Lead book review

Man of the hour

Last year, more than 6,000,000 people visited the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. By contrast, barely 80,000 went to General Ulysses S. Grant’s tomb in New York City. Some would argue that the neglect is no better than Grant deserves. But others, notably Ron Chernow, believe it’s time for a rehabilitation. Why do Americans pay

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Puffing through the Punjab

‘I went to a restaurant the other day called Taste of the Raj. The waiter hit me with a stick and got me to build a complicated railway system.’ The comedian Harry Hill’s gag is an acerbic commentary on the British empire, but there can be no doubt that India’s modern history is intimately intertwined

The best television ever made

Now, if someone were to spray stun gas through the keyhole of my front door, and I were to collapse on my sofa only to regain consciousness in a slightly kitsch 1960s serviced apartment, outside which lay an exquisite Italianate village, a stretch of sparkling coast, a startlingly cheery populace all speaking in RP accents

Golden lads galore

Stephen Fry has had a go at the Greek myths, in a competitively priced hardback, just in time for Christmas. And he has done it jolly well, actually, so lower that collective eyebrow, please, all of you purists who think entertainers ought to stay away from the classics, and remember that as one of our

Rats in the ballroom

At first blush this looks like one of those run-of-the-mill coffee-table books published just for the Christmas market — expensively produced, replete with beautiful photographs, a text as undemanding as the tinkling notes of a cocktail-bar pianist, and the whole thing massively heavy. It is a beautiful — and heavy — book, with fine photographs

Fair tradesman

Ole Thorstensen has been a carpenter for 25 years. A master craftsman, in fact. He is busy working on a minor job — ‘replacing a few windows, putting down decking and doing a number of other odds and ends’ — when he gets invited to bid for a loft conversion in a 19th-century apartment block

Hey nonny nonny

After hundreds of densely packed pages on folk song in England — a subject for which I share Steve Roud’s passion — I am none the wiser as to why folk song collectors assumed that a man singing in a pub for free drinks in, say, 1890 or 1920 was de facto a folk singer?

Littering castles all over the land

I rashly discarded this book’s dustjacket when I received it, and thus saw only the unlettered cover, a faded photograph of three generations of an aristocratic family, somewhat camera-shy in their silken breeches. Oh I see, I thought, this is one of those books on the foibles of the aristocracy, always an entertaining subject. How

Toys for us

It’s hard not to love a book that starts with its author fearing a police sting while flogging sex toys at a hen party in Texas. The year is 2004 and Hallie Lieberman is attending grad school in Austin and supporting her studies by working as a home party organiser for Forbidden Fruit, local purveyor

Recipes for disaster

Halfway through Lady Fanshawe’s Receipt Book Lucy Moore takes a moment to regret the vast tracts of the past that are lost to us. How lucky we would be if more examples of our ancestors’ daily interactions with others, what she calls ‘the scraps of daily life we take for granted’, had been preserved. Instead,

Hot dogs

There are currently 151,000,000 photos on Instagram tagged #Dog which is 14,000,000 more than those tagged #Cat. The enormous number shouldn’t surprise us. We’ve been obsessively depicting our dogs since prehistoric times, when we painted them on walls, carved them in ivory and buried them with bones and blankets for the afterlife. A Dog a

Easy on the hard stuff

It’s one of the more mysterious features of human history that people of every era and in almost every place have regularly striven to reduce their intelligence, impair their reflexes and generally ensure that everything about them functions far less well. So what is about getting drunk that we love so much? According to Mark

Comfort and joy

John Julius Norwich loves Christmas dearly. ‘I just wish it didn’t come round about every three months,’ he says. I know how he feels. Christmas does seem to arrive sooner every year — not just because time seems to speed up as you get older, but because our avaricious shopkeepers can’t wait to start cashing

In the land of the Thunder Dragon

This charming collection of individual photographic portraits of Bhutanese citizens intentionally highlights the two central features of the kingdom today: cultural tradition and the encroachment of modernity. The photographer A.J. Heath lived in Bhutan for a year. Over three weekends he set up an open-air studio in the main square of the capital, Thimphu, and

The hopes and fears of Bethlehem

Before a certain baby was born there, Bethlehem was famous for its sweet water. Shepherd boys like the young David, king-to-be, herded their flocks into the town and drank from the fountain at the gates. Water, as well as Jesus Christ, helped shape Bethlehem’s story. Its aqueduct enabled nearby Jerusalem to function and expand as

Murder, fraud and bankruptcy

Hamilton, created by the remarkable Lin-Manuel Miranda, has brought the financial musical to the London stage: a serious biography of a great man translated into rap. What comes next? Now we know. It is the story not of one individual but of a national institution — the life and times of the Bank of England.