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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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