Lead book review

Fighting for progress

It is very difficult to uncover accurate connections between ideas and events in history. A.C. Grayling is a philosopher and polemicist with a particular story to tell about the rise of freedom in the 17th century. In the introduction to his new book he writes: I hope the sketches offered here will illustrate the claim

More from Books

A devilish instrument of war

‘China is a sleeping lion,’ Napoleon reportedly remarked. ‘When it wakes, the world will tremble.’ There is no need to fear China, its current leaders are quick to stress — with President Xi Jinping claiming that the country’s rise will be ‘peaceful, pleasant and civilised’. Such words are of little comfort to hawks in the

About a boy

A boy, a car, a journey, a question: the first sentence of Elizabeth Day’s new novel goes like this: From the back seat of the old Chevette, heading north, the boy asked his question into the restless air. The restless air? The reader makes the mental adjustment: it’s not the air that’s restless, it’s the

An innocent abroad | 10 March 2016

For those who read the weekly music press during the 1980s, David Quantick’s was a name you could rely on. Unlike some of the more Derridean elements at the NME, his reviews of new bands and LPs were both comprehensible and authentically funny. He has gone on to become a successful comedy broadcaster and writer

Away with the fairies | 10 March 2016

As an erstwhile obituarist, I pity the poor hack who had to write up the life of Laurence Oliphant — adventurer, diplomat, war correspondent, mystic, spy (and the subject of Bart Casey’s biography) — when he died, aged 59, in 1888. The first paragraph should (according to the well-seasoned formula) contain some characterising incident or

A topsy-turvy world

‘A crane fell on top of me in Kladno in 1952, after which my writing got better,’ Bohumil Hrabal (who died in 1997) once wrote, with typical self-deprecation and comic timing; but there are other versions of what made him change from being an almost rococo engineer of magic realism (‘building my house from the

Finders keepers

Isis’s blowing up of the Roman theatre at Palmyra should concentrate our minds: our world heritage is vulnerable. Not that we should need any such reminder after the depredations of the Taleban in Afghanistan, or Isis’s earlier rampage through the museum in Mosul and its attacks on sites at Hatra and Nimrud. A former director

Fifty shades of blue

Like a lot of people, Olivia Laing came to New York to join a lover. Like a lot of people, she soon became unjoined. She stopped eating and drifted, moved from sublet to sublet, wandered the streets in a desperate daze. She craved intimacy and shied away from it, was painfully self-conscious but also anxious

Rich and fruity

F.R. Leavis once denounced the Twickenham edition of Pope’s Dunciad for producing a meagre trickle of text through a desert of apparatus, the trickle sometimes disappearing altogether. In this volume of T. S. Eliot’s letters, from 1932–1933, the footnotes, the infantry and the grunts, are the stars — shooting stars, flares with flair, illuminating apparently

A leap in the dark

The first and most important thing to say about The Drowned Detective is that it’s a very good novel and (which is not always the same thing) a pleasure to read. After that, it gets more complicated. The book defies tidy categorisation. Set in a nameless eastern European country, it opens in the literary territory

The ultimate nightmare

On an April morning in 1999, two teenagers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, walked into Columbine High School in Colorado and murdered 12 fellow students and a teacher, wounded many others, then turned their guns on themselves. Among the many questions fired at Klebold’s stunned parents in the wake of this appalling event, two were

Foreign body count

China Miéville’s work is invariably clever, inevitably dense and usually interwoven with hard-left political and social concerns, but its author rarely loses sight of the delightfully mind-warping possibilities of his chosen genres. Last year’s story collection, Three Moments of an Explosion, offered brief slices of imaginary futures in which icebergs floated above London streets, archaeologists

Wild man of the woods

The other day I visited a psychic medium in Croydon, south-east London. Mavis Grimstick (not quite her real name) boasted an ability to hear the dead — ‘clairaudience’. Her front room, hung with plastic foliate Green Man gargoyle motifs and photographs of Stonehenge, was grimly inimical to mediumship and made me want to make a

A choice of first novels | 10 March 2016

At the beginning of this year I underwent a complete literary detox: an absolute, cold-turkey abstention from cutting-edge fiction of every stripe. I subsisted on police procedurals and grown-up Ladybird books, and watched a lot of TV. It was tough, but you’ve got to defrag the old hard drive once in a while. And it

Wonderful waffle

It is hard to explain the contents of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s vast series My Struggle because not much happens. Or rather: a lot of things almost happen. In these strange and unquantifiable books, which feel like a spiritual autobiography but read like trashy fiction, Knausgaard recounts his ambiguous relationships with his brother and parents and