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Archive by tag: Peter ConradReturn
Jun 25, 2022

The author of gay cult classic Dancer from the Dance moves on from disco-fuelled revels to ‘death’s antechamber’ in his august portrait of a man for whom duty calls in Florida, while a literary critic revisits the glory days of Fire Island

Pausing briefly during his round of almost motorised erotic delights in New York, the hero of Andrew Holleran’s first novel, Dancer from the Dance, proclaims the glory of gay liberation and foresees its doom. “We’re completely free,” he says, “and that’s the horror.” This was in 1978; three years later, Aids curtailed the disco-fuelled revels and Holleran began to write essays about a city that had turned into an ashen graveyard. His subsequent novels, published at intervals of a decade or more, have tracked a long withdrawal – from New York to Florida, where Holleran moved to care for his aged parents, and from hedonism to the metaphysical gloom or “morose delectation” that he absorbed from his Jesuit education.

Now, in The Kingdom of Sand, a nameless narrator, deputising for the near-octogenarian Holleran, soberly contemplates what Christian eschatology calls the last things. The arid corner of Florida in which he is beached might be a parody of Fire Island, the sandbar off Long Island where the characters of Dancer from the Dance alternately sun themselves on the shore and couple, triple or quadruple in the dunes. The sand that spreads through the drought-stricken setting of the new novel is a morbid symptom, warning that the planet, trashed by our “manufacturing mania”, may soon be uninhabitable. Sex for the narrator consists of occasional blowjobs administered to unattractive strangers, in sessions that amount to what the Catholic church defines as corporeal acts of mercy. Otherwise, he spends his days viewing porn, which he likens to the miserable games of solitaire played by his dying father. But the coital bouts on the screen only worsen his boredom, as the performers take so long to reach orgasm that “watching them is like waiting for a bus”.

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Jun 04, 2022

In this latest collection of anecdotes, the American humorist riffs on Covid, death and family, looking for catharsis in comedy

David Sedaris got his start in comedy as Crumpet the Christmas elf, campily dancing attendance in Santa’s grotto at Macy’s department store while clad in green knickers and a spangled bonnet. As he recalls in his first book, Barrel Fever, his merriment with the squalling brats and their bossy mothers barely concealed his outrage.

No longer elfin, Sedaris has matured into a devilish imp who scourges human folly and filth. In his later books he listens to strangers apoplectically effing at each other in the street, visits “a mall with cancer” in Manila, where every shop is an excrescent tumour, and dodges buoyant turds at his local swimming pool. “Grotesque is a plus,” he announces when browsing in a Notting Hill antique shop, which prompts the owner to bring out a French rococo snuffbox carved in the shape of a hunchback straining over a bowel movement. As seen by Sedaris, the deformed, indecent, preposterously decorative figurine is the embodiment of our species.

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May 15, 2022

Emma Smith’s wise and funny history of the physical book, from the Bible to boobytraps and Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘blooks’, is a thing to cherish

Most of us who spend our time reading books gobble up their verbal contents, then set aside or at best shelve the container. But those receptacles have an identity and existence of their own: with their upright spines, their paper layered like skin and their protective jackets, books possess bodies and wear clothing, and they enjoy adventures or suffer mishaps as they circulate around the world. Overlooking the epic bulk of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer addresses the poem as his “little book” and sends it off into the future with fond parental solicitude, while in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair the heroine begins her career of rebellion by hurling a copy of Samuel Johnson’s officious, prescriptive dictionary out of the window.

In Portable Magic, Emma Smith wittily and ingeniously studies books as objects, possessed by readers not produced by writers. Her title, borrowed from an essay by Stephen King, emphasises the mobility of these apparently inert items and their occult powers. Like motorcars or metaphors, books transport us to destinations unknown, and that propulsion has something uncanny about it. Smith begins with sorcerers conjuring as they consult books of spells; she goes on to examine the varieties of magical reading, which range from the “spiritual transcendence” of Saint Augustine, who was converted by a random perusal of the Bible, to the “dark arts” of a “necromantic volume” such as Mein Kampf, distributed to all households during the Third Reich as a sinister talisman, the “bibliographic manifestation of Hitlerism”.

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Apr 17, 2022

Biographer Stephen Galloway’s purple prose does its best to give a romantic sheen to a famously troubled relationship

Lovers love a burbling plethora of adverbs: in Truly, Madly, Deeply, Juliet Stevenson tells Alan Rickman that she loves him really truly madly deeply passionately remarkably deliciously and, after a pause for thought, juicily. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh worked through the entire adverbial gamut, initially as furtive adulterers and later as figures of almost viceregal splendour, but what Stephen Galloway emphasises is the almost lethal madness of their infatuation.

Afflicted by what was then called manic depression, Leigh alternated between fits of derangement and alcoholic slumps, repeatedly stripping naked to frolic in the garden or invade the bedrooms of disconcerted house guests, then attempting suicide if there was a swimming pool handy. During one blow-up in what Galloway daintily calls their “froufrou abode”, Olivier hurled her at a marble tabletop, which left her with a gash on her temple and convinced him that they were “quite capable of murdering each other”. In some empurpled paragraphs, Galloway does his best to romanticise these paroxysms. Olivier, he asserts, was “drunk with desire” for Leigh’s “transcendent beauty” and he describes their first illicit encounters as if with his eye to a peephole: “hands, lips, limbs reached for each other with an urgency neither could control”.

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Mar 26, 2022

This ingenious final volume of an epic biography illuminates the imagery in the artist’s work during Europe’s war years and his complicated love life

John Richardson’s serial biography of Picasso stalled when Richardson died three years ago at the age of 95. After this hiatus it now resumes, but in a different mood. The first three volumes were triumphalist, emphasising Picasso’s victorious advance from Barcelona to Paris and the X-ray vision that enabled him to fracture reality and modernise the visual world. In the fourth volume, with Europe caving in to fascism and Spain convulsed by civil war, the surrealist Michel Leiris sets the agenda with a baleful warning. “Picasso,” Leiris announced in 1937, “sends us our letter of doom.”

That declaration refers to Guernica, Picasso’s panorama of the bombed Basque town, where distraught civilians and gutted animals writhe under a radioactive monochrome sun while in the corner a villager’s emergency trip to empty her bowels in an outhouse exposes what Picasso called “the most primitive effect of fear”. The painting, Leiris added, predicts that “all that we love is going to die” and he recommended an affectionate farewell to the cultural beauty that was everywhere imperilled. Picasso, however, had more personal concerns: Richardson’s narrative emphasises physical beauty ravaged and love defamed or defiled, as the artist works his way through a series of women who are transfixed by his gaze, cruelly anatomised, then discarded once their metamorphic potential has been exhausted.

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Mar 06, 2022

A sociologist binge watches the genre that dominates the schedules. But do her findings ring true?

“Humankind,” in TS Eliot’s opinion, “cannot bear very much reality”, but our goggling, glutted species seems able to bear any amount of reality TV. American broadcast schedules devote fully half their time to unscripted programmes, which claim to be spying on reality, though they’re more often flagrantly surreal in their exposure of oddity, perversity and downright monstrosity. Here we have today’s equivalent to the nightmare alleys in itinerant carnivals, where customers used to titter at fat ladies, gasp at shaggy wolfmen and shudder as caged geeks bit the heads off live chickens.

In True Story, the academic sociologist Danielle J Lindemann takes a studious tour of the terrain. She finds toddlers with waxed eyebrows and spray-tanned legs competing in beauty contests: one precocious three-year-old mimics Julia Roberts playing a hooker in Pretty Woman and a seductress aged only two sports the spiky-nippled bra popularised by Madonna. Teenagers queue up to have Dr Pimple Popper squeeze little geysers of pus from their oily faces. At the Redneck Games – an Olympiad for the obese – hillbillies perform belly-flops in mud pits, bob for pigs’ trotters and loudly fart out of sheer delight. Elsewhere, a young woman snacks on the foam innards of her sofa cushions; not to be outdone, a much larger woman in a tent-size purple T-shirt consumes entire mattresses, chomping down to the box springs. A black man with elephantiasis of the testicles needs a hoodie to support his ballooning scrotum. He groans about the load he has to tote around between his bow legs, but is happy to display it to the cameras.

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Jan 15, 2022

How far will America’s disintegration into irreconcilable factions go? Two authors gaze into the near future of a failed state, at times enjoying their doomsday prophecies a little too much

Zonked on patriotic zeal, Americans believe that their country is an exception to all historical rules. The land of the free, however, is currently hurtling towards a predetermined, apparently unavoidable crack-up. Its governmental institutions are paralysed, and a constitution devised for an agrarian society in the 18th century obstructs reform; its citizens, outnumbered by the guns they tote, have split into armed, antagonistic tribes. Given these conditions, the riot at the Capitol last January may have been the rehearsal for an imminent civil war.

Looking down at this hot mess from chilly Toronto, the Canadian novelist and essayist Stephen Marche grimly predicts: “The United States is coming to an end.” Such a declaration could only be made by an outsider. To Americans, the idea of civil war remains unthinkable, the words unspeakable: at his inauguration Biden vowed to end “this uncivil war”, which implied that the only missiles being exchanged were harmlessly verbal. As Marche sees it, the impending war will be a continuation of the earlier one between Union and Confederacy, which broke off in 1865 without closing the gap between races, regions and economic prospects. To these human-made iniquities Marche adds the intemperance of nature: New York is likely to be inundated by a forthcoming hurricane, and Californian forests are already burning. In 1776 the founding fathers envisaged an egalitarian renewal of humanity. Now the decline of the US warns that the anthropocene era may be doomed. Marche, doubting that the walls erected by Fortress America can keep out refugees, the poor and the rising oceans, suspects that this is “how a species goes extinct”.

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Jan 01, 2022

The renowned editor wittily explores the appeal of the actor, whose ability to charm and mystify mesmerised admirers – until her abrupt retirement in the age of the ‘bombshell’

In more innocent or credulous days, the faithful sat in the dark to gaze at strange beings with detachable heads who were actually phantasms of light. Among the stars in this custom-made galaxy, the most alluring and yet the most distant was Greta Garbo, whose persona alternated between carnal heat and ascetic frost. After wickedly enticing her male victims in The Temptress, she redeemed herself as the dying courtesan in Camille; in Queen Christina, she was exalted by sacrifice and in a last mesmerising closeup all emotion blankly drained from her face as she renounced the throne and sailed into exile.

Gradually this astral creature edged down to Earth. Publicists issued an excited proclamation when Garbo talked for the first time on screen in Anna Christie, even though she began by gruffly demanding a whisky in a waterfront bar. In Ninotchka, she made headlines all over again by contorting her alabaster features in a sudden fit of laughter.

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Aug 01, 2021

Richard Zenith’s massive biography of the Portuguese writer who constructed numerous identities captures his tragicomic oddity

In the centre of Lisbon, on a hill that serves as a municipal Parnassus, a short stroll takes you on a trip through national literary history. In a square named after him, Camões, the one-eyed epic bard who celebrated Portugal’s maritime discoveries, looks down from his monument at what remains of the country’s empire; a little way off, the frock-coated 19th-century novelist Eça de Queiroz embraces a flagrantly bare-breasted muse; and in a nearby shopping street the modernist poet Fernando Pessoa, cast in bronze, sits at a table outside a cafe, conducting the empty air with a suspended hand.

The metallic Pessoa looks abstracted, perhaps undecided about which of his personae he should pretend to be. Though Pessoa in Portuguese means “person”, he chose, as he said, to “depersonalise” himself. While dreaming of literary immortality, he adopted the jokey anglicised nickname Ferdinand Sumwan to announce that he was no one in particular. He spent his adolescence in South Africa, then returned to Lisbon and nerdily toiled at unworthy office jobs until he died in 1935, never travelling abroad. Without sexual attachments, he indulged instead, as Richard Zenith puts it, in orgies of “self-fertilisation”: the brain of this shy, innocuous man housed a thronging “para-universe”, an “invisible world of made-up characters” who wrote in English, French and Portuguese as Pessoa’s deputies or surrogates and collectively created “one of the richest and strangest bodies of literature in the 20th century”.

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Jul 18, 2021

Wolff concludes his jocular trilogy of books about the chaotic Trump administration by absolving the former president of blame

Prohibited from tweeting, Trump still has Michael Wolff as his megaphone. Landslide is Wolff’s third book in as many years on a man he despises but whose absurd antics he can’t help enjoying. Other Trump chroniclers worry about his glowering autocratic menace or his haphazard approach to governance. For Wolff, who began his career on the Hollywood Reporter, not the Washington Post, such liberal qualms are secondary. He sees Trump not as a political phenomenon but as the monstrous spawn of showbiz and PR – an exhibitionistic performer whose only talent is for self-advertisement and who, like many other celebrities, has made a career out of behaving badly.

Wolff is exasperated by the determination of the Democrats to impeach Trump all over again after 6 January

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Jun 19, 2021

George Packer finds the US caught in a ‘cold civil war’ between incompatible versions of the country after its ‘near-death experience’ with Donald Trump

George Packer’s incisive, deftly argued book about the moral and political quandary of the United States begins and ends with his declaration: “I am an American.” The statement is self-evident but also self-congratulatory: Americans regard their citizenship as a spiritual credential, a gesture of faith in the country that has always claimed to be the last, best hope of beleaguered mankind. Packer’s native land, however, no longer deserves to be quite so certain of its exceptional virtue or its automatic pre-eminence. Early in the pandemic it had to accept charitable handouts from Russia and Taiwan, and Packer sadly accepts a new, reduced reality by calling America “a beggar nation” and even “a failed state”. After this he twists his title from a boast into an abject plea: “No one is going to save us. We are our last best hope.”

The need for salvation became urgent before the election last November when Packer, having moved his family from Brooklyn to a Covid-free rural retreat, noticed a sign beside the road on a neighbouring farm. His car headlights flashed across a red rectangle branded with five white capital letters. Even here, Packer realised with a shudder, he was not safe. He doesn’t need to say what the letters spelled out: they were as succinctly satanic as the number 666 – the mark of the beast in the Book of Revelation – which made Nancy Reagan alter the street address of a house where she and the retiring president were due to live in Los Angeles.

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May 29, 2021

Karen Tumulty’s biography, on the centenary of Nancy Reagan’s ‘official’ birth, paints a romanticised picture of a neurotic prototype for Melania Trump

After Jimmy Carter’s glum diagnosis of national malaise in 1979, Ronald Reagan supposedly restored the customary swagger of the US by making the country “feel good about itself”. That folksy blessing didn’t extend to his wife: on the evidence of Karen Tumulty’s biography, Nancy Reagan spent his entire presidency in a state of seething anxiety that frequently tipped over into hysteria.

Aides in the White House came to dread her passive-aggressive silences on the phone and her basilisk glare when she allowed them face time. Likening her to a missile, a friend tells Tumulty “she was good at going stealth”. She monopolised Ronnie and staff members who had to relay her phone calls to the Oval Office said they were on the “Mommy Watch”. In later years, as his mind blurred, she became his agitated attendant, whispering panicked prompts in the hope of covering up his debility.

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Apr 24, 2021

This innovative biography of the director – a wily tormentor of audiences and colleagues – is most successful when tracking his contemporary influence

Dickens never recovered from the spooky stories his nurse told him at bedtime, and few of us ever outgrow Hitchcock. He holds us captive by tweaking our anxieties and using cinematic techniques – warped angles of vision, painfully elongated time, nerve-shredding sonic shocks – to delectably torment us. Martin Scorsese has admitted that he screens Hitchcock’s films “repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly”. Such repetitions always deliver revelations: watching the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much again the other day, I noticed that the anonymous London bobbies caught in a shootout are granted a line or two of jaunty dialogue just before they’re killed. Their banter is enough to make them pitiably tragic, and it earns the aloof, unmerciful director some credit for compassion.

“I dictate the picture,” Hitchcock once said. To consolidate his power, he created a personal myth that became a lucrative commercial brand. When asked for an autograph, he often scribbled a silhouette: a blobby head with wispy hair, its plump curves interrupted by a concave nose and two puckered lips. Hitchcock made an icon of himself using nine economical pencil strokes; Edward White’s study of his “variegated legacies” disassembles him into 12 separate facets, each exposing an aspect of “the public entity he crafted”.

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Apr 10, 2021

The US president’s guilt-ridden son relates his life of excess in detail, but sadly lacks any self-awareness

In 1988, Joe Biden began his dogged quest for the presidency with the first of three campaigns to become his party’s nominee and in the same year his teenage son Hunter set off on an erratic career of his own. Over the ensuing decades, as Joe’s presidential prospects rose and fell, Hunter unstoppably reeled from schoolboy rowdiness to drunken adolescence and then from divorce to drug addiction, before ending in bacchanalian revels at sleazy motels in the company of pimps and sex workers. Along the way, surprisingly, he also found time for an interlude of richly remunerated nepotism on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma.

Here are two different approaches to the pursuit of American happiness: the father inched slowly towards a remote goal, while the son demanded instant gratification, spent money recklessly and went on a supposedly liberating downhill race to ruin. “I kept climbing the escalator,” Hunter complains when remembering his early success as a corporate lawyer, “and didn’t know how to get off.” Binge-boozing and crack cocaine were his blissful release from promotion. Now that Joe Biden finally has the job he always coveted, his most urgent task is to restore the moral health of a sick society; Hunter heads the queue of those needing rehabilitation.

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Mar 21, 2021

Lin summons sights and smells from San Francisco to London in a gloriously multifaceted memoir

“I went out to bars,” declares Jeremy Atherton Lin late in this florid, lurid, powerfully brainy memoir of gay gallivanting, “to be literary.” That’s not entirely true: his book begins as he enters one such enclave with a companion who sniffs the musky fug and says: “It’s starting to smell like penis in here.”

Those pheromones entice Lin into the sweaty, congested darkness, and random couplings are soon under way as bodies agglomerate in corners. But gradually another purpose emerges: Lin turns out to be conducting research as well as cruising. He begins in San Francisco, where what Allen Ginsberg called “saintly motorcyclists” huddle in establishments with names such as the Tool Box; after 2005, having settled in London with his British partner, he investigates Whitechapel pubs where employees of the fashion industry multitask, networking professionally while they make dates for sex; a dutiful detour takes him to a drag cabaret in Blackpool that is mostly patronised by gaggles of shrieky bachelorettes. Unearthing history in all of these places, Lin treats gay bars as archives of communal memory. But they also appeal to him as zones of titillating danger, definitely not what the political correctness cops call “safe spaces”. “I went out to take risks,” Lin admits. Luckily, his worst misadventure happened when a vulpine lad he brought home from a bar “proceeded to rip apart my American Apparel T-shirt from the V-neck”.

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Feb 28, 2021

The Nobel prize-winning writer turns the Ring cycle drama into a grim dialogue about capitalism’s perils

Imagine a Wagner opera without the music – seven hours of dense verbal repetition, lacking the benefit of an oceanic orchestra and exultant singing voices. That’s what Elfriede Jelinek, winner of the Nobel prize in 2004, serves up in this so-called “dramatic essay”. Rein Gold, also defined by Jelinek as a “play which is not one”, was staged in Berlin in 2014, with actors barking amped-up monologues about the iniquities of capitalism while a modular synthesizer intermittently wheezed out Wagnerian motifs.

Jelinek’s title is a heavy-handed Teutonic pun. Das Rheingold, the prelude to Wagner’s tetralogy, is about a clump of gold stolen from the Rhine that comes to be tainted by a curse, the punishment for our pillage of nature. Rein Gold means “pure gold”, although Jelinek believes that it can never be cleansed of the grubby marks left by our greed. In Das Rheingold, the ore pays for the fortress Wotan calls Valhalla, which at the end of the cycle in Götterdämmerung is torched by his rebellious daughter Brünnhilde to free humanity from material vices. Wotan and Brünnhilde debate political morality in Die Walküre, and after she rejects his grim regime he abandons her. Rein Gold brings them back together, now meagrely identified as B and W, to argue over such unmelodious topics as the labour theory of value, teaser rates, homeownership and VAT.

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Feb 21, 2021

These remarkable essays from the writer’s early years highlight her search for truth and attention to detail

Except for Joan Didion, the New Journalists of the 1960s were a self-dramatising gang, determined to upstage the stories they reported. Norman Mailer brawled, Hunter S Thompson raged; less loudly macho, Tom Wolfe preened and Truman Capote whispered sedition. When Didion calls writing “an aggressive, even a hostile act” or “the tactic of a secret bully”, she might be defining this bumptious fraternity.

Didion’s own tactics, sampled here in a smattering of uncollected articles, are more covert, perhaps even passive-aggressive. In an essay celebrating the scruffy underground press of the hippie era, she proclaims the ideology that underlay the new procedures: on guard against the respectable broadsheets and their “factitious ‘objectivity’”, journalists needed to risk “the act of saying I”. For Didion, however, that was easier said than done. Tentative, tremulous, she initially resisted employing the first-person pronoun, which belonged to her male colleagues by egotistical right.

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Jan 17, 2021

An account of covert coups and diplomatic bluster through the decades reveals a country in paranoid fear of decline

After the riot at the Capitol on 6 January, embarrassed American politicians lined up to declare: “This is not who we are.” Having read Michael Pembroke’s account of the country’s international thuggery in the last 70 years I’m inclined to reply: “Sorry, no, this is what you always were – loutish, lawless and violent by default.” Pembroke, an Australian jurist and an avowed conservative, quotes a Trump adviser who unforgettably sums up the arrogance of Washington policymakers. “We’re America, bitch,” snarls this unidentified apparatchik; lesser nations can just suck it up.

The British, wanting to look aristocratically nonchalant, claimed they acquired their empire in a fit of absent-mindedness. Americans hid their scheming behind sanctimonious cant about freedom and human rights: they dreamed up the United Nations but have consistently flouted its principles, no longer even pay it their annual dues and carry on regardless with their godly mission to Americanise the rest of the world, by force if necessary. During the Cold war, the Pentagon invoked a spurious communist menace to justify its exorbitant budget, amassing deluxe weaponry that existed mainly for show. There was no military need to atomise Hiroshima and Nagasaki, since the Japanese were edging towards surrender; the bombs were dropped, as one of President Truman’s cronies suggested, because the apocalyptic display would “make Russia more manageable in Europe”.

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Nov 21, 2020

America’s former commander-in-chief shares his character flaws and fears for the presidency in this poetic, introspective account of his childhood and first term in the White House

Like the best autobiographers, Barack Obama writes about himself in the hope of discovering who or even what he is. It’s a paradoxical project for a man who is universally known and idolised, but this uncertainty or insecurity is his motivating force and his most endearing quality. Born to a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, brought up in Indonesia and Hawaii, educated in California and New York, he has a plural personality. His mother anglicised his given name by calling him Barry, though he liked to pretend that it was a tribal epithet that identified him as a chieftain. As a candidate for the Senate, he admitted that he was “improbable”; campaigning for the presidency, he revised the adjective to “audacious”. Now, in this searchingly introspective account of his first presidential term, he divests himself of the “power and pomp” of office, disassembles the “ill-fitting parts” that make him up and ponders his similarity to “a platypus or some imaginary beast”, unsure of its dwindling habitat.

The book, he says, was written by hand, because he mistrusts the smooth gloss of a digital text: he wants to expose “half-baked thoughts”, to scrutinise the first drafts of a person. He mistrusts his own eloquence as an orator, even though it “taps into some collective spirit” and leaves him with a “sugar high”. Hunched at his desk, he has to renounce those winged words and submit to a more reflective self-interrogation. “Is it worth it?”his wife, Michelle, demands as his political ambition upends their placid family life. “When is it going to be enough?” she asks later. Obama, glimpsing himself through her eyes as “this strange guy with a scruffy wardrobe and crazy dreams”, is not sure how to answer. After his election to the Senate, a reporter deferentially inquires: “What do you consider your place in history?”, to which Obama replies with incredulous laughter. Told that he has been awarded the Nobel peace prize, he addresses the question more probingly to himself: “For what?” he says.

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Nov 15, 2020

This portrait of the president-elect reveals Biden’s flaws but also the compassion and courage needed to start America’s healing process

Americans have spent this year watching aghast as reality demolished what Evan Osnos calls “the most basic stories we tell ourselves”. Those stories habitually declare the US to be exceptional, uniquely virtuous and therefore entitled to pre-eminence: how then has “the world’s richest, most powerful country” been laid low by the pandemic and shamed by Trump’s irresponsible antics? To help repair the damage, Osnos presents Joe Biden as someone whose career has been a basic story of a different kind – grounded in shared suffering and commiseration with others, not inflated by preordained conceit.

Osnos begins impersonally, with a nameless, middle-aged white male collapsing in a hotel room in 1988; after a while the victim is identified as Biden, toppled by a brain aneurysm. Anonymity makes a pitiable everyman of him, and even though emergency surgery saved his life on that occasion, Osnos goes on to show Biden coping with an extra battery of cruel blows. His young wife and their infant daughter were killed in a car crash in 1972; his adored son Beau was to die from a brain tumour in 2015, aged 46. Biden, we learn, is acquainted with grief, and he also understands how a bereaved person or an afflicted nation can be coaxed towards recovery.

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Nov 08, 2020

The Virago Press founder unearths the remarkable tale of her ancestors down under, drawing chilling parellels to the inequalities of our time

In the 18th century, the body snatchers who grubbed up coffins and sold exhumed corpses for medical research were ghoulishly nicknamed “resurrection men”. Carmen Callil, whose motives are a good deal nobler, is a resurrection woman: after a decade spent delving in archives and visiting nameless graves, she has unearthed her family’s past in a book that is both a heartfelt outpouring of pity and sorrow and an irate demand for restitution.

Callil’s antecedents were sweated labourers in the Midlands, the “busy insects of the early Industrial Revolution”. Hunger drove these paupers to commit petty crimes and some of them, when caught, had the good fortune to be shipped out to Australia. That punishment was what Callil calls their “happy day”: the new world allowed them to fill their bellies, bronze their skins and shed their fetters. Callil’s many-stranded narrative concentrates on three clans from Leicester and Lincolnshire whose misery was alleviated by migration to Melbourne. There, they intermarried and after a few generations, cross-pollinated by a Christian immigrant from Lebanon with the patronymic Kahlil (for a while experimentally anglicised as Kelly), they produced little Carmen.

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Nov 01, 2020

This fair, funny and sobering analysis of books written about the Trump era calls for a day of reckoning

An intellectual history devoted to a dimwit who once struggled to read aloud an extract from the American constitution, stumbling over big words that sounded, he groused, “like a foreign language”, as if the founding fathers spoke the lingo of undocumented aliens? A chronicle of a so-called era that has lasted less than four noisy, nerve-racking years and with luck is about to end? A book that solemnly analyses 150 often trashy books about someone who is not known to have read a single book and hired stooges to write the 20 self-puffing volumes published in his name? Yes, Carlos Lozada’s survey of what he archly calls “Trump Studies” is all of those paradoxical things and it is an utter marvel: sober though frequently very funny, fairer minded than the subject deserves, in the end profoundly troubling even as it looks ahead to America’s recovery from the Trump malaise.

Lozada, a book reviewer for the Washington Post, approaches his binge-reading chore as an exercise in cultural criticism. Trump may be thoughtless but he is also unthinkable: no one could have anticipated such an affront to institutional precedent, legal restraint, civic decorum and human decency. Some of the writers discussed by Lozada therefore seek the ogre’s origins in the abyss that gave birth to Prospero’s Caliban, Frankenstein’s monster and Batman’s Joker. For one sociologist, Trump emerges from a “deep story” – AKA a myth – about the festering grudges of the white working class in the disaffected American heartland; another traumatised commentator describes him as “the confirmation of all past fears, like a recurring childhood nightmare”. Seen this way, Trump is archetypally coughed up from our psychic sludge. Imagine King Kong with a strawberry-blond comb-over or, according to the eyewitness testimony of Stormy Daniels, an abominable snowman whose penis, like a dwarfish toadstool, nestles among “yeti pubes”.

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Sep 20, 2020

In Bob Woodward’s interviews, this self-obsessed blabbermouth of a president blows the whistle on himself

Now I understand why Trump refuses to have a dog in the White House. There’s no need: he is his own fawning poodle and envenomed cur.

“I love this guy,” says Trump when granting access to Bob Woodward. “Even though he writes shit about me. That’s OK.” It’s the creed of a grovelling lap dog, and Trump follows up with flattering licks and whiny appeals to have his belly scratched. “Honey, I’m talking to Bob Woodward!” he proudly announces when Melania interrupts one of their phone calls, and he even imparts whispered nuclear secrets in the hope that this upright, fanatically factual journalist – who began his career by exposing the Watergate burglary and thus scuttled Nixon’s presidency – will relax into an obsequious court reporter. Yet when closeted with his harried aides or beleaguered cabinet members, Trump mutates into the carnivorous hound of the Baskervilles. Unleashed by his executive power, he snarls, incoherently froths and, in scenes witnessed by Woodward’s sources, runs around yelping “Holy shit!” or “I’m fucked!” A better title for Rage, perhaps, would be Rabid.

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Sep 05, 2020

This account of Wagner’s influence on the great and ghastly is passionate and encyclopedic, if unfocused

Wagner gave his name to a movement that is also a contagious malaise and in surveying a Wagnerised world Alex Ross looks far beyond the composer’s musical legacy. True, the pining dissonance at the start of Tristan und Isolde disrupted tonality for ever, but Wagner’s sonic sorcery has cast an equally decisive spell on those Ross calls “the artists of silence – novelists, poets, and painters”, as well as on some noisy and unmelodious politicians. The harmonies of Orpheus supposedly soothed emotional distress and kept the cosmos in tune. Wagner achieved the opposite: his operas unsettled the sanity of his disciple Friedrich Nietzsche and later provided the besotted Hitler with a preview of fiery apocalypse.

For more than a century, this music has been a drug or even a poison, a cult with members who are sometimes fanatics, not fans, goaded to overcome humane qualms as they surrender to a Dionysian excitement. Ross likens the overwrought emotional state of the typical Wagner devotees to the Greek “agon”, a state of conflict or self-contradiction. Casualties abound. Nietzsche, the first of the book’s antagonists, vaguely blamed Wagner for his headaches, eye strain and vomiting attacks; the poet Stéphane Mallarmé said that Wagner disgusted but irresistibly enslaved him. The tenor who sang Tristan at the opera’s premiere dropped dead soon afterwards, then with the intercession of a medium informed his widow, the first Isolde, that the mental strain of the music had done him in.

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Aug 29, 2020

The first instalment of Fredrik Logevall’s definitive biography reveals a man in sharp contrast to the modern Lancelot of legend

During John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960, Norman Mailer imagined him on the exalted heights, in the company of Nietzsche’s superman: he had, Mailer said, the deep tan of a ski instructor and the piercing eyes of a mountaineer. In 1963, after Kennedy’s assassination, John Steinbeck described him as a latterday King Arthur, “a man… who put on the shining armour” and for a while enabled “everyone living to reflect a little of that light”.

A caped crusader or a chivalric hero? Perhaps America’s high priest, which is how the historian Theodore H White described Kennedy? Actually, none of the above. In this first volume of Fredrik Logevall’s definitive biography, JFK is all too engagingly and amiably human.

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