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Updated: 5 hours 41 min ago

Phone-hacking: Mucky paps

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 15:59

Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch. By Nick Davies. Chatto & Windus; 448 pages; £20. Buy from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukThe News Machine: Hacking, the Untold Story. By James Hanning with Glenn Mulcaire. Gibson Square Books; 288 pages; £14.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE slow-motion car crash that was Britain’s biggest media scandal for decades began in 2007, when Clive Goodman, the royal correspondent of the News of the World, a tabloid newspaper, and Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator, were jailed for intercepting the voicemail messages of the royal family. The News of the World and its parent company, News International, insisted that the hackings were a one-off, the work of a rogue reporter. That was nonsense. Five years later the story blew up, revealing that News of...

The IMF: Everybody wants to rule the world

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 15:59

Money and Tough Love: On Tour with the IMF. By Liaquat Ahamed. Visual Editions; 208 pages; $40; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE International Monetary Fund (IMF) is the most powerful financial institution on the planet, capable of dictating economic policy to governments; Liaquat Ahamed is the author of a bestselling portrait of central banking in the Great Depression, “Lords of Finance”. Putting the two together ought to be a match made in heaven.Sadly, the result is a rather bland book replete with photographs that are about as exciting as one would expect pictures of IMF officials and meetings to be. As Mr Ahamed admits, the IMF gave him permission to follow them around since he was “unlikely to be a troublemaker”. Having accompanied fund officials on a mission to Ireland, he was prevented by Irish government staff from attending the private talks. As a result, Mr Ahamed has no real dirt to dish; he clearly admires the work that the fund does and believes in the dedication of its workforce.What he does possess is a thorough knowledge of economic history, and those who want a general idea of the IMF’s activities will...

Invisibility: All that is unseen

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 15:59

Dead-lift Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen. By Philip Ball. Bodley Head; 336 pages; £25. Buy from Amazon.co.ukIN both Plato’s “Republic” and Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” unlikely heroes—the shepherd Gyges in the former, Bilbo Baggins in the latter—stumble across magic rings. While the characters discover that the rings render them invisible, and go on to use them for their own ends, neither seriously questions the trinkets’ strange abilities. As Philip Ball explains in the opening lines of his new book, this is because in traditional magic tales, all that was needed to make something invisible was special knowledge or powerful friends. The feat itself was not awesome. Once invisibility had been secured, “no one was particularly surprised or impressed” by it.People today can show a similar lack of curiosity at the invisible forces that surround them: how many readers will know exactly how mobile phones work or how books can appear on their e-reader? It is the benefits that such forces bring that enthrall.Invisibility is a good subject for Mr Ball, a British science writer. It allows him to show the...

Charles Scott Moncrieff: Remembrance of lives past

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 15:59

Proust translator, soldier, spy Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff: Soldier, Spy and Translator. By Jean Findlay. Chatto & Windus; 368 pages; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukCHARLES SCOTT MONCRIEFF was used to living in the shadows. As a gay man in Britain at a time when homosexual acts were illegal he kept his fleeting relationships quiet. As a spy working in Mussolini’s Italy he moved from place to place. And as a writer he found fame not in his own right—by his own admission, he was a second-rate poet—but as a translator of Marcel Proust.“Chasing Lost Time” is the first comprehensive biography of Scott Moncrieff. Written by his great-great-niece, Jean Findlay, it sheds light on an “elusive, swift-minded and faun-like” man. In doing so it also describes the genesis of one of the definitive translations of the 20th century.Born into a well-to-do Scottish...

The internet: Too much of a good thing

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 15:59

The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. By Michael Harris. Current; 256 pages; $26.95. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk“SOON enough, nobody will remember life before the internet. What does this unavoidable fact mean?” It is with this sobering question that Michael Harris, a Canadian journalist, begins his debut work, “The End of Absence”.To arrive at an answer, Mr Harris combs through what remains of our pre-internet lives, separating the things we will carry forward into the connected world from the worthy things we may leave behind. Our insatiable appetites—for information, stimulation, validation—will come with us. But when all those wants are met no sooner than they have been felt, the knowledge of what it is to be left unfulfilled may not.Without such absences, Mr Harris argues, “we risk fooling ourselves into believing that things matter less.” He cites the...

Pat Metheny: Guitar hero

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 15:59

PAT METHENY, one of the world’s leading jazz guitarists, has assembled a typically unusual band for his current tour. The five-man Unity Group could well be the only one on America’s summer concert circuit that peps up its performances with an orchestrion. A machine containing more than a dozen instruments, it serves as a sort of mechanical orchestra on which mallets pound a vibraphone, sticks hit cymbals and drums, and so on—all triggered by Mr Metheny’s guitar and foot pedals. The orchestrion may not be to all tastes, but its use in these concerts is emblematic of Mr Metheny’s fresh approach to contemporary jazz, which shows no signs of wilting after more than four decades.Mr Metheny has been showered with accolades, both for his guitar-playing and for his composing, since he began performing in local clubs at the age of 13. He has won 20 Grammys and sold about 20m records, a rarity for a jazz musician. He has collaborated with a pantheon of musical legends that includes the likes of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. He has been copied and studied by his peers and by students. Last year DownBeat, a magazine devoted to jazz, inducted...

Revolution and war in Ukraine: I witness

Thu, 08/07/2014 - 16:01

Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev. By Andrey Kurkov. Translated by Sam Taylor. Harvill Secker; 262 pages; £9.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukSATIRISTS and surrealists are at once fortunate and challenged in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Their nefarious rulers and eventful politics volunteer themselves for parody, yet the lurid reality often outpaces satire and renders invention superfluous. Thus in his “Ukraine Diaries”—an account of the tumultuous past winter that saw his country’s president ousted and its territory dismembered—Andrey Kurkov whimsically imagines Russian tanks searching for the American commandos who are rumoured to have parachuted into western Ukraine. A few weeks later this fancy is superseded by events, as Russian forces do indeed invade, and Ukraine descends into chaos.Best known for gently absurdist novels that combine affection for his region with deadpan despair—especially...

America’s bureaucracy: Sins of commissions

Thu, 08/07/2014 - 16:01

Is Administrative Law Unlawful? By Philip Hamburger. University of Chicago Press; 638 pages; $55. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukBOOKS that address not who but what runs America may lack for personal interest, but they do have a growing appeal. An interesting new work by Philip Hamburger, a law professor at Columbia University, dispenses with the tiresome back and forth between Republicans and Democrats. Instead, it focuses on Washington’s permanent administration—the ever-expanding federal bureaucracies that have come to play a central role in health care, finance, housing and work, and large roles in education, energy and whatever else constitutes the American system.The title of Mr Hamburger’s book, “Is Administrative Law Unlawful?”, is both a strength and a weakness. It illuminates the shallow legal foundation of these agencies, but it also creates the misperception that the book deals merely with a subset of law rather than with how America is governed and how the current structure was anything but inevitable. This is particularly important because the conventional wisdom about this process, as Mr Hamburger documents,...

Artificial intelligence: Clever cogs

Thu, 08/07/2014 - 16:01

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. By Nick Bostrom. Oxford University Press; 352 pages; £18.99. To be published in America in September; $29.95. Buy from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukHUMANS like to think of themselves as special. But science has a way of puncturing their illusions. Astronomy has demoted Earth from the centre of the universe to just one planet among zillions. Darwin’s theory of evolution has proved that, rather than being made in the image of some divine benefactor, humans are just another twig on the tree of life.Those keen to preserve the idea that humans are special can still point to intelligence. Crows may dabble with simple tools and elephants may be able to cope with rudimentary arithmetic. But humans are the only animals with the sort of general braininess needed to build aeroplanes, write poetry or contemplate the Goldbach conjecture.They may not stay that way. Astronomers are...

South Korea’s soft power: Soap, sparkle and pop

Thu, 08/07/2014 - 16:01

K-poppets The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture. By Euny Hong. Picador; 288 pages; $16. Simon & Schuster; £14.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukFROM “Gangnam Style” and competitive electronic sports to kimchi-flavoured pot noodles, South Korea’s cultural exports are eagerly consumed around the world. Filipinos are hooked on its dramas. The French love its pop music and its films. Last year South Korea raked in $5 billion from its pop-culture exports. It has set its sights on doubling that by 2017.Much has changed since 1985, when Euny Hong, a Korean-American journalist and author of a new book called “The Birth of Korean Cool”, arrived in Seoul. South Korea was most definitely not hip. Its musicians had been muzzled by censorship, and busking, considered a form of protest, had been banned. The country had no mods, rockers or hippies....

New American theatre: A 21st-century “Seagull”

Thu, 08/07/2014 - 16:01

Kitchen-sink drama ANTON CHEKHOV knew he was doing something different with “The Seagull”. “I sin frightfully against the conventions of the stage,” he told a friend while the play was still a work in progress. The drama, such as it is, involves the love triangles and familial tussles of a multi-generational gathering in the Russian countryside—with, as Chekhov observed, “much conversation about literature, little action and five tons of love”. All this aimless kvetching repelled the play’s first audiences in 1886. But what was audacious then feels timeless now. “The Seagull” may be Chekhov’s finest work. Much of the dialogue—which veers from grand questions about love and happiness to prosaic observations about money and horses—still feels fresh.So why mess with it? Imitations are as common as they are reliably disappointing. Playwrights tamper at their peril. This is what makes Aaron Posner’s “Stupid Fucking Bird” such a revelation. This irreverent update, playing at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC, until August 17th, manages to capture the enduring essence of Chekhov’s classic even as it reimagines it for the 21st...

Inside al-Qaeda: There and back again

Thu, 08/07/2014 - 16:01

Agent Storm: My Life Inside Al-Qaeda. By Morten Storm with Tim Lister and Paul Cruickshank. Atlantic Monthly Press; 416 pages; $26. Viking; £16.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukEVEN in a world of weird cultural crossovers, a life story that starts in a dysfunctional white family in Denmark, and climaxes in a nest of Islamism in the Arabian sands seems pretty unusual.Yet Morten Storm makes it appear almost natural. Helped by two writers specialising in terrorism, this one-time Nordic delinquent describes in this memoir how he entered a cohort of fanatical converts to Islam who congregated in Yemen. He recalls befriending Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American preacher and mentor to terrorists. He recounts a change of allegiance that turned him into a CIA informant, and explains how he abetted the drone attack that killed the preacher in 2011.Given the ultra-sensitive nature of the topic, this is no tell-all biography. Presumably Mr Storm’s present masters have made calculated choices as to what can be expediently disclosed. A human emerges in the narrative, but only just.Much of the book’s interest lies in the puzzling...

American politics: Purpose and worth

Thu, 07/31/2014 - 16:00

Bumper sticker The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. By Rick Perlstein. Simon & Schuster; 856 pages; $37.50 and £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukONE of Ronald Reagan’s favourite jokes, loved and polished like a pebble carried for luck, told of a small boy with incurable optimism. Shown a room heaped with horse dung, the child gleefully began digging. “With all this manure,” the boy beamed, “there must be a pony in here somewhere.” Americans of the left did not laugh. To them—as Rick Perlstein argues in “The Invisible Bridge”, a fine (if overlong) history of the late 1960s and early 1970s—Reagan’s emergence as a national leader was a tragedy. As seen by the left, Reagan lulled Americans back to sleep at the moment that an unhappy, failure-haunted country was poised to wake and see itself clearly for the first time. For such critics, Reagan’s...

Correction

Thu, 07/31/2014 - 16:00

In our review of Tom Wilkinson’s book, “Bricks and Mortals” (“Building societies”, July 19th), we referred to the Great Mosque of Djenné in Timbuktu instead of the Djinguereber Mosque in Timbuktu.

Governing Britain: A difficult truth

Thu, 07/31/2014 - 16:00

The Blair kitsch project The Blair Supremacy: A Study in the Politics of Labour’s Party Management. By Lewis Minkin. Manchester University Press; 798 pages; £90. Buy from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukThe Too Difficult Box: The Big Issues Politicians Can’t Crack. Edited by Charles Clarke. Biteback Publishing; 352 pages; £25. Buy from Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk“A CHANGING world means changing policies and a changed party,” Tony Blair told a flock of die-hard supporters in London on July 21st. The former prime minister was recalling the day, precisely 20 years earlier, on which he had ascended to the leadership of the Labour Party. But what did this...

King Tutankhamun: Finding the pharaoh

Thu, 07/31/2014 - 16:00

THE British Museum’s “Treasures of Tutankhamun” show in 1972 was the world’s first blockbuster exhibition. For nine months, more than 7,000 people queued every day, filling the museum’s forecourt in Bloomsbury, to see the wonders from the boy-king’s tomb. Since that travelling exhibition, no display of Egyptian antiquities has come close. Not that this has stopped curators from trying.The latest effort is at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. By focusing on the excavation rather than the contents of the tomb, the show manages to convey the thrill of unsealing a grave still stuffed with treasure. The story begins in November 1922, when a British archaeologist, Howard Carter, sent a telegram to his patron, George Herbert, the Earl of Carnarvon, saying: “At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact.”Thanks to blow-ups of the original glass-plate negatives, visitors get to see exactly what confronted the excavation team when they entered: an antechamber piled high with chairs, boxes and beds adorned with animal heads; a painted chest filled with the pharaoh’s robes and sandals; and a rectangular stone sarcophagus containing the...

European history: Religious warring

Thu, 07/31/2014 - 16:00

The new Charlemagne Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648. By Mark Greengrass. Allen Lane; 722 pages; £30. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE new Penguin History of Europe, edited by Sir David Cannadine, was launched more than a decade ago. With five volumes now out, it is shaping up to be the best general account available, superseding all previous ones. The latest volume covers what might be called the birth of modern Europe, from the Reformation, which broke the dominance of the Roman Catholic church, to the Treaty of Westphalia, which entrenched the idea of the nation-state. It also maps the transition from the medieval notion of Christendom to the modern concept of Europe, something that provides the main theme for Mark Greengrass, now an emeritus professor at Sheffield University.Like the four earlier volumes in the series, this one strays far from the traditional focus on...

Cricket in Pakistan: Batting for survival

Thu, 07/31/2014 - 16:00

Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan. By Peter Oborne. Simon & Schuster; 624 pages; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk“WHAT do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” The literary challenge posed by C.L.R. James, a Trinidadian Marxist author, has borne much fruit in recent years, especially in India. Led by Ramachandra Guha, cricket writers have produced illuminating studies of the Indian game’s socio-political context in which not only cricket, but also India, is the subject. Pakistani cricket is every bit as wonderful to enthusiasts of the world’s second most popular game and as important to an emerging Asian country’s fragile self-identity. But, compared with India, it has been relatively neglected. So Peter Oborne’s ambitious history of Pakistani cricket, “Wounded Tiger”, has been eagerly awaited. It does not disappoint.The title refers to a team talk given by the then Pakistani cricket captain, Imran Khan, halfway through the 1992 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. The Pakistanis were playing abysmally and on the verge of elimination. To survive, they must fight like cornered Tigers, urged...

A memoir of hawking: Birdsong

Thu, 07/24/2014 - 15:58

H is for Hawk. By Helen Macdonald. Jonathan Cape; 300 pages; £14.99. To be published in America by Grove Atlantic in March 2015. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHIS absorbing book opens in the Cambridgeshire fens. “It’s a land of twisted pine trees, burned-out cars, shotgun-peppered road signs and US Air Force bases,” Helen Macdonald writes. She left home at dawn in her old Volkswagen on an errand she can barely name until she finds what she is looking for: a pair of goshawks on the wing, “raincloud grey”, slipping through the air “fast, like a knife-cut”, male and female dancing together in the morning air. Three weeks later she learns of her father’s death; the story she tells is spurred by grief.Grief of many kinds, not just for the loss of a loved one. This is a well-wrought book, one part memoir, one part gorgeous evocation of the natural world and one part literary meditation on the difficult legacy of T.H....

The American civil war: Marching through Georgia

Thu, 07/24/2014 - 15:58

Dandy Yankees dawdling Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman. By Robert O’Connell. Random House; 404 pages; $28. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE American South will never forget William Tecumseh Sherman. One hundred and fifty years ago, in 1864, General Sherman led an army of 60,000 northerners through Georgia and the Carolinas, burning Atlanta and foraging off the land. He aimed to shatter the Confederates into submission and to hasten the end of the civil war. Sherman’s “March to the Sea” endures as one of the most memorable, and innovative, campaigns of the four-year conflict.Yet Sherman (pictured above right), a military man for most of his career, had come perilously close to missing the action. An earlier command in Kentucky had gone badly, as he fought depression and the press bashed him as insane. An alignment with General Ulysses Grant, who emerged as...

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