The week in books

December 11, 2008

Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music by John Lucas, emeritus professor of English, Nottingham Trent University. Boydell Press, £25.00, ISBN 9781843834021

"The Beecham story is not new, but so much until now has been apocryphal, skewed by the conductor's highly selective 1944 autobiography, that it was time that someone separated fact from fiction ... Lucas does so with the sort of balanced judgments and care for detail that bring fresh perspective. He also explains the development of musical life in a country that, until Beecham appeared on the London scene in the early 1900s, was not exactly noted for musical initiative."

Andrew Clark, Financial Times

Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace by Avi Shlaim, professor of international relations, University of Oxford Penguin, £12.99, ISBN 9780141017280

"Avi Shlaim's openly partisan portrait reveals a thoughtful man whose efforts to secure peace in the Middle East were constantly thwarted by American ignorance and Israeli duplicity ... The survival of the Hashemite dynasty was the king's abiding obsession, says Shlaim, but for all Hussein's pragmatism it should not be forgotten that he was an absolute monarch, firing prime ministers at will and cancelling elections."

Ian Pindar, The Guardian

At Large and at Small: Confessions of a Literary Hedonist by Anne Fadiman, adjunct professor of English and Francis writer in residence, Yale University Penguin, £8.99, ISBN 9781846140433

"If you believe that the 'familiar essay' as practised by Charles Lamb went out of style when Victoria was a lass, prepare to be wittily reproached. Anne Fadiman, the New York writer and bibliophile who somehow kept an old-world banter and courtesy alive in Manhattan, revives a genre of essay that wears its learning ultra-light. From coffee and its delights and the bliss of ice-cream to the night-owl habits shared only by her daughter's hamster ('the other nocturnal mammal in the family'), Fadiman could charm the early birds - such as her husband - from the trees. Does she OD on whimsy? Possibly - but, like cream on espresso, a hit lies under the froth."

Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady by David Rooney, curator of timekeeping, Royal Observatory, Greenwich. National Maritime Museum Press, £12.99, ISBN 9780948065972

"This book explains ... how the crimes of Jack the Ripper affected Ruth Belville's walk round the East End, and how, one Thursday afternoon in February 1894, on a day when Ruth took tea with the Greenwich timekeepers, a French anarchist blew his hand off and died of internal injuries after carrying a bomb, perhaps destined for the Observatory ... Like a telescope from the Observatory, (the book's) focus is fine but its range is wide. Rooney has a gift for making difficult concepts easily graspable, and a riveting way of setting scenes, describing characters and relating anecdotes. The book is not a flashy object, with its black-and-white photos and small type, but this richly informative tale, in the tradition of Longitude, is worth finding time for."

Nicolette Jones, The Telegraph.

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