Anyone alive in the 18th century would have known that ‘the longitude problem’ was the thorniest scientific dilemma of the day – and had been for centuries. Lacking the ability to measure their longitude, sailors throughout the great ages of exploration had been literally lost at sea as soon as they lost sight of land. Thousands of lives, and the increasing fortunes of nations, hung on a resolution.
The quest for a solution had occupied scientists and their patrons for the better part of two centuries when, in 1714, Parliament upped the ante by offering a king’s ransom (£20,000) to anyone whose method or device proved successful. Countless quacks weighed in with preposterous suggestions. The scientific establishment throughout Europe – from Galileo to Sir Isaac Newton – had mapped the heavens in both hemispheres in its certain pursuit of a celestial answer. In stark contrast, one man, John Harrison, dared to imagine a mechanical solution.
Full of heroism and chicanery, brilliance and the absurd, ‘Longitude’ is also a fascinating brief history of astronomy, navigation and clockmaking.
‘Toast’ is Nigel Slater’s truly extraordinary story of a childhood remembered through food. Whether relating his mother’s ritual burning of the toast, his father’s dreaded Boxing Day stew or such culinary highlights as Arctic Roll and Grilled Grapefruit (then considered something of a status symbol in Wolverhampton) this remarkable memoir vividly recreates daily life in sixties surburban England.
His mother was a chops-and-peas sort of cook, exasperated by the highs and lows of a temperamental AGA, a finicky little son and the asthma that was to prove fatal. His father was a honey-and-crumpets man who could occasionally go off ‘crack’ like a gun. When Nigel’s widowed father takes on a housekeeper with social aspirations and a talent in the kitchen, the following years become a heartbreaking cooking contest for his father’s affections. But as he slowly loses the battle, Nigel finds a new outlet for his culinary talents, and we witness the birth of what was to become a lifelong passion for food.
Nigel’s likes and dislikes, aversions and sweet-toothed weaknesses form a fascinating and amusing backdrop to this incredibly moving and deliciously evocative memoir of childhood, adolescence and sexual awakening.
In 1963 a schoolboy browsing in his local library stumbled across the world’s greatest mathematical problem: Fermat’s Last Theorem, a puzzle that every child can understand but which has baffled mathematicians for over 300 years. Aged just ten, Andrew Wiles dreamed that he would crack it.
Wiles’s lifelong obsession with a seemingly simple challenge set by a long-dead Frenchman is an emotional tale of sacrifice and extraordinary determination. In the end, he was forced to work in secrecy and isolation for seven years, harnessing all the power of modern mathematics to achieve his childhood dream. Many before him had tried and failed, including a 18-century philanderer who was killed in a duel, and an 18-century Frenchwoman who had to attend maths lectures at the Ecole Polytechnique disguised as a man.
A remarkable story of human endeavour and intellectual brilliance over three centuries, ‘Fermat‘s Last Theorem’ will fascinate both specialist and general readers.
Lorna Sage’s memoir of childhood and adolescence is a brilliantly written bravura piece of work, which vividly and wickedly brings to life her eccentric family and somewhat bizarre upbringing in the small town of Hanmer, on the border between Wales and Shropshire. The period as well as the place is evoked with crystal clarity: from the 1940s, dominated for Lorna by her dissolute but charismatic vicar grandfather, through the 1950s, where the invention of fish fingers revolutionised the lives of housewives like Lorna’s mother, to the brink of the 1960s, where the community is shocked by Lorna’s pregnancy at 16, an event which her grandmother blamed on ‘the fiendish invention of sex’.
Often extremely funny,and always intelligent, this unique memoir was instantly hailed as a classic upon its first publication.
The sinking of the whaleship Essex by an enraged spermwhale in the Pacific in November 1820 set in motion one of the most dramatic sea stories of all time: the twenty sailors who survived the wreck took to three small boats (one of which was again attacked by a whale) and only eight of them survived their subsequent 90-day ordeal, after resorting to cannibalising their mates.
Three months after the Essex was broken up, the whaleship Dauphin, cruising off the coast of South America, spotted a small boat in the open ocean. As they pulled alongside they saw piles of bones in the bottom of the boat, at least two skeletons’ worth, with two survivors – almost skeletons themselves – sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead ship-mates.
‘That room for all of us, became a place of transgression. What a wonderland it was! Sitting around the large coffee table covered with bouquets of flowers … We were, to borrow from Nabokov, to experience how the ordinary pebble of ordinary life could be transformed into a jewel through the magic eye of fiction.’
For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Azar Nafisi gathered seven young women at her house every Thursday morning to read and discuss forbidden works of Western literature. They were all former students whom she had taught at university. Some came from conservative and religious families, others were progressive and secular; several had spent time in jail. Shy and uncomfortable at first, they soon began to open up and speak more freely, not only about the novels they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments. Their stories intertwined with those they were reading – ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Washington Square’, ‘Daisy Miller’ and ‘Lolita’ – their Lolita, as they imagined her in Tehran. Nafisi’s account flashes back to the early days of the revolution when she first started teaching at the University of Tehran amid the swirl of protests and demonstrations. In those frenetic days, the students took control of the university, expelled faculty members and purged the curriculum.
Azar Nafisi’s luminous tale offers a fascinating portrait of the Iran-Iraq war viewed from Tehran and gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women’s lives in revolutionary Iran. It is a work of great passion and poetic beauty, written with a startlingly original voice.
‘Stuart, A Life Backwards’, is the story of a remarkable friendship between a reclusive writer and illustrator (‘a middle class scum ponce, if you want to be honest about it, Alexander) and a chaotic, knife-wielding beggar whom he gets to know during a campaign to release two charity workers from prison.
Interwoven into this is Stuart’s confession: the story of his life, told backwards. With humour, compassion (and exasperation) Masters slowly works back through post-office heists, prison riots and the exact day Stuart discovered violence, to unfold the reasons why he changed from a happy-go-lucky little boy into a polydrug-addicted-alcoholic Jekyll and Hyde personality, with a fondness for what he called ‘little strips of silver’ (knives to you and me).
Funny, despairing, brilliantly written and full of surprises: this is the most original and moving biogrpahy of recent years.
It is a story of extreme hardship and suffering, in Brooklyn tenements and Limerick slums – too many children, too little money, his mother Angela barely coping as his father Malachy’s drinking bouts constantly brings the family to the brink of disaster. It is a story of courage and survival against apparently overwhelming odds.
Written with the vitality and resonance of a work of fiction, and with a remarkable absence of sentimentality, ‘Angela’s Ashes’ is imbued on every page with Frank McCourt’s distinctive humour and compassion. Out of terrible circumstances, he has created a glorious book in the tradition of Ireland’s literary masters, which bears all the marks of a great classic.