Adam Begley

In the grip of apocalypse angst

You have to love a book about the end of the world in which the first two references are to Saul Bellow’s Herzog and the HBO series The White Lotus, a high/low combo that preps us for authorial omniscience. In the next few paragraphs we get Marc Maron, Sally Rooney and Frank Kermode. Buckle up,

Fast and furious: America Fantastica, by Tim O’Brien, reviewed

It’s been said again and again but rarely so plainly illustrated: American life is now too berserk for fiction to keep up. Tim O’Brien’s wild, rollercoaster satire America Fantastica is as wacky as its title suggests; but it can’t compete with the daily trainwreck that calls itself the land of the free and the home

Why did Truman Capote betray his ‘swans’ so cruelly?

The first rule in John Updike’s code of book reviewing is: try to understand what the author wished to do and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt. I should therefore not blame Laurence Leamer for failing to capture in Capote’s Women any sense of what made Truman Capote irresistibly

A doomed affair: Kairos, by Jenny Erpenbeck, reviewed

We all live with boundaries, but few of us feel that as keenly as Jenny Erpenbeck, who grew up in the Pankow district of East Berlin, a stone’s throw from the Wall. Now a leading novelist of a unified Germany, she explained several years ago that when the Wall came down in 1989 and the

Man on the run: Sugar Street, by Jonathan Dee, reviewed

A man is driving alone across America, under the passenger seat is an envelope containing a large chunk of cash. For reasons unclear, he’s desperate to erase himself; he avoids surveillance with the inspired agility of the truly paranoid. His urge to disappear, ‘to leave as illegible a mark as possible on the Earth’, leads

An avian allegory: Dinosaurs, by Lydia Millet, reviewed

Adapt or die. That brutal Darwinian dictum is too blunt to serve as the motto of Dinosaurs, Lydia Millet’s slim, quietly powerful 12th novel, but the threat of extinction, implicit in the title, hovers in the air. Bird-obsessed – our feathered friends are ‘the last of the dinosaurs’ – the novel tracks two years in

The effortless magnetism of Marcel Duchamp

One could compile a fat anthology of tributes to Marcel Duchamp’s charm – especially what one friend called the artist’s ‘physical fineness’ – but it would be hard to top Georgia O’Keeffe’s memory of their first meeting: Duchamp was there and there was conversation. I was drinking tea. When I finished he rose from his

New Yorkers talk the talk

New York in a nutshell? No way. New York in a New York minute? Forget about it. The city contains multitudes: it contradicts itself, wantonly. Any attempt to summarise will fail. Not even Craig Taylor’s delightful cacophony of voices, dozens and dozens of them spilling their New York stories, can compass its vastness and variety.

Who killed Jane Britton in 1969?

The problem with telling stories about Harvard is that Harvard, if it teaches anything these days, teaches distrust of stories. So, for example, two thirds of the way through Becky Cooper’s long, ambitious book about the murder of a Harvard graduate student, the author explains that ‘we’ — those attempting to fashion a narrative about

Cyber apocalypse: The Silence, by Don DeLillo, reviewed

Elaborated over a writing career that spans half a century — a career crowned with every honour save the Nobel Prize — Don DeLillo’s great project has been to explore a world where paranoia is not only warranted but healthy, a sane response to imminent threat, man-made or otherwise. He didn’t win the Nobel again

French lessons, with tears: inside a Lyonnais kitchen

You can’t say he didn’t warn us. In the final sentence of his previous book, Heat, a joyously gluttonous exploration of Italian gastronomy, Bill Buford announced that he would be crossing the Alps: ‘I have to go to France.’ And here he is, in Dirt, another rollicking, food-stuffed entertainment, determined to unearth, as it were,

The brilliance of Houdini

36 min listen

My guest on this week’s Book Club podcast — recorded as part of an online event with Circle Square ( — is the biographer Adam Begley. Adam’s work includes biographies of John Updike and the Belle Epoque photographer, cartoonist and aeronaut Felix Tournachon, aka Nadar. In his new book he turns his attention to the

High art

‘To look at ourselves from afar,’ Julian Barnes wrote in Levels of Life, ‘to make the subjective suddenly objective: this gives us a psychic shock.’ The context of Barnes’s remark is the 100-year span in which aerial photography evolved from its 19th-century birth in the wicker cradle of a gas balloon to the miraculous moment