Lead book review

The beginning of the end

Christmas Eve 1944 found thousands of Allied — mostly American — troops dug into trenches and foxholes along the Belgian front, where they sucked at frozen rations and, in some places, listened to their enemies singing ‘Stille Nacht’. Their more fortunate colleagues in command posts gathered around Christmas trees decorated with strips of the aluminium

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Raiders of the lost Ark

Years ago, in an ill-conceived attempt to break into natural history radio, I borrowed a nearly dead car from a friend in West Hollywood and drove across town to the Los Angeles Zoo to report on a project to save the California condor from extinction. By the 1980s the number of condors had — thanks

Behind the beat

Tony Barrell can’t play the drums, but he’s in awe of those who can. ‘A band without a drummer is like a rocking chair that somebody has cruelly bolted to the floor,’ he writes in Born to Drum’s introduction. ‘While it may appear to rock, it actually doesn’t.’ Those who thrill to the sounds of

Punk in a funk

Look up Tracey Thorn’s live performances with Everything But The Girl or Massive Attack on You Tube and you’ll find the comments posted beneath it full of praise for the liquid melancholy in her lovely voice. The simple sound of air passing from her lungs, across her larynx and out of her lips in the

Lacan Appeals to the Patient

Since you remain reluctant, let us imagine that one’s selfhood is a work of art — a maquette in clay, as may be, and each life event enacted by the sculptor. In he creeps to the damp-room on his crepe-soled shoes again and again. In time the work proceeds via a series of flukes and

Not-so-evil genius

It is almost inconceivable that there could be a more densely detailed book about Napoleon than this — 800 crowded pages to get him from his birth in 1769 to his acclamation as First Consul for life in 1802. When completed in three or more further volumes, this will be an extremely comprehensive study. As

A choice of first novels | 14 May 2015

As all writers know to their cost, first novels are never really first novels. They make their appearance after countless botched attempts at the perfect debut — a debut that always lurks just out of view, but seems tantalisingly easy for everyone else. My first published novel was fifth down the line. It was a

The Best View in England

that’s what she said. Of course, I begin to find fault: a shrub partly obscures the view, there’s a glint of car windows and, if I listen hard enough, I sense the thrum of traffic. I’ll admit the colours are strong, mid-summer: yellows of wheat-fields, oaky greens, and the hills’ hazed blue. A single cloud

No sex, please, in the Detection Club

‘The crime novel,’ said Bertolt Brecht, ‘like the world itself, is ruled by the English.’ He was thinking of the detective story and the tribute was truest in the ‘golden age’, between the great wars; the period covered, hugely readably, by Martin Edwards. Edwards’s primary subject is the Detection Club, whose members included the giants

Sharpen your pencil

‘I had had a fantasy for years about owning a dairy farm,’ says Mary Norris, as she considers her career options in the first section of this odd but charming cross between a memoir and a usage guide. ‘I liked cows: they led a placid yet productive life.’ Instead, she found a productive life —

A narcissistic bore — portrait of the artist today

Two ambitious volumes of interviews with artists have just been published. They are similar, but different. The first is by Richard Cork, a veteran with a Cambridge education who enjoyed a distinguished stint as art critic at the Times. He is nicely old school: chatty and avuncular. The second is by Hans Ulrich Obrist of

Not a patch on our own Dear Mary

As Dear Mary so wittily demonstrates, our need for advice is perennial. But fashions change. Mary would probably take issue with The Handbook of the Toilette (1839), which advises that one should take a weekly bath whether one needs to or not, and also with the recommendation of Cassell’s Home Encyclopedia (1934) that ‘bloater cream’

Hope against hope

At the eye of apartheid South Africa’s storm of insanities was a mania for categorisation. Everything belonged in its place, among its own kind, as if compartments for scientific specimens had been laid out across the land. Or, as Christopher Hope puts it in his caustic new satire, people were ‘corralled in separate ethnic enclosures,

All the men and women merely players

How many books are there about Shakespeare? A study published in the 1970s claimed a figure of 11,000, and today a search of the British Library catalogue yields 12,554 titles that contain the playwright’s name. But good short introductions to Shakespeare’s life and work are not exactly plentiful. Students and teachers are therefore likely to

Are you sitting properly?

Funnily enough, after my editor sent me these three books to read, my guts started playing up. Suddenly, food seemed to go straight through me. At first I wasn’t bothered, but when it didn’t get any better I began to worry. I went to see my doctor. She told me to bring her a piece

The more deceived

Louis the Decorator and his chums in the antiques trade use the word ‘airport’ adjectivally and disparagingly. It signifies industrially produced folkloric objects (prayer mats, knobkerries, masks, toupins, necklaces, tribal amulets, djellabas etc) which are typically sold by hawkers to departing holidaymakers. This is the basest level of fakery and is ignored by the otherwise