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Feb 07, 2021

Whether reporting from the trippy heart of 1960s counterculture or covering the trial of the Central Park Five, the legendary essayist brings a spirit of restless inquiry to all her writing

  • Read an exclusive extract from new essay collection Let Me Tell You What I Mean below

To think about Joan Didion, you have to confront two things before you get to the words: the pictures and the anecdotes. If you’re interested in certain aspects of the culture – American counterculture in the 1960s, California, female writers – the pictures are familiar, if not ingrained. There’s Didion in her long dress with long hair, smoking, leaning against her Corvette Stingray; standing up in its sunroof; lolling out of the driver’s window, in Julian Wasser’s 1968 shoot; inside, pictured with her daughter Quintana on her lap (her favourite of that day), or staring straight at the camera. Wasser remembers her as “a very easy person to talk to. No Hollywood affectations” – but the photographs themselves had such star quality that the fashion house Céline not only recreated one in its 2015 ad campaign, but also featured the then 80-year-old writer herself, in black sweater and enormous sunglasses.

And the stories: the parties at the same rented house, on Franklin Avenue, to which Janis Joplin might turn up, asking for a glass of brandy and Benedictine (musicians, Didion noted, never wanted ordinary drinks); the Malibu beach house she later lived in, where the carpenter was Harrison Ford; the first assignment the neophyte writer did for Vogue, a piece on self-respect that only came to her because the original journalist failed to deliver and they’d already put the strapline on the cover.

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Feb 07, 2021
by Becky H (Chicago): Agatha Christie, renowned writer of mysteries, disappeared for 11 days in 1926. Although a country wide search was made, no one was able to find her until she turned up on day eleven claiming amnesia. What REALLY happened – no one knows. Marie Benedict makes an interesting and entirely fictional novel of the mystery. The result is a good yarn that Agatha herself would approve. My complaint - and it is a huge one – is the two different, and interwoven, timelines. I would just get involved in one timeline and the other would pop up with a different narrator and jump back or forward in time. When I finished the book, I knew why the author chose this conceit. However, there have been entirely too many novels recently with the same "jump around" timeline. It is annoying. Please stop. The characters are well developed. The plot is clever. The inclusion of true events lends credence to the tale. But still…. Those annoying time leaps. Book groups will have a field day trying to suss out the real story in their discussion.

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Feb 07, 2021

The second volume of Mosse’s wars of religion trilogy vividly depicts persecution and how politics can upturn ordinary lives

Exile and emigration are perennial themes in literature, especially historical fiction, but it’s noticeable, reading the second volume of Kate Mosse’s Burning Chambers trilogy about the Huguenot diaspora, how timely a story of refugees seems at this moment in Europe’s history and how sharply the parallels stand out.

The City of Tears opens, as did its predecessor, The Burning Chambers, with a prologue set in 19th-century South Africa, a foreshadowing of where this epic story of war and displacement will end up, before the narrative returns to 16th-century France, 10 years after the end of the previous book. Minou Joubert and Piet Reydon are living in relative peace in their castle in south-west France, their own family and estates an example of how Catholics and Protestants can amicably coexist. It’s an experiment soon to be imposed on the whole country, as the queen mother, Catherine de Medici, attempts to broker peace by marrying her Catholic daughter Margot to the Huguenot Henri of Navarre, a union opposed by the hardline Catholic faction led by the Duke of Guise. As Minou and Piet make their preparations to visit Paris for the wedding, she asks her brother Aimeric about rumours of trouble.

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Feb 07, 2021

The former Daily Mail columnist details the lies that assisted the prime minister’s rise to power, but is slow to admit his own part in a culpable media

There have been some spectacular U-turns from political observers in the past five years – Piers Morgan’s desperate and tragically belated efforts to distance himself from Donald Trump, for example – but no reverse-ferret has been quite so vehemently trumpeted as that of Peter Oborne. Back in 2016, in his Daily Mail column, Oborne was proclaiming a new dawn of Conservatism, with Labour in collapse and David Cameron a busted flush. A “glittering prospect of 12 uninterrupted years as prime minister” awaited the winner of any leadership campaign, he suggested, and Boris Johnson’s years as mayor gave him “huge credibility” for the role. When the Brexit referendum got under way Oborne confidently announced: “In my opinion, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson are the two most brilliant politicians of their generation… courageous men… [with] the personal charisma and intellectual gifts to ensure that the case for Britain to leave the EU is seriously heard,” which “anyone who is a patriotic Briton – and everyone who believes in democracy – should welcome”.

How to square that unqualified endorsement with the blunt question he asks at the beginning of this short and entertainingly outraged book: “What led the British people to put a liar into Downing Street?”

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Feb 06, 2021

They may be stuck at home, but children can escape to the Amazon, Himalayas or New York via these magical tales

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Feb 06, 2021

Too white, too male, too privileged – and according to some critics, that’s just one of the co-directors. A new PBS documentary on an American giant sails in stormy waters

Speaking at a press event for the new PBS documentary about Ernest Hemingway, the actor Jeff Daniels said of the man whose words he reads: “Lucky for him he could write.”

Over six hours, the co-directors Lynn Novick and Ken Burns subject a giant of American literature to an unsparing psychiatric exam.

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Feb 06, 2021

This fascinating investigation by a psychiatrist examines the intricacies of the human brain, revealing how and why our minds can play tricks on us

Veronica O’Keane is a professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin. Early in her career, while working on a perinatal psychiatric ward at the Bethlem Royal hospital, now part of the Maudsley in south London, she encountered Edith, who was suffering from postpartum psychosis. Edith believed her baby had been replaced by an impostor. She was convinced her husband, too, had been swapped for a substitute. When interviewed, she was locked in, fearful and reluctant to talk to what she saw as an equally suspect medical team. On her way into the hospital, she had spotted, in the local graveyard, a small, tilted gravestone and was certain her baby had been killed and buried there.

Edith’s story was the beginning of O’Keane’s investigation into memory. What fascinated her was that, even after being treated with anti-psychotic medication and being reunited with reason and her living baby, Edith was, on seeing the gravestone again, filled with horror. O’Keane wished to be reassured that Edith understood her psychotic ideas were illusory. “What she said next set me on a long-term pathway of inquiry about the nature of the matter of memory. She looked straight at me and said: ‘Yes… but the memories are real.”’ It was as if memory had a persisting autonomous authority. Memory had a mind of its own.

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Feb 06, 2021

The New York-based writer talks about her peripatetic childhood, the pain of losing her parents – and finding love at a jazz jam session

Nadia Owusu, 39, was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and raised in Italy, Ethiopia, England, Ghana and Uganda, and lives in New York. She moved there aged 18 to attend Pace University and earned her master’s in creative nonfiction at the Mountview residency programme, where she now teaches. Her first book, a memoir called Aftershocks (Sceptre), explores trauma, race and belonging as Owusu charts her peripatetic youth and the pain of being abandoned by her Armenian-American mother when she was two, and then losing her beloved Ghanaian father to cancer when she was 13. She won the Whiting award for emerging writers in 2019 and has just been appointed director of storytelling at Frontline Solutions, a US black-owned consulting firm that helps social change organisations to define their goals.

The book connects geographical and emotional upheaval. “I have lived in disaster and disaster has lived in me”, as you put it.
When I was seven and living in Rome with my father, my mother came to visit on the same day I heard that there had been an earthquake in Armenia [where her mother’s family was from]. I heard on the radio that a whole city had been destroyed and that a lot of people’s homes had been destroyed. My mother was passing through with her new husband during a vacation from the US. She took me and my sister for a walk but then she was gone again and when she left it really shook me. My own private earthquake. I remember later asking my father what aftershocks were and he told me they were the “Earth’s delayed reaction to stress”.

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Feb 06, 2021

After a slow start, the Costa prize-winner completed his novel, inspired by a family mystery, in between visits to his mother in hospital

My first intimation of Roseanne McNulty came when I was driving with my mother through Strandhill in Sligo. We had just gone by the derelict remnant of my great-uncle’s dance hall, the Plaza, which looked out blindly on the stormy bay. Now we were passing the ruins of a little hut by the road, engulfed in an enormous rose bush.

“That’s where your woman was put,” my mother said.

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Feb 06, 2021

The Golden Hill author talks about the family tragedy that fed his love of reading, being a middle-class socialist and why he’s trying to ‘scuff off’ the period glow of historical fiction

Francis Spufford kills off all the protagonists of his new novel in the first chapter. “I want the reader to be looking at life as you do when you are aware that the alternative is death,” he explains of Light Perpetual, the follow-up to his award-winning debut, Golden Hill. “I want life and being in time to be less taken for granted than it usually is when we are making our way through the middle, when it is easier to forget that we didn’t exist once and that we won’t exist again later,” he continues cheerfully. “I wanted it to be a picture with death as the frame.”

Related: Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford review - both a requiem and a giving of new life

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Feb 06, 2021

The Beatles, the pill, the Profumo affair ... how British morals thawed as the snowdrifts got higher

On Boxing Day 1962 it began to snow and didn’t stop for the next 10 weeks. In effect, Britain had entered its own little ice age. There were drifts 23ft high on the Kent-Sussex border, while Stonehenge was buried so deeply that it was almost invisible when viewed from the sky. Icebergs entered the River Medway and, inland, icicles hung from the trees. The upper middle classes dug out their skis, while everyone else experimented with bits of corrugated iron strapped to their feet. A milkman died at the wheel of his float in Essex while indoor laundry froze before it could dry, so that next week’s vests and pants stood rigidly to attention before the kitchen fire. Someone had calculated that the last time it had been this cold was 1814, the year before Napoleon met his Waterloo.

Meanwhile eight-year-old Juliet Nicolson divides her time between the King’s Road, where she lives with her unhappy parents, and Sissinghurst, the Kentish stately home recently bequeathed by her grandmother Vita Sackville-West. Vita’s widower, Harold Nicolson, haunts the beautiful old place in his own cloud of freezing damp, alternately sobbing aloud and snubbing his grandchildren. Back in Chelsea there is the excitement of having to queue at the standpipe for water, since all the indoor pipes have burst.

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Feb 06, 2021

As well as fighting to keep Covid patients alive, NHS staff are now battling a surge in abuse and denial in the second wave. Dr Rachel Clarke on how she is coping – and what gives her hope

Please imagine it, for a moment, if you can bear to. Being wheeled from your home by paramedics in masks who rush you, blue-lit, to a hospital. Then the clamour and lights, the confusion and fear, the faceless professionals, gloved and gowned, who eddy and swirl past your trolley. Your destination is intensive care where too soon, or perhaps not soon enough, you will arrive at a point of reckoning. You will blanch when they tell you, because you’ve watched the news and know what it signifies: you are going to be put on a ventilator. You will understand, as clearly as they do, that your doctors cannot promise to save you.

Here, though, is the detail that haunts me. For every patient who dies from Covid-19 in hospital, from the moment they encounter that first masked paramedic, they will never see a human face again. Not one smile, nor pair of cheeks, nor lips, nor chin. Not a single human being without barricades of plastic. Sometimes, my stomach twists at the thought that to the patients whose faces I can never unsee – contorting and buckling with the effort of breathing – I am no more than a pair of eyes, a thin strip of flesh between mask and visor, a muffled voice that strains and cracks behind plastic.

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Feb 05, 2021

A young woman is haunted by memories of Sarajevo in this powerful study of trauma and psychological disintegration

In 2018, Olivia Sudjic spent two months alone in Brussels. Her debut novel, Sympathy, had been published to critical acclaim and she hoped to make progress with a second. Instead, she found herself in the grip of an agonising spiral of anxiety and self-doubt, unable to write, unable almost to think. She later wrote about the experience in a long-form essay, Exposure, a scrupulous examination of the pressures of social media and the personal scrutiny to which she believes female writers are particularly subjected. In that essay Sudjic argues that her periodic episodes of anxiety, while agonising, are necessary to her writing: the writer’s duty, she contends, “is to seek out chaos, or the very thing of which she is most afraid”.

In Asylum Road, she appears to have done exactly that. Anya, a twentysomething PhD student in London, grew up during the brutal siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s. The siege, lasting three and a half years, was the longest in modern history. Snipers surrounded the city, picking off targets; buildings were shelled daily. There was little food, water, no electricity or heat. Residents burned furniture to keep warm and foraged for wild plants including dandelion roots. By the time the siege was finally lifted, nearly 14,000 people were dead.

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Feb 05, 2021

More than 10,000 people have signed petition against proposal, which is currently at consultation stage at the museum bequeathed to the nation

More than 10,000 people have signed a petition calling on the management of London’s historic Wallace Collection to reject proposals to close its library and archive to the public.

The active petition was launched by archivists and trade unionists working with staff at the Wallace Collection, in response to senior management’s decision to put the closure to an internal consultation, which ends on 11 February. The petition claims that management wants to focus on “income generation”, and they do not “view the library and archive as part of this”. If the library is closed to the public, two staff members would be made redundant.

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Feb 05, 2021

The Pulitzer winner on her love of Trollope, her passion for cooking and the Ian McEwan novel she feels is overrated

The book I am currently reading
Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye is set near Duluth, Minnesota, but the scenery Geye gives the reader is the wilderness of Lake Superior and its history of shipping ore from the local mines to factories during the 20th century. A father and son are trying to reconcile before the father dies. It is wonderfully evocative of the characters and the bumpy history of their relationship.

The book that changed my life
A lot of books made me want to be a writer, but The Gourmet Cookbook by Ruth Reichl made me want to be a cook, and I cook even more often than I write. I was living in a rural area of Iowa – not even a McDonald’s in the neighbourhood – and my 6ft 10in husband needed to be fed. I would try out all kinds of recipes and enjoy just about every one. I still prefer my own cooking to most restaurants, and I still love to try out new recipes.

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Feb 05, 2021

Tom Percival's brilliant new picture book, The Invisible, tackles themes of child poverty and social exclusion in a sensitive manner that introduces a potentially difficult subject to young children. In this deeply personal, child-friendly piece, Tom discusses his drive to create the story as well as talking about his own childhood experience of living hand-to-mouth whilst growing up in the 1980s.

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Feb 05, 2021

This picaresque tale of a naive young monk who leaves a trail of destruction during the Black Death shows that it is possible to find humour in a pandemic

If you see Brother Diggory coming, head in the opposite direction. For he brings the good Lord’s word and also the plague. It is 1349 and the Black Death has reached Britain and Ireland. Brother Diggory is a 16-year-old novice of the Order of Odo (followers of Saint Odo the Ugly, also known as the Dingy Brothers) who, on losing his brother monks to the pestilence but mysteriously surviving himself, sets forth into the world to see what he has been missing.

Like Christopher Wilson’s previous novels such as The Ballad of Lee Cotton and The Zoo, Hurdy Gurdy is a black comedy narrated by a naive outsider. We follow Brother Diggory over the course of a year as he journeys across England attempting to help those he meets. Disasters accumulate. “I think myself a fortunate man,” he says serenely. And it’s true that while he is ill treated by his fellows – robbed, assaulted, imprisoned – they tend to come off worse from the meeting. Diggory accidentally kills two consecutive wives: the first he gives the plague, the second he finishes off with amateur brain surgery. Even his pet rat, Brother Rattus, doesn’t survive the friendship.

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Feb 04, 2021

I feel therefore I am ... In this fascinating study, a neuropsychologist argues that the mystery of consciousness centres on emotions

In a crowded field, consciousness has a strong claim to being the strangest thing in the universe. The feeling of being aware is the most fundamental and familiar aspect of anyone’s existence: you can know, with rock-solid certainty, that you’re conscious right now, even if literally all else might be a hallucination brought on by mind-altering drugs. Yet it’s widely held that science has no clue how the spongy physical stuff of your brain could produce something as radically non-physical as your mind. Attempting to solve this puzzle leads respectable scholars to surprising places – for example, to the baffling claim that consciousness is an illusion (even though consciousness is the very thing that experiences illusions); or that everything in the world – sofas and table lamps included – might in some rudimentary sense be conscious.

Entangled with the mystery of how consciousness happens is another: why is it there at all? It’s unclear why evolution bothered to make it feel like something to be you, given that, to paraphrase the philosopher David Chalmers, it seems feasible to imagine a “zombie” version of yourself who could complete your daily to-do list just as successfully, but with no inner experience, only darkness inside. When I accidentally plunge my hand into boiling water, what matters is that my brain and limbs are wired up so as to get my hand out as fast as possible, a straightforward engineering challenge. The fact that I also have an experience of hotness seems like an extravagant metaphysical extra, a flourish of nature that would be inexplicable even if we knew how it worked. Which, as mentioned, we don’t.

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Feb 04, 2021

Son of US president, and ongoing target for conservatives, will release Beautiful Things in April

Hunter Biden, son of President Joe Biden and an ongoing target for Republican supporters, has announced that his memoir, Beautiful Things, will be published in April.

Related: Joe, Jill and the Bidens: who are America's new first family?

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Feb 04, 2021

Book chain says it is ‘sympathetic’ to petition signed by more than 100 staff in support of employees facing acute uncertainty on scheme

Waterstones has told staff that furloughed workers will not receive any increase to their wages until shops can reopen, after a petition was launched calling on the book chain to help workers who are being paid below minimum wage on the scheme.

A petition signed by more than 1,500 people so far, including more than 100 Waterstones workers and backed by names including author Philip Pullman, has been published on Organise. Addressed to Waterstones managing director James Daunt and chief operating officer Kate Skipper, it says that the majority of Waterstones staff are employed either on or very close to the minimum wage, and that upon being furloughed, they find themselves “plunged beneath this line and into financial uncertainty”.

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Feb 04, 2021

Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective has been endlessly rewritten. But nearly a century after the author’s death, how new writers portray him remains contested

The first ever mention of Sherlock Holmes came in A Study in Scarlet, published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual of 1887. Dr Watson is looking for lodgings, and meets an old acquaintance who knows of someone he could share with, but does not recommend.

Young Stamford looked rather strangely at me over his wine-glass. ‘You don’t know Sherlock Holmes yet,’ he said; ‘perhaps you would not care for him as a constant companion.’

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Feb 04, 2021

Welsh government had said it could not extend funding, but following pressure from campaigners has announced sum ‘to safeguard jobs and deliver strategic priorities’

The Welsh government has announced a £2.25m rescue package for the National Library of Wales after Philip Pullman joined a campaign warning that it was under threat.

A government-commissioned review last September had found that the library’s income reduced by 40% between 2007 and 2019, with staff numbers down 23%, to 224. The review recommended that “urgent attention” be given to the library’s financial needs.

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Feb 04, 2021

Inside the civil service ... a portrait and memoir of Jeremy Heywood, who was at the centre of British political life and had a knack for getting his way

The shaping and reshaping of the modern British state, told through the eyes, words and private thoughts of the ruler’s closest and most trusted counsellor. Dialogue-driven scenes, from formal committee or cabinet meetings to one-on-ones, planned or chance, punctuated by internal monologues. The ascent of the protagonist, from a relatively ordinary background, to the heights of power, through a combination of intellectual ability, keen political instincts and above all his understanding of what motivates others. And, finally, his premature death, while still at the peak of his abilities; in the eyes of the author at least, a tragedy for his country …

Suzanne Heywood’s account of the life of her late husband Jeremy, cabinet secretary and confidant of four prime ministers, doesn’t match Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell for length or imagination. But I don’t make the comparison of the Lords Heywood and Cromwell lightly. Not only did the two men occupy similar positions, but in many respects they shared an approach to governing, blending the personal and the political, their analytical intelligence with their understanding of human nature. And so this book should be read in a similar spirit to Mantel’s masterpieces – as a portrait of an exceptional man who was always at the centre of events.

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Feb 03, 2021

An American millennial discovers her boyfriend is a conspiracy theorist in this brilliant debut about online and IRL experience

Speaking at an event in 2016, Sally Rooney said: “I don’t know how I could possibly make literary the time I waste on Facebook. It’s possible that a really good writer could actually make that very interesting. But for me, the endless scroll […] it’s really difficult to elevate that to something beautiful.” We have been waiting for the novel that makes literary the endless scroll. With Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, we may have found it. It’s a brilliant comic novel about the ways in which the internet muddles all of our interior rivers while at the same time polluting the seas of the outer world, and about how these processes might be one and the same thing. Arriving in the same month as Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, it might just help to usher in the Age of Actually Good Novels About the Internet – and not a moment too soon.

The narrator of Fake Accounts is female, millennial, Brooklyn-based, admitting to an “embarrassment of privileges”, avowedly “teetering […] on the border between likeable and loathsome”. She is very aware of her status as the narrator of a novel. Sections are called things like “Beginning” or “Middle (Something Happens)”. There is an imagined audience of ex-boyfriends. I’m making it sound cutesily postmodern, or emptily parodic, but it’s neither.

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Feb 03, 2021

New issue, dedicated to work by current and former prisoners, provokes uproar after it emerges one poet has served time for child pornography offences

The US’s prestigious Poetry magazine has doubled down on its decision to publish a poem by a convicted sex offender as part of a special edition dedicated to incarcerated poets, telling critics that “it is not our role to further judge or punish [people] as a result of their criminal convictions”.

The magazine, which has been running since 1912 and is published by the Poetry Foundation, has just released its new issue focusing on work by “currently and formerly incarcerated people”, their families and prison workers. It includes a poem by Kirk Nesset, a former professor of English literature who was released from prison last year after serving time for possessing, receiving and distributing child sexual abuse images in 2014. The investigation found Nesset in possession of more than half a million images and films of child sexual abuse.

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