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Quiz: 2015 in books – how closely were you reading?


Who found the manuscript for Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman? Which taunt did Martin Amis level at Jeremy Corbyn? And who hasn’t had an adult colouring book devoted to them (yet)? Test your knowledge of this year’s books here

1. Which star’s debut novel was a black comedy about industrial farming?

a) David Duchovny

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The best feasts quotes in literature


From Keats to Harry Potter to Christina Rossetti to Wind in the Willows, we have mouthwatering quotes from the greatest literary feasts to whet your appetite for Christmas indulgences

[…] he forth from the closet brought a heap

Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;

Our grapes fresh from the vine,

Pomegranates full and fine,

The most prominent object was a long table with a table-cloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An épergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, published 1861

Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs Cratchit entered — flushed by smiling proudly — with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, published 1843

Good bread and good drink, a good fire in the hall,

Brawn, pudding, and souse, and good mustard withal.

‘‘It is dull, Son of Adam, to drink without eating,’’ said the Queen presently. ‘‘What would you like best to eat?’’

“Turkish Delight, please, your Majesty,” said Edmund.

Harry’s mouth fell open. The dishes in front of him were now piled with food. He had never seen so many things he liked to eat on one table: roast beef, roast chicken, pork chops and lamb chops, sausages, bacon and steak, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, fries, Yorkshire pudding, peas, carrots, gravy, ketchup, and, for some strange reason, peppermint humbugs.
JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, published 1997

“Hold hard a minute, then!” said the Rat. He looped the painter through a ring in his landing-stage, climbed up into his hole above, and after a short interval reappeared staggering under a fat, wicker luncheon-basket.

“Shove that under your feet,” he observed to the Mole, as he passed it down into the boat. Then he untied the painter and took the sculls again.

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The Wren-Boys


A new Christmas poem by Carol Ann Duffy

The old year, a tear in the eye of time;
frost on the blackthorn, the ditches glamorous
with rime; on the inbreath of air,
the long, thoughtful pause before snow.

A star on the brow of a mule in a field
and the mule nuzzling the drystone wall
where a wren, size of a child’s lost purse,
hides in a hole. St. Stephen’s Day.

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Poem of the week: Visiting Star by Stanley Moss


A trick of the light provides the relaxed occasion for an irreverent contemplation of religious myths

Visiting Star

I woke at sunrise,
fed my dogs, Honie and Margie –
to the east a wall of books and windows,
a lawn, the trees in my family,
the donkeys and forest behind the hill.
Sunlight showed itself in,
passed the China butterflies on the window
so birds watch out, don’t break their necks.
On the back of a green leather chair for guests
facing me in sunlight and shadow, a sunlit Star of David,
two large hand spans square.
I call my wife to see the star
she first thinks I painted on the chair.
Soon she catches on -- no falling star.
We searched the room and outside.
How did the star come to be?
Without explanation. None.
The star visited a few minutes, disappeared,
or became invisible. Why?
I wondered if it was le bel aujourd’hui
or a holiday some Jews celebrate.
Playing fair, I told myself: watch out for
a crucifix anywhere before which
contrition saves condemned souls –
watch in the forest for portraits of the Virgin,
the wheel of Dharma down the road,
that teaches ‘save all living beings’,
when the moon is full a crescent moon
reflected on a wall or lake.
Watch for flying horses!
I read the news of commandments broken.
Thou shalt not kill.
I write between the lines
Thou shalt not steal
seventy-five years from the life of a child.
Next day, I found my Star of David
was a glass sun and star reflection of
a tinkling shimmering wind chime made in China.
A pleasing, godless today fills my study.

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Poet Robin Coste Lewis: 'I am an artist through to my marrow'


Brought up in Compton, Lewis overcame brain damage to become a poet, and this year won the National Book Award for The Voyage of the Sable Venus, which eloquently expresses her preoccupations with bodies, art and race

At age six, Robin Coste Lewis told her aunt that she wanted to be a writer. This, she thought, meant being a novelist.

“I thought that if one wanted to be a writer, one had to write novels because I didn’t know that one could be a poet,” says Lewis, whose debut collection Voyage of the Sable Venus won this year’s National Book Award for poetry. She believed this in middle school, high school, college, graduate school, and afterward while teaching, and trying to write fiction. She believed it when she published She Has Eight Arms But Only Shows Me Two in the Massachusetts Review, a work that she thought was a short story, “even though all my poet friends at the time were like, ‘Girl, that’s a prose poem.’”

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Rudyard Kipling: an unexpected revival for the ‘bard of empire’

‘Vulgar rabble-rouser’, ‘rootless cosmopolitan’, ‘mouthpiece of the empire’ … Kipling has had his share of detractors. But, 150 years after his birth, interest in India’s greatest English-language writer is growing

There’s a dilapidated bangla (bungalow) in the grounds of the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai that commemorates the nearby birthplace of Rudyard Kipling. But it’s not the actual spot where one of India’s greatest English language writers (arguably the greatest) was born to the school’s principal, John Lockwood Kipling and his wife Alice, 150 years ago this month, on 30 December 1865 – that has long since disappeared. And, apart from a plaque that seems to have a shifting presence, there’s really not much to show for Rudyard himself. Efforts by the Indian and state governments, as well as private foundations, to turn the place into a museum, or something appropriate to Kipling, have foundered, largely because Indians can never quite decide what they think about him.

They are not alone. Kipling, the “bard of empire”, has always been difficult to place in the cultural pantheon. Britain, too, has done remarkably little to officially mark the sesquicentenary of its first winner (in 1907) of the Nobel prize for literature (and still the youngest ever from anywhere).

There are, currently, two new big-screen animated versions of his timeless classic The Jungle Book in the works

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Claudia Rankine: ‘Blackness in the white imagination has nothing to do with black people’

The award-winning poet on Serena Williams, her emotional book signings and why racism is inescapable

Your book, Citizen: An American Lyric, has won the National Book Critics’ Circle poetry award in the US, the Forward in the UK and is shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize. It exposes racism in the US at its most violent and at its most nuanced. Why the title?
I called it Citizen because I wanted to ask: who gets to hold that status – despite everyone technically having it? How is it embodied and honoured? The title contains a question.

What the book does most powerfully is to make it clear that racism is everyone’s problem.
Racism is complicated. White people feel personally responsible for racism when they should understand the problem as systemic. It is interfering as much with their lives as with the lives of people of colour. And racism can lodge in them. It isn’t them yet it can become them if they are not taking notice.

I find it interesting to look at language itself and think about what language can do

Related: Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine review – the ugly truth of racism

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Poem of the week: The Three Rs by Kelly Grovier


A consideration of changing worlds, personal and planetary, with appropriately shifting registers

The Three Rs

The world always begins
with a phrase – instinctive,

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Poetry used as 'a perfect weapon' for recruiting violent jihadis, study finds


Arab cultural traditions have made poetry a potent tool for promoting extremism, according to research by Oxford academic

Poetry may be a potent tool in recruiting militant jihadis, a new study by Oxford academic Elisabeth Kendall has found.

Related: Why have jihadi terrorists swapped suicide belts for AK-47s?

I will fasten my explosive belt,
I will shudder like a lightning bolt
and rush by like a torrential stream
and resound like stormy thunder.
In my heart is the heart of a volcano.
I will sweep through the land like a flood.
For I live by the Qur’an
as I remember the Merciful.
My steadfastness lies in faith
so let the day of the Qur’an come.
For I live by the Qur’an as I remember the Merciful.
My steadfastness lies in faith
so let the day of the Holy Book come
to demolish the thrones of the tyrant.
My voice is the loudest voice
for I do not fear false clerics.
I will live and die for Allah.

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The therapy that taught me – slowly – how to help myself | Megan Beech

My life at university was overshadowed by depression and anxiety. Counselling was no quick fix, but gradually it changed my entire outlook

“I just worry about not having gained anything,” I mumbled anxiously at my therapist during our final session together in June this year. “Maybe it takes a while to truly know what you have gained from this experience,” she replied.

After two years of weekly meetings, copious amounts of sullied tissues, hours of talking, silence and contemplation all in the same tiny room overlooking the Thames, I couldn’t quite sense what I was taking away. The rewards of the experience didn’t await me neatly wrapped with a tag addressed to a newly well version of myself. The real gift I received through undertaking counselling was slow in the making. The ability to realise what had been given and received in the work we had undertaken together was similarly slow in revealing itself.

Related: The gift: small acts of kindness change the world for the better | Chibundu Onuzo

Related: Don’t be Sad: how to beat seasonal affective disorder | Norman E Rosenthal

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Big Bang Theory producers sued over use of Soft Kitty nursery rhyme

Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye obituary

Kenyan writer whose novels and poetry focused on the country’s postcolonial transformation and social development

The British-born Kenyan writer Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, who has died aged 87, told the story of her adopted country through novels about its downtrodden and dispossessed. Despite the challenges facing a postcolonial nation, she believed that the transformations it had to go through could be faced boldly, and equilibrium restored.

Murder in Majengo (1972), ostensibly a detective mystery cum political thriller, exposes the plight of poor young girls in the urban centres of newly independent Kenya, with its deepening inequality and injustice. It was republished with its sequel, Victoria, in 1993. Coming to Birth (1986) merges the development of a raw peasant girl into a mature, self-reliant woman with the evolution of the Kenyan nation through the painful experiences of the state of emergency, the heady days of independence and the subsequent power struggle and political violence. It won the Sinclair prize, an award funded in the 1980s by the British inventor Sir Clive Sinclair.

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The Beautiful Librarians by Sean O’Brien review – a bleak and comic lament for lost England


A curmudgeonly portrait of British cultural life echoes Philip Larkin, WH Auden and Jim Royle

‘Poets grow older; verse turns from passion into habit: but only the first condition is inevitable.” When Sean O’Brien penned this statement a decade ago, he surely did so with a quiet commitment not to fall foul of it.

Whatever criticisms might be levelled at his oeuvre – a Collected Poems, published in 2012, is a brick-sized tome charting 40 years – a lack of passion isn’t one of them. His early collections are packed with urban pastorals and scenes of social realism, but also have a satirical spikiness, tackling history, class and politics. The hypocrisies of the powers-that-be – Tory governments in particular – come in for some hard-hitting flak. But so, too, do poet and audience, as our potential complicity is smartly scrutinised.

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Chinese publisher pulls 'vulgar' translation of Indian poet


Feng Tang’s interpretation of Nobel prize-winning Rabindranath Tagore criticised for lines such as ‘the world unzipped his pants in front of his lover’

A Chinese publisher has recalled the latest Chinese-language translation of a work by the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore after criticism in India that it was too vulgar and strayed too far from the original text.

Zhejiang Literature and Arts Publishing House announced this week that it would pull from shelves all copies of Tagore’s Stray Birds, translated by the Chinese writer Feng Tang, and would review the translation.

Related: Rabindranath Tagore was a global phenomenon, so why is he so neglected? | Ian Jack

Related: Rabindranath Tagore: the poet at 150 | Editorial

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The Observances review – a collaboration with the waves

Kate Miller’s brilliant debut is so steeped in the sea, it’s almost as if the ocean were co-author of these calm, elegant pieces

In The Observances, Kate Miller elevates the art of looking into something that is, if not strictly religious, devotional. This is a brilliant debut. Some of her poems resemble “found” art – her eye alights on what the less watchful would miss, she makes sense of the accidental, connects the arbitrary, creates form. In Regarding a Cloud, the first poem in the collection, she spots a “picknicker’s spoon with no handle”, which is “exposed/ by a scalping of growth/ and it’s upside down,/ mortared in mud”. The spoon becomes a mirror, the poem a reclamation. The troubling No Place, about a homeless child, is another “found” piece. And in At the Dew Pond, West Dale, she spies a “tiny snake” in the “cool puree of a pond”. More splendidly intentional is And Now You, about a baby’s arrival in the world. Whatever the subject, looking takes time. This is reflected in the calm elegance of these pieces.

Miller is painterly too (she studied art history at Cambridge before becoming an English lecturer at Goldsmiths). There is a virtuoso poem inspired by a Turner sketchbook, Colour Beginnings, in which she imagines the painter witnessing the burning of the Houses of Parliament, her words a wild impasto. In Lines to Convey Distance, she summons a less fiery palette: “Send me one hundred greys to catch the chill and whip of water.” The sea is almost her co-author, whipping at the book’s edges. But what I admire most is that the writing is sensuous without ever being slipshod. There is no luxurious surrender. Hers is an alert, defended gaze.

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Poem of the week: Poulain the Prisoner by Augusta Webster


An affecting 1881 triptych about the mysterious artist-prisoner who left a mural on the wall of a medieval French prison

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Olwyn Hughes obituary


Literary agent with a fearsome reputation who was devoted to the work of her brother, Ted Hughes, and the posthumous literary life of his wife Sylvia Plath

In a photograph of Ted Hughes from his youth, the poet is cradling a large mirror. It reflects his sister, Olwyn Hughes, holding a box camera: the combination of their images symbolises how, from the age of 35 until her death at the age of 87, she devoted herself to his service and then his memory.

Her life was changed by a letter she received in Paris in February 1963: “Dear Olwyn, On Monday morning, at about 6am, Sylvia gassed herself.” Later that year, she gave up the job and the city that she loved in order to help her younger brother bring up his children, three-year-old Frieda and one-year-old Nicholas, from his marriage to the poet Sylvia Plath. In Frieda’s earliest memories, the tall woman with the high thin nose and the often scolding manner was assumed to be a mother, not an aunt. During this period Olwyn translated a French novel, The Return by Michel Droit, which was published by Andre Deutsch.

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Museum asks for help finding 1,000 first editions of Theodore Roethke debut


Theodore Roethke Home museum in Michigan asks owners of hand-numbered copies of Open House to get in touch, for ‘census’ to mark 75th anniversary of poetry collection

A quest to find as many as possible of the 1,000 hand-numbered copies of the great US poet Theodore Roethke’s debut collection, Open House, has been launched to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the work’s publication.

The Theodore Roethke Home museum in Saginaw, Michigan, is describing the project as a census, and is asking anyone who owns one of the 1,000 first editions to get in touch. “The fact that each copy of Open House is hand-numbered gives each a unique personality. We’d like to hear about the books from their owners and what Roethke poem most resonates with them,” it said as it launched the search on Facebook.

Related: Quiz: 2015 in books – how closely were you reading?

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Poster poems: clay


That from which the first man was made, or the ground in which nothing grows … clay has associations with both creation and decay. Send us your poems about the sticky stuff, either way

When you hear the word “soil”, you tend to think of growth, organic life, fertility. “Clay” is another matter entirely. It’s dead, sticky and wet, it sucks you down, nothing grows in it, it’s useful only to the potter. While this may be a little unfair to the stuff, I suspect that this is how most of us view it.

But there is another side to clay. In the Bible creation story, as in many other similar myths, God made the first man from clay, and this association of clay and flesh endures in modern literature.

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Not in This World by Tracey Herd review – a study of private betrayal and public performance

The ‘sexy suffering’ of shattered Hollywood dreams inform a long-awaited collection from the Scottish poet

There has been a long interval between Tracey Herd’s second collection, Dead Redhead (2001), and the Scottish poet’s welcome return with Not in This World, which has been shortlisted for next week’s TS Eliot prize. While there are clear lines of continuity with her previous work, the mythopoeic element in her imagination has come decisively to the fore. In the arresting opening poem, “What I Wanted”, a snowy night finds the narrator “watching / a dark figure disappear; / then I would slip out fearlessly, / sure-footed and fleet, / with my magnifying glass / and pocket torch to follow / the tracks that led off as far / as a child’s eye could see, / and then a little further”. Fairytale, the Secret Seven and Nancy Drew converge in what we may infer are the final moments of innocence.

A child’s wish to be inside the story – to lead the life of the imagination – is no defence against what might be waiting there. What Peter Porter called “fictions to be real in” may hold dangers of their own, particularly when, as in myth, past, present and future can be simultaneously to hand in a single scenario. In “Glass House”, for example, the speaker already knows her fate – to be standing in a hall of mirrors, sexually betrayed, a pawn – before it has happened, because it is permanently taking place.

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