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Thursday, February 26, 2015

The End of Apartheid: Diary of a Revolution by Robin Renwick, book review: Murky birth pangs of the rainbow nation

It was October 1989, shortly before Namibian independence. With the ballot boxes prepared for Namibia’s first free elections, and the South African troops there confined to barracks, Renwick was urgently summoned by Pretoria’s foreign minister, Pik Botha.

Namibian forces were about to launch an uprising, he was informed. Renwick refused to believe it and, with British soldiers controlling UN communications in Namibia, proved within three hours that the report was false, stopping a retaliatory South African mobilisation.

The claim of an attack, it emerged, had been invented by rogue elements in South African military intelligence wanting to re-ignite the Border War. It is a revelation, one of many from Renwick’s time as ambassador between 1987 and 1991, which underlines how fundamental double-dealing and betrayal were to this period.

The past can too easily appear inevitable in retrospect. But as this detailed, if overly dry, account of the end of apartheid makes clear, its peaceful demise appeared far from inevitable at the time, not least as the likelihood of a coup (one former army head warns he could take-over in “an afternoon”), or the ANC controlling its “necklacing” youth, was far from clear.

Renwick clearly had extraordinary access, bouncing in and out of the offices of PW Botha, FW de Klerk, and ultimately Nelson Mandela. The Foreign Office also waived its 30-year-rule to let him draw on official records, enabling him to provide considerable detail about the person he clearly considers his story’s most unsung hero: Margaret Thatcher.

Her involvement is as murky as anything occurring on the ground. She was pilloried for refusing to extend sanctions, but Renwick is insistent that in private his heroine was a leading light in petitioning South Africa’s white leadership to dismantle apartheid. He promises that this re-evaluation of her role will be backed-up as the official communiques are made public in coming years. For that, we will have to wait and see.

But what is clear now, is that Britain’s soft approach on sanctions was exactly why Renwick was welcome at apartheid-era Tuynhuys (the Cape Town office of the President), which did mean he was able to play the role of intermediary he so desired. What is less clear is if this role actually gave him the influence he believed he had with the wily Mandela, at a time when African nations were uniformly condemning Mrs Thatcher.

Repeatedly Renwick registers disappointment that the newly-freed leader would not say in public what he – and Britain – wanted, or had been told in private, complaining that Mandela could “be forgetful of what he owed” men like De Klerk. Double-talk, it seems, may not have only been reserved for use on men like Botha, but also on British ambassadors hoping to shape history.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey book now a turn-off for library users

The first instalment of the best-selling “mummy porn” trilogy by EL James has dropped out of the top 100 most-borrowed library books, plummeting from third place the previous year.

Judith Watts, senior lecturer of publishing at Kingston University and author of Writing Erotic Fiction, said the book had become so ubiquitous that it was no longer enticing to readers. “I think it’s to do with saturation, it became so widely available,” she said. “Certain charity shops won’t take it any more.”

Fifty Shades of Grey became the bestselling book in British history in 2012 when it sold more than 5.3 million copies, overtaking  Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The official library borrowing figures in which it did not make the top 100 were registered between June 2013 and June 2014.


The latest library lending figures, released today by the Public Lending Right scheme, show that the American thriller writer James Patterson has remained the most-borrowed author for the eighth year in a row. He had 13 novels in the top 100, with Second Honeymoon the most borrowed of his work, at No 8.

The most-borrowed book of last year was Dan Brown’s Inferno, despite its critical mauling.

Six children’s authors made the top 10 including former Children’s Laureate Julia Donaldson, the third-most-borrowed of the year, Daisy Meadows and Francesca Simon, who was behind the Horrid Henry books. 

Public Lending Right (PLR) was established by an Act of Parliament in 1979, giving authors the legal right to receive payment from government each time their book is loaned through the public library system.

This month the PLR will make £6m payments to 22,053 authors, with the rate at 6.66p per loan.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Lovers of Amherst by William Nicholson, book review: Parallel passion and poetry in New England, then and now

The afterlife of the secretive recluse still ripples across academic circles and the popular imagination, but it is surprising nonetheless to learn that it was only as recently as 1984 that details about the illicit love affair between Emily Dickinson’s brother and their Amherst neighbour was first brought to public attention in Polly Longsworth’s sympathetic study, Austin and Mabel. More recently, Lyndall Gordon’s 2010 revisionist biography, Lives Like Loaded Guns, explored the facts in exhaustive detail.

But fiction has a truthful purpose, too. William Nicholson’s scrupulously researched story throws fresh light on the extraordinary love affair between Austin Dickinson, 55, and 24-year-old Mabel Todd. We cannot know for sure what they shared in the privacy of Emily Dickinson’s dining room, where they often met, or what she saw and heard, or the effect on her poetry. By interspersing his narrative with snippets of extant correspondence, diary entries, and secret notes, drawn, mostly, from Longsworth and his own research in the Sterling Memorial Archives at Yale, alongside some of Emily Dickinson’s passionate poems, Nicholson creates a solid historical base from which he imaginatively recreates the time period and personalities involved. Moreover, the physical act of researching “the very notes they sent each other with such secrecy” is an integral part of the story, adding an air of factual realism from which he speculates as plausibly as a biographer.

Mabel Loomis Todd (1856-1932) arrived in Amherst in 1881 with her husband, David, the new director of Amherst College Observatory. Entering into Amherst society, she first struck up a friendship with Susan, Austin’s wife, and then entertained the Dickinson household next door. By then, the “Homestead” was occupied by Austin’s sisters, Emily and Lavinia (Vinnie), and their invalid mother. Although Mabel never met Emily (she’d listen at the top of the stairs while she played piano and sang), they communicated through notes and gifts.

Running parallel to the story of Austin and Mabel is the modern-day story of Alice Dickinson (no relation) who arrives in New England to undertake background research for her screenplay about their affair. Through her lover-turned-friend, Jack Broad, Alice gets in touch with Nick Crocker, a visiting professor (with a reputation), and she accepts his offer of temporary accommodation. Alice, Jack, and Nick pull us back to previous books in Nicholson’s interconnected series: in The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life (2009) Nick has an affair with Laura Kinross (Broad), while in All the Hopeful Lovers (2010) Laura’s son, Jack, is put together with Alice through Facebook in much the same way that his response to her Facebook request for information about Emily Dickinson sends her to Nick’s door.

Rowing in Eden –

Ah, the sea!

Might I but moor tonight

In thee!

As she becomes caught up in her own affair, Alice reflects on romantic love and passion, and ponders the “I” in Dickinson’s poems, and the poet’s relationship to Mabel. “Something true and powerful is at work here. What if it’s something bigger than love? What is there that’s bigger than love?” In New England for just two weeks, her attachment to Nick is perhaps too quickly established, but it’s a necessary part of the storyline.

Emily Dickinson intrudes into the narrative: “Stand at the top of the stairs. Look down into the dark hallway below. She’s there with him, the one he loves, the one I need. A door opens. The rustle of a dress as a half-glimpsed woman passes quickly down the passage, and out of the back door.”

While fictional stage directions are a reminder of the writer of Shadowlands lurking in the background, something deeper is afoot. Alice’s problem (aside from tackling her first screenplay) is how to find a way into a story she doesn’t fully understand. With Nick, she discusses the process of storytelling; how to frame her fiction, and whether she needs to care about Mabel. The Lovers of Amherst is a rich writers’ resource.

Without Mabel Todd, we may never have known the extent of Dickinson’s creativity. It was Mabel who undertook the task of preserving the letters and poems that survive, bringing order to the 1,800 poems, and pushing forward to publication. Nicholson’s story continues on after the deaths of Emily and Austin to explore the motivations behind Mabel’s efforts. His greatest achievement, though, in The Lovers of Amherst, is to compel us to approach Emily Dickinson’s poetry with fresh eyes.

This is my letter to the World

That never wrote to Me –

The simple News that Nature told –

With tender Majesty –

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Monday, February 23, 2015

What Nature Does for Britain by Tony Juniper, book review: The compelling economic argument for going green

In essence, this encapsulates the message of Tony Juniper’s campaigning book, timed for the run-up to the 2015 election: that it is only by putting a financial value on nature that politicians and businessmen will be persuaded to protect it. This is a direction many leading green activists are deeply sceptical about. We cannot devolve our responsibility to defend the rural landscape to those driven by the profit motive, they argue. Once it is seen as a network of “ecosystem services” that landowners and others can be paid to deliver, nature has effectively been privatised, its fate subject to the shifting winds of the market.

Juniper provides an excellent summary of the UK’s evolving ecological crisis: degradation of the soil and the loss of carbon-trapping peat bogs; the decimation of bees and other insect pollinators through the use of insecticides; the loss of marine habitats through destructive fishing practices; pollution of the water supply through phosphates. Agrochemical intervention is nothing new: 19th-century British entrepreneurs scoured the battlefield of Waterloo in search of skeletons to grind for bone meal and imported thousands of mummified cats plundered from Egyptian tombs to boost nutrients in the over-exploited soil.

Even if David Cameron has told his aides to “get rid of this green crap”, Juniper argues, he is out of step with the times: 4.5 million people in the UK belong to organisations supporting nature. With an election looming, can they be ignored?

Juniper finds heartening examples of businesses working with local communities to address environmental challenges because, like the Asian forestry tycoon, they are convinced it makes financial sense. Meanwhile, the market is shifting towards renewables as research shows that, in order to avoid catastrophic warming, two thirds of remaining fossil fuel resources should be left in the ground.

Where the market leads, politicians of a certain hue generally follow. But, despite the excellent work done by Juniper and his peers making the argument for the benefits that would follow, can they really be trusted to deliver a sustainable future?

Order for £9.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Not Forgetting the Whale by John Ironmonger, book review: Now, that’s a proper crash

Joe Haak, an analyst at city traders Lane Kaufmann, has developed a piece of software that can see into the future. By combing through every piece of financial journalism, every scrap of knowledge of every last supply chain, and every piece of economic activity in recorded history, Cassie (the Computer Aided Share Selection and Investment Engine) can, apparently, look ahead by a few hours and forecast share prices.

Led by Cassie into a spectacularly disastrous trade, a terrified Joe flees to the remote Cornish fishing village of St Piran. Then, as he begins to find some peace, Cassie starts predicting the end of the world.

Ironmonger clearly enjoys the contrast between the City and St Piran, where time runs slow, and, as one character notes, “the tranquillity of the village was almost geological in its permanence”. The Cornish passages are fable-like and dreamy,  while in London, traders whoop and Louboutins click.

The narrative weaves between the past and present, London and Cornwall, creating a tension that hums beneath Joe’s attempts at settling into his new home. There’s an atmospheric encounter between the protagonist and his boss, the mysterious Lew Kaufmann, while down in St Piran’s, a whale appears in the bay. But whether it is a symbol of Hobbes’s Leviathan or of Jonah’s deliverance, well, there’s little time to find out.

When events start to unravel they’re wonderfully underplayed. I was reminded of Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, when the narrator tells us that “something like seven or seventy thousand people got killed” in a London bombing. This is human tragedy beyond scale, yet our focus is entirely on the ark that is St Piran’s. 

For all its switches in time and glimmering prose, the last third of the book offers few surprises. And while Joe Haak, Lew Kauffmann, and St Piran’s stern vicar, the Reverend Alvin Hocking, are well-drawn, the female characters feel flimsy. Joe’s love interest, Polly Hocking, is a flirt and little else, while the romantic novelist Demelza veers perilously close to cliché.

That said, this is a tremendously enjoyable book. And as the front pages crowd with headlines that grow ever more grim, Not Forgetting The Whale offers a very welcome alternative.

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

The First Bad Man by Miranda July, book review: Bitter, twisted ... and surprising

Written from the first-person perspective, July carefully lets us see just what a lonely, oddball loser her middle-aged protagonist, Cheryl, is. She lives alone; she only uses one set of dishes and has perfected a “smoother living” system of housekeeping: “after days and days alone it gets silky to the point where I can’t even feel myself anymore”. Cheryl has a globus hystericus, a hard lump in her throat that prevents her from crying. Childless, she nonetheless sees “her” baby in the eyes of strangers’ babies – a “special connection” with a child named Kubelko Bondy, endlessly reincarnated.

Cheryl also believes that the man she is infatuated with, Phillip, is a soulmate she has been married to thousands of times down the centuries; sadly, he is more keen on a 16-year-old girl .... Then, into her life walks Clee: the busty, blonde, surly, smelly 20-year-old daughter of a colleague, who needs somewhere to stay. Clee does not aid smooth living; simmering resentment rapidly builds into physical aggression, and July’s novel too takes increasingly weird swerves and slams.

Wrestling with Clee triggers a release in Cheryl: she feels “exquisite”. Her globus disappears; she becomes lighthearted. Are these “adult games” sexual? At first it seems not, but soon – July slipping things along swiftly yet always bringing the reader, wide-eyed, with her – Cheryl is consumed by sexual desire. There are pages of feverish masturbatory fantasies. Yet Cheryl, we subtly pick up, may be missing the chance that’s really in front of her.

Convulsively readable, with a sideways wit, July’s novel is confidently out-there – and yet emotionally convincing. You yearn for a better life for Cheryl, who repulses and attracts the reader in the same way she repulses and attracts Clee. Then July swerves. Again. Clee becomes pregnant, and the birth changes things entirely. Not only does the plot blossom, but the tone does too.

Being pacily readable, The First Bad Man does not feel like a large book – but July’s writing actually covers a lot of ground. Relationships rapidly morph, and yet remain believable. The writing is tightly controlled, as it unabashedly peels back the layers of Cheryl’s oddness to serve up the beating heart within. The First Bad Man becomes a warm book – not a sentimental, tied-up-with-a-bow one, but a humane one.

July has a rare ability to pin down people’s faults, frailties, and eccentric compulsions, rather than squirm from them – and then to make us love them anyway.

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Friday, February 20, 2015

Invisible ink no 263: The strange case of solar pons

The nation went into mourning when it heard that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not planning to write any more Holmes adventures, so the young American August Derleth wrote to Conan Doyle and rather cheekily asked if he could take over the series. Holmes’s creator declined the offer, but the undeterred Derleth set about writing his own version, and assonantly christened him Solar Pons.

Derleth had built his reputation by being the first publisher of H P Lovecraft, and himself added to Cthulhu Mythos (that writer’s fictional universe), founding the publisher Arkham House, but he was also a fine pasticheur. His Holmes parodies were blatant swipes. Dr Watson was replaced by Dr Parker, Mrs Hudson by Mrs Johnson, Mycroft by Bancroft, and instead of residing at 221b Baker Street, Pons was based at 7B Praed Street. But Derleth cleverly added a detail that prevented his series from being a straight steal of another author’s work; Pons existed in Holmes’ world. Pons knew all about Holmes, and was not his exact contemporary, operating in a later time frame. The Pons stories also crossed over with plot devices from other authors including William Hope Hodgson, Lovecraft, and Sax Rohmer, creating a tangle of literary tropes in the way that authors Alan Moore, Kim Newman, and the TV series Penny Dreadful use now. Derleth tackled Conan Doyle’s mentioned-but-missing cases and went on to add other star sleuths, including Hercule Poirot, The Saint, and W Somerset Maugham’s agent Ashenden. He also wrote many more stories with his detective than Conan Doyle managed.

When Derleth died in 1971, his Pons character was in turn picked up by another author, Basil Copper (who explored Pons’s “missing cases” just as Derleth had done with Holmes, as well as adding his own original tales) so that we have pastiches of pastiches. He also rearranged the stories into correct chronology and removed glaring Americanisms that were the result of Derleth not having visited London. Several societies and magazines, including the Praed Street Irregulars and the Solar Pons Gazette, were dedicated to the memory of the pastiche sleuth, and further Pons tales were written by yet other authors, so that this strange homage continues to infinity.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Between the covers: What’s really going on in the world of books

The novel is set in San Francisco in the 1890s, where “great fortunes are being made and family dynasties established as new money erases the often unsavoury pasts and shady dealings of their founders”. Its publisher, Simon & Schuster, describes it as having “the dark bits of Tim Burton and the shiny bits of Wes Anderson”, while the Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Michael Chabon said that Fowler “re-creates a lost world so thrillingly, with such intelligence, trickery, and art, that when you at last put the book down and look up from the page it all seems to linger, shimmering, around you, like the residue of a marvellous dream”.

Good news, too, for fans of Ian Rankin’s famous DI Rebus, after the author (above) implied on Twitter that the retired detective will make a comeback (his fourth) in the novel he is currently writing. After a series of teasing tweets about the book, one follower asked: “Dare I ask if it is a Rebus?” Rankin replied, “Yes”. Between the Covers first met Rankin in 2008, when he seemed happy to have retired the character and written the first, post-Rebus book, Doors Open.

Then again in 2009, to talk about The Complaints, when a fan approached him to say: “If you’re writing another book, please can we have Rebus back in it? I couldn’t get to grips with that last one.” Rankin replied, with remarkable patience: “Don’t make your mind up just yet. I’ve got a new book out in September [Dark Entries]. It’s got an Edinburgh cop in it ....” Nonetheless, Rebus returned in 2012’s Standing in Another Man’s Grave, 2013’s Saints of the Shadow Bible and last year’s short story collection, The Beat Goes On. Rebus proves to be as bad at retiring as Rankin himself, then.

Also in that 2009 interview, Rankin revealed that he was planning on retiring as soon as Dark Entries was published. “I’m contractually obliged to write one more book,” he said, and then he planned to jack it all in and go travelling when he turned 50. He’s now 54, and still going strong. Long may he, and Rebus, continue.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia by Janice Ross, book review

In Soviet Russia, daring and controversy were dangerous, with choreographers among the artists who were sidelined and silenced. Yakobson was unique in the way he managed to keep going, fighting to get his risky works on stage.

That fight is the subject of Janice Ross's Like a Bomb Going Off. Though it's roughly chronological, her book is a study rather than a biography, with the focus always on choreography and politics. It's an approach that works best with Yakobson's post-war work, where her research uncovers the bitter battle between artistry and labyrinthine state control. Earlier on, a stronger narrative of Yakobson's life, and fewer academic buzzwords, would have given the book more grounding. Yakobson was born in 1904. At 14, he was evacuated from post-revolutionary Petrograd to a children's colony, which collapsed in the civil war. Ross pieces together the extraordinary aftermath: the surviving children were found and supported by the American Red Cross, which eventually brought them home via America. With Russia in chaos, it was easier to travel round the world than to cross the country.

Back home, Yakobson started his dance training very late, which made him more suited to character roles than virtuoso leads. His own dances would explore character, often with elements of the grotesque and extreme. The 1920s, when he started his career, was a period of often radical experiment, which ended brutally in the 1930s, with Joseph Stalin in power. Ross underplays this contrast, stressing the repression of the USSR from the start.

She spends as much time on theoretical frameworks for understanding Yakobson as she does on the immediate historical context: some knowledge of the revolution is assumed. Ross is much subtler in the post-war period, when she explores how changes in the political climate could create moments of opportunity for artists.

Where writers and composers could work in secret, choreographers need public performance to create. Each shift – a rise in anti-Semitism, a moment of thaw – changed what was possible for Yakobson. At the same time, Ross shows, he became skilled at burying different meanings within his dances, hints that could be read underneath the Soviet-friendly surface.

She's particularly good on Yakobson's Jewish heritage, unpacking the way he fleetingly evokes Jewish imagery and performance traditions in his steps and style. Her own writing opens up, too, as she follows the drama of the state's cat-and-mouse games. Even now, some of Yakobson's supporters choose to speak anonymously, still nervous of repercussions for past activism.

Many of Yakobson's ballets were lost. He's little known in the West, where touring performances of his ballets were poorly received. Ross is a passionate advocate, ardently evoking his surviving ballets and why his work, and his courage, meant so much to Soviet audiences.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Paperback reviews: Beneath the Heart of the Sea, Malice, White Beech, The Rise of Islamic State, The Poetry of Sex

Owen Chase was first mate on the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship that was sunk by an enraged sperm whale in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in 1820. Cast adrift in tiny lifeboats, Chase and his fellow survivors considered their options. To the west lay the Marquesas Islands, which they feared were inhabited by cannibal tribes; to the east, much farther away, the coast of Chile. The sailors chose the latter, but headwinds blew them off course and they spent months at sea with little food or water. In a tragic irony, they were forced to resort to cannibalism themselves before they were rescued by a passing American vessel.

Chase wrote about his harrowing experiences in this memoir, first published in 1821. It has been reissued to tie in with Ron Howard’s film version, out later this year; both the book and the movie are being marketed as “the true story that inspired Moby-Dick”. Chase was, in fact, only one among many sources for Herman Melville’s great novel (although, to be fair, a big-screen adaptation of, say, Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale would probably have struggled to get the Hollywood green light).

Melville charitably called Chase’s book a “plain and faithful narrative,” but it’s rather awkwardly written; you can find more dramatic renditions of the Essex story in Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael (1947) and Nathaniel Philbrick’s National Book Award-winning In the Heart of the Sea (2000) – the latter draws on other survivors’ accounts and forms the basis of Howard’s film. Nevertheless, Chase’s original is worth reading for the small, poignant details that reveal the depths of the hunger that led him to transgress that terrible taboo: when flying fish land in the bottom of Chase’s boat, the sailors gobble them down raw, “scales, wings and all”.


Malice by Keigo Higashino (trs by Alexander o Smith) (Abacus £8.99)

It may seem strange from the country that gave us Hello Kitty, but cats often get a raw deal in Japanese literature. In the work of Yukio Mishima and Haruki Murakami, moggie-murder is a recurring trope – it’s often used as shorthand to suggest a character’s criminal psychosis.

Cat-killing is also a major plot device in this superb mystery-thriller from the Japanese novelist Keigo Higashino. The book centres on the murder of a famous writer, Hidaka– a crime that may or may not have something to do with his tendency to poison the neighbourhood kittens. The chief suspect is another writer, Nonoguchi, whose unreliable testimony forms the bulk of the narrative; we also hear from Kaga, the workaholic detective assigned to the case.

To reveal any more would be to risk spoiling this novel’s revelatory pleasures. Suffice it to say that the story has more twists and turns than the Tokyo metro – and proves that Higashino is a master of the form.


White Beech by Germaine Greer (Bloomsbury £9.99)

In 2001, Germaine Greer bought a run-down dairy farm in Queensland. This memoir tells the story of how she teamed up with her botanist sister to turn the land into a forest reserve, a haven for birds and beasts and rare white beech trees. Greer’s writing about nature is truly wonderful: a bird’s “fanned brick-red tail is edged with a white so bright it seems to leave tracks in the sunlit air”; “emus loped beside me … my ears tuned to the electric sizzle of the finches’ song”. Indeed, to fulfil her stated goal of “conveying the deep joy that rebuilding wild nature can bring” Greer might have given freer rein to this poetic impulse, and submitted the more academic parts of the book to a bit of pruning.


The Rise of Islamic State by Patrick Cockburn (Verso £9.99)

Veteran Independent on Sunday journalist Patrick Cockburn is one of our foremost experts on the Middle East, and this book, which addresses the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), is essential reading. Cockburn describes how the militant jihadi group has taken advantage of the weakness of the Iraqi government and the Syrian civil war to win a huge swathe of territory. Cockburn examines and analyses very recent Isis assaults and also takes a step back to explore how these events reflect wider trends, including the conflict between Sunni and Shi’a, and the resurgent Cold War between the US and Russia. Cockburn’s conclusion is chastening: “A new and terrifying state has been born that will not easily disappear.”


The Poetry of Sex, edited by Sophie Hannah (Penguin £9.99)

Whether you’re loved up after Valentine’s Day, or sick of the whole shebang, this collection of poetry about sex will have something for you. Sophie Hannah’s excellent selection ranges over centuries, from Ovid to Carol Ann Duffy. The tone moves from the ecstatically sensual (Michelle McGrane’s “If You Are Lucky”: “the hot-breathed arrival of desire/the frenzied coupling/as you opened soundlessly/and the world flooded into you”) to the playful (E E Cummings’s “May I Feel”: “may i touch said he/how much said she/ a lot said he/why not said she”). You also get no fewer than two lust-drenched poems about the James Bond actor Daniel Craig for your money, if he’s your thing.


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Monday, February 16, 2015

Girl in a Band: A memoir by Kim Gordon, book review: Notes from the bass line

Nevertheless, it’s a question that she answers at length in her frank and bittersweet memoir. Along with chronicling her early life in the California suburbs, her art school days and her parallel careers as a visual artist, Gordon addresses head-on the demands foisted upon female musicians working in a largely male domain.

These demands came as much from Gordon herself as from others. What did people see when they saw her on stage? Should she be feminine or androgynous? Should she move centre-stage or lurk in the shadows? These were things that both irritated and intrigued her, and it’s this alertness that gives Girl in a Band its power.

It’s also, at times, stingingly funny. She doesn’t mince her words as she recalls working with Courtney Love and compares the singer’s narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies to those of her own brother, Keller, a paranoid schizophrenic who taunted Gordon as a child. She is properly hilarious about Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan whom she writes off as “a crybaby”.

Elsewhere, there’s a flavour of Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids in Gordon’s early years as a struggling visual artist in late Seventies New York. For a while she slept on Cindy Sherman’s floor and later sub-let a loft from Jenny Holzer. Like Smith, she took jobs in bookstores and diners to survive. Later came a receptionist’s job at an art gallery, which led to her moving in the same social circles as Julian Schnabel and Jeff Koons. Unlike many of her musical contemporaries, Gordon believed that art could encapsulate anything, whether dance, clothes, painting, or music. It’s this open-mindedness that yielded the colourful life recounted here.

It’s also a life recounted through the lens of her most significant relationship – that with her bandmate Thurston Moore. The disintegration of their 30-year marriage in 2011 also signalled the end of Sonic Youth, so it’s no wonder that anger and heartbreak spill from the pages. “I did feel some compassion for Thurston,” she notes in a devastating final chapter on his infidelity. “I was sorry for the way he had lost his marriage, his band, his daughter, his family, our life together – and himself. But that is a lot different from forgiveness.”

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

'The Girl on the Train' roars to No. 1

A look at what's new on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list...
Speeding 'Train': The book everybody is calling the next Gone Girl has powered its way to No. 1 on USA TODAY's list much more quickly than Gillian Flynn's hit did. The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins' debut psychological thriller about bad marriages and murder, hits the top spot in its fourth week on the list, after three straight weeks at No. 2. It knocks Chris Kyle's American Sniper, which was No. 1 for three consecutive weeks, to the second spot. (USA TODAY's full best-seller list will publish on Thursday.) Train was released on Jan. 13 with lots of advance buzz, but its success is still phenomenal for an unknown author. Publisher Riverhead reports more than half a million copies sold. (The initial print run was 40,000 copies. Digital sales outpace print, according to USA TODAY's data.)
Gone Girl was a hit out of the gate: It landed at No. 7 in June 2012 and remained a hot seller. But it wasn't until last October, nearly 2½ years later, that Flynn's thriller finally made it to No. 1, as the movie adaptation arrived in theaters. (It's No. 7 this week.) Hawkins is back in England after wrapping up a U.S. book tour. Riverhead editor in chief Sarah McGrath says readers are recommending Train to friends – "the word of mouth is spreading like wildfire." The novel, she says, has a "great hook, one that connects immediately with anyone who is a commuter or people-watcher."
Classic gets boost: Not surprisingly, Harper Lee's 55-year-old Southern classic To Kill a Mockingbird soars to its highest ranking ever, No. 4. (USA TODAY's list began in 1993.) The novel's previous peak was No. 10, in July 2010, during its 50th anniversary year. Mockingbird received a big boost with the news that a recently discovered sequel of sorts, Go Set a Watchman, will be published on July 14. Since then, preorders have made Watchman, written in the 1950s before Mockingbird, No. 1 on A first printing of 2 million hardcover copies is planned for Watchman, and there will be an e-book. Mockingbird, a classroom staple, has been on USA TODAY's list a total of 872 weeks.
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