that frequently spurs achievement in later life, and why you shouldn't necessarily attend the best university that will have you. (The answer is "relative deprivation": the further you are from being the best at your institution, the more demotivating it is; middling talents perform better at middling establishments.) Conversely, having power can backfire, not least because it tricks the powerful into thinking they don't need the consent of those over whom they wield it. In a compelling account of the Troubles, Gladwell argues that the British were plagued by a simple error: the belief that their superior resources meant "it did not matter what the people of Northern Ireland thought of them". More isn't always more.

There's a reactionary way to interpret all this: if the human spirit finds ways to triumph over adversity in the end, does that mean we needn't worry about poverty, prejudice, childhood traumas, and the rest? "In the 19th century, people like [the industrialist] Andrew Carnegie did talk about poverty being useful as a justification for doing nothing about it," Gladwell says. "But if this book's interpreted that way, that would be a disaster. I'm just trying to say that it should reassure us that the inevitable traumas of being human do end up producing some good. Otherwise, the human condition is overwhelmingly depressing." We used to be genetic determinists, he says. "We used to say poor people had lousy genes. Then we decided that wasn't OK, but we transferred the prejudice to upbringing. We said, 'You were neglected as a child, so you'll never make it.' That's just as pernicious. This book is anti-deterministic in that sense."

It is hard to resist trying to understand Gladwell's own life and background in terms of Gladwellian theories. Indeed, in 2008's Outliers he does so himself, explaining, in line with the book's thesis, how the right combination of effort and contextual factors – such as her light skin – enabled his Jamaican mother, Joyce, to end up at University College, London, where she met and married an Englishman, Graham Gladwell. (She became a therapist, he a maths professor.) When Malcolm was six, they moved to Canada, to a heavily Mennonite community; Gladwell imbibed that denomination's focus on social justice, while excelling as a runner at school. After a history degree in Canada, and a couple of years at conservative magazines, including the American Spectator, he joined the Washington Post in 1987 – where he spent a decade accumulating the 10,000 hours of practice which, according to Outliers, is they key to mastery in many fields. He joined the New Yorker in 1996, and published the original "Tipping Point" article that same year, analysing the plummetting Brooklyn murder rate through the lens of epidemiology. As has been frequently observed, the book, released four years later, was his professional tipping point, too. Blink, his 2005 book on the strengths and weaknesses of unconscious decision-making, consolidated his status.

He has continued to produce tirelessly since then, with little time, as far as one can tell, for much in the way of a personal life. ("He's dated a lot of women. He loves other people's kids. But he has work to do," his oldest friend, Bruce Headlam, told the Observer a few years ago. Gladwell charmingly but firmly rebuffs all questions in this vein.) He lives in a book-lined apartment on one of downtown Manhattan's loveliest streets, but has often described his preference for a "rotating" approach to writing, involving stints at several local cafes, in an effort to recreate the ambience of a newsroom.

We are now sufficiently far into the Gladwell era that the Gladwell backlash is well under way. He is routinely accused of oversimplifying his material, or attacking straw men: does anyone really believe that success is solely a matter of individual talent, the position that Outliers sets out to unseat? Or that the strong always vanquish the weak? "You're of necessity simplifying," says Gladwell. "If you're in the business of translating ideas in the academic realm to a general audience, you have to simplify … If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then you shouldn't read them: you're not the audience!" (Another common complaint, that his well-paid speaking gigs represent a conflict of interest, is answered in a 6,500-word essay on Gladwell's website.)

A subtler criticism holds that there is something more fundamentally wrong with the Gladwellian project, and indeed with the many Gladwellesque tomes it's inspired. To some critics, usually those schooled in the methods of the natural sciences, it's flatly unacceptable to proceed by concocting hypotheses then amassing anecdotes to illustrate them. "In his pages, the underdogs win … of course they do," the author Tina Rosenberg wrote, in an early review of David and Goliath. "That's why Gladwell includes their stories. Yet you'll look in vain for reasons to believe that these exceptions prove any real-world rules about underdogs." The problem with this objection is not that it's wrong, exactly, but that it applies equally to almost all journalism, and vast swaths of respected work in the humanities and social sciences, too. You make your case, you illustrate it with statistics and storytelling, and you refrain from claiming that it's the absolute, objective truth. Gladwell calls his articles and books "conversation starters", and that's not false modesty; ultimately, perhaps that's all that even the best nonfiction writing can ever honestly aspire to be.

Gladwell once wrote an article defending a playwright who'd lifted material from one of Gladwell's own articles, so perhaps it's not surprising that he also defends his former New Yorker colleague Jonah Lehrer, who admitted fabricating quotes in his book Imagine. "In the classic sense of the word, it was a hysteria," Gladwell says of the anti-Lehrer uproar. "There was a kind of frenzy about it that was disproportionate to the crime. Jonah screwed up, and he's the first to say he screwed up, but I'm puzzled by how much vitriol was directed at him. If I was going to be psychoanalytic about it, I'd say it has to do with anxiety within the world of journalism, about its loss of authority: we think we're losing our place in the world, and so we're hypersensitive about those who undermine that place further." Then again, Lehrer recently obtained a new book deal: perhaps his new-found position as an underdog will benefit him yet.

The most powerful section of David and Goliath concerns the climactic battle of the civil rights movement in Alabama, in 1963. In public, Martin Luther King and his aides maintained a dignified facade, but behind the scenes, King's organiser in Birmingham, Wyatt Walker, used cunning to turn the movement's weaknesses into strengths. By delaying street protests until late afternoon, when Birmingham's black residents were walking home from work, he led authorities to believe that onlookers were actually protestors. ("They cannot distinguish even between Negro demonstrators and negro spectators," Walker later recalled. "All they know is negroes.") By luring police into arresting hundreds of children, they overwhelmed Birmingham's jails, turning police commissioner Bull Connor's eagerness to arrest black people against him. Perhaps it wasn't "right", by some definition of that word, to send children for arrest, or to engineer confrontations between passers-by and police dogs – but Gladwell argues: "We need to remember that our definitions of what is right are, as often as not, simply the way that people in positions of privilege close the door on those at the bottom of the pile." Underdogs have to use whatever they've got. And in the end, "much of what is valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts … the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty."

Gladwell will be performing live at the Lyceum, London (Oct 28), Liverpool Philharmonic (Oct 30) & Dublin RDS (Nov 1) Details:

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