The Guardian Books News Feeds

  • Author Preti Taneja on realising she had taught the Fishmongers’ Hall attacker: ‘We were all unsafe’
    by Helen Pidd on November 27, 2021 at 9:45 am

    It was the day after the London Bridge atrocity that the writer discovered she knew the man responsible. Two years later, she reflects on that time and the fallout that followedIt wasn’t until the morning after the terror attack at Fishmongers’ Hall, London, in 2019, that Preti Taneja realised she knew the perpetrator. Her partner read out his name from a news report over breakfast: Usman Khan. The 28-year-old had taken the creative writing course she led in HMP Whitemoor, a high-security category A prison, two years earlier. The report said he had been shot dead by police, after stabbing five people, two fatally.Khan had been an enthusiastic student, keen to show off his literary knowledge as well as his writing. When he was released in December 2018, he was encouraged to continue working with the prison education programme Learning Together, which brings students into prisons to learn alongside people who are incarcerated. Continue reading…

  • Costa prize 2021 shortlists highlight climate anxiety
    by Alison Flood on November 23, 2021 at 7:30 pm

    Jessie Greengrass’s novel The High House, set in a flood-devastated Suffolk, was one of several of the nominees to focus on global heating, said judgesJessie Greengrass’s vision of a near-future Britain drowned by an apocalyptic flood, part of the expanding genre of climate-change fiction, is among the books shortlisted for the 2021 Costa book awards.Greengrass’s The High House follows Caro and her little brother Pauly as they try to survive in a flooded Suffolk, in a refuge created by Caro’s climate scientist stepmother. “Crisis slid from distant threat to imminent probability and we tuned it out like static,” writes Greengrass, in a novel that judges described as a “powerful book that makes you consider the privilege of being saved and the reality of survival”. Continue reading…

  • Magritte: A Life by Alex Danchev review – a man of mystery
    by Tim Adams on November 23, 2021 at 7:00 am

    This insightful biography of the surrealist painter contends that to his peers he was a hero and outsider who resisted symbolic readings of his artUnlike his surrealist contemporaries, René Magritte tended to keep Freud at a distance from his work – though few artists offer as much scope for armchair analysis. Speaking in 1961, he observed that “psychology doesn’t interest me. It claims to reveal the flow of our thoughts and emotions. Its efforts are contrary to what I know; it seeks to explain a mystery. There is only one mystery: the world.”One conclusion in reading Alex Danchev’s recreation of Magritte’s formative years, in this diligent and insightful biography (almost complete at the time of Danchev’s death in 2016), is that he was in denial about being in denial. In their village, 30 miles west of Brussels, at the turn of the century, the Magritte family was notorious for its chaos. The artist’s father, a tailor, was also a gambler and drunk who sometimes sold pornography to make ends meet. His mother was severely depressive (“neuraesthenic” was the contemporary term) and apparently had to be locked in the family home overnight for her own safety. The three sons – Magritte was the oldest – were known locally as “Cherokees”; there were widespread rumours of them mistreating animals, even starving a donkey to death in their backyard. Continue reading…

  • Diaries and Notebooks by Patricia Highsmith review – sex, booze and cold-blooded murders
    by Peter Conrad on November 21, 2021 at 7:00 am

    These philosophical, sometimes grumpy journals, unearthed after the doyenne of suspense fiction’s death, shine a light on her dual identities, the contempt she felt for other people and her erotic misadventures When Patricia Highsmith looked in the mirror, she saw both a lover and a killer. Early on, the reflected face had a fetching feline allure, but out of sight another facet of Highsmith seemed to belong, she said in 1942, in “a terrible other world of hell and the unknown”. As she aged, what she saw through the “evil distorting lens of my eye” changed: now a gravel-voiced, fire-breathing ogre stared back. Highsmith knew that there are always “two people in each person”, and in 1953 a nightmare confirmed this duality. She dreamed that she was incinerating a naked girl who shivered in a wooden bathtub; the funeral pyre was set with papers, presumably Highsmith’s manuscripts. Waking up, she admitted: “I had two identities: the victim and the murderer.”The characters in Highsmith’s novels accordingly come in pairs, doubles who are casualties of a fracture in what she called “the universal law of oneness”. Upright Guy and devious Bruno in Strangers on a Train begin as opposites but end as psychic twins after they exchange homicides. Tom in The Talented Mr Ripley kills the alluring Dickie, then assumes his identity. In the lesbian romance The Price of Salt, matronly Carol and girlish Therese merge, then are sundered by social disapproval: murders, which for Highsmith were “a kind of making love”, are here replaced by orgasms. Continue reading…

  • The Lyrics by Paul McCartney review – the stories behind the songs
    by Blake Morrison on November 20, 2021 at 7:30 am

    The former Beatle traces the origins of his creations in two sumptuous volumes edited by Paul MuldoonIf he hadn’t become a musician, Paul McCartney says, he would probably have been an English teacher. He has fond memories of his English teacher, Alan Durband, who studied with FR Leavis and taught the young Paul the value of close reading. When he wrote songs with John Lennon, the chords and melody came first. But the words mattered too. Where the straight-up, irony-free early lyrics wooed their audience through a flurry of pronouns – She Loves You, From Me to You, Please Please Me, etc – the later lyrics aspired to poetry.Take Eleanor Rigby, which began as a song about the kind of old lady McCartney did chores for as a scout during bob-a-job week and who he thought of calling Daisy Hawkins until working with Eleanor Bron on the film Help! and spotting a shop sign with the name Rigby in Bristol. “The secret to successful songwriting is the ability to paint a picture,” he says, and the picture of Eleanor Rigby “picking up rice in the church where a wedding has been” perfectly captures her loneliness, just as the line “writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear” does with Father McKenzie (originally Father McCartney, till a trawl through the phone book turned up a suitable trisyllabic alternative). It’s a homespun English lyric – “the face that she keeps in a jar by the door” alludes to Nivea cold cream, a favourite of McCartney’s mum – with universal resonance: Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs were among the song’s biggest fans. Continue reading…

  • There Is Nothing for You Here by Fiona Hill review – more than a White House memoir
    by Julian Borger on November 17, 2021 at 9:00 am

    Trump’s former Russia adviser charts her journey from County Durham to DC, showing how populism thrives when communities are abandonedWhen Donald Trump heard Fiona Hill was publishing a memoir, he characteristically tried to land a pre-emptive blow, dismissing his former Russia adviser as “a deep state stiff with a nice accent”. As Trumpian insults go, it was enough of a backhanded compliment for one of Hill’s friends to have it printed on a T-shirt as a gift.A lot has happened since Donald Trump’s impeachment hearings in late 2019 in which Hill gave evidence, not least a frontal assault on US democracy by his supporters. But people still remember her accent. There was something so calm and matter-of-fact in Hill’s flat County Durham vowels that was the antithesis of Trump’s bullying bravado. Her voice, that of a coalminer’s daughter from northern England describing the turmoil and corruption inside the White House, instantly raised the question: “How did she get there?” Continue reading…

  • The Sinner and the Saint review – the story behind Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment
    by Ian Thomson on November 15, 2021 at 9:00 am

    Kevin Birmingham’s clear and gripping new study of the Russian writer digs deep into the inspiration for RaskolnikovFor many in the west, Fyodor Dostoevsky is the most “Russian” of Russian authors. His work teems with holy fools, holy prostitutes, nihilists and revolutionaries. Crime and Punishment, his best-known novel, radiates a dark chaos and apocalyptic sensibility. Its murderous antihero, Raskolnikov (from the Russian raskolnik, “dissenter”), embodies a violent ideology of redemption through suffering that Vladimir Nabokov, for one, found distasteful. (“Dostoevsky is a third-rate writer and his fame is incomprehensible,” he judged.) For all that, Dostoevsky remains a quasi-divine figure in Russia. His Slavophile bias and Orthodox-heavy chauvinism endeared him to Stalin’s propagandists, who tailored his image to fit Soviet ideology.He is a difficult quarry for biographers, though. With his appetite for affliction and self-torturing asceticism, he was a casebook of neuroses. Joseph Frank’s celebrated five-volume biography, published between 1976 and 2002, devoted more than 2,500 pages to the life of a man who was dead at the age of 59 from untreated epilepsy and a gambling addiction (also untreated). Rowan Williams’s scholarly Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction concentrated instead on the novelist’s tormented Christian messianism. Continue reading…

  • Bed-hopping, martinis and self-loathing: inside Patricia Highsmith’s unpublished diaries
    by Emma Brockes on November 13, 2021 at 11:00 am

    From her carefree 20s and countless affairs, to literary success and later-life bigotry and rancour, the author’s extraordinary diaries reveal a woman determined to chart her own course• Extract: Patricia Highsmith on sex, women and writing Mr RipleyIn the summer of 1956, Patricia Highsmith was living in upstate New York with Doris Sanders, an advertising copywriter with whom she professed to be in love. The novelist was, at 35, worried about a mid-career slump, although this was more routine anxiety than reality. For the previous seven years, Highsmith had enjoyed a stretch of extraordinary creativity, resulting in the novels that would make her reputation – Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt (published in 1952 under a pseudonym and later republished, under her own name, as Carol), and The Talented Mr Ripley. And, after years of turbulence in her private life, she seemed, finally, to have achieved a measure of tranquillity. She and Doris bought a car. Highsmith started a vegetable garden. Improbably, she joined a church choir.A few months after moving upstate, however, she noted ominously in her diary: “The danger of living with somebody, for me, is the danger of living without one’s normal diet of passion. Things are so readily equalized, soothed, forgotten with a laugh, with perspective.” Continue reading…

  • Being Britney by Jennifer Otter Bickerdike review – one more time
    by Rebecca Nicholson on November 9, 2021 at 11:00 am

    An academic recounts the troubled pop star’s life, and explores her cultural meaning. But is it yet more exploitation?The industry built on Britney Spears is a vast and adaptable beast. Ever since the singer first appeared on the scene in 1998, at the age of 16, she has been a profitable asset. She has sold many millions of records and concert tickets and given her name to countless products, from soft drinks to cameras to perfume. Her personal life has also sold, and continues to sell, newspapers and magazines. She has kept gossip sites and paparazzi operations in rude health for decades. Now, the world seems to be asking, what was the cost?An old episode of South Park posed this question as early as 2008. It was made around the time that Spears was admitted to a psychiatric ward, and she and her estate were placed under the conservatorship of her father, Jamie, a controversial arrangement that has only just begun to shift. The episode, Britney’s New Look, was an excoriating satire on the savage treatment doled out to young women in the public eye; it ended with cartoon Britney being ritually sacrificed by the townsfolk, with the blame shared out between the press and the people. Continue reading…

  • Osebol: Voices from a Swedish Village by Marit Kapla review – distant voices, still lives
    by Nicci Gerrard on November 8, 2021 at 9:00 am

    The stories of a forest settlement’s 40 inhabitants add up to a moving, compelling paean to ordinary peopleOsebol is a village in Värmland, a province in Sweden. It stands with its back to the broad, beautiful Klarälven (clear river) and is surrounded by pine forests. Its population has shrunk to 40 and most of those who remain are middle aged or old. It is the kind of forgotten place that can be found all over the region. With its modest, red-painted wooden houses, logs stacked under the eaves against the cold dark that is always coming, its mosquitoes in the summer, mud in November and its long, unforgiving winters, it is an unlikely subject for a bestseller. Yet in Sweden, the voices that have come from this ordinary little village have become like an existential meditation on what it is to be alive, to be human, creatures living in time while the river runs on and wolves howl in the woods.I know Värmland because I married a half-Swede and for the last 30 years – this pandemic year aside – I have been there each summer and winter. To me, a visitor, the area retains its Carl Larsson romance. It means lakes to swim in, woods to forage mushrooms and get lost in, crayfish parties, wild strawberries, soft twilights, silence. The writer Will Dean moved to Sweden and he transforms Värmland’s endless forests and harsh winters into the menacingly grand guignol setting for his twisty thrillers. But Marit Kapla, originally from Osebol, has made her undramatic little patch of Earth into a microcosm of life. Its specificity allows it to be universal. Continue reading…

  • Terence: The Man Who Invented Design by Stephen Bayley and Roger Mavity review – a life and times of the king of style
    by Anthony Quinn on November 7, 2021 at 11:00 am

    The contradictions in Terence Conran’s character shine through in this profile by a former protege whose book is a mixture of score-settling and affectionWhen Terence Conran died in September 2020 his former employee and friend Stephen Bayley wrote an obituary for the Guardian that was waspish but also fond and funny, properly acknowledging his erstwhile boss as a revolutionary in taste and design. To postwar British homes that were 50 shades of sad and brown, Conran brought a verve and colour, and persuaded people to think about objects – a wine glass, a sofa, a rug, a salad bowl – as something beautiful as well as useful. Britain was a better-looking place because of him. Later, he opened a series of restaurants that transformed London dining in the 1990s and became almost emblematic of fin-de-siècle prosperity.That obituary expresses in about 3,000 words what Terence incontinently splurges over 300 pages. Bayley has a co-author in ad man Roger Mavity to supply a featherbed of reminiscences of his time as Conran’s CEO – he seems grateful merely to have breathed the same air as “Terence” – but it’s essentially Bayley’s project, with his initials hovering beneath most of the chapter headings. Bayley confesses his debt to Conran, who catapulted him from obscurity at “a provincial university” into a glamorous life of expense-account lunches, fine wine, fresh flowers, Cuban cigars – the 1980s, in short. And, like so many given a leg-up, the protege has never really forgiven his mentor. Continue reading…

  • Leonard Cohen: The Mystical Roots of Genius review – the God behind the guy
    by Tim Adams on November 7, 2021 at 7:00 am

    Harry Freedman’s workmanlike examination of how the musician’s spiritual life shaped his songs is rich in detail if a little too earnest in its quest for enlightenmentIn 1963, when he was 29, Leonard Cohen gave a speech in Montreal’s Jewish Public Library: “I believe that the God worshipped in our synagogues is a hideous distortion of a supreme idea – and deserves to be attacked and destroyed,” he said. “I consider it one of my duties to expose the platitude which we have created.” Cohen had come to imagine himself as part of an underground “catacomb religion” of poets, a new kind of “cantor”, “one of the creators of the liturgy that will create the church”.At that time, Cohen had never sung on a record or a stage. He had published two narrowly acclaimed volumes of poetry and a experimental novel. His speech, part of a symposium on the future of Judaism, carried weight in part because he was a son of one of the most notable Jewish families in Canada – his paternal grandfather was the founder of the Canadian Jewish Times, whose uncle had been unofficial chief rabbi. His maternal grandfather had written A Treasury of Rabbinic Interpretations. Cohen himself resolved to go “into exile” from his faith, to think up other possibilities for spiritual life like “love and sex and drugs and song”, for which there was little room in the synagogue. Continue reading…

  • Patient 1 by Charlotte Raven review – living with Huntington’s
    by Kathryn Hughes on November 4, 2021 at 7:30 am

    The former journalist’s unsparing account of her life before and after the diagnosis of a rare neurodegenerative diseaseCharlotte Raven got to her mid-30s without knowing that her family carried the Huntington’s gene. This cruellest of neurodegenerative diseases, which takes years to kill but ekes out the indignity by causing you to choke on your food or become aggressive with those you love, is passed down through the generations. Each child born to a parent who has the gene has a 50% chance of inheriting it. There is no cure and treatment remains essentially palliative – an increasingly heavy cocktail of drugs to baffle the body and dull the terrified brain.In this unsparing memoir, Raven tells the story of how she came to learn that her father had Huntington’s and, in time, that she too had inherited it. Unusually, “Murph”, as they called him, did not develop symptoms until his 60s, 25 years after the first signs of clumsiness and bad temper typically appear. There had always been vague talk of a “schizophrenic” grandmother, but Raven had never made the connection, and Murph was a man who relied on cheerful vagueness to repel direct questions. With Raven’s beloved mother, Susan, already dead from a heart condition, there was no one to help untangle the full story. Continue reading…

  • The Chancellor by Kati Marton review – in search of Angela Merkel
    by Philip Oltermann on November 3, 2021 at 9:00 am

    A diligent attempt to uncover the private life and motivations of Germany’s first female head of governmentAngela Merkel’s marathon tenure as Germany’s leader may have officially crossed the finishing line with September’s federal elections, but her final lap of honour could take some time. Depending on the pace of coalition talks between the politicians hoping to fill her shoes, she may yet give one more of her annual TV addresses in a caretaker capacity this Christmas.Still, as a new generation of German leaders rises to the fore and Merkel recedes into the background, the contours of her legacy are becoming easier to distinguish. There are quantifiable historic firsts: 16 years in office make her the joint longest-serving chancellor of the postwar era, equalling the record of her former mentor Helmut Kohl. She’s the first German chancellor to have the wisdom to step down of her own will, at the end of a full term. Continue reading…

  • The Young HG Wells review – the shape of things to come
    by Anthony Cummins on November 2, 2021 at 7:00 am

    Claire Tomalin’s restrained biography of the prolific writer and philanderer’s early years lets readers reach their own verdict on his life and deeds Continue reading…

  • Master of the Game review: Henry Kissinger as hero, villain … and neither
    by Lloyd Green on October 31, 2021 at 6:00 am

    Martin Indyk’s well-woven biography is sympathetic to the preacher of realpolitik condemned by many as a war criminalAs secretary of state, Henry Kissinger nursed the 1973 Arab-Israeli war to a close. The disengagement agreements between Egypt and Israel ultimately yielded a peace treaty. The Syrian border remains tensely quiet. Unlike Vietnam, in the Middle East Kissinger’s handiwork holds.The Sunni Arab world has gradually come to terms with the existence of the Jewish state. Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan have diplomatic ties with Jerusalem. Relations with Saudi Arabia are possible. Continue reading…

  • From Manchester With Love by Paul Morley review – an epic life of Tony Wilson
    by Miranda Sawyer on October 25, 2021 at 8:00 am

    The music journalist’s celebration of the TV presenter turned Factory Records kingpin captures the energy and intelligence of a complex but inspiring manThere’s a Jeremy Deller artwork, The History of the World 1997-2004, which connects acid house with brass bands. It does so via long, looping arrows and scrawled words such as “Throbbing Gristle”, “privatisation” and “the miners’ strike”; a visual mind map of connections between outsider music, local culture and political movements. Paul Morley’s detailed, epic book about the life of Tony Wilson is like that artwork.Actually, if you could zoom into the area of Deller’s artwork that ticks off “the north”, “Gerald”, “808 State” and, of course, “the Hac” (the Hacienda nightclub), then this book would be there, mapping the particular network that joins all these entities and others, moving between the past and the present, and showing Wilson as a vital hub. Continue reading…

  • 1,000 Years of Joys and Sorrows by Ai Weiwei review – a life of dissent
    by Sean O’Hagan on October 24, 2021 at 6:00 am

    The artist’s memoir reveals a rebellious spirit, inherited from his persecuted poet father, which sustained him through detention by Chinese authoritiesIn 1957, the year of Ai Weiwei’s birth, China’s leader, Chairman Mao, launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign, a purge of intellectuals whose work was deemed critical of the state. By the end of the year, about 300,000 people had been rounded up, the majority of them exiled to the country’s remote border regions to undergo “reform through labour”. Ai’s father, Ai Qing, a respected poet, was one of them.“The whirlpool that swallowed up my father upended my life too, leaving a mark on me that I carry with me to this day,” Ai writes in the opening chapter of this ambitious memoir, in which his father’s story gives way to, and often echoes, his own. In 1967, his father’s life was upended once again, when he was transported to a desert region known as Little Siberia to undergo political “remoulding”. Continue reading…

  • Laura Marcus obituary
    by Steven Connor on October 19, 2021 at 4:30 pm

    Academic, critic and writer who focused on the works of Virginia Woolf, autobiography and the history of cinemaLaura Marcus, who has died aged 65 of pancreatic cancer, was an astute critic, above all of female writers, both elite and popular, from the early 20th-century age of modernism. She focused on the work of Virginia Woolf, and in two books forged new ideas about the relations between literature and the emerging medium of cinema.Early in The Tenth Muse: Writing About Cinema in the Modernist Period (2007) she quotes Rudolf Arnheim’s remark that “for the first time in history a new art form is developing, and we can say that we were there”. She goes on to reconstruct what that “being there”, as witness and midwife of cinema’s momentous, sometimes monstrous birth, must have been like. Continue reading…

  • Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit review – deadheading with George Orwell
    by Gaby Hinsliff on October 19, 2021 at 6:00 am

    Inspired by George Orwell’s love of gardening, Solnit’s suitably rambling book should appeal to the green-fingered and the politically committed alikeThe roses are in dire need of pruning. My rambler in particular is getting very tangled; too many whipping tendrils snaking out haphazardly at all angles. But it’s so pretty it’s hard to be properly brutal with it, even though it would probably benefit from some judicious thinning. And yes, it is the experience of reading Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses that has jogged my memory.The book simultaneously is and isn’t about George Orwell, just as it is and isn’t about roses. It belongs in a whimsical category of its own, meandering elegantly enough through lots of subjects loosely connected to one or the other; more of a wildly overgrown essay, from which side shoots constantly emerge to snag the attention, than a book. But at its root is the fact that in 1936, the writer and political thinker planted some roses in his Hertfordshire garden. And when Solnit turns up on the doorstep more than eight decades later, she finds the rose bushes (or at least what she takes to be the same rose bushes) still flowering, a living connection between past and present. Continue reading…