The Russian connection

7 May 2011
The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and Those Who Read Them Elif Batuman

Granta, pp.296, 16.99

It’s impossible not to warm to the author of this book, a perky Turkish-American woman with a fascination with Russian literature and an irresistible comic touch. It’s impossible not to… Read more


. . . or sensing impending doom

23 April 2011
On Tangled Paths Theodor Fontane, translated from the German by Peter James Bowman

Angel Books, pp.192, 9.95

No Way Back by Theodor Fontane, translated from the German by Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers

Angel Books, pp.256, 11.75

‘What am I? A completely ordinary person from the so-called higher reaches of society. ‘What am I? A completely ordinary person from the so-called higher reaches of society. And what… Read more


Cuckoo in the nest

9 April 2011
Problem Child Caradoc King

Simon & Schuster, pp.324, 16.99

Caradoc King, the well-known literary agent, was adopted in 1948 as a baby into a family of three girls, shortly joined by a fourth, presided over by a difficult, unhappy… Read more


BOOKENDS: Hang the participle

5 February 2011

An awful lot of books are being published these days about the English language. David Crystal has a new one out every few weeks, and John Sutherland probably has half… Read more


Nowhere becomes somewhere

5 February 2011
Bright Particular Stars David McKie

Atlantic, pp.368, 25

There have been quite a few anthologies of British eccentricity. Usually they are roll-calls of the lunatic: a sought-after heiress so snobbish she finally gave her hand in marriage to… Read more


Names to conjure with

5 February 2011

Golly gee. Academic literary critics are going to hate Faulks on Fiction like sin. Here is Sebastian three-for-two Faulks, if you please, clumping onto their turf with a book of… Read more

Life & Letters: Memoirs as literature

15 January 2011

Laurence Sterne remarked rather a long time ago that they order these matters better in France, and happily this is still the case. Fifteen hundred teachers of literature recently protested… Read more


BOOKENDS: The Elephant to Hollywood

9 October 2010

The three knights of British cinema have taken disparate routes in their twilight years. Roger Moore jettisoned a hokum career for more worthwhile pursuits as a Unicef ambassador, while Sean… Read more

Angry old man

9 October 2010
Nemesis Philip Roth

Cape, pp.280, 16.99

Ecce Homo Erectus. Saul Bellow, John Updike … at 77, Philip Roth is the last of three giants still standing; and he actually does stand to write, at a lectern-like… Read more


Whine, whine, whine

9 October 2010
The Sixties: Diaries Volume II - 1960-1969 Christopher Isherwood, edited by Katherine Bucknell

Chatto, pp.800, 30

There came a moment, very early in my reading of the latest volume of Christopher Isherwood’s Diaries, when a spell was broken. The relevant entry, written at his beach home… Read more


Absurdly grandiose – and splendid

9 October 2010
The Lost City of Stoke-on-Trent Matthew Rice, with a foreword by Emma Bridgewater

Frances Lincoln, pp.19.99, 152

The Potteries are one of the strangest regions in the British Isles, and Matthew Rice’s The Lost City of Stoke-on-Trent celebrates their extraordinary oddity. The Potteries are one of the… Read more


. . . and they did to us

9 October 2010
The Blitz: The British Under Attack Juliet Gardiner

Harper Press, pp.431, 25

The craters are all filled in, the ruins replaced, and the last memories retold only in the whispery voices of the old. Apart from celebrating the resilience of our parents… Read more

What we did to them . . .

9 October 2010
Surviving Hitler's War: Family Life In Germany 1939-48 Hester Vaizey

Palgrave Macmillan, pp.252, 55

The perception of war changes, remarked the poet Robert Graves, when ‘your Aunt Fanny, the firewatcher, is as likely to be killed as a soldier in battle’. The perception of… Read more

Futile phantoms

9 October 2010
The English Ghost Peter Ackroyd

Chatto, pp.276, 12.99

But of course this new book is by Peter Ackroyd, celebrated biographer, historian and chronicler, a bit of a polymath, a man who has written wonderfully informative and erudite books… Read more


A race against time

9 October 2010
Palmerston David Brown

Yale, pp.555, 25

Lord Palmerston poses severe quantitative problems to biographers. His public life covered a huge span. Born in 1784, the year Dr Johnson died, he was nine years younger than Jane… Read more


Curiosities of literature

9 October 2010
Love, Sex, death and Words: Surprising Tales from a Year in Literature John Sutherland and Stephen Fender

Icon Books, pp.512, 20

Title Deeds: The Hidden Stories Behind 50 Books Gary Dexter

Old Street, pp.292, 12.99

Lordy. It’s another book by Professor John Sutherland, and a fat one at that. What David Crystal is to linguistics and James Patterson to thrillers, John Sutherland is to literary… Read more


Proscribed reading

17 July 2010
Politics and the Novel During the Cold War David Caute

Transaction, pp.403, 42.50

In 1948, Poland’s new communist government was badly in need of legitimacy and desperate for international recognition. So they did what any self-respecting left-wing government would do, back in those… Read more

Frustrating but enjoyable

7 July 2010
Heartbreak Craig Raine

Atlantic Books, pp.228, 12.99

If we didn’t already know that Milan Kundera is one of Craig Raine’s literary heroes, then it wouldn’t be too hard to work it out from his first novel. If… Read more


Secrets and silences

30 June 2010
Hancox: A House and A Family Charlotte Moore

Viking, pp.484, 20

Charlotte Moore’s family have lived at Hancox on the Sussex Weald for well over a century. Charlotte Moore’s family have lived at Hancox on the Sussex Weald for well over… Read more


Not as sweet as he seemed

16 June 2010
E. M. Forster: A New Life Wendy Moffat

Bloomsbury, pp.404, 25

There are already three biographies of E. M. Forster: P. N. Furbank’s two- volume, authorised heavyweight; Nicola Beauman’s less compendious, more engaging middleweight; and my own bantamweight, little more than… Read more


Odd men out

16 June 2010
Peter Pan’s First XIWG’s Birthday Party Kevin Tefler

Sceptre, pp.344, 16.99

The first game played by the Allahakbarries Cricket Club at Albury in Surrey in September 1887 did not bode well for the club’s future. The first game played by the… Read more


Our squandered national treasure

14 April 2010
The South Bank Show: Final Cut Melvyn Bragg

Hodder, pp.307, 20

Torn with grief, Melvyn Bragg has produced a condolence book for the South Bank Show (born 1978, died of neglect, 2010). These 25 vignettes, based on the best of his… Read more


Scourge of the ancien régime

14 April 2010
Voltaire Ian Davidson

Profile, pp.538, 25

Voltaire’s was a long and amazing life. Voltaire’s was a long and amazing life. He was tragedian, satirist, mathematician, courtier, exile, jailbird, swindler, gardener, plutocrat, watchmaking entrepreneur, penal reform campaigner,… Read more

Prize-winning novels from France

30 December 2009

After an unremarkable year for fiction the Prix Goncourt was awarded to Marie Ndiaye for a novel — actually three novellas — which must have beguiled the judges by the… Read more

Enjoyer and endurer

14 December 2009
Samuel Johnson: A Life David Nokes

Faber, pp.448, 25

I approached the late David Nokes’s scholarly book with some trepidation, having heard that it had been criticised for its apparent dismissal of James Boswell. I approached the late David… Read more