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Apr 21, 2020

Ben Hubbard’s thoroughly researched study of the Saudi crown prince is full of chilling detail

In early March, just days before the American publication of this biography of Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, news broke of the arrest in Riyadh of senior members of the royal family – close relatives of the young man who has generated many sensational headlines across the world in recent years.

No one had heard much of him before 2015, when his father, King Salman, ascended the throne. The crown prince is Salman’s sixth son. He differed from more sophisticated members of the Al Saud dynasty: he had not served in the military, his English was poor and he was educated only in the kingdom he is now seeking to transform.

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Apr 20, 2020

The writer’s latest short story collection is adept at pulling the rug from under your feet

My social media timelines are full of people posed looking serious with weighty novels, announcing gravely that they’ll be seeing out their coronavirus confinement by reading War and Peace or Infinite Jest or Europe Central. I have to confess that I’m so frazzled that I can hardly read a tweet without interrupting myself to refresh the news feed and so AL Kennedy’s latest collection of wise, funny, human short stories came at just the right time. I dipped in and out of them over the course of a couple of days and emerged feeling better about the world than I had in a while.

Kennedy is a strange writer, wilfully difficult to classify, hugely prolific. This is her seventh collection of short stories (Kennedy, at only 54, also has 10 novels and four works of nonfiction to her name). Here, we are introduced to a typically eccentric cast of characters, each of them caught in seemingly very different situations linked only by their struggle to answer the existential question posed by the collection’s title.

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Apr 20, 2020

In 2009, the UN climate summit in Copenhagen ended in failure when governments around the world failed to reach an agreement on how to tackle the climate crisis. Then along came Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican diplomat who spearheaded international talks and brought the world together to reach the historic Paris Agreement, where, just six years after “Brokenhagen”, 195 countries came to a consensus.

Now she has teamed up with her former strategy adviser, the environmental economist Tom Rivett-Carnac, to examine what the next 30 years will bring in their book, The Future We Choose. Richard sat down with Christiana and Tom in an interview recorded before the coronavirus outbreak.

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Apr 20, 2020

As Marvel cuts staff and publishers stop selling new titles, artists, shop owners and writers worry for the future of an industry worth billions

There are no new comic books.

Steve Geppi, head of Diamond Comic Distributors, which distributes nearly every comic sold in the anglophone world (or used to), announced this on 23 March, though senior industry figures already knew what was coming. The coronavirus pandemic had sunk retailers deep into the red. They couldn’t pay their bills to Diamond or rent to their landlords, because they hadn’t made any sales. “Product distributed by Diamond and slated for an on-sale date of 1 April or later will not be shipped to retailers until further notice,” Geppi wrote.

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Apr 20, 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.

First, a reflection on our times from Hedgehogtrotting2, who has been reading The Joy Of Snow by Elizabeth Goudge:

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Apr 20, 2020

Will the coronavirus pandemic return us to more traditional and accepting, attitudes towards dying – or reinforce our attempts to prolong life?

The modern world has been shaped by the belief that humans can outsmart and defeat death. That was a revolutionary new attitude. For most of history, humans meekly submitted to death. Up to the late modern age, most religions and ideologies saw death not only as our inevitable fate, but as the main source of meaning in life. The most important events of human existence happened after you exhaled your last breath. Only then did you come to learn the true secrets of life. Only then did you gain eternal salvation, or suffer everlasting damnation. In a world without death – and therefore without heaven, hell or reincarnation – religions such as Christianity, Islam and Hinduism would have made no sense. For most of history the best human minds were busy giving meaning to death, not trying to defeat it.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the Bible, the Qur’an, the Vedas, and countless other sacred books and tales patiently explained to distressed humans that we die because God decreed it, or the Cosmos, or Mother Nature, and we had better accept that destiny with humility and grace. Perhaps someday God would abolish death through a grand metaphysical gesture such as Christ’s second coming. But orchestrating such cataclysms was clearly above the pay grade of flesh-and-blood humans.

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Apr 20, 2020

Rhik Samadder is still moved by the story of a precocious foundling and a teenager exploring London’s East End and spiritual life

Funny, how rereading a book means turning the page back to an earlier self. Not funny ha-ha, I admit. But the art that has great significance to us is not necessarily either great or significant, and this week I was intrigued as to whether my childhood favourite had stood the test of time.

Mister God, This Is Anna (1974) portrays the relationship between a young man and a precocious foundling in London’s East End in the years preceding the second world war. It’s a vivid world of trams and barrow boys, cafe-frequenting matelots, street philosophers circling braziers by night, and sex workers described as the most beautiful women in the world. Working class, vibrant and kind, it still feels like a fairytale with no villains. The pared back, yet voluptuous line drawings of illustrator William Papas had stuck in my head too, and these came tumbling back with familiarity. I remembered the author’s name being a single word, Fynn – a pseudonym for author Sydney Hopkins – but I didn’t know what that was as a child. It felt appropriately simple for the book, as if it had always been.

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Apr 20, 2020

Publishers of novels shortlisted for the £50,000 prize appeal to organisers as book sales take a battering under lockdown

The six authors up for this year’s International Booker prize will have to wait a little longer to find out who won. The announcement has been postponed until the summer due to the severe impact of the coronavirus outbreak on book sales.

The winner of the £50,000 award for the best novel translated into English, shared equally between author and translator, was due to be announced on 19 May. But prize organisers say that the announcement of the shortlist on 2 April exposed the difficulties that readers were having getting hold of books during the lockdown.

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Apr 20, 2020

Wondering where the house keys are sets off a chain of associations leading to a much larger question

Safe Houses

I find that I have started recently
to keep spare keys to the front door
in several pockets, such is my fear
of being locked out. Caught by the wind
the door could shut quietly behind you,
leaving you to face the outer world alone.
Once safe inside I don’t put on the chain.

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Apr 19, 2020

The journalist and writer turns his stream-of-consciousness style to a question that has always niggled him – why isn’t he rich?

William Leith’s primary subject has always been appetite, and its close cousins compulsion and obsession. He first explored these themes in his newspaper columns, stagily self-absorbed fragments of a hungover life, and subsequently in two addictive books. The first, The Hungry Years, set his own capacity for excess – in food and drink and drugs – against a culture high on consumption; the second, Bits of Me Are Falling Apart, was a sometimes poignant, always curious, mediation on mortality, the consequences of that binger’s lifestyle. Both books were revelatory and funny, and dramatised their own premise way, way too much.

The Trick takes all of Leith’s writing habits – his mazy streams of consciousness (few writers are quite so enamoured of, or good at, watching themselves think) and his love of axiom – and, if anything, ups the ante. His subject here, is one that has always nagged away underneath his tales of excess – if he wants so much, why has he often been so profligate in his attempts to get it? Why has he been unable, that is, to accumulate wealth rather than debt?

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Apr 19, 2020

The young Irish writer, who has won acclaim for her debut novel, on writing in a time of crisis and finding comfort in small routines

It’s the author’s equivalent of the no-trousers-in-class nightmare: your first book is finally published but almost every bookshop across the world is closed. With the outbreak of coronavirus, this once unimaginable vision is now reality for hundreds of writers who have been cruelly caught out – a book newly published and no shelf to put it on.

Naoise Dolan is one such author. We were supposed to meet in a London cafe in mid-March, but events intervened and our cosy meeting was hurriedly changed – to a socially distant interview across two park benches, then a very socially distant chat on Skype. The 27-year-old Dubliner, who is here to promote her novel, Exciting Times, groans: “I just did a bunch of interviews in Ireland and now I know every single one is going to start: ‘I met Naoise Dolan in simpler times, in a simple cafe, as she sipped her simple flat white and simply shook hands.’”

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Apr 19, 2020

To live better we need to see food as more than a commodity, argues the author of Hungry City in this ambitious ‘all-you-can-eat buffet of thoughts’

In the opening passages of Sitopia, Carolyn Steel talks about the “Google Burger”, a €250,000 (£218,000) prototype piece of cultured meat, grown in a laboratory from bovine stem cells, with backing from, among others, Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin. This technology may, as George Monbiot has recently argued, help to save the world, but Steel is sceptical. She mistrusts the urge to find a technical fix, especially one that would put tech giants in charge of the world’s diets. Wouldn’t it be easier, she asks, if we just ate more vegetables?

To which the answer is both yes and no. Eating more vegetables is not difficult. The hard part is silencing all those cravings – biological, cultural, psychological – that urge people to eat a lot of meat. The still harder part, once some virtuous souls have disciplined themselves away from animal products, is to persuade billions of other people, for many of whom plentiful meat is a newlydiscovered and hard-earned luxury, to do the same.

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Apr 19, 2020

The prize-winning poet’s new collection, inspired by The Twilight Zone, is a witty, wily hall of mirrors

There is a scene in the black-and-white sci-fi TV programme The Twilight Zone, created by Rod Serling, where a character is unmasked only to reveal a second mask beneath the first. Don Paterson’s new collection, partly inspired by the 1959-1960 first series of the show, is rather like this. In its opening pages, he issues a teasing warning. He writes that readers should not be deceived by what might be assumed to be his confessional tone: “It isn’t, except on those occasions when it is.” The first thing one has to feel comfortable with is the knowledge that Paterson will not wear his heart on his sleeve, that he is more likely to borrow a sleeve than to let us know, directly, what it is he is feeling and that any emotional authenticity – or the fleeting confessions to which he alludes – are to be dispensed via a fantastical autobiographical hybrid, a mix of disclosure and disguise.

The idea of the collection – which sounds barmy at first – is of the midlife crisis as a permanent state of mind, akin to being marooned on some godawful planet where your other half is likely, at least some of the time, to be an alien. This, I thought, after taking a brief look at the poems, has to be self-indulgent baloney. But as soon as I settled down to read these poems properly, I felt different: I love the collection’s minutely wrought originality and the way that even dismaying subjects – loneliness, insecurity, botched relationships – have hilarious side-effects. The book made me laugh aloud. It is bracing to see Paterson – a dab hand at form (40 Sonnets won the 2015 Costa poetry prize) – returning with eloquence and vim to rhythms of speech. And it is worth adding that, although The Twilight Zone is brilliant, you need not be acquainted with it to enjoy the poems: they speak for themselves.

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Apr 18, 2020

Sharon Moalem offers an intriguing theory on how two X chromosomes give women the edge in everything from colour vision to coronavirus

It was noticeable from the initial outbreak in Wuhan that Covid-19 was killing more men than women. By February, data from China, which involved 44,672 confirmed cases of the respiratory disease, revealed the death rate for men was 2.8%, compared to 1.7% among women. For past respiratory epidemics, including Sars, Mers and the 1918 Spanish flu, men were also at significantly greater risk. But why?

Much of the reason for the Covid-19 disparity was put down to men’s riskier behaviours – around half of Chinese men are smokers, compared with just 3% of women, for instance. But as the coronavirus has spread globally, it’s proved deadlier to men everywhere that data exists (the UK and US notably – and questionably – do not collect sex-disaggregated data). Italy, for instance, has had a case fatality rate of 10.6% for men, versus 6% for women, whereas the sex disparity for smoking (now a known risk factor) is smaller there than China – 28% of men and 19% of women smoke. In Spain, twice as many men as women have died. Smoking, then, is unlikely to account for all of the sex disparity in Covid-19 deaths.

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Apr 18, 2020

John Loughery and Blythe Randolph achieve wonders in their life story of one of Francis I’s four morally exemplary Americans

An iconoclast with a long, peripatetic life is an ideal subject for a biography. Add in motley enthusiasms and fierce convictions, plus connections to many of the most audacious artists and activists of her time, and you have the makings of a masterpiece.

Related: Every Drop of Blood review: how Lincoln's Second Inaugural bound America's wounds

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Apr 18, 2020

The US author on writing about intimacy, the place for pretentiousness in art and surviving lockdown

Garth Greenwell’s second book, Cleanness, seems to flow directly from his sumptuous, sensuous debut, What Belongs to You. Like its predecessor, the new work concerns an unnamed American teacher working in Sofia who falls in love with a man who brings him both great pleasure and pain. The book is structured as nine interlinked stories, centred around the narrator’s affair with a man known only as R. The stories are not arranged chronologically but, rather, radiate out from the three middle chapters, which focus most directly on R. Greenwell is in Iowa City when we speak on the telephone – he is a visiting lecturer at the renowned Writers’ Workshop there.

Do you think of this book as a novel or a collection of short stories?
None of the available labels feels to me suitable to the book. I’m very happy for people to talk about it in whatever way seems most helpful to them. My first education in art was as a classical singer and my first experience of how pieces can be turned into wholes in art was singing lieder cycles. The closest model to the book in my mind is Schubert’s Winterreise. There’s a way in which I hope the nine chapters are like spheres of intensity that are placed in a relationship that is not the consequence of plot or the linearity of chronology, but is instead a kind of constellation, that there are charged relationships between them that is like a key change, or a mood, or an echo, or a motif. That may sound pretentious, but I think there’s a place for pretentiousness in art.

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Apr 18, 2020

The journalist and author on how nature can boost mental health treatment, even on lockdown

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of the Spectator and author of The Natural Health Service: What the Great Outdoors Can Do for Your Mind. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder following events she chooses not to disclose, and has intermittent anxiety and depression. She lives between London and Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, and is expecting her first child.

How did you first realise that being outdoors helped your mental health?
“I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors – I grew up in the country, and I was nerdily into gardening as a child. When I got sick, my GP insisted that I got out of the house every day. When she found out I used to do a lot of riding, she said: “Well can you book yourself some riding lessons?” She’d be as interested in what I was doing outdoors as she was in how my medication was working.

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Apr 18, 2020

East West Street author Philippe Sands uncovers secrets and lies on the trail of Otto Wächter, his devoted wife – and the son brought up to believe his father was a decent man

In the 1960s, my brother and I often visited our grandparents in Paris, near the Gare du Nord. As children, we understood that the past was painful, that we should not ask questions. Their apartment was a place of silences, one haunted by secrets. They only really began to be addressed when I was in my 50s, the consequence of an invitation to deliver a lecture in Lviv, in Ukraine. Come talk about your work on crimes against humanity and genocide, it said.

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Apr 18, 2020

Winning authors explain how the award changed their lives and share their favourite books by women

The Women’s prize was created because women were excluded from the world of literary accolades; in the last 25 years there has been tremendous progress, but female writers still face unique challenges. I am proud to have won. The shortlist was formidable and I was buoyed merely to be in the company of such artists and thinkers.
Winner’s pick: The Street by Ann Petry. It’s an amazing novel – a pioneer in the category of the literary thriller, written in the 1940s – and it is being reissued this year.

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Apr 18, 2020

Humour and skilful writing bring alive a collection of anecdotes that retell the Beatles story

In the build-up to the general election of 1987, Margaret Thatcher agreed to an interview with Smash Hits, the now defunct fortnightly pop magazine that had an estimated readership of 3.3 million. By way of attempting to avoid disaster, a prime ministerial aide called Christine Wall wrote her a briefing note that now reads as if it were intended for a visiting extra-terrestrial.

The most surreal passage was about the Beatles. “Probably the two most famous BEATLES songs amongst many hits are YESTERDAY which has been recorded by hundreds of people including FRANK SINATRA AND ELVIS PRESLEY,” Wall wrote, “and ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE which was performed live in front of 640,000,000 people on TV in 1968.” The latter dateline was wrong – the event in question actually happened in 1967. And on the day of the interview, it was clear that Wall’s brief and inaccurate summary had failed to sink in: before it ended and she got back to privatising everything, Thatcher had managed to credit the Beatles with recording the Tornados’ 1962 hit “Telstar”.

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Apr 18, 2020

The graphic design studio which created the Potter spellbooks, newspapers, tickets and posters on their latest magical book

In Soho, not far from the location of Diagon Alley, the magical world of Harry Potter has carved out an intriguing legacy. The House of MinaLima gallery holds the work of the graphic design studio which created most of the props from the Harry Potter films including spellbooks, the Daily Prophet newspaper, tickets and posters. The Marauders Map covers the floor in the gallery’s exquisitely designed rooms. The House started as a pop-up in 2017 but looks here to stay – a second gallery has now opened in Japan.

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Apr 17, 2020

An enthralling caper about a plucky band of activists with a crazy plan to free 900,000 battery hens in Iowa

Deb Olin Unferth’s strange and brilliant second novel is a caper story about a motley crew of lovable criminals banding together to pull off the biggest heist of their careers. All the familiar mechanics are in place: the plot that’s so crazy it just might work, the jaunty banter, the mishaps, love blossoming between two of the gang. We also get the stock characters: the spunky greenhorn with unorthodox ideas, the cantankerous old hand, the reluctant specialist who is tempted back for one last job. Here, though, the criminals are animal liberationists, and the heist is freeing 900,000 chickens from an industrial egg farm in the US. As the spunky greenhorn puts it: “All those birds. Missing. It’s wild, it’s disorienting, it’s beautiful.” The reluctant specialist retorts: “It’s impossible. Impossible to organise, impossible to get them out, impossible to find places to put them.” Then, of course, he helps.

If the book has a weakness, it’s in its relationship with the farming community in which it’s set. The idea of freeing the chickens comes from Janey, a disaffected, angry teenager with no history in animal rights activity and no particular affection for animals as far as we see. Her motivation is vaguely framed as rebellion, tinged by her contempt for small-town life in Iowa. Broadly speaking, the book seems to share that contempt, and its least appealing element is how it draws rural, working-class lives as one-dimensional, meaningless and devoid of emotional connection. People work at depressing, dead-end jobs, eat fast food and watch trash TV, and that’s all they ever do. Presumably, she’s trying to make the point that all life is turning into a battery farm experience, but since only the rural working-class characters get this treatment, it remains jarring.

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Apr 17, 2020

Streaming daily, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 2020 incarnation also features Marianne Faithfull and Tilda Swinton as readers, set against sound and fine art

“Alone, alone, all, all alone.” The cry of the Ancient Mariner, immortalised by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, feels particularly apposite today as the world self-isolates. Now the 18th-century poem is set to be reimagined, in a daily online reading by stars from Marianne Faithfull to Iggy Pop, Jeremy Irons and Tilda Swinton for a world audience in lockdown.

The Ancient Mariner Big Read, which launches on Saturday and was commissioned by The Arts Institute at Plymouth University, will see the 150-verse poem divided into 40 readings, with readers from Faithfull to Irons each recording three or four verses to be broadcast daily for free. (Faithfull recorded it before being hospitalised with the coronavirus.) The project will combine the readings with works from major artists including Marina Abramović, and refocus on the poem’s “urgent ecological message”.

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Apr 17, 2020

A comedic war novel, Eve Babitz’s tale of sex and drugs, and a dog who comes back from the dead ... humour can be found in the strangest places

Everyone knows that writers such as Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Coe and Paul Beatty are funny, so in this list I’m including a few titles that might be expected to crop up in a neighbouring category: “Great War Novels”, say in the case of James Jones’s The Thin Red Line. Jones is not much read today – and it’s easy to see why in the unlikely event that you get through From Here to Eternity – but I was curious about The Thin Red Line because of Terrence Malick’s masterly film. Well, the novel is recognisably the source, in that it takes place during the American assault on Guadalcanal in the second world war, but one slowly realises (almost disbelievingly, given the film’s stately cadences) that the book is actually a very violent comedy: “a sort of nonsensical hysteria of cruel fun”, as one officer sees it, more akin to Tarantino than Malick.

“Hysteria of cruel fun” is also an apt description of the bonkers world of Ivy Compton-Burnett. In scope (English upper-class households between the wars) and form (almost entirely dialogue), novels such as A House and Its Head and Manservant and Maidservant get by on the most meagre of narrative rations. Imagine the Wodehouse books, with Jeeves and Wooster stranded at the precise moment, in Gaspar Noé’s Climax, when the cast begin to notice that the punch has been spiked. Since this dread realisation can be expressed only within the clipped register of class and period, a tightly repressed mania holds sway. Relief takes the form of howls of laughter from the reader.

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Apr 17, 2020

These are brilliant guides to creativity, commitment and structure – whether you intend to write yourself, or just love great writing

“Most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one,” the great short story writer Flannery O’Connor once wrote. When it comes to good writing, we can tend towards a romantic vision of it being an unexplainable, inimitable act of divine intervention. It can be inspiring – and often unpalatable – to be reminded that the best writing is more often the result of of hard and constant work.

Even if the last thing you are planning on doing in lockdown is writing a novel, here are some of the best guides on writing: how to do it, how it works and how to be inspired to start. There were plenty of books that did not make this list that I would still recommend as entertaining, stirring and useful for would-be writers, such as The Writer’s Chapbook (a collection of advice given by authors in the Paris Review, which seems to be out of print now), Tillie Olsen’s Silences (important but not stuffed with practical advice) or Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life (ditto). And as any successful writer would say, the best thing you can do to learn how to write is read, read, read. But it couldn’t hurt to try a few of the following, too.

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