Tag Archives: The Guardian

Ann Patchett on running a bookshop in lockdown: ‘We’re a part of our community as never before’

Ann Patchett

Fri 10 Apr 2020 02.00 EDT


The novelist reveals how the store she co-owns in Nashville is making, and remaking, plans to get books to readers who want them more than ever.

We closed Parnassus Books, the bookstore I co-own in Nashville, on the same day all the stores around us closed. I can’t tell you when that was because I no longer have a relationship with my calendar.

All the days are now officially the same. My business partner Karen and I talked to the staff and told them if they didn’t feel comfortable coming in that was fine. We would continue to pay them for as long as we could. But if they were OK to work in an empty bookstore, we were going to try to keep shipping books.

In the first week we did kerbside delivery, which meant a customer could call the store and tell us what they wanted. We would take their credit card information over the phone and then run the books out to the parking lot and sling them into the open car window. Kerbside delivery seemed like a good idea but the problem was, so many people were calling that the staff wound up clustered around the cash registers, ringing up orders. No good. We reassessed and decided that all books would have to be mailed, even the books that were just going down the street.

We make our plans. We change our plans. We make other plans. This is the new world order.

Our bookstore is spacious and tidy, with rolling ladders to reach the highest shelves, a long leather sofa, and a cheerful children’s section with a colourful mural featuring a frog telling a story to a rapt pack of assorted animals. The backroom is the polar opposite, a barely contained bedlam jammed with desks, towering flats of broken down boxes, boxes full of new releases, boxes of books to be returned. There are Christmas decorations, abandoned spinner displays, dog beds, day-old doughnuts. We are squashed in there together, forced to listen to one another’s private phone conversations and sniff one another’s perfume.

It is not the landscape of social distancing.

But in the absence of customers coming to browse, the backroom folks have moved to the capacious store front, setting up folding tables far away from each other to make our private spaces. We crank up the music. We pull books off the shelves. The floor is a sea of cardboard boxes – orders completed, orders still waiting on one more book. We make no attempt to straighten anything up before leaving at night. We have neither the impetus nor the energy. There are bigger fish to fry. Orders are coming in as fast as we can fill them.

I think of how I used to talk in the pre-pandemic world, going on about the importance of reading and shopping local and supporting independent bookstores. These days I realise the extent to which it’s true – I understand now that we’re a part of our community as never before, and that our community is the world. When a friend of mine, stuck in his tiny New York apartment, told me he dreamed of being able to read the new Louise Erdrich book, I made that dream come true. I can solve nothing, I can save no one, but dammit, I can mail Patrick a copy of The Night Watchman.

At least for now. We’re part of a supply chain that relies on publishers to publish the books and distributors to ship the books and the postal service to pick up the boxes and take them away. We rely on our noble booksellers filling the boxes to stay healthy and stay away from each other. So far this fragile ecosystem is holding, though I understand that in the distance between my writing this piece and your reading it, it could fall apart. Today is what we’ve got, this quiet day in which finally there is time to read again. So call your local bookstore and see if they’re still shipping. It turns out the community of readers and books is the community we needed in the good old days, and it’s the community we need in hard times, and it’s the community we’ll want to be there when this whole thing is over.

Leave a comment

Filed under 2020, bookshop, bookstore

All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg review – the sins of the father

This penetrating examination of misogyny and family ties focuses on a dying gangster, and the women he made suffer


Ben Libman

“The only problem she had was men, who constantly bothered her”: this might be the motto of Jami Attenberg’s latest novel. The line is uttered by Twyla, the daughter-in-law of a dying misogynist gangster named Victor Tuchman. She’s not alone in feeling this way about men in general, and Victor in particular. His wife, Barbra, and his daughter, Alex, have also gathered to see whether the man who made their lives miserable will die, and to figure out how much they really care. This story is about them.

The bulk of the novel takes place over a single day, just after Victor has been for a heart attack. The setting is present-day New Orleans, where Victor and Barbra have moved after a long, mansion-bound life in Connecticut, ostensibly to be near their son, Gary, and his wife and daughter, Twyla and Avery. But Victor is a deceptive man, even to his children. He is also a bad man.

Though we’re never given the exact nature of his crimes, we learn that he was a New Jersey gangster, more or less of the Sopranos variety. He was also an abusive husband and father, a philanderer and a tyrant and likely a rapist. Whatever the details of his life, their implications have long been clear to Alex: “Her gut told her he should be in jail right now.”

It is the women around Victor – Barbra, Alex and Twyla – who must endure the hurricane of his life, who must try to love him, to make him happy, to cover up for him, and who are all upbraided and assaulted by him. Much like Attenberg’s 2012 book The Middlesteins, this novel is uncompromising in its penetrating treatment of the ties that bind a family together.

Attenberg weaves her narrative with a scintillating and often wry prose; her love for her characters, and her keen interest in their joys and longings, never fails to shine through. Often she sets scenes with the terseness of a screenplay, but periodically she plunges into rich description, as when Twyla, crying, looks in the mirror and notices “lips in distress, cracked at the edges, only half the color left behind, the other half disappeared, god knows where, absorbed into skin, into air, into grief”.

These tears are not just for Victor’s victims. Alex must plead with her ex-husband, Bobby, not to expose their daughter to his compulsive lechery. Twyla has lived the bulk of her life trying not to wither beneath the male gaze, and now finds herself more distanced from Gary than ever. Barbra struggles to understand why she still loves her husband, after all this time. And all of them live under the shadow of another, casually destructive man: as Alex thinks every day, “our president [is] a moron and the world [is] falling apart”. The varied experiences of these characters make it clear that the bad man is not an exception to the rule of manhood; he merely defines its borders.

Jami Attenberg

The novel is not only concerned with gender politics: it also frequently returns to questions of socioeconomic class. And yet, it is weaker on this topic. We get cursory moments of virtue-signalling, when the narrative pauses briefly on working people – a cashier, a waitress, a tram driver – to tell us about the second job they’re forced to hold, or about how much they hate privileged tourists. The novel tells us about mass graves for the indigent, and gives us 30 pages with Sharon, a black woman only tangentially related to the plot, who lifts up her neighbourhood while suffering the effects of white gentrification.

But none of these people is a protagonist, none of their lives is centred. The novel points to them, wants them to be recognised; but it refuses to perform that recognition itself. “Whatever we do tonight, let’s not talk about politics,” Alex says to a man she meets at a bar, just after an altercation with a homeless man on the street. Despite the book’s signals to the contrary, this might be its other motto.

All This Could Be Yours is published by Serpent’s Tail.

Leave a comment

Filed under 2020, book review

Want to ‘Train Your Brain’? Forget Apps, Learn a Musical Instrument

Musical training can have a dramatic impact on your brain’s structure, enhancing your memory, spatial reasoning, and language skills.

The Guardian |

  • Mo Costandi


The multimillion dollar brain training industry is under attack. In October 2014, a group of over 100 eminent neuroscientists and psychologists wrote an open letter warning that “claims promoting brain games are frequently exaggerated and at times misleading.” In 2016, industry giant Lumosity was fined $2m, and ordered to refund thousands of customers who were duped by false claims that the company’s products improve general mental abilities and slow the progression of age-related decline in mental abilities. And a recent review examining studies purporting to show the benefits of such products found “little evidence … that training improves improves everyday cognitive performance.”

While brain training games and apps may not live up to their hype, it is well established that certain other activities and lifestyle choices can have neurological benefits that promote overall brain health and may help to keep the mind sharp as we get older. One of these is musical training. Research shows that learning to play a musical instrument is beneficial for children and adults alike, and may even be helpful to patients recovering from brain injuries.

“Music probably does something unique,” explains neuropsychologist Catherine Loveday of the University of Westminster. “It stimulates the brain in a very powerful way, because of our emotional connection with it.”

Playing a musical instrument is a rich and complex experience that involves integrating information from the senses of vision, hearing, and touch, as well as fine movements, and learning to do so can induce long-lasting changes in the brain. Professional musicians are highly skilled performers who spend years training, and they provide a natural laboratory in which neuroscientists can study how such changes – referred to as experience-dependent plasticity – occur across their lifespan.

Changes in brain structure

Early brain scanning studies revealed significant differences in brain structure between musicians and non-musicians of the same age. For example, the corpus callosum, a massive bundle of nerve fibres connecting the two sides of the brain, is significantly larger in musicians. The brain areas involved in movement, hearing, and visuo-spatial abilities also appear to be larger in professional keyboard players. And, the area devoted to processing touch sensations from the left hand is increased in violinists.

These studies compared data from different groups of people at one point in time. As such, they could not determine whether the observed differences were actually caused by musical training, or if existing anatomical differences predispose some to become musicians. But later, longitudinal studies that track people over time have shown that young children who do 14 months of musical training exhibit significant structural (pdf) and functional brain changes (pdf) compared to those who do not.

Together, these studies show that learning to play a musical instrument not only increases grey matter volume in various brain regions, but can also strengthen the long-range connections between them. Other research shows that musical training also enhances verbal memory, spatial reasoning, and literacy skills, such that professional musicians usually outperform non-musicians on these abilities.

Long-lasting benefits for musicians

Importantly, the brain scanning studies show that the extent of anatomical change in musicians’ brains is closely related to the age at which musical training began, and the intensity of training. Those who started training at the youngest age showed the largest changes when compared to non-musicians.

Even short periods of musical training in early childhood can have long-lasting benefits. In one 2013 study, for example, researchers recruited 44 older adults and divided them into three groups based on the level of formal musical training they had received as children. Participants in one group had received no training at all; those in the second had done a little training, defined as between one and three years of lessons; and those in the third had received moderate levels of training (four to 14 years).

The researchers played recordings of complex speech sounds to the participants, and used scalp electrodes to measure the timing of neural responses in a part of the auditory brainstem. As we age, the precision of this timing deteriorates, making it difficult to understand speech, especially in environments with a lot of background noise. Participants who had received moderate amounts of musical training exhibited the fastest neural responses, suggesting that even limited training in childhood can preserve sharp processing of speech sounds and increase resilience to age-related decline in hearing.

More recently, it has become clear that musical training facilitates the rehabilitation of patients recovering from stroke and other forms of brain damage, and some researchers now argue that it might also boost speech processing and learning in children with dyslexia and other language impairments. What’s more, the benefits of musical training seem to persist for many years, or even decades, and the picture that emerges from this all evidence is that learning to play a musical instrument in childhood protects the brain against the development of cognitive impairment and dementia.

Unlike commercial brain training products, which only improve performance on the skills involved, musical training has what psychologists refer to as transfer effects – in other words, learning to play a musical instrument seems to have a far broader effect on the brain and mental function, and improves other abilities that are seemingly unrelated.

“Music reaches parts of the brain that other things can’t,” says Loveday. “It’s a strong cognitive stimulus that grows the brain in a way that nothing else does, and the evidence that musical training enhances things like working memory and language is very robust.”

Learning to play a musical instrument, then, seems to be one of the most effective forms of brain training there is. Musical training can induce various structural and functional changes in the brain, depending on which instrument is being learned, and the intensity of the training regime. It’s an example of how dramatically life-long experience can alter the brain so that it becomes adapted to the idiosyncrasies of its owner’s lifestyle.

Leave a comment

Filed under 2020, writing tip, Writing Tip Wednesday

A dirty secret: you can only be a writer if you can afford it

‘Like most other American systems and professions, delusions around meritocracy continue to pervade the writing world. ‘ Illustration: Julien Posture/The Guardian

There is nothing more sustaining to long-term creative work than time and space – and these things cost money


Let’s start with me: I’m not sure how or if I’d still be a writer without the help of other people’s money. I have zero undergrad debt. Of my three years of grad school, two of them were funded through a teaching fellowship; my parents helped pay for the first. The last two years my stipend barely covered the childcare I needed to travel uptown three days a week to teach and go to class and my husband’s job is what kept us afloat.

I got connections from that program. I got my agent through the recommendation of a professor. Nearly every year since I graduated from that program, I have been employed by them. The thing I’m most sure I had though, that was a direct result of my extraordinary privilege, is the blindness with which I bounded toward this profession, the not knowing, because I had never felt, until I was a grownup, the very real and bone-deep fear of not knowing how you’ll live from month to month. Other versions of this story that I know from other people: a down payment from a grandpa on a brownstone; monthly parental stipends; a partner who works at a startup; a partner who’s a corporate lawyer; a wealthy former boss who got attached and agreed to pay their grad school off.

Once, before a debut novelist panel geared specifically to aspiring writers, one of the novelists with whom I was set to speak mentioned to me that they’d hired a private publicist to promote their book. They told me it cost nearly their whole advance but was worth it, they said, because this private publicist got them on a widely watched talkshow. During this panel, this writer mentioned to the crowd at one point that they “wrote and taught exclusively”, and I kept my eyes on my hands folded in my lap. I knew this writer did much of the same teaching I did, gig work, often for between $1,500-$3,000 for a six to eight-week course; nowhere near enough to sustain one’s self in New York. I knew their whole advance was gone, and that, if the publicist did pay off, it would be months before they might accrue returns.

I did not know what this writer, who I thought was single, paid in rent, or all the other ways that they might have been able to cut corners, that I, a mother of two, could not cut, but even then, it felt impossible to me that this writer was sustaining themselves in any legitimate way without some outside help. I thought, maybe, when they said “write” they might be including copywriting or tech, as some others that I know support themselves.

I knew all these aspiring writers, though, heard this person say this and assumed that there was a way to make a living as a writer, that they thought this person was “making it” in ways they hoped one day to be. I don’t know this writer and don’t know how, actually, they lived. What I do know is, when the panel was over, I wanted to take the microphone back and say loudly to the students that what this writer said was, at least in part, a lie.

On Instagram and Twitter there are writers who “write full time” also. They post pictures of their desk or their pens and talk about “process”. Maybe, two years ago, they sold a quiet literary novel to an independent press. For my students, for all the people I see out there, trying to break in or through and watching, envious, I want to attach to these statements and these Instagram posts, a caveat that says the writing isn’t what is keeping this person safe and clothed and fed.

According to a 2018 Author’s Guild Study the median income of all published authors for all writing related activity was $6,080 in 2017, down from $10,500 in 2009; while the median income for all published authors based solely on book-related activities went from $3,900 to $3,100, down 21%. Roughly 25% of authors earned $0 in income in 2017.

I would argue that there is nothing more sustaining to long-term creative work than time and space – these things cost money – and the fact that some people have access to it for reasons that are often outside of their control continues to create an ecosystem in which the tenor of the voices that we hear from most often remains similar. It is no wonder, I say often to students, that so much of the canon is about rich white people. Who else, after all, has the time and space to finish a book. Who else, after all, as the book is coming out, has the time and space and money to promote and publicize that book?The median income of all published authors for all writing related activity was $6,080 in 2017

There are ramifications, I think, of no one mentioning the source of this freedom when they have it. There is the perpetuation of an illusion that makes an unsustainable life choice appear sustainable, that makes the specific achievements of particular individuals seem more remunerative than they actually are. There is the feeling that the choices that we’ve made outside of writing: who we married, whether or not we had children, the families we were born to, will forever hinder our ability to make good work.

When students ask me for advice with regard to how to “make it as a writer”, I tell them to get a job that also gives them time and space somehow to write; I tell them find a job that, if they still have it 10 years from now, it wouldn’t make them sad. I worry often that they think this means I don’t think their work is worthy; that I don’t believe they’ll make it in the way that they imagine making it, but this advice is me trying help them sustain themselves enough to make the work I know they can.

Like most other American systems and professions, delusions around meritocracy continue to pervade the writing world. Those of us who are not bolstered by outside sources, those of us who are but still struggle, and say it out loud, often run the risk of seeming whiny or ungrateful; maybe we worry we will just be thought not good enough. To be a writer is a choice, after all, and I continue to make it. But perpetuating the delusion that the choice is not impossibly risky, precarity-inducing, only hurts the participants’ ability to reconsider the various shapes their lives might take in service of sustaining it and them.

It allows a system that cannot sustain most of the producers of its products to continue to pretend it can.

  • Lynn Steger Strong is the author of the novel Want, to be released in July 2020

Leave a comment

Filed under 2020

‘Sleep Should Be Prescribed’: What Those Late Nights Out Could Be Costing You

A leading neuroscientist on why sleep deprivation is increasing our risk of cancer, heart attack, and Alzheimer’s – and what you can do about it.

Matthew Walker has learned to dread the question “What do you do?” At parties, it signals the end of his evening; thereafter, his new acquaintance will inevitably cling to him like ivy. On an aeroplane, it usually means that while everyone else watches movies or reads a thriller, he will find himself running an hours-long salon for the benefit of passengers and crew alike. “I’ve begun to lie,” he says. “Seriously. I just tell people I’m a dolphin trainer. It’s better for everyone.”

Walker is a sleep scientist. To be specific, he is the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, a research institute whose goal – possibly unachievable – is to understand everything about sleep’s impact on us, from birth to death, in sickness and health. No wonder, then, that people long for his counsel. As the line between work and leisure grows ever more blurred, rare is the person who doesn’t worry about their sleep. But even as we contemplate the shadows beneath our eyes, most of us don’t know the half of it – and perhaps this is the real reason he has stopped telling strangers how he makes his living. When Walker talks about sleep he can’t, in all conscience, limit himself to whispering comforting nothings about camomile tea and warm baths. It’s his conviction that we are in the midst of a “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic”, the consequences of which are far graver than any of us could imagine. This situation, he believes, is only likely to change if government gets involved.

Walker has spent the last four and a half years writing Why We Sleep, a complex but urgent book that examines the effects of this epidemic close up, the idea being that once people know of the powerful links between sleep loss and, among other things, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and poor mental health, they will try harder to get the recommended eight hours a night (sleep deprivation, amazing as this may sound to Donald Trump types, constitutes anything less than seven hours). But, in the end, the individual can achieve only so much. Walker wants major institutions and law-makers to take up his ideas, too. “No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation,” he says. “It sinks down into every possible nook and cranny. And yet no one is doing anything about it. Things have to change: in the workplace and our communities, our homes and families. But when did you ever see an NHS poster urging sleep on people? When did a doctor prescribe, not sleeping pills, but sleep itself? It needs to be prioritised, even incentivised. Sleep loss costs the UK economy over £30bn a year in lost revenue, or 2% of GDP. I could double the NHS budget if only they would institute policies to mandate or powerfully encourage sleep.”

Why, exactly, are we so sleep-deprived? What has happened over the course of the last 75 years? In 1942, less than 8% of the population was trying to survive on six hours or less sleep a night; in 2017, almost one in two people is. The reasons are seemingly obvious. “First, we electrified the night,” Walker says. “Light is a profound degrader of our sleep. Second, there is the issue of work: not only the porous borders between when you start and finish, but longer commuter times, too. No one wants to give up time with their family or entertainment, so they give up sleep instead. And anxiety plays a part. We’re a lonelier, more depressed society. Alcohol and caffeine are more widely available. All these are the enemies of sleep.”

But Walker believes, too, that in the developed world sleep is strongly associated with weakness, even shame. “We have stigmatised sleep with the label of laziness. We want to seem busy, and one way we express that is by proclaiming how little sleep we’re getting. It’s a badge of honour. When I give lectures, people will wait behind until there is no one around and then tell me quietly: ‘I seem to be one of those people who need eight or nine hours’ sleep.’ It’s embarrassing to say it in public. They would rather wait 45 minutes for the confessional. They’re convinced that they’re abnormal, and why wouldn’t they be? We chastise people for sleeping what are, after all, only sufficient amounts. We think of them as slothful. No one would look at an infant baby asleep, and say ‘What a lazy baby!’ We know sleeping is non-negotiable for a baby. But that notion is quickly abandoned [as we grow up]. Humans are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent reason.” In case you’re wondering, the number of people who can survive on five hours of sleep or less without any impairment, expressed as a percent of the population and rounded to a whole number, is zero.

The world of sleep science is still relatively small. But it is growing exponentially, thanks both to demand (the multifarious and growing pressures caused by the epidemic) and to new technology (such as electrical and magnetic brain stimulators), which enables researchers to have what Walker describes as “VIP access” to the sleeping brain. Walker, who is 44 and was born in Liverpool, has been in the field for more than 20 years, having published his first research paper at the age of just 21. “I would love to tell you that I was fascinated by conscious states from childhood,” he says. “But in truth, it was accidental.” He started out studying for a medical degree in Nottingham. But having discovered that doctoring wasn’t for him – he was more enthralled by questions than by answers – he switched to neuroscience, and after graduation, began a PhD in neurophysiology supported by the Medical Research Council. It was while working on this that he stumbled into the realm of sleep.

“I was looking at the brainwave patterns of people with different forms of dementia, but I was failing miserably at finding any difference between them,” he recalls now. One night, however, he read a scientific paper that changed everything. It described which parts of the brain were being attacked by these different types of dementia: “Some were attacking parts of the brain that had to do with controlled sleep, while other types left those sleep centres unaffected. I realised my mistake. I had been measuring the brainwave activity of my patients while they were awake, when I should have been doing so while they were asleep.” Over the next six months, Walker taught himself how to set up a sleep laboratory and, sure enough, the recordings he made in it subsequently spoke loudly of a clear difference between patients. Sleep, it seemed, could be a new early diagnostic litmus test for different subtypes of dementia.

After this, sleep became his obsession. “Only then did I ask: what is this thing called sleep, and what does it do? I was always curious, annoyingly so, but when I started to read about sleep, I would look up and hours would have gone by. No one could answer the simple question: why do we sleep? That seemed to me to be the greatest scientific mystery. I was going to attack it, and I was going to do that in two years. But I was naive. I didn’t realise that some of the greatest scientific minds had been trying to do the same thing for their entire careers. That was two decades ago, and I’m still cracking away.” After gaining his doctorate, he moved to the US. Formerly a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, he is now professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California.

Does his obsession extend to the bedroom? Does he take his own advice when it comes to sleep? “Yes. I give myself a non-negotiable eight-hour sleep opportunity every night, and I keep very regular hours: if there is one thing I tell people, it’s to go to bed and to wake up at the same time every day, no matter what. I take my sleep incredibly seriously because I have seen the evidence. Once you know that after just one night of only four or five hours’ sleep, your natural killer cells – the ones that attack the cancer cells that appear in your body every day – drop by 70%, or that a lack of sleep is linked to cancer of the bowel, prostate and breast, or even just that the World Health Organisation has classed any form of night-time shift work as a probable carcinogen, how could you do anything else?”

There is, however, a sting in the tale. Should his eyelids fail to close, Walker admits that he can be a touch “Woody Allen-neurotic”. When, for instance, he came to London over the summer, he found himself jet-lagged and wide awake in his hotel room at two o’clock in the morning. His problem then, as always in these situations, was that he knew too much. His brain began to race. “I thought: my orexin isn’t being turned off, the sensory gate of my thalamus is wedged open, my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex won’t shut down, and my melatonin surge won’t happen for another seven hours.” What did he do? In the end, it seems, even world experts in sleep act just like the rest of us when struck by the curse of insomnia. He turned on a light and read for a while.

Will Why We Sleep have the impact its author hopes? I’m not sure: the science bits, it must be said, require some concentration. But what I can tell you is that it had a powerful effect on me. After reading it, I was absolutely determined to go to bed earlier – a regime to which I am sticking determinedly. In a way, I was prepared for this. I first encountered Walker some months ago, when he spoke at an event at Somerset House in London, and he struck me then as both passionate and convincing (our later interview takes place via Skype from the basement of his “sleep centre”, a spot which, with its bedrooms off a long corridor, apparently resembles the ward of a private hospital). But in another way, it was unexpected. I am mostly immune to health advice. Inside my head, there is always a voice that says “just enjoy life while it lasts”.

The evidence Walker presents, however, is enough to send anyone early to bed. It’s no kind of choice at all. Without sleep, there is low energy and disease. With sleep, there is vitality and health. More than 20 large scale epidemiological studies all report the same clear relationship: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. To take just one example, adults aged 45 years or older who sleep less than six hours a night are 200% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke in their lifetime, as compared with those sleeping seven or eight hours a night (part of the reason for this has to do with blood pressure: even just one night of modest sleep reduction will speed the rate of a person’s heart, hour upon hour, and significantly increase their blood pressure).

A lack of sleep also appears to hijack the body’s effective control of blood sugar, the cells of the sleep-deprived appearing, in experiments, to become less responsive to insulin, and thus to cause a prediabetic state of hyperglycaemia. When your sleep becomes short, moreover, you are susceptible to weight gain. Among the reasons for this are the fact that inadequate sleep decreases levels of the satiety-signalling hormone, leptin, and increases levels of the hunger-signalling hormone, ghrelin. “I’m not going to say that the obesity crisis is caused by the sleep-loss epidemic alone,” says Walker. “It’s not. However, processed food and sedentary lifestyles do not adequately explain its rise. Something is missing. It’s now clear that sleep is that third ingredient.” Tiredness, of course, also affects motivation.

Sleep has a powerful effect on the immune system, which is why, when we have flu, our first instinct is to go to bed: our body is trying to sleep itself well. Reduce sleep even for a single night, and your resilience is drastically reduced. If you are tired, you are more likely to catch a cold. The well-rested also respond better to the flu vaccine. As Walker has already said, more gravely, studies show that short sleep can affect our cancer-fighting immune cells. A number of epidemiological studies have reported that night-time shift work and the disruption to circadian sleep and rhythms that it causes increase the odds of developing cancers including breast, prostate, endometrium and colon.

Getting too little sleep across the adult lifespan will significantly raise your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The reasons for this are difficult to summarise, but in essence it has to do with the amyloid deposits (a toxin protein) that accumulate in the brains of those suffering from the disease, killing the surrounding cells. During deep sleep, such deposits are effectively cleaned from the brain. What occurs in an Alzheimer’s patient is a kind of vicious circle. Without sufficient sleep, these plaques build up, especially in the brain’s deep-sleep-generating regions, attacking and degrading them. The loss of deep sleep caused by this assault therefore lessens our ability to remove them from the brain at night. More amyloid, less deep sleep; less deep sleep, more amyloid, and so on. (In his book, Walker notes “unscientifically” that he has always found it curious that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, both of whom were vocal about how little sleep they needed, both went on to develop the disease; it is, moreover, a myth that older adults need less sleep.) Away from dementia, sleep aids our ability to make new memories, and restores our capacity for learning.

And then there is sleep’s effect on mental health. When your mother told you that everything would look better in the morning, she was wise. Walker’s book includes a long section on dreams (which, says Walker, contrary to Dr Freud, cannot be analysed). Here he details the various ways in which the dream state connects to creativity. He also suggests that dreaming is a soothing balm. If we sleep to remember (see above), then we also sleep to forget. Deep sleep – the part when we begin to dream – is a therapeutic state during which we cast off the emotional charge of our experiences, making them easier to bear. Sleep, or a lack of it, also affects our mood more generally. Brain scans carried out by Walker revealed a 60% amplification in the reactivity of the amygdala – a key spot for triggering anger and rage – in those who were sleep-deprived. In children, sleeplessness has been linked to aggression and bullying; in adolescents, to suicidal thoughts. Insufficient sleep is also associated with relapse in addiction disorders. A prevailing view in psychiatry is that mental disorders cause sleep disruption. But Walker believes it is, in fact, a two-way street. Regulated sleep can improve the health of, for instance, those with bipolar disorder.

I’ve mentioned deep sleep in this (too brief) summary several times. What is it, exactly? We sleep in 90-minute cycles, and it’s only towards the end of each one of these that we go into deep sleep. Each cycle comprises two kinds of sleep. First, there is NREM sleep (non-rapid eye movement sleep); this is then followed by REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. When Walker talks about these cycles, which still have their mysteries, his voice changes. He sounds bewitched, almost dazed.

“During NREM sleep, your brain goes into this incredible synchronised pattern of rhythmic chanting,” he says. “There’s a remarkable unity across the surface of the brain, like a deep, slow mantra. Researchers were once fooled that this state was similar to a coma. But nothing could be further from the truth. Vast amounts of memory processing is going on. To produce these brainwaves, hundreds of thousands of cells all sing together, and then go silent, and on and on. Meanwhile, your body settles into this lovely low state of energy, the best blood-pressure medicine you could ever hope for. REM sleep, on the other hand, is sometimes known as paradoxical sleep, because the brain patterns are identical to when you’re awake. It’s an incredibly active brain state. Your heart and nervous system go through spurts of activity: we’re still not exactly sure why.”

Does the 90-minute cycle mean that so-called power naps are worthless? “They can take the edge off basic sleepiness. But you need 90 minutes to get to deep sleep, and one cycle isn’t enough to do all the work. You need four or five cycles to get all the benefit.” Is it possible to have too much sleep? This is unclear. “There is no good evidence at the moment. But I do think 14 hours is too much. Too much water can kill you, and too much food, and I think ultimately the same will prove to be true for sleep.” How is it possible to tell if a person is sleep-deprived? Walker thinks we should trust our instincts. Those who would sleep on if their alarm clock was turned off are simply not getting enough. Ditto those who need caffeine in the afternoon to stay awake. “I see it all the time,” he says. “I get on a flight at 10am when people should be at peak alert, and I look around, and half of the plane has immediately fallen asleep.”

So what can the individual do? First, they should avoid pulling “all-nighters”, at their desks or on the dancefloor. After being awake for 19 hours, you’re as cognitively impaired as someone who is drunk. Second, they should start thinking about sleep as a kind of work, like going to the gym (with the key difference that it is both free and, if you’re me, enjoyable). “People use alarms to wake up,” Walker says. “So why don’t we have a bedtime alarm to tell us we’ve got half an hour, that we should start cycling down?” We should start thinking of midnight more in terms of its original meaning: as the middle of the night. Schools should consider later starts for students; such delays correlate with improved IQs. Companies should think about rewarding sleep. Productivity will rise, and motivation, creativity and even levels of honesty will be improved. Sleep can be measured using tracking devices, and some far-sighted companies in the US already give employees time off if they clock enough of it. Sleeping pills, by the way, are to be avoided. Among other things, they can have a deleterious effect on memory.

Those who are focused on so-called “clean” sleep are determined to outlaw mobiles and computers from the bedroom – and quite right, too, given the effect of LED-emitting devices on melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone. Ultimately, though, Walker believes that technology will be sleep’s saviour. “There is going to be a revolution in the quantified self in industrial nations,” he says. “We will know everything about our bodies from one day to the next in high fidelity. That will be a seismic shift, and we will then start to develop methods by which we can amplify different components of human sleep, and do that from the bedside. Sleep will come to be seen as a preventive medicine.”

What questions does Walker still most want to answer? For a while, he is quiet. “It’s so difficult,” he says, with a sigh. “There are so many. I would still like to know where we go, psychologically and physiologically, when we dream. Dreaming is the second state of human consciousness, and we have only scratched the surface so far. But I would also like to find out when sleep emerged. I like to posit a ridiculous theory, which is: perhaps sleep did not evolve. Perhaps it was the thing from which wakefulness emerged.” He laughs. “If I could have some kind of medical Tardis and go back in time to look at that, well, I would sleep better at night.”

• Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker is published by Allen Lane.

Sleep in numbers

■ Two-thirds of adults in developed nations fail to obtain the nightly eight hours of sleep recommended by the World Health Organisation.

■ An adult sleeping only 6.75 hours a night would be predicted to live only to their early 60s without medical intervention.

■ A 2013 study reported that men who slept too little had a sperm count 29% lower than those who regularly get a full and restful night’s sleep.

■ If you drive a car when you have had less than five hours’ sleep, you are 4.3 times more likely to be involved in a crash. If you drive having had four hours, you are 11.5 times more likely to be involved in an accident.

■ A hot bath aids sleep not because it makes you warm, but because your dilated blood vessels radiate inner heat, and your core body temperature drops. To successfully initiate sleep, your core temperature needs to drop about 1C.

■ The time taken to reach physical exhaustion by athletes who obtain anything less than eight hours of sleep, and especially less than six hours, drops by 10-30%.

■ There are now more than 100 diagnosed sleep disorders, of which insomnia is the most common.

■ Morning types, who prefer to awake at or around dawn, make up about 40% of the population. Evening types, who prefer to go to bed late and wake up late, account for about 30%. The remaining 30% lie somewhere in between.

The Guardian |

  • Rachel Cooke


Leave a comment

Filed under 2020, writing tip

John le Carré wins $100,000 prize for ‘contribution to democracy’ | Books | The Guardian

Alison Flood and Sian CainFri 10 Jan 2020 00.45 EST

Source: John le Carré wins $100,000 prize for ‘contribution to democracy’ | Books | The Guardian

John le Carré has been named the latest recipient of the $100,000 (£76,000) Olof Palme prize, an award given for an “outstanding achievement” in the spirit of the assassinated Swedish prime minister.

Won in the past by names including whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who exposed the US government’s secret intelligence about the Vietnam war in 1971, the Olof Palme prize is intended to reward “an outstanding achievement in any of the areas of anti-racism, human rights, international understanding, peace and common security”.

Announcing Le Carré’s win early on Friday morning, the prize organisers praised the 88-year-old author, whose real name is David Cornwell, “for his engaging and humanistic opinion-making in literary form regarding the freedom of the individual and the fundamental issues of mankind.

“Attracting worldwide attention, he is constantly urging us to discuss the cynical power games of the major powers, the greed of global corporations, the irresponsible play of corrupt politicians with our health and welfare, the growing spread of international crime, the tension in the Middle East and the alarming rise of fascism and xenophobia in Europe and the US,” the organisers said, calling his career “an extraordinary contribution to the necessary fight for freedom, democracy and social justice”.

Le Carré said he would donate the winnings to the international humanitarian NGO Médecins Sans Frontières.

Le Carré, the acclaimed author of some of the last century’s most enduring works, from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, has been consistently outspoken about abuses of power in his fiction, his targets including governments, big pharma and arms dealing. Agent Running in the Field, his most recent book – which he has hinted will be his last – depicts collusion between Donald Trump’s US and the British security services with the aim of undermining the European Union.

The author has long steered clear of honours. In 2011, when he was nominated for the Man Booker International prize, he asked for his name to be withdrawn, saying that while he was “enormously flattered”, he did not compete for literary prizes.

Few authors have won the Olof Palme prize, named for the Social Democrat who led his country for 11 years and was mysteriously gunned down in a Stockholm street in 1986 after leaving the cinema. Playwright and political dissident Václav Havel won in 1989, soon before becoming president of Czechoslovakia, Danish novelist Carsten Jensen won in 2009 and the Italian journalist and author of Gomorrah Roberto Saviano won in 2011.

Le Carré will receive his award at a ceremony in Stockholm on 30 January.

Leave a comment

Filed under 2020, author, author tribute, awards

My New Year reading resolution? Less guilt for giving up on books | Books | The Guardian

Sat 11 Jan 2020 03.00 EST

Source: My New Year reading resolution? Less guilt for giving up on books | Books | The Guardian

As we enter 2020, and I enter your lives as a regular columnist, here are my reading resolutions for the coming year. First, I have to read more. The political climate feels mighty exclusionary, and reading narratives unlike our own seems the best way to access different perspectives, and to remind ourselves that the society we live in holds so many different stories.

Resolution two: as someone who mostly reads non-fiction for fear of accidentally adopting someone else’s voice, I’m getting back into fiction (fear be gone, Candice, get over yourself), plus poetry and plays. Inua Ellams’s powerful transposing of Chekhov’s Three Sisters from Russia to Nigeria at the National Theatre reminded me that a script offers a unique narrative; movement and tone are still there, but the starkness of description allows us to focus on exactly what’s being said.

My third resolution is to stop reading a book if it doesn’t vibe with me, give it to someone else, and to remember that guilt is a wasted emotion. But before all of that, let’s try and get through winter. Why is summer seen as prime reading time? What else are we going to do in January but lock ourselves away and read? Or listen. I’m listening to Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Virtue and Vengeance. Bahni Turpin’s voice brings the words to rich and transporting life.

Candice Carty-Williams wrote Queenie and co‑created the Guardian 4th Estate BAME short story prize.

Leave a comment

Filed under 2020, books

The Lost Books of Jane Austen by Janine Barchas review – how Austen’s reputation has been warped | Books | The Guardian

A deliciously original study of the cheap editions of Pride and Prejudice and other novels – ignored by literary scholars – casts new light on Austen’s readership

Source: The Lost Books of Jane Austen by Janine Barchas review – how Austen’s reputation has been warped | Books | The Guardian

Jane Austen aficionados think that they know the story of their favourite author’s posthumous dis-appearance and then re-emergence. For half a century after she died in 1817, her books were little known or read. A few discriminating admirers such as George Henry Lewes and Lord Macaulay kept the flame of her reputation burning, but most novelists and novel readers were oblivious to her. Then, in 1869, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh published a memoir about her and the public got interested. Her novels started being republished and widely read. She has never looked back.

Janine Barchas’s The Lost Books of Jane Austen puts us right. Her book about books is a beautifully illustrated exploration, indeed compendium, of the popular editions of Austen’s novels that have appeared over the last two centuries. This includes those decades when Austen was supposedly lost from sight. The first chapter is a “vignette” on a copy of Sense and Sensibility, published in 1851 for George Routledge’s Railway Library (books suitable for reading on the train). It cost one shilling and was bought for the 13-year-old Gertrude Wallace, the youngest daughter of a Plymouth naval officer. It is the first of many examples of cheap and popular editions of Austen’s work that kept it alive for ordinary readers and that literary scholars have largely ignored.

After Austen’s death, the copyrights to her novels were bought by the publisher Richard Bentley, who issued them in his Standard Novels series in 1833, in single volumes at six shillings each – much cheaper than the triple decker editions selling for a guinea and a half, but still out of reach of all but the affluent. He cut his prices in the 1840s, but already there were alternatives. By the late 1840s, there were what we would call paperback editions of her novels cheaply available and aimed at train travellers. Pioneering publishers such as Simms & M’Intyre produced Austen novels for a shilling a shot, and then for sixpence each in their Books for the People series. (They paid no attention to the fact that Bentley officially still owned the copyright to some of these.)

“Cheap books make authors canonical,” proclaims Barchas’s first sentence. Thousands of mid-century readers consumed “yellowback” versions of Austen’s novels, so-called because of the yellow paper stuck to the back of them on which advertisements were printed. The sheer proliferation of cheaply produced editions of Austen’s fiction has been invisible because very few of these books have survived. Paradoxically, the expensive first editions of Austen’s novels are now easier to find than the mass-market editions of the Victorian age. Barchas has clearly relished her detective work (and apparently amassed quite a collection herself). She not only describes them, she shows us what they looked like.

Photographs are essential to this book. There in front of you is the 1851 Parlour Library reprint of Mansfield Park, with its red design and lettering on a startling acid green cover, in waxed paper boards. It retailed at WH Smith at British railway stations for two shillings. The willingness of publishers to spice up Austen’s novels is caught in the 1870 Chapman & Hall edition of Pride and Prejudice, whose cover depicts Lydia Bennet flirting with officers at their camp in Brighton, or the 1887 sixpenny Sense and Sensibility, featuring Colonel Brandon and Willoughby pointing their duelling pistols at each other (neither scene was actually included in either novel).

Tracking down these endlessly repackaged reprints, Barchas is in terra incognita. Scholarly bibliographers have minutely recorded the various respectable editions of Austen’s fiction, but most of these cheap popular products, never having made it on to the library shelf, remained unknown to bibliographers. These are volumes that scarcely feature in the catalogues of the great research libraries of Britain and North America. The existing record is, as Barchas characteristically says, “gobsmackingly incomplete”. Her style is sometimes informal, but her attention to print history is painstaking.

She explains the importance of stereotyping processes, whereby printers could mould and then cast in metal the expensively assembled type of a new edition. The resultant stereotyple plates could be used over and over again. Routledge would go on to use his same stereotype plates to produce seven more editions of Sense and Sensibility over the next three decades. (Barchas gives us a photograph of all of them in their very various liveries.) Austen stereotype plates would be sold on from one publisher to another, the resultant type becoming more and more faded as one printing succeeded another.

There clearly was a new enthusiasm for the novels after 1870. Barchas shows us the flurry of colourfully jacketed Austen volumes that began appearing, some evidently intended for the juvenile reader. In America, where publishers treated Austen’s texts with greater literary respect, the market for her work was much quieter in the mid-19th century, but appears to have taken off in the 1870s. Her novels became available for a dime or 15 cents each. In Britain, the sixpenny novel became standard. Soon Austen was being serialised.

In the 1890s, radical publishers produced a library of “famous books” for working-class readers at a penny per volume, which included Sense and Sensibility. At the same time Pride and Prejudice was being boiled down by two thirds for William Stead’s Penny Prose Classic series for young readers. In the 1890s the soap manufacturers Lever Brothers published their own editions of the two novels as prizes for teenage consumers who sent in the largest number of soap wrappers. Barchas dedicates a whole chapter to her researches into the Sunlight Library, calculating that the company gave away some 1.5m books over the course of seven years (though perhaps more by Sir Walter Scott than Jane Austen).

Another chapter chronicles the surprising religious and morally improving uses of her fiction. In the 1840s her novels were included in a multi-volume library of nonconformist tomes aimed at right-minded female readers. Often, they were given as prizes in Sunday schools (despite the creepy vicars she depicts). In the 1890s, editions of Austen were commissioned by a Christian temperance society for distribution to labourers in the West Midlands: Mansfield Park was presented as an alternative to another visit to the pub.

Barchas follows popular editions of Austen well into the 20th century, looking at how publishers began to take images from Hollywood films such as the 1940 MGM Pride and Prejudice to lend excitement to new editions.

A final chapter charts “The Turn to ‘Chick Lit’”, with Barchas arguing that it was only really in the 1960s that “gendered marketing strategies” created the false sense that Austen was a women’s novelist. Among the dizzying variety of 1960s paperback covers that she displays – from austerely antiquarian to lividly psychedelic – are examples of “pinked” editions, deploying the colour wherever possible as a “consumer signal to women”. Sales seem to have risen even further.

Barchas enjoys quoting such writers as Mark Twain and Henry James, as they huff and puff about Austen’s mere popularity. The lesson of this delicious book is that she was even more popular for even longer with an even greater variety of readers than we ever thought. When you look at all the uses to which she was put, you think of Frank Kermode’s definition of a literary classic as a work that “sub-sists in change, by being patient of interpretation”. Austen’s novels have long been very patient.

• John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen? is published by Bloomsbury.


Leave a comment

Filed under 2019, author commentary, books

Best fiction of 2019 | Books | The Guardian

Exceptional US novels, extraordinary translations and even two Booker winners … Guardian fiction editor Justine Jordan on the celebrated and overlooked books of the year

Source: Best fiction of 2019 | Books | The Guardian

It has been a year of doubles: two Nobel laureates, two Booker winners, even two Ian McEwan novels (his Kafka-lite satire The Cockroach was yet more fallout from Brexit). Having promised to look beyond Europe after skipping the award in 2018, the Nobel committee honoured two Europeans: the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk and, more controversially, Austrian Milošević-supporter Peter Handke. Closer to home, the UK’s general air of indecision infected the Booker prize, which split the award in two, thus missing the chance to crown Bernardine Evaristo outright as the first ever black female winner for her innovative and life-affirming Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton), interlinked stories of black British women which brim with heart and humour.

Evaristo shared the prize with the year’s biggest book by far: Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale sequel The Testaments (Chatto), which combines Aunt Lydia’s sly perspective on the theocratic regime – its brutal birth and her ambiguous role at the heart of it – with more action-adventure strands about the two young women seeking to bring it down. Fan-pleaser, literary curio, a fascinating example of the interplay between written fiction and TV: the book is all three, with Atwood’s musings on power and the patterns of history as incisive as ever.

If history felt like a hall of mirrors in 2019, and current affairs a car crash, then Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton) – the riddling story of one man, two time zones and two car accidents – was the novel to read. In the late 80s, Saul goes to East Berlin to study; in the recent past, he faces up to the rest of his life. Skewering different forms of totalitarianism – from the state, to the family, to the strictures of the male gaze – Levy explodes conventional narrative to explore the individual’s place and culpability within history. It’s one of the most unusual and rewarding novels of this or any year.

The timelines of history are similarly unstable in Sandra Newman’s high-concept The Heavens (Granta), in which a woman leads a double existence, waking up sometimes as Shakespeare’s Dark Lady in Renaissance England and sometimes in a 21st-century New York that is getting progressively worse. Can her actions really be influencing world events hundreds of years later? How far do we make our own reality? This is a dazzling exploration of creativity and madness in the poignant, panic-tinged end times.

The power of myth-making drives Mark Haddon’s best novel yet. The Porpoise (Chatto) begins as a propulsive thriller about abuse among the super-rich and segues into a classical-world adventure that reinvents the story of Pericles in prose of a hallucinatory vividness. Fantasy also mingles with reality in Max Porter’s light-footed second novel Lanny (Faber), as contemporary communal chatter and a spirit voice from deep time rise and fall together to tell the story of an extraordinary boy in an ordinary English village.

James Meek wound the clock back to 14th-century England for a feat of scholarship and storytelling combined. Written in gleeful approximations of priestly, courtly and peasant medieval English, To Calais, in Ordinary Time (Canongate) follows a motley group of travellers in the shadow of the Black Death. Its portrait of individual dramas unfolding against the prospect of apocalypse speaks to current fears of climate crisis and Brexit alike.

Robert Harris also conjured a quasi-medieval world for a page-turning, thought-provoking speculation on the fragility of civilisation, The Second Sleep (Hutchinson). It’s 1468, and a young priest is investigating ancient artefacts: Harris reveals his setup to be ingeniously, chillingly topical. Ali Smith reached book three of her quickfire Seasonal Quartet, which interprets news headlines through the filters of art and story. Like Haddon, Smith was inspired by Pericles, an apt fable for an era of globalised migration. She uses it in Spring (Hamish Hamilton) as a bedrock for a typically agile story about narrowing horizons and widening inequality, which is also a furious indictment of the UK’s detention of refugees.

The distribution and morality of wealth is an ever more urgent subject. The TV sensation Succession tackled money’s corrupting effect within a family; Sadie Jones did a similarly brilliant job in The Snakes (Chatto), a psychodrama about avarice, abuse and entitlement which is both a cautionary tale and a pitch-black race-to-the-end thriller.

It was an exceptional year for US fiction, with Tayari Jones winning the Women’s prize for An American Marriage (Oneworld), about black middle-class lives undone by structural racism, and Anglo-American Lucy Ellmann taking the Goldsmiths for her 1,000-page denunciation of Trump’s America and the world’s devaluing of motherhood, Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar). Rising star Ben Lerner came into his own with the stunningly multilayered The Topeka School (Granta), exploring voice, power and masculinity in the 90s and now. Téa Obrecht’s long-awaited second novel Inland (W&N) is an ingenious reinvention of the western, while Colson Whitehead’s follow-up to The Underground Railroad, The Nickel Boys (Fleet), lifts the lid on the racist brutality of reform schools in the Jim Crow-era south.

Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House (Bloomsbury) is a gloriously immersive family saga about lost inheritance, while in Olive, Again (Viking) Elizabeth Strout continues to find moments of transcendence in the trials of daily life as her obstreperous, much-loved character Olive Kitteridge moves into her 80s. Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End (Hamish Hamilton), a dialogue between a mother and the teenage son she has lost to suicide, is spare, profound and devastating.

Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong’s autobiographical first novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Jonathan Cape) is a tender exploration of violence, migration and language, while Mexican author Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive (4th Estate), her first novel to be written in English, is an extraordinary achievement. It puts the desperate children crossing the border into the US at the heart of a beautifully composed, complex investigation into family, motherhood and the fragile connections between people.

Debuts to celebrate included Candice Carty-Williams’s witty Queenie (Trapeze), the adventures of a young black woman negotiating dating, family and identity in a gentrifying London, and Sara Collins’s The Confessions of Frannie Langton, a fantastically assured piece of historical gothic about an enslaved girl brought from a Jamaican plantation into the backbiting milieu of London society. Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble (Wildfire), a dissection of sexual politics in contemporary New York, was a deliciously biting summer hit.

Debuts stood out in the world of short stories, too, notably Wendy Erskine’s clear-eyed tales of Belfast life in Sweet Home and Julia Armfield’s haunting Salt Slow (both Picador). All eyes were on Kristen “Cat Person” Roupenian, whose first collection You Know You Want This (Cape) skewed towards urban gothic rather than dating malaise. Queen of dark short fiction Sarah Hall brought us more expertly turned tales of sex, death and danger in Sudden Traveller (Faber), while Zadie Smith’s first collection, Grand Union (Hamish Hamilton), is a restlessly wide-ranging anthology covering two decades. In Deborah Eisenberg’s wryly subversive Your Duck Is My Duck (Europa), we had the first collection in 12 years from a US master of the form.

One of the year’s gems in translation was Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth (Verso), translated by Charlotte Barslund. A story of abuse, inheritance and the battle for the truth among a privileged Norwegian family, it grips like a vice while interrogating national as well as individual self-conception. Other standouts included Khaled Khalifa’s Death Is Hard Work (Faber), translated by Leri Price, a road trip set against the backdrop of the Syrian civil war, and Pajtim Statovci’s Crossing (Pushkin), translated by David Hackston, which explores migration, gender and self-invention through the shifting character of a young Albanian. For the first time, the Man Booker International prize went to a writer in Arabic. Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies (Sandstone), translated by Marilyn Booth, is a generation-spanning family saga exposing the legacy of slavery in Oman.

Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy (Penguin Modern Classics), translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman, was a welcome rediscovery: the fearless reconstruction of a difficult creative and romantic life as a woman in 20th-century Denmark. Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad (Harvill Secker), his prequel to Life and Fate translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, was an extraordinary feat of scholarship. We have had to wait a quarter of a century for Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (Harvill Secker), translated by Stephen Snyder, the story of an island where both objects and memories are “disappeared” by shadowy totalitarian forces and islanders must submit to enforced ignorance and diminished horizons. In an era beset by fears over news manipulation and Anthropocene extinction, this timeless fable of control and loss feels more timely than ever.

  • Save up to 30% on the books of the year at guardianbookshop.com

America faces an epic choice…

… in the coming year, and the results will define the country for a generation. Democracy is under attack, as is civility, truth and normal forms of political behaviour. The White House harbours white nationalists, incites fear and prejudice, undermines intelligence agencies, courts foreign influence in US elections and undermines the judiciary. The need for a robust, independent press has never been greater and with your help we can continue to provide fact-based reporting that offers public scrutiny and oversight.

These are perilous times. The administration’s willingness to deploy untruths, violent speech and hateful attacks on the media are now commonplace. This is why we are asking for your help so that we can continue to put truth and civility at the heart of the public discourse. You have read 6 articles in the last two months, so we hope you can appreciate the Guardian’s choice to keep our journalism open for all.

“Next year America faces an epic choice – and the result could define the country for a generation. It is at a tipping point, finely balanced between truth and lies, hope and hate, civility and nastiness. Many vital aspects of American public life are in play – the Supreme Court, abortion rights, climate policy, wealth inequality, Big Tech and much more. The stakes could hardly be higher. As that choice nears, the Guardian, as it has done for 200 years, and with your continued support, will continue to argue for the values we hold dear – facts, science, diversity, equality and fairness.” – US editor, John Mulholland

On the occasion of its 100th birthday in 1921 the editor of the Guardian said, “Perhaps the chief virtue of a newspaper is its independence. It should have a soul of its own.” That is more true than ever. Freed from the influence of an owner or shareholders, the Guardian’s robust independence is our unique driving force and guiding principle.

We also want to say a huge thank you to everyone who has supported the Guardian in 2019. You provide us with the motivation and financial support to keep doing what we do. We hope to surpass our goal by early January. Every contribution, big or small, will help us reach it.

Make a year-end gift from as little as $1. Thank you.

Leave a comment

Filed under 2019, book list, books

Best children’s books of 2019: from picture books to young adult | Books | The Guardian

Imogen Russell Williams picks beautiful illustrations, fun books to read aloud and new YA from Malorie Blackman and Philip Pullman

Source: Best children’s books of 2019: from picture books to young adult | Books | The Guardian

Picture books

Jackie Morris’s The Secret of the Tattered Shoes (Tiny Owl) is an atmospheric retelling of the story of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”, in which the hero ultimately refuses to marry one of the callous princesses, choosing instead to search for the mysterious forest woman who helped him. Ehsan Abdollahi’s marionette-like collaged illustrations transport the reader deep into the heart of the tale, where gilded tree branches glisten and opalescent fruit begs to be plucked.

Also in fairytale vein is Oliver Jeffers, whose story The Fate of Fausto (HarperCollins) warns quietly against hubris. Arrogant Fausto believes he owns the world; everywhere he goes, his “subjects” bow to him, from trees to mountains – until he attempts to demand homage from the sea. Spacious, luminous lithographic illustrations combine with stark hand-set text in this powerful, beautiful fable.

Bouncy and mischievous, Sally Nicholls’s The Button Book (Andersen) is illustrated with giddy, infectious energy by Bethan Woollvin. What happens when the book’s different “buttons” are pressed? Some prompt tickles, some hugs – and one a very rude noise indeed – but all contribute to a rising tide of giggles, ebbing calmly away to a wind-down bedtime message; the best sort of interactive, read-aloud fun.

Five to eight years

Slightly older fairytale fans, especially those who enjoy Rebel Girls-style empowerment, will relish the interconnected stories in Eight Princesses and a Magic Mirror (Zephyr) by Natasha Farrant, enriched by Lydia Corry’s delicious full-colour pictures. When an enchantress flings her magic mirror into our world, the girls it reflects are bold, courageous and determined – from the desert princess who protects her people from war to the tower-block princess who saves a community garden.

From award-winning writer David Long, and brought deftly to life by Sarah McMenemy’s intricate images, The Story of the London Underground (Bloomsbury) plots the development of the tube from the fume-filled, steam-powered London Metropolitan Railway to the present-day network with its millions of passengers, via fascinating facts about ghost stations, bizarre lost property and carriages divided by class. Meticulous and fascinating, it will appeal to readers with a taste for the secret quirks of history.

For wildlife aficionados, Ben Rothery’s oversized Hidden Planet (Ladybird) is filled with stunning illustrations: a komodo dragon on whose skin every scale is visible, two pages of milling, dazzling zebras, a meditative octopus and a poised satanic leaf-tailed gecko. The engaging text is full of intriguing detail, such as orderly queues of hermit crabs waiting for the right-sized shell to be vacated, or the barn owl’s heart-shaped face, which acts like a radar dish to guide sounds into its ears.

Eight to 12 years

Handsomely slip-cased in psychedelic colours, James Rhodes’s Playlist (Wren & Rook) is the classical pianist’s introduction to seven notable composers, complete with irreverent biographical detail (Beethoven peeing into a chamber pot under the piano), accessible and intriguing analysis, helpful definitions of terms such as étude, and a Spotify playlist of introductory teasers from pieces such as Mozart’s Requiem and Chopin’s “Nocturne No 2”. Subtitled “The Rebels and Revolutionaries of Sound”, at its heart is Rhodes’ passionate determination to demonstrate classical music’s iconoclastic and emotional power.

When her beloved grandfather is swindled out of his home, the indomitable Vita, undaunted by a polio-weakened foot, gathers a motley crew of circus kids and pickpockets and plans a heist to redress the balance in Katherine Rundell’s The Good Thieves (Bloomsbury). This fast-paced, thrilling story has it all – a charismatic 1920s New York setting, a sensationally sinister villain, a determined, likable heroine and feats of daring couched in engaging prose.

Nicola Skinner’s debut Bloom (HarperCollins) is illustrated with vine-wreathed charm by Flavia Sorrentino. Good girl Sorrel, best-behaved child in the sad town of Little Sterilis, is horrified when Surprising Seeds sprout on the top of her head, making her crave sunlight and hear voices – how can she possibly win the most obedient pupil prize now? A riotous, original and timely reminder that sometimes rules are made to be broken.

More sophisticated is the subaqueous Deeplight (Macmillan) by Costa-winner Frances Hardinge. In the Myriad archipelago, terrifying gods with razor-grille teeth and glass tentacles once drowned islands and swamped ships – until, one day, they tore each other apart. Now Hark and Jelt scrape a living scavenging the powerful detritus of dead gods – but Jelt is about to plunge Hark into trouble. Hardinge’s surreal powers of world-building combine with her astute understanding of human relationships to create a weird, wonderful, beguiling novel.


Malorie Blackman returns to the world of Noughts & Crosses (where the black Crosses dominate society, and white Noughts are seen as inferior) in Crossfire (Penguin), and the political stakes are high. Though a Nought prime minister is in office for the first time, he is about to be accused of murder, and must turn to his oldest friend, dual-heritage Callie-Rose, for help. When two teenagers are kidnapped, tensions run higher still in this compelling, all-too-relevant story.

In The Secret Commonwealth (David Fickling/Penguin), the second volume of Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust trilogy, Lyra is now a student in her early 20s. Estranged from her daemon, Pantalaimon, she is plunged into danger after he witnesses the murder of a botanist, and Lyra herself comes into possession of some perilous secrets. Featuring painful ruptures, shocking violence, the ominous rise of the Magisterium and the appearance of a grown-up Malcolm Polstead, this huge, challenging novel asks the reader more questions than it answers.

Finally, Chinglish (Andersen) is Sue Cheung’s highly illustrated, lightly fictionalised account of her turbulent adolescence living over her parents’ Chinese takeaway in 1980s Coventry. Dealing with casual racism, her father’s abusive rages, annoyingly perfect cousins and the grisly fate of the family goat, Jo wonders whether she will ever fit in, look right, get a boyfriend – or be able to leave home. Funny and moving, with poignant, traumatic elements and comic cartoons, it will resonate with any teenage reader who feels alien or left out.

2020 will be…

… a defining year. These are perilous times. And we’re asking for your help as we prepare for 2020. Over the last three years, much of what the Guardian holds dear has been threatened – democracy, civility, truth. This US administration is establishing new norms of behaviour. Anger and cruelty disfigure public discourse and lying is commonplace. Truth is being chased away. But with your help we can continue to put it center stage.

Rampant disinformation, partisan news sources and social media’s tsunami of fake news is no basis on which to inform the American public in 2020. The need for a robust, independent press has never been greater, and with your help we can continue to provide fact-based reporting that offers public scrutiny and oversight. We are also committed to keeping our journalism open and accessible to everyone and with your help we can keep it that way.

“Next year America faces an epic choice – and the result could define the country for a generation. It is at a tipping point, finely balanced between truth and lies, hope and hate, civility and nastiness. Many vital aspects of American public life are in play – the Supreme Court, abortion rights, climate policy, wealth inequality, Big Tech and much more. The stakes could hardly be higher. As that choice nears, the Guardian, as it has done for 200 years, and with your continued support, will continue to argue for the values we hold dear – facts, science, diversity, equality and fairness.” – US editor, John Mulholland


Leave a comment

Filed under 2019, book list, books