Just at the moment, waking up in the morning is a supreme pleasure. I get up, go downstairs, make a cup of tea, and settle back into Zadie Smith's latest collection of prose pieces - "Feel Free." It doesn't matter what she's writing about - dancing, hip hop, movies, book reviews, her own novels. Whatever the subject matter, the approach is lively, intelligent and honest, down to earth but never stupid, and often hilarious. She feels and sounds like a warm human being, but there's always something to set you thinking, a fresh insight that hadn't occurred to you before she actually put it into words. This book isn't going to last for ever, but I'm going to miss it when I actually get to the end.
Oh, the pleasure of reading a well-written book. I'd ordered Maya Jasanoff's well-reviewed book about Conrad, but then saw that the library had another book of hers sitting on the shelves, with no need to work through a waiting list. So why not start with that while I'm waiting? It's a weird, original take. Study empire through the collections and the collectors who were involved in it. She moves from India to Egypt, all the time laying out a detailed, vivid account of lives and movements, changes in atmosphere and long-term developments. It's tiny print, which is something I normally can't stand, and 300 densely packed pages, but it's a sheer joy, because it's patient, intelligent and beautifully organised. there's none of the posturing and wielding of cartoon simplifications that you get with the noisier debaters of empire, pro and con. It's complex reality, enthusiastically researched, in a way that comes vividly to life.
I've had a great run of library books recently - Home Fire, Manhattan Beach - but this is one of the best, and it was a total surprise. I went down to pick up another book I'd ordered, and there on the shelves was Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run. chunky hardback weighing in at over 500 pages, but it's free so I give it a go. It's really good. Well-written, thoughtful and honest, he's worked really hard at trying to understand where he's got to and how he's changed. He seems very clear about his own shortcomings, and the effects they have on those around him, and he's great an conveying the excitement of playing in a band which seriously works to ensure that its fans have a good time. It's safe to say that I'll never go to a Springsteen concert now, but I'm clearer than I was that I've missed out, that there really is something special going on.
I know, I know. Those two words have never, ever been placed together before. Economics is a dreary edifice of impersonal information, presented by people who wish to demonstrate why things (particularly money, business things) have to be as they are, even though some of the effects seem to be disastrous. But not any more.
My fresh optimism has been created by reading two books in close succession:
23 Things they don’t tell you about Capitalism, by Ha-Joon Chang, and
Doughnut Economics, by Kate Raworth.
Chang takes you gently through some very complicated territory, with an approach that seems like a Dummies Guide. There are 23 ‘Things’ and each of them starts with a “What they tell you” section, followed by a “What they don’t tell you” section. It could be childishly simplified, or deeply condescending, but it’s neither. He knows a lot, and brings in all kinds of evidence but only when it’s needed, so the whole effect is to clarify and explain. It’s not difficult to read, but with every chapter you feel yourself getting wiser.
Raworth has a simple, basic insight, so amazing it’s astonishing that no-one’s latched on to it before. The potency of economic theory is carried as much through the visual (diagrams, graphs) as through the words. So if we want to know what’s wrong with previous economic theories, we need to look at their visuals, and really analyse them, rather than taking them for granted. And of course, if we’re going to see things differently in the future, we’ll need new visuals, which reflect the actual nature of our lives – interconnected people, with a range of interests and needs, living on a planet whose resources are under threat.
These are not angry outsiders, throwing stones at the evil people who have led us astray. They’re both economists, who know their field and its history, who understand how things have got to where they are. But they’re not shrill, or full of themselves, or bristling with spite because their truths have not been sufficiently recognised. They’re both clear, positive and humane, using their intelligence to point forward to a more constructive approach which might at least give us a chance of survival. Don’t take my word for it. Get hold of them, and read them both. You won’t regret it.
As valued gurus age and die (Stuart Hall, Tony Judt) so it's good to discover new intellectual heroes. One of my current favourites is Ha-joon chang, a Korean economist currently based in the UK, who writes occasional articles in The Guardian. He's always clear, patient and constructive, never full of himself or showboating, but the careful accumulation of argument and evidence is devastating. He's run a tireless campaign - much more courageously and consistently than the Labour Party - to expose the Cameron/Osborne myth that "Labour spent it all", and I've just finished "Bad Samaritans", a thorough analysis of what's wrong with the IMF/World Bank approach to third world development. He gets an intricate situation and two hundred years of history down to a couple of hundred pages; there's no way I'm reducing that to a paragraph, but I do feel clearer, wiser, more positive. Go out and get hold of it for yourself.
i nearly always have at least one library book on the go, a request drawn from systematic trawling of reviews at the weekend. But my current choice is utterly stunning - Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor. I've read most of his other stuff, and it's always interesting - original without being tricksy or flashy. This again is different, as it should be - hey, he's an intelligent writer -but I find it rivetting. It looks as though it's going to be routine thriller territory, as girl in rural community vanishes, police and volunteers comb the area, friends and family wonder where she's gone. But she doesn't show up, and we never know. What we do get is a close, careful tracing of this rural community as time goes by, responding to the seasons, changes, time passing - but including wild life, crops and weather along with the human stories with which they are intertwined. within a paragraph you can move from an estranged couple to birds migrating south. that may sound off putting rather than enticing, in which case I apologise. don't take my word for it; go out and get it.
And here it is - Ali Smith's Brexit novel. Who could resist? My wonderful local library branch is still able to answer most of my requests, and here comes Ali's latest, for a bargain 60 p. As always, it's a treat. Lots of witty jokes and wordplay, a deep love of humanity, and much appropriate sadness about the way the Brexit debate has sioled us all. It's not just the decision; it's the manner of the argument, the bitterness on both sides that it leaves, whatever the outcome. and as I'm reading, i know I'm in good company, that Ali's suffering along with the rest of us, while also sharing her thoughts on the artist Pauline Boty. So it's thoughts, diary, essay, at times a poem - in fact, it's hardly a novel at all, but who cares? thanks, Ali - we need you more than ever.
One of the argument offered for cuts in the library service is the decreasing footprint of users. that's true, and important, but I remain an unrepentant user,deeply grateful for what the library offers, and anxious about a future world in which that offer will be restricted.
For instance, I've just read Capital, by Thomas Piketty. I don't claim that to be ahead of the curve, since its real vogue was some time ago. Not to brag about my intellectual stamina, forcing by way through thickets of impenetrable European jargon. In fact, like War and Peace, it's extremely readable in bite-sized chunks, and Piketty is a modest, charming and witty guide to some quite forbidding territory - i.e. the international history of finance in various forms, spread over a wide range of nations. Only now, with computer-assisted analysis, would it be possible to make this kind of sustained comparative criticism, but even now it requires dogged persistence, a tough commitment to years of work because this stuff matters. and I get a taste of this, simply by putting in a request to my local library, and paying 60 p when the book arrives. It' a miracle.
Steve Jobs was an interesting and important guy, so it's not surprising that people wrote his biography. I really enjoyed the movie, selectively based on Walter Isaacson's biography, a couple of months ago. But I've just read "Becoming Steve Jobs", by Schlender and Tetzeli, and the puicture's changed completely. I've read Isaacson on kissinger, and what you get is endless detail, but a bit static and soulless. Schlender and Tetzeli are much closer, and more concered. one of them saw Jobs regularly, and they chart a convincing transformation, not simple, sudden or complete, in which Jobs moves from total pain to eccentric but imaginative boss - hence the 'Becoming' part of the title. it's given me a much more complex, rounded view of Jobs, and I'm glad to have filled out the picture. but one thing worries me. in the movie, Kate Winslet played Joanne Hoffman, Jobs' long-term assistant who seems to have been one of the few people who could work with him. Winslet talked closely with Hoffman in preparing for the role, from which it seems both benefitted. but in the Schlender/Tetzeli biography, so much fuller and more intelligent in many way, Hoffman doesn't appear, not even in the index. so what's going on there?
It's a funny kind of feeling. A friend is telling you about this terrific writer, of whom you've never heard, insisting that although she died in 2004 and you've never heard of her, you really ought to read this 400-page book of short stories. So you're a little bit piqued, because how could they be that good and you not know about it, but the book's there and you give it a try. and then that wave washes over you - how could I be so stupid? Why offer any resistance at all to something as varied, as talented, as witty as this? She's like a streetwise Alice Munro, subtle in observation of detail and character, but tougher and more direct. There's stuff in here about drink and drug addiction which feels totally convincing, but she's not showing off or trying to rub your nose in the dirt. She's telling you how it is - for this person, and that person, and that situation. Such variety, and some of them really short - just a few pages, they do their job, and she moves on to something else. the collection is called A Manual for Cleaning Women. Stephen Emerson, who put it together, concludes his introduction like this - "Myself, I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't want to read her." No, I hadn't heard of her either, but he's right.
That's the title of a book I've been reading, and I can't remember when a book has last made me think so hard. The book is a conversation between Tony Judt and Tomothy Snyder, both frighteningly well;-read intellectuals, with just enough difference in their views to make it interesting. But it's not an amiable fireside chat. The conversations took place in the last months of Judt's life, when he was incapable of writing. They follow a dual path - tracing his own varied and impressive life, but also mapping the intellectual territory over which he has ranged. If you want to meet fascinating ideas from writers you've never heard of, this is the place to go. But there's also polemic and current debate, tackled in a lively and uncompromising way. This is a book for life. I got it from the library, but very soon decided that I needed my own copy to keep. I often say I plan to read a book again some time, but never actually get round to it. In the case of this one, i mean it.
No, not a new firm of solicitors, but my rapidly chosen reading for a long railway journey. I'm heading up to Durham for a conference, I need portable paperback fiction for the four hour train journey, so I dive into Telford Library and grab Martin Amis' The Zone of Interest, and Alice Munro's The Lives of Women and Girls.
Oh boy. I couldn't have come up with a greater contrast if I'd tried. I was, i'll admit, an early Amis fan. Money had an irresistible energy and wit that means you could put up with the nastiness for the sake of the ride. but not this. This was dry, turgid, clever in a remote kind of way but lacking any humour or warmth. Somebody from The Scotsman said on the cover that this was Amis' masterpiece. Not for me, it wasn't.
The Munro, on the other hand, was a delight. It calls itself a novel, but it's linked short stories, and that's what she does best. (Apart from the central character being the common link, there's not much long-term continuity, or structure spread across the book as a whole). What you get are wonderful moments, clear observation of people in action, in love, out of love, and dry, rueful reflections on what we're like and how we behave. The miles sped by.
One of the weirder nights of my life. For years I’ve sung the joys of self-publishing, the excitement of sending off files and getting bound copies back within weeks. Today I came unstuck. I used a firm I’ve used three times before. I sent them the files on February 11. they kept reassuring me that they’d keep to my deadline. but they insisted on pdf files and then two weeks later asked for word files. They ignored requests I’d made, and failed to ring me when I’d warned them my e-mail was dodgy. They promised they’d send stuff and then found iou it hadn’t gone. So I’m left at Wenlock Books, with a pleasant and friendly audience listening to me reading extracts from my valuable proof copy – which at present is the only copy in the world. As it happens, it went fine. Before the mess over the copies, I’d thought that Writing for Blockheads was a good idea and would reach an audience, and this evening seems to confirm that view. all we need is a few copies to test it out.
Another of those rare days where I think I’m living the rock star life. Set the alarm to drive to Radio Shropshire, where winning second prize in the Guernsey Poetry comp allows me a ten minute slot in which I can read the poem, and plug my book launch (March 27), the election show (April 14) and reading with Michael Rosen at the Wenlock poetry festival. Can’t be bad.
And that’s before 9.00 am. Then it’s off to Birmingham for a fuill day at the Flatpack Festival. A weird film about slime mould, featuring all sorts of strange intellectuals (artists, biologists, computer nerds), and a screening of Battleship Potemkin at Birmingham Cathedral with stunning live piano accompaniment. But sandwiched in between those is a gorgeous taste of luxury – Lubitsch’s stunning comedy Trouble in Paradise (why isn’t this better known?), followed by a classy two-course meal at the Opus restaurant. This is the life.
My reading programme tends to be pretty arbitrary, made up from a series of random prompts, most centred around book reviews in the Guardian and Observer, but reinforced by occasional purchases from second-hand bookshops. which lands me with a gorgeous co-incidence. In bed I’m reading a book from the library, Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, a beautifully written account of her grieving for he father. This involves her following two parallel paths -tracking T.H. White’s account of training a goshawk, and doing the same thing herself, with the gloriously named Mabel. Meanwhile, downstairs I’m reading The Poetry of Birds (edited by Simon Armitage and Tim Dee) which was in our local second-hand bookshop. there’s tons of poems in there i already knew but am glad to see again, but I’m specially struck by Thom Gunn’s Tamer and Hawk, which collides with Helen M in a blaze of light. Normally I know nothing and care appallingly little about birds, but these two have been a delight.
After a year of doing without, Telford now has a bright new glossy library – huge escalators and automatic doors that don’t work. I was fine with the old one, but it’s good to have something, and extra good to have the bonus of what only libraries can do – let you browse when you’re not sure what you want, and come home with a pleasant surprise. I didn’t like reading 400 pages about a woman called Dellarobia, and wasn’t entirely convinced that bright, sharp Barbara Kingsolver could think herself into the life of a bored and frustrated housewife in the midwest, but it was fine. and it had the huge bonus of seriously taking on big ecological themes while also dealing with people – risky stuff, but worth the attempt. And then there’s the monarch butterflies, who I knew a little about, but was delighted to meet again, in some detail – which taught me a lot more. Serious pleasure.
Very hard to get presents right, but when you do, it shows. Today’s my 70th birthday, and my son just happens to have hit the spot. For years I’ve been a Joe Sacco fan. His Palestine is a mix of personal story and recent history, which tells you everything you need to know about the Occupied Territories without getting preachy of solemn. I was used to the innocent drawing style, the apparently simple language in which Sacco shows himself trying to understand what’s going on. But Great War is something else. It’s a book without a back, that opens out like a concertina, a kind of modern Bayeux Tapestry which tells the story of the first day of the Somme in hugely detailed “Where’s Willy?”-type drawings, and not a word in sight. Well, there is an accompanying booklet, and a helpful commentary, and some useful information and statistics, but the main drawings still work on their own, a gradually evolving mass of love and care and detail. No, its no use. This can’t do it justice. But I’m so glad I’ve got it.
The further I went in watching the TV series, the more I wanted to go back to the original book on which it was based. the series is an intricate web of interwoven plots, with an extravagant mix of themes and characters. how much of this, I wondered, was actually based on fact? Not a lot, as it turns out. There are heavy emphases on homosexuality and race, neither of which appear in the book. Many of the highly entertaining cast are sheer inventions, which is fine. But saddest of all is the central relationship between Masters and Johnson. OK,I should have known. Michael Sheen and Lizzie Caplin were always too good to be true, but the real-life relationship between them is sadder and duller than it looks on the screen. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but I can’t help feeling cheated.
OK, so the Scots, offered the choice never to have another Tory government, look like voting YES. I don’t blame them. If anyone offered me that, I’d bite their hand off. Still, there is mild consolation for those of us left behind. In today’s Observer, there are reviews of new novels by David Mitchell, Rachel Cusk, Sarah Waters and Ali Smith – which sounds to me like a really tasty future programme of reading . I’m sure others are slavering at the prospect of new work by Ian Mcewan, Martin Amis and Will Self, also reviewed in the same edition. Sure, the timing’s not an accident, and may well be steered by prize-planning, but to hungry readers it’s a salivating prospect. I like all kinds of reading, but there is something special about really good fiction. Enjoy.
Julie Myerson thinks this is a book “that everyone should read.” That’s a crazy thing to say, but she’s right. It’s a study of parents and children, 700 pages long. It’s intensively researched, based on 300 interviews with families. but it’s also brilliantly written, with flashes of wit and insight, and more probing questions than you’ll hear in a week’s television coverage. If you flicked through the chapter headings, you’d think you were in for a gloomy procession through misery – autism, dwarfs, disability, schizophrenia, rape….But it’s uplifting and fascinating, a wonderful way of briefly trying on the lives of others, many of them coping superbly with challenges we don’t ‘normally’ face. Though as you read this book, don’t be surprised if your assumption of ‘normal’ flies out of the window. Far from the Tree, by Andrew Solomon. I got it out of the library, and took it back after forty pages. Just borrowing this book is not enough; you really need it with you for the rest of your life.