They Came from Baghdad

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Avi Shlaim is one of a number of disaffected Israeli intellectuals who blame Israel’s interminable dispute with the Palestinians on Zionism, the ideology empowering the Jewish state. For him, the very idea of a Jewish state is a European conceit inapplicable to Jews living in Muslim countries. Most of them had adapted to Arab customs […]

Man in the Mirror

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

This is not just a beautifully written book. It is also creaking at the seams with anecdotes about the good, the bad and the downright ugly who run our country. It is an unvarnished account of how politics and journalism can be a sewer of hypocrisy, with both sides fighting for headlines and where the […]

Aristocracy of Labour

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It’s hard to know what this book is really about. Polly Toynbee or her family? Let’s do it her way and start with the family. She belongs to a family so famous she can research it by reading biographies of her relatives. Her great-great-uncle Arnold Toynbee (1852–83) was the young Oxford don who popularised the […]

Meeting Myself Coming Back

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Michael Frayn’s long and creative life has been driven by a fascination with working things out that carries within it a deep sense of the unknowable and the contingent. He can turn this to spirited comic effect – for example, in Donkeys’ Years (1977) and Noises Off (1982), two of the funniest farces written in […]

A Room is Not Enough

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Why read? Furthermore, why read a book about ‘why read?’ This sort of thing can slide into chaos fairly quickly and before you know it you are asking ‘why get out of bed?’ and ‘why do anything at all?’ Borges argued that we read because it makes us happy. If we are reading something that […]

Rhyming for England

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It all starts with a Rupert Brooke complex. One summer Andrew Motion and his fellow sixth-formers take off for Skyros, where the future poet laureate plans to track down Brooke’s grave. Some sun-baked wanderings later, the white sarcophagus is located. It is a strangely anticlimactic moment: no poetry is recited in this ‘corner of a foreign field’, not even ‘The Soldier’. ‘I wanted something more

Wish You Were There?

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Half a century or so ago, in a world bearing only an incidental resemblance to the one we currently inhabit, the record collection of any aficionado of ‘progressive rock’ would inevitably include album sleeves with designs credited to Hipgnosis. The Hipgnosis signature technique involved elaborately staged or – though it wasn’t immediately apparent – cunningly […]

Art of Resistance

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Every autobiography, by privileging a single person’s story, is inherently a statement that its subject deserves particular attention. While few would contest that China’s most famous contemporary artist and activist merits that focus, it’s entirely in keeping with Ai Weiwei’s taste for provocation that his memoir refuses to play by the rules. His story is […]

A Professor’s Progress

Posted on by David Gelber

In 1916 Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali writer and visionary, published The Home and the World, a novel critical of nationalism at a time when Indian nationalists were beginning to intensify their struggle against the Raj. Over a century later, another great Bengali, Amartya Sen, has adapted the phrase for the title of his memoir, […]

Escape from Ploiesti

Posted on by David Gelber

Freud took his couch. Einstein took his violin. Brecht left with twenty-six suitcases. Marcel Duchamp shipped one large trunk filled with miniatures of his artistic creations, including the iconic porcelain urinal. ‘My whole life’s work fits into one suitcase,’ he said. These are the sorts of things, Frances Stonor Saunders reveals in The Suitcase, that […]

The Swabbling of Auden

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the narrator is a maniac named Kinbote who, in the guise of providing scholarly notes to a poem, ignores the poet’s obvious intentions and manages feverishly to recount his own demented autobiography – to hilarious effect. Since life imitates art, our greatest poet of public life, WH Auden, has found […]

Compassionate Odyssey

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Gloria Steinem has never written a book. She has been much too busy campaigning – mainly for feminism, although Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern have also earned her support. Co-founder of both New York and Ms magazines, she had earned her living mainly as a journalist and, latterly, by lecturing. But that never-written book irks […]

Second Stout Volume

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Karl Miller’s great achievement was to found the London Review of Books during the year the Times Literary Supplement was not published. Almost immediately, the LRB felt like an institution, something you did not want to miss reading. Before that, Miller had been the Literary Editor of The Listener, the Spectator and the New Statesman. […]

Impossible Not to Be a Bit Pleased with Himself

Posted on by David Gelber

This is the autobiography of the first man to reach the top of Mount Everest, and return to tell the tale. His friend and comrade Tenzing Norgay was second on the rope to the summit: whether George Mallory and Andrew Irvine had got there twenty-nine years before we shall probably never know. Edmund Hillary was […]

In Search of Lost Time

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

In The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann asks, ‘Can one … narrate time, time itself? … A story which read “Time passed, it ran on, the time flowed onward” and so forth – no one in his senses could consider that a narrative.’ Yet we are time-bound, as are fictional characters, and Mann decides that he […]

A Very Azeri Upbringing

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

‘We all know families that are poor but “respectable”. Mine, in contrast, was extremely rich but not “respectable” at all.’ Born in 1905 in the ancient desert city of Baku, Banine (full name Umm-el-Banine Assadullayeva) was the fourth daughter of an Azeri oil baron, and thus a member of an exotic, semi-Russified oligarch class that […]

His Best Book Yet, But Written For Americans

Posted on by Tom Fleming

This is probably Martin Amis’s best book to date. It is miles better than the newspaper extracts conveyed. Yes, it is at times overwritten, strained to the point of self-parody. ‘I had a cigarette in my mouth. It pleaded, it yelped to be torched.’ It is hard to remember whether these risible sentences occur in Craig Brown’s inspired parody in Private Eye […]

Going by the Book

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

A popular new literary genre has emerged in recent years, comprising books that interweave authors’ memoirs and reflections on the books that have accompanied them throughout their lives. In Katharine Smyth’s debut memoir, All the Lives We Ever Lived, the book that she turns to for solace following the death of her beloved, alcoholic father from […]

Epping & Grinding

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Some victims of abuse find comfort in therapy, while others seek consolation through drugs, but Luke Turner discovered a far more interesting way to slay his demons. Damaged by childhood predators and finding his life unspooling into disarray, he sought to reconnect with the woods in Essex where he grew up. The result is this […]

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