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Her Big Horse Face

Rivka Galchen: Clarice Lispector, 2 April 2020

The Besieged City 
by Clarice Lispector, translated by Johnny Lorenz.
Penguin, 224 pp., £8.99, August 2019, 978 0 241 37137 4
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The Chandelier 
by Clarice Lispector, translated by Benjamin Moser and Magdalena Edwards.
Penguin, 320 pp., £9.99, November 2019, 978 0 241 37134 3
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... Clarice Lispector​ was born in 1920 to Jewish parents, in the small town of Chechelnik in Ukraine. It was hoped that the pregnancy would cure her mother’s syphilis, contracted when she was raped by a gang of Russian soldiers. The attempted cure failed. In 1921, the family made their way to Romania and eventually to Brazil. There, her father pushed a cart through the poorest parts of Recife, buying and selling used clothing ...

Shonagon is hot

Rivka Galchen: 'The Pillow Book', 2 January 2020

Unbinding ‘The Pillow Book’: The Many Lives of a Japanese Classic 
by Gergana Ivanova.
Columbia, 240 pp., £55, December 2018, 978 0 231 18798 5
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... The​ Pillow Book was written in Japan more than a thousand years ago. Little is known about its author, Sei Shonagon, save for what can be deduced from the text itself. In 993, when she was in her late twenties, she joined the court of Empress Teishi. During the Heian period (794-1186), ‘empress’ was a flexible term: Teishi was merely the first among a number of consorts with that title, each with her own entourage, each competing to find favour with the emperor and bear a future sovereign ...

In the Nightmare Kitchen

Rivka Galchen: Kafka’s Boyhood, 16 March 2017

Kafka: The Early Years 
by Reiner Stach, translated by Shelley Frisch.
Princeton, 564 pp., £27.95, November 2016, 978 0 691 15198 4
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... Born​ in 1928, Maurice Sendak grew up in Brooklyn, the child of Polish immigrants. On the day of Sendak’s bar mitzvah, his father learned that his family in Poland had all been killed. ‘And I was having the big party at the colonial club, the old mansion in Brooklyn,’ Sendak recalled. His mother told him that his father wouldn’t be able to come to the party ...

A Mystery to Itself

Rivka Galchen: What is a brain?, 22 April 2021

The Idea of the Brain 
by Matthew Cobb.
Profile, 470 pp., £12.99, March, 978 1 78125 590 2
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The Future of Brain Repair: A Realist’s Guide to Stem Cell Therapy 
by Jack Price.
MIT, 270 pp., £25, April 2020, 978 0 262 04375 5
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Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain 
by David Eagleman.
Canongate, 316 pp., £20, August 2020, 978 1 83885 096 8
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... Brain​ science has historically been populated by corpse diggers, pig torturers, vivisectionists, logicians, entertainers, quacks, and quiet careful people who spend a great deal of time with fruit flies. Indeed it hasn’t always been taken as read that the brain was responsible for much at all. Thinking and feeling were most often attributed to the heart, though the second-century physician Galen had other ideas ...

Can we eat them?

Rivka Galchen: Knausgaard’s Escape, 24 January 2019

Autumn 
by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild Burkey.
Harvill Secker, 240 pp., £16.99, August 2017, 978 1 910701 63 8
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Winter 
by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild Burkey.
Harvill Secker, 272 pp., £16.99, November 2017, 978 1 910701 65 2
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Spring 
by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild Burkey.
Harvill Secker, 192 pp., £16.99, February 2018, 978 1 910701 67 6
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Summer 
by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild Burkey.
Harvill Secker, 416 pp., £16.99, June 2018, 978 1 910701 69 0
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... A century​ or so ago the astronomer Percival Lowell made a series of maps of Venus that showed curious spokes running across the planet’s surface. The lines were difficult to understand; no one else had observed them. Were they canals, or craters? And how was Lowell seeing them through the thick cloud of Venus’s atmosphere? In 2002, Sky and Telescope magazine ran an article that mentioned the very narrow aperture Lowell had used to view Venus when making his maps: he had narrowed the aperture to reduce glare because Venus was so bright ...

What kind of funny is he?

Rivka Galchen: Under Kafka’s Spell, 4 December 2014

Kafka: The Years of Insight 
by Reiner Stach, translated by Shelley Frisch.
Princeton, 682 pp., £24.95, June 2013, 978 0 691 14751 2
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Kafka: The Decisive Years 
by Reiner Stach, translated by Shelley Frisch.
Princeton, 552 pp., £16.25, June 2013, 978 0 691 14741 3
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... I have come​ to the conclusion that anyone who thinks about Kafka for long enough inevitably develops a few singular, unassimilable and slightly silly convictions. (The graph may be parabolic, with the highest incidence of convictions – and the legal resonance is invited – found among those who have spent the most time thinking and those who have spent next to no time thinking ...

Pickering called

Rivka Galchen: ‘The Glass Universe’, 5 October 2017

The Glass Universe: The Hidden History of the Women Who Took the Measure of the Stars 
by Dava Sobel.
Fourth Estate, 336 pp., £16.99, January 2017, 978 0 00 754818 7
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... It’s nice​ to settle in with an old-fashioned story of inheritances, dramatic shifts in social class and the occasional total eclipse of the Sun. Dava Sobel’s The Glass Universe: The Hidden History of the Women Who Took the Measure of the Stars begins in the late 19th century, following the story of the women (and a few men, too) who worked at the Harvard College Observatory computing the location and brightness of the stars ...

The Heart of a Prickle Bush

Clare Bucknell: What if she’s a witch?, 29 July 2021

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch 
by Rivka Galchen.
Fourth Estate, 275 pp., £14.99, July, 978 0 00 754873 6
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... In​ Rivka Galchen’s new novel, a man who might be a pedlar tells a story of a land where people have everything they could possibly want to eat, ‘brandy, bread, dumplings, cream, honey, almonds, chicken, radishes’, but no salt. ‘When mealtime came,’ the maybe-pedlar explains, ‘the parents would abuse one another, or sometimes hit the children, until someone provided the tears ...

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