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

July 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

The Invention of ScotlandTHE INVENTION OF SCOTLAND: Myth and History by Hugh Trevor-Roper (Yale, 284pp; £10.99) What is a nation without its consoling myths? Pity the country without them. And what is an old enemy if it doesn’t regularly try to demolish them with the sword or the pen?  This collection of historical essays, toots of Trevor-Roper’s trumpet against a monstrous regiment of home-grown misconceptions about Scottish national identity was first published in 2008. It is disinterred now to add some wit and weight to the ‘No’ campaign in the run-up to the referendum on Scottish independence in September. His views on the culture and traditions of Scottish politics, literature and national dress as self-conceived and self-indulgent fantasies are not wholly wrong, but they were skewed in the 1970s to promote his belief that devolution would lead disastrously to dissolution of the Union. In that sense, and in terms of the current debate, they are truly tendentious. Nevertheless, their teasing effronteries are entertaining, ebullient and even educational.  The Iceberg

THE ICEBERG: A Memoir by Marion Coutts (Atlantic, 298pp; £14.99) It took a long, lingering while for Tom Lubbock, a journalist and art critic, to deteriorate and die in January 2011 of a brain tumour diagnosed as terminal in September 2008. The condition slowly robbed him of speech and language at a time when his young son, Ev, was developing his own abilities in those areas of the brain. The contrast could hardly have been more cruel for Lubbock and his wife, Marion, a visual artist. Her moment by moment account of the transformations caused by illness is vivid with colour. “There is seeing and telling and what is one without the other?” she asks. As a family, and as autonomous beings, they do not go quietly into the hour of death. The book, like its author and protagonists, is “scissored” by savage choices, but also illuminated with times of peace and the pleasures of loving at the fraying selvedge of adversity.  The Adventures of Henry Thoreau

THE ADVENTURES OF HENRY THOREAU: A Young Man’s Unlikely Path to Walden Pond by Michael Sims (Bloomsbury, 374pp; £18.99) The grave image of the bearded sage, the iconic marble bust of the lofty thinker, the inspiring ideal of the Transcendentalist recluse of Concord, Massachusetts; these depict Thoreau at his apogee as a philosopher, environmentalist, political activist, writer and educator. But was he ever young? Did he sing? Did he dance? Yes, says Michael Sims: he sang in a choir and in 1842, aged twenty-five, he was seen to enjoy a wild, ecstatic, pagan prance on ice with his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. Did he fall in love and write poetry? Yes, in 1839, with the beautiful Ellen Sewell, but unrequitedly. How young Henry became thoroughly Thoreau is the theme of this lovely, lively biography. Sims emphasises the development of Henry’s response to nature, from romantic and symbolic to ecological and scientific and presents him growing into his natural outdoors habitat and habits as the man who would, wonderfully, write ‘Walden’.


July 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

LIKE A TRAMP, LIKE A PILGRIM: On Foot across Europe to Rome by Harry Bucknall (Bloomsbury, 245pp; £16.99)

“Have you got God?” a guest at a dinner party asked Harry Bucknall. “No,” said Harry, who was walking to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome “for the hell of it.” He didn’t need God (though he was issued with a Pilgrim Passport by the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome and was given two keys for the Vatican by a friend). In his late forties, he was proposing to walk along the ancient Via Francigena as a momentous event in his life, almost medieval in its austerity and was giving up everything to do it. The guests round the table thought he was unhinged. The journey from London took him ninety-three days and 1,141 miles, during which he found friendship, history, travellers’ stories and finally “grief for the hole in life that the completed undertaking leaves.” And so there will be further journeys, with any luck written just as humanely and humorously as this boisterous, jubilant mid-life adventure.


ADVENTURES IN THE ANTHROPOCENE: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made by Gaia Vince (Chatto, 436pp; £20)

The Anthropocene is the time of Man. We’re living in interesting times that require all our resources, invention and resilience to survive the ecological consequences of our activities as human beings. As a journalist at ‘Nature’ magazine, Gaia Vince registered constant alarms about threats to the environment. Were they true? What do these events mean for our daily lives? How do we adapt to meet planetary changes and challenges? We can start eating protein-rich insects, we will become increasingly urbanised (growing crops on city rooftops), geo-engineering may save islands from coastal erosion, artificial glaciers can irrigate mountain villages and wind turbines can be installed in deserts. Though ecologically ingenuous, we are environmentally ingenious. In an optimistic handbook for climate change survivalists Vince takes the pulse of Gaia and diagnoses her as sick. Her sustainable recovery as a planet will depend on a better sense of responsibility towards her own health.


THE GREAT RACE: The Race between the English and the French to Complete the Map of Australia by David Hill (Little, Brown, 386pp; £25)

Historians have to be politically cautious these days: Hill uses the word ‘discovered’ in relation only to the first European exploration of Australia, which existed as a settled continent before the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and English explored it over a period of two centuries. By chance, in 1802, the Englishman Matthew Flinders met the Frenchman Nicolas Baudin. Both had been sent by their governments to voyage round and survey the coast of the Great South Land to establish whether it was actually one vast island or landmass. It took them three years of extraordinary adventures, terrible hardships and, in the case of Flinders, shipwreck and imprisonment for six years in Mauritius. It is an epic tale told concisely and confidently by Hill who awards Baudin the prize for publishing the first complete map of the Great South Island but crediting Flinders as a great natural historian and the first to give the country its name: Australia.


July 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

THE LIVES AND LOVES OF LAURIE LEE by Valerie Grove (Robson Press, 500pp; £12.99)

A friend memorably described Laurie Lee’s face as “mastered by the weather with a change of colour and texture; … His weather was his moods.” Lodging in Chelsea during WW2, while working at the MOI with Cecil Day-Lewis, thirty one-year old Lee began to take an interest in the three nieces of his former lover, here identified as the beautiful Lorna Garman. Lorna picked out Kathy as the girl strong enough to handle him, even though she was half his age. They married in 1950. For innocent devotees of the early pastoral style of ‘Cider with Rosie’, Lee’s later metropolitan liaisons and literary activities will perhaps come as rather a shock. In this centenary year of Laurie Lee’s birth, Valerie Grove’s ambitiously detailed, warm-hearted but unflinching biography is very welcome not only as a timely reminder of Lee’s changeable character and later achievements as a man of letters, but of his complex relationships particularly with the fascinating high bohemian Garman family.


DANGEROUS RHYTHM: Why Movie Musicals Matter by Richard Barrios (Oxford, 276pp; £22.99)

The song and dance number that opened the 65th Tony Awards in 2012 was “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore”. Theatre, that is. Mostly Broadway musical theatre. On that score, what’s not to love about movie musicals too? They’re not just for the boys in the band anymore. Barrios is a cultural critic, a cinema historian and a connoisseur of everything from early talkies like ‘The Jazz Singer’ and ’42nd Street’ through corpse-reviving blockbusters such as ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Chicago’, to the latest, ‘Les Miz’ and the sit-com-based production ‘Glee’. Movie musicals have to move with the times, and musical film stardom, he says, is now a marketing device, like a photo-op or a You Tube promo for a pop idol career. But Barrios is never disenchanted: he knows where the movie musicals come from and where they go. He dances them with Dorothy down the yellow brick road with glee, glitter and good sense.


HOW NOT TO BE WRONG: The Hidden Maths of Everyday Life by Jordan Ellenberg (Allen Lane, 468pp; £20)

In order not to be wrong, you need to know what you don’t know – or what they don’t tell you. Make no assumptions without justifications. Knowledge, as always, is power, and a little mathematical expertise sorts meaning from chaos. Seriously, you are so going to regret not having paid attention in maths classes. The mathematician can work out how to spend less time at the airport, how to figure out if there is a God, how to calculate the utility of a bet and how plane geometry can help you win the lottery. Are we having fun yet? It gets better: chances are that big cynical financial strategies can be good for you. Bankers knew that already. Now so do you, because Ellenberg tells you why (though without justifying it morally) He runs the numbers like a mathematical magician. He can’t save you from life, but he can save you from everyday error.


June 29, 2014 § 1 Comment

CLIMBS AND PUNISHMENT: Riding to Rome in the Footsteps of Hannibal by Felix Lowe (Bantam, 368pp; £14.99)

Lowe, the non-biking thirty-something cycling blogger, tweeter and writer also known as ‘Blazin’ Saddles’, agreed to join the ‘Hannibal Expedition’, a 26-day, 2800 kilometre ride over three mountain ranges following the famous general’s march across the Alps to Rome with elephants. That made sense the first time, right? First Lowe had to buy a bike. Then he had to borrow one when the first one was stolen. Things can only get better? No. There is a picture of the author against a backdrop of mountains wearing a purple and blue Lycra cycling jersey for which, frankly, there is no sporting or style excuse. There’s not much excuse, either, for this account of a jolly jaunt padded out with Euro-history, and Euro-geography and quite a lot of Euro-sport and Euro-food as Lowe and his bike mates grind past the scenery. But Lowe keeps up an effortless flow of good-humoured chat and at the end of his tour he is a changed man – an aching but ardent pelotonist.


I NEVER KNEW THAT ABOUT ENGLAND’S COUNTRY CHURCHES by Christopher Winn (Ebury, 356pp; £10.99)

For starters, did you know that there are some ten thousand churches in England? Winn has chosen to potter around three hundred of them, specifically village churches or those that stand alone in the countryside. He is thrilled to find Dick Whittington’s mother buried in St Giles’ church in Coberley, Gloucestershire. It is of Norman origin, 14th century Decorated south chapel, 15th century Perpendicular tower, Victorian nave and chancel. The heart of Sir Giles de Berkeley lies within the church and his horse, Lombard, is buried in the churchyard. This is pretty much all that the casual visitor needs to know about St Giles, Coberley, or any other little church, and Winn is very expert in selecting just the right architectural oddity, historical curiosity or clerical quiddities. It’s an irresistible pun to characterise his not-quite-random, serendipitous, humorously antiquarian style of fossicking for buried, Betjemanesque treasures in country churchyards as winsome.


DEEP: Freediving, Renegade Science and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves by James Nestor (Profile, 266pp; £12.99)

Are you looking for a new sensation? Can you hold your breath for four minutes? Would you go nose to nose with a blue shark, be on first (and second) name terms with a dolphin and cosy up to a sperm whale? Freediving is an extreme sport for humans who can learn to live with the stresses of diving deeper and surviving for longer than anyone thought possible without breathing equipment or a wet suit. 300 feet underwater is a safe enough depth for experienced freedivers, but no-limits divers have pushed the record to 525 feet, though attempts to go deeper have mostly resulted in paralysis or death. The secret to going deep, Nestor says, is just to do it, just to dive: we are born with the ability, since seawater is pretty close to amniotic fluid. His enthusiasm for the physics and physiology of freediving is exceeded only by the exultation of his psychic rebirth as a salt water baby.



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