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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
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
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

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

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

The Booker-shortlisted novelist examines South Africa’s broken promises over the last three decades through the story of one white family

In Damon Galgut’s 2008 book The Impostor, a man named Adam loses his job and moves to a shack in the Karoo to try to write poetry. Like Galgut himself, who wrote his debut novel, A Sinless Season, when he was 17, Adam’s first collection – “poems about the natural world, ardent and intense and romantic” – was published when he was a young man. But Adam has become aware of the weight of history since then, and wonders whether such poetry is acceptable in contemporary South Africa:

When his first collection had come out he’d been astounded by one especially vitriolic review, which had charged him with deliberately avoiding the moral crisis at the heart of South Africa. He’d had no ideological project in mind with his pursuit of Beauty, and he’d been stung at the suggestion that he was indifferent to suffering. But in his weakest moments he reflected privately that maybe it was true; maybe he didn’t care enough for people.

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Jun 17, 2021

Barack Obama’s speechwriter considers America’s fall from grace, an unnerving attempt to discredit him and what the former president thinks now

Ben Rhodes was Barack Obama’s speechwriter and became one of the former president’s closest aides, a constant presence at his shoulder as he toured the world and sat down with the powerful and famous. Three years ago, soon after leaving the White House, Rhodes wrote a compelling insider account of that era called The World As It Is. He has now written the sequel, and has opted for the apocalyptic title After the Fall. It is the story of an aftermath, of the acolyte still travelling the globe with the greying former president as he garners awards, mobbed by adoring fans. A rueful Obama muses about his transition from political force to celebrity, adored but virtually powerless.

After the Fall is a cleverly chosen title. It is about the ending of an administration and the aspirations of those who served in it, who look on aghast at the reign of Donald Trump. But it also has the suggestion of original sin – in this case, the US’s. The subtitle is Being American in the World We’ve Made, and the central theme of the book is a contemplation of the seeds of the country’s fall from grace in the world. Trump’s crassness is not the cause of the descent, but a symptom.

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Jun 17, 2021
“I strongly endorse the idea of going beyond the verbal art forms traditionally marked as ‘literature,’ but everybody already knows about Bob Dylan. They should have given it to Lynda Barry.”
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Jun 17, 2021
In her latest Graphic Content column, Hillary Chute looks at a compilation of Black cartoonists and a history of female slave rebellions.
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Jun 17, 2021
Her subjects ranged widely, but she took special aim at journalism itself, writing that every journalist “knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
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Jun 17, 2021
Sandeep Jauhar offers a tour of books about Alzheimer’s, from the search for a cure to fictionalized accounts of living with this scourge.
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Jun 17, 2021
Sotheby’s has agreed to postpone a highly anticipated auction as a consortium tries to raise $21 million to acquire a “lost” private library for the British public.
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Jun 17, 2021

New Yorker writer, whose scepticism about her trade brought her both praise and blame, was also famed for studies of psychoanalysis and Sylvia Plath

Janet Malcolm, the American journalist who dissected the relationship between the writer and their subject in books including The Journalist and the Murderer, In the Freud Archives and The Silent Woman, has died aged 86.

Her daughter Anne confirmed to the New York Times that the cause was lung cancer.

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Jun 17, 2021

Blue plaques left unchanged, but charity website details Blyton’s ‘old-fashioned xenophobia’ and Kipling’s ‘imperialist sentiments’

English Heritage has acknowledged the “racism, xenophobia and lack of literary merit” in Enid Blyton’s writing, and the “racist and imperialist sentiments” of Rudyard Kipling, as part of its ongoing efforts to better reflect today’s values in its blue plaques.

While English Heritage’s blue plaques commemorating both authors remain unchanged, the charity’s online information about both now goes into detail about the problematic aspects of their writing and views.

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Jun 17, 2021
Suggested reading from critics and editors at The New York Times.
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