Lead book review

The best British short stories — from Daniel Defoe to Zadie Smith

Philip Hensher, the thinking man’s Stephen Fry — novelist, critic, boisterously clever — begins his introduction to his two-volume anthology of the British short story with typical gusto. ‘The British short story is probably the richest, most varied and most historically extensive national tradition anywhere in the world.’ Take that, ye upstart Americans, with your

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The Wolves of Memory

Loping through thick snow, fur matted with ice, they have lost the trace that led them long ago from a legendary tale to this blank page of survival. Their warm breath freezes at the touch of air as they huddle here with sharp, bewildered faces grown solemnly pale and howl and howl and howl.

A chronic case of mass hysteria

There have been many books devoted to the terrible events that took place in the small rural community of Salem Village and its larger sister, Salem Town, between February 1692 and May 1693. As Stacy Schiff points out, most of them are shaped by particular theses — she lists 13 in all. This approach doesn’t

Warning: this book only contains strong language

Dan Marshall, the author of this memoir, loves to swear. ‘It’s very difficult for me to write a sentence without using a bad word,’ he tells us. ‘That last sentence, for instance, was fucking impossible for me to write.’ Dan is young, rich and American. One day, in his twenties, he and his girlfriend, Abby,

Frank’s world

‘He never went away. All those other things that we thought were here to stay, they did go away. But he never did.’ Who was Bob Dylan talking about earlier this year? Woody Guthrie? Elvis Presley? Or maybe, halfway through the sixth decade of his own career, himself? But no. The man in question was

To the ends of the earth

What’s in a name? The identity of the author offers a clue to one of the themes of this intriguing novel: Naomi, a good Hebrew name; Williams, a stout Welsh name; born in Japan; lives in California. The earth is spanned. Landfalls charts the voyage of two French frigates exploring the world at the end

Umberto Eco really tries our patience

Colonna, the protagonist of Umberto Eco’s latest novel, is the first to admit he is a loser. A middle-aged literary nègre, he dreams of writing his own book, but can’t break the habit of alluding to others’ work: he even refers to himself as a ‘man without qualities’. One day in 1992, he is commissioned

Discover your inner nerd

There’s a curious thing about the bowling green in my Suffolk village. The footpath running alongside it is on a slope, meaning that as you descend, the wall gradually rises and hides the players from view. What’s strange is that the older I get, the more I find myself slowing down to see what happens

From the Big Smoke to the Big Choke

‘A foggy day in London town,’ croons Fred Astaire in the 1937 musical comedy A Damsel in Distress, puffing nonchalantly on a cigar as he wanders through a wood that has already been half obliterated by belching Hollywood smoke machines. Today Gershwin’s lyrics conjure up a nostalgic vision of life in the city, involving pale

Through the eyes of spies

Spying is a branch of philosophy, although you would never guess it from that expression on Daniel Craig’s face. Its adepts interrogate the surface of reality — people, landscapes, texts — knowing that they will discover extraordinary hermetic meanings. They study fragments of documents, whispers of messages, and from these, they summon entire worlds. Possibly

Porridge Season

Tuesday morning. The Chopin of golden syrup is going to perform his Breakfast Fantaisie for teaspoon and dessertspoon. Such a treat to see those thin arthritic fingers pose a moment over the tranquil creamy surface. The oats lie quiet, possibly getting cold. But on the left a deep and mellow chord lands in the centre