Books, books, books. They will increase your lifespan, lower your stress and boost your intelligence. They will give you fuller, thicker hair.Whatever the breathless claims about reading, one thing is certain: losing yourself in a great novel is one of life’s most enduring and dependable joys. Job satisfaction comes and goes, partners enrapture and abscond, but you can always fall back on the timeless ability of literature to transport you to a different world. From Jane Austen’s mannered drawing rooms to the airless tower blocks of 1984, novels do something unique. They simultaneously speak to the heart and mind. They teach you about the history of our world, the possibilities of our future and the fabric of our souls.So where do you start? It’s a fraught question, because the obvious answer – “the literary canon” – means a pantheon of predominantly dead, white dudes. The power structures at play for centuries have meant that a very narrow band of people have been given the opportunity to say something universal about the human condition. It’s impossible to ignore these biases: the least we can do is acknowledge them, include different perspectives, and point to some excellent resources here, here and here to discover more writers we should be reading.As it stands, whittling this list down to 40 novels has been a process that makes Brexit negotiations look simple and amicable. We hope you enjoy the selection – or at least enjoy arguing about who should or should not have made the cut.You can also view this list as a gallery below.Pride and Prejudice, Jane AustenIt is a fact universally acknowledged that every list of great books must include Pride and Prejudice. Don’t be fooled by the bonnets and balls: beneath the sugary surface is a tart exposé of the marriage market in Georgian England. For every lucky Elizabeth, who tames the haughty, handsome Mr Darcy and learns to know herself in the process, there’s a Charlotte, resigned to life with a drivelling buffoon for want of a pretty face. Ceri RadfordThe Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾, Sue TownsendRead this one when you’re decrepit enough, and chances are you’ll die laughing. No one has lampooned the self-absorption, delusions of grandeur and sexual frustration of adolescence as brilliantly as Sue Townsend, and no one ever will. Beyond the majestic poetry and the pimples, there’s also a sharp satire of Thatcherist Britain. CRCharlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald DahlHarry Potter may be more popular, but Willy Wonka is altogether weirder. From the overwhelming poverty experienced by Charlie Bucket and his family, to the spoilt, greedy, brattish children who join Charlie on his trip to Willy Wonka’s phantasmagorical sweet factory there is nothing artificially sweetened in Roald Dahl’s startling work of fantasy. CHThings Fall Apart, Chinua AchebeA classic exposé of colonialism, Achebe’s novel explores what happens to a Nigerian village when European missionaries arrive. The main character, warrior-like Okonkwo, embodies the traditional values that are ultimately doomed. By the time Achebe was born in 1930, missionaries had been settled in his village for decades. He wrote in English and took the title of his novel from a Yeats poem, but wove Igbo proverbs throughout this lyrical work. CR1984, George OrwellThe ultimate piece of dystopian fiction, 1984 was so prescient that it’s become a cliché. But forget TV’s Big Brother or the trite travesty of Room 101: the original has lost none of its furious force. Orwell was interested in the mechanics of totalitarianism, imagining a society that took the paranoid surveillance of the Soviets to chilling conclusions. Our hero, Winston, tries to resist a grey world where a screen watches your every move, but bravery is ultimately futile when the state worms its way inside your mind. CRRebecca, Daphne du MaurierThe second Mrs de Winter is the narrator of Du Maurier’s marvellously gothic tale about a young woman who replaces the deceased Rebecca as wife to the wealthy Maxim de Winter and mistress of the Manderley estate. There she meets the housekeeper Mrs Danvers, formerly devoted to Rebecca, who proceeds to torment her. As atmospheric, psychological horror it just gets darker and darker. CHGreat Expectations, Charles DickensDickens was the social conscience of the Victorian age, but don’t let that put you off. Great Expectations is the roiling tale of the orphaned Pip, the lovely Estella, and the thwarted Miss Havisham. First written in serial form, you barely have time to recover from one cliffhanger before the next one beckons, all told in Dickens’ luxuriant, humorous, heartfelt prose. CRTo Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee A timeless plea for justice in the setting of America’s racist South during the depression years, Lee’s novel caused a sensation. Her device was simple but incendiary: look at the world through the eyes of a six-year-old, in this case, Jean Louise Finch, whose father is a lawyer defending a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Lee hoped for nothing but “a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers”: she won the Pulitzer and a place on the curriculum. CRWolf Hall, Hilary MantelIn an astonishing act of literary ventriloquism, Mantel inhabits a fictionalised version of Thomas Cromwell, a working-class boy who rose through his own fierce intelligence to be a key player in the treacherous world of Tudor politics. Historical fiction so immersive you can smell the fear and ambition. CRThe Big Sleep, Raymond ChandlerDashiell Hammett may have been harder boiled, his plots more intricate but, wow, does Raymond Chandler have style. The push and pull at the start of The Big Sleep between private detective Philip Marlowe, in his powder-blue suit and dark blue shirt, and Miss Carmen Sternwood, with her “little sharp predatory teeth” and lashes that she lowers and raises like a theatre curtain, sets the tone for a story of bad girls and bad men. CHFrankenstein, Mary ShelleyShelley was just 18 when she wrote Frankenstein as part of a challenge with her future husband, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron, to concoct the best horror story. Put down the green face paint: Frankenstein’s monster is a complex creation who yearns for sympathy and companionship. Some 200 years after it was first published, the gothic tale feels more relevant than ever as genetic science pushes the boundaries of what it means to create life. CRWuthering Heights, Emily BrontëWill there ever be a novel that burns with more passionate intensity than Wuthering Heights? The forces that bring together its fierce heroine Catherine Earnshaw and cruel hero Heathcliff are violent and untameable, yet rooted in a childhood devotion to one another, when Heathcliff obeyed Cathy’s every command. It’s impossible to imagine this novel ever provoking quiet slumbers; Emily Brontë’s vision of nature blazes with poetry. CHLord of the Flies, William GoldingAnyone who has ever suspected that children are primitive little beasties will nod sagely as they read Golding’s classic. His theory is this: maroon a bunch of schoolboys on an island, and watch how quickly the trappings of decent behaviour fall away. Never has a broken pair of spectacles seemed so sinister, or civilisation so fragile. CRVanity Fair, William Makepeace ThackerayAll the teeming life of 19th century London is here in Thackeray’s masterpiece, right down to the curry houses frequented by Jos Sedley, who has gained a taste for the hot stuff as an officer in the East India Trading Company. But it is Becky Sharp, one of literature’s great characters, who gives this novel its enduring fascination. As a woman on the make, Becky is the perfect blend of wit, cunning and cold-hearted ruthlessness. Try as film and TV might to humanise and make excuses for her, Becky needs victims to thrive! And she’s all the more compelling for that. CHMidnight’s Children, Salman RushdieThe protagonist of Rushdie’s most celebrated novel is born at the exact moment India gains independence. He’s also born with superpowers, and he’s not the only one. In an audacious and poetic piece of magical realism, Rushdie tells the story of India’s blood-soaked resurgence via a swathe of children born at midnight with uncanny abilities. CRLolita, Vladimir NabokovBanned from entering the UK in its year of publication, 1955, Vladimir Nabokov’s astonishingly skilful and enduringly controversial work of fiction introduces us to literary professor and self-confessed hebephile Humbert Humbert, the perhaps unreliable narrator of the novel. He marries widow Charlotte Haze only to get access to her daughter, 12-year-old Dolores, nicknamed Lo by her mother, or as Humbert calls her “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” Cloaking his abuse in the allusive language of idealised love does not lessen Humbert’s crimes, but allows Nabokov to skewer him where he hides. CHJane Eyre, Charlotte BronteYou will need a cold, dead heart not to be moved by one of literature’s steeliest heroines. From the institutional cruelty of her boarding school, the “small, plain” Jane Eyre becomes a governess who demands a right to think and feel. Not many love stories take in a mad woman in the attic and a spot of therapeutic disfigurement, but this one somehow carries it off with mythic aplomb. CRAmericanah, Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieA subtle and engrossing look at racial identity, through the story of a charismatic young Nigerian woman who leaves her comfortable Lagos home for a world of struggles in the United States. Capturing both the hard-scrabble life of US immigrants and the brash divisions of a rising Nigeria, Adichie crosses continents with all her usual depth of feeling and lightness of touch. CRCold Comfort Farm, Stella GibbonsAn absolute unadulterated comic joy of a novel. Stella Gibbons neatly pokes fun at sentimental navel-gazing with her zesty heroine Flora, who is more interested in basic hygiene than histrionics. In other words, if you’ve “seen something nasty in the woodshed”, just shut the door. CRBeloved, Toni MorrisonDedicated to the “60 million and more” Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the slave trade, this is a cultural milestone and a Pulitzer-winning tour de force. Morrison was inspired by the real-life story of an enslaved woman who killed her own daughter rather than see her return to slavery. In her plot, the murdered child returns to haunt a black community, suggesting the inescapable taint of America’s history. CRBrideshead Revisited, Evelyn WaughEvelyn Waugh bottles the intoxicating vapour of a vanished era in this novel about middle-class Charles Ryder, who meets upper-class Sebastian Flyte at Oxford University in the 1920s. Scrap the wartime prologue, and Charles’s entire relationship with Sebastian’s sister Julia (Dear Evelyn, thank you for your latest manuscript, a few suggested cuts…) and you’re looking at one of the most affecting love affairs in the English language. Chris HarveyDune, Frank HerbertYou can almost feel your mouth dry with thirst as you enter the world of Frank Herbert’s Dune and encounter the desert planet of Arrakis, with its giant sandworms and mind-altering spice. It’s the setting for an epic saga of warring feudal houses, but it’s as much eco-parable as thrilling adventure story. Rarely has a fictional world been so completely realised. CHThe Code of the Woosters, PG WodehouseIf you haven’t read PG Wodehouse in a hot bath with a snifter of whisky and ideally a rubber duck for company, you haven’t lived. Wallow in this sublimely silly tale of the ultimate comic double act: bumbling aristocrat Bertie Wooster and his omniscient butler, Jeeves. A book that’s a sheer joy to read and also manages to satirise British fascist leader Oswald Mosley as a querulous grump in black shorts. CRThe Great Gatsby, F Scott FitzgeraldThe savage reviews that greeted F Scott Fitzgerald’s third novel – “no more than a glorified anecdote”; “for the season only” – failed to recognise something truly great; a near-perfect distillation of the hope, ambition, cynicism and desire at the heart of the American Dream. Other novels capture the allure of the invented self, from Stendhal’s The Red and the Black to Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull, but Fitzgerald’s enigmatic Jay Gatsby casts a shadow that reaches to Mad Men’s Don Draper and beyond. CHA Clockwork Orange, Anthony BurgessFrom the moment we meet Alex and his three droogs in the Korova milk bar, drinking moloko with vellocet or synthemesc and wondering whether to chat up the devotchkas at the counter or tolchock some old veck in an alley, it’s clear that normal novelistic conventions do not apply. Anthony Burgess’s slim volume about a violent near-future where aversion therapy is used on feral youth who speak Nadsat and commit rape and murder, is a dystopian masterpiece. CHTess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas HardyA good 125 years before MeToo, Thomas Hardy skewered the sexual hypocrisy of the Victorian age in this melodramatic but immensely moving novel. Tess is a naïve girl from a poor family who is raped by a wealthy landowner. After the death of her baby, she tries to build a new life, but the “shame” of her past casts a long shadow. Read this if you want to understand the rotten culture at the root of victim blaming. CRDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K DickHere be Roy Baty, Rick Deckard and Rachael Rosen – the novel that inspired Blade Runner is stranger even than the film it became. Back in an age before artificial intelligence could teach itself in a few hours to play chess better than any grandmaster that ever lived, Philip K Dick was using the concept of android life to explore what it meant to be human, and what it is to be left behind on a compromised planet. That he could do it in 250 pages that set the mind spinning and engage the emotions with every page-turn make this a rare science-fiction indeed. CHThe God of Small Things, Arundhati RoyRoy won the 1997 Booker Prize with her debut novel, a powerful intergenerational tale of love that crosses caste lines in southern India, and the appalling consequences for those who break the taboos dictating “who should be loved, and how. And how much.” Sex, death, religion, the ambivalent pull of motherhood: it’s all there in this beautiful and haunting book. CRHeart of Darkness, Joseph ConradInspired by Conrad’s own experiences of captaining a trading steamer up the Congo River, Heart of Darkness is part adventure, part psychological voyage into the unknown, as the narrator Marlow relays the story of his journey into the jungle to meet the mysterious ivory trader Mr Kurtz. The novel – although debate continues to rage about whether its attitude to Africa and colonialism is racist – is deeply involving and demands to be read. CHThe Secret History, Donna TarttStick another log on the fire and curl up with this dark, peculiar and quite brilliant literary murder tale. A group of classics students become entranced by Greek mythology – and then take it up a level. Remember, kids: never try your own delirious Dionysian ritual at home. CRDracula, Bram StokerWhatever passed between Irish theatre manager Bram Stoker and the Hungarian traveller and writer Ármin Vámbéry when they met in London and talked of the Carpathian Mountains, it incubated in the Gothic imagination of Stoker into a work that has had an incalculable influence on Western culture. It’s not hard to read the Count as a shadowy sexual figure surprising straitlaced Victorian England in their beds, but in Stoker’s hands he’s also bloody creepy. CHMiddlemarch, George EliotThis is a richly satisfying slow burn of a novel that follows the lives and loves of the inhabitants of a small town in England through the years 1829–32. The acerbic wit and timeless truth of its observations mark this out as a work of genius; but at the time the author, Mary Anne Evans, had to turn to a male pen name to be taken seriously. CRThe Catcher in the Rye, JD SalingerIt only takes one sentence, written in the first person, for Salinger’s Holden Caulfield to announce himself in all his teenage nihilism, sneering at you for wanting to know his biographical details “and all that David Copperfield kind of crap”. The Catcher in the Rye is the quintessential novel of the adolescent experience, captured in deathless prose. CHThe Bell Jar, Sylvia PlathThe only novel written by the poet Sylvia Plath is a semi-autobiographical account of a descent into depression that the book’s narrator Esther Greenwood describes as like being trapped under a bell jar – used to create a vacuum in scientific experiments – struggling to breathe. Almost every word is arresting, and the way that Plath captures the vivid life happening around Esther – news events and magazine parties – accentuates the deadening illness that drives her towards suicidal feelings. Plath herself would commit suicide one month after the novel’s publication in 1963. CHAnna Karenina, Leo TolstoyAndrew Davies’s recent TV adaptation of War and Peace reminded those of us who can’t quite face returning to the novel’s monstrous demands just how brilliantly Tolstoy delineates affairs of the heart, even if the war passages will always be a struggle. In Anna Karenina – enormous, too! – the great Russian novelist captures the erotic charge between the married Anna and the bachelor Vronsky, then drags his heroine through society’s scorn as their affair takes shape, without ever suggesting we move from her side. CHCatch-22, Joseph HellerIt’s not often an idiom coined in a novel becomes a catchphrase, but Joseph Heller managed it with his madcap, savage and hilarious tour de force. War is the ultimate dead end for logic, and this novel explores all its absurdities as we follow US bombardier pilot Captain John Yossarian. While Heller drew on his own experience as a WWII pilot, it was the McCarthyism of the Fifties that fuelled the book’s glorious rage. CRDangerous Liaisons, Pierre Choderlos de LaclosThe most deliciously wicked experience in literature, this epistolary novel introduces us to the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont, who play cruel games of sexual conquest on their unwitting victims. The Marquise’s justification for her behaviour – “I, who was born to revenge my sex and master yours” – will strike a chord in the MeToo era, but emotions, even love, intrude, to the point where Laclos’s amorality becomes untenable. Sexy but very, very bad. CH100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia MarquezThe energy and enchantment of Garcia Marquez’s story of seven generations of the Buendia family in a small town in Colombia continue to enthral half a century on. Hauntings and premonitions allied to a journalistic eye for detail and a poetic sensibility make Marquez’s magical realism unique. CHThe Trial, Franz Kafka“Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K…” So begins Kafka’s nightmarish tale of a man trapped in an unfathomable bureaucratic process after being arrested by two agents from an unidentified office for a crime they’re not allowed to tell him about. Foreshadowing the antisemitism of Nazi-occupied Europe, as well as the methods of the Stasi, KGB, and StB, it’s an unsettling, at times bewildering, tale with chilling resonance. CHThe Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di LampedusaPublished posthumously in 1958, Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel is set in 19th century Sicily, where revolution is in the air. The imposing Prince Don Fabrizio presides over a town close to Palermo during the last days of an old world in which class stratifications are stable and understood. Garibaldi’s forces have taken the island and a new world will follow. It’s a deep and poetic meditation on political change and the characters that it produces. CH
No matter how high-tech the world gets, you can’t beat an old-fashioned colouring book when it comes to keeping children entertained indoors.Whether you’re whiling away an hour at home on a rainy afternoon or passing time on a long journey, a colouring book is a must-have for occupying youngsters.There’s just something soothing about cracking open a colouring book and a packet of felt-tip pens or coloured pencils. In terms of beating boredom, few things are quite as therapeutic.And while any colouring book is entertaining in and of itself, the secret to choosing one that enthrals your child and isn’t quickly tossed aside is to focus on their temperament, as well as their individual interests.A rambunctious, energetic pre-schooler will need a more engaging colouring book than, say, a toddler who is just beginning to enjoy colouring in.And while cute characters and animals are fun to colour for five minutes, choosing a colouring book that appeals to your child’s particular interests will mean it should hold their interest for much longer.Finally, factor in where your children are likely to use the colouring book. We tested lots of travel-friendly tomes that are practical for packing if space is limited, like on a car journey or flight. If, by contrast, you’re after a gift for a budding artist, one of the colouring posters is likely to be a bigger hit.You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent. Usborne first colouring book football: £3.99, UsborneOur five-year-old tester was delighted to discover that this colouring book is full of soccer-mad girls as well as boys – which makes a change! There’s lots to learn about the game in this, from the names of each player’s position to all the different skills a footballer needs to master. The backgrounds are in colour so there’s much less to shade than in some books, but that didn’t seem to bother our tester – if anything, it meant this book seemed less overwhelming.Buy now The Jam Tart the animal colours colouring book: £6, KidlyThere are 28 pages featuring 20 stylised animals to colour in this book. It’s ideal for learning colours and animal names beyond the basics – we particularly like the indigo iguana. Our five-year-old tester loved writing her name on the “this book belongs to” page. This offering from The Jam Tart is distinctly different from other colouring books, so we think it would make a lovely gift for a budding artist.Buy now Crayola unicreatures colouring book: £3, HobbycraftLlamas are the new unicorns and everyone loves sloths, so this 32-page colouring book is bound to be a hit with on-trend youngsters. It’s great value for money and the pictures are entertaining without being too complex, so it’s ideal for younger children who are just getting into colouring books.Buy now Usborne Minis unicorns colouring book with rub-down transfers: £2.99, UsborneThis little colouring book is the perfect size for popping in a party bag – or even in your pocket. It’s small enough to be practical for travel use, and the transfers add an extra level of entertainment – there are transfers of unicorns, rainbows and flowers, as well as plants and animals to colour in.Buy now Giant colouring picture by Makii: £4, London Transport MuseumThis giant colouring picture is an innovative twist on a classic colouring book, and every one sold supports London Transport Museum’s charitable work. It’s the size of a map and comes with an adventure booklet about visiting the London Transport Museum, plus four postcards which you can colour in and then send to a friend.Buy now Omy magic colouring poster: £12.95, Royal Opera HouseYou can colour this poster in and then frame it and hang it on the wall. Our tester loves the idea of having her own handiwork hanging in her room, so it’s also ideal if you’re looking for an unusual gift for an arty youngster. It also folds away neatly if you want to take it with you on holiday or use it when you’re travelling.Buy now Rex London the jungle colouring and activity book: £6.95, Rex LondonThis is a jungle activity and colouring book in one with a carrying handle, so it’s perfect for travel use. There are ten different activities in this 50-page book as well as drawing challenges. Our tester’s favourite feature is the perforated edges, which mean you can easily tear off a picture and give it to a friend or stick it on the fridge.Buy now The official Harry Potter colouring book: £5.99, The Book PeopleFans of everyone’s favourite wizard will love this official Potter-themed colouring book. The pages feature line drawings that have been used in the making of the Harry Potter films, so it’s better suited to older children who have mastered colouring within the lines. It features much-loved characters including Harry, Dobby and Voldemort.Buy now The Natural History Museum dinosaur colouring book: £4.99, The Natural History MuseumThis 32-page colouring book is packed with fascinating dinosaur facts as well as puzzles and quizzes, so there’s plenty here to keep dino-fans entertained beyond just colouring in. Our five-year-old tester particularly loved the page that teaches you how to draw a diploodocus.Buy now My Little World colouring book: £4.99, My Little WorldThis travel-friendly cut-out, colour and play set is the perfect colouring book for use on long journeys. The set comes in six different varieties including airport, fairy village and space station foxtrot, and features cute characters and illustrations that children can use to create their own play scenes and stories. A modern twist on a traditional colouring book, it’s one of the items our five-year-old tester kept coming back to again and again. Buy now The verdict: Kids' colouring booksOur five-year-old tester thinks the Usborne first colouring book football is hands-down the best colouring book of all those we tested. It’s the one she returned to play with the most, and the first thing she packed for her holiday. If you’re buying a colouring book as a gift, the giant colouring picture by Makii is ideal, and excellent value for money with a charitable twist.
There is nothing more appealing, particularly when time is limited, than dipping into a short story collection.And just because this genre is written in fewer words than a novel, it doesn’t mean it’s any less potent.The short story can be a mechanism for writers to explore and find their own voice. For others, the themes in a short story can gestate and make it into their greatest novel.Some writers are simply more prolific at short story writing, while others just don’t have time to write a novel, finding short stories less of a commitment.Here, we round up 20 of the best short story collections for those who want an enduring story in fewer pages.Dancing Girls and Other Stories by Margaret AtwoodThe Handmaid’s Tale author – whose sequel, The Testaments, is out on 10 September – reveals the complexities of human relationships in ordinary people’s lives in her occasionally violent short story collection. Standout stories include “The Man from Mars”, in which a college student with a creepy stalker almost comes to appreciate this unhealthy obsession, when it gives her the attention that is lacking in her mundane life.The Collected Short Stories of F Scott FitzgeraldThis career-spanning collection of stories brings together the Tender Is the Night author’s most famous stories, including “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”. This sinister fantasy tale about the perils of fabulous wealth is a topic he explored in greater depth later, especially when writing his best-known novel The Great Gatsby.Kiss Kiss by Roald DahlRoald Dahl is better known for children’s books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but these creepy, tense and dark stories are a real treat for adults. A highlight is “Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat”, about a married woman who pawns a mink coat her lover gave her, with a jaw-dropping twist at the end. Alfred Hitchcock directed the screen version.The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine MansfieldThis is the third and most revered short story collection by the pioneering modernist writer, whose psychologically in-depth characters tend to have sudden epiphanies. It was written towards the end of Katherine Mansfield’s short life (she died aged 34 of tuberculosis), and includes the title story, one of her best-known works. In it, the wealthy Sheridan family prepares for a picnic, and through this seemingly mundane affair, the author deals with issues of life and death as well as the British class system.The Acid House by Irvine WelshThe Trainspotting author’s first collection of short stories is a real page-turner, bursting with colourful characters and humour. He plays with surrealism and fantasy in standout stories including the title story, about a football hooligan on an acid trip and a pregnant feminist on her way to the hospital who are struck by lightning. In “Eurotrash”, a Scottish junkie hangs around Amsterdam in typically hopeless, Trainspotting fashion.First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwanThe author admitted that his first published work allowed him to experiment and discover his voice. The perverse and ominous stories in this collection are linked by a theme of adolescence and include “Butterflies”, in which a man has a sordid meeting with a girl who he then drowns. The man describes the murder himself, and is alarmingly void of emotion when doing so.Public Library by Ali SmithThe Man-Booker shortlisted author of Autumn and How To Be Both defends UK public libraries against threats of mass closures in her most recent, must-read short story collection. All of the characters in its 12 stories are passionate about books. Highlights include “The Ex-Wife”, in which Katherine Mansfield becomes the other woman in a relationship, when the narrator feels left out of his partner’s life as she researches the famous author’s life and works.Nine Stories by JD SalingerThe American author of The Catcher in the Rye was deeply affected by his experiences as a soldier in the Second World War, and this is reflected in his writings. This collection includes two of his most famous short stories – “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, about a combat veteran recently discharged from an army hospital, and “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor”, a tribute to those former Second World War soldiers suffering from PTSD.The Moons of Jupiter by Alice MunroThe master of the contemporary short story won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, at the age of 82. She started writing short stories when she was at home with three young children and didn’t have time to write a novel. Her 2004 collection contains stories about 12 women whose romantic lives are derailed by broken marriages and betrayed affections.The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela CarterAngela Carter made it very clear that her intention was not to do “horrible, ‘adult’ fairy tales” but to “extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories”. These dark and sensual new tales include the famous title story, which acts more like a novella within the collection. This gruesome story is about a beautiful young girl who finds the bodies of her husband’s previous wives in a castle chamber.Dubliners by James JoyceThe author’s only short story collection, which is taken up largely by the subject of death, nearly never made it into print. One publisher even burnt the manuscript when he changed his mind about publishing it. Highlights include “Eveline”, about a girl deciding between staying at home like a dutiful daughter or leaving Dublin with her lover. “The Dead” is considered his best short work and a masterpiece of modern fiction.What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond CarverCarver’s breakthrough short story collection is a punchy and concise portrait of the lives of people ambling along in middle America. The writer digs deep into the themes of friendship and heartache with his use of vivid dialogue. The unedited version of the stories were first published after his death under the title “Beginners”, with the approval of Carver’s widow.The Collected Stories by Jean RhysIn 1945, Jean Rhys said that her stories were “too bitter... and besides, who wants short stories?” She found fame in 1966 with her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which went unpublished for over 20 years. Her stories draw on autobiographical material, moving between the Caribbean, London and Paris – all places where she lived – and the characters are mostly women living life on the periphery of an indifferent society, dealing with alcoholism, doomed relationships and poverty.The Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan PoeEdgar Allan Poe is best-known for his poem “The Raven”, but fans of his Gothic tales of horror will love these macabre stories that include “The Fall of the House of Usher”, in which a brother buries his sister alive in the family tomb, and one of Poe’s best known short stories, “Tell-Tale Heart”, in which the narrator tries to convince the reader of his sanity while describing a murder.Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz KafkaFranz Kafka is a master of the short story and never finished any of his full-length novels. This collection, published in Kafka’s lifetime, brings together the few works that he actually wanted to be published. It includes his most famous story, “Metamorphosis”, about a man’s alienation when he turns into a beetle, and “The Judgement”, which Kafka saw as one of his most perfect literary creations. He instructed his executor to burn all his unpublished writing after his death – but this was not upheld. These stories can be found in The Burrow.The Complete Short Stories of Ernest HemingwayThis posthumous collection by the author of For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea includes a foreword by his sons, as well as the classic First Forty-Nine Stories and a number of other stories. Considered to be one of his best stories is “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” about Harry, a writer dying of gangrene while on Safari in Africa, who is musing on his life experiences. It was turned into a 1952 film starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward, with an extra part written especially for Ava Gardener.The Happy Prince and Other Stories by Oscar WildeThough he is best known for his novels and plays, Oscar Wilde’s stories for children are fairytales for any age group. Wilde, who believed it was “the duty of every father to write fairytales for his children”, enjoyed reading “The Selfish Giant” to his two sons. The collection’s title story is about a statue who asks a swallow to strip him of all the jewels and gold leaf on his body, to help the poor – a tale which can’t fail to make you cry.Mouthful of Birds by Samantha Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowellThe Argentinian writer’s novel Fever Dream made the shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017. Her debut collection of eerily unnerving and nightmarish short stories translated into English includes Headlights, in which a jilted bride is dumped at a roadside petrol station by her new husband – along with lots of other rejected women. In the title story a young woman’s transformation from a teenager involves her eating live birds, much to the disgust of her parents.Selected Stories by Anton ChekovConsidered the greatest short story writer, Chekov collated his 30 best stories into this collection. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky – who translated War and Peace, Doctor Zhivago, and Anna Karenina – it includes “The Lady with the Dog”, about an adulterous affair that turns to love.The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieThese 12 melancholic short stories, from the Orange Prize-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun, focus largely on the lives and experiences of Nigerian women. Standout stories include Imitation, in which a young mother’s new life in Philadelphia is turned upside down when she finds out that her husband has moved his mistress into their Lagos home, and the title story, about the loneliness of a Nigerian girl who moves to America.
This month, when earthquakes rocked southern California on back-to-back days, it was a visceral reminder that we may one day experience the “Big One”, a quake with the power to kill and destroy.A few people saw something else: a photo opportunity.Tourists flocked to a large crack in a highway to see evidence of the damage for themselves and, of course, take a quick selfie.250people died while taking selfies between 2011 and 2017It was just the latest example of how our modern love of sharing photos we take of ourselves in notable situations is colliding with nature and the world, often in perplexing and even dangerous ways.In Canada, a sunflower farm barred visitors last year after selfie-seekers destroyed flowers and left the land looking like a “zombie apocalypse”. In Spain, a man was gored in the neck last weekend while trying to take a video selfie at the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona.The selfie phenomenon entered the mainstream after Apple and other phone makers added front-facing cameras starting in 2010, the same year Instagram and other photo-sharing apps were becoming popular. From 2011 to 2017, more than 250 people died while taking selfies, according to a study by researchers in India, which had by far the highest number of such deaths, followed by Russia and the United States. Many died after drowning, falling or being attacked by an animal. Most were under the age of 30.All of it paints a picture of a self-obsessed online culture hell bent on getting the perfect shareable photo to feed its vanity. With each like, we feel better about ourselves. But there is no denying the intrinsic draw of the selfie, which feeds so many of the most vulnerable parts of ourselves: our innate attraction to images of human faces instead of landscapes or objects, our nostalgia for capturing memories, and yes, our need for social approval.It’s easy to be uncomfortable with selfies and even mock them, especially when they’re risky or in bad taste. But some researchers have explored different questions: Why do we take selfies? Can they ever be a healthy form of expression? Can selfies be used for good?“Narcissism is one thread,” says Jesse Fox, an associate professor of communication at Ohio State University, who has studied how people use selfies and social media. In one study, she found that characteristics of narcissism and psychopathy predicted the number of selfies men aged 18 to 40 posted on social media.But she said the need for social approval and support is universal.“We all have levels of insecurity,” Fox says. “When someone posts, ‘Here is my cancer selfie,’ they are feeling vulnerable. You need that social support. That is not saying you are a narcissist for putting it out on social media.”After all, people have been making self-portraits for centuries, in remarkably similar ways. The 16th-century Italian artist Parmigianino famously painted a portrait of himself with his arm extended, almost as if holding the canvas; a 17th-century self-portrait by Rembrandt shows an expression similar to the classic “duck-face” selfie, and during the Italian renaissance, at least one artist used a self-portrait for “calling cards”, as a way to market their work.Since the term “selfie” first caught on – it was the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year in 2013 – researchers have identified three types of selfie-taker.There are communicators, who want to have a two-way conversation (for example, a post with an “I voted” sticker to encourage civic engagement); autobiographers, who document their lives for their own purposes, rather than seeking feedback or compliments (a selfie at home with a favourite coffee mug, or a photo at the Grand Canyon); and self-publicists, who want to build a brand and positively curate an image (à la the Kardashians).“They have become so common that my grandma does them when we get together,” says Steven Holiday, an author of the study who argues that the notion of the selfie as narcissistic is outdated.“We have gone beyond the self-centred nature — we need to let it go when it comes to selfies,” he said. “Selfies are a way for us to connect and communicate, and feel more personal with people all around the world.”> This is not just me taking a duck-faced selfie or trying to look cute on camera. This is me being able to better tell the story about my science in a way that helps people trust meIn one example, researchers developed a ScientistsWhoSelfie campaign studying how scientists posting photos of themselves with their work on Instagram influenced public perception of the profession. They found that photos with human faces helped improve impressions in a field that is often subject to negative stereotypes.“Scientists in general were perceived as warmer, but no less competent,” says Paige Jarreau, the lead author on the study. “That was particularly true for female scientists.”While some scientists baulked at first, fearing that their colleagues would consider them self-centred or think they take their work less seriously, Jarreau says those concerns dissipated once researchers explained that it could help build public trust. The hashtag ScientistsWhoSelfie has taken off, with thousands of posts on Instagram.“This is not just me taking a duck-faced selfie or trying to look cute on camera,” she says. “This is me being able to better tell the story about my science in a way that helps people trust me.”Similarly, Fox has studied how self-documenting on social media can be a powerful tool for gay, transgender and non-binary people who are undergoing an appearance transformation to live more publicly as their true selves. The public nature of the posts, she says, can be a cathartic form of self-expression.“That is a very empowering thing for them,” she says.But in the everyday, most of us post reflexively, even obsessively. Fox recalls a road trip she took to national parks, where she witnessed so many people taking selfies, she began taking photos of the selfie-takers themselves.“Ask yourself: why are you posting that picture?” she says. “If there was a platform that didn’t enable likes, would you post this?” After all, there are other ways to foster a social connection. You could send the photo to a private group. You could put it in a frame at home. You could be mindful in the moment by not taking it at all.But if you do, watch your step.© New York Times
When Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, the first openly gay rabbi of a large synagogue in Canada, was preparing to begin rabbinical school, she faced a daunting choice: love or serving God.Her world was suddenly turned upside down in the late 1990s while she was studying religion at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, and fell in love with a woman she met at a conference. This posed a problem: the conservative rabbinical school she planned to attend did not ordain openly gay rabbis. Rather than abandoning her vocation, she opted instead to join the Jewish Reform movement – a liberal progressive denomination that accepts gay rabbis and same-sex marriage.“Coming out,” she says, “brought me closer to God.”“It was the first time in my life when being good at something and working hard weren’t enough to open the door,” says the bookish 44-year-old rabbi, who speaks with the soothing voice of someone used to softening life’s upheavals. “By following my calling and being true to myself, I was embracing both essential parts of my identity.”Now divorced, and remarried with two daughters and a third child on the way, she says her struggles have helped shape her inclusive approach to Judaism during posts in New York City and in her current role as the first female senior rabbi at the 137-year-old Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, a sprawling Reform synagogue in Montreal’s affluent Westmount neighbourhood.Named one of “America’s most inspiring rabbis” by the influential Jewish publication The Forward, she has edited a seminal book on Judaism and sexuality, works to improve ties between Canadian Jews and Muslims; and counsels lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews from Newfoundland to Mexico.And while Judaism has a long history of trailblazers in gay and gender equality – the first female rabbi, Regina Jonas, was ordained in Berlin in 1935, and the Reform movement formally endorsed the ordination of gay clergy in 1990 – Grushcow is playing a leading role in breaking what she calls the “stained glass ceiling” in Canada, where senior female rabbis remain rare.She observed that, in a historically patriarchal religion, “people expect their rabbi to be a stand-in for God, who they think looks like a guy with a beard sitting on a cloud – I don’t look like that.“Being a divorced and lesbian rabbi and mom deepened my understanding of human experience,” she adds. “It broadened who I can relate to.”> She exemplifies how a community can both embrace tradition and also adapt to who we are as a people and community todayRabbi Hara Person, the first top female executive in the North American Reform movement, the largest Jewish denomination in the United States, calls Grushcow “a leading light of the Reform movement” and a rabbi for the modern age.“She exemplifies how a community can both embrace tradition and also adapt to who we are as a people and community today,” Person says.Nevertheless, overcoming prejudices can be an occupational hazard for a gay, female rabbi. Stephen Yaffe, a former president of her temple, who was on the search committee that hired Grushcow in 2012, recalls that some congregants initially expressed concern that she could prove polarising.“For some people, the fact that she is gay and female was a big deal, and some said, ‘This is not who we are,’” he recalls. But he says Grushcow had quickly convinced the doubters with her empathy, intellect and ability to connect with people. Before long, the temple’s benches were overflowing with young people.Having the comic timing of a Borscht Belt comedian also helped. The rabbi recalled that a stranger recently made an appointment to ask her to adjudicate a family inheritance dispute. When the bemused rabbi asked, “Why me?” the woman replied, “Rabbis are free, and I didn’t want to pay a therapist or a lawyer.”Her success at expanding Judaism’s tent was evident at a recent gala evening at the synagogue honouring her seven years’ service. Mark Fishman, a rabbi in the Orthodox tradition, which historically does not sanction gay relationships, observed that when it came to his own spiritual health, “Rabbi Grushcow is my rabbi.”At the end of the evening, she and her pregnant wife, Shelley, 39, a digital marketing specialist, were taken by surprise when they were called to the bimah, the platform where the Torah is read.As a cantor sang “Rainbow Connection,” the first song they danced to at their wedding, the couple waltzed. The audience, which included Holocaust survivors, gay students and several Muslim leaders, beamed.> In addition to officiating at hundreds of bar mitzvahs and weddings, she led a study group for Jewish therapists turning to Jewish teachings to counsel about addiction, death and sexual identityBorn in Ottawa to a Conservative Jewish family and raised in Toronto, Grushcow credited her mother, a management consultant, and her father, the owner of a software development company, for instilling in her at a young age that girls could do anything.Nevertheless, she recalls reading a Torah commentary at age 8 that called homosexuality an “abyss of depravity” and feeling a pang of recognition that “it was talking about me”.After studying political science at McGill University in Montreal, she studied Judaism and Christianity in the Greco-Roman World at Oxford, where she earned a doctorate. In 2001, she married her first spouse, a female rabbinical student; two years later, Grushcow was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. Upon graduation, she joined Congregation Rodeph Sholom, a prominent Reform synagogue on New York City’s Upper West Side, with 1,600 families. She stayed for nearly a decade – what she calls her coming-of-age as a rabbi.It was a decidedly New York experience. In addition to officiating at hundreds of bar mitzvahs and weddings, she led a study group for Jewish therapists turning to Jewish teachings to counsel about addiction, death and sexual identity. After the 2008 financial crisis, she comforted investment bankers who had lost everything. Judaism, she stresses, is far more accepting than many people realised.“Genesis is the best book ever on dysfunctional families,” she says. “Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac on a mountain – Sarah, his wife, must not have been happy with that.”And while some Orthodox scholars argue that transgender identity is incompatible with Judaism since “God doesn’t make mistakes,” she counters that the Talmud, an ancient Jewish text, did not limit gender to male or female. “In the Jewish tradition, we aren’t born who we become,” she says.Her time in liberal New York, she says, emboldened her with a strong sense of acceptance. “You can’t go 10 city blocks in New York without running into a lesbian rabbi,” she says.A year after she moved to Montreal in 2012, her first marriage fell apart – a painful process, she says, that nevertheless taught her many lessons. She says she better understood that divorce has its own “stages of grief,” and experienced the insensitivity of a society that assumes everyone has a spouse. Dating also proved challenging. “As a rabbinic gay divorcée, no one was coming to me with matches,” she adds.“I had a feeling of failure because I felt, as a rabbi, I am supposed to be an example,” she recalls. “One couple said to me: ‘How are we supposed to feel about marriage if even our rabbi is divorced?’”Soon she found herself juggling being a rabbi and being the primary caregiver to two young daughters, now 9 and 15. “I can give a sermon on Yom Kippur to a thousand people,” she says. “Then I go home and my kids don’t listen to me at all.”She met her second wife, Shelley, online – “on Match.com – not Jdate!” she says with a laugh, referring to the Jewish dating site. Shelley was the first person on the site she messaged, and the two soon discovered a common love of used bookstores and ballroom dancing. They were married last year.Shelley Grushcow observes that being a rabbi’s wife meant that family outings could be interrupted by funerals or hospital visits. But, she adds, “sometimes the community needs her more than we do”.Lisa Grushcow’s inclusive approach was apparent on a recent day when she went to offer condolences to a family in mourning. There were not enough people to say kaddish, the prayer for the dead, so the rabbi rang doorbells in the apartment building, looking for worshippers to join them.According to Orthodox Jewish tradition, 10 men – known as a minyan – are needed to say the mourner’s prayer, and several older women apologised that their husbands weren’t home. When the rabbi invited the women to join the minyan, she recalls, several had tears in their eyes.“They felt for the first time that they counted,” she says.© New York Times
At the JM de los Rios Hospital in Caracas, Venezuela, 26 children with cancer and other diseases need bone marrow transplants to save their lives. A few weeks ago, there were 30 of them, but four have since passed away. Their mothers seek a miracle in a country where even getting antihistamines, vaccines and antibiotics is hard. Finding a donor is almost impossible, but these mothers are not giving up. They show strength in front of the camera, but cry silently while recalling the moments in which they have witnessed their children’s conditions slowly worsen.The women and their children, who are aged between four and 17, narrate the daily hell they live at the JM de los Rios, the main public paediatric centre in Venezuela. Each day is a battle against death. “We have been waiting for too long. Someone goes every day,” says Evellyne Fernandez, mother of 15-year-old Edenny Martinez, who was diagnosed with major thalassaemia, a form of severe anaemia that requires blood transfusions every three weeks. The teenager, who dreams of becoming a lawyer, has been receiving transfusions since she was seven months old and ended up contracting hepatitis C. The children need Exaje, a drug that helps reduce iron levels after having a transfusion, but this has not been available since November.Cristina Zambrano, a teenager with thalassaemia who dreamed of becoming a publicist before her condition got worse, has been waiting for a bone marrow transplant since 2014. In 2016, she got hepatitis C after undergoing a blood transfusion. Fourteen-year-old Jerson Torres was diagnosed with severe bone marrow aplasia. His mother Verioska Martinez says he is stubborn and sometimes tells her: “If I have to die, I will.”The lives of these children have been limited, their conditions preventing them from getting involved in everyday activities like playing soccer or going to the beach. Their growth and development have slowed down. Only two centres perform bone marrow transplants in Venezuela as long as there are compatible donors. One of them is public and the other is private, and having surgery at the latter can cost $20,000 (£16,000), which is out-of-reach for the average Venezuelan. The Venezuelan government signed an agreement with Italy in 2006 so that children who do not have donors can be taken to the European country for transplants. The programme used to be funded by the state-owned oil firm Petroleos de Venezuela, but has been on hold since 2018.The government of Nicolas Maduro blames the United States for the programme’s paralysis and says Donald Trump’s government imposed a block that prevents Italy’s Association for Bone Marrow Transplant from paying. But healthcare organisations say the problem goes beyond that. Doctors, NGOs and healthcare professionals argue that the paralysis is a result of sanctions. Delays began in 2015 and hospitals started deteriorating at least a decade ago. According to the latest figures, 1,557 patients have died due to a lack of medical supplies, and there were 79 power outages between 19 November and 9 February at healthcare centres.These mothers have become like family, united around their children’s suffering. They help each out other when their children lack the right drugs. They even offer their homes up to mothers from other parts of the country who have come to the capital for help. Edenny was hosting Norilsa Aparicio and her son Oscar Bautista, a 16-year-old with thalassaemia who needed a bone marrow transplant too.“Moms help each other. Sometimes I go to the hospital to ask if anybody has a drug that I need and if someone gives it to me then I return the favour,” says Jaqueline Sulbaran, the mother of 10-year-old Carlon Rincon, who has Down’s Syndrome and leukaemia. His mother says he has healed, but must have chemotherapy for two more years. His treatment in the hospital is on hold because the air conditioning is broken.Four children have died this month while waiting for transplants. They include seven-year-old Robert Redondo, who passed away due to a complication. He needed two antibiotics for treating severe infections that his mother was unable to find. The deaths of these children have moved Venezuela, and on 26 May healthcare professionals and parents protested in front of the JM de los Rios Hospital, demanding solutions to a health crisis that has been going on for over five years.EPA
Even without a psychology degree, Bella’s natural talents made her an excellent therapist: she is calm and accommodating of a range of personalities, with the patience to listen to endless problems without so much as a judgmental moo.From a lush, secluded pasture on the Mountain Horse Farm, a 33-acre bed-and-breakfast in the Finger Lakes region of New York state, three-year-old Bella and two-year-old Bonnie are the Highlander-Angus crossbred cows that provide animal-based therapy.Cow cuddling, as the practice is called, invites interaction with the farm animals via brushing, petting or heartfelt chats with the bovines. The experience is similar to equine therapy, with one game-changing difference: horses tend to stand, but cows spontaneously lie down in the grass while chewing their cud, allowing humans to get even more up close and personal by joining on the ground and offering a warm embrace.As more people are turning to a variety of animals – dogs, ducks, alligators – for their mental health, states are cracking down on how and when therapy animals can be used. But cows? You can’t take them with you.“Can you see how quiet she gets?” says Suzanne Vullers, 51, an equine therapist who co-owns the bed-and-breakfast with her husband Rudi Vullers, also 51. “That’s what we’re looking for,” she says. “For the person and the cow.”Hailing from the rural town of Reuver, in the Netherlands, the pair came across “koe knuffelen”, which means “cow hugging” in Dutch, on a return visit to their homeland two years ago. In parts of the Netherlands, cow cuddling is offered as part of half-day visits, and is part of a larger movement to connect people with country life. In the major urban centre of Rotterdam, a newly opened floating dairy farm in the city’s oldest port invites city dwellers to visit the beasts.About a decade earlier, in 2007, the couple – he a former supply chain manager, she a former accountant – traded their corporate lives to set up their farming shop in Naples (population: 2,500. Claim to fame: a grape festival that takes place in the autumn, with a competition for grape pie). The idea of cow cuddling opened the barn gates.> The cows get to live a natural life – they aren’t production animals and they’re not raised for beef or dairyIn May of 2018, they purchased Bonnie and Bella, selecting them for their gentle personalities and lack of horns. “A lot of cows are not suited for it,” Rudi says. “They can chase you out of the field.”Hour-long cow-cuddling sessions, priced at £60 per couple for the hour, are capped at two a day, with a maximum of four participants per session. “It’s not a petting zoo,” says, though the animals are indeed pets in a sense – they aren’t production animals, and they’re not raised for beef or dairy. “These girls get to live a natural life,” Suzanne says.Each session is overseen by two human counterparts: an equine therapist, usually Suzanne, who can read the animals’ moods to ensure a safe, positive interaction with their new human friends, and a second handler, who keeps a watchful eye on the other animals in the field.Neither has a psychology degree, which is kind of the point: “Whatever they’re going through, they don’t have to talk about it,” she says. “It’s not like [conventional] therapy, right?”> Clothing is important – they might slobber on youLike other forms of therapy, the hope is for visitors to foster trust, empathy and connection with the cows and their own emotions. And as with any other kind of therapy, there are no guarantees of successful outcomes: “They’re not trained to lie down,” she says.On a recent Saturday, two pairs of people, an engaged couple from Silicon Valley and a mother-daughter duo from upstate New York, had travelled from opposite sides of the country to cuddle some cows.“Drive five hours to hug a cow?” says Karen Hudson, 57, a construction company manager, who attended the afternoon session with her daughter, Jessica Ercoli, 27, a probation officer.For Hudson, it’s a sort of wish fulfilment, a throwback to the fond memories of visiting her grandmother’s farm. And perhaps a bit of fate, too. The email address she has used for over two decades includes the words “Missy”, which happens to be the name of miniature horse on the farm, and “moo”.Leading the two excited but tentative women onto the field, Suzanne offers guidance on a successful approach before demonstrating the methods herself. “O posture, not X posture,” she says. “Round the body” to appear less threatening. Walk up to the cow’s shoulders rather than its haunches.“Clothing is important,” Rudi says. “They might slobber on you.” (Definite requirement: closed-toe shoes.)For observers: “Stand sideways. It makes a world of difference to them,” Suzanne says.Advice for participants: “Respect them and their world and what they want to do and what they want to give you,” she adds.Number one advice for everyone: remain calm. “The more relaxed you are, the better it will be for you and them,” Suzanne says, because horses and cows alike sense emotions and respond in kind – most of the time.“Don’t rub your snot on me!” says Ercoli to Bella.Colin Clover, 50, a recruiting manager at Facebook attending the morning session, stumbled upon this extracurricular activity the way that many people discover niche wellness trends: the internet. He knew his fiancee Alexandria Rivas, 31, a receptionist, artist and longtime equestrian enthusiast, had fond memories of visiting the dairy farm next to the college she attended.Though he had once trained dolphins and sea lions, the idea of sidling up to a 900lb (400kg) heifer intimidated him. The nerves subsided, he says, when Suzanne framed it in a way he understood. “Think of how you would interact with your dog,” he recalls her saying.In their separate sessions, the pairs have a chance not just to meet the cows, but the entire coterie of characters. In the barn and field: Jaxon, the 1,800lb stallion; Stetson, a gelding, named for the hat; Cricket and Noa, mares rescued from abusive conditions; Suzie Q and Missy, miniature horses with distinct personalities. “Missy is always the first to say hi,” explains Suzanne of her outgoing, plump-bellied friend.For the final surprise of the day, the farmers invite the visitors to hand-feed the cows oat-based treats, which many participants describe as their favourite activity. Even though, Hudson says, the cows’ tongues “were like sandpaper!”Still, it was better than a different kind of surprise: “Sometimes cows drop things,” Suzanne says.Perhaps recognising they are in polite company, the cows only drop themselves. Lowering to the ground, they offer participants what they’ve travelled across state and country to experience: a chance for a warm embrace.© New York Times
Obviously the “live” bit of Channel 4’s Moon Landing Live actually means “half a century late”, but you know what they mean. It’s as neat idea, to be fair, to replicate the experience of seeing human beings bouncing around the moon for the first time (the last was in 1972, as it happens). OK, you’ve probably already seen more than your fair share of lunar larks over the past month – anniversary journalism starts earlier with every momentous event commemorated it would seem. But this one is the purest of the many reincarnations: the US channel ABC’s original footage, complete with the now familiar exchanges between ground control and the crew of Apollo 11, plus some contemporary vox pops.Should be fascinating retro-futuristic stuff, unless of course you’re one of the 16 per cent of Brits who think the whole was faked or probably faked. In which case, come to think of it, you might think of this live streaming of 1969 as further proof of your conspiracy theory.Geoff Norcott is rarer than an Amur leopard, the rhino or any of the critically endangered species of orangutan. He is, you see, a right-wing stand-up comedian. He happens to believe that the liberal middle classes – Waitrose-shopping, Independent-reading, BBC2-watching types no doubt – have “ruined Britain” according to his hour-long polemic on, er, BBC2, which isn’t supposed to allow this sort of thing to be broadcast, what with it being an arm of an establishment plot and all that.Norcott’s wide-ranging grumblings in How the Middle Classes Ruined Britain extend to gentrification of formerly working-class districts, a dating app for privately educated singletons, and the disappearance of any authentically working-class voices in British politics. Predictably enough, he himself believes that the Brexit vote “was a wake up call ... it showed one group of people have had their way for far too long”. If the past three years have taught us anything, it is the power of exactly what Norcott argues – but also that those very grievances and discontents will only be exacerbated by the effects of Brexit itself. In other words the poor will get poorer, even if the middle classes get poorer too after Brexit, if it ever happens. Me, I’m waiting for the arrival of a centrist funnyman to our screens, just to add some balance.Talking of living standards, Broke (BBC2) is a timely exploration of the lives of the people that Theresa May, famously and briefly, referred to as the “just about managing” – the JAMs. It was a clumsy acronym, but it was useful and telling one because it spoke to an essential truth about the country, being the way that so many families on middle incomes – say £20,000 to £30,000 – are so stretched and have so little margin between their relatively comfortable lives and penury. His three part series documents what can happen when a JAM loses their footing…Also in case you’d not noticed, the country is about to get a new prime minister. The Boris Johnson Show will be an all channels 24/7 affair next week, representing something of a feast for all you news/politics/Brexit junkies. Channel 5 make their own thoughtful contribution with a personal television essay by Michael Portillio, who, to borrow a phrase, was the future once. He’s not lost his faith, but he’s found it sorely tried. In Portillo: the Trouble with the Tories he does his best to work out how the Conservatives ended up where they are now. Hint: his early virile form of Euroscepticism in the 1990s might have something to do with it. The other big cultural event of the week, spread over BBC TV and radio channels, is the 2019 Proms. On Sunday there’s some Czech stuff – Smetana and Dvorak, Jakub Hrusa conducting the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. While on Friday evening the proms will feature the world premiere of the specially commissioned orchestra version of The Race for Space, the 2015 album by Public Service Broadcasting, blending archive recordings of the Apollo mission with contemporary instrumentation. ITV’s action comedy Lethal Weapon is back on Friday evening, which means gunfights, car chases and explosions, a bit like a quiet night in for Carrie and Boris. It’s loosely based on the Lethal Weapon movie franchise, and is thus set in the LAPD and has similar plot lines and characters. The first two seasons, Lethal Weapon starred Clayne Crawford as Martin Riggs and Damon Wayans as Roger Murtaugh. Now Crawford is replaced in the new season by American Pie actor Seann William Scott, as ex-CIA operative Wesley Cole – a man who “has been everywhere and seen everything”. It’s the third and final run, I’m afraid. Moon Landing Live (Channel 4, Saturday 6.55pm); How the Middle Classes ruined Britain (BBC2, Wednesday 9pm); Broke (BBC2, Thursday 9pm); Portillo: the Trouble with the Tories (Channel 5, Thursday 9pm); BBC Proms 2019 (BBC4, Sunday 7pm, Friday 11pm); Lethal Weapon (ITV, Friday 9pm)
There are few cliches as popular in the teen romance genre as “you’re like a drug to me, I can’t stay away”. And you could argue that Stephanie Meyer, who drove millions of fans wild with her stories about the tortured romance between a vampire boy and a human girl, is the author who gave it teeth. “I don’t have the strength to stay away from you anymore,” Edward Cullen tells Bella Swan in Catherine Hardwicke’s 2008 adaptation of Twilight. “You’re like my own personal brand of heroin.”Such was the cultural phenomenon of the four-book, five-film saga that took $3.3bn (£2.6bn) at the global box office, it spawned a generation of copycats. This included the even-more successful Fifty Shades of Grey series, in which a brooding, possessive, jealous male lead finds it impossible to stay away from a virginal, naive girl who has “no idea” how beautiful she is. As Netflix continues to roll out more original content, it seems to have found a goldmine in the shape of Wattpad, a self-publishing website where aspiring writers share their work along with feedback from readers and fellow authors. This is what happened for Welsh teenager Beth Reekles, whose debut novel The Kissing Booth became a minor phenomenon after being released as a feature film on Netflix last summer. Despite its success, The Kissing Booth was overwhelmingly panned by critics for its overtly misogynistic tone, which includes a moment where Elle (Joey King) realises her soon-to-be-boyfriend Noah (Jacob Elordi) has been chasing away prospective love interests by threatening them with violence. Throughout the film, Noah instigates physical fights with their classmates and with his own brother, always with the excuse that they have somehow “insulted” Elle. “When I first wrote the story, Twilight had become popular and all of the young adult stories I could find were paranormal romances,” Reekles said in an interview with the New York Times. “I just really wanted to read a regular high school romance, and when I couldn’t find that, I wrote my own.”The thing is, The Kissing Booth isn’t at all different from Twilight when it comes to the most crucial factor: the author presents manipulative or downright abusive behaviour as romantic. According to the National Domestic Abuse hotline, there are 15 warning signs that you may be in an abusive relationship. A startling number of them fit these teen romance narratives, from jealous and possessive behaviour, attempts to keep her to himself, and violent outbursts along with consistent warnings (read: threats) that he will be violent, likely towards her.The Kissing Booth is far from the only book, and film adaptation, to draw from Twilight for inspiration when it comes to a torrid romance. After, another Wattpad sensation by American author Anna Todd, was just released on Netflix UK as a feature film. While it is surprisingly tame given how much it heralds the “bad boy” nature of its male lead, it follows the same pattern: a naive, wholesome girl leaves home for university, where she encounters Hardin, whose friends describe him as “complicated” (when really, he’s just an arsehole) and who, in his own words, thinks Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice “needs to chill”.Hardin is played by Hero Feinnes-Tiffin – whose uncle, Ralph Fiennes, played Heathcliff in the 1992 adaptation of Wuthering Heights opposite Juliette Binoche’s Cathy. There’s a strange kind of irony there, given how After, 2016’s supernatural romantic drama Fallen and Twilight all make frequent references to classic works of literature such as Wuthering Heights, Romeo and Juliet and Pride and Prejudice – either to feign a sense of literary gravitas or to form a parallel with the tortured romances in those works. They also all share a bizarre puritanical attitude when it comes to women having any kind of sexual agency. In Fallen, based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Lauren Kate, a high school boy dies in a fire that starts when he and the female lead appear to be moving towards having sex. She then gets sent to a school for troubled teenagers, where she is told that she will die if she kisses the boy with whom she has fallen in love. Bella in Twilight is forced to wait until marriage (Edward’s demand) before they can have sex, and is covered in bruises and becomes pregnant after her first time. She then suffers an excruciating and obscenely gory pregnancy before dying from childbirth, after which she is turned into a vampire. In After, and also the 2012 New York Times bestseller Beautiful Disaster, the female leads are desirable precisely because of the “purity” that is perceived from them being virgins.It’s not “regular” or “romantic” when your boyfriend punches someone because he thinks they insulted you (After, The Kissing Booth, Twilight, Beautiful Disaster), or when they stalk you and turn up uninvited (Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight, Fallen, Beautiful Disaster) or creep through your window and watch you sleep (Twilight), or order you when and when not to eat and drink (Twilight, The Kissing Booth, Fifty Shades of Grey, Beautiful Disaster). Presenting this behaviour as anything other than toxic is an incredibly dangerous and irresponsible message to sell to impressionable young girls who, as one of the more frank Kissing Booth reviews observed, “lap this crap up”. It’s 2019. We’re supposed to be acknowledging certain behaviours are in fact abusive, not romantic, rather than offering an incentive to remain in a relationship with a controlling, jealous and violent man where the responsibility to change him is laid entirely on the woman. Female characters should be able to be sexual without being punished. The most depressing thing is that Twilight, Fifty Shades, Beautiful Disaster, After and The Kissing Booth were all written by women. Teenage girls deserve and need better stories than this.
Are any of us sovereign over our own lives? How much control do we really have over our story, our narrative? Is the idea that we can shape or rewrite ourselves itself merely a fiction?And what happens when an author asking these sorts of questions loses – or deliberately gives away – control of her own characters, her own invented fictions?Nicola Barker’s writing is always restlessly inventive, and this novella (plumped up to look like the full-scale novel she jokes it threatened to become) is a piece of arch mischief-making. “The Author suspects that this novella … is either extremely deep or unbelievably trite. It’s impossible to tell.”It’s set over just 20 minutes, at an awkward house-viewing in Llandudno. The seller is Charles, a sarcastic, ungainly hoarder who makes bespoke teddies but wears ironic T-shirts (which provide the brilliantly awful chapter titles: “Cat hair is lonely people glitter”; “If you believe in telekinesis, please raise my hand”). At 40, he’s become obsessed with life coach Richard Grannon, whose (real-life) online videos offer guidance on overcoming the “Toxic Super-Ego” and “silencing the inner critic”. But this is a book that hands a megaphone to its character’s inner critics.Avigail is his estate agent. From the outside, she’s a picture of steely poise but, mid-sale, she’s gripped by a transcendental, mystical vision. She’s attempting to sell the tiny house to Wang Shu, a Chinese businesswoman endlessly shouting into her mobile, and her daughter, the people-pleasing 27-year-old Ying Yue who believes “she may actually become altogether invisible whenever she holds her breath.”Although tightly constrained – by time, by location – Barker dives deep into the inner lives of Charles, Avigail and Ying Yue. She reminds us how peculiar being alive, and interacting with essentially unknowable others, really is. These characters all yearn for normality, and totally miss it. All three feel they are not seen, not heard, not understood – and in this they have more in common than they realise.Although her impish, springy prose is a world away from the lyricism of Virginia Woolf, I Am Sovereign reminded me of Woolf’s attempts to capture individual consciousness from the inside. Here are all the spiralling anxieties, intruding memories, flashing irritations and endless second-guessing of how we come across to others.Barker’s writing is very, very funny, both ha ha and strange. She acerbically captures the constructed vacuity of Instagram influencers and online gurus, for instance; fans of Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet will enjoy a similarly arch, detached view on the banality of contemporary Britain. There’s even excruciating slapstick in there: a virtuoso scene of upset tea trays, falling brooms and backflipping cats. But it’s the mystical moments that feel the boldest. Letting an estate agent “be consumed by Ein Sof… Immanence. All God”, and also be cross about it because she has a house to sell, is a gloriously audacious blend of, well, the deep and the trite. And then the book eats itself. Just as a new character – Gyasi ‘Chance’ Ebo – is about to enter, the narrative is interrupted: he, The Subject, conducts an argument in formal, semi-legalese with The Author complaining about how she’s depicted him. So she replaces him with a different character. Swinging into fully postmodern mode, Barker discusses her characters as if they were real people, alternately obliging or obstructive; she discourses on what isn’t working in the text, what rewrites she’d like to do, and asks “is the author truly Sovereign?”The heart sinks a bit, to be honest. It’s slightly annoying, even if Barker mischievously anticipates such complaints: “It’s so wearying when everything is being perpetually challenged and contested like this, though, isn’t it?”But the decision to pull apart the form seems to come from a really-real place. Barker fears in I Am Sovereign that she can’t write a normal novel anymore. Her last, the Goldsmith’s prize-winning H(A)PPY destroyed the novel (as a form) for The Author. How can you continue to live inside a thing that you no longer believe in? That would be like praying to a god who didn’t exist, surely?”No, she decides, rejecting this idea and finding a new way through. “The Author just needs to hope. And she needs to love. And she needs to believe, in spite of.” Which, after all – is it trite to say? – is what the reader of any fiction does: chooses to believe, in spite of.‘I Am Sovereign’ by Nicola Barker is published by William Heinemann, £12.99
Obviously the television highlight of the week is the return of Poldark. For some of us, the good news is that Sunday night television will, after this “final” eight-week run, be liberated from blokes in tricorne hats and women in bodices. Possibly, that is, for as long as it takes for the BBC to knock up yet another Jane Austen adaption. So, everyone is having to adapt to the death of Elizabeth Warleggan, with her widower, George (Jack Farthing) transmuting from panto villain into painful mental collapse. Ross (Aidan Turner, with the finest torso this side of Love Island) and wife Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) finds their domestic harmony disturbed once more when Ross receives an urgent call to settle some trouble up in London. Writing by Debbie Horsfield, based on and inspired by the originals by Winston Graham, written in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s remarkable how constant the middle-brow appetites of middle England can be.The astonishing achievement of landing three men on the moon a half century ago is celebrated by a run of documentaries and commemorations. Back in 1969 colour television was in its infancy, the internet hadn’t been invented, and it was a mere quarter of a century since the very first rockets had been developed by Nazi engineers at the end of the Second World War, one of Hitler’s “miracle weapons” that arrived just too late to make much difference. The Russians were first into space, about a decade before, and President Kennedy – then as now the Americans were in constant uneasy rivalry with the Russians – pledged to get an astronaut on the moon by the end of the 1960s.After an eight-day journey the three famous astronauts – Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins – travelled on Apollo 11 and did just that, their soundbites, sometimes misquoted, marking the dawn of the space age. The Day We Walked on the Moon tries to recapture some the wonderment of those moments, with reminiscences by the surviving astronauts and ground crew, with the charming Brian Cox adding some essential explanation. That historic field trip to the moon also marked the first time any human had actually viewed Earth from the moon, of course, wondering at its beauty from the vantage point of our closest neighbour. The dawn of the space age also marked the dawn of modern environmentalism, and it was a moment that helped us realise what an unusual and remarkable and fragile thing life on Earth is. It didn’t, however, stop us from carrying on trashing the place, as we still are. BBC’s Extinction Rebellion: Last Chance to Save the World? is a portrait of some of the people who believe that it is almost too late to save our lovely little habitat, and the human race from extinction, and are, as we see, very determined to do something about it right here and right now.It’s the first film to gain proper access inside the Extinction Rebellion movement. Filmmaker Ben Zand spent some four months following the activists around, as they planned and then executed their project to bring parts of central London to a halt for 10 days. They succeeded, in the sense that they stopped the traffic, caused mayhem and won huge publicity; but they may not have won the battle for public opinion, which is the first one they’ll have to win to achieve their ultimate aims. Still, Theresa May has given the country a 2050 deadline to decarbonise, at a cost of £1 trillion. Easier said than done, then. Sometimes it feels as if the entire world is connected via social media, which I suppose it pretty much is, but despite how many folk tweet and update and instagram and whatsapp and linkedin, and are addicted to doing so, they seem to simultaneously hate the very outfits that have built such an unprecedented human communities, even though they’re only virtual. Inside the Social Network: Facebook’s Difficult Year relates the story of how this global giant with billions of users had to rescue itself and its reputation after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. For those of us wary of social media, and the web generally if truth be told, the safest thing is to assume that anything and everything you put out there digitally, from your mugshot to your mortgage details, is capable of being hacked, stolen, bought and sold by people with sometimes honourable and sometimes nefarious intent. I’m more amazed that social media users don’t seem to have enough common sense to have seen it coming. Not much of a scandal, in other words, though that’s a minority view. If you like your sport you probably don’t need me to remind you about the treat that is offered over the coming days, but for the sake of completeness I may as well mention a few highlights – Wimbledon finals on the BBC at the weekend; Sunday’s Cricket World Cup final sees host nation England face New Zealand on Sky; the British Grand Prix rolls into Silverstone; and The Open returns to Northern Ireland, Portrush, for the first time since 1951 appropriately enough for Rory McIlroy. Good luck to him.Poldark (BBC1, Sunday 9pm); The Day We Walked on the Moon (ITV, Tuesday 9pm); Extinction Rebellion: Last Chance to Save the World? (BBC1, Wednesday 10.35pm); Inside the Social Network: Facebook’s Difficult Year (BBC2, Tuesday 9pm); Wimbledon (BBC1, Saturday, Sunday 1pm); Cricket World Cup final (Sky Sports, Sunday 10.30am); F1: British Grand Prix (Sky F1, Sunday 1.45pm); Golf: The Open (Sky Sports, Thursday 6.30am)
Does any writer do nostalgia quite like David Nicholls? His bestseller One Day was partly so adored for the way he captured the feeling of being young, being in love, and being confused. He returns to similarly fertile territory on Sweet Sorrow, only stepping back into teenage years, the writing an ideal blend of the gently humorous and utterly heartfelt. It made me feel like something had swollen up inside my chest, and readers are liable to find their thoughts drifting over their own misspent school holidays or crushingly ardent first loves. Bag a copy immediately, because this has got ‘perfect summer read’ smeared all over it like so much factor 30.Sweet Sorrow is set over a long, post-GCSEs summer in 1997, when our 16-year-old hero Charlie Lewis reluctantly joins a theatre troupe putting on Romeo and Juliet because he fancies the girl playing Juliet – one Fran Fisher. Although told by the adult Charlie, the writing is superbly alive to the way teenagers try to be arch and cool, while also feeling everything so deeply. That said, I would have liked a touch more of present-day Charlie – his current life intrudes only briefly, and remains thinly sketched.Nicholls is just gorgeous on the good bits of being a teenager: the scene where Fran and Charlie get taken to an absurdly cool grown-up party, and take ecstasy and eventually kiss, is a thrummingly intense evocation of both a first high and first love. I was almost as invested in Charlie finally smooching Fran as I was in my own first kiss.But crucially, Nicholls doesn’t just do the good bits. Being 16 was crap, for most people, most of the time. Nicholls writes all the rubbish stuff too – and this doesn’t diminish the nostalgia, but rather makes the book feel more truthful and mature.Charlie isn’t in a good place. He lives in a crap town in the south east, with a crap job at a petrol station, and is expecting deeply crap GCSE results. His parents have broken up, and his father is a depressed alcoholic – although neither of them can use those words, or indeed find any other words to talk about what’s happening. He’s also drifting apart from his mates, lads from school who also can’t talk to each other, the friendship bound by banter and cruelty.Where Nicholls does have fun is in paralleling the plot of Romeo and Juliet, although – thankfully – this is done with a lightness of touch. That central party could be the Capulets ball, Charlie himself points out. Fran went to the posh arty school while Charlie went to a grotty comp: love across the divide. And Nicholls always writes well on how class manifests in confidence and cultural capital, and Charlie’s insecurity next to Fran’s worldliness brings in a taste of bitterness. His nickname at school is “Nobody”, and he describes himself as the person in the school photo who no-one will remember. I wouldn’t want to give away the ending, but let’s just say Nicholls doesn’t follow a pat narrative where Art and Culture are uncomplicatedly emancipatory. Shakespeare changes Charlie’s life, yes, but it doesn’t magically transform it.Another thing to cherish about Sweet Sorrow is its recognition of how teenagers construct artful but fragile sense of selves through cultural references. Fran listens to the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack for the Radiohead song, has a favourite Kieslowski film, and likes Thomas Hardy more as a poet than a novelist: “in short, she was as pretentious as to be expected at sixteen”. And the novel will be particularly enjoyable if you happened to be young in the mid-nineties, and can wallow in the references to the Spice Girls (a “musical water-cannon for the boys” at a school disco) or Aztec by Lynx deodorant applied to armpits in “a coat as thick as the icing on a wedding cake”.The book will also chime with anyone who’s ever dabbled in theatre – Nicholls himself worked as an actor as a young man. He satirises the cringey elements (descriptions of trust exercises made me clench up involuntarily) while embracing the melodramatic joys (the pre-show rituals! the last-night party!). The adults trying to make Shakespeare cool are pitch-perfect too, insisting he was “the first rapper”. But the possibility of discovering, well, truth and beauty in these old plays is allowed too. Juliet’s speech, urging the night to take Romeo and “cut him out in little stars”, repeats and resonates – because how could it not in a story of such shining but tender first love? ‘Sweet Sorrow’ is published by Hodder, £20
Accepting money from arms companies has long been unthinkable for most arts organisations in Europe. This year, taking money from the Sackler family, which has been linked to the opioid crisis, became taboo for many of them, too.Now, artists and activists say oil and gas money should be added to that list.Last week, British artists including Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor and Sarah Lucas said they had called on the National Portrait Gallery in London to cut ties with BP, saying its “role in furthering the climate crisis” made accepting new sponsorship from the company unacceptable.“We believe that, today, the loss of BP as a source of funding is a cost worth bearing,” the artists said in an open letter to the museum.BP acknowledges climate change is a significant problem but is only investing 3 per cent of its available capital in renewable energy, the letter said. This was a “glaring contradiction between words and actions”, the letter added.BP’s sponsorship of the museum’s annual Portrait Award was “lending credence to the company’s misleading assurance that it’s doing all it can”, the artists said.The letter is only the latest protest in recent weeks against UK arts institutions that receive sponsorship from oil companies.At the end of June, Mark Rylance, the Academy Award and Tony-winning actor, resigned from an honorary position at the Royal Shakespeare Company because it accepted money from BP to subsidise tickets for young people.“I do not wish to be associated with BP any more than I would with an arms dealer,” Rylance wrote in his resignation letter. “Nor, I believe, would William Shakespeare.” Rylance says he would not consider acting with the company until the sponsorship deal with BP is dropped.The Royal Opera House in London has also faced calls to end BP’s sponsorship of outdoor opera and ballet screenings. Last week, Extinction Rebellion, the climate change protest group, staged a small “die-in” outside the opera house, lying down on the pavement outside. The audience who used its main entrance had to step over protesters to get into that night’s performance of Carmen.There have been similar theatrical protests in Britain for years, but many have barely been noticed. The National Portrait Gallery’s annual BP Portrait Award was first protested against in 2003.In 2016, BP ended its sponsorship of the Tate group of galleries, which activists led by a group called Liberate Tate said was a result of a stream of protests that at time looked more like performance art. In 2010, activists poured molasses in front of the museum’s entrance so guests at a summer party arrived to what looked like an oil spill. (When it ended the sponsorship, BP told The Independent that it was merely acting in response to an “extremely challenging business environment”.)In the US, museums’ links to climate change have also been questioned. Last year, curators at the American Museum of Natural History, as well as more than 200 scientists, expressed their concern about the presence of Rebekah Mercer, an influential donor to groups that deny climate science, on its board. The museum batted away the protests and said it did not appoint board members based on their political views, or let funders shape curatorial decisions.But the prominence of the artists and actors involved in Britain in recent months suggests an escalation of the campaign here.The open letter to the National Portrait Gallery was organised by Gary Hume, an artist and one of the judges for this year’s BP Portrait Award, with the help of Culture Unstained, an organisation opposed to fossil fuel sponsorship of the arts. He says he had only realised the urgency of climate change when he visited protests in London organised by Extinction Rebellion in April, long after he had accepted the judging role.“I know how difficult fundraising is,” Hume says, “but I’ve been persuaded this is a real issue.” The fact that people like him, without a long history of activism, are acting now is a major difference from previous campaigns, he says.Sharon Heal of the Museums Association, a British umbrella group, says that artists had become increasingly aware of their ability to influence museums’ decisions. She cites the success of photographer Nan Goldin’s protests against Sackler family funding, including at the National Portrait Gallery, which recently turned down a $1.3m (£1m) donation from one of the family’s charitable arms. All museums will be discussing the appropriateness of oil funding, she says, but it was up to each to decide for itself.None of the four main institutions sponsored by BP in Britain – the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Opera House – will disclose how much the oil company gives them. But BP said in a press release in 2016 that the institutions would receive about $9.4m among them over five years.All four institutions say they continue to welcome the company’s sponsorship. “We recognise the significance and importance of climate change, and we share the goals and concerns of those campaigning for a sustainable future,” says Alex Beard, the Royal Opera House’s chief executive.“Whilst we prioritise meeting our environmental obligations, we balance this with BP’s ongoing support providing free access to our art forms.” Around 1 million people had benefited during 30 years of sponsorship, he says.Peter Mather, BP’s regional president for Europe and the United Kingdom, says that the protests had not diminished the company’s desire to support British arts organisations. The company always discusses such events with the institutions that it sponsors, he says – “We don’t want them to feel uncomfortable” – but no changes are planned.“What our support goes towards is taking the arts out to much, much wider audiences,” Mather says. “It is not an ego trip,” he says, nor was it an attempt to “greenwash” BP’s reputation, pointing out that BP’s sponsorship of the Royal Opera House and National Portrait Gallery goes back to the 1980s.The arts in Britain need private sponsorship, he says. “If you remove companies from the equation, you’re going to rely heavily on government,” he adds. “And I don’t see much spare cash washing around.”Jeremy Deller, a British artist who was a Tate trustee from 2007 to 2011 and served on the museum’s ethics committee when it renewed a sponsorship contract with BP, says he’s unsure whether arts organisations should turn down BP funding. Activists should be targeting the oil company directly, he says.“I always thought that BP was playing a very clever game,” he says. “They’re almost subcontracting the activism and the controversy to these open-minded arts organisations, so they don’t have to deal with it.“I think we’re looking at the wrong side, to be honest,” he adds. “That’s not a popular opinion, I know.”© New York Times
Joel Burcat’s debut novel, “Drink to Every Beast”, isn’t climbing best-seller lists or getting attention from prominent critics. But it’s remarkable for a different reason.He finished it after he became legally blind.An environmental lawyer in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Mr Burcat, 64, had been writing in his spare time for many years and had cranked out several novels, including an early version of this one. But none had found a publisher and gone out into the world.Then, in early 2018, he lost much of the vision in his right eye to the same affliction that a year and a half earlier had ravaged his left.To cope with the physical and emotional adjustment, he stepped away from his legal work and realised that he had extra time to write. More than that, he had extra determination.“I had to prove to myself that I could do something that one would not normally say a blind person can do,” he told me during a recent phone conversation. “It was really, really important to me.”He got dictation software, hired an editor and then sent a polished revision of “Drink to Every Beast,” a legal thriller about toxic waste in the Susquehanna River, to Headline Books, which welcomes writers unrepresented by agents. It published the novel a few weeks ago.No matter the book’s reception, he’s beyond ecstatic. “Now,” he said, “I can claim to be in the same category as James Joyce, James Thurber and other blind authors.”They weren’t totally blind. But Mr Burcat is right about a fascinating tradition of writers with little or no eyesight — fascinating because they affirm human beings’ power to transcend apparent limits, because they show how obstacles can be gateways to epiphanies and because they challenge what it means to see.For that you use your brain — where images are stored, organised, edited and turned into words — as much as your eyes. You use your spirit.Within the densest fog and darkest black, you can find clarity and colour if your imagination is 20-20.That’s the lesson of John Milton, of Jorge Luis Borges and of dozens of less celebrated writers who worked without eyesight, which, in most cases, like theirs, they lost as adults.They needed assistance, but they pressed on. It steeled them. They responded to a world that often marginalizes or condescends to disabled people by demonstrating just how able they were.Mr Milton produced “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained” more than a decade after his eyes failed around 1652. “A good argument can be made that he was able to render these masterpieces not in spite of his blindness but because of it,” John Rumrich, who teaches Mr Milton at the University of Texas, told me.> “Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes.”> > The Mind's Eye by Oliver Sacks“He himself thought as much.” Mr Milton chose to regard blindness as the price he was paying for “inner illumination,” Mr Rumrich said. It bolstered his sense of mission.It certainly shaped “Paradise Lost,” which teems with the binaries of day and night, darkness and light, and reflects on his own blindness, which he describes as an all-encompassing blank that has expunged nature’s glory.Mr Borges, the Argentine fiction writer, poet and essayist, had Mr Milton in mind when he observed in a 1977 essay that “a writer, or any man, must believe that whatever happens to him is an instrument: Everything has been given for an end.This is even stronger in the case of the artist. Everything that happens, including humiliations, embarrassments, misfortunes, all has been given like clay, like material.” He added that “if a blind man thinks this way, he is saved. Blindness is a gift.”Mr Borges turned the loss of his eyesight into a gorgeous poem, “On His Blindness,” which notes that he can no longer savour “the closed encyclopedia,” “the tiny soaring birds,” “the moons of gold.” “Others have the world, for better or worse,” it concludes. “I have this half-dark, and the toil of verse.”I have a special interest in Milton and Borges — and became aware of Burcat — because of my own diminished eyesight. More than a year and a half ago, I woke up with profoundly blurry, clouded vision in my right eye and learned that I’d had a sort of stroke of the optic nerve. The damage was permanent.What happened to me is technically known as nonarteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy, or Naion, which could strike my left eye, too: There’s a roughly 20% chance of that. After I recounted this in a column, Mr Burcat reached out to me. Naion was the culprit in his blindness.He and I have tools available to us — audiobooks, voice-to-text technology, enormous computer screens on which letters can be supersized — that weren’t around decades, let alone centuries, ago.But James Wilson, who was blind, nonetheless produced “Biography of the Blind” in the early 1800s. In the early 1900s, Helen Keller, who was deaf as well as blind, wrote autobiographical books and essays.Homer is often portrayed as blind, though it’s hard to know what to make of that: Scholars haven’t determined whether Homer was one poet or a group of them.There have been enough blind or seriously visually challenged writers that Heather Tilley, a lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, wrote a book that focused just on those of the Victorian era. It’s titled “Blindness and Writing: From Wordsworth to Gissing.”When I spoke with her recently, I learned about Frances Browne, an Irish poet and novelist in the 19th century who was blind from early childhood but used what she’d heard of the world for literature that betrayed little if any hint of that.I learned about a celebrated, widely read 19th century travel writer, James Holman, who made his treks and fashioned his prose after he lost his eyesight.“Although he relies on the people who are around him to describe things officially to him, there’s also quite a strong sense of smell, of the motion of travelling in a carriage, of how the air feels,” Ms Tilley said. “The writing feels more multisensory.”Blind writers use their craft to make the photo album from the years before blindness permanent. It lifts intellect above flesh, erasing their impediment. It creates a world in which they can move unencumbered.I asked Mr Burcat, who not only finished “Beast” but also wrote an entire other novel after he lost his sight, how his disability influenced his writing. He said that blindness sharpened his memory, caused him to dwell longer on physical descriptions and “made me much more patient, more kind, more understanding.”“I’ve always been sympathetic,” he added. “But now I’m empathetic.”His words remind and comfort me, as I contemplate my own uncertain future, that writing isn’t an act of stenography. It’s a bid for connection. A search for meaning.Oliver Sacks said it well in “The Mind’s Eye,” a book inspired by his partial loss of vision: “Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes.”The New York Times
How quickly we’ve plunged back down the rabbit hole on The Handmaid’s Tale this year. Season two was about physical torture – we bore witness as Gilead literally twisted the screws, sinking its claws into victims. But now, the torment is all emotional, as June (Elisabeth Moss) discovers in this traumatically topsy-turvy fifth instalment.The episode really does take you on a journey. We begin with the heroine monologuing, slightly smugly, in an antiseptic supermarket. Her baby got out. She’s a Handmaid apart – the only one who knows her child will grow up in a sane world rather than a nightmare theocracy. Yet the final scene could not be more different, as June glares at us and out into the abyss, throwing figurative daggers to the strains of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. Why inflict Bono and chums upon the citizens of Gilead? Haven’t they suffered enough? Well, the song provides a window into the seething inner life of June, who has just learned she is being made accessory to a plot to force Canada to hand her daughter, Nichole, back to the ghastly Waterfords (in any event, it could have been worse – they could have flayed our souls with Coldplay instead). This is the killer culmination to a riveting 60 minutes of spiritual water torture. Here The Handmaid’s Tale is playing a devastating three-card trick with our feelings. Initially, it seems that it’s Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) who is to be shoved through the grinder. She was instrumental in helping send her daughter out of Gilead. Yet now, she cannot live without her (never mind that Nichole is not actually Serena’s daughter – that’s how it works here). June, who can sometimes be more sure of her position than the facts merit, agrees to assist Serena by contacting her husband Luke (OT Fagbenle) by phone. This all flows from Luke’s foolish lapse last week, in which he allowed himself to be caught on camera, with Nichole, at a street protest in Canada. Now, the Waterfords have a face and name, and this will cause Luke a world of woe. His first hint that things are to change for the worse comes as June calls out of the blue. She’s done so as a bargaining chip: she contacts Luke and then Serena owes her. Her chat is stilted but she delivers the message: she wants – no, she needs – Luke to agree to meet Serena. And to bring Nichole. One sneaky aside here comes via an insight into the personal life of June’s new commander, Lawrence, and his wife. Back in the pre-Gilead days, he wooed her by sending her mixtapes of his favourite bubble-gum punk bands. Leading up to the trip to Canada, June gets to muck about in the basement listening to these old cassettes. Do not adjust your bonnet: The Handmaid’s Tale has briefly threatened to shape-shift into Guardians of the Galaxy. We’re soon back to dystopian first principles. Luke agrees to the meeting. But only in public and with Serena rather than both Waterfords. In the terminal, Serena breaks down weeping. Luke is understandably suspicious, though agrees to taking the keepsake Serena has brought for the child. The biggest jolt here is how different – more human – Serena looks dressed like a civilian, rather than in her usual Stepford flight attendant dark emerald.Later, Luke puts on a cassette and listens to a hidden message recorded by June in the Lawrence’s basement. She still loves him, the child’s father is a man named Nick, Luke has permission to go on with is life. He’s in bits, understandably (hold on Luke – they’re going to make you listen to U2 next). June, too, soon has reason to break down. But she instead maintains a granite-like wall of cold fury. She’s dragged off to chateau Waterford, changed into a nice new gown and then forced to stand in the corner as Fred and Serena go on television and beg the Canadian government to return their daughter. Serena has gone back on everything she promised and made June an accomplice to her and Fred’s attempted baby heist.Did somebody say melodrama? In swoops Bono, howling his lungs out as June stares like the devil herself. A reckoning is coming down the tracks; June will not take this betrayal by Serena lightly. It’s often hard to imagine how The Handmaid’s Tale could get any darker. This week, suddenly and compellingly, it does.
I started reading Homesick: Why I live in a Shed expecting a quirky, uplifting memoir from the cute cover and punning title. It soon became obvious this was something rather different: a resonant hymn of hatred for a housing market that has made home ownership impossible for most people under the age of 40, opening up bitter wealth and generational divides.Catrina Davies didn’t end up in a shed simply out of eccentric choice or a strange love of the scent of sawdust, but because it seemed like the least bad choice open to her. In her thirties and on an erratic income teaching the cello, she was fed up with spending £400 a month to rent a dark box room in a house in Bristol that she shared with four other adults and a child. After one pinched milk incident too many, she stuffed her things into bin bags and drove to Cornwall, where a standalone shed that her father once used as an office seemed like a reasonable place to camp out for a while. The derelict building was full of holes, rats and spiders, but when you consider the basic facts of the relationship between house prices and wages, it’s hardly surprising that the move became permanent.As Davies writes: “Average house prices had grown about seven times faster than the average income of young people since I turned 18. When I left university, a deposit to buy a starter home in the UK was about nine months’ average salary. Ten years later, it was three years’ average salary, and rising. If food prices had risen as fast as house prices in the years since I came of age, a chicken would cost £51 (or £100 for those living in London).” It’s brunch-gate all over again, but with more cold, hard context and lyrical descriptions of her seaside roots. (In 2017, an Australian real estate mogul suggested millennials would be better able to afford homes if they stopped splashing money on fancy brunch like avocado toast, despite the fact that it would take a toast mountain the size of Everest to put down a deposit.) Of course, artistic types have always scrimped and suffered. JK Rowling famously began writing her Harry Potter books in a cafe because it was warmer than her flat; Cormac McCarthy was kicked out of a cheap motel for failing to pay the rent. But what has changed today – and what this book makes so eloquently clear – is that the stakes are higher, the odds longer for anyone trying to eke out a living without the luxury of a family home behind them. If yesterday’s artist starved in a garret, today’s would roll her eyes because all the garrets were booked out on Airbnb months ago. As Davies writes in her blog: “I do not think that only individuals with trust funds should have the chance to be artists. I do not think this would be good for people or for art.”Given that she lacked a stable family home to fall back on – her father’s business went bankrupt, her mother suffered a mental health breakdown – the shed seemed like the closest thing to a safe haven.While Homesick is written from the perspective of a woman struggling to make it as a musician and writer, its relevance is much broader in a country where average house prices have tripled in the last four decades. The tourist haven of Cornwall – so beautifully evoked in this book you can smell the salt in the air – is both idyllic and troubled, an extreme version of the divides playing out around the UK. Davies writes of teachers leaving because they can’t afford a home, and local families including her sister moving into tents every summer because renting their homes to tourists is the only way to pay the mortgage. The situation is best summarised as Davies flicks through the local paper, The Cornishman, to find less than a page for jobs and a 40-page supplement for houses. It’s the same crisis that came across so memorably in the recent best-seller The Salt Path, chronicling an extraordinary couple’s walk along the South West coast, with its population of the rural homeless, of seasonal workers making camps in the forest because they were priced out of homes.Living in a shed isn’t exactly a solution for everyone, but it makes for a rare gem of a book: a combination of underdog page-turner and political tract that raises some of the biggest questions of the day, even if it can’t hope to answer them. There are triumphs (surfing at dawn with seals for company, installing a wood-burner) and trials (fear of being evicted, a theft, a slug-in-thermos incident), all captured in fluid, poetic and provocative writing.Not only is the relationship between work and home broken for a priced-out younger generation that the economist Guy Standing has labelled “the precariat”, but so is our relationship with the natural world. Davies writes about her childhood in Cornwall, playing with her friends, “Oblivious to the fact that these years of perfect freedom, in a world of sparkling rivers, fertile soil and clean air and a sea full of fish, would turn out to be a kind of curse. The years in this valley were the highlight of my childhood – as they would have been of any childhood – and they would cast a long shadow over my life. I would spend much of my adulthood watching the world I loved disappear, grieving, counting the losses one by one, trying to find my way home.”The connection with home is personal, the means to afford one political. While housing is particularly extortionate in a tourist hotspot, the national statistic she cites are sobering: between 2000 and 2015, homelessness in the UK rose by 40 per cent, while in 2017, Shelter estimated one in every 200 people in Britain to be homeless.Other countries take a very different approach to the meaning of home: while owning your own place is embedded in the British psyche, renting is the norm in much of Europe. The first time I moved into a rented flat in Geneva I was astonished that I was expected to provide everything – even curtain poles – and that the flat was a plain white box. I soon came to realise that the curtain poles were symbolic of a very different attitude to renting, where your rental home feels yours in a more meaningful way. Rent increases are controlled by the local government, you can’t be easily kicked out, and there’s an informal rule that you will only be given a tenancy if the rent is around a third of your salary, which helps to keep rent prices in proportion with wages. The system has many faults, but it feels more stable than Britain’s housing rollercoaster. Elsewhere, Berlin is mulling a five-year freeze on rent prices. It would take another kind of book entirely to unravel the causes of the problem and explore the solutions, but Homesick is a vivid, if partial, glimpse of where we have gone wrong. It’s a rain-lashed wake-up call for a country that has turned on the property porn TV programmes and pulled the curtains on the desolate view outside for too long.
What makes a great painting? Is it one that makes you wonder how on earth the artist reproduced a scene so precisely in paint? Or ones that captures emotion in a single brushstroke? Or simply something utterly beautiful?Art lovers can amble around Paris’s the Louvre, New York’s Moma, Madrid’s Prado, Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and London’s Tate Gallery – even Venice’s Sistine Chapel, looking at walls (and ceilings) full of art. But there is something altogether different about going to see one particular artwork – a masterpiece – and examining what makes it special, marvelling at the colours they used, the symbolism in the painting, the art movement their work spearheaded, and even the mystery of the sitter.Of course, some great paintings are in private collections, but here are a selection of some of the best artworks in public galleries and museums, all over the world.Click through to see them.
Eating costs, heating costs. Regrettably, we all have to pay the bills, though our solutions to this problem vary according to how much power over our lives we want – and how much responsibility we are prepared to accept. As an employee you have to show up for work every day and do your job to an agreed standard, or you get fired. If you are self-employed you do not have to show up for work every day and there is nobody to fire you – but you have to assess demand and provide what the market wants, essentially applying for a job with every one of your clients. This is harder than employment initially, then easier if you are successful, when reputation starts working for you.If you want to live as an artist, you will not have to show up for work every day and you will not have to give the market what it wants – which sounds like freedom, although if you are to continue eating and heating you may eventually have to adapt your art to the market, or adapt the market to your art, which can be done but takes a lot longer.“The more abstract the truth you wish to teach,” said the humourist Fred Nietzsche, “the more you need to seduce the senses to it.” As a stand-up I attempted in the early years to communicate my taste in particular little abstractions to audiences variously older and younger and richer and poorer than myself – and my successes and failures hinged indeed on my seduction of the audiences’ senses.Where I communicated an enjoyable foolishness they would willingly picture my hypoglycaemic horses and strain to parse my perversely dislocated grammar. Where I was visibly bummed out by the improbability of building a bridge between us, they would lose faith and I would die.To protect my freedom to do quite good work which people hate – and postpone the day when I have to adapt my art to the market, I have had to do some questionable things compatible with my skillset: adverts, even acting. These activities are of course not real work but a necessary, minimal participation in the stupid game of capitalism we are playing at the moment.In my experience, the more moronic and distant from creative responsibility something is, the better paid it is. My biggest payday as a performer was when my mate Karl and I voiced a pair of computer-animated bees for a mobile network campaign. They paid us so much money. They could have paid us a lot less and we would still have pretended to be bees. We didn’t even have to pretend to be bees that much, as the characters we portrayed spoke excellent English. Not only all that, but we could order anything for lunch.> These activities are of course not real work but a necessary, minimal participation in the stupid game of capitalism we are playing at the momentOccasionally comedians will get asked to audition for acting roles, I don’t know why. The castings are almost always awful. They dangle a very useful sum of money in front of you and you have kids so you go along to the casting office above a shop in the West End of London and sit with other blokes in a cattle pen, your man-about-town bonhomie ebbing until there is none left, at which point they call you in to show them your magic. A stand-up gig, even if it ends with a whimper, always starts with a bang: you are introduced, as yourself, to a round of applause – a fair wind. A casting, by contrast, is a performance of someone else’s material, usually s**t, to a seated, bored audience of one, plus a silent camcorder operator, at midday. I am not conditioned for it, it just doesn’t feel like performance at all without the pressure of the crowd’s expectations. Like Bruce Banner jumping out of a plane and hoping he will transform into the Hulk before he hits the ground, I wait for my irritability to kick in and somehow intensify me telegenically. Occasionally it does and I get the gig.One of these acting jobs was more shameful than all the others, though it remains compelling as a name-drop. In 2006, I appeared as Jesus Christ in the movie The Da Vinci Code, directed by Ron Howard, whose filmography includes Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon and A Beautiful Mind. The Da Vinci Code is an exciting departure from this illustrious canon, being virtually unwatchable. Blame for this can hardly be laid at the feet of the filmmakers though; the source novel is the single worst piece of published fiction ever to be read on trains.Look – I was happy to get this part because even though my fee was unspectacular, it was fun to be in a big thing, plus I knew I would make out like a bandit from the royalties. The production flew me out to Malta, which is full of stone buildings both intact and ruined, and accordingly provides locations for all those ancient world blockbusters: most Maltese of working age were extras in Troy or Alexander.The blasphemous wedding of Jesus and Mary Magdalene was filmed on a huge outdoor set with many costumed extras and an enormous crane rig – and then cut from the film because, I was told, the lives of the production team had been threatened by religious zealots with a blind spot for the fifth commandment.But do not worry. I do remain in the film, in a fuzzy dream sequence, for half a second, about twenty minutes in. And I still receive handsome residuals from this appearance, which was the whole point after all – being briefly demeaned in the service of long-term financial freedom. I know you will want to know how much whoring oneself out to Hollywood pays, and I will tell you.My last royalty was in the amount of 13p, which means that by the time an industrial chain of salaried accountants, distributors and agents have ferried it to me, it will have cost quite a lot more to pay me than the payment itself. We’ve all learned something there. The question is, what I am going to do with all the money?
Since the end of British Mandate for Palestine and the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, invasions, wars, armistices, treaties, uprisings, barriers, checkpoints and civil wars have shifted the boundaries of who can travel – and live – where across the Middle East. Yet on the ground there remain fragments of who came and went before.The scars left by wars past haunt the landscape across Israel, the Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights. In the far north, on the western edge of the Israeli-occupied area, a decades-old rusting Syrian tank can still be seen lying upside down in a whitewater stream.Across the Golan are other reminders of the wars between Israel and Syria: minefields, foxholes and abandoned armour.Many relics of the British era survive. In the West Bank, a British jail and military buildings still stand in al-Jiftlik, near Jericho. Long abandoned, sheep now wander through the empty buildings.Also Gaza, a tiny Palestinian enclave on the Mediterranean coast, is filled with relics of the recent and distant past. In the post-war era, Gaza remained a frequent flashpoint – until the Oslo peace process of the 1990s brought hopes of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.Huge amounts of money were spent creating the institutions of the Palestinian Authority under its first president, Yasser Arafat, who used Gaza's airport to fly abroad on official visits. But the optimism of the Oslo era receded, giving way to mutual recriminations and renewed violence.The airport was an early casualty: Israel destroyed its runway a few months after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, deeming it a security threat during a Palestinian uprising in Gaza and the West Bank.Arafat’s helicopter – the presidential transport of a long-dead president – is now a rotorless relic on public display in Gaza City. And the skeletons of the airport buildings lie gutted and abandoned next to Gaza's southern border with Egypt.Reporting by Stephen Farrell, Reuters
The first thing that struck me when I was reading Claire Lombardo’s novel The Most Fun We Ever Had was that when the parents of the family, Marilyn and David Sorenson, first get together, they are living on Davenport Street, in Iowa City, right about the time when I was living up the hill, on Washington. I might have passed them downtown, on Clinton Street, or sat across from them at the Mill Restaurant, where my boyfriend worked as a bartender and a singer.That is how straightforward and realistic Lombardo’s depiction of her characters is – you could eavesdrop on them or look into their windows, and in many ways this is Lombardo’s singular achievement in her debut novel. Her depiction of how her characters talk, how they relate, how they form their family is so precise that you must believe in them, and you must also be interested in them (which is a good thing, because 532 pages is a lot to get through).In 2016 Marilyn and David have four daughters, all grown, and two grandsons. Not everything is perfect, but daily events seem normal and manageable. And then there is the sudden appearance of a secret child, Jonah, age 15, the son of the Marilyn and David’s apparently well-behaved second daughter, Violet, who is happily married to Matt, has two young boys and is dedicated to organising their childhoods perfectly. The only person other than Violet who knows of Jonah’s existence is the eldest daughter, Wendy, who was present at his birth. Jonah had been put up for adoption, but his adoptive parents died in a car crash when the boy was four, and he has since moved from foster home to foster home. It is up to the Sorensons to take him in, and not all of them are in favour of doing so (if they were my neighbours in Lake Forest, outside of Chicago, I would now be shaking my head in disbelief).Lombardo jumps around from character to character, which can be a little confusing. Her favourite is Wendy, a one-time rebel who still addresses all of her relatives sarcastically, who still is isolated, who still is irritable, but who has an underlying impulse towards kindness. The most appealing character is Jonah himself, who is amusing and observant but also a believable teen who can’t avoid trouble. David Sorenson is a doctor. Marilyn is a stay-at-home mother, the girl who was in college and got pregnant by mistake, who sometimes regrets that she gave up the education she had intended to get.Lombardo is intent upon exploring as much as she can about the Sorensons’ lives – the chapters alternate between present and past. Various dramas play out over the year (the sections are titled “Spring”, “Summer”, “Fall” and “Winter”); others are explored retrospectively, beginning in 1975.The upside of this is that Lombardo’s sense of drama is evocative and riveting. When she means to shock or frighten the reader, she does. One of her techniques is almost continuous dialogue, and the Sorensons aren’t typical reticent midwesterners. Perhaps the daughters, as millennials, simply assume that constant use of the work “f***” is standard, and perhaps the family shares an edgy sense of humour that others read as hostility. But the downside of one crisis after another is that the reader might recoil from the onslaught – there never seems to be a time, over 40 years or so, when life just moves along in a relaxing and ordinary way. Even Marilyn and David’s apparent and steady love for one another isn’t peaceful. If we had been neighbours, I would have been sincerely afraid of one of my children marrying into this family.A novel has to have a plot and a few mysteries the narrative must build towards. Lombardo’s are mysteries of character – what did it feel like for Violet to have that child, and for Wendy to be the one to hold it and then give it up? Why is Wendy living by herself? Who was that colleague that David found himself attracted to, and what was the nature of the attraction? How will Liza, the third daughter, deal with her depressed husband and her pregnancy? Will Marilyn and David find out Gracie’s secret (Gracie is the youngest of the four girls by half a generation, observant and somewhat spoiled), and when will her mother stop calling her “Goose”?The mystery is not whether the members of this happy family will finally connect, but how. Perhaps the clue is that at one point, Jonah reflects: “If this family had taught him anything it was that people could get mad at each other and then make up again.”The Most Fun We Ever Had is an ambitious and brilliantly written first novel, sometimes amusing and sometimes shocking, but its unrelenting nature and lack of context is ultimately off-putting. The Sorensons seem to live in Iowa City and Lake Forest without being aware of their surroundings. If they were my neighbours, I would suggest they get out of the house and take a walk around the neighbourhood. If they saw the bigger picture, they might be able to relax.Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including ‘A Thousand Acres’ which won the Pulitzer in 1992‘The Most Fun We Ever Had’ by Claire Lombardo is published by Orion, £16.99© The Washington Post
Chinese couples used to be satisfied with a single black-and-white photograph taken during their wedding as a memento of their special day. But times have changed dramatically, and wedding photographs, especially pre-wedding photo sessions, have become big business in China.In the main tourist spots in different cities across China, it’s easy to see couples having their pre-wedding picture shoots, which have become the must-have for every Chinese couple before their marriage.Unlike western weddings, where usually couples have their photos taken on the day, for Chinese people it is popular to have day-long photo sessions way before the actual wedding. Sometimes it can be half a year or even a year in advance of the ceremony. To make these pre-wedding photos as unique as possible, lots of couples will select unusual spots as a backdrop, such as a fake field with deer and a sky full of stars, or in an interior scene made to look like one of the largest religious Cambodian monuments, Angkor Wat; all of these spots can be found in photo studios. Some couples even choose other countries for their pre-wedding sessions.Often for their photo shoots couples go for traditionally romantic cities such as Paris. Those who can’t afford such a trip can have their photo taken in front of Chinese replicas of the world’s main tourist sights. Other couples prefer more traditional outdoor locations, like Beijing’s Hutong neighbourhood, or to be surrounded by nature like in Dali, where lots of couples do their pre-wedding photography next to Erhai Lake.These sessions can range in price from a few hundred up to thousands of dollars, with companies providing clients with everything from outfits to make-up and transportation.Brides typically have at least three dress changes per shoot. Inspired by the western style, many choose a flowing white wedding dress, a Chinese-style red gown, and something more modern. The shoots are just one part of a booming industry in China.A wedding for most newly married couples can run from 50,000 yuan (£6,000) to 200,000 yuan, with larger amounts not uncommon in big cities like Beijing or Shanghai.China’s wedding industry was valued at 1.46 trillion yuan in 2017, and it is expected to grow to 3 trillion yuan by 2021.
It is all of 238,855 miles to the moon, and not particularly easy ones either, requiring the traveller to slip the Earth’s gravitational field and, on the way back in, subsist without natural air, and survive temperatures of 1,649C. So that’s like driving round the M25 2,041 times non-stop (provided there’s not the usual blockage at the Swanley interchange). Yet, back in 1969, the Yanks managed to do just that, and to send back live moving images to the earth, beamed more or less directly into the (probably) black and white television set in your living room. Even now, it would be counted an amazing achievement, a technological and human breakthrough, but with the technology around half a century ago the first manned lunar mission is, in retrospect, even more impressive.It took eight days, three hours, 18 minutes and 35 seconds for Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Collins to make history, and the remarkable story is dramatised for this week’s special BBC commemoration – Eight Days: To the Moon and Back. Although there had been unmanned landings on the moon, by the Russians, as early as 1959, and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first man in space in 1961, managing to land human beings on the surface presented a new order of challenges, ones that were spectacularly overcome. The cosmic hopes, fears, tensions, humour and bravery of all those involved are played out once again in a story that always bears a fresh treatment. In retrospect, you might wonder whether it was such a giant leap for mankind after all, in terms not of the fact of it – indisputable – but in terms of the lasting legacy. Most people might be able to identify the invention of the non-stick frying pan as one boon to mankind, and, if you’re a real student of space, that the Apollo programme helped accelerate the miniaturisation of electronics that, in due course, gave us YouTube videos of sneezing cats on our smartphones, but otherwise the benefits seem scant. The sequels, in other words, have been a bit disappointing. An especially gruesome episode in our island story is recalled in Mad Cow Diseases: The Great British Beef Scandal. About three decades ago, the then government conducted one of those periodic wars on red tape politicians are sometimes given to. One of the areas where the rules were relaxed concerned the treatment of animal feedstuffs, and, in particular the way that feed derived from dead animals could be fed to live ones. In the past, a web of complicated procedures had made it difficult for sheep’s brains with the debilitating disease of scrapie to enter and infect the human food chain via cattle, but in the 1990s some highly bizarre, almost comical images of cows tottering and toppling over began to appear on our television screens and in the newspapers. Eventually some cases in human beings were also diagnosed. It was determined that the national herd had indeed been contaminated, that mad cow disease could spread to humans, and that beef was not necessarily as safe to eat as it once was. Then there was a panic.This documentary details this cautionary example of the law of unintended consequences of deregulation – the human misery it caused and the huge damage it inflicted on the finances and reputation of British farming. Of course it has one other malign legacy. Alarmed by the disease, the European Union banned the export of some British beef to the continent, on the precautionary principle. The act enraged the British government, led by John Major, who withdrew all cooperation in the councils of the European Union, even when it was not in the British interest to do so. Beef, then, became something of an emotive and powerful symbol of national defiance against a supposedly bullying European superstate. And we all know where that ended up. Ironically, a no-deal Brexit would decimate British beef exports all over again, but that’s another scandal waiting to happen.Extreme Tribe: The Last Pygmies is Channel 4’s reminder to us that these peoples have, somehow, managed to survive civil war and industrial incursions, and to preserve at least some of their culture well into the 21st century. Around the DR Congo and Central African Republic these descendants of stone age hunter-gatherers are still living their lives in traditional ways, and film-maker Livia Simoka has joined in with the Mbendjele in the remote forest. She only observes, however, rather than joining in with the teeth-sharpening rituals that the ladies deploy in the name of beauty. Funny old world.Jill Halfpenny stars in Dark Money, which follows Channel 4’s recent The Virtues with a story around child abuse. London parents Manny and Sam (Babou Ceesay and Halfpenny) welcome back their child actor son from his adventures on set for a new sci-fi movie. The magic is soon dispelled when Isaac (Max Fincham) reveals that he has been sexually abused by the film’s producer. It is another four-parter and, like The Virtues, you will find it difficult, if rewarding, viewing. Judi Dench’s Wild Borneo Adventure pretty much says everything about this national-treasure-meets-global-treasure set-up, a random juxtaposition of showbiz and natural history, a phenomenon so commonplace we’ve ceased to ask the rationale for any of these random pairings. What next? Phil Tufnell meets the Naked Mole Rats? Ann Widdecombe does the Serengeti? Len Goodman goes scavenging with hyenas? Still, who could fail to be moved by Dame Judi comforting a tiny orphaned baby orangutan? She also meets some snakes, and takes the cue for one of those fine theatrical anecdotes that don’t get the circulation they deserve these days. Asked if this was the first time she had handled one she replies: “No, we had real snakes in Anthony and Cleopatra, they got out one night and frightened Michael Gambon out of his wits”. You can take the dame out of the theatre…Last, a welcome return for the ever-wonderful Ashley Jensen in her screwball detective role of Agatha Raisin. Only Jensen could get away with the fuchsia and tangerine outfits she models for much of the episode, and only she could make the outlandish plots about electric murderers seem perfectly believable. Almost. Eight Days: To the Moon and Back (BBC2, Wednesday 9pm); Mad Cow Disease: The Great British Beef Scandal (BBC2, Thursday 9pm); Extreme Tribe: The Last Pygmies (Channel 4, Monday 9pm); Dark Money (BBC1, Monday 9pm); Judi Dench’s Wild Borneo Adventure (ITV, Tuesday 9pm); Agatha Raisin (Sky 1, Friday 9pm)
Ever since David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series aired in 2017, as a nation we’ve sat up and listened. How could we not after seeing the shocking images of an albatross feeding its young bits of plastic which they’d mistaken for food – and yet this was just a snapshot of what is happening around the world today.It’s been widely reported that by 2050 there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish, by weight – so there really has never been a more urgent time to act.If this all seems quite overwhelming, these titles aim to demystify the problem with useful tips for us to apply to our daily lives.To be clear, plastic is a very durable product which can be highly valuable and there are many scenarios when it is being used well – what we’re referring to here is the misuse of single-use plastics – those unnecessary items made with plastic we use once and throw away.Plastics that might make our life a little easier in the moment, but which take their toll on the planet as a whole.For many of us the fight against plastic is one that’s at the forefront of our minds, whether that’s thinking twice before accepting a plastic straw or taking a reusable water bottle out with us. However, there’s so much we can all do on a regular basis.Taking responsibility for our own single-use plastic consumption is a great place to start, and if we all did our bit it really would make a big difference.The more of us that say no to plastics, the more companies will have to find innovative solutions. So let’s not leave it to someone else, let’s be the change we want to see. As David Attenborough rightly said: “We have a responsibility, every one of us.”So without further ado, here’s our roundup of the best books to help you live a more plastic-free existence.You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent. ‘Turning the Tide on Plastic: How Humanity (And You) Can Make Our Globe Clean Again’, Lucy Siegle, published by Orion, £8.99, WaterstonesA journalist and presenter of BBC’s The One Show, Lucy Siegle provides plenty of real life examples of encounters with unnecessary plastic in her life, and how to overcome it. The “daily plastics diary” she encourages everyone to keep really opened our eyes to just how much more we have to do. With plenty of product swaps, helpful links and detailed information on different types of plastics and how they can (and cannot) be recycled, this is a very useful resource.Buy now ‘How to Give Up Plastic: A Guide to Changing the World, One Plastic Bottle at a Time’, Will McCallum, published by Penguin Life, £8.48, WorderyAs head of Oceans at Greenpeace UK, Will McCallum has been at the forefront of the anti-plastic battle for many years, regularly meeting with government and big companies to make positive changes. This book provides helpful tips for how to give up plastics in all areas of our lives – from the bathroom, to the kitchen and everywhere in between. With shocking stats, alongside interactive lists and exercises for you to fill in, you’ll most certainly have reduced your plastic footprint by the last page.Buy now ‘Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life’, Bea Johnson, published by Penguin £9.99, FoylesBea Johnson is to plastic-free living what Marie Kondo is to living an uncluttered life. While some of the advice is pretty out there – making your own makeup and using moss in place of toilet paper anyone? – more realistic tips include packing your kids lunches without using plastic, buying in bulk and cancelling junk mail. Sometimes the US references felt like they didn’t quite apply to a UK reader, but on the whole it showed just how much can be done in the fight against plastics, if you’re willing to give it a go.Buy now ‘How to Live Plastic Free: A Day in the Life of a Plastic Detox’, Luca Bonaccorsi and Marine Conservation Society, published by Headline Home, £9.35, WHSmithOne for the dedicated eco-warriors, this book provides tips for making your own toothpaste, creating your own cat litter from old newspapers and having plastic-free mealtimes. It’s easy to forget (or ignore) what plastic litter is doing to marine life if you don’t live by the sea, however this book makes the connection for us. As well as protecting our oceans, you might also find that you save money in the process – for example, by cutting out snacks and reaping the financial rewards of using a reusable coffee cup. Win, win.Buy now F**k Plastic: 101 Ways to Free Yourself from Plastic and Save the World, various authors, published Seven Dials, £5.24, WHSmithNo one can claim to have all the answers when it comes to tackling the plastic problem, so this book has put the question to various authors, coming up with 101 ways you can do your bit. Interspersed with illustrations, it’s a book to dip in and out of (we kept our copy by the kettle) and would also make a good gift to the eco-curious. Inspiring without being judgemental, even if you think you’re pretty clued up about plastic, this book provides new ideas to try out.Buy now ‘No. More. Plastic. What You Can Do to Make a Difference’, Martin Dorey, published by Ebury Press, £4.89, BlackwellsWant to do your bit for the planet without completely overhauling your life? Martin Dorey, a writer, surfer and self-professed beach lover, has packed this pocket-sized book with two minute solutions that really make a difference when you add them up. Founder of the Beach Clean Network, Dorey came up with the idea for the book following the huge success of his 2minutebeachclean hashtag. If we all took just two minutes out of our day to collect as many plastics as we can, imagine how much cleaner the planet would be. A hassle-free initiative that even the most time poor can get behind.Buy now ‘Plastic Soup: An Atlas of Ocean Pollution’, Michiel Roscam Abbing, published by Island Press, £20 (hardback), AmazonPlastic Soup brings the problem of single-use plastics to life with shocking photography – a seahorse swimming along holding a cotton bud by its tail stayed with us long after we’d put the book down. An in-depth look at our complete reliance on single use plastics across all areas of our lives, the book shows just how widespread and deeply ingrained the problem is. At times the reading is quite bleak. However, we appreciated the hard-hitting facts and graphs which got the severity of the message across effectively. The book features a section on how plastic litter has influenced artworks, as well as some innovative solutions by people from around the world.Pre-order (released 4 April 2019) ‘How To Go Plastic Free (Eco Tips for Busy People)’, Caroline Jones, published by Carlton Books, £8.54, Wordery So you’ve read the stats and don’t need any more convincing that it’s time to act? Great! This book cuts to the chase with 100 real life tips to go plastic free – all without having to drastically change your busy lifestyle. Hurrah! The realistic advice includes short, sharp advice on cutting back on your plastic reliance slowly but surely, and forming new habits in the process. The book even goes so far as to include a homemade crisp recipe, so no more excuses to buy bags of plastic-coated salty snacks.Buy now ‘Save the World: There is No Planet B: Things You Can Do Right Now to Save Our Planet’, Louise Bradford, published by Summersdale, £6.99, Amazon“The Plastic Problem”, as Louise Bradford dubs it, is just one chapter in a title that covers all the major issues our planet is currently facing. From water conservation to shopping more ethically, there are practical bullet point suggestions for ultimately living a more minimal life, and limiting your impact on the world as a result. In it she argues that we can’t wait for big corporations to clean up their acts. Instead, we all have a duty to do our bit to save the planet. If that sounds a little preachy, rest assured the book is clear that any effort is better than none, and that we can only do our best.Buy now Verdict: Plastic-free living booksBefore reading this selection, we’d considered ourselves pretty clued up when it came to single-use plastics. How wrong we were. Proving there is always more to learn, we found ourselves particularly recommending Lucy Siegle’s book Turning the Tide to anyone who would listen. Prepare to be surprised and inspired.Stacey Smith is the founder of food and drink website Crummbs
Howard Jacobson’s Live a Little takes place during the final years of Beryl Dusinbery and Shimi Carmelli, both in their nineties, who meet outside a crematorium after Shimi’s brother’s funeral. Beryl, who spends her time embroidering morbid quotes from literature, is losing her memory; Shimi, on the other hand, is unable to forget anything that ever happened to him (and tormented by the fact). Shimi, a give-it-a-go cartomancer, predicts the future with a deck of cards in a Chinese restaurant every Friday; Beryl writes down her past on cards that she once used to report on her students. Shimi’s name was stolen by his older brother; Beryl has decided to abandon her own name in favour of the altogether more bizarre moniker Princess Schweppessodawasser. Shimi is also known as the last man in north London who can do up his own flies, and pursued ferociously by the widows of Finchley Road because of this standalone quality. Beryl is dismissed by her self-absorbed politician sons as a bothersome, nasty old woman, left in the care of two recent immigrants, who she throws racist asides towards every few pages. Both are obsessed with death, which is staring them in the face. Both have made some terrible mistakes.They make for a strange pair, and both are united by their disgust for humanity (Shimi’s visceral; Beryl’s personal.) Beryl has married too often and doesn’t believe in love; Shimi has never married. He is an introvert, easily embarrassed, obsessed with phrenology and the structure of the head, while she is a brash, extroverted linguist obsessed with categorizing words and correcting grammar. Those familiar with Jacobson’s earlier work will see her as a vehicle through which he can explore his trademark verbose flourishes. They are enjoyable to read, if sometimes a little overdone. But if you don’t want to wade through a few paragraphs, which could have been summarised in a single sentence and about 100 fewer characters, Jacobson probably isn’t the author for you.That’s not to say that Live a Little isn’t a thoroughly enjoyable read. For a literature snob and a language obsessive (guilty as charged), there is a lot to feast on; but for someone looking for an emotionally honest storyline, the book also delivers. Live a Little is about growing old, but it’s also about gender, race, love and politics, penned in a playful, genuine, sometimes borderline offensive way, that is at times reminiscent of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth or On Beauty. Many of its more tender examinations of old age also bring to mind the best parts of Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing, a chronically underrated novel.The characters think in slightly old-fashioned gendered terms and while they are lightly poked fun of when they take it too far, the novel never makes an attempt to prove them wrong. Beryl, for example, has a lot to say about women (when she isn’t calling them “sluts”, which is a shade too often): “The future is always brought to us by women… Men are moribund. They only listen to the past”, “There’s a joke – dying like a man. I would sooner teach the world to die like a woman… Being less grandiose – I don’t say grand – women are less disappointed”, and so it goes on. But the genius of Live a Little is that it manages to indulge in so much wordplay and biting political commentary. I found myself caring deeply for the characters, and even shedding a tear on two separate occasions. The book also comes to a surprisingly tender conclusion and delivers some extremely astute home truths. That Jacobson manages all of this while populating his novel with ninety-plus-year-olds feels impressive, though his point seems to be that it shouldn’t be. I found myself convinced.Live a Little by Howard Jacobson is published on 4 July by Jonathan Cape, £18.99