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Before the clouds came in

Thu, 10/08/2015 - 15:46

Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story. By David Maraniss. Simon & Schuster; 464 pages; $32.50.

EMINEM steps out of a sedan and into Detroit’s spectacular Fox Theatre, with its Corinthian columns and recumbent lions. He walks down the aisle towards a black gospel choir onstage, robed in red and black, their voices rising. The Detroit-based rapper turns around, defiantly pointing at the camera. “This is the Motor City. This is what we do,” he says.

David Maraniss choked up when he saw this two-minute Chrysler advertisement during the Super Bowl, the annual football extravaganza, with its images of smokestacks, ice skaters and Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals. Suddenly he realised how much he still cared for his birthplace, where he spent the first six and a half years of his life. So much so that he decided to write his 12th book about the city, when it was at the peak of its economic, political and cultural power. He picked the early 1960s, from the autumn of 1962 to the spring of 1964.

At the time Detroit was the economic engine of America. In January 1963 Life ...

A new take on Greek tragedy

Thu, 10/08/2015 - 15:46

A mighty Medea

REVERENCE is a dirty word at the Almeida Theatre in Islington, north London. Rupert Goold, the artistic director, and Robert Icke, his associate, are resolved to take dusty, distant cultural artefacts of drama and shake them hard, so that they will entertain modern audiences, especially those with no previous knowledge of the plays. Mr Icke holds that to save the classics from withering, a director must be willing even to reinterpret the original author’s intentions.

This summer Messrs Goold and Icke have directed freshly translated versions of the oldest of all “dusty theatrical artefacts”: the ancient Greek tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides. These versions ruthlessly rewrite texts and alter plots. In Euripides’s “Medea”, the last of the season of three plays, which opened on October 1st directed by Mr Goold, Medea murders her two children as revenge on her unfaithful husband. Not at the Almeida: in this version, her sons die—or perhaps do not—by eating sleeping pills.

Mr Icke’s version of “Oresteia” by Aeschylus is described as “a new adaptation”, but classics scholars insist that it is...

Juggling mums and halo dads

Thu, 10/08/2015 - 15:46

Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family. By Anne-Marie Slaughter. Random House; 352 pages; $28. Oneworld; 352 pages; £16.99.

ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER is a respected American foreign-policy expert. A prominent “liberal hawk” advocating the protection of human rights around the world, she has served as the policy-planning director for the State Department and, before that, as the dean of Princeton University’s prestigious Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. But Ms Slaughter only became a near-household name when she waded into America’s “mummy wars”, the fight over how women can both raise healthy families and lead high-powered careers.

In 2010 Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, began giving speeches on women in the workplace. She encouraged her audiences to remain committed to their jobs, and offered advice about self-confidence and cultivating senior “sponsors”. The talks earned her broad acclaim, and their message was the core of her bestselling book, “Lean In”.

In July 2012, however, Ms Slaughter took a meat cleaver to Ms Sandberg’s insinuation that anyone with...

Ideas man

Thu, 10/01/2015 - 15:45

Kissinger: The Idealist, 1923-1968. By Niall Ferguson. Penguin Press; 1008 pages; $39.95. Allen Lane; £35.

NOBODY divides opinion like Henry Kissinger. As national security adviser and then secretary of state, under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Mr Kissinger was both a media superstar and disowned by his former colleagues from Harvard. In 1973 he won the Nobel peace prize; yet critics like Christopher Hitchens insisted he deserved to stand trial for crimes against humanity. Mr Kissinger has been lionised as America’s supreme 20th-century diplomat. However, after he left office in 1977 at the age of just 53, no president ever again trusted him with a senior job.

Into this contested ground strides Niall Ferguson, with the first, magisterial instalment of a two-volume biography. Mr Ferguson, a British historian also at Harvard, has in the past sometimes produced work that is rushed and uneven. Not here. Like Mr Kissinger or loathe him, this is a work of engrossing scholarship.

Three conclusions lie at the heart of Mr Ferguson’s analysis. The first, and the bravest, is that the period before Mr...

Machines for thinking

Thu, 10/01/2015 - 15:45

Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots. By John Markoff. Ecco; 400 pages; $26.99.

The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World. By Pedro Domingos. Basic Books; 352 pages; $29.99. Allen Lane; £20.

Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. By Jerry Kaplan. Yale University Press; 256 pages; $35, £20.

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI) is quietly everywhere, powering Google’s search engine, Amazon’s recommendations and Facebook’s facial recognition. It is how post offices decipher handwriting and banks read cheques. But several books in recent years have spewed fire and brimstone, claiming that algorithms are poised to obliterate white-collar knowledge-work in the 21st century, just as automation displaced blue-collar manufacturing work in the 20th. Some people go further, arguing that artificial intelligence threatens the human race. Elon Musk, an American entrepreneur, says that developing the technology is “summoning the...

Temple of delight

Thu, 10/01/2015 - 15:45

“See anything you like?”

ON THE night of February 7th 1934, the heart of the avant-garde in America could be found in Hartford, Connecticut, a midsized city better known as the headquarters of insurance giants than as a hotbed of cultural innovation. What caused the glitterati to make the more-than-100-mile trek north from New York city—some by limousine, others by private railway car, this in the depths of the Great Depression—was the world premiere of “Four Saints in Three Acts”, an opera with music by Virgil Thomson, libretto by Gertrude Stein, and featuring (daringly for the times) an all-black cast. Those in attendance included such social luminaries as Clare Booth and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and members of the cultural elite such as Buckminster Fuller and Alexander Calder.

The venue was the Wadsworth Atheneum, where a just-completed $33m renovation has refocused interest on a venerable institution. Founded in 1842, the Wadsworth is America’s oldest continually operating museum. In the 1930s, its pioneering director A. Everett “Chick” Austin junior made it showcase for cutting-edge art. While waiting for the opera...

Tiger ancestors

Thu, 10/01/2015 - 15:45

The Making of Asian America: A History. By Erika Lee. Simon & Schuster; 528 pages; $29.95, £19.77.

IN NOVEMBER 1834, hundreds of New Yorkers paid 50 cents to look at Afong Moy. Moy, the first Chinese woman to arrive in America, was imported by Nathaniel and Frederick Carne, who hoped that her presence would make the shawls, backgammon boards, fans and other Chinese goods that the brothers were selling seem even more alluring. There she sat, her feet bound and her skin pale, from 10am to 2pm and then again from 5pm to 9pm, day after day, the performance occasionally enlivened when the living mannequin picked up chopsticks or spoke Chinese. Whether this marketing ploy was a success was not recorded; neither was Ms Moy’s later fate. After she was taken off display she toured the east coast, met Andrew Jackson in the White House and then vanished into obscurity.

Her tale is both unusual and, in some ways, typical of the story of early Asian America. Compared with immigration from Europe and forced migration from Africa, Asian migration to America began relatively late, after people from...

The making of a Fussballwunder

Thu, 10/01/2015 - 15:45

Nothing random about it

Das Reboot. By Raphael Honigstein. PublicAffairs; 288 pages; $17.99. Yellow Jersey; £18.99.

ALMOST half of the goals scored in football are virtually random, reckons Martin Lames of the Technical University of Munich. And football’s best loved narratives—the come-from-behind win, the giant-killing—are those that upset expectations. But Raphael Honigstein’s new book “Das Reboot” focuses on the bits of the game that are not random, and how a well prepared team faces anything but a coin-flip.

After a long period as a footballing superpower, the German side became complacent. The nadir was the European Championships in 2000, when itfailed to win a game, even losing to England in a match Mr Honigstein describes as “an all-round embarrassment of footballing poverty”. 14 years later, Germany would humiliate Brazil, the World Cup hosts, 7-1 before defeating Argentina to take home the trophy.

Mr Honigstein’s tale is of unsung innovators as well as national heroes. Dietrich Weise and Ulf Schott, two former players turned officials at the national football...

Master of surprises

Thu, 09/24/2015 - 15:47

Under our noses all along

IN 1971 the 90-year-old Pablo Picasso described a catalogue of his sculpture as the chronicle of “an unknown civilisation”. The mystery was mostly of his own making. Trained as a painter, he turned to sculpture from an inner compulsion, using the medium to explore the deeper reaches of his psyche, but keeping the results largely hidden from public view.

These works were usually improvisational, radically experimental and endowed by their creator with an almost fetishistic power. Hence his refusal to lend any of his sculptures to “Picasso: A 75th Anniversary Exhibition” that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York put on in 1957. He hated to part, even temporarily, with these totems of his own devising. As recently as 2000, a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris still maintained that Picasso’s sculptures were the “best kept secret of the 20th century.”

Whereas the public remained more-or-less unaware of Picasso’s sculptural achievement, artists had long been in on the secret. When Umberto Boccioni first saw Picasso’s faceted Cubist “Head of a Woman” (1909)—one of the...

Chasing perfection

Thu, 09/24/2015 - 15:47

Fifty shades of clay

The White Road. By Edmund de Waal. Chatto & Windus; 416 pages; £20. To be published in America by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in November; $27.

AT THE very end of the 13th century Marco Polo returned from Cathay, the old name for China. His “iridescent” tales (the adjective is Edmund de Waal’s) revealed a world of wonders, treasures unimagined in the West. In a city called “Tinju”, Polo wrote, “they make bowls of porcelain, large and small, of incomparable beauty. They are made nowhere else except in this city, and from here they are exported all over the world. In the city itself they are so plentiful and cheap that for a Venetian groat you might buy three bowls of such beauty that nothing lovelier could be imagined...”

All his life Mr de Waal has been just as fascinated by the strength and fragility of porcelain as the old Venetian adventurer ever was. He has built his artistic life from it, and now he has followed its history and his own evolution as an artist along “the white road”, calling the journey “a pilgrimage of sorts”. This allusive,...

Inside account

Thu, 09/24/2015 - 15:47

The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. By William McCants. St. Martin’s Press; 256 pages; $26.99.

MOST people saw the Arab spring as a failed democratic revolution. Jihadists viewed the various uprisings very differently. For them, the events in 2011-12 and their turbulent aftermath heralded the advent of the Mahdi, the Muslim messiah, and the great battles that would accompany the End of Days, the Islamic equivalent of Armageddon. They sensed a double opportunity. Hastening the apocalypse was a sharp spur to action and recruitment; the Arab spring had helpfully created power vacuums that they could rush to fill.

These two themes—apocalypse and jihad—come together in William McCants’s fascinating study of Islamic State (IS). Half a dozen recent books have recounted how the group emerged in Iraq in 2006, established itself in Syria in 2011 and swept back into Iraq last year. Mr McCants is an Islamic specialist at Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank, and co-editor of a respected website ( His...

Unclouded vision

Thu, 09/24/2015 - 15:47

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. By Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner. Crown; 352 pages; $28. Random House; £14.99.

WEAPONS of mass destruction will be found in Iraq. It will rain tomorrow. Jeremy Corbyn cannot possibly become leader of the Labour Party. The Japanese rugby team will never beat South Africa. Human beings cannot resist trying to scry the future. If soothsaying is not the oldest profession, it is certainly one of them.

The Chinese had the I-Ching; the Romans peered at the entrails of sacrificed animals. These days, anyone wanting to know what the future holds can consult everything from telephone psychics to intelligence agencies, bookies, futures markets and media pundits. Their record is far from perfect. But it is difficult to say just how imperfect: for all the importance people attach to forecasting, hardly anyone bothers to keep score.

Philip Tetlock is a rare exception. His most recent book, “Superforecasting”, (written with Dan Gardner, a Canadian journalist with an interest in politics and human psychology) is a scientific analysis of the ancient art of...

Fate and furies

Thu, 09/24/2015 - 15:47

Stones of contention

The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939–1945. By Nicholas Stargardt. Bodley Head; 736 pages; £25. To be published in America by Basic Books in October; $35.

WHEN Germany invaded Poland in 1939, it started what the world has ever since seen self-evidently as a war of German aggression. But Germans had a very different view, as Nicholas Stargardt, a historian at Oxford University, convincingly shows in this depiction of how ordinary Germans experienced “their” war.

In 1939 there were no rallies or marches in Germany, as there had been in 1914. The atmosphere was instead one of muted worry. The Germans had accepted the Nazi propaganda that “they were caught up in a war of national defence, forced upon them by Allied machinations and Polish aggression.” Their anxiety only turned into euphoria after the surprisingly easy victories in the early phase of the war, first in Poland then in France.

Embedded journalists accompanied the army and sent home newsreels depicting heroism and adventure. German boys worried that they were “born too late”; the war would surely be over before they saw action. When the war instead continued, Adolf Hitler again succeeded in persuading the Germans that the responsibility for prolonging it lay with the English “...

Romantic contrarian

Thu, 09/17/2015 - 15:55

Look Back in Laughter: Oxford’s Postwar Golden Age. By R.W. Johnson. Threshold Press; 272 pages; £12.99.

THE author of this enjoyably random assortment of memoirs nearly died in 2009 after contracting a bizarre bacterial infection in a swimming accident off the coast of South Africa, eventually having his left leg amputated above the knee. While hovering for months in a medical limbo-land, he cast his mind nostalgically back to the 29 years he spent at Magdalen College, Oxford, mostly as a don.

Infused with egalitarian anti-apartheid idealism, R.W. Johnson arrived at Oxford in 1964 as a Rhodes Scholar, lucky not to have been locked up or tortured as some of his friends had been. He stayed until his return to what would soon be Nelson Mandela’s South Africa, where he rapidly turned into a scourge of the ruling African National Congress. The outcome is a delightfully rum collection of anecdotes and arguments, some of them marvellously arcane in the most ludicrous navel-gazing Oxonian tradition, others touching on grander matters of state, foreign policy and high principle.

In essence Mr Johnson is a romantic contrarian liberal. He claims a lingering loyalty to a vaguely defined left, while pondering ruefully whether he may have grown into a bit of an establishment man himself. He became an expert on modern France. He...

You have been warned

Thu, 09/17/2015 - 15:55

Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception. By George Akerlof and Robert Shiller. Princeton University Press; 272 pages; $24.95, £16.95.

“COMPETITIVE markets by their very nature spawn deception and trickery.” This is not the hyperbole of a diehard Marxist, but the contention of two Nobel prizewinners in economics in a new book, “Phishing for Phools”. Economic models tend to assume that people are informed about the decisions they make; in the jargon consumers have “perfect information”. This supposedly enables consumers to make markets work to their advantage. But Robert Shiller of Yale University and George Akerlof of Georgetown University argue instead that this assumption is false. There are plenty of market equilibria, the authors find, where one party is being deceived, or “phished”. You may think you are doing well out of markets; you may behave quite rationally; but in fact you are being taken for a “phool”.

Econo-nerds have been waiting eagerly for this book. Messrs Shiller and Akerlof—with nearly 15,000 academic citations between them—have devoted their enormous collective...

Roosevelt’s failure

Thu, 09/17/2015 - 15:55

1944: FDR and the Year that Changed History. By Jay Winik. Simon & Schuster; 512 pages; $35 and £25.

CHRONICLING someone’s life can be tedious. The author must plough through a mass of detail before getting to the real action. Jay Winik, by contrast, dives straight in with “1944”, his animated tale of how the Holocaust tragically shifted into highest gear, even as the Allies turned the tide in the second world war.

The story begins with the Tehran conference in late 1943, when the three main Allied leaders agreed to open a second front, in Europe. Mr Winik, a talented storyteller, serves up memorable glimpses of the negotiations. President Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed mixing the drinks and poking fun at Winston Churchill, while Josef Stalin chain-smoked and doodled wolves’ heads. Just over six months after the conference came D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy.

But Mr Winik’s chief focus is the Holocaust. For the Nazis’ killing machine, 1944 was a critical year. Hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews boarded trains that carried them to their deaths at Auschwitz. At the...

Open doors

Thu, 09/17/2015 - 15:55

Holey veil

EXPECTATIONS for the Broad, a vast new private museum in downtown Los Angeles, have been growing in the run-up to its opening on September 20th. Eli and Edythe Broad, its patrons, are among America’s most prominent contemporary-art collectors. The Broad (it rhymes with “road”) is to be the permanent home for the 2,000 works they have amassed over nearly half a century.

As an architectural project, the museum’s nervously latticed exterior stands tentatively along Grand Avenue, a cultural corridor that has been willed into being largely through Mr Broad’s generosity. He helped found the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) across the street in 1979, then bailed it out when it ran into serious financial trouble in 2008. And he helped get Frank Gehry’s adjacent Walt Disney Concert Hall built when fund-raising stalled in the 1990s.

Having worked with a number of well-known architects, Mr Broad should have had the acumen to achieve greatness when he chose Diller Scofidio & Renfro, the firm that united the warring resident companies at the Lincoln Centre in New York and brought it back to life....


Thu, 09/17/2015 - 15:55

Sitting waiting

The Munich Art Hoard: Hitler’s Dealer and His Secret Legacy. By Catherine Hickley. Thames & Hudson; 272 pages; £19.95.

THE Nazis would willingly have destroyed, much as Islamic State (IS) does now, everything they regarded as Entartete Kunst, or “degenerate art”. This included many early 20th-century masterpieces, including “Femme Assise” by Henri Matisse (pictured), that were seized from museums and Jewish collectors and sold for foreign currency, which the Nazi regime needed, just as IS does, to finance its war machine.

Hildebrand Gurlitt became a facilitator of this process. Intelligent, with a well-trained eye and an appreciation of art that he inherited from his father, he enjoyed both the trust of prominent Jews and the confidence of Hitler’s ideologues. Gurlitt was himself a quarter Jewish, a small taint to his Aryan-ness that the Nazis were willing to overlook in order to take advantage of his connections in the art world.

Gurlitt was one of only four German dealers licensed to buy and sell on behalf of Hitler’s regime...

Scrubbing up well

Thu, 09/17/2015 - 15:55

THE opening of the Broad Museum (see article) is claimed by some to bestow a pre-eminence on downtown Los Angeles that has long been sought. Many Angelenos have never been completely persuaded that their sprawling, mongrel-like metropolis could ever have a proper downtown, even though it has skyscrapers hugging the freeway and a line-up of cultural crown jewels on South Grand Avenue, on what is called Bunker Hill, where the Broad is to be found. But the sceptics should take heart. Another part of the city-centre that has been ignored for decades is now coming to the fore, amid hundreds of blocks of low, anonymous industrial buildings that spread southeast a mile or more from the foot of Bunker Hill to the vast railway yards by the Los Angeles river.

A couple of streets away an arts district has been quietly taking root, as a coterie of artists first settled, and then thrived, in near invisibility. Though a few coffee shops and some sophisticated restaurants have opened, most barely announce their presence within...