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Blair, Barnes and big reads: the books to look out for in 2016

From political autobiography to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, our culture editor rounds up the most interesting books of the year.

The publishing year begins with fond goodbyes to two writers known for their humanity and, in different ways, their gifts for storytelling. Henning Mankell, the creator of Inspector Wallander, and David Cesarani, an authority on modern Jewish history, died last October. Quicksand (Harvill Secker, February) is a collection of Mankell’s essays tackling “what it means to be human”, and in Final Solution: the Fate of the Jews 1933-49 (Macmillan, January) Cesarani draws on decades of scholarship to question assumptions about the causes of the Holocaust.

Many thought that by now we would also have bid farewell to Clive James and the Dr Feelgood co-founder Wilko Johnson, yet both, miraculously, have endured their illnesses. Johnson’s Don’t You Leave Me Here: My Life (Little, Brown, May) will consider his complicated relationship with mortality as well as his rock’n’roll youth. The prolific James has three books lined up: Collected Poems: 1958-2015 (Picador, April), Gate of Lilacs: a Verse Commentary on Proust (Picador, April) and Play All: a Binge-Watcher’s Notebook (Yale University Press, August), in which he gets to grips with the television box set streaming revolution.

It is not known whether Clive James and John le Carré have kissed and made up since James incinerated The Honourable Schoolboy in 1977 (“Already working under an assumed name, le Carré ought to assume another one, sink out of sight, and run for the border of his reputation”) but in September le Carré will finally publish a memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (Viking), which the publisher describes as “an exhilarating journey into the worlds of his ‘secret sharers’ – the men and women who inspired some of his most enthralling novels”.

In politics, autobiographies are also expected from the multi-talented Labour peer Joan Bakewell (Stop the Clocks, Little, Brown, February) and Malcolm Rifkind (Memoirs, Biteback, July), one of only four ministers to serve throughout the whole of both the Thatcher and Major premierships. For emotional honesty, look to midlife memoirs from Miranda Sawyer (Out of Time, Fourth Estate, June) and Marina Benjamin (The Middlepause, Scribe, June), or Maggie Nelson’s meditation on gender fluidity and motherhood, The Argonauts (Melville House, April).

In the arts, the world’s most successful performance artist, Marina Abramovic, tells her story (Fig Tree, November). And the world’s most divisive electronic musician, Moby, gives an account of his early career in Porcelain (Faber & Faber, June): Salman Rushdie welcomes it as “a life comically overcrowded, filthy, alcohol-fuelled, vegan, unbelievably noisy, full of spit and semen and some sort of Christianity; and often, suddenly, moving”.

Presumably a rather different sort of Christianity will be on display in Pope Francis’s first book published during his papacy, The Name of God Is Mercy, a “deep, simple and intimate dialogue” that will be released simultaneously in 84 countries (Bluebird, January). The NS contributor and former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams will assess St Augustine’s contribution to theology, philosophy and psychology in On Augustine (Bloomsbury, April).

Books about Islam are sadly outweighed by books about Islamic State. This year, publishers have unearthed some personal stories of defiance. The Girl Who Beat Isis by Farida Khalaf (Square Peg, May) is the true story of a Yazidi girl’s capture and escape from enslavement; Fighting Isis by Tim Locks (Sidgwick & Jackson, July) is the tale of a British former prison officer and bouncer who sold his house and joined a Christian militia group in Iraq. Bigger-picture accounts are offered in Chaos and Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East by Patrick Cockburn (OR Books, April) and The War of the End of Times: What the Islamic State Wants by Graeme Wood (Allen Lane, September), which is based on his influential report for the Atlantic magazine last year.

It was the threat of Isis (and the ensuing debate over bombing the group in Syria) that split Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party so badly in December. His strong views on foreign affairs are likely to be examined in what Biteback describes as the “first comprehensive biography”, Comrade Corbyn: a Very Unlikely Coup by Rosa Prince (February). Nick Clegg had his own unlikely coup back in 2010 and his book Politics: the Art of the Possible in an Age of Unreason (Bodley Head, May) will “draw on stories and lessons” from his time as deputy prime minister. But a bigger noise is likely to be made by Tom Bower’s Broken Vows: Tony Blair – the Tragedy of Power (Faber & Faber, March). Bower is a “big-game hunter”, an investigative reporter whose biographies have left lawsuits littered in their wake. What skeletons will fall clattering from the Blair cupboard when he prises open its doors?

Europe’s political economists are still trying to identify the best escape routes from the financial crisis. The former Syriza minister Yanis Varoufakis presents his case against austerity in And the Weak Suffer What They Must? (Bodley Head, April) and Thomas Piketty, whose Capital in the 21st Century caused a sensation in 2013, returns with Chronicles: On Our Troubled Times (Viking, April), a collection of his columns for the French newspaper Libération.

Russia is another headache for Europe. A Very Expensive Poison: the Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia’s War With the West by Luke Harding (Faber & Faber, March) is an in-depth investigation into what happened before, on and after 1 November 2006, when Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London. For deeper history, turn to Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian writer who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. Her Chernobyl Prayer is published in April by Penguin Classics; Second-Hand Time, a collection of first-hand pieces on nostalgia and the Soviet Union, had already been snapped up before her win by the enterprising Fitzcarraldo Editions, which will publish it in May.

In the US, this will be a year of constant political hectoring and point-scoring as the presidential election draws closer. The Second Amendment is held so dear by so many Americans that Barack Obama has conceded that it will be impossible to scrap it – but in 2016, gun control is at least on the debating agenda. Published as the country goes to the polls, A Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge (Faber & Faber, November) will take a day at random and explore the lives and deaths of all the young people who were shot dead that day. The state of America – and particularly its continuing racial crisis – is also addressed in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir The Beautiful Struggle (Verso, February) and in Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement by the renowned activist Angela Davis (Haymarket, January).

Back on home turf, London has its portrait painted from various angles – Ben Judah meets its denizens in This Is London: Life and Death in the World City (Picador, January) and Rowan Moore traces its changing physical fabric in Slow Burn City: London in the 21st Century (Picador, March). The aesthetics and identities of cities more broadly are examined by two architecture critics in All that Glitters: Architecture and the City of Spectacle by Tom Dyckhoff (Random House Books, June) and The Language of Cities by Deyan Sudjic (Allen Lane, July) – and the great malaise of urban living is ­diagnosed and explored by Olivia Laing in The Lonely City (Canongate, March).

How could societies of the future become fitter, happier, more productive? The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari had a global bestseller with Sapiens, his history of humankind. In September, Harvill Secker will publish Homo Deus: a History of Tomorrow, which promises to “set out the new agenda for the modern sapiens: achieving immortality, happiness and omnipotence”. Other notable science titles include The Gene: an Intimate History (Bodley Head, June) by Siddhartha Mukherjee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies, and Do Statins Work? by medicine’s arch-sceptic Ben Goldacre (Fourth Estate, June). In Rethink (Random House Books, June), Steven Poole tells the story of how ideas that once were ridiculed are now setting the scientific agenda.

The publishing industry thrives on anniversaries. July 2016 marks 50 years since England’s 1966 World Cup win. That milestone has prompted the Times football writer Henry Winter to examine where the national side has gone wrong since in Fifty Years of Hurt (Bantam, June), and, in a more celebratory mood, Bobby Charlton shares his Memories of ’66 (Yellow Jersey, June). Shakespeare died 400 years ago in April and Oxford University Press is publishing a tranche of books to mark the occasion, including Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book by Emma Smith (March). Meanwhile, the Hogarth Shakespeare project continues with “cover versions” of The Merchant of Venice (by Howard Jacobson, February), The Taming of the Shrew (by Anne Tyler, June) and The Tempest (by Margaret Atwood, October).

The big beasts of literary fiction are represented this year by Julian Barnes, with The Noise of Time (Jonathan Cape, January), set in Leningrad in 1937, and Don DeLillo, whose Zero K (Picador, May) describes a billionaire’s hi-tech efforts to cheat death. American novelists seem likely to dominate the autumn, with books from Ann Patchett (Commonwealth, Bloomsbury, September), Jay McInerney (Bright, Precious Things, Bloomsbury, September) and Cormac McCarthy (The Passenger, Picador, October). Jonathan Safran Foer and Lionel Shriver have written family stories against backdrops of national crisis: Here I Am (Hamish Hamilton, September), set in Israel, is Safran Foer’s first novel in ten years and Shriver’s The Mandibles (Borough Press, May) follows her politically loaded 2013 novel, Big Brother. The fifth (and penultimate) volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s celebrated My Struggle series, Some Rain Must Fall (Harvill Secker), is out in March, and Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, ten years in the writing, will be published by Fourth Estate in June.

Followers of the Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction, co-founded by the NS, will be pleased to see new novels by winning and shortlisted authors. Eimear McBride won the inaugural prize in 2013 with her debut; her new novel, The Lesser Bohemians (Faber & Faber, September), is “set across the bedsits and squats of mid-1990s north London”. Autumn by Ali Smith, who won in 2014, is out in August from Hamish Hamilton. Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake was shortlisted in 2014: the sequel, Beast (Faber & Faber, August), is set in the present day and finds Edward Buccmaster “a man alone on a Midlands moor in search of enlightenment”. The final instalment in the trilogy will be set a thousand years in the future. Kingsnorth also contributes, along with Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman and many others, to First Light (Unbound, May), an anthology celebrating Alan Garner, the influential author of The Owl Service and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, edited by the NS contributing writer Erica Wagner.

Other eye-catching fiction includes Augustown by the Forward Prize-winning poet Kei Miller (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, August), set in sprawling Jamaican suburbs; the debut novel from the Mercury Prize-nominated rapper Kate Tempest, The Bricks that Built the Houses (Bloomsbury, April); and two novels that give reality a sly tweak – Naomi Alderman’s The Power (Viking, November), picturing a society in which girls are physically more powerful than boys, and Dan Vyleta’s Smoke (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, July), in which, because sin is visible, “the rich are taught to control their sinful thoughts and live unstained lives”.

Raoul Moat’s sins were all too visible: in 2010 he shot three people, before killing himself, after a very public manhunt. Andrew Hankinson’s You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life (You Are Raoul Moat) (Scribe, February), is an account of Moat’s last days, that, written in the second person and drawing on diary entries and previously unheard tapes, reads like a novel.

The poetry highlight of the year is a new book from the late Seamus Heaney. In 2008, five years before his death, he spoke of “one Virgilian journey that has indeed been a constant presence and that is Aeneas’s venture into the underworld. The motifs in book VI have been in my head for years – the golden bough, Charon’s barge, the quest to meet the shade of the father.” Heaney’s verse translation, which he worked on up to a month before his death, will be published by Faber & Faber in March: a journey into the afterlife, in more ways than one. 

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.


This article first appeared in the 07 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue

Photo: NRK
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Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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