March 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

griefTHIS HOUSE OF GRIEF: The Story of a Murder Trial by Helen Garner (Text, 300pp; £12.99)

On a September evening in 2005, driving back from a Father’s Day outing, Robert Farquharson veered off the Princes Highway south-west of Melbourne, and plunged into a dam. Farquharson freed himself and swam to the bank, but the car sank into deep water and his three young sons were drowned. Two years later, in the Supreme Court of Victoria, he stood trial on three charges of murder. The case divided Australia: his family believed it had been a tragic accident; the public believed that Farquharson, a man down on his luck and dumped by his wife, had been either grief-stricken at the loss of his family or motivated by evil revenge. A court case such as this is a legal procedure, but it is also public theatre. Helen Garner has recorded the performances that revealed the blighted lives of a family, the bleak man at the centre of a powerful tragedy and the tragi-comedy of dramatic legal proceedings.


barefootTHE BAREFOOT LAWYER: The Remarkable Memoir of China’s Bravest Political Activist by Chen Guangcheng (Macmillan, 330pp; £20)

Were it not true, this could be the theme for a novel: young, blind, self-taught and unlicensed (‘barefoot’) lawyer from a poor provincial farming background takes up the cases of citizens oppressed by big government and is himself harassed, beaten up and imprisoned by the authorities he is challenging. If this was America, he would be a John Grisham hero. But he is Chinese, and his crime was to stand up for the rights of the disabled coerced for high taxes, women forcibly sterilized under the ‘one child’ policy, and victims of official corruption. His daring escape from house arrest and disappearance for days, the dangerous flight to the American Embassy and his negotiated release to the United States in 2012 was worldwide news as an embarrassing affront to Chinese political pride and a moral victory for Western constitutional liberty and individual human freedom. Guangcheng’s bravura narrative is an action-packed tribute to the power of personal political activism.


lusitaniaDEAD WAKE: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson (Doubleday, 430pp; £20)

On 1 May 1915, with a mixture of hope and fear, some 2000 passengers embarked on the luxury Cunard liner Lusitania bound from New York for Liverpool. Among them were a large number of children and babies. The ship had often made the Atlantic crossing without incident, and the captain – despite Germany having declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone – trusted that a civilian, unarmed ship would be safe from U-boat attack. On 7th May, the Lusitania was torpedoed: 350 pounds of explosives detonated against the hull, 10 feet below the waterline. Only 764 passengers survived. Larson’s true narrative of an epic disaster is told from the perspective of passengers, the ship’s crew, the personnel of Unterseeboot-20, and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. With practiced skill, Larson powerfully confronts the emotional pathos of wartime tragedy with the fatal errors by officials and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic that might have avoided it.


March 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

UnicornI’VE ALWAYS KEPT A UNICORN: The Biography of Sandy Denny by Mick Houghton (Faber, 502pp; £20)

Mick Houghton is a fan boy for Fairport Convention and its lead singer Sandy Denny. “Here,” he says, “was Britain’s answer to Jefferson Airplane, with a singer who was Grace Slick’s equal. No, Sandy Denny was better.” His biography is enthusiastic about Denny’s dynamic vocal range, dramatic genius as a singer-songwriter, and as a bridge between 1960s folk and pop and the sensitive singer-songwriters of the 1970s. But then there was her marriage to Australian singer Trevor Lucas, which Houghton compares with the tensions between Plath and Hughes or Bogart and Bacall. Interviews with Denny’s friends and fellow musicians are revealing, though diverse. She was “manic”, says one; “manipulative”, another; and for sure she was deeply conflicted about her role as a mother and disdainful of pop success. Denny’s death at the age of thirty-one in 1978 is lamented by Houghton, whose well-researched, lively biography does her character full justice and proclaims her long-term legacy to modern music.


GodsGODS OF THE MORNING: A Bird’s Eye View of a Highland Year by John Lister Kaye (Canongate, 294pp; £14.99)

The gods of the morning, according to Virgil, are birds. They are regarded with reverence by naturalist and conservationist John Lister Kaye who has written his own Georgic in lyrical praise of the wildlife at Aigas, his field study centre near Inverness. He keeps a seasoned eye on the seasonal behaviour of birds, logging unusual variations in their migration and nesting patterns, and developing a wry sense of their character. Rooks, for instance, are “boisterous personalities, like inner-city youths: racketing, arguing, bossing, coming and going, flapping, cawing loudly.” In this ecological microcosm, the birds of Aigas are “thermometers of environmental health and change – not always a happy story.” There have been losses over recent decades – moorland waders, curlew, lapwing, greenshank, redshank and oystercatchers. Though Lister Kaye warns of the damage caused by humankind, and sometimes strikes an elegiac note, he sings full-throatedly in praise of the struggle for survival and the persistence of nature.


SilenceBREAKING THE SILENCE: My Story of Discovery as I Heard for the Very First Time by Jo Milne (Coronet, 262pp; £16.99)

In March 2014, a cochlear implant enabled Jo Milne, profoundly deaf since birth and registered blind as an adult, to hear for the first time in the forty years of her life. The pioneering surgical procedure caused a global media sensation, and now Jo travels the country as a mentor to other deaf-blind people who suffer from Usher Syndrome. The transition from silence to sound would seem an absolute benefit, but Jo was undefended: she had to learn to process the noise she was hearing, to identify the sound of a phone ringing, the ‘clunk’ of a cab door closing. The world, she discovered, is filled with sounds of distress, but there is also the sweet flood of music and the joy of birdsong at dawn. Now and again, it all becomes too much and Jo removes the cochlear implant. Movingly, she says now that “the silence I’d been so terrified of my entire life suddenly became a great comfort.” Her memoir of a life lived in light and darkness, silence and sound, is bright with her courage and humanity.





March 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

lootingTHE LOOTING MACHINE: Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth by Tom Burgis (William Collins, 320pp; £20)

From 2008, travelling in the oil-slicked Niger Delta and the mineral-rich Congo, economist and journalist Tom Burgis began to believe that “Africa’s troves of natural resources were not going to be its salvation; instead, they were its curse. … Africa is not only disproportionately rich in natural resources; it is disproportionately dependent on them.” Captains of the oil and mining industries stress the nobility of their endeavours as the solution to Africa’s woes, rather than as the cause. Their dilemma is devilish: “The general in the Niger Delta told me he kidnapped to pay school fees. Shell’s Mutiu Sunmonu had a lump in his throat as he recalled the terrible state of his homeland despoiled by the oil industry he helps to run.” Burgis makes a powerful, outraged case, through anecdote and evidence, that the dirty trade in raw materials of these home-grown African potentates, international commercial pirates and multinational financial buccaneers serves only their own enrichment and the demands of oligarchic and state interests worldwide.


swallowSWALLOW THIS: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets by Joanna Blythman (4th Estate, 312pp; £14.99)

As a tenacious, long-term investigator, digging deep into the details of dodgy food processing, Joanna Blythman was still suspicious that the information she was given by the food industry, was a few e-numbers short of a full lunch. Now she has penetrated further into the dark web where factory food processors put up ‘do not disturb’ notices to fend off outsiders and plot the death of real food by discussing how it can be chemically shaped, bio-engineered, redesigned and presented as virtuously healthy. But how has that pack of pitta bread survived for weeks without growing whiskers? Is the taste of that bagged salad meant to last all day? And is that really cheese you’re squeezing out of a tube like toothpaste? The answer is enzymes, nanoparticles, protein isolates, acidulants, permeates, cyclodextrins, sugar alcohols and other ingredients that a five-year old kid can’t pronounce and your grandmother doesn’t recognise as food. In this fine book, Blythman uses a long spoon to sup with the devils of our daily diet.


parsonTHE VICTORIAN PARSON by Barry Turner (Amberley, 288pp; £25)

Satirical novelists and bar-room wits have brought the poor old Victorian vicar into low repute, but he had much to contend with; he preached in an age of religious faith that was losing ground to theological doubt; and in many parishes, then as now, there were chronic problems of social inequality. Pastoral care was just as often humanitarian as spiritual. In one case, a parson was obliged to take a pair of pliers to an old woman’s aching tooth; and the description by the Revd. Armstrong of a street in East Dereham in Norfolk would make the modern ‘Benefit Street’ seem like a utopian paradise of social care. From period diaries and documents, Barry Turner gives the good Victorian parish parson a positive makeover as a campaigner for better education and literacy, sanitation and health. As an unsung hero of progressive social politics, he created the scaffolding of what would become the welfare state.


March 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

Love SongsLOVE SONGS: The Hidden History by Ted Gioia (OUP, 316pp; £17.99)

To moon, spoon, June, add a swooning tune and what have you got? Not a lot; or not enough, anyhow. Love, like the songs devoted to it, is never simple. There are millennia of social history behind what birds do, bees do, even Beatles, Stones and Talking Heads do: sing of love, that is. In a richly researched and heartfelt song book of the ages, Gioia takes us from the sweet tweet of birdsong, through the high romance of troubadours, the ale and Aran-sweatered inspiration of folk singers, the low whiskey tones of crooners, the slow smoulder of torch song gals, the bubblegum pop of bobbysoxers, the bump and grind of rock ‘n’ roll, to the hippy-dippiness of Woodstock and beyond – to punk, grunge and the achey-breakey heartache of C&W. Gioia boldly and brilliantly enters the space between the noises of ancient fertility rites and the sexualised music videos of YouTube to discover how melody and love songs, like hearts full of passion, jealousy and hate, are never out of date.


LenaTHE DIARY OF LENA MUKHINA: A Girl’s Life in the Siege of Leningrad (Macmillan, 392pp; £16.99)

From 29th September 1941, the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis lasted for 872 days and nights, during which some 800,000 citizens died from disease, hunger, air raids and cold. With candour and courage sixteen year-old Lena Mukhina’s diary records the dreadful days. She admits that the citizens have to be selfish to survive, and that she too has become heartless. Food is the great preoccupation. Casting a pitiless adolescent eye on Aka, a nanny or grandmother, sick and weak, Lena calculates that the old woman’s bread ration would help keep herself and her mother alive. But somehow, the city salvages some humour, humanity and resourcefulness from destitution and despair: school continues, there is a fir tree at a New Year party, cinemas show films, there are theatre performances, and news of Russian victories filters through on the radio. Lena’s diary, sustained by emotional stamina and driven by daily drama, ruthlessly describes one of the worst civilian horrors of modern wartime.


PortasSHOP GIRL: A Memoir by Mary Portas (Doubleday, 276pp; £16.99)

Before she became TV’s ‘Queen of Shops’ and a campaigner for the revival of British High Streets, Mary Portas was already a media darling. As the creative director of Harvey Nichols, she brought the high energy of street cred to the store’s fashion policy and inventive window displays. Now she tells where she got her cool: in the 1970s, in Watford, in a sprawling Irish Catholic family, headed by her pigeon-fancying Dad but ruled by Theresa, her beloved mother, who talked in interesting idioms and served up Vesta curries with mashed potatoes and Angel Delight. Family life, almost a blueprint for a 1970s TV sitcom, is devastated by Theresa’s early death from meningitis. Dazed and confused at college, Mary’s teenage resistance to a career in retail is subverted by the camp glitz of the New Romantics and her first days working with new fashion styles at Harrods. Her story begins in this first memoir; by the end, she is a fashion princess-in-waiting for her media crown.




February 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

WellnessTHE WELLNESS SYNDROME by Carl Cederström and Andre Spicer (Polity, 164pp; £14.99)

Do you resist tobacco/alcohol/drugs? Do you monitor your heart/pulse/calories? Do you jog/run/cycle? Do you balance work/rest/play? If the answers are yes, you are living well and may even have achieved the gold star zone of “ideal performance state.” But are you happy? In 2005, David Cameron recruited the ideology of the wellness guru Martin Seligman to help him to measure wellbeing in Britain and float the bubble idea of happiness as deriving from self-help rather than welfare dependency. By striving strenuously for self-improvement, we should feel good, become good and do good. In a sceptical investigation of wellness as a virtuous circle, Cederström and Spicer show how it has been taken over by the consumer economy and they rebrand it as oppressive. In 1984, the oppressed victims of Big Brother were coerced into social uniformity. Thirty years later, Big Brother is an evangelical life coach who preaches moral self-mastery. Ideological wellness tricks us into oppressing ourselves.


explainTO EXPLAIN THE WORLD: The Discovery of Modern Science by Steven Weinberg (Allen Lane, 416pp; £20)

When he wants to learn something new, says Weinberg, he teaches a college course about it. In this masterful, entertainingly “irreverent” book, he explains the rise of science (mostly physics and astronomy) from ancient Greeks to modern geeks in terms that his students and the rest of us as scientific amateurs will understand. Weinstein chooses the word “discovery” instead of “invention” to emphasise the discipline of modern science as a technique that was waiting to be discovered. He comes less to hype the heroic natural philosophers of history such as Aristotle, Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, than to show how far they were from our present conception of science. In turn, Weinberg as a modern scientist is prompted to wonder how much still remains to be discovered, in how many realities yet unknown, and at what point the inadequacy of human intellectual and economic resources will stall further progress.


darkGIRL IN THE DARK by Anna Lyndsey (Bloomsbury, 244pp; £16.99)

Anna Lyndsey (a nom-de-plume) suffers from a severely disabling form of photosensitive seborrhoeic dermatitis; a reaction to light, natural or artificial, that causes agonising pain in her skin. She lives for months at a time in a darkened room by day and is able to go out only at night. Sound familiar? A coffin worked as a blackout zone for Dracula, says Anna, but in her case there would be breathing problems and her husband couldn’t get it in the car. With black humour, she describes her strategies for living as full a life as possible without becoming an emotional basket case. There’s Radio Four (allowing for radio rage), audio books (SAS thrillers, preferably, but no James Patterson or Miss Read), knitting (badly), marriage and making love (but at risk of physical injury). In the dying of the light, there is rage but also laughter, love and the hope of progress in small, shining victories.


February 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

LeavingLEAVING BEFORE THE RAIN COMES by Alexandra Fuller (Harvill Secker, 258pp; £18.99)

When young Alexandra Fuller met American polo player and white water rafter Charlie Ross in Zambia, she thought he was a free-spirited adventurer, a cross between Captain Scott and Laurie Lee, until they were married and living in Wisconsin where she discovered he had the mind of an estate agent. She writes with joyful gusto of her disordered southern African childhood with loving, emotionally spendthrift parents who kept a revolver and an Uzi at the dinner table with the undercooked chicken and green beans and gave her ‘The Sloane Ranger Handbook’ “in lieu of responsible parenting.” By contrast, life in the American west with emotionally buttoned-up Charlie drove her to nervous breakdown. Western attitude and ambition, she learned, could not save them, and they were not immune from capricious tragedy. Alexandra Fuller’s style of casual, throwaway humour in bad times as well as good is deceptive. In reality, she says, she writes out of anger. It fires this bold, brave memoir of her emancipation from the past and her freedom in the balance of the now.

FactsWHEN THE FACTS CHANGE: Essays 1995 – 2010 by Tony Judt, edited by Jennifer Homans (William Heinemann, 386pp; £25)

Tony Judt took his intellectual and ethical stand with Orwell, Camus, Keynes, Marx – and the Marx Brothers “who appeared in ritual screenings” says his wife, historian Jennifer Homans. In her selection of Judt’s writings from the years of their marriage she frames the themes of his ambitious project of a book that would deal, among other morally challenging topics, with anti-semitism, “the problem of evil” in post-war Europe, and the relationship between Israel and Palestine. Her moving introduction evokes Judt the man she loved before she moves forwards into Judt’s ideas, “good ideas because they were written in good faith.” His faith was tested by events: the revolutions of 1989, the losses of 9/11, the crises of the Middle East, and “the self-defeating decline of the American republic.” As the facts changed, so Judt spoke all the more boldly to contrast what has become of the world with what he had hoped for it.


ReadingREADING THE WORLD: Confessions of a Literary Explorer by Ann Morgan (Harvill Secker, 326pp; £16.99)

As an undergraduate, feeling overwhelmed by the Britishness of her research at Cambridge University Library, Ann Morgan resolved to cope with the embarrassment of her literary xenophobia by reading one book from each of the 196 countries (plus one territory) of the world over a year; rather more than one book every two days. On the face of it, this endeavour might render such an ambitious reader as widely rather than well read. She is certainly now more broadly informed, to judge by what her reading has taught her about global publishing, politics, cultural identity, nationality, oral storytelling, censorship, free speech in cyberspace, translation, literacy and, as a preliminary, cartography when deciding how and where to begin her literary odyssey. The international literary landscape, rather than the books themselves, is Ann Morgan’s concern, and her rather rarefied ruminations seem mostly directed to establishing her credentials as a woman of world letters.


BrownsvilleSLOW ROAD TO BROWNSVILLE: A Journey through the Heart of the Old West by David Reynolds (Greystone, 382pp; £10.99)

David Reynolds is your satnav to 2,271 straight miles of Highway 83, from Swan River in Manitoba to Brownsville in Texas. His tenuous inspirations for travelling include an unreliable Canadian grandfather, a taste for Westerns and road movies, an interest in ancestral Native Americans, and a 96 year-old laconic piece of hickory called Stuart who points out the road to Reynolds who rides off, a lone English ranger, into a historical North American hinterland that exists as much in mythical reference as in modern reality. Take Dodge City, for instance, where, for a ten dollar fee, they will put on a gunfight at six and a variety show with Miss Kitty and her cancan girls at eight. Ride shotgun with Reynolds in his Prius as he pit-stops at diners and gas stations, and detours by way of legendary landmarks, where he reflexively enjoys cracker barrel wisdom, saloon bar wit, and good-ol’ country wackiness.


February 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

WagstaffWAGSTAFF: Before and After Mapplethorpe; A Biography by Philip Gefter (Norton, 458pp; £22)

Gefter’s very first sentence makes the point that Sam Wagstaff’s celebrity in the 1970s as the lover and patron of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe has obscured his distinction as a curator, critic and collector of fine art in the latter half of the 20th century and his seminal influence in the promotion of photography as an important art form. It didn’t hurt his professional career or his media image that he was born into wealth, Ivy League-educated, resembled the actor Sam Shephard, and rode the avant-garde rail with Andy Warhol and other artists that he promoted beyond metropolitan New York to regional Detroit and into mainstream culture. Wagstaff’s radical artistic taste evolved in step with his evolution as a gay man in the years before and during the AIDS epidemic. Both strands are bound together in this striking, sexy, necessary biography of a charismatic man in the best and worst of times.


BoundlessBOUNDLESS: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage by Kathleen Winter (Jonathan Cape, 264pp; £16.99)

The North, once a magnet for explorers, is now a rich resource for exploiters. Kathleen Winter’s lively, interactive account of a trip made by a mixed bag of climate scientists and other quizzical passengers along the newly negotiable Northwest Passage pays homage to the native culture of Greenland, the human pathos of small mementoes of failed polar expeditions, and the larger, legendary Arctic landscape in meltdown. The traditional, familiar skills needed to sustain life for indigenous humans and native animals have to change. The Inuit communities are adapting to a global economy and digital technology, while polar bears are mating with grizzlies to breed a new hybrid species. In the freezing air, competition crackles like splintering ice between nations to exploit the resources of the Arctic, to turn a wilderness into a wasteland. In “the North’s deep mystery”, says Winter, there are “no straight lines, no corners, no easy, linear logic.”


Celtic MythsTHE CELTIC MYTHS: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends by Miranda Aldhouse-Green (Thames and Hudson, 208pp; £12.95)

First define your Celt: in this magical miscellany of myths, their supernatural themes, literary origins and archaeological associations, they are mostly Irish and Welsh. Though the gods and their Celtic believers are now deep-buried in bogs with their spears, runes and magic cauldrons, they survive in their power to trouble the living. A heavy modern fibreglass and steel statue of Manannan Mac Lir, god of the sea, was recently hacked off its plinth in County Derry and removed by, it is suggested, extremist Christians offended by Celtic idolatry. As a “well-known, six-foot-tall striking local male with an athletic build,” the god is still being sought by the Irish police. The heroic exploits of the warrior Cú Chulainn, the tragic betrayal of Lleu Llaw Gyffes by Bloduewedd, the iconic talking head of Brân, the dangerous Tuatha Dé Danaan and the fierce Fomorians: this is the stuff of a spellbound land and literature.



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