Paths of enlightenment

26 May 2012
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot Robert Macfarlane

Hamish Hamilton, pp.431, 20

In which Robert Macfarlane goes for a walk, again. But, as admirers of his previous works will know, Robert Macfarlane never just goes for a walk. This book’s four parts,… Read more

Some legends flourish …

26 May 2012
Dam Busters James Holland

Bantam Press, pp.437, 20

Confronted by the dead Athenian heroes of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles gave voice in his funeral oration to an idea that explains better than any other why we are so… Read more

Back to the Dreyfus Affair

26 May 2012
Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian Bernard Lewis, with Buntzie Ellis Churchill

Weidenfeld, pp.386, 20

Not bad, this life. Now 95, Bernard Lewis, is recognised everywhere as a leading historian of the Middle East.He is the author of 32 books, translated into 29 languages, able… Read more


An enigma wrapped in a conundrum

26 May 2012
Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall Will Ellsworth-Jones

Aurum, pp.323, 20

What to make of Banksy? Artist or vandal? Tate Modern holds no Banksys and, other than a redundant phone box that he folded in half and pretended to have reconfigured… Read more


In a Greene shade

26 May 2012
The Man Within My Head: Graham Greene, My Father and Me Pico Iyer

Bloomsbury, pp.241, 16.99

One of the unanticipated benefits of British rule in India is the body of distinguished writing in the English language coming from the Indian diaspora — Naipaul, Seth, Rushdie, Mistry,… Read more

Life imitates art

19 May 2012
Harry H. Corbett: The Front Legs of the Cow Susannah Corbett

The History Press, pp.320, 20

The other evening my wife came home to find me watching re-runs of Steptoe and Son. The washing up had not been done, and everything was in a state of… Read more


A lord of thin air

Higher Gossip John Updike, edited by Christopher Carduff

Hamish Hamilton, pp.501, 25

It is easy, especially if one is not American, to feel ambivalent about the fictions of John Updike. The immaculate clarity of his prose style, the precision of his vocabulary,… Read more

Who needs money?

19 May 2012
Red-Blooded Risk Aaron Brown

Wiley, pp.432, 23.99

Debt: The First 5000 Years David Graeber

Melville House, pp.224, 21.99

I was racking my brains, trying to understand money, trying to grasp exactly what it is, when I came across these two books. One is written by Aaron Brown, who… Read more


Photo finish

19 May 2012
Liberation: Diaries, Volume III, 1970-1983 Christopher Isherwood, edited by Katherine Bucknell

Chatto, pp.875, 30

Christopher Isherwood kept diaries almost all his life. The first extant one dates from 1917, when he was 12, and like most schoolboys he used it more to measure than… Read more

Cracks in the landscape

19 May 2012
The Wolf Pit: A Moorland Romance Will Cohu

Chatto, pp.256, 14.99

Sartre tried to prove that hell is other people by locking three strangers in a room for eternity and watching them torture each other. Similarly Will Cohu seems determined to… Read more


Forever waging wars

19 May 2012
The Plantagenets Dan Jones

Harper Press, pp.632, 25

Death by buggery. Death by castration. Even death by being scared to death. Or so we are led to believe for the Plantagenets’ world. They had a lighter side, too:… Read more


Ladies, you don’t want to go back there

19 May 2012
The Fifties Mystique Jessica Mann

Quartet, pp.196, 12

In 2009 a magazine survey found that many women in their twenties wanted to stay at home baking while their husbands went out to work: ‘I’d love to be a… Read more

An ordinary monster

12 May 2012
Facing the Torturer: Inside the Mind of a War Criminal by Fran

Rider, pp.214, 16.99

While studying Buddhist trance in Cambodia in 1971 the ethnologist François Bizot was ambushed and imprisoned by Khmer Rouge rebels. In his previous much lauded and horrifying book, The Gate,… Read more


Mission accomplished

12 May 2012
Manhunt: From 9/11 to Abbottabad: The Ten-year Search for Osma bin Laden Peter Bergen

Bodley Head, pp.359, 20

Two shots killed Osama bin Laden, one in his chest and one in his left eye. ‘Two taps’ is standard practice for close-quarter shootings — firing twice takes virtually no… Read more

Trouble at mill

12 May 2012
Hebden Bridge: A Sense of Belonging Paul Barker

Frances Lincoln, pp.205, 16.99

I have some sympathy with the pioneering incomers who moved to the Yorkshire mill town of Hebden Bridge in the 1970s. At the time Hebden was in a near terminal… Read more

They’re all in it together

5 May 2012
The New Few, Or a Very British Oligarchy Ferdinand Mount

Simon & Schuster, pp.320, 18.99

However often rehearsed, the facts remain eye-popping. Inequality has bolted out of control over the last three decades. Democracy has proved increasingly powerless to check the unaccountable runaway oligarchy that… Read more


Reading the runes

5 May 2012
Sacred Land Martin Palmer, with a foreword by Melvyn Bragg

Piatkus, pp.349, 16.99

Martin Palmer is without doubt one of our leading authorities on the subject of Nature and sacred writing today — among his previous publications being Sacred Gardens and The Sacred… Read more


Femmes du monde

5 May 2012
Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis Alice Kaplan

Chicago, pp.289, $26

As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Diaries, 1964-1980 Susan Sontag

Hamish Hamilton, pp.523, 18.99

At the end of Dreaming in French, in ‘A Note on Sources’, Alice Kaplan terms her narrative ‘this pièce montée’, which is the only time she neglects to supply an… Read more


Bookends: … and the inner tube

28 April 2012

In the early 1990s, when Boris Johnson was making his name as the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, Sonia Purnell was his deputy, and last year she published a biography of… Read more

Celebrating the Tube …

28 April 2012
Underground Overground Andrew Martin

Profile Books, pp.320, 14.99

The London Underground is methadone for people with nerd habits. Were it not for its twisty, multi-coloured map, its place in the capital’s history, its tendency to throw up facts… Read more

Going to the fair

28 April 2012
Sweet Revenge: The Intimate Life of Simon Cowell Tom Bower

Faber, pp.422, 18.99

Why would anyone want to buy this dreadful book? The frightful Simon Cowell appears to have co-operated with the author, and it is littered with repellent photographs — chiefly of… Read more

It concentrates the mind wonderfully

28 April 2012
When I Die: Lessons for the Death Zone Philip Gould

Little Brown, pp.228, 14.99

It’s odd, but we mostly go about as if death were optional, something we could get out of, like games at school. Philip Gould, in When I Die, admits that… Read more


Out of sight, out of mind

28 April 2012
Running for Their Lives Mark Whitaker

Yellow Jersey Press, pp.358, 17.99

Arthur Newton and Peter Gavuzzi, long-distance interwar runners, are two of the most extraordinary British athletes. They are also the most forgotten. This is because the distances they favoured were… Read more


Nature study

28 April 2012
Sightlines Kathleen Jamie

Sort of Books, pp.242, 8.99

On my desk is the vertebra of a narwhal. It was given to me by a man in Canada after a convivial dinner. Narwhals are Arctic whales with long spiky… Read more


A moth to the flame

28 April 2012
The Baroness Hannah Rothschild

Virago, pp.294, 20

When Hannah Rothschild first met her great-aunt Nica it was 1984. Hannah was 22, and Nica, then 70, had asked her to come sometime after midnight to a basement jazz… Read more