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Spirituality and contemporary African art

Wed, 12/17/2014 - 14:11

Whereas contemporary artists in Europe and America have used giant steel spiders, captured sharks and little statues of Hitler kneeling in prayer to make a point about the modern world, African artists draw hugely on the spirit world for inspiration. In “Making Art in Africa 1960-2010” (published by Lund Humphries) Polly Savage, a British curator, interviews Qes Adamu Tesfaw on Ethiopia’s Orthodox tradition, Tapfuma Gutsa of Zimbabwe on biblical tales about Lazarus and the Book of Genesis, and the Uganda-born master painter, Jak Katarikawe, who dreams of cows with a direct line to God (pictured).

The Roman Catholic church: Chronicle of a papacy foretold

Wed, 12/17/2014 - 14:11

The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope. By Austen Ivereigh. Henry Holt; 445 pages; $30. Allen & Unwin; £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukON THE evening of March 13th 2013 a man previously known as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio stepped out onto a balcony and blinked at the rain-soaked pilgrims in St Peter’s Square. They were instantly charmed by his modesty. His fellow prelates had “gone to the ends of the Earth” to find a pope, he declared, as though he were an improbably obscure choice.The modesty was real, but his elevation was no fluke, according to a biography that delves deep into the Argentine pope’s personal history and ideological roots. Austen Ivereigh, a British Catholic, argues with passion and rigour that electing Cardinal Bergoglio pope signalled the surfacing of powerful undercurrents that had been swirling around for several decades in the world of Catholicism. Even during the...

Minority religions in the Middle East: Not just the faiths of Abraham

Wed, 12/17/2014 - 14:11

A wave from God Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East. By Gerard Russell. Basic Books; 320 pages; $28.99. Simon & Schuster; £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE thrust of this wonderfully intriguing book is that virtually all the religions of the Middle East, not just the Abrahamic ones (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) but also a clutch of mysteriously esoteric ones, are marvellously entwined. This should draw people together, encouraging mutual respect for their common spirituality and lovingly shared heritage, not tear them lethally apart. If only.For the most part the dominant religions of the region, in particular Islam, were fairly tolerant of the minority ones, more so than Christianity was towards its pagan precursors in western Europe. It is all the sadder, therefore, that the turmoil of the past few decades should be...

The dark side of religion: Trouble and strife

Wed, 12/17/2014 - 14:11

Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. By Karen Armstrong. Knopf; 528 pages; $30. Bodley Head; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukKAREN ARMSTRONG believes that religion “does lots of different things”. It can inspire people to altruism or ruthless cruelty, and can have both effects at different times.Dissecting this paradox should come naturally to Ms Armstrong. British-born and a former Roman Catholic nun, she has written more than a dozen books on religious history at its broadest, expounding her view that faith is a legitimate, necessary part of human experience, whether or not its claims are true.In her latest work, “Fields of Blood”, Ms Armstrong does not add to the many existing theories on offer. Instead she presents a vast overview of religious and world history, sketching the early evolution of all global faiths. Then, with giant strokes and plenty of (not totally accurate) detail, she...

England: A once and future realm

Thu, 12/11/2014 - 14:15

The English and Their History. By Robert Tombs. Allen Lane; 1,012 pages; £35. To be published in America by Knopf in February. Buy from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.comWHAT does it mean to be English? There was a time when one of the perks of Englishness was that you did not have to think too hard about such a question. That time has long gone. The recent referendum on Scottish independence inevitably raised the question of English as well as Scottish identity (and, to a lesser degree, Welsh and Irish). The huge immigration of the past two decades raises the same question in all sorts of complicated ways: about one in nine Britons and one in three Londoners was born overseas. The UK Independence Party, which is really an English national party, will most likely set the tone of politics in the run-up to next year’s general election.England is one of the few nations without a state: English people cheer forlornly for England in...

Intellectual property: A clash of two copyrights

Thu, 12/11/2014 - 14:15

The Copyright Wars: Three Centuries of Trans-Atlantic Battle. By Peter Baldwin. Princeton University Press; 535 pages; $35. Buy from Amazon.comSHOULD Godot ever appear, he is unlikely to be a woman. Samuel Beckett was known for his near-pedantic stage directions and his aversion to female actors ever playing Estragon or Vladimir. “Women don’t have prostates,” he explained, justifying why the constantly urinating Vladimir can only be male. If a director tries to stage the play with a female cast, he (or she) is likely to get sued by the Beckett estate.This story encapsulates the tension at the centre of Peter Baldwin’s “The Copyright Wars”: whether intellectual works belong more to the creator or to society. Should an author be allowed to exploit his plays in perpetuity and control how they are performed? Or do even original artists like Beckett stand on the shoulders of other intellectual giants, which would suggest that his works should quickly become part of the social commons for others to build upon? Erring too far in one...

Chefs: Kitchen bwana

Thu, 12/11/2014 - 14:15

Say cheese Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef. By Massimo Bottura. Phaidon; 296 pages; $59.95 and £39.95. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukMASSIMO BOTTURA is one of Italy’s greatest chefs, renowned for his juxtaposition of intellectual concepts on a plate and his sublime renditions of tortellini or a classical ragù. Who else would begin a sumptuously illustrated cookbook with a photograph of a turntable, followed by a story about the trials of an art dealer having his portrait painted? The explanation is simple: music and art are integral parts of Mr Bottura’s inspiration, along with the history of Modena, his hometown in Italy’s foodiest of foody regions, Emilia Romagna.For many, Italian haute cuisine is a tautology, but Mr Bottura succeeds with his interpretations of food because they are playful, elegant and delicious. Take his “Hare in...

Cyber-warfare: Turning worm

Thu, 12/11/2014 - 14:15

Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon. By Kim Zetter. Crown; 433 pages; $25 and £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukWHEN America dropped its two atom bombs, Little Boy and Fat Man, over Japan in August 1945, it launched the world into a devastating new era of warfare. Nearly 70 years later, humanity is still trying to contain the fallout. But in its zeal to check nuclear proliferation, America—along with Israel—opened up yet another theatre of war: cyberspace.In 2007 a computer worm called Stuxnet was detected for the first time by virus-scanning software, although signs of it may have existed unnoticed before that. At least three more versions followed, seeking to wreak havoc upon Iran’s uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz. Stuxnet made itself busy. It turned valves on and off and meddled with the centrifuges, wasting uranium and damaging equipment. It succeeded in slowing Iran’s uranium enrichment, and by extension its purported nuclear-weapons programmes, making Stuxnet the first documented case of cyber-warfare intended to cause physical damage.Where Stuxnet fell short was in...

American photography: Past prints

Thu, 12/11/2014 - 14:15

Dressing up didn’t make it any better IN 1956 a photographer named Gordon Parks travelled to Alabama to document the lives of one extended black family. The Thorntons lived under Jim Crow, the oppressive body of laws and customs in the states of the old Confederacy that enforced the separation of the races and denied full citizenship to the descendants of slaves. As the first African-American staff photographer for Life magazine, Parks felt strongly about the assignment, and the images he captured are marked as much by human warmth as by smouldering moral outrage.The resulting 12-page spread appeared in 1956 under the title “The Restraints: Open and Hidden”, with a text by a journalist, Robert Wallace, based on Parks’s own notes. Published just as the nation was starting its long, tortured struggle to redress centuries of racial inequity, it exposed the broader American public to a discriminatory system, revealing its cruelty but also the resilience of those who struggled to rise above circumstances.“Segregation Story” at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta allows audiences to revisit this fraught chapter in...

Culinary analysis: Tasty talk

Thu, 12/11/2014 - 14:15

The Language of Food. By Dan Jurafsky. W.W. Norton; 272 pages; $26.95 and £17.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukDINERS can infer a great deal about a restaurant from its menu. Bound in leather and devoid of prices, it hints at Michelin stars; laminated in plastic and offering a choice of proteins for each dish, it does not. The words used are also revealing, according to Dan Jurafsky, a linguist and computer scientist at Stanford University, in “The Language of Food”. His decoding of food-related texts is the most original aspect of a work that is entertaining and revealing throughout.Mr Jurafsky ploughed through the descriptions of 650,000 dishes on 6,500 menus. Mid-range restaurants repeatedly insist that their food is “fresh”; this “overmentioning”, he explains, is a symptom of status anxiety. Cheap eateries swear their food is “real”. Expensive restaurants avoid such terms. The mere mention that the crab is real or the plums ripe is sufficient to conjure in diners’ minds the possibility that they might not be—the “maxim of relevance” in linguistic terms.Pricey joints also use longer words. Mr Jurafksy calculated that...

Books by Economist writers in 2014: What we wrote…

Thu, 12/04/2014 - 13:34

Gutenberg’s Apprentice: A Novel. By Alix Christie. Harper; 416 pages; $27.99. Headline; £13.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.ukA novel, set in 15th-century Germany, about technology, romance and change, by our fine-arts correspondent.Learning with Big Data: The Future of Education. By Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ebook; 58 pages; $2.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.ukOur data editor, Kenneth Cukier, teamed up with an Oxford professor to explore how new areas of data analysis can improve the way students learn, teachers instruct and schools operate.The Chief Financial Officer. By Jason...

Books of the Year: Page turners

Thu, 12/04/2014 - 13:34

Politics and current affairsThe People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited. By Louisa Lim. Oxford University Press; 248 pages; $24.95 and £16.99. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.ukTwenty-five years after the bloodshed in Beijing, new details keep emerging. This reconstruction, by a correspondent for America’s National Public Radio, is as important for Western readers as it is for the new Chinese generation that has grown up since 1989 and knows little of what happened.The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech. By Flemming Rose. Cato Institute; 240 pages; $24.95. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.ukThe...

American politics: The odd couple

Thu, 11/27/2014 - 13:05

The Professor and the President: Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Nixon White House. By Stephen Hess. Brookings Institution Press; 172 pages; $24. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukRICHARD NIXON and Daniel Patrick Moynihan were a most ill-assorted pair. Indeed, in his new book, “The Professor and the President”, Stephen Hess, a Republican journalist who worked with Moynihan for Nixon in the White House before a long career at the Brookings Institution, asks whether “Of all the odd couples in American public life, were they not the oddest?”Nixon, scowling and paranoid, the most combative (though not the most conservative) of Republican politicians, had survived eight often humiliating years as Ike Eisenhower’s vice-president. When he ran for the White House in 1960 he was beaten by John Kennedy by a handful of votes. He became a laughing-stock for the press when he failed to become governor of California two years later.Moynihan was six foot five inches (nearly two metres) of Irish brawn and charm, one of the “Harvard bastards” Nixon disdained but sometimes employed. He liked to say he was “baptised a Catholic but born a Democrat...

French history: Spring uprising

Thu, 11/27/2014 - 13:05

Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune of 1871. By John Merriman. Yale University Press; 324 pages; $29.99 and £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE crushing of the Paris Commune is still hard to comprehend. Over two days in May 1871, 130,000 troops from the regular French army entered Paris to suppress an improvised city government calling itself La Commune. Historians still dispute the figures, but seven days later the army had killed perhaps 10,000 defenders, unarmed helpers and hapless bystanders. Prisoners were shot out of hand. Of 36,000 people arrested, around 10,000 were executed, imprisoned or deported.In “Massacre”, John Merriman an historian at Yale University, combines two narrative tasks with considerable art: an overview of the tangled background and vivid close shots from the street. The collapse of France’s armies in an ill-chosen war with Prussia a year earlier...

Indian politics: Witness to a landslide

Thu, 11/27/2014 - 13:05

The eyes have it 2014: The Election that Changed India. By Rajdeep Sardesai. Penguin Viking; 372 pages; $20 and £16. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukWITH a couple of weeks to go in India’s recent election, a six-week marathon involving more than 800m registered voters in 28 states, strategists from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) felt that their champion, Narendra Modi, needed something extra. Using more than 2,500 technicians, they launched a campaign of daily hologram shows. These brought Mr Modi, in shimmering 3D, live to 1,300 locations and an estimated 7m people over 12 days. Each daily showing cost millions, says Rajdeep Sardesai, a well-known Indian television journalist, in a new book about the election.Whether it has changed the country is not yet clear. But the campaign was unprecedented, not least for the exorbitant sums spent by the BJP. This helped the Hindu nationalist...

Harvard Art Museums: Town and gown

Thu, 11/27/2014 - 13:05

Letting in the light RENZO PIANO has long fought against what he calls “the mystification of culture”. The Pompidou Centre in Paris, which he designed with Richard Rogers and which opened in 1977, was a manifesto for a new kind of museum, a thumb in the eye to those who believe that art must be quarantined from the unwashed masses.Over the decades Mr Piano has shed some of the brashness of youth, but that initial populist impulse remains. Now 77, he is the most prolific designer of museums in the world, with more than 21 projects completed so far and more on the drawing board. Surprisingly, given his iconoclastic start, that success has been founded on tact and a subtle appreciation for the nuances of a site and his clients’ needs. Mr Piano has constructed his share of eye-catching monuments, from the sleek Menil Collection in Houston to the 87-floor glass “Shard” in London. But he is at his best when forced to adopt a more modest profile: accommodating an existing structure, playing new forms off old or breathing life into institutions suffocated by the weight of their own histories.Mr Piano’s tact is highlighted in his latest...

Wonder Woman: A bird, but not a plane

Thu, 11/27/2014 - 13:05

The Secret History of Wonder Woman. By Jill Lepore. Knopf; 448 pages; $29.95. Scribe; £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukWONDER WOMAN appeared just as America entered the second world war in December 1941. With her skimpy, star-spangled shorts, red bustier, tiara and kinky, knee-high boots, she was an instant hit. Of the thousands of comic-book characters created in the 1940s only Superman and Batman were more popular. Although her star has since waned, Wonder Woman has never ceased solving crimes and triumphing over baddies.Now, thanks to a new book by Jill Lepore, her secrets and, more intriguingly, those of her creators, are out—and quite unexpected. “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is not just her history, but a story of feminism and birth control, with a Bohemian ménage-à-trois at its heart.Ms Lepore is a Harvard historian and journalist. In 2011 she wrote “Birthright”, an...

Patrick Modiano: French letters

Thu, 11/27/2014 - 13:05

Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas. By Patrick Modiano. Translated by Mark Polizzotti. Yale University Press; 232 pages; $16 and £12.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE Swedish Academy hailed Patrick Modiano as “a Marcel Proust of our time” when it awarded him the Nobel prize in literature last month. “That is encouraging,” the enigmatic writer said before he backed out of the limelight by announcing that he was dedicating the prize to his grandson.In his native France Mr Modiano is a household name, with 30-odd novels, children’s books, film scripts and song lyrics to his credit. His works are considered classics and can be read in 36 languages, but he is largely unknown in the English-speaking world because so little of his writing has been translated. His publishers hope the Nobel award will change that; Yale University Press has brought forward the English-language publication of “Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas” which was not due until next year.Mr Modiano’s work obsessively revisits the German occupation of France in the second world war, throwing light on some of the conflict’s murkier recesses. His early...