Jonathan Mirsky

Bill Bryson’s ‘long extraordinary’ summer is too long

Hands up Spectator readers who can remember the American celebrities Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Al Capone, Jack Dempsey, Zane Grey, Edgar Rice Burroughs and the  adulteress and husband-killer Ruth Snyder  who all, in 1927, lit up what Bill Bryson calls ‘one hell of a summer’. Born in America only five years later, I knew about

Against Their Will, by Allen M. Hornblum – review

After the Morecambe Bay Hospital scandal a new era opens of compassion, -whistle-blowing, naming names and possible prosecutions. But what about 70-odd years of harming children in ‘care’ homes, and prisoners, with toxin injections, -radioactive blasts, electro-shocks to the brain and frontal lobotomies — all done in the interests of medical advance by leading American

China’s War with Japan, by Rana Mitter – review

The Sino-Japanese struggle that began in 1937, two years before the rest of the world plunged into war, is not as unknown as Rana Mitter, a professor of Chinese history and politics at Oxford, contends in this comprehensive new book. His copious notes, after all, display how well that conflict has been studied by many

The Dark Road, by Ma Jian – review

If you are considering adopting — that is, buying — a Chinese baby girl, recycling a television or computer, or buying a Vuiton bag, think again. Ma Jian, author of the startling Beijing Coma, prepared for this evocative and sometimes horrifying novel by travelling through Chinese regions few tourists see. There he encountered some of

Going under

As someone slightly older than Al Alvarez, and also a regular swimmer — although not in the ice-edged Hampstead Heath pools into which he dived for over 60 years — I was initially disappointed by this book. For the first half it repeats too often the pleasures of extremity-numbing, cold, outdoor swimming when one is

The plot thickens | 6 December 2012

At last! At the age of 80, I have read my first digital book. According to Penguin, these brief ‘Specials’ are written to be read over a long commute or a short journey, in your lunch hour or between dinner and bedtime, a short escape into a fictional world or … as a primer in

All in the telling

I like Jewish jokes. I begin every conversation with the literary editor of The Spectator with one or two, do the same with the judge across the road, and tell my newest joke to the lifeguards at the local swimming pool. The key to a good one is gentle self-mockery. But I dislike reading jokes

‘Ill luck was my faithful attendant’

Here is the melancholy story of Mary Todd Lincoln, widow of President Abraham Lincoln, who was shot next to her on 12 April 1865 as they were watching a play. He died three days later. The book has a single theme with two strands: was Mrs. Lincoln insane before as well as after her husband’s

Star-crossed lovers

Having lived for 15 years in Japan, Lesley Downer has already written several highly informed books with Japanese themes. For her most famous, Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World, she spent six months with those artful women who make every man they entertain with song, dance and chat feel adored, without — usually

Ye Shiwen is a phenomenal swimmer, not a cheat

If Ian Thorpe, Lord Coe, and Lord Moynihan aren’t bothered about China’s phenomenal swimmer, Ye Shiwen, neither am I. I was in Hong Kong when the Chinese swimmers Adam’s-apples bobbing and heavily muscled, won most of the golds from which they were soon parted for having eaten cart-loads of steroids. The same fate befell China’s

‘Am I not God’s chosen?’

Never write blurbs. That is my modest advice to Sir Harold Evans, who in his endorsement of Muckraker describes the life of W.T. Stead as ‘ennobling’. This is particularly odd because Stead (1849-1912) was the shameless precursor of the gutter journalism that Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World and Sun have inflicted on the UK

Back to the Dreyfus Affair

Not bad, this life. Now 95, Bernard Lewis, is recognised everywhere as a leading historian of the Middle East.He is the author of 32 books, translated into 29 languages, able in 15 languages, consulted by popes, kings, presidents and sheiks, on good or argumentative terms with many Western and Middle Eastern scholars and politicians, husband

Chen Guangcheng: a blind, Chinese Houdini

Even in a Beijing Spring of ceaseless surprises, the escape of the blind dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng from rural house arrest into American protection was a sensation. The sensation soon turned into a catastrophe for him and humiliation for the United States. After his astounding escape 2 weeks ago from 18 months of house arrest

Pawns in the game

The authors of this book have attempted a difficult thing: to ‘write about something that could never be known’. Here is a terrific and scary story about a group of American, British and European trekkers kidnapped by jihadists in Kashmir in July 1995 and slaughtered in December. Their wives were allowed to go free, and

Fall from grace

Barack Obama is not up to the job. That is Ron Suskind’s oft-repeated contention. The President, he states, compromised with, rather than curbed, failing American financial institutions, and has surrounded himself with warring staffers who are either no more competent than he is or, if expert, disregard his wishes. Following a picture caption that reads

Chaps v. Japs

Does anyone do derring-do anymore? Here’s the real thing. On Christmas Day 1941, despite Churchill’s call to fight to the last man, Hong Kong fell to the Japanese, the first British possession to surrender since the American War of Independence. Within a few hours, Chiang Kai-shek’s main official in the colony, the one-legged Admiral Chan

Lifelong death wish

In February 2009, in a review in these pages of Stefan Zweig’s unfinished novel, The Post Office Girl, I wrote: ‘Here surely is what Joseph Conrad meant when he wrote that above all he wanted his readers “to see.’’  In The Post Office Girl Zweig explores the details of everyday life in language that pierces

Mao’s girl and me

In 1997 in Hong Kong one of Mao Zedong’s numerous sexual partners — in this case an underage one — told me her life story. Mao the monster was already notorious: his lunatic policies had caused the world’s worst famine (1959–1961), in which 40 to 50 million Chinese starved to death; he inspired the Cultural