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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 ...