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Don’t be aloof

Thu, 04/23/2015 - 15:52

Too courtly

FOR Renzo Piano, an Italian architect whose speciality is geometrically immaculate refinement, the $422m new Whitney Museum, which opens on May 1st, is a startling, aggressive departure. Mr Piano has hoisted seven massive floors above a full-length lobby walled in glass. The fifth floor broadens into a hammerhead aimed at the High Line park to the east. Projecting out like artillery from the three top levels are a series of metal stairs.

In New York’s Meatpacking district, this block-long collision of forms in concrete, painted steel and glass wedges itself into the jumble of neighbouring buildings like a teenage boy—all hips and elbows. Yet Mr Piano also cleaves to his characteristic elegance; the walls shape late-afternoon river reflections that seep up Gansevoort Street, setting the sleek glass lobby aglow.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney founded her museum of American art in 1930 around a coterie of genteel social-realists dubbed the Ashcan school. The Whitney quickly took on the heterogenous characteristics of America itself, particularly its urban side. Prior to this latest incarnation, Mr...

To have and to hold

Thu, 04/23/2015 - 15:52

The China Collectors: America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures. By Karl Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac. Palgrave Macmillan; 420 pages; $30.

IN THE 1920s a well-connected, smooth-talking buccaneer from the east coast of America rode a caravan of horses across western China. He was dressed in his trademark desert boots and a stetson hat, and he flew the Stars and Stripes.  Beneath the rough demeanour lurked an expert. Langdon Warner was schooled in art and archaeology, and he had worked at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. His expedition was financed by Warburgs, Rockefellers and Forbeses, and he was charged with bringing home precious antiquities for both personal and public collections.

Warner used crude methods to get his loot. At the famed Dunhuang caves, the repository of vast numbers of Buddhist paintings and sculptures, he slapped cloths soaked in barrels of thick glue in overlapping layers on the walls of frescoes. When they were dry, he peeled them off, removing fragments of wall painting from six caves, but ruining many. He pried loose a three-and-a-half-foot Tang-dynasty...

Heavens above

Thu, 04/23/2015 - 15:52

Here’s one they made earlier

The Wright Brothers. By David McCullough. Simon & Schuster; 320 pages; $30.

THE journey from nutter to genius can be short. For Wilbur and Orville Wright, inventors of the aeroplane, it took just 12 seconds. In 1903 their 605-pound (274-kilo) contraption, dubbed the “Flyer”, lifted off the sand dunes of North Carolina and stayed aloft just long enough to make history. Elated, the brothers quickly learned to go farther, higher and faster.

The Wrights broke through against great odds, as David McCullough recounts in this enjoyable, fast-paced tale. Neither had any formal engineering training. They ran a bicycle shop in Ohio and decided to build an aeroplane after reading up on gliders. Having studied books and birds, they constructed first a glider, then a motor-powered craft, to test in the windy Carolina dunes. They worked with deliberation, taking time to master the basics of flying (such as how the wind works) and spurning pointless risk. Proceeds from the bike shop funded their efforts.

Scepticism was intense. Plenty of people dismissed...

A sonata in two movements

Thu, 04/23/2015 - 15:52

Bela Bartok. By David Cooper. Yale University Press; 436 pages; £25. To be published in America by Yale in June.

ALONG with Franz Liszt, Bela Bartok, who died in 1945, is regarded as one of Hungary’s greatest composers. Many consider his six string quartets, completed between 1908 and 1939, to be second only to Beethoven’s. Though not as atonal as the work of many of his contemporaries, such as Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, Bartok’s compositions can be heavy-going, combining influences from Hungarian folk, jazz and Arabic music. In this weighty tome, David Cooper of Leeds University digs into Bartok’s life, interlacing his discussion of the compositions with wider discussions of politics and culture.

Just as Bartok’s music is not for the faint of heart, neither is this book. The level of research is astonishing, at times to the point of scholasticism. And a big chunk of it is filled with detailed analyses of Bartok’s compositions, along with dozens of musical illustrations. Musical jargon peppers the discussion: for readers who do not know their arpeggios from their appoggiaturas, parts of the book will be difficult to understand.

But even for musical neophytes, the book has much to offer. Bartok was born in Nagyszentmiklos (now Sannicolau Mare in Romania), a...

In need of a green revolution

Thu, 04/23/2015 - 15:52

The Greening of Asia: The Business Case for Solving Asia’s Environmental Emergency. By Mark Clifford. Columbia University Press; 306 pages; $29.95 and £19.95.

THE Asian economic miracle has lifted millions out of poverty, but at terrible cost. Deforestation and foul water are just two of the insults to nature resulting from breathless expansion. Air pollution in Beijing has been described by the American embassy as “crazy bad”. Asia is one of the biggest contributors to global warming.

Many blame economic growth, and the market forces and corporations that drive it, for this. So it is refreshing to see a clear-headed argument set out by Mark Clifford, a former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post, that markets and greenery can go together. Asian companies, he says, are ready to clean up.

Three conditions need to be met first. One is public engagement. In China a powerful independent documentary on pollution, “Under the Dome”, was viewed online by about 200m people before it was blocked by the authorities. From Korea to Kalimantan, the hyperactive use of social media...

Starry, starry night

Thu, 04/23/2015 - 15:52

Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. By Mark Vanhoenacker. Chatto & Windus; £16.99. To be published in America by Knopf in June.

HOW much does Mark Vanhoenacker love flying? Consider this, poor reader, when next you are wedged into a middle seat between squalling child and armrest hog, or ruing a battery just gone dead in the fourth hour of a thrice-extended delay. When Mr Vanhoenacker was a young man, after university and postgraduate study, he became a management consultant because he judged it the profession that would let him spend most time on aeroplanes. But even that proved insufficient, and after a few years he began training to become a pilot. Today he flies a Boeing 747 for British Airways.

One might think that a commercial pilot would grow inured to the essential strangeness of air travel: how people can step into a metal box outside their flats, descend below street level and enter another metal box, this one on wheels, that takes them to an airport, where they board yet another metal box that will deliver them halfway round the world in the time it takes to eat dinner, nap and watch two films. Many of Mr Vanhoenacker’s former colleagues in management consulting probably fly from Boston to Tokyo or London more often than they drive from Boston to, say, New Haven, which is just two hours away on a well-travelled...

Gunning for the G-word

Thu, 04/16/2015 - 15:48

Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide. By Thomas de Waal. Oxford University Press; 298 pages; £18.99.

ON APRIL 24th millions of Armenians around the world will commemorate the centenary of the mass killing of their forebears by Ottoman forces. A growing number of historians say it was genocide.

 “The central facts of the story are straightforward,” says Thomas de Waal, a Russophile scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an American think-tank, in the introduction to his objective and meticulously researched account of the Armenian tragedy and how it has played out in modern times. “The Armenians were an ancient people, whose homeland was centred in what is now eastern Turkey.” In 1913, there were up to 2m of them in the Ottoman empire. At the start of the first world war, the Ottoman government ordered their mass deportation. A few years later, Mr de Waal writes, there was barely one-tenth of that number in Turkey. The rest had been exiled or killed.

 A plethora of academic tomes, memoirs and novels about the genocide exist, including Turkish government-sponsored propaganda purporting to prove that most of the Armenians died of hunger and disease during their forced march to the Syrian desert in 1915.  Mr de Waal navigates through some of these. Yet, unlike...

Another world, another time

Thu, 04/16/2015 - 15:48

  • The Lifeboat, 1938 Source: Towner Gallery, Eastbourne
  • The Waterwheel, 1938 Source: Brecknock Museum/ V...

Thoughts on its future

Thu, 04/16/2015 - 15:48

Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. By Ayaan Hirsi Ali. HarperCollins; 272 pages; $27.99 and £18.99.

NOT many people have lived deep inside a ruthlessly patriarchal, theocratic world and also won acclaim in the great bastions of Western, liberal thought. Even fewer can describe the contrast with insight, and that is why the writings of Ayaan Hirsi Ali on religion, culture and violence always command attention.

In several senses, she has come a long way, and she is still travelling. Having moved to the Netherlands, and then America, after a childhood in Africa and Saudi Arabia, the Somali-born writer is now a fellow of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In three earlier books she expounded her conviction that Islam, her family’s religion, was incorrigibly flawed. She faulted the faith for encouraging violence, for abusing women and ultimately for its belief in a punitive God whose existence she had rejected.

In her latest work, “Heretic”, Ms Hirsi Ali shifts her position and argues that Islam is capable of modernising reform. At the start of the book she sounds...

From love to grief to gaiety

Thu, 04/16/2015 - 15:48

Hero of the interior life

James Merrill: Life and Art. By Langdon Hammer. Knopf; 912 pages; $40.

WHEN James Merrill was a student at Amherst College, falling in love with an older poet, Kimon Friar, he wrote in his diary about the ambition that this new love produced: “I shall write, be brilliant, be great.” Merrill, who would grow into one of the great American poets of the 20th century, spent his life practising a strange kind of alchemy, as Langdon Hammer shows in his new biography: he turned love and memory, both short-lived and lifelong, into poetry that would endure.

Alchemist that he was, Merrill certainly did not need more gold. He was the son of Charles Merrill, the louche and bullish co-founder of Merrill Lynch, and his second wife, Hellen Ingram, a glamorous, overbearing mother who provided Merrill with a lifetime of “passionate, tragic scenes”. In his palatial childhood home, called the Orchard, the boy chafed at his life of distant, distracted parents and the daily round of ceremonious play-dates and paid caretakers.

In poetry, Merrill found...

Born to be wild

Thu, 04/09/2015 - 15:44

The Wolf Border. By Sarah Hall. Harper; 435 pages; $25.99. Faber & Faber; £17.99.

THIS new novel by Sarah Hall, whose earlier work has twice been nominated for the Man Booker prize, makes for rapacious reading. Like her debut, “Haweswater”, “The Wolf Border” is set in her birth place, Cumbria, and revolves around the zealous plans of the Earl of Annerdale to introduce “the god of all dogs”, the wolf, to his estate. As those surrounding the project get pulled into its orbit, the lives of wolves become entwined with the lives of men; political games, murky truths and the ever problematic dynamics of family are laid bare in an absorbing page-turner.

The story’s protagonist is Rachel Caine, a wolf expert who has spent most of the last decade on a remote reservation in Idaho. She returns home to the Lake District to take on the ambitious rewilding project but also to confront her past. Together with her half-brother Lawrence, they try to move out of the shadow left by their toxic mother Binny, with her “body made to ruin men”, who had moved them to the area as children and was “practically Roman in her...

How to remember

Thu, 04/09/2015 - 15:44

Bettyville: A Memoir. By George Hodgman. Viking Adult; 288 pages; $27.95.

The Light of the World: A Memoir. By Elizabeth Alexander. Grand Central Publishing; 224 pages; $26.

PEOPLE preserve their loved ones in creative ways. Henry Ford so admired his friend Thomas Edison that he supposedly trapped his last breath in a test tube. Others wield their pens in tribute. Two new memoirs try to capture the essence of the people the authors love but have lost.

Elizabeth Alexander, a professor of African-American studies at Yale and author of several books of poems and essays, is best known for composing “Praise Song for the Day”, a poem for Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Her tender memoir hinges on a different historic day in her own life, when her Eritrean husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, suddenly died of heart disease, only four days after his 50th birthday. One of their sons found him unresponsive by the treadmill in their basement in New Haven, Connecticut.

“The Light of the World” is a story about the shock of sudden loss and forging forward afterward. It is part poetic elegy, part scrapbook. She pins snippets of poems that evoke their marriage and family, and recipes that Ficre, a chef and prolific painter, enjoyed, onto an impressionistic canvas. Their home was a hearth, where everyone...

Cabinet of curiosity

Thu, 04/09/2015 - 15:44

Divine Dante

Curiosity. By Alberto Manguel. Yale University Press; 377 pages; $30 and £18.99.

ALBERTO MANGUEL has a curious mind, quirky, inquisitive and fascinated by detail. A literary omnivore, he owns 30,000 books and boasts an output of writing to match. For 35 years Mr Manguel has published on average a book a year. Though he ranges across many genres, he is best known for artfully arranged miscellanies about books and libraries.

Reading Mr Manguel is like taking a city walk or an unhurried meal with an erudite, cosmopolitan friend. An Argentine diplomat’s son, he knows many languages, and he lived in many places before settling in France. Few cultures or historical periods are closed to him. He hops knowledgeably and divertingly from topic to topic. Yet he never strays far from his true interest, reading itself.

As befits a miscellany, “Curiosity”, his latest work, is really many books in one: ruminations on life’s big questions, answers from the great books of the past, a loving homage to Dante and thoughts on curiosity itself. Those last two topics work much...

Blood earth

Thu, 04/09/2015 - 15:44

The Looting Machine: Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth. By Tom Burgis. PublicAffairs; 319 pages; $27.99. William Collins; £20.

AFRICANS ask many questions about what ails a continent that abounds with natural riches yet suffers, too, from greedy rulers, bad government and entrenched poverty. The replies they get range from the outright racist to the climatic (countries in the tropics suffer from more parasites and disease than in more temperate latitudes) to the political, with many blaming colonialism or so-called neo-colonialism for the continent’s woes.

For Tom Burgis, a journalist with the Financial Times, the problem is, paradoxically, Africa’s wealth of natural resources. He is not the first to write about countries with the “resource curse”. Nor does his book add to the copious academic literature on the subject. But Mr Burgis sees Africa—with a third of the Earth’s mineral deposits and some of its weakest institutions—as being particularly vulnerable to the predations that arise from the combination of mineral wealth...

New on the Rialto

Thu, 04/09/2015 - 15:44

OKWUI ENWEZOR, the artistic director of the 2015 Venice Biennale, which opens next month, speaks the slippery, abstract language so common to high-flying contemporary-art curators. An exhibition, he declares, is “a project that will be located in a dialectical field of references and artistic practices”. Anyone wanting a clear sense of what he thinks should look at what he does rather than what he says.

For 30 years Mr Enwezor has been a curator and critic, intent on stretching the canon of traditional Western contemporary art and testing what it might become. The youngest son of an intellectual Igbo family, at 18 Mr Enwezor left Nigeria for New York where he met a number of African-American artists, including Glenn Ligon, a favourite of Barack Obama.

Seeking a way to make his mark, in 1994 he founded Nka, a journal about contemporary African art. Shortly after, Mr Enwezor got his first big break, curating the fledgling Johannesburg Biennale. It won him, at 35, one of Europe’s leading curatorial jobs, overseeing Documenta, a prestigious exhibition that takes place in Kassel in Germany every five years. Now he...

A man for all seasons

Thu, 04/09/2015 - 15:44

John Aubrey: My Own Life. By Ruth Scurr. Chatto & Windus; 518 pages; £25.

JOHN AUBREY (1626-97) was many things: antiquarian, biographer, topographer, naturalist and collector of etymologies, folklore and old wives’ tales. Sadly, he was not, like his contemporary Samuel Pepys, a diarist. Now Ruth Scurr, a Cambridge academic, has put that right. Drawing on his manuscripts and letters, she has fashioned, as chronologically as possible, an autobiography in the form of the diary that Aubrey never wrote. It fits him perfectly. Aubrey made himself so present in his pages, and wrote so informally—so “tumultuarily”, as he liked to say—that Ms Scurr’s invention feels entirely natural. She has modernised his spelling and stitched in clarifications, but on the whole this is Aubrey speaking.

Aubrey published only one book, complaining to the end that so much remained unfinished—“upon the loom”, as he put it. Now the reader can watch him at the warp and weft—observing, thinking and asking questions. Sea shells on hill tops, for example: was the world once covered in water? “Ovallish” pebbles: were they once soft? “Is it possible to find the latitude of a place by a quadrant in the dark without sun or stars?” Travelling the country, he sampled, sniffed and tasted: on Dundery Hill “I noticed that there was some weed or flower in the...

Uses and abuses

Wed, 04/01/2015 - 15:50

Hidden features

Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World. By Bruce Schneier.W.W. Norton; 383 pages; $27.95 and £17.99.

SOCIETY has more digital information than ever and can do new things with it. Google can identify flu outbreaks using search queries; America’s National Security Agency (NSA) aspires to do the same to find terrorists. But at the same time people are under constant surveillance by companies and governments, since the rules protecting privacy are hopelessly out of date.

In “Data and Goliath” Bruce Schneier, a computer-security expert, does a fine job of laying out the problems caused by this compulsive collection of personal data, and suggests some steps that would help protect society from the most egregious excesses. The challenges are severe because modern technologies collect large amounts of information on the most innocuous of activities, which formerly left no data trace.

In business, personal information has become a sort of raw material. Many smartphone apps can afford to be free because...

Time it was

Wed, 04/01/2015 - 15:50

What Comes Next and How to Like It. By Abigail Thomas. Scribner; 240 pages; $24.

ABIGAIL THOMAS is not a painter, but she makes paintings anyway. Using oil-based house paint, which is toxic, she drips, flings and pours colour onto glass and then pushes it all around. Failed compositions are scraped away, yielding new and surprising arrangements. A dopey bunch of apple trees can suddenly become a ghostly stand of birch. “You have to have some faith,” Ms Thomas writes in her beautiful new memoir.

This is not a book about painting. It is about pushing around sometimes toxic material in an effort—sometimes vain, often frustrating—to make something that looks right, or at least to find beauty in the results. This, of course, is what it means to write, and certainly to write a memoir. It is also what it takes to find contentment, particularly in one’s later years, when most of the colour already has been dripped and flung. That is the real subject of Ms Thomas’s book.

In a way, the book is a sequel. In 2006 Ms Thomas published “A Three Dog Life”, a bestselling account of her last years with her husband, Rich, who suffered traumatic brain injuries after he was hit by a car in Manhattan one night. Bookshops groan with personal chronicles of adversity, but Ms Thomas’s work stood apart. In elegant, spare prose, she described what...

Flash mob

Wed, 04/01/2015 - 15:50

Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories from Around the World. Edited by James Thomas, Robert Shapard and Christopher Merrill. W.W. Norton; 277 pages; $15.95 and £9.99.

IT HAS long been said that Ernest Hemingway kick-started the super-short short story, known as flash fiction. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” is a six-word narrative often attributed to Papa H. Apocryphal perhaps, but the attribution makes a kind of flash fiction in itself, one completely suited to the early 21st century, when flash really seems to be coming into its own. What better literary meat for people who are self-referential, ironic and glued to smartphones than these swift puzzles or tales—some only a sentence long—which vanish from the screen even as they linger in the mind?

This does seem to be a flash-fiction moment. Last year David Mitchell—better known for expansive novels that are the very opposite of flash—published “The Right Sort”, a story in 280 tweets. This came not long after “The Black Box”, by Jennifer Egan, which first appeared on the New Yorker’s Twitter account in 2012. Twitter...

Time it was

Wed, 04/01/2015 - 15:50

What Comes Next and How to Like It. By Abigail Thomas. Scribner; 240 pages; $24.

ABIGAIL THOMAS is not a painter, but she makes paintings anyway. Using oil-based house paint, which is toxic, she drips, flings and pours colour onto glass and then pushes it all around. Failed compositions are scraped away, yielding new and surprising arrangements. A dopey bunch of apple trees can suddenly become a ghostly stand of birch. “You have to have some faith,” Ms Thomas writes in her beautiful new memoir.

This is not a book about painting. It is about pushing around sometimes toxic material in an effort—sometimes vain, often frustrating—to make something that looks right, or at least to find beauty in the results. This, of course, is what it means to write, and certainly to write a memoir. It is also what it takes to find contentment, particularly in one’s later years, when most of the colour already has been dripped and flung. That is the real subject of Ms Thomas’s book.

In a way, the book is a sequel. In 2006 Ms Thomas published “A Three Dog Life”, a bestselling account of her last years with her husband, Rich, who suffered traumatic brain injuries after he was hit by a car in Manhattan one night. Bookshops groan with personal chronicles of adversity, but Ms Thomas’s work stood apart. In elegant, spare prose, she described what...

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