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Ian Sansom, 7 March 1996

by A.R. Ammons.
Norton, 121 pp., £7.50, February 1995, 0 393 31203 8
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Tape for the Turn of the Year 
by A.R. Ammons.
Norton, 205 pp., £8.95, February 1995, 0 393 31204 6
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Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow 
by August Kleinzahler.
Faber, 93 pp., £6.99, April 1995, 0 571 17431 0
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The Unemployed Fortune-Teller: Essays and Memoirs 
by Charles Simic.
Michigan, 127 pp., £30, January 1996, 0 472 06569 6
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Frightening Toys 
by Charles Simic.
Faber, 101 pp., £6.99, April 1995, 0 571 17399 3
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The Ghost of Eden 
by Chase Twichell.
Faber, 78 pp., £6.99, April 1995, 0 571 17434 5
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... In a power-rhyming slap-happy parody of Thirties doom-mongering published in 1938 William Empson famously had ‘Just a Smack at Auden’: What was said by Marx, boys, what did he perpend? No good being sparks, boys, waiting for the end. Treason of the clerks, boys, curtains that descend, Lights becoming darks, boys, waiting for the end. By contrast, in a lecture on ‘Rhythm and Imagery in English Poetry’ to the British Society of Aesthetics in 1961, Empson gave William Carlos Williams and his reviewers an exasperated wallop: The most unexpected American critics will be found speaking of him with tender reverence; they feel he is a kind of saint ...


Ian Sansom: Jim Crace, 15 November 2001

The Devil's Larder 
by Jim Crace.
Viking, 194 pp., £12.99, September 2001, 0 670 88145 7
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... According to Henry James, reviewing John Cross’s life of George Eliot, the creations which brought her renown were of the incalculable kind, shaped themselves in mystery, in some intellectual back-shop or secret crucible, and were as little as possible implied in the aspect of her life. There is nothing more singular or striking in Mr Cross’s volumes than the absence of any indication, up to the time the Scenes of Clerical Life were published, that Miss Evans was a likely person to have written them; unless it be the absence of any indication, after they were published, that the deeply studious, concentrated, home-keeping Mrs Lewes was a likely person to have produced their successors ...

His Own Peak

Ian Sansom: John Fowles’s diary, 6 May 2004

John Fowles: The Journals, Vol. I 
edited by Charles Drazin.
Cape, 668 pp., £30, October 2003, 9780224069113
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John Fowles: A Life in Two Worlds 
by Eileen Warburton.
Cape, 510 pp., £25, April 2004, 0 224 05951 3
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... You’ll remember this. You may not live there anymore, and it might be years since you’ve been there, but you’ll recognise it instantly. Nothing has changed. Not a thing out of place, and not a detail altered: same views, same problems, same people, same faces, same old same old. ‘I feel violent with "hate” against this bloody town.’ ‘It is the unsociability, the not-knowing-anyone, the having-no-colour, that kills ...

Absolutely Bleedin’ Obvious

Ian Sansom: Will Self, 6 July 2006

The Book of Dave 
by Will Self.
Viking, 496 pp., £17.99, June 2006, 0 670 91443 6
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... According to Hannibal Hamlin, in Psalm Culture and Early Modern English Literature (2004), English versions and translations of the Book of Psalms, the original book of Dave – supposedly written by King David, the Neim Z’mirot Yisrael (‘the sweet singer of Israel’) – ‘substantially shaped the culture of 16th and 17th-century England, resulting in creative forms as diverse as singing psalters, metrical psalm paraphrases, sophisticated poetic adaptations, meditations, sermons, commentaries, and significant allusions in poems, plays and literary prose by English men and women of varied social and intellectual backgrounds, accommodating biblical texts to their personal agendas, whether religious, political or aesthetic ...


Ian Sansom, 17 July 1997

W.H. Auden: Prose 1926-38, Essays and Reviews and Travel Books in Prose and Verse 
edited by Edward Mendelson.
Faber, 836 pp., £40, March 1997, 0 571 17899 5
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... W.H. Auden’s first published book review appeared in the Criterion in April 1930, and his first sentence cuts a dash: ‘Duality is one of the oldest of our concepts; it appears and reappears in every religion, metaphysic and code of ethics; it is reflected in (or perhaps reflects) the earliest social system of which we have knowledge – the Dual Organisation in Ancient Egypt; one of its most important projections is war ...

Build Your Cabin

Ian Sansom: ‘Caribou Island’, 3 March 2011

Caribou Island 
by David Vann.
Penguin, 293 pp., £8.99, January 2011, 978 0 670 91844 7
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... David Vann’s novel – his debut, after a short story collection, Legend of a Suicide (2008), and a memoir, A Mile Down (2005) – is a book that makes Cormac McCarthy’s The Road read like a walk in the park. Compared to Caribou Island, The Road is grim-lit lite. After 200 pages of unrelenting misery, McCarthy breaks down and accepts the possibility of grace: after a long trudge through a post-apocalyptic landscape, a woman turns up on the last page, out of the blue, and says: ‘The breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time ...

Somebody Shoot at Me!

Ian Sansom: Woody Guthrie’s Novel, 9 May 2013

House of Earth: A Novel 
by Woody Guthrie.
Fourth Estate, 234 pp., £14.99, February 2013, 978 0 00 750985 0
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... To celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009 a concert was held in Washington DC, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. ‘In the course of our history, only a handful of generations have been asked to confront challenges as serious as the ones we face right now,’ Obama said, truly, after and Sheryl Crow had busked their way through Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’, with Herbie Hancock noodling on piano; and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC had pounded out ‘My Country, ’Tis of Thee’; and Garth Brooks had gurned through ‘American Pie’; and so on and so on ...


Ian Sansom: Iain Banks, 5 December 2013

The Quarry 
by Iain Banks.
Little, Brown, 326 pp., £18.99, June 2013, 978 1 4087 0394 6
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... Except for the lucky few, the rewards for writing are meagre, if not non-existent. As a money-making enterprise, writing makes no sense. According to the UK’s official graduate careers website, (a depressing but entirely reliable source, to which I direct my own eager students when they come to me for advice before wisely becoming arts administrators, baristas, or hedge-fund managers), the annual average income for professional writers aged 25-34 from writing alone is – well, what do you think? £10,000? £20,000? £30,000? Wrong ...

Very like St Paul

Ian Sansom: Johnny Cash, 9 March 2006

The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love and Faith of an American Legend 
by Steve Turner.
Bloomsbury, 363 pp., £8.99, February 2006, 0 7475 8079 0
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Walk the Line 
directed by James Mangold.
November 2005
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... The pleasures of piety are infinite and exquisite and probably nowhere more easily had these days than in the rock ’n’ roll business, or in Hollywood. On record, and on stage, and up there on the big screen, people are not only encouraged but also handsomely rewarded for being morbidly fascinated with themselves, with their every movement, their every utterance, with the tiniest flicker of an eyelid or the slightest suggestion of a thought – a self-regard and obsession with the self usually only available to religious novitiates, madmen or very young children ...

A Susceptible Man

Ian Sansom: The Unhappy Laureate, 4 March 1999

Living in Time: The Poetry of C. Day Lewis 
by Albert Gelpi.
Oxford, 246 pp., £30, March 1998, 0 19 509863 3
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... Always read the acknowledgments. These preliminary matters often say more about the real, sad, self-deluding and lonely life of the writer and scholar than any number of biographies: the long-suffering husbands and wives; the neglected children; the countless hours spent on research in libraries and archives; the pathetic gratitude to agents and outside research bodies; the sabbatical leave kindly granted; the endless discussions with brilliant and understanding friends or fellow Faculty, who nonetheless bear no responsibility for any errors that remain ...


James Francken: Ian Sansom, 20 May 2004

Ring Road: There’s No Place like Home 
by Ian Sansom.
Fourth Estate, 388 pp., £12.99, April 2004, 0 00 715653 7
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... At the tail-end of 2000, Ian Sansom decided to move from London to a small town in County Down. He had half expected friends to dismiss his plan as a backwoods adventure, and was surprised when they said they felt the lure of the place. Sansom tells the story of moving house, and makes sense of his friends’ enthusiasm, in a typically buoyant essay, ‘Where Do We Live?’* In the English imagination, he argues, Ireland ‘remains a place of refuge and fantasy ...

Dream On

Katha Pollitt: Bringing up Babies, 11 September 2003

I Don't Know How She Does It 
by Allison Pearson.
Vintage, 256 pp., £6.99, May 2003, 0 09 942838 5
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A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother 
by Rachel Cusk.
Fourth Estate, 224 pp., £6.99, July 2002, 1 84115 487 3
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The Truth about Babies: From A-Z 
by Ian Sansom.
Granta, 352 pp., £6.99, June 2003, 1 86207 575 1
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What Are Children For? 
by Laurie Taylor and Matthew Taylor.
Short Books, 141 pp., £6.99, January 2003, 1 904095 25 9
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The Commercialisation of Intimate Life 
by Arlie Russell Hochschild.
California, 313 pp., £32.95, May 2003, 0 520 21487 0
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... a more playful and paternal spin, that same gap between cliché and reality is the subject of Ian Sansom’s book, an alphabetically organised grab-bag of tiny chapters made up of autobiographical reflections, epigrams, anecdotes and irresistible quotations. Chekhov shows up in ‘Fathers’: ‘Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth. Ham only ...


Ian Hamilton: Novels for the Bright, Modern Woman, 1 July 1982

... sleep soundly in their single beds. And I can get back to the World Cup – i.e. to Mills and Sansom. Or, rather more breath – takingly, to Costly and Gilberto, Socrates and Junior. But more of this next time. Could a soccer star ever be a Mills and Boon hero – his tautly muscled thighs, the expensive leather of his boots? No chance, according to my ...

Japanese Power

Richard Bowring, 14 June 1990

God’s Dust: A Modern Asian Journey 
by Ian Buruma.
Cape, 267 pp., £12.95, October 1989, 0 224 02493 0
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The Cambridge History of Japan. Vol V: The 19th Century 
edited by Marius Jansen.
Cambridge, 828 pp., £60, October 1989, 0 521 22356 3
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The Cambridge History of Japan. Vol. VI: The 20th Century 
edited by Peter Duus.
Cambridge, 866 pp., £60, June 1989, 0 521 22357 1
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... job of interpretation properly were it not for the published work of academics. One such man is Ian Buruma. Educated in the Netherlands but writing in English, Buruma is known for his work on the Far Eastern Economic Review and in the New York Times, and as the author of A Japanese Mirror, a racy book on the Japanese underworld. God’s Dust, too, is ...

Ropes, Shirts or Dirty Socks

Adam Smyth: Paper, 15 June 2017

Paper: Paging through History 
by Mark Kurlansky.
Norton, 416 pp., £12.99, June 2017, 978 0 393 35370 9
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... a medium which produces a reading experience like ‘kissing through a pane of glass’. Ian Sansom’s witty and wonderfully digressive Paper: An Elegy (2012) is less panicked about paper’s future, and quotes Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper’s The Myth of the Paperless Office (2001) to the effect that digital technology hasn’t replaced ...

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