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Books | The Guardian

Latest books news, comment, reviews and analysis from the Guardian

Published: Sun, 23 Apr 2017 18:04:04 GMT2017-04-23T18:04:04Z

Copyright: Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. 2017

The Nordic Guide to Living 10 Years Longer by Dr Bertil Marklund – digested read

Sun, 23 Apr 2017 16:00:17 GMT2017-04-23T16:00:17Z

‘Use the Swedish concept of lagom and you will live 10 years longer – if you don’t die first’

Here in Sweden we’re getting a bit fed up with our neighbours. For the last few years, it’s been Danish hygge this and hygge that, or Norwegian “back to the land culture” and, “Sorry we are so much richer than you because we’ve got huge oil reserves.” So my publishers and I thought we should try to put Sweden back on the map – and earn ourselves a few krona into the bargain.

Related: Fancy a beer outside? There's a Scandi word for that – and so much else

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Francesca Segal: ‘I think there are multiple awkward ages’

Sun, 23 Apr 2017 10:00:10 GMT2017-04-23T10:00:10Z

The award-winning novelist on life’s transitional stages, and her father – the man who wrote Love Story

Francesca Segal was born in 1980 in north-west London, where she lives today. Her debut novel, The Innocents, won the 2012 Costa first novel award and the Betty Trask award. Her new novel, The Awkward Age, tells a story about reconstituted families and the lengths to which parents will go to ensure their child’s happiness.

The Awkward Age is about a fifty-something couple on their second relationship, cohabiting with their two teenage children. What appealed to you about this scenario?
I thought it was rich with tension and comic possibilities. It’s what more than 50% of families in this country look like. And that noble lunacy of constructing two halves that were never designed to fit together – it’s beautiful, sad, touching and intriguing.

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Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout review – masterful chronicler of small-town America

Sun, 23 Apr 2017 06:30:06 GMT2017-04-23T06:30:06Z

With her gentle gift for unmasking human vulnerability, Elizabeth Strout has a touch of John Steinbeck and Anne Tyler

For years, I didn’t read Elizabeth Strout. If I’m honest, I was put off by the titles, which seemed to be snatched from the noticeboard of a particularly cultivated old people’s home: Amy and Isabelle was her first novel, published in 1998, and this was followed by Abide With Me in 2006, Olive Kitteridge two years later and The Burgess Boys in 2013.

I watched the HBO miniseries adaptation of Olive Kitteridge, starring Frances McDormand, and I sort of loved it but wasn’t sure it was worth four whole hours. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that it took me longer than it should have to discover Strout’s writing. It was only with the publication of My Name Is Lucy Barton last year that I eventually started reading her.

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Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor review – an aftermath in elegant slow motion

Sun, 23 Apr 2017 08:00:07 GMT2017-04-23T08:00:07Z

In the author’s first novel for seven years, formal experimentation gives way to a delicate, subtle study of the effects of a disappearance on a village’s inhabitants

Jon McGregor has been quietly building a reputation as one of the outstanding writers of his generation since 2002, when he became the youngest writer to be longlisted for the Booker prize with his debut, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, published when he was 26. Reservoir 13 is only his fourth novel, but it confirms his gift as a poet of ordinary lives and his skill in taking risks with form and style.

After the experimental narrative of 2010’s Even the Dogs, a story of drug and alcohol addiction told in fragmented bursts by a series of urban ghosts, Reservoir 13 may seem, at first glance, a more conventional and pastoral novel. This could come as a relief to those who felt the stylistic devices were too much to the fore in its predecessor. But Reservoir 13 offers its own subtler experimentation; a short way into the book, it becomes clear that McGregor has succeeded in pulling off one of the most difficult tricks in fiction – a true ensemble piece of storytelling.

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Strange Labyrinth by Will Ashon review – summoning the spirits of Epping Forest

Sun, 23 Apr 2017 11:00:11 GMT2017-04-23T11:00:11Z

A cast of highwaymen, psychics and joggers populates Will Ashon’s glorious foray into the London woodland

Ten years ago, you couldn’t walk 10 paces in Hackney or Peckham without bumping into a flâneur botanising the tarmac, but as London continues to gentrify even the psychogeographers are being moved out. Many London writers now seem more interested in the edge of things than the centre.

One such is Will Ashon and his first work of nonfiction, Strange Labyrinth, is an anarchic hymn to the scruffy edgeland of Epping Forest, the ancient wood that sits on the boundary between London and Essex. The forest was “saved for the nation” by the Corporation of London in 1878, “in effect making it the UK’s first national park”, but what was once a cockney paradise is now attractive mainly to dog walkers, joggers, doggers and cruisers.

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Richard Ford: ‘Who needs friends?’

Sat, 22 Apr 2017 08:00:08 GMT2017-04-22T08:00:08Z

Is friendship really all it’s cracked up to be, asks the US novelist

And if they ever put a bullet through your brain, I’ll complain. It’s friendship, friendship, just a perfect blendship … Cole Porter

The jury’s out on friendship. It’s not the cynical and acrimonious age of Trump that brings friendship to my mind (though can you imagine our president ever, really having a friend?). It’s me. I’ve been brooding about friendship. Now and then, don’t we need to think hard about our presumed institutions? “A friend is the hope of the heart,” Emerson wrote. “A masterpiece of nature.” I’m not sure. “I sometimes wonder,” Philip Larkin wrote to his girlfriend, “if anyone can do anything for anyone.” You know something sceptical’s afoot when you find Larkin on your bedside table instead of Montaigne and La Rochefoucauld.

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Lissa Evans: how my novel about film-making was turned into a film

Sat, 22 Apr 2017 11:00:12 GMT2017-04-22T11:00:12Z

My wartime story, Their Finest Hour and a Half, has been adapted for the big screen – seeing actors playing actors and a fake film crew being directed by a real one was surreal

I’ve had two jobs in which periods of boredom were punctuated by frenetic, tension-ridden activity. One was as an A&E doctor, and the other as a TV comedy producer. Clearly, it would be fatuous to compare treating a road accident victim to changing a camera shot so as not to reveal the presence of a giant pork pie (which would otherwise spoil a subsequent gag), but the ludicrous thing is that, when you’re doing it, when you’re there, the stakes seem almost as high. As George Arliss, a 1930s film star, once wrote: “When work begins in the studio, nothing that happens in the outside world is of any relative importance.”

Related: Their Finest review – Bill Nighy, Gemma Arterton and a very British kind of magic

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Primo Levi’s If This is a Man at 70

Sat, 22 Apr 2017 09:59:11 GMT2017-04-22T09:59:11Z

Ahead of a public reading, Philippe Sands explores the lessons of Levi’s humanity-filled holocaust memoir

I was 19 when I first read If This Is a Man, and the book filled a gap created by the shadows cast across an otherwise happy childhood home by Auschwitz and Treblinka: my maternal grandparents, rare survivors of the horrors, never talked about their experiences or those who were disappeared, and in this way Levi’s account spoke directly, and personally, offering a fuller sense of matters for which words were not permitted. His has not been the only such book – there are others, including more recent works such as Thomas Buergenthal’s A Lucky Child, Göran Rosenberg’s A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz, and Marceline Loridan-Ivans’s But You Did Not Come Back – but it was the first. He was a messenger of detail, allowing me to see and feel matters of dread and horror: waiting for a deportation order; travelling in a cattle cart by train; descending a ramp for selection; imagining what it must be like to know you are about to be gassed and cremated; struggling for survival surrounded by people you love and hate.

Levi’s voice was especially affecting, so clear, firm and gentle, yet humane and apparently untouched by anger, bitterness or self-pity. If This Is a Man is miraculous, finding the human in every individual who traverses its pages, whether a Häftling (prisoner) or Muselmann (“the weak, the inept, those doomed to selection”), a kapo or a guard.

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Dava Sobel: ‘If you enjoy detective mysteries, you would love rummaging through archives’

Sat, 22 Apr 2017 09:00:09 GMT2017-04-22T09:00:09Z

The author on the researching the lives of pioneer female astronomers who worked at Harvard Observatory

Many of my writing days are research days. While working on The Glass Universe, such days typically began early enough to catch the 7am bus from Northampton, Massachusetts, where I was living while teaching at Smith College, to Boston’s South station – a trip of two to three hours. Then I took the T Red line a few stops to Harvard Square in Cambridge, walked to the Pusey Library, and down to the basement headquarters of the Harvard University archives. The enchanted reading room, where visiting scholars gain access to the vast holdings of historical materials, opens at 11am, and stays open for only five hours a day, five days a week. To make every available moment count, I ate a series of snacks en route so I wouldn’t need to break for lunch. (Food and drink are anathema in the reading room, ditto mints and gum.) On good days, I did not even break to go to the ladies’.

Archival research strikes some people as boring or burdensome. You occasionally hear writers bemoaning the time they spent “toiling in dusty archives”. But in truth, it’s great fun. If you enjoy crosswords or detective mysteries, you would thrive on rummaging through archives. One never knows what treasures will emerge from the numbered containers that the archivists deliver to one’s table. For example, although I had a good idea of what I’d find inside the two boxes labelled “HUGFP 125.2 Annie Jump Cannon Diaries,” I was stunned to discover a tattered trove of small volumes – some gilt-edged and leather-bound with lock and key, others plain as pocket memo pads – bearing the handwritten reminiscences from a 45-year career at the Harvard Observatory. The original correspondence files proved just as engrossing as the diaries. The philanthropist Catherine Wolfe Bruce, though she lived in a New York City mansion and made charitable contributions for amounts such as $50,000, showed an endearing frugality in her use of the blue notepaper monogrammed with her deceased brother’s initials.

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The President’s Gardens review by Muhsin al-Ramli – love, death and injustice in Iraq

Sat, 22 Apr 2017 06:30:06 GMT2017-04-22T06:30:06Z

An affirmation of the importance of friendship amid oppression, this vivid epic of life in a war zone is woven from the true stories of those who live there

Since 1980, the people of Iraq have suffered almost ceaseless war, as well as uprisings, repressions, sanctions and conflict-related illness. The President’s Gardens, published in Arabic in 2012 and now masterfully translated by Luke Leafgren, at last provides us with an epic account of this experience from an Iraqi perspective.

“If every victim had a book, Iraq in its entirety would become a huge library, impossible ever to catalogue.” This novel belongs to Ibrahim, nicknamed “the Fated”, whose life is narrated in the most detail and the discovery of whose head in a banana crate opens and closes the novel in 2006. Ibrahim’s friends since childhood, Tariq “the Befuddled” and Abdullah, known as “Kafka”, are also essential to the story.

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Irresistible by Adam Alter review – an entertaining look at technology addiction

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 14:00:17 GMT2017-04-21T14:00:17Z

This examination of today’s tech-zombie epidemic is worth putting your phone down for – at least for a while

Are you addicted to technology? I’m certainly not. In my first sitting reading Adam Alter’s Irresistible, an investigation into why we can’t stop scrolling and clicking and surfing online, I only paused to check my phone four times. Because someone might have emailed me. Or texted me. One time I stopped to download an app Alter mentioned (research) and the final time I had to check the shares on my play brokerage app, Best Brokers (let’s call this one “business”).

Half the developed world is addicted to something, and Alter, a professor at New York University, informs us that, increasingly, that something isn’t drugs or alcohol, but behaviour. Recent studies suggest the most compulsive behaviour we engage in has to do with cyber connectivity; 40% of us have some sort of internet-based addiction – whether it’s checking your email (on average workers check it 36 times an hour), mindlessly scrolling through other people’s breakfasts on Instagram or gambling online.

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Enough David Foster Wallace, already! We need to read beyond our bubbles

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 12:09:48 GMT2017-04-21T12:09:48Z

Male critics have long expounded a literary canon that mirrors their own lives. Such narrow reading is not restricted to men, but their example is a caution

After centuries of being told by men what is good and what is bad, what is art and what is garbage, what is important and what is trivial, women have decided to fight against this with a form of writing that can best be summarised as “Ack! Men!” The latest entry in this medium is an Electric Lit essay called Men Recommend David Foster Wallace to Me, where a woman who was told by several men that she might enjoy the Infinite Jest author’s work explains that no, she does not enjoy it and this is interesting because, you know, Ack! Men!

This would not even merit a response – except that so many people assumed that it did. Women on social media responded with their own Ack! Men! chorus and some men, so delightfully oblivious, chimed in with things along the lines of: “Infinite Jest is actually a really important book and if you read it you would understand.” That obliviousness does indeed make one want to yell ACK! out the window and into the night, but hopefully we can find something else to say.

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We Know All About You by Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones review – the dangers of our surveillance society

Sat, 22 Apr 2017 08:00:08 GMT2017-04-22T08:00:08Z

A readable history of snooping in Britain and US argues that private spying organisations have done as much harm as the state

When the US government contractor Edward Snowden disclosed the extent of the global eavesdropping operation being run by the National Security Agency, GCHQ and their partners in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, many people spoke, aghast, of the way in which the 21st century appeared to have ushered in a new age of surveillance.

Yet spying on a mass scale has of course been with us for as long as governments have been skittish about foreign powers or uncertain about the loyalties of their own citizens. When Oliver Cromwell established the Post Office as a state monopoly in 1657, he did so not because he wished to improve England’s communications, but because the opening of mail was considered to be “the best means to discover and prevent any dangerous and wicked designs against the Commonwealth”.

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John Updike’s Rabbit, Run – another American story of men escaping women

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 10:00:16 GMT2017-04-21T10:00:16Z

US culture is riddled with stories of men who yearn to be free – by Updike’s time, all that was left was the mock heroism of suburban tragicomedy

In 1960, a 28-year-old writer named John Updike published his second novel, Rabbit, Run. The New York Times called it a “shabby domestic tragedy,” but also “a notable triumph of intelligence and compassion”. It singled out his stylistic achievement in particular, praising him for having created a “perfectly pitched voice for the subject”. This early review set the tone for what would follow, and for many years Updike, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow were hailed as a kind of unquestioned trinity of the best modern American novelists. When he died in 2009, 23 novels, countless stories, essays, and a few volumes of poetry later, the New Yorker pronounced him “one of the greatest of all modern writers, the first American writer since Henry James to get himself fully expressed, the man who broke the curse of incompleteness that had haunted American writing.” Even bearing in mind that the New Yorker had been, in essence, Updike’s house magazine for 50 years, this remains praise of an order few writers will ever achieve. Whether it’s true is, of course, another question. It was Rabbit, Run that started it all, and now Radio 4 has decided to run Rabbit as its Book at Bedtime, giving listeners a chance to judge for themselves.

Eventually Updike would write four novels about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, his suburban everyman. Angstrom is too intellectually limited to be considered Updike’s alter ego; call him instead Updike’s altered ego, an artfully reconstituted, carefully delimited, sometimes monstrous, sometimes pathetic, persona by means of which Updike surveyed US postwar life. The New York Times described Angstrom, a former basketball star feeling trapped by his suburban life of marriage and fatherhood, as “an older and less articulate Holden Caulfield”; it’s not a bad comparison. Updike helped map what later became known as “Cheever country”: the white, affluent, suburban landscape of stunted hopes and spiritual anomie through which Harry Angstrom will take his picaresque journey. Updike’s bitter joke, however, is that Rabbit can’t run.

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Hanif Kureishi: ‘Britain’s middle class is more racist now than ever’

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 08:00:13 GMT2017-04-21T08:00:13Z

The My Beautiful Laundrette writer on Brexit Britain, collaborating with his sons and seeing his seventh novel as a B movie

The afternoon I meet Hanif Kureishi seems fittingly ominous, with dark skies and swirling wind a reflection of the political weather. Over in Westminster, Theresa May is busy triggering Article 50, and fulfilling the will of the British people (little did we know, of course, what further turbulence was to come, with the election called this week). Meanwhile, Kureishi and I set up shop in a jolly brasserie in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, with polished wood and a chequerboard floor; he sips a glass of red, I chug an espresso and, despite the day, there is something cheerfully European about the whole scene.

There’s also something about Kureishi that chimes with the mood of the times: laconic and deadpan in manner, he alternates between intense seriousness and comical flippancy; there’s a sort of throwaway, geezer donnishness to him. Here we are, he points out with relish, “the hated metropolitan elite”, as if it is chiefly a matter of naughtiness, of occupying the countercultural margins. But at the close of our conversation, when I ask him if there’s anything he would like to expand on, he becomes focused and exact: race, he says, is the thing he thinks and worries about the most. He refers to the Britain of his youth and early adulthood (he is now 62), which he memorably charted in early work such as My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and The Buddha of Suburbia; the waning of the racism of early multiculturalism and of the emergence of London, “a new idea”.

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Let Go My Hand by Edward Docx review – on the bumpy road to Dignitas

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 09:00:14 GMT2017-04-21T09:00:14Z

The sense of an ending hangs over this humorous, compassionate novel about a fractious family taking a last road trip together

It takes chutzpah to argue with Tolstoy but, four novels into his career, Edward Docx has mustered sufficient confidence to take issue with the master. “I’m not sure Tolstoy had it right. All families, happy or sad, conceal a great deal of dark matter. Something greater than the known physics or chemistry, something that must create the dark energy that holds them together or pushes them apart.”

Docx has earned the right to his opinion: his 2007 Man Booker long-listed novel Self Help was a dark-hearted family drama partly set in St Petersburg that deliberately courted comparison with 19th-century Russian epics. In that book, a pair of half-Russian twins were summoned home to deal with the unexpected death of their mother. Let Go My Hand features a part-Russian narrator named Louis and his elder twin half-brothers, who drive across Europe to deal with the death of their father: the twist being that Dad isn’t actually dead yet, but intends to be in the very near future.

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Man Booker International Prize 2017 – the shortlist in pictures

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 07:00:12 GMT2017-04-21T07:00:12Z

Israel’s Amos Oz and David Grossman lead a shortlist of six with contenders from France, Norway, Denmark and Argentina

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Jihad and Death by Olivier Roy review – the global appeal of Islamic State

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 06:30:11 GMT2017-04-21T06:30:11Z

A bravura account asks whether recent terrorist atrocities represent the radicalisation of Islam or nihilism in search of an alibi

Are the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad responsible for modern jihadism, or does the terrorists’ ignorance of their religion show that Islam is cover for inner disquiets that make more sense to the psychologist than the imam? Last July’s lorry massacre on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice was committed by an unstable libertine who had only recently discovered jihadism. What, if anything, did his actions have in common with the riots that followed the death in police custody of Adama Traoré, a young man from a Malian Muslim family, in a depressed Parisian suburb, also last summer? Do they testify to the inexorable advance of radical Islamist ideology, or the seductive power of any false cause for modernity’s losers?

Related: Who are the new jihadis? | Olivier Roy | The long read

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Not just William: Richmal Crompton's adult fiction republished

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 15:43:59 GMT2017-04-20T15:43:59Z

Reissues aim to restore her darker stories of village intrigue for grownups to the popularity they once enjoyed

Richmal Crompton has long been overshadowed by her creation Just William, but the darker side of her imagination is set to be rediscovered, with several of her lesser-known adult novels coming back into print.

Although best known for her 38 books about the errant schoolboy William Brown and his gang of Outlaws, Lancashire-born Compton was a prolific writer for both children and adults, often publishing two books a year, as well as writing short stories magazines. “She wrote 41 adult novels as well as the Just William books,” her new publisher Harriet Sanders said. “They did very well at the time and display something that you see in other writers of children’s books … the clarity with which they are written.”

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Bill O'Reilly's publisher stands by him after Fox sacking

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 11:23:16 GMT2017-04-20T11:23:16Z

TV host and bestselling author who was fired on Wednesday after multiple sexual harassment claims came to light, retains support of Henry Holt

Fox News may have abandoned Bill O’Reilly, but the beleaguered TV host, who was sacked on Wednesday following sexual harassment claims, has found support from his publisher Henry Holt, which has promised to stand by the bestselling author.

Related: A timeline of Bill O'Reilly's downfall: another Fox News founding father exits

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Proust's complaint about neighbours' loud sex among treasures in French sale

Wed, 19 Apr 2017 17:04:41 GMT2017-04-19T17:04:41Z

Letter from ‘jealous’ author, as well as another by Gustave Flaubert defending Madame Bovary will be sold from collection worth an estimated €3m

A treasure trove of letters and diaries revealing the secrets of some of France’s greatest literary figures is about to go on sale in Paris. Correspondence and journals by Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo and Marcel Proust are among 230 lots to be sold alongside a rare first edition of Galileo’s Discorsi on 26 April.

Amassed by Geneva-based Jean Bonna, who has been described as the greatest collector of French literature in the world, the collection is a fraction of material acquired over the past 50 years. Bonna said he was streamlining his collection to concentrate on French literature. Admitting he felt “a little bit sad” to sell the Galileo, which is expected to make in excess of €700,000 (£585,000), he added: “It is a wonderful book, and the best copy I have ever seen, but it does not belong in my collection because it is a scientific book and not French literature.”

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Stella prize 2017: Heather Rose's The Museum of Modern Love wins award

Tue, 18 Apr 2017 09:40:34 GMT2017-04-18T09:40:34Z

$50,000 prize for Australian women writers goes to novel based on Marina Abramović’s performance of The Artist is Present

Heather Rose has won the 2017 Stella prize for Australian women writers for her novel, The Museum of Modern Love, based on the artwork of Serbian-born performance artist Marina Abramović.

“It’s by far the biggest thing that’s ever happened in my career,” Rose told Guardian Australia.

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Bana Alabed, seven-year-old Syrian peace campaigner, to publish memoir

Thu, 13 Apr 2017 13:53:52 GMT2017-04-13T13:53:52Z

Dear World, which will recount the young Twitter activist’s experience of war and flight from her war-torn home, is scheduled for autumn release

A seven-year-old Syrian refugee whose tweets from war-torn Aleppo won her a global following is set to write a book. Bana Alabed’s Dear World will recount her experiences in Syria and how she and her family rebuilt their lives as refugees. Simon & Schuster plans to publish it in the US this autumn.

The self-declared peace activist took to the social media network that made her name to announce the news. “I am happy to announce my book will be published by Simon & Schuster. The world must end all the wars now in every part of the world,” she tweeted to her 368,000 followers.

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Unseen Sylvia Plath letters claim domestic abuse by Ted Hughes

Tue, 11 Apr 2017 15:00:09 GMT2017-04-11T15:00:09Z

Unpublished correspondence from the poet to her former therapist records allegation of beating and says that he told her he wished she was dead

Sylvia Plath alleged Ted Hughes beat her two days before she miscarried their second child and that Hughes wanted her dead, unpublished letters reveal. The two accusations are among explosive claims in unseen correspondence written in the bitter aftermath of one of literature’s most famous and destructive marriages.

Related: Sylvia Plath, a voice that can’t be silenced | Sarah Churchwell

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X-Men illustrator faces backlash over alleged anti-Christian messages

Tue, 11 Apr 2017 13:22:07 GMT2017-04-11T13:22:07Z

Marvel distances itself from Indonesian artist Ardian Syaf after his images’ apparent reference to fierce religious and political divisions in his country

An artist who allegedly inserted political and religious messages into an X-Men spinoff comic has apologised, saying his career is over after fans complained about background images in the first issue of X-Men: Gold containing apparent antisemitic and anti-Christian references.

On Saturday, publisher Marvel said it would remove the artwork from future versions after readers in Indonesia claimed that some images contained coded messages referring to political and religious tensions in the country. They alleged Indonesian artist Ardian Syaf had sneaked in references to hardline Islamist opposition to Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the first Christian governor of the Indonesian capital in half a century.

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Colson Whitehead wins Pulitzer prize for The Underground Railroad

Mon, 10 Apr 2017 21:07:43 GMT2017-04-10T21:07:43Z

The acclaimed slavery novel has been rewarded alongside Lynn Nottage’s factory drama Sweat and Matthew Desmond’s nonfiction work Evicted

Literary blockbuster novel The Underground Railroad, which depicts the journey of a young woman escaping from slavery via a fantastical train system, has won the Pulitzer prize for fiction.

Related: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead review – luminous, furious and wildly inventive

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Bill Cosby's books among 'most challenged' last year at US libraries

Mon, 10 Apr 2017 16:49:56 GMT2017-04-10T16:49:56Z

The fallen star’s children’s series was deemed problematic by readers ‘because of criminal sexual allegations against the author’

Bill Cosby’s children’s book series was among the 10 most challenged books in US libraries last year, according to the American Library Association (ALA).

It is the first time Cosby, who was once a symbol for family values in the US, appeared on the ALA’s annual Most Challenged Books list.

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British 70s protest-music chronicle wins music book of the year

Mon, 10 Apr 2017 12:59:23 GMT2017-04-10T12:59:23Z

Daniel Rachel’s Walls Come Tumbling Down, an exhaustive account of the Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge movements, takes the Penderyn music book prize

An exhaustively researched history of pop music’s impact on British political life during the 70s and 80s has won this year’s Penderyn music book prize. Walls Come Tumbling Down won its author Daniel Rachel the £1,000 prize at the Laugharne Weekend music and literature festival in south Wales, the prize’s home since it was first presented in 2015.

Walls Come Tumbling Down, subtitled The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2-Tone and Red Wedge, explores how revulsion at Eric Clapton’s drunken attack on “wogs” and “coons” at a Birmingham gig in 1976 provided the spark for a significant protest movement led by the British music industry.

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Alec Baldwin accuses HarperCollins of sloppy editing on his memoir

Mon, 10 Apr 2017 11:03:56 GMT2017-04-10T11:03:56Z

Claiming that his memoir, Nevertheless, contains “SEVERAL typos and errors”, the actor has decided to publish his own clarifications on Facebook

Alec Baldwin, whose impersonations of Donald Trump have skewered the thin-skinned US president for the amusement of Saturday Night Live audiences for months now, has proved to have a weak spot: poor editing.

The 59-year-old actor has attacked his publisher HarperCollins, accusing the editors of poor proofreading. In his first post on a Facebook page set up to promote his new autobiography, Nevertheless, he claimed the published edition “contains SEVERAL typos and errors which I was more than a little surprised to see”.

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Folio prize returns with nonfiction joining novels on the 2017 shortlist

Thu, 06 Apr 2017 18:15:10 GMT2017-04-06T18:15:10Z

The £20,000 award established as a more literary rival to the Booker has found a new sponsor and extended its reach to cover factual books

Three years after it was born from literary-world frustrations with the Man Booker prize, the Folio prize has returned, with a shortlist that has more than a little in common with other prizes this year.

The Folio prize was created in the wake of the 2011 Man Booker shortlist, when the judges controversially emphasised “readability” and a book’s ability to “zip along”, perceived by some to be at the expense of literary merit. Margaret Atwood deemed it “much needed in a world in which money is increasingly becoming the measure of all things”.

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Crime and Punishment pays woman who chanced on Dostoevsky rarity

Thu, 06 Apr 2017 14:10:13 GMT2017-04-06T14:10:13Z

First English-language edition of the classic novel found in £14 box of secondhand books fetches £13,500 at auction

Fyodor Dostoevsky may have been pressured to write by his ever-growing gambling debts, but one woman’s gamble on a £14 box of books has resulted in the discovery and sale of a lucrative, rare first edition of his classic novel Crime and Punishment.

The novel, which follows the mental torment and moral dilemmas of student Rodion Raskolnikov who feels driven to commit murder, was first serialised in a Russian magazine in 1866 and published in two volumes a year later. It was first published in English in London in 1886, as an unassuming blue volume in Vizetelly’s One-Volume Novels series.

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Naomi Klein to rush out new book taking on Trump administration

Wed, 05 Apr 2017 14:29:50 GMT2017-04-05T14:29:50Z

Canadian activist, who only began writing No is Not Enough two months ago, says book will put forward manifesto for action

Naomi Klein has revealed she is to publish a book taking on the Trump administration, arguing that a corporate political takeover got him elected and that a rise in activism can be utilised to resist his policies.

No Is Not Enough is the most rapidly written book by the acclaimed Canadian writer and activist, a respected political thinker with a huge following since her 1999 book No Logo. She only began writing it two months ago and it will be published by in June.

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World's biggest prize for children's books goes to 'caring visionary'

Tue, 04 Apr 2017 13:39:29 GMT2017-04-04T13:39:29Z

Astrid Lindgren memorial award, worth £445,000, won by Wolf Erlbruch, a German illustrator whose books tackle tough subjects including death

German illustrator Wolf Erlbruch has won the world’s largest cash prize for children’s literature, the Astrid Lindgren memorial award, honouring an entire body of work by an author or institution.

Erlbruch, who has been nominated for the award several times, is a much-venerated figure in children’s literature in Germany; his books often tackle difficult and dark themes in childhood. He was one of 226 candidates from 60 countries for the 5m Swedish kronor (£445,000) honour, which goes to work “of the highest artistic quality” featuring the “humanistic values” of the late Pippi Longstocking author. The jury called him “a careful and caring visionary” who “makes existential questions accessible and manageable for readers of all ages”.

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Empty satire: the regrettable rise of blank-paged books in the Trump era

Tue, 18 Apr 2017 15:34:57 GMT2017-04-18T15:34:57Z

Donald Trump loves Reasons to Vote Democrat, a volume of white space that follows a number of liberal spoofs with the same content. I prefer less vacant jokes

It’s a product worthy of Reggie Perrin’s Grot shop – the store opened to sell tat in David Nobbs’s magnificent satire of modern life: a book called Reasons to Vote Democrat by Michael J Knowles, which contains only a smattering of words – title page, contents and chapter headings – in its 265 pages. The rest is blank.

“Ho! Ho! Ho!” tweeted president Donald Trump as his recommendation sent Reasons to Vote Democrat up the bestseller charts. It isn’t the only blank book produced on the back of current divisions in US politics: Oregon Democrat Cylvia Hayes got there first, with Surprising Reasons to Think That Trump Will Be a (Bigly) Great President! – 150 pages, entirely blank.

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John Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat is not for 'literary slummers'

Tue, 18 Apr 2017 10:40:18 GMT2017-04-18T10:40:18Z

This story of easygoing, thirsty paisanos was an immediate hit with readers who found the characters ‘quaint’, and made the author regret his creation

Tortilla Flat was the book that made John Steinbeck’s name – and his fortune. By the time it was published in May 1935, he’d managed to publish four other books, but they had been poorly received. He was in his 30s, close to the breadline, living in a house his father had given him and largely dependent on his wife’s paychecks.

And then the reviews started rolling in for Tortilla Flat. The San Francisco Chronicle called it “exceptionally fine”. “Not since the days of WW Jacobs making his charming characters out of scoundrels has there been a book quite like this one,” said the New Republic. The Spectator suggested that the book might make “a wet afternoon wetter for its readers”, as they cried both with laughter and sadness. The Saturday Review admired its “facile style and the whimsical humour underlying its sharp and clear-cut presentation of character”.

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?

Mon, 17 Apr 2017 14:00:02 GMT2017-04-17T14:00:02Z

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.

First, an intriguing post from Rex Bowan:

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Poem of the week: Budapest 1944 by Howard Altmann

Mon, 17 Apr 2017 09:00:19 GMT2017-04-17T09:00:19Z

A tribute to two survivors, this poem resgisters both the Nazis’ unspeakable war crimes in Hungary and the blighted struggle for renewal in their wake

Budapest 1944
For my father

In the unswayable darkness
a tree shivers at night.
By the sweeping light of noon
an old grip holds.
At the shaking of the spirit
a half moon touches ground.

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Call me British, American, Jewish, Londoner – just don’t call me patriotic | Will Self

Fri, 14 Apr 2017 08:59:29 GMT2017-04-14T08:59:29Z

It is a delusional form of patriotism that lies behind the ‘populism’ of recent political upheavals

It must be a great feeling – at once warm and calming, a sense of profound belonging, of inclusion into the greater group, and through that to the very land itself. At the same time, it must be a rousing feeling – stirring, even – especially when certain key cues are introduced: flapping flags, largo music, marching men, a familiar profile on a reviewing stand. I can see for myself that the reaction is Pavlovian: the eyes water, the heart fills, the head swims. There must be a sense of justness – that you’re a component part of a great and ongoing historical development, one that can only progress towards a kind of civic perfection. Yes, it must be a great feeling, this patriotism of which people speak; and yet, for myself, I’ve never experienced it. My own compromised nationality may be to blame, at least in part – my father was British (at least to begin with), and my mother American. I was born in the old Charing Cross Hospital in central London, and for most of my life I’ve cleaved to my identity as a Londoner, rather than any other. My mother registered me as a US citizen at birth – but I never made any use of this status until after 9/11, when it became nigh impossible for those such as myself (with minor and very old convictions for drug offences) to get a visa on a British passport.

At JFK airport they questioned my citizenship with this fructuous question: 'Mr Self, are you an apple or a pear?'

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Plath's letters probably won't harm Hughes's reputation | Rafia Zakaria

Wed, 12 Apr 2017 15:25:19 GMT2017-04-12T15:25:19Z

Bardic men behaving badly, from Lord Byron to Robert Lowell, are traditionally excused – while women poets are written off if they step out of line

News: Unseen Plath letters claim domestic abuse by Ted Hughes

While Sylvia Plath’s verse is peppered with allusions to the tempestuous domesticity of her marriage to Ted Hughes, he has retained his reputation. Beyond legal concerns, there are tricky factors to consider: the ambiguity of intimacy in general, the fragile and synergistic creativity of both poets, and the ultimate decision of the one who remained – Hughes – to destroy the last journal and correspondence of Plath, who didn’t. The sum of it all has been the calcification of two camps: those who do not see Hughes’s poetic genius as exculpating his behaviour, and the others who see it as exactly that.

Related: Unseen Sylvia Plath letters claim domestic abuse by Ted Hughes

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A pint of Sarah Perry, please: the literary food tie-ins we want to try

Thu, 13 Apr 2017 13:15:10 GMT2017-04-13T13:15:10Z

The novelist’s Essex Serpent is getting its own beer, which makes you wonder what other marketing opportunities books could offer

A rich, copper-hued bitter with “hints of roasted nuts and floral aromas” may not have been the first thing that readers thought of as they settled into Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent. But her publisher Serpent’s Tale hopes an ale from East Anglia’s Saffron Brewery created to mark the book’s paperback launch this month will entice beer drinkers to imbibe the much-praised novel, too.

Books and beverages have a long, intertwined relationship. Who doesn’t love a pint, or tea – or a pint of tea – while reading? It is rare, however, for the delights created in the kitchens of authors’ imaginations to inspire real-life concoctions available in supermarkets. Which is sad, as novelists often have readers’s mouths watering; in fact, one cannot help but wonder why the grey suits in food and drink marketing haven’t turned to literature for delicious inspiration before.

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The new age of Ayn Rand: how she won over Trump and Silicon Valley

Mon, 10 Apr 2017 17:49:09 GMT2017-04-10T17:49:09Z

Her novel The Fountainhead is one of the few works of fiction that Donald Trump likes and she has long been the darling of the US right. But only now do her devotees hold sway around the world

As they plough through their GCSE revision, UK students planning to take politics A-level in the autumn can comfort themselves with this thought: come September, they will be studying one thinker who does not belong in the dusty archives of ancient political theory but is achingly on trend. For the curriculum includes a new addition: the work of Ayn Rand.

It is a timely decision because Rand, who died in 1982 and was alternately ridiculed and revered throughout her lifetime, is having a moment. Long the poster girl of a particularly hardcore brand of free-market fundamentalism – the advocate of a philosophy she called “the virtue of selfishness” – Rand has always had acolytes in the conservative political classes. The Republican speaker of the US House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, is so committed a Randian, he was famous for giving every new member of his staff a copy of Rand’s gargantuan novel, Atlas Shrugged (along with Freidrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom). The story, oft-repeated, that his colleague in the US Senate, Rand Paul, owes his first name to his father Ron’s adulation of Ayn (it rhymes with “mine”) turns out to be apocryphal, but Paul describes himself as a fan all the same.

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The riddle of Donald Trump: how a man of few words reached the pinnacle of power

Sat, 08 Apr 2017 10:00:01 GMT2017-04-08T10:00:01Z

From ‘bigly’ to tweetspeak – the US president’s vocabulary is ripe for satire

The Reader’s Digest used to run a feature called It Pays to Increase Your Word Power. The new wisdom – post-Trump and Brexit – is that it doesn’t. How Donald Trump has come so far with so few words – how he even managed to keep up conversationally with all those beauty queens – is a question I don’t expect ever to be solved. Which isn’t to say we haven’t been confronted with similar conundrums before. “The President of the United States has so singular a combination of defects for the office of a constitutional magistrate,” wrote the Atlantic magazine of Andrew Johnson in 1866, “that he could have obtained the opportunity to misrule the nation only by a visitation of Providence.” It is too early to say whether Trump will misrule the nation, and any such speculation is not the object of this article. Andrew Johnson, by all accounts, did have words and, on occasion, even eloquence. This doesn’t detract from the ugliness of his views, but it partially explains how he came by his opportunity. In the absence of anything resembling eloquence, what explains the ascendancy of Donald Trump?

Related: Trump’s rhetoric: a triumph of inarticulacy

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Don’t say divorce, say special relationship: the thorny language of Brexit

Fri, 07 Apr 2017 12:00:09 GMT2017-04-07T12:00:09Z

Using soap opera-style breakup metaphors to describe Britain’s EU departure is part of a cheapening of politics

Don’t call Brexit a divorce, said Theresa May recently. “I prefer not to use the term of divorce from the European Union because very often when people get divorced they don’t have a very good relationship afterwards,” she explained to parliament. And indeed, in her subsequent passive-aggressive article 50 letter to European council president Donald Tusk, she insisted Britain was the EU’s “closest friend and neighbour”, albeit a friend who was storming out of the EU dinner party because he didn’t like the number of foreigners among the guests. At the same time, the friend was whining over his shoulder that he really wanted a “deep and special partnership” in the future – a phrase repeated in May’s letter an embarrassingly needy six times.

May’s comment, however, did not stop everyone and their dog from continuing to call Brexit a divorce. It would necessarily be a “painful” divorce after 40 years of marriage, though some said the marriage had always been “loveless” and others hoped its ending could still be “amicable”. But what exactly is the change in our status going to mean, romantically speaking? It would certainly be accounted odd if a married couple were to get divorced just so they could then enter into a “deep” and “special” civil partnership.

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Can you judge a book by its odour?

Fri, 07 Apr 2017 16:14:44 GMT2017-04-07T16:14:44Z

Cocoa, wood, rusks – every book has a distinctive smell. And each smell says something about how and when it was made, and where it has been

What does it mean to experience a book? To a bibliophile such as Alberto Manguel, smell plays an important part. In a talk at the British Library this week, the one-time protege of Jorge Luis Borges and director of the National Library of Argentina said he was particularly partial to old Penguin paperbacks, which he loved for their odour of “fresh rusk biscuits”.

Audience members responded with their own sense impressions. Peter, a pensioner, said he experienced books as smelling of salt and pepper – “that dryness when you open the cupboard … with a touch of the sea”, while 46-year-old Donna confessed that she had recently bought a book for her young son partly because it “smelled of the rain”.

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Pride and Prejudice and progress: the best second novels of all time

Thu, 06 Apr 2017 10:48:20 GMT2017-04-06T10:48:20Z

Debuts hog the publishing limelight, but a glance back at some great books, from Jane Austen to James Joyce, shows that we shouldn’t neglect sophomores

A lifetime goes into your first novel. A deadline fuels your second. Much as the “difficult second album” is a product of the modern music industry, the “difficult second novel” results from the pressures in modern publishing. If you have a hit, they’ll want another. Pronto.

Ian McGuire may have missed out on last year’s Man Booker with his novel The North Water, but on Wednesday it scooped the Royal Society of Literature’s Encore award, given out to recognise the challenges of writing second novels. While McGuire’s debut Incredible Bodies was a satire, The North Water is a harsh, realistic book about whaling in 1850.

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Do two unpublished books make you a failed author? No, you're a quitter

Wed, 05 Apr 2017 13:15:01 GMT2017-04-05T13:15:01Z

To the author who has quit after two novels didn’t make it to print, I recommend getting a lot better at dealing with rejection

Oh, Anonymous. I read your piece in the Guardian last weekend – about being a “failed novelist” – with a mounting sense of disbelief.

It’s not that I don’t sympathise with your frustration at being unable to fulfil your dream and be published. I’ve been there, as have many now-published authors; the many more who still wish to be published will share your despair. We’ve all felt “bewildered” that the publishing industry failed to recognise our genius. We have all looked at our work – our “masterpieces”, in your words – and wondered the same as you: “How can I fail?”

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Reading group: choose a book to celebrate the human spirit

Tue, 04 Apr 2017 08:00:46 GMT2017-04-04T08:00:46Z

It feels like a good moment for stories of people rising above difficult circumstances. But it’s not hard to help us find one – just comment below

This month in the reading group, we’re looking for your nominations for books that celebrate the human spirit in the face of huge odds.

This theme comes thanks to a suggestion from a contributor called allworthy over on Tips, links and suggestions, who proposes Notes on Blindness by John M Hull as a potential candidate.

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Why Ruby Tandoh has been cooking up a storm

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 16:29:58 GMT2017-04-20T16:29:58Z

The 2013 Bake Off finalist has fired off a series of tweets attacking celebrity cooks including Tom Kerridge, Jamie Oliver and the Hairy Bikers. So why all the culinary jibes about fad diets?

At 8am on Easter Monday, Ruby Tandoh’s Guardian article urging a joyous, guilt-free attitude to food appeared online. The 2013 Bake Off finalist shared it on Twitter, then joyously fired off a series of tweets attacking a slew of celebrity cooks and diet-mongers. Tom Kerridge’s carb-cutting dopamine diet bestseller was “total bollocks”. Buying a co-written Hemsley sisters’ offering meant “half the fucking brain cells for double the price”. Joe Wicks was “bish bash boshing himself to a multi million £££ turnover”. Even the beloved Jamie Oliver, Hairy Bikers and Lorraine Pascale were accused of “swinging from ‘comfort food’ to ‘superfood’ and back again whenever the price is right”.

Jibes at culinary rivals are nothing new. Gordon Ramsay has sparred with Oliver and Marco Pierre White. Anthony Bourdain is a serial chef slicer. Delia Smith, queen of the 90s, slated Gary Rhodes and Antony Worrall Thompson – both retaliated – and later MasterChef’s judges. Raymond Blanc bashed Bake Off although he then said sorry (criticised by him for “female tears”, Tandoh told him, “don’t be an idiot”, warming up for her post-series jab at “peacocking manchild” Paul Hollywood). Even cooking’s Queen Mum, Mary Berry, has said she wouldn’t eat at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck and was seen as dissing Delia in noting that Smith “hasn’t had the advantage of having children [and so their feedback] like I have”.

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Lose the plot: why you should skip to the end of books

Wed, 19 Apr 2017 12:43:52 GMT2017-04-19T12:43:52Z

Authors feel betrayed if readers jump forward in their stories – but it may actually enhance appreciation of their work

Want to upset a novelist? Tell them you always read the end of a book when you are halfway through reading.

Not only will you be marked down as a philistine, you will be condemned as someone whose disregard for the order in which they intended their book to be read makes you unfit to read it at all. That, at least, was the reaction to my unwitting confession to this habit recently.

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Why Colson Whitehead deserved to win the Pulitzer prize in fiction

Fri, 14 Apr 2017 12:00:33 GMT2017-04-14T12:00:33Z

Whitehead’s award-winning sixth novel, The Underground Railroad, not only packs a punch, it demonstrates a new kind of creative freedom

“It is a very pleasing thing to watch a writer you have enjoyed for years reach an even higher level of achievement,” wrote Colson Whitehead in the New York Times recently. “To observe him or her consolidate strengths, share with us new reserves of talent and provide the inspiration that can only come from a true artist charting hidden creative territory.” He was reviewing Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders’ first novel, but many of Whitehead’s fans will feel the same way this week, after The Underground Railroad scooped a Pulitzer prize to add to the author’s National Book Award – making this the only novel to complete that particular double since Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, back in 1994.

Related: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead review – the brutal truth about American slavery

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A brief history of the short story: James Salter's unreliable genius

Fri, 14 Apr 2017 07:05:35 GMT2017-04-14T07:05:35Z

Some of his short stories have conspicuous faults – not least in their portrayal of women – but the best show a unique, sad beauty

“There is no complete life. There are only fragments.” These lines from James Salter’s 1975 novel Light Years express a belief, perhaps even a philosophy, which informs all his writing. It is one that would favour the short story, which prioritises the extraordinary moment above the changes over time found in novels. So does Salter’s prose, which is lyrical but extremely economical. Structurally, however, his instinct is towards the expansive: he likes to move through large stretches of time. This combination has resulted in a relatively small body of short stories (two collections, from 1988 and 2006) that is unlike the work of any other writer.

In American Express, Salter spends half the story summarising the legal careers of Frank and Alan, two young, talented New York lawyers. They dedicate themselves to a case nobody wants and it makes their name. They establish their own firm, with “new offices overlooking Bryant Park which from above seemed like a garden behind a dark chateau”. There were “young clients, opera tickets, dinners in apartments with divorced hostesses, surrendered apartments with books and big, tiled kitchens”. When Salter is in this summarising mode you might sometimes doubt his ability: he tells rather than shows, and seems to skate over the surface of things.

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The shadows of war in Primo Levi and Xan Brooks - books podcast

Tue, 18 Apr 2017 16:44:28 GMT2017-04-18T16:44:28Z

Seventy years on, Philippe Sands discusses the abiding relevance of If This Is a Man, and we meet the author of The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times

Subscribe and review: iTunes, Soundcloud, Audioboom, Mixcloud and Acast, and join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter

On this week’s podcast we pick up two very different takes on the impact of war: Xan Brooks’s debut The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times is a novel set in England after the first world war, while Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man is his account of surviving Auschwitz during the second world war.

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Durga Chew-Bose: 'I don't really believe in writing as catharsis'

Thu, 13 Apr 2017 10:19:27 GMT2017-04-13T10:19:27Z

Too Much and Not the Mood is a lyrical collection of essays considering the human heart from many angles. She explains why she writes without a plan

“The best ideas outrun me. That’s why I write,” Durga Chew-Bose muses in the opening essay of her first book, Too Much and Not the Mood. The relatively slim volume is packed with 14 evocative pieces that evidence that chase – from her childhood growing up in Montreal to her 20s in Brooklyn.

Just as Joan Didion homes in on small physical details, Chew-Bose loves painstakingly specific descriptions. In the sprawling, 90-page essay Heart Museum – named after an emoji – colours are “shell-pink” and a “lathery shade of peach”; a glass window doesn’t shatter, it is “veined”.

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The 100 best nonfiction books: No 63 – The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell (1857)

Mon, 17 Apr 2017 04:45:13 GMT2017-04-17T04:45:13Z

Possibly Elizabeth Gaskell’s finest work – a bold portrait of a brilliant woman worn down by her father’s eccentricities and the death of her siblings

Charlotte Brontë, who died in 1855 aged 38, might almost have been an Elizabeth Gaskell heroine. Like Margaret Hale in North and South (1855), or Molly Gibson in Wives and Daughters (1864), she’d had to look after a widowed and cantankerous father in very difficult circumstances, facing the grim realities of sickness and death. Perhaps it was this that inspired an extraordinary friendship between two great Victorian writers, which would ultimately blossom into one of the most remarkable literary biographies in English prose.

The two novelists first met in the Lake District in the summer of 1850. They were, in many respects, polar opposites. Gaskell was beautiful, worldly and dizzyingly public: a mother of four; familiar with Florence Nightingale, Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, and even Dickens, with whom she did not get on (“If I were Mr G,” exclaimed Dickens, “oh heaven, how I would beat her”). By contrast, Brontë (pseudonymously hiding behind “Currer Bell”) was a sickly, self-effacing, reclusive woman, appalled by children, who hardly ever ventured into literary London. Yet each was fascinated by the other.

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Top 10 books about trees

Wed, 19 Apr 2017 09:54:01 GMT2017-04-19T09:54:01Z

From Dante to John Clare and James Joyce, matters arboreal have inspired many writers. These are among the choicest specimens

Every kind of tree has its own, distinctive silhouette, but I especially like the wave-shaped branches of the ashes, the open-armed oaks, wispy birches, orderly alders and chaotic hawthorns blotting the side of a bare hill. I simply can’t get enough of these extraordinary natural phenomena. It’s not just the way they look. Each kind has its own character, too – stemming from the special qualities of its timber, bark or foliage, but growing thicker and thicker with rings of myth and history. Stories seem to sprout unstoppably from trees. The more I thought about the ancient and ongoing relationship between woodlands and human society, the more I wanted to write about it.

Trees have been here far longer than we have. Their fascination is plain enough in the Book of Genesis. We grow up with tree-lined stories, from Peter Rabbit’s sandy burrow under the fir, or Robin Hood’s hideout in Sherwood Forest, to the barren tree magically producing a giant peach for James, or the terrifying Whomping Willow at Hogwarts. Poets’ paeans to trees take root in the memory, painters’ love letters to trees are displayed on gallery walls. Great lives live on through real trees, too, such as the horse chestnut at Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, which survived far longer than the young diarist, or the cherry tree planted in memory of Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy in London. Trees have been stage sets for historic dramas: Henry VIII’s courtship of Anne Boleyn at the ancient Ankerwycke Yew at Runnymede, or the Tolpuddle Martyrs, gathering to demand fair wages under the sycamore on the village green.

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Translating Agatha Christie into Icelandic: 'One clue took 10 years'

Tue, 04 Apr 2017 12:00:01 GMT2017-04-04T12:00:01Z

The author explains how rendering the great English thriller writer into his own language taught him how to write fiction himself

I was 17 when I started working on my first Icelandic translation of an Agatha Christie novel. I had been reading her books for years and had already translated a few of her short stories for Icelandic magazines, but I was astonished when her publishers offered me the opportunity to translate a whole novel. I was even more delighted when they agreed to let me start with Endless Night (little did they know that my suggestion was because it contained far fewer pages than any other Christie novel I had come across).

I would never have guessed that 15 years later I would be writing myself, and have 14 translated Christie novels to my name. Through college, law school, and even when I had started full-time work as a lawyer, I never stopped translating her. Each new title was another chance to immerse myself in her writing and to learn from her as much as I could. And translating her gave me the confidence to write a novel of my own. Christie was not just an inspiration for my writing, but a support.

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Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently by Beau Lotto review – why we need brain control

Sat, 22 Apr 2017 11:00:12 GMT2017-04-22T11:00:12Z

A neuroscientist argues that all experience occurs in the brain – and that the brain is deluded

Beau Lotto is a gung-ho neuroscientist. “[The] great minds of history,” he says, “had theories, but now neuroscience has an answer.” The latest research has, it seems, established that everything you experience “takes place in the brain” and that “you never, ever see reality!” (Lotto loves his italics and exclamation marks.) Your brain may be beautiful, but “what makes it beautiful is that it is delusional” and you should therefore get shot of your inhibitions and summon the courage to “deviate!”

Perhaps we should back up a little. Early in the book, Lotto mentions a French scientist called Michel Chevreul who started working at the Gobelins textile factory in Paris in the 1820s. Chevreul had to deal with complaints about coloured yarns that seemed to fade after being woven into tapestries, and his patient chemical analyses did not get him anywhere. But then he shifted his attention from the science of dyestuffs to the psychology of perception, and he was on the way to a solution: colours, he discovered, change their appearance when looked at side by side.

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The Enemy Within by Sayeeda Warsi review – a thrilling and satisfying polemic

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 08:28:12 GMT2017-04-20T08:28:12Z

The first Muslim woman to serve in a British cabinet makes a powerful case against the government’s anti-terrorism policy

Sayeeda Warsi’s father arrived in northern England from Pakistan with less than £3 in his pocket and built a £2m-a-year bed-manufacturing business. His daughter qualified as a lawyer and became the first Muslim woman to be a member of the cabinet. Despite all this, she has been subjected to the insult of being perceived as “the enemy within”, and finds herself wondering whether the UK will still be a home for her grandchildren. It is this personal stake that gives her forthright and intelligent book its sense of urgency. By tackling the “Muslim problem” head on, Lady Warsi has added to her accomplishments the feat of speaking truth to power.

She argues that the 7/7 bombing became the basis of bad policy, extending pre-charge detention; terrorism in the name of Islam was treated differently from others forms of terrorism. By replacing multiculturalism with British values as the yardstick by which Muslims were measured, the path was set for the present state of disengagement between government and community. “In an attempt to build a more cohesive and resilient society,” she laments, “we demanded that ‘the Muslims’ join what we believed we stood for rather than jointly charting a route to what we wanted to be”.

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London’s Triumph by Stephen Alford review – merchant adventurers and Tudor boomtime

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 06:30:20 GMT2017-04-20T06:30:20Z

This fresh account of the rise of the English capital as a global metropolis never loses sight of the city’s searing inequality

Inside Samuel Pepys’ favourite church, St Olave’s on Hart Street, stand monuments to aldermen, mercers, knights of the realm and directors of the East India Company. Out in the churchyard, via a gateway studded with stone skulls – “like a jail”, wrote Dickens, who renamed the place St Ghastly Grim – are the plague victims. They lie alongside “a man blackamore”, found dead in the street in 1588, and two African maidservants of a Jewish-born Portuguese physician. Interred here, too, are the scant remains of an Inuit baby, who perished within weeks of being taken from Baffin Island, Canada, by the explorer Martin Frobisher. Here, in microcosm, is Tudor London, a city of commerce, immigration, adventure, disease, celebrity, curiosity, money, power and risk. As Stephen Alford makes clear, “London was both a triumph of riches and a triumph of poverty.” This is a book about travel, trade and the rise of London as a global metropolis, but it does not neglect the churchyard.

In 1500, London was marginal and underwhelming. Paris had more people; Antwerp had bigger markets; Augsburg in Bavaria had the bankers and Florence the art. London didn’t even have a bourse. A century later, the city was booming. Her population had quadrupled and her river teemed with ships full of caviar, tobacco and silk. She had a Royal Exchange and a global reach. In Arctic waters seamen encountered islands called Cape Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s Foreland and Charing Cross, which was just south of West England. “Not an infant of the curtailed skinclipping pagans but talk of London as frequently as of their Prophet’s tomb at Mecca,” wrote the satirist Thomas Nashe in 1599. Such a statement could not even have been conjured at the beginning of the century.

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Move Fast and Break Things review – Google, Facebook and Amazon exposed

Mon, 17 Apr 2017 06:30:15 GMT2017-04-17T06:30:15Z

Jonathan Taplin reveals how just three companies subverted the internet’s utopian ideals

The internet, defined as the network switched on in January 1983, is now 34 years old. When it began, it was a gloriously decentralised, creative, non-commercial system that evoked in many of its early users utopian hopes about liberation, empowerment, creativity and sticking it to The Man. In those heady days, only a few sceptics wondered how long it would take for capitalism to get a grip on it. Now we know: it took only 21 years.

Opinions vary about the timing, of course. For my money, the critical year was 2004, the year Google had its IPO, Facebook was launched and the business model that became known as “surveillance capitalism” really got a grip on the network. This is the model that provides supposedly free services to users in return for “consent” to mine and exploit their personal data and digital trails in order to target adverts at them.

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Che, My Brother by Juan Martin Guevara review – the making of a revolutionary

Sun, 16 Apr 2017 06:30:24 GMT2017-04-16T06:30:24Z

A sibling’s affectionate account of the formative years of Che Guevara offers a compelling insight

One could argue that sufficient ink has been expended on Che Guevara. Those who fought with him, including Fidel Castro, have written memoirs, and there’s a definitive biography by the reporter who located Che’s body, Jon Lee Anderson. But, as Anderson himself says, wherever there is revolt or resistance, there is still that face: of the hero-revolutionary Bolivian nuns called “San Ernesto”. And there still exists an insatiable desire for more about the man behind the T-shirt or poster, especially when it comes from his family.

Ernesto Guevara, “El Che”, was 15 when his younger brother Juan Martin was born, about to set off on the first of his adventures, by electrically powered bicycle, then motorbike, then the boat Granma, on which he sailed from Mexico to help ignite and lead the Cuban revolution.

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Hamlet, Globe to Globe by Dominic Dromgoole review – neocolonial folly?

Fri, 14 Apr 2017 08:00:28 GMT2017-04-14T08:00:28Z

The former Globe director’s account of taking Shakespeare’s tragedy to nearly 200 countries needs ‘more matter with less art’

On 23 April 2014, 16 actors and technicians left the Globe theatre in London on a tall ship bound for Amsterdam. It was only the briefest of stopovers: they were on the first leg of a journey to take Hamlet to every country in the world. Ambassadors had been schmoozed, visas and flights booked, money raised (some money, at least). The plan was to visit nearly 200 nations in time for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death two years later. What could possibly go wrong?

According to the man who came up with the idea, former Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole, rather a lot. Severe food poisoning came close to ending things in Mexico City, and Wahhabist prohibitions on men and women sharing a stage nearly did for them in Saudi Arabia. Due to the unfolding Ebola crisis, a chunk of west Africa proved too risky. There were challenges closer to home, too, when the Globe came under fire for announcing they would perform in North Korea. Shakespeare, that canniest of courtiers, might have enjoyed the diplomatic irony that followed: Kim Jong-un’s regime then refused to allow them in.

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Triptych review – the magic of the Manic Street Preachers

Thu, 13 Apr 2017 08:00:21 GMT2017-04-13T08:00:21Z

Larissa Wodtke et al’s study of the Manics’ album The Holy Bible captures the band’s intellectual appeal

During my English A-level course in the late 1990s, we were asked to bring in a poem for analysis. I chose (and wrote out) the lyrics of the Manic Street Preachers’ “Faster”, feeling this to be a justified challenge to what my teacher Mrs King might deem to be “proper poetry”. I pompously readied myself for an argument. But she didn’t roll her eyes, and we discussed as a class why it might be that the lyricist, the Manics’ Richey Edwards, had described himself in the chorus as “stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer, I spat out Plath and Pinter” – given that these were four writers Edwards admired.

The album from which the song came, the Manics’ third, The Holy Bible, is one of those artefacts that has developed from a narrow cult obsession – selling fewer than their previous two on its release in August 1994 – to an acclaimed cult phenomenon. Its status grew during the late 90s, following the disappearance and presumed death of Edwards in early 1995, and the band’s New Order-style reinvention and blossoming popularity on their return in 1996. Few albums can withstand a book-length analysis without tedious padding, but The Holy Bible can – which is fortunate, as Triptych includes approaches by three authors: Rhian E Jones looks at its personal and political impact and context; Daniel Lukes at its literary influences; and Larissa Wodtke considers its relationship to memory.

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Past Mortems by Carla Valentine – a love of the dead, maggots and all

Thu, 13 Apr 2017 06:30:19 GMT2017-04-13T06:30:19Z

Valentine relished working in a variety of mortuaries and now curates a pathology museum. She presents all the grisly details

When well-meaning adults asked young Carla Valentine what she wanted to be when she grew up they generally recoiled in horror. From the age of nine she was adamant she wanted to be a mortician. For some time, she had been fascinated by death.

As a young child, Valentine’s favourite pastime was staging funerals for roadkill victims. Witnessing the death of her grandfather at the age of seven only strengthened her morbid vocation, while the sight of his false teeth landing at her feet seems to have given her a taste for gallows humour. When friends left on their gap year travels, Valentine spent 12 months as an embalmer’s assistant in a funeral parlour. “It was heaven to me,” she says. After studying forensic science she achieved her ambition – to train and work for 10 years in a variety of mortuaries as an anatomical pathology technologist, or APT, assisting pathologists at postmortems. In her spare time she liked to attend mass grave excavations and visit plague pits.

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The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag review – family, animals and a money-spinner

Wed, 12 Apr 2017 14:00:02 GMT2017-04-12T14:00:02Z

The truth about Corfu’s eccentric expat family was much darker than the comic myth – but do we need another biography of the family?When My Family and Other Animals was published in 1956 it was as if someone had flung back the curtains, thrown up the windows and let in a stream of bright light. British readers, having only in recent years torn up their ration books, were transfixed by the naturalist Gerald Durrell’s account of his biophiliac childhood on prewar Corfu in the bosom of his eccentric family. Here was the comic opera version of Elizabeth David’s wildly popular Mediterranean cookbooks – the same colours, textures and sand-between-the-toes lyricism but with an added helping of wacky local characters, naughty fauna and ribald – “Rabelaisian” was the word the Durrells liked to use about themselves – humour. Add at a favourable rate of exchange, cheap domestic service and good rough wine with every meal and you had the makings of what paradise might look like from “Pudding Island”, the scornful epithet for England coined by Lawrence Durrell, the eldest sibling and catalyst for the whole shambolic enterprise. No wonder a grey postwar Britain greedily devoured the Durrell myth and has been letting the juices run down its chin ever since. Last year’s ITV serial The Durrells, based on My Family and its two sequels, averaged 7 million viewers.The series is returning to our screens again, which must explain the publication of Michael Haag’s pointless book; while his introduction promises “a new and revealing narrative”, it is hard to see what he adds to the well-known story. Previous biographers of the Durrells (Douglas Botting on Gerald, Ian MacNiven on Lawrence, Joanna Hodgkin on Lawrence’s first wife, Nancy) have already pointed out the confabulations and elisions that make My Family such an unreliable guide. We know what actually happened between 1935 and 1939, when Anglo-Indian widow Louisa Durrell and her four children set up home in a series of ice-cream colour villas along the eastern coastline of Corfu. That doesn’t stop Haag, though, embarking on the time-honoured task of pointing out those places where My Family departs most egregiously from what might optimistically be called the documentary record. It would have been far more productive, surely, to abandon tha[...]

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The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman review – a sense of wonder

Wed, 12 Apr 2017 08:30:30 GMT2017-04-12T08:30:30Z

A collection of introductions, articles and essays includes insights into Alan Moore, Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett

I have a writer friend who can’t abide Neil Gaiman. When I pressed him lightly on this once, the reasons for this disdain boiled down, as I recall, to a combination of Gaiman’s ubiquity and the tone of his writing voice. (There may also have been the way that he looks, or at least used to, as if he had stepped from the pages of one of his own books, as if he were the Prince of All the Goths. He looks a bit less like that now, and has a beard.)

The ubiquity is, though, a product of his industry, and if some might murmur that a graphic novel – he is “the author of more than 30 acclaimed books and graphic novels,” says the blurb – does not contain nearly as many words as a novel, he has also written many unillustrated words. In addition he has produced a good deal of non-fiction, in the form of introductions, addresses to conventions, profiles, and miscellaneous articles, and this book is a selection of those.

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Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist review – why the human race is heading for the fire

Wed, 12 Apr 2017 08:00:29 GMT2017-04-12T08:00:29Z

Paul Kingsnorth, a former green activist, thinks the environmental movement has gone wrong. He argues for ‘uncivilisation’

The future for humanity and many other life forms is grim. The crisis gathers force. Melting ice caps, rising seas, vanishing topsoil, felled rainforests, dwindling animal and plant species, a human population forever growing and gobbling and using everything up. What’s to be done? Paul Kingsnorth thinks nothing very much. We have to suck it up. He writes in a typical sentence: “This is bigger than anything there has ever been for as long as humans have existed, and we have done it, and now we are going to have to live through it, if we can.”

Related: The lie of the land: does environmentalism have a future in the age of Trump?

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Stiff Upper Lip by Alex Renton review – the damage boarding schools have done

Wed, 12 Apr 2017 06:30:28 GMT2017-04-12T06:30:28Z

Renton, who was abused at prep school, has written a startling book about the ruling class, full of examples of snobbery, cruelty and misery

The Old Etonian John Julius Norwich, asked for a memory that he thought summed up the spirit of his school, offered the following: after a boy had killed himself “the housemaster summoned the whole house and asked if anybody could suggest a reason. The young David Ormsby-Gore put up his hand and said, ‘Could it have been the food, sir?’” This strikes me as appallingly funny; or funny and appalling. It captures – in its black bad taste and high-stakes insouciance – some of what public schools teach their students. Nothing is so serious it can’t be a joke – and the joke, as Alex Renton notes, both fences with authority and obscurely reinforces it.

In 2014, Renton wrote in the Observer about his experiences in the boarding prep school Ashdown House, describing how he was sexually molested by a teacher; and how, when his contemporaries complained about abuse, they were themselves savagely punished for sneaking. In response to his article, he heard from hundreds with similar stories.

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David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet by Thomas Dilworth review – tale of a troubled genius

Tue, 11 Apr 2017 08:00:00 GMT2017-04-11T08:00:00Z

The story of the eccentric and exceptionally talented David Jones, who couldn’t wait to go off to the trenches, makes fascinating readingIn 1966, Robert Speaight published a biography of Eric Gill, a book that the poet and artist David Jones, an old friend of Gill’s, was asked more than once to review. But every time he refused. Jones, who was by then living in a dilapidated boarding house in Harrow-on-the-Hill, and among whose tenants was a lobotomised salesman, had firm ideas about biography. “I don’t like a person [writing] more than one biography in a lifetime,” he told a friend. “He cannot have researched the man properly.” Speaight, having already produced several lives, was not to be trusted with “the complex quiddities & haecceities of the chap”.Jones’s biographer, Thomas Dilworth, has devoted 30 years to writing his book. Whether he will ever produce another major life, I don’t know. But if we’re talking about quiddity, his labours have not been in vain. Those interested in Jones’s art (his dreamy watercolours, his masterly engravings), or in his singular poetry (the great work is In Parenthesis, a modernist epic inspired by his experiences in the trenches that TS Eliot regarded as a masterpiece), will not be disappointed with the careful, delicate way Dilworth connects them to his confounding story. But the real joy of his book is not analytical. It is that it makes Jones so vivid. Sweet, eccentric and unexpectedly comical, there are moments when it is almost as if you can smell him: the damp of his long overcoat; the must of hoarded newspapers as he reluctantly opens the door of his room. Glamorous people come and go: Jones’s circle included Ben Nicholson, Kenneth Clark, Clarissa Eden, and (the mind boggles) the Queen Mother. He, however, never changes, in the sense that he is always vulnerable, unpredictable, stubborn and (determinedly so) impoverished. Half-man and half-boy, sometimes you feel his genius is the only straightforward thing about him. Continue reading...[...]

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Bee Quest review – the plight of the bumblebee

Sun, 09 Apr 2017 08:00:02 GMT2017-04-09T08:00:02Z

Dave Goulson’s journey through the insect world is warmly entertaining while sounding the alarm over encroaching environmental disaster

The first thing to know about reading Bee Quest is that it’s a fun adventure to several countries, including this one, made new again through Dave Goulson’s eyes. You’ll learn all sorts of interesting things without effort because he’s a natural storyteller with a particular gift of understatement that is often laugh-out-loud funny – which you don’t expect from a bee book.

The second thing is that this endearing account of his search for rare bees is also an unofficial travel guide to some extremely appealing places that I don’t even want to mention here, lest they fill up with other adventurous readers this summer, because I’m planning to follow in Goulson’s footsteps to at least one of them. OK: Poland. Also, an amazing-sounding lodge in Ecuador. You’ll have to buy it for more details.

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The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead review – an artist biography with an authentic touch

Sun, 09 Apr 2017 07:00:01 GMT2017-04-09T07:00:01Z

The painter and writer’s cousin provides a uniquely personal insight into an enigmatic wild child

The work of the British artist Leonora Carrington is usually thought of as mysterious, even frustratingly mysterious – full of pseudo-mythology and looming symbolic creatures. She began to paint in her youth at the height of the surrealist boom of the late 1930s, continuing until her death six years ago in Mexico, and her canvases always hinted at an unconventional spirit, if not a disturbed psyche.

This has left some critics, mostly men, wanting to know less, rather than more. Yet for her many fans Carrington’s imaginative world has the compelling quality of a haunting riddle. These admirers, including Madonna, Björk and Laura Marling, will find Joanna Moorhead’s lively biography a helpful handbook of clues, although it cannot solve all the puzzles of her art.

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The Souls of China by Ian Johnson – the resurgence of religion after Mao

Fri, 07 Apr 2017 08:00:05 GMT2017-04-07T08:00:05Z

The author meets Taoist musicians, rebel Christians and celebrity Zen Buddhists – but communism is the official faith

In the spring of last year, Xi Jinping – China’s paramount leader – presided over a national conference on religion. He seized the opportunity to declare Chinese Communist party (CCP) authority over questions of faith. Religious matters, Xi announced, are of “special importance” to the CCP: “We should guide and educate the religious circle and their followers with the socialist core values.” Believers must “dig deep into doctrines and canons that are in line with social harmony and progress, and favourable for the building of a healthy and civilised society, and interpret religious doctrines in a way that is conducive to modern China’s progress and in line with our excellent traditional culture”. Members of the CCP, he further emphasised, must remain “unyielding Marxist atheists, consolidate their faith, and bear in mind the party’s tenets”.

Xi’s remarks exemplified the fierce tensions that surround the past and present role of religion in communist China. While the party acknowledges and accepts the resurgence of religious belief made possible by the post-Mao thaw, it retains an ongoing compulsion to regulate faith – a compulsion that has resulted in violent suppressions of spiritual movements such as Falun Gong.

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Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists review – a passionate project

Sun, 23 Apr 2017 12:00:12 GMT2017-04-23T12:00:12Z

Donna Seaman resurrects forgotten artists and their work in inspiring fashion

In this passionate book, Seaman (daughter of artist Elayne Seaman) asks why seven American female artists – Louise Nevelson, Gertrude Abercrombie, Loïs Mailou Jones, Ree Morton, Joan Brown, Christina Ramberg, Lenore Tawney – respected and celebrated in their lifetimes, have been forgotten or nearly so. Seaman resurrects and reanimates. The women come to life here; grouchy, impish, shy, confident, introspective, scrounging and childish. Seaman also provides multiple interpretations of artworks, creating dialogues and instigating conversations that have for so long been missing and discusses how the gender of these accomplished artists led to society forgetting them. This is an inspiring and beautifully written book that will encourage the reader to research further and discover more.

Identity Unknown by Donna Seaman is published by Bloomsbury (£25). To order a copy for £21.25 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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Gone by Min Kym review – moving memoir of a former child prodigy

Sat, 22 Apr 2017 10:00:11 GMT2017-04-22T10:00:11Z

The story of the gifted virtuoso who grew up to international stardom – and then her beloved violin was stolen

In Gone, Min Kym’s memoir about her life as a violin soloist, she relates a possibly apocryphal legend about the French violinist Ginette Neveu, who was touring when her plane crashed into a mountain. She died, as did everyone else in the plane. In the wreckage, Neveu’s corpse was discovered with her beloved Stradivarius still gripped in her hand. Kym, like Neveu, was a child prodigy who grew up to be a brilliant professional musician; also like Neveu, Kym played, and loved, a Stradivarius, one of just 449 in the world. But Kym lost her Stradivarius when she was 31 years old, a loss so terrible it left her unable to play the violin.

From age six, Kym hadn’t gone a day without practising. When she had started learning to play the instrument, she “felt like a creature released, alive in herself for the first time”. Even then, she says, “I knew I could play anything. Anything. This was not arrogance – I was a shy child, reluctant to come forward, to give voice, to take centre stage – but more simply that I had found, not only my home and my voice, but my element.” Others agreed. Kym’s chronicle of childhood glitters with the wunderkind’s starry achievements: the first this, the youngest that. Concert soloist at 10 years old. Youngest pupil ever at the prestigious Purcell School. When she was 12, Kym was playing professionally in five to six concerts a year; at 13, she had her debut concerto with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. She performed with the pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, won prizes, played in Madrid, Seoul, Bologna and Seville.

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Isis: A History by Fawaz A Gerges review – a hugely important study

Fri, 14 Apr 2017 16:30:01 GMT2017-04-14T16:30:01Z

Based on two decades of field research, this book is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the forces convulsing the Middle East

In this authoritative and balanced history of the so-called Islamic State, Fawaz Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics, shows how Isis’s rise to dominance of the global jihadist movement, eclipsing even al-Qaida, grew out of the broken politics of the Middle East. Its success is due to the instability created by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the “raging sectarian fires” in Iraq and Syria, as well as the failure of Arab states to represent the interests of all their citizens: “Isis is a product of an organic crisis in Arab politics”. Isis appeals to disaffected, alienated Sunni Muslim youths, offering them “a utopian worldview and a political project: resurrecting the lost caliphate”. Together with its “genocidal anti-Shia campaign” and its extreme brutality, Isis can claim to be “more ambitious and revolutionary” than any other jihadist group. Based on two decades of field research, this hugely important study is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the powerful political, sectarian and religious forces currently convulsing the Arab Middle East.

Isis: A History is published by Princeton. To order a copy for £12.71 (RRP £14.95) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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Universal Harvester by John Darnielle review – welcome to the great nowhere

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 14:00:29 GMT2017-04-20T14:00:29Z

Grief haunts an eerie puzzle box of a story in the second novel from the Mountain Goats frontman, set in the long-gone era of VHS tapes and dial-upWe live in an age when much of the fiction we consume is purpose built to not add up. In novels such as Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy and Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla sequence, TV shows such as The OA, Westworld and True Detective, and an increasing number of Hollywood film franchises, we encounter self-consciously labyrinthine and reflexive meta-narratives that end, when they can be said to end at all, in irresolution, deferral and ellipsis. JJ Abrams, the producer and co-creator of Lost who has helped to mainstream the idea of narrative as an endlessly open puzzle-box of allusions and intimations that simultaneously invites and resists exegesis, calls this style “the mystery box”. Part of the allure of such narratives is the participatory element: facilitated by social media and online fan forums, every reader and viewer who so desires has the chance to posit themselves as critic, theorist, prophet and de facto co-writer. When stories don’t add up, the speculation can go on for ever.John Darnielle’s second novel, Universal Harvester, very much fits the contemporary puzzle-box aesthetic. In other respects, it is strikingly and enchantingly out of time. It is set in the late 1990s, in those final few years before civilisation went permanently online. References abound to clunky, unintegrated tech – VHS tapes, basic “burner” cellphones and the laboured gurgle of dial-up home internet – and serve to remind us how quaint the pre-2000s now seem. We are in the town of Nevada, Iowa; the main character is Jeremy Heldt, an unprepossessing video store clerk in his early 20s and an  inveterate homebody. Jeremy seems like something of a slacker, but what looks like passivity is only the ceaseless forestalling of unprocessed grief. Jeremy lost his mother in a [...]

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The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks review – a dark, enchanted debut

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 11:00:25 GMT2017-04-20T11:00:25Z

Set in the aftermath of the first world war, this is a twisted fairytale populated by wounded servicemen, establishment radicals and a ‘discount Aleister Crowley’It’s 1923. Lucy Marsh and her friend Winifred, mid-teenagers from an enclave of dying pubs and dead industries in north-east London, find themselves effectively sold into prostitution by their families. Once a week in Epping Forest they meet with and service four bizarrely wounded ex‑servicemen who have given arms, legs, hands and faces for their country in the recent world war. Lucy isn’t sure if they’re named after Dorothy’s companions in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, or if the characters in the story were named after them. The “funny men” seem as decent as they are damaged, puzzled to the point of inarticulacy by the things that have happened to them. But though they’re shy they know what they’ve lost – homes, wives, children, physical comfort, any sense of themselves as welcome in the society that sent them to fight – and they know what they want, at least from Lucy and Winifred.Xan Brooks’ first novel quickly normalises both the bizarreness and the unspoken brutality of the situation. Much of this depends on Lucy’s adaptability: throughout, she treats her clients – and indeed everyone she meets – with a kind of bemused generosity. The reader is less tempted. The funny men subsist on the charity of “the Pink Earl”, an establishment radical, and his vile son Rupert Fortnum-Hyde, whose 5,000-acre estate “rolls out on either side of the river Lea”. Their holdings include “a sugar estate in Jamaica, 12 London townhouses and an ongoing stake in the British South Africa Company”. Despite this, both conceive of themselves somehow as socialists; in addition the son presents himself as an experimentalist of human beings, a force for modernity and change. He surrounds himself with a permanent carnival of jazz musicians, confused interwar intellectuals, a “discount Aleister Crowley[...]

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An Overcoat: Scenes from the Afterlife of H.B. by Jack Robinson review – Stendhal reincarnated

Wed, 19 Apr 2017 08:30:16 GMT2017-04-19T08:30:16Z

A playful novel imagining the French novelist in contemporary life – every sentence is a delight

About a third of the way through this novel we read the following, a scene set in a hotel restaurant. The narrator has pulled up a chair to join two characters, a man named Beyle and a woman named M.:

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The Sport of Kings by CE Morgan review – an epic journey into the deep south

Wed, 19 Apr 2017 06:30:13 GMT2017-04-19T06:30:13Z

This multigenerational saga, shortlisted for the Pulitzer and now the Baileys prize, explores Darwinism, horse racing and the legacies of slavery

This novel is about horse racing the way Moby-Dick is about a whale; it has a similarly expansive scope, spiritual seriousness and density of grand themes. Shortlisted for the Pulitzer and now the Baileys prize, Morgan’s epic work builds to a climactic series of dramatic race scenes featuring a star filly named Hellsmouth. Along the way, Morgan wrestles with subjects including the history of Kentucky, slavery and its legacies, the iniquities of American healthcare, Darwinism, geology and relations between the sexes. In the maximalist stakes, Morgan’s novel is a muscular, confident entry.

For the first 200 pages, the book appears to be a conventional multigenerational saga set in the American south. The Forge family are corn famers: in the opening section, hot-headed young Henry Forge, classically tutored and prone to trading arguments in Greek or Latin with his tyrannical father, develops a rebellious ambition to transform their farm one day into a thoroughbred breeding business. “I won’t have you throw everything away for a heap of rhinestones,” rages Henry’s father, when his son blurts out his dream. “There is no need for improvement, Henry, only adherence to a line that has never altered, because it’s never proven unsound.” The story that unfolds will reveal the faults in that Forge line, and an unsoundness at its very heart.

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He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly review – creepy, tangled and disturbing

Tue, 18 Apr 2017 06:30:21 GMT2017-04-18T06:30:21Z

Kelly’s latest thriller, about a couple who witness a horrific act, will keep you guessing until the end

“It’s going to be a classic he said/she said, textbook case decision by jury,” says a reporter in Erin Kelly’s new thriller. “Half the female jurors are already in love with him... It always sounds convincing until the defence cross-examine the victim and they shredded her.”

Kelly’s He Said/She Said hinges on the alleged rape of Beth Taylor, but the incident is described largely from the perspectives of Laura and Kit, a young couple who have travelled to Lizard Point in Cornwall to watch the 1999 total eclipse of the sun. Eclipses are Kit’s passion, and this is the first he is sharing with Laura. But the experience pales beside what they encounter next: rounding a corner, Laura stumbles upon a couple having sex, the woman’s face contorted, desperate with fear. They call the police and end up testifying as witnesses in court, a decision that, 16 years later, results in them living in fear, hiding their identities.

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Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor review – a chilling meditation on loss and time

Sat, 15 Apr 2017 06:30:18 GMT2017-04-15T06:30:18Z

The rural village, the missing girl, the search for a body … then life goes on, as an archetypal story is rekindled with explosive results

Why is it always a girl who’s missing? What is it in that archetype that tugs at us in some deep place – readers and viewers, male and female alike – when yet again the quest begins with news of someone’s daughter who hasn’t come home, or a glimpse of a girl in some place that’s much too lonely, glancing back nervously over her shoulder? We can’t imagine being hooked so easily if the paperback thriller or crime drama began with a missing boy, and the idea of his disappearance wouldn’t transform with the same inevitability into the idea of the boy’s death, the image of it.

In Jon McGregor’s new novel the missing girl’s name is Rebecca Shaw and she is 13 years old. Rebecca’s family are on holiday in a village in the Peak District, staying in a barn conversion; they have come for the New Year. “When last seen she’d been wearing a white hooded top with a navy-blue body warmer, black jeans and canvas shoes. She was five feet tall, with straight, dark-blond, shoulder-length hair.” The smallness seems part of the drama, too, doesn’t it? Big girls don’t go missing half as often. And the white hooded top, perhaps even the blondness: if this was a film or TV show, that whiteness would be a flash of light between the trees, a brief half-glimpse of something pure and unspoiled, which – the viewer’s already agonised, ahead of the plot – must be brought down and dirtied, crossed with darkness.

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Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou review – a picaresque tour-de-force

Fri, 14 Apr 2017 14:00:00 GMT2017-04-14T14:00:00Z

A Congolese orphan struggles to escape desperate circumstances in a novel whose ebullient humour has an undertow of griefAlain Mabanckou, a writer of ferocious wit and fearless inventiveness, has won acclaim for novels such as Broken Glass, African Psycho and Black Bazaar, which span the Congo-Brazzaville of his birth and the black communities of Paris, where he moved in 1989. In 2012, he won the Académie Française’s grand prix for a lifetime’s achievement. That same year, this UCLA professor returned to his home town of Pointe-Noire, on the Republic of Congo’s equatorial coast, after an absence of 23 years. The memoir The Lights of Pointe-Noire was one fruit of that bittersweet return. His latest novel, Petit Piment, which was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, is another. Its English translation as Black Moses, by Helen Stevenson, is justly longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International prize.The novel is dedicated to all those “wanderers of the Côte Sauvage” – Pointe-Noire’s urban beach – who told the author “pieces of their life story” during his stay in the port city. Its ebullient humour recalls Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty, Mabanckou’s fictionalised autobiography of growing up in the 1970s under a Marxist-Leninist regime. Yet unlike in that buoyantly mischievous child’s-eye satire, the laughter here has an undertow of grief, outrage and survivor’s guilt. Continue reading...[...]

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The best recent thrillers – review roundup

Fri, 14 Apr 2017 10:59:31 GMT2017-04-14T10:59:31Z

The Thirst by Jo Nesbø; Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton; A Dark So Deadly by Stuart MacBride; Don’t Let Go by Michel Bussi; The Special Girls by Isabelle Grey; Heretics by Leonardo Padura; Since We Fell by Dennis LehaneVery few writers in the thriller genre achieve superstar status; the Norwegian Jo Nesbø is not only the reigning king of Scandinavian crime fiction, but is also called on as a TV pundit when reality reflects his books (as at the time of the Breivik massacres, as Nesbø had written so persuasively about the rise of the far right in his country). While enjoying prodigious sales, his last few books have not gleaned the critical acclaim of earlier work such as The Redbreast, but the weighty The Thirst (Harvill Secker, £20, translated by Neil Smith) may rebalance that popular and critical success. It’s a big-boned, Technicolor epic in the current Nesbø style, starting adagio and ending accelerando, but with the kind of close psychological character readings that distinguished his early work. The detective Harry Hole is reluctantly co-opted to track down a vicious murderer who has killed a woman after an internet date. And when a second victim is found, Harry realises that there is a connection with the one case that defeated him. Both justice and closure may be within his grasp – as well as a return to his lost childhood. Continue reading...[...]

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The Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney review – an addictive read

Fri, 14 Apr 2017 06:29:26 GMT2017-04-14T06:29:26Z

A gripping story of drugs and descent into Cork’s criminal underworld develops a plot line from McInerney’s debut

Self-described “sweary lady” Lisa McInerney was the voice of alternative Ireland before she abandoned her blog The Arse End of Ireland and joined the mainstream literary world. For several years, she’d documented the highs and lows of life on a Galway council estate with joyful cynicism. She then deleted the blog and drew on the material to create her first novel, The Glorious Heresies, which won last year’s Baileys women’s prize for fiction.

That novel moved between the heads of a young rebel, a prostitute and a grandmother-turned-murderer in energetic, casually inventive prose. It was the troubled adolescent, Ryan, who was the focus for writerly and readerly sympathy, and it’s his story that takes centre stage in The Blood Miracles, a novel related entirely from his point of view.

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How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza review – a wonderful, atmospheric debut

Thu, 13 Apr 2017 14:00:06 GMT2017-04-13T14:00:06Z

A woman becomes obsessed with the fox who visits her garden in a story that toys with the real and the imagined

Perhaps you have experienced a moment like this: you’re sitting in the kitchen drinking tea and staring out of the window, when a fox appears outside. You are startled; so is he. Your eyes meet. For a moment you wonder: is he trying to tell me something? And then the fox springs over the wall and the thought seems faintly absurd, so you forget about it and get on with your day.

But if you stop to think about it a little longer, these small confrontations are fraught with moral complexity. Urban foxes are dependent on humans, but they are also marginalised and oppressed by us; at best, we ignore them, at worst, we call pest control. The fact that they have found a way to thrive in our cities is a triumph of cunning and adaptability; they have outwitted us. Unlike the vast majority of other wild beings, of course – which is why, just for a fraction of a moment, we may perceive a rebuke in those beautiful golden eyes.

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Pussy by Howard Jacobson review – quickfire satire of Trump

Thu, 13 Apr 2017 10:59:02 GMT2017-04-13T10:59:02Z

The ‘Jewish Jane Austen’ delves into politics for this fable, but despite wit and elegance he misses his punches

As a writer who deals with sexuality, literature and antisemitism in novels of comic exaggeration, Howard Jacobson was inevitably tagged the “English Philip Roth”, despite offering his own preferred alternative of the “Jewish Jane Austen”.

Jacobson, though, often doesn’t seem to be trying very hard to escape the long American shadow, his territory consistently more Portnoy than Pemberley. An oddity among Roth’s novels is Our Gang (1971), a rapid political satire reflecting liberal revulsion at the verbal weirdness and extremist manifesto of the 37th president, Richard Nixon. Now the ascent to the White House of another leader whose temperament and intentions are widely found to be frightening has prompted Pussy, a surprise outlier from Jacobson that is very similar in scope and tone to Roth’s.

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The Unaccompanied by Simon Armitage review – luminous and unsettling

Tue, 11 Apr 2017 06:30:21 GMT2017-04-11T06:30:21Z

Snowmen and bargain shops take an unexpected twist in this powerful collection about a world in meltdown

Simon Armitage’s work is earthed – no matter what he is writing about, his poetry is never shallow-rooted. Nothing he writes is pretentious, footling or airy-fairy. Part of this stems from his reassuring Yorkshire tone – it is calming, it holds things together, it promises a degree of common sense. But in his 11th collection, however safe the hands, the subject matter is anything but reassuring. Many poems describe an endangered world. The collection opens with Last Snowman, in which a mournful grotesque floats “down an Arctic seaway” complete with red scarf, clay pipe and “a carrot for a nose/(some reported parsnip)”.

The possible parsnip momentarily amuses, but the jokes are precarious and this is partly what makes the poem powerful – its comedy thaws. The next line describes the alarming droop of the melting snowman’s mouth: “pure stroke victim”. The snowman floats on, symbol of a world we are losing, “past islands vigorous / with sunflower and bog myrtle, /singular and abominable”. A witty word upon which to end but an excuse for only the briefest smile.

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Death of a She Devil by Fay Weldon review – provocative to the end

Sun, 09 Apr 2017 06:30:01 GMT2017-04-09T06:30:01Z

The author’s most famous literary creation returns, diminished by age but with her sights still set on the iniquities of love, sex and gender politics

Everyone knows that Fay Weldon was one of the team behind the advertising slogan “Go to work on an egg”, but perhaps fewer remember that she also wrote the first episode of Upstairs, Downstairs, back in 1971. It was the same year that she published her second novel, Down Among the Women, and had fate dealt her a different hand she might perhaps have spent more time with Mrs Bridges than she did writing her subsequent, and numerous, novels. But she ended up only lasting for a few episodes because, as she told an interviewer at the ICA in 1984, her work resulted in something of a cast mutiny. The actors, she remembered, “would only utter lines which made them appear nice people”.

Related: Fay Weldon: ‘Feminism was a success, but then you lose a generation’

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In Extremis by Tim Parks review – midlife misery lit up by explosive humour

Sat, 08 Apr 2017 06:30:32 GMT2017-04-08T06:30:32Z

A middle-aged writer makes sense of his own narrative as he faces up to his mother’s death, in this wonderfully written novel

We know from the moment we start reading Tim Parks’s new novel that we are in for a particularly intense kind of experience:

Mother’s corpse. This is what I keep thinking about.
Should I view it?
Why can’t I decide?

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Larchfield by Polly Clark review – loneliness, longing and WH Auden

Fri, 07 Apr 2017 14:00:12 GMT2017-04-07T14:00:12Z

Auden’s years in Scotland take on new meaning for a young poet in this vivid debutPolly Clark’s first novel is, at least in part, a fictional account of WH Auden’s time living and working in Helensburgh, Scotland, where he was a schoolmaster at the Larchfield Academy in the early 1930s. The book therefore takes its rightful place – alongside, say, Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun (1964, subtitle “A Story of Shakespeare’s Love-Life”) and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (1998) – on that long, strange, slightly wobbly shelf marked Fictional Lives of the Great Writers.Auden has been portrayed in fiction many times before, most recently and memorably perhaps in Lydia Davis’s short story, “How WH Auden Spends the Night in a Friend’s House”, in which she describes, entirely accurately, how he liked to sleep with a great weight on his bed and so used to pull down curtains and paintings to smother himself. Such peculiar personal habits, as well as his poetry, and his many other professional accomplishments – as a teacher, librettist, essayist and an early literary celebrity – have for a long time exerted a great fascination for novelists, playwrights and fellow poets. Continue reading...[...]

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Compass by Mathias Énard review – a dreamlike study of Orientalism

Fri, 07 Apr 2017 11:00:08 GMT2017-04-07T11:00:08Z

A musicologist’s adventures in the Middle East make for a powerful scholarly narrativeAn Austrian musicologist lies in bed all night worrying about his health, fitfully dreaming, and relating his past scholarly adventures in the Middle East in disordered flashback. At the centre of his lucubrations is a fellow academic named Sarah, with whom he is desperately in love. Such is the scheme of the French writer Mathias Énard’s latest novel, which won the Prix Goncourt and has now been longlisted for the Man Booker international prize, perhaps not least because its politics are highly topical.Orientalism is, here, the key idea – our narrator, Franz, has worked on the appropriation of Middle Eastern music by canonical westerners, as well as music written by Middle Eastern composers in the western tradition. Sarah, meanwhile, specialises in ideas of the Orient in history. Franz relates at great length their conversations and his own trains of thought about where this artist went and who that artist knew and what painting or musical performance that other artist witnessed, playing a kind of endless game of six degrees of separation between European and Middle Eastern cultural figures of the past two centuries. Fascinating though the facts often are, the scores of pages of this kind of thing are mainly rendered in detailed precis: there is very little direct speech in the novel, which helps to evoke the febrile meanderings of insomniac memory but it also threatens to send the reader, if not Franz, off to merciful sleep. Continue reading...[...]

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The Forensic Records Society by Magnus Mills review – philosophy down the pub

Fri, 07 Apr 2017 06:30:03 GMT2017-04-07T06:30:03Z

This deceptively slim novel about blokes at a pub vinyl night could be read as a disguised retelling of the Russian revolution, or any great human falling out

In the house of fiction, blokes are the cavity wall insulation. Usually they are out of sight and mostly they are taken for granted. If a bloke appears in a contemporary British novel, he will be there to pop round and fix something, to give someone a lift into town or – at his most prominent – to take all the blame for stifling the life chances of an intelligent and passionate woman.

A few writers have dared to put lots of blokes in their novels. But Martin Amis’s characters aren’t really blokes because they are too wordy; when you cut them open you find Amis and a slang dictionary. Nick Hornby’s may be blokes when we meet them, but his novels are often about the long and difficult climb out of blokehood. Magnus Mills, though, ever since his 1998 debut The Restraint of Beasts, has made blokes the absolute centre of his fictional universe.

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A Traitor in the Family by Nicholas Searle review – an ill-judged follow-up to The Good Liar

Thu, 06 Apr 2017 11:00:02 GMT2017-04-06T11:00:02Z

The real-life moral terrain seems only half grasped in this story about a British intelligence mission to subvert the IRA

It starts on a plane to Singapore in 1989. IRA man Francis O’Neill and his wife, Bridget, are on a break to see old friends living the good life abroad. Francis is an IRA killer in the tradition of IRA killers in fiction, driven, we are told, by hatred. But there is hope for Bridget, who is not, it seems, driven by the same impulse. British operative Sarah befriends the lonesome Bridget. The trap is set; the game is on.

Related: To defeat terrorists we have to get inside their minds | Nicholas Searle

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Death of a She Devil by Fay Weldon review – a reactionary sequel

Wed, 05 Apr 2017 11:00:18 GMT2017-04-05T11:00:18Z

Three decades on, Weldon’s most brilliantly monstrous creation returns as a grandee of women’s liberation There are two parts to Fay Weldon’s reputation: first that she is a feminist writer, and second that she is a very funny one. The “funny” is earned, the “feminist” less so, and Death of a She Devil is a credit to neither. When Weldon introduced Ruth Patchett in The Life and Loves of a She Devil, 34 years ago, she created one of literature’s greatest monsters. Deserted by callous husband Bobbo for the simpering romance novelist Mary Fisher, ugly doormat Ruth remakes herself as the She Devil and has her revenge on the adulterers. Her punisher’s progress takes her through every circle of society, from underclass to judiciary, from family to clergy, until finally she is surgically transformed into “an impossible male fantasy made flesh” – even losing six inches of leg to become desirably petite. At the close of the book, with Bobbo broken and Mary dead, Ruth’s triumph is complete. Related: Fay Weldon: ‘Feminism was a success, but then you lose a generation’ Continue reading...[...]

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White Tears by Hari Kunzru review – when white dudes get the blues…

Mon, 03 Apr 2017 10:00:19 GMT2017-04-03T10:00:19Z

Kunzru’s supernatural revenge fantasy set against a backdrop of American racism lacks nuance“I’m not even going to start playing the authenticity game... I’m the least authentic person I know,” joked Hari Kunzru, reporting on the mid-Noughties poshing-up of Hackney, where he lived before settling in Brooklyn. The A-word preoccupies his fiction, awash with problems of passing and realness. In The Impressionist, his Raj-era debut of 2002, a mixed-race protagonist sprouts multiple aliases; in My Revolutions (2007), a hard-left 1970s militant turns suburban househusband, with doubt hanging over how radical he was to begin with.His new novel concerns the occult consequences of a hoax perpetrated by two young record producers in New York. Having covertly taped a hooded black man singing the blues in a public square – they couldn’t see his face – Seth and Carter fuzz up the audio to resemble one of the sought-after inter-war pressings they’ve built their reputation on sampling. Posted online, it sends aficionados wild — not least a veteran collector haunted by the depths to which a drug-addicted confrère sank in search of rare vinyl in segregation-era Mississippi. Continue reading...[...]

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The best recent crime novels – review roundup

Fri, 31 Mar 2017 11:00:01 GMT2017-03-31T11:00:01Z

What You Don’t Know by JoAnn Chaney; My Sister’s Bones by Nuala Ellwood; The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman by Mindy Mejia; The Acid Test by Élmer Mendoza; The Riviera Express by TP FieldenSet in Denver, JoAnn Chaney’s first novel, What You Don’t Know (Mantle, £12.99), begins where most crime fiction ends, with the capture of a murderer. Detectives Ralph Loren and Paul Hoskins collar successful businessman and pillar of the community Jacky Seever, who, in his predilection for dressing up as a clown and stashing the bodies of his numerous victims in the crawl space of his house, owes something to 70s serial killer John Wayne Gacy. The case is reported by Hoskins’s lover, journalist Sammie Peterson, whose career is given a boost by the exclusive information she is able to obtain. Seven years later, things are going less well for both of them: Hoskins’s anger-management issues have got the better of him and he has been demoted, and Peterson is selling makeup in a shopping mall. A series of copycat murders, with the victims all linked in some way to Seever, sends fresh shock waves through the still-recovering populace. Hoskins and Peterson take the chance to get their old lives back; Detective Loren’s obsession with the killer becomes increasingly bizarre; and Seever’s wife, Gloria, who has always maintained that she was ignorant of her husband’s activities, tries to stay out of sight. Insightful, with a well-drawn cast of plausibly flawed characters and plent[...]

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The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke review – boomtime in rural China

Thu, 30 Mar 2017 08:00:21 GMT2017-03-30T08:00:21Z

With keen irony and references to real-life events, Yan’s mock-dynastic history documents the extraordinary development of a village in Henan provinceIn February 2013, hundreds of dead pigs were found floating down China’s Huangpu River. The scandal of Shanghai’s contaminated water supplies made international headlines, though the absurdist nature of the incident seemed so impossibly bizarre it left writers of fiction struggling to keep up. As Yan Lianke observes in the afterword to his novel: “Contemporary China is currently hurtling past a series of economic and developmental milestones that took Europe over two centuries to achieve ... Incidents that appear at first glance utterly illogical and unreal have become increasingly common.”The river of pigs is referred to in the epic sweep of this mock-dynastic history, which documents the extraordinary development of the town of Explosion from an insignificant village in Henan province to a populous, economic powerhouse in under 50 years. The narrative elsewhere alludes to a disgraced village elder drowned in a basin of spittle, and to the introduction of a policy of compulsory cremations that causes a number of elderly people to take their own lives in order to be buried before the deadline. These are also incidents from recent Chinese history that actually happened – needless to say, it becomes difficult in Yan’s work to separate fiction from reality. Continue reading...[...]

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The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill review – descent into a fairytale underworld

Thu, 30 Mar 2017 14:00:28 GMT2017-03-30T14:00:28Z

Talented, in love and separated, two orphans search for each other in a burlesque world of violence, lust and make-believe

It is said that every novel should teach us how to read it, school us in the particular conventions to which it will adhere; and that whatever those conventions are, they should produce an internally coherent world. When I reached the scene in The Lonely Hearts Hotel where Rose, who has just miscarried, puts her dead baby in her coat pocket and goes out for a bowl of soup and I didn’t bat an eye, I knew I’d been taught how to read this novel.

Heather O’Neill’s novel, longlisted for the Baileys women’s prize for fiction, begins in 1914. Rose and Pierrot, each abandoned by a teenage mother, end up at a Montreal orphanage. Rose is a rebel, theatrical and introspective. Pierrot is happy, musical, acrobatic – either a genius or a fool. He falls in love with Rose the day she is made to stand on a chair as punishment for masturbation, the only girl to have earned the dishonour.

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Like Death by Guy de Maupassant review – a sexy, intoxicating read

Wed, 29 Mar 2017 08:59:01 GMT2017-03-29T08:59:01Z

Newly translated, this heady novel reveals the decadant, suffocating lives of le beau monde in belle époque France

Olivier Bertin is a celebrated painter, and for 12 years has been the lover of Anne, the Comtesse de Guilleroy. The last time Olivier had seen Anne’s daughter, Annette, she was six and being sent off with colouring books while her mother sat for her portrait and began her affair with the artist, now so long established that it has become comfortable, automatic almost. And then the daughter returns from her education, aged 18 ...

Maupassant was more famous for his stories than his novels, but he could pace a narrative of either length superbly, and if this at times feels more like a long-drawn-out story than a novel, that is because of its limited cast of characters, its confinement largely to the drawing rooms, salons and playgrounds of the Parisian beau monde, and not because it is too long. It needs the space to stretch out, to illustrate the suffocating nature of the genteel life. Early on there is an extended passage of about a dozen pages stiff with dukes that pushed me to the limits of my patience, but persevere, it’s a necessary backdrop.

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Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman review – nice dramatic narratives, but where’s the nihilism?

Wed, 29 Mar 2017 08:00:02 GMT2017-03-29T08:00:02Z

With its chatty gods and gentle giants, Gaiman’s good-natured version of the mythos lacks brutal tragedy at its heart

Any retelling of a tale from times long past must be an interpretation, a translation into language and concepts that the present audience understands. The original myth may have been told as uninterpreted fact, but later re-tellers are and must be conscious of who their audience is and the purpose of the telling. To what extent does this consciousness shape the choice of what’s told and the language that it’s told in? Interpretation may clarify, betray, reveal, deform.

For the Norse myths, we really have no original, only interpretations. Most of the material was first written down by a single monk a century or more after Christianity had outlawed and supplanted the “heathen” religion of northern Europe. Later came scholarly attempts to translate and present the stories so as to glimpse what the lost original versions may have been.

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