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  • Sathnam Sanghera was born in 1976. He is an award-winning journalist who, until recently, was chief feature writer at the Financial Times. He now works for the Times and lives in London. The Boy with the Topknot is his first book.

    What a Carve Up by Jonathan Coe

    Every time I think of my ten favourite books, I come up with a different list of titles, but each effort features a Coe novel. I've settled for this in the end because Radio 4 has recently been broadcasting a dramatisation, and it provided a reminder of the book's stunning originality and comic brilliance. Critics have attacked it for being too angry about Thatcherism and its effects, but it's an anger I identify with, and as Coe recently remarked -- subtlety is overrated in writing.

    Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

    I think I began reading Waugh as a teenager simply because I wanted to be able to say I'd read everything written by at least one major english novelist, and he wrote a relatively small number of books. As it happens, I still haven't read the Sword of Honour trilogy, but I must have read this classic ten times now. A definitive English comic novel.

    Any Human Heart by William Boyd

    A book that will make you laugh, cry, and think about what you want from your life and relationships. What else could you want? I must have bought it for twenty people now.

    Collected Stories by William Trevor

    Profoundly insightful, heartbreakingly beautiful. Read a story each night before you go to sleep and you'll have two of the most enjoyable months of your life.

    Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

    It's incredible this book is often cited as one that lots of people don't finish -- it's incredibly accessible. Even the fact that the opening passage appeared in my Practical Criticism Paper during my university finals hasn't tainted my appreciation. Once you've read it, you'll be incapable of thinking about the story of India's independence, without remembering the narrator. The Satanic Verses -- now there's a book impossible to finish.

    A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

    Funny, tragic, sublime. I wish his endings weren't always so relentlessly bleak though.

    The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles

    A book I enjoyed as a teenager, and a book I re-read as an adult and enjoyed in a completely different way. Perfectly executed. Haven't managed to get into anything else by Fowles though.

    In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin

    A new book I read two months ago. A collection of stories describing the overlapping worlds of an extended Pakistani landowning family. Brilliantly observed, elegant and weirdly sexy. Mueenuddin is going to go on to do great things in writing.

    Wings of a Dove by Henry James

    In his preface to the New York Edition to the book James outlined what he thought were faults in his novel: inelegant structure, weak charcaterisation, etc. But he was wrong. It's the finest novel he has written, which of course means it is perhaps the finest novel ever written.

    Once in a House on Fire by Andrea Ashworth

    I had to mention a memoir, given I've written one. It has become a much maligned genre, as a result of endless controversies over veracity, the pornographic nature of "mis lit" and so on. But this book provides a reminder of the fact that at its very best, it can be poetic, literary, and easily give the novel form a run for its money. This book deals with some very dark issues but the beauty of the writing means it isn't in the least bit depressing. My favourite memoir alongside Martin Amis' Experience.

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    Dennis O'Driscoll was born in Co Tipperary, Ireland in 1954. His eight books of poetry include Weather Permitting, which was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Prize, Exemplary Damages, and New and Selected Poems, a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation. His latest collection of poems is Reality Check, shortlisted for the Irish Times/Poetry Now Prize 2008. A selection of his essays and reviews, Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams, was published in 2001. He is editor of the Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations. His most recent book, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, was published in 2008.

    Here is Dennis's Tuesday Top Ten:

    Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton

    About 800 fascinating pages of superbly edited and annotated correspondence between two of the best post-war American writers -- one a famously public poet, the other an intensely private one. These were poets for whom letters were a lifeline; and we read their letters with the same fervour that they wrote them.

    Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China translated by David Hinton

    Tranquillity recollected in emotion. Nineteen of the greatest Chinese poets, from the 5th century AD to the 13th century AD, are found at their most reflective and hermitic here. They break the silence of the centuries to speak movingly to our frantic urban lives. Opening with my own favourite Chinese poet, T'ao Ch'ien, the book includes introductions and notes that enable general readers to gain a firm foothold on these poetry peaks.

    The Aeneid by Vergil translated by Sarah Ruden (Yale)

    Faced with a wealth of translations -- all with their individual strengths and shortcomings -- readers of Vergil in English tended to make arbitrary and uncertain choices. With the arrival of Sarah Ruden's self-effacing edition of The Aeneid, translated with fidelity, economy and readability (a triad that would sound better in Latin), the reader's choice will be an easy one.

    The Intimate Merton: Thomas Merton's Life from His Journals edited by Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo

    Drawing on the seven volumes of published Thomas Merton journals, this fascinating selection allows the reader access to his inner thoughts as he struggles from day to day to be true his beliefs and ideals as a Trappist monk. Aspiring to "love the hermit life in simple direct contact with nature", he conveys a profound sense of the difficulties and joys such a life entails.

    The Truth of Poetry by Michael Hamburger

    Perhaps the greatest one-volume introduction to modern poetry. Hamburger's exceptionally wide reading across many European languages, and his wise lucidity as a critic, ensure that this book will be read avidly and permanently by lovers of poetry, whether practitioners or not.

    The Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry 1800-2000 by Justin Quinn

    A lively, highly informative account of the evolution of contemporary Irish poetry by one of the most able and trenchant critics from the younger generation. Long resident in Prague, Quinn writes with a refreshing directness and detachment about Irish poetry; but, himself a noted poet who grew up in Dublin, he also provides an insider's insights.

    The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

    It is difficult to better the New York Times description of this book as a "morbidly fascinating nonfiction eco-thriller", just as it would be difficult to better Weisman himself as a chilling yet absorbing guide to the post-human planet our extinction as a species would occasion. Weisman's graphic imagination leaves no stone unturned (or uncracked), no building untoppled and no nuclear reactor unmelted. He has seen the future and it is unpeopled.

    Yeats's Poetic Codes by Nicholas Grene

    Nicholas Grene -- already recognised as a scholarly authority on theatre -- brings a lifetime's enthusiasm for Yeats's poetry to brilliant fruition in this formidably knowledgeable, yet highly readable, book. By paying minute attention to the "distinctive stylistic signatures" of Yeats's poetry, Grene has produced a uniquely insightful and revealing work, one of the very finest studies of this much-studied poet.

    Into the Heart of European Poetry by John Taylor

    An American, long resident in France, John Taylor is one of the critical wonders of the Western European world. Awesomely knowledgeable and invariably fair-minded, his book presents essay-length considerations of contemporary poets from Luis Cernuda and Yves Bonnefoy to Radmila Lazic and Marzanna Kielar.

    To the Castle and Back by Vaclav Havel (Portobello)

    Part memoir, part interview; part apologia, part wry recollection, this fascinating mosaic of memories -- from one of the few heroic politicians of the age -- restores Vaclav Havel to his former role as writer. Years of speechwriting have not diminished his flair for literary and dramatic writing. Here is a rare figure, equally deserving of a Nobel Prize for literature and for peace.

  • Tuesday Top Ten -- Dave Boling

    Tue, 07 Apr 2009 02:29

    Dave Boling |

    Dave Boling is a writer based in Seattle and is married to a Basque woman. Guernica is a beautiful epic of love and family that calls to mind Captain Corelli's Mandolin and The English Patient.

    Dave says, "This is a list of the most recent 10 books I've read that caused me to say: 'Gee, I wish I'd written this.'"

    City of Thieves by David Benioff

    The perfect example of how to take a small slice of a big war and craft it so it humanizes the entire conflict.

    The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

    The heartbreaking account of the day-to-day lives and deaths in a city under siege. He makes you hear the percussion of the bombs, the pizzicato of the snipers, and the bow strokes of the mournful cello.

    The Zero by Jess Walter

    One deeply affected individual captures the communal disorientation in the aftermath of 9-11. National Book Award finalist, and maybe just slightly better than his marvelous Citizen Vince.

    Echo Maker by Richard Powers

    A rare neurological disorder, a doctor with dubious motives, a phantom sister, a mystery and a huge flock of migratory cranes. Powers makes them dazzle.

    Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner

    The first chapter is worth the price of the book. A very intelligent look at revolutionary Cuba in the 50s.

    The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch

    Lynch takes you on a beautiful trip into the mind of a loner kid driven by alternating surges of ecological conscience and teenaged hormones.

    Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo

    Typically enjoyable Russo only bigger and more so.

    Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

    Beautifully restrained Nordic blues.

    A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell

    Tragic story elegantly told.

    Rabbit Run by John Updike

    I started my reread of this as a memorial on the day of Updike's death. It felt like revisiting the early chapters of his career.

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    Of his own background, Jeremy Weingard says, "in the past, my kin have fought Cossacks, serially deserted from the Russian army, and even turned Communist on occasion, usually once safely located somewhere like Leeds. My own contribution to the fate of the Russian people will be revealed in my memoirs."

    Jeremy is the author of Made in Yaroslavl, here is his Tuesday Top Ten:

    Kirby: King of Comics by Mark Evanier

    Jack Kirby had perhaps the most prolific and far-ranging imagination of any creative artist operating in the last century. His characters jump out of the page at you, the very definition of larger than life. This beautifully illustrated book by Kirby co-conspirator Mark Evanier explains how one man and a pencil created hundreds of tales and thousands of characters that became the folklore of the 20th century and beyond.

    Solomon Gursky was Here by Mordechai Richler

    If Charles Dickens had been a Jewish-Canadian magic realist, he might have written Solomon Gursky was Here. As it happens, Mordechai Richler was on hand to set down the sprawling saga of the Gursky dynasty and its uncanny grip on the course of Canadian and world history. Well worth a read even for those with no previous interest in Canada, coal mining, bootlegging or writing articles for the New Yorker.

    Dracula by Bram Stoker

    While not the first vampire novel, Dracula effectively created its own genre. Some see it as a metaphor for the fear of immigration; others see it as a story about a man who sleeps in a soil-filled coffin and likes to bite people. Either way, the unusual structure and extreme tension make for a thrilling tale that might have ended a lot more quickly if only Abraham van Helsing would have quit parcelling out critical information one chapter at a time.

    Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

    I see all of Haruki Murakami's fiction as taking place in a dream world where our logic just does not apply. If you like jazz, missing cats and mapping the border of Outer Mongolia, you can lose yourself for days in this one.

    The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

    Chabon's fictionalised account of the creation of The Escapist comic book is painfully close to the truth of the birth of 'real' superhero comics. I usually steer clear of novels that use a World War Two setting to lend gravitas to their tale. Chabon, however, is totally convincing as he explains how The Escapist offers a necessary wish-fulfilling fantasy for the helpless victims of that bleak moment in history.

    Pyongyang by Guy Delisle

    Not so much a graphic novel as a graphic documentary. Delisle presents vignettes of his experiences managing a team of animation artists in the North Korean capital. His uniquely expressive cartooning captures the banality, oddity and sheer terror of everyday life in a manner that would simply have been impossible for a prose writer.

    Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

    A love letter to the power of maths and codes. Stephenson has hit on the brilliant idea of writing science fiction about the past, a method that he perfected in his Baroque Cycle. Stephenson pulls off the great trick of providing an almost intimidating amount of information on a huge number of topics without forgetting to supply the reader with an intriguing plot.

    Straight Life by Art and Laurie Pepper

    The archetypal biography that reads like fiction. Art Pepper was a jazz alto saxophonist with a bittersweet sound and virtuoso ability. After a bright start in the 1940s and 1950s, heroin addiction gave him a decade of squandered talent, prison time and near-death experiences. Straight Life doesn't offer any excuses, showing instead that you don't always need a beautiful soul to make beautiful music.

    Infinite Jest David Foster Wallace

    Unfortunately, it is now hard to discuss Infinite Jest without remembering the untimely demise of its author. Before Foster Wallace's death, it was hard to discuss it without mentioning its enormous length and compulsive use of footnotes. Behind all of this lies a very human story about addiction, tennis and television. I rarely felt that Wallace was being arch or ironic for the sake of it, an enormous achievement in a book that some people see as the epitome of post-modernism.

    The Complete Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

    The finest comic strip ever. Except for Charles Schultz' Peanuts, but you might need to build an extension to accommodate the entire fifty-year run.

  • Tuesday Top Ten -- Gail Ashton

    Tue, 24 Mar 2009 03:38

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    Gail Ashton is an editor, reviewer and author of numerous academic books on medieval literature, and publishes poetry and short stories. Her debut collection, Ghost Songs, is with Cinnamon Press and she has co-edited two poetry anthologies, In the Telling and Only Connect. She is currently working on her next collection, Owl-Talk.

    When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

    This is the third in Atkinson's sequence of novels about Jackson Brodie, private investigator, and reunites him, briefly, with Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe. I normally dislike crime fiction but in Atkinson's hands it's something different, a surprising, joyous romp of improbable and hectic events peopled by credible and quirky characters -- here the marvellous Scots girl Reggie. And beneath the humour there is always melancholy, the painful truths of unspeakable and life-shattering drama like that of the six year old who witnesses the murder of her family at the start of this novel.

    The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

    No matter how many times I read this I am shocked by the repressive dystopia Atwood presents, not least because it all seems so possible. This is not just a feminist story of Offred and her fellow handmaidens or a fiction about personal and state repression. It speaks to women and men, to the ways in which we all seek to write our own scripts in the face of authoritarian discourses. Above all, it's a story of hope, of stepping up into the light.

    The Remains of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

    The absurd yet ultimately deeply moving narration of Stevens the former butler to Lord Darlington, probable war-criminal is a masterpiece of storytelling. As he travels to the West Country on a rare holiday, he recounts the story of his life -- full of denials and evasions -- and moves towards a final meeting with his former housekeeper and lost love. The fact that my copy is falling to pieces says it all.

    Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

    The simplicity of Matilda's narration of the civil war on the island of Bougainville is what makes this book so sad, beautiful, intelligent and deeply moving. When the only white person there, Mr Watts, begins teaching the children the story of Great Expectations he stirs up an unrest that, at first amuses, then inexorably moves to a climax that devastates lives.

    Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

    I love all the dark, comic novels of Mantel but the relationship between the seemingly gentle Alison Hart, medium, and her hard-hearted accomplice Colette is what makes this one special. It is, too, a disturbing book for Alison's amiable and comforting demeanour conceals her torment by the terrors and ghosts of her past.

    Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

    From the opening pages when Mr Smith flies off the roof in his blue silk wings to the heart-stopping moment right at the end when Milkman faces his once best friend and a gun in the wilderness, this is a story about flights: from histories and culture, from families and each other, from the dead and the living, from those we love and those we cannot. Each time I read this one I see something new in it.

    Transformations by Anne Sexton

    When other kids were out and about I was tucked up in bed reading poetry of all kinds. Anne Sexton's largely neglected collection of twisted fairy tales with its casual, throw-away lines, popular references and serious, careful structure makes us all think again about the stories we tell each other and ourselves.

    Unless by Carol Shields

    Each time I reread this witty and deceptively light novel -- so typical of her style -- I am brought up short by the narrator Reta's account of her daughter's breakdown, in reality the story of her own effacement. From the acerbic asides to a new publisher who wants to reconstruct her as a more serious writer to the poignant 'letters' she never sends, this is a book about the power of language and a woman's voice, made all the more resonant by being the last thing Shields ever wrote.

    Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

    This amazing romp through the dark heart of Victorian London is a real page-turner. It's a love story, a story about identities, a melodrama, madness and a mystery rolled into one. Told, in turn, by Sue Trinder, orphan and petty thief and the seemingly hysterical Maud, this is one where to give away the twist in the tale completely ruins it.

    Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

    An unconventional love story, a medical and scientific treatise, a poetic lyric to the past and its power to write us, this is a beautiful book. For me, it's the best of Winterson, full of all her usual quirks, strengths and, yes, irritations, and one that stays with you long after "we are let loose in open fields".

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