The End by Karl Ove Knausgaard review – bolder if not wiser

Concluding a monumental literary journey, the Norwegian author’s soul-searching comes full circle

And so seven years after its publication in Norway, the sixth and final part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series finally reaches British bookshops. Why it’s taken this long is unclear, though the fact that the 1,168-page tome has an additional translator (Martin Aitken) alongside Don Bartlett, who worked on the previous five alone, may just have something to do with it.

In any case, the fittingly titled The End is worth the wait. Reimmersing myself in Knausgaard’s distinctive preoccupations, I wondered at first if I had lost the magnetic thread, that strange compulsion in the Norwegian’s sprawling prose that pulls the reader through epic sprees of navel-gazing. What more could he say about himself and his literary anxieties? With how many more cigarettes and cups of coffee could he fill his descriptions of quotidian life?

Continue reading...

Yuval Noah Harari: ‘The idea of free information is extremely dangerous’

As his new book is published, the bestselling author talks fake news, meditation and appearing with Natalie Portman

• Read an extract from 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian who has written two bestsellers: Sapiens, which examined the course of early human history, and Homo Deus, which speculated on where we might be heading as a post-human species. His new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, is an exploration of the difficulties that confront us at the present.

You are now a highly successful public intellectual. In what ways has international recognition changed you?
Well I have much less time. I find myself travelling around the world and going to conferences and giving interviews, basically repeating what I think I already know, and having less and less time to research new stuff. Just a few years ago I was ...

Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard – review

The last volume of the Norwegian author’s Seasons quartet will keep his fans occupied, if not entirely satisfied

It’s a slightly confusing situation for Karl Ove Knausgaard fans that while the sixth and final part of the My Struggle series has still to be published in English (due later this year), a whole different cycle – the Seasons quartet – has filled the intervening lull.

The fourth book of that quartet is Summer, which again mixes diary entries and a selection of personal encyclopaedia entries ostensibly addressed to his youngest daughter, along with a piece of fiction set during the second world war and based on a story his grandfather told him, which he drops tantalisingly into his writing almost like an actor suddenly changing character.

Continue reading...

Is rising inequality responsible for greater stress, anxiety and mental illness?

That’s the claim made by the authors of The Inner Level, which furthers arguments first laid out in their 2009 work, The Spirit Level. They reveal the bleak truth about uneven societies

In 2009, when the world was still absorbing the shock of the previous year’s financial crisis, a book called The Spirit Level was published. Written by a couple of social epidemiologists, it argued that a whole raft of data conclusively showed that societies with greater inequality also had a range of more pronounced social problems, including higher rates of violence, murder, drug abuse, imprisonment, obesity and teenage pregnancies.

Given that naked profit motive had just taken the world to the brink of economic collapse, it was a good moment to take stock and reflect on where rising inequality was leading us. For the previous 30 years a broad consensus had operated in politics, particularly in the US and ...

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory review – laboured rant about the world of work

David Graeber’s snarky study of the meaningless nature of modern employment adds little to our understanding of it

Five years ago, the LSE anthropologist David Graeber wrote an essay for a radical magazine called Strike!. Its title was On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs. It argued that by now we should, as the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930, be living in a world of a 15-hour working week. Technology was sufficiently advanced that most of the labour of Keynes’s day could be done by machines and the rest could be distributed across a large workforce, leaving greatly increased leisure time for all of us.

As you may have noticed, that isn’t how things have turned out. Instead, the working week remains stuck around the 40-hour mark and computer technology now means that work often extends into our free time. Why are we still filing into offices in our ...

Kudos by Rachel Cusk review – exquisite control

With the final part in place, Cusk’s ‘Faye’ trilogy stands as a landmark of contemporary English literature

Outline, the first in what might be called Rachel Cusk’s “Faye” trilogy, was such a seamless union of form and ideas that it left this reader marvelling at its discreet charms and radical achievements. In the space of one perfectly weighted novel, Cusk’s measured self-effacement served to make so much literary fiction appear almost pestering in its attention-seeking.

Instead of brandishing an omniscient voice, her narrator – Faye, a middle-aged divorced writer – was astutely passive, emerging only as a kind of enigmatic reflection in the characters she met and the stories they eagerly told her. It was as if more conventional styles of narration had been suddenly exposed as dubious varieties of mansplaining.

Continue reading...

Kudos by Rachel Cusk review – exquisite control

With the final part in place, Cusk’s ‘Faye’ trilogy stands as a landmark of contemporary English literature

Outline, the first in what might be called Rachel Cusk’s “Faye” trilogy, was such a seamless union of form and ideas that it left this reader marvelling at its discreet charms and radical achievements. In the space of one perfectly weighted novel, Cusk’s measured self-effacement served to make so much literary fiction appear almost pestering in its attention-seeking.

Instead of brandishing an omniscient voice, her narrator – Faye, a middle-aged divorced writer – was astutely passive, emerging only as a kind of enigmatic reflection in the characters she met and the stories they eagerly told her. It was as if more conventional styles of narration had been suddenly exposed as dubious varieties of mansplaining.

Continue reading...

Political Tribes review – an unreliable guide to the American Dream

Tiger mother Amy Chua is adept at spotting tribal behaviour, but less clear about what it all means

To most readers who recognise the name, Amy Chua is the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the bestselling memoir about bringing up children under a strictly traditional regime of Chinese parenting. The book seemed to repel and inspire in equal measure. But leaving aside its personal testimony, it was a work that dared to tread on disputed and dangerous terrain: the advantage of certain ethno-cultural traits.

It’s an issue that can be found to varying degrees in all five of Chua’s books, including her latest, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. Chua, a professor of law at Yale Law School, believes that ethnic and tribal identity plays a more powerful role in national politics than has been previously acknowledged, at least by American foreign policy.

Continue reading...

Steven Pinker: ‘The way to deal with pollution is not to rail against consumption’

The feather-ruffling Harvard psychologist’s new book, a defence of Enlightenment values, may be his most controversial yet

• Read an extract from Enlightenment Now here

Say the word “enlightenment” and it tends to conjure images of a certain kind of new-age spiritual “self-improvement”: meditation, candles, chakra lines. Add the definite article and a capital letter and the Enlightenment becomes something quite different: dead white men in wigs.

For many people, particularly in the west, reaching a state of mindful nirvana probably seems more relevant to their wellbeing than the writings of, say, Immanuel Kant and Adam Smith. But according to Enlightenment Now, a new book by the celebrated Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, this is precisely where we’re getting our priorities wrong.

Continue reading...

Adam Kay: ‘If I had kids I would put them off studying medicine’

The comedian’s memoir about his gruelling years as a junior doctor has fired up public indignation over the NHS’s future. Even Jeremy Hunt has heard about it…

The morning I was due to interview Adam Kay I awoke with heavy flu symptoms and a painfully frozen neck and shoulder. I was in perspiring agony and, even before I got out of bed, utterly exhausted. But I thought: what would a junior doctor do? Of course, if he or she were suffering from flu, the correct answer would be: not go anywhere near a hospital. But that’s not the sense you get from Kay’s bestselling diary of his time as a doctor training in obstetrics and gynaecology – or, as it was referred to at his medical school, brats and twats.

In This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor, hospital doctors, and in particular the author, ...

Swearing Is Good for You by Emma Byrne; How to Swear by Stephen Wildish – review

Two books on swearing explore the cathartic pleasures of the four-letter riposte

My earliest memory is of sitting on the pavement outside my childhood home while Tony Hilsden, the local juvenile delinquent, tutored me in the lexicon of profanity. “No, not ‘can’t’. It’s ‘cunt’.”

I was four years old and the reason it sticks in my mind is that my mother caught him doing it, sent him packing, and told me to forget everything I’d just learned. That, of course, became an impossibility the instant I realised its forbidden nature. So began my initiation into the social taboo of “bad” language.

Continue reading...

Neal Ascherson: ‘It doesn’t matter that there was a reason for ending their lives – I did it’

The Observer’s ex-foreign correspondent on his Eton scholarship, killing two mortally wounded men in battle, and publishing his first novel aged 84Neal Ascherson is a former foreign correspondent for the Observer, an expert on Poland, the author of a range of nonfiction works, and visiting professor at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. He has just written his first novel, The Death of the Fronsac, a tale of intrigue and identity set mostly during the second world war. You’re [an incredibly youthful] 84, which is not the usual age for debut novels. What made you branch into fiction?
I think it was the feeling that I was getting near the end of my life and I wanted to unload all this stuff, these impressions that have been churning around for so long. When I left university I thought, I will now proceed to become the greatest ...

But Seriously: An Autobiography by John McEnroe review – chalk dust to stardust

John McEnroe’s ‘difficult’ second memoir is marked by rehashed glories and celebrity anecdotesThey say that winning your first tennis major is always the toughest but most memorable achievement. Perhaps it’s the same principle with autobiographies; it’s the first one that really counts. Except, of course, there isn’t really supposed to be a second autobiography. How many lives warrant two? Even Winston Churchill didn’t follow up My Early Life with another volume of memoirs. Continue reading...

But Seriously: An Autobiography by John McEnroe review – chalk dust to stardust

John McEnroe’s ‘difficult’ second memoir is marked by rehashed glories and celebrity anecdotesThey say that winning your first tennis major is always the toughest but most memorable achievement. Perhaps it’s the same principle with autobiographies; it’s the first one that really counts. Except, of course, there isn’t really supposed to be a second autobiography. How many lives warrant two? Even Winston Churchill didn’t follow up My Early Life with another volume of memoirs. Continue reading...

The Secret Life: Three True Stories by Andrew O’Hagan – review

Andrew O’Hagan scrutinises a trio of slippery figures in these vivid essays exploring the internet’s effect on our sense of selfThe internet has changed us, our means of communication, what we believe to be true, our identities and sense of self. That is a statement of such obviousness that we rarely stop to think about what it all actually means. But Andrew O’Hagan explores these themes with great depth and originality in three long essays – originally published in the London Review of Books – that make up his new collection, The Secret Life. The first, entitled Ghosting, concerns that pathologically divisive figure, Julian Assange. The founder of WikiLeaks is awash with fictional potential. So much so that characters based on him regularly turn up in novels (Jonathan Franzen’s Purity) and TV dramas (Homeland). Continue reading...

Theft By Finding: Diaries Volume One by David Sedaris – review

This story of Sedaris’s journey from drug addict to brilliant absurdist is, though funny, full of tales his fans have heard beforeDavid Sedaris is a considerable literary presence in America, where his multi-city tours are more like what you’d expect from a rock star than a confessional short story writer. In the UK, where he has lived (in London and West Sussex) for the past 15 years, he’s developed a staunch fanbase without ever threatening to become as well known as, say, that other American expat humorist, Bill Bryson. This may be because in spite of his British residency, Sedaris is an unmistakably American writer, in the distinguished tradition of James Thurber and SJ Perelman, both of whom, like Sedaris, were contributors to the New Yorker. Continue reading...

Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World by Jamie Bartlett – review

This thoughtful study of radical movements explores politics, sex and drugs It’s often been said that most nonfiction books are really magazine articles blown up to enable publication. But that analysis is increasingly anachronistic. Magazines, with a few honourable exceptions, no longer run the kind of articles that form the basis for expansion to book-size. Jamie Bartlett’s new book is a case in point – it’s a collection of disparate pieces that could, in a previous era, have been published as long magazine articles. In fact, some of them have appeared in newspapers and magazines in much shorter versions, but the only way to do them justice nowadays is in a book. Continue reading...

Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class – review

Alex Renton’s study of the enduring culture of abuse at Britain’s elite schools makes for powerful readingIt is the habit, even obligation, of each succeeding generation to look back with head-shaking disbelief at the practices of previous eras. For most of the 20th century, we could think of the Victorian mistreatment of children – the workhouse, forced labour – with moral superiority. Who could read Dickens and not ask how Victorians were able to stick little kids up chimneys? But in demonising the past, there’s always the danger of ignoring the problems of the present. The widespread abuse of children by Catholic priests went on for decades without any concerted effort to punish or prevent it. Equally, the horrendous cases of organised grooming and sexual abuse of young vulnerable girls by Pakistani heritage gangs in cities around England continued for many years while the authorities turned a blind eye. By ...

Raja Shehadeh: ‘Once people experience liberation, it’s not easily forgotten’

The outspoken Palestinian lawyer and author on reaching out to the young, political change in the Middle East and his optimism about the futureRaja Shehadeh is a Palestinian lawyer and the author of several acclaimed books. His latest, Where The Line Is Drawn: Crossing Boundaries in Occupied Palestine, is written through the prism of his close but problematic relationships with several Israelis. It is at once personal, political, angry, conciliatory and alive to the tensions and shared values of friendships in a divided land. He lives in Ramallah in the West Bank. Your book features a long and sometimes troubled friendship with Henry, a Canadian Jew who lives in Israel. In some respects it symbolises the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and you are quite critical of Henry. What does he think of it?
Inevitably the symbolism is there but I hate it because I have a special ...

Howard Jacobson: ‘Trump in the White House – that must never feel normal’

In the early hours as the US election result became apparent, the novelist was at his desk beginning his satirical novel about the president, Pussy. He’s angry, frustrated – and don’t tell him to get over it From the moment Donald Trump announced he was running for president, the flood of words about the orange-faced reality-TV star and alleged property billionaire has been incessant. And it only increased after he actually became president. But those words have been factual, or at least purport to be factual, no matter how absurd and unbelievable the Trump story has often appeared. What no one has done is write fiction about this most fictional of real-life characters. Until now. I thought he’d be shot or impeached before his inauguration Continue reading...