Annal: 2009 Costa Book Award for Biography

Results of the Costa Book Award in the year 2009.

Book:The Strangest Man

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius

Graham Farmelo

Paul Dirac was among the great scientific geniuses of the modern age. One of the discoverers of quantum mechanics, the most revolutionary theory of the past century, his contributions had a unique insight, eloquence, clarity, and mathematical power. His prediction of antimatter was one of the greatest triumphs in the history of physics. One of Einstein’s most admired colleagues, Dirac was in 1933 the youngest theoretician ever to win the Nobel Prize in physics.

Dirac’s personality is legendary. He was an extraordinarily reserved loner, relentlessly literal-minded and appeared to have no empathy with most people. Yet he was a family man and was intensely loyal to his friends. His tastes in the arts ranged from Beethoven to Cher, from Rembrandt to Mickey Mouse.

Based on previously undiscovered archives, The Strangest Man reveals the many facets of Dirac’s brilliantly original mind. A compelling human story, The Strangest Man also depicts a spectacularly exciting era in scientific history.

Book:Coda (Simon Gray)

Coda

Simon Gray

From heartbreaking reflections on his own mortality to characteristically outrageous asides—“everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who was given six months to live, and here they are, only just dead, eight years later or, in exceptional cases, here they still are, eating oysters and boring the shit out of people”—Gray’s self-proclaimed “last written words on the subject of myself” records his extraordinary emotional journey. Darkly comic depictions of the medical team are set against joyful accounts of sunlit days with this beloved wife, Victoria, in Crete and a beautiful early summer in Suffolk. Woven into the narrative are arguments with himself, “Dialogue between a Thicko and a Sicko,” a shameful childhood memory, and a masterfully tense “distraction,” written in real time while waiting for his final prognosis—and smoking one last cigarette.

Written with exceptional candor and a poignant reluctance to leave this world behind, Coda is painful and beautiful.

Book:Dancing to the Precipice

Dancing to the Precipice: The Life of Lucie de la Tour du Pin, Eyewitness to an Era

Caroline Moorehead

Born Lucie Dillon, to a half-French mother and an Anglo-Irish father, her world was Versailles and the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. She married a French aristocrat, and narrowly survived the French Revolution, escaping to America at the time of Washington and Jefferson. Here, she lived a life of milking cows and chopping wood, having previously been accustomed to the lavish life of the French court. Returning to France prematurely, Lucie had to flee again, this time to England, where she took up sewing in order to support herself and her family.

Repeatedly in the right place at the right time, Lucie saw the Battle of Waterloo, the fall of Napoleon and the return of Louis XVIII, and the Restoration. She was an outstanding diarist and a remarkable woman, who witnessed one of the most dramatic and brutal periods of history, playing the part of observer, commentator and, often, participant. For the last years of her life…[more]

Book:The Music Room: A Memoir

The Music Room: A Memoir

William Fiennes

A bittersweet description of an ancient family house in an enchanted setting, and of growing up with a damaged brother. William Fiennes spent his childhood in a moated castle, the perfect environment for a child with a brimming imagination. It is a house alive with history, beauty, and mystery, but the young boy growing up in it is equally in awe of his brother Richard. Eleven years older and a magnetic presence, Richard suffers from severe epilepsy. His illness influences the rhythms of the family and the house’s internal life, and his story inspires a journey, interwoven with a loving recollection, toward an understanding of the mind.

This is a song of home, of an adored brother and the miracle of consciousness. The chill of dark historical places coexists with the warmth and chatter of the family kitchen; the surrounding landscapes are distinguished by ancient trees, secret haunts, the moat’s depths and temptations. Bursting with tender detail, The Music Room is a sensuous tribute to place, memory, and the permanence of love. .

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