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May 17, 2021

This first world war poem remains loyal to the patriotic ethos of its time, but the human cost of combat is never denied

The Unconquered Dead

“… defeated, with great loss.”

Not we the conquered! Not to us the blame
Of them that flee, of them that basely yield;
Nor ours the shout of victory, the fame
Of them that vanquish in a stricken field.

That day of battle in the dusty heat
We lay and heard the bullets swish and sing
Like scythes amid the over-ripened wheat,
And we the harvest of their garnering.

Some yielded, No, not we! Not we, we swear
By these our wounds; this trench upon the hill
Where all the shell-strewn earth is seamed and bare,
Was ours to keep; and lo! we have it still.

We might have yielded, even we, but death
Came for our helper; like a sudden flood
The crashing darkness fell; our painful breath
We drew with gasps amid the choking blood.

The roar fell faint and farther off, and soon
Sank to a foolish humming in our ears,
Like crickets in the long, hot afternoon
Among the wheat fields of the olden years.

Before our eyes a boundless wall of red
Shot through by sudden streaks of jagged pain!
Then a slow-gathering darkness overhead
And rest came on us like a quiet rain.

Not we the conquered! Not to us the shame,
Who hold our earthen ramparts, nor shall cease
To hold them ever; victors we, who came
In that fierce moment to our honoured peace.

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May 17, 2021

This dizzying history tour of disasters takes its lead from Covid, and China’s role in ‘cold war II’, but offers little clarity or relief from Ferguson’s flawed certainties

Is there such a thing as a timely history book? If the point of history is to gain objective distance from past events, then timeliness can only be a pleasing accident rather than an outcome that is consciously sought. Yet with a column-writing historian such as Niall Ferguson, someone who is engaged prolifically in current affairs, the call of the now appears nigh on impossible to ignore.

And so his latest book, Doom, takes its lead from the Covid pandemic and seeks to place it in a historical context of other natural and manmade disasters – the two, as he rightly points out, are usually conjoined. The subtitle is The Politics of Catastrophe, and Ferguson’s basic thesis is that all disasters are grounded in “a history of economics, society, culture, and politics”.

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May 16, 2021

The author of the hit YA fantasy talks about Netflix stardom, making her novels more diverse and why she had to give up a close relationship with her fans

When Leigh Bardugo first came face to face with her characters, she wept. In a video that was uploaded everywhere from YouTube to TikTok, the author stepped on to the Budapest set of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone and embraced her heroine, Alina – or rather, the actor Jessie Mei Li in costume. “You guys look amazing,” Bardugo repeats in the video, between hugs and tears. “You look so incredible. It’s actually eerie.”

“Adaptation is scary,” Bardugo says now. “I don’t begrudge any author the right to say that they don’t want to do it, because we’ve all seen it go wrong. It would be heartbreaking to be locked out of the house that you built. But I got lucky, because the people I collaborated with cared deeply – not just about the material, but the people who love it.”

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May 16, 2021

This account of the ‘Preston model’, the Lancashire city’s bold wealth-building scheme whose champions include Labour’s John McDonnell, fails to address to what degree it works

We’d all like to believe in Preston. The Labour-led Lancashire city has, over the last decade, been pioneering its own version of community wealth-building, a concept described as both “guerrilla localism” and “extreme common sense”. What it means, at its simplest, is that money spent in a city by “anchor institutions” – hospitals, universities, housing associations, the council – as much as possible stays in the city. Contracts for catering or construction, rather than going to faceless London-based or international corporations, go to local businesses.

Rather than go to remote shareholders, cashflow and profits stay in the immediate area, not only giving economic benefits to citizens, but also involvement in and ownership of local decision-making. Residents can “take back control” – not in the ersatz sense offered by Brexit slogans, but in concrete and practical ways. In what might have been a classic “red wall” area – an old industrial town where voters feel let down by successive governments – the Labour vote has held up, including in the recent local elections.

There’s a shortage of voices from satisfied citizens, as opposed to the businesses most likely to approve of the model

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May 16, 2021

The ‘household book’ of Martha Lloyd, who lived with the Austens, contains recipes giving an authentic flavour of the writer’s life

“Grate the Cheese & add to it one egg, & a teaspoonful of Mustard, & a little Butter,” advises Martha Lloyd, a close friend of Jane Austen, in her recipe for one of the author’s favourite meals, “Toasted Cheese”. “Send it up on a toast or in paper Trays.”

This recipe is part of the “household book” written between 1798 and 1830 by Lloyd, who lived with Austen, her sister Cassandra and their mother (also called Cassandra) for years. The four women lived together in a cottage in Chawton, Hampshire, where Jane wrote, revised and had published all of her novels: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

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May 16, 2021

The Nobel-winning psychologist on applying his ideas to organisations, why we’re not equipped to grasp the spread of a virus, and the massive disruption that’s just round the corner

Daniel Kahneman, 87, was awarded the Nobel prize in economics in 2002 for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making. His first book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, a worldwide bestseller, set out his revolutionary ideas about human error and bias and how those traits might be recognised and mitigated. A new book, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, written with Olivier Sibony and Cass R Sunstein, applies those ideas to organisations. This interview took place last week by Zoom with Kahneman at his home in New York.

I guess the pandemic is quite a good place to start. In one way it has been the biggest ever hour-by-hour experiment in global political decision-making. Do you think it’s a watershed moment in the understanding that we need to “listen to science”?
Yes and no, because clearly, not listening to science is bad. On the other hand, it took science quite a while to get its act together.

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May 16, 2021

The rollicking story of a female bareknuckle boxer in Victorian England makes creative use of the novelist’s family history

Mick Kitson’s second novel, following 2018’s Sal, is practically the definition of a ripping yarn: a plucky young “Romi” girl, Annie, is bought by the Tipton Slasher, a bareknuckle boxer, with the winnings from his final fight. He raises her like a daughter and she follows his footsteps into the ring. The sight of a woman fighting “fisty” in Victorian England draws eager crowds and brings our heroine fame, fortune and an Adonis-like prizefighter of a husband. But these illegal fights lead Annie into peril, too, as she encounters vicious opponents, enraged lawmakers and nasty toffs who want her for their private entertainment…

Kitson drew on his family’s myths – Annie and the Slasher are based on his ancestors – although he cheerfully admits the stories his grandmother told about them were notoriously unreliable. No matter: this is historical fiction rich in fun rather than meticulous fact, Kitson’s imagination allowed to roam and play.

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May 16, 2021

The folk singer offers a lyrical homage to the endangered migrant bird whose uniquely beautiful song he has been communing with up close for years

A few years ago, a group of friends and I followed Barbara Dickson, the Scottish pop star turned folk singer, into a wood deep in the green heart of Kent. We were there as part of Singing With Nightingales, an immersive experience run by another folk singer, Sam Lee. It was night and we had no torches. We came to a small clearing where we sat, silent, until from far off, then closer, and then so close that the sound seemed to be the voice of the very trees around us, a nightingale sang. After listening to its otherworldly carolling for a while, Lee and Dickson took turns singing back to the nightingale, old shanties and folk songs, praising the beauty of its voice, recognising the importance of its role in that bright space where culture and nature meet.

Now Lee, a tousle-haired former Mercury prize nominee (for his 2012 debut album, Ground of Its Own), has turned from song to prose with The Nightingale: Notes on a Songbird, a beautiful, lyrical, heartfelt book about the songbird. Part nature writing, part memoir, part miscellany, every page of this book benefits from the incredible intimacy that Lee has built up with the bird over the years of his “undoubtedly romantic and whimsical” pilgrimages to listen to, and sing back to, nightingales.

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May 16, 2021

The American journalist and author on his history of the Sacklers, the family at the centre of the US opioids controversy, and a special night with the Scorpions in Ukraine

The 45-year-old American journalist Patrick Radden Keefe has written two of the most compelling nonfiction books of recent years and also created and presented one of the best podcasts – Wind of Change, an investigation into whether the classic Scorpions song was actually written by the CIA. Somehow, he combines these projects with his day job as a staff writer on the New Yorker. His new book, Empire of Pain, is a history of the Sackler family, a dynasty long known for cultural philanthropy, some of which has been funded since the 1990s with profits from their company Purdue Pharma and by the production of the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin. Keefe’s previous book, Say Nothing, an investigation into the murder of Jean McConville by the IRA in 1972, won the 2019 Orwell prize.

Opioids were responsible for the overdose deaths of nearly 500,000 Americans from 1999 to 2019. It’s hard not to feel very angry towards some members of the Sackler family, both for the way they promoted OxyContin and their lack of contrition. Did you feel that too?
As I was doing my reporting, there were moments where my eyes would bug out of my head. I was shocked. I kept thinking I couldn’t be more shocked. Then I would be. But when it came to the writing of the book, it was important to me to keep the temperature pretty cool and to just allow the evidence and the stories to speak for themselves.

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May 16, 2021

The author and punk musician draws parallels between her own life and that of the genre-blurring sister of Beyoncé in this hymn to black individualism

The cover image of Why Solange Matters, the first book in Faber’s new Music Matters series charting the story of groundbreaking musicians (Marianne Faithfull and Karen Carpenter to follow), shows the singer washed in red light, her arms loose by her side, gazing towards the audience, or at someone she recognises. In that moment she is bordering on heavenly. Though the photograph was taken five years ago, around the time of Solange’s A Seat at the Table album, for me it conjures a lyric from Down With the Clique on her 2019 LP When I Get Home:

We were rollin’ up the street
Chasing the divine, oh

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May 15, 2021

From Sally Rooney to Raven Leilani, female novelists have captured the literary zeitgeist, with more buzz, prizes and bestsellers than men. But is this cultural shift something to celebrate or rectify?

In March, Vintage, one of the UK’s largest literary fiction divisions, announced the five debut novelists it would be championing this year: Megan Nolan, Pip Williams, Ailsa McFarlane, Jo Hamya and Vera Kurian.

All five of them are women. But you could be forgiven for not noticing it, so commonplace are female-dominated lists in 2021. Over the past 12 months, almost all of the buzz in fiction has been around young women: Patricia Lockwood, Yaa Gyasi, Raven Leilani, Avni Doshi, Lauren Oyler. Ask a novelist of any gender who they are reading and they will almost certainly mention one of Rachel Cusk, Ottessa Moshfegh, Rachel Kushner, Gwendoline Riley, Monique Roffey or Maria Stepanova. Or they will be finding new resonances in Anita Brookner, Zora Neale Hurston, Natalia Ginzburg, Octavia Butler, Ivy Compton-Burnett. The energy, as anyone in the publishing world will tell you, is with women.

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May 15, 2021

Frances Wilson’s book is as magnificently flawed as its subject – and a work of art in its own right

In a letter of 1913, DH Lawrence described his belief that in order to be an artist, it is necessary to be profoundly religious: a veritable martyr, in fact. “I always feel as if I stood naked for the fire of Almighty God to go through me,” wrote this man who had always repudiated his christian name, which was David (friends called him Lorenzo). “I often think of my dear Saint Lawrence on his gridiron, when he said ‘Turn me over, brothers, I am done enough on this side.’”

In her new biography, Frances Wilson, who has been quietly in thrall to the novelist since she was a student, does not grill him lightly over charcoal; not for her the righteous disgust of Kate Millett, whose feminist attack on the author in Sexual Politics in 1970 more or less did for him, at least in our universities (a cancellation avant la lettre). Nevertheless, her book is a highly flammable thing. If its subject is a crazed prophet, sex-obsessed and violently contrarian, who stalks Bloomsbury drawing rooms breathing fire all over everyone he meets, her own style is hardly any less combustible.

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May 15, 2021

Richard Cohen’s new book, which has reportedly been dropped by his US publisher despite extensive additions, is still set for British release next month

It has taken nearly a decade to research and write, and runs to more than 750 pages. But The History Makers, described as “an epic exploration of those who write about the past”, has itself been rewritten after its author failed to take into account enough black historians, academics and writers.

Richard Cohen was told by his publisher to produce new chapters and expand others after failing to sufficiently acknowledge the roles of black people and African Americans.

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May 15, 2021

The prize-winning poet on her bond with her giggly late gran, embracing blush-making subject matter and why reading poetry is key to writing

Hollie McNish, 38, grew up in Reading, went on from a comprehensive school to Cambridge and has attracted an online following of millions for performances of her poetry. Winner of the Ted Hughes prize for new work in poetry in 2016, she combines protest and humour with a refreshing lack of self-importance. She is a natural champion of women, an ace inequality spotter – a mum who refuses to keep mum. Her new book, Slug, is in no way sluggish: it frisks, rages and rejoices.

You’ve a highly developed sense of injustice – where from?
It’s from my mum. She’s a nurse and has seen it all in terms of people with illnesses and what they have to face. She’s given me a sense of how lucky I am. I’m in a privileged position to speak out because although my family might be embarrassed by my poems, they’re not going to disown me.

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May 15, 2021

The author of the Women’s prize-shortlisted The Vanishing Half talks about race, the dangers of nostalgia and writing only what pleases her

There was a rule to which Brit Bennett adhered during the writing of her novel The Vanishing Half. It is a sprawling blockbuster that opens in a small town in Louisiana in 1954 and unspools almost to the present day. It takes twin girls, Desiree and Stella, and through their divergent fortunes tells a story of race and class in America, in which history appears much closer than one might think. Bennett’s rule of composition was this: in a narrative heaving with sadness and disappointment, whenever the writing started to drag like homework, she broke off, only to pick up again when she’d rediscovered the joy. “Just write the parts that are exciting to you,” she thought, “and figure out later how you’re going to connect it.”

The smart premise of The Vanishing Half helped to propel it to the top of the bestseller lists in the US, where it appeared as one of the New York Times’s best books of 2020 and was longlisted for the National book award. Desiree and Stella, twin girls born and raised in the fictional town of Mallard, make a startling decision after running away in their teens. Mallard, which “had always been more of an idea than a place,” writes Bennett, is peopled exclusively with light-skinned African Americans, “fair and blonde and redheaded, the darkest ones no swarthier than a Greek”. After arriving in New Orleans, one twin decides to “pass” as white; the other remains black. Through this device, Bennett is able to explore not only “shadeism” and the arbitrary demarcations between racial groups, but other social boundaries, too. “A lot of stories about passing are about these multiple forms of passing,” she says. When Stella marries a wealthy white man, she is confronted with the task of not only performing whiteness (“there was nothing to being white except boldness,” writes Bennett), but performing wealthiness, too.

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May 15, 2021

Despite the obstacles thrown his way, the novelist remains indestructible. He talks about strong women, ‘moral censorship’ and the ‘great wound’ of his life

Poor Salman Rushdie. The one thing I am most keen to talk to him about is the one thing he absolutely, definitely does not want to discuss. “I really resist the idea of being dragged back to that period of time that you insist on bringing up,” he grumbles when I make the mistake of mentioning it twice in the first 15 minutes of our conversation. He is in his elegant, book-lined apartment, a cosy armchair just behind him, the corridor to the kitchen over his shoulder. He’s in New York, which has been his home for the past 20 years, and we are talking – as is the way these days – on video. But even through the screen his frustration is palpable, and I don’t blame him. He’s one of the most famous literary authors alive, having won pretty much every book prize on the planet, including the best of the Booker for Midnight’s Children. We’re meeting to talk about his latest book, Languages Of Truth, which is a collection of nonfiction from the last two decades, covering everything from Osama bin Laden to Linda Evangelista; from Cervantes to Covid. So why do I keep bringing up the fatwa?

We try again. I want to do better because, really, he’s a lot of fun to chat to. Given his success and his history, pomposity should be a given, paranoia would be understandable. But this thoughtful man with an easy giggle is neither, as happy to talk about Field Of Dreams (“A very good film!”) as he is about Elena Ferrante, of whom he’s a fan. Also, Rushdie, 73, tells me, that since he recovered from Covid last spring, he’s been working on his first play. “Ooh, that’s exciting,” I say. “What’s it about?”

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May 15, 2021

The author reflects on the loss of her father, mourned at a distance during the pandemic, in an exquisitely written tribute

On 10 June 2020, the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie experienced “the worst day of my life. There is such a thing as the worst day of life, and please, dear universe, I do not want anything ever to top it.” Her beloved father had died suddenly at the age of 88. She had talked to him only the day before, on a Zoom call from her home in Maryland to her parents’ in Abba, south-east Nigeria. Every Sunday, the family – a brother in England, two siblings in Lagos and three in the US – had engaged, like so many the world over, in a new routine of remote communication: “our boisterous lockdown ritual”. In the book, she recalls her last moments with her father. “On 8 June Okey [Adichie’s brother in Lagos] went to Abba to see him and said he looked tired. On 9 June, I kept our chat brief, so that he could rest. Ka chi fo, he said. Good night. His last words to me.” When another brother, Chuks, telephones to let her know the awful news, she recalls: “I came undone.”

Notes on Grief, written during the weeks and months following the death, (it first appeared as an essay in the New Yorker) is both emotional and austere, a work of dignity and of unravelling. Spare and yet spiritually nutritious, the book serves as a reflection of Adichie’s turmoil in loss. It is also an exquisitely written tribute to her father, James Nwoye Adichie, who was Nigeria’s first professor of statistics : his self-effacement, sense of calm and wry humour shine through. A lover of sudoku puzzles, he was fondly called “the original dada” by Adichie.

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May 15, 2021

A new crop of novels are exploring work culture and burnout – yet for many, the office feels like a distant memory. In the light of coronavirus, where will this literature go next?

What has become of the office? Its small, mundane daily rituals, its smells – of over-boiled coffee, synthetic fabrics, other people’s perfume – the low hum of phone conversations and the whirring of the printer. To those of us who are still working from home, it feels like a faraway place, a half-forgotten memory, and to those who have returned it is utterly transformed: masked, distanced, hushed.

It’s a strange time to be appraising the workplace novel. Will things return to how they were before, or will we look back on our time of working long, gruelling hours in the office with relief, or even nostalgia? I wonder if books set in offices will make us wistful about some aspects of pre-pandemic life or if, instead, these narratives will act as a warning against returning to a working culture that felt, to many of us, unreliable and unstable.

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May 15, 2021

A veteran of the Spanish civil war is visited by the ghost of Franco in a deftly handled story of past trauma and deceit

Few writers establish a sense of dread and uncertainty as smoothly as Patrick McGrath. “Hard now to forget the first time I found him in the house. In the house!” opens our narrator, Spanish civil war veteran Francis McNulty. When we meet him he’s an aged poet living in the eponymous unkempt south London square. And the intruder? General Franco in full uniform, medals rusting and the braid coming unstitched from his cuffs, exuding a stench of death or manure or maybe of Spanish jasmine.

But this is Kennington in the summer of 1975; the real general is dying in a palace full of Goyas in Madrid. The women around McNulty gather, like something out of Lorca: daughter Gilly, who works in the foreign office; housekeeper Dolores López, rescued from the civil war by Francis when she was just eight; elder sister Finty, an artist who makes her way down from the Isle of Mull. “Pretty far gone, is it?”, she baldly asks her distressed brother.

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May 14, 2021

A sensitive investigation challenges our understanding of what it means to be missing, and how it feels for those left behind

Every year in the UK 176,000 people go missing. These are the known missing. Some will make the papers, some of their faces shared so widely we feel we know them. Others, the public never hears about. Perhaps they are not young enough, white enough, photogenic enough in the eyes of the press, perhaps they have mental health issues, or are children in care. Then there are the unknown missing, those who voluntarily abscond from their lives, those who are homeless, undocumented immigrants, young people who disappear for weeks at a time while ferrying drugs across county lines. In short, those whose passing out of sight never gets reported.

Such examples create a rupture in our understanding of what it means to be missing: is a person still missing if no one is looking for them, if they go missing more than once (a third of all missing person cases are repeat incidents), if they want to remain gone? At once, the term becomes less clear cut. This is journalist Francisco Garcia’s intention: to interrogate our conception of missing persons, hoping that, by its end, they will no longer be considered “an abstraction” but an inevitable part of contemporary society, operating at the peripheries of all our lives.

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May 14, 2021

Air Miles has been illustrated by his wife Helen Oxenbury and finished by Bill Salaman, friend of the author who died in 2019

The final picture book from the late, much-loved children’s author John Burningham – in which “difficult dog” Miles goes on one final journey – has been completed by his friend Bill Salaman and illustrated by his wife, Helen Oxenbury.

Burningham, who died in 2019 at the age of 82, wrote and illustrated some of the 20th century’s most treasured picture books, from Mr Gumpy’s Outing to Granpa. He was married for more than 50 years to Oxenbury, whose illustrations adorn picture books including We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes. Oxenbury said that when Burningham became ill, he asked her to finish the book he was working on, Air Miles, for him.

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May 14, 2021

The Trojan Women by Anne Carson with Rosanna Bruno; The Gododdin by Gillian Clarke; Hotel Raphael by Rachel Boast; American Mules by Martina Evans; pandemonium by Andrew McMillan

Even at its best, the poetic mainstream we call the lyric tradition can run the risk of appearing po-faced. So it’s a joy to come across a mistress of the art taking rumbustious pleasure in revisiting the matter of poetry itself. Anne Carson’s new version of EuripidesThe Trojan Women (Bloodaxe), with artist and cartoonist Rosanna Bruno, is resolutely subtitled A Comic; and a graphic novel is exactly what it is.

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May 14, 2021

Swedish Academy documents reveal debate over naming the dissident writer the 1970 literature laureate, four years before his exile from the Soviet Union

Newly opened archives at the Swedish Academy have revealed the depth of concern among Nobel judges for the consequences awaiting Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn if the dissident Soviet writer were awarded the prize for literature in 1970.

The author of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, who revealed the horrors of Stalin’s gulags in his writings and was eventually exiled by the Soviet Union, was named the Nobel laureate that year, lauded by the committee for “the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”.

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May 14, 2021

The author celebrates the most perfect sentence by Toni Morrison and his struggles with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

The book I am currently reading
I’m just about finished with Adam Levin’s thousand-page The Instructions, about a 10-year-old boy who thinks he might be the Jewish Messiah. Everyone makes David Foster Wallace comparisons, as if that explains anything, but I’ve found it a vastly entertaining, wildly over-loquacious joy. Then, for something completely different, I’ll be starting Adrian Tchaikovsky’s The Doors of Eden. He writes incredibly enjoyable sci-fi, full of life and ideas.

The book that changed my life
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. I read it maybe a dozen times when I was 15 and 16, and it broke all the rules for what introverted, painfully preppy me thought writing was supposed to do in novels. It dared to be playful, which was a revelation. I haven’t read it since, because I don’t know that I could bear to look on it with adult eyes, but it changed everything for young-writer me.

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May 14, 2021

A moving and clear-eyed history of bodily freedoms that takes as its central character Wilhelm Reich, inventor of the orgone accumulator

Right at the end of this exhilarating journey through a century’s struggles over the human body, Olivia Laing invites her reader to “imagine, for a minute, what it would be like to inhabit a body without fear”. This simple hope comes to sound like a radical demand for the impossible; after such a vivid catalogue of the many humiliations and cruelties a body can be made to bear, it isn’t easy to imagine.

Laing’s impassioned commitment to the promise of bodily freedom, of every body’s right to move and feel and love without harming or being harmed, shines through every sentence of the book. But she is too canny a writer to miss the rich and bitter irony in which efforts to realise this promise so often get caught: every movement to liberate the body comes to be marked in some way by the constrictive regime it’s trying to escape. The writer who best grasped this irony was the Marquis de Sade, of whom Laing writes with an open and compelling ambivalence. De Sade’s nihilistic fantasies of sexual torture are a discomfiting reminder of how easily the liberty of one individual becomes the enslavement and abasement of others.

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