Book reviews

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 failure that she ‘can’t even do mental illness properly’. It is all ‘because of nothing… because there’s nothing right with me. Because I cannot fucking help it.’ Over the course of part of a year, she acquires a bicycle from a born-again Christian, allows her father to mow the lawn, takes care of a guinea-pig

The Bible is too important to be left to believers

May I write a review of a review? I have to get this out of my system, having been unable to sleep last night, for anger at Christopher Howse’s beastly, scoffing and unjust treatment of a new book: Simon Loveday’s The Bible for Grown-Ups, reviewed in our 30 July issue. Somebody needs to call a halt to the tedious practice of using review to show off at somebody else’s expense. It happens that I feel a special protectiveness towards this book, having seen the manuscript last year and encouraged its author to seek a publisher. Icon books have now published him, and done his study proud. The book deserves it.

Alive and kicking | 28 January 2016

Four years after his death, it is still faintly surprising to recall that Christopher Hitchens is no longer resident on this Earth — or on any other sphere, if his friend Richard Dawkins is correct. A quote from Dawkins graces the cover of And Yet…, a final gathering together of Hitchens’s essays and the sequel to the bestselling anthology Arguably; he was, notes his ‘fellow horseman’, the ‘finest orator of our time’. And here is that voice again, alive, fiercely engaged with many of the same issues he left us to deal with: politics, patriotism, God or His absence, death and, inevitably, books. There was much about Hitchens that was

The unbearable vanity of Kevin Pietersen

Seven years ago Kevin Pietersen produced his first attempt at autobiography, Crossing the Boundary: The Early Years in My Cricketing Life. Atrociously written, it demonstrated no awareness of the world outside himself. This time round Mr Pietersen has taken the precaution of hiring an excellent ghost writer, David Walsh of the Sunday Times. It is hard to overpraise Mr Walsh’s vivid prose. The book is a brilliant portrayal of Pietersen as a misunderstood genius continually brought down by lesser men: a Mozart beset by a sequence of Salieris. Three of his England teammates fare especially badly: Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann and Matt Prior. He describes their behaviour as egotistical, bullying

Good queen, bad subject

There is a paradox at the heart of all books about the Queen. The very thing which makes her such a successful constitutional monarch is what makes her an impossible subject for biography. We do not know anything about her. The only book which brings her to life as a person is Marion Crawford’s The Little Princesses (reprinted by Orion, £8.99), a vivid picture of nursery life when Lilibet and Margaret Rose were growing up at 145 Piccadilly. Crawfie saw it all — the neatness, the horse-obsession, the deference to the rather awful mother, the selfless sense of duty, and the goodness. No wonder this truth-teller had to be banished,

Love conquers all

Anyone who has ever written a history book will feel a twinge of envy on reading the preface to Just Send Me Word: We opened up the largest of the trunks. I had never seen anything like it: several thousand letters tightly stacked in bundles tied with string and rubber bands, notebooks, diaries, documents and photographs… It was a unique family archive, the property of Svetlana and Lev Mishchenko, and it contained, among other things, packets of their love letters.   The two had met as university students in Moscow in the 1930s, but their relationship was cut short by the outbreak of war. Lev joined the Red Army in

What did he see in her?

When King George I came over from Hanover in 1714 to claim the crown he had inherited from his distant cousin Queen Anne, he was accompanied by his mistress of more than 20 years, Melusine von der Schulenberg. George’s wife Sophia Dorothea was left behind in Germany. She had made the mistake of taking a lover of her own not long after George had embarked on his affair with Melusine, forgetting that by the double standard that then prevailed in courts, it was acceptable for a man to have mistresses, ‘but shameful indeed to be a cuckold’. Sophia Dorothea had flaunted her infatuation with the glamorous adventurer, Count Konigsmark, and

Monarchy’s golden future

In a recent issue of The Spectator Freddy Gray warned that some royal press officers now resemble celebrity publicists, spoon-feeding whole narratives to lapdog hacks, ultimately to the detriment of the monarchy. Gray traced the poisonous origins of the current glossy operation. In the late Nineties senior St James’s Palace courtiers fell for political-style PR (aka spin) as a clever way to transform Prince Charles’s then-mistress into a future queen. Some very unsavoury tactics followed. In one example (not cited by Gray, but proving his thesis) in a bid to discredit William’s newly dead mother, one top adviser lent his personal support to a royal biographer to air a quack

All the world’s a stage

In Translations, Brian Friel’s play about English military and cultural imperialism, the frustrated teacher Manus explains how he uses ‘the wrong gesture in the wrong language’ to insult in Gaelic an English soldier. In Shakespeare in Kabul, Stephen Landrigan and Qais Akbar Omar’s account of the first production of Shakespeare in Afghanistan since before the Soviet invasion in the 1970s, an Afghan theatre group, led by the French director Corinne Jaber, attempt the ‘right’ gestures in their own language as they perform Love’s Labour’s Lost. Following the initial 2005 performance in Kabul, the actors are now trying to do the same in London, re-importing Shakespeare to the UK by putting

Enter a Wodehousian world

On 26 February 1969, Roger Mortimer wrote to his son, Charlie: ‘Your mother has had flu. Her little plan to give up spirits for Lent lasted three and a half days. Pongo has chewed up a rug and had very bad diarrhoea in the kitchen. Six Indians were killed in a car crash in Newbury.’ Even 40 years ago, the real-life buffer was a dying breed. Perhaps Roger Mortimer — Eton, Coldstream Guards, assorted POW camps during the second world war, then racing correspondent of the Sunday Times — was the last of the lot. If so, they went out with a suitably sclerotic roar. For 25 years, he wrote

Straying from the Way

No sensible writer wastes good material. A couple of years ago Tim Parks published a memoir, Teach Us to Sit Still, a tale of chronic, debilitating back pain that appeared to have no physical cause. He tried everything, short of major surgery, and even toyed with that for a while. Finally, in desperation, this lifelong sceptic took up meditation, and found to his amazement that it worked. By the book’s end we realised that we had been reading not so much about a man’s ill health as about a very particular and challenging midlife crisis. Parks is a novelist and academic who has lived and worked in Italy for the

… while others fade

For Watergate junkies, another raking of the old coals is irresistible. For those underage younger persons who never understood what all the fuss was about, here is the chance to get with it. Just to remind: in June 1972, a bunch of nasties, some of whose day job was with the CIA but currently working for Richard Nixon the President of the USA, broke into the offices of the rival Democratic party in the Watergate building and got caught red-handed. Nixon’s White House tried to cover up this illegal entry. A junior reporter at the Washington Post, Bob Woodward, unearthed a five-star source known on the Post and round the

Intrigue and foreboding

In 2009, Alone in Berlin, Hans Fallada’s masterpiece about civilian resistance to Nazism, appeared in English for the first time. Now A Small Circus, Fallada’s literary breakthrough, makes its English debut.  Both novels are admirably translated by Michael Hofmann. The earlier novel will be of deep interest to the many admirers of Alone in Berlin. Once again, Fallada shows an uncanny prescience in his ability to interpret contemporary political developments through the lives of ordinary Germans. A Small Circus is based on real events that took place in 1929 in Neumünster, Schleswig-Holstein, lightly fictionalised by Fallada as Altholm.  Farmers, incensed by a punitive ruling from the tax office, hold a

A choice of first novels | 4 February 2012

Mountains of the Moon is narrated by a woman just released after spending ten years in jail. The reason for her sentence and the details of her previous life are pieced together through disjointed fragments, forming a complex jigsaw. Lulu had a shocking childhood, with a violent stepfather and negligent mother. Her only loving relatives were her grandfather, who fuelled her imagination by conjuring up the Masai Mara in her dreary south-England surroundings, and her two half brothers, from whom she was eventually separated. This account, related in an idiosyncratic patois, with the matter-of-fact innocence of an abused child for whom abnormality is the norm, is quite horrifying. Lulu is

Nothing on paper

On the subject of e-readers, I suspect the world population divides neatly into two halves. On one side of the chasm, hell will freeze over and Accrington Stanley will win the FA Cup before anyone will even touch one. And on the other, that looks like fun, can I have one for Christmas? I was a member of the first group — in fact, its president and hon. secretary — until offered a Kobo for free, complete with Penguin’s new range of dedicated e-books. Like all sensible publishers, Penguin has already dipped its corporate toe in the e-book market, but this new range of ‘Shorts’ and ‘Specials’ is different, in

Books of the Year | 5 November 2011

Our regular reviewers were asked to name the books they’d most enjoyed reading this year. More choices next week •  A.N. Wilson Rachel Campbell-Johnson’s Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer (Bloomsbury, £25) is one of those rare biographies which is a work of literature: beautifully written, overwhelmingly moving. A great art critic, with an understanding of the human heart has produced this masterpiece. It is one of the best biographies I have ever read of anyone: it captures the tragedy of Palmer’s life, and brings out the shimmering glory, the iridescent secrets of his Shoreham phase. Matthew Sturgis’s When in Rome: 2,000 Years of Roman Sightseeing (Frances

On His Majesty’s Silent Service

Of all the Allied fighting service branches in which you wouldn’t have wanted to spend the second world war, probably the grimmest was submarines. Of all the Allied fighting service branches in which you wouldn’t have wanted to spend the second world war, probably the grimmest was submarines. Sure, their losses weren’t quite as bad as the German U-boat fleet, where your chances of being killed were four in five. But in the course of the war about one third of British submariners lost their lives; and in the earlier years your chances of coming back from a mission alive were no more than 50/50. Bomber crews, of course, had

Heroes of the Ice Age

In the early 20th century, explorers were goaded and galvanised by the blanks on the maps — the North and South Poles, and the mist-draped floes and glaciers around them. Ernest Shackleton, Robert Scott, Robert Peary and Roald Amundsen set off with one prevailing purpose: to reach the extremities of the earth. Hardy, maniacal, even at times suicidal, they scattered ‘firsts’ and ‘furthests’ across the ice: the furthest south of Scott’s expedition of 1901-04, Shackleton’s furthest south of 1909, Amundsen’s arrival at the South Pole in 1911. Robert Peary’s claim that he reached the North Pole in 1909 was later disputed, so it may well have been Amundsen who first

The scandal that inspired La Dolce Vita

At about 5.15 p.m. on 9 April 1953, Wilma Montesi, a 21-year-old woman of no account, leaves the three-room apartment in a northern suburb of Rome that she shares with her father, a carpenter, and five other members of the family and never returns. Thirty-six hours later her body is found by the edge of the sea at Torvaianica, a fishing village close to the capital. She is lying face down in the sand, wearing all her clothes apart from her shoes, her skirt, her stockings and her suspender belt, all of which are missing. She appears to have drowned. But why? Was it an accident? Was it suicide? Or