Catholic Tastes

Posted on by Tom Fleming

It is when you notice the pictures hung above the bookcases that you begin to realise that things are not as they appear. It had seemed such an uncomplicatedly English place: a wonderful long library with scuffed Victorian linoleum on the floor and soaring bookcases with busts ranged along them; all down the left-hand wall, […]

Pham Doan Trang

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Every year, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) grants three Press Freedom Awards for ‘courage’, ‘impact’ and ‘independence’. This year, Pham Doan Trang, a Vietnamese writer and journalist, is the worthy recipient of the award for ‘impact’. According to RSF, her work ‘has led to concrete improvements in journalistic freedom, independence and pluralism, or to an increase […]

Generation Ex

Posted on by Tom Fleming

When it began, cinema boasted of having left the fuddy-duddy art of literature behind. Silent films dispensed with language and let bodies do the talking; later, the director Luis Buñuel declared himself to be ‘agraphic’, allergic to writing. Non-Fiction, nimbly written and a little staidly directed by Olivier Assayas, catches up with the debate between […]

Worlds Apart

Posted on by Tom Fleming

At the heart of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, which first lit up our imaginations over twenty years ago, is the exceptionally close bond between the heroine, Lyra, and her dæmon, Pantalaimon (a dæmon, for those not versed in Pullmanic lore, is an external manifestation of a human’s soul that takes animal form and has its […]

Love in the Time of Plague

Posted on by Tom Fleming

James Meek likes to use major historical or political events as backgrounds to his fiction. In his most celebrated novel, The People’s Act of Love (2005), the action takes place in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, while in We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (2008) the plot pivots on the US-led invasions of Iraq […]

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No More Mr Nice Guy

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Room, Emma Donoghue’s most famous novel, is mostly set in a cell of eleven square feet. At least half of the novel features only two characters, there is very little that you could really call plot and its narrator is a five-year-old boy who has never seen the outside world. Those are immense compositional constraints, […]

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Madness & Misanthropy

Posted on by Tom Fleming

No nation in Europe today is as good at self-deprecation as the Slovaks: they claim to be victims of modern kleptocracy, helplessly in thrall to psychotherapy, alcohol, European mercantilism and a depraved pop culture. Until thirty years ago, a typical Slovak novel had a wise beekeeper and a virtuous matriarch as its heroes, their values […]

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The Second Coming

Posted on by Tom Fleming

The launch of The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale, was one of the most anticipated publishing events of the 21st century. When Amazon dispatched pre-ordered editions in advance of the publication date, their ‘technical error’ became front-page news. On the day of publication, bookshops hosted midnight events, at which attendees ate […]

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Transatlantic Tales

Posted on by Tom Fleming

When Zadie Smith, scourge of lyrical realism (and reluctant standard bearer for its hysterical cousin), transatlantic femme de lettres and quite literally the last word in 21st-century lit, brings out a short-story collection nearly twenty years into the game, a reasonable question to begin with is: why now? We are told of a prelapsarian time […]

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Fagged Out & Furious

Posted on by Tom Fleming

There was a time when chain-smoking connoted a rugged, implicitly countercultural glamour: I once knew a musician who insisted on posing fag-in-mouth in his promotional photos, despite being a fastidious non-smoker. The habit is rather less cool these days; most of us are okay with that, but there is a certain species of chuntering crank for whom its marginalisation rankles with all the bitterness of a major historical grievance, symbolising nothing less than the crushing of the human spirit by the joyless technocracy of an overweening state. Florent-Claude Labrouste, the forty-something narrator-protagonist of Michel Houellebecq’s seventh novel, is one such bore. He sabotages smoke detectors in hotel rooms and whines about speed restrictions; he is the proud owner

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Family Fortunes

Posted on by Tom Fleming

These three very different memoirs are bound together by the common themes of familial love and conflict. For the poet Lemn Sissay, it was the absence of family that defined his life, as he documents in My Name Is Why. He grew up as Norman Greenwood, believing that his birth mother, a young Ethiopian student, had […]

Space Man

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Gareth E Rees is totally obsessed with retail car parks. He is quite candid about it, confessing that this may be due to his unstable mind, which is ‘seized momentarily by fantastical visions’ caused by ‘an epilepsy of the imagination’. Nevertheless, he has decided to go public. In Car Park Life he explores a succession […]

Computer Says Go

Posted on by Tom Fleming

The biggest question facing us today in relation to artificial intelligence (AI) is: what if we actually succeed in building superintelligent machines? In particular, what would be the consequences for humankind? This possibility is one of the four ‘existential risks’ that Martin Rees and his colleagues at Cambridge University’s Centre for the Study of Existential […]

Sinning on the Seven Seas

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, along comes this enquiry into criminality at sea, a study wide enough in scope to cover stowaways, offshore abortionists and pirate radio stations alongside the more familiar subjects of illegal fishing and the dumping of dangerous waste in the world’s oceans. The […]

Mob Mentality

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Few people would disagree with the proposition that the world has become a nastier place in recent years, or that it’s happened very fast, hastened by the growth of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. It’s never been so easy to target total strangers, to shame them for a momentary lapse in judgement […]

#MeToo in the Making

Posted on by Tom Fleming

After so much press coverage of allegations of sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein, how much more is there to say on the subject? Quite a lot, it turns out. In She Said, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the New York Times journalists who broke the story, chronicle how the newspaper came to investigate the behaviour […]

What’s in the 7 Up?

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Lithium is a silvery-white metal that is so light it can float on water and so soft it can be cut with a butter knife. Along with hydrogen and helium it was produced during the Big Bang and so formed the universe before the emergence of the galaxies. It is employed to harden glass and to thicken grease, but its best-known industrial use is in the manufacture

Hope Sings Eternal

Posted on by Tom Fleming

‘It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there,’ wrote William Carlos Williams. Debates about poetry have a habit of standing in for larger discussions about culture as a public good or private indulgence, and artists as virtuous citizens or irresponsible loners. Like a washing machine […]

Writing Night & Day

Posted on by Tom Fleming

In 1937 a horse fell onto Cole Porter’s legs. The left leg was fractured, the right ‘mashed to such a pulp’ that the nerves were permanently damaged. The blistered skin, Porter wrote to a friend, ‘looked like a flowing mass of lava and it sorta made me sick’. Eleven years later, it took only an […]

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