The Displaced; Migrant Brothers; Lights in the Distance – reviews

Three powerful, conscience-stirring books use personal testimony to help us see the refugee crisis through the eyes of its victims

This September it will be three years since the body of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy in red T-shirt and blue shorts, was washed ashore on a beach in Turkey. The picture that ran on the front pages of newspapers across Europe, and prompted calls for politicians to confront with all urgency what even the Sun called the “biggest crisis since the second world war”, was perhaps the only moment in recent memory in which popular empathy for refugees clearly outweighed disregard or antipathy.

For a month or more, maybe, after the picture ran, and Alan lay face down in all of our consciences, there was a feeling in European capitals that a different approach was desperately needed; several cities saw rallies in which crowds carried banners reading ...

The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder review – chilling and unignorable

This persuasive book looks at Putin’s favourite Russian political philosopher and the template he set for fake news

Even presidents who don’t believe in history need a historian to rely on. When asked, in 2014, by a delegation of students and history teachers for his chosen chronicler of Russia’s past, Vladimir Putin came up with a single name: Ivan Ilyin. 

Ilyin is a figure who might have been easily lost to history were it not for the posthumous patronage of Russia’s leader. Putin first drew attention to him – Ilyin was a philosopher, not a historian, a Russian who died in exile in Switzerland in 1954 – when he organised the repatriation of Ilyin’s remains for reburial in Moscow in 2005. Ilyin’s personal papers, held in a library in Michigan, were also brought “home” at the president’s request. New editions of Ilyin’s dense books of political philosophy became popular ...

Zen and the art of following in your father’s footsteps

Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, his famous book about a spiritual quest to a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas, is 40 years old. His son, Alex, has recreated the trek

Is it possible to be an armchair Zen Buddhist? That’s one of the questions that Peter Matthiessen’s great quest The Snow Leopard seems to present. No book I’ve read, certainly among those written in my lifetime, gives a more authentic account of a “journey of the heart” than Matthiessen’s celebrated trek to the Dolpo, the high, ancient Tibetan plateau of the Himalayas. I am not alone in that belief. Since it was first published in 1978, The Snow Leopard has no doubt been the inspiration for more hippy trails and backpacker expeditions to Kathmandu and beyond than any other volume (it is unmovable at the top of Amazon’s “Himalayas” chart). I’ve read the book a few times over the years, ...

Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by Alan Lightman review – at one with the universe

The physicist and novelist’s discursive essays on the mysteries of the physical world are full of wonder and insight

Alan Lightman has made a unique career finding imaginative ways to bridge the “two cultures” of science and humanities. A novelist and physicist, he was the first person to be awarded a joint professorship in literature and astrophysics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His work in the latter discipline has resulted in notable contributions to the theory of astrophysical processes under extreme temperatures; he has helped to map the behaviour of such out-of-this-world concepts as “accretion discs” and “relativistic plasmas”.

He made his name as a writer of fiction, meanwhile, with Einstein’s Dreams in 1993 – a lyrical series of short sketches, each one an attempt at a different understanding of time, and all rooted in the freewheeling mind of Einstein as he grappled with relativity in Berne, Switzerland in ...

Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by Alan Lightman review – at one with the universe

The physicist and novelist’s discursive essays on the mysteries of the physical world are full of wonder and insight

Alan Lightman has made a unique career finding imaginative ways to bridge the “two cultures” of science and humanities. A novelist and physicist, he was the first person to be awarded a joint professorship in literature and astrophysics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His work in the latter discipline has resulted in notable contributions to the theory of astrophysical processes under extreme temperatures; he has helped to map the behaviour of such out-of-this-world concepts as “accretion discs” and “relativistic plasmas”.

He made his name as a writer of fiction, meanwhile, with Einstein’s Dreams in 1993 – a lyrical series of short sketches, each one an attempt at a different understanding of time, and all rooted in the freewheeling mind of Einstein as he grappled with relativity in Berne, Switzerland in ...

The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton with Lara Love Hardin – review

An ex-death row inmate’s account of his decades-long struggle for justice is a tribute to friendship, faith – and a wonderful lawyer

I first came across the name Anthony Ray Hinton when I wrote about the extraordinary civil rights campaigner Bryan Stevenson and his Equal Justice Initiative based in Montgomery, Alabama. Stevenson, a black, Harvard-educated lawyer who grew up in segregated Delaware, is a man of immense personal courage. He has spent his working life practising out of an office over the road from a former slave market, trying to right some of the ingrained injustice of the penal system in the American south; in particular, he has campaigned on behalf of young black men sentenced to death, based on trials of dubious merit. He has saved more than 100 men from the electric chair through forensic re-examination of evidence in this way, as well as successfully campaigning to overturn ...

Andras Forgach: ‘My mother was a Cold War spy’

Thirty years after the fall of communism, the acclaimed Hungarian novelist András Forgách was handed a file of top secret documents. In them he learned that not only had his beloved mother been an agent for the state, she’d also been spying on her own family…

I was once, aged 22, invited for a series of interviews by the British secret service. The interviews, designed to assess my suitability for espionage, took place in a blacked-out room in central London. I was intrigued by the process, somewhat flattered by the approach, but then at the end of the interviews came the moment of truth – or, more exactly, the moment of duplicity. I was invited to sign the Official Secrets Act and thereafter, I was told, no one could know of these meetings – not my family, not my girlfriend (now my wife), not my friends – and that would, ...

Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith review – anyone for a cultural thought experiment?

In her wide-ranging new collection, Zadie Smith’s sharp eye darts from social media to Ella Fitzgerald, from the English seasons to Prince’s dancing

One unavoidable sensation in reading Zadie Smith’s recent essays is that “recent” isn’t what it used to be. Smith is now an insistently transatlantic writer, dividing her life between New York and Queens Park in London. These pieces were written during the eight years of the Obama administration, and therefore largely in the time – which, alarmingly, starts to look like a relatively rational period – of coalition government in the UK. There is only one mention of Donald Trump in the book; Theresa May does not get a look in. Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, has a walk-on as a politician who still looks more a dead-end past than a born-again future, someone who has “profoundly betrayed the youth vote… [and] must go”.

Written before Trump… these essays ...

The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers review – smell the coffee

Dave Eggers’s remarkable tale of a Yemeni immigrant chasing the American dream offers hope in the age of Trump

The culture war dividing the US is being fought over the relevance of empathy. On the one hand a president and a ruling party that denies the imaginative possibility – or importance – of trying to walk in another’s shoes; on the other, a liberal tradition that celebrates America as the all-born-equal nation and believes understanding is synonymous with compassion.

Some of the recent writing of Dave Eggers is a kind of thought-experiment in that latter position. Since the success of his fortune-making memoir about bringing up his kid brother, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, he has been moving as far as he can from the notion of an insistent “I” in his books. Instead, he is on a mission to use the platform he has created as a ...

Daniel Mallory: ‘Without Gone Girl I’d never have written this book’

Having written his debut novel in total secrecy and published it under a pseudonym, Daniel Mallory has been astounded that The Woman in the Window has created a worldwide bidding frenzy. Tim Adams meets novelist as he steps out of the shadows

Last year, Daniel Mallory had one of those weeks that all first-time novelists fantasise about. Through an agent he had submitted his manuscript to several publishers and was about to take a short holiday. The excitement started when he arrived at Newark airport in New York to take a plane to Palm Springs. That was when the first offer to publish his book came in.

After that, Mallory says: “It was the full dream.” His phone lit up with offers and messages like in the movies. “I was going on holiday with someone and he was taking a separate flight and he texted me in mid-air, and ...

Colm Toíbín: Brexit expats, Trump’s Irish influence – and the right way to gouge an eye

If you’re having lunch with the Booker-shortlisted novelist, expect a wide-ranging discussion If you were to go in search of a prime example of the genus “writer”, Colm Toíbín would have strong claims as exhibit A. There’s the face to begin with: meaty, heavy browed, quick-eyed, both grave and wickedly animated, the head and neck invariably rising, as today, out of a white shirt and a black coat. And then the voice, with the inflection of his native Co Wexford, low tones moving easily to lightness, erudite and conspiratorial. Seeing Toíbín advancing toward you across the restaurant is the equivalent of hearing a memorable opening line: “Call me Ishmael”, or – his own favourite this (from Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers) – “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced the archbishop had come to see me.” You ...

Colm Toíbín: Brexit expats, Trump’s Irish influence – and the right way to gouge an eye

If you’re having lunch with the Booker-shortlisted novelist, expect a wide-ranging discussion If you were to go in search of a prime example of the genus “writer”, Colm Toíbín would have strong claims as exhibit A. There’s the face to begin with: meaty, heavy browed, quick-eyed, both grave and wickedly animated, the head and neck invariably rising, as today, out of a white shirt and a black coat. And then the voice, with the inflection of his native Co Wexford, low tones moving easily to lightness, erudite and conspiratorial. Seeing Toíbín advancing toward you across the restaurant is the equivalent of hearing a memorable opening line: “Call me Ishmael”, or – his own favourite this (from Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers) – “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced the archbishop had come to see me.” You ...

That’s the Way It Crumbles: The American Conquest of English by Matthew Engel – review

Matthew Engel urges us to hang tough against Americanisms in this entertaining history of linguistic imperialismI worked for a few years in my 20s at the literary quarterly Granta. The magazine had been a very English institution, based in Cambridge, until it was successfully hijacked by a bullish and bearded American graduate student, Bill Buford, who had arrived at the university via Louisiana and California to help edit Shakespeare, and was looking for an excuse to stay on. I became his deputy. As a former linebacker in American college football, Buford was not always the easiest man to argue with, but when it came to questions of written style the British contingent in the office attempted to mount occasional rearguard actions. Mostly, we followed English linguistic conventions and spelling in the magazine, but on a few issues Buford was entirely intransigent. One of these, our Rorke’s Drift, was ...

That’s the Way It Crumbles: The American Conquest of English by Matthew Engel – review

Matthew Engel urges us to hang tough against Americanisms in this entertaining history of linguistic imperialismI worked for a few years in my 20s at the literary quarterly Granta. The magazine had been a very English institution, based in Cambridge, until it was successfully hijacked by a bullish and bearded American graduate student, Bill Buford, who had arrived at the university via Louisiana and California to help edit Shakespeare, and was looking for an excuse to stay on. I became his deputy. As a former linebacker in American college football, Buford was not always the easiest man to argue with, but when it came to questions of written style the British contingent in the office attempted to mount occasional rearguard actions. Mostly, we followed English linguistic conventions and spelling in the magazine, but on a few issues Buford was entirely intransigent. One of these, our Rorke’s Drift, was ...

Naomi Klein: ‘Trump is an idiot, but don’t underestimate how good he is at that’

The US has a president who embodies many of the things Naomi Klein has been warning about for years. She says her new book had to be written before things got worse The fact that Naomi Klein predicted the forces that explain the rise to power of Donald Trump gives her no pleasure at all. It is 17 years since Klein, then aged 30, published her first book, No Logo – a seductive rage against the branding of public life by globalising corporations – and made herself, in the words of the New Yorker, “the most visible and influential figure on the American left” almost overnight. She ended the book with what sounded then like “this crazy idea that you could become your own personal global brand”. Speaking about that idea now, she can only laugh at her former innocence. No Logo was written before social media ...

In Writing by Adam Phillips review – the shrink as unreliable narrator

Adam Phillips’s diverse, probing essays on writers and writing are like ‘little gatherings of like minds’Adam Phillips, the most perceptive of psychoanalytic writers, has always seen his calling as a closer cousin of literature than science. His day job gives his insights into the practice of writing an unusual edge. All great writers consciously or not employ the associative habits of the analyst’s couch, and understand that in certain ways the forward movement of a piece of writing is a kind of voyage of self-discovery, a watching of their mind at work, but few possess Phillips’s fascinated appreciation of those impulses. His own essays are living proof of that fact. He is preoccupied with the masks of self-revelation presented by language, and so drawn to TS Eliot, Auden, Montaigne Continue reading...

Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Richard Ford – review

Two essays on the deaths of the author’s mother and father, written decades apart, are extraordinary studies of how we experience loss – and recall itIn an interview, I once asked Richard Ford about his experience of loss. Having read Ford’s prose over many years – his wonderful stories of the American south and midwest, where he grew up, his unfolding examination of his country’s slow fall from grace at the century’s end through the wearied, optimistic eyes of his everyman, Frank Bascombe – I was interested in how he always seemed to shadow even the sunniest of exchanges between his characters with poignancy, with a sense that nothing of the future might be as bright as what was passing. Some of it had to do with a cadence in his writing, the easy way that he let his words fall on the page before toying with their unwinding ...

Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh – review

The acclaimed neurosurgeon exudes humility in this fine second memoir, which sees his retirement after 40 years in medicineHenry Marsh’s first volume of memoir, Do No Harm, gave an unforgettably human voice to the most elevated and mysterious of medical callings: that of the neurosurgeon. Marsh had come to that vocation as a young man, not long after he had witnessed the miracle of his three-month-old son survive the complex removal of a brain tumour. He had studied philosophy at Oxford, but here was a path that appeared to offer a more hands-on route to everyday enlightenment. His first operation, to clip an aneurysm, not only saved a life but restored an individual to his self. “What could be finer, I thought, than to be a neurosurgeon. The operation involved the brain, the mysterious substrate of all thought and feeling, of all that was important in human life – a mystery, ...

Ice baths and snow meditation can cold therapy make you stronger?

When Scott Carney set out to debunk the health benefits of extreme cold, a strange thing happened. He tells Tim Adams about lighting his ‘inner fire’ Before Scott Carney set about climbing a Polish mountain in his underwear in temperatures 10 degrees below zero, he believed his days of adventure were just about over. He was in his mid-30s. An anthropologist by training and a journalist by vocation he had written two books about the dangerous extremes to which humans go to find salvation – the first about the black market in organ donation, the second about the fatal consequences of a particular meditation practice. His journey to the Polish mountain – called Sněžka, 5,300ft, the pinnacle of the Silesian mountain range – had begun one afternoon at his computer in Long Beach, California, with palm trees swaying gently outside his window. He had been idly Googling when he came ...

Familiar Stranger by Stuart Hall review – self-portrait of the British left’s most significant intellect

Stuart Hall’s autobiographical essays trace the undiminishing tugs of Britain and Jamaica on 60 years of scholarshipStuart Hall arrived in Oxford from his native Jamaica in 1951 with a trunk so large and unwieldy that the college staff could not manoeuvre it to his first-floor rooms. His mother, who traced her relatively pale skin to an ancestry that included plantation owners, insisted he bring the trunk because its rounded top and steel hoops denoted what she saw as a “colonial version of modernity and sophistication”. In the end, it was decided to leave the monster down in the college basement. Hall removed a few items of clothing from it on that first day, but never opened it again. He wondered, 60-odd years later, if the trunk was there still. “Weighted down with pretentiousness and aspiring to what it could never be,” Hall recalls, “I abandoned it with relief.” ...