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
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
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.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits