Lead book review

Women on the warpath

When Westminster Council granted planning permission for a statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square to mark this year’s centenary of women getting the vote, many people were puzzled. Few had heard of this feminist campaigner, and even fewer knew about the suffragist movement which she led. The suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst seemed a far more

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The bread of life

Sourdough has all the ingredients of a truly despicable work of fiction. Novels about food are awful, aren’t they? Especially novels about baking; they’re the absolute worst. Sourdough is not only a kooky satire inspired by that bread they sell for £6.50 down the farmers’ market – it’s set in San Francisco, the smuggest city

Death at close quarters

Alex Jackson is buried alive inside his own body, a body which lies in a long-term coma following a climbing accident. He can’t see, he can’t move, he can’t speak. This is the terrifying fate of the protagonist of Emily Koch’s debut novel If I Die Before I Wake (Harvill Secker, £12.99). The doctors believe

Wonder of Wenders

What know they of movies who only movies know? Wim Wenders’s latest collection of essays arrives at a time when the best-known film critic in England is unashamed to claim that tendentious tosh The Exorcist as the best picture ever made. Even though the slightest piece in The Pixels of Paul Cézanne is its title

Raiders of the lost lands

Graham Robb, apart from being a distinguished historian, biographer and literary critic, is one of our most accomplished travel writers. His The Discovery of France remains a classic, made both engaging and accessible by his very francophile obsession with cycling. Indeed, his new book, The Debatable Land, opens with a declaration that ‘writing and cycling

A stranger to oneself

Wendy Mitchell was diagnosed with dementia at the age of 58, three years ago. At the time, she was a non-clinical team leader in the NHS, managing rosters for hundreds of nurses and keeping much of the information stored in her head. She lived in York and had brought up two much-loved daughters on her

The Saki of sex

How I love short stories! Long before the internet realised that we can’t sit still long enough to commit to the three-volume novels of yore, these little beauties were hitting the sweet spot repeatedly. I especially love female short story writers — Shena Mackay, Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley — as they often read quite gossipy

Three concepts of freedom

There’s a tiny mistake in Zadie Smith’s new collection of essays. She describes Geoff Dyer’s unimprovably funny ‘trick while introducing an unsmiling J.M. Coetzee at a literary festival’. And it’s a suggestive mistake. The moment she refers to is Dyer, bashful, blurting that he wondered how his younger self would have reacted if he’d one

Now it can be told

Deployed in vastly exaggerated numbers, nuclear weapons were maintained in place not just by secrecy, but by banalities and lies. The atomic bomb has been, from the very beginning, both extraordinarily public and secret. Everyone knew about what was regarded as a momentous development in human history. It kept many clichés in circulation for decades

Time to lighten up

In parts of Africa and the West Indies women are so anxious to ‘whiten up’ that they use skin-lightening creams. The British writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch sees this as a regrettable consequence of the aristocracy of skin colour as instituted by British merchant-capitalists during slavery. (Skin must first be bleached before it can be

Wise old birds

Owls, frontally eyed and nose beaked, look the most human of birds. Accordingly, they have for millennia been prominent in mythology and literature and their image continues to be commercialised beyond compare. They offer an author rich pickings, but in a competitive market a strong personal subtext is helpful. That improbable bestseller H is for