Summer books, featuring John Gray, Julie Myerson, Mark Thompson & othersby prospect / July 23, 2009 / Leave a comment
FICTION recommended by Julie Myerson
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (Virago, £16.99)
The novel that has given me the most pleasure so far this year is, without question, Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger. Set in a huge, decaying country house just after the second world war, it appears to unfold as a ghost story but, like the very best tales of hauntings, its most chilling aspects are the human ones. Money, class, emotional and sexual repression—and people’s uneasy relationships with buildings and their histories—are its real themes, and Waters handles them with a restraint that feels alternately thrilling and sinister. But what I admire most is that, without resorting to annoying tricks, she makes the entire novel change shape and texture so convincingly as it progresses that you, the reader, start to question your own responses. As its grim conclusion began to dawn on me—at exactly the right moment—I felt entertained and terrified, but also somehow altered by what I’d read.
Julie Myerson’s most recent book is “The Lost Child” (Bloomsbury)
FINANCE recommended by Jonathan Ford
Lords of Finance: 1929, The Great Depression—and the Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed (Heinemann, £20)
A financial bubble has given way to a publishing one—a bubble of crisis books. Many are of limited value, written by authors no more blessed with foresight than bankers. The difficulty of seeing over the financial hill is the subject of Liaquat Ahamed’s Lords of Finance, a magisterial history of an earlier crisis. The lords in question were the central bankers of Britain, the US, France and Germany who wrestled with the problems thrown up by the realignment of finance after the first world war. Ahamed’s book is a beautifully written and melancholy account of how well-intentioned men failed to deal with the global imbalances that followed from the transfer of most of the world’s gold to the US in the war. “We have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the workings of which we do not understand,” wrote John Maynard Keynes in 1930. We like to think we know better now, but do we?
Jonathan Ford is commentary editor at Reuters
PHILOSOPHY recommended by John Gray
The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands (Granta, £8.99)
If you think that philosophy is the art of finding clever reasons for deeply conventional beliefs—and most of the philosophy books published these days would support this view—Mark Rowlands’s book will come as a delightful surprise. Recounting 11 years he lived with a wolf he bought as a cub, seemingly almost on impulse, for $500, The Philosopher and the Wolf is a profound and searching meditation in which he questions the inherent superiority of humans, rejects the “regressive and futile” attempt to find happiness by searching for an eventual state of fulfilment, and shows us how we might confront the approach of death with dignity and grace. A professional philosopher, based in recent years mainly in America, Rowlands writes with rare rigour and elegance. Held together by an exciting and often extremely moving narrative, this is one of the most thought-stirring and life-affirming books of philosophy that I know. John Gray’s most recent book is “Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings” (Allen Lane)
RELIGION recommended by Mark Thompson
Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction by Rowan Williams (Continuum, £16.99)
The God/anti-God debate is still a formidable book-generating engine. British Airways’ 23kg baggage allowance meant tough choices even before the latest heavyweights, Terry Eagleton (Reason, Faith and Revolution) and John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge (God is Back), entered the lists.
For the light packer (if not the light reader) a good alternative is a single slim book written by an archbishop about a novelist who died more than half a century before Richard Dawkins was born. Rowan Williams’s study of Dostoevsky may be an elliptical contribution to the debate. It is also the most penetrating and unsettling.
Williams reminds us that in Dostoevsky’s novels, believers and non-believers alike pass through the “crucible of doubt.” The saintly Father Zosima begins to rot the moment he dies, while the atheist Ivan Karamazov finds himself making his case?that true human love can only begin when religion dies?to the Devil of all people (“very charming” is the Devil’s verdict). Language and narrative are battlegrounds out of which no one can step, least of all the “rationalists.” No one’s character or beliefs are finally knowable or resolvable.
Unlike most other recent books on the clash between faith and modernity, Williams offers no pat answers.? But, like the sly Russian master himself, his questions are impossible to shake out of one’s head.
Mark Thompson is the director-general of the BBC
HISTORY recommended by Dominic Sandbrook
The Scourging Angel: The Black Death in the British Isles by Benedict Gummer (Bodley Head, £25)
From tabloid headlines charting the inexorable spread of swine flu to gloomy dystopian fables such as the BBC series, Survivors, global pandemics are much in the news these days. We always tell ourselves that it could never really happen, but one of the delights of Benedict Gummer’s compelling The Scourging Angel: The Black Death in the British Isles is that it reminds us that in the 14th century, it did. Gummer makes no pretence of having found new material or a particularly novel angle. What he does, though, is retell the story with extraordinary colour and clarity, using the medieval plague as the frame for a vast panorama that encompasses self-flagellating monks, Perpendicular churches, bloody battles and grime-encrusted peasants. All this, and he even makes the feudal system marginally interesting. It’s a terrific debut, brimming with life and detail. Read it, and then check your armpits for swellings, just to be sure…
Dominic Sandbrook is a historian
REPORTAGE recommended by Janine di Giovanni
The Weight of a Mustard Seed by Wendell Steavenson (Atlantic, £14.99)
Wendell Steavenson’s book is about Saddam’s Iraq, and what happens to people— their moral sense, their personal loyalties—as they are forced into complicity with a terrorist regime. It follows the story of the Iraqi war hero, General Kamel Sachet, through the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, the invasion of Kuwait and the bitter years of sanctions that followed. Steavenson has performed the difficult task of tracking down Sachet’s lost army colleagues, friends and family—and persuading them to speak. Through the general’s pride and obedience, we witness the subjugation of a whole class of Iraqi professionals. And there is also the meaning of Sachet’s growing religious extremism, in which Steavenson perceives an attempted atonement for his participation in the darkest decades of his nation’s history. A portrait of the Ba’athist milieu, told from the Sunni point of view, and with a fine eye for tragic psychological detail, this book stands out from the dozens published since the Iraq invasion.
Janine di Giovanni is author of “The Place at the End of the World” (Bloomsbury)
FICTION IN TRANSLATION recommended by Ian Irvine
2666 by Roberto Bolaño (Picador, £20)
The collected fiction of Jorge Luis Borges in its entirety runs to only 500 or so pages, while Roberto Bolaño’s last novel alone weighs in at over 900, but anyone who enjoys the Argentine miniaturist’s dazzling invention and irony will feel at home with this Chilean’s 2666, a War and Peace for our sceptical age. Its recent appearance in English was hailed as the first literary masterpiece of the 21st century, but don’t let that put you off—it’s gripping and filled with pitch-black humour. The five separate but related sections deal with, among much else, lurid serial murders in Mexico (a tour-de-force vision of hell) and the variously compromised lives of critics, novelists, journalists and philosophers. Bolaño is an ancient mariner of a novelist, exhaustive and exhausting, but his book makes a compelling case for both the importance and morally equivocal danger of literature.
Ian Irvine is an associate editor of Prospect
Science 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brooks (Profile, £12.99). “Crunchy essays on topics ranging from the mysteries of dark matter to the illusion of free will.” Paul Broks
True crime The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island by Chloe Hooper (Jonathan Cape, £16.99). “A terrific dissection of power and prejudice.” Monica Ali
Fiction Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín (Viking; £17.99). “Absolutely outstanding.” William Skidelsky
Evolution Darwin’s Island by Steve Jones (Little Brown, £20). “The most enjoyable of this year’s Darwin books.” Philip Ball
History 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII? by Suzannah Lipscomb? (Lion Hudson, £14.99). “Lucid and evocative.” Tom Chatfield
Politics The End of Certainty by Stephen Chan (Zed Books, £17.99). “Graze on Chan’s truffle-rich rethink of international relations in which “international” actually includes the whole world.” David Goldblatt