Published: Fri, 24 Feb 2017 10:56:27 GMT2017-02-24T10:56:27ZCopyright: Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. 2017
Fri, 24 Feb 2017 10:00:29 GMT2017-02-24T10:00:29Z
The Chinese-American author discusses her breakdown and facing up to the trauma of her past
In the summer and autumn of 2012, Yiyun Li, the award-winning Chinese-American fiction writer, twice tried to kill herself. When she left hospital, everyone was full of advice: “You should do this or that; you must isolate yourself less.” But, she says, “there was a deeper argument I could have only with myself. I needed to dissect, to cut from the inside.” The result of that dissection is her first memoir, a brave set of essays entitled Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life.
Li was once described at an event “as an example of the American dream”. In 1996, at the age of 23, she left China for the US, never having written a story, and ended up winning lucrative publishing deals and receiving a MacArthur “genius” grant. But it turns out that the dream was “as superficial and deceitful as an ad placed on the back of a bus”. During her breakdown she felt that “all the things in the world are not enough to drown out the voice of this emptiness that says: you are nothing”.Continue reading...
Fri, 24 Feb 2017 08:14:15 GMT2017-02-24T08:14:15Z
A brilliant, genre-bending French bestseller uses the story of the early church as a parable for the author’s own life
This is a brilliant, shocking book. What shocks is not Emmanuel Carrère’s demystifying novelisation of the first decades of the Christian church. Nor is it the intermittent sexualisation of that story (Nikos Kazantzakis, after all, got there first with The Last Temptation of Christ). Nor is it his use of the scholarly methods favoured by theologians to attack theology itself. The real scandal of this book is its relentless narcissism. Only someone with Carrère’s mountain-sized ego could reinvent the story of the early church as a parable for his own life (and, perhaps, vice versa). Luckily for the reader prepared to grapple with this complex, intellectual but compelling book, he is also witty, painfully self-critical and humane. The Kingdom is not without its problems, but it is a work of great literature, which has sold by the hundreds of thousands in the author’s native France.
Carrère is not an easy writer to categorise, working as he does at the intersection between fiction, biography, autobiography and history. He is also – importantly – a screenwriter, and a sensualist who likes to feel the world he describes. The Kingdom (translated by John Lambert) is his attempt to get under the skin of Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, and to imagine his way back into that world. Carrère also thinks, along with many people, that this is the same man who wrote the Gospel of Luke (but not, of course, the disciple of Jesus of the same name). He is also of the view – and he is pretty much alone here – that Luke wrote the New Testament’s epistles of Peter, James and John.Continue reading...
Thu, 23 Feb 2017 18:06:51 GMT2017-02-23T18:06:51Z
Librarians call for a national audit after inventory count of Suffolk libraries reveals 10,000 books are missing, despite computer records saying otherwise
The decline in books stocked by public libraries may be far worse than official figures indicate, with industry sources claiming that it may be many millions higher than the 25 million books recorded as missing, meaning that the number of books available to borrowers has plummeted by more than 50% since 1996.
Librarians are calling for a national audit to reveal the true extent of the problem, with the news coming as the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (Cilip) sent an open letter to chancellor Philip Hammond calling on him to increase funding for the sector, to protect it from irreparable decline as part of his strategy for economic growth.Continue reading...
Thu, 23 Feb 2017 18:38:00 GMT2017-02-23T18:38:00Z
Unctuous and tender, pig cheeks are less popular now as a cut than past times. Kate Young brings them back in style, to celebrate a meal from Sarah Waters’s Victorian novel
The supper was a pig’s head, stuffed at the ears - a favourite of mine, and got in my honour... An ear apiece, for Mr Ibbs and Gentleman; the snout for John and Dainty; and the cheeks, that were the tenderest parts, for herself and for me.
Fingersmith, Sarah WatersContinue reading...
Thu, 23 Feb 2017 15:27:56 GMT2017-02-23T15:27:56Z
For youngsters realising they don’t fit expected gender roles, books from Winnie-the-Pooh to His Dark Materials have long provided overt and covert help
Children’s books should be soft and fluffy things, perhaps with moments of discomfort or fear – lessons must be learned, after all – but always resolved with a happy ending. And entirely asexual. Right? Well, no, not really. Children’s books shouldn’t always be happy and simply aren’t asexual, just as children aren’t asexual – which is not to say that children are sexual in the way that adults are, but that sexual orientation and gender identity becomes apparent to many people early in life. Just as a straight child may pretend to marry her dolls to one another, or may have a crush on his big sister’s friends, a queer child may experience crushes, pair up their dolls differently or express their gender in a way that is different from the sex they were assigned at birth.Continue reading...
Thu, 23 Feb 2017 16:48:11 GMT2017-02-23T16:48:11Z
Archive of artworks from a century of the imprint’s simple, wholesome worldview go on display at Museum of English Rural Life
If all you knew of the world came from a Ladybird book, you would be forgiven for believing factories are always shining temples of industry and optimism rather than zero-hours sweatshops, policemen are invariably handsome and friendly, and mothers wear white gloves to take their impeccably dressed children shopping.Continue reading...
Thu, 23 Feb 2017 16:05:56 GMT2017-02-23T16:05:56Z
Fences, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea … why are there no novel adaptations on this year’s Academy Award shortlist?
If La La Land is named best picture at the Oscars tomorrow, it will be the third time in a row a film based on an original screenplay – not a book – has taken the supreme award. And whichever nominee gets the nod, it won’t be a novel adaptation, because there are none on the shortlist – Fences and Moonlight are derived from plays, Arrival from a short story and Hidden Figures and Lion from non-fiction, while Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water and Manchester by the Sea are also original scripts. Tellingly, it’s now a decade since the last time a US novel (Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men) became a best picture-winning movie.
Fifty years ago, books and films enjoyed a happy marriage, basking in the mutual advantages of a relationship reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn’s celebrated apercu on Astaire and Rogers, “he gives her class and she gives him sex appeal”: between 1962 and 1969, every best picture winner had a literary source including works by Fielding (Tom Jones), Dickens (Oliver!) and Shaw (My Fair Lady). Even as recently as the early noughties, four consecutive winners – A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, The Lord of the Rings, Million Dollar Baby – were either directly or ultimately text-based. Now, though, the couple have parted, not yet divorced but on frosty terms.Continue reading...
Thu, 23 Feb 2017 13:06:44 GMT2017-02-23T13:06:44Z
Celebrated broadcaster, critic and poet to publish sequel to Sentenced to Life – which was seen as farewell volume after his struggle with cancer
The much-loved broadcaster, critic, memoirist, novelist and poet Clive James was not expected to live for long after his short-poem collection Sentenced to Life was published, to great acclaim, in 2015. But Picador has announced that it will publish its sequel, Injury Time, in May.
James was diagnosed with leukaemia, kidney failure and lung disease in 2010. In 2012, the celebrated wit told a BBC interviewer: “I don’t want to cast a gloom, an air of doom, over the programme, but I’m a man who is approaching his terminus.”Continue reading...
Thu, 23 Feb 2017 12:00:02 GMT2017-02-23T12:00:02ZThere are shades of Jeanette Winterson and Ian McEwan in this atmospheric follow-up to The Girl in the Red Coat
Expectations for Kate Hamer’s follow-up to her debut, The Girl in the Red Coat, couldn’t be higher. That novel, a coming-of-age narrative spun as a psychological thriller, became one of 2015’s exemplars of event publishing (in the year of The Girl on the Train, having “girl” in the title didn’t hurt). The hype was largely justified: Hamer’s novel was strikingly original and deserved its shortlisting for the Costa first novel award.
Fans of that first book will find much to like here. The action swings between the early 1970s and the mid-80s, periods Hamer recreates with a keen eye for detail. The story is told principally from two viewpoints: Anna is an unmarried young mother who, finding herself pregnant with Ruby, is pressured into a miserable marriage; Ruby is a teenager, who, in 1983, is unaware that her adoptive mum and dad, the brutish Mick and passive-aggressive Barbara, aren’t her real parents. Unhappy at home, Ruby chooses to live largely in her head, in the company of a wayward imaginary friend, “Shadow Boy”, who also becomes one of the voices in the narrative.Continue reading...
Thu, 23 Feb 2017 07:30:00 GMT2017-02-23T07:30:00Z
New York’s East Village is the setting for this brilliantly kaleidoscopic story about the city’s haves and have‑nots, both brought together and torn apart by an epidemic
The Christodora skews the skyline of the East Village, hulking over a once-bohemian neighbourhood of New York City. Built in the 1920s as a settlement house for low-income immigrants, it fell into dereliction in the 1960s, the ruined apartments colonised by heroin addicts, before being reborn in the 1980s as luxury condominiums. A controversial symbol of the neighbourhood’s increasing gentrification, it’s an ideal setting for this sprawling, seething, sumptuous tale of the city’s haves and have-nots under the long shadow of Aids.
Cities isolate, but they also connect, sweeping strangers into temporary, precarious intimacies and dependencies. The urban novel has always been fascinated with mapping these invisible ties, tracing encounter and fallout with all the assiduity of an epidemic model. Infectious diseases likewise, of course, carry out a work of revelation, making legible hidden chains of connection: one-night stands, shared needles, instances of momentary recklessness or long-concealed desire. A plague reveals links even as it rubs them out; a plague novel can trace the fallout over decades.Continue reading...
Wed, 22 Feb 2017 23:32:18 GMT2017-02-22T23:32:18Z
In hospital in 1972, Paula Keogh fell in love with the poet Michael Dransfield. In her new memoir she captures the voice of her illness and the man she loved
Paula Keogh never intended to write about her relationship with Michael Dransfield, one of the most prominent – and colourful – poets in Australian literature.
“I was actually doing a PhD on Michael’s poetry,” she tells Guardian Australia. “And my supervisor discovered that Michael and I had known each other and been very close, and she said, ‘Hang on, I don’t know whether you’re writing the right thesis here, maybe you should write a memoir!’”Continue reading...
Wed, 22 Feb 2017 15:48:05 GMT2017-02-22T15:48:05Z
With Tom Hanks announcing a collection of typewriter-themed short stories, which other stars have tried and failed to become bestselling authors?
Tom Hanks has written a book. Titled Uncommon Type: Some Stories, Hanks’s book is a collection of 17 short stories, each in some way involving a typewriter. It will be released in October and – if it’s all to the same standard as Alan Bean Plus Four, the short story Hanks wrote for the New Yorker in 2014 – it’s going to be pretty good.
But let’s be clear: even if Uncommon Type ends up as the most rapturously received work of printed fiction ever written by an actor, that will largely be because most books written by actors are dogmuck. Allow me to ignore the good ones (hello, Steve Martin and Hugh Laurie) and focus on the very worst.Continue reading...
Wed, 22 Feb 2017 12:00:33 GMT2017-02-22T12:00:33Z
Nothing actually ‘goes viral’, and consumers are both conservative and curious, argues this engaging cultural study
On its first release, “Rock Around the Clock” was a flop. The impressionist painters were derided by the artistic establishment of the time. And Fifty Shades of Grey was originally a work of internet fan-fiction that was then put out by a tiny Australian publishing house, to no global acclaim. So how did what happened next happen next? This engagingly written and likably interdisciplinary book goes in search, it announces at the beginning, of “the secret to making products that people like”. It is no spoiler for me to reveal that, in fact, there is no such singular secret – obviously, since if the author knew it, he would have gone off and become a trillionaire entrepreneur instead of writing a book.
There is nonetheless much of interest in the details. Here we meet Raymond Loewy, the great American industrial designer of the mid-20th century, who gave trains and refrigerators futuristic curved edges and chrome trim. His mantra was that the sweet spot for the design of any new product was Maya: “most advanced yet acceptable”. We discover a pleasingly surprising link between sadistic scientists and Swedish songwriters: “The answer to the question ‘How do I scare a mouse with the fewest notes for the longest period of time?’ turns out to be a specific pattern that anticipates the way so many pop songs are written.” We discover that the most popular articles on the internet are those that promise to tell readers about their favourite subject – themselves. And there are some nicely turned phrases in the discussions of subjects such as the lineaments of mass-market taste. “The evolutionary explanation” for the fact that we tend to prefer what we know already, Thompson explains, is this: “If you recognise an animal or plant, then it hasn’t killed you yet.”Continue reading...
Wed, 22 Feb 2017 14:00:35 GMT2017-02-22T14:00:35ZA young Muslim woman’s spiritual quest takes her from Istanbul to Oxford as she learns about love, faith and real life
There is a compelling confidence about the scope of Elif Shafak’s work. As a writer who stands between west and east, working in Turkish and English, living in Istanbul and London, she engages with some of the most pressing political and personal themes of our times. Her new novel is no exception. We begin with middle-aged Peri and her teenage daughter Deniz stuck in a traffic jam in Istanbul in 2016 as they make their way to a dinner party. The reader is immediately alerted both to Peri’s standing as a “fine modern Muslim” and to the cracks in that appearance. Today, the narrator warns us, Peri will confront “the void in her soul”.
The plot wastes little time in beginning that journey into the void; Peri is subjected to a robbery and an attempted rape. Yet the attack seems to have less importance for Peri than an event arising from it. During the struggle, a photograph of Peri, with two other women and a man in Oxford, falls out of her bag: Peri “flinched as though the photo were alive and might have been hurt in the fall”. The rest of the novel, which travels backwards through her life and forwards through the evening to come, is devoted to excavating the importance of that photograph, and exploring her thwarted relationships with the people in the picture.Continue reading...
Wed, 22 Feb 2017 07:30:27 GMT2017-02-22T07:30:27Z
An optimistic book argues with gusto for universal basic income and other policies but lacks a broad or deep perspective
The virtue of this book is that it is neither utopian nor realistic. A “utopia for realists” is a contradiction in terms, and Rutger Bregman, a highly regarded, media-savvy young Dutch historian, is happy to inhabit that contradiction.
At its best, his book is freshly written, witty and contrarian. The worst utopian literature tends to obliterate its subject with description, either implausibly (lemonade seas) or boringly. The worst political “realism” defers to the market as the benchmark of all wisdom. Bregman does neither. His aim is to convince us that an alternative to what we see today is achievable – a new society can be created with “visionary” ideas that are wholly plausible and possible to implement.Continue reading...
Wed, 22 Feb 2017 09:30:30 GMT2017-02-22T09:30:30ZAn entertaining look at the drink’s history – complete with ‘Hogarth-rating’ tasting notes
‘Strange as it may seem to say it,” writes Richard Barnett, “now is the best time in the last five centuries to be drinking gin.” And he has to be right, even when you find yourself confused by the rows and rows of gin bottles in your local off licence, almost every one of their distillers less than a decade old, yet straining hard to give the impression that they have been around since Victorian times. Barnett dates the stirrings of this renaissance to 1987, with the creation of Bombay Sapphire; I like to think that a further impetus was given after Gordon’s decision in 1992 to lower the ABV of its domestic product to 37.5% from 40%, prompting a host of outraged gin-drinkers, including your reviewer, to look elsewhere for their spirit.
Barnett takes as his starting place the invention of distillation, said by some to be the responsibility of the “semi-legendary” alchemist Maria the Jewess (who lived sometime around the second century); better-documented distillers flourished in eighth-century Baghdad, and the volatile liquid produced by the process became known as al-kohl, which, as Barnett puts it, “signified both a psychoactive substance and a djinn, prefirguring the double meaning of “spirit” in English.” (That djinn and “gin” are homophones is, on the other hand, purely coincidental.)Continue reading...
Wed, 22 Feb 2017 09:00:29 GMT2017-02-22T09:00:29Z
The Image imprint continues to thrive, plus a cherubic demon-hunter protects Prague from ancient threats
For decades, if you wanted to be a successful comics writer or artist, you ended up working for either DC or Marvel. With luck, you got to create bestselling monthly stories featuring headline heroes such as Batman or the X-Men. But even if your cool Spider-Man art ended up on a million T-shirts, you were basically taking a flat rate to babysit intellectual property. In 1992, seven popular artists announced they were guillotining all ties with both Marvel and DC to set up their own rival company: Image, a comics publisher where writers and artists would own all the rights to their work.Continue reading...
Tue, 21 Feb 2017 20:47:01 GMT2017-02-21T20:47:01Z
Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith and others say ‘writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers are often at the vanguard in the fights against terror’
A group of 60 authors, actors and musicians including Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood and Zadie Smith have signed a letter that calls on Donald Trump to rescind the executive order that banned citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries and all refugees from entering the US.Continue reading...
Tue, 21 Feb 2017 17:01:02 GMT2017-02-21T17:01:02Z
The Forrest Gump star has turned his hand to short fiction with a collection of 17 tales, all themed around his passion for typewriters
Some first books struggle for attention, but this is unlikely to be the case with Tom Hanks’s debut, Uncommon Type: Some Stories. Due in October, the first collection from the Oscar-winning star of international box-office hits such as Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan and Big will comprise 17 stories.
The theme of the collection will be typewriters, with each tale involving one of these more and more scarce machines. Hanks is known – in addition to his Hollywood celebrity – for his love of typewriters, and all of the tales will in some way involve one of them.Continue reading...
Tue, 21 Feb 2017 07:00:02 GMT2017-02-21T07:00:02Z
The Books for Grown Ups series is worth nearly £30m – so it’s no wonder that retro books for ‘kids’ have spread to other publishers. Now, serious subjects are getting the toilet-book treatment, too
In 1971, a book about the computer was published under the children’s imprint Ladybird as part of a series designed to show schoolchildren “How it Works”. In common with 645 other titles published between 1940 and 1980, it was a small hardback with 56 pages. It was one of the first Ladybirds to be sold in decimal currency, costing 24p, after decades of the books being pegged at 2/6.
“If you are interested in computers, their function and operation, but are discouraged by their complexity, you should read this book,” said the introduction. “It deals as simply as possible with the principles and does not delve too deeply into electronics.” Though it was intended for “older students,” which means ages 7+ in Ladybird parlance, legend has it that it was so well regarded that 100 copies were ordered by the Ministry of Defence to be circulated among its staff in plain wrapping so they wouldn’t know they were reading a book intended for kids.Continue reading...
Tue, 21 Feb 2017 09:45:37 GMT2017-02-21T09:45:37Z
Gordon spent five years writing his acclaimed biography of Carter. We have an hour’s webchat with him from 1pm on Friday 24 February – so post questions fast!
Edmund Gordon, author of The Invention Of Angela Carter, A Biography will be joining us at 1pm GMT on Friday 24 February for a live Q&A.Continue reading...
Tue, 21 Feb 2017 14:45:23 GMT2017-02-21T14:45:23Z
Along with efforts to guide readers to trustworthy information sources, many branches are working to make themselves ‘sanctuary spaces’ for immigrants
US president Donald Trump could have saved himself some embarrassment this week if he had consulted his local library rather than Fox News before mentioning terror attacks in Sweden. For across the country, librarians have stepped in to verify facts and authenticate web content in a bid to counter fake news reports.Continue reading...
Tue, 21 Feb 2017 16:00:08 GMT2017-02-21T16:00:08Z
A teacher deals with a boisterous bunch of students, in this extract from a Dutch bestselling novel
Newly translated into English, Jan Vantoortelboom’s His Name is David, a Dutch-language bestseller, is a tale of forbidden love set in World War I Flanders. Consisting of vignettes, the narrative unfolds as memories of a young Belgian school teacher as he faces a firing squad for desertion. Presented here are just two scenes from the classroom, showing how he tries to transform the minds of his students, “the boys of Year Six.”
—Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-Chief, AsymptoteContinue reading...
Tue, 21 Feb 2017 10:00:01 GMT2017-02-21T10:00:01Z
The author of The Story of Pain explains how an agonising hospital stay prompted her to explore an experience felt very differently down the ages
People are always asking me why I write about extreme forms of violence. I know their subtext: “Why is a mild-mannered woman like you so obsessed with hatred, dismembered bodies, and killing?”
In all honesty, I don’t know what draws me to these topics. Bloodthirsty aggression is just so interesting. This is why, a few years ago, I surprised my friends by announcing that I was going to write about pain. Crucially, this book was not about inflicting pain, but rather about the experience of suffering it.Continue reading...
Sun, 19 Feb 2017 07:00:02 GMT2017-02-19T07:00:02Z
An allusive, less-is-more approach works beautifully in this coming-of-age novel
Jacqueline Woodson is America’s Young People’s Poet Laureate. A major voice in children’s literature, she is the author of more than 30 books, including her memoir-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, which won multiple awards, including the 2014 National Book Award. It’s a striking recreation of an African-American childhood and family in the troubled times of the 60s and 70s. Her gorgeous poetry is easily readable, yet negotiates complex relationships, experiences and political contexts as the author’s family moves between Ohio, South Carolina and New York.
Another Brooklyn, her new novel, has a thematic and stylistic overlap. It also explores black girlhood and relocation, and while not poetry, it is beautifully lyrical. The narrator is August, an international anthropologist specialising in death rituals, who has returned to Brooklyn to bury her father. She was eight and her brother four when their father uprooted them from the creaky old family farmhouse in the Tennessee outback, where “honeysuckle vines bloomed thick and full in our yard every summer”, to a rundown apartment in drug-addled Brooklyn where a small boy ran down the street, “a bent hypodermic needle he’d just found aimed like a gun”. Their mother, grieving the death of her beloved brother Clyde in Vietnam, has been left behind in the South. The children never see her again, and it’s not until the end of the novel that we understand why.Continue reading...
Tue, 21 Feb 2017 14:33:26 GMT2017-02-21T14:33:26Z
Simon & Schuster pulls forthcoming autobiography, titled Dangerous, for which it had reportedly paid a $250,000 advance
Simon & Schuster has cancelled the publication of Milo Yiannopoulos’ book, and his fellow Breitbart employees have reportedly threatened to quit if he is not fired.
A statement from the publisher late on Monday said: “After careful consideration, Simon & Schuster and its Threshold Editions imprint have cancelled publication of Dangerous by Milo Yiannopoulos.”Continue reading...
Tue, 21 Feb 2017 09:29:40 GMT2017-02-21T09:29:40Z
Described by Whitman scholar as a ‘a fun, rollicking, creative, twisty, bizarre little book’, the discovery has been made available free online
A “rollicking” anti-lawyer revenge fantasy by Walt Whitman, which challenges previously held ideas about the American poet’s transition from prose to poetry, has been found in the archives of a Victorian New York Sunday newspaper. Though published anonymously, the book matches a detailed synopsis in the poet’s notebook for a project academics had thought abandoned.Continue reading...
Mon, 20 Feb 2017 17:03:07 GMT2017-02-20T17:03:07Z
While the city council struggles to maintain services as budgets fall, mayor announces it is likely that additional branches will be wound up
Up to four libraries could close in Liverpool, as the city council takes the scalpel to budgets in the latest battle between central and local government over funding cuts. If the closures go ahead it will mean the city has lost more than half its libraries in the last two years.
The future of the as yet unnamed libraries is being considered as part of a plan to plug a £90m hole in the council’s budget over the next three years. It comes on top of cuts of £330m made since 2010, the city’s mayor Joe Anderson said. He has set up a task force to review the library service, with a view to saving £1.6m in the financial year 2018/19.Continue reading...
Mon, 20 Feb 2017 15:21:07 GMT2017-02-20T15:21:07Z
Jealous rivals’ rumours about the supposed effeminacy of popular figures such as Humphry Davy left an enduring legacy, says Dr Heather Ellis
Jealous rivals’ attempts to destroy 19th-century chemist Sir Humphry Davy’s popularity by insinuating he was gay have left a legacy that means the so-called hard sciences remain a bastion of sexism, a new book claims.
Evidence unearthed by Dr Heather Ellis for her book Masculinity and Science, published by Palgrave, from the archives of the British Science Association, shows that Davy’s popularity created enemies who tried to destroy his reputation. Popular magazines, like the John Bull, launched vicious personal attacks on the chemist’s flamboyant dress and the charismatic delivery at lectures that had brought him a wide female following.Continue reading...
Fri, 17 Feb 2017 17:04:13 GMT2017-02-17T17:04:13Z
As Philip Pullman announces his ‘equel’ to His Dark Materials, writers pay tribute to his exquisite storytelling and ‘daring heresy’
It feels like a long time since the final volume in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, but when you think about what the writer has to achieve with a follow-up – the recreation of Lyra Belacqua’s alternate universe, the scientific investigation of the strange matter known as “dust”, the genesis of totalitarian regimes and the answer to the question of what happens when God dies – 17 years is nothing.
The first instalment of The Book of Dust will be out in October and stands alongside Pullman’s epic first trilogy. Pullman has said it will begin and end with Lyra, the heroine of the previous books, and will feature other familiar characters. Speaking this week on Radio 4’s Today programme, he said the story reflected the vision of William Blake; “his idea of a fiercely reductive way of seeing things: it’s right or wrong; it’s black or white. He said that was far too limiting and we should bring out truer human vision when we see things, surround them all with a sort of penumbra of imagination and memories and hopes and expectations and fears and all these things. It’s an attack on the reductionism, the merciless reductionism, of doctrines with a single answer.”Continue reading...
Fri, 17 Feb 2017 15:22:18 GMT2017-02-17T15:22:18Z
The Dutch artist and illustrator, whose much-loved stories about a cartoon rabbit sold more than 80m books, has died aged 89
The Dutch artist and children’s author Dick Bruna, whose much-loved cartoon rabbit Miffy has sold more than 80m books since her creation in 1955, has died aged 89.
Bruna devised the character to entertain his infant son after they saw a rabbit in the dunes while on a seaside holiday. He went on to relate the bunny’s adventures in more than 100 books sold worldwide. Bruna wrote and illustrated more than 200 books over his career.Continue reading...
Fri, 17 Feb 2017 12:52:03 GMT2017-02-17T12:52:03Z
Author says the new fantasy novel has been inspired by his work with UN refugee agency and ‘the shape London is in now’
Neil Gaiman, whose latest book Norse Mythology is set to top the bestseller lists this weekend, has announced his next project: the sequel to another hit, Neverwhere, more than 20 years after it was first published.
Neverwhere tells the story of Richard Mayhew, an ordinary young man drawn into the fantastical landscape of London Below, an otherworldly city populated by real landmarks and legends personified, including the Old Bailey, the Black Friars and the Angel, Islington – among which the lost, homeless and dispossessed of London move. The idea came from a chat with Gaiman’s friend, the comedian and actor Lenny Henry, who suggested the concept of tribes of homeless people living beyond the notice of “ordinary” people in London.Continue reading...
Thu, 16 Feb 2017 17:09:59 GMT2017-02-16T17:09:59Z
Black-and-white film shows man who could be French writer at wedding of daughter of one of Proust’s close friends, says Jean-Pierre Sirois-Trahan
A Canadian university professor claims to have found the only existing moving picture of French writer Marcel Proust.
The black-and-white footage of a wedding cortege filmed in 1904 shows a brief glimpse of a man in his 30s with a neat moustache, wearing a bowler hat and pearl-grey formal suit, descending a flight of stairs on his own. Most of the other guests are in couples.Continue reading...
Thu, 16 Feb 2017 16:48:35 GMT2017-02-16T16:48:35Z
Philip Pullman, Alex Wheatle and Alan Gibbons among authors speaking out against ‘appalling’ exclusion of acclaimed books by leading BAME writers
Philip Pullman has added his voice to critics of the Carnegie medal, one of the UK’s most prestigious children’s book awards, after an exceptional year for books by black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) novelists failed to make a dent on its longlist. Writers of colour, led by Alex Wheatle and Sunny Singh, have called for a boycott of the award.Continue reading...
Thu, 16 Feb 2017 12:11:48 GMT2017-02-16T12:11:48Z
The UK’s most prestigious children’s book prizes reveal finalists, provoking anger among some that the Carnegie choices include no BAME authors
A host of star names – including JK Rowling, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Chris Riddell and Philip Reeve – are ranged against virtual unknowns on the longlists for the UK’s oldest and most prestigious children’s book awards. However, the Carnegie choices immediately provoked anger in some quarters that not one of the BAME authors nominated has been included.
The 20 books on the longlist for the 80-year-old CILIP Carnegie medal include Mal Peet’s final novel, Beck, which was published posthumously after friend and fellow novelist Meg Rosoff completed it, while children’s laureate Riddell is longlisted for the Kate Greenaway medal, now in its 60th year, for his illustrated books.Continue reading...
Thu, 16 Feb 2017 10:22:02 GMT2017-02-16T10:22:02Z
Canadian university professor Jean-Pierre Sirois-Trahan has found what is believed to be the first, and possibly only, footage of French writer Marcel Proust. Discovered in the Canadian National Cinema Centre archives, the black and white film is of a wedding cortège in 1904, and gives a brief glimpse of a man wearing a bowler hat and pearl-grey formal suit, descending a flight of stairs – believed to be Proust. No other footage is known to exist of the In Search of Lost Time author
Mon, 20 Feb 2017 15:31:16 GMT2017-02-20T15:31:16Z
Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them
Welcome to this week’s blog, and our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.
Here’s a cheering thought-stream from charlie_gibson:Continue reading...
Mon, 20 Feb 2017 11:59:08 GMT2017-02-20T11:59:08Z
The engaging surrealism of an extremely incongruous visitor to a chip shop gives way to a distinctly grim sense of a narrow and unimaginative social world
An English seaside town at dusk, warmth
radiated by the stone buildings, warmth
emerges like sunburnt evening promenaders
from the stone buildings, warmth is secreted
like a pheromone from the stone buildings,
warmth emanates like the warmth of
the breath of a monotone speech from
the stone buildings, streetlamps brighten
on a darkening sky, a middle-aged man bares
his teeth and cracks through the choc’ of his
choc-ice as an unfortunate explorer might
crack through the ice in the thaw on
the Hudson Bay, his lips stretched back in
a grimace of terror as he vanishes forever.
Sat, 18 Feb 2017 09:00:35 GMT2017-02-18T09:00:35Z
How did our culture became so polarised – and what can Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, written 60 years ago, teach us about how we live today?
“‘We all need to remember, every day more and more, that in the last resort there is no such thing as the ‘common man’,” Richard Hoggart wrote, seven years before the birth of Nigel Farage. “If we do not, we may in the end have allowed individual decision to slip away in our dutiful democratic identification of ourselves with a hypothetical figure whose main value is to those who will mislead us.” Hoggart, who died in 2014 at the age of 95, spent his extraordinarily productive working life urging us to watch out for men such as Farage and Donald Trump: “mass persuaders” whose cynicism and self-interest knew no bounds.
The Uses of Literacy, published 60 years ago next month, was his second and by far his most famous book. In it, Hoggart argued that collective engagement in a project of civic literacy would grow naturally out of the increasing education of the working classes, and that knowledge really would translate into power. And in some ways his hopeful prediction came true. From the 1960s onwards thousands of young people entered higher education, catering to the first mass cohorts of grammar school children, and then, in the 1990s, furnishing nearly half of under-25s with a degree.Continue reading...
Fri, 17 Feb 2017 14:00:12 GMT2017-02-17T14:00:12Z
I recognised Hanif Kureishi’s depiction of a young man’s uncertain cultural identity immediately, and it began to show me how to be at home everywhere
“My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost. I am often considered to be a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories.”
So opens Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia. That “almost” almost killed me. I remember the day I got that book out of the library. I’d seen advertisements for the BBC2 television show – starring Naveen Andrews, soundtracked by David Bowie – and thought: “There’s no way my parents are going to let me watch that.” Definitely too much sex. The one loophole, though, was my library card.Continue reading...
Wed, 15 Feb 2017 14:00:13 GMT2017-02-15T14:00:13Z
Charging around £100 per visit to its pricey collection, it’s not clear if this is an actual library or just a novel spot for wealthy Russians to hold meetings
Tapestries, leather armchairs, candelabras, sculpted woodwork and figures of the apostles: Book Capella, a newly built, gothic-inspired library in central St Petersburg, is complete with all the expected luxuries of an ancient athenaeum – and a price tag to match.
To enjoy the library’s collection and atmosphere, you have to pay a ticket of just under £100 for a four-hour reading session – a markedly different experience to the free access readers can enjoy in Russia’s public libraries.Continue reading...
Wed, 15 Feb 2017 12:04:59 GMT2017-02-15T12:04:59Z
The two authors have long written in step, and the His Dark Materials promised ‘equel’ will hopefully use similar tricks to Harry Potter’s author in extending Lyra’s story
What Philip Pullman describes as an “equel” – a story that extends the His Dark Materials trilogy with a complementary narrative – has become the fashion for continuing entertainment mega-franchises aimed at an initial audience of children.
George Lucas’s original three Star Wars films have been expanded backwards, forwards and sideways, while JK Rowling’s stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – soon heading for Broadway after breaking box-office records in the West End of London – fills in some of the long gap between the boy wizard’s farewell to Hogwarts Academy and the enrolment of his children in the school.Continue reading...
Tue, 14 Feb 2017 00:03:00 GMT2017-02-14T00:03:00Z
Dr Elizabeth Reid Boyd spent publication day of her first romance novel in a darkened room. She has since discovered there’s nothing to be ashamed of
Taking up a sheet of paper, he propped it against the easel. With a stick of charcoal in his hand, he flexed his muscled arm, and began to make strong, bold strokes, glancing back and forth at her all the while. She became transfixed by the way he held her in his sights, put his head down to draw, then came intently back up again, in a single movement, like a breath …
You think you’re watching me, Mr Benedict Cole, when in fact I’m watching you. She smiled inwardly.
There are not many literary genres as loved and loathed as romance fiction. For all its millions of female readers for hundreds of years, it has been dismissed as sentimental, sappy and trashy, as well as mad, bad and dangerous to read. Yet romance fiction, written by women, published by women, read by women and researched by women, remains one of the most popular and powerful genres on the planet.
Mon, 13 Feb 2017 13:38:17 GMT2017-02-13T13:38:17Z
Tome raiders have stolen more than 160 rare books by abseiling into a warehouse, but they may struggle to cash in on their £2m crime
In a rare book heist described as “extraordinary” for its Mission: Impossible-style stealth, a gang of thieves has stolen more than £2m worth of antiquarian books from a London warehouse. The three tome-raiders evaded the security system by boring holes through reinforced glass skylights and abseiling 40ft on ropes into the repository. The haul of more than 160 books included a 1566 copy of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium by Copernicus, worth an estimated £215,000, as well as works by Galileo, Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci and a 1569 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The question is, what happens to the books now? How might they be sold? And who would buy them? “Criminals first try to cash out on these crimes,” leading art lawyer Chris Marinello, CEO of London based Art Recovery International, tells me. “They are looking for buyers and the more publicity the crime gets, they more difficult it becomes to sell these items. Placing them on international databases, such as ARTIVE.org, which records stolen objects so they can not be sold knowingly in the marketplace, means reputable dealers and collectors will not touch them.”Continue reading...
Mon, 13 Feb 2017 10:05:40 GMT2017-02-13T10:05:40Z
Superficially traditional, this 1923 sonnet on an artist and his model conceals some of the daring that made the author a groundbreaking modernist
In the Studio
Is it March, spring, winter, autumn, twilight, noon
Told in this distant sound of cuckoo clocks?
Sunday it is – five lilies in a swoon
Decay against your wall, aggressive flocks
Of alley-starlings aggravate a mood.
The rain drops pensively. ‘If one could paint,
Combine the abstract with a certain rude
Individual form, knot passion with restraint …
If one could use the murk that fills a brain,
Undo old symbols and beget again
Fresh meaning on dead emblem … ’ so one lies
Here timeless, while the lilies’ withering skin
Attests the hours, and rain sweeps from the skies;
The bird sits on the chimney, looking in.
Sat, 11 Feb 2017 21:40:26 GMT2017-02-11T21:40:26Z
Back in Black’s inventive life story eschews the usual talking heads to focus on the author’s devoted fans – of whom I am one
A couple of minutes into Back in Black, there’s a shot of Terry Pratchett’s head, outlined in twinkling lights hovering over his own memorial service at the Barbican Centre in London. It looks like a satellite photograph of some new country. As Auden said of Edward Lear: “He became a land.” And here are its people.
One of the charms of this docudrama is that it largely eschews the usual talking heads in favour of Discworld fans. Even the famous faces that do appear – Neil Gaiman, Pratchett’s consigliere Rob Wilkins, the illustrator Paul Kidby – first entered Pratchett’s orbit as fans. Whether it was the life-changing offer he made to collaborate with the young Gaiman on Good Omens, or the blessing to Stephen Briggs’s attempts to map Ankh-Morpork, or simply Tipp-Exing over an old dedication in a secondhand copy of one of his books so he could “unsign” it for its new owner, Pratchett showered his fans with favours like a Highland clan chief. It’s a clan with its own code of honour: to “be a bit more Terry” is to be kinder, more tolerant.Continue reading...
Fri, 10 Feb 2017 16:48:03 GMT2017-02-10T16:48:03Z
Fun is vulgar, immediate, democratic – and it defies the earnest powers that set out quite deliberately to make people miserable
I was at the women’s march in London on 21 January. On the walk from Grosvenor to Trafalgar Square, people brandished their home-printed placards: WE SHALL OVERCOMB; FREE MELANIA. A friend had made one jointly with her toddler that declared in glitter: PEPPA PIG FOR PRESIDENT!
I’ve been on plenty of marches but never one in which such diverse political groups came together, split and mingled, preserving their individuality without contention – I thought of Audre Lorde’s injunction that we should “recognise, accept, and celebrate those differences” – and none in which the sentiment was so much fun. It was only people who weren’t there who suggested that political action was incompatible with having fun; as if we weren’t miserable enough – and that had to be proved through performance. For the first time in weeks, I was cheered by the atmosphere of encouragement, kindness, determination.Continue reading...
Wed, 08 Feb 2017 10:45:18 GMT2017-02-08T10:45:18Z
Weaponised flu, hoax bombs that start exploding, totalitarian America and brain-thirsty zombies – here’s a flood of fictional world endings – and one that’s real
The apocalypse – the literal end of the world – has long captured humanity’s dark imagination. Is it because the end of life on Earth is so impossible to comprehend, or that it feels so frighteningly close at hand? I personally enjoy the terrible dread of dropping into a world near enough to my own that the path it takes to destruction is unsettlingly familiar. However, I also seek out the more personal, poetic explorations of the concept of “apocalypse”, when what is popped is the intimate bubble of our own reality.Continue reading...
Thu, 09 Feb 2017 17:51:59 GMT2017-02-09T17:51:59ZHaley’s influential family saga about 18th century slavery is back on TV, but its literary reputation is still tarnished by questions of authenticity This week saw both the debut on BBC4 of a star-studded mini-series based on Alex Haley’s Roots, and the 25th anniversary of Haley’s death on 10 February 1992. That the latter was not accompanied by a clutch of major reassessments testifies to his fascinatingly ambiguous status: he is the most-read African American author ever – The Autobiography of Malcolm X (which he co-authored with the black nationalist leader) sold 6m copies in its first decade, Roots sold the same number in its first year alone – yet is forever tainted by controversy and kept out of the canon.What’s strange about the sniffiness towards Haley is that his impact was felt in literary fiction, as well as by the 130 million Americans who viewed the (much less classy) original adaptation of Roots in 1977. Published the previous year, the saga charts the lives of six generations of Haley’s family, starting with a putative 18th-century ancestor in the Gambia, Kunta Kinte, who is enslaved and transported to America, and put slavery and Africa back on the agenda. Before Roots, leading black novelists – Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin – had largely stuck to contemporary or recent-past American subject matter. But after it, Octavia Butler used time travel to explore slavery in Kindred (1979), Alice Walker deployed an African subplot in The Color Purple (1982) and Toni Morrison made a fugitive slave her protagonist in Beloved (1987). Continue reading...[...]
Tue, 07 Feb 2017 09:41:18 GMT2017-02-07T09:41:18Z
The rumbustious story of winged circus performer Sophie Fevvers was extravagantly praised on publication and should give us much to talk about
Nights at the Circus has won out as our reading group choice for this month. This is Angela Carter’s penultimate novel and it tells the extraordinary, peripatetic life of Sophie Fevvers, a winged circus performer. That’s right. She has wings. Or at least, she says she has. We’ll try to clear that one up later in the month …
Meanwhile, to help persuade you to read along with us, you should know that this novel not only won the James Tait Black memorial prize when it was first published in 1984, but also won the best of the James Tait Black prize in 2012.Continue reading...
Tue, 21 Feb 2017 12:48:31 GMT2017-02-21T12:48:31Z
Angela Carter’s heroine’s adventures, bouncing off patriarchal barriers, are full of ideas – but the author’s extravagant invention is never merely didactic
Towards the end of my previous article about the glowing, gaudy and decidedly bloody brilliance of Nights at the Circus, I made a passing reference to “serious and strong” issues. My contention was that the book whacks you in the face with ideas you can’t ignore. Then I did my best to ignore them – for that week at least.Continue reading...
Sun, 19 Feb 2017 10:00:05 GMT2017-02-19T10:00:05Z
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, her debut novel of desolate southern lives, made McCullers an instant star – something she never fully recovered from
“She found me a cheap boarding house somewhere on the west side, where there, cut off and lonely, I passed the day my first book was published,” wrote Carson McCullers in her memoir Illumination and Night Glare, describing the day her classic novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published. Then 23, McCullers and her husband Reeves McCullers were penniless, awaiting the last portion of the advance on the book so that they, both aspiring writers, could move to New York City. Reeves had gone off to work on a boat on Nantucket island and McCullers had little premonition of the literary sensation the book would become – or how completely it would transform her life.
Turmoil was in the air that fervid summer in 1940. Despite Roosevelt’s New Deal, the depredations of the Great Depression had sucked hope from America’s bones, birthed a generation that had only known want and that was sceptical of the possibility of change. In small crowds around newsstands on city corners, uncertain Americans read about the war raging in Europe, but remained unsure as to whether it was “their” problem. Everyone, it seemed, wanted change and no one seemed to know how to hasten it, direct it or evaluate it. In this last sense, and possibly many more, America then was not so different from America now.Continue reading...
Sat, 18 Feb 2017 14:00:03 GMT2017-02-18T14:00:03Z
The Stephen Spender prize for poetry in translation opens for submissions on 27 February. Award judge Margaret Jull Costa reflects on today’s need for translators
I was thrilled to be invited to be one of the judges on the Stephen Spender prize for poetry in translation alongside Sean O’Brien and Olivia McCannon. Thinking about the generosity of the competition itself – which invites submissions from translators of any age, translating any poem from any language – triggered memories of my first proper encounters with translated fiction, when, as an 11-year-old, I was issued with a ticket to the local library. I still remember the delightfully bookish smell and the sound of the date stamp kerthumping down on my chosen book.
Most of all, I recall the freedom of being able to choose whatever I fancied reading. There were the red-and-grey covers on the Dostoevsky shelf, where I also discovered the other great Russians, although I was shamefully ignorant of the fact that these books had been written in another language and translated into my language by someone whose name I didn’t even notice. ( I now know it was probably that prolific pioneer Constance Garnett). I discovered Dickens and Austen, but also Tolstoy and Zola and Flaubert and Cervantes (in a much-shortened version). These voices were all brought to me, miserable monoglot that I was at the time, by anonymous English voices. They opened up whole worlds to me. Now, with the closure of so many libraries, and so many national borders, with an ever more parochial media, the world is in danger of becoming a much narrower, more ignorant place.Continue reading...
Thu, 16 Feb 2017 16:30:08 GMT2017-02-16T16:30:08Z
Angela Carter died 25 years ago, but her legacy lives on – from Fifty Shades to Buffy, from Björk to The Hunger Games
By revitalising fairytales in The Bloody Chamber (1979) – infusing them with eroticism, making their passive heroines sexier, smarter and stronger, telling them with what Sarah Hall has called “lit-up prose” – Carter initially emboldened other literary authors to tackle supernatural themes afresh. Then her approach, duly toned down for mass consumption, became a model for the feminist-lite reinvention of other disregarded genres in print and on screen, in adult and children’s fiction – from vampire horror (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight) to SF dystopia (The Hunger Games) to Disney princesses with attitude (Frozen, Brave) – and so played a significant part in fantasy’s resurrection and its ascendancy in the bestseller and box office charts since the late 90s. (It’s a rather fascinating coincidence that when JK Rowling had the 1990 epiphany in which she thought up the Harry Potter saga, she and Carter were both living in Clapham, south London).
Thu, 16 Feb 2017 15:11:23 GMT2017-02-16T15:11:23Z
The Book of Dust will soon expand Philip Pullman’s landmark fantasy trilogy, but the first books can still teach us a lot about how we live now
Fans of Philip Pullman and his wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy are in for an abundance of treats over the next few years. Pullman’s long-promised followup The Book of Dust – which turns out to be a trilogy itself – has its first volume arriving in October, while the BBC is working on a TV adaptation of His Dark Materials that is set to start filming in autumn.Continue reading...
Sat, 07 Jan 2017 12:00:18 GMT2017-01-07T12:00:18Z
Jane Austen’s bicentenary, Arundhati Roy’s first novel in 20 years, and unpublished F Scott Fitzgerald ... the literary year aheadContinue reading...
Fri, 17 Feb 2017 18:40:23 GMT2017-02-17T18:40:23Z
The authors of two buzzy new novels, Homegoing and Welcome to Lagos, explore ancient and modern stories of west Africa
In this week’s podcast we look at two novels which explore west Africa’s place in the world. Yaa Gyasi’s award-winning debut, Homegoing, follows three generations from the start of the slave trade on the 18th century Gold Coast to modern day America. She discusses the bitter legacy of slavery and the importance of reclaiming your own history. Chibundu Onuzo’s second novel trains a comic eye on the excesses of modern-day Lagos through the eyes of five fugitives who become unlikely housemates with a mission to redistribute the wealth of a corrupt society. She explains why humour is such an essential tool in the examination of her country’s ills.Continue reading...
Thu, 09 Feb 2017 12:31:57 GMT2017-02-09T12:31:57Z
Ink’s heroine loses faith in a culture where people’s histories are etched on their skin – reflecting its author’s own disaffection from evangelical Christianity
How to explain faith? Alice Broadway does it with cake. “Faith is not just a slice of your life that fits in nicely, it affects everything. So if your faith goes, then everything is slightly changed by it, too – family life, friendships, the choices you make. I imagine it like a cake: it wouldn’t be a slice you could remove, it would be more like the flour. You can’t get rid of it, and it looks very different without it.”
Broadway knows – personally, painfully – what it is like to have faith and then lose it. Born in 1980 and raised as an evangelical Christian by her family in Thame, just a few miles from Oxford, she would later spend 10 years living in an evangelical community in a small town near Preston. But life at the church, where her husband was employed as a youth worker, became difficult. Broadway says she and her family “experienced some bullying and fairly abusive, controlling manipulation. That then led to a proper crisis of faith.”Continue reading...
Mon, 20 Feb 2017 05:45:29 GMT2017-02-20T05:45:29ZThe civil war general turned president was a reluctant author, but set the gold standard for presidential memoirs
According to Mark Twain, these are “the best [memoirs] of any general’s since Caesar”, but we have to take that verdict with a pinch of salt: Twain was also Grant’s publisher. As a one-time Confederate soldier, Twain liked to joke that it was General Grant’s prowess on behalf of the Union cause that had persuaded him to desert the colours and become a journalist.
Twain had first invited the retired president to write his autobiography in 1881, but Grant had declined the offer. A modest man, he had replied, “No one is interested in me”, referring to two books about him which had recently flopped. But when, in 1884, he was swindled out of his savings, and desperate for money, Twain’s offer seemed much more tempting. Now, writing in pencil, or dictating to a secretary, he began to compose the book that many commentators agree sets the gold standard for presidential memoirs.Continue reading...
Wed, 22 Feb 2017 10:55:29 GMT2017-02-22T10:55:29Z
As excitement rises ahead of Sunday’s Oscars, a look at novelists’ treatments of the film mecca reveals a rather darker picture
Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood. I can say this with confidence because three of the last five winners of the Oscar for best picture were largely or entirely about the film industry. And this year it’s La La Land, yet another ode to showbiz, that seems likely to sweep the board.
But it’s less clear whether Hollywood loves novels about Hollywood. After all, the great artform of the 19th century tends not to be so charitable to the great artform of the 20th. The books listed below are populated by hacks, cynics, crushed dreams, moral depravity – and dead pets.
Sun, 19 Feb 2017 17:00:13 GMT2017-02-19T17:00:13Z
‘I’d better not say how boring she was at Oxford,’ says a cabinet colleague, ‘in case I get sacked’
It was 10am on Monday 11 July 2016 and Theresa May was preparing to launch her leadership campaign in Birmingham when Fiona Hill entered the room where she was sitting with her husband, Phil, to tell her that Andrea Leadsom was on the phone. May told everyone to leave before taking the call and then went on stage to deliver her speech. Only at the end did she tell everyone what they had already guessed: that Leadsom had dropped out of the race and she would be prime minister by the afternoon.
This staggering ability not to tell anyone something for a couple of hours is immensely revealing of May’s enormous strength of character and why she is the best person to lead Britain through Brexit. This detail is also indicative of how much I am clutching at straws to come up with anything interesting about her.
Sat, 18 Feb 2017 10:00:36 GMT2017-02-18T10:00:36Z
The author on walking London’s streets, siestas and the daily creative struggle
Elvis Costello got it right. His song “Every Day I Write the Book” chants that endless circadian repetition: “every day, every day, every day, every day I write the book”. Yet as desperate and maddening as writing can be, it never seems laborious. I’m wary of trying to explain my writing day as I simply don’t see it as a daily routine. I find too much pleasure in it when it’s going well. And the innocuous comment, “You must be disciplined” sounds more like a command than a question. I always say that if it were merely a matter of discipline I’d get someone else to do it. I love the artist Dan Flavin’s retort to being asked about his working procedure: “Work? Work? ... I hate work.” But there surely is some toil to be done. It’s just hard to explain without it sounding like a cover story for time wasted. Because sometimes it just doesn’t work. Every day, every day, every day, every day it might just not happen.
So I fear the sack every day from the best job I’ve ever had: my first and only foray into white-collar employment with its strange creative bureaucracy. I spend much time making notes in longhand. For me there is no better technology than pen on paper – it’s the quickest and most flexible way of making thoughts tangible, palpable. And there is a sensual pleasure in the scribble of letters, each little character crawling and sprawling. I’m working through the raw ideas. For me fiction is an attempt to recover a false memory, to reconstruct the details of events that never happened, to somehow pretend that one remembers them. A strange sort of reverse engineering of something that has yet to become a story. It begins with fragments, vague snatches of dialogue. I talk to myself a lot and waste a lot of paper making repetitive and barely articulate notes. This is usually the morning’s work. I spend time searching for some missing page with words I imagine to be important scrawled on it. I start to collect all these dead leaves, to shuffle them into some sort of sequence.Continue reading...
Fri, 17 Feb 2017 13:00:10 GMT2017-02-17T13:00:10Z
Following a young couple in 1960s France, A Sport and a Pastime asks how we make sense of romance and tells the truth about sexual love
“I am not telling the truth about Dean,” the unnamed narrator warns the reader early in A Sport and a Pastime. “I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that.” So begins an ardent, interruptive tale of desire and discovery, conceived self-consciously and sensually on each page.
Since its publication in 1967, during the decade of sexual revolution, A Sport and a Pastime has set the standard not only for eroticism in fiction, but for the principal organ of literature – the imagination. What appears at first to be a short, tragic novel about a love affair in France is in fact an ambitious, refractive inquiry into the nature and meaning of storytelling, and the reasons we are compelled to invent, in particular, romances. That such a feat occurs across a mere 200 pages is breathtaking, and though its narrative choreography seems simple, the novel is anything but minor.Continue reading...
Mon, 20 Feb 2017 11:00:35 GMT2017-02-20T11:00:35ZDaniel Swift’s account of the disgraced poet’s years in a mental hospital is enthralling but leaves us little wiser as to his state of mind
The psychodrama surrounding one of America’s greatest 20th century poets during, and immediately after, the second world war is so bizarre, it’s astonishing that this chapter in the life of the modernist, madman, fascist and traitor AKA Ezra Pound has remained largely neglected for so long.
In The Bughouse, Daniel Swift has reconnoitred a unique but hardly obscure literary target. The deranged figure of Pound behind bars has been hiding in plain sight for decades. Still, it is Swift’s considerable achievement sympathetically to examine an extraordinary, often troubling, tale in an idiosyncratic biographical analysis that marries lit crit and memoir in a sometimes awkward fusion.Continue reading...
Sun, 19 Feb 2017 07:00:01 GMT2017-02-19T07:00:01ZThe prolific historian’s account of the doomed Romanovs is rich in drama
Russia always struggles with its memories of 1917. The current leadership is wary of revisiting a world in which anyone with any cash risked an unpleasant death. It is as well that Nicholas II was made a saint in 2000. In this centenary year, his story, shorn of all the awkward facts, is safer and has mass appeal. No one forgets the princesses and little dog, the tsarevich bolt upright on his father’s lap. Then come the shots – so many – and those bloodstains black against the grainy image of a cellar wall.
With romance of this kind in prospect, Robert Service has written a timely and important book. The Romanovs are a new interest for this prolific historian, whose habitual subjects have been Bolsheviks such as Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. A few years ago, however, Service came across some long-forgotten documents in the archives of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, California. They related to an early anti-Bolshevik inquiry into the tsar’s death and they were compelling enough to send him out in search of more. The story that he makes of them may be familiar, but he brings to it rare clarity and common sense. His book is a fast-paced account of the last 16 months of the tsar’s life; brief, sharp, but laced with well-judged feeling for the dramas of the time.Continue reading...
Sun, 19 Feb 2017 07:00:02 GMT2017-02-19T07:00:02Z
A biography of the prime minister reveals a politician of steely self-control with a taste for vengeance
Eric Pickles worked closely with Theresa May for many years and is never less than complimentary about his fellow Tory. “But it’s true it takes an awful lot of time to get to know her,” he says. “I’m not sure anyone has ever entirely got to know her.” To this biography, Rosa Prince gives the subtitle “The Enigmatic Prime Minister”. Thus the author sets her own exam question: who is the woman behind the mask of steely self-control?
The search begins in childhood. I’ve wondered if May is irritated that she is constantly labelled “the vicar’s daughter”. Does she not mind being defined by her father’s occupation? Apparently not, because she has repeatedly referred to it herself and the chapters on her upbringing, the most revealing section of this biography, explain why. It was a comfortable and secure upbringing in rural Oxfordshire with the Rev Hubert Brasier, an Anglican of the high church tradition, and Zaidee, May’s mother, about whom I would have liked to learn more.Continue reading...
Sun, 19 Feb 2017 07:30:02 GMT2017-02-19T07:30:02Z
This roving study of our enduring fascination with time travel covers well trodden ground but finds the concept constantly evolving
Are we trapped in the present, free to move in space yet unable to travel in the fourth dimension? Or is there a chance, a glimmer of a possibility, that the past and future could unfurl to our physical experience at will? Despite the punchline being apparent from the off – lest we forget, such journeys are impossible – James Gleick’s latest offering sets out to question the questions, probing how the idea of time travel emerged, gripped our imaginations and shaped our society.
Our relationship with the slippery concept of time is far from static: technology continues to shape our view, even nowContinue reading...
Sat, 18 Feb 2017 09:00:35 GMT2017-02-18T09:00:35ZCasaubon’s unfinished Key to All Mythologies was not, by the lights of his time, out of touch or deludedWhen the 18th‑century antiquary William Stukeley was vicar of Stamford in Lincolnshire he put up a statue of Phut in the vicarage garden. Phut, son of Ham, grandson of Noah, was a figure whose importance in the development of Christianity Stukeley felt had been overlooked. While many of his contemporaries disagreed with him on this point, they didn’t disagree that it was a point. Stukeley’s friend Isaac Newton was similarly interested in the progeny of Noah. Ever since their discovery of the Americas, Europeans had readjusted their ideas about history and the nature of creation. In an age in which religion and politics were synonymous, all social order depended on the Christian system of belief – so each new discovery had to be accommodated to fit the evidence of different peoples’ faiths into a single absolute truth. The Flood, widely believed to have been a real historical event, had left unharmed only Noah’s family, who had gone out and populated the Earth. Perhaps, in the process, the truths of the Old Testament, which prefigured the birth of Christ, had taken on different local forms, though proceeding from one source.This quest for a spiritual equivalent of the Unified Field Theory lasted for centuries and took many forms. Indeed, as Colin Kidd implies in his deft guided tour of some of the more labyrinthine byways of intellectual history, it is with us still. Kidd uses Mr Casaubon, the pedant of Middlemarch, whose purblind quest for the key to all mythologies sucks the life out of his young wife, Dorothea, as a pivotal figure. From different moments in the novel, Kidd shows that Casaubon was less out of touch or, by the lights of his time, deluded than George Eliot makes him appear. As a novelist and apologist for her own free-thinking views, she necessarily played down the size and complexity of the field in which he laboured. Kidd, however, comes neither to bury nor to praise a fictional character but aims to understand mythography. By an exercise of historical imagination he rescues this tale of red herrings and blind alleys from the condescension of posterity. Continue reading...[...]
Fri, 17 Feb 2017 09:00:05 GMT2017-02-17T09:00:05ZRoger Hutchinson’s breezily anecdotal book reveals the history and controversy behind the UK census
The introduction of the census in England, Scotland and Wales in 1801 was a very British coup. It was largely the inspiration of one man, John Rickman, an obscure journalist in his mid-20s who, in 1796, hit on the far-from-earth-shattering idea that it might be handy to know the size of the nation’s population. Rickman, who had no previous experience of public administration, then spent the next 40 years overseeing the decennial census, backed up by a small team of clerks who collated the returns from an army of data gatherers in the field – overseers of the poor in England and Wales, schoolmasters in Scotland, and policemen and clergymen in Ireland, which was added in 1821 and always proved more recalcitrant than the rest of the UK. It sounds like a recipe for chaos, but, while the pre-1841 censuses were far from complete, Rickman and his team did an admirable job.
Historians have tended to overlook the operation of the census, perhaps considering the subject too dry and statistical. There is no modern biography of Rickman, and analysis of the Victorian censuses tends to be found in specialist statistical journals. Credit then to the prolific author Roger Hutchinson for filling the gap with an engaging history of a survey professional historians have too often taken for granted.Continue reading...
Thu, 16 Feb 2017 09:00:36 GMT2017-02-16T09:00:36Z
A journalist’s memoir that is also an argument about politics, sex and how society has gone wrong fails to convince
It’s no easy task, writing a memoir of an era, constructing a narrative that your entire generation would even recognise, let alone sign up to. There are many people who would disagree on principle, of whom I think I am probably one. Tiffanie Darke’s Now We Are 40: Whatever Happened to Generation X? sets itself a bold and daunting task, with a central question that is preoccupying us all: “Democratic earthquakes … are undermining much of the progress we made and fought to achieve.” Or, even more straightforwardly: “The political denouement to all of this was starkly illustrated in the Brexit vote. The inclusive, liberal, multicultural society we thought we had built was rejected by just over half the country.”
It is, you have to admit, a head-scratcher: to find oneself having to argue, again, that grabbing women by the pussy is unbecoming behaviour for a head of state; that it is functionally impossible for Polish people to have caused the British housing crisis, or for Mexicans to all, or even predominantly, be rapists, or that Muslim children are no more dangerous than other children. How on earth were our values so poorly defended that we’d have to go back to square one and argue them all over again? And yet, of Darke’s diagnosis, I agree with almost none.Continue reading...
Thu, 16 Feb 2017 07:30:35 GMT2017-02-16T07:30:35Z
There is not much that’s intriguing about the determined May, apart from her class-based reaction against her predecessor’s gilded clique
Theresa May’s first bid for her party’s leadership was a low-key affair. It might have escaped detection altogether had she not dropped her guard in a radio interview when asked about the contest. “Let’s wait and see what happens when the autumn comes and the candidates actually declare our … themselves.” It was the summer of 2005 and May was the Tory party’s shadow minister for the family. Michael Howard was its lame-duck leader, beaten in the general election by Tony Blair and sticking around only to hold the ring for a succession battle that would be won by David Cameron.
May abandoned her campaign early, having failed to drum up enough support among MPs. There would be no reason to recall it had her ambition stopped there. But that one misspoken pronoun was a periscope revealing the presence of a battle-class political submarine advancing stealthily through Westminster’s unpredictable waters.Continue reading...
Wed, 15 Feb 2017 09:00:07 GMT2017-02-15T09:00:07ZThe Holocaust, religion and the EU’s future are all central issues in the biography of a celebrated, combative thinker
In 1953, the 24-year-old Jürgen Habermas wrote a newspaper article publicly challenging Germany’s greatest living philosopher to explain himself. What had Martin Heidegger meant in his 1935 book Introduction to Metaphysics when he referred to the “inner truth and greatness” of national socialism? How could Heidegger have allowed the republication of these lectures without any revisions or commentary, particularly as he had claimed his membership of the Nazi party before the war had been an aberration?
This was a key moment in Habermas’s intellectual and moral development. Born in 1929, he had been one of the “anti-aircraft generation” of postwar intellectuals, along with novelist Günter Grass and sociologists Ralf Dahrendorf and Niklas Luhmann, all of whom had, as teenagers, helped to defend Hitler. At 15, Habermas was, like most of his contemporaries, a member of the Hitler Youth. Too young to fight and too old to be exempted from any war service, he manned anti-aircraft defences against the allies’ advance. He later described his father, director of the local seminary, and during the war a Wehrmacht major, as a “passive sympathiser” with the Nazis and admitted that he as a youth shared that mindset.Continue reading...
Wed, 15 Feb 2017 15:00:15 GMT2017-02-15T15:00:15ZThe historian and biographer has written an unsentimental, surprising account of Nicholas II from his abdication in March 1917 to his execution
The killing of the tsar and his family bothered the American writer Mary McCarthy, even in her quasi-Stalinist phase, when she was impressed against her better judgment by communist apparatchiks. Whenever she got a bit drunk, she wrote in “My Confession” in 1953, she would bring up the killing of the tsar’s children and look hopefully, but in vain, for “a trace of scruple or compassion”. The next morning, for some reason, she would feel “bitterly ashamed”. I found this confession bewildering when I first read it many years ago. Why the shame? But then, on the other hand, why such a strong reaction to the killing of the tsar’s family in the first place, when death came to so many bystanders as well as participants in the course of Russia’s revolution and civil war?Continue reading...
Wed, 15 Feb 2017 07:30:06 GMT2017-02-15T07:30:06Z
Feminism used to mean a transformed society, a challenge to romance, a new way to live. Now, Crispin argues, it has been rebranded into banality
Jessa Crispin has a problem with feminism. It has become so toothless that she can barely identify with it. For Crispin has teeth and is not afraid to bare them. She does not, as some people do, reject the label “feminist” because it is somehow off-putting and conjures up hairy man-haters. Quite the opposite: feminism, she argues, has been rebranded into banality. The universalising of feminism has been a kind of declawing. It has made it pointless.
The reassurance feminists have to give, that women are reasonable and approachable, is for Crispin problematic: “That pose – I am harmless, I am toothless, you can fuck me – is why I find myself rejecting the feminist label.”Continue reading...
Tue, 14 Feb 2017 11:00:03 GMT2017-02-14T11:00:03ZWince-inducing stories of amputations without anaesthesia and sinister policies to withhold drugs from sections of societyBefore reading this book, I had lived a life in utter ignorance of the MGS. That is, the Mouse Grimace Scale, a “standardised behavioural coding system with high accuracy and reliability” (according to the scientific literature) used by experimenters to determine how much pain a mouse is in. Professor Bourke’s book is about pain in humans, but the mice appear in a chapter that asks whether gestures of pain are innate or learned. Research into animal expressions to help us understand human ones has a pedigree, if I may use the word, that goes back at least to Charles Darwin.It seems that the answer is both. We learn that different cultures are taught to react differently to pain, and that facial and gestural reactions to painful stimuli are not universal. “A child has hurt himself and he cries; and then adults talk to him and teach him explanations and, later, sentences. They teach the child a new pain-language,” as Wittgenstein puts it in Philosophical Investigations, and quoted here.However, pain’s essence lies beyond articulation. Our attempts to describe it, as Bourke notes, are almost always inadequate. And pain is boring: horrible and seemingly relentless, wholly preoccupying and unwelcome. What is interesting – and this is one of the book’s strengths and wherein lies much of its usefulness – is in the way those who have to deal professionally with pain do so. The section on surgeons who operated before the invention of anaesthetic is particularly wince-inducing. With no means of controlling their patients’ pain, surgeons had to be swift and deaf to cries of agony, leading to criticisms of inhumanity. However, it was best thus. “The great surgeon Sir Robert Liston could remove a limb in less than a minute, but even lesser surgeons were renowned for their speed and their firmness,” writes Bourke. Not all surgeons were so competent, or their patients so – relatively – fortunate. Here [...]
Mon, 13 Feb 2017 09:00:09 GMT2017-02-13T09:00:09Z
Forget Silence of the Lambs: Bill Schutt’s book reveals the evolutionary reasons we may end up eating each other
One of my husband’s high school friends had a human placenta in his freezer. Neatly wrapped and labelled in a Ziploc plastic bag, it lay in among the chicken thighs and ice-cream cartons. The placenta was his mother’s, or rather his younger brother’s – I am not sure what the etiquette is for attributing ownership of a placenta – and the kids would go down to the basement to root it out, hold it up and laugh: “Watch out next time Eric’s mom serves up beef casserole!”
In fact, Eric’s parents had no intention of cooking up the placenta. They had meant to plant it under a tree in the garden to commemorate their youngest son’s birth but never got around to it. Which rather neatly sums up the history of cannibalism: it’s an irresistible story, all the more horrific because eating human flesh is something any of us might, in extremis, be forced to do, or could, in theory, do without even realising; but the stories have long been more compelling than the actual evidence.Continue reading...
Mon, 13 Feb 2017 07:30:07 GMT2017-02-13T07:30:07ZPowerful memoirs by a heart surgeon and an ambulance driver tackle the ‘live or let die’ dilemma of modern healthcare
Professor Stephen Westaby is, according to his own description, “an ambitious bastard” who suffers from an irritable bladder. He is also a maverick and a hugely innovative pioneer, internationally renowned as a heart surgeon who has helped to develop and refine the use of heart pumps, artificial hearts and circulatory support technology to drive blood around the body.
He wants these deployed not just as a temporary measure prior to a transplant, but to give an ailing heart time to recover or to provide an alternative to death when a patient is “walking dead” – refused a place on the transplant waiting list, chronically short of breath, bloated by retained fluid and fearful of what could happen next. Transplants – 200 a year in the UK – are funded by the NHS, but less so this “bridge to life” approach. As a result, Westaby argues, 12,000 people a year die unnecessarily. He is angry about “the rise and fall of the NHS”.Continue reading...
Thu, 23 Feb 2017 09:00:02 GMT2017-02-23T09:00:02Z
Reports smuggled out of Isis-occupied Syria detail the horrors faced by a desperate population
In March 2013, Free Syrian Army fighters, alongside the al-Qaida-linked militia Jabhat al-Nusra, liberated Raqqa, a city in Syria’s east. Statues of Assad were attacked, detainees were set free, a hip-hop concert was held. Activists hotly debated the shape of the democracy to come. They set up a local council; Nusra set up a Sharia court. Then Isis, or Daesh, an Iraqi-led group, split from Nusra. It was contained for a while, until the Free Army in Raqqa was weakened, battered by airstrikes and “busy fighting the regime elsewhere”.
In January 2014, Daesh captured the city. “Snatching it away from the revolutionaries who had sacrificed everything to liberate it,” the jihadists immediately established rule by fear. Some people fled, some submitted and some resisted as best they could. The pseudonymous author of The Raqqa Diaries – translated by Nader Ibrahim – risked his life to break Isis’s communication siege; his group, al-Sharqiya 24, made contact with the BBC correspondent Mike Thomson, and a bare-bones version of this book was read on Radio 4’s Today programme. It is as powerful and fast-paced as a thriller, but this is brutal non-fiction, plainly and urgently told.Continue reading...
Sun, 19 Feb 2017 08:00:03 GMT2017-02-19T08:00:03ZAndrew Martin’s witty and informative guide to past and present overnight rail services is a treat
As anguished Southern commuters will testify, the golden age of rail travel has long gone. But as this delightful book amply proves, nostalgia for the nights when gleaming metal monsters shuffling gouts of steam roared across Europe has long outlived the reality and is still a growth industry. Andrew Martin, the son of a railwayman, experienced a journey on a sleeper train with his sister and dad as a child. His book charmingly combines his own travels, as herecreates journeys on famous trains such as the Orient Express, with a serious, occasionally geeky, history of those elegant wagons lits of the past, the settings for numerous brief encounters, espionage exchanges and, thanks to Agatha Christie, ingenious fictional murders. Even if you’re not into the detail of rail gauges, this book is the perfect companion as you wait for the 8.10 from Hove.
• Night Trains by Andrew Martin is published by Profile (£14.99). To order a copy for £12 go to bookshop.theguardian.comor call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99Continue reading...
Sun, 19 Feb 2017 06:59:01 GMT2017-02-19T06:59:01ZA novelist’s account of growing up in 1950s South Africa and her sister’s violent death is tender and powerful
For 30 years, the death of her sister, Maxine, driven off the road on a spring night by her abusive husband, has haunted South African novelist Sheila Kohler. Once We Were Sisters is Kohler’s memoir of her youth in 1950s South Africa, her life with Maxine and her attempt to come to terms with her sister’s violent death. Describing their privileged childhood, Kohler evokes a fractured society permeated with cloying colonial gentility and racial prejudice. As young women, the sisters adopt the lifestyle of the international elite while raising ever-expanding families, before husbands’ multiple betrayals expose their society’s latent cruelty and violence. The last, most terrible act spurs Kohler to interrogate what lay behind it: her memoir is both a tender tribute to her sister and a powerful act of redress.
• Once We Were Sisters by Sheila Kohler is published by Canongate. To order a copy for £11.24 (RRP £14.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99Continue reading...
Fri, 17 Feb 2017 16:30:15 GMT2017-02-17T16:30:15ZAn accomplished first novel that imagines the life, in 17th-century Amsterdam, of young servant Helena Jans van der Strom and her relationship with the philosopherThe great French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes spent the most productive decades of his life in the Netherlands in the mid-17th century. While in Amsterdam, he began a relationship with Helena Jans van der Strom, a young servant working in the house where he stayed. In her accomplished first novel, shortlisted for a Costa award, Glasfurd gives her a voice to narrate this coming together of two people with a great imbalance in their relative power and self-determination. A few facts can be gleaned from records: Helena had Descartes’s child and he provided for them both. Glasfurd has fleshed out this skeleton with a quietly passionate story of a young woman who burns to be allowed to write, to acquire knowledge, and to love her elusive Monsieur. In casting Helena as proto-feminist, artistic, courageous, Glasfurd gives her narrative a rather modern sensibility but it is this quality that makes it such a satisfying read. She brilliantly dissects the complex frustrations of a woman in love with a man consumed by intellectual obsessions. There is much to move us here.• The Words in My Hand is published by Two Roads. To order a copy for £6.79 (RRP £7.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99. Continue reading...[...]
Sun, 19 Feb 2017 07:00:02 GMT2017-02-19T07:00:02Z
A war reporter suffering from PTSD heads home from Aleppo to Herne Bay, where she is haunted by war and childhood abuse
The heroine ruefully inspecting her (adorable but rumpled) reflection is a cliche of badly written romantic fiction. Kate Rafter, the war reporter in Nuala Ellwood’s rather well written debut thriller My Sister’s Bones, is given her own moment of mirror self-scrutiny early on, but what she sees is far from adorable. Just back at her late mother’s home after a stint in Aleppo, Kate’s eyes meet “a sight so horrifying it makes my toes curl: my reflection in the full-length mirror. Here I am, looking all of my 39 years and then some. My face is lined and puffy, my hair a thick ball of greying wire wool.”
Kate’s dreams are played out in vivid colour – “blood” dreams, she calls them – while real life is confused and messyContinue reading...
Sun, 19 Feb 2017 14:00:10 GMT2017-02-19T14:00:10ZPatricia Highsmith is involved with a married woman in this fascinating fictional biography of the late writer
“I’ve been fending off would-be biographers for a while. Why can’t they wait until I’m dead?” So asks Patricia Highsmith in Jill Dawson’s fictional biography, The Crime Writer. Dawson has waited until 22 years after Highsmith’s death to pen her imagined account of the time she spent in Suffolk, in 1964, attempting both to write a book and escape her fans.
The novel follows Highsmith’s affair with Sam, a married woman and mother, who Pat doesn’t believe will ever leave her husband and child (“Love was a kind of madness, not very logical”). In spite of Pat’s retreat to the countryside, she is being pursued on two fronts: by persistent young journalist Virginia Smythson-Balby, whose intentions, both professional and romantic, Pat is suspicious of; and by a stalker whose existence no one else takes seriously.Continue reading...
Sat, 18 Feb 2017 12:00:01 GMT2017-02-18T12:00:01ZA promising poet’s second collection delivers work full of subtle music that wears its heart on its sleeveParadox is one of the cornerstones of poetry. Emotion jostles with meticulous craftiness, approaching complexity and formal pattern with a deceptive ease and rebelliousness. A poem might comfort, flatter or deceive just as readily as it offers an unflinching truth. It depends on tension as an arrow does its quivering bowstring, going nowhere fast without it. Adam O’Riordan’s first collection, In the Flesh (2010), demonstrated many of these qualities. Its best poems were those with a metaphysical cast of mind: “NGC3949”, named after a galaxy in Ursa Major that mirrors our own, connects with another case of cosmic mistaken identity, spotting “a lover’s shape” in a crowded bar. In poems of poised lyricism, the book revealed an obsession with the line between beauty and violence, but also a fear of erasure, finding consolation in poetry’s potential to commemorate and commit to memory.From the beginning, A Herring Famine promises more of the same. Its opening poem, “Crossing the Meadow”, blurs two separate memories of a field: one at night, where “sleeping ponies” are “still as standing stones”; another where speaker and confidante find “a goose receding into boggy underfoot, / bloody gristle and yellowed bone”. The language and imagery are both beautiful and stark, musically exact – the kind of deft lyric style we have come to expect from this poet. It is evident throughout, in poems equally balanced between life’s insistence and mortality’s looming presence. Where “The Caracalla Baths” tells of Roman public spaces since used for operas, figuratively “drenched” with the “hot, unstopping blood” of 20th-century fascism, “S[...]
Sat, 18 Feb 2017 07:30:33 GMT2017-02-18T07:30:33Z
A picaresque odyssey tracks changing attitudes towards sexual freedoms over the last 70 years and rages against the church
John Boyne’s new novel opens in the small west Cork village of Goleen, in 1945, during mass in the parish church. Instead of giving a sermon, Father James Monroe rises to denounce 16-year-old Catherine Goggin, recently discovered to be pregnant. The priest calls her up to the altar to shame her before family and congregation, before kicking her out of the church and banishing her from the parish. Boyne introduces this scene by informing us that it will be known later that this priest has himself fathered two children in the area, and his brutality is inflamed rather then tempered by hypocrisy.Continue reading...
Fri, 17 Feb 2017 15:00:13 GMT2017-02-17T15:00:13ZA portrait of a fictional Airdrie rock group morphs into a haunting, hallucinatory vision of the early 80s
Who were the local legends round where you grew up? The beautiful losers and the outsider freaks: did they form the greatest band any of you had ever seen, play a few obscure gigs then break up after the lead singer killed himself? Or did they deal in drugs and rare psychedelic vinyl, but mainly focus on making their nuclear bunker as cosy as possible? Or did they romantically quit the whole scene to go and work in Palestine?
David Keenan’s first novel is populated by about 30 beautifully believable and appallingly sad local legends – including that great band (Memorial Device), that drug-dealer survivalist and that expat romantic. The book’s subtitle gives the most succinct description of the whole enterprise: “An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs, 1978‑1986”. I’ll start with the basics, and come back to “hallucinated” later.Continue reading...
Fri, 17 Feb 2017 07:30:04 GMT2017-02-17T07:30:04Z
The Nazis control Paris in 1950 and the art world’s surrealist visions have come to life in this dreamlike vision of an alternative history
Imagine if surrealist artworks were coming to monstrous life and roaming the streets of occupied Paris during an alternative-history 1950 in which the second world war was still going and the Nazis were desperately trying to raise demons from hell. Actually you don’t need to, because China Miéville has. And this is a writer, his admirers have long known, from whom one should expect anything except the ordinary.
The narrative proceeds along two timelines. In war- and art-torn 1950 Paris, a young man named Thibaut wanders groggily in the wake of the defeat of his comrades, part of a faction of the resistance loyal to surrealism. Meanwhile, in 1941 Marseille, Jack Parsons, a young American and adept of Aleister Crowley, hangs out with André Breton and other surrealists, hoping to capture their imaginative magic in an electric box and travel to Prague in order to raise a golem with it to defeat the Reich. Unfortunately, as you may surmise, something goes wrong with that plan.Continue reading...
Thu, 16 Feb 2017 15:00:06 GMT2017-02-16T15:00:06ZA teenager struggles to come of age in a world of religious zealots and predatory teachers in this stark debut
The coming-of-age novel can be almost as painful as actually coming of age. It’s a genre that demands a tricky combination of narrative knowingness and character naivety, while recruiting the reader’s sympathies for one of God’s least sympathetic creations: the teenager. Even so, many novelists choose it for their debut, and last year offered two examples that exemplified both the successes and frustrations of the form. Emma Cline’s The Girls was a woozy hormonal fug that found the horror in the thrill of growing up; Tiffany McDaniels’ The Summer that Melted Everything smothered its story’s gothic potential in stentorian hindsight.
Emily Fridlund’s debut falls between the two. Teenage narrator Linda gets called “commie” and “freak” by her schoolmates, and it’s small wonder that she doesn’t fit in when her background has precision-tooled her for oddness. Raised by parents who are the last vestiges of a failed cult, she lives a semi-wilderness life in a cabin at the edge of a lake, on the fringe of a northern Minnesota forest. Uncomfortable in the world, she spreads discomfort about her: “I was flat-chested, plain as a bannister. I made people feel judged.”Continue reading...
Tue, 14 Feb 2017 09:00:00 GMT2017-02-14T09:00:00ZA Hebridean poet’s secret past is unearthed in this intricate satire on Scottish nationalism
In portraying a late-90s Fleet Street balanced obliviously on the brink of the internet, Annalena McAfee’s debut, The Spoiler, sent up an industry in which she’d spent 30 years. Hame – chunkier, more complex – centres on the secret life of a fictive Hebridean poet and sometime SNP candidate who dies shortly before the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. The object of McAfee’s satire this time isn’t an institution whose future defies prediction, but a nation.
The vote is still two months away when Mhairi, a Canadian curator of Scottish descent, quits Brooklyn for the (invented) island of Fascaray to write a book on the recently deceased Grigor McWatt, whose Scots renderings of classic poems (“They fuck yer heid, yer maw and paw”) caught the eye of Ezra Pound. Wider fame came from his anglophobic newspaper columns but above all from “Hame to Fascaray”, adopted as a nationalist anthem (“This is oor ain land... Let’s stake oor claim”) and covered by everyone from Bob Dylan to Susan Boyle.Continue reading...
Tue, 14 Feb 2017 07:30:36 GMT2017-02-14T07:30:36Z
Polley’s haunting verse narrative blends nursery rhymes, riddles and cautionary tales with a dash of Coleridge
Instead of the onerous first person – the “I” from which most autobiographical narratives hang – Jacob Polley entrusts his story to figures from nursery rhyme, cautionary tales and riddles. Jackself, his fourth collection and the recent, unexpected – and in every way deserving – winner of the TS Eliot prize, opens with a quotation from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet “My own heart let me have more pity on”, a line that gives the book its title: “Soul, self; come, poor Jackself”.
Polley has recruited a crowd of Jacks – Frost, Sprat, O’Lantern – and they offer a fleeting but false sense of security. As every close reader of nursery rhymes knows, unsafety is often their defining quality, the sinister never far away.Continue reading...
Sun, 12 Feb 2017 08:00:01 GMT2017-02-12T08:00:01ZThe fantasy polymath reimagines Asgard, complete with giant cats, collapsible ships and gossipy squirrelsIt’s virtually impossible to read more than 10 words by Neil Gaiman and not wish he would tell you the rest of the story. He is a thesaurus of myth, both original and traditional, as comfortable appraising the science fiction of Douglas Adams or co-authoring fantasy with Terry Pratchett as he is reimagining the story of Orpheus and Eurydice or creating a bleakly funny serial killers’ convention in small-town America. And that’s before you get on to his children’s picture books. Eclectic doesn’t quite cover it.Still, it comes as something of a shock that he begins this most recent book with the words, “If I had to declare a favourite [sequence of myth], it would probably be for the Norse myths.” Surely Gaiman loves the Greeks the most? All those gorgeous Sandman comics, playing around with Greek mythology and the strange space between personification and abstraction: Dream, Death, Desire. Gaiman’s Sandman exists in a world so dense and dark that the stories haunt his readers long after the comic is put back on the shelf. Continue reading...[...]
Sat, 11 Feb 2017 09:30:12 GMT2017-02-11T09:30:12ZCantankerous bards, remote islands and a US billionaire star in a novel steeped in Scots heritageThe second novel by Annalena McAfee is a curious confection indeed. Mhairi McPhail, a Canadian of Scots descent, accepts a job on the remote and fictitious Scottish island of Fascaray. With her nine-year-old daughter, she decamps to “a bonsai Scotland, a diminutive Dalraida, an atomic Alba, a bright flake of Caledonian confetti in which all our country’s marvels … are shrunk as by faery command”, in order to write a biography and establish a museum in honour of the island’s recently deceased, nearly centenarian bard, the fykesome and ill-cankert auld dotterel Grigor McWatt. The novel is presented as various found texts – parts of Mhairi’s biography of McWatt; parts of her diary; parts of McWatt’s Fascaray Compendium, an unpublished ethnological, botanical, historical lifelong project. We also read his testy newspaper polemics and his poetry, “translations” or “owersettins” of work by Yeats, Frost, Byron, Housman and Keats into Lallans, if you like, or synthetic Scots if you don’t.When I started to read it, it induced a kind of vertigo-inducing double vision. I know a fair wee bit about Scottish literature, and McWatt is a weirdly composite character. His Anglophobia is borrowed from Hugh MacDiarmid; his beret and kilt are reminiscent of Sorley Maclean; his monomania about one island recollects John Lorne Campbell; his wartime experience and folk song success are filched from Hamish Henderson; his pet otters nod at Gavin Maxwell; his ill-fated romance with a d[...]
Sat, 11 Feb 2017 07:30:09 GMT2017-02-11T07:30:09Z
A cult US author investigates addiction and apocalypse in a hallucinatory tale that’s as sobering as a blast of cold air
Michelle is in the Albion, the last dive bar in the neighbourhood to resist gentrification. She’s a lesbian poet, with chemically fried blue hair and homemade tattoos, dressed in an orange slip and biker boots. Tonight she might smoke crack cocaine in a van with a newly released convict, or persuade her gender-indeterminate crush to score a bag of heroin for her. It’s San Francisco, 1999: the pursuit of pleasure, whatever the cost.
Related: Top 10 books about the apocalypseContinue reading...
Fri, 10 Feb 2017 12:00:00 GMT2017-02-10T12:00:00ZThis ingenious debut about underachieving millennials is a dystopia in a velvet glove“The Transition isn’t a punishment, it’s an opportunity.” So says Stuart, explaining the eponymous scheme at the heart of Luke Kennard’s smart and funny debut novel. We’re in Britain, a few years from now: driverless cars and self-stocking fridges are a reality, but the housing crisis has only got worse. Like most thirtysomethings, “middle-class underachiever” Karl and his wife, Genevieve, find that their rent always outstrips their earnings, even though their living space is a wallpapered conservatory in a shared house. Credit‑card juggling and a spot of last‑ditch online fraud land Karl in trouble, but instead of prison, he and Genevieve are offered a place on The Transition: a six‑month hiatus during which they will live with an older, more successful couple, learn from them about all that boring adult stuff like self-reliance, financial planning and dental hygiene, and save up enough money for a starter rabbit hutch on the bad side of town.The growing divide between homeowners and renters, the galloping corporatisation of modern life and the disappearance of middle-class safety nets are the driving forces behind this dystopia in a velvet glove. “My generation kicked the ladder away behind us,” continues Stuart, who along with his wife Janna will be a mentor to Karl and Genevieve. “This is our chance to teach you to free-climb.” Stuart is gloriously irritating – the kind of man who affects a m[...]
Wed, 08 Feb 2017 15:00:05 GMT2017-02-08T15:00:05ZAn LA-set caper nods to Ellroy and Chandler while firing jokes at everything from hipsters to reality TV
Do you remember when Hollywood films were intelligent, literate and original? Lucius Kluge does. Kluge – or Lucky, as he’s ironically known to his friends – came to Hollywood from England in the noughties hoping to make just such films, but failed to hit the big time. He now scrapes a slightly seedy living scoping house clearances for valuable antiques.
He not only works in antiques but, by LA standards, lives in one: a “one-bedroom guest cottage behind a restored jigsaw gothic in Angelino Heights. The big house is as venerable as they come in southern California.” Kluge is a man out of time: he writes cheques and refuses to own a smartphone. When his house clearance partner asks him, “C’mon, you never heard of Bacon Ninja? It was like No 1 in the iTunes store for, like, six months,” Kluge replies: “Raul, I barely even know what that means.” He saves his biggest ire, however, for comic books – which he blames for ruining Hollywood.Continue reading...
Fri, 10 Feb 2017 15:00:11 GMT2017-02-10T15:00:11Z
The premises are intriguing and the language powerful, but the bestial men and masochistic women weaken these tales
Roxane Gay is one of those public intellectuals who has come to represent a school of thought: in her case, a 21st-century intersectional feminism that’s friendly to lipstick but against body shaming; fond of pop culture but strongly critical of its exclusionary tendencies. She is known for her fierce stance against violence towards women, and against the way fictional representations tend to normalise or even excuse it. But in her new short story collection, she is in danger of suggesting that women can find abuse both cathartic and sexually satisfying.
Gay is a writer of formidable charm and intellect, with a knack for intriguing premises. She is especially masterful at writing striking openings: “My husband is not a kind man and with him, I am not a good person”; “The stone-thrower lives in a glass house with his glass family”; “My husband is a hunter. I am a knife”. In many stories, this strength is sustained and magnified. “Requiem for a Glass Heart” develops into a beautiful allegory on human frailty. Another gem is “North Country”, about a young academic at an isolated college who starts a relationship with a working-class local; it’s meticulous in tone and detail, understated and exquisite.Continue reading...
Fri, 10 Feb 2017 07:30:45 GMT2017-02-10T07:30:45Z
The follow-up to Spill Simmer Falter Wither is a fascinating portrait of an artist’s breakdown in rural Ireland
In the midst of a breakdown, a 25-year-old artist abandons her Dublin bedsit to move to her dead grandmother’s decaying bungalow, at the foot of a turbine in the Irish countryside. There she falls slowly, even methodically, apart, pausing to photograph dead animals and birds along the way.
Sara Baume garnered enthusiastic recognition for her first novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither. What was most exciting about that tale of a lonely man’s relationship with his one-eyed dog was the confidence of the voice, which was at once grounded in a particular character and open to a more universal poetic register. Baume also revealed a remarkable ability to generate narrative pace while eschewing plot, making it enough for the reader to observe a mind observing the world.Continue reading...
Sat, 18 Feb 2017 10:00:36 GMT2017-02-18T10:00:36ZA shoplifter falls for a Romanian immigrant in a beautiful collaboration from Sarah Crossan and Brian ConaghanAt first glance, We Come Apart could be mistaken for a wearisome “issues” novel. Co-authors Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan create an all-too-recognisable world of knife crime, domestic abuse, immigration, forced marriage, teenage pregnancy, bullying and racism, rooted firmly in Brexit Britain. But don’t be put off. The problems faced by the characters might be familiar, but the experimental form is not. This is a verse novel, consummately crafted, where the position of each word on the page is as important as its meaning. Poetry emerges from the everyday struggles of Nicu, a Romanian immigrant, and Jess, a shoplifter with an abusive stepfather.The lyrical style has worked well for Crossan in the past, landing her the 2016 Carnegie medal for a heart-wrenching tale of conjoined twins in One. Conaghan is no stranger to success either, bagging the Costa children’s book award the same year for The Bombs That Brought Us Together. Still, a collaboration can be risky, but there’s no sense of disharmony here. We move constantly between Nicu’s perspective and Jess’s, the poems dovetailing impressively as the lives of the two characters collide. Continue reading...[...]
Tue, 21 Feb 2017 02:23:57 GMT2017-02-21T02:23:57Z
When we read to a child we are also reading to ourselves – and, in our increasingly polarised society, small choices make a big difference
I have spent a lot of time over the past few years reading picture books. As a mother of a three-year-old and working in children’s publishing, sometimes it feels like reading picture books is the most important thing I do. Books about faces, colours, numbers, dreams, dogs, journeys and jobs. Books about how we live, how others live, how people lived in the past.
While a baby’s brain is exploding with the early possibilities of colour and sound in that beautiful pre-language psychedelic bubble when everything is wild and new, we hold them, sing nursery rhymes, teach them the sounds of farm animals and how to recognise the shapes of keys and candles. These little books convey a social and a moral world that in many ways feels strangely antiquated. They describe a world that we can understand but it’s not the world we are leaving to our children.Continue reading...
Tue, 21 Feb 2017 10:00:01 GMT2017-02-21T10:00:01ZThe bond between schoolchildren and their teachers is lovingly explored in this story of a boy who loses the class bearPoor little Matt. No sooner has he started at his new school than he’s lost the class bear, after having him home for the weekend. Whoosh, the bear dives out of his bag and straight down a drain. Soon he’s off on a very big adventure, bouncing from boat to crane, skip to seagull beak, and ultimately back into the arms of his friends in Class One.Like its predecessor The Paper Dolls, also for ages 3+, this collaboration between Julia Donaldson and illustrator Rebecca Cobb takes a childlike delight in people’s names and their everyday interests. While The Paper Dolls featured a little girl and her paper chain of friends – “They were Ticky and Tacky and Jackie the Backie and Jim with two noses and Jo with the bow” – here a class of kids is brought lovingly to life: “Billy likes aliens and Lily likes lizards. Hanahazala is keener on wizards.” The illustrations are wonderfully detailed and witty – a series of Polaroids captures each rosy-cheeked child entertaining the class bear at home, while another features “Save our Library” posters papering the local branch (and, in a nice touch, the teacher departing with a copy of The Paper Dolls tucked under her arm). Continue reading...[...]