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Book reviews

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‘This time it will be different’

12 March 2011
Afgansty: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89 Rodric Braithwaite

Profile, pp.417, 25

There used to be two rules of successful imperialism. First, don’t invade Russia. Second, don’t invade Afghanistan. As Rodric Braithwaite points out, invading the latter country itself offers no real… Read more

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Ravishing beauty

12 March 2011
Ravel Roger Nichols

Yale, pp.432, 25

For a composer who gave so much delight to so many, Ravel occupies a peculiar position in 20th-century music. Stravinsky’s famous description, ‘the most perfect of Swiss clockmakers’, still brings… Read more

Pastures new

12 March 2011
Exorcising Hitler: The Occuption and Denazification of Germany Frederick Taylor

Bloomsbury, pp.438, 25

On 20 September 1949, five days after his election as Chancellor of the newly created German Federal Republic, Konrad Adenauer addressed the Bundestag: ‘Much unhappiness and much damage’, he told… Read more

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Massacre of the innocents

12 March 2011
The Killer of Little Shepherds: The Case of the French Ripper and the Birth of Forensic Science Douglas Starr

Simon & Schuster, pp.312, 16.99

‘La justice flétrit, la prison corrompt et la société a les criminels qu’elle mérite’ — Justice withers, prison corrupts, and society gets the criminals it deserves. ‘La justice flétrit, la… Read more

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The family plot

12 March 2011
Anatomy of a Disappearance Hisham Matar

Viking, pp.247, 16.99

Hisham Matar is a Libyan-American writer whose father, Jaballa — an opponent of Gaddafi — was kidnapped in Cairo in 1990. Hisham Matar is a Libyan-American writer whose father, Jaballa… Read more

Bookends: Deeply peculiar

5 March 2011

The kraken legend is often said to have been inspired by real sightings of giant squid, and this is why Wendy Williams in her Kraken: The Curious, Exciting and Slightly… Read more

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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

Recent crime novels

5 March 2011

Andrew Rosenheim is building a solid reputation for intelligent, thoughtful thrillers driven by character and theme rather than plot mechanics. His latest, Fear Itself (Hutchinson, £14.99), breaks new ground for… Read more

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A reluctant country

5 March 2011
The Pursuit of Italy: Italians and their Diversities from the Romans to the Present David Gilmour

Allen Lane, pp.446, 25

The unification of Italy 150 years ago was a terrible mistake, according to David Gilmour, imposing a national state on a diverse collection of people with little sense of patria.… Read more

Desk-bound traveller

5 March 2011
The London Satyr Robert Edric

Doubleday, pp.367, 16.99

The Lives of the Savages Robert Edric

P.S. Publishing, pp.126, 11.99

With a new novel each year, Robert Edric cannot have much time for courting London’s literary establishment, but does he stay at home in East Yorkshire? The London Satyr is… Read more

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In fine feather

5 March 2011
Beautiful Chickens Christie Aschwanden (photographed by Andrew Perris)

Frances Lincoln, pp.112, 12.99

The telephone rang and it was Mark Amory, literary editor of this magazine. You could have knocked me down with a feather when he asked me to review Beautiful Chickens.… Read more

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Planting a dream

5 March 2011
The Founding Gardeners: How the Revolutionary Generation Created an American Eden Andrea Wulf

Heinemann, pp.372, 20

Every schoolboy knows the story of six-year-old George Washington taking his ‘little hatchet’ to his mother’s prized cherry tree. Every schoolboy knows the story of six-year-old George Washington taking his… Read more

Death of the Author

5 March 2011
Today David Miller

Atlantic Books, pp.176, 12.99

The death of the Polish-born British novelist Joseph Conrad is the central event of David Miller’s debut novel. The death of the Polish-born British novelist Joseph Conrad is the central… Read more

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Bookends: Life underground

26 February 2011

For the first 17 days of their ordeal, the Chilean miners trapped underground last year were forced to ration themselves to one sliver of tuna every 36 hours. Less than… Read more

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Getting the balance right

26 February 2011
The Haves and the Have-Nots Branko Milanovic

Basic/Perseus Books, pp.272, 16.99

Branko Milanovic is the lead economist at the World Bank’s research department, a professor at the University of Maryland and a grand fromage at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace… Read more

So farewell, John Bull

26 February 2011
The Passing of Protestant England: Secularisation and Social Change c.1920—1960 S.J.D. Green

CUP, pp.333, 60

His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Fisher, keen to counter the dreadful spectre of the atomic bomb in the 1950s, observed that the very worst it could do would… Read more

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A negative outlook

26 February 2011
Civilization: The West and the Rest Niall Ferguson

Allen Lane, pp.432, 25

Why, the energetic historian Niall Ferguson asks in his new book, did a minority of people stuck out on the extreme western end of the Eurasian landmass come to dominate… Read more

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The messiah is betrayed

26 February 2011
WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy David Leigh and Luke Harding

Guardian Books, pp.340, 9.99

Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website Daniel Domscheit-Berg, with Tina Klopp

Cape, pp.282, 9.99

A monsoon of literature will eventually be written about the WikiLeaks story. Here are two of the first droplets. David Leigh and Luke Harding have delivered an enjoyable account of… Read more

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Hand over fist

26 February 2011
Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril King Abdullah II of Jordan

Allen Lane, pp.368, 25

When King Abdullah first started work on this political memoir two years ago, he can hardly have imagined how different the Middle East would look by the time of its… Read more

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Visions of boyhood

26 February 2011
The Timeline History of Harrow School Dale Vargas

Worth Press, pp.256, £25

Among the many photographs in this comprehensive history is one of a master in a clerical collar. He stares at the camera with a startled expression and looks out of… Read more

Desk-bound, needing to get out more

26 February 2011
Great House Nicole Krauss

Penguin/Viking, pp.289, 16.99

Great House is an ambitious novel, if it’s a novel at all. Great House is an ambitious novel, if it’s a novel at all. It’s an exploration of regret, longing,… Read more

Poetic licentiousness

19 February 2011
Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War John Stubbs

Viking, pp.549, 25

Reprobates were, in the Calvinist lexicon, those unfortunates not included among God’s elect and therefore sentenced to eternal damnation. Reprobates were, in the Calvinist lexicon, those unfortunates not included among… Read more

Hothouse hell

19 February 2011
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother Amy Chua

Bloomsbury, pp.235, 16.99

Amy Chua, Tiger Mother and John M. Duff Professor of Law at Yale, was born in the Chinese year of the tiger, and a tiger, she says, ‘the living symbol… Read more

A world of talking trees

19 February 2011
Henry's Demons Patrick and Henry Cockburn

Simon & Schuster, pp.222, 16.99

Patrick Cockburn is a foreign correspondent who has reported from war zones in Beirut, Iraq and Afghanistan. While he is covering the fall of the Taliban from Kabul in 2002,… Read more

The call of the wild

19 February 2011
Bird Cloud Annie Proulx

Fourth Estate, pp.234, 16.99

Annie Proulx (pronounced ‘Pru’) began her writing career — quite late, in her fifties — as E.A. Proulx, to baffle misogynist editors; then she was E. Annie Proulx, until she… Read more