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National Book Awards: Susan Choi wins fiction award for Trust Exercise

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Queer writer Edmund White was also honored with a medal for distinguished contribution to American letters

Susan Choi has won the fiction prize at the National Book Awards in New York on Wednesday night. The celebrated author won for her fifth novel, Trust Exercise, about teens attending an elite drama school in the south during the ’80s which was praised for its bold experimentations with narrative and form.

Trust Exercise beat out Sabrina & Corina: Stories by Kali Fajarado-Anstine; Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James; The Other Americans by Laila Lalami; and Disappearing Earth by Julie Phillips for the top prize.

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Simon Armitage: ‘Nature has come back to the centre of poetry’

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The poet laureate’s new prize for a collection that focuses on the environment highlights a crisis that can no longer be ignored, plus an exclusive new poem

Poet laureate Simon Armitage is to use his laureate’s honorarium to create a new poetry prize for environmentally themed poetry, describing the climate crisis as a “background hum that won’t go away” when he is writing. The Laurel prize, which will be run by Poetry School, will go to the best collection of poems “with nature and the environment at their heart”, with the aim of highlighting “the challenges facing our planet”. The first prize, which will be awarded on 23 May 2020 at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, will be judged by Armitage, nature writer Robert Macfarlane and the poet Moniza Alvi.

“It’s come about because of the obvious environmental concerns, and in recognition of this growing body of work in poetry addressing climate change and the climate crisis, sometimes directly and sometimes more indirectly,” says Armitage. “It needs more awareness around it. I also think that offering a prize might encourage more of this sort of writing.”

Related: Simon Armitage: ‘I always thought, if Ted Hughes can do it why can’t I?’

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Poem of the week: Harvest by Isabel Galleymore

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Carefully sown observations from nature grow swiftly into a classic ‘ecopoem’

Harvest
For Frances

After stripping the branches of berries
the robin held a handful of seeds
in her stomach: the robin carried a tree
– in fact she secretly sowed a whole forest –
a store of bows and arrows and shields.
Years found the bird had planted a battle,
her tiny body had borne the new king.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

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George the Poet: I rejected MBE over 'pure evil' of British empire

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Spoken word artist says UK must take steps to mitigate consequences of colonial era

The spoken word artist George the Poet has said he was offered an MBE but turned it down because of the “pure evil” perpetrated by the British empire.

The poet, whose real name is George Mpanga, said he would not accept such an honour until the UK took meaningful steps to mitigate some of the consequences of its colonial history.

Related: How Britain dishonoured its African first world war dead

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That Reminds Me by Derek Owusu review – defies categorisation

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A poem-memoir of a Ghanaian boy’s harrowing London childhood is moving and brave

Derek Owusu’s That Reminds Me is not quite poetry. It defies categorisation: neither, strictly speaking, a memoir nor, as advance publicity would have it, a novel in verse – although it includes casual rhymes. Without forcing a label on it, this is a moving, semi-autobiographical story about a vulnerable young black man – a one-off. Owusu, who edited Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space, rises above the “misery” memoir and does his best to overcome pain. The book began as poetry and was written “to interrogate and come to terms with my own mental collapse and the events that potentially led to it”. Although it describes poverty, betrayal, addiction, self-harm and sorrow, it is leavened by love for a mother, a brother and for language itself.

We follow the life of a boy called K in slabs of text, as though across stepping stones. Owusu is Ghanaian but grew up in the UK. He was fostered until the age of eight before returning to his mother and a father – who, in this account, is intermittently, erratically and violently on the scene – in London. Most of us duck asking our parents leading questions. But not K. He challenges his father, asking why he never showed his family any love.

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Debut author of Queenie caps success with Costa prize shortlisting

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Candice Carty-Williams, who began writing to improve representation of black British characters in fiction, joins 19 other authors contending for prestigious book of the year honour

Candice Carty-Williams never planned on being an author, but applied to join a writing retreat in 2016 because she felt that black British authors needed more representation in the white world of publishing. Three years down the line, sales of her debut novel Queenie are booming, a Channel 4 adaptation is in the works, and she’s just been shortlisted for the Costa book awards.

The story of a young black Londoner negotiating her love life, career and family, Queenie is, according to the judges for the Costas’ first novel category, “eminently readable, funny and thought-provoking”. It’s up for the £5,000 debut prize along with Brian Bilston’s Diary of a Somebody, about a man who decides to write a poem every day for a year; Sara Collins’s The Confessions of Frannie Langton, a historical fiction about a maid’s trial for the murder of her master and mistress; and Joanna Glen’s story of a girl who doesn’t fit in, The Other Half of Augusta Hope.

Related: Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams review – timely and important

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Clive James, writer, broadcaster and TV critic, dies aged 80

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James died at his home in Cambridge on Sunday almost 10 years after his first terminal diagnosis

Clive James, the broadcaster, poet and television critic, has died aged 80 after a long illness.

The Australian died at his home in Cambridge on Sunday, his agent confirmed. A private funeral attended by family and close friends took place in the chapel at Pembroke College, Cambridge, on Wednesday afternoon.

Related: Clive James – a life in pictures

He was unfailingly warm, kind and hilarious company right to the end

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Clive James on Trump, War and Peace – and furry bears

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From meeting the Queen to his thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn’s beard, here are some choice cuts from the writer’s column in Guardian Weekend magazine

On War and Peace

On a shelf near where I sit writing this, there are half a dozen different editions of the book, and I’ve been reading one or other of them for half my life. Despite the heaps of evidence that Tolstoy was in reality half crackers, you would swear from the pages of War and Peace that he was God’s stenographer.

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Clive James obituary

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Writer, poet and critic who found fame as a presenter of TV shows such as Saturday Night Clive

The writer and broadcaster Clive James, who has died aged 80, once wrote a poem about visiting his father’s grave at the Sai Wan war cemetery in Hong Kong. His father, Albert, who had survived a PoW camp and then forced labour in Japan, died when the plane bringing him home crashed in Taiwan, and James later described this as the “defining event” in his life. The poem, My Father Before Me, ends:

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Sad loss of Clive James and Jonathan Miller – modest, witty, intellectual giants | Letters

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Readers remember warmth, talent and self-deprecating humour

In a world increasingly populated by charlatans and idiots, we have just lost two outstanding intelligent, funny and talented individuals in one day – Jonathan Miller and Clive James (Obituaries, 28 November).

Although quite different in many respects, both contributed in intellect and humour in ways we so desperately need right now. Both are irreplaceable, whereas our television screens and newspapers are now full of people whose disappearance would be no loss if they were to vanish tomorrow.

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'Natural genius is to be respected': inside Cleveland's space for teen poets

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Intergenerational incubator and creative writing program Twelve Literary Arts seeks to to inspire young people to participate in democracy

“Hey y’all, I’m Tai,” 15-year-old Tai-Charle’ Walker says into the single microphone. “Hi Tai!” shouts back the audience for tonight’s spoken-word open mic event. “What am I made of?” Tai begins, and then, to cheers, she lights whatever trepidation she has on fire: “You asked a simple question, but get many different complex answers. I myself am made up of pain.”

Pain from the historical trauma of slavery, the “crooked cops’ nightstick”, violence on her street. “I am the moon – everybody wants to get close but once they actually do they have no clue what to do … You ask me what I be? Between you and me, you’ll never know what I’ll be.”

Twelve really works against the fetishization of sadness. You always end up feeling empowered

Many cities across the US face significant challenges – places like Baltimore, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Cleveland are among them. And much has been written about how these former economic powerhouses have struggled over the last few decades. 

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For Clive James, a sense of humour was just good manners

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An exemplary critic, Clive laughed hard at himself and embraced his readers in their common failings

Clive James never failed to get a joke. Or to go on to make a better one. This wasn’t because he was overly competitive: rather, like Dr Johnson, whom he often quoted, he believed that conversation obliged us to keep the ball in the air. People lacking the grace that is a sense of humour also lacked common sense, he once told Martin Amis. “A sense of humour,” he went on, “is nothing but common-sense dancing.” Since he loved the tango – perhaps because it, too, is conversation – it is hard not to put a picture to this. Only his was more than a common sense: it was a most uncommon genius for expressing subtle thought in the language of men speaking to men. The word for this isn’t populism: for him it was, as a matter of principle, intellectual good manners.

Manners mattered to him. His talk was never coarse. Many years ago, at a dinner table, he told the woman sitting opposite him that he wanted to bite her. The woman was my wife. He was exhilarated after a successful television programme. We’d all been drinking. And he was sending himself up. He knew his weakness. Countless times, in his final anguished poems, he punished himself for it, enumerating his wrongs, above all the wrong of inconstancy: “I broke faith when it suited me.”

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Best books of 2019

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Need help with what to read or gift this Christmas? Our critics pick the best novels, poetry, sports, memoirs and children’s books of the year

  • Save up to 30% on the books of the year at guardianbookshop.com

It has been a year of doubles: two Nobel laureates, two Booker winners, even two Ian McEwan books. Guardian fiction editor Justine Jordan on the celebrated and overlooked books of the year, including some exceptional US novels, extraordinary translations and great short stories.

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Best poetry of 2019

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In a year of political uncertainty, acclaimed collections have tackled racism, authoritarianism and masculinity with great grace and beauty. Sandeep Parmar shares her favourites

Often poems conjure an event, a lyric occasion marked by stillness and observation. But in a year characterised by frenzy, political anticlimax and uncertainty, poetry should afford us no such luxury. As the American poet Robert Lowell wrote “history has to live with what was here, / clutching and close to fumbling all we had”. Each of these collections takes a long view of the present, often expanding the single isolated poem to a wider book-length analysis. The poets ask not how history will live with what was, but how we come to terms with our history now.

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John Boyega: I’m not sure forgetfulness was in the Star Wars script | Rebecca Nicholson

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That’s the last thing studio heads wanted – the script of the film turning up on eBay

For a couple of days, it was the new Game of Thrones coffee cup. Last week JJ Abrams, the director of the eagerly awaited Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, revealed on US morning television that an actor had allowed a script to go on an epic journey of its own. “I’m not gonna say which one. I want to, but I won’t,” said Abrams, settling into the role of “dad – not mad, just disappointed”.

The unnamed actor had left a script under their bed, it was taken by a cleaner, given to another person, then put on eBay for £65, where it was spotted by a Disney official and ultimately reclaimed. This was a plot that had everything.

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Seamus Heaney and the Music of What Happens review – this stirring tribute is poetry in motion

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With insight from those closest to him, this moving film celebrates the great poet’s life and extraordinary works

I thought about Seamus Heaney and the Music of What Happens (BBC Two) long after the credits had passed, and not just because it is a gorgeous, almost luxurious documentary about one of the all-time greats. While it stands as an excellent tribute to the man and his work, it acts, too, as a history of the second half of the 20th century, laying out the Troubles through anecdote and verse. Given the current political climate, it is an apt time for people to be reminded of what happened in our very recent past, and what that was like for the people living through it.

That lovely title is from Song. In archive footage – and there are a lot of great interviews plundered here – Heaney recalls taking it from the answer Fionn MacCool gave when asked about the best music in the world. “So I used it as the basis for a little declaration about poetry,” he explains casually, as if it were that easy. In these old clips, with his polo necks and coats, his cigarette and Bob Dylan hair, Heaney has the look of a rock star. It is delightful to spend so long in his company.

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The best books of 2019 – picked by the year’s best writers

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From The Testaments to a tale of British imperial looting, the winners and runners-up of this year’s most coveted literary awards pick their three favourite titles of 2019

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Clive James: the last interview

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Two months before his death, the broadcaster, poet and critic spoke about his own mortality

Journalists shouldn’t interview people they know, or even (I think) acquaintances with whom they’re friendly. But in September I broke this rule, and went to Cambridge to talk to Clive James about his latest book.

Related: Clive James was the Mozart of TV criticism, and we are just Salieris

Related: ‘Clive James would have been a national treasure if only he’d taken himself more seriously’

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The Guardian view on truth and art: fiction as a guide | Editorial

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Ambiguity and complexity – Keats’s ‘negative capability’ – are missing from our world today

In a letter of 1817, John Keats wrote: “It struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” One thing in this quotation stands out: the notion that negative capability, the ability to hold complexity and ambiguity in the mind, without requiring a clear resolution, is the mark of true greatness, especially, but not only, in writers. Keats was arguing that negative capability is a quality desirable in all of us, the mark of the greatest in any field of endeavour.

Later in the letter, Keats criticised his peer Samuel Taylor Coleridge. That poet, he wrote, would fail to discern a “fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery”, because he was “incapable of remaining content with half knowledge”. The argument is that fine-grained, delicate verisimilitude can be captured from the most apparently mysterious context, if only one has the eyes to see it. There is, one might add, verisimilitude to be discovered in fiction, and art of all kinds, that will never be discerned in the pages of an official report.

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Time Lived, Without Its Flow by Denise Riley review – captive to the present tense

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A grieving mother’s account of life after her son’s death is exquisitely expressed

This small, blue hardback, with lines of gold coursing down its front cover, might – from the outside – be mistaken for an exquisite book of prayer but it was written by the poet Denise Riley in response to the death of her adult son and is not about conventional consolation. The book will be appreciated by its readers precisely because it resists false notes. It was clear from Say Something Back (2016), Riley’s unforgettable poetry collection, which included a poem about the death of her son, that she has, emotionally, perfect pitch.

It was apparent, too, that she is an out-of-the-ordinary narrator – approaching her son’s tragedy crab-wise. It is only halfway through this new book that we learn that Jake was found dead in a still-running bath, having possibly died of a heart attack. These facts are offered not to satisfy our anxious curiosity but noted almost incidentally as Riley pores over his autopsy, wondering whether she might have prevented his death.

She writes from a brink, describes a “paper-thin” existence, as though detained at a border crossing

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