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Archive by category: GuardianReturn
Feb 24, 2021

A portrait of the poet and ‘public prophet’ spotlights her entanglements with empire and race but doesn’t neglect the schlockier pleasures of biographical speculation

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” asked Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1850, unwittingly turning herself from one of Britain’s pre-eminent poets into a Valentine’s card fixture. It wasn’t just the words, which are still lovely, but the way they tend to be read in conjunction with the story of her clandestine courtship by fellow-poet Robert Browning. In 1846, after a year and a half of epistolary romance and secret meetings, young Browning famously burst into the 40-year-old’s London sickroom and whisked her to Italy and a new life of sunshine, sex and lyric poetry.

Of course, this biographical reading would have appalled Browning, who spent a career trying to break the automatic identification between the “I” of the poem and the “me” of the poet. Chances are such a reductive approach would have unsettled Barrett Browning too. She saw herself as a public prophet rather than as what she scathingly called a “fair writer”. Her first publication as a precocious 14-year-old had been an account of the Battle of Marathon, and she went on to tackle big, gnarly subjects including the iniquity of laissez-faire capitalism (“The Cry of the Children”) and the struggle of Italy for political self-determination (“Casa Guidi Windows”). These days we forget that when Wordsworth died in 1850 it was Barrett, rather than Tennyson, who was most often mentioned as the next poet laureate.

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Feb 23, 2021

A young woman weighs faith and science as she searches for meaning in the wake of family tragedy

Marianne Moore once suggested that poets and scientists work analogously, not only because each is willing to “waste effort” but because each “is attentive to clues, each must narrow the choice, must strive for precision”. Yaa Gyasi, whose triumphant debut Homegoing was published in 2016, demonstrates the marvellous truth of this in her new novel, Transcendent Kingdom, which shifts between clinical rigour and lyrical attentiveness as it tries “to make meaning” of one woman’s life.

Gifty is a PhD candidate at Stanford University who is conducting a study on the “neural circuits of reward-seeking behaviour” in mice by addicting them to a sugary energy drink and caging them in a behavioural testing chamber fitted with a lever that administers either the drink or a randomised electric shock. Using optogenetics, she is attempting to identify which neurons are “firing or not firing” whenever they decide to press the lever: “The mice who can’t stop pushing the lever, even after being shocked dozens of times are, neurologically, the ones who are the most interesting to me,” she says. But Gifty’s attention has been diverted away from her experiment because her mother has come to stay, having had a relapse of the severe depression that she has experienced since the death of Gifty’s brother, Nana, by overdose. This intrusion acts as the catalyst that disrupts Gifty’s carefully calibrated world, confronting her with the traumatic memories she has been trying to avoid.

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Feb 23, 2021

My grandmother tells me off for bemoaning my life. Her memories of losing everything and beginning again continue to inspire me, writes poet Nikita Gill

“You are the granddaughter of a family that has known war and trouble like it is the back of our hands. Building hope where there is none it is part of our legacy.” My grandmother said these words, gently but firmly, on a recent phone call that I had spent lamenting the state of the world, and the pandemic, and feeling rather sorry for myself.

She was right, as she often is.

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Feb 23, 2021

The co-founder of the City Lights Bookstore had global stature but remained a neighborhood fixture

By early afternoon, a small memorial of flowers and a can of Pabst had begun to accumulate outside the door of City Lights Books, to commemorate the death of its co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

And by the evening, a vigil for Ferlinghetti, one of the last living links to the Beat generation, was being held in the adjacent Jack Kerouac Alley, a tiny side street that separates the bookstore – a tourist attraction and official city landmark for decades – from the celebrated Beat hangout Vesuvio Cafe.

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Feb 23, 2021

Lockdown has triggered a boom in the exchange of intimate shots – and now a new book called Sending Nudes is celebrating the pleasures and perils of baring all to the camera

Have you ever sent a nude selfie? The question draws a thick red line between generations, throwing one side into a panic while the other just laughs. And yet, as far back as 2009, that fount of moral wisdom, Kanye West, was advising how to stay safe. “When you take the picture cut off your face / And cover up the tattoo by the waist,” he rapped in Jamie Foxx’s song Digital Girl.

As the pandemic forces relationships to be conducted remotely, more people than ever are resorting to the virtual exchange of intimacies. Last autumn, a poll of 7,000 UK schoolchildren by the youth sexual health charity Brook put the figure at nearly one in five who said they would send a naked selfie to a partner during a lockdown.

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Feb 23, 2021

Galia Oz claims late author – hailed as Israel’s greatest – beat and humiliated her in childhood, but siblings say they remember him differently

The daughter of the late Israeli author Amos Oz has alleged that her father subjected her to “a routine of sadistic abuse” in a new memoir, claims that have been challenged by his family.

Galia Oz, a children’s author, published her autobiography, Something Disguised as Love, in Hebrew on Sunday. “In my childhood, my father beat me, swore and humiliated me,” she writes, in a translation published by the newspaper Haaretz. “The violence was creative: He dragged me from inside the house and threw me outside. He called me trash. Not a passing loss of control and not a slap in the face here or there, but a routine of sadistic abuse. My crime was me myself, so the punishment had no end. He had a need to make sure I would break.”

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Feb 23, 2021

From the Swiss Alps to the Utah desert via Crystal Palace, a sticky end can find you anywhere in this month’s mysteries

Femi Kayode
Raven Books, £14.99, pp432

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Feb 22, 2021

The abduction of a boy in Mexico City is told from opposing perspectives in this gripping study of motherhood

Translated by Sophie Hughes, this powerfully bleak Mexican debut is a taut two-hander that examines motherhood through the prism of a child’s abduction. It’s narrated by two unnamed women in Mexico City. The first – middle-class, married to a man from Spain – tells us that her three-year-old son, Daniel, hasn’t been seen since he went missing in a playground while she was absorbed in her phone: the man she was having an affair with had just texted to break things off. Now unable to get out of bed, she’s dead-eyed with self-loathing, her agony intensified by having to care for her husband’s Catalan niece, Nagore, of whom they took custody after the girl’s father murdered her mother. This is a novel in which violence is endemic.

Empty Houses starts very much in the vein of contemporary fiction about put-upon women whose circumstances tip them into misanthropy; think of Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, the rise of Ottessa Moshfegh and the post-Gone Girl vogue for marital thrillers. “Breastfeeding is the reflex of mothers who, given that they can’t eat their children, wish to smother them instead,” Daniel’s mother reflects. “We offer the breast not only on instinct but out of an obliterated desire to kill our progeny before it’s too late.”

Navarro puts you in the shoes of a child snatcher frantically building a life based on unsustainable lies

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Feb 22, 2021

Her duplicitous love triangle story is a hit – but some viewers are calling its mind-boggling twist ‘preposterous’. The horror and sci-fi veteran turned thriller-writer hits back

When Sarah Pinborough’s thriller Behind Her Eyes was published in 2017, even she described it as a “Marmite book”. Her publisher slapped on equally dire warnings, hyping it with the hashtag #WTFthatending.

Now the novel is a hit Netflix miniseries and Pinborough is still boggled by her own twist. “I finished watching it and then I had a shower and went to bed and I was still thinking, ‘That ending, man!’ – and I made it up!” she says, speaking from her home near Milton Keynes. “But it’s different seeing it.”

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Feb 22, 2021

From Ode to a Nightingale to Modern Love, Ruth Padel, Will Harris, Mary Jean Chan, Rachel Long and Seán Hewitt choose their favourites

Chosen by Ruth Padel

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Feb 22, 2021

Tax breaks announced for companies who pay for manuscript by the Marquis de Sade, valued at €4.5m

The French government is appealing for corporate help to acquire the manuscript of the Marquis de Sade’s notorious The 120 Days of Sodom, valued at €4.5m (£3.9m), for the National Library of France.

Related: ‘The most impure tale ever written’: how The 120 Days of Sodom became a ‘classic’

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Feb 22, 2021

Some surprisingly buoyant and cheering verses from a neglected American writer

A Grey Day

Grey drizzling mists the moorlands drape,
Rain whitens the dead sea,
From headland dim to sullen cape
Grey sails creep wearily.
I know not how that merchantman
Has found the heart; but ’t is her plan
Seaward her endless course to shape.

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Feb 22, 2021

Author Namina Forna loved JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis’ books as a child, but saw little that resembled the magic and rich mythology she saw in Africa

When I was a child, I was what you would call a JRR Tolkien fangirl. I read The Lord of the Rings over and over. I traipsed around the countryside, imagining it was Middle-earth. With just a flight of imagination, I could be snug in the Shire, exploring the mines of Moria, or even flitting through the woods of Lothlórien.

When the first Lord of the Rings movie was finally released, I was 14 and so excited to see it. But immediately, I noticed something distressing: no one on screen looked like me. The darkest characters on screen, the orcs, were all male. Even as a monster, it seemed, there was no place for people who looked like me in Tolkien’s world.

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Feb 22, 2021

The musician and author’s second novel, about a young person’s search for their vanished father, is beautifully descriptive, if occasionally clumsy

Writer and musician Kerry Andrew’s second novel, Skin, is an atmospheric creation. It follows young Matty, an introverted kid from north London, whose father disappears one day. Matty is convinced that he’s killed himself, drowned or been murdered. However, there are no answers from Matty’s brittle mother, Rosa, or from the wider community, and Matty seeks solace – and clues – in Hampstead’s swimming ponds. Throughout the novel, water functions as an ever-shifting symbol: a place to belong, a space for freedom and play, a death-lure full of secrets, a comfort and a challenge: “It began to have its own call. Water has a song, a near-silent lilt. When you got closer – tarn, pool, river, proper swimming lake – the impatience made you sweat.” Skin stirs with references to water myths, from selkies and mermaids to sirens and cursed bodies of water.

The unease of identity is another strong theme: Matty’s Italian mother and Irish father find comfort and conflict in their homelands, caught by the ties that bind and those that anchor, creating an unresolved restlessness that they pass on to Matty. Meanwhile, Matty’s explorations of sexuality, gender expression and identity glimmer suggestively through the entire novel.

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Feb 22, 2021

Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch were once the two biggest power brokers in British politics. But their fierce rivalry paved the way for Maxwell’s demise

The dinner dances hosted by Robert and Betty Maxwell at their Italianate mansion in Oxford, Headington Hill Hall, were reckoned, even by hardened partygoers, to be in a class of their own. Every year on Maxwell’s birthday, the great and good would descend in their droves to enjoy his hospitality. Labour party grandees would rub shoulders with captains of industry, leading scientists with newspapers editors.

But the party to celebrate Maxwell’s 65th birthday in June 1988 was confidently predicted to outdo them all in terms of both opulence and pomp. The US president, Ronald Reagan, sent a telegram of congratulations: “Nancy and I are delighted to join in the chorus of appreciation.” So did the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who extolled Maxwell’s “sense of direction and decision” – very similar, she noted, to her own. As far as the then Labour leader, Neil Kinnock was concerned, “If Bob Maxwell didn’t exist, no one could invent him.” Kinnock went on to pay tribute to Maxwell’s “basic convictions of liberty and fair play”.

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Feb 21, 2021

These remarkable essays from the writer’s early years highlight her search for truth and attention to detail

Except for Joan Didion, the New Journalists of the 1960s were a self-dramatising gang, determined to upstage the stories they reported. Norman Mailer brawled, Hunter S Thompson raged; less loudly macho, Tom Wolfe preened and Truman Capote whispered sedition. When Didion calls writing “an aggressive, even a hostile act” or “the tactic of a secret bully”, she might be defining this bumptious fraternity.

Didion’s own tactics, sampled here in a smattering of uncollected articles, are more covert, perhaps even passive-aggressive. In an essay celebrating the scruffy underground press of the hippie era, she proclaims the ideology that underlay the new procedures: on guard against the respectable broadsheets and their “factitious ‘objectivity’”, journalists needed to risk “the act of saying I”. For Didion, however, that was easier said than done. Tentative, tremulous, she initially resisted employing the first-person pronoun, which belonged to her male colleagues by egotistical right.

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Feb 21, 2021

Is social mobility possible or even desirable in Britain today? In a timely polemic, an Oxford historian sets out her egalitarian vision

Although no book published when bookshops are closed can be said to be well-timed, the historian Selina Todd’s Snakes and Ladders arrives at a moment of particular relevance. Just when society feels as if it has ground to a halt, Todd looks at what she calls in her subtitle the Great British social mobility myth.

Of course the fact of social mobility is not a myth. As Todd shows, at various times over the past century or more there have been significant surges in dynamic social movement. In the postwar years, for example, there was a large expansion in the managerial class as industry modernised.

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Feb 21, 2021

The prostitutes of Georgian London power this deeply satisfying follow-up to Shepherd-Robinson’s acclaimed Blood & Sugar

Laura Shepherd-Robinson seemed to emerge fully formed as a novelist with her award-winning 2019 debut, Blood & Sugar, a sophisticated historical murder mystery set in Georgian London at the heart of the slave trade. Her equally impressive follow-up, Daughters of Night, explores the lucrative and often dangerous demimonde of prostitution. It was estimated that one in five women in late 18th-century London had at some point participated in sex work, and the potential for scandal, blackmail or disgrace reached to the highest ranks of Georgian society.

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Feb 20, 2021

The psychologist’s fascinating study of friendship finds that the quality of our relationships determines our health, happiness and chance of a long life

You may not have heard of Robin Dunbar. But you will, perhaps, know of his work. Dunbar, now emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, is the man who first suggested that there may be a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom you can comfortably maintain stable social relationships – or, as Stephen Fry put it on the TV show QI, the number of people “you would not hesitate to go and sit with if you happened to see them at 3am in the departure lounge at Hong Kong airport”. Human beings, Dunbar found when he conducted his research in the 1990s, typically have 150 friends in general (people who know us on sight, and with whom we have a history), of whom just five can usually be described as intimate.

Friendship, as Dunbar reveals, requires investment. It 'dies fast' when not maintained

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Feb 20, 2021

Authors choose the Kazuo Ishiguro novels closest to their hearts, including Never Let Me Go, The Buried Giant and The Remains of the Day

Margaret Atwood

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Feb 20, 2021

Belonging and exile are at the heart of this novel of dislocation and trauma

Early in Hafsa Zayyan’s debut, 26-year-old City lawyer Sameer sits sobbing at the door of his smart London flat. He has been walking in Leicester Square, weaving absently between street performers and tourists, when he realises his pockets have been emptied – his phone, wallet and keys are gone. First comes panic, then a bitter sense of betrayal. How could a city he knows so well suddenly turn on him, he thinks, as though he were a hapless visitor? It’s a minor moment in a sea of troubles, but one that becomes freighted with meaning in this multigenerational novel about belonging and exile. It becomes clear, too, that Sameer’s growing disenchantment is symptomatic of deeper feelings of dislocation.

In We Are All Birds of Uganda Zayyan tells two stories across different timeframes, moving between Sameer in contemporary London and his grandfather Hasan in 1970s Kampala. While Sameer wrestles with his demanding job and contemplates a move to Singapore that will devastate his Muslim parents, Hasan grieves for his dead wife and struggles with his business as Idi Amin seizes power in Uganda. For both of them, the future feels uncertain, and Zayyan uses their dual narratives to expose the fragility of different forms of belonging, national and familial. Citizenship is an unstable experience for Hasan. He knows it can be rescinded. But Sameer too is troubled by the problem of how to belong to a culture that might reject you. When a colleague excludes him from a party since “you lot don’t drink”, Sameer becomes painfully aware of differences unnoticed before.

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Feb 20, 2021

The Nobel-winning author talks about scaring Harold Pinter, life after death – and his new novel about an ‘artificial friend’

For the Ishiguro household, 5 October 2017 was a big day. After weeks of discussion, the author’s wife, Lorna, had finally decided to change her hair colour. She was sitting in a Hampstead salon, not far from Golders Green in London, where they have lived for many years, all gowned up, and glanced at her phone. There was a news flash. “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to stop this,” she said to the waiting hairdresser. “My husband has just won the Nobel prize for literature. I might have to help him out.”

Back home, Kazuo Ishiguro was having a late breakfast when his agent called. “It’s the opposite to the Booker prize, where there’s a longlist and then a shortlist. You hear the rumbling thunder coming towards you, often not striking. With the Nobel it is freak lightning out of the blue – wham!” Within half an hour there was a queue of journalists outside the front door. He called his mother, Shizuko. “I said: ‘I’ve won the Nobel, Shon.’ Oddly, she didn’t seem very surprised,” he recalls. “She said: ‘I thought you’d win it sooner or later.’” She died, aged 92, two years ago. His latest novel Klara and the Sun, in part about maternal devotion and his first since winning the Nobel, is dedicated to her. “My mother had a huge amount to do with my becoming a writer,” he says now.

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Feb 20, 2021

In this extract from the Nobel laureate’s new novel, Klara, an ‘artificial friend’, takes her place in a store window

That was one reason why we always thought so much about being in the window. Each of us had been promised our turn, and each of us longed for it to come. That was partly to do with what Manager called the “special honour” of representing the store to the outside. Also, of course, whatever Manager said, we all knew we were more likely to be chosen while in the window. But the big thing, silently understood by us all, was the Sun and his nourishment. Rosa did once bring it up with me, in a whisper, a little while before our turn came around.

“Klara, do you think once we’re in the window, we’ll receive so much goodness we’ll never get short again?”

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Feb 19, 2021

From ‘No means No’ to #MeToo – original thoughts on consent and the complexities of female desire

“In recent years, two requirements have emerged for good sex: consent and self-knowledge,” Katherine Angel writes. Judging by the number of freshers’ week workshops and op-ed articles devoted to the subject, consent is vital for better sex. This seems like progress – it takes women at their word and defuses the potential for sexual violence. But its conceit of absolute clarity, Angel argues, “places the burden of good sexual interaction on women’s behaviour”.

Faced with the hurt that many experience as a result of sex, the idea of transparent self-knowledge is appealing. Angel marks the development of consent from the “No means No” slogan of 1970s anti-rape campaigners through to the sex-positive “post-feminism” of the 1990s and early 00s (with obligatory reference to the Spice Girls). As consent culture has evolved, it has assumed some of the characteristics of Sheryl Sandberg-style confidence feminism, prizing sassy self-expression and individual empowerment over political transformation. The risk for Angel is that exhorting women to know and express their desires in the language of positive affirmation places the responsibility for preventing sexual violence on women’s conduct, rather than examining why violence occurs in the first place. As such, “rape … and responses to it, are privatised”.

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Feb 19, 2021

Two hundred years after his early death, plays, readings and new poetry will honour the legacy of the much beloved author

Almost 200 years ago, on 23 February 1821, the English poet John Keats died of tuberculosis in Rome at the age of 25. “I shall soon be laid in the quiet grave – thank God for the quiet grave,” he told his friend Joseph Severn, in whose arms he died. “I can feel the cold earth upon me – the daisies growing over me – O for this quiet – it will be my first.”

Keats gave instructions for his headstone to be engraved with the words “here lies one whose name was writ in water”, and visitors to Rome’s Protestant cemetery can still make a pilgrimage to see it today. But far from being “writ in water”, Keats’s words continue to echo, with a host of writing and events lined up to mark the 200th anniversary of his death.

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