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  • Tuesday Top Ten -- Simon Reeve

    Tue, 02 Jun 2009 08:21


    The BBC adventurer Simon Reeve is the author of Tropic of Capricorn, published in paperback by BBC Books. He is currently travelling around the planet for a forthcoming Tropic of Cancer series.

    And here is Simon's Tuesday Top Ten:

    Down Under by Bill Bryson

    Reading Bryson I find myself vibrating with laughter at his wonderful pen sketches of eccentric characters, and his own physical failings. He is simply the funniest travel writer alive.

    1491: The Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

    I love books that challenge accepted wisdom, and Charles Mann connects the dots to paint a completely different picture of the continent of America before Columbas came along. More sophisticated, more civilized, and more people than Europe.

    Collapse by Jared Diamond

    As climate change starts to bite most people seem to think humans will reach the edge of the precipice and then step back. This riveting book draws on historical parallels to suggest otherwise.

    Maximum City by Suketu Mehta

    Writing for Time magazine a while ago I was told "make every sentence count". Suketu starts this grand portrait of the urban future by warning Bombay will soon house more humans than Australia, and I was immediately hooked.

    The Places In Between by Rory Stewart

    Rory Stewart inspires utter jealousy. He writes beautifully and has a career that matches any Victorian adventurer. Walking across Afghanistan? No problem for Rory.

    Life after Life: Interviews with Twelve Murderers by Tony Parker

    You can hear their voices talking through the pages of this old gem. With consummate skill Parker assembles interviews with nine men and three women, aged from 21 to 78, who have committed the ultimate crime, and turns each confession into a gripping, tense and powerful testimony.

    Molvania: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry by Santo Cilauro

    Frighteningly accurate guide to a fictitious East European state. Molvania is a land of garlic brandy somewhere east of Romania, where it is sensible to greet people with a shout of "Don't shoot!" I think I've been there.

    The Stone of Heaven: The Secret History of Imperial Green Jade by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott Clark

    A remarkable book by two remarkable journalists, this exposes the dark history of the most valuable of stones. The tale builds with riveting background and history before the reader is taken to a jade mine in Burma where one million HIV-positive miners labour in a disaster zone. Incredible.

    King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild

    One of the great literary achievements of modern times, an overwhelming and horrifying account of slaughter and suffering in the Congo that demands to be read and deserves to be remembered.

    Schindler's Ark by Thomas Keneally

    A triumph. Keneally takes a thousand painful memories and weaves them into an astonishing tale of evil, survival and heroism. It is a stunning work of non-fiction.

  • Tuesday Top Ten -- Bill Bruford

    Tue, 19 May 2009 03:09

    Bill Bruford grew up with jazz. As an amateur drummer in the 1960s, and after a handful of lessons from Lou Pocock of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, he began his professional career in 1968. He was a guiding light in the so-called British "Art Rock" movement, touring internationally with Yes and King Crimson from 1968-74. There then followed several years spent observing and participating in the music making processes of, among others, Gong, National Health, Genesis and U.K., until Bill felt ready to write and perform his own music with his own band Bruford, recording four albums from 1977-80.

    Bill's excellent Autobiography is out now...

    And here is Bill's Tuesday Top Ten:

    London in the 19th Century by Jerry White

    I'm something of a history buff. I can't get enough, but prefer the factual to the romaticised version. The way previous generations lived astonishes and enlightens in turn. If I'm feeling negative about our own times and conditions, I have only to imagine life before modern dentistry, and all is suddenly right with the world again.

    This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin

    As a musician, and one who loves a mystery, the mystery of music and its effects is going to keep me enthralled for hours. It is one of the great sadnesses of our age that the making of music has hitherto been mostly delegated to professionals, although that trend is reversing now that everyone can, and does, makes a CD in his or her bedroom.

    Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller

    As a male outsider to the world of women, it's always fascinating to be given a glimpse of the subtle interactions of a small group of ladies, in this case, on the staff of St. George's School. Nobody quite does nastiness and malice quite like these sisters.

    Men of Honour: Trafalgar and the Making of the English Hero by Adam Colson

    I note with alarm that my random choice of reading includes three books on warfare. Given that these lists say much more about the list-maker than the items included, I'm concerned you might find me a blood-thirsty soul. It's just that men seem never as courageous or inventive as when they are hard at work slaughtering each other. Beautifully written and gripping.

    A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr

    Stroppiness and it's close cousin bloody-mindedness are admirable national characteristics. Somewhere, between Agincourt (see below) and modern Britain, we British took and passed A-Levels in both subjects. Marr helps explain the effects of these characteristics and others on modern political life.

    Eternal Echoes: Exploring our Hunger to Belong by John O'Donohue

    I love a mystery, but prefer the spritual to the murderous kind. And I don't need a resolution. This is a wonderful book of profound Celtic mystical wisdom.

    Bowie in Berlin by Thomas Jerome Seabrook

    I'm not usually one for anorak-style detail about who said what to whom when, but this is Bowie's most interesting music-making period, and the record-maker in me wants to know what he went through making his records. Considerably more advanced self-abuse, is the answer. I hope he feels better now.

    Stalingrad by Antony Beevor

    More scarcely believable amounts of suffering. Had it not actually happened, like all the great stories in human existence, one would not believe it possible. I tried Beevor's Berlin after this, but found his graphic depiction of the buchery too much for my delicate stomach, and had to abandon ship a third of the way through. I tried, honest.

    Agincourt by Juliet Barker

    Modern historians seem to have learned to write in such a way that avoids reading like a dissertation. Scholarly history for a wide audience.

    Sinatra: The Life Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan

    Immaculately researched biography of one of the greatest singers of popular music. A history lesson in the ugly side of the music business, in a time when dames were dames, men were men, and 'elf 'n' safety hadn't been invented.

  • Gabrielle Palmer

    Tue, 12 May 2009 02:31


    Gabrielle Palmer, author of The Politics of Breastfeeding, is a nutritionist and a campaigner. She was a breastfeeding counsellor in the 1970s and helped establish the UK pressure group Baby Milk Action. In the early 1980s she lived and worked as a volunteer in Mozambique. She has written, taught and campaigned on infant feeding issues, particularly the unethical marketing of baby foods.

    The Ragged-trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

    I find this book unbearably poignant because it was only published after Tressell's death. He died feeling rejected. He tells a story of the life of a house painter and decorator and describes the humiliations and suffering of underpaid urban working class life in the early 20th century. His political stance is that the purpose of all this exploitation and endurance is to make life comfortable for the rich who benefit from the workers' low waged existence. It is a novel but we know that Tressell speaks from his own experience and that reality shines through. His message is relevant today on a global scale. I based the title of my section on the US state-subsidised infant formula system ('the wet-diapered philanthropists') in my own book (The Politics of Breastfeeding) on his brilliant title. This book is essential reading for anyone who (like me) finds much intellectual political writing a bit turgid.

    The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer

    This book changed my life. It gave me the confidence to think I could transcend the spoken and unspoken messages from my parents, education and culture which told me that women came second to men.

    Poverty and Famine by Amartya Sen

    Sen is a Professor of Economics and a Nobel Prize winner. Anyone could read this book and understand it. He describes famines (Irish, Ethiopia, Bengal) and shows how that people die not because there is no food to feed them but because they are not entitled to that food. Like most great ideas, this one is astonishingly simple and robust; when you analyse any famine you see that certain people (like aid workers, journalist and rulers) still eat while people are dying of starvation. His writings and views on economics are brilliant, wise and energised by a true caring for humanity.

    On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

    I was surprised how much I enjoyed this book. John Stuart Mill (born in 1806) is completely open about the fact that his ideas either came from or were inspired by his close friend Harriet Taylor. Their friendship thrived over 20 years while she was married to Mr Taylor. Everyone loves to speculate about whether JSM and HT were lovers (they later married after Mr Taylor died) but to me that is irrelevant. They had the most amazing intellectual intimacy and obviously sparked each other off to great emotional and intellectual benefit to themselves and to us. This book (and his other writings) has a wonderful emotional, as well as intellectual, integrity. JSM proclaims that he could never have done his work without her. They were a team. His ideas about, for example, freedom of speech, women's rights and education are all as relevant today as in the 19th century.

    Long walk to freedom by Nelson Mandela

    I took this on a long journey to read, almost out of duty, because I admired Mandela and wanted to know his story. I couldn't put it down because it was so well written, so entertaining and so human. I was working overseas and I used to make excuses to avoid the socialising (and I am very sociable) and race back to my hotel room so that I could eat up more of this delicious book.

    Good behaviour by Molly Keane

    A magnificent and under-rated novel, told in the first person with immense skill. The reader sees what is happening but the narrator is too innocent to notice the horrible reality. The tale reveals the hypocrisy and brutality towards women behind attitudes to sex. It conjures up the stifling 'blind eye-turning' of Anglo-Irish life in the first part of the 20th century and deals with issues that were never spoken about. Brilliant.

    Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

    I am a devoted fan of everything Bill Bryson writes but this was the first book I read. He was talking about my country and my era with absolute accuracy, shredding the British to pieces but with great affection. I read this on a plane and shook with laughter so much that my fellow passengers gave me strange looks.

    The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski

    RK was a Polish journalist who died in 2007. Everything he ever wrote was like mother of pearl. His writing is so simple, so clear and so easy that it is effortless to read and yet he writes about big things: death, war, power-crazed leaders. I picked this book because it describes all the little details of political collapse and the stranglehold of human habits and relationships on power struggles. It's about the collapse of the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia in the 1970s. Whenever you read something by RK you think, 'Ah at last I understand why that place is in such a mess.' For me he is the best non-African writer on Africa ever.

    Schindler's Ark Thomas Keneally

    Now made famous by the Spielberg film Schindler's List, the book is a far greater testament to the characters involved. Keneally presents the paradox that some unpleasant people do good and some seemingly pleasant ones do evil.

    Obedience to Authority by Stanley Milgram

    A very important account of why humans do what they do to each other. Very relevant for our time. This book was reissued just when the abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were exposed. This book should be standard reading in all secondary schools.

  • Tuesday Top Ten -- Prue Leith

    Tue, 05 May 2009 03:39


    As a cook, restaurateur, food writer and business woman, Prue Leith she has played a key role in the revolution of Britain's eating habits since the Sixties. In 1995, having published twelve cookbooks, she gave up writing about food to concentrate on fiction. Choral Society is her fourth novel. She lives in London and Oxfordshire. Visit Prue's website at

    Here is Prue's Tuesday Top Ten:

    The Lotus Eaters by Marianne MacDonald

    A modern novel of thirty-something Londoners into whose midst arrives Patty Bell: beautiful, innocent, unprincipled, and devastating -- a kind of tragic Marilyn Monroe figure who is both victim and manipulator.

    Daddy's Gone a Hunting by Penelope Mortimer

    I loved this book fifty years ago, and it has not lost its power. A wonderful portrait of a middleclass housewife gradually driven to depression by nothing to do, a boorish husband and a difficult daughter. The Prospect Books edition is elegant with great end-papers. Makes a cool present.

    How to be a Failure and Succeed by Sir Ernest Hall

    Bolton boy's tale of rags to riches (through timid boy, concert pianist, to wealthy entrepreneur) is neither business book, autobiography or novel, but its a very good read. Hall writes of the stifling cultural poverty of working class hardship, of his own desperate ambition, of the fascination of the weaving trade and of his love of music, art, beautiful houses, with compelling simplicity and truth.

    The Warden by Anthony Trollope

    The first of the Barchester series of novels with the cathedral as backdrop. It is my favourite, and the gentlest of the great Victorian's novels with his most lovable character, the innocent warden of an almshouse for old men, who finds himself trapped between his conscience and his comfort. It also contains the most perfectly drawn Mr Nasty: the self-important, snobbish, opinionated and perfectly intolerable Arch-Deacon Grantly, father-in-law to the unfortunate warden.

    The Weight of a Mustard Seed by Wendell Steavenson

    Who would have thought that a biography of one of Sadam Hussein's generals could be poetic, moving and quite extraordinary. Steavenson is a real storyteller and she writes like a dream. I learnt more of Iraq and the Iraqis in this one book about one family than any amount of newsprint and pontificating on the box. The blurb say the book sears the heart and pierces the soul. It does.

    Donne: The Reformed Soul by John Stubbs

    This is a masterful portrait of an extraordinary man. Born a Catholic, John Donne saw Protestantism overtake England; he broke with his roots to fight against the Spanish; he sacrificed his standing and his fortune to marry for love; and he ended up Dean of St Paul's. Stubbs seamlessly integrates Donne's poetry into his story to illuminate the journey from scholar to rebel to devout and passionate cleric. And leaves you wanting to go back to Donne, the poet.

    The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

    I have not seen the movie but I can see why the novel would make a great one. Set in both the war and modern Germany it is the tale of a love affair between an illiterate older woman and a studious middleclass boy. It is a disturbing, erotic and yet somehow wholesome tale. Ruth Rendell describes if as "Deeply moving, sensitive enough to make me wince, a Holocaust novel, but light years away from the common run."

    Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard

    Written in her seventies I believe Falling is EJH's best novel. It is the story of a woman in her sixties falling disastrously and dangerously in love. It is exciting, touching and unputdownable. Howard handles the unpromising subject of geriatric love, disillusion and despair with sympathy and unsentimental truth, making it an unforgettable book.

    The Old Wives Tale by Arnold Bennett

    Having myself written, I thought, a not bad novel, Sisters, about one sensible and one flighty sibling and their relationship, I then read Arnold Bennett's 1903 The Old Wives Tale and realised what depths and heights such a master can reveal of such a subject. As relevant today as 100 years ago.

    George Mackay Brown: The Life by Maggie Fergusson

    This is the author's first book and an absolute cracker. I had not heard of the Orkney poet but picked up this biography as background reading for an Orkney holiday. Now I am hooked on Orkney, on Mackay Brown's magical poetry, and on his biographer.

  • Tuesday Top Ten -- Fiona Robyn

    Tue, 28 Apr 2009 02:38

    Fiona Robyn is a novelist living in rural Hampshire with her partner, cats and vegetable patch. Her debut novel The Letters was published by Snowbooks in March. Her previous books include A Year of Questions and Small Stones. She blogs about being a writer at Planting Words and edits a literary blogzine at a handful of stones. You can find out more about Fiona on her own website:

    This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich

    After an illness, Ehrlich started travelling across the largest island on earth -- Greenland. She returns seven times, and takes us with her as she experiences the strange, cruel, magical landscape. She interweaves her descriptions of the light and the ice (which she described as poetry chopped up and sneaked into a book of prose) with Inuit stories from European anthropologists, portraits of the artists who came to paint in the luminous light, and her deepening relationships with the people she meets and spends time with.

    Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times edited by Neil Astley

    If you only have one anthology of poems in your house, it should be this one. Astley is the editor of Bloodaxe Books and he and they do a huge amount for poetry in the UK. He also has exquisite taste, and this book brings together an impressively broad range of contemporary poetry exploring human experience. The poems are vivid and affecting -- they really do have lives of their own. I have returned to this over the years and I keep finding more to enjoy and admire.

    A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving

    I could never read this book again, as it broke my heart. I love much of Irving's writing -- Until I Find You is another favourite -- but A Prayer for Owen Meaney packs the biggest emotional punch. The story follows a small, odd Owen Meaney (who accidentally kills his best friend's mum and who believes he's an instrument of God) and everything ties together beautifully at the end.

    The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

    I made the mistake of re-reading this while I was writing my third novel, and it put me off for three months. How dare I even attempt to write a novel after reading something as pure and as true as this? Holden Caulfield is at least as real as most of the people I know. He's great company, too, and gives us an important reminder of what it's like to be an alienated teenager in a world that doesn't make sense.

    A New Path to the Waterfall: Poems by Raymond Carver

    This would be my desert island book of poems. Carver might not always be technically brilliant, but he writes so searingly honestly about work, alcoholism, illness and his family that you can't help but love him. The Blessing and Gravy are poems that have a permanent place inside my head.

    Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Suzuki Shunryu

    I didn't understand much of this at all the first time I read it. By my second reading I'd started to meditate regularly and had read much more widedly about Zen Buddhism, and I understood a bit more. I wish I'd known Shunryu. I feel like I'll be going back to this book for the rest of my life.

    Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

    Dillard calls herself "an observer of nature" and she makes an art of this -- much like Mary Oliver. She writes with great precision and beauty about a natural world teeming with life -- sometimes terrible, sometimes marvellous. The whole book is steeped in spirituality and gratitude, and as well as enjoying her rich prose she can help us to learn to love the place we find ourselves in.

    The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

    McFarlane set out to find the last wild spots in the British Isles -- from his Cambridge base to the corners of Scotland, the edges of Wales -- all the desolate, people-less places he could find. His writing is intelligent and lyrical, and he reminds us that "we have in many ways forgotten what the world feels like."

    Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

    This is a book about being a writer that has sustained me through many a dark time. Lamott has a talent for exposing the messiest parts of herself to help us feel like we're not the only ones in the world to feel jealous or full of despair. There is a lot of practical and helpful information in this book, but most of all I admire Lamott's spirit -- she's brave, honest, and very very funny.

    Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

    This book of short stories contains one called Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens about the death of a cat, which even now brings a tear to my eye when I remember it. Moore, like Carver, specialises in the strange ordinariness of people. To quote one reviewer, she produces "a series of scorching, miniature portraits of absolute individuals, not one stereotype, full of the unexpected."

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