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Books | The Guardian



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



Published: Fri, 20 Jan 2017 08:11:27 GMT2017-01-20T08:11:27Z

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



Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta review – an adventure in film

Fri, 20 Jan 2017 07:30:00 GMT2017-01-20T07:30:00Z

Cinematic scenes of seduction and confession jostle with film analysis in this fresh approach to the novel

We’re always keen to get a handle on a novel. We like to sum it up, describe what it’s like. And we like the title to do that job for us as well, so there are a lot of concrete nouns on the covers of novels, a lot of names or places; themes and ideas come attached, for the most part, to the security of the definite article. 

What do we make of a title such as Innocents and Others? As a description it couldn’t be more abstract, those two words yoked together, one undoing the other, somehow. Yet it’s for these reasons and more that Dana Spiotta’s latest fictional adventure is so compelling. It’s as though, by not ever quite knowing what this book is about, we are drawn further and further into its complicated and fabulously intelligent interior. Full of film references and critiques, essays and lists, Innocents and Others puts information and theory in the place where in other novels a “character” might reside. 

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Library campaigners present 'innovative agenda' to rescue struggling sector

Fri, 20 Jan 2017 06:00:00 GMT2017-01-20T06:00:00Z

As another local authority announces plans to slash its service, lobbyists call for urgent meeting with minister to discuss set of new ideas

Campaigners have requested an urgent meeting with ministers to discuss measures to address the crisis in public-library funding. The appeal follows news that Plymouth is the latest council to propose cuts to its service in order to shore up its overall budget.

In a letter seen by the Guardian, campaigners led by former Faber & Faber director Desmond Clarke propose measures to improve efficiency that include merging library authorities, boosting book budgets, introducing a national ebook-lending scheme and updating technology.

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Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens due on Amazon Prime in 2018

Thu, 19 Jan 2017 16:49:37 GMT2017-01-19T16:49:37Z

Gaiman has scripted all six episodes of TV adaptation of his and Pratchett’s comic novel about the end of the world, originally published in 1990

Neil Gaiman’s TV adaptation of his book Good Omens, written with his late friend and collaborator Terry Pratchett, has been picked up by Amazon Studios for a worldwide release in 2018.

Gaiman, who is also serving as showrunner on the series, has written all six one-hour episodes. The show, which has been co-produced with BBC Studios, will premiere in 2018 on Amazon’s streaming service Prime Video, and will be broadcast on the BBC in the UK soon afterwards.

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Were JG Ballard's billboards actually coded Salvador Dalí paintings?

Thu, 19 Jan 2017 13:27:46 GMT2017-01-19T13:27:46Z

Long before he was a famous novelist, Crash’s author conceived a baffling London-wide poster campaign. Could the great surrealist’s paintings help decipher it?

JG Ballard was best known for his pioneering dystopian fiction, and his twisted reimaginings of the technological landscape. The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) – which tells of a man’s descent into psychosis amid the bustling, consumer world – was banned in the US, while Crash, published three years later, saw one critic proclaim Ballard as “beyond psychiatric help” (a diagnosis he often boasted about during interviews).

But more than a decade earlier, in 1958, Ballard created a series of unusual and mystifying commercial billboards, which he called Project for a New Novel. With their motley amalgam of seemingly unrelated scientific journal excerpts, perplexing words, names and phrases, they supposedly held some underlying narrative. But what exactly was it? The puzzle has mystified Ballardian scholars and enthusiasts for decades.

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Microsoft pilots ebook sales in Windows 10

Thu, 19 Jan 2017 15:24:34 GMT2017-01-19T15:24:34Z

Publishers offer cautious welcome after leak shows software giant has included a bookselling section in a new build of its operating system

Two years after Microsoft walked away from digital bookselling, a leak of its latest software has hinted that it may ready to try again.

In what may be a fishing exercise to gauge interest, a dedicated bookselling section features in a leaked build of the software giant’s Windows 10 update for phones.

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Black Ops Advertising by Mara Einstein review – stealth marketing is everywhere

Thu, 19 Jan 2017 15:00:05 GMT2017-01-19T15:00:05Z

Your smartphone is an ad-delivery device. The line between content and advertising is blurred. But is the answer to go offline?

On the internet, advertising is the industry that dare not speak its name. A Facebook post is “suggested”; a tweet is “promoted” – they are ads. An article or video is “presented by” or “sponsored” – it’s an ad. Even something as impressive as Felix Baumgartner’s skydive from the edge of space in 2012 – that was an ad, paid for by Red Bull. The term “content” serves to blur lines – helpfully, from an advertiser’s point of view – between what is advertising and what isn’t.

Google’s founders once wrote that any search engine that sold ads would be compromised; now it’s the biggest advertising company on the planet. Your smartphone, media studies professor Mara Einstein says, is fundamentally an ad-delivery device. Advertising is everywhere. And yet, increasingly, we don’t want to see it. We install ad-blockers because webpages are increasingly slowed down by waiting for intrusive adverts to be loaded from some distant server, and because we don’t want to be tracked around the internet by shadowy companies that trade our personal data. But who does ad-blocking really hurt? Clue: not the advertisers.

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Five of the best climate-change novels

Thu, 19 Jan 2017 11:27:02 GMT2017-01-19T11:27:02Z

From the dystopias of Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood to a ‘biopunk’ thriller and a teen comedy – these are some of the best stories of ecological peril

There’s a brief reference to nuclear attack – “a sudden shear of light and then a series of low concussions” – but the slow process of climate change isn’t mentioned in this terrifying 2006 novel about a man and his young son struggling to survive after the fall of civilisation. Make no mistake, though, this is a book about environmental apocalypse: what would happen to humans, and our humanity, if the natural world was no longer a self-replenishing, bountiful support system for the higher apes who scratch at its surface but just another dead rock in space.

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The best recent thrillers – review roundup

Thu, 19 Jan 2017 12:00:01 GMT2017-01-19T12:00:01Z

Sirens by Joseph Knox, Cast Iron by Peter May, Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land, Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry, Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough, Devour by LA Larkin

Many a debut thriller sinks without trace, while others have success embedded in their DNA. Joseph Knox’s Sirens (Doubleday, £12.99) is resoundingly in the latter category – a firecracker of a first novel which strongly suggests a far more experienced novelist (the book apparently took eight years to write). In a phantasmagorically realised Manchester, Aidan Waits, a detective in disgrace after pocketing seized drugs, is forced to go undercover. On the trail of the runaway daughter of an MP, Waits is soon entangled in a web of deception involving both the establishment and brutal drug barons. It’s a satisfyingly seamy slice of noir, with the conflicted Waits sporting all the accoutrements of the best antiheroes in the genre. Knox presents the city as pungently and uncompromisingly as Ian Rankin does Edinburgh.

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The New Politics of Class review – has the working class been left behind?

Thu, 19 Jan 2017 07:29:30 GMT2017-01-19T07:29:30Z

Class divisions are as real as ever – it’s the politicians who have changed their priorities, as this illuminating book shows

If you open a history of Britain at random, it will tell you two things about the period you chance on: that it was a time of rapid change, and that the middle classes went on rising. Rising is what God put the middle classes on Earth to do. In fact, according to this illuminating study, they have now risen to the point where they outnumber the working class.

Whether this is true depends of course on how you define these categories. One might also wonder how much size matters. Marx thought that the proletariat would overthrow capitalism, but he did not think that this was because it formed a majority of the population. In fact, he was well aware that factory workers did not even constitute the majority of the working class, let alone of the nation as a whole. Most working people in Victorian Britain were domestic servants, of whom a large majority were women. Most of those who laboured in Marx’s day were not blue-collar male but white-petticoated female. The word proletariat derives from the Latin word for offspring, meaning those who were too poor to serve the state with anything but the potential workers they produced from their wombs. Today, in a world of postcolonial sweatshops and agricultural labour, the typical proletarian is still a woman.

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Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain by Julian Glover review – the colossus of roads

Thu, 19 Jan 2017 09:00:32 GMT2017-01-19T09:00:32Z

This is an evocative biography of Britain’s greatest civil engineer, who can take the credit for much of the industrial revolution’s architecture

Together with victorious generals and admirals, self-made engineers were the heroes of Victorian Britain, exemplary figures to generations of schoolchildren, industrial apprentices and autodidacts. Writers such as Samuel Smiles established the public reputation of these men via popular biographies, in which incidents in childhood often prefigured their later triumphs. These accounts frequently simplified, bowdlerised and partly invented their subjects’ lives, but the fact remains that their achievements were truly remarkable. A modern biographer faces the challenge of complicating the hagiographic picture without accidentally diminishing its triumphant effect, and the first thing to say about Julian Glover’s biography of the civil engineer Thomas Telford is that, in this fundamental respect, it succeeds very well.

Related: James Watt and the sabbath stroll that created the industrial revolution

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Books world alarmed by Pearson's sale of stake in Penguin Random House

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 16:29:07 GMT2017-01-18T16:29:07Z

Management have moved to reassure staff and writers that selling the 47% holding will not affect business, but authors and agents express unease

Authors and staff have reacted cautiously to news that Pearson is to sell its stake in Penguin Random House (PRH), the world’s biggest publisher and home to some of the most successful brands in books, among them Fifty Shades of Grey, Jamie Oliver and The Girl on the Train.

PRH moved quickly to address fears among staff that the sale of the 47% share to German-owned Bertelsmann would affect jobs. In a statement, global chief executive Markus Dohle promised it would be “business as usual for us”. He added: “Both Pearson and Bertelsmann continue to be very supportive of our strategy and our success, and both have been valued shareholders for us.”

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Wole Soyinka confirms he destroyed his green card after Trump win

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 18:09:57 GMT2017-01-18T18:09:57Z

The Nobel laureate, who threatened to destroy his green card last year, confirmed he has done so as an act of protest before 20 January’s inauguration ceremony

After threatening to do it a week before the US presidential elections last November, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka has confirmed he has destroyed his green card because Donald Trump won.

Soyinka, the first African writer to be awarded the Nobel prize in literature, was jailed twice for his criticism of the Nigerian government during the 1960s, famously composing protest poems on toilet paper from his cell in solitary confinement. In 1994, Soyinka’s passport was confiscated by the de facto president Sani Abacha after he urged Nigerians to not pay taxes, as their money would aid the military. After years of living in voluntary exile and teaching overseas, Soyinka eventually sought refuge in the United States that same year, with the help of former US president Jimmy Carter. He later received a death sentence in absentia in 1997, from the regime under Abacha.

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Alt-writing: how the far right is changing US publishing

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 10:59:11 GMT2017-01-18T10:59:11Z

Rightwing writers, ranging from conservative to lunatic fringe across all genres, have long been a lucrative books market. Will the new era see it grow?

He compares feminism to cancer, called transgender people “retarded” and once labelled a BuzzFeed reporter a “thick-as-pig-shit media Jew”. So when “alt-right” figurehead Milo Yiannopoulos, who relentlessly delights in wild provocation, landed a $250,000 (£203,000) book deal with Simon & Schuster, the publisher understandably – and almost immediately – issued a statement distancing itself from the views of the writers they publish: “The opinions expressed therein belong to our authors, and do not reflect either a corporate viewpoint or the views of our employees.”

Related: UK publishers shy away from 'alt-right' star Milo Yiannopoulos

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The Novel of the Century by David Bellos review – the story of Les Misérables

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 15:00:10 GMT2017-01-18T15:00:10Z

Victor Hugo was paid a fortune for his masterpiece about the poor. This biography of one of the world’s most read novels is rich in extraordinary detail

Victor Hugo, born in 1802 in the garrison town of Besançon, belonged to the first generation to write about the French Revolution of 1789 without personally remembering it. The son of a general in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, and a precociously talented poet, Hugo left school soon after his father’s fortunes collapsed alongside Napoleon’s, following the battle of Waterloo in 1815. By the time he was 39, he was already one of 40 “immortals” in the Académie Française, and in 1845 he was made a pair de France or “lord of the realm”.

David Bellos has written a biography not of Hugo, but of his masterpiece, Les Misérables. Putting recent literary scholarship into narrative form, Bellos traces the life of the 1,500-page novel from conception to publication, mentioning along the way the many film and musical adaptations of Les Misérables that have given it a rich life beyond the printed page.

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Top 10 megacities in fiction

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 12:34:44 GMT2017-01-18T12:34:44Z

The creativity and energy coming out of these vast human jostles is a challenge for writers. From Dickens to Anita Desai, here are some who meet it

There are cities and then there are megacities. The most prosaic definition of a megacity is one that has more than 10 million inhabitants. Lahore makes it. London doesn’t. This figure, however, is fairly arbitrary. The cutoff was once eight million. And who knows, with the rate of human multiplication, we might in future have to raise the bar to 15 million.

Whatever the number, Lagos will always qualify. I grew up in this megacity to end all megacities. By the time I finish typing this sentence, the entire population of Macclesfield will have arrived in Lagos and been absorbed without a trace.

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Testosterone Rex by Cordelia Fine review – the question of men’s and women’s brains

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 07:30:01 GMT2017-01-18T07:30:01Z

The psychologist provides more evidence that the inequality of the sexes in society is cultural not natural

Cordelia Fine is an optimistic writer. In her two earlier books of popular neuroscience (A Mind of Its Own and Delusions of Gender), the psychologist established a reputation for exemplary clarity on complex topics, pleasing wit, feminist principle – and beneath it all, the animating faith that people can be improved through knowledge. Testosterone Rex starts with a quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists that establishes the Fine approach perfectly: “But in addition to being angry, I am also hopeful, because I believe deeply in the ability of humans to make and remake themselves for the better.”

“Testosterone Rex”, Fine’s target, is the name she gives to “that familiar, plausible, pervasive and powerful story of sex and society”, which holds that inequality of the sexes is natural, not cultural. After all, testosterone makes men tall, hairy and deep-voiced; it makes a certain superficial sense to imagine it also produces other characteristics we think of as masculine, such as leadership, violence and horniness. For example, neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen (the Alien to Fine’s Ripley in the dispute over brain sex) calls the hormone “that special substance”, and credits it with inducing all manner of adaptive qualities in those creatures fortunate enough to produce large amounts of it. T is the king.

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Istanbul by Bettany Hughes review – a colourful, life-filled history

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 09:00:03 GMT2017-01-18T09:00:03Z

Istanbul, not Constantinople (or Byzantium) … this tale of three cities in one brims with romance and verve

For those who enjoy historical parallels, there was something particularly irresistible about the news in 2013 that the world’s deepest underwater railway tunnel linking Europe and Asia through the Bosphorus had opened beneath Istanbul. The record-breaking continental connection recalled Herodotus’s description, two-and-a-half millennia earlier, of the Persian emperor Darius I ordering the construction of a mile-long pontoon bridge across the water sometime around 513BC, the first literary reference to the city and an act of imperial hubris that would, inevitably, result in the nemesis of the Persian wars and defeat at the hands of the Greeks.

It is difficult to imagine the Turkish prime minister being gripped by such parallels. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a former mayor of Istanbul, instead made disparaging comments about the long delays to the tunnel caused by “clay pots” and “other stuff”, such stuff including the largest remains of a Byzantine fleet ever discovered, among other important archaeological findings. The modern Islamist is not generally known for his interest in non-Islamic history.

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Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon nominated for book critics award

Tue, 17 Jan 2017 23:24:31 GMT2017-01-17T23:24:31Z

Margaret Atwood also set to receive a lifetime achievement prize at this year’s National Book Critics Circle awards

Ann Patchett, Michael Chabon and Zadie Smith are among the nominees for the National Book Critics Circle awards in the US.

Books by Louise Erdrich and the former US poet laureate Robert Pinsky were also among 30 finalists in six categories (autobiography, biography, fiction, nonfiction, poetry and criticism) selected by the organisation yesterday.

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The Da Vinci Code code: what's the formula for a bestselling book?

Tue, 17 Jan 2017 17:49:13 GMT2017-01-17T17:49:13Z

Sales figures for the most popular modern authors round up familiar suspects from Dan Brown to JK Rowling. Taken together, they hint at surprising sales secrets

Steve Berry could be forgiven for asking himself every day what it takes to make a book a global bestseller. Back in 2003, the former lawyer published a novel that placed well-known myths in a conspiracy web to create a page-turning thriller.

Sound familiar? It should, except you’re thinking of Dan Brown and his flagellating priests in the multimillion seller The Da Vinci Code – not Berry’s tale of Nazis hunting Russian treasure in the barely known The Amber Room.

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Travel book of the year shortlist covers ground from Alabama to the Arctic

Tue, 17 Jan 2017 19:30:12 GMT2017-01-17T19:30:12Z

Six finalists include Paul Theroux’s Deep South, exploring the southern states of the US, and Geoff Dyer’s wide-ranging essay collection White Sand

Two literary heavyweights, two different takes on the US under Obama and two books that travel no further than Dover are competing to be named travel book of the year, on a shortlist notably low on women writers.

Paul Theroux and Geoff Dyer head a list of six authors shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman travel book of the year, announced at an event in London on Tuesday night.

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Tropes, trolls and Trump: the fantasy writer who inspired George RR Martin

Tue, 17 Jan 2017 11:30:02 GMT2017-01-17T11:30:02Z

Without Tad Williams there would be no Game of Thrones. The American novelist on reinventing fantasy – and why no one ever thinks they’re the bad guys

When the American fantasy writer Tad Williams first met Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, Martin growled at him: “Get the hell out of here.”

This was not yet another egoistic literary beef; Martin merely wanted his fellow author to get home and finish the next instalment of his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, which Martin had been patiently waiting to read. Perhaps this was a bit hypocritical coming from the famously slow-writing author of the series A Song of Ice and Fire, who is loved and moaned at by fans furiously awaiting his next book. But while Williams, who turns 60 in March, might not be quite the household name Martin is, he deserves wider cultural recognition: without Tad Williams, there would be no Game of Thrones.

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Translation Tuesday: Two poems by Shubham Shree

Tue, 17 Jan 2017 16:53:02 GMT2017-01-17T16:53:02Z

Indian poet Shubham Shree – who recently caused controversy with her bold use of slang and English words, considered a desecration of the tradition of Hindi poetry – presents two poems, about femininity and young love

By Shubham Shree and Daisy Rockwell for Translation Tuesdays by Asymptote, part of the Guardian Books Network

Our Winter 2017 issue, hot off the presses yesterday, celebrated our six years of publishing world literature with new work from 27 countries by authors such as Colm Tóibín, Cesare Pavese and Monika Rinck, alongside a Special Feature on Indian poetry focussing on marginalized voices. Here, via acclaimed translator Daisy Rockwell, we present two works from this Special Feature by 2016 Bharat Bhushan Agrawal Prize winner Shubham Shree—who recently caused great controversy with her bold use of slang and English words, considered a desecration of the tradition of Hindi poetry.

—Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-Chief, Asymptote

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Author sued for making children's books of On the Road and Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Thu, 19 Jan 2017 19:09:59 GMT2017-01-19T19:09:59Z

Swedish writer Fredrik Colting is being taken to court for infringing copyright on books including Breakfast at Tiffany’s and 2001: A Space Odyssey

Swedish author Fredrik Colting is being sued for creating children’s versions of classic novels.

Colting, who was taken to court in 2010 for publishing an unofficial sequel to The Catcher in the Rye, is now the subject of a suit filed by Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster and the estates of Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway and Arthur C Clarke.

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Joe Wicks's Lean in 15 books earn fattest sales of any British diet plan

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 17:27:01 GMT2017-01-18T17:27:01Z

In 18 months, the Instagram star’s three titles have sold more books than any other UK weight-loss title since records began

Instagrammer turned publishing sensation Joe Wicks is now the author of the UK’s biggest-selling diet books since records began.

The Body Coach’s three Lean in 15 books have all taken the top spot from previous all-time bestseller Gillian McKeith’s You Are What You Eat, according to Nielsen BookScan.

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2016 TS Eliot prize won by Jacob Polley's 'firecracker of a book'

Mon, 16 Jan 2017 19:30:18 GMT2017-01-16T19:30:18Z

Jackself, described by chair of judges Ruth Padel as ‘incredibly inventive and very moving’, takes prestigious £20,000 honour

Jacob Polley has won the 2016 TS Eliot prize with Jackself, a collection described by the judges as “a firework of a book”.

The loosely autobiographical poems use the “Jack” of nursery rhyme and local legend to tell the story of a childhood in rural Cumbria, from the “cartilage stew and spreadable carrots” of school dinners to the limpets the title character “rives from a crevice” on the rocky shore at low tide, “where the pools gaze / with new lenses at their grotto walls / flinching with jellies”.

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Babette Cole, anarchic creator of Princess Smartypants, dies at 66

Mon, 16 Jan 2017 12:42:21 GMT2017-01-16T12:42:21Z

Flood of tributes to author and illustrator of ‘exuberant, heartfelt and very funny’ books is led by children’s laureate Chris Riddell

Babette Cole: How I Made James Rabbit and the Giggleberries – in pictures

The world of children’s publishing is in mourning after the death on Sunday of one of its brightest, most eccentric and anarchic characters, Babette Cole.

Children’s laureate Chris Riddell and Michael Rosen were among those to pay tribute to the author and illustrator, whose books include the 1986 classic of feminist fairytale revisionism, Princess Smartypants, which reimagined the archetypal girl heroine as a motorbiking tearaway.

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The Night Manager team to adapt another Le Carré spy classic

Sun, 15 Jan 2017 20:21:17 GMT2017-01-15T20:21:17Z

After success of hit series, BBC is creating first onscreen adaptation of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold since 1965 film

The creators of the BBC1 hit series The Night Manager are to adapt another of John Le Carré’s popular books: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

The BBC1 show will be another co-production with US network AMC, following the huge success of The Night Manager, which starred Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman.

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Nobel prize winner Svetlana Alexievich quits 'shameful' Russian PEN

Sat, 14 Jan 2017 08:00:20 GMT2017-01-14T08:00:20Z

Author of acclaimed reportage joins 30 other writers leaving after expulsion of jailed journalist Sergey Parkhomenko in ‘craven violation of PEN’s founding ideals’

Nobel prize winner Svetlana Alexievich has quit the Russian PEN centre to protest against the expulsion of journalist and activist Sergey Parkhomenko, joining 30 other writers including novelist Boris Akunin and poet Lev Rubinstein leaving the organisation.

Alexievich, who withdrew from the organisation on 11 January, wrote in a statement: “My comment on Parkhomenko’s exclusion [from PEN] can only be my application to leave the Russian PEN, whose founding ideals were cravenly violated. In the perestroika years we took pride in our PEN but now we are ashamed of it. Russian writers acted as subserviently and outrageously only during the Stalinist period. But Putin will go, whereas this shameful page from the history of PEN will stay. And the names will stay, too. We now live through times when we cannot win over evil, we are powerless before the ‘red man’. But he cannot stop time. I believe in that.”

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Exorcist author William Peter Blatty dies aged 89

Fri, 13 Jan 2017 16:25:02 GMT2017-01-13T16:25:02Z

The author and filmmaker, most famous for his 1971 novel about a possessed child, died of a form of blood cancer

William Peter Blatty, author of the novel The Exorcist and writer of its film adapation, has died aged 89.

Blatty was most famous for his 1971 horror story, which told the story of a child possessed by a demon. The image of the demonic Regan became iconic among horror fans and the novel was a huge bestseller, remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for 57 straight weeks and at the No 1 spot for 17 of them. In 1973, Blatty won an Oscar for his screenplay of his own book and later wrote and directed a film sequel, 1990’s The Exorcist III.

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China rewrites history books to extend Sino-Japanese war by six years

Fri, 13 Jan 2017 14:14:35 GMT2017-01-13T14:14:35Z

In a move expected to anger Japan, government orders amendment of school texts to move back war’s official outbreak from 1937 to 1931

China’s government has ordered that all Chinese history textbooks be rewritten to extend the second Sino-Japanese war by six years, a move likely to inflame relations with Japan.

The conflict, which has been known for generations in China as the “eight-year war of resistance against Japanese aggression”, is usually recorded as starting in 1937 and ending in 1945. However, in a statement on Wednesday, President Xi Jinping’s government renamed the conflict the “14-year war of resistance against Japanese aggression” and has ordered that textbooks be revised to record it as lasting from 1931 until 1945.

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Dutch literature: lost to English translation

Tue, 17 Jan 2017 13:32:53 GMT2017-01-17T13:32:53Z

How many authors from the country can you name? I couldn’t think of many, so a new Penguin anthology of strangely familiar short stories is very welcome

Where to begin with Dutch literature? Any reasonably outward-looking British reader can reel off a list of French, Spanish, Italian and Scandinavian writers, classic and contemporary. German, too, though they’re more likely to be from the last century than this one. But Dutch? It is a strange gap in our cultural knowledge of Europe.

The lack is surprising when you consider how similar the Dutch and British national types are. Granted, Herman Koch’s The Dinner was a big international hit in 2009, with its public evisceration of a supposedly happy family, and Gerbrand Bakker won the International IMPAC Dublin literary award in 2010 with his debut, The Twin. And then there’s Cees Nooteboom, now in his 80s, who has entered the rarefied upper atmosphere of “being mentioned as a Nobel candidate”. But those were the Dutch authors I could name … until the appearance of The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories.

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How does Penelope Fitzgerald light up The Beginning of Spring?

Tue, 17 Jan 2017 09:48:08 GMT2017-01-17T09:48:08Z

Our second book from this amazing author has a less obscure subject than The Blue Flower, but how its author wove its narrative magic is no easier to say

Penelope Lively said that her namesake and fellow literary genius Penelope Fitzgerald was sometimes tricky to talk to. She could be “evasive, or rather, elusive … You kept wanting to yank her back on course, but couldn’t.”

As many interviewers and literary festival chairs discovered, to probe her too deeply was to find yourself led astray. Fitzgerald only gave people the information she wanted them to have.

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Poem of the week: The Attraction by John Riley

Mon, 16 Jan 2017 11:43:56 GMT2017-01-16T11:43:56Z

From the last years of the 60s, this is a startlingly even-handed depiction of personal and social promise – and its inevitable dangers

The attraction of well-washed hands and young words.
Hands eyes emotions in confined spaces.
The hill seems clean, the houses on top of it we ignore.

Smoke in the valley too proclaims a settlement.
Even the glances of the very poor at the moderately rich
Are timid. Always with us. Settled in.

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The Divided States: Trump's inauguration and how democracy has failed | Pankaj Mishra

Fri, 13 Jan 2017 12:00:17 GMT2017-01-13T12:00:17Z

Donald Trump and his demonisation of minorities are not the exception in US history – they are its logical conclusion. Pankaj Mishra examines the dream of the multiracial democracy, and America’s failure to realise it

Never in human history have so many diverse peoples lived together as in our time. Nor has the appeal of democracy ever been so widespread. The promise of equal rights and citizenship held out by modern society has been universally embraced, especially keenly by people long deprived of them. But, as Donald Trump, the favoured candidate of white supremacists, becomes president of the United States, the quintessential multicultural democracy, the long arc of the moral universe, as Martin Luther King called it, does not seem to be bending to justice.

Trump came into political prominence accusing the first black president of the United States of being foreign born; he rose to supreme power stigmatising Mexicans as rapists and Muslims as terrorists. His election victory was engineered by Steve Bannon, the executive chairman of Breitbart News, an online site notorious for its antisemitism, racism, misogyny and xenophobia. The joint arrival of Trump and Bannon in the White House, where they will enjoy nearly unlimited power, completes a comprehensive recent rout of the founding principle of the modern world: that, as the revolutionary phrases of 1776 had it, “all men are created equal”, entitled to the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.

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

Mon, 16 Jan 2017 15:00:27 GMT2017-01-16T15:00:27Z

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.

George Orwell doesn’t look like he’s going to go out of fashion any time soon. That’s partly because of the unfortunate tenor of our times. But also, as Applecake pointed out, because he could write so damn well:

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A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen: a hard search for a new self

Wed, 11 Jan 2017 10:00:16 GMT2017-01-11T10:00:16Z

Nora Helmer starts out as a perfectly compliant wife and mother in this 1879 drama, but a life-threatening ordeal drives her to break out of convention

Compared to the dramas in Ibsen’s 1890 play Hedda Gabler – alcohol abuse, sexual blackmail, destroyed works of art, unwanted pregnancies, suicide, etc – the decidedly quieter thread of defiance in his earlier play A Doll’s House, may, initially, appear a little underwhelming.

Were the heroines of the two plays somehow able to appear on the same stage together, Nora Helmer wouldn’t last five minutes against Hedda Gabler before being sent scampering into the wings with boxed ears. Hedda is a woman who spends the entire length of her play systematically destroying lives; Nora, to a fault, is hopelessly devoted to protecting her husband Torvald from any hint of scandal. That said, the two characters do share a number of striking similarities. Both are attractive young wives, brought up by domineering fathers, and held back from realising their full potential by bourgeois conventions.

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Herman Melville's Bartleby and the steely strength of mild rebellion

Mon, 09 Jan 2017 10:00:14 GMT2017-01-09T10:00:14Z

The story of a 19th-century office worker who manages to refuse the rules of his society without ever saying no is a story of metaphysical defiance

There are very few stories that, on re-reading after re-reading, seem to become impossibly more perfect, but Herman Melville’s eerie, aching story Bartleby, the Scrivener is one such. Like a parable without an obvious moral, it is defiance raised to the metaphysical.

The plot is easily comprehensible; the meaning utterly elusive. The narrator, an unnamed New York lawyer, takes on a new scrivener, or copyist. Our lawyer describes his own philosophy as “the easiest way of life is the best” and relishes that he has a “snug retreat” where he can “do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title deeds”. He has two clerks already, nicknamed Turkey and Nippers, and a junior jack-of-all-trades, a boy called Ginger Nut.

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Jonathan Coe: will satire save us in the age of Trump?

Fri, 06 Jan 2017 12:00:18 GMT2017-01-06T12:00:18Z

As the boundaries between caricature and reality become so thoroughly blurred, we need humour more than ever

I’ve always quite liked Alec Baldwin, but like many liberals I now regard him with something approaching hero-worship for his series of brilliant Donald Trump impersonations during the latest season of Saturday Night Live. The last sketch before Christmas was especially sharp. After the president-elect has been visited in Trump Tower by a bare-chested Vladimir Putin, who generously declares that he doesn’t want a gift from Trump because “You are the gift, Donald”, Rex Tillerson (played by John Goodman) arrives, and soon huddles into a corner with Putin to discuss the carving up of Russian oilfields in return for lifted sanctions.

Related: ‘None of the old rules apply’: Dave Eggers travels through post-election America

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Hull is a worthy UK City of Culture – whatever Alan Bennett says

Thu, 05 Jan 2017 16:00:09 GMT2017-01-05T16:00:09Z

The Leeds-born author has said he is struggling to see Hull as City of Culture. So what of its literary figures Philip Larkin, Andrew Marvell and Stevie Smith?

“I know it sounds awful,” said Alan Bennett in a Guardian interview in October, “but I find it quite difficult to take the notion of Hull as a European City of Culture.” Many may feel the same way, but from Leeds-born Bennett the unusually sloppy remark - Hull has just begun its reign as UK, not European, City of Culture – smacks of sniffiness towards an upstart Yorkshire rival. As a poetry buff alone he will be aware of its convincing claims to be a literary hub.

Related: Alan Bennett: ‘After Brexit, if people had voted out, I wouldn’t give them a selfie’

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This year's biggest book adaptations – and which ones are worth reading first

Thu, 05 Jan 2017 12:55:57 GMT2017-01-05T12:55:57Z

From Margaret Atwood to Stephen King, a host of great authors will see work adapted for film and TV this year. Here’s our guide to which to read before you watch

Thanks to Hollywood’s baffling inability to produce anything that wasn’t first a book, a question that gets asked more and more these days is: “Should I read the original?” There is no default answer. Sometimes, the book is so far removed that reading it lends nothing new to the cinematic experience; sometimes “the book” is actually eight chunky volumes in an epic fantasy series, and an intimidating experience for the casual reader. Sometimes – unthinkably – the adaptation is better than the book.

There is a rich list of fiction being adapted this year, so here is a guide to which books are worth experiencing on their own, before seeing the version overseen by producers panicking because there is not enough stabbing and too much bonking. And indeed, on that note …

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Rabbit, Run is about a rebel we all know

Thu, 05 Jan 2017 10:00:02 GMT2017-01-05T10:00:02Z

John Updike’s disappointed young man dreams of escaping a workaday existence in a way that’s still familiar nearly 60 years on

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, John Updike’s protagonist in Rabbit, Run, isn’t a freedom fighter or an intellectual. He’s not even particularly oppressed. What he is fighting back against is at once mundane and relatable: middle-class society.

A former high-school basketball star, Rabbit is used to adoration, exhilaration and adrenaline. But, just 26, he works in a sales job that he doesn’t like, saddled with a two-year-old son and a pregnant wife who drinks and smokes too much. He yearns for freedom and questions the choices he has made. He wants out.

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

Mon, 02 Jan 2017 10:11:45 GMT2017-01-02T10:11:45Z

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 over the Christmas holiday period.

I’m loath to start the year with a complaint. It’s not as if I didn’t do enough moaning in 2016. Even so. 1,200 comments over the last two weeks? How can I hope to do those justice? Especially when so many were clever, intriguing, enlightening and/ or funny. Oh well. What follows is just a small selection of the many, many excellent tips and recommendations you provided. Oh and one post which we may regard as a warning from lonelybloomer:

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Poem of the week: Italy to Lord by Jane Draycott

Mon, 02 Jan 2017 15:35:49 GMT2017-01-02T15:35:49Z

This gentle, subtle reflection on a child’s-eye view of an encyclopedia’s exotic secrets is also a vision of a lost world

Italy to Lord

It’s dark in here and forest green: Britannica,
sixteen oak trees in a London living room,
the little girl, my mother, in the bookcase glass.
Italy, Ithaca, Izmail, Japan, each page a mainsail,
turning, HMS Discovery – none of the rivers
of southern Italy is of any great importance.

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What's your new year's reading resolution?

Mon, 02 Jan 2017 08:00:19 GMT2017-01-02T08:00:19Z

Last year I opted to explore women writers and the results were life-changing. So what’ll it be for you this year? More classics? More BAME writers?

You’ve overdone it, again; gorged yourself on titular girls and titanium men, left that set of Penguin classics to stand untouched on the shelf. The excuses are: there’s no time, you’re tired, you need to ”switch off” in the evening. It’s time to get serious in 2017! Cancel that gym membership, remove all trace of kale from the blender and make some new year reading resolutions instead.

I did exactly this at the start of 2016, when I was asked about my favourite authors. I smugly reeled off a list of names, displaying my immaculate taste and erudition.

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Fiction to look out for in 2017

Sun, 01 Jan 2017 08:00:01 GMT2017-01-01T08:00:01Z

With hotly tipped new work from major names including Arundhati Roy and Paul Auster, 2017 looks set to be a strong year for novelsThe febrile US political atmosphere seems to have stirred something long-dormant in three major American novelists, all of whom publish fine new books in the coming months. First, there’s Michael Chabon’s Moonglow (Fourth Estate). Taking in radicalism and rocket science, this is a wildly inventive and often very funny novel, and such a relief after its tedious predecessor, Telegraph Avenue. Speaking of tedious, Jonathan Lethem’s career has never quite regained the heights of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude. The Blot (Jonathan Cape), out in February, tells of a telepathic backgammon shark with a brain tumour. It’s a return to form, absurd and digressive in a way that makes clear Lethem’s debt to Thomas Pynchon. Finally, and most surprisingly, there’s Paul Auster’s 4321 (Faber). Auster is 70 in 2017, which shocked me rather – I still think of him as a sprightly iconoclast. His new novel is so much better than anything since The Music of Chance, you wonder if it can really be by the same author as Invisible or Oracle Night. This meticulously plotted book weaves four possible stories out of the life of one man – Ferguson – who makes his way through the second half of the 20th century being buffeted by forces political and personal. Think a postmodern take on Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.One’s heart goes out to the contemporary American novelist, for whom daily reality seems to outstrip the reach of both satire and dystopia. All the more impressive that a debutant, Nathan Hill, with his scintillating The Nix (Picador), has given us a character who comes close to out-Trumping Trump. Sheldon Packer is a bilious demagogue, just one of the many pleasures of this engaging story of a mother and son whose private travails become front-page news. Other first novels worth looking out for are Sympathy (One) by Olivia Sudjic, the best fictional account I’ve read of the way the internet has shaped our inner lives. A literary thriller that confirms the arrival of a major new talent. There’s also The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times (Salt) by Xan Brooks – a fairytale wrapped within a historical novel, it’s as quixotic and dreamlike as Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Elif Batuman’s memoir of a life in love with Russian literature, The Possessed, was stunning and her first novel, The Idiot (Cape), is just as good – a moving, continent-hopping coming-of-age story. Continue reading...[...]


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The Good Immigrant: why BAME writers are 'done justifying our place at the table'

Thu, 29 Dec 2016 10:00:01 GMT2016-12-29T10:00:01Z

Nikesh Shukla’s collection of essays by minority British writers makes it plain why the UK is long overdue for a more diverse self-definition

The Good Immigrant starts, appropriately, with an essay titled Namaste. “It just means hello,” says a bewildered Nikesh Shukla to a woman who repeats the Hindi word to him while offering him her henna stained hands. He’s outside an arts space that’s “part bar/club, part sustainable restaurant, part hot-desking for freelance artists and part dance studio”; tellingly, namaste is defined by Urban Dictionary as: “a word thrown around by Trustafarians and hippies as they shop in Whole Foods while wearing their eco-green Birkenstocks”. Namaste is thrown at Shukla again, this time as a defiant retort from two young neighbours when he asks them to turn down their music at 2am. Language matters. A lot.

Cultural misappropriation is one of the many themes of this book of essays, edited by Shukla himself. The book is made up of pieces by 21 emerging writers exploring what it means to be black, Asian or minority ethnic in Britain today. It was crowfunded directly by readers, reaching its goal in three days (after JK Rowling inspired a surge via a tweet and pledged £5,000 herself). It was originally inspired by a Guardian comment, of all things: below a piece where an Asian journalist had interviewed several authors who happened to be people of colour, a commenter wondered if they were all perhaps friends. “This constant anxiety we feel as people of colour to justify our space … continues to hound us,” writes Shukla. Because, while these 21 writers don’t only write about race, or want to, they need to, “because we’re done justifying our place at the table”.

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Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes is 'a great shout of life'

Wed, 28 Dec 2016 10:00:32 GMT2016-12-28T10:00:32Z

Defying the genteel harness of Edwardian spinsterhood, this novel’s heroine instead becomes a witch and dallies with Satan himself

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel Lolly Willowes is an act of defiance that gladdens the soul. Put simply, it’s the story of a woman who becomes a witch – but it will subvert any expectations prompted by that synopsis as gleefully as it subverts every theme it touches on: gender roles, family love, social convention, religious propriety.

Born into a stuffy, self-satisfied family who are content to stay in the Victorian era while the world changes around them, Laura Willowes is a dreamy young woman with no interest in marriage. On the death of her father, it seems quite natural that she be “absorbed into the household” of her brother Henry and his wife Caroline “like a piece of family property forgotten in the will”. In their London home, she becomes indispensable “Aunt Lolly”, forever obliged and obliging to others, the only sign of her self-will the extravagant hothouse flowers she sneaks into the mean territory of her small bedroom each winter.

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'Where's the beef?' The weirdest stories from 2016’s autobiographies

Tue, 27 Dec 2016 18:00:12 GMT2016-12-27T18:00:12Z

Why was Michael Gove hiding in toilets, what did Carrie Fisher finally confirm for Star Wars fans, and how did Phil Collins witness a historic act of adultery?

Where we learned it: Carrie Fisher, The Princess Diarist

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Reading group: which Penelope Fitzgerald book should we read in January?

Tue, 27 Dec 2016 13:00:12 GMT2016-12-27T13:00:12Z

She only started publishing at 58 and was one of the most controversial winners in Booker history. But a century after her birth her reputation is still growing. Let’s find out why

This month on the reading group we’re going to read something by Penelope Fitzgerald. There’s been a long (and successful!) campaign of popular pressure to read one of her novels both in this group and over on our Tips, links and suggestions pages – and since December 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the novelist’s birth, it felt right to read her now.

It also feels right to start the new year off with a strong female voice – one whose reputation only seems to be growing as the years go by .

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Poem of the week: Jolly Jankin by Anonymous

Mon, 26 Dec 2016 11:00:41 GMT2016-12-26T11:00:41Z

Blending the language of high mass with ribald vernacular, this mischievous carol is melodious even without the music that would once have accompanied it

Jolly Jankin

‘Kyrie’, so ‘kyrie’,
Jankin syngeth merie
With ‘aleyson’.

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Hits and misses: indie publishers pick their books of 2016

Wed, 21 Dec 2016 10:00:14 GMT2016-12-21T10:00:14Z

Small and independent houses share the books they enjoyed and envied this year

The annual Guardian “hits and misses” feature, canvassing publishers about their high points and regrets of the year, always makes me wonder about what my friends and allies in the small-press world think about their own successes and failures. About whether they’d lament the same missed books and share the same triumphs as those in the corporate world. Or whether the small-press universe is entirely different. I put the questions to them once again and their replies were as intriguing as ever.

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Cicero to go? How to Trump the art of oratory

Fri, 13 Jan 2017 13:00:18 GMT2017-01-13T13:00:18Z

Abraham Lincoln set the standard, John F Kennedy’s words live on today – so what will Donald Trump add to the history of the inaugural speech?

George Washington, the first president, was trembling as he gave his inaugural address, and his immediate successors John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were respectively terrified of having a mid-speech panic attack and criticised as “near-inaudible”. Two hundred years later, in the alternative political reality of The West Wing, President Bartlet fretted up to the last moment about what to put in and leave out of his second address, despite (with third terms ruled out) having no further need to seek public approval. Such are the strains derived from a paradoxical American tradition: a display of the ancient art of oratory is the first task required of new or re-elected heads of a nation that, from Washington onwards – his first inauguration in April 1789 preceded by only 75 days the start of the French Revolution that took its lead from America’s - has prided itself on spearheading the world into the future. Donald Trump will become the latest exponent of this esoteric literary form when he delivers the 58th inaugural address next Friday.

What may have frightened the Founding Fathers was the prospect of failing to meet the standards of Cicero and other classical orators, and their own more silver-tongued contemporaries; whereas for recent presidents including Barack Obama the bar has been set by the addresses generally agreed to be the finest. These are Abraham Lincoln’s (in 1861 and 1865, just before and in the final months of the civil war), two of FD Roosevelt’s (mid-Depression in 1933 and rededicating himself to take his still-stricken people to a “happy valley” in 1937), and John F Kennedy’s sole address in 1961, weeks away from the centenary of Lincoln’s first.

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Picture this: Joe Wicks and his Instagram peers are strengthening publishing

Thu, 12 Jan 2017 11:03:09 GMT2017-01-12T11:03:09Z

The Body Coach is a million seller and other web stars’ books are selling very well. Publishers in profit is good news for readers – and some of these books are actually worth reading

Joe Wicks. Heard of him? You’ve undoubtedly seen him: also known as the Body Coach, the eternally cheerful Wicks currently has three health and fitness books in the UK top 10 – and it’s all thanks to Instagram. He joined the social media site in 2013 to get more clients for his personal training business, and his toned pecs, quick workouts, and 15-second video recipes won him a 150,000-strong following and the attention of publishers. Macmillan’s Bluebird imprint didn’t reveal what it paid for Wicks’s first two books in 2015, but the Bookseller reported it was a “heated” eight-way auction, so it’s safe to assume six figures. (The two-book deal later became four, now eight.)

Related: Lean in 15’s Joe Wicks: ‘I don’t understand the clean-eating thing. I’ve just had bangers and mash’

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The Blue Flower's elusive magic

Tue, 10 Jan 2017 15:36:17 GMT2017-01-10T15:36:17Z

Penelope Fitzgerald’s subject is recondite, and her meaning hard to decipher – but she’s such an engaging writer that the reader won’t mind too much


Not everyone was delighted that we voted to read Penelope Fitzgerald’s final novel on the Reading group this month.

“I think it’s a mistake to begin with The Blue Flower,” said contributor Michaelmack. “It’s very much a writer’s book, as witnessed by how many of them went apeshit crazy banana over it in 1995. So specific too.”

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John Fowles's The Tree is a humble revolt against 'usefulness'

Tue, 10 Jan 2017 10:00:48 GMT2017-01-10T10:00:48Z

His meditation on nature and creativity encourages readers to turn away from purposeful activity and embrace the ‘profound harmlessness’ of natural life

I picked up John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman in a bargain bin last summer. It was so brilliant that I quickly read three more of his books, which absolutely never happens. Combining titanic commercial heft with highbrow complexity, Fowles’s novels are daring, funny and unpredictable; so unpredictable, in fact, that they sometimes seemed to wrongfoot themselves. “The Magus has more surprising plot twists than almost any book I’ve ever read,” writes the critic Ted Gioia. “Every 30 pages, more or less, something transpires that forces the reader to reassess everything they have learned in previous chapters.” This ingenuity did for the ill-fated film version, with star Michael Caine admitting that even the cast didn’t have a clue what was going on.

The Tree, Fowles’s 90-page meditation on nature and creativity – which he calls “siblings, branches of the one tree” – gives a hint as to why this might be. It’s a blissful fusion of memoir, social history, art criticism and nature writing. Beginning with the fanatically over-pruned fruit trees in his father’s suburban garden, Fowles takes us on a journey through western humanity’s relationship with the natural world. There’s a basic error in the way we relate to nature, he says: we have been duped by Victorian science and its “obsession with the machine” into seeing it as either potential for commercial yield or a kind of intellectual puzzle. Both are subtle species of control that ultimately alienate us from the richness of being in nature and our own “greener, more mysterious processes of mind”:

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Books in 2017: a literary calendar

Sat, 07 Jan 2017 12:00:18 GMT2017-01-07T12:00:18Z

Jane Austen’s bicentenary, Arundhati Roy’s first novel in 20 years, and unpublished F Scott Fitzgerald ... the literary year ahead

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The 100 best nonfiction books: No 50 – Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey (1918)

Mon, 16 Jan 2017 05:44:15 GMT2017-01-16T05:44:15Z

Lytton Strachey’s partisan, often inaccurate but brilliant demolitions of four great 19th-century Britons did much to usher in the modern era

Eminent Victorians is often seen as an oedipal massacre of discredited father figures – an assault on the Victorian establishment from which Strachey, the son of a general, had sprung. But its chronology says that it was really inspired by the first world war, with the gestation of the manuscript, from 1912-18, shaped by the apocalypse in Flanders.

Strachey originally planned a rogues’ gallery of many famous Victorians that included Darwin, Carlyle, John Stuart Mill and Ellen Terry. In the event, he settled on four brief lives – each chosen to illustrate the psychology of four neurotic careerists who typified a society tormented by sex and religion.

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Rory Gleeson: 'Writing wrecks your head'

Thu, 12 Jan 2017 17:08:56 GMT2017-01-12T17:08:56Z

The author of debut novel Rockadoon Shore talks about wanting to write like Richard Linklater directs, and visions of old English teachers berating him for his efforts

Telling Rory Gleeson his characters are awful makes him smile. That’s a good thing: in his debut novel Rockadoon Shore, his cast of self-obsessed twentysomethings are possibly the worst bunch of people I’ve ever met. And I have met them, too many times; their awfulness does not stem from lurid villainy, but from far more conventional motivations like insecurity, sexual frustration, small knocks and humiliations. We’ve all probably met them.

Set in a tiny cabin in the Irish countryside, Gleeson’s claustrophobic story follows Cath, the mother hen, who can irritate as much as she comforts; DanDan, who initially seems fine while grieving a dead ex – until he gets over it; Lucy, who is constantly performing for, mostly male attention; the beautiful Steph, who treats men appallingly; Merc, the Irish version of an American fratboy who has traded in muscles for personality; and JJ, that guy who brings MDMA to a cottage getaway. But Gleeson’s very well written debut is fresh in its unpredictability: not one of these characters does what you think they going to do.

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Alan Bennett discusses Keeping On Keeping On – books podcast

Fri, 13 Jan 2017 17:01:28 GMT2017-01-13T17:01:28Z

A national treasure reads from the latest volume of his diaries and discusses finding inspiration in the everyday

Much loved playwright, diarist, screenwriter, essayist and short-story author, Alan Bennett has beguiled audiences for more than 50 years since he first became an unlikely comedy star in Beyond the Fringe. His latest volume of diaries, Keeping On Keeping On, covers 10 years from 2005-2015 – a decade in which he premiered four shows at the National Theatre, published a bestselling novella and released film adaptations of The History Boys and The Lady in the Van.

When Bennett came to the West Yorkshire Playhouse to talk to Charlotte Higgins at a Guardian Live event, he read from Keeping On Keeping On, chronicling the indignities of receiving treatment for cancer. He also discussed how he often takes his inspiration from moments recorded in his diaries, and why Brexit and Boris Johnson have made him bare his political teeth again.

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James Swallow: 'The fuel for my book was a slow-burning anger'

Tue, 17 Jan 2017 12:49:55 GMT2017-01-17T12:49:55Z

The author of Nomad, an espionage thriller for the 21st century, remembers the frustrations that drove him to move on from his career in science fiction

When my thriller Nomad was first published, the questions I was asked most often revolved around inspiration. What drove me to tell this story? What made writing this book the thing I wanted to do?

There were a couple of obvious reasons: I wanted to test myself by writing something outside the wheelhouse of sci-fi and genre tales that has been my home for 30-odd books; and my mother is a big fan of techno-thrillers. On later reflection, however, what became clear to me was that the fuel for my book was a slow-burning anger.

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Get Control of Sugar Now! by Paul McKenna – digested read | John Crace

Sun, 15 Jan 2017 17:00:00 GMT2017-01-15T17:00:00Z

‘Here’s my patented Craving Buster: imagine a food that revolts you, mix it with cat poo, then picture it when you crave sugar’

Inside the cover of this book is a CD. Please use it carefully, as it contains vital techniques of mind control. It is so powerful that I play it to my publishers every year – and each time they forget that I have already written 10 books for them promising to make people thinner, cleverer, richer, thinner, cleverer, richer and thinner again.

Welcome! I believe this is the most important book I have ever written. For years, I didn’t really give much thought to sugar until I had a half-hour chat with my friend Ron, who is a medical nutritionist. What he told me was so startling that it made me think that if sugar was discovered today, it would be banned.

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Tessa Hadley: ‘Some of my best ideas come in the bath’

Sat, 14 Jan 2017 10:00:22 GMT2017-01-14T10:00:22Z

The author on putting writing on hold for everyday life, and finding inspiration

This is the time of year when I’ve forgotten I have a writing day. Not forgotten it intellectually, but forgotten it in my body, which has fallen into that other rhythm: of household things, family, children and grandchildren and parents, sociability, planning. My writing self waits – I really want to say, though it’s a cliche, in the wings. I like the picture the cliche conjures, of a sociable self performing noisily, exaggeratedly, on a pantomime stage with painted backdrop and familiar old props – Christmas tree, pile of presents, table heaped over and over again with papier-mache stage food, everyone wearing the same old paper hats they wore last year. And in the midst of all the noise and laughter and melodrama (the predictable fallings-out and weepy reconciliations) a glimpse of another silent self, hanging about backstage more or less patiently, a kind of phantom at the pantomime, waiting to get back to a different kind of work.

For long years, before I was published, when I was writing and writing and not managing to “breed one work that wakes” – to borrow Gerard Manley Hopkins’ wonderful, terrible words (“why must / Disappointment all I endeavour end?”) – that secret self waiting in the wings was a haunted, fugitive, shamed figure. I couldn’t do it, and I couldn’t not do it. Bizarrely and inexplicably, if I couldn’t write, then somehow my other life, the real one, wasn’t quite real either. The two selves – the performer and her shadow – turned out to be inseparable. Each needed, for her own real life, the reality of the other one.

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Anne Brontë: the sister who got there first

Fri, 06 Jan 2017 14:00:20 GMT2017-01-06T14:00:20Z

Seen as less passionate than Emily, less accomplished than Charlotte, Anne is often overlooked. But her governess Agnes Grey is a clear model for Jane Eyre

Anne Brontë started writing her first novel some time between 1840 and 1845 while she was working as a governess for the Robinson family, at Thorp Green near York. I imagine she must have made her excuses in the evenings, and escaped the drawing room, where she had to do the boring bits of her pupils’ sewing, and often felt awkward and humiliated – excluded from the conversation because she was not considered a lady, yet not allowed to sit with the servants either, because governesses had to be something of a lady, or how could they teach their pupils to be ladies?

Anne must have stolen away to her room and pulled out her small, portable writing desk. Leaning on the desk’s writing slope (which was decadently lined in pink velvet), Anne could go on with her novel. She had to write in secret because she was skewering her haughty employers and her peremptory pupils on the page. Although her job was difficult and thankless, she had realised that it was providing her with excellent material, that she was telling a story no one else was telling. As she laboured away in her neat, elegant handwriting, Anne must have felt that she was writing a novel that would go off like a bomb.

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Poster poems: hope

Fri, 09 Dec 2016 08:00:23 GMT2016-12-09T08:00:23Z

Amid so many ominous events in the wider world, writing poetry is a small but significant way to sustain our spirits. For one last time, please share yours

In his great inverted sonnet Work Without Hope, Samuel Taylor Coleridge paints a contrasting portrait of his despairing self in a landscape bursting with the hope of spring, a picture that cumulates in the lines that end the poem:

Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.

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The Life of a Scilly Sergeant by Colin Taylor review – adventures of high tide and low crime

Tue, 17 Jan 2017 09:30:00 GMT2017-01-17T09:30:00Z

A policeman’s chronicle of life on the Scilly Isles offers a humorous return to Britain’s imaginary past

When I started reading this book I did not know that Sergeant Colin Taylor, stationed on the Isles of Scilly until last year, was something of a star. (Under his management, the Isles of Scilly police force’s Facebook page has achieved more than 50,000 followers (now including me).) I was just mildly surprised that his memoir had drawn me in. I am, surely, above books with pictures of a policeman on a child’s bike on the front cover, a gull standing on a police helmet on the spine, and a stupid pun in the title. But then I remembered something about not judging a book by its cover; and besides, I was in the mood for lightness.

I read on, amused by life on the archipelago; and then, on page 42, this: “My journey to work takes 25 seconds and the return journey, uphill, is longer, at 35 seconds. I walk, as it is a good way to keep fit.” “Hang on,” I thought. “This is a true Wodehousian note.” And look, too, at the way the second half of the first sentence is broken up by commas, as if pausing for breath. I don’t think that was deliberate, but often what a real writer does has not been consciously deliberated on.

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We Are the Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama, edited by EJ Dionne Jr and Joy-Ann Reid – review

Mon, 16 Jan 2017 07:30:18 GMT2017-01-16T07:30:18Z

This collection of the outgoing president’s greatest speeches reveals both his vivid turn of phrase and fondness for repetition

Here is a greatest hits package of Barack Obama’s speeches – something to consolidate his canon in the same way that The Very Best of did for the Eagles or 20 Golden Greats for the Beach Boys. It’s 26 Golden Greats, in this case – a thoughtfully chosen selection, going from his amiably stinging 2002 speech against the Iraq war as a state senator (“What I am opposed to is a dumb war”) to his UN valediction last September, taking in the “race speech”, the “red-state-blue-state speech”, the Cairo speech on Islam, both inaugurals, the eulogies for the murdered pastor Clementa Pinckney and the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting, not to mention, of course, the electrifying speech he gave on election night.

Related: Barack Obama's speeches: 2002 to 2006

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A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics review – timely but limited

Mon, 16 Jan 2017 09:00:19 GMT2017-01-16T09:00:19Z

Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin delves into how the brain processes big fat fibs – but leaves some stones unturned

Politics has always required lies, but it’s hard to think of a democratic leader who has lied so brazenly and so constantly as Donald Trump. The burning question is whether his supporters think his blatant fibs are true or don’t much care whether they are or not.

While neuroscientist Daniel Levitin was writing this book, “post-truth” and “fake news” were not yet common currency. Does that make it extraordinarily timely, or redundant? Probably neither. As a lucid guide to critical thinking about statistics, information and assertion, it’s profoundly welcome. If anyone thinks it is the antidote to our age of unreason, they are deluded.

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Nothing But a Circus: Misadventures Among the Powerful by Daniel Levin – review

Sun, 15 Jan 2017 09:00:11 GMT2017-01-15T09:00:11Z

This exposé of global movers and shakers is entertaining – but why is the author so surprised to learn that such people are often corrupt?

“Shanghai, Mumbai, Dubai or goodbye”: remember the phrase? It denoted the world of stateless spivs who would travel from one mega-metropolis to the other in search of deals. Or to put it another way: globalisation, the “end of history” and the victory of unbridled free markets.

Now that so much of this appears to be in tatters – I won’t say “is” for reasons I’ll explain – I wonder whether Daniel Levin’s journey hasn’t suffered the fate suffered by some unlucky nonfiction books – that of being overtaken by events. (Reading at the same time Alain de Botton’s book on the power of global news organisations, The News: A User’s Manual, I had the same sneaking suspicion, but at least that was published in early 2014.) A lawyer and adviser (a term that means everything and nothing), Levin has written a series of accounts based on his experiences that are in turns hilarious and painful. From the Bible-basher looking to revive a small-town university in Texas to the Russian faux oppositionist who turns out to be a Putin stooge; from the Chinese state bully businessman who doesn’t realise his vintage bottle of Chateau Pétrus has gone off, to uppity African officials at the UN, the common characteristics are hubris and dodginess. To the victors the spoils, no matter how the victory was achieved.

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Being Wagner by Simon Callow review – all velvet cloak and no trousers

Sun, 15 Jan 2017 07:00:09 GMT2017-01-15T07:00:09Z

Callow’s life of Wagner promises psychological insight but reveals more about his wardrobe than his genius

For Simon Callow, biography, like acting, is about impersonation – appropriating the body and if possible the mind of someone else. In his life of Charles Laughton, Callow probed the sexual self-disgust of a man who felt himself to be a bloated gargoyle; he then devoted a series of fine volumes to the equally portly but more recklessly over-extended Orson Welles. Now, after trying out the role in a one-man show called Inside Wagner’s Head, he has decided to be Richard Wagner.

Related: Simon Callow: Inside Wagner's Head – review

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Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum by Kathryn Hughes – review

Sun, 15 Jan 2017 06:30:08 GMT2017-01-15T06:30:08Z

This lively study goes behind the frills and furbelows to explore aspects of the Victorians’ notoriously strange attitude to the body

Kathryn Hughes makes some big claims for Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum. Her new book is, she writes in an enticing introduction, an attempt to reverse the situation whereby biography, the writing of life, has become indifferent to the “vital signs” of that life – to breath and movement, to touch, taste and smell. One can’t help but sense in this a certain weariness. Who can blame Hughes, the author of major books about George Eliot and Isabella Beeton, for wanting to try out a different kind of narrative, one both more visceral and less gargantuan? (Victorians Undone comprises a collection of five essays, each a study of a different subject.) Nevertheless, she has a point. How many times have you ploughed right to the end of a long biography only to find yourself asking: yes, but what was she really like?

Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s favourite prime minister, seems to have found her rather stinky

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Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis – inside the cult

Thu, 12 Jan 2017 12:00:27 GMT2017-01-12T12:00:27Z

Ellis is a fervent champion of the overlooked Brontë sister, but proves an unreliable guide to life at Haworth

Anne Brontë is the only member of her immediate family whose grave is not at Haworth, the village where the Brontës lived from the year of her birth, 1820. She is buried at Scarborough, where she went in May 1849 in a last-ditch hope of recovery from tuberculosis, and lies in a cliff-top cemetery overlooking the sea she loved.

Apart and alone in death, quiet and reserved in life, the youngest Brontë has also been the one people are least likely to be able to name, “the other Brontë”, lurking in the shadow of her more famous siblings, Charlotte and Emily. At the time when the trio broke into print with a joint collection of poems (published in 1846 under the androgynous pseudonyms, “Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell”), both Charlotte and Anne were hitching a ride on Emily’s superior talent; in the next year, as novelists, it was Charlotte who enthralled the reading public with Jane Eyre, and Emily who disturbed it with Wuthering Heights. Anne’s tale of a pious governess, Agnes Grey, seemed dull by comparison. “It left no painful impression on the mind,” one reviewer said, crushingly, “some may think it leaves no impression at all.”

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The Architecture of Neoliberalism by Douglas Spencer review – privatising the world

Thu, 12 Jan 2017 09:00:23 GMT2017-01-12T09:00:23Z

Sell off social housing and build on Hyde Park? Meet the breed of architects giving free-market ideology a physical form

Architects seldom make the front pages of newspapers. Patrik Schumacher recently managed it, though, getting himself on to the cover of the Evening Standard after a speech in which he advocated privatising all social housing and all public space – including Hyde Park – and espoused intensified gentrification of inner city areas. His advocacy on behalf of plutocrats reached hilariously villainous levels when he said of second home owners in London: “even if they’re only here for a few weeks and throw some key parties, these are amazing multiplying events”.

This is “neoliberal” rhetoric at its purest. Neoliberalism – a form of free market fundamentalism that effectively came to power at the turn of the 1980s with the election of such enthusiasts for Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan – is an unusual concept, largely because it extends out of economics and into philosophy and the way people see the world. As Thatcher once said, “economics is the method, the aim is to change the soul”. According to Douglas Spencer, one of the best places to see this is architecture.

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Thomas Hardy: Half a Londoner by Mark Ford review – how the capital shaped Hardy’s Wessex

Thu, 12 Jan 2017 07:30:21 GMT2017-01-12T07:30:21Z

This remarkable study considers the profound influence of Victorian London on the novelist and poet

The young Thomas Hardy was determined to make a living out of literature. But the market was crowded, and he had no influential connections. For years he struggled to find a voice that would sell. What finally brought success was the “partly real, partly-dream country” that he created from his lifelong association with rural Dorset. The imagined Wessex that emerged from his novels of the early 1870s – Under the Greenwood Tree, Far from the Madding Crowd – appealed to a nostalgic appetite for vanishing pastoral traditions among the urbanised population of Victorian Britain. He wrote about the country, but his popularity was a product of the city.

Mark Ford’s absorbing new study argues that our wish to see Hardy as a man of Dorset has distracted us from his formative life as a Londoner. In Jude the Obscure, Jude Fawley ponders the sensitive “nervous motion” of his cousin Sue Bridehead, making her quite unlike the stolidly rustic women he had known as a child. “London had done it, he supposed.” The vortex of London, with its unpredictable opportunities and competitive pressures, was also the phenomenon that made Hardy.

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Governing from the skies by Thomas Hippler review – drones and dystopia

Wed, 11 Jan 2017 09:00:15 GMT2017-01-11T09:00:15Z

This global history of aerial bombing considers the consequences of a century of death dropped from planes

On 1 November 1911, during Italy’s campaign to capture Libya from the Ottomans, Giulio Gavotti, an Italian aviator, decided, apparently on his own initiative, to drop a bomb on Arab fighters at an oasis close to Tripoli. On 31 October 2011, Nato ended its bombing campaign against Gaddafi by dropping bombs on the same oasis. Thus the French philosopher and historian Thomas Hippler neatly bookends his century-long story (nicely translated by David Fernbach) of the theory and practice of aerial warfare.

Related: Guns for hire in Hereford: inside England's unlikely global security hub

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Eat Me: A Natural and Unnatural History of Cannibalism – review

Wed, 11 Jan 2017 07:29:13 GMT2017-01-11T07:29:13Z

Bill Schutt’s book features a few psychopaths but dwells on the functions of cannibalism in human and animal societies

Cannibalism, suggests the biologist Bill Schutt in his entertaining but slightly unorganised account, is an “enduring aspect of life” that leaves none of us “untouched”. At this point, the reader may be checking his or her neck for bite marks. But Schutt clearly means that we are touched by cannibals in some kind of all-encompassing but non-literal sense. From the child-eating hag of “Hansel and Gretel” to Hannibal Lecter, Schutt argues that cannibals are central to human stories.

In many single-topic books, there is an element of special pleading. It’s an understandable form of salesmanship in a market of too many books and not enough readers. Whether the book is about cod or clocks, the author attempts – sometimes more convincingly than others – to persuade us that this tiny sliver of life on earth is more pivotal than anything else. As someone who wrote a book suggesting honeybees are – in multiple ways! – the key to human civilisation, I am not the person to criticise such writing. On the other hand, it can go too far. Schutt’s final paragraph tries to make the case that cannibalism is highly underrated. Maybe it’s even the key to everything:

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Leap In by Alexandra Heminsley review – the sea versus me

Mon, 09 Jan 2017 07:30:10 GMT2017-01-09T07:30:10Z

After the success of Running Like a Girl, the Brighton author turns her pen to swimming – with buoyant results

If reading can be likened to swimming, one glides through this memoir as if in a single length. But it must have been effortful to write – and, at the beginning, to live. I had approached Leap In cautiously – had not leapt in at all – assuming it to be a publisher’s initiative, a calculated sequel to Heminsley’s recent bestseller Running Like a Girl. This new book claims to be about overcoming fear of the sea, about which I initially felt: so what? Why should I be interested that Alexandra Heminsley used to be frightened of the sea or that she chose to swim in Brighton, where she lives, on her wedding day?

But as early as page 18, I had waded in with her – and this was because the book does not evolve as expected. On Heminsley’s return from honeymoon, she reports that Brighton’s sea is no longer hospitable. “It’s so much colder than last week!” she shouts to her husband. He, observing his chilled fingers, remarks that his wedding ring looks enormous. A moment later: “a huge wave hit him from behind and, almost in slow motion, the ring flew off into the sea”. With this theft, everything else becomes unpredictable – including the book’s trajectory.

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The Disappearance of Zola by Michael Rosen – sympathy for a Parisian outcast

Mon, 09 Jan 2017 09:00:12 GMT2017-01-09T09:00:12Z

Michael Rosen’s intriguing account of Émile Zola’s time in London after writing J’Accuse reveals the misery of the author’s exile

On 18 July 1898, the French novelist, journalist and playwright Émile Zola (1840-1902) was preparing to flee his home in Paris. As the most famous defender of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the Franco-Jewish artillery officer who in 1894 had been convicted of treason for passing military secrets to German officials, his residence in the city had become untenable. For Zola, the conviction of Dreyfus was an injustice, the product of institutional antisemitism. And on 13 January 1898 he said so, in print, on the front page of the Parisian newspaper L’Aurore.

Zola’s intervention took the form of an open letter – J’Accuse...! – in which he accused the military authorities of antisemitism. His intention was to lure them into prosecuting him for libel. In the course of defending himself, he would be able to make public new evidence that would exonerate Dreyfus. Zola got his trial, but he didn’t get justice: the republic found him guilty of libel, fined him 3,000 francs and sentenced him to a year’s imprisonment. Zola wanted to serve his term. His family and associates argued that he should exile himself and demand a retrial, thereby ensuring the Dreyfus affair remained in the newspapers.

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Italia by Martin Bogren review – an interrogation of street photography

Sun, 08 Jan 2017 09:00:13 GMT2017-01-08T09:00:13Z

The Swede’s ghostly images of four Italian cities capture the mystery of unfamiliar streets

In the past, Swedish photographer Martin Bogren has made understated books full of quietly observed moments shot in grainy black and white. He is a master of the everyday sublime. For Ocean, published in 2008, he captured a group of young Indian men from a landlocked state enjoying their first encounter with the sea. For Tractor Boys (2013), he immersed himself in the enclosed world of a group of adolescent boys from rural Sweden who customise and race old cars for fun. With Italia, his vision has broadened and deepened.

Shot in Naples, Palermo, Bologna and Turin, Italia is Bogren’s take on street photography, a genre now so ubiquitous – and often so cliched – as to be a challenge in itself. If the subject matter is not so defined as before, the atmosphere remains consistent: the streets and their inhabitants seem to belong to an older era, their timelessness emphasised by the use of blur and the soft tonal greys that imbue everything with a quiet mystery. This is not so much street photography as an evocation of a state of mind: that peculiar sense of suspension that a lone visitor can feel as he attempts to navigate an unfamiliar city.

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The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel - review

Sun, 08 Jan 2017 08:00:12 GMT2017-01-08T08:00:12Z

The bestselling author of Longitude tells the fascinating story of a brilliant all-female team who helped to redraw the universe – and a woman’s place in it

Just over a century ago, in the Harvard College Observatory, a team of star-hunters turned their eyes to a new view of the heavens – an unprecedented collection of glass photographic plates, each capturing a rash of light from the skies, many of the faint pinpricks never before seen by the human eye.

It was the start of a painstaking scientific endeavour that was to reshape our understanding of the cosmos – from the discovery of stars that orbit each other like wary dogs, to a grasp of the breathtaking vastness of the universe.

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Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis – review

Sun, 08 Jan 2017 06:30:10 GMT2017-01-08T06:30:10Z

The playwright and writer reveals her own life story via a lively, intelligent tribute to the neglected Brontë sister, Anne

Here’s a scene from Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Mr Hattersley, his face purple, his laughter manic, has Lord Lowborough by the arm and is trying to drag him out of the drawing room. Lowborough is a reformed alcoholic. He struggles, pale with anger, to resist Hattersley’s proclaimed intent to make him drunk again. Getting hold of a candle, he burns Hattersley’s hands with it. The latter lets go, “roaring like a wild beast”, and collapses on to an ottoman from which he taunts and threatens his miserable wife, eventually staggering to his feet to knock her down.

Anne Brontë’s stature as a novelist would probably have been more readily recognised had she been born into another family, not only because she had two of English fiction’s most enduringly popular authors as in-house competitors, but because one of them did her utmost – out of a well-founded fear of public opprobrium – to downplay Anne’s achievement. After Anne’s death, Charlotte Brontë refused to sanction a third edition of Wildfell Hall. Its shocking subject matter was inconsistent, said Charlotte, with Anne’s “naturally sensitive, reserved and dejected nature”.

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The Disappearance of Émile Zola by Michael Rosen review – J’Accuse and after

Sat, 07 Jan 2017 09:00:14 GMT2017-01-07T09:00:14Z

The story of Zola’s intervention in the Dreyfus case and flight to London is a lively portrait of a disputatious ageOn 13 January 1898, the Parisian daily L’Aurore carried what quickly became one of the most celebrated letters in literary and political history. Written by Émile Zola under the heading of “J’Accuse”, it was an immensely long open letter addressed to the president, in which he not only accused the French establishment, and particularly the highest levels of the army, of obstruction of justice and antisemitism, but named those generals he considered most culpable. What had prompted the outburst was the recent guilty verdict for treason handed down to a Jewish artillery officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was believed to have passed military secrets to the German embassy. Zola, along with many others, maintained that Dreyfus had been convicted on the basis of forged documents, and that the real culprit was another officer, Major Esterhazy.In the modern age of celebrity it is easy to forget the heightened public attention once enjoyed by bestselling writers and commentators. Zola was then at the peak of his popularity, feted not only in France but in the English‑speaking world for his long-running saga, some 20 novels grouped together under the title of Les Rougon-Macquart, in which he chronicled the lives of several generations of one family under the second empire. But Zola was also controversial, and not everyone admired his earthy portrayals of the poor and the downtrodden in French society. Henry James spoke of the “monstrous uncleanness” of his interest in such things. Attacks on him, vituperative and alarming, filled the papers. One called him a “fool, a peacock, a vice-monger … a smut fancier”. The Dreyfus affair had already split France into two warring camps: nationalists, Catholics and monarchists on o[...]


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The Fourth Industrial Revolution review – adapt to new technology or perish

Fri, 06 Jan 2017 13:00:19 GMT2017-01-06T13:00:19Z

In this slim volume by Klaus Schwab, founder of the organisation behind Davos, corporate-speak disguises a harsh realityMuch mirth ensued recently when Jeremy Corbyn’s crack publicity team issued a photograph of the dear leader with a compressed quote from his speech: “We now face the task of creating a New Britain from the fourth industrial revolution – powered by the internet of things and big data to develop cyber physical systems and smart factories.” Wait, what?One may be forgiven for suspecting that Corbyn had not a clue what he was uttering, but the “fourth industrial revolution” is an actual thing, at least according to some analysts. The first was steam-powered; the second electrical; the third the birth of the computer age; and the fourth – which some argue is just a continuation of the third – is the era of wearable gadgets, 3D printing, gene editing, machine intelligence and networked devices such as street lights full of electronic sensors, or smart fridges that order eggs when you’ve run out. The dream of networking ordinary objects with cheap processors and wireless communication comes under the rubric of “the internet of things”, which is (or ought to be) short for “the internet of things that should not be connected to the internet”. Inevitably, some bored teen will hack your smart fridge to flood your kitchen while you’re away; the more urban infrastructure is computerised, the more vulnerable it will be to cyber-attack. The “smart city” is the hackable city. Continue reading...[...]


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Future Sex by Emily Witt review – is another era of free love over?

Fri, 06 Jan 2017 07:30:12 GMT2017-01-06T07:30:12Z

Single female, 30, seeks pornography, hook-ups and sex online … a curious participant-observer finds a new age of sexual liberation under threat

For the last few years, Emily Witt has been dispatching gripping, keenly strange field reports from the frontiers of contemporary desire. A curious, if cautious participant-observer, she has attended orgies, inhaled nitrous oxide with polyamorists and watched college students in the midwest broadcast their fantasies via webcams, painstakingly assembling a luminous, flickering portrait of human (hetero)sexuality in the age of the internet.

Witt’s desire to chart new species of sexual behaviour followed hard on the heels of a breakup, an alarming rupture in what she’d previously conceived to be a natural, seamless progression from monogamous dating to the permanent station of marriage. Abruptly and unhappily single at the age of 30, she was forced to confront the troubling possibility that love is not something you can ordain or engineer; worse, that it might not be attainable at all.

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All the Kremlin’s Men by Mikhail Zygar review – inside the Putinocracy

Thu, 05 Jan 2017 09:00:01 GMT2017-01-05T09:00:01Z

This study of the endless jockeying for position around Putin explains the inconsistencies of his rule

In a frigid Siberian oilfield in March 2000, a small man with a big future stood in front of us and mumbled a few words. No, said Vladimir Putin, he did not have any image-makers. No, he had no idea what his election campaign team were up to. He wasn’t bothered with electioneering, he said. He’d rather crack on with practical work than deploy the slippery arts of the spin doctor. “People in power should show their potential to the people with practical work, not by deception or brainwashing.”

Sixteen years later, I wonder if Putin was just making fun of us with that deadpan sarcasm of his, subtle and deadly as polonium. For he has become much more than just a man, just a president. Putin is an entire system of government. And deception, if not brainwashing, is the principal tool of his trade.

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Margaret Thatcher by David Cannadine review – how Thatcher led to Brexit

Wed, 04 Jan 2017 07:30:17 GMT2017-01-04T07:30:17Z

This concise book avoids the usual controversies and offers a new analysis of Thatcher’s sweeping economic reforms

The year 1986 was pivotal in Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The “Big Bang” opened up the City of London to overseas banks, and the Single European Act harmonised regulations, which was to produce the “single market”. Astonishingly, it was also the first year since Thatcher came to power in May 1979 that the unemployment rate fell. Meanwhile, sales of council houses surged, passing 1m in September 1986.

From most liberal economic perspectives, these are positive achievements. And yet, while carving his way through the warring judgments on Thatcher, David Cannadine notes that “there is some agreement” that she “performed better before 1986 than after”. Given the temptation to associate “Thatcherism” with market deregulation and a new era of private sector excess, it feels strange to be reminded that “yuppies” and credit card frenzies appeared relatively late in the day, at a time when the Conservative leader was already beginning to lose her touch.

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Our Israeli Diary: Of That Time, of That Place by Antonia Fraser review – humour shines through

Tue, 03 Jan 2017 06:59:47 GMT2017-01-03T06:59:47Z

A recently rediscovered diary of the writer’s 1978 trip to the Holy Land with Harold Pinter is wise and witty

In May 1978, on a trip to Israel with Harold Pinter, Lady Antonia Fraser was introduced to the country’s arts minister. “I know your name,” said the politician. “Tell me why?” When the writer explained that she was a biographer – her subjects included Mary Queen of Scots and Oliver Cromwell – the politician was still none the wiser.

Amused by the conversation, Pinter turned to Fraser and whispered, “You should have said, ‘Well, I left my husband for Harold Pinter and there was all this scandal in the newspapers.’” In the mid-1970s the affair between Britain’s most celebrated young playwright and the aristocratic bestselling biographer had caused a rash of headlines. He had left his wife, the actor Vivien Merchant, and Antonia had bolted from her marriage to Sir Hugh Fraser. By 1978, when the couple made the journey to the Holy Land, they had been living together for three years, but they didn’t marry until November 1980.

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The Case Against Sugar review – an unsweetened attack on diet myths

Mon, 02 Jan 2017 07:00:18 GMT2017-01-02T07:00:18Z

Gary Taubes’s latest assault on the ruinous effect of sugar on our lives and the promotion of fat-free diets is detailed and compelling

For the last 15 years, US journalist Gary Taubes has been the self-nominated public enemy No 1 of the global “healthy eating” establishment. His heresy has been to argue powerfully and publicly that the official diet advice we have been encouraged to follow since the 1970s is fundamentally wrong. It is refined carbohydrates and sugars that we should be avoiding, he says, not fat.

His apostasy was dismissed by many health professionals in a sustained, near operatic chorus of censure. After all, he had committed the cardinal crime of suggesting that august government nutrition professors and the academic researchers who inform them had made an inexcusable error of judgment, with catastrophic consequences: an epidemic of obesity and diet-related ill-health of a magnitude that had no precedent.

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Future Sex: A New Kind of Free Love by Emily Witt – review

Sun, 01 Jan 2017 07:00:49 GMT2017-01-01T07:00:49Z

One woman’s quest for personal fulfilment proves a handy guide to sex in the internet age

When Emily Witt turned 30 in 2011, she began to wonder if the future might never arrive. For years, she had assumed that adulthood would bring a sexual terminus. “Like a monorail, gliding to a stop at Epcot Center”, she would disembark and find herself face to face with a loving man. In fact, she had recently been discarded by a boyfriend and for years had alternated brief relationships with periods of reasonably cheerful casual sex, usually with friends.

Witt set out to explore the sexual landscape of the present more fully, wanting to find out how her experiences related to the zeitgeist and how her own sexuality might be enriched by learning about the practices of others. Her quest lasted for five years and took her to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, to orgasmic meditation workshops and extreme porn film shoots in San Francisco and to the darker reaches of her computer. At the end of this, her life had externally changed very little but she had changed internally in learning to see sex – “the pure force of sexual desire” – as disconnected from the stories we tell ourselves about love and marriage.

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Charmed Life by Damian Collins review – the phenomenal world of Philip Sassoon

Sat, 31 Dec 2016 07:30:21 GMT2016-12-31T07:30:21Z

The politician, arts patron, aviator and lavish host who called himself a ‘worthless loon’ is brought fluently to life

Sir Philip Sassoon said that he might have been interesting had he slept with Michelangelo’s male muse Cavalieri or invented the wireless instead of Marconi. He would not have felt such “a worthless loon”, he added, if he had painted Velázquez’s court painting Las Meninas or written Wuthering Heights. These hankerings show the essence of the man: a classy aesthete, with a love of big names and modern gadgets.

Despite his self-deprecation, though, Sassoon had a fulfilling life. In 1912, in his early 20s, he inherited a fortune with a baronetcy, and was elected as Conservative MP for Hythe – a constituency that, in the 1920s, his political opponents did not even bother to contest. In 1915 Field Marshal Haig, commander-in-chief of British armies on the western front, selected him as his private secretary. A few years later the prime minister, David Lloyd George, appointed him as his political secretary. He held interesting government posts during most of the interwar years.

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A World Gone Mad by Astrid Lindgren – war and the birth of Pippi Longstocking

Fri, 30 Dec 2016 07:30:26 GMT2016-12-30T07:30:26Z

These 1939-45 diaries from the Swedish children’s author, which feature roast reindeer and sorrow across Europe, are oddly cheering

The Swedish children’s author Astrid Lindgren will be forever linked with that irrepressible nine-year-old she unleashed on the world in 1945. Pippi Longstocking, with “hair the same colour as a carrot ... braided in two stiff pigtails that stood straight out”, lives all by herself in a tumbledown cottage, with a suitcase full of gold coins, free from school and other grey routines. Pippi’s cheerful dismissal of convention was an answer to overprotective parents everywhere, a proto-feminist manifesto and an affirmation of postwar optimism.

Lindgren’s wartime diaries, which lay neglected in a wicker laundry basket in her Stockholm flat for years after her death in 2002, reveal how Pippi emerged out of less happy times. The aspiring writer records her first entry on 1 September 1939 (“Oh! War broke out today”). Her last entries find her listening to live transmissions from Nuremberg and enjoying her first hints of Pippi’s fame.

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When Breath Becomes Air review - a surgeon’s life cut short

Sun, 15 Jan 2017 11:00:14 GMT2017-01-15T11:00:14Z

Paul Kalanithi’s memoir, written after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, is rich, literary and poignant

If there was one thing neurologist Paul Kalanithi didn’t want to be when he was a boy growing up in the desert town of Kingman, Arizona, it was a doctor. He dreamed of being a writer, and immersed himself in Dickens and Whitman. When he went to college it was to study literature; and, only as an afterthought, neurology.

Years later, having conquered one of medicine’s most rigorous disciplines, he was diagnosed at the age of 36 with what was to become terminal cancer.

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The Nix by Nathan Hill review – a novel of extravagant appetite

Tue, 17 Jan 2017 07:30:32 GMT2017-01-17T07:30:32Z

A literary professor investigates the life of his estranged mother in an entertaining if self-indulgent debut novelBehold, another American monster is upon us, this one a novel of extravagant appetite that chows down a mighty spread of political history, social mores, media blague, online addiction, childhood grief, military misadventure, academic entitlement, and manages to make, if not light work of it, then something compulsive and crazily entertaining. One might tap Nathan Hill’s shoulders with the double-edged sword of “Dickensian”, given that his debut novel is stuffed with good jokes, family secrets and incidental pathos; it’s also windy with circumlocution and occasionally too intricate for its own good.The story is kickstarted by a righteous convulsion of fury. While strolling in a Chicago park, Governor Sheldon Packer – authoritarian demagogue and presidential candidate – is abused and pelted with gravel by a middle-aged woman. The incident, caught on a video clip, goes viral, the TV coverage goes nuts and very soon the assailant is dubbed “the Packer Attacker”. Everyone is talking about it – everyone but Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a 30-ish literature professor too stressed with work and preoccupied by an online game (World of Elfscape) to notice what’s happening in the real world. So it’s quite a shock when a lawyer contacts him with the news that the Packer Attacker is in fact his mother, Faye, whom he hasn’t seen since she walked out of the family home over 20 years ago. Continue reading...[...]


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The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters by Nadiya Hussain review – what the Bake Off winner did next

Thu, 12 Jan 2017 11:59:27 GMT2017-01-12T11:59:27Z

This warm-hearted family saga from the Great British Bake Off star will surely sell like hot cakes – but I wish celebrities wouldn’t dominate the bookshelves

Somewhere in your town, probably in a chilly corner of your library, if you are still lucky enough to have one, is a child. They are by themselves, bespectacled probably; not wearing the trendiest clothes. And they are reading and reading and filling their head with nothing else but books and words and new worlds. They have a dream; that one day books will be their life. It seems unlikely, but there it is. And it is wonderful.

And somewhere else in your town, in a kitchen that is perhaps a little too small, there is another child. And this child is frowning furiously at a recipe book and getting under everyone’s feet and they are cooking and cooking and putting flavours together and hoping things work out. They have a dream, too; that one day food will be their life. And it is also wonderful.

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Dirt by William Letford review – seriously funny

Sun, 15 Jan 2017 09:59:12 GMT2017-01-15T09:59:12Z

William Letford’s second collection of poems is bleak, profound and hilarious, sometimes all at once

William Letford belongs in the grand – and humble – tradition of Robert Burns. He has heart, a feeling for ordinary working people (he is one himself – his first collection, Bevel, was about working as a roofer) and enough Scottish spark to start a fire.

Dirt will please even non-poetry readers. It is accessible and made me smile, laugh and cry – Letford wears his heart on his ragged sleeve. Not all the poems are written in Scottish vernacular but he is particularly at home in pieces such as This Is It. I had to look up “radge” (“a wild, crazy or violent person”) but, otherwise, the poem flows clearly on, an accompaniment to the busker. The sentiment he ends with – that it is the song, and the singing of it, that matters – is proved by his poetry too.

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi review – the wounds inflicted by slavery

Fri, 13 Jan 2017 07:30:11 GMT2017-01-13T07:30:11Z

An unflinching portrayal of the slave trade explores its impact down the generations, from 18th-century west Africa to the modern-day USSlavery is an open wound: it will never heal. As such it has provided an endless reserve of material for storytellers, a bottomless well of tragic arcs, epic betrayals, unexpected dimensions and uncharted secrets. What of the black slave owners of Virginia, asked Edward P Jones in The Known World. What of the slaves who killed their children in order to set them free, asked Toni Morrison in Beloved. What if, say, blacks had enslaved whites, asked Bernardine Evaristo in Blonde Roots. It is into the murky waters of this same well that first-time Ghanaian-American novelist Yaa Gyasi delved for the creation of Homegoing, a hugely empathic, unflinching portrayal of west Africa’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.The tale begins in the late 18th century in an Asante village, part of the Gold Coast which eventually became Ghana. A young girl, Effia Otcher, is sold by her father to a British slavetrader named James – as a bride, not as a slave – and taken to live with him in Cape Coast Castle, a fort overlooking the sea. The slaves are in dungeons underneath the castle, awaiting transit to the Americas and the Caribbean via the Middle Passage. Among them are ex-house servants, overflow prisoners of tribal and regional wars and unlucky captives sold to the Europeans for money and goods, such as 15-year-old Esi Asare, Effia’s half-sister. Es[...]


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Unreconciled by Michel Houellebecq review – perfectly suited to the age of Trump

Thu, 12 Jan 2017 14:00:29 GMT2017-01-12T14:00:29Z

Laughter is in short supply in this collection from France’s great satirist and contrarianHaving missed out on the 1930s, Michel Houellebecq is perfectly suited to the age of Trump. The war of ideologies, religious fundamentalism and sexual dystopia are well-worn Houellebecq themes, but under them like an ostinato runs the death of western liberalism: the full Spenglerian decline. As he explains in “A Last Stand Against the Free Market”, “We reject liberal ideology for failing to show the way, or a route to reconciliation between the individual and his fellow beings.” As snappy aperçus go (and bear in mind, that’s a line of poetry), it’s not quite “We must love one another or die”. Long-windedness, however, is the least of Houellebecq’s problems.The poems collected in Unreconciled tack between rhythmical grumbles about the state of the world and more straightforwardly sensory epiphanies, Baudelairean ennui permitting. Most are untitled, and few cross the page. As a rule, modernity is an enemy. Houellebecq is one of those who suspect the invention of the fridge has been bad for the soul: “A well-cleaned kitchen; / Ah! This obsession with kitchens!” The ascendancy of the domestic has repercussions for masculine high-mindedness too: “Hollow, decayed discourse; / The opinions of the woman next door.” Continue reading...[...]


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Moonglow by Michael Chabon review – much more than a memoir

Tue, 10 Jan 2017 07:30:27 GMT2017-01-10T07:30:27Z

In a bold, rich return to form, the author explores the boundaries of fact and fiction through a ‘real-life story’When an author you love writes a book you really don’t, it can feel like an act of personal betrayal. Michael Chabon’s best novels – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Wonder Boys and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, as well as his underrated debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, are among the most luminous and finely crafted books of recent decades. He’s a writer who leaps nervelessly across genres and themes: from magic realism to detective fiction, from comic-book heroes to campus Künstlerroman. Always, though, there was the lightness of touch, the graceful precision of the prose, the sense that here was a writer whose heart was several sizes bigger than any of his peers.In 2012, I did an event with Chabon at the Cheltenham literature festival to celebrate the launch of Telegraph Avenue, his eighth novel. I’d finished it on the train up and it stank. I could scarcely look him in the eyes. It was sententious and low concept, as if someone had leached the joy from his world and the spark from his imagination. All the things I’d loved about Chabon’s early work – the surreal Bruno Schulz flourishes, the picturesquely neurotic characters, that radiant voice – were suddenly loathsome. Moonglow, his latest, landed on my doorstep with an ominous thud. Continue reading...[...]


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The Muse by Jessie Burton review – skilled, but slightly overwrought

Sun, 08 Jan 2017 10:00:14 GMT2017-01-08T10:00:14Z

The Spanish civil war and 60s London provide the timeframes in this imaginative story of art and self-identification

For her second novel, following the huge success of The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton turns her considerable imaginative powers towards the 20th century.

The Muse is double-stranded in structure, the plot moving back and forth between 1960s London and Spain 30 years earlier, during the civil war. And at the heart of both narratives are ideas of art, legacy and identity.

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The Horseman by Tim Pears review – West Country pastoral

Sat, 07 Jan 2017 07:30:13 GMT2017-01-07T07:30:13Z

The opening volume of Pears’ historical trilogy, about a boy who loves horses, is like a long poem, with each chapter a stanzaTim Pears’ new novel, the first in a trilogy, is a slow read. Not because it lacks suspense, but because the pleasure of it lies in taking in the language and the setting – the West Country, in 1911 and 1912 – and in reading it like a long poem, with each chapter a stanza. I did worry that Pears was steering toward the much-ploughed ground of the first world war, but we don’t get there by the end of volume one. Instead, he successfully camouflages a romance in the dialect of the farmers and horsemen of the time as they make their way through the agricultural year, task by rigorous task; the natural world is sometimes antagonistic, sometimes beautiful, but always alive with detail – insects, birds, weather, crop conditions. Pears is famous for this, immersing the modern urban reader in what he or she is missing out on in the countryside.The protagonist is Leo Sercombe, often known as “the boy”. Leo is maybe the same age as the protagonist of Pears’ first novel, In the Place of Fallen Leaves. No birthdays are acknowledged in the passing of the year, so Leo might not know exactly how old he is, but he is single-minded, close-mouthed and observant. At one point, a friend asks him why he never smiles. He doesn’t say, or he can’t [...]


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