Lights in the Distance by Daniel Trilling review – human face of the refugee crisis


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A powerful study of the EU’s border system

In 1990, 20 countries had walls or fences on their borders. By 2016 that figure had risen to almost 70. According to Trilling, the EU “has perhaps the world’s most complex system to deter unwanted migrants” and its external frontier is becoming increasingly fortified.

Since 1993, more than 33,000 people have died as a result of the EU’s “militarised border system”, which forces migrants to take ever greater risks. Yet the 1951 Refugee Convention obliges states to assess asylum seekers as individuals and not to force them back into countries where they are in danger.

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Around the World in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh review – the romance of rail travel


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Brief encounters, Orwellian nightmares and a swirl of cultures on a seven‑month, 45,000‑mile adventure

Monisha Rajesh has a passion for rail travel. In a previous book the author spent three months hopping on and off trains on a 25,000-mile odyssey around India; this time she broadens her horizons and travels round the world. Her aim is to discover whether, in our age of bullet trains and cut-price air travel, the romance of the railways still exists.

The seven-month journey, which she undertakes with her fiance, is undoubtedly a feat of endurance. Indeed, the scale of the endeavour – 80 trains of distinctly variable comfort, reliability and safety, travelling some 45,000 miles – would be enough to daunt even the most hardy adventurer.

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Last Train to Hilversum by Charlie Connelly review – the magic of radio


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A heartfelt and nostalgic guide to radio takes in birdsong, The Goon Show, and pre-digital crackles and pops

One of the 20th century’s most remarkable radio broadcasts was made from rural Surrey on an evening in May 1924. Beatrice Harrison was a renowned cellist. (The composers Frederick Delius and Edward Elgar chose her as the soloist for their works.) Harrison liked to practise in the garden of her home, a converted Tudor barn near Oxted in Surrey and one evening, while playing Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Chant Hindou”, she heard a nightingale echoing her cello with its song.

When she told the BBC about her duets with the nightingale, a team was dispatched, armed with a new, highly sensitive microphone. Sure enough, shortly after 10.45pm, just 20 minutes before closedown, as Harrison played, the nightingale began to sing. The BBC cut away from its scheduled concert to broadcast live from ...

The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es review – a moving account of wartime survival


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The author embarks on a personal journey in this account of a Jewish girl’s experiences of growing up in the Netherlands during the second world war

The Netherlands has been a place of refuge for Jews since at least the 15th century when Sephardic Jews fleeing from Portugal found freedom and prosperity there. In 1677, the sceptical Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza was buried with honours in the Protestant New Church in The Hague, which Bart van Es describes as “an astonishing gesture of acceptance”. When the Nazis came to power in Germany, some 35,000 refugees fled to the Netherlands. By 1940, when Germany invaded Holland, there were some 18,000 Jews in The Hague, which portrayed itself as an open and idealistic “city for the world”. Only 2,000 of them would survive the war and the concentration camps.

Hesseline, known as Lien, lived there, at 31 Pletterijstraat, with her parents, Charles ...

Sweden’s Dark Soul by Kajsa Norman review – ‘far from a utopia’


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A journalist becomes disillusioned with her country following the cover-up of sexual assaults at a Stockholm music festival

Sweden is proud of its reputation for being one of the world’s most progressive and egalitarian nations, and for a long time Kajsa Norman thought that its main defect was being rather “boring”. As an investigative journalist, she preferred more challenging environments, such as Zimbabwe. But while abroad she heard of an incident in Sweden “so disturbing and strange” that she felt compelled to investigate. What she found shook her faith in her country.

The annual We Are Sthlm music festival attracts some 200,000 people, mostly aged between 13 and 19, to Kungsträdgården Park in central Stockholm. On a balmy evening in August 2015, a middle-aged psychologist, whom the author calls Hans, as he wishes to remain anonymous, took his teenage relatives to the festival. As twilight fell, he noticed how groups ...

Landfill by Tim Dee review – gulls and us


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The seabird’s relationship with our urban worlds is examined in these wonderful reflections from a rubbish tip

During the severe winter of 1892-93, the naturalist WH Hudson described how for several weeks in London “hundreds of working men and boys” used their lunchtimes to go down to the Thames, “with welcome in their faces and food in their hands”, in order to feed the gulls. It was, Hudson said, the moment when “a tradition formed” of feeding gulls in the city. He himself took sprats to the river during another harsh winter, a couple of years later. This moving example of charity from working men, who knew what it meant to be hungry, reveals how a new relationship with nature can be born from what Tim Dee calls “a new urban entanglement with the residual wild”.

There’s something 'joyous' in standing in a landfill watching gulls search for scraps among ...

The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman review – the kidnapping of Sally Horner


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Nabokov denied that his novel was inspired by the famous 1948 case, but this literary detective work reveals many parallels

In March 1948, 11-year-old Sally Horner stole a five-cent notebook from Woolworths in Camden, New Jersey. It was a dare by her school friends and out of character. This minor misdemeanour would change her life for ever. As Sally, described by a teacher as “a perfectly lovely girl”, was leaving the store, a “slender, hawk-faced man” with cold, blue-grey eyes and a scar on his cheek grabbed her by the arm. Claiming to be with the FBI, he said he saw her stealing but would let her go if she agreed to report to him occasionally.

Terrified by this brush with the law, Sally tried to put the experience behind her. But in June, as she was walking home from school, the man reappeared. He told her the government wanted ...

Letters to Change the World review – a remarkable, timely anthology


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From Pankhurst to Orwell, Marx to Einstein … idealists, visionaries and ordinary citizens expose injustice and speak out in this collection edited by Travis Elborough

During the second world war, the French-Algerian author Albert Camus wrote a remarkable series of letters to an anonymous German friend. For Camus, it was a way to explore the cancer of nationalism and to reveal the humanity and shared history that ultimately unites the continent: “For us Europe is a home … where for the last twenty centuries the most amazing adventure of the human spirit has been going on. It is the privileged arena in which western man’s struggle against the world, against the gods, against himself is today reaching its climax.”

Camus’s uplifting hymn of praise to the idea of Europe, written amid the despair of war, is included in this new collection of more than 60 letters, edited by Travis Elborough. Written ...

A Certain Idea of France by Julian Jackson – the life of Charles de Gaulle


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The historical figure the French most admire, the man nicknamed the ‘emperor of France’, was proud, arrogant, charming, pragmatic

On 26 August 1944, General Charles de Gaulle took a high profile walk on the Champs-Elysées. The leader of the Free French had arrived in Paris the previous evening, a day after his advancing troops, and had declared himself president of the newly liberated republic. In a city still swarming with snipers, a walkabout was risky but, as Julian Jackson says, it was “a supreme example of De Gaulle’s instinctive showmanship”. Parisians flocked in their thousands to see the man most of them knew only as a voice broadcasting on the BBC from London. It was “the largest gathering of its kind in the history of France”. De Gaulle recalled this extraordinary moment in his memoirs: “Ahead stretched the Champs-Elysées. It looked more like the sea. A huge crowd was massed ...

Room to Dream review – a remarkable insight into David Lynch


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This hybrid biography cuts between essays from Kristine McKenna and reflections from the great auteur

Kristine McKenna admits at the outset of Room to Dream that she and David Lynch have come up with an approach to life writing “that some might find strange”. This hybrid form combines memoir and biography: each of McKenna’s chapters is followed by one by Lynch on the same years, “having a conversation with his own biography”. Clearly this highlights the subjectivity of experience and the inadequacy of life writing, but it could also compromise a biographer’s freedom to speak frankly about her subject. Nevertheless, Room to Dream is a memorable portrait of one of cinema’s great auteurs.

Lynch was born in 1946; his devout Presbyterian parents moved to Boise, Idaho, in 1955. This “most beautiful golden era” of rock’n’roll, early TV and girls in bobby socks and saddle shoes laid the foundations of the Lynchian universe: “When ...

Love Songs: The Hidden History by Ted Gioia review – a fascinating study of origins


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The author traces the love song back to ancient fertility rites, and shows how our idealised notions of romance first emerged in the songs of slaves

In this wide-ranging and fascinating study, music historian Ted Gioia examines the surprisingly ancient and diverse origins of the love song and its enduring power over us. He argues that love songs are “as old as human history” and that rather than being a mere cultural meme, they are, a “quasi-biological necessity”.

Although romantic love may not have been a subject in early societies, Gioia traces the love song’s origins back to ancient fertility rites, such as those performed some 4,000 years ago by Enheduanna, the high priestess and poetess of Ur, “the first female author”. Crucially, the ancient texts of Sumer, Egypt, Rome and China show that “human love can partake of the transcendent” as well as the orgasmic.

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Ground Work edited by Tim Dee review – anywhere can be a somewhere


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Helen Macdonald, Philip Hoare and others celebrate local distinctiveness in these personal essays on places and people

In his poem “Going, Going”, Philip Larkin expressed the fear that one day our green and pleasant land would be laid waste by “concrete and tyres”. Tim Dee seeks to assuage such fears. In the introduction to this collection of specially commissioned work by 31 poets, naturalists, novelists, historians and anthropologists, he writes: “The paved world can be as articulate as the vegetated.” In our urbanised world, filled with soul-destroying non-places, the need to connect to a locale remains undimmed: “Place-making is a signal of our species.” The slow accretion of experiences turns the most banal way-stations of our lives into sites of deep personal significance. As he says, “anywhere can be a somewhere”.

This is eloquently expressed in Philip Hoare’s essay on his love for the scruffy, suburban coastline of Southampton Water, where he grew up ...

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively review – a rewarding, evocative ramble


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In this vivid meditation, the novelist traces her love of gardens from childhood in Egypt to London and through art and literature

Penelope Lively modestly admits she is “only the most amateur gardener”. And yet this delightful and very personal paean to gardens amply demonstrates her abiding love of tending them.

From the hot, sunny garden in Egypt where she grew up and discovered the joys of reading amid bamboo groves and lily ponds, to the small London one in her ninth decade and with a chronic back problem, gardens have always played a “formative and essential” role in her life.

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


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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


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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


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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


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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


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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


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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 ...