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A Very Modern Man

Edmund Gordon: William Boyd, 8 March 2012

Waiting for Sunrise 
by William Boyd.
Bloomsbury, 368 pp., £18.99, February 2012, 978 1 4088 1774 2
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... Lysander Rief, the hero of Waiting for Sunrise, arrives in Vienna in 1913 to undergo psychoanalysis, and stays there for a few months; after his final session he goes to a café, where he notices ‘a man a few tables away, wearing a tweed suit and an old-fashioned cravat tie, reading a newspaper and smoking a cigar … His beard was … trimmed with finical neatness ...

Dude, c’est moi

Edmund Gordon: Padgett Powell, 3 February 2011

The Interrogative Mood 
by Padgett Powell.
Profile, 164 pp., £9.99, November 2010, 978 1 84668 366 4
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... In a letter of 1852, when he was working on Madame Bovary, Flaubert told his mistress Louise Colet that what he really wanted to write, what he saw as ‘the future of Art’, was ‘a book about nothing’, ‘a book without external attachments, supporting itself by the internal force of its style’. From the start of his career, the American novelist Padgett Powell seems to have had a similar ideal, compelling his readers’ attention not through character, narrative or ideas (or not predominantly through them), but through the lyrical drift of his sentences, their purchase on fleeting impressions and moods ...

Like a Failed Cake

Edmund Gordon: Keith Ridgway, 6 December 2012

Hawthorn & Child 
by Keith Ridgway.
Granta, 282 pp., £12.99, July 2012, 978 1 84708 741 6
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... Keith Ridgway used to be compared to John McGahern for his dourly lyrical stories of a changing Ireland. (‘Fr Devoy nodded his head and sipped his tea and waited. He watched the sky move and thought he saw rain in the distance but could not be sure.’) That stopped with the publication of his third novel, Animals, in 2006. It begins with a 19-page description of poking a dead mouse with a pen ...

Look away, look away

Edmund Gordon: ‘How Much of These Hills Is Gold’, 22 April 2021

How Much of These Hills Is Gold 
by C. Pam Zhang.
Virago, 336 pp., £8.99, April, 978 0 349 01145 5
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... Didn’t I tell you,’ a character asks halfway through C. Pam Zhang’s first novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, ‘that you should always ask why a person is telling you their story?’ In a series of essays and interviews around the time of the book’s publication, Zhang tried to explain why she was telling this one. When she was four her family emigrated from Beijing to Kentucky, then to California when she was eight ...

Porno Swagger

Edmund Gordon: ‘Cleanness’, 16 April 2020

by Garth Greenwell.
Picador, 223 pp., £14.99, April, 978 0 374 12458 8
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... In​ U&I (1991), his book about John Updike, Nicholson Baker imagines explaining the appeal of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library to his literary hero. ‘You know, once you get used to the initially kind of disgusting level of homosexual sex, which quickly becomes really interesting as a kind of ethnography, you realise that this is really one of the best first novels to come along in years and years!’ But Updike couldn’t get used to the sex ...

Do you wish to continue?

Edmund Gordon: ‘Homesickness’, 4 August 2022

by Colin Barrett.
Cape, 213 pp., £14.99, March, 978 1 78733 381 9
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... The stories​ in Colin Barrett’s first book, Young Skins (2013), assembled a shabby cast of bouncers and pool sharks, small-time gangsters and big-time losers from a dismal Irish town. The narrator of ‘Diamonds’ is typical:I was not well. I was drinking, too much and too often, and had resolved to stop. In the city I had drank away my job, money, a raft of friendships, one woman, and then another ...


Edmund Gordon: ‘Melmoth’, 3 January 2019

by Sarah Perry.
Serpent’s Tail, 271 pp., £16.99, October 2018, 978 1 78816 065 0
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... Sarah Perry​ was raised a Strict Baptist, with a number of exotic beliefs – in the literal existence of the devil, the creation of the earth in six days, the sinfulness of women wearing trousers – whose most visible legacy is her interest in ethical and existential questions. That makes her rare among her generation of British writers. She abandoned the sect in her twenties over its opposition to gay marriage, but in interviews she appears still to have a complicated relationship with Christianity ...

Learning to Say ‘Cat’

Edmund Gordon: ‘Lean Fall Stand’, 17 June 2021

Lean Fall Stand 
by Jon McGregor.
Fourth Estate, 288 pp., £14.99, April, 978 0 00 820490 7
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... In​ The Man Who Lost His Language (2002), a memoir about her husband’s aphasia, Sheila Hale explains that ‘unless complicated by other neurological disorders, aphasia does not usually affect personality.’ I first read the book in April 2019, when my father was in a stroke ward in Madrid. The only sounds he could manage were ‘yuh’ (which often meant ‘no’) and a few grunts and warbles ...

The Hero Brush

Edmund Gordon: Colum McCann, 12 September 2013

by Colum McCann.
Bloomsbury, 298 pp., £18.99, May 2013, 978 1 4088 2937 0
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... Colum McCann has described Jim Crace as ‘quite simply, one of the great writers of our time’, Aleksandar Hemon as ‘quite frankly, the greatest writer of our generation’, and Nathan Englander as ‘quite simply, one of the very best we have’. He has called Emma Donoghue ‘one of the great literary ventriloquists’ and John Boyne ‘one of the great craftsmen in contemporary literature ...

Bye-bye Firefly

Edmund Gordon: Carnival of the Insects, 12 May 2022

The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires That Run the World 
by Oliver Milman.
Atlantic, 260 pp., £16.99, January, 978 1 83895 117 7
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Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse 
by Dave Goulson.
Vintage, 328 pp., £9.99, May, 978 1 5291 1442 3
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... Insects don’t get a great deal of airtime in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The book that exposed the harmful effects of DDT on fish, birds, livestock and people had surprisingly little to say about the creatures the pesticide was intended to harm, except that they were starting to develop resistance – in other words, the case for spraying poison indiscriminately wasn’t compelling even on its own terms ...

How to Hate Oil

Edmund Gordon: On Upton Sinclair, 4 January 2024

by Upton Sinclair.
Penguin, 572 pp., £15.99, January, 978 0 14 313744 3
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... Upton Sinclair​ was born in 1878 to a Baltimore family of rapidly diminishing respectability. His father was a whisky salesman who drank a good deal more than he ever managed to sell. When things got especially bad, Sinclair’s mother would seek refuge in the home of her own father, who was secretary-treasurer of the Western Maryland Railroad, or that of her sister, who was married to one of the richest men in Baltimore ...

Save the feet for later

Edmund Gordon: Leonora Carrington, 2 November 2017

The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington 
by Joanna Moorhead.
Virago, 304 pp., £20, April 2017, 978 0 349 00877 6
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‘The Debutante’ and Other Stories 
by Leonora Carrington.
Silver Press, 153 pp., £9.99, April 2017, 978 0 9957162 0 9
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Down Below 
by Leonora Carrington.
NYRB, 69 pp., £8.99, May 2017, 978 1 68137 060 6
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Leonora Carrington and the International Avant-Garde 
edited by Jonathan Eburne and Catriona McAra.
Manchester, 275 pp., £75, January 2017, 978 1 78499 436 5
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... What​ Leonora Carrington remembered most clearly about being a debutante in 1935 was her tiara ‘biting’ into her skull. In her short story ‘The Debutante’, the teenage narrator hates balls, ‘especially when they are given in my honour’ (Carrington’s parents threw one for her at the Ritz), so she engages a hyena to take her place: the animal is about the right size, and she reckons nobody will make it out properly in the candlelight ...

A New Kind of Being

Jenny Turner: Angela Carter, 3 November 2016

The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography 
by Edmund Gordon.
Chatto, 544 pp., £25, October 2016, 978 0 7011 8755 2
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... my boys’: Mark Pearce, her second husband, and Alexander, the couple’s son, born in 1983. As Edmund Gordon says towards the beginning of his biography, Carter was never so widely acclaimed in life as she would be in the weeks and years after her death. The tributes were long, sometimes fulsome, always affectionate, and full of great table talk and ...

Your Inner Salmon

Nick Richardson: Mohsin Hamid, 20 June 2013

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia 
by Mohsin Hamid.
Hamish Hamilton, 228 pp., £14.99, March 2013, 978 0 241 14466 4
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... stopped some reviewers from praising or damning the book for doing things it carefully avoids. Edmund Gordon, in the Telegraph, wrote that Hamid’s use of the second person allows him ‘to implicitly pair the trajectory of his hero’s life with the trajectories of millions of other lives’ when what it really does is make you conscious of how ...
... to stigmatise the child, Lewes forgave the offence and allowed the boy to be registered as Edmund Lewes – perhaps with a wry glance at the bastard in King Lear. But the offence was repeated; and before Agnes bore the second of her four or five children by Hunt, Lewes had ceased to regard her as his wife. Yet, having condoned her adultery, he was ...

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