Culture, from The Economist

Syndicate content Economist.com
Books and arts
Updated: 13 hours 12 min ago

Gunning for the G-word

16 April 2015 - 10:48am

Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide. By Thomas de Waal. Oxford University Press; 298 pages; £18.99.

ON APRIL 24th millions of Armenians around the world will commemorate the centenary of the mass killing of their forebears by Ottoman forces. A growing number of historians say it was genocide.

 “The central facts of the story are straightforward,” says Thomas de Waal, a Russophile scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an American think-tank, in the introduction to his objective and meticulously researched account of the Armenian tragedy and how it has played out in modern times. “The Armenians were an ancient people, whose homeland was centred in what is now eastern Turkey.” In 1913, there were up to 2m of them in the Ottoman empire. At the start of the first world war, the Ottoman government ordered their mass deportation. A few years later, Mr de Waal writes, there was barely one-tenth of that number in Turkey. The rest had been exiled or killed.

 A plethora of academic tomes, memoirs and novels about the genocide exist, including Turkish government-sponsored propaganda purporting to prove that most of the Armenians died of hunger and disease during their forced march to the Syrian desert in 1915.  Mr de Waal navigates through some of these. Yet, unlike...

Another world, another time

16 April 2015 - 10:48am

  • The Lifeboat, 1938 Source: Towner Gallery, Eastbourne
  • The Waterwheel, 1938 Source: Brecknock Museum/ V...

Thoughts on its future

16 April 2015 - 10:48am

Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. By Ayaan Hirsi Ali. HarperCollins; 272 pages; $27.99 and £18.99.

NOT many people have lived deep inside a ruthlessly patriarchal, theocratic world and also won acclaim in the great bastions of Western, liberal thought. Even fewer can describe the contrast with insight, and that is why the writings of Ayaan Hirsi Ali on religion, culture and violence always command attention.

In several senses, she has come a long way, and she is still travelling. Having moved to the Netherlands, and then America, after a childhood in Africa and Saudi Arabia, the Somali-born writer is now a fellow of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In three earlier books she expounded her conviction that Islam, her family’s religion, was incorrigibly flawed. She faulted the faith for encouraging violence, for abusing women and ultimately for its belief in a punitive God whose existence she had rejected.

In her latest work, “Heretic”, Ms Hirsi Ali shifts her position and argues that Islam is capable of modernising reform. At the start of the book she sounds...

From love to grief to gaiety

16 April 2015 - 10:48am

Hero of the interior life

James Merrill: Life and Art. By Langdon Hammer. Knopf; 912 pages; $40.

WHEN James Merrill was a student at Amherst College, falling in love with an older poet, Kimon Friar, he wrote in his diary about the ambition that this new love produced: “I shall write, be brilliant, be great.” Merrill, who would grow into one of the great American poets of the 20th century, spent his life practising a strange kind of alchemy, as Langdon Hammer shows in his new biography: he turned love and memory, both short-lived and lifelong, into poetry that would endure.  

Alchemist that he was, Merrill certainly did not need more gold. He was the son of Charles Merrill, the louche and bullish co-founder of Merrill Lynch, and his second wife, Hellen Ingram, a glamorous, overbearing mother who provided Merrill with a lifetime of “passionate, tragic scenes”. In his palatial childhood home, called the Orchard, the boy chafed at his life of distant, distracted parents and the daily round of ceremonious play-dates and paid caretakers.

In poetry,...

Born to be wild

9 April 2015 - 10:44am

The Wolf Border. By Sarah Hall. Harper; 435 pages; $25.99. Faber & Faber; £17.99.

THIS new novel by Sarah Hall, whose earlier work has twice been nominated for the Man Booker prize, makes for rapacious reading. Like her debut, “Haweswater”, “The Wolf Border” is set in her birth place, Cumbria, and revolves around the zealous plans of the Earl of Annerdale to introduce “the god of all dogs”, the wolf, to his estate. As those surrounding the project get pulled into its orbit, the lives of wolves become entwined with the lives of men; political games, murky truths and the ever problematic dynamics of family are laid bare in an absorbing page-turner.

The story’s protagonist is Rachel Caine, a wolf expert who has spent most of the last decade on a remote reservation in Idaho. She returns home to the Lake District to take on the ambitious rewilding project but also to confront her past. Together with her half-brother Lawrence, they try to move out of the shadow left by their toxic mother Binny, with her “body made to ruin men”, who had moved them to the area as children and was “practically Roman in her...

How to remember

9 April 2015 - 10:44am

Bettyville: A Memoir. By George Hodgman. Viking Adult; 288 pages; $27.95.

The Light of the World: A Memoir. By Elizabeth Alexander. Grand Central Publishing; 224 pages; $26.

PEOPLE preserve their loved ones in creative ways. Henry Ford so admired his friend Thomas Edison that he supposedly trapped his last breath in a test tube. Others wield their pens in tribute. Two new memoirs try to capture the essence of the people the authors love but have lost.

Elizabeth Alexander, a professor of African-American studies at Yale and author of several books of poems and essays, is best known for composing “Praise Song for the Day”, a poem for Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Her tender memoir hinges on a different historic day in her own life, when her Eritrean husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, suddenly died of heart disease, only four days after his 50th birthday. One of their sons found him unresponsive by the treadmill in their basement in New Haven, Connecticut.

“The Light of the World” is a story about the shock of sudden loss and forging forward afterward. It is part poetic elegy, part scrapbook. She pins snippets of poems that evoke their marriage and family, and recipes that Ficre, a chef and prolific painter, enjoyed, onto an impressionistic canvas. Their home was a hearth, where everyone...

Cabinet of curiosity

9 April 2015 - 10:44am

Divine Dante

Curiosity. By Alberto Manguel. Yale University Press; 377 pages; $30 and £18.99.

ALBERTO MANGUEL has a curious mind, quirky, inquisitive and fascinated by detail. A literary omnivore, he owns 30,000 books and boasts an output of writing to match. For 35 years Mr Manguel has published on average a book a year. Though he ranges across many genres, he is best known for artfully arranged miscellanies about books and libraries.

Reading Mr Manguel is like taking a city walk or an unhurried meal with an erudite, cosmopolitan friend. An Argentine diplomat’s son, he knows many languages, and he lived in many places before settling in France. Few cultures or historical periods are closed to him. He hops knowledgeably and divertingly from topic to topic. Yet he never strays far from his true interest, reading itself.

As befits a miscellany, “Curiosity”, his latest work, is really many books in one: ruminations on life’s big questions, answers from the great books of the past, a loving homage to Dante and thoughts on curiosity itself. Those last two topics work much...

Blood earth

9 April 2015 - 10:44am

The Looting Machine: Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth. By Tom Burgis. PublicAffairs; 319 pages; $27.99. William Collins; £20.

AFRICANS ask many questions about what ails a continent that abounds with natural riches yet suffers, too, from greedy rulers, bad government and entrenched poverty. The replies they get range from the outright racist to the climatic (countries in the tropics suffer from more parasites and disease than in more temperate latitudes) to the political, with many blaming colonialism or so-called neo-colonialism for the continent’s woes.

For Tom Burgis, a journalist with the Financial Times, the problem is, paradoxically, Africa’s wealth of natural resources. He is not the first to write about countries with the “resource curse”. Nor does his book add to the copious academic literature on the subject. But Mr Burgis sees Africa—with a third of the Earth’s mineral deposits and some of its weakest institutions—as being particularly vulnerable to the predations that arise from the combination of mineral wealth...

New on the Rialto

9 April 2015 - 10:44am

OKWUI ENWEZOR, the artistic director of the 2015 Venice Biennale, which opens next month, speaks the slippery, abstract language so common to high-flying contemporary-art curators. An exhibition, he declares, is “a project that will be located in a dialectical field of references and artistic practices”. Anyone wanting a clear sense of what he thinks should look at what he does rather than what he says.

For 30 years Mr Enwezor has been a curator and critic, intent on stretching the canon of traditional Western contemporary art and testing what it might become. The youngest son of an intellectual Igbo family, at 18 Mr Enwezor left Nigeria for New York where he met a number of African-American artists, including Glenn Ligon, a favourite of Barack Obama.

Seeking a way to make his mark, in 1994 he founded Nka, a journal about contemporary African art. Shortly after, Mr Enwezor got his first big break, curating the fledgling Johannesburg Biennale. It won him, at 35, one of Europe’s leading curatorial jobs, overseeing Documenta, a prestigious exhibition that takes place in Kassel in Germany every five years. Now he...

A man for all seasons

9 April 2015 - 10:44am

John Aubrey: My Own Life. By Ruth Scurr. Chatto & Windus; 518 pages; £25.

JOHN AUBREY (1626-97) was many things: antiquarian, biographer, topographer, naturalist and collector of etymologies, folklore and old wives’ tales. Sadly, he was not, like his contemporary Samuel Pepys, a diarist. Now Ruth Scurr, a Cambridge academic, has put that right. Drawing on his manuscripts and letters, she has fashioned, as chronologically as possible, an autobiography in the form of the diary that Aubrey never wrote. It fits him perfectly. Aubrey made himself so present in his pages, and wrote so informally—so “tumultuarily”, as he liked to say—that Ms Scurr’s invention feels entirely natural. She has modernised his spelling and stitched in clarifications, but on the whole this is Aubrey speaking.

Aubrey published only one book, complaining to the end that so much remained unfinished—“upon the loom”, as he put it. Now the reader can watch him at the warp and weft—observing, thinking and asking questions. Sea shells on hill tops, for example: was the world once covered in water? “Ovallish” pebbles: were they once soft? “Is it possible to find the latitude of a place by a quadrant in the dark without sun or stars?” Travelling the country, he sampled, sniffed and tasted: on Dundery Hill “I noticed that there was some weed or flower in the...

Uses and abuses

1 April 2015 - 10:50am

Hidden features

Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World. By Bruce Schneier.W.W. Norton; 383 pages; $27.95 and £17.99.

SOCIETY has more digital information than ever and can do new things with it. Google can identify flu outbreaks using search queries; America’s National Security Agency (NSA) aspires to do the same to find terrorists. But at the same time people are under constant surveillance by companies and governments, since the rules protecting privacy are hopelessly out of date.

In “Data and Goliath” Bruce Schneier, a computer-security expert, does a fine job of laying out the problems caused by this compulsive collection of personal data, and suggests some steps that would help protect society from the most egregious excesses. The challenges are severe because modern technologies collect large amounts of information on the most innocuous of activities, which formerly left no data trace.

In business, personal information has become a sort of raw material. Many smartphone apps can afford to be free because...

Time it was

1 April 2015 - 10:50am

What Comes Next and How to Like It. By Abigail Thomas. Scribner; 240 pages; $24.

ABIGAIL THOMAS is not a painter, but she makes paintings anyway. Using oil-based house paint, which is toxic, she drips, flings and pours colour onto glass and then pushes it all around. Failed compositions are scraped away, yielding new and surprising arrangements. A dopey bunch of apple trees can suddenly become a ghostly stand of birch. “You have to have some faith,” Ms Thomas writes in her beautiful new memoir.

This is not a book about painting. It is about pushing around sometimes toxic material in an effort—sometimes vain, often frustrating—to make something that looks right, or at least to find beauty in the results. This, of course, is what it means to write, and certainly to write a memoir. It is also what it takes to find contentment, particularly in one’s later years, when most of the colour already has been dripped and flung. That is the real subject of Ms Thomas’s book.

In a way, the book is a sequel. In 2006 Ms Thomas published “A Three Dog Life”, a bestselling account of her last years with her husband, Rich, who suffered traumatic brain injuries after he was hit by a car in Manhattan one night. Bookshops groan with personal chronicles of adversity, but Ms Thomas’s work stood apart. In elegant, spare prose, she described what...

Flash mob

1 April 2015 - 10:50am

Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories from Around the World. Edited by James Thomas, Robert Shapard and Christopher Merrill. W.W. Norton; 277 pages; $15.95 and £9.99.

IT HAS long been said that Ernest Hemingway kick-started the super-short short story, known as flash fiction. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” is a six-word narrative often attributed to Papa H. Apocryphal perhaps, but the attribution makes a kind of flash fiction in itself, one completely suited to the early 21st century, when flash really seems to be coming into its own. What better literary meat for people who are self-referential, ironic and glued to smartphones than these swift puzzles or tales—some only a sentence long—which vanish from the screen even as they linger in the mind?

This does seem to be a flash-fiction moment. Last year David Mitchell—better known for expansive novels that are the very opposite of flash—published “The Right Sort”, a story in 280 tweets. This came not long after “The Black Box”, by Jennifer Egan, which first appeared on the New Yorker’s Twitter account in 2012. Twitter...

Time it was

1 April 2015 - 10:50am

What Comes Next and How to Like It. By Abigail Thomas. Scribner; 240 pages; $24.

ABIGAIL THOMAS is not a painter, but she makes paintings anyway. Using oil-based house paint, which is toxic, she drips, flings and pours colour onto glass and then pushes it all around. Failed compositions are scraped away, yielding new and surprising arrangements. A dopey bunch of apple trees can suddenly become a ghostly stand of birch. “You have to have some faith,” Ms Thomas writes in her beautiful new memoir.

This is not a book about painting. It is about pushing around sometimes toxic material in an effort—sometimes vain, often frustrating—to make something that looks right, or at least to find beauty in the results. This, of course, is what it means to write, and certainly to write a memoir. It is also what it takes to find contentment, particularly in one’s later years, when most of the colour already has been dripped and flung. That is the real subject of Ms Thomas’s book.

In a way, the book is a sequel. In 2006 Ms Thomas published “A Three Dog Life”, a bestselling account of her last years with her husband, Rich, who suffered traumatic brain injuries after he was hit by a car in Manhattan one night. Bookshops groan with personal chronicles of adversity, but Ms Thomas’s work stood apart. In elegant, spare prose, she described what...

Jobs 2.0

1 April 2015 - 10:50am

" class="ec-active-image">

Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader. By Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. Crown Business; 464 pages; $30. Sceptre; £25.

“NEAR-DEATH experiences can help one see more clearly sometimes,” said Steve Jobs. He was speaking about struggling companies. Yet he could easily have been talking about his own life. In 1985 Mr Jobs was pushed out of Apple Computer, the firm he had helped found, only to return after a decade away. In doing so, he mounted one of capitalism’s most celebrated comebacks.

 Mr Jobs’s own professional “near- death” experience helped him learn new skills that enabled him to become probably the most visionary innovator of his time, according to a new book by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, two business journalists who have long covered America’s tech industry. After Mr Jobs’s explosive temper and meddling ways had led to his expulsion from the company, he spent years working in the wilderness, away from the spotlight. He tried to build a new computer company, NeXT, and he turned Pixar, an animation firm he...

The Brexit dilemma

1 April 2015 - 10:50am

Exit, stage left

Britain’s Future in Europe: Reform, Renegotiation, Repatriation or Secession? Edited by Michael Emerson. Rowman & Littlefield; 192 pages; $35 and £19.95.

Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe. By Denis MacShane. I.B. Tauris; 240 pages; $25 and £12.99.

The Risk of Brexit. By Roger Liddle. Rowman & Littlefield; 64 pages; $17 and £9.95.

THE newspapers are screaming about Grexit (a Greek departure from the euro). Yet however annoying the new government in Athens may be, neither it, nor its exasperated partners, nor most voters really want the country to go. In contrast, Britain’s Tory prime minister, David Cameron, promises that, if he wins the British election on May 7th, he will renegotiate Britain’s European Union membership and hold an in/out referendum before the end of 2017. In political terms, Brexit may thus be a bigger risk than Grexit.

One predictable result is a spate of new books on Britain’s vexed relationship with the EU, which long predates Mr Cameron and has troubled both the...

Fathers and sons

26 March 2015 - 11:47am

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...

Delivery man

26 March 2015 - 11:47am

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...

Works of Glass

26 March 2015 - 11:47am

Getting crotchety

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...

Land of hope and glory

26 March 2015 - 11:47am

Snapshot judgment

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...