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  • War brides, spies and burning bookshops: Marina Warner on writing her memoir
    by Charlotte Higgins on March 6, 2021 at 11:00 am

    Famous for her study of fairytales, what happened when Warner decided to tell her own story? She talks about the remarkable family legends behind her ‘unreliable’ memoirPandemic conditions meant I couldn’t visit Marina Warner, but I’ve been to her house, in London, once before, and I’ll try to remember it for you because it hums with enchantment. First you must open the wicket gate off the street, brushing past clambering plants to reach the front door. Inside, you climb a slim staircase. The walls are crammed with art, and you’ll want to pause and look: there’s a little Paula Rego that shows the householder reading a story to an entranced wolf from Little Red Riding Hood, a reference to Warner’s lifelong study of fairytales and myths and her role too as a storyteller, author of novels and stories and children’s books. Over a door is a wooden sculpture by her son, the artist Conrad Shawcross, called The Winnowing Oar – a pun on the prophecy given to Homer’s Odysseus that he must wander until he meets a community who mistake an oar for a winnowing fan.Then you duck into the sitting room, where there’s more art and teetering towers of books – at one moment when I was there Graeme Segal, Warner’s third husband (an Oxford mathematician so distinguished that his name is attached to both a theorem and a conjecture), put out a steadying hand to prevent a collapse. The room vibrates to a steady babble of chat – friends, grandchildren, teenagers – and in the centre of it all, benignly smiling, serene and immensely elegant, Warner herself. That day she told me about two of her Italian aunts, who began with the poetic names Annunziata and Purissima, and became, when they emigrated to America, prosy Nancy and Pat. She told me too about her late cousin Andy Cicoria, who looked rather like her, but was a homicide detective in the LAPD, leading me to the loopy but enjoyable fantasy that maybe she and he were the same person, that Warner might be scintillating mythographer by day and hardboiled Californian crime fighter by night.I felt as if I had been psychoanalysed into a state of acceptance and grief Continue reading…

  • Top 10 books about roots | Nadia Owusu
    by Nadia Owusu on March 3, 2021 at 4:30 pm

    From American giants such as Toni Morrison and James Baldwin to memoirs by Xiaolu Guo and Vladimir Nabokov, Nadia Owusu picks the best works that explore notions of homeWhen I was a child, my father told me stories about his childhood in Ghana’s Ashanti region. And, because he knew that I wouldn’t learn much about Africa in my primary schools in Europe, he was determined to instruct me about Ghanaian culture, customs and history. Our history, he emphasised, did not begin with colonisation. Related: Nadia Owusu: ‘I wrote as a way to process trauma’ Continue reading…

  • Parenthesis by Élodie Durand review – gripping graphic memoir about the joy of recovery
    by Rachel Cooke on March 2, 2021 at 9:00 am

    The French artist deftly evokes the fog and fear of illness and the thrill of getting betterThere are so many good graphic memoirs about illness: when it comes to ill-defined symptoms, and to the way that time contracts and expands in the sickroom, comics seem to reach places that words cannot. But Élodie Durand’s Parenthesis, which has already won several awards in her native France, really is extraordinary: a book I began to think of as a classic even before I’d finished it. If its author is expert in the matter of pain – able to convey the qualities of a headache in a single, scrawled black line – she’s even better on the ticking of the clock. As its title suggests, Durand wants to know what it means for the future when the present is paused – and thanks to this, its publication in English could hardly have come at a better, more resonant moment.Durand drew Parenthesis a decade after the events it describes. When it begins, she’s in her early 20s, a fine-art graduate who’s working on a big mural in the basement of a hospital just outside Paris. For a long time, she has suffered from what her family describes as “spells”: periods when, pale and shaking, she can only stare into nothingness, and which she can never remember herself afterwards. But now they start to get worse. A neurologist diagnoses her with epilepsy, and the drugs he prescribes work for a little while. Pretty soon, though, she begins a terrible descent. She sleeps more and more. She is able to function less and less. Her memory disappears, and with it, everything she has ever learned – including, at one point, her own name. What’s happening? A brain scan reveals an inoperable tumour. Her only hope is an experimental “gamma knife”. Continue reading…

  • Albert and the Whale by Philip Hoare review – his greatest work yet
    by Laura Cumming on February 28, 2021 at 7:00 am

    The gifted writer summons the eclectic travels of Albrecht Dürer with captivating passion, poignancy, pure wonder and a personal twistAlbrecht Dürer was the first great sightseer in the history of art, travelling Europe to see conjoined twins, Aztec gold, Venetian gondolas and the bones of an 18ft giant. He crossed the Alps more than once and voyaged for six days in the freezing winter of 1520 to see a whale on a beach in Zeeland. The ship was nearly wrecked, but somehow Dürer saved the day and they eventually reached the shore. The sands were empty. The great creature had sailed away.This magnificent new book by Philip Hoare takes its title from that tale, but only as a point of departure. The narrative soon turns into a trip of another kind entirely, a captivating journey through art and life, nature and human nature, biography and personal memoir. Giants walk the earth: Dürer and Martin Luther, Shakespeare and Blake, Thomas Mann, Marianne Moore, WH Auden, David Bowie. Hoare summons them like Prospero, his writing the animating magic that brings the people of the past directly into our present and unleashes spectacular visions along the way.Hoare’s Dürer is a Columbus, a Copernicus, opening up this wide worldAlbert and the Whale by Philip Hoare is published by Fourth Estate (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply Continue reading…

  • A Still Life by Josie George review – memoir of a mystery illness
    by Blake Morrison on February 27, 2021 at 7:30 am

    The honesty and clarity of the writing in this account elevates what could have been a ‘misery memoir’ into something moving and joyousJosie George doesn’t know what’s wrong with her. The doctors don’t know either, though for 30-odd years they’ve been coming up with different ideas. Any exertion or stimulation exhausts her. There are times when she’s too weak to leave the house. A single mum with a nine-year-old son and a mobility scooter, she never knows how her health will be from one day to the next. It sounds like the material for a misery memoir. But the miracle of A Still Life – as much a miracle as her determination to write it – is its joyousness.By the age of eight, with pain, swollen glands and bouts of lassitude that no amount of Calpol could cure, she was already a puzzle to paediatricians. Maybe she didn’t like school, one doctor suggested; on the contrary what she hated was being stuck at home on the sofa. Her social worker mum and church worker dad did their best to keep her spirits up and there would be periods when she seemed fine – could run, pedal her bike, enjoy sleepovers with friends. Then she’d go downhill again, to be puzzled over by a new set of specialists (haematologists, rheumatologists, urologists), whose tests showed nothing amiss and made her feel like a fraud. Continue reading…

  • Two Way Mirror by Fiona Sampson review – a fine life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
    by Kathryn Hughes on February 24, 2021 at 10:00 am

    A portrait of the poet and ‘public prophet’ spotlights her entanglements with empire and race but doesn’t neglect the schlockier pleasures of biographical speculation“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” asked Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1850, unwittingly turning herself from one of Britain’s pre-eminent poets into a Valentine’s card fixture. It wasn’t just the words, which are still lovely, but the way they tend to be read in conjunction with the story of her clandestine courtship by fellow-poet Robert Browning. In 1846, after a year and a half of epistolary romance and secret meetings, young Browning famously burst into the 40-year-old’s London sickroom and whisked her to Italy and a new life of sunshine, sex and lyric poetry.Of course, this biographical reading would have appalled Browning, who spent a career trying to break the automatic identification between the “I” of the poem and the “me” of the poet. Chances are such a reductive approach would have unsettled Barrett Browning too. She saw herself as a public prophet rather than as what she scathingly called a “fair writer”. Her first publication as a precocious 14-year-old had been an account of the Battle of Marathon, and she went on to tackle big, gnarly subjects including the iniquity of laissez-faire capitalism (“The Cry of the Children”) and the struggle of Italy for political self-determination (“Casa Guidi Windows”). These days we forget that when Wordsworth died in 1850 it was Barrett, rather than Tennyson, who was most often mentioned as the next poet laureate.Guilt about her background, Sampson thinks, accounts for Barrett’s claim that she herself had ‘the blood of the slave’ Continue reading…

  • Sally Bayley: what Shakespeare taught me about my family
    by Claire Armitstead on February 23, 2021 at 3:00 pm

    Falstaff, Mistress Quickly and the fairy rulers of A Midsummer Night’s Dream helped the author through a traumatic childhood and feature in her memoir No Boys Play HereSally Bayley was about 12 when she entered the world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in her local library. She was immediately struck by how the terrible rows between Titania and Oberon echoed those in her own household. “There’s a lot of yelling in Shakespeare: quarrels or squabbles … but a quarrel is a more serious thing,” she writes. The lovers squabble, but the fairies quarrel, and when they do, the weather changes. “The sun goes down and the night rolls quickly on.”After spending her early childhood adrift in the down-at-heel English south-coast town where she grew up, she found herself in Shakespeare – not in any single character but in fragments that made sense of an identity forged in a chaotic and impoverished family. The Merchant of Venice gave her Jessica, forced to disguise herself as a boy to escape parental tyranny: Bayley herself escaped by refusing to eat, and turning herself in to social services at the age of 14.Falstaff represents the men in her family, who brawl and drink themselves into oblivion and are then banished Related: Girl With Dove: A Life Built By Books review – lost in the fog of childhood trauma No Boys Play Here: A Story of Shakespeare & My Family’s Missing Men by Sally Bayley is published by William Collins Continue reading…

  • Amos Oz accused of ‘sadistic abuse’ by daughter in new memoir
    by Alison Flood on February 23, 2021 at 12:34 pm

    Galia Oz claims late author – hailed as Israel’s greatest – beat and humiliated her in childhood, but siblings say they remember him differentlyThe daughter of the late Israeli author Amos Oz has alleged that her father subjected her to “a routine of sadistic abuse” in a new memoir, claims that have been challenged by his family.Galia Oz, a children’s author, published her autobiography, Something Disguised as Love, in Hebrew on Sunday. “In my childhood, my father beat me, swore and humiliated me,” she writes, in a translation published by the newspaper Haaretz. “The violence was creative: He dragged me from inside the house and threw me outside. He called me trash. Not a passing loss of control and not a slap in the face here or there, but a routine of sadistic abuse. My crime was me myself, so the punishment had no end. He had a need to make sure I would break.” Continue reading…

  • ‘The man was obviously a crook’: the decline and fall of Robert Maxwell
    by John Preston on February 22, 2021 at 8:00 am

    Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch were once the two biggest power brokers in British politics. But their fierce rivalry paved the way for Maxwell’s demiseThe dinner dances hosted by Robert and Betty Maxwell at their Italianate mansion in Oxford, Headington Hill Hall, were reckoned, even by hardened partygoers, to be in a class of their own. Every year on Maxwell’s birthday, the great and good would descend in their droves to enjoy his hospitality. Labour party grandees would rub shoulders with captains of industry, leading scientists with newspapers editors.But the party to celebrate Maxwell’s 65th birthday in June 1988 was confidently predicted to outdo them all in terms of both opulence and pomp. The US president, Ronald Reagan, sent a telegram of congratulations: “Nancy and I are delighted to join in the chorus of appreciation.” So did the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who extolled Maxwell’s “sense of direction and decision” – very similar, she noted, to her own. As far as the then Labour leader, Neil Kinnock was concerned, “If Bob Maxwell didn’t exist, no one could invent him.” Kinnock went on to pay tribute to Maxwell’s “basic convictions of liberty and fair play”.While I knew I couldn’t afford to lose his support, I knew too that he could change in an instant; it was like walking on eggshellsI had this feeling that Maxwell sort-of wanted to tip over. It even half crossed my mind that I was going to have to reach out and grab him Related: Fall by John Preston review – the truth about Robert Maxwell Continue reading…

  • In brief: Princess Mary; We Are Not in the World; A Curious History of Sex – review
    by Alexander Larman on February 21, 2021 at 9:30 am

    A study of a neglected royal, a lyrical novel about a father and daughter, and an eye-opening look at carnal activityElizabeth BasfordThe History Press, £20, pp288 Continue reading…

  • Unfinished manuscripts that lay behind Palestinian critic’s stated contempt for fiction
    by Donna Ferguson on February 21, 2021 at 6:30 am

    Scholar Edward Said longed to write novels, yet never succeeded, a new biography revealsEdward Said was clear and firm: the work of a critic, he argued, is more important than the work of poets and novelists. It is public intellectuals, he believed, who are the writers most able to challenge power and change the world.But according to a new biography of the highly respected Palestinian scholar and literary critic, Said secretly wrote both poetry and fiction – not even mentioning it to his friends. Related: Return: A Palestinian Memoir by Ghada Karmi review – good intentions turn to bitterness and isolation Continue reading…

  • On my radar: Brett Anderson’s cultural highlights
    by Brett Anderson on February 20, 2021 at 3:00 pm

    The Suede frontman on his latest musical discoveries, the brilliance of Michael Clark and the enduring appeal of mudlarking by the ThamesBorn in Sussex in 1967, Brett Anderson founded alternative rock band Suede in 1989 with then-girlfriend Justine Frischmann and childhood friend Mat Osman. Billed by Melody Maker as “the best new band in Britain”, Suede released five albums including their self-titled debut and Coming Up, before disbanding in 2003. Anderson went on to front the Tears and release four solo albums. In 2010 Suede reformed and released a further three albums, the latest of which is 2018’s The Blue Hour. Anderson will perform with Charles Hazlewood and Paraorchestra as part of the Gŵyl 2021 festival, 6-7 March. Continue reading…

  • Johnny Rogan obituary
    by Chris Charlesworth on February 18, 2021 at 12:46 pm

    Music biographer whose tenacity and meticulous attention to detail did not always please his subjectsJohnny Rogan, who has died unexpectedly aged 67, was among the most prolific and well-regarded music biographers of his generation. He was much admired for his attention to detail and tenacity in pursuing facts, but his work did not always sit well with his subjects and for this reason he cultivated an air of secrecy about his activities and whereabouts. Once his confidence had been gained, however, he was the most affable of companions, witty and wise, the perfect drinking buddy.Two of his 26 books were particularly notable. His definitive biography of the Byrds ran to four updated, revised editions. First published in 1981 as Timeless Flight and in 2011 as Requiem for the Timeless, it had grown by then from the original 192 pages into a 1,200-page epic. A second volume, in 2017 his last published book, added a further 1,248 pages to the work and told the stories of the six former members of the group who had died. Q magazine described it as “the best biography of a group ever written”, while Record Collector magazine compared its scope to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Continue reading…

  • Gay Bar by Jeremy Atherton Lin – a going out memoir
    by Colm Tóibín on February 18, 2021 at 7:30 am

    An incisive history of London, LA and San Francisco recalls the sights, sounds and distinctive smells of gay life from the 1990s to todaySaturday, 23 May 2015 was an important day in Irish history. It was the day when the votes were counted in the same-sex marriage referendum, with 62% in favour. There was a big celebration in the grounds of Dublin Castle, with politicians on a platform, all miraculously on our side. On Irish television news, the headlines informed the nation that Panti Bliss, a brilliantly articulate campaigner, had arrived at Dublin Castle, as indeed she had.Being gay was all the rage just then. Leo Varadkar, minister for health, soon to be taoiseach, had announced that he was gay, as did a former minister from the other main party, as did a well-known TV news journalist. That day it would not have been surprising had all the bishops of Ireland arrived in their finery to let us know that they, too, wanted to join our club.One group in San Francisco ‘could be detected from a distance by the stink … Each seemed to have a magnificent ass and be writing a book’ Continue reading…

  • How we made: Nick Lowe on Cruel to Be Kind
    by Interviews by Jack Watkins on February 15, 2021 at 3:47 pm

    ‘When the record company liked it, I was embarrassed – I was a hip new wave producer by then. I said I had a better song about a woman who was eaten by her dog’I wrote this song when I was still in the group Brinsley Schwarz. As a 70s pub-rock band, it was kind of taboo for us to admit to liking disco, but we were fans, and I was in love with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ The Love I Lost. So the original version of Cruel to Be Kind was my attempt at a floor-filler for when we played clubs and freshers’ balls. Continue reading…

  • Bessie Smith by Jackie Kay review – a potent blues brew
    by Kitty Empire on February 15, 2021 at 7:00 am

    This welcome reissue of the poet’s 1997 book about the ‘empress of the blues’ combines fact, personal memory and poetry to create an eloquent ‘herstory’Blueswoman Bessie Smith was a complex character, a self-made superstar whose biography is often stranger than fiction. Her deeds became the stuff of legend. Smith was formidable, reputedly facing down single-handedly an attempt by the Ku Klux Klan to burn down her show tent. But Smith sang of female suffering and lived out the tragedies of her songs, often in reverse order. Jackie Kay, author of this eloquent and emotive biography, underlines how frequently Smith wrote lyrics with terrible prescience.Originally published in 1997, Kay’s biography was a joyous and formally daring undertaking. Then, it formed part of a series called Outlines, which sought to document “an unofficial, candid and entertaining short history of lesbian and gay art, life and sex”. Now, a Spice Girls reference dates it only momentarily: Bessie Smith remains an act of intimate witnessing, a biography about a black, bisexual, working-class American artist by a celebrated Scottish poet who first recognised her own blackness and queerness in Smith’s songs, her wild mythos and “beautiful black face”.Smith was proud and cowed, generous and reckless, a violent drunk brutalised by an abusive husband Related: Jackie Kay on Bessie Smith: ‘My libidinous, raunchy, fearless blueswoman’ Continue reading…

  • Remembering Jeremy Heywood, the civil servant who ran Britain
    by Tim Adams on February 14, 2021 at 11:00 am

    The former cabinet secretary managed crises for PMs from Major to May. In her memoir, his widow, Suzanne, reveals the inner workings of Whitehall – and its ‘greatest servant’, her husbandProverbial wisdom insists that no one gets to their final hours wishing they had spent more time in the office. By the account of Suzanne Heywood, however, her husband, Jeremy, would have politely begged to differ. As she writes in her memoir of his extraordinary career, the man who “ran Britain” – and who helped save it once or twice from catastrophe – was still sending emails, making calls right up to the last days of a life cut tragically short at 56. When his inoperable lung cancer spread to his liver, Suzanne half-suggested they took their remaining time together off to go travelling. She knew him much better than to imagine he would say yes.Instead, they spent a good deal of those precious last months documenting Heywood’s 30 years at the heart of government – in the period roughly from Yes Minister to The Thick of It. As a young Treasury prodigy Jeremy Heywood had helped steer the Major government through Black Wednesday and the ERM crisis; as the wisest of old heads he had tried to help Theresa May firefight her way to Brexit. In between times he had been private secretary to Tony Blair; head of domestic policy for Gordon Brown, cabinet secretary and head of the civil service for David Cameron. Suzanne Heywood calls her book What Does Jeremy Think?, a phrase that was never far from the lips of anyone in government in all of that time. Continue reading…

  • What’s in a surname? The female artists lost to history because they got married
    by Vanessa Thorpe on February 13, 2021 at 9:30 pm

    A new biography of the painter Isabel Rawsthorne highlights how talented women have often missed out on the recognition they deservedGenerations of female artists, composers and writers have been lost to history because their names changed after marriage. According to growing academic consensus, the conventional switch of surnames at the altar has erased a key cultural legacy. And the story of the painter and designer Isabel Rawsthorne, told in a new biography, is among the first to make this powerful argument.A star of the London art scene in the late 1940s and 50s, Rawsthorne was billed as one of five key artists to watch alongside Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Yet her striking paintings are now attached, piecemeal, to the three other names she used. As a result, she appears simply as a string of footnotes, best known as the muse of her famous lovers, the sculptors Jacob Epstein and Alberto Giacometti. Continue reading…

  • ‘Love’s labours should be lost’: Maria Stepanova, Russia’s next great writer
    by Matthew Janney on February 11, 2021 at 12:25 pm

    The Muscovite’s work is arriving in English this year in three books of remarkable memoir, poems and essays that, she explains, reach for ‘the truth of the past’Years ago, Maria Stepanova visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC to do research for a book she would end up working on for 30 years. After telling him of her plan, the museum adviser replied: “Ah. One of those books where the author travels around the world in search of his or her roots – there are plenty of those now.” “Yes,” replied Stepanova. “And now there will be one more.”In Memory of Memory is an astounding collision of personal and cultural history, and Stepanova’s first full-length book published in English, translated by Sasha Dugdale. It is a remarkable work from a writer who has won Russia’s most prestigious honours (including the Big Book award for In Memory of Memory, the NOS literary prize, the Andrei Bely prize and a Joseph Brodsky fellowship); a writer who will likely be spoken about in the same breath as Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk and Belarus’s Svetlana Alexievich in years to come. But 2021 is the year of Stepanova: in addition to In Memory of Memory, her poetry collection War of the Beasts and the Animals, and a collection of essays and poems titled The Voice Over, will also be published in English this year. “I feel a bit funny about it,” she jokes, from her dacha outside Moscow. “Isn’t it a bit of an overkill?”Her ancestors brushed up against momentous episodes: the Revolution, the siege of Leningrad, Stalin’s ‘Doctors’ plot’. Her grandmother spent time in prisonI started writing in an attempt to find a place for all the dispersed fragments of used language units, poetry lines, military terms and Soviet war songs, to understand better what has happened to us allIn Memory of Memory is published by Fitzcarraldo on 17 February. War of the Beasts and the Animals is published by Bloodaxe on 25 March. The Voice Over, edited by Irina Shevelenko, is published by Columbia University Press in May. Continue reading…

  • Consent by Vanessa Springora review – a memoir of lost adolescence
    by Lauren Elkin on February 11, 2021 at 7:30 am

    The ugly truth emerges, in a headline-making account, of how a 14-year-old fell for, and was sexually abused by, a renowned writer three times her ageParis, March 1990. A writer called Gabriel Matzneff is a guest on Bernard Pivot’s influential literary TV chat show Apostrophes to discuss his recently published memoir, about his sexual conquests of very young women. “It seems that women over the age of 20 no longer interest you,” comments Pivot. Matzneff agrees; older women have known “disillusionment”, and he prefers to sleep with “those who are not yet hardened, who are still nice”.The only person present to take exception to Matzneff’s comments is the Canadian novelist Denise Bombardier, who calls them an “abuse of power”: “We all know how some girls can become besotted by men with a certain literary aura.” Matzneff says some high-minded things about how Bombardier doesn’t have the right to judge a work of littérature on those terms. “There are limits even to literature,” she replies. For this, les intellos mock her left and right in the press. A few days later, on the TV channel France 3, the writer and critic Philippe Sollers calls her a bitch. Continue reading…