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Chronicle of a war foretold

Thu, 06/25/2015 - 15:48

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War.By P.W. Singer and August Cole.Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 404 pages; $28.

GEORGE TOMKYNS CHESNEY’S “The Battle of Dorking”, published in Blackwoods Magazine in 1871, was a story about innovation that proved to be an innovation itself. It related, in the form of a memoir written some 50 years in the future, the downfall of Britain at the hands of Prussia, beginning with the destruction of the Royal Navy by high-tech “fatal engines” and culminating in the defeat of the army in the titular battle. An instant cause célèbre—leaders in the Times and all that—and a runaway success, it produced a swathe of imitators and a new way of talking about war that has proved popular ever since.

A distinctive feature of the new genre was that it frequently presented new technologies as decisive, both a thrilling idea and a necessary device if, as the norms of the genre required, dominant nations were to be portrayed, initially at least, as victims. The books also often had messages to impart—of...

The lifesaver

Thu, 06/25/2015 - 15:48

Jonas Salk: A Life.By Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs.Oxford University Press; 559 pages; $34.95 and £22.99.

THE 1910s were not always kind to New York. In mid-1916 the city faced a polio epidemic that killed a baby every 2½ hours. Hospitals were full, and paralysis would leave many survivors in wheelchairs, on crutches or bedridden for life. Two years later a vicious form of influenza killed over 33,000 New Yorkers and 20m worldwide.

Jonas Salk, born in 1914 in a tenement in the city, was spared. In her biography of the man who developed the first polio vaccine and played a major role in developing the first flu vaccine, Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, a professor emerita of medicine at Stanford University, weaves together intimate and historical details. She paints a picture of a sensitive, genuinely kind idealist who pursued what he thought was right with gentle but unrelenting tenacity.

The first half is a fascinating—and at times nauseating—tour of vaccine-making’s past: myriad monkeys sacrificed gruesomely on the altar of science; zealous researchers drinking minced rat brain teeming with...

On the cocaine trail

Thu, 06/25/2015 - 15:48

Zero Zero Zero.By Roberto Saviano.Penguin Press; 416 pages; $29.95. Allen Lane; £20.

ROBERTO SAVIANO’S first book, “Gomorrah”, put him in grave danger. An exposé of the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra, it sold over 10m copies. But it also struck a nerve with its subject, and death threats soon followed. Mr Saviano, an Italian journalist, now moves between safe houses under 24-hour police protection. He dedicates his new book “to all my Carabinieri bodyguards. To the fifty-one thousand hours we’ve spent together and to those still ahead.”

His movement may have been curtailed, but not his anger or ambition. His latest book, “Zero Zero Zero”, is an exploration of the global cocaine trade, from the foothills of the Andes to the nightclubs of Europe. It is a well-trodden trail, but the book provides a useful overview of the industry, explaining the incongruous mix of co-operation and cruelty in each link of the supply chain.

Cocaine-trafficking is risky but enormously profitable. As Mr Saviano points out, a kilo of the drug costing $1,500 in Colombia fetches $12,000-$16,000 in Mexico and $77,000 if it makes it to Britain. According to the accountant of Colombia’s Medellín drug mob, the group was trafficking 15 tonnes of cocaine into America every day in the 1980s. Thirty years later, the figures are still staggering. In Italy...

Lacking spark

Thu, 06/25/2015 - 15:48

If you build it, will they come?

IN SPITE of the enormous success of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, the €130m ($145m) design chosen for the Helsinki outpost will not quieten misgivings about the foundation’s aspiration to create a global cultural network.

The competition was won by an indistinct jumble of pavilions faced in charred wood that reflects all too well the ambiguities of the Guggenheim’s intentions. The design, announced on June 23rd, is as quietly deferential as Frank Gehry’s Bilbao design is self-consciously flamboyant. Along a quay now devoted to parking and a port warehouse, the Paris-based Moreau Kusunoki Architectes have proposed nine loosely arranged pavilions, six of which house gallery suites. Glassed-in passages and gathering spaces among the pavilions glue them into an ensemble.

The pavilion roofs turn up in identical gentle curves, with the taller ones huddling at the base of a tower topped by a restaurant—a lighthouse for dining. The visitor experience is rather shapeless, too. Most people will make their way from the city centre along a cheerless esplanade to a broad entrance...

Getty got it, good

Thu, 06/25/2015 - 15:48

IT IS not every day that you get a phone call announcing the discovery of a long-lost Baroque masterpiece, even if you are the director of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. When Alexander Kader, Sotheby’s head of European sculpture, rang Timothy Potts, the boss of the Getty, in March, saying he might have found Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s first marble carving of a pope, Mr Potts booked himself on a plane to London.

“Bernini was the master of the ‘speaking likeness’,” he says. “He found a way of breathing life into marble, of capturing the essence of a person. Not just the physical likeness of the pope, but his personality and stature, his benevolent seriousness and living presence. It makes you go weak at the knees when you see it, even if you know nothing of the artist.”

Pope Paul V’s nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, commissioned the sculpture shortly after the pope’s death in 1621. On its completion it was displayed in Villa Borghese alongside another famous Bernini bust of the cardinal himself. In 1893, when the family fell on hard times, it was sold at auction in Rome, having first been photographed for the catalogue. Along with...

Still in the shadows

Thu, 06/25/2015 - 15:48

Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life.By Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine.Oxford University Press; 610 pages; $34.95 and £22.99.

BIOGRAPHERS of Communist-era leaders in China face enormous challenges. Since Mao Zedong took control of the country in 1949 its most powerful figures have hardly ever given interviews to journalists. Those who have lived or worked closely with these politicians tend either to sing their praises, condemn them out of hand (usually from the safety of exile) or, in most cases, keep quiet. Official policy documents, even secret ones, are often coloured by the biases of their drafters, whose aim may be to distort or exaggerate a leader’s preferences in order to promote the interests of a faction. A plethora of rumour clouds the picture further.

Writing about the life of Deng Xiaoping is one of the toughest challenges of all. For stretches of his career Deng was among Mao’s closest henchmen; separating his views at the time from those of Mao is fiendishly difficult. From 1978, two years after Mao’s death, until the early 1990s, Deng’s was the hand that guided China’s extraordinary economic transformation. Yet during this period he often operated behind the scenes; others held the post of Communist Party chief. After his retirement in 1989, he continued to play an important role with no more title than...


Thu, 06/18/2015 - 15:48

Still life with pair

WHEN it comes to the rich young tech entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, art dealers around the world are clamouring to know: are they buying? The answer is yes, discreetly, and often with the help of a firm called Zlot Buell.

The San Francisco-based art consultancy does not have a website, preferring word-of-mouth recommendations to self-promotion. The firm vets its clients, probing them about their reasons for buying and their willingness to observe a certain art-world etiquette that some may find old-fashioned. If prospective collectors are interested in art only for interior decoration or speculative investment, Zlot Buell would prefer not to work with them, regardless of budget.

Mary Zlot (pictured right, seated) began recommending art in the 1970s while working at an architectural-design firm specialising in corporate interiors. When she broke free to set up her first art consultancy in 1983, she took one important client with her, KKR, an investment firm. From the outset, Ms Zlot steered clear of conflicts of interest. She does not buy and sell art and is paid only by her...

Black and light

Thu, 06/18/2015 - 15:48

Black Hole: How an Idea Abandoned by Newtonians, Hated by Einstein and Gambled on by Hawking Became Loved. By Marcia Bartusiak. Yale University Press; 256 pages; $27.50 and £14.99.

ANY truth, it is said, passes through three stages: first it is ridiculed, then violently opposed and finally it is taken as self-evident. Marcia Bartusiak, a professor of science-writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, points out that black holes have experienced each stage to the fullest. When Isaac Newton’s ideas about gravity were first taken to their natural conclusion, it appeared that a body of sufficient mass could draw in light just as it did matter. That would make it invisible. Cue public ridicule.

Ms Bartusiak’s story seems less about the toilings of scientists than about a phenomenon repeatedly fighting to reveal itself, but being beset at every step. Scepticism played a strong part. The author shows how variants of the mass-from-which-light-cannot-escape meme kept arising, with each being rejected outright. Even Albert Einstein—who came up with general relativity, the equations needed to describe a massive, spinning star—did not think much of the solutions that pointed towards black holes.

The cult of personality had a role, too. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar first suggested that stars above a certain mass would, in...

Breaking out

Thu, 06/18/2015 - 15:48

Strutting its stuff

Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century. By Jed Rasula. Basic Books; 365 pages; $29.99.

DADA was arguably the most revolutionary artistic movement of the 20th century. From its birth in the grim wartime winter of 1916, over the course of a few raucous performances at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, it stretched the boundaries of aesthetic possibility to breaking-point, elevating randomness, cacophony, insult and plain silliness into legitimate forms of artistic expression. The experimental nightclub created by Hugo Ball and his mistress Emmy Hennings introduced many of the techniques that would be deployed by later innovators, from pop appropriation to hip-hop-style sampling, from photomontage, installation, assemblage and other non-traditional mixed-media mash-ups, to performance art and art that consisted of nothing but pure idea.

As Jed Rasula, of the University of Georgia, reveals in an eloquent new history, Dada’s legacy was as much a chronicle of failure as triumph. For those who congregated at the Cabaret Voltaire and then went on to spread the “virgin microbe” across the globe, the goal was not to rejuvenate art—which most rejected as the product of a bourgeois culture they despised—but to remake the...

Unnatural selection

Thu, 06/18/2015 - 15:48

Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir. By Wednesday Martin. Simon & Schuster; 246 pages; $26 and £16.99.

NORTH of New York’s 59th Street and just east of Central Park is the natural habitat of a peculiar breed of higher-order primates. Among the females, a fiercely competitive tribal culture and a dramatic imbalance in sex ratios (reproductive females outnumber males by a factor of two to one) have yielded some evolutionarily extravagant adaptations. Food is plentiful, but calories are severely restricted and often consumed as fluids. To reinforce status and strengthen monogamous pair-bonds, females engage in extremes of ornamentation and elaborate “beautification practices”, which include physical mutilation and gruelling endurance rites. Although they appear powerful, these females occupy a socially precarious position: they rely on males for access to scarce resources and their lives are almost wholly consumed by descendant worship. Because children are such costly status objects, large numbers are a conspicuous sign of wealth.

Such are the customs and rituals of motherhood on Manhattan’s Upper East...

Multiple choice

Thu, 06/18/2015 - 15:48

After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate. By Mary Ziegler. Harvard University Press; 367 pages; $39.95 and £29.95.

WHEN America comes to pick its next president one thing is sure: the two candidates will take opposing views of a 40-year-old lawsuit. As the country has become more tolerant of homosexuality, abortion has been left standing as the prime insignia of affiliation in the culture wars that have raged for decades. One Republican contender, Scott Walker, intends to sign a bill in Wisconsin banning abortion after 20 weeks, with no exceptions made even in cases of rape or incest. Another, Rick Perry, has presided over the closing of most of the abortion clinics in Texas. The arguments on both sides have become wearily familiar. Mary Ziegler’s book on Roe v Wade, the 1973 case in which the Supreme Court struck down state bans on abortion, resurrects the strange ancestry of the pro-life and pro-choice camps, which, in reality, are anything but.

Arguments over whether a mother should have the right to terminate the fetus she is carrying and, if so, at what stage in the...

Men at arms

Thu, 06/11/2015 - 15:51

Fun in tights

Touché: The Duel in Literature. By John Leigh. Harvard University Press; 334 pages; $35 and £20.

FOR centuries the idea of two men facing each other in a duel has seemed anachronistic. Guy de Maupassant, a 19th-century writer, declared it to be “the last of our unreasonable customs”. Two centuries before that Louis XIV, king of France, tried to outlaw it as a feudal archaism. Yet despite this, the literature of the 19th and even the early 20th century is peppered with accounts of swashbuckling men. Why?

“Touché”, an intriguing book by John Leigh, a specialist in 18th-century French literature at Cambridge University, provides some of the answers. Ranging over two dozen examples of novels, poems and plays, Mr Leigh describes how this “medieval anomaly” continued to preoccupy writers, even as they dismissed duelling as an old-fashioned folly. 

In the early 18th century many writers depicted men who fought duels as hot-headed. By the 19th century, although it still seemed to spring from an older, medieval age, duelling was regarded as...

They think, therefore they are

Thu, 06/11/2015 - 15:51

How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People. By Sudhir Hazareesingh. Allen Lane; 427 pages; £20. To be published in America by Basic Books in September.

IN 2003, as America was gearing up for the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a tall Frenchman with a thick silvery mane took the floor at the UN in New York. Dominique de Villepin was then France’s foreign minister, and what marked minds was not only his uncompromising anti-war message, but the way he uttered it: his speech was a magnificent rhetorical appeal to values and ideals. In a deep, silky tone, he spoke for an “old country” that has known war and barbarity but has “never ceased to stand upright in the face of history and before mankind”. As the “guardians of an ideal, the guardians of a conscience”, the UN, like France, he declared, had a duty to plead for disarmament by peaceful means.

There was something quintessentially French about this speech, argues Sudhir Hazareesingh, a professor of politics at Oxford University, who opens his impressive new book with the scene. Mr de Villepin’s words combined “seductive...

Happy birthday, Pierre

Thu, 06/11/2015 - 15:51

Music magpie

ON A dimly lit stage, black-clad figures reminiscent of Japanese bunraku puppeteers carry tall screens on long sticks, silently moving among the members of an orchestra. The screens show the orchestra playing short pieces of music, interspersed with archive footage and video clips of interviews. Sometimes the people in black home in on individual musicians and record them on their smartphones, the images immediately showing up on the screens above.

This strange, immersive multimedia experience, an hour and a half long, is a celebration of an iconoclastic modern composer and conductor, Pierre Boulez, who is 90 this year. Entitled “A Pierre Dream”, with a set designed by the architect Frank Gehry, an old friend of Mr Boulez’s, it was conceived by Gerard McBurney for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and first performed last November. On June 17th it is coming to Britain, complete with the Gehry sets, to be played by the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble. It will be part of a three-day homage to Mr Boulez at the Aldeburgh festival in Suffolk, the latest of many events, concerts and...

Life in the round

Thu, 06/11/2015 - 15:51

Adventures in Human Being. By Gavin Francis. Profile; 252 pages; £14.99. To be published in America by Basic Books in October.

GAVIN FRANCIS, a Scottish doctor, has had plenty of adventures, not least 14 months spent as “Zdoc” for a British research mission near the South Pole, the subject of his engaging memoir, “Empire Antarctica”. His new book, “Adventures in Human Being”, stays nearer to home, a journey through the body, from top to tail, inside out, but is no less delightful.

He weaves together the stories of his own patients and their ailments with the poetry of others, drawing on science and history, myth and legend to explore the functioning of the physical form. His writing is spare; Mr Francis makes a virtue of Scottish taciturnity. But his sense of wonder at the human body is clear. Pale retinal spots remind him of cumulus clouds, the retinal arteries of patients with high blood pressure of “jagged forks of lightning”. Gazing upon a newly transplanted kidney, filling with blood, is, he writes, like “watching a process of reanimation: a refutation of death.” The countless capillaries that join mother and child in the womb, enabling new life to grow, seem to him like “a million tiny hands”, their fingers “locked across the placental divide”.

Mr Francis avoids mawkishness, even when his patients are facing death...

Unbearable lightness

Thu, 06/11/2015 - 15:51

The Festival of Insignificance. By Milan Kundera. Translated by Linda Asher. Harper; 115 pages; $23.99. Faber & Faber; £14.99.

MILAN KUNDERA has a philosopher’s roving mind and a storyteller’s smooth tongue. The Czech writer has lived in France since 1975 and has produced 11 works of fiction, all of which play deftly with themes of mortality, love, meaning and totalitarianism. His most famous, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, about lovers in Prague, came out in 1984 and won him the most acclaim. He has not published a novel for 14 years, but his name is often whispered as a contender for the Nobel prize in literature.

The “Festival of Insignificance”, his new novella, came out in France last year, and has now been translated into English. It tells the story of four male friends in Paris and their personal musings. Eroticism takes centre stage, as it often does in Mr Kundera’s work. The book begins with Alain, a Frenchman walking through the city, preoccupied by women’s titillating belly buttons. It is an image that recurs throughout this short book, which is broken into “scenes” with chapter headings that...

Dipped in controversy

Thu, 06/11/2015 - 15:51

Hallelujah chorus

Baptists in America: A History. By Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins. Oxford University Press; 352 pages; $29.95.

IN 1995, a century and a half after it was founded by supporters of slavery, the Southern Baptist Convention apologised to African-Americans. “We genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty,” wrote the group, which had by then become America’s largest Protestant denomination.

It was a landmark moment, reflective of a complex and chequered history. American Baptists’ roots lie in the noble struggle for religious liberty. In colonial times they were a tormented minority, their preachers sometimes clapped into prison. Baptists held that only declared believers should be baptised, which offended other Protestants, who thought that infants should get a dipping. Some also complained that the Baptist rituals were too ostentatious. One 18th-century Anglican clergyman wrote that the Baptists gave the rite to “lascivious persons of both sexes” who wore “very thin linen drawers…which when wet, so closely adheres to the limbs, as exposes the nudities...

Mind the gap

Thu, 06/04/2015 - 15:51

Inequality: What Can Be Done? By Anthony Atkinson. Harvard University Press; 384 pages; $29.95 and £19.95.

CONTEMPORARY books on inequality are divided into those published “BC”, or before “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty, or “AP”, for after Piketty. The 44-year-old French economic historian’s study of rising wealth and income inequality, which first came out in French in August 2013, caused a storm when it was published in English seven months later and became an international bestseller. The book did an excellent job of focusing people’s minds on the subject. It also set the lines of empirical battle and even offered a possible remedy: a global tax on wealth. If Mr Piketty whetted the public’s appetite for discussions of inequality, he also made it far more difficult for subsequent authors to say something new and original about it.

That is unfortunate for Sir Anthony Atkinson, a British economist who has now written his own book. Sir Anthony, who is 70, has been working on inequality and poverty for more than four decades. He was an academic mentor to the young Mr Piketty and they...

Riding the crest

Thu, 06/04/2015 - 15:51

A wave of Japonisme

KATSUSHIKA HOKUSAI, a Japanese printmaker who died in 1849 aged nearly 90, is one of those artists whose long, impressive career has come to be known for a single iconic work. During his lifetime his images of Mt Fuji and his floral prints were widely imitated in the West. But “Under the Wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave”—pictured)” is so famous, and has been reproduced in such a wide variety of contexts and formats, that it has swamped his other achievements. It is a testament to the complexity of Hokusai’s oeuvre and to the depth of the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston that in wandering through its new exhibition dedicated to the great Japanese printmaker, one could easily overlook this familiar image among the many riches on display. Surrounded by a host of equally inventive and beautifully crafted prints, paintings and drawings, “The Great Wave” appears as an exemplary, but not exceptional, representative of a versatile master’s work.

One of the revelations of this show is how fresh Hokusai’s works manage to feel two centuries after they were created. Perhaps this has...

From rock to crock

Thu, 06/04/2015 - 15:51

Original Rockers. By Richard King. Faber & Faber; 252 pages; £18.99.

How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy. By Stephen Witt. Viking; 296 pages; $27.95. Bodley Head; £20.

TWO months ago Geoff Barrow, the instrumentalist for Portishead, an award-winning British rock group, revealed on Twitter that 34m streams of his music had earned him precisely £1,700 ($2,604) after tax. He sarcastically applauded Apple, YouTube and Spotify, and his record label, Universal, for “selling our music so cheaply”. Some have quibbled with Mr Barrow’s figures, but no one has suggested the band has earned more than a tenth of a penny for each song streamed. What is more, few artists achieve Portishead’s level of success, which suggests that writing music has become a lousy way to make a living. Two new books present differing explanations of how the economics of the music industry fell apart.

Richard King’s wistful effort, “Original Rockers”, reflects on the three formative years in the mid-1990s when he worked at Revolver, a record shop in Bristol, Portishead’s home town. It was an establishment that cultivated a high-handed air and “a reputation for stocking and specialising in iconoclastic and esoteric records”. Dominated by its anti-social and...