Lead book review

The tragedy of Arabia

Is there anything new to be said about T.E. Lawrence? I mean, really. In the century since his stirring exploits in the Arabian desert we have had all manner of biographies, from simpering hagiography to heartless hatchet job. We have had Lawrence the colonial hero and faithful imperial servant; Lawrence the linguist, explorer and spy,

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The last word

Nicola Barker is both prodigiously talented and admirably fearless. I have loved her books. But for some time I had little or no idea what the point of the story of Sri Ramakrishna was. In fact he was one of the outstanding men of 19th-century India. Characteristically of Barker, the narrative of her latest book

Fast and furious | 14 April 2016

Modern life is too fast. Everyone is always in a hurry; people skim-read and don’t take the time to eat properly; the art of conversation is dying; technology places too much stress on the human brain. This litany of familiar complaints comes, of course, from the late 19th century, as collected by the American writer

To be a pilgrim

In his friendly and beguiling voice, Jean-Christophe Rufin explains (in a way that reminded me of the pre-journey relish of Camilo José Cela’s Journey to the Alcarria) that, before setting off on foot for Santiago de Compostela, he went to a little shop in Paris and joined the Association of Friends of St James. I

Trivial pursuits

Well, he’s back. Though you’d be forgiven for thinking he’d never been away. Fresh from delivering the Reith lectures, exhibitions nationwide, various television shows for Channel 4, countless broadsheet interviews, building his ‘dream house’ in Essex and much else besides, Grayson Perry is back. His latest offering is a book of sketches, selected from across

Mouldering hats and wedding veils

In deciding to write a book about her forebears and herself, Juliet Nicolson follows in their footsteps. Given that her grandparents were Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, and her father was Nigel Nicolson, that they all wrote copiously about themselves, that Knole and Sissinghurst are stuffed with family records, and that she is herself a

Trapped in hell

The mechanic, blinded in one eye by shrapnel, spent three days searching for his family in the destroyed buildings and broken streets of Darayya. Finally he found his father’s body in a farmhouse, alongside those of three boys, already starting to decay. ‘Can you tell me why they would kill an old man?’ he asked,

Nine angst-ridden men

‘Insufficiency’ is a favourite David Szalay word. The narrator of his previous novel, Spring, suffered from ‘insufficiency of feeling’; in this new collection of carefully juxtaposed tales, a Scottish ne’er-do-well adrift in Croatia decides his smile is ‘insufficient’. Szalay’s dissections of masculinity can produce wonders from such banal anxieties. Over 400 pages, he goes to

Out of the depths

‘This happens to other people.’ The Guardian journalist Decca Aitkenhead says she had heard the phrase countless times, interviewing the survivors of random disasters, and the idea had always puzzled her: ‘Why would they think other people are any different from them?’ But when her partner of ten years drowned while rescuing their small son

Britannia rued the waves

Military history is more popular than respected. It is not hard to see why. It is masculine history, a trifecta of logistical planning, technical detail and violent death. It shows the value of hierarchy and duty, sacrifice and patriotism — disgraceful notions which the young and impressionable might be inspired to emulate. And,with its sudden