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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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Feb 19, 2021

Scotland’s pre-eminent crime writer joins broadcaster Jo Whiley berating ‘woeful’ treatment of people with learning difficulties over Covid

Kit Rankin just loves being around people, says his father Ian. “He loves hugs and if you go near him you’re getting a hug whether you want it or not.

“He’s better known around the streets of Edinburgh than I am,” adds the crime novelist with a wry laugh. “People stop me and say ‘Oh, you’re Kit’s dad’, because when he’s taken out to do the shopping everybody notices him because he’s blond and he’s laughing.”

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Feb 19, 2021

Slough House by Mick Herron; Daughters of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson; The Long, Long Afternoon by Inga Vesper; Black Widows by Cate Quinn; Lightseekers by Femi Kayode

Mick Herron’s acclaimed spy-cum-political-satire series now stands at seven novels; the latest, Slough House (John Murray, £14.99), is named after the dilapidated building to which failed spies are consigned. Condemned to boring and thankless tasks under the sardonic auspices of the repulsive and increasingly cartoonish Jackson Lamb, in this instalment the “slow horses” are alarmed to discover that not only have their details been wiped from the spooks database, several of their number have met their deaths in ways that may not be as accidental as they appear. Meanwhile, at the Regent’s Park HQ, chief Diana Taverner has been frustrated by the government’s gutless response to the novichok poisoning of a British subject. So she has made a bargain with the manipulative and – with his fluffy hair and archaic expostulations – strangely familiar Peter Judd, a former home secretary turned PR man. As the slow horses wonder whether they are being targeted, Taverner realises quite how long a spoon is needed by those who would sup with the devil … Set against a background of “You Know What” (Brexit, like Lord Voldemort, is not to be named) and yellow vest protests, Herron’s formula of misdirection and multiple viewpoints still works like a charm.

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Feb 19, 2021

A spell at home is surely a good opportunity to write, so why are so many authors struggling? William Sutcliffe, Linda Grant and more share how the pandemic has stifled their imaginations

In early February, after a month of lockdown, William Sutcliffe wrote on Twitter: “I have been a professional writer for more than twenty years. I have made my living from the resource of my imagination. Last night I had a dream about unloading the dishwasher.”

If the first lockdown was about finding space to write (along with a blitz spirit and a Tesco delivery slot), then the second has been far bleaker and harder for creativity. Whether it is dealing with home schooling, the same four walls, or anxiety caused by the news, for many authors, the stories just aren’t coming.

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Feb 19, 2021

The TV presenter, author and Women’s prize judge on reading To Kill a Mockingbird at nine, the influence of Malorie Blackman and her love for David Almond’s novels

The book I am currently reading
There are 57 of them on the go at the moment as I’m a judge on the Women’s prize for fiction panel this year. It’s a massive honour, though I’ll level with you: three months and 51 books down, I’m slightly delirious!

The book that changed me
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which I first read when I was nine years old. Mum gave me her copy from when she was at school, complete with notes in the margins, telling me that life’s greatest lessons couldn’t wait for the GCSE syllabus. To Kill a Mockingbird taught me that we are not equal and we should be, that we have more in common than that which divides us, and that we must speak up for what is right.

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Feb 18, 2021

A love affair between a photographer and a dancer is intertwined with a glorious celebration of black exuberance and artistry

The unnamed protagonist of Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel, a young black photographer, often reflects on his artistic process: he is principally trying to compose images that “portray a rhythm”.

The central plot of Open Water, set in 2017-18, may at first glance seem familiar: two young people (in this instance, a female dancer and a male photographer) fall in love when perhaps they shouldn’t (the dancer has “romantic history” with a close friend of the photographer). After a brief period of will they/won’t they, the couple can no longer resist the attraction they feel for one another. Challenges soon test their newly formed relationship.

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Feb 18, 2021

The ‘white problem’ ... Baldwin’s writings spark a timely and absorbing engagement with American history

In 2018, two years after the “disastrous” 2016 US presidential election, Eddie Glaude Jr, professor of African American Studies at Princeton, made a pilgrimage to the house in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, in the south of France, where James Baldwin had lived for almost two decades, and which was now being knocked down to make way for luxury flats. Glaude, who has taught Baldwin for many years, had come in search of any surviving traces of the writer’s refuge, and found most of it crumbling to dust. Only the writing room remained, “exposed for the sun to beat down on its side”. Against the backdrop of bulldozers and the noise of sledgehammers, it “looked like the excavation of an ancient ruin”, and called to mind “what Baldwin saw in the latter part of his life in the United States … decay and wreckage alongside greed and selfishness”. It became the impetus for Glaude to undertake an excavation of his own.

He resolved to engage deeply with Baldwin’s work, to try to think “with” him, in order to interrogate “how an insidious view of race, in the form of Trumpism, continues to frustrate any effort to ‘achieve our country’”, and then to write about it. The result is Begin Again, a book that is perfect for Baldwin aficionados or anyone experiencing staggering disbelief at America’s state of disarray and trying to make sense of it. What sets this account apart is that Glaude understands how Baldwin’s writing becomes a pathway for one’s own thoughts; he’s able to synthesise the novelist’s work in a way that transcends summation or homage and becomes instead an act of breathtaking literary assimilation that acquires its own generative power.

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Feb 18, 2021

Archivists have painstakingly reconstructed the wartime missives recovered from the SS Gairsoppa, sunk by a U-boat off the Irish coast

The fragments of a 1941 love letter to a woman named Iris, found nearly three miles under the ocean in a shipwreck, have been painstakingly pieced together by experts, 80 years after it was posted.

“Look after yourself my darling, not only for your own sake …….. for mine also,” wrote the unknown serviceman stationed in the Waziristan region, now part of Pakistan. “Imagine that I have my lips tight against yours with my arms around you tight … let us hope that this bloody war will soon be over.”

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Feb 17, 2021

The standing stones at Avebury and the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney are henges, but it is generally agreed that Stonehenge is not. But why?

In archeological news, researchers have recently unearthed evidence to suggest that Stonehenge was originally built in Wales, before being taken and re-erected at its present site in Wiltshire. But what is a “henge” anyway?

Since “henge” was an old English word for “hang”, it is thought that the place name “Stonehenge” meant “the hanging stones”, ie the lintel pieces suspended across two columns. In 1932 the British archaeologist Sir Thomas Downing Kendrick proposed the back formation “henge” to describe any such neolithic monument in a circular or oval earthen enclosure, including Woodhenge, a site discovered in 1926 where concentric rings of timber poles were once erected, for reasons still uncertain.

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Feb 17, 2021

From spellbinding love stories to a memoir that shook the British establishment, Michael Cashman shares his favourites, touching on persecution, freedom and friendship

Russell T Davies’s brilliant TV series It’s a Sin has ensured that right on time for LGBT+ history month comes a story of the HIV/Aids pandemic. It is a powerful reminder of hope, loss, abandonment and callous opportunism by the anti-LGBT brigade – including politicians and the media – and of misrepresentation on a gargantuan scale. It also shows how a community fought back against deniers as well as those in power.

But this is not history for those of us who lived through it. I still see the faces of the friends who died, and vividly remember Ian Charleson’s last heroic performance as Hamlet in the final weeks of his life. I still feel the support and love that were shared. Eighteen months before the pandemic I’d been in New York, a centre of the HIV virus, so for a while I waited and observed to see whether I was infected; but I had been lucky.

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Feb 17, 2021

Previous winners Elizabeth Acevedo, Patrick Ness and Ruta Sepetys up for prestigious children’s book award, with loss a common theme

An “outstanding” longlist for the UK’s most prestigious children’s books prize, the Carnegie medal, pits three former winners against each other – Elizabeth Acevedo, Patrick Ness and Ruta Sepetys.

This year’s 20-book longlist teems with novels exploring loss, grief and mental wellbeing. Acevedo’s novel in verse, Clap When You Land, follows two girls devastated by the death of their father. Manjeet Mann’s Run, Rebel, another verse novel, follows a girl trying to escape her claustrophobic home life. In, The Girl Who Became a Tree, by performance poet Joseph Coelho and illustrator Kate Milner, a girl tries to make sense of the loss of her father. In Jenny Downham’s Furious Thing, a 15-year-old girl deals with emotional abuse from her mother’s fiance. And in Danielle Jawando’s And The Stars Were Burning Brightly, a teenage boy’s world falls apart when his brother takes his own life.

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Feb 17, 2021

The poet’s latest collection, How to Wash a Heart, was partly inspired by a news story about a liberal white couple taking in an Asian refugee

Bhanu Kapil’s fourth poetry collection, Schizophrene, relays a scene from India’s partition. A girl fleeing her childhood home glimpses, through a hole in the cart in which she’s hidden, countless women tied to trees on the newly drawn border with Pakistan, their stomachs cut out. “This story, which really wasn’t a story but an image, was repeated to me at many bedtimes of my own childhood,” Kapil writes. This image was, in fact, “a way of conveying information”.

Throughout her work, Kapil examines the intergenerational effects of a historical silence that has slowly lifted over the largest mass migrations in history, which was also one of the most violent. These images demonstrate how colonial violence embedded in the heart of the British empire breeds racial trauma for migrants within its own borders. As she writes, again in Schizophrene, “it is psychotic not to know where you are in a national space”.

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Feb 17, 2021

From Zadie Smith’s new take on Howards End to Michael Cunningham’s reworked Virginia Woolf, these tales refresh books we thought we knew

It takes some audacity to retell a beloved classic. Classics, after all, endure for good reason; why mess with them? Plus, readers are often fiercely attached to the originals; why mess with them? When well done, though, retellings explore familiar themes with fresh eyes, deciphering a new world from the comfort of a trusted narrative, or expanding the literary canon to readers who have traditionally been excluded.

The writer faces an array of choices, all fraught: where is the line between honouring and exalting, borrowing and blighting? Which elements are essential, and which can be discarded?

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Feb 17, 2021

The co-founder of Microsoft looks to science and tech to end climate crisis ... but can nations cooperate?

Bill Gates has changed our lives through his Microsoft software; he has improved countless lives through his foundation’s work to eliminate polio, TB and malaria; and now he proposes to help save our lives by combating climate change.

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster details the transformation necessary to reverse the effects of decades of catastrophic practices. We need, Gates calculates, to remove 51bn tonnes of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere every year. Failing to do so would cost more than the 1.5 million lives already lost to Covid-19 and could cause, he calculates, five times more deaths than the Spanish flu a century ago.

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Feb 16, 2021

The long-awaited follow-up to The Raw Shark Texts falls into some plot holes, but remains ingenious fun

Thomas Quinn, the protagonist of Maxwell’s Demon, is a novelist who has failed both artistically and commercially; he is also the son of a great and famous writer, now dead. As the book opens, we find Thomas still haunted by his estrangement from his father – but even more so by another writer, the enigmatic genius Andrew Black, who was his father’s protege. Black’s only book, Cupid’s Engine, was a masterpiece and an industry-changing bestseller. Years ago, Black vanished after refusing to fulfil a publishing contract because his publisher would not agree to his demand that they never publish any ebooks again. The existence of ebooks, according to Black, is going to bring about the apocalypse.

Then Thomas receives a letter from Black that consists of a single line – What do you think this is? – with a photograph of a mysterious black sphere. Despite a warning from the agent he shares with Black (“He will walk you right over a cliff,” she says), Thomas sets out to find him and solve the mystery. Soon characters from novels are showing up in real life and entire towns are turning out to be fictional constructs. By the time Thomas is finished, everything he thinks he knows about the world will be shattered.

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Feb 16, 2021
Does a Tiger Come to Tea? Harriett Gilbert finds out
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Feb 16, 2021

The Seventy-Five Pages, out next month, contains germinal versions of episodes developed in In Search of Lost Time and opens ‘the primitive Proustian crypt’

For everyone who decided to bite the madeleine and read all 3,000-odd pages of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time during lockdown, what’s one more book? French publisher Gallimard has announced that it will be releasing a never-before-published work by the great French writer: Les Soixante-quinze feuillets, or The Seventy-Five Pages, on 18 March.

The texts in The Seventy-Five Pages were written in 1908, around the time Proust began working on In Search of Lost Time, which was published between 1913 and 1927. The papers were part of a collection of documents held by the late publisher Bernard de Fallois, who died in 2018. During his lifetime, De Fallois oversaw the posthumous publication of several Proust works including Jean Santeuil, Proust’s abandoned first novel from the 1890s.

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