Bloomsbury

The participation of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, from 1936 to 1939, was a great but overwhelmingly tragic adventure. According to Geoffrey Cox, an enthusiastic young journalist from New Zealand in Madrid at the time, it was ‘the most truly international army the world has seen since the Crusades’. Romance, bravery, and sacrifice were combined with bastardry, suffering, and humiliation, marred by often lazy and amateurish tactics, including the fatal notion that military discipline was a form of ‘class oppression’. Giles Tremlett’s richly documented new account overflows with exhilaration and alcohol, along with sabotage, treachery, and utter disorganisation. Perhaps it was the very failure of this romantic intervention that has encouraged, over the decades, a rose-tinted vision: a history, in effect, written by the losers.

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The concept of ‘trespass’ first entered English law records in the thirteenth century. That this appearance fell between the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066 and the reformation of the English church by Henry VIII in 1534 is no accident. As Nick Hayes shows in The Book of Trespass, the process by which the English commons were enclosed by the statutes of the wealthy landowning class was slow but resolute; and it had everything to do with, on the one hand, the arrival of Norman delineations of property and, on the other, the disbanding of the monasteries that had worked in a bartering symbiosis with the people of the common landscapes of England.

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To start with the broadest of generalisations, artists’ biographies can be divided into three types: those that concentrate on the work; those that take the life as their focus; and the ‘life and times’ volumes that attempt to place the artist in her social and political context.

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This is a strange time to be reading a book about risk, especially one in which the risk of a pandemic is a central concern. Many of us have been worrying about, and attempting to manage, risks every time we have left the house. One of the lessons of this experience has been just how bad we are at thinking about risk. In particular, we struggle to reckon with small risks that may have disastrous outcomes.

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The Tyranny of Merit by Michael J. Sandel & Philanthropy by Paul Vallely

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December 2020, no. 427

Save the Children in Stockholm wanted to highlight the unfair distribution of global wealth, so it invented an online game called The Lottery of Life. This invited Swedes to a website to spin the wheel of chance. If you were born again tomorrow, where would you appear?

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The China Journals: Ideology and intrigue in the 1960s by Hugh Trevor-Roper, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines

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November 2020, no. 426

When the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) invited Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor of History at the University of Oxford, to visit China in 1965, he jumped at the chance. It was a decision that all parties concerned came to regret. The eminent historian had a terrible time in China, ‘that land of bigots and parrots’. He didn’t meet the right people. He found no intellectual equals. The interpreters and guides assigned to the group weren’t up to the job. He nicknamed them Cement-head, Duckbottom, Smooth-face, and the Presbyterian.

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It is day one hundred and seventeen of the official ‘Shelter in Place’ order in Berkeley, California, when I finish Susanna Clarke’s surreal, heartbreaking novel Piranesi, having rationed the final pages over several days.

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In year four of their respective terms, George W. Bush and Barack Obama enjoyed a mixed press. Some accounts lauded them, others were sceptical. The assessments were uniformly partisan. The titles of contemporary books reflected how Republicans backed Bush (he was ‘The Right Man’), Democrats Obama (for successfully ‘Bending History’). Donald Trump, on the other hand, stands as one of the most vilified presidents in American history, from all points of the spectrum. Indeed, these books together make the case that the forty-fifth president is a man so psychologically flawed he poses a clear and present danger to American democracy.

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Richard Ford, born in 1944, is a North American novelist, short story writer, and anthologist of considerable distinction. His recurring character Frank Bascombe – The Sportswriter (1986), Independence Day (1995), The Lay of the Land (2006), Let Me Be Frank with You (2014) – is a commanding figure of American letters to rank with John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, each a protagonist used by his creator over several novels as a litmus test of his contemporaries and their not always united states.

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J.M. Coetzee by Anthony Uhlmann & A Book of Friends edited by Dorothy Driver

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August 2020, no. 423

Though it is his second country of citizenship, Australia might be classified as J.M. Coetzee’s fourth country of residence. He was born in South Africa and served as an academic at the University of Cape Town from 1972 to 2000; he lived in England between 1962 and 1965, where he studied for an MA thesis on Ford Madox Ford and worked as a computer programmer; and he then spent seven years in the United States, taking his doctorate at the University of Texas and being subsequently appointed a professor at the State University of New York. Since his move from Cape Town to Adelaide in 2002, Coetzee’s global literary reputation has risen significantly, helped in large part by the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.

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