Book reviews

Poetic licentiousness

Reprobates were, in the Calvinist lexicon, those unfortunates not included among God’s elect and therefore sentenced to eternal damnation.

Hothouse hell

Amy Chua, Tiger Mother and John M. Duff Professor of Law at Yale, was born in the Chinese year of the tiger, and a tiger, she says, ‘the living symbol of strength and power, generally inspires fear and respect’. She describes her own personality: ‘Hot- tempered, viper-tongued, fast-forgiving’.

A world of talking trees

Patrick Cockburn is a foreign correspondent who has reported from war zones in Beirut, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The call of the wild

Annie Proulx (pronounced ‘Pru’) began her writing career — quite late, in her fifties — as E.A. Proulx, to baffle misogynist editors; then she was E. Annie Proulx, until she dropped the E and became simply Annie the Proulx.

Bipolar exploration

‘I’m not writing songs anymore; they’re writing me.’ Plagued by music in her head that arrived unbidden, drowning out conversation,…

Cross-cultural exchanges

The 18 stories, each around a dozen pages long, in E.C. Osondu’s Voice of America seem to have poured out of him like water. They have a fluency, an evenness of tone and texture, that creates an illusion of transparency and simplicity.

Bruising times

In a market town in Kent at the time of Thatcher’s Britain, Charles Pemberton attends the town’s minor public school where his businessman father is a governor.


Beatrix Potter meets the Marquis de Sade

Anthropomorphism and a weird, astringent sense of humour combined to make The Queue, the late Jonathan Barrow’s only novel, a work of genius in the opinion of his brother Andrew.


Tibet should not despair

Surely no political process in the modern world is more shrouded in mystery than the way the Chinese select a new supreme leader — except perhaps the occult divination practised by the Tibetans.


Why the heck not?

Philip Hensher recounts how a handful of British mercenaries in the 1960s, headed by the Buchanesque Jim Johnson (pictured above), trained a rag-tag force of Yemeni tribesmen to defeat the full might of the Egyptian army in a conflict that Nasser later referred to as ‘my Vietnam’


Nowhere becomes somewhere

There have been quite a few anthologies of British eccentricity. Usually they are roll-calls of the lunatic: a sought-after heiress so snobbish she finally gave her hand in marriage to a man who had managed to convince her he was the Emperor of China; a miser so mean he would sit on fish until he considered them cooked; a man so addicted to cobnuts he would, after any long coach journey, be up to his knees in their shells. Men who refused to get into a bath, others who refused to get out of one, or were so quarrelsome they could spot an insult at 100 yards, others who so loved animals they would bath owls (which died), or founded their own religions so they could copulate with the faithful on the high altar (though I gather this was an ambition of the novelist Graham Greene). All the crackpots. So it is a pity that this book has as its subtitle ‘A Gallery of Glorious British Eccentrics.’

Morphine memories

Chapman’s Odyssey became quite famous before it was published, largely because it nearly wasn’t.

Care or cure?

Cancer is usually associated with death.

Consummate con artist

‘Taylor, I dreamt of your lecture last night,’ the polar explorer Captain Scott was once heard to exclaim, after sitting through a paper on icebergs by the expedition physiographer, Griffith Taylor, that had reduced even its author to the edge of catalepsy: ‘How could I live so long in the world and not know something of so fascinating a subject!’ The True Story of Titanic Thompson is not going to be everyone’s book, but for those who can get beyond the child-brides and casual killings, Kevin Cook’s biography of a great American hustler might well provoke the same sense of wonderment.

Perchance to dream

This book reads like an interesting after- dinner conversation between intelligent friends.


Names to conjure with

Sebastian Faulks’s latest book, examining the great characters of British fiction, may be scorned by the literary establishment, but Sam Leith salutes its enthusiasm and humour


The real deal

‘“We weren’t phoney,” Stephen said. “Our whole point was to live an authentic life, to challenge the bourgeois conventions of our parents’ generation. We wanted to make it real.”’ Such is the lifelong aspiration of Stephen Newman, the baby boomer hero of Linda Grant’s new novel.

Palace intrigue

Plunging into the second volume of Alastair Campbell’s diaries is like opening a Samuel Richardson novel.


Beasts in battle

‘Never such innocence again’ wrote Philip Larkin of an unquestioning British people on the eve of the first world war, and much has been made, not unreasonably, of the trusting frame of mind in which young men of that time accepted the arguments for war in 1914.

Odd characters

Cedilla picks up where Adam Mars-Jones’s previous novel Pilcrow (2008) left off.


The Romanovs afloat

‘I have to do everything myself, I who have all my life been so spoilt.’ So lamented the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna, mother of Tsar Nicholas II, in the diary she kept aboard HMS Marlborough, the British warship carrying her and 16 other Romanovs, in April 1919, from Yalta into perpetual exile.


To the holiest in the height

Charles Allen is impressed by an arduous journey that is both a pilgrimage and a way of mourning lost relatives


BOOKENDS: 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Myth-Making

Did you know they once burned comic books? And in America, no less. In schoolyards. It was shortly after the end of the second world war, and legislators and parents were all shook up about what these ten-cent publications with their scenes of violence and distress were doing to the minds of their children. So on the concrete they went, in messy piles. A sprinkling of fuel, a lit match, and the fire soon caught hold. Some of the kids even cheered the flames on.


Hell or high water

As his battered bomber hurtled towards the Pacific in May 1943, Louis Zamperini thought to himself that no one was going to survive the crash.


Pig in the middle

Writing an autobiographical account of middle age is a brave undertaking, necessitating a great deal of self-scrutiny at a time of life when most of us would sooner look the other way and hope for the best.