Barbara Kingsolver: ‘It feels as though we’re living through the end of the world’

The author of The Poisonwood Bible is back with an ambitious novel charting the US in breakdown. She talks about the environment, victim-blaming – and being a hillbilly

Visiting Barbara Kingsolver on her farm in Appalachia feels like entering some form of enchanted bower. As we drive through the nearby town of Abingdon, Virginia, she identifies some brightly painted wooden houses; the tavern built in 1779; the Barter theatre that’s been running since the great depression, when actors performed in exchange for food, trading “ham for Hamlet”. Then there’s her big, cosy farmhouse with its heavy wooden beams, Bartók and Satie sheet music on the piano (she went to college on a music scholarship and has played in various bands), and her border collie Hugo following her around as she quizzes me in unusual detail on how I like my coffee. “I’m southern,” she jokes. “I want to make ...

Sharp by Michelle Dean review – what do Dorothy Parker, Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag have in common?

It’s always fun to read about the dozen exceptional women this book collects together but does each writer’s distinctive wit and thought get lost?

At times Michelle Dean’s Sharp feels like a zany game of Twister. How to connect the dots between such disparate figures as Dorothy Parker, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, Nora Ephron and Janet Malcolm – and, more importantly, why? There’s no denying that Dean has great taste in women: those she has chosen are fabulous company, always worth revisiting. Yet her argument might appear to be right there in the subtitle – The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion – it remains frustratingly vague.

Sharpness, Dean seems to suggest more than once, is something of a lost virtue in the current era, and she undertakes a vindication of fierceness, of the willingness to forgo “niceness” in favour of intellectual rigour. She particularly admires women ...

Hunger by Roxane Gay review – how the world treats fat people

A catalogue of horrors and public humiliations, Gay’s memoir responds to society’s condescension and disgust about her body sizeThis is a book its author Roxane Gay has, over many years, earned the right not to publish. Even though she has found great success as an essayist, writer of fiction and university teacher, and attracted a large, passionate online following, it’s clear from her account that her weight is still the first thing strangers notice about her, and that she must spend much of her time dealing with their unsolicited responses to it. These range from rude to abusive, encompassing all sorts of casual mockery, faux concern and outright aggression along the way. Related: Roxane Gay: ‘My body is a cage of my own making’ Continue reading...

Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita by Robert Roper – review

A jaunty biography shows how the landscape, culture and energy of his adopted country inspired the Russian author’s greatest works

“It had taken me some 40 years to invent Russia and Western Europe,” Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his afterword to Lolita, “and now I was faced by the task of inventing America.” It’s a sign of the special reputation for arrogance Nabokov gleefully cultivated that this statement reads more as a brag than a standard metaphor for what all fictions have to do, for the need, even in a realist novel, to craft a world from scratch. Nabokov habitually presented himself as a magician and puppet master, constructing texts full of subtle pleasures for good, obedient readers and riddled with trapdoors for anyone who tried to make an unsanctioned interpretation, anyone who dared think themselves as clever as the author.

In his new book about Nabokov’s American years, ...

Left of the Bang by Claire Lowdon review – sex, class and the Afghan war

A shrewd satirical eye and a gathering sense of doom in an explosive debut about the lives of young Londoners

The jacket copy for Claire Lowdon’s debut novel describes it as “a Vanity Fair for our times”, and perhaps there’s something in that, loosely speaking – English social satire in which surface froth barely covers a sense of doom, with the 21st century standing in for the 19th, and Afghanistan for the Napoleonic wars. The title, in fact, is a military metaphor: “left of the bang”, as Lowdon’s epigraph defines it, refers to “the build-up to an explosion. On a left-right timeline, preparation and prevention are left of the bang; right of the bang refers to the aftermath.” The first few chapters reinforce this theme with two kinds of deferred explosion, rolled up together. Tamsin Jarvis, daughter of an eminent conductor, discovers her father’s infidelity when, at 12, she ...