Britain's best loved literary magazine, now in its 34th year
Reviews of new books in history, politics, travel, biography and fiction
Contributors who are irreverent, accomplished and amusing
"In Literary Review you find something that has almost vanished from the book pages: its contributors are actually interested in Literature."
"This magazine is flush with tight, smart writing."
Selected highlights from the October 2014 issue:
Tom Holland on the truth about the Amazons
In one of his more speculative essays, the Greek biographer Plutarch analysed the sources for the legendary Athenian hero Theseus. 'My ambition', he informed a Roman friend, 'is to make sense of the fabulous and oblige it to submit to reason, so that it can then take on the form of history.' Much in the life of his hero is accordingly dismissed as fantasy, but certain episodes are presumed to have had a basis in fact. Prominent among these was a war fought between the Athenians and an army of ferocious female warriors from the Black Sea named Amazons. Theseus, who only ever had to see a woman to abduct her, was supposed to have kidnapped one of them and brought her back home as his bride; the Amazons, outraged by this abduction, duly launched an attack on Athens. The resulting war was a very close-run thing, though the Athenians had ended up victorious. The evidence for this, so Plutarch claimed, was that the Amazons were said to have pitched their camp within the city limits of Athens itself. 'Clearly, then, it was no trivial business - nothing merely feminine.' Read more.
Jan Morris on Cornwall and the spirit of place
SONG OF THE EARTH
Partway through this fascinating work we come across the Cornish painter Peter Lanyon (died 1964), and he seems to me unexpectedly emblematic of the whole. He came home from the Second World War to join the eagerly abstractionist movement of English artists that became known as the St Ives School. He was the one Cornishman among them, and some resented the stoutly Cornish, semi-figurative element to his work. 'Why don't you admit you're an abstract painter,' demanded one of them, 'instead of all this stuff about Cornwall?' Read more.
Matthew Parris on the Establishment
WHO RUNS THE SHOW?
So it's all a big stitch-up by the rich and powerful, dutifully serenaded by craven politicians and crazed ideologues? Scrawled in the margins of my copy of The Establishment - And How They Get Away with It are my angry protests, double-underlinings with 'No! No!' beside them and inky shouts of 'Rubbish!', 'Cop-out!' and 'This is an intellectual disgrace!' At one point, and most damningly, appears, 'Feels like a 320-page Guardian op-ed'. Read more.
John Brewer on advances in dentistry in Revolutionary France
Colin Jones's The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth Century Paris is a marvellous, engaging and constantly enlightening study, one that is sure to make you purse your lips with pleasure. To judge from the accessible and illuminating mixture of medical, cultural and political history, my Beverly Hills dentist, an Armenian-American with impeccable teeth, a broad smile, ineffable charm and the latest (and least painful) technologies, would have been quite at home in ancien régime Paris. Jones's book is about teeth and smiles, bodies and culture. In his deftly woven narrative, it becomes clear that the triumphs of late-18th-century French dentistry - professionalisation, a commitment to canine conservation and oral hygiene, skill in making and installing artificial dentures - were a crucial element in the complex process he calls the 'Smile Revolution'. Only when an open mouth was able to expose white teeth (or, failing that, white dentures), only when dental hygiene dispelled the miasma of halitosis, could a full smile exposing the teeth be countenanced. Read more.
Rachel Polonsky on the curious life of Edward Limonov
IT'S ME, EDDIE
'I've noticed that the Russian media is significantly cutting back the flow of information about what is happening in Donbass', the dissident writer Edward Limonov recorded on LiveJournal on 15 September. 'Apparently there is an order not to destroy the illusion of a continuing truce.' He then listed the number of civilians killed the previous day by Kiev's artillery (twenty), noting the places in eastern Ukraine where there was fighting, the build-up of Kiev's forces at Donetsk airport and the launch of US-led military exercises in the Lviv region. 'So the truce looks like war', he ended, signing off the weblog in his habitual style: 'That was the morning sermon ... I am Edward Limonov.' Read more.
Alexander Waugh on a thoroughly unconventional family
MÉNAGE À QUATRE
In Red Princess, published in 2007, Sofka Zinovieff wrote critically and affectionately about her paternal grandmother, Princess Sofka Dolgorouky, a hard-drinking, promiscuous Russian aristocrat dedicated to communist causes. This book explores her maternal grandparents with equal candour and critical affection. At the centre of the story lies a gorgeous but not entirely beloved country house at Faringdon. Read more.
Vaughan Bell on the effects of technology on our brains
HEAD IN THE CLOUD
For several years, Professor Susan Greenfield has been concerned about the negative impact of digital technology on the mind and brain, particularly those of young people, and has been forthright when disseminating her views in the media. Although she continues to resist the simple bar of entry for a scientific theory, the submission of a paper to a peer-reviewed scientific journal, her new book, Mind Change, at least attempts to discuss the many published studies that directly tackle her concerns. Read more.
Ruth Scurr on The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel
'I used to think that autobiography was a form of weakness, and perhaps I still do. But I also think that, if you're weak, it's childish to pretend to be strong.' When she wrote her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost (2003), Hilary Mantel unleashed the full force of her creativity by exorcising the past. Since then she has gone from strength to strength. Her novel Beyond Black was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2006, Wolf Hall won the Booker in 2009 and so did its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, in 2012. While the world waits for her third (and probably final) volume about Thomas Cromwell, she has chosen to offer ten short stories, each a sharp reminder that her inventive power and purpose extend far beyond the Tudor court. Read more.
Thomas Marks on Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín
It seems apt that Colm Tóibín should have written a novel with an eponymous heroine. Such novels often unfasten their central characters from the worlds they inhabit (think of Clarissa or Anna Karenina), establishing a kind of literary isolation that belies social or familial ties. Tóibín has always excelled in writing about this type of loneliness: The Master, his fictional portrayal of Henry James, set the great novelist's emotional restraint against his imaginative liberty; the heroine of Brooklyn, Eilis Lacey, was characterised by a strange emotional detachment that persisted through her personal relationships and intimacies. Read more.
Anthony Cummins on Us by David Nicholls
As an account of fatherhood, David Nicholls's new novel probably won't receive the critical plaudits lavished upon Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, in which the Norwegian author chronicles, among other things, his attempts to write a masterpiece while knee-deep in nappies. Yet the experience of Nicholls's protagonist, Douglas Petersen, is surely more common: leaving the house early to catch the train to work, returning late and frazzled to pitch in at home as best you can, sensing that your child is growing up without you. Read more.