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May 08, 2022

A survey of the global response to coronavirus draws together fascinating data but fails to construct a compelling narrative about the spread of the virus

At the end of her wide-ranging analysis of the pandemic, Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, Guardian columnist and Good Morning Britain contributor, raises the dark question of whether Covid-19 will “be the spark for the third world war”.

Written before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Sridhar’s book is the story of a global crisis that has since been supplanted, at least in the headlines, by another global crisis. This is the problem with writing about still unfolding events – it’s easy to look out of date.

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May 07, 2022

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

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

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

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May 07, 2022

The DJ and writer on coming to terms with being a novelist, the appeal of middle-aged men and the book that broke her heart

Radio 2 DJ Sara Cox has come a long way since the 1990s when Channel 4’s The Girlie Show made her one of the original ladettes. In 2019, her memoir Till the Cows Come Home: A Lancashire Childhood became a critical and commercial success; now comes a debut novel, Thrown. Tapping knowledge gleaned while presenting The Great Pottery Throw Down and grappling with themes from loneliness to infertility, it’s a funny, touching story of four very different women who meet at a ceramics class on a housing estate near Manchester.

Have you described yourself as a novelist yet?
No! I’ve not got used to talking about it. It’s just you and the book locked away for so long that when it’s out there it’s exciting but quite scary as well.

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May 07, 2022

From the ad executive turned charcoal burner to the woman who built a new life in the woods, a new genre of books about radical reinventions is proving a runaway success

Not long after I had left my job, and my marriage, and my home, in quick succession, I ran into an old acquaintance outside a local coffee shop. She had heard, of course, about the dismantling of my life, and now she looked at me, bewildered. “You had it all,” she said, as she gripped her cup. “And now you have … nothing?”

For many years I had tried to live a life that made sense to others. I had swanned from a prestigious university straight into a job at a prestigious newspaper. I had got married young, to the man I began dating at 23, we had bought a beautiful home, got ourselves a cat, and begun to talk about starting a family. I had tried, very hard, all my life, not to put a foot wrong. And yet something inside me felt perpetually crushed.

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May 07, 2022

What will you ask the author, Guardian columnist and environmental campaigner?

Read an exclusive extract from his new book Regenesis here

Guardian columnist George Monbiot has long warned that farming is the biggest cause of environmental destruction. It poisons rivers, devastates forests and drives wildlife to extinction. Hunger is already a reality for millions around the world – and now the complex global systems that bring staple foods thousands of miles to our plates are beginning to flicker and fail.

In his urgent new book Regenesis, Monbiot goes in search of solutions.

He starts with the soil – “an ecosystem so astonishing it tests the limits of our imagination”. Under just 1 sq metre of undisturbed land teem hundreds of thousands of minuscule creatures, working unconsciously alongside fungi and bacteria to maintain the health of the planet. Could the secrets to humanity’s future lie under our feet?

To farm in harmony with this incredible subterranean world, Monbiot argues that we need a revolution in food production. He meets a pioneering vegetable grower in south Oxfordshire who nurtured the most unpromising patch of land imaginable to produce an astonishing bounty – without pesticides, herbicides, animal manure or any other kind of fertiliser. He hears from the scientists working to “grow” foods rich in protein and fats in the lab, without the environmental damage of livestock farming. And he learns how conventional crops that strip fertility from the soil could be replaced with perennial plants that produce year after year.

Following the exclusive extract published in the Guardian this week, we would like to hear your questions for George Monbiot. How far removed is the reality of food production from the pastoral myths of Old MacDonald’s Farm? What’s the worst thing he has seen in Britain’s polluted rivers? Are government farming subsidies a help or a hindrance? How can we take control of the global food system, dominated by corporate lobbyists and special interest groups? What is the future of farm-free food? Has he tasted – and enjoyed – lab-grown meat?

Post your questions in the comments below; these will close at midnight (UK time) on Monday 9 May. His responses will be published next week.

George Monbiot will discuss Regenesis at a Guardian Live event in London on Monday 30 May. Book tickets to join the event in person, or via the livestream here

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May 07, 2022

The pandemic has showed that everyone needs the state, but how can it continue to meet our needs in an era of mega-corporate power?

Lessons will be learned, says everyone trying to glean some wisdom from the calamitous pandemic that fell upon us in 2020. But looking back on the lockdowns and the deaths, family and friends unseen, the seismic social lesson was the shock reminder that everyone needs the state. There is no other saviour. Businesses big and small, alongside each citizen, rediscovered how much they rely on government to protect them. Here ends the long Thatcher era that cast its shadow down four decades. Her small-state message of the primacy of the individual and stand-on-your-own-two-feet brutalism is also a Covid victim, intellectually dead in the water.

The title of this book comes as a timely reminder that The Return of the State is here already. Its inevitability is thoroughly proved when it has been ushered in not by some socialist party but a stubbornly reluctant Conservative government. Anti-state in its marrow and all its sinews, it found itself obliged to borrow, tax and spend with Keynesian panache. Of course, they still kick hard against it as they keep trying to cut and cut again, impoverishing the already poor, but economically, socially and politically, they are finding out that small-state austerity is now a proven loser.

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May 07, 2022
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May 06, 2022

As the lives of a physician, an SS officer and his wife intersect at Buchenwald, so too do their lies and self-deceits, in this lucid and careful novel

The Holocaust novel is a relatively recent phenomenon. For decades, fiction maintained a respectful silence, deferring to the testimony of survivors. Even those survivors tended towards circumspection, with Primo Levi warning that such memoirs as his own should be read “with a critical eye”; that the Holocaust could not be wholly apprehended even by those who had endured it.

The present generation of novelists has proved less reticent and, in many cases, less punctilious. If bestselling fiction can, God help us, “raise awareness”, it can just as easily numb the senses. In a spate of popular titles, Auschwitz has been made the site of cosily redemptive parables, the historical frame cropped to Instagram dimensions.

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May 06, 2022

The writer calls the planned destruction of copies of five titles – by Bernardine Evaristo, Alison Bechdel, Imbolo Mbue and Stephen Chbosky as well as his own – ‘an unconscionable horror’

Dave Eggers, author of dystopian satire The Circle, has said he will provide free copies of his novel to schools in South Dakota, as well as copies of four other books that have been banned in the district’s schools.

School administrators in Rapid City thought The Circle, along with How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky and Booker prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, inappropriate for pupils. The district’s schools’ copies have been marked as surplus and are due to be destroyed.

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May 06, 2022

Music for the Dead and Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort; Out for Air by Olly Todd; Hiding to Nothing by Anita Pati; Emblem by Lucy Mercer; The Golden Thread by Amali Gunasekera

Music for the Dead and Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort (Bloomsbury, £9.99)
“Do you know what a ghost looks like? / It looks like blood.” Valzhyna Mort’s newest book in English could not feel more timely, despite UK publication lagging behind that of the US. Mort, a poet and translator from Belarus who now lives in the US, gives us wrenching poems of war, and of the struggle of living under the threats of imperial forces. Here, the languages of home and conflict twist together: “My motherland rattles its bone-keys. / A bone is a key to my motherland”; “On the borderlines of my motherland / wet laundry claps in the wind like gunfire.” Mort communicates the terrible psychological impacts of war and oppression in the grand tradition of Soviet-era poets such as Mandelstam and Akhmatova – “an air-raid warning rings / like a telephone from the future”. Each rich, dazzlingly intelligent poem brings to life the agonising toll history takes on the innocent.

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May 06, 2022

The actor brings the dark humour of Mason’s novel to life as she narrates the story of how mental illness changed the course of woman’s life

A pithy examination of marriage and mental illness shortlisted for this year’s Women’s prize for fiction, Sorrow and Bliss begins as its protagonist Martha splits up with her forbearing husband, Patrick, and moves back into her parents’ house. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Martha has a mental health condition. When she was 17, on the morning of her French A-level exam, “a little bomb” went off in her brain, prompting her to go home and crawl under her father’s desk. Over the next 20 years, in order to deal with the chaos in her head, she continues to seek out confined, dark spaces where she lies “like a small animal that instinctively knows it’s dying”.


The actor Emilia Fox reads Mason’s darkly funny novel, capturing Martha’s fury and confusion as well as her acerbic wit (the comparisons to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag are not wide of the mark). Woven into her story is her maladjusted family, who include her father, Fergus, a poet whose career stalled shortly after he was designated “a male Sylvia Plath”; her mother, Celia, an alcoholic sculptor who is charismatic yet cruel; and sister Ingrid, who is both protective of and exasperated by Martha. And, of course, there’s Patrick, a sweet-natured doctor whom Martha has known since her cousin brought him home from boarding school one Christmas after his father forgot to send him a plane ticket home. Martha, who has precious little love for herself, knows that Patrick is too good for her. But the question remains: will he give her a second chance?


• Sorrow and Bliss is available from Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 10hr 44min.

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May 06, 2022

The Jack Reacher novelist on the joy of Jane Eyre, the first thriller that inspired him, and the transformative power of Margaret Atwood

My earliest reading memory
The first coherent sentence I read was a newspaper headline: “Manchester closes down.” I learned to read aged three, by eavesdropping on my mother going over my older brother’s primary-school lessons, and I practised off the back of my father’s paper at the breakfast table (the Manchester Guardian, as it happened). I knew about shops and factories closing down, but I couldn’t understand a whole city suffering that fate. It turned out to mean that share prices on the Manchester stock exchange had declined the day before.

My favourite book growing up
I remember books, plural, as series, in retrospect all of them orphan fantasies involving independence and agency for children, as antidotes to my own repressed and restricted family situation: Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven, Richmal Crompton’s Just William, and so on. I also loved Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter books – incomprehensibly, since their world was a million miles from mine.

The book that changed me as a teenager
Technically I was a preteen, aged 11, and it was Anne Frank’s diary. The last line in my edition was: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” In context I found that bitterly ludicrous, and it accelerated my personal transition from a sunny and happy infant to a cynical and disappointed adult.

The writer who changed my mind
Margaret Atwood, with The Handmaid’s Tale. I was 31, married, the father of a daughter, and I thought I had it all figured out. But Atwood laced that narrative with micro-traps for people like me. Time after time I thought my reactions were right on, only to discover a line or a page later I was part of the problem. That book changed me profoundly, hopefully for the better.

The book that made me want to be a writer
The Lonely Silver Rain by John D MacDonald, the 21st and last in the Travis McGee series, but the first I read. An excellent thriller, but at 35, after 32 years of voracious reading, I truly sensed for the very first time what the author was doing, and how, and when, and why … and what an absolute blast it must be to do those things.

The book I came back to
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. As a teenager and into my 30s I found it arch, odd, artificial and generally unsatisfying, but on about my fifth try I suddenly found it wonderful. Now the intimate, through-the-proscenium narration made sense, and I felt the pain and the passion. Only 150 years late, but hey.

The book I reread
I don’t reread much (too anxious for the next great thing) but the leading candidate would be The Last Frontier by Alistair MacLean – at first glance a conventional cold-war pulp thriller, but remarkably astute about character, and very perceptive about the eastern bloc. I read it every 10 years or so, and always find something new and resonant as times change – especially now.

The book I could never read again
Probably The White Rajah by Nicholas Monserrat. Pirates, adventure, a good brother and a bad brother, the first real OMG plot moment I remember. I loved it as a kid, but the baked-in racism and acceptance of colonialism would repel me now.

The book I am currently reading
I read a lot of pre-publication books, and right now it’s Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor, out next January. It’s an epic crime-family saga set in India, and it’s magnificent. I’ll try to help it with a cover quote.

My comfort read
Shakespeare generally, often The Tempest or Romeo and Juliet, for the sheer incandescent joy of seeing magic invented before my eyes. I have felt intense euphoria after writing a great line maybe six times in my career – Shakespeare must have felt it six times an hour, or more.

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May 05, 2022

Prewar stars and genres come to life in a joyous account that draws uncanny parallels with the present

Bob Stanley’s first book, 2013’s Yeah Yeah Yeah, looked like a completely insane undertaking: the entire history of pop music – from the first British chart in 1952 to the rise of Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love – in one book. Astonishingly, it worked. It was wide-ranging and learned, opinionated and funny, and justly critically acclaimed. Clearly that success emboldened its author: the prequel, Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop, feels even more ambitious. It attempts to tell the story of pop from the turn of the 20th century, when the term was first used – a 1901 advert in the Stage for a sheet music lending library promised “all the latest Pop. Music” – to the rise of rock’n’roll. It feels vastly broader in scope, by necessity encompassing everything from music hall to Muddy Waters. Because Stanley continues the stories of pre-rock’n’roll stars long after the rise of rock’n’roll – one later chapter is titled Adventures in Beatleland – a book that begins in Victorian London ends, more or less, in the present day: a huge timespan to cover, even in 600 pages.

As with its predecessor, it shouldn’t work, but it does. Yeah Yeah Yeah seemed like the product of a lifetime spent devouring and considering pop, but Let’s Do It is clearly more of a voyage of discovery for its author. An inveterate record collector, Stanley’s writing crackles with the exhilaration of a man who’s encountered a whole new world of vinyl to obsess about. It adds a fresh excitement to some well-worn stories: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra. Never happier than when rescuing a figure from obscurity – whether it’s Jeri Southern, a contemporary of Peggy Lee whose career was undone by stage fright, or Sam Mayo, who billed himself as “The Immobile One” and seems to have been Edwardian England’s equivalent of Morrissey, lugubriously intoning songs called I Feel Very Bad I Do and Things Are Worse in Russia – Stanley can also muster enthusiasm even when he doesn’t particularly like what he hears. He hasn’t got much time for Al Jolson, a “bellowing ham” in blackface, but he can work out what people must have seen in him.

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May 05, 2022

Looking for a new reading recommendation? Here are some enticing new paperbacks, including illuminating biographies and a women’s prize shortlisted novel

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May 05, 2022

The author of the acclaimed The Secret Life of Church Ladies on the Black American Christian community, sexual shame and coming to terms with her queerness

When asked to choose their favourite story in The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Deesha Philyaw’s acclaimed debut collection, most people, the author tells me, say Peach Cobbler. This simultaneously funny and punch-in-the-guts-devastating tale focuses on Olivia, a young girl in the American south who believes the local pastor to be God, because when he visits she overhears her mother screaming “Oh, God!” from the bedroom.

Central to the story is the “best cobbler in the world” – a fruit pie that Olivia’s mother bakes for her lover each week, but which Olivia is forbidden from tasting. Philyaw set out, she tells me from her home in Pennsylvania, to write about “the Blackest dessert”, and peach cobbler came to mind. “In fact, the Blackest dessert is not peach cobbler, it’s pound cake,” she remarks in retrospect. “But I think my brain knew that there was more to peach cobbler than just the Blackness – there’s the textures, the sweetness, the sensuality of it.”

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May 05, 2022

A true-crime author investigates an occult double murder in this metafictional puzzle from the Mountain Goats frontman

Devil House begins with a proposal from true crime author Gage Chandler’s editor: a property is for sale in the California town of Milpitas. Abandoned after a spell as a pornographic book and video shop, it subsequently became the site of a little known, possibly occult double murder. The deadly weapon was a sword, and this was 1987: the peak of the satanic panic, when devil worship was supposedly rife and lurking in the grooves of every heavy metal record. Why doesn’t Gage move in, investigate the murders and write his next book?

This sets the stage for the third novel by American musician and author John Darnielle. Like its predecessor, Universal Harvester, Devil House presents as horror but spirals off, with mixed results, in several unexpected directions: it’s a critique of true crime and the impulses that inspire it, a fragmented character study and a metafictional puzzle. This last strand is the most intriguing, landing the novel in an interesting space somewhere between Atonement and the Serial podcast.

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May 05, 2022

The Pulitzer prize winner reflects on losing her father and finding a partner, in book that combines essay and memoir

Lost & Found, as befits a book about contrasts, is something of a hybrid. On the one hand, it is a memoir of two shattering events that took place almost simultaneously in Kathryn Schulz’s life: the death of her much-loved 74-year-old father, and her falling in love, in middle age, with a woman she calls C. It also veers between two distinct modes: the personal, where Schulz relates these events in affecting prose; and the more detached, essayistic style that will be familiar to readers of her Pulitzer-winning work in the New Yorker.

After establishing the fact of her father’s death in the book’s opening, Schulz takes the reader on a series of long, impersonal digressions on the subject of loss in general: “Phone chargers, umbrellas, earrings, scarves, passports, headphones, musical instruments, Christmas ornaments, the permission slip for your daughter’s field trip … the range and quantity of things we lose is staggering.” She is such a good writer of nonfiction that she is never less than shrewd and entertaining company, dispensing maxims such as “In the microdrama of loss, we are nearly always both villain and victim,” and providing thoughtful readings of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem One Art, in which the narrator contemplates “the art of losing”.

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May 04, 2022

A man haunts his previous existence in this laser-sharp novel that raises heady existential questions


What if the afterlife is no glamorous inferno, celestial paradise or reincarnation lottery but a bureaucratic nightmare, overfull and under-resourced, where you remember your death but have a second one to look forward to after a fresh round of ageing and disease? Worst of all, what if you had to get a job there – manufacturing umbrellas, say – in order to pay for basic goods and drink away your woes as it dawns on you that nobody in this realm knows what’s going on?

Steve Toltz’s fabulously impressive third novel, following the 2008 Booker-shortlisted A Fraction of the Whole and 2015’s Quicksand, cannonballs straight into heady existential questions, magicking up a vision of human life at once generous and absurd while wearing its considerable ambition lightly. Very lightly. A few pages in, realising that the story is told in a compulsively jokey, determined-to-impress voice with even the dialogue consisting entirely of well-timed one-liners and off-the-cuff aphorisms, I groaned: “Oh Christ – 400 pages.” But a headstrong novelist sets the parameters of their own realism, and soon the style clicked. Once it did, I struggled to keep track of how much there was to admire in Toltz’s relentlessly lively sentences, offbeat insights and unfaltering narrative energy.

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May 04, 2022

Award given for books that evoke the spirit of place goes to work that chronicles the author’s coming-of-age in Albania during the fall of communism

Academic Lea Ypi’s “darkly humorous and deeply serious” memoir, Free, which speaks “so resonantly to our lived moment”, has won the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje prize.

The award is given for books that “best evoke the spirit of a place”. Free chronicles Ypi’s coming-of-age in Albania at a time when it was one of the last Stalinist outposts in Europe. In December 1990, statues of Stalin and Hoxha were toppled, and life changed overnight for people, who were now able to vote freely, wear what they liked and worship as they wished.

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May 04, 2022

How the Aberfan disaster prompted one psychiatrist to launch a nationwide search for ‘seers’ who could predict the future

On 20 October, 1966, 10-year-old Eryl Mai Jones, from Aberfan in south Wales, told her mother about a dream she’d had the night before. “I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there,” she said. “Something black had come down all over it.” The next day, at 9.14am, a colliery waste tip came crashing down the hillside, smothering the village school and the surrounding houses. Eryl Mai was among the 144 dead.

Visiting Aberfan in the days after the tragedy was John Barker, a 42-year-old psychiatrist and superintendent of a large mental hospital in Shropshire who had an interest in “psychiatric orchids”, or unusual mental conditions. Barker had conducted studies on Munchausen syndrome, sufferers of which are known to feign illness, and was in the midst of researching Scared to Death, a book about people who accurately foretold their own deaths.

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May 04, 2022

Humans and ecosystems are intertwined in this meditative, beautifully sustained novel about coming of age in a globalised world

Daisy Hildyard’s first novel, Hunters in the Snow, was lyrical and haunting and brought well-deserved critical success. She followed it with a book of essays on climate change and human relations with plants and animals, The Second Body. In Emergency, Hildyard develops the strengths of her first novel and the concerns of her nonfiction. There isn’t exactly a plot but there are spiralling, intricate meditations on plants, animals, humans and ecosystems, gracefully told through an approximate coming-of-age story set in a village in a nondescript part of northern England.

Emergency begins with the narrator “old enough to be outside and alone”, sitting above a quarry, watching a kestrel and a vole who have not yet seen each other: “We all waited to find out who would move first.” This incident leads to the memory of playing with the children next door; then to a pet rabbit that ate its young (“Even today, she seems to me very human in the way her principles forced her to self-destruct”). We move on to an uneasy relationship with an eccentric elderly neighbour; then back to that moment in the quarry, which produces “gravel that was sent all over the world, the requirements of Norwegian motorways and new cities in China determined the shape of the quarry and the size of the shape it left”. The narrative touches on a neighbour’s work in the local abattoir; watching foxes in the garden at night; the arrival of the first computer in the village primary school, where one of the teachers usually carries bruises and fractures from her husband’s assaults.

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May 03, 2022

How the quest for a deeper understanding of particle physics has transformed the way we live

In 1895, the German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen noticed that a phosphor-coated screen gave off a green light when exposed to a cathode ray tube. He quickly realised that he’d found a new invisible ray. Asked what he thought when he saw this green light, he replied: “I didn’t think. I investigated.” In fact he spent seven weeks investigating, locked away in his laboratory and only coming out when his wife, Anna, insisted he eat something. He rewarded her concern for his wellbeing by using the unknown rays to make an image of her hand on a photographic plate. It proved that they could travel through skin and flesh: the plate revealed her bones and wedding ring. When she saw the image, she was appalled, saying: “I have seen my death!”

In his notebook, Röntgen used a letter to denote the unknown rays: “X-rays”. As Sheehy says, this is “possibly the best unintentional branding in the history of physics”. Within a year of his discovery, X-rays were being used to find shrapnel in soldiers’ bodies on the battlefield.

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May 03, 2022
Journalist and author whose darkly funny 1991 novel O Caledonia has found its place as a Scottish classic

Elspeth Barker’s first and only novel, O Caledonia, was once described by the novelist Ali Smith as “the best least-known novel of the 20th century”. But in 2021, 30 years after its first publication – and a year before the author’s death at the age of 81 – it was reissued by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and found its place as a modern classic of Scottish literature. The book has achieved international success and will be published this September by Scribner in the US and is set to appear in France, Spain (and also in Catalonia), Estonia and Italy.

The novel tells the glittering, darkly funny story of the short life of a young girl, Janet, who lives in a bleak Scottish castle, calls her cats subjunctives, keeps a jackdaw as a pet and learns poetry by heart. The only bright spot in her life is her risque Cousin Lila, whose room rattles with empty whisky bottles and smells of Schiaparelli’s Shocking and Craven A cigarettes.

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May 03, 2022

Monique Roffey, the Costa-winning author of The Mermaid of Black Conch, on the lit-boom that’s happening on the Caribbean island

Last week, Trinidadian writer Lisa Allen-Agostini’s novel The Bread the Devil Knead landed a coveted spot on the Women’s prize shortlist. As a fellow Trinidadian writer, this is both exciting and unsurprising. These days Trinidad is producing world-class female writers hand over fist. Allen-Agostini’s shortlisting comes on the heels of the announcement, two weeks ago, that Trinidadian writer Amanda Smyth had made the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction shortlist, the only woman on the list, and the first Caribbean writer ever to be chosen. Meanwhile, Celeste Mohammed has become the fifth woman (and third Trinidadian woman) to win Trinidad’s regional OCM Bocas prize.

Something has happened in Trinidad, in our small but dense hothouse of a literary world. Perhaps it’s 12 years of the Bocas literary festival, or five waves of feminism, or maybe it’s to do with the internet opening up opportunities for those from developing countries, but in the last decade Trinidad has produced a host of outstanding female writers. It’s a trend that anyone in Caribbean literary circles knows about. Myself, Smyth, Allen-Agostini, Mohammed and others are part of a “lit-boom”, and most of this boom is female. We are finding ourselves on the global stage, on prestigious shortlists in North America and the UK. This huge generational and gender shift would have been unthinkable only 15 years ago.

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May 03, 2022

The stories of three notable dissidents are the springboard for a fascinating study of exile and its effects

When Louise Michel – teacher, anarchist, and revolutionary-in-exile – arrived in London after seven years banishment in the South Pacific, she brought five cats with her. Escorted from the ship under the coats of sympathisers, the oceanian felines, exhausted from their 10,000-mile journey, recovered quickly when presented with “an enormous bowl of milk” under the doting eye of their mistress. Back in Paris a few years later – cats in tow – Michel tried to explain her solicitude for the fragile animals. Taken from New Caledonia, her place of exile, to France, the land of her birth, the cats represented to Michel something elusive, precious, instinctual; hard to find, easy to lose. They reminded her, she said, of home.

And although William Atkins’s Exiles is framed by the pain and self-discovery of exile, it’s home that draws his subjects out; raises them up; and pulls them back, in the end, to where they began. Exile isn’t, as Atkins shrewdly comments on Ovid’s poems on the theme, a place so much as a process, a movement. All three of Atkins’s subjects – Michel; Russian anthropologist Lev Shternberg, and deposed African king Dinuzulu – discover that it’s a movement that can last a whole life. As another of the book’s luminaries, Victor Hugo, notes: once an exile, always an exile. You can go back to the place you started from. But you can never go home.

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