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Book review

Bookends

#Onyourmarks! What is the formal name for the hashtag? 

26 October 2013

One day there simply won’t be any strange byways of the English language left to write quirky little books about. Happily that day hasn’t arrived yet. Keith Houston’s Shady Characters… Read more

The Florentine banking aristocracy worship the Christ-child in Botticelli’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’. 
On either side the scene is stacked with Medici sons, grandsons and associates

How to avoid bankers in your nativity scene

19 October 2013
The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Disease and Excess in an Age of Beauty Alexander Lee

Hutchinson, pp.592, £25, ISBN: 9780091944346

In the vast Benedictine monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore between Siena and Rome, the cycle of frescoes depicting the life of St Benedict by Giovanni Anionio Bazzi includes a charming… Read more

Detail of Sodoma’s ‘Life of St Benedict’ (1505), showing an unusual example of badgers as pets

A badger eats, squats, thieves. But should we cull them?

19 October 2013
Badgerlands Patrick Barkham

Granta, pp.369, £18.99, ISBN: 9781847085047

Lord Arran was responsible for the bill to legalise homosexuality and a bill to protect badgers from gassing and terrier-baiting. One, he said, had stopped people badgering buggers; the other… Read more

anno

How to get old without getting boring

19 October 2013
Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life in Time Penelope Lively

Penguin, pp.234, £14.99, ISBN: 9780241146385

When one notices the first symptoms of senile dementia (forgetting names, trying to remember the purpose of moving from one room to another, and so on), books can be wonderfully… Read more

Christopher Isherwood with W. H. Auden  (Photo: John F Stephenson/Getty Images)

The Rothschilds, the Spenders, the Queen...

19 October 2013
Becoming a Londoner: A Diary David Plante

Bloomsbury, pp.532, £20, ISBN: 9781408839751

The novelist David Plante is French-Québécois by ancestry, grew up in a remote Francophone parish in Yankee New England and came to London half a century ago when still an… Read more

Cat fight: tension mounts between the Great Powers in 1905 as Edward VII, Kaiser Wilhelm II and the French foreign minister, Théophile Delcassé, squabble over Morocco

What caused the first world war?

12 October 2013
The War that Ended Peace:How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War Margaret MacMillan

Profile Books, pp.656, £25, ISBN: 9781846682728

The centenary of August 1914 is still almost a year away, but the tsunami of first-world-war books has already begun. The government tells us that 1914 must be commemorated, not… Read more

Lucian Freud in his bedroom in Notting Hill, May 2011

Breakfast with Lucian, by Geordie Greig - review

12 October 2013
Breakfast with Lucian Geordie Greig

Cape, pp.272, £25, ISBN: 9780224096850

According to the medical historian Professor Sonu Shamdasani, Sigmund Freud was not the best, nor actually the most interesting, psychoanalyst in early 20th-century Vienna.  Rather, Freud’s genius lay in creating… Read more

T E Lawrence (Photo - Getty)

Clumsy and heavy, Goliath never stood a chance

12 October 2013
David and Goliath Malcolm Gladwell

Allen Lane, pp.320, £16.99, ISBN: 9781846145810

When we think of David and Goliath, we think of a young man, not very big, who has a fight with a terrifying opponent, and wins. We think of David… Read more

Mayonnaise: a key component of Soviet cooking

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, by Anya von Bremzen - review

12 October 2013
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing Anya von Bremzen

Transworld, pp.335, £16.99, ISBN: 9780857520234

The early 1990s in Russia were hungry years. At the time, I was a student, too idle to barter and hustle for food, and the collapse of the planned economy… Read more

‘The Goldfinch’ by Carl Fabritius, the theft of which is central to Donna Tartt’s new novel

Donna Tartt can do the thrills but not the trauma

12 October 2013
The Goldfinch Donna Tartt

Little, Brown, pp.771, £20, ISBN: 9781408704943

Donna Tartt is an expert practitioner of what David Hare has called ‘the higher hokum’. She publishes a long novel every decade or so. Her first book, The Secret History… Read more

Landseer’s portrait of Queen Victoria riding in Windsor Home Park four years after the death of Prince Albert

Queen Victoria, by Matthew Dennison - review

12 October 2013
Queen Victoria: A Life of Contradictions Matthew Dennison

Collins, pp.189, £16.99, ISBN: 9780007504572

When Prince Albert died in 1861, aged 42, Queen Victoria, after briefly losing the use of her legs, ordered that every room and corridor in Windsor Castle should be draped… Read more

What a coincidence

12 October 2013
Three Brothers Peter Ackroyd

Chatto, pp.240, £14.99, ISBN: 9780701186937

If you are going to read a novel that plays with literary conventions you want it written with aplomb. In Three Brothers we are not disappointed, as Peter Ackroyd shows… Read more

A youthful portrait of the Dowager Empress

The Empress Dowager was a moderniser, not a minx. But does China care?

12 October 2013
Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China Jung Chang

Cape, pp.436, £20, ISBN: 9780224087438

For susceptible Englishmen of a certain inclination — like Sir Edmund Backhouse or George Macdonald Fraser — the Empress Dowager Cixi was the ultimate oriental sex kitten, an insatiable, manipulating… Read more

Basil Bunting, 1980
(Photo: Jonathan Williams/
Basil Bunting Poetry Archive, Durham University Library)

A Strong Song Tows Us, by Richard Burton - review

12 October 2013
A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting Richard Burton

Infiniteideas, pp.608, £30, ISBN: 9781908984

How minor is minor? ‘Rings a bell’ was more or less the response of two English literature graduates, now successful fifty-somethings, when asked what the name Basil Bunting meant to… Read more

Diana Cooper,with her son John Julius Norwich in London, 1944

Darling Monster, edited by John Julius Norwich - review

12 October 2013
Darling Monster: The Letters of Diana Cooper to her son John Julius Norwich, 1939–1952 John Julius Norwich

Chatto, pp.528, £25, ISBN: 9780701187798

It must have been awful for Diana and Duff Cooper to be separated from their only child during the war, but we can be grateful for it because it’s a… 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

‘Fourteen Sunflowers’, 
 the version 
in the Neue
Pinakothek,
Munich

The Sunflowers Are Mine, by Martin Bailey - review

5 October 2013
The Sunflowers Are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece Martin Bailey

Frances Lincoln, pp.240, £25, ISBN: 9780711232983

‘How could a man who has loved light and flowers so much and has rendered them so well, how could he have managed to be so unhappy?’ This was Claude… Read more

Colonel Georges Picquart

An Officer and a Gentleman, by Robert Harris - review

5 October 2013
An Officer and a Spy Robert Harris

Hutchinson, pp.496, £18.99, ISBN: 9780091944551

The Dreyfus Affair, the furore caused by a miscarriage of justice in France in 1894, is a source of perennial interest. It raises questions of national identity, political morality and… Read more

Christmas Day truce of 1914

Meeting the Enemy, by Richard Van Emden; 1914, by Allan Mallinson - review

5 October 2013
Meeting the Enemy: The Human Face of the Great War Richard van Emden

Bloomsbury, pp.384, £20, ISBN: 9781408821640

1914: Fight the Good Fight Allan Mallinson

Bantam, pp.503, £25, ISBN: 9780593067604

The Great War was an obscene and futile conflict laying waste a generation and toppling emperors. Yet here are two books that situate the horrors of trench warfare within a… Read more

(Image: Getty)

Guido Fawkes to Damian McBride: Who's spinning now?

5 October 2013
Power Trip Damian McBride

Biteback, pp.320, £20, ISBN: 9781849545969

When Gordon Brown eventually became aware that his Downing Street was about to be engulfed in the Smeargate scandal, he called Damian McBride to try to get to the bottom… Read more

In it together? Matthew d'Ancona's book on the coalition is a huge letdown, says Peter Oborne

5 October 2013
In It Together Matthew d’Ancona

Penguin, pp.432, £25, ISBN: 9780670919932

There are two ways of being a political journalist. One is to stay on the outside and try to avoid being compromised by too much contact with politicians. This approach… Read more

Robert Southey with his daughters was considered  the most responsible of the Lake Poets.

Anorexia, addiction, child-swapping — the Lake Poets would have alarmed social services

5 October 2013
The Poets’ Daughters: Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge Katie Waldegrave

Hutchinson, pp.416, £25, ISBN: 9780091931124

The last time the general reader was inveigled into the domestic intensities of the Wordsworth circle was by Frances Wilson in The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. She engaged delicately with… Read more

Stephen King isn't as scary as he used to be, but 'Doctor Sleep' is still a cracker

5 October 2013
Doctor Sleep Stephen King

Hodder, pp.485, £19.99, ISBN: 9781476727653

Though alcohol withdrawal is potentially fatal, booze has none of the media-confected glitz of heroin (imagine Will Self boasting of a Baileys Bristol Cream addiction). The 17th-century word for the… Read more

Licensed to feel: The new James Bond fusses over furnishings and sprinkles talc

5 October 2013
Solo Wiliam Boyd

Cape, pp.336, £18.99, ISBN: 9780224097475

First, an appalling admission: I have never read any of Ian Fleming’s Bond books. Nor have I read any of anybody else’s, the number of which seems to grow with… Read more

Making It Happen, by Iain Martin - review

5 October 2013
Making It Happen Iain Martin

Simon and Schuster, pp.344, £20, ISBN: 9781471113543

Fred Goodwin’s descent from golden boy of British banking to ‘pariah of the decade’ would be the stuff of tragedy if the former Royal Bank of Scotland chief were not… Read more