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Updated: 5 hours 31 min ago

Correction

Thu, 01/29/2015 - 12:57

Our review of Don Doyle’s “The Cause of All Nations” (“The Whole Family of Man”, January 24th) referred to Spain withdrawing from its Latin American colonies in 1865. In fact Spain had been kicked out of all but Cuba and Puerto Rico 40 years earlier; in 1865 it withdrew from an attempted recolonisation of Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic). Sorry.

Contemporary Russia: Red sky in the morning

Thu, 01/29/2015 - 12:57

Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man’s Fight for Justice. By Bill Browder. Simon & Schuster; 373 pages; $28. Bantam Press; £18.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukBILL BROWDER was a happy man in 2003. He had the perfect job and was making himself rich. He bought underpriced shares in badly run Russian companies and chivvied the management into behaving better so the share price would go up. It worked. Between the depth of Russia’s financial crash in 1998 and the end of 2003, his investment fund had grown more than 12-fold. What could go wrong? Plenty, it turned out, including expropriation, beatings, intimidation and death.“Red Notice” is a sizzling account of Mr Browder’s rise, fall and metamorphosis from bombastic financier to renowned human-rights activist. Born into a leftish academic household (his grandfather led the American Communist Party), he rebelled by turning to capitalism....

Spain’s civil war: The opening act

Thu, 01/29/2015 - 12:57

War spoils Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World It Made. By Richard Rhodes. Simon & Schuster; 299 pages; $30 and £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE Spanish civil war, which began in 1936, three years before the second world war, was far more than a local scrap between reactionary Roman Catholic traditionalists and domestic left-wingers of multiple shades. To say it was the Vietnam, Korea or Afghanistan of its time is to sell it short. Yet the global war that followed drowned out the echoes of what was, in effect, one of its principal opening acts.Richard Rhodes, a Pulitzer prize-winning American popular historian, reminds readers that this was an international war from the start. Hitler and Mussolini made decisive contributions of arms and men to the future dictator, General Francisco Franco, a man who boasted of preferring blood and bayonets to “...

Piero di Cosimo: Monsters and merry mayhem

Thu, 01/29/2015 - 12:57

WHILE Michelangelo, Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci were all making worlds of ideal perfection, their contemporary, Piero di Cosimo, had set out on a different, more twisted path, bewitching his fellow Florentines with his visual fables and mythological fantasies. The work that made the greatest impression was the “Cart of Death”, an elaborate float pulled by black buffaloes, with skeletons popping out of their tombs whenever the grim procession stopped to chant a dirge. If he never quite achieved the grace of Botticelli’s “ La Primavera”, Piero’s ability to conjure the macabre, the monstrous and the miraculous offers its own distinctive pleasures and a rare insight into the more neurotic recesses of the Renaissance imagination.A new show in Washington, DC, marks the first time in over 75 years that this under-appreciated painter, who gave everything he touched an off-kilter spin, has been exhibited in America. So peculiar did Piero’s fellow artists find his work that Giorgio Vasari, an art historian writing a couple of decades after his death, padded his sparse knowledge of the painter’s life with a host of speculative eccentricities. Piero lived, the...

African memoir: A river runs through it

Thu, 01/29/2015 - 12:57

Leaving Before the Rains Come. By Alexandra Fuller. Penguin Press; 272 pages; $26.95. To be published in Britain by Harvill Secker in February. Buy from Amazon.comIF AFRICAN fiction has enjoyed a resurgence over the past decade, non-fiction has generally taken a back seat. “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight”, Alexandra Fuller’s full-throttle and deeply funny account of growing up in southern Africa, came out in 2001 and is still a rare exception. “Leaving Before the Rains Come” is its sequel. It opens in Wyoming, where Ms Fuller now lives, but is as rooted in the red soil of her childhood as its predecessor.On the surface, it is the story of the end of a marriage. It is not, however, a divorce memoir, nor is there much of the misery about it. Instead, Ms Fuller has stitched together a patchwork of anecdotes and emotions spanning two continents—the Africa of her early years and the America of her adult life—and many generations of variously mad and sad ancestors in an attempt to make sense of it all. Her writing is astoundingly good; she loops forwards and backwards in time and place, but there is not a spare word in the book. Every story earns its right to be there.Her parents are still central characters: her mother, who found solace in...

New American fiction: Magical realism

Thu, 01/29/2015 - 12:57

The First Bad Man. By Miranda July. Scribner; 288 pages; $25. Canongate; £14.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukCHERYL GLICKMAN, the heroine of Miranda July’s delightful debut novel, “The First Bad Man”, navigates her days with the slightly defensive, slightly hopeful air of a lonely person. “Who is she?” she yearns for people to wonder as she drives by, with one self-consciously “fun-loving” hand draped over the wheel. “Who is that middle-aged woman in the blue Honda?” Certainly, her nose may be “potatoey”, and her other facial features nothing to sing about, but “the spaces between” them are perfectly proportioned, which is something. Plus, there are her ears, those “darling little shells”. Knowing they are her best asset, Cheryl tends to enter crowded rooms sideways, ear first.Cheryl lives alone in Los Angeles and works mainly from home for a company that sells fitness DVDs of self-defence moves. Now in her...

The war on terror: Blame game

Thu, 01/29/2015 - 12:57

Guantánamo Diary. By Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Edited by Larry Siems. Little, Brown; 432 pages; $29. Canongate; £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukMOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI is the sort of person who attracts interest from Western spy agencies. A Mauritanian by birth, he joined al-Qaeda in 1991 when the group was fighting Afghanistan’s communist government. He left Afghanistan in 1992, claiming to have severed all ties with al-Qaeda, and lived in Germany and, briefly, Canada. In 2000, on his way back to Mauritania, he was arrested in Senegal. The Americans wondered if he had been part of the “Millennium plot”, a plan involving the bombing of Los Angeles airport—but could find no evidence.The destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York, on September 11th 2001, and the launch of the “War on Terror” reignited the Americans’ interest. On November 20th 2001 Mr Slahi was asked by Mauritanian police to accompany them to the police station. No need to worry, they said—he wouldn’t be gone long. Instead, after eight days of interrogation, he was sent to Jordan, a country with a reputation for torturing its prisoners. Eight months later...

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...

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