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How White Teeth brushes off the charge of ‘hysterical realism’ [28 Jul 2020|12:20pm]

Zadie Smith’s debut was lined up alongside Pynchon and DeLillo as a morbid symptom of a trend towards fiction trying to cram too much in

White Teeth is not only a publishing phenomenon and a historical record of British life before the new millennium, it also has a curious literary significance. When Zadie Smith’s debut was first published in 2000, it was taken to symbolise a growing trend for bulging novels, and a style of writing that the critic James Wood memorably characterised as “hysterical realism”. He didn’t much like it. A genre was “hardening”, said Wood, in which “stories and sub-stories sprout on every page”. His landmark piece of criticism named White Teeth as part of a movement that included Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, Don Delillo’s Underworld and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

But, 20 years later, if anything’s hardened it’s the status of those books as stone-cold classics. You could be forgiven for wondering what Wood’s problem was.

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Intimations review – Zadie Smith's life under lockdown [28 Jul 2020|06:00am]

The novelist’s essays on living through coronavirus are at their best when pondering the day-to-day

In Zadie Smith’s previous book, the experimental story collection Grand Union, the most interesting items also happened to be the least unconventional. That’s rarely the case in her new book, Intimations, a shape-shifting series of essays reflecting on life in a time of Covid-19, in which she left New York for lockdown in London, writing in “those scraps of time the year… has allowed”. Meditations on what the pandemic has done for creativity or political commentary on how the US could look to postwar Britain under Clement Attlee feel less essential than more rhetorically adventurous items; there’s a strangely moving list of personal influences (family, Muhammad Ali, “contingency”) that constitutes a kind of kaleidoscopic selfie and an essay that riffs on coronavirus as a metaphor for racism, comparing – in passing – Dominic Cummings’s eyes to those of Derek Chauvin as he knelt on George Floyd.

The pieces vary in tone. What one calls the moment “just before the global shit hit the fan”, another calls “a few days before the global humbling began”. Smith’s loftier mode (“America has rarely been philosophically inclined to consider existence as a whole”) tends to feel less convincing, not least when, discussing a writer’s need for
control, she muses on her attraction to tulips prior to “this strange and overwhelming season of death”. She’s more engaging in the glimpses of day-to-day life under the new normal: pressing a lift button through her sleeve in the early days of the pandemic or feeling self-conscious talking to her mum on Zoom. One piece begins by describing her ATM dash while packing up to take her family to a friend’s empty cottage upstate en route to London before the flights are grounded. She’s appealingly candid: when a neighbour tells her: “We’ll get through this, all of us, together”, she whispers: “‘Yes, we will’, hardly audible, even to myself” while walking on, the truth hanging in the air that she’s about to skip town.

Smith probes the obligation she feels to point out that she's 'lucky compared to so many others, but not suffering'

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Intimations review – Zadie Smith's life under lockdown [28 Jul 2020|06:00am]

The novelist’s essays on living through coronavirus are at their best when pondering the day-to-day

In Zadie Smith’s previous book, the experimental story collection Grand
Union
, the most interesting items also happened to be the least
unconventional. That’s rarely the case in her new book, Intimations, a
shape-shifting series of essays reflecting on life in a time of Covid-19,
in which she left New York for lockdown in London, writing in “those
scraps of time the year… has allowed”. Meditations on what the
pandemic has done for creativity or political commentary on how the US
could look to postwar Britain under Clement Attlee feel less essential
than more rhetorically adventurous items; there’s a strangely moving
list of personal influences (family, Muhammad Ali, “contingency”) that
constitutes a kind of kaleidoscopic selfie and an essay that riffs on
coronavirus as a metaphor for racism, comparing – in passing – Dominic
Cummings’s eyes to those of Derek Chauvin as he knelt on George Floyd.

The pieces vary in tone. What one calls the moment “just before the
global shit hit the fan”, another calls “a few days before the global
humbling began”. Smith’s loftier mode (“America has rarely been
philosophically inclined to consider existence as a whole”) tends to
feel less convincing, not least when, discussing a writer’s need for
control, she muses on her attraction to tulips prior to “this strange
and overwhelming season of death”. She’s more engaging in the glimpses
of day-to-day life under the new normal: pressing a lift button through
her sleeve in the early days of the pandemic or feeling self-conscious
talking to her mum on Zoom. One piece begins by describing her ATM dash while packing up to take her family to a friend’s empty cottage upstate en route to London before the flights are grounded. She’s appealingly candid: when a neighbour tells her: “We’ll get through this, all of us, together”, she whispers: “‘Yes, we will’, hardly audible, even to myself” while walking on, the truth hanging in the air that she’s about to skip town.

Smith probes the obligation she feels to point out that she's 'lucky compared to so many others, but not suffering'

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Hilary Mantel up for third Booker prize as 2020 longlist announced [27 Jul 2020|11:01pm]

Author of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy vies with 12 other contenders in a field marked by a high number of debuts

Hilary Mantel’s “masterful” conclusion to her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, has been longlisted for the Booker prize, putting the British novelist in the running to win for an unprecedented third time.

Mantel’s 900-page novel, which opens after Anne Boleyn has been beheaded in 1536, and traces the final years of Cromwell, is one of 13 novels in the running for this year’s £50,000 prize. Judges chaired by publisher Margaret Busby said that Mantel’s “masterful exhibition of sly dialogue and exquisite description brings the Tudor world alive”.

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Irenosen Okojie wins the Caine prize for 'stunning' short story Grace Jones [27 Jul 2020|04:30pm]

Nigerian-British author says £10,000 award for African writing has given her confidence as a black and female experimental writer

Critically acclaimed author Irenosen Okojie has won the AKO Caine prize for African writing, crediting her win with giving her “extra confidence” as a black, female experimental writer who has felt she was “operating on the fringes”.

The Nigerian-British writer won the £10,000 award on Monday afternoon for her short story Grace Jones, following an impersonator of the singer as she mourns the death of her family in a house fire. Judges for the prize called it “a radical story that plays with logic, time and place”, and praised it as “risky, dazzling, imaginative and bold”.

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week? [27 Jul 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.

To start, a popular choice from RickLondon, who has enjoyed Candice Carty-Williams’ debut, Queenie:

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Nothing Can Hurt You by Nicola Maye Goldberg review – dark yet roguishly funny [27 Jul 2020|08:00am]

A chorus of voices shed light on a student found dead in the woods in this sparkling reworking of the traditional thriller

The thrilling thing about Nothing Can Hurt You, a novel marketed as a successor to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, is that it barely counts as a thriller. Whereas the aforementioned books twisted and turned traditionally, Nicola Maye Goldberg’s offering is more a collection of short stories, each a delicate character study. For once, unusually, the reader knows the killer and the victim almost at the outset.

Each chapter focuses on someone who, tangentially or directly, is connected to Sara, a late-90s liberal arts college student found dead in woods in upstate New York: her former best friend; her boyfriend; the person who discovers her body; the woman who marries her killer; a cub reporter who covers the story, and more. Told in both the first and third person, the narratives are interlinked and engage with Sara’s. Some are aware of the ties; others are not.

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People power: the best books about the allure of crowds and community [27 Jul 2020|06:00am]

Whether it is the blitz or an earthquake, riots or pandemics, our collective bonds are often forged in disasters, writes John Drury

Our experience of the coronavirus pandemic has been shaped by collective behaviour. As one we followed the advice to stay at home, together we clapped for carers. Many crowded on to beaches and many more marched for Black Lives Matter. And, as physical separation continues, we long for the return of nightclubs, gigs and religious ceremonies.

New bonds of community are often created by disaster, as Rebecca Solnit charts in A Paradise Built in Hell. The shanty town built by survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the self-organised evacuations New Yorkers arranged with strangers after 9/11, show how people facing a common fate can see themselves as belonging to a single group. Like the Covid-19 mutual aid groups we see today, these altruistic communities provide glimpses of an alternative world.

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Poem of the week: If I Were to Meet by Grace Nichols [27 Jul 2020|10:00am]

Imagining an impossible encounter with herself as a child, the poet discreetly evokes the girl’s intense life

If I Were to Meet

If I were to meet the ghost
of my childhood running
with slipping shoulder-straps
and half-plaited hair
beside a brown expanse
of memorising water
and the mellow faces of wooden houses
half-hidden by a weave
of coconut, mango, guenip trees

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Penguin Classics Science Fiction review – a fresh look at brave new worlds [27 Jul 2020|06:00am]

Sci-fi preconceptions are challenged by little-known marvels from James Tiptree Jr, Angélica Gorodischer and others

The border between science fiction and mainstream literature is more permeable than booksellers or publishers would have us think. Double Booker prize-winner Margaret Atwood’s recent novels are SF-themed (though she prefers “speculative fiction”), as is Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s best-known novel Never Let Me Go.

Penguin Classics has launched a new science fiction series to further this cross-pollination, seemingly keen for the general reader to broaden their personal canon. Some of the titles are well established – Edwin A Abbott’s mathematical fantasy Flatland, Kurt Vonnegut’s satire Cat’s Cradle – but others are newer, at least in the UK, and less likely to come loaded with preconceptions.

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Small Pleasure by Clare Chambers review – suburbia's silent sorrows [26 Jul 2020|10:00am]

Clare Chambers deftly conjures pinched postwar lives – and a possible virgin birth

In 1956, the Lancet published research into the possibility of parthenogenesis – virgin birth – in humans. The Sunday Pictorial had put out a call for women who believed they had experienced the phenomenon; of the 19 who came forward, all were eventually discredited except one, whose story is the partial inspiration for Clare Chambers’s seventh novel, her first in 10 years.

Small Pleasures is, as its title hints, a novel about people who have settled for lives that are less than they’d hoped for, but with a typically English middle-class sense that they mustn’t grumble. The war and its deprivations are only a decade past; bomb damage is still visible in the London landscape. Jean Swinney, a spinster on the cusp of 40, is the only female reporter on the North Kent Echo and therefore charged – to her dismay – with weekly columns on housekeeping and gardening tips. It’s a novelty when the editor sends her to investigate the claims of a Mrs Gretchen Tilbury of Sidcup, who says she conceived her daughter while still a virgin. The evidence seems plausible enough, but as Jean accompanies Gretchen and little Margaret to tests at the Charing Cross hospital, she finds herself growing closer to the Tilbury family, including Gretchen’s husband, Howard, and her professional detachment becomes increasingly compromised even as she begins to suspect the truth about Margaret’s conception.

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Adrian Tomine: 'Cartoons seemed like the surest path to being a hermit' [26 Jul 2020|11:00am]

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

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

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

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The Good Ancestor by Roman Krznaric – review [26 Jul 2020|08:00am]

A philosopher’s contribution to saving the world is welcome but requires a huge leap of faith

There is much talk these days about decolonising – statues, buildings, curricula. All of that has to do with legacies of the past, but there is also a growing discussion among environmentalists about decolonising the future.

The idea is that colonised people are those who are denied representation and, as future generations have no say in the decisions taken today that will later affect them, they are effectively colonised by our present actions.

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The Yellow House by Sarah M Broom review – memoir as rich social history [26 Jul 2020|06:00am]

This award-winning book tells the story of New Orleans through the attempt to resurrect a lost family home

Sarah M Broom was once employed to tell the official story of New Orleans, of the city’s “unlikely recovery” after Hurricane Katrina, which struck on 29 August, 2005. She quit City Hall six months after she arrived and left New Orleans. “By leaving,” she writes, “I reclaimed my voice.” With that voice and with her book, The Yellow House, which won the 2019 US National Book award, she tells a far less romantic tale about this great American city. A far more honest and daring one, too.

Katrina claimed nearly 2,000 lives and ravaged many others, including that of Broom, whose childhood home, 4121 Wilson Avenue, was destroyed. The Yellow House makes plain the devastation, and the many causes, of that loss. Broom’s mother, Ivory Mae, had purchased the home in 1961 with money from her dead husband’s life insurance policy. (He’d been run over just outside a Texas military base. Ivory Mae, then pregnant with their third child, would remarry and give birth to six more children, including Sarah, the last.) When she and her children moved in, Ivory Mae was the first in her immediate family to own a home. 4121 Wilson Avenue represented the American dream made real. As Broom traces the house’s history from 1961 to, and beyond, its destruction, she also traces, or reveals, the emptiness of that dream, an emptiness that many millions across America have also realised in the years since.

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Bernardine Evaristo: 'How often do I have sex? Eight times a day' [25 Jul 2020|08:30am]

The novelist on love, near-death experiences and winning the Booker prize

Born in London, Bernadine Evaristo, 61, has published eight books of fiction and verse. Girl, Woman, Other won the Booker prize in 2019 and fiction book of the year at the British Book awards in June. Currently professor of creative writing at Brunel University, she lives in London with her husband.

When were you happiest?
When I met my husband, David, in 2006, on Dating Direct.

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Bryan Washington: 'My next book is a gay slacker dramedy' [25 Jul 2020|05:00pm]

The prize-winning young writer on the politics of restaurants, diversity in his home town of Houston, and why coming out is a constant process

Bryan Washington’s 2019 debut short story collection, Lot, was winner of the Dylan Thomas prize and listed as one of Barack Obama’s favourite books of the year. Set in impoverished Houston neighbourhoods, where gentrification threatens a collection of fierce and feisty characters – minimum-wage kitchen staff, drug dealers, sex workers – it is often darkly funny. At the book’s centre is Nicholas, the recurring narrator, who wrestles with his queerness and black-Latino identity. Washington, 27, has written for the New York Times, New Yorker and Paris Review. Lot is out in paperback on 6 August; his first novel, Memorial, follows early next year in the UK.

In Lot individual chapters represent different marginalised regions of Houston, your home town…
The city, for me, has no focal point. Houston is not inundated with “third” places; you go to work and then you go home and then you have the sprawl in between. There are landmarks that I would acknowledge that could be immediately invalidated by my neighbours and none of us would be wrong. It’s largely due to the diversity of the city; not just the ethnic diversity but also diversity of thought, economy and religion. Its residents have had to come together to find ways of functioning on a daily basis – not seamlessly, but what’s really cool about living here is the way that it’s understood you can live multiple lives simultaneously.

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Gabriel Bergmoser: 'There is a brand of country Australian masculinity that is particularly threaten [25 Jul 2020|10:00am]

The 28-year-old’s gripping horror debut The Hunted has already landed a film deal. He talks about writing Amish erotica and his theory about small Australian towns

Gabriel Bergmoser’s debut adult novel, The Hunted, is dark as all get-out, an Australian horror-thriller that manages to combine Wolf Creek, The Hills Have Eyes and On the Road, with a sprinkling of Deliverance for good measure. When he first sent it to a potential literary agent, Bergmoser was “convinced it would be too much, that they would say, ‘Never darken our doorstep again’”.

It’s not hard to understand his trepidation. The novel follows Simon, your average, naive young backpacker who is out to discover the real Australia, that “country of tough extremes that had never truly been tamed”, which he can’t find in Melbourne. When he meets up with the beautiful Maggie, he’s persuaded into going far off the beaten track until they run into some locals, out “huntin’ pigs”, who bring them back to their isolated small town for a few nights.

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Bernardine Evaristo: 'How often do I have sex? Eight times a day' [25 Jul 2020|08:30am]

The novelist on love, near-death experiences and winning the Booker prize

Born in London, Bernadine Evaristo, 61, has published eight books of fiction and verse. Girl, Woman, Other won the Booker prize in 2019 and is on the shortlist for the British Book awards book of the year, to be announced on 29 June. Currently professor of creative writing at Brunel University, she lives in London with her husband.

When were you happiest?
When I met my husband, David, in 2006, on Dating Direct.

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A change to the zodiac? This should never have been written into the stars [25 Jul 2020|07:00am]

There has been a lot of talk about the Ophiuchus constellation joining the zodiac, but I won’t be changing my Cancerian ways

I am zodiac person. I have five books on the zodiac (and am open to many more). When I meet someone, before they have even opened their mouth I’ll be trying to figure out what their star sign is. I’m not so into this stuff that I’ll dislike or avoid certain signs, but saying this, we all know that Gemini men are terrible.

Lots of people aren’t star sign people, so to get around that one of the first questions I ask, as casually as possible, is when their birthday is. If they’re into it, I might ask when they were born so I can do their entire natal chart; it’s good to know what I’m working with.

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Antkind by Charlie Kaufman review – a screenwriter's debut [25 Jul 2020|06:30am]

Puppetry, metafictional self-awareness and incessant cultural referencing – all Kaufman’s trademarks in a novel that leaves the reader punchdrunk

This debut novel from the award-winning screenwriter of movie masterpieces such as Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York, is funny, exhausting and very, very long. Reading it is like watching (or being) someone trying to sprint to the top of an Escher staircase.

With its unmistakable obsessive-compulsive aesthetic, it could only have sprung from the head of Charlie Kaufman. There is the magnificent joke-telling stamina working against a constant crisis-of-faith undertow, which whispers that all comedy is futile and dishonest. There is the metafictional self-awareness and incessant autoreferencing of real movie celebrities and writers, including of course a despised “Charlie Kaufman”. There is Kaufman’s fascination with the false promise of cinema – of all art – that human existence can be represented; he catches himself in the act of thinking about his own existence, and then in the act of thinking about thinking about his own existence.

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