Books of the year I: a choice of reading in 2023

Andrew Motion Something old made new: The Iliad in Emily Wilson’s muscular and moving new translation, the first by a woman, is truly what it claims to be – a version for our time (Norton, £30). And something new made immediate: Hannah Sullivan’s second collection of poems, Was It For This (Faber, £12.99), ambitiously extends the already considerable range of her first book, Three Poems. She’s the cleverest poet of her generation and also one of the most deep-feeling. Clare Mulley Vulnerability, strength and defiance this year, starting with Daniel Finkelstein’s Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad (William Collins, £25), which caught me up in its humanity as it testified to

Why I stopped reading novels

New York I received a letter from a long-time Spectator reader, James Hackett, enquiring about books I am reading. It is not often that I get letters that delight me, as this one did. It is a far cry from the readers’ letters you see in newspapers and magazines in the United States. Lots of them seem sanctimonious, holier than thou; others, I suspect, are written by the glossy magazines themselves promoting their own celebrity culture worship. James Hackett is an American gent whom I’ve never met, and I hope I don’t disappoint with my choices. The last time I read novels was literally some 50 years ago. I stopped

John Murray announces new prize for non-fiction in association with The Spectator

John Murray – the publisher of Byron, Goethe, Jane Austen and Charles Darwin, inter alia – turns 250 this year. This week, they’re launching – in association with The Spectator (a stripling at 190-odd) – a new international prize for non-fiction. Entrants, who must be previously unpublished in book form, are invited to submit an essay of up to 4,000 words on the theme of ‘Origin’ (to be interpreted as each writer chooses), together with a proposal for how it might be turned into a book. The winning entry will be published in The Spectator (in print and online), and its author awarded a £20,000 publishing contract with John Murray

Read what The Spectator thought of the winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction

Last night saw the award of this year’s £30,000 Baillie Gifford Prize – the country’s most respected prize for non-fiction – to David France’s How To Survive A Plague (Picador). You can read Peter Tatchell’s Spectator review of this account of the ‘plague years’ of the Aids crisis, and the extraordinary work that activists did to change the medical establishment’s treatment of the disease, here. Mr France’s book headed a strong shortlist. The Spectator’s reviews are all linked below. The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle Between Faith and Reason, Christopher de Bellaigue (The Bodley Head) Border: A Journey to The Edge of Europe, Kapka Kassabova (Granta Books) An Odyssey: A Father,

Deep learning

Given the brilliance of his career as a fiction-writer, it is easy to forget that J.M. Coetzee has a commensurate career in non-fiction. He trained as an academic (English literature, mathematics, linguistics and computer analysis of stylistics), taught for several years in the US and in South Africa, and continues to translate, write essays and reviews — most notably for the New York Review of Books — and introductions to books. This third volume of non-fiction pieces, Late Essays 2006-2017, gathers a selection mostly from the NYRB and from his introductions to a series of novels translated into Spanish and published by the Spanish-language press El Hilo de Ariadna. The

‘A banishment’ – Gloria Deak describes the visits of celebrated Victorians to America

No, they decidedly did not like us — this is true at least for the majority of the nineteenth-century British travelers to the New World. They came out of a sense of wonder, somewhat akin to the reaction of Thomas More who declared in his sixteenth-century Utopia that ‘nowadays countries are always being discovered that were never in the old geography books.’ Over the next few centuries, perhaps no emerging country west of the Atlantic would excite as much curiosity as the vast expanse of territory that would become known as the United States. It soon became manifest that, in expanding her geographical borders, the United States had staked out

My holiday from reading books is to read them as Caxton intended

On hearing that Easy Jet had changed its hand luggage allowance, two questions struck me. First, was the airline in league with the luggage makers’ guild? Second, which paperbacks would replace the hardbacks I was going to take with me to the beach? Such considerations may strike you as ‘old world’, a bit last century. ‘Why not take your Kindle?’ you rightly ask. One answer is that I spend every waking hour reading words on a computer. Fire up the screen and get comfortable for a long read; well, I’m supposed to be doing just that rather than write this piece, which is little more than an excuse to fantasize about the holiday

What might link Cleopatra, Augustus, Constantine, Barbarossa, Tamerlane and the Farnese?

The stone called sardonyx looks a lot more fragile than it actually is. It’s luminous like glass, but hard like steel, which explains why so much of it has survived from ancient times. Fame being a relative word, one might describe Medusa’s Gaze: The Extraordinary Journey of the Tazza Farnese by Marina Belozerskaya as a biography of the most famous sardonyx object in the world, the Tazza Farnese, an ancient libation bowl made to hold offerings to the gods. At least one of the many people who inherited it aimed to change that function. Around the time Romanos II, son of Constantine VII, was ruler over Byzantium, someone drilled through

Amartya Sen interview: India must fulfil Tagore’s vision, not Gandhi’s

Amartya Sen is Thomas W. Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University. Sen’s previous books include: Development as Freedom; Rationality and Freedom; The Argumentative Indian; Identity and Violence, and The Idea of Justice. In 1998 Sen won the Nobel Prize in Economics. Much of the work done by the Indian economist has focused on poverty, specifically looking at developing new methods to predict and fight famines. His research also discusses ways to measure poverty, so that more effective social programs can be designed to prevent it. Sen has recently co-written a book with fellow economist, Jean Drèze, called An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions.

Winston Churchill was a very human leader, says Churchill and Empire author Lawrence James

More books have been written about Winston Churchill than perhaps any other figure in British history. Do we really need another volume added to the existing library? In Churchill and Empire, the historian Lawrence James makes a strong case for justifying another book for Churchillian bibliophiles. The narrative begins by looking back at Churchill’s career as a young army officer in the late nineteenth century, where he served in conflicts in India, South Africa and Sudan. It ends with Churchill’s slightly deluded view of Britain’s place in global politics as the Second World War is ending: when the British Empire is disintegrating and America is the most dominant superpower on

Independence would not change single ideology Scotland

There is probably no other country in the democratic West where the state oversees economic activity and regulates private life as thoroughly as in Scotland. So it has come as little surprise to learn of the latest plans of the government led by Alex Salmond. By next year, he hopes that every child will have a guardian with the legal authority to ensure that they are raised in a manner prescribed by the state. Alarm has been expressed that a government with no obvious answers for Scotland’s problems of de-industrialisation is compensating for its impotence by micro-managing the family in such a glaring way.  At least the ruling Scottish National

Some brilliant book reviews | 2 August 2013

As ever, there are some absolutely scintillating book reviews in this week’s issue of the magazine. Here is a selection: Sam Leith revels in ‘a blindly good story extremely well told’: Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of Russian America by Owen Matthews. ‘Like most if not all imperial adventures, the civilising mission (ho ho) followed the money. Ever since the first Cossack pirate found a way through the Bering Strait, fur, or ‘soft gold’, was what they were all after. The discovery that in Chinese entrepot towns the pelt of a single sea-otter would fetch the equivalent of two years’ salary for an ordinary seaman was all anyone

Some brilliant book reviews

As ever, the Spectator carries some splendid and erudite book reviews this week. There are contributions from stellar writers and thinkers such as Margaret MacMillan, Susan Hill, Alexander Chancellor and John Sutherland. Here is a selection. Margaret MacMillan is captivated by Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century, a ‘lovely lush book’ edited by Angus Trumble. But, even as she peruses the glorious pictures and accompanying essays, her mind cannot escape the horrors of what the painters had overlooked and what was to come: ‘The Edwardian nostalgia, well-illustrated here, for an older world was rather like the passion for organic farming and the slow food movement

Why do words and cricket go together?

‘Words and cricket,’ wrote Beryl Bainbridge, ‘seem to go together.’ Why should this be? The Ashes series starting next week might not be the most eagerly anticipated of recent times, due mainly to the Aussies having developed a taste for self-destruction rivalling that of Frank Spencer. But still the words come. Broadsheets and blogs alike are bubbling with pieces about the urn. There are new books too, such as Simon Hughes’s Cricket’s Greatest Rivalry: A History of the Ashes in 10 Matches. It’s just as entertaining and informative as the ex-Middlesex bowler’s previous books, displaying his customary eye for the memorable detail. Picking the Edgbaston Test from the 2005 series,

The week in books | 24 June 2013

This week’s issue of the Spectator is packed with book reviews. Here’s a selection of quotes to whet your appetite. Old China hand Jonathan Mirsky finds much to applaud in Rana Mitter’s history of the Sino-Japanese war. ‘Into the Fifties, as Mitter outlines, a storm gathered in the US over ‘who lost China’; and those Americans who had praised Mao and had urged Washington to deal seriously with him were vilified — chiefly by Senator McCarthy — as ‘Comsymps’ who had engineered the ‘loss’. All this is well handled by Mitter. But he appears not to know that one significant figure, John Service, a China-born foreign service officer, more than

The odd couples

This is the first post in an occasional series about rediscovering old science books. Twins, Lawrence Wright posits, pose a threat to the established order. People have long been scared of, and intrigued by, them. The doppelganger holds a special place in the gothic canon, whilst some cultures have even seen men cutting off a testicle in the hope it would eliminate the possibility of twin-bearing. Conversely, twins have been held up in voodoo ceremonies as objects of worship or been the subject of televised wonder and investigation. Whether the sentiment is positive or negative, we see them as an aberration and have tended to hold such specimens at arm’s

The Astronaut Wives Club

There I was, slowly and not ungrumpily coming to terms with the fact that there weren’t going to be any more decent books about the Apollo missions. Only 12 men ever walked on the Moon, and the ones that were interested in writing autobiographies had already done so. There’d been the brilliant one-volume history of the whole project (Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon), and the personal memoir of what it meant to an ordinary kid growing up at the time (Andrew Smith’s Moondust). There were the big glossy coffee-table jobs showing every crater, and Norman Mailer’s over-written but still revealing account of being at Houston and Cape Kennedy,

Amy Winehouse and the 27 Club, by Howard Sounes – review

As an early dedicated fan of the Doors, who ran away from boarding school just so that I could catch my idols playing the massive Isle of Wight festival (a gathering of the Hippie tribes that in retrospect marked the end of the peace ‘n love era) I approached this book with more than casual interest. I saw and heard two of its subjects – Jimi Hendrix and my hero Jim Morrison – give what turned out to be their swansongs that sweaty August night on the island. Both were dead within the year. Both were aged 27, as were rock biographer Howard Sounes’s other subjects: Brian Jones of the Rolling

Anon’s Baby Song; a lullaby for your baby tonight

Writing, as I have done, about the Bodleian’s holdings of Jane Austen or Byron is all very well, but our most prolific author is Anon. He (or she) leaves his (or her) elusive  traces everywhere – in ancient papyrus fragments, clerkly rolls of the middle ages, early-verse anthologies, copperplate accounts of long lost estates. Or, in one case, a manuscript volume of rhymes and songs just acquired from our friendly neighbour, Blackwell’s. The book dates from around 1800 and is barely bigger than a playing card. Its physical format suits the person for whose little hands it was intended, an infant girl in the nursery. It is barely holding together

Professor Steve Jones: Why I think religion is a bad thing

Steve Jones is Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London. Some of his previous books include: The Language of Genes, Y: The Descent of Men, The Single Helix, and Darwin’s Island. Jones’ latest book is called The Serpent’s Promise: the Bible Retold by Science. The title suggests that Jones uses the Bible as a starting point to explain the world of science. In the preface, he says that the book is an attempt ‘to stand back and take a fresh look at the sacred writings in a volume that tries to interpret some of [the Bible’s] themes in today’s language.’ Really, this is a clever marketing ploy: the theme