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Archive by tag: Rachel CookeReturn
Jun 20, 2022

The first English translation of these subtle stories of self-worth and domestic frustration is a revelation

How to describe Talk to My Back, a classic collection of graphic stories by alt-manga’s feminist star, Yamada Murasaki? These tales of thwarted-ness and domestic ennui were written in the 80s, but Japan being what it is – only last month it was reported that when abortion pills are finally made available to women in the country, partner consent will still be required – their atmosphere often feels much closer to that of the 50s or early 60s. At moments, it’s almost as if Murasaki has set out to fictionalise Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. If her stories are pensive to the point of dreaminess, they’re also full of frustration, a discontent that simmers like a hot pan. I’m so glad Drawn & Quarterly has seen fit to put them into an English edition for the first time.

Translated by the comics historian Ryan Holmberg (who has also written a hugely informative introduction), these stories comprise an extended portrait of a housewife, Chiharu Yamakawa. She has two daughters (whom we watch growing up) and a husband (mostly absent) who treats her like a servant. Often lonely, there are days when she hardly recognises herself; she seems little more than an outline of a person, a sensation Murasaki captures on the page via a delicate all-body halo and, sometimes, by drawing her without features on her face.

Talk to My Back by Yamada Murasaki is published by Drawn & Quarterly (£23). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Jun 19, 2022

The annual award for aspiring cartoonists offers the chance to be published in the Observer and win £1,000, with past winners going on to land film and book deals

Calling all aspiring cartoonists and graphic novelists: entries are once again open for our graphic short story prize which, in its 15th year, has a brilliant new partner in the form of the publisher Faber, and particularly stellar guest judges in the form of the acclaimed actor and comics fan Michael Sheen (The Queen, Good Omens, Staged), and Adrian Tomine, the cartoonist famed for his New Yorker covers and the author of, among other books, Killing and Dying and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Cartoonist. The winner, as always, will receive £1,000 and their work will appear in the Observer in print and online. The runner-up will receive £250 and their work will also be published online.

People often ask whether this prize (henceforth to be known as the Faber/Observer/Comica prize) has the power to change lives. The answer is: yes. Among those who have been winners and runners-up in the past are Isabel Greenberg, the acclaimed author of Glass Town, Matthew Dooley, the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize-winning author of Flake, and Joff Winterhart, whose graphic novel Days of the Bagnold Summer, a story that began its life as his entry in the 2009 competition, eventually became a film (Monica Dolan and Rob Brydon starred). Last year’s winner, Astrid Goldsmith, has already signed a deal with Jonathan Cape for her first book, based on her winning entry, A Funeral in Freiburg.

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Jun 12, 2022

In this clever, thought-provoking memoir, a married academic’s life is ‘derailed by desire’. Can reading help her find a way forward?

Not so long ago, there was something of a craze in publishing for books about reading, one for which I didn’t much care at the time. But Christina Lupton’s Love and the Novel has little in common with the platitudinous manuals that particular trend delivered to the common reader. Its author, an academic with a special interest in the history of reading, doesn’t hope to turn fiction into a form of self-help, nor is she particularly interested in whether a character’s predicament “resonates” with her own situation. Long years of teaching have taught her not only that novels are not blueprints for living, but that the job of a writer is not “to tell us what we’re really like”, nor even how we should behave. In short, Elizabeth Bennet is not, and never will be, your friend.

Lupton’s narrative, part memoir, part literary criticism, isn’t cuddly or confiding. It asks more questions than it answers; there’s something withholding (though interestingly so) at its heart. But it is a clever, well-written book, and I often found myself underlining whole paragraphs as I read. If it is sometimes unintentionally comical – Lupton grew up in a commune in rural Australia, and she has a quaintly earnest hippy side – it is more often wonderfully insightful. Margaret Drabble’s The Waterfall, the letters of Simone de Beauvoir to Jean-Paul Sartre, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: I’ve never read accounts of any of these texts that manage to be at once so searching and so wondrously concise, and Lupton made me want to go back to them all (a particular achievement in the case of The Waterfall, a novel from the 60s that seemed of its time even in 1984, which was when I somewhat furtively first picked it up).

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Jun 05, 2022

This unusually lucid commentary on sex in the 21st-century, informed by the author’s work in a rape crisis centre, is daring and important

The title of Louise Perry’s first book makes it sound almost comically conservative: uh-oh, you think, expecting a manifesto worthy of some latterday Mary Whitehouse or Victoria Gillick. But don’t be misled. In this cultural moment, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution could hardly be more radical. It is an act of insurrection, its seditiousness born not only of the pieties it is determined to explode, but of the fact that it is also diligently researched and written in plain English. Did Perry, I wonder, struggle to find a home for it? Was her manuscript considered too hot to handle? I don’t know. All I can tell you is that while most mainstream publishers are seemingly content to publish feminist books that are both fact-free and clotted to the point of unreadability with jargon, her utterly sane and straightforward text comes to us courtesy of Polity, a small academic press.

Perry used to work in rape crisis, and it’s this experience – harrowing, but also highly, endlessly bewildering – that is her starting point in The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. It seems to her, as someone who has both talked to victims and run the kind of well-meaning workshops that are meant to reduce sexual violence against women, that 21st-century liberal feminism has backed itself into a corner so far as rape goes. Hellbent on the notion of freedom, and determined to minimise the innate differences between the sexes, such women have arrived at a point where they are not only queasy about using the power of the state to imprison rapists (those who disagree with them on this they call “carceral feminists”, a phrase that is only ever said with a sneer); they remain unwilling even to consider how women might best keep themselves safe, believing that to do so is simply “victim blaming”.

In combination, this takes the more unthinking among them to some pretty wild places – even when, ostensibly, they’re trying their hardest to be furious about male aggression. Perry cites the (admittedly extreme) example of a 2020 book of feminist essays about #MeToo in which one contributor encourages rape survivors to seek out sexual partners with a taste for sexual violence, otherwise known as “joining the BDSM community” (if you can’t beat them, join them, in other words). But as appalling and as stupid as this may be, she’s hardly surprised by it. For all the gains that the sexual revolution has brought women – chiefly the freedom to have sex without the fear of getting pregnant – those who have benefited from it most, according to Perry, are men. In a world in which sex is now just another leisure activity, and in which to be anything other than “sex positive” is to be, at best, a killjoy and, at worst, someone who is harbouring deep internalised shame, women must remain eternally silent about certain behaviours. They must celebrate “kinks”; they must enjoy porn; they must consider “sex work” a valid choice (even as, say, they disapprove of clothing sweatshops). Above all, they must fuck like a man, celebrating this as hard-won equality, and never, ever texting afterwards.

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May 28, 2022

Bragg has created such a masterly evocation of his early life in Cumbria, you can almost smell the beer and cigarette smoke

I was on the bus when it happened: racked by an unexpected sob, as if some invisible hand had reached inside me and flicked the switch marked tears. In his new memoir, a book I was about to have to put aside for a few moments, Melvyn Bragg was describing the funeral of his publican father, Stanley, in Wigton, Cumbria, some time in the 1990s. Bragg and his mother, Ethel, were just coming out of the church, trailed by a great crowd of mourners because Wigton isn’t big and everyone in it had known Stanley. Bragg looked up. On the other side of the road stood a line of men, each one smart in his Sunday best. Who were they? He knew without having to be told that they were customers of his father’s who had always been made welcome in the Black-a-Moor in the days when – how unbelievable this seems now – Catholics were still tacitly forbidden to drink in many establishments. None of them had felt able to attend the service – wrong church – but here they all were now, an unlikely guard of honour.

This probably doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that should have a critic gently weeping on the number 38, and what’s strange is that, in the context of Back in the Day, it’s not even close to being the most sweet-sad detail; Bragg’s book, the best thing he has ever written, imbues the overused literary adjective “piercing” with real meaning. But there it is: this scene moved me. In my mind’s eye, I could see the street, where the curtains in every house would have been drawn as a mark of respect (I can remember my grandmother doing this when I was a little girl), and on it these men, their faces heavy with age, their hats in their big hands. It was easy to imagine how Bragg must have felt at the sight of them, the feeling of something close to love reaching him as he emerged into the daylight. Though he’d long since moved away from the town – first to Oxford, and then to London – he had never really left it. It was, and is, his place, and I wonder if this doesn’t seem to him now like the greatest luck of his life: a better thing by far than all the TV shows, the fame and the money and the peerage.

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May 23, 2022

It’s the little things that strike a chord in this funny, melancholy book about the curdling of a friendship between two single gay men

I might as well come come straight to the point: The Con Artists by Luke Healy is my favourite graphic novel of the year so far, and to be honest, it might just be among my favourite comics ever. I’ve already read it twice, yet still I feel that I could go back to it again some time quite soon. Healy is one of those very noticing artists, and the great pleasure of his deeply satisfying fourth book, which is about an old friendship that will shortly curdle, lies in small things: little details you may not notice the first time around; ambiguities that nag away at you. Then again, even on a first reading, it’s a stand-out: so funny and melancholy, so knowing and true. Frank and Giorgio, the two men at the heart of it, are brilliant, vivid creations, and the passive-aggressive scratchiness between them is so beautifully observed. It isn’t hard at all to imagine such frenemies as the stars of some future film or TV series, though personally I would be quite content if Healy would only give them another outing between hard covers.

Frank (the standup comedian who is the book’s narrator) and Giorgio were friends as children, and on paper they’re very similar: both Irish in London, both gay and both single. But in adulthood, they’re not especially close, meeting up only every few months or so – until, one day, Giorgio calls Frank and tells him he has been hit by a bus. His wrist is broken. Could Frank look after him when he gets home? It’s worried Frank, not Giorgio, who asks this question, but almost immediately he begins to regret the offer. Giorgio is a nightmare patient, as demanding as a hotel guest, for all that it’s in his house that they’re staying. It’s almost sinister, the way he insists that Frank washes his hair or cuts up his dinner – and there’s something else, too. How is he making a living? In the bathroom, the soap is flashy – Frank would have to play three gigs to buy it – but his friend is getting letters from the benefits office. Nothing makes any sense, and trying to work it all out triggers Frank’s already quite bad anxiety.

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May 15, 2022

The author emerges from this compelling biography as a difficult outsider whose twin passions were feckless men and drink

In 1907, Ella Gwendoline (“Gwen”) Rees Williams sailed to England from Dominica, the Caribbean island of her birth, to attend school in Cambridge. Gwen, who was 16, had long dreamed of the motherland, but from the moment she landed at Southampton, her mood began to darken. If London, her first stop, was sooty and drab and populated by permanently indignant landladies, school was little better. She was mocked for her lilting accent by her classmates, who took particular pleasure in the fact that the maniac who is Mrs Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was a white Creole just like her. On Saturdays, she would cycle to the house of a kindly great aunt. Even there, though, the atmosphere was cautionary. Her aunt told her that she’d once been planning to leave her husband for a lover – until, that is, she looked in the mirror and saw the devil leering over her shoulder.

Did the devil ever perch on Gwen’s shoulder? Read Miranda Seymour’s slyly compelling new biography of Jean Rhys – the pen name was adopted in 1924, at the behest of her patron, Ford Madox Ford – and you will feel that it surely did, usually more than once a year. Unlike her aunt, however, she was not one to turn from temptation. The author of Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight was all feeling: a human bagatelle ball whizzing from one crisis to another, lured not only by all the usual siren songs (men, money, booze), but by any number of other, less appealing tunes (“disaster is her element,” said her last editor, Diana Athill). Was she, to use the old word, mad? Sometimes, perhaps. But if so, she was hardly alone. I Used to Live Here Oncethe biography takes its brilliantly apt title from one of Rhys’s ghost stories – is shot through with madness. Half its cast are half crazy, and most of the rest are as creepy as hell. Liars and fraudsters, bigamists and bolters, grifters and gropers: they’re all here, though Seymour has a special line (because her subject attracted them) in the kind of literary stalker whose pulse races furtively at the sight of an old woman with a bad wig, a whisky habit and (just perhaps) a half-finished manuscript in a drawer.

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May 07, 2022

This strait-laced portrait fails to unpick Vogue’s famously frosty editor-in-chief Anna Wintour – or even poke fun at some of her more ludicrous behaviour

For all those who have occasionally wondered just what might lie behind the eternal sunglasses of the famously scary Anna Wintour, the author of a new biography of the longstanding editor-in-chief of American Vogue has momentous news: it seems that there is, after all, “a person there” (as opposed, you understand, to a robot programmed by the ghost of Oscar de la Renta). But while journalist Amy Odell has indeed found several witnesses willing to testify on the record to the existence of this corporeal being, she is, alas, unable to go much further; to explain what motivates Wintour, let alone to reveal what keeps her awake at night (assuming she can tell it’s the night). Her book might well be based on 250 sources and come with notes longer than the concordance to Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. However, full disclosure, it is not – unless, of course, the reader was hitherto unaware that Wintour’s “ability to empathise is debated”.

Debated! The word would come with all the wit and understatement of vintage Maison Margiela were it not for the fact that it is used completely without irony. Then again, its author’s refusal to poke fun at anything, however ludicrous, is also the only reason I enjoyed her book. If the pages (and pages) she devotes to Wintour’s assistants – young women who must not want to be writers and whose job it is to make sure that her full-fat latte and blueberry muffin (an item usually left uneaten) are waiting on her big, white desk every morning – are comprehensive to the point of tediousness, it’s hard not to laugh at her utmost seriousness, even when dealing with the mad and the risible. Having noted, for instance, that after the 9/11 attacks, Wintour went back to work immediately, she quickly adds that this was hardly unusual: after a facelift in 2000, she returned to the office – even more amazing! – with bruises still visible. Yes, Vogue’s staff were uncomfortable at being expected to do similarly, but they were also, thank goodness, able to make “one extraordinary step toward self-care” by wearing flats rather than heels “in case they had to run down the stairs”.

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Apr 26, 2022

This rip-roaring graphic retelling of the Aldous Huxley classic brings to mind Fritz Lang, Spielberg and vintage comics

A certain weariness came over me at the prospect of this adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; I’m not much in the mood for dystopian doom and gloom right now. But I was wrong to be chary: this is a book that will keep your bedside light burning long into the night. Fred Fordham’s retelling of Huxley’s 1932 novel is so sleek, owing more to the movies than to its original author’s prose – his subtly futuristic illustrations may bring to mind Fritz Lang or even Steven Spielberg (think Minority Report) – and, thanks to this, two things happen. First, the narrative fairly rips along. Second, the novel’s terrible prescience is pushed to the fore, the parallels between Huxley’s imaginary future and our own present suddenly so close, it’s almost painful at moments.

You know the story. “Everybody’s happy now,” insist the citizens of Huxley’s utopian world state – and it’s almost true. In this benumbed realm, physical pain and old age have been eradicated and familial and emotional attachments have disappeared; in place of passion, there is a drug called soma, which promises sexual oblivion. A few human beings, known as Savages, who were born the old-fashioned way, and retain memories of such banned books as the Bible and Shakespeare, are still to be found living in “reservations”, like zoo animals. But everyone else came into being thanks to genetic engineering, bred in bottles and processed into standard adults in uniform batches.

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Apr 23, 2022

Tina Brown’s sparkling prose and eye for detail enliven an entertaining exposé – with a little help from Prince Andrew and his 50-strong crew of teddy bears

What ails the royal family? By Tina Brown’s telling, the answer to this perennial and highly thorny question is: just about everything. Yes, it’s partly a simple matter of context; in the early 21st century, there no longer seems to be much point to the hats and the parades and the tours (Kate and William in the Caribbean? Cringe de la cringe! as Prince Harry’s ex-girlfriend Cressida Bonas would say.) And yes, it’s a suffocating way to live: like being a “battery hen in the Waldorf Astoria”, as Brown puts it, struggling somewhat for the right image.

But the former editor of the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, having applied all of her famous wit and intelligence to the problem, identifies many other maladies, too. Sadism, parsimony, profligacy, infantilism, randiness, ruthlessness, rudeness, coldness, extreme entitlement and, last, but not least, incredible stupidity; alas, among the Windsors, all are present and correct. The family is a walking, talking advert either for – take your pick – intensive group therapy or religious seclusion (after all, wasn’t Prince Philip’s ma a nun or something?). No wonder the Queen Mother’s steward, William Tallon, used to herald dinner at her Scottish retreat, Birkhall, by swinging a censer, as if he was a priest.

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Apr 03, 2022

The painter conveys her spiritual connection with a fellow obsessive and ascetic artist in this fascinating book of imagined correspondence that lays bare the creative process

As its title somewhat suggests, the artist Celia Paul’s second book takes the form of a series of letters to Gwen John, whose life, she believes, was “stamped with a similar pattern” to her own, and a postcard of whose painting The Convalescent she keeps in her studio (just one look at it, she says, and her breathing becomes easier). But this description is also – happily, I think – misleading. As anyone who has ever written a love letter will know, such notes inevitably say more about correspondent than recipient. If love is, as Paul suggests, the highest form of attention, it’s also a mirror: a means, marvellous and occasionally highly dangerous, of seeing ourselves anew.

I don’t mean at all to suggest that Paul is in love with John. But these are intimate letters, their author seemingly having taken to heart Colette’s writing advice (look at what gives you pleasure, but look longest at what gives you pain), and it’s this that enables me to forgive, if not quite to overlook, the rather fey idea of a one-sided conversation with a woman who died in 1939. When Paul writes as if John were a living, breathing friend – “I am excited that I have begun to communicate with you and don’t want there to be a pause just now” – something in me is embarrassed. I also know a great deal about John already, courtesy of numerous biographers and critics (her brother, her lover, her painfully unquiet heart). In the end, though, neither of these things matter one bit. It is really Paul who’s centre stage, and she is fascinating; I do not feel, at this point, that I could ever tire of her mind, and the unlikely, singular way it turns. I want to know as much about her as I possibly can.

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Mar 29, 2022

With the aid of slapstick jokes and witty footnotes, husband and wife neuroscientists and their son shed light on the workings of the brain in this joyful and fabulously original book

This extraordinary comic is a collaboration between the neuroscientists Uta and Chris Frith, their writer son, Alex, and the artist and graphic novelist Daniel Locke. Have I ever read anything like it before? No, I’m certain that I haven’t. Each page is a visual delight: as colourful and as joyful as a book for children. It’s extremely easy to read and often very funny. And yet you finish it with your mind blown. Simply by virtue of the fact that it makes some pretty cutting-edge brain science seem almost straightforward, it subtly expands the world of the reader. Afterwards, I wasn’t only more attentive to my own thought processes (hmm, I thought, as I watched my hand reach for the bottle of sauvignon); armed with a bit more insight into the way people around me might be thinking, it’s possible that it may also have liberated me, just a little, from some all too human anxieties (what are they thinking? Doesn’t she like me? Why hasn’t he called me?).

Uta Frith, an emeritus professor of cognitive development at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, and Chris Frith, emeritus professor at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London, are not only two of the most distinguished academics in Britain; they have also been married for 50 years. In Two Heads, their son sets out not only to tell their story – it opens with the couple, hand-in-hand, arriving at the cluttered, book-filled house in London where they’ve lived for more than three decades – but to enable them to explain to the layperson some aspects of their research (Uta is known for interest in autism and dyslexia; Chris once worked on the cognitive basis of schizophrenia). Along the way, they deliver many snappy explanations of how the brain works and some potted scientific history. The result is extremely rich, but never forced. It’s as if the brain is a fabulous gallery or museum, and they are simply taking us on an access-all-areas tour.

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Mar 01, 2022

The award-winning cartoonist’s inspiring new work, 20 years in the making, is a wild and discursive story with a potent message

There’s a good reason why Jordan Crane’s amazing new graphic novel, a gorgeous-looking book that comes with rounded corners and thick ivory paper, looks a bit like an expensive journal. Keeping Two is indeed a kind of diary, its narrative comprised almost entirely of the innermost thoughts of its two characters. Just as in a diary, nothing much seems to happen for pages at a time and yet everything does. The wild imaginings of this pair when they’re apart, emotional maelstroms that spiral exhaustingly like endless staircases, will lead in the end to an epiphany for them both: a rising gratitude each for the other that is symbolised by the sudden falling of swollen raindrops across each frame (an image that brought to mind the restorative arrow-shower at the end of Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings).

Crane’s characters have no names; they are a suburban Everycouple. When we first meet them, they’re at home, bickering about who will go out to buy supper and who will stay behind to deal with the dirty dishes. In the end, she goes and while she’s gone, he stands at the kitchen sink, his mind roaming, one thought leading to another, and on and on. He revisits an argument they had while they were out driving; he remembers a conversation they shared in which he insisted that deaths always come in threes; he ponders the impossibly miserable plot of a novel they both read. As the hours tick by, these interconnected and somewhat death-strewn notions begin to coalesce into piercing worry for his girlfriend. He misses her. Where is she? Why is she taking so long? Has something happened? Unable to restrain himself any longer, he heads out to try to find her, a decision that will ultimately precipitate the book’s final, transcendent scenes.

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Feb 21, 2022

In rich, clear-eyed detail, the novelist’s working-class childhood – and his bullying father – burst off the page, beginning one memorable afternoon…

Robert Edric’s memoir of his Sheffield childhood opens with one of the best set pieces I’ve ever read in this kind of book: an absolute masterclass in how to set a scene. It is 1968 or thereabouts, and in the small rented house the author shares with his family, something even more than usually unnerving is happening. Why, wonders 12-year-old Robert, has his father, a man whose vanity, bullying and tendency to show off conceal all manner of unspoken insecurities, chosen to come home early from work today? What on earth is going on? The situation can’t possibly be good: for obvious reasons, his son cherishes the 90 minutes between his arrival from school and the sound of his dad at the door. But… oh dear. In truth, the merest glance provides an explanation. His father, who is bald, is proudly sporting a toupee.

Edric senses he must tread carefully. When his father overrules his mother, who’s busy pretending that her husband simply has a “new hairstyle”, and proceeds to show his son how his expensive “Crown Topper” is stuck to his head with special double-sided tape, the boy tries hard to appear impressed. “You can hardly see the difference,” he says, feigning a search for the invisible seam between the toupee and his father’s real hair (it’s not even remotely invisible, for while the toupee is gingery, what remains of his father’s hair is grey). Edric already knows in his gut that this wig is an “explosive charge” placed at the centre of his home. What, for instance, will happen when people outside the family notice it? (And frankly, how could they not?) Mockery is bound to follow. Worse, he and his siblings and their mother will henceforth be complicit in an embarrassing charade. The wig will never be mentioned again. It will just sit there, either on his father’s bonce, or draped over the polystyrene head supplied by Crown Topper, until the end of days. It is the weave of doom.

My Own Worst Enemy: Scenes of a Sheffield Childhood by Robert Edric is published by Swift Press (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Feb 06, 2022

Poorly researched and lacking serious analysis, this ‘searing critique of male dominance’ is almost comically relentless

When I was a student, there was a craze among a small group of my friends for a bestselling self-help book called Women Who Love Too Much by an American therapist whose name was Robin Norwood. We were all feminists, though at this point (it was the late 80s) the f-word was painfully unfashionable, and on our shelves was lots of seriously good – if then already slightly retro – theoretical stuff: Kate Millett, Janet Radcliffe Richards, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar.

Also, of course, Our Bodies, Ourselves by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, in its millionth (or so) edition. But somewhat to our embarrassment, it was Norwood’s book whose spine was the most cracked. What can I say? At 19, and away from home for the first time, all we really wanted to know was how to stop wasting so much of our time and energy on horrible men.

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Feb 01, 2022

The eventful life of Frida Kahlo’s revolutionary husband makes for a rich, energetic graphic biography

In this frenetic, rumbustious new graphic biography of Diego Rivera by Francisco de la Mora and José Luis Pescador, the Mexican artist’s third wife (and fourth: they married twice) appears only fleetingly. We don’t find out where or how they met; the powerful connection between them, never fully explained, must simply be taken for granted by the reader. But perhaps the authors feel that Frida Kahlo has had a bit too much attention just lately: who could forget the snaking queues at the V&A’s show of her work in 2018? In their book, then, it’s Rivera who is centre stage. Like a raging bull, rushing into the ring for a fight, he dominates every page, all bristling melodrama and animal energy.

“There have been two great accidents in my life,” Kahlo said. “Diego was by far the worst.” There is surely hyperbole in this statement, however unhappy Rivera made her at times (both of them were repeatedly unfaithful). But you grasp her meaning: the sense of collision that accompanied her husband wherever he went. Though his talent was prodigious – he went to art school at 11 – it often struggled to find its place in a life that was by any standards overpopulated with incident. Born in 1886, Rivera was the son of a journalist who was involved in revolutionary politics, instincts he would famously go on to share. Travelling in Europe, he met Lenin in Paris and Stalin in Moscow; later, he offered refuge to Trotsky during his Mexican exile. But revolutionaries come in many guises. If he talked the talk – even after fame arrived, he remained proudly un-clubbable – he was also easily distracted, usually (though not exclusively) by women.

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Jan 22, 2022

Spats, KGB threats, dodgy Soviet plumbing… a London gallerist’s vivid memoir of organising a Francis Bacon show in the USSR really brings the artist to life

In July 1986, James Birch, a young London gallerist with vague designs on global domination, set off for the Soviet Union. It was his first visit and he had no idea what to expect. Mikhail Gorbachev had then been general secretary of the Communist party for one year: perestroika and glasnost were in the air (or, at any rate, in the British newspapers). But still, Moscow was a world apart. On the advice of his travelling companion, a “cultural entrepreneur” whose carpet business often took him to the USSR, Birch carried among his luggage a packet of chocolate digestives, just in case he found himself short of food, and cartons of Camel cigarettes, to be used as payment to all the drivers he would have to flag for a lift, there being virtually no taxis in the city.

At this point, Birch hoped to convince the Soviet authorities to allow him to stage an exhibition of work by his beloved neo naturists, a group of British artists that included the future Turner prize winner Grayson Perry. Through a Sotheby’s expert in Russian icons, he had already written to Tahir Salahov, the man who ran the Union of Artists, the organisation that strictly controlled the output of creativity in the USSR. But negotiations (if that’s the word) now needed to be conducted in person via a go-between, a KGB officer called Sergei Klokov, who seemingly had some kind of special responsibility for culture.

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Jan 16, 2022

The therapist draws parallels between grief and a nuclear meltdown in a book that illustrates publishing’s penchant for barely-there titles

Nick Blackburn began writing what would eventually become this, his first book, in 2017, in an office at Macclesfield hospital. That afternoon his father had died suddenly; while his mother signed some papers and was given back the plastic bag she’d used to bring her husband his pyjamas, he tapped out on his phone a thought about how, in death, “one dances”: an elusive notion that may have been stirred, he later realised, by an image from Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film, The Seventh Seal, which is set in a Sweden ravaged by plague.

The lines in question can be found, seemingly unedited, on page 28 of The Reactor; I know this because their author tells us of their Cheshire beginnings, and of what inspired them, on page 29. Blackburn, a therapist who specialises in LGBTQ+ issues, is always making the reader aware of the precise circumstances in which he wrote this or that part of his memoir; also, of the scepticism of his partner, James, over his habit of writing on the tube and other unlikely places, a practice that while producing plenty of shards, results in no coherent whole (“James says there’s nothing the miners’ strike and Chernobyl have in common”). Could it be that by pointing out the flimsy construction of his book himself, he hopes to encourage the reader not to think any more about it? To believe that its makeshift, provisional nature is the result of creative decision rather than, as it sometimes seemed to me, the result of creative failure?

Blackburn’s central conceit is that grief and a variety of things related to nuclear meltdown might be comparable. Grief and radiation are, for instance, both invisible, while his father’s end had, he thinks, commonalities with the disaster at Chernobyl, an event with which he’s fascinated: the hospital, in age and size, was not unlike a Soviet power station; his father’s system, like that of a victim of radiation, was poisoned (a build-up of calcium in his brain). But this description gives no sense of Blackburn’s narrative as it appears on the page.

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Jan 08, 2022

The couch-surfing daughter of a travelling salesman, the American novelist relates her long, fraught road to success with engaging verve

According to the writers of And Just Like That, HBO’s fascinatingly appalling Sex and the City reboot, it’s really perfectly easy to find contentment as a middle-aged single woman. In episode four, the recently widowed Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) returns to her old bachelor-girl flat, a place she kept on (because she is rich) untenanted after her marriage. There, having slept soundly for the first time in weeks, she pulls on a long tulle skirt that makes her look a bit like a fairy, and heads out to her local bodega to pick up a free coffee from its kindly owner. There is, we can’t help but notice, a spring in her step now, and thus the hapless viewer receives the message loud and clear. Happiness, it would seem, is only a simple matter of determination. Stride briskly on in your favourite outlandish clothes, a paper cup in your right hand and a mobile phone in your left, and daily rapture will be yours.

In her new book, I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home, the American novelist Jami Attenberg has a lot to say about writing; ostensibly, her first work of nonfiction is determined to stare hardest at the creative life, and all that such an existence involves (in summary: a lot of hard work, a certain amount of luck, and very little cash). As the daughter of a travelling salesman, she’s interested, too, in a certain kind of transience. For many years, she found it hard to settle. Attenberg was 45 before she owned a bed; she once slept in 26 different places in seven months. In the end, however, she just can’t help herself. The truth must be told.

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Jan 03, 2022

The Swedish graphic novelist perfectly captures the rush, confusion and pain of a marriage exploded by unexpected attraction

Elise, a fiftysomething writer, has work that she enjoys, a husband of 23 years with whom she is “uncommonly happy”, and two grownup sons. If her life is uneventful, it’s also replete; she is content and (this is the more important thing) grateful for such contentment. But then, as if a heavy stone had been hurled into a tranquil pool, it happens. At a party, she meets Dagmar, and something inside her shifts. Back at home, she considers her body in the bathroom mirror and thinks vaguely of what it might be like to sleep with this woman – or anyone! – at this point in her life. It is unthinkable and yet, it’s about to happen. She and Dagmar start sending each other text messages. Quite soon after this, they go to bed with each other, and it is wonderful.

Elise doesn’t lie to her husband. She tells him that she doesn’t want to leave him, but that she cannot stop herself from seeing Dagmar, and he makes his decision: they separate, and he begins a new relationship. But freedom doesn’t make life any easier for Elise, and not only because she misses Henrik so badly. Dagmar has a wife and two children, and she will not leave them for Elise – though neither will she break off with her. Live in the moment, she tells her lover; be happy with what we’ve got. But what have they got? Conversations conducted on cold park benches. Snatched weekends that are over almost before they’ve begun. An endless, lonely present. Which would be worse, Elise asks herself: a life without Dagmar, or this half-life of longing and WhatsApp? Is a little bit of Dagmar, however small, really better than nothing at all? And if it is, what does this say about the rest of their lives?

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Aug 01, 2021

The novelist on her first book of nonfiction – about women and disgust – and the complexities of prize culture

Eimear McBride, 44, is the bestselling author of three novels: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, which won the Women’s prize for fiction and the Goldsmith’s prize, The Lesser Bohemians and Strange Hotel. Her first work of nonfiction, Something Out of Place: Women and Disgust, is the result of an invitation by the Wellcome Collection to explore its museum and library, housed on Euston Road in London. She lives in east London with her family.

How did your new book come about?
Wellcome was a place where I was a temp, back in the old days before I was a full-time writer. I worked in the library: I was the stack monkey. So when I was asked about doing this, I was very open to the idea; I’ve always been fond of Wellcome. I didn’t go to university, so I’d never had the experience of spending a lot of time just reading.

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Jul 25, 2021

Anne Theroux recalls Paul Theroux’s flair for duplicity in a strange but moving account of the dying days of their marriage

What was it like to be Mrs Paul Theroux? If a person’s interest in this vexed subject depends on the extent of their fascination with the author of The Mosquito Coast, then I’m riveted. In my childhood, Theroux, novelist and travel writer extraordinaire, was one of our household gods, celebrated by my father not only for his books, but also for his exploits: manly behaviour to which he inadvertently gave licence in the eyes of some of his fans. But there are, I think, other reasons to read this strange, sad book by his first wife. What is it like to be married to the brilliance in the room? Answering this question used to be the work of feminist literary historians such as Diane Johnson, whose marvellous 1972 book about the first Mrs George Meredith was republished last year. Now, though, the wives themselves can have a go at bottling pain for posterity. Even if they end up doing a bad job, there’s power in their spiky, hard-earned wisdom.

Has Anne Theroux done a bad job? She’s not a writer, and nor does she pretend to be one. Indeed, part of her problem when she was with Paul seems to have been that she was overly in thrall to his talent. Like his friend (later ex-friend) VS Naipaul, she believes that art is long and life is short, and during their marriage she hoped that her husband – the kind of guy who went fishing with Robert Lowell and Jonathan Raban – would make a mark for both of them. There’s no getting away from the fact that her memoir, based on a diary she kept in 1990, the year she and Paul separated after more than two decades together, is often inconsequential and sometimes a bit Pooter-ish. Why does mentioning her hedge clippers make her so anxious? Does she mean it to be funny when she describes William Golding’s Booker prize-winning Rites of Passage as a novel “about fellatio in the navy in the 18th century”? In context, it’s hard to tell.

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Jul 20, 2021

This brilliant debut collection explores the intensity of teenage ennui and female friendship, with a deft feel for its slights and tensions

Almost without exception, the gorgeous, clever short stories in Lizzy Stewart’s It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be are preoccupied with girlhood, as seen through the eyes of women who are now old enough and wise enough to understand all the stuff that was once beyond their comprehension. Several touch on place and the idea of escape, and at least one explores, quite brilliantly, how women are both seen, and not seen, out in the world. The very best of them, however, encompass both teenage boredom, the fretful ennui that we tend to mourn as adults even as we recall how we longed to escape it, and the special intensity of female friendships, particularly those that go all the way back to the awkward, geeky years before we reinvented ourselves.

If Stewart, a London-based illustrator who teaches at Goldsmiths, intended this collection of comics, her first, to be a showcase of her talents, then she should soon be deluged by fantastic commissions. She can do everything. Sometimes, she’s plangent in black and white; sometimes, she’s vivid in full colour. One minute, you look at her drawings and think of Isabel Greenberg, that great weaver of modern mythologies; the next, you find she has brought Daniel Clowes (Ghost World) or the Israeli artist Rutu Modan irresistibly to mind. But there’s a certain consistency here, too. So much goes unsaid. She is so good at capturing ellipses and difficult silences, the way people talk at cross purposes. And her way with time is incredibly deft. In one story, set at a wedding reception, two women talk for the first time in many years, the weight of which you feel in every frame. In another, a couple of young women meet up in a pub. One lives elsewhere now, having left for university. Their conversation begins with jolliness and ease, but rapidly descends into inadvertent slights and hurt.

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Jul 18, 2021

The award-winning Turkish-British writer, whose new book explores love and politics in Cyprus and London, talks about generational trauma, food in exile and how heavy metal helps her write

If trees could talk, what might they tell us? “Well,” says the Turkish-British writer Elif Shafak, smiling at me over a cup of mint tea, her long hair a little damp from the rain. “They live a lot longer than us. So they see a lot more than we do. Perhaps they can help us to have a calmer, wiser angle on things.” In unison, we turn our heads towards the window. We’re both slightly anxious, I think, Shafak because she arrived for our meeting a tiny bit late, and me because this cafe in Holland Park is so noisy and crowded (we can’t sit outside because yet another violent summer squall has just blown in). A sycamore or horse chestnut-induced sense of perspective could be just what the pair of us need.

Shafak, who is sometimes described as Turkey’s most famous female writer, has a reputation for outspokenness. A fierce advocate for equality and freedom of speech, her views have brought her into conflict with the increasingly repressive government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In person, however, you get no immediate sense of this. Gentle and warm, her voice is never emphatic; she smiles with her (green) eyes as well as her mouth. And while her new novel, The Island of Missing Trees – her first since the Booker-shortlisted 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World – is certainly political, its themes to do with violence and loss, it’s also a passionate love story, one of whose most important characters just happens to be – yes – a gentle and sagacious tree.

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Jun 27, 2021

This powerful biography of a woman executed for espionage, along with her husband, recreates the suffocating atmosphere of the US in the 1950s and the horrors of her treatment

On New Year’s Eve, 1936, Ethel Greenglass, a young woman who was known in some New York circles for her lovely soprano voice, was invited to perform at a benefit for the International Seamen’s Union. Ordinarily, she was a confident singer; she had, after all, recently won a place in a prestigious amateur chorus, the Schola Cantorum, which performed at Carnegie Hall. But on this occasion, she was nervous, overcoming her anxiety only thanks to the ministrations of an 18-year-old engineering student called Julius Rosenberg. Introduced to her by a friend, Julius suggested that they find an anteroom in which she could rehearse for him until it was time for her to go on.

Once it was all over, Julius walked Ethel home and thereafter the two were inseparable. “I have loved her since that night,” he would say later. “And always when I hear her sing it is like the first time and I know that they can never part us – nothing will.” They married in 1939, in a Lower East Side Orthodox synagogue (though as active communists, religion was of little importance to them) and their relationship, happy and supportive, would end only in June 1953 when, having been convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage, they were sent to the electric chair. Could Julius have saved Ethel’s life? Yes. A confession, on his part, would have done it. But for all that she insisted on her innocence, this was not what she wanted. As she wrote to her lawyer, four months before the sentence was carried out: “I could retch with horror and revulsion for these unctuous saviours, these odious swine [who] are actually proposing to erect a terrifying sepulchre in which I shall live without living and die without dying.”

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