Lead book review

Charlemagne’s legacy

Last month in the Financial Times, Tony Barber closed a gloomy summary of the European Union’s future with this comparison: Like the Holy Roman Empire which lasted for 1,000 years before Napoleon put it out of its misery in 1806, the EU may not disintegrate but slip into a glacial decline, its political and bureaucratic

More from Books

The medium is the message

Molly Crabapple is an American artist and Drawing Blood is the story of her life. That life has only been going on since 1983, but despite its author’s relative youth Drawing Blood is a valuable political document. It tells of a life lived in struggle — against the prospect of going dead broke, against gross

Girl about town

The old ditty got it wrong: it should have been ‘Maybe it’s because I’m not a Londoner that I love London so’. The capital’s biggest fans, I tend to find, are those who weren’t born there, and Emily Chappell is yet another example. Originally from Wales, she has written more than just an engaging account

Drying out in the Orkneys

‘If I were to go mad,’ Amy Liptrot writes in her memoir of alcoholism and the Orkneys, ‘It would come as no surprise at all.’ One surprise of this book is its sanity, which is remarkable, given Liptrot’s beginnings. We open, unforgettably, with her parents passing each other on an island runway. Her mother is

Age cannot wither her

There’s something reassuring about 98-year-old Diana Athill. She’s stately and well-ordered, like the gardens at Ditchingham Hall in Norfolk, her grandparents’ Georgian house where she spent long periods of her childhood. Yes, she really is of that class, though she doesn’t trumpet it (she was presented at court in the brief reign of King Edward

One holy mess

This novel, John Irving’s 14th, took the sheen off my Christmas, and here are the reasons.   The comments on the back of the book (‘Irving is the wisest, most anguished and funniest novelist of his generation’ — Chicago Sun Times) made me feel lonely. He might have been wise, anguished and funny in The

Tracking the super cats

Of all charismatic animals, tigers are surely the most filmed, televised, documented, noisily cherished and, paradoxically, the most persecuted on Earth. It is also probably the one wild mammal more people wish to see than any other. In Asia, images of striped cats are indivisible from the modern tourist industries of several countries, especially India

Revolution now and then

Maxim Gorky was trumpeted as ‘the great proletarian writer’ by Soviet critics, who considered his novel The Mother one of the most significant books of the 20th century. Completed in 1906, after Gorky had already been recognised internationally, it is based on the events of 1902, when the workers of Sormovo, a factory settlement near

A pitiful wreck

When I look at the black-and-white photograph of Julian Barnes on the flap of his latest book, the voice of Kenneth Clark floats up from memories of the black-and-white television of my childhood: ‘He is smiling — the smile of reason.’ Supremely ‘civilised’, thin-lipped, faintly superior, temperamentally given to aphorism, it is no surprise to

A Day Off

Well, I’ll go window-shopping in Larousse for seeds of words. Strangely, they’re not for sale — you help yourself to what the worlds produce. Here are the conic sections, there the whales, the art, the musical instruments, the wigs…. My search is stopped by a picture of the sarigue, Didelphis, a marsupial of the west,