Human Relations and Other Difficulties by Mary-Kay Wilmers – review

A collection of journalism from the veteran editor of the London Review of Books is full of juicy insights

Mary-Kay Wilmers has been the editor of the London Review of Books since 1992, and has just celebrated her 80th birthday; almost a decade ago, she published The Eitingons, an account of her mother’s Russian family, including Leonid Eitingon, a general in Stalin’s KGB who features in an essay, My Distant Relative, included in this selection of Wilmers’s writing from 1974 to 2015.

Most of the pieces are book reviews, and all but three were written for the LRB; only occasionally does Wilmers venture into strictly personal territory, most notably in a zinging delve into the menopause. “I have complained a lot about men in my time,” she begins. “In fact, I do it more and more… Here I am, four paragraphs into my musings, or ravings, and beginning ...

I’m going back to Proust this August. The truly long read is a summer treat | Alex Clark

Short hits might seem preferable to vast narratives, but stories that take time to absorb offer special pleasures

Another summer, and another assault on the unscaled mountains of literature. Having woefully failed at 2017’s attempt on Henry James, who fell foul of a sudden addiction to his sleuthier cousin PD, I’m once again preparing to tackle Proust, courtesy of a 50th birthday present of a beautiful boxed set of In Search of Lost Time. Thank God I shan’t be doing it alone, but in the company of novelist Susan Hill, who explained in last week’s Spectator Diary that, having got so far and no further on multiple previous occasions, she too was going back in. She is now on Book 5, and I salute her.

Perhaps if we succeed, we can meet up, together with other Marcel completists, and debate the merits of the essay by Perry Anderson that recently ...

Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller – review

This story of a woman’s obsession with a couple she meets in a dilapidated country house is rich and compelling

Luridly hot summers occupy a particular place in fiction; an interzone where the normal rules are suspended and unruly emotions – lust, envy, guilt – boil their way to the surface. Class structures momentarily crumble and social norms are thrown out of the wide-open window, all made possible by the unspoken contract that the hot spell cannot last for ever. Claire Fuller’s third novel follows in this tradition, exemplified by novels such as The Go-Between, Brideshead Revisited and Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow, setting its crucial action in a simmering, dilapidated country house in 1969, a period now recalled by its narrator, Frances Jellico.

Wasted by illness and old age, Frances lies in an “end-of-life” bed in an unspecified institution, visited only by a mysterious vicar who seems ...

Porochista Khakpour, author of Sick: ‘It’s more convenient to treat patients as crazy’

When the US-Iranian writer was struck down with Lyme disease, America’s ‘shameful’ health service made everything worse. The ordeal inspired her memoir, Sick. Don’t expect a ‘wellness fantasy’, she warns…

Porochista Khakpour has views about what she refers to as The Book I Sold – as distinct from Sick, the book that she actually wrote. “I laugh sometimes thinking about that book that I would have written,” she tells me from Glendale, California, when we speak on the phone. “I mean, what a fake book that would have been.” In the epilogue to Sick, she describes that imaginary book as “a story of triumph, of how a woman dove into the depths of addiction and illness and got well. She got herself better. She made it. The Book I Sold might even imply you can do it too. Or anyone can. Who knows. The Book I Sold ...

Jacqueline Rose: ‘I wanted to have a truer, more disturbing account of motherhood’

According to the novelist, mothers are punished whatever they do. She talks about trans parents, the male psyche and why Sheryl Sandberg’s advice for working mothers isn’t feasible

Everyone in the world has or has had one, yet our conception of what it is to be a mother is fatally flawed, argues Jacqueline Rose. The consequences of our devotion to that skewed vision are dire, ranging from a systemic hatred of single mothers, punished for perceived sexual and social irresponsibility, to an expectation of maternal perfection and joyfulness at damaging odds with the messy reality of birthing and raising children. Her book, Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, is, she tells me as we sit at the kitchen table of her north London flat, an attempt “to raise the ante and have a truer, more virulently exhilarating and disturbing account of motherhood in our general culture. That’s what ...

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer review – a timely study of activism

Second-wave feminism and the intersection between the political and the personal are explored in a lively novel that brings us up to Donald Trump’s America

Meg Wolitzer’s 12th novel bristles with contemporaneity, despite being set in the recent past; her explorations of campus misogyny a decade ago, for example, or of anti-abortion protesters, now appear on the page in the explosive context of #MeToo and of the wholesale attack on reproductive rights by the Trump administration.

The Female Persuasion is not rendered irrelevant by those developments; rather its subtle, powerfully ambivalent forays into second-wave feminism, the nature and limits of co-operative action and the intersection between the political and the personal function as depth charges whose ripples continue to rock our unstable little boats. It is a significant contribution to Wolitzer’s body of work, which ranges over friendship, academia, creativity, rivalry and the passing of time in novels such ...

Drawn from life: why have novelists stopped making things up?

Karl Ove Knausgaard, Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, Edward St Aubyn – authors are using their own life stories in their fiction. Does the boom in autofiction spell the end of the novel, asks Alex Clark

Illustration by Francesco Ciccolella

“That was the morning that white people finally realised the president of the United States was a white supremacist, he’d as good as said so, there was a cartoon in the Guardian of the White House with a Klan hood over the roof. Why were people surprised, weren’t they listening to anything? ... People weren’t sane anymore, which didn’t mean they were wrong. Some sort of cord between action and consequence had been severed. Things still happened, but not in any sensible order, it was hard to talk about truth because some bits were hidden, the result or maybe the cause, and anyway the space between them was full of misleading data, ...

You Think It, I’ll Say It By Curtis Sittenfeld review – the good, bad and ugly of female lives

Curtis Sittenfeld’s first story collection conjures a vivid cast of women – including a presidential hopeful – caught up in knotty social dilemmas

Curtis Sittenfeld revealed in a recent interview in the New Review that she has on multiple occasions resisted offers to translate into fiction the life of Melania Trump. Her most obvious credential is that a decade ago her novel American Wife imagined a 21st-century first lady, but her new collection of stories provides impressive supporting evidence. Sittenfeld is fascinated by our fascination – and our unease – with women: powerful women, powerless women, women we are attracted to and repulsed by, women who push themselves to the centre of the stage and women who erase themselves from the story.

If, perhaps from a sense of scrupulousness or decency, she passed up the chance to portray Mrs Trump, Sittenfeld acquiesced when commissioned to write a story from the ...

Will Self: ‘The novel is absolutely doomed’

The award-winning author, currently writing a memoir of his early years, on reading digitally and why he’s making a list of the female greats

Will Self is the author of 10 novels, five collections of short stories and several works of nonfiction, including The Quantity Theory of Insanity, Dorian and Walking to Hollywood. Phone is the final instalment of the trilogy that began with Umbrella and Shark and is out now in paperback (Viking, £8.99).

Phone is the last in a 1,500-page trilogy that, loosely, tells the story of psychiatrist Zack Busner, who’s been around in your fiction for a long time. Prominent also are technological advances and the ramifications of conflict. Would it be fair to say there’s a lot going on?
I cover the inception of these new technologies, I cover Alzheimer’s, autism, war, feminism, and what I tend to get back in return is, ooh, ...

Feel Free by Zadie Smith review – wonderfully suggestive essays

Exploring a range of subjects from hip-hop to JG Ballard to Get Out, Smith is both the coolly appraising connoisseur and the excited book nerd, the culture geek

These essays and journalistic pieces, which date from 2010 to last year and cover a range of subjects from Brexit to Justin Bieber to Italian gardens and her childhood bathroom, confirm Zadie Smith as a non-fiction writer of striking generosity and perception. The generosity takes the form of a permanent, embracing invitation to the reader – even when she is writing about, for example, Arthur Schopenhauer – and the perception is impressive because it operates not only outwards but also inwards, taking in the writer herself. There is a simpler way of putting it: here is Smith, coolly appraising, connoisseurial, discerning; and here she is, too, the book nerd, the culture geek, reading, hearing and seeing, occasionally dizzied by her own place ...

Book clinic: where next for an Elizabeth Strout fan?

In the first of a new series, in which we answer your books queries, our expert recommends alternatives to the My Name Is Lucy Barton author

Q: Having loved Elizabeth Strout’s novels My Name Is Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible, I devoured all her books. Who can I read next in the same vein? Jane Flood, London

A: Alex Clark, artistic director for words and literature, the Bath festival

Continue reading...

Mother Land by Paul Theroux review – a phenomenally strange novel

The veteran writer’s ‘fictionalised memoir’ of matriarchal tyranny reads like an act of projection too far

In lieu of a memoir, acclaimed, prolific travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux brings us a work of fiction narrated by a (sometimes) acclaimed and (often the result of accounts due) prolific writer who decides not to write a memoir. “I imagined the book’s appearance. My life would be reviewed by envious hacks, bitter academics and ambitious young writers. I knew – I had been all of these people in my career. The summation of my life: ‘Some good parts, lots of boring parts, wasted time – on the whole, a mediocre life. Not recommended.’”

There is something distinctly passive-aggressive about this fictionalised rejection of an attempt to write the truth. Theroux, writing here in the persona of Jay Justus, knows that his good parts have been very good, and that boring is ...

Margaret Atwood: will Alias Grace repeat the TV success of The Handmaid’s Tale?

Atwood’s 19th-century murder story is another prescient study of women in a patriarchal society

Alias Grace, published 21 years ago, sits as near as dammit in the middle of Margaret Atwood’s novels; eight precede and seven succeed it (although with the ever productive Atwood, there are probably more to come). Though she had already ventured into the world of the satirical, fabular and dystopic in novels such as Lady Oracle and Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace was her first foray into the distant past. Set in 1840s and 1850s Ontario – it had only recently been the British-controlled colony of Upper Canada – it recreates the true and much disputed story of Grace Marks.

As Sarah Polley’s adaptation finally comes to Netflix – finally because Polley first wrote to Atwood to ask for the film rights shortly after publication, when she was a mere 17-year-old – it is set ...

Nicola Barker: ‘I find books about middle-class people so boring – I feel like stabbing myself’

The Booker-shortlisted novelist on religion, Love Island and her ‘catastrophic urge’ to destroy narrative As Nicola Barker admits, her new novel, H(a)ppy, “really does mess with you in the end”. About halfway through, she reckons, is where “it gets nuts”, but to be truthful, the signs are there from pretty early on. Here’s a quick precis, with no spoilers. Set in a future saved from floods, fires, plagues and death cults by “the Altruistic Powers”, it’s the story of Mira A, a member of the Young – a generation freed from uncertainty, desire and emotional unevenness by constant regulation of the Information Stream and minute adjustments to preserve the balance of the Graph. But that’s only the half of it: on the page, type breaks up, symbols and pictures form themselves in the gaps, fonts jostle, and change case and colour to indicate a shift in the intensity of ...

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy review – a patchwork of narratives

Roy’s first novel in 20 years is a sprawling but memorable tale involving a vast castThe drama of the unforthcoming second novel is often a great deal more intense and traumatic to literary onlookers than it is to their putative creators. Marilynne Robinson, for example, whose output as a novelist paused for nearly 25 years after her brilliant debut Housekeeping, published in 1980; when it recommenced, with Gilead, it did so in Pulitzer prize-winning fashion, and two subsequent novels. But this was not writer’s block, it was a writer making choices; the academic work and essays that Robinson undertakes as well as her fiction writing are just as much a part of her creative and intellectual identity. Even when there seems to be a more straightforward matter of a writer moving slowly – as in, for example, Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers, which took ...

Baileys prize winner Naomi Alderman on fame, Trump and Wonder Woman

Her bold tale The Power, set in a world where women can electrocute men at will, has won the prestigious prize. Alderman talks about the book’s impact, crying at Wonder Woman and why female solidarity is more vital than running water Naomi Alderman writes novels and video games, teaches, makes radio programmes about science, art, fantasy and culture for the BBC. “I don’t watch a lot of Ready Steady Cook,” she deadpans. This morning, she has been editing the second half of the latest season of Zombies, Run!, her bestselling mobile fitness and adventure game, on the train. Now, she has been whisked off to a supposedly quiet room in London’s Royal Festival Hall to talk to me about The Power, the novel that has just won the Baileys prize for women’s fiction, worth £30,000 and a considerable boost to sales. Continue reading...

Phone by Will Self review – a hotline to humour and humanity

Dementia, the Iraq war and the effects of modern communications on human consciousness collide in the last of a disorienting trilogy
Will Self’s 17th work of fiction is the conclusion of a trilogy that encompasses his last two novels, Umbrella and Shark; but it also returns to themes and characters that have recurred throughout his oeuvre. Most notable is the psychiatrist (or “anti-psychiatrist”, as he has come to be known) Zack Busner, who appeared in the short stories of Self’s debut, The Quantity Theory of Insanity. Said theory has it that there is but a finite amount of sanity to go around. The title story’s setting, an unorthodox treatment centre in Willesden Green, north-west London called “Concept House”, crops up again in Shark, in which Busner attempts to pioneer a radical treatment for encephalitis. But if all this patterning makes Self’s work – and particularly this trilogy – sound like an exercise in narrative neatness, ...

Hanif Kureishi: ‘Britain’s middle class is more racist now than ever’

The My Beautiful Laundrette writer on Brexit Britain, collaborating with his sons and seeing his seventh novel as a B movie The afternoon I meet Hanif Kureishi seems fittingly ominous, with dark skies and swirling wind a reflection of the political weather. Over in Westminster, Theresa May is busy triggering Article 50, and fulfilling the will of the British people (little did we know, of course, what further turbulence was to come, with the election called this week). Meanwhile, Kureishi and I set up shop in a jolly brasserie in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, with polished wood and a chequerboard floor; he sips a glass of red, I chug an espresso and, despite the day, there is something cheerfully European about the whole scene. There’s also something about Kureishi that chimes with the mood of the times: laconic and deadpan in manner, he alternates between intense seriousness and comical flippancy; there’s a ...

Hanif Kureishi: ‘Britain’s middle class is more racist now than ever’

The My Beautiful Laundrette writer on Brexit Britain, collaborating with his sons and seeing his seventh novel as a B movie The afternoon I meet Hanif Kureishi seems fittingly ominous, with dark skies and swirling wind a reflection of the political weather. Over in Westminster, Theresa May is busy triggering Article 50, and fulfilling the will of the British people (little did we know, of course, what further turbulence was to come, with the election called this week). Meanwhile, Kureishi and I set up shop in a jolly brasserie in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, with polished wood and a chequerboard floor; he sips a glass of red, I chug an espresso and, despite the day, there is something cheerfully European about the whole scene. There’s also something about Kureishi that chimes with the mood of the times: laconic and deadpan in manner, he alternates between intense seriousness and comical flippancy; there’s a ...

Why Colson Whitehead deserved to win the Pulitzer prize in fiction

Whitehead’s award-winning sixth novel, The Underground Railroad, not only packs a punch, it demonstrates a new kind of creative freedom “It is a very pleasing thing to watch a writer you have enjoyed for years reach an even higher level of achievement,” wrote Colson Whitehead in the New York Times recently. “To observe him or her consolidate strengths, share with us new reserves of talent and provide the inspiration that can only come from a true artist charting hidden creative territory.” He was reviewing Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders’ first novel, but many of Whitehead’s fans will feel the same way this week, after The Underground Railroad scooped a Pulitzer prize to add to the author’s National Book Award – making this the only novel to complete that particular double since Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, back in 1994. Related: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead ...