On your bike: the best books about cycling

With the Tour de France in full swing, saddle up and check out the greatest books on two wheels

In Mythologies, Roland Barthes argued that the Tour de France was an epic ritual as much as it was a sporting event. For Barthes the race, which set off from the village of Noirmoutier-en-l’Île in north-west France last Saturday, traversed “a veritable Homeric geography”, providing a way to map a nation and celebrate the heroic tenacity of those who cycled through it.

Books about racing have tended to focus of the physical suffering endured by the long-distance road cyclist (and often on their chemical aids). As early as 1902 the experimental playwright and novelist Alfred Jarry, who scandalised French literary society by wearing his cycling outfit to the poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s funeral, described the way in which competitive cycling reduced riders to machines. His absurdist, whimsical novella The ...

Free love, flower power and fallouts: how kids cope with communes

Nostalgia for 1960s counterculture is everywhere – on Instagram, TV and in fashion. But what was life really like for the children of hippy parents?

It’s not easy being a child of the revolution. While hippies sought to explore alternative ways of living through a spiritual quest for enlightenment and mind-altering drugs, their children weren’t always thrilled to be the guinea pigs in child rearing experiments. In most depictions, hippy kids face a whole spectrum of issues as a result of their parents’ decisions to embrace alternative lifestyles, with mild packed-lunch embarrassment at one end and severe neglect at the other. “You could hear people having orgasmic sex all the time. All night, like mating baboons, gibbons,” Noa Maxwell told this newspaper, recounting his experience of growing up in the ashram featured in the recent Netflix documentary Wild, Wild Country. When he was six, he got accidentally stoned eating ...

For the struggling middle class, Alissa Quart has a message: you’re not alone

Many have found life financial precarious since the recession but, as the author of Squeezed explains, ‘It’s a system failure’

Alissa Quart wants you to know that it’s not your fault.

If you’re one of the growing number of middle-class Americans who is highly educated but underemployed, laden with student debt and struggling to get by, then Quart wants you to know that you shouldn’t blame yourself. “It’s a system failure,” Quart says urgently, leaning across the table. “It’s been going on for decades and it’s culminating now in the American middle class.”

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Female role models to inspire change in society | Letters

We need more books for both boys and girls that normalise girls as adventurous, confident and capable leaders, writes Jean Pollard. And why can no one remember the work of Eleanor Marx? asks John Airs

I very much enjoyed the supplement of best new children’s books (16 June) but how disappointing to see the continuing massive overrepresentation of male protagonists in these stories. While some recommended books did have a female lead, and there were a couple of books about real heroic women (one described as being sure to inspire girls – why not boys?), there were far, far more where the lead character was a boy and where girls remain accessories in boy’s stories. We need more books for both boys and girls to read that normalise girls as adventurous, confident and capable leaders in a whole host of activities hitherto seen as “boys’ stuff” if we are ...

Novel recipes: coconut cake from North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Basing it on a cake served to Gaskell’s heroine Margaret Hale, Kate Young adapts a recipe that might have been a little too flashy for sensible Mr Dixon

  • Scroll down for the recipe

Behind the door was another table, decked out for tea, with a white tablecloth, on which flourished the cocoa-nut cakes, and a basket piled with oranges and ruddy American apples, heaped on leaves.

It appeared to Mr Thornton that all these graceful cares were habitual to the family; and especially of a piece with Margaret.

North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell

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Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively review – a rewarding, evocative ramble

In this vivid meditation, the novelist traces her love of gardens from childhood in Egypt to London and through art and literature

Penelope Lively modestly admits she is “only the most amateur gardener”. And yet this delightful and very personal paean to gardens amply demonstrates her abiding love of tending them.

From the hot, sunny garden in Egypt where she grew up and discovered the joys of reading amid bamboo groves and lily ponds, to the small London one in her ninth decade and with a chronic back problem, gardens have always played a “formative and essential” role in her life.

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Are literary classics behind the misogyny of the incel movement?

Incels aren’t monsters of cruel internet culture – they are the product of the American literary canon that has long glorified male sexual frustration

One month ago, Alek Minassian drove through a Toronto shopping district in a rented van, killing 10 people and injuring 16 more. Analysis of Minassian’s online activity – where he participated in forums for the involuntarily celibate, or incels – quickly revealed the attack’s motivation: he was avenging himself on the women (apparently all of us) who had rejected him. He declared that with his act of terrorism, the “incel rebellion” had begun – although he was not the first self-described incel to use his sexlessness as an excuse for acts of mass violence.

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Jilly Cooper: modern men have beards and cry all the time

Author tells Hay festival of phenomenon of ‘married men wanting to have gay affairs’

Jilly Cooper, the doyenne of the posh bonkbuster, has given her observations on modern men: they cry too much, always have a beard and are perhaps so scared of women they seek relationships with men.

In a lively talk at the Hay literary festival on Thursday, Cooper, mostly with her tongue in her cheek, spoke about sex, horses, football, gender fluidity and Germaine Greer, who had appeared at Hay the previous day.

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Why are middle-aged women invisible on book covers? | Alison Flood

Even when they’re central to the story, women over 40 are getting pushed to one side when it’s time to design the book jacket

Here’s a challenge for you: find a book jacket that features an image of a woman over 40.

My own hunt – as yet unsuccessful – was prompted by the actor and novelist Barbara Ewing, whose novel about a drama-school reunion, The Actresses, has just been reissued. Ewing says she cried when she first saw the cover of the 1997 edition – although it focuses on women over 50, the jacket image was a close up of a young woman’s face. This time around, she and publisher Head of Zeus have gone for an elegant photograph of a silver-haired woman that measures up perfectly to the book’s protagonists. But Ewing says bookshops aren’t interested.

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Word of the week: obesogen

If it ends with -ogen, it means something is being produced – in this case something that will make us dangerously overwight

Is your house a disgusting swamp of peril and sickness? The latest everything-is-terrifying news is the suggestion this week that dust and other particles around the home can be “obesogens” and stealthily cause us to become dangerously overweight.

The suffix -gen or -ogen (from the Greek for birth; compare “genesis”) indicates that something is being produced. An “immunogen” is any substance that produces an immune response in an organism. The substance originally known as “burnt air” or “mephitic air” was christened nitrogen after it was found to be present in nitric acid.

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Breaking the silence: are we getting better at talking about death?

As the media brings us constant news of strangers’ deaths, grief memoirs fill our shelves and dramatic meditations are performed to big crowds, we have reached a new understanding of mortality, says Edmund de Waal

Bereavement is ragged. The papers are full of a child’s last months, the protests outside hospitals, the press conferences, court cases, international entreaties, the noise of vituperation and outrage at the end of a life. A memorial after a violent death is put up on a suburban fence. It is torn down, then restored. This funeral in south London becomes spectacle: the cortege goes round and round the streets. The mourners throw eggs at the press. On the radio a grieving mother talks of the death of her young son, pleading for an end to violence. This is the death that will make a difference. She is speaking to her son, speaking for her son. ...

Top 10 books to understand happiness

The science of happiness is complex, but alongside psychologists and neurologists, larks from the likes of Spike Milligan and Terry Pratchett have useful things to impart

Everyone knows it. Everyone wants it. But what is happiness, really? What’s going on in our brains when we experience the much-sought-after emotion? That’s what I wanted to find out when writing my new book, The Happy Brain. What did I find out? Essentially, that it’s very complicated, as is typically the case when looking at anything produced by the brain. One of the only firm conclusions I arrived at is that anyone offering a simple “secret” or “key” or “five easy tips” for happiness that work for everyone is either hopelessly naive or actively misleading.

In truth there are so many things that influence our happiness; our environment, our age, our relationships and community, our jobs and ambitions, our health, our wealth, our ...

Tom Wolfe obituary: a great dandy, in elaborate dress and neon-lit prose

Journalist and author who won a name as a brilliant satirist with the ‘novel of the 1980s’, The Bonfire of the Vanities

The writer Tom Wolfe, who has died aged 88, was a great dandy, both in his elaborate dress and his neon-lit prose. Although he was in his late 50s when he became a bestselling novelist, with The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), some 30 years before that he was already famous as a journalist, was indeed that extremely rare thing, the journalist as international celebrity.

It was a part Wolfe played up to, wearing showy tailor-made white suits, summer and winter, as well as fancy headgear and shirts with detachable collars. The overall impression was of a fashionplate from a bygone age. The sartorial fireworks fitted in very well with the highly eccentric literary style Wolfe used and which made such a name for him when he ...

Prone to getting it wrong about Karl Marx | Letters

Repositioning Marx | Older women | Book price gap | Predictive text | Stormy clue

That’s twice in one week we’ve been informed that someone is prone when in fact they’re supine (Hero or villain? While west Germany rethinks Marx, east leaves him in the cold, 5 May). The statue of Karl Marx captioned as being “prone” is clearly looking up. Here’s a little mnemonic that might help: points resting on earth = prone; staring up in expectation = supine.
Fr Alec Mitchell
Manchester

• As an older woman I recently had to see my young GP prior to a visit to a consultant (Older women didn’t speak up. They’re used to being ignored, 4 May). He said to me: “My strong advice is to stop being nice and tell the truth.” Feeling reassured, I did.
Jean Jackson
Seer Green, Buckinghamshire

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No Cinderella: Margo Jefferson on the real Meghan Markle

She’s educated, divorced, a woman of colour, a feminist – and a radical addition to the royal family. Will she revolutionise the House of Windsor?

In February I saw a photo of Meghan Markle and the Duchess of Cambridge sitting next to each other at the Royal Foundation Forum, wearing colour coordinated dresses (lavender for Kate, deep purple-blue for Meghan). It wasn’t their dresses I minded, it was how they sat – legs crossed neatly at the ankle, knees pressed firmly together. It was that dulce et decorum pose passed down to generations of girls and young women expected to demonstrate their good breeding on social occasions – expected to show they are “ladies”. Both Kate and Meghan had folded their hands in their laps, the arms forming a gentle circle, the hands quietly clasped, as if ready to shelter a child or calm a kingdom’s cares. But it ...

Elena Ferrante: ‘God didn’t make a good impression on my teenage self’

I have no liking for the throne we have assigned ourselves by declaring that we are beloved children of God and lords of the universe

When it comes to religion, I recognise myself in the three Marys, who, when they go to the grave and learn from an angel that Jesus has come back to life from the dead, begin trembling, beside themselves with fear. My religious experience stopped there.

It happened when I was around 16. I read the gospels one after another, and the entire life of Jesus seemed terrible to me. The resurrection itself I found terrifying: not a comforting conclusion. I hope I’ll have an opportunity to recount that adolescent experience of reading in detail. Here I will say only that the story of the gospels seemed to demonstrate at every step that human nature, beyond some arrogant declarations of its centrality, was depraved, devoted to ...

Viv Albertine: ‘I set out to write about an unpleasant woman who fantasised about murder. It turned out to be me’

Writing honestly about her mother’s death and her dysfunctional family has helped her to survive

Looking down at my mother’s pale, papery face as she lay on her care-home bed, eyes closed, breaths sounding as if they were gurgling up from the bottom of a mud swamp, I accepted at last that she was going to die. My sister, who had arrived half an hour before me and requisitioned the “best” side of the bed, clutched Mum’s head in the crook of her arm and cooed at her. I held Mum’s hand but she was twisted away from me towards my sister. I felt excluded from her death.

I’d received a message 40 minutes before, while at the launch party for my first book, that Mum was turning blue, so I left the party and raced across town in a cab. I was relieved when I arrived to see that my mother was still alive ...

Viv Albertine: ‘I set out to write about an unpleasant woman who fantasised about murder. It turned out to be me’

Writing honestly about her mother’s death and her dysfunctional family has helped her to survive

Looking down at my mother’s pale, papery face as she lay on her care-home bed, eyes closed, breaths sounding as if they were gurgling up from the bottom of a mud swamp, I accepted at last that she was going to die. My sister, who had arrived half an hour before me and requisitioned the “best” side of the bed, clutched Mum’s head in the crook of her arm and cooed at her. I held Mum’s hand but she was twisted away from me towards my sister. I felt excluded from her death.

I’d received a message 40 minutes before, while at the launch party for my first book, that Mum was turning blue, so I left the party and raced across town in a cab. I was relieved when I arrived to see that my mother was still alive ...