September 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

malalaMALALA: The Girl Who Stood up for Education and Changed the World by Malala Yousafzai with Patricia McCormick (Orion, £12.99)

From the age of ten, living in the Swat valley in Pakistan and attending her father’s school, Malala campaigned against the efforts of the Taliban to deny her and other girls an education. Two years later, in 2012, she was shot in the head by affronted gunmen, but survived to be honoured internationally as an symbol of courage and freedom. Though she deliberately presents herself in this memoir as a role model for teenage girls, she can’t watch an episode of ‘Ugly Betty’ without moralising about the commercialisation of Western women; she has little conversations with God; and in media interviews, it isn’t Malala speaking, but “the voice of so many others who wanted to speak but couldn’t”. Perhaps this idealised Masala is indeed a true portrait of an activist for our times, but an attitude of youthful piety blended with middle-aged political rectitude gives this book a high moral tone of precocious missionary zeal.


why can'tWHY CAN’T A WOMAN BE MORE LIKE A MAN? The Evolution of Sex and Gender by Lewis Wolpert (Faber, 210pp; £9.99)

Wolpert’s contribution as a developmental biologist to the fiercely contested gender debate accepts the largely uncontroversial idea that evolution has resulted in men being modified women. The modifications have made men faster, stronger, bigger, more aggressive and more likely than women to take physical risks. There seems to be little evidence that either men or women are programmed for monogamy. Though women may give an emotional reasons such as “falling in love” to justify extramarital sex, men just focus on physicality. Women, Wolpert says, though also capable of aggression, were genetically selected to be loving carers for their children. He concludes that there are few differences in the skills of men and women, though a greater degree of “empathy possibly makes women more willing to do what men request.” Though some may wish to argue with much in his book Wolpert candidly admits in his defence it was written by a “classic systematising male.”


walking homeWALKING HOME: My Family and Other Rambles by Clare Balding (Viking, 294pp; £20)

Clare Balding would be the ideal surrogate sister or auntie; though fortunately for her she already has an extended family not only of human beings but equally of horses and dogs. Her fraternity/sorority also extends to the people she was walked with for fifteen years of the Radio 4 series ‘Ramblings’ over dry hill and soggy vale or vice versa. With her brother Andrew, who trains racehorses and thinks a road map is a walking map, Clare decides to walk the seventy miles of the Wayfarer’s Walk near their family stables in Highclere. This makes for lots of family fun, but the meat of the book is her reminiscences of yomping the length and breadth of the country with frankly off-the-wall walkers, raucous ramblers and her producer Lucy Lunt who backstops for Clare with a microphone and an instinct for good radio. The joy of this book is Balding’s sheer rapture for life, movement and never shutting up about it.



September 8, 2014 § 1 Comment

DylanDYLAN THOMAS: A Centenary Celebration edited by Hannah Ellis (Bloomsbury, 258pp; £20)

The trouble with Dylan Thomas as the Welsh national bard is – Dylan Thomas. The English have Edward Thomas, the Scots have Hugh MacDiarmid. The Irish have Seamus Heaney. In R. S. Thomas the Welsh have a great, austerely romantic poet, but it is from Dylan that the glamour of words comes gushing to enchant the ear. In this ragged collection of tributes to the work of the Welsh national bard, caution occasionally moderates the commemoration. The poet Don Paterson’s dismay at Thomas’s high camp and Seamus Heaney’s distaste for his  ‘tourist-board cliché’ is disputed, though Owen Sheers, a modern Welsh poet, admits that the potency of teenage intoxication with the poetry of Thomas cannot be sustained indefinitely. Testimony to the drink that got the better of him is given in a story that he gave away manuscripts to a BBC man in a pub for booze: “They get bits of paper, I get pints of beer.” He got more than beer from three literary groupies, all called Margaret, who bailed him out of pecuniary problems. Their husbands were not best pleased. Poets, critics, fans and family do not provide a focused portrait of Thomas, but their thoughts may provoke new assessments that will survive this centenary year of his birth.


bellesBELLES AND WHISTLES: Five Journeys Through Time on Britain’s Trains by Andrew Martin (Profile, 282pp; £15.99)

The days when Laurence Olivier could tuck a white napkin under his chin and bolt down a full English breakfast while commuting between Brighton and London by train have long gone the way of porters, advance luggage, Pullman cars, the occasional trunk murder and Agatha Christie novels, or indeed anything resembling luxury and romance. Only the evocative names and iconic period travel posters of famous trains remain: the Brighton Belle, the Golden Arrow to Paris, the Cornish Riviera Express, the Flying Scotsman to Edinburgh and the Caledonian Sleeper. Andrew Martin, a connoisseur of railways, boards the modern Inter-City replacements for these beacons of glamour and takes an enjoyably bitter-sweet journey of contrasts between romance and reality. He gives a wry, dry commentary while he rough-rides the rails, kicks his heels at stations and resists the larky lavatory humour on Virgin trains. His wonderfully well-informed, anecdotal prose punches more than just tickets.


brideTHE TEMPORARY BRIDE: A Memoir of Food and Love in Iran by Jennifer Klinec (Virago, 212pp; £13.99)

In search of the perfect Persian rice and other culinary secrets of Iran ancient and modern, thirty-something Jennifer Klinec was charmed by “the legacy of a country where women are compared to food – her breasts are like pomegranates, her lips like ripe dates.” Pretty much the first man she met, young Vahid, developed an appetite for her, and soon they were spooning and mooning like lovers do. This was amour sans frontières, On the surface, Klinec’s story is a foodie romance, but her heritage as a child of Hungarian-Croatian parents, raised in Canada, living in London, about to marry an Iranian, implies a deeper rebuke to strict national sovereignties. She makes the point, too, that Vahid will miss Iran and his family as much as she would miss Europe and the West. But finally, love laughs at rigorously controlled borders, and her adventure is an example of true love in a globalised world. Sweet.



September 1, 2014 § Leave a comment


 A JOURNEY INTO RUSSIA by Jens Mühling (Haus, 276pp; £16.99)

Fifteen years ago, Jens, a young German journalist met Yuri, a young Russian documentary film maker, and discovered the minimal difference between fiction, falsifications and reality in Russia. He also found out that a Russian mathematician had theorised that the year was not 2000, as popularly supposed, but 1000. Five years ago, he took off for a year in Russia whose history, he knew, was regularly chopped into pieces and reassembled anew according to pleasure, politics or opportunity. He went looking for true stories that were unbelievable. He found them, including a travelling salesman of icons, “self-adhesive Virgin Mothers”, the Slavic pagans of Popovka, and the Old Believers of the Taiga. To understand the ambiguities, contradictions, absurdities and complexities of the Russian soul, the advice was always to read Gogol. The advice now would be to read Jens Mühling. There is a shock of discovery and a shot of pleasure on every page.

 Kaiser Wilhelm II

KAISER WILHELM II: A Concise Life by John C. G. Röhl (Cambridge U.P., 240pp; £16.99)

If history is written by the victors, it is usually helpful as a correlative or even a corrective to examine the motives and strategies of the losers. However, there is little or no good to say about Wilhelm II, Queen Victoria’s eldest grandson who led the German Reich into war in 1914. In this abridgement of his magisterial three-volume biography of the Kaiser and his reign, Röhl presents evidence to refute the popular thesis that the great powers stumbled like sleepwalkers into war. He highlights Wilhelm’s grandiose naval ambitions, events such as the politically provocative, imperial procession made by Wilhelm through Tangier in 1905 and pins substantial blame for the war on the Kaiser’s imperious, impetuous, insecure personality. Imbued with antiquated, autocratic notions of the divine right of kings, Wilhelm stands as a compelling argument against hereditary monarchy. In this powerful portrait, Röhl reveals the monstrosity of the man behind the posturing monarch. 


THE CULINARY IMAGINATION: From Myth to Modernity by Sandra M. Gilbert (Norton, 448pp; £22)

Ernest Hemingway’s belief that “there is romance in food when romance has disappeared from everywhere else” is the guiding light of Sandra Gilbert’s erudite, fast-footed, smart-mouthed essays on the poetics, polemics and politics of food. From the transcendental gourmandism of Brillat-Savarin to the hardboiled gastroporn of Anthony Bourdain, how did “the gastronomical me” become all-consuming? At the heart of this book are the TV soup operas and especially the magnificent first diva of cooking, Julia Child, ‘The French Chef’, whose iconic TV show, galvanised the imagination of American viewers in the 1960s. Gilbert suggests that cuisine constantly reimagines itself as an art form (Lady Gaga’s meat frock?), that the cult of food in the media has altered our kitchen behaviour, and that what we read or watch about food is as telling about ourselves as what we eat. To coin a cliché, here’s food for mind-altering thought served up hot, layered and flavoursome as a tamale pie.


August 24, 2014 § 1 Comment

stalinistTHE LAST STALINIST: The Life of Santiago Carrillo by Paul Preston (William Collins, 432pp; £30)

Like many politicians, the personal character and political career of Santiago Carrillo, a leader of the Spanish Communist Party from 1934 to 1960, was driven by contradictions that gratify equally the idolatry of his admirers and the odium of his detractors. Preston, a prolific historian of 20th century Spain, presents him as the most consistent left-wing enemy of Franco and, from 1976 until his death in 2012, as a popular supporter of Spanish democracy. In this study of Carrillo’s political career (he seems to have had little or no personal life), the man’s prolific, self-serving, revisionist memoirs are contrasted with the very different accounts of his contemporaries. Though he behaved bravely during the attempted coup of 1981, Carrillo is given short shrift in this merciless biography as an exemplar of moral virtue. His priority, says Preston, was always his own eminence. On that altar of ambition, all truth, decency, friends and allies were sacrificed.


homingTHE HOMING INSTINCT: The Story and Science of Migration by Bernd Heinrich (William Collins, 352pp; £25)

Whether you are bird, mammal, insect or Man, home is where the nest is. A home makes life possible for many animals. Deliberately, naturalist Heinrich draws no distinction between different species, since the behaviours involved in homing, he says, “include drives, emotions and to some extent also reason.” They may not be logical, but they are rational. In the manner of the best new nature writing, he does not discount personal issues in the topic of returning to a familiar territory, and his own story is as interesting and relevant as that of bees, beavers and a pair of sandhill cranes he knows as Millie and Roy who commute between the Tex-Mex border and a small bog in Alaska. Risking anthropomorphism, Heinrich finds it difficult to deny that birds, like any other species, experience emotions that drive their behaviour. This combination of biology and psychology makes for a lively, knowledgeable narrative.


happinessHAPPINESS BY DESIGN: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life by Paul Dolan (Allen Lane, 236pp; £20)

Do you want to be happy for the rest of your life? For the purposes of this high-tone self-help book, Dolan, a behavioural scientist, defines happiness as ”experiences of pleasure and purpose over time”. However, happiness can be experienced in one way, he says, but evaluated in another – leading to contradiction and irony Confused? You will be. Though Dolan’s intention is to combine the latest behavioural science with the current evidence on what constitutes happiness in order to increase the pleasure and purpose in your life, his advice on losing weight and gaining fitness, getting stuff done and reducing dither, dealing with addictive behaviour and erecting barriers to distraction, is pretty much the strategies recommended by every other self-improvement manual. Happiness seems to be more of an issue for Americans, to judge by the amount of U.S.-based statistics and research quoted in this book. Maybe we’re all more Morrissey-miserabilists in the U.K. Be happy! Don’t worry. Or, better; Don’t worry! Be happy.


August 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Psy-QPSY-Q: Test Your Psychological Intelligence by Ben Ambridge (Profile, 344pp; £12.99)

Before you buy any more self-help books or go for therapy, it might be a good idea to find out how capable or crazy you really are – though this collection of psychological tests and tricks could perplex you to the point of psychopathy (which, be reassured, is not as bad a thing as you might think). Beginning with the ‘Raw Shark’ challenge, then through an interactive battery of mysterious maths tests, social quizzes, artful illusions and, frankly, cheap tricks, all drawn from standard psych-evaluation studies, Ben Ambridge aims to prove that “psychology is everything”. To do this, he gives you the means to measure your personality, intelligence, moral values, logical reasoning, multitasking ability and level of low cunning. He has a trickster’s charm of ‘How did he do that?’ presentation and a stage magician’s ‘Hey presto!’ delight in revelation. No tests here can harm your health, but they can certainly frustrate your self-esteem.


neurosurgeonsTHE TALE OF THE DUELLING NEUROSURGEONS: The Story of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness and Recovery by Sam Kean (Bantam, 408pp; £20)

The pity was, Sam Kean points out, that neurosurgeons had to wait for people’s brains to malfunction or suffer physical injury before they could analyse the damage. Modern neuroscience was developed through the woes of people such as the German woman who was almost strangled to death in 1908 by her own uncontrollable ‘alien’ hand, or poor Mary Rafferty whose brain, in 1874, was ‘tasered’ by two electrodes inserted by a ruthless doctor investigating electrical activity of the brain. Through “ripping yarns” like these, Kean narrates the cerebral story of the brain, from a simple map of its anatomy to full-blown consideration of consciousness. In the process, he answers the question that first prompted his book: “where does the brain stop and the mind start?” He has a hearty sense of humour and humanity, a clear conception of a complex subject and a healthy respect for the unwitting and unfortunate pioneers whose mental misfortunes made scientific progress possible.


MI5MI5 IN THE GREAT WAR by Nigel West (Biteback, 434pp; £25)

In 1921, for various reasons, none of them wholly public-spirited, the then Director General of MI5, Colonel Vernon Kell, authorised Dr. Lucy E. Farrer to compile a record of MI5’s role in detecting the German spy network in Britain from 1905 onwards and infiltrating its own agents throughout neutral Europe and the United States. Her ten volumes, each of two hundred pages, have only now been declassified.  Despite Dr. Farrer’s dry tone this edited account of MI5’s bureaucratic structure and investigatory strategies is as fascinating as the stories she tells. The interestingly amorous careers of the four beautiful Riley sisters of Sheerness or the fishy (literally) activities of Ludovico Hurwitz in Glasgow, caught with a suspicious collection of ties, a dozen new handkerchiefs and a bottle of invisible ink are very dramatic. Just add a soupcon of Hercule Poirot or a dash of Richard Hannay and it’s as thrilling as a spy novel.




August 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

EMPTY MANSIONS: The Mysterious Story of Huguette Clark and the Loss of One of the World’s Greatest Fortunes by Bill Dedman & Paul Clark Newell Jr. (Atlantic, £16.99)

Huguette Clark, who died in a New York hospital in 2011 just short of her 105th birthday, leaving a fortune of some 300 million dollars, was an American heiress, artist, philanthropist and recluse. Money can buy you a lot. Not just a Stradivarius, paintings by Degas and Renoir and fabulous houses, but also silence, secrecy and solitude. The sumptuous story behind this woman of mystery and her family is virtually an American epic of Hearst or Rockefeller proportions. Indeed, W. A. Clark, Huguette’s father, copper magnate, senator and the scoundrel who founded Las Vegas, ranked in terms of wealth and profligacy with both of them. But fortunes can be lost more easily than made. This astonishing story of Huguette’s glad-handed liberality shows what happened to those riches and rejoices in her ability to live life on her own terms despite her shyness and social fears, and quietly to do good in a noisy world.


THE BIRTH OF KOREAN COOL: How One Nation Is Conquering the World through Pop Culture by Euny Hong (Simon & Schuster, 268pp; £14.99)

It wasn’t the hard power of American tank technology that sold the world Marlboros and Levis, says Euny Hong; it was James Dean and the soft power of cool culture. So what’s selling South Korea to the world? Gangnam style. It’s hilarious, it’s hokey, but its killer combination of soft cultural power and hard economic calculation is the essence of South Korea: the Brand. So what happened to the technologically inept country of the ‘70s and ‘80s, when Samsung was known as Samsuck?  Beneath the humorously hip, flip, style of Euny Hong’s book about South Korea’s modern makeover as a producer, consumer and exporter of hi-tech products, music, movies, video games and junk food is a serious economic analysis of the country’s rapid rise to riches. The change from a conservative, patriarchal society is not so great, she says: it is now a highly paternalistic, mostly benevolent system of ‘voluntary coercion’. In its own way, it has evolved a society in almost perfect working order.


FUTURE DAYS: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany by David Stubbs (Faber, 496pp; £20)

Krautrock – first, how tactless is the word? It’s certainly preferable, says musicologist Stubbs, to ‘Teutonic Railroad Rock ‘n’ Roll’. Second, what is Krautrock? Here’s where it still has the power to insult. It covers pretty much all experimental German music of the sixties and seventies, but just don’t use it to label Can, Faust, Ash Ra Tempel, Kraftwerk or any other band with intellectual and spiritual credibility. Stubbs sees Krautrock as a rainbow coalition of tempers and colours, styles and tones that represented a political hankering for an old unity lost in the post-war period and a futuristic social idealism. It was less a mode of playing than a set of values. However you perceive it, Krautrock was the trauma from which postpunk, electronic, ambient and other musical forms developed. Its importance as a transitional period in modern Western popular music deserves this rocking, musically literate, historically astute and socially smart appreciation.


August 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

my lifeMY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY by Brian Turner (Cape; £16.99)

Before he served as a soldier in Iraq in 2003, Brian Turner was an army man in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the great tradition of warrior-poets lucky enough not to be brought home on their shields, he meditates, with the stoic limpidity of Marcus Aurelius and the weary violence of Vonnegut, on the brutal and euphemistic language of war, the fever and terror of battle, and the banality and absurdity of preparations for military action. His vivid memoir is also about the exterior lives and interior memories of his young platoon buddies and the not-so different lives and emotions of Iraqi allies and enemies. In bed, back home in America “which is not a large enough space to contain the war each soldier brings home” he dreams himself as a drone aircraft surveying the landscape of global conflicts. The war on the ground and the conflict in the head are tenderly and disturbingly combined in a work of art.


CONFESSIONS OF A GHOST WRITER by Andrew Crofts (The Friday Project, £7.99)

As a young journalist, some forty years ago, Andrew Croft advertised himself as a “ghostwriter for hire”. Ever since, he’s been riding shotgun for A-Z list celebrities, moguls, sportsmen and megalomaniac politicians who don’t have the time or the talent to string a sentence together. In pithy, choppy chapters of wide-eyed wonder he gives us the rock star with an addiction to porkies whose book was pulped; the story of two frightened Yemeni child brides that has sold five million copies; the soap star who moved in with the Crofts. “You’re like a human Hoover”, said his wife. Though normally bagged and gagged by contracts, ghost writers have come more out of the closet in the past few years. Andrew Croft’s memoir may still have to be cagey about naming and shaming the great and the guilty, but he is disarmingly, charmingly frank about the perks and pitfalls of his own working life and shady trade.


FAIRYLAND: A Memoir of My Father by Alysia Abbott (Norton, 330pp; £9.99)

When her mother died in a car accident in 1973, three-year old Alicia was brought up in San Francisco by her father, Steve Abbott, an occasional poet and artist, who had come out as a gay man in 1969. The marriage would perhaps not have lasted, but what did last was the alternative family of loving, though often pot-headed, politicised, hippy-dippy, bohemian gay men who helped him raise Alicia as “queerspawn”. Looking back now as a straight woman and married mother, she perceives that time and place as more raw than romantic, more Harvey Milk than Armistead Maupin. In a shining, compassionate memoir, her epitaph for the complicated love story between herself and her father, who died of AIDS in 1992, is positive and forgiving: “I still feel a part of this queer community. This queer history is my queer history. This queer history is our queer history.” She and Steve did well for each other


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 298 other followers

%d bloggers like this: