Lead book review

Sam Leith

The game of life

In the introduction to his new book Steven Johnson starts out by describing the ninth-century Book of Ingenious Devices and its successor, the 13th-century Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanisms by the Arab engineer al-Jazari. Here were books of extraordinarily advanced technology. The latter contained sketches of float valves that prefigure the design of

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Three’s a crowd | 16 February 2017

James Lasdun’s latest novel, billed as a psychological thriller, opens in Brooklyn in the summer of 2012. Charlie and his cousin Matthew are about to leave New York to spend the season in Charlie’s mountain-top residence in the Catskills, where they are to unite with Charlie’s wife, Chloe. The relationship between Charlie and Matthew is

Bedside manners

‘A tricky part of my job,’ the GP said, scrolling through the next patient’s notes, ‘is breaking good news.’ As a medical student on placement, I listened as he told the young woman that her ‘presenting complaint’ —blurred vision, fatigue and tingling down her arms — was not in fact multiple sclerosis. The diagnosis had

In praise of LSD

Ayelet Waldman is, surely, not the first writer to have scrolled through a list of ‘Books of the Year’ and become increasingly enraged to find her own book not on it. But where other authors manage to keep a dignified silence (sticking pins into critics’ byline photos in private), Waldman demonstrates a lively lack of

The classic that conquered the world

Somewhere between his first and second drafts, Victor Hugo decided to change the title of his great novel from Les Misères to Les Misérables, shifting the focus from society’s problems to the people suffering them. And what problems they were. Hugo had never been brutally poor himself, but he’d borne witness to enough brutal poverty

Swash and buckle aplenty

A feeble king and his scheming minister, a hunchback noble and the Daughters of Repentance, a botched assassination and a walled-up prisoner, some comic horse-sex, cross-dressing valets, a handful of gay jokes, a dwarf, and a literal éminence grise. The latest instalment of Game of Thrones? No, actually: a sequel to The Three Musketeers. December

What the secretary saw

What the secretary sawSarah Churchwell Big Bosses: A Working Girl’s Memoir of the Jazz Age by Althea McDowell AltemusUniversity of Chicago Press, £10.50, pp. 220 In 1922, writing a facetious review of her husband’s second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, Zelda Fitzgerald made an ironic reference to the fact that Scott Fitzgerald had used sections

Everyday unhappiness

This is an extraordinarily compelling novel for one in which nothing really happens but everything changes. Sara Baume’s narrator is Frankie, a 26-year-old art school graduate, who has fled Dublin to live in her dead grandmother’s rural bungalow. What happened to her ‘started with the smelling of carpet’ in her bedsit; she feels such a

Tricks of the trades

Oddly enough, one of the most historically influential pieces of British writing has turned out to be an essay that appeared in the June 1800 issue of the Commercial, Agricultural and Manufacturers Magazine. Over the preceding decades, there’d been much anguished debate about the size of the country’s population. Many commentators were convinced that, thanks

The nature of genius

On 21 December 1945, Ezra Pound was confined to St Elizabeths hospital in Washington DC. He had broadcast for Rome Radio from 29 January 1942 to July 1943. To avoid his almost certain conviction for treason (and the death penalty visited on William Joyce, Lord Haw-Haw), the superintendent Winfred Overholser testified that Pound was insane

A whirlwind life

The dust cover features one of the best-known caricatures of Richard Wagner, his enormous head in this version opened like a boiled egg, with a photograph of Simon Callow either emerging from his skull or sinking into it. The idea is that rather than just writing another book on this over-biographised figure, Callow will let