Lead book review

Cocktails, castles and cadging

Here is a veritable feast for fans of Paddy Leigh Fermor. This is the story of a well-lived life through letters. The first is from a 24-year-old recruit eager to do battle with the enemy in 1940. The last is by a tottering nonagenarian of 2010, still hoping, 75 years after his ‘Great Trudge’ across

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Too much glam

This mighty volume begs a question, although it doesn’t ask it, let alone answer it. Does anyone in the known universe really want to read 650 pages about glam rock? Simon Reynolds must do, because that’s how much he has written on the subject. All writers, if we are to be honest, write books because

The fallen Angel

Ashraf Marwan was an Egyptian-born businessman, a son-in-law to Nasser and a political high-flyer in the administration of Sadat, who fell off the balcony of his flat in Carlton House Terrace, central London, in June 2007. His death was watched with incredulity by business colleagues assembled in an office across the road, who recalled seeing

Knight’s tale

In The Cousins’ War (1999), the Republican political strategist Kevin Phillips argued that three ‘civil wars’ had defined politics in the English-speaking world: the English Civil War, the American Revolution and the American Civil War. The ideological battle lines of 1641 recurred in 1776 and 1865, and not just because the Sons of Liberty and

Frankly impenetrable

One day in April 1969 Theodor Adorno began teaching a new course entitled ‘An Introduction to Dialectical Thinking’. Feel free, the sociologist-cum-philosopher told the packed hall at Frankfurt University, to ask questions as I go. Two of his charges did so immediately. When was Adorno going to apologise for having set the cops on those

Recent crime fiction | 29 September 2016

There are two people in a prison cell: Frank and Hal. One of them is a member of a spy ring planning a terrorist act; the other is a police agent planted there to befriend the spy, and gather information on the terrorist cell. But the reader doesn’t know which is the cop, and which

Eden’s folly

Until it was overtaken by the still more disastrous debacle in Iraq, the Suez Crisis of 1956 was widely judged to be Britain’s worst postwar foreign blunder. Not only, to use Talleyrand’s phrase, a crime, but an error of monumental proportions. The deceitful plot by Britain and France, in secret collusion with Israel, to invade

All work, many plays

‘Krapping away here to no little avail,’ writes Beckett to the actor Patrick Magee in September 1969. To ‘no little avail’, note, not to ‘little or no’: there is a difference. It’s the difference that Beckett makes — I can’t go on, I’ll go on, and all that. This final volume of Beckett’s letters contains

Free love’s fallout

Ann Patchett’s new novel is an American family saga involving six children, 50 years and too many coincidences to count. The premise is straight out of John Updike — a writer she admires — but her eye is on free love’s fallout, not its thrills. As the title hints, she’s interested in the larger family

One dead in Ohio

For the first time in living memory, a presidential candidate for a major party has received the enthusiastic endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan; one prominent former member of that fraternity — a Grand Wizard, I think: or was it a Grand Dragon? — is running for the US Senate. Members of the Black Lives

The art of listening

Rachel Cusk is a writer who provokes strong reactions in her readers, and her critical reputation has swung wildly in a short space of time. Many, who not long ago were offended by the overflowing emotion of her memoirs of motherhood and divorce, are now full of praise for her current trilogy of novels, admiring

Untold tales of Tibet

On the night of 17 March 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama, aged 23, slipped out of the Norbulinka, his summer residence in Lhasa, and began his flight to India, where he arrived on 31 March, after crossing some of Tibet’s most rugged terrain. He was so heavily disguised that the faithful crowds who had gathered

Body and soul

Emma Donoghue’s novel Room was short-listed for the 2010 Man Booker prize and made into a film in 2015. Inspired by Josef Fritzel’s incarceration of his daughter Elisabeth, it described a mother and son held captive in one room for several years. It depicted their intense, private world and focused on maternal love. The Wonder

Perils of the Pacific

In the great Iberian empires of the 16th and 17th centuries, a career was already avail-able in global administration not very different from the lives of the bankers or lawyers who globe-trot today. In 1509, as one example among hundreds, Duarte Coelho Pereira, a soldier for the Portuguese crown in Morocco and West Africa, went

The curse of Mr Kurtz

Marie Darrieussecq shot to literary fame in France when her bestselling debut, Pig Tales (1996), was a finalist for the Prix Goncourt. Featuring a woman who turns into a pig, the novel earned Darrieussecq a reputation as a surrealist writer in the tradition of Kafka, and many of her subsequent works have involved fantastical elements