A Model Middle-American

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

I finished reading Tom Hayden’s Reunion: A Memoir, the day Abbie Hoffman was found dead at the age of 52 in his Pennsylvania apartment, an apparent suicide. Reunion, which was completed prior to the break-up of Hayden’s 16-year marriage to the aerobics entrepreneur and sometime actress Jane Fonda, has a sort of happy ending – the […]

Baron Reborn

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Baron Scarpia is best known as the villain of Puccini’s opera Tosca, set in Rome in 1800 shortly after the Battle of Marengo. Puccini usually based his opera librettos on thumping good melodramas, and that of Tosca was no exception. The original play, La Tosca, was by Victorien Sardou, a Parisian boulevard playwright whose style […]

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A Waking Dreamer

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

‘In my belly is an octopus and in it are God’s children. Living children. These are things I must not speak of.’ These are the startling words of a German judge named Daniel Paul Schreber (1842–1911), an educated, cultivated and highly intelligent member of the legal establishment who went mad at the age of forty-two. […]

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Where Angels Fear to Tread

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Radiant State opens with a rocket being launched into space, powered by the detonations of nuclear bombs – a ‘magazine of two thousand apricots, rack upon rack of potent solar fruits’. It’s watched by President-Commander of the New Vlast Osip Rizhin. Those who have read Wolfhound Century and Truth and Fear, the earlier books in […]

Power of Conversation

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

I have lost count of the number of copies of Helen Simpson’s short stories I have given as presents, usually to younger friends who find themselves struggling in the adjustment from singledom to marriage and then from wedded bliss to baby care. Simpson’s first collection, Four Bare Legs in a Bed, is brilliant about the former, […]

To be a Nomad

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘My whole life has been a search for the miraculous,’ Bruce Chatwin says. Each of these essays, fragments and sketches written between 1972 and the author’s recent death are way-stations in the search. Chatwin is unclassifiable. Certainly he is one of the practitioners who have enlarged, liberated and dignified the notion of travel writing. He […]

In the Elastic Gloom

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

‘English, strictly speaking, is not my first language,’ explains the unnamed narrator whose feverish reflections are the subject of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond. ‘Regrettably I don’t think my first language can be written down at all … I think it has to stay where it is; simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.’ Bennett […]

Cicero on the Run

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The third volume of Robert Harris’s trilogy about the life of Cicero recounts the demise of the Roman Republic and Cicero’s ineffectual – and ultimately fatal – attempts to resuscitate it. As Harris’s meticulous reconstruction of Cicero’s career makes apparent, he became an increasingly marginal figure, geographically and politically. Dictator opens with Cicero fleeing Rome, […]

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Death & the Orgasm

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The characters in Erica Jong’s new novel are not like the rest of us. They live in spacious apartments in Manhattan and own ski places in Aspen. They go to glitzy parties and sociable AA meetings and they have cosmetic surgeons on hand to smooth out lines and wrinkles. They share some of the existential […]

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The Osborne Supremacy

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The epigraph, taken from William Cowper, to Part Four of Jonathan Coe’s engrossing, labyrinthine Number 11 is crucial to understanding where Coe is now as a writer. It refers to one of the book’s central themes: the limitations of satire as a force for change. Who, the poet asks, was ever ‘laughed into reform?/Alas! Leviathan […]

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Khadija Ismayilova

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

On 1 September 2015, Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova was given a seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence for ‘economic crimes, including illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion’. PEN believes the charges against Ismayilova are politically motivated and a result of her work exposing high-level government corruption. Ismayilova is a presenter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and is well […]

Monuments Man

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

While he was alive, no one ever commended Abraham Lincoln for his looks. He was tall and shambling, awkward and flat-footed: the rough rail-splitter from the West. ‘It would be hard work to find a great man in his face or figure,’ wrote the patrician Charles Wainwright, who saw him in Washington in 1862 and […]

Delft Touches

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

There have been innumerable books written on Vermeer since Tracy Chevalier’s bestselling historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, first published in 1999, inspired a trend. Laura Snyder’s new contribution to the field, Eye of the Beholder, suggests that it is now time for a moratorium on books about the poor painter from Delft. Snyder, […]

Postcards from YouTube

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The word ‘selfie’ – colloq. (orig. Austral.) – entered the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2014, having been declared word of the year at the end of 2013. ‘A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media’ is how the OED describes it. […]

Track Changes

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Almost forty years ago, when steam trains had precipitately vanished, along with a third of Britain’s entire railway network, stations and shunting yards, I wrote an article for a Sunday magazine called ‘The Down-Train to Childhood’. It centred on a Sussex branch line, by then axed, that I had known in the early 1950s. I […]

‘Stink and Darknesse’

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Can a climatic phenomenon have a biography? Christine Corton makes a good case for London fog, the ‘London Particular’ that dominated the winter existence of Londoners for several centuries, infiltrating life, literature and art. Her fascinating history traces London’s unique brand of photochemical smog from its surprisingly early birth in the 13th century, when complaints […]

Meet Me in Crustacean

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

You wonder if the publishing phenomenon that is Bill Bryson would have shifted the mountain of books that he has if he had been called something else – say, Derek Goodchild or Miles Trotter, or, indeed, William McGuire, which are his first and middle names. The name Bill Bryson suits the persona the author presents […]

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