Lead book review

The wondrous cross

How did the cross, from being such a loathsome taboo that it could scarcely be mentioned, change into an image thought suitable viewing for all ages in public art galleries? There is no doubt about its early despicable reputation. A hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Cicero declared that ‘the very word cross should

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America’s other civil war

‘What makes the Red Man red?’ the Lost Boys asked in Disney’s Peter Pan (1953). According to Sammy Cahn’s lyric, it was embarrassment: ‘The very first Injun prince/ He kissed a maid and start to blush.’ Redness is everywhere in The Earth is Weeping — in the anger of the Indians, harried and starved into

Fighting talk, but little action

On 11 May 1937, at the Gare St-Lazare in Paris, Ernest Hemingway said goodbye to a friend who was leaving Europe. Like Hemingway, John Dos Passos had been in Spain to support the Republic in its civil war against the fascist Franco. But he became disillusioned when the Soviets (also fighting against Franco) murdered someone

Europe’s best hope

Go into any high street bookshop and find the European history section. There’s usually a shelf or two on France and about the same on Germany, but the difference between these two categories is apparent straight away. The French stuff spans several centuries, whereas German history is confined to just 12 years. Yes, a lifetime

Boxing clever

Thirty years ago, Russell Davies wrote a weekly sporting column in the New Statesman. It proved unsustainable and was soon discontinued, but not before Davies had described a boxer ‘genuflecting through the ropes’ — an image I have coveted ever since. Boxing is ‘a standing challenge to [a writer’s] powers of description’, according to Carlo

The gangster life of Ryan

Lisa McInerney found a brilliant way to turn heads and hone her craft as the ‘Sweary Lady’ behind the ‘Arse End of Ireland’ blog. Taking a gonzo approach to the life she knew — first a council estate in Co. Galway, then a selection of much nicer houses in Cork — she let rip as

The curse of the Yeti

This book, according to its author Gabi Martínez, is ‘a non-fiction novel’. It tells the story of Jordi Magraner, a Morocco-born Spaniard who grew up in France. A largely self-taught zoologist and naturalist, Magraner worked on humanitarian convoys in Afghanistan before devoting his life to searching for the Yeti among the Kalash people in the

On the way to a lynching

Southern trees bear a strange fruit in Laird Hunt’s seventh novel, a dark historical fiction filled with dreams and visions that has one very disconcerting trick of style to play on the reader. The setting is Indiana in 1930, where a white woman called Ottie Lee Henshaw is on the way to a lynching in

A cuckold’s revenge

Perhaps the least necessary piece of advice ever given to a Hanif Kureishi protagonist comes in 2014’s The Last Word. ‘Harry,’ a wise old writer tells the main character, ‘always put your penis first.’ It’s a suggestion, needless to say, that Harry has no trouble accepting — not least because, like so many Kureishi protagonists,

Dark secrets of village life

Jon McGregor’s first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, a surprise inclusion on the 2002 Booker longlist that went on to win the Somerset Maugham and Betty Task Awards, captured 24 hours in the life of a suburban street. Fifteen years later, his fourth novel, Reservoir 13, has a similarly concentrated focus, but this