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Archive by category: GuardianReturn
Jun 08, 2020

Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from the last week.

Because things are as they are, Waskindleuser has just started rereading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man:

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Jun 08, 2020

Fantasy author LL McKinney sets off trend for authors to reveal the amounts paid for their work, pointing to stark differences between ethnicities

Authors from Roxane Gay to Matt Haig have been sharing what they were paid to write their books in order to highlight the disparity between what black and white writers earn from their publishers.

Started by black fantasy author LL McKinney, the #publishingpaidme hashtag called on white authors to share what they had been paid by publishers, with many major names weighing in with their advances.

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Jun 08, 2020

One of the Malawian author’s many prison poems, this defiant work builds into a forceful cry of rage

Skipping Without Ropes

I will, I will skip without your rope
Since you say I should not, I cannot
Borrow your son’s skipping rope to
Exercise my limbs; I will skip without

Your rope as you say, even the lace
I want will hang my neck until I die;
I will create my own rope, my own
Hope and skip without your rope as

You insist I do not require to stretch
My limbs fixed by these fevers of your
Reeking sweat and your prison walls;
I will, will skip with my forged hope;

Watch, watch me skip without your
Rope; watch me skip with my hope –
A-one, a-two, a-three, a-four, a-five
I will, a-seven, I do, will skip, a-ten,

Eleven, I will skip without, will skip
Within and skip I do without your
Rope but with my hope; and I will,
Will always skip you dull, will skip

Your silly rules, skip your filthy walls,
You weevil pigeon peas, skip your
Scorpions, skip your Excellency Life
Glory. I do, you don’t, I can, you can’t,

I will, you won’t, I see, you don’t, I
Sweat, you don’t, I will, will wipe my
Gluey brow then wipe you at a stroke
I will, will wipe your horrid, stinking,

Vulgar prison rules, will wipe you all
Then hop about, hop about my cell, my
Home, the mountains, my globe as your
Sparrow hops about your prison yard

Without your hope, without your rope,
I swear, I will skip without your rope, I
Declare, I will have you take me to your
Showers to bathe me where I can resist

This singing child you want to shape me,
I’ll fight your rope, your rules, your hope
As your sparrow does under your super-
vision! Guards! Take us for a shower!

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Jun 07, 2020

Marian Keyes, chairing this year’s judges, says finalists ‘showcase different ways that women are funny’ and challenge belief that women can’t write comic fiction

Marian Keyes has hailed the “glorious” range of the 2020 shortlist for the Comedy Women in Print prize, but admitted “it’s going to take a long time before that whole ridiculous myth that women aren’t funny is done away with”.

The prize was set up by the writer and comedian Helen Lederer in 2018, after Keyes accused the Wodehouse award for comic fiction of a “sexist imbalance”. Only four women have won the Wodehouse prize in its 20-year history.

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Jun 07, 2020

A Swedish cellist’s encounter with a homeless junkie stirs memories of his own troubled youth in this radical short novel

If modernism exposed the ordinary realist novel as a kind of cover-up job on the essential messiness of human consciousness, its aversion to literary norms – chapter breaks, speech marks, tidy syntax and the like – have been debated ever since: even the chair of the Booker jury that gave the prize to Anna Burns’s Milkman suggested readers might find it easier going as an audiobook.

One suspects that Andrzej Tichý has no truck with that kind of thinking. In Wretchedness, his first book to be translated from Swedish, someone tells an artist: “You’ve got talent, but you know, you should do something simpler, so the man on the street can appreciate it, you get me, something straighter, clearer.” Note the reply: “Stop chatting shit, bro, I am the fucking man on the street.”

A blurry tornado of voices and timelines, this short novel unspools over eight paragraphs of run-on sentences swirling around the memories of a cellist raised on an estate outside Malmö. He’s heading for the train station to catch a concert in Copenhagen with two fellow musicians, discussing the ins and outs of microtonal composition, when he encounters a homeless addict begging for money – a run-in that prompts a dizzying array of criss-crossing memories of his own impoverished youth, marked by violence, crime and drug use.

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Jun 07, 2020

National Library of Israel is digitising collection of manuscripts and books dating back to ninth century

More than 2,500 rare manuscripts and books from the Islamic world covering a period of more than a thousand years are to be made freely available online.

The National Library of Israel (NLI) in Jerusalem is digitising its world-class collection of items in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, dating from the ninth to the 20th centuries, including spectacularly beautiful Qur’ans and literary works decorated with gold leaf and lapis lazuli.

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Jun 07, 2020

There are echoes of the great WH Hudson in an autistic teenager’s intimate reflections on the complex pleasures of immersion in nature

I picked up Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist with a degree of trepidation. It’s a hard thing to review the work of a teenager, harder still when his writing has been praised effusively by nature writers and naturalists alike. The diligent reviewer feels the need to balance kindness with serious critical examination, to see past the novelty of the backstory. McAnulty’s book follows a year in his life – from spring equinox to spring equinox, from his 14th to 15th birthday – as he and his family move from their home in County Fermanagh to a new life on the other side of Northern Ireland, in the shadow of the Mourne Mountains in County Down.

Four of the five members of McAnulty’s family are non-neurotypical – only Dara’s conservationist father isn’t autistic. McAnulty was diagnosed with autism and Asperger’s as a child and his condition is intimately tied up in both his writing and his interest in nature. His prose is both spirited and spiritual, performing an intensive phenomenological survey of the wildlife around his home, bringing the reader into deep, occasionally uncomfortably close communion with the insects, plants and, above all, the birds of Northern Ireland. 

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Jun 06, 2020

This fascinating study debunks false narratives about immigration and finds that, in common with other species, the urge to move is written in our genes

Sonia Shah’s last two books Pandemic, published in 2016, and The Fever, published in 2010, introduced her as a storyteller in a novel genre: travel books that went in search of the spread of disease - cholera in the former, malaria in the latter. That literature of track and trace, part detective story, part reportage, took Shah to remote corners of the world and to distant grid references of history. Her books were also prescient case studies of the way that human progress has been shaped by its love-hate relationship with microbes – how disease has caused empires to rise and fall and economies to stutter and implode. 

This book – a wandering narrative about why people wander – is likely to prove equally prophetic in the coming months and years, since it asks two questions that are already shaping our geopolitics: what causes human beings to migrate? And is such mass movement beneficial to more settled communities and nations? 

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Jun 06, 2020

The Shooting Party’s author on the reissue of her Orlando trilogy, her obsession with class and why she loves a ‘nice fat’ history

Isabel Colegate, 88, is the author of 13 novels, most famously The Shooting Party (1980), which is set on a country estate in 1913 and was made into a film starring James Mason. Born in 1931, Colegate’s first job was as an assistant to the literary agent Anthony Blond. She then became a writer, and for 45 years lived with her husband, Michael Briggs, the chairman of the Bath Preservation Trust, at Midford Castle in Somerset, where they brought up their three children. (Briggs died in 2017.) The trilogy of novels that began with Orlando King (1968) is now to be republished in a single volume. A reworking of the Oedipus myth, their hero arrives in London in the 1930s, where he begins his rapid rise to power… 

Are you pleased that Orlando King is coming back into print? 
I’m perfectly pleased. If you write books, on the whole you want them published. I started in 1958 with The Blackmailer, and wrote one every few years until 2002. Altogether, there are 14 [her last book was a nonfiction study of hermits and solitaries]. But once they started being published, I stopped worrying about them, really. I was just thankful someone wanted them, and was going to give me a tiny bit of money for them. 

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Jun 06, 2020

Years of thinking about school and childhood brought forth forgotten details that the author eventually spun into his epic portrait of life in Sheffield

In my experience, the starting points of novels lie years, often decades, before the moment when they start to coagulate into words on a page. For The Northern Clemency it was the memory, both exact and tantalisingly too complex for reconstruction, of a playground game.

It must have been in the winter of 1974-75, some sort of chasing game that seized the imagination of a small group, then a large group, then half a school, then disappeared. What were the rules? Only the memory of that passion had stuck, and a sense of people who were included and those who were excluded. It was the sort of thing a novel could investigate.

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Jun 06, 2020

Touched by Alan Buckley; Passport to Here and There by Grace Nichols; Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt; Later Emperors Evan Jones

“I bring you no fireworks”, claims Alan Buckley’s poem “Flame”, musing on a matchbox’s instruction to “use sparingly”. Touched (Happenstance, £10) is a debut collection that understands the value of subtlety and restraint, exploring personal trauma and the “fragile, desperate weight” of our lives through poems that speak elegantly of hard-won insight. “You shouldn’t ask how we’re doing this, but why”, proffers a fire eater in “Psychotherapy”. Taking as its subject a trip to the dentist, “Clinical” wonders “when the numbness will go”. Wisdom, like rhyme, is an optional ingredient in poetry, but when it is authentic, its effect can be both memorable and moving. Buckley has the confidence and skill to speak to us directly, even while his poems chart themes of uncertainty, memory and loss.

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Jun 06, 2020

After the plague, death became a silent companion for Renaissance artists. Hisham Matar recalls a month in Siena, exploring love, loss, mortality and art

In 2016, when I finished writing The Return, a book about my journey back to Libya after 33 years of not being able to go there for political reasons, and my failed search for my father, a Libyan political dissident who was imprisoned and made to disappear by the Gaddafi dictatorship, I went to Siena. I spent a month in the Tuscan city looking at paintings from the Sienese School, which covers the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. Works from this period have interested me ever since I first saw them at the National Gallery in London, some quarter of a century before, when I was 19, the very year my father was abducted. Something about their availability and vitality appealed to me. The time I spent in Siena provided a space to consider the connections between love and loss, death and art.

The Sienese School, which sits between the waning influence of the eastern church and the Renaissance, was dramatically changed by the 1348 plague, the Black Death. That pandemic was the most devastating incident in human history. It altered not only human society but the imagination itself. Its traces can be perceived today, and perhaps more lucidly during these difficult days. With their lack of modern technology, the 14th-century Sienese were even more incredulous than we have shown ourselves to be in the early days of the coronavirus crisis. The speed of the Black Death was so staggering that in just over a year it had conquered the known medieval world, reducing the population of each country by an average of 45%. To the Sienese artists, who were engaged in a fruitful competitive collaboration with one another and had established a supportive infrastructure of apprenticeships to train young artists, the carnage seemed very far away and the reports were so wild and grotesque that they could scarcely be believed. But then when they heard that Sicily had fallen, it became obvious that there would be no escape. Fear and hysteria gripped Siena. Some people ran into the countryside; others, believing themselves safer inside the metropolis, rushed to enter through one of the many gates that surrounded the city like open mouths.

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Jun 06, 2020

The rollicking story of how a maverick British envoy to the Bolshevik regime assisted in a couner-revolutionary plot to bring down Lenin

What if the bullets that Fanny Kaplan fired at Lenin on 30 August 1918 had taken his life and not just wounded him? Whether the Bolshevik regime, then still in its infancy, would have crumbled without its supreme leader is one of the more intriguing counterfactuals of the early 20th century. But would the revolution have been in greater danger if Fanny Kaplan had not shot at all?

The question may seem surprising but an answer can be found in Jonathan Schneer’s well-researched and lively book. Kaplan’s assassination attempt prompted the Bolsheviks’ security police, the Cheka, to swoop on a clutch of British and French diplomats who had long been suspected of plotting counter-revolution. Although none of them knew Kaplan or her plans (she was a left-wing Socialist Revolutionary, considered even more radical than Lenin), they had been preparing a series of anti-Bolshevik moves that could have dealt a more drastic blow to the revolutionary regime than Lenin’s death. They were due to be launched a week later, but the Cheka unknowingly thwarted them in the hours after Kaplan’s murder attempt.

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Jun 06, 2020

The World War Z author talks about how science fiction turned him into a disaster expert, Donald Trump, and growing up with parents Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft

Max Brooks is getting a little tired of being proved right. An author with cult appeal and massive sales, he is regularly referred to as “a soothsayer” and “a genius”. His 2006 novel, World War Z, was about a deadly virus originating in China that causes global devastation, and his compulsive new one, Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Sasquatch Massacre, is about people forced into self-isolation, huddling in terror from an unimaginable threat outside. But Brooks, 47, is dismissive of the hyperbole: “Everything I write about has already happened. The history of pandemics tends to come in extremely predictable cycles. So if I’m the smartest guy in the room, we’re in big trouble,” he tells me over Skype from his home in Los Angeles (our interview was in May, before the national protests after the killing of George Floyd, but well after lockdown started.). He has the jittery energy of the chronically anxious, and the easy confidence of one who has been thoroughly validated.

He certainly saw the coronavirus coming long before most politicians, and was making preparations in January. On 16 March, when most people in the western world were barely getting to grips with the lockdown, he made a video about the importance of social distancing to protect the elderly. He enlisted the help of the oldest person in his life, his father, comedy god, Mel Brooks. “If I get the coronavirus, I’ll probably be OK. But if I give it to him, he could give it to Carl Reiner, who can give it to Dick Van Dyke, and before I know it, I’ve wiped out a whole generation of comedic legends,” says Brooks, pointing to his father behind a glass door and listing his closest friends. The video has been watched more than 16m times. “I wasn’t given some secret information. I got my information from the news. Really deep state: turning on CNN and watching Wuhan getting locked down,” he says dryly.

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Jun 06, 2020

Questions of race have made me tired since I was old enough to understand what police brutality was – I can shine a light on the issues, but I’m no teacher or strategist

I am not a teacher. I have never trained as a teacher, nor do I think I’d be a very good one. So it always comes as a surprise that I’m expected to teach non-black people about race. One of the questions I was asked most, on my year-long Queenie press tour, was: “How do we solve the problem of diversity in publishing?” I’m an author. It’s not my responsibility to redress a system that is institutionally racist. I can shine a light on it, but I already have a job. And diversity corrections strategist is not it. Neither is teacher.

My inbox is filled by two types of people at the moment: those who have read and are highlighting the Black Lives Matter discussions in Queenie, and others who are demanding that I tell them how they can do better. They want to know what to read, what to post, where they can begin to learn. And these are hard conversations to have. At the moment, all I can feel is sadness. I feel grief and sometimes I feel helpless. Conversations and questions around race have made me tired since I was old enough to understand what police brutality was.

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Jun 05, 2020

With horror and unsettling humour, these concise short stories explore a world of human failure – and take the breath away

These 40 very short stories by the American author Kathryn Scanlan inhabit a world of human failure. Families dissolve through vagrant desire and inner disconnection. Lives are shaped by ordinary neglect: of spouses, of children and of selves. Relations between people and other animals are contingent, chancy and cruel; bodies and selves fail to cohere, and pleasure cannot sustain either itself or any meaning. Deaths are mere passings, with little weight or consequence. And yet The Dominant Animal is a deeply enjoyable book.

A wide variety of short literary forms echo through these stories: poetry, aphorism, fairytale, fable – there’s a story called “Fable” – and jokes, in shape if not content. In “Salad Days” a character dies when struck on the head by a golf ball. It is a story of losers that might be a comedy, but there are no comedic cues, leaving it open to the reader to take it as they will. The build-up to the final scene is joke-ish, and the effect is more punch than punchline; one that takes the breath away.

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Jun 04, 2020

It’s never too early to learn that racism is wrong and we should be doing something about it. These books will help show our kids how, writes publisher and bookseller Aimée Felone

The weight of the world seems heavier than ever right now. The incomprehensible killing of George Floyd has shone a bright light, yet again, on the pervasive racism faced daily by the black community. As we struggle to find the words to express our collective grief and pain, I’m reminded of Angela Davis’s call to action: “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” As a publisher and bookshop owner I willingly take great responsibility for creating a space that is accessible to all. A space that shines a light on stories that seek to be inclusive and anti-racist. 

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Jun 03, 2020

The author of The Mothers brings fresh sensitivity to the subject of African Americans ‘passing’ in this engrossing novel

Mallard, a fictional town in Louisiana, is a liminal “third place”. Established in 1848, it is inhabited by light-skinned African Americans “who would never be white but refused to be treated like Negroes”. In 1938 it’s the birthplace of “creamy skinned, hazel eyed” identical twins, Stella and Desiree Vignes.

Throughout the opening of this epic novel, Brit Bennett presents the townsfolk as protective of Mallard’s unique constituency. Those within the community marry to maintain the lightness of bloodlines and to ensure that “the darkest ones [are] no swarthier than a Greek”. With a judicious hand, Bennett outlines how this regulating of racial purity comes with no small measure of emotional cruelty. This, and the wider conservatism and privations of provincial life, encourages the twins to run away to the relative freedoms of 1950s New Orleans.

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May 20, 2020

Friendship with Kurt Cobain, spats with Liam Gallagher and a brutal chronicle of addiction … the Screaming Trees singer’s candid memoir

In 1992, on a tour bus heading to Canada, the American singer Mark Lanegan felt a tightness in the crook of his arm. By the time he reached Quebec, his arm had swollen to twice its normal size. Already an alcoholic, Lanegan – known to friends as “Old Scratch”, the pseudonym for the devil – had developed a ferocious heroin habit and would regularly share needles. In hospital he was diagnosed with a blood infection and given intravenous antibiotics. Using a pen, a doctor drew a line around the inflamed area which stretched from his shoulder to his wrist and told him: “I’m gonna come back in 12 hours. If the redness has gone outside the line, I’m afraid we’re going to have to amputate your arm at the shoulder.” Eight torturous days later, the swelling had subsided and Lanegan was discharged, his arm still intact. “Not for one moment did it cross my mind that I had done this to myself,” he writes in Sing Backwards and Weep. And so the next day he resumed shooting up.

Rock memoirs are traditionally full of myth-building and depravity, but Lanegan’s account of his tenure in the proto-grunge quartet Screaming Trees sidesteps the myth-building and rushes headlong into grand guignol scenes of degradation and self-abuse. Rare in its rawness and candour, the book is a brutal chronicle of addiction that began aged 12 when Lanegan was “reviled as a town drunk before I could even legally drink”, and continued into his 20s when he branched out into heroin and crack.

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May 06, 2020

By continuing her story of romance and recovery, the novelist risks tainting the first book. Can you think of other authors who have finessed the follow-up?

The world is as strange as it’s ever been, but Marian Keyes brought a smidgen of comfort today when she told Good Morning Britain that she was writing a sequel to Rachel’s Holiday.

I think the original, in which Rachel Walsh comes to terms with the fact she’s a drug addict, is Keyes’ best novel. In an interview around publication of The Mystery of Mercy Close, which is about the youngest Walsh sister, fierce Helen, Keyes told me it still rankled that “one journalist, I remember her name … described Rachel’s Holiday as forgettable froth”.

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May 06, 2020

In the End of October, a horrifying virus brings the world to standstill, a situation that the author has now seen for himself

The novel virus first emerged in east Asia. By spring, a pandemic suffuses the globe. In America, businesses shut down, airports empty, misinformation abounds. The president, a divisive figure with a tanning bed in the White House, offers baseless reassurances, and appoints the dubiously pious vice-president to lead the pandemic response. This would be a decent summary of the past two months, if it wasn’t the plot to The End of October, a new novel by Lawrence Wright, which flies thrillingly, eerily close to reality – a global outbreak of a deadly pathogen with no known cure in the kinetic, flammable information torrent of the late 2010s.

Related: Lawrence Wright: ‘It’s difficult to escape the Texas stereotype’

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May 06, 2020

Bernardine Evaristo, Max Porter and Raymond Antrobus rise to artist Sam Winston’s challenge in A Delicate Sight to submit to time in blackout


Some of the UK’s most acclaimed authors, from the Folio prize-winning poet Raymond Antrobus to the Booker-winning novelist Bernardine Evaristo, have been searching for the light of inspiration in an unusual way: shutting themselves away for hours in complete darkness.

These “darkness residencies” are the brainchild of the artist and writer Sam Winston, part of his immersive project, A Delicate Sight. Winston asked Evaristo and Antrobus, as well as Don Paterson and Max Porter, to spend hours in blackout before writing something inspired by heightened senses, identity, imagination, sensory reduction and rest. The project launched online on Wednesday, with workshops, interviews and a film by the Bafta-winning documentary maker Anna Price. An exhibition at the National Writing Centre and the Barbican, as well as a book, are due to follow later this year.

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May 06, 2020

A life-affirming study of the pleasures of tending a plot or garden, and soothing your mind

Sue Stuart-Smith, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, has a unique view of gardening: “I have come to understand that deep existential processes can be involved in creating and caring for a garden.” For her, a garden – such as her own at Serge Hill, Hertfordshire – is far more than just a much loved physical space. It is also a mental space, one that “gives you quiet, so you can hear your thoughts”. When you work with your hands in the garden, weeding or clipping, you free your mind to work through feelings and problems.. By tending your plants, you are also gardening your inner space and, over time, a garden is woven into your sense of identity, becoming a place to “buffer us when the going gets tough”.

It was Wordsworth who said that to walk through a garden is to be “in the midst of the realities of things”, to be immersed in the primal awareness not just of nature’s beauty, but the eternal cycle of the seasons, of life, death and rebirth. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed modern technological life had alienated us from the “dark maternal, earthy ground of our being”. He grew his own vegetables and argued that “every human should have a plot of land so that their instincts can come to life again”.

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May 06, 2020

For Florence Nightingale’s bicentenary, books by authors from Mary Seacole to Nina Stibbe show how far the role has evolved

Before Florence Nightingale, nursing was the domain of religious orders or women too disreputable to be domestic servants. The Crimean war, in 1854, was embarked on blithely by the British government, but the lack of medical provision sent the death rate soaring among the troops. Nightingale, though she struggled to find even 40 women skilled in nursing, seized the opportunity to be at the heart of the action. But this was just the start of decades of arguments about what, precisely, the role of the nurse is. Glorified housemaid or healer? Curer or carer? Manager, dispenser of medicines, administrator, consultant, therapist, angel of mercy?

Like most girls of my generation, I had a nurse’s outfit and read the Sue Barton books by Helen Dore Boylston, about red-headed Sue who embraces hospital discipline, proves brave and competent and finds love with Doctor Bill. Also well-thumbed was Florence Nightingale: A Ladybird Book – a beautiful lady rescues the entire British army by means of a lamp and a crinoline. But the appeal of nursing went far beyond the clothes; it was being part of a team, competent, compassionate, and there at the moment of crisis.

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May 06, 2020

Yes, it is very long. But Ellmann’s story mixes profundity with everyday madness in a way that will leave you wanting even more

There is a particular danger in enthusing over a big book. Namely, of becoming one of those people found on university campuses everywhere, who extol the virtues of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (“The footnotes really add another dimension to the narrative”) or Proust (“for the sensory experience”) or Thomas Pynchon (“for the radical deconstruction”). Who really has the time or energy to sit through 1,000 pages if not to just prove something to themselves out of endurance, or as a warped marker of their intellect?

For the record, I am a “big book guy”. I have read Foster Wallace, Pynchon and some Proust. In my defence, most of those texts were read for university courses and while I found them to be complex, multifaceted and linguistically interesting, they could have done with some serious pruning. The only big book that I have read that makes any sense at its length is the one I wish more people would give a chance: Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann.

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