From the bestselling, award-winning author of Middle England comes a profoundly moving, brutally funny and brilliantly trueportrait of Britain told through four generations of one family
In Bournville, a placid suburb of Birmingham, sits a famous chocolate factory. For eleven-year-old Mary and her family in 1945, it’s the centre of the world. The reason their streets smell faintly of chocolate, the place where most of their friends and neighbours have worked for decades. Mary will go on to live through the Coronation and the World Cup final, royal weddings and royal funerals, Brexit and Covid-19. She’ll have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Parts of the chocolate factory will be transformed into a theme park, as modern life and the city crowd in on their peaceful enclave.
A “marvelous” (Lauren Groff) and “gentle, mysterious and profound” (Marina Abramović) novel about a woman who has come undone.
A student moves to the city to research Gothic nudes, renting an apartment from a painter, Agnes, who lives in another town with her husband. One day, Agnes arrives in the city and settles into the upstairs studio.
In their meetings on the stairs, in the studio, at the corner café, the kitchen at dawn, Agnes tells stories of her youth, her family, her marriage, and ideas for her art – which is always just about to be created. As the months pass, it becomes clear that Agnes might not have a place to return to. The student is increasingly aware of Agnes’s disintegration. Her stories are frenetic; her art scattered and unfinished, white paint on a white canvas.
What emerges is the menacing sense that every life is always at the edge of disaster, no matter its seeming stability. Alongside the research into human figures, the student is learning, from a cool distance, about the narrow divide between happiness and resentment, creativity and madness, contentment and chaos.
White on White is a sharp exploration of empathy and cruelty, and the stunning discovery of what it means to be truly vulnerable, and laid bare.
Maggie O’Farrell’s “Hamnet,” one of last year’s most widely acclaimed novels, imagines the life of William Shakespeare, his wife, Anne (or Agnes) Hathaway, and the couple’s son Hamnet, who died at 11 years old in 1596.
On this week’s podcast, O’Farrell says she always planned for the novel to have the ensemble cast it does, but that her deepest inspiration was to capture a sense of the young boy at its center.
“The engine behind the book for me was always the fact that I think Hamnet has been overlooked and underwritten by history,” she says. “I think he’s been consigned to a literary footnote. And I believe, quite strongly, that without him — without his tragically short life — we wouldn’t have the play ‘Hamlet.’ We probably wouldn’t have ‘Twelfth Night.’ As an audience, we are enormously in debt to him.”
In 2018, Michael Lewis published “The Fifth Risk,” which argued, in short, that the federal government was underprepared for a variety of disaster scenarios. Guess what his new book is about? Lewis visits the podcast this week to discuss “The Premonition,” which recounts the initial response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It wasn’t just Trump,” Lewis says. “Trump made everything worse. But there had ben changes in the American government, and changes in particular at the C.D.C., that made them less and less capable of actually controlling disease and more and more like a fine academic institution that came in after the battle and tried to assess what had happened; but not equipped for actual battlefield command. The book doesn’t get to the pandemic until Page 160. The back story tells you how the story is going to play out.”
The historian Annette Gordon-Reed visits the podcast to talk about her new book, “On Juneteenth,” which combines history about slavery in Texas and Juneteenth with more personal, essayistic writing about her own family and childhood.
“This is a departure for me, but it is actually the kind of writing that I always thought that I would be doing when I was growing up, dreaming about being a writer,” Gordon-Reed says. “I’ve always been a great admirer of James Baldwin, and Gore Vidal’s essays I thought were wonderful, better than the novels, and that’s the kind of thing that I wanted to do. So it was sort of a dream come true for me to be able to take this form and talk about some things that were very important to me.”
Also on this week’s episode, Tina Jordan looks back at Book Review history during this year of its 125th anniversary; Alexandra Alter has news from the publishing world; and Parul Sehgal and John Williams talk about the latest in literary criticism. Pamela Paul is the host.
Here are the books discussed by the critics this week:
On a special LARB Book Club episode of the Radio Hour, Boris Dralyuk and Medaya Ocher are joined by George Saunders, author of four collections of virtuosic short stories and of the novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the 2017 Man Booker Prize.
His latest work is A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. Examining individual works by Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, and Nikolai Gogol from a variety of angles, Saunders teases out lessons for writers and readers alike. During the conversation, he discusses what fiction can teach us about ourselves and each other, shares his experiences teaching these stories over the past two decades, and reflects on the role of humor in his work.
What can a travel writer learn from staying at home? Anne McElvoy asks the prolific travel author Paul Theroux about the virtues of being homebound during the pandemic.
The author of “Under the Wave at Waimea” reveals that his friend and one-time foe V.S. Naipaul inspired a character in his new book about big-wave surfing in Hawaii. Also, verbal fencing with his sons Louis and Marcel and his ultimate travel destination.
In this week’s episode of ‘The Chiefs’, Monocle’s editorial director Tyler Brûlé is joined by BMW Motorrad’s chief designer Edgar Heinrich. They discuss why the future of the two-wheeler is looking bright and the innovative design process behind the upcoming CE 04.
Interview with Dr. William Feldman on a new federal price-transparency rule and legal challenges to efforts to increase access to pricing information.
William Feldman is a physician and researcher in the Division of Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacoeconomics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Stephen Morrissey, the interviewer, is the Executive Managing Editor of the Journal.