Sam Leith rss

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

Fin-de-siècle Vienna, where Hobsbawm grew up. An ‘inextinguishable homesickness’ coloured everything he wrote

Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the 20th Century, by Eric Hobsbawm - review

23 March 2013
Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the 20th Century Eric Hobsbawm

Little Brown, pp.319, £25, ISBN: 9781408704288

Like many posthumous books from distinguished thinkers, this isn’t one. A book, I mean. Not really. The problem is that nobody seems to buy cobbled-together collections of previously published essays,… Read more

The son of an Italian shepherd, Jacques Inaudi (1867-1950) showed an astonishing aptitude for mental arithmetic from an early age — which attracted the interest of showmen, with whom he toured the world

Family differences

16 February 2013
Far From the Tree Andrew Solomon

Chatto, pp.976, £30, ISBN: 9780701176112

Andrew Solomon’s simple and powerful guiding idea in this book is that there are two sorts of identity that affect your place in the world. Your ‘vertical identity’ is what… Read more

A time of hectic gaiety and abandon: at the height of the Blitz, dancers relax backstage at the Windmill theatre. Its famous slogan, ‘We Never Closed’, was popularly rendered as ‘We Never Clothed’

Love among the ruins

19 January 2013
The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War Lara Feigel

Bloomsbury, pp.514, £24.99, ISBN: 9781408830444

The phrase that gives this book its title is Graham Greene’s: The nightly routine of sirens, barrage, the probing raider, the unmistakable engine (‘Where are you? Where are you? Where… Read more


Doctor in distress

15 December 2012
In Two Minds: A Biography of Jonathan Miller Kate Bassett

Oberon Books, pp.488, £20, ISBN: 9781849434515

The passing of Jonathan Miller’s father Emanuel Miller — a very distinguished psychiatrist — was terrible. ‘His last words, as he reared up on his deathbed, were: “I’m a flop!… Read more

View of Singapore in the 19th century, with American, French and British shipping

Ace of bureaucrats

27 October 2012
Raffles and the Golden Opportunity Victoria Glendinning

Profile, pp.321, £25, ISBN: 9781846686030

Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) is a man whose name is now better known than his doings. Its syllables conjure a world-famous hotel, a prep-school, the former business class brand of… Read more

Miniature of the Queen by Nicholas Hilliard

The authorised version

22 September 2012
The History of England, Volume II: Tudors Peter Ackroyd

Macmillan, pp.507, £20, ISBN: 9780230706408

The first volume of Peter Ackroyd’s six-volume history of England took us from prehistory to the death of Henry VII. Now the great charabanc rattles on. Here is a fat… Read more


Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

25 August 2012
Sweet Tooth Ian McEwan

Cape, pp.320, 18.99, ISBN: 9780224097376

‘I’m trying to help you, Serena. You’re not listening. Let me put it another way. In this work the line between what people imagine and what’s actually the case can… Read more


Down the mean streets

21 July 2012
A Mysterious Something in the Light: Raymond Chandler, A Life Tom Williams

Aurum Press, pp.400, 20, ISBN: 9781845135263

One of the fun facts you occasionally hear people brandish about Raymond Chandler is that he was at Dulwich College with  P. G. Wodehouse. It’s a slight fiction —Wodehouse was… Read more