Lead book review

‘Excess is obnoxious’

When the German doctor and botanist Leonhard Rauwolff visited the Syrian city of Aleppo during an eccentrically Teutonic herb-hunting mission across the Middle East, he was instantly impressed by the thriving trade he encountered. It was ‘admirably great’, he wrote, ‘for great caravans of pack-horses and asses, but more camels arrive there daily from all

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A host of unquiet spirits

As its title suggests, Julie Myerson’s tenth novel is about stoppage: the kind that happens when one suffers a loss so absolute and cataclysmic that there seems no possible way forward; when the future seems not merely unthinkably disrupted but also irrelevant. For the majority of people lucky enough to live out their days beyond

When sharing isn’t fair

In Silicon Valley, renting out is the new selling —and renting out stuff that belongs to other people can be far more profitable than renting out your own. Over the past few years, companies like Airbnb and Uber have made a great deal of money by pioneering a business model of connecting consumers, who want

Strangers in their native land

Though it seems to begin as an affectionate memorial to his maternal grandparents, a testimonial to a rare and perfectly happy marriage, Their Promised Land by Ian Buruma has a deeper purpose. The cache of letters to and from Winifred (‘Win’) and Bernard (‘Bun’) Schlesinger is the pre-email, daily correspondence of two people who could

Mr Spock and I

For a show with a self-proclaimed ‘five-year mission’, Star Trek hasn’t done badly. Gene Roddenberry’s ‘Wagon train to the stars’ is celebrating its 50th anniversary, although, as Marcus Berkmann’s entertaining and irreverent history points out, things could have been very different. Roddenberry’s initial idea was for a troupe of disparate 19th-century adventurers to explore the

Reds against Whites

On the 24–25 October 1917 (according to the Julian Calendar, or 7–8 November according to the Gregorian) the political disputes which had shaken the Russian empire reached a peak. The provisional government, or All-Russian Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies (which had been formed in the wake of the February revolution and abdication of Tsar Nicholas

Putting the sun in the shade

About a century ago, scientists started meddling with an unfamiliar force of nature and the rest of us were terrified. That force was called electricity and nowadays we’re all fine with it. What Timothy Jorgensen wants to know is: why don’t we feel equally relaxed about radiation? After all, electricity is just as dangerous, but

A good editor and a good man

Before embarking on this book, Jeremy Lewis was told by his friend Diana Athill that his subject, the newspaper editor and philanthropist David Astor, was too ‘saintly’ for a lively biography. As a publisher, she had worked on an earlier authorised tome, and thought she knew. Lewis, and Astor, proved more resilient. There are always

What went wrong

I once asked an American friend to come and talk to the Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation. He told them that he was against it. That put him ahead of his time, but Mervyn King agrees with him. In his decade as Governor of the Bank of England, he had seen what innovation

Purifying the gymnasium

When Friedrich Nietzsche was offered a professorship in classical philology at the university of Basel in 1869 he was so happy he burst into song. He was only 24 at the time — a year younger than Enoch Powell, who became a professor of Greek at the university of Sydney aged 25 — and looked

A disarming heroine

The name Freya is derived from the old Norse word for ‘spouse’, perhaps Odin’s. As a goddess she is variously responsible for birth, death, war and beauty, which seems to cover a fairly wide range of human endeavour. It is a name befitting the ardent heroine of this old-fashioned novel with a distinctly contemporary bearing.