Sunday 22 April 2012
Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas, By Matthew Hollis
Edward Thomas was one of the great First World War poets. Though he was killed at the front in 1917, his time in the trenches was brief, and unlike his contemporaries Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, his work does not dwell on the horrors of conflict itself. Instead, it evokes the position of those at home and depicts an England subtly, troublingly altered by the nightmares of Ypres and the Somme. Between the lines of “Adlestrop”, his mysterious poem about a deserted railway platform shimmering in midsummer heat, one detects a hint of menace.
This biography focuses on Thomas's later years, exploring his belated rejection of prose, his fraught marriage, and his friendship with the American poet Robert Frost, with whom he bonded over languorous walks through the Gloucestershire countryside. The two men sought to create a new type of verse, a form that would incorporate the rhythmic cadences of speech. Thomas's determination to enlist would separate them in the end, but not before each had left an indelible mark on the other's life and art.
Thomas, who was a prolific reviewer, once commented that “unless a man write with his whole nature concentrated on his subject he is unlikely to take hold of another man”. Hollis has heeded that wisdom; his critically astute and immensely readable book buttonholes the reader and holds fast until the final, moving pages, as we follow Thomas into what he called “the roar and hiss ... the mighty motion of the abyss”.
Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements
Hugh Aldersey-Williams's fascinating book takes the various elements of the periodic table and examines their place in society and culture, from the Conquistadors' quest for gold in South America to the use of mercury in the “liquid mirror” of Jean Cocteau's film Orphée; from the atmosphere of “urban malaise” conjured by sulphur street lamps to the “careless glamour” suggested by Las Vegas's blinking neon.
Dmitri Mendeleev's original table first appeared in a textbook, and this entertaining, erudite and informative study has similar potential; it would certainly liven up chemistry lessons. Sadly, I fear our patrician Education Secretary would nix any plan to add it to the syllabus – Periodic Tales is, after all, far too much fun for school.
I Shall Not Hate, By Izzeldin Abuelaish
On 16 January 2009, shortly after his wife died of leukaemia, the Palestinian doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish lost his three eldest daughters and his niece in an Israeli tank attack on his home.
His memoir, which culminates with an account of that tragic day, recounts a life spent largely in the Gaza Strip, among a people “disenfranchised, dismissed, marginalised and suffering”. But, despite its harrowing content, it is intended as a message of hope. Dr Abuelaish has endured hardship without ever turning to violence or hate; he advocates peaceful coexistence and treats patients on both sides of the conflict, retaining a faith in humanity despite “a situation that seems insurmountable”. This extraordinary, humbling book is a testament to his great courage and moral stature.
Proof of Life, By Karen Campbell
In this, the latest – and perhaps the last – in Karen Campbell's excellent police procedural series, Glaswegian detective Anna Cameron is preparing to settle down with her new family. But as she takes on one final case, a spectre from her past returns to haunt her.
The action takes place against a backdrop of civil unrest, as Scotland resists an Orwellian ID card scheme, and there are vivid (and timely) descriptions of harried riot police and kettled protesters. But it is the sensitive and occasionally comic depiction of Anna – surely one of the most fully realised characters in modern crime fiction – that really makes this novel work. Heavily pregnant, she trundles around like Frances McDormand in Fargo: bloated, wisecracking, and indomitable.
Lyrics Alley, By Leila Aboulela
In 1950s Khartoum, Mahmoud, head of a burgeoning cotton empire, is looking forward to Sudan's prospective independence. But he is devastated when Nur, his sensitive and brilliant son, is left paralysed by a swimming accident.
Leila Aboulela's delightful novel explores the relationship between the personal and the political in a time of upheaval. Though there is a tendency to didactically draw the contrasts between tradition and modernity – Mahmoud is caught in the crossfire between his two wives, one dowdy and reactionary, one glamorous and progressive – it is a delicately observed tale that captures what Nur calls “the very air and texture of the Sudan”.
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