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…and the Guardian first book award goes to…

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Alex Ross, winner of this years Guardian first book award (Guardian)

Alex Ross, winner of this years Guardian first book award (Guardian)

The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross was named this year’s Guardian first book at a ceremony in central London last night.

The overwhelmingly in-depth history of 20th century music, embracing classical through to contemporary, was the undisputed winner of the £10 000 first prize.

Chair of the judging panel, Guardian literary editor Claire Armitstead, said: “In some quarters this book has been seen as not having a popular appeal. Our prize – which, uniquely, relies on readers’ groups in the early stages of judging – proves that, on the contrary, there is a huge appetite among readers for clear, serious but accessible books.”

Another judge said: “Where Ross lifts his book above the ‘expert’ and impressive to the ‘good read’ category is in the way he wears his learning lightly, never clutches for false or contrived ways of explaining music, and never dumbs down in order to explain.”

Waterstone’s reading groups up and down the country also helped with the judging process. One member said: “Every time I felt overwhelmed by the technicalities, along came a sublime metaphor or simile that would light up the prose.”

The Guardian’s website describes Ross’ book as ‘a lifetime’s enthusiasm and learning distilled into a rich narrative of musical history, setting the works of Mahler, Schoenberg, John Cage and the rest into their cultural and political contexts – but also giving a vivid sense of what the music he describes actually sounds and feels like’.

It goes on to say: “Of all the artforms, modern and contemporary classical music is often seen as the most rebarbative. Ross brushes aside the mythology of 20th-century music’s “inaccessibility” as he charts its meandering histories. Along the way, fascinating connections are made: hip-hop has more in common with Janacek than you might think; Arnold Schoenberg and George Gershwin were tennis partners; Gershwin, in turn, was an ardent fan of Alban Berg and kept an autographed photo of the composer of Lulu in his apartment. If there is an overarching idea to the book, it is perhaps contained in Berg’s pronouncement to Gershwin: “Mr Gershwin, music is music”.”

The current music critic of The New Yorker Ross, 40, was born in Washington DC. He was an enthusiastic teenage musician but it wasn’t until studied English and history at Harvard when he became interested in journalism and became a student broadcaster. Ross began writing music criticism after university and was appointed to his current role at The New Yorker in 1996. He also has a blog which he uses to great effect in transmitting his work around the globe.

The media reception of for The Rest is Noise has been phenomenal. The New York Review of Books said: “by far the liveliest and smartest popular introduction yet written to a century of diverse music”. The Economist noted: “No other critic writing in English can so effectively explain why you like a piece, or beguile you to reconsider it, or prompt you to hurry online and buy a recording.”

Former Observer music writer Nicholas Kenyon said: “At a time when people are still talking about 20th-century music as if it were a problem, here is a lucid and entertaining book about what I regard as some of the greatest music ever written. It’s a wonderful way to advance the cause of 20th-century music to an ordinary, intelligent general reader. It’s the ideal mix of enthusiasm and information.”

The judging panel for this year’s Guardian first book award was made up of novelist Roddy Doyle; broadcaster and novelist Francine Stock; poet Daljit Nagra; the historian David Kynaston; novelist Kate Mosse and Guardian deputy editor, Katharine Viner. Stuart Broom of Waterstones‘ spoke as the representative of the retailer’s reading groups.

The other books shortlisted for the award were Mohammed Hanif‘s A Case of Exploding Mangoes; Ross Raisin‘s God’s Own Country; Steve Toltz‘s A Fraction of the Whole (also put forward for the Man Booker prize) and Owen Matthews’s Stalin’s Children.

Previous winners of the prize have most notably included Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters (2005) and Zadie Smith‘s White Teeth (2000).

See Ales Ross talk about The Rest is Noise in an interview below:

Words: Dean Samways

Author of Jurassic Park passes away

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Michael Crichton died on Tuesday aged 66

Michael Crichton died on Tuesday aged 66

Michael Crichton, the million-selling author has died of cancer.

Crichton who made scientific research terrifying and irresistible in the thrillers Jurassic Park, Timeline and The Andromeda Strain, died Tuesday in Los Angeles at the age of 66.

“Through his books, Michael Crichton served as an inspiration to students of all ages, challenged scientists in many fields, and illuminated the mysteries of the world in a way we could all understand,” his family said in a statement.

“While the world knew him as a great storyteller that challenged our preconceived notions about the world around us — and entertained us all while doing so — his wife Sherri, daughter Taylor, family and friends knew Michael Crichton as a devoted husband, loving father and generous friend who inspired each of us to strive to see the wonders of our world through new eyes.”

He was an experimenter and populariser known for his stories of disaster and systematic breakdown, such as the rampant microbe of The Andromeda Strain or the dinosaurs running riot in Jurassic Park. Many of his books became major Hollywood movies, including, most notably, Jurassic Park, Rising Sun and Disclosure. Crichton himself directed and wrote The Great Train Robbery and he co-wrote the script for the blockbuster Twister.

In 1994, he created the award-winning TV hospital series ER. He’s even had a dinosaur named for him, Crichton’s Ankylosaur.

A stille from The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park

A still from The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park

“Michael’s talent out-scaled even his own dinosaurs of Jurassic Park,” said Jurassic Park director Steven Spielberg, a friend of Crichton’s for 40 years. “He was the greatest at blending science with big theatrical concepts, which is what gave credibility to dinosaurs again walking the Earth.

“Michael was a gentle soul who reserved his flamboyant side for his novels. There is no-one in the wings that will ever take his place.”

John Wells, executive producer of ER called the author “an extraordinary man. Brilliant, funny, erudite, gracious, exceptionally inquisitive and always thoughtful.

“No lunch with Michael lasted less than three hours and no subject was too prosaic or obscure to attract his interest. Sexual politics, medical and scientific ethics, anthropology, archaeology, economics, astronomy, astrology, quantum physics, and molecular biology were all regular topics of conversation.”

In recent years, he was granted a White House meeting with President Bush, perhaps because of his scepticism about global warming, which Crichton addressed in the 2004 novel, State of Fear. Crichton’s views were strongly condemned by environmentalists, who alleged that the author was hurting efforts to pass legislation to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.

If not a literary giant, he was a physical one, standing 6 feet and 9 inches and ready for battle with the press. In a 2004 interview with The Associated Press, Crichton came with a tape recorder, text books and a pile of graphs and charts as he defended State of Fear and his take on global warming.

“I have a lot of trouble with things that don’t seem true to me,” Crichton said at the time, his large, manicured hands gesturing to his graphs. “I’m very uncomfortable just accepting. There’s something in me that wants to pound the table and say, ‘That’s not true.'”

He spoke to few scientists about his questions, convinced that he could interpret the data himself. “If we put everything in the hands of experts and if we say that as intelligent outsiders, we are not qualified to look over the shoulder of anybody, then we’re in some kind of really weird world,” he said.

A new novel by Crichton had been tentatively scheduled to come next month, but publisher HarperCollins said the book was postponed indefinitely because of his illness.

A portrait of legendary American writer Mark Twain

A portrait of legendary American writer Mark Twain

One of four siblings, Crichton was born in Chicago and grew up in Roslyn, Long Island. His father was a journalist and young Michael spent much of his childhood writing extra papers for teachers. In third grade, he wrote a nine-page play that his father typed for him using carbon paper so the other kids would know their parts. He was tall, gangly and awkward, and used writing as a way to escape; Mark Twain and Alfred Hitchcock were his role models.

Figuring he would not be able to make a living as writer, and not good enough at basketball, he decided to become a doctor. He studied anthropology at Harvard College, and later graduated from Harvard Medical School. During medical school, he turned out books under pseudonyms. (One that the tall author used was Jeffrey Hudson, a 17th-century dwarf in the court of King Charles II of England.) He had modest success with his writing and decided to pursue it.

His first hit, The Andromeda Strain, was written while he was still in medical school and quickly caught on upon its 1969 release. It was a featured selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and was sold to Universal in Hollywood for $250,000.

“A few of the teachers feel I’m wasting my time, and that in some ways I have wasted theirs,” he told The New York Times in 1969. “When I asked for a couple of days off to go to California about a movie sale, that raised an eyebrow.”

His books seemed designed to provoke debate, whether the theories of quantum physics in Timeline, the reverse sexual discrimination of Disclosure or the spectre of Japanese eminence in Rising Sun.

“The initial response from the (Japanese) establishment was, ‘You’re a racist,'” he told the AP. “So then, because I’m always trying to deal with data, I went on a tour talking about it and gave a very careful argument, and their response came back, ‘Well you say that but we know you’re a racist.'”

Crichton had a rigid work schedule: rising before dawn and writing from about 6 a.m. to around 3 p.m., breaking only for lunch. He enjoyed being one of the few novelists recognised in public, but he also felt limited by fame.

“Of course, the celebrity is nice. But when I go do research, it’s much more difficult now. The kind of freedom I had 10 years ago is gone,” he told the AP. “You have to have good table manners; you can’t have spaghetti hanging out of your mouth at a restaurant.”

Crichton was married five times and had one child. A private funeral is planned.

Watch an hour long interview with Michael Crichton when he talks openly about his sceptical views on global warming and his book Next:

Words: Dean Samways & AP