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Sam Leith

Love between the lines

Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton Why does this book need to exist? It’s a legitimate question — the correspondence of both these poets has been published in generous selected editions — but an easy one to answer. Quite apart from the

Books Of The Year | 19 November 2008

A further selection of the best and worst books of 2008 , chosen by  some of our regular reviewers Ferdinand Mount I’m not sure quite what it is that captivated me about Tim Winton’s novel, Breath (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99). It’s a sort of Huck Finn goes surfing in Australia. A scrawny kid bums along the

New light on a dark age

Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom, by Tom Holland Millennia, like centuries, are artificial quantities, mathematical nothings. Medieval men may not have shared our obsession with marking the years in round numbers. But they had much the same desire to bring form and structure to a history that might otherwise

Not always a saint

On her sole experience of sharing a stage with Sybil Thorndike the redoubtable old dragon, Marie Tempest, found all her scene-stealing tricks foiled by her co-star. Hear- ing of Thorndike’s later damehood she muttered: ‘That’s what comes of playing saints’. Thorndike was, of course, always associated with Saint Joan from her first portrayal of Shaw’s

Three men and a singer

Ian Buruma’s latest book, The China Lover, is a fictionalised take on themes previously examined in his impressive body of non-fictional work. His views on Japan, its history, films and underworld as well as the role of the outsider, the relationship between East and West and much more are all unpacked here as we follow

Extraordinarily ordinary

I see from the cover of this book that at least three reviewers had kind words to say about Gordon Brown’s previous effort. ‘Very moving,’ the Guardian wrote. ‘Readable and intelligent,’ alleged the Sunday Times. ‘Trust me: this is a fine book,’ claimed The Spectator. Perhaps they were being polite because the author is not

Myth-maker at work

The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington, by Jennet Conant It is a curious fact, not enough appreciated, that the qualities which make men successful entrepeneurs — imagination, courage, energy, ambition and so on — can be nearly useless in politics, diplomacy and war. Thus, William Stephenson, a rich Canadian

Grandmother’s footsteps

The Island that Dared, by Dervla Murphy Up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen, where the deuce can we go without Dervla Murphy getting there before us? This miracle of ubiquity has rattled from end to end of the Andes, tracked the Indus to its source, ridden a mule through Ethiopia and a bicycle

Top of the world

Late Nights on Air comes daubed with the usual eulogies, yet this is one book that truly merits the ecstatic blurb and more besides. It is Elizabeth Hay’s third novel, after A Student of Weather (2000) and Garbo Laughs (2003), both of which have been lauded in her native Canada and, to a lesser degree,

Where did the joke end?

Lord Berners, by Peter Dickinson Lord Berners spent his life with his reputation preceding him.  Lovingly fictionalised as ‘Lord Merlin’, he of the multicolour dyed pigeons in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, less sympathetically rendered as ‘Titty’ in Harold Nicolson’s Some People, Sir Gerald Hugh Tyrwitt-Wilson, 14th Baron

A scandalous woman

Lady Worsley’s Whim, by Hallie Rubenhold There is a magnificent portrait by Reynolds at Harewood House in Yorkshire of Lady Worsley. She wears a sweeping red riding habit, she looks self-assured and alert, and she holds a riding crop as an allusion to her skill as a horsewoman. In reality, as Hallie Rubenhold’s book vividly

Recent audio books | 22 November 2008

To some of us solitude may be sitting on a park bench amidst a bustling city. To Trond Sander, seclusion is a rickety forest cabin in the far east of Norway. For company his only companion is his dog, Lyra. Isolation is 67-year-old Trond’s chosen existence — ‘all my life I have longed to be

Surprising literary ventures | 19 November 2008

Chekhov originally wrote the dramatic monologue, On The Harmful Effects of Tobacco, in 1886, and substantially revised it for a second version of 1902 shortly before his death. It deals with Ivan Ivanovitch Nyukhin, a hen-pecked husband who delivers a lecture (at the request of his wife) on the evils of smoking. The play has