The Lost Boys by Gina Perry review – the experiment that made boys vicious

In 1954 the American psychologist Muzafer Sherif set out to prove that hate was learned with the help of two groups of warring 11-year-olds

At the beginning of the 1950s, while William Golding was a teacher at a boys’ school in Salisbury, he took a group of pupils to the nearby iron age hill fort of Figsbury Ring. The novelist told some of the boys to attack the fort while others defended its grassy ramparts. Golding was shocked at how quickly the schoolboys morphed into ferocious warring tribes: “My eyes came out like organ stops as I watched what was happening.”

Golding’s research into “the nature of small boys” was for his novel, Lord of the Flies. It confirmed his pessimistic view that society’s problems could be traced back “to the defects in human nature”. At the same time in the US, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif was conducting very ...

A Tokyo Romance by Ian Buruma review – shaped by Japan

An evocative account of 1970s cultural life in the Japanese capital

The writer, historian and recently appointed editor of the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma, “grew up with two cultures”. His father was a lapsed Dutch Protestant and his mother British, from an Anglo-German Jewish family: “My destiny was to be half in, half out – of almost anything.” He dreamed of escaping from the safe and dull cocoon of his upper-middle-class childhood in The Hague, and the opportunity to study in Tokyo on a scholarship provided the perfect way out.

Buruma arrived in Tokyo in 1975, aged 23. For some time he wandered around in a daze, overwhelmed by its “theatrical, even hallucinatory” brashness that made even Los Angeles seem “staid”. Although he quickly tired of his film course, he immersed himself in the Japanese imagination and in this memoir of his years in Japan he writes ...

This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay – review

Frank and funny, this is a moving tribute to the people who keep the NHS going

In 2010, after six years of training and six more on the wards, Adam Kay hung up his stethoscope. A few months earlier, while he was a senior registrar in obstetrics and gynaecology (or “brats and twats” as it’s apparently known), he had had to deal with a complicated birth in which the baby died. The mother was losing blood by the litre and needed an emergency hysterectomy to save her life.

As Kay’s diary of his time as a junior doctor so eloquently shows, medics are used to tragedy. But this awful experience scarred him. It was the last straw after regularly having to work more than 90 hours a week (“the parking meters outside the hospital are on a better hourly rate”) and dealing with everything from “itchy teeth” and patients who ...

Medieval Bodies by Jack Hartnell – history illuminated by the human body

A rich study of the middle ages in Europe and the Middle East, brings this much maligned period to life

While Abbess Chiara Vengente lay dying in August 1308, she told the nuns of the Umbrian monastery in Montefalco that Christ was in her heart, sustaining her. When she died the nuns were astonished that after five days her body had still not decayed. Recalling her words, one of the sisters took a razor to the heart and sliced it in half: inside lay a very small image of Christ on the cross, with several tiny objects from the Passion, including the nails hammered into Christ’s body, all “wrought from the flesh of Chiara’s heart itself”.

The art historian Jack Hartnell tells this extraordinary story in his wonderfully rich study of the Middle Ages. Lasting from about 300 to 1500, the period has been characterised since the Enlightenment as an ...

The Wood by John Lewis-Stempel review – a fortress against agribusiness

Pheasants, pigs, sparrowhawks and holly share a handful of acres in this heartfelt and evocative diary of a year among the trees

“A wood should not be a museum,” says John Lewis-Stempel. For four years he managed Cockshutt Wood in south-west Herefordshire, three and a half acres of deciduous and coniferous woodland “with a secluded pool where the winter moon lives”. This is his diary of his final year there.

Such small woods play a vital role in the life of our countryside: they are the last refuge of many flora and fauna. Grassland sustains 70 pairs of birds per 100 acres but a wood is home to 400. Woods are “fortresses of nature against the tide of people and agribusiness”.

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The Dawn of Christianity review – how a startup faith won hearts and minds

Robert Knapp’s study, subtitled People and Gods in a Time of Magic and Miracles, is a fascinating glimpse into the beliefs of ordinary people

In the ancient world of the eastern Mediterranean, many people believed implicitly in the supernatural. They turned to magic and religion to help them survive and thrive, cure illnesses and to ensure good fortune in their uncertain lives. This was true both for pagans, who believed in many gods, and Jewish people, for whom there was only one god, Jahweh. As Robert Knapp argues, it was risky to give up your gods for new ones, inviting divine displeasure. But in the first century AD, some Jews and polytheists began breaking with traditions and embracing a new religion: Christianity. From the dust and heat of Judaea came a new message, from Jesus of Nazareth, who used magic and miracles to convince followers he spoke as a god. He offered a …

The Life and Death of Sherlock Holmes review – a history of Holmes appreciation

Benedict Cumberbatch’s sleuth is striking but every era has had their own version of the fictional detective as Mattias Boström’s lively study shows

This study by Swedish Sherlock Holmes expert Mattias Boström, translated by Michael Gallagher, shows that, perhaps more than any other fictional character, the consulting detective from 221B Baker Street has eclipsed his creator, and gained a life of his own. From his first appearance together with his sidekick Dr Watson in 1887, Holmes captured the hearts of readers around the world, from US presidents Franklin D Roosevelt and Harry Truman (both members of the Baker Street Irregulars, an association of American Sherlockians who have met since 1934) to the countless parodists and authors who have written themselves under the skin of this beguiling crime fighter. They include Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, who brilliantly reimagined Sherlock for the 21st century. As Boström says, “every era had its own Sherlock ...

A Philosophy of Dirt review – what does it mean to be clean?

Philosopher Olli Lagerspetz considers being dirty, and the fashion for filth in art

The philosopher Olli Lagerspetz notes that in continental Europe there is a widely believed stereotype of the British as “inordinately fond of bathtubs, lukewarm water … but otherwise with a doubtful sense of hygiene”. This was confirmed for him when his first child was born in the newly built Singleton Hospital in Swansea: “We were shown into the delivery room, where the floor was adorned with a carpet. A carpet.” He notes that “carpets in delivery rooms are not to be thought of in the Nordic countries”.

The distinction between clean and dirty is a universal organising principle in human society, like right and wrong: “Homo sapiens is also Homo sordidus – not merely the rational animal but also the dirty (and clean) animal.” Today dirt is fashionable. Every modern art gallery has works made from “the ...

Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor review – what the British did to India

A timely book that addresses the need to temper British imperial nostalgia with post-colonial responsibility

A 2014 poll in the UK found that 59% of people thought the British empire was something to be proud of and nearly half believed countries were better off for having been colonised.

Tharoor’s passionately argued book provides a crushing rebuttal of such ideas with regard to India. The subjugation of his people was “a monstrous crime” and any positives were mere by-products of actions not intended to benefit Indians.

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Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington review – birds of deadly beauty

Darlington tracks down the European continent’s native owl species and gives achingly beautiful descriptions of these magnificent creatures

Darlington’s book begins with a chance encounter on an English street. The great grey owl, native to Lapland, is just a few months old: “Her softness took my breath away. Deadly beauty.” She is tethered by jesses to her keeper, who is trying to get the bird used to people. Suddenly startled, she spreads her wings in fear, straining at the leash: “I must have closed my eyes and when I opened them again, in front of me a striped grey haze of staggering silence and softness was rising; a giant butterfly, a god of the tundra.”

With their eerie cries and nocturnal habits, owls have haunted the skies of this planet for some 60m years. Homo sapiens has been around for a mere 200,000 or so years. An unequalled ...

Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel review – a ‘daring cultural bandit’

John Stubbs’s monumental biography of the Gulliver’s Travels author portrays him as the most notorious writer of his day

Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels (1726), was a complex and fascinating figure. He was a conservative cleric with authoritarian views who rarely smiled or laughed and who cultivated an austere and patriarchal public persona. But he was also “a daring cultural bandit” who became “the most notorious writer of his day”, a rebel admired and loathed in equal measure for the “fury and sardonic bleakness” of his vision.

By the end of his life, with dementia and chronic gout, he was dismissed as the “lunatic Dean”, demonised by his enemies as a “misanthropic monster”. Even his friends tended to regard his mental condition as a “sentence passed by God for earlier sins”, a cruel judgment on a deeply humane figure who at his death in 1745 endowed a hospital for the mentally ill in Dublin. Stubbs’s monumental biography ...

The Pixels of Paul Cézanne by Wim Wenders review – the film-maker on the power of seeing

A collection of essays in free verse by the maker of Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire explores his influences in film, painting and photography

Just like the camera in Wim Wenders’ films, his writing demands the “freedom to move”: “I need to be able to ‘circle’ an idea”. For this reason he chooses to write in free verse – or what he modestly refers to as “my odd verse” – for many of the essays in this illuminating collection. In his hands it becomes a playful and wonderfully malleable literary form that allows him to create a flow of images and ideas, a kind of rhythmic thinking: “visible blocks of thought”. Each line becomes a separate tracking shot as the writer-director moves restlessly around his subject, words crystallising into ideas in the same way as a narrative emerges during the editing of a film.

Many of the essays ...

The Case Against Sugar by Gary Taubes review – shocking and important

A remarkable account of our addiction to the sweet stuff and the far-reaching implications for our health

Back in 1934 just three in every thousand adult Americans had diabetes. By 2012 that had risen to one in seven, with a new case being diagnosed every 16 seconds. In the UK, one in 16 people now have the condition; globally, some 400 million have it.

This “tidal wave” is the subject of US science journalist Gary Taubes’s remarkable book. From the earliest historical cases – diabetes was first described in the sixth century BC – to the latest research, Taubes argues that the primary cause is not dietary fat and a sedentary life, as has been believed, but our addiction to sugar, which has “unique physiological, metabolic and endocrinological [ie hormonal] effects” that trigger diabetes and obesity.

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Being Ecological by Timothy Morton review – a playfully serious look at the environment

There are not too many ‘scary facts’ in this ambitious book, which draws on both Kantian philosophy and Star Wars to explain our relationship to the world

From the outset, Timothy Morton is very clear about the kind of book he isn’t writing. This is not another “confusing information dump, slapping you upside the head to make you feel bad”. What he terms “ecological information delivery mode”, heavy in “factoids” and accompanied by a “guilt-inducing sermon”, is counterproductive. Deluging readers with scary facts about global warming, which is what most environmental writers do, is “inhibiting a more genuine way of handling ecological knowledge”. To understand the true gravity of the current situation we need “to start to live the data”.

At the heart of this immensely ambitious book is a radical critique of how we know and relate to the world around us. Morton argues that our scientific age is characterised ...

A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind review – Buddhist housekeeping

Shoukei Matsumoto’s slim volume offers practical cleaning tips as well as an introduction to Buddhist thinking on relationships and enlightenment

‘A monk’s day begins with cleaning,” says Shoukei Matsumoto, a Buddhist monk at the Komyoji Temple in Kamiyacho, Tokyo. “We do it to eliminate the gloom in our hearts.” This slim guide, elegantly translated by Ian Samhammer and peppered with delightful illustrations by Kikue Tamura, shows how to bring the tranquillity and serenity of a Japanese temple into ordinary homes: “All you need is a will to sweep the dust off your heart.” For the Japanese, cleaning is more than a chore. Schoolchildren clean their classrooms together: “It’s an ascetic practice to cultivate the mind.” Apparently one of Buddha’s disciples achieved enlightenment solely through the act of sweeping. A bestseller in Japan, this charming book offers practical cleaning tips as well as fascinating insights into the Buddhist approach to life, ...

What Is Populism? by Jan-Werner Müller review – a lucid guide

An examination of one of the defining political characteristics of our age

The rise of populism is one of the defining characteristics of our age, and this lucid guide to the subject by a German professor of politics is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand leaders such as Trump and Chávez. Of course, every politician wants to be popular. But populism is characterised by a specific inner logic, one that threatens the very basis of democracy. Müller argues that it does so by undermining the idea of pluralism: populists claim that in their battle against elites they alone represent the people. “We are the people. Who are you?” Turkey’s President Erdoğan asked his critics. By so doing, populists can dismiss their opponents as being “enemies of the people”, a dangerously authoritarian ploy. Their belief in the fantasy of a coherent popular will which only they can understand ...

Passchendaele: A New History by Nick Lloyd review – hellish battle reassessed

A powerful account of ‘courage and ingenuity in the face of almost unimaginable horrors’

Passchendaele has become a synonym for military failure as well as the myopia of the British top brass. Nick Lloyd’s book reassesses the conduct and impact of this hellish battle, which lasted from 31 July until 10 November 1917. By then more than half a million men had been killed or injured, many vanishing without trace in the thick mud. The British forces had advanced just five miles, ground that was lost again the following year. It was, says Lloyd, “the ultimate expression of meaningless, industrialised slaughter”. On just one day in August, more shells were fired than in the entire Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. But Lloyd argues that Field Marshal Haig’s much criticised offensive was very nearly successful and is one of the “lost victories” of the war. His powerful account of this appalling battle ...

This Long Pursuit by Richard Holmes – reflections of a Romantic biographer

Essays on Samuel Coleridge, Mary Somerville and John Keats feature alongside personal reflections on the biographer’s art in this insightful collection of meditations

The third in Richard Holmes’s series of autobiographical volumes, this is a wonderfully reflective and insightful collection of meditations on the biographer’s art, “a vocation that I have intensely loved over more than 40 years and which I still do not entirely understand”. There are essays on Samuel Coleridge, Mary Somerville, John Keats and others, but Holmes starts by exploring the experience of researching a biography, which for him is about more than texts and archives and involves literally walking in his subject’s footsteps. His notebooks have two columns: one for historical facts, the other for subjective impressions drawn from landscapes and buildings. For Holmes, empathy is central to his craft, “to enter imaginatively into another place, another time, another life”. The essay on forgetting, in which ...

The Mushroom at the End of the World review – life in capitalist ruins

A highly original study that turns the commerce and ecology of a rare fungus into a tale of environmental renewal

Written in “a riot” of short chapters, “like the flushes of mushrooms that come up after rain”, Anna Tsing’s highly original study explores ruined industrial landscapes and precarious livelihoods in this age of economic decline and globalisation. She travels the world in search of matsutake mushrooms and the people who forage for them in the forests of Oregon, Yunnan, Lapland and Japan, where they have become “the most valuable mushrooms on earth”, prized as gourmet treats and exclusive gifts. It’s said that after Hiroshima was obliterated by an atomic bomb, “the first living thing to emerge from the blasted landscape was a matsutake mushroom”. They only grow in forests disturbed by humans and were first mentioned in an eighth-century Japanese poem celebrating “the wonder of autumn aroma”. The smell is ...

The Bestseller Code review – how to spot the next Harry Potter

This thought-provoking study by by Jodie Archer and Matthew L Jocker identifies the anatomy of a blockbuster novelSome 55,000 new novels are published each year as well as countless self-published ebooks. Only a fraction become bestsellers: Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers estimate less than half a percent make it on to the New York Times bestseller list. Publishers find it hard to spot these literary black swans. Rowling was turned down by 12 editors and John Grisham by 16. Lisbeth Salander was dismissed by editors as “a bit moody and aggressive for a female lead”. Archer and Jockers think publishers need a little scientific help. A former publishing professional and an academic working in the new field of digital humanities, they spent five years analysing bestsellers and designing a computer model – a “bestsellerometer” –to identify “blockbuster DNA” in manuscripts. It turned out to be remarkably successful: “Eighty to ...