Catriona Luke

Across the literary pages | 8 December 2010

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Christmas publishing stock was in the bookshops for the end of November, so in the absence of material to review, literary editors have roasted the last of their chestnuts with Books of the Year lists. For the most comprehensive list on politics, history, art, and international relations, fiction and poetry, the Economist’s is hard to beat.

Jane Shilling’s review of The Memory Chalet in the Telegraph is a tribute to Tony Judt, the historian and philosopher, who died in August. As he struggles to cope with the physical debilitations of motor neurone disease, he creates an intellectual memory bank in a holiday cottage his parents took in the Swiss Alps when he was a boy. Shilling notes that in 2010 the world lost one of its most careful and radical essayists:

"As a historian, university teacher and critic, Judt was notable for his clarity of thought, distrust of received opinion, eye for detail and pointed turn of phrase. These were qualities that attracted both success – Postwar, his history of Europe since 1945, was described by Timothy Snyder as 'the best book on its subject that will ever be written by anyone' – and controversy."

Thought the Cold war was over? Think again. Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB man who worked for the British, has written a gripping review of a history of the KGB’s replacement, the FSB, in the Literary Review. It’s a blindingly sharp portrait of a contemporary Russia heading straight back to an autocratic and expansionist past:

"The FSB is now more powerful and proportionally even larger than the KGB was in Soviet times, given the smaller population (about 142 million) of the contemporary Russian Federation. And of course in the past the KGB, however brutal and dangerous, was under the firm and effective control of the Communist Party. Now that the latter has almost vanished from the scene, there is no higher power that can maintain a firm grip on the FSB, which has thereby become the main 'state-bearing' force."

John Lanchester in the London Review of Books asks "whither newspapers?" as they fight to maintain sales and advertising on both sides of the Atlantic. Between 2004 and 2009, the US newspaper industry lost 34 per cent of its readers; the UK industry lost 22 per cent. The resultant lack of advertising has completely changed the physical nature of newspapers, but no-one is too depressed about online audiences. He thinks paywalls will be the kiss of death, but in the iPad Daily, with its absence of print costs, Murdoch has probably found the future:

"His new online-only paper is going to be called the Daily. (There’s a rumour that they wanted to call it the Daily Planet, the paper that Superman worked for, but DC Comics said no.) The project is a joint venture with Apple, and is going to cost 99 cents a week. That is a very tempting price indeed, and when you compare it with the cost of a single day’s access to the Times – £1 – it makes the point about what you can do with the economics of the business once you stop printing papers."

And, finally, a touch of fact meeting fiction. The Los Angeles Times today reviews Tom Clancy’s Dead or Alive. It’s on the Bin Laden trail. Here’s Tim Rutten’s summing up:

"Clancy fans may regard 'Dead or Alive' as rather like one of those NBA 'dream teams' they throw together for the Olympics; win, lose or draw — it's fun to see them all on the court. This time, the best characters from all Clancy's previous novels are on the case, including Jack Ryan and his son, Jack Ryan Jr.; the deadly John Clark (Jack senior's darker half); the Caruso brothers, Dominic and Brian; the ace intelligence analyst Mary Pat Foley; and even Clark's protégé, Ding Chavez."