Twenty years ago I lived in St Petersburg for a year. It’s still one of my favourite cities. Maybe even the ultimate favourite. Very excited that my 2012 travel essay on going back has made it into St Petersburg: City Pick — “perfect gems of city writing”. Published today by Oxygen Books, £9.99. Click here to see more.
The guide features pieces by over sixty writers including Gogol, Nabokov and Truman Capote. This is a bit embarrassing for them. Their elegant tributes to the city sit alongside the rantings of this one-time “vodka-swilling student”. (Thank you for that, sub-editors.) But they are dead so they cannot mind.
An excellent literary guide if you’re planning to visit Russia. They also do Paris, London, Dublin, Venice and others. Armchair travellers can click to see the essay, Back to St Petersburg, originally published in High Life magazine here.
Plus, I highly recommend “Liking” the I Heart St Petersburg Facebook page. Although the photographs they post are so beautiful that they just make me want to move back there. Which is a bit inconvenient at the moment.
Covering for Suzanne Moore in today’s Mail on Sunday. Respect is due to France’s First Lady Valerie Trierweiler. Menage a six? Phew. Don’t really care what she has got up to in the past. But if she looks this good on it… I’ll have what she’s having.
Also: why Boris Johnson is the political equivalent of Jedward. Or Rylan. If the voting age is lowered to sixteen Boris has a serious chance of becoming PM. People will vote for him for the same reasons they vote for “joke” reality TV contestants: because they know they shouldn’t. Worrying.
Plus: Pussy Riot – one down, two to go. The GCSE fiasco continues as 45,000 resit their exams next month. And 34DD is apparently the new bra “average”? You wish. No. It’s just the PR people making tits of us again.
“Gloriously eccentric” (Telegraph), hits “sour, sweet notes” (LA Times) and “a big American story with big American themes” (US ELLE), May We Be Forgiven is A.M. Homes‘ first novel in over six years. She has been away working for TV, writing for The L Word and developing pilots for CBS. I have missed her — although her 2007 memoir The Mistress’s Daughter was so good it pretty much made up for everything. (Don’t read the Amazon reviews, they’re deranged. Must have read a different book.)
Click here for Observer review of May We Be Forgiven. It really is the best thing I’ve read this year. Also must-reads from A.M.Homes (real name Amy): In a Country of Mothers, This Book Will Save Your Life and Music For Torching. Don’t read The End of Alice unless you like really dark stuff.
Typewriter pic by Raul Hernandez Gonzalez.
Standing in for Suzanne Moore at the Mail on Sunday. Click here to read. This week: the charity Rethink Mental Illness says one in five GPs report patients contemplating suicide over the new “fitness to work” assessments. This is just the start of a brutal benefits crackdown. Tory bullies, this is not the time to stick the boot in…
Plus: Nicki Minaj versus Mariah Carey on American Idol. May the best bitch win. Jerry Hall for Strictly champion. Obama’s lacklustre debate performance. And Caroline Thomson, the female BBC Director General that never was. Instead a man got the job and made her redundant. Nice.
From online comments, on the one hand: “Great leader article.” “Time for Cameron to resign.” “Disabled people are easy targets.” “This week we will see just how nasty the Tory party is.” “They are kicking the poorest harder than even Thatcher or Major.” On the other: “What a naive and silly article.” Plus, there is blame for “professional breeders who come from other countries” (!) and “too many people claiming to be depressed or have a bad back or whatever who are simply making it up.”
But the most popular comment (people can vote for and against) comes from a single parent of a mentally disabled adult who risks having his benefits cut. So there is some compassion out there…
Very excited about being a judge — just like Simon Cowell! — alongside Peter Serafinowicz at Literary Death Match on Tues 23 Oct, 8.15pm, at House of Wolf, Islington. Stupidly excited. Stupidly. Maybe too stupid to actually speak which might be a bit of a hindrance for judging. Early bird £5 tickets selling out fast here.
Writing in today’s Independent about the Turner Prize. Now the Prize may spontaneously combust, safe in the knowledge that it has reached the limits of its powers. Because this year it features a work of art which depicts turds having sex with other turds. Favourite quote from The Sun: “Judges hail drawings of turds as ‘compelling life project.'”
‘This is not art’ chalk pic by Loran Davis.
This month’s book page in Red features Jojo Moyes’ The Girl You Left Behind, a very readable, dual narrative which flits between WWI France and present-day London. There’s also The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes which her fans will adore. (Read into that coded message what you will… Parts of it did make me laugh a lot.) The House of Memories by Monica McInerney falls into the Anita Shreve category of reliably good reading. (And more on her another time as I’ve interviewed her for the Guardian but it hasn’t come out yet.)*
My two favourites this month are The Midwife’s Daughter by Patricia Ferguson, an excellent historical novel set in Cornwall in the 1910s, and The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay, a very cleverly-put-together, witty story set in late 19th century Manhattan about a 12-year-old girl who finds herself in a brothel specialising in dubious “treatments” for infected gentlemen… Shades of Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet.
*Update: now it has and here it is.
So is the most anticipated novel of the year any good? Well, it’s hugely enjoyable. I laughed. I cried. But by the end I felt a bit manipulated. In the end it’s a politically-motivated sledgehammer of a novel with a liberal message which verges on the self-righteous. But until it gets to that bit there’s a lot of fun. Listen to my review for the BBC World Service’s The Strand’s 40 million listeners here. Read the verdict in Red here (also reprinted below). And a rant about all the effing and blinding in the novel in the Mail on Sunday here.
It turns out that JK Rowling is not the greatest writer ever to have lived. But she is possibly one of the greatest storytellers. Which is how she can just about get away with this rather odd – and very British (too British?) – tale seemingly hinged on a parish council election but actually dealing with much deeper and more serious themes.
When the liberal, much-loved Barry Fairbrother collapses with a fatal aneurysm, half the population of the rural village of Pagford appears to be queuing up to take his seat — “The Casual Vacancy” — on the local council. The key contenders? Barry’s rival the porky deli owner Howard, who is lining up his son Miles to take the position. And local nasty-piece-of-work Simon Price also has his eye on the seat.
There are parallels with Harry Potter here when it transpires that although this is an adult novel (with occasionally alarmingly adult themes – and language – it’s already peppered with four-letter words by page 15), it’s really the children who are in charge. Or at least they think they are. Because whilst the grown-ups squabble over who’s going to win the election, a mystery team of teenage hackers is busy tampering with the Pangford Council website and denting all their chances.
The plot seems to hang on the slapstick business of a local election but really this is a socio-political morality tale about hypocrisy, snobbery, class and drug addiction. The locals are all forced to show their true colours when the local centre which hands out methadone is threatened with closure.
It’s a far-reaching and ambitious novel with a cast of characters as rich as any Harry Potter outing but with a gritty realism worthy of Ian Rankin crossed with the ambiguous tone of Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. It’s not exactly subtle with its finger-wagging liberal politics, though. And, whilst the first two thirds are playful and often wonderfully comic, the ending packs an uncomfortably vicious, moral, sideways punch.
As you’d expect, it’s hugely readable and draws you irresistibly in. And it’s a must-read because everyone will be talking about it. But don’t expect this book to change your life in quite the way it has changed the author’s.
Old women are not hideous! No matter what this rather fascinating 16th century portrait of a “woman” (really?) may be trying to prove. (I love it, though.) Writing in the Independent about Mary Beard, Fiona Bruce and the BBC’s many excuses about why there are no silver-haired women reading the news. Or very many older women doing anything much at all. Shame on you!
Portrait of A Grotesque Old Woman or The Ugly Duchess by Quentin Matsys (1513). Black and white pic by Ann from Detroit.