Picnic Comma Lightning by Laurence Scott review – perceptions of reality in the age of Instagram

A stylish, playful exploration of what digital life is doing to the way we find meaning in the world

Laurence Scott’s first book, The Four-Dimensional Human, zoomed straight on to the Samuel Johnson (now the Baillie Gifford) prize shortlist in 2015. In a crowded field of commentary on our lives with new technology, his first-hand reports on digital existence, narrated with blushes and allurements and a scholar’s grasp of intellectual history, were not like anyone else’s.

Picnic Comma Lightning brings us further meditations on what digital life is doing to the way we find meaning in the world. Here again, Scott ponders his world with a mix of delighted avidity, candour and melancholy. But this second book goes deeper, ranges even wider, and takes many different forms in the mind. It is a philosophical meditation on perceptions of reality, achieved by means of beguilingly playful moves from confession to ...

Modernists and Mavericks by Martin Gayford review – Bacon, Freud, Hockney and the London painters

An immersive history of painting from 1945 to the 1970s draws on a huge archive of the author’s interviews

Martin Gayford has been talking with artists for 30 years. He doesn’t just nip into the studio with a notepad: he has a gift for sustaining conversations that unfold across decades. His friendship with David Hockney has inspired remarkable collaborations, and when he sat for a portrait by Lucian Freud he made in return his own version of Man with a Blue Scarf, a written portrait of the painter painting.

In Modernists & Mavericks he draws on a huge archive of interviews to piece together a history of postwar painting in London, from the Camberwell students of the 1940s, working in the ruins of a bombed city, to the pop artists who collaged images of shining new-made lives in the 1960s. Gayford starts with people, moments and meetings, standing firm ...

The Melody by Jim Crace review – an ecological fable for our times

Boyhood memories of savagery return as a widower reaches out to the feral creature that hides in the woods

Albert Busi, an ageing singer, is used to hearing foragers in the early hours rattling the bins in his backyard. As a widower now, alone, he notices them more. When he goes down to investigate one night, something leaps at him and bites, a different creature from the dogs, rats and deer that usually come dining at his door. He feels strangely hospitable towards this wild attacker, with its damp skin and pungent smell of “earth and mould and starch”; he is sure it is a boy.

All this is established in the first chapter of Crace’s 12th novel, a book he did not expect to write and which takes its place among his finest (he had intimated that the Man Booker-shortlisted Harvest in 2013 would be his last). The predicament is ...

Turning for Home by Barney Norris review – anorexia and IRA secrets

The second novel from a rising literary star is a tale of public and private reconciliations

This second novel by the highly accomplished Barney Norris, who made his name as a playwright before publishing fiction, begins as a book about the peace process in Ireland, memory, guilt and confession. It moves, gradually, towards a terrifying account of anorexia. And by the end one feels that perhaps it has been most of all a study of the relationship between a grandfather and granddaughter. I’m not sure it entirely holds together, but the disjunctions are part of what makes this courageous piece of work so memorable, strange and sad.

It’s set, for the most part, on a single day somewhere in the Hampshire countryside, at the home of the ageing Robert. The family is gathering for his birthday, as it has gathered each May for the last 40 years. But at 80, ...

Brolliology by Marion Rankine review – thinking about umbrellas

Mary Poppins used one to fly but for most people they are merely ‘portable roofs’. Have brollies lost their magic?

Among the Japanese yokai, or monstrous spirits, one of the most prominent forms of apparition is the kasa-obake: the umbrella ghost. It is always an old umbrella, well used and long ignored, with holes in the oiled paper or a broken rib. One moment it is quietly rolled in the hallway stand, the next it is leaping and leering, its wooden handle now taking the shape of a human leg. From among the folds a single eye gleams with sinister life. An 18th-century haiku by Yosa Buson catches the mood: “Oh, the winter rain / On a moonlit night / When the shadow of an old umbrella shudders.” The Japanese paper parasol is more often a protection against sun than rain, but in both guises it can be beautiful, ...

Winter by Ali Smith review – wise, generous and a thing of grace

In the second volume of a quartet, the winter solstice brings with it a cool clarity of vision, evergreen memories and a reworking of ageless myths

Winter: the dead time, the midnight hour, the dying of the light. Winter: the time of guests, gifts, Christmas memories, cool clarity, the beginning. In the second part of her Seasonal Quartet, which began last year with Autumn, Smith brings all these winters into relationships that are astonishingly fertile and free. She calls up old stories and renews them, she finds life stubbornly shining in the evergreens. She looks out over a contemporary landscape of violent exclusion, lies, suffering (the book has been written and published so quickly that this summer’s tragedies are among its solsticial dark points), and fashions a novel which, in its very inclusiveness, associative joy and unrestricted movement, proposes other kinds of vision.

This is not a continuation of ...

Travelling Light by Alastair Sawday review – the king of quirky B&Bs

A roll-top bath, organic food, local wine? Sawday’s taste is easy to parody but hard to resist, in this envy-making memoirIf you are currently lying in a deep, hot bath, as splashes echo round the ancient stone walls of a farmhouse bathroom, and if you will soon fold back a stitched white eiderdown and move a vase of wild flowers to the windowsill before joining your host for a glass of excellent local wine … there is a strong possibility that you are in a bed and breakfast recommended by Alastair Sawday. “Sawday’s” is a name well known to thousands of travellers who have sought comfort and hospitality in off-beat places throughout Britain and Ireland, France, Italy and Iberia. The idea is that Sawday and his colleagues find potentially enticing accommodation, interview the owners, sample the beds and the baths (preferably old and large), and see that the breakfasts ...

Bosch and Bruegel review – more gripping than a thriller

Two master painters of the macabre and the mundane come together in Joseph Leo Koerner’s frightening, fascinating studyHieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder work like antagonistic muscles in the imagination, pulling with and against each other. Bosch is a painter of medieval hellfire whose fantastical creations exceed our nightmares. Bruegel, most memorably and wonderfully, shows us a recognisable world where children lick bowls clean, bagpipers draw breath and harvesters stretch out in the sun. Turning from metaphysics and from myth, he attends to the ploughman who labours his way across a field while Icarus falls into the sea far below. Bosch’s pale figures belong to the international gothic; Bruegel’s weighty peasants dance vigorously into modern times. Yet Bruegel (born 10 years after the elder artist’s death) was greeted by his contemporaries as a “second Bosch”, and the connections between the two Netherlandish masters have fascinated viewers for ...

Bosch and Bruegel review – more gripping than a thriller

Two master painters of the macabre and the mundane come together in Joseph Leo Koerner’s frightening, fascinating studyHieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder work like antagonistic muscles in the imagination, pulling with and against each other. Bosch is a painter of medieval hellfire whose fantastical creations exceed our nightmares. Bruegel, most memorably and wonderfully, shows us a recognisable world where children lick bowls clean, bagpipers draw breath and harvesters stretch out in the sun. Turning from metaphysics and from myth, he attends to the ploughman who labours his way across a field while Icarus falls into the sea far below. Bosch’s pale figures belong to the international gothic; Bruegel’s weighty peasants dance vigorously into modern times. Yet Bruegel (born 10 years after the elder artist’s death) was greeted by his contemporaries as a “second Bosch”, and the connections between the two Netherlandish masters have fascinated viewers for ...

Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums – review

From John Lanchester at the Prado to Ann Wroe at Dove Cottage, these accounts of favourite museums are a joy to readThe 24 essays gathered here came about when distinguished writers were given what sounds like a most appealing brief: choose a museum that has played a part in your life, go back and write about it. It’s almost as good an opportunity as Desert Island Discs. Still, Richard Ford demurred, explaining that his eyes fail to focus after 45 minutes in a museum; David Sedaris said he prefers the cafe and gift shop. Alice Oswald clearly had her doubts. “I haven’t been to many museums,” she says. “I can’t help being depressed by the aloofness of things behind glass.” There’s nothing to say that writers should particularly like museums, or that their experiences should be any different from those of musicians or teachers or cooks. The editor, ...

Cove by Cynan Jones review – an intensely observed tale of one man at sea

Lightning strikes, and a kayaker finds himself in unknown waters. This novel powerfully explores disorientation, survival – and loveIn a blank between two paragraphs of this arresting short novel, a lone man in a kayak is struck by lightning. He wakes in unknown waters, having drifted far from the cove of the title. Badly injured, equipped with little more than a litre of water, a fishing line and a frying pan, he faces an endurance test of the most essential, stripped-back sort. Here is a man and the sea – or rather a man and his own fear, thirst, self-control and motivating love for a pregnant partner back on land. Cynan Jones is a highly accomplished writer in whose hands such elemental raw materials turn strange and fugitive. Lightning strikes and kayaks might belong in an all-action adventure, but Jones’s interest is in stillness and repetition. Though his novels often ...

Making the weather in English writing and art

From icy ground gleaming in early literature to the idea of data stored in a cloud … how weather has been portrayed in different eras is full of surprises

On the last night of the 18th century, the heroine of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando leans out from her London window. In the cool, clear air she surveys the smooth domes and magnificent vistas of the city. All is “light, order, and serenity”. But then, as she watches, a rapid gloom starts to close in. Within moments, there comes a dramatic meteorological alteration. “A turbulent welter of cloud covered the city. All was darkness; all was doubt; all was confusion. The 18th century was over; the 19th century had begun.”

This is how time passes in Woolf’s historical pageant: the atmosphere of English life in different eras is established through changes in the air. It is a masterstroke of literalism. Life ...

My highlight: Life in Squares

One corset is removed while another is thrown out the window … there is much to fit in and much to look forward to with the BBC’s upcoming Bloomsbury drama

It’s 1905, the father is dead, a caricature aunt is thrown out of the house protesting about decorum, and the Stephen sisters can now, in their mid-20s, invent their own sort of freedom. The first episode in this Bloomsbury drama is about efforts to undo Victorian lacing, a theme established literally when Vanessa (not yet Vanessa Bell) takes off her corset and, for good measure, Virginia (not yet Virginia Woolf) throws hers out of the window.

Points have to be made concisely because there is a lot to get through. Here comes the whole entourage of Cambridge men – Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes; here is Duncan Grant, whose combination of ease and longing is attractively interpreted by James Norton. There’s ...