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  • Women Talking by Miriam Toews review – rape in a Mennonite colony

    The experiences of 100 women and children in Bolivia inspired the ex-Mennonite author to write a fable for our times

    “We are women without a voice,” says Ona Friesen near the start of Women Talking. “We are women out of time and place.” Between 2005 and 2009, more than 100 girls and women were drugged and raped at night in a remote religious Mennonite colony in Bolivia. For years the women were accused of lying, or of being attacked by God or Satan. Eventually a man was caught in the act and eight men were convicted. Now the Canadian novelist Miriam Toews, whose own childhood in a Mennonite community featured in her prize-winning novel All My Puny Sorrows, has written a novel based on these events, which is also a fable for our times.

    When Toews’s story begins, the men are about to be released on bail and the community elders have ordered the women to forgive them. But these men have raped not just the women but their daughters. Ona’s sister, Salome, whose three-year-old daughter has been raped, has already attacked a man with a scythe and is frightened she’ll become a murderer. Ona thinks that there must be a category of forgiveness that’s up to God alone, because there are acts “so impossible for a parent to forgive”.

    She asks if it’s enough to set in motion changes she will not be around to see. This is asked by feminists everywhere

    Related: Miriam Toews: ‘I needed to write about these women. I could have been one of them’

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  • My Thoughts Exactly by Lily Allen review – sex, self-loathing and growing up in the limelight

    No detail is deemed too personal in the singer’s affecting account of her rise to fame and being constantly under scrutiny

    Anyone familiar with Lily Allen’s songs will know all about her capacity for bluntness. In 2009’s “Not Fair” she grumbled about rubbish sex and being left lying in the wet patch, while in “As Long As I Got You”, an ode to new love, she sang: “Staying in with you is better than sticking things up my nose.” So it’s not surprising to find that her first memoir has a tendency towards oversharing. In recalling her childhood, her rise to fame and her travails as a pop star, daughter, wife and mother, no detail is deemed too personal.

    In the introduction, Allen, 33, says she’s too young to write her entire life story; instead she’s interested in “the things in my life that changed events, upended things, upset the cart”. Her father, the actor Keith Allen, is the first to turn things upside down, leaving his wife and children when his daughter was four. On the rare weekends that he saw his children, he would plonk them in a room at the Groucho Club while he got smashed in the bar downstairs. “I’ve learned over the years that everything is about him, so fine, that’s the deal,” Allen says. “I’ve stopped trying to fight or bustle about trying to find a spare slot in his universe.”

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  • The Coddling of the American Mind review – how elite US liberals have turned rightwards
    Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s book sets out to rescue students from ‘microaggressions’ and identity politics. But perhaps they merely resist change that might undermine them

    In the decade since the 2008 global financial crisis, while all other forms of consumer debt have shrunk, student loan debt has tripled. Currently around 44.2 million Americans owe a total of more than $1.5tn, and 30% of these are struggling to make monthly payments. Meanwhile, college teachers are increasingly likely to live from contract to low-paid contract. None of this comes up in The Coddling of the American Mind, a book about why young people feel anxious and college is making it worse.

    Instead, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt focus on students demanding “protection” from arguments they find challenging and the professors and administrators who cave in to them. The first section elaborates what the authors call the “Great Untruths” that supposedly dominate college campuses: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker; Always Trust Your Feelings; Life Is a Battle Between Good People and Evil People. Their targets are “safetyism”, the language of microaggressions, identity politics and intersectionality. Generation “iGen”, the one that comes after millennials, is, according to the authors, suffering a mental health crisis because of smartphone addiction and the paranoid parenting style of the upper middle class.

    The book is less interesting for its arguments, which are familiar, than as an epitome of a contemporary liberal style

    Related: Political correctness: how the right invented a phantom enemy | Moira Weigel

    I found myself marvelling at how reactionary this book's brand of elite liberalism has become

    Related: Political correctness: how the right invented a phantom enemy | Moira Weigel

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  • Sex, drugs and social media – Hooked review

    Science Gallery, London
    Sugar, shopping, cash, drugs, booze and smartphones … this great show details how artists have responded – and succumbed – to addictive vices down the ages

    Can you become addicted to getting a bunch of psychedelic cats aligned in a row? I’ve got to admit it gave me a warm glow when I “won” while playing an interactive artwork by Katriona Beales that mimics online gambling. The pleasure persisted even when her “game” informed me it had been compiling data based on my eye movements.

    Yet, as sickly diverting as it is, I can’t imagine waiting on a street corner, $26 in my hand, to buy the next hit of online cat portraits from my man. Hooked: When Want Becomes Need, the thought-provoking show that opens London’s new Science Gallery, mixes artworks about drug and alcohol addiction with pieces that explore the online world. It suggests that smartphones and social media may be as addictive – and harmful – as heroin or vodka. Yet the exhibition also illuminates a striking difference. While artists once turned to traditional narcotics for romantic inspiration, the compulsion to check that phone one more time is hardly going to give anyone visions of caverns measureless to man, as Coleridge put it.

    Related: 'It consumed my life': inside a gaming addiction treatment centre

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  • The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume II: 1956-1963 – review

    Infidelity, agony rage ... Plath’s correspondence captures life with Ted Hughes and her terror of being alive

    Volume one of the collected letters of Sylvia Plath – one of the most original poets of the 20th century, and a prolific correspondent – ended with her marriage, while studying at Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship from America, to fellow poet Ted Hughes in June 1956. The second volume begins with her 24th birthday in October. The new Mr and Mrs Hughes are penniless and without a home of their own, but she has absolute faith in him as a writer and human being. He is “a genius”, the best poet “since Yeats & Dylan Thomas”. Inconveniently, he is also unpublished, and has no strategy for getting into print – but Plath is equal to the challenge. She is an old hand at approaching poetry magazines in Britain and her native US and promptly sets herself up as his agent.

    By the start of 1957 she has typed up and submitted Hughes’s first book of poetry to a major poetry contest, which he wins. By 1961 her first collection is forthcoming from Heinemann, his second is out with Faber, and they have a daughter, Frieda, with another baby on the way. They have bought an ancient thatched house in Devon – Hughes has always wanted a home in the countryside – and are fixing it up, intending to live off their own land in a bucolic writers’ Eden. “Ted & I had nothing when we got married, & no prospects,” Plath exults to her mother in America before the birth of her son Nicholas in January 1962, but “in 5 years all our most far-fetched dreams have come true”.

    The new Mr and Mrs Hughes are penniless and without a home of their own, but she has absolute faith in him as a writer

    Through her body she makes herself feel real: through food and the touch of the sun on her skin; sex and childbirth

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  • The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintrye review – the astonishing story of a cold war superspy
    The double life of a KGB insider recruited by MI6 features microfilm, Soviet secrets and a daring escape

    Oleg Gordievsky was the most significant British agent of the cold war. For 11 years, he spied for MI6. That he managed to deceive his KGB colleagues during this time was remarkable. Even more astounding was that in summer 1985 – after Gordievsky was hastily recalled from London to Moscow by his suspicious bosses – British intelligence officers helped him to escape. It was the only time that the spooks managed to exfiltrate a penetration agent from the USSR, outwitting their Russian adversaries. It went some way towards exorcising the Cambridge spies, who a generation earlier had travelled in the opposite direction.

    Gordievsky has told the story of his own improbable survival in a gripping 1995 memoir, Next Stop Execution. It charts his recruitment by the KGB, where his older brother Vasili served as a deep-cover “illegal”, and Gordievsky’s growing disillusionment with the grey totalitarian world of 1960s Moscow. There were stages in his journey. At an early age he learned German. He began reading western newspapers. Then as a KGB trainee he spent six months in East Berlin. He arrived just as the Berlin Wall went up, and woke one morning to the sound of tanks rumbling past the Soviet embassy.

    In Moscow Gordievsky survived a KGB interrogation, despite being drugged. He alerted MI6 and gave his minders the slip

    Related: Salisbury reaction: 'It would be comical but for the fact someone died'

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  • Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting by Shivanee Ramlochan review – fierce fantasy

    Women, queer and non-binary voices are loud in the face of repression in a poetry collection that bridges fantasy and reality in modern Caribbean society

    Shivanee Ramlochan may not yet be widely known on this side of the Atlantic, but she will be soon: An active literary presence in Trinidad with her exciting, original verse, Ramlochan’s work examines, among other things, Caribbean identity and the fabric of modern Caribbean society, she is shortlisted for this year’s Forward best first collection prize.

    This extraordinary debut collection, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, uses speculative poetry – a genre that explores the human experience through fantasy or the supernatural – to challenge and transcend conventional gender narratives and reimagine Caribbean society through a queer, radical feminist lens.

    At Jouvay, it eh matter if you play yourself
    or somebody else. […]
    Play yuhself.
    Clay yuhself.
    Wine en pointe and wine to the four stations of the cross,
    dutty angel,
    bragadang badting,
    St James soucouyant,
    deep bush douen come to town […]

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  • Passing for Human by Liana Finck – review
    A New Yorker cartoonist’s candid search for selfhood offers solace to anyone who feels different from others

    The New Yorker cartoonist Liana Finck calls her graphic memoir a “neurological coming-of-age story”, and it’s true that one thread running through her tender, complicated narrative has to do with a certain kind of difference: Finck has often found it hard to bond with other people, and she suffers from an anxiety that is, at times, debilitating. But there is much more to her story than this. For one thing, she isn’t much interested in labels such as Asperger syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder, finding them in her own case more restrictive than liberating. For another, her book is also about love, family, creativity and the quest for selfhood – in other words, with stuff that concerns us all. If reading it makes you think long and hard about neurological difference and the isolation it may involve, it also reminds you that we all feel weird at times – as if we are, as she puts it, only passing for human.

    As a child, Leola, whom we understand to be a version of Liana, avoids other children, preferring to find some quiet corner of the playground where she can commune with insects and even rocks; as a teenager, she finds herself at the very bottom of the school social hierarchy. She struggles with jokes and authority, and her behaviour is often mistaken for wilful naughtiness.

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  • Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart review – hugely entertaining and acute
    The story of a hedge fund manager’s Greyhound bus journey shines a light on America on the eve of Trump’s victory

    Barry Cohen has a lot of assets under management, as he likes to tell anyone he meets, but they don’t include a stable marriage, a functioning relationship with his son or a future in which he is not about to be subpoenaed for insider trading. And so, blitzed on $33,000-a-bottle Japanese whisky and bleeding from an altercation with his wife and their son’s nanny, the 43-year-old hedge funder makes good his escape, pausing only to gather up his collection of highly expensive watches.

    Flinging himself on to a Greyhound bus, he sets off in pursuit of… what? An earlier version of himself, an authentic America, and his college girlfriend Layla, now living in El Paso, are some of the rabbits Barry chases down holes in the course of Gary Shteyngart’s hugely entertaining and acute look at the life of not just a muddled man, but a thoroughly confused country. For this road trip takes place at the very moment that America is gearing up to choose its 45th president, a prelapsarian time in which the sound of Trump’s voice puts Barry in mind of “a genuinely sad older man from the outer boroughs”.

    Related: Gary Shteyngart: 'Humour is my multiple warhead delivery system' | interview

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  • Preventing Palestine review: a fine history of Israel's negation of a nation

    Seth Anziska is fired by personal transformation and intellectual rigour – but never lapses into propaganda

    This splendid book by a young American Jewish scholar is the product of an early emotional and intellectual transformation.

    Related: Palestinians still live under apartheid in Israel, 25 years after the Oslo accord | Avi Shlaim

    Why were Palestinians unable to move freely in the same space where I, a US citizen, could come and go as I pleased?

    Related: 'Our memories have vanished': the Palestinian theatre destroyed in a bomb strike

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