My Thoughts Exactly by Lily Allen review – sex, self-loathing and growing up in the limelight

No detail is deemed too personal in the singer’s affecting account of her rise to fame and being constantly under scrutiny

Anyone familiar with Lily Allen’s songs will know all about her capacity for bluntness. In 2009’s “Not Fair” she grumbled about rubbish sex and being left lying in the wet patch, while in “As Long As I Got You”, an ode to new love, she sang: “Staying in with you is better than sticking things up my nose.” So it’s not surprising to find that her first memoir has a tendency towards oversharing. In recalling her childhood, her rise to fame and her travails as a pop star, daughter, wife and mother, no detail is deemed too personal.

In the introduction, Allen, 33, says she’s too young to write her entire life story; instead she’s interested in “the things in my life that changed events, upended things, upset the cart”. Her father, ...

The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume II: 1956-1963 – review

Infidelity, agony rage ... Plath’s correspondence captures life with Ted Hughes and her terror of being alive

Volume one of the collected letters of Sylvia Plath – one of the most original poets of the 20th century, and a prolific correspondent – ended with her marriage, while studying at Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship from America, to fellow poet Ted Hughes in June 1956. The second volume begins with her 24th birthday in October. The new Mr and Mrs Hughes are penniless and without a home of their own, but she has absolute faith in him as a writer and human being. He is “a genius”, the best poet “since Yeats & Dylan Thomas”. Inconveniently, he is also unpublished, and has no strategy for getting into print – but Plath is equal to the challenge. She is an old hand at approaching poetry magazines in Britain and her native US and promptly sets herself up as his agent.

By the start of ...

Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs –growing up as Steve Jobs’s daughter

The Apple founder’s daughter has the last word in a memoir detailing years of neglect and controlling behaviour

When Lisa Brennan-Jobs, eldest child of the late Steve Jobs, was three years old, her parents went to court over her father’s refusal to pay child support. Jobs denied paternity, and declared in a deposition that he was sterile. After a DNA test showed they were in fact father and daughter, he agreed to pay her mother, Chrisann Brennan, $500 a month. A few days later, Apple became a public company and Jobs’s net worth shot up overnight to $200m.

Relating this tale in her memoir, Brennan-Jobs doesn’t berate or make excuses for her father. As the founder of NeXT and co-founder of Apple, Jobs enjoyed enormous power in his working life. At home, he exerted power by withholding things: money, conversation, affection. Nowadays his behaviour would be seen as abusive, ...

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...

In My Mind’s Eye review – Jan Morris’s remarkable staying power

The daily musings of the travel writer and historian are a fascinating look at ‘how to soldier on in your 90s’

This book is a writer’s constitutional. For 188 days, Jan Morris, now 91, has written a page or more of whatever comes into her head. These are short outings, limberings up; she does not overdo it. They are mentally equivalent to the walk she takes daily: 1,000 paces up and down the lane, singing different songs as she marches – she learned to march at Sandhurst. For this is a woman who started life as a man, who made her name as a journalist, James Morris, reporting for the Times on the first ascent of Everest in 1953. She admits now with chagrin (taking herself to task for unthinking presumption) that she had hoped she might be invited as a reporter to accompany astronauts on the first trip to ...

Mark Kermode: ‘There’s a magic in going on stage with a band’

The Observer film critic’s new memoir focuses on his parallel life in music. Here he talks school bands, busking and recording in Sun Studio...
• Read an extract from Mark Kermode’s memoir How Does It Feel? A Life of Musical Misadventures

You got the music bug very early…
I’ve been in bands since the year dot. When I was a kid the two things I understood were films and pop music. I remember going to a record store to buy Jealous Mind by Alvin Stardust and listening to it over and over again. Then I saw Slade in Flame – a brilliant fictional film about the rise and fall of a band who are basically Slade – and I thought, that’s it, I want to be a pop star! I didn’t have a guitar and I couldn’t play, but I spent two years at school building an electric guitar from ...

SAS spy’s memoir claims he ‘probably saved Gorbachev’s life’

Pilgrim Spy – published under pseudonym Tom Shore – also claims a ‘third generation’ Baader-Meinhof gang came close to halting the fall of the Berlin Wall

A terrorist plot to assassinate Mikhail Gorbachev in East Germany in 1989 has been revealed in print by the SAS soldier who claims to have thwarted it.

Tom Shore – a pseudonym – was sent into East Germany by British security services in 1989 on a mission to uncover details of what was believed to be a Soviet military operation. He found no such evidence, but while undercover he made contact with a movement working for reform and democracy in Leipzig.

Continue reading...

A Letter from Paris by Louisa Deasey review – hidden art, lost romance and family reclaimed

A message out of the blue about an unknown affair triggers a family quest

There is a strange duality inherent to being a non-Indigenous Australian. A sense of dividedness, of having come – however distantly – from elsewhere. It manifests itself in various ways: a particular itch to travel, a lively curiosity about family trees, childhoods spent in the expectation that you will probably leave at some point, at least for a while.

For postwar generations, before air travel closed the vast distances between continents, leaving Australia was a far more difficult business – as Louisa Deasey’s father, Denison, found to his cost in 1947. His £100 ticket to London involved six weeks at sea, in cramped, windowless quarters – plus a bout of tuberculosis for his troubles.

Continue reading...

Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now by Alan Rusbridger – review

Rusbridger’s mission to defend journalistic standards while embracing the new world of social media is at the heart of this compelling memoir of his Guardian years, writes the former Sunday Times and Times editor

Alan Rusbridger, fresh from parsing Ezra Pound in the cloistered calm of Cambridge University, enters journalism as a cub reporter for the Cambridge Evening News sometime in the mid-70s. I would have liked to be more precise about the big day for a cub with such a prodigious future: he became editor-in-chief of the Guardian in 1995. In the succeeding 20 years, he transformed the printed newspaper and created a 24/7 news operation, overtaking the New York Times as the biggest serious English-language newspaper operation in the world. Yet the landmark date he began as a trainee reporter eludes detection in Breaking News and Wikipedia, too. I conclude the reticence must be the author’s nod to ...

Diplomacy and delusion: books to understand differences between Brits and Americans

The British both admire and distrust the Americans, while the Americans feel both respect and contempt for the British – Kathleen Burk recommends authors to explain why

As someone who was born in the US but bred in Britain – I was still malleable when I arrived as an undergraduate – I believe in first amendment rights but bridle when anyone jumps a queue. British-American attitudes have dominated my life, both intellectually and personally. The British have always been fascinated by the US, and over the centuries have written countless novels, stories, reflections and books of reportage on America. In the 19th century at least 200 travellers’ tales were published, a notable example being Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832). A bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, it confirmed suspicions in Britain of the awfulness of some Americans.

Arthur Conan Doyle was besotted in a different way. ...

A Boy in the Water by Tom Gregory review – the youngest English Channel swimmer

In 1988, 11-year-old Gregory set a record that will never be broken. His book recalls the agonising swim and his charismatic coach

In 1988, at the age of 11, Tom Gregory became the youngest person ever to swim the English Channel. It took him just under 12 hours to complete 32 miles, fuelled by tubes of tomato soup and the odd chocolate biscuit lobbed into the sea by his coach, John Bullet.

Gregory writes that he trusted Bullet with his life; however, it is also clear he was terrified of letting him down

Continue reading...

Gloucester Crescent by William Miller review – growing up with London’s literati

An engaging memoir written by Jonathan Miller’s son looks back on the starry neighbours of his childhood

Gloucester Crescent in north London has been celebrated ever since the 1970s: Mark Boxer’s String-Along cartoons satirising the affluent liberal intelligentsia were followed by books and films such as Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van and Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina. From the 1960s to the 1980s, it was home to a constellation of intellectual celebrities who, like the Bloomsbury group, combined talent, idealism and luck with adultery, rivalry and a sense of entitlement. All that has been missing from the mix is a worm’s (or child’s) eye view. This memoir, written by Jonathan Miller’s son William, provides this in spades.

Told in a naive prose that shifts between past and present tenses, Gloucester Crescent (subtitled Me, My Dad and Some Grown-Ups) is stuffed with hilarious literary gossip and anecdote. ...

Book clinic: which books distil the essence of fatherhood?

From 19th-century letters to a graphic novel, here are the works that define dad-dom

Which books should we read to explore the essence of fatherhood?
Don, 30, book editor and literary translator, Wuhan, China

Author Sam Miller, whose book Fathers was published earlier this year, writes:
I had a dream the other day. Of several fathers, bald and lame, thrown into a huge tureen over a great campfire. They were about to be boiled. Not as a way of torturing them, or as a punishment for mansplaining, or even as a way of making them digestible, but in order to create an essential oil, an essence of fatherhood, to be freely sprinkled on to those who wished for better fathers than the ones that nature, and their mothers, gave them.

Continue reading...

Gloucester Crescent by William Miller review – my dad Jonathan Miller and me

Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and John Cleese were among the performer and polymath Jonathan Miller’s friends. His son recalls the highs and lows of home life

Once, when William Miller was about five, his parents went away and his father’s assistant took him to stay with her own parents, who lived in a castle in Wales. He had a brilliant time, and would return often. When he tried to tell his father why he enjoyed these trips, he was handed a book on the slave trade: that was the source of most upper-class money. Upper-class people were invariably Tory, and thus automatically on his father’s “bad” list; many were antisemitic, too. Also, they were unreliable. But William liked his new friends because they were kind and generous. Because they listened to him. And because “of all the people I know, I can trust them not to let me down”.

This ...

Rise by Gina Miller review – unapologetic and impatient to make a difference

A shocking and surprising memoir by the woman who defeated the government over article 50, and still receives torrents of online hatred as a consequence

Reading Rise, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Gina Miller – best known for initiating the greatest legal upset in Britain in modern times – is a human trigger for the Brexiting right. To borrow the language of those who abuse the idea of diversity, Miller “ticks every box”: she’s a passionate remainer, female, a person of colour and unapologetic in her readiness to fight.

The level of abuse that has followed her court triumphs over article 50 is remarkable. And Miller reveals insights about being on the receiving end of it you didn’t know you wanted to know. What was it like to stand on the steps of the high court in London on that November day in 2016, responding to a ...

The Only Girl by Robin Green – review

No areas are off limits in a vivid account of life as the only female writer on Rolling Stone magazine in the 70s

In her funny, candid memoir, The Only Girl, Robin Green, a former writer for Rolling Stone magazine, emerges almost as an accidental feminist trailblazer – a woman living through fast-evolving and turbulent cultural, socio-political, professional, and personal times, often just trying to hang on as best she could.

Green was indeed the only girl to be listed on the Rolling Stone masthead, when she worked there during the 70s. The magazine’s co-founder and publisher, Jann Wenner, removed her name when she failed to deliver an article on the children of Robert F Kennedy – though, as becomes clear, Green had her reasons. She had slept with one of her subjects, Robert F Kennedy Jr, on his college water-bed, an event she relates in a chapter ...

Nine Lives: My Time as MI6’s Top Spy Inside Al-Qaida – review

A memoir of a decade at the highest levels of Islamist militancy by a double agent known as ‘Aimen Dean’ is extraordinary

When the Taliban regime in Afghanistan collapsed in November 2001, journalists who had been waiting in parts of the country outside the Islamist regime’s authority or in neighbouring Pakistan rushed to bombed-out and deserted training camps where al-Qaida had built the strike force that had carried out the 9/11 attacks.

I was in the eastern city of Jalalabad as opposition forces still skirmished with al-Qaida remnants on the evening of the city’s fall. After a night in the one functioning hotel, I drove a few miles down the rutted road to Kabul. On several reporting trips into Afghanistan under the Taliban I had heard of a training camp near a reservoir called Darunta, a mile off the main road. It wasn’t hard to reach: a complex of mud ...

Siren Song by Seymour Stein review – memories of Talking Heads, Madonna and the Ramones

‘America’s greatest living record man’, who also brought the Smiths to the US, recalls hard living and spotting the right song

On a New York City night in late summer, 1976, three former art students were playing at a club called Max’s Kansas City. Observing them from a ringside table were a couple who looked a little older than most of the club’s clientele, and a lot less cool. But there they sat, front and centre, staring at the stage with encouraging smiles, gazing in particular at the singer, a thin, twitchy figure who, in his polo shirt and conservative haircut, looked more like a CIA intern than your standard rock and roller. Although none of the band’s repertoire of original compositions had yet been recorded, the couple’s lips moved in unison as they sang along to the words of every song, the most striking of which started like this: ...

‘A different way of living’: why writers are celebrating middle-age

Viv Albertine, Deborah Levy, Lavinia Greenlaw and Rachel Cusk are redefining life after menopause, children or divorce – and it has never looked so good

When Viv Albertine performs her 2009 song “Confessions of a Milf” live, she alternates between two voices. There’s the saccharine lisp of a brainwashed housewife chanting “home sweet home”, and there’s the raging chant of an angry punk proclaiming that “if you decide one day that you’ve had enough”, you can walk away. Though swans and seahorses mate for life, “we ain’t so nice”.

In the 70s, when Albertine performed with her punk band, the Slits, she appeared fully immersed in her performance of exuberant anger, but also strikingly unformed, too busy bouncing and shouting to hold the gaze of her audience. Then, she retained the vulnerability of her younger self, but there was a steeliness underlying it. Now she stares out at us, no ...

Algiers, Third World Capital by Elaine Mokhtefi review – Black Panthers, freedom fighters, revolutionaries

In the 1960s Algeria became a beacon to the world, and exiled artists, intellectuals and guerrilla fighters flocked there. The militant author met them all

“This is a story with a beginning and an end,” Elaine Mokhtefi writes in the preface to her extraordinary memoir. The title is a bit misleading – this is no dry history – but it carries something of the revolutionary optimism of her tale’s beginnings, and, in its anachronism, something too of the heartache of its ending. Because who can even talk of a first or a third world any more, rather than a whole planet of uncertainty and want, dotted here and there with well-guarded islands of cosmopolitan abundance? And who can remember anything as unitary as a capital, or as beautiful as a solidarity that doesn’t care for borders?

Mokhtefi, born Elaine Klein in prosaic Hempstead, New York, was 23 when she moved to Paris ...