A holy terror

11 February 2012
Michelangelo: The Achievement of Fame Michael Hirst

Yale, pp.438, 30

In the summer of 1520, Michelangelo Buonarotti wrote a letter of recommendation on behalf of his protégé, the painter Sebastiano del Piombo, to Cardinal Bibbiena, an influential figure at the… Read more


Storm in a wastepaper basket

11 February 2012
The Dreyfus Affair Piers Paul Read

Bloomsbury, pp.408, 25

‘It’s the revenge of Dreyfus,’ came the cry from the dock. The speaker was the veteran right-wing ideologue, Charles Maurras, found guilty of treason in 1945 for his support of… Read more

Real and imagined danger

11 February 2012
America and the Imperialism of Ignorance: US Foreign Policy Since 1945 Andrew Alexander

Biteback, pp.360, 20

What was the Cold War? For Professor John Lewis Gaddes, it was a conflict between two incompatible systems, democracy and communism, each with a different vision of liberty and human… Read more


Menace, mystery and decadence

11 February 2012
The Alexandria Quartet Lawrence Durrell

Faber, pp.880, 14.99

Amateurs in Eden Joanna Hodgkin

Virago, pp.335, 25

It is fitting that Charles Dickens’s bicentenary coincides with Lawrence Durrell’s centenary, for the two novelists have crucial resemblances: both of them are triumphant in the intensity and power of… Read more

Talking tough

4 February 2012
Justice and the Enemy: From the Nuremberg Trials to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed William Shawcross

Public Affairs, pp.257, 17.99

This thoughtful, challenging and deeply depressing book takes as its launch pad the Nuremberg Trials, in which the author’s father played so prominent a part. Churchill would have executed the… Read more


All to play for

4 February 2012
The Spirit of the Game Mihir Bose

Constable, pp.587, 18.99

There was a time when sportsmen fretted about the morality of being paid to play. Now the question is whether you are taking money to win, or taking money to… Read more


‘A world dying of ugliness’

4 February 2012
Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters translated and edited by Michael Hofmann

Granta, pp.551, 25

Some writers’ lives are estimable, some enviable, some exemplary. And some send a shudder of gratitude down the spine that this life happened to somebody else. It isn’t necessarily about… Read more

Triumph of the redcoats

4 February 2012
All the King’s Men Saul David

Viking, pp.573, 25

Given the choice between philosophising in the company of Socrates or fighting in the army of the soldier-monarch Charles XII of Sweden, most men, Dr Johnson observed, would prefer arms… Read more


Making sense of a cruel world

4 February 2012
Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World Simon Callow

Harper Press, pp.220, 16.99

Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Harvard University Press, pp.390, 20

The actor-biographer Simon Callow has played Dickens, and has created Dickensian characters, in monologues and in a solo bravura rendition of A Christmas Carol. Now he suggests that the theatricality… Read more


Godfather of rap

28 January 2012
The Last Holiday: A Memoir Gil Scott-Heron

Canongate, pp.319, 20

At a funeral in New Orleans in 1901, Joe ‘King’ Oliver played a blues-drenched dirge on the trumpet. This was the new music they would soon call jazz. A century… Read more


A feast of vanities

28 January 2012
Savonarola Donald Weinstein

Yale, pp.379, 25

The name of Savonarola slides off the tongue as if concocted for an orator’s climax. But when it came to names, whether by melody or reputation, the Florence he knew… Read more


Gunboat diplomacy

28 January 2012
Blue-Water Empire: The British in the Mediterranean since 1800 Robert Holland

Allen Lane, pp.397, 25

Britain’s links with the Continent were once  deeper and more extensive than those of any other European country. Paris, Rome and German universities played as vital a role in British… Read more


Queen of sorrows

21 January 2012
Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion Anne Somerset

Harper Press, pp.626, 25

She was the ill-educated younger child of the Duke of York; a mere female, she was sickly and not expected to survive, let alone become Queen. But, as this monumental… Read more

Helping our unbelief

21 January 2012
Religion for Atheists Alain de Botton

Hamish Hamilton, pp.320, 18.99

Over 125 of the 320 pages in this book are either blank, or taken up with black-and-white illustrations, of subjects as various as Madonna and her former husband Guy Ritchie,… Read more

Spirit of place

21 January 2012
Cairo: My City, Our Revolution Ahdaf Soueif

Bloomsbury, pp.202, 14.99

There are two ways of viewing the changes sweeping through the Arab world in general and Cairo in particular. There is the significance of individual events, such as the moment… Read more


Age of ideas

21 January 2012
Thinking the Twentieth Century Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder

Heinemann, pp.413, 25

Sam Leith on Tony Judt’s rigorous, posthumously published examination of the great intellectual debates of the last century When the historian and essayist Tony Judt died in 2010 of motor… Read more

Holy law

21 January 2012
Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law Sadakat Kadri

Bodley Head, pp.332, 18.99

In the autumn of 1347, the Black Death arrived in Egypt. In the 18 months that followed, mosques turned into mortuaries across North Africa and the Levant. By the time… Read more


A waist of shame

14 January 2012
Calories and Corsets: A History of Diets and Dieting Over 2000 Years Louise Foxcroft

Profile Books, pp.240, £14.99

Britain has the worst obesity rates in Europe, with one in four adults now clinically obese. A friend who works in orthopaedic surgery tells me that at least 80 per… Read more


A horrid story of intellectual corruption

14 January 2012
Monopolizing the Master Michael Anesko

Stanford University Press, pp.208, £30.50

The death of a great author often causes interminable displays of corrosive envy. Heirs, acolytes, interpreters and academics resent one another’s claims on the literary estate or cultural heritage. They… Read more


The heart of Hemingway

7 January 2012
Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, And Lost, 1934-1961 Paul Hendrickson

Bodley Head, pp.532, 20

A new biography of ‘Papa’ has deeply impressed Sam Leith, although its thoroughness — like its subject — ‘teeters on nuts’ Hemingway’s Boat is just what it sounds like. It… Read more

Still roughing it

7 January 2012
The New Granta Book of Travel edited by Liz Jobey, with an introduction by Jonathan Raban

Granta, pp.429, 25

We are all tourists now, and there is no escape. The first thing we see as we jet round the world is a filth of our own making. Resort hotel… Read more


When treason was the last resort

7 January 2012
Blood Cries Afar: The Forgotten Invasion of England, 1216 Sean McGlynn

The History Press, pp.288, 20

One hundred and fifty years after Anglo-Saxon England was invaded by the Normans, Anglo-Norman England was invaded by the French. On 21 May 1216 King Philip Augustus’ eldest son, Louis… Read more

Painful truths

31 December 2011
Taking a Stand: The Evolution of Human Rights Juan E. Méndez, with Marjorie Wentworth

Palgrave Macmillan, pp.256, 16.99

Juan E. Méndez has a fantastic CV. Mercilessly tortured in Argentina, the country of his birth, when 30, he is now, four decades on, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture,… Read more


Crusader on the attack

31 December 2011
John Bright: Statesman, Orator, Agitator Bill Cash

I.B. Tauris, pp.328, 25

Why have we forgotten John Bright? In his day he was a massive political celebrity. He could command audiences of 150,000, delivering thrilling impromptu speeches night after night. Perhaps, as… Read more

The Devil in the mirror

31 December 2011
The Locked Ward: Memoirs of a Psychiatric Orderly Dennis O’Donnell

Cape, pp.352, 16.99

As a kid growing up in Scotland in the 1950s, Dennis O’Donnell was aware of ‘loonies’, and the men in white coats who were supposed to take them away. Then,… Read more