Salt on Your Tongue by Charlotte Runcie review – the call of the sea


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An ode to the ocean, and the generations of women drawn to the waves or left waiting on the shore

“Being British comes with a catalogue of sea-themed cliches,” Charlotte Runcie muses early in her first book, “fish and chips on the beach, or in the car while the rain pelts down, ‘Rule, Britannia!’ at the BBC Proms, the shipping forecast playing out over and over every night, a warning for sailors, a lullaby for those of us safe in our beds and never at sea.” She doubts she would feel “this saline connection” if she had grown up in a landlocked country. Salt on Your Tongue is the story of her deepening love and longing for the ocean while pregnant, aged 28, with her first child. By the end of the book, her generic, gently nationalist appreciation of the sea has transformed into a specific, strongly feminist ...

Gentleman Jack by Angela Steidele review – seductions of a secret diarist


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A new account of a pioneering lesbian life draws on a diary with graphic descriptions of sex in code

In July 2018 the first blue plaque to be encircled by the LGBT+ rainbow was unveiled at Holy Trinity church, Goodramgate, York. The plaque celebrates the life of Anne Lister (1791-1840), a “gender-nonconforming entrepreneur”, and commemorates the “marital commitment without legal recognition” that took place between her and her lover Ann Walker in the church in 1834. Controversially, the word “lesbian” was not used on the plaque.

Lister, from a wealthy family, inherited Shibden Hall, a Tudor mansion, near Halifax. She was closely involved in running her estate, well-read, well-travelled, and the only female co-founder of the Halifax Literary and Philosophical Society. She dressed always in black and spoke openly in her deep voice of her interest in other women. Locally she was mocked as “Gentleman Jack”. “Does your cock stand?...

Endeavour by Peter Moore review – the ship that changed the world


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From the oak of its timbers to a watery grave off Rhode Island, this is an engaging account of Captain Cook’s vessel

Endeavour was the ship that Captain Cook sailed to Australia and New Zealand on his first voyage of discovery from 1768 to 1771. Endeavour, Peter Moore argues in this ambitious exploration, was also the word that best captured the spirit of the age. Britain, in the second half of the 18th century, “was consumed by the impulse for grand projects, undertaken at speed”.

Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, composed of 42,773 entries, which he expected to take three years to compose, but took nine, is one example of these grand projects; the vast histories of David Hume, Tobias Smollett, Catharine Macaulay, William Robertson and Edward Gibbon are others. Moore links such bold literary endeavours to diverse social and political changes: the radical MP John Wilkes’s campaign for ...

Dreams Must Explain Themselves by Ursula K Le Guin review – writing and the feminist fellowship


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The SF and fantasy novelist worked on a selection of her non-fiction during her last year. Its subjects include motherhood, abortion and the menopause

In 1973 Ursula Le Guin was phoned by publisher and science fiction fan Andrew I Porter, trying to persuade her to write about herself in his magazine Algol. “Andy kept saying things like, ‘Tell the readers about yourself,’ and I kept saying things like, ‘How? Why?’” Standing in her hallway, with a child and a cat circling her legs, it seemed impossible to explain over the crackling connection that “the Jungian spectrum of introvert/extrovert can be applied not only to human beings but also to authors”. Le Guin knew that at one end of the spectrum there are authors such as Norman Mailer, who talk about themselves, and at the other, authors who, like her, need privacy.

When Le Guin died earlier this year, ...

The Novel of the Century by David Bellos review – the story of Les Misérables


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Victor Hugo was paid a fortune for his masterpiece about the poor. This biography of one of the world’s most read novels is rich in extraordinary detailVictor Hugo, born in 1802 in the garrison town of Besançon, belonged to the first generation to write about the French Revolution of 1789 without personally remembering it. The son of a general in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, and a precociously talented poet, Hugo left school soon after his father’s fortunes collapsed alongside Napoleon’s, following the battle of Waterloo in 1815. By the time he was 39, he was already one of 40 “immortals” in the Académie Française, and in 1845 he was made a pair de France or “lord of the realm”. David Bellos has written a biography not of Hugo, but of his masterpiece, Les Misérables. Putting recent literary scholarship into narrative form, Bellos traces the life of the 1,500-page novel from conception to ...

The Nine Lives of John Ogilby review – a cunning cartographer


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Alan Ereira’s subject is a mysterious 17th-century figure: translator, master of revels and producer of England’s first road atlasJohn Ogilby’s greatest legacy is his Britannia, the first road map of England and Wales, published in 1675-76 just before he died. The antiquary John Aubrey was one of the people Ogilby engaged to help compile Britannia, but from the start Aubrey was wary of the royal cosmographer, whom he thought to be “a cunning Scott”. Aubrey spent months researching the county of Surrey, only for Ogilby to announce he would neither pay him for his work nor include it in the printed volume. Disappointed and out of pocket, Aubrey nevertheless preserved biographical notes on Ogilby that serve as hints or clues to one of the 17th century’s most mysterious lives. Aubrey recorded that Ogilby had “such an excellent inventive and prudential wit” that when he was undone by ...

Ruth Scurr: ‘I wanted to make John Aubrey present and vivid in our times’


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The author explains why creating a fictional diary for this 17th-century man of letters made more sense than writing a conventional biography News: Ruth Scurr among authors shortlisted for the James Tait Black prize The question I am most often asked about John Aubrey: My Own Life is how much of the book is him, and how much me? It is a good question and impossible to answer, except line by line. I decided to create a fictional diary for Aubrey, based on his own words. I did this because I wanted to make him present and vivid in our times. He was a 17th-century gentleman, antiquarian, bibliophile, collector and biographer, who deserves to be much better known and celebrated than he is today. Continue reading...