Monthly Archives: February 2017

Roots of the problem: the controversial history of Alex Haley’s book

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A work of imagination … Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte and Christ Obi as Kintango in the new adaptation of Roots. Photograph: Unknown/BBC/A+E

Haley’s influential family saga about 18th century slavery is back on TV, but its literary reputation is still tarnished by questions of authenticity

This week saw both the debut on BBC4 of a star-studded mini-series based on Alex Haley’s Roots, and the 25th anniversary of Haley’s death on 10 February 1992. That the latter was not accompanied by a clutch of major reassessments testifies to his fascinatingly ambiguous status: he is the most-read African American author ever – The Autobiography of Malcolm X (which he co-authored with the black nationalist leader) sold 6m copies in its first decade, Roots sold the same number in its first year alone – yet is forever tainted by controversy and kept out of the canon.

What’s strange about the sniffiness towards Haley is that his impact was felt in literary fiction, as well as by the 130 million Americans who viewed the (much less classy) original adaptation of Roots in 1977. Published the previous year, the saga charts the lives of six generations of Haley’s family, starting with a putative 18th-century ancestor in the Gambia, Kunta Kinte, who is enslaved and transported to America, and put slavery and Africa back on the agenda. Before Roots, leading black novelists – Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin – had largely stuck to contemporary or recent-past American subject matter. But after it, Octavia Butler used time travel to explore slavery in Kindred (1979), Alice Walker deployed an African subplot in The Color Purple (1982) and Toni Morrison made a fugitive slave her protagonist in Beloved (1987).

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Smoke Over Malibu by Tim Walker review – hardboiled hilarity

 ‘LA is a secret city’ … Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California. Photograph: Alamy
‘LA is a secret city’ … Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California. Photograph: Alamy

He not only works in antiques but, by LA standards, lives in one: a “one-bedroom guest cottage behind a restored jigsaw gothic in Angelino Heights. The big house is as venerable as they come in southern California.” Kluge is a man out of time: he writes cheques and refuses to own a smartphone. When his house clearance partner asks him, “C’mon, you never heard of Bacon Ninja? It was like No 1 in the iTunes store for, like, six months,” Kluge replies: “Raul, I barely even know what that means.” He saves his biggest ire, however, for comic books – which he blames for ruining Hollywood.

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30 years of Culture: what are the top five Iain M Banks novels?

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Breaking science fiction apart … Iain Banks. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

These gritty space operas combine extravagant, high-tech invention with real human drama. Thirty years after they began appearing, here are some of the best

Our first image of Iain M Banks’s Culture universe is a man drowning in sewage: a stark precedent for what was to come. And 30 years after its first publication, Consider Phlebas remains a novel grimily opposed to the shiny rocketships and derring-do of most space opera. Banks broke the genre apart, and with a little inspiration from M John Harrison and Ursula Le Guin (and some outright theft from Larry Niven), he created a series of space opera novels that remains unmatched.

But for all his mastery of high-octane action sequences, and the sheer invention of his Big Dumb Objects, Banks’s science fiction – credited to M Banks, his fiction going without the middle initial – has lasted because his deft balance of galactic scope with human-scale stories. Stories of loss, grief, rebirth and self-discovery are the core of the best Culture novels. He did not write sci-fi and literary novels – he was a master of storytelling that combined both.

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The Blot: A Novel by Jonathan Lethem review – a gambler out of luck

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The ‘slick, fussy’ Raffles in Singapore, one of the hotels frequented by The Blot’s protagonist, Alexander. Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images
Jonathan Lethem runs out of moves in this story of a backgammon hustler facing the surgeon’s knife. This review’s scanning as a pick or a pan will depend on whether you read fiction for the process or the payoff. Jonathan Lethem’s 10th novel, The Blot, is engaging, entertaining and sharp for its first two-thirds. Then it goes to hell.

The Blot was published in the US as A Gambler’s Anatomy. Lethem’s protagonist being a professional backgammon player is a nice twist on a long narrative tradition of gambling stories, which more often prefer poker, roulette or blackjack.

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John Burnside: ‘Writing is what I steal from the usual flow of things’

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John Burnside … Illustration by Alan Vest

The prolific poet and novelist on insomnia, noise sensitivity and the glorious salvation of the writer’s residency

My writing day: say it like that and it’s a highly inviting proposition. Immediately, I picture the comfortable, mildly ritualistic routine of the self-sufficient author, immersed in the stylistic minutiae of some new, and still untarnished magnum opus, composing and then patiently reworking until the elegance of the prose is almost dizzying. Hour after hour of glorious solitude. Birdsong in the trees, light rain, perhaps the occasional, very distant sound of traffic as the city flows on around the garden studio, or the high attic room, where all this alchemy unfolds.

I think I once believed in this idyll, without reservation. Nowadays, however, I take anything I can get: an hour here, an afternoon there: every day is an improvisation. If I am awake, I am usually working, whether alone at home, or in a crowded station, or (weather permitting) a high meadow in the Swiss Alps. Often, the bewildered victim of a gamut of sleep disorders that, so far, have defied medical science, I can be found in our kitchen at three in the morning, pen in one hand, a cup of valerian tea in the other. Nevertheless, none of this constitutes what I understand by a writing day: like grace, or happiness, writing is what I steal from the usual flow of things, from all the noise and interruptions and the constant rendering unto Caesar that seems to take up more and more of everyone’s time and energy.

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