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In November 1955, Nasser Ali Khan, one of Iran's most celebrated tar players, is in search of a new instrument. His beloved tar has been broken. But no matter what tar he tries, none of them sound right. Brokenhearted, Nasser Ali Khan decides that life is no longer worth living. He takes to his bed, renouncing the world and all of its pleasures. This is the story of the eight days he spends preparing to surrender his soul.
As the days pass and Nasser Ali Khan grows weaker, those who love him - his wife, his children, his siblings - gather round, incredulous, to try to comfort him. Every visitor stirs up a memory, and in the course of this week Nasser Ali Khan revisits his entire life, a life defined by three relationships in particular. He remembers his late mother, who sacrificed everything for his revolutionary brother, but who also, in the last week of her life, found solace only in smoking and listening to him play his tar; his angry wife, who can't forgive him his melancholy and irresponsibility; and Irane, his first love, whose father forbade her to marry a poor musician and inflicted the wound that fuelled his music. The pieces of Nasser Ali Khan's story slowly fall into place, and as they do, we begin to understand him. By the time the eighth day dawns, having witnessed Nasser Ali Khan communing with Sufi mystics, Sophia Loren, the spirit of his late mother, his own demons and, bravely, with Azrael, the angel of death - we feel privileged to have known him.
Brilliantly weaving together the past, present and future to explore the successes and joys, failures and disappointments of Nasser Ali Khan's life and through his story, the meaning of any of our lives - Marjane Satrapi has also once again presented us with a complex and deeply human portrait of the men and women of her country, and of pre-revolution Iran itself. She delivers this tremendous story about life and death, and the fear and courage both require, with her trademark humour and insight. Chicken With Plums is Marjane Satrapi's finest achievement to date.
Published: 12 Oct 2006
In her first collection since the Costa-winning Tilt, Jean Sprackland looks back at endings and beginnings: the end of a life, or of a marriage; old homes lived in and left, new homes discovered. There are poems that speak of the paralysis and bewilderment of knowing something is over, and of the strangely significant, almost votive nature of the things that are left behind: the biscuit tin ‘of old keys, decommissioned and sleeping’, the empty room fading ‘to a tinnitus of dust and dead wasps’.
This is a book of transitions – domestic and emotional – and it explores how the experience of change is painful, disorientating, even catastrophic, but also profoundly necessary and revelatory. Change brings with it the hope that love can be recovered out of the ruins; change, in fact, is a creative, healing force that shows us we have been living among ruins – that even in the face of grief and loss there are ‘spectral futures / we must stride the ditch to reach’.
Full of exact, vivid, clear-eyed observation of a world of failure and flux, Sleeping Keys also illuminates a future world beyond. For every object left emptied of significance, bereft, Jean Sprackland shows us another that is charged and radiant with possibility – the possibility of miracles.
Rich Cohen's maternal grandfather was called Ben Eisenstadt. Ben was one of those Jews that, with an anger bred of exclusion, went on to reshape the world. He did so by inventing Sweet 'n Low, a granulated sweetener which, in its tiny pink packet, is still found on every table in every diner in America. This simple invention spawned one of the great American fortunes. This is the story of that fortune, how it was made and how it remade and tore apart everyone who touched it.
In Sweet and Low, Rich Cohen - the youngest son of Ben's favourite daughter - takes a journey into his own and his family's past. It is a story of family feuds (his mother was eventually disinherited by her mother), eccentricity verging on madness, gangsters, lawyers, corruption, accountants, ex-wives - a quest for a secret history, a black comedy of the American dream.
The Verse Revolutionaries tells the story of the Imagists, a turbulent and colourful group of poets, who came together in London in the years before the First World War. As T. S. Eliot was to say, appropriately re-invoking the Imagist habit of turning anything they admired into French, the imagist movement was modern poetry's point de repère, the landmark venture that inaugurated Anglo-American literary modernism. A disparate, stormy group, who had dispersed before the twenties began, these 'verse revolutionaries' received both abuse and acclaim, but their poetry, fragmented, pared-down, elliptical yet direct, exerted a powerful influence on modernist writers, and contributed vitally to the transformation of American and British cultural life in those crucial years.
Among those involved were the Americans Ezra Pound, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Amy Lowell and John Gould Fletcher, and the British T.E. Hulme, F.S. Flint, Richard Aldington and D.H. Lawrence. On the edges of the story are figures such as W.B. Yeats, Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis and T. S. Eliot. They came from very different class backgrounds, a heterogeneous mélange then only possible in a great metropolis like London.
The Verse Revolutionaries traces the passionate interactions, love affairs and bitter quarrels of these aspiring poets from 1905 to 1917. Helen Carr unpicks the story of how they came together, what they gained from each other in the heady excitement of those early days, and what were the fissures that eventually broke up the movement and their friendships in the dark days of the Great War. Her compelling account challenges the conventional view of Imagism, and offers an acute analysis of the poetry, of the psychology of the individuals involved, and of the evolution and emergence of a transformative cultural movement.
Though firmly rooted in the domestic, natural world, Jean Sprackland's poems are thrilling excursions into the lives that we live alongside our everyday ones: the lives we are aware of in dreams, in grief, in love. She shows us the vertigo and vulnerability of human experience with great clarity and precision, tenderness and care.
These are vivid poems full of light and weather and water: a flooded forest, acid rain, an inland tidal wave, an ocean of broken glass; jellyfish washed up on the beach that 'lay like saints/ unharvested, luminous'.
There is an arresting imagination at work here, one as relaxed and at home in an alternative world of babies in filing cabinets, light collectors or the visiting dead, as it is in the world we think we know: supermarkets, empty flats, the A580 from Liverpool to Manchester.
Lucid, sensuous and informed by an unusually tactile curiosity, the poems in Hard Water mark the assured arrival of an important poet.
Jean Sprackland's third collection describes a world in free-fall. Chaos and calamity are at our shoulder, in the shape of fire and flood, ice-storm and hurricane; trains stand still, zoos are abandoned, migrating birds lose their way - all surfaces are unreliable, all territories unmapped.
These are poems that explore the ambivalence and dark unease of slippage and collapse, but they also carry a powerful sense of the miraculous made manifest amongst the ordinary: the mating of natterjack toads, ice on the beach ('dream stuff, with its own internal acoustic') or 'the fund of life' in a used contraceptive. Bracken may run wild across the planet 'waiting for the moment/to pounce on the accident/of the discarded match' but there are also the significant wonders of children and the natural beauty of the world they've inherited. Tilt is a collection of raw, distressed and beautiful poems, a hymn to the remarkable survival of things in the face of threat - for every degradation an epiphany, for every drowning a birth.
Winner of the 2013 Forward Poetry Prize for Best Collection
Winner of the 2013 Costa Poetry Award
Shortlisted for the 2013 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize
Shortlisted for the 2015 Portico Prize
Michael Symmons Roberts’ sixth – and most ambitious collection to date – takes its name from the ancient trade in powders, chemicals, salts and dyes, paints and cures. These poems offer a similarly potent and sensory multiplicity, unified through the formal constraint of 150 poems of 15 lines.
Like the medieval psalters echoed in its title, this collection contains both the sacred and profane. Here are hymns of praise and lamentation, songs of wonder and despair, journeying effortlessly through physical and metaphysical landscapes, from financial markets and urban sprawl to deserts and dark nights of the soul.
From an encomium to a karaoke booth to a conjuration of an inverse Antarctica, this collection is a compelling, powerful search for meaning, truth and falsehood. But, as ever in Roberts’ work – notably the Whitbread Award-winning Corpus – this search is rooted in the tangible world, leavened by wit, contradiction, tenderness and sensuality.
This is Roberts’ most expansive writing yet: mystical, philosophical, earthy and elegiac. Drysalter sings of the world’s unceasing ability to surprise, and the shock and dislocation of catching your own life unawares.
As a student working in the dusty archives of the Sewanee Review, John Jeremiah Sullivan came across an article entitled ‘Lost Utopia of the American Frontier’ and was immediately hooked on the dramatic story of a lost book, an alternative history of the South, a white Indian. It was a story he’d chase for the next two decades.
In 1735, a charismatic German lawyer and accused atheist named Christian Gottlieb Priber fled Germany under threat of arrest, bound for colonial South Carolina. In the Cherokee village of Grand Tellico, he created a Utopian society that he named Paradise.
For six years, Paradise was governed by a set of revolutionary ideas that included racial equality, sexual freedom, and a lack of private property, ideas which he chronicled in a mysterious manuscript he called Paradise.
Priber’s ideas were so subversive that he was hunted for half a decade and eventually captured by the British – making headlines across the world – and imprisoned until his death. The only copy of Paradise was apparently destroyed.
Now, in a rare combination of ground-breaking research and stunning narrative skill, award-winning writer John Jeremiah Sullivan brings that lost history vividly to life.
Published: 5 Aug 2004
Rafah, a town at the southernmost tip of the Gaza Strip, is a squalid place. Raw concrete buildings front rubbish-strewn alleys. The narrow streets are crowded with young children and unemployed men. Situated on the border with Egypt, swaths of Rafah have been reduced to rubble. Rafah is today and has always been a notorious flashpoint in this most bitter of conflicts.
Buried deep in the archives is one bloody incident, in 1956, that left 111 Palestinian refugees dead, shot by Israeli soldiers. Seemingly a footnote to a long history of killing, that day in Rafah - coldblooded massacre or dreadful mistake - reveals the competing truths that have come to define an intractable war. In a quest to get to the heart of what happened, Joe Sacco arrives in Gaza and, immersing himself in daily life, uncovers Rafah, past and present. Spanning fifty years, moving fluidly between one war and the next, alive with the voices of fugitives and schoolchildren, widows and sheikhs, Footnotes in Gaza captures the essence of a tragedy.
As in Palestine and Safe Area Goražde, Joe Sacco's unique visual journalism has rendered a contested landscape in brilliant, meticulous detail. Footnotes in Gaza, his most ambitious work to date, transforms a critical conflict of our age into intimate and immediate experience.
Published: 3 Dec 2009
In late l991 and early 1992, at the time of the first Intifada, Joe Sacco spent two months with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, travelling and taking notes. Upon returning to the United States he started writing and drawing Palestine, which combines the techniques of eyewitness reportage with the medium of comic-book storytelling to explore this complex, emotionally weighty situation. He captures the heart of the Palestinian experience in image after unforgettable image, with great insight and remarkable humour.
The nine-issue comics series won a l996 American Book Award. It is now published for the first time in one volume, befitting its status as one of the great classics of graphic non-fiction.
Published: 2 Jan 2003
Lucian Freud is not only the most celebrated artist working in England, but one of the most private. He has frequently stated his reluctance to be photographed and he has almost never agreed to be interviewed. Following the publication of the last ten years of his work by Jonathan Cape in the autumn of 2005, the painter has agreed to talk to Sebastian Smee, a writer on art whom he greatly respects, in a series of conversations rather than formal interviews. He wants to talk about painting itself, the demands of his own work and the painters he admires.
Two photographers have had access to Freud's studio. The late Bruce Bernard was a friend for many years and the subject of two of Freud's paintings. Bernard was an authority on photography, a great picture editor, and also a very fine photographer. He made a number of studies of Freud at work. Over the last five years in particular, Freud's assistant, the painter David Dawson, has been photographing the artist constantly. The results reveal various stages of works in progress, including paintings of Dawson himself, and the intensity of the activity in this very secret domain. The only precedent to such a document might be David Douglas Duncan's photographs of Picasso at work, but nothing as extensive has been published on such a major painter before.
Published: 12 Oct 2006
Liu Xiaobo died in 2017, the first Nobel Laureate to do so in detention since 1935. Liu was a pre-eminent Chinese literary critic, professor and humanitarian activist. After his hunger strike in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 he became a thorn in the side of the Chinese government, helping to write the Charter 08 manifesto calling for free speech, democratic elections and basic human rights. He was arrested and convicted on charges of 'incitement to subversion', and sentenced to eleven years in prison. The following year, 2010, during this fourth prison term, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 'his prolonged non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China'. Neither he nor his wife was allowed to travel to Oslo, and the Chinese government blocked all news stories of the prize and intimidated Liu's friends and family.
June Fourth Elegies is a collection of the poems Liu Xiaobo wrote each year on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. An extraordinarily moving testimony and an historical document of singular importance, it is dedicated to 'the Tiananmen Mothers and for those who can remember'. In this bilingual volume, Liu's poetry is for the first time published freely in both English translation and in the Chinese original.
Samson Kambalu's father wore three-piece, London-made suits from the Sixties. He'd planned to be a doctor but settled for hospital administration and a peripatetic lifestyle with his ever expanding family in tow. He is 'the Jive Talker' of this extraordinary memoir - a man of thwarted ambition, boundless optimism and manic philosophising, he died of AIDS in 1995, bequeathing his son 'the Diptych' - an eclectic library of science, philosophy and English language classics a passion for words and a boundless imagination.
In this completely original, often subversive, book, Samson Kambalu writes of his childhood in Malawi, a country few are able to pinpoint on a map. As the family moves from feast to real poverty and deprivation, and back to plenty again, depending on their father's professional fortunes, we are introduced to life in a country in which no dissent is tolerated, where political opponents are 'disappeared' and a portrait of Life President Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda is always guaranteed to be watching. But this is also a country in which a little boy obsessed with books, girls, Nietzsche, fashion, football and Michael Jackson wins a free education at the Kamuzu Academy ('The Eton of Africa') and grows up to be one of England's most promising young conceptual artists. With dazzling prose, wicked humour and not a little bit of artistic licence, The Jive Talker opens the door to an Africa that is rarely written about.
The mysterious complicity that exists between the living and the dead is the subject of this book, in which Peter Redgrove winds inner and outer worlds closer and closer together.
In a number of moving autobiographical poems, he both recalls and re-imagines his late parents. He speaks of and to those who know, in the words of Robert Duncan, 'the god-step at the margins of thought'. These new poems explore the vast potential of our life now and the possible varieties of an afterlife.
Peter Redgrove is working the rich seam of his maturity. The freshness and vigor of his inspiration continues unabated. Whether in poems about violins, waxworks, frozen champagne or the Waterworks at Staines, he is always extending his immensely versatile repertoire. With its ardent precision, confirming sensuality and ironic cordiality his voice is indeed that of a Visionary Emeritus.
Published: 21 Apr 1994
The poems in Michael Symmons Roberts's fifth collection move in a world riven by violence and betrayal, between nations and individuals. As ever, this is a metaphysical poetry rooted in physical detail - but the bodies here are displaced, disguised, in need of rescue. A man in a fox suit prowls the woods afraid of meeting true foxes, while a vixen dressed as a man moves among the powerful at society soirées. God no longer 'walks in his garden in the cool of the day', but drives through a damaged city in the small hours. At the same time a couple celebrate armistice with an act of love in an anonymous hotel room.
As the judges of the Whitbread Prize noted, Roberts' poetry 'inspires profound meditation on the nature of the soul, the body, the stars and the heart - and sparks revelation.' Roberts is a poet of unusual range and dexterity, fascinated by faith and science, by the physical and the transcendental, and with this new book he confirms his position as a truly original, and thrillingly gifted, lyric poet.
Welcome to the Café des Artistes. Your host, the owner, bartender, master of ceremonies and only other guest: John Hartley Williams. Here you will be entertained and diverted - by bizarre stories of mapless roads and unreal cities, the Ostrich Palisades and the erotic stones of Bonehenge; by a spooked version of Rimbaud's 'La Bateau Ivre'; by encounters with Malcolm Lowry, the floating dead, the 'old men behind the waterfall' and the knitted poet; by poems about donkey jackets and dancing with donkeys, and a one-sided conversation with a decidedly un-Romantic polar bear two doors down from Dove Cottage.
Long celebrated for his ranging, restless imagination, his baroque, elliptical narratives, his manic humour and maverick stance, Williams returns with another invitation to join him for a jug or two of wine in his out-of-kilter universe: a world that is both strange, and strangely familiar. Welcome to the Café des Artistes!
Why do dogs speak so profoundly to our inner lives? When Mark Doty decides to adopt a dog as a companion for his dying partner, he finds himself bringing home Beau, a large golden retriever, malnourished and in need of loving care, to join Arden, the black retriever. As Beau bounds back to life, the two dogs become Mark Doty's companions, his solace, and eventually the very life force that keeps him from abandoning all hope during the darkest days - their tenacity, loyalty and love inspiring him when all else fails.
Dog Years is a remarkable work: a moving and intimate memoir interwoven with profound reflections on our feelings for animals and the lessons they teach us about life, love, and loss. Mark Doty writes about the heart-wrenching vulnerability of dogs, the positive energy and joy they bring, and the gift they bear us of unconditional love. A book unlike any other, Mark Doty's surprising meditation is radiantly unsentimental yet deeply affecting. Beautifully written, Dog Years is a classic in the making.
Published: 14 Oct 1999