A broken nation: Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, by Wole Soyinka, reviewed

One of the best episodes in Wole Soyinka’s third novel (his first since 1973) takes place not in Nigeria but in Salzburg. An engineer-turned-entrepreneur has died in hospital there after a bomb attack back home. His grasping clan descends from Lagos to parade their last respects — and stake their claims. The drive to the cemetery triggers a ‘torrent of eulogies to Austrian horticulture’. In a ‘concerted sibling gush’, plutocratic relatives swoon over the contrast between these clean, green vistas and the choking inferno of Lagos — an urban nightmare aggravated by their own mercenary scams. Soyinka’s characters often hide behind such ‘straw masks’ of pretentiousness, hypocrisy and fakery. The

A macabre meditation on psoriasis

Obsessed with purity and pain, the boundaries of blame and innocence, Skin is a fascinating meditation on psoriasis, the long-lasting chronic skin condition. Sergio del Molino, a Spanish writer and journalist, slowly guides us into his world of intense physical discomfort (most treatments of psoriasis only deal with its symptoms, rather than healing its immunological causes), but combines this private hell with provocative reflections on fellow sufferers. It’s a surprise to learn that Stalin shared something with Cyndi Lauper, John Updike, Pablo Escobar and Vladimir Nabokov. The result is by turns macabre and compelling, with Del Molino using his affliction to put himself in the shoes of his pantheon of

Good luck enjoying eating salmon ever again

‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by cat videos,’ begins Henry Mance’s How to Love Animals, winningly. That is the paradox he sets out to unpick in this densely factual and intermittently horrifying book: how a world in thrall to cuteness, endlessly compelled to click on videos of kittens and owls having a special friendship, can remain indifferent to the suffering of almost all other animals, whether farmed, in captivity or in the wild. That’s a tough brief. I’m not sure it’s a book I would choose off the shelf, because the subject matter is deeply unpalatable. The facts and figures — intensely researched and carefully woven

My mother’s secret life was a Dickensian horror story

What happens to a child raised without love? This is the agonising question that the American lawyer Justine Cowan braces herself to address in a memoir that seeks to explain her relationship with Eileen, her monster of a mother. As her parent’s gaunt figure lay in hospital, vanishing within the fog of a disease that had robbed her of ‘a few words here, a memory there’, Justine forced herself to say the words that she thought her mother wanted to hear. However, long devoid of empathy for someone whose behaviour had baffled, undermined and almost destroyed her, Justine knew a false expression of love was ‘balm for a dying old

Shock and awe — what should we make of our Viking ancestors?

In June 793, a raiding force arrived by boat at the island monastery of Lindisfarne, on the Northumbrian coast. The attack that followed was shockingly brutal. The English cleric Alcuin wrote: ‘Never before has such terror appeared in Britain… Behold, the church of St Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments.’ It was the first recorded Viking raid on Britain. Many others were to follow, and the image of the axe-wielding raiding party remains the stereotypical view of the Viking horde. The question that this dark, brilliantly written and absorbing book asks is: who were these people and where did all that

How kind is humankind?

Augustine had it that ‘no one is free from sin, not even an infant’. Machiavelli deemed that humans are ‘ungrateful, fickle hypocrites’, and even the founding father John Adams, the paragon of American democracy, was sure that all men would be tyrants if they could. Thucydides, Luther, Calvin, Burke, Bentham, Nietzsche, Freud — all were wrong about our natures. So was William Golding, creator of Lord of the Flies, himself a child-beater* and a drunk. For a treatise on human kindness, Rutger Bregman’s new book Humankind has surprisingly many villains. Here’s ‘a radical idea… a mind-bending drug… denied by religions and ideologies’, we’re told. Humans are not evil. Deep down,