Thomas The Obscure

Posted on by David Gelber

Thomas Hardy, the most devious of men, left a number of minefields and boobytraps for his future biographers. But he has mel his match in Michael Millgate, author of Thomas Hardy: His career as a novelist (1971) and co-editor of Hardy’ s Collected Letters, who has now produced a mammoth academic biography. Henry James, who […]

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College Confessional

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

There is a restaurant on Gerrard Street in London’s Chinatown in which an observant diner can still detect marks on the wood panelling where bookshelves once lined the walls. These are the former premises of the bookshop Birrell & Garnett. It says something about the decorative standards in these parts that the restaurant dates from […]

Dareen Tatour

Posted on by David Gelber

To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, PEN International is launching its Women’s Manifesto, a set of principles aimed at combating the silencing of women worldwide, whether through censorship, harassment or violence. Drawn up by a group of leading literary figures, including Ellah Allfrey, Nina George, Caroline Criado Perez, Kamila Shamsie, Gillian Slovo and […]

Carnivorous New Flowers

Posted on by Tom Fleming

One starts reading Jeet Thayil’s The Book of Chocolate Saints expecting a dark but still essentially comic roman à clef covering sixty or so years of Indian literary and artistic history. There seem to be helpful hints for readers in the know to match character with model (or, more often, models). But the central figure, […]

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Village Voices

Posted on by Tom Fleming

The Western Wind is set in 1491, in the kind of peripheral, unspectacular place in which, we book lovers know, the best stories are often found. Oakham (not the one in Rutland, it seems) is a slumbering English village cut off from neighbouring areas by a wide river. A couple of wealthy people live there, […]

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Cold Comforts

Posted on by Tom Fleming

James Wood is a titan of literary criticism whose early collections of essays, The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self, sit on my bookshelves, their spines wearily striated from endless rereadings. Since 2014 he has been Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard. Given that another book of his is titled How Fiction […]

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Reality Bites

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Andrew Crumey’s new book is a quasi-novel built out of connected short stories. It’s something for which we English have no specific term, but for which German critics have probably coined an impressively resonant piece of nomenclature (Kurzgeschichtenverkettung, maybe?). It’s as good an example of the form as I know. Crumey, who has a PhD […]

Ocean Red

Posted on by Tom Fleming

A bright red fish ‘streaming with seawater and blood’ plants a poisonous spine ‘like a flaming arrow’ in the hand of a fisherwoman; the hand swells, becoming lethally infected; the woman stubbornly refuses aid, until eventually she is manhandled to safety by the all-male crew of her fishing vessel. This situation is characteristic of a strange, […]

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Muted Witnesses

Posted on by Tom Fleming

‘What are you saying in a whisper?’ asked the author long before he was an author. ‘I’m reading,’ his grandfather Garabet answered. ‘How are you reading? Where is the book?’ ‘I don’t need the book. I know it by heart.’ ‘All right, but what is the book called? Who wrote it?’ ‘Perhaps you, one fine […]

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Lives of the Poet

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Blake Morrison’s 2010 novel The Last Weekend starts out as a carefree catch-up between two couples at a country house on a sunny bank holiday. When the narrative homes in and centres on the two men, storm clouds gather. Past differences and petty rivalries rear their ugly heads, souring the atmosphere and threatening the friendship. […]

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Meet the Neighbours

Posted on by Tom Fleming

The Friendly Ones, a chunky family saga that is set in late-20th-century England but deals with the aftershocks of the 1971 war of independence in Bangladesh, seems at first to be more conventional than Philip Hensher’s previous novel, The Emperor Waltz, a century-hopping portmanteau concoction with no overarching plot. But that’s deceptive, and by the […]

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Root & Branch Reform

Posted on by Tom Fleming

This labyrinthine curiosity begins with a ten-page glossary of ‘historic terms’, certain of which remain in everyday use in discourse on the New Forest. They may be ancient but they are not archaic. The same is true of the place itself. Many of the terms are specific to the New Forest, peculiar coinages that suggest its peculiarity, which is all too readily taken for granted

Cracks in the Glass Ceiling

Posted on by Tom Fleming

This enthralling book documents what happened to women in the scientific workforce at the beginning of the 20th century. Patricia Fara tells the stories of not only the poor and courageous women who worked in dangerous munitions and poison gas factories, but also the scientists educated at Newnham, the women-only Cambridge college founded in 1871 […]

Metropolis Now

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Mr Sudhir, a Delhi market trader who sold Richard Sennett a hot mobile phone, is one of the unlikely heroes of Building and Dwelling, his latest magnum opus on living in the contemporary city. The two men – both grandparents, as they discovered – struck up a rapport when a furious Sennett tried to return […]

The Past is Another Person

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Wendy Mitchell worked in the NHS for twenty years, managing nursing rotas in a busy city hospital with a level of efficiency and dedication that she took pride in. Sporty, independent and resourceful, she brought up her two daughters on her own, taking cleaning jobs when they were young so she could juggle childcare while […]

In Search of Libraries Past

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Recently, I was standing in what used to be the library of one of the most distinguished Spanish-language intellectuals of the first half of the 20th century, the Mexican scholar Alfonso Reyes. Borges, one of his greatest admirers, said that providence had given each of us a section of an arc but to Reyes the […]

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Mind the Gap

Posted on by Tom Fleming

When, in 1842, Queen Victoria saw Jenny, an orangutan that had recently arrived at London Zoo, she is reported to have commented that she found the ape ‘disagreeably human’. Like Charles Darwin, who had visited the zoo a few years earlier, the monarch saw in Jenny our near kin. ‘When we observe the great apes,’ writes Antonio Damasio

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