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Algorithmic Fanboy

Colin Burrow: Thick Rules and Thin, 1 June 2023

Rules: A Short History of What We Live By 
by Lorraine Daston.
Princeton, 359 pp., £25, September 2022, 978 0 691 15698 9
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... ability to use words to say nothing at length. If I ask it to ‘write an essay in the style of Colin Burrow’ it delivers a piece of pap about Shakespeare’s sonnets and how lovely they are, which says ‘in conclusion’ that ‘Colin Burrow’s meticulous attention to detail and clear, concise prose would ...

On Fiona Benson

Colin Burrow, 17 June 2021

... Atypical poem​ in Fiona Benson’s first collection, Bright Travellers (2014), begins with a description of a hare:              There’s a leveret in the field.I know it by its mother’s haunt at dusk,can sense the cupped space of its watch              over near the gorse.The young hare is just a space of attention – evoked by that wonderful phrase ‘the cupped space of its watch’ – which captures both the attentiveness of a nervous creature and its wish to be invisible; there’s also the observer’s desire to establish that the animal is actually present ...

On Philip Terry

Colin Burrow, 13 July 2017

... If the world​ of experimental poetry makes you think of pseudy dudes in black 501s and Doc Martens, then I would prescribe a small daily dose of Philip Terry, for whom being experimental chiefly means being thoughtfully rebellious and funny. In his translation of Dante’s Inferno (2014), Terry is guided through the hell that is the University of Essex (where he is professor of creative writing) by the Beat poet Ted Berrigan ...

On Michael Longley

Colin Burrow: Michael Longley, 19 October 2017

... There are​ few contemporary poets as likeable as Michael Longley. That’s not because his poems are simply amiable, but because he looks at things hard and clearly and invites his readers to share his acts of seeing. In his new book, Angel Hill (Cape, £10), even a cataract operation is an opportunity to celebrate sharpness of vision: ‘My eyeball’s frozen ...

On Alice Oswald

Colin Burrow, 22 September 2016

... another’ is followed by twenty seconds of silence ‘and then a chaffinch starts and/then another’ is followed by another twenty seconds of silence ‘and starts and starts’. This allows Oswald to do what she has always wanted to do, which is to represent being in time, where things recur and repeat, and in which attempts to pause and linger on the moment get thwarted by the necessary flow of time ...

On Les Murray

Colin Burrow: Les Murray, 27 July 2017

... Bunyah is​ a valley about 300 km north of Sydney in which the Australian poet Les Murray grew up, and to which he returned in 1985 as ‘my refuge and my homeplace’. Over-educated readers might imagine from its title that On Bunyah (Carcanet, £14.99) is a set of philosophical meditations which belongs on the shelves next to, say, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty ...

On Ilya Kaminsky

Colin Burrow: Ilya Kaminsky, 24 October 2019

... Ilya Kaminsky​ was born in 1977 in Odessa, the Ukrainian city named after Odysseus. In his first full-length collection of verse, Dancing in Odessa (2004), he let his readers in on a ‘secret’: ‘At the age of four I became deaf. When I lost my hearing, I began to see voices.’ When he was 16 his parents were granted asylum in the US and left ‘Odessa in such a hurry that we forgot the suitcase filled with English dictionaries outside our apartment building ...

It’s not Jung’s, it’s mine

Colin Burrow: Language-Magic, 21 January 2021

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations 
edited by David Streitfeld.
Melville House, 180 pp., £12.99, February 2019, 978 1 61219 779 1
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The Carrier Bag Theory Of Fiction 
by Ursula K. Le Guin.
Ignota, 42 pp., £4.99, November 2019, 978 1 9996759 9 8
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... children alive, growing fruit trees, watching things change and tending the goats.Listen to Colin Burrow discuss this piece on the LRB ...

Slice of Life

Colin Burrow: Robin Robertson, 30 August 2018

The Long Take 
by Robin Robertson.
Picador, 256 pp., £14.99, February 2018, 978 1 5098 4688 7
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... Robin Robertson​ is something of a specialist in pain. He usually describes what painful events look like from the outside rather than how they feel from within. It’s often as though sufferers are so entranced by the appearance of what’s happening to them that they can’t actually see how bad it is. There is a fine slight poem from Slow Air (2002) called ‘Break’ in which a woman is washing glasses in the sink and hears a dull click, like a tongue, under the soap suds ...

Semi-colons are for the weak

Colin Burrow: Bond Redux, 19 December 2013

Solo: A James Bond Novel 
by William Boyd.
Cape, 322 pp., £18.99, September 2013, 978 0 224 09747 5
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... Morning dearie’. Bond heaved himself awake. A set of teeth was grinning at him from the glass next to his bed. He was in an Innov8 2000 Profiling Hospital Bed with full electronic tilt control. Two tubes ran out of his side to drain the cavity where his right lung used to be. The nurse was trying to put her arm around him to help him sit up. ‘Now Jimmy … ’ ‘My name is … ’ What the devil was it? ‘Don’t mumble, Jimmy ...


Colin Burrow: Two Novels about Lost Bellinis, 14 August 2008

The Bellini Card 
by Jason Goodwin.
Faber, 306 pp., £12.99, July 2008, 978 0 571 23992 4
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The Bellini Madonna 
by Elizabeth Lowry.
Quercus, 343 pp., July 2008, 978 1 84724 364 5
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... Are there too many novels about missing Old Masters? Anyone who reads Jason Goodwin’s The Bellini Card might be forgiven for thinking so. It’s about a search for a portrait of Mehmet the Conqueror which was supposedly painted by Gentile Bellini during his visit to Istanbul in 1479. It relentlessly assembles all the standard fixtures and fittings of the sub-genre: exploitative forgers, dodgy art dealers, even dodgier descriptions of Venice, a blonde contessa who allows her hair to fall ‘in golden sheaves’ before she fences with our hero (who has the rare distinction of being an Ottoman eunuch detective, which alleviates the rich diet of cliché a little) and reveals that she has Something to Hide ...

The Comeuppance Button

Colin Burrow: Dreadful Mr Dahl, 15 December 2022

Teller of the Unexpected: The Life of Roald Dahl, an Unofficial Biography 
by Matthew Dennison.
Head of Zeus, 264 pp., £20, August 2022, 978 1 78854 941 7
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... terror. Cheerful visions beneath which you can always see something like horror.Listen to Colin Burrow discuss this piece with Thomas Jones on the LRB ...

It’s a lie

Colin Burrow: M.J. Hyland’s Creepy Adolescents, 2 November 2006

Carry Me Down 
by M.J. Hyland.
Canongate, 334 pp., £9.99, April 2006, 1 84195 734 8
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... Both of M.J. Hyland’s novels – only two so far – are written from the perspective of weird adolescents. Both books are strong, awkward and unobvious in ways that get under your skin. How the Light Gets In (2004) presents the world in the first-person present tense of Lou Connor, an Australian teenager who escapes from her family, which is impoverished in every way, by staying with a family in America ...

Halifax hots up

Colin Burrow: Writing (and reading) charitably, 21 October 2004

Havoc, in Its Third Year 
by Ronan Bennett.
Bloomsbury, 244 pp., £16.99, September 2004, 0 7475 6249 0
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... I’m one of those writers who likes to stay with what he knows,’ James Gillespie, the persistently apolitical hero of Ronan Bennett’s third novel, The Catastrophist (1998), says. Gillespie, now a novelist, was once a historian. In his PhD he had argued that ‘the great political and religious upheavals of the 16th century owed little to ideological or doctrinal conviction, and everything to the Tudor state’s perpetual need for cash ...

A Hee-Haw to Apuleius

Colin Burrow: John Crowley's Impure Fantasy, 1 November 2007

The Solitudes 
by John Crowley.
Overlook, 429 pp., £7.90, September 2007, 978 1 58567 986 7
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Endless Things 
by John Crowley.
Small Beer, 341 pp., $24, May 2007, 978 1 931520 22 5
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... John Crowley’s novels are hard to describe. His best one, Little, Big (1981), is probably something you might call ‘fantasy’. It contains talking trout, and little people, and witches in New York, and an attempt by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa to rule the world again, which is thwarted by a family who possess a magic deck of cards. What makes it not quite fantasy, or perhaps fantasy askew, or impure fantasy, is that its magic is invariably seen only out of the corner of the eye, as a flicker in the undergrowth; most of its characters aren’t quite sure they believe in what they think they might have seen ...

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