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Latest news and features from theguardian.com, the world's leading liberal voice

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    The author of The Gruffalo earned more than JK Rowling and Dan Brown in UK, making her the fourth biggest-selling writer in British history

    A dancing chorus of giants and snails, witches and Gruffalos have propelled Julia Donaldson into uncharted territory, as the former childrens laureate becomes the first author to record UK sales of more than £10m for five consecutive years.

    According to the Bookseller, Donaldsons 2014 sales topped £10m in the UK last week, ahead of publishing titans such as JK Rowling and Dan Brown, becoming the only author to record five years in a row of eight-digit revenue since [book sales monitor Nielsen] BookScan records began.

    Give me your buns and your biscuits!
    Give me your chocolate éclairs!
    For I am the Rat of the highway,
    and the Rat Thief never shares!

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    The poet recalls childhood memories, from not crying when she was sent to boarding school to feeling dizzy smoking her first cigarette

    I remember the first time I read a book by myself. It was The Buttercup Farm Family by Enid Blyton. I got stuck on the word put and had to ask Nanna.

    I remember getting angry with my sister and sitting on top of her and banging her head on the floor.

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  • 11/15/14--03:00: The Saturday poem: Smith
  • by Michael Donaghy

    What is this fear before the unctuous teller?
    Why does it seem to take a forgers nerve
    To make my signature come naturally?
    Naturally? But every singatures
    A trick we learn to do, consistently,
    Like Queequegs cross, or Whistlers butterfly.
    Perhaps some childhood spectre grips my hand
    Every time Im asked to sign my name.

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    Visionary lunacy and peculiar choices tell us much about the Pulitzer prize-winning poet

    In a 1956 letter to Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery wrote: I hate all modern French poetry, except for Raymond Roussel, specifying: I do like my own wildly inaccurate translations of some of the 20th-century ones, but not the originals. The editors of this book rather solemnly gloss this as Ashbery musing on his own hard work, and his difficulties in building a canon for his own new poetic journeys. They may be right, but the comment is also funny and provocative, taking a dandy-esque line on the tired debates (tired even then and comprehensively exhausted now) about accuracy and fidelity in translation.

    This book (along with its sibling, Ashberys Collected French Translations: Prose) is mostly non-canonical in focus. Though several poets may be familiar Reverdy, Breton, Supervielle, Eluard others, such as Daumal, Ganzo, Lubin, Blanchard, Roche, will not. The highlights include a few poems by the Swiss boxer-poet Arthur Cravan and the sequence of prose poems, from The Dice Cornet, by the the Jewish-Breton Max Jacob, who died on his way to a concentration camp in 1944. The contemporary with whom Ashbery feels most kinship is his friend and former companion, Pierre Martory, whose volume The Landscapist he translated in 2008. Where Ashbery often reads like a French poet writing in English, Martory, barely known even in France, has the air of an American poet writing in French. His poem The Landscape is Behind the Door not only gives us one of the best lines in this book I draw you like a salary but reads like a New York School poem that just happens to use French words:

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    No sun no moon!/ No morn no noon / No dawn no dusk no proper time of day./ No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,/ No comfortable feel in any member / No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,/ No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! / November!

    So wrote British poet Thomas Hood in 1844, and today many of us still share his sentiments about this gloomy month. But it turns out that the November Hood wrote about was very different to the November we experience today.

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    A comic portrait of a seaside town is undercut by unease about the economy that shrinks its residents to mere toys for business

    A faintly comic spectre haunts the bright postcard-pastoral of this week’s poem, The service sector by Lee Harwood. The title gives us a clue, prepares us for possibilities of dodgy dealing. But, at first, manipulation is merely child’s play. Real estate? Well, there’s the doll’s house “set down by an unseen hand”, an instinctive aesthetic pleasure hinted in the matching of the little white house to the “brilliant white breakers” that contrast so picturesquely with “a peacock green sea”. The possibly sinister information, that the doll’s house is joining other “white buildings”, is delayed, then presented casually, a mere finishing touch to the decorative process. Toy-land urbanisation continues in the fifth couplet: the houses are now occupied by tiny, timid people, although the giant seems less likely to be a child at play. A shift to workaday realism ensues, with a tercet illustrating the traffic of industry (trucks) and people (cars). The dogs “obsessively” mark territory. There’s a soundtrack of busy sibilants.

    “Time” at the beginning of the next stanza announces the pun on “minute”. The tiny people dress in tiny (“minute”) coats so as to enter the servitude of clock-time. The “matchbox car” cunningly echoes a famous toy brand, and the menace is heightened by the (authorial?) voice of warning: “Best not.”

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    A collection of suberb essays and poetry edited by Charlie Louth and Patrick McGuinness

    Coming across memorable opening lines after a gap of many years can be like running into an old friend, and so I liked rereading the first words of Sisson’s essay “The Politics of Wyndham Lewis”: “Wyndham Lewis was born on board his father’s yacht. Perhaps it was thought safer for such an explosion to take place offshore.” That’s Sisson’s criticism at its perkiest, perhaps, but it’s still typical of his wit and confidence.

    It also hints at the influences that formed him, and CH Sisson (or Charles Hubert – he sheltered behind those initials even more than TS Eliot did behind his), who died at the age of 89 in 2003, could be said to have been the last English modernist. But it is what you might call a high modernism: one that looks as if it is of the Right, but actually hasn’t approved of much since the 17th century. It takes religion and monarchy seriously, but so seriously that it looks as if it is meeting republicanism from around the other side. Here he is in “A Note on the Monarchy”: “Bagehot attributed importance to the monarchy, but it was an importance of an inferior kind. The Queen was ‘dignified’, in his phraseology: that meant she was not much good. She was for fools to goggle at. As there were a lot of fools, that counted for something.” He approves of Bagehot, and as all that most people know today of the Victorian economist’s view of the monarchy is his phrase about not letting the daylight in on magic, Sisson’s paraphrase is a useful corrective.

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    No other work of art so urgently tells the truth about nature and our relationship with it as Blake’s poem about a ferocious, precious beast

    William Blake is about to have an exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum that looks at the artistic development of this great Romantic visionary. It is timely, for Blake deserves at least as much glory as JMW Turner, who is currently getting so much attention. For one thing, he created the single most urgent work of art of our time.

    Urgent, that is, if you look at it not from the point of view of art, literature, galleries or school texts but the perspective of planet Earth. If Gaia could tell us what to read and look at, she’d surely whisper “The Tyger”.

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    Clwyd Theatre Cymru, Mold
    Stephen MacDonald’s first world war piece dramatises Siegfried Sassoon’s creative impact on Wilfred Owen

    Who knows what private nightmares were endured at Craiglockhart, the military rehabilitation centre established outside Edinburgh for the treatment of shell-shocked officers during the first world war? Pat Barker made a brilliant surmise in the first novel of her Regeneration trilogy, which principally focused on Siegfried Sassoon’s relationship with his therapist, WH Rivers.

    Sassoon’s fellow war poet and fellow patient Wilfred Owen was a tantalisingly peripheral figure in the novel; the inconspicuous, unpublished son of a railwayman who hesitantly approached the more established writer to express admiration, in return for the occasional poetry workshop. Stephen MacDonald’s intimate two-hander, first produced in 1983, is a deft illustration of the process by which the protege rapidly came to eclipse the master, while suggesting that Sassoon’s emendations to Owen’s work may have been his own most significant literary achievement.

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    Tonight’s awards could be anybody’s, with the vogue for memoir and essays well represented. But the most vital book comes from an unexpected quarter

    You could say that the National Book Awards are a bit like the Golden Globes of the American literary world. They are the first major awards of the season, held in conjunction with a massive fancy dinner where people in expensive outfits get drunk together. There is, still, that crucial difference: no major television network comes to film the pale, sweaty figures that write most of the great books you read all year.

    And the NBAs are not really a dress rehearsal for future book awards the way the Golden Globes set up the actor-acceptance-speech season. The National Book Critics’ Circle and the Pulitzer committee tend to go their own way. The NBAs have struggled for years to articulate their own identity in the field, sometimes going with rewarding obscure, under-applauded work and other years rewarding already popular books in order to remain culturally relevant.

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    Experts peek between the covers of Dreams, Hopes and Reflections, published in 1981 when the tycoon was 26

    Quiz: billionaire bards – was it Clive Palmer or Gina Rinehart who wrote it?

    Clive Palmer has been praised as “rather humble, essentially good-hearted” and “well-meaning”. Well, his poetry has at least.

    Palmer’s book of poetry, Dreams, Hopes and Reflections, was published in 1981 under the name F Clive Palmer when the mining magnate, and possible billionaire, was 26. It is not known how many copies survive, but when one happened to cross Guardian Australia’s desk it was immediately handed over to the experts.

    I’m old now

    Once I was beautiful

    Gandhi I know you

    Though I was not born

    A better world to live in

    a better way of life

    You always wanted

    what I could not give

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    Australia's highest-profile mining tycoons have a penchant for poetry, with both releasing books containing some of their (what we assume to be) best works. Take our quiz to see if you can pick who wrote what

    • Clive Palmer's poetry unearthed and it's, er, well-meaningContinue reading...

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    As Ursula Le Guin receives the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards, she talks to Hari Kunzru about alternative fictional worlds

    Ursula K Le Guin’s speech at National Book Awards: ‘Books aren’t just commodities’

    Ursula Le Guin cries freedom as she is honoured for contribution to literature

    Ursula K Le Guin lives along a winding road in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. Walking uphill towards her house I find the way spectacularly blocked. A bridge is being rebuilt and the road is broken by a steep drop, forcing me to pick my way along a trail down into a ravine, then back up the other side. This small detour feels auspicious. There ought to be more adventure on such a journey than an airport security queue and a taxi rank. I am resisting the temptation to use the language of the quest here, or get into any dubious comparisons between writers and wizards or witches. I didn’t have to change myself into a hawk or cross over into the land of the dead.

    I have rarely gone to visit a writer bearing so many messages of love and admiration. People want to thank Le Guin. Many readers discover her young, through her Earthsea sequence, now acknowledged as one of the great works of 20th-century fantasy. This week, 40 years after the third Earthsea book, The Farthest Shore, won the National Book award in children’s literature, Le Guin has been awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, presented to her by Neil Gaiman in New York. One of my friends, a Le Guin fan of great depth and seriousness, remembers being nine years old, in pain and distress as he recovered from open heart surgery. “Reading the Earthsea trilogy saved my life,” he wrote to me. I don’t think he was being altogether rhetorical. Escape is derided as the cheapest of literary pleasures, “escapism” the name for a particular kind of aesthetic cowardice, a culpable flight from the real. But there are situations when what you need is teleportation. You need to get out of the surgical ward. You need to stay in Earthsea for as long as your imagination can float its little open boat.

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    A prizewinning debut collection that fizzes with transcendent language

    They say poetry, like charity, begins at home. If her debut book of poems is anything to go by, Liz Berry would surely agree. Along with its lavish, atmospheric cover image of a bird’s dark plumage, what is immediately striking about Black Country, winner of the Forward prize for best first collection, is the way it digs deep into the poet’s West Midlands roots, enlivening and reimagining the heritage of that eponymous heartland of iron foundries, coal mines and steel mills, on both personal and public footings.

    Here are Thomas Telford’s “fabled waterways” and the swaggering Lady Godiva, the right hook of the “Tipton Slasher” and the legend of “The Black Delph Bride”. Even a “Birmingham Roller”, the unlikely pigeon famous for its tumbling backflips in mid-flight, turns up: an emblem of light and hope amid the dark post-industrial hinterland. And, of course, the “bostin fittle” – Black Country dialect for “great food” – of granny’s homemade “faggots minced with kidney and suet”, as Berry brings her readers’ “lips to the hide of the past: / salty, dark, unexpected”.

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    In Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer takes risks, breaks laws, invents words and enters the dark

    I was introduced to Chaucer when I was too young to know that the questions of how to live and how to live with each other are ones we never stop exploring. I studied “The Franklin’s Tale” first, the story of a couple who try to live as equals. This now seems extraordinary for the 14th century, but all I remembered was some hokum about the “grisly rokkes blake” off the coast of Brittany that had to be magicked away to avoid a shipwreck.

    The work that made me realise Chaucer was not all horses and castles was Troilus and Criseyde, the greatest account you will ever read of people arguing themselves and each other into and out of love. Chaucer stole the story, made up a source and invented a form. He showed that English, on which the paint was still wet, could be as elegant and evocative as Latin or French. He was open to influence, intellectually mobile and properly curious. He wrote a treatise on the astrolabe for his 10-year-old son.

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    The stillbirth of Karen McCarthy Woolf’s son is the powerful emotional core of this deft, unsentimental collection

    Poetry collections tend to be miscellaneous. They say: all change here, please as one alights from one poem and steps into the next – this is the reader’s undertaking. One of the most unusual things about Karen McCarthy Woolf’s debut is that it is held together by a single event – in a sense, a tragic non-event – the stillbirth of her son, Otto, in August 2009, and it is this emotional core that holds the work together, gives it its concentration, charge and flow. An Aviary of Small Birds is a collection that can, with the exception of a handful of poems, be read as a narrative. Otto’s death gives birth to the book.

    There is nothing conventional or chronological about McCarthy Woolf’s approach. In the poem entitled Of August, several pages in, she turns her life into copy – were the subject not so painful – in a playful way. Two agents and a couple of publishers have attended a “panel discussion” at a university. On the train home, a student writes down the synopsis of a novel she plans one day to submit to them:

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    A hymn to the elemental power of the country’s raw landscape, this is also a lonely variety of love poem

    Canada, from Katherine Stansfield’s lively first collection, Playing House, has some of the restless vocal complexity of a Baroque fugue. A more obvious literary relative would be the sestina. In fact, Canada seems to adapt a few sestina-like techniques, while firmly announcing that, no, it’s not a sestina, nor would wish to be. For a start, there are five rather than six-and-a-half stanzas, each with seven lines rather than six: the lines vary in length so, visually, the poem has an un-sestina-like rugged (mountainous?) outline. It sings more than most sestinas. But both fugue and sestina are forms constrained by fixed rules of repetition. Canada has multiple repetands, but no obvious symmetrical plot for their appearance (unless sharper ears than mine can discern one).

    The patterns flow and change. For example, some form of the verb, to run, appears in every stanza, in lines two, seven, five, one, six, whereas the forms of pine, which features both as noun (“pines” as in pine-trees) and verb (“pining”) appear in lines three, four, five, four, four. The first line of the first stanza comes back as the last, with a new grammatical twist – but that twist, involving a full-stop and a single word beginning a new sentence, stops short of becoming a repeated last-line device. The random element seems important, in keeping with the organic nature of the imagery. Words and meanings are at liberty to dissolve like snow, or maintain their shape for longer, like rock.

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    “Geordies like to talk … allow at least 10 minutes just to buy a newspaper,” advises Harry Pearson (The UK’s best city: in praise of Newcastle upon Tyne, theguardian.com, 22 November). Wittgenstein worked as a lab assistant in Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary during the war. His Jesmond landlady said he was chatty in the morning, to the annoyance of the other lodgers, but morose in the evenings. From the poem “Geordie Henderson replies to the biographer of Ludwig Wittgenstein” (Mugs Rite, Bay Press, 1996), by the recently late poet, eccentric and bibliophile Mike Wilkin: “Div aa knaa oot more / aboot him? Fella, arl else / aa remember, is that / the only gala time / aa got im near a pint, / knaaing he was a Delphi / Oracle, aa askt him / if the Magpies would ever / climb back to the Shangri-La / of Division One. And he wrote / doon arl magisterially / on a raggy beer mat / (which is clagged-up / in wor netty yet!) / “Whereof one cannot spowt / Thereof one must say nowt.”
    Joan Hewitt (@TurkishBathsNCL)
    Tynemouth

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    From Alan Garner to RS Thomas, Bruce Chatwin to Dylan Thomas, the mythic power of place in these works casts a potent spell

    I’ve chosen these books because they go some way towards delivering a more comprehensive picture of rural Wales than is often presented. They are jigsaw pieces in a map.

    Wales’s physical landscape changes dramatically region by region. The Beacons differ from Snowdonia differ from the Cambrian Mountains differ from the Preselis. There are isolated hill farms, wealthy border farms, small patchwork farms – all within relatively close distance. But the individuality of each place and the characters who live in them is strong. Landscape, then, is a strong if not main protagonist in the books below. But there’s a thing that seems to seep time and again into those landscapes: myth. Myth that sticks in the treads of boots and gets walked all through these stories …

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    Writers and illustrators annotate first editions of best-loved books in fundraiser for Quentin Blake’s charity the House of Illustration
    In pictures: Authors’ annotations of favourite books

    Raymond Briggs mourns how his image of a melted snowman turned out, Judith Kerr nixes Michael Rosen’s belief that her tea-drinking tiger was drawn from her subconscious fear of the Gestapo and Quentin Blake provides a new sketch of Charlie Bucket digging into a chunk of vanilla fudge in a unique auction of annotated first editions set to take place next month.

    Blake’s charity the House of Illustration, which uses illustration to help develop literacy, creativity and communication, asked the illustrators of 38 modern classics, from Anthony Browne’s Gorilla to Lauren Child’s Charlie and Lola and Helen Oxenbury’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, to revisit their most famous works, annotating the children’s stories with drawings, thoughts and memories. Sotheby’s will auction the books on 8 December, with all proceeds to go to the House of Illustration.

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