The latest issue of the Spectator is full to bursting with sparkling and varied book reviews. Here are some extracts from those reviews:

Sam Leith reviews two new books (one by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young, the other by Dick Legend) that, to some extent, debunk the Tory legend of Benjamin Disraeli.

‘Disraeli…, as Hurd and Young see it, was … ‘one of the first career politicians’, for better and for worse. For better: he understood the importance of party discipline; it was on his watch that Conservative Central Office came into being to manage elections and water the grass roots, and on his watch that the parliamentary party started to be briefed on the contents of the bills that the government was to bring forward. Also, he was a parliamentary tactician of brilliance.

For worse: he was in it for himself. He wanted to be famous. He was a fantasist — extravagantly reinventing his own background. He was a liar — flatly denying in parliament that he had ever petitioned Peel for a job. He was an egregious flatterer and a shameless sponger. He was a potboiling novelist and an occasional plagiarist. As a young man, he was involved in a disreputable if not outright fraudulent scheme to pump shares in non-existent mines, and there’s even a charge of petty theft to answer (he made off with the chancellor’s robe worn by Pitt). His vanity and ambition, and his oratorical panache, invite comparisons with Boris Johnson (Hurd and Young make the comparison). But he also resembles nothing so much as a 19th-century Jeffrey Archer.’

Victoria Glendinning talks about the special Christmas editions of The Charleston Bulletin, a family run newspaper by Quentin Bell and his aunt, Virginia Woolf.

The Charleston Bulletin was a family newspaper produced between 1923 and 1927 by the teenaged Quentin Bell and his elder brother Julian — who soon dropped out, leading Quentin to recruit his aunt Virginia Woolf. At that time enjoying her most prolific period as a novelist, she collaborated with him on special issues which they called Supplements, for circulation at Christmas among the family and friends whose foibles and mishaps are chronicled in its pages. Professor David Bradshaw in his preface suggests that ‘it may not be ridiculous’ to link the ‘skittish abandon’ of the Supplements with the sense of liberation that Woolf felt in having found her fictional voice and critical recognition.

Quentin did the funny drawings, and mostly Virginia dictated the words to him, though sometimes she wrote them in her own handwriting round the edges and underneath. There is an ample explanatory introduction by Claudia Olk, with dropped-in family snaps. The Supplements are, according to Olk, ‘very likely the last remaining of Virginia Woolf’s unpublished works’. The bottom of the golden barrel has at last been reached.’

Eric Christiansen’s high expectations are met by the penultimate volume of Isaiah Berlin’s letters.

‘Those who met him in this period met an intellectual superstar, a celebrity courted by princes, politicians and plutocrats, thirsting for his company and his approval. Not so many philosophers — but, my! he was a big orange. Many of those taught by him were changed for life.’ 

A.N. Wilson cannot praise Daisy Hildyard’s first novel, Hunters in the Snow, enough.

‘Above all this is a passionate book. One of the things about which it is passionate is the soil of Yorkshire, the farm where her grand-father lived so unhappily with Liv, his wife. The narrator finds out about the past from Jimmy, the grandfather. But it is from Liv that she learns to shoot, to identify species, to watch a cow calve, to appreciate the seasons. These are lyrically, beautifully brought to life. This book is not just a promising first effort by a bright young writer. It is a considerable work of literature.’ 

Clare Mulley reviews Carole Seymour-Jones’ biography of Pearl Witherington, dubbed ‘the real Charlotte Gray’, and how she came to have 2,000 men under her command while trying to be reunited with her fiancé.

‘What makes her story exceptional is that she achieved all this as a woman in the 1940s. When the 52 women who served as special agents in the second world war were recruited, their mobilisation was kept secret for fear of adverse public reaction. Even SOE did not always seem to grasp the reality of the situation for the women they had sent in. When Witherington asked for clothes because her bags had been lost when she parachuted in, she was surprised to receive a parcel containingseveral silk negligées and nightdresses in pink and peach satin’. Sleeping in a dripping tent surrounded by soldiers, she quickly organised some pyjamas instead.’

Lewis Jones has mixed opinions of George Packer’s The Unwinding, the latest addition to the ‘thriving genre of American apocalypse porn’.

‘…his short biographies of celebrities are equally depressing. Oprah Winfrey’s unimaginable self-willed success leaves her worshippers with no excuses. Sam Walton’s Wal-Mart has killed the soul of the small-town heartland. Newt Gingrich ended civil discourse in Washington. Colin Powell had his arm twisted to sell the Iraq war to the UN. When it began, the President declared that he was sleeping like a baby. ‘I’m sleeping like a baby, too,’ said Powell. ‘Every two hours, I wake up screaming. 

The Unwinding is a far from perfect book, but it is an honest and interesting one, and exhilarating as well as depressing, and not entirely hopeless. ‘There have been unwindings every generation or two,’ writes Packer. ‘Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.’

Subscribers can read the other reviews (including Honor Clark on the beauty of seaweed and Mark Mason on the beauty of cricket) by following this link to the books pages.

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Tags: Books, The Spectator