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The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness By Arundhati Roy

Rip Van Winkle woke up after a slumber of 20 years in a world he no longer recognised. Arundhati Roy, the novelist, has also emerged from a literary hibernation lasting two decades, with a work of fiction that the world may find hard to recognise for what it is.

From its hyperbolic title to its cumbersome expanse, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is everything that Roy’s first, Booker Prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things (1997) is not. The God of Small Things was a testimony to her shining originality, experiments with Rushdie-like nonce words and a heightened reality that were seamlessly woven into a politically and socially bristling storyline.

Her characters—Rahel, Estha, Mammachi, Velutha, Baby Kochamma and the rest—are alive in our minds for these intervening years for a reason. They were exasperating, fallible, endearing, tragic, but most of all, unselfconsciously human. Not for a moment did they strike as insubstantial or hollow receptacles of social and political agenda.

The contrast couldn’t have been starker with Roy’s second fictional offering.

Apart from being frustratingly rambling, the Ministry is shockingly uneven in its register. Soaring to flights of irony and poetry one moment, plunging into anodyne reportage the next, it appears to be composed by several minds and hands, unable to decide its tone and texture. More worryingly, the plot seems to stick together multiple strands of narratives with the merest excuse of a literary scotch tape—without too much care, or perhaps with such exquisite design that eludes the lesser mortals.

Roy appears to have anticipated these reactions already in the coda on the cover: “How to tell a shattered story?” she seems to ask rhetorically. “By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.”

That’s precisely what Ministry attempts to do: take a panoramic view of violence, injustice, suffering over decades of India’s history and turn it all into a living, pulsating, human story. If Roy begins with a tenderly imagined biography of a hijra called Anjum (modelled, quite obviously, on the famous Mona Ahmed), her plot soon begins to sprout a million heads like the mythical Hydra. Before long, it becomes an exercise in ticking boxes.

Apart from being frustratingly rambling, the Ministry is shockingly uneven in its register

The Emergency, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, Union Carbide tragedy in Bhopal, Narmada Bachao Andolan, the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, 9/11, the unrest in Kashmir, Maoist insurgency, atrocities against Dalits, the rise of the gau rakshaks, the saffron wave, Modi’s ascendancy (he’s referred to as “Gujarat ka Lalla”), the anti-corruption brigade of Anna Hazare, the advent of Arvind Kejriwal (disguised as the bumbling Mr Aggarwal): it’s as though Roy pours her years of stellar non-fiction into a melting pot of liberal outrage and stirs it in with some fictional garnish (transgenders, female sexuality, homeless people, missing babies, terrorists).

As if on cue, a blind imam enters the plot, followed by two foundling girls, a Dalit man who pretends to be a Muslim, and a menagerie of animals, whose mute presence provides a welcome relief from the throbbing intensity of their human counterparts.

Tilottama, or Tilo as she is referred to, is unmoored from her past in Kerala and estranged from her Syrian Christian mother (almost a carbon copy of Mammachi in GoST). Tilo’s strident unconventionality is writ all over her. Her dark complexion, laconic nature, alert presence and every breath she takes are burdened with layers of meaning. Her psychic faculties are high-strung: a baby’s bones “whisper” to her in the night, she lived “in the country of her own skin … that issued no visas and seemed to have no consulates”, “her eyes were broken glass” and the “traffic inside her head seemed to have stopped believing in traffic lights.”

She is courted by three men: an alcoholic high-ranking government official called Biplob Dasgupta (nicknamed Garson Hobart by Tilo after a character in a college play) posted in Kashmir, a journalist of South Indian stock but resident of diplomatic Delhi, and a Kashmiri, co-opted by his tragedies into militancy, who becomes Tilo’s enduring link to the state. Her peregrinations across the war-torn valley and encounter with its people constitute some of the most powerful sections of the book, though, once again, Roy’s anxiety to fill in the reader with stacks of historical information tends to dilute the human impact of the story.

What I have said so far perhaps sounds rather crude as literary criticism, but the Ministry doesn’t lend itself to subtlety. For a reader in India, especially coming to it from the audacious GoST, it may feel unabashedly tame, written for an audience who have a passing acquaintance or vague curiosity about the wonder that is Incredible India. If Roy studiously avoided being the literary guide to India for the West in GoST, she seems to have embraced it with an earnestness one would never have expected of her.

If the transition from Anjum’s story to that of the enigmatic Tilottama’s seems abrupt, the two appear to be connected at least by an unbroken chain of stereotypes.

Anjum runs away from home to live with a community of hijras, who seem to be caught in a time warp. They spend their days applying surma, listening to the soundtrack of Mughal-e-Azam, talking about the good old times of yore, making profound observations about their destiny (as one says, the real “riot” is within them and it’s as bad as “Indo-Pak” in there) and reciting Urdu poetry—every syllable of which is dutifully translated for the benefit of the non-Indian reader.

If it’s not the dreadful clichés about East and West, it’s the ones that involve Us and Them that are rolled into the texture of this sprawling Rashomon-like narrative. In a world of binaries, Tilo is the drifter, who is forever lurking between spaces, existing like an overwrought literary conceit or a shape-shifting chameleon who holds a mirror up to the English-reading, bleeding heart, middle class reader and the characters in the book.

For a self-confessed fan of Roy, with dependable reserves of patience, I was on the verge of conceding defeat a number of times. They say the devil is in the details. Truer words were hardly spoken. For several times, I was tempted to do the unthinkable—skip pages of self-indulgent monologues spoken in simile-studded prose by men and women on the verge of nervous breakdown or personal confessions that have little relevance to the action.

When Roy is in form, the crystalline clarity of her prose glitters off the page, the less she labours over a point, the more effectively it pricks our conscience. We glimpse her impish humour and human affinities most luminously when she homes in on individuals and their stories, instead of putting in everything that has ever happened to them to the service of writing contemporary history. Had those precious moments been gathered together with more ruthlessness and craft, we would have had superior fiction from her—not just a gargantuan handbook to modern India and its injustices.

Reviewed by Somak Ghoshal Senior Editor, HuffPost India


The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (₹599) is published by Hamish Hamilton, Penguin.

Filed under: Book of the week

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

With J. K. Rowling’s new novel, “The Casual Vacancy,” we are firmly in Muggle-land — about as far from the enchanted world of Harry Potter as we can get. There is no magic in this book — in terms of wizarding or in terms of narrative sorcery. Instead, this novel for adults is filled with a variety of people like Harry’s aunt and uncle, Petunia and Vernon Dursley: self-absorbed, small-minded, snobbish and judgmental folks, whose stories neither engage nor transport us.

It’s easy to understand why Ms. Rowling wanted to try something totally different after spending a decade and a half inventing and complicating the fantasy world that Harry and company inhabited, and one can only admire her gumption in facing up to the overwhelming expectations created by the global phenomenon that was Harry Potter. Unfortunately, the real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that “The Casual Vacancy” is not only disappointing — it’s dull. The novel — which takes place in the tiny, fictional English village of Pagford, and chronicles the political and personal fallout created by the sudden death of a member of the parish council named Barry Fairbrother — reads like an odd mash-up of a dark soap opera like “Peyton Place” with one of those very British Barbara Pym novels, depicting small-town, circumscribed lives.

This is definitely not a book for children: suicide, rape, heroin addiction, beatings and thoughts of patricide percolate through its pages; there is a sex scene set in a cemetery, a grotesque description of a used condom (“glistening in the grass beside her feet, like the gossamer cocoon of some huge grub”) and alarming scenes of violent domestic abuse. The novel contains moments of genuine drama and flashes here and there of humor, but it ends on such a disheartening note with two more abrupt, crudely stage-managed deaths that the reader is left stumbling about with whatever is the opposite of the emotions evoked by the end of the “Harry Potter” series.

Instead of an appreciation for the courage, perseverance, loyalty and sense of duty that people are capable of, we are left with a dismaying sense of human weakness, selfishness and gossipy stupidity. Instead of an exhilarating sense of the mythic possibilities of storytelling, we are left with a numbing understanding of the difficulty of turning a dozen or so people’s tales into a story with genuine emotional resonance.

Many authors, of course, have created portraits of small-town life that capture the texture of ordinary lives with great depth of emotion. This, alas, is not the case here. Whereas the Harry Potter universe was as richly imagined and intricately detailed as Tolkien’s Middle Earth or L. Frank Baum’s Oz, Pagford seems oddly generic — a toy village, in which rooftops pop off to reveal adultery, marital discord and generational conflict among the tiny toy people. It’s as though writing about the real world inhibited Ms. Rowling’s miraculously inventive imagination, and in depriving her of the tension between the mundane and the marvelous constrained her ability to create a two-, never mind three-dimensional tale.

As “The Casual Vacancy” trundles along and Ms. Rowling starts grappling with the consequences of her characters’ darker secrets, the narrative gathers momentum, but it takes a lot of pages to get there. In the meantime we are treated to tedious descriptions of the political squabbles exacerbated by Barry Fairbrother’s death and historical accounts of class tensions in insular Pagford — most notably a face-off between one faction that is opposed to a public housing project and a clinic for addicts, and another that has a sense of duty toward the less fortunate. It’s a subject with the potential to reverberate with an American audience — given the current battles between Republicans and Democrats over the role and size of government — but as laid out here it’s oddly bloodless and abstract.

In some respects “The Casual Vacancy” is grappling with many of the same themes as the Harry Potter books: the losses and burdens of responsibility that come with adulthood, and the stubborn fact of mortality. One of the things that made Harry’s story so affecting was Ms. Rowling’s ability to construct a parallel world enlivened by the supernatural, and yet instantly recognizable to us as a place where death and the precariousness of daily life cannot be avoided, a place where identity is as much a product of deliberate choice as it is of fate. What’s missing here is an emotional depth of field. It’s not just because the stakes in this novel are so much smaller. (In “Harry Potter,” the civil war was literally between good and evil; here, it is between petty, gossip-minded liberals and conservatives.) It’s that the characters in “The Casual Vacancy” feel so much less fully imagined than the ones in the Harry Potter epic.

There is Gavin, Fairbrother’s best friend, who turns out to be in love with his widow; Fairbrother’s opponent, the extravagantly obese Howard Mollison, who considers himself the First Citizen of Pagford; Krystal Weedon, a skanky girl from the projects, and her junkie mother, Terri; Krystal’s new social worker, Kay Bawden, who has recently moved to Pagford with her teenage daughter; the disaffected adolescent boys, Fats and Andrew; and a variety of local gossips and pot-stirrers. Such characters are drawn in brisk, broad strokes, and with little of the complex ambiguity that fueled the later Harry Potter installments. In fact, there is a vacancy deep in the heart of this novel.

We do not come away feeling that we know the back stories of the “Vacancy” characters in intimate detail the way we did with Harry and his friends and enemies, nor do we finish the novel with a visceral knowledge of how their pasts — and their families’ pasts — have informed their present lives. Of course, Ms. Rowling had seven volumes to map out the intricacies of the wizarding world in Harry Potter. The reader can only hope she doesn’t try to flesh out the Muggle world of Pagford in any further volumes, but instead moves on to something more compelling and deeply felt in the future.

Reviewed by

A version of this review appeared in print on September 27, 2012, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Darkness And Death, No Magic To Help.

Courtesy: The New York Times

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Filed under: Book of the week, ,

Jeet Thayil’s “Narcopolis” in the Man Booker 2012 Long List

A compelling tale of Mumbai’s hazy world of opium addiction.

Narcotic drugs have inspired much storytelling and literary dreaming, if rather less actual writing. Of those few novels that slide out of the smoke on to paper, we assume addiction is a requisite for authenticity and yet an enormous hindrance to productivity. After all, it is hardly playing by the rules of decadence and dereliction to find the willpower and tenacity to finish a manuscript. But a tiny number do convince the public that theirs is a genuine account of an addiction whose clutches the writer escaped for long enough to scribble down a compelling narrative: think William Burroughs’s Junky, or Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater.

Does Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, a tale of opium dens and heroin addiction in Mumbai, join that select club? It is not an easy task. And there’s another challenge: many books by foreign-educated Indians read as though they were written in a New York penthouse suite, the author having spent a couple of weeks researching a multi-generational, sprawling saga of Mumbai lowlife by chatting to the house servants of their relatives on the phone.

The story opens in Rashid’s opium house on Shuklaji Street sometime in the 1970s. We meet the owner himself, his regular clients and Dimple, the eunuch, who prepares his pipes. Very gently, we are drawn in to their languorous world. Thayil is an accomplished poet and that sensibility serves him well. We slide in and out of characters’ lives, emerging occasionally inside a vivid drug-induced recollection: like that of Mr Lee, a former soldier who fled communist China and gives us as sharp a portrait of that country in the late 1940s as one could wish for.

We move onward with the years. Hippies arrive and begin to appreciate the quality of Rashid’s opium, the attention to detail in pipe preparation, the warm cocooning charm of it all. This is an India that itself was dreaming, wrapped up in Gandhian ideals of self-sufficiency and simplicity, ignoring the tsunami of change that would not strike until the 1991 economic liberalisation. I was in Mumbai in those days, on my first trip to India, sleeping in shoddy dives and living on cheap street food. He pins down that world perfectly; he even pins down us shabby western travellers with a few painfully precise words: "interloper[s] from the future come to gawk at the poor and unfortunate who lived in a time before antibiotics and television and aeroplanes".

For Rashid and Dimple that change arrives in the form of heroin, a drug that seems to herald a new world order, one more savage and hopeless than anything that went before. All the regulars switch. As the city disintegrates into communal riots, murder and mayhem, their own lives are in freefall too, and the story of that fall becomes an epic tragedy written with grace, passion and empathy. Thayil unpicks the complexities, contradictions and hypocrisies of Indian life with surgical elegance: the good Muslim selling heroin while complaining about brazen women, the queenly beggarwoman who makes the street her living room, and the Hindu praying in church, an action that saves her from the mob but not her fate.

There is a subplot about a murderer that doesn’t add much to the story, and a dud note is struck when Dimple starts to opine on Baudelaire and Cocteau. However, I wished that this book, like some long and delicious opium-induced daydream, would go on and on. The end, sadly, does eventually come. India has been reincarnating behind the blue smoke of the last pipes. We catch its reflection in the gleam of the heroin user’s silver foil and then there it is: the new country, standing hard and metallic and just as crazily conflicted and mired in melancholy as the last version of itself. In a shiny nightclub full of plastic and aluminium, Rashid’s son stares at the scantily clad women. He sells cocaine. He dances. He is a good Muslim in his own eyes. He might consider becoming a suicide bomber when the time is right.

Narcopolis is a blistering debut that can indeed stand proudly on the shelf next to Burroughs and De Quincey. Thayil is quoted as saying that he lost almost 20 years of his life to addiction, but on this showing the experience did not go to waste. We can celebrate that he emerged intact and gave us this book.

Reviewed by

• Kevin Rushby’s Paradise: A History of the Idea that Rules the World is published by Robinson.


Filed under: Book of the week, ,

The Iconoclast by Sreela P. Nair


Sreela P. Nair’s The Iconoclast is set in the cultural and political climate of Palakkad

The Iconoclast is a new short novel reaching readers in the city this week, but its author Sreela P. Nair is not just an academic donning the garb of a raconteur in her free time. In fact, this Assistant Professor in English at the NSS College, Pandalam, has a couple of other hats she wears at intervals.

The book

The Iconoclast is set in ‘the cultural and political climate of Palakkad’ and is the result of the author’s stint at a college there in the past. The protagonist of the novel Kanthi, is also an academic, and hails from the northern part of the country, and it’s through this voice that the paradoxical nature of the society in the State is etched out in fine but bold strokes.

The book is also the result of an emotional journey for the author. “It was written during a time of intense emotional stress. I had lost my father on March 11, 2010. He was someone who had a huge influence on me. I was also convalescing after an illness at the time.” The book proved to be a release to her trauma and has several strong moments proving the flux of the author’s mind.

So how long did she take to write this? “I remember the date I penned the first few lines, it was March 18, 2010 and the first draft was ready in mid-May.’

So what does the writer read? “My reading has a sound base in the classics which were available at my school library at Kendriya Vidyalaya, Pattom. But I do read other genres, anything that interests me is a good read.”

So, who is her favourite writer or book? “I have no favourites but I do remember Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights as a book that stayed with me in my initial years. Right now I have several authors that appeal to me, like Marquez, Llosa, Achebe, and Soyinka.” Her doctorate thesis was on American Drama, so drama also forms a huge chunk of her reading. “I adore Sartre.”

So, how does her career or reading influence her writing? “Academics doesn’t influence my writing in any direct way. But naturally I read a lot as a part of my work and I never forget what I read. For me, writing is an inspired activity, it comes from an amount of recall.”

Sreela is not a first time author; she has already penned a volume of poetry and essays under the title The Quill Driver in 2010. In fact, she has more poetry in the pipeline.

Painting is another hobby she dabbles in. “I am an autodidact in this art. I don’t do portraits but landscapes or, to be more exact, seascapes. The sea has always been my inspiration and release and I love its different moods as a person and as an artist.” However, her real interest lies in translations. She has translated two stories by Narayan and other short works, which has been published in literary magazines like Indian Literature (from the Kendriya Sahitya Akademi), for instance. “I am a huge fan and an avid reader of translations as well. In fact, right now I am preparing to present a paper on ‘Cross Cultural Translations.’”

The Iconoclast is brought out by Folio Books, Thiruvananthapuram.

Courtesy: Suneetha B., The Hindu

Filed under: Book of the week, ,

Books of the year 2011

A novel about a dinner-party guest who won’t leave, a history of Henry VII, an inquiry into madness … Which books have most impressed our writers this year?
Books of the year, 2011

Photograph: David McCoy for GNM imaging

Chimamanda Adichie

Sebastian Barry, On Canaan's Side

I admired the lovely sentences and moving story in Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side (Faber), about an Irish-American woman looking back at her life. Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place (Granta) is a strange, allusive, tender memoir about growing up in middle-class Kenya. Tracy K Smith’s poems in Life on Mars (Turnaround) are startling and exquisite.

Tariq Ali

Thomas Penn, Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England

Shifting alliances at home and abroad, ruthless accumulation of capital and endless court intrigues form the backdrop to Thomas Penn’s Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England (Allen Lane), a chilling and enticing portrait of Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty that created a centralised English state. Well written and well researched, the book helps us understand why Shakespeare decided to give this Henry a miss. It would have been difficult to prettify him. The Royal National Theatre should seek to remedy this omission rapidly: Winter King has a very modern feel.

A winter nightmare is the subject of Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89 (Profile) by Rodric Braithwaite. Written largely from material obtained from Soviet archives, this account explains why the Afghans hate being occupied and each chapter offers a warning to the Nato occupiers of today.

Elias Khoury’s latest novel, As Though She Were Sleeping (Maclehose Press), returns to a golden age. Beirut in the 30s, unoccupied Palestine and a love affair recalled through a set of dream sequences: an Arab spring of a very different sort.

Simon Armitage

Although most people knew him as a novelist and indeed a painter, Glyn Hughes had been quietly publishing poetry since the 60s. A Year in the Bull-Box (Arc Publications) is a poem-sequence detailing the turning of the seasons and the eternal processes of nature from the vantage point of a "bull-box" (that’s a stone hut to you and me) in the Ribble Valley. It is also a meditation on mortality, written as Hughes succumbed to the cancer that was to take his life earlier this year. In those last 12 months he seemed to have found a grace and contentment that is both humbling and inspiring, and I don’t ever remember being as moved by a book of poems. I also want to mention a pamphlet, Pages from Bee Journal (Isinglass) by Sean Borodale. A lot of poets seem to be writing about bees these days, but like the honey he describes, "disconcerting, / solid broth / of forest flora full of fox", these are poems so dense and rich you could stand a spoon in them.

John Banville

Eileen Battersby, Ordinary Dogs

Eileen Battersby’s Ordinary Dogs (Faber) must be the most reticent autobiography ever written, since the author is no more than a shadowy presence behind the figures of the two dogs, Bilbo and Frodo – "the guys", as she calls them – who shared her life for more than 20 years. It is a wonderful book, cleanly and honestly written, funny, wise and valiant, and entirely free of sentimentality. Writing Beckett’s Letters by George Craig (Sylph Editions) is, strictly speaking, a pamphlet rather than a book, but it speaks volumes. Craig is the translator of the Beckett correspondence, the second volume of which was recently published, and his account of the joys and miseries of the task is elegant, exemplary and enlightening. In Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence (Yale) the great American critic returns to an old theme – artists form themselves out of an agon with their illustrious predecessors – and, in his 80th year, is as provocative, as gloriously preposterous and as captivating as ever.

Julian Barnes

Alice Munro, New Selected Stories

Is there a better short story writer in the world than Alice Munro? In her New Selected Stories (Chatto & Windus) she gives the long story the meatiness of a novel, and moves through time with an ease few can match. The Wine of Solitude (Chatto & Windus) continues our rediscovery (in Sandra Smith’s fine translations) of Irène Némirovsky‘s work: it’s an unerring portrait of a neglected, baleful and punitive daughter. Among homegrown fiction, I most admired Edward St Aubyn’s At Last (Picador), and Alan Hollinghurst‘s The Stranger’s Child (Picador) – the most originally and brilliantly structured novel I’ve read in a long time.

Sebastian Barry

Ali Smith, There But For The

Seething with inventiveness, humanity, wit and language fit for the Big Rock Candy Mountain, indomitable and adroit, full of angelic swagger and pretend pratfalls, Ali Smith’s gleaming There but for the (Hamish Hamilton) took the biscuit this year.

A book that moved the heart and soul and head down into a sombre gear, and recalled to some degree the purposes of Primo Levi – to shine a clear, bare light on what happened in historical darkness – Steve Sem-Sandberg’s novel The Emperor of Lies (Faber) is both a remembrance of vanished evils, and a warning to modern kings and conquerors.

Belinda McKeon’s subtle Solace (Picador) and Kevin Barry’s rampaging City of Bohane (Jonathan Cape) put up two gallant new flags for the Irish novel.

William Boyd

Sarah Raven, Sarah Raven's Wild Flowers

Sarah Raven’s Wild Flowers (Bloomsbury) is a complete delight. Massive, all-encompassing, superbly illustrated with Jonathan Buckley’s photographs, it is clearly a labour of love – and the evidence of that is there on every page, not least in Raven’s tirelessly informative, absolutely precise and beautifully vivid prose.

If Wild Flowers is the reference book of the year then Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life (Penguin Viking) takes the biography laurels. Written with immense knowledge and literary poise, it presents a portrait of the novelist unrivalled in its complex humanity. Dickens lives and breathes in these pages; Tomalin’s instinctive grasp of the man himself is engrossing.

Seek out Jim Clark’s Dream Repairman (easily available online), one of the best books written about the movie business – but seen from the film editor’s angle, which makes it very rare. Also very candid, very shrewd and very funny.

AS Byatt

Philip Hensher, King of the Badgers

There but for the is a brilliant title for a brilliant novel. Ali Smith invents new forms of fiction in the interstices between parts of a sentence – commenting "but the thing I particularly like about the word but … is that it always takes you off to the side …" The story is about a man who leaves a tedious dinner party, locks himself into a bedroom and refuses to leave. His hostess calls in the press and he becomes a cause celebre. He is put together in a series of stories from different, tangential points of view. The novel is both funny and moving – it succeeds because of Smith’s extraordinary skill with ordinary language. I also loved Philip Hensher’s King of the Badgers (Fourth Estate), a tale about the disappearance of a child from an English coastal town. Hensher is both maliciously witty and ultimately generous – difficult to pull off, but he does it with authority.

Jonathan Coe

Richard Lloyd Parry, People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman

People Who Eat Darkness (Jonathan Cape) by Richard Lloyd Parry is a chilling account of the murder of Lucie Blackman in Japan 11 years ago. Parry shows a rare compassion and a refusal to judge: despite the horrors of the crime, almost the most upsetting feature of his story is the blameless ordinariness of the life Blackman left behind in England.

I thought the Man Booker judges – intentionally or not – played a brilliant game this year. They chose a diverse and challenging shortlist and then, having royally offended the literary establishment by excluding so many of their current favourites, they proceeded to wrongfoot everybody by choosing a winner of impeccable merit. Result! However, it’s depressing to see that some novels continue simply to pass under the radar. In a year when the judges were looking for "readability" and books that "zip along", it was sad they overlooked a novel which had these qualities, as well as being wise, funny and sometimes distressing – It Had to Be You (Harper), the 18th novel by David Nobbs. I’m sure they would have loved it if they had noticed it.

Julia Donaldson

Nicola Killen, Fluff and Billy

I was inspired to read Elen Caldecott’s Operation Eiffel Tower (Bloomsbury) when I saw her talk about it at the Edinburgh book festival and was as entranced as all the eight-to-twelves. The book is about three siblings who try to raise money for their parents (on the verge of breaking up) to have a romantic weekend in Paris. Some scenes are funny (the children’s attempted forgery is hilarious); others are poignant, particularly their visit to a B&B when they can’t think what to say to their dad.

My favourite picture books were both about friendship. Fluff and Billy by Nicola Killen (Egmont), a young, simple story of two penguins who fall out and make up, has beautiful illustrations and a satisfying patterned text. The more sophisticated I Don’t Want to be a Pea! by Ann Bonwill and Simon Rickerty (OUP) features a hippo and a bird arguing about what to wear for a fancy-dress party. It’s all in dialogue, so parents and children can have fun doing the voices.

Illustrated books don’t have to be for the very young. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd (Walker) is a novel about a teenager whose mother is dying of cancer. The idea of a yew-tree monster telling stories to the boy was conceived by Dowd shortly before her own death. Ness responded to the challenge of writing the book. It’s a powerful story, made unforgettable by Jim Kay’s inky illustrations.

Roddy Doyle

Daniel Woodrell, Outlaw Album

We live in a time of deep recession but, here in Dublin, things still start at "brilliant" and work their way up. The Outlaw Album (Sceptre) is a collection of stories by one of the world’s great novelists, Daniel Woodrell, and it’s brilliant. I’m fond of big dark Russian books, so I loved Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Granta). It’s exhilarating, funny and … brilliant. Jennifer Egan’s novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad (Corsair), is so good, so original, so surprising and wonderful – it’s just absolutely fuckin’ brilliant.

Margaret Drabble

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

Two remarkable short novels, one of which won the Man Booker prize, one of which is yet to find a publisher, though it is so good it surely will. Julian Barnes‘s The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape) has rightly been highly praised for its economy and elegance. Some also found it funny, but I found it melancholy, as it explored paths not taken, disasters not averted, sadnesses never accommodated. I then read Barnes’s short stories, Pulse (Jonathan Cape), some of which are wickedly funny, but I liked best the sad Scottish landscapes of "Marriage Lines". The unpublished novel by my Cambridge contemporary Bernadine Bishop is about bowel cancer, but it is not sad at all, it is full of wit, good humour, interesting characters, a wonderfully imagined baby, and a deftness of plotting that seems effortlessly natural. It’s astonishingly fresh and real.

Helen Dunmore

Sean O'Brien, November

November (Picador) by Sean O’Brien is a sombre and beautiful collection of poems, shot through with his sardonic humour. The elegies for his mother and father are perhaps the most moving poems that he has yet written, and, like the best of such poems, they are both intimate and universal.

Irène Némirovsky’s The Wine of Solitude is a brilliant coming-of-age novel and the most autobiographical of Némirovsky’s works. Many people now know Suite Française, but her other novels shouldn’t be overshadowed by it. I particularly loved the scenes set in Finland during the civil war, and the portrait of a loveless relationship between a young girl and her mother. Némirovsky is so honest and she never fluffs a line.

Geoff Dyer

I had some reservations about Pulphead, a collection of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan (FSG, USA). The David Foster Wallace influence seemed so pronounced, there was the conspicuously dubious taste and a fondness for deranged critical hyperbole – I mean, who would even bother to listen to Guns N’ Roses, let alone claim that Axl Rose achieved "the greatest white male rock dance moment of the video age"? But then I thought: hey, what a great category of praise to invent! By then the DFW doubt had retired itself and JJS’s prose was working its own hard-to-fathom magic. It has a ramshackle loquacity, a down-home hyper-eloquence and an off-the-wallishness that is almost lapidary. I’m still puzzling my way though the life – Sullivan was born and lives in the American South; as a teen he went through an evangelical Christian phase (beautifully revealed in the opening piece, "Upon this Rock") – and the writing that’s resulting from it, but am feeling the way publishers do when they come across a new voice, fully formed and quite distinctive. Assuming a UK edition is forthcoming, might I pitch in with the suggestion that the cover features a William Christenberry photograph?

Jonathan Franzen

Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station

Ben Lerner’s recent novel Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press)and Joshua Cody’s new memoir [sic] (Bloomsbury) are undoubtedly the kind of books that the former Swedish Academy secretary Horace Engdahl had in mind when he faulted American authors for their insularity and self-involvement. Both books are also hilarious and cracklingly intelligent, fully alive and original in every sentence, and abuzz with the feel of our late-late-modern moment; and one senses that these are the qualities of American literature that actually annoyed Engdahl.

Leaving the Atocha Station is the story of a mentally unstable, substance-dependent young poet brilliantly and excruciatingly wasting a fellowship year in Madrid. [sic] is the story of a moderately depraved young musical prodigy who is suddenly stricken with near-fatal cancer. The former is worth whatever Amazonian contortions are required for a British reader to lay hands on it.

John Gray

Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe

Norman Davies’s Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe (Allen Lane) is many rare things, rolled into one. An exercise in salvage and retrieval, recalling from oblivion some of history’s losers; an encyclopedia of unremembered Europe, recounting the stories of Europe’s failed states, some never having had a chance of survival, others casualties of events or folly; a personal ramble, by a great historian, through some of the continent’s lost byways – it’s all of these, and a book that any reader interested in modern Europe will be sorry to finish. It’s also – though Davies is too civilised and graceful a writer to labour the point – a warning. "Successful statehood," he writes, "is, in fact, a rare blessing." I only wish that this wonderfully exhilarating and melancholy book would be read by our leaders, and borne in mind when they next consider exporting our accidentally successful arrangements by military force to some other country.

David Hare

Simon Hoggart, A Long Lunch: My Stories and I'm Sticking to Them

The title of the biggest ego in American letters is never anyone’s for long, but with her shameless book of essays The Professor and Other Writings (Harper) Terry Castle grabs the crown and hugs it to her. This is the critic as narcissist, literature just the stuff you stand on to get a better look in the mirror. But the techniques and strategies honed by such sumptuous self-love make this Stanford academic murderous when she sets about other great egos – chiefly those of her exes, her mother and Susan Sontag.

Two British memoirs seem reticent by comparison. Simon Hoggart denies that A Long Lunch (John Murray) is an autobiography, but it clearly is, and all the better for being hilarious. Fascinating, the degree to which his time spent reporting Northern Ireland in the 1970s shaped Hoggart’s valiant view of life. And Michael Frayn’s My Father’s Fortune: A Life (Faber) retrieves a complicated suburban childhood in Surrey in the 1940s. Everything about it rings familiar, funny and true.

Robert Harris

Alexandra Styron, Reading My Father: A Memoir

I was fascinated by Alexandra Styron’s memoir of William Styron, Reading My Father (Scribner): an intimate and unsparing account of what it was like to be the youngest daughter not only of an illustrious novelist – difficult enough in itself, I would have thought – but of a profound depressive, who also seems to have been friends with just about everyone famous in America. Two novels published this year have particularly lingered in my mind: David Lodge‘s portrait of HG Wells, A Man of Parts (Harvill Secker), succeeded in fusing the best bits of fiction and biography to bring the man and his erotic adventures to life; and Justin Cartwright’s Other People’s Money (Bloomsbury) created a believable, fictional private bank on the brink of destruction. Finally, Max Hastings once again demonstrated his pre-eminence as a chronicler of the second world war with All Hell Let Loose (Harper), a masterly one-volume account of that epic conflict – a book which the rulers of Europe would do well to read at the end of this melancholy year.

Eric Hobsbawm

Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class

Among the 2011 books that came my way I particularly welcomed Owen Jones’s Chavs (Verso), a passionate and well-documented denunciation of the upper-class contempt for the proles that has recently become so visible in the British class system. Unaccountably neglected, Göran Therborn’s The World: A Beginners Guide (Polity), a survey of the present state, problems and outlook of the globe by a Swedish master sociologist, is one of the rare books that lives up to its title. It is lucid, intelligent about the future and admirably researched. The book I have enjoyed most is Karl Miller’s Tretower to Clyro (Quercus), a collection of characteristically pawky essays by one of the great literary editors of our time, combined with a wonderful account of explorations à trois of the Celtic parts of Great Britain.

Alan Hollinghurst

Susie Harries, Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life

Two books this year gave me the almost dreamlike pleasure of finding out things that I’d long wanted to know. Susie Harries’s Nikolaus Pevsner (Chatto) may justly be subtitled "The Life": it shows a complete mastery of the many different areas, cultural, political and artistic, in which this complex and essential figure moved and made his mark. The book’s very fitting scale and tirelessness are more than matched by its wit, subtlety and human understanding. In Duncan Fallowell’s How to Disappear (Ditto) travel and its chance encounters provide the pretext for pursuit of much more marginal figures: in "Who was Alastair Graham?" he explores the post-Oxford life of Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford boyfriend in a way that throws light into dim corners of British social history. In "The Curious Case of Bapsy Pavry", an Indian lady who became the Marchioness of Winchester and lived out a long widowhood in a Firbankian fantasy of social aspiration is chased down with a tenderly marvelling mordancy that is a keynote of Fallowell’s brilliant and haunting book.

Michael Holroyd

Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger's Child

Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Stranger’s Child tracks the cultural, sexual, biographical and social changes that took place in 20th-century Britain. He has a versatile wit and enjoys playing with figures from the past as well as with his readers, teasing them and misleading them until, drawn into the story, they almost become additional characters in it. This is a modern version of the novel EM Forster would have wished to write.

A most ingenious and original solution to the moral and aesthetic problems thrown up by the cult of biographical fiction is given in John Spurling’s A Book of Liszts (Seagull Books) – a brilliant set of supple variations encircling the life and career of the great virtuoso Franz Liszt. Those who believe that such speculative and experimental hybrids mark the end of more traditional biography should read Fiona MacCarthy’s wonderful The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination (Faber). This is a perfect coming together of biographer and subject.

Nick Hornby

Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life

Everyone else will pick Claire Tomalin’s superb Charles Dickens, so I won’t. But I’ve read three terrific novels this year, all of them funny, all of them sad. Joe Dunthorne’s Wild Abandon (Hamish Hamilton), like Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang (Picador), is about what happens to children when parents become consumed by their beliefs. In Wild Abandon it’s communal living that causes all the trouble, in The Family Fang it’s performance art; both books are populated by flawed, occasionally exasperating, lovable and, above all, thoroughly imagined characters. James Hynes’s Next (Reagan Arthur) is, mystifyingly, still without a publisher in the UK, but don’t let that put you off. It’s dark, comic, real and, in the end, terrifying, and there are many, many men in their late 40s and 50s who would wince with recognition at Hynes’s Kevin Quinn.

Hampton Sides’s Hellhound on His Trail (Allen Lane), a gripping account of the hunt for James Earl Ray, reminds us once again that a lot of Americans in the 1960s were living through a nightmare, not through a long, dreamy summer of love.

Hari Kunzru

Teju Cole, Open City

As ever a lot of my reading has been books that haven’t been released this year – many titles in the wonderful New York Review Books classics series, whose multicoloured spines now take up a good two feet of bookshelf in my apartment. Teju Cole’s Open City (Faber), a Sebaldesque wander through New York, and Hisham Matar’s Anatomy of a Disappearance (Viking) both stood out in fiction, as did David Foster Wallace’s unfinished The Pale King (Hamish Hamilton). I also enjoyed McKenzie Wark’s tour through the legacy of Situationism, The Beach Beneath the Street (Verso), and Manuel DeLanda’s attempt at a unified description of everything in Philosophy and Simulation (Continuum). Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay Dance Bars (Canongate) also did what every good piece of reportage ought to – took me to a place I couldn’t have gone by myself.

Hanif Kureishi

Hanan Al-Shaykh, One Thousand and One Nights

Hanan Al-Shaykh’s vivid "reimagining" of the One Thousand and One Nights (Bloomsbury) is a treat and a trap for story lovers. Like a contemporary Shahrazad, Al-Shaykh has rendered 19 little masterpieces into a wondrously warm, ribald and hilarious concoction, reminding us of how bang up to date these stories can be.

If we might forget how central these tales are to our culture, Marina Warner’s wondrous Stranger Magic (Chatto & Windus) is a scholarly excursion around some of the stories, her mind as rich and fascinating as the stories themselves, taking us on a magic carpet from Borges and Goethe, to Edward Said and the movies.

In his magisterial What is Madness? (Hamish Hamilton), Darian Leader explains that the "irrational" delusions and hallucinations of the mad are their attempts at sense: a good story is a good symptom, and can make a life possible. As Virginia Woolf said: "The whole world is a work of art."

John Lanchester

Nicola Shulman, Graven with Diamonds

Non-fiction: I loved two very different books of criticism, Nicola Shulman’s beautifully lucid study of Thomas Wyatt, Graven with Diamonds (Short Books), and Owen Hatherley’s furiously pro-Modernist A Guide to the New Ruins of Britain (Verso). Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (Allen Lane) seems to me a genuinely important book. Fiction: A four-way tie between Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (Fourth Estate), Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (Quercus), and Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (Fourth Estate, January). Guilty pleasure: George RR Martin’s fantasy sequence A Song of Fire and Ice. I’m now on volume five, A Dance with Dragons (HarperVoyager), and fear the withdrawal symptoms when it’s finished.

Mark Lawson

Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

Belatedly and deservedly, this was the year of Julian Barnes: winner of the Man Booker and the David Cohen prizes and shortlisted for the Costa – as close as a Leicester City fan will get to doing the triple. Although ideally, for literary posterity, Barnes’s mastery of the short form in The Sense of an Ending would have seen a Nadal-Federer showdown in the Booker finals with Alan Hollinghurst’s mastery of the long form in The Stranger’s Child. In a UK-US prize, they could also have slugged it out with The Marriage Plot (Fourth Estate), with which Jeffrey Eugenides again showed the benefits of taking almost a decade between books. Two great veterans of the suspense form made us glad that there’s no gold watch or golden handshake for novelists: PD James with Death Comes to Pemberley (Faber) and Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery (Harvill Secker). David Lodge wrote a fine novel in the form of a literary biography – anatomising HG Wells in A Man of Parts – and Jeanette Winterson an extraordinary tragic-comic literary autobiography: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jonathan Cape).

David Lodge

Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad revived memories of the days, decades ago, when American fiction seemed so much more vital and innovative than our own. It is unusual in structure, presenting a number of stories, most of them about people in the music business, which seem to be freestanding but prove to have surprising connections with each other, and the style effortlessly hits its targets again and again. Raymond Tallis’s Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Acumen) is a trenchant, lucid and witty attack on the reductive materialism of many scientific accounts of consciousness – not from a religious point of view, but that of an atheist humanist with a distinguished record in medicine and neuroscience. The book that gave me most pleasure, however, was one I bought in 2010 and didn’t get round to reading until this year. Philip Larkin’s Letters to Monica, edited by Anthony Thwaite (Faber), make a remarkable human document that is, by turns, bad-tempered, self-lacerating, tender, sad and irresistibly funny.

Robert Macfarlane

Philip Connors, Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout

Two books of fire and one of water: Philip Connors’s Fire Season (Picador), about his seasons spent as a fire-watcher in the Gila Wilderness; Jocelyn Brooke’s cracklingly bizarre The Military Orchid, a memoir-satire-nature-quest about orchids and home-made fireworks, first published in 1948, and just reissued in a beautiful edition by Little Toller Press; and Susie Parr’s The Story of Swimming (Dewi Lewis), a superbly illustrated cultural history of bathing – dipping, watering, wild swimming – in Britain. I also greatly admired Matthew Hollis’s biography of Edward Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France (Faber), and was fascinated by much of the work gathered in Harriet Tarlo’s anthology of experimental landscape poetry, The Ground Aslant (Shearsman).

Hilary Mantel

Thomas Penn, Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England

Two history books written with flair and dash, both gripping and enjoyable, both filling gaps in the imagination. Thomas Penn’s Winter King is a lively and alarming study of the strange and ferocious Henry VII, the first Tudor king. Helen Castor’s She-Wolves (Faber) is subtitled The Women Who Ruled England before Elizabeth, and includes a fascinating study of Margaret of Anjou, who rages through Shakespeare’s history plays, dauntless and ferociously energetic, battling on behalf of her fragile husband Henry VI. Penn shows us how an instinctive Machiavellian with a feeble claim to kingship transformed himself into a despot and founded a dynasty. Castor shows how her heroines fought and flourished, despite the affront to the moral order represented by women on the battlefield and women on the throne.

Pankaj Mishra

Aravind Adiga, Last Man in Tower

In 15th-century Benares, the iconoclastic Indian poet Kabi inadvertently began one of the world’s oldest literary collaborative projects. The poems attributed to him have been enriched by the renderings of Ezra Pound and Czesław Miłosz as well as those of Rajasthan’s bard singers. A stylishly contemporary contribution to this work-in-progress is Songs of Kabir, the translations by the poet and essayist Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (NYRB Classics). Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words (Pantheon) offers something very rare: a boldly ironic, even caustic, perspective on Chinese society by a literary novelist still resident in China and privy to its innermost everyday tensions. Liberalism: A Counter-History by Domenico Losurdo (Verso) stimulatingly uncovers the contradictions of an ideology that is much too self-righteously invoked. I also enjoyed Aravind Adiga’s novel Last Man in Tower (Atlantic) and Gyan Prakash’s essay Mumbai Fables (Princeton) – both books set in Mumbai and exceptionally alert to the exuberance and malignity of the city’s gangsterish capitalism.

Lorrie Moore

Ta Obreht, Tea Obreht, The Tiger's Wife

I read two books that won prizes in the UK this year, Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife (Phoenix) and Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, and found them exquisitely written and deeply engaging. Obreht’s novel is written so authoritatively if obliquely, one of its themes being what it is to have once been on the right side of history and then find oneself later on the wrong, but the writing, sentence by sentence, is what really impresses. The same is true of The Sense of an Ending, with which in some ways it shares a theme.

Blake Morrison

Christopher Hitchens, Arguably

In his polemic Reality Hunger (Penguin), David Shields argues for the pleasures of the "lyric essay" – part-autobiographical, part-narrative, part-intellectual inquiry. Three collections of essays this year help his case. First, Caryl Phillips’s Colour Me English (Harvill Secker), which reflects on race, migration, Islamophobia and (in one scary essay) mountaineering, with telling passages on his upbringing in Leeds in the 1960s and arrival in New York round 9/11. Second, Tretower to Clyro, in which Karl Miller celebrates country themes (from lambs to foxes) and country writers (from John McGahern to Ted Hughes); there’s the bonus of a long preface by Andrew O’Hagan, describing journeys to the Celtic fringes that he and Miller took with Seamus Heaney. Third, Arguably by Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic), a selection from one of the great polemical journalists of our age and the ideal complement to his memoir of last year Hitch 22 (Atlantic).

The most chilling full-length work of non-fiction I read this year was Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness, about the murder of Lucie Blackman in Tokyo.

Patrick Ness

Ali Smith, There But For The

By far the best novel I read this year – and I read the entire Booker longlist out of increasingly perplexed curiosity – was Ali Smith’s There but for the. It’s smart, warm, experimental, and surprisingly moving; I’m dismayed it hasn’t received more recognition. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, on the other hand, has taken numerous awards, but deserves every one. It’s the first book in a long time that made me jealous. And for adults, for teenagers, for anyone at all, Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram (Walker Books) must be sought out. Concerning the pursuit of virginity loss in 1960s Norfolk against the background of the Cuban missile crisis, it’s fresh, vital and with an ending that still stuns, 11 months after I read it.

David Nicholls

Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad managed to be both inventive and hugely entertaining, and I also enjoyed Edward St Aubyn’s At Last, the final instalment of the consistently excellent Patrick Melrose series. Read them all, now. Stewart Lee’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate (Faber) restored at least a little of my faith in stand-up comedy, and two current reads are late additions to the list of favourites; Claire Tomalin’s admirably brisk and entertaining Dickens biography and Craig Taylor’s Londoners (Granta)an epic portrait in eighty voices that shows the city to be just as … well … Dickensian as it has ever been.

Jeremy Paxman

Jamil Ahmad, The Wandering Falcon

The most memorable fiction I read this year was Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon (Hamish Hamilton), a series of loosely connected stories set on the frontiers of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. The author was nearly 80 before his book was published, having spent his working life among the tribes of Balochistan, whose stories he obviously absorbed over the years. In this captivating book you can feel them blow off the page like dry desert air.

Steven Pinker

Matthew White, Atrocitology: Humanity's 100 Deadliest Achievements

Roy F Baumeister and John Tierney, Willpower (Allen Lane). The counterculture was wrong: your problem is not that you’re uptight and repressed and should let it all hang out, but that you’re profligate and impulsive and need to bulk up your self-control. Baumeister’s ingenious experiments, enlivened with Tierney’s vignettes from history and technology, show you how. Joshua S Goldstein, Winning the War on War (Dutton); John Mueller, War and Ideas (Routledge); Andrew Mack, Human Security Report 2009/2010 (OUP USA). Believe it or not, war is going out of style, according to these updates from some of the sources I used in my own recent book. Matthew White, Atrocitology (Canongate). A serious book, written with a light touch, on the hundred worst things humans have done to each other (that we know of). Erica Chenoweth and Maria J Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works (Columbia). Gandhi was right, not just morally but empirically: nonviolent resistance is three times more effective than violence.

Craig Raine

Alice Oswald, Memorial

In Alice Oswald’s Homer (Memorial, Faber), the nameless are named. Oswald has excised the main Homeric narrative – Achilles, Patroclus, Agamemnon, Helen, Paris. True, Hector gets a mention, but only to say that he, too, died like the little people, the bit-players who bite the dust. Homer’s brief lives: "Euphorbus died / Leaving his silver hairclip on the battlefield." Oswald shares with Christopher Logue fearless anachronism – Oswald’s Hector, "Like a man rushing in leaving his motorbike running" – but Memorial, though good, isn’t a patch on Logue’s Homer. A better editor would have dissuaded her from monotonously repeating her epic similes. Towards the end, there are 10 unrepeated similes. So the final, 11th simile, which closes the poem, is the more forceful for being repeated – like a closing, extended chord. And it is brilliant in its own right: a shooting star as a "whip of stars". Memorial has 15 or so perfect touches that show Oswald to be a considerable poet: for example "flower-lit cliffs", "the darkness hit him with a dull clang", the sea "just lifted and flattened lifted and flattened", "fire with its loose hair flying rushes through a city".

Kamila Shamsie

Michael Ondaatje, The Cat's Table

It’s impossible to explain through any discussion of plot and character the hypnotic brilliance of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table (Jonathan Cape). The joy of boyhood and the darkness at its edges are conveyed in scenes of extraordinary imagination – boys lashed to a deck in a storm, a dog biting down on the throat of a man, a girl skating across the deck of a ship in the early morning, a prisoner in chains walking its length at night. It is entirely … well, Ondaatje-esque.

Helen Simpson

Yiyun Li, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl

Among the best collections of short stories I’ve read this year is Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (Pocket Books), where the form is used to explore character in a way I haven’t seen done before, examining the heroine from story to story via different viewpoints and time perspectives. Yiyun Li’s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (Fourth Estate) tells sad, graceful stories of love and savage loneliness, beginning with the haunting almost-novella-length "Kindness". The title story of Margaret Drabble‘s A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman (Penguin Classic) is worth the cover price alone. After several novels Sarah Hall has this year published The Beautiful Indifference (Faber), seven skilfully adrenalised stories, precise and sensual, in which the scent of violence is a constant. And from half a century ago comes Vasily Grossman’s The Road (Quercus), whose title story can be read as a 4,000-word distillation of his epic novel Life and Fate (Vintage), written the year following the confiscation of that novel’s typescript by the Soviet authorities.

Ahdaf Soueif

I’m delighted to see Selma Dabbagh’s book Out of It published (Bloomsbury). Driven, fast-paced, edgy, this is Dabbagh’s first novel – although she’s written excellent short stories. A narrative of Gaza, it brings a very welcome new voice and a new consciousness to the Palestinian story.

Amjad Naser’s Haythu la Tasqut al-Amtar, or Where the Rain doesn’t Fall (Dar al-Adab, Beirut), is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Naser is an inspired poet and this work takes the precision and economy of his language into prose narrative for the first time. Gentle, sad, hopeful – a poet writing prose at his mature best. Watch out for the English translation. I’m reading Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World (Verso). It’s really helpful to zoom out from time to time when you’re living massive events at very close quarters.

For bilingual readers I cannot end without mentioning Tamim al-Barghouti and Amin Haddad’s poems born of the Egyptian revolution – even though they are as yet uncollected. These were the poems that were read and sung in Tahrir Square and the other public spaces of Egypt. They still keep us going.

Colm Tóibín

Joan Didion, Blue Nights

Three books by literary stylists which dealt with grief and loss raised fascinating questions about style and tone and storytelling under fierce pressure. I found all three books affecting and disturbing. One was Joan Didion’s Blue Nights (Fourth Estate), which is even more raw and filled with loss than her previous memoir; the second is Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name (Grove Press), a masterpiece of storytelling and scene-setting; the third is Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s Heavenly Questions (Bloodaxe), poems with her customary eloquence and gravity now filled with shock and hurt, certainly the most beautiful work she has made. In the meantime, Jeffrey Eugenides and Alan Hollinghurst produced two supremely confident novels; their ambiguous versions of destiny and desire in The Marriage Plot and The Stranger’s Child made me laugh at certain moments and sit up and shiver at others.

Rose Tremain

Andrew Miller, Pure

Two historical novels achieve quiet distinction this year: Andrew Miller’s Pure (Sceptre) and Barry Unsworth’s The Quality of Mercy (Hutchinson). While Miller’s prose is poetic and impressionistic, Unsworth’s is formal and dense, yet both novels unfold highly dramatic stories in a measured and unfussy way. Pure gives to a young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, the gruesome task of digging up and carting away the mountains of the dead who lie in the Cemetery of Les Innocents in Paris in 1785, polluting its surrounding air and water. Over Baratte’s terrible enterprise lies the shadow of the coming revolution, thus giving to Miller’s vivid images of "purification" a fine historical ambiguity. Unsworth’s novel, picking up the story of the 18th century slave-ship mutiny told in Sacred Hunger, has Erasmus Kemp, son of the disgraced ship owner, trying to bring the mutineers to trial in England, but finding himself thwarted not only by one slippery fugitive, but also by his own conscience, made suddenly manifest to him by his love for the reforming sister of a liberal lawyer. Both books are notable for their subtle meditations on kindness and compassion.

Jeanette Winterson

Carol Ann Duffy, The Bees

Carol Ann Duffy, The Bees (Picador). Take one line, "What will you do with the gift of your left life?" Beautiful and moving poetry for the real world.

Ali Smith, There but for the. What would you do if an uninvited guest locked himself in the bathroom and refused to come out? She writes so well, distinctive, a bit crazy, compelling in the way that language should be, with surprises everywhere.

Darian Leader, What Is Madness? Our madness-measure is always changing. This is a thought-provoking book about how we diagnose and differentiate our many kinds of insanities. In spite of the Freud/Lacan obsession with the phallus as a central psychic symbol (oy vey), this is a book posing necessary questions and offering genuine insights.

Leo Hollis, The Stones of London: A History in Twelve Buildings (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). A clever tour through London’s long life using her built architecture and the stories found there. From Westminster Abbey through Regent Street and Wembley Stadium to the Gherkin. Absorbing and enjoyable.
• Compiled by Ginny Hooker.

• To order books mentioned, with free UK p&p, call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to

• What have you enjoyed reading in the past 12 months? Send us your recommendations (including details of the publisher) in no more than 150 words, by email to or write to us at Readers’ Books of the Year, Review, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU, to arrive no later than Sunday 11 December. We would most like to hear about recent titles. Please include a postal address and telephone number or email address. We will publish a selection of your choices in the paper and on the website – or join the books of the year debate here



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“Sarmada”: The Essential Novel of the Syrian Spring Read more




Fadi Azzam

Last summer, as the Arab Spring protests in Libya and Egypt were in full swing, a sector of the literary world was abuzz with hopes about Arabic literature. Words Without Borders, a literary magazine with an international focus, dedicated two issues to the literature coming out of the turbulence. The Moroccan novelist Ben Taher Jelloun, who published a collection of essays about the Arab Spring, predicted that there would be a creative boom in the countries whose citizens now enjoyed greater freedom.

So it’s both surprising and fitting that an author from Syria, a country where the protests haven’t been successful, has written the gem of the Arabic literature of dissent. Fadi Azzam, a journalist who has been exiled in Dubai since 2001, has published a book “Sarmada,” which is in the running for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

Azzam’s book is ambitious for a début novel, and it wasn’t shocking to learn that his editor and mentor was one of the most celebrated Syrian novelists in exile, Rafik Schami. Last year, Schami was looking for a novel for Swallow Editions, a new literary series devoted to publishing Arabic-language novels by young writers and translating them into English. Schami’s books are banned in Syria, and he wanted to build a literary platform that would completely circumvent the Arab publishing world, which he believes is overly influenced by the government and oil sheiks, and is full of publishers that “have never heard of an author’s dignity.” His motto for the series would eventually become “free of oil, tedium, and dictatorship.”

The story of “Sarmada” traces the lives of three Druze women living in an isolated town in the Syrian hills—not, at first glance, the stuff of political literature. The book isn’t narrowly political and doesn’t paint a portrait of the uprisings themselves. Instead, it gives us something much more valuable: a detailed view of the entire mechanism of a culture—its connection to the land, its way of telling stories, and its idiosyncrasies.

Azzam eases us into “Sarmada” with a familiar setting—Paris in 2010—and a narrator named Rafi, whom we feel we have met before in many of our own modern novels: he’s cosmopolitan, skeptical, intrusive, a reporter. But right away his skepticism is put to the test when a woman scientist tells him that she has the soul of another woman from Sarmada, his hometown, living inside of her. This woman was brutally murdered by her brothers. Here, the narrator explains how transmigration in the Druze religion “gives the community a feeling of blood purity and unadulterated lineage because Druze souls only ever transmigrate into Druze bodies.” This is the first clue that the story won’t continue in a realistic vein. Yet the narrator’s view is still aligned with our own: “Not once in my life had I ever given the topic the slightest thought. I just considered it to be one of the many charming religious spectacles that Syria takes such pleasure in.” Still, when the woman asks him to return to Sarmada to investigate the killing, he agrees to go and listen to the townspeople’s stories.

When the setting moves to Sarmada, Azzam lets loose. While the story of Hela, the woman living inside of the scientist, is still told with the narrator’s distrustful eye and realist perspective, it soon melts into the tale of a second woman. The voice of the narrator retreats after he tells us, “I’d better disappear and let the place tell its own story. I’ll watch from a distance, silent but with every sense piqued.” Then, as if the story just couldn’t be told straight and still evoke the land, religion, and local lore of the town, the entire world of the novel shifts from realism to magical realism.

Channeling Marquez and Borges, Azzam winds the plot audaciously, bringing the story to highly surreal and disquieting places. The second story begins with an act of senseless violence: at the wedding of a townsperson to the main character of the story, Farida, a stray bullet fired in celebration ends up in the groom’s chest, killing him. As the man’s mother grieves for her son, her breasts begin to swell up with a substance called grief milk. One morning, the man’s widow Farida has a mystical dream, and when she wakes up, she walks over to her mother-in-law and slits her breasts with a razor, pouring the spurting grief milk into several bottles. Later she uses it in sweets, and feeds them to the villagers, who are all suffering from a curse of melancholia after the death of the woman’s son. Upon eating the desserts, they writhe and cry for hours before experiencing catharsis and a sense of peace. Later, in some of the graphic sex scenes that caused Azzam’s first translator to pull out of the project, she feeds the sweets to teen-age boys in her home before taking their virginities.

The story only gets more bizarre from there, but it remains rooted in the topography of the mountainous terrain and the history and culture of the Druze village. Through a conversation early in the book that the narrator has with an old man in the village, Azzam gives us justification of the book’s surrealist elements. The narrator has just responded with incredulity to the man’s claim that soon after the death of Farida’s first husband, her second husband dies in bed on their wedding night. The old man scolds him, saying, “You know, a little emotion can melt away cold reason. If you just listen and pay attention, you’ll discover how ridiculous death is, how cheap. Why would I lie?” Of course, the narrator and the old man both know the answer: he would lie because lying is sometimes the only way to express a larger truth or ask a difficult question—an old trope from oral storytelling.

Under repressive regimes, truths and hard questions are entangled with politics: Syria’s turbulent, violent history under French colonial rule and the Ba’ath Party is at the core of this otherworldly story, but surfaces only at rare, glimmering points in the narration. These large-scale political and historical events that at first seem external to the insular world of the village are absorbed and accepted into the consciousness of the characters through Azzam’s surreal devices. The beginning of Farida’s story is set shortly after the Six Day War, when “the people of Sarmada were living with a shooting pain that seemed to burn at something inside of them.” We soon understand that the violent, absurd act at the beginning of the story is a parallel to the war, and in the magical-realism realm the villagers’ pain takes a material form in the concept of grief milk. Through this and similar strange contrivances, Azzam develops the central dilemma of the book: how the member of a small, geographically concentrated sect can reconcile the effects of modern Syrian and Arab conflicts—often involving rarefied concepts like Pan-Arabism—with the traditional beliefs and culture of their community.

The world of Azzam’s Druze characters is small and seemingly not representative of Syria as a whole, considering the Druze make up only three per cent of the country’s population. But Syria’s political situation—and arguably more than a few other conflicts in the rest of the Arab world—is tied up in the struggles of minority sects like the Druze, of the people in villages like Sarmada. A fact that is central to the past rhetoric of Bashar Assad is that he belongs to the Alawite sect and supposedly protects the interests of Syria’s minority groups. Now, as the U.S. and Turkey discuss the possibility of civil war in Syria between the sects should Assad be overthrown, the major question of Azzam’s book is politically imperative. The struggle of the Syrian citizen to come to terms with the history and political truths of Syria and the interests and beliefs of his or her sect is at the heart of the story of how Syria will forge a national identity, and how any future government will achieve legitimacy. So while “Sarmada” may not be full of the immediate thrills of riots or protests, it’s politically meaningful. The novel’s gaze reaches toward an understanding of what Syria will need to grapple with in order to bring about a true Syrian Spring.


Reviewed by Alexia Nader


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World Book Night 2012, Top 100 Popular Books

For World Book Night 2012 we want to find out about the nation’s favourite books. We’re compiling the top 10s of thousands of readers to see what books people love to read, share and give. Below is an ever changing top 100 which will ultimately inform the 25 books chosen for World Book Night 2012. Why not see if your favourites are here and, if you haven’t already, tell us your top 10 and share your favourite books with thousands of others.

Click on a book’s cover to see reasons people have given for choosing it and to choose it yourself without needing to go through the search page.

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Diary of a Wimpy Kid


by Jeff Kinney

It’s no wonder that Diary of a Wimpy Kid has been such a hit with middle school kids. It’s a very funny book. Billed as "a novel in cartoons," Diary of a Wimpy Kid is the diary of Greg Heffley, except Greg wants readers to know, "This is a JOURNAL, not a diary" and "…this was MOM’s idea, not mine." Full of middle school humor, this is the first book in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Greg is one of three children. According to Greg, his little brother, Manny, "never gets in trouble, even if he really deserves it," and his older brother Rodrick is always getting the best of Greg.

In his diary, Greg details his daily activities, starting with the first day of middle school and his warnings to readers about choosing where to sit in class. How does Greg feel about middle school? He thinks it’s dumb because, "You got kids like me who haven’t hit their growth spurt yet mixed in with these gorillas who need to shave twice a day."

Whether it’s dealing with bullying, his friend Rowley, homework, or family life, Greg is always busy trying to figure out the angle that will make things come out best for him. Author Jeff Kinney does a great jobs, in words and picture, of illustrating the general goofiness that comes with being a self-centered adolescent, and the funny things that happen as a result.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is Jeff Kinney’s first book. While a student at the University of Maryland, Kinney had his own comic strip, "Igdoof," in the school newspaper. After college, he began writing Diary of a Wimpy Kid and putting it online in daily installments on Then, publisher Harry N. Abrams signed Kinney to a multi-book deal to create a Diary of a Wimpy Kid series for the Amulet Books imprint. Despite the success of his books, Kinney has kept his day job working for an Internet publishing company. As far as how much the series is based on his life, Kinney said in an interview, "A lot of the things are true but not true – true with a twist. There’s a lot of distortion, but the essence of the stories are true. It’s sort of a mythology built around my family, my growing up." (ComicMix interview)

The book’s lined pages, plus Greg’s writing and his pen and ink sketches and cartoons, really make it seem like an actual diary, adding greatly to the reader’s enjoyment. If you are looking for a book with a main character who is a perfect role model for your child, this isn’t it. If you are looking for a funny book your kids will enjoy and identify with, this is it. I recommend Diary of a Wimpy Kid for tweens and younger teens. Diary of a Wimpy Kid has also become a favorite of several reluctant readers that I know. (Amulet Books, An Imprint of Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2007. ISBN: 9780810993136)

By early 2009, two more very funny books in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series had been published: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw. In addition, if Greg’s diary has inspired your kids to try writing and drawing like Greg, they will enjoy Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Do-It-Yourself Book, which includes writing and drawing prompts and lots of space for tweens and young teens to fill.


Courtesy:By Elizabeth Kennedy, Guide

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The Mind of a Disease



A Biography of Cancer


Siddhartha Mukherjee

Illustrated. 571 pp. Scribner. $30


All patients begin as storytellers, the oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee observes near the start of this powerful and ambitious first book. Long before they see a doctor, they become narrators of suffering, as Mukherjee puts it — travelers who have visited the “kingdom of the ill.”

Many doctors become storytellers too, and Mukherjee has undertaken one of the most extraordinary stories in medicine: a history of cancer, which will kill about 600,000 Americans by the end of this year, and more than seven million people around the planet. He frames it as a biography, “an attempt to enter the mind of this immortal illness, to understand its personality, to demystify its behavior.” It is an epic story that he seems compelled to tell, the way a passionate young priest might attempt a biography of Satan.

Mukherjee started on the road to this book when he began advanced training in cancer medicine at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston in the summer of 2003. During his first week, a colleague who’d just completed the program took him aside. “It’s called an immersive training program. But by immersive, they really mean drowning,” he said, lowering his voice the way many of us do when we speak of cancer itself. “Have a life outside the hospital,” the doctor warned him. “You’ll need it, or you’ll get swallowed.”

“But it was impossible not to be swallowed,” Mukherjee writes. At the end of every evening he found himself stunned and speechless in the neon floodlights of the hospital parking lot, compulsively trying to reconstruct the day’s decisions and prescriptions, almost as consumed as his patients by the dreadful rounds of chemotherapy and the tongue-twisting names of the drugs, “Cyclophosphamide, cytarabine, prednisone, asparaginase. . . .”

Eventually he started this book so as not to drown.

The oldest surviving description of cancer is written on a papyrus from about 1600 B.C. The hieroglyphics record a probable case of breast cancer: “a bulging tumor . . . like touching a ball of wrappings.” Under “treatment,” the scribe concludes: “none.”

For more than 2,000 years afterward, there is virtually nothing about cancer in the medical literature (“or in any other literature,” Mukherjee adds.) The modern understanding of the disease originated with the recognition, in the first half of the 19th century, that all plants and animals are made of cells, and that all cells arise from other cells. The German researcher Rudolph Virchow put that in Latin: omnis cellula e cellula.

Cancer is a disease that begins when a single cell, among all the trillions in a human body, begins to grow out of control. Lymphomas, leukemias, malignant melanomas, sarcomas all begin with that microscopic accident, a mutation in one cell: omnis cellula e cellula e cellula. Cell growth is the secret of living, the source of our ability to build, adapt, repair ourselves; and cancer cells are rebels among our own cells that outrace the rest. “If we seek immortality,” Mukherjee writes, “then so, too, in a rather perverse sense, does the cancer cell.”

Mukherjee opens his book with the story of one of the founders of the hospital where he trained — Sidney Farber, a specialist in children’s diseases who began as a pathologist. In 1947, Farber worked in a tiny, dank laboratory in Boston, dissecting specimens and performing autopsies. He was fascinated by a sharklike species of cancer called acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which can move so fast that it kills an apparently healthy child within only a few days. A patient would be “brought to the hospital in a flurry of excitement, discussed on medical rounds with professorial grandiosity” and then sent home to die.

In the summer of 1947, a 2-year-old boy, the child of a Boston shipyard worker, fell sick. Examining a drop of the baby’s blood through the microscope, Farber saw the telltale signs of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, billions of malignant white cells “dividing in frenzy, their chromosomes condensing and uncondensing, like tiny clenched and unclenched fists.” By December, the boy was near death. In the last days of the year, Farber injected his patient with an experimental drug, aminopterin, and within two weeks he was walking, talking and eating again. It wasn’t a cure, only a remission; but for Farber it was the beginning of a dream of cures, of what one researcher called “a penicillin for cancer.”

The next year, Farber helped start a research fund drive around a boy who suffered from a lymphoma in his intestines, a disease that killed 90 percent of its victims. The boy was cherubic and blond, an enormous fan of the Boston Braves, and his name was Einar Gustafson. For the sake of publicity, Farber rechristened him Jimmy. That May, the host of the radio show “Truth or Consequences” interrupted his usual broadcast to bring his listeners into Jimmy’s hospital room to listen in as players on the Braves marched into Jimmy’s room and sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

By the summer of 1952, Farber had built an imposing new hospital, Jimmy’s Clinic. Soon, he was working on an even grander scale, with the help of an extraordinary socialite and medical philanthropist, Mary Lasker. (“I am opposed to heart attacks and cancer,” she once told a reporter, “the way one is opposed to sin.”) Mary and her husband, Albert, an advertising executive, joined forces with Farber. They wanted, as Mukherjee writes, “a Manhattan Project for cancer.” Together, through masterly advertising, fund-raising and passion for their common cause (“The iron is hot and this is the time to pound without cessation,” Farber wrote to Mary Lasker), they maneuvered the United States into what would become known as the war on cancer. Richard Nixon signed it into law with the National Cancer Act in 1971, authorizing the spending of $1.5 billion of research funds over the next three years.

In political terms, the war was well timed, coming at a time when America’s collective nightmares were no longer “It Came From Outer Space” or “The Man From Planet X,” but “The Exorcist” and “They Came from Within.” Mary Lasker called the war on cancer the country’s next moon shot, the conquest of inner space.

In scientific terms, however, the war was disastrously premature. The moon race had been based on rocket science. But in the early 1970s, there really wasn’t a science of cancer. Researchers still did not understand what makes cells turn malignant. Now that they were so much in the spotlight, and in the money, they fell into bickering, demoralized, warring factions. The “iconic battleground” of the time was the chemotherapy ward, Mukherjee writes, “a sanitized vision of hell.” Typically it was a kind of limbo, almost a jail, in which absolutely no one spoke the word “cancer,” the inmates’ faces had an orange tinge from the drugs they were given, and windows were covered with heavy wire mesh to keep them from committing suicide. “The artifice of manufactured cheer (a requirement for soldiers in battle) made the wards even more poignantly desolate,” Mukherjee writes.

“The Emperor of All Maladies” is a history of eureka moments and decades of despair. Mukherjee describes vividly the horrors of the radical mastectomy, which got more and more radical, until it arrived at “an extraordinarily morbid, disfiguring procedure in which surgeons removed the breast, the pectoral muscles, the axillary nodes, the chest wall and occasionally the ribs, parts of the sternum, the clavicle and the lymph nodes inside the chest.” Cancer surgeons thought, mistakenly, that each radicalization of the procedure was progress. “Pumped up with self-confidence, bristling with conceit and hypnotized by the potency of medicine, oncologists pushed their patients — and their discipline — to the brink of disaster,” Mukherjee writes. In this army, “lumpectomy” was originally a term of abuse.

Meanwhile, more Americans were dying of cancer than ever, mainly because of smoking. Back in 1953, the average adult American smoked 3,500 cigarettes a year, or about 10 a day. Almost half of all Americans smoked. By the early 1940s, as one epidemiologist wrote, “asking about a connection between tobacco and cancer was like asking about an association between sitting and cancer.” In the decade and a half after Nixon declared his war on cancer, lung cancer deaths among older women increased by 400 percent. That epidemic is still playing itself out.

Mukherjee is good on the propaganda campaign waged by the tobacco companies, “the proverbial combination of smoke and mirrors.” As one internal industry report noted in 1969, “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact.’ ” This episode makes particularly interesting reading to anyone following the current propaganda campaigns against the science of climate change.

Meanwhile, those who studied the causes of cancer in the laboratories and those who treated it in the clinics were not always talking to each other. As Mukherjee puts it, “The two conversations seemed to be occurring in sealed and separate universes.” The disease was hard to understand either intellectually, in the lab, or emotionally, in the clinic. In the lab, because it is so heterogeneous in its genetics and its migrations in the body. In the hospital, because its course is horrible and so often slow, drawn out. When it comes to cancer, Mukherjee writes, “dying, even more than death, defines the illness.”

Mukherjee stitches stories of his own patients into this history, not always smoothly. But they are very strong, well-written and unsparing of himself: “Walking across the hospital in the morning to draw yet another bone-marrow biopsy, with the wintry light crosshatching the rooms, I felt a certain dread descend on me, a heaviness that bordered on sympathy but never quite achieved it.”

The heroes of the last few decades of this epic history are Robert Weinberg, Harold Varmus, Bert Vogelstein and the other extraordinary laboratory scientists who have finally worked out the genetics of cancer, and traced the molecular sequence of jammed accelerators and missing brakes that release those first rebel cells. As James Watson wrote not long ago, “Beating cancer now is a realistic ambition because, at long last, we largely know its true genetic and chemical characteristics.” We may finally be ready for war.

As a clinician, Mukherjee is only guardedly optimistic. One of the constants in oncology, as he says, is “the queasy pivoting between defeatism and hope.” Cancer is and may always be part of the burden we carry with us — the Greek word onkos means “mass” or “burden.” As Mukherjee writes, “Cancer is indeed the load built into our genome, the leaden counterweight to our aspirations for immortality.” But onkos comes from the ancient Indo-European nek, meaning to carry the burden: the spirit “so inextricably human, to outwit, to outlive and survive.” Mukherjee has now seen many patients voyage into the night. “But surely,” he writes, “it was the most sublime moment of my clinical life to have watched that voyage in reverse, to encounter men and women returning from that strange country— to see them so very close, ­clambering back.”

Reviewed by

Jonathan Weiner is the Maxwell M. Geffen professor of medical and scientific journalism at Columbia University. His latest book is “Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality.”


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Young Mandela by David James Smith

Young Mandela


David James Smith

Library Call No: 923.168  SMI-Y

(Visit the Library to read the Book)


There could not be a more poignant moment for the release of a book about Nelson Mandela‘s personal life, and the complex interplay of political imperatives and family commitments that have bedevilled it. On the eve of the World Cup that he was to preside over as his final glorious public act, Mandela’s great-granddaughter was killed in a car accident; the driver, a member of the extended Mandela family (although not related by blood), has been accused of being drunk. Young Mandela is the backstory.

Mandela’s older son, Thembi, died in a car-crash while his father was in jail, in 1969; so alienated was the young man from his father that he had not visited him in prison on Robben Island. Mandela’s younger son, Makgatho, was an alcoholic who died of an Aids-related illness in 2005. According to David James Smith’s informants, he was a gentle sort deformed by his authoritarian father’s incapacity for affection and "unrelenting scrutiny".

Mandela’s granddaughter Ndileka tells Smith Makgatho descended into alcoholism because of these deep wounds, and recounts a troubling story about how she failed to affect a death-bed reconciliation: Mandela "was frozen. He just could not accept his own feelings. Granddad can be affectionate with strangers but he is completely cut off from his own family."

Thembi and Makgatho’s mother was Mandela’s first wife, Evelyn, who died in 2004. She left him, she claimed in the divorce papers, because of his womanising, neglect and violence; immediately the divorce came through, he married Winnie, and there has been tension between the "first family" and the "second family" ever since. The womanising allegations have been aired before; now, Smith names names: the singer Dolly Rathebe, the ANC women’s leader Lilian Ngoyi, his legal secretary Ruth Mompati, who allegedly bore his son.

The violence allegations are the most serious: Evelyn claimed Mandela beat and throttled her, and threatened to kill her with an axe. Smith spends some time trying to understand how Mandela could have done this: he was "very patriarchal", and perhaps, given all the political pressure he was under, he simply "blew a gasket" in what was obviously a bad match. He comes to the conclusion that there must be "at least some credence" to the allegations, despite the fact that Mandela has categorically denied them, that they were not tested in court, and that they might have been fabricated or exaggerated by the aggrieved complainant. This is strong stuff, and is part of Smith’s stated intention, from the outset, "to rescue the sainted Madiba from the dry pages ofhistory, to strip away the myth and create a fresh portrait of a rounded human being".

At the very least, this is a long-overdue exploration of the making of the Mandela myth; one that refreshes a somewhat stale and overcrowded field. Smith sets the territory by looking at the stark difference between Mandela’s account of his father, a Thembu noble and a colonially appointed headman, and the documentary evidence provided by the colonial archive. He then effectively demonstrates how Mandela’s memoir was designed to "boost" the cult around him: although Mandela instructed his comrades to insert the line, "I led a thoroughly immoral life", into Long Walk to Freedom, an "admission of immorality might have detracted, or at the very least distracted, from his heroic reputation". And so "history had been revised".

Of course, this last comment is the very definition of memoir, all the more so for someone who has exercised such tight control over his public image. Mandela has made a political fetish of his biography: as he was in chains, so too were all South Africans; as he liberated himself and forgave his oppressors, so too can we all expunge the hate from our hearts. For this reason, the most striking and valuable parts of Young Mandela are the rare occasions where we hear Mandela’s unmediated voice, in a series of exquisite letters to Winnie and his daughters from jail. Here, away from the public eye, he articulates acute emotional intelligence and deep regret as he recounts the way his calling has denied his children a normal family life.

The book also includes some well-researched recapitulations of key political moments in Mandela’s early life: the retelling of his time underground stands out, as does the description of the "double-life" of his white comrades. But I put the book down not so much with a clearer understanding of the making of Mandela as with the kind of headful of gossip you carry away after spending too much time in a small town.

Perhaps this is a comment on the small town of the Mandela industry itself: Cranford-on-the-Highveld. Like all gossip, some of it is illuminating, but much is gratuitous, unsubstantiated and even malicious: Smith is obsessed with the sexual goings-on of the white left, which tell us nothing about Mandela’s own infidelities; he uses unnamed sources to have a go at Maki, Mandela’s oldest daughter, for declining to be interviewed; he also twice reports on "suspicions" about the bona fides of Mandela’s co-accused Govan Mbeki, with no evidence to back it up. More seriously, he has no firm corroboration of the allegation that Mompati bore Mandela’s son, something she firmly denies.

Smith also does not give enough weight to the way revisionism and self-mythologisation is often a balm to the wounds made by history rather than an act of willful intent. Often, too, he does not look closely enough at the reasons for the disjuncture between Mandela’s public memory and the conflicting evidence he has found; this is most evident in the case of the colonial record about Mandela’s father.

Ultimately, despite his strong research and laudable intentions, Smith falls into the mythbuster’s trap. Some people "won’t hear a word against" Mandela, he writes, and so sets himself the task of finding all the "words against" he can. In so doing, he sometimes loses sight of the primary reason for biography, which is to make sense of a life within its times, and to bring us closer to understanding its subject.


Reviewed by

Mark Gevisser : is the author of A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream.


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An Inspirational Journey: Pratibha Devisingh Patil

An Inspirational Journey: Pratibha Devisingh Patil –

The First Woman President of India


Rasika Chaube & Chhaya Mahajan

Library Call No.: 923.154 CHA-I

(Visit the Library to read the Book)

This work is an attempt to understand the life and works of the first President of India. Pratibha Patil’s life has been eventful and surely inspirational.

Breaking the chains that shackled women to homes, Tai, as Pratibha is fondly called, went on to excel in academics, plunged into social work and propelled into politics. Starting her political career as an MLA at the age of 27 Pratibha Patil went on serve in various positions in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly and then later as member of the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha. After a short sabbatical she came back as Governor of Rajasthan and then finally elected as President of India.

In simple language the authors trace Pratibha Patil’s political career and her personal life. The first part of the book is about her rise as political leader and also as a person. It is replete with interesting anecdotes, lesser known snippets like her passion for playing the harmonium and becoming a table tennis champion. Her personal life is also brought out vividly with some heart-warming observations about her husband Dr. Devisingh and her children.

The second part of the book provides a glimpse into her political career covering the debates, arguments, reasoning advocated by her during her stint in the Vidhan Sabha; her decisions and rulings as Rajya Sabha member, questions she raised at the Lok Sabha and the proposals she initiated as Governor.

The foreword by Dr. Manmohan Singh, messages by N. K. P. Salve and Vasant Sathe make interesting reading.

The book is easy to read and has a lavish spread of photographs both from her personal collection and some from her political album. However, a little more attention and imagination should have gone into writing the captions. Some of them like ‘site-seeing in London’ are a let down, while the others are simply boring.

K. P.

Courtesy: The Hindu

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Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe by Sir Roger Penrose

Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe

by Sir Roger Penrose

Library Call No:523.1  PEN-C

(Visit the Library to read)

When I first encountered the work of MC Escher, I couldn’t understand how he managed to depict the seemingly impossible. I was nine, and the two pieces that puzzled me were Waterfall and Ascending and Descending. In the first, water at the bottom of a waterfall flows along a channel back to the top without defying gravity in a never-ending cycle. The second is even more striking, with one set of monks climbing an endless staircase while another group walk down it without either ever getting any higher or lower. Years later I learnt that both works were inspired by Roger Penrose.

As a student in 1954, Penrose was attending a conference in Amsterdam when by chance he came across an exhibition of Escher’s work. Soon he was trying to conjure up impossible figures of his own and discovered the tri-bar – a triangle that looks like a real, solid three-dimensional object, but isn’t. Together with his father, a physicist and mathematician, Penrose went on to design a staircase that simultaneously loops up and down. An article followed and a copy was sent to Escher. Completing a cyclical flow of creativity, the Dutch master of geometrical illusions was inspired to produce his two masterpieces.

Doing what most find impossible has long been Penrose’s stock in trade in mathematics and physics, even when it comes to publishing. His previous book, The Road to Reality, was a 1,049-page bestseller, although it was mostly a textbook. Penrose doesn’t do "popular", as he peppers his books with equation after equation in defiance of the publishing maxim that each one cuts sales in half. By that reckoning Cycles of Time will have about four readers, though it’s probably destined to be another bestseller. As Penrose puts forward his truly Extraordinary New View of the Universe, that the big bang is both the end of one aeon and the beginning of another in an Escheresque endless cycling of time, he outlines the prevailing orthodoxy about the origins of the cosmos.

In the late 20s it was discovered that the light from distant galaxies was stretched towards the red end of the visible spectrum. This redshift was found to be greater the further away the galaxy was, and was accepted as evidence of an expanding universe. This inevitably led theorists to extrapolate backwards to the big bang – the moment of its birth some 13.7bn years ago, when space and time exploded into being out of a single point, infinitely hot and dense, called a singularity. That at least was the theory, with little more to back it up until 1964, when two American scientists discovered "cosmic background radiation" – the faint echo of the big bang. In the decades since, further evidence has accumulated and theoretical refinements made to accommodate it. Yet in recent years a few physicists have challenged the big bang model by daring to ask and answer questions such as: was the big bang the beginning of the universe?

Traditionally such questions have been dismissed as meaningless – space and time were created at the big bang; there simply was no "before". Although it’s possible to work out in incredible detail what happened all the way back to within a fraction of a second of the big bang, at the moment itself the theory of general relativity breaks down, or as Penrose puts it: "Einstein’s equations (and physics as a whole, as we know it) simply ‘give up’ at the singularity." However, he believes we should not conclude from this that the big bang was the beginning of the universe.

Acknowledging that he’s not the first to think such heretical thoughts, Penrose looks at earlier "pre-big bang proposals". Finding them "fanciful", Penrose looked anew at the big bang, because of an unsolved mystery at its heart involving the Second Law of Thermodynamics. One of the most fundamental in all of physics, it simply says that the amount of disorder, something that physicists label "entropy", increases with the passage of time. Herein lies the mystery for Penrose. The instant after the big bang, "a wildly hot violent event", must have been one of maximum entropy. How can entropy therefore increase? Penrose thinks he has the answer; there must be a pre-big bang era that ensures that entropy is low at the birth of the universe. And here’s how.

In what Penrose calls "conformal cyclic cosmology", the beginning and the end of the universe are in effect the same, since these two phases of its evolution contain only massless particles. Between now and a far off distant future, everything from the tiniest particles to biggest galaxies will have been eaten by black holes. They in turn lose energy in the form of massless particles and slowly disappear. As one black hole after another vanishes the universe loses "information". Since information is linked to entropy, the entropy of the universe decreases with the demise of each black hole.

The strangest thing about massless particles is that for them there is no such thing as time. There is no past or present, only "now", and it stretches for all eternity – but since there is no tick of the clock, what eternity? With some mind-numbing maths, Penrose argues that as time ends in the era of massless particles, the fate of our universe can actually be reinterpreted as the big bang of a new one: "Our universe is what I call an aeon in an endless sequence of aeons." Escher would have approved.

Reviewed by Manjit Kumar (Author of the books, Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality)


Filed under: Book of the week, ,

Nomad by Ayaan Hirsi Ali


Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Free Press, London

Library Call No: 303.4  ALI-N

(Visit the Library to read the Book)

If there were a “Ms. Globalization” title, it might well go to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali woman who wrote the best-­selling memoir“Infidel.” She has managed to outrage more people — in some cases to the point that they want to assassinate her — in more languages in more countries on more continents than almost any writer in the world today.

Now Hirsi Ali is working on antagonizing even more people in yet another memoir. “Nomad” argues that Islam creates dysfunctional families — like her own — and adds that these distorted families constitute “a real threat to the very fabric of Western life.” Western countries, she says, should be less tolerant of immigrants who try to preserve their lifestyles in their new homelands. It might seem presumptuous to write another memoir so soon, but Hirsi Ali is a remarkable figure who has plenty of memories to record.

She was born in Somalia in 1969. Her family fled to avoid political repression, and she grew up in Kenya, Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia, collecting languages the way some kids collect postage stamps. For a time, she was a fervent Muslim, but when her father ordered her to marry a stranger, she struck out on her own, disgracing the family and shocking herself, and settled in the Netherlands.

Hirsi Ali studied political science — she is clearly intellectually brilliant — and ended up as a member of the Dutch Parliament. If the rapid transformation of a Somali girl into an outspoken black, female, immigrant member of Parliament seems extraordinary, it was just the beginning. Soon her critique of Islam was leading to death threats, her citizenship was threatened by Dutch officials and she moved to a new refuge in the United States. Even now, she needs bodyguards.

That’s partly because she is by nature a provocateur, the type of person who rolls out verbal hand grenades by reflex. After her father’s death, Hirsi Ali connects by telephone with her aging and long-estranged mother living in a dirt-floor hut in Somalia. Hirsi Ali asks forgiveness, but the conversation goes downhill when her mother pleads with her to return to Islam. Near tears, her mother asks: “Why are you so feeble in faith? . . . You are my child and I can’t bear the thought of you in hell.”

“I am feeble in faith because Allah is full of misogyny,” Hirsi Ali thinks to herself. “I am feeble in faith because faith in Allah has reduced you to a terrified old woman — because I don’t want to be like you.” What she says aloud is: “When I die I will rot.” (For my part, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps Hirsi Ali’s family is dysfunctional simply because its members never learned to bite their tongues and just say to one another: “I love you.”)

Since Hirsi Ali denounces Islam with a ferocity that I find strident, potentially feeding religious bigotry, I expected to dislike this book. It did leave me uncomfortable and exasperated in places. But I also enjoyed it. Hirsi Ali comes across as so sympathetic when she shares her grief at her family’s troubles that she is difficult to dislike. Her memoir suggests that she never quite outgrew her rebellious teenager phase, but also that she would be a terrific conversationalist at a dinner party.

She is at her best when she is telling her powerful story. And she is at her worst when she is using her experience to excoriate a variegated faith that has more than one billion adherents. Her analysis seems accurate in its descriptions of Somalis, Saudis, Yemenis and Afghans, but not in her discussion, say, of Indonesian Muslims — who are more numerous than those other four nationalities put together.

To those of us who have lived and traveled widely in Africa and Asia, descriptions of Islam often seem true but incomplete. The repression of women, the persecution complexes, the lack of democracy, the volatility, the anti-Semitism, the difficulties modernizing, the disproportionate role in terrorism — those are all real. But if those were the only faces of Islam, it wouldn’t be one of the fastest-growing religions in the world today. There is also the warm hospitality toward guests, including Christians and Jews; charity for the poor; the aesthetic beauty of Koranic Arabic; the sense of democratic unity as rich and poor pray shoulder to shoulder in the mosque. Glib summaries don’t work any better for Islam than they do for Christianity or ­Judaism.

Where Hirsi Ali is exactly right, I think, is in her focus on education as a remedy. It’s the best way to open minds, promote economic development and suppress violence. In the long run education is a more effective weapon against terrorists than bombs are.

Because she is an immigrant, Hirsi Ali emphasizes the difficulties that immigrants, particularly Muslims, have in adjusting to life in Western societies. In the course of telling her own story, she identifies three central problems. First is Islam’s treatment of women. “The will of little girls is stifled by Islam. . . . They are reared to become submissive robots who serve in the house as cleaners and cooks.”

Second is the lack of experience that many Muslim immigrants have had with money and credit. Hirsi Ali recounts how, after her arrival in the Netherlands, she received an apartment through the government with the option of a loan of up to $4,000 to furnish it and pay utilities. A Dutch friend offered to take her to a discount furniture store, but Hirsi Ali had dreamed of something upscale. So she and her Somali roommate, Yasmin, went to a high-end store and bought wall-to-wall carpeting and wallpaper — and that used up almost the entire loan.

“The money was worth nothing here. Was the whole loan about just a carpet? We quickly decided it was God’s will. There was no need to quarrel: Allah had willed it thus.” Soon Hirsi Ali was thousands of dollars in debt, and she argues that many foreigners have similar troubles with Western credit and finance.

The third problem is a propensity to violence in the family, as well as in religious vocabulary and tradition. “I don’t want to create the impression that all people from Muslim countries or tribal societies are aggressive,” she writes — and then she proceeds to do just that. She declares: “Islam is not just a belief; it is a way of life, a violent way of life. Islam is imbued with violence, and it encourages violence. Muslim children all over the world are taught the way I was: taught with violence, taught to perpetuate violence, taught to wish for violence against the infidel, the Jew, the American Satan.”

This is the kind of exaggeration that undermines the book. If the points about women and money are largely true, the point about violence seems to me vastly overstated. Yes, corporal punishment is common in madrassas, as it was in the rural Oregon schools where I grew up, and as it continues to be in Texas. Beatings may be regrettable, but they don’t typically turn children into terrorists.

During a recent trip to Sudan, I was speaking to a Muslim Arab in Khartoum. When I said I was from the United States, he looked quite shocked and said worriedly: “Oh! It is very violent there.” I’ve had similar experiences in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, with people in those countries expressing concern about my safety in violent New York. They generalize too much from American movies.

It’s true that public discussion in some Muslim countries has taken on a strident tone, full of over-the-top exaggerations about the West. Educated Muslims should speak out more against such rhetoric.

In the same way, here in the West, we should try to have a conversation about Islam and its genuine problems — while speaking out against over-the-top exaggerations about the East. This memoir, while engaging and insightful in many places, exemplifies precisely the kind of rhetoric that is overheated and overstated.


Reviewed by

Nicholas D. Kristof is an Op-Ed columnist at The Times and the author, with Sheryl WuDunn, of “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.”


Filed under: Book of the week, ,

Way Beyond The Three Rs by Y.S.Rajan

Buy Way Beyond The Three Rs : India�s Edution Challenge In The 21st Century

Way Beyond The Three Rs:
India’s Education Challenge In The 21st Century



Penguin Books, New Delhi

Library Call No: 379.54  RAJ-W

(Visit the Library to read the Book)

About the Book :
The education of their children is of paramount importance to all Indian parents. They spend tens of thousands of crores each year to get their young educated. The country fetes its successful students: from Class X board toppers and those who crack the IIT JEE to those who clear the civil-services examination.
Yet things on the ground are dire.
About 70 per cent of all students (in villages, towns and cities) have to make do with inferior schooling. Metropolitan newspapers are full of the difficulty of getting a nursery seat in a good school. And while there is a seat crunch in the better colleges too, only 10 per cent of all students between the ages of 18 and 21 are enrolled in college. Crores of educated India discover too late that they do not have the skills to land a suitable job.
Y. S. Rajan examines the gamut of issues involved in India s efforts to educate its young people and the work required to fix schools, vocational training centres, colleges and universities. He argues that Indian education needs reforms on a scale comparable to those which freed the economy of the shackles of the licence-permit raj almost twenty years ago.
About the Author :
Y. S. Rajan is a physicist by training. He has made key contributions to space research, technology and applications since 1964 and continues to be an expert on space matters. As scientific secretary, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), he was responsible for a combination of scientific, technical, administrative, planning, policy and international cooperation matters from 1976 to 1988. Since then, he has held various other positions of responsibility related to science and technology, and academia. He was vice-chancellor, Punjab Technology University from 2002 04. Rajan has written on a variety of subjects, including science, technology, business, youth, leadership, social and ethical issues, and several poetry books in Tamil and English. He co-wrote the books India 2020 and The Scientific Indian with A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. Rajan is currently Dr Vikram Sarabhai Distinguished Professor at ISRO Headquarters in Bangalore.



Filed under: Book of the week, ,

How to Have a Beautiful Mind by Edward De Bono

How to Have a Beautiful Mind


Edward De Bono

Library Call No: 158.1  DE –H

(Visit the Library to read the Book)

By Corné MacKenzie

Ever visit a website that looks really attractive, with appealing images and colour all to stimulate your interest, but quickly discover that it’s ‘full of emptiness’ and lacking substance?

In his book, How to have a Beautiful Mind, Edward de Bono highlights the value of a beautiful and interesting mind as being greater than just a pretty face, not able to sustain interest for long.

A “makeover for your mind” will be useful as you consider creating an online and personal brand for your business and yourself.

Avid De Bono followers will see this book as a one-stop framework reminder of most of his other work. Newcomers to the guru’s wares will find it interesting and easy enough to use as a quick reference to his brilliant ideas.

Nine of the eighteen chapters of the book focus predominantly on the art of conversation. Becoming aware of sweeping generalizations, spotting errors in logic and working with extrapolations aid the art of skillfully interacting with another. Understanding how your customers think and feel can be done with greater awareness and yield quality information that you can incorporate in a successful branding strategy.

The other half of the book highlights strategies for thinking effectively – how could any book by De Bono NOT contain stuff on thinking? His parallel thinking strategy, materialized in the 6-hat method is outlined in one chapter, while others look at concepts and why to bother with them, generating alternatives, various levels and types of values and positioning, choice and first reaction to emotions and feelings.

How can skillful conversation strategies boost your online branding? It helps you to make quality contact with the people that matter: your customers, suppliers, employees and anyone else you consider key to your business. Quality interactions translate to better understanding of the needs of those to whom you wish to cater. This loops into better communication of your unique offering.

It’s accessible and easy-to-read, so why not check it out and let it “make over your mind”?


Reviewed by

Corné MacKenzie


Filed under: Book of the week, ,

The man who loved Books too much by Allison Hoover Bartlett



Allison Hoover Bartlett (Riverhead Books)

Library Call No. 002  BAR-M

(Visit the Library to read the book)

Between 1999 and 2003, John Gilkey used dozens of credit card numbers acquired from his department store job to steal more than $100,000 worth of rare books before being caught and sent to jail, partly through the effort of one bookseller named Ken Sanders. When Gilkey and Sanders’s story found its way to the journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett, she came to see it as “not only about a collection of crimes but also about people’s intimate and complex and sometimes dangerous relationship to books.”


Allison Hoover Bartlett’s Web Site

In “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much,” Bartlett uses these two men as a starting point for a series of vignettes in which the love of books turns to madness. Her examples range from the merely eccentric to the sociopathic, from the professor in Nebraska who was forced to sleep on a cot in his kitchen to make room for his 90 tons of books to the 19th-century Spanish monk who strangled one man and stabbed nine others in order to raid their libraries.

Bartlett’s sketches of bibliomania are breezily drawn and often fascinating. If they ultimately fail to cohere into something more, the fault rests at the book’s center, with Gilkey himself. It’s not that his actions aren’t interesting, but that they don’t mean any of the things Bartlett wants them to mean. Time and again she asks “what it was about books that made him continually risk jail time for them.” Yet when we learn that as a boy, Gilkey once emerged from Montgomery Ward with a pilfered catcher’s mitt that didn’t even fit his hand, the riddle is already solved. Gilkey’s earliest experiment with credit card fraud netted him “a watch, a pizza and a poster of the movie ‘Psycho.’ ” His first two trips to jail resulted from his writing bad checks to buy foreign cur­rency and pay off gambling debts. Throughout his interviews with Bartlett, he speaks of “free” air travel, hotel rooms and meals. In other words, Gilkey is not a biblio­maniac whose need for books eventually drives him to steal, but a kleptomaniac whose need to steal eventually drives him to books. As such, he is a difficult figure around which to build a work about “literary obsession.”

There is a related problem with the thief’s antagonist, Ken Sanders, the “rare-book dealer and self-styled sleuth” who helped to track him down. Bartlett seems nearly as puzzled by Sanders’s interest in the crimes as she is by the crimes themselves. But throughout the period of Gilkey’s spree, Sanders was the security chairman of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America; it was his task to protect members from theft and fraud. His performance in that job seems diligent but not especially crazed. Mainly, he sends out e-mail.

That the author recognizes the thematic limits of these men is evident by the attention she gives to her third leading character: herself. Bartlett’s attempts at New Journalistic self-implication aren’t always convincing, but they provide some riveting moments, as when Bartlett and Gilkey tour a bookstore he once victimized while the owner looks on in helpless rage. In this scene, we glimpse Gilkey’s true strangeness, which is only incidentally related to books.

Given the problem at the heart of “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much,” it is a testament to Bartlett’s skill that it reads as well as it does. “Every man must die,” explained that murderous Spanish monk, “but good books must be conserved.” His story and others Bartlett tells really are about “intimate and complex and sometimes dangerous” relationships to books. Gilkey’s story, on the other hand, is mostly about the crimes.

Christopher R. Beha is an editor at Harper’s Magazine and the author of “The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else.”


Reviewed by

Christopher R. Beha is an editor at Harper’s Magazine and the author of “The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else.”


Filed under: Book of the week, ,

A Brief History of the Future—The Origins of the Internet

A Brief History of the Future—The Origins of the Internet

by John Naughton

Phoenix, London

Call No. 004.678  NAU-T

Visit the Library to read the Book

This is a well-written book by a well-known Irish academic and journalist, which charts the growth of the Internet from a 1950s military project to the pervasive networking infrastructure that dominates the IT world today. It is relevant to the readership of this journal because it charts the growth of the technology that underpins the IP world—and it gives a sound understanding of the culture and approach that led to the development of the Internet as we know it.
Naughton takes the reader from the inception of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) through most of the major developments such as packet switching, mail, TCP/IP, and the Web, not only covering the technology, but also providing insights into the background of the Internet pioneers and the political environment.
The book is divided into three major sections, the first of which is largely concerned with scene setting and is aimed at bringing those less familiar with the subject area up to speed. In the first chapter, Naughton likens the evolution of the "Net" to that of amateur radio, moving on in succeeding chapters to cover basic technology and to provide some perception of scale and rate of growth.
The second part of the book covers the growth of the Internet up to the early 1990s. This starts by looking at the origins of the ARPA project, noting the influence of MIT and important figures such as Vannevar Bush, Norbert Weiner, and J.C.R Licklider. Naughton describes how ARPA was initiated and its relationship with NASA and academia, highlighting the desire to provide time-sharing systems and the breakthrough concept of the Interface Message Processor (IMP) as a solution to the "n-squared" problem. This is followed by two chapters that discuss the adoption of packet switching as the underlying technology, following its initial proposal by Paul Baran and further development by Donald Davies’ team in the UK.
Naughton next examines how e-mail became the first "killer application" that drove up Internet usage, even telling the reader where the use of the ubiquitous "@" symbol comes from. He then considers the maturing network during the 1970s, discussing the formulation of the first Request For Comments (RFCs), the development of the gateway concept, and the evolution of TCP/IP. The discussion leaves the network area, concentrating on the evolution of UNIX and its impact, stressing the role of AT&T’s regulatory situation. Then Naughton considers how this accelerated the development of USENET.
In a chapter called "The Great Unwashed," Naughton discusses the popularization of computing and networking, through the availability of the PC and the evolution of readily available file transfer tools such as X-Modem and the creation of bulletin board systems such as fidonet. He then considers the development of Open Source, telling the story of Linux and its derivation from MINIX.
The third section of the book deals with the emergence of the World Wide Web, tracing it back through the original ideas of Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson, to its ultimate development by Berners-Lee at CERN. He links this to the subsequent development of Mosaic at NCSA and shows the dramatic impact this had on Internet growth.
Naughton concludes his book by looking at the prognosis for the "Net." Here he refuses to try to predict the future; instead he analyzes the forces that will drive the future of the Internet and discusses their impact in the past and hence their potential impact. At the end of the book, he provides notes and references for each chapter, a short section on the sources he consulted, and a comprehensive glossary.
I found this book provided excellent insights into the development of the Internet, adding a lot of perspective to the engineering field I currently work in. Naughton places appropriate emphasis on the technical, personal, commercial, and political factors that have steered its evolution. He is not afraid to disturb the reader’s preconceptions by looking at things from unusual angles, and he emphasises the importance of timing. This is apparent when he points out that according to many sources, most of the important inventions around the Internet have come from graduate students, rather than the professors they work for. He similarly recounts the story that AT&T turned down the opportunity to run the "Net" in the early 1970s and reflects the view that if the Internet had not existed we could not invent it now.
This is an excellent read (it was nominated for the Aventis Prize in 2000), which helps the reader understand the How, When, Where, and Why of the Internet’s development. It covers most of the major milestones in the evolution of our discipline and is very well-written.
The Author
John Naughton is Professor of Public Understanding of Technology at the Open University, and he writes a weekly column in The Observer Business Section, covering important developments and trends in the IT industry. He describes himself as a "Control Engineer with a strong interest in systems analysis and computer networks" and is a Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge.


Reviewed by

Edward Smith, BT, UK


The Internet Protocol Journal – Volume 8, Number 2

Filed under: Book of the week, ,

TLS Books of the Year 2010

A selection of this year’s picks.


One of the events of the past year was the appearance in English of Poison, Shadow, and Farewell, the final volume of Javier Marías’s trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, again translated from Spanish by the amazing Margaret Jull Costa (Vintage). In a previous TLS Books of the Year, Margaret Drabble wrote, “We wait uneasily for volume three”. Both attentiveness and foreboding were, it turns out, superbly justified.

Susan Bernofsky continues her traversal of Robert Walser with translations from his hitherto undecipherable Microscripts (New Directions), written with a pencil in tiny characters on bits of scrap paper. As Walter Benjamin noted in a 1929 essay included in this volume, “Walser begins where the fairy tales stop. ‘And if they have not died, they live there still.’ Walser shows how they live”.

Ever since getting happily tripped up by The Waste Land, I tend to skip the end notes of a book of poetry. But those for Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation (Wave) aren’t easy to ignore. They refer, among other sources, to Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, H. L. Mencken, Schopenhauer, Bruce Springsteen, Gibbon, Flaubert’s Diary of a Madman, and, in one case, to Osama bin Laden and the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies. None of this would matter, of course, if the broad range of references weren’t matched by the vaulting agility of the author’s mind. This is an extraordinary collection – the poetry of the future, here, today.


Barry Hannah’s death at the start of the year passed with little notice in this country, where his work has long been unavailable. The short story was his best form, and Airships (Grove), an ear-perfect array of voices from the American South, was his best book, worth searching the internet for. Harry Mulisch died recently to slightly more notice: The Assault (Pantheon) remains one of the key novels about the Second World War. The death of Henriette Binger (b.1893) happened back in 1977. She was no writer but the mother to one, Roland Barthes, whose Mourning Diary (Hill and Wang) has just emerged into print. Precise and touching memories intersect with spare and at times desperate notes on time, death and grief, written despite “the fear of making literature out of it”. The play I most enjoyed reading this year was Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park (Nick Hern).


Exhibition catalogues can be a wonderful storehouse of good writing, clever ideas and stunning images. Yet we often overlook them, as if they were as ephemeral as the shows they commemorate. This year the catalogue produced to accompany the first of a series of five exhibitions planned for the Capitoline Museum in Rome, I giorni di Roma (The heyday of Rome), stands out. Entitled L’età della conquista (The age of conquest; Skirà) it includes excellent essays on Roman culture in the last two centuries bc, and marvellous photographs of the art of the period, familiar and unfamiliar (including some extraordinary terracotta sculpture, discovered in the 1950s in a villa in the Abruzzo, quite unknown to me).

Equally impressive is Chaos and Classicism, the catalogue of an exhibition at the Guggenheim, New York, focusing on ancient themes in the art of the 1920s and 30s. It brilliantly disposes of the common misconception that Modernism turned its back on Greece and Rome.


I very much enjoyed and admired Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes (Chatto), gripping and surprising. I also very much enjoyed Rowan Williams’s Dostoevsky: Language, faith and fiction (Continuum), both because he is an excellent literary critic, and because understanding Dostoevsky’s Christianity is essential to understanding the form of the novels. My choices in fiction are Neel Mukherjee’s sharp, disturbing and precisely written novel, A Life Apart (Constable and Robinson), about a twentieth-century Indian in England and a nineteenth-century Englishwoman in India, and Yiyun Li’s new stories, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (Fourth Estate). And I am reading and rereading Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain (Faber), in which every word is at once a surprise and exactly the right word.


I enjoyed two remarkable books on Ottoman lands this year. Eland, consistently Britain’s most interesting small independent publisher, has just published a long overdue translation of the work of the greatest world-traveller of his day, Evilya Chelebi. Chelebi was the widest-eyed, most intensely curious, inquisitive and prolific travel writer the Ottoman world ever produced, and The Ottoman Traveller records and preserves an entire world otherwise lost to history. A proper edition of his massive work has long been needed, and Robert Dankoff magnificently translates the highlights.

James Mather’s Pashas is the first full-length study since 1935 of the Levant Company, the organization which oversaw both England’s trade and diplomacy with the Ottoman world, and which supervised the remarkably successful relationship between the two worlds. It was the first non-Christian environment in which Englishmen ever established a major presence, and an important but largely forgotten precursor to the centuries of empire ahead. It is a fascinating subject, and Mather’s work is a major contribution, as well as a vital corrective to the wrong-headed readings of intellectual Islamophobia such as V. S. Naipaul, Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, all of whom have manufactured entirely negative images of one of the most varied of empires, and misrepresented Europe’s relationship to it.

I don’t share Christopher Hitchens’s politics, or his views on Islam, but I loved his funny and moving memoir, Hitch-22 (Atlantic), which had me laughing out loud at a rate of once every other page.


I have been living through the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, led by the ceramicist Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes (Chatto). This memoir takes us through the rise and fall of the once powerful Ephrussi banking family, from the Ukraine to Vienna to Paris to Tunbridge Wells, an extraordinary and touching journey with a backdrop glittering with images from Proust and Zola and Klimt. This is the history of two world wars told through the unlikely fate of a small collection of netsuke which astonishingly survived the Holocaust. This chronicle prompted the reading of Joseph Roth’s Radetsky March (translated by Michael Hofmann; Granta), which in turn led on to Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike; Picador), unfinished by him and as yet by me. These are remarkable works of fiction which portray from different angles the world the Ephrussis knew. A satisfying trilogy.


The great realist novelists from Stendhal to Proust knew that individual lives are shaped by historical forces, and that those forces show up in the texture of the intimately personal. This vision, which entered into crisis with the emergence of Modernism, migrated later in the twentieth century from the heartlands of literary Europe to the non-European and post-colonial worlds. The Israeli author David Grossman’s magnificent To the End of the Land (Cape) reinvents this high realist lineage from outside the West, which today seems the only place where it can flourish. In his astonishing protagonist Ora, he gives us a figure fit to tread in the footsteps of Brecht’s Mother Courage.


I read several works this year by the Argentine novelist César Aira who follows a curious writing procedure: what he composes one day cannot be changed the next. “La fuga hacia adelante” he calls it – the escape forward: the story must move ahead, never backward, forcing him to come up with ever-new ideas and plot twists. The results are apt to be mixed – hit-or-miss confections that rely heavily on chance occurrences and the author’s raw imagination. But the procedure has produced at least one masterpiece: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (New Directions), a short, unpredictable confection that manages to be both a roaring adventure story and a rumination on the chasm between reality and the reconstruction of reality in a work of art.


Saul Bellow, as one might have expected from his novels, was a wonderful letter writer. That his Letters (Penguin) do not quite come into the Van Gogh or Samuel Beckett category may only be due to the fact that so many of his early letters, especially to his childhood friend and fellow writer, Isaac Rosenfeld, have been lost, and the best letters are invariably those an artist writes before he has found fame and fortune. But he could not put pen to paper without a hilarious yet apt image appearing on the page: “Will I read your book?” he asks John Cheever. “Would I accept a free trip to Xanadu with Helen of Troy as my valet?”. “Havel and I chatted for about three minutes”, he writes of an official visit by the Czech President to New York, “and then were separated as if we were tomato seeds in the digestive tract.”

“If the twentieth century was the century of Proust, then the twenty-first may well turn out to be the century of Queneau”, declared the Director of the French Institute on the occasion of a conference in honour of the great translator of Raymond Queneau and Robert Pinget, Barbara Wright, who died in 2009. Ever keen to keep up with the zeitgeist, I decided to read all the Queneau novels I had not yet read, and very soon I was thinking: You know, she might just be right.


Henry Ford’s vast project of building a city in the Amazonian jungle to provide his car factories with a reliable supply of rubber was greeted as a heroic civilizing mission when it started and damned as catastrophic Western hubris when it failed. The saga remains an irresistible parable, both tragic and comic. I cannot stop thinking of Ford’s homesick managers staring glumly at the vultures overhead and dreaming of the pigeons back in Detroit. Greg Grandin’s wonderful Fordlandia (Icon) is alive to every nuance of the story but is sparing with the condescension of posterity, reminding us that Brazil’s own loggers and soy farmers are ploughing the same cruel furrows today.

Roberto Calasso upset some professional academics, not for the first time, with his Tiepolo Pink (Bodley Head). His bravura can look like an eccentric, even self-indulgent substitute for painstaking scholarship. Yet his iconographic riffs, here no less than in his celebrated essays on Kafka and classical mythology, pick up much that has gone unnoticed. In his own unique fashion, he takes us into unsuspected depths and brings us closer to understanding why Tiepolo is our last Old Master.


Among the books which have found a particular place in my mind, and heart, this year are several by dear colleagues at Princeton. These include The Honor Code: How moral revolutions happen (Norton) by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Appiah is a beautiful stylist, who ranges over an extraordinary array of topics in which the notion of “honour” may be relevant either to an individual or a society. He muses on the shift of support for Chinese foot-binding, less because of the infliction of pain on women but a sense of national pride and the breakdown of the Chinese elite. The demise of the duel also coincides with the abandonment of the idea of the “gentlemanly creed of equality-within-superiority”. The honour described as “quaint” by Andrew Marvell in “To His Coy Mistress” is of a slightly different stripe, referring to “chastity” or “purity”. Nigel Smith’s Andrew Marvell: The chameleon (Yale) is a brilliant account of the life of this slippery poetpolitician who so adroitly dealt with shifting political realities during and after the English Civil War. The Irish Civil War is the backdrop for Michael Wood’s truly exhilarating Yeats and Violence (Oxford) which has, at its core, a close reading of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” and its confrontation of the fact that “We, who seven years ago / Talked of honour and of truth, / Shriek with pleasure if we show / The weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth”. In “Songs for Senility” from his new collection, By the Numbers (Copper Canyon), James Richardson presents us with a rewriting of another Yeats poem, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul”. Like so many of Richardson’s poems it’s funny, fragile, fierce, fastidious, flighty, frank.


The novels that most impressed me this year were both brilliant re-imaginings of classic texts. Blake Morrison’s The Last Weekend (Chatto) is an updating of Othello, set in contemporary England, and told from the viewpoint of Iago, renamed Ian Goade. Ian’s long rivalry with his more successful friend Olly comes to a terrifying crisis on a country-house weekend. Philip Roth’s Nemesis (Cape) is an account of a polio epidemic in Newark in the summer of 1944, and a profound dialogue with Camus’s The Plague, which makes a cholera epidemic in Oran in the early 1940s an existential fable about the struggle for meaning in an absurd universe. A few reviewers picked up on the Othello parallels, but virtually all ignored Roth’s debt to Camus. It must be frustrating to pay literary homage to a great work when nobody notices you have done it.


Some of the best writing this year was in the theatre. Certain witty plays were standalone readable after (or instead of) the event, including D. C. Jackson’s My Romantic History (Faber), Nina Raine’s Tribes (Nick Hern) and my friend Liz Lochhead’s new version of Molière’s L’École des femmes, Educating Agnes (Nick Hern). Words into Action: Finding the life of the play (Nick Hern), by august theatre director William Gaskill, is a fastidiously lucid and frank set of essays packed with practical advice (“As I say to my actors ten times a day: ‘Anger is the easiest emotion to express. Find something else’”), useful observations (“Most plays can be done perfectly adequately without scenery, though not without costume or props”), and acute close readings of particular speeches (“He even says ‘From whose bourn no traveller returns’, which he of all people knows to be untrue”). There are particularly interesting thoughts here too on Chekhov, Brecht and Beckett.


Amy Sackville’s The Still Point (Portobello), a story of turn-of-the-century arctic pioneering and contemporary emotional frozen states, has an Eliotic calm that seems almost uncanny in a debut writer, and a narrative voice that’s subtle and original. Ciaran Carson’s originality in the novel form is often overlooked, presumably because he’s primarily known as a poet; The Pen Friend (Blackstaff), with its unlikely fusion of pens, perfumes and politics, is one of his most arresting fictional cocktails. I also loved Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies (Hamish Hamilton), three novels fused into one ignited tragicomic tour de force. Finally, who knew the weight of history and the foulness of the slave trade could be transformed into, of all things, a hot-air balloon ride? Like a liberating piece of jazz, and with astonishing, near-heroic buoyancy in its communal voice, Nii Ayikwei Parkes’s poetry sequence, Ballast: A remix (Tall-Lighthouse), literally does the impossible.


This has been a banner year. Graham Farmelo’s The Strangest Man (Faber), a biography of Paul Dirac, is masterly. Some of the most complex but decisive concepts in modern physics and mathematics are set out with lucidity and concise elegance. An almost miraculous period in the history of science is brought to life against its human and political background.

Penguin’s reissue of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, brilliantly translated by Michael Hofmann, makes available one of the great novels of the past century. An almost unbearably intense challenge to its readers.

The two-volume Texts of Early Greek Philosophy (Cambridge), edited and presented by Daniel W. Graham, are a monumental but accessible feat. Here, in a finely printed and bilingual version, are the hours of morning in Western thought. Once Parmenides equated thought and being, the long journey had begun. (But why banish Heidegger from the generous bibliographies?)


My history book of the year is Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects (Allen Lane). MacGregor takes as his emblem Dürer’s “Rhinoceros” – the picture is entirely convincing and yet hopelessly wrong, for Dürer had never seen a rhinoceros. MacGregor recognizes that historians of lost worlds can hope to do no better; but they can aspire to do as well. Like Dürer, MacGregor succeeds far beyond all reasonable expectations. I also loved Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Caravaggio (Allen Lane). The evidence for Caravaggio’s life is fragmentary – primarily a series of court cases involving sex and violence – but Graham-Dixon turns the very recalcitrance of the material into an enthralling read, and he makes the paintings speak with astonishing eloquence. Graham-Dixon is first-rate on Counter-Reformation spirituality, but, surprisingly, he doesn’t seem to have read enough about the history of sex – there’s no reference to Michael Rocke’s Forbidden Friendships or Tessa Storey’s Carnal Commerce. Was Caravaggio really a pious pimp, as Graham-Dixon suggests? Read the book, and decide for yourself.



Filed under: Book of the week,

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner by Stephenie Meyer

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner by Stephanie Meyer


Stephenie Meyer

(Visit the Library to Read the Book)


Philip Womack wants to put a stake through Stephenie Meyer’s new novella, The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner

Reviewed by By Philip Womack , The Telegraph

You might have thought there was no room for more in the bloated Twilight saga, which consists of four mega-tomes for teenagers relating the chaste love affair between a kindly vampire and a human girl. But there is. Stephenie Meyer has a story to tell and not even garlic will stop her. This mini-tome takes a minor character from the series, Bree Tanner, who (unfortunately for her) was vampirised. The novella follows her on the road to her death. Yes, she dies. Again. Didn’t guess that from the title, did you?

This lack of suspense might have been mitigated by good writing or character development. But Meyer doesn’t let such things get in the way of her befanged juggernaut. The plot concerns a vampire army. These vampires are bad. No, really bad! They listen to loud bass-heavy music. Sometimes they flip over cars, just for fun. They are being created by a girlishly voiced vampirette to attack the Cullens (the main family in the saga). Bree and the others are kept subjugated in a cellar; Bree falls in love with Diego, a slightly older pretty vampire (“but then,” muses Bree, “who wasn’t pretty?”), and tries to work out what’s going on.

Meyer’s favourite tricks are lists and repetition: “The sound of his landing was too low to catch the attention of the crying prostitute, the zoned-out prostitute, or the angry pimp.” Her conversations are limited, as most people are so tongue-tied they spend their time staring at each other across tables (causing Bree to think, usefully, “I had sat like this before – across a table from someone”).

Sometimes Meyer accidentally channels P G Wodehouse: “A couple of kids temporarily lost limbs”, or “the breeze turned helpfully gentle”. At others, Napoleon Dynamite crops up: “Vampires with skillzzz.” When the vampire army attacks a passenger ship, it’s Enid Blyton: “That was amazing – three cheers for Riley!” shouts one of them as they sit surrounded by bloodied and gutted corpses.

This is a strange, chaotic, even tedious book, which you cannot read if you don’t know the series, and if you do know it, won’t enlighten you one bit.



Filed under: Book of the week, ,

The Librarian of Basra is A True Story of Iraq



Jeanette Winter

As the subtitle states, The Librarian of Basra is A True Story of Iraq. With limited text and folkart-style illustrations, author and illustrator Jeanette Winter relates the dramatic true story of how one determined woman helped save the Basra Central Library’s books during the invasion of Iraq.

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story of Iraq

In April 2003, the invasion of Iraq reaches Basra, a port city. Alia Muhammad Baker, the chief librarian of Basra’s Central Library is worried the books will be destroyed. When she requests permission to move the books to a place where they will be safe, the governor denies her request. Frantic, Alia does want she can to save the books.

Every night Alia secretly takes home as many of the library’s books as she can fit in her car. When bombs hit the city, buildings are damaged and fires start. When everyone else abandons the library, Alia seeks help from friends and neighbors of the library to save the library’s books.

With the help of Anis Muhammad, who owns the restaurant next to the library, his brothers, and others, thousands of books are carried to the seven-foot wall that separates the library and the restaurant, passed over the wall and hidden in the restaurant. Although shortly thereafter, the library is destroyed by fire, 30,000 of the Basra Central Library’s books have been saved by the heroic efforts of the librarian of Basra and her helpers.

The Librarian of Basra: The Author and Illustrator

Jeanette Winter is the author and illustrator of a number of children’s picture books, including September Roses, a small picture book based on a true story that happened in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, Calavera Abecedario: A Day of the Dead Alphabet Book, My Name Is Georgia, a book about artist Georgia O’Keeffe, and Josefina, a picture book inspired by Mexican folk artist Josefina Aguilar. She has also illustrated children’s books for other writers, including Day of the Dead by Tony Johnston.

In response to the question, "What do you want children to remember about the librarian of Basra?", Jeanette Winter replied, "I would hope that children would take with them the belief that one person can truly make a difference. And that they would remember the bravery of one woman protecting what was important to her, especially when they feel powerless, as we all do sometimes." (Harcourt interview)

The Librarian of Basra: The Illustrations

The book’s design complements the text. Each page features a colorful boxed illustration with text underneath it. The pages that describe the approach of war are yellow-gold; with the invasion of Basra, the pages are a somber lavender. With safety for the books and dreams of peace, the pages are a bright blue. With colors reflecting the mood, Winter’s folk art illustrations reinforce the simple, yet dramatic, story.

The Librarian of Basra: My Recommendation

This true story illustrates both the impact one person can have and the impact a group of people can have when working together under a strong leader, like the librarian of Basra, for a common cause. The Librarian of Basra also calls attention to how valuable libraries and their books can be to individuals and communities. I recommend The Librarian of Basra: A True Story of Iraq for children 8-12.


Courtesy: Elizabeth Kennedy, Guide

Filed under: Book of the week,


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