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Culture, from The Economist
The Fishermen. By Chigozie Obioma. One; 304 pages; £14.99. To be published in America next month by Little, Brown.
PART Bildungsroman, part Greek tragedy, “The Fishermen” may be the most interesting debut novel to emerge from Nigeria this year. It recounts the story of an Igbo family of four brothers who grow up in a small town in the south-west of the country. Their father is strict, but proud: he wants one to be an airline pilot, another a lawyer, the third a family doctor. The youngest, nine-year-old Benjamin, who loves animals, will be a professor. The townspeople laugh at the paterfamilias and his dreams, but he swats them off like mosquitoes. No loafing for his sons.
Shortly after the father’s bosses at the Central Bank of Nigeria send him to take on a job in another town, though, the boys begin to go astray. “His established routine of composure, obedience, study, and compulsory siesta—long a pattern of our daily existence—gradually lost its grip…Then we broke free.” The boys bunk off school and head down to the river to fish.
One day, by the riverbank, they encounter the...
How To Run a Government So that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy. By Michael Barber. Allen Lane; 336 pages; £16.99.
WHEN Sir Michael Barber, a monkish former teacher, emerged as head of the Delivery Unit that Tony Blair launched in 2001 to ensure that individual government departments implemented reforms, he appeared at a press briefing armed with a massive flip chart and a volley of statistics. This newfangled approach was roundly mocked as “deliverology”. But Sir Michael embraced the term, which describes a semi-science that takes the schemes and dreams of ministers and turns them into reality with as few disasters as possible.
Public-service reform had long relied on ministers mixing political passions and good intentions in the hope that the combination would magically coalesce into good results. That governments across the rich and developing worlds now seek help from experts on reforms shows how much more respectable deliverology has become. In 1995 Mark Moore’s classic, “Creating Public Value”, focused minds in the Clinton administration by laying out the conditions for improving America’s public institutions. Inspired by that book Sir Michael, now head of education practice for the Pearson Group (part-owner of The Economist), has set out to establish some dos and don’ts for...
Words Without Music. By Philip Glass. Liveright; 432 pages; $29.95. Faber & Faber; £22.50.
PHILIP GLASS is probably the world’s most famous living composer. He is known to many as a minimalist, since much of his music is highly repetitive, and he is a prolific film-score creator whose music was used in “Leviathan”, a controversial Russian movie from 2014. His new autobiography shows him to be a decent writer, too.
The book avoids detailed analyses of compositions. Instead, Mr Glass discusses the broad influences—academic, cultural and personal—on his approach to music. In this respect the early chapters are the most illuminating. He was born 78 years ago into a Jewish family in Baltimore, where his father ran a record shop in a down-at-heel neighbourhood. Ben Glass was a fearsome man, who was later to disown his son after he married a gentile. He was “very physical and muscular” and would beat up people who tried to steal his records. But he passed his love of music on to Philip, who would sit, unnoticed, at the top of the stairs, while his father listened...
A Triumph of Genius: Edwin Land, Polaroid, and the Kodak Patent War.By Ronald Fierstein.American Bar Association; 644 pages; $35 and £22.99. Buy from Amazon.co.uk (ISBN=unknown)
“LIKE visiting a shrine,” is how Steve Jobs described a meeting with Edwin Land. The founder of Apple adored Land, the co-founder of Polaroid, a pioneer of instant photography that with its mix of innovation, aesthetics and focus on consumer utility was in many ways the Apple of its day. Land was not only “one of the great inventors of our time”, according to Jobs. “More importantly, he saw the intersection of art and science and business and built an organisation to reflect that.” Like Jobs, the adopted boy to whom he became a sort of father figure, Land was driven, sometimes to the point of obsession, a demanding taskmaster and occasionally difficult to deal with.
Land’s relative obscurity today reflects the fact that the inventions for which he was best known were rendered largely obsolete by the very digital revolution that made Jobs into a business hero and...
Where Chefs Eat: A Guide to Chefs’ Favourite Restaurants. By Joe Warwick. Phaidon; 975 pages; $24.95 and £14.95.
DEDICATED restaurant guides have been around for over a century. One of the oldest, the Michelin Guide, relies on anonymous experts, and more recent models, such as TripAdvisor, reflect consumer comments. Such is the variety of information that the curious diner must wonder where to begin. The restaurant-critic slot in newspapers in Britain, for example, is often treated as a place for writers to entertain rather than advise. The profusion of web content also makes it difficult to know whom to trust.
“Where Chefs Eat” does something different, by serving up the advice of prominent culinarians. So, if you’re considering where to dine in, say, Paris, René Redzepi, Denmark’s best-known chef, mentions Le Chateaubriand, which he calls “a restaurant of the future”, and Pierre Gagnaire, a Frenchman with three Michelin stars, suggests Kifuné—“a hot spot for the Japanese crowd”.
The author, Joe Warwick, co-founded the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” awards; “Where Chefs Eat” is rather more encyclopedic. Its 3,250 recommendations are culled from the responses of 630 international chefs, many of them household names. Its usefulness derives from its culinary eclecticism, stretching from Korean street food at K-Bar in...
Boko Haram: Inside Nigeria’s Unholy War. By Mike Smith. I.B. Tauris; 233 pages; $29 and £18.99.
“YES, Western education is forbidden,” said the shirtless man with the bandaged arm. “Any type of knowledge that contradicts Islam, Allah does not allow you to acquire it.” It was July 2009, and the speaker was Mohammed Yusuf, the leader of a group of then little-known jihadists. The setting was a hasty interrogation that followed Yusuf’s capture after a brief uprising in north-eastern Nigeria sparked by a clash with policemen. A few hours later he was executed by security forces.
Rather than focusing on the usual subjects of such conversations—locations of weapons and quantities of soldiers, say—the interrogation took the form of a theological debate between two Muslims. Details of the encounter, which was recorded on video, shed much light on the contradictory and messianic world view of Yusuf, the founder of a group that has since become familiar to the wider world as Boko Haram, a name that loosely translates as “Western education is forbidden”. That the group takes exception to such teaching is all too plain....
The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me: An Aristocratic Family, A High-Society Scandal and an Extraordinary Legacy. By Sofka Zinovieff. Harper; 436 pages; $35. Jonathan Cape; £25.
SOFKA ZINOVIEFF has form as a cultural explorer. She studied anthropology and did research in Greece, a country where she later settled and described insightfully and at times lyrically, both in fiction and memoir. In another work, tracing the life of one of her grandmothers, a communist Russian princess, she dives into the world of the Bolshevik revolution and its aftermath.
Her latest book, which came out in Britain last year and is about to be published in America, brings her much closer to home. But in Ms Zinovieff’s case home is a peculiar place. Having grown up as a free-spirited Londoner whose father hobnobbed with rock stars, she interrupted her Greek investigations when she heard that she had inherited a famous mansion in Oxfordshire, Faringdon House. Suddenly she was “Miss Sofka”, responsible for an estate and entitled to a special pew in the ancient local church.
The story gets stranger still. She was...
Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. By Robert Putnam. Simon & Schuster; 386 pages; $28 and £18.99.
THE most important divide in America today is class, not race, and the place where it matters most is in the home. Conservatives have been banging on about family breakdown for decades. Now one of the nation’s most prominent liberal scholars has joined the chorus.
Robert Putnam is a former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the author of “Bowling Alone” (2000), an influential work that lamented the decline of social capital in America. In his new book, “Our Kids”, he describes the growing gulf between how the rich and the poor raise their children. Anyone who has read “Coming Apart” by Charles Murray will be familiar with the trend, but Mr Putnam adds striking detail and some excellent graphs (pictured). This is a thoughtful and persuasive book.
Among the educated elite the traditional family is thriving: fewer than 10% of births to female college graduates are outside marriage—a figure that is barely higher than it was in 1970. In 2007 among women with just a high-school education...
Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947. By Bruce Hoffman. Knopf; 618 pages; $35.
ISRAEL’S creation has many causes, but among the most powerful, argues Bruce Hoffman, is terrorism. For a decade, the anonymous soldiers of the Jewish underground waged a terror campaign to establish a state, targeting first Arabs, then British forces, then Arabs again.
Mr Hoffman has worked for the CIA and American forces in Baghdad, and he established the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University. Although he dismisses some Arab militants of the age as atavistic marauders out to “kill as many Jews as possible”, he maintains a thinly veiled admiration for the Jewish irregulars whose plan to upset Britain’s 25-year rule of Palestine he describes as “unequivocally triumphant” and “brilliant in its simplicity”. “Terrorism,” Mr Hoffman writes, “can, in the right conditions and with the appropriate strategy and tactics, succeed in attaining at least some of its practitioners’ fundamental aims.”
In its infancy, the Jewish Yishuv, or settlement, cheered as Britain assiduously set about fulfilling Lord Balfour’s promise to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. As the Yishuv’s power grew, however, Britain’s presence became more of a hindrance than a help to its aspirations for statehood...
Art on an industrial scale
WHEN Graham Beal, the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), realised about a decade ago what a turning point an 11-month visit by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo had represented for the city’s art scene in the early 1930s, he decided to make an exhibition out of it. The culmination would be the DIA’s immovable crown jewel: Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals, a series of frescoes depicting machinery and workers at Ford’s River Rouge plant, which the Mexican artist described as the finest work of his career.
During the period, which Mr Beal refers to delicately as a time of “interesting financial circumstances”, the planned exhibition was put on hold for several years. At that time the city’s funding of the DIA dwindled to nothing and Detroit sank ever deeper into a financial morass. After the city declared bankruptcy in 2013, the emergency manager considered closing the DIA and selling off its art. It was saved by a “grand bargain”. Together, private donors, charitable foundations and the state of Michigan raised $816m to help pay public workers’ pensions in return for transferring...
A Kim Jong Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Film-Maker, his Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power. By Paul Fischer. Flatiron Books; 353 pages; $27.99. Viking; £14.99.
NORTH KOREA, under its former leader Kim Jong Il, was a monstrous “display performance of its own”. This compelling line lies at the heart of “A Kim Jong Il Production”, a detailed and evocative retelling of one of North Korea’s most extraordinary heists: the kidnap of a South Korean starlet, Choi Eun-hee (known as Madame Choi), and her ex-husband and film-maker, Shin Sang-ok. Paul Fischer, a film producer, recounts the well-known story in three engrossing acts.
His set is Pyongyang, the North’s capital: less a city than “a stage on a monumental scale”, its central streets dotted with white marks so that citizens—the extras in this theatre state—move in unison at mass events. The ubiquitous portraits and chest pins of Kim Il Sung, its first dictator, only began under his son, who deified his father to legitimise the succession. The younger Kim developed a keen sense...
The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China. By Chen Guangcheng. Henry Holt; 352 pages; $30. Macmillan; £20.
THE departure from Beijing on May 19th 2012 of Chen Guangcheng, his wife and two children on a plane bound for America marked the end of the most dramatic story of a dissident’s escape from persecution in Communist-ruled China. Mr Chen’s flight from imprisonment in his own home, where he had been kept under watch by hundreds of guards; his arrival at the American embassy in Beijing with Chinese agents in hot pursuit; and the high-level wrangling between America and China that eventually allowed him to head into exile, had the trappings of a Hollywood thriller. And to cap it all, he is blind.
“The Barefoot Lawyer”, Mr Chen’s memoir of his struggle with the thuggery of the state in the poor village in eastern China where he grew up, and of his eventual flight, is a powerful reminder of how some aspects of the country remain unchanged despite its rapidly growing prosperity. The tyranny he describes in his part of the countryside is perhaps...
THE Sistine Chapel in Rome is one of the holiest sites in Christendom, the place where innumerable popes have been elected across the ages. It is also a popular tourist destination. The Vatican Museums (of which the chapel is, to many, the jewel in the crown) attracted a record 5.89m visitors last year, almost as many as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which is nearly five times bigger. The crowds are a financial boon. According to the director, Antonio Paolucci, the museums generate around €80m ($87m) from ticket revenue each year and another €20m from merchandising and corporate hospitality. Of that total, roughly half goes toward the museums’ costs (including paying for a staff of 800) and the rest is surplus revenue for the Vatican City.
But the crowds also pose a problem. Four times as many people visit the Sistine Chapel as did in 1980; on the busiest days more than 25,000 visitors a day pass through. Even in quieter periods, crowds wrap around its fortified walls, batting away selfie-stick vendors and touts offering unofficial queue-jumping tours. The carbon dioxide (CO2)...
Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much. By Michael Wood. Amazon/New Harvest; 129 pages; $20 and £8.99.
ALFRED HITCHCOCK, the unchallenged master of suspense, had surprisingly little time for mystery. “In the usual form of suspense,” he told François Truffaut, a French director, “it is indispensable that the public be made aware of all the facts involved.” The uncertainty lies in how information is revealed, or re-revealed. The same might be said for any biography of Hitchcock himself, of which Michael Wood’s volume is the latest. The director of such cornerstones of the genre as “Psycho” and “Vertigo” (voted the greatest film of all time by Sight & Sound magazine in 2012) has been so amply scrutinised by film scholars and film-makers that most new studies can only aim to reconfigure existing insights with subtly different implications.
At its most elegant, this slim contribution to the Hitchcock library, by a professor of literature at Princeton, surprises with the splintered connections it makes between individual films and other points of culture and politics. In one exhilarating chapter Mr Wood unapologetically breaks academic form for a free-associative join-the-dots game between the lush film-star swoon of “Notorious”, the postmodern appreciation of Jean-Luc Godard and “Memory of the Camps...
Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool. By Jennifer Jacquet. Pantheon; 209 pages; $24. Allen Lane; £17.99.
So You’ve Been Publically Shamed. By Jon Ronson. Riverhead Books; 290 pages; $27.95. Picador; £16.99.
RAGE over bankers’ bonuses and tax avoidance stalls at a familiar impasse: one side points out that the miscreants’ behaviour is perfectly legal; the other avers that it is still wrong. It is in the resolution of such stand-offs, says Jennifer Jacquet, an academic in New York, that shame comes into its own. “Is Shame Necessary?” is her thought-provoking treatise on the soft power of opprobrium, and its important role in achieving social cohesion in an ever more individualised culture.
In a market society where almost every ethical principle has its price, an appeal to a disinterested sense of civic duty seems at times nostalgic, if not futile. But bring someone’s reputation into it, and suddenly you get results. From community-sanitation programmes in Bangladesh—flagging roadside turds to shame public defecators into changing their behaviour—to successful...
The End of Apartheid: Diary of a Revolution. By Robin Renwick. Biteback; 184 pages; £16.99.
THIS is the chronicle of a diplomat who did more than any other to facilitate the transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa. Robin (now Lord) Renwick had previously pulled off a similar feat by coaxing Southern Rhodesia into becoming Zimbabwe. He was Britain’s chief behind-the-scenes Foreign Office fixer for Margaret Thatcher and her foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, in the twists and turns of diplomacy culminating in the Lancaster House conference of 1979.
It was natural, therefore, that Thatcher should pick him to be Britain’s ambassador to South Africa in 1987, with the job of ensuring that Nelson Mandela was freed and his country set on an irreversible path to democracy. Lord Renwick’s diaries, which draw on many of the dispatches he sent to Whitehall and which have now been published under a special waiver to the 30-year secrecy rule, offer a string of insights into the tortuous process towards that miraculous outcome.
In particular, they seek “finally to rest the contention that Thatcher was ‘a friend of apartheid’ and called Nelson Mandela a ‘terrorist’ (which, as a matter of fact, she never did’)”, writes Lord Renwick, while conceding that the prime minister injudiciously called the African National...
No longer skirting the issue
Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women. By Sarah Helm. Nan A. Talese; 743 pages; $37.50. Little, Brown; £25.
AS SHE searched for survivors of Ravensbrück, a concentration camp 50 miles (80km) north of Berlin, Sarah Helm came home one day to find a French voice on her answering machine. The message was from Louise Le Porz, a doctor from Bordeaux, who asked her to visit. There was much to talk about, she said to Ms Helm, a British journalist. “But you’d better hurry. I’m 93 years old.”
A sense of urgency infuses this history, which comes just in time to gather the testimony of the camp’s survivors. Ravensbrück has had far less attention than Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. What happened there was covered up. The files were burned as the Allies drew near in 1945. Later, Soviet tanks bulldozed the buildings. The camp’s history soon became divided, like Europe. East Germany had its own, selective version, stressing the heroism of the communists among the inmates; the West, without ready access to the site and with evidence...
Watts, Los Angeles, 1966: What future awaited them?
Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. By Jill Leovy. Spiegel & Grau; 384 pages; $28. Bodley Head; £16.99.
VIOLENT crime in America has dropped dramatically in the past 20 years. In both New York and Los Angeles, the number of murders fell from about 2,000 a year in the early 1990s to a quarter of that number today. But though far fewer are being killed, black men are still dying at alarming rates in the toughest urban pockets. One such is a part of Los Angeles known as Watts, the subject of a harrowing investigation by Jill Leovy, a veteran police reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
In 2007, frustrated that so little attention was being paid to these street murders, Ms Leovy started a blog for her paper called “Homicide Report”, describing every single murder in the city. Now, after a decade shadowing an LAPD homicide squad, she has gathered all she learned into a book to stress that this epidemic of murder is still raging. At a time when the Twitter hashtag #BlackLivesMatter is a rallying cry...
The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East. By Eugene Rogan. Basic Books; 442 pages; $29.99. Allen Lane; £25.
“UNTO us a son is born!” It was with great excitement that Enver Pasha, the most powerful of the triumvirate of Young Turks who ruled the Ottoman Empire, greeted the news that two German warships had sailed into neutral Turkish waters on August 10th 1914. The Goeben, a heavy battleship, and the Breslau, a light cruiser, had bombarded French Algerian ports at the start of the first world war, and were being pursued by French and British vessels across the Mediterranean.
The Turks extracted a high price for granting the ships haven, including recognition of their demands for the recovery of territories lost in earlier conflicts and financial help if they entered the war. To avoid immediate hostilities, though, the Turks ostensibly bought the German ships (and the services of their crews), replacing two dreadnoughts that had been ordered from, but requisitioned by, Britain.
Thus did Germany appear to gain a new ally, and Turkey a...
McQueen’s crown of horns
Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. By Dana Thomas. Penguin Press; 420 pages; $29.95. Allen Lane; £25.
Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin.. By Andrew Wilson. Simon & Schuster; 369 pages; £25. To be published in America by Scribner in September.
“SAVAGE BEAUTY”, a glitzy retrospective of the designs of Alexander McQueen, will open at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London later this month, just over five years after his suicide. This is being advertised as something of a homecoming for a London-born designer, and a commercial coup for the museum: the show attracted 661,000 visitors to the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2011, making it the eighth-most-viewed exhibition in the Met’s history.
John Galliano, another British designer, has also been in the news recently. Few would have been willing to predict a successful rehabilitation after footage emerged of him yelling anti-Semitic abuse at a woman in a Parisian café. But earlier this year Mr Galliano’s comeback show...