Bookface Blog

Archive by tag: Matthew ReiszReturn
Sep 05, 2022

This Bond versus the Beatles study works best as a series of lively historical nuggets rather than a fight for the nation’s cultural soul

It is a curious fact that the Beatles’ debut single, Love Me Do, and the first James Bond film, Dr No, were both released on Friday 5 October 1962. No one could have predicted that we would still be thrilled by the band’s music six decades later, or that the film franchise would still be going strong. John Higgs, however, had the intriguing idea of exploring their creation, development and afterlives in parallel.

Though he inevitably covers some well-trodden territory, much of the detail is poignant and entertaining. In the early days of Beatlemania, Ringo Starr’s house was surrounded by fans 24 hours a day. His mother, Elsie, politely offered them sandwiches – which they took away, uneaten, as souvenirs. A friend admitted it was “awkward, particularly as the toilet was still in the yard”. The rulers of the Soviet Union, anxious about the rise of western youth culture, made strenuous efforts to discredit the Beatles. One article depicted them as monkeys and called them “Dung Beatles”, while a propaganda film, reports Higgs, bizarrely “intercut unflattering photographs of [the band] together with images of the Ku Klux Klan, ecstatic pop fans dancing, burning crosses and images of rural poverty from the American south”.

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Aug 06, 2022

The playwright on branching out into poetry, contemporaries he admires and his need to challenge audiences’ beliefs

David Hare, 75, is the author of more than 30 stage plays, many of them dealing with politics and major British institutions, including Plenty, Racing Demon, Stuff Happens and The Absence of War. He has also written (and sometimes directed) numerous screenplays and television series such as Collateral and Roadkill. We Travelled, just published in paperback, brings together reminiscences, reflections on his ideal theatre, political polemic and tributes to some of the artists he admires – as well as a selection of his poetry, published for the first time.

What led you to write – and now publish – poetry?
I started writing poetry because [my wife] Nicole [Farhi, the fashion designer turned sculptor] complained that I never wrote about her. And I said, considering the kind of writer I was, it was probably a great compliment! I began with love poetry and then expanded from there. I published it privately as a 70th birthday present to myself… There is obviously a poetry establishment in this country [and] people said I was very brave to write poetry when I knew nothing about “the state of poetry”.

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Jul 19, 2022

The artist goes on the trail of her mother’s father, a German second world war general, in this unsettling memoir of transgenerational guilt

A week after she was born to an English father and German mother, Angela Findlay’s maternal grandfather died. Yet “like a relay racer passing on a baton”, she writes, “he handed me something… just as we might inherit the physical or character traits of our forebears, we can inherit their unresolved emotions, traumas or crimes”.

Much of this strange, powerful but rather unsatisfactory memoir explores Findlay’s relationship with her difficult mother, Jutta. Glamorous, energetic and sociable, she was also a woman for whom “any allusion to weakness or failure always seemed to evoke the opposite of sympathy or compassion”. She often made remarks about her daughters’ weight and imagined futures for them involving “a sensible job with a vibrant social life, puffed up like a meringue in silk taffeta dresses, charming husband in tow”. The family learned to “tread warily” and “collude in protecting [her] inner vulnerability”.

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Jul 11, 2022

The author brilliantly unmasks the devious strategies large companies use to deflect, neutralise and counter any science that threatens profits, but offers no remedy for the problem

When evidence emerged that smoking was linked to lung cancer, tobacco companies formulated a clear strategy. By investing in doubt and even denial, as Jennifer Jacquet puts it, they delivered delay. So they suggested that the case was not yet watertight, that factors other than smoking were involved or that we needed more research. And that put off the day when governments insisted on warning labels, consumers changed their buying habits and companies faced legal challenges. In the same way, eye-wateringly expensive efforts to deny – or cast severe doubt on – the clear conclusions of climate science have delivered huge “payoffs” for interested parties such as oil companies, including what the book describes as “effectively zero legally binding international policy”.

The basic story may be broadly familiar, but Jacquet has found a brilliantly effective way of revealing just how extensive and systematic such corporate strategies are – by creating a machiavellian secret guide for executives worried about what the latest science might mean for their business. The Playbook claims to “contain sensitive information” and to be “not meant for distribution”. Countless examples of corporate deviousness are presented as success stories. Whenever research “implicates a product in a problem”, we read, companies and other interested parties should rely on a tried-and-tested, four-stage “arsenal” of responses.

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Jun 12, 2022

The gripping and heroic story of Rudolf Vrba, who escaped the death camp in order to tell the world about its horrors

It was around September 1942, the month when he turned 18, that Rudolf Vrba came to a momentous decision. He had been imprisoned in Auschwitz since June and was working on the ramp where most new arrivals were sent directly to their deaths. SS men would sometimes reassure them or even joke with them right up to the doors of the gas chambers.

What Vrba realised, writes Jonathan Freedland, is that streamlined mass murder depended on “one cardinal principle: that the people who came to Auschwitz did not know where they were going or for what purpose”, since “it’s much easier to slaughter lambs than it is to hunt deer”. It would be his mission to “escape and sound the alarm”.

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Jun 11, 2022

The French-Algerian author on teenage fame, the parallels between her and Zinedine Zidane, and why she admires Bernardine Evaristo

Faïza Guène is the bestselling, award-winning French-Algerian author of six novels largely set among the Algerian community living in the outskirts of Paris. She shot to fame in 2004 at 19 with the publication of Kiffe kiffe demain (Just Like Tomorrow), which used street slang to capture the world of 15-year-old Doria, growing up on the ill-named Paradise estate. Her latest novel, Discretion, tells the story of the Taleb family over seven decades, and their journey from a small village in Algeria to the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers.

Why did you put the matriarch Yamina, whose French-born children are nourished and overwhelmed by a love that “overflows like the Mediterranean”, at the heart of your book?
There are a few memoirs, and studies by historians or sociologists, about immigrant Algerian workers in France. These [men] had a role to play, even if they were exploited, whereas the women stayed at home. So we never heard from them. It was important to me that a woman like that should be the central character of my story.

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Apr 24, 2022

The story of a co-educational boarding school that was spirited from Hitler’s Germany to the Kent countryside is structurally flawed but emotionally compelling

In May 1926, Anna Essinger opened a progressive co-educational boarding school at Ulm in Germany. When Hitler came to power in 1933, she realised that the new regime was opposed to everything she stood for and, writes Deborah Cadbury, “resolved to move her entire establishment, lock, stock and barrel, out of Germany, right under the noses of the Nazi authorities”.

So Essinger set off with “an advance party of six teachers and six senior boys and girls to make preparations in England for the arrival of the others. Sixty-five children would follow two weeks later.” To ensure secrecy, each of the three separate groups “masquerad[ed] as day trippers on a picnic with a member of staff”.

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Apr 10, 2022

The Oxford psychology professor traces the evolutionary advantages, or otherwise, of faith

Robin Dunbar sets out to offer nothing less than “an overarching theory for why and how humans are religious”. Unlike most writers on such themes, he is largely uninterested in the truth or otherwise of religious claims and has little to say about the damage caused by religions, although he does touch on their “militant violence” and the predatory promiscuity we find among the charismatic leaders of small cults. But he is intrigued by the “seeming universality” of religions and their constant tendency to fragment. His stimulating and hugely ambitious book, therefore, uses a variety of different approaches to throw light on three really big questions: “the functions that religion has served”, “the psychological and neurobiological mechanisms that make this possible” and “the timing of the origins of religion”.

At the emotional heart of religion, as Dunbar sees it, is something he calls “the mystical stance”, which includes “a susceptibility to enter trance-like states”, “belief in a transcendental (or spirit) world” and “a belief that we can call on hidden power(s) to help us”. Though sophisticated systems of theology have obviously been built on these foundations, “beneath the surface veneer of doctrinal rectitude lurks an ancient foundation of pagan mystical religion”. One of the key questions is how the original immersive or shamanic forms of religion develop into elaborate doctrinal religions.

How Religion Evolved: And Why It Endures by Robin Dunbar is published by Pelican (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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Mar 27, 2022

This grimly fascinating insight into the aftermath of major tragedies by a disaster recovery expert exposes a ‘slow rot’ in emergency planning – and reveals how to help victims’ families with closure

As a leading adviser on disaster recovery, Lucy Easthope has often witnessed the effects of “nuclear incidents, chemical attacks, pandemics, food shortages, fuel shortages, trains and plane crashes, volcanoes and tsunamis”. Yet when she arrives at another scene of carnage, she tells us, she is “always struck by how fine the line between catastrophe and the rest of the world can be”. Her enthralling new book draws back the curtain on the crucial but largely hidden work of planning for emergencies, intervening when the worst happens – and then trying to bring communities back from the brink.

Easthope describes herself as “a child of the indomitable city of Liverpool”. She was deeply affected by the Hillsborough disaster while at school and spent her summer holidays on work experience assignments with her uncle and aunt, both coroners in northern towns. She studied law at university, worked as a researcher on a television drama about Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland and then took a master’s degree in disaster management.

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Feb 13, 2022

Simon Parkin unearths the story of German Jewish refugee Peter Fleischmann, who became a painter while a prisoner in a second world war camp on the Isle of Man

In the days leading up to the outbreak of the second world war, writes Simon Parkin, the British police and intelligence services were “deluged with tipoffs about suspicious refugees and foreigners”. A beekeeper was detained when investigators found a diary entry reading “Exchange British queen for Italian queen”. An art historian was reported by a neighbour who had heard some suspicious knocking noises (perhaps a secret coded message?) produced by the bed while he was having sex with his fiancee.

By the time Churchill became prime minister in May 1940, the mood was even more fevered. Imminent invasion seemed highly likely and the country, inflamed by sensationalist newspaper articles, was deeply worried about the “fifth column menace”. The government could therefore claim popular support for its decision to intern all “enemy aliens”. Yet these included thousands of Jews and other opponents of Nazism who now found themselves locked up with German prisoners of war and other committed fascists.

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