Lead book review

Hero or collaborator?

Steve Silberman’s stunning new book looks across history, back to Henry Cavendish, the 18th-century natural scientist who discovered hydrogen, Hugo Gernsbach, the early-20th-century inventor and pioneer of amateur ‘wireless’ radio, and countless other technically brilliant but socially awkward, eccentric non-conformists, members of the ‘neurotribe’ we now call the autism spectrum. He argues passionately for the

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Waiting for Utopia

The Soviet Union was a nation of bus stops. Cars were hard to come by, so a vast public transport network took up the slack. Buses not only bore workers to their labours, but also breathed life into the ‘union’ itself by taking travellers from town to taiga to desert to seaside. In remoter parts

The brutal mask of anarchy

In September 1939 Britain went to war against Germany, ostensibly in defence of Poland. One big secret that the British government didn’t know at the time — and not until much later — was that while the Anglo-Polish alliance treaty was being negotiated during the previous months, the Poles had been actively training and arming

Humour and horror for children

In the Californian town of San Bernadino, children are going missing; smiling faces grace a gallery of milk cartons. One September evening in 1969, Jim Sturges’s brother Jack rides under a bridge and never comes out. All that’s left is his Sportcrest bike, its front wheel spinning. Forty-five years later, 15-year-old Jim Junior lives in

A goddess, a city and a tree

Known for her strength, Athena can throw a spear like a dart, and on the day of the contest for Athens it’s a bull’s eye – not just Attica’s but the world’s first olive tree springs where her spear falls. Athena is surprised how at ease the tree is, the Saronic Gulf merely its backyard,

The powers that were

Ivan Maisky was the Russian ambassador in London from 1932 to 1943, and his knowledge of London, and affection for it, went back to his time there as a political exile from 1912 to 1917. Even after the multitude of books published on the subject, these diaries throw new light from a fresh angle on

Come rain or shine

‘Pray don’t talk to me about the weather, Mr Worthing,’ pleads Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest. ‘Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. And that makes me quite nervous.’ Weatherland would make Gwendolen very nervous indeed. Our observations of the sky, Alexandra

Foaming with much blood

According to Francis Bacon, the House of York was ‘a race often dipped in its own blood’. That being so, one wonders what Bacon made of Rome’s Julio-Claudian dynasty, the gore-spattered family that gave the empire its first five rulers, and the subject of Tom Holland’s latest popular history of the ancient world. Recounting one

Things left undead

In the afterword to this sixth book, Aleksandar Hemon dedicates a word of thanks to his agent for keeping a straight face ‘when I told her I’d written a book she’d known nothing about’. I doubt she kept it for long, because one of the many ways in which The Making of Zombie Wars differs

A karaoke version of Kafka

The Blue Guitar is John Banville’s 16th novel. Our narrator-protagonist is a painter called Oliver Orme. We are in Ireland, but it’s hard to say exactly where, or exactly when. There are telephones and cars, but the dress code is antiquated: hats, canes, pocket watches. This is ‘the new-old world that Godley’s Theorem wrought’: people

Time out of mind

There can hardly be two novelists less alike than Sebastian Faulks and Will Self, in style and in content. Faulks writes in the grand tradition of realist fiction: a list of his themes might include the brutality and waste of war, France and, of course, romantic love. Self, meanwhile, has created dystopias in which to

The trip of a lifetime

Aldous Huxley reported his first psychedelic experience in The Doors of Perception (1954), a bewitching little volume that soon became the Newest Testament among the happening people. One spring morning in 1953 the 58-year-old Englishman ingested four-tenths of a gram of mescalin in his Hollywood garden and waited for the visionary moment. When he opened