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Deborah Friedell

Deborah Friedell is an editor at the LRB.

‘The Testaments’

Deborah Friedell, 7 November 2019

After she wrote The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood created sci-fi dystopias – she prefers the term ‘speculative fiction’ – chock-full of viral pandemics, antibiotic resistance, mass flooding and forest fires, crop failure, mass extinction. No current anxiety is left behind. Governments become subservient to wicked multinationals; every other child has autism; coastal cities disappear one by one. In these novels, the status of women is no longer in dispute, just in time for the world to end, in a surfeit of ways, including starvation as a result of overpopulation. Atwood herself seemed to have moved on from the concerns of Gilead, even if her fans hadn’t, but then, she says, Trump’s election ‘put wind in my sails’. She wanted to answer the question: how does Gilead end?

Short Cuts: Jury Duty

Deborah Friedell, 23 May 2019

For months​ after I was summoned to appear for jury duty in North London, I couldn’t stop asking people – in England, in America – if they’d ever been called up too. The question worked less well here, where 65 per cent of people will never be jurors, but nearly all the Americans I talked to seemed to have done it – or to have got out of it by saying ‘I...

Silicon Valley Girl

Deborah Friedell, 7 February 2019

Elizabeth Holmes was said to be the ‘youngest self-made female billionaire’ of all time. And why not? Her invention was going to be the reason people – Americans first, but eventually everyone in the world – would lead better, healthier, longer lives. Why shouldn’t she have a private jet, a private chef, a team of bodyguards who would say into their mouthpieces: ‘Eagle One is on the move’? She would tell her investors: ‘We’re in a market for people who don’t like having a needle stuck in their arm.’ That is: her market was everyone who isn’t a masochist.

Diary: Eric, Sheena and I

Deborah Friedell, 24 May 2018

‘Have I told you about my old friend who’s married to the Republican governor of Missouri?’ Too often, the answer was yes, I had – sometimes more than once. My Sheena story was my best story, the anecdote that rarely failed, which was fortunate, because I couldn’t stop telling it, usually in the same way, even with the same pauses and hand gestures. At the end, I would play on my phone one of Eric’s earliest campaign ads, in which he shoots a machine gun into a field as he promises to take ‘dead aim at politics as usual’. ‘If you’re ready for a conservative outsider,’ he says, ‘I’m ready to fire away.’

At the Renwick: Death, in a Nutshell

Deborah Friedell, 25 January 2018

Behind​ the White House, next to Blair House, is the formidable Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (until 28 January) exhibits 19 ‘nutshells’, each one an exquisite example of miniature art in which a little doll has been stabbed to death, or drowned in the bath, or...

The Rorschach Test

Deborah Friedell, 2 November 2017

Psychologists who swear by the Rorschach often say they came to it only after initial scepticism, and they have the zeal of converts. Their stories often share a similar structure: distrust followed by an instance of a single subject who had seemed unremarkable apart from some strange scores on the Rorschach, then bam!, the psychologist reads in the newspaper that the subject has disemboweled an entire Girl Scout troop.

Short Cuts: Waiting to Vote

Deborah Friedell, 1 June 2016

What surprised​ me most when I became a British citizen was that I wouldn’t have to queue to vote. Even for the last general election, when turnout in my constituency neared 60 per cent, I walked straight into an empty booth. In the US, I would go to the polling station with friends so that we could chat while we waited, or bring some magazines. After my student days, I took it for...

Trump and Son

Deborah Friedell, 21 October 2015

Tom Sawyer cheats to win a Bible that he doesn’t want. He pretends to have memorised two thousand verses of the New Testament so that he can appear ‘great and conspicuous’. He’s undone when he’s asked to name the first two disciples. When Donald Trump said that the Bible was his favourite book, and then was asked by a reporter to name his favourite verse, he couldn’t lose because he refused to play: ‘I wouldn’t want to get into it because to me that’s very personal. You know, when I talk about the Bible it’s very personal.’

Corruption in America

Deborah Friedell, 19 March 2015

My mother​ once worked for a large American chemical corporation. When it made her an executive, all the usual things happened: she got a bigger office, and share options. She was no longer allowed to travel with more than a few other senior employees, to minimise the loss to the company if the plane went down. And among her new responsibilities, she was ‘invited’ to have...

Disaster Medicine

Deborah Friedell, 2 July 2014

When​ Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, ordered the city to evacuate for Hurricane Katrina on 28 August 2005, two days later than he should have, he exempted hospital staff. There were 2500 patients in hospitals and nursing homes, and no plan for getting them out. Memorial Medical Center had 238 patients, some of them moved there from another hospital, which had been considered less...

Amazon’s Irresistible Rise

Deborah Friedell, 5 December 2013

Jeff Bezos thinks of himself as a great man, and why shouldn’t he? ‘Our vision is to have every book ever printed, in any language, available in under 60 seconds.’ He wrote that ten years ago; now it’s almost true. When he graduated from high school, first in his class, he gave a speech to his classmates on how the fragility of the Earth required them to explore outer space and work towards rehousing humanity in orbiting space stations. He has used some of his fortune to turn 290,000 acres in West Texas into a giant laboratory for new spacecraft.

Lionel Shriver

Deborah Friedell, 20 June 2013

The novel is a gesture art. We don’t need to know more about Mr Bingley’s body than that he’s ‘wonderfully handsome’, or (at first) that Hans Castorp looks like ‘an ordinary young man’. We couldn’t describe them to a police sketch artist and expect to get anything back. Gatsby, first spotted, is ‘standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars. Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr Gatsby himself’ – that’s it – while Daisy’s face is ‘sad and lovely with bright things in it’.

In a Box

Deborah Friedell, 3 January 2013

George Washington’s last words to his physician were ‘do not let my body be put into the vault in less than two days after I am dead.’ That wouldn’t have been enough for Schopenhauer, who made his undertakers wait five days, or for Gogol, who didn’t want to be buried until he started putrefying. Chopin was dissected at his own request, as was King Leopold I of...

The Little House Books

Deborah Friedell, 22 November 2012

After the Vietnam War – or so the story goes – a little girl whose parents had fought the Communists in Laos was resettled with her family in St Paul, Minnesota. They didn’t like it. St Paul seemed noisy and expensive, and they worried about crime. But the little girl watched Little House on the Prairie: she knew there was a Minnesota town called Walnut Grove where girls in...

Murder in Florida

Deborah Friedell, 5 July 2012

On 16 October 1986 a maid went into a downtown Miami hotel room and found two dead bodies. One was tied to a chair, riddled with bullets; the other was kneeling, shot through the head. They were Derrick Moo Young, aged 53, and his son Duane Moo Young, 23, businessmen from Jamaica who had looked after properties in Fort Lauderdale owned by the man who would be accused of killing them, Krishna...

Dickens

Deborah Friedell, 5 January 2012

Only after Charles Dickens was dead did the people who thought they were closest to him realise how little they knew about him. His son Henry remembered once playing a memory game with him:

My father, after many turns, had successfully gone through the long string of words, and finished up with his own contribution, ‘Warren’s Blacking, 30 Strand.’ He gave this with an odd...

The Protectorate was over, the Commonwealth had failed. Charles II entered London on 29 May 1660, his birthday, and began hanging judges and reopening theatres. Tongue firmly in cheek, a royal patent lamented that ‘many plays formerly acted do contain several profane, obscene and scurrilous passages’: the solution was to have women’s parts henceforth played by women, as...

Short Cuts: ‘Donors Choose’

Deborah Friedell, 17 March 2011

For my brother’s Hanukah present, I paid for fourth-graders in Northern California to tour UC Berkeley (my brother went to Berkeley) and see a dance show (he likes dance). For his birthday two months later, I paid for chess sets for a school in Philadelphia: we grew up in Philadelphia, he plays chess. But usually when I fund projects on DonorsChoose.org – as anyone with a credit...

Condoleezza’s Childhood

Deborah Friedell, 20 January 2011

A month after she left the State Department, Condoleezza Rice signed a three-book deal, reportedly for more than $2.5 million. The first volume is the story of her childhood, about the parents who raised her with ‘high expectations and unconditional love’. What emerges is a kind of parenting how-to guide, if your goal is to raise a child like her – which she assumes it would...

Pearl Buck

Deborah Friedell, 22 July 2010

Pearl Buck was the favourite novelist of both my grandmothers, which like their shingle haircuts and their trust in authority, their Coca-Cola brisket, has always seemed an example of the unassimilable foreignness of their lives to mine. An entire generation fell in love with Buck: they made her dozens of books international bestsellers and gave her the Nobel Prize. No writer was more often...

Lorrie Moore

Deborah Friedell, 19 November 2009

‘Let yourself look into the abyss,’ commands Manage Your Mind: The Mental Fitness Guide. ‘Put into words the catastrophe that you fear . . . Sometimes it seems not too bad when it is brought out into the open.’ So what’s the worst thing that could happen? You lose your kid. Hardly! Try this: one of your kids kills the other one. Or one of your kids...

‘The Other Elizabeth Taylor’

Deborah Friedell, 6 August 2009

Do novelists come nicer than Elizabeth Taylor? Her mother died of politeness – she developed appendicitis over Christmas, and didn’t want to interrupt the doctor’s holiday – but rather than renounce good manners on the spot, her biographer Nicola Beauman writes, Taylor ‘cared about good manners very much indeed’ to the end of her days. So attentive a wife...

How Not to Marry if You’re a Millionaire

Deborah Friedell, 26 February 2009

Things to read when you’re between boyfriends and being on your own is making you miserable: The Trials of Claus von Bülow, When Husbands Come Out of the Closet, Romola, Hard Times. Wendy Moore’s history of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore, might not have been written to make lonelyhearts feel better, but its purpose would otherwise be obscure. The countess was as...

Mrs Dickens

Deborah Friedell, 11 September 2008

Too late, David Copperfield realises that he has married an imbecile: Dora is good-looking and affectionate, but she’s useless with a cookery book and incapable of managing servants. She calls her husband ‘Doady’ and begs him to accept that she can never be more to him than a ‘child-wife’. Worst of all, she will never be able to appreciate his genius. David...

Richard Price

Deborah Friedell, 17 July 2008

A cop has taken his wife to the movies to see something gentle by Ron Howard, but it finishes at the same time as Batman and Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 62, and as the three audiences collide, the cop finds himself surrounded by young entry-level drug dealers (runners, lookouts, bagmen), ‘every goddam kid I ever strip-searched, busted, smacked upside the head’. This is it, he...

Bernard Malamud

Deborah Friedell, 15 November 2007

In Philip Roth’s novel The Ghost Writer, 23-year-old Nathan Zuckerman, ‘already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman’, makes a jaunty pilgrimage to the clapboard farmhouse of Emanuel Lonoff, the great Jewish-American writer whose work Zuckerman admires but aims to surpass. Although Lonoff writes about Jews, he has secluded himself in the goyish New England countryside...

Short Cuts: First Impressions

Deborah Friedell, 16 August 2007

David Lassman, the director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath (Regency dress parade, bonnet-making workshops, ‘Tea with Mr Darcy’), submitted opening chapters and plot synopses of Austen’s novels to 18 British publishers and agents, changing just the titles and characters’ names. Lassman was ‘staggered’, he told the Guardian, when he received form letter...

Graham Swift

Deborah Friedell, 26 April 2007

In his essay ‘Why do people read detective stories?’ Edmund Wilson wrote that writers of suspense fiction claim an unfair advantage over other writers: the code that forbids reviewers from giving away their plots too frequently keeps their pointlessness from exposure. Which solutions don’t disappoint? The narrator did it. They all did it! The secret of Tomorrow is very far from thrilling, so far that its banality almost has to be the point.

Short Cuts: American Girls

Deborah Friedell, 8 March 2007

Edith Wharton’s characters are always getting into trouble at the theatre. In The Age of Innocence, it’s the place where Newland Archer first meets the disgraced Countess Olenska (and is mortified, because everyone sees her in his fiancée’s box), and where, during a production of Boucicault’s The Shaughraun, he’s drawn to her. There are rules, of course,...

From The Blog
8 May 2017

I haven’t talked to my college roommate in a while, but a mutual friend reminded me that her sister had roomed with Ivanka Trump at Georgetown. This would have been before Ivanka transferred to the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania, her father’s alma mater, from which – until recently, when someone checked the records – she said she graduated summa cum laude. I wrote to my old roommate immediately. What was Ivanka really like? Had she revealed anything about her family’s Russian banking interests? My old roommate wrote back: ‘Didn’t you mean to write “Happy Birthday”?’

From The Blog
20 January 2017

On Thursday, Wayne Barrett died of lung disease in Manhattan. He had written about Trump's business dealings for decades, mostly for the Village Voice, and for his book Trump: The Deals and the Downfall (1992), a portrait of a man who got ahead because of his willingness, at every stage of his career, to screw over anyone foolish enough to trust him. It was reissued last year as Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Deals, the Downfall, the Reinvention.

From The Blog
22 September 2016

Mormons vote for Republicans – everyone knows that. But they don’t like Trump. ‘Mormons place a high premium on being nice, and Trump is not nice,’ Matt Bowman, the author of The Mormon People, told ThinkProgress. After Mitt Romney said that Trump was a ‘phony, a fraud’ last March, Trump told a rally in Salt Lake City: ‘I have many friends that live in Salt Lake City – and by the way, Mitt Romney is not one of them. Are you sure he's a Mormon? Are we sure?’

From The Blog
20 April 2015

The director of Harvard admissions has said that being a ‘Harvard legacy’ – the child of a Harvard graduate – is just one of many ‘tips’ in the college’s admissions process, such as coming from an ‘under-represented state’ (Harvard likes to have students from all 50), or being on the ‘wish list’ of an athletic coach. For most applicants to Harvard, the acceptance rate is around 5 per cent; for applicants with a parent who attended Harvard, it’s around 30 per cent. (One survey found that 16 per cent of Harvard undergraduates have a parent who went to Harvard.) A Harvard study from a few years ago shows that after controlling for other factors that might influence admission (such as, say, grades), legacies are more than 45 per cent more likely to be admitted to the 30 most selective American colleges than non-legacies.

From The Blog
8 December 2014

Two years ago, the New Republic was bought by Chris Hughes, a millionaire many times over: he had been Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate at Harvard, and was one of the founders of Facebook. Last week, the man Hughes appointed as TNR’s chief executive officer — its first in 100 years – announced that it would no longer be a magazine but a ‘vertically integrated digital media company’; most of the editorial staff have resigned, including Leon Wieseltier, who for 31 years was the literary editor.

From The Blog
18 October 2011

On Saturday I sat the ‘Life in the UK’ test, a requirement for foreign nationals who want to apply for citizenship or permanent leave to remain. My nearest test centre was in a dingy basement off the Essex Road. The fluorescent lights weren't doing very well. The invigilators were stone-faced, a bit rude. I'd been forbidden from talking to or looking at my fellow immigrants, about 20 people, mostly men. While waiting for the test to begin all I had to look at was the cover of my American passport.

From The Blog
9 September 2011

Georgette Heyer's advice for novelists, from Jennifer Kloester's forthcoming biography: 1. Induce your publisher to hand over at once a sum of money grossly in excess of what the book is likely to be worth to him. This gives one a certain amount of incentive to write the thing, and may be achieved by various methods, the most highly recommended being what may be termed as The Little Woman Act. 2. Think out a snappy title. This deceives the publisher into thinking (a) that he is getting the Book of the Year; and (b) that you have the whole plot already mapped out. The only drawback lies in the fact that having announced a title you will be slightly handicapped when it comes to hanging some kind of story on to it.

From The Blog
22 August 2011

One of the more unlikely heroes in English literature is Dickens’s rent collector Pancks, a ‘dry, uncomfortable, dreary Plodder and Grubber’, who shows a ‘sagacity that nothing could baffle, and a patience and secrecy that nothing could tire' to determine that the Dorrits languishing in debtors’ prison are heirs to a fortune that ‘had long lain unknown of, unclaimed and accumulating’. No such sagacity would now be required, at least in America.

From The Blog
11 May 2011

'As if Joyce had sat down and written Sin City.' (Cape) 'If Fred Astaire had been a novelist he'd have been Paul Bailey.' (Bloomsbury) 'An homage to Miss Marple – or Miss Marple as a badass, paralysed Norwegian lesbian detective.' (Corvus)

From The Blog
18 March 2011

Recently published (and possibly available from the London Review Bookshop): Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star That Gave Us Life The Meerkats of Summer Farm: The True Story of Two Orphaned Meerkats and the Family Who Saved Them Trawlerman: My Life at the Helm of the Most Dangerous Job in Britain Life, on the Line: A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat The Wolf Within: How I Learned to Talk Dog I Remember, Daddy: The Harrowing True Story of a Daughter Haunted by Memories Too Terrible to Forget Young Michelangelo: The Path to the Sistine My Natural History: The Animal Kingdom and How it Shaped Me Schizophrenia: Who Cares?

From The Blog
7 October 2010

From Playing the Game by Belle de Jour: jeudi, le 03 novembre Sigh. My boys love me, they do. And do they ever know what sets my tiny heart a-racing. The last two of my birthday gifts have finally come through: from A2, a gift voucher from Figleaves; from A4, a subscription to the London Review of Books.

From The Blog
21 July 2010

'It's the kind of book Jane Austen would've written if she'd been male and hipper.' 'It's The Name of the Rose if Sean Connery's character was a conglomeration of self-aware spores instead of a medieval monk.' 'If Virginia Woolf had a younger sister with a passionate interest in icebergs – ' 'This book is probably the first introduction to disciplined introspection in over 100 years.' 'A powerful depiction of humanity personified.' 'George has fallen in love with Lucy. A prostitute. Worse, a robot.' 'No leader of modern times was more unique and more uniquely national than Charles de Gaulle.' 'James Brabazon has written a fully-adrenalised book.' 'If Joan London never writes another word, The Good Parents is more than enough.'

From The Blog
13 July 2010

'They laughed over the Harvardian eccentricities all around them. Visiting professors from the University of Oxford speaking with Oxford accents and publishing in the New York Review of Books, and American professors also speaking with Oxford accents but publishing in the London Review of Books.' – E.O. Wilson's Anthill.

From The Blog
5 July 2010

Two months before Richard Reid tried to blow up American Airlines 63 with his high-tops, he took a flight to Israel on El Al. The airline's security team questioned him, as they do all passengers, and couldn't find a reason not to let him fly; but his body was searched, his luggage was put through a decompression chamber and hand-checked, and an air marshal was put in the seat next to him. El Al likes to boast that the 9/11 hijackers would never have succeeded on one of their planes: I don't disbelieve them. Last week I flew from London to Tel Aviv and back on El Al.

From The Blog
19 August 2009

One of my wisdom teeth is coming in, and my dentist is on holiday. It’s my own fault: he’d warned me to have them taken out, and I hadn’t listened. On Monday, while waiting until I could take the next ibuprofen, I emailed intelligentdesign.org: ‘How do you account for wisdom teeth?’ The blessings of suffering?

looked for mentions of wisdom teeth in fiction. Up came the novels of Ian McEwan: a wisdom tooth extraction provides a suspected criminal with an alibi in Saturday, and in On Chesil Beach, when the boy kisses the girl, ‘he probed the fleshy floor of her mouth, then moved around inside the teeth of her lower jaw to the empty place where three years ago a wisdom tooth had crookedly grown until removed under general anaesthesia.’

From The Blog
1 February 2010

A selection of recent book dedications, the last two from the same novel: a prize for guessing who it's by. 'I'd like to thank my girlfriend... who travelled with me while I did the field work, and read through the whole manuscript at stages. Admittedly she was paid handsomely in fine Italian wine.' 'In Memoriam Matris' 'To Barack and Michelle Obama, and the future of American art' 'To complainers everywhere' 'to mine enemies, without whom none of this would have been possible' 'Animals possess a purity that exceeds even that of children and they have much to teach us, if only we will cease our arrogance and listen.

From The Blog
31 January 2010

Andrew O'Hagan's new novel, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe, will be published in May.

From The Blog
12 October 2009

Julian Shuckburgh's new biography of J.S. Bach includes images by Caroline Wilkinson, a 'forensic facial-reconstructor'. Wilkinson used laser scans of the Haussmann portrait and a bronze cast of Bach's skull to build computer models of the composer's head. Can new busts for gracing piano lids be far behind?

From The Blog
9 October 2009

'I am impressed by the diversity and range of the learning Ross Hamilton applies to a difficult and varied topic, largely invented by himself.' 'His work on philosophy, literature and psychoanalysis was described by Jacques Derrida as "superbe".' A woman's struggle to keep love alive, as her husband, John Clare, descends into madness.' 'Alan Bennett meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer.' 'Ben Dolnick is 23 and lives in New York. Ben's uncle, Arthur Golden, is the author of Memoirs of a Geisha.'

From The Blog
28 September 2009

Auctions are often plagued by something called the winner’s curse. The person who ‘wins’ the painting or Floridian land parcel usually pays too much for it. Unless the winner knows something that the other bidders don’t, he's probably overvalued the object: otherwise, why wouldn’t someone else in the room be willing to pay as much? But the online charity auctions run by raffle.it are in a format I hadn't encountered before – they seemed, possibly, curse free. Each of their auctions is like a regular raffle, except you get to choose your own number (only positive integers are allowed). The winner is whoever has the lowest unique number: if Anne has 2, Betty has 3, Cindy has 2 and Diana has 7, then Betty wins. Once you've chosen your number, you're told whether or not someone else has already gone for it.

From The Blog
7 September 2009

Only question asked by immigration official at LAX: 'Did you enjoy having Dennis Quaid on your flight?'

From The Blog
8 July 2009

Recently published (and possibly available from the London Review Bookshop): Fire: The Spark that Ignited Human Evolution Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens William Golding: The Man Who Wrote 'Lord of the Flies' We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals The Eiger Obsession: Facing the Mountain that Killed My Father Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man's Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionised Ocean Science The Atmosphere of Heaven: The Unnatural Experiments of Dr Beddoes and his Sons of Genius The Making of Miranda: From Gentleman to Gentlewoman in One Lifetime Bad Mother: A Chr

From The Blog
8 May 2009

I can’t have been the only one who was delighted when Barack Obama outed himself as a Trekkie while on the campaign trail last year, flashing Leonard Nimoy the Vulcan salute and assuring a Wyoming audience that despite his criticism of the bloated Nasa budget, the space programme was important to him: ‘I grew up on Star Trek. I believe in the final frontier,’ he told them. My president's a geek. More than that, Star Trek is a celebration of curiosity and self-improvement – and not a little socialist. Money has been abolished by the 24th century: ‘The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity,’ says Captain Picard. But an old piece in the LRB by Tom Shippey says that I have it wrong.

Letter
Deborah Friedell writes: I refer Claire Tomalin to Mark Bostridge’s letter and to pages 395-96 of her Dickens biography. There she notes inconsistencies in the usual account of Dickens’s death at Gad’s Hill and offers ‘another possible version of the events of Wednesday 8 June’, in which Dickens may have ‘made the familiar journey by train and cab to Peckham’,...

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