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Friday, May 16, 2014

Karen Russell's Sleep Donation is not a new paradigm, it's just very good

"No one would argue with the fact that legacy publishing is depressed or that a new paradigm is urgently required."

So says new publisher Atavist books, which claims to have something different to offer:

"Atavist Books breaks the mold in countless ways, with its partnership with Atavist, a digital-first model, more resources for digital marketing, and a full three months of promotion for every title."

That poor old mold must be well and truly wrecked by now, so many start-up publishers have had a bash at it in recent years. And is legacy publishing really depressed? Is there even such a thing as "legacy publishing" outside the declarations of those who want to use it as a straw man? If new operators really want to be original, they could start by refusing to bang on about "new paradigms" and forget this tired oppositional marketing.

On the subject of marketing, meanwhile, a fair amount of what you need to know about Atavist's revolutionary digital-selling techniques can be gleaned from browsing the website it has set up for its first release, Karen Russell's Sleep Donation. The website a dispiriting done-before mish-mash of dull meaningless video, dull meaningless questionnaire, dull fake news reports and yawnsome plot points. I imagine it will persuade no one to buy the book.

All of which is a pity, because once you break through the hubris and flim-flam surrounding Atavist's launch it becomes clear that it is a serious operation selling those wonderful old-fashioned things: good books. It has got Gary Younge and Hari Kunzru slated for future releases, while anyone who's read Swamplandia will already know that Karen Russell is also a proper talent. The New York Times's famously waspish Michiko Kakutani described this novella (the first digital-only book to be reviewed in the New York Times) as "testament to [Russell's] fertile powers of imagination", and it has had raves across America. The Boston Globe says the book "glows with eerie-fine phrases". The LA Times call it a "digital dream."

This praise is all the more impressive given that almost every reviewer has acknowledged that the premise of the book is – as Kakutani put it – "preposterous". A woman called Trish describes a plague of insomnia sweeping across America. More and more people are unable to sleep – at all. Trish's sister Dori was one of the first victims. Dori's problem became so bad that "she became, quite suddenly, impossible to anesthetise. We learned this when she broke her leg in college and surgeons were forced to operate on a fully conscious Dori." Eventually, after going 21 days without a wink of sleep, Dori died. So too did many other victims – "'orexins', the media taught us to call them".

Trish is now working as an evangelist for the Sleep Corps, an organisation that appears to offer salvation. She encourages healthy people to give sleep donations. Vans travel around neighbourhoods, in the style of mobile bloodbanks, catching Zzzz's from people who haven't yet caught the insomnia disease. There is such a desperate need for these transfusions that it has even become legal to take sleep from babies. One child in particular, known to the world as Baby A, provides such good quality, trouble-free sleep that it has passed into legend. Scientists are desperately trying to create a synthetic version. At the other extreme, an adult sleeper, "Donor Y" has passed on a nightmare so terrible that people who have had it transfused into them are taking amphetamines and "they latch their eyes open, a Clockwork Orange self torture".

Step back from this story and it seems absurd. But Russell's gift is to provide deep immersion in the details, and in Trish's haunting, urgent emotions. It's easy to ignore the wider picture in favour of a series of wonderful moments. People report dreams about "President Nixon strapped to a fire truck!" Trish tells us that when her sister died she inherited her unused make-up and became "the heiress to all the unused crazycolours in her eye shadow three-packs, you know, the freak blue Maybelline smuggles inbetween the taupe and the grey". Best of all is a terrific, gothic description of a Night World (also known as an "Eye-sore"), an old fairground where hundreds of people have gathered to drink heavily, to take sleeping draughts and lie down in poppy fields if they are insomniacs, or to blast themselves with stimulants if they have been infected with the Donor Y nightmare.

Swirling around this rich imaginative world are sinister hints of conspiracy and exploitation. Is the Sleep Corps really benevolent? What are we to make about the hints of funny money, leaks, rogue products in the far east? Where does the original problem come from? Will the donations harm Baby A?

Russell offsets this expertly-induced unease with humour and wry social commentary. "America's greatest talent," says Trish, "is to generate desires that would never have occurred, natively, to a body like mine." Insomnia starts to stand in for our attention-deficit society. Further sharp satirical blows land on charitable hucksterism, commercial healthcare and the capitalisation of suffering. It isn't always subtle. By the time Trish is lecturing on mining shale gas and environmental exploitation it even starts to feel finger-waggy, but that's a small price to pay for such enjoyable and effectively-realised speculative fiction.

Atavist promises to release one title a month. If it focuses on keeping standards this high, it won't need any new publishing paradigm. Readers will just seek the books out.

View the original article here

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins by Irvine Welsh review

Irvine Welsh Irvine Welsh: being a 'sadist'. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

As we've come to expect from an Irvine Welsh hero, Lucy Brennan, the narrator of The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins, is an unrepentant sadist and narcissist. A fitness trainer in the bikini-clad, ab-obsessed world of South Beach, Miami, she becomes an unlikely hero when she disarms a gunman who has chased two men in front of her car on the highway. Lucy's exploit makes her a star on local news – and inspires infatuation in a witness to the incident, the overweight, pathologically lonely Lena Sorensen. Lena tracks Lucy down the following day to schedule a personal training session.

At this point, the reader anticipates a stalking narrative. And when Lena turns out to be an artist who constructs distorted human figures from animal bones, our suspicions seem to be confirmed. But it's Lucy who gradually becomes obsessed with Lena, and specifically with carving the fat off her body. When Lena continues to gobble key lime pies on the sly, Lucy's tactics become increasingly abusive, while her interest in Lena grows perversely sexual. At last, losing patience, she drugs Lena and imprisons her in an empty apartment building. Fed by her captor on blueberries and protein shakes, with only a treadmill and a home gym for company, Lena at last loses weight. She is chained to a pillar, she is defecating into a bucket – but she looks fantastic.

As a concept, this is brilliant. It powerfully encapsulates the book's themes of body obsession, co-dependency, and the American cult of willpower. And, for anyone who's ever tried to diet, it's a twisted wish fulfilment fantasy. But the pleasure of the book is spoiled by a radically misjudged narrator.

Welsh has a history of testing the limits of his readers' capacity for empathy. No one can write about a sociopath in love with so much heart. But his Lucy not only lacks any sympathetic qualities, she lacks any interesting qualities. She has one-night-stands with people she despises and mistreats; personal training sessions with people she despises and mistreats; lunch with her mother, whom she despises and mistreats. Here, all overweight women are beachballs, lard-asses, blimps. An older woman is a "crinkled, leather-faced, old scrotum". Whatever else they are, women are bitches. In a typical passage, Lucy describes the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor: "Thorpe is a well-meaning but flatulent-mouthed, carpetbagging Ivy League asshole, while Quist is a rabid, fascist, sanctimonious, Bible-bashing prick ... It's hard to work out which one I hate the most." When the venom recedes, we're left with passages like this: "Sorenson weighed in at 197.5 ... I decided that I was going to cardio her ass and burn shit off her. I started her on the elliptical, and doing a 4 x 15 minute workout, increasing the resistance level from 8 to 10 to 12 to 14." Meanwhile, in his rendering of American speech, Welsh succeeds a little too dramatically. He conveys not just American English, but the way American English can grate on the English ear. And it does grate, and continues to grate, page after remorseless page.

Of course, it's reasonable to suppose that a South Beach fitness trainer would tediously count calories, itemise her meals, and assess every passerby on his physical appearance. And presumably there are some people whose responses to others are uniformly hateful. Some Americans really do abuse the English language. But choosing to write a 460-page novel in the voice of such a person is crossing a line. Welsh is not just portraying a sadist here; he is being a sadist.

As the novel progresses, Welsh introduces Lena as a secondary narrator. Lena is certainly less loathsome than Lucy, and she's convincing as a Midwestern girl who loves Cute Overload and doughnuts. But she's too leadenly ordinary to be credible as the world-class artist we're told she is, much less as the focus of a stranger's erotic obsession, while her bovine capitulation to Lucy's bullying doesn't seem to be grounded in anything but the author's convenience.

Ultimately, this novel is simply frustrating. Its plot is not only cleverly conceived but genuinely, hauntingly, transgressive. It could have been a powerful and profound book, with just a bit more thought. One reads it wishing vainly for Welsh to humanise some of Lucy's reactions; to motivate some of Lena's decisions; to allow any character the range of expression of Welsh's best creations. Most of all, The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins would have been a great, page-turning read if it were narrated not by Lucy and Lena, but by someone with the intelligence and expressiveness of Irvine Welsh.

• Sandra Newman's The Country of Ice Cream Star will be published by Chatto in June

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Top 10 greatest underdogs

Stanley Yelnats in holes Stanley Yelnats (played by Shia LaBeouf in Disney's movie version) in Louis Sachar's Holes; the ultimate rise-of-the-underdog story. Photograph: Buena Vista

If I've learnt anything in the process of writing four books for young adults, it's this: I LOVE writing about underdogs, and readers love them too.

You know the characters I'm talking about: we see them every day of our lives. The skinny kid, the kid in glasses, the kid who has a "free lunch" at school and so can't bunk off to the chippy with the rest of the lads.

In short, it's the kid you think is going to amount to nothing in their lives. And that's what makes them so brilliant to write about: that you can surprise readers by squeezing every bit of glory from a character that at first sight, everyone would write off.

I can't imagine writing a book that didn't have an underdog at its heart, and here (in no particular order) are ten of my favourites from magnificent stories for children and young adults.

Young Master Lampchop doesn't let being squashed flat stand in the way of a great adventure. I loved the way his folks folded him inside an envelope and posted him to America for a holiday. Never has being one-dimensional been so cool.

Another magnificent Stanley. Has there even been a more perfect book than 'Holes'?
How can a book about digging holes in the desert become the most breathtaking example of storytelling at its best?
Stanley is at the heart of it. The biggest loser in a long line of Yelnats losers, but with a heart the size of a lion.
The kid is a legend. So much so, we named our son after him.

There are many great outsiders in this brilliant trilogy, but Ludmilla is my favourite, as whether physically or intellectually, she seems to have nothing whatsoever going for her. Even her name screams underdog.
People talk about the brilliance of Wimpy Kid, but for me, Donut Diaries is the real deal.

I love books where every bit of emotion is squeezed from its story, and you won't find a finer example than this. Hannah is 15, pregnant and written off. Aaron isn't the father but is prepared to say he is. What follows is a magnificent debut novel.

Siobhan left an incredible legacy. Four almost perfect books, and I love Solace for her bravery and imagination. I was lucky enough to work with many girls like Solace, growing up in care. Siobhan captured their uncompromising, gutsy voice beautifully.

I find it hard to articulate how much I love both this book, and the crusty, broken-winged being that hides behind the cobwebs in the garage. How Skellig manages to bring change to a family in crisis never fails to destroy me.

It takes guts for any teenager to trek halfway around the world in search of a missing father, but to do it with your little brother in tow, and when you're blind? How could you not root for Laurel? Marcus is a magnificent writer and this book proves just how versatile and skilful he is.

The greatest premise of any book, ever. Full stop. Tom becomes a twenty-first century superhero, when an iphone, dropped from the top of a tower block, becomes embedded in his brain. Genius. Kevin Brooks is YA's rock star. Never afraid to take risks or to write the story he wants to write.
Do I wish I'd written iBoy? Every single day.

Three boys on the unlikeliest road trip, from Cleethorpes to the Highlands of Scotland. Their journey is one of the realest and most emotional books in print. I didn't read much as a kid. I didn't feel there were books out there that spoke to me. It would've been different if Keith had been writing then. A truly great storyteller.

These boys have nothing in their lives. No jobs, no qualifications, no prospects, but they have each other, and an unbreakable bond of brotherhood that makes you root for each and every one of them. The one book I read every year to remind me what great writing looks like.

View the original article here

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Top 10 John Updike short stories

John Updike Mundane beauty … John Updike, pictured in his home state of Massachusetts, in the mid-60s. Photograph: Susan Wood/Getty Images

Five years ago, when HarperCollins approached me about writing a biography of John Updike, I would have classified myself as a moderate fan, thrilled by his supple, precise prose and respectful of his wide-ranging talent and effortless industry: every year a new Updike book! I admired many of his novels and most of his criticism; though aware of his poetry, I hadn't read very much of it. It was apparent to me even then that Updike had earned himself an exalted place in the pantheon of 20th-century short story writers.

Now, after a thorough immersion in all things Updike, my admiration has spread and deepened. I've come to cherish many of his poems, and the large majority of his 23 novels. After countless hours in the archives, I've discovered Updike the helplessly prolific letter-writer, scattering literary jewels throughout a vast correspondence. But Updike's stories – there are 186 of them in the two-volume Library of America edition – remain for me the chief glory of his collected works. His stated aim in his short fiction was "to give the mundane its beautiful due", and it's an aim he achieved beautifully.

An Updike alter ego, John Nordholm, looks back in tender reminiscence to a time when he was a second-year student at university. He has been home for Christmas at his parents' farm, and is leaving again. He's eager to put his childhood behind him and at the same time desperate to preserve the past intact, to protect and cherish it. The tension between these two impulses supplies the emotional power here, as it does in many of the stories Updike wrote about Olinger, a lightly fictionalised version of his Pennsylvania hometown, Shillington. While writing this story, Updike later explained, he had "a sensation of breaking through, as if through a thin sheet of restraining glass, to material, to truth, previously locked up".

A devastating story about the break-up of the marriage of Richard and Joan Maple, stand-ins for Updike and his first wife. It features a tragicomic last supper at which Richard, an unfaithful husband and flawed father, is supposed to inform his children that he and their mother are splitting up. At the end of the story, his eldest son asks him "why?" – which prompts an indelible final paragraph: "Why. It was a whistle of wind in a crack, a knife thrust, a window thrown open on emptiness … Richard had forgotten why." Minutely autobiographical and gorgeously shaped, Separating is perhaps the world's best (and worst) argument for writing about what you know.

Updike's most widely anthologised story, about a boy working at the checkout counter in a supermarket and the three young pretty girls who walk in wearing nothing but bathing suits. As Updike's first wife pointed out, the teenage narrator's voice ("In walks these three girls … ") is very Salinger – but the dazzlingly vivid detail and the quixotic romanticism are pure Updike.

A sequel of sorts to his brilliant early novel Of the Farm (1965), as well as a memorial to his widowed mother who died in 1989 and is here is resurrected with unsentimental candour and evident affection. Updike filled the story with incidents snatched directly from her last six months, quoting her verbatim and giving the precise circumstances of her death by heart attack. An attempt to immortalise the most important person in his life, it was also, for him, a kind of therapy.

As the story's comically long-winded title suggests, Updike here stitches together disparate elements, a daring collage construction. Among the many marvels, this striking description of how fiction writers condense and transform experience: "We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves."

The first (and sweetest) of 20 stories featuring Henry Bech, another – this time rather unlikely – Updike alter ego. A New York Jewish writer, Bech is in some ways everything Updike was not: an anguished urban bachelor beset by writer's block. But thanks to Bech, Updike was able to record in fiction an important part of his experience: the life of a professional author. In this story, Bech is travelling behind the Iron Curtain, as an ambassador of the arts, sponsored by the US government. (Updike did the same, the same year.)

Returning to eastern Europe decades later, our hero visits Kafka's grave, meets a handful of dissidents, broods about the Holocaust, and suffers an attack of anxiety that is at once existential and postmodern: "More fervently than he was a Jew, Bech was a writer, a literary man, and in this dimension, too, he felt a cause for unease. He was a creature of the third person, a character. A character suffers from the fear that he will become boring to the author, who will simply let him drop."

The problems in this very short and ostentatiously clever story are presented as questions on a maths test: "During the night, A, though sleeping with B, dreams of C … Problem: Which has he more profoundly betrayed, B or C? The story, from a collection of the same title, is emblematic of the brief moment of guilty limbo between Updike's first and second marriages, a period during which divorce and its discontents replaced adultery as his simplex theme.

A bittersweet record of the court hearing that put an end to the Maples' marriage. The 17th of 18 stories chronicling more than two decades of the couple's quarrels and reconciliations, it's a barely fictionalised yet artful retelling of Updike's own experience in the divorce court. The concluding kiss is priceless.

Like The Happiest I've Been, this is a story about a university student who's come home for the holiday and is now leaving again. Updike was 26 when he wrote the first story, 73 when he wrote the second. There are fewer bravura moments in My Father's Tears, less writerly zeal, and yet it achieves a quiet, sober intensity. The reason for the father's tears? "I was going somewhere," the son tells us, "and he was seeing me go." Updike's talent had mellowed and deepened; it certainly hadn't diminished.

• Updike by Adam Begley is published by Harper, priced £25. Buy it from the Guardian bookshop

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Monday, May 12, 2014

Odd Job Man and Language! by Jonathon Green review

Jonathon Green, as per the title of his not-quite-memoir, has a very odd job indeed. He is the world's foremost slang lexicographer. He collects slang. He makes dictionaries of slang. He has spent 30 years doing more or less nothing but. "I can no longer remember when life and work were still easily distinguishable. When, to render it in as simple a way as possible, I didn't work or aim to work 24/7/365. When I didn't live in terror of the abyss of inactivity. Of 'relaxing', of the 'day off'. I find no joy in the list of popular gap-fillers – popular culture, hobbies, travel. It all, ultimately, bores."

The results of his labour are three slang dictionaries (62,00 pages, 110,000 headwords, 415,000 citations) – of which his Summa Theologica, 17 years in the making, is Green's Dictionary of Slang (2010). After its publication, he writes, "I wept". His subject is narrow in scope but deep in synonymy. "I have written the two words 'the penis' 1,351 times (from 'Aaron's rod' to 'zubrick'); 'the vagina' 1,180 ('abc' to 'zum-zum') and 'sexual intercourse', by which I mean the heterosexual variety, 1,740 ('action' to 'zot'). I allow for detail as it is necessary to be precise: sometimes it is a large penis, sometimes a small one, sometimes flaccid, sometimes erect. Sometimes a penis is just a penis."

Does this benign monomania make him happy? The impression you get reading Odd Job Man is slightly different: that, rather, it makes him less unhappy. It gives a solitary, bookish only child – sensitive to his outsiderdom as a Jew in the English public-school system – a means of retreating from the world, of controlling it, of engaging with its vulgar pleasures at a safe remove. He writes repeatedly of himself that he is a "voyeur", and of his "cowardice". To be a lexicographer, he writes, is to be a drudge (as per Dr Johnson) but also (since you define and prescribe) a "tinpot deity".

Green doesn't tell you all that much about his life ("some confessions" is right). After he got stuck into slang, the suggestion perhaps is, there's not that much to tell. He owns many books and lives between London and Paris. He has children. He can afford to do his job thanks to a large and unexpected legacy, and was dunned out of another one in a bruising encounter with the law. His hero is Lenny Bruce. He kicked around as an underground journalist in the 1960s (he edited Oz while Richard Neville was in the dock), wrote a porn book, tried heroin ("Yum-my!"), compiled a number of hack books of quotations and had a lightbulb moment reading Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Partridge defined "nafka" right – it means "whore" – but didn't know it was Yiddish. It made Green think: I can do this. And he was off.

But what is it, exactly, that Green is doing? Slang is a pretty fugitive category. The word itself (first print appearance: 1756) is of unknown etymology and remains resistant to definition. Slang isn't a language (it doesn't have a grammar) but a set of vocabulary items, and it lives in a territory adjoining and overlapping but not coterminous with (among other things) colloquialism, dialect, euphemism, abbreviation, professional jargon and various forms of figurative speech. For his purposes, "slang" is anything Green says is slang.

There's no doubt we've had slang as long as we've had registers of language. But slang as we know it begins, in his account, with late-medieval thieves' cant – collected in the titillating pamphlets of "rogue literature" and "beggar books" then percolating into the general population. Slang, to Green, is "counter-language". It is distinctively of the city. It is the lexicon of outsiders and rebels, constantly on the move, patricidal and mocking, and yet plugged into the most basic human activities: fucking, fighting, shitting, stealing stuff and getting fucked up. Slang has no word for love. And it's very male (Green touches on this here and there but one longs for him to develop it): "in this most manmade of languages women are always objects, never subjects".

But that isn't Green's main concern. He's not a sociolinguist or, as he freely admits, a linguist of any sort. He is an amateur (in the best sense: he does it for love) – not an entomologist but a butterfly collector. Not quite even that, perhaps. Slang is basically oral, and Green doesn't do fieldwork. What he's looking for is written or literary evidence (and that would include everything from Chaucer to The A-Team, which yielded 155 citations). It is quixotic: the traces of slang in the written language are the shadows those butterflies cast on the wall. Hard to net!

Green is a good enough sport to be upfront about how heavily each glossary of slang over the years perforce leans on its predecessors. In Language! he even quotes a party-pooping don who puts doubt at the very root of the discipline: "there is little evidence that real vagrants spoke thieves' cant, a notion fostered by rogue literature". Green says that her theory – that thieves' cant was simply made up, like Dothraki or brown windsor soup – is "as unprovable as the contrary thesis that she is at pains to decry". The absence of evidence, in other words, is not evidence of absence. Still.

Green has a faintly chippy relationship with the OED, to which he is a consultant but also (in his smaller field) a rival. He publishes first, and then, "distrusting the abilities even of one whom they claim to respect, the legions of Little Clarendon Street have reresearched my efforts and displayed them online as if their own". One-upping their first citations is a point of pride. When he finds an instance of the word "fuckadoodle" somewhere predating the OED's, one imagines him doing a little air-punch in his lonely room.

But Green and the legions of Little Clarendon Street are in roughly the same game. He has some starchier things to say about Urban Dictionary, which looks likely to shoot his fox. It's not actually a dictionary, as he rightly points out: it's more like a sort of linguistic wiki with its guts on the floor. And yet – while it forsakes the lexicographer's authority (any fool can add an entry and authority is a matter of accruing thumbs-ups) – it has the advantage of contemporaneity and, however messily corralled, the potential evidence of a massive body of current slang users.

Language! is a very interesting survey of the history of slang and the history of its collectors, taking in everything from the early literature of criminality to the Broadway backchat of Walter Winchell and Damon Runyon, from Soho's Polari to the black slangs emerging from slavery in the American south. What it declines to address, perhaps tellingly, is internet "leetspeak".

One of the book's virtues is that, by taking a step back from the lexis, Green is able to tease out family resemblances in the metaphors that lead us from the act to the slang word: the way that sex is often cast as violence, and so on. Language! bursts with linguistic interest and fun historical nuggets. Did you know that Swift may have been the first to use "blue" to mean obscene? Or that Smollett (though elsewhere Green says Cleland) minted the phrase "birthday suit"?

A fair amount of content is repeated between the two books, but there's a noticeable difference in the prose. That might be down to the author finding it more difficult to write about himself than about his subject (again and again, Odd Job Man skitters away into Green's safe zone). But the books also have different publishers.

Language! is, for the most part, limpidly written. Reading Odd Job Man is like paddling through mud.The autobiographical sections zip between first and third person, present tense and past narration, and are prone to tedious periphrasis when they spell things out at all. "Motherfucker" is "the Oedipal polysyllable". Tom Wolfe shows up, but – unnamed – is identifiable only by his white suit. A "well-known figure" is glimpsed off his face on booze, and the clue that his son-in-law would eventually "rule our waves" leads you to identify him as Tony Booth; but why not say so?

Yet Odd Job Man is also the more unusual and the more moving of the two books. Here is somebody whose life's work is not complete, and can never be complete: Green is a man swimming against an ever stronger tide. But it's a life's work that has – with the publication of his dictionary – passed its climacteric. And thanks to the internet, like a vocational concordance-maker in the age of digital search, Green is living through his own obsolescence: "It appears that I have spent my life becoming good at the wrong thing."

Incoherent though his achievement may be, however, it is also magnificent: a cathedral of bin lids built on foundations of quicksand. What's to be done? What he undoubtedly will do, until he drops dead at his desk: keep buggering on.

• To order Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue (Atlantic, £25) by Jonathon Green for £18.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to

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Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Stories by Jane Gardam review short story collection bound by magic

"Stories of all lengths and depths come from different parts of the cave," writes Jane Gardam in the introduction to this fat anthology of three decades' worth of her powerful short fictions. "For a novel, you must lay in mental, physical and spiritual provision as for a siege or for a time of hectic explosions, while a short story is, or can be, a steady, timed flame like the lighting of a blow lamp on a building site full of dry tinder." There is nothing accidental in the incendiary violence of Gardam's metaphor: she may be well into her ninth decade now (and none of these stories was written before middle age), but her imagination crackles with menace. Each one of these narratives – none of them afraid of looking into the great terrifying secrets of love and grief, death, ageing and faith in a mere handful of pages – makes the heart race.

Sly, sharp and mischievous, in these stories Gardam chooses precisely society's quietest and most overlooked characters – the old and shy and sheepish, conservative wives, stay-at-home mothers and impoverished ex-colonials, dwellers in cottages and suburban villas – to explore the fiercest passions. She has an extraordinary ability to enter the interior of the long-lived mind and to illuminate history through it; she is particularly fine on that strain of Englishness trained to repress and conceal emotion, and she entitles the most marginal of figures to love, and to beauty. In "The Boy who Turned into a Bike", silent Clancy with his "inward-turning heart" cycles "up and down the flat windswept roads, in and out of the great curves of the silver River Nene" one frosty dawn to win his race, while in "Easter Lilies" an old maid in reduced circumstances dreams of the wild lilies of Malta she knew as a young woman and summons them, freighted with a secret treasure, into her suburban church. In the marvellous triptych "Telegony" (meaning "the belief that the female can be changed metabolically by a particular lover"), the inner lives of an upright Yorkshire family are laid bare through the fantastical shapes that thwarted feeling assumes down three generations, from its matriarch Florrie Ironside, "taught that you never go out unchaperoned and never show your love", who ends up dead of jealous rage, down to a middle-aged granddaughter silently mourning the passing of sex in a Cremona cafe. Grief, too, the other end of love, breaks through the lovely silvered surface of one story after another, a terrible silent bomb going off in the quiet lives of the widowed and childless. In "Rode By All With Pride", the beloved only child of a stoical pair of Wimbledon stalwarts succumbs to despair, leaving the green garden in which she grew up a desolate wasteland.

Gardam has a remarkable economic vividness as a writer, shown to particular effect in this compact form: she also has a gift for placing beauty on the page and imbuing it with emotion, from "the skyhigh curtain-drops of glittering lights" of Hong Kong by night in the story out of which her prizewinning Old Filth trilogy grew, to the windswept Irish beach where a worn-out mother yearns for lost love. She can also write about sex: the few lines in "Grace", in which Clockie loses his virginity, are a masterclass in deliciously arousing restraint. Born only seven years after the publication of Joyce's Dubliners (which she cites in the introduction as showing her how the short story can "have the power to burn up the chaff, to harden the steel without comment or embellishment"), Gardam is muscular in her approach to the form, too, and unafraid of literary experiment: one story, bubbling with vitality, is written in the fractured speech of an ancient tramp as he breaks into a middle-class home.

The binding power of this collection, however, running like electricity through every story, is magic: its pages are populated by devils and apparitions, mermaids, ghosts at garden gates and green men. There is a boy who turns into a bike and a factory worker born with a diamond in his neck who knows, like his creator, "the ropes of living and dying". "Jane has always had her ecstatic side," her mother once said. As with Joyce's epiphanies – and few Gardam stories lack one – her magic is not whimsy, but utterly integral to her narrative style and her subject matter. It emerges from her shamanistic abilities as a writer and is bound to an instinct for the sacred and the miraculous (in folktale, in myth, in railway carriages at Christmas and in country churches). She makes it at once outlandish and entirely convincing.

It is Gardam's gift for the ecstatic, for showing us what a place of wonders is the world and the hearts that dwell in it, that endows this collection with a dangerous and formidable energy, richer and more concentrated than any novel. She gives us miracle heaped upon miracle, and insists that they should each one be handled with care.

• Christobel Kent's The Killing Room (Atlantic) will be out in July.

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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Gut reaction: book celebrating digestive tract becomes German bestseller

Giulia Enders Giulia Enders, whose book, Darm mit Charme, has been at the top of the German paperback charts for the last eight weeks. Photograph: Franziska Krug/Getty Images

To dismiss Giulia Enders' debut work as a "toilet book" would do it great injustice – not least because the author argues that we shouldn't really be reading books in the lavatory anyway.

Darm mit Charme ("Charming Bowels") – which has sat atop the German paperback charts for the last eight weeks and shifted more than 200,000 copies in the process – may deal with defecation, constipation and other bowel movements, but its message is far from flippant: our gastrointestinal tract is not only the body's most under-appreciated organ, but "the brain's most important adviser".

In the book, which was published in Germany in March and whose UK rights have already been bought by Scribe, Enders argues that we are unduly proud of the complex achievements of our brain and heart, while regarding our bowels as little more than a shameful tube that produces "small brown heaps and farting noises".

Few know that only the last of our digestive tract's eight metres deals with faeces, that it produces more than 20 kinds of hormone, contains more than a thousands species of bacteria and is controlled by a nervous system that is almost as complex as the brain's.

And Enders argues that even scientists like her – a 24-year-old doctoral student at Frankfurt's Goethe University – have only in recent years started to explore the possibility that the health of our bowels could have a more direct influence on our mental wellbeing, our motivation, memory and sense of morality than our DNA.

Enders' gut manifesto calls on its readers to celebrate their lower bodies' achievements, rather than apologise for them: a burp or a fart may be considered coarse, yet the movement it requires from our bowels is "as elegant as a ballet dancer". We complain about having to throw up, when in fact we should thank our body for the "masterful performance" it is putting on to protect us.

Along the way, Darm mit Charme issues practical advice: sitting, rather than crouching while doing your business unnecessarily prolongs the process and may explain why haemorrhoids and bowel diseases like diverticulitis are more common in Europe than in Asia. Placing a little stool in front of the toilet could help us all pass our stool, says Enders – and we'd no longer need that pile of books in the bathroom.

In Germany, her book has been received enthusiastically. The YouTube clip of Enders competition-winning "science slam" in 2012, which prompted a publisher to commission her, has long gone viral, and this year Enders has already appeared in many major talk shows.

Germans have long had to live with the charge of harbouring an unusually strong fascination with the baser bodily functions. In the 1980s, the American anthropologist Alan Dundes suggested that his study of folk tales revealed an "anal-erotic element in the German character". Dundes' conclusions may since have been discredited, but the success of Enders' book makes it harder to suggest he wasn't on to something after all.

In the German publishing world, Darm mit Charme is hardly a new phenomenon: in 2008, Charlotte Roche enjoyed a similarly unexpected bestseller with Wetlands, a novel about an 18-year-old girl sent to hospital for a haemorrhoid operation.

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Friday, May 9, 2014

Everyman Wodehouse prize shortlist led by Jeeves imitation

Sebastian Faulks 'A nostalgic variation' … Sebastian Faulks. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Sebastian Faulks's take on Jeeves and Wooster could receive the ultimate accolade for a novel that sets out to mimic PG Wodehouse, an author who Faulks himself describes as "inimitable", after making the shortlist for the Wodehouse prize for comic fiction.

The award – which takes as its full title the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize – is for the work of fiction which best "captures the comic spirit" of Wodehouse. Faulks's Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, fully authorised by the Wodehouse estate, takes Bertie Wooster and his gentleman's gentleman on new adventures. Despite pre-publication concerns – Wodehouse biographer Robert McCrum said "it looks perilously like Mission Impossible to me"; reviewer Sam Leith that "if, as an author, you were hoping to see how quickly you could bury your reputation underneath a hail of brickbats, there couldn't be many better ways of setting about it than taking it upon yourself to write a PG Wodehouse sequel" – Faulks was judged to have pulled it off.

The author himself wrote that he wanted to provide "a nostalgic variation – in which a memory of the real thing provides the tune and these pages perhaps a line of harmony", and reviews were positive - the Guardian called it a "wonderfully happy book". Now Jeeves and the Wedding Bells has made the Wodehouse shortlist, with the prize organisers describing the novel as a "brilliant pastiche".

Faulks will be competing with Bridget Jones's third outing from Helen Fielding, Mad About the Boy, Hanif Kureishi's tale of a young writer commissioned to write the biography of a prestigious Indian-born author, The Last Word, John Niven's Straight White Male, about an acerbic alcoholic Irish novelist, and Joseph O'Connor's The Thrill of It All, the story of a London-Irish rock band.

The shortlist is completed with Edward St Aubyn's Lost for Words, a novel that has split reviewers so far: the Guardian found it to be "stony-hearted and gruellingly unfunny", but the Independent said the novelist's riposte to literary prize culture was "witty [and] often excoriating".

The line-up was picked by judges Peter Florence, director of the Hay festival, David Campbell, Everyman's Library publisher, and broadcaster James Naughtie. Campbell said that it was one of the strongest line-ups the 15-year-old prize had ever had. "All the books on the list are of great calibre and quality which makes the job of choosing just one of these witty, zestful novels as the winner almost impossible," he added.

The winner will be announced on 19 May, and will receive, amongst offerings of champagne and Wodehouse novels, the honour of having a locally-bred Gloucestershire Old Spot pig named after their winning novel. Previous winners of the prize include Howard Jacobson, twice, Terry Pratchett and Marina Lewycka, with pigs named respectively Zoo Time, Kalooki Nights, Snuff and A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.

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Thursday, May 8, 2014

North Korea: State of Paranoia review

Kim Jong Un Kim Jong-un receives applause during a military drill. Photograph: Kcna/Reuters

Mention North Korea and people usually expect tales of horror or ridicule. There is good reason for both. A UN commission of inquiry came out in February with a report on the "unspeakable atrocities" committed in the country. "The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world," the commission said. "These crimes against humanity entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation." It quoted former labour camp inmates who said prisoners would catch snakes and mice to feed malnourished babies.

On the ridicule front came a recent news item (from a US-funded anti-Pyongyang radio station) about Kim Jong-un, the country's 31-year-old leader who represents the third generation of the dynasty that has run North Korea since the second world war. The word was that he had ordered all male students to wear their hair like his, shaved bare at back and sides but thick and unparted on top. The fact that the flimsily sourced story was never confirmed officially, and visitors to Pyongyang campuses saw no evidence to support it, did not prevent it from being widely published around the world. Anything, however disgusting or outlandish, looks credible in what the media often call the "hermit kingdom".

It is refreshing then to find an author who is willing to approach the country soberly, analysing its tumultuous history, regional context and difficult relations with its allies. Living and working in Shanghai, Paul French has studied and written about North Korea for many years. He pulls no punches on the country's ruthless politics or the grim lives its people are forced to endure. There are titbits here that seem to reinforce the more ridiculous stories. Smoking while driving is banned, though for safety rather than health reasons: smoking would prevent drivers from smelling that something is wrong with their car.

But French is primarily concerned with North Korea's economy. This, he argues, is central to understanding the policy shifts and the leadership's motives over the last 60 years. The country is not the world's last communist state, but it is the only one that has never seriously experimented with private entrepreneurship, let alone oligarchs and crony capitalism. The army leadership lives well, with privileged access to food supplies and scarce consumer goods, but there is no "deep state" that permits the military to run large economic enterprises as in Cuba or various non-communist states such as Turkey and Egypt. North Korea has a command economy par excellence, and in French's account the ruling elite has virtually given up on fundamentally changing it, even though it occasionally talks of reform.

Efforts to attract foreign investment have largely failed. Plans for special economic zones where foreign companies can operate as capitalists with a tame labour force did not succeed because North Korea could not supply the necessary infrastructure or energy. The country lives off foreign aid, given out of genuine altruism by UN agencies and foreign NGOs as famine relief or extracted from foreign governments as payback for minor political concessions. The historic visit that South Korea's president Kim Dae-jung made to Pyongyang in 2000 was agreed only after the government in Seoul paid $500m.

Even the nuclear brinkmanship in which North Korea regularly indulges by threatening to launch missiles or conduct new underground tests has no real military content. Pyongyang has no intention of invading South Korea, nor would China allow it to if it ever became serious. The bluster is mainly designed to restart international negotiations in the hope of new economic payments or concessions, while also keeping up the drumbeat of domestic propaganda that warns North Koreans the country is under permanent threat and needs to maintain high spending on defence.

Many countries try to solve their economic difficulties by printing extra money; North Korea does it with unusual creativity. It does not bother to churn out more of its own currency, the won. It prints very accurate $100 bills and buys goods abroad with them. These sophisticated counterfeits net the country an estimated $25m a year.

Until the mid-1970s, North Korea was wealthier than South Korea in terms of GDP per head. Bringing more people into the industrial workforce and investing state funds allowed the country to recover relatively quickly after the destruction of the three-year Korean war. But the command economy could not work effectively once more sophisticated production was needed. Collectivised agriculture floundered in the absence of sufficient fertiliser and fuel for farm machinery. In the words of one analyst, the country went "from riches to rags".

Like other command economies, North Korea allows peasants to produce some food and keep poultry in their gardens for sale at local markets, but this is not enough to feed urban populations. Poor transport links, bad roads and a shortage of vehicles mean that tonnes of food produced on state farms rots before it reaches the cities. Annual famines were a regular feature in the 1990s.The regime put them down to natural causes such as crop failures, drought and flooding, but outside experts blamed government policies for part of the problem. The UN's World Food Programme and Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that the food deficit was roughly 50 per cent of national requirements at the end of the 1990s, a shortfall greater than that seen in the Ethiopian famine of 1985.

French points out that North Korea's leadership is nobody's puppet. During the Sino-Soviet split following Stalin's death, Kim Il-sung, the country's long-serving leader, first tried to keep in with both sides but then broke both with Khrushchev's revisionism and Mao's Cultural Revolution. Mao's Little Red Book was blocked from circulation.

Forty years later, China still protects North Korea diplomatically from outside pressure, but there is no ideological affinity between Pyongyang's command economy and China's increasingly capitalist one. Russian relations with Pyongyang cooled severely when Soviet communism collapsed and Boris Yeltsin cut cheap fuel supplies and other subsidies, dealing a sudden and massive blow to the North Korean economy.French provides a comprehensive account of the controversies surrounding North Korea's nuclear programme. A period of genuine promise emerged in 1994 when the US and North Korea reached an Agreed Framework thanks to the diplomacy of former President Jimmy Carter whom Bill Clinton had appointed as a special envoy. Kim Il-sung was to halt his nuclear programme in return for US support in providing "proliferation-resistant" light-water reactors to develop the country's civilian energy production. It was a good compromise but South Korea and Japan were to shoulder most of the cost and these two countries started to raise objections. When George W Bush came to power and cited North Korea in his "axis of evil" speech in 2002, the deal fizzled. In spite of sporadic negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington to find a new agreement, with China, Japan, Russia and South Korea also involved at the table, there has been no breakthrough for the last dozen years. None is expected.

North Korea is not so much a failed state as a frozen one. How will it ever melt? When the Berlin Wall fell, some US hawks advocated a crazy policy of encouraging North Koreans to walk across the border to China en masse. (The border with South Korea is covered in mines.) But, unlike in divided Berlin, not many Koreans live near the border. Others took the German experience of unification as a warning more than a model. If there ever was to be a reconciliation between the two Koreas – a goal both countries claim to desire – it should be more gradual than that between the two German states, which involved too sharp a collapse in employment and welfare services in the east and a heavy reliance on compensation payments and new investment by the west.

Could there be an internal uprising, with crowds demanding regime change? This is highly improbable. The system is too repressive and most North Koreans have no conception of any alternative. With foreign TV jammed, and laptop and smartphone ownership restricted, they are cut off from almost all outside news. The only change that experts predict is no change at all. They believe the North Korean military might grow tired of the Kim dynasty and seek to establish a military junta in its place. But if that is right, surely the early death of Kim Jong-il and the emergence of the young and inexperienced Kim Jong-un was the moment. In office he has proved more ruthless than his baby-face looks suggest. Three defence ministers and four chiefs of the army's general staff have been replaced and five of the seven men who escorted his father's hearse two years ago have been removed or disappeared. His uncle was machine-gunned to death.

Some of these last points are not in French's book, which occasionally feels, especially in the economic chapters, as though it should have been updated. But it is still an admirably clear and calm survey of one of the hardest countries in the world to report on.

• Jonathan Steele is a former chief foreign correspondent for the Guardian. His latest book is Ghosts of Afghanistan: the Haunted Battleground.

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