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Friday, February 28, 2014

Call Me Burroughs: A Life by Barry Miles – review

William S Burroughs William Burroughs in Paris in the 60s: 'He employed art as a kind of telepathic murder'. Photograph: Getty Images

"Call me Burroughs"? I can't imagine William S Burroughs saying anything so anodyne as he extended his bony hand to be shaken. Those who knew him called him other things. During his youth he was likened to a mean, sneaky sheep-killing dog and a walking corpse. In later life he was said to possess an "undertaker look" of woebegone solemnity, and in a film made in Paris in the 1960s he was typecast as Death. During his druggy ramblings in South America, the natives, taking note of his emaciation and palsied pallor, nicknamed him "el hombre invisible". That was his favourite role: he believed that the low-grade violet rays he emitted enabled him to blot himself out, awarding him an out-of-body experience. Barry Miles has bravely set about writing the life of someone who was less a human being than a ghoul, a wraith, or – at his most substantial – a shadow.

Helped by his posthumous, necromantic manner, Burroughs trafficked with occult powers, and employed art as a kind of telepathic murder. People who offended him were transferred to his books to be killed off: in one of his novels he shot a poisoned dart into a landlady who evicted him after his friends tore up the Gideon Bible she had left in his room and peed out of the window. Burroughs's negative charisma was so compelling that he was able to close down a coffee bar in Soho whose Greek owners "gave him sass" and served him toxic cheesecake. All it took was some black magic performed with a camera and a tape recorder, which "altered consciousness and subverted the space-time continuum", sending the superstitious Greeks into retreat.

Burroughs's evil eye was supplemented with a terrorist's arsenal. He began firing guns at the age of eight, toted pistols and semi-automatics everywhere, and as an extra precaution acquired a cane with a sword concealed inside it and another cane that fired cartridges. His sport in the South American jungle was blasting innocent melons to a pulp, and in Mexico City he tried out a novel mode of pest control, stringing up live mice and blowing their little heads off. As a child, it was not enough for him to swat a fly: he used his chemistry set to make ammonium iodide, hurled the powder at the buzzing insects, then cheered as they "exploded in little puffs of purple vapour".

The determining event in Burroughs's life was just such an act of carnage. At a party in 1951, he played a William Tell game with his wife Joan, who, while tanked up on tequila, balanced a glass on her head so he could fire at it. His aim was wonky, the bullet entered her temple, and she died. Burroughs had already experimented with other careers – he farmed cotton in Texas, worked as a private eye spying on adulterers in Chicago, rolled drunks on the New York subway, and had grandiose dreams of dynamiting an armoured truck and absconding with a fortune – but it was his killing of his wife, in Miles's opinion, that turned him into a writer, afflicting him with a sense of guilt that made him examine the contents of his haunted head. Sympathisers assured him that Joan's death was not his fault. Brion Gysin declared that the gun was fired by an ugly spirit; Allen Ginsberg misogynistically proposed that Joan willed Burroughs to shoot her, which meant that she committed suicide. The culprit, however, accepted that he was under the control of a "completely malevolent force", and the novels he wrote after Naked Lunch were about his struggles with this indwelling demon.

Luckily, Miles's biography is more than a record of damage, dementia and the systematic derangement of the senses – though it is all that, as well as providing enough details about its gay subject's sexual tastes to satisfy the most prurient, along with an exact calibration of his penis size (unimpressive). Burroughs appears here warts and all, and the warts, I can reveal, are rectal. But Miles can't suppress his affection and admiration for this cranky, cadaverous ogre.

Burroughs had, at the very least, extraordinary powers of recuperation. He was self-destructive, even self-mutilating: when an adolescent infatuation with a schoolmate turned sour he chopped off the top of his little finger with poultry shears intended for carving the Thanksgiving turkey. In Bogotá, where he was searching for a hallucinogenic vine that guaranteed the ultimate trip, a medicine man overdosed him with a potion that had killed another seeker a month before. Burroughs spent four hours in a delirium, convulsed by nausea and vomiting at 10-minute intervals. He then found his Nembutal, crawled to a stream so he could swill the tablets down, and passed out. "The next morning," Miles reports, "feeling fine, he walked back to town."

As a co-founder of the hippie newspaper International Times, Miles got to know Burroughs while he was living in London in the 1960s, and the most endearing parts of the biography concern this English phase of Burroughs's itinerant life. He hired a succession of semi-criminal Dilly boys for sex, but also kept company with effete, eccentric aristocrats and felt entirely at home in this genteel culture. One of his early heroes was the snobbish dandy Beau Brummel, and Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, impressed by the shyness and good manners that alternated with his seismic spasms of violence, likened him to the winsome blue boy in Gainsborough's painting. Another of his models, whom he impersonated when wearing drag, was Dame Edith Sitwell, a "sinister old lesbian". He also bore a passing resemblance to Sherlock Holmes, who shared his fondness for injecting cocaine. Friends were amused by his anglo affectations: he shopped at Fortnum & Mason, ate at Rules, where he ostentatiously tipped the carver, smoked Senior Service fags, and after swallowing balls of raw black opium smuggled in from Thailand always insisted on a nice cup of Earl Grey tea as a chaser.

Miles acknowledges the savagery of Burroughs, whose "cut-up" method of collaging texts was applied to his personal relationships: he once remorselessly cut up his old friend Ginsberg, shredding him with his tongue not a blade. But this book is a corrective to earlier, more freakish accounts, and it made me wonder whether Burroughs was less a writer than a performer, adept at transforming his kinks into black comedy. His narratives derive from "routines" that he tried out on friends, elaborating anecdotes into arias of obscenity and outrage like Dame Edna at her most rampant. He needed "receivers", not readers but an audience whose responses he could hear and see, and as Miles points out he treated Naked Lunch as a set of free-associating vaudeville turns, which in later years he hilariously acted out on his reading tours.

Paul Bowles, who knew Burroughs during his years in Tangier, said of him: "He is always humorous, even at his most vitriolic," and brilliantly defined him – referring to a homespun comedian from the heartland, beloved in the 1930s – as "a sophisticated Will Rogers". It's odd but agreeable to think of the depraved and murderous Burroughs as funny not fiendish. Thanks to Miles, the undead old devil here enjoys the last laugh.

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Thursday, February 27, 2014

The News: A User's Manual by Alain de Botton – review

the new a users manual Alain de Botton: 'fizzing with ideas'. Photograph: Karen Robinson

The anxious question journalists ask themselves every morning seems simple enough, but is often devilishly difficult: What is newsworthy? (And where the hell can I find enough of it to fill page one?) Alain de Botton, staging yet another of his philosophical firework displays, asks a rather different question. Here is a construct he calls The News. What is it, and does obsessing over it do us any good? Enter Hegel, Tolstoy, Sophocles and WH Auden, among many others, expert witnesses in his diverting, often infuriating quest to pin down the reasons why we dutifully switch on a radio at one or a TV at six in order to be told that This (or That) is The News.

Diverting? Of course. De Botton fizzes with ideas. A Teesside doctor downloads more than 1,300 child porn images, is caught, tried and jailed. His wife and their newborn baby leave him. He tries to commit suicide, and fails. It's a morose, mundane yarn. But "no less sad than the plotline of Madame Bovary or Hamlet – and, let's argue, the character of the doctor is not fundamentally any worse; Hamlet is, after all, a murderer, and Emma Bovary is guilty of extreme child cruelty". Why don't we sense great tragedy in these column inches? Or is the tragedy we see, and the fear that we, too, could somehow be laid low by Disaster or Accident (two of his chapter headings), the reason why the doctor's downfall is news?

Here, though, De Botton can be infuriating as well as stimulating. He pronounces from a philosopher's lofty chair. He does nothing you could call probing research. He merely analyses what he sees – and that can be naively obvious. He wants fewer bare facts in The News and more context and explanation. Fairness and balance? They only make sense as part of an overarching narrative (which can also be called bias). Put aside the twists and turns of economic reporting. Seek economic understanding instead. Don't make politics boring. And, while you're struggling to do better, rediscover an abiding interest in foreign affairs. De Botton wonders plangently why Uganda is so sparsely covered.

These are all worthy areas, to be sure. They are what intelligent, concerned citizens ought to want to know about the world that surrounds them. Perhaps, two centuries ago, the general populace could manage without The News most of the time. But now it's omnipresent, inescapable and, on this thesis, stuck in too many arcane ruts, pandering to fear and pessimism, relishing disappointment.

Yet you can't make the whole journey merely by playing the dissatisfied consumer. You have to turn the mirror the other way and, perhaps, find an editor to examine his latest "reading and noting" survey in which those consumers actually tell him what they read one morning. That political lead story about improving growth statistics? Switched off after the first two paragraphs. Those grim tidings from Uganda as the peace agreements in the north of the country come under strain? Sampled by 2% of your customers, mostly in the FO and Soas. But "Swiss-born philosopher faces new book crisis"? De Botton has whizzed to that first.

News starts with you, your family, your interests, your street. It expands via TV, captured by the people and lives you see on screen. (It was more interested in foreign coverage when it seemed the cold war could destroy us all at the push of a button). It is a box of fragments you try to assemble for yourself, rather than a finished jigsaw. Which means that it can't be pinned down in a handy user's guide. But at least it's worth thinking about constantly, fine, frisky, philosophical minds applied. For the construct is you.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Nemesis by Jo Nesbo - review

Are the police running out of solutions? They've been through the footage hundreds of times and they've searched for finger prints twice as long asnormal but nothing. Not a hint or a clue, not even a trace of evidence. The bank was robbed with not a single lead to go by. This thief was a pro, however he's not happy with one bank robbery, he's striking everywhere.

This book is about a police officer named Harry Hole who has been in the robberies department for years and knows all the tricks of a first class thief. However this one is different, it was all over in a matter of minutes.

One night, in the midst of the case, he goes to visit an old flame. Little does he know that she 'committed suicide' on the very same night but he doesn't believe it. Suspicion is aroused as the secret gets out, so how will Harry solve the case if the whole town suspects him?

I really got myself stuck into this book because when I was reading it I didn't want to stop but I found that once I had stopped reading it was hard to get back into. Putting that aside, I wasn't quite sure if it was a murder mystery or a detective story but either way it was brilliant. I quite liked the main character Harry Hole as he seemed quite down to earth and natural with a hint of sarcasm and had a touch of cynicism (perhaps a bit too much). However, I didn't hear much of his colleague Beatte Lonn but what you did get out from her she seemed perhaps out of place but nice all the same.

All in all, I think the mystery element was very well set out but dragged on a bit and I found the ending very unpredictable but I wasn't quite satisfied with it. I also found that the real bad guy wasn't found out yet so I'm guessing it's revealed in one of the later books.

Sorry to moan, but it took a while to get into at the beginning and I was starting to have doubts but when you got further into the story it gets more of a grip on your and you feel like you're in the moment looking for unknown evidence.

I love this book and would recommend it to anyone. It has been set out perfectly and is very well written thanks to the author. I'm determined to read more of his books and finish the series.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Son of a Gun by Justin St Germain – review

Justin St Germain, books 'Elegiac melancholy': Justin St Germain in Tombstone, Arizona. Photograph: Steve Craft for the Guardian

In September 2001, in the shimmering Arizona desert, a man shot his wife dead with her own gun, a Beretta 21. The victim was the author's mother. Justin St Germain was 20 then. This book tells his story – and his mother's.

Son of a Gun recounts a happy enough childhood in Tombstone, Arizona, a dusty, moribund place famous for the gunfight at the OK Corral. Stepfathers drifted in and out of the author's life. For a short period, he lived with his brother and their mother in an adobe shack in Tombstone. "It was the worst place we ever lived," he writes, "but I loved it like no other, because for a brief while there were no men around, just Mom and Josh and me."

Interlacing past and present, St Germain sketches his own background while alternately unravelling the murder itself. At the time of his mother's death, he was failing in college in Tucson and in debt. After the event, playing the role of investigative journalist, he tracked down some of the stepfathers. Canadian Max beat Debbie up (he wasn't the only one) and the author remembers the police sirens. Determined to unravel the murder, he excavates crime reports and interviews the first officer on the scene. Having recovered his mother's effects, he watches her patting her horses on old videos and listens to her voice on cassettes.

Ray, a cop, was Debbie's fifth husband (the author's father left the family when the boy was two). He was found dead in his pick-up a few months after the killing, and in his quest to understand, St Germain visits the spot where Ray shot himself too and looks at police photographs of maggots crawling over his corpse as it broiled.

Son of a Gun charts a journey through grief. St Germain confronts the problem of too much condolence, of "hoarding rage in my heart", of girlfriends who look worried when he gets angry. He attends a support group for relatives of murder victims, because "I need to see if I'm really as alone as I feel, or if there are others", and he identifies the various stages of grief: "The zombie phase, the denial phase, the rage phase, the writing-a-book-about-it phase." But in the end he acknowledges that he was looking for an answer when there wasn't one.

The murder took place the week after 9/11. St Germain notes that both events mark an ineradicable line between past and present, one personal and one national, and both a kind of parable of the Fall. Similarly, he adroitly uses Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the OK Corral as a counterpoint to his own story.

Now a university teacher, the author hints that he has found some small measure of peace and healing. He moves in with a good woman – "Since I met her, failure doesn't seem so certain any more" – though still sleeps with a loaded revolver under his bed. He writes of "the choice I make every day: what kind of man to be?"

St Germain has a strong narrative voice that never wavers. There is much talk of sadness, helplessness and drink, but these pages never topple into self-pity. The elegiac melancholy of the prose lifts this book far above the standard coming-to-terms-with-tragedy memoir. The author conjures the remorseless trickling sweat of the southwest, the deadbeat self-defeat of its small towns, the decaying gas stations and the smell of dirt and greasewood. His language is parsed, effectively enabling him to skewer a character on the page. His father, who reappears after the murder, "liked to make small talk; it was the only kind he was good at".

In the final paragraph of this startlingly good book, St Germain imagines his mother's last moment.

"As a shadow arm rose on the wall, as she braced for the bullet, she would have tried to speak to her sons. We might not hear her now. We might not think we could. But she believed that one day we would hear her voice again and know that she had never left us."

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Monday, February 24, 2014

Rewind TV: Scandimania; Salamander; Royal Cousins at War; Culture Show: Hanif Kureishi – review

scandimania hugh fearnley Culture and culinary treats: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (above right) with Swedish chef Niklas Ekstedt in Scandimania. Photograph: Keo Films

Scandimania (C4) | 4OD

Salamander (BBC4) | iPlayer

Royal Cousins at War: A House Divided (BBC2) | iPlayer

Culture Show: Hanif Kureishi – Writers Are Trouble (BBC2) | iPlayer

"The Sun Always Shines on TV" sang those Norwegian pop giants, A-ha, back in the 1980s. Well, not any more it doesn't. Not on Scandinavian TV.

The sun is to Scandinavian TV what topless darts is to Saudi TV: an intriguing concept but not something you ever expect to see. For a sunless sky is one of the aesthetic principles of Nordic noir such as The Bridge and The Killing, and Nordic noir is one of the cliches that fill a thick duvet of mythology obscuring our view of Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall set out to give that duvet a thorough shaking down in the three-part Scandimania, or, as he put it, to crack the "Norse code". It was a good idea, and an added bonus that HFW was branching out from the cooking show format. I like his confidential intelligence, the way he seems to be thinking out loud just to you, but I could happily live the rest of my life without watching another pinny-clad personality try to infuse meaning into chopping garlic.

Perhaps inevitably, though, he seemed less interested in getting to grips with reality in Sweden, the subject of the first instalment, than sampling the local food – in particular an elk's liver that he cooked shortly after the beast had been shot and gutted.

There was something a little indecent about the lip-smacking haste with which he tucked into the poor dear's viscera, but then the whole film moved at giddying speed. Here's Björn from Abba, here's a forest, here's a lake, here's Hugh in an outdoor tub, here's a government off-licence, here's a glamorous suburb, here's an alienated immigrant – that's the politics sorted.

The result of all the frenetic activity is that it wasn't clear if HFW was trying to challenge the cliches or simply reaffirm them. It was as if the producers lacked confidence that their foodie presenter could do a social travelogue and so they crammed so much in that he never had to do more than be charming and make a few semi-humorous observations.

But I suspect HFW has more going for him than an engaging manner, just as Sweden is more than a series of quirky snapshots. The Norse code remained securely encrypted, although we did learn one important lesson: the taste of elk's liver doesn't appear worth killing its owner for.

salamander filip peeters Filip Peeters in Salamander: 'Belgium won't be winning any trophies for cop shows.' Photograph: Lies Willaert/BBC/Skyline Entertainment/Beta Film

With the second series of The Bridge over, the Saturday schedules had a vacancy for a European detective series. And as with national airlines and football teams, every European state has one, even Belgium. Actually, Belgium has a rather good national football side, but judging by Salamander, which filled the slot, it's not going to win any trophies for cop shows.

It started strongly with a near wordless bank heist but ran into trouble as soon as the characters started talking. Perhaps the dialogue was more textured in Flemish, but I'm not sure much was lost in translation. Certainly the translator's rendering of the word "fock" suggested a linguistic diligence that left nothing to the viewer's guesswork.

The detective Paul Gerardi (Filip Peeters) was a collection of well-worn tropes in a predictably crumpled outfit with a standard unshaved look and a familiar anti-authority attitude. He was warned by his seniors not to investigate the bank raid because it compromised powerful individuals. But did he listen?

Thus he found himself under secret service surveillance. Luckily, however, Belgium's security experts appeared ignorant of the fact that houses tend to come with back doors and our hero was free. And boy, was the public prosecutor cross! In a performance that showed courageous indifference to subtlety, he ranted and raved like Eugène Terre'Blanche on one of his angrier days.

Belgium is a country that is not entirely at home with its political system. Recently it operated for almost two years without a government, and it's never really recovered its trust in the criminal justice system after the debacle of the Marc Dutroux case. So it's ripe for a good conspiracy yarn, but a good conspiracy requires a slow build and a gradual reveal and this was more like a paranoiac's view of The Powers That Be. As one character put it: "There are limits. Even in this country."

royal cousins at war Cousins Tsar Nicholas II and King George V on the Isle of Wight, 1909: soon both their nations would be at war with Germany. Photograph: Topfoto/BBC/Blakeway Productions

I used to think that Belgium was the main battleground of the first world war but it turns out the real action was within the interlinked royal families of Europe. Royal Cousins at War told the story of our King George V, Tsar Nicolas II of Russia and Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II, who were grandchildren (or married to one in Nicolas's case) of Queen Victoria.

None of them was exactly an advert for interbreeding, but in a highly competitive field the kaiser edged it as the most damaged of the three. He was born with a paralysed arm and his ascent to power was like a Shakespearean tragedy rewritten by Freud. He had sexual fantasies about his mother and held a murderous hatred for his uncle (Edward VII), presented himself as a Wagnerian warrior but loved flower arranging and jewellery design.

While George V and Nicolas II were close, Wilhelm felt isolated and under-appreciated. It would be crass to suggest, as the documentary came close to doing, that this led to Germany's war with Britain and Russia. But he obviously did nothing to stem the growth of German militarism.

It seems extraordinary that 10 million soldiers went to their deaths fighting for nations with these clowns as their figureheads. A fitting epitaph to this extended nightmare of a family is that when Nicolas II was overthrown in the Russian revolution he was offered asylum in the UK. But his loving cousin intervened to prevent it. When the Romanovs were killed by the Bolsheviks, George V let Lloyd George take the blame.

Worse than having a royal for a cousin is having a writer for a son or a husband. That seemed to be Alan Yentob's contention in a Culture Show special on Hanif Kureishi. "Writers are trouble, Alan," Kureishi drawled. What the film never established was whether in his case the trouble was worth it. But perhaps Kureishi was the wrong person to ask.

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Why do images of abandoned Japanese island Hashima haunt us?

Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre Hashima, an island near Nagasaki also known as Gunkanjima, was abandoned in 1974. Photograph: Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre

'Many times we would enter huge art deco buildings with once-beautiful chandeliers, ornate columns and extraordinary frescoes and everything was crumbling and covered in dust and the sense that you had entered a lost world was almost overwhelming."

These are the words of the French photographer Yves Marchand who, with Romain Meffre, created one of the most talked-about photography books of recent times, The Ruins of Detroit, published in 2011. It portrayed the once-great American industrial city as a kind of lost world, where, as Marchand put it, "the magnificence of the past is everywhere evident".

Their photographs of abandoned ballrooms, theatres, police stations and entire blocks of once-ornate art deco-style buildings struck a chord worldwide. When I interviewed them just after the book's publication, the resulting feature and picture gallery became one of the most-viewed online stories on this paper's website.

In terms of our current collective fascination with abandoned places, the publication of The Ruins of Detroit was a tipping point, the moment when a curiosity turned into an obsession, as a cursory Google search of "abandoned places" will attest. It has grown into an online subculture, where newly discovered abandoned places are constantly photographed and the results shared via websites, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

The titles of the websites give some indication of the content as well as the lure of the old, crumbling and derelict: Abandoned Places, Deserted Places, The Most Haunting Abandoned Places on Earth, 31 Haunting Images of Abandoned Places That Will Give You Goose Bumps. Among the celebrities who have been given goosebumps and tweeted about it are Kendrick Lamar ("breathtaking"), Jared Leto ("bizarrely beautiful"), Jeremy Vine ("ace") and Bianca Jagger ("fascinating"), while writers such as Margaret Atwood and Anne Rice have also expressed their fascination with empty buildings.

Initially, it is not hard to see why many of the images on these sites exert such a hold on the collective imagination. As the adjectives most often used to describe them – nostalgic, romantic, haunting – suggest, there is something paradoxically beautiful, not to say seductive, about decaying buildings, particularly ones that were once baroquely magnificent.

basketball An abandoned military gymnasium in Brandenburg, Germany, 2010. Photograph: Thomas Jorion

Many of the ruined mansions exert the same sort of fascination as certain passages from Victorian or gothic literature – Dickens's evocation of Miss Havisham's crumbling house in Great Expectations, Mervyn Peake's descriptions of the labyrinthine halls and corridors of Gormenghast castle – while suggesting the decline and fall of great families or dynasties.

Then there are the images of cities or entire landscapes that have been deserted and left desolate, whether swaths of downtown Detroit or the modern ghost towns that border Chernobyl following the nuclear accident of 1986. In the former, the broader arc of history and commerce is suggested, not just in the decline of a great city, but possibly of a country, an empire. In the latter, our fear of nuclear disaster, and its apocalyptic aftermath, is summoned. Here, too, the precedents are fictional, but they tend to be darker, from the metaphysical chill of TS Eliot's epic poem The Waste Land to post-apocalyptic sci-fi novels, most notably the dystopian and oddly prescient stories of JG Ballard or, more recently, Cormac McCarthy's unremittingly bleak survival novel, The Road.

And, just as certain descriptive passages in Ballard's 1962 novel, The Drowned World – about a flooded future London – seemed to prefigure the fate of New Orleans after the levees broke in 2005, so, too, do many of these photographs presage our own increasingly real fears about global economic meltdown and the increasing ecological fragility of a planet that we have ravaged relentlessly for its natural resources. If this kind of desolation can happen to a major American city, the images in The Ruins of Detroit say, surely it can happen anywhere.

What is revealing, too, while trawling through these images online, is the distinctly postmodern sense that often you are looking at a world that is more familiar from film than real life. The abandoned submarine base in Balaklava, Ukraine is straight out of Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, while the eerily empty and vast subway tunnel in Kiev, Ukraine, could be part of the set for any number of science fiction films, from the Star Trek series to Alien. Likewise, the Mirny diamond mine in eastern Siberia, a vast landscape of dust-coloured, low-lying buildings arranged around an ominously gaping hole in the Earth's surface. The Russians, it seems, do post-apocalyptic sci-fi landscapes better than anyone else.

Elsewhere, though, the photographs of desolate urban landscapes speak of more real than imagined fates. The crumbling interiors of once bustling civic buildings – hospitals, prisons, police stations, libraries, banks – are signifiers, if more were needed, of the indiscriminate thrust of global capitalism. More melancholy still are the ruins of our once-stately pleasure domes and dream palaces: cinemas, theatres and dancehalls figure largely, as do funfairs, their giant wheels and snaking rollercoasters now silent and still as weeds and tall grasses sprout around their stalls.

gulliver The dereelict Gulliver's Kingdom theme park in the shadow of Mount Fuji, Japan. Photograph: Martin Mandias Lyle/

Somewhere in Japan, the wind whistles though a vast bowling alley where the balls sit motionless, casting long shadows across a floor cluttered with debris. In the shadow of Mount Fuji, a giant Gulliver, built in 1997, lies forever tethered to the ground in a disused theme park, his skin and clothes fading in the elements to the muted colours of the surrounding landscape.

As our fascination grows, it has spawned a network of amateur photographers who locate, shoot, then disseminate their images, many of which are beautifully lit, artfully composed and possibly Photoshopped. They are, in fact, a camera club version of the high-end art-documentary style of photographers such as Marchand and Meffre, or Robert Polidori, whose images of post-hurricane Katrina New Orleans are powerful, disturbing and somewhat unsettling in their artful beauty.

Polidori was dubbed "a connoisseur of chaos" by the New York Times's always astute art critic, Michael Kimmelman, who also noted how "the beauty of his pictures – they have a languid, almost underwater beauty – entails locating order in bedlam".

His unforgettable images of a ruined New Orleans are devoid of people, but they home in, instead, on the often-surreal wreckage – houses moved across streets by the tidal surge, interiors that seem suddenly old and decayed as a result of flood damage.

Kimmelman concedes that "it is only human to feel uneasy about admiring pictures like these… whose sumptuousness can be disorienting", which gets close to the heart of paradox of these images. The late John Updike, in a review of Polidori's book, After the Flood, was more perplexed. "After the Flood is an opulent volume, brilliantly sharp in its large, 10in by 14in reproductions, bound in lavender cloth, and difficult to manipulate anywhere but on a coffee table. It weighs nearly 10lbs and costs $90; a consumeristic paradox hovers over the existence of so costly a volume portraying the reduction of a mostly poor urban area… to a state of desertion and deeper destitution. Who is this book for?"

Though the contemplation of ruins is a long tradition in art and architecture, for some critics, these contemporary images are simply "ruin porn": an aestheticising of urban decay that elevates the beauty of the bleak over the complex socioeconomic reasons for such dramatic urban decline. In his fascinating social history, The Last Days of Detroit, local writer Mark Binelli touched on this seductive nature of once grand and now derelict buildings. "For all the local complaints about ruin porn, outsiders were not alone in their fascination. Among my friends and acquaintances, Phil staged secret, multi-course gourmet meals… in abandoned buildings… John and his buddies played ice hockey on the frozen floors of decrepit factories… Travis was hired to shoot suburban wedding photographs in the ruins of the old Packard plant."

Herein perhaps lies something of the true nature of our fascination with abandoned places: they allow us to look at, even surround ourselves, with the traces of decay and desolation, without actually experiencing the human cost. That there are no people in these photographs is, of course, part of their haunting power, their melancholic force. For the photographers, this is an aesthetic call. As Updike noted, Polidori "loves the grave, delicate and poignant beauty of architecture when the distracting presence of human inhabitants is eliminated from photographs". Like Marchand and Meffre, he is working in a documentary landscape tradition, but one that grows ever more formal and detached.

Marchand and Meffre have since gone on to document the abandoned island city of Hashima in a book called Gunkanjima Only 40 years ago Hashima, which was nicknamed Gunkanjima or Battleship for its shape like a ship, was the most densely populated place in the world. Five thousand people lived in the labyrinthine streets of the tiny island, many working in the coal mine whose excavated slag formed the foundations of a densely packed town that grew upwards. In 1974, the mine closed and, within six months, the last resident returned to the mainland, leaving behind a warren of deserted shops, including a barber, a bank, a bathhouse, schools, a shrine and several shops and restaurants.

Hashima is a ghostly place, made all the more so when you see the old photographs taken when it was inhabited that punctuate their book. A local photographer shot the bustling, overcrowded community in which he lived and worked. It is the ghostly presences of these people that stalk the abandoned streets, shops and houses of Hashima as photographed by Marchand and Meffre.

And it is their life stories, in glimpsed traces – an old TV set, a rusting child's bicycle – that haunt the images of this now empty place. We seem increasingly fascinated by what is left behind – ruins, objects, crumbling facades, empty shells; the beautifully decayed surface of things. But it is the people that left who are the real context for these photographs. Without that human context, they are just bleakly and romantically beautiful, visually seductive but empty of real meaning.

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Invisible Woman – review | Mark Kermode

The Invisible Woman, other films Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan in the 'chilly but engaging' The Invisible Woman. Photograph: David Appleby

Ralph Fiennes may be the director and star of this handsomely mounted tale of the private life of Charles Dickens, but it's Felicity Jones who makes it fly. She plays Nelly Ternan, a young actress of indeterminate talent who captures the author's eye and heart, but wrestles (philosophically, morally, practically) with the idea of becoming his mistress.

The Invisible WomanProduction year: 2013Countries: UK, USA Runtime: 111 minsDirectors: Ralph FiennesCast: Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas, Michelle Fairley, Ralph Fiennes, Tom HollanderMore on this film

Seen in flashback from the perspective of the now married Nelly, tormented by the memories of her affair, the story unfolds in chilly but engaging fashion, with Abi Morgan's typically insightful script taking its lead from Claire Tomalin's book.

At the heart of Nelly's dilemma is a gender inequality that Morgan's screenplay lays bare; the progressive "freedom" from marriage that Dickens and cohort Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander) merrily espouse is a liberty for men only.

Expressing much while often saying little, Jones proves once again to be a mesmerising screen presence, a performer behind whose face you can see the most complex and subtle thought processes at work. Accordingly, Fiennes keeps his direction restrained, concentrating on small moments rather than grand gestures to powerful effect.

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Friday, February 21, 2014

Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot by Masha Gessen – review

A Russian revolution: Pussy Riot perform in Red Square in Jaunary 2012. A Russian revolution: Pussy Riot perform in Red Square in January 2012. Photograph: Denis Sinyakov /Reuters

My frustrations with Masha Gessen's Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot crystallise when I reach the beginning of chapter nine and discover that I have entered the story: "Two days before the trial began, the British newspaper the Guardian came out with a huge story," Gessen writes. "Pussy Riot aren't just the coolest revolutionaries you're ever likely to meet. They're also the nicest," gushed the writer, Carole Cadwalladr." Gessen quotes the piece, published here in the Observer New Review in July 2012, at length, noting that "her [ie my] editor had dispatched her in a fit of sudden inspiration". And recounts how thrilled Petya Verzilov, the husband of Nadya Tolokonnikova, is with it. "He sensed, correctly, that this was a first taste of true fame."

On the one hand, "gushing" aside, it's more than a bit flattering. This is a hotly anticipated book by one of Russia's most influential opposition journalists. On the other… well, I can't help thinking I've been taken slightly out of context. It's never explained that the women I met aren't the same as the ones she's spent the past eight chapters writing about – the three facing trial, Tolokonnikova and her cellmates Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, for committing "hooliganism" in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. But then Gessen barely acknowledges the other members of Pussy Riot at all. Maybe she has decided that they were just YouTube cannon fodder drafted in to bulk up the numbers, but it would be nice to have that explained. And backed up with the odd quote.

Am I nit-picking? Possibly. But how does Gessen know how I came to be in Moscow? It's a minor point but the unfortunate thing is that it consolidates my frustrations with the first eight chapters of the book: it's unclear where her information has come from. Whole swaths of the story are cited as facts when there's little attribution and almost no sourcing.

It's frustrating because there's no doubt that Gessen – a Russian-American journalist, who was sacked from the editorship of Russia's oldest magazine for refusing to cover an event featuring Putin – was the right person to write this book. She wrote a scathing and widely acclaimed biography of Putin, The Man Without a Face, and was a key member of opposition circles during the 2012 protests.

There's a mutual, deserved respect between Pussy Riot and her. Tolokonnikova agrees to write to her from jail, and at one point meets her during one of the few visiting sessions she's allowed. Samutsevich, who avoids jail, talks to her at length, as does Petya Verzilov. (Though it doesn't stop Gessen from accusing him of colluding with the lawyers to try and financially exploit Pussy Riot by trademarking the name. The accusation isn't sourced. And Verzilov isn't given a right to reply… so who knows?)

Despite the lack of access to two of her main characters, Gessen works with what she's got, and for the most part it's a pacy telling of what is an extraordinary story: how a bunch of young women took on the Kremlin by dancing around in coloured tights and dresses. And she's good on how these young activists, whose art showed a sophisticated understanding of social media, explicitly draw connections between themselves and the dissidents of the Soviet past. But then Russia's past weighs heavily all around. The trial at the heart of the book is a "Soviet political trial replayed as farce".

There are some wonderful details. She has access to the letters Alekhina writes to her friend Olya, and they're some of the best and most humane moments in the book. She immerses herself in the Russian penal code and wages war against the prison authorities. But she also tells Olya, after hours of repetitive sewing in the prison workshop: "It is a wondrous thing, to look out the window. Just to look out the window and nothing else. It is like all the noise in the world recedes and there is so much silence that it fills up my entire head."

Tolokonnikova's letters from prison are more "stilted". She doesn't want to wage a legal battle. She wants her sentence simply to pass. Gessen barely quotes from her letters. Tolokonnikova grew up in Norilsk, a former gulag in the Arctic Circle and now one of the most polluted places on earth. Her determination and autodidacticism won her a place in the philosophy department of Moscow State University at the age of 16, and she has a passion for expounding philosophical theory rather than focusing on personal details. Until last September when something snapped.

She went on hunger strike, and smuggled out an open letter to the world that told of her 16-17-hour days and brutal work regime, the "common hygiene room" shared by 800 prisoners where, when the pipes block, "urine gushes out or faeces go flying", and the absolute lack of humanity. She is now thankfully free, her sentence commuted by Putin ahead of the Winter Olympics. A fact that caused Granta to rush the book out early.

Words Will Break Cement is far from the last word on Pussy Riot. Not least because while being feted by Madonna and co last week will no doubt have been fun, it's what Pussy Riot choose to do next that will be interesting.

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Thursday, February 20, 2014

The News: A User's Manual by Alain de Botton – digested read

Digested read - The News: A User's Manual by Alain de Botton 'Newspapers always ignore the really important celebrities – like Saint Gengulphus of Burgundy' … The News: A User's Manual by Alain de Botton. Illustration: Matt Blease

A newspaper doesn't come with instructions. At school, we are more likely to be taught the significance of Monet's use of colour than how to decode the Daily Mail website. Well, some of us are. And yet we consume news more avidly than ever. Why so? In the immediate vicinity of our north London cottage garden, all may be tranquil, yet the lure of background chaos is irresistible. Perhaps the answer is to be found in schadenfreude. We see a photograph of Sally Bercow kissing someone and rejoice in the knowledge that the mystery man isn't us.

It is early morning. Outside, commuters are struggling to get to work when the tube is on strike. I languidly put on a silk dressing gown and eat a breakfast of yogurt and granola. The newsfeed on my iPad tells me rent arrears are on the increase. Why should I care? Would we read Tolstoy if he had made Anna Karenina working class? The maid makes me another pot of coffee.

News organisations are coy about admitting that what they present us with are selective fragmented narratives. They claim to be objective, when none are. The problem isn't bias, it's the nature of bias. The politics of right wing and left wing are a meaningless cul-de-sac. We need a bias towards the beautiful and the majestic. More stories of the sublime, written by cultural commentators. How do we mostly interpret the world? Through the Hegelian dialectic of architecture. Where are most news organisations located? In buildings of staggering ugliness. Were News International to be relocated to the Rococo Basilica at Ottobeuren in Bavaria, then their news agenda would be infinitely improved. Here is a photo of the Rococo Basilica.

The two emotions on which the news plays are fear and anger. In so doing, it toys with our weak hold on perspective. Here we need to be mindful of Euclidean geometry. The recent news bulletins have been dominated by stories of flooding. And yet the damage is limited to a few villages in Somerset and Cornwall. The majority of us in London have been completely unaffected and are free to keep our lunch appointments, so what's the big deal? (Unless you are one of my friends with a second home in the west country, in which case your distress is perfectly understandable.) Here's a photograph of a hideous 1950s bungalow under water. Isn't it better if it falls down?

One of the main claims all newspapers make is that they enable people to make up their own minds. Yet Gustave Flaubert hated newspapers because he believed they prevented people from thinking for themselves. I feel the same way. From this, we can easily deduce that I might have written Madame Bovary had I been living in 19th-century France. Yet how often does this important fact make headlines?

Foreign news is so often reported as a series of wars, famines and earthquakes. I drop in for an hour to visit the Uganda desk at the BBC. The reporters are busying themselves with stories of petty corruption, while ignoring a new exhibition of a minor artist opening in Kampala. Thus the value of wide-ranging Ugandan discussions is lost.

What are we to make of economics? Not much. So let's move on to celebrity. It's become fashionable among my dinner companions to dismiss celebrity culture, but in so doing they let the illiterate determine the celebrity agenda. The broadsheet newspapers should be doing more to promote celebrities from whom we can learn and improve ourselves. Men such as St Gengulphus of Burgundy, the patron saint of difficult marriages.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the news. The ancient Greeks set aside a week each year to watch the tragedies of Euripides. We should adopt a similar policy. We should save all the year's bad-news stories for bumper editions spread over seven days. That way, we might be instructed by them rather than defeated. For the other 51 weeks, there should be more stories about the wars that aren't taking place and the earthquakes that didn't happen. Therein lies happiness.

Digested read, digested: Bad news.

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood by Irving Finkel – review

Irving Finkel Irving Finkel with a 4,000-year-old clay tablet documenting the story of the flood. Photograph: Sang Tan/AP

The fact that a member of Ukip blamed the introduction of gay marriage for the recent floods in England reminds us that there is an enduring human tendency to read acts of nature theologically rather than meteorologically. It happened after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, when local clerics blamed that tragic inundation on the excesses of the tourist trade. The mother of all moralising flood stories is the tale of Noah's ark and the animals that went into it two by two to save themselves from God's decision to drown the whole human race and start again. As a myth it has charm as well as moral clout, so why meddle with it? Well, fear not: Irving Finkel's beguiling book will only increase your interest in the story – unless, of course, you belong to the Ukip school of biblical interpretation.

With great wit and warmth, Finkel, who is endearingly described as "assistant keeper" of the Middle East at the British Museum, shows how the Hebrew exiles led into captivity in Babylon in the 6th century BC came across a tradition of Mesopotamian flood stories based on real events and adapted them to their own transcendental purposes.

Although the lovely Greek word Mesopotamia was lost in the first world war and replaced with Iraq, its meaning, "between the rivers" (Tigris and Euphrates), is the clue here. This is flood country, so it's hardly surprising that instructions for making boats abounded, and most of them seem to have ended up in the British Museum. Finkel is a master at deciphering these ancient cuneiform clay tablets, but this book is far more than a fine piece of detective work: it is a humane work of scholarship that enlarges the soul.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq: Berlin 2014 – first look review

Michel Houellebecq Mystery solved? ... The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq. Photograph: Rafa Alcaide/EPA

Michel Houellebecq, the award-winning French novelist who has left a trail of outrage in his wake over his views on sex, Islam, and western civilisation, here steps confidently in front of the camera for what can only be described as a hybrid fictionalised self-portrait. Written and directed by Guillaume Nicloux, and perhaps taking its cue from Houellebecq's recent novel The Map and the Territory, in which the writer ends up getting murdered, the film entertainingly elaborates on Houellebecq's brief vanishing act in 2011 while on a promotional tour for that very book.

Nicloux's "revelation" is that Houellebecq failed to show up for his readings because he had been abducted by three brothers - on the orders of a mysterious third party - and held for ransom in a small house in the country. Well, it's a theory, and with Houellebecq himself fronting it, who's to argue? In truth, prank though this may be, Houellebecq comes across as a surprisingly engaging figure, with a nice line in self-parody, as well as awareness of his more ridiculous gestures.

Things get off to admittedly slow start: Nicloux follows Houellebecq around as he discusses redecorating his flat, expresses his poor opinion of a friend's piano playing, and wanders the streets smoking; all the while Houellebecq's mien, lower lip thrust out, remains characteristically lugubrious. He is then unceremoniously bundled into a large metal box with a few airholes in the lid; his kidnappers are the heavyset Luc, who sports stubble and the world's worst mullet, and his two beefy, shaven-headed siblings, bodybuilder Maxime and sensitive Mathieu. Houellebecq emerges from his box in what is clearly their family home, and is chained to the bed in a bedroom that rather obviously once belonged to a small girl.

What proceeds from here on in is the exact opposite of the sweaty kidnap drama of tradition. Houellebecq proves a querulous, difficult hostage, constantly needling his captors and negotiating concessions and favours. (One running gag involves Houellebecq attempting to retrieve his cigarette lighter from Luc, who won't give it back.) Their relationship turns into a reverse Stockholm syndrome: Houellebecq's hijackers end up sympathising with his aims. Even to the extent, in a characteristically sleazy Houellebecq move, of agreeing to his request to supply a young prostitute. Houellebecq gets particularly pally with the brothers' aged parents, Dédé and Ginette, who are on site and very helpful.

All this is presented in a straight-faced, low key manner; the humour is as dry as a sauvignon blanc and the actors around Houellebecq - almost all unknowns - complement him perfectly, with no attempt at upstaging. As for Houellebecq himself: given that he's playing himself, it's hardly a stretch, but he has the relaxed air of a natural screen performer. But, as they say, perhaps best not to give up the day job.

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Monday, February 17, 2014

1913: The World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson – review

Winston Churchill and Kaiser Wilhelm at Military Review Kaiser Willhelm II with Winston Churchill at Lowther Castle, north-west England, 1906: were the signs of the conflict to come self-evident? Photograph: Corbis

Did you read the writing on the wall in 2012? Could you tell that a third world war would start in 2013 when Russia and Iran responded to the American attack on Syria? If a lack of restraint had pitched us into global conflict last year, historians would have woven narratives to show the signs we missed (I was preparing my own version).

The inevitability of the first world war is usually traced in a similar way, back through events of 1913 and before, and several excellent books have looked at how the world went to war, notably Christopher Clark's excellent The Sleepwalkers. Emmerson's 1913 tries hard to ignore what follows and mostly it succeeds.

This is not an attempt to explain how the war started but more to show what was lost, what it felt like to be alive in that unlucky-number year. If you were European, particularly British, it felt very good indeed. The British empire was not what it was, damaged as much close to home by suffragettes and Irish nationalists as it was threatened by the growing challenges from the US, China and restless colonies. Emmerson presents this world through portraits of its great cities, which seems appropriate as many of them were linked up in a way we would recognise as global: the modernity of some aspects of city life a century ago is striking, with the startup of global brands such as Gucci and Ford, although there were still sheep cropping Hyde Park.

Many of the choices of cities are obvious, divided into groups such as Europe's imperial capitals, some key American cities, a scattering of others – Algiers, Bombay, Tehran – and a handful of cities belonging to "twilight powers", although in the absence of a compelling argument, some choices can seem random. To capture a year of the world in a single snapshot is, of course, impossible, but Emmerson provides a real sense of 1913 by combining details of individual lives with sweeping international trends: one of the great pleasures of this book is to see parallels between then and now.

Yet he clings to the view that the world in 1913 was one of innocence, security and mutual understanding, epitomised, perhaps, by the ball in Berlin in May 1913, attended by the British king-emperor, the German kaiser and the Russian tsar. Not unlike the after party of the G20 summit in St Petersburg last year, and therefore hardly a reliable measure of international relations.

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Jumbo: the Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation by John Sutherland – review

Heavy drinker: The original Jumbo at London Zoo, circa 1890. Heavy drinker: Jumbo at London Zoo, circa 1890. Photograph: Getty Images

The first joke in this delightful book is the title. Unauthorised? Sutherland does not mean that there is a Jumbo literary estate that might wish to sanitise his revelations. Rather, he acknowledges that others, including Paul Chambers in recent years, have written Jumbo's story. His book is "a kind of fantasia" (Disney's Fantasia featured pink elephants) – "Call it elephantasia". It may be a fruit of Sutherland's early years in Colchester, where, the tourist brochures claim, the conquering Roman emperor Claudius rode in triumph on an elephant, and where Jumbo gave his name to the town's water tower.

Many will have heard the word "Jumbo" without any knowledge of Sutherland's subject, and might consider it to be an unoriginal moniker, like Fido for a dog. But of course Jumbo (c1861-1885) was the first animal or thing to be so called, and gave his name to such items as jumbo burgers and jumbo jets, just as the 12th Lord Derby is immortalised in horse races, matches between local football teams and demolition derbies. Why Jumbo was so called is not clear. Sutherland is inclined to discount the Wikipedia assertion that a zookeeper coined the name from merging the Swahili words "jambo" ("hello") and "jumbe" (chief), going instead with the OED citation of "Slang, Jumbo, a clumsy or unwieldy fellow." Another, less pleasing theory – though not advanced by Sutherland – might be that Jumbo's keepers were thinking of Sambo, already in use as a generic name for someone of African origin.

Jumbo was born in what is now Eritrea. He was captured by a group of Hamran Arabs, and probably witnessed their murder of his mother – one of many cruelties he was to endure. Exported, he ended up at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, before being bought, in a job lot with a pair of anteaters, by London Zoo. He delighted zoo-goers by doing tricks with a bowler hat and accepting buns and pennies from outstretched hands; adults and children, including royal princes and princesses, rode him. After 17 years there was national consternation when Jumbo emigrated to the US to join the travelling circus of PT Barnum.

Elephants are not naturally amiable. Sutherland details the torments that Jumbo underwent each night and that ensured his daytime placidity, and he describes the grisly ends that so many elephant entertainers suffered. Jumbo's predecessor Chunee – about whose behaviour Byron was so impressed that he wrote, "I wish he was my butler" – was sentenced to death for killing his handler, survived an initial blast of 152 musket balls, and was eventually quelled by sabres mounted on long poles. A female elephant named "Murderous Mary", in Tennessee at the end of the 19th century, endured the cruel and unusual punishment of death by hanging. At least Jumbo died relatively quickly, after being run over by a locomotive. Barnum continued to make money from him, exhibiting the skeleton and stuffed frame.

This is the first book this spring from the prolific Sutherland, Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London; the second, How to be Well Read may be less surprising. But Jumbo is clearly a work of personal significance, and written with zest. Author and subject even have drinking in common: Sutherland is a (dry) alcoholic, and Jumbo was reliant on booze to stay calm. You will learn lots of amusing facts – elephants can hold two gallons of water in their trunks, which contain half a million taste receptors. And, like Sutherland, you will be dismayed by how we first abused elephants, and then threatened their survival.

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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Forget beige – meet the women who are ageing with attitude

Angela Neustatter Angela Neustatter, author of The Year I Turn ... – one of a slew of books for older women who won’t ‘age gracefully’. Photograph: Olly Hoeben

Apart from a few "frumpy years" in her 50s, when she lost confidence in her right to wear leopardskin tights, author Angela Neustatter says she has never let age define her.

Now she wants her latest book to be a call to arms to young as well as older women to fight back against the "invisibility" that is said to descend once they pass the first flush of youth.

The Year I Turn … is just one of a slew of books and films coming out that suggests Neustatter is among a growing band of women who refuse to go quietly into middle age and beyond.

A trend that began with Lynne Segal's Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing will be joined by In Your Prime: How to Age Disgracefully by India Knight, which is due out in June. Why Frenchwomen Don't Get Facelifts came out in January, with its author, Mireille Guiliano, claiming: "Ageing gracefully is an expression I don't like. Ageing with attitude is what I believe in."

Neustatter, who is 70, added: "This invisibility thing is so ridiculous, ludicrous. And conforming to someone's idea of what you should look like or wear at any particular age is patently not logical. A woman should not be restricted to beige because she is 50. Or not listened to because she isn't young.

"We need to have more confidence in having a voice and I do think, from the people I know and meet, that things are starting to change. Women won't be so easily ignored and younger women are playing a part in that, too. The explosion of feminism again among the young, and their interest in what older women have done, is fabulous."

Interest in older women – albeit those who have always refused to be invisible – bodes well for the latest book by Germaine Greer, who at 75 has rediscovered herself as a conservationist, and for 64-year-old Arianna Huffington's Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Wellbeing, Wisdom, and Wonder, which is tipped to be a bestseller, even before its March publication date.

The grey women's pound is being chased in film, too. In an interview with the Guardian last week, actress Kristin Scott Thomas, 53, said the film industry is starting to notice that there is a market for films about older people. Pointing to the fact that, for a start, the whole population is ageing – "so they've got to make something to entertain us" – and that teenagers no longer dominate box-office receipts, she pointed to the success of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel, as well as the return to TV of Birds of a Feather. "I just think there really need to be stories about people who have been through life and are still hopeful."

Even fashion magazines are beginning to regularly feature an older model, or offer style advice for age groups who won't be buying crop-tops this time around, thanks. Designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Donna Karan and Diane von Furstenberg have not allowed themselves to fade away. We've come a long way since Jean Paul Gaultier was still able to "shock" by using grey-haired models on the catwalk, back in the 1980s. Last week's unveiling of an American Apparel underwear campaign featuring 62-year-old Jacky O'Shaughnessy caused very little stir.

"It all comes with the strong caveat, however, that if you are poor, or caring for someone, or suffering from bad health, then none of this will apply," said Neustatter. "I'm aware of that and I am very lucky in that regard. I'm not suggesting for a minute that all is wonderful for everyone, because it is certainly not. But, [there is] a certain group [of older women], who have looked after themselves and think, I will buy those leopardskin tights or wear a shorter skirt, if that's what I am comfortable with.

"I'm not saying 70 is the new 50. Seventy is the new 70. It's very different from being 50 when you're at that stage of 'is that it?' and worrying if you're with the right person or have done enough, but it is also fun.

"There is no reason in the world why you shouldn't be heard. Older women have something to say – and we will say it."

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Friday, February 14, 2014

The Girl with a Clock for a Heart by Peter Swanson – review

Femme fatale: our hero meets his former college sweetheart in a Boston bar. Then things go downhill… Femme fatale: our hero meets his former college sweetheart in a Boston bar. Then things go downhill… Photograph: Alamy

If ever there was a perfect victim for a femme fatale to sink her claws into, it is George Foss, the inept protagonist of Peter Swanson's Larsson-esquely titled debut, The Girl With a Clock for a Heart. George is approaching 40, bored, and feels "as though his world had been slowly drained of all its colours". He has spent the 20 years since his college sweetheart disappeared thinking, mistakenly, that he sees her everywhere. Then, one August night in Boston, there she really is.

She's in danger; she needs his help. Will George deliver a huge stash of banknotes to the man she stole them from, and say sorry from her while he's at it? Of course he will. Will he do this despite being punched in the kidneys by someone who is hunting her, and despite knowing she is very far from who she says she is? Of course he will.

She's very attractive, after all, and was his first love. Swanson's thriller weaves together two timelines: George at college, meeting the girl he knew then as Audrey, falling for her, then grieving when he learns she's killed herself over the Christmas holidays. There's a wonderful scene when he visits her parents, and realises the picture they have of their Audrey isn't his. His Audrey – Liana Decter – is still alive, and may have done some terrible things to escape her real past.

Then there's George in the present, spotting Liana in his local bar, being drawn into her femme fatale world of guns and tranquilliser darts, false identities and diamond robberies.

Swanson has set out to create a hero who is just an average guy thrown into a world of crime he has no idea how to handle. Fair enough. But George is so terribly clueless! Perhaps he hasn't read enough thrillers, and he should be forgiven for being in thrall to Liana, but he makes such silly mistakes. He unnecessarily breaks into a deserted house which is almost certainly linked to the Bad Goings On. He locks sliding glass doors to protect himself from a baddie with a gun. He forgets his mobile when heading into danger.

And he keeps going to sleep! He's even tempted to nod off after the most dramatic scene in the book. A reader is hard pressed not to shout "yes George" when the character wonders "if the limited banks of his memory were entirely filled with details of Liana, all used up on the first semester of college, those 16 heady weeks".

Yet i'ts hard not to warm to this book – and very hard not to read it in one sitting. Of course it's faintly preposterous – at one point there is even a steak knife concealed in a pair of knickers – but it's also lots of fun. Swanson's writing is clean and measured, he throws in a ton of cliff-hangers, and he plays out his stolen identity concept – impossible in the age of Facebook, but how intriguing to remember how it wouldn't have been, 20 years ago – to thrilling, chilling effect.

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Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Mistress Contract; Happy Days; The Cement Garden – review

mistress-contract abi Danny Webb and Saskia Reeves in The Mistress Contract at the Royal Court: 'a real-life story, and an annoying one'. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Samuel Butler said it was very good of God to let Thomas and Jane Carlyle marry each other: it meant that only two people rather than four were made miserable. I felt much the same about the She and He in Abi Morgan's new play The Mistress Contract. Thank goodness this pair got together and prevented another couple being driven mad with boredom.

The Mistress Contractby Abi MorganRoyal Court, LondonStarts 30 JanuaryUntil 22 MarchBox office:
020 7565 5000Venue website

She and He (no names) are lovers. They knew each other at college but then lost touch. Twenty years and several marriages later they meet again and start an affair. She, a teacher who seems to spend more time in women's groups than with her students, finds herself becoming angry with their arrangements and proposes a deal, a written contract. In return for "mistress services" (which boils down to sex whenever and however her lover wants it), he will supply "tasteful accommodations" and "expenses". He, an affluent businessman, accepts eagerly – once he's run the paperwork past his lawyer. The arrangement is enduring. Neatly concealed till the end of Abi Morgan's play is the fact of their spectacular ages.

This is a real-life story, perhaps even a true one. Morgan has based her plays on tapes the couple made of their conversations in restaurants, in bed, over breakfast. It's also an annoying one. "She" seems hellbent on giving feminism a bad name. She talks up her miseries, not least the unpleasantness of sucking cocks, but runs herself down: "I am much less skilled at speaking." She speaks a lot, of equality as if it were as measurable as a bag of sugar. She is stuck in a parody of feminism which sees it as naturally opposed to the idea of liking men. He is stereotypically short on emotional nuance and eager to get his trousers off, pretty much for anyone. Both start from the assumption that He will have a good time in the sack and She won't.

Saskia Reeves and Danny Webb can't make this grim couple engaging, though with great skill they suggest their gradual ageing. Of course He and She don't have to be likable to be interesting, but to demand attention their conversation needs more layers than this. Their only topic is themselves. There are no undercurrents, no surprising contradictions, hardly any tonal variety. In Vicky Featherstone's production everything is explicit. Merle Hensel's design shows a parched, unchanging Californian landscape with a phallic cactus. This allows some meaningful talk about the need for irrigation. Until the very end all exchanges take place with Reeves and Webb standing as if, far from having a series of intimate encounters, they were engaged in public debate.

As perhaps they were all along. It turns out that those tapes were made with a purpose other than that of recollection. They are turned into a book. And now, of course, a play. So enmired is He and She's language in the idea of mercantile exchange it should come as no surprise that they want to cash in their memories. Was that the point all along?

stevenson happy days Juliet Stevenson in Happy Days: ‘Her sincerity and fervent naturalism light up the role.’ Photograph: Tristram Kenton

You would have to go a long way to find a more intensely feminist play than Happy Days, which was first staged in 1961. It makes a woman the centre of a play that talks of the human condition. You can, it suggests, have a handbag and still speak for everyone. For me, this has always been a more genial, though not more ingratiating play than Waiting for Godot. It is one of Beckett's Charon-like dramas, ferrying a human audience from daily life to the other side of realism. It has, as does Krapp's Last Tape, one foot in the dull and one in the barmy. "What's it meant to mean?" asks a man, looking at this female yapping away while "stuck up to her diddies in the bleeding ground". "What," responds his wife, "are you meant to mean?" The marvellous thing about this exchange, exactly catching some first responses to Beckett, is that it is within the play itself.

At first Juliet Stevenson seems an unlikely Beckettian. She doesn't offer the customary music hall vivacity or bleached wanness. In fact, her sincerity and fervent naturalism light up the role of Winnie. She steers a fine line between braveness and bravura with nothing of the incantatory in her speech. She dips cosily but adventurously into her marvellous bag, as if it's likely to contain, along with a gun, the heavens' embroidered cloths. She shows life leaching from her, as it does from the terminally ill. In Natalie Abrahami's absorbing production each lurch towards death is accompanied by a fizzling roar. At the same time, Vicki Mortimer's sympathetic, bleak design makes the landscape look like a costume. A warmly coloured skirt of shingle at first spreads out like a New Look frock. Later, thanks to the great Paule Constable's lighting, that shingle becomes grey, and risen around Stevenson's neck like a surgical collar.

cement garden vaults 'Florid and bustling': Georgia Clarke-Day, George Mackay and Ruby Bentall in The Cement Garden at the Vaults. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

The Vaults might seem a perfect setting for The Cement Garden. Under Waterloo station, led up to by a concrete graffiti corridor, the place echoes with the rumble of trains, as Ian McEwan's first novel rumbles with the approach of sex and police cars and discovery and death. Yet this is not a perfect match of styles. McEwan's prose is slinky with wit and suggestion. Its tale of a parent buried in the cellar, and adolescent fumbles buried under bewildered shame is offered up almost implacably, as if it were an everyday story of youthful folk. McEwan rarely raises his voice. David Aula's production too often does so. Its limber young cast swing from girders. The youngest child, over-emphatically powerless, is played by a brown paper puppet. Spoken directly to the audience, running over the action as a commentary, the first-person narrative is made florid and bustling.

This staging is not frightening, but it is full of ideas and slowly the evening delivers some feeling of the novel. Ruby Bentall has the smug seductiveness of a cat; David Annen almost bursts from his skin with frustration. One aspect, often overlooked in excitement about sibling incest scenes, sings out clearly. You are against boys dressing as girls because you think it's bad to be a girl, one child coolly points out. Feminism is here too.

Star ratings (out of 5)
The Mistress Contract **
Happy Days ****
The Cement Garden ***

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Tom's Midnight Garden by Phillippa Pearce - review

Tom's Midnight Garden explores time and how it can be turned back. It is a very exciting book that has a hidden mystical presence and all the time you are reading it you find lots of clues that all add up to one big surprise at the end; but when it comes to it, you realise you've known all along.

It all starts when Tom's brother Peter gets the measles at the start of the summer holidays. Tom is taken away to his aunt and uncle's against his will; not
allowed to be in his house in fear of catching measles but not allowed to mix
with the public in case he already has them. So he has to spend all day every
day cooped up inside with nothing in the slightest to interest him. He is trying to get to sleep when he hears the old grandfather clock strike one – no hang on two – it had skipped an hour and yet it carried on – three, four, five!

"Yes, and it hadn't finished yet: Eleven! Twelve! 'Fancy striking midnight twice
in one night!' jeered Tom, sleepily. Thirteen! proclaimed the clock, and then
stopped striking."

This is an extremely good book about going back in time and I would recommend it to people who need a change because there aren't many books like it. It would appeal to nearly all ages as I first read it when I was eight and still love it now I am twelve. So if you come across it in your library or bookshop, do pick it up, you won't regret it.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The novel: not heading south, any time soon

shackleton man goes south Tony White reading his novel Shackleton's Man Goes South, which is being published by the Science Museum.

Tony White's last "traditional" novel was published by Faber in 2003 – that is, traditional in its form and distribution. Michael Moorcock, writing in the Guardian, said that Foxy-T, a story about call shops and kids in the East End of London, proved that the contemporary novel "has never been more alive". Its riot of street slang and Bengali-cockney idiom expressed the hybrid modernity of the contemporary city. But White's work since has been anything but traditional, and even more contemporary.

In 2012, White was invited by art producers Situations and Bristol city council to create "Missorts", an audiobook app for the centre of the city. It's triggered by GPS as the listener moves through the Temple Meads and Redcliffe areas. White collaborated not only with the council, but app developers, a composer, other writers, local libraries and a local church. It's a permanent public artwork, telling a story about the area, and was accompanied by a novella, Missorts Volume II, available as a paperback or free ebook.

Now the Science Museum has published a new book, and its first novel: Shackleton's Man Goes South. At heart a book about climate change, it's also, says White, "a kind of alternative history of publishing in extremis, examples of the apparent human necessity of finding new ways to tell and share stories, and how the future of writing, publishing and reading might need to be as much in the low-tech past as the hi-tech present".

Visitors to the museum's Atmosphere gallery can download the novel for free – as can anyone from its website. (Physical copies can be bought from the museum's shop too.) For White, these collaborations allow him to explore the possibilities of writing further, and see their effects more directly: "As the physical square footage of the traditional book trade diminishes, these commissions have given me the chance to engage directly with readers and to learn from them."

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Monday, February 10, 2014

The Godfather by Mario Puzo - review

Having dominated both popular film culture and literature for the last 40 years, Mario Puzo's world renowned masterpiece The Godfather is the undisputed patriarch of an awe-inspiring legacy. It's translation onto screen was magnificent (part 3 excluded) but there can be no shortage of superlatives to describe the book in which this idea was first born.

1946. New York. Picture Don Corleone; a family man; a generous man; a reasonable man ... and ruthless Sicilian mobster, the hardened Lord of the Cosa Nostra.

But the old man's days are numbered and the future of his empire, built on the sweat and the blood and the grit borne over his long and tumultuous lifetime, rests in the hands of his children. Santino, the angsty, quixotic hot-head; Fredo, the fickle, weak-willed sapling; Tom, his adopted son of German-Irish descent, who despite his irrevocable love for the Don, has not yet proven his cunning or worth. There's Connie, too, frivolous and crude, a daughter who has just been grafted into a doomed marriage.

But, finally, there is Michael, the youngest Corleone who refuses to conform to family tradition. Controversy is an endemic part of him. He enlists to fight in in Second World War as a common "Yank" and then later gets engaged to an All-American Pastor's daughter.

But when his father takes a turn for the worse and old tensions between the five great mafia families of New York intensify, Michael begins to give in to intrinsic Sicilian pride and with betrayal, embitterment, bloodshed and a narcotics operation fraught with the eminence of capital punishment, he falls.

A good man's heart goes cold, pickled in the sour juices of revenge. Family values are taken to a new, frankly preposterous high. Unparalleled levels of gang violence and mindless murder are opened up in Puzo's almost musical and poignant narrative (the reader can practically taste the bitter citrus of Sicilian lemon on a dusty Italian evening).

This book is powerful and simply brilliant. The characters, so hardened and caustic at first glance, are in truth foolish or at least under the influence of greed and blood-thirsty ambition. But they are also sad, sad microcosms, none more so than the protagonist, Michael. What appears to be his heroism and desperation to escape forced Sicilian "norm" at the beginning of the novel change so subtly throughout the story that Michael's transition from good to bad is almost seamless.

And then, when the gunfire and butchery has ceased, you yourself are left questioning to what limits you would go for your family's protection.

But, of course, nothing is ever personal. Just business.

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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? - Berlin 2014: first look review

Noam Chomsky helped lobby Stephen Hawking to stage boycott Mild academic facade ... Noam Chomsky. Photograph: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images

Here is an intriguing proposition: a filmed encounter between scatterbrained film director Michel Gondry and the distinguished linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky. With its subtitle "an animated conversation", you know that Gondry won't be restricting himself to the traditional head-shot interview format, and that proves to be the case: much of Chomsky's musing is illustrated with squiggly, hand-drawn graphics that do a nice job at elucidating some of the more rarified concepts that are aired. Moreover, Gondry occasionally interjects with amusing voiceovers: apologising for his poor English, his difficulties with the animation, and the like.

The conversation itself sticks largely to Chomsky's work in linguistics and philosophy – we don't get Chomsky-the-fashionable-political-activist, but rather we dip a toe in his real achievements in academia. The title, it turns out, refers to a conundrum Chomsky poses in his 1957 book Syntactic Structures: how transforming a complex sentence ("The man who is tall is happy") into a question is an operation of instinctive and non-logical grammar. At least, that's how Chomsky patiently explains it to Gondry, whose puppy-dog enthusiasm transmits itself from the screen in bright early-MTV colours.

Gondry makes some headway in burrowing behind Chomsky's mild academic facade: by asking him about his early life, what he does for entertainment, and about his recently deceased wife, we get a sudden glimpse of Chomsky-the-human-being (no doubt entirely trivial ones, if you're a signed-up Chomskyite). But little asides – such as hearing him talk about his parents' interest in cultural Zionism, or his regular jail time when his kids were growing up, or just the fact he and his wife liked to be alone with each other – create an unexpectedly rounded portrait.

But the bulk of the film is devoted to giving Chomsky space to explain his theories to a non-academic audience. It might be possible to see Gondry's broken-English stumblings and random-association images as complementing Chomsky's descriptions of generative grammar, but I'm not sure this is entirely the case; in the nicest possible way, this is teacher-and-pupil stuff. You can only regret that Gondry missed the chance to repeat Woody Allen's legendary philosophy class gag – "I cheated on my metaphysics final. I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me". I wonder what Chomsky would have made of that?

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