March 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

Love SongsLOVE SONGS: The Hidden History by Ted Gioia (OUP, 316pp; £17.99)

To moon, spoon, June, add a swooning tune and what have you got? Not a lot; or not enough, anyhow. Love, like the songs devoted to it, is never simple. There are millennia of social history behind what birds do, bees do, even Beatles, Stones and Talking Heads do: sing of love, that is. In a richly researched and heartfelt song book of the ages, Gioia takes us from the sweet tweet of birdsong, through the high romance of troubadours, the ale and Aran-sweatered inspiration of folk singers, the low whiskey tones of crooners, the slow smoulder of torch song gals, the bubblegum pop of bobbysoxers, the bump and grind of rock ‘n’ roll, to the hippy-dippiness of Woodstock and beyond – to punk, grunge and the achey-breakey heartache of C&W. Gioia boldly and brilliantly enters the space between the noises of ancient fertility rites and the sexualised music videos of YouTube to discover how melody and love songs, like hearts full of passion, jealousy and hate, are never out of date.


LenaTHE DIARY OF LENA MUKHINA: A Girl’s Life in the Siege of Leningrad (Macmillan, 392pp; £16.99)

From 29th September 1941, the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis lasted for 872 days and nights, during which some 800,000 citizens died from disease, hunger, air raids and cold. With candour and courage sixteen year-old Lena Mukhina’s diary records the dreadful days. She admits that the citizens have to be selfish to survive, and that she too has become heartless. Food is the great preoccupation. Casting a pitiless adolescent eye on Aka, a nanny or grandmother, sick and weak, Lena calculates that the old woman’s bread ration would help keep herself and her mother alive. But somehow, the city salvages some humour, humanity and resourcefulness from destitution and despair: school continues, there is a fir tree at a New Year party, cinemas show films, there are theatre performances, and news of Russian victories filters through on the radio. Lena’s diary, sustained by emotional stamina and driven by daily drama, ruthlessly describes one of the worst civilian horrors of modern wartime.


PortasSHOP GIRL: A Memoir by Mary Portas (Doubleday, 276pp; £16.99)

Before she became TV’s ‘Queen of Shops’ and a campaigner for the revival of British High Streets, Mary Portas was already a media darling. As the creative director of Harvey Nichols, she brought the high energy of street cred to the store’s fashion policy and inventive window displays. Now she tells where she got her cool: in the 1970s, in Watford, in a sprawling Irish Catholic family, headed by her pigeon-fancying Dad but ruled by Theresa, her beloved mother, who talked in interesting idioms and served up Vesta curries with mashed potatoes and Angel Delight. Family life, almost a blueprint for a 1970s TV sitcom, is devastated by Theresa’s early death from meningitis. Dazed and confused at college, Mary’s teenage resistance to a career in retail is subverted by the camp glitz of the New Romantics and her first days working with new fashion styles at Harrods. Her story begins in this first memoir; by the end, she is a fashion princess-in-waiting for her media crown.




February 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

WellnessTHE WELLNESS SYNDROME by Carl Cederström and Andre Spicer (Polity, 164pp; £14.99)

Do you resist tobacco/alcohol/drugs? Do you monitor your heart/pulse/calories? Do you jog/run/cycle? Do you balance work/rest/play? If the answers are yes, you are living well and may even have achieved the gold star zone of “ideal performance state.” But are you happy? In 2005, David Cameron recruited the ideology of the wellness guru Martin Seligman to help him to measure wellbeing in Britain and float the bubble idea of happiness as deriving from self-help rather than welfare dependency. By striving strenuously for self-improvement, we should feel good, become good and do good. In a sceptical investigation of wellness as a virtuous circle, Cederström and Spicer show how it has been taken over by the consumer economy and they rebrand it as oppressive. In 1984, the oppressed victims of Big Brother were coerced into social uniformity. Thirty years later, Big Brother is an evangelical life coach who preaches moral self-mastery. Ideological wellness tricks us into oppressing ourselves.


explainTO EXPLAIN THE WORLD: The Discovery of Modern Science by Steven Weinberg (Allen Lane, 416pp; £20)

When he wants to learn something new, says Weinberg, he teaches a college course about it. In this masterful, entertainingly “irreverent” book, he explains the rise of science (mostly physics and astronomy) from ancient Greeks to modern geeks in terms that his students and the rest of us as scientific amateurs will understand. Weinstein chooses the word “discovery” instead of “invention” to emphasise the discipline of modern science as a technique that was waiting to be discovered. He comes less to hype the heroic natural philosophers of history such as Aristotle, Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, than to show how far they were from our present conception of science. In turn, Weinberg as a modern scientist is prompted to wonder how much still remains to be discovered, in how many realities yet unknown, and at what point the inadequacy of human intellectual and economic resources will stall further progress.


darkGIRL IN THE DARK by Anna Lyndsey (Bloomsbury, 244pp; £16.99)

Anna Lyndsey (a nom-de-plume) suffers from a severely disabling form of photosensitive seborrhoeic dermatitis; a reaction to light, natural or artificial, that causes agonising pain in her skin. She lives for months at a time in a darkened room by day and is able to go out only at night. Sound familiar? A coffin worked as a blackout zone for Dracula, says Anna, but in her case there would be breathing problems and her husband couldn’t get it in the car. With black humour, she describes her strategies for living as full a life as possible without becoming an emotional basket case. There’s Radio Four (allowing for radio rage), audio books (SAS thrillers, preferably, but no James Patterson or Miss Read), knitting (badly), marriage and making love (but at risk of physical injury). In the dying of the light, there is rage but also laughter, love and the hope of progress in small, shining victories.


February 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

LeavingLEAVING BEFORE THE RAIN COMES by Alexandra Fuller (Harvill Secker, 258pp; £18.99)

When young Alexandra Fuller met American polo player and white water rafter Charlie Ross in Zambia, she thought he was a free-spirited adventurer, a cross between Captain Scott and Laurie Lee, until they were married and living in Wisconsin where she discovered he had the mind of an estate agent. She writes with joyful gusto of her disordered southern African childhood with loving, emotionally spendthrift parents who kept a revolver and an Uzi at the dinner table with the undercooked chicken and green beans and gave her ‘The Sloane Ranger Handbook’ “in lieu of responsible parenting.” By contrast, life in the American west with emotionally buttoned-up Charlie drove her to nervous breakdown. Western attitude and ambition, she learned, could not save them, and they were not immune from capricious tragedy. Alexandra Fuller’s style of casual, throwaway humour in bad times as well as good is deceptive. In reality, she says, she writes out of anger. It fires this bold, brave memoir of her emancipation from the past and her freedom in the balance of the now.

FactsWHEN THE FACTS CHANGE: Essays 1995 – 2010 by Tony Judt, edited by Jennifer Homans (William Heinemann, 386pp; £25)

Tony Judt took his intellectual and ethical stand with Orwell, Camus, Keynes, Marx – and the Marx Brothers “who appeared in ritual screenings” says his wife, historian Jennifer Homans. In her selection of Judt’s writings from the years of their marriage she frames the themes of his ambitious project of a book that would deal, among other morally challenging topics, with anti-semitism, “the problem of evil” in post-war Europe, and the relationship between Israel and Palestine. Her moving introduction evokes Judt the man she loved before she moves forwards into Judt’s ideas, “good ideas because they were written in good faith.” His faith was tested by events: the revolutions of 1989, the losses of 9/11, the crises of the Middle East, and “the self-defeating decline of the American republic.” As the facts changed, so Judt spoke all the more boldly to contrast what has become of the world with what he had hoped for it.


ReadingREADING THE WORLD: Confessions of a Literary Explorer by Ann Morgan (Harvill Secker, 326pp; £16.99)

As an undergraduate, feeling overwhelmed by the Britishness of her research at Cambridge University Library, Ann Morgan resolved to cope with the embarrassment of her literary xenophobia by reading one book from each of the 196 countries (plus one territory) of the world over a year; rather more than one book every two days. On the face of it, this endeavour might render such an ambitious reader as widely rather than well read. She is certainly now more broadly informed, to judge by what her reading has taught her about global publishing, politics, cultural identity, nationality, oral storytelling, censorship, free speech in cyberspace, translation, literacy and, as a preliminary, cartography when deciding how and where to begin her literary odyssey. The international literary landscape, rather than the books themselves, is Ann Morgan’s concern, and her rather rarefied ruminations seem mostly directed to establishing her credentials as a woman of world letters.


BrownsvilleSLOW ROAD TO BROWNSVILLE: A Journey through the Heart of the Old West by David Reynolds (Greystone, 382pp; £10.99)

David Reynolds is your satnav to 2,271 straight miles of Highway 83, from Swan River in Manitoba to Brownsville in Texas. His tenuous inspirations for travelling include an unreliable Canadian grandfather, a taste for Westerns and road movies, an interest in ancestral Native Americans, and a 96 year-old laconic piece of hickory called Stuart who points out the road to Reynolds who rides off, a lone English ranger, into a historical North American hinterland that exists as much in mythical reference as in modern reality. Take Dodge City, for instance, where, for a ten dollar fee, they will put on a gunfight at six and a variety show with Miss Kitty and her cancan girls at eight. Ride shotgun with Reynolds in his Prius as he pit-stops at diners and gas stations, and detours by way of legendary landmarks, where he reflexively enjoys cracker barrel wisdom, saloon bar wit, and good-ol’ country wackiness.


February 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

WagstaffWAGSTAFF: Before and After Mapplethorpe; A Biography by Philip Gefter (Norton, 458pp; £22)

Gefter’s very first sentence makes the point that Sam Wagstaff’s celebrity in the 1970s as the lover and patron of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe has obscured his distinction as a curator, critic and collector of fine art in the latter half of the 20th century and his seminal influence in the promotion of photography as an important art form. It didn’t hurt his professional career or his media image that he was born into wealth, Ivy League-educated, resembled the actor Sam Shephard, and rode the avant-garde rail with Andy Warhol and other artists that he promoted beyond metropolitan New York to regional Detroit and into mainstream culture. Wagstaff’s radical artistic taste evolved in step with his evolution as a gay man in the years before and during the AIDS epidemic. Both strands are bound together in this striking, sexy, necessary biography of a charismatic man in the best and worst of times.


BoundlessBOUNDLESS: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage by Kathleen Winter (Jonathan Cape, 264pp; £16.99)

The North, once a magnet for explorers, is now a rich resource for exploiters. Kathleen Winter’s lively, interactive account of a trip made by a mixed bag of climate scientists and other quizzical passengers along the newly negotiable Northwest Passage pays homage to the native culture of Greenland, the human pathos of small mementoes of failed polar expeditions, and the larger, legendary Arctic landscape in meltdown. The traditional, familiar skills needed to sustain life for indigenous humans and native animals have to change. The Inuit communities are adapting to a global economy and digital technology, while polar bears are mating with grizzlies to breed a new hybrid species. In the freezing air, competition crackles like splintering ice between nations to exploit the resources of the Arctic, to turn a wilderness into a wasteland. In “the North’s deep mystery”, says Winter, there are “no straight lines, no corners, no easy, linear logic.”


Celtic MythsTHE CELTIC MYTHS: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends by Miranda Aldhouse-Green (Thames and Hudson, 208pp; £12.95)

First define your Celt: in this magical miscellany of myths, their supernatural themes, literary origins and archaeological associations, they are mostly Irish and Welsh. Though the gods and their Celtic believers are now deep-buried in bogs with their spears, runes and magic cauldrons, they survive in their power to trouble the living. A heavy modern fibreglass and steel statue of Manannan Mac Lir, god of the sea, was recently hacked off its plinth in County Derry and removed by, it is suggested, extremist Christians offended by Celtic idolatry. As a “well-known, six-foot-tall striking local male with an athletic build,” the god is still being sought by the Irish police. The heroic exploits of the warrior Cú Chulainn, the tragic betrayal of Lleu Llaw Gyffes by Bloduewedd, the iconic talking head of Brân, the dangerous Tuatha Dé Danaan and the fierce Fomorians: this is the stuff of a spellbound land and literature.



February 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

love & liesLOVE AND LIES: And Why You Can’t Have One without the Other by Clancy Martin (Harvill Secker, £12.99)

The Lite-Brite, a pretty, perforated screen through which a light bulb shone as a comfort to children in bed, is associated in Clancy Martin’s mind with a deception by his mother when he was three years old and still evokes memories of agonising separation anxiety. But his experience of borderline childhood psychosis derived from a deep love for his mother. Love, though – the L word – what does it mean? To say “I love you” is not only a momentous stage in a relationship, it is a moment of high risk. At the age of forty six, with a back story of lying for a living as a youthful jewellery salesman, Clancy Martin attempts to make sense of his own life in terms of how and whom he has loved. Through an exercise in frank self-analysis, he comes to some intriguing truths about the values of lying in love and love in lying.


HatshepsutTHE WOMAN WHO WOULD BE KING: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney (Oneworld, 298pp; £20)

Three queens have survived in ancient Egyptian legend and history: Cleopatra VII as a seductress, Nefertiti as a beauty, and Hatshepsut as a bearded lady. That may raise a laugh now, but in a system of patriarchal royal succession it was no joke. In an overtly feminist biography, Cooney pays tribute to an androgynous, cross-dressing female Pharaoh, whose “greatest accomplishment and most daring innovation was her methodical and calculated creation of the only truly successful female kingship in the ancient world.” As a smart political strategist and royal role model, Hatshepsut ranks with Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great. During her reign of twenty-two years, she did everything right; the irony being that she left a rich, peaceful legacy to male kings who deliberately effaced her from the historical record. With rigorous scholarship and a lively sense of sisterhood, Cooney retrieves Hatshepsut in her own times and liberates her as a woman for ours.


Greatest KnightTHE GREATEST KNIGHT: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power behind Five English Thrones by Thomas Asbridge (Simon & Schuster, 444pp; £20)

At the age of five, young William Marshall was condemned to execution by King Stephen of England and led to the gallows. With this breathtaking scene, Asbridge launches into a historical action adventure story to rival any game of thrones. As a landless younger son and a literal hostage to the power politics of the age, fighting his corner through the harsh realities of medieval English and French war and politics, Marshall is an epitome of the mettlesome medieval warrior knight, a courageous, opportunistic man of contemporary virtues and vices. In Asbridge’s masterly dramatic chronicle, he looms through the fog of the thirteenth century almost as a chivalrous knight of Arthurian legend. In his time, Marshall served kings from Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine and his sons William and Richard, then John, and finally, as regent of England, young Henry III. Asbridge gives him a mighty, heroic memorial.


January 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

BletchleyTHE BLETCHLEY GIRLS: War, Secrecy, Love and Loss by Tessa Dunlop (Hodder & Stoughton, 342pp; £20)

Bletchley Park has become mythologised in the history of the wartime home front as virtually a sacred grove, with its genius, Alan Turing, as the high priest of the Enigma Machine and its cause (breaking enemy codes) served by dedicated handmaidens. From 1941, of the 8,000 employed at Bletchley, 75% were women. Fifteen of these civilian personnel at Bletchley, now in their nineties, have been interviewed by Tessa Dunlop who covers a broad range of activity from Oxbridge graduates who crunched numbers to ATS girls who cooked and cleaned. For all the nostalgic perception that life at Bletchley was much like a gritty spy novel by John Le Carré rewritten as a giddy romance by Nancy Mitford, elite veterans such as Lady Jean, Pam, Rozanne, Muriel, Doris, Georgette, Joanna, Kathleen, Charlotte and Ann are candid about the hardships and heartaches of their secret wartime work and its knock-on effects in their peacetime lives.


PryorBECOMING RICHARD PRYOR by Scott Saul (Harper, 592pp; £18.99)

To become the kingpin black box office Hollywood star who was paid $4m in 1983 to play a comic role in Superman III, Richard Pryor first had to work his way from a bruising upbringing in his grandmother’s Peoria, Illinois brothel and childhood abuse by his father, through a stretch in the army, apprentice stand-up days in the underground culture of Greenwich Village, the inspiration he took from the black freedom movement, and at last to high-ranking status in the ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1970s where the comic genius of the persona known as Richard Pryor was sanitised and  packaged for the world. Scott Saul concentrates on Pryor’s early years, the edgy ‘becoming’ stages of his life before the legend was set in polished stone. Saul’s excitement about the creative development of Pryor’s career in step with the critical American social issues of his lifetime fuel-injects this hot-rod biography.


Rabbit HoleREACHING DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE: Extraordinary Journeys into the Human Brain by Allan Roper and B. D. Burrell (Atlantic, 264pp; £17.99)

Dr. Roper is looking at a young woman in a hospital bed hugging a large pink teddy bear. He doesn’t think “cute, an Instagram moment”; his snap diagnosis is “conversion disorder, pain, dysfunctional family situation, possible childhood sexual abuse.” Pink Teddy is the red alert, an instinctive trigger in the mind of neurologist Allan Roper. His notes of encounters over the years with colleagues and patients at Brigham Hospital in Boston have been sparked into lively life by writer Brian Burrell as stories through which we can listen to the brain itself. There’s an element of playfulness in the short bite case studies of madness interpreted not only through hard medical knowledge but through soft intuitive reasoning. Memorably, one sure way to test for hysterical blindness is to wave a hundred dollar bill in front of the patient’s eyes. They will flicker. It gets the attention that a dollar bill doesn’t.


January 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

Atwood WritersON WRITERS AND WRITING by Margaret Atwood (Virago, 198pp; £9.99)

Margaret Atwood’s familiar dry, bemused, laconic tone pervades this extended version of the Empson Lectures she gave at Cambridge University for the year 2000. First published in 2002 as ‘Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing’, this paperback edition is less a handbook about how to write than a guide to what a writer of fiction and poetry may be or become. For starters, she could be a teenage girl in 1950s Canada “without a soul in sight who shared my view of what I should, could or ought to be doing.” How Margaret Atwood got from then to now, is her subject. A writer is a role-player, both to her readers and herself, she says; a duplicitous doppelganger, a self-dedicated priestess of the imagination, a literary go-between, a collector of stories from the underworld. In this book that asks more questions than answers them, she wears the literary motley like a seasoned trouper.


AlcatrazINSIDE ALCATRAZ: My Time on the Rock by Jim Quillen (Century, 376pp; £12.99)

In 1942, on the run from San Quentin where he’d been banged up for armed robbery, twenty-two year old Jim Quillen was picked up and sent to Alcatraz, the iconic prison in San Francisco Bay where he served ten years. He was there in early May 1946 during the bloody two-day stand-off between inmates and guards known as ‘The Battle of Alcatraz’, a riot sparked by an attempted breakout, fuelled by anger and frustration at harsh conditions and unforgiving treatment. His rugged story tells of hard times in a penitentiary system officially designed to keep society safe from criminals, but in practice a tool to “degrade, deprive, humiliate and break inmates: spiritually, mentally and physically.” In Alcatraz, Quillan “learned that law and authority do not always work hand in hand with righteous justice.” This memoir was published in 1991, seven years before he died in 1998, a free and fully rehabilitated citizen.


MetallicaINTO THE BLACK: The Inside Story of Metallica 1991-2014 by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood (Faber, 290pp; £16.99)

The noise that Metallica made may never die, but the old rockers themselves – James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo – are fading away. That’s the impression given in this second volume of Metallica biography by Brannigan and Winwood who perceive the San Francisco metal band, if only on the evidence of their fans’ nostalgia, as melted down now into a brand. From the innovative ‘Black’ album in 1991 through the revivalist ‘Load/Reload’ albums and finishing with the controversial ‘St. Anger’ and the Lulu’ set with Lou Reed, they seem to think that their, and the band’s, work is done. If so, this authentic narrative of late Metallica will survive as markedly as their music, because few testimonies to the psychopathy of rock bands have been as witty, literate and loving as this. Read it and roll to the toll of the bell that rings for one of the greatest, heaviest rock bands.


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