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BAD SEX IN FICTION AWARD
The highly anticipated shortlist for the 22nd Award. Read more.
Selected highlights from the November 2014 issue:
Donald Rayfield on Stalin's ruthless ascent to power
A GEORGIAN CALIBAN
All but a few crumbs of the available archive materials have been studied, every political and psychological theory has been applied, filters of every colour - whitewash, deepest red, pitch black - have been inserted into historians' lenses: after the revelations of the last twenty years, little fundamentally new can be said about Joseph Stalin. Psychopaths of Stalin's order arise so rarely in history that forensic psychiatry has few insights to offer. There is now a general consensus about the death toll and the ghastly heritage of Stalinism. All that is left to dispute is the mechanism by which Stalin grabbed and held on to power and, of course, the various 'what ifs' that arise from considering a scenario in which he failed to do so. Largely on this basis, Stephen Kotkin presents us with nearly a thousand pages which promise to comprise but a third of a definitive work on Stalin and his rule. Read more.
Jan Morris on Patrick Leigh Fermor's Cretan adventures
In death as in life, Sir Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor, DSO, etc., etc., marches epically on. Paddy (as he is known to nearly one and all) left us three years ago, but since then he has been commemorated by majestic obituaries everywhere, a magnificent biography, a reconstructed final volume of his own masterpiece of travel writing, an eager book of travel that follows in his footsteps and a website largely dedicated to his memory. Now we have a book that specifically commemorates him not as an adolescent adventurer, or as a scholar-linguist, or as a gypsy-wanderer, or as a legendary hero, or even as the wonderful writer that he ultimately became, but as a soldier. Not so much as a regimental soldier - he would surely have been a curse to stickler adjutants - but as a born guerrilla, in a military métier that the British enthusiastically adopted in the Second World War. Read more.
Fergus Fleming on Douglas Mawson's ill-fated Antarctic expedition
BEST FOOT FORWARD
The facts about Douglas Mawson are more or less these. He was an intrepid Australian who ventured across Antarctica in the southern summer of 1912-13. His three-strong team suffered an appalling succession of calamities. One man, the splendidly named Belgrave Ninnis, fell into a crevasse along with most of their supplies, never to be seen again. During the retreat the second man, Swiss ski-expert Xavier Mertz, succumbed to food poisoning and died in a confluence of delirium and diarrhoea, having bitten off one of his fingers. Whereupon Mawson trudged more than a hundred miles back to base sustained only by his iron constitution, a few pounds of pemmican, some scrawny dog meat and an early Australian equivalent of the Swiss Army knife. At one point, thanks to an overdose of vitamin A from eating the dogs' livers, the soles of his feet peeled off. He slathered them with ointment, strapped them in place and plodded on. When he was on the brink of safety - catastrophically diminished, hair falling out, skin sloughing around his ankles - he saw the support ship steaming into the distance. He had missed it by a few hours, thus condemning himself to a further year on the ice. It took him most of that time to recover and he was never quite the same again. Read more.
Michael Burleigh gets to grips with ISIS
This January, few experts took much notice of the Iraqi army's difficulties in retaking Falluja from Islamist terrorists. But when Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), as these jihadis called themselves, captured Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, on 10 June after just three days of fighting, the world did notice and it was afraid. Since Mosul fell, ISIS has spread terror across western, central and northern Iraq, coming dangerously close to Baghdad itself in early October. In July ISIS's elusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, briefly emerged in Mosul to proclaim himself caliph of the so-called Islamic State, thereby eclipsing the gnarled bosses of al-Qaeda as 'the strongest horse' on the Islamist scene. Based on the erasure of the border between Iraq and Syria, ISIS has mesmerised would-be jihadists everywhere, while other Islamist terror groups have paid homage to al-Baghdadi. Read more.
Simon Heffer on the British Library's restrictive rules
Anyone who has read New Grub Street will know that the difficulties of making a living writing books have been around for a long time. Some writers are blessed with private incomes, rich spouses or a love of asceticism that leaves them unhindered in the pursuit of the literary life. Others rely on a tenured post in academia, with its encouragement to spend extensive periods in well-stocked libraries, archives and manuscript stores, to supplement meagre earnings from scholarship. Many writers of non-fiction have to fit in literary work with a day job, such as journalism or broadcasting or (in the manner of T S Eliot) working in an office. It limits the time one can spend in archives, and if one wishes to write books using original material - and it is always pleasing if one can - that imposes a serious restraint. I have the good fortune to be able to spend one day a week in archives researching my next book, but I am still squeezed for time. Others are less fortunate: researching a book means forgoing the annual holiday or going part-time and never hoping to recoup lost earnings. Read more.
Jane Ridley on a new life of Vita Sackville-West
KNOLE ME TANGERE
Vita Sackville-West is considered a lesbian icon. Nigel Nicolson caused a storm in 1973 when he published Portrait of a Marriage, an account of the affair between his mother, Vita, and Violet Trefusis. Victoria Glendinning revealed the full story of Vita's love life in her biography, published in 1983. In this astute and engaging book, Matthew Dennison looks again at Vita's extraordinary life and makes a new sort of sense of it. Read more.
Wendy Moore on how we spend our final days
As a surgeon at a leading American hospital and professor of surgery at Harvard, Atul Gawande enjoys a high-status, well-paid and privileged position in society. And yet, for his fourth book, he has chosen one of the lowest-status and most neglected subjects: dying. Thank goodness that he has. Read more.
Elaine Showalter on Some Luck by Jane Smiley
ONE FROM THE HEARTLAND
You wait for years to read a trilogy set in Iowa and then two come along at once. This autumn, Marilynne Robinson's Lila completes her searching trilogy of redemption and spirituality in fictional Gilead, Iowa; Jane Smiley's Some Luck is the first volume of The Last One Hundred Years, her Iowa-centric saga of American life from 1920 to 2020. Why choose Iowa? Is it because the state is in the American heartland, a red and rural emblem of moral certainties? Or perhaps, as Smiley has commented, because farming and food are at the centre of American life? Or could it be because the legendary Writers' Workshop, where Smiley studied and Robinson teaches, is in Iowa City? If it lacks the glitter of New York, the grit of Texas or the glamour of California, still Iowa has its own harshly beautiful landscape and conservative aura. Read more.
James Purdon on Amnesia by Peter Carey
The exemplary creative writers of our time - we may as well admit it - are not the novelists but the computer coders. As algorithms and subroutines have become the infrastructure of our daily digital lives, the writers of code have fulfilled the novelist's dream, building alternate worlds out of language. Does it matter that the languages in question happen to be Java and Python rather than English or Spanish? Like the Knight of the Rueful Countenance, we are all now part-time inhabitants of spaces fabricated by writing, virtual worlds that shape our sense of reality as surely as Amadis de Gaula and Feliciano de Silva shaped Don Quixote's. Read more.