Damien Hirst: Mom took my art seriously when I became a crossword clue

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In an interview with CNN’s Becky Anderson, artist Damien Hirst talked about his art career and what it was like becoming a household name.

My favourite Ishiguro: by Margaret Atwood, Ian Rankin and more

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Never Let Me Go

Margaret Atwood

A Kazuo Ishiguro novel is never about what it pretends to be about, and Never Let Me Go is true to form.

Its narrator, Kathy H, is examining her school days at a superficially idyllic establishment called Hailsham, which raises children cloned to provide organs to “normal” people. They don’t have parents, they can’t have children. Once grown, they’ll serve as “carers” to those already being harvested; then they’ll be harvested themselves.

This enterprise is wrapped in euphemism: the outer world is greedy for the benefits, but doesn’t wish to acknowledge the cruelty. Any objections once raised have now been overcome, and the situation is taken for granted – as slavery was once – by beneficiaries and victims alike.

Kathy H says nothing about the unfairness of her fate. Instead she’s focused on personal relationships: with her “best friend”, the bossy Ruth, and the boy she loves, the amiable Tommy. Ishiguro’s tone is perfect: Kathy prattles on as young girls do, registering every crush and cold shoulder and gang-up and spat. It’s all hideously familiar to anyone who ever kept a teenage diary.

Along the way Kathy solves a few mysteries. Why is it so important that these children make art? Why should they be educated if they’re going to die young? Are they human or not? There’s a chilling echo of the art-making children in Theresienstadt concentration camp, and of the Japanese children dying of radiation while making paper cranes.

What is art for? the characters ask. The notion that it must serve some clear social purpose has been around since Plato, and was tyrannical in the 19th century. Art does have a purpose in Never Let Me Go, but it isn’t the purpose the characters have been hoping for.

None of them thinks about running away … The 2010 film adaptation of Never Let Me Go. Photograph: Anonymous/AP

One motif at the very core of Never Let Me Go is the way out-groups form in-groups: the marginalised are not exempt from doing their own marginalisation. Even as they die, some of the donors form a proud, cruel little clique, excluding Kathy H because, not being a donor yet, she can’t really understand.

This is a brilliantly executed book by a master craftsman who has chosen a difficult subject: ourselves, seen through a glass, darkly

The book is also about our cannibalisation of others to ensure we ourselves prosper. The children are human sacrifices, offered up on the altar of improved health for the population at large. The reluctance of Kathy H and her pals to confront what awaits them – pain, mutilation, death – may account for the curious lack of physicality in Kathy’s descriptions of their life. Nobody eats anything much in this book, nobody smells anything; even the sex is oddly bloodless. But landscapes, buildings and the weather are intensely present. It’s as if Kathy has invested a lot of her sense of self in things removed from her own body, and thus less likely to be injured.

Finally, the book is about our wish to do well. The children’s poignant desire – to be a “good carer”, then to be a “good donor” – is heartbreaking. This is what traps them in their cage. None of them thinks about running away, or about revenge upon the “normal” society. In Ishiguro’s world, as in our own, most people do what they’re told.

Tellingly, two words recur. One is “normal”. The other is “supposed”, as in the last words of the book: “wherever it was that I was supposed to be going”. Who defines “normal”? Who tells us where we are supposed to be going? Such questions are always with us, and become crucial in times of stress.

The people in Never Let Me Go aren’t heroic; the ending is not comforting. Nevertheless, this is a brilliantly executed book by a master craftsman who has chosen a difficult subject: ourselves, seen through a glass, darkly.

The Buried Giant

Ian Rankin

Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, a tale concerning the morality of genetic research and specifically cloning, gave the clue that the author was keen to resist compartmentalisation. Readers had to wait 10 years for his next full-length prose work, a full-blooded fantasy novel concerning a quest to slaughter a terrifying monster. The action plays out in the Dark Ages, in a post-Arthurian England populated by heroes, wizards, spells and swordcraft. The story starts with a husband and wife, Axl and Beatrice, whose long-term memories are vague at best – as is the case with everyone around them. They do, however, feel that they once had a son, and they set out to find him. Along the way they encounter a Saxon warrior called Wistan, and also Sir Gawain (of Green Knight fame). Gawain will tell them of King Arthur and his slaughter of the Saxons. Wistan meantime has a quest of his own – his task is to find and kill the dragon named Querig.

There is nothing tongue-in-cheek or postmodern about this. Ishiguro is not setting out to reinvent the fantasy saga. He seems to be a genuine fan of the form and The Buried Giant plays fair with readers and characters both. As a fan of Ishiguro rather than SFF, he drew me in from the outset, painting a vivid world and peopling it with a cast I cared about and wanted to follow as they met with adventures and misadventures. Ishiguro is incapable of writing a dull sentence. He also has deep empathy, and what emerges is a story of enduring love and human connections. The world of Axl and Beatrice is one where things forgotten can be as essential as things remembered. Peace between the once-warring tribes of Britons and Saxons is predicated upon the dragon’s powers. If that collectively erased memory should return, it brings the likelihood of fresh conflict and bloodshed.

On 5 March 2015 I engaged on a quest of my own. The queue ahead of me seemed worryingly long but I clutched my copy of The Buried Giant as a talisman against the chilly night. A sell-out crowd had just watched Ishiguro discuss his new book at Edinburgh’s Lyceum theatre. The signing afterwards took place in a building across the street, home to the Lyceum’s offices and rehearsal spaces. The author was seated at a table at the top of the stairwell, down which we fans snaked. There was excited chat between strangers, and I was a couple of dozen pages into the book before I reached my destination. I’d met “Ish” a few months previously at a Van Morrison event in London, so we chatted for a couple of minutes. I told him it had been many years since I’d read a fantasy novel. We also spoke about our wives’ roles in our work. He had ditched an earlier version of the book on his partner’s advice, meaning the book had had a much longer gestation than some of his other work.

“Worth it in the end, I hope,” he said, signing my copy with a flourish.

A week or so later, having finished the book, I really wanted to track him down to talk more with him about it. It is both action-packed and subtle. The buried giant of the title is not so much the dragon as the fury that may well accompany a sudden reinstatement of erased history. The question posed is: would we rather not know? It’s a theme found everywhere from Milan Kundera to The Matrix, and most recently explored in literature by the likes of Robert Harris’s The Second Sleep (set in the future) and Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill (set in the present). By grounding the theme in the Dark Ages and a world of myth and magic, Ishiguro gives it a fresh and unique spin.

He also has a lot of fun, as do we readers.

The Remains of the Day

Sarah Perry

I first read The Remains of the Day when I was 17, because I was required to for school. Since my tastes then ran to the melodramatic, I disliked the dry, self-defeating voice of its narrator, and bent grimly to what I thought would be a tedious bit of homework. What I encountered, in fact, was a novel so persuasive, and so desperately moving, that the following week the entire class escalated into a towering argument on the nature of love.

The novel begins in 1956, with Mr Stevens, a butler employed at Darlington Hall, preparing to drive to the West Country. Here he hopes to persuade Miss Kenton, a retired colleague, to return to Darlington as housekeeper. Stevens, it appears, would be incapable of stating that the sky was situated above the earth without appending a number of qualifications and caveats. His narration is peppered with anxious asides of “I should say”, “as I recall”, and “I assume”, and his mind endlessly circles the subject of the management of English country houses in general and Darlington Hall in particular.

Did Stevens love Miss Kenton, or not? The 1993 film adaptation of The Remains of the Day. Photograph: Allstar/Columbia Pictures

But all this constitutes a retaining wall built against landscapes of sorrow and loss, and Ishiguro’s achievement (matched, in this respect, perhaps only by Henry James in What Maisie Knew) is to allow the reader a full view of the land, while never once breaching the wall. So as Stevens makes his way through Salisbury and Taunton, musing on the nature of his profession and the vital importance of an adequate staff plan, the reader comes to understand – far sooner than the narrator himself – that Stevens has been destroyed by his own ideals of dignity and service; that the aristocratic family to which he dedicated his life were fascist collaborators and fools; and that he has squandered his solitary hope of romantic love.

The Remains of the Day is not tragic; it is sad, which is much worse

This is a novel that dismantles with terrible precision the absurdities of the British class system, but I suspect it may be most admired for its story of thwarted and misdirected love. It contains a brief but extraordinary moment in which Stevens, certain that Miss Kenton is weeping behind a closed door, cannot reconcile his own humanity with the dignities owed to his profession, and therefore does nothing. This was the cause of the argument at school: did Stevens love Miss Kenton, or not? With all the wisdom of a teenager who’d just acquired a boyfriend, I argued that he certainly did not love her, since love existed in action, and love was pretty weak stuff if it couldn’t make you open a door – but we didn’t resolve the matter then, and I’m not sure I’ve resolved it since.

The Remains of the Day is not tragic; it is sad, which is much worse. A cathartic sob over Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Ethan Frome is a comfortable business, since such operatically miserable lives are at a safe remove from the ordinary reader. Mr Stevens, however, arrives as a caution from a painfully plausible future: how easy it would be to waste a life, and to let love slip away like a handful of sand.

The Unconsoled

Rumaan Alam

The Unconsoled is quite long and so meandering it’s impossible to summarise, though I’ll give it a shot: Ryder, a famous pianist, is in some never-specified city, where he’s to perform, but finds himself entangled in a series of odd adventures. The novel’s reality shifts constantly – a character is introduced as a stranger to the protagonist, say, then revealed to be one of his relatives – and increasingly bizarre encounters derail our hero from his planned itinerary. It’s a confounding book, full of philosophical discursions, first only strange and then genuinely unsettling. It is one of my favourite novels.

Ishiguro knows how to seduce a reader. His first three novels – marvellous, each one – do so masterfully, via the direct address of narrator to reader, the clarity of language, the pure pleasure of a good yarn, well told. The Unconsoled is still Ishiguro, but the author is marshalling his powers of language and humour to a different aim; the book seems born of a desire to discomfit, even provoke.

The Unconsoled would be easier to make sense of were it the pure abstraction of experiment. Instead, it unfolds as scenes that are almost impossible to reconcile into a whole. The whole enterprise moves with the logic of a dream, and maybe reveals how much the act of reading is like that middle-of-the-night search for meaning when we’re woken from an especially vivid nightmare.

This is a novel about a pianist, and the many conversations about music – those aforementioned philosophical discursions – seem plainly to be the novelist wrestling with art itself. Ryder wants to perform his concert, but is constantly waylaid and distracted, and grows increasingly frustrated and exhausted. Seemingly every successful pop band makes a record about how hard it is to be so beloved; “I’ll do my very best for you, but I have to warn you, I may not be quite the influence I once was,” Ryder tells a crowd of well-wishers before his concert.

But Ishiguro isn’t just talking about himself. Ryder is haunted by a past he’s often barely able to remember. He finds himself in places (hotel rooms, apartments, cafes) that seem familiar but also profoundly changed. He’s just trying to get through the day, but beset at every turn by odd people and illogical circumstances. Nothing makes much sense. But he keeps going, from hotel room to apartment to café. It’s not about art, or not only; it’s about life itself.

When We Were Orphans

Madeleine Thien

When We Were Orphans follows Ishiguro’s masterwork, The Unconsoled, and precedes the blockbuster Never Let Me Go. And although both those novels are, for me, two of the great works of the last century, When We Were Orphans is the one closest to my heart. I was 26 when I first read it, and I remember closing the book and thinking: What in hell have I just read?

In When We Were Orphans, Christopher Banks, a celebrated English detective, recounts the events leading up to his parents’ disappearance in Shanghai, and his intention, decades later – as the Sino-Japanese war and the Chinese civil war explode into the second world war – to bring the case to a satisfactory close.

I’ve read a thousand other things in the meantime, but When We Were Orphans occupies my thoughts

At the time, I did not think the novel worked; many critics – and even Ishiguro himself – agreed with my very young self. But we were wrong. When We Were Orphans is like a house with all its windows blown out, furniture in disarray, walls twisted and collapsed – though both narrator and reader do not reel from this fact, and insist on moving about as if the world is in perfect order.

For 21 years this novel has gnawed away at me. I’ve read a thousand other things in the meantime, but When We Were Orphans occupies my thoughts, still bothering me with its questions: What if my clarity of thought has never touched reality? What if the fantasies of our childhoods, mixed in with childhood’s grief, are the obscuring coil around our adult lives? Have I completely misunderstood my own actions? What if we – and our governments – are only playing at knowing?

Through Banks’s companionable voice – his naiveté and courtesy, which constitute the very enclosures but also the integrity of his mind – When We Were Orphans unleashes a riveting and shockingly disorienting narrative of the appearance of power versus power itself. Its memoir-like garment flutters against the brutal reality of a city quartered into settlements of colonialism, nationalism, civil war and approaching totalitarianism. Reality is both mutilated and invented by the creation of multiple unrealities – and the horrific consequences are borne by people unseen and unregistered, not only by our protagonist but, chillingly, by us.

In Ishiguro’s creations, we move along a diagonal pane of glass, sliding down with every step we take. Banks glimpses – briefly but with alarming clarity – that the world is askew or that he has never seen things as they are. This knowledge dissolves as if on instinct so that he might, despite everything, persevere and survive as the person he imagines himself – that he needs himself – to be.

A variation of the detective-novelist walks through many of Ishiguro’s books, where forms of sight – hindsight, foresight, insight – are placed under scrutinising pressure. He continuously challenges our hope that a single person, by force of observation, can see into the centre of things. But this lack of clarity becomes a key that unlocks other rooms and other questions. What can we know and what eludes us always? By what morals, and with what hope, can we live within the shadows?

Fran Lebowitz’s One-Star Amazon Reviews

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Photograph by John Lamparski / Getty

In addition to being an author and public intellectual, Fran Lebowitz is also a prolific Amazon reviewer. Here are some of her most helpful one-star product reviews.

Garlic Salt (Three-Pack)

Are we this lazy?

We can’t chop garlic? We need to flavor salt?

Salt is a flavor. You understand?

Salt is already a flavor. We’re flavoring a flavor.

Welcome Mat (Seventeen Inches by Thirty Inches)

I don’t like welcome mats.

They set an expectation that a guest in my apartment will actually be welcome.

Which isn’t always the case.

Instead of “Welcome,” it should say “O.K. Fine. You’re here. I’m here. Let’s get this over with.”

And there should be another mat for on the way out that reads “You see? Was this really necessary? I think a phone call would’ve sufficed.”

“Ultimate Foodie Cookbook” (Hardcover)

I despise the term “foodie.”

I mean, how is this a personality?

“I like food”—how original.

Do you also like air? Water? Shelter?

Hammer (Sixteen Ounces, Craftsman)

What are we hammering?

Why do we, as humans, feel this need to put holes in things?

See, this is why I love New York. Everybody rents.

I’ve lived in my apartment for thirty-five years. I’ve never made a single hole.

There’s nothing hanging on the walls.

Even if I die here, I’m getting that security deposit back.

Rubik’s Cube (Hasbro)

You finish it. Now what?

Congratulations, you have a slightly more attractive cube.

Portable Cement Mixer (Ryobi)

Thank goodness it’s portable.

For when I need to mix cement, on the go.

You see, this is the problem with society. We’ve become so fixated on this idea of multitasking—getting multiple things done at once—that we can’t even mix cement without texting and eating a sandwich.

If your job is mixing cement, just focus on the cement, O.K.?

Lunch can wait.

Crayons (Crayola, Sixty-Four-Count)

You never see something written in crayon and think, Now this I gotta read.

The crayon is the tool of children and idiots.

If the Declaration of Independence were written in crayon, we wouldn’t be a country today.

No one would take it seriously. They’d go, “What is this, a placemat?”

Selfie Ring Light (with Tripod)

People have this need to be constantly filming themselves.

I don’t understand why.

They think that something interesting might happen. They don’t want to miss it.

Let me clue you in—nothing interesting ever happens.

Maybe ten truly interesting things happen per year.

None of them in your apartment.

Five-Piece Drum Set

The people who bought this product shouldn’t be reviewing it.

Their neighbors should be.

They’ll give you the honest review.

Amazon Echo Show 8 (Smart Display with Alexa)

I often think, There aren’t enough things spying on me. Let’s add another. But this time let’s cut out the middleman.

I mean, it’s truly something. People are intensely private.

And yet they will put a robot in their kitchen.

With a camera. And a microphone.

And talk to it.

What can I say?


Dry Shampoo (Pantene)


Coasters (Set of Five)

Listen, just by their name, they’re telling you they don’t do much.

They hold your drinks. That’s it.

Don’t expect anything more.

They’re coasters. They coast.

And, by the way, I endorse this as a general life style.

Paper Shredder (Amazon Basics)

Do you work for the C.I.A.? No?

Then let me save you some time—keep your documents in one piece.

Trust me. No one is rooting through your garbage. No one cares.

Once you learn that, everything in life will make sense. No one cares.

About you. Or about anything.

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” by J. K. Rowling

I’ve never read “Harry Potter.” I never will read “Harry Potter.”

Do you know why this is?

Because I’m not twelve. O.K.?

I’ve had people—adults, mind you—tell me that I need to read this.

“You need to read it.” No.

Eat. Sleep. Breathe. These are things I need to do.

Then there are the things I want to do. Which are not many.

So there are things I need to do, and things I want to do.

And I can tell you—“Harry Potter” is not on either list.

Metal Detector (Ace 300)

If you see an adult using a metal detector, you know something has gone terribly wrong.

He’s lost something. And I say “he”—you never see a woman with a metal detector. It’s always a man.

So he’s lost one of two things. His wedding ring. Or, more likely, his mind.

And he’s listening for beeps. He’s shut out the rest of the world. His friends. His family. He’s only focussing on . . . the beeps.

This is what happens when you have a country that’s obsessed with material wealth.

This is the last domino of American capitalism.

A man with a metal detector, looking for buried treasure.