At the beginning of the Peloponnesian war in 430BC, the Athenian general Pericles ordered his fellow citizens to retreat inside their harbour city to sit out a siege by the approaching Spartan army. The latter had the stronger force of soldiers but Athens had the better navy. Pericles reckoned he could harry his opponents from the sea and still keep his city supplied with food. It was a disastrous decision.
More than 300,000 Athenians were crammed together inside the city’s long walls – which connected Athens to its port, Piraeus – in sweltering heat. They became ripe targets for disease and a plague swept through the city “without restraint”, according to the historian Thucydides. Athens’s population was reduced by between a third and two-thirds.
If the past 100 years have taught us anything, it is that new diseases and viral strains will inevitably beset usContinue reading... Read more »
A restless mother and meddling sister trigger family reprisals in this nuanced, polished debut
If ever there were to be a literary love child of Jonathan Franzen and Anne Tyler, then Claire Lombardo’s outstanding debut, which ranges from ebullience to despair by way of caustic but intense familial bonds, would be a worthy offspring.
Married couple Marilyn and David Sorenson have spent the past 40 years raising their four daughters. David is a doctor, while Marilyn has forgone the best years of her career to care for her family, not always without a little resentment. Now all her babies have reached adulthood and are experiencing varying levels of inner – and outer – turmoil.
This is a novel epic in scope – emotionally, psychologically and narrativelyContinue reading... Read more »
From refugee camps to the ‘hostile environment’, these personal narratives and histories from Dina Nayeri, Jon Bloomfield and others are indispensable
There’s something vertiginous about the speed with which the political climate has soured over the past decade. From an era of falling walls and blurred borders, of globalisation celebrated as an economic tide that would lift all ships, we are now witnessing a backlash of startling viciousness. Narratives of migration have been co-opted by rightwing politicians and their media cheerleaders, who discard both facts and human rights in their efforts to conjure old fears of invasion and cultural subjugation. Literary responses to political crises generally take years to percolate through – JK Galbraith’s definitive The Great Crash, 1929 was published in 1955 – but such is the urgency of the present moment that already there are a host of books, both fiction and nonfiction, seeking to redress the narrative imbalance around the refugee crisis and immigration more broadly.
Dina Nayeri’s The Ungrateful Refugee is a work of astonishing, insistent importance. Like Hisham Matar and Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nayeri speaks firsthand of the refugee experience. She was born in Tehran in 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution. Her mother was a proselytising Christian, and she soon found herself fleeing Iran for the Middle East, then Italy. She was interned at Barba, a camp in a dilapidated hotel near Rome. Nayeri ended up in the US, where she attended Princeton, Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She then travelled back to Europe, to the camps, seeking to find there some relic of her own life as a refugee.Continue reading... Read more »
Brenda Wineapple has written a book entirely right for its moment, a history of the perils and politics of impeachment
Brenda Wineapple’s new book was surely timed for this moment. Working with the support of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2016 and 2017, her research predated the Mueller investigation. But in some quarters, the tantalising thought of a third impeachment of a president was already in the air.
Unsurprisingly, analogies to the current situation are emphasized, however subtly, throughout Wineapple’s book
The highly unlikeable President Johnson was impeached … by men who could no longer stand his arrogance and bigotryContinue reading... Read more »
How a year spent in the Quantocks and a clash of personalities produced some world famous poems
William Hazlitt recorded many peculiarities of his teenage idol Samuel Taylor Coleridge, among which was the habit of walking zig-zag fashion in front of his companion, “unable to keep on in a straight line” while endlessly, brilliantly, talking. Unlike William Wordsworth, Coleridge was said to prefer composing his verses while on uneven ground, “or breaking through the straggling branches of a copse-wood”, terrain he considered more likely than a smooth, uninterrupted surface to foster the making of poetry.
Such descriptions might prompt scepticism, and not only because Hazlitt was writing many years after his first meeting with Coleridge. They seem too conveniently to display, with the benefit of hindsight, what were soon to become glaringly obvious fault lines in temperament between Coleridge and Wordsworth; between a mind that was capriciously rangy, self-destructive, ill disciplined and a mind that was determined, judicious, self-possessed. “The style of Coleridge and myself,” as Wordsworth told a friend, “would not assimilate.” They certainly made an odd-looking pair: the gaunt, intensely purposeful Wordsworth quaintly kitted out in stripy pantaloons, and Coleridge, inclined to flab and prone to distraction, with jutting brows, thick lips and bad teeth.
They made an odd-looking pair: purposeful Wordsworth in stripy pantaloons with Coleridge, prone to distractionContinue reading... Read more »
A mysterious suitcase, secret dragons, a breathtaking acrobatic heist and more
There’s a star-gazing theme to picture books this month. Look Up! (Puffin) by Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola features science-crazed, irrepressible chatterbox Rocket, who is determined to get her whole town out watching a meteor shower – to the annoyance of her big brother, who would rather stay glued to his phone. Energetic and with a wry, sweet take on family dynamics, it will alert readers to the thrilling mysteries of the night skies.
Astro Girl (Otter-Barry) by Ken Wilson-Max stars Astrid, another little girl intent on discovering the secrets of space, who enjoys acting out the challenges of zero gravity with Papa while Mama is away. When Astrid welcomes her back, the twist in the tale reveals that Mama might be an expert on space herself. A delightful combination of imaginative play and inspiring role model from a much-loved author-illustrator.Continue reading... Read more »
Charlie Redmond and Maurice Hearne are Cork drug dealers, former big-time suppliers and users. Now into their 50s, their black money is squandered; they have done and could still do terrible things. “The years are rolling out like tide now. There is old weather on their faces, on the hard lines of their jaws, on their chaotic mouths. But they retain – just about – a rakish air.”
It’s October 2018, and Charlie and Maurice find themselves keeping vigil at the Algeciras ferry terminal in southern Spain, where the night boats to Tangier depart and dock. This place has the clear contours of purgatory, perhaps one that Charlie and Maurice deserve. It is a Hades crossing point, a portal to dread.
Kevin Barry is a clairvoyant narrator of the male psyche and a consistent lyrical visionary
Related: My hero: John Lennon by Kevin BarryContinue reading... Read more »
A former soldier captures the brute ugliness of conflict, but the English translation feels overcooked
The Bosnian author and poet Faruk Šehić is best known for his first novel, Quiet Flows the Una, which won the 2013 EU prize for literature. Originally published in 2004 but only now available in English, Under Pressure is a collection of short stories inspired by his time as a combatant in the Bosnian war of the 1990s. They tell of towns devastated by aerial bombing, of streets and rivers littered with corpses. A dead soldier has had his eyes pecked out by birds: “His eyelashes looked monstrous, trimming two empty eye sockets like sunflower petals bordering the pistil.” One war-weary narrator pours scorn on nationalist songs that urge people to “be part of a stained glass window where the dominant colour is that of human mince”.
The prose is lively but the narrative voice, with its nod to Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller, feels secondhandContinue reading... Read more »
The novelist on why The Lord of the Rings is overrated and why he thinks Cosmos by Carl Sagan is ‘lovely’
The book I am currently reading
The Heavens by Sandra Newman. She matches rich, pin-sharp, sometimes dandyish, sometimes economic prose with a wild imagination. This one is rich with time travel, literary allusion and authorial risks that largely pay off. I am also reading Figuring by Maria Popova, which is equally ambitious and brilliant; a mine of historical and other information.
The book that changed my life
Reading wasn’t perceived to be cool by my fellow males at school, so The Outsiders by SE Hinton was comforting to read as a book about a gang of cool, tough teenagers who also dug poetry. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh was another big one. It said a novel can be anything you want it to be. It can appeal to many people without compromising a thing.
I couldn't finish Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. It’s so long and arduous. Also, leave that whale aloneContinue reading... Read more »