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When the cloud parted

30 July 2015 - 11:08am

Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War. By Susan Southard. Viking; 389 pages; $28.95 and £20.

AMERICA dropped its atom bomb on Nagasaki at 11.02am on August 9th 1945, three days after Little Boy fell on Hiroshima. In the years that followed, the story of Nagasaki’s hibakusha (the “explosion-affected people”, or survivors of the atom bomb) took second place. The best-known symbol of the world’s first use of nuclear weapons was always Hiroshima.

It is this imbalance which Susan Southard’s searing account of the experiences of five teenagers who lived through the attack on Nagasaki tries to redress. The second nuclear bomb, which killed over 70,000 civilians (with many more dying afterwards), struck as Japan’s wartime leaders, shocked by Hiroshima, were already deliberating how to surrender. So, there has long been a sense that this second fireball was less justified than the first.

For a time, Nagasaki’s citizens were thought by many Japanese to have accepted their city’s obliteration more stoically than their fellow hibakusha in Hiroshima...

On to the beginning

30 July 2015 - 11:08am

Wind/Pinball: Two Novels. By Haruki Murakami. Translated by Ted Goossen. Knopf; 256 pages; $25.95. Harvill Secker; £16.99.

IN 1978, over the course of six months or so, Haruki Murakami juggled running a Tokyo jazz bar with writing a novel. A year later, using the same routine, he penned a sequel. “Hear the Wind Sing” and “Pinball, 1973”, to give the two books their full titles, launched the author’s career in Japan and went on to comprise the first two-thirds of his “Trilogy of the Rat”. Never before published in English outside Japan, these two early works now appear in a single volume expertly translated by Ted Goossen.

“Hear the Wind Sing” follows the summer escapades of an unnamed narrator and his friend, known as the Rat. The hero spends his university break propping up J’s bar with the Rat, listening to music, meditating on writing, reminiscing about ex-girlfriends (mourning one who hanged herself) and chasing a potential new one who has nine fingers.

The meatier and more surreal “Pinball, 1973” follows on directly. The narrator has moved on from university and away from the Rat. He now manages a translation company in Tokyo, lives with identical twin girls and becomes obsessed with the “occult world of pinball”—a turnaround from the previous novel in which he scorned the pinball machine as a “piece of junk that...

Blind alley

30 July 2015 - 11:08am

Russia and the New World Disorder. By Bobo Lo. Brookings Institution Press and Chatham House; 341 pages; $34 and £25.50.

SEEN from the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy is a series of triumphs. He has killed NATO expansion, regained Crimea and exposed the weakness and hypo-crisy of the West. In Russia’s eyes, argues Bobo Lo in a thoughtful new book, “the humiliated nation of the 1990s has metamorphosed into a resurgent global power”. It is now “more independent, more indispensable, more self-confident, and more influential than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union”. As a result, it believes it can dictate the terms of its engagement with the West. The outside world must adjust to Russia, not the other way round, treating it as an equal, respected partner.

Mr Lo, a former Australian diplomat who now works at the Chatham House think-tank in London, adopts a commendably calm approach to a topic which attracts plenty of polemic. At every stage he outlines Russian views of the world fairly, and highlights Western mistakes and misapprehensions, before proceeding to paint the full picture in precise and sometimes scathing terms.

The fundamental problem is that the Kremlin’s perception of the world is skewed. It exaggerates the West’s weakness and its own strength. It prizes hard power, which it lacks, and...

Feel the beat

30 July 2015 - 11:08am

Music, rhythm and dance are the beating heart of two vibrant exhibitions in Paris. “Beauté Congo” at the Fondation Cartier puts André Magnin’s long experience as a curator and collector of African art to good use, from the discoveries he made at the Africa Museum at Tervuren, Belgium, of Albert Lubaki’s watercolours of the 1920s to the boisterous recent works of Pierre Bodo, who died earlier this year, and J.P. Mika’s “Kiese na Kiese” from 2014 (pictured above), which feels almost as if it is pulsating. Across town, at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Suzanne Pagé has overseen the assembly of a dynamic show of music and video art: from the gunshot-operatics of Chris Marclay’s “Crossfire” to the ever more menacing trombones in “Viva España” by Pilar Albarracìn and "The Krazy House", Rineke Dijkstra’s rediscovery of the joys of youth (all three videos below).

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Poppy love

30 July 2015 - 11:08am

A sharp price to pay

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. By Sam Quinones. Bloomsbury; 368 pages; $28 and £18.99.

AMERICA is battling a massive epidemic of heroin and its pharmacological substitutes. By 2008 drug overdoses, mostly from opioids, overtook car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death. In a related development, the number of annual users of heroin jumped from 370,000 in 2007 to 680,000 in 2013.

The epidemic, as Sam Quinones, an American journalist, outlines in “Dreamland”, a meticulously researched new book, has two root causes. One is a failure of regulation in the pharmaceutical industry; the other is retail innovation in the black market.

In 1995 Purdue Pharma, a drug company in Stamford, Connecticut, was given permission by the Food and Drug Administration to market a powerful new opioid called OxyContin for moderate pain. Doctors, wary about prescribing opioids because of their markedly addictive nature, had previously used it for severe pain only. Many patients duly became addicts and “pill mills”, pain clinics that handled...

Did I lock the back door?

30 July 2015 - 11:08am

Don't worry, bead happy

Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History. By Francis O’Gorman. Bloomsbury; 173 pages; $20 and £14.

WHEN he is not teaching Victorian literature at the University of Leeds or writing books, Francis O’Gorman admits to doing a lot of unnecessary brooding. “Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History” is his affectionate tribute to low-level fretting—what the author calls “the hidden histories of ordinary pain”—in everyone’s life.

The word itself is comparatively new. Although it was used in the 16th century, in all of Shakespeare’s works “worry” appears just once—as a transitive verb denoting strangling or choking. Only in the Victorian era did its contemporary meaning come into widespread use. The advent of literary modernism in the 20th century placed the personal inner world centre-stage. From James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom to Virginia Woolf’s Mr Ramsay, worriers came to abound in the modernist canon.

Humanity’s sense of anxiety has deep roots. Contemporary angst is inextricably tied up with living in an advanced, hyper-modern...

Goldenballs

30 July 2015 - 11:08am

The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger. By Greg Steinmetz. Simon and Schuster; 283 pages; $27.95.

ALBRECHT DÜRER’S portrait of Jacob Fugger shows a man with thin lips and unforgiving eyes. He wears a fine fur tippet about his shoulders and a brown cap; for the time, his dress is strikingly plain. Greg Steinmetz, formerly a journalist with the Wall Street Journal and now a securities analyst in New York, declares that he was the most influential businessman who ever lived. He makes a better case for this extravagant claim than for his assertion that Fugger was also the richest man in history.

A late-medieval banker from Augsburg in southern Germany, Fugger has never been as celebrated as Cosimo de Medici and his Florentine sons and cousins, whose reputation as bankers was burnished by their excellent taste in Renaissance art. But Fugger was the better banker. Were he alive today, he would have cut a swathe through Wall Street and the City, and yet his remarkable history is still little known. Mr Steinmetz’s prose does not always sparkle and some...

Boxed in

23 July 2015 - 10:49am

Where’s the beef?

BOXING is Hollywood’s favourite sport. Baseball and basketball may be contenders, but it is boxing that has the violence, the theatricality and the winner-takes-all simplicity which underpin so much of American cinema—hence its central place in films from “Body and Soul” and “Raging Bull” to such recent award-winners as “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Fighter”.

How, then, can a new boxing drama do anything that hasn’t been done countless times before? “Southpaw”, directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) and written by Kurt Sutter (creator of “Sons of Anarchy”), appears to have solved this problem by starting where its predecessors finish. Its hero, Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), is already a world champion at the start of the film. He is married to his childhood sweetheart (Rachel McAdams), and they live with their daughter in a mansion bigger than most Loire chateaux. The intriguing question is whether Billy will retire while he is still relatively compos mentis, or whether he will sign the $30m contract which his manager (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) is waving under his broken...

Powers of persuasion

23 July 2015 - 10:47am

The Emergence of Modern Shiism: Islamic Reform in Iraq and Iran. By Zackery Heern. Oneworld; 220 pages; $30 and £20.

WHENEVER the non-Islamic world has confronted the Muslim one, militant movements have arisen from within that impeded crusty regimes from seeing off the external threat. Under attack from Crusaders in the west and Mongols in the east in the early medieval period, jihadist groups and firebrand preachers turned on heterodoxy in the ranks. Saladin overthrew the Shia imamate in Cairo and set troops on the Crusaders. He also established law schools that reduced multiple legal interpretations into rigid codes. In the 13th century Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya, a Sunni scholar in Damascus, adopted the notion of takfir, denouncing as apostates Muslims whom he deemed wayward, a crime punishable by death.

Five centuries later, buffeted by Western colonial military and economic might, a crop of Muslim movements turned on their distant all-encompassing Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal overlords in much the same way. Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92) sought to...

Citoyen, citoyenne

23 July 2015 - 10:47am

The History of Modern France: From the Revolution to the Present Day. By Jonathan Fenby. Simon and Schuster; 536 pages; £25.

FRANCE breathes its history, and engraves the past on its landscape. No French town is complete without an Avenue Charles de Gaulle. The boulevards and train stations of Paris—the Gare d’Austerlitz, Avenue de la Grande Armée—recall great battles waged and won. In speeches modern politicians draw on France’s past glories in a way that British leaders, say, might feel was an uncomfortable expression of national vanity. So it is always useful to take a fresh look at how history shapes the country’s politics today.

Jonathan Fenby, The Economist’s correspondent in Paris in the early 1980s, is a veteran and affectionate observer of France, and a biographer of de Gaulle. In his latest book, he takes the long view, recounting the country’s modern history, starting in 1789 and ending with the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks of January this year. The bulk of the book is a well-told narrative account, and so valuable primarily as a text of...

Global power

23 July 2015 - 10:47am

Spanish spearhead

Spain: The Centre of the World 1519-1682. By Robert Goodwin. Bloomsbury; 587 pages; $40 and £30.

HABSBURG Spain in the 16th century was the world’s first global superpower, with an empire stretching east across most of Europe to the Philippines and India and west across the Atlantic to the Americas. It was an age of expansion and cultural efflorescence and ended with Spain’s steep decline from which it never fully recovered.

Robert Goodwin’s new book begins with the arrival in Seville in 1519 of the Santa María, the first ship to reach Europe from the newly conquered coast of Mexico, laden with such riches that “there was no other ballast than gold”, and ends in 1682 with Juan Valdés Leal’s gruesome painting “In Ictu Oculi” (“In the Twinkling of an Eye”), an allegory of death—and for the author a perfect symbol for the “end times” of Spanish imperialism.

Mr Goodwin, a research fellow at University College London, has mined deep in the archives and produced a wealth of wonderfully evocative and offbeat detail that is both...

No fear to tread

23 July 2015 - 10:47am

Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong. By Morten Jerven. Zed Books; 160 pages; $21.95 and £14.99.

ECONOMISTS who study Africa use dodgy theory and inappropriate statistical techniques, and at times deliberately mislead. In an interesting and highly readable book, Morten Jerven, himself an economist of Africa at Simon Fraser University in Canada, pulls no punches. He offers a devastating critique of the economics profession and asks provocative questions. But he overstates his case and offers few practical solutions.

For decades people have tried to explain why Africa has stubbornly remained poor. Explanations range from the legacy of colonialism and dependency on natural resources to “some inherent character flaw”. To show the relative importance of these factors, economists rely heavily on fancy statistical tests, crunching data from dozens of countries across many decades.

Mr Jerven dislikes this approach. It places too much trust in African data, much of which is horribly unreliable. In 2014 GDP growth in South Sudan was either 5% or 36%, depending on whether you believe the IMF or the World...

Multiplier effects

23 July 2015 - 10:47am

Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies. By César Hidalgo. Basic Books; 232 pages; $26.99. Allen Lane; £20.

THE question seems basic, but economists have yet to find a comprehensive answer: why and how do economies grow? Additional capital and labour were long considered the main factors. Then the focus shifted to higher productivity and increased human capital, the knowledge embodied in members of society.

César Hidalgo tackles the question in another way. Economies grow, he says, because the information contained in them grows—not just in people’s heads, but also in the social networks that connect everyone and even in the objects that populate the world. What is more, this ever-expanding pool of information did not start with humans, but dates back to the beginning of time. “[W]e are born from it, and it is born from us,” he writes gnostically.

As such sweeping phrases make clear, adding to economic-growth theory is not the only goal motivating Mr Hidalgo, a statistical physicist who teaches at MIT’s Media Lab and is a pioneer in visualisation tools, which extract...

Reading their minds

16 July 2015 - 10:48am

Brain waves

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. By Carl Safina. Henry Holt; 461 pages; $32.

The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins. By Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell. University of Chicago Press; 417 pages; $35 and £24.50.

IN “BEYOND WORDS”, Carl Safina, of Stony Brook University, New York, hears about an alpha wolf that attacked and disabled a challenger in Yellowstone National Park, but then refused to kill it. The event sets him thinking about Nelson Mandela, magnanimity and the prestige of leaders who spare, rather than kill their rivals. In Amboseli National Park in Kenya he watches a female elephant faking oestrus in order to attract the company of males. He turns to considering the minds of animals: “It takes a lot of thinking”, he writes, “to fake one’s sexual state because you like the attention.”

The subtitle of “Beyond Words” is “What Animals Think and Feel” and not long ago, the very idea of animals as rational beings would have been dismissed as sentimental and wrong. In the earliest surviving zoological book, Aristotle said...

Shell company

16 July 2015 - 10:48am

What’s not to like

Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells. By Helen Scales. Bloomsbury; 304 pages; $27 and £16.99.

MOLLUSCS may not seem life’s most exciting phylum. But Helen Scales, a marine biologist-turned-science writer, makes an impassioned and convincing case otherwise. Molluscs include just about everything with a shell, such as snails and mussels, and a few familiar things without, such as slugs and squid. Ms Scales finds the magic in each. In “Spirals in Time” she explores the complex sexual contortions of snails, describes the mathematical precision of a nautilus’s shell and devotes a whole chapter to sea silk, strands secreted by the pen shell Pinna nobilis and woven into cloth of extraordinary delicateness.

Ms Scales’s book charts not only how molluscs have evolved, but also the roles they have played as human societies evolved. From the Scythians of ancient Iran to disparate North American tribes, many cultures buried their dead with shell riches. The people of Nauru pass down a creation myth with shells in a...

Reading their minds

16 July 2015 - 10:48am

Brain waves

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. By Carl Safina. Henry Holt; 461 pages; $32.

The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins. By Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell. University of Chicago Press; 417 pages; $35 and £24.50.

IN “BEYOND WORDS”, Carl Safina, of Stony Brook University, New York, hears about an alpha wolf that attacked and disabled a challenger in Yellowstone National Park, but then refused to kill it. The event sets him thinking about Nelson Mandela, magnanimity and the prestige of leaders who spare, rather than kill their rivals. In Amboseli National Park in Kenya he watches a female elephant faking oestrus in order to attract the company of males. He turns to considering the minds of animals: “It takes a lot of thinking”, he writes, “to fake one’s sexual state because you like the attention.”

The subtitle of “Beyond Words” is “What Animals Think and Feel” and not long ago, the very idea of animals as rational beings would have been dismissed as sentimental and wrong. In the earliest surviving zoological book, Aristotle said...

Scout grows up

16 July 2015 - 10:48am

Go Set a Watchman. By Harper Lee. Harper; 278 pages; $27.99. William Heinemann; £18.99.

FOR more than half a century “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been revered as a literary classic, the story of Scout and Jem Finch, a young sister and brother (and their naughty friend, Dill Harris, based on Truman Capote) who are all trying to make sense of the bewildering, bigoted American South in the 1930s. The novel sold 40m copies, won a Pulitzer prize and was made into a much-loved film, starring Gregory Peck as the siblings’ father, Atticus Finch, a heroic white lawyer who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. Its fame was enhanced by the way the author, Harper Lee, who was only 34 when the book came out, reacted to becoming famous. Now 89 and living in a home, she has refused all requests for an interview.

For decades it was thought that Ms Lee had written nothing else. But in 2014 her lawyer, Tonja Carter, discovered an unpublished manuscript titled “Go Set a Watchman”. The book was released on July 14th with simultaneous editions translated into seven languages. Five months of teasers from her...

Gigantism

16 July 2015 - 10:48am

  • "Les Pommes d'Adam" by Franz West at Mass MoCA Source: Photos courtesy of Miles Unger
  • "Gold Meters" and "Silver Meters" by Walter de Maria at Dia Beacon
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Lookout

16 July 2015 - 10:48am

Intercept: The Secret History of Computers and Spies. By Gordon Corera. Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 431 pages; £20.

IN 1996 John Perry Barlow, a computer activist who had once been a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, penned “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, an attempt to capture the promise of openness and liberation that the young internet seemed to offer. “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel,” it began. “I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind…You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

To anyone familiar with the history of the computers that make the internet possible, it was an ironic idea. The modern computer came of age during the second world war. Colossus, a lumbering electromechanical contraption widely regarded as the first modern computer, was assembled at Bletchley Park, the headquarters of Britain’s vast wartime code-breaking operation. It was a machine built to spy and to break open German secrets. These days, with worries about mass surveillance, digital espionage and computer crime filling the papers, the...

Paying the price

9 July 2015 - 10:47am

Loyalty’s fatal cost

Cycle of Fear: Syria’s Alawites in War and Peace. By Leon Goldsmith. Oxford University Press; 306 pages; $37.50. C. Hurst & Co; £25.

THE Alawites, an esoteric Muslim sect living mainly in Syria’s coastal hinterland, number only a few million, but they make up a disproportionate part of the state apparatus. Bashar Assad and his father before him, themselves Alawites, used this to shore up their rule; indeed Mr Assad would not still be in power had his co-religionists not stuck by him.

In “Cycle of Fear” Leon Goldsmith, a political scientist at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, does not see the sect’s loyalty as a given. He sets out to explain it by examining their history. He challenges the notion that the Alawites, once so poor they sold their daughters to urban Sunni households as servants, have prospered since one of their own, Hafez Assad, became president in 1971.

Only the Assads and a handful of families (Alawite and others) became rich and powerful. Most Alawite villages are still muddy outposts. The bureaucrats and security men often...