Sunday, August 24, 2008

Cold War by Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing

From where we are now, it is possible to look back with a certain nostalgia to the cold war, a period of immobility in world affairs that brought with it "a strange sort of peace". In a new Afterword (Cold War first appeared in 1998 to complement a BBC2 series), Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing argue that we now live in a more uncertain world of "fraught and perilous disorder", as cold war stability gives way to movement and flux, resurgent nationalism, nuclear proliferation and terrorism.


The Barefoot Emperor : An Ethiopian Tragedy by Philip Marsden

"Vile carcass! How dare you bandy words with your king? Down with the man and beat him till there is not a breath in his worthless body!" Emperor Tewodros II, King of Kings of Ethiopia, was not a man to cross. The poor wretch addressed here was "mashed" to a bloody pulp.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

To the Castle and Back by Václav Havel

When Václav Havel first entered Prague Castle after becoming president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, he and his team ("a group of friends from various branches of the arts") found wires and concealed microphones everywhere, and a map revealing secret rooms. It was "an enchanted Kafkaesque castle" and, as he reveals in this candid memoir, his time there frequently struck him as absurd.


Saturday, August 9, 2008

Mortal Coil : A Short History of Living Longer by David Boyd Haycock

David Boyd Haycock can remember "crying at the tragedy of death" at the age of five or six. His mother consoled him by saying that when he grew up everyone would live to be at least 120. And now he has written a book on the subject, covering 400 years of research into prolonging life. The good news is that more of us are reaching our hundredth birthdays than ever before. The bad news is that "we still do not fully understand the processes of senescence and death".


Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light

Virginia Woolf would have preferred to be waited upon by robots or to have lived in a world "where I turn a handle and hot mutton chops are shot out on a plate - human agencies entirely ignored".


London Lights : The Minds That Moved the City That Shook the World, 1805-51 by James Hamilton

Like London itself, this is a rather untidy, sprawling book. It grew out of material left over from Hamilton's critically acclaimed biographies of JMW Turner and Michael Faraday, and it's a sort of compendium of loosely connected lives - some obscure or forgotten, but all of them, in some way, helping to create the idea of London as the capital of the world.


Saturday, August 2, 2008


Lawrence Ferlinghetti
A Coney Island of the Mind
94pp. New Directions. $23.95. 978-0-8112-1747-7

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind (1958) is an amusement park for the imagination, a “circus of the soul”, as he calls it, where “the poet like an acrobat / climbs on rime / to a high wire of his own making”. These poems were composed to be read aloud, so it is fitting that this handsome 50th anniversary edition includes a CD. The elderly Ferlinghetti’s smoky-oaky reading voice is reminiscent of William Burroughs’s, if one swaps Burroughs’s icy malevolence for a far sunnier lyrical irony. Also included are three marvellous tracks from the 1957 LP Poetry Readings in the Cellar, where a young Ferlinghetti entertains a giggling audience with three poems – notably “Autobiography”, probably the best-known poem in A Coney Island of the Mind – punctuated by brief bursts of music from the Cellar Jazz Quintet.

Although a key player in the San Francisco Renaissance, Ferlinghetti was born in New York in 1920 and he does a mean impression of a Brooklyn tough, as well as a brash Italian-American (his father was Italian). His romantic, lyrical side frequently harks back to New York and the “fields of our childhood”, while observing that “our ‘fields’ were streets”. In a beautiful poem from his first book Pictures of the Gone World (1955), a selection from which also appears in this edition, he recalls a “summer in Brooklyn / when they closed off the street / one hot day / and the / FIREMEN / turned on their hoses / and all the kids ran out in it.”

In Ferlinghetti’s circus the poet is a clown, “a little charleychaplin man” (as befits the co-founder of the City Lights Bookstore and publishing house), and this collection is full of a literate good humour, sprinkled with borrowings from Shakespeare, Yeats, Eliot, Joyce and Beckett (“I’m tired of waiting for Godot,” he says in “Junkman’s Obbligato”). Somehow even the corniest lines retain their charm. What dates this collection most, perhaps, is its machismo, the references to “spilled sperm seed” and “penis erectus”, as well as naked women and their breasts (a Keatsian pursuit of Beauty is a constant theme). But one suspects that it was these elements, too, that helped to make it a bestseller in its day.