Book review

Martin Amis: 1949-2023

Over the next few days, people will be reaching for certain set phrases about Martin Amis. That he was ‘era-defining’ (though he defined more than one era); that he was ‘genre-defying’ (he defied more than one genre); that he was an ‘enfant terrible’ (it will be wryly noted that he remained an enfant terrible, somehow, into his eighth decade). It’s poignant, I think, that a writer who vigilantly waged the career-long battle he called ‘the war against cliché’ will go to his grave heaped with the garlands of the old enemy.  Still, he deserves the content of those tributes if not their form. And it’s not much of a surprise that nobody can write as well

Ian Buruma: Collaborators

49 min listen

My guest in this week’s Book Club podcast is the writer and editor Ian Buruma, to talk about his new book Collaborators: Three Stories of Deception and Survival in World War Two. A Chinese princess who climbed into bed with Japanese nationalist gangsters; an observant Jew who sold his co-religionists to the Nazis; and Himmler’s personal masseur. Ian describes how their stories link and resonate, and how murky morality gets in a time where truth loses its meaning altogether.

Nordic noir

Anyone mildly interested in the second world war probably knows two things about our wartime alliance with Norway, following its invasion by Germany. One is the great Christmas tree that appears in Trafalgar Square every year, a gift from the Norwegian government in recognition of that alliance. The other is the daring raid to sabotage the Norwegian heavy-water plant essential to the German attempt to build an atomic bomb, an operation subsequently filmed as The Heroes of Telemark. But few are likely to know that the idea of an annual tree gift probably originated with two Norwegians manning one of the many SIS coast-watching stations in occupied Norway from which

When the Grand Design met ‘le Grand Non’: Britain in the early 1960s

Peter Hennessy is a national treasure. He is driven by a romantic, almost sensual, fascination with British history, culture, and the quirky intricacies of British democracy and the government machine. His curiosity is insatiable, his memory infinitely capacious. His innumerable contacts confide in him freely because his discretion is absolute. His tireless work in the archives is spectacularly productive. His generosity towards his students is boundless. His books — 14 at the last count — are gossipy, erudite, discursive, intensely personal: not your conventional academic history, but all the better for that. His latest book — the third in a history of post-war Britain — ranges over the early 1960s.

Something in the air: Broken Ghost, by Niall Griffiths, reviewed

Broken Ghost begins in the aftermath of a rave on the shores of a mountain lake above Aberystwyth, with three partygoers gathered in the dawn light, waiting for one last buzz off a tab of ecstasy. At that moment a strange glow appears in the morning air, in the middle of which seems to be a shadow in the shape of a woman. A hallucination? Not if all three are seeing the same thing. They barely know each other, but they walk away from that precipice changed by their shared vision. And change is what they need: Adam is a recovering addict trying to piece his life back together; Emma

When Decca records were part of everyday life

In 1929 in America, Dashiell Hammett published his debut hardboiled novel Red Harvest, over in Paris Buñuel and Dalí began showing their film Un Chien Andalou at a small cinema, while in Britain the fledgling Decca Record Company opened for business. Issued to mark 90 years of the label’s existence, this large format, fully illustrated volume benefits greatly from access to its extensive archive of the days when Billie Holiday, Kathleen Ferrier, Tom Jones, Pavarotti, Bing Crosby, Buddy Holly, Herbert von Karajan, Billy Fury, Marianne Faithfull, George Formby, Slaughter & the Dogs, Georg Solti, Benny Hill, Winston Churchill and even the Playboy Club Bunnies appeared on Decca or its subsidiaries.

If only Georges Simenon had been a bit more like Maigret

Georges Simenon, creator of the sombre, pipe-smoking Paris detective Jules Maigret, pursued sex, fame and money relentlessly. By the time he died in 1989, he had written nearly 200 novels, more than 150 novellas, several memoirs and countless short stories. His demonic productivity and the vast sales and fortune it brought him were matched by a vaunted sexual athleticism. Simenon claimed to have slept with 10,000 women. (‘The goal of my endless quest,’ he explained, ‘was not a woman, but the woman’ — which is French for wanting lots of it, very often.) It was not love-making, but a desire for brute copulation that drove Simenon to demand sex at

Isabel Hardman

Taking pride in household chores really can ease depression

There are many books about what it’s like to live with mental illness and the aftermath of child sexual abuse. Most of them, though, fall into that deeply off-putting category of ‘misery memoir’: greyscale covers and cloying titles such as ‘The Child Who Everyone Hurt’ and ‘When the Darkness Never Lifts’. You’re unlikely to want to read 300-odd pages of pain porn when healthy, let alone find yourself looking forward to the next page if, like me, you end up reading the book when you’re depressed too. I Never Said I Loved You isn’t like that. It’s funny. It’s not egregious: every time Rhik Samadder tells us more of the

Did Christianity make the western mind — or was it the other way round?

Nobody can accuse Tom Holland of shying away from big subjects. Dominion is nothing less than a history of Christianity with an underlying theme. The subtitle says it all. It is dedicated to the idea that Christianity has formed the western mind, not just in its moral and intellectual conventions but in their opposites, such as atheism or the natural sciences. An argument so paradoxical provokes thought, whether one agrees with it or not. This one is sustained with all the breadth, originality and erudition that we have come to associate with Holland’s writing. The technique is a sort of literary pointillism. An incident, an image, an individual, a place

A hazardous crossing: The Man Who Saw Everything, by Deborah Levy, reviewed

Serious readers and serious writers have a contract with each other,’ Deborah Levy once wrote. ‘We live through the same historical events, and the same Pepsi ads. Writers and readers, nervously sharing this all too fluid world, circle each other to find out what the hell is going on.’ Figuring out what the hell is going on within the fluid worlds of Levy’s fiction is not always straightforward. While other authors are increasingly drawn to autofiction, for Levy, uncertain times, it seems, call for uncertain realities. The characters in The Man Who Saw Everything shape-shift, and time bends back and then twists upon itself again. Objects and animals — wolves

We should all share the blame for the Rohingya tragedy

My local shop in Yangon was owned by a retired army officer and his wife and guarded by their handsome coal-black dog. When I asked the name of the hound the man smiled and said ‘Kalar’, before enquiring if I knew the meaning of the word. I did. Kalar is a racial slur, employed originally by the Burmese to describe the darker-skinned immigrants from India brought to Burma by the British as cheap labour in the colonial era. More recently, the word has come to be used as a derogatory reference to Burma’s Muslims, and especially the reviled Rohingya minority in the far western state of Rakhine. The use of

Novel explosives of the Cold War

One autumn night in 1991, I stood on the rooftop terrace of a tacky villa in Saranda once owned by Albania’s Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, beside three elderly former SOE officers who were returning to Albania for the first time since 1945. In an image that summed up the waste and the horror of the Cold War, David Smiley stared out over the dark water at the lights of Corfu, from where, on a similar night in October 1949, he had sent a group of dissidents, code-named the ‘Pixies’, to launch an insurgency — and wiped his eye in silence. Smiley’s men had been ambushed as they landed, and then

Can’t anyone travel for fun any more?

There was a time when travel writers would set off with a spring in their step: Coleridge knocking the bristles from a broom in his impatience to make it into a stick; Laurie Lee walking out one midsummer morning; Patrick Leigh Fermor singing as he headed down the lane. To travel was an expression of freedom and exploration; to step out of the front door the beginning of a grand  adventure. Not any more. Travel writers now come troubled and weary before they’ve even begun. A journey can no longer be a jeu d’esprit. It has to be undertaken to expiate some trauma. It is almost as if, in today’s

A single man of no fortune must be in want of a job: younger sons in Jane Austen’s England

Readers of Jane Austen gain a clear idea of the task facing the daughters of gentlemen. They need to secure a husband who can enable them to keep or even improve their social and economic status. But what about their opposite numbers? How did the younger sons of gentlemen face up to the challenges and responsibilities of adulthood? Primogeniture meant that even those from a wealthy background often had to earn their living. While for girls marriage and career tended to be synonymous, for many of their brothers a profession came first, and then with luck a marriage would follow, since ‘a single man in possession of a good fortune

From bitter loss to sweet relief: baking as therapy

This is a gentle, lovely book. It will, I’m sure, appeal to many an aspiring cook and baker, and should be read by anyone grieving for the loss of someone they loved. It is a memoir — each chapter ending with a recipe — covering a few years, from the sudden death of a beloved mother, through the author’s bleak, enveloping sorrow to a change of career, retraining as a pastry chef, and a love affair. At first, I found it unengaging. The stages of grief — denial, anger, resentment of other people’s happiness, manic displacement activity, exhaustion, sudden outbursts of either wracking sobs or unsuitable laughter — are well-written

Back to basics | 1 August 2019

Anyone picking up a book by Wendell Berry, whether it be fiction, essays or a collection of his lucid and engaged poetry, will quickly find themselves in the company of one who is unafraid to tackle the larger subjects (time, place, environment, community) in terms familiar to Virginia Woolf’s ‘common reader’, a creature who seems scarcer by the year, but is not yet wholly extinct. Stand by Me is no exception and, by the time we reach the second of these 18 linked stories, we know just where we are, if not where we are going, as Berry sets out a history of everyday life in a small Kentucky town

A far cry from Chekhov

It would be hard to have better travel-writer credentials than Sara Wheeler. Here the author of The Magnetic North and Terra Incognita, a specialist in Arctic and Antarctic adventure, turns her attentions to the land mass that sprawls across eight time zones, where any traveller is guaranteed to receive an ostentatiously frosty reception — initially, at least. Wheeler’s task has been to capture Russia through a bifocal lens: first through the eyes of the classic Russian authors she loves, and second through the lives of contemporary Russians we rarely hear about, outside of the Moscow–St Petersburg axis. ‘I was searching for a Russia not in the news — a Russia

Closure at last | 1 August 2019

This is horrible. But it’s a book by Mark Bowden, who wrote Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo, so it’s compelling: an almost perfect true crime story. Two sisters, aged ten and 12, disappeared from a shopping mall in 1975 and were never seen again. What happened to them was a mystery for 40 years. In The Last Stone, Bowden tells you about two things. He tells you how the mystery was solved, and he tells you what happened to the girls. The first thing is compelling. The second will make you sick. The girls, Kate and Sheila Lyon, went to the Wheaton Plaza shopping mall in Montgomery County, Maryland