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  • Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem review – lost and found on the River Thames

    A fascinating insight into the discarded objects and lost things that wash up on the foreshore

    Mudlarks are river scavengers, but Lara Maiklem is more like a time traveller. Using old maps as guides to London’s former boatyards, quaysides, bridges, causeways, jetties and great houses – all those places where the rubbish was once dumped – she scours the foreshore of the Thames looking for links to another life: Roman brooches, clay pipes, Victorian shoe buckles, Mesolithic flints. A vast and mobile archaeological site, the Thames is uniquely suited to mudlarks because it is tidal, which means that every day, as Maiklem explains, it grants access to its contents, “which shift and change as the water ebbs and flows, to reveal the story of a city, its people and their relationship with a natural force”.

    Every drowned, unwanted or lost object is precious to Maiklem, who reveals, as she takes us downriver from Richmond to the Estuary, a preternatural sympathy for the broken, mud-caked and out of context. When, during one of her daybreak larking stints, she finds a body, “arms outstretched, her long hair spread out like a soft halo”, she feels not horror but fellowship: “I was the first to be with her after her final and most private moment.” A custodian of the past, Maiklem’s relation to the life of the river is personal rather than scientific. She sees the Thames as the home of her forebears and the medium of their messages. Alert to the ethics of ownership, she collects only those treasures that the museums reject, but engraved wedding rings are thrown back into the water: Maiklem does not want their sadness in her life.

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  • State of the Union: A Marriage in Ten Parts by Nick Hornby – review
    This is the witty and moving companion novella to a TV series to be broadcast this autumn

    This slim but pleasing volume from Nick Hornby is the companion novella to his new TV series, consisting of 10 10-minute episodes to be broadcast by the BBC this autumn. As such, it’s almost entirely dialogue between a troubled couple, Louise and Tom, who meet weekly in the pub before their marital therapy session.

    We get no access to their unspoken thoughts, but that’s no great loss, since their witty sparring about their relationship reveals all. Hornby, as ever, is a master of wringing poignancy out of the most banal details. After 15 years of marriage, the couple reflect on what they have in common: “Crosswords … and Game of Thrones.” “Yes. When it’s on.”

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  • A Primer for Forgetting by Lewis Hyde review – in praise of oblivion

    An absorbing exploration of memory, creative freedom and the significance of letting go

    The arts of forgetting, as Lewis Hyde reminds us in this wonderfully inventive book, have at least as venerable a history as the more familiar arts of memory. Mythology is abundant in illustrations of the spiritual and therapeutic values of forgetting, as are the histories of art, religion, philosophy and nationhood.

    Among modern thinkers, this ancient and primordial power was recognised above all by Nietzsche, who in the first of his Untimely Meditations insisted that “any action requires oblivion”, and that all human unhappiness derived from a deficiency of forgetting. He would later enjoin an “active forgetting” as a means of preserving a space in consciousness “for something new”.

    Hyde argues that forgetting is an essential condition for imaginative as well as political freedom

    Related: Scientists reverse memory decline using electrical pulses

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  • Your Duck Is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg – an American master of the short story
    Witty New York narratives and apocalyptic atmospheres make for a collection that rewards rereading

    “I always thought of writing as holy,” Deborah Eisenberg told the Paris Review in 2013. “I still do. It’s not something to be approached casually.” No one could accuse Eisenberg, who has published five story collections in 33 years, and whose previous book came out when George W Bush was president, of being casual. She says her stories take about a year each to write, which doesn’t seem so long when one considers their humour, their precision and their great intricacy. She writes stories that demand, and reward, revisiting.

    Eisenberg’s four previous collections all begin with a young person coming to New York and undergoing a transformation, so it feels significant that Your Duck Is My Duck should buck this trend and open with an older person, a painter, leaving the city to become a more authentic version of herself. This isn’t Eisenberg’s fictional version of Joan Didion’s Goodbye to All That, though. The painter returns to New York after hearing the Zen riddle that gives the book its title, and all the volume’s subsequent stories have at least one foot in the city, or one hand desperately clinging to it.

    Eisenberg captures the sense that we are deep into the end times, a position that feels particularly apposite now

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  • Baby by Annaleese Jochems review – a cabin-fever dream

    Obsessive desire simmers beneath the surface of a dark debut in which two women hide out on a boat in New Zealand

    An interviewer once complained to the novelist Claire Messud that one of her characters – the titular woman in The Woman Upstairs – was too “unbearably grim” to be likable, a problem that seems to afflict the women of literature far more than their male counterparts. “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?” the interviewer prodded. “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” Messud responded. “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?...If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’”

    Cynthia, the simpering, scheming, covetous emotional sinkhole of New Zealander Annaleese Jochems’s assured debut novel, Baby, is alive and squirming; a memorable addition to the growing coterie of unapologetic antiheroines (dis)gracing the pages of contemporary fiction.

    Baby is a novel of close-quarters living: of masticating mouths and human stink, of new fat expanding under the skin

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  • Red Dust Road review – Jackie Kay adaptation loses its way

    Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
    Sasha Frost sparkles as a curious and vulnerable Kay searching for her birth parents, but this unfocused production fails to capture the intimacy of the soul-searching memoir

    Part of the appeal of Jackie Kay’s memoir is the way it loops through time. It’s called Red Dust Road, but the poet’s path to discovering her birth parents is anything but straight. In chapters that jump backwards and forwards, from her first adult encounter with her birth mother to her childhood experience of racist taunting, the book takes a circuitous route. It has the impressionistic quality of a collage, as if to reflect the nebulous nature of identity.

    The structure is such an integral feature of the book that playwright Tanika Gupta has good reason to hold on to it in this adaptation for the National Theatre of Scotland and Home, Manchester. Thus, Sasha Frost, playing Kay with a sense of curiosity, humour and vulnerability, goes through a nonlinear sequence of scenes that feels dreamy and elliptical. One minute, she’s standing alone beneath a spotlight in Lizzie Powell’s brooding lighting design, the next she’ll be surrounded by black feminist activists, meeting long-lost family in Nairn, discovering her birth father in Nigeria or getting involved with her adoptive parents’ communist campaigning.

    Morning shows

    At Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 18 August. Then touring until 21 September.

    Read all our Edinburgh festival reviews

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  • Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips review – missing girls at the edge of the world
    In this impressive but problematic debut, Russia’s far east provides an exotic backdrop for a novel of American concerns and ideas

    Julia Phillips’s debut seems at first to be the story of missing girls, the one we all know. Sweet little white girls, left to wander the city in summer while their mother works, are lured into a car and stolen away by a strange man. Posters go up all over town. Good mothers keep their daughters indoors. Husbands and boyfriends track their partners’ movements, worry. Members of the public join the search, and as the narrative swirls through the city, skipping from one household to another and following different women with each new chapter, the reader is also alert for clues, because how else are you supposed to read the story of missing girls?

    I was so absorbed I forgot to take notes for most of the first half, not so much because of the tension of the search as because each new domestic world was deftly conjured and fresh. We are in Petropavlovsk, on Russia’s far eastern Kamchatka peninsula, where it’s a very long way to any other city; details of daily life will be exotic to most anglophone readers, and the inhabitants, both indigenous and Russian, are shaped by their relationships to Soviet Russia.

    Landscapes are beautifully rendered; the city, shore, forests and villages are distinctive and memorable

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  • The Unsettling of Europe by Peter Gatrell review – the great migration, 1945 to the present

    A detailed, sensitive guide to the violent uprootings and unremarkable journeys that shaped a continent

    What shines out brightest from Peter Gatrell’s panoramic history of migration in Europe since 1945 is that this is a story of comings and goings, not just arrival. Ideas about home and belonging are constantly shaped by the forces of state power, capital and everyday human interaction. You can feel it most strongly in the accounts of individual experience that Gatrell has woven into his narrative. There are the “starved, frightened, suspicious, stupefied” ethnic Germans expelled from eastern Europe at the end of the war, who arrive in a country most have never set foot in before; or the returning British colonial settlers who decide in the 1960s that they prefer Portugal’s Algarve to Blighty, because the cheap booze, servants and warm weather remind them of the Raj. Western European officials are surprised when the “guest workers” from Turkey, north Africa and elsewhere they invited in to help rebuild their economies in the 1950s and 60s don’t want to return when recession sets in – but don’t entirely want to give up their connections to the old countries either.

    It is also a story of sharp contrasts, of both violent uprootings and unremarkable journeys that continue today. Affluent “Eurostars” – bankers and IT specialists who live in one EU country and work in another – jostle with “illegal” immigrants such as Shahram Khosravi, an anthropologist from Iran who turned the lens on his own clandestine journey to Sweden, or Ukrainian migrant workers who complain that the fall of communism has merely replaced the iron curtain with the “velvet drape” of border control. In teasing out these differences, Gatrell – a professor of history at the University of Manchester who has written widely on migration and refugee rights – wants to add what he sees as the context missing from today’s fractious political debates on immigration, in particular the response to Europe’s “migrant crisis” of 2015-16.

    As Europe’s borders came down internally, the EU started to harden its external frontiers

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  • The Argument review – no winners emerge from William Boyd's couple at war

    Theatre Royal, Bath
    A whole set of relationships unravel in a shrewdly observant play showing the ripple effect of marital hostilities

    This is only the second play by the admired novelist William Boyd and it suggests he still has much to learn about the robust demands of theatre. His play is shrewdly observant and intermittently funny but it lacks any striking image and, at 75 minutes, seems far more suited to an intimate space like Hampstead’s Downstairs theatre, where it started, than to a main-house stage.

    At Theatre Royal, Bath, until 24 August.

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  • JT LeRoy review – real-life literary hoax drama loses the plot

    Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern star in an account of the notorious case of a supposedly reclusive author which pulls its punches

    This movie returns us to the strangely unrewarding story of the “JT LeRoy” literary hoax, recently discussed in Jeff Feuerzeig’s 2016 documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story.

    “JT LeRoy” was the pen name, or avatar, or bogus persona created by American author Laura Albert who wrote avowedly autobiographical fiction about a young boy’s experiences of homelessness and sexual abuse – but Albert compulsively posed as the supposedly reclusive and charismatic author on the phone to a growing number of journalists and celebrity fans.

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