Lead book review

Striking Middle Sea

With summer on its way, thoughts turn south to olive groves and manicured vineyards, to the warm water and hot beaches of the Mediterranean. But this sea that is a place of rest and beauty for some of us is the scene of drama and often despair for many others, among them people trying to

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Romance of the old kitchen garden

Considerable areas of our memory are taken up with food: it might be the taste of Mother’s sponge, the melting texture of an aunt’s buttery pastry or something recent, like the flavour of the first spoonful of a sour and nutty south-east Asian dish. Especially good meals are recalled with the same clarity as revolting

The strangest objects we know of

The idea of black holes sounds so quintessentially modern and 20th-century that it may come as a surprise to learn that it originated over 200 years ago; John Michell, a natural philosopher and clergyman, used Newtonian physics to conceive of a star massive enough to prevent even light from escaping its gravitational pull. Marcia Bartusiak’s

A 50-year infatuation

The subject of the least characteristic essay in this engrossing collection of meditations on painters, painters’ lives, painting and reactions to painting is René Magritte — whose best work David Sylvester rather rashly claimed induces ‘the sort of awe felt in the presence of an eclipse’. Julian Barnes discusses what he calls the artist’s doctrine

Funny things happen on the way to the Scillies

It’s a real skill, writing about a journey where nothing ever happens. We shouldn’t be surprised that Simon Armitage is so good at it: he’s a poet, and therefore used to reporting on nothing happening, or rather spotting the little things that are always happening but the rest of us are too busy to notice.

In the name of the father

‘People talk about their childhood and it’s so mundane. I don’t remember much about it, if I’m honest. I can’t even tell you what my father’s voice sounded like.’ In Stuart Evers’s story ‘Frequencies’, in this collection, a besotted new father hears this pronouncement coming from the baby monitor. The monitor is picking up a

Kultural icon

The almond eyes that rise towards their outer edges. The cheekbones that curve down to the corners of those upholstered lips. The dark strands of hair that fall wisplike on to her chest. The hourglass extremities that will exercise your ciliary muscles until they snap. Dear me! After looking at this book, you’ll be more

The elite who tried to save Russia

The veteran Russian historian Dominic Lieven’s new study of Russia’s descent towards the first world war is deeply researched, highly valuable in its focus on Russia, and unfailingly well-written: more proof of Lieven’s profound knowledge of the Russian empire. One of his earlier works, Russia’s Rulers Under the Old Regime (1989), focused on the 150

Pursuing the perfect scoop

Paradise City, Elizabeth Day’s third novel, comes with an accompanying essay on The Pool — an online magazine for the Instagram, iPhone woman. Day, a feature writer for the Observer, discusses the novel’s male protagonist (you couldn’t call him hero) Sir Howard Pink, an East End Jewish boy turned rag-trade multimillionaire. Day urges women to

A nation in trauma

Albania is a small country of 2.7 million people, wedged within the Balkan peninsula. Separated from both Greece and Italy by mere kilometres of seascape and shoreline, it borders the European Union, and, with official candidate status as a member country, strongly hopes for closer ties. As Fred C. Abrahams describes it, the country’s transition