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Sam Leith

Masques of beauty and blackness

Sam Leith on the paradoxical nature of Britain’s first literary celebrity What a piece of work was Ben Jonson! If you lived in Elizabethan England and had just narrowly escaped the gallows after stabbing a man to death in an illegal duel, wouldn’t you want to keep your head down for a bit? Not Jonson.

Stranger than fiction

Asked to review this book, which I was told was about encounters between unlikely pairs of people, I assumed it would be on the lines of Walter Savage Landor’s Imaginary Conversations. Craig Brown is our premier parodist, the best since the incomparable Max. Might his chatting twosomes include Cleopatra and Janet Street-Porter? The Marquis de

The devil’s in the detail | 15 October 2011

This is a book for our times, a pair of linked essays, the first, by Rory Stewart, on the troubled decade of Western intervention in Afghanistan, followed by the success story of the ten years of Western intervention in Bosnia by Gerald Knaus. The authors write not for glory, or to secure a professorial chair,

A question of faith

Perhaps beginnings are meant to be disorientating sometimes. For many pages of Mohammed Hanif’s second novel I cannot get my bearings and start to worry that, far from finding my way into the dense narrative, I am becoming more and more lost. I fret about what the problem might be. Is it overwritten? The earthiness

The best and bravest

‘The candle is burning out and I must stop. Darling I wish you the best I can ­— that your anxiety will be at an end before you get this — with the best news, which will also be the quickest. It is 50-to-1 against us but we’ll have a whack yet and do ourselves

Not lions, but ostriches

Jeremy Paxman has written an excellent book, but it is not the book that he set out to write. His central argument is that, since the empire had a formative influence on modern India, it must also have had a formative influence on modern Britain. If it influenced the colonised, it must have influenced the

Fixing malaria

A book about a campaign to rid the world of malaria may not sound like a riveting read and Lifeblood is an unlikely page-turner. But you are soon caught up in the challenges of the campaign and, along the way, you learn a great deal about the labyrinthine world of aid, Africa, business and politics.

Why didn’t I appreciate it more?

I should hesitate in any circumstances to compare myself with Marcel Proust; but on opening this marvellous book I knew exactly how he felt with that madeleine. My father was appointed Ambassador to France in 1944, moving in a few weeks after the Liberation of Paris; thus it was that from Christmas of that year

A lightning tour

In her foreword to this short study of Virginia Woolf,  Alexandra Harris writes that ‘it is meant as a first port of call for those new to Woolf and as an enticement to read more’. There is some justification for such a book — a synthesis giving the outline of Woolf’s life with pertinent interpretative

Fathers and sons

The ghost stalking this selection is Martin Amis’s father, Kingsley, who, Martin tells us in his introduction, ‘loved Philip with a near-physical passion’, and mused: ‘I sometimes wonder if I ever really knew him.’ Ruth Bowman, to whom Philip Larkin was engaged in the late 1940s, remembers that Kingsley was ‘possessive of Philip and tried

Bookends: Squelch of the bladder-wrack

What’s not to like about Candida Lycett Green’s Seaside Resorts (Oldie Publications, £14.99)? Lovely colour photographs of over 100 of England’s prettiest seaside towns, accompanied by spry, architecturally informed little essays that give the reader the gist of each place: if there’s a better book to give for Christmas published this autumn, I’d like to