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American ceramics: Feat of clay

Thu, 01/22/2015 - 15:23

So refined USELESSNESS has its uses in art. In fact, sometimes art is defined by uselessness. An object that remains functional never quite gains the aura that is normally associated with the highest creations of the imagination. Ceramic objects must overcome a double barrier before they can be regarded as aesthetically important: pottery has to perform humble domestic functions, and it is made of the most commonplace material.For a century and more, many ambitious ceramicists have laboured to lift the status of their craft. In the process, they have left behind any notion of utility, creating objects that, while they may nod to their antecedents in the cup, the jug or the storage jar, are gloriously (and often preposterously) impractical.“Nature, Sculpture, Abstraction, and Clay: 100 Years of American Ceramics”, which has just opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, tells the story of how ceramic artists strived to elevate their métier, sometimes drawing on the work of their European colleagues (many of the most innovative were recent immigrants) and sometimes building on native traditions, to turn a...

Democracy and America’s civil war: The whole family of man

Thu, 01/22/2015 - 15:23

The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War. By Don Doyle. Basic Books; 382 pages; $29.99. Buy from Amazon.comHISTORIANS of the American civil war find themselves in the same unenviable position as Shakespeare scholars: so thoroughly have their fields of study been tilled that finding a nearly virgin corner is all but impossible. But Don Doyle, a professor at the University of South Carolina, has broken new ground in an enlightening and compellingly written book, “The Cause of All Nations”. More than any previous study, it tells the story of how America’s civil war was perceived, debated and reacted to abroad, and how that reaction shaped the course of the war at home.Mr Doyle reminds readers that the war began just 13 years after the European uprisings of 1848. It looked as though America’s then 80-year experiment with self-government was nearing a violent end; European royalists and aristocrats reacted with glee, republicans with despair.Both the Union and the Confederacy eagerly sought...

Civil-war fiction: Heroic words

Thu, 01/22/2015 - 15:23

Neverhome. By Laird Hunt. Little Brown; 256 pages; $26. Chatto & Windus; £12.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukONE remarkable feature of contemporary American literature is the way that the civil war, over now for 150 years, still has the power to inspire highly original fiction: think of recent prize-winners such as “March” by Geraldine Brooks, Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain” and “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All” by Allan Gurganus. Now comes “Neverhome”, Laird Hunt’s seventh work of fiction and his first novel to be published in Britain. It arrives with a long list of plaudits from luminaries including Paul Auster, Kevin Powers and Michael Ondaatje.An Odyssean tale about going off to war, “Neverhome” introduces the unforgettable Ash Thompson, known as Gallant Ash, a tree-climbing sharpshooter with very definite views. As Ash steps across the state border from Indiana into Ohio, the would-be fighter falls in with a band of boys on the lookout for recruiting stations. “After they had cracked on my teeth and whistled at my thick fingers and had me scrape my thumb callouses across the wood tabletop, they gave...

African refugees: Finding his feet

Thu, 01/22/2015 - 15:23

A Man of Good Hope: By Jonny Steinberg. Knopf; 336 pages; $26.95. Jonathan Cape; £18.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukIN MAY 2008 frenzy gripped many of South Africa’s townships and shanty towns. Their residents—poor, black and unemployed—turned on those even closer to the margins of society than themselves: black immigrants from elsewhere in Africa. In the days that followed more than 60 people were killed and tens of thousands were driven from their homes. Among those displaced were hundreds of Somali immigrants, many of whom earned their living running small convenience stores (known as spaza shops) from shacks.One was Asad Abdullahi, who had fled Somalia as an eight-year-old boy before making his way via Kenya, Ethiopia and several other stops in between to a field of shacks near Cape Town. He made the perilous journey south, drawn by the dream of living in a country governed by Nelson Mandela, where the police could not capriciously lock people up and where those thought to be dissidents did not simply disappear. Yet Mr Abdullahi’s attempts to start a new life in South Africa were repeatedly...

China and Pakistan: Geopolitical friends

Thu, 01/22/2015 - 15:23

The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics. By Andrew Small. C. Hurst & Co; 319 pages; £30. Buy from Amazon.co.ukWHEN China sent swift condolences to Pakistan after the slaughter of over 130 schoolchildren in a terror attack in Peshawar last month, it was more than a perfunctory gesture. The two countries have such a long-standing and harmonious relationship that both sides sometimes come close to believing the official mantra that the ties that bind them really are higher than the highest mountains.Yet misgivings also abound, as Andrew Small, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, points out in an impressive account of a little-understood friendship. China is growing increasingly squeamish about the dangers of having Islamist extremists just across the border. Chinese engineers working on aid projects in Pakistan have been killed by Pakistani extremists. In 2007 Chinese massage-parlour employees were held hostage by militants in Islamabad. The authorities in the capital do not do enough...

Families and totalitarianism: Behind closed doors

Thu, 01/22/2015 - 15:23

Bleak house Family Politics: Domestic Life, Devastation and Survival 1900-1950. By Paul Ginsborg. Yale University Press; 520 pages; $35 and £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE rise of nationalist and totalitarian ideologies in Europe profoundly affected the family. Having been both bolstered and confined by religion and custom under the old order, the oldest human institution was transformed, distorted and sometimes destroyed by what followed.In “Family Politics”, a haunting, vivid and thought-provoking new work of social history, Paul Ginsborg, a British-born professor in Florence, uses the prism of family life to make sense of the first half of the 20th century in the five European countries to which it brought the sharpest changes. They are Italy under Benito Mussolini, Germany under the Nazis, Spain during the civil war and under General Franco, Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk...

The Great Depression: Root causes

Thu, 01/15/2015 - 14:51

Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Uses—and Misuses—of History. By Barry Eichengreen. Oxford University Press; 512 pages; $29.95. Buy from Amazon.comECONOMISTS usually work with large samples of data, so they are in a bind when it comes to depressions: there simply haven’t been enough to yield predictable patterns. When the world stood on the precipice in 2008, its leaders had only the 1930s as a template.Today they congratulate themselves on having avoided another Great Depression. Were they right to? Barry Eichengreen argues no. Their reading of the 1930s, he writes, is incomplete, often erroneous and has led them to settle for weak or no growth and for too-timid reform of their financial systems.Mr Eichengreen, of the University of California, Berkeley, recreates the last century’s two great episodes of financial instability with compelling portraits of bankers and policymakers and accessible theoretical explanations. His retelling of America’s and Europe’s recent crisis adds little to...

Obamacare: Good, bad and ugly

Thu, 01/15/2015 - 14:51

America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix our Broken Healthcare System. By Steven Brill. Random House; 512 pages; $28. Buy from Amazon.comIT WAS never going to be easy. Reforming health care in America means fiddling with an industry that is larger than the economies of all but five countries. The system is a mishmash of laws and regulations that relies on profiteering firms and merciful doctors. It is an expensive mess. Even so, few predicted that Barack Obama’s attempt to reorganise the clutter would degenerate into such a remarkable example of Washington dysfunction.It is easy to feel depressed reading Steven Brill’s new book, “America’s Bitter Pill”, which uses a series of narratives to explain the past few years of health policy in America. The central tale follows the Affordable Care Act (ACA), better known as Obamacare, from inception to implementation. One might think that the passage of the biggest liberal achievement since Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” would prove an uplifting...

Franz Schubert: Wintry passions

Thu, 01/15/2015 - 14:51

Wintry water Schubert’s Winter Journey: An Anatomy of an Obsession. By Ian Bostridge. Knopf; 544 pages; $29. Faber and Faber; £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukI came a strangerI depart a strangerMay was good to meWith many a garland of flowers.The girl, she talked of love, The mother even of marriage—Now the world is so gloomy,The way is shrouded in snow.The opening of “Winterreise” sets the tone. This is one of Franz Schubert’s most famous compositions: a cycle of 24 songs (Lieder) for voice and piano, written in 1827-28. It is set to a collection of poems by Wilhelm Müller, a contemporary of Schubert’s, about a winter journey undertaken by an enigmatic wanderer. The mood is mostly dark, though the hero also reminisces about happier times, especially in “The Linden Tree”, which subsequently became a much-loved folk song.The desolate, freezing weather (at a...

Cyber-dystopianism: Net costs

Thu, 01/15/2015 - 14:51

The Internet is Not the Answer. By Andrew Keen. Atlantic Monthly Press; 273 pages; $25 and £16.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE history of the internet, Andrew Keen suggests, can be reduced to two stories. In the beginning, there were the publicly funded technologist-visionaries: Vannevar Bush, a revered American engineer whose “memex” prophesied the internet, and Tim Berners-Lee, a British programmer who unwittingly designed the information superhighway’s road markings. These are just two names among many, Mr Keen says, who made the network and saw that it was good.The second story, the fall from grace, is what came after America’s National Science Foundation allowed its commercial partners to take over the nascent internet framework. It is safe to say that Mr Keen, a British-American entrepreneur and author, is not happy with how things have gone since.His main preoccupation is the online economy’s structure, which has made only a few people (nearly every one of them young, white men) fabulously rich, without creating many jobs. At each mention of Tom Perkins, a venture capitalist, Mr Keen cannot resist bringing up...

African-American art: Playing tag

Thu, 01/15/2015 - 14:51

Full of folk memory FEW exhibitions question their own premise as openly as “Represent: 200 Years of African-American Art in the Philadelphia Museum”. But this willingness to test, to probe and to doubt proves to be a strength rather than a weakness. Given a history in which invidious distinctions were used as instruments of oppression, it is natural to ask whether an exhibition defined by race just perpetuates an outmoded way of thinking. In a multicultural society, writes the consulting curator Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, “the idea that works of art should be discussed in separate groups based on a perception of a shared ‘identity’ among the objects’ makers…seems increasingly regressive.” So why do the exhibition at all? Doesn’t this kind of survey merely impose an aesthetic ghetto on the real-world variety that many would like to abolish?The evidence, however, largely dispels these doubts. “Represent” transforms what might have been little more than an exercise in curatorial affirmative action into a meditation on the burdens and possibilities of racial identity. Otherwise unremarkable works take on new life, while powerfully...

Japan: In the air

Thu, 01/08/2015 - 14:26

Japan and the Shackles of the Past. By Taggart Murphy.Oxford University Press; 443 pages; $29.95. Buy from Amazon.co.ukMOST historical analysis of Japan tends to emphasise the country’s ruptures with the past. In the mid-19th century the inward-looking Tokugawa shogunate fell and was replaced with rule by oligarchs under the guise of a “restored” imperial system. At the end of the second world war Japan was defeated and occupied by the United States. During the post-war economic “miracle” incomes doubled every decade. The latest move includes the trumpeted measures by the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to cure the long hangover after boom turned to almighty bust in the late 1980s. By contrast, in his insightful analysis of what ails Japan, Taggart Murphy, a former investment banker who is now a business professor at the University of Tsukuba, focuses on the continuities.Some are immensely appealing. Few foreign visitors fail to be beguiled by the almost seductive concern and care shown by every...

Classical music: Distant notes

Thu, 01/08/2015 - 14:26

Far out and no cheap seats UNTIL a few weeks ago, Parisians wanting to hear a great classical pianist or a world-class orchestra would head for the Salle Pleyel near the Champs Elysées. That option is no longer available as the venue will now be used for other kinds of music. Instead, from January 14th, top-tier orchestras and musicians, including Pleyel’s resident ensemble, the Orchestre de Paris, will move to the Philharmonie de Paris.The new venue, by Jean Nouvel, cost €386m ($460m) and is in the unfashionable 19th arrondissement in the north-east of the city. Paris has two opera houses, so it may, like London or New York, be able to sustain several music venues. But will its serious classical-music patrons, who can afford the pricey tickets and were Pleyel subscribers, be persuaded to trek to an unglamorous area far from the city centre?The auditorium can hold 2,400 people in tiers of seats that wrap fluidly around the central orchestra pit. This is where concertgoers will hear piano recitals by Daniel Barenboim and Maurizio Pollini, and watch Sir Simon Rattle conduct the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. To bring in new and younger...

Security: Return of the hired gun

Thu, 01/08/2015 - 14:26

The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order. By Sean McFate.Oxford University Press; 248 pages; $29.95 and £19.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.ukIN THE pirate-infested waters off the coast of Somalia around 180 private military contractors from 35 countries work to protect international shipping. They cost as little as a tenth of the official protection provided by the governments of France, Holland and Spain. Yet they can deploy lethal force and have proved very effective; they have even formed an industry group, the Security Association for the Maritime Industry, to represent their interests.As Sean McFate shows in a fascinating and disturbing book, “The Modern Mercenary”, the provision of private armies to the world’s conflict zones has boomed in the past 25 years. The market for these firms could evolve from a monopsony, in which the dominant buyer has been the American government, into something more open and competitive. As it does so, he argues, these armies may turn from a force that is mostly for peace into a threat.The end of the cold war provided the opening for private armies. In 1994...

French fiction: Michel Houellebecq: Irrepressible

Wed, 01/07/2015 - 20:03

Smoke, but no evidence of mirrors Soumission. By Michel Houellebecq. Flammarion; 320 pages; €21.NO OTHER French novelist knows how to stir trouble quite like Michel Houellebecq. In 2001 the author of “The Elementary Particles” claimed that Islam was “the stupidest religion”. He was sued for inciting racial violence, though later cleared in court. Now Mr Houellebecq is at it again, with “Soumission” (“Submission”), his latest novel, which prompted indignation and dismay in France even before it was published on January 7th.The novel, which has not yet been translated into English, is narrated by François, a literature professor at the Sorbonne, who drifts between casual sex and microwaved ready-made meals in a state of wry detachment and ennui. Then, in an imaginary France of 2022, a political earthquake shakes him out of his torpor. The two mainstream parties, on the left and the right, are eliminated in the first round of a presidential election. This leaves French voters with the choice between Marine Le Pen’s populist National Front—and the Muslim...

“Tristan and Isolde”: A spine-tingling and blissful infinity

Tue, 12/30/2014 - 14:58

“THE most erotic music ever composed.” This was how one critic described Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”, which in 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of its first performance. The work is divisive. Many 19th-century critics thought little of it; some even mocked it. But it had an enormous impact, ushering in the move towards atonality that found its most extreme expression in the work of composers like Arnold Schoenberg. Today it is the most famous opera by Germany’s most famous opera composer. But why all the fuss?The opera traces the story of two lovers, Tristan and Isolde (painted above by August Spiess in 1881), who fall madly in love after drinking a potion. The plot is forgettable; the music is not. The magic starts with the prelude, a ten-minute musical introduction that structures the rest of the piece. The opening chord, known to music buffs as the “Tristan chord”, shocked the 19th-century listeners who heard it first.Normally, in classical music, dissonance resolves into consonance; tension melts into resolution. But the Tristan chord, and the music that follows it, dispenses with such convention. It tempts you to listen out for a particular chord (A...

Wartime Germany: Right to write

Tue, 12/30/2014 - 14:58

Damaged and desperate, but still dedicated A Stranger in My Own Country: The 1944 Prison Diary. By Hans Fallada. Translated by Allan Blunden. Polity; 267 pages; $25. Buy from Amazon.comGERMAN intellectuals in the 1930s faced a painful choice between exile and danger. Hans Fallada chose to stay. Even as war was looming, after years of harassment and humiliation, he turned down an offer of life abroad for himself, his wife and his three young children. He loved Germany too much to leave it. “What kind of German would I be if I had slunk away to a life of ease in my country’s hour of affliction and ignominy?” he wrote.Those words were scribbled in a psychiatric prison in 1944, in tiny and all but illegible handwriting in a secret diary. The result is one of the most powerful accounts of life in the Third Reich. It was published in German only in 2009 thanks to the extraordinary editing skills of Jenny Williams and Sabine Lange, who deciphered the text, unravelled the deliberately confusing structure, and...

The Armenian genocide: Seeing through fire

Tue, 12/30/2014 - 14:58

There Was and There Was Not. By Meline Toumani. Metropolitan Books; 304 pages; $28. Buy from Amazon.comANNIVERSARIES have become the party theme of our time, especially over the past year, as the world was reminded of the start of the first world war. At least two further historic moments will be marked in 2015. One is the battle of Waterloo, which on June 18th will be accompanied by triumphal chest-beating (at least in Britain). Elsewhere, the centenary of the Armenian genocide is likely to arouse rage as well as recrimination.On April 24th 1915 scores of Armenian intellectuals and artists were rounded up in Istanbul, the capital of the collapsing Ottoman empire, and later killed. The killings marked the start of a protracted period of persecution of the empire’s Christian subjects, who were subjected to state-sanctioned murder, rape and huge forced deportations to the Syrian desert. At least 1m people—mostly Armenians—died.In an audacious first book, Meline Toumani, an Armenian-American journalist who grew up in suburban New Jersey, describes spending two weeks every year as a youngster in an Armenian summer camp in Massachusetts, where she and fellow schoolchildren were ordered never to forget what happened to the Armenians. She offers...

Memoir: Killer prose

Tue, 12/30/2014 - 14:58

The Undertaker’s Daughter. By Kate Mayfield. Gallery Books; 350 pages; $24.99. Simon & Schuster; £12.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk“WE’VE got a body.” Raised above her family’s funeral home in a small Kentucky town, Kate Mayfield knew the phrase that inevitably followed whenever the phone rang. “The Undertaker’s Daughter”, her memoir, lures the reader in with a behind-the-scenes view of man’s final act. She recounts the forbidden thrill of touching a dead body for the first time; her revulsion at the embalming room; a bit of the biology of decomposing organs; and plenty of keen observation on people showing their true colours after their loved ones die.Mimicking the unpredictable interjections of death that punctuated her childhood, she interrupts her chronological narrative with a series of “in memoriam” vignettes about the town’s deceased, ranging from a man with such poor hygiene that he made the...

The daily commute: Travelling hopefully

Tue, 12/30/2014 - 14:58

The lunatic express Rush Hour: How 500 Million Commuters Survive the Daily Journey to Work. By Iain Gately. Head of Zeus; 378 pages; £16.99. Buy from Amazon.co.ukTO THOSE who don’t do it and to many who do, commuting is joyless: dead time, a limbo between home and work. Not for Iain Gately. In “Rush Hour” he argues, vividly and largely convincingly, that commuting is to be celebrated, not lamented. “For the last century and a half”, he writes, “it has given countless people the opportunity to improve their lives.”The book is in three parts, covering commuting past, present and future, from Britain’s Victorian railway boom to Elon Musk’s vision of a “Hyperloop” whisking Californians the 380 miles (610km) from San Francisco to Los Angeles in merely half an hour. Mr Gately points out the changes in landscapes, manners and entertainment (from drive-time radio to “The Jetsons”) that commuting has brought about.People were eager to commute as soon as they had the chance. Early railway entrepreneurs...

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