Hamlet: Globe to Globe by Dominic Dromgoole – review


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The ex-Globe director’s account of his project to stage Hamlet in every country in the world is full of life lessonsOver the course of former Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole’s beguiling account of a quixotic project – staging a production of Hamlet in every country in the world over two years – a curious thing happens. Dromgoole is an erudite and fascinating, if occasionally self-contradictory, guide to all things Shakespearean, and there’s a real sense of the camaraderie and sheer fun of assembling a company and, quite literally, putting the show on wherever they can. Yet as Dromgoole and his actors take themselves out of their comfort zone – most notably to Somalia and a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan – the universal themes explored in the play take on a new and thrilling resonance, as the actors learn as much from their audiences as vice versa. By the end of the ...

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville review – stirring account of the events of 1917


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The fantasy fiction writer’s foray into history could be his most accessible book to date Given China Miéville’s reputation for writing challenging fiction about alternative worlds, this foray into history, dealing with the Russian Revolution, might have been expected to be a genre-defying kaleidoscope of ideas and themes. In fact, it’s his most straightforward book to date. Providing you share his belief that the revolution represented a glorious moment when a nation cast off the shackles of a hated tyranny, it’s an inspirational account that lends itself to troubled times. He makes no claims as to original research, but brings a storyteller’s eye to “liberty’s dim light” and its brief, doomed flowering. • October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville is published by Verso (£18.99). To order a copy for £14.24 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p ...

Isabella of Castile by Giles Tremlett review – she fought and conquered


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A gripping portrait of the Spanish queen’s fearless reign in a masculine worldGiles Tremlett’s biography of the 15th-century queen of Spain, Isabella of Castile, is subtitled “Europe’s First Great Queen”. It could just have been subtitled “Europe’s Toughest Queen”, as Tremlett tells the story of the woman who not only succeeded in a traditionally masculine world, but excelled. As in his previous biography of Isabella’s daughter, Catherine of Aragon, Tremlett describes a world full of uncertainty and cruelty, in which the introduction of the Spanish Inquisition was just one of the ways that she reconquered Spain from the Moors. In grippingly told and evocative pages, the military success of Isabella is evoked as she ordered her armies: that “we lose ourselves to fury rather than allow moderation to triumph”. Tremlett’s style is both scholarly and hugely readable, and he particularly excels in depicting Isabella’s relationships with her ...

Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain by Julian Glover – review


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Julian Glover’s first book is a fittingly diverting biography of the plain-speaking ‘Colossus of Roads’Julian Glover’s absorbing biography of the engineer Thomas Telford concludes that “there is no easy epitaph for a driven man”, and this account of his life and work avoids most of the cliches and longueurs that technical books are often prone to. Telford was nicknamed “the Colossus of Roads” by the poet laureate Robert Southey, and he was responsible for building everything from churches to bridges, many of which still stand today. While it’s possible to quibble with the description of Telford as “Britain’s greatest engineer” – many would favour Brunel – Glover, a former Guardian journalist and political speechwriter, has done a fine job in his first book of establishing his subject’s credentials both as a man and as a maker. His clear, concise style gives the plain-speaking Telford – “jovial, worldly and ...

Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain by Julian Glover – review


This post is by Alexander Larman from Books | The Guardian


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Julian Glover’s first book is a fittingly diverting biography of the plain-speaking ‘Colossus of Roads’Julian Glover’s absorbing biography of the engineer Thomas Telford concludes that “there is no easy epitaph for a driven man”, and this account of his life and work avoids most of the cliches and longueurs that technical books are often prone to. Telford was nicknamed “the Colossus of Roads” by the poet laureate Robert Southey, and he was responsible for building everything from churches to bridges, many of which still stand today. While it’s possible to quibble with the description of Telford as “Britain’s greatest engineer” – many would favour Brunel – Glover, a former Guardian journalist and political speechwriter, has done a fine job in his first book of establishing his subject’s credentials both as a man and as a maker. His clear, concise style gives the plain-speaking Telford – “jovial, worldly and ...

Storm in a Teacup by Helen Czerski review – physics for first-timers


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The physicist and oceanographer explains the science of everyday things – from popping popcorn to spilling coffee – with erudition and enthusiasmHelen Czerski’s engaging debut book seeks to demystify physics in everyday life, so whether you know your refraction from your reflection, or find the entire subject incomprehensible, this should be an invaluable primer. Dealing with the everyday – such as what really happens when you spill a few drops of coffee, or how magnetism really works – is a winning ploy. It enables Czerski to offer a mixture of erudition and enthusiasm to explain her chosen topics, leading the reader gently by the hand into some surprisingly complicated areas, but mostly keeping the discussion light, accessible and interesting. It must be said that, very occasionally, Czerski’s almost determinedly unpretentious approach can verge on the grating, and if you’re allergic to popular science, this won’t be the book to ...

Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker review – a soaring tribute to flight


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A pilot provides an exhilarating guide to the over-familiar experience of air travel“There’s no sensation to compare with this/ Suspended animation, a state of bliss,” sang David Gilmour on Pink Floyd’s song Learning to Fly, and Mark Vanhoenacker’s much-praised half-meditation, half-travelogue gives a fine account of why air travel can still give its participants a blissful experience. Vanhoenacker’s unconventional background – he abandoned careers in both academia and management consultancy to fly and today works for British Airways – makes him an authoritative guide to the skies; the book’s subtitle – A Journey With a Pilot – has several associations. Although attacks on aircraft have intensified fear of flying, Vanhoenacker’s calm and scrupulously composed prose style is soothing; little harm, you feel, could befall you with him as your navigator. Piloting  is his muse, vocation and hobby all in one. He states early that “flight, like any great ...

Following On: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket by Emma John – review


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Emma John’s years of infatuation with England’s hopeless 1990s team come good with this engaging and witty memoirIt’s fair to say that the England cricket team did not enjoy their finest hour in the 1990s, losing match after match with monotonous regularity. Press coverage tended to suggest they were not fulfilling their responsibilities as a national side, via headlines such as “England’s worst day”, “England lose again” and, after one particularly dreadful encounter, “Is this the death of England cricket?” Throughout, the dominant figure is her idol, Mike Atherton, who she writes is 'haunting my dreams' Continue reading...

Catullus’ Bedspread by Daisy Dunn review – ancient Rome’s most erotic poet uncovered


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A finely crafted biography of the poet and libertine fascinates without being titillatingThe subtitle of Daisy Dunn’s first book – “the life of Rome’s most erotic poet” – may prove something of a letdown for the dirty mac brigade. Aficionados of lively, finely crafted biography, however, are well served. Dunn acknowledges that independent evidence of Catullus’s life in the last century BC is all but nonexistent, leaving the poetry – assumed to be autobiographical –as the chief source of illumination. She skilfully avoids the pitfalls of obscurity or glibness, and the central thread of Catullus’s great love for the married Clodia Metelli, the “Lesbia” of his poems, is both haunting and fascinating. Weaving well-researched social history with a compelling account of political machinations in Rome, the picture here is not just of a libertine prone to writing of his obscene desires, but a soulful man at the heart of ...

The Ministry of Nostalgia review – ‘a bracing polemic’


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Owen Hatherley rails against public acquiescence in what he sees as a falsification of Britain’s postwar history The title of Owen Hatherley’s bracing polemic against a very English brand of ostalgie alludes to Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four, although it seems surprising that he does not refer to Mr Charrington’s junk shop, above which Winston and Julia take temporary refuge. Charrington specialises in relics of a possibly fictitious past and it is what Hatherley sees as our gutless acquiescence to a similarly rewritten version of 20th-century British history that has led to many of the social and economic problems that the country faces today. He argues that the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster, and all that it entails, should not be viewed simply as a harmless piece of mass-produced decoration, but instead as a deliberate falsification of the tenets of the postwar welfare state. Hatherley’s thesis is never less ...

In Wartime: Stories From Ukraine by Tim Judah review – humane and haunting


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Sensitive interviews with civilians, poets and political scientists shed new light on a bitter conflictWhile military matters in Syria have been distracting politicians and pundits alike, Tim Judah’s grim, timely salvo from Ukraine is a reminder that not every war has to revolve around the Middle East. Interviewing a wide range of people who have been caught up in the recent conflict, from travel journalist and poet Olena Maksymenko to political scientist-cum-Putin supporter Sergei Baryshnikov, Judah concentrates skilfully and affectingly on the human cost of manoeuvres in Ukraine. He seldom makes his own thoughts and opinions seem intrusive, instead letting his eloquent and compassionate subjects give a far greater insight into the horror and privations suffered by the citizens of Ukraine. Yet there are occasional glimpses of hope and decency amid the slaughter and squalor and Judah’s account of what is really happening is lifted by these haunting touches. ...

One Minute to Ten review – a guessing game


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Dan Hodges tries to get inside the minds of Cameron, Miliband and Clegg on 7 May 2015… with perplexing results Political commentator Dan Hodges’s first book is a perplexing one. Rather than produce a closely researched biographical and historical account of the last stages of the 2015 election, he has instead opted for psychological portraits of Cameron, Miliband and Clegg, using fictional techniques as he attempts to analyse their states of mind before the results of the notorious 10pm exit poll. If Hodges is basing these analyses on hitherto unknown research, then there are some fascinating revelations; if, however, they are mainly or entirely invented, then the book is of less use. The staccato prose style is an irritation, as is the occasional refusal to illuminate from whose perspective Hodges is describing matters. Yet even the authorial affectations cannot destroy the narrative’s intrinsic interest, and as it heads to ...

Augustine: Conversions and Confessions review – an in-depth study of faith’s foundations


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Robin Lane Fox’s biography of the 4th-century saint deserves to become the standard work on his religious teaching

Robin Lane Fox’s dense and satisfying biography does not attempt to provide an exhaustive account of St Augustine of Hippo’s life, but focuses on the period in which he wrote his Christian masterpiece, Confessions, and the impact that his conversion to faith had on his philosophy.

Lane Fox assumes that his reader will have a sound grounding in Augustine’s work – it seems unlikely that anyone buying this book would not – and so his methodology is an unashamedly highbrow one, seeking to illuminate both the man’s thoughts and life. He does not offer a hagiography of Augustine, discussing his sexual exploits in great detail – both heterosexual and, Lane Fox implies strongly, homosexual – and seeking to explore how a life of casual sin might usefully cede into an anguished ...

The Mistress of Paris review – glittering story of a superstar courtesan


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Catherine Hewitt’s life of the prostitute’s daughter who rose to the highest ranks of French society is a largely enthralling read

When the Comtesse Valtesse de la Bigne died in 1910, at the age of 62, she left behind a grand house filled with paintings, antiques and objets d’art: the trappings of her career as one of the most successful courtesans in France. What she had also managed to conceal were her unprepossessing origins as Louise Delabigne, the illegitimate daughter of a prostitute who grew up in poverty. Thanks to a mixture of beauty and intelligence, she enraptured – and scandalised – French society, counting the likes of Manet and Zola as part of her circle. Catherine Hewitt’s debut biography is a mostly successful attempt at placing Valtesse in the wider context of her turbulent age. It might have done with another edit – the word “glittering” is ...

Gilliamesque by Terry Gilliam review – lacking in madcap spirit


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The former Python and film director’s memoir looks the part, but offers scant insight into that brilliant brain

Terry Gilliam’s “pre-posthumous” memoir, as it is subtitled, is published shortly after an erroneous early obituary of Gilliam appeared in the film industry magazine Variety. While the juxtaposition is blackly amusing – you might even call it Gilliamesque – there is a disappointing lack of wit and joie de vivre in his so-called “Me, Me, Me, Memoir”. Those looking for an insight into his madcap creative process would be better off reading the Ian Christie-edited Gilliam on Gilliam, while casual fans will be bored by the too-lengthy description, taking up virtually half the book, of his early life in the US. Once he joins the Monty Python troupe, there is the odd revealing and amusing anecdote – especially about the difficult behaviour of Hunter S Thompson during the making of Gilliam’s ...

Aftershock: The Untold Story of Surviving Peace review – in search of a solution for PTSD


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Matthew Green talks to soldiers about the psychological scars they carry home from combat, and explores ways to help them

The subtitle of Matthew Green’s absorbing study of post-traumatic stress disorder is “The Untold Story of Surviving Peace”. It’s a testament to Green’s even-handedness that his unsentimental but horribly affecting tales of soldiers’ lives destroyed by their experiences in combat never descends into war-is-hell cliches. In fact, most of his subjects loved their time in the army, and their engagements are described in prose thrilling enough for a bestselling novel. Yet it’s the depths of what awaits them afterwards that concerns Green, and mixing journalistic rigour with historical investigation, he goes in search of a solution for PTSD.

There can be no quick fixes for dealing with the damaged people he encounters, but Green examines sources of therapy and cutting-edge psychological treatment with compassion and nuance. Nonetheless, the feeling ...

The Road to Little Dribbling review – Bill Bryson’s travelogue continues


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The latest leg of Bill Bryson’s journey around our small island finds him older, grumpier but still thoroughly entertaining

Bill Bryson’s latest book is subtitled More Notes from a Small Island, and, as he cheerily admits early on, the major reason for a follow-up to his bestselling travel book was a commercial one. Not that this sequel doesn’t have its fair share of surprises; Bryson, now in his 60s, has become grouchier with age, and opportunities to criticise the imbecility of those he encounters or observes (including book reviewers) are not missed. At one point, he muses: “In countless small ways the world around us grows gradually shittier… I don’t like it at all.”

Thankfully Bryson is too engaging and witty a writer to turn his latest tour of Britain into a dirge. A sharper editorial hand might have trimmed the repetition – there is a surfeit of incidents ...

Pop Art: A Colourful History by Alastair Sooke review – hugely engaging


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Documentary maker Sooke’s authoritative and readable study of pop art should appeal to newcomers and aficionados alike

As befits its title, Alastair Sooke’s introduction to pop art is a colourful little book that should appeal to aficionados and casual admirers alike. Designed to coincide with the Tate’s new exhibition, Sooke builds on his earlier BBC documentaries about Warhol and Lichtenstein by offering a well-researched and authoritative introduction to the movement that concentrates on transatlantic figures both major (Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake, who also designed the cover) and unexpected.

It is particularly good to see Sooke focus on Pauline Boty, the unduly neglected British artist who was one of the prime movers in pop before her early death at 28. While the plentiful Warhol material is likely to be familiar to many, including those who have seen Sooke’s documentary, there are enough revelations and surprises (such as Stanley ...

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami review – a captivating historical novel


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A wonderfully unusual tale of a doomed Spanish attempt to colonise Florida

Although Laila Lalami’s Man Booker-longlisted historical novel is not science fiction, her impeccable creation of the past sometimes seems like a dazzling exercise in fantasy. Told from the perspective of the Moroccan slave Estebanico, mentioned in passing in official accounts, it depicts the doomed saga of the Spanish conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez who, in 1527, led an expedition to colonise Florida, which led to horrendous consequences for the unprepared settlers. Out of the original party of 300, there were only four survivors, including Estebanico.

Lalami’s device of switching between Estebanico’s previous life in Morocco and the debacle in Florida is effective and ambitious, giving this thought-provoking book both scope and intelligence, but the principal achievement here is Lalami’s (and Estebanico’s) sensual love of ornate and rich language. Dispelling cliches about the noble savage, Estebanico is a charming, fluent ...

The War in the West review – revelatory account of second world war


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The first part of James Holland’s trilogy is packed with astonishing new material about the conflict

The publicity for the historian James Holland’s new book, the first in a planned trilogy, breathlessly boasts that this is “the second world war as you’ve never read it before”. While the hype threatens to overwhelm the (considerable) degree of revelation within, Holland’s impeccably researched and superbly written account of the years 1939-41 skewers a number of myths about the early years of the second world war, not least that of invincible Nazi superiority and comparative Allied incompetence. In fact, Holland makes clear that the Axis alliance between Germany and Italy was always strained, not least because the Italian war ministry closed promptly at 3pm each day, and the British forces boasted a mechanised army and most of the world’s merchant shipping. Ending with the Nazi invasion of Russia, Operation Babarossa, and shortly before ...