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20th Century

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It happened one summer

3 February 2010
The Pregnant Widow Martin Amis

Cape, pp.470, 18.99

For those unfamiliar with Martin Amis’s short story, ‘What Happened to Me on My Holiday’, written for The New Yorker in 1997, it was a purist exercise in autobiographical fiction;… Read more

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Not cowardly enough

20 January 2010
The Blasphemer Nigel Farndale

Doubleday, pp.413, 12.99

Nobody who reads Nigel Farndale’s The Blasphemer is likely to complain about being short-changed. Nobody who reads Nigel Farndale’s The Blasphemer is likely to complain about being short-changed. It tackles… Read more

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Continuity under threat

6 January 2010
Unwrecked England Candida Lycett Green

Oldie Publications, pp.218, 25

This handsome and encouraging book is perhaps unfortunate in its title. The suggestion is that the author has been forced to rummage among the wreckage that is England in order… Read more

Disunited from the start

25 November 2009
No Enchanted Palace Mark Mazower

Princeton, pp.232, 16.95

Twice in the 20th century, men have sought to create a new world order. The League of Nations, conceived with high hopes as a result of the Treaty of Versailles,… Read more

A lost masterpiece?

25 November 2009
The Original of Laura Vladimir Nabokov

Penguin, pp.304, 25

These long anticipated literary mysteries never end in anything very significant — one thinks of Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul, falling totally flat after decades of sycophantic pre-publicity, or Truman… Read more

Chic lit

11 November 2009
Redeeming Features Nicholas Haslam

Cape, pp.348, 25

First, I must declare an interest. I have never met Nicholas Haslam. As everyone else has, this makes me uniquely qualified to review his book without partiality. But not without… Read more

Facetious or scandalous?

11 November 2009
An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain John O’Farrell

Doubleday, pp.375, 18.99

The Making of Modern Britain Andrew Marr

Macmillan, pp.451, 25

Very funny guy, John O’Farrell. Very funny guy, John O’Farrell. His columns are a hoot and his excellent memoir, Things Can Only Get Better, turned me temporarily into an insomniac.… Read more

Was he anti-Semitic?

11 November 2009
The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume I 1898-1922 Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton (editors)

Faber, pp.871, 35

The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume II, 1923-1925 Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton (editors)

Faber, pp.878, 35

Letters give us the life as lived — day-to-day, shapeless, haphazard, contingent, imperfect, authentic. Letters give us the life as lived — day-to-day, shapeless, haphazard, contingent, imperfect, authentic. That is… Read more

Engrossing obsessions

4 November 2009
Blood’s a Rover James Ellroy

Century, pp.627, 18.99

With Blood’s a Rover James Ellroy finally finishes his ‘Underworld USA’ trilogy. With Blood’s a Rover James Ellroy finally finishes his ‘Underworld USA’ trilogy. It’s been eight years since the… Read more

Nothing succeeds like excess

4 November 2009
Cheever: A Life Blake Bailey

Picador, pp.770, 25

‘Why are you laughing?’ they demanded again and again, as Cheever tittered at some grindingly miserable memory from his youth, or some cruelty he’d inflicted on his children. What his… Read more

Rural flotsam

21 October 2009
Notwithstanding Louis de Bernières

Harvill/Secker, pp.275, 12.99

Notwithstanding’s suite of inter- linked stories draws on Louis de Bernière’s memories of the Surrey village (somewhere near Godalming, you infer) where he lived as a boy. Notwithstanding’s suite of… Read more

Voices of change

21 October 2009
Family Britain, 1951-1957 David Kynaston

Bloomsbury, pp.784, 25

Not every writer would begin a history of the 1950s with a vignette in which the young Keith Waterhouse treads on Princess Margaret by mistake. But David Kynaston is an… Read more

Spies and counter-spies

7 October 2009
The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 Christopher Andrew

Allen Lane, pp.1032, 30

The origin of this unique publication is the 1990s Waldegrave open government initiative, encouraging departments to reveal more. MI5 began sending its early papers to the National Archive and in… Read more

Jim’s especial foibles

30 September 2009
James Lees-Milne: The Life Michael Bloch

John Murray, pp.400, 25

As a young man in the 1970s Michael Bloch was the architectural historian and diarist James Lees- Milne’s last (if, we are assured, platonic) attachment, and later became his literary… Read more

Cries and whispers

23 September 2009
Strange Days Indeed Francis Wheen

Fourth Estate, pp.344, 18.99

The habit of dividing the past into centuries or decades might be historiographically suspect, but by now it seems unavoidable. And it is possible that, because we now expect decades… Read more