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Archive by tag: Rachel CookeReturn
May 15, 2021

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

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

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

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May 09, 2021

Clever, funny and full of surprises, this true literary original leaps off the page in a wonderfully attentive biography

In 1933, Barbara Pym, then an Oxford undergraduate, went on a date with a man who would be her friend, if not her lover, all her life. On the day in question she was not, she noted, looking “awfully beautiful”. But perhaps she took heart from her yellow suede coat, fishnet stockings and pink suspender belt. Certainly, the evening had its excitements. The couple – his name was Henry Harvey, and he had cheekbones like geometry – drove to a pub where they ate a mixed grill, drank beer and played ping pong. After supper, Pym, having unwisely confessed her feelings for Harvey, leaned over and bit him hard on the cheek.

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May 01, 2021

Jenn Shapland’s insistence on reducing Carson McCullers’s life story to a modish account of her sexuality makes no sense

This book, slight as a sapling, has its beginnings in 2016, in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, where its author was then working as an intern. It was Jenn Shapland’s job at the famous repository of writers’ archives to answer scholars’ queries, about half of which usually had to do with David Foster Wallace or Norman Mailer. One February morning, however, she was asked about some letters from a Swiss writer called Annemarie Schwarzenbach to Carson McCullers, the author of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Dating from the 1940s, these notes changed everything for Shapland. Reading them through their plastic sleeves, she saw they were love letters: intimate, suggestive, unambiguous in their meaning.

Shapland had not read McCullers’s novels. “Books seem to find me when I’m ready for them,” she writes, a statement that forewarns the reader, early on, of the Jenn-centred universe of her book. But now she was captivated – and something shifted inside her. Within a week, she had cut her hair short. Within a year, she had begun “calling myself a lesbian for the first time”. Asked what she wanted to do for her second-year project at the library, she chose the personal effects collections, where she catalogued McCullers’s extraordinary clothes: her embroidered vests, the nightgowns she liked to wear under a coat, a gold lamé jacket with a magenta lining that still had a Saks tag on it.

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Apr 25, 2021

The author of Fun Home reflects on self-improvement, death and her lifelong obsession with exercise in an extraordinarily generous memoir

In her quietly astonishing new book, Alison Bechdel sets out to discover why she has devoted so many hours of her life – “very possibly as many as are actually recommended” – to exercise. On the surface of it, this sounds straightforward. She has been mad about muscles ever since she was a child and first saw Charles Atlas; running used to be the best way she knew of managing stress; as a younger woman, she was as susceptible to fads as she was to sportswear brands. But while The Secret to Superhuman Strength takes a keen interest in karate and spin classes, in Nordic skiing and road cycling, and manages to be slyly funny about all of them, its true subject is self-improvement in the biggest sense of that word. If this sounds off-putting – please, not another book about self-care – all I can tell you is that her thoughts on mortality, wonder and transcendence will do you a lot more good, at this point in the pandemic, than your next yoga class.

How on earth does she do it? The ingenious concision, the warmth of feeling, the fact that the reader never tires of her company (this is her third memoir, after all). In this book, Bechdel, who’s now 60, continues the deep personal excavations of Fun Home and its sequel Are You My Mother?, moving through her life one decade at a time as she looks steadily and bemusedly at her tendency to use, or to try to use, her regimes as a balm (in her 20s, for instance, when she was dealing with the emotional aftermath of her father’s suicide, she had a predilection for “feminist martial arts”). But exercise is like a computer game: how many levels does it have again? With age, even the strongest body weakens; the menopause wreaks its own havoc; a parent dies and suddenly there’s no one standing between you and the grave. Gradually, she comes to realise that there is more to escaping the anxious moment, let alone the abyss, than spending an hour on a rowing machine.

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Apr 17, 2021

John Sutherland makes a brave attempt to rescue the reputation of Larkin’s longstanding lover and muse

One summer morning about a decade ago, I went to the Hull History Centre to look at its collection of photographs of Monica Jones, girlfriend of the more famous Philip Larkin. What I remember about this now is that I felt horribly furtive – a burglar, intent on rifling a knicker drawer – right up until the moment I opened the first album, at which point I understood in a glance that these pictures were made to be admired. Here was a model, as well as a lover. In the photograph of her that I still like best, it is 1960 and Jones is curled up in a wing-backed armchair wearing only a sweater and a pair of dazzling black-and-white striped tights. Seeing her like this – a groovy vision straight out of the pages of Vogue – it’s hard to imagine her walking out with the man behind the camera, in his drab mackintosh and bicycle clips.

But walk out with him she did, usually in high heels. She and Larkin met in 1947 at University College, Leicester, where she was the only female member of staff in the department of English, and he was an assistant librarian; they became a couple three years later and remained so until his death in 1985 (she would outlive him by 16 years). The relationship was tormented almost from the beginning. When Larkin dedicated The Less Deceived to Jones in 1955, it was an act of atonement as well as allegiance. The year before, his friend Kingsley Amis had depicted her, thinly disguised, as Margaret Peel in Lucky Jima harpy in the eyes of contemporary readers and a portrait based, Larkin admitted, on details lent by him. Jones tried desperately hard to make light of her lampooning (“some of it is really funny”) and was determined to exonerate Larkin (“I do not believe you would be so treacherous”) – and thus, the die was cast. Pressing down her anger and disappointment, she would now always look ahead: to their next meeting, if not to a shared future.

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Mar 21, 2021

As a tribute to vital work through the ages, Hannah Dawson’s anthology is more than welcome. But as a resource, it’s rendered hopeless

When I was a student, there was briefly a craze – if that’s the word – for rape alarms. Walking home nervously late at night, you held one tightly in your hand; should the worst happen, you were then primed to blast it in the ear of any attacker. If this sounds quite mad now, all I can tell you is that even then they were a source of (very) black comedy: mine was always without its batteries, usually because I’d “borrowed” them for my Walkman.

The Penguin Book of Feminist Writing is in most ways nothing at all like one of these devices. Where they were disposable, it eyes posterity. Where they only underlined what we were up against, it promises empowerment. What an excellent idea to put in one place some of the most inspiriting, vital and controversial writing about gender inequality you’ll ever read. This is long overdue. But there is a problem here: an own goal so enraging, it makes you wonder if women aren’t sometimes their own worst enemies. Having laboured to put this book together, its editor, Hannah Dawson, and whoever signed off the project at Penguin Classics have undone their good work at a stroke by making it close to impossible for the reader properly to use it. Not only does it have no general index, it does not even have one of its writers. Only by going painstakingly through the list of contents could I be absolutely sure that, no, nothing by Kate Millett is included; when I wanted to reread something I’d enjoyed by Susan Sontag, I ended up flicking through its 652 pages three times. However magnificent its selections, as a resource it is absolutely hopeless. Nothing in it can be found with any speed. No cross referencing may be done with ease. In this sense, it did indeed remind me of a rape alarm. In the heat of the moment, it’s totally inadequate, pathetic, no good at all.

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Mar 14, 2021

A sprawling history of women’s self-portraits rattles along without ever really getting under the skin of the artists in question

In 2019, the Royal Academy staged an exhibition by the great Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck. On the day I saw it, the galleries were preternaturally quiet – the crowds who are so mad for Frida Kahlo seem not to have heard of Schjerfbeck – and in the room where the curators had hung 17 of her self-portraits, a time-lapse sequence dating from 1884 to 1946, I was amazed to find myself entirely alone. Only I wasn’t, not really. She was all around. Schjerfbeck’s colours are often mossy, shades of grey-green that bring to mind not only nature at its lushest, but also gravestones, mottled and cold to the touch. In the spectral hush, I saw a woman first grow into herself, then move beyond that self – as death tiptoed ever closer, the self-portraits grew ever more abstract – and it was indescribably strengthening. I could have taken on anyone that day. An unseen presence had sprayed courage on my wrists.

Why might an artist choose to paint herself? When women were still excluded from life classes – it was 1893 before female students were allowed to gaze on a “partially draped” body at the Royal Academy – it was a case of being one’s own best model. The artist turned to herself, familiar and available, both as a means of introduction (“here I am, see what I can do”), and by way of making an artistic statement (“this is what I believe”). But there’s also the question of self-realisation – and it’s this that has more recently stoked the impulse for self-portraiture. “People are like shadows to me,” said Gwen John. “And I am a shadow.” Women are all too often invisible; it’s left to us to point out what others refuse to see. In A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris (1907-09), an umbrella resting against the arm of a cane chair famously stands in as a substitute for John; she is absent, elsewhere. Her self-portraits, however, are not shadowy at all. She looks like a person to whom we would do well to pay attention: solid, determined, unashamed.

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Mar 02, 2021

The French artist deftly evokes the fog and fear of illness and the thrill of getting better

There are so many good graphic memoirs about illness: when it comes to ill-defined symptoms, and to the way that time contracts and expands in the sickroom, comics seem to reach places that words cannot. But Élodie Durand’s Parenthesis, which has already won several awards in her native France, really is extraordinary: a book I began to think of as a classic even before I’d finished it. If its author is expert in the matter of pain – able to convey the qualities of a headache in a single, scrawled black line – she’s even better on the ticking of the clock. As its title suggests, Durand wants to know what it means for the future when the present is paused – and thanks to this, its publication in English could hardly have come at a better, more resonant moment.

Durand drew Parenthesis a decade after the events it describes. When it begins, she’s in her early 20s, a fine-art graduate who’s working on a big mural in the basement of a hospital just outside Paris. For a long time, she has suffered from what her family describes as “spells”: periods when, pale and shaking, she can only stare into nothingness, and which she can never remember herself afterwards. But now they start to get worse. A neurologist diagnoses her with epilepsy, and the drugs he prescribes work for a little while. Pretty soon, though, she begins a terrible descent. She sleeps more and more. She is able to function less and less. Her memory disappears, and with it, everything she has ever learned – including, at one point, her own name. What’s happening? A brain scan reveals an inoperable tumour. Her only hope is an experimental “gamma knife”.

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Feb 28, 2021

Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon’s diaries caused a stir in 1967. Now edited by Simon Heffer and published unredacted, they reveal even more juicy detail about British high society between the 1920s and 50s

When the diaries of an obscure politician called Sir Henry “Chips” Channon were first published in 1967, they caused a sensation, and not only among those whose names appeared in their index (“vile & spiteful & silly,” announced the novelist Nancy Mitford, speaking for the walking wounded). Channon, an upstart Chicagoan who’d unaccountably managed to marry the daughter of an exceedingly rich Anglo-Irish Earl, moved in vertiginously high circles. As a friend of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, he had enjoyed a ringside seat during the abdication crisis; as the Conservative MP for Southend he had looked on with fawning admiration as Neville Chamberlain negotiated with Hitler, and abject horror as Winston Churchill succeeded him as prime minister (Channon was in favour of appeasement). Most eye-popping of all, during a visit to Berlin for the Olympics in 1936, he and various other of his smart English friends had partied wildly with leading Nazis, among them Hermann Göring, whose floodlit garden had been made over to look like a cross between a Coney Island funfair and the Petit Trianon in Versailles – a theatrical coup that seemingly drove both Joseph Goebbels and Joachim von Ribbentrop half mad with jealousy.

But dripping with juice as these diaries were – Channon’s chief virtue as a writer is his abiding awareness that dullness is the worst sin of all, and for this reason they’re among the most glittering and enjoyable ever written – they were also incomplete. When Channon died in 1958, aged 61, his son Paul (later a transport secretary in Thatcher’s government) green-lit their publication. But they would need, it was agreed, to be heavily redacted. Quite apart from his father’s sexuality – among Channon’s male (and often married) lovers were the playwright Terence Rattigan and, almost certainly, Prince Paul of Yugoslavia – pretty much everyone named in the book was still alive. As Chips’s ex-wife, Honor, said at the time: “Some of the catty remarks (which fascinate) MUST be cut.” She was especially worried what Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother might think. When the book did appear, then, it was as a single, slim volume: enough words to fill a Penguin paperback, the edition I owned.

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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 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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