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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

A Diagnosis

It’s cancer. Which, for a writer, can only mean one thing. “A f–king cancer diary? Another f–king cancer diary? I think back to cancer diaries I have read, just because they’re there. You don’t seek cancer diaries out, they come at you as you turn the pages of magazines and newspapers or thumb through Twitter and blogs. How many have I read? I can’t remember, but they’ve spanned decades. Same story, same ending. Weariness” (4,100 words)

Healthy Words

Science fiction gives young Chinese writers a means to make veiled critiques of the government, much as analogies drawn from history were used by older generations of writers. Environmental crises and social engineering are popular themes. Much of this new work is not published officially within China, especially when censors recognise the allusions, but persistent readers can find it freely online (682 words)

No Theatricks

Discussion of Edmund Burke’s thought, drawing mainly on The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke by David Bromwich. Burke “foreshadows the 19th century in seeing everything – law, morality, solidarity – as historically evolved, the outcome of experience rather than design”. Hence his opposition to the French Revolution: He saw that “this brutal rupture with the past would not easily settle down into a new normality” (5,100 words)

Isis Consolidates

The Isis Caliphate is bigger than Great Britain and encompasses at least six million people. This “new and terrifying state” constitutes “the most radical change to the political geography of the Middle East since the Sykes-Picot Agreement was implemented in the aftermath of the First World War”. America and Britain confront an enemy “a hundred times bigger and much better organised than the al-Qaida of Osama bin Laden” (3,240 words)

Diary: Building A Nuclear Bomb

Notes on working at a nuclear weapons depot in Nevada. “Some time in the spring a new warhead for the Polaris arrived. I went through the manual and found a number of things that disturbed me. This warhead was designed for use against cities. It was very compact, a weapon with a small bang and a small cross-section, but its ablative shield was an alloy of uranium, and it produced very heavy alpha fallout downwind” (4,000 words)

Post-Its, Push-Pins, Pencils

Discussion of Niki Saval’s Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. Sets out as a review, but turns into a rival history, as the reviewer, dissatisfied with Saval’s account, constructs her own; which starts on a lyrical note, with a two-paragraph hymn to the stationery cupboard, the “beating heart” of the pre-1990s office; but grows darker with the computer-assisted fall of the middle class and the rise of the temp (4,600 words)

Getting By Without Russia

Russia has a big history. It has gas and nukes. It looks big on the map, but its size is exaggerated by Mercator projections, and it doesn’t have a lot to offer in any other respect. Its neighbours are not mere “props and brackets for its weight”. Could the world manage without Russia? Yes, and so it should while Russia is in the hands of Vladimir Putin — “the privatisation of a beautiful old prison by one of its former jailers” (777 words)

Sink Or Swim

Ungated today by the LRB; for how long I know not; read it while you can. Reviewing a reissue of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Wood skewers the purple prose lovingly and lethally. “If there’s a tangle in Durrell it’s inextricable. If there’s a treasury it’s inexhaustible. Creatures of habit are inveterate, dusk is blue, shadows and trams are violet, dawn is mauve – but then so are voices and a mosque” (3,280 words)

The Story Of Thaksin Shinawatra

If, like me, you have internalised the idea that there is a long-running semi-interesting political crisis going on in Thailand about which one ought to know more, here is a deeper dive into the people and principles. It’s a class conflict — nobs vs populists. And it’s an archetypal political drama: In a supposed democracy, how does the establishment get rid of an elected but indigestible leader? (3,340 words)

Scalpers, Inc

Review of Michael Lewis’s “Flash Boys”, about high-frequency trading, which has made stock markets “secret and mysterious” to outsiders. “The principle on which much market legislation rests is that it’s illegal to trade on the basis of information that is not publicly available. The fact that the apparent price is not the actual price: does that fit the legal definition of non-public information? I’d have thought it does” (4,000 words)

On Kate Bush

If Wuthering Heights makes you think of Kate Bush before Emily Bronte, read on: “She’s someone you might have known at sixth-form college, or at your Saturday job (the artier kind, obviously: knick-knack stall at the local market); definitely a scream down the pub, with her packet of Silk Cut and pint of scrumpy. She has the soul of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but the robust mien of Mrs Thatcher at a cabinet meeting” (2,767 words)

Diary: “Sh-t, I’ve Had A Stroke”

On having a stroke. “I bent down to push some rubbish into the already stuffed bin. When I stood up half the world had disappeared. It had disappeared but it was still there, sort of. The kitchen wall was visible but it didn’t seem quite right. The mirror had become a window, but all that could be seen in this window was the wall on the other side of the room, behind me or behind where I used to be. Where had I gone?” (4,196 words)

Not The Marrying Kind

A novelist tells his father, a high court judge, that he is gay: “The coming-out speech is a relatively unvarying form because the event has only two parts, a clearing of the throat to demand attention and then a simple phrase that can’t be taken back (I’m gay). After that, as it seems to the person making the declaration, the fixed points disappear. All clocks return to zero hour and the speakers have new voices issued to them” (4,360 words)

The Stuntman

Review of Tom Bower’s biography, Branson: Behind the Mask. Richard Branson “pretends to be much richer than he really is”. His business strategy is “to get as close as possible to the people with power and then exploit the connection for all it’s worth”. His Virgin empire is “a brilliant smoke-and-mirrors operation, driven by the undeniable charm of the man himself, along with his occasionally breathtaking shamelessness” (4,500 words)

Closing Time

From the LRB archives: Review of of How We Die, by Sherwin Nuland, who died this week. “The fascination of this book lies not primarily in its biology lessons for the layman but in the stories it tells of the mysterious places where we die: the insides of our bodies … We learn how sepsis comes to be the terminal event in a cancer patient’s life and why she is so thin; why Dr Livingstone, being attacked by a lion, probably felt no pain” (1,060 words)

Ghosting For Julian Assange

Epic profile, by the ghost-writer of Assange’s abortive autobiography. “He had a strange, on-the-spectrum inability to see when he was becoming boring … I’d never been with a person who had such a good cause and such a poor ear, nor such a capacity to yawn in one’s face … He appeared to like the notion that he was being pursued, the tendency was only complicated by the fact that there were real pursuers” (26,390 words)

Ukraine: Romantics And Realists

President Yanukovich’s willingness to trade Ukrainian sovereignty for gas and cash must have confirmed Vladimir Putin in his belief that “Ukrainians are a greedy and frightened people in their entirety”. But Putin was blinded by his own cynicism. Ukraine proves to have idealists ready to fight. Their goal, a decent government, “may be a fantasy, a paradisal vision. But there are times when visions take charge” (1,070 words)

The Public Voice Of Women

First recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’ comes at the start of the Odyssey — the start of literature itself. “The more I have looked at the threats and insults that women have received, the more I have found that they fit into the old patterns. It doesn’t much matter what line you take, if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say, it’s the fact you’re saying it” (5,200 words)

Ghosts Of The Tsunami

Extraordinary essay on the Japanese way of death. In the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami, which killed 20,000, survivors “described sightings of ghostly strangers, friends and neighbours, and dead loved ones. They reported hauntings at home, at work, in offices and public places, on the beaches and in the ruined towns. The experiences ranged from eerie dreams and feelings of vague unease to cases of outright possession” (7,180 words)

Walter Bagehot

In his Memoirs of Walter Bagehot, assembled from Bagehot’s writings, Frank Prochaska brings to life this “Greatest Victorian”, famed in the mid-19C as a banker and as editor of The Economist. He is remembered today mainly for The English Constitution, a “little book” whose “brilliance and charm have never ceased to attract later generations”, despite its “relentless snobbery and its obsessive contempt for the lower orders” (5,200 words)

Fergie Time

Shrewd, illuminating review of My Autobiography by Alex Ferguson. “It is a hectoring, petty, repetitive book. Ferguson returns again and again to the things that nag him. It’s ugly, it’s grinding, but it gives you the flavour of the man. The only other autobiography I’ve read recently that comes across like this is Tony Blair’s, which was also so disconnected, erratic and self-referential that it had the unmistakeable ring of authenticity” (3,890 words)

Hazards Of Revolution

Notes on the disappointments and contradictions of the Arab Spring, which has brought anarchy in Libya, dictatorship in Egypt, civil war in Syria. “If there was a fair election in Syria today, Assad would probably win it.” The one bright spot in the region may be Kurdistan, which is “close to becoming an oil-rich independent state, militarily and diplomatically more powerful than many members of the UN” (3,220 words)

Where Will We Live?

Britain’s housing policy reaches crisis point. For more than three decades government has been encouraging people to buy houses, while constraining supply. The result is that prices have more than tripled, and the poor are getting squeezed out of the little social housing that remains. How long before the poor are forced back into the slums that public housing policies of the last century were designed to clear? (13,500 words)

Mandela: Death Of A Politician

Grim assessment of South Africa’s prospects after Nelson Mandela. “There is no consensus about what will happen now: at one extreme, the believers in ‘Mandelaland’ (chiefly outside the country); at the other, the dour prophets of ‘the next Zimbabwe’. South Africa is certainly not Zimbabwe, but Zimbabwe was the South Africa of the 1980s, promising racial reconciliation and postcolonial success” (4,000 words)

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