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May 24, 2022

Auction of fire-resistant edition comes ahead of an expected US supreme court ruling reversing the right to abortion

Amid political firestorms over books deemed by rightwingers to be unsuitable for school libraries, the author Margaret Atwood has announced an “unburnable” edition of her most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Canadian author, 82, appeared in a short YouTube video to announce the project, attempting to flambé the one-off tome with a flame-thrower.

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May 24, 2022

The Canadian author once again mines her cultural background in a wonderfully drawn celebration of intergenerational bonding

Miriam Toews’s fiction always puts me in mind of the paintings of Agnes Martin: both artists use repeating patterns, creating distinct pieces from variations on the same basic elements. For Toews, the motifs that are reworked through all her books are largely autobiographical. She draws on her cultural background – growing up in a strict Mennonite community in rural Canada – as well as her family history: both her father and her sister killed themselves after long battles with mental illness. While these recurring themes are threaded through her eighth novel, Fight Night, the tone is markedly different from that of its predecessor, Women Talking. That book fictionalised a historic case of sexual assault in a Bolivian Mennonite village, where multiple women were repeatedly drugged and raped while unconscious; if they questioned the resulting injuries and pregnancies, they were told by the male church authorities that it was the work of the devil. There is a seam of grim humour in that novel, but Toews has said that holding the pain of these women while writing it was one of the most intense experiences of her life, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that she has shifted to a more obviously comic register.

Fight Night is an exuberant celebration of female resilience – though it too is shot through with grief and pain, and its power is in showing how these are not merely inseparable but interdependent. The plot is spare and focuses on the relationship between three generations of women in one Canadian family, most particularly on the bond between the narrator, Swiv, and her grandmother, Elvira. These characters are at once wholly themselves and reassuringly familiar; they share DNA with a number of predecessors in Toews’s fictional universe. Swiv most nearly resembles Nomi Nickel, the teenage narrator of A Complicated Kindness, and there is an obvious link between them: Nomi’s childhood nickname was “Swivelhead”, from her habit of absorbing adult conversations by whipping her attention between the speakers. Elvira shares a name and part of her biography with the author’s own mother; in the novel, she too has lost a husband and a daughter to suicide and escaped a repressive small-town religious community with an authoritarian leader.

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May 23, 2022

This astute analysis examines the toxic lottery of Britain’s housing crisis and the devastating outcomes of having no fixed abode

If the government of one of the richest countries in the world can’t adequately house the people who live in it, then what exactly is its point? The journalist Vicky Spratt doesn’t make this case directly in her first book, but she does lay bare our state’s lack of fitness for purpose in its current condition, showing how scarce, unsafe, cramped, unaffordable and, above all, insecure housing lies at the root of Britain’s ongoing public health crisis.

How did we get here? To put it bluntly, we allowed ourselves to be bought off. Instead of investing in skills, industry and people, voters were consistently told that if they bought a house they’d be set for life, and if they didn’t, it was their own fault if they ended up poor and voiceless. Everyone knows it’s a busted flush: even Michael Gove, now housing and “levelling up” minister, has belatedly recognised the urgent necessity for more social housing if he’s going to live up to his job title.

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May 23, 2022

A ‘youthful-memory’ poem from A Square of Sunlight, a debut collection from a poet who didn’t start writing until her 60s

1963

The house is in Chatou, a southwest suburb of Paris.
It has proper French tree lined streets and stag beetles
noisily hovering under a fretted iron street lamp.
The kitchen is three times the size of our kitchen,
and foreign, hung with paintings. There are three windows
all without mullions but they aren’t doors.
It’s dark outside and I’m alone in the house, sitting
on the scrubbed pine table with my bare feet up on the dresser
because I’m painting my toenails and drinking real coffee.

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May 23, 2022

Eight hours a day is a myth. Embracing our individual sleeping patterns could be the key to a better night’s rest

‘Sleep: those little slices of death, how I loathe them”; “sleep is a criminal waste of time and a heritage from our cave days.” Quotes like these, somewhat dubiously attributed to Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Edison, nevertheless reflect our society’s difficult relationship with sleep. Attitudes are changing, but there remains a lingering disdain and suspicion. We know we need it, but resent the fact that we have to do it, and are sometimes misled about how to get it.

What we can be sure of is that sleep is critical for good health. It helps us form memories and solve problems, allows tissue growth and repair, promotes metabolic health and removes toxins from the brain, including amyloid beta which is linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Insufficient and disrupted sleep is now known to result in altered emotional responses such as irritability, anxiety, loss of empathy, impulsivity and a reduced sense of humour. Cognitive performance also takes a hit, leading to a loss of attention, concentration, communication, decision making, creativity, and the ability to multitask. Finally, poor sleep affects physiological health, leading to an increased risk of stroke, heart attack, infection, cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes and mental illness. Hopefully this encyclopedic list will convince you that insufficient sleep is so much more than the inconvenience of feeling tired at the wrong time. It should also prompt the question: so what is “good sleep”?

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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 22, 2022

This intelligent and knowing debut about a female academic’s dangerous obsession with a younger professor is less risk-taking than it thinks it is

“I ask this one thing:/let me go mad in my own way,” opens the epigraph – taken from Sophocles’s Antigone – of Julia May Jonas’s debut novel. It unfolds in the wake of seven allegations of sexual misconduct against a female academic’s husband, John (another professor at the same college), triggering, in turn, a slew of student signatures calling for his removal. The supposed “madness” of the novel lies not only in the whipped-up condemnation of John, but in the narrator’s slippery descent into her own murky infatuation.

The arrival of debut author Vladimir, a suave, second-generation Russian, “clearly a transplant from the city”, as a professor amid this wreckage spells further disaster for the unnamed narrator, whose wry and shrewd voice steers this novel. Creating a quartet of entanglements, Vladimir brings wife Cynthia (and young daughter) in tow, whose deep, unexplained trauma and “honourable depression” elevates her in our narrator’s eyes.

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May 22, 2022

The novelist’s collection of essays on translation only hint at what led her to take refuge in Italian

There aren’t many writers who radically remake their style over the course of their life: we might think of Joyce’s revolutions, Woolf’s renewals, or what Jeanette Winterson called the “furnace work” that Eliot undertook on his mature style for Four Quartets.

Rarer still are those who change the language they write in, but to names such as Beckett and Nabokov we can add Jhumpa Lahiri. At the turn of the millennium, Lahiri was a young star of American literature, winning a Pulitzer prize for her debut, Interpreter of Maladies. She could have carried on like that, but little over a decade later, after publication of her novel The Lowland in 2013, she stopped writing in English and took up Italian.

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May 22, 2022

This welcome humanising of Floyd might have benefited from a wider focus, including Black women’s experiences of racism and a global perspective

When George Floyd was in high school, his teacher Bertha Dinkins prophetically told the teen: “I want to read about you in the newspaper… that you have made history and done something to change society”. She could never have foretold that Floyd would become a household name because the world watched a video of police officer Derek Chauvin slowly choke him to death with his knee on his neck in 2020.

The killing sparked the largest protests ever against racial injustice, prompting society to discuss racism in ways it has not done for more than a generation. His Name Is George Floyd (written by two Washington Post reporters) attempts to use the life and death of Floyd as a vehicle to examine the bigotry that lies at the heart of the present-day US.

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May 22, 2022

The bestselling novelists are friends and fans of each other’s work. They talk frankly about the highs of writing and the lows of addiction – and why neither of them would do Strictly

“So, how does it feel to be a publishing phenomenon?” the Irish writer Marian Keyes asks TV producer-presenter and now fellow novelist Richard Osman, over Diet Cokes and chocolate croissants. “A record-breaker of record-breakers?”

For once, publishing “phenomenon” (pronounced as four words by Keyes for emphasis) is no exaggeration: Osman’s first novel The Thursday Murder Club sold 45,000 copies in three days in 2020 and his follow-up, The Man Who Died Twice (released in paperback this month), was one of the fastest-selling novels since records began. Stats-wise he is up there with Dan Brown and JK Rowling: as Keyes points out, the sort of “event” that only happens every 15 or 20 years.

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May 22, 2022

The experience of her own son’s drug addiction inspires the novelist’s overwhelming dive into grief, regret and love

In Julie Myerson’s latest work of fiction, the first-person narrator, herself a novelist, receives a fan letter from a student about a book she published some years previously. “I know it’s a novel, but it didn’t feel like one,” the young woman emails. “It felt more like a memoir – something about how direct it was – it almost felt like a confession at times.”

She could well be describing Nonfiction: A Novel. Though Myerson has built up a sizeable backlist of edgy, psychologically dark tales, this 11th novel cuts deeper than any of its predecessors. Its title may sound overly meta, but here is a book that instantly sucks the reader down into a swirling vortex of grief, trauma and powerlessness.

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May 21, 2022

You can’t fault the former health secretary’s proposals for improving patient care, but his slick prose fails to acknowledge the damage inflicted on the NHS by his party during his tenure as health secretary

On a bitterly cold weekend in October 2015, the views of 20,000 junior doctors, freezing in our scrubs as we marched on Downing Street, were encapsulated in one unforgettable placard. “I may not be a gynaecologist,” it read, “but I know a Hunt when I see one.”

No other health secretary in NHS history has incensed the medical profession quite like its longest serving incumbent. During his six-year tenure from 2012 to 2018, Jeremy Hunt presided over a catastrophic decline in NHS standards, the pain of year-on-year austerity budgets, failed pledges to increase the size of the NHS workforce (those 5,000 extra GPs he vowed to deliver by 2020 shrivelled, in fact, into 1,425 fewer GPs) and, most infamously of all, a series of unprecedented strikes by NHS junior doctors.

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May 21, 2022

The American author on feminist utopias, surviving the apocalypse and who is really responsible for the scourge of electric bikes on the pavement

Sandra Newman’s fiction is characterised by audacious conceits, utopian thinking and apocalyptic fantasies. In her latest novel, The Men, every single human being born with a Y chromosome suddenly disappears one late August day, leaving a world inhabited solely by women. The American author imagines the feminist utopia that emerges – and is then threatened when online footage emerges of the vanished men marching through a barren landscape alongside freakish elephants and cats.

Newman’s five novels include The Country of Ice Cream Star and The Heavens, a daring time-travel fantasy that moves between Shakespeare’s England and 21st-century New York. She has also written four nonfiction books, including the memoir Changeling. She lives in New York.

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May 21, 2022

The author on life improving with age, her crush on Richard Osman and eloping in Vermont

Born in Somerset, Wilson, 76, began her career writing crime novels, and for the teenage magazine Jackie. In 1991, she published The Story of Tracy Beaker, the first of her award-winning children’s bestsellers, many of which have been adapted for television and the stage. In 2005, she became the children’s laureate and three years later was made a dame. On 26 May she publishes The Magic Faraway Tree: A New Adventure, inspired by Enid Blyton. She has a daughter and lives with her partner in East Sussex.

When were you happiest?
A few years ago in Vermont, when I eloped with Trish to have a civil partnership ceremony.

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May 21, 2022

Can books unite us in divided times? Writers appearing at this year’s Hay Festival recommend the best reading to reconnect us

Lanier’s provocatively titled book may in itself appear divisive, but the tools for unity are abundant within this brief and lucid volume. Chief among them is Lanier’s reminder that strife and division –– conflict, in other words –– are encouraged, incited, stoked and rewarded by the online platforms that many of us use to communicate. Lanier is a longtime tech insider (he coined the phrase “virtual reality” in the 1980s) who still works for Microsoft, but he pulls no punches when it comes to indicting his industry. Insisting that we call “engagement” by its true name, “behaviour modification”, Lanier argues that we are being nudged into discord by the seemingly neutral conduits of our online communities – all to the profit of data-gathering systems in which we, the users, are actually the products. There is a silver lining to this frightening vision: we are not as far apart as we may think. Walking away is possible, and awareness itself is a useful tool. Lanier’s book provides that.

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May 21, 2022
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May 20, 2022

What happens if Nazi butchers are ‘reassessed’ in the name of national pride?

In March 1965, the festering corpse of 64-year-old Herberts Cukurs was discovered stuffed into a trunk in a seaside bungalow in Montevideo, Uruguay. During the 1930s, Cukurs’ exploits as a dashing aviator had made him one of the most celebrated men in Latvia. Under the Nazi occupation, he found a new calling as a prominent member of the Arajs Kommando, the SS-affiliated killing unit responsible for the burning of the Riga ghetto and the massacre of around 25,000 Jews in Rumbula forest, among other barbarities.

Cukurs was contentedly operating a pedal-boat business in Brazil when allegations of his crimes became public knowledge and the Latvian Lindbergh mutated into the Latvian Eichmann. In fact, Yaakov Meidad, one of the Mossad agents who had helped kidnap Eichmann in Argentina five years earlier, led the mission to kill Cukurs. He left on the body a folder containing a passage from Sir Hartley Shawcross’s closing prosecution statement at the Nuremberg trials, which imagines that humanity itself “comes to this court and cries: ‘These are our laws – let them prevail!’”

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May 20, 2022

Tell Me an Ending by Jo Harkin; Wrong Place Wrong Time by Gillian McAllister; Oxblood by Tom Benn; The Island by Adrian McKinty; and Dear Little Corpses by Nicola Upson

Tell Me an Ending by Jo Harkin (Hutchinson Heinemann, £16.99)
This compelling cautionary tale is set in an alternative present when it’s possible to have painful memories removed. Patients at the Nepenthe Clinic may choose to be either “self-informed”, remaining aware that they have had a portion of their past erased, or “self-confidential”, having the knowledge of erasure excised along with the memory. However, not only does this willed diminution of the self fail to bring with it the bliss of ignorance but, after the procedure has been shown to be faulty, Nepenthe is compelled to offer restoration to all clients, including those with no memory of having received treatment in the first place. Interconnecting narratives by multiple characters, including former and prospective Nepenthe patients and Noor, a psychologist from the clinic who comes to suspect that her boss is up to no good, weave into an intelligent ensemble piece that raises fascinating questions about how we use memory both to create and dismantle ourselves, and the ultimate mystery of who, or possibly what, “myself” actually is.

Wrong Place Wrong Time by Gillian McAllister (Michael Joseph, £14.99)
Another ingeniously plotted genre-bender – one in which time travels backwards. Set in Crosby, Merseyside, the action begins with conscientious divorce lawyer Jen Brotherhood witnessing her 18-year-old son, Todd, fatally stab a stranger in front of the family home for no apparent reason. The boy tells her and his father that “there was no choice”, and, when taken to the police station, refuses a solicitor. The following morning, Jen’s first thought on waking is to help her son, who is being held in custody – then she realises that it is not the day after but the day before, and the murder has not yet taken place. Each day she regresses, initially by only 24 hours but then to points in her life that have significance for what is to come, and she must search the past for the means to prevent the future crime from happening. It’s easy for characters to become ciphers in books that require this much fancy footwork for the internal logic to remain intact, but McAllister succeeds in making us care, and the result is a tour de force.

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May 20, 2022

As an adaptation of her bestselling novel comes to screens, Sarah Perry describes the joys of being on set – and how the production restored her faith in storytelling

In March 2021, I was driven by a stranger down to the Essex coast, and there I found myself at the end of the 19th century, in a place that had never existed, full of people who’d never been born.

At any rate, that was the impression; in fact, I’d been deposited in a field on Mersea Island, which is cut off from the Essex mainland by a causeway inaccessible at high tide. Filming was under way for an adaptation of my novel The Essex Serpent, and since Mersea was one of the locations making do for Aldwinter, the imagined village where the novel is set, I’d been invited to take a look. The field had been colonised by a series of trucks and trailers, and everywhere I looked crew members were dashing about with clipboards and headsets, occasionally interspersed with actors in top hats, or in petticoats inches deep in Essex mud.

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May 20, 2022

The self-deceptions of a dangerous groomer unravel in a portrait that reassesses his life and writings

Giacomo Casanova, that serial seducer of Enlightenment Europe, liked to think of himself as providing a social service. Whether it was romping in a gondola, or making out with two women at the same time (sisters were good, mothers and daughters even better) or getting it on with a girl who was passing herself off as a castrato (cross-dressing excited him), he insisted on the right of everyone involved to experience pleasure. According to Histoire de Ma Vie, the monumental and hugely priapic autobiography that he left behind at his death in 1798, Casanova very seldom resorted to violence or coercion. The worst thing that any partner might complain of was a certain post-coital tristesse which lasted only until the next sexual encounter arrived to chase it away.

Veteran biographer Leo Damrosch knows just how dodgily self-deceiving all this sounds. It is hard to see how an adult man who often slept with very young girls (10 was the legal age of consent) could be read today as anything other than a paedophile. Casanova’s insistence that everything was consensual overlooks, or over-writes, the brutal power dynamics in play. While he didn’t generally sleep with sex workers, he often slept with girls who were being prostituted by their parents or their protectors in return for favours, promotion, social advantage or even just a heavy purse. Venereal disease – he refused to use a condom or, as he put it, “envelop myself in a dead skin” – was not just a hazard but could, on occasions, be weaponised. And when the inevitable happened and Casanova did sire children, he was careful to have nothing to do with them. On one occasion he ended up sleeping with his daughter Leonilda, who produced a baby boy who was, of course, also his grandson.

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May 19, 2022

From communism to the Brexit referendum and conflict in Europe, this funny yet frightening Bulgarian novel explores the weaponisation of nostalgia

Life behind the iron curtain was an education in a certain kind of humour: dark, unsentimental and absurd. It understood that jokes had become shortcuts to the truth – apart from the bonus of laughter, they turned the wooden language of the regime against itself in ways that sincerity could not. My favourite joke from my time in 1980s Romania was: “Under communism, the future is always certain; it’s the past that keeps changing.” From the vantage point of 2022, it’s clear that this wasn’t just true of communism, and that the joke, if we can still bear to laugh at it, is also on us.

Time Shelter is Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov’s third novel, and for all its focus on the apparently bygone, it could not be more timely. A mysterious therapist, Gaustine, founds a clinic that treats patients with Alzheimer’s by recreating the pasts in which they felt most secure. The “past-clinic” begins with different rooms and floors, decorated with a completist’s precision and an obsessive’s eye for detail: particular cigarette brands, lampshades, wallpaper, archive magazines … Decade by decade, therapeutic time-shelters allow patients to inhabit their temporal “safe spaces”.

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May 19, 2022

The columnist and podcaster’s How to Live When You Could Be Dead is out in August heads the bestsellers list

Pre-orders of Deborah James’s second book have soared within days of it becoming available. The podcast host’s memoir-cum-self-help volume is topping the Amazon UK bestsellers list, ahead of Richard Osman’s popular crime novel The Man Who Died Twice.

The publication of How to Live When You Could Be Dead was brought forward this week, after the news that the author hasn’t long to live. It will now come out in August, rather than January next year, as first planned.

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May 19, 2022

A 12-year-old girl in rural Kenya has the power to see into her country’s painful past in this compelling, beautifully written novel

It’s the 1980s and 12-year-old Ayosa Ataraxis Brown lives in the fictional town of Mapeli, in the hills and forests of Kenya’s Rift valley. She declares herself “the loneliest girl in the world”, with only a transistor radio and the daily broadcasts of a poet named Ms Temperance to link her with the wider world. Her metaphysical companions are the Fatumas who haunt her house, “creatures of the attic, half girl and half reverie”, pulled from the Indian Ocean by a fisherman 400 years ago.

When her mother could not deal with the young Ayosa, she would leave her to the Fatumas, to soothe her crying and sing her to sleep. Although the house shakes with their grievous wailing when death notices are broadcast on the radio, no one else can see them; they “let all their parts slacken”, melting their human forms into the “jagged spokes” and “sticky, bitter gel” of an aloe plant in a seagrass pannier to conceal themselves from outsiders’ eyes.

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May 19, 2022

Set over one day in Dublin, this gentle, empathetic debut explores love and loss through the stories of two women

As a young woman, Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway established a theory about the problem of knowing other people. In each interaction we have, she believed, some trace of who we are is left behind; and so to know someone, “one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places”. Perhaps we should consider their encounters with culture, too: which aspects of themselves they find (and therefore we find) within works of art, music, literature.

Pen, the teenage protagonist of Emilie Pine’s debut novel, Ruth & Pen, describes Mrs Dalloway this way: “When she’d read that book by Virginia Woolf last summer, about the man with shell shock, Pen had understood why he had jumped from the window, and she had also understood how hard it was for his wife, who could not help him.” What Pen takes from Woolf’s fourth novel is equally instructive about her own character: the fact that she alights on Septimus Warren Smith, the traumatised first world war veteran, as the text’s fulcral figure. In Septimus’s sensitivity and vulnerability, Pen sees something of herself. School can be challenging for a young person with autism: she has few friends, and requires regular timeouts from class to cope with the sensory shock that each day presents.

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May 18, 2022

The concert pianist’s account of striving for musical mastery sits alongside a stirring coming of age narrative

To be a musician is to learn to live with paradox. That is the conclusion that Jeremy Denk, a first-rank American concert pianist, has come to after more than 40 years of work on his playing. In classical music, there are always more details to be fine-tuned and technical challenges to be overcome, but the obsession with total mastery can also be what keeps you from obtaining it. Denk’s mentor, the Hungarian-American pianist György Sebők, once told his pupil that his big problem was that he was a perfectionist – even though everything about his musical education was aimed at making him so. The true musician must accept that they cannot win, then, but keep trying anyway.

Denk’s credentials are impeccable: in addition to being awarded a MacArthur fellowship (or “genius grant”), he has toured the world, plays regularly at Carnegie Hall in New York, and topped the Billboard classical chart with his recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. In 2014, his take on Beethoven’s final piano sonata was chosen by Radio 3’s Building a Library as the best recording made to date on a modern piano. Reviewer David Owen Norris declared Denk “a modern pianist who knows all the old stuff” and who can deliver an authentic performance in the manner of a skilled orator: dramatic, compelling, but not hammy.

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