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Archive by tag: Rachel CookeReturn
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 15, 2021

An account of a teenage affair with a teacher feels like therapy and lacks deep thinking

Teenagers are so vulnerable. Like ripe peaches, they’re too easily bruised. But Alisson Wood was more defenceless than most. At 17, she had already undergone ECT in an effort to treat her depression; beneath her clothes, her arms bore the marks of self-harm. If her American high school was a place to be endured – the other girls, in their locker-room sententiousness, had decided she was a “psycho” – home was hardly a refuge. Her parents, who would soon divorce, were more preoccupied with their own troubles than with those of their exhausting, Sylvia Plath-loving daughter.

Was this why the teacher chose her? Or was it simply that having been assigned to give her extra support, Mr North had an excuse for favouring Wood above other students? Either way, she was an easy target. At their first meeting, she took in his hair, which was too long, and his clothes, which were from Abercrombie & Fitch, as if he were a teenager, too, and felt stunned: “like an animal across a meadow”. Soon, she was meeting him every night at a diner in the next town. It was there that he gave her a copy of Lolita, his favourite novel. “This book is lust, yearning, and occupational hazards,” read his inscription, which I guess is one way of putting it.

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Feb 01, 2021

A ‘Houellebecquian manifesto on art’ will transport you across the world in the company of three sassy female criminals

If you like comics, and you’re also in need of some serious, escapist fun – at the moment, surely that’s pretty much all of us – I suggest that you dive straight into The Grande Odalisque, a new book from a cartoon supergroup comprising Jérôme Mulot, Florent Ruppert and Bastien Vivès (in France, where this book has already been described as, among other things, a “Houellebecquian manifesto on art”, its authors are celebrated prize winners). It will take you, I’d guess, about an hour to read and for every one of those 60 minutes you’ll be somewhere else entirely: the galleries of the Louvre, a Spanish beach, the streets of Mexico City. Even better, you’ll be in the company of three smart and sexy female criminals who take the men on at their own game and win.

When The Grande Odalisque begins, Carole and Alex, best friends for many years, are in the middle of casually stealing a Manet from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and it’s all going pretty well until Alex’s mobile phone bleeps (she’s waiting outside, in the getaway car, while Carole cuts the canvas from its frame). Uh oh. It’s so unhelpful when boyfriend trouble arrives to distract you just as your accomplice is about to be attacked by an alsatian. “Sorry, I got another call,” she says, sounding not very apologetic at all, as Carole, having ninja-kicked the dog and its handler to the ground, finally appears with the booty.

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Jan 31, 2021

When the journalist set out to write about the men who work on the North Sea oil rigs, she didn’t expect to fall for one of them. She talks about how her memoir Sea State came about

A certain kind of journalist will sometimes ask herself: how far would I go for a story? Is there anything I wouldn’t do, or say, or be? For a long time, Tabitha Lasley was definitely not that kind of journalist. The frustrations of her job at a London property magazine were never enough to cause her to throw off what she regards now as her lassitude; the feeling that at least she could pay her share of the rent reined her in. But then, overnight, everything changed. In the course of a single phone call, she understood that it was time to leave her boyfriend. “I’m quite a coward,” she says. “I think most people are. But at a certain point, the prospect of staying in that relationship became more scary to me than the prospect of jumping into the unknown.” Newly homeless, it was perhaps inevitable that her relationship with risk would also change. Having handed in her notice, she packed up her meagre possessions – how sad they looked; how reproachful – and moved to Aberdeen, to research a book she had long dreamed of writing, about North Sea oil rigs and the men who risk their lives working on them.

It was a serious project. She was fascinated by the rigs, their isolation and danger. She wanted to know what men are like “without women around”. But she was also, inwardly, a mess. She and the very first man she interviewed, an oil worker she now calls Caden (this is not his real name), began seeing each other, and soon after this – minutes after this, if we’re honest – he left his wife and children in Stockton-on-Tees, and moved into the flat she’d rented in one of Aberdeen’s edgier vicinities. “I think if he’d been number 42, it wouldn’t have happened,” she says. “But if you come out of a punitive relationship, and a man is nice to you, it’s like getting into a warm bath after years of cold showers.” She knew it was a catastrophe. She and Caden were like tourists in one another’s lands, each of them only half-fluent in the other’s language. Both were on the run from disaster at home. But that isn’t to say that she didn’t love him. She did, and so she clung on – until, that is, he went back to his wife. Then she could only cling on to her mobile phone, and wait, and hope, and in the meantime, work (the only balm, unless you count drink).

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Jan 23, 2021

A daring, dizzying attempt to connect Keats and F Scott Fitzgerald has plenty to take pleasure in

In my mind’s eye, I see F Scott Fitzgerald in white flannels on some Riviera beach, or at the wheel of a flashy car, its metallic curves in sharp contrast to the waistless girls all around. Forever a shiny figure, irrespective of what I know of his struggles with booze, outwardly he could not be more different to his literary idol, John Keats, with his curls, his cough and his mud-spattered boots. If both men were permanently in motion, comets blazing, Keats by design as well as necessity was a tramper: in 1818, he walked for 600 miles across Britain. Whatever the connections between them, the parallels of biography and sensibility, I can no more imagine he and Fitzgerald together than I can see them in silvery old age (Keats was 25 when tuberculosis killed him; Fitzgerald died of a heart attack aged 44).

This may be why I find the ambition of Jonathan Bate’s new book a little on the mad side. Crikey, but this is daring. Attempting to squeeze the short, dazzling lives of Fitzgerald and Keats, already so much written about, into one short volume, he asks a huge amount of himself, and of his reader. Flipping between 19th-century Hampstead and 20th-century Los Angeles, between Keats’s mooning after the barely outlined figure of Fanny Brawne and Fitzgerald’s tortured relationship with the altogether more vivid creation that was his wife, Zelda, has the potential to cause a certain amount of dizziness. I felt at moments as though I was caught between two lovers. When I was with Keats, I longed to get back to Fitzgerald; when I was with Fitzgerald, I would experience a sudden, fierce pang for Keats.

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Jan 16, 2021

This magnificent biography gets to the heart of Bacon as an artist and a man

A year before his death in 1992, Francis Bacon quietly slipped into the Prado in Madrid, discreetly followed by its deputy director, Manuela Mena. There, he spent 90 minutes alone with its collection of Velázquez (it was a Monday, and the museum was closed). What did Mena make of Bacon, who was then 81, and in the habit of using shoe polish to colour his hair? “I’ve never seen somebody so gentle,” she said. “He looked you straight in the eye. He wanted to see who you are. He had… this security in himself.” Bacon lingered longest, she recalled, in front of Mars Resting (1640), in which Velázquez depicts the Roman god of war with his face in shadow – a decision that whispers a loss of masculine power, even as the muscles on his torso seem to ripple like damask in a breeze – and we can assume that he was grateful for the chance to have done so: afterwards, he sent Mena the most beautiful flowers she had ever received.

None of us can know what’s coiled inside another human being; the closer one is to a person, in fact, the greater the shock may be when all is revealed (if it ever is). Distance, then, can sometimes be as useful to the biographer as intimacy. In Bacon, Mena saw something that was apt to escape others – a gilded ease, as well as an isolation; an unexpected tenderness – and in their magnificent new life of the artist, the Pulitzer prize-winning critics Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan are wise enough to make good use of it, deploying Mena’s memory at a point when others might have been inclined, in the race to the finish, to throw it away. But then, this is them all over. How judicious they are, how determined to rub away at their subject’s corners. Until now, the best books about Bacon have been the work of his friends (Michael Peppiatt, Daniel Farson, David Sylvester): volumes that, however interesting, are muddied with affection (or its reverse), vested interests and, perhaps, a certain complacency. This volume, though, is the opposite. It rings as clearly as a bell. I cannot remember the last time I was so aware of the sheer hard labour involved in biography, even as I was captivated by every line. (They slogged, so I didn’t have to.)

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Jan 05, 2021

In this latest instalment of the melancholy Paul series, our nerdish hero is lonely and adrift – as well as bleakly funny

If the latest volume in the long-running, semi-autobiographical Paul series by the Quebecer cartoonist Michel Rabagliati is by far the saddest of these wonderful books, it’s also much the better for it. No one writes, or draws, the nerdish white male quite as Rabagliati does, but in this volume, as his titular hero finds himself adrift in middle age, there’s a special richness: a melancholy that has its perfect expression in his monochrome pages. A story of loneliness and loss, it could hardly have arrived at a better moment. Who knew that I would find Paul’s daily dread so soothing? Who would ever have guessed that his crotchety musings on such subjects as sleep apnoea, mobile phones and internet dating would suit my present mood so marvellously well?

Paul is a successful illustrator and comic book writer. At the Quebec book fair, his signing queue is long, and the fans in it (mostly) devoted. But his outward success has little bearing on the rest of his life, which has fallen into what can only be described as decay; a decline symbolised by his mouldering back-yard swimming pool, and the rotten old apple tree that stands next to it. His back aches, he sleeps badly and, thanks to a disaster with a tooth, his head aches permanently.

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Dec 27, 2020

Biographies of Philip Roth and DH Lawrence, the curious death of Robert Maxwell, and dispatches from the Covid frontline

Publishing can feel slow, even stately, at times, and not only because good books take a long time to write. But in 2021, speed will be the order of the day. Whether we’re talking about Black Lives Matter or Covid-19, a lot of the new nonfiction coming our way will speak insistently to the present moment – to the point where some readers, fighting unease, may welcome the relative tranquillity of a fat life of the artist Francis Bacon, in the form of Revelations, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s 880-page biography (William Collins, January); or, rather more genteel, The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne (William Collins, April).

It will also be much more diverse – which is where we’ll begin. In January, Chatto publishes Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Today, in which Eddie S Glaude Jr, chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University, tries to fathom how the author of Go Tell It On the Mountain managed, against the odds, to keep faith in the idea of a more just future. A bestseller in the US, this urgent, deeply interesting book will be followed by Three Mothers (William Collins, February), in which Anna Malaika Tubbs looks at how the women who raised Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and (again) James Baldwin helped to shape America; Raceless, by Georgina Lawton (Sphere, February), a memoir of growing up black in a white Anglo-Irish family; and Musa Okwonga’s One of Them (Unbound, April), an account of the author’s experiences as a black boy at Eton. Also hotly anticipated is Empireland (Viking, January), a meticulous look at the effects of imperialism on British life and history from Sathnam Sanghera, best known for his memoir The Boy with the Topknot.

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Nov 29, 2020

Loneliness, isolation and grief were common themes in this year’s Cape/Observer/Comica award for emerging cartoonists. But the winner made the judges laugh out loud

In Similar to But Not, the winner of this year’s Observer/Jonathan Cape graphic short story prize, a prematurely aged teenager visits his local pub hoping to spend his paper round money on an illicit pint, only to find a certain famous pop star sitting at the bar. As if this isn’t eye-popping enough (our hero lives in mild-mannered Bucks, not ritzy Belgravia), the singer in question is happy to talk and even, perhaps, to flirt with him a little – not that he seems to notice. “You have a black mark on your face,” she tells him, rubbing at it with her thumb. “Oh, that,” he replies, obliviously. “That’s from the Milton Keynes Mirror.”

Similar to But Not is the work of Paul Rainey, who has entered the prize every year but one since its inception in 2007. “I’m so delighted,” he says of this long-awaited triumph. “Every year, I would always be in a really black mood at not winning. I would moan to all my friends, and vow never to enter again. But then I always would, and I’m glad I persevered. Winning is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” Is his story, as it purports to be, autobiographical? “Yes, I’m afraid so. It recalls an intense daydream I had when I was 17. I’d seen Madonna on Top of the Pops [in 1985, when the story is set], and I wondered how I could possibly get to know her. This, believe it or not, seemed to be the only feasible idea I could come up with: that we’d meet in the pub, when no one else was around.”

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Nov 29, 2020

A new biography of Vivien Eliot shows diligence but fails to flesh out the woman abandoned by the poet and often regarded as the source of his despair

Vivien Haigh-Wood married TS Eliot in 1915, and right from the start, things were difficult: if not a disaster precisely, then one well in the making. In the London flat they shared part-time with its owner, Bertrand Russell, the poet slept not in the couple’s bedroom, but in a deckchair in the hall. His new wife, who liked dancing and would quite soon go to bed with their landlord, was already showing signs of the mental illness that would ruin her life. She kept erratic hours, and her impulses tended towards cruelty. Both were crashing snobs, and thanks to this, they were all too painfully aware of what their equally superior Bloomsbury friends made of them. No one much liked Viv: “this teashop creature”, as a quivering Katherine Mansfield put it. They thought her vulgar, and vain, and quite useless.

Was she, though? Useless, I mean. There are two schools of thought about poor Viv, who died in 1947 in the institution where she had been incarcerated for almost a decade, and to which her husband never came. The first, and hoariest, is that she was a madwoman whose principle contribution to the life and work of TS Eliot was the immense distress she caused him, pain that helped him to write The Waste Land (the line taken by Michael Hastings, whose 1984 play about the couple became the film Tom & Viv, in which the latter was played by Miranda Richardson). The second approach posits her as a victim both of Eliot’s coldness and cruelty, and of the assorted quacks who did so little to help her following her breakdowns (the crudely feminist stance taken by her somewhat unreliable 2001 biographer, Carole Seymour-Jones). Either way, it has always been hard to see Vivien as a person in her own right. We cannot say if Virginia Woolf and the rest were justified in thinking her a twittering spare part, for the simple reason that if she exists on the page, she does so only in relation to the man who unaccountably married her even though he was then in love with another woman, Emily Hale.

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Nov 10, 2020

This remarkable South Korean tale illuminates the longings and desires of four ‘invisible’ middle-aged women

Lee Soyeon is a divorced woman in her 50s who works as a cleaner in a Seoul apartment building. Her life isn’t easy. Her bosses are mean, and her thirtysomething son, who still lives at home, is a wastrel who never lifts a finger to help her. Most painful of all, her boyfriend, Jongseok, another feckless loser, has recently revealed that for the last three years he has been two-timing her – and yet, no matter how hard she tries, she cannot give him up. In bed at night, her phone lies beside her like some miniature coffin, a night-time bearer of bad tidings to whose bleeps, messages and alerts she remains cruelly addicted.

Related: What is it like to be a middle-aged woman? A son asked his mother – then wrote a comic

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Oct 27, 2020

This collection of Cooper’s newspaper columns from the 60s and 70s is bitchy, saucy, insightful and, most of all, great fun

Good journalism is easier to read than to write, especially the kind that has to do with (ugh) so-called lifestyle. It’s all about tone, and more hacks than you might imagine, not to mention their editors, have a tin ear in this regard. This kind of journalism tends, moreover, to go off faster than fresh fish.

All of which makes Between the Covers, a new collection of Jilly Cooper’s journalism, the more remarkable. Yes, there are columns here that will seem painfully dated to 21st-century eyes; women are no longer, thank God, expected to drop their girlfriends when they marry, and thereafter only to socialise as a couple. Some references, too, may be beyond younger readers: you have to be of a certain age (my age, probably) to know what she means when she describes sex as “only the liquid centre of the great New Berry Fruit of friendship”. But in the main, perky, clever and rather wise, these pieces still slip down as easily as a nice cold glass of something crisp and white. A certain kind of self-deprecation – we call it humblebragging now – can be extremely grating over 100 pages, or even, to be honest, over a paragraph. But not only is Cooper’s modesty completely genuine; she’s just as apt to deploy a little quiet pride here and there. She will never patronise her readers by posing as something she is not.

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Oct 24, 2020

The V&A’s fashion curator has written an acclaimed memoir about her life among the many dresses, hats, shoes and other items the museum houses

Claire Wilcox thinks she makes for a highly unlikely fashion curator. “It’s a bit embarrassing, really,” she says. “I’m always complaining to friends that I haven’t got a thing to wear.” Ask what piece of clothing she most aches to own – you can have anything, I say, irrespective of cost or rarity – and she will talk not of Balenciaga or Schiaparelli, but of “Dorelia John-style peasant blouses.” (Dorelia McNeill, a painter and artist’s model, lived with Augustus John and his wife, Ida, in a menage a trois that sometimes took up residence in a Gypsy caravan). For the record, today she looks a touch Cossack in black lace-up boots whose provenance she cannot quite recall, matching trousers from Cos and – oh dear – a hand-printed shirt that she bought from the shop in the Victoria and Albert Museum, which also happens to be the institution where she has worked for the last 20 years.

Nevertheless, it seems to have been written in the stars that she would one day end up here in London’s South Kensington, thinking about buttons and ballgowns; about how, as she puts it, fashion exists “in the folds of time”, its roots always in the past, but also in the present, too, since human beings will never not need clothes. It all goes back to her childhood. First, there was the haberdashery her parents ran not so very far away in West Kensington: as a girl, she would often accompany her mother to work, spending her days among the paper patterns and the knitting wool, the rolls of rickrack and bias binding. Then there was the junk shop in Pimlico her father opened after she graduated from university. “He let me do his windows for him,” she says. “And I had grandiose ideas. I used to create these extraordinary stage sets with my brother, with columns and swags and mirrors. When people came in, you could tell they were thinking, ‘Oh, but the inside looks nothing like the window’ and I would get furious if he sold anything from the window because it would ruin my display.” Ever since, she has been the kind of person who gets “star-struck by objects rather than people”. Should she follow someone on the street, as she has occasionally been known to do, it will be their clothes she’s interested in, not their face.

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Oct 18, 2020

The US novelist, long preoccupied by the uneasy reality of western society, talks about his latest book, set in a world hit by a tech blackout

Over the course of 17 novels, Don DeLillo’s fans have come to feel that he is able to tune into vibrations far beyond the perceptions of other writers – and thus that his unnerving prescience is all part of the very spooky deal. But even by his standards, the timing of his new book, The Silence, is extraordinary. He finished writing it in March, just as New York, the city where he was born and still lives, went into lockdown – at which point fact and fiction fell, with unseemly haste, into a disconcertingly tight embrace. Set in 2022, it depicts a world in which the memory of “the virus, the plague, the march through airport terminals, the face masks, the city streets emptied out” is still fresh – and thus one where people are half expecting the new “semi-darkness” that falls in its opening pages, the sidewalks once again silent, and the hospitals all full. This time, however, the cause is not a pandemic, but a dramatic “loss of power”. Is it, as one character theorises, the Chinese? Have they “initiated a selective internet apocalypse”? No one knows, largely because they have no means of knowing. The lines are dead. The screens are blank. The technology is bust. Even the conspiracy theorists are going to find their audience tricky to reach now.

So that we might talk about this unlikely achievement, it is arranged that DeLillo will ring my landline – that “sentimental relic” as he calls it in The Silence. Is the thought of hearing the disembodied voice of Don DeLillo in the middle of a pandemic reassuring, or is it terrifying? In the days running up to our conversation, I can’t quite decide about this. But when the call is finally made – I stand up to take it, and somehow never manage to sit back down – he does not sound at all like a portent of doom. “Oh, I don’t see it that way,” he says, gently, when I ask if we should read the novel as a warning, our dependence on technology having only grown in the age of Covid-19. “It’s just fiction that happens to be set in the future. I guess it all started with the idea of the Super Bowl.” Images have always been important to him, and with this book, it was the idea of a blank screen that lodged itself in his mind. “I wondered what would happen if power failed everywhere, nothing functioning … a universal blackout.”

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Oct 17, 2020

The venerated US critic talks about her new essay collection, the limits of cancel culture and her regard for Muhammad Ali

Michiko Kakutani was chief book reviewer of the New York Times from 1983 to 2017, during which time she won a Pulitzer prize for criticism. In 2018, she published The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump. In her new essay collection, Ex Libris, she recommends more than 100 books, from Experience by Martin Amis to Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

What kind of lockdown did you have? Were you able to read?
In March, New York was in near total lockdown – empty streets, closed restaurants, empty plazas. I wrote an essay for the New York Times about the pandemic and the city, and walked through much of Manhattan. It had a strange, surreal vibe: midtown looked like that dream sequence in Vanilla Sky, where the Tom Cruise character finds himself in a totally deserted Times Square. Lincoln Center looked like a De Chirico painting. Among the books I read were: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré, Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin, H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, and The Great Influenza by John M Barry.

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Oct 12, 2020

This funny story of a student’s trip abroad with her new anarchist friend will resonate with anyone who has been a fresher

This comic, the original web version of which has already received an Eisner award, arrives with high praise both from Alison Bechdel, the bestselling author of Fun Home (“surprisingly, even transcendently, emotional”), and from Tillie Walden, best known for her acclaimed memoir Spinning (“makes you want to laugh and cry simultaneously”). It’s not hard to see why. Let us ignore, for a moment, the pandemic; the fact that nothing about university life is quite as it was, or should be, right now. This funny and very knowing graphic novel will still strike an exceedingly loud chord with anyone who is, or has ever been, a fresher, far from home and all at sea. Open it and you can almost smell the Nescafé. Booksellers should throw in a free jar of the stuff with every copy sold.

The confused and somewhat apathetic heroine of The Contradictions is Sophie (possibly a version of the book’s author, Sophie Yanow), an American studying in Paris. Broke and lonely, she thinks her prayers may have been answered when she meets her compatriot Zena, the proud rider of a fixed gear bicycle (Sophie loves bikes, though she has left her own back at home). But beware those first-term friends! Her new pal turns out to be a moody, shoplifting, vegan anarchist, and when Zena suggests that the two of them spend a few days together hitchhiking to Berlin via Amsterdam, the reader knows the trip can’t possibly end well. It would be hard enough to tolerate Zena’s particular brand of self-righteousness in a luxury hotel room, but to have to listen to her anti-capitalist mutterings in a tiny tent pitched by a motorway service station surely cannot result in anything less than murderous thoughts and a powerful longing for a cheeseburger.

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Oct 11, 2020

In a sharp, scabrous account of his lifelong love of Oscar, the actor again proves himself a masterly writer

Rupert Everett was five years old when he first heard the name Oscar Wilde. Tucked up in bed beneath the gables of a pink farmhouse somewhere in deepest Essex, on the night in question his mother had broken off from her pre-dinner party beautifications to read to him. The story she chose was one of those Wilde wrote for children, The Happy Prince, and it quickly cast a spell on her son. When they reached its end a week later, the boy was in floods of tears for all that he didn’t quite understand, then, its inner morality (“Dear little swallow,” said the Prince, “you tell me of marvellous things, but more marvellous than anything is the suffering of men and women”). This was, as Everett writes, an “audacious move” on the part of his mother, perhaps her single greatest contribution to his emotional development: “It is here that I learn for the first time that there is a thing called love and that it usually has a price.”

Everett’s new memoir, his third, is the story of his enduring obsession with Wilde and how it compelled him to make a film about the doomed writer, a decade-long quest that, though ultimately successful, brought him, at points, to the edge of reason. It begins with a fat suit that comes with “baboon moobs and a marvellous knee-length arse” (even in middle age, Everett is somewhat less fleshy than poor old Wilde) and ends somewhere a lot less slapstick, its author finally finding peace, of a kind, in a room at the Sunset Tower hotel in West Hollywood. In between, it is just about everything you could want, at least in a memoir by an actor. We know, by now, that Everett is a deliciously gifted writer. Nothing and no one escapes his attention and in this book he’s as good on Laurellee and Mary Jay, a couple of forward American tourists he meets on a night train to Rome, as he is on Luise Rainer and Gregory Peck (see also Joan Collins and Christopher Biggins). But there’s something else here, too: a plangency and depth of feeling that may do strange things to all the images you have of him in your head (to be honest, I have had images of Rupert Everett in my head ever since the sixth form, when I first saw him in Another Country).

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Oct 05, 2020

This reworking of a ‘true’ tale of paranormal activity in 1930s London seeks explanations beyond frauds and fakery

In Elizabeth Bowen’s story The Demon Lover, set in London during the blitz, a middle-aged married woman climbs into a taxi. Her relief is palpable. She wants only to escape, to return as quickly as possible to the safety of the country. But then … horror. On seeing her driver’s face, she realises that he is her dead fiance, lost on the western front two decades before. The woman screams, and goes on doing so. As the cab pulls away, “accelerating without mercy”, she beats her gloved hands frantically on its windows.

“Our irrational, darker selves,” Bowen wrote, “demand familiars.” It’s in this world that Kate Summerscale’s The Haunting of Alma Fielding is set, the action taking place over a period of four months in 1938, in Thornton Heath, south London, and in a building inhabited by the International Institute for Psychical Research, behind Harrods in Knightsbridge. In the former, we find Alma Fielding, who lives with her husband, son and a lodger, and is being violently assailed by flying hairbrushes, splintering china, and toppling furniture. In the latter, we meet Nandor Fodor, a Hungarian-born journalist turned psychic investigator who is increasingly desperate to prove the existence of a spirit world – his living depends on it – even as he is growing ever more convinced that some manifestations, if not all, are the products of mental breakdown, repression, and abiding fear.

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Sep 28, 2020

Buford returns to his love affair with cooking in this engaging, if garrulous, account of working in a top Lyon restaurant

It has taken Bill Buford a long time to give us Dirt. His last book, Heat, which detailed his macho adventures in the Italian kitchen, came out in 2006. But then, as he admits, timing is hardly his thing. If (eventually) he can learn how to rustle up moules à la poulette, a tricky dish involving a sauce made from the jus of sautéed mussels and an egg yolk that a split second either way may ruin, this has no effect whatsoever on other clock-related activities. In Lyon, where he bags himself a gig at La Mère Brazier, one of the city’s most celebrated restaurants, he is always tardy: late for work, late to change into his kitchen clothes, and, sin of sins, late when it’s his turn to make the all-important staff lunch.

The things that I like about this book are also the things that make it flawed

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Sep 20, 2020

The cheesy habits of David Cameron, the loneliness of Boris Johnson, the strange rise of Gavin Williamson… Swire’s no-holds-barred Diary of an MP’s Wife is causing consternation among its subjects. Is she worried?

In the kitchen of Chaffcombe Manor, her rambling Devonshire home, Sasha Swire, whose mischievously indiscreet political diaries are published this week, appears to be suffering from a bad case of the writerly equivalent of buyer’s remorse. Round and round the table she goes, as busy as one of her bees, pausing only occasionally to fling open the door of her Aga, into which she then carefully inserts her bum (I think the idea is to warm it up, but given that the weather is fine today, perhaps it’s more a matter of comfort). “Oh, please don’t put that in,” she yelps at one point, my having brought up a particularly choice entry from 2012, in which Michael Heseltine pretends, at a private dinner, that the Queen has asked him to form a government (he then proceeds to appoint his various guests to his imaginary cabinet). But it’s in your book, I say: all the world will be able to read it soon. She performs another frantic circuit of the room. “Oh, I beg you. Please don’t write about that.”

Is she really worried? Apparently, she is. Earlier this year, when she emailed, out of the blue, a literary agent, wondering whether the diaries she kept between 2010 and 2019 would be of any wider interest, this – the jamboree of publication – was almost impossible to imagine. But now, it’s a terrible reality. Her friends (and enemies) are about to find out just what she and her husband, Hugo, formerly the Conservative MP for East Devon, think of them. Michael Gove will discover that they regard him as “ever so slightly bonkers” (after our meeting, Gove’s wife, the journalist Sarah Vine, will publish two vicious ripostes, complaining of Swire’s poshness and insisting she barely knows her). Boris Johnson will learn that she believes he is “desperately lonely and unhappy on the inside”. Worst of all, David Cameron, under whom her husband, his friend and fellow old Etonian, served as a minister, will have to make his lucrative speeches knowing that his audience is now fully acquainted with the fact that he’s the kind of guy who likes to talk penis size at parties (on the occasion of George Osborne’s birthday in 2013, the PM could be found laughing uproariously at Hugo’s likening of Gove’s member to a Slinky – a toy for which, Sasha writes, their generation has a particularly fond “attachment”).

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Sep 06, 2020

The second volume of Feaver’s compelling biography reveals the ruthlessness behind the artist’s brilliance

When the second volume of William Feaver’s fat and extremely juicy biography of Lucian Freud begins, the artist is middle-aged: not far off 50, and still shinning up his lovers’ drainpipes (in this case, Jacquetta Eliot, the Countess of St Germans, with whom he’ll have a son, Freddy). But even as the shenanigans continue (and they will endure even into his final years – as a sick, old man, his sexual pride induces him to tell his assistant David Dawson that the blood on his sheets, the result of one of his nosebleeds, “might be a girl’s”) the reader detects a certain change in atmosphere. This has to do not only with Freud’s growing success – in 1974, there will be a retrospective of his work at the Hayward Gallery; his prices will shortly rise dramatically – but with his ambition. “How far can you go?” he would sometimes murmur to himself, looking at a painting that was almost complete. The answer was: much further. Ahead of him lie another 40 years in the studio.

Feaver’s narrative, peppy and mostly nimble, is based in part on the near daily phone calls and many encounters the two men had over several decades (as the artist RB Kitaj once told him, not entirely accurately, he played Boswell to Freud’s Johnson). What’s good about this is that you can hear Freud’s voice on the page, which is thrilling when he’s talking about art (“You feel he’s telling lies,” he says of Caravaggio, getting straight to the heart of the matter). What’s bad about this is that, as Dawson notes: “What he [Freud] says and how he feels are not the same thing. Ever.” Their somewhat symbiotic relationship also means that Feaver is apt to accept Freud’s disdain for interpretation, whether of art or human nature. Early on, a bit comically, he asks the artist if Naked Man With Rat (1977-8) relates to Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis by his grandfather, Sigmund Freud – an essay about a young man “tortured by rats or the thought of rats, viz the anal erotic source”. But, no. His model just happened to like the rat. After this, he resists the temptation to indulge in what Freud called “the dodgy therapeutic aspect” of connecting life and work.

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Aug 30, 2020

A short but remarkable study by the chief librarian of the Bodleian in Oxford charts 3,000 years of literary vandalism

A third of the way into his rich and meticulous 3,000 year history of knowledge and all the ways it may be preserved (or not), Richard Ovenden casually mentions that he and his wife once had to clear the house of a family member – a job that involved deciding which letters and diaries should be saved, and which, ultimately, destroyed. As he notes, such decisions are taken everywhere, every day, with few consequences. But occasionally, the fate of such documents can have profound consequences for culture, particularly if the deceased person had a public life. Think of Byron’s publisher, John Murray, tearing up and then burning the manuscript of his memoirs at his house in Albemarle Street; of Philip Larkin’s secretary, Betty Mackereth, feeding his diaries, sheet by sheet, into a Hull University shredder.

At this point, I had to stop reading Ovenden’s book for a moment, to picture the author going through the dressing-table drawers of, say, his elderly aunt. I imagine this would be an oddly impressive sight, for by day he is Bodley’s librarian (the most senior position at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford). If there’s anyone you might want to read your love letters after your death, it’s probably him; as Burning the Books reveals on every page, not only is he careful, diligent and wise, he also knows what to leave out, and what to keep in – and it’s this quality, above all, that makes his book so remarkable. Its sweep is quite astonishing and yet, amazingly, his narrative runs to just 320 pages.

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Aug 16, 2020

The award-winning comics historian brings the jazz age to vivid life in this showcase of six dazzling female cartoonists

Of all the cartoonists whose work appears in Trina Robbins’s brilliant new book, The Flapper Queens: Women Cartoonists of the Jazz Age, my favourite is Fay King. Like her dazzling contemporaries, King used her strips to review movies and plays, as well as to chart the latest fashions. But she’s at her best – and her most modern – when her material is autobiographical. “The ukulele has not made me as popular as I expected,” she writes, in a cartoon depicting herself, all 45-degree angles and shingled hair, learning new instruments. “Women now read newspapers,” she observes tartly, in one of several strips in which her feminism is explicit. And then there’s her intriguingly hectic private life. In 1913, King caused a stir when, having married boxer Battling Nelson, she filed for divorce only a month later, claiming that he had kidnapped her and forced her to get hitched.

These six American women represent a revolution, not only in hairstyles and hemlines, but in a woman’s autonomy

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Aug 15, 2020

The critic and memoirist talks about her fears for #MeToo, why she feels ‘shaky’ about being American – and being rediscovered in her 80s, as a collection of her acute, unflinching essays is reissued

Vivian Gornick should be used to things happening later than expected. She was 51 when she published the book that finally made her name in 1987 (Fierce Attachments, a memoir about her relationship with her mother; it was described by the New York Times last year as the best memoir of the past half century), and only now does she find herself, for the first time in her life, financially solvent. “It’s true,” she says, astonishment just at the edge of her voice. “I lived from hand to mouth for 40 years, and I never cared that much about it. Except that now I do have some money, I realise it was a weight on me.” But the new wave of interest in her work has, nevertheless, come as a complete surprise: “I don’t really understand why it has happened. But I’m glad I lived long enough to see it.”

In February she published, aged 84, a new collection of essays, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader, in which she revisits the authors she loved as a younger woman, among them DH Lawrence and Colette. This was marked by an admiring profile in the New Yorker. Meanwhile, in the UK, where Gornick has always been less well known, two of her earlier books have been reissued this year: first, The Romance of American Communism (1977), a work of oral history inspired by her working-class Jewish, New York roots, and now Approaching Eye Level (1996), which gathers together a series of pieces whose broad theme might be said to encompass the ongoing struggle of living freely and independently as a woman. In one, she describes how, in 1970, she discovered feminism, having been dispatched by the Village Voice to investigate “these women’s libbers” (meeting Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millett and others galvanised her like nothing else: feminism finally brought her to take herself seriously). In another, she relates her fractious, complex friendship with an older writer called Rhoda Munk, a magnetic “repository of extremity” who first drew Gornick to her and then, painfully, turned her away. (“No one she knew could fill her up,” she writes. “If she swallowed all of us at once she’d still be hungry.”)

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Jul 26, 2020

It’s safe to say the US cartoonist is ambivalent about his own success. His latest book charts the everyday humiliations of his trade in hilarious detail

As a novelist of my acquaintance once observed, writers tend mostly to moan about their humiliations – the book signing for which no one turned up; the festival at which they could barely be heard over the sound of the audience cheering a more famous author in the bigger tent next door – to each other. Even as they flinch at the memory, they know in their hearts that there are worse things in life than mistaking the snaking line of bodies at an event for your own fans when in fact they’re Neil Gaiman’s, even if your new girlfriend was there to witness the pitifully brief flaring of your excitement. As their non-writer mothers/sisters/friends will inevitably remind them should they be tempted to complain that they overheard someone slagging off their book in a pizza joint (“pure writers’ workshop bullshit…”), sweetie, at least the guy read it.

But this doesn’t mean that these things aren’t, in the right hands, delicious to read about. In his latest book, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist, Adrian Tomine turns himself into the everyman of writerly mortification, cataloguing all of the above indignities and many more besides in such brilliant and toe-curling detail that, post-pandemic, you can imagine publicists quietly placing it in the hotel bedrooms of touring authors, the better that they might find succour among its pages late at night. The readers who like to politely inform him (“I don’t mean this as a critique”) that his work is derivative; the writers who blithely refer to his “little” pictures; the “fans” who mistake him for his fellow cartoonist Daniel Clowes. Here they all are, though quite how cathartic drawing them has been remains a moot point. “Like all my work, this is an attempt to make my life not feel so useless,” he says, without too much conviction, when he speaks to me via Zoom from his home in New York.

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