Aristotle’s Way by Edith Hall review – ancient wisdom as self-help

The philosopher was preoccupied with the question of how we live in relation to others, and sensibly resistant to imposing grand or rigid schemes on the world

It’s hard to imagine, at this distance, how it must have been to be Aristotle in his own time: cutting-edge rather than foundational. We see him standing at the beginning of western philosophy and surveying something like virgin territory. Did it feel like that at the time? He didn’t know, obviously, that he was an Ancient – at the start of things, as we now see it, rather than, say, at their end. He was interdisciplinary before there were really disciplines to worry about. Look at him, romping across the territory of possible human knowledge like a big dog snapping at butterflies, or Theresa May running through a field of wheat. One moment he invents literary theory. At another he formulates the rules ...

Has fiction lost its sense of humour?

According to the judges of the Wodehouse prize, this is the worst year for comic writing in the award’s 18-year history. So why the long faces? Sam Leith explores the funny side of fiction

“Is the comic novel dead?” This outstanding instance of a QTWTAIN (Question To Which The Answer Is No) greeted the news of the non-awarding of this year’s Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction. The prize – traditional bounty: a pig named after your book – wasn’t awarded because, according to the judges, not one of the 62 novels submitted for the prize was funny enough. This struck a lot of people, including me, as funny. The fact there was a “rollover prize” mooted for next year, in the form of a bigger pig, seemed even funnier.

A more interesting question might have been: was the comic ...

Has fiction lost its sense of humour?

According to the judges of the Wodehouse prize, this is the worst year for comic writing in the award’s 18-year history. So why the long faces? Sam Leith explores the funny side of fiction

“Is the comic novel dead?” This outstanding instance of a QTWTAIN (Question To Which The Answer Is No) greeted the news of the non-awarding of this year’s Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction. The prize – traditional bounty: a pig named after your book – wasn’t awarded because, according to the judges, not one of the 62 novels submitted for the prize was funny enough. This struck a lot of people, including me, as funny. The fact there was a “rollover prize” mooted for next year, in the form of a bigger pig, seemed even funnier.

A more interesting question might have been: was the comic ...

Dead Men’s Trousers by Irvine Welsh review – the Trainspotting gang party on

Renton, Begbie, Sick Boy and Spud are back in this wildly farcical story of revenge, sentimentality and psychedelic drugs

At a newspaper I used to work for, the story was told of a foreign correspondent dictating his report down the line to the copytakers. He rolled on, through paragraph after paragraph of purplish prose about the horrors of war, until he was, eventually, interrupted by the woman at the other end of the phone. She asked in a matter-of-fact voice: “Is there much more of this stuff, dear?”

Irvine Welsh is that kind of author. There is a lot of this stuff, and the quality-control lever is wobbly. He has never been a careful writer. At his best, he manages a sort of ragged glory, a life-affirming comic energy combined with a sense of horror or desperation and the ability to place his lowlife shenanigans in a wider thematic ...

When They Go Low, We Go High review – the best ever political speeches

Tony Blair’s former speechwriter Philip Collins considers the greatest hits and why they matter, with orators from Elizabeth I to Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama

In Philip Collins’s new book, 25 great speeches through history are given around 10 pages or so each. They include a potted biography of the speaker, a sketch of the historical moment, and a discussion in accessible but not simplistic terms of what the speech is doing and how it works. It deserves to find a home in many Christmas stockings, in the library of anyone interested in oratory or political theory, and on the odd A-level reading list.

As far as the choices go, it’s a parade of greatest hits: Pericles’s funeral oration; Cicero’s first philippic against Antony; Jefferson’s first inaugural address; Lincoln’s snappy sally at Gettysburg; JFK’s “ask not”; Churchill’s “finest hour”; Elizabeth I at Tilbury; Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate; Mandela in ...

No Good Deed by John Niven review – friends reunited

Fortunes are reversed and scabrous comedy gives way to a nuanced investigation of male friendship and anxiety He’s a funny writer, John Niven. Not funny peculiar: funny ha ha. Properly funny, in a scabrous and scatological sort of way, and in his latest book he doesn’t disappoint. It’s a big, comic tableau, painted in bright, broad shades with plenty of splatter marks. No Good Deed has a pleasingly straightforward, Trading Places-style setup. Alan Grainger is a broadsheet restaurant critic in the Giles Coren/ Jay Rayner/AA Gill mode – dandyish, sharp-penned and well heeled. One day, as he’s walking through central London, Moleskine in hand, shuffling synonyms for his forthcoming demolition of a trendy new burger pop-up, he’s accosted by name by a tramp. Continue reading...

Stiff Upper Lip by Alex Renton review – the damage boarding schools have done

Renton, who was abused at prep school, has written a startling book about the ruling class, full of examples of snobbery, cruelty and misery The Old Etonian John Julius Norwich, asked for a memory that he thought summed up the spirit of his school, offered the following: after a boy had killed himself “the housemaster summoned the whole house and asked if anybody could suggest a reason. The young David Ormsby-Gore put up his hand and said, ‘Could it have been the food, sir?’” This strikes me as appallingly funny; or funny and appalling. It captures – in its black bad taste and high-stakes insouciance – some of what public schools teach their students. Nothing is so serious it can’t be a joke – and the joke, as Alex Renton notes, both fences with authority and obscurely reinforces it. In 2014, Renton wrote in the Observer about his experiences ...

Stiff Upper Lip by Alex Renton review – the damage boarding schools have done

Renton, who was abused at prep school, has written a startling book about the ruling class, full of examples of snobbery, cruelty and misery The Old Etonian John Julius Norwich, asked for a memory that he thought summed up the spirit of his school, offered the following: after a boy had killed himself “the housemaster summoned the whole house and asked if anybody could suggest a reason. The young David Ormsby-Gore put up his hand and said, ‘Could it have been the food, sir?’” This strikes me as appallingly funny; or funny and appalling. It captures – in its black bad taste and high-stakes insouciance – some of what public schools teach their students. Nothing is so serious it can’t be a joke – and the joke, as Alex Renton notes, both fences with authority and obscurely reinforces it. In 2014, Renton wrote in the Observer about his experiences ...

In our Google era, indexers are the unsung heroes of the publishing world

For ‘nerdy’ see Society of Indexers below – it’s time to highlight the humble, human art of indexing on National Indexing Day Under “I”, in the index of one of his books, Douglas Hofstadter (of Gödel, Escher, Bach fame) included an entry for “index, challenges of, 598; as revelatory of book’s nature, 598; typo in, 631; as work of art, 598”. As might be said these days: preach! Indexes are challenging to produce; they are revelatory of a book’s nature; and the best ones are works of art. And, as Hofstadter ruefully if wittily recognised (including under “T” “typo in index, 633” in a book that ended on page 632) they sometimes contain typos. But not, you’d hope, those produced by professionals. Today, the Society of Indexers – the industry body for those professionals (for which, full disclosure, I have the honour to be honorary president) – turns 60 years ...

We Are the Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama, edited by EJ Dionne Jr and Joy-Ann Reid – review

This collection of the outgoing president’s greatest speeches reveals both his vivid turn of phrase and fondness for repetitionHere is a greatest hits package of Barack Obama’s speeches – something to consolidate his canon in the same way that The Very Best of did for the Eagles or 20 Golden Greats for the Beach Boys. It’s 26 Golden Greats, in this case – a thoughtfully chosen selection, going from his amiably stinging 2002 speech against the Iraq war as a state senator (“What I am opposed to is a dumb war”) to his UN valediction last September, taking in the “race speech”, the “red-state-blue-state speech”, the Cairo speech on Islam, both inaugurals, the eulogies for the murdered pastor Clementa Pinckney and the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting, not to mention, of course, the electrifying speech he gave on election night. Related: Barack Obama's speeches: 2002 to 2006 Continue ...

Alan Partridge: Nomad review – bathos is everywhere, it’s glorious

In his latest book of memoirs, written by Rob Gibbons, Neil Gibbons and Steve Coogan, Partridge embarks on a walk from Norfolk to DungenessThe latest volume of Alan Partridge’s memoirs – following 2011’s I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan – is portentously prefaced with a definition of the title: Nomad
Noun
1 a person who does not stay long in the same place; a wanderer
2 a member of a people that travels from place to place to find fresh pasture for its animals and has no permanent home
3 Scottish: “not mad”. Continue reading...

Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother review – an intimate record

Edited by Donald Sturrock, this selection of letters written over four decades tracks the emergence of a writer’s talent Do you kiss your mother with a mouth like that? The phrase takes on a special twist when applied to Roald Dahl. One striking thing about this enjoyable selection from Dahl’s devoted four-decade correspondence with his mother is quite how free he is with profanities. Related: Quentin Blake at 80: the illustrator's magical art Continue reading...

Stars, Cars and Crystal Meth by Jack Sutherland review – a PA’s life of Hollywood excess, as told to his father

Jack Sutherland worked for Michael Stipe and Mickey Rourke, and has plenty of stories of sex, drugs and celebrity. But, unusually, his ghostwriter is his literary professor father and they are both recovering addicts

Jack Sutherland was nine years old when he first got drunk. He was 14 years old, and a troubled and self-hating homosexual, when he lost his virginity to a stranger in South Pasadena’s Griffith Park. By 16 he was a confirmed alcoholic who had already attempted to kill himself. After a forcible spell in a residential treatment centre he emerged clean and sober, and stayed that way for a decade and a half.

Stars, Cars and Crystal Meth is an unusual book. Mainly it’s one of those LA-based “My Drug Hell” type memoirs in the model of Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight: the story of Sutherland’s eventual, hair-raising descent into depravity with the (main) drugs of choice being ...

Infinite Jest at 20: 20 things you need to know

The beloved 1,100-page novel is David Foster Wallace’s magnus opus and one of the most influential books of its time, but did you know he based its structure on a mathematical object called a Sierpinski Gasket and proofread it while watching a film about a St Bernard dog, on a loop? 1 Infinite Jest is set in a near future in which the Gregorian calendar has been supplanted by a sponsorship arrangement. Most of the action of the novel takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment [Depend is a real brand of adult nappies]. Other years are sponsored by: the Whopper, the Tucks Medicated Pad, the Trial-Size Dove Bar, the Perdue Wonderchicken, the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster, Glad, Dairy Products from the American Heartland and the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade for Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems for Home, Office or Mobile. 2 The central plot MacGuffin, such as it is, is the search for ...

Skedaddle to Selfie by Allan Metcalf review – words that sum up your generation

What did ‘deadline’ originally mean? And if ‘sexting’ and ‘selfie’ are representative words for millennials, why is the new key word ‘wait’? It is a great gift to the reviewer when a book’s author all but admits in the introduction that his whole project is horseshit. Props, then, to Allan Metcalf, whose Introduction introduces some caveats; and who then includes a subsection called “Some Caveats” introducing some more. You can see why this was called for. The gimmick for this fun-sized contribution to the pop-etymology shelves is that it selects and glosses a handful of representative words for each generation. The generations in question are identified in (or implied by) William Strauss and Neil Howe’s books Generations (1990) and The Fourth Turning (1997). The Strauss/Howe theory is that US history moves in cycles of four generations, each cycle about 80 years long, before starting to repeat itself. You get a ...

Man Booker prize 2015: one judge on the impossible task of choosing a winner

No prize can please everyone, but the shortlist of six is the result of passionate and painstaking argument, says judge Sam Leith. Who would you like to win tonight?

In some ways, we’d have been happy to leave it at the longlist. As one of my fellow judges commented in the Man Booker shortlist meeting, this was the point at which the gameshow aspects of a book prize start to take over: we took a list of 13 first-rate novels and halved it for no other reason than that’s the way the game works. Tonight, we single out but one.

There are advantages and disadvantages to that process. The fewer books you are talking about, the less you’re giving a snapshot of the literary culture and the more it becomes about these books in their particularity. Most years, the reception of the longlist centres on either famous writers who’ve been ...

Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation review – hissy fits about apostrophes

Is a full stop really worth four commas? And should everybody avoid the semi-colon? This book from the popular linguist David Crystal will amuse and instruct

A couple of weeks ago I saw David Crystal give an after-dinner speech at the august annual conference of the Society of Indexers and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. In it, he recalled having been an adviser on Lynne Truss’s radio programme about punctuation. She told him she was thinking of writing a book on the subject. He advised her not to: “Nobody buys books on punctuation.” “Three million books later,” he said, “I hate her.”

Making a Point is this prolific popular linguist’s entry into the same, or a similar, market. Truss’s book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, was energised by her furious certainties about the incorrect use of all these little marks. Crystal’s is a soberer and, actually, more useful affair: ...