Although picture has improved since 2017, research shows that last year only 4% of books for the youngest readers featured a minority ethnic hero. In most children’s books, according to one London primary school pupil, “people are peach”. Another feels there are “no black people” in the stories they read, meaning that the characters they imagine always seem white. The children, from Surrey Square primary school, were being interviewed for a new report into representation of people of colour, which reveals that in 2018 only 4% of children’s books published in the UK in 2019 had a minority ethnic hero. The survey included all new books for children aged between three and 11. The proportion is an increase on 2017, when just 1% of main characters were BAME. Published on Thursday, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education’s report, Reflecting Realities, also reveals an incremental increase in the number of new children’s books in which a BAME character features at all, up from 4% in 2017 to 7% in 2018. But with the proportion of minority ethnic pupils at UK schools currently at 33.1%, the report’s authors conclude that there is still a long way to go to achieve representation that reflects the UK population. “While we have seen improvements across all areas,” the report says, “the baseline set in the first cycle was tremendously low.” In total, 11,011 books were published for children in 2018, of which 743 had a BAME presence. Children’s author Kiran Millwood Hargrave called the findings “damning and unsurprising”. “The question I am asking myself is what is taking so long?” she said. “Children’s lives are, by necessity, protected from experience of the wider world and so books offer vital insights and life lessons. We read for connection, for recognition and for empathy. Without representation, we cannot truly expect readers to gain these singular joys, and, more seriously, we cannot progress towards a fairer society.” Millwood Hargrave said that books are often described as windows, but she was clear: “They must also be mirrors, a way of examining the world as it is and could be.” “This begins with creating an inclusive environment for BAME readers,” she said, “who will go on to become editors, publishers and writers. Diversity is not a buzzword; it is a fact and strength of our society, and it’s time our writing culture reflected that.” Onjali Raúf, winner of the Waterstones children’s book prize for her story of a refugee, The Boy at the Back of the Class, agreed. “It is absolutely essential for all children of all backgrounds to be introduced to the many beautiful, hitherto hidden worlds which make up their own,” she said. “Children’s books are lifelong touchstones, and carry messages that ingrain themselves deeply in ways we are only now beginning to understand. Any act to enhance empathy and understanding, do away with the ‘other’ and help diminish fears and prejudice has to begin early. It is utterly crucial that cultures, voices and characters from all spectrums be gifted to us.” The report also reveals that 42% of children’s books published in the UK in 2018 had animals or inanimate objects as “main cast characters”, meaning that “a reader from a BAME background is much more likely to encounter a book where an animal is the main character than they are to encounter a book that contains a character that shares their ethnicity or cultural heritage”. This, the report’s authors add, cannot be said for a reader from a white background. As well as counting the types of characters, the report also examines the content and style of books published, and discovered issues with the portrayals of characters and “the impressions that such representations could convey”. It was often the case, they found, that BAME characters were not drawn as well as the equivalent white characters, both in terms of character development and also in the style of illustration. “There were a significant number of books submitted where characters were drawn with exaggerated features that amplified their ethnicity in a way that reduced them to caricatures,” they write. “We observed instances of colourism, in which there was a direct correlation with the skin tone and the virtue of a character. The more virtuous the character, the lighter their complexion and vice versa.” Authors also frequently reached for “different types of coffee to describe different skin tones, with characters at times being described as being a ‘mocha shade’ or having a ‘latte tone’,” reducing them to “a menu item in a coffee shop”. Raúf was clear that diverse stories needed to be written “genuinely and well: not through a harried tokenism, or checking off of boxes, or the odd colouring-in of a character”, citing a need for “genuine voices, genuine stories, genuine portrayals”. The research, which is funded for three years by Arts Council England to create benchmark figures, acknowledges that publishers show a continued willingness to engage with these issues, citing independent press Knights Of, which launched and crowdfunded a diverse children’s bookshop in Brixton, London. But according to Farrah Serroukh, who directed the project for the CLPE, there is still much to be done, because “all lived experiences [are] worthy of note and exploration”. “New readers deserve to be able to see themselves in all stories,” said author Catherine Johnson, who won the Little Rebels children’s book award this year. “Literature should be inclusive. Stories are all the richer for reflecting as wide a variety of experience as possible. Readers lose out otherwise.”
To coincide with publication of For the Record, a round-up of the best career reckonings by politicians. Ken Clarke did it over late-night brandies and cigars. Tony Blair needed someone standing over him to make him knuckle down. David Cameron reportedly shut himself away in an excruciatingly tasteful shepherd’s hut to write For the Record. But grinding out a political memoir shouldn’t be an entirely painless process – the best involve an honest reckoning with mistakes as well as the inevitable recital of triumphs. Some of the most interesting recent political autobiographies come from those who might have led their parties but never did, and thus are less obsessed with creating legacies. Alan Johnson’s extraordinary trilogy, starting with This Boy and ending with The Long and Winding Road, revealed a natural writer with a remarkable life story to tell (orphaned at 13, he was raised by his older sister and worked as a postman before falling into politics via the union movement). Harriet Harman’s A Woman’s Work concludes with a heartfelt admission that after years of mockery she didn’t have the confidence to run for the leadership, which raises important questions about who rises to the top of politics – regardless of whether you think her reticence was the Labour party’s loss or gain. Ken Clarke’s witty, gossipy Kind of Blue takes on a new poignancy now he has lost the whip. He never seems to doubt the Tory party was mad to keep rejecting his offer to lead it, but it gives intriguing glimpses of an alternative path for the Tories that might have unfolded had he beaten William Hague in 1997. But Cameron’s memoir will be compared primarily with memoirs of prime ministers past. Margaret Thatcher’s weighty The Downing Street Years is a product of an altogether less emotional time. It reads like an official history, shorn of the intimate details or introspection we have come to expect; even the poll tax riots, seen by many as a defining moment in her downfall, are dismissed with an indignant reference to what she sees as the “wickedness” of the protesters fighting in the street. But, with Hollywood increasingly circling the Thatcher story – Gillian Anderson will play her this autumn in The Crown, following Meryl Streep’s portrayal in Iron Lady – it’s timely to be reminded of the facts. Some may also enjoy comparing Cameron’s account of the coalition years with that of his coalition partner. Nick Clegg’s Politics: Between the Extremes is light on biographical detail, but upfront about the pressures for a Liberal Democrat in working with the Conservatives and honest about the unnerving experience of being briefly swept up in a personality cult (remember Cleggmania?). If the polls are right, and we are again heading for a hung parliament, this might be one to dust off. The contemporary yardstick, however, is Tony Blair’s The Journey, which pulls off the difficult trick of being informative about how government works without being stuffy, and contains disarming glimmers of self-awareness about his own shortcomings – including what he calls his “boundless, at times rather manic lust for modernisation” and its potential to be misdirected. If all this leaves you somewhat depressed about the state of modern British politics, there’s always the Democrat mayor Pete Buttigieg’s Shortest Way Home, a lyrically written book that is as much love letter to small-town America and to his husband as it is evidence of his considerable ambition. Worth a read even if he never makes it to the White House, for the glimmer of progressive hope it contains.
Spanish students protest against an initial verdict of abuse for a group of men later convicted of raping a woman at the Pamplona bull run. Photograph: Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty ImagesBeing stuck in a culture war is a bit like being a driver stuck in a traffic jam. From within one’s own car, the absurdity and injustice of the situation is abundantly plain. Other drivers can be seen cutting in, changing lanes excessively, and getting worked up. Roadworks appear needlessly restrictive. Why are there so many cars on the road anyway? Horns begin to honk. There is one question that few drivers ever consider: what is my own contribution to this quagmire?Psychoanalysts refer to the process of “splitting”, where the self is unable to cope with its good and bad qualities simultaneously, and so “splits” the bad ones off and attributes them to other people. The result is an exaggerated sense of one’s own virtue and innocence, but an equally exaggerated sense of the selfishness and corruption of others. We are all guilty of this from time to time, rarely more so than on social media, where the world can appear perfectly split into goodies and baddies. Populism and culture warriors exploit this aspect of human psychology, reinforcing the comforting (but ultimately harmful) feeling that any conflict in the world is their fault not ours.The left is not averse to playing this game. Why did the financial crisis occur? Because bankers and Blairites are bad, selfish people. Apart from anything else, this makes for woeful social science. But the right plays it more dangerously. Where the left spies moral depravity in centres of wealth and power (which, as we know, can produce antisemitic conspiracy theories), the right sees it among newcomers, intellectuals and the already marginalised. The potential political implications of this don’t need spelling out.Douglas Murray. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty ImagesIn The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray sets out to explain why societies are now so characterised by conflict. “In public and in private, both online and off, people are behaving in ways that are increasingly irrational, feverish, herd-like and simply unpleasant. The daily news cycle is filled with the consequences. Yet while we see the symptoms everywhere, we do not see the causes.”Few would fail to recognise this as a starting point. MPs and journalists are being harassed and threatened simply for doing their jobs. A university was recently forced out of Hungary by the government. The Home Office is growing increasingly anxious about the threat of far-right extremists cooperating across Europe. But there is not so much as a sniff of these trends in The Madness of Crowds. Instead, Murray organises his material into four themes: “Gay”, “Gender”, “Race” and “Trans”. You can see where this is heading.Murray’s stock in trade is a tone of genteel civility. He writes gracefully and wittily, in keeping with his demeanour as a clubbable conservative, who simply wishes we could all just muddle through a little better. While never over-egging it, he proffers a kindly Christian gospel of love and forgiveness, which he believes might rid us of the political and cultural toxins that have so polluted our lives. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and his account of recent history is clear: authorised by leftwing academics, minority groups have been concocting conflict and hatred out of thin air, polluting an otherwise harmonious society, for their own gratification.> Murray is quick to celebrate struggles for racial, sexual and gay equality, but he's adamant they have now been settledHis narrative is roughly as follows. The decline of ideologies at the end of the 20th century created a vacuum of meaning, which was waiting to be filled. This coincided with the birth of a whole range of critical cultural theories, producing fields of gender studies, race studies and queer studies. Most damagingly of all, for Murray, was the rise of intersectional feminism, which assumes that different types of oppression (especially racial and patriarchal) tend to “intersect” and reinforce one another.The bitter irony, as far as Murray is concerned, is that these new theories of oppression arose at the precise moment in human history when actual racism, sexism and homophobia had evaporated. “Suddenly – after most of us had hoped it had become a non-issue – everything seemed to have become about race,” he writes. This seems to bug him more than anything else: “Among the many depressing aspects of recent years, the most troubling is the ease with which race has returned as an issue.”History, therefore, is much as his fellow neoconservative Francis Fukuyama brashly described it in 1989: ended. Or rather, it could have ended, if it weren’t for troublemaking intellectuals and activists. Murray is quick to celebrate past struggles for racial, sexual and gay equality, but he is adamant that they have now been settled. Questions persist regarding the nature of sex, sexuality and innate ability (what belongs to our physical “hardware” and what to our cultural “software”, as he puts it), but these are far better handled by biologists than political thinkers. The problem, as he sees it, is that malicious, fraudulent and resentful forces – emerging from universities – have refused to accept that justice has now been delivered.The gender theorist Judith Butler … Murray decries her as a fraud. Photograph: Target Presse Agentur Gmbh/Getty ImagesThe acclaimed gender theorist Judith Butler is held up as a malignant fraud who hides behind the complexity of her prose. The entire venture of social science is deemed corrupted by its insidious fixation on oppression. Murray turns to recent hoax articles that were published in the academic journal Cogent Social Sciences (a prank that he describes as “one of the most beautiful things to happen in recent years”) as evidence that social and cultural theory is all a sham. The reader is assured – falsely – that this is all a vast Marxist project, aimed at sowing dissatisfaction and discord.Murray presumably knows that Michel Foucault was not a Marxist, but it’s important to his branch of conservatism that this is brushed over. The M word serves as a coded way of tying together the humanities, Marx himself and (with a small leap of imagination) the Gulag. The fact that it is now illegal to teach gender studies in Hungary, as decreed by Viktor Orbán (favourite intellectual: Douglas Murray), poses questions as to where the real threat to liberty is coming from. But you won’t find any discussion of that in The Madness of Crowds.We learn that the doctrine of intersectionality has now swept the world, even becoming embedded in the search algorithms written in Silicon Valley. Why? Because tech workers “have decided to ‘stick’ it to people” towards whom they “feel angry”. It’s for this reason, apparently, that Google image search throws up a disproportionate number of black faces. Intersectionality is being “force-fed” to people, encouraging them to seek “revenge” on white men, and that is why there is so much conflict.Murray has no shortage of examples and anecdotes to back this up, many gleaned from the US. But it’s notable that they nearly all operate at the level of discourse, and mostly in the media and social media. It’s not difficult to come up with absurd cases of “social justice warriors” saying stupid and hypocritical things online, especially when the Daily Mail appears to have an entire desk dedicated to unearthing them.And there are plenty of well-known cases of people being shamed and sacked for things they’ve said, many of which are unfair and sadistic. One critique of this would be that the logic of public relations and credit rating has now infiltrated every corner of our lives, such that we are constantly having to consider the effects of our words on our reputations. Another is that a global “Marxist” conspiracy has duped people into a fantasy of their own oppression. I know which I find more plausible.Whenever Murray strays too close to any actual oppression (as opposed to the controversies surrounding it), he quickly veers away. His chapter on gender refers to the “‘MeToo’ claims against Harvey Weinstein”, but never to Weinstein or the power structures he built. His chapter on race (the longest in the book) makes no reference to one of the most controversial campaigns in recent US history, Black Lives Matter, presumably because it’s impossible to discuss without acknowledging what prompted it: black men being gunned down by police officers.Anger is ultimately a mystery to Murray, seeming to emanate spontaneously from his political and ideological foes. He can come up with no better explanation for it than that bad people enjoy it, that “their desire is not to heal but to divide, not to placate but to inflame”. And yet when an author goes to such great lengths to assure you that others are degraded, and that “we” white, male conservatives simply want to live in harmony, you have to wonder whom much of this anger truly belongs to.• Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World by William Davies is out in paperback from Vintage. The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Of published book reviews in Australia in 2018 49% were for books written by women Photograph: Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd/Getty ImagesResearchers have praised most Australian publications for reaching gender parity in their book review sections last year.Of published book reviews in Australia in 2018 49% were for books written by women, according to research published on Thursday by the Stella Count.The Stella Count is Australia’s answer to the Vida Count for literature, which surveys women’s representation in major literary publications and book reviews. The count was established in 2012 alongside the Stella prize for books by women to highlight gender disparity in Australian literary culture.Conducted with academics from Australian National University and Monash University, the Stella Count involves researchers combing book review sections of 12 major Australian newspapers and book reviewing publications, tallying the number of books reviewed and the gender of the books’ authors.The Stella Count also notes the gender identity of the reviewer, and the space given to reviews of books by women compared with those by men.Books by women authors comprised 50% or more of the reviews in nine of the 12 publications surveyed in 2018, up from four in 2017 and 2016. In 2015, only one publication had achieved parity in this respect.Julianne Lamond, from the Australian National University, who leads the analysis of the data, told Guardian Australia the count was an important way to measure what kinds of stories were making their way into the public consciousness.“If we think about our ideas about what men and women are, what kinds of stories can and can’t be told, and what kinds of stories are considered important, whether books by men and women are getting equal access to those pages is really important,” she said. “It’s a really important way that cultural prestige is created.”Tasmania’s the Mercury newspaper saw the largest increase in reviews of books by women, from 44% in 2017 to 56% in 2018. Industry magazine Books+Publishing had the highest proportion of women authors reviewed, at 71%, while representation of books by women authors was the lowest at the Weekend Australian (40%) and Australian Book Review (41%).Australian Book Review was the only publication that recorded a downward trend in women authors reviewed, and in women reviewers, over the seven years the count has been conducted.Analysis also showed that more women than men were employed as reviewers of books in 2018. This corresponded with an increase in the number of books reviewed overall, suggesting both books and reviews written by women had been added to review sections, rather than taking the place of those by men.Women also received more access to what Lamond called “the big name-making reviews” – that is, reviews of 1,000 words or more – in 2018 than in any of the preceding years, with 47% of these dedicated to women authors compared to 36% in 2017.Guardian Australia is not one of the publications included in the Stella Count.The survey is “a way of holding publications to account”, Lamond said, because it highlighted “not just the fact that bias exists but how it’s working in these publications”.Of continuing concern was the trend of “partitioned criticism”, in which men tended to review books by men and women tended to review books by women. “There’s a gender essentialism at work – the idea that books written by women are just for women and books written by men are just for men.”The impact of “partitioned criticism” was particularly significant for women writers.“Books by men can often be considered more serious even if they’re about the same subject matter that women are writing about. So Jonathan Franzen writes about family and it’s a serious book, and for every woman writer that does the same it’s considered a woman’s book. I think there’s still some work to be done there.”Lamond said the future of the count would involve expanding the project to include “more difficult to quantify aspects” such as non-binary gender identities, race and other forms of diversity within the literary landscape.“I don’t think there’s any cause for resting on laurels yet, but I do think we should celebrate what’s been achieved,” Lamond said. “We can really see the whole field shifting.”
‘Sensibilities regarding language are constantly changing’ … Photograph: Peter Morgan/APAlmost 30,000 people have signed a petition calling for Oxford University Press to change the “sexist” definitions of the word “woman” in some of its dictionaries.Launched this summer by Maria Beatrice Giovanardi, the petition points out that Oxford dictionaries contain words such as “bitch, besom, piece, bit, mare, baggage, wench, petticoat, frail, bird, bint, biddy, filly” as synonyms for woman. Sentences chosen to show usage of the word woman include: “Ms September will embody the professional, intelligent yet sexy career woman” and “I told you to be home when I get home, little woman”. Such sentences depict “women as sex objects, subordinate, and/or an irritation to men”, the petition says.Signatories are calling on OUP to “eliminate all phrases and definitions that discriminate against and patronise women and/or connote men’s ownership of women”, to “enlarge the dictionary’s entry for ‘woman’”, and to “include examples representative of minorities, for example, a transgender woman, a lesbian woman, etc”.In response, OUP’s head of lexical content strategy Katherine Connor Martin has said that editors are investigating “whether there are senses of woman which are not currently covered but should be added in a future update”.Pointing out that the content referred to in the petition is not from the scholarly Oxford English Dictionary, but from the Oxford Thesaurus of English and the Oxford Dictionary of English, which are drawn from “real-life use” of language, Martin said: “If there is evidence of an offensive or derogatory word or meaning being widely used in English, it will not be excluded from the dictionary solely on the grounds that it is offensive or derogatory.”“Nonetheless, part of the descriptive process is to make a word’s offensive status clear in the dictionary’s treatment. For instance, the phrase the little woman is defined as ‘a condescending way of referring to one’s wife’, and the use of ‘bit’ as a synonym for woman is labelled as ‘derogatory’ in the thesaurus,” said Martin. “Sensibilities regarding language are constantly changing, and our editorial team is always grateful for feedback to ensure that the status of offensive or denigrating terms is clear to our readers.”The petitioners also criticise the fact that “the definition of a ‘man’ is much more exhaustive than that of a ‘woman’ – with 25 examples for men, compared to only five for women”. But OUP said that as its dictionary is based on “evidence of actual usage, entries for two different words will only be perfectly parallel if the words are genuinely used in a perfectly parallel way”.At present, OUP said, the words man and woman are not used in identical ways. “For instance, sense four of ‘man’ is ‘a figure or token used in playing a board game’, but that meaning is not evidenced for woman,” said Martin. “Statistical analysis of large digital text databases shows that there are significant differences in how the words man and woman are used. People speak of a ‘man about town’ but rarely of a ‘woman about town’; of a ‘ladies’ man’ but not a ‘gentlemen’s lady’; of ‘womanly’ curves and wiles, but ‘manly’ handshakes and jawlines.”Martin said that as the usage of English speakers changes over time, the dictionary would change to reflect the new lexical terrain. “The current cultural moment has seen an increasing acknowledgment of the real-life impact that words can have on individuals and groups. As this awareness leads to changes in linguistic behaviour, the dictionary will seek to record them,” she said.The OUP added that dictionary staff “are taking the points raised in the petition very seriously … As ever, our dictionaries strive to reflect, rather than dictate, language so any changes will be made on that basis.”
‘It was a lightbulb moment’ … Keane, from left, Tom Chaplin, Tim Rice-Oxley and Richard Hughes, in 2004. Photograph: Scott Gries/Getty Images Tom Chaplin, singerWe grew up together in Battle and got together as a band in school. I was three years younger, so the other guys waited for my balls to drop before agreeing that I could be the singer. We moved to London in the late 90s and cut our teeth on the classic Camden circuit, towards the end of the Britpop scene, which felt very inspiring for young bands. We were a traditional indie band back then – our guitarist, Dominic Scott, was Irish and adored U2, so there were a lot of big, delayed guitars. After several years we still weren’t getting anywhere, then Dominic told us he was leaving. So Tim [Rice-Oxley] switched from bass to piano. At the time it was unusual to have a piano as the lead instrument and no guitars – we put in the bass parts on a laptop – but suddenly everything fell into place.Previously, we’d all contributed songs, but with Tim writing on piano he started handing me things like Bend and Break and Everybody’s Changing, which were so much better than anything we’d done before. It was obvious that he’d gone to another level, so Tim became the songwriter, and from then on that was the Keane dynamic.As young men, we didn’t talk about our emotions much, so maybe they poured into the music. I was always reticent to ask Tim what the songs were about, although if he wrote about heartbreak I knew the people, the ex-girlfriends and so on. There are loads of internet theories about what Somewhere Only We Know means but I always thought that it is about a place where we grew up – and a longing for something pure and simple. My mum and dad ran a school, and we used to sit in the grounds as teenagers, smoking weed and hanging out: I always thought about that place when I sang the song. To me it’s about us as friends and a band, growing up. We were fish out of water in the London scene, these nice, middle-class boys in our 20s. Meanwhile, some of our old peers were looking down their noses at us because, while they were all becoming successful, we were still pursuing this ridiculous teenage dream. I’m always transported to that place when I sing the song. Tim Rice-Oxley, piano/songwriterWhen Dominic left it could have been the end of the band, but it turned out to be a lightbulb moment. I was never that good on bass and found playing piano much easier. Without anyone to do a big guitar solo the songs became less flabby and I got really into the Smiths, whose early songs were really short.We’d been gigging for years, playing to literally two people on occasion, and were licking our wounds. We couldn’t afford to live and rehearse in London any more with the lowly jobs we had, so we moved back to Battle, rehearsing at my mum and dad’s house. I wrote Somewhere Only We Know on the little piano in their front room. I had the driving rhythm of David Bowie’s Heroes in mind as a starting point, so used the pounding piano like a rhythm guitar and the rest just flowed instinctively.The song is about us being back and having something to cling to. I picture a particular place in Sussex, just a bit of scrub where we used to go when we were kids. There was a fallen pine tree and it seemed like a place to escape from the reality of the band’s failure that seemed to be fast approaching. Richard [Hughes, drummer] recently sent me a photo of the three of us on that exact spot, when we were 11 or something, and I wonder if I’d subconsciously remembered the photo when I wrote the song. The B-side, Snowed Under, contains another local reference – to Manser’s Shaw, an old bit of woodland.I remember thinking Somewhere Only We Know was pretty good, then playing it to Richard who said: “This is amazing.” A record label had expressed some interest so we took a demo of it on CD it to their office in London and said: “We think this is the song.” They said they were too busy to listen to it and we never heard from them again. It probably went straight in the bin. Instead, we signed to Island Records. Somewhere Only We Know opened all the doors for us and we’re still playing it 15 years later. I suppose many people have somewhere special that feels like a refuge. People still love that song and a lot of them have pored over the lyrics, trying to work out what it means. As a songwriter, it’s a dream come true. • Keane’s new album, Cause and Effect, is out on 20 September. They tour the UK from 24 September.
Organisers rush to clarify that judges have not yet decided beyond the shortlist after bookshop brands copies of The Testaments as the winner. The Booker prize has stressed that it has not – yet, anyway – selected Margaret Atwood’s much-heralded sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale as this year’s winner, after a bookseller mistakenly displayed copies declaring it the 2019 victor. Novelist and academic Matthew Sperling posted an image from an unnamed bookshop of Atwood’s The Testaments on Twitter on Monday. Pictured alongside Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, which bore a sticker highlighting its shortlisting, The Testaments instead boasted a sticker branding it the winner. “Don’t think you were supposed to use those stickers yet, lads...” wrote Sperling. The Testaments is currently 2/1 to win at William Hill bookmakers, behind favourite Ducks, Newburyport at 7/4. Before news had a chance to get round to gamblers that the jury had made up its mind a month ahead of the prize ceremony, organisers were quick to clarify that the panel headed by Peter Florence had not yet ruled. “It will not be decided until the judges meet on 14 October 2019,” they said in a statement. “At shortlist stage for the Booker prize, display packs including shortlist sticker sheets and a winner sticker sheet are provided to booksellers and libraries across the UK. It seems that in this case a winner rather than shortlist sticker has been mistakenly applied.” A spokesperson added that they had not yet identified which bookshop had been overeager with their Booker winner stickers. “I’m afraid that we don’t yet know which shop it is. Once we do, we will ask them to remove the winner stickers to be replaced with shortlist stickers (though they may well have done so already),” they said. In 2008, Will Self was inadvertently revealed as winner of the Wodehouse prize for comic fiction in the Hay festival programme – the same day the shortlist for the prize was announced.
Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them. Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week. Let’s start with a Canadian writer. No, not that one. Brooke Sherbrooke actually recommends Michael Crummey’s The Innocents: I realise that over the next few months, the most widely read Canadian writer will be our treasure, Margaret Atwood. However, I am reading another writer from Canada - one who writes almost exclusively about the Newfoundland & Labrador coast, with stories of almost mythical intensity. Michael Crummey’s latest is The Innocents. The prose in the first two chapters is lyrical. It has become a bit grittier since then but I am always willing to ride whatever waves roll in, when Mr Crummey is the writer. I loved Sweetland and am thrilled to be reading these maritime lilts again. We’re also inviting reviews of The Testaments here. (And please also feel free to share them with us below the line here on Tips, Links And Suggestions.) Elsewhere in the world, Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time has impressed JayZed: It’s a polyphonic oral history of people’s personal experiences of the Soviet Union, its collapse and the aftermath, based on interviews that Alexievich had conducted over 20 years. I’d been wanting to read something by Alexievich for a while, and now I want to read everything that she’s done. This book was fascinating, moving and often deeply shocking - even though you know at an intellectual level how brutal some of the history is, the individual, personal experiences create a much greater emotional impact. I came out of it feeling that I understood a lot more about what life in the Soviet Union - and in the countries that succeeded it - was actually like. Extremely highly recommended. Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy has fascinated dylan37: Written with the verve and pace of a Cold War thriller, the terrifying tale of a closed world gone wrong. A misguided test that literally went nuclear, the Soviet rush to denial and cover-up, and the reckless attention to future prevention. The incredible clean-up operation is morbidly detailed, and the huge risks to hundred of thousands of mobilised personnel. The deaths, illness and environmental devastation that followed the disaster are haunting and unforgettable. Shaybo is “just finishing” Pat Frank’s 1959 post-nuclear war novel, Alas Babylon: It feels very current in one sense where the geopolitical causes of war are concerned and, to an extent, ‘fake news,’ but horribly dated when it comes to its depiction of race and women’s place in society. It’s also a bit of an outlier of the genre, or what it’s become, in that it’s oddly optimistic. Eudora Welty’s The Ponder Heart has entertained safereturndoubtful: First published in 1954, it is a charming novel about a wealthy Mississippi family; the story of Uncle Daniel Ponder, told by his niece, Edna Earle, who runs the Beulah Hotel in the small town of Clay. Uncle Daniel may have the ‘sweetest disposition’ in the world, a Southern gentleman of the old school, but he is ‘simpleminded’ and childish in his actions, so much so that Grandpa Ponder has him put away in an asylum, but Uncle Daniel soon manages to get out. He then ups and marries Miss Teacake Magee, but it doesn’t last long and Grandpa Ponder carries Daniel off to the asylum again, but he is soon out, and marries again. This time it is a seventeen year old girl named Bonnie Dee Peacock from the country…. When Bonnie Dee dies in mysterious circumstances there follows one of the most informal and entertaining trials in fiction, bringing this delightful tale to its fitting climax. Veufveuve recommends Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys: I think this is a much better novel than The Underground Railroad (which I thought was good, not great). Whitehead is in total command of the story in The Nickel Boys, keeping things taut and tight (am I mixing metaphors or creating redundancy here?). A more intimate canvas allows for richer characterisation. Across about 200 easily-read pages it delivers some real heft and punch. Finally, julian6, shares thoughts on Philip Roth’s Everyman: A spare and stark short novel reviewing the life of a haunted figure - that Roth alter ego that features so prominently in his work. It has some of his most remarkable writing, getting right to the heart of the human plight. The Everyman of the title references not only the famous morality play but also the jewellery store belonging to the central character’s father which is called Everyman’s. We review this lonely commercial artist in his declining years, travel back to his childhood, and see the loss of wives and friends to illness or betrayal or both. It’s a summation of his life - looking at what it meant to him and those closest to him - another Ivan Ilyich with something of Tolstoy’s unflinching gaze. Whatever our sympathies, however his flaws strike us, he and his brother and his colleagues who he contacts as final illnesses strike are most defiantly present and ready for us to experience. You could say we share the humanity of these characters and the book offers as unconditional a solidarity as the character of Knowledge in the original play. “I will go with thee, and be thy guide, In thy most need to go by thy side”. Unconditional solidarity sounds like the kind of thing we need. Interesting links about books and reading Jonathan Franzen spoke. Lots of people told him to shut up. Classic internetz. Enjoy raging about Imani Perry’s opinions on Jane Austen. An interview with Hans Fallada’s son to mark 10 years since the English translation of Everyman Dies Alone (aka Alone In Berlin). Margaret Drabble’s 1977 “ Brexit novel”. If you’re on Instagram, now you can share your reads with us: simply tag your posts with the hashtag #GuardianBooks, and we’ll include
Monica Lewinsky and Zadie Smith will appear at the Broadside festival for feminist ideas in Melbourne, Australia in November alongside more than 30 high-profile local and international guests. Composite: Jean-Baptiste Lacroix, Karl Schoendorfer/AFP/Getty Images, REX/ShutterstockMonica Lewinsky will embark on her first ever speaking tour of Australia and Zadie Smith will return for the first time in nearly two decades to headline a new feminist ideas festival.Hosted by Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre in November, the Broadside festival will feature more than 30 high-profile local and international guests, including Helen Garner, Mona Eltahawy, Ariel Levy, Courtney Barnett and Aileen Moreton-Robinson.Lewinsky will appear in conversation to discuss her experience of online harassment culture and her activism around it. In August, the public speaker and contributing editor to Vanity Fair was announced as a producer on a forthcoming series of American Crime Story about her affair with then-US president Bill Clinton while she was a White House intern.“There’s no better person placed in our culture to discuss online bullying and harassment than Monica Lewinsky,” Broadside director Tam Zimet told Guardian Australia.“Her story has been co-opted and manipulated and used for personal and political gain for purposes that have nothing to do with her for two decades. And it’s taken this long for the culture to catch up. She has been talking about this for two decades and finally she’s in control of her narrative, and finally we all understand what that means.”Zadie Smith will appear in conversation with New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino, speaking broadly about her life and writing. She is also scheduled to speak at the Sydney Opera Houseon 10 November.The festival will also feature Helen Garner discussing her forthcoming book based on her diaries, Yellow Notebook. Author of Thick, Tressie McMillan Cottom, will appear alongside Call Your Girlfriend podcast host Aminatou Sow to speak about black feminism.Zimet said the festival had its roots in her conviction that “if we’re not outraged, then we’re not paying attention”.“What do we do? Well, what feminists do is we organise and we come together,” she said.The programming draws directly from contemporary political issues, including panels on feminism and capitalism, “decolonising” feminism, speaking up for one’s rights, and negotiating public space as a woman.Speakers on these panels include pioneering Indigenous Australian feminist Aileen Moreton-Robinson, and writers and activists Fatima Bhutto, Ruby Hamad, Nayuka Gorrie, Michelle Law, Gala Vanting and Jax Jacki Brown.“These are the issues being discussed between women and gender nonconforming people all around the country, all the time,” Zimet said. “We wanted to expose as many people as possible to it.”There will also be a “teen day” in which public high school students will attend a free day of talks, workshops, panels and discussion at the Wheeler Centre, focused on “creating positive action and change”.Zimet, who worked for three years as a programmer at the Sydney writers’ festival, said Melbourne was the obvious place to host a feminist ideas festival.“We know Melbourne audiences come out for smart feminist programming,” she said.“There are so many feminist organisations running incredible events right across arts and culture and activism. But the proliferation of these festivals and organisations shows there’s enthusiasm for this, not that there is too much.”She namechecks some of Melbourne’s homegrown feminist outfits, including the Feminist writers’ festival, Fitzroy High School’s feminist collective Your Voice, the Victorian Women’s Trust, the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre and the Stella prize as evidence of the city’s thriving feminist cultural activity.“I’m also very aware and want to acknowledge as well that Broadside sits in Melbourne’s very long history of feminist struggle and collaboration and celebration,” she said.“We wanted to create a program that’s celebratory but also one with tricky and nuanced conversations.”There will also be a Town Hall-based festival bar – named Club Skunk, a nod to the lesbian bar in the teen movie Ten Things I Hate About You – “a place to congregate, have a martini and plan the utter obliteration of the patriarchy,” Zimet said.Broadside will run at Town Hall, Melbourne, on 9 and 10 November. Monica Lewinsky, Mona Eltahawy and Tressie McMillan Cottom will also appear in Sydney as part of Unthinkable, a series by the University of New South Wales Centre for Ideas.
A thirtysomething spinster looks for purpose and companionship in a bittersweet evocation of Britain after the great war. Just twice in Tracy Chevalier’s bittersweet new novel does its heroine, Violet Speedwell, think to herself: “I want to do that.” Her wishes are self-sacrificing enough: to embroider a kneeler in Winchester Cathedral and to ring its bells. Given that the year is 1932, the first is more easily realised than the second, yet both, in their way, are radical. Don’t be fooled by the ecclesiastical backdrop. For Violet, who lost first her fiance and then a brother to the trenches, God died in the great war. More than 16 years have since passed but only now, as a 38-year-old spinster, has she finally plucked up the nerve to leave behind her overbearing mother and their Southampton home and make a life of her own. Violet is one of the so-called “surplus women” created by the war’s casualties and the resulting gender imbalance. It’s a stigma that smarts every time a stranger shoots a glance at her naked ring finger; she feels it still more acutely in the drab struggle to support herself. A typist for an insurance firm, her salary is “rather like a pair of ill-fitting shoes that could be worn, but that pinched and rubbed and left calluses”. She’s often starving. Winchester’s squat cathedral is a stroll away from where she rooms, and nonbeliever though she’s become, evensong soothes her. It’s there that she spots the brightly coloured cushions, each marked with the initials of the woman who stitched it. Thrilled by the notion of leaving a mark of her own, Violet joins the volunteer “broderers”, finding purpose in their often prickly companionship. Soon, she’s haggling for a pay rise, crushing on an older man and striding off into the countryside on a solo walking holiday. But in a society that remains set up for marriage, calamity stalks her. You’ll hear echoes of the estimable Barbara Pym as Violet’s heels clip across the cathedral’s inner close. Allusions to casual sex and lesbian passion notwithstanding, days are punctuated by cups of tea and people remain largely trapped by their manners. At one particularly stirring moment, instead of finding herself kissed, Violet is treated to a three-course meal, with custard on her apple crumble and cream in her coffee. “Afterwards she felt almost sated,” Chevalier deadpans. Meanwhile, on the wireless, news of Adolf Hitler’s election in Germany casts an ominous shadow. It’s a time and a place that is perfectly suited to Chevalier’s meticulous scene-setting, gentle pacing and gimlet eye for hidden hurts and secret longings. As for the embroidery, with its repetitive stitches that slowly, almost inconspicuously add up to something dazzling, she couldn’t have picked a more satisfying metaphor. After all, Violet and her fellow broderers are women building not only themselves, but the very idea of independent single womanhood in a world that does its best to ignore their existence. . A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier is published by The Borough Press (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
‘A keen awareness of the cogs and wheels of bureaucratic evil’: Stephen King. Photograph: Mark Lennihan/AP“Ever been to Pleasure Island?” asks Lampwick, the rowdy, doomed delinquent from Disney’s Pinocchio, as the stagecoach spirits a cargo of children through the darkened streets and clear out of the world. At Pleasure Island, behind high, bolted gates, the town’s tearaways are promised a life free from societal interference. They can drink and smoke and shoot pool at their leisure, blissfully unaware that the theme park is, in fact, a nightmarish factory or sulphurous processing plant. Come daybreak they will have been transformed into donkeys, herded into crates and put to work in the mines.Misguided or not, the kids in Pinocchio are at least clamouring to visit Pleasure Island, which is more than can be said for the pint-sized inmates of Stephen King’s meaty, satisfying slab of high-concept pulp fiction. Instead, its inhabitants are forcibly abducted from their homes at night and installed as laboratory rats by a shadowy government organisation. They’re plied with cigarettes and alcohol. They’re being slowly fattened for the kill. And if The Institute finally lacks the pure jolting terror of Lampwick’s transformation into a jackass, it compensates with an atmosphere of creeping dread and a keen awareness of the cogs and wheels of bureaucratic evil. King’s villains, it transpires, are a bunch of middle-management automatons, headhunted from the US military or plucked from well-paid careers at Halliburton. These people wouldn’t consider themselves to be sadists, exactly. They’re simply clocking in and out, following orders and processing kids.The latest lamb to the slaughter is 12-year-old Luke Ellis, a child prodigy with mild telekinetic powers who awakens one morning at a cinder-block compound in the backwoods of Maine. Ellis and his fellow prisoners (some telekinetic, some telepathic) are here to be weaponised – made over as “psychic drones” to be deployed in an opaque geopolitical struggle. Mrs Sigsby, the compound’s icy boss, insists that the children view themselves as American heroes. But once they’ve been sent into battle, the evidence suggests that they’re not meant to come home.In casting about to get their bearings, the Institute’s inmates helpfully reference Pleasure Island and the witch’s cage from Hansel and Gretel. They might also have cited Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, another dystopian tale of battery-farmed children. Hell, while they’re about it, they might even namecheck some previous Stephen King publications – specifically Firestarter, The Shining, Dreamcatcher and Carrie. After more than 50 profitable years in the business, the author has long since hit the point where he’s circling back on himself, revisiting themes he’s covered in the past (in this case supernatural children and a mammoth dark-state conspiracy). The success of The Institute, though, is in the way it repurposes this familiar material to spotlight a 21st-century US in crisis; corrupted and compromised and mired in debt. The Institute sits alone in the woods. But it’s symptomatic of a wider malaise.No doubt this is why, midway through the tale, King conspires to send the imperilled Ellis under the fence and back into the world. The kid rafts downriver like Huck Finn, hides out on a boxcar like a hobo and eventually alights in an impoverished backwater burgh in the south. The small town, of course, remains King’s natural wheelhouse, his happy hunting ground, an abiding preoccupation alongside kids with supernatural powers. DuPray, South Carolina, contains a freight yard, a Waffle House and a convenience store that’s managed by two Somalian brothers. There is a depressed barber who sits out on his front porch every night, and a struggling motel owner who’s not entirely to be trusted. Every household owns a gun. Every resident has too much time on their hands. DuPray, in other words, is the nation in microcosm, perched at a crossroads, torn between its best and worst impulses. The runaway child needs a shelter. Mrs Sigsby’s goons are on their way. On sleepy Main Street, outside the sheriff’s office, one has the sense of America weighing up its options and deciding which way it should jump.• The Institute by Stephen King is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Argentinian activists in favour of the legalisation of abortion disguised as characters from The Handmaid’s Tale. Photograph: Alejandro Pagni/AFP/Getty ImagesThose of us lucky enough to read The Handmaid’s Tale back when it first appeared in 1985 will remember the shock of a novel that felt both claustrophobically precise and shatteringly prescient. The newly born Republic of Gilead, with its abuses and abominations, its hideously misogynistic vocabulary and gruesomely rationalised constraints, was just about far enough from our own world to seem beguiling, but also close enough to feel like a wake-up call.Still, no one could have guessed the extent to which recent history (as well as a superb TV offshoot) would bring it eerily, terrifyingly back into focus. With the implacable rise of the Christian right in the US, never has it felt more urgent for women to guard both their bodies and their reproductive systems against (some) men and the state. Who, after all, is Donald Trump if not Commander Waterford without the charm? And I can’t be the only one who, watching the Trump crowd’s chants of “Lock her up!” or “Send her back!”, found herself thinking of taser-wielding Aunt Lydia and the handmaids’ cries of “Her fault!” when one of their number “confesses” to having been gang-raped?Given all of this history – and the fact that for 35 years fans have apparently been begging for answers to a host of Gilead-related questions – it’s not surprising that The Testaments feels as eagerly awaited as a handmaid’s bouncing baby. If ever a novelist could justify the spawning of a sequel, Atwood can.This novel opens 15 years after the end of the last book. Perhaps wisely, Atwood neatly leapfrogs the TV series – presumably leaving it open for several more seasons – while plucking just one significant detail from it: Baby Nicole. The “child” of Commander Waterford and his wife (though in fact, as we all know, born of Offred/June and fathered by her lover, Nick), Nicole was smuggled into Canada as a baby and has not been seen since.This – together with the constant “seepage” of handmaids being helped to freedom by the so-called Underground Femaleroad – has not been good for Gilead, which has settled into an inevitable “dog-eat-dog maturity”. Meanwhile, a great deal of effort and espionage are going into tracking down missing Baby Nicole – now seen as the veritable “poster child for Gilead” – so that the republic can reclaim her as their own.The novel is narrated by three different female voices. The first belongs to Aunt Lydia herself, who is secretly writing her memoirs, apparently largely “for your edification, my unknown reader”. The second is Agnes, a young woman who has grown up in Gilead and is being groomed (in both senses of the word) to marry a commander. The third, Daisy, is a feisty teenager living in Canada with two people who run a thrift store and whom she supposes to be her parents, except that something has always felt wrong: “It was like I was a prize cat they were cat-sitting.”How these young women may or may not be connected – to one another and also, in Daisy’s case, to Gilead – is one of the questions that drives the first hundred pages or so of the novel. Certainly, right from the start, Daisy lets slip that she discovered on her birthday that she was a “fraud – a forgery done on purpose”. And Agnes, who used to think she remembered nothing before the age of six or seven, realises she does have one “hazy memory of running through a forest with someone holding my hand”. Aunt Lydia, meanwhile, who is “everywhere and nowhere”, knows everything that they (and we) don’t know. Atwood has always said that “knowledge is power”, but will Aunt Lydia use her power for good or evil?> Atwood challenges us to think and rethink, to see our volatile world anewWhat follows is a plump, pacy, witty and tightly plotted page-turner that transports us straight back to the dark heart of Gilead and seems to take great pleasure in providing answers to many of Atwood’s readers’ questions. If, for instance, you ever wondered why Aunt Lydia seems so willing to join the regime’s monstrous attack on her own gender (despite a queasily hinted at softer side), here’s her backstory. Similarly, the inner workings of Gilead are exposed in far more detail than in the first book and it’s hardly surprising to learn that “beneath its outer show of virtue and purity” the place is “rotting”.What is surprising, though, given that so many of Atwood’s actual details remain so gloriously dark (a paedophile dentist whose hand sits on a pubescent child’s breast “like a large hot crab” is an image that won’t leave me in a hurry), is that the story’s outcomes are anything but. Perhaps Atwood has simply decided that Gilead’s time is up – or maybe she’s grown too fond of her characters to deny them happiness – but in so many startling ways this novel feels like a straight antidote to The Handmaid’s Tale.Where the first book traded so pithily and memorably in obfuscation, despair and darkness, the sequel sees the lamps slowly lit. Where, at the end of the first, June was bundled into the back of a van with no idea whether it heralded her “end” or her “beginning”, in this second novel we have a quasi-Shakespearean sense of all’s well that ends well. Not only do various bad guys receive their comeuppance, but there’s a strong sense of goodness winning the day, even – whisper it – hints of something that might amount to a happy ending.Which actually feels a touch disappointing. Sure, this new book is gloriously savage in its anger, against both God, with his “special interest” in the “polluting” blood that comes out of girls, and sexually predatory men who prefer their underage victims to seem “not fully human, with a naughty core to them”. There is no doubt that Atwood is on top form here. But still it feels as if something crucial is missing.Or perhaps not missing enough, for didn’t the strength of the first book lie precisely in its daring ambiguities, its unapologetic refusal to elucidate? Surely one of the reasons Gilead managed to be so spookily convincing was that Atwood cunningly chose to leave so many of its edges blurry. Interiors, furniture, food, clothes, linen were described with all of the deft shadow and gleam of a Dutch painting – and the same, incidentally, is true in this book – but beyond that, we only had the vaguest hints of how the larger world worked. The most trenchant and exciting fiction almost always amounts to an act of conjuring – and in Atwood’s gracefully necromantic hands, Gilead’s regime didn’t seem to require much explanation or justification. We believed, simple as that. And as for why Aunt Lydia behaves as she does? Well, have any of the world’s most brutal regimes ever run short of compliant executioners?Another problem, which becomes more troubling as the novel unfolds, is the lack of emotional subtext, or indeed sometimes any subtext at all. In The Testaments, what you see is what you get, with any possibility of equivocation, shading or real complexity (or the chance for readers to imagine anything for themselves) sacrificed again and again to pace and plot. Perhaps the emphatically retrospective nature of this narrative doesn’t help. The Handmaid’s Tale unfolded in a memorably deadpan and very immediate present tense – we didn’t know what was coming next any more than June did. But here, because all three central characters are apparently giving their accounts as “witnesses”, events unwind in the far less suspenseful and all-too hindsight-laden past.Perhaps because of this, there are few, if any, chances to feel moved on behalf of these characters – a strange and enervating absence in a novel that hinges so strongly on the agonies of familial separation. It made me wonder, not for the first time, whether this simply isn’t where Atwood’s interests lie: the only scene in The Handmaid’s Tale that, on a recent rereading, seemed less than entirely convincing is when June, finally shown a photograph of her daughter and unable to find any trace of her own existence in her child’s eyes, wishes she hadn’t seen it at all. (Believe me, no mother on Earth would pass up on that photo.)Where Atwood’s interests do undeniably lie is in shaking us up, challenging our complacencies and using her chillingly profound imagination to challenge us to think and rethink, to see our volatile and increasingly toxic world anew. But is she willing to leave room for her reader? I have my own test of what makes a truly great work of fiction: can you revisit it at a later point in your life and read a whole different novel? In other words, is the novel sufficiently elastic – and slippery and enigmatic – to grow with you?The Handmaid’s Tale triumphantly passes this test. But occasionally, with its wide-angle sweep and wholehearted lack of uncertainty, its angels and demons struggle and seemingly effortless resolutions, The Testaments can feel as if it’s already decided what it thinks. And what we should think, too.Julie Myerson’s most recent novel is The Stopped Heart (Jonathan Cape). • The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is published by Chatto & Windus (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
NSA former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden in a live video link from Russia during a parliamentary hearing at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, June 2015. Photograph: Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty ImagesTowards the end of Edward Snowden’s memoir, he hands the narrative to his partner, Lindsay Mills, in the form of the diary she was keeping at the time he was “outing” himself as a whistleblower intent on revealing the most cherished secrets, and rampant ambitions, of the American and British spy agencies. “Ed, what have you done?” she wrote. “How can you come back from this?”Permanent Record is Snowden’s attempt to answer these questions by doing something he finds discomforting and antithetical: breaching his own privacy, opening up what he calls the “empty zone that lies beyond the reach of the state”.This is the space he has guarded for six years, but his account of the experiences that led him to take momentous decisions, along with the details he gives of his family background, serve as a robust defence against accusations that he is a traitor. It also offers a reminder that his disclosures of mass surveillance and bulk collection of personal information are as relevant now as they were in 2013. More so, he argues, given that private companies have become the new data behemoths.How did Snowden become a pathfinder into the secret caverns of this new technological age? Accidentally, it seems. He comes from a family of flag-waving, security cleared patriots. One grandfather was a rear admiral, his father (“my hero”) worked for the US coastguard, and his mother had a senior backroom role with America’s National Security Agency (NSA). “Mine is a family that has always answered the call of duty,” he writes.> The CIA didn’t quite understand. The computer guy knows everything, or rather can know everythingLess surprisingly, young Eddie was a whip-smart supergeek. He was obsessed by his father’s Commodore 64 home computer and when he saw the first wave of the internet, surfed it, spending every waking moment online, learning how to code, how to hack.In the aftermath of 9/11, he joined the US army because he “wanted to show I wasn’t just a brain in a jar”, and had he not suffered stress fractures during training, he would have become a special forces soldier. Snowden says his greatest regret was his own “reflexive, unquestioning support” for the decision to wage war after the attacks, and how it led to “the promulgation of secret policies, secret laws, secret courts and secret wars”. He found out about this parallel world working for different intelligence agencies as a contractor tasked with upgrading their antediluvian IT systems. As the spies pivoted towards cyber espionage, the top brass missed something quite important: “The CIA didn’t quite understand. The computer guy knows everything, or rather can know everything.” Snowden, it seems, was in a position to access their crown jewels.At first, it was the incompetence that bothered him. The NSA’s security was pretty shoddy and it hardly bothered to encrypt anything. At the CIA, he spent his downtime reading intelligence reports and secret dispatches.If there was a moment of epiphany, it came when he was asked to put together a presentation on China’s “utterly mind boggling” surveillance capabilities. As he did this, he says, he had “a sneaking sense I was looking at a mirror and seeing a reflection of America”. He was determined to find out if his fears were true. When he embarked on his own covert mission, he was just 29 and living in Hawaii. The story of how he fled to Hong Kong and then to unintended exile in Russia is fleshed out in more detail than we have seen before. Angered by what he discovered, and the dissembling of US politicians, he copied documents about the most egregious data collection programs on to tiny sim cards, which he smuggled out of the NSA facility where he was working in his trouser pocket – having decided against sticking them on to the side of his Rubik’s cube.Snowden didn’t tell Lindsay what he was up to because he thought this would be cruel and he wanted to protect her. But leaving her was cruel and it didn’t protect her – something he profoundly regrets. I would have liked to have heard more from Lindsay and how their relationship survived the fallout. They didn’t see each other for more than a year. Two years ago, they married.Regret is a recurring theme. Snowden is not sorry for what he did, but he laments the death of the internet he grew up with, and warns of dangers ahead, as artificial intelligence is fused with surveillance capabilities. If he is angry at his own predicament, it doesn’t show, but there is anger, and it comes in unexpected flashes; he describes Osama bin Laden as a “motherfucker”.He also seems exasperated by people who don’t try to understand the capabilities that can now be wielded against them. Snowden calls this the “tyranny of not understanding the technology” – a dig at anyone who uses a smartphone, or a computer, without wondering how the freedom it gives them might also make them vulnerable. In his own gentle way, perhaps Snowden is throwing down the gauntlet.He eventually decided his loyalties lay not with the agencies he was working for, but the public they were set up to protect. He felt ordinary citizens were being betrayed, and he had a duty to explain how.And Snowdens always answer a call of duty.• Permanent Record is published by Macmillan (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
‘Is it a car crash, or have they achieved exactly what they want to achieve?’ … Caroline Calloway. Photograph: Noam Galai/Getty Images for Shorty AwardsThirty years after ghostwriting Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal, Tony Schwartz described the experience as like putting lipstick on a pig. He felt a “deep sense of remorse” at helping bring the man who would become president gain wider attention. Andrew O’Hagan famously detailed the extraordinary details of ghosting Julian Assange’s memoir, including watching the WikiLeaks founder eat jam pudding with his hands, before the latter backed out of a £600,000 book deal. This week, the writer Natalie Beach joined the grand tradition of ghostwriters speaking out about their subjects, with a deeply intimate essay in the Cut laying out how she used to ghost everything for her former friend and controversial “influencer” Caroline Calloway: from Instagram captions to the aborted book that once attracted a $375,000 (£300,000) publishing deal, until their relationship broke down irretrievably.Beach’s account says that after the pair put the book proposal together, the influencer felt unable to write it. Beach says she “bought us time with the publishers by writing a quarter of the manuscript by myself”.With Calloway now obsessively responding on Instagram to Beach’s essay, and as the internet picks over the details of the story – you can find out if you’re more of a Caroline or a Natalie in the inevitable Buzzfeed quiz – the bestselling ghostwriter Andrew Crofts ponders if it had all been planned.“Is it a car crash, or have they achieved exactly what they want to achieve?” he asks. “It’s all very Tom Ripley/Dickie Greenleaf. That’s what’s intriguing.”As a ghostwriter himself, Crofts questions the ethics of speaking out about his subjects’ lives. “I do think Tony Schwartz shouldn’t have come out and said anything about Trump, because you’ve taken the money. It’s like a lawyer: if you find that the person you’re representing is a murderer you can’t then go around bewailing the fact you defended them – that was your job,” he said. “But I think he made Trump, I don’t think Trump would be president if he hadn’t written that book for him, because he’d never have got The Apprentice without the book, and the presidency without The Apprentice. So it must be weighing heavily on his conscience.”Ghostwriters must be good at several things – being amenable to being steered by a subject, while also being firm enough to guide them away from tangents and uninteresting details. But the most important thing in ghostwriting, says Crofts, is absence of ego. “Which is maybe what went wrong [with Calloway] – Natalie isn’t a born ghost, she’s a writer herself. She was really young and well out of her depth, completely swamped by this girl’s flamboyance,” he says. “Ghostwriters do attract a lot of fantasists and people who have ideas way above the likelihood of success. They always think their story is fantastically interesting and going to be a bestseller. You’re always dealing with people with larger-than-life egos, so there’s always a danger you’re going to run up against someone who is impossible to manage.”With more than 80 books behind him, a dozen of which were No 1 bestsellers, Crofts can only recall having to sever ties with one subject himself. “He was an elderly gentleman, and I remember him coming out of the shower naked,” he says. “He had all the photographs for the book spread out on the floor and they were sticking to his feet, and I thought: ‘It’s time to go.’”
The Tory party has been on a fiat fiesta: from 2015 it has used great numbers of statutory instruments to bypass parliamentary scrutiny. As Parliament was closing down this week, speaker John Bercow said the five-week prorogation was an act of “executive fiat”. An executive fiat is not a businessperson’s car, as that marque is an acronym for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino (“Italian car factory of Turin”). But there is an Italian connection, since “fiat” is also Latin: a subjunctive meaning “Let it be done”. For its importation into English we can probably thank the fourth-century priest St Jerome: his Latin translation of Genesis (in what became known as the Vulgate Bible) made famous the phrase “fiat lux”, for “let there be light”. Since the 17th century in English, then, a “fiat” has been a kind of God-like authorisation or decree, which creates a new reality by its utterance. Many things in modern life are done by fiat: fans of Bitcoin, for example, distrust what they call “fiat money”, or actual money, since it is in effect created out of nothing by banks. The Tory party, too, has long been on a fiat fiesta: from 2015 it has used great numbers of statutory instruments to bypass parliamentary scrutiny. Perhaps the humiliated PM’s new populist slogan will be “Fiat Brexit”.
Violence and the return of fascism are part of the story of Italy’s most extreme football fans. But as this noble investigation shows, some have a much more positive reputation. What to do about violent youth? Violent young men that is. Their thirst for action, extremity, conflict, heroism. Their cruelty. Perhaps the army? But soldiers are expensive. There’s sport of course, channelling adrenaline and competitiveness into spectacle; but few of us have the stuff of athletes. One idea that took off in the late 19th century was to corral rowdy men together in stadiums to support their local football teams, directing their negative energy towards the urgent rivalry of the players on the field. They might yell obscenities, invade the pitch and get into drunken brawls with opposing supporters, but with rare exceptions the mayhem was safely circumscribed; the police knew where the bad boys were; they could be frisked for weapons at the turnstiles; and their very thirst for transgression galvanised the stadium experience for everyone. Brutishness was satisfied, contained and even exploited. Every European country had its variation on this solution, according to its values and traditions, a morphing of local folklore in the age of commercialised sport. In postwar Italy it eventually produced the phenomenon known as the ultras, a name suggesting people who were “beyond” – oltre – or outside normal society, purists, fundamentalists. In what sense? In their celebration of their club, their colours, their community, ultimately themselves. Italian society has historically tended to put family, corporation or region before such considerations as merit or moral probity. The ultras take that propensity to extremes. Week after week, home and away, at great expense of effort and resources, they form the core fan support behind the goal, leading chants, hanging up banners, looking for fights with opposing supporters, filling the atmosphere with wild energy. Needless to say, those fans who actively oppose them or won’t come on board will very likely be intimidated. Tobias Jones seeks to offer both a history of the ultras and a feeling of what it’s like to be among them. In large part his book enacts a clash of values, a fabulously extended equivocation. Jones has written two previous non-fiction accounts and three novels about life in his adopted country, all of which focus on the “dark heart”, as he calls it, of Italy – corruption, murders, cover-ups – and once again in Ultra ethical concerns are to the fore. Together with the many stories of violence, graft and racism that fill the book’s pages, he explains that he is “drawn to ultra groups” because they “offer a unique vantage point to understand how and why fascism has re-emerged into the mainstream”. This is “one of the most urgent topics of the early 21st century”. This solemnity is reflected in the team he decides to follow. Jones lives in Parma, which has its Serie A team, its “Parma Boys”, its historic rivalries with Pisa and Genoa. But he chooses to get his experience of ultra life 1,000km to the south, in the much smaller Cosenza. Fortunately, he tells us, bad behaviour is “only partially representative of the ultra world”. Cosenza’s ultras have a reputation for being antifascist and determinedly good, “giving beds to hundreds of immigrants and destitute Italians”, opening “a foodbank for the poor,” and creating “Italy’s first play-park for disabled children”. Since Jones’s “non-Italian” book A Place of Refuge tells the story of how he and his wife turned a patch of Somerset countryside into a retreat for people in crisis, there is a noble continuity here. He wants to celebrate the good. He is fascinated by the fact that during the 1980s, Cosenza’s ultras were largely taken over by an eccentric monk, Padre Fedele, who pushed them to do charitable work, sought to bring together the country’s ultras in a pact of nonviolence and with frequent appearances on Italian TV became, Jones claims, “a spiritual guide to the ultras of not just Cosenza but of Italy”. As I learned in my 10 years in the Verona curva what matters for the ultras is setting themselves apart, making themselves visible. They will collect money for a victim or demand that a game be stopped after a fatal accident, because it shames the authorities. But they may equally well swing into racist chants, or unfold a banner to celebrate a group member jailed for racial violence. Them and us is everything. Jones gets this – “The ultras,” he says, “seemed to be looking for that vanishing grail of modern life: belonging” – yet continues to think of them in terms of good (left) and bad (right) and earnestly wishes they would behave better. Jones introduces a lot of characters with typically odd nicknames – Left Behind, Elastic, Vindow, Mouse – but they rarely come across strongly enough for us to remember who’s who. When he describes them fighting or insulting opposing fans he speaks of “them”, when it’s time to celebrate a goal he switches to “we”: “Ettore Mendicino … turns and, as he’s falling backwards, volleys the ball into the net. We away-supporters go berserk: hugging, screaming, jumping.” Jones is more at ease working from books and newspapers to trace the development of the ultras, ambitiously interweaving their metamorphoses with the shifting political scene over the past 50 years. We read about young, often orphaned men from underprivileged backgrounds seeking community among the ultras and finding themselves drawn into thuggery, drug dealing and ticket touting, or simply falling victim to mindless violence. A man is run over by an SUV as Milan fans attack Neapolitans. A fan launches a nautical flare that kills a man behind the opposite goal. A policeman dies in a scuffle in Catania. Another policeman shoots at a car across a motorway and kills a fan. A young fan is beaten up and dies of a heart attack. A policeman ultra turns armed robber, kills a fellow policeman then shoots himself. Two or three men “kill themselves” very probably under duress. Since an ultra group is essentially a core of raw energy with no particular direction, there are tales of those who seek to take over the group and push it this way or that. “The stadiums only offered bulletins of deaths,” we’re told at one point. But an article in Corriere della Sera in 2014 counted 22 deaths in 50 years of football violence. On average the same number die on the road every weekend in Italy. In the UK, where stadium violence has been tamed, knife deaths in 2018 reached 285 and, in general, Britain has twice as many homicides as Italy. “The northern city [Verona] was nationalistic to put it lightly,” we hear of one game, “whereas the Cosentini were so anti-nationalist that they chanted “Zaire” after the African country had beaten Italy 4–0 in the Seoul Olympics in 1988.” In fact few fans are less nationalist than the Veronese, who taunted Italy’s and Juventus’s goalkeeper, Stefano Tacconi, mercilessly after that surprising defeat, which was to Zambia not Zaire. The following year the Veronese caused a scandal when the national team played Uruguay in Verona and were whistled throughout. Only local identity is meaningful. “Ultras were the yeast in this rapidly rising far right dough,” Jones tells us of political developments in 2004. But a minority hankering for authoritarianism is a constant in Italy with its paralysed politics and powerful criminal organisations. The carnival provocations of some ultras, disgraceful as they may be, bear no comparison with the grim and systematic violence of the fascist squads of the 1920s. Fascism, alas, has no need of the terraces. Jones is interesting when he talks of the “religious” aspect of ultra movements, their attachment to sacred objects and determination to celebrate the dead. Banners remembering fans who have died or chants drawing from liturgical sources fascinate him. The parts of the book where he reflects on these are the best, allowing a rare glimpse of the author and the position from which he views the ultra phenomenon. . Tim Parks’s books include A Season With Verona (Vintage). Ultra is published by Head of Zeus (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
She blithely ignores the silliest cliche of literary advice: show, don’t tell … Nell Zink Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images“Doxology” is the name given to a short hymn of praise in the Christian liturgy. Nothing to do with doxxing – putting people’s private information on the internet – though the implicit pun ghosts through Nell Zink’s new novel all the same. The title is a bit of a challenge, then: it asks the reader, why is a long book mostly set between Washington DC and Manhattan between the late 80s and the present day, and mostly about families and punk rock music and environmental politics, called after a semi-obscure bit of devotional jargon?The term itself appears in the text only once that I noticed, on the second page, when – the story moves pretty fast – the protagonist’s mother is being buried. That protagonist is Joe Harris, who has a rare developmental disorder. “Unknown to all, and for as long as he lived, Joe Harris was a case of high-functioning Williams syndrome,” Zink writes. Joe’s condition manifests itself in a sort of Forrest Gump-like ingenuousness. He makes friends with strangers, believes everything everyone tells him, and operates in the world without self-consciousness or calculation. He sees his mother off with “Bye-bye, Mommy!”, and hearing “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” at the funeral, “lifted his voice meaningfully”.Joe has always sung eccentric songs of his own devising, and his story takes an unexpected left turn in young adulthood when – having befriended a punk called Pamela and her boyfriend Daniel in New York and formed a lo-fi three-piece – he suddenly zooms to rockstardom. With it come groupies, welcomed with characteristic wide-eyed enthusiasm, and drugs – likewise; and then, just when we think this is a book about Joe, the novel takes another direction.Doxology is, in some ways, an old-fashioned thing – and all the better for it. It’s a big, loping, digressive multi-generational novel, telling several stories, of the sort you don’t see all that much in literary fiction these days. Point of view scoots merrily from character to character, major or minor, as suits the narration. And Zink blithely ignores that silliest cliche of literary advice: show, don’t tell. She’s a teller, the book is full of information, and her pert authorial commentary is part of the fun. When we’re introduced to a character, for instance, we might get a biographical precis: “Pamela Bailey was born the year after Joe, in 1969. She grew up an only child in northwestern Washington DC, between the national zoo and the National Cathedral. Her mother, Ginger, was a homemaker, active in the church – that is, the cathedral – and the friends of the local branch library.”But why, you might wonder, does it start where it starts – rather, than, say, a generation further back – or end where it ends? That takes you back to the title, and to the quiet but insistent tendency to set scenes in cathedrals as much as in punk clubs. Even if there’s nothing so schematic as a religious framework visible in the book, it’s a story that is above all interested in the condition of innocence, and the way it survives, or doesn’t, under the pressure of history and of day-to-day life.Joe may leave the story relatively unexpectedly, but the example of his (contested) martyrdom runs throughout. The principal protagonist of the second half is Pam’s daughter Flora. She was babysat in infancy by Joe, and has inherited a version of his innocence: “She began with wounded thoughts about dishonesty. Her faith in truthfulness was deeply ingrained, in part because of her school’s honor code, but mostly because of Joe. Her honesty started with him, and his honesty had never ended for her.”Flora wants to change the world but, like most of us, doesn’t really have a clue how to go about doing so: “Her life was a continual struggle to distinguish career goals from the other kind. A career goal should be personal and practicable. Its variables should fall within realistic limits. Its success should depend as much as possible on factors under the individual’s control. Her career goal was to hold global warming to under two degrees Celsius. The appropriate college major for that would have been World Domination.” She ends up specialising in soil chemistry, which doesn’t get her far, then volunteering for the Green party – ditto.The straight-edge idealism of late 80s hardcore bands (Pamela worships Ian MacKaye and Minor Threat, and there’s a lovingly full evocation of the lower Manhattan hardcore scene, Sonic Youth rarities and all) resonates backwards with the hippie/boomer idealism of Pamela’s parents, and forwards to the millennial idealism of Flora’s generation. And meanwhile the twin towers fall, Trump is elected, and the planet burns.This is no jeremiad, though. Sentence by sentence it is wry and very funny, generous in spirit and full of the quick of life. Its irony is warm. Like Joe, it sings - as Gerard Manley Hopkins would have it - in praise of everything fickle, freckled, swift, slow, sweet, sour, adazzle, dim. It’s a doxology, after all.• Doxology is published by 4th Estate (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Are these lessons on ‘the stranger problem’ and how to engage with other people anything more than statements of the obvious?. Believe it or not, people aren’t totally transparent to one another. Liars can seem honest, spies can seem loyal, nervous people can seem guilty. People’s facial expressions are not a reliable guide to what they are thinking. Or, to put it in Hamlet’s words, one may smile, and smile, and be a villain. Makes you think, doesn’t it? If any of this is surprising to you, then you are in exalted company, because it also surprises Malcolm Gladwell, whose job it is to be puzzled by banalities and then replace them, after a great pseudo-intellectual circumambulation, with banalities. Gladwell affects to find it baffling how we can get people we don’t know so wrong. So he calls it “the stranger problem”, and pretends that it explains everything. It explains, for example, the fate of a young black woman named Sandra Bland. Gladwell introduces her by remarking that she was “tall and striking, with a personality to match”, which is just the kind of deft pen-portrait that has earned him a reputation as a brilliant writer for the best magazines. In Texas in 2015, Bland was pulled over for a traffic infraction by a cop named Brian Encinia. The encounter rapidly degenerated as the hostile and suspicious state trooper forced her out of the car, called for backup, and had her arrested. Days later Bland was found dead in her cell. You will guess that there is a counterintuitive take coming: Gladwell wants us to feel sorry for the cop. “Think about how hard it was” for him, he pleads. “Sandra Bland was not someone Brian Encinia knew from the neighborhood or down the street ... They were strangers to each other.” Other policemen stop strangers all the time without bullying them and hauling them in, but never mind that now. Encinia, as Gladwell credulously interprets his subsequent statements, was “terrified” of this young woman, who might after all have been planning to burn him with her cigarette. It’s very difficult, don’t you see, not to be a brute. What else is it difficult not to be? In Gladwell’s world of large ideas, it may also be hard not to be a rapist when you’re drunk. He brings his forensic empathy to the case of Brock Turner, the Stanford college student who was caught sexually assaulting an unconscious woman on the ground outside a dorm building. Such a difficult case! Gladwell explains sorrowfully that consuming large amounts of alcohol causes mental “myopia”, where one is unable to consider the long-term consequences of one’s actions. It’s just too bad, he concludes, that these careless students both got so drunk at a party that the man could “tragically misunderstand” the woman’s intentions. You may object that plenty of men are able to get blattered without raping anyone, but that seems to be beyond Malcolm Gladwell. To be sure, this book is not exclusively about standing up for the unlucky men who accidentally do bad things just because the “stranger problem” is so lamentably intractable. It is also littered with historical and pop-cultural anecdotes. Why did Chamberlain think Hitler sincerely wanted peace? Such a “puzzle” leads us through stories about Cuban espionage, predatory paedophiles, the Bernie Madoff fraud, Sylvia Plath’s suicide, the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and the TV show Friends. “Maybe real life isn’t like Friends,” Gladwell suggests, momentously. Gladwell bases his book on a single notion called “truth-default theory”. We tend to assume that other people are telling the truth, which is the basis of trust and social cooperation, so liars are hard to spot. Not mentioned here is the well-known opposite phenomenon: that, far from defaulting to truth, we believe only the information that fits with our preconceived biases. Both ideas are right, because the world is complicated, but Gladwell’s job is to make it seem simple. Another teachable story here is that of Amanda Knox, the American student in Perugia who was imprisoned for murder (and later acquitted) because her behaviour after the crime seemed extremely odd. Gladwell assures us that weird behaviour is not reliable evidence of guilt. There is a psychological phenomenon called “the illusion of asymmetric insight”: we consider ourselves opaque to others, while thinking that other people are easy to read correctly. “If I can convince you of one thing in this book,” he announces dramatically, “let it be this: Strangers are not easy.” Perhaps if we can all become convinced of this novel truth, we will stop harassing and raping one another for good. If only someone like Shakespeare had encoded the lesson centuries ago in some memorable form, like, I don’t know, “There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face.” In the absence of such poetic conventional wisdom, though, another book by Gladwell just might save the world. . Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know is published by Allen Lane (£30). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Aesthetic judgments are determined by culture, writes Beth Lord, which is why it is so important to have diversity among Booker prize judges. Your editorial (7 September) states: “Aesthetic judgments are subjective, which is one reason why prize organisers are right to see diversity on judging panels as important.” This sentence makes no sense. If aesthetic judgments really were subjective, there would be no need to consider ethnic, class, or gender diversity on judging panels, since judges’ verdicts would be entirely down to personal preferences. What the writer really means is that aesthetic judgments are determined by one’s culture. Judgments about works of literature are objective: within a given set of cultural expectations, there are qualities that distinguish good writing from bad. Those objective qualities change with culture, which is why it’s so important that judging panels reflect the full diversity of our society. Beth Lord Department of Philosophy, University of Aberdeen . Join the debate – email firstname.lastname@example.org . Read more Guardian letters – click here to visit gu.com/letters . Do you have a photo you’d like to share with Guardian readers? Click here to upload it and we’ll publish the best submissions in the letters spread of our print edition
Margaret Atwood reads from The Testaments in London on 10 September. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty ImagesIt is the literary event of 2019 and 34 years in the making: The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to her dystopian feminist classic The Handmaid’s Tale is finally out in the world (a week after Amazon’s embargo-busting snafu.) Fans around the globe were attending launches on Monday and Tuesday to finally get their hands on a copy and discover the fate of Gilead, Atwood’s vision of a theocratic future America. How to get in touchCritics have lined up to give their reviews – including Anne Enright in the Guardian, who wrote: “The Testaments is Atwood at her best, in its mixture of generosity, insight and control. The prose is adroit, direct, beautifully turned. All over the reading world, the history books are being opened to the next blank page and Atwood’s name is written at the top of it. To read this book is to feel the world turning, as the unforeseeable shifts of the last few years reveal the same old themes.”But we want to hear your reviews. Are you a long-time Atwood fan? Have you only discovered her since The Handmaid’s Tale TV show? Give us your verdict in the form below – we will feature some of the best contributions.If you’re having trouble using the form, click here. Read terms of service here.
Caddo Lake, Texas: the setting for a nine-year-old boy who goes missing in Attica Locke’s Heaven, My Home. Photograph: AP Photograph: Jamie Stengle/AP Heaven, My HomeAttica Locke Serpent’s Tail, £14.99, pp304The story opens with a nine-year-old boy, Levi, getting lost on a boat on Caddo Lake in Texas, a “gnarled inland sea, wholly untamed…both majestic and macabre”. But Levi is no ordinary nine-year-old – his family are part of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas and black Texas Ranger Darren Matthews, who has been working to indict key members of the white supremacist group, is sent to find him.Darren is conflicted. Of the tens of thousands of missing children, why is he looking for a boy who is already showing racist tendencies, but as he digs deeper into the murky past and present of the rural Texas community, he discovers tendrils of malevolence and prejudice stretching back decades. “There was something shrouded about the place, like the grayish moss hanging on the cypress trees in Caddo Lake,” he realises.Set after the election of Trump, suffused with the Texas blues music that Darren loves, this fine thriller depicts an America teetering on the edge of chaos where racial violence is breaking out everywhere, “like a ghostly relative in a daguerreotype who had always been there but was now impossible to ignore.” Bone ChinaLaura Purcell Raven, £12.99, pp448Hester Why is fleeing a mysterious, dark past in 19th-century London to work under an assumed name as a lady’s maid at remote Morvoren Mansion on the Cornish coast. Her charge, Miss Pinecroft, is partially paralysed and barely speaks, spending her days and nights staring in a creepy fashion at the array of china that fills her room. The staff talk of fairies, but Hester is enjoyably resolute in her dismissal of their superstitions: “I have lived to the age of two-and-thirty without meeting the requirements of a human bride… I have no reason to fear a supernatural suitor” – until she learns more about her employer’s past. How 40 years earlier, Miss Pinecroft’s father, a doctor alone and heartbroken by what consumption has done to his family, decides to experiment on a group of consumptive prisoners, keeping them in the cliffs under the Cornish house. Deliciously spooky. Elevator PitchLinwood Barclay Harper Collins, £20, pp400What would happen if someone could control the elevators in New York City to nefarious means? That’s the question Linwood Barclay explores in Elevator Pitch, sending innocents plummeting to their doom as an array of characters – detective Jerry Bourque, traumatised by a previous case, hardbitten journalist Barbara Matheson, and mayor Richard Headley (he doesn’t like to be known as Dick) – try to save the day. Could it be the work of the Flyovers, an “alt-right group that says the real Americans are the ones the elites fly over when they go from coast to coast”? In snappy chapters and pacy prose, Barclay has a lot of fun letting his scenario play out. “What would you have me do?… Tell New Yorkers to stop using the elevators until further notice? You have any idea what kind of chaos that would create in a vertical city like this?” demands the mayor. Reader: you will be glad to know that he does indeed give this order. The Other End of the LineAndrea Camilleri Mantle, £16.99, pp304The late Andrea Camilleri shows nobody does it better than his Sicilian detective, Montalbano, here in his 24th outing. Outraged to be sent by his partner, Livia, to acquire a tailored suit for a wedding, he finds himself unexpectedly charmed by the beautiful tailor Elena and horrified when, soon after, she is murdered. He throws himself into the investigation, but he and his team are exhausted: they’re also coping with the arrival of nightly boatloads of hundreds of refugees on Sicily and Camilleri shows the wretched misery of this situation with his usual clarity and humanity. Stephen Sartarelli’s translation is as flawless as ever: we must savour what is left to come from Camilleri.• To order Heaven, My Home, Bone China, Elevator Pitch or The Other End of the Line, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min of £1.99
Nell Zink: Doxology ‘rings true with detail both glamorous and mundane’. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty ImagesThe novels of the US writer Nell Zink tend to be thrillingly unhinged, apparently written on the fly – within a month or even a week – and buzzing with witty dialogue and zany plots. In Mislaid, written before the Rachel Dolezal affair, a white woman identifies as black to leave her gay husband; the main character of Nicotine inherits her childhood home only to end up in a three-way fling with anarchist squatters, one asexual, the other a nymphomaniac.If the wider points could sometimes go astray amid the quirkiness, Zink’s new novel looks like a bid for greater heft, targeting state-of-the-nation terrain through her regular prism of an unusual domestic setup. Running from 80s New York to Trump-era Washington DC, and framed by a pair of accidental pregnancies some 20 years apart, Doxology contrasts America then and now, to the latter’s disadvantage.The 80s section introduces us to the wannabe post-punk three-piece at the novel’s heart: Pam, a coder, and Daniel, a proofreader, who, after the unplanned arrival of a daughter, Flora, score an unlikely top 10 single fronted by their friend Joe, who juggles the hard-partying duties of stardom with babysitting Flora when her parents are out at work.There’s true tenderness in Zink’s portrait of their mutual affection. Here’s what a family looks like, she seems to say. Yet a third of the way into the book, Daniel, desperate to get his wife and daughter out of New York on 9/11, loses contact with Joe, who is later found dead. Not in the circumstances you might expect: although that’s just what Pam and Daniel guiltily let Flora grow up believing, sowing discord in a book partly about the making and breaking of illusions.Doxology rings true with detail both glamorous and mundane, from record label talks to an A&E dash when Flora falls off a changing table. Our sense of the book’s authenticity sags only when we see Flora in her ecologically conscious 20s, studying soil erosion in Ethiopia and cutting her political teeth in the run-up to the 2016 election. Zink once played in an underground band and edited an indie-rock zine; whether she’s ever been to Addis Ababa or sat in on a Democrat strategy meeting, I don’t know – it’s irrelevant – but either way, the book’s second half doesn’t hit the high notes of the first.Ultimately, Flora’s idealistic quest “to end economic growth” in order to save the planet is upstaged by a more traditional plot when, on the campaign trail, she ends up two-timing a pair of Democrat strategists, one middle-aged, the other in his 20s. When the outcome – expectant motherhood in uncertain circumstances – prompts comparisons with how an equivalent scenario played out for her parents, it’s hard not to suspect Zink (born in 1964) feels that twentysomethings in her own generation had their heads screwed on as well as screwed up.Doxology is invigorating and intermittently brilliant. Yet as the plot grows manic, the hardboiled sass of the prose turns perfunctory; and when, late on, an apocalyptic miasma leads to little but a riff on how Fox News decides the pollution cloud is less noteworthy than an item on the optimum thickness of spaghetti, there’s a sense that, for Zink, endings remain elusive.This review is from the Observer• Doxology by Nell Zink is published by 4th Estate (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood with her new novel The Testaments during its launch in London. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/ReutersThe last time bookshops saw this much action at midnight on a weekday, a certain boy wizard was on the shelves.“There’s not another Potter out?” a passing man asks the growing queue outside Waterstones in London’s Piccadilly, where a parade of women dressed in red flowing robes and white bonnets are silently gliding by.The costume of the handmaids – the fertile women ritually raped to repopulate the dystopian theocracy of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale – has a tinge of witchiness to it, though it has become, in a short period of time, iconic for something more: for feminist protest, from Ireland to Argentina; and an instantly recognisable bastion of pop culture that themed a Kylie Jenner party.Hundreds of fans have lined up to attend the midnight launch of Atwood’s much-anticipated sequel, The Testaments, which will be attended by the Canadian author herself. The ticketless hover nearby, asking if anyone knows when she is due to arrive.Alongside the handmaids are a surprise for those yet to read the book: two Pearl Girls dressed in floor-length, silvery gowns, who stay steadfastly in character all night. “She handed me an orange,” says one girl in the queue, bewildered but impressed, cradling the fruit like a precious jewel (and not yet knowing she held a crucial plot detail).The atmosphere inside the bookshop, just one of many around the world hosting a launch but the only attended by the author herself, would be familiar to any twentysomething who grew up on Harry Potter – but is perhaps unexpected for a sequel to a 34-year old literary novel about the patriarchy. Inside, young women – and the crowd is mostly women in their 20s and 30s, who probably grew up on Potter launches – and the occasional mother or boyfriend are drinking acid-green mocktails, tucking into cupcakes and taking down the patriarchy through craftivism. More than one person says they’re dedicating their Tuesday to reading.Kasey is there with her mother, Michaela, who gave her the book when she was 13. “I’ve been annoyed ever since then that it ended on such a cliffhanger,” she says. “A potential ending is so exciting.”Michaela was given the book for Christmas in 1985, “and no one could speak to me because I was so engrossed. So much of what she has predicted has come true, especially with the Christian right in the US. I think she’s a prophet.”People queue to get a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments outside Waterstones Piccadilly in London. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/ReutersIndi credits The Handmaid’s Tale as the reason she studies English literature at Cardiff University. Greta, a Lithuanian student, wrote her master’s dissertation on Atwood and Shakespeare. The pair met in the queue, and are delicately embroidering “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”, the Latin phrase carved into Offred’s closet by a previous handmaid in her household: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”“I really want to see Atwood in person,” Greta says. “Having examined her work as a literary celebrity and knowing so much about a person you’ve never seen in your life? It is going to be weird.”Due to the prescience of her novels, and a well-timed and well-reviewed TV adaptation, Atwood has acquired new celebrity at the grand age of 79 – and not just among young people: authors including Jeanette Winterson, Neil Gaiman and Elif Shafak are attending the London launch.Winterson, who first read Atwood while at university, says the Canadian author has always kept an eye on who is “moving the edges in”.“Parliament has been prorogued today,” she tells the Guardian. “We’ve got Trump in America, that narcissistic, egotistical, shitface in Downing Street. What is happening? And Atwood is there to instruct us, saying, ‘You know this, inside out.’ It really matters.”Gaiman says; “The terrifying thing is how well Atwood told us about it 30 years ago. When I read The Handmaid’s Tale, I was a callow 25-year-old who thought we were too sensible for it to happen. Thirty years down the line, I know we’re not all sensible.“Some of us are idiots. Some of us are scared and can be lead by monsters. And the monsters are scared too. Suddenly you get the Pences, the Trumps, the Greasy Johnsons in power … if nothing else, that book is a canary in our communal cave mind.”Literature’s most diminutive rockstar comes out an hour before midnight to whoops, not looking quite used to the level of celebrity that has finally come her way. She delivers a short reading, then smiles as the shop unites to count down, and dings a bell at midnight to cheers and a mad rush for books before selfies outside the shop. Forget Potter, this is Beatles territory. One bookseller says it is not quite that crazy – just last week, people camped outside for a day to see Paul McCartney sign his new children’s book. But, she says, it’s still not far off.
Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them. Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week. There’s a first time for most things – and often that can be a fine time. Pseudaletia has enjoyed encountering Toni Morrison and The Song Of Solomon: It was amazing, and is the first novel in a long time that has stayed with me. I had read that she was a mix of Faulkner, Gabriel - Marquez and others, and she did not disappoint. I don’t know what her later works are like, but I have one on order from the library. Cardellina has also had an epiphany when reading The Big Short by Michael Lewis: I don’t understand/am generally not interested in finance, and when I watched the film I still struggled to get what was going on (despite the “explanations for dummies” section). This book is fascinating - punchy, concise and full of fascinating characters. For the first time I can maybe see how finance could be sort of interesting. Meanwhile, lipreader is onto Providence “the second Anita Brookner book of the summer and her second novel”: Kitty Maule is successful in her work and actually has a couple of reasonably good friends. However, she has a huge blind spot that ends in a rather public humiliation. You walk alongside her for 180 pages just knowing that the fall is coming. When it does, Brookner doesn’t even give her a chance to put her hands out to brace herself. She is clueless to the very end. Just a metaphorical full faceplant. Brutal. “My suggestion for a fun book for the reading group didn’t make it out of the hat,” laments, philipphilip99, “but I’m re-reading it for the umpteenth time anyway”. The book in question? William Kotzwinkle’s The Bear Went Over The Mountain: A depressed creative writing lecturer takes a sabbatical in the country to write the Great American novel, but the manuscript is stolen by a greedy bear, who claims the novel as his own, and is greeted by the New York literati as the new Hemingway. Beautifully written and laugh out loud funny - why this novel hasn’t become a classic is a mystery to me. Veufveuve provides a report from the depths of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart: I am still deep in the teeming streets and tangled thickets of this magnificent book with no idea how it will be resolved, if at all. But for now all those streets and drawing rooms, woods and esplanades, may be very beautifully written but they also feel dangerous and sinister. First, Bowen’s prose can be incomparable, beginning on the first page with a breathtaking evocation of London in January. Second, there is the psychological acuity. There is, for example, a scene relatively early on in which Matchett, the servant, sits with Portia as she tries to fall asleep - it made me gasp several times as it revealed ever more, increasingly unsettling, layers to what had at first appeared to be merely an affectionate relationship based in familiarity. It was masterly. I cannot wait to finish. The Offing by Benjamin Myers has pleased Larts: I think it’s a lovely book. It seems unusual in that the characters are pleasant and considerate. I also like how Mr Myers has presented Robert as a character with limited experience but an intelligence that opens him to awareness and understanding. Myers also times the development of the characters really well. The novel does what the best writing does - makes me envious of the skill and crafting of the piece and has put me, myself, in the narrator’s shoes. Also I think back to my own youth and some of my experiences. SydneyH has a “new favourite” Salman Rushdie novel – The Enchantress Of Florence: It might not seem like an obvious choice, but it has a few things quite noticeably in its favour: firstly, it is set in the distant past, so we are spared any zany pop culture references; secondly, it isn’t blatantly modelled on an existing text, though it echoes One Thousand and One Nights; and it is the only Rushdie novel I’ve encountered with an invisible narrator, as opposed to some of the others, in which it feels like the author is Morris dancing provocatively just out of reach. The book is more in the realm of pure fantasy than “Magic Realism”, though historical figures are mentioned, including Vlad the Impaler, who is one of the pack of warlords, sultans and dictators who are engaged in bloody territorial disputes in the narrative. I highly recommend it for fans of escapism. Finally, Tom Mooney recommends Dreaming of Babylon by Richard Brautigan: Now THAT is how you write a detective parody. Brautigan somehow manages to deliver a gripping (if slightly bizarre) private eye novel while simultaneously satirising the entire genre. It’s just great. I’m starting to run out of his books now ... A sad day is approaching! Alas! Although, there’s always the joy of re-reading… Interesting links about books and reading The 50 best one-star Amazon reviews of Goodnight Moon. “If you believe that Amazon sent out 800 (or more) copies accidentally, I’ve got some swamp land in Florida I’d like to sell you.” MobyLives weighs in on those escaped copies of Margaret Atwood’s new novel. “Giovanni’s Room was Baldwin’s bastard child in the way he was a bastard child.” Hilton Als on James Baldwin’s extraordinary novel. The many literary landscapes of Tokyo. Ann Cleeves on World Book Club. If you’re on Instagram, now you can share your reads with us: simply tag your posts with the hashtag #GuardianBooks, and we’ll include a selection in this blog. Happy reading!
The playwright behind A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, who has died aged 92, wrote deeply autobiographical plays that offered an image of modern Britain. Peter Nichols, who has died aged 92, once wrote an autobiography called Feeling You’re Behind. The title says a lot about Nichols in that it combined a rude joke with a sense that other playwrights enjoyed a popularity he had been denied. Yet from A Day in the Death of Joe Egg in 1967 to Passion Play in 1981, Nicholas enjoyed a rich run of success in British theatre and showed a capacity to create resonant public drama out of personal experience. The obvious thing to say about Nichols is that he relentlessly mined his private life. After a clutch of TV plays in the early 1960s, he hit the big time in 1967 with Joe Egg, which is about to be revived in the West End. It was – and still is – a landmark play in that Nichols dramatised the problem faced by himself and his wife, Thelma, of how to live with a disabled child. The difficulty, as Nichols acknowledged, was that of confronting the issue “in a way that will prevent a sudden stampede to the exit doors”. His solution was twofold: to have the characters directly address the audience and to show that domestic pain is made bearable by caustically irreverent humour. Where other dramatists might have veered towards the maudlin or sentimental, Nichols wrote a blackly funny play in which the teacher-hero typically sees God as “a sort of manic-depressive rugby footballer”. While most of Nichols’s plays are deeply autobiographical, they exploit popular forms and at the same time offer an image of modern Britain. A classic example is The National Health, brilliantly staged by Michael Blakemore for the National Theatre in 1969 and rarely seen since. The setting is a ward in an outdated Victorian gothic hospital and Nichols uses Carry On jokes and soap-opera parody to create a microcosm of modern society. The six inmates embody everything from buoyant optimism to bilious pessimism (“this sceptr’d isle with its rivers poisoned ... beaches fouled with oil ... the sea choked with excrement”) while attended by a cynically jocular male nurse who argues that “most of the healing arts are bent if you want my frank opinion”. Reared in the keyhole naturalism of television, Nichols was always at his best in maximising the theatricality of theatre. His mix of personal memory, popular comedy and political comment reached its apogee in his 1977 musical, Privates on Parade. The show was directly based on Nichols’ own experience, as a young serviceman, with Combined Services Entertainment in the Malaysia of the early 1950s where his contemporaries included Stanley Baxter, Kenneth Williams and John Schlesinger. This resulted in the creation of the memorably camp figure of Acting (or even over-acting) Captain Terri Dennis who signed on only because “the panto season was over and life under Clementina Attlee wasn’t exactly the Roman Empire”. But behind the gags and songs lay a serious question about whether the British military presence in Malaysia was dictated by a desire to combat communism or commercial interests. Nichols enjoyed working on a big scale. In Poppy, staged by the RSC in 1982, he used the form of Christmas panto to explore the 19th-century Opium Wars. But Nichols could also create effective domestic drama. One of his most moving plays – though difficult to revive today for obvious reasons – was Chez Nous in which a middle-aged man is revealed to have had an affair with his best friend’s teenage daughter. Far more durable is the 1981 Passion Play, which tackles the corrosive nature of sexual infidelity. It is part of a remarkable trinity of plays on that subject – including Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing – but what distinguishes Nichols’s is his invention of alter egos for the central couple who articulate their private anxieties. In later years Nichols fell out of fashion and, while he continued to write, many of his new plays went sadly unproduced. But he is part of the great pantheon of postwar British dramatists and, at his best, he showed zest, flair and a unique talent for fashioning national metaphors out of his lived experience.