Monday, October 31, 2016

2012 / Books of the year

Photo by Ralph Gibson


Books of the year

From Zadie Smith's new novel to Robert Macfarlane's journeys on foot and memoirs by Edna O'Brien and Salman Rushdie… 
Which books have most impressed our writers this year? 

The Observer
25 November 2012

John Banville

The Old Ways

Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot(Hamish Hamilton £20) is a wonderful book – literally, a book full of wonders – in which he takes to the world's pathways, from chalk downs and an estuarial mirror-world in England, to Palestine, Spain, the Himalayas. He has a poet's eye, and a prose style that will make many a novelist burn with envy. In a barbarous time, Macfarlane reminds us of what it is to be civilised.
La Folie Baudelaire (Allen Lane £35) by Roberto Calasso is an extraordinarily ingenious and learned study of Baudelaire and Baudelaire's Paris, "capital of the 19th century", and of the invention of modernism in literature and, especially, in painting. Only a mind as various as Calasso's would think to compare Manet's Olympia with a photograph by Weegee. One had thought they didn't write books like this any more, but Calasso does.

Ali Smith

The Panopticon

The great Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector once wrote that she wanted her writing to be like a punch in the stomach to her readers, "for life is a punch in the stomach". This year the life in Jenni Fagan's debut novel, The Panopticon (Heinemann £12.99), knocked the breath out of me, Peter Hobbs's In the Orchard, the Swallows (Faber £10.99) picked me up and dusted me down, and a reread of Brigid Brophy's 1967 novel The King of a Rainy Country (Coelacanth £10) boosted me better than any Omega 3.

Wendy Cope

Hope: A Tragedy

My discovery of the year was the American novelist Shalom Auslander, who is brave, outrageous and very funny. I recommend his 2009 memoir Foreskin's Lament, as well as his 2012 novel, Hope: A Tragedy (both Picador £7.99).
Three of my favourite crime writers brought out excellent new books this year: A Room Full of Bones (Quercus £7.99) by Elly Griffiths, Kind of Cruel (Hodder £7.99) by Sophie Hannah and Broken Harbour (Hodder £12.99) by Tana French. And I enjoyed Glyn Maxwell's On Poetry (Oberon Masters £12.99) – occasionally mad but very interesting.

2010 / Books of the year


Books of the year

Jonathan Franzen's family epic, a new collection from Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin's love letters, a memoir centred on tiny Japanese sculptures ... which books most excited our writers this year?

Saturday 27 November 2010 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
In Red Dust Road (Picador) Jackie Kay writes lucidly and honestly about being the adopted black daughter of white parents, about searching for her white birth mother and Nigerian birth father, and about the many layers of identity. She has a rare ability to portray sentiment with absolutely no sentimentality. Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns (Random House) is a fresh and wonderful history of African-American migration. Chang-rae Lee's The Surrendered (Little, Brown) is a grave, beautiful novel about people who experienced the Korean war and the war's legacy. And David Remnick's The Bridge (Picador) is a thorough and well-written biography of Barack Obama. The many Americans who believe invented biographical details about Obama would do well to read it.

John Banville
William James, brother of the – in some quarters – more famous Henry, was that rarest of beings, a philosopher who wrote clear, elegant and exciting prose. In The Heart of William James (Harvard University Press), James's biographer Robert Richardson has put together a dazzling selection of this great thinker's work, with perfectly judged short pieces to usher in each of the selections.
Tony Judt, too, had a wonderful prose style, and his little book The Memory Chalet (William Heinemann), a collection of autobiographical essays, is beautiful and moving. Although Judt, who suffered from motor neurone disease, died earlier this year, this late work is more sustaining than sad.
Death stalks the pages of Seamus Heaney's collection Human Chain (Faber), but as we would expect from this most affirmative and celebratory of poets, the book in the end is really a meditation on life in all its fleeting sweetness.

Julian Barnes
Unfit for life, unsure of love, unschooled in sex, but good at washing up: Philip Larkin, in Letters to Monica (Faber), lays out his all-too-self-aware catalogue of reasons for being uncheerful. The reader is made slightly cheerful by the thought of not having had Larkin's life, but very cheerful that poems of such truth, wit and beauty emerged from it.
If Larkin represents native genius in its costive English form, Stephen Sondheim represents the fecund American version: Finishing the Hat (Virgin Books) is not just a book of lyrics (with cut and variant versions) but an exuberance of memories, principles, anecdotes, criticism and self-criticism.
Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes (Chatto & Windus) unexpectedly combines a micro craft-form with macro history to great effect.
Mary Beard
The most moving book of the year for me was Tony Judt's Ill Fares the Land (Allen Lane) – a powerful "living will" written as Judt succumbed to the complete paralysis of motor neurone disease. It is a marvellous denunciation of modern politics ("Something is profoundly wrong with how we live today"), written with all the grace and intensity that only the dying can muster.
On a cheerier note, I have only just caught up with Reaktion's series of books on animals. Robert Irwin's quizzical investigation of the Camel (one hump and two) and Deirdre Jackson's elegant exploration of the frankly rather dull life of the Lion will appeal even to those who would never normally pick up a book on the natural world.

William Boyd
Stephen Sondheim, who has just turned 80, is the unrivalled genius in the world of musical theatre with five or six masterworks that have redefined the form. A superb, generous melodist and a lyricist up there with Cole Porter and Noël Coward, Sondheim has now given us Finishing the Hat. His detailed commentary on his wonderful songs is honest, shrewd and fascinating. The ideal fix for Sondheim addicts.
Poetry addicts, meanwhile, should swiftly acquire Oliver Reynolds's latest collection, Hodge (Areté Books) – poems of beautiful precision that reveal their secrets slowly. And Samko Tále's Cemetery Book (Garnett Press) by the Slovak writer Daniela Kapitánová offers us, in a superb translation by Julia Sherwood, one of the strangest and most compelling voices I have come across in years. Muriel Spark meets Russell Hoban. An astonishing, dark and scabrous novel.

Anthony Browne
I was fascinated by the fattest book I read, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate), an epic novel that tells a funny and moving story of an American family unravelling in the first few years after 9/11. It's about the problems that come with liberty, seen through the lives of what at first seems like the perfect couple.
In contrast, my second choice is a small, exquisite picture book, Eric by Shaun Tan (Templar). This is the tale of a strange foreign exchange student, told from the point of view of the host family. Eric is drawn as a tiny, shadowy figure living in a world of giants. The narrator hints at the "cultural things" that divide them. This is a true picture book in that the illustrations tell as much as the words do, and is that relatively rare thing: a picture book appealing equally to both adults and children.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

John Banville's Top Ten List

John Banville's Top Ten List

William John Banville (born 1945), who also writes as Benjamin Black for a series of mysteries, is an acclaimed Irish novelist, adapter of dramas, and screenwriter.  He has said he aims to give his prose "the kind of denseness and thickness that poetry has.” His novel The Book of Evidence was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Guinness Peat Aviation award in 1989. His fourteenth novel, The Sea, won the Booker Prize in 2005. In 2011, Banville was awarded the Franz Kafka Prize, while 2013 brought both the Irish PEN Award and the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. His other novels include The Revolutions Trilogy - Doctor Copernicus (1976), Kepler (1981) and The Newton Letter (1982) - The Untouchable (1997), The Infinities (2009) and Ancient Light (2012). For more information, visit his official website.
1. Ill Seen, Ill Said by Samuel Beckett (1981). In terse, haunting prose, Beckett’s novella meditates on the absurdities of life and death, our grim longing for happiness, and “that old tandem” of reality and its unnamable “contrary.” The narrative itself, boiled down to poetic reflections, focuses on an old woman enduring her last days in a remote cabin. In the end, though all is blackness and void, Beckett wishes on us “grace to breathe that void,” even momentarily.

2. Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1864). Aloof, unhappy, and tortured by his own “hyperconsciousness,” Dostoevsky’s narrator prefers to remain underground, away from normal life, because at least there he can be free. When he forces himself to dine with three schoolfellows, their carefree laughter and drinking sends him “into a fury.” Afterward, he is seemingly moved by the plight of a young prostitute. But neither pity nor love is re­ deeming in this story whose narrator asks: “Which is better —cheap happiness or exalted suffering?” Dostoevsky’s preference is clear.

3. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922). Filled with convoluted plotting, scrambled syntax, puns, neologisms, and arcane mythological allusions, Ulysses recounts the misadventures of schlubby Dublin advertising salesman Leopold Bloom on a single day, June 16, 1904. As Everyman Bloom and a host of other characters act out, on a banal and quotidian scale, the major episodes of Homer’s ­Odyssey —including encounters with modern-day sirens and a Cyclops —Joyce’s bawdy mock-epic suggests the improbability, perhaps even the pointlessness, of heroism in the modern age.

4. Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann (1947). Mann retells the Faust legend as the story of wunderkind composer Adrian Leverkühn, who trades his human feeling for a brilliant career and demonic inspiration. Leverkühn’s biography, narrated by a faithful childhood friend from the vantage point of 1943 Germany, serves as a symbolic commentary on a nation’s cultural hubris and downfall. Mann probes the complex tensions between aesthetics and morality, culture and politics, in his trademark dense, precise, endlessly qualified prose. Given his theme —the culpability of genius in the sins of his society —the narrator’s almost infuriatingly overscrupulous command of language assumes a redemptive gravitas.

5. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851). This sweeping saga of obsession, vanity, and vengeance at sea can be read as a harrowing parable, a gripping adventure story, or a semiscientific chronicle of the whaling industry. No matter, the book rewards patient readers with some of fiction’s most memorable characters, from mad Captain Ahab to the titular white whale that crippled him, from the honorable pagan Queequeg to our insightful narrator/surrogate (“Call me”) Ishmael, to that hell-bent vessel itself, the Pequod.

6. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955). “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” So begins the Russian master’s infamous novel about Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man who falls madly, obsessively in love with a twelve-year-old “nymphet,” Dolores Haze. So he marries the girl’s mother. When she dies he becomes Lolita’s father. As Humbert describes their car trip —a twisted mockery of the American road novel —Nabokov depicts love, power, and obsession in audacious, shockingly funny language.

7. Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald (2001). During decades of travels through Europe, a nameless architectural historian accidentally keeps meeting Austerlitz, a neurasthenic architect who is incrementally confronting his buried connection to the Holocaust. Incantatory and almost vertiginous in its repetitiveness, this one-paragraph novel depicts the struggle of a personal narrative to melt the frozen memory of collective trauma.

8. Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon (1950). As this darkest of noirs opens, nineteen-year-old Frank Friedmaier, already a pimp, thug, and petty thief, has just become a murderer. What follows are searing portraits of the cruel and alienated young man who sees violence as a form of self-definition and the corrupt grim world that made him.

9. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726, 1735). Lemuel Gulliver, a ship’s doctor, embarks on four wondrous voyages from England to remote nations. Gulliver towers over six-inch Lilliputians and cowers under the giants in Brobdingnag. He witnesses a flying island and a country where horses are civilized and people are brutes. Fanciful and humorous, Swift’s fictional travelogue is a colorfully veiled but bitter indictment of eighteenth-century politics and culture.

10. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1847–48). The subtitle is “A Novel Without a Hero,” and never was a hero more unnecessary. In Becky Sharp, we find one of the most delicious heroines of all time. Sexy, resourceful, and duplicitous, Becky schemes her way through society, always with an eye toward catching a richer man. Cynical Thackeray, whose cutting portraits of society are hilarious, resists the usual punishments doled out to bad Victorian women and allows that the vain may find as much happiness in their success as the good do in their virtue.

A life in writing / John Banville

John Banville: a life in writing

Stuart Jeffries
Friday 29 June 2012 22.55 BST

'I've never understood women. Never will, don't want to. I'm in love with all of them'

John Banville
Banville: 'I love being a craftsman. I quite like being Benjamin Black. 
ut being John Banville I absolutely hate.' 
Photograph: Kim Haughton/The Guardian

Just before Christmas last year Caroline Walsh, John Banville's successor as literary editor of the Irish Times, walked into the sea off Dún Laoghaire. She had been suffering from depression. "It was a great shock to all of us," he says. "It's a cliché but she was full of life. It's hard to believe that she's gone. I thought I saw her the other day when I was walking around Dublin. I had to remind myself she's dead. Death is such a strange thing. One minute you're here and then just gone. You'd think there would be an anteroom, a place where you could be visited before you go."

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Phil Collins / This much I know / 'I realise in hindsight how annoying I was'

Phil Collins


Phil Collins: 'I realise in hindsight how annoying I was'

The musician, 65, on boozing, soul music and being on Live Aid twice

Johnny Davis
Saturday 29 October 2016 14.00 BST

I auditioned for Dennis Hopper’s role in Speed. In the early 1990s I really wanted to do more movies, so Jill [Tavelman, Collins’s second wife] and I bought Cole Porter’s old house on Sunset Boulevard.
I used to have a lot of meetings at The Ivy with directors, film producers and writers. But all they wanted to know was, “What’s it like to be out in front of 50,000 people?” It was a levelling experience. I wasn’t a heart-throb so I tended to attract axe murderers, those kind of parts.
I almost drank myself to death. The hospital doctors asked if my papers were in order. My pancreas and my other organs were fucked up and my doctor told me retrospectively that he didn’t know if I’d pull through.
My kids left me in Switzerland to go to Miami [after Collins divorced third wife Orianne Cevey in 2008] and I was left with a big hole. I had nowhere to go and I didn’t have my kids. So I was getting up in the morning and having a couple of drinks. I felt I owed myself a rest and a chance to do whatever I wanted. And then of course it escalates. Vodka was my drink of choice.
I realise in hindsight just how bloody annoying I was. You know, I did Live Aid not once but twice – “Oh, and now he thinks he can act.” It was like, “Just look at this guy,” and, “This guy just won’t go away.” But from my point of view I was doing it because I was being asked to do things I loved by people I admired.
The best piece of advice I’ve been given? “Never let go of a lady’s leg.” Or “Cheer up,” probably. Actually, nobody seems to give me advice any more, I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I don’t listen.
I nearly played a Russian serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo, “the butcher of Rostov”, a cannibal who killed 50-odd kids. He was in a cage at his trial. HBO were going to make a film and at that point I was trying so hard to go against type. My wife said, “You can’t do this, it’s terrible!”
I sing along to Flight of the Conchords with my kids. It’s very clever. Those songs aren’t easy to write.
It feels very hip to be liked by Kanye West and Ice-T. I’m glad they were brave enough to come out and say something. You know, the music I listened to growing up, apart from the Beatles, was soul music. I think that influenced the way I write. “Easy Lover” and “Sussudio” have Earth, Wind & Fire horns, so perhaps black listeners pick up on that. Also, in America there was less attention to bias and critics and reviews.
You stick around long enough and people reassess you. I haven’t finished quite yet. There’s still life in the old body.



Marina Abramović in her own words / ‘Why don’t we have a ménage à trois?’

Marina Abramović
Photo by Platon

Marina Abramović in her own words: ‘Why don’t we have a ménage à trois?’

It was 1984, and the artist’s relationship was falling apart. She describes her attempts to save it, in an exclusive extract from her memoir

 ‘I face so much jealousy’ – read the interview with Marina Abramović

Marina Abramović
Saturday 22 October 2016 09.00 BST

ur plan was for me to start the walk at the Great Wall of China’s eastern end, the Gulf of Bohai on the Yellow Sea, and for Ulay to start at its western end, the Jiayu Pass in the Gobi desert. After walking 2,500km each, we would meet in the middle.

About our original plan, to marry when we met there, we now spoke less and less. It was 1984, and my relationship with Ulay was falling apart. Since the death of his mother two years earlier – specifically since I had refused, on the night of the funeral, to conceive a child – we had been furious at each other, but saying little about it.

Marina Abramović says having children would have been ‘a disaster for my work’

Marina Abramovic: ‘One only has limited energy in the body, and I would have had to divide it’
 Photograph: Mike McGregor/Commissioned for The Guardian

Marina Abramović says having children would have been ‘a disaster for my work’

‘I had three abortions,’ the performance artist told the Tagesspiegel newspaper. ‘One only has limited energy in the body, and I would have had to divide it’

Nicole Puglise
Tuesday 26 July 2016 21.16 BST

The performance artist Marina Abramović said she has had three abortions during her life because having children would have been “a disaster for her work”.
In an interview with the German newspaper Tagesspiegel translated by ArtNet, she said that children hold women back in the art world.
“I had three abortions because I was certain that it would be a disaster for my work. One only has limited energy in the body, and I would have had to divide it,” Abramović said in the interview published on Monday.
“In my opinion that’s the reason why women aren’t as successful as men in the art world. There’s plenty of talented women. Why do men take over the important positions? It’s simple. Love, family, children – a woman doesn’t want to sacrifice all of that.”
The 69-year-old is famous for her more than 40 years of performance art. One of her earliest works in 1974 invited the audience to use an assortment of objects on her, from a feather boa to flowers to a loaded pistol. She told the Guardian that she was “ready to die” during the performance.
“The difference between theater and performance is that in the theater the blood is ketchup, and in performance, it’s real,” she told Tagesspiegel of her work.
In 2010, Abramović sat passively across from strangers and celebrities at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), staring into their eyes in a piece titled The Artist Is Present. It was turned into a documentary and also controversially adapted into a music video by the rapper Jay-Z.
Ahead of her 512 Hours performance at the Serpentine in London in 2014, Abramović told the Guardian that she was “old-fashioned” in real life compared with her artwork.
“Of course, I dream to have this perfect man, who does not want to change me. And I’m so not marriage material, it’s terrible. But my dream is to have those Sunday mornings, where you’re eating breakfast and reading newspapers with somebody,” she said.
But in her interview with Tagesspiegel, she said she was “totally free” by having no husband or family. Her artwork creates a demanding travel schedule and she said she didn’t think she could live differently.
“I am the artwork. I can’t send a painting, so I send myself … In the last year I didn’t spend more than 20 days in New York. At airports I had to think ‘where is my suitcase arriving from?’” she said.
In the interview, Abramović also looked ahead to her 70th birthday party at the Guggenheim – “We’ll see if I can dance down a pole from all the way up in the museum. I’m still practicing,” she said – though she’s already planned her own funeral.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks: from golden boys to wasted talents

Tom  Cruise and Tom Hanks

Cruise and Hanks: from golden boys to wasted talents

The two Toms are the last 80s superstars still able to open a movie on their name alone. But movies such as Inferno and Jack Reacher confirm their descent into dependability

Nicholas Barber
Thursday 27 October 2016 17.08 BST

tatistically speaking, there must be some people who are desperate to see Inferno, the third Ron Howard film to star Tom Hanks as a “symbology” professor who saves the world by misinterpreting paintings. By the same token, some people must be counting the days until they can watch Tom Cruise breaking strangers’ limbs again in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back – an eyebrow-raising subtitle for any sequel. But are these airport-paperback adaptations, both released in October, really the most productive use of their stars’ time? Given that Hanks is now 60 and Cruise is 54 – and that they wouldn’t need any more money if they lived to 1,000 – shouldn’t they be doing something more worthwhile than prolonging a couple of second-rate action franchises?

Of course they should. The fact is, though, that it’s the Toms’ refusal to change a winning formula that makes them such a unique phenomenon. As Michael Douglas drifts towards retirement and Bruce Willis slides into direct-to-DVD purgatory, Cruise and Hanks stand as the only Hollywood megastars who still have their names above the titles of films, year upon year, long after they found fame in the 1980s. They are the last of their kind: the Tom Tom Club.

At the start of 2016, Forbes ranked Cruise as the world’s fourth highest-paid actor, and both Toms apparently offer their employers value for money. In January, a movie-business data analysis site, The Numbers, totted up how much “someone adds in value to the film industry each year”, placing Cruise as the sixth most-bankable person in Hollywood, and Hanks as No 7. The Toms’ onscreen charisma is the most obvious explanation for this Midas touch, of course, but it would be nothing without their uncanny ability to know exactly what audiences want from them, and to deliver it, time and time again. They aren’t just actors, but auteurs. It is the Toms, rather than the directors or writers, who define their films.

Even though Tom H is six years older than Tom C, there are plenty of parallels between them. Both spent their childhoods flitting from school to school. Both had youthful phases of devout Christianity: Cruise planned to be a Catholic priest, and Hanks has said that he was a “Bible-toting evangelical”. Both had their first starring roles in romantic comedies opposite unconventional blonde beauties in the early 1980s: Cruise fell for a prostitute in Risky Business in 1983, Hanks for a mermaid in Splash in 1984. In the 1990s, their wage packets rocketed. Hanks is reported to have made $70m from Forrest Gump in 1994, Cruise made the same amount from Mission: Impossible in 1996. More significantly, both were nominated for Oscars throughout the 1990s, although while Hanks won two, Cruise has yet to pick up any. And both received their most recent Oscar nominations back in the early 00s.