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Freedom force

27 August 2015 - 10:43am

Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance. By Robert Gildea.Belknap; 608 pages; $35. Faber & Faber; £20.

GUY MOQUET was just 17 years old when he was executed by firing squad in Nazi-occupied France. In a poignant letter to his family before his death in 1941, the young Communist résistant wrote: “My life has been short, I have no regrets, if only that of leaving you all. I am going to die…Mummy, what I ask you, what I want you to promise me, is to be brave and to overcome your sorrow.” Môquet swiftly entered French history as a Resistance martyr, and remains a potent symbol. In 2007, on the day of his inauguration as president, Nicolas Sarkozy vowed that Môquet’s farewell letter would be read out each year in every French high school.

That a Gaullist president should devote his first day in office to the memory of a Communist is a measure of how far the narrative of the Resistance continues to shape France’s sense of itself. Môquet, said Mr Sarkozy, embodied more than a patriotic belief in France: he showed that “the greatness of man is...

Hydra-headed

27 August 2015 - 10:43am

The New Threat from Islamic Militancy. By Jason Burke. The New Press; 304 pages; $24.95. Bodley Head; £16.99.

ISLAMIC STATE (IS) poses a terrorist threat that is greater than any before or since the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, at least according to the British home secretary, Theresa May, speaking last November as she sought to justify extensive new counter-terrorist powers for the government. Barack Obama, also seeking greater powers to attack the group, made a similar assertion three months later: that IS threatens the American homeland itself. With the fall of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria in May, IS has shown that it is still on the march. How much ought the West to fear the self-styled “caliphate”?

Perhaps not as greatly as politicians make out, according to Jason Burke. In his latest book, “The New Threat from Islamic Militancy”, he usefully divides the dangers into three main sources, and readers may gain a degree of reassurance from each; so long, that is, as they are not living in the Middle East or parts of Africa.

Into the first category of threat...

Blighting the horizon

27 August 2015 - 10:43am

The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers. By Gillian Tett. Simon & Schuster; 304 pages; $28.00. Little, Brown; £20.

WHY do organisations fail? Sometimes it is because their market or purpose disappears completely, as in the case of, say, video-rental shops. But often it is because as they grow, they lose the same innovative streak that made them a success. Like individuals, groups can become stuck in their ways, with fatal results.

In her new book Gillian Tett, the US managing editor and a columnist with the Financial Times, blames silos for such failures to adapt. Through eight fables, Ms Tett argues that internal divisions and classifications, say, between doctors and surgeons, hold back creative thinking and encourage turf wars. Breaking them down can lead to innovation and, subsequently, success.   

Take Sony. Having invented the path-breaking Walkman, a portable cassette player, in the late 1970s, Sony was one of the world’s foremost technology companies. Yet it fell behind...

Bones of contention

27 August 2015 - 10:43am

Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them. By Nancy Marie Brown. St. Martin’s Press; 288 pages; $26.99.

IN 2010 an amateur Icelandic historian gatecrashed an international symposium on the Lewis chessmen, the greatest cache of medieval game pieces ever found. Gudmundur Thorarinsson, a chess-player (and an engineer by profession), hoped to convince the assembled scholars that the 92 walrus ivory pieces unearthed on the Isle of Lewis, off the west coast of Scotland, in 1831 were the work of a woman carver commissioned by a medieval Icelandic bishop. He was dismissed as a “nuthead”. Though no one really knows where the chessmen were made, the consensus of curators of the Lewis hoard held by the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland is that they probably originated in Norway late in the 12th century.

Mr Thorarinsson’s theory, however, caught the eye of Nancy Marie Brown, an American who has written extensively on the Viking age. Alerted by the disparaging of medieval Iceland as a “scrappy place full of farmers”, she...

Ties that bind

27 August 2015 - 10:43am

The Story of the Lost Child. By Elena Ferrante. Translation by Ann Goldstein. Europa; 464 pages; $18 and £11.99.

NOVELS become literary blockbusters for many reasons. Some are created by mountains of marketing cash, some by media saturation. “Fifty Shades of Grey” and Harper Lee’s long-lost work, “Go Set a Watchman”, both fit this mould. Others are fuelled by something quite different, and their success is impossible to predict. In recent years “The Neapolitan Novels”, four volumes by an anonymous Italian author calling herself Elena Ferrante, have become a fictional juggernaut that not even the author’s English-language publishers, Europa Editions, saw coming.

Starting with “My Brilliant Friend”, which came out in Italy in 2011, the books focus on the lifelong attachment of two women from a tough Neapolitan neighbourhood. In America, where Ms Ferrante had a modest following, not much happened until 2013, when the translation was written up by James Wood, chief critic of the New Yorker. (Ann Goldstein, the translator, is an editor at the magazine.) By the time the...

Educating Aida 

27 August 2015 - 10:43am

Good clean family fun

A BABY giggles as its headphones supply a critique on Japanese society to accompany a video of school girls whirling with phallic “moya-moya” sticks fashioned from imaginary heart tissue. The video installation is part of an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo that includes Makoto Aida, who has specialised for years in being offensive. Bizarrely, the show is intended for youngsters on their summer holidays, and is all the more provocative for that.

Mr Aida is often labelled sadist, racist and misogynist. An exhibition at the private Mori Art Museum in 2012-13 included a video of himself masturbating in front of the kanji characters for “beautiful young girl”. Another notorious work showed countless naked and bloodied schoolgirls being mashed up in a fruit blender. 

The artist usually demurs when asked what his works mean, but here he says his aim is to show a highly unusual family speaking in a blunt way, to encourage others. His wife, also an artist, and his son built some of the exhibits. Japanese mothers are mocked in a study of a Chanel-...

Down and dirty in city hall

20 August 2015 - 10:44am

“SHOW ME A HERO”, a new series on HBO, starts with a victory speech: an ominous sign. When a first episode ends in triumph, the only way ahead is down. The year is 1987, and 28-year-old Nick Wasicsko, an ex-cop, has just become the youngest mayor of Yonkers, a New York suburb that was then mostly working-class and white. Wasicsko won because he promised to appeal a federal court order requiring Yonkers to build subsidised housing on its richer, whiter east side, to counteract the concentration of poverty in its mostly black west.

As he speaks, a telephone ringing in the background grows gradually louder. The scene cuts to the next day, when the new mayor takes a call from the city’s lawyers. There are no grounds for appeal, they tell him. Wasicsko is disappointed, but resigned. Now it’s time to follow the law and build the houses, he reasons: nobody can blame me for that, right?

Over the next five episodes, the ramifications of Wasicsko’s decision play out in two worlds. In the world of city politics he is, of course, roundly blamed: it costs him his career (saying this gives away nothing: this is a true story, ably...

The money trap

20 August 2015 - 10:44am

Other People’s Money. By John Kay. PublicAffairs; 352 pages; $27.99. Profile; £16.99.

WHAT is the finance sector for? This vital question is all too often forgotten in the debate about the debt crisis of 2008 and its aftermath; it certainly seemed to be forgotten by bankers in the build-up to the debacle. But if the world is to avoid future banking collapses, or at least limit their economic impact, people need to think clearly about the issue.

John Kay’s new book, “Other People’s Money”, does the job; it should be read by everyone concerned with preventing the next crisis. The early books after the crash, like Andrew Ross Sorkin’s “Too Big to Fail”, analysed how the collapse unfolded in minute detail; Mr Kay, an academic and columnist for the Financial Times, takes the longer and broader view.

In doing so, he skewers the pretensions of the finance sector and questions whether its high rewards reflect its true economic contribution. Barely a page goes by without an acute observation or pithy aphorism. “A country can be prosperous only if it has a well-functioning financial...

Horrible history

20 August 2015 - 10:44am

Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. By Steve Silberman. Avery; 544 pages; $29.95. Allen & Unwin; £16.99.

EVERYTHING about autism, which is among the most common and the most slippery of mental conditions, is contested. The American Psychiatric Association, which determines what ailments American insurance companies will pay to treat, classifies it as a disorder. Many parents of autistic children are desperately searching for a cure, and find themselves easy prey for people who overpromise, selling remedies that have no scientific basis. Plenty of other people think that autism—which is characterised, among other things, by an inward focus that makes it hard to abide by the conventions of social behaviour—is not a disorder at all, and therefore has no need of a cure. America’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention thinks that one in 68 children in the country have at least a touch of autism, which if true means there are more autistic Americans than Jewish ones. This too is contested.

Steve Silberman’s interest in autism was prompted more than a decade ago by his work...

Life out loud

20 August 2015 - 10:44am

Fine views

Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal. By Jay Parini. Penguin Random House; 480 pages; $35. Published in the UK as “Every Time A Friend Succeeds Something Inside Me Dies: The Life of Gore Vidal”. Little, Brown; £25.

“NEVER lose an opportunity to have sex or be on television” is a familiar Gore Vidal quip—and, as Jay Parini notes in a marvellous new biography, Vidal enthusiastically followed his own advice. The sex was almost always homosexual; invariably “on top”; and usually in the afternoon, to allow for disciplined writing in the morning and extravagant socialising in the evening. For Vidal, television meant a show of eloquent punditry projected on both sides of the Atlantic, but most memorably—as any trawl through YouTube will confirm—in the form of confrontations on American chat shows with William Buckley, editor of the conservative National Review, and with a pugnacious fellow writer, Norman Mailer.

Vidal died in 2012 at the age of 86. He wrote so many novels, screenplays, television shows, literary commentaries and essays that he ought to...

Brilliant threads

20 August 2015 - 10:44am

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. By Peter Frankopan. Bloomsbury; 656 pages; £30. To be published in America in February by Knopf.

THIS is, to put it mildly, an ambitious book. The author, a historian at Oxford University, could have crafted a dozen pithy histories of, among other subjects covered: the rise of Persia; the creation of the Silk Roads, the story of long-distance trade across the Eurasian continent; the commercial as well as religious revolution that was Islam; the first global economy in the 17th century, powered by discoveries of South American silver; the 19th-century geopolitical intrigues known as the Great Game; the reasons for Germany’s push east in the second world war (wheat); the Asian dimensions of the cold war and the rise of Islamist extremism.

Yet by spinning all these stories into a single thread, Peter Frankopan attempts something bold: a history of the world that shunts the centre of gravity eastward. “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” is a counterblast to another ambitious book from an earlier generation, J.M. Roberts’s Western-centric “Penguin History of the World”, which came out...

Taskmaster

13 August 2015 - 10:49am

My Life with Wagner. By Christian Thielemann. Translated by Anthea Bell. Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 267 pages; £25.

CHRISTIAN THIELEMANN has risen fast through the ranks of orchestral conductors, although not quite as quickly as he might have wished. He wanted to be the first German artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra since Wilhelm Furtwängler 61 years ago, but the Berlin musicians chose Kirill Petrenko, a Russian rival, instead. He has, however, received an agreeable consolation prize. He is to become only the second music director of the Bayreuth festival drawn from outside the Wagner family. (Furtwängler was the first in 1930, but he lasted only a year.)

Mr Thielemann will be happy in Bayreuth, where Richard Wagner—“The Master”—is beyond criticism. His book is an act of homage, part revealing autobiography (“Wagner confronted me with myself…not always [an] undiluted pleasure”) and part informative guide to the Wagner oeuvre, describing the plots and performances of all the operas, with discography thrown in. His favourites are “Tristan und Isolde” and “Die Meistersinger...

A man for all seasons

13 August 2015 - 10:49am

Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita. By Robert Roper.Bloomsbury; 354 pages; $28 and £20.

VLADIMIR NABOKOV never doubted his own talent: “By the age of 14 or 15 I had read or reread all Tolstoy in Russian, all Shakespeare in English and all Flaubert in French—besides hundreds of other books.” From that foundation came a stream of literary criticism, translations, short stories, poetry and fiction—including, of course, “Lolita”, one of the most controversial novels of the 20th century.

Did other authors match this talent? Nabokov mostly thought not: Proust and Pushkin were to be admired, but certainly not Hemingway, Faulkner or Boris Pasternak (whose “Dr Zhivago” was, in Nabokov’s opinion, a Soviet plot to earn foreign exchange). In the end, Nabokov even scorned Edmund Wilson, an American critic and author who had been his friend and literary and social ally for almost all his time in America, from his flight with his Jewish wife from the Nazis in Europe in 1940 to his tax-efficient departure for Switzerland two decades later.

Robert Roper, for whom Nabokov is “the great python of art” with his “bulging repasts” of...

Magical realism

13 August 2015 - 10:49am

Silent night

MOST playwrights are afraid of silence. Much of life’s drama lurks in the gaps between words, but few know how to dramatise this for the stage. To handle silence properly, a writer must have a keen ear for the way people actually talk, with all the stammers, stumbles and speed bumps. It is only when these rhythms are understood that a playwright can convincingly convey what is left unsaid.

 Annie Baker, a rising young writer for the theatre, is well attuned to the “ums” and “whatevers” of real speech. On the face of it, her plays seem uneventful. They feature ordinary people talking about ordinary things, often at great length and to no great purpose. “The Flick”, which won the Pulitzer prize in 2014 and is now being restaged at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York, consists of more than three hours of patter and griping among workers at a cinema as they clean between screenings. But the power of Ms Baker’s work—and what makes it stand apart—is the way every moment and hesitation feels acutely observed and quietly meaningful.  

This attention to detail has earned her a...

America’s front yard

13 August 2015 - 10:49am

The grass could be greener

THE majestic tranquillity of the National Mall in Washington, DC, has become frazzled in recent years. Funds for maintaining its lush greenery have shrunk, while more and more people scrap for a memorial or museum of their own on America’s hallowed ground.

The Mall is known as America’s “front yard”. Its monuments, memorials and museums have become the canvas on which Americans paint their identity, self-confidence and global ambitions. From the steps of the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial on the Potomac stretch two miles (3.2km) of grass and trees. A great cross axis, marked by the obelisk of the Washington Monument, descends from the White House to the picturesque Tidal Basin, famous for its blossoming cherry trees. Patches of earth made bare by the trampling of 29m visitors a year are so common that the tattered Mall is fast becoming a symbol of American decline.

Congress has approved costly new buildings but is stingy about maintenance. The turf is finally being upgraded and last year the restored Washington Monument reopened. Further transformation promises to be subtle, yet...

What’s the alternative?

13 August 2015 - 10:49am

Capitalism: Money, Morals and Markets. By John Plender.Biteback; 334 pages; £20.

CAPITALISM lacks defenders these days, while protests against it have fresh vigour. A vocal coalition of critics, from Occupy Wall Street to Pope Francis, castigate global trade as being exploitative and people’s fixation on money as the “dung of the devil”.

 Worries about the impact of economic inequality on social cohesion lend new urgency to moral questions about markets. But, as John Plender points out in his new book, “Capitalism”, discontents about its effects are as old as the world’s most powerful -ism itself. The pursuit of profit has been “unloved” since Socrates declared that “The more [men] think of making a fortune, the less they think of virtue.” Anti-business sentiment characterises the lampooning of Trimalchio’s feast in Petronius’s “Satyricon”, and persists through Molière’s miserly 17th-century lucre-seekers to the portrayals by Charles Dickens and Emile Zola of dreadful 19th-century bosses and the modern incarnation of greed on the screen, Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street”.

 Mr Plender, who once worked for...

Friend in need

13 August 2015 - 10:49am

A Little Life. By Hanya Yanagihara. Doubleday; 720 pages; $30. Picador; £16.99.

WHO would put money on a novel that is so long it weighs well over a kilo and focuses in forensic detail on the trauma of a man who suffered unspeakable physical and sexual abuse as a child? Or on a novel about an intimate, operatic friendship between four men (three black and one white) that is set almost wholly in Manhattan but written by a Japanese-American woman brought up in Hawaii who has never lived long in New York?

Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel, “A Little Life”, is just such a book. Published in America in March and just out in Britain, it is, against all odds, the talk of the season. The Los Angeles Times’s critic confessed to having been left sobbing after reading it, something that had never happened to her before; a writer for the normally unflappable New Yorker said it was a book that could “drive you mad, consume you, and take over your life”. Late last month “A Little Life” stepped on to the first rung of the year’s literary-award ladder, when it...

Searching and slouching

6 August 2015 - 11:10am

Book of Numbers. By Joshua Cohen. Random House; 580 pages; $28. Harvill Secker; £18.99.

WEIGHING in at nearly 600 pages, “Book of Numbers” is an unabashedly ambitious novel. It considers some of the most pressing concerns of this technology-fuelled era, such as the illusion of privacy and the loneliness of hyper-connectedness. It features not one but two characters with the same name as the author, Joshua Cohen, which has become a favourite device of writers keen to seem playful by toying with meta-narrative profundities. Sprawling and messy, spanning continents and styles, the book is already being heralded as a “Ulysses” for the digital age.

This would all seem a bit much, and yet there is indeed something remarkable about Mr Cohen’s prose. From the first page it tumbles forth in a heady, headlong rush, the rhythmic sentences crammed with sharp observations, obscure allusions and deliciously unique language. The book’s plot, such as it is, is about a frustrated sad-sack of a writer named Joshua Cohen who must ghostwrite the autobiography of a tremendously successful tech magnate with the same name, who...

What lies beneath?

6 August 2015 - 11:10am

NOTHING has inspired generations of archaeologists like the discovery in 1922 of the treasure-packed tomb of Tutankhamun. What if another untouched Egyptian trove lies buried, not in a distant patch of desert, nor even nearby amid the overlapping tomb-shafts of Luxor’s Valley of the Kings, but instead just a millimetre’s distance from plain view?

This is the dramatic hypothesis of a just-published paper by Nicholas Reeves, a British Egyptologist who co-discovered an undisturbed Egyptian tomb in 2000, and who is at the University of Arizona. His key evidence is disarmingly simple, and in fact free to see on the internet in the form of photographs published by Factum Arte, a Madrid- and Bologna-based specialist in art replication that recently created a spectacular, life-sized facsimile of Tutankhamun’s tomb, intended for tourists to visit without endangering the original.

What Mr Reeves found in these ultra-high-resolution images, which reveal the texture of...

Of lions and men

6 August 2015 - 11:10am

Confession of the Lioness. By Mia Couto. Translated by David Brookshaw. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 192 pages; $25. Harvill Secker; £16.99.

MIA COUTO’S writing fuses stark and rich imagery and is steeped in the history, superstitions and political turmoil of his native Mozambique. In his latest novel, “Confession of the Lioness”, his characters—and by extension, readers—are forced to sift shaky facts and conflicting testimonies to get the full, devastating picture.

The novel comprises two alternating narratives. One follows Mariamar Mpepe in her village of Kulumani. After the horrors of Mozambique’s civil war (fighting stopped in 1992) comes new danger in the form of marauding lions. For her safety, Mariamar’s father locks her up, leaving her with little to do but reminisce about her sunny childhood with her grandfather, and about her relationship with a hunter 16 years ago.

The exploits of that hunter, Archangel “Archie” Bullseye, constitute Mr Couto’s second narrative strand. A lovesick Archie returns to Kulumani with a ragtag entourage to eliminate the lions, vowing it will be...