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  • Each week we have a Tuesday Top Ten on our site where authors pick their top ten favourite books (in any category or none!) As we run up to Christmas, I thought I'd take a quick look back over 2008 and pick ten of my favourite books of the year.

    In no particular order they are...

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    ABC3D by Marion Bataille

    As I wrote in my review earlier in the year: "Who knew that a minimalist pop-up book of the alphabet could be quite so beautiful and stylish and so hugely popular?" A real treat.

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    The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross

    Widely praised -- and rightly so -- Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise won the Guardian First Book Award and will, I'm sure, go on winning plenty of other prizes next year too. A gripping history of Twentieth Century music that explains why e.g. dissonance, serialism and minimalism made such an impact on our aural environment.

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    The Spire by William Golding

    Everyone knows Golding's Lord of the Flies, but it is a book I dislike for a number of reasons -- and all those reasons have kept me away from Golding's other books for far too long. This year I read the superb, beautifully realised Pincher Martin, which I loved, and also The Spire which, if possible, I loved even more. A book about obsession and rapture, spirituality and blindness, about writing and about being human.

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    The Blue Fox by Sjon

    Reviewing The Blue Fox on ReadySteadyBook, Sarah Hesketh wrote "Each word in its scarcity is loaded high with importance, so that your mode of reading changes and like the pastor tracking the fox, you pay close attention to every mark on the page. There are some lovely images too -- the sound of snowmelt passes for birdsong, the beard of one character, "tumbles from his chin like an ice-bound cataract," and the rhythm of each sentence is crafted by someone who is used to measuring syllables." A really lovely, odd little gem of a book -- that the cover looks like a photograph of one my own dogs doesn't hurt one wee bit either!

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    Miss Herbert by Adam Thirlwell

    Frustrating and uneven, this is literary criticism, but not as we know it! Thirlwell takes us on a fascinating journey of the "left-field" novel from Sterne to Gombrowicz. Some of it reads like a pastiche of Milan Kundera, but there are enough interesting asides to make the whole piece worthy of any bibliophile's attention.

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    The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

    An idiosyncratic and highly personal study of "the mysteries of libraries, a thorough analysis of their history throughout the world and an esoteric, enchanting celebration of reading." Delightful.

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    Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolano

    Bolano is beginning to be a name to reckon with. Over the last five or so years the deceased Chilean author (1953-2003) has begun to garner quite a reputation. The publication of 2666 in the UK in January is set to be something of a major literary event. Nazi Literature in the Americas is very strange and quite difficult to categorise. It isn't a novel, much less does it present a story, rather it is the imaginary "biographical dictionary of American writers who flirted with or espoused extreme right-wing ideologies in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries". Bolano's cod scholarship describes the life and works of his invented Nazis in some detail, listing their publications, desribing their influences, giving vivid accounts of episodes from their lives. And then we move along to the next writer! Their world is minutely realised, with the connections between some of the writers and their milieux carefully explained. The whole thing is quite baffling and yet totally gripping. You've never read anything like it.

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    Dostoevsky by Rowan Williams

    The Archbishop of Canterbury takes time out of his busy schedule to write the best short overview of Dostoevsky you're every likely to read. (If you want to delve even deeper than this -- and it's unlikely you'd ever need to -- then only Joseph Frank's exhaustive work will do.)

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    Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker

    A hugely important, if troubling book. Human Smoke makes us question our history (and question, too, whether Baker's pick 'n' mix methodology can itself be called history). But, disquieting though it may be, Baker shows that WWII wasn't a Good War and, especially in our troubled times, hearing any anti-war message, especially one as restrained and painstaking as this, is, surely, vitally important. Highly recommended.

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    How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard

    Provocative and funny, Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is actually far more scholarly than it sounds. It isn't a bluffers guide, but more a meditation on what reading acutally is. Playful, certainly, but still an essential read for all bibliophiles.

  • Born into a theatrical family, Harriet Devine abandoned her early ambitions on discovering she was not a very good actress. Until recently she taught English at a small UK university, and now works for the British Library as an oral history interviewer.

    Harriet blogs at the ingeniously entitled Harriet Devine's Blog!

    Mark Thwaite: What first drew you to blogging Harriet?

    Harriet Devine: I honestly can't remember what started me on reading other peoples' blogs -- possibly I read an extract in a newspaper? I do know that I got hooked very quickly, and soon had a stable of about half a dozen that I read, and commented on, regularly. It was so great to find a whole community of people out there whose interests I shared, even if I didn't always agree with their opinions. So, after many months, I took courage and started my own.

    MT: What do you most get out of it?

    HD: I've always enjoyed thinking and writing about books, but usually have had to do this in an academic context. Blogging is a wonderfully relaxed way of doing this! It gives me so much pleasure when people comment that my reviews have made them want to read things I've written about. I've also made some really good friends among fellow bloggers, though I've only so far met a couple of them face to face.

    MT: What are your favourite blogs?

    HD: Top of the list has to be dovegreyreader, the first blog I ever read, and still a real favorite -- Lynne was so encouraging to me when I first started blogging.

    I really enjoy Cornflower, a wonderful mix of books, baking and knitting -- very inspiriing.

    For intellectual stimulation I like Tales from the Reading Room and always enjoy the intelligent reviews, poems and pictures on Books Do Furnish a Room.

    I'm very fond of the delightful Stuck In A Book, and Normblog is a great place to visit for stimulating thoughts on all kinds of important issues.

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    MT: What are you reading right now Harriet?

    HD: Right now I am reading, and very much enjoying, Little Dorrit, which, though a great Dickens fan, I had never read. But I've put it aside for a week as I don't want to get ahead of the BBC TV series which is on at the moment. I'm also about halfway through Maggie O'Farrell's The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, a book I've been meaning to read for ages. I'm always a bit wary when I start something that many people have raved about in case I'm disappointed, which does happen from time to time. But not in this case: I'm finding it enthralling and hard to put down.

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    MT: What books that you have have read recently do you most recommend?

    HD: Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, a funny, sad, imaginative story which subtly and perceptively looks into the human heart; Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture (which really should have won the Booker this year), a wonderful, disturbing, beautifully written novel about a woman wrongly confined in a mental hospital for over 60 years; Julia Gregson's East of the Sun, set in India in a wonderfully imagined 1920s, and following the adventures of three young women -- a classy comfort read; and Owen Shears Resistance, a novel set in a remote Welsh valley, in which the Germans are imagined to have won the second world war.

  • 97818483102921.jpg Manjit Kumar is the editor of Prometheus, a journal that covers the arts, sciences and humanities and has written for the Guardian, the TES and the Irish Times. He is the co-author of Science and the Retreat from Reason, an adapted chapter of which Michael Frayn described as "the clearest account I've read yet of the development of quantum mechanics." In Quantum, Kumar has written a thrilling account of quantum theory that focusses on the central relationship between Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. A superb book that will stretch your brain this coming weekend:
    For most people, quantum theory is a byword for mysterious, impenetrable science. And yet for many years it was equally baffling for scientists themselves. In this magisterial book, Manjit Kumar gives a dramatic and superbly-written history of this fundamental scientific revolution, and the divisive debate at its core. Quantum theory looks at the very building blocks of our world, the particles and processes without which it could not exist. Yet for 60 years most physicists believed that quantum theory denied the very existence of reality itself. In this tour de force of science history, Manjit Kumar shows how the golden age of physics ignited the greatest intellectual debate of the twentieth century. Quantum theory is weird. In 1905, Albert Einstein suggested that light was a particle, not a wave, defying a century of experiments. Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and Erwin Schrodinger's famous dead-and-alive cat are similarly strange. As Niels Bohr said, if you weren't shocked by quantum theory, you didn't really understand it. While Quantum sets the science in the context of the great upheavals of the modern age, Kumar's centrepiece is the conflict between Einstein and Bohr over the nature of reality and the soul of science. "Bohr brainwashed a whole generation of physicists into believing that the problem had been solved," lamented the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann. But in Quantum, Kumar brings Einstein back to the centre of the quantum debate. Quantum is the essential read for anyone fascinated by this complex and thrilling story and by the band of brilliant men at its heart.
  • Each Monday, here on Editor's Corner, I quickly run through the latest issue of the Bookseller magazine and pick out the bits and pieces of book industry news that catch my eye. This quick round-up of book stuff is culled from the pages of last Friday's
  • Tuesday Top Ten -- Jonathan Green

    Fri, 12 Dec 2008 06:25

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