Midnight in Nowheresville: 24hrs in a motorway service station

"For the skeleton staff of chefs, baristas and shop assistants, the night shift is for coulda-shoulda-woulda reveries: reminiscences about bad breaks, wrong turns and temporary exigencies that somehow became permanent"

The agony of hope: an essay on Barack Obama

"From the ruins of Syria to the barricades in Congress and America’s oldest wounds, sometimes nothing has been the best he could do. Sometimes it was all he could do."

Down in the valley, up on the ridge: the mystery of the Melungeons

"The two big questions about them encapsulate their ambiguous status—on the boundaries of races and territories, and between suffering and hope, imagination and fact. Where did the Melungeons come from? And do they still exist?"

The Odessaphiles: On the literary museum in Odessa (from Intelligent Life)

"Embracing the transients and flâneurs, this is, in effect, a museum of Russian literature. And, being Russian, it becomes a museum of censorship and repression as well as art: of genius and bravery, blood and lies."

That dear old oak in Georgia: Murder and memory

"The case bears witness to the tenacity of the past-at once inescapable and intractable-and asks whether memory always illuminates the present, or rather sometimes poisons it."

Fournier Street: One roof, many histories

"Like the Huguenots and Jews before them, the Bangladeshis have been lambasted for stealing jobs, poor hygiene, monopolising housing and spongeing from the state."

The art of football

"'It would have been so much more beautiful had it gone in'. He may be the greatest football artist of all time, but, about this, Pelé is wrong. The kink in the masterpiece is what makes it human."

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A Winter's Tale: Snow in Moscow

"The winter and the snow reveal hidden aspects of modern Russia: the superpower status it still retains among its neighbours; the desperation that lurks beneath the oil-fuelled glitz; the brutality, lawlessness and all-permeating corruption."

Democracy à la russe

"'Are you going to beat us all?', an old woman asked an officer in battle gear, as protesters were funnelled away from tourists on NevskyProspekt. Shortly afterwards they did."

The Tycoon and the President: the Khodorkovsky case

"Mikhail Khodorkovsky made more money more quickly than almost anyone in history. Then—somehow—he incurred Mr Putin's wrath."

Kama Sutra and Feral Cats: On Russian airports

"The bags circulate on a terrifying metal device apparently borrowed from a medieval torture chamber...The arrivals hall still has a faint abattoir feel...Last year a family of bears wandered onto the runway."

The warlord and the spook: Putin, Russia and Chechnya

"Government in both rests on power rather than the law, and has oppressed too many while improving the lot of most."

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Moses in the Ozarks: the parable of indentured Italians in the South

"Mrs Borgognoni still recalls the songs she learned, aged six, picking cotton beside her grandmother. Her life had been hard, but, says her granddaughter, 'when she was happy she would lift her skirt and dance the saltarello'."

Race, romance and rocking chairs: a cultural history of the American front porch

"Like a negligée, it seems alluringly to lay bare a home, a family, its secrets, but also withholds them, the life that is out of sight somehow more opaque by being half-revealed."

A canoe trip on the Mississippi

"Nowhere else did history feel as close as on the lonely river, as if the actors in America’s primal dramas were near enough to wave to, hazily visible across the water like de Soto’s natives."

Love the sinner: among the Southern Baptists

"The tale of Eric Hankins and the First Baptist Church is a sad story with a happy ending, and vice versa."

Moveable feasts: halal meat in Alabama

"The voice at the other end of the line wanted a lamb. Might Frank Randle have an intact male animal that he was willing to sell?"

Billy the kid: crime and punishment interrupted

"You are who people know you to be,” Bill figures. “Maybe not on paper, but in here,” he says, gesturing to his dicky heart through his prison smock."

The song that predicted Donald Trump's victory

“Let me hear you say Trump, yeah!” he exhorted the delegates, as the Trumps evinced the pursed bafflement to be expected of New York plutocrats exposed to a cavorting country rocker."

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On the Olympics: Glory and hope

"Like people going sheepishly back to work after a boisterous office party, perhaps most Britons will soon eschew the rewards of pride for the safer pleasures of self-deprecation, and refrain from talking to strangers, except about the rain. But so what?"

The names of London

"Londongrad was a metropolis of lunatic house prices and multiplying restaurants, ornamented by rich foreigners and serviced by poor ones."

Cameron's Ransom: the Tories and Europe

"If this shoddy, shaming alliance is the price he was obliged to pay his party for the changes needed to make it seem modern and compassionate, what sort of party is it that Mr Cameron leads? What else will its members demand, and what else—when his popularity and authority wane—will he be obliged to give them, after he becomes prime minister?"

Friendship in the Google age (from the Evening Standard)

"The past is back: the ancient, pre-internet history we never expected to see again, miraculously recoverable, peopled by the resurrected dead."

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A whole damn city crying: Bruce Springsteen's memoir

"Bruce Springsteen’s finest songs transmute the particular into the eternal. The more tightly local their focus—those boys from the casino dancing with their shirts open in “Sandy”, that Tilt-a-Whirl down on the south beach drag—the more universal they magically become."

W.G. Sebald: Notes on a Voice (from Intelligent Life)

"This is a style that tries to unbury the dead through syntax."

Why western authors are in love with Mother Russia (from the Observer)

"Russia has for centuries been a distorting, fairground mirror for the west. It is both like and unlike the tamer nations..."

Book of a lifetime: Gogol's Overcoat (from the Independent)

"He exemplifies the magical Russian talent for writing in different registers, literal and symbolic, at the same time."

My hero: Isaac Babel (from the Guardian)

"As much as any writer I know, Babel transmuted journalism into art."

Goodbye to all that: On Ian Jack's journalism

"This is not a political book; it is elegiac rather than nostalgic. Mr Jack's real interests are time and memory."

Stalin's children: on The Whisperers

"There are incredible reunions in this book, achieved through impossible stamina and ingenuity. But there are also homecomings as terrible in their way as exile."

I witness: Andrei Kurkov's diaries

"Increasingly this carnage crowds out the author's personal life, though there is a nice vignette in which his daughter asks for extra pocket money, citing the spiralling inflation."

Red Notice by Bill Browder (from the Spectator)

"This, after all, is a country of lurid metamorphoses, in which liberals turn into ultranationalists, KGB men become oil barons, murderers enter parliament, and, in Browder’s case, a fellow-travelling financier morphed into an implacable human rights activist."

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Correspondent's diaries

A Blood-Red Fairy Tale: Leaving Russia

"Silver birch trees in the winter sunlight. Long evenings of effusive toasting. The camaraderie of overnight train rides."

The road to Morocco

"Whatever else it is, a holiday like ours, I realise, is also a sort of safari of pain…So much cleaned-up blood and forgotten loss."

Country pleasures: Russia in winter

"Occasionally the angry mêlée parts, like the seas of Egypt, for the lord of the Russian highway: the migalka, a flashing blue car light that is supposedly reserved for top officials, but which, like most other privileges, has long been available on the open market."

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