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An inviting biography of J.M.W. Turner

An inviting biography of J.M.W. Turner

Our pick of the best new books, including Jonathan Safran Foer’s unflinching new novel

Our pick of the best new books, including Jonathan Safran Foer’s unflinching new novel

August/September 2016

THE CALL TO FIGHT

Ever since Jonathan Safran Foer arrived on the literary scene in 2002 at just 25, he has divided opinion. His debut, the multi-prize-winning Holocaust novel, “Everything is Illuminated”, took the reader back in history to the Ukraine of his grandfather, while his second, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, explored the fragility of memory by focusing on New York after 9/11 and the fire-bombing of Dresden during the second world war. Both books used a livewire, modernist style which enchanted some critics and irritated others; both became bestsellers.

Here I Am, an epic of family and identity, favours a more realistic mode. After an earthquake in the Middle East leaves Israel vulnerable to attack, the geological becomes political. When the country makes an international call for Jewish men to return home and enlist, Jacob Bloch, a father-of-three living in Washington, DC, faces a tough decision. The title comes from the book of Genesis: when God calls Abraham to order him to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham replies, “Here I am.” Safran Foer’s third novel is here, and it offers an unflinching, tender appraisal of cultural displacement in an uncertain age. ~ REBECCA SWIRSKY

FREEDOM RIDE

In The Underground Railroad, his sixth novel, MacArthur “genius” fellow Colson Whitehead transforms the network of secret rendezvous, stakeouts and safe houses that were used to help slaves escape the American South in the 19th century into a physical underground railway, built by dedicated workers and manned by trusted friends.

His heroine, Cora, is an orphaned slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life there is hellish and dangerous, especially for women. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, proposes escape, Cora, remembering that her mother ran away before her, barely hesitates before deciding to join him.

They reach South Carolina where they both find work in a city, only to have to flee again when they discover a terrible municipal scheme to deal with black city-dwellers. Pursued by the dreadful Ridgeway, who failed to catch Cora’s mother and who bears Cora a particular grudge, the pair are forced to try and run away again. In rich, poetic language, Whitehead paints a world of special terror for black people in the pre-civil-war era and, in Cora, he conjures up a heroine whose courage, kindness and humanity cannot be deflected. ~ Fiammetta Rocco

MAN, OH MAN

In “Sapiens”, his swashbuckling bestseller from 2014, Yuval Noah Harari looked at the history of humanity. In Homo Deus the Israeli historian turns to what is increasingly his favourite subject – our future. War, famine and plague are no longer our main threats. Technology has won out, and human suffering from now on will be down to our own failure. But that is not to say our troubles are behind us: the very technologies that delivered us from ancient dangers have spawned new ones, more alien and more frightening.

From now on the three principal challenges for humanity will be achieving immortality, pursuing happiness and attaining divinity. Divinity, that is, in the sense of fine control over the human genome, brain-computer interfaces, nano-robots and artificial intelligence. As we pursue health, happiness and power with these tools, we will gradually change ourselves until we are no longer quite what we were before. At that point, Homo sapiens will be no more: Homo deus will reign. ~ TOM GRAHAM

BRUSH OF HEAVEN

England’s most famous artist was the son of a hairdresser, born in 1775 amid the urban swirl of Covent Garden in London. In The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner Franny Moyle tells the compelling story of a self-taught prodigy (he exhibited at the Royal Academy aged 15), a restless painter who always sought new forms of expression in watercolour and oils.

No one painted turbulent seas or mountain scenery more skilfully. There were striking historical subjects and even some erotica, drawn apparently from personal experience. He belonged to no school of painting; his luminous late work especially was absorbed by colour, and by the effects of light, as in “The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons” (1834 - detail above).

Moyle’s Turner was a canny figure who had a succession of rich patrons among aristocrats and businessmen. He died a wealthy man. She is frank about his loves (two lovers, some children, no wife), entertaining about his extensive travels in Britain (Margate was a favourite hiding place) and staggered by his arduous journey over the Alps on foot and by donkey to Italy. There he painted Venice in a romantic haze of colour. Moyle is an unpretentious art historian, and she has written an inviting and easily digested biography of the best of British painters. ~ STEPHEN FAY

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