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    0 0
  • 02/19/13--12:00: Vote to save the NHS
  • The National Health Action party is drawing attention to the most important issue of the day – the government's plans to destroy the NHS

    During the late 80s I worked as an illustrator for Nursing Times. When Margaret Thatcher's government split the NHS into self-governing trusts and created an internal market for services, I began a regular cartoon called "St Opt-Outs", an everyday story of medical folk struggling under the cosh of managers helicoptered in from the private sector. Adverts for life insurance printed on nurse's uniforms. Hot meals bussed in from Bulgaria. Anaesthetic stopping, mid-operation, when a patient's credit card maxed out.

    Year by year it seemed less and less preposterous, because those changes were only the beginning of a relentless process, continued by every subsequent government, that led to the Health and Social Care Act of March last year.

    If you don't know the contents and consequences of the act then you're not alone, and it's not your fault. This act will probably change our lives more than any other piece of legislation created by the present government. It was opposed by the British Medical Association and by all but one of the medical royal colleges. Yet it was never advertised in a manifesto. As Michael Portillo told Andrew Neil on BBC One's This Week in January 2011: "They did not believe they could win an election if they told you what they were going to do."

    The bill itself is hard going and the media, who are justifiably up in arms about the shortcomings of individual hospitals, have been shamefully uninterested in what is being done to the healthcare system as a whole. Indeed, it was only when lawyers and academics started examining the act that the full implications became clear. This is the opening of an article in the British Medical Journal by professor Allyson Pollock, David Pryce and Peter Roderick:

    "Entitlement to free health services in England will be curtailed by the Health and Social Care Bill currently before parliament. The bill sets out a new statutory framework that would abolish the duty of primary care trusts… to secure health services for everyone living in a defined geographical area".

    And here is the opening of a report by Harrison Grant solicitors and the specialist barristers Stephen Cragg and Rebecca Haynes:

    "The bill will remove the duty of the Secretary of State to provide or secure the provision of health services which has been a common and critical feature of all previous NHS legislation since 1946."

    The NHS is founded on three fundamental principles. It is universal: everyone who needs medical treatment gets it. It is comprehensive: it covers all areas of healthcare. And it is free at the point of delivery.

    The Health and Social Care Act has abolished the first principle – primary care trusts are no longer obliged to secure treatment for you or your children when you or they are ill. Because it gives unelected local bodies the power to close unprofitable local services, it effectively abolishes the second as well. And once those two principles are abolished, the third becomes irrelevant.

    We know how this works because we've seen it happen with NHS dentistry. If you're well-off you go private. If you're poor and there are no NHS dentists in your area willing to take you on, then you simply don't have a dentist. Imagine this happening with oncology, or cardiac medicine, or care of the elderly.

    If you feel strongly about this and live in Eastleigh then you should make your voice heard by voting for Dr Iain Maclennan and the National Health Action party on 28 February. This party comprise a group of doctors and health professionals who are fighting against what is, in effect, the destruction of the health service. The NHS we cheered during the opening ceremony of the Olympics. The NHS that recorded its highest ever level of public satisfaction in the annual British Social Attitudes Survey in 2010, when the present government came to power.

    This is the most important issue in British politics at the moment, and they seem to be the only party who genuinely understand and care about what is happening.

    We should be rightly proud of living in a society where every single person is entitled to good medical care and where no one is turned away. How will we explain to our children in 10 or 20 years' time that we did nothing to stop this precious and irreplaceable institution being taken from us?


    guardian.co.uk© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


    0 0

    Making my novel into a play seemed a preposterous idea: in the end it reminded me of the reasons I wrote it in the first place

    I would have found it difficult writing this a year ago. I'd talked about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time so much since its publication that most of my memories of writing the novel had been over-written by my memories of talking about writing the novel. I could see how it might affect a reader, but I'd lost the ability to experience those feelings directly. Whenever anyone asked me about the novel my answers felt less and less reliable and I felt less and less comfortable giving them.

    Over the years my agent, my publisher and I had regular inquiries about theatrical rights to the novel. It seemed impossible to me that such a radically first-person novel set entirely in the head of a single character could be translated into a radically third-person medium without doing it irreparable damage, but we were worn slowly down by the sheer volume of requests. Gradually we moved from thinking a stage version was a preposterous idea, to wondering if it might be possible, to being intrigued as to how someone might be able to do it. So, instead of waiting to be asked by the right person, we decided to ask the right person. I knew that playwright Simon Stephens would be a joy to work with; I loved his writing and I was fairly confident that his bleak nihilism and fascination with random violence would steer him round the obvious pitfall of sentimentality.

    When Simon, the director Marianne Elliott, the designer Bunny Christie, and Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett from the physical theatre company Frantic Assembly all started working on the project I had two outrageously high hopes: first that they would use the novel to create a great piece of theatre, and second, more selfishly, that they would make Curious Incident new again – that I would sit in the stalls on press night and feel as if I was seeing it for the first time.

    Astonishingly, they did both things. They have also made me aware of certain aspects of the book which had slipped out of focus over the years. The novel really is not much more than scaffolding. So little is described. We never get to see what anyone looks like, not even Christopher. Our only clues to the thoughts and feelings of other characters are the few words of theirs which Christopher records. Readers fill these gaps so automatically they often don't notice them. It is into these spaces that Simon and Marianne were able to launch themselves.

    I say repeatedly that the novel is not about disability but about difference, and I think this becomes even clearer on stage. Because we are no longer stuck in Christopher's head we get to see the other characters unmediated, and from this point of view it seems obvious that what Christopher terms his "behavioural difficulties" are not personal attributes but a function of his relationships with other people, and that responsibility for them is always shared.

    The play reminded me, too, that stories about outsiders have always been attractive to writers, partly because they offer us a clearer view of ourselves from the margins to which we have pushed them. It's certainly true of Curious Incident that, while it is a book about Christopher's own experience, it is equally a book about families, maths, maps, astronomy, travel, order, chaos, violence, dogs and the geometry of battenberg cake – in short, about all of us.

    Just as the novel was a novel about novels and how we read them, so the play is a play about plays and how we watch them. Despite being superficially straightforward, the book contains a good deal of irony and quite a few paradoxes. Christopher hates novels because they are fictional, but he is a fictional character writing the fictional novel we are holding in our hands, a novel which could not have been constructed this carefully without the empathy he obviously doesn't possess, a book whose plot hinges upon his father discovering the half-written book itself halfway through the book itself, a book whose plot depends on Christopher finally reading his mother's letters and failing to read everyone's faces, a book full of metaphors of precisely this kind supposedly written by someone who hates metaphors. Similarly, the play celebrates the fact that this is a group of people pretending to be other people in front of other people. It is never simply a story acted, just as the novel is never simply a story told.

    One final thing of which the play reminded me, and of which I hope audiences are reminded. I insist that the novel is about difference not disability not just because I want to keep it out of the "issue novel" ghetto, though I do, but because Christopher's world is not one defined by constriction and deficit. His need for the comfort of routine is a need many of us share, and his insulation from other people's feelings is something we could all enjoy from time to time. More than this, however, the book can be exuberant because Christopher's mind can be equally exuberant. He may never travel further than London, he may never know another human being intimately, but when he wrestles with a mathematical problem or looks up at the stars, he sees things of overpowering beauty to which many of us will remain forever blind.


    guardian.co.uk© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


    0 0

    Mark Haddon's bestselling story of a boy with Asperger's syndrome, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, was a crossover hit which found success with both adults and children. Ten years after it was first published, it is finding a new generation of readers through a prizewinning stage adaptation.

    Haddon tells John Mullan how he never intended to write a book for children, and didn't realise that it was funny. He also explains how readers' reactions are often a "huge surprise" and why he regrets specifying his narrator's condition.

    Reading list

    The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-Time by Mark Haddon (David Fickling)



    0 0

    The American composer Elliott Carter died last year aged 103. As the Aldeburgh festival prepares to stage a posthumous premiere of new work, Mark Haddon celebrates his 'inhuman', beautiful music

    Writing about music is like writing about wine. A million words about tobacco notes or the slate slopes of the Mosel will miss the point that human beings have been drinking it for 7,000 years to get drunk, that rationality, perception, propriety, insight, libido, our whole relationship with reality is hostage to a simple chemical produced when fruit rots. The Greeks knew better. Dionysos was the god of ecstasy, not the god of fine dining.

    And a million words about equal temperament or Klemperer's Fidelio will similarly miss the point, that human beings have been making and listening to music for 50,000 years because it releases us from the tyranny of those same words, because it is a universal language that everyone can understand and no one can translate, because it moves us in profound and contradictory ways, because it is both pregnant with meaning and utterly meaningless.

    Apart from sheer pleasure, what draws me back again and again to Elliott Carter is that, through his music, he gets closer to the heart of this paradox than any other composer.

    It is obligatory for everyone who writes about Carter to describe how he worked with extraordinary patience and single-mindedness from unpromising beginnings towards a surprisingly late flowering in his 40s, then continued to write the most extraordinary music for another 60 years, constantly exploring, never resting on his laurels; how he was the last living link to a previous cultural epoch, but was always more interested in what was happening now; and how, throughout all of this, he remained good-humoured and unpretentious.

    The story is obligatory not only because it is so uplifting – three of his latest works were given world premieres at his 103rd birthday concert – but because, once Carter found his musical voice in the early 1950s, his music became at the same time increasingly exciting and hard to describe.

    As I write this I'm listening to A Symphony of Three Orchestras from 1976. The three orchestras of the title are the three groups into which the players and instruments are divided (brass, timpani, strings/clarinets, pitched percussion, piano, strings/woodwind, horns, strings, unpitched percussion). At times the groups appear to be playing the same piece, other times they appear to be playing something entirely different. They argue with one another, then they agree, then they refuse to co-operate and head off in their separate directions again. Seeming chaos alternates with seeming pattern. Waves of intricate sound give way to the purity of single lines and single instruments. Moments of stillness are followed by thunderclaps of noise. Somewhere underneath it all there is a guiding structural conceit, but every time it comes briefly into focus, the music rushes you relentlessly onwards. The piece is 16 minutes long, but it contains a small universe.

    Carter intended the work to be a symphonic portrait of the poet Hart Crane, with specific reference to his poem The Bridge.

    How many dawns, chill from his rippling resth
    The seagull's wings shall dip and pivot him,
    Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
    Over the chained bay waters Liberty –

    Doubtless, that concept worked as good and sturdy scaffolding while he worked at the piano, but the music could just as convincingly be a portrait of Charlie Chaplin, or the Ross Ice Shelf, or a doomed marriage, and these so-called facts would still tell us nothing about the actual experience of listening.

    We're human beings. We hunger for meaning. We can't look at a blade of grass or a dead bird without finding it significant. Music is really nothing more than artfully designed noise, but when we put headphones on, or sit in a concert hall, or hear it being pumped from the hidden speakers in Starbucks, we conjure images, we hear stories, we find ourselves ticking off the references and echoes. We grant music a mood and a character. Sometimes we think of it as expressing a whole philosophy of life. And a great deal of music is written with these expectations and responses in mind: choruses and themes that repeat; tunes that play hide and seek; chord progressions that promise to resolve, or resolve unexpectedly; patterns of notes that are shifted or reversed or inverted; dances, fanfares, funeral marches; imitations of birdsong or steam trains or the sea at Bournemouth; sad tunes, sexy tunes, tunes that say, "The happy shepherds give thanks after the storm."

    From 1950 onward, these are precisely the things that Carter's music begins to cast off. His work no longer sounds like any of the composers by whom he was initially influenced (Copland, Ives, Varèse, Berg). He adopts his own peculiar version of serialism, basing the music on a structure so intricate it is discernible only by the most alert and highly trained ear. He divides performers and instruments into eccentric groupings and has them play against one another, often in different styles, sometimes in different time signatures, so that even when the music seems to be saying something, it seems to say the opposite. Bar by bar, the music seems less and less dependent on traditional ideas of phrasing. Some of the later compositions seem not to have a beginning and an end, but simply to start and stop as if they are sections snipped from some larger sublime structure which we will never hear in its entirety.

    It becomes increasingly difficult to hear narratives, to conjure images, to give the music a mood or a character, let alone a philosophy of life. The music seems to be driven only by a fierce inventiveness, choosing at every point where to go next, not with reference to some prearranged plan, or borrowed musical ideas but according to what will excite the ear and the mind.

    The critic Wilfrid Mellers complained that pieces such as Carter's First Quartet demanded a heroic effort on behalf of the listener, and that by the time of the Double Concerto (1959–61), the music was losing any human element. The criticism seems unwarranted. For all its rigour and its energetic refusal to be tied down, to be interpreted, to sound like anything else, Carter's music is never cold. It never tries to seduce the listener, but neither does it keep the listener at arm's length. It has no axes to grind. It keeps no secrets. Daniel Barenboim put it best when he said that Carter's music was complex, but not complicated. It is as difficult as it needs to be, and no more. For something so consistently cutting-edge it is, like Carter himself, unexpectedly modest and democratic.

    And yet there is something in Mellers's complaint that points towards the paradox at the heart of all Carter's mature music. "Inhuman" has become a term of abuse in the arts, so perhaps now is the moment to remind ourselves of its literal meaning. A rockpool is inhuman, a starfield is inhuman, a tree is inhuman. Most of the beautiful things in the universe are inhuman (and most of the ugly things are man-made).

    I used to think of Elliott Carter's music after 1951 as being like a series of landscapes. Think, for example, of a mountain. Shadows of cloud move across its face. There is wind, there are clouds, there is fog and rain. Night alternates with day. Every so often there is a fall of scree. Choughs hang in the updrafts. The snow comes and goes. Each of these processes work in a different tempo, at a different scale, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in opposition, often with no obvious connection to one another. Storms give way to stillness. Despite the dissonance, everything is bound into a whole. We sense that all these disparate processes are driven by the same physical laws but those laws are buried too deep for the unscientific eye to see.

    Except that Carter's music is not like a mountain. It is not like anything. It's not about anything. It is a world of its own, entire and self‑sufficient, as complex and thrilling as that mountain, as complex and thrilling as a wolf pack, or the surface of the moon, or the drama going on inside a single cell. Dissonant but harmonious, fractured but whole. Meaningless, inhuman, beautiful. It makes only one demand of us: that we listen, and that we listen hard. It doesn't work as background music: it's too unpredictable, too alive. The fierce invention demands our fierce attention.


    guardian.co.uk© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


    0 0
  • 02/19/13--12:00: Vote to save the NHS
  • The National Health Action party is drawing attention to the most important issue of the day – the government's plans to destroy the NHS

    During the late 80s I worked as an illustrator for Nursing Times. When Margaret Thatcher's government split the NHS into self-governing trusts and created an internal market for services, I began a regular cartoon called "St Opt-Outs", an everyday story of medical folk struggling under the cosh of managers helicoptered in from the private sector. Adverts for life insurance printed on nurse's uniforms. Hot meals bussed in from Bulgaria. Anaesthetic stopping, mid-operation, when a patient's credit card maxed out.

    Year by year it seemed less and less preposterous, because those changes were only the beginning of a relentless process, continued by every subsequent government, that led to the Health and Social Care Act of March last year.

    If you don't know the contents and consequences of the act then you're not alone, and it's not your fault. This act will probably change our lives more than any other piece of legislation created by the present government. It was opposed by the British Medical Association and by all but one of the medical royal colleges. Yet it was never advertised in a manifesto. As Michael Portillo told Andrew Neil on BBC One's This Week in January 2011: "They did not believe they could win an election if they told you what they were going to do."

    The bill itself is hard going and the media, who are justifiably up in arms about the shortcomings of individual hospitals, have been shamefully uninterested in what is being done to the healthcare system as a whole. Indeed, it was only when lawyers and academics started examining the act that the full implications became clear. This is the opening of an article in the British Medical Journal by professor Allyson Pollock, David Pryce and Peter Roderick:

    "Entitlement to free health services in England will be curtailed by the Health and Social Care Bill currently before parliament. The bill sets out a new statutory framework that would abolish the duty of primary care trusts… to secure health services for everyone living in a defined geographical area".

    And here is the opening of a report by Harrison Grant solicitors and the specialist barristers Stephen Cragg and Rebecca Haynes:

    "The bill will remove the duty of the Secretary of State to provide or secure the provision of health services which has been a common and critical feature of all previous NHS legislation since 1946."

    The NHS is founded on three fundamental principles. It is universal: everyone who needs medical treatment gets it. It is comprehensive: it covers all areas of healthcare. And it is free at the point of delivery.

    The Health and Social Care Act has abolished the first principle – primary care trusts are no longer obliged to secure treatment for you or your children when you or they are ill. Because it gives unelected local bodies the power to close unprofitable local services, it effectively abolishes the second as well. And once those two principles are abolished, the third becomes irrelevant.

    We know how this works because we've seen it happen with NHS dentistry. If you're well-off you go private. If you're poor and there are no NHS dentists in your area willing to take you on, then you simply don't have a dentist. Imagine this happening with oncology, or cardiac medicine, or care of the elderly.

    If you feel strongly about this and live in Eastleigh then you should make your voice heard by voting for Dr Iain Maclennan and the National Health Action party on 28 February. This party comprise a group of doctors and health professionals who are fighting against what is, in effect, the destruction of the health service. The NHS we cheered during the opening ceremony of the Olympics. The NHS that recorded its highest ever level of public satisfaction in the annual British Social Attitudes Survey in 2010, when the present government came to power.

    This is the most important issue in British politics at the moment, and they seem to be the only party who genuinely understand and care about what is happening.

    We should be rightly proud of living in a society where every single person is entitled to good medical care and where no one is turned away. How will we explain to our children in 10 or 20 years' time that we did nothing to stop this precious and irreplaceable institution being taken from us?


    theguardian.com© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


    0 0

    Making my novel into a play seemed a preposterous idea: in the end it reminded me of the reasons I wrote it in the first place

    I would have found it difficult writing this a year ago. I'd talked about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time so much since its publication that most of my memories of writing the novel had been over-written by my memories of talking about writing the novel. I could see how it might affect a reader, but I'd lost the ability to experience those feelings directly. Whenever anyone asked me about the novel my answers felt less and less reliable and I felt less and less comfortable giving them.

    Over the years my agent, my publisher and I had regular inquiries about theatrical rights to the novel. It seemed impossible to me that such a radically first-person novel set entirely in the head of a single character could be translated into a radically third-person medium without doing it irreparable damage, but we were worn slowly down by the sheer volume of requests. Gradually we moved from thinking a stage version was a preposterous idea, to wondering if it might be possible, to being intrigued as to how someone might be able to do it. So, instead of waiting to be asked by the right person, we decided to ask the right person. I knew that playwright Simon Stephens would be a joy to work with; I loved his writing and I was fairly confident that his bleak nihilism and fascination with random violence would steer him round the obvious pitfall of sentimentality.

    When Simon, the director Marianne Elliott, the designer Bunny Christie, and Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett from the physical theatre company Frantic Assembly all started working on the project I had two outrageously high hopes: first that they would use the novel to create a great piece of theatre, and second, more selfishly, that they would make Curious Incident new again – that I would sit in the stalls on press night and feel as if I was seeing it for the first time.

    Astonishingly, they did both things. They have also made me aware of certain aspects of the book which had slipped out of focus over the years. The novel really is not much more than scaffolding. So little is described. We never get to see what anyone looks like, not even Christopher. Our only clues to the thoughts and feelings of other characters are the few words of theirs which Christopher records. Readers fill these gaps so automatically they often don't notice them. It is into these spaces that Simon and Marianne were able to launch themselves.

    I say repeatedly that the novel is not about disability but about difference, and I think this becomes even clearer on stage. Because we are no longer stuck in Christopher's head we get to see the other characters unmediated, and from this point of view it seems obvious that what Christopher terms his "behavioural difficulties" are not personal attributes but a function of his relationships with other people, and that responsibility for them is always shared.

    The play reminded me, too, that stories about outsiders have always been attractive to writers, partly because they offer us a clearer view of ourselves from the margins to which we have pushed them. It's certainly true of Curious Incident that, while it is a book about Christopher's own experience, it is equally a book about families, maths, maps, astronomy, travel, order, chaos, violence, dogs and the geometry of battenberg cake – in short, about all of us.

    Just as the novel was a novel about novels and how we read them, so the play is a play about plays and how we watch them. Despite being superficially straightforward, the book contains a good deal of irony and quite a few paradoxes. Christopher hates novels because they are fictional, but he is a fictional character writing the fictional novel we are holding in our hands, a novel which could not have been constructed this carefully without the empathy he obviously doesn't possess, a book whose plot hinges upon his father discovering the half-written book itself halfway through the book itself, a book whose plot depends on Christopher finally reading his mother's letters and failing to read everyone's faces, a book full of metaphors of precisely this kind supposedly written by someone who hates metaphors. Similarly, the play celebrates the fact that this is a group of people pretending to be other people in front of other people. It is never simply a story acted, just as the novel is never simply a story told.

    One final thing of which the play reminded me, and of which I hope audiences are reminded. I insist that the novel is about difference not disability not just because I want to keep it out of the "issue novel" ghetto, though I do, but because Christopher's world is not one defined by constriction and deficit. His need for the comfort of routine is a need many of us share, and his insulation from other people's feelings is something we could all enjoy from time to time. More than this, however, the book can be exuberant because Christopher's mind can be equally exuberant. He may never travel further than London, he may never know another human being intimately, but when he wrestles with a mathematical problem or looks up at the stars, he sees things of overpowering beauty to which many of us will remain forever blind.


    theguardian.com© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


    0 0

    Mark Haddon's bestselling story of a boy with Asperger's syndrome, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, was a crossover hit which found success with both adults and children. Ten years after it was first published, it is finding a new generation of readers through a prizewinning stage adaptation.

    Haddon tells John Mullan how he never intended to write a book for children, and didn't realise that it was funny. He also explains how readers' reactions are often a "huge surprise" and why he regrets specifying his narrator's condition.

    Reading list

    The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-Time by Mark Haddon (David Fickling)



    0 0

    The American composer Elliott Carter died last year aged 103. As the Aldeburgh festival prepares to stage a posthumous premiere of new work, Mark Haddon celebrates his 'inhuman', beautiful music

    Writing about music is like writing about wine. A million words about tobacco notes or the slate slopes of the Mosel will miss the point that human beings have been drinking it for 7,000 years to get drunk, that rationality, perception, propriety, insight, libido, our whole relationship with reality is hostage to a simple chemical produced when fruit rots. The Greeks knew better. Dionysos was the god of ecstasy, not the god of fine dining.

    And a million words about equal temperament or Klemperer's Fidelio will similarly miss the point, that human beings have been making and listening to music for 50,000 years because it releases us from the tyranny of those same words, because it is a universal language that everyone can understand and no one can translate, because it moves us in profound and contradictory ways, because it is both pregnant with meaning and utterly meaningless.

    Apart from sheer pleasure, what draws me back again and again to Elliott Carter is that, through his music, he gets closer to the heart of this paradox than any other composer.

    It is obligatory for everyone who writes about Carter to describe how he worked with extraordinary patience and single-mindedness from unpromising beginnings towards a surprisingly late flowering in his 40s, then continued to write the most extraordinary music for another 60 years, constantly exploring, never resting on his laurels; how he was the last living link to a previous cultural epoch, but was always more interested in what was happening now; and how, throughout all of this, he remained good-humoured and unpretentious.

    The story is obligatory not only because it is so uplifting – three of his latest works were given world premieres at his 103rd birthday concert – but because, once Carter found his musical voice in the early 1950s, his music became at the same time increasingly exciting and hard to describe.

    As I write this I'm listening to A Symphony of Three Orchestras from 1976. The three orchestras of the title are the three groups into which the players and instruments are divided (brass, timpani, strings/clarinets, pitched percussion, piano, strings/woodwind, horns, strings, unpitched percussion). At times the groups appear to be playing the same piece, other times they appear to be playing something entirely different. They argue with one another, then they agree, then they refuse to co-operate and head off in their separate directions again. Seeming chaos alternates with seeming pattern. Waves of intricate sound give way to the purity of single lines and single instruments. Moments of stillness are followed by thunderclaps of noise. Somewhere underneath it all there is a guiding structural conceit, but every time it comes briefly into focus, the music rushes you relentlessly onwards. The piece is 16 minutes long, but it contains a small universe.

    Carter intended the work to be a symphonic portrait of the poet Hart Crane, with specific reference to his poem The Bridge.

    How many dawns, chill from his rippling resth
    The seagull's wings shall dip and pivot him,
    Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
    Over the chained bay waters Liberty –

    Doubtless, that concept worked as good and sturdy scaffolding while he worked at the piano, but the music could just as convincingly be a portrait of Charlie Chaplin, or the Ross Ice Shelf, or a doomed marriage, and these so-called facts would still tell us nothing about the actual experience of listening.

    We're human beings. We hunger for meaning. We can't look at a blade of grass or a dead bird without finding it significant. Music is really nothing more than artfully designed noise, but when we put headphones on, or sit in a concert hall, or hear it being pumped from the hidden speakers in Starbucks, we conjure images, we hear stories, we find ourselves ticking off the references and echoes. We grant music a mood and a character. Sometimes we think of it as expressing a whole philosophy of life. And a great deal of music is written with these expectations and responses in mind: choruses and themes that repeat; tunes that play hide and seek; chord progressions that promise to resolve, or resolve unexpectedly; patterns of notes that are shifted or reversed or inverted; dances, fanfares, funeral marches; imitations of birdsong or steam trains or the sea at Bournemouth; sad tunes, sexy tunes, tunes that say, "The happy shepherds give thanks after the storm."

    From 1950 onward, these are precisely the things that Carter's music begins to cast off. His work no longer sounds like any of the composers by whom he was initially influenced (Copland, Ives, Varèse, Berg). He adopts his own peculiar version of serialism, basing the music on a structure so intricate it is discernible only by the most alert and highly trained ear. He divides performers and instruments into eccentric groupings and has them play against one another, often in different styles, sometimes in different time signatures, so that even when the music seems to be saying something, it seems to say the opposite. Bar by bar, the music seems less and less dependent on traditional ideas of phrasing. Some of the later compositions seem not to have a beginning and an end, but simply to start and stop as if they are sections snipped from some larger sublime structure which we will never hear in its entirety.

    It becomes increasingly difficult to hear narratives, to conjure images, to give the music a mood or a character, let alone a philosophy of life. The music seems to be driven only by a fierce inventiveness, choosing at every point where to go next, not with reference to some prearranged plan, or borrowed musical ideas but according to what will excite the ear and the mind.

    The critic Wilfrid Mellers complained that pieces such as Carter's First Quartet demanded a heroic effort on behalf of the listener, and that by the time of the Double Concerto (1959–61), the music was losing any human element. The criticism seems unwarranted. For all its rigour and its energetic refusal to be tied down, to be interpreted, to sound like anything else, Carter's music is never cold. It never tries to seduce the listener, but neither does it keep the listener at arm's length. It has no axes to grind. It keeps no secrets. Daniel Barenboim put it best when he said that Carter's music was complex, but not complicated. It is as difficult as it needs to be, and no more. For something so consistently cutting-edge it is, like Carter himself, unexpectedly modest and democratic.

    And yet there is something in Mellers's complaint that points towards the paradox at the heart of all Carter's mature music. "Inhuman" has become a term of abuse in the arts, so perhaps now is the moment to remind ourselves of its literal meaning. A rockpool is inhuman, a starfield is inhuman, a tree is inhuman. Most of the beautiful things in the universe are inhuman (and most of the ugly things are man-made).

    I used to think of Elliott Carter's music after 1951 as being like a series of landscapes. Think, for example, of a mountain. Shadows of cloud move across its face. There is wind, there are clouds, there is fog and rain. Night alternates with day. Every so often there is a fall of scree. Choughs hang in the updrafts. The snow comes and goes. Each of these processes work in a different tempo, at a different scale, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in opposition, often with no obvious connection to one another. Storms give way to stillness. Despite the dissonance, everything is bound into a whole. We sense that all these disparate processes are driven by the same physical laws but those laws are buried too deep for the unscientific eye to see.

    Except that Carter's music is not like a mountain. It is not like anything. It's not about anything. It is a world of its own, entire and self‑sufficient, as complex and thrilling as that mountain, as complex and thrilling as a wolf pack, or the surface of the moon, or the drama going on inside a single cell. Dissonant but harmonious, fractured but whole. Meaningless, inhuman, beautiful. It makes only one demand of us: that we listen, and that we listen hard. It doesn't work as background music: it's too unpredictable, too alive. The fierce invention demands our fierce attention.


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    Working with the National Theatre has been the most extraordinary experience

    Author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which was adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens and produced at the National last year, before transferring to the West End.

    I feel oddly at home at the National. The first play I saw there was probably Tony Harrison's The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus in 1990 – it certainly left a vivid impression on me. At one point, I was very briefly on attachment at the National Theatre studio, which sadly came to nothing, but I met Simon Stephens there and we bonded in a coffee shop around the corner. When we finally sat down to consider requests for the stage rights for Curious Incident, I chose Simon to adapt it and he knew the team he wanted to work with: it had to be at the National, with [director] Marianne Elliott and [physical theatre group] Frantic Assembly.

    How could I not be happy? It's been the most extraordinary experience. What probably helped them was that I kept my distance – I spent more time in the audience watching Curious than I did backstage. What the National gave me was a feeling of trust: you don't have to be there all the time to make sure they're doing the right thing. Importantly, they allowed Simon to workshop the play well in advance. This gave him the confidence to do something quite outrageous, because early on the idea of using movement and dance in the play would have seemed preposterous.

    They aren't afraid to take risks and they are able occasionally to have plays that go completely wrong. I think it's some measure of a theatre's generosity of spirit that you can go to see something dreadful one day and something just extraordinary the next, and one pays for the other. And this feeds into the argument about state subsidy for the arts: the National has created some great shows that have gone on to earn huge amounts of money elsewhere. Hopefully they'll be able to continue doing that long into the future.


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    Hilary Mantel, Jonathan Franzen, Mohsin Hamid, Ruth Rendell, Tom Stoppard, Malcolm Gladwell, Eleanor Catton and many more recommend the books that impressed them this year

    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

    Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw (Fourth Estate) is a brilliant, sprawling, layered and unsentimental portrayal of contemporary China. It made me think and laugh. I also love Dave Eggers' The Circle (Hamish Hamilton), which is a sharp-eyed and funny satire about the obsession with "sharing" our lives through technology. It's convincing and a little creepy.

    William Boyd

    By strange coincidence two of the most intriguing art books I read this year had the word "Breakfast" in their titles. They were Breakfast with Lucian by Geordie Greig (Jonathan Cape) and Breakfast at Sotheby's by Philip Hook (Particular). Greig's fascinating, intimate biography of Lucian Freud was a revelation. Every question I had about Freud – from the aesthetic to the intrusively gossipy – was answered with great candour and judiciousness. Hook's view of the art world is that of the professional auctioneer. In an A-Z format, it is an entire art education contained in under 350 pages. Wry, dry and completely beguiling.

    Bill Bryson

    The Compatibility Gene by Daniel M Davis (Allen Lane) is an elegantly written, unexpectedly gripping account of how scientists painstakingly unravelled the way in which a small group of genes (known as MHC genes) crucially influence, and unexpectedly interconnect, various aspects of our lives, from how well we fight off infection to how skilfully we find a mate. Lab work has rarely been made to seem more interesting or heroic. But my absolute book of the year is Philip Davies's hefty, gorgeous London: Hidden Interiors (English Heritage/Atlantic Publishing), which explores 180 fabulous London interior spaces that most people know nothing about, from George Gilbert Scott's wondrous chapel at King's College to L Manze's eel, pie and mash shop in Walthamstow. It is beautifully illustrated with photographs by Derek Randall and worth every penny of its £40 price.

    Eleanor Catton

    My discovery of the year was Eimear McBride's debut novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press): in style, very similar to Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, but the broken ellipses never feel like a gimmick or a game. I was utterly devastated by Colin McAdam's A Beautiful Truth (Granta), and utterly delighted by Elizabeth Knox's sly and ingenious Mortal Fire (Farrar Straus Giroux). My favourite novel for children published this year was the marvellously funny and inventive Heap House (Hot Key), written and illustrated by Edward Carey.

    Shami Chakrabarti

    Helping to judge this year's Samuel Johnson prize meant getting stuck into some serious non-fiction. The six books that made the shortlist – Empires of the Dead (David Crane, William Collins), Return of a King (William Dalrymple, Bloomsbury), A Sting in the Tale (Dave Goulson, Jonathan Cape), Under Another Sky (Charlotte Higgins, Jonathan Cape), The Pike (Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Fourth Estate)and Margaret Thatcher (Charles Moore, Allen Lane)– are among my favourites from 2013. Dalrymple's masterful retelling of the first Afghan war had an eerie modern-day relevance, while Hughes-Hallett's portrayal of the fascist poet Gabriele D'Annunzio was a sombre reminder of the perils of political extremism. On a completely contrary note, Goulson's case for the importance of bumblebees will live long in my memory for its sheer passion and scientific detail.

    Sarah Churchwell

    Janet Malcolm's Forty-One False Starts (Granta) provides a masterclass on the art of the essay from one of its most formidable living practitioners – often, as with the title essay, by sharing object lessons in failure. These occasional pieces offer glimpses into the creative process, the writer's constant search for structure, order and consonance. Even when individual essays did not live up to Malcolm's rigorous standards, the collection as a whole shows how connections emerge from the workings of one memorably searching, restless, ruthless mind.

    Jim Crace

    The four non-fiction books I most valued this year have an unusual strength and depth in common; the single themes they profess to focus on are also the Trojan horses through which their writers smuggle in a whole wide world of instruction, knowledge and contemporary significance. They are: Spillover, David Quammen's investigation of animal-to-human viruses (Vintage); Falling Upwards (Harper Collins), Richard Holmes's history of ballooning; The Searchers (Bloomsbury), Glenn Frankel's account of the 1836 abduction by Comanches of Cynthia Ann Parker and its unending aftermath; and Mark Cocker's loving and magisterial Birds and People(Jonathan Cape).

    Roddy Doyle

    George Saunders's collection of stories, Tenth of December (Bloomsbury), is spectacularly good. The stories are clever and moving, and the title story is the best piece of fiction I've read this year. The Searchers, by Glenn Frankel, is about the stories behind the story that became the classic John Ford film. It's a history of America, an exploration of racial intolerance, an account of how, and why, real events can become legends. It's also hugely entertaining – as well as huge. My favourite book this year is Paul Morley's The North (And Almost Everything in It) (Bloomsbury). History told backwards, a memoir, a love letter to Liverpool, several to Manchester; the book pushed me to go to the Lowry exhibition at the Tate and made me listen again to George Formby and the Buzzcocks. The book filled my head. It was much too long and occasionally irritating, but when I got to the end I wished there'd been more of it.

    Richard Ford

    James Salter's novel All That Is (Picador). Not in my (admittedly failing) memory have I read a novel that, at its crucialest moment, made me just stand straight up out of my chair and have to walk around the room for several minutes. Laid into the customary Salterish verbal exquisiteness and vivid intelligence is such remarkable audacity and dark-hued verve about us poor humans. It's a great novel.

    Jonathan Franzen

    My vote is for Eric Schlosser's Command and Control (Allen Lane). Do you really want to read about the thermonuclear warheads that are still aimed at the city where you live? Do you really need to know about the appalling security issues that have dogged nuclear weapons in the 70 years since their invention? Yes, you do. Schlosser's book reads like a thriller, but it's masterfully even-handed, well researched, and well organised. Either he's a natural genius at integrating massive amounts of complex information, or he worked like a dog to write this book. You wouldn't think the prospect of nuclear apocalypse would make for a reading treat, but in Schlosser's hands it does.

    Antonia Fraser

    The Poets' Daughters by Katie Waldegrave (Hutchinson) is an engrossing study of Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge. A double biography is an intricate pattern to achieve, but Waldegrave brings it off triumphantly: she also brings compassion as well as scholarship to her aid, so that at times the story is almost unbearably moving. After reading this book, I went right back to the paternal poetry and read it with fresh eyes.Olivier by Philip Ziegler (MacLehose Press), published appropriately enough as the National Theatre celebrates its 50th anniversary, is another narrative that sweeps you along. While in no sense a hagiography – there is plenty of discreet criticism when necessary – it enriched my sense of this amazing multi-faceted, multi-talented man. When I watch Henry V, for the umpteenth time, I shall gaze into those brilliant enigmatic eyes with even more awe, and a certain amount of apprehension.

    Stephen Frears

    Best read of the year was Into the Silence (Vintage), Wade Davis's account of the three unsuccessful Everest expeditions, through the back door of Tibet, culminating in the death of George Mallory in 1924. Men from the first world war showing endurance and a capacity for suffering beyond my comprehension. Maybe the prime minister should read it before he makes an idiot of himself. Oh and Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe (Viking). But I would say that since it's about my ex‑wife and our children. Letters from their Leicester nanny. Very funny and sharp.

    Malcolm Gladwell

    I read so many books this year that I loved – Jeremy Adelman's biography of Albert O Hirschman, Worldly Philosopher(Princeton University Press), David Epstein's The Sports Gene (Yellow Jersey), and Jonathan Dee's magnificent A Thousand Pardons (Corsair) – but my favourite was a novel I picked up entirely randomly, in an airport bookstore: The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure (Sourcebooks Landmark). It is a beautiful and elegant account of an ordinary man's unexpected and reluctant descent into heroism during the second world war. I have no idea who Belfoure is, but he needs to write another book, now!

    John Gray

    Adam Phillips' One Way and Another: New and Selected Essays(Hamish Hamilton). Writing of Ford Madox Ford's hero Tietjens in Parade's End, who in the middle of a conversation suddenly wondered if he was in fact the father of his child but "proved his reputation for sanity" by going on talking without any sign of distress, Phillips comments: "As though sanity for this Englishman was about being apparently undisturbed by one's most disturbing thoughts." Witty and somehow liberating, it's a comment that could only come from Phillips. Covering a wide variety of topics – "On Being Bored", "First Hates", "On Success" and "The Uses of Forgetting" are just a few – these short pieces from the psychotherapist and critic will confirm him as the best living essayist writing in English.

    Mark Haddon

    The Great War edited by Mark Holborn, text by Hilary Roberts (Jonathan Cape). A collection of photographs from the vast holdings of the Imperial War Museums. I have never seen or read anything that brings the first world war quite so vividly alive. Some of the events of 1914-1918 have been told and retold so many times that the whole conflict has, for many people, acquired an obscuring antique patina. This book strips it all away. It will make me seem a fool, perhaps, but I kept turning pages and thinking, my God, these are real people. These things actually happened.

    Mohsin Hamid

    Those unfamiliar with the American short-form master George Saunders should go out immediately and pick up a copy of his latest story collection, Tenth of December. Wow. Sharp and fun. Also, we should all be grateful for the New York Review Books Classics series, which this year has brought us Frances Pritchett's English translation of Intizar Husain's famous Urdu novel, Basti. Husain was nominated for the 2013 Man Booker International prize, and this, his best‑known work, deserves a UK publisher.

    Robert Harris

    In 1983, the 50-year lease on a safe deposit box on the island of Mallorca expired. It was opened and found to contain tens of thousands of pages of the diary of a minor German aristocrat, Count Harry Kessler (1868-1937), covering the years from 1880 to 1918. These have now been meticulously translated and edited by Laird M Easton, and the result is Journey to the Abyss (Vintage), a 900-page marvel. Kessler, an aesthete and amateur diplomat, travelled relentlessly between Paris, Berlin and London before the first world war and the list of his friends and acquaintances, each vividly described, is staggering: Bonnard, Cocteau, Nijinsky, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Ravel, Rodin, Renoir, Gide, Monet, Mahler, Matissee, William Morris, Richard Strauss, Strindberg, Rilke, Verlaine, George Bernard Shaw, Hofmannsthal, Gordon Craig, Munch, Sarah Bernhardt, Max Reinhardt, George Grosz, Nietzsche (whose death mask he helps make), Walter Rathenau, Gustav Stresemann, HG Wells, Augustus John … And then comes August 1914 and Kessler – hitherto the most cultured companion – joins the Kaiser's army and briefly becomes a swaggering German nationalist. An important, underappreciated, unforgettable book.

    Max Hastings

    Thomas Harding's Hanns and Rudolf (William Heinemann) tells the story of how a young German Jewish refugee serving in the British army – the author's uncle – was responsible in 1945 for tracking down and arresting Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz and one of the most dreadful mass murderers of all time. Harding sketches the parallel lives of the SS officer with notable skill. The book is a moving reminder of what an extraordinary amount Britain gained by the Jewish flight from Europe in the 1930s – it could have been still more had we offered a warmer welcome to a host of German scientists who moved on to the US.

    Philip Hensher

    Volume one of Charles Moore's Margaret Thatcher(Allen Lane) is an extraordinary reconstruction of a political way of life now completely vanished, written with a clear eye and full of incidental pleasures. (Not least about the surprising number of adoring gay men surrounding her at all stages.) The novel I enjoyed most was Richard House's sensational pile-driver, The Kills(Picador). Catching-up reading brought me Tapan Raychaudhuri's superb memoir, The World in Our Time(HarperCollins India), not yet published in the UK, but full of the tumultuous life of the Bengal delta – a masterpiece.

    Simon Hoggart

    An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris (Hutchinson). Hard to imagine a thriller where you know the ending before you pick up the book, but Harris's retelling of the Dreyfus case is as taut and exciting as anything by Forsyth or Follett. The tale is told through the eyes of Col Picquart, the head of "the statistical section" within the French secret service, who witnessed Dreyfus's degradation but gradually came to realise that another officer was the traitor. The story of how he went over the heads of his superiors, none of whom wanted to rock the ship of state, is gripping, the evocation of turn-of-the-century France appealing, and the ending is magnificently downbeat, a terrific anticlimax – if that's possible.

    AM Homes

    Woody Guthrie's Wardy Forty: Greystone Park State Hospital Revisited by Phillip Buehler (Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc) is a hauntingly beautiful book about the five years the American folk legend, songwriter and activist spent as a patient at the Greystone Park State Hospital in New Jersey. Guthrie, who had Huntington's disease, lived among the mental patients on ward 40. It was here that he was introduced to the 19-year-old Bob Dylan. Photographer Phillip Buehler, who has made a career of exploring 20th-century ruins, first climbed into Greystone through a window. The beauty of the decaying building, thick curls of paint peeling off the walls, light seeping into long empty narrow patient rooms like cells, spurred his curiosity. He located Guthrie's files and, working with archivists and the Guthrie family, was able to put together a portrait of a man, a place and a point in American history when large state hospitals were all too often warehouses for humanity. There are notes from doctors indicating they had no idea who Guthrie was; or they saw him as a wanderer a vagrant, and thought his claims about songwriting were delusions of grandeur. A particular quote from Woody's son Arlo stayed with me – a patient tells Woody that he loved his book Bound for Glory. "You read my book?" Woody asks. "No, I ate your book," the patient says.

    Barbara Kingsolver

    I love surprise finds, so I'll recommend two debut novels that swept me away.The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker (Blue Door), has the detailed realism of historical fiction, the haunting feel of a folk tale, and is one of only two novels I've ever loved whose main characters are not human. (The other was The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy.) And Susan Nussbaum's Good Kings, Bad Kings (out in March 2014 from Oneworld Publications) is a ferociously honest, funny, completely unstoppable trip through an institutionally corrupt home for disabled teenagers. I had no intention of going where they took me. That's the thrill of fiction.

    David Kynaston

    Kenneth Roy's The Invisible Spirit: A Life of Postwar Scotland 1945-75 (ICS) is by someone who lived through the period but is admirably unsentimental. Well-informed, highly readable, slightly prickly, often opinionated – not least about the seriously flawed Scottish establishment – this feels like something that needed to be written. Ian Nairn: Words in Place (Five Leaves) by Gillian Darley and David McKie I am far from alone in having the awkward, melancholic architectural writer and broadcaster as one of my heroes: partly for his deep conviction that the built environment mattered, partly for his insistence – in defiance of modernist orthodoxy – that people mattered more. One day no doubt Nairn will get a heavy-duty biography, but for the time being this elegant, rather slighter treatment does the job with charm and just the right degree of critical affection.

    John Lanchester

    Nina Stibbe's Love, Nina, a collection of letters to her sister from the period in the mid-80s when she was working as a nanny, is funny and sharp and has a distinctive streak of wildness: no book this year made me laugh more. Also funny and sharp, though in a darker vein, is ASA Harrison's he-said, she-said psychological thriller, The Silent Wife(Headline). Finally, the last entry in the funny-sharp stakes are the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald, which I've been reading thanks to Hermione Lee's biography, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (Chatto & Windus). The odd thing is that Lee's book has had more influence on my reading than anything else this year, even though I'm not going to read the biography itself until I've finished the novels. That's because I don't want prematurely to spoil the mystery of how Fitzgerald could have known so much about so many worlds, from pre-revolutionary Moscow to 60s theatre-school London to German Romanticism. (I think I can guess how she knew so much about houseboats and bookshops.) Last recommendation: Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False(OUP USA), an extraordinary and very controversial intervention in the current ructions about science and religion, from one of the world's most respected philosophers.

    Mark Lawson

    On either side of the Atlantic, two octogenarian grand masters of espionage fiction were on high form: John le Carré's A Delicate Truth(Viking) and Charles McCarry's The Shanghai Factor(Head of Zeus) dramatise the cumulative consequences of decades of spying and lying by the victors of the second world war. Drawing on a lifetime of learning, and defying several life-threatening conditions, Clive James translated Dante: The Divine Comedy(Picador) into punchy, theologically serious and frequently funny verse. Julian Barnes reformed the conventional autobiography in Levels of Life (Jonathan Cape), combining essay, fiction and memoir in reflecting on the death of love, while Hermione Lee rethought the conventions of biography in a compelling account of the life and work (and overlaps between) of the until now underrated writer Penelope Fitzgerald. And, as readers migrate to the ebook, two lavishly produced volumes made the case for the physical book: a new edition (including the Olympic Flame bowl) of Thomas Heatherwick's thrilling design compendium Making (Thames & Hudson) and JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst's S. (Canongate): an astonishing interactive project that encloses secret books and secret readers within what seems to be a 1949 library book.

    Penelope Lively

    Hermione Lee's Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life is literary biography at its best – a masterly discussion of the work of that fine novelist and an illuminating account of the life of a complex and elusive person. I thought I knew both the work and the writer pretty well but have learned much – new insights into the novels, aspects of her life of which I knew nothing. Nobody does elderly men better than Jane Gardam. Last Friends(Little, Brown) is the concluding volume in her trilogy about the legal pack – Feathers, Veneering, Fiscal-Smith – that began with Old Filth. Throughout the series Jane Gardam has switched viewpoints with extraordinary dexterity. Elegant, funny, unexpected – Last Friends ties things up. I am a long-time fan of Adam Thorpe. His versatility is remarkable – historical novels, shrewd forays into contemporary life. And now a thriller, Flight (Vintage). It zips from the Middle East to the Outer Hebrides – brilliant plotting, a mesmerising read.

    Robert Macfarlane

    Never a man to take a straight line where a diversion was possible, Patrick Leigh Fermor spent almost 50 years not-quite-finishing the final book of his trilogy describing his walk across Europe in the 1930s. It appeared this autumn as The Broken Road(John Murray), two years after his death, brought to publication by Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron. I opened it expecting disappointment – how could it be as good as its sibling volumes? – and ended it amazed. I read Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries (Granta) three times in my capacity as Man Booker judge, and each time round it yielded new riches. It is a vastly complex novel about investment and return, gift and theft, value and worth, which – in performance of its own ethics – gives far more than it appears to possess. Finally, in minimalist contrast to Catton's maximalist novel, I loved Wolfhou by Autumn Richardson and Richard Skelton, another exquisitely produced pamphlet of place-poetry from Corbel Stone Press, who work out of a cottage in the western Lake District.

    Hilary Mantel

    Indulge in a big and richly satisfying literary biography, from an artist in the form: Hermione Lee's Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. It will send you back to the subject's own piquant and elusive novels. But perhaps a book of the year should be a mirror of the times? If so, feed righteous indignation on Damian McBride's Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin (Backbite). Bankrupt of morals and bankrupt of style, it is a nonpareil of peevishness, and self-delusion shines from it like a Christmas star.

    Pankaj Mishra

    The most remarkable discovery for me this year was Kirill Medvedev's It's No Good(Ugly Duckling Presse), a collection of poems and essays, a brilliant artistic and political response to the depredations of the Yeltsin and Putin era. Italo Calvino's Letters: 1941-1985 (Princeton Press) and Collection of Sand: Essays (Penguin Modern Classics) remind us of a type of writerly mind almost extinct in Anglo-America: worldly, invariably curious, quietly passionate and elegant. Julia Lovell's translations of Zhu Wen's stories in The Matchmaker, the Apprentice and the Football Fan (Columbia) yet again affirm him as one of the most interesting Chinese writers today. This was a particularly rich and exciting year in literary translations from Indian languages; the stories in Ajay Navaria's Unclaimed Terrain(Navayana Publications), and the novels by Sachin Kundalkar (Cobalt Blue, Hamish Hamilton) and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (The Mirror of Beauty, Hamish Hamilton) hint at the yet unrevealed depth and diversity of Indian literatures.

    Blake Morrison

    Adelle Waldman's first novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P (William Heinemann) is memorable for its Austen-like wit, humour, social astuteness and scarily accurate insights into men. Rather than condemn the protagonist (a young New Yorker) as misogynistic and self-obsessed, Waldman sends him up, to devastating effect. Lucy Hughes-Hallett adopts a similar strategy in her terrific biography of the poet, seducer and fascist Gabriele D'Annunzio, The Pike. The pace is hectic, as befits D'Annunzio's life, and I enjoyed the quote from the ex-lover who said his ideal would be an octopus with a hundred women's legs – but no head. Helen Mort's Division Street (Chatto & Windus) is an excellent first poetry collection – lucid, intelligent, politically aware, and loyal to the northern landscapes that inspired it. Dave Eggers's The Circle, about the abolition of privacy in the age of social media, is a must-read dystopian novel – the future it envisages has all but arrived.

    Andrew Motion

    Tim Dee's Four Fields(Jonathan Cape) belongs in the tradition of "nature writing", but works with it too – putting its beautifully written sentences in the service of description and evocation, but using them to frame a serious conversation about environmental preservation and its opposites; it's a deeply attractive book and also an important one. Inside the Rainbow (Redstone Press), edited by Julian Rothenstein and Olga Budashevskaya, is a survey of Russian children's literature from 1920-35, and the subtitle tells us what to expect: "Beautiful books, terrible times". Indeed. But brilliantly clever, seditious, amusing, brave and delightful books as well; their illustrations and jackets are all reproduced here to wonderful effect. JO Morgan's long poem At Maldon (CB Editions) is a riff on the Old English poem, and owes something to Christopher Logue's War Music and Alice Oswald's Memorial– but it is its own thing too: inventive, striking and memorable. And a reminder that Morgan is one of the most original poets around.

    Edna O'Brien

    La Folie Baudelaire by Roberto Galasso (Allen Lane) is a brilliant kaleidoscopic rendering of the tormented poet, his times and the city of Paris that "breathes" in his prose and poetry. We meet Baudelaire the dandy, his indecorous mistress Jeanne, both muse and vampire, his mother Caroline and his hated stepfather General Aupick, who, in the bloodshed of 1848, Baudelaire asked one of the insurgents to shoot. It is one of the most satisfying biographies I have ever read. Sylvia Plath: Drawings (Faber), lovingly compiled by her daughter Frieda Hughes, shows Plath's observation of everyday things – a thistle, a horse chestnut, the willows near Grantchester. It is also salutary to compare the austerity of her poetry with the rapture in her letters to her husband (included here), in which she envisages his presence "come day, come night, come hurricane and holocaust …" Dear Boy by Emily Berry (Faber): from the evidence here, this poet's imagination is rich, playful and restless, with the occasional note of anguish, which Plath would surely approve of, like a glimpse of the first crocus. Last, but by no means least, Donal Ryan's The Spinning Heart (Doubleday Ireland) is funny, moving and beautifully written.

    Susie Orbach

    Alan Rusbridger's Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible is a wonderful account of trying to learn a complex piano piece while running the Guardian at the time of WikiLeaks and phone hacking. I had to skip some of the accounts of the fingering he is learning but he eloquently expresses the struggle to take up the playing of this piece – the Chopin Ballade No 1 – and segues into fascinating accounts of different historic pianos and the idiosyncratic manner individual musicians use them, and his various "teachers", who mostly sound very strict, alongside the emergencies from the office. A parallel story of how newspapers can move forward in the digital age runs along the narrative. I am always curious about people's daily lives and their curiosities. This book gives both in abundance.

    Ian Rankin

    Kate Atkinson's Life After Life(Doubleday) is her most challenging, complex and compelling novel yet. A woman has the chance to live life over and over again in often surprising ways. No Booker listing: no justice. Louise Doughty's Apple Tree Yard (Faber) is ostensibly a courtroom drama that asks how its sensible, intelligent middle-class heroine ended up in the dock in a murder case – beguilingly written, steely and plausible and occasionally shocking. Niccolò Ammaniti was a new name to me. Let the Games Begin(Canongate) is a wild ride with the fevered quality of Pynchon and Vonnegut as a party to end all parties sees the various characters vying to survive a grotesque uprising. It's a satire on contemporary culture, Italian politics and the writing profession itself. Funny, sharp, and really quite rude. In a similar vein, John Niven's Straight White Male (William Heinemann) is the story of a hugely successful Irish screenwriter and his gloriously incorrect behaviour. There are laughs aplenty, but Niven adds growing poignancy as his hero becomes self-aware. It is Niven's best book, and the protagonist is easily the match of John Self in Martin Amis's Money.

    Ruth Rendell

    My choice isn't a new book, but it was reissued this year. I'm ashamed that I had never heard of Stonerby John Williams (Vintage) until I found it in a bookshop three months ago. I was stunned by it, it's so good. And yet very little happens in it except joy and pain and sorrow in the American midwest, love and passion and the mistakes everyone makes. It's beautifully written in simple but brilliant prose, a novel of an ordinary life, an examination of a quiet tragedy, the work of a great but little-known writer.

    Lionel Shriver

    Three novels stand out for me in 2013: Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda (Sceptre), set in Red Hook, Brooklyn; two girls venture out on a pink inflatable raft into the filthy East River and only one comes back. Great writing, great setting, beautifully rendered characters. The Son by Phillipp Meyer (Simon & Schuster): an epic set in Texas that uses, among other things, that white-man-raised-by-Indians routine, and yet incredibly it doesn't feel tired. Totally engrossing. Lastly, Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs (Virago), which teems with fury, and tells a tale of breathtaking betrayal. It's a great study as well in the (possibly?) unreliable narrator. You keep puzzling over whether this woman is completely off her head.

    Helen Simpson

    Hermione Lee's fascinating biography of Penelope Fitzgerald charts a life that travelled the full 360 degrees on the wheel of fortune – from early promise and privilege down to dramatic middle-aged doldrums then back up to a late-blooming two decades of literary productivity and success. I'm now reading Fitzgerald's last four novels, which are every bit as breathtaking as Lee's concluding chapters describe. I read Nikolai Leskov's The Enchanted Wanderer for the first time this year in a vigorous new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Admired by Chekhov, Gorky and Tolstoy, these stories seethe with picaresque unpredictability, outlandish but touching monologues and recklessly impulsive characters like the country girl turned femme fatale in Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.

    Tom Stoppard

    This is the time of year when I try in vain to remember what I was reading up to 12 months ago, and end up choosing three books I've enjoyed in the last 12 weeks. In the present case, these are Nature's Oracle by Ullica Segerstrale (OUP), a biography of WD (Bill) Hamilton, the evolutionary biologist whose insight into the operation of kin selection at gene level suggested how altruism might have emerged from natural selection; a hugely enjoyable novel, Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (Jonathan Cape), who, when he's in his hardboiled vein, writes the most entertaining dialogue in any year; and The New York Times Book of Mathematics, which is what it sounds like: a century of news from maths written up for a general readership, and nobody does it better.

    Colm Tóibín

    Titian: His Life by Sheila Hale (HarperPress) manages an intimate and careful study of Titian's body of work, plus an intricate knowledge of politics and art in 16th-century Venice and in the Europe from which Titian received his commissions. She captures Titian's vast ambition and does justice to his achievement, but also creates a portrait of an age. Reiner Stach's Kafka: The Decisive Years and Kafka: The Years of Insight (Princeton University Press) are the second and third volumes of a three-volume biography. Stach reads the work and the life with minute care and sympathy. He has a deep understanding of the world that Kafka came from and the personalities who touched his life, and this is matched by an intelligence and tact about the impulse behind the work itself.


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    The curious incident of the novelist who conquered his fear of flying with the help of Valium, Mogwai and Ethiopian Airlines flight 707 to Addis Ababa

    I have been terrified of flying for at least 20 years. I try very hard not to fly, but when I'm forced to I feel sick and frightened and angry for several weeks beforehand. I spend my time abroad thinking constantly about the inevitably fatal return journey and when I get home I suffer a mild form of PTSD in which I find even the sight of an aircraft upsetting. In the past few years my wife and our two boys have started to go on holiday without me. I console myself that I have a very modest carbon footprint, but I dream of visiting Iceland or the Canadian Rockies and increasingly I'm haunted by the idea that I'm going to find myself lying on my deathbed knowing that I've spent one life on one planet and that my cowardice has made it so much smaller.

    Some years ago Oxfam asked me if I wanted to visit one of the projects they helped fund then write about it, so I travelled by bus to the Migrants Resource Centre in Victoria, London SW1 and despite meeting some extraordinary people there has always been a small part of me which believes I never quite stepped up to the plate. So I went back to Oxfam last year and asked if I could do it again, but this time visit one of the projects they helped fund overseas. It would be like sealing myself into a barrel several miles upstream of Niagara Falls. Once I'd agreed to go there would be no escape. I would fly further than I'd ever flown before, I could go on holiday with my family again and, hopefully, at some future date, die a happier death.

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    Whether the Ministry of Justice decision was driven by dogma or a simple mistake, such inhumane treatment would do nothing to rehabilitate prisoners

    The ban on sending books to prisoners in England and Wales was finally declared unlawful by Mr Justice Collins in the high court on Friday. It is good news for prisoners, good news for their families and friends, and good news for Frances Crook and the Howard League for Penal Reform who kick-started the campaign to get the ridiculous ruling overturned. And it is probably good news for many inside the Ministry of Justice who, I suspect, are heartily tired of defending the indefensible and secretly glad to be able to blame the high court for the U-turn they should have performed a long time ago.

    It is still instructive, though, to ask how the ban came into being in the first place. We know it was a mistake – and we know they know it was a mistake – because it was introduced by Chris Grayling last November as part of a new “incentives and earned privileges” regime. That is, prisoners could get hold of new books, but only by buying them, and only when they had earned the right to do so. Soon after the rule came under fire, however, he and his department began to claim it was a policy aimed at stemming the flow of drugs into prison (an assertion rapidly dismissed by the Prisoner Officers Association). So, right from the start, the Ministry of Justice knew its original justification was preposterous.

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    I grew up on a diet of Carry On films, Benny Hill and my parents’ Daily Telegraph. The Spare Rib Reader helped me articulate an unease that I had felt for as long as I could remember

    To be honest, I can’t remember a single thing about the contents of this book. Mind you, that’s true of many books I’ve read. I do know that I borrowed it from my girlfriend Sally when we were students at Oxford in the early 1980s, along with Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch.

    What I do remember is that the Spare Rib Reader felt very different from those other books. It had a slightly scruffy, home-made feel about it, more real, more down to earth. All three books grew out of the women’s movement, obviously, but the Reader felt like a team effort – not just a woman’s voice but the voices of many women, the voice of the movement itself, a record of something important happening out there in the world.

    I hadn’t realised that sexism was ubiquitous and that every woman suffered from its effects

    There is an assumption that the feminism of the early 80s was angry and dogmatic. But the Reader is warm and generous

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    Quentin Blake, Roddy Doyle and Chris Riddell were among writers and illustrators who creatively saluted the venerable children’s author Ahlberg

    In 2014 Allan Ahlberg was lined up to receive the inaugural Booktrust lifetime achievement award. Allan, however, felt uneasy about Amazon sponsoring it and politely declined. Which might have been the end of the story, except that Philip Pullman remarked to me – or perhaps it was I who remarked to him – that Allan very much deserved a lifetime achievement award and it would be a good idea if it came, not from the world of publishing, but from his peers. An award to celebrate not just Ahlberg’s own books, but those he wrote with his late wife, Janet, among which are some of the most well-loved children’s books of the last 40 years: The Jolly Postman, Burglar Bill, Peepo!, Each Peach Pear Plum

    But what might the prize be? A cup? A certificate? A statuette? A medal? In the end we asked 150 children’s writers and illustrators to send us a letter, a poem or a drawing to show how much Allan and Janet’s work meant to them. We would then bind them into a single book.

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    The author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime explains how, in order to find his voice as a short story writer, he had to escape the legacy of Chekhov and Carver

    I’d been trying to write short stories for a long time, failing, throwing them away, trying again, failing, throwing them away. I was driven by sheer bloody-mindedness more than anything else. After all, short stories are just strings of well-chosen words. I’d written a novel, I’d written for radio and TV, I’d written books for children. How hard could it be to tell a satisfying story in a few thousand words? The puzzle infuriated me.

    I’d started to wonder if the prevailing wisdom was correct, that there is a profound, near-mystical difference between novels and short stories, that the latter is a form that demands more skill and involves higher risks and whose success depends on giving readers something far more intangible and refined than the joy of reading well-constructed prose, the seductive pull of imaginary lives and the desire to know what is going to happen next.

    If your story is not more entertaining than those in that morning’s newspaper, throw it away and start again

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    The author on self-doubt, Scandi crime and throwing away three quarters of what he produces

    Some days I can’t write. Some weeks I can’t write. It wouldn’t be such a problem if I could identify those days and weeks in advance. I’d cut my losses and go on a long run up the Thames. I’d get in a box set of Scandi crime or take the train to London for a gallery crawl. I’d paint or draw. But the realisation dawns only around lunchtime after I’ve been staring at a blank screen for hours, or filling it with laboured, unconvincing prose that will need to be deleted later.

    The problem, I think, is that I’m not a terribly good writer. I am, however, a very persistent and bloody-minded editor (who, providentially, happens to be married to an even better editor). I’m also ruthless about culling anything that isn’t working. I throw away at least three quarters of what I write, then I draft and redraft what remains until hopefully, somewhere between versions 15 and 25, something happens. That frisson you get when you read your words back and they seem to have been written by someone – or something – that is not quite you. A rightness like a heavy oak door clicking softly home on to its latch.

    Related: Top 10 funny first-person narrators

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    What to pack along with the aftersun and flipflops? From novels about gay footballers and updated Greek classics to biographies and poetry, our guest critics offer their holiday must-reads

    Part one: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Julian Barnes and more pick their summer reads

    Colm Tóibín’s exhilarating House of Names (Viking £14.99) is a retelling of Aeschylus’s drama on the sacrificing by Agamemnon of his daughter Cassandra and its tragic consequences, including the murder of Agamemnon by his wife, Clytemnestra. The book has a controlled, hushed quality, like that of a Morandi still life, which only serves to heighten the terror and pity of the tale. Michael Longley’s latest collection, Angel Hill (Jonathan Cape £10) – what a genius he has for titles – is at once lush and elegiac, delicate and muscular, melancholy and thrilling. I shall not be going anywhere – hate holidays – but will stay happily at home, rereading Evelyn Waugh’s second world war Sword of Honour trilogy (Penguin £14.99). Pure bliss.

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    To celebrate Halloween, Sarah Perry, Jeanette Winterson, Mark Haddon and other writers put a new spin on the traditional ghost story with tales set in English Heritage properties

    In my adolescence, there was no historical figure that I was more intrigued by than Elizabeth I. Her love-affair with the Earl of Leicester was a particular area of interest. So when English Heritage offered up a list of potential sites for a ghost story, which included Kenilworth castle, where Leicester unsuccessfully proposed to Elizabeth, the adolescent in me immediately said “yes”. But the imagination works in strange ways. Once I was at Kenilworth it wasn’t the story of Elizabeth and Leicester that I found myself thinking about – neither the proposal nor the death of Leicester’s wife as told in Walter Scott’s historically inaccurate novel Kenilworth.

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