Best reads 2007: Stephanie Alexander

2007-11-28 00:00

First is Robert Harris’s latest, Imperium, even better than the earlier Pompeii. Written in the voice of Tiro, confidential secretary to Roman senator and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, it charts Cicero’s rise towards imperium — supreme power in the state. Historically authentic, cleverly plotted and as gripping as a fine thriller, the novel also provides a convincing portrait of a complex man — shrewd, compassionate, devious and vulnerable — against the violent and treacherous backdrop of Roman politics.

Second comes The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong, former nun and writer of readable yet impeccably scholarly books on the history and development of world religions (for example, Buddha and A History of God). This 2005 memoir, beautifully written, is a painfully honest and moving exploration of her life after leaving the convent — during which she dealt with frightening illness and discovered her unique writing vocation, while accepting her probably permanent outsider status in society.

Third is The Ode Less Travelled, subtitled Unlocking the Poet Within, by the writer and actor Stephen Fry. If you can speak and read English, you can write poetry, says Fry, and here he provides the tools (metre, rhyme, form, etc.), lots of witty advice and examples (he’s no mean poet himself) and exercises that are great fun to do. In the few months I’ve had it, it’s become a delightful companion and guide — surely a wonderful Christmas gift for the literary-minded.

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