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'It's radical': how Sally Rooney's Normal People caught a TV moment [17 Jan 2020|12:57pm]

As the trailer for BBC 12-parter is released, the production team say the time is right for Sally Rooney’s novel

If Sally Rooney is the “Salinger for the Snapchat generation”, then it seems only fitting the TV adaptation of her novel that garnered the title should be radical, risque and boundary-pushing.

The team behind the small-screen version of Normal People, the Oscar-nominated director Lenny Abrahamson and the producer Ed Guiney, believe complex dramas about young people are increasingly in demand, and the show will sit in a similar space to Sky Atlantic’s Euphoria and Netflix’s Sex Education.

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Discworld fans are right to be nervous about the BBC's 'punk rock' The Watch [17 Jan 2020|01:37pm]

Terry Pratchett’s books about Ankh Morpork’s City Watch have been adapted into a ‘punk rock thriller’ – and some are not happy

We Terry Pratchett fans have been lucky in recent years. We were given Good Omens, which thanks to co-author Neil Gaiman’s shepherding and incredible performances from David Tennant and Michael Sheen, was a joy to watch. And we were told that BBC America was developing The Watch, a series based on Pratchett’s stories about Ankh Morpork’s City Watch. Yes, we were a little nervous to read that Pratchett’s fierce, dark, sardonic stories were to become a “startlingly reimagined … punk rock thriller” that was “inspired by” the books. But we stayed faithful, for it was promised that the show would “still cleav[e] to the humour, heart and ingenuity of Terry Pratchett’s incomparably original work”.

But nerves were jangling even more fiercely on Friday as the first glimpses of the forthcoming show were shared by the studio. They look … kind of cyberpunky? Is that electricity? Where is their ARMOUR? Should we have been more wary about that “inspired by”?

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Sara Collins: ‘I can’t even start James Joyce’s Ulysses, let alone finish it' [17 Jan 2020|10:00am]

This year’s winner of the Costa first novel award on James Baldwin’s perfect love story and why she reads essays for comfort

The book I’m currently reading
A Tall History of Sugar by Curdella Forbes. Set in mid-20th century Jamaica, it tells the story of Moshe Fisher, a boy adopted after being discovered in a basket as a baby, who falls in love with his best friend, Arrienne. The premise – Moshe was born with skin that can’t be classified as either black or white – is ingenious, and the novel is an epic modern fairytale that offers the pleasure of being steeped in Forbes’s poetic, intoxicating sentences right from the opening line: “Long ago, when teachers were sent from Britain to teach in the grammar schools of the West Indian colonies (it was Great Britain then, not Little England as it is now, after Brexit, and the fall of the empire).”

The book I wish I’d written
The surest way to spoil your enjoyment of a book is by writing it, so I’ll just be glad I got to read all those masterpieces rather than having to write them.

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From Meghan Markle to Princess Margaret: books to understand the royal family [17 Jan 2020|07:00am]

Fascinated by the current royal rumpus? Kathryn Hughes picks the best literary insights into the British monarchy

If you have been fretting about the “unprecedented” royal rumpus, then relax. The good news is that it has all happened before and, what’s more, it has been so much worse. Here are some books to help you take the long view.

Let’s start with a warning for us all, principals and gawkers alike. Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret shows the Queen’s late sister setting dazzling standards in wanting to have her royal cake and eat it. It didn’t work and the result was profound dissatisfaction, not only for Margaret but with her, too. Gradually Britain fell out of love with its fairytale princess and came to see her as a spoilt and sullen old soak. In this masterly work of bricolage, Brown assembles vignettes that build up a portrait of profound sadness as Margaret fails in her attempt to forge a space where “senior royalty” can do exactly what it wants while still hanging on to the sparkles and the perks.

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Sabotage by Anastasia Nesvetailova and Ronen Palan review – the business of finance [17 Jan 2020|07:30am]
Is financial malpractice an aberration or built into the system? This is enraging, essential reading

A decade ago the global economy was emerging from the biggest financial crisis in decades. Major financial institutions only survived thanks to a torrent of liquid capital, government deficits ballooned as they tried to manage the fallout, millions of jobs were lost and billions of pounds’ worth of value vanished from global asset prices. It was an epochal disaster, comparable only to its predecessor in 1929, and its effects are still with us. The political convulsions of Donald Trump, Brexit, Viktor Orbán and the gilets jaunes, among other phenomena, can all be seen as aftershocks of this great earthquake, and we are very much not done yet.

We might have expected some serious soul-searching in politics, finance, economics and among the electorate about how this could have come about but, in Britain anyway, precisely the opposite has happened. A good example was one of – for me – the lowlights of last year’s general election campaign, when the chancellor of the exchequer, Sajid Javid, blamed the Labour party for the economic crisis and resulting rise in homelessness.

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JRR Tolkien's son Christopher dies aged 95 [16 Jan 2020|07:14pm]

Youngest son of Lord of the Rings author was responsible for editing and publishing much of his father’s work

Christopher Tolkien, the son of Lord Of The Rings author JRR Tolkien, has died aged 95, the Tolkien Society has announced. The society, which promotes the life and works of the celebrated writer, released a short statement on Twitter to confirm the news.

The statement said: “Christopher Tolkien has died at the age of 95. The Tolkien Society sends its deepest condolences to Baillie, Simon, Adam, Rachel and the whole Tolkien family.”

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'Ghost poetry': fight over Samuel Beckett's Nobel win revealed in archives [17 Jan 2020|06:00am]

Papers revealing the Swedish Academy’s deliberations over the Waiting for Godot author reveal fierce disputes over his ‘nihilism’

Fifty years after Samuel Beckett won the Nobel prize for literature, newly opened archives reveal the serious doubts the committee had over giving the award to an author they felt held a “bottomless contempt for the human condition”.

Announcing that the Waiting for Godot author had won the laureateship in 1969, the Swedish Academy praised “his writing, which – in new forms for the novel and drama – in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation”.

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Tickbox by David Boyle review – thinking inside the box [16 Jan 2020|02:00pm]

From call centres to management consultancy to government, decision-making is being dehumanised. We need to take a stand against the culture of targets

Automation in the modern world is usually thought of as done by robots or creepily intelligent software, but it is also the way, as this feistily interesting book argues, that bureaucracies composed of human beings increasingly operate. Officials are required to follow recipes (or algorithms) of sorting people into discrete categories and pursuing strictly defined courses of action with no allowance for ambiguity or complexity. They are condemned, if you will, to think inside the box.

This is what David Boyle, an economist and former policy wonk for the Liberal Democrats, refers to simply as “tickbox”: what more usually is called “tickbox culture” or, in US English, “checkbox culture”. For him it covers not only the targets and key performance indicators of official bureaucracy, but phenomena such as pervasive employee surveillance, the culture war over “identity politics”, the rise of management consultancy, the fact that you can never get a simple resolution to your problem from a call centre, and why the trains don’t work. Boyle himself instigated the celebrated “passenger strike” on Southern rail in 2017, convincing most of a trainload of passengers to refuse to show their tickets at Brighton. In an optimistic conclusion, he even claims that Ludwig Wittgenstein was also an enemy of “tickbox”, while exhorting his readers: “Refuse to categorise yourself on feedback or monitoring forms.”

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A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende review – a sweeping historical saga [16 Jan 2020|12:00pm]
Allende’s novel spans generations and countries as it follows a real-life doctor from the Spanish civil war to the fall of Pinochet

Isabel Allende’s 23rd book begins in the furnace of the Spanish civil war, where trainee doctor Victor Dalmau is holding a human heart between his hands, and ends more than 50 years later in a Chile recovering from the fall of Pinochet. Through that huge span, we follow Victor and his wife, Roser, as they flee across continents and witness the decades-long fallout from Franco’s rise to power.

Given that Allende has set herself the task of covering half a century in a relatively short book, it isn’t surprising that dialogue is minimal. Most of the story is told in episodic narration, or even summary. An omniscient narrator sees into the minds not only of Victor and Roser, but of many people who brush past along the way, sometimes revisiting them, sometimes leaving them behind in the political riptides. This kind of narration is extraordinarily difficult. Characters are a lot like gym weights; it’s much easier to hug them close than it is to hold them further away. Allende’s style is impressively Olympian and the payoff is remarkable: a huge overview of generations, decades and countries.

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Missouri could jail librarians for lending 'age-inappropriate' books [16 Jan 2020|01:03pm]

Bill would allow parents to decide whether children should have access to controversial books, with heavy penalties if libraries disobey

A Missouri bill intended to bar libraries in the US state from stocking “age-inappropriate sexual material” for children has been described by critics as “a shockingly transparent attempt to legalise book banning” that could land librarians who refuse to comply with it in jail.

Under the parental oversight of public libraries bill, which has been proposed by Missouri Republican Ben Baker, panels of parents would be elected to evaluate whether books are appropriate for children. Public hearings would then be held by the boards to ask for suggestions of potentially inappropriate books, with public libraries that allow minors access to such titles to have their funding stripped. Librarians who refuse to comply could be fined and imprisoned for up to one year.

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Anthony Bourdain's final book to be published this year [16 Jan 2020|01:02pm]

World Travel: An Irreverent Guide, which the late chef and television host was working on when he died, is due out in October

The final book by renowned chef, travel writer and television host Anthony Bourdain will be published in October, more than two years after he killed himself.

World Travel: An Irreverent Guide, an illustrated collection of Bourdain’s reflections on his favourite places to visit and dine around the world, has been finished by his longtime assistant Laurie Woolever and will be published on 13 October. Alongside Bourdain’s tips on “what to eat … and, in some cases, what to avoid”, the book will also contain writing by members of his family and friends.

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TS Eliot prize-winner Roger Robinson: ‘I want these poems to help people to practise empathy’ [16 Jan 2020|11:22am]

From a lament for the victims of Grenfell Tower to snapshots of Windrush arrivals … activist, musician and poet Roger Robinson discusses the inspiration behind his prize‑winning collection

“Since I was 19 I’ve been living in England and thinking I’d go home, but there was a point, around six years go, when I realised I’m here now: I’m black British.” So says Roger Robinson, who this week won the TS Eliot prize for A Portable Paradise, a poetry collection born of this realisation.

Furious laments for the victims of Grenfell Tower are followed by a crisp snapshot of idealistic young Jamaicans disembarking from the Empire Windrush in 1948, and a didactic sequence about the legacy of slavery today. A moody evocation of riot brewing on the south London streets sits alongside a love song to the National Health Service, which saved the life of his own prematurely born son.

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The Syrian Revolution by Yasser Munif review – an early phase of a third world war? [16 Jan 2020|08:58am]

The murderous conflict in Syria is simplified by both right and left. This account deals with the short period of hope, when the people threw off their chains

It is happening again. Over the last year protest movements – some of them deep and broad enough that we might dare to call them revolutions – have once more been shaking the Middle East and North Africa, ending decades-long dictatorships in Sudan and Algeria, forcing the prime ministers of Lebanon and Iraq to resign. And yet the war brought to Syria by the last wave of revolutionary upheaval – the Arab spring that began in 2011 and by 2014 had turned to something worse than winter – has not ended. It continues to be fought not only with bullets and bombs but, in a parallel battle for narrative control, with words.

In the discourses of American thinktanks and much of the mainstream media, tropes flatten the war into a conflict between, as the Syrian-American scholar Yasser Munif puts it, “western civilisation and the Islamic State’s barbarism” on one front, and between the shining freedoms of the democratic west and the dark tyrannies of Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers on another. Meanwhile the more Manichaean precincts of the left prefer to imagine the war as a single fight between a brave anticolonialist holdout and Islamist terrorists in league with the west. Anyone who disagrees is rewarded with a depressingly predictable slew of smears: “interventionist”, “pro-imperialist”, “regime change advocate” and so on.

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Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer review – gloriously innovative [16 Jan 2020|07:30am]

Space quest, climate polemic and literary experiment collide in a challenging and visionary epic

A genuinely innovative artwork requires time to fulfil its effect. Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts is one such work – bewildering, perplexing, original – and I would recommend that readers allow it the concentration it demands. The opening third poses as a quest narrative, a fantastical variant of the classic western: three battle-scarred gunslingers set out across an ecologically ravaged landscape in pursuit of an enemy. Our heroes are Grayson, a black woman and sole survivor of a disastrously failed mission to explore deep space; Chen, an indentured worker bound in perpetuity to an invasive corporation known only as the Company; and Moss, whose name was once Sarah, now a complex, composite organism who has been partially absorbed into the structure of the worlds they move through. The enemy they seek to defeat is the Company itself, and more specifically its agent, a deranged Dr Moreau-type biologist named Charlie X. The three are helped along their journey by Charlie’s failed experiments: the blue fox, the duck with the broken wing, the leviathan called Botch, a hive-mind of salamanders.

This kind of formal innovation is pure catnip, an indication that as a mode of expression the novel is still vigorous

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Oh what a night! Twitter brings £1,000 worth of orders to empty bookshop [15 Jan 2020|05:39pm]

Petersfield Bookshop had no customers for first time in 100-year history – until a sad tweet attracted 1,100 new followers

An independent bookshop that failed to sell a single book on a rainy day this week has been inundated with customers after publishing pictures of its empty aisles on social media.

The Petersfield Bookshop in Hampshire sent a melancholy tweet revealing that it had not welcomed one paying customer, probably for the first time in its 100-year history.

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Tom Watson’s betrayal thriller – and other politicians who vent in fiction [15 Jan 2020|01:57pm]

After quitting parliament over its ‘brutality’, Watson is co-writing thriller The House. Can we expect a tale about a deputy leader righting wrongs?

Fresh from publishing his guide to weight loss, Downsizing, the former deputy leader of the Labour party, Tom Watson, is set to write a political thriller set in “a world where virtue is seen as a rare commodity”.

Watson, who quit his position in November because of the “brutality and hostility” within Labour ranks, will co-write The House with historical novelist Imogen Robertson. Watson said it would “explore the themes that lubricate our political system: ambition and failure, trust and betrayal”, and introduce its readers to “heroes and villains engaged in a struggle for fame, power and revenge”.

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Audible settles copyright lawsuit with publishers over audiobook captions [15 Jan 2020|02:00pm]

Seven publishers had sued the audiobook giant last July, claiming that its audio-to-text service Captions was unauthorised

After months of back and forth, Audible has settled in a copyright lawsuit with major publishers over its plan to introduce captions to their recordings, a proposal that the publishing houses argued was simply reading.

In July, the audiobook company owned by Amazon announced Captions, an additional function for the existing app that would allow customers to read the text as it was read, as well as looking up words and translating them. Captions had been slated to launch in September 2019.

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The Hidden History of Burma by Thant Myint-U review – dashed hopes [15 Jan 2020|02:00pm]

Nearly a decade ago, Myanmar threw off its military dictatorship. But what has happened since is troubling

When Thant Myint-U was eight he travelled from the US to Burma with his parents to bury his grandfather U Thant, the first non-European secretary general of the United Nations. But the funeral was not a family affair. A group of students and Buddhist monks seized Thant’s coffin and demanded a state ceremony from the country’s military overlords: the corpse became a rallying point for protests. Burmese troops overran the Rangoon University campus where Thant’s body had been held and killed many protesting students. Riots broke out against the army regime and hundreds were killed or imprisoned in the retaliatory crackdown. Myint-U’s parents were told to leave the country quickly. “I missed my fourth-grade classes,” Myint-U writes in The Hidden History of Burma, and instead “experienced firsthand a dictatorship in action”.

Starker encounters followed over the years. After graduating from Harvard in 1988, Myint-U helped a group of Burmese dissidents who were planning a revolution from across the Thai border. As a historian, human rights campaigner and UN policy planner, he advocated for the brutally suppressed Burmese democracy movement through the 1990s and 2000s, while remaining undecided on the usefulness of economic sanctions. In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, he worked to convince the country’s generals to accept international aid and address the country’s abysmal poverty rates. After the dissolution of the junta in 2011, Myint-U was made an adviser in the Burmese president’s office.

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Top 10 books about trouble in Los Angeles | Steph Cha [15 Jan 2020|12:27pm]

Novelist Steph Cha chooses books that reflect the tensions and flashpoints of her diverse, uncontainable home town

The literature of Los Angeles is inextricable from the tradition of noir – from Raymond Chandler to Walter Mosley and Michael Connelly, the writers of this city have gravitated towards grit and darkness, turmoil and crime. I was born and raised in LA, and I am fiercely loyal to my home town. I love its depth and its sprawl, the neighbourhoods and communities that give it its diverse, uncontainable character. But it’s not all sunshine and harmony – LA is home to almost four million people, and inevitably people clash.

Related: Unusual suspects: the writers diversifying detective fiction

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In the Dream House review – a raw account of an abusive lesbian relationship [15 Jan 2020|12:00pm]

Carmen Maria Machado’s book is a tour de force. In writing into the silence, she regains her power

“Memory itself is a form of architecture”: the American writer Carmen Maria Machado quotes Louise Bourgeois at the beginning of this book. How then do we pile up the bricks that we need to make a house? A “dream house” at that. And what if the dream house is no longer where you feel safe? What language do you use as the dreams start to crumble and you feel you are disintegrating and disgusting? Once you were an object of desire and a desiring subject, and now you are nothing. You can only speak one language – “the language of giving yourself up”.

This is a memoir about abuse, a book that speaks into the silence of abuse between queer women (“domestic abuse”, as it’s ineptly called). Sometimes the author uses “lesbian”, sometimes “queer”, but most of the work and activism she references is that of out lesbian writers.

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