Good News in the Daily Grind

Your Coffee May Have Some Health Perks, but Can Brew Trouble in People With Certain Conditions

To judge by recent headlines, coffee could be the latest health-food craze, right up there with broccoli and whole-wheat bread.

But don’t think you’ll be healthier graduating from a tall to a venti just yet. While there has been a splash of positive news about coffee lately, there may still be grounds for concern.

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The Latest Findings on Coffee 

[HEALTHCOLjp]

  • Diabetes: Many studies find that coffee—decaf or regular—lowers the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, but caffeine raises blood sugar in people who already have it.
  • Cancer: Earlier studies implicating coffee in causing cancer have been disproven; may instead lower the risk of colon, mouth, throat and other cancers.
  • Heart disease: Long-term coffee drinking does not appear to raise the risk and may provide some protection.
  • Hypertension: Caffeine raises blood pressure, so sufferers should be wary.
  • Cholesterol: Some coffee—especially decaf—raises LDL, the bad kind of cholesterol.
  • Alzheimer’s: Moderate coffee drinking appears to be protective.
  • Osteoporosis: Caffeine lowers bone density, but adding milk can balance out the risk.
  • Pregnancy: Caffeine intake may increase the risk of miscarriage and low birth-weight babies.
  • Sleep: Effects are highly variable, but avoiding coffee after 3 p.m. can avert insomnia.
  • Mood: Moderate caffeine boosts energy and cuts depression, but excess amounts can cause anxiety.

Source: WSJ research

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This month alone, an analysis in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that people who drink three to four cups of java a day are 25% less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than those who drink fewer than two cups. And a study presented at an American Association for Cancer Research meeting found that men who drink at least six cups a day have a 60% lower risk of developing advanced prostate cancer than those who didn’t drink any.

Earlier studies also linked coffee consumption with a lower risk of getting colon, mouth, throat, esophageal and endometrial cancers. People who drink coffee are also less likely to have cavities, gallstones, cirrhosis of the liver, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, or to commit suicide, studies have found. Last year, researchers at Harvard University and the University of Madrid assessed data on more than 100,000 people over 20 years and concluded that the more coffee they drank, the less likely they were to die during that period from any cause.

But those studies come on the heels of older ones showing that coffee—particularly the caffeine it contains—raises blood pressure, heart rate and levels of homocysteine, an amino acid in blood that is associated with stroke and heart disease. Pregnant women who drink two or more cups of coffee a day have a higher rate of miscarriages and lower birth-weight babies; caffeine has also been linked to benign breast lumps and bone loss in elderly women. And, as many people can attest, coffee can also aggravate anxiety, irritability, heartburn and sleeplessness, which brings its own set of problems, including a higher risk of obesity. Yet it’s just that invigorating buzz that other people love and think they can’t get through the day without.

Why is there so much confusion about something that’s so ubiquitous? After all, some 54% of American adults drink coffee regularly—an estimated 400 million cups per day—and coffee is the second most widely traded commodity in the world, after oil.

For starters, the vast majority of coffee studies to date have been observational, in which researchers examine large sets of data over many years, looking for patterns in peoples’ habits and their health.

But subjects don’t always remember or report accurately on how much they drink. Cup sizes can range from 6 to 32 ounces; caffeine loads can vary from 75 to nearly 300 milligrams. Loading up with sugar, flavored syrup and whipped cream can turn a no-fat, almost no-calorie drink into the equivalent of an ice-cream soda.

Even carefully constructed observational studies that correct for such variables can only find correlations, not prove a cause-and-effect relationship. There may be other, hidden reasons why people who drink a lot of coffee have a lower risk of illness—such as jobs that provide a steady income and access to health care, exercise and healthier food. Conversely, “people who don’t feel that healthy may be less likely to drink six cups of coffee a day. … It’s just a possibility,” says Jim Lane, a psychophysiologist at Duke University Medical Center who has studied the effects of caffeine for more than 25 years.

Risks Disappear

Indeed, many studies from earlier decades that linked coffee drinking to a higher risk of cancer were apparently detecting related habits instead. Once researchers started adjusting for study subjects who also smoked cigarettes, the additional cancer risk disappeared.

“When I went to medical school, I was told that coffee was harmful. But in the ’90s and this decade, it’s become clear that if you do these studies correctly, coffee is protective in terms of public health,” says Peter R. Martin, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Vanderbilt University and director of the school’s Institute for Coffee Studies, founded in 1999 with a grant from coffee-producing countries.

Still, many researchers believe that the only way to draw firm conclusions about something like coffee is through experimental trials in which some subjects are exposed to measured doses and others get a placebo, with other variables tightly controlled. When that’s been done, says Duke’s Dr. Lane, “the experimental studies and the [observational] studies are in very sharp disagreement about whether caffeine is healthy or not.”

Harmful Effects

His own small, controlled studies have shown that caffeine—administered in precise doses in tablet form—raises blood pressure and blood-sugar levels after a meal in people who already have diabetes. Other studies have found that caffeine and stress combined can raise blood pressure even more significantly. “If you are a normally healthy person, that might not have any long-term effect,” says Dr. Lane. “But there are some groups of people who are predisposed to get high blood pressure and heart disease and for them, caffeine might be harmful over time.”

Epidemiologists counter that such small studies don’t mirror real-world conditions, and they can’t examine the long-term risk of disease.

The prostate-cancer study, for example, compared the coffee-drinking habits of 50,000 men working in medical professions with their incidence of prostate cancer over 20 years, and also took into account family history of prostate cancer and how frequently they had screenings. Roughly 5,000 of the men developed prostate cancer during that period, including 846 cases of the most advanced and lethal kind. But the more cups of coffee the men drank, the less likely they were to be in that most lethal group. “You can’t do a randomized controlled trial on men starting in their 20s and following them until they are old enough to get prostate cancer,” says lead investigator Kathryn Wilson, a research fellow in epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health. “For some of these questions, observational studies are the best we are going to get.”

As for diabetes, at least 18 studies have found that drinking three or more cups of coffee a day is linked with a lower risk of developing the disease. The more such findings are repeated, particularly with different populations, the stronger the evidence is.

Beyond Caffeine

In both the prostate and diabetes studies, the health benefits were found for caffeinated as well as decaffeinated coffee, suggesting that some other component in coffee is responsible. Coffee contains traces of hundreds of substances, including potassium, magnesium and vitamin E, as well as chlorogenic acids that are thought to have antioxidant properties.These may protect against cell damage and inflammation that can be precursors to cancer, diabetes, neurological disorders and cardiovascular disease.

One theory gaining credence is that some of those beneficial components may counterbalance some of the harmful effects of caffeine. For example, while caffeine keeps people awake in part by blocking adenosine, a brain chemical that brings on sleep, the chlorogenic acid in coffee keeps adenosine circulating in the brain longer.

And while caffeine seems to boost adrenaline that primes the body for action, coffee itself may have a calming effect. Even the aroma of coffee beans can help ease stress in rats, researchers at Seoul National University in South Korea showed in a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry last year. Chlorogenic acid also slows the release of glucose into the bloodstream after a meal, which may counteract caffeine’s glucose effect.

Benefits Cloaked in ‘Mays’

“It’s a yin and yang effect,” says Vanderbilt’s Dr. Martin, an addiction psychiatrist who also notes that former alcoholics who drink coffee are more apt to stay sober than those who don’t. Even though these studies are just associations, he says, “they may provide leads for us to better understand some of the most common illnesses that affect mankind as well as developing ways to treat them. But everything is cloaked in ‘mays.’ ”

Most researchers agree that there isn’t enough evidence about the benefits of coffee to encourage non-coffee drinkers to acquire the habit. And no one has come close to finding a recommended number of cups per day for optimum health. People’s reactions to coffee are highly individual. One small cup can give one person the jitters while others can drink 10 cups and sleep all night.

At the same time, people who love coffee probably don’t need to worry that they are harming their health by drinking it — unless they already have high blood pressure or are pregnant or are having trouble sleeping, in which case it’s prudent to cut down.

Even Dr. Lane, who thinks the risks of caffeine outweigh coffee’s potential benefits, concedes he drinks several cups a day. “Why do I do it?” he muses. “I ask myself that question …”

Melinda Beck, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703278604574624032849271284.html

Look Ahead With Stoicism—and Optimism

While so many of our institutions have failed, we can repair them. The first step is to take personal responsibility.

The accomplished and sophisticated attorney was asked what attitude he was bringing to the new year. “Stoicism and mindless optimism,” he laughed, which sounded just about right. He meant it, he said, about the stoicism. He had immersed himself in that rough old philosophy after 9/11, and had come to adopt it as his own. But he meant it about the optimism, too: You never know, things get better, begin with good cheer, maintain your equilibrium, don’t lose your peace.

We’re at the clean start of a new decade, and it wouldn’t be bad if the national watchwords were repair, rebuild and return, with an eye toward what is now our central project, though we haven’t fully noticed, and that is keeping our country together. So many forces exist to tear us apart. We have to do what we can to hold together in the long run.

We have been through a hard 10 years. They were not, as some have argued, the worst ever, or even the worst of the past century. The ’30s started with the Great Depression, featured the rise of Hitler and Stalin, and ended with World War II. That’s a bad decade for you. In the ’60s we saw our leaders assassinated, our great cities hit by riots, a war tear our country apart.

But the ‘OOs were hard, starting with a disputed presidential election, moving on to the shocked pain of 9/11, marked by an effort to absorb the fact that we had entered the age of terror, and ending with a historic, world-shaking economic crash.

Maybe the most worrying trend the past 10 years can be found in this phrase: “They forgot the mission.” So many great American institutions—institutions that every day help hold us together—acted as if they had forgotten their mission, forgotten what they were about, what their role and purpose was, what they existed to do. You, as you read, can probably think of an institution that has forgotten its reason for being. Maybe it’s the one you’re part of.

We saw an example this week with the federal government, which whatever else it does has a few very essential missions to perform that only it can perform, such as maintaining the national defense. Our federal government now does 10 million things, many of them not so well. Its attention is scattered. It loses sight of the essentials, which is part of the reason underpants bombers wind up on airplanes.

Wall Street the past 10 years truly and profoundly lost sight of its mission. It exists to be the citadel of American finance. Its job is to grow and invest and enrich, thereby making the jobs possible that help family exist.

Wall Street has a civic purpose. But it must always do its job with an eye to prudence, because a big part of its job is to provide a secure and grounded economic footing for the nation. But throughout the ’00s Wall Street’s leaders gave themselves over to one thing, and that was looking out, always, for No. 1. And they knew how to define No. 1. It wasn’t the country, and it wasn’t even the company. They’d crater companies, parachute out, and brag about it later.

If there was one damning and utterly illustrative quote that captured Wall Street in the past 10 years it was that of Charles Prince, CEO of Citigroup, in July 2007. Worrying investment trends were beginning to emerge, but why slow down? He told The New York Times, “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.” This from a banker, a leader, a citizen, a man responsible for a community.

Congress forgot the mission, or rather continued more than ever to seem to have forgotten the mission. They weren’t there to legislate with a long view, they were there to be re-elected and help the team, the red one or the blue one. This is not a new story, only a worsened one.

The Catholic Church, as great and constructive an institution as ever existed in our country, educating the children of immigrants and healing the weak in hospitals, also acted as if it had forgotten the mission. Their mission was to be Christ’s church in the world, to stand for the weak. Many fulfilled it, and still do, but the Boston Globe in 2003 revealed the extent to which church leaders allowed the abuse of the weak and needy, and then covered it up.

It was a decades-long story; it only became famous in the ’00s. But it was in its way the most harmful forgetting of a mission of all, for it is the church that has historically given a first home to America’s immigrants, and made them Americans. Its reputation, its high standing, mattered to our country. Its loss of reputation damaged it. And it happened in part because priests and bishops forgot they were servants of a great institution, and came to think the great church existed to meet their needs.

A variation of this attitude continues in the public schools, where there are teachers who forget they have a mission—to teach and guide the young—and instead come to think the schools exist for them, to give them secure jobs and meet their needs.

Name the institution and you will probably see a diminished sense of mission, or one that has disappeared or is disappearing. Journalism too the past decade—longer—has had trouble remembering why it exists, which is to meet a real and crucial public need for reliable information about the world we live in. It’s the job of journalists to find the news, to get it in spite of the myriad forces arrayed against getting your hands on it, to report it clearly and honestly.

And as all these institutions forgot their mission, they entered the empire of spin. They turned more and more attention, resources and effort to the public perception of their institution, and not to the reality of it.

Everyone gave their efforts to how things seemed and not how they were. Press secretaries, press assistants, media managers, public relations experts—they abound more than ever in our business and public life. Half the people in Congress are people who one way or another are trying to “communicate” the member’s thinking. But he’s not really thinking, he’s positioning, and they’re not thinking either, they’re organizing and deploying focus-grouped phrases and turning them into talking points

So what to do? Here my friend the lawyer’s stoicism and mindless optimism might come in handy, for turning around institutions is a huge, long and uphill fight. It probably begins with taking the one thing we all hate to take in our society, and that is personal responsibility.

If you work in a great institution: Do you remember the mission? Do you remember why you went to work there, what you meant to do, what the institution meant to you when you viewed it from the outside, years ago, and hoped to become part of it?

And an optimistic idea, perhaps mindlessly so: It actually might help just a little to see national hearings aimed at summoning wisdom and sparking discussion on what has happened to, and can be done to help, our institutions. This wouldn’t turn anything around, but it could put a moment’s focus on a question that is relevant to people’s lives, and that is: How in the coming decade can we do better? How can we repair and rebuild?

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704152804574628522483219740.html

Today in History – December 31

Today is Thursday, Dec. 31, the 365th and final day of 2009. Today is New Year’s Eve.

Today’s Highlight in History

On Dec. 31, 1909, the Manhattan Bridge, spanning the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn, was officially opened to vehicular traffic by New York City Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. on his last day in office.

On this date

In 1600, the East India Company, formed for the exploitation of trade with East and Southeast Asia and India, was incorporated by English royal charter.

In 1759, Arthur Guinness founded his famous brewery at St. James’s Gate in Dublin.

In 1775, the British repulsed an attack by Continental Army generals Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold at Quebec; Montgomery was killed.

In 1857, Ottawa, located in Ontario at the confluence of the Ottawa, Gatineau, and Rideau rivers and whose area was first described by Samuel de Champlain in 1613, was named the capital of Canada by Queen Victoria.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed an act admitting West Virginia to the Union.

In 1869, Henri Matisse, one of the foremost painters of 20th century French art, was born.

In 1879, Thomas Edison first publicly demonstrated his electric incandescent light in Menlo Park, N.J.

In 1946, President Harry S. Truman officially proclaimed the end of hostilities in World War II.

In 1961, the Marshall Plan expired after distributing more than $12 billion in foreign aid.

In 1969, Joseph A. Yablonski, an unsuccessful candidate for the presidency of the United Mine Workers of America, was shot to death along with his wife and daughter in their Clarksville, Pa., home by hit men acting under the orders of UMWA president Tony Boyle.

In 1974, private U.S. citizens were allowed to buy and own gold for the first time in more than 40 years.

In 1978, Taiwanese diplomats struck their colors for the final time from the embassy flagpole in Washington, D.C., marking the end of diplomatic relations with the United States.

In 1985, singer Rick Nelson, 45, and six other people were killed when fire broke out aboard a DC-3 that was taking the group to a New Year’s Eve performance in Dallas.

In 1986, 97 people were killed when fire broke out in the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Three hotel workers later pleaded guilty in connection with the blaze.)

In 1993, entertainer Barbra Streisand performed her first paid concert in 22 years, singing to a sellout crowd at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas.

In 1997, Michael Kennedy, the 39-year-old son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was killed in a skiing accident on Aspen Mountain in Colorado.

In 1999, ten years ago, people around the world celebrated while awaiting the arrival of the year 2000.

In 1999, Russian President Boris Yeltsin announced his resignation (he was succeeded by Vladimir Putin).

In 1999, the eight-day hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane in Afghanistan ended peacefully.

In 1999, the United States prepared to hand over the Panama Canal to Panama at the stroke of midnight.

In 1999, former Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson died in Boston at age 79.

In 2004, five years ago, President George W. Bush pledged $350 million to help tsunami victims, and didn’t rule out sending even more U.S. aid to help people recover from what he called an “epic disaster.”

In 2004, Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych resigned, admitting he had little hope of reversing the presidential election victory of his Western-leaning rival, Viktor Yushchenko.

In 2006, the death toll for Americans killed in the Iraq war reached 3,000.

In 2008, one year ago, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting on an Arab request for a binding and enforceable resolution condemning Israel and halting its military attacks on Gaza.

In 2008, a man left four gift-wrapped bombs in downtown Aspen, Colo., in a bank-robbery attempt, turning New Year’s Eve celebrations into a mass evacuation. (The man, identified as 72-year-old James Chester Blanning, shot and killed himself.)

In 2008, a woman gave birth aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 59 while en route from Amsterdam to Boston.

Today’s Birthdays

TV producer George Schlatter is 80. Actor Sir Anthony Hopkins is 72. Actor Tim Considine (“My Three Sons”) is 69. Actress Sarah Miles is 68. Rock musician Andy Summers is 67. Actor Ben Kingsley is 66. Rock musician Peter Quaife (The Kinks) is 66. Producer-director Taylor Hackford is 65. Fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg is 63. Actor Tim Matheson is 62. Pop singer Burton Cummings (The Guess Who) is 62. Singer Donna Summer is 61. Actor Joe Dallesandro is 61. Rock musician Tom Hamilton (Aerosmith) is 58. Actor James Remar is 56. Actress Bebe Neuwirth is 51. Actor Val Kilmer is 50. Singer Paul Westerberg is 50. Actor Don Diamont is 47. Rock musician Ric Ivanisevich (Oleander) is 47. Rock musician Scott Ian (Anthrax) is 46. Actress Gong Li is 44. Author Nicholas Sparks is 44. Pop singer Joe McIntyre is 37. Rock musician Mikko Siren (Apocalyptica) is 34. Rock musician Bob Bryar (My Chemical Romance) is 30.

Today’s Historic Birthdays

Jacques Cartier
12/31/1491 – 9/1/1557
French explorer

Charles Cornwallis
12/31/1738 – 10/5/1805
English soldier and statesman

Robert Aitken
12/31/1864 – 10/29/1951
American astronomer

Henri Matisse
12/31/1869 – 11/3/1954
French painter

George C. Marshall
12/31/1880 – 10/16/1959
U.S. Army general

Ben Jones
12/31/1882 – 6/13/1961
American racehorse trainer

Elizabeth Arden
12/31/1878 – 10/18/1966
Canadian-born American cosmetic executive

Nathan Milstein
12/31/1903 – 12/21/1992
Russian-born American violinist

Jules Styne
12/31/1905 – 9/20/1994
American songwriter

Thought for Today

“No one ever regarded the first of January with indifference. It is the nativity of our common Adam.” – Charles Lamb, English essayist and author (1775-1834).

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/31/AR2009123100019.html

http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/index.html

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Drug Use Linked to Pepper Spray Deaths

A Lethal Mix of Cocaine and Chilies

Police officers around the world often use pepper spray to restrain people who are out of control. But after a series of unexplained deaths, researchers now suspect the spray, which is derived from chili peppers, could be fatal if the subject has been using cocaine or other drugs.

The man was clearly out of his senses. Peter M., 42, was naked and covered with blood as he ran across Munich’s Höhenstadter Street. He threw himself on the ground, shouting: “I am God.” Then he smeared superglue on his wounds and smashed his head into a window.

Policemen rushed to the scene and sprayed pepper spray into the man’s face, but it had no effect. Several officers eventually managed to subdue him. When they finally handcuffed him, Peter M. collapsed. He was taken to a hospital, where he died two days later, on July 5.

The autopsy determined that the man had died of restraint-related asphyxia after being handcuffed by police. He had been using cocaine, which also could have caused his death. But pepper spray “played no role in the autopsy result,” said Barbara Stockinger, the Munich chief prosecutor assigned to the case. The case, which appeared to have been resolved, was closed.

But the death of Peter M. may not be as straightforward as it appears. The bizarre circumstances aside, his case resembles similar incidents around the world in which people under the influence of drugs get out of control, police use pepper spray to restrain them, and then, “15 to 30 minutes later, they’re dead or in a coma,” says John Mendelson, a doctor specializing in addiction at the California Medical Center in San Francisco.

Mice on Cocaine

The results of a study Mendelson has just completed reinforce a suspicion long held by critics of pepper spray, namely that it can be deadly for people under the influence of illicit or psychotropic drugs.

Mendelson’s conclusions are based on experiments with mice in his laboratory. One group of mice was given injections of cocaine and nothing else. The mice in a second group also received a dose of capsaicin, an extract from the chili pepper.

When the researchers checked the cages again after 24 hours, only a few of the mice that had been given cocaine were dead. But more than half of those injected with the cocaine-chili blend were no longer alive. It appears that, at least in the case of mice, “capsaicin has a tendency to make smaller doses of cocaine fatal,” Mendelson says.

Spicy and Dangerous

In the 1960s, postal carriers began using a mixture of cayenne pepper and mineral oil to protect themselves against overly zealous watchdogs. Park rangers in the United States also used pepper spray to ward off intrusive grizzly bears. Police departments around the world began using the irritant in the 1990s.

Capsaicin is 600 times more potent than the spiciest cayenne pepper. Suspended in a mixture of ethanol and water, the substance irritates the eyes and mucous membranes. Pepper spray, effective at distances of about two meters (6.5 feet) and probably more dangerous than tear gas, enables police officers to contain violent individuals without having to use batons or firearms. Most police officers have been wearing pepper spray on their belts for years. “There is nothing available that’s more effective,” officials with the Berlin police department said after the spray was introduced.

“We recommended it,” says Hans Damm, head of the Forensic Science Institute at the German Police University in the northwestern German city of Münster. “Pepper spray was a new thing that came from the United States, and because it was a natural substance, even the Green Party couldn’t object.”

The dosage is a different matter altogether. Because the chili-based agent is difficult to obtain in pure form, companies often resort to the use of synthetic capsaicin. In addition, people’s reactions to the substance vary widely. “In some cases, there isn’t that much difference between effective and fatal doses,” says Damm.

In the past six months, at least three people in Germany have died after police used pepper spray against them. Two were under the influence of illicit drugs, while the third victim was taking strong prescription sedatives.

Strikingly Similar

In the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has documented a number of deaths following the use of pepper spray, including 26 fatalities in California alone between 1993 and 1995. Of those cases, 24 of the victims were on drugs and two were mentally ill. Nevertheless, a study by the US Department of Justice concludes that pepper spray was partly responsible for fatalities in only two out of 63 cases studied.

It’s true that drug use can be enough by itself to kill a person. But researcher John Mendelson believes that there is an interaction between the chili extract and drugs. He speculates that the nerve receptors that respond to the substance are the same ones that are active when a person is high. According to Mendelson, the documented cases are strikingly similar: “It’s almost always people who do crazy things, like running naked through traffic while holding a knife.”

The German cases seem to support his theory. On Oct. 31, a 27-year-old drug addict died in Laucha in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. The man, who had taken crystal methamphetamine, ran into the street naked and began smashing the windshields of parked cars with his fist. Then he attacked a female pastor. Police sprayed the man in the face with pepper spray, but there was no reaction.

Finally, four officers overpowered and handcuffed the man. He died a short time later. The autopsy concluded that the cause of death was a drug overdose. German medical examiners are often unaware that “pepper spray could be a factor contributing to death,” says Fred Zack, a forensic scientist from Rostock in northern Germany. “We may be entering new territory here.” In 2007, Zack performed an autopsy on a heavily inebriated man from Ribnitz-Damgarten in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania who had died after pepper spray was used on him.

Tase Me, Bro

In another case, employees at a nursing home for the mentally ill in Heidhausen, a neighborhood in the western city of Essen, called the police on Aug. 7 to report that a 43-year-old patient, a powerfully built Russian, had threatened the staff. An emergency doctor injected a sedative into the man, but then he jumped out of his bed and attacked people standing nearby. Even with pepper spray, police officers had trouble restraining the man. He died soon afterwards. Four months later, the autopsy results are still inconclusive.

Mendelson believes that both illegal drugs and psychotropic drugs could interact similarly with pepper spray. Ironically, when pepper spray was introduced, authorities touted the substance as being particularly suitable for use against the mentally ill and people under the influence of drugs.

“Pepper spray hardly deters people in delirious states,” says Mendelson. He recommends the use of electroshock devices known as Tasers instead. “Under these circumstances, they appear to be safer and more effective.”

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Full article: http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,669607,00.html

Got Change For A Million Silver Dollars?

Easy Money

Two Germans were caught in an Austria mountain town with 500 million dollars in counterfeit banknotes. It’s one of the biggest hauls of counterfeit dollars in Europe. But the culprits say they thought the 1 million dollar bills were real. Early next year an Austrian court must decide their fate. 

He dreamed of living the life of a millionaire — with a villa in the woods and an Aston Martin V12, preferably in Quantum Silver, in the garage. Once a moderately successful provincial attorney, he had decided that he was no longer willing to simply look on while others made their fortunes with major business deals. 

But his dreams of that villa, that Aston Martin and all the other trappings of wealth have vanished into thin air. Ralf Hölzen, 46, a tall, slender man with graying hair is sitting in a café frequented by retirees in the town of Goch in western Germany. On his plates sits a slice of Black Forest cake and he is removing the canned cream from atop his coffee. Once again Hölzen is living with his parents, only two blocks from the café. 

At the end of January, Hölzen will face trial in a district court in Feldkirch, in Austria’s Vorarlberg region. Austrian prosecutors have filed charges against him and his accomplice, Dietmar B., 52, for attempted fraud and possession of counterfeit banknotes. 

Arrested Holding $202 Million in Counterfeit Bills 

Almost a year ago, Hölzen and B. were arrested in a bank in Austria’s Kleinwalsertal ski valley. The duo stands accused of having attempted to exchange $202 million in counterfeit bills. The police also found $291 million more in counterfeit bills in a black Samsonite suitcase the men were carrying. 

Technically speaking, it was one of the biggest successes that European police organizations have ever had in the fight against counterfeit US banknotes. But not even the Austrian police are willing to call it a coup. And that’s because the defendants lacked both a plan and any professionalism. 

Instead, the trial in Feldkirch is more likely to offer a cautionary tale about how, in greedy times, even ordinary people think there is a fast track to wealth. And about how they believed that they could get rich quick through a combination of cunning and a few printed piece of paper; And how they ruined their lives in the process. 

“The thing” — which is what Hölzen now calls the series of events during which he hoped to get rich quick — began with an unannounced visit in September 2008. Life was not going well for Hölzen at the time. His marriage had failed, and he had lost his license to practice law because of his chaotic financial circumstances. Hölzen owed tens of thousands of Euros in back taxes and he was keeping himself afloat by working as a consultant. 

Surprise Visitors Bring a Dodgy Deal 

Two men walked into his office one afternoon. One of them, Hendrik van den B., a tall, gaunt older man, was wearing a dark, expensive-looking suit and introduced himself as a Dutch businessman. He looks as though he has money, Hölzen said to himself. 

The other man, short and bald, was Dietmar B., from Essen in western Germany who looked much less imposing. According to Hölzen, what B. did not tell him was that he was a machinist, who had been unemployed for a long time and that he had already served prison time for attempted fraud and for his association with a criminal gang that was involved in grand larceny. 

The men told Hölzen that he had been recommended to them by a former client and that they wanted him to prepare a purchase agreement for some historic stocks, some of which were American silver certificates. They told him that these silver certificates, which closely resembled ordinary dollar bills, were never used as a conventional form of payment but were traded between banks in the past. And they remained extremely valuable. 

Hölzen, who dealt mainly with leases, tax law and traffic offences, had no experience with foreign currency transactions. His new clients may have seemed odd to him but he decided to put any misgivings aside. In the past, he had represented fraudulent investment advisors, the sort to use human greed to their own advantage. And eager to put an end to his own run of bad luck, Hölzen reasoned that what the two men were proposing could be his opportunity to earn a lot of money, and relatively easily. 

Hölzen Says all He is Guilty of is Being Naïve 

Which is why Hölzen told the men that he was interested in doing more for them than simply preparing legal documents. van den B., who saw Hölzen’s proposal as a potential opportunity, gave the former attorney a banknote to examine. Hölzen scanned the bill and e-mailed the image to various acquaintances. 

An employee with Julius Bär, a Swiss private bank, promptly replied that the pieces of paper were worthless. But Hölzen did not want to hear this. This deal of a lifetime couldn’t possibly be over before it had even begun, he thought. “This is my big chance,” he kept telling himself. 

That is Hölzen’s side of the story anyway. “I was naïve,” he admits — and that is all he will admit too. He continues to insist that he was not the main instigator of the crime with which he is now being charged. 

Just Add Six Zeros And You Have a Million Dollars 

The Austrian National Analysis Center (NAC) examined the 493 banknotes Hölzen and B. had in their possession. Of those notes, 295 were originally $1 bills. Counterfeiters increased the face value of the bills to $1 million, simply by adding six zeros. The counterfeiting was done “very expensively and professionally,” say the specialists. According to the NAC, the remaining $1 million bills that were in Hölzen’s possession were complete counterfeits. 

The Bundeskriminalamt (BKA), Germany’s federal police force, is all too familiar with the phenomenon of $1 million banknotes. Since 2003 they have been turning up in Germany more often. 

Most are presented to commercial banks for exchange, complete with forged certificates of authenticity. Last June, Italy’s financial police found US treasury bonds worth the staggering sum of $134 billion in the luggage of two Japanese nationals. The bonds were counterfeit but they were not well made. 

Meanwhile Hölzen claims that, right up until his arrest, he was convinced of the authenticity of the bills and that this conviction — that the bills were real — was the only reason he continued to become more involved with the two men. At the beginning of January in 2009, he and van den B. traveled to the Swiss town of Rohrschach. There they met with a Spanish businessman, Cristian C., who they hoped would turn the “certificates” into real money. In a café, the Dutchman handed the Spaniard an envelope containing 490 bills, each denominated at $1 million. Hölzen sat in on the meeting; He paid close attention and then obtained a receipt for the transaction. 

The Plan was to Make Handsome Profits for Everyone 

Investigators believe that Cristian C. wanted to have the bills examined by a bank so that he could then use them as security against a loan. Hölzen later told authorities that Cristian C. had planned to use the loan to speculate on a grand scale and rake in handsome profits for everyone involved. 

But the Spaniard failed to keep his alleged promise. He was unable to use the banknotes as security for a loan or exchange them for currency. He stopped calling the two men and answered their calls less and less frequently. Van den B. and Hölzen became nervous, fearing that C. was going to make off with the banknotes. 

On Jan. 21 Hölzen and B. drove to Switzerland a second time. They had an appointment to meet with Cristian C. in Rohrschach at 12:45 p.m. But the Spaniard left them waiting. 

Hölzen and B. were in a hurry. They had an appointment at the Volksbank Riezlern, a bank in the Kleinwalsertal area in Austria to keep that they had made days earlier. Riezlern is a popular tourist destination for skiers and hikers. But additionally because the valley is only accessible from Germany, used to have a special tax free status and because many Germans deposit their savings in Austrian bank accounts, it also boasts a thriving banking scene. 

‘This Stuff is Worthless’ 

Hölzen was familiar with Volksbank Riezlern from his days as an attorney and he planned to convert the certificates into cash there. He was determined not to share any of the proceeds with the German tax authorities. 

When Cristian C. finally appeared, more than an hour late, he handed the two Germans a large brown envelope that contained the banknotes. Hölzen signed a receipt but no one counted the bills. “This stuff is worthless,” C. claims to have said — even though Hölzen and B. refused to believe him. 

At the bank in Kleinwalsertal, the two Germans were met by one of the bank’s employees, Jutta B. The men were impatient and anxious to unload the supposedly historic bills. They wanted the bank to determine their current market value, then credit the amount to the accounts they intended to open in Riezlern that day. That was the plan anyway. 

The two men placed five $1 million banknotes on Jutta B.’s desk. “I had the feeling that they believed that the securities and the money were absolutely real,” Jutta B. later told the police. But because the notes on her desk were unfamiliar to her Jutta B. was hesitant. Noticing her reaction, Hölzen and B. pulled out more bills: two bundles, one containing 99 and the other containing 100 banknotes. The notes came to a total of $199 million. The rest remained in the suitcase. Jutta B. excused herself and left her office. She called the bank’s headquarters in Vienna where a colleague told her that he did not believe that $1 million bills existed. It was at that stage that someone also called the police. 

Did They Really Think the Money was Real? 

The eventual case, when it comes to court, will revolve around whether the two Germans believed that the banknotes were real or whether they were deliberately trying to unload counterfeit bills. The investigators claim that by the time they reached the bank in Riezlern, Hölzen and B. “had come to terms with the possibility that the banknotes could be counterfeit.” They also say that Hölzen and B. must have figured that the employees at Volksbank Riezlern would not detect the fraud and would “credit their accounts despite the fact that the bills were worthless.” 

Hölzen, and B., who is in detention awaiting trial, dispute the investigators’ claims. They insist that they are not dim-witted enough to have walked into a bank with half a billion dollars in counterfeit money. For this reason, the former attorney plans to tell the trial judge about what, in his opinion, are serious mistakes made during the investigation and why he thinks the case is tainted by legal contradictions. 

Hölzen cannot expect any support from van den B., the man who allegedly obtained the counterfeit bills from unknown sources in the first place. The 74-year-old Dutchman, who has avoided being charged because authorities have been unable to find enough evidence linking him to the crime, will appear as a witness for the prosecution. He claims that he had no knowledge whatsoever of Hölzen’s and B.’s excursion to Kleinwalsertal. 

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Full article and photo: http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,669480,00.html

Obama administration is right to prosecute alleged Detroit bomber in U.S. court

FORMER VICE president Richard B. Cheney on Wednesday joined a Republican chorus criticizing the Obama administration’s decision to charge alleged bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in federal court. Mr. Cheney and others argue that Mr. Abdulmutallab, who is accused of trying to down Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas, should have been held as an enemy combatant and pumped for information, rather than read his Miranda rights and provided a lawyer. They further argue that the decision to shuttle him to federal court shows that President Obama is in denial about the dangers of terrorism.

This last claim has no merit. Just as it would be a mistake to approach all terrorist acts as a law enforcement challenge, so would it be imprudent to dispense with strong and available law enforcement tools, and to deal with all such incidents as acts of war. Recall that the Bush administration prosecuted shoe bomber Richard Reid in federal court for attempting to down a transatlantic flight using the same type of explosives allegedly found on Mr. Abdulmutallab. No one then questioned the Bush-Cheney administration’s judgment or its resolve — and rightly so.

The prospects for Mr. Abdulmutallab’s prosecution are good. Multiple eyewitnesses can testify to the incident on the plane, and physical evidence, including the failed explosive device, has been recovered. If the case goes to trial, there is probably little danger that secret sources or methods will be exposed.

Yet part of the critics’ argument is worthy of discussion. Mr. Abdulmutallab could have been detained without charge and interrogated outside of the constraints of federal rules to give the administration an opportunity to gather information in hopes of thwarting a future attack. The Supreme Court has acknowledged this authority, and the Obama administration has gone so far as to argue that Congress, through the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, gave the president the right to hold combatants indefinitely as long as a court of law rules that the initial detention was justified.

So why not bundle the Nigerian suspect to a secure location for intensive questioning by the CIA? First, because he already has been talking to authorities about his affiliation with al-Qaeda and the possibility of other attacks. Second, because he is no Khalid Sheik Mohammed — he is not a seasoned al-Qaeda operator but a disturbed young man whom the group tried to use as cannon fodder.

Most important, the Bush administration’s own experience has showed that holding suspects as enemy combatants creates more problems than it solves, because of the lack of due process and legal accountability. We have called for the creation of a national security court to govern presidential decisions to detain those who are too dangerous to release but against whom there is insufficient evidence to hold under federal criminal statutes. This authority could be valuable in interrogating those high up in a terrorist organization who are believed to possess significant operational information. It would be wasted on Mr. Abdulmutallab.

Editorial, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/30/AR2009123002347.html

Hard to Count the Cost

Prices are often irrational. So are consumers.

Almost two-thirds of retail prices end in a nine on some estimates. These “charm prices”—set just below a round number—are meant to lead consumers to round down rather than up. While some doubt their effectiveness, plainly Steve Jobs is a believer, insisting initially that all tracks on iTunes be priced at 99 cents, as is Jeff Bezos, whose Kindle was first priced at $359, later $299 and then $259.

In “Priceless,” William Poundstone explains charm prices and other common pricing anomalies. More broadly, he explores some of the basic notions of behavioral economics and argues that psychology matters as much as logic in many simple economic decisions. Most prices, Mr. Poundstone notes, are not the result of exact science but are “slippery and contingent,” relying on “coherent arbitrariness”: Consumers don’t know the “right” price for anything and mainly respond to price increases and the price of one thing compared with another.

Not surprisingly, retailers and marketers exploit consumer psychology to make consumers think that they are getting more for less and to divert attention from any attempt to charge more. Sometimes, for instance, manufacturers stealthily reduce the size of their product. Mr. Poundstone cites Skippy peanut butter, which recently added an indentation to its jars that reduced its size by 9%. Consumers tent to react less to this subtle price inflation than to a higher price tag—particularly for regularly purchased products whose price consumers will remember. Eventually, a company will run out of corners to cut and can then start over with an entirely new package and price that is hard to compare to the old one.

Another popular pricing technique is to use expensive “anchors” that consumers use as comparison points. Mr. Poundstone says, for instance, that Prada carries a few “obscenely high priced” items to make everything else seem affordable by comparison. Restaurants sometimes use similar tactics. The “$1,000 caviar and lobster omelet” on the menu at New York restaurant Norma’s is principally for show, not sale. Even if no one orders it, its astronomical price tag may tend to “bewitch” customers into spending more than they would have otherwise.

Whatever the pain of an irrationally expensive breakfast, it pales in comparison with buying an over-priced house. To avoid that mistake, however, a buyer may need to cover up the price tag and appraise the house without being influenced by the seller’s number. In one experiment, a group of licensed real estate agents were shown a house and told that it had been listed for $119,900. When asked to estimate a reasonable purchase price, their average was $111,454. When a different group of agents was told that the listing price for exactly the same house was $149,900, their average estimate was $127,318. The agents had subconsciously used the listing price as a reference point for their appraisals—even though they knew it was irrelevant.

Consumers, of course, are aware of all these tricks. And yet the evidence is overwhelming that they are influenced by them. Forewarned but not forearmed: Individuals are far less rational than they often believe.

This notion has been best explained by Dan Ariely in “Predictably Irrational” (2008), which Mr. Poundstone cites frequently. Mr Ariely explored some of the basic notions of behavioral economics—and showed how real-life decision-making differs from utilitarian economic models. At the core of much behavioral economics is “prospect theory,” a set of ideas that were developed by Daniel Kahneman (winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics) and Amos Tversky.

The theory emphasizes how risk—or risk aversion—affects decision-making, and it helps to explain why actual prices often differ from what one might rationally expect, even for something that is easy to value—like money itself. Consumers tend to over-value certainty: When offered the choice between a certain $3,000 and an 80% chance of $4,000, most people choose the lower amount even though the alternative’s expected value—its average probability-weighted return—is $3,200. Similarly, individuals have an irrationally high aversion to loss: Most people turn down an offer to flip a coin and win $110 for heads and lose $100 for tails. A study of contestants on the TV game show “Deal or No Deal” found that more decisions were consistent with prospect theory than with maximizing the expected return.

The additional value that individuals place on locking in certainty and avoiding loss explains why consumers are willing to buy financial products that otherwise seem to make no sense—such as extended product warranties where the price of the warranty is greater than the expected value of the loss being protected. Similarly it explains why consumers over-pay for flat-rate plans—say, unlimited calling plans, when a limited plan would likely be cheaper: They want to avoid the risk of a huge bill.

While Mr. Poundstone explains the increasingly sophisticated techniques that businesses use to exploit human irrationality, he says little about the effect that the rise of e-commerce may have on all this pricing strategy. While there may still be some scope for psychological manipulation, consumers should be harder to confuse with access to instant price comparisons and product research online. Relatedly, the Web may offer opportunities for better customer segmentation and hence finer price differentiation—where prices take into account each consumer’s willingness to pay. Why give everyone a discount when some people will pay full price? Perhaps the customer that searched for “highest rated” will pay more than someone who searched for “lowest price.” Tailored offers and customized bundles can muddy the water for comparisons. As Robert Crandall, a former CEO of American Airlines, has said: “If I have 2,000 customers on a given route and 400 different prices, I’m obviously short 1,600.”

Mr. Philips is executive vice president of News Corp., which owns Dow Jones & Co., the publisher of The Wall Street Journal.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704152804574628390662807658.html

A Rodney Dangerfield America?

America isn’t dead. It’s just dead in the water.

Why pretend? We have arrived at a point where nearly everyone’s conversation of more than five minutes about what is going on in the nation or the world ends up in the ditch.

The opinion polls are deep into the no-holiday spirit, competing to deliver low blows to the American psyche. Pew Research Center began dim December with a survey titled “Current Decade Rated Worst in 50 Years.” Washington Post/ABC staggered in with the bad word that 61% of the American people think their country is in long-term decline.

The U.S. is starting to sound like one long Rodney Dangerfield joke: “I looked up the family tree and found out I was the sap.”

Why the long national face?

Pew’s numbers touched the heart of the past decade’s sense of sadness. Asked to identify the decade’s singular event, 53% said the attacks of September 11, 2001. Nothing else was close.

It is debated often whether 9/11’s sense of urgency about the threat of Islamic terror has faded. Apparently not for the American people. We’ll catch a break if the past week wakes up Washington.

If at its end the decade was looking for a silver lining, this one got the shaft—another gray September. In September 2008, the U.S. financial system for all intents and purposes blew up. Years of imprudently low interest rates and Congress’s political protection of bargain-basement mortgages decked the world in moral hazard. Cheap money was (is) crack for bankers. When the subprime mortgage mania blew, it took down much of Wall Street and a decade’s worth of 401(k) gains.

Let’s toss in the decade’s last straw just for the fun of it: The politicians running California, New York, New Jersey and arguably Congress were shown to be fiscally deranged. If America is in decline, its political class is leading it over the cliff.

Americans are historic optimists. They must be: Another recent study found that the happiest state in the Union is . . . Louisiana. Hurricanes, floods, wars, depression—somehow this country’s can-do spirit won’t die.

Until now. There is a datum in the pollsters’ 10-year ash heap that is disturbing and new. At the start of 2008, according to Pew, well before the September financial implosion, 41% said the U.S. was the world’s leading economic power; 30% said China. By this November, those numbers had flipped: 44% said China was on top; only 27% said the U.S.

However false this is, what people are saying is they assume China in time will clean our clock. This is a frightening snapshot of national demoralization.

It is a nation refusing to answer the bell. Throwing in the towel. We can’t compete. We’re done.

I don’t buy it. America isn’t dead. It’s just dead in the water.

In Pew’s comparison of five decades, one trumps the other four: the 1980s. “The balance of opinion about the 1980s is overwhelmingly positive across all age groups.” The 1980s’ negative rating is just 12%.

How can this be? As the ’80s ended, pundits everywhere famously wrote the whole thing off as “The Decade of Greed.” Left-wing essayist Barbara Ehrenreich, one of too many to count, called her version of the decade, “The Worst Years of Our Lives.”

But it looks like people think the ’80s were the best years of their lives. We—especially those among us thinking of running for the presidency—had better try to figure out why fast.

Because all conversation in our politics goes straight into rage if one brings any public figure’s name into it, I will preposterously not mention Ronald Reagan.

Forget greed. That was just an artifact, a side show. More than anything, the 1980s freed Americans to do the one thing they love to do above all else: create.

From day one many better decades ago, America has been about compulsive creation. It’s a nation driven by the New—new ideas, new cities, new companies, technologies, art forms, production, management, distribution, design, Hollywood, Tin Pan Alley, Silicon Valley.

Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad, some of it’s ugly. So what? This is the upward-moving mojo that Americans want to get them back in the game—the space to create, build and do what’s new. The big question raised by you-know-who in the 1980s was whether government was part of the solution to national creativity or part of the problem.

Time’s up, so let’s not spoil the downer spirit by ending with false optimism.

We are in the anti-1980s. But I don’t care how flat the earth is; with competitors like China, India and the others, the belief that our big fat national government can somehow subsidize, much less identify, the U.S.’s next creative edge is straight from the dusty book of the original flat-earth society.

So a New Year’s Eve prediction: If we stay on the course set the past year, the next decade will make the 2000s look like the end of the golden age.

Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703510304574626283961224564.html

A Cold-Blooded Foreign Policy

No despot fears the president, and no demonstrator in Tehran expects him to ride to the rescue.

With year one drawing to a close, the truth of the Obama presidency is laid bare: retrenchment abroad, and redistribution and the intrusive regulatory state at home. This is the genuine calling of Barack Obama, and of the “progressives” holding him to account. The false dichotomy has taken hold—either we care for our own, or we go abroad in search of monsters to destroy or of broken nations to build. The decision to withdraw missile defense for Poland and the Czech Republic was of a piece with that retreat in American power.

In the absence of an overriding commitment to the defense of American primacy in the world, the Obama administration “cheats.” It will not quit the war in Afghanistan but doesn’t fully embrace it as its cause. It prosecutes the war but with Republican support—the diehards in liberal ranks and the isolationists are in no mood for bonding with Afghans. (Harry Reid’s last major foreign policy pronouncement was his assertion, three years ago, that the war in Iraq was lost.)

As revolution simmers on the streets of Iran, the will was summoned in the White House to offer condolences over the passing of Grand Ayatollah Hussein Montazeri, an iconic figure to the Iranian opposition. But the word was also put out that the administration was keen on the prospect of John Kerry making his way to Tehran. No one is fooled. In the time of Barack Obama, “engagement” with Iran’s theocrats and thugs trumps the cause of Iranian democracy.

In retrospect, that patina of cosmopolitanism in President Obama’s background concealed the isolationism of the liberal coalition that brought him to power. The tide had turned in the congressional elections of 2006. American liberalism was done with its own antecedents—the outlook of Woodrow Wilson and FDR and Harry Truman and John Kennedy. It wasn’t quite “Come home, America,” but close to it. This was now the foreign policy of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden. There was in the land a “liberal orientalism,” if you will, a dismissive attitude about the ability of other nations to partake of liberty. It had started with belittling the Iraqis’ aptitude for freedom. But there was implicit in it a broader assault on the very idea of freedom’s possibilities in distant places. East was East, and West was West, and never the twain shall meet.

We’re weary, the disillusioned liberalism maintains, and we’re broke, and there are those millions of Americans aching for health care and an economic lifeline. We can’t care for both Ohio and the Anbar, Peoria and Peshawar. It is either those embattled people in Iran or a rescue package for Chrysler.

The joke is on the enthralled crowds in Cairo, Ankara, Berlin and Oslo. The new American president they had fallen for had no genuine calling or attachments abroad. In their enthusiasm for Mr. Obama, and their eagerness to proclaim themselves at one with the postracial meaning of his election, they had missed his aloofness from the genuine struggles in the foreign world.

It was easy, that delirium with Mr. Obama: It made no moral demands on those eager to partake of it. It was also false, in many lands.

Thus Turks who loathed the Kurds in their midst, who denied them the right to their own memory and language, could identify themselves, or so they said, with the triumph of Mr. Obama and his personal history. No one questioned the sincerity with which Egyptians and other Arabs hailed Mr. Obama as they refused to be stirred by the slaughter in Darfur, and as they gave a carte blanche to Khartoum’s blatant racism and cruelty.

Surely there was something amiss in Paris and Berlin—the vast crowds came out for Mr. Obama, but there were millions of Muslims in France and Germany, and the gates hadn’t been opened for them, they hadn’t been swept into the mainstream of European life. Postracicalism, rather like charity, should have begun at home, one would think.

Everywhere there is on display evidence of the rogues taking the Obama administration’s measure, and of America’s vulnerable allies scurrying for cover. A fortnight ago, Lebanon’s young prime minister made his way from Beirut to Damascus: Saad Hariri had come to pay tribute to the Syrian ruler.

Nearly five years earlier, Saad Hariri had insisted on the truth about the identity of his father’s killers. It had been a tumultuous time. Rafik Hariri, a tycoon and former prime minister caught up in a challenge to Syria’s hegemony in Lebanon, had been struck down by a massive bomb on Beirut’s beachfront. It’s obvious, isn’t it, the mourners proclaimed, the trail led to Damascus.

In the aftermath of that brazen political murder, a Syrian tyranny in Lebanon that had all but erased the border between the two countries was brought to a swift end with what would come to be known as the Cedar Revolution. The Pax Americana that had laid waste to the despotism of Saddam Hussein frightened the Syrian rulers, and held out the prospect that a similar fate could yet befall them.

We’re now worlds away from that moment in history. The man who demolished the Iraqi tyranny, George. W. Bush, is no longer in power, and a different sentiment drives America’s conduct abroad. Saad Hariri had no choice but to make peace with his father’s sworn enemies—that short voyage he made to Damascus was his adjustment to the retreat of American power.

In headier moments, Mr. Hariri and the leaders of the Cedar Revolution had been emboldened by American protection. It was not only U.S. military power that had given them heart.

There was that “diplomacy of freedom,” the proclamation that the Pax Americana had had its fill with the autocracies and the rogues of the Greater Middle East. There but for the grace of God go we, the autocrats whispered to themselves as they pondered the fall of the Iraqi despot. To be sure, there was mayhem in the new Iraq—the Arab and Iranian rulers, and the jihadists they winked at and aided, had made sure of that. But there was the promise of freedom, meaningful elections, a new dignity for men and women claiming their own country.

What a difference three or four years make. The despots have waited out that burst of American power and optimism. No despot fears Mr. Obama, and no blogger in Cairo or Damascus or Tehran, no demonstrator in those cruel Iranian streets, expects Mr. Obama to ride to the rescue. To be sure, it was in the past understood that we can’t bear all burdens abroad, or come to the defense of everyone braving tyranny. But there was always that American assertion that when things are in the balance we would always be on freedom’s side.

We hadn’t ridden to the rescue of Rwanda and Burundi in the 1990s, but we had saved the Bosnians and the Kosovars. We didn’t have the power to undo the colossus of Chinese tyranny when the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, but the brave dissidents knew that we were on their side, that we were appalled by the cruelty of official power.

It is different today, there is a cold-bloodedness to American foreign policy. “Ideology is so yesterday,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed not long ago, giving voice to the new sentiment.

History and its furies have their logic, and they have not bent to Mr. Obama’s will. He had declared a unilateral end to the “war on terror,” but the jihadists and their mentors are yet to call their war to a halt. From Yemen to Fort Hood and Detroit, the terror continues.

But to go by the utterances of the Obama administration and its devotees, one would have thought that our enemies were Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, not the preachers and masterminds of terror. The president and his lieutenants spent more time denigrating “rendition” and the Patriot Act than they did tracking down the terror trail and the latest front it had opened at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. Our own leaders spoke poorly of our prerogatives and ways, and they were heard the world over.

Under Mr. Obama, we have pulled back from the foreign world. We’re smaller for accepting that false choice between burdens at home and burdens abroad, and the world beyond our shores is more hazardous and cynical for our retrenchment and our self-flagellation.

Mr. Ajami, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is the author of “The Foreigner’s Gift” (Free Press, 2007).

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704152804574628134281062714.html

New Year’s Resolutions for Washington

Ambitious Republicans should resolve to run for office next year.

President Obama not only left Washington, D.C., for the holidays, but the lower 48 as well. So I thought I’d offer a few New Year’s resolutions for him and others to come back to in the coming year.

First, to Mr. Obama’s staff: The Norwegian Nobel Committee didn’t want to wake the president to tell him about his prize earlier this year, but there shouldn’t be any reluctance to reassure the nation after a terrorist attack. Also, why not resolve to have a few less “historic” moments? How many can one president really have, anyway? A little more grace toward his predecessor would help him, as would less TV time. He is wearing out his welcome and his speechwriters—judging by the quality of their work lately.

In 2010, Mr. Obama should work on his habit of leaving a room of people with deeply divided opinions thinking he agrees with all of them. That leads to disagreements over essential issues, like the meaning of his pledge to begin withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2011 and the nature of the new military mission there.

Finally, Mr. Obama should work on meaning what he says. He didn’t last year with all those health-care deadlines and tough talk supporting the public option. Now Mr. Obama will pivot to jobs and deficit reduction. As he tries to do that, voters will wonder if it’s just a ruse to save Democrats.

Vice President Joe Biden should resolve to speak publicly less. Every time he opens his mouth, the West Wing staff uses him to make the president look good by comparison.

White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers should take a lead from Santa Clause and make her list and check it twice . . . at the White House gates.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano should resolve to take a systems analysis course before she again declares that a system “worked.”

The Democratic congressional leadership should resolve to come up with Plan B. After rejecting bipartisanship in 2009, they won’t be able to pass bills in 2010 with only Democrats. Too many vulnerable Democrats will flake on big votes.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—who has reportedly let it be known that she is comfortable with losing scores of House seats to pass ObamaCare—might resolve to treat her pet Blue Dogs a little better. As for the Blue Dogs, why not resolve to become Republicans?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should resolve to strive for a little less unity in his caucus and in the meantime enjoy this term in office. It’s likely to be his last unless Nevada Republicans tear themselves apart next year for the privilege of running against him.

Republican congressional leaders should resolve not to sit on their laurels. They’re winning the battle for public opinion on health care, cap and trade, and spending, but by next fall, it won’t be enough to surf voter dissatisfaction with Mr. Obama and Democrats. Voters will want to know what Republican candidates would do.

A second Contract with America won’t suffice. The GOP really won in 1994 by arming candidates with a basket of issues to pick from. Next year, candidates must be fluent in kitchen-table issues from jobs to health care to deficits to spending.

Ambitious Republicans should resolve to run next year. There will be a wave of voter support for GOP positions, but authenticity, passion and conviction matter. Voters can smell them, so bone up on the issues and say what you believe, not what someone tells you to say.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine should resolve not to blame himself for the coming political tsunami that’ll hit his party next November. He should press Mr. Obama to raise lots of money to spend on close races in states where Democrats are in charge of redistricting. If not, he’ll face a very ugly 2012 congressional election, too.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele had a great year in generating enthusiasm among small donors, but ends 2009 with less cash on hand than he had when he started the year. He should resolve to stop giving paid speeches and instead use his time repairing frayed relationships with major donors, whose support is critical to winning legislatures that will redraw congressional districts in 2011.

Tea Party members should resolve to resist being turned into another partisan political group. The movement’s power stems from its ideas, not from any party it supports, and it has been very successful in educating Americans and arousing the country. It should let its members set their own personal course in primaries and fall elections.

As for me, I resolve to speak well of Mr. Obama more frequently, curry favor with liberals by being more critical of my fellow conservatives, and be guided by the words of Mark Twain, who said that the start of a New Year “is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”

Mr. Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, is the author of the forthcoming book “Courage and Consequence” (Threshold Editions).

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704152804574628161441708216.html

Technology and the New ‘Me’ Generation

Computers and cell phones have become the narcissist’s best friends.

Spare me the stories of your “genius” tech-savvy child who can name every country on Google Earth, or how, because of your iPhone, BlackBerry and three cell phones, you juggle 20 tasks at once and never miss any business—even at 4 a.m., because you sleep with your portable devices. Does anyone care that technology is destroying social graces and turning people into rude jerks?

I’m not just talking about lighting up a movie theater with an iPhone to send text messages or yelling into a cell phone in public. But since when did it become acceptable for technological interaction to supersede in-person communication? 

This happened to me at a recent meeting. The person rushes in 20 minutes late and proceeds to whip out a BlackBerry and fire off emails. He intermittently put the phone to his ear, without in any way ascertaining the identity of the caller, and said, “I’m in a meeting. I’ll call you back.” I asked him if he knew who he was brushing off, and he said no—then laughed.

Hilarious, indeed. The silly fool on the other end mistook the interaction for something of value rather than an ego-inflation event.   

We are the center of our own universe now, and the world revolves around us. Time magazine even said so a couple of years ago when it made “You” its “Person of the Year.” It’s no coincidence that the cover featured a giant computer. Never has a narcissist had a better friend.

Since then, many among us have taken that honor and run with it. Not in any physical sense—that would require effort—but in the arena where the most untalented, fattest slob can outrun Usain Bolt or out-golf Tiger Woods using only his thumbs. This is where we can all shine.

In the old days, cowboys would take their guns out of their holster in the saloon and place them on the table in polite company. Conversational breaks involving actual use of that accessory occurred exclusively in the event of a life-and-death situation. So if the person on the other end isn’t dying, and you aren’t a heart surgeon, then there is no reason for you to be on your BlackBerry or iPhone.

To many people, it doesn’t matter much who calls or what they want. What matters is that the call reflects our existence back upon us. They wanted us, and that is an emergency. Because we won’t feel truly wanted again until the next email, text or call. Our wants. Our needs. Our relentless Twitter stream of banal ramblings. We use our Facebook “fan pages” for the same purpose. Yes, we may have “friends” on Facebook, but some don’t feel truly valued until they have successfully harassed those friends 10 times daily into becoming acknowledged admirers.

The term friend has been linguistically inflated through social media to the point of having almost no value. An acquaintance of mine made a Facebook friend of a murder suspect until he was notified of his misstep. Another told me he ended up on a stranger’s resume as a personal reference because he had added the person indiscriminately as a Facebook friend. Add, add, add . . . 5,000 friends!  Maxed out! Look what a popular guy I am! And guess what? If you died tomorrow, I’m fairly certain that your family could still feed all your funeral attendees with a couple of sandwich trays.

When I set up a meeting with someone, they’re the only person in the room. My friends are few and dear. I refuse to sign anything “xoxo” or “love” unless I mean it.

Too many people seem to be grasping for ways to connect with others while rarely actually connecting in a way that has true value or significance. What so many people end up with is something that looks like a connection from the outside as they text each other a million times a day, or sign notes with “much love.” Sadly, that’s the new standard of personal value in this technological era.

Ms. Marsden is a writer living in Paris.

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704152804574627960532587996.html

Obama’s Security ‘Breach’

Returning Gitmo’s detainees to Yemen defies common sense.

President Obama has belatedly declared that the near miss above Detroit constituted “a catastrophic breach of security” and ordered a review of America’s intelligence efforts. We’re glad to hear it, but let’s hope the Commander in Chief also rethinks his own approach to counterterrorism.

Recent events have exposed the shortcomings of treating terror as a law enforcement problem and rushing to close Guantanamo Bay. A new wave of jihadists is coming of age, inspiring last month’s deadly attack at Ft. Hood and nearly bringing down Northwest Flight 253, and next time we may not be so lucky.

Senior leaders of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula: Abu Hurayrah Qasim al-Reemi , Said al-Shihri, Naser Abdel Karim al-Wahishi, alias Abu Basir, and Abu al-Hareth Muhammad al-Oufi. Al-Oufi, who was once held in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay, surrendered in Yemen recently and was handed over to Saudis. Al-Shiri was also once held in Guantanamo.

Their latest sanctuary lies in unruly Yemen, headquarters for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, which last year pulled off a series of local bombings, including at the U.S. embassy in the capital Sana, killing 13. The al Qaeda chapter in Yemen has re-emerged under the leadership of a former secretary to Osama bin Laden.

Along with a dozen other al Qaeda members, he was allowed to escape from a Yemeni jail in 2006. His deputy, Said Ali al-Shihri, was a Saudi inmate at Gitmo who after his release “graduated” from that country’s terrorist “rehabilitation” program before moving to Yemen last year. About a fifth of the so-called graduates have ended back on the Saudi terror most-wanted list, according to a GAO study this year.

U.S. investigators are looking into whether Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian would-be bomber, was in contact with al-Shihri and another Guantanamo alum who turned up at the AQAP, Muhammad al-Awfi. The week before Christmas, Yemen agreed, presumably under U.S. prodding, to take back six more Guantanamo detainees. Ninety-seven of the 210 left at Gitmo are from Yemen, and if this transfer goes smoothly, the Administration wants to repatriate many more. Most are such hard terror cases that this year even Saudi Arabia rejected U.S. entreaties to accept them.

A Pentagon analysis, released in May, showed that one in seven freed Gitmo detainees—61 in all—returned to terrorism. Al-Shihri and Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul, the Taliban’s operations leader in southern Afghanistan, are merely the best known. The Pentagon has since updated its findings, and we’re told the numbers are even worse.

Yet the White House has resisted calls by Members of the House and Senate intelligence committees to declassify this revised report—no doubt because that would make closing Gitmo harder. Congress should insist on its release.

This second generation of al Qaeda also makes good use of modern technology for recruitment. A student from a wealthy family, Abdulmutallab was exposed to radical Islam through the Internet, and according to some reports was a “big fan” of the imam Anwar Al-Awlaki, who ran a popular jihadi Web site and Facebook page. This 38-year-old cleric, who was born in the U.S., is the spiritual leader of AQAP.

Al-Awlaki was also in email contact with Major Nidal Hasan in the months before the Army doctor shot and killed 13 U.S. soldiers at Ft. Hood. U.S. intelligence intercepted emails between the imam and the Major, but the FBI decided that they didn’t constitute a threat. We don’t know if Abdulmuttab also communicated with al-Awlaki, but this too is something Congress should strive to find out.

One encouraging development is that the U.S. and Yemen governments are finally working together against jihadists. A series of recent raids supported by the U.S. have killed more than 50 suspected al Qaeda fighters, including suicide bombers. Al-Awlaki and the top two AQAP leaders were possibly killed in one of the strikes, though their fate is unclear.

Sending Gitmo’s jihadists back to this maelstrom makes no security sense. Yemen has a weak government with mixed loyalties and its prisons are porous. Al-Awlaki himself was released in 2007, having been held at American request. Mr. Obama says we need to close Gitmo because it offends our values, but he’s happy to send its detainees back to Yemen where we can target them with smart bombs when they rejoin the fight. Mr. Obama’s desire to fulfill his campaign pledge to close Gitmo is an ideological fixation that risks letting killers loose to target Americans again.

More broadly, the Administration’s law enforcement mentality is also part of the problem. Its instinct is to attribute every terror incident to a misguided individual—”an isolated extremist,” as the President initially said of Abdulmuttalab—as if al Qaeda sympathies require a membership card and monthly meetings. Hasan and Abdulmuttalab are charged with being jihadists bent on murder who were encouraged or facilitated by other jihadists. This is the way the terror threat is evolving, with virtual recruitment over the Web of radicalized individuals from sanctuaries that change as opportunities arise.

Stopping future attacks is going to require interrogation—and before criminal charges are filed. We need to learn who gave Abdulmuttalab the PETN explosive and whether there is some al Qaeda terrormaster coordinating similar attacks the way KSM coordinated the 9/11 hijackings. Yet the White House impulse is to indict any terrorist we capture under criminal charges and let him lawyer-up. We may be lucky this time if Abdulmuttalab is singing, but that won’t always be the case.

Whatever their mistakes, the Bush-Cheney policies properly identified the enemy and kept the U.S. homeland safe after 9/11. The Obama Administration needs to shed some of its campaign illusions to meet this evolving threat, and not returning Gitmo’s detainees to Yemen is an essential first step.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703278604574624503147162222.html

Brenda Maddox’s top 10 Joycean books

To celebrate the 100th Bloomsday – that’s June 16 1904, the date on which Ulysses takes place, and James Joyce first walked out with Nora Barnacle – biographer Brenda Maddox introduces her 10 favourite books by and about Joyce.

1. Dubliners (intro Terence Brown, Penguin)

The first book to read is Joyce’s first, Dubliners. In no way Joyce for Juniors, all his later themes are here; each of the 15 stories is perfection, culminating in probably the finest short story in English, “The Dead”. An excellent critical and illustrated edition is James Joyce’s Dubliners: An Annotated Edition by John Wyse Jackson and Bernard McGinley (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1993).

2. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (ed Seamus Deane, Penguin)

This did for repressive Catholicism what DH Lawrence did for Puritanism; that is, it showed the rebellious young the way out. Not incidentally, it beautifully states Joyce’s personal and artistic creed.

3. Ulysses (ed Seamus Deane, Penguin)

The book to take to the desert island. No need to be afraid of it. Jump into the scene at Barney Kiernan’s pub (Episode 12: The Cyclops) where the wandering advertising man, the Jewish Leopold Bloom, tells the mocking Dublin bigots that “Force, hatred, history, all that” is not life. So what is? Love, says Bloom. “I mean the opposite of hatred.”

4. Finnegans Wake (Faber)

Go ahead. Try it. Read the opening page which begins with the end of the final sentence, then turn to the last page, where the sentence begins. As Dublin’s river Anna Livia flows into the sea, illustrating the universal truth that all things die and are born again, Joyce justifies the 17 years put into the book and a lifetime of inventing his own language.

5. James Joyce by Richard Ellman (second edition, OUP 1982)

It is not flawless – it internationalises Joyce and underplays his alcoholism – but it is one of the great biographies of the 20th century, and unputdownably follows the artist and his family from Dublin to Trieste to Zurich to Paris and, fleeing the Nazis in late 1939, back to Zurich, where Joyce died in early 1941.

6. James Joyce: the Years of Bloom by John McCourt (The Lilliput Press, 2000)

A life after Ellmann, and a highly accomplished one, concentrating on the important Trieste years (1904-1920, excluding the world war I years spent in Zurich).

7. Dear Miss Weaver: Harriet Shaw Weaver 1876-1961 by Jane Lidderdale and Mary Nicolson (Viking, 1970)

An account of the selfless London spinster who first published Joyce in London and who, during the 1920s as his devoted patron, scrimped and lived in a cold-water flat to keep the Joyces in luxury in Paris. Her subsidy gave him, for better or worse, the economic freedom to indulge in Finnegans Wake.

8. My Brother’s Keeper by Stanislaus Joyce (Faber)

Stanislaus Joyce’s invaluable account of why James (and later he) fled Ireland for Europe, and his own efforts at keeping his older brother and family afloat in Trieste. It should be supplemented by the much rawer Complete Dublin Diary, ed George Healy (Cornell University Press, 1971).

9. Joyce’s Revenge: History, Politics and Aesthetics in Ulysses by Andrew Gibson (OUP)

A fresh academic reading, grounding Joyce’s book in the British-Irish relations of a century ago: the coloniser colonised.

10. James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses by Frank Budgen (Bloomington Indiana University Press)

A rare view of Joyce seriously at work in Zurich, and honest glimpses of his common-law-wife Nora weeping “Jim wants me to go with other men so he can write about it”.

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/jun/13/top10s.joyce

Stephen Jones’s top 10 Americana

Stephen Jones is also known as the musician Babybird. His first novel, The Bad Book, was about a damaged childhood; his second, Henry and Ida Swop Teeth, features Siamese twins who forsake their lives as drug-addled scientific guinea pigs to go on the run.

1. America’s Back Porch by Daniel Jeffreys

Being a poor reader, I am naturally and lazily drawn to short stories. This travel book digs into everything I want to know about America’s dirty underbelly.

2. Waiting Period by Hubert Selby Jr

This book, about a man who isn’t able to commit suicide because there’s a mistake in his application to buy a gun, is a great rail against American society and bureaucracy.

3. From A to B and Back Again by Andy Warhol

I’ve never been a Warhol fan, so this was a big surprise. It’s autobiographical but written as though it was a novel and reads wonderfully. It feels very eerie, as though someone else had written it.

4. Factotum by Charles Bukowski

I have collected over 50 of his books and will dip in and out of them till I’m dead. He is my ultimate read and sums up simplicity perfectly. Those who associate him with womanising and ale have only just tipped his iceberg. If anybody has any of his early books for sale, email baby.zip@virgin.net.

5. Junky by William S Burroughs

As with Factotum, I got this in its original pocketsize pulp novel format. I knew nothing about drugs and seediness before I naively read this. Along with Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris, it opened my eyes to degradation.

6. Atomic Candy by Phyllis Burke

Beautiful turn of phrase. This deals with an era when TV was beginning to saturate the world: commercialism and politics, and huge finned cars. It drives you through America from beginning to end.

7. Dogwalker by Arthur Bradford

Reviewers said this was weird but to me it’s as normal as pie. It reminded me of Eraserhead and how we care for the fucked-up. It’s a collection of short stories, all concerning freaky dogs and the strange relationships humans have with them. You don’t have to like dogs to enjoy it.

8. Naked Pueblo by Mark Poirier

This is another short story collection. In one of them a kid, later named Jackpot, is born with a dime stuck to her forehead, all because her stripper mother doled out change for her clients’ dollar bills from her vagina. Now, that’s weird.

9. Wild at Heart by Barry Gifford

I rarely read a book then see the film, for fear of spoiling the movie experience. But this is a masterful rollercoaster, and that’s before even knowing that Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern were in the wonderful Lynch version.

10. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

This is based in Monterey, California, my favourite place in the world. It reads like an A to Z of things I’ve seen there. Monterey’s just off Highway 1 on the coast, the most beautiful drive I was ever lucky to ride.

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/jun/02/top10s.americana

Christopher Priest’s top 10 slipstream books

Christopher Priest won the Arthur C Clarke award and the British SF award for his alternate history of the second world war, The Separation. His previous novels include The Prestige, The Extremes and the The Quiet Woman. The Separation will be republished by Gollancz in October.

Slipstream does not define a category, but suggests an approach, an attitude, an interest or obsession with thinking the unthinkable or doing the undoable. Slipstream can be visionary, unreliable, odd or metaphysical. It’s not magical realism: it’s a larger concept that contains magical realism. Some familiar recent slipstream examples: Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the films Memento or Being John Malkovich, the opera Jerry Springer. Other novelists who have from time to time carried the slipstream torch include Anthony Burgess, Haruki Murakami, Don DeLillo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Banville, John Fowles, Paul Auster and Dino Buzatti.

1. The Aleph and Other Stories by Jorge Luis Borges

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Borges’s work: in the last 30 years he has influenced every writer who is any good, as well as many film-makers and artists. Without Borges there would probably be no slipstream, or no proper understanding of it, and modern fiction would be a much poorer thing. Every story by Borges is a miniature cultural source-book.

2. Crash by JG Ballard

This is Ballard’s most interesting novel, although his consistently best work is found in his short story collections, notably The Terminal Beach and The Voices of Time. Ballard has made the world of inner space – that neural zone between outer reality and subjective perception – his own. On one level, Crash is an absurd black comedy about the allegedly pornographic implications of car crashes. On another it is a stunning metaphor for the way man interfaces with machines and becomes sexualised by them. You don’t believe that? Ballard probably won’t convince you, but the M25 will never seem the same again.

3. The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter

British slipstream can be found in the work of Angela Carter, and this novel, originally published as a modern fantasy, is probably her most approachable, yet it is also among her most mysterious. With Carter’s work you always felt there was a personal agenda, and in this novel you come close to discovering what it is.

4. Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland

A story of catastrophes: one is a global disaster, the other the long coma of the title. Both lead to a belated awakening, which is when the symbolism kicks in. There is a looseness to the narration that shifts the book away from the conventional disaster novel, and in the end the almost distracted quality of the writing becomes its authentic voice. Coupland is on the right tracks with this book, but others of his novels have shown a tendency to return to more conventional material.

5. The Sea Came in at Midnight by Steve Erickson

One of the most original and unusual novels of the last decade; it’s also one of Erickson’s most approachable books, being structurally daring and thematically flexible but strongly paced and coherently narrated. I also liked another of his novels, Arc d’X, but had problems following some of it. Erickson is a hard, impressive writer.

6. Light by M John Harrison

Space opera, that shagged-out fag-end of action-filled science fiction, has never looked so intellectually rigorous as in Harrison’s most recent novel. It’s a multi-level work, some of it set in the present day. Here, or in Harrison’s terms ‘then’, a cosmologist solves a key matter of the universe, yet abases himself in serial murders as an atonement to a personal shadow. Centuries later, a freebooting spaceship with a human entity hotwired into its systems tours the shores of the cosmically brilliant Kefahuchi Tract. This is where the space action begins, but never before has it been told on such a scale, with such a peculiarly nihilistic mindset, nor in such endlessly inventive language.

7. Ice by Anna Kavan

Kavan was a heroin addict for most of her life. Ice is her best novel: a sustained and extended metaphor for the descent into, and traverse of, the ice-laden world of the addict. This description does not prepare you for what the book contains: it’s a marvel of descriptive, chilling writing, rich in action and introspection.

8. Being There by Jerzy Kosinski

Kosinski’s reputation suffered towards the end of his life because of allegations against him, always denied, of plagiarism. That’s as maybe: what Kosinski should be read for is his cool, glassy prose, his other-worldly view, the callous and sometimes brutal violence both of ideas and actions. Being There is probably his best-known book, because of the Peter Sellers film, but Kosinski should be read as if his individual books are chapters of a larger novel. The first I read was Steps, which had a permanent effect on the way I understood modern fiction should be written. Later I read The Painted Bird, a novel of the second world war, and there has never been anything else remotely like it, before or after, in war fiction.

9. The Knife Thrower and Other Stories by Steven Millhauser

Millhauser is interestingly concerned with unlikely things: department stores, roller-coasters, underground theme parks, board games, magic acts. His prose is steady, exact and attentive, almost devoid of dialogue, a reasonable-sounding discourse on unreasonable subjects. Others by Millhauser worth trying are Edwin Mullhouse (a novel, which defies description in such a small space) and another wonderful collection, The Barnum Museum.

10. The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz

Schulz was a Polish writer, murdered in an almost offhand way by the Gestapo during the second world war. His canvas was small: few of his stories ventured outside the setting of his parents’ house or the provincial town in which he lived, but his scope was cosmic. One story, The Comet, achieves a Wellsian grandeur, a Kafkaesque intrigue when the author’s father, who figures in most of the stories, emerges as a hero of science.

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/may/28/top10s.slipstream

Monty Don’s top 10 gardening books

Monty Don is the main presenter of BBC TV’s Gardener’s World and has been gardening correspondent of the Observer since 1994. A committed proponent of organic gardening, he puts his principles into practice in his own garden in Herefordshire. His latest book is The Complete Gardener (Dorling Kindersley).

1. Derek Jarman’s Garden by Derek Jarman

This is the single most inspirational and best produced book on gardening of any kind. It is the benchmark by which to measure all other illustrated gardening books.

2. The English Gardener by William Cobbett

Cobbett is cantankerous, opinionated and often outrageous, but he was a meticulous journalist and his thoroughness is as relevant today as it is a slice of life in the 1830s.

3. Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey

The best book ever produced about wild flowers and their folklore. I am constantly referring to it.

4. The New Book of Apples by Joan Morgan and Alison Richards

I love eating and growing apples and have (so far) 37 different varieties in my own garden. This is the best reference book on this wonderful fruit and by far the most readable.

5. Classic Roses by Peter Beales

Peter Beales knows more about roses than anyone else alive and conveys his knowledge with grace, wisdom and accessibility. What more can a book do? A true classic.

6. The Vegetable Garden displayed (1961 edition), Royal Horticultural Society

I adore this book. It was the very first gardening book I owned and read and I love the snapshot of 1950s life which exactly fits my own memories of the period. Although espousing a chemical regime that I find anathema, it is still an excellent reference book.

7. The Principles of Gardening by Hugh Johnson

This is quietly encyclopedic about gardening, written with the lucidity that Johnson first bought to wine. It has the freshness and articulacy of a writer and enthusiast with the knowledge of an expert.

8. Garden Flowers by Christopher Lloyd

Christopher Lloyd is in his element writing about plants (as opposed to gardens) and this book has the weight of 80 years of experience behind it. Invaluable.

9. The Organic Salad Garden by Joy Larcom

Joy Larcom manages to combine enthusiasm and common sense with meticulous research. The result is great authority.

10. The Well-tempered Garden by Christopher Lloyd

This book first showcased Christopher Lloyd’s idiosyncratic, brilliant skills as a garden writer. I often disagree with him but am never, ever bored by him. A superb gardener and writer.

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/may/13/bestbooks.houseandgarden

The 10 most popular misconceptions about Oscar Wilde

Merlin Holland is Oscar Wilde’s grandson and the sole executor of his estate. He is the author of Irish Peacock & Scarlet Marquess, the first unabridged publication of the famous libel trial.

1. ‘Oscar’ is the best-known ‘Wilde’

True, but unfairly so. His father, Sir William, was a remarkable Dublin doctor whose medical work on the 1851 and 1861 censuses earned him his knighthood, and is still referred to today as essential source material for 19th century Irish history. Sir William also published important contributions to the study of Celtic antiquities and Irish folklore. Oscar’s mother, Jane, was a prominent Irish Nationalist and poet who was nearly imprisoned for her inflammatory anti-English writing in 1848. As Oscar would write from prison in 1897: “She and my father had bequeathed me a name they had made noble and honoured not merely in literature, art, archaeology and science, but in the public history of my own country in its evolution as a nation.”

2. He was homosexual from his schooldays

This is most unlikely, to judge from his correspondence. He seems to have been infatuated with Florence Balcombe (who later married Bram Stoker) for two years until he left Oxford in 1878, and had previously flirted with other young women in Dublin. He married Constance Lloyd in 1884, swiftly had two children with her and, by his own account, was blissfully happy in the first few years of his marriage. His ‘conversion’ to homosexuality probably came about in 1886/7 with a young man who was to remain a lifelong friend, Robert Ross.

3. He coasted through university, with a reputation for langorousness and a love of lilies

Oscar was certainly influenced by the aesthetic theories of John Ruskin and Walter Pater while at Oxford, and he adopted the pose of an effete young man, but he went up as a scholar to Magdalen and came down with a double first in classics and the Newdigate prize for poetry. This took considerable application as his contemporaries later testified and his surviving Oxford notebooks demonstrate.

4. Apart from writing a couple of plays, a few children’s stories, The Ballad of Reading Gaol and The Picture of Dorian Gray he doesn’t seem to have done much

Oscar’s ‘serious’ side is often overlooked. He spent a year in the US in 1882 lecturing about the decorative arts; he edited a high-profile woman’s magazine for two years; he wrote thought-provoking and controversial critical essays as well as many art exhibition, theatre and book reviews. He also applied twice, unsuccessfully, to become an Inspector of Schools; his effect on English education could have been startling.

5. Being Irish was just an accident of birth; he was an English author, surely?

In the sense that The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Winderemere’s Fan are archetypically ‘English’ plays – perhaps; but there is a profound Irishness underlying much of what Oscar wrote and thought, especially in his correspondence. He may have remarked that the first thing he forgot at Oxford was his Irish accent, but when his play Salomé was banned he openly accused the English of being narrow-minded saying, “I am not English; I’m Irish which is quite another thing.”

6. ‘Earnest’ was a code-word for ‘gay’ and wearing a green carnation was a ‘secret’ sign of homosexuality

Both explanations seem to have been conveniently invented years later with little or no foundation in fact. ‘Earnest’ was supposedly a corruption of ‘Uraniste’ or one who practices Uranian or homosexual love, and the green carnation was said to be the badge of Parisian pederasts. If either had been true, Edward Carson, the Marquess of Queensberry’s defence lawyer in the libel trial, would certainly have pinpointed them, as he did the overtly gay passages in the magazine publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray (which were later suppressed in the book.)

7. Oscar Wilde’s arrest was delayed by several hours to allow him to catch the last boat-train and escape to the continent

When Oscar’s libel action against Queensberry collapsed, Queensberry’s lawyers sent all their papers to the director of public prosecutions, who consulted the solicitor-general and the home secretary and then immediately applied to the magistrates for a warrant. Oscar was arrested at 6.20pm, though there were still four more trains to Paris that night. He was then twice prosecuted by the crown. The jury failed to agree on the first occasion, and the crown, though not obliged to do so, tried him again – hardly the action of a government anxious to see him escape.

8. Once Oscar Wilde was arrested, tried and imprisoned, Lord Alfred Douglas, who essentially got him into the mess, abandoned him

‘Bosie’ Douglas, in a devoted but often muddle-headed way, was remarkably supportive when the crash came. He visited Oscar on remand in Holloway every day and only went to France before the first trial at the insistence of his brother and Oscar’s lawyers. After Oscar’s conviction he wrote a defence of their love for a French journal, which would have done more harm than good, and was never published. He also helped Oscar financially after his release from prison.

9. Oscar Wilde died of syphilis

This is an old canard which has been doing the rounds for nearly a century, and was lately championed on the flimsiest of evidence by his best modern biographer, Richard Ellmann. Killing Oscar off with the classic ‘disease of the decadents’ has always seemed a suitably sensational way of rounding off a sensational life, but modern medical opinion agrees almost universally that it was an ear infection and meningitis which did for him in the end.

10. Oscar Wilde was merely a hedonist who, as he admitted, put his genius into his life but only his talent into his works

At his trial Wilde said that his aim in life had been self-realisation through pleasure rather than suffering. Later, in his long prison letter to Douglas, De Profundis, he recants and admits that only through pain and sorrow can true nobility of soul be achieved. He was undeniably a first-rate funny-man, but the jury is still out on whether Wilde belongs in the top division of literature, a paradox which is part of his enduring appeal.

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/may/07/top10s.oscar.wilde

Paul Kingsnorth’s top 10 dissenting books

Paul Kingsnorth was deputy editor of the Ecologist magazine. He is the author of One No Many Yeses: a journey to the heart of the global resistance movement (Free Press), an introduction to the new politics of anti-globalisation.

1. Essays by George Orwell

This collection of classic essays covers everything from English patriotism to political language, by way of life in the Burmese police and the Spanish civil war. Always forceful, never predictable, the quality of Orwell’s writing serves to demonstrate how few good political writers are around today.

2. Upside Down by Eduardo Galeano

One of the few is the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano. In this, as in his other writing, he is playful, poetic and angry as he dissects the absurdities and injustices of the modern world. One to make you look at the world with new eyes.

3. False Dawn by John Gray

For my money, the best book yet written about modern day capitalism. Gray’s controversial thesis is that globalisation is doomed to fail, and he lays it out with a provocative erudition which, whatever your view, will probably make you reconsider it.

4. Our Word is Our Weapon by Subcomandante Marcos

Masked spokesman of Mexico’s Zapatista rebels and inspiration for the anti-globalisation movement, Marcos is also a political writer of real significance. And he has a sense of humour. These dispatches from the frontlines are essential reading.

5. Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

One of the all-time benchmarks of dissenting writing, Civil Disobedience, written in 1849, reflects on slavery, war, rebellion and every person’s right to rebel. The inspiration behind many a non-violent resistance movement since.

6. Copse by Kate Evans

Subtitled ‘the cartoon book of tree protesting’, Copse shows what happens when people take Thoreau up on his ideas. An illustrated journey through the British road protest movement of the 1990s, it is funny, bizarre, acerbic and moving, often all at once. Already a classic.

7. Rights of Man by Thomas Paine

This great defence of the ideals of the French revolution was so controversial on its publication that Paine, seen as a genuine threat to the British establishment, was driven out of the country. So he must have been doing something right.

8. Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman

If you want to understand how the modern media acts to ‘filter out’ radical views and inconvenient facts, read this book. Even if you disagree with every page, it will make you think hard about where you get your information – and who from.

9. Culture Jam by Kalle Lasn

Lasn, editor of the Canadian magazine Adbusters, provides a cogent, funny, and sparkily written introduction to mass-marketing, consumer alienation and the ‘culture jamming’ that people are employing in response.

10. Soil and Soul by Alastair McIntosh

To the trading floors of the global market via the mountains of McIntosh’s home island of Lewis, in the Hebrides, this is an elegaic meditation on the link between people and place, and how it can be reforged in a globalised world.

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/apr/29/bestbooks.politics

James Siegal’s top 10 thrillers

James Siegel is a thriller writer and vice chairman and senior executive creative director of advertising agency BBDO New York. His latest book, Derailed (Time Warner), is set in the world of advertising.

1. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
The first appearance of the infamous Hannibal Lector and, in my opinion, a better book than Silence of the Lambs. Taut, brutal, and truly creepy.

2. Marathon Man by William Goldman
A Nazi from the past. A CIA killer. A history student tortured by his father’s persecution and suicide. A hell of a ride.

3. Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
A kind of occult thriller which feeds into everyone’s urban paranoia. After all, who knows who’s living in the apartment next to you?

4. The Firm by John Grisham
The story of an innocent hot shot lawyer and a prestigious and – as it turns out – nefarious law firm that tries to buy his soul. They don’t manage it.

5. American Tabloid by James Ellroy
A poisonous stew of FBI, CIA, mafia and Cuban conspiracies. Electric, fascinating and stylish. Don’t blink.

6. Act of Darkness by Francis King
Not so much a thriller as a mystery concerning an act of evil in colonial India, and the consequences which reverberate in the years ahead.

7. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
The original supernatural thriller, it somehow makes demons and exorcism seem perfectly real, plausible, and terrifying. Do not read in the dark.

8. Anything by Elmore Leonard
No one has a better ear for the low life American idiom than Mr Leonard. His novels are replete with loan sharks, thieves, hit men, and various flawed and soiled lawmen. Take your pick.

9. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré
No better than Smiley’s People or Tinker, Tailor, but every bit as brilliant. And with its lean, twisty, double-crossing story, it’s more deserving of the ‘thriller’ tag. This is the first ‘spy’ book that showed the ugly reality of espionage rather than the fluff of a bed-hopping Bond.

10. Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene
A man trying to forget his past, and a wartime London conspiracy that keeps him suspensefully embroiled in the present. One of Greene’s ‘entertainments’ – with his flair for character, story and drama shining through.

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2003/apr/22/bestbooks.fiction

Michael Morpurgo’s top 10 favourite books

Michael Morpurgo has written over 60 books for children, including The Wreck of the Zanzibar, Dear Olly, Why the Whales Came and My Friend Walter. His most recent book, Cool! (Collins), is about a boy in a coma.

1. The Rattle Bag edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes

My book to take to my desert island, or to keep in my bathroom if I never get that far. Either way, it needs to be read often. It’s a cornucopia of wonderful poems from all over the world, from all times.

2. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The perfect novella about a young boy, an old fisherman and the big fish he catches. Brilliantly conceived and crafted, it’s an exploration of the elemental relationship between the hunter and the hunted, between age and youth. This is the book I should most like to have written.

3. Animal Farm by George Orwell
Read it any way you want, political parable, animal fable, it’s simply riveting and full of unforgettable lines, “four legs good, two legs bad”, “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”, etc. Sparely, beautifully written.

4. The Last Giants by François Place
Written and illustrated by the greatest French illustrator of our times, this is a terrific story of an English anthropologist who comes across a tribe of giants who are peaceable, close-knit and harmless. He studies them and comes to love them. He returns to tell the scientific world of his great discovery. The denouement is hauntingly predictable, but none the less telling for that.

5. The Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling
I grew up on these. They sing in my head even now, along with my mother’s voice. She read them often to me, and so well. What a wonderful storyteller/poet he was. The cat going off ‘on his wild lone’ in The Cat that Walked by Itself’ is unforgettable. The Elephant’s Child is my favourite, though.

6. Cat in the Manger by Michael Foreman

The best Christmas story since Dickens. While having a nap in his usual place, a manger in a stable in Bethlehem, the cat’s sleep is disturbed by a stream of unwelcome visitors – a couple with a baby and a donkey, a bunch of shepherds and their sheep, then three kings bearing gifts. Is there no peace? A wonderful tale with a wonderful twist.

7. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Still, for me, the greatest of all books about war and the pity of war. We follow the fortunes of a company of young German recruits in the first world war; we don’t want to, so searing is the experience, but we have to. A reminder – and one is sadly needed today – of the horror and suffering of war.

8. Clown by Quentin Blake
This extraordinary book says it all in pictures; words are redundant when we have Quentin Blake’s images. A child finds a life-changing clown doll in a dustbin – life-changing to the child, life-changing to us. A work of rare genius.

9. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

This ancient poem is vividly told: the Green Knight’s arrival in King Arthur’s court, his ghastly decapitation, Gawain’s journey through the Wastelands a year later to keep his promise of a return-match, his repeated temptations at the hands of his host’s wife – all are utterly credible hundreds of years later. The pastoral changing of the seasons is Beethoven’s 6th in three pages of wondrous description.

10. Oscar and Hoo by Theo and Michael Dudok De Wit

A gem of a picture book about Oscar, a lost child with only a friendly cloud for company. They wander the desert bringing comfort to each other. A warm gentle story, both touching and telling, with some lovely lines: “Oscar, I give you my cloud’s word, I’ll never leave you.” Bravo!

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2003/apr/14/michaelmorpurgo.bestbooks

Julia Darling’s top 10 books about northern England

Julia Darling is a playwright, poet and novelist and the winner of the 2003 Northern Rock Foundation writer’s award. Her second novel, The Taxi Driver’s Daughter, is longlisted for the Booker Prize 2003

1. Out of One Eye: Jimmy Forsyth, photographer by Anthony Flowers and Derek Smith
This is a book about Jimmy’s life and shows a range of his photographs up to the present day. I find these pictures both magical and memorable. Jimmy lets us look into the eyes of people in the north-east and see their dreams and hopes. It’s a book I return to again and again.

2. 1956: a collection of short stories edited by Margaret Wilkinson
Some of these short stories show us a refreshing view of the north-east, as seen by a dazed New Yorker. Through Wilkinson’s eyes we look with wonder at over-heated sitting rooms and coal fires in August. We hear the confusing dialect and puzzle over strange words. Some stories are set in New York and all have a sense of being ‘outside.’

3. Counting Stars by David Almond
Almond is a wonderful short story writer. His work is filled with a kind of visionary tenderness. You can feel the history of the north-east, as far back as St Bede, running through his veins. His writing makes me feel happy.

4. Cousin Coat: selected poems by Sean O’Brien

O’Brien inhabits an imaginary and dangerous north. his world is one that is filled with visions and demons and the dark and forgotten parts of England; his style is fruity and compelling. This poetry is full of new ideas and is always a joy to pull down from the shelf. Some of it is vehement and angry, but there are tender poems too that make me feel like weeping.

5. Broke Through Britain by Peter Mortimer

Peter Mortimer has been living and writing in the north-east forever. Broke Through Britain tells the story of Peter’s journey on foot from south to north when he relied on the kindness of strangers, having not one penny in his pocket. It’s a book about the English capacity for kindness (and cruelty) and is strangely gripping.

6. Lintel by Gillian Allnut
Allnut’s poetry is vivid and ethereal and you have to work hard at it, but I have recently become a complete fan, and find her work marvelously other-worldly and important. You feel as if every line has been considered over months. I think she is a visionary.

7. Loving Geordie by Andrea Badenoch
Andrea has written several excellent crime books, and this one is the most recent. It inhabits the landscape of the slum clearances in Scotswood in the 60s at the time of the Mary Bell murders. She also used some of Jimmy Forsyth’s images as inspiration. It’s a really moving, cracking read that shows us a northern landscape at its most terrifying.

8. 2nd: the second collection by Andrew Waterhouse
This collection has just been published by Rialto Press. Waterhouse was an emerging poet at the time of his death in 2001. His work is tremendously intelligent and also fragile, and is filled with humour that is never cynical.

9. Only A Small Boat by Cynthia Fuller
Fuller’s poems are thoughtful and impressive. She notices the details in domestic life, and speaks of subjects like grown up children visiting home, of old flames who won’t leave you alone. These poems are full of female wisdom and sensitivity and, like all the poetry I enjoy, they ‘speak to my condition.’

10. The Madolescents by Chrissie Glazebrook
This is an entertaining, witty book about a great teenage character called Rowena. The cover makes it looks light and frothy, but in fact it’s extremely sharp and very well written. It makes you laugh and cringe simultaneously.

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2003/mar/20/bestbooks.fiction

Michael Rosen’s top 10 books

Michael Rosen is a poet and children’s author whose most recent books include Carrying the Elephant: A Memoir of Love and Loss and Uncle Billy Being Silly. He is one of the authors taking part in the live World Book Day Online Festival on March 6, along with Terry Pratchett, Meera Syal and many more. His top 10 covers books for all ages, from the very young and rising.

1. Zebby Gone with the Wind by Binette Schroeder

This wordless picture book, on boards, is pure magic. We see Zebby, a zebra, lose her stripes in some kind of terrible storm; as the wind subsides, the other animals bring the stripes back. One of an out-of-print series of books about Zebby, these are masterpieces of understatement inspired, I would guess, by Magritte.

2. My Very First Mother Goose, edited by Iona Opie, illustrated by Rosemary Wells
Nursery rhymes and their cousins, children’s playground rhymes (collected by Iona Opie in I Saw Esau with illustrations by Maurice Sendak), are an ideal introduction to the surreal and absurd. The world turned upside down – no odder than the real thing.

3. Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
This is one of the cleverest books ever written. In a beautiful circular structure we follow the characters from nursery rhymes and children’s stories through a series of scenes, told by means of a rhyme, that is in itself a brand-new nursery rhyme.

4. In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
Maurice Sendak probed his unconscious and came up with a mysterious trilogy, of which this is the second part. Mickey drops through the night where three Oliver Hardy-esque figures are baking a cake. Mickey is stirred into the batter of the cake, but escapes in order to fetch (and also plunge into) the milk for the cake. Set against a 1930s New York skyline made out of food cartons, this book brought pyschoanalysis and postmodernity into children’s literature.

5. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll illustrated by Sir John Tenniel
One reason why this book is so profound and disturbing is that Carroll was troubled by it himself. He seems to have targeted many of the sacred cows of Victorian culture for interrogation and parody. He needed an innocent to do that – just as Voltaire needed a Candide – and Alice literally demolishes the whole edifice of Victorian society.

6. Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah
Children’s literature has no limits. Here, Zephaniah follows a refugee boy from his arrival in Britain through his first months of trying to survive, resist deportation and find affection and care.

7. Gulf by Robert Westall
This book, written at the time of the last Gulf war, is acutely on the ball as I write these words. Using the device of the doppelganger, an English boy merges identities with a boy in Iraq while the Gulf war is going on. With great empathy the late Robert Westall asked the crucial question, are all human lives worth the same, or are ‘our’ lives worth more than ‘theirs’?

8. The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon
If ever you wanted to see how circumstances affect art, you could find no more obvious example than this group of poems. An upper class, rather effete young man found himself in one of the most hideous situations ever invented by human beings – the first world war. Appalled, distraught, shocked to the core, he turned his poetic powers to both describing what he saw and finding reasons for how it had come about. Then, with the war over, he returned to his old life and old ways of writing.

9. Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams
It is entirely appropriate that we should have a sense of outrage as we read of the horrors of capture, transportation and exploitation that were slavery. With this book, Williams goes beyond that feeling to look into how the process benefited a layer of British society in the 18th century and laid the foundation for 19th-century capitalism, invention and industry. As Williams asks, where did James Watt get the money to develop his steam engine? From slavery.

10. Surveillance, Militarism and Drama in the Elizabethan Era by Curtis Breight
One of the most difficult aspects of Shakespeare to get to grips with is the way in which many of the plays involve people butchering each other. Some critics make this acceptable by making it a matter of genre and convention. In this book, Breight brings home the nature of Elizabethan society with its apparatuses of war, espionage – and their devastating consequences. The carnage at the end of Hamlet, Macbeth, the history plays and Roman plays suddenly starts to seem rather normal.

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2003/mar/03/bestbooks.booksforchildrenandteenagers

Peter F Stevens’s top 10 nautical books

The author of The Voyage of the Catalpa shares his top 10 nautical books, but hastens to explain, “As an aficionado of CS Forester’s Horatio Hornblower books and Patrick O’Brian’s great tales of the Royal Navy, there was no way I could select just one from each author.”

1. The Spanish Armada by Garrett Mattingly

Mattingly’s vivid, superbly told history of the ill-fated Armada is both a literary and nautical gem. At times, the disasters about to assail the Spaniards are almost palpable.

2. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
Herman Melville crafted his classic, Moby Dick, by drawing upon the dark ordeal of the Nantucket whaler, Essex. The leviathan wins in this incredible true-life saga of whaling, cannibalism, survival, and rescue. Philbrick’s smoothly flowing prose and his knowledge of sailing ships and the men who signed aboard them are stellar. Not a book for the faint of heart or stomach.

3. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Captain Ahab storming about with his one leg, the mighty white whale consuming the whaler’s every thought, densely detailed passages chronicling whaling men’s lives, in which long stretches of shipboard boredom could vanish with one cry of “Thar’ she blows!” – this 1851 briny American classic is the grandfather of all whaling epics.

4. The Floating Brothel by Sian Rees

In July 1789, the Lady Julian slipped away from England and set course for the penal colony at Sydney Bay, New South Wales. She carried an unusual cargo of 240 women, mainly convicted of petty crimes and slated to bring ‘sexual comfort’ as well as potential marriage and children to the male convicts of Australia. Not as racy as the title hints, but Rees’s chronicle of the Lady Julian’s voyage is still riveting.

5. Selkirk’s Island by Diana Souhami
Scottish seaman Alexander Selkirk served as the salt- and sand-encrusted model for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. In Diana Souhami’s balanced and illuminating look at both the anti-hero Selkirk and the fictional Crusoe, the result is engrossing. One thing is certain: readers will never look at Robinson Crusoe in quite the same way.

6. Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall

Writers and film-makers continue to put their own stamp on the strange and controversial relationship between Captain William Bligh and Fletcher Christian. I loved this one as a boy and still pick up my well-worn copy from time to time. Of all the mutiny sagas, this one stands in a class by itself – not even the great Charles Laughton’s cinematic Bligh could outdo the original article in the novel, or for that matter, the historical Bligh.

7. Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana
From bowsprit to mainmast, this one’s a colorful ‘tar’s-eye’ view of life aboard an 1830s merchantman sailing around Cape Horn and making the run to California. Dana, a Harvard student who decided that the best way to recover from a bout with the measles was to become a seaman, penned a vivid chronicle of shipboard life, storms, exotic ports of call, and the myriad emotions universal to all who venture into deep waters.

8. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage to the Antarctic by Alfred Lansing
In the summer of 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton set off aboard the Endurance, bound for the South Atlantic and straight into one of the most amazing adventures of determination and survival in maritime annals. Lansing’s tense, absorbing account of how the Endurance was trapped and crushed in ice and how Shackleton and his crew survived for some five months on shifting ice floes until they could finally set out in one of the ship’s lifeboats is an astonishing and stirring epic.

9. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel
This is not strictly a maritime saga, but the pages teem with 17th century mariners encountering disaster or near-disaster as they grapple with the most perplexing nautical problem since time immemorial: a means to determine longitude. In Dava Sobel’s work, we meet the man who tackled the dilemma that had baffled the likes of Galileo and Newton. The conqueror’s name was John Harrison, a clockmaker by trade, who solved the riddle of fixing an east-west position and thus earned the sobriquet ‘Longitude’ Harrison. I love this book for its unique hero, hardly the quintessential maritime legend, and for Sobel’s fascinating, white-knuckle looks at the woes that ship’s masters faced without the means to determine longitude.

10. A Night to Remember by Walter Lord
OK, I’ll admit that much more scientific examinations of the Titanic’s demise are readily available and that there was not a sail to be found on the state-of-the-art steamer. Still, Lord’s 1955 work, with its you-are-aboard style and his interviews of dozens of the liner’s survivors, bring the book an immediacy that stands up well. A good example comes as a boy and his mother in one of the lifeboats gaze at the sun reflecting off smaller icebergs than the one that ripped open the Titanic. The boy says, “Oh, look at the beautiful North Pole with no Santa Claus on it.”

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2003/feb/24/bestbooks.scienceandnature

David Smith’s top 10 economics books

David Smith’s previous books include Will Europe Work?, about the prospects for European economic and monetary union, as well as The Rise and Fall of Monetarism and From Boom to Bust, which analysed post-war economic policy in Britain. His latest work, Free Lunch: Easily Digestible Economics, is published by Profile.

1. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar

Not many books about economists get made into Oscar-winning movies. This one about John Nash, the flawed genius of game theory, did and it is a lot better than the film.

2. Keynes, by Robert Skidelsky
It won’t be published as a single volume until next year but in the meantime the three-volume set – Hopes Betrayed, 1883-1920, The Economist as Saviour, 1920-37, and Fighting for Britain, 1937-46 – tells the story of Britain’s greatest modern economist.

3. The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by JM Keynes

Still worth reading in its original for its insights, despite being published nearly 70 years ago.

4. The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
On the subject of originals, Margaret Thatcher was said to carry a copy of this great work, which marked the birth of economics as we know it, in her handbag. Judge for yourself.

5. Second Amongst Equals by Richard Holt

Many books have tried to get inside the Treasury and how the office of chancellor of the exchequer works. This one succeeds and is amusing, too.

6. The Armchair Economist by Stephen Landsburg
I love this book, which is full of everyday economics explained in an unstuffy and humorous way. His speciality is explaining how economics reaches parts of life you wouldn’t normally expect.

7. The Accidental Theorist by Paul Krugman

The other great American role model is Paul Krugman, currently working on a large textbook. This collection has him at his accessible, debunking best.

8. Dot.Con by John Cassidy
The dot.com boom was the recent equivalent of tulipmania or the South Sea bubble. This is the best account of that boom, and its bust.

9. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes
Echoes of Adam Smith in the title of this brilliant book which explains, better than any other, why some countries are richer than others.

10. Macroeconomics – Understanding the Wealth of Nations by DK Miles and Andrew Scott

More echoes of Adam Smith in this, a fresh new textbook. Not for the casual reader but ideal for those taking up serious study of the subject.

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2003/feb/18/bestbooks

Giles Lyon’s top 10 cricket books

Giles Lyon founded Bodyline Books, which specialises in Wisdens and all kinds of cricket memorabilia (150a Harbord Street, London, SW6 6PH; call 0207 385 2176). To buy any of the books below, browse his website,

1. Harold Gimblett: Tormented Genius of Cricket by David Foot

Superb life study of the Bicknoller Biffer, a manic depressive who tragically ended his own life after bringing the Taunton faithful to life with his batting, a full generation before Botham. A classic biography that reveals both the psyche of a brooding, difficult man and sheer ebullience of his batsmanship.

2. The Art of Captaincy by Mike Brearley
The master tactician explains every aspect of captaincy, a subject which he clearly knows better than most; well enough, in fact, to make him the only player in Test history to be selected for his skippering skills.

3. The Appeal of the Championship: Sussex in the Summer of 1981 by John Barclay
How very “Sussex” to write a book about coming second. Barclay is a natural raconteur and the Sussex dressing room in 1981 provides pukka material for his eagle-eyed wit.

4. The Hambledon Cricket Chronicle 1772-1796 by FS Ashley-Cooper
Ah, the flickering ghosts of Hambledon! Superbly entertaining revue of the original club minutes of meetings, including entries such as: “Ordered that Mr Richards be desired to send to Mr Gauntlett for a Hogshead of the best Port in bottle fit to drink immediately.”

5. Bodyline Autopsy by David Frith

Frith’s magnum opus on the most dramatic Ashes series of them all. This is a fine example of a potentially daunting book to read actually turning out to be a pleasant amble through a dastardly phase of cricket.

6. Famous Cricketers and Cricket Grounds, edited by CW Alcock
Brilliant pageant of lovely old stars of the Victorian era handsomely captured in elegant poses by E Hawkins & Co of Brighton. Nothing surpasses this magnificent book for sheer pomp and ceremony.

7. Through The Caribbean by Alan Ross

Ross follows the 1959-60 England tour to West Indies for what turned out to be a “grim, ruthless, evenly contested and sometimes dramatic group of matches”. But this is much more than just a tour book, for Ross soaks up the cultural nuances of each destination without ever stooping to stereotypes.

8. The Best of Cricket Fiction (2 vols) by Leslie Frewin

Lip-smacking bedside material, corralling fictional stories of the magic and lore of cricket.

9. Brightly Fades the Don by JH Fingleton

The daddy of all the books on the 1948 Australian tourists, who many plump for as the greatest touring combo of all time. Fingleton leads us by the hand round the counties and through the Tests, showing us what English county cricket was like just after the war. A gem of a tour book.

10. Cricket Highways and Byways by FS Ashley-Cooper
A treasure chest of bits ‘n pieces, with sections on “Cricket and the Church”, “Slow Scoring in the Olden Times”, and “Books and Writers”. I wouldn’t want to be without this on a desert island.

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2003/feb/11/cricket.bestbooks

AL Kennedy’s top 10 controversial books

AL Kennedy appeared on the Granta best young British novelists lists of 1993 and 2003. The author of uncompromising, stylistically inventive and emotionally charged novels and short stories, her books include So I Am Glad, Everything You Need and On Bullfighting. Her most recent book is Indelible Acts.

“Taking offence at books is a centuries old tradition. This may concern a question of personal taste, political expediency, or a desire to guard the malleable from dreadful things that they might take to. Plato wanted Homer kept from immature readers, Caligula was keen to suppress The Odyssey in case the Greek style freedoms it suggested caught on. What follows is a list of books which trouble, which are awkward, and many of which have offended at some point – although, Lord knows, not one of them leaped into an unwilling reader’s hand and forced them to study every line. My aim is not to offend but to illustrate that freedom of the imagination is something we sacrifice only at great risk and that sometimes we may be prepared to resist real evil by meeting its fictional self. So, in no particular order.”

1. The Dark by John McGahern
An astonishing study in power, fear, sexuality and religion. Staggeringly well written and heartbreaking in every possible way. Famously banned for a time in Ireland.

2. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 by Hunter S Thompson
Insanity, obscenity, profanity, illegality and reptilian paranoia – but which is more distressing, HST’s lunatic chemical life and Gonzo prose style, or Richard Milhous Nixon and co taking a whole country for a nasty ride? And where, by the way, is the energy of Gonzo now when we need it?

3. That Hideous Strength by CS Lewis
Dreadful title, wonderfully savage book. This fantasy anticipated the postwar decline in British education with ghoulish clarity. No fauns and witches (they’re banned in some US schools, by the way), only very adult evil, moral weakness and the kind of unremitting justice that unsettles the soul.

4. Sergeant Getulio by Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro
A stunningly written, unflinching journey with a man we should find appalling. And the sergeant does indeed horrify, but also emerges as terribly familiar, a monster we can feel under our skin. Not for the fainthearted, but worth it – a lovely, angry, truthful book.

5. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Great for a kneejerk banning, even today. A different monster here, in paedophile Humbert Humbert, but one who is equally unnerving and, ultimately, just as close at hand. A faultlessly crafted work without prurience and with considerable knowledge of human nature. Also rather more use than a lynch mob on the lookout for paediatricians.

6. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Lambasted when it came out as irredeemably perverse and, I quote, as practically “French”.

7. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
This appears consistently on the American Library Association’s list of “most frequently challenged books”. Apparently the fact that it evokes the dreadfully disinterested havoc of war is offensive, rather than necessary. It also uses bad words and black humour, unforgivable in time of war, and employs phrases like “The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of the fly of God Almighty.” Dear me.

8. The Confidence Man by Herman Melville
A rarely appreciated masterpiece by a writer pushing the boundaries of his craft. It’s also subtly and very deeply alarming in its examination of personality, compromise and evil.

9. Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes
Placed on the Index in Madrid for the sentence “Works of charity negligently performed are of no worth.” Justifiably a classic of world literature and one a remarkable number of people have never actually read.

10. The Beach at Falesa/ The Ebb Tide/ Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by RL Stevenson
They’re all published together in at least one edition. Mr Hyde, of course, didn’t fit with the image of everyone’s favourite children’s author and the two late stories didn’t appear unedited until long after the author’s death; implying, as they did, that the British Empire might not have been an entirely altruistic enterprise. For burning moral certainty and deep understanding of human frailty and hypocrisy, see all the above. For an additional savage attack on economic violence, abuse of power and the insanity of capital, The Ebb Tide can’t be beaten.

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/feb/03/bestbooks.fiction

Richard Grant’s top 10 books about wandering

Richard Grant is a freelance journalist based in Arizona and the author of Ghost Riders: Travels With American Nomads.

“I have a restless personality, a compulsion to keep travelling, and I’ve always enjoyed reading about people who made their lives into a perpetual journey. The literature of wandering and nomadism is also in part a literature of harsh, arid environments – deserts, steppes, tundra – where trees, agriculture and sedentary societies have found it difficult to take root.”

1. Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America by Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca

The extraordinary, mesmerising and true adventure of a Spanish conquistador shipwrecked off the coast of Texas in 1527. Naked and barefoot, with three companions, he walked all the way to the Pacific coast of Mexico, accruing a procession of thousands of Indians who hailed him as a god and a healer. This is the first book ever written about the North American interior and still one of the best.

2. The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin

A travel book about Australian Aborigines in which very little actually happens apart from Chatwin’s speculations on the human urge to wander. Aborigines won’t talk to him, he invents his main character, the book’s structure dissolves into a mosaic of notebook entries – and yet he writes so beautifully, and thinks such interesting thoughts, that none of these flaws matter.

3. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy’s dark, gory masterpiece about a party of scalp hunters roaming the American West in the mid-19th century. Closely modelled on real characters and events, written in prose descended from Faulkner and the Old Testament, it depicts the American frontier as an environment that brutalised whites, Indians and Mexicans alike.

4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Huck embodies the flipside of the American dream: burn down the house and light out of the territory. The bragging contest between Mississippi rivermen is my favourite exchange in American literature, and more than makes up for the doggerel at the end of the book, after the infuriating Tom Sawyer reappears.

5. Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger

A wayward, old-school English gentleman journeys by camel with the nomadic Bedouin across the Empty Quarter. Arduous travelling, keen anthropological observations and some of the finest writing about deserts I have ever read.

6. Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
Who says Americans don’t do irony? Abbey’s acerbic wit, anarchist philosophy and hearty enjoyment of sex, booze, cigars and strong language brings a new dimension to the pious discipline of nature writing. My second favourite writer on deserts.

7. Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas by Mari Sandoz
A wonderful biography, impeccably researched and written with a novelist’s eye for detail and plotting, about the great Sioux war chief, Custer’s nemesis, a man who saw no point in living unless he was free to roam the plains. Sandoz grew up hearing stories from ancient Sioux warriors who remembered Crazy Horse.

8. Across the Wide Missouri by Bernard DeVoto
DeVoto’s magisterial history of the Rocky Mountain fur trade, told through the adventures of William Drummond Stewart, a restless Scottish nobleman who rode, hunted and fought alongside the white fur trappers and nomadic horse Indians who occupied the American north-west in the early 19th century.

9. Desierto by Charles Bowden
Bowden is a roving journalist and author whose chosen beat is the dark side of the American south-west: the rootless killers, drug traffickers and low-lifes, and the relentless destruction of nature by property developers and the hungers of modern civilisation. He combines incredible feats of reporting with angry, muscular, lyrical prose.

10. Great Plains by Ian Frazier
From a region often derided for its flatness and provincial dullness, Frazier crafts a charming and unfailingly interesting travel book. His enthusiasm for the American steppes is infectious. After reading this book, I walked out of a London office and spent a summer driving around them.

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2003/jan/15/bestbooks.travel

David Peace’s top 10 British true-crime books

David Peace’s West Riding quartet – 1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983 – is an ultra-noir crime series set in and around Leeds in the shadow of the Yorkshire Ripper murders. He is one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists of 2003.

Crimes happen in actual, specific places at actual, specific times to actual, specific people. Crimes, their victims and their perpetrators, sadly define the times in which we live. There is no puzzle, only pain. No humour, only horror. The following 10 books seek to understand the crimes they document through the context and circumstances of the places and the times in which they occurred

1. Beyond Belief by Emlyn Williams
Williams said this account of the Moors Murders case was composed of three elements: fact, interpretation of fact and surmise. It is the combination of these elements that set this book, and all the books on this list, above the voyeuristic or exploitative.

2. Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son by Gordon Burn
Both this book on Peter Sutcliffe and Happy Like Murderers, about the West family, are obsessive, yet utterly compassionate and honest. Gordon Burn is the best British writer there is and I can make a strong case for Alma Cogan as the best British novel since Brighton Rock. Read everything he’s ever written, fact and fiction, and save yourself the cost of an MA in Creative Writing.

3. Killing for Company by Brian Masters
Claustrophobic but compulsive account of the Dennis Nilsen case.

4. The Streetcleaner by Nicole Ward Jouve
An original, feminist dissection of the local culture, media circus and police investigation surrounding the Yorkshire Ripper case.

5. Error of Judgement by Chris Mullin
We are all guilty of the good we did not do, but some less so than others. This is the book that exposed the truth and lies about the Birmingham Bombings. Read it now and hate yourself for your own inaction in the face and knowledge of injustice.

6. State of Siege by Jim Coulter, Susan Miller and Martin Walker

A report on the policing of the miners’ strike of 1984-85, written and published during the event. See above and below.

7. Who Framed Colin Wallace? by Paul Foot
Paul Foot has devoted his life to righting the wrongs in other people’s lives. His books on James Hanratty, Helen Smith, Carl Bridgewater and Colin Wallace are both a testament to his investigative journalism and his own selflessness.

8. Smear! by Stephen Dorril and Robin Ramsay
The detailed, secret history of Britain from 1964 to 1979, and the role of the secret state in the fall of Harold Wilson and the rise of the Thatcher right. It should be a textbook, but it isn’t. However, all the back issues of Lobster – Robin Ramsay’s journal of parapolitics, which continues where this leaves off – are now available on one essential CD-rom.

9. The Terrorism Trilogy by Martin Dillon

Three books written on the Troubles – The Shankill Butchers, God and the Gun, and The Dirty War – which were revelations to me when I first read them.

10. Bloody Valentine by John Williams
John Williams’s Into the Badlands opened up the world of American crime fiction for me and a generation. This very personal account of the death of a Cardiff prostitute is the most complex, emotional and moving book on this list. Read it.

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2003/jan/09/bestbooks.sciencefictionfantasyandhorror

Wendy Perriam’s top 10 seriously sexy books

Wendy Perriam is the author of 15 novels, all of which tackle the themes of sex, religion and humour. Nominated three years running for the Literary Review Bad Sex award, she triumphed this year with a passage from her latest novel, Tread Softly, in which she describes ‘pin-striped sex’.

“I’ve always written explicitly about sex as I think (a) it’s a highly serious subject (though often treated crudely or facetiously), (b) it sheds much light on character, and (c) despite the fact that we live in such a permissive age, the whole subject of sex remains to some extent mysterious and hedged about with deception and fabrication. This realm of ‘secrets and lies’ is natural terrain for the novelist.”

1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

There’s no explicit sex, of course, but we all know that Heathcliff is a wonderful lover, without having to see him go through his paces. Charlotte Brontë tells us that her sister didn’t even know how the reproductive system worked, but does it matter? She understands passion. Who can ever forget the first Catherine’s anguished statement of being torn between two loves: “My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. I am Heathcliff!” Every time I read that, it sends a frisson through me.

2. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence
After the furore this novel caused, it’s hard to view it objectively. Lawrence’s mystic view of sex, his use of four-letter words, and his depiction of Mellors as Noble Savage have all been criticised, if not derided. But for me Lady Chatterley remains a masterpiece, for its acute psychological insight, its complex relationships (especially that between Clifford Chatterley and Mrs Bolton), and its intensity of feeling and expression. Lawrence originally called it Tenderness and indeed, far from approving of pornography, he insisted that tenderness and mutual respect should always accompany physical passion. He wrote in a letter about Lady Chatterley: “I always labour to make the sex relation valid and precious, instead of shameful. And this novel is the furthest I’ve gone. To me it is beautiful and tender and frail as the naked self is.”

3. Incest, from A Journal of Love, the unexpurgated diary of Anaïs Nin

Nin is as famous for her lovers (who included Henry Miller, Edmund Wilson, Gore Vidal, Otto Rank and even her own father – hence the title) as for her literary output. She treated her diary as the ultimate confidant and wrote it continuously from 1914 to 1974, declaring: “The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.” Certainly Incest breaks sexual taboos, as Nin describes in white-hot, turbulent prose her desire to enslave men through total sexual surrender. Combining the role of virgin-whore with that of artist and the analyst of artists, she hurls many disparate elements into this heady brew: dream-analysis, psychological acuity, poetic lyricism, flagrant lies and narcissism, and an often masochistic craving for love.

4. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
The irrepressible sexuality of the theme is echoed in the exuberantly potent language, which seems to surge up and spill over on the page. And Portnoy’s raging sexual desire is paralleled by the rage he feels towards his Jewish mother and the whole of Jewish culture. Roth has been called ‘the historian of modern eroticism.’ He’s also hysterically funny.

5. The Abundant Dreamer by Harold Brodkey

The most erotic (and famous) of this collection of short stories is Innocence, which describes in minute detail the first orgasm of the beautiful Orra Philips. The 20-page description combines the clinical (“I whomped it in”) with the baroque (“I saw myself as a Roman trireme, my tongue as the prow.”) The orgasm itself is presented as a spiritual experience in the grandest of biblical images, yet Brodkey is also adept in giving us memorably vivid physical descriptions: “her body was smooth stone, and wet-satin paper bags, and snaky webs, thin and alive, made of woven snakes that lived, thrown over the stone; she held the great, writhing-skinned stone construction toward me, the bony marvel, the half-dish of bone with its secretive, gluey-smooth entrance.”

6. The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst
The combination of near-pornographic gay sex scenes and an impeccable prose style make this a memorable read. Apart from a couple of allusions to the main character’s sister, not a single woman appears in the book. The novel depicts the world of homosexual men – their lusts, their conquests and their obsession with physical exercise. The dialogue is masterly, and the range of emotions depicted in the sexual encounters is satisfyingly complex, encompassing everything from nervousness and tender compassion to almost brutal violence.

7. The Catholic by David Plante

Another homosexual novel featuring extremely explicit sex scenes, which again combine tenderness and violence. The new element here is religion; an exploration of the conflicting demands and constraints of both Catholicism and sexual obsession. Frequent references to sweat, spittle, sperm and scrotums co-exist with long reflective passages of analysis and philosophy. And sometimes there’s even a religious dimension to the erotic scenes themselves – for example when Daniel talks of his ‘religious fervour’ whilst in bed with Henry, saying, “I would make blessed objects of his bare shoulder, his arm, his hand, his eyelids. . .”

8. Roger’s Version by John Updike
Updike is celebrated for his wry depiction of adultery in small-town America. But this, his 12th novel, is something rather different. Roger is a middle-aged professor in the Divinity School and into his staid life breezes Verna, his sluttish 19-year-old half-niece, who brazenly seduces him. The fevered excitement of this experience is followed by deep shame and guilt on Roger’s part. Still clinging to Verna’s naked body, he reflects on the existence of God, and the silence He maintains whilst allowing His human creatures to explore their freedom and, in so doing, commit sins of incest and child abuse. Again, sex and religion make fascinating bedfellows.

9. Damage by Josephine Hart
A chilling but brilliant study of sexual obsession. A 50-year-old doctor falls for his son’s fiancee, Anna, and soon they become mutually enslaved. Short fevered copulations in Parisian backstreets and Marylebone love-nests plunge the pair of them into the lower depths. Their affair is uplifting and degrading in equal measure, and can only end in disaster.

10. The Bible
But of course. The couplings of Adam and Eve, David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah, Esther and King Xerxes, and many other biblical characters are an inescapable part of our culture, immortalised as they are in great works of art, music and literature. At my convent school, we were forbidden to read the Old Testament on account of its frequent references to fornication, adultery, concupiscence, and ‘abominations’ such as Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) and the gang-rape of the concubine in Gibeah (Judges 19). And as for the Song of Solomon, it’s been interpreted allegorically by both Christian and Jewish exegetes as a description of God’s love for His Church and Israel respectively. I’m not convinced. These sound to me like love songs firmly rooted in the bedchamber. Sensuality and eroticism throb through every line.

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2002/dec/11/bestbooks.fiction

Lisa Hilton’s top 10 scandalous French novels

Lisa Hilton’s Athénaïs, The Real Queen of France – a biography of Madame De Montespan, Louis XIV’s official mistress – is published by Little, Brown at £17.99.

1. Nana by Emile Zola
The courtesan’s courtesan, and possibly the funniest book he ever wrote.

2. The Claudine Novels by Colette
So much naughtier than Gigi, Claudine is a deliciously vicious lesbian schoolgirl with an unnerving preference for the older man.

3. Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
No list would be complete without the libertine’s bible, and John Malkovich’s Valmont in the film version is the sexiest performance of his career.

4. La Vie Sexuelle de Catherine M by Catherine Millet
Believe it or not, Catherine Millet’s memoirs of a veteran orgiast are elegantly reflective.

5. Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust
Enough said.

6. 37°2 le Matin by Philippe Djian
The book on which Betty Blue was based, and a racy read even without Béatrice Dalle.

7. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Obvious but necessary.

8. Atomised by Michel Houellebecq
Grim rather than joyful, but the most sophisticated take on postmodern sexuality.

9. The Butcher by Alina Reyes
No sausage gags, but scrumptiously erotic.

10. Arthurian Romances by Chrétien de Troyes
Unlikely, but worth it for the scene with Lancelot and the comb.

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2002/dec/02/bestbooks.classics