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Behind the Enigma by John Ferris review – inside Britain's most secret intelligence agency

21 October, by Luke Harding[ —]

From codebreakers at Bletchley Park to the crisis surrounding whistleblower Edward Snowden … an authorised history of GCHQ

In July 2013 two GCHQ representatives arrived at the Guardian’s offices in Kings Cross, London. They brought a mysterious rucksack. In a windowless basement the pair supervised the destruction of laptop computers: three sweaty hours of bashing and grinding. The bits were fed into a microwave-like demagnetising box. Then the visitors left.

Under legal threat from David Cameron’s government, the Guardian had agreed to destroy top secret documents provided by the whistleblower Edward Snowden. The exercise was part pantomime, part Stasi. Duplicate copies of the Snowden files, as the Guardian’s then editor Alan Rusbridger told No 10, sat on a server in New York.

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Top 10 books about the Himalayas | Ed Douglas

https://www.theguardian.com/travel/tibetplay episode download
21 October, by Ed Douglas[ —]

Along with spectacular adventures, these books record a richly diverse culture that has often been missed in accounts of derring-do

The Himalayas are the highest mountains on Earth, the stupendously wild boundary between India and Tibet and a magnet for countless adventurers, missionaries and spiritual seekers. Yet the region is no empty wilderness – it is the home of a richly diverse human population with a longstanding literary tradition. Writing my history of the Himalayas required an Everest-sized reading list, but when I’d finished compiling my bibliography I felt I needed to say more. There were lots of weighty histories but I realised the soul of this amazing world lay elsewhere, in fiction, memoir and poetry. Until recently, few writers from the region have cut through to anglophone readers.

That’s beginning to change. Writers such as Manjushree Thapa and Prajwal Parajuly, shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas prize for his debut short story collection The Gurkha’s Daughter, have built followings in Europe and North America. Some seminal work from previous decades is getting translated, one shining example being the Darjeeling writer Indra Bahadur Rai. Historians are also starting to break down the exotic myths that coloured our view of this extraordinary but misunderstood part of the world. This then is my selection of books that catch the human texture and shape of the world’s highest mountain range. Some of the writers were born there; some are outsiders with a particular insight. All, I think, are very readable.

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Ghosts by Dolly Alderton review – a sharp-eyed debut

21 October, by Michael Donkor[ —]

Comfortable tropes are mixed with darker themes in a zeitgeisty comic novel about thirtysomething life

Quick-witted Nina Dean, the heroine of journalist Dolly Alderton’s debut novel, is a likable food writer who lives in north London. The challenges she faces as a privileged single thirtysomething may, at first glance, seem like familiar terrain for a millennial novel to explore. Nina wrestles with generational conflict with her parents; the difficulties of maintaining friendships when husbands and babies arrive; and the quiet thrum of the biological clock alongside the vagaries of online dating and, more broadly, of a life increasingly played out online.

No doubt Nina’s sharp-eyed observations on these zeitgeisty issues will remind many of Alderton’s bestselling memoir Everything I Know About Love and the conversations on her The High Low podcast. In Ghosts, the social commentary is often showcased in satirical set pieces where, occasionally, slightly laboured jokes undermine the overall comic force. Nevertheless, these comic turns often made me chuckle: the depiction of a hen do dominated by a passive-aggressive maid of honour is brilliant. The subsequent wedding with the best man’s speech delivered by a “childhood friend who, regrettably, was in an improv group in his spare time which explained the numerous wigs and props that he used [in his] rambling anti-anecdotes” is sharply done too.

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Joe Biden by Evan Osnos review – a story of survival

21 October, by Julian Borger[ —]

After a lifetime of tragedies and dashed hopes, will he finally triumph? And what would it mean if he does?

With the US election nearly upon us, Joe Biden has such a significant lead nationwide and in the battleground states that in normal times he would be virtually assured of becoming the nation’s 46th president. But these are far from normal times and the Democratic camp is on edge. They remember Hillary Clinton’s seemingly commanding lead four years ago that turned to dust on election day.

And this time there are also serious concerns over whether the incumbent will admit defeat and surrender the presidency. Donald Trump has refused to give that guarantee and has questioned whether postal ballots should be counted. “I feel good about where we are,” Biden tells Evan Osnos. “But I know that it’s going to get really, really ugly.”

It is not just the Democratic nightmare of 2016 and Trump’s dark threats that keep Biden’s supporters up at night – there is the candidate himself, He will soon turn 78, and would be the nation’s oldest president. The contender “has parted with youth grudgingly”, Osnos notes drily, pointing to his “reforested” hairline and his “becalmed” forehead.

As this strange campaign has unfurled under the shadow of a pandemic, his frailty has sometimes broken through the surface gloss. When Biden walked out under the lights for his first debate with Trump in Cleveland on 29 September, he looked thin and sickly pale, a pallor only enhanced by the bright orange glow of his opponent.

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A Brief History of Seven Killings: unwieldy, occasionally tedious – and magnificent

20 October, by Sam Jordison[ —]

A book about Bob Marley, told by everyone but Bob Marley – in the vein of Gay Talese or James Ellroy, Marlon James’s Booker winner brings in a dozen competing voices

Marlon James says that when he was writing A Brief History of Seven Killings, he wanted it to be “a novel that would be driven only by voice”. The book may tell the story of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976, but it’s the people around the star who dominate the narrative.

As Carolyn Kellogg wrote in the LA Times: “There are patois-speaking street thugs, CIA operatives, Jamaican gang leaders, a magazine writer, a displeased ghost, an American hitman, and a woman who slept with the singer just that once.” And that’s just the start. There are almost a dozen competing voices all offering different viewpoints, opinions, and motivations, all speaking in varying forms of English, from US governmental formality to Jamaican poetry and slang.

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Chris Hoy: 'I had no natural ability as a cyclist!'

20 October, by Stuart Jeffries[ —]

The Olympic hero has written Be Amazing, an inspirational book for children that reveals how they too can be champions, with help from Stoic philosophy, sports psychology – and Beyoncé

It was Steven Spielberg’s fault. “I was six when I saw ET,” says Sir Chris Hoy. “It changed my life. I wasn’t interested in cycling at all before. The bikes I’d seen in Edinburgh just seemed functional things for getting from A to B. Then I saw those BMX bikes on screen and I was hooked. It wasn’t the scene where they cycle across the sky, but when they get chased by the police and they’re doing jumps and skidding round corners. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen. I wanted to do that.”

He dreamed of getting a £110 Raleigh BMX bike for Christmas. “A lot of money in those days. But my parents, being canny Scots, had different ideas. Dad picked up a £5 bike from a jumble sale, stripped it down, sprayed it black, put on new grips and some BMX stickers.” Four years later, Hoy was leading in the semi-final of a BMX world championship race when disaster struck. “Immediately after the last jump, my foot slipped and no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get it back on the pedal fast enough. Two riders overtook me and I lost a place in the final. I was in tears afterwards.”

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Gulf royal accused of sexual assault must go, says Hay literature festival

https://www.theguardian.com/world/united-arab-emiratesplay episode download
20 October, by Sian Cain[ —]

Curator of Hay’s inaugural festival in Abu Dhabi has accused Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan of sexual assault, which he denies

Hay literature festival will not return to Abu Dhabi until a senior Gulf royal is removed from his post as the United Arab Emirates’ minister of tolerance, after the curator of the inaugural Hay festival in the country accused him of sexual assault.

Caitlin McNamara was the curator of the first sister festival in Abu Dhabi, which was feted as an opportunity to promote freedom of expression, human rights and women’s rights in the UAE. In an interview with the Sunday Times, she accused Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan of sexually assaulting her on 14 February, 11 days before the festival began.

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?

19 October, by Guardian readers and Sam Jordison[ —]

Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from the last week.

First, a report from lazalex, who has written in just before reading the last paragraph of John Steinbeck’s East Of Eden:

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Poem of the week: It Was As If a Ladder by Jane Hirshfield

19 October, by Carol Rumens[ —]

This enigmatic symbolic narrative has unsettling resonance for our times

It Was As If a Ladder

It was as if
a ladder,

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Azadi by Arundhati Roy review – at her passionate best

19 October, by Ashish Ghadiali[ —]

The author tackles Kashmir, Hindu nationalism and the dangers of being outspoken in this startling collection of essays

Arundhati Roy’s literary career has been one of a kind. Thrust into the limelight of the global publishing industry back in 1997 when her debut novel, The God of Small Things, won an advance of half a million pounds and then the Booker prize, she might have gone on to become a household name of cosmopolitan novel writing in the way that Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro had in the decades before.

Instead, she steered clear of the form altogether for the next 20 years (until the 2017 publication of her follow-up novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness), devoting her attention and profile in the meantime to prose nonfiction that has energetically uncovered skeletons in the closet of India’s economic growth story: the nuclear arms race with Pakistan; the thousands of indigenous people displaced by the Narmada dam project; the Maoist insurrection across the country’s tribal heartlands; and the issue of Kashmir’s longstanding and brutal military occupation.

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