The Stranger's Child, By Alan Hollinghurst
Zero Degrees of Empathy, By Simon Baron-Cohen
Empire, By Jeremy Paxman
Dear Zarl, By Zarghuna Kargar
The Immortal Dinner, By Penelope Hughes-Hallett

Paperback reviews of the week

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

Picador £8.99

*****

Cecil Valance is a poet, aristocrat and Cambridge undergraduate, whom we meet in 1913 when he visits his friend and clandestine lover George Sawle at his home, Two Acres. Cecil also finds time for a brief flirtation with George's younger sister, Daphne, and writes a poem for her autograph album which becomes one of his most famous works - posthumously, as he is killed in the Great War. The first 105 pages are a preternaturally vivid and deliciously readable evocation of Edwardian Britain, which might have been written by Forster or Ford Madox Ford, and the excerpts of Cecil's poetry are a pitch-perfect parody of the early 20th-century English pastoral genre of verse, written in jingling tetrameters - the titles, alone, "Two Acres", "Soldiers Dreaming" and "The Old Companions" suggest a kind of sub Rupert Brooke. The next section is an equally vivid evocation of Britain in the 1920s; and the next section, Britain in the 1960s; and so on, up to 2008, and in each era the effects of Cecil's life and death on the survivors change, as the truth becomes overlaid by mythology. A novel about time, and change, and art, and sex, and death which is also as light as a soufflé. It's clever, subtle, melancholy and amusing at the same time. I know it is a reviewer's cliché, but I did actually miss my stop on the tube while reading this.

 

Zero Degrees of Empathy by Simon Baron-Cohen

Penguin £9.99

****

This short, succinct book persuasively argues the thesis that what we loosely, emotively call "evil" is more precisely a lack of empathy. The thesis is not entirely new (Mary Midgley argued for something similar in her book Wickedness) but Baron-Cohen gives it a solid scientific grounding. He argues that evils like the Holocaust (the most conspicuous example of many such atrocities) are only explicable if we postulate an empathy spectrum, on which one's position is influenced by both genes and environment. He distinguishes between affective and cognitive failures of empathy, as exhibited by psychopaths and autistic subjects respectively. He also draws a positive conclusion: he argues that empathy is an under-used and under-appreciated resource, and that we should research ways of increasing it. Otherwise, conflict and cruelty are certain to persist in human affairs.

 

Empire by Jeremy Paxman

Penguin £8.99

****

Empire begins with the British Empire's disreputable origins in piracy and the slave trade, and takes us through the story of its steady accretion of territory, the crises like the Indian Mutiny (or the First War of Indian Independence, as Indian nationalists call it) and the Boer War, laying bare the peculiar combination of greed, arrogance, sanctimony and religiosity that sustained it, right up to its disintegration after WWII. Paxman writes with gusto and a shrewdly judging eye. This is no apologia for Empire, but a clear-eyed condemnation of it, tinged with a kind of bemused respect for some of the more outlandish Empire-builders: Richard Burton, General Gordon, TE Lawrence. Robert Clive, on the other hand, is shown up as a scoundrel and a brute. It's not huge on analysis, but the storytelling is great.

 

Dear Zari by Zarghuna Kargar

Vintage £8.99

*****

Zarghuna Kargar produced and presented the BBC World Service's Afghan Women's Hour from 2004 to 2010: this book is a selection of some of the true stories of women's lives in Taliban Afghanistan. They are stories to make your blood boil with indignation: women beaten and abused by brutal husbands and poisonous in-laws, persecuted because they didn't bleed on their wedding night, given away to pay debts, forced into marriage from the age of 11, denied legal rights, shut up in dark rooms and forced to weave carpets, imprisoned behind burqas. One woman is disowned by her husband because she loses a leg in a rocket attack. It is a sick, misogynistic society in which the toxic cult of shame means men will murder daughters and sisters rather than bear the disapproval of neighbours. The only bright spot is the courage and stoicism of the women; but there are not many happy endings.

 

The Immortal Dinner by Penelope Hughes-Hallett

Vintage £9.99

****

On 28 December, 1817, the painter Robert Haydon held a dinner party at which the guests included Keats, Wordsworth, Charles Lamb and the explorer Joseph Ritchie. Hughes-Hallett's enjoyable history of this one evening, with its poetry readings, discussion of the merits of Homer, Shakespeare and Milton, debate about art and science, tipsiness, mockery and nonsense, also gives a wider picture of Regency society, with digressions into the acquisition of the Elgin Marbles, the career of Humphrey Davy, the politics of the Royal Academy, and the genesis of Frankenstein. A memorable evening, memorably evoked. I wonder if the drama critic John Reynolds, who was invited but didn't turn up, kicked himself afterwards.

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living