The Demanding, Essential Work of Samuel Delany: The Atheist in the Attic

Sometimes it seems as if all the publishers and bookstores of the land are engaged in a conspiracy to make Samuel Delany appear less unusual than he is. All of his fiction, whether autobiographical, experimental, pornographic, or some combination of the three, is shelved under “science fiction,” and while a given edition of Dhalgren might or might not advertise its million-seller status, it’s unlikely that any back cover copy will address that book’s games with structure, experiments in typography, or literal unendingness. It’s not until you actually open the books that you realize you’re in the hands of one of SF’s great experimenters. Sometimes Delany himself seems to be in on this game of concealment. His author biography coyly states, for example, that “his four-volume series Return to Nevèrÿon is sword-and-sorcery,” as if he were a latter-day Robert E. Howard, eliding any sense that these strange books, with their disquisitions ...

Packing My Library by Alberto Manguel review – a bibliophile’s demons

The urbane Argentinian grumpily boxes up his 35,000 books and writes a Jekyll and Hyde set of reflections on libraries and the power of reading

One feverish night, Robert Louis Stevenson dreamed of a terrifying “hue of brown”. It was the latest visitation from the Night Hag, his term for the horrors that had haunted him from early childhood, and which he exorcised through his writing. From this simple colour dream, Alberto Manguel writes, Stevenson crafted his nightmarish novel, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Manguel has so often referenced the Scottish author in his work (not least in his 2003 novella Stevenson Under the Palm Trees) that it’s tempting to see him as a sort of Hyde to his Jekyll: unworldly, sickly and creatively possessed in a way that the urbane Argentinian-born bibliophile could never be.

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Deborah Levy: ‘The new generation of young women can change the world’

The writer discusses the quest for a freer life and why she always returns to JG Ballard

Rejected by mainstream publishers for being “too literary”, Deborah Levy’s fifth novel, Swimming Home, was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker prize after being picked up by a small independent press. Hot Milk, her next novel, was also shortlisted for the Booker in 2016. Her early fiction has since been reissued by Penguin. Part memoir, part meditation on writing and gender, Things I Don’t Want to Know, the first volume of what she calls her “living autobiography”, recalled her childhood in South Africa (her father was imprisoned as a member of the ANC) and her teenage years “in exile” in England. The second instalment, The Cost of Living (Hamish Hamilton, £12.99), continues these reflections on art, identity and philosophy, alongside building a new life after the breakdown of her marriage.

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Shakespeare’s Originality by John Kerrigan review – what the Bard pilfered and changed

Shakespeare inhabited a literary culture in which imitation was applauded. This erudite study teases out his alchemical transformations of what he had read or seen

For a long time, the sedulous student who wants to see Shakespeare in the act of creation has been able to go to the extracts contained in the eight fat volumes of Geoffrey Bullough’s Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Here you can find the stories that he pilfered and changed. You can see how he twisted two completely separate tales together to make The Merchant of Venice, for example, or decided to kill Lear and Cordelia at the end of King Lear when in his chronicle source both survived, or made Othello Desdemona’s murderer, when in Cinthio’s original Italian story, it is Iago who does the deed. The volumes give a dizzying sense of the playwright’s narrative dexterity as you see him extracting ...

Astrid Lindgren: The Woman Behind Pippi Longstocking by Jens Andersen – review

A thoughtful biography of the children’s author reveals an exuberant nonconformist whose eventful life was touched by tragedy

Once upon a time, in the middle decades of the war-torn 20th century, there lived an Australian-born British theosophist and mystic, a respectable English woman hiding behind a man’s name, a gay and depressive Finnish Swede who lived half her life on a tiny island, and the firebrand daughter of a respectable Swedish farmer. These four women radically changed the landscape of children’s literature, making it wilder, stranger, more anarchic, and, crucially, more centred in the dreamy and unfettered imagination of the child.

PL Travers created Mary Poppins, whose sour magic Disney tried to tame. Richmal Crompton unleashed irrepressible Just William on to an unsuspecting conformist society. Tove Jansson beautifully gave us the mysterious outsider’s world of the Moomins. And from Astrid Lindgren bounded fabulous Pippi Longstocking, the strongest girl in ...

Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke review – an appetite for destruction

Kristen Radtke’s restless memoir of her search for abandoned places is like Planet of the Apes as told by Shelley

At the end of Planet of the Apes (accept no imitations: I mean the 1968 version), Charlton Heston, who plays an astronaut called Taylor, rides off into the distance. “What will he find out there?” wonders one ape. “His destiny,” replies another. In the next moment, we see the actor in shadow, on a bleak-looking shoreline. “Oh my God,” he says, recognition clouding his face. “I’m back. I’m home.” His voice cracks. He falls to his knees. The planet of the apes, he has realised, is Earth, destroyed in a nuclear war while he was off in space – and he is one of the last humans to walk its surface.

I thought of this scene more than once as I read Kristen Radtke’s graphic memoir Imagine Wanting Only This...

Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke review – an appetite for destruction

Kristen Radtke’s restless memoir of her search for abandoned places is like Planet of the Apes as told by Shelley

At the end of Planet of the Apes (accept no imitations: I mean the 1968 version), Charlton Heston, who plays an astronaut called Taylor, rides off into the distance. “What will he find out there?” wonders one ape. “His destiny,” replies another. In the next moment, we see the actor in shadow, on a bleak-looking shoreline. “Oh my God,” he says, recognition clouding his face. “I’m back. I’m home.” His voice cracks. He falls to his knees. The planet of the apes, he has realised, is Earth, destroyed in a nuclear war while he was off in space – and he is one of the last humans to walk its surface.

I thought of this scene more than once as I read Kristen Radtke’s graphic memoir Imagine Wanting Only This...

Thomas Paine by JCD Clark review – a High Tory on the radical hero

The veteran enfant terrible of English historians sets out to rescue the author of Common Sense from ‘from the enormous approbation of posterity’

JCD Clark is the veteran enfant terrible of English historical writing; now in his mid-60s, but still all petted lip, provocation and attention-seeking. A High Tory, Anglo-Catholic Little Englander, he has spent his career assaulting the central categories of the Whig-Liberal and Marxist versions of the English past. Clark identifies several moments of putrefaction in English history, such as EEC membership in 1973 and the Great Reform Act of 1832.

His Tory traditionalism reaches back further even than that of Jacob Rees-Mogg, the so-called “Honourable Member for the 18th Century”; for Clark thinks the rot set in earlier still, during the late 17th century, at the not-so-Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the country unforgivably abandoned the divine right of kings for the curdled compromises of parliamentary ...

Rebel Prince by Tom Bower – digested read

‘What shall I do?’ Prince Charles asked his mother when news broke about Diana’s death. ‘Forked if I know,’ she replied. ‘I want to watch the racing on TV’

This book tells the untold truth of the last 20 years of Prince Charles’s life. Up till now, everyone assumed the heir to the throne was a much-respected and well-loved man. But thanks to my research – trawling through the cuttings and speaking to 120 people who don’t like him very much but refused to go on the record – I can now exclusively reveal that he is a bit of a pampered, out-of-touch loser who likes homeopathy and despises modern architecture. As someone who knows Prince Charles well told me: “He has never recovered from being bullied by his father – and with any luck he won’t recover from being bullied by you.”

In July 1996, Prince Charles ...

The Making of the Wind in the Willows review – Toad, Ratty and a manifesto for gay living

Peter Hunt’s elegant account of the genesis of Kenneth Grahame’s classic only hints at the revelations the author has discussed in promotional interviews

It turns out that being a juvenile muse is no guarantee of a happy ending. Peter Llewelyn Davies, JM Barrie’s inspiration for Peter Pan, grew up only to kill himself. Christopher Milne AKA Christopher Robin was estranged from his mother. Alice Liddell of Wonderland fame seems to have been permanently cross. And then there was Alastair Grahame, for whom The Wind in the Willows was written in 1908. Twelve years later, and still in his teens, he stumbled out of his Oxford college, lay down on the railway line and waited for a train.

There’s one difference, though, between Grahame and the others. While Peter, Alice and Christopher appeared as characters in “their” books, he doesn’t. The Wind in the Willows grew out of bedtime stories that ...

Rebel Prince by Tom Bower review – is Charles the best argument for a republic?

The Prince emerges from this highly negative biography as vain, cold and out of touch. But it is only a partial account of his life and its contexts

“On the eve of his sixtieth birthday,” Tom Bower writes in his unauthorised biography of the Prince of Wales, “Charles overtook his great-great-grandfather Edward VII as the longest-waiting heir to the British throne.” That was nine years ago and Charles is still waiting to start the job he was supposedly born to do. He was widely mocked for saying, in 2004, that “Nobody knows what utter hell it is to be the Prince of Wales” – a remark that, like so many of his utterances lacks any sense of perspective about the struggles of ordinary people. Millions would happily suffer the “hell” of living in multiple palaces and going on skiing holidays to Klosters.

Yet it remains true that none of ...

Two Sisters by Asne Seierstad review – slow-burn Isis tragedy

A detailed exploration of how two teenage girls were lured from Norway to Syria by Isis lays bare the horrors of radicalisation

For a couple of years they flitted across our screens and newspapers like ghosts. One here, two or three there, once a group large enough to fill a minibus, mostly young, all seduced by a vision of purity, an urge to violence, or both. The Islamic State recruits who travelled from Europe had been neighbours, classmates, colleagues, members of close-knit families and intimate communities before they set off to a war zone, where they planned to build paradise on Earth.

But in their departures, announced on the news every few weeks, they seemed to become insubstantial, unreal, as hard to understand as they were to reach once they had crossed the border into Syria. In Two Sisters, Norwegian journalist and writer Åsne Seierstad, the author of bestseller The ...

Debussy by Stephen Walsh review – a fine biography of a painter in sound

The French composer was once dismissed as a Romantic or ‘impressionist’ who prioritised mood and feeling. This life digs deep into his innovations

It turns out that Claude Debussy lived exactly as any self-respecting artist should. He drank too much, showed unwise taste in women, never got the hang of money and assumed that anyone who didn’t see music exactly the same way as he did was a duffer. He often thought of taking his own life but it was actually his first wife who pulled the trigger on herself, standing in the Place de la Concorde to make sure everyone noticed. Finally, the great composer died young, or youngish, leaving posterity to speculate about just where his genius would have taken him next.

Don’t imagine, though, that Stephen Walsh’s compelling new biography, published to coincide with the centenary of Debussy’s death, consists simply of one slack anecdote after another. ...

Among the Living and the Dead by Inara Verzemnieks review – a memoir of the bloodlands

An American writer uncovers the remarkable story of her Latvian grandparents, as their homeland is conquered by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union

The map of Europe was shaped in the 20th century by complicity and disappearance. Mass murders. Expulsions. Colonisation. Countries vanished; whole peoples exterminated and displaced. For Europeans, this is the story of our continent, although rarely the version of the story we choose to say out loud. For Inara Verzemnieks, as the granddaughter of Latvian refugees who settled in the US, it’s the story of her family. Among the Living and the Dead is her effort to recover that family history – splintered as it is by war, migration, shame and loss – and put the unspeakable into words.

It is, like all attempted redemptions, both partial and painful. Renowned for her journalism in the Oregonian newspaper, she begins as any reporter should: by going to the ...

What can we learn about our wellbeing from memoirs of ill health?

Simon Gray, Christopher Hitchens, Joan Didion ... some of the most vivid memoirs have been accounts of illness. But what can they teach us about being well?

I was in my late 30s, and still comparatively fighting fit, when I first came across Simon Gray’s exquisite The Smoking Diaries, which catalogued the eminently fatal damage this thrilling curmudgeon was doing to his lungs with cigarettes. If we read to know that we are not alone, I can hardly fathom why his book so resonated with my younger, nicotine-free self, but the writing was wonderful. Likewise, when I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, her devastating account of how she coped after her husband’s death, my own spouse was, and remains at the time of going to press, very much alive.

I should like to point out that I consider myself possessed of a fairly upbeat disposition towards ...

Book claims Prince Charles is a capricious spendthrift obsessed with public opinion

Tom Bower’s unauthorised biography, Rebel Prince, reveals discontented future king who says his life is ‘utter hell’

An unauthorised new biography of Prince Charles paints a picture of a capricious man who is obsessed with the public’s opinion of him, whose lavish spending reveals a royal utterly divorced from the life of ordinary people.

According to Tom Bower’s Rebel Prince, published on Thursday by William Collins, Charles once “shrieked” and “trembled” at the sight of an unknown plastic substance covering his dinner, only to be told “It’s cling film, darling,” by Camilla. On another occasion, Bower claims the prince brought his own mattress, toilet seat, Kleenex Velvet toilet paper and two “landscapes of the Scottish Highlands” when visiting a friend in north-east England.

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Two Sisters by Åsne Seierstad review – a journey to join Islamic State

The author of The Bookseller of Kabul tells the true story of two jihadi daughters and the father who travels to Syria to try to change their minds

Ayan is 19 and Leila only 16 when their parents receive an unexpected email from them. “Please do not be cross with us, it was sooo hard for us to leave without saying goodbye.” They are travelling to Syria to join Islamic State. They want to help Muslims, they say, “everything from fetching water for the sick to working in refugee camps”.

The names of the two sisters have been changed, but the story – related by Åsne Seierstad, author of The Bookseller of Kabul – is entirely true. The girls are Norwegian-Somalis, from a devout but tolerant family. They’ve grown up and attended good schools in Baerum, “the Norwegian municipality with the highest percentage of millionaires and the greatest divide between rich and ...

In Byron’s Wake by Miranda Seymour – the Lord’s ladies

Byron’s wife and daughter - Annabella Milbanke and Ada Lovelace – can’t escape the shadow of the great libertine in this in-depth account of their lives

On 18 September 1814, Lord Byron was dining at his house, Newstead Abbey, with his apothecary and Augusta Leigh, the half-sister with whom he had recently had a baby daughter, when a gardener brought in his late mother’s wedding ring, disinterred from a nearby flowerbed. The man’s timing was eerie. Also delivered to the breakfast table that fateful morning was a letter from a clever and impetuous heiress called Annabella Milbanke in which she accepted his (somewhat grudging) proposal of marriage. Seeing both, the superstitious Byron turned a little white – though his shivery mood seems to have had no effect on his acerbity. “It never rains but it pours,” he is reported to have said, on reading Milbanke’s note.

Thus was a doomed marriage sealed – though ...

Raw by Lamont ‘U-God’ Hawkins review – the gritty Wu-Tang Clan backstory

The Clan member’s hard-hitting hip-hop memoir ranges across martial arts lore, drug dealing and black Muslim self-empowerment

The rule about history being the propaganda of the victors applies just as clearly to Staten Island rap crew Wu-Tang Clan as to any other battle-ready cadre. The group’s now Hollywood-domiciled mastermind Robert Diggs (AKA RZA) has already put a down payment on posterity’s thumbs up with not one but two well written and informative volumes: a nuts-and-bolts guide, The Wu Tang Manual, and the more philosophically minded The Tao of Wu. So an alternative, bottom-up rather than top-down take on the Clan’s roughneck backstory was long overdue.

No one would call Lamont “U-God” Hawkins a Wu‑Tang also-ran – at least, not to his face – but he certainly isn’t the member of the ensemble the British public would name first in a hip-hop-themed episode of Family Fortunes. (That would be Ghostface ...