Britain's best loved literary magazine, now in its 34th year
Reviews of new books in history, politics, travel, biography and fiction
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Selected highlights from the May 2015 issue:
Felipe Fernández-Armesto on intrigue and infamy on the Mediterranean
DOWN BY THE SEA
On the 'Golfing for Cats' principle, Noel Malcolm's publishers thought, presumably, that knights, corsairs, Jesuits and spies were saleable, whereas the real subject of Malcolm's new book, which might be expressed as 'A Reconstruction of the Political Activities of Members of Two Related Albanian Families in the Late Sixteenth-Century Eastern Mediterranean and Balkans', would be poor window-dressing. But good stories, well told, made bestsellers of The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs and A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. We can be honest about Agents of Empire without fear of impeding sales. Read more.
Matthew Bevis on a new biography of Edward Thomas
'DAMN THE RESPECTABLE'
'Can a man stride with a proud and melancholy shyness? If so, he strode in that manner.' The editor of the Daily Chronicle wasn't the first to feel unsure about how best to describe or to place Edward Thomas. Thomas felt this way about himself, confessing that he was one of 'those modern people who belong nowhere'. His peculiar stride was a mark of his uncertainty about where he was headed - and indeed whether he should be headed anywhere. In 1909 he spoke of 'two incompatible desires, the one for going on and on over the earth, the other that would settle for ever in one place, as in a grave and have nothing to do with change'. It's fitting that one of Thomas's first poems was about an inn, for 'the life of inns', he said, 'overpowers the delicious sense of home, bids us exchange that for an abode that is a truer symbol of our inconstant lodging on the earth'. A truer symbol, but not necessarily the true one, because even the meaning of this abode - at once a sanctuary and a way station - isn't wholly clear to him. He wrote of another inn and its surroundings that 'I never see this place without a story haunting my mind but never quite defining itself'. As so often in Thomas's work, a plot of land is ghosted by other kinds of plot; place is apprehended as something obscurely personal. It's as though the story he is trying to define is the story of his own life. Read more.
Jason Burke on combating ISIS's rise
AL-QAEDA'S PRODIGAL CHILD
On 23 October 2014, Abdelaziz Kuwan, a second-year student of Islamic studies at a religious college in Saudi Arabia, was shot dead by a Syrian government sniper in the al-Hawiqa district of the eastern Syrian town of Deir Ezzor. Nearly three years earlier the teenager, a high-school dropout from Bahrain, had defied his parents and flown to Istanbul, then crossed into the Syrian province of Aleppo. He fought for moderate rebel factions before their corruption and inefficacy drove him into the arms of the Islamists. After some time spent with Ahrar al-Sham, a powerful faction that has been backed by various Gulf states, he switched to Jabhat al-Nusra, the affiliate of al-Qaeda in Syria. After a brief spell back at home, he returned to the conflict but this time joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which became known simply as the Islamic State (IS) after its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared a caliphate. Kuwan rose to become a security official running three towns. He participated in executions and repeatedly raped a captive girl from the Yazidi minority whom he had been given as a sabiyya (sex slave) as a reward for his role in battles against Kurdish forces. Kuwan now called himself Abu al-Mutasim, after the eighth caliph of the Abbasid dynasty, which had presided over much of the 'golden age of Islamic civilisation' and one of the greatest historical empires in the 8th and 9th centuries. 'I came ... seeking martyrdom,' Kuwan told Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, the authors of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, a few months before his death. Read more.
Adrienne Mayor is introduced to the ancient Greeks
Lists about ancient history - 'Twelve Habits of Effective Emperors', 'Attila's Eight Steps to Success' - abound in popular culture. Historical biographies seek to psychoanalyse their long-dead subjects. Meanwhile social scientists devise questionnaires to check the validity of regional personality stereotypes, finding, for example, Londoners 'less agreeable' than Scots and 'neurotic tendencies' in Wales. There are enumerations of the strategies of great commanders of antiquity and 'biographies' of cities such as Munich and Paris. Read more.
Michael Peppiatt on Frank Auerbach in words and pictures
SCRAPES WITH SUCCESS
While exhibition catalogues of his work abound, there are only two books on Frank Auerbach: the first, by Robert Hughes, was published in 1990; the second, by William Feaver, came out in 2009. Thus, as the artist enters his eighty-fifth year, a new book about him and his painting is particularly welcome. Its author, Catherine Lampert, could hardly be better qualified for the task: she is both a close confidante of the artist, having patiently sat for him for decades, and the curator of several large-scale exhibitions of his painting, including a forthcoming retrospective that will be shown at Tate Britain from October 2015 until March 2016. Read more.
Jane Ridley on fraternal wartime rivalry in the House of Windsor
TREACHERY AT THE PALACE
Deborah Cadbury's story begins with a Shakespearean scene enacted at Fort Belvedere, the Windsor home of King Edward VIII. The outgoing king and his three brothers assembled there on 10 December 1936 to sign the Instrument of Abdication. The charismatic Edward VIII, who now became Duke of Windsor, was outwardly calm and had apparently been supremely qualified for kingship, but he was fatally flawed. His successor was his younger brother Prince Albert, Duke of York, who chose to style himself King George VI. He declared that he was inconsolable and he seemed woefully unfit to reign, disabled by an appalling stammer. For this he received treatment from the Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue - indeed, as the cover tells us, this book is the story of what happened after the events portrayed in The King's Speech. Read more.
Charles Elliott on Monopoly's tortuous beginnings
GETTING OUT OF JAIL
Monopoly doesn't necessarily bring out the best in people. It can be excessively competitive. To avoid bloodshed, or at least a pitched battle using little wooden houses, families have been known to outlaw it. Yet it remains one of the most widely loved board games ever produced. What may come as a surprise - or possibly not, depending on one's level of cynicism - is to learn that its history is as full of underhand dealings, fraud, legal battles and, yes, monopolistic shenanigans as anything in the game itself. Read more.
D J Taylor on Philip Callow's The Hosanna Man
NAKED IN NOTTINGHAM
Back in 1975, the New Fiction Society - a highbrow book club underwritten at calamitous expense by the Arts Council - took out a full-page advertisement in The Observer to promote its inaugural list. The ad took the form of a series of portraits, each attached to a starkly interrogative caption. One of these demanded of its subject, 'Is this a working-class novelist?' It was a good question, as working-class novelists nearly always turn out to be a heterogeneous bunch, keen to resist the broad categorisations wished upon them by textbooks or the smash-and-grab raids of social historians anxious to fillet their novels for supporting detail. Read more.
Claire Lowdon on Anne Enright's The Green Road
The Green Road is Anne Enright's second novel since The Gathering won the Booker Prize in 2007. Stylistically and structurally, it is more demanding than either The Gathering or the novel that followed it, The Forgotten Waltz. Those books are first-person accounts, each told sufficiently in retrospect to open with revelations that point to the novel's heart. The respective narrators, Veronica and Gina, are also arrangers, interpreting and analysing their stories as they tell them. Read more.