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Mark Haddon: 'The only books I wish I’d written are better versions of my own' [29 May 2020|09:00am]

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time author on discovering Germaine Greer, his dislike of Stieg Larsson and the comforts of reading The Wind in the Willows

The book I am currently reading
Homie by Danez Smith, Rusty Brown by Chris Ware and Ice by Anna Kavan, to name only the top three on the pile.

The book that changed my life
The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski. Technically, it’s the book of a TV series about the role of science in the development of human society. I was 11 when I first saw it, and I can still feel the thrill of watching a great door swing open on to a world of ideas.

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'Why did white men get all the fun?': the long road to diverse travel writing [28 May 2020|02:51pm]

As a young Asian female travel writer, Jini Reddy entered a genre that was mostly white and male. But new and emerging voices give her hope for a different future

I was born in London, to Indian parents who grew up in apartheid-era South Africa. When I was seven we left Wimbledon for a tiny village in the Laurentian mountains, in Quebec, where our back garden was a wilderness. A year and a half later, we moved again to Montreal and the St Lawrence river flowed at the end of our suburban street. As a child, there was never a moment when I didn’t dream of becoming a writer, or of travelling abroad. But I never saw or read about anyone like me, a small, brown woman, going off and doing adventurous things. I’d see those men – and it was always men – in books and on TV and I’d wonder how they made these things happen. Why did they get to have all the fun? Becoming a travel writer was the dream, spending time in wild landscapes too – for me there is not a great schism between travel writing and narrative nature writing, at least the kind I now enjoy reading.

Long before I even thought it possible to write professionally, I’d make frequent visits to the holy of holies, Stanfords Travel Bookshop. Here I’d trawl the shelves, desperate to read about someone, anyone, who looked like me, or looked at the world through a prism other than the prevailing one. I can still recall my delight when stumbling upon Eddy L Harris’s Native Stranger: A Black American’s Journey into the Heart of Africa. I was fascinated: here was a man with black skin who was seeking to know himself better while roaming in the land of his ancestors. As he put it: “There is a line that connects the place we come from and the place we find ourselves, those lives and our lives. And I longed to follow that line.” This was very different from the escapist, “hero lit”, travelogues written by white men who wrote about the people they encountered and landscapes they traversed as though mere backdrops to their adventuring prowess. Though Harris’s background and experiences were different from my own, they felt infinitely more relatable.

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'Social distancing': how a 1950s phrase came to dominate 2020 [28 May 2020|02:00pm]

Sociologist Karl Mannheim used it to describe how the higher ranks of a society could distinguish themselves from the plebs

As schools prepare to reopen, many wonder how small children are expected to maintain “social distancing”. Some French teachers have been isolating their charges within little plague squares chalked on the playground. But maybe the choice of the phrase “social distancing” in the first place has been counterproductive.

If “social distancing” sounds to you more like snubbing or ghosting a friend, you are right. It was a 1957 collection of work by sociologist Karl Mannheim that first described it as a way to enforce power hierarchies. “The inhibition of free expression can also serve as a means of social distancing,” he wrote. “Thus, the higher ranks can constrain themselves to preserve a certain kind of deportment or dignity.” In doing so, they distance themselves socially from the plebs.

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Forced Out by Kevin Maxwell review – prejudice between police [27 May 2020|11:00am]

A former detective recounts in shocking detail how he was abused by fellow officers for his race and sexuality and the dangers he faced in fighting for justice

Black people’s antipathy towards the police in the UK starts at a young age, from the moment officers transform themselves from protectors to oppressors. Black police recruits are still considered by many to be self-loathing traitors. It’s a harsh reality captured by Michael Fuller, the UK’s first black chief constable, in his memoir published last year, which took its title from the cry he heard from angry black protesters during the 1981 Brixton riots, directed at his police officers: “Kill the black one first.”

Nearly four decades after the riots, Kevin Maxwell acknowledges those conflicts felt by black officers, but he writes that nothing would have deterred him from realising his boyhood dream. When he joined the force in 2001, Maxwell writes, his “policeman’s badge wasn’t just a shield, but a family crest”.

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Poems to get us through: a musical exchange with God [28 May 2020|05:00am]

Lachlan Mackinnon evokes the power of music to strengthen faith, in the last of Carol Ann Duffy’s comforting picks from her poetry bookshelves

The poet Lachlan Mackinnon lives in Ely, and is also a distinguished critic and former teacher. Music, of all kinds, has always been important to his poetry, alongside a healing journeying towards faith. A psalmist (notably David in the Old Testament) is a composer of sacred lyrics, and sometimes poems can share this territory. The writer’s epiphany in this poem answers our own need for such moments of consolation.

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Remain Silent by Susie Steiner review – home is where the hurt is [28 May 2020|08:00am]

DI Manon Bradshaw’s domestic life is under strain as she investigates the death of a Lithuanian migrant worker in this entertaining third outing for the formidable Fenland sleuth

What kind of crime fiction suits the mood of the lockdown? There’s a limit to how mean the streets can get when walked down in dutiful daily exercise; sparse clues to be found when everyone is taking strict precautions like seasoned serial killers. But at a time so closely focused on the vicissitudes of home life, DI Manon Bradshaw of Cambridgeshire Constabulary is on hand to examine the existential mystery of domesticity.

Remain Silent is the third in a series featuring this formidable Fenland sleuth, a wide-hipped, loose-lipped realist who cares little for others’ approval and admires “women who command the room and who don’t succumb to all the appearance bullshit”. This time Manon is investigating the death by hanging of a Lithuanian migrant worker, but her life away from the job is where the real trouble is. There’s the constant fatigue of the work-life balance, the soul-draining tedium of household chores and arguments – plus she’s struggling to keep the relationship with her partner Mark alive, knowing that cold comfort might be the best they can expect. As she tells a friend’s errant husband: “Marriage is a shit-show and you’d better start learning a way to navigate it.”

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Out of My Skull by James Danckert and John D Eastwood – the psychology of boredom [28 May 2020|06:30am]

From social media addiction to the discovery of musical genius – is the alleviation of boredom what really drives the world?

According to the great proto-existentialist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, the life of a human or other beast “swings like a pendulum back and forth between pain and boredom”. Indeed, pain (or want) and boredom are the two main constituents of existence, and not only during the lockdown phase of a pandemic – a thought that might (or might not) afford some gloomy relief to many right now.

Schopenhauer was arguably the first western philosopher to take boredom seriously as one of the primary miseries of humankind, defining it lucidly as “a tame longing without any particular object”. Boredom was, moreover, more likely to afflict the more intelligent person, unfortunately for geniuses such as himself.

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David Attenborough to publish 'witness statement' on climate crisis [28 May 2020|09:00am]

Broadcaster and historian says A Life on Our Planet book will record ‘dreadful damage wrought by mankind’ and propose solutions

David Attenborough is to publish his “vision for the future” of Earth this autumn, laying out “the dreadful damage” done by humanity, and the ways “we can begin to turn things round”.

A Life on Our Planet, which the 94-year-old has described as his “witness statement”, will cover his career documenting the natural world and his first-hand observations of the decline of the planet’s environment and biodiversity, as well as possible solutions.

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Dark Mirror by Barton Gellman review – the rise of today's surveillance state [27 May 2020|06:30am]

The author’s account of his interactions with Edward Snowden drive this deeply considered portrait of the 21st-century US-dominated surveillance operation

In January 2013, the documentary film-maker Laura Poitras asked Barton Gellman if he wanted to grab a coffee. The venue was New York. Poitras told Gellman – a former Washington Post reporter – that a few days earlier a mysterious source had been in touch with her.

The person claimed to be from the US spy community. He had news: the NSA or National Security Agency – America’s foremost signals intelligence outfit – had built an unprecedented surveillance machine. It was secretly hoovering up data from hundreds of millions of people. The implications were terrifying. The correspondent said he could supply documents.

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Sorry for Your Trouble by Richard Ford review – stories of discontent [27 May 2020|08:00am]

An uneven collection about marital discord and middle-aged disappointment from one of the grand figures of contemporary American fiction

The final story in Richard Ford’s new collection is a tale of a marriage gone wrong – though something, we know, is salvaged from the wreckage. “Jonathan and Charlotte were divorced but had stayed friends,” “Second Language” begins. The marriage is a second attempt for both of them. Jonathan is a widower; Charlotte’s husband went off for a sailing trip and ended up making a new life without her. Confident Charlotte wasn’t too cut up; she meets Jonathan, who is pleasingly wealthy, when she’s selling him a fancy loft apartment.

The people in these stories seem imprisoned by a judgmental authorial voice

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Top 10 Scottish crime novels [27 May 2020|10:00am]

Scottish novelists from William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin to Denise Mina deliver all the gut-punch thrills of crime without forgetting its human cost

Many crime novels end with a confession but I should start with one: whisper the heresy, but I’m not a big fan of tartan noir as a label for Scottish crime fiction. It works as an advertising slogan but doesn’t capture what the broad church of Scottish crime fiction is all about. There are so many fine novels within the canon that are either not tartan – with the archaic and cliched connotations that word can offer – or aren’t noir.

My new book, Watch Him Die, is half set in Glasgow and half in Los Angeles, so its shortbread credentials are hanging by a thread. It does, however, fit into a tradition of Scottish crime novels driven by issues of duality, redemption, the nature of good and evil, and a dark, dark, humour.

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'Milli Violini': I was a fake violinist in a world-class miming orchestra [27 May 2020|05:00am]

Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman spent years touring America in an orchestra of gifted players who mimed to CDs. She relives their bizarre performances – and her eventual collapse

A young violinist joins an award-winning ensemble led by a famous composer, only to find out that all of the musicians aren’t actually playing their instruments but are simply miming along to a CD instead. It is an incredible premise for a memoir, and might even make a great Coen brothers film, but Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman says this astonishing story happened to her.

At 21, she found herself alone in New York, working two jobs and selling her own eggs to fund her way through Columbia University, where she was studying to be a war correspondent. Hindman finally caught a break in 2002, one that allowed her to monetise her talent as a violinist. She was hired to play in an orchestra by a man she calls only The Composer. But she says she quickly realised the truth: she was to “play” in front of a dead microphone beneath a booming CD player, and her audiences, whether in a concert hall or a shopping mall, would never twig. “Sounds like Titanic!” someone gushed after one gig. The music did sound a little like the film’s soundtrack, and the line gave Hindman the title of her memoir. She did this job for four years. She was, as she writes, Milli Violini.

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Johny Pitts wins Jhalak prize for 'beautiful' history of black Europe [26 May 2020|06:44pm]

Television presenter and musician wins £1,000 prize for writers of colour, with ‘exceptionally thoughtful’ debut Afropean

Johny Pitts has won the Jhalak prize for his debut book Afropean, an examination of life in black communities across Europe.

The television presenter, photographer and musician was announced as the winner of the annual award for writers of colour in an online ceremony on Tuesday night. He won £1,000 and a trophy sculpted by artist Neda Koochakian Fard.

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JK Rowling announces new children's book, The Ickabog, to be published free online [26 May 2020|12:59pm]

Harry Potter author announces she will serialise the fairy tale from Tuesday afternoon, so children in lockdown can read it for free before it is published in November

JK Rowling is to publish a new children’s book, a fairy tale “about truth and the abuse of power” that she has kept in her attic for years, for free online for children in lockdown.

The Ickabog, which is set in an imaginary land unrelated to any of Rowling’s other works, will be serialised online from Tuesday afternoon, in 34 daily, free instalments. It will then be published as a book, ebook and audiobook in November, with Rowling’s royalties to go to projects assisting groups impacted by the pandemic.

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Reading group: which book by Charles Dickens should we read in June? [26 May 2020|12:29pm]

A century and a half since he died, his protocinematic storytelling retains its power to take readers out of themselves. Please help choose one for us to enjoy together

This June marks 150 years since Charles Dickens died. Like so many of his characters, he left the world in tragic and unusual circumstances, having suffered a stroke after undertaking a mammoth series of lectures. (He delivered 87 around the UK in less than a year.) His final words were “On the ground”, perhaps a response to a suggestion that the exhausted writer should lie down. But there’s considerable controversy about where those words were spoken. The public were told that he died in his country home at Gads Hill Place in Kent, but Claire Tomalin, one of his most recent biographers, claims that he actually died at his mistress’s house in Peckham, and his stiffening corpse had to be shipped back to Kent to protect the secrecy of his extramarital arrangements.

Dickens, in short, was a fascinating man up to and including his very last moment. And I’ve been looking for an excuse to revisit him on the reading group ever since 2012, when we had the joy of reading Bleak House. I’ve also been wanting to read one of his books more than ever since the lockdown began. There are few better distractions or sources of solace in art. And his works are available for free on Project Gutenberg, which helps as the lockdown continues in many parts of the world.

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JK Rowling announces new children's book, The Ickabog, to be published free online [26 May 2020|12:59pm]

Harry Potter author announces she will serialise the fairy tale from Tuesday afternoon, so children in lockdown can read it for free before it is published in November

JK Rowling is to publish a new children’s book, a fairy tale “about truth and the abuse of power” that she has kept in her attic for years, for free online for children in lockdown.

The Ickabog, which is set in an imaginary land unrelated to any of Rowling’s other works, will be serialised online from Tuesday afternoon, in 34 daily, free instalments. It will then be published as a book, ebook and audiobook in November, with Rowling’s royalties to go to projects assisting groups impacted by the pandemic.

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Poem of the week: Godhuli Time by Srinivas Rayaprol [25 May 2020|11:20am]

An anglophone Indian poet, mentored by William Carlos Williams in the US, considers an Indian sunset in a voice that spans centuries and continents

Godhuli Time

It is the cow-dust hour
And smoke lies heavy over my head
As I walk across these earthen paths
And smells of burnt milk from inside
Mingle with those from the fields outside.

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week? [25 May 2020|02:00pm]

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.

Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun has “some interesting parallels with current restrictions,” says nilpferd:

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Pew by Catherine Lacey review – when silence speaks volumes [26 May 2020|08:00am]

A mute stranger of indeterminate gender arouses suspicion in a Christian community in this powerful exploration of identity politics

Pitched somewhere between Shirley Jackson’s creepy small-town horror and the seminar-room riddling of JM Coetzee, Catherine Lacey’s powerful new novel unfolds in a sinister US Bible belt community shaken by the arrival of a mute amnesiac vagrant whose age, sex and race aren’t clear. “I’m having trouble lately with remembering,” the narrator tells us on the first page – something of an understatement, it turns out.

Taken variously as a child or young adult, he or she (the novel is agnostic about the value of such labels) is found asleep in a church, unwilling or unable to answer questions about how they ended up there. Given shelter by a family of five – and named, like a dog, after the place it was found – the new lodger soon causes resentment among the children displaced as a consequence. “He oughta be in the back in there, one of them that picks up the dishes,” one son says, giving up his attic room. “It ain’t no boy,” says another: “She ain’t even black neither. Don’t know what she is...”

The novel’s glassy cadences and lack of speech marks heighten our sense of the narrator’s alienation

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A Woman by Sibilla Aleramo review – groundbreaking [26 May 2020|06:00am]

A girl’s eyes are opened to the desperate fate of wives and mothers in this forceful new translation of a feminist classic set in early 20th-century Italy

In 1906 in England, literature was dominated by the well-behaved worlds of novelists such as Arnold Bennett, EM Forster and John Galsworthy. At the same time in Italy, Marta Felicina Faccio, who later became a leading feminist, published her first book under the pseudonym Sibilla Aleramo. A Woman is a groundbreaking, earthquaking vision, a story and a manifesto, and a literary performance so energetic it almost demands to be read aloud.

As a child, the narrator – who is unnamed, though the novel is essentially a memoir of Aleramo’s early life – worships her father and disregards her mother: which is where the trouble begins. How could it be otherwise? Her father is the source of knowledge, of money, of all that seems valuable; her mother is “readily prone to tears, while my father could not bear the sight of them”. When the family moves from Milan to southern Italy, things get worse. In a shocking, disorienting scene, her mother tries to take her own life and never fully recovers.

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