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Sep 26, 2022

An implausibly perfect list of womanly virtues is kept afloat with genial buoyancy

Merry Margaret,
As midsummer flower,
Gentle as a falcon
Or hawk of the tower:

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Sep 26, 2022

The Lush frontwoman’s memoir is a nuanced, honest portrait of a troubled childhood – and a corrective to a much-mythologised era

The 90s are often seen as synonymous with champagne supernovas in country houses, oversimplifications ingrained in the lore of Britpop. What really happened? Artists of all kinds ignited and flared for a time, forming a kaleidoscopic night sky obscured in retrospect by the light pollution given off by Blur v Oasis, Loaded and ladettes, flag-waving and parochialism.

One of the most will o’ the wisp of these bands were Lush, co-fronted by two guitarists, Emma Anderson and Miki Berenyi, who met at school and became big enough to crack the US, invited on the second Lollapalooza tour in 1992. They weren’t quite the Lennon and McCartney of the underground – their nose-to-nose co-writes were few – but Anderson and Berenyi’s gauzy music felt like being cocooned in bejewelled spiderwebs, even as their distortion pedals ensured they rocked hard live.

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Sep 25, 2022

The vivacious actor’s weakness for gossip and glitz goes hand in hand with devotion to his wife in this touching diary, mostly written in the last year of her life

When Richard E Grant’s wife, Joan Washington, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer just before Christmas 2020, she didn’t really want anyone to know. “It won’t cure me!” she said. But Grant and their daughter, Oilly (Olivia), had different ideas. They felt they needed the support of their huge circle of friends: anything else would be too lonely. And perhaps, they also pointed out, this worked both ways. Grant remembered how upset he’d been on hearing, out of the blue, of Victoria Wood’s death in 2016. The news had made him feel he’d failed her; that he wasn’t close enough to her to be told her cancer had returned.

There followed a brief standoff. But in the end, Washington allowed her family to break the news and the three of them found themselves in the embrace of a highly sustaining – and sustained – outpouring of love and affection. Sometimes, this took the form of cheering visits: our now King Charles, for instance, arrived at their cottage bearing a bag of mangoes and flowers from Highgrove. Sometimes, it took the form of practical help: on Sundays, Nigella Lawson would send supper over in a taxi. Even Washington could see they’d made the right decision. When she felt utterly terrible, it was wonderfully distracting to have Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson eating ice-cream on her bed; to listen to Rupert Everett talk of his latest starring role (“I’ve just finished playing a gay stroke victim so might as well go straight to the Oscars now, darling, as I’m a shoo-in”).

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Sep 25, 2022

In weaving together the stories of two gay men, the award-winning Syrian-Canadian author constructs a vivid portrait of life under Assad

Danny Ramadan, a Syrian-Canadian author, is a prominent advocate of LGBTQ+ and refugee rights. Like his debut, The Clothesline Swing, which won the Independent Publisher gold medal for LGBT+ fiction, The Foghorn Echoes explores the lives of gay men born into a repressive culture.

The narrative is divided between Damascus and Vancouver. When teenage friends Hussam and Wassim fall in love in Syria in 2003, we guess it won’t end happily. They live in a society where homosexuality is criminalised and homophobia is rife. Tracking back and forth in time, Ramadan gradually reveals their overlapping trajectories; the love that binds them and their shared trauma.

The Foghorn Echoes by Danny Ramadan is published by Canongate (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Sep 25, 2022

Shamsie’s latest novel deftly follows a friendship forged in a Pakistan school over 30 years, but where is the tension?

You don’t have to read past the opening pages of Kamila Shamsie’s new novel to figure out the theme. Zahra, the daughter of a popular cricket broadcaster in 1980s Karachi, thinks that American movies seldom focus on female friendships, that these relationships often unfold as “a subplot to romance, never the heart of the story”. Shamsie, by contrast, is preoccupied with the platonic bond between Zahra and her classmate Maryam, the scion of a post-partition business family. We see them first as uncertain teenagers in Pakistan, hanging out after school in each other’s houses, chatting for hours about their furtive romances, their future lives. Thirty years later, the two of them are comfortably ensconced among the post-Brexit London elite. They go for long walks on Primrose Hill together on Sundays and hang out at each other’s plush apartments after work, still talking about the same things, really.

Shamsie portrays their bond as an alliance of opposites, but their individual backgrounds seem pretty adjacent. Maryam’s parents can afford to spend their summers shopping in London, while Zahra’s parents – her mother is a school principal – must turn up for their decently paying jobs in Karachi during her term breaks. The two girls attend the same expensive school, listen to the same music (George Michael, Tracy Chapman) and briefly fancy the same boy at 14. Later in life, Zahra becomes the leader of a well-known civil liberties group in the UK and is often photographed at events with Annie Lennox and while watching “cricket with Malala at Lord’s”.

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Sep 25, 2022

At the heart of this clear, thorough study of the London Underground map’s evolution is the man whose brilliantly comprehensible design for an untidy city has never been surpassed

This book’s title might suggest a history of the London Underground map of 1933 (which is technically a diagram), the one created by Harry Beck and resembling electric circuitry. But it’s really a history of London Underground maps plural, albeit with Beck as the star of the show. After all, there were underground maps before him, and there have been others since, because his original game-changer has been much messed with. Caroline Roope’s lucid and thoroughly researched study can also be read as a history of London Underground per se. In other words, she sets Harry Beck in the fullest possible context – a well-merited honour.

Beck supplied a brilliantly comprehensible map for an untidy city. It shows a metropolis of railway lines that are only ever horizontal, vertical or diagonal. For further clarity, he magnified the cluttered centre and minimised the sprawling suburbs, so, as Roope writes: “Uxbridge was as close to Hillingdon as Leicester Square was to Covent Garden.”

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Sep 25, 2022

The award-winning author of Life After Life dazzles with a supple tale rich in period detail about the shady goings-on at a Soho nightclub

Kate Atkinson’s new novel is a heady brew of crime, romance and satire set amid the sordid glitz of London nightlife in the 1920s. It begins when the notorious club owner Nellie Coker has just ended a six-month jail term for a licensing breach at one of her legendary Soho venues – an embarrassing episode that leaves her asking if she’s really getting value for money from the backhanders she’s giving police. Worse still, there’s a new broom in town: upstanding DCI Frobisher, keener than his colleagues to investigate a flood of missing girls, among them 14-year-old runaway Freda, whose dreams of West End stardom run aground on the night-time economy’s thirst for flesh.

Pungent with period detail sifted from contemporary accounts – the cocktails, the drugs, the clothes – Shrines of Gaiety sees Atkinson on her finest form since the chronological shenanigans of her Costa-winning sliding-doors saga Life After Life (2013). A marvel of plate-spinning narrative knowhow, not to mention a throwback in an era of I-fixated autofiction, it uses more than a dozen fully inhabited characters to propel a rompy panorama that nonetheless keeps in sight the pole-axing cruelty at the book’s heart: the traffic and exploitation of girls whom “no one would miss”, as someone says, and who aren’t, as someone else puts it, “the kind that a jury will believe”.

Atkinson’s regular readers will recognise her reworking past preoccupations: a conspiracy to hush up child abuse was also a plot point of Big Sky, the 2019 outing for her regular protagonist Jackson Brodie. When Frobisher asks a young librarian named Gwendolen to infiltrate Nellie’s empire, it echoes the spy thriller Transcription (2018), whose typist heroine is likewise drawn into a hazardous undercover mission. And when he moots the looming “death of western civilisation”, relieved in a key moment to find himself far from metropolitan “filth and ordure”, it usefully confines to a single point of view the slightly crotchety strain of thought that had freer rein in 2015’s A God in Ruins, which juxtaposed wartime sacrifice with the state of 21st-century Britain.

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Sep 24, 2022

A new biography by the fantasy novelist’s longtime assistant provides a joyful and painful closeup of the irrepressible writer who made the absurd strangely convincing

The day Terry Pratchett died, in 2015, my nine-year-old made a model of a bearded man in a big hat holding hands with Death. Few people have written as much about death as Pratchett. No one else has written about death in a way that would make a nine-year-old want to play with him. The Death who stalks Pratchett’s Discworld is a lonely, bewildered figure, unable to understand why he’s possibly not the ideal person to adopt a little girl, or why people are unsettled by the idea of him dressing up as Santa. But Death always gets you in the end. He got Pratchett through the back of his cerebral cortex and shrank his brain, something he referred to as “an embuggerance”.

Caring for someone who has dementia is an overwhelmingly vivid experience, full of pain and comedy. There are heartbreaking and funny stories in A Life With Footnotes – started by Pratchett himself but written and completed by his longtime assistant Rob Wilkins – about the things that Pratchett’s shrinking brain made him do. He once accidentally donated £50,000 to Bath Postal Museum, for instance. Moments like that can supplant your memories of what a person was like before; here, Wilkins, who started working for the author in 2000, attempts to recover Pratchett pre-dementia. His closeness to the subject means that the book is sometimes joyfully, sometimes painfully, intimate. The description of the day Pratchett’s daughter, Rhianna, was born, for example, is so animated by love, it’s as if this treasured moment was a jewel that Pratchett placed in Wilkins’s care, to ensure it would not be stolen away by the embuggerance.

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Sep 24, 2022

The author on his latest ‘whole-life’ novel, the brutal realities of modern publishing and the inspirational influence of Catch-22

William Boyd, 70, is the author of 26 books, including Any Human Heart (2002)adapted for television in 2010 with three actors playing the lead role of Logan Mountstuart – and Restless, the Costa novel of the year in 2006. His new book, The Romantic, is set in the 19th century and presents itself as a biographical fiction inspired by the personal papers of one Cashel Greville Ross, a Scots-born Irishman who fought at Waterloo, met Shelley, smuggled Greek antiquities and set out in search of the source of the Nile, among other adventures. Boyd, whom Sebastian Faulks has called “the finest storyteller of his generation”, grew up in Ghana and Nigeria and lives in London and the Dordogne, from where he spoke over Zoom.

Where did this novel begin?
My mid-20s were steeped in Romantic poetry because I spent eight years at Oxford not finishing a PhD on Shelley. I’ve always felt that nothing is wasted, and I was asking myself how I could recycle this material when I read The Life of Henry Brulard, the fantastically modern-feeling autobiography by [the 19th-century French writer] Stendhal, who I don’t think is much read in UK literary circles. He called himself a romantic because he kept falling in love – he felt it was a curse – and I decided that this store of knowledge I had about Romantic poets could gel with writing about someone with that kind of temperament.

How does writing a “whole life” novel – this is your fourth – compare with writing your thrillers?
It’s more challenging. In a tightly structured spy novel like Restless, the plot machinery is part of the allure. Here, the narrative has to seem like it’s happening randomly, like life, yet it can’t flag: Cashel is 82 when he dies, and you can’t write a 5,000-page novel with every month and every year. My other three whole-life novels are told in the first person, so nothing can happen and it’s still interesting because of the voice. I was conscious that writing The Romantic in the third person meant that things had to keep happening, even at the end of Cashel’s life. What I came to understand was that 19th-century lives were incredibly crowded; Anthony Trollope went to Australia twice and America six times.

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Sep 24, 2022

When the novelist first read Gretchen Gerzina’s 1995 book Black England, she discovered the complex and unexpected lives of black people in England before the abolition of slavery. Two decades on, the stories still have the power to astonish

I can say precisely where and when I first read Black England because I made a note of it on the flyleaf: Zadie Smith NW2 ’99.
I was in the habit back then of using the books I bought as a record of the places and times of my life. Can’t remember what I hoped to gain by it – but I am grateful now to recall that I must have been back in my mum’s flat in Willesden Green, north-west London, and finishing my first novel. And if I was doing that, I must have bought Black England in Willesden Bookshop (now defunct) with a song in my heart. In order to write White Teeth, I was having to try to convince myself day after day, in what felt like a vacuum, that such an entity as “Black England” or “Black and Brown England” actually existed – and was worth writing a comic novel about. It’s incredible to think of now, but by 1999 I’d gone through 15 years of formal education, including a three-year English degree, without ever being given a book to study that made any reference whatsoever to the presence of individuals like me in the country in which I was born. Not a novel, not a history book. Nothing. Anything I read in that direction I had to either find myself, or rely on my enterprising mother to find. It was usually easier for both of us to work by analogy, and read things about our American diaspora cousins. So we generally did that. But here it was: Black England! And not a novel! History!

Into my perfect ignorance poured all these remarkable facts. Some were just delicious because I could hardly believe they were true: “By 1596 there were so many black people in England that Queen Elizabeth I issued an edict demanding that they leave.”

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Sep 24, 2022

The Booker-shortlisted author on the enduring popularity of Olive Kitteridge, cancel culture and why she couldn’t avoid US politics in her latest Lucy Barton novel

Elizabeth Strout had just finished writing her Booker-shortlisted novel Oh William!, revisiting her much loved character Lucy Barton, when the pandemic struck. Now, barely a year later, we have Lucy by the Sea, another in the series, which follows Lucy and her former husband William as they flee New York for a damp house in New England, to sit out the pandemic. “Lucy and William were just so much in my head. I thought: OK, let’s have him take her up to the coast of Maine, and stick them on this cliff and see what happens,” Strout says from her house in Brunswick, Maine, which she and her husband have made their permanent home since lockdown. The two novels “work together”, she says. “I see them as a continuation of each other.”

Since My Name Is Lucy Barton in 2016, which introduced us to Lucy and her estranged mother, and the extreme poverty of her childhood, Strout has written another four books – quite a sprint for a writer who published her first novel, Amy and Isabelle, when she was 43, waiting another eight years before a follow-up, Abide With Me. While both were critically acclaimed, it was with her third novel, Olive Kitteridge, about a retired school teacher in Maine, that her career really took off. Her prickly, no-nonsense heroine with a fondness for proclaiming “Hell’s bells!” became an unlikely hit and byword for a kind of New England melancholy orneriness. The novel won a Pulitzer prize in 2009 and resulted in a devoted readership, helped along by an Emmy-winning HBO series starring Frances McDormand. Olive’s many fans will be delighted to know she pops up in this new novel (she’s now in a retirement home) inspiring another shoe-stealing stunt.

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Sep 23, 2022

From a difficult childhood to the absurdities of pop celebrity, the Lush singer’s story breaks the mould of music memoir

When Miki Berenyi was eight years old, her father, Ivan, would take her out on the town. At local nightclubs, he would buy her vodka and orange and the pair would hit the dancefloor. Soon it would be time for her to fulfil her main purpose, which was to act as bait for an “appropriately attractive woman”. Once Ivan had selected his target, his daughter would be dispatched to chat to her. A few minutes later, Ivan would apologetically retrieve her and engage the woman in conversation. “While I’m pleased to have been an accomplice – part of Dad’s dynamic duo – it’s a self-defeating skill because I am from that moment sidelined,” Berenyi recalls. “No longer the centre of Dad’s attention, I become bored and begin yawning, and he has the perfect excuse to usher his catch home.”

Music memoirs tend to race through their author’s childhoods to get to the meatier business of rock’n’roll stardom, but Fingers Crossed is not like most music memoirs. Fiercely honest and emotionally acute, it is evenly divided between Berenyi’s early life and her nine-year stint as the singer in British dream-pop outfit, Lush. While the band, who toured the world and enjoyed a handful of Top 40 singles in the 1980s and 90s, had their dissolute moments, they had nothing on Berenyi’s family life, which was characterised by extreme chaos and dysfunction.

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Sep 23, 2022

After his death in 2016, Rickman left a trove of revealing journals. In this exclusive extract, he recounts his 10 years playing Professor Snape – and the many political and Hollywood dramas along the way

• ‘An unbelievable Die Hard rip-off’: two decades of Rickman’s withering film reviews

From 1972, Alan Rickman kept a pocket diary in which he noted appointments, anniversaries, opening nights and addresses. In 1992, he started to produce a much fuller account of his life and work and bought diaries from a local stationer’s that gave him a page a day to play with. These number 26 volumes, several of which are colourfully and beautifully illustrated.

Why he kept a diary is unclear. Diarists come in all shapes, and their reasons for recording their lives are similarly diverse. Some people want to bear witness to earth-shattering events while others are content to detail what appears to be trivia but which, with the passage of time, acquires enduring significance. What follows is an edited account of the nearly 11 years defined by Rickman’s role as Professor Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films.
Alan Taylor, editor of the diaries

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Sep 23, 2022
Double Booker prize-winning author best known for her Wolf Hall trilogy based on the life of Thomas Cromwell

Dame Hilary Mantel, who has died aged 70 after suffering a stroke, was the first female author to win the Booker prize twice, which she did for the first two volumes in her epic trilogy of the life of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall (2010) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012). The novels, which collectively weigh in at about 2,000 pages, have sold 5m copies worldwide, were made into an acclaimed BBC series (2015) staring Mark Rylance, and adapted by Mantel herself for the RSC stage version (2014), a process that she loved. The trilogy culminated with The Mirror and the Light (2020) and the death of Cromwell; it turned out to be her final novel. All told in the present tense, the novels constitute a feat of immersive storytelling and a monumental landmark in contemporary fiction.

Before Cromwell, Mantel had written nine novels, including A Place of Greater Safety (1992), about the French Revolution; Beyond Black (2005), a characteristically dark and idiosyncratic tale of a medium in Aldershot; a memoir, Giving up the Ghost (2003); and three collections of short stories. Although she received good reviews, her sales were modest and none of her novels had even been longlisted for the Booker. “I felt very much like a niche product, very much a minority interest,” she said in an interview with the Guardian in 2020. But it was only with Cromwell and her decision “to march on to the middle ground of English history and plant a flag”, as she put it, that she found a huge readership. It was the novel she had been waiting all her career to write.

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Sep 23, 2022

The author of Wolf Hall will take her own place in history as one of the century’s greatest writers

The death of Dame Hilary Mantel brings an end to one of the most remarkable literary careers of the last half century. Her great historical trilogy, Wolf Hall, earned her two Booker prizes, dominating the cultural landscape of the early 21st century – on page, stage and television – for almost as long as her protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, reigned over the political one of the 16th.

She gave readers permission to look afresh at this most overworked period of history: not only at Cromwell himself, who was previously mainly known as the portly subject of a sombre Holbein portrait, but Henry VIII and all of the courtiers who surrounded him. Her scepticism about the saintliness of Sir Thomas More ruffled more than a few feathers.

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Sep 23, 2022

The beloved writer of the Wolf Hall trilogy and Beyond Black has died. Here, leading contemporaries pay tribute

Hilary Mantel, celebrated author of Wolf Hall, dies aged 70
The pen is in our hands. A happy ending is ours to write’: Hilary Mantel in her own words
‘We’ve lost a genius’: authors and politicians pay tribute to Hilary Mantel

Irish writer best known for her Booker prize-winning novel The Gathering

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Sep 23, 2022

A tender portrait of adoption; a zebra on the run; an uplifting poetry anthology; an exceptional YA debut; and more

When You Joined Our Family by Harriet Evans, illustrated by Nia Tudor, Little Tiger, £11.99
A tender picture-book exploration of the developing bonds between small children and adoptive parents, moving sweetly from first meetings to new traditions.

Eco Girl by Ken Wilson-Max, Otter-Barry, £12.99
Eve loves all the trees that grow near her home, but the huge baobab is her favourite. On her birthday, Grandma takes her deep into the forest and gives her a wonderful surprise – something that will preserve her love for the trees forever. This warmly colourful picture book perfectly evokes the ties between humanity and wild nature.

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Sep 23, 2022

Jayne Atkinson resists the cliches of the film star’s breathy voice in a tough, fictionalised tale of abuse and fame

Blonde begins with a hallucinatory prologue in which Death takes the form of a bicycle messenger threading his way through traffic to an address where the occupant is recorded as “MM”. Joyce Carol Oates’s “radically distilled” take on Marilyn Monroe’s life – a film of which comes to Netflix this month – delves deep into the actor’s early years when she was still called Norma Jeane, depicting a wretched childhood marked by a narcissistic, alcoholic mother; spells in an orphanage and a foster home; and marriage at 16. From there we follow her rise to fame, her largely unhappy relationships and her marriages to “the Ex-Athlete” (Joe DiMaggio) and “the Playwright” (Arthur Miller).

The narration is by Jayne Atkinson, who resists the urge to ham up Monroe’s famously breathy voice, and who conveys the actor’sMonroe’s ambition, vulnerability and anxious relationship with her public persona. Oates’s novel was criticised when it was published in 2000 for its blurring of fact and fiction. Today, though, it feels remarkably ahead of its time in its depictions of institutional misogyny, outrageous abuses of power, and a young woman struggling to stay afloat in an industry that cares little for her mental wellbeing.

Blonde is available from HarperAudio, 8hr 19min.

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Sep 23, 2022

The novelist on being inspired by the Beats, discovering Chekhov, and taking notes from Pierre Boulez

My earliest reading memory
Like many people who go on to have an overactive imagination, I was unwell as a child. I remember long weeks at home, in bed or with a duvet on the sofa, reading whatever I could get my hands on. My childhood hero was Tintin – so many frames from those books are indelibly imprinted on my mind. I also reread Roald Dahl’s The Witches again and again – despite, or perhaps because of, the nightmares it gave me.

The writer who changed my mind
Everything we encounter changes our mind to some degree. We’re works in progress, and the process is additive and cumulative. Just in the past few years: Karen Armstrong challenged my misconceptions about faith, Robin Wall Kimmerer permanently altered my perception of plants, and JM Coetzee made me a vegetarian.

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Sep 22, 2022

A friendship is charted from girlhood to middle age, in this admirably thorny novel of postcolonial adolescence and contemporary politics

Literary genres age, much as people do. Postcolonial literature – PoCo to friends – was once an angry young outsider leading the charge against empire. Now, much older and having made some money, PoCo seems to have compromised with the world, depicting chic, transnational lives jetting between humid capital cities and the glamorous locales of New York and London. Invariably educated at Oxbridge and the Ivy League, the characters pursue comfortable careers in politics, the media and, almost always, high finance. After a radical youth, it seems, PoCo has put away the placards and started to indulge capitalism.

So say many of PoCo’s former admirers. James Wood, glossing the position of those critics, describes the contrast they see between such “smoothly global” literature and “thorny” novels full of “sharp local particularities”, asking why anyone wouldn’t read “Elena Ferrante over Kamila Shamsie”? The Pakistani-born novelist’s new book is an opportunity to examine that contention, since Best of Friends has much the same premise as Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet: a friendship charted from girlhood to middle age, taking in education, puberty, sex, ideological conflicts, personal rivalries, intimate secrets – all transcribed, however, to one of those “global” contexts.

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Sep 22, 2022

The writer, president of the SoA for nine years before he stood down in March, claims the organisation needs ‘investigation from outside’

Philip Pullman has called for an external review of the Society of Authors (SoA), the UK’s largest trade union for writers, illustrators and translators. Earlier this year he stepped down as president of the organisation because he felt he “would not be free to express [his] personal opinion”.

The letter from the His Dark Materials writer, which was leaked to Private Eye magazine, is the latest in a line of controversies to hit the SoA, which began after comments Pullman made about Kate Clanchy’s controversial memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me.

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Sep 22, 2022

A stark warning about the extent to which Facebook et al distort our perception of reality

I joined Twitter in the apparently halcyon days of 2009, before Brexit, Sandy Hook denial, Covid-19 conspiracy-mongering, and the livestreaming of police brutality. At that time, it felt like a school playground: you larked about with like-minded individuals, made charming acquaintances and laughed at the antics of the resident show-offs. Maybe, for someone, somewhere, that version of social media still exists. But probably not. Anyone who has ignored the advice of the smugly offline to “never tweet” is aware that a successful afternoon on social media these days is one in which you somehow manage to evade harassment, racism, misogyny, videos of atrocities, or a distant family member’s radicalised rant about, say, the wokification of Waitrose.

Wading through digital sewage is the upfront cost of using these sites. Less obviously, we pay with our attention and creativity, freely providing the content that expands the fortunes of their founders. And yet social media remains an alluring prospect, especially for the lonely, the disfranchised, the frustrated and those who feel alienated from society. It offers a semblance of community, somewhere to belong, the impression of followers who appear to care about you, and, most compellingly,; a place where your views can be validated and reinforced.

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Sep 22, 2022

Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire by Caroline Elkins among potential winners of £50,000 nonfiction prize

Books about the history of the British empire and the abolition of the monarchy have been longlisted for the Baillie Gifford prize for nonfiction.

The announcement of the longlist for the £50,000 prize was originally due to take place on 13 September, but was delayed due to the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

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Sep 22, 2022

Greer’s eccentric novelist returns in a quirky sequel to the Pulitzer-winning Less – but is the reprise worthwhile?

Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer-winning 2017 novel Less is a frenetic and often hilarious account of “minor American novelist” Arthur Less navigating zany twists of fate during a series of literary engagements across the globe. Less bounces from Mexico to Morocco to India, jet-setting in a bid to distract himself from romantic turmoil back home. Absurdity and playfulness are the crowd-pleasing hallmarks – and the same is largely true of the follow-up, Less Is Lost.

Our narrator, Freddy Palu, is Less’s boyfriend. He recounts one of Arthur’s bizarre interludes early on, in the course of researching a travel piece. “For local detail and colour [Less] headed to a hot springs recommended by his lodge … He came upon the springs, peeled off his clothes and settled naked into the pool … very quietly but startlingly … an enormous moose came out of the forest, walked over and sat beside him in the pool … Less urinated freely in pure terror. And yet, in those few minutes, as man and moose, they watched the setting sun, and Arthur Less felt chosen … when it left him ... when the moose-moment had passed ... Less accepted that he could survive anything … to hell with doubt and worry.”

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Sep 21, 2022

A sprawling history of the illustrious Huxley family charts the evolution of science and society over 200 years

Charles Darwin was, by all accounts, a meek and conflict-averse man. In his written work he tended not to personally attack his adversaries. He rarely gave public lectures, and he never once participated in the fractious head-to-head debates that served as the public proving ground for scientific ideas in Victorian England.

Fortunately, the author of On the Origin of Species had outriders to do all that for him – most famously Thomas Henry Huxley, a mutton-chopped, square-headed, scientific pugilist who styled himself Darwinism’s “bulldog”. Huxley delighted in dragging down old orthodoxies, whether scientific or religious, in the name of evolution. When he went on a barnstorming lecture tour of north America, a continent Darwin never visited, the New York Daily Graphic featured a front page illustration of Huxley preparing to club Moses on the head from behind.

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