Lead book review

Riding for a fall | 8 March 2018

On 20 July 1805, just three months before the battle of Trafalgar destroyed a combined French and Spanish fleet, the Emperor Napoleon ordered his chief-of-staff to ‘embark everything’ for the invasion of England that he had been dreaming of for two years. ‘My intention is to land at four different points,’ he explained to Berthier,

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Shadows of the past

The Shangri-Las’ song ‘Past, Present and Future’ divides a life into three, Beethoven-underpinned phases: before, during and after. Each section turns in on the next, binding them together with devastating effect. It is one of the oddest and most radically structured moments in pop, and one that came to mind when reading these three very

A time for reflection | 8 March 2018

The precarious stasis of late pregnancy offers the narrator of Jessie Greengrass’s exceptional first novel a space — albeit an uncomfortable one — for reflection. She sifts through her own immediate and past experience: caring for her dying mother in her early twenties; her relationship with her partner Johannes; her childhood; the birth of her

Flitting from flower to flower

‘I am interested only in stretching myself, in living as fully as I can.’ Lara Feigel begins her thoughtful book with this assertion by Anna Wulf, the protagonist of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, and it rather sums up the whole endeavour of the volume. Feigel weaves close readings of Lessing’s prose, both fiction and

They fill you with the faults they had

You attempt to write a review with a stiff dose of objectivity, but it’s hard not to start with a degree of fondness for an anthology put together by a magician who has performed in North Korea. Dale Salwak also has a sideline as a professor of literature at Citrus College in Los Angeles, and

Listing or sinking?

The arrival at a new foreign posting for a junior diplomat’s wife in the first half of the last century was no glamorous picnic, as she grappled with a ceremonial sword in a golf bag, three months supply of toothpaste, a crate of hot water bottles and enough safety pins for every emergency. Born in

Going down in glory

In April 1945, the Japanese battleship Yamato — the largest and heaviest in history — embarked upon a suicide mission. The ship sailed to Okinawa, where a huge American assault was taking place. Under extensive enemy fire, it sank, as was expected, to the bottom of the Pacific. With it, it took 2,280 of its

Getting so much better all the time

Steven Pinker’s new book is a characteristically fluent, decisive and data-rich demonstration of why, given the chance to live at any point in human history, only a stone-cold idiot would choose any time other than the present. On average, humans are by orders of magnitude healthier, wealthier, nicer, happier, longer lived, more free and better

Delusions of the deserters

‘Keep my name out of it’, was the fairly standard reply when Matthew Sweet started researching the story of the GIs who deserted from Vietnam. People’s concern, it turned out, however, was not about being associated just with desertion, but with a more complex story of duplicity, abuse and insanity. Over time, the American Deserters

A man, a boy, a bed

Stephen Bernard has led an institutionalised life. Behind the doors of the church presbytery, at public school, on hospital wards after repeated suicide attempts, in therapists’ offices, at Oxford University — he has sought protection and cure. Some institutions woefully failed, while others revived Bernard from the appalling child abuse inflicted by Canon T.D. Fogarty,

Polemicist of genius

‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again.’ Ronald Reagan made this most unconservative of lines a leitmotif of his 1980 presidential campaign, knowing its radicalism would highlight his energy, personal optimism and desire for change. As it duly did. The astonishing power over words of its author, Thomas Paine, persists