Not Speaking by Norma Clarke review – tight trousers and celebrity hairdressers


This post is by Kathryn Hughes from Books | The Guardian


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This is an explosive family memoir ... but the remarkable stories are also an exploration of the effect Thatcherism had on Britain

When Rena Clarke was widowed in 2006 at the age of 83, her six middle-aged children duly stepped up to the plate. Nicky, the richest, installed Rena in a luxury flat and continued to take her to church on Sunday. Another son, Michael, managed her money, while daughters Linda, Norma and Tina took turns with marathon sessions of tidying up and chucking out. But then, in the run-up to Christmas 2014, it all started to go wrong for reasons that remain obscure, even now that Norma, the clever one in the family, has set it all down in this intriguing memoir. It’s something to do with Nicky thinking that the others should make a bigger financial contribution to Rena’s upkeep, and Michael being cross about rising property prices in ...

The Way to the Sea by Caroline Crampton review – the Thames, but no fond cliches


This post is by Aditya Chakrabortty from Books | The Guardian


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More mud and shipwrecks than prosecco and punting … a personal, enjoyable celebration of the Thames from source to sea

Early in the spring of 1984, four years before Caroline Crampton was born, her parents embarked on a journey that would shape her life and lead, several decades later, to this book. In a boat they had built themselves over three years of snatched evenings and stolen weekends, they set sail from Cape Town and bobbed up the Atlantic. Using paper maps and taking only short breaks at Ascension Island and the Azores, they headed north until, at 3am on 17 September, they Scherzo arrived in the mudflats of the Thames. They spent that winter basking not in the azure warmth of South Africa but 8,000 miles away at St Katharine Docks, where the waters froze around their boat and ducks trotted on ice past their cabin. Yet they stayed.

...

Homesick by Catrina Davies; Skint Estate by Cash Carraway – review


This post is by Tim Adams from Books | The Guardian


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Two powerful books by low-paid women struggling to keep a roof over their heads illustrate the severity of Britain’s housing crisis

These two very different books, by women in their late 30s, are written in response to the same question: how do you find a room to call your own in Britain in 2019?

Catrina Davies eventually attempted to answer it by living in a corrugated-iron shed near Land’s End. Cash Carraway, whose financial plight is exacerbated by being a single mother – her daughter is her joy and saving grace – bluntly details life as a sex worker and zero-hours minimum-wage slave in order to keep any kind of roof over their heads in London. Reading the memoirs consecutively offers a lesson both in despair and in resourcefulness. It is also a reminder that poverty in this country is not confined to one place: there are windowless bedsits ...

Primo Levi brings readers as close as prose can to the horror of Auschwitz


This post is by Sam Jordison from Books | The Guardian


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If This Is a Man’s vivid, precisely told story keeps us aware of all the individual tragedies occurring amid the mass barbarity of the camps

While in Auschwitz, the exhausted and starving Primo Levi was not even granted the reprieve of a night’s sleep. The hours of darkness were, he writes in If This Is a Man, long, laid on his narrow wooden bunk with his nose pressed up against the feet of a man whose own face he had never seen, “forced to exchange sweats, smells and warmth … under the same blanket”. Those smells might well include slops. The watery soup the prisoners were fed tormented them at night, sending them in “procession to a bucket”. When this stinking vessel was filled, it had to be emptied – about 20 times a night. “Inevitably, with the shaking,” writes Levi, “some of the content overflows on our feet, so ...

Ten years ago, I thought Britain was becoming more tolerant. I was wrong


This post is by Sarfraz Manzoor from Books | The Guardian


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Sarfraz Mansoor recalled the racism of his childhood in Luton in his memoir Greetings from Bury Park. As a film adaptation is released, he asks how much has really changed

Boris Johnson was still a backbench Conservative MP and Donald Trump was a property developer and reality television star in the summer that Greetings from Bury Park was published. It was June 2007. I was 36, a journalist and broadcaster living in London. The world I worked in was white, middle-class and metropolitan – a long way from the world in which I had been raised. I had grown up in Luton, the working-class son of Pakistani parents. My father arrived in Britain in 1963 and my mother followed 11 years later with their three children. I was almost three years old. Bury Park was the Asian district of Luton, and my father worked on the production line at the ...

Homesick by Catrina Davies review – living in a shed


This post is by Gavin Francis from Books | The Guardian


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When housing is so expensive that the only thing left is to pack a van, head to Cornwall and set up in a shed

“I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach,” wrote Henry David Thoreau of his famous decision to live in a shed, in the woods, a few miles outside the town of Concord, Massachusetts. “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” he went on; “I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.”

Thoreau’s neighbours thought him selfish – but we’re still reading about Thoreau. Catrina Davies doesn’t presume she’ll still be read in a century and a half, but with Homesick, her memoir of life in ...

Top 10 books about walking in Britain | Gail Simmons


This post is by Gail Simmons from Books | The Guardian


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Travelling on foot is a national obsession that has inspired a whole tradition of great writing, from Laurie Lee to Iain Sinclair

Britain is a nation of walkers. Our landmass may be modest in size but is latticed with a generous 140,000 miles of public footpaths, bridleways and byways, and exploring them is one of our favourite pastimes.

It wasn’t always so. Before the late 18th century most people walked only because they had to, or if they were on pilgrimage. Walking was the preserve of the horseless poor. With the rise of the Romantic movement came the idea of walking for pleasure, prompting such poets as Wordsworth to some of their finest words after traipsing the countryside on foot.

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Flash Count Diary by Darcey Steinke review – a book you want to argue with


This post is by Rachel Cooke from Books | The Guardian


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The American’s weird account of the trials of the menopause is enough to drive anyone to distraction

If your house was on fire, you would run away. But the body, impossible to escape, is a different matter. Waking at three in the morning, Darcey Steinke, an American writer who is in her 50s, experiences a tremendous blaze. It begins in her stomach, bowls along her nerves, courses behind her face and finally radiates from the top of her head. Fierce and raging, it makes her want to burst out of her own skin: up and away like a rocket, through the roof and into the cool air beyond. What to do? Downstairs, she presses the improvised fire extinguisher that is a bag of frozen peas hard to her chest.

Steinke’s Flash Count Diary, in which she hopes to tell “a new story” about the menopause, began its life ...

Top 10 books about the River Thames


This post is by Caroline Crampton from Books | The Guardian


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From bucolic source to marshy lower reaches, London’s mighty river has inspired great writing

The Thames is 215 miles from source to sea, and for centuries writers of all kinds have been inspired by it, returning to its banks again and again to explore what it can tell us about memory, history and landscape. It’s one of the most written-about parts of Britain – there’s something irresistible about the river that makes it a perfect background to all kinds of storytelling.

My introduction to this wealth of river writing began at the end: I grew up sailing on the Thames estuary – the muddy, sometimes smelly, coastal area downstream from London where the famous river finally joins the North Sea. My parents arrived here after sailing thousands of miles from South Africa in a boat they had built themselves. By the time I was born a few years later, the ...

From foot-binding to feminism: a millennial charts China’s rapid change


This post is by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett from Books | The Guardian


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Karoline Kan’s memoir Under Red Skies charts the very different lives of three generations of women in her family. She talks about a giddying journey

When I sit down with Chinese journalist Karoline Kan to talk about her memoir, Under Red Skies, it is 5 June: the day after the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Kan’s emotional discovery of what is euphemistically referred to as “the June Fourth Incident” forms a moving part of her memoir about life as a millennial in China. “China collapsed for me suddenly,” she writes of the day she used a VPN to skirt web censorship and first learned of the killing and injuring of thousands, as she binged hungrily on suddenly accessible western coverage. “I no longer understood what was in front of me. I had no faith in what I had been brought up to believe.”

She explains: “When you ...

On the Red Hill by Mike Parker review – Reg and George, together 60 years


This post is by Simon Callow from Books | The Guardian


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A moving, multilayered memoir – both exemplary gay social history and an account of the author’s quest for belonging

Mike Parker’s extraordinary, ambitious, many layered memoir opens with a scene from 2006, a civil partnership ceremony in the town of Machynlleth in rural Wales, only two months after such things became possible. There are two couples at the centre of the book: a fortysomething Parker and his somewhat younger lover Peredur, and – the couple just legally recognised – Reg and George, respectively 79 and 89 years old. “Their 62 years together encompassed the full gamut of society’s attitudes,” Parker writes. “For the first 18 years of their relationship, its very existence was illegal. Yet they were together long enough to go from being outlawed by the state to being married by one of its officials.” The younger couple had become close friends with the older, but they were ...

The Apology by Eve Ensler review – my father, who abused me


This post is by Arifa Akbar from Books | The Guardian


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The Vagina Monologues writer revisits her childhood in a powerful imagined letter from her father – the words of repentance he never uttered

Eve Ensler begins her memoir with a simple dedication: “For every woman still waiting for an apology.” Ensler counts among these women herself. The award-winning American playwright and activist who has spent decades campaigning globally against anti-female violence, was ritually assaulted by her father, Arthur Ensler. It began as sexual abuse when she was five. By the time she was 10, he was choking her, punching her in the face, threatening to stab her and beating her with belts and paddles in sickening acts of pain and humiliation. Eve’s mother looked on in silence. Her family was pitted against her. Arthur died 31 years ago; he had not uttered any words of repentance.

Earlier this month, the TV presenter and comedian, Ellen DeGeneres, spoke of her ...

The Rings of Saturn opens on to a dizzy range of allusions and illusions


This post is by Sam Jordison from Books | The Guardian


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WG Sebald’s beguiling narrative takes in an enormous collection of different topics at the same time as playing seductive games with fact and fiction

Here’s a rough list of the different topics WG Sebald touches on during the first 10 pages of The Rings of Saturn:

A walk in Suffolk, undertaken by Sebald himself.

Post-work “emptiness”.

A superstition about ailments that assail you “under the sign of the Dog Star”.

Sebald’s hospitalisation in Norwich.

The view from Sebald’s hospital bed.

The nature of reality.

Gregor Samsa.

Norwich rooftops at twilight.

Michael Parkinson, a UEA academic who studied Charles Ramuz.

Parkinson’s walking holidays, and his death.

The death of Romance languages lecturer, Janine Dakyns, and her interest in 19th-century French novels.

Gustave Flaubert.

Stupidity. Everywhere.

Sand.

Africa, the Mediterranean, the Iberian peninsula, the Tuileries gardens, a suburb of Rouen, the Sahara.

Dust.

Glaciers.

The angel in Dürer’s Melencolia I.

Surgeon ...

Mother Ship by Francesca Segal review – in at the neonatal deep end


This post is by Hannah Beckerman from Books | The Guardian


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Segal’s diary of giving birth to premature twins is raw yet exquisite

When Francesca Segal’s identical twin girls were born 10 weeks prematurely she found herself in a place far removed from the imagined, idealised early weeks of parenthood. Instead of bonding as a family at home, she and her husband took up almost permanent residence in the neonatal intensive care unit, watching and waiting to see if their daughters would survive.

Segal’s diary of those first 56 days of her daughters’ lives creates a compelling and emotionally taut exploration of what it means to be a parent in unexpected and challenging circumstances. From the opening pages, when Segal describes her feelings about the psychological aftermath of her C-section and the immediate removal of her babies to intensive care, we know we are in unflinching territory: “Taking my unready daughters from within me felt not like a birth but ...

Ocean Vuong: ‘As a child I would ask: What’s napalm?’


This post is by Emma Brockes from Books | The Guardian


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How did a Vietnamese refugee come to write what many are hailing as the great American novel?

While he was an undergraduate, Ocean Vuong formed the habit of writing at night. During the day, he studied literature at Brooklyn College and worked in a cafe. At night, he stayed up writing poems. It wasn’t just the sense of isolation that comes from being the only one awake, when “you look out of the window and it’s completely dark and you’re at sea in this little ship”. It was more that writing in the off-hours relaxed his knack for self-criticism. “You get the last word of the day,” he says. “The editor in your head – the nagging, insecure, worrisome social editor – starts to retire. When that editor falls asleep, I get to do what I want. The cat’s out to play.”

The poems that came out of those ...

Ocean Vuong: ‘As a child I would ask: What’s napalm?’


This post is by Emma Brockes from Books | The Guardian


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How did a Vietnamese refugee come to write what many are hailing as the great American novel?

While he was an undergraduate, Ocean Vuong formed the habit of writing at night. During the day, he studied literature at Brooklyn College and worked in a cafe. At night, he stayed up writing poems. It wasn’t just the sense of isolation that comes from being the only one awake, when “you look out of the window and it’s completely dark and you’re at sea in this little ship”. It was more that writing in the off-hours relaxed his knack for self-criticism. “You get the last word of the day,” he says. “The editor in your head – the nagging, insecure, worrisome social editor – starts to retire. When that editor falls asleep, I get to do what I want. The cat’s out to play.”

The poems that came out of those ...

Édouard Louis: ‘We didn’t reject literature – it rejected us’


This post is by Kim Willsher from Books | The Guardian


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The enfant terrible of French writing talks about the violence perpetrated by the political system on the working class

Édouard Louis became an international literary sensation aged 21, when The End of Eddy, his debut autobiographical novel about growing up poor, gay and bullied in northern France, was published in 2014. Last year, History of Violence recounted how he was raped and almost murdered by a man he had just met and is out now in paperback. In his third book Who Killed My Father, published earlier this year, Louis uses personal experience again – in this case the story of his father whose back was damaged in a factory accident – to launch a scathing social and political critique of the violence he sees perpetrated against the working class. “I want to be a writer of violence,” he has said. “The more you talk about violence, the ...

Book clinic: which books will help me navigate singledom in my early 20s?


This post is by Candice Carty-Williams from Books | The Guardian


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Novelist and journalist Candice Carty-Williams recommends guidebooks to love and life from Nora Ephron to Bryony Gordon

Q: What books will best help me to navigate singledom in my early twenties, the position I find myself in at the moment?
Junior doctor, 23

Novelist and journalist Candice Carty-Williams writes:

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Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer review – winning at 19 a 600-mile horse race


This post is by Sarah Moss from Books | The Guardian


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No GPS, not enough snacks and rivalry with a pink-clad blonde ... a compelling memoir that resists the cliches

This is a memoir of a very young woman winning a very long horse race in Mongolia. Lara Prior-Palmer was 19 when in 2013, to the surprise of all, she became the first woman to win the 1,000km Mongol Derby (the course of which is based on Genghis Khan’s 13th-century horse messenger system). I am afraid of horses, bored by competitive sports and no more interested in Mongolia than a person of average curiosity should be, and yet I found Rough Magic strangely compelling.

It’s not the writing, which veers between adolescent philosophising (“animals were our first teachers”) and moments of raw brilliance. It’s not the quest narrative of the race, because we know from the beginning that our heroine wins. It’s not the landscape, because Prior-Palmer resists romanticism (“little rock there ...

Stanford sexual assault survivor to publish book about her ordeal


This post is by Sian Cain from Books | The Guardian


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Publisher promises the as yet untitled work by ‘Emily Doe’ will reclaim her story and ‘change the way we talk about sexual assault forever’

The anonymous Californian woman who was sexually assaulted by Stanford University student Brock Turner and whose powerful victim’s statement was read by millions around the world, is writing a book about the assault and trial, and her recovery.

Publicly known only as “Emily Doe”, the then 22-year-old was unconscious when she was sexually assaulted by Turner behind a dumpster on campus in 2015. The case made headlines around the world when Turner repeatedly claimed alcohol was to blame and that the encounter was consensual, while his father called the attack “20 minutes of action”.

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