Sam Leith rss

The Merchant (left) and the Physician from the Ellesmere manuscript of the Canterbury Tales

A window on Chaucer’s cramped, scary, smelly world

17 January 2015
The Poet’s Tale: Chaucer and The Year that Made the Canterbury Tales Paul Strohm

Profile Books, pp.284, £15.99, ISBN: 97817812505945

Proust had his cork-lined bedroom; Emily Dickinson her Amherst hidey-hole; Mark Twain a gazebo with magnificent views of New York City. Where, then, did the father of English poetry do… Read more

Two small children dying together in the gutter in the Chinese famine of 1946

How Hitler's dreams came true in 1946

11 October 2014
1946: The Making of the Modern World Victor Sebestyen

Macmillan, pp.438, £21, ISBN: 9780230758001

I should begin this review, in the spirit of full disclosure, by admitting that I know the author very slightly. Something close to 14 years ago, we were on the… Read more

Tenements in the Gorbals area of Glasgow — considered some of the worst slums in Britain — are replaced by high-rise flats, c. 1960

Corrie and ready-salted crisps: the years when modern Britain began

13 September 2014
A Shake of the Dice: Modernity Britain 1959—62 David Kynaston

Bloomsbury, pp.459, £25, ISBN: 978408844397

In Burberry’s on Regent Street on a dank December day in 1959, David Kynaston records, ‘a young Canadian writer, Leonard Cohen [...] bought a not-yet-famous blue raincoat’. For those joining… Read more

Charles Scott Moncrieff (left) had a deep personal affinity with Proust (right). His rendering of 'À La Recherche du Temps Perdu' is considered one of the greatest literary translations of all time

Soldier, poet, lover, spy: just the man to translate Proust

16 August 2014
Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff: Soldier, Spy and Translator Jean Findlay

Chatto, pp.352, £25, ISBN: 9780701181079

Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff’s Englishing of Proust — widely and immediately agreed to be one of the greatest literary translations of all time — very nearly didn’t happen. Scott Moncrieff… Read more

‘There is nothin’ like a dame’ — nice songs, shame about the lighting: Mitzi Gaynor in ‘South Pacific’, 1958

Why movie musicals matter – to this author anyway

19 July 2014
Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter Richard Barrios

OUP USA, pp.288, £22.99, ISBN: 9780199973842

Do movie musicals matter? Most readers, even those who love them, will embark on Richard Barrios’s short history of the genre with the thought: not much. They’ll very likely, I’m… Read more

Aimé Tschiffely with Mancha and Gato. The strongest emotional bonds he formed on his epic journey were with his horses

A horse ride from Buenos Aires to New York? No problem!

14 June 2014
Southern Cross to Pole Star: Tschiffely’s Ride Aimé Tschiffely

Head of Zeus, pp.401, £25, ISBN: 9781781857205

Aimé Tschiffely was what I have seen in other contexts called a ‘doublehard bastard’. In the middle of the 1920s, this Swiss-born schoolteacher at the age of 30 feared that… Read more

Odysseus and the Sirens

If you ever wanted a Homeric jump-start, this is your book

17 May 2014
The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters Adam Nicolson

William Collins, pp.314, £25, ISBN: 9780007335527

As a teenager, like many of his class and generation, Adam Nicolson encountered Homer in Greek lessons. The subject matter seemed remote and uninteresting — ‘like someone else’s lunchtime account… Read more

Edward St Aubyn Photo: Getty

Shooting prize-dispensing fish in literary barrels

3 May 2014
Lost for Words Edward St Aubyn

Picador, pp.261, £12.99, ISBN: 9780330454223

Edward St Aubyn’s new novel is a jauntily malicious satire on literary prizes in general, the Man Booker Prize in particular and, it may be presumed, the 2011 Man Booker… Read more

Churchill reading in his library at Chartwell

Churchill was as mad as a badger. We should all be thankful

19 April 2014
The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor Jonathan Rose

Yale, pp.516, £25, ISBN: 9780300204070

Land sakes! Another book about Winston Churchill? Really? Give us a break, the average reader may think. Actually though, as title and subtitle suggest, this isn’t just another biographical study.… Read more

Orestes consults the oracle at Delphi (Roman, 1st century AD).

Management consultancy! Sculpture park! Sports stadium! The many faces of the Delphic Oracle

22 March 2014
Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World Michael Scott

Princeton University Press, pp.399, £19.95, ISBN: 9780691150819

‘In ancient times … hundreds of years before the dawn of history, lived a strange race of people … the Druids. No one knows who they were … or what… Read more

Self-portrait c.1872

The Artist Formerly Known As Whistler

22 February 2014
Whistler Daniel E. Sutherland

Yale, pp.440, £25, ISBN: 9780300203462

When James Whistler was two years old, he was asked why he’d disappeared from company and hidden under a table. ‘I’s drawrin,’ he replied. He started as he meant to… Read more

From left to right: Graham Greene, Muriel Spark and H.G. Wells

Reviewing reviews of reviews — where will it all end? 

25 January 2014
Lives in Writing David Lodge

Harvill Secker, pp.262, £18.99, ISBN: 9781909653580

About halfway through reading this collection of essays I had one of those hall-of-mirrors moments. These are mostly book reviews, you see: high-toned, long-form New York Review of Books-type review-essays,… Read more

Two faces of Bernard Berenson

How honest was Bernard Berenson?

14 December 2013
Bernard Berenson Rachel Cohen

Yale University Press, pp.288, £18.99, ISBN: 9780300149425

When the great Jewish-American art expert Bernard Berenson died in 1959, he had acquired the status of a sort of sage. He was the relic of a prewar culture that… Read more

Top of the happiness scale: Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims (English School, 15th century)

Look! Shakespeare! Wow! George Eliot! Criminy! Jane Austen!

16 November 2013
A Little History of Literature John Sutherland

Yale, pp.275, £14.99, ISBN: 9780300186857

Among the precursors to this breezy little book are, in form, the likes of The Story of Art, Our Island Story and A Brief History of Time and, in content,… Read more

Ullswater towards Helvellyn, where Wordsworth wandered lonely as a cloud

England’s 100 best Views, by Simon Jenkins - review

5 October 2013
England’s 100 Best Views Simon Jenkins

Profile, pp.352, £25, ISBN: 9781781250952

I couldn’t decide on starting England’s 100 Best Views whether it was a batty idea for a book or a perfectly sensible one. Why write about something that begs to… Read more

Signifying Rappers, by David Foster Wallace - review

14 September 2013
Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello

Penguin, pp.154, £8.99, ISBN: 9780880015356

Since his suicide, David Foster Wallace has made the transition from major writer to major industry. Hence this UK issue of a slender work of music history got up for… Read more

Christoph Amberger’s portrait of the Emperor Charles V, whose jaw was so prominent he could not eat in public

Danubia, by Simon Winder - review

7 September 2013
Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe Simon Winder

Picador, pp.530, £18.99, ISBN: 9780330522786

Why do we know so little about the Habsburg empire, given that it is the prime formative influence on modern Europe? Its pomp gave us the art, music, literature and… Read more

Portrait of Nikolai Rezanov painted just before he left Russia for the last time in July 1803.

Glorious Misadventures, by Owen Mathews - review

3 August 2013
Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America Owen Matthews

Bloomsbury, pp.385, £20, ISBN: 9781408822234

So: Russia’s imperial possessions on the Pacific North West of America. Remember those? No. Me neither. Something vague about the Russians flogging a bit of Alaska to the United States… Read more


Disraeli, by Douglas Hurd; The Great Rivalry, by Dick Leonard - review

13 July 2013
Disraeli: or, The Two Lives Douglas Hurd and Edward Young

Weidenfeld and Nicolso, pp.300, £20, ISBN: 9780297860976

The Great Rivalry: Gladstone and Disraeli A Dual Biography Dick Leonard

I.B. Tauris, pp.226, £22.50, ISBN: 9781848859258

‘Who the hell is Disraeli?’ This, as a gleeful footnote in Douglas Hurd and Edward Young’s new book reminds us, was the response of John Prescott when asked on television… Read more

‘Well, gentlemen, I think we all fought a good fight’(The Spectator, 16 October 1959)

The birth of modern Britain

15 June 2013
Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 1957-59 David Kynaston

Bloomsbury, pp.424, £25, ISBN: 9780747568931

‘Does history repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce?’ asked Julian Barnes in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. ‘No, that’s too grand,… Read more

Reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone National Park resulted in a boom in beavers, songbirds, otters, muskrats, fish, frogs, reptiles and even bears

Feral, by Geoge Monbiot - review

25 May 2013
Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding George Monbiot

Allen Lane, pp.336, £20, ISBN: 9781846147487

One of the greatest difficulties environmental activists have always had in the war for hearts ’n’ minds is that they so often seem priggish and negative. Everyone knows what they… Read more


Culture notes: The glory of the Flaming Lips

25 May 2013

Man, I love the Flaming Lips. Psychedelic rock sublimity. They movingly address the deepest human concerns without a whiff of irony, while also seeing the point of confetti cannons, dancing… Read more

Ascent of the Montgolfier brothers’ hot-air balloon 
before the royal family at Versailles in 1783

'Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air', by Richard Holmes - review

27 April 2013
Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air Richard Holmes

William Collins, pp.404, £25, ISBN: 9780007336925

‘Caelum certe patet, ibimus illi’ was the phrase blazoned on the side of the Royal Vauxhall, an 80-foot, red and white candy-striped coal gas balloon launched from Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens… Read more

'Levels of Life', by Julian Barnes - review

13 April 2013
Levels of Life Julian Barnes

Cape, pp.117, £10.99, ISBN: 9780224098151

‘You put together two things that have not been put together before and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.’ In this slim book Julian Barnes puts not two but three… Read more


Save The Borrowers

30 March 2013

In the disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow, a group of survivors shelters from an abrupt new ice age in the New York Public Library. They burn books to keep… Read more