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'Vagina is not a rude word': the scientist fighting to empower women, one word at a time [20 Feb 2020|01:54pm]

Twenty years ago, Catherine Blackledge’s history of the vagina The Story of V broke boundaries. As it is reissued, she talks about anasyrma as activism and why we lie about the clitoris

Catherine Blackledge immediately knew what her first book, a cultural history of the vagina spanning more than two millennia, should be called: Vagina. But two decades ago, this decision didn’t go down well.

“I’ve always liked the word vagina. I think it sounds regal. But the publishers were having none of it. They were horrified by the idea,” says Blackledge today. “Some of the men in the meeting couldn’t even say the word.”

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'Vagina is not a rude word': the scientist fighting to empower women, one word at a time [20 Feb 2020|01:54pm]

Twenty years ago, Catherine Blackledge’s history of the vagina The Story of V broke boundaries. As it is reissued, she talks about anasryma as activism and why we lie about the clitoris

Catherine Blackledge immediately knew what her first book, a cultural history of the vagina spanning more than two millennia, should be called: Vagina. But two decades ago, this decision didn’t go down well.

“I’ve always liked the word vagina. I think it sounds regal. But the publishers were having none of it. They were horrified by the idea,” says Blackledge today. “Some of the men in the meeting couldn’t even say the word.”

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Carnegie Medal longlist gives classics a fresh spin [20 Feb 2020|12:01am]

From a modern Moby-Dick to a stepsister’s take on Cinderella, the UK’s top children’s book prize highlights stories of ‘hope, discovery and understanding’

From a feminist retelling of Moby-Dick to a fresh look at Cinderella from the perspective of her stepsister, the longlist for the UK’s top children’s book prize, the Carnegie Medal, is packed with reimaginings of classic stories.

Established in 1936, the Carnegie has been won by some of the UK’s best-loved children’s authors, including Noel Streatfeild and CS Lewis. The 20 books in the running this year range from Kit de Waal’s first young adult novel, Becoming Dinah – a reimagining of Moby-Dick in which a teenage girl sets off on a trip in a camper van with a grumpy one-legged man – to Jennifer Donnelly’s take on Cinderella, Stepsister, and Sharon Dogar’s Monsters, about the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

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Amnesty by Aravind Adiga review – a migrant’s tale [20 Feb 2020|12:00pm]
A Sri Lankan migrant in Sydney agonises over whether to tell the police about a murder and risk deportation

Every migrant, as Salman Rushdie has observed, is a fantasist. But so is every novelist. Both pursue dreams of another world, inside books or across borders – an affinity that has become central to the novel in our globalised era. If, in the 19th century with its nascent metropolises, the novelist’s preferred proxy was the flâneur loitering in arcades and observing urban fleshpots, today’s novelists, from Zadie Smith to Teju Cole, cannot resist identifying with the migrant, who sees the world through similarly fresh eyes.

The Indian writer Aravind Adiga’s new novel is firmly in this tradition. Set in Australia, where Adiga himself spent a few years finishing up high school (he remains a citizen), Amnesty tells the story of Danny, a Sri Lankan who has become an “illegal alien” after dropping out of his “ripoff” college. He is surprisingly content cleaning apartments in suburban Sydney when one of his clients is murdered by another. Over the next 24 hours, Danny contends with the dilemma of whether to risk deportation by informing the police.

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When Time Stopped by Ariana Neumann review – an extraordinary Holocaust story [20 Feb 2020|09:00am]

The remarkable history of how a Jewish survivor hid in plain sight at the heart of the Third Reich is uncovered by his daughter

Getting to know your parents can take a lifetime, especially if they are secretive about their past. That her father, Hans, was more than a philanthropic, art-collecting Venezuelan businessman was something Ariana Neumann dimly grasped from childhood, after hearing him cry out in a strange language while asleep and finding a photo of him on the identity card of someone called Jan Šebesta. Being told, as a student, that she must be Jewish, was another clue: with her Catholic upbringing, it had never occurred to her. Over the years there were further revelations: hearing her father sob by an old railway station on a trip to Czechoslovakia (“This is where we said goodbye”); and finding his name among the 77,297 Nazi victims listed on a memorial in Prague (though with a question mark instead of the date of his death). There was even talk of him writing a memoir and of her helping with it. But it wasn’t until after his death that she began to understand what he’d been through during the war. And it’s only now, nearly 20 years later, that she has put together the pieces to tell his extraordinary story.

“A mosaic of assembled reminiscences”, she calls it, created from interviews, diaries, photos, letters, phone calls, emails and the dogged pursuit of leads and contacts across the world. What happened to Hans’s family is part of the Holocaust story. But the horrible familiarity is no less compelling. And Hans is a fascinating figure in his own right: resourceful, charismatic, courageous and ultimately saved (as he put it) by others’ lack of imagination.

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Antisocial by Andrew Marantz review – America's online extremists [20 Feb 2020|07:30am]

A compelling account of how far-right firestarters helped ‘the world’s most gifted media troll’ to become the US president

Antisocial is, among other things, a tale of two Mikes. Mike Cernovich was a law student, nutrition blogger, self-help author and generic Twitter troll before hitting the jackpot as a tireless online booster for the man he had previously called “Donald Chump”. The similarly directionless Mike Peinovich, AKA Mike Enoch, took an even uglier path: he ended up calling for a white ethnostate and making Holocaust jokes on his podcast the Daily Shoah. One is effectively a neo-Nazi, the other just an agile hustler. Whether that distinction matters when you consider the damage both have done to political discourse is one of the urgent questions of this compelling book.

There are many ways to tell the story of Donald Trump’s rise to power. Andrew Marantz, who patrols the darker precincts of the internet for the New Yorker, sees the president as a “ready-made viral meme” and “the world’s most gifted media troll”. Despite being a technologically ignorant sexagenarian who had spent his entire life among wealthy elites, candidate Trump spoke the same language as Reddit shitposters and YouTube provocateurs and was similarly adept at bamboozling the “normies” who held fast to such old-fashioned concepts as telling the truth and having coherent beliefs. In Marantz’s diagnosis, Trump operates like a clickbait website, AB testing new material and running with whatever gets the strongest reaction. The road to hell is paved with likes.

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Should the Harvey Weinstein jury really be forbidden to review books? [19 Feb 2020|03:40pm]

The movie mogul’s lawyers sought to discharge one trial juror over books she had read, which is a court role for reading habits I have not seen before

As the jury in Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial begin their deliberations, his defence lawyers launched a last-minute bid to to get one juror discharged – by turning their attention to her reading material.

On Tuesday, Weinstein’s lawyer Damon Cheronis complained that juror No 11 was reading “books on predatory older men” and reviewing them online on Goodreads during the proceedings, reports Vulture. Cheronis argued that this was in violation of the court order not to consume media related to the trial, and sought to have her replaced on the jury.

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Independence Square by AD Miller review – thriller in post-Soviet Ukraine [19 Feb 2020|01:01pm]
From Kiev to London by way of Greeneland … the Booker-shortlisted author’s protagonist searches for answers

Ukrainian independence was a scenario that no one envisaged – until it became a reality. Over the subsequent decades, hopes for Ukraine’s transition to democracy have waxed and waned. What never seems to have crossed anyone’s mind is that the pathogens of its post-Soviet political system – dead-eyed cynicism, bad faith, the distorting power of big and unaccountable fortunes –would start to infect Europe and beyond.

“My country is like a small character from the beginning of the movie,” says Olesya, a Ukrainian political activist in AD Miller’s new novel. “You forget him, he is mixed up with the others, but he comes back for the end. He knows something, he is a clue, and in the end you see that he mattered after all.” Just how much Ukraine matters internationally is only now becoming clear to most of us, with goings-on in Kiev taking centre stage at the impeachment hearings of the US’s 45th president. Miller has shown eerie prescience before, in his Booker-shortlisted Snowdrops, an insightful thriller about post-Soviet Russia, but even he must be astonished at this turn of events.

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Top 10 random encounters in literature [19 Feb 2020|01:04pm]

Landmark meetings in Dickens and Joyce, and textual collisions in surrealism and poetry, remind us how central surprise is to the best writing

Coleridge once described poetry as “wild ducks shaping their rapid flight in forms always regular”. That’s one way of looking at literature, everything unusual being absorbed into the larger flight pattern of a given work. But another perspective might focus less on the regular forms than on the wild ducks. This way of looking at literature places the onus on the random encounter – the moment when one duck peels off.

Some of the ducks in my poetry book go back around a decade. I can barely remember the person I was 10 years ago, except for the fact we share a lot of the same clothes. Czesław Miłosz’s poem Encounter makes me feel better about this. Here, the speaker recalls an old memory as though watching himself in a film adaptation of his life: “Where are they, where are they going.”

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The Crying Book by Heather Christle review – why do we weep? [19 Feb 2020|11:58am]

A personal examination of tears – what causes them, why we cry – which takes in biological science, relationship break-up, poetry and Donald Trump

What makes you cry? Recently I cried when my eldest daughter won a medal in a gymnastics competition; during a conversation with my wife; and while watching the films Marriage Story; Do the Right Thing; and, less explicably, Unstoppable, in which Denzel Washington pursues a runaway train. On the morning I began writing this review, I watched Green MEP Molly Scott Cato’s farewell speech to the European parliament. She started crying and then so did I.

These films, conversations and speeches were all things that were happening while I cried, but saying precisely which aspects of them triggered my tears, and why, is more difficult. This is one of the areas the poet Heather Christle explores in The Crying Book, her investigation into the physical, cultural and political aspects of crying. “Maybe we cannot know the real reason why we are crying,” she writes. “Maybe we do not cry about, but rather near or around. Maybe all our explanations are stories constructed after the fact. Not just stories. I won’t say just.”

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Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 review – South Korean #MeToo bestseller [19 Feb 2020|09:00am]

This novel by Cho Nam-joo chronicles the life of a woman desperate to escape stifling gender roles

This Korean bestseller chronicles the everyday struggle of women against endemic sexism. Its provocative power springs from the same source as its total, crushing banality: in telling the story of Kim Jiyoung – whose name is the Korean equivalent of “Jane Doe” – Cho Nam-joo’s third novel has been hailed as giving voice to the unheard everywoman.

When we meet Jiyoung, she is 33, with a one-year-old child. Her life is unremarkable, except that she has begun to take on the personalities of other people. During a visit to her in-laws, Jiyoung slips into her mother’s identity and speaks in a manner deemed inappropriate for her place in the age-based hierarchy of Korean society. Her father-in-law is outraged, thundering: “Is this how you behave in front of your elders?”

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Capital and Ideology by Thomas Piketty review – if inequality is illegitimate, why not reduce it? [19 Feb 2020|07:30am]

The celebrated French economist is back with an ambitious and optimistic work of social science, which argues that inequality always relies on ideology

It is a journalistic convention that any author who writes a doorstopper of a book with the word “capital” in the title must be the heir to Karl Marx, while any economist whose books sell in the hundreds of thousands is a “rock star”. Thomas Piketty’s 600-page, multi-million selling Capital in the Twenty-First Century won him both accolades, but both were wide of the mark. There is nothing Marxist about Piketty’s politics, which are those of a liberal reformer, while his concept of capital is closer to an accounting category (a proxy for “wealth”) than the exploitative force that Marx saw it as.

And despite his unexpected celebrity, Piketty makes for an implausible rock star. In contrast to the suave rebellion of Yanis Varoufakis or the frat-boy know-alls of the Freakonomics franchise, Piketty comes across both on stage and in print as cautious and nerdish. He is fixated on statistics, in particular on percentiles. Not only does he mine them from unlikely sources, such as 18th-century tax records and Burke’s Peerage, he is clearly fascinated by the mechanics of how data came to be collected in the first place. Piketty is a brilliant and relentless anorak.

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'The most boring part': why the killer didn't matter to Georges Simenon [18 Feb 2020|01:20pm]

Identifying the murderer in Maigret and the Man on the Bench is of scant concern to a writer preoccupied with deeper secrets

It isn’t normal to begin reviews of detective novels by discussing their last chapter. But Maigret and the Man on the Bench is not a normal detective novel – and its conclusion is so striking that it demands immediate attention.

If you’ve read the novel, you’ll know exactly what I mean. If you haven’t, I don’t think it’s giving away too much to say that in just 10 pages in David Watson’s (excellent) translation, Maigret discovers the identity of the murderer of Louis Thouret, the eponymous man on the bench. This murderer has barely been mentioned before in the novel, and Maigret doesn’t care about his identity. “This was the most boring part,” he reflects as he is writing up the case. Just six lines later, the book ends.

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True Grit author Charles Portis dies aged 86 [18 Feb 2020|11:53am]

Landmark western author’s most famous novel gave John Wayne an Oscar-winning role, and inspired the Coen brothers

Charles Portis, the reclusive author of the western True Grit, in which a 14-year-old girl sets out to avenge her father’s murder, has died at the age of 86.

Portis’s brother Jonathan told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the writer died on Monday in a hospice in Little Rock, Arkansas. He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

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Poetry book of the month: Wing by Matthew Francis – review [18 Feb 2020|09:00am]

This shimmering new collection dissects the natural world with a wondering, meticulous eye

It is becoming harder to find modern poetry that is unequivocally at the service of nature. I am not sure why the ability to observe in an unmediated way – with the humility involved – is so often sidelined or treated as second-rate. Matthew Francis has earned the bouquets thrown his way – he has been nominated for the Forward prize a couple of times – but should be more vigorously championed.

His gifts are quiet but his name deserves to be broadcast loudly. Nature does not go out of fashion and we need poetry of this quality more than ever. Wing, his new collection, is a joy.

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Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann review – plague, war and practical jokes [18 Feb 2020|07:00am]
The talented Austro-German has created a dazzling, picaresque romp but he squanders the potential of his best character

Time and again, Daniel Kehlmann’s novels feature an artist whose success depends on leaving his wife and children. (His last book broke with the formula to follow a harassed screenwriter on holiday with his family; it’s called You Should Have Left.) The creative travails of men, and the collateral damage they inflict, may not seem a surefire draw for book-buyers, yet Kehlmann, who writes in German, is translated into more than 40 languages – he’s fun to read, and his books travel light, uncluttered by cultural references.

Not so Tyll. Set in early 17th-century Europe, it takes place during the thirty years’ war, a sectarian power struggle over the Holy Roman Empire, which ravaged Germany and left millions dead. Wikipedia wormholes await the reader unfamiliar with, say, the battle of Zusmarshausen, the poet Martin Opitz, or indeed the novel’s eponymous hero, lifted from a 16th-century folk tale about a lawless practical joker who roams the land exposing hypocrisy (Michael Rosen once adapted the story).

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Maaza Mengiste on the Ethiopian women who fought Italy – books podcast [18 Feb 2020|07:00am]

The Italian invasion of 1935 is a pivotal moment in Ethiopia’s history. The novelist Maaza Mengiste explains how she discovered that women had been written out of this story, and why her novel The Shadow King circles around seen and unseen photographs.

And Aida Edemariam joins us to talk about her biography of her grandmother, The Wife’s Tale, and the recent flowering of authors with Ethiopian heritage writing in English.

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week? [17 Feb 2020|03:10pm]

Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from the last week.

Let’s start with AbsoluteBeginner76 who has been enjoying Mackintosh by W Somerset Maugham, “a master of the compressed tale”:

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Hundreds of readers donate copies of depression memoir after Caroline Flack's death [17 Feb 2020|01:11pm]

Prompted by a reader’s offer, donations to two bookshops have already funded hundreds of giveaways of Matt Haig’s book Reasons to Stay Alive

An independent bookseller has been deluged with thousands of requests after offering to send anyone who feels they need one a copy of Matt Haig’s memoir about depression, Reasons to Stay Alive, in an initiative the author called “such a positive thing on what was a pretty bleak weekend”.

Simon Key, who runs online retailer the Big Green Bookshop, was contacted by a reader, Emma, offering to buy a couple of copies of Haig’s book for people in the wake of TV presenter Caroline Flack’s death. Haig’s book details his own descent into depression, and his climb back out of it.

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Poem of the week: Bright is the Ring of Words by Robert Louis Stevenson [17 Feb 2020|11:00am]

I was surprised how much impact this Victorian classic holds. An untarnished golden oldie? I think so

Bright is the ring of words
When the right man rings them,
Fair the fall of songs
When the singer sings them.
Still they are carolled and said –
On wings they are carried –
After the singer is dead
And the maker is buried.

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