Lead book review

A touch of class | 31 December 2015

The New Yorker, not far off its centenary now, has moved beyond rivalry to a position of supremacy among American magazines. It has attained this not by taking a particular political position, although it certainly has one — it represents, obviously, a metro-politan, liberal, outward-facing attitude to the world. Rather, its pre-eminence is down to

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Stealth is its policy. It lies in wait. It is no respecter of age. It turns up late Or far too early, without an invitation. You may not notice this miscalculation By your compositor, this turned letter Or metathesis in the river of text That flows, page after page after page, for better Or worse,

The rarest blend of white and gold

This unusual book is beautifully written, produced and illustrated, but its subject — the small Slender-billed curlew — is strangely absent. In his ‘introduction to a ghost’, Horatio Clare explains that, when he was commissioned to tell the story of the western world’s rarest bird, it did, at least officially, still exist. This grail of

Agony and ecstasy in the garden

I usually throw away dust jackets but Robin Lane Fox chose his for a reason. He originally encountered Augustine of Hippo in the spring of 1966, after lunch and his first taste of brandy, in frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli at San Gimigniano. The quattrocento painter showed a figure with an academic air, in a gown

A step too far

Captain Robert Nairac was a Grenadier Guards officer serving in Northern Ireland when on 14 May 1977 he was abducted and murdered by the Provisional IRA. Mystery surrounding the circumstances of his abduction and the fact that his body has never been found have provoked a minor literary industry. This must be the most comprehensive

Telling tales | 31 December 2015

Medea says ‘hiiiiiiii’ on the first page of Mallory Ortberg’s hilarious book, which puts smartphones in the hands of literary heroes, heroines and their writers; ‘it’s Glauce right??’, Medea continues, squealing ‘when is the WEDDING/ I hope you guys have the Argonauts as groomsmen/ and they do the sword thing/ you know where they make

Lost, found and lost again

This is an extraordinary story. In 1845 John Snare, an unremarkable Reading bookseller, goes to an auction in a defunct boarding school where he buys, for £8, a painting catalogued as a half-length portrait of Charles I, ‘supposed’ to be by Van Dyck. In mid-19th century Britain a Van Dyck is a known and immensely

Family divisions

The geological title of this unhappy memoir is an apt metaphor for fissures in the relationships between individuals of David Pryce-Jones’s extended family. Emotionally and financially competitive but interdependent, benefactors and beneficiaries, Jews and gentiles of various sexual proclivities are depicted grinding away against each other like so many incompatible tectonic plates. Pryce-Jones offers a

Scratching a living

John Gross’s The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life since 1800, a standard text for anyone set on a life of writing about books, was intentionally truncated, ending its chronology before Gross’s own time of eminence. Two decades after the book’s publication in 1969, Gross explained in a new afterword