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Apology: Slavery review

11 September 2014 - 10:54am

In our review last week of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward Baptist, we said: “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” There has been widespread criticism of this, and rightly so. Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites were willing participants and beneficiaries. We regret having published this and apologise for having done so.

The South China Sea: Waves of trouble

11 September 2014 - 10:54am

The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia. By Bill Hayton. Yale University Press; 298 pages; $35 and £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE rocks and coral known as James Shoal are not much: just a raised stretch of seabed 22 metres (72 feet) below the surface and 107km (67 miles) off the coast of Malaysian Borneo. Yet China, 1,500km to the north, regards it as the southernmost point of its territory, at the base of a vast U-shaped swathe of the South China Sea, demarcated by a “nine-dash line” on maps that now appear even in Chinese passports. To compound the apparent absurdity, the shoal’s inclusion on Chinese maps seems the result of a mistake by Chinese cartographers in the 1930s, who thought it was a land feature. But from such historical accidents and blunders has emerged an interlocking network of disputes in the South China Sea that poses one of the most serious threats to peace in Asia, and...

Thomas Cromwell: Henry’s hooray

11 September 2014 - 10:54am

Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant. By Tracy Borman. Hodder & Stoughton; 450 pages; £25. To be published in America in January (pre-order from Amazon.com). Buy from Amazon.co.ukIN SOME ways Thomas Cromwell is a known quantity. He was King Henry VIII’s favoured minister, the London-born blacksmith’s son who severed England’s ties with the church of Rome. He is the hero of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker prize-winning novels, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies”. Through hard work and bloody-minded ruthlessness, he hammered a new England into shape.He piloted the bills of the Reformation through Parliament, bolstering that institution after a period of inactivity. He dissolved the monasteries. He helped disseminate a flurry of new English Bibles. “His qualities made him the most remarkable revolutionary in English history,” wrote an approving historian, G.R. Elton. His legacy is still hotly debated, but Cromwell was a politician who could get things done. According to Ms Mantel, he could “draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.”But in...

The making of China: Mighty Ming

11 September 2014 - 10:54am

FROM its early years the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was famous in the West for the magnificent—and inimitable—blue-and-white porcelain made in the imperial factories at Jingdezhen. European collectors discovered it while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, took it home and mounted it in gold, believing it had magical qualities and could detect poison. As early as 1495 Andrea Mantegna, an Italian artist, painted an “Adoration of the Magi” in which one of the three kings is seen offering the Christ child just such a cup filled with gold coins, the first time that a Ming work of art appears in a European painting.China’s recent rise, however, has prompted a wave of new archaeological discoveries and fresh scholarship on the Ming period that show how narrow this Eurocentric view has been. Now an exhibition at the British Museum (BM), based on unprecedented loans from Chinese museums and works borrowed from five other countries, offers a richer and more complex view of how China, as it is today, began to be formed in the early 15th century.In 1402 the ambitious Yongle emperor, Zhu Di, ascended the throne. Over the next 50 years or so, successive Ming rulers, like China’s...

20th-century Spain: Betrayal and atonement

11 September 2014 - 10:54am

From killer to pillar The Last Stalinist: The Life of Santiago Carrillo. By Paul Preston. William Collins; 432 pages; £30. To be published in America in January (pre-order from Amazon.com). Buy from Amazon.co.ukBY THE time he died in 2012 at the age of 97, Santiago Carrillo had long since become a pillar of his country’s political establishment and something of a national treasure. This unexpected coda to an implausibly long life, spent mainly as a Stalinist apparatchik, was wholly due to his statesmanship during the brief but vital period between 1976 and 1981 when Spain emerged from the 36-year dictatorship of General Franco and became a modern European democracy.Carrillo, who had led the Spanish Communist Party with an iron grip since the mid-1950s, realised that to be a relevant actor in the transition he would have to ditch many of the policies he had cherished. Out went a...

Istanbul: City lights

11 September 2014 - 10:54am

Welcome all high heels, flat heels, down-at-heels Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul. By Charles King. W.W. Norton; 476 pages; $27.95. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE “Queen of Cities”, as it was known in Byzantine times, was perfectly sited at the intersection of continents, cultures and seas. Istanbul may have been a great and ancient centre of civilisation, but there is nothing serene or timeless about the place. The city has been shaken by abrupt alterations in its physical and cultural landscape, thanks to both human violence and acts of God. It has seen sieges, pogroms, earthquakes, and fires both deliberate and accidental. Between 1569 and 1918 it was transformed by at least 16 huge blazes.Charles King, a historian and social scientist at Georgetown University, has chosen an unusual way of capturing this dizzying volatility. His book, “Midnight at the...

Writing: Talking sense

4 September 2014 - 11:08am

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. By Steven Pinker. Viking; 359 pages; $27.95. Allen Lane; £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukSTEVEN PINKER’S career began with language in mind—particularly in the minds of children. Since then, he has become a celebrated (and sometimes controversial) public explorer of human nature and the reasons violence has declined. With “The Sense of Style” he returns to his first love, language and thought.Mr Pinker wants to help writers get inside their readers’ minds. The single biggest cause of bad writing, he says, is “the curse of knowledge”. Children have an impossible time imagining that others do not know the things they know, and adults only partially grow out of this. Bad writers dwell on irrelevant details, or make logical connections that are logical only to them.Mr Pinker steers writers towards a “classic style”, in which the writer clearly points out things that may have escaped the reader’s notice, but which anyone can understand with patient guidance. Classic style uses concrete words in straightforward sentences easily parsed by man’s...

Correction

4 September 2014 - 11:08am

Our review of Rick Perlstein’s book, “The Invisible Bridge”, (“Purpose and worth”, August 2nd) stated that the entire junior class at West Point was punished for cheating in 1976. In fact, the cadets were barred from going on holiday pending an investigation into cheating. Of the 559 cadets accused, 151 were found to have violated the honour code and the rest were cleared. Sorry for the error.

Geopolitics: A bit of a mess

4 September 2014 - 11:08am

Still a man of influence 40 years on World Order. By Henry Kissinger. Penguin Press; 420 pages; $36. Allen Lane; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukDESPITE being out of office for almost four decades, Henry Kissinger—who left America’s State Department in 1977—still has remarkable influence. Reading this book, you can see why. As Russia plays grandmother’s footsteps in Ukraine, the Middle East falls prey to anarchy and China tests its growing strength, Mr Kissinger analyses the central problem for international relations today: the need for a new world order. He never quite says so, but he is deeply pessimistic.“World Order” sets out how the modern state arose almost by accident, from the interminable warfare of early 17th-century Europe. Worn down, the architects of the Peace of Westphalia agreed to disagree. Each state pledged to accept the realities of its neighbours’ values....

The world economy: How to fix a broken system

4 September 2014 - 11:08am

The Shifts and the Shocks: What We’ve Learned—and Have Still to Learn—from the Financial Crisis. By Martin Wolf. Penguin Press; 466 pages; $35. Allen Lane; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukMARTIN WOLF is an influential commentator. His weekly column in the Financial Times is required reading for the international financial elite. Paul Krugman of the New York Times may be the darling of the left and the Wall Street Journal editorial page the bible of many on the right, but inside finance ministries few are cited as often as Mr Wolf. He likes to admonish policymakers. As a centrist who favours free trade and free markets, though, he does so from within the mainstream.That makes his latest book striking. “The Shifts and the Shocks” is a fierce indictment of the global economy and a call for radical reform. Mr Wolf is reasonably impressed by the...

Jewellery design: Asian star

4 September 2014 - 11:08am

  • “Vividity” brooch, with a rare elbaite tourmaline in the centre. Source: All images courtesy of Wallace Chan
  • "Now and Always" necklace. The “Wallace Cut” carving technique creates an illusion in transparent materials, and combines medieval cameo and intaglio into a 3D engraving.
  • ...

American slavery: Blood cotton

4 September 2014 - 11:08am

Apology: In our review of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward Baptist, we said: “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” There has been widespread criticism of this, and rightly so. Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil. We regret having published this and apologise for having done so. We are therefore withdrawing the review but in the interests of transparency, anybody who wants to see the withdrawn review can click here.

Africa: The unlucky continent

4 September 2014 - 11:08am

The Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavour. By Martin Meredith. Public Affairs; 784 pages; $35. Simon & Schuster; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk“DO NOT talk to me of gold…[it] brings more dissension, misfortune and unexpected plagues in its trails than benefits.” So said Paul Kruger, president of the small Boer republic of the Transvaal in 1885 when he was told that gold had been found on the country’s eastern border. Kruger went on: “Every ounce…taken from the bowels of our soil will yet have to be weighed up with rivers of tears.” His prescience was remarkable. Within scarcely a decade his country’s independence had been snuffed out by Britain, which lusted to control the world’s richest gold mines.This anecdote finds many echoes across the ages and from country to country in a sweeping new history of Africa by Martin Meredith, a historian with an acute eye for detail and a firm grip on the forces that swept the continent. Africa’s profusion of natural wealth—whether gold, ivory or the very bodies of its inhabitants—served not to enrich its peoples but to impoverish and enslave...

Michelangelo: The maestro’s maestro

28 August 2014 - 10:55am

Pietà de resistance Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces. By Miles Unger. Simon & Schuster; 432 pages; $29.95. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukMichelangelo: Complete Works. By Frank Zöllner, Christof Thoenes and Thomas Pöpper. Taschen; 736 pages; $200 and £120. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukMILES UNGER’S biography of Michelangelo Buonarotti focuses on six of the great man’s greatest hits. In an appendix the author tells readers where to find them in Rome and Florence, but, in passing, he makes an arresting remark about the first of them, the “Pietà” in St Peter’s Basilica (pictured). Michelangelo was only 24 when he sculpted...

Food writing: Filling up

28 August 2014 - 10:55am

The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue. By David Sax. PublicAffairs; 318 pages; $25.99 and £17.99. Buy from  Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity. By Sandra Gilbert. W.W. Norton; 377 pages; $29.95. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk“TELL me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” declared Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, an 18th-century French gastronome. Food is necessary for survival, but, as two new books show, it also reflects society’s values, needs and desires in an ever-changing paradigm.In “The Tastemakers” David Sax, a Canadian journalist, embarks on a lively culinary tour of America, consulting chefs, producers, foodies, food buyers and trend forecasters to find out why one day sriracha sauce is all the rage, and the next people are adding kale to every meal.Mr Sax identifies four trends...

Technology: Will the internet eat your brain?

28 August 2014 - 10:55am

Mind Change: How Digital Technologies are Leaving their Mark on our Brains. By Susan Greenfield. Rider; 368 pages; £20. Buy from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukA PICTURE doing the rounds on social media a few months ago showed two Hong Kong lovers hugging on a train. Resting their heads on each other’s shoulders gave the girl and her boyfriend an ideal vantage point to gaze lovingly at the smartphone that each was fiddling with behind the other’s back.It was meant to be funny. But for Susan Greenfield, a British neuroscientist, this is no joke. For several years Lady Greenfield has been warning of what she sees as the dangers of computers and the internet, as they move out of the office and into people’s living rooms, pockets and personal lives. She has written newspaper articles and given lectures about the dangers of the digital world. She frets, worrying that smartphones and social networks are sucking users into an unsatisfying digital facsimile of reality, frying their memories, atrophying their social skills and generally rotting their brains.These are familiar worries to parents. As a working neuroscientist, Lady...

Modern Asian leaders: No unity in diversity

28 August 2014 - 10:55am

Makers of Modern Asia. Edited by Ramachandra Guha. Belknap Press; 385 pages; $29.95 and £22.95. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE cliché of the “Asian century” is usually presented as an economic argument: that the startling growth of a number of Asian countries is shifting the centre of gravity of the global economy to the continent where the bulk of its people live. But, argues an Indian historian, Ramachandra Guha, in the introduction to this entertaining and illuminating collection of essays, “the politics matters just as much as the economics.” Modern Asia is of course also the result of the anti-colonial movements, wars and revolutions of the previous century. The justifiable conceit behind the book Mr Guha has edited is that a good way to understand this is to look at the national leaders thrown up by the tumult.The strength of the idea lies in the 11 leaders it covers and the expertise of the writers...

Prison in America: Protection rackets

28 August 2014 - 10:55am

Nothing beats a tattoo The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System. By David Skarbek. Oxford University Press; 240 pages; $99 (hardcover), $27.95 (paperback) and £64. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukIN 2009 Edward John Schaefer drunkenly swerved his motorbike over a pavement in the town of Marin, California. He hit a father and his daughter. The girl died. Schaefer was jailed for life. Some ten days after arriving at San Quentin State Prison, Frank Souza, another inmate, stabbed Schaefer to death with a “bone-crusher”, a seven-inch homemade metal spear.The murder was not a random act of violence. Nor was it an example of the haphazard terrors of prison life. Mr Souza was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a prison gang. When asked why he did it, Mr Souza replied: “All I got to say, nine-year-old girl.” The killing was justice, determined and...

Fiction: Multiple imaginings

28 August 2014 - 10:55am

The Bone Clocks. By David Mitchell. Random House; 624 pages; $30. Sceptre; 595 pages; £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukDAVID MITCHELL’S novels are often made up of interconnecting novellas. His first, “Ghostwritten” (1999), started the trend, and his most accomplished, “Cloud Atlas” (2004), transported the reader through six distinct eras, from historical past to post-apocalyptic future. Mr Mitchell says he had hoped to write 70 stories for his sixth book, “The Bone Clocks”, but stopped far short. Even so, he takes greater risks than ever before—and, for the most part, pulls them off.The link in each section is Holly Sykes. At the start in 1984 she is a teenager in Gravesend on the south bank of the Thames, opposite Tilbury in Essex. After a row with her mother she runs away from home. In the book’s final novella, set in 2043, she is nearing the end of her days and fighting for survival on the west coast...

China in Africa: Empire of the sums

21 August 2014 - 11:15am

China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa. By Howard French.Knopf; 304 pages; $27.95 and £22.50. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk“NI HAO” and “chi ku” may be the two commonest phrases in this riveting worm’s-eye account of the Chinese in Africa. They mean, respectively, “hello” and “eat bitter”. The first is relentlessly used by Howard French, a veteran American reporter with a Ghanaian wife who has been based in both Africa and China for the New York Times and speaks Chinese, enabling him to converse with an array of Chinese people in Africa, from rugged bricklayers in Zambia and brothel madams in Liberia, to engineers in Mali and farmers in Mozambique. The second phrase is used by many of Africa’s new Chinese diaspora to denote their ability to live rough in remote and inhospitable places and to work...