Review: Penguin Underground Lines – various authors

IMG_53162013 sees the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, “the tube”, and Penguin books have brought out twelve small books (available either singly or as a boxed set), one for each tube line, commemorating the wonderfully eccentric tube line which serves the Britain;s capital.

I found this to be a fascinating collection with a wide range of styles and themes.  The design qualities are excellent, as you might expect from Penguin with a consistent look and feel while allowing distinctive covers for each book.  This is a very pleasing set of books – I am not a book collector in any sense of the word but I can see this set’s appeal to almost anyone for whom the tube is a daily habit (or ordeal).

I’m not going to go through each book but will give a few “honourable mentions” plucked not quite at random from this set.  Firstly, John Lanchester’s What We Talk About When We Talk About The Tube, is a potted history of the tube system, describing how the tube in some ways defined London.  Where the tube went London followed, with suburbs extending along the tracks and villages appearing where stations were built.  John describes his personal history of the tube then writes about the experiences of being firstly a passenger and secondly being in the driver’s cab.  If ever you want a short book about the tube, it’s history and what it means today then this is it.

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Review: Keeping Up With The Germans – Philip Oltermann

keepint up with the germansAnyone who has visited Germany will come away impressed by the similarities between our two countries. We Britons find much to admire in Germany but the Germans tend to admire British culture and our way of life also. When Philip Oltermann was 16, his parents told him that his father had accepted a posting to London and now, 17 years later, Philip has written this book, Keeping Up With The Germans – A History of Anglo-German Encounters, a collection of reflections, analyses and random facts about the friendly but often uneasy relationship between our two countries.

Philip did rather well in Britain.  While at school he was selected to join an elite group of boys studying A-level in Philosophy.  He eventually went up to Oxford University and is now a deputy editor on The Guardian.  His book is a very wide-ranging mixture containing chapters which discuss some complex philosophical and linguistic ideas, and other chapters about football, humour and motoring.  If you’re prepared for this then it makes a thoughtful and entertaining read which I for one found very interesting.

It would be easy to write this review entirely by quoting some of the more memorable passages from the book.  To see British culture through German eyes is not always an experience which makes you feel proud of your country, especially when for example, you read of Philip’s induction into the tradition of the British Sunday lunch.

“One of my father’s new colleagues had invited us for a welcoming meal which she announced as ‘a Sunday roast’ when we stepped into her house. We had barely taken off our jackets when our host – all wavy coiffured hair and buck teeth – hugged us emphatically and tried to kiss me on my cheeks. She had accompanied the words ‘Sunday roast’ with a showy movement of the hands, like a butler lifting a silver dish cover, conveying an impression of ceremony and theatre. A Sunday roast, this hand movement tried to say, was not like any other meal”.

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Review: I Sleep in Hitler’s Room – Tuvia Tenenbom

I’ve read some strange books in my time, but this one certainly pushes the boundaries.  At first glance it seems to be a typical travel book in Bryson-esque style.  But with its title, I Sleep in Hitler’s Room – An American Jew Visits Germany, you know from the start that this is not going to be your usual travelogue.

I first encountered it from an article in the English edition of German weekly magazine Der Spiegel, and being a bit of a Germano-phile (I love travelling in the Germany), I thought I would see what it was like.

Tuvia Tenenbom is the son of Holocaust survivors and also Founding Artistic Director of the Jewish Theater of New York.  He was invited to write this book by the publishing company Rowohlt Verlag, one of the biggest in Germany. The company’s representative asked him if he would like to come to Germany, to “travel around the country a few months, and write a book about my experiences”.  By the time Tenenbom had submitted the draft of his book he found himself in serious dispute with the publishers who evidently did not feel that they have got what they bargained for.

The scurrilous, partisan, rude and hilarious manuscript ended up being red-penned to the degree that Tenenbom felt that he could no longer be associated with it and the publishers refused to publish it without major changes.  Tenenbom eventually published the book himself in the USA and finally this year, a German version was published but with quite a number of deletions of passages which may have fallen foul of German law.  In the English version reviewed here, you get the complete text, a book which I found to be one of the funniest and also the most controversial things I have read this year.

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Review – Are We Related? Granta Books

This is the 200th full-length review I’ve published on A Common Reader.  A sort of milestone. . .

I have been subscribing to Granta magazine for quite a few years now and enjoy its quality writing on a vast range of subjects.  Its a well-produced journal, not the sort of thing you want to throw away, and I find with most editions that there are one or two articles which still in my mind and make me want to come back to them, often years later.  Articles (both fiction and factual) are written by a wide range of writers, including such notables Jonathan Raban, Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie, Lionel Shriver, Paul Auster, Elaine Showalter and countless others.

Every so often a book comes your way which is satisfying in many different ways.  In Are We Related? The New Granta Book of the Family the writing is excellent and the variety of pieces is sufficiently wide that every one comes as a surprise when you read it.  The physicality of the book is pleasing – it feels big and substantial, the typeface and layout work well.  Its a book you can dip in and out of and as you read it, you know its going to remain on your shelf to be dipped in and out of for years to come.

Liz Jobey (Associated Editor of Granta) has selected 27 pieces about the family, taken from Granta magazines from 1995 to the present day, all of which, whether fiction of non-fiction, explore the complexity of family relationships and the stresses and strains they generate (and occasional joys).

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Review: Born Yesterday – Gordon Burn

Gordon Burn died two weeks ago, after a writing career in which he developed a reputation for covering difficult subjects with a radical pen.  Burn sliced through the myths about celebrity and fame, whether dealing with notorious criminals (Fred and Rosemary West, Myra Hindley, Peter Sutcliffe), or well known figures in the entertainment and sporting worlds (George Best, Alma Cogan).

Despite his subject matter, Gordon Burn was never prurient or out to shock, but wanted to get behind the person to the reasons for their actions and the meaning of what they did.  He came to his topics dispassionately but shone a torch into murky corners to show the complicit systems in media and politics that supported the lives of outcasts and celebrities alike.

Burn was not a run of the mill author.  His friend the artist Damien Hurst wrote in an article in the Guardian, “I really do think he was the greatest writer, the best writer of our generation on art. It was because he was a novelist that he was so good: he brought something else to the table. There is so much bullshit and art-speak in the art world, it drives me nuts. Gordon cut through all of that”.

His last book, Born Yesterday is about as good a tribute to Gordon Burn as you could get.  It is a strange book, for at first glance it does not appear to be fiction at all, more like a rolling news review of 2007.  Burn covers many of the major news events of the year, including the abduction of Madeleine McCann, terror attacks at Glasgow airport, Gordon Brown’s succession from Tony Blair, the catastrophic flooding that affected great areas of the country.  All these stories are interleaved throughout the book, but as you read them you realise that this is not journalism at all. Continue reading

Review: Don’t Get Fooled Again – Richard Wilson

Scepticism about media, politics and finances comes naturally to most of us these days, particularly when people who should know better have brought the world to a state of economic crisis (did our rulers really not know that unfettered greed is no basis for an economic world-order?).  It is refreshing to read a book like Don’t Get Fooled Again, which takes our vague feeling that “things aren’t quite right” and shows us that gut instincts are often quite correct, and we really shouldn’t believe the utterances of any institution or public figure without first submitting them to some pretty stringent tests.

Richard Wilson puts forward a good case for scepticism, reminding his readers that humanity has a long history of “meekly engaging in depraved acts of inhumanity on the basis of ideas that turned out to be total gibberish”.

Much of his book focuses on the public relations industry, citing a number of case studies to show how opinion can be manipulated.  He devotes a whole chapter to the way tobacco companies in the 1950s manipulated news organisations to question the increasingly obvious link between smoking and lung cancer.  The strategy consisted of getting an influential academic on-side (geneticist Clarence Cook Little in this case), and using him to question every scrap of evidence which research scientists gathered supporting the need for anti-smoking legislation.

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Review: Keith Laidler – Surveillance Unlimited

Like most British people today, I frequently read about the intrusion of public and private organisations into my private life, whether local councils putting gizmos into my dustbin or security cameras watching my every move as I walk down the street. It is only on reading a a book like Surveillance Unlimited: How We’ve Become the Most Watched People on Earth that you realise quite the extent of surveillance on your every move, and if you have paranoiac tendencies then this is definitely the book to avoid (but essential reading for everyone else).

Keith Laidler begins his book by describing a typical day in the life of a “database citizen”, from arriving home by plane after a business trip to Germany, traveling across London using his Oystercard, driving home and stopping for petrol, and using his mobile to phone his wife (and inadvertently joking that “there was no Al Qaeda attack on the plane”, thus triggering an analysis of his call).  By this time its only midday, and when John finally gets to eat dinner with his wife in the evening, over 20 surveillance interventions have been recorded.

Government and the commercial world have today achieved the “tyrant’s dream” in which it is possible to listen into the telephone conversations of every citizen, read their email, track their movements, profile their lifestyle, preferences and political affiliation.  And as Laidler points out repeatedly through his book, the legal structures necessary to prevent abuse lag far behind the abilities of the new technologies.  I used to think that perhaps it doesn’t matter very much as no-one would be interested in me, but having read this book, I can see the power of data mining and aggregation, which enable a vast range of officials and private companies to gain access to my private life, and most importantly, to get it terribly wrong and then to inflict untold unjust penalties on my through their own mistakes and incompetencies.

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