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Imperial Germany: A toxic monarch

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 15:53

He never knew Reich from wrong Kaiser Wilhelm II: A Concise Life. By John Röhl. Cambridge University Press; 240 pages; $24.99 and £16.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukIT IS hard not to feel a smidgen of sympathy for John Röhl. The Anglo-German historian has spent most of his adult life in the company of Kaiser Wilhelm II, a man he describes as a “boastful autocrat, militarist and racist”. Earlier this year, Cambridge University Press published the English translation of the third volume of his biography: “Wilhelm II: Into the Abyss of War and Exile 1900-1941”. It is more than 1,500 pages long; two earlier volumes bring the whole work to almost 4,000 pages.To the rescue has come what is described as a “concise life” of the last Kaiser. At a mere 240 pages, it is the tip of a vast iceberg. But Mr Röhl’s scholarship and authority still shine through the pacey narrative. And what a...

Picasso in Paris: Home and away

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 15:53

Stately and surprising THE Musée Picasso enjoys virtually sacred status in France. It symbolises the union of Pablo Picasso, the most prolific artist of the 20th century, and Paris, the city he loved and lived in. The 5,000 works in its collection have peerless provenance; they belonged to Picasso himself, and were given to the French state by his heirs in lieu of inheritance tax. The museum reopens its doors on October 25th after a five-year renovation of its stately home, a 17th-century hôtel particulier in the city’s fashionable Marais district.The transformation has been long and turbulent. Anne Baldassari, a respected Picasso scholar who ran the museum for many years, had to raise more than half the €51m ($65m) cost herself by staging fee-paying exhibitions around the world. Although the government approved her fund-raising schemes, she was blamed by her peers and the press for the loans and protracted closure of the building, and accused of overspending and mismanagement. When part of her staff petitioned for her removal in May, Aurélie Filippetti, the culture minister, fired her and appointed Laurent Le...

The North Sea: Making waves

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 15:53

From currents to currency The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are. By Michael Pye. Viking; 394 pages; £25. To be published in America by Pegasus Books in April; $27.95. Buy from Amazon.co.ukWILLIAM SHAKESPEARE did not write “The Merchant of Antwerp”, but if Michael Pye is right, it was a near thing. In his new book he argues that the North Sea rivals the Mediterranean as the cradle of European civilisation. The fall of the Roman Empire did not, after all, reduce its northern territories to a howling waste, fit only for rampaging Vikings. On the contrary, those Vikings, the Frisians before them and the Hanseatic merchants after them invented for themselves the conditions for modernity: international trade, money, credit, mathematics, law, the stock exchange, pensions and much else.Mr Pye asks his readers to imagine a time before fixed national borders, when identity was not so much a matter of race, but of “where you were and where you last came from”. The sea was a thoroughfare,...

Mecca: Sacred and profane

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 15:53

Mecca: The Sacred City. By Ziauddin Sardar. Bloomsbury; 408 pages; $30 and £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukZIAUDDIN SARDAR is both fascinated and appalled by Islam’s holiest city. One of Britain’s best-known Muslim writers and commentators, he grew up in the Punjab with a fascination for the Kaaba, the huge brick cube, draped in black cloth, which is the centrepiece of Mecca’s Sacred Mosque.He knew that it was to Mecca that Muslims must direct their prayers, and to Mecca that they must go on pilgrimage, or haj, at least once in a lifetime. But as he learned more of the city’s history, he discovered another Mecca at odds with the first, a place of feuds and power struggles, of greed and bigotry. These two cities form the subject of his book—a project of love and disenchantment—which tells Mecca’s story from pre-Islamic times until today. The city is unique, and yet, seen through Mr Sardar’s eyes, it is also a microcosm: “a stage where the condition of the Muslim world…could be seen enacted.”For Western readers much of the story will be unfamiliar. Non-Muslims are now excluded from the city, but this...

History of fashion: Nonparelli

Thu, 10/16/2014 - 15:59

Save your soles Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography. By Meryle Secrest. Knopf; 363 pages; $35. Penguin; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk“AS A child Schiap was definitely difficult,” Elsa Schiaparelli wrote in 1954 in the opening chapter of her auto-biography “Shocking Life”. In fact, she continued, “she still is.” As Meryle Secrest, the author of a new life of the Italian couturier notes, Schiaparelli tended to use the third person “whenever she was feeling evasive”. This was often: the autobiography barely mentions her husband or daughter. Ms Secrest’s incisive, sympathetic life demonstrates great skill in unpicking the web of myths that Schiaparelli wove to reveal the shape of the woman beneath.As a girl Schiaparelli decided to plant flowers in her face: down her ears, up her nose, in her mouth (a visual trope later copied by her friend Salvador Dalí). This, she thought, would make...

Polish history: Shtetl of honour

Thu, 10/16/2014 - 15:59

There used to be thousands of these FROM the 1600s until 1939 Poland was the global centre of the Jewish people, home to the world’s largest Jewish population and its greatest nexus of religious, cultural and political activity. Yet for many more recent visitors, such as the thousands of Israeli schoolchildren who tour the sites of Nazi death camps each year, the telling of Polish Jews’ history has been overwhelmed by the story of their extermination. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, whose permanent exhibition opens this month, attempts to restore some balance. “We have a moral obligation to honour the way that [Polish Jews] lived for 1,000 years,” says Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the exhibit’s programme director. “The Holocaust is not the beginning of the story, and it’s not the end.”Ms Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a Canadian-Jewish curator whose own father emigrated from Poland in 1934, has a sophisticated exposition philosophy that resists grand narratives. She prefers to immerse visitors in the material and let them draw their own conclusions. But politics clearly plays a role in the exhibition’s design, as well. Post-war...

American politics: The great might-have-been

Thu, 10/16/2014 - 15:59

On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller. By Richard Norton Smith. Random House; 800 pages; $38. Buy from Amazon.comTHE Republican Party’s nomination of Barry Goldwater for president in July 1964 marked the effective end of Nelson Rockefeller’s lifelong ambition to win America’s highest office. It also brought to a close the whole “liberal consensus”, that era in the mid-20th century when American politics were ruled by an unwritten pact: at home, most Republicans grudgingly accepted the liberal policies of the New Deal; abroad, most Democrats accepted conservative anti-communism.As the grandson of the co-founder of Standard Oil, Rockefeller embodied and promoted that consensus to the best of his considerable abilities and resources. He worked for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in Washington and in Latin America. He worked too for Dwight Eisenhower; during the Eisenhower years his Special Studies Project brought together an astonishingly diverse body of pundits, from New Deal veterans to cold-war generals and even Ronald...

Education in America: Back against the blackboard

Thu, 10/16/2014 - 15:59

She needs feedback too The Teacher Wars. By Dana Goldstein. Doubleday; 349 pages; $26.95. Buy from Amazon.comBuilding a Better Teacher. By Elizabeth Green. W.W. Norton; 372 pages; $27.95 and £18.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukWHAT is to be done about America’s schools? Students are graduating, if they graduate at all, with a poorer grasp of writing, reading and maths than their counterparts in other countries. And the poorest students are often warehoused in the worst schools, ensuring that public education is a poor vehicle for social mobility. Reformers have spent decades reducing class sizes and introducing standardised exams, to little effect. Lately many have taken a new tack—blaming bad teachers and the unions that protect them.Studies on...

Germany and the euro: Ordoliberalism revisited

Thu, 10/16/2014 - 15:59

Don’t even think about it The Euro Trap: On Bursting Bubbles, Budgets, and Beliefs. By Hans-Werner Sinn. Oxford University Press; 380 pages; $45 and £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukThe 13th Labour of Hercules: Inside the Greek Crisis. By Yannis Palaiologos. Portobello; 270 pages; £14.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE euro crisis never seems to end. From an acute phase of worries about public debt and whether the single currency might break up it has moved on to a chronic condition of near-zero growth and fears of deflation. The signs are that the euro zone is now back in recession, with even the German economy, the central...

Fiction: Jamaica gangs: Gang stories

Thu, 10/09/2014 - 15:58

A Brief History of Seven Killings. By Marlon James. Riverhead; 688 pages; $28.95. Oneworld; £18.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukWEIGHING in at nearly 700 pages and spanning three decades, there is nothing “brief” about Marlon James’s third novel, “A Brief History of Seven Killings”. What’s more, before readers get to the start, they have to wade through a four-page cast list which would be forbidding were it not so useful. But Mr James’s chronicle of late 20th-century Jamaican politics and gang wars manages consistently to shock and mesmerise at the same time.The story is told through various points of view. Bam-Bam, Demus and Weeper are gang members under the tutelage of Papa-Lo, “the don of the dons”. They all safeguard their turf and, as Jamaica’s tense national election looms in 1976, “remind people how to vote”. Barry Diflorio¸the local CIA station chief, is given the task of monitoring the spread of communism on the island after “that Bay of Pigs flop show”. Alex Pierce, a reporter on assignment for Rolling Stone magazine, smells a bigger story and sets out to discover “what’s ticking in this...

Fondation Louis Vuitton: Winged victory

Thu, 10/09/2014 - 15:58

YOU can just see its glass wingtips flashing above the treetops of the Bois de Boulogne. Close up, the new museum designed by Frank Gehry looks like a futuristic ship with sheer slanting sails. As befits its patron, Bernard Arnault, chairman and CEO of LVMH, the world’s largest luxury-goods conglomerate, the Fondation Louis Vuitton is meant to make a statement.The museum opens on October 27th. It has taken six years and, sources close to the project say, cost a third more than its €100m ($125m) budget. The museum was funded by LVMH and bears the name (and logo) of its flagship brand, Louis Vuitton. But the building is a personal triumph for Mr Arnault, who had wanted Mr Gehry on board as soon as he saw his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in 2001.The Frenchman is one of several rich patrons opening private museums around the world. Earlier this year two huge new showcases for contemporary art opened in Shanghai: the Long Museum, commissioned by two collectors, Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei, and the Yuz Museum, built by an Indonesian Chinese businessman, Budi Tek. Next year, Eli Broad is set to open his museum in Los Angeles.American cultural institutions are often...

Tennessee Williams: Making Tenn out of Tom

Thu, 10/09/2014 - 15:58

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. By John Lahr. W.W. Norton; 765 pages; $39.95. Bloomsbury; £30. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukWHEN Thomas Lanier Williams III decided, in his early 20s, to become a playwright, he had, by his own admission, “not seen more than two or three professional productions: touring companies that passed through the South and Middle West”. Of his first professionally produced play he wrote, “Probably no man has ever written for the theatre with less foreknow-ledge of it.” But he had one thing going for him: he was raised in a supremely dysfunctional family anchored by two parents who loathed each other.His father, Cornelius Coffin “CC” Williams, was a taciturn and loveless travelling salesman prone to fits of drunken rage (he hailed from one of the first families of Tennessee—whence his son’s pen-name). Edwina, Williams’s mother, was judgmental, frigid and pious, but also...

A memoir of gratification: Desire delayed

Thu, 10/09/2014 - 15:58

Stuffing your face means more than you’d think The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. By Walter Mischel. Little, Brown & Company; 326 pages; $29. Bantam; £20 Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukIN THE 1960s Walter Mischel, then an up-and-coming researcher in psychology, devised a simple but ingenious experiment to study delayed gratification. It is now famously known as the marshmallow test. In a sparsely furnished room Mr Mischel presented a group of children aged four and five from Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School with a difficult challenge. They were left alone with a treat of their choosing, such as a marshmallow or a biscuit. They could help themselves at once, or receive a larger reward (two marshmallows or biscuits) if they managed to wait for up to 20 minutes.Mr Mischel, now of Columbia University, reveals in his first non-academic book, “The Marshmallow Test...

End-of-life care: Helping hands

Thu, 10/02/2014 - 16:00

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. By Atul Gawande. Metropolitan Books; 282 pages; $26. Profile; £15.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukWOULD life still be worth living if you could watch football on television and eat chocolate ice-cream, but not walk, feed yourself or use the bathroom unaided? How much pain would you accept for the chance of a few extra weeks? And how would you use the time you had left if you knew that no such chance remained?For most people in the developed world, conversations about such topics never take place. Young people remark in passing that they would rather be dead than go into a nursing home; that they do not want to die in hospital; that they do not want a drawn-out, agonising end. The closer that end is, the less it is talked about. The result is that hard choices are made without an understanding of their consequences. More and more people spend their last hours...

Marriage in America: The new merry-go-round

Thu, 10/02/2014 - 16:00

Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage. By Isabel Sawhill. Brookings Institution Press; 209 pages; $32. Buy from Amazon.comLAST week the Pew Research Centre, a think-tank, predicted that one in four young Americans will never marry. Among the advantages of this are that you “will get to have sex with a different attractive person every night for the rest of your life” and can live “unfettered by [an] oppressive institution that represents undying love,” suggests the Onion, a spoof newspaper. Isabel Sawhill takes a more serious view. A former budget aide for Bill Clinton who now works at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, she has been pondering the state of the family for decades. “Generation Unbound” is clear, concise and admirably fair-minded.It describes the vast changes that have occurred since the sexual revolution of the 1960s. No-fault divorce has been good for many adults, she writes. Because they can walk away, unhappy partners have more power to demand...

The impact of economics: The worldly wonks

Thu, 10/02/2014 - 16:00

Trillion Dollar Economists: How Economists and Their Ideas have Transformed Business. By Robert Litan. Wiley; 385 pages; $40 and £26.99. Buy from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukIN 1953 Robert Heilbroner, an American economist, published “The Worldly Philosophers”, an inspirational account of what economists do. Dismal scientists like Adam Smith and Karl Marx, said Heilbroner, mixed mathematical genius with complex ethical reasoning to craft policies to better the lives of the average Joe.Robert Litan, of the Brookings Institution, would never use the word “philosopher” to describe an economist. Instead in his new book he wants to show that economists, often unnoticed or scorned by the public, are actually the plumbers of modern society. Mr Litan focuses on America but his argument applies more broadly. He takes the reader through countless topics—climate change, intelligent dating websites and ever cheaper telecommunications, among others—to show how everyone has benefited, or could benefit, from economics. In so doing he gives an easy introduction to some key economic ideas.An introductory economics book works best...

Cooking: Time to get serious

Thu, 10/02/2014 - 16:00

Dab hand with a knife Dabbous: The Cookbook. By Ollie Dabbous. Bloomsbury; 224 pages; £50. To be published in America in November; $90. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukHOW does a relatively unknown London restaurant suddenly become the hottest joint in the country? Two essential ingredients are universal praise and a waiting list that stretches months ahead. Ollie Dabbous leapt into the limelight as soon as his eponymous restaurant opened in an unprepossessing corner of the city in 2012. A Michelin star followed less than a year later and now there is a lavishly illustrated cookbook that juxtaposes grim industrial detail with exquisite dishes of identifiable simple ingredients.It isn’t all hype. Mr Dabbous is creating delicious affordable food. A set lunch is £32 ($52) and the priciest evening tasting menu is just double that. He trained at Raymond Blanc’s Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons...

Performance art: Say it with mirrors

Thu, 10/02/2014 - 16:00

Scent of a woman IN 1970 a young New York artist stood naked before an audience, inspecting her body with a small round mirror. “Mirror Check” was Joan Jonas’s silent commentary on women’s fixation with self-image, and it helped establish her reputation as a pioneer of performance art.The artist, now 78, is opening her biggest exhibition ever at HangarBicocca, a former locomotive factory outside Milan, which Pirelli, an Italian tyremaker, has turned into an art space that resembles Tate Modern. The show comes just months before Ms Jonas will represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. Like a number of women artists before her, including Louise Bourgeois and Yayoi Kusama, she is achieving art-world stardom late in life.Ms Jonas took up performance from the outset, eager to find an artistic language that was fresh. Drawing inspiration from avant-garde dance, she developed her own repertoire of movements. At first she used mirrors a lot. Then after a visit to Japan she started including masks and the hypnotic gestures of Noh theatre in her work. And she began filming her performances, using the footage both live and for subsequent...

Scientific curiosity: Questions, questions

Thu, 10/02/2014 - 16:00

Link up with Lego What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. By Randall Munroe. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 320 pages; $24. John Murray; £14.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTAKE any child outside on a clear night and science becomes exciting. But science lessons at school are often dismal. Teachers drone on in front of whiteboards that are filled with perfect spheres rolling down frictionless inclined planes (usually in some strange airless world without any wind resistance).But it does not have to be this way. Randall Munroe is a former NASA roboticist who now draws the webcomic “xkcd”, which offers up an eclectic mixture of science, maths and whimsy three times a week. One of its spin-offs is a website called “What If?”, in which readers can submit questions to Mr Munroe that he will attempt to answer to the best of science’s ability. That website has, in...