James Joyce smiled when he told Max Eastman, 'The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works,' and then he paused, and smiled and said the same thing again. The two were discussing the difficulty of Finnegan's Wake, Joyce's last and most opaque work, which was part of the inspiration for Eastman's article on 'The Cult of Unintelligibility' where he decried the modernist excesses of Joyce along with EE Cummings, Gertrude Stein, Edith Sitwell and... [read more]
Swimming Home, Deborah Levy’s first novel in 15 years and a contender for this year’s Man Booker Prize, is a succinct yet subversive exploration of depression. Levy takes the somewhat hackneyed plot of a dysfunctional family on holiday and reassembles it to produce a strange and compelling read that unveils the significance of emotions overlooked and sentiments left unsaid.
Acclaimed British poet Joe Jacobs, his family and their debonair friends are holidaying in the French Riviera: so... [read more]
Near the beginning of Alison Moore's The Lighthouse a stranger interested in otherworldly phenomena asks the protagonist if he has ever accurately predicted something bad happening. The reply he receives undercuts his mysticism in its banality: 'Oh yes ... Last Christmas, I visited my dad and his girlfriend, and I just knew he was going to be in a bad mood, and he was.' The exchange sets the tone for this unusual and tautly written novel, one in which you constantly feel that something terrible... [read more]
There are two Michael Chabons. The first – he whose inaugural novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (William Morrow, 1988), written as part of his university thesis, was a precocious bestseller and whose third book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Random House, 2000), won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 – is an erudite intellectual admired for the complexity of his sentences and the breadth of his vocabulary. The second – the shadow Chabon – is a geeky aficionado of... [read more]
In 1874, Alexander Graham Bell and Dr Clarence Blake, an otologist from Boston, devised a peculiar contraption they called the ‘ear phonautograph’. One of the very first devices capable of transforming sound into something else (in this case, a graphic mark), the ear phonautograph was constructed using the excised tympanic mechanism from an actual human ear obtained from the Harvard medical school. Not just the forerunner to the telephone invented by Bell two years later, the tympanic... [read more]
Daniel Trilling, Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain’s Far Right
reviewed by Mark Olden
Six years ago, an 82-year-old with a shiny head, a pink complexion, and dressed - like the 1950s schoolteacher he once was - in a prim Scottish wool suit, sat in a secluded North Yorkshire farmhouse reflecting on his political life. The interview, which I did for the BBC, was to be the old man’s last TV appearance - and he presented himself as a prophet whom events had vindicated.
‘I saw the multitude of evils that were going to result, and have resulted. We have large parts of our... [read more]
John Marriott, Beyond the Tower: A History Of East London
reviewed by Richard Sharpe
East London was built in waves of expansion from the early 17th century, almost always a location of the working class. John Marriott’s well-researched and well-written history of East London is not only a labour of love but also a life’s work ('over thirty years in the making’). Marriot draws from a wealth of archival resources to bring to life the area’s rich social history.
The magnificent Christ Church, Spitalfields, designed by Nicholas Hawkesmoor, was built after 1710 as an... [read more]
Midway through On Poetry, the poet and playwright Glyn Maxwell stops to indulge in a nice bit of épatering of the bourgeoisie. Describing a fictional creative writing class ‘moving short words millimetres backwards and forwards at the taxpayers’ expense’, he conjures the image of those philistine taxpayers, ‘all the taxpayers in the nation ... lining up to give young dreamers the hard earned money we’d planned to spend on crisps.’ This is the closest Maxwell comes to mounting a... [read more]
Anthony Shadid, House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East
reviewed by Lilly O'Donnell
House of Stone is about going home, about finding emotional and spiritual solace. So it’s fitting that it became the parting work at the end of a career and the end of a life.
A couple of days after the renowned correspondent Anthony Shadid died in Syria while reporting for The New York Times, his US publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced that his memoir, House of Stone, would be released early. I was among the eager hoards who pre-ordered the book on Amazon the day its early... [read more]
In the press for Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, much has been made of Ben Fountain's biography – especially of the fact that it took him over twenty years of writing full-time to get his first novel into print. Many of these column inches have been catalysed by Malcolm Gladwell’s hyperbolic New Yorker profile, in which he likened Fountain’s late blooming, carefully honed ‘genius’ to that of the great Paul Cézanne. Biographical detail can often be irrelevant, but in the case of this... [read more]