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Jun 19, 2021

When zero-hours contracts meet monetised side hustles and enforced fun, how do we demand fair pay and reclaim leisure from the clutches of capitalism?

A recurrent theme in Lost in Work is that jobs are supposed to be fun these days while leisure is now regarded as something that can – or should – be profitable. It’s visible in the idea that every hobby or “side gig” is a potential source of income; that tube workers should write inspiring quotes on whiteboards at underground stations (something they previously did spontaneously); that employees should answer company emails in their free time. While most people still don’t have “fun” jobs and not all boring tasks constitute “work”, an almost imperceptible shift between work and play has occurred where, as Amelia Horgan puts it, “work is supposed to be fun, even when there’s very little that’s actually fun about it”.

There are many madness-inducing observations about the nature of modern work in Horgan’s sharp polemic: of creeping surveillance, arbitrary tyranny, pointless churn and meaningless tasks. At a meeting of a rail workers’ union for a train line in south-east England, Horgan finds that staff are leaving their jobs in droves as a result of management’s use of flexible agency workers and its maniacal focus on “branding” and “customer experience”. In one darkly comic vignette, a railway employee recounts a visit from a head office director who “insisted all agency staff take off their (shamefully unbranded) gloves”. Still, the trains don’t run on time – or in some places, at all. As one union rep tells Horgan, if a train is running late, the network must cancel stops at smaller stations to avoid a centrally imposed fine, even if this means leaving passengers without transport.

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Jun 19, 2021

From Hilary Mantel to Irenosen Okojie, contemporary writers are rewriting the story of illness and the female body

“I am fascinated by the line between writing and physical survival,” Hilary Mantel wrote in her 2010 essay “Meeting the Devil”. After an operation for endometriosis, she was writing about the need to express pain on the page. With her notebook always within arm’s reach, even in her morphine-fuelled fug she wrote incessantly, recording the hallucinatory and the real, inventing stories and gathering almost enough for a collection during her time as an in-patient.

A notebook by the bedside is hardly revolutionary, but in the hands of an ill woman, and especially one with a gynaecological illness, its symbolism speaks to the past. Women over the centuries have not always expressed their own pain in art and literature. More often, they have had it expressed for them by men, in what Susan Sontag calls “sentimental fantasies” of suffering. Those fictions reflect the medicalised notion of the female body as inherently infirm and incapable of articulating its pain with any degree of reliability. For so long, women were advised even against reading or writing by their 19th-century doctors for fear it would inflame their maladies. Their physical survival was apparently contingent on their silence, not their testimonies.

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Jun 19, 2021
On June 16, we published “How US Abortion Politics Distorts Women’s Lives in Conflict Zones,” an in-depth report by Jill Filipovic, with photography by Nichole Sobecki, on the way the US, as the world’s major aid donor, damages humanitarian groups’ ability to deliver reproductive health care for women in crisis situations. US policy essentially bars […]
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Jun 19, 2021
Benjamin Hedin considers The Lives of Girls and Women, the genre-curious book that “tells us how Alice Munro became Alice Munro.” | Lit Hub Criticism How Edgar Allan Poe’s 1844 balloon hoax launched a “powerful if chaotic machine of publicity, doubt, and belief.” | Lit Hub History Neal Allen (or Mr. Anne Lamott) reflects on […]
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Jun 19, 2021
In “Drunk,” Edward Slingerland plays devil’s advocate for the pleasure and utility of Dionysian abandon.
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Jun 19, 2021

Three decades after his debut novel made him the unwilling voice of a generation, the author wonders whether – after Y, Z and now C, for Covid – individuality will become obsolete

I’m 59 and a half years old – and these days I no longer feel that I identify as a human being. I’ve turned into an app. I’m a filter for words. I filter the ways I experience the world.

How you identify has always been a big deal. In the late 1980s, I disliked being classified as a baby boomer so much that I had to invent my way out of it; my debut novel, published 30 years ago, was called Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. Why accelerated? By the tail end of the 80s and the start of the 90s it felt as if history was finally emerging from locked-in syndrome. The Soviet Union was over. Liberal capitalism was triumphing. Music changed completely. It became a cliche that every other advertising montage showed someone sledge-hammering the Berlin Wall – and there was this new group of younger people who obviously didn’t fit into any pre-existing category, so who were they? Marshall McLuhan wrote that the oversimplification of anything is always exciting, which is I think what happened with Gen X. The term became a meme back when society only had five or six of them a year.

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Jun 19, 2021

Blake Morrison on boomers, Chris Power on Gen X, Megan Nolan on millennials and Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé on Gen Z … which books shaped your generation?

It took till the end of the decade for the 60s to arrive in our provincial backwater, but the impact was all the stronger for being delayed. Unlike my parents, who’d survived the war and settled down to build a comfortable life, I yearned for risk, adventure, escape. I had a vision of it already from Mr Toad in The Wind in the Willows – “the open road, the dusty highways … Travel, change, interest, excitement. The whole world before you and a horizon that’s always changing” – but Mr Toad was a comical figure, whereas Sal Paradise, the narrator of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, was cool.

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Jun 18, 2021

An accomplished novel that explores difference and belonging with a cool intensity

The difficult experience of feeling stuck between seemingly irreconcilable states is at the core of Chibundu Onuzo’s accomplished third novel. The mixed racial heritage of Sankofa’s fiftysomething protagonist, Anna Bain, is the most powerful manifestation of this. As a Welsh-Bamanian (Bamana is Onuzo’s fictional west African state), London-based Anna is made to constantly confront notions of difference and belonging. Anna, who was raised by her white mother, remembers that, as a teenager, white friends were desperate to touch her hair, wanted to know “if food tasted different with thicker lips”. In the early years of motherhood, she was once assumed to be the nanny of her white-passing daughter, Rose.

The novel opens with “aloof” Anna stuck at a particularly bewildering kind of existential crossroads. After more than 20 years of marriage, throughout which she has kept a lid on her artistic ambitions, she has separated from her unfaithful husband. Her relationship with her high-flying daughter is in flux. Most poignantly, Anna’s mother has just passed away.

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Jun 18, 2021
Juneteenth and Father’s Day.
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Jun 18, 2021
To say there are “two Americas” immediately calls to mind any number of great sociocultural divides—Black/white, rich/poor, urban/rural—but one of the abiding tensions in this country has long been between civic conformity and individual eccentricity; or, if we are to locate these ideas as places in the American imagination: Suburbia and Bohemia. This particular divide—very […]
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Jun 18, 2021
In his new novel, “The Netanyahus,” Joshua Cohen imagines a visit by the scholar Benzion Netanyahu to an Ivy League school in the late 1950s.
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Jun 18, 2021
Packer talks about “Last Best Hope,” and Suzanne Simard discusses “Finding the Mother Tree.”
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Jun 18, 2021
The arrival of our buzzing summer friends also brings buggy bookish allusions.
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Jun 18, 2021
Jonathan Lee’s The Great Mistake, Kai Bird’s The Outlier, Nathan Harris’ The Sweetness of Water, and Ruth Scurr’s Napoleon all feature among the Best Reviewed Books of the Week. Brought to you by Book Marks, Lit Hub’s “Rotten Tomatoes for books.”   Fiction 1. The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee (Knopf) 4 Rave • 6 […]
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Jun 18, 2021
The other day, I sat down to watch What a Girl Wants. In case you were living under a rock in the early 2000s, the film follows a young Amanda Bynes, the daughter of a hippie wedding singer, who dreads watching the ceremonious Father Daughter Dance because she does not know her father. Her father, Colin […]
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Jun 18, 2021

The author of At Night All Blood Is Black discusses the unheard African voices of the first world war and the inspiration for his violent antihero

David Diop, the first French novelist and the first writer of African heritage to win the International Booker prize, along with his translator Anna Moschovakis, likes to seek out stories in historical gaps and missing narratives. He was struck by emotion when reading the letters of young French men fighting in the trenches of the first world war – shellshocked teenagers faced with the unmeasurable carnage of trench warfare, a sacrificed generation who often died before their letters reached home.

The novelist, who was born in France but spent his childhood in Dakar, Senegal, after his French mother and Senegalese father met at university in Paris in the 1960s, was floored by the young soldiers’ “intimacy with war”. His novel, At Night All Blood Is Black, is a gripping, twisty account of industrial warfare, colonialism, violence, youth and friendship. It was a massive critical hit and bestseller in France, winning several prizes across Europe. After more than 100 years of first world war literature, in all forms and all languages, critics found something new in Diop’s modern take. It was “hypnotically compelling”, the Booker judges said.

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Jun 18, 2021
Jennette Gordon-Reed and Elizabeth Hinton talk to Jelani Cobb about their new books, On Juneteenth and America on Fire, and the nation’s ongoing struggle to make sense of protest and rebellion, from emancipation to the murder of George Floyd. | Lit Hub Politics How the legacy of slavery warps the world for Black women: read an excerpt from […]
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Jun 18, 2021

The Gruffalo author on Lord of the Flies, Just William – and why Ruth Rendell is up there with Ian McEwan

The book I am currently reading
I’m enjoying Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, but I also have Richard Mabey’s wonderful Flora Britannica by my bedside and dip into it regularly to find out more about the history and folklore surrounding the flowers I’ve seen while out walking.

The book that changed my life
Lord of the Flies by William Golding was a coming-of-age book for me. Till I read it I had a child’s rosy view of life; I suppose I believed in happy endings. This story of a group of boys stranded on a desert island was a horribly convincing portrait of the darker side of human nature.

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Jun 18, 2021
Six new paperbacks to check out this week.
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Jun 18, 2021
Readers respond to recent issues of the Sunday Book Review.
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Jun 18, 2021
Although characters seem to live in fictional worlds the way people exist in reality, a story’s cast is as artificial as a ballet troupe—a society choreographed to meet an author’s purpose. And what is that purpose? Why do writers do this? Why create human facsimiles? Why not spend our days with friends and family, content […]
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Jun 18, 2021
The following is from Rebecca Hall’s Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, illustrated by Hugo Martínez.   ____________________________________________________ Excerpt adapted from Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts. Used with the permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2021 by Rebecca Hall.
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Jun 18, 2021
For many Americans, the Trump presidency gave us a daily dose of depravity we willingly subjected ourselves to in the hopes that our informed outrage would somehow, in the long run, matter. The trivialization, the obscenity, the misogyny, the smug logic of white supremacy, the juvenile character national politics took on throughout this time, the […]
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Jun 18, 2021
When I write a novel, my goal is to get out of my own way and give myself to the characters, which can make it both a painful and revelatory process, but one that always leaves me feeling more expansive. Invariably I feel like I come out the other end an improved, more experienced person […]
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Jun 18, 2021
A story about an alien invasion typically revolves around diplomacy, military strategy, technological one-upmanship, and brinksmanship. But the invaders in Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary are anything but typical. Rather than a scheming sentient enemy, Weir gives readers Astrophage, an opponent who is mindless—and microscopic. Astrophage lives on—and taps energy from—the surface of stars. When […]
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