PLUS: Funny Books by Women
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The Times & Sunday Times
Friday June 12 2020
Life Lessons from Literature
Francophile Viv Groskop takes us on an entertaining jaunt through the “lessons in happiness” she has learnt from French literature in her new book, Au Revoir, Tristesse. Which got us thinking — what have some of our favourite books taught us?

Lucy Knight
A couple have spent the best part of their lives in love and living together on a beautiful island in Tove Jansson’s short story Taking Leave. In many works of fiction, this would mark a blissfully happy ending, but Jansson (best known as the creator of the Moomins) instead has her protagonists become old, frustrated and scared — and subsequently furious at themselves for becoming discontent with the seemingly idyllic life they have built together. It taught me what so many love stories do not: what comes after the fairy-tale ending, and that while change can be unplanned and frustrating, it’s part of life, and necessarily so.

David Mills
“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means,” Oscar Wilde wrote. I thought it was true of life too, but, perhaps inevitably, I realised it's not — thanks in large part to reading Tom Jones by Henry Fielding when I was 17. Tom suffers the most appalling injustices at the hands of Master Blifil and his mother, eventually having to leave behind his happy life with Squire Allworthy. By the closing pages, Tom comes out on top, but there is something about the dark energy of Fielding's writing that leaves you in no doubt that really it's the Blifils of this world who triumph, while Tom would have ended up on the scaffold. So, perversely perhaps, the lesson I drew from Tom Jones is in opposition to what happens in the novel, but I think Fielding, a distinguished London magistrate, would not disagree with me.

James Marriott
I’m always embarrassed to realise how much my view of life is still the product of the Iris Murdoch novels I devoured as a teenager, but I suppose there’s no getting away from it now. I was powerfully impressed by Murdoch’s ideas about the sheer randomness of life (The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, Nuns and Soldiers etc) and the transformative, unchallengeable interventions love and art can make in our lives (The Black Prince and, let’s face it, every single one of her other novels). I always assume I’ve moved on from those possibly slightly adolescent beliefs, but whenever I examine myself I find they’re still there. I suppose this makes me a relatively pretentious person. Oh well. At least 17-year-old James would approve.

Andrew Holgate
Practically every classic novel you read as an adolescent drums into you an ethical code about life and love. It is almost impossible to pick one from another in this avalanche of virtue, but if I had to choose one book that taught me a lesson, it would be Tolstoy’s story The Death of Ivan Ilyich, in which a high-court judge who appears to have followed every propriety in life dies screaming and alone, his voice echoing through his rich, cavernous house, his wife and daughter complaining about the awkwardness of his death. Tolstoy was no friend of women, and his portrait of Ilyich’s wife and daughter feels as though it has come from some dark and bitter well of misogyny, but his wider point about the shallowness and self-serving nature of society, and baubles, and status, and riches, still echoes.

Read The Times’s review of Viv Groskop’s Au Revoir, Tristesse here:
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Funny Books by Women
The Comedy Women In Print shortlist was announced on Monday, featuring Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie and Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein. In celebration of funny books by women, we’ve put together a list of some of our favourites:

The Queen and I by Sue Townsend
Townsend is most famous for the immortal Adrian Mole, but don’t miss this comic novel, which imagines a hard-left government taking power and banishing the royal family to live on a council estate.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
A glorious send-up of the dour, intense “loam and lovechild” novels popular in the 1920s. After the death of her parents, Flora Poste goes to live with relatives in the Sussex village of Howling.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Bitingly, brutally funny, Nancy Mitford’s novel about the dreams of love and the disappointments in an eccentric upper-class family is one of the funniest books of the 20th century.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (film adaptation pictured)
Comedy rarely lasts, but Austen’s satire of the 18th-century craze for gothic novels (the first novel she wrote) has lost little of its shine.

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
A disaffected young Irish woman lives in Hong Kong and dates a banker. Some of the best one-liners in recent contemporary fiction.

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe
Admittedly, Stibbe had a stroke of luck when she moved into the eccentric household of the LRB editor Mary-Kay Wilmers to work as a nanny, where Alan Bennett was a regular dinner guest. The resulting memoir, told through the letters she sent home to her sister, is a hilarious account of her time there.
A Life Without Lying
The film The Invention of Lying (pictured) imagined a world where everyone told the truth — apart from Ricky Gervais's character. Hilarious! Now, most of us are taught from an early age that lying is wrong, but relentless honesty — which, let's face it, can be rude or hurtful — is not usually encouraged either. Unless you grew up in the household of Michael Leviton, that is, where authenticity was valued above all else. Leviton tells the story of growing up in a “little honesty cult” in his memoir, To Be Honest, which the Sunday Times reviewer Victoria Segal says “shares space with David Sedaris” in its hilarious awareness. Get a preview of her full review by following the link below:
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The Best Spy Thrillers
The Times’s thriller critic Jeremy Duns has been busy on his cold and windswept Nordic island. This week he has produced a list of what he thinks are the ten best spy thrillers. Lots of recommendations for thrilling and engrossing books and of course a good list to disagree with. His selections include tales of the Cold War, villainous henchmen and foreign travel. Featuring books by Ian Fleming, John le Carré, Eric Ambler and Jason Matthews (whose Red Sparrow was adapted into a film starring Jennifer Lawrence, above), and other less well-known names.
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Short Story Award Shortlist
Last Sunday we announced the shortlist for this year’s £30,000 Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award, the world’s richest prize for a single short story. And, for a limited time only, you can read the six shortlisted stories online for free on the prize website. The first three, by Niamh Campbell, Daniel O’Malley and Alexia Tolas are available to read now — just click below. The rest will follow next week.
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The Best New Crime Fiction
The Times’s crime critic Mark Sanderson has picked the best new crime fiction. His selection roves from the mean streets of Helsinki to the badlands of Cumbria (who knew there was such a thing!).
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A Forgotten Classic
Isabel Colegate, writes Johanna Thomas-Corr in this weekend’s Sunday Times, “nearly became a lost name of 20th-century fiction”. Yet the novelist (pictured), who is most famous for The Shooting Party, was a key influence on Gosford Park and Downton Abbey. Bloomsbury has resurrected her early trilogy Orlando King, a retelling of Sophocles’s Theban plays. Thomas-Corr calls it “shrewdly observed” and “astonishingly kinetic”. Read her full review by following the link below:
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Tweet of the Week
The Bookcase Credibility account has been entertaining us throughout lockdown, and this week it strikes again, with a sound analysis of Bernardine Evaristo's shelves
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The Sunday Times Bestsellers
The Black Lives Matter movement is certainly reflected in this week’s bestsellers lists. Two titles by black women top the paperbacks charts: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race , the 2017 book from Reni Eddo-Lodge (pictured), is No 1 in nonfiction, while the Booker-winning Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo is top of the fiction list. And in hardbacks How to Argue with a Racist by Adam Rutherford and Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad have made the Top Ten.

Get an early look at the full bestsellers lists by following the link below:
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Poem of the Week: Frost at Midnight by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
This is one of those Coleridge poems that might almost have been written by Wordsworth if you squint at it, says James Marriott. That’s no bad thing. Coleridge is sitting by the cradle of his baby son on a frosty winter's night. The mood of almost eerie silence is beautifully evoked:

'Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams!

I think “inaudible as dreams” is lovely. Watching the fire, Coleridge’s mind drifts back to his unhappy schooldays, when he would sit in class daydreaming of the world outside and failing to concentrate on his work: “Awed by the stern preceptor's face, mine eye/ Fixed with mock study on my swimming book.”

Coleridge resolves that his son will have no such grim childhood in an urban school. This idea is expressed in some of those poems' most beautiful lines. They give me shivers down my back even when I catch them out of the corner of my eye while copying and pasting them into an email:

“For I was reared
In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language…”

This is magnificent, as an expression of fatherly love and tenderness, as a philosophy of life and what we might hope from it, and as an appreciation of Nature. God, Coleridge was good when he wanted to be.
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