Black swan

5 March 2011
Edith Sitwell: Avant Garde Poet, English Genius Richard Greene

Virago, pp.532, 25

At a time when publishers seem chary of commissioning literary biographies, the conditions for writing them have never been better. Major authors born in the 1890s and early 1900s were… Read more


A serious man

19 February 2011
Arthur Miller 1962-2005 Christopher Bigsby

Weidenfeld, pp.602, 30

For much of the second half of his life Arthur Miller was a man whose future lay behind him. The acclaimed American playwright, celebrated for classics such as The Crucible,… Read more

Care or cure?

5 February 2011
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer Siddhartha Mukherjee

Fourth Estate, pp.571, 25

Cancer is usually associated with death. For the cancer specialist, however, cancer is more about life: not just patients’ lives; the cancer itself often lives the life of Riley. If… Read more

Consummate con artist

5 February 2011
The True Story of Titanic Thompson Kevin Cook

Picador, pp.247, 12.99

‘Taylor, I dreamt of your lecture last night,’ the polar explorer Captain Scott was once heard to exclaim, after sitting through a paper on icebergs by the expedition physiographer, Griffith… Read more


Pig in the middle

22 January 2011
The Stranger in the Mirror: A Memoir of Middle Age Jane Shilling

Chatto, pp.241, 16.99

Writing an autobiographical account of middle age is a brave undertaking, necessitating a great deal of self-scrutiny at a time of life when most of us would sooner look the… Read more


Lessons for life

18 December 2010
A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers Michael Holroyd

Chatto, pp.258, 16.99

All modern biographies, one could say, are books of secrets; certainly all biographers during the past four decades have felt entitled to ferret around in their subject’s private as well… Read more


BOOKENDS: Inspiration for a cult hero

6 November 2010
Vivian and I Colin Bacon

Quartet, 12

This is an odd book: the exhaustive biography of a complete nobody. Vivian Mackerrell was the primary inspiration for the cult that is Withnail. In that, at least, he doesn’t… Read more


His own best invention

6 November 2010
Romain Gary: A Tall Story David Bellos

Harvill Secker, pp.518, 30

Just as it will sometimes happen that a critic feels obliged to preface a review with a declaration of interest, so I should now declare a lack of interest. Prior… Read more

Merging poetry and song

25 September 2010

The best book so far about Bob Dylan, the only one worthy of his oeuvre, is his own astonishing Chronicles, Volume One (2004), but while we wait for the next… Read more


Welsh wizardry and venom

18 September 2010
The Great Outsider: David Lloyd George Roy Hattersley

Little Brown, pp.709, 25

Paul Johnson reviews Roy Hattersley’s life of David Lloyd George No politician’s life is so difficult to write as Lloyd George’s. All who have tried have failed, and wise heavyweight… Read more


A charismatic narcissist

11 September 2010
A Journey Tony Blair

Hutchinson, pp.624, 25

In equal measure, this book is fascinating and irritating. The ‘Hi, guys!’ style grates throughout. From this, it is tempting to conclude that Tony Blair is incorrigibly insincere. But that… Read more


Spiv on a grand scale

11 September 2010
Members Only Paul Willetts

Sepent’s Tail, pp.479, 14.99

He insisted that he was not a pornographer but an entertainer, and told the Daily Herald that the Folies Parisienne (sic) — one of his early shows, featuring the ‘Harlem… Read more


Family favourites

11 September 2010
Wait for Me! Deborah Devonshire

John Murray, pp.370, 20

Because Deborah Devonshire’s journalism has nearly always made me laugh, and because she seems like one of the jollier aunts in P. G. Wodehouse — an Aunt Dahlia, not an… Read more


Land of lost content

11 September 2010
My Father’s Fortune Michael Frayn

Faber, pp.255, 16.99

Tom Frayn, says his son Michael in this admirable memoir, trod lightly upon the earth. He belonged to a class and a generation who didn’t think their story mattered. Even… Read more


Beating his demons

11 September 2010
Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl Donald Sturrock

Harper Press, pp.656, 25

Some of us are still startled that Wallace Stevens was 44 when he published Harmonium. So what to make of the fact that Roald Dahl was past the midpoint of… Read more


Ruling the planet

4 September 2010
The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World David Kirkpatrick

Virgin, pp.153, 11.99

‘Facebook’, says the excitable author of this hero-gram, ‘may be the fastest-growing company of any type in history.’ ‘Facebook’, says the excitable author of this hero-gram, ‘may be the fastest-growing… Read more


The motherland’s tight embrace

4 September 2010
A Mountain of Crumbs: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain Elena Gorokhova

Windmill Books, pp.323, 8.99

At nursery school, along with her warm milk, little Lena Gorokhova imbibed the essence of survival in the post-war Soviet Union. It consisted of a game called vranyo — pretence:… Read more


The laird and his legend

28 August 2010
Scott-Land: The Man who Invented a Nation Stuart Kelly

Polygon, pp.328, 16.99

‘Stuart Kelly’ the author’s note declares, ‘was born and brought up in the Scottish Borders.’ Not so, as he tells us; he was born in Falkirk, which is in central… Read more


Kin, but less than kind

28 August 2010
Shades of Greene: One Generation of an English Family Jeremy Lewis

Cape, pp.580, 25

About 100 years ago two brothers settled in the same small English town and raised 12 children. Charles Greene was a scholar, destined for the Bar, who blundered into schoolmastering… Read more


Young man on the make

28 August 2010
Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare

Cape, pp.554, 25

We are not going to agree about Bruce Chatwin. The five books he published in his lifetime are, to some readers, magnificent works of art, setting out grand ideas about… Read more


Way out west

21 August 2010
Lighting Out For the Territory Roy Morris Jr

v, pp.282, 17.99

This year America celebrates the cent-enary of Mark Twain’s death. This year America celebrates the cent-enary of Mark Twain’s death. He is the nearest that country gets to a national… Read more


Jail birds

14 August 2010
The Road to Low Newton Adrian Clarke

West Pier Press, pp.84, 35

Next to his photographs of 40 women who have spent time in Low Newton prison, Adrian Clarke has juxtaposed short accounts from each of how she got there. Low Newton,… Read more


Doing what it says on the tin

14 August 2010
Andy Warhol: His Controversial Life, Art and Colourful Times Tony Scherman and David Dalton

JR Books, pp.440, 25

If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it. Much… Read more


Dramatic asides

14 August 2010
Scribble, Scribble, Scribble Simon Schama

Bodley Head, pp.427, 20

‘I Scribble, therefore I am’: this Cartesian quip is typical of Simon Schama, as is the comprehensive subtitle: ‘Writings on Ice Cream, Obama, Churchill and My Mother,’ among other topics,… Read more


Girls from the golden West

14 August 2010
Sisters of Fortune: Marianne, Bess, Louisa and Emily Caton Jehanne Wake

Chatto, pp.394, 25

Who was the first American to marry an English duke? Most students of the peerage would say it was Consuelo Yzagna who married the eldest son of the Duke of… Read more