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Apr 15, 2021

‘Sophisticated cyber-criminals’ took Valeria Luiselli’s winnings, though a similar fraud attempt on the Baillie Gifford prize was foiled

The Rathbones Folio prize has revealed that it paid £30,000 prize money to scammers posing as the author Valeria Luiselli, who won the award in 2020.

Publishing industry magazine the Bookseller revealed on Wednesday that the Folio, which is awarded to the year’s best work of literature regardless of form, was scammed by “sophisticated cyber-criminals”. The scammers posed as the Mexican author Luiselli, who had won with her novel Lost Children Archive, and requested that the £30,000 payment be made through PayPal.

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Apr 15, 2021

The diaries of the former Tory minister dismiss the PM’s Brexit arguments as ‘puerile junk’, but Britain’s stagnant politics is the real target

Serious times call for serious people. If living through a global pandemic had somehow failed to underline that, then the sight of violence returning to the streets of Northern Ireland in recent weeks should. The argument for grownups in the room could hardy seem clearer. But until recently you might have got good odds against Alan Duncan emerging at its standard bearer.

Still, cometh the hour, cometh the diarist. In the Thick of It, this former Tory minister’s account of the four years running up to Boris Johnson’s landslide election victory in 2019, initially grabbed the headlines thanks to the sheer gleeful bitchiness of the insults littered throughout. But there’s a more serious message at the heart of this book, reeking as it does of decline and despair.

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Apr 15, 2021

In this coming-of-age story set in a near-future England, a teenager discovers life’s possibilities as climate chaos intensifies

Rosa Rankin-Gee’s first novel, The Last Kings of Sark, explored the fraught emotional fallout of an idyllic summer in which three young people run wild together on the small Channel island. While two of the trio are quick to move on from the experience, Jude finds herself mired in the past, unable to let go.

Keenly attuned once again to the heady sensations of those caught between adolescence and adulthood, Rankin-Gee’s second novel, Dreamland, is an equally enthralling coming-of-age story. But whereas in The Last Kings of Sark her characters retreated from the wider world, no such respite is possible here. Jude was mourning the end of something almost impossibly intimate, but Dreamland faces up to much broader, collective losses in the story of 16-year-old Chance, discovering life and love while all around her the world is crumbling.

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Apr 14, 2021

From Proust and Parisian riches to the horror of the Holocaust ... this companion study to The Hare With Amber Eyes is the skilfully told story of a family’s collection of art objects

The potter Edmund de Waal’s multi-prize winning 2010 family memoir The Hare With Amber Eyes uncovered the story behind a collection of 264 Japanese netsuke – small, intricately carved ivory figures including the eponymous hare – and along the way became a subtle investigation of inheritance, the Jewish diaspora, the glories and horrors of European history and the relationship between objects and memory. This new book features several of the people first encountered in Hare and again De Waal uses objects – this time the lavish collections of 18th-century French art, porcelain and furniture assembled by Moïse de Camondo in early 20th-century Paris – to explore a richly dramatic era.

While Letters to Camondo would most obviously be described as a companion to the earlier book, perhaps more accurately it should be called a neighbour. It was while living on the Rue de Monceau in Paris that De Waal’s great-great-grandfather’s cousin, Charles Ephrussi of the banking family, bought the netsuke. It was also on the Rue de Monceau that Camondo put together his collections and where he built the mansion in which they are housed to this day. It was no coincidence that the two men, linked by friendship and family ties, lived so close to each other. Part of an 1860s development of a then undistinguished area of Paris, the Rue de Monceau and the park it bounds attracted many very wealthy, often Jewish, families seeking to find a place in “secular, republican, tolerant, civilised Paris”.

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Apr 14, 2021

Journalist and author was jailed after writing pieces critical of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

A Turkish court has released the journalist and novelist Ahmet Altan after more than four years in prison on charges of involvement in a failed 2016 coup attempt, charges he had always denied.

The court of cassation ruling came a day after the European court of human rights (ECHR) demanded the 71-year-old’s freedom in a verdict that accused Turkey of violating his civil rights.

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Apr 14, 2021

From Alexandre Dumas to Ian McEwan, writers serve up a dish that’s best prepared only in imagination

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Then he added man. Maybe he wouldn’t have if he’d known what was coming. Anyway, Adam and Eve messed up, God became furious and launched Project Fall of Man. In doing so he also created revenge as a concept.

As my new novel Sweet Sweet Revenge Ltd has been published in country after country, I have learned how to answer questions on my general view of revenge as civilly as possible. I always say that revenge works best as a form of self-therapy. Someone steps on your toes, and you plan 10 ways to get revenge. If you are the least bit like me, these thoughts will make you feel better. But stop there. Don’t follow through.

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Apr 14, 2021

Sleeping sickness, strange behaviour and mass hysteria ... a neurologist makes sense of ‘psychosomatic’ illness


In Sweden in recent years, hundreds of children of refugee families have fallen into coma-like states and not woken up again, sometimes for months or years. Dozens of people in three Nicaraguan communities have had tremors, convulsions, breathing difficulties and hallucinations that make them fight with superhuman strength and run into the jungle. Diplomats in Cuba, experiencing headaches, dizziness, tinnitus and fatigue, became convinced that they were victims of a new and terrifying sonic weapon. Older victims in two small towns in Kazakhstan blamed toxic mines for their sleeping sickness and strange behaviour, while fainting high school girls in Colombia were told they were crazy, attention-seeking and sexually frustrated. When similar symptoms swept through a school in New York, the environmental activist Erin Brockovich turned up, along with news crews, wanting to examine the site of a 40-year-old train crash.

While local communities give these symptoms distinct names and have very different opinions about their causes – from poisoning to secret weapons to being led astray by the devil – neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan is convinced that they are the same type of disorder. What this book is far less clear about is what exactly we should call it. We may know it as “psychosomatic” illness, from the Greek words for “mind” and “body”, but in modern neurology the word “functional” has largely replaced that term. What was once known as “mass hysteria” (a term that has echoes of misbehaving nuns, dancing Canadians or the 1962 laughing epidemic of Tanganyika) is now more carefully described as “mass psychogenic illness” (MPI). O’Sullivan refers at different times to “functional neurological disorders” (FND) and “biopsychosocial” disorders, which seems a sensible label for symptoms that exist in the body as a result of activity in the brain and the influence of culture and environment. Whatever we call them, there are many reasons why these disorders are difficult to identify and treat – not least that many patients would rather be diagnosed with almost anything else. Fortunately, O’Sullivan is convinced that they can be helped.

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Apr 13, 2021

Power is celebrated for his short stories, and his debut novel, about creative theft and Russian intrigue, is full of fine writing

Many readers will immediately warm to a novel that begins in a bookshop. We’re in Berlin, and things couldn’t be more bookish. Our protagonist, Robert Prowe, has just met Patrick, a drunken ghostwriter, while reaching for the same book on one of the tables. A reading is about to begin. And then a story. A story about stories, books, writers.

A Lonely Man is Chris Power’s first novel and is an interesting addition to the recent corpus of Berlin-based fiction. Power’s shimmering short-story collection, Mothers, was longlisted for the Folio prize, and this book deliberately draws separate narrative strands (and moods) together – partly to emphasise and play with the differences, partly to offer a consideration of the creative process itself.

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Apr 13, 2021

Bookshops hold a special place in the hearts of readers. With retail now open across the UK, we asked you to tell us about the bookshops you are longing to browse

“During the pandemic I have been really impressed by the team who run The Portobello Bookshop in Edinburgh. They ran an online book festival which was fun, a click-and-collect service when allowed, and moved quickly to provide an online service. I miss browsing, and the pleasure of finding new titles and authors. My husband usually goes one way, and I another and then we find each other, quickly checking we are not holding copies of the same book. The glee of children finding a book always makes me smile, and that has been missed over the last year. Above all, I miss just watching people in bookshops as they slip into that space where they are deciding ‘will I or won’t I’. Oh, what a dilemma ...” Richard Whitecross, Dunbar

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Apr 13, 2021
by Jinx Heywire (Oxford): This thrilling first novel in a much wider series sets the reader off on a trail of laughs, mysteries and suspense. When I first read this I was slightly skeptical, because even though many of my friends had loved the series, all I saw was a funny looking skeleton in a suit with some fire in his hands. This will be ... interesting I thought. I was oh so totally wrong. This book was the start of a great series that only gets better. I literally was staying up until midnight to read this, and the only reason I put it down was because I was so tired that I couldn't concentrate on the words anymore. A great read. Would definitely recommend to anyone, especially someone struggling to find something to read.

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Apr 13, 2021

The Russian poet’s eloquent writing is caught between a pursuit of the past and the meaninglessness of memorialising

Translated poetry seldom finds its way into this column. It is too high risk: there is the probability the original voice will seem muffled or will not travel. But an exception has to be made for Maria Stepanova, born in Moscow and a leading voice in post-Soviet culture: poet, journalist, publisher and force for press freedom (founding editor of Colta.ru, an online independent site) who has been showered with prizes in Russia but has not, until now, been much known here. She is translated by Sasha Dugdale, a poet herself, whose imaginative instincts serve her tirelessly. Having said this, a sense that we might be playing Russian whispers (I don’t speak the language) cannot be altogether avoided if only because, as Dugdale explains in her introduction, there is much in Stepanova’s challenging writing that does not translate at all. And yet it has been Dugdale’s remarkable project to give Stepanova a parallel life by dextrously furnishing her modernist poems with English examples.

It is essential to read War of the Beasts and the Animals alongside its companion work, the richly absorbing “documentary novel” In Memory of Memory (just nominated for the International Booker prize). Stepanova scrutinises the memorialising drive of writers and artists: Proust, Mandelstam, Susan Sontag, Joseph Cornell, WG Sebald, Charlotte Salomon – the book is, in part, a Jewish history. Yet she has a simultaneous regard for oblivion, for not recording, for the right to vanish definitively. Holocaust photographs, she argues, need protecting from their audiences. Her writing exists on an edge between an avid pursuit of the past and an acknowledgment of the eventual meaninglessness of memorialising. There is a sense that she might, at any point, be tempted into silence. She writes eloquently about modern technology’s influence on memory, about the wantonly comprehensive record digital photography makes possible – its images persisting into an unwanted immortality. By contrast, she salvages piercingly personal material, including letters from “Lyodik”, her grandfather’s cousin, killed in 1942 in the siege of Leningrad.

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Apr 12, 2021

Michela Wrong uses the murder of Patrick Karegeya to focus her case against Rwanda’s leader Paul Kagame in this fascinating investigation

When Rwanda’s former intelligence chief was found strangled in a plush Johannesburg hotel room, there was only ever one real suspect. Patrick Karegeya spent years dodging assassination attempts evidently set in motion by his childhood schoolmate, Rwanda’s eternal ruler, Paul Kagame.

Karegeya even had tapes of former intelligence colleagues plotting his death. For all that, the ex-spy master allowed himself to be tricked into attending his own murder on the last day of 2013. Far too many of Kagame’s former allies turned opponents have met untimely ends for the man who has dominated Rwanda since the genocide in 1994 not to be the prime suspect. But, as Michela Wrong’s engrossing and revelatory investigation reveals, Karegeya’s killing was of a different order.

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Apr 12, 2021

Current laureate Cressida Cowell leads demands to ringfence funds to renew ‘deteriorating’ facilities that fail to appeal to students

All of the UK’s children’s laureates, including Cressida Cowell, Quentin Blake, Malorie Blackman and Michael Rosen, are uniting to call for the government to dedicate £100m a year to revitalising “deteriorating” primary school libraries across the country, amid fears that literacy levels have dropped severely during the pandemic.

In an impassioned letter to prime minister Boris Johnson, Cowell, the current laureate, calls for £100m to be ringfenced for building new and restoring neglected libraries every year, saying that millions of children are “missing out on opportunities to discover the life-changing magic of reading”.

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Apr 12, 2021

Welcome to Popisho, an island archipelago with a touch of magic.


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Apr 12, 2021

A complicated song of praise for a world that is part heaven and part hell

Because

Because, in a wounded universe, the tufts
of grass still glisten, the first daffodil
shoots up through ice-melt, and a red-tailed hawk

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Apr 12, 2021

Dizzy diplomats, twitching schoolgirls, children in comas ... psychosomatic illnesses are not always as unexplainable as they seem, writes neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan

I cannot resist a news headline that refers to a mystery illness and there is no shortage to keep me interested. “Mystery of 18 twitching teenagers in New York”; “Mysterious sleeping sickness spreads in Kazakhstani village”; “200 Colombian girls fall ill with a mysterious illness”; “The Mystery of the Havana Syndrome”. One medical disorder seems to attract this description more than any other: psychosomatic illness. That the body is the mouthpiece of the mind is evident in our posture, in the smiles on our faces, in the tremor of our nervous hands. But, still, when the body speaks too explicitly, when the power of the mind leads to physical disability, it can be hard to understand why. This perplexity is most apparent when psychosomatic disorders affect groups, spreading from person to person like a social virus, in a phenomenon often referred to as mass hysteria.

We are currently caught in a pandemic. We have been ordered to hide and to search our bodies for symptoms. If there was ever a time for a psychosomatic disorder to spread through anxiety and suggestion, this is it. The threat of a virus can affect health in more ways than one. Since 2018 I have been visiting communities affected by suspected contagions of psychosomatic illness. I have seen what fear can do to our physical health. I have also seen the curative effect of hope.

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Apr 12, 2021

The Japanese author’s prose remains wildly popular, but complacency tarnishes his new story collection

Reviewing a book by Haruki Murakami is to some degree a redundant act. Whatever the phenomenally popular Japanese writer knocks out will sell by the truckload – the reviews just notify his throng of devotees that it’s time to buy a new Murakami. All of which loosens my natural hesitancy to lay into a septuagenarian (Murakami was born in 1949) so that I can divulge up front that his latest, First Person Singular, is not very good. (For proof that a birthdate in the 1940s needn’t correlate with poor writing in the 2020s, see Martin Amis’s amazing Inside Story.)

Murakami’s 22nd book is a collection of eight short stories, some of them more obviously fictional than others, all narrated in the first person by an elderly writer (who in one story is explicitly named Haruki Murakami). Among its themes are nostalgia, music and erotic reminiscence. The book is not without its charms and Murakami’s mild and affable authorial persona will please his fans. While his novels tend towards the baroque and the fantastical, First Person Singular works best when Murakami keeps it simple in stories that resemble memoir and recount affairs, friendships or one-night stands from bygone decades. The enjoyable second story, On a Stone Pillow, tells of a teenage night spent with a poet who yells another man’s name when she comes. Carnaval recounts a music-based friendship the narrator enjoyed when he was 50 with “the ugliest” woman he has ever known (her name, for some reason, is given as “F*”).

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Apr 11, 2021

Benjamin Myers’s multifaceted short stories grapple with the nature of masculinity, while Steve Hollyman’s brash whodunnit focuses on the fallout from a blokes’ night out

Men come unstuck in Benjamin Myers’s new story collection. Whether in the stone age or the 70s, a fruit picker or an astronaut, they’re caught in traps of their own making. A farmer, dreaming of a foreign holiday, gets himself tangled up in his top-of-the-range potato picker, his foot “crushed and rolled like the last curl of a tube of toothpaste”; a gamekeeper is snared in his own cage; and in The Whip Hand, the heir to a fairground dynasty is crushed by the weight of his own ambition when he erects a hilltop monument to his late father, who died after getting stuck – that motif again – in the family’s most famous ride.

While horror is ever ready to intrude, Male Tears is varied in style. Many stories, such as a father’s three-paragraph reflection on ageing, last barely a page, but there’s also a digressively autofictional piece about having a panic attack at a Brueghel exhibition in Vienna. If many are straightforwardly conversational (such as Suburban Animals, whose narrator remembers a childhood friend with Down’s syndrome, targeted by the school bully), others only hint at what’s going on. There are open endings but also gotchas, as with the story about a labourer who, blessed with “the strength and stamina of 10 men”, fascinates his boss’s young nephew, who pictures what the man’s girlfriend must be like after spotting a dress hung up in his caravan.

Hollyman hangs his characters out to dry while using them for narrative fuel and flavour

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Apr 11, 2021
Johny Pitts visits his local bookshop, Review in Peckham, as it prepares to reopen and talks to manager Ben Pope about missing bookseller recommendations Naomi Ishiguro discusses her debut novel Common Ground, about a friendship across a cultural divide and the importance of open space for everyone. And we reflect on making room in our homes for Spring. Do books count as clutter? Eleanor Ray and Jess Kidd, two authors who have written about hoarding, discuss.
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Apr 11, 2021
by Cloggie Downunder (Thirroul): The Rules of Magic is a prequel in Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic series. It is June 1960 when the Owens siblings, Frances, Bridget and Vincent, leave New York to spend summer for the first time with their Aunt Isabelle in the Magnolia Street house in Massachusetts. Their parents are resigned to this, but neither is pleased. Susanna has done her utmost to steer her children towards a normal life, and away from all things magical, but prohibition has been ineffective.

Even at fourteen years old, Vincent accepts that they are different, having sought out a copy of the banned Magus downtown. He freely shares his musical talents, but hides his clairvoyance, disturbed enough by it to resort to alcohol, and later ventures into the darker side of his craft.

When April Owens, their eighteen-year-old, rebellious second (or third or fifth) cousin, turns up at Magnolia Street, the sisters are wary, but the connection with Vincent can't be denied.

It's clear that his sisters have gifts too: seventeen-year-old Franny has an uncanny connection to birds; sixteen-year-old Jet can almost always tell what people are thinking. Vincent suggests his older sisters acknowledge what they are. Aunt Isabelle counsels that to deny who you are only brings unhappiness.

By the time they leave Aunt Isabelle's, Franny has read Mary Owens's diary and knows about the curse that afflicts all members of the Owens family: Ruination for any man who fell in love with them. Each of the siblings starts out determined not to inflict this on anyone, but how can you control falling in love? Besides which, one of the rules of magic from Aunt Isabelle's Grimoire said "Fall in love whenever you can."

Jet falls for Levi with tragic and far-reaching consequences, and life changes radically for the siblings. Vincent's lover is someone who understands the curse and is ready to accept what fate throws their way. When Franny finally acquiesces to the love she has been denying for years, her lover has a clever plan to fool the curse. Set against the backdrop of the sixties: the Summer of Love, drugs, the Monterey Pop Festival, the draft, Hoffman tells the story of those amazing aunts who played such an important role in the lives of Sally and Gillian in Practical Magic.

And what a marvellous tale it is: another enchanting story of family and love and magic. The characters are appealing and often a bit quirky, the romance is delightful and the magic fun. Hoffman gives her characters wise words and insightful observations about life. The prequel Magic Lessons, which tells Maria Owens story, is eagerly awaited. Another charming read.

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Apr 11, 2021

In this extract from her new book, Anita Sethi reconnects with nature and the north and regains her sense of belonging

It was broad daylight when I boarded the TransPennine Express train from Liverpool to Newcastle, a day filled with the kind of bright sunshine that makes you feel nothing bad could possibly happen.

I was in high spirits. I had been in Liverpool to speak at a festival and was travelling to Newcastle to read at the northern launch of Common People, a new anthology to which I had contributed.

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Apr 11, 2021

The author of Annihilation delivers a slick sci-fi thriller that pitches a tech boffin into a deadly eco-mystery

Best known for Annihilation, his 2014 sci-fi thriller and first of a trilogy that delivered equally on genre values and philosophical depth (it was also admirably adapted into a 2018 film starring Natalie Portman), Jeff VanderMeer’s 13th novel, Hummingbird Salamander is an enigmatic eco-thriller that delivers in the same vein and on the subject of worlds – inner worlds such as the biosphere – that are coming apart.

“Impossible to tell how fast society was collapsing because history had been riddled through with disinformation and reality was composed of half-fictions and full-on paranoid conspiracy theories.”

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Apr 10, 2021

The US president’s guilt-ridden son relates his life of excess in detail, but sadly lacks any self-awareness

In 1988, Joe Biden began his dogged quest for the presidency with the first of three campaigns to become his party’s nominee and in the same year his teenage son Hunter set off on an erratic career of his own. Over the ensuing decades, as Joe’s presidential prospects rose and fell, Hunter unstoppably reeled from schoolboy rowdiness to drunken adolescence and then from divorce to drug addiction, before ending in bacchanalian revels at sleazy motels in the company of pimps and sex workers. Along the way, surprisingly, he also found time for an interlude of richly remunerated nepotism on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma.

Here are two different approaches to the pursuit of American happiness: the father inched slowly towards a remote goal, while the son demanded instant gratification, spent money recklessly and went on a supposedly liberating downhill race to ruin. “I kept climbing the escalator,” Hunter complains when remembering his early success as a corporate lawyer, “and didn’t know how to get off.” Binge-boozing and crack cocaine were his blissful release from promotion. Now that Joe Biden finally has the job he always coveted, his most urgent task is to restore the moral health of a sick society; Hunter heads the queue of those needing rehabilitation.

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Apr 10, 2021

The award-winning author on her debut novel, about a Malaysian family’s dark secrets, and her other life teaching robotics

Catherine Menon was born in Perth, Western Australia, where her British mother and Malaysian father met. She lectures in robotics and has a PhD in pure mathematics as well as an MA in creative writing. Fragile Monsters, her first novel, is set in rural Malaysia and unpicks a family’s story from 1920 to the present day. At its centre are Mary, “sharp tongued and ferocious”, and her visiting granddaughter, Durga, who tussle over the demons and dark memories that distort their past and warp the present. Hilary Mantel has described Menon’s writing as “supple, artful, skilful storytelling” and she has won awards for her short stories. She is married to a fellow mathematician and lives in north London.

Why did you want to write about Malaysia?
The idea came from the stories my father used to tell me about when he was young – appropriately sanitised. It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I even realised that Kuala Lipis [where his family lived] was the head of Japanese activities in Pahang [state]. During the second world war it was very much under Japanese control. It was at the centre of things like food rationing; the children’s education was wildly interrupted and when it was resumed it was all in Japanese. So all sorts of upheavals that I really only came to understand when I started researching.

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Apr 10, 2021

The poet on her early obsession with poetry, inventing her own struggling male poet and only realising the core theme behind her collection after it was published

Kingsley Amis described writing poems as “a limited risk enterprise”. He thought, perhaps unfairly, that this was why Philip Larkin, after producing a couple of novels early in his career, stuck to poetry thereafter. You can waste a day or two producing a hopeless poem. A hopeless novel takes months or years of your life.

The Amis quotation has stayed with me because I only write short things: bits of journalism and poems. My books are accumulations.

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