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Jan 01, 2021

According to Google an almanac (or almanach) is an annual calendar containing important dates and statistical information such as astronomical data and tide tables. It can also be a handbook containing information of general interest or on a sport or pastime. Back in the early 90s I had the pleasure of working for a year on Whitaker's Almanac. Of course that was in a different millennium when we used to look up answers in books and a search engine, not something the editorial team were yet familiar with. It was a fascinating experience and the breadth and depth of information contained in that one publication was truly impressive. I even contributed to the 1992 edition with an article on hallmarks! I have since discovered that almanacs are published on a very wide variety of subjects and hopefully one of the following will be of interest to you whether for gardening, sailing, solving arguments or winning the lotto!

If you read the blurb Whitaker's Concise 2021 (they dropped Almanac from the title) is the definitive reference guide to the UK. A UK-centric gold-mine of information with an enormous breadth of coverage. At a fraction of the price of the standard edition, the reader with an interest in UK facts and figures is really getting value for money. The concise edition. It contains a comprehensive explanation of every aspect of national and local government infrastructure in the UK, astronomical and tidal data for 2021, guides to UK law, education and taxation, overviews of the water, energy and transport industries, essential calendar information, chapters on royalty and peerage, defence, complete results for each constituency from the last UK General Election and an up-to-date list of MPs, government departments and public bodies - quite simply, the UK in one volume! My personal favourite.  Very establishment. Must surely be the Queen's favourite, I hope she keeps an up-to-date copy in the Palace library!
This is obviously a must-have for all cricket fans. Again a very British publication. An absolute treasure of information world cricket in the preceding year. A perfect gift for any cricket enthusiast. Or as the specialists would say "Overall, Wisden succeeds again in meeting its challenge, recording meticulously and comprehensively while finding time to breathe and reflect". -- Richard Hobson, The Cricketer
Turning to more typical almanac fare here we cross the Atlantic for North America's most well-known annual that contains facts, predictions, and feature items that have made it a cultural icon: traditionally 80 percent-accurate weather forecasts; notable astronomical events and time-honoured astrological dates; horticultural, culinary, fashion, and other trends; historical hallmarks; best fishing days; time - and money-saving garden advice; recipes for refreshment; facts on folklore, farmers, home remedies, and husbandry; amusements and contests.
You couldn't get much further from Whitaker's Almanac here. I have purposely referenced the 2020 edition even if of course 2021  is available. Any publication purporting to contain predictions for 2020 is worth getting hold of ... Brexit, Covid, etc. 
Described as a practical guide to growing, cooking and crafting. This almanac, although it contains a wealth of ideas, hints and information, because it lacks dates reviewers have complained that it is a misnomer, however, I decided to include it in my list. It comes from a publisher specialising in esoteric subject matter.
Another American almanac the National Geographic Kids' Almanac features animal stories, explorer profiles,  inventions, games, and challenges for curious kids who want to learn all about the world and everything that's in it! More of an annual than an almanac but good fun all the same.
 
This one's a little more sober and for a very niche market. (No pun intented ...) The 2021 Stock Trader’s Almanac's stated aim helping to understand the cycles, trends, and patterns that will define stock trading in 2021... Organized in calendar format it's used by top traders, investors, and money managers but also 'perfect for stock trading novices, seasoned market pros, and those who have yet to dip their toe into the lucrative world of stock trading'.
A true almanac this one; with monthly calendars and maps of both hemispheres, it charts the rhythm of lunar phases and contains up to date information on the constellations, meteors and events that take place above our heads. It features 'fascinating celestial facts and notable astronomical anniversaries'  and is approved of the astronomers of the Royal Observatory Greenwich. 
   
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Mar 01, 2021

The ghostly traces of song in the first sound recording inspire a haunting reflection on historical loss

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Mar 01, 2021

Following a recent similar Royal Mint slip-up, the Westminster Collection’s new 50p coins have sent Carroll experts down an internet rabbit hole to source false quotes

As Oscar Wilde famously never said, don’t trust Goodreads as a source for quotes. A month after the Royal Mint released a new £2 coin to celebrate HG Wells with an inaccurate quotation (and a tripod with four legs), Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll is the latest to be immortalised in currency through words they never wrote.

A collection of 50p coins celebrating 150 years since the conclusion of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland tales has been released by the Westminster Collection, who described them as featuring the characters’ “best known quotes”. Unfortunately, eagle-eyed experts spotted that, though some of the lines feature on Goodreads and numerous inspirational posters, they were never penned by Carroll.

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Mar 01, 2021

The Booker winner’s brilliant eighth novel expands on his theme of what it means to be not-quite-human, exploring love and loyalty through the eyes of an android

In a 2015 interview with the Guardian, Kazuo Ishiguro revealed what he claimed was his “dirty secret”: that his novels are more alike than they might initially seem. “I tend to write the same book over and over,” he said. It seemed a particularly ludicrous statement from a writer who had just followed a clone romance (Never Let Me Go) with an Arthurian epic (The Buried Giant). With Klara and the Sun, his eighth novel, though, it feels like Ishiguro is bringing that dirty secret slightly more into the light. This is a book – a brilliant one, by the way – that feels very much of a piece with Never Let Me Go, again exploring what it means to be not-quite-human, drawing its power from the darkest shadows of the uncanny valley.

Klara is an AF – an Artificial Friend – androids bought by parents to provide companionship for their teenage children, who, for reasons that become clearer over the course of the book, are home-schooled by “screen professors” in the novel’s polluted and anxious future America. Klara is chosen by Josie, a fragile young woman who we soon learn has an illness that may kill her as it killed her sister. As with Never Let Me Go, one of the enormous pleasures of Klara and the Sun is the way Ishiguro only drip-feeds to the reader hints and suggestions about the shape of this futuristic world, the reasons for its strangeness. We are left to do much of the imagining ourselves, and this makes the novel a satisfyingly collaborative read.

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Feb 28, 2021

Three lighthouse keepers in 70s Cornwall vanish in an elegant update of an early 20th-century mystery

Anyone who grew up in Scotland in the 70s and early 80s can tell you about the lighthouse keepers of the remote Flannan Isles in the Outer Hebrides in the early 20th century. The story of the three men who settled down to eat only to seemingly vanish into thin air haunted my childhood – and it would appear that of Emma Stonex too. The author’s first novel under her own name transports the location to the close-knit but still remote Cornish coast and updates the action, plausibly, to 1972 – an era when mobile phones don’t exist – before flashing forward to 1992 when an investigative journalist believes he has uncovered the truth but needs the men’s very different widows and girlfriends to prove it.

These tweaks apart, events remain unnervingly similar: the stopped clocks; the unfinished meals; the log that records a heavy storm despite clear skies that week; the mysterious visitor.

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Feb 28, 2021
Elizabeth Day talks to Mary Lawson
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Feb 28, 2021

When the pandemic hit, the song of birds offered joy and hope. The author of a new book recalls that glittering spring and explains the science behind bird calls and how to identify them

It’s six in the morning and still dark, 24 March 2020. I wake early and, knowing the children will soon be up, decide to steal half an hour’s solitude in the park. From the dense latticework of trees and shrubs that clothe the wooded slope comes a constant scuttling through dead leaves. The darkness is awake and vigilant; there’s the warning tik-tik of an invisible robin from the bushes, and then the next second it appears on the path. Each individual movement of the bird, each wing-flick and pivot, is brisk and definite yet the overall impression is one of nervousness and indecision. It leaps round once more on the spot, then flits back into the darkness.

From close by comes a blast of song from a wren. Its harsh trill is like coarse twine zipping over a flywheel. The air is cool, not cold, and smells deliciously of earth and moss. There’s a sudden disturbance from the deeper shade, and a blackbird comes careering out with a mad clatter and pauses, alert, on the great arm of a beech tree. It’s evidently agitated. It flicks about the bough, dipping then raising its wings, and tilting its head all the while in response to something I can’t sense. After a few seconds of this twitching the bird seems to experience some sort of inner resolution, and, as the first beam of grey light wakes the colours of the tree, it raises its head and lets out a quiet phrase of song. Spring has arrived.

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Feb 28, 2021

A neuroscientist tries to make sense of the loss of her father and brother in Gyasi’s shrewd follow-up to her award-wining debut, Homegoing

In her award-winning 2016 debut, Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi used a multi-generational family saga to trace slavery’s complex legacy in America and west Africa. Family is central in her second novel, too, which tells a piercing story of faith, science and the opioid crisis. Rather than multiplying and fanning out across the world, however, this particular family is shrinking, its domain narrowing. “There used to be four of us, then three, two. When my mother goes, whether by choice or not, there will be only one,” observes Gifty, the narrator of Transcendent Kingdom.

Seventeen years earlier, sunk by grief and depression, Gifty’s Ghanaian mother tried to kill herself. Now she’s again taken to her bed – or rather, her daughter’s bed, since her concerned evangelical pastor has managed to get her on a plane from her Huntsville, Alabama, home to Stanford, where Gifty is studying for a PhD in neuroscience. Their prickly mother-daughter dynamic is haunted by absence: first, of the patriarch who abandoned them to return to Ghana when Gifty was small, and then of Nana, her older brother, a high-school basketball star who died of a heroin overdose as a teenager.

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Feb 28, 2021

The Nobel prize-winning writer turns the Ring cycle drama into a grim dialogue about capitalism’s perils

Imagine a Wagner opera without the music – seven hours of dense verbal repetition, lacking the benefit of an oceanic orchestra and exultant singing voices. That’s what Elfriede Jelinek, winner of the Nobel prize in 2004, serves up in this so-called “dramatic essay”. Rein Gold, also defined by Jelinek as a “play which is not one”, was staged in Berlin in 2014, with actors barking amped-up monologues about the iniquities of capitalism while a modular synthesizer intermittently wheezed out Wagnerian motifs.

Jelinek’s title is a heavy-handed Teutonic pun. Das Rheingold, the prelude to Wagner’s tetralogy, is about a clump of gold stolen from the Rhine that comes to be tainted by a curse, the punishment for our pillage of nature. Rein Gold means “pure gold”, although Jelinek believes that it can never be cleansed of the grubby marks left by our greed. In Das Rheingold, the ore pays for the fortress Wotan calls Valhalla, which at the end of the cycle in Götterdämmerung is torched by his rebellious daughter Brünnhilde to free humanity from material vices. Wotan and Brünnhilde debate political morality in Die Walküre, and after she rejects his grim regime he abandons her. Rein Gold brings them back together, now meagrely identified as B and W, to argue over such unmelodious topics as the labour theory of value, teaser rates, homeownership and VAT.

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Feb 28, 2021

For the Observer’s cartoonist, keeping a daily pictorial record of events was the only way to make sense of last year. He tells how a new book was the result

On 13 December 2019 I woke up and reached out for the “on” button of my bedside radio. I lay back and listened to the familiar voices of Radio 4’s Today programme tell me the results of the general election. As the interviews and analysis washed over me, I felt that mixture of emotions that had become all too familiar. Anger, sorrow, disbelief and helplessness. It was how I had felt when Nick Clegg became David Cameron’s useful idiot, when Boris Johnson and Michael Gove stood at the podium dumbfounded by their Brexit victory and when Donald Trump’s tiny hands grasped the reins of power and he became the leader of the free world. Now a bumbling buffoon had won a working majority and was going to “Get Brexit done”.

As I shouted at the radio, I noticed the sketchbook next to it. I love drawing in sketchbooks. I have hundreds of them all over my house and studio in various stages of completion. My advice to all aspiring illustrators is to keep a sketchbook and draw in it every day. For two years, during my time as the children’s laureate, I drew a daily sketch charting my travels and posted the pages on social media. I found it therapeutic and cathartic in equal measure. Now, as the country woke up to the prospect of five years of Tory government, I stifled my shouts and reached for my sketchbook. I drew a troll in a nappy holding a spiked club and felt momentarily better.

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Feb 28, 2021

Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon’s diaries caused a stir in 1967. Now edited by Simon Heffer and published unredacted, they reveal even more juicy detail about British high society between the 1920s and 50s

When the diaries of an obscure politician called Sir Henry “Chips” Channon were first published in 1967, they caused a sensation, and not only among those whose names appeared in their index (“vile & spiteful & silly,” announced the novelist Nancy Mitford, speaking for the walking wounded). Channon, an upstart Chicagoan who’d unaccountably managed to marry the daughter of an exceedingly rich Anglo-Irish Earl, moved in vertiginously high circles. As a friend of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, he had enjoyed a ringside seat during the abdication crisis; as the Conservative MP for Southend he had looked on with fawning admiration as Neville Chamberlain negotiated with Hitler, and abject horror as Winston Churchill succeeded him as prime minister (Channon was in favour of appeasement). Most eye-popping of all, during a visit to Berlin for the Olympics in 1936, he and various other of his smart English friends had partied wildly with leading Nazis, among them Hermann Göring, whose floodlit garden had been made over to look like a cross between a Coney Island funfair and the Petit Trianon in Versailles – a theatrical coup that seemingly drove both Joseph Goebbels and Joachim von Ribbentrop half mad with jealousy.

But dripping with juice as these diaries were – Channon’s chief virtue as a writer is his abiding awareness that dullness is the worst sin of all, and for this reason they’re among the most glittering and enjoyable ever written – they were also incomplete. When Channon died in 1958, aged 61, his son Paul (later a transport secretary in Thatcher’s government) green-lit their publication. But they would need, it was agreed, to be heavily redacted. Quite apart from his father’s sexuality – among Channon’s male (and often married) lovers were the playwright Terence Rattigan and, almost certainly, Prince Paul of Yugoslavia – pretty much everyone named in the book was still alive. As Chips’s ex-wife, Honor, said at the time: “Some of the catty remarks (which fascinate) MUST be cut.” She was especially worried what Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother might think. When the book did appear, then, it was as a single, slim volume: enough words to fill a Penguin paperback, the edition I owned.

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Feb 27, 2021

The gifted writer summons the eclectic travels of Albrecht Dürer with captivating passion, poignancy, pure wonder and a personal twist

Albrecht Dürer was the first great sightseer in the history of art, travelling Europe to see conjoined twins, Aztec gold, Venetian gondolas and the bones of an 18ft giant. He crossed the Alps more than once and voyaged for six days in the freezing winter of 1520 to see a whale on a beach in Zeeland. The ship was nearly wrecked, but somehow Dürer saved the day and they eventually reached the shore. The sands were empty. The great creature had sailed away.

This magnificent new book by Philip Hoare takes its title from that tale, but only as a point of departure. The narrative soon turns into a trip of another kind entirely, a captivating journey through art and life, nature and human nature, biography and personal memoir. Giants walk the earth: Dürer and Martin Luther, Shakespeare and Blake, Thomas Mann, Marianne Moore, WH Auden, David Bowie. Hoare summons them like Prospero, his writing the animating magic that brings the people of the past directly into our present and unleashes spectacular visions along the way.

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Feb 27, 2021

From Betjeman’s London townhouse to Keats’ seaside cottage, these atmospheric writers’ homes all have a tale to tell

South Lodge at Greenway, Devon
The main house is so well preserved it’s as if Agatha Christie just stepped outside. In the drawing room it takes little imagination to picture yourself listening to one of her manuscript readings. If you are inclined to detective work, you’ll work out for yourself that the scratch marks on the bedroom door were made by the family dog. Christie’s holiday house, Greenway, is gracious and beautifully proportioned. It sits high above the River Dart, amid extensive grounds that slope steeply down to the water. “The loveliest place in the world,” is how she described it. Christie left it to her daughter, who passed it to her son, and he gifted it to the National Trust in 2005. Staying in South Lodge – once the gardener’s cottage, and one of three NT cottages to rent on the estate – you could spend all day watching light dance on the river, boats passing and the steam train puffing through woods to Greenway Halt. Wander down through the gardens, past the Battery with its two cannons (site of the murder in Five Little Pigs) and you’ll arrive at the Boathouse, which Christie used as a location for a grisly murder in Dead Man’s Folly. It also appeared in the 2013 film adaptation, David Suchet’s last appearance as Poirot. Ring the bell at the quay and a ferryman arrives to take you across to Dittisham for lunch at the atmospheric Ferry Boat Inn, or take a cruise to Dartmouth on the Christie Belle riverboat and look back at the house from the water – elusive, fascinating, like all the best mysteries.
Sleeps 6, from £621 for two nights, nationaltrust.org.uk

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Feb 27, 2021

The bestselling author on their memoir about growing up gay and black in the US, helping others to find healing, and the power of non-binary young adults

George M Johnson is a writer and activist whose first book, All Boys Aren’t Blue, is a memoir about growing up black and queer in America. The book is aimed at young adults and catalogues in candid style the author’s experiences of both trauma and healing, from childhood bullying to teenage sexual abuse, to their relationship with their family and changing understanding of their masculinity and sexuality. It was published in the US last year to widespread acclaim, reviewers describing it as a “gamechanger”, offering “a deep but clear-eyed love for its subjects”. It has been optioned for television by actor and activist Gabrielle Union. Johnson lives in Newark, New Jersey.

When did you know you wanted to write your story?
I knew it was time when Giovanni Melton was killed by his father, who said something to the effect of: “I would rather have a dead son than a gay son.” That was November 2017 and I was like: “This has got to stop.” So many black, queer young men being taken from us… We have to talk about it. People need to know that we are your sons and brothers, your non-identifying friends and family members, we are genderless people who exist among you – but we deserve to do more than just exist. It was time for me to write the story of what it is like to grow up knowing, from a very young age, that you do not fit into this mould of what it means to look like a boy in society.

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Feb 27, 2021

The poet explains how researching her history led her to tell the story from three perspectives: the birth mother, the adoptive mother and the daughter

In one way, I’d been writing the poems in The Adoption Papers for my whole life. I’d been making up an imaginary birth mother and father with my adoptive mother for years, since I was a kid. She would say of my birth father: “I’m picturing a Paul Robeson figure, Jackie, perhaps with a bit of Nelson Mandela mixed in.”

In another, I started writing the book when I was pregnant. It’s difficult when your writing infiltrates your life and vice versa, difficult to work out what actually happened and what didn’t. Your imaginative life is your reality.

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Feb 27, 2021

Susan Taubes’s only novel was panned when it was published in 1969. Deborah Levy re-examines the witty story of one woman’s epic quest for freedom

Divorcing is Susan Taubes’s only novel. Published in 1969, and now reissued by NYRB Classics, it is about much more than the breakup of a marriage. Perhaps it is mostly about misogyny and how it can discourage and deaden a clever woman. It is also about being haunted by the ghosts of the Holocaust and the ghosts of a marriage. And it is about the kind of rupture, both personal and historical, that can’t be neatly resolved, not in life nor in a novel. “What is the proper way to dispose of a wedding gown one can’t give to one’s daughter or daughter-in-law?” the woman at the centre of the book wonders. “No proper way.”

The book is witty and despairing in equal measure, formally elegant in its modernist layering of time and place – I wish I had read it decades ago. Perhaps had I done so, I would have filed it on my shelf between two poets – Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton – and the philosopher Hannah Arendt. The daughter of a psychoanalyst and granddaughter of a rabbi, Taubes, born Judit Zsuzsanna Feldmann in Hungary, was a scholar of philosophy and religion and wrote her dissertation on Simone Weil.

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Feb 27, 2021

The end may now be in sight, but there are still frustrating months ahead. From new recipes to letter writing and Lego, writers including Matt Haig and Philippa Perry share their strategies

I always think it is interesting that arguably the most hopeful song of the 20th century – “Over the Rainbow” – arrived in arguably its darkest year. The Wizard of Oz, adapted from L Frank Baum’s novel, opened in cinemas on 25 August 1939, the day Hitler sent a telegram to Mussolini to tell him he was about to invade Poland. Within a week, the second world war was under way in Europe.

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Feb 27, 2021

A hilarious spy mission; a maritime adventure; a lipstick rampage; a celebration of black youth and more

There’s a bumper crop of brilliant books for those aged eight and above this month, including Vi Spy, Licence to Chill (Chicken House), first in a new series by Who Let the Gods Out? author Maz Evans. Valentine “Vi” Day has an unusual family; her dad was a supervillain, her mum is an ex-spy and just about to marry Vi’s teacher. Now Vi herself is determined to win a place at spy school by carrying out a dangerous mission, with the help of her indomitable Nan, her shy almost-stepbrother, and a supporting cast of geriatric secret agents and semi-retired rogues. Wildly hilarious, full of bum jokes and acutely observed family dynamics, and with illustrations by Jez Tuya, it’s riotous escapist fun.

More complex family interactions lie at the heart of Proud of Me (Usborne) by Sarah Hagger-Holt. Josh and Becky were born to their two mums only eight days apart. As the siblings hit their teens, Becky begins to wonder whether she might be gay herself – and Josh is increasingly desperate to discover more about their donor … Warm, sweet, funny and believable, this gentle coming-of-age story is thought-provoking without ever sacrificing plot to “issues”.

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Feb 26, 2021

The honesty and clarity of the writing in this account elevates what could have been a ‘misery memoir’ into something moving and joyous

Josie George doesn’t know what’s wrong with her. The doctors don’t know either, though for 30-odd years they’ve been coming up with different ideas. Any exertion or stimulation exhausts her. There are times when she’s too weak to leave the house. A single mum with a nine-year-old son and a mobility scooter, she never knows how her health will be from one day to the next. It sounds like the material for a misery memoir. But the miracle of A Still Life – as much a miracle as her determination to write it – is its joyousness.

By the age of eight, with pain, swollen glands and bouts of lassitude that no amount of Calpol could cure, she was already a puzzle to paediatricians. Maybe she didn’t like school, one doctor suggested; on the contrary what she hated was being stuck at home on the sofa. Her social worker mum and church worker dad did their best to keep her spirits up and there would be periods when she seemed fine – could run, pedal her bike, enjoy sleepovers with friends. Then she’d go downhill again, to be puzzled over by a new set of specialists (haematologists, rheumatologists, urologists), whose tests showed nothing amiss and made her feel like a fraud.

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Feb 26, 2021

The Books of Jacob, praised by the Nobel prize judges and winner of Poland’s prestigious Nike award, will be published in the UK in November

The magnum opus of Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk – a novel that has taken seven years to translate and has brought its author death threats in her native Poland – is to be published in English.

The Books of Jacob, which will be released in the UK in November, is the Polish author’s first novel to appear in English since she won the 2018 Nobel prize for literature for what judges called “a narrative imagination that with encyclopaedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”.

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Feb 26, 2021

The novelist talks about the heartache and hedonism that inspired her debut – and how writing helped her find a way out of the chaos of young adult life

Megan Nolan is weighing up how she feels about her relatives back home in Waterford, Ireland, reading her first novel, Acts of Desperation. She is not, she says, looking forward to it. I tell her that she might have to get used to it; I don’t live far from Waterford, and have noticed that she has already made the local newspaper (not to mention previews of 2021’s notable new voices in the Irish Times and the Observer). Anyway, what’s the problem? Everyone has been so supportive, she replies, “as soon as they heard that I was writing this book, and was having the book published, you know, everyone is so nice about it. And they’ll say, ‘I can’t wait to get it, and we’re going to have such a party when you get back.’ And then I just think: ‘Oh my God, they’re all going to buy it and be really moved that they’re buying it and then they’ll get home and have to read that.’”

“That”, she elaborates, is not exactly the sexual explicitness of Acts of Desperation’s depiction of a young woman’s life in Dublin, nor even its portrayal of prodigious boozing and partying, “but just that it’s so unhappy. You know, it’s quite a painful book to read. I just think, ‘I wish I could have given them a good experience.’”

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Feb 26, 2021

The novelist on the influence of Benedict Kiely, the comforts of Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine and feeling changed by Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

The book I am currently reading
I am rereading Jim Harrison’s book of poems Letters to Yesenin. The poem is an epic suicide note to a suicide, but Harrison says that it doesn’t come to him like a burning bush or a pillar of light but he has decided to stay.

The book that changed my life
My father [Sean] wrote a children’s soccer book, Goals for Glory, in the 1970s. It was read aloud by one of my teachers at school in Dublin. When Georgie Goode, the hero, scores the winning goal it set my class alight: one of my friends danced on the desk. And I remember thinking: that goal came from the inside of my father’s head.

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Feb 25, 2021

A mother’s moving account of her struggle to adopt concludes with her daughter’s memories of finding a home

Wanting to have children and deciding to have children are acts of imagination that border on egotism. To be a child is to be a particular child but to want a child is not to know who that child will be or how to grant it agency. For Margaret Reynolds these issues were unusually complex because she started grappling with them aged 45 when, single after the breakdown of a relationship, she suddenly experienced the urge to be a mother. She was longing for purpose and joy, for a “commitment that tries and shapes the self”. Yet this was not an urge to procreate. She had already undergone the menopause and wasn’t invested in reproducing her DNA.

The Wild Track is an account of Reynolds’s five-year struggle to adopt a child and of the painful pleasure of becoming the mother to a troubled six-year-old daughter. It’s an extremely moving, sometimes baggy book (I wish its editor had been more ruthless in cutting the history of ambivalent motherhood injected into its first chapter). It has many great merits, among which is its ambivalence about the British adoption system, which Reynolds portrays as serving parents and children with admirable rigour that itself results in obstacles that cannot be in the interests of the numerous children brought up in care.

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Feb 25, 2021

The recent sale of a cast for £12,500 is a testament to the Romantic poet’s enduring legacy, on the bicentenary of his death

There’s no mention of John Keats’s name on his tombstone – in fact you might accidentally pass right by it while strolling through the Cimitero Acattolico in Rome, were it not for its distinctly dour epitaph. “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” is the bitter description, etched at Keats’s dying request, the final sentiment from a poet who believed his words would fade into oblivion.

When Keats died from tuberculosis aged 25, on 23 February 1821, the furniture in his room – now a museum – was burned. But his face was shaved and prepared, so a plaster cast could be applied to preserve his likeness. Now, 200 years on, two versions of Keats’s death mask produced by two castmakers circulate galleries, auctions and private collections for large sums. Their value is a testament to Keats’s enduring appeal; Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak owned one and would reportedly take it from its box next to his bed to stroke its forehead.

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Feb 25, 2021

France’s response to #MeToo was unenthusiastic but its attitude towards sex is coming under increasing scrutiny in a wave of memoirs alleging abuse

It was the fate of another girl that made Vanessa Springora realise how little things had changed. In 2018, newspapers reported that a 28-year-old man had lured an 11-year-old to his home in the Paris suburbs. Though the girl’s parents had reported rape, the charge was reduced as the girl was deemed to have consented because the man hadn’t used threats or force. “I was disgusted,” says Springora. It was then that she decided on the title of her memoir – Le Consentement (Consent).

Springora first met the prize-winning author Gabriel Matzneff at a literary dinner in 1986. She was 13 years old, and her mother, who worked in publishing, could not afford a babysitter. Matzneff, the guest of honour, was 50. Over the next year, the two embarked on a passionate affair: he fought for her mother’s blessing, helped her with her studies and wrote of their burning love in his published journals. At least, that was his version.

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