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Secrets and pies

Thu, 07/02/2015 - 15:48

The Improbability of Love. By Hannah Rothschild. Bloomsbury; 404 pages; £14.99.

HANNAH ROTHSCHILD’S romp through the art world is peopled by some horrible characters: venal art dealers, self-important experts, political windbags, lonely Russian oligarchs exiled to London, greedy sheikhs wanting to make their mark on the world and auctioneers so oozing with unctuousness you want to wipe your hands on a clean handkerchief after being introduced.

But at the heart of the novel are two entrancing figures. One is Annie McDee, the middle-aged daughter of a crazy alcoholic mother, now on her own after the collapse of a long-term relationship, but blessed with a heart of gold and a gift for cooking that is so entrancing she recalls the heroine of Isak Dinesen’s “Babette’s Feast”.

The other is the painting Annie discovers in a junk shop while seeking a gift for an unsuitable lover. Now marked down in condescending art-expert tones as “School of…”, Annie’s painting had, in fact, spent three centuries travelling across Europe from castle to chateau and back again, owned by queen and potentate. A fictional work by the French saviour of the Baroque, Antoine Watteau, after he was spurned by the love of his life, “The Improbability of Love” possesses the appeal of a great piece of art that is universal though never quite explicable....

A searing split

Thu, 07/02/2015 - 15:48

Bound for Pakistan

Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition. By Nisid Hajari. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 328 pages; $28.

PARTITION, the bloody division of the Indian subcontinent into two countries in 1947, was a tragedy. The merits of the outcome—the creation of a Muslim-majority Pakistan separate from a secular but Hindu-majority India—have long been debated. But the botched and violent process of splitting up was undeniably catastrophic.

British colonial rulers who had long refused to discuss full independence, suddenly made for the exit with unseemly haste. The dividing line was drawn in weeks by an unqualified official, leaving a messy and dangerous legacy. Several rival leaders—Sikh, Muslim and Hindu—then scrambled for advantage, encouraging supporters to murder and rape as they sought to get control of land.

In “Midnight’s Furies”, Nisid Hajari, a journalist with Bloomberg, does a good job of recounting the horrors that unfolded, especially in Punjab. At least 14m people were displaced—“the biggest forced migration in history”—and hundreds of...

Documenting history

Thu, 07/02/2015 - 15:48

TWO thousand Neolithic axe-heads have been arranged with patient precision. An exploration of China’s heritage by Ai Weiwei, the work is the dramatic centrepiece of an exhibition of Chinese art of the last four decades at the Whitworth museum in Manchester, which was named British Museum of the Year 2015 on July 1st. It is indicative of the show’s appeal, though, that the axe-heads are less arresting than a small paintbox, shown next door, which an artist would have slipped into his satchel to avoid detection during the Cultural Revolution.

The works come from the collection of Uli Sigg, a Swiss businessman and later diplomat who began visiting China in 1979 and became involved in the nascent contemporary art scene. Having amassed what is now widely considered to be the world’s most comprehensive collection of Chinese contemporary art, in 2012 Mr Sigg gave the greater part of it—donating almost 1,500 works and selling 47 more—to the M+ museum of visual culture, which is due to open in Hong Kong in 2019.

Mr Sigg cultivated friendships with artists, but felt no inclination to buy their experiments with European forms. The Cynical...

Letter of despair

Thu, 07/02/2015 - 15:48

Between the World and Me. By Ta-Nehisi Coates. Random House; 176 pages; $24. To be published in Britain by Text Publishing in November.

A MASSACRE at a black church in Charleston, the choking of a black man by a New York police officer for the crime of selling untaxed cigarettes, the shootings of unarmed black men by several other police forces, unrest in Baltimore and in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of young black men at the hands of police: all these things have booked America in for an intensive session of racial self-analysis. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s contribution last year, in an Atlantic essay called “The Case for Reparations”, was to describe how northern cities, to which African-Americans escaped during the great migration from the south, dreamed up rules to disadvantage their new arrivals. He has followed it up with “Between the World and Me”, a letter to his teenage son on what it is to be black in America in 2015.

The epistolary form is not the only archaic thing about Mr Coates’s book. He writes with the torrential outrage of a campaigning Victorian. The prose is...

Weird science

Thu, 07/02/2015 - 15:48

The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century: The Life and Afterlife of the Seventeenth Century’s Most Inquiring Mind. By Hugh Aldersey-Williams. W.W. Norton; 330 pages; $26.95. Granta; £20.

THOMAS BROWNE was a 17th-century Norwich doctor who wrote mysterious-sounding books such as “Religio Medici” and “Pseudodoxia Epidemica”. Few read him now, but some will know of him from “The Rings of Saturn”, a novel by W.G. Sebald, a German author who died in 2001. Browne has long been a writer’s writer, and Sebald is one of a line to be stirred by the “ceremonial lavishness”, as he put it, of Browne’s “labyrinthine sentences”.

Hugh Aldersey-Williams also admires Browne’s labyrinths, but as a science writer himself he is particularly interested in Browne’s understanding of science. Browne was a medical man, but he was also, in an age before specialisms, a naturalist, an archaeologist, an anthropologist, a linguist and an inventor of words—“medical” itself being among the 784 he coined.

“The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century” is not a conventional biography. It is more a conversation with an old friend. In one of the best chapters in this engaging and often funny book, the author imagines the statue of Browne climbing off its plinth in Norwich and walking with him through the city as they discuss the...

Chronicle of a war foretold

Thu, 06/25/2015 - 15:48

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War.By P.W. Singer and August Cole.Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 404 pages; $28.

GEORGE TOMKYNS CHESNEY’S “The Battle of Dorking”, published in Blackwoods Magazine in 1871, was a story about innovation that proved to be an innovation itself. It related, in the form of a memoir written some 50 years in the future, the downfall of Britain at the hands of Prussia, beginning with the destruction of the Royal Navy by high-tech “fatal engines” and culminating in the defeat of the army in the titular battle. An instant cause célèbre—leaders in the Times and all that—and a runaway success, it produced a swathe of imitators and a new way of talking about war that has proved popular ever since.

A distinctive feature of the new genre was that it frequently presented new technologies as decisive, both a thrilling idea and a necessary device if, as the norms of the genre required, dominant nations were to be portrayed, initially at least, as victims. The books also often had messages to impart—of...

The lifesaver

Thu, 06/25/2015 - 15:48

Jonas Salk: A Life.By Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs.Oxford University Press; 559 pages; $34.95 and £22.99.

THE 1910s were not always kind to New York. In mid-1916 the city faced a polio epidemic that killed a baby every 2½ hours. Hospitals were full, and paralysis would leave many survivors in wheelchairs, on crutches or bedridden for life. Two years later a vicious form of influenza killed over 33,000 New Yorkers and 20m worldwide.

Jonas Salk, born in 1914 in a tenement in the city, was spared. In her biography of the man who developed the first polio vaccine and played a major role in developing the first flu vaccine, Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, a professor emerita of medicine at Stanford University, weaves together intimate and historical details. She paints a picture of a sensitive, genuinely kind idealist who pursued what he thought was right with gentle but unrelenting tenacity.

The first half is a fascinating—and at times nauseating—tour of vaccine-making’s past: myriad monkeys sacrificed gruesomely on the altar of science; zealous researchers drinking minced rat brain teeming with...

On the cocaine trail

Thu, 06/25/2015 - 15:48

Zero Zero Zero.By Roberto Saviano.Penguin Press; 416 pages; $29.95. Allen Lane; £20.

ROBERTO SAVIANO’S first book, “Gomorrah”, put him in grave danger. An exposé of the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra, it sold over 10m copies. But it also struck a nerve with its subject, and death threats soon followed. Mr Saviano, an Italian journalist, now moves between safe houses under 24-hour police protection. He dedicates his new book “to all my Carabinieri bodyguards. To the fifty-one thousand hours we’ve spent together and to those still ahead.”

His movement may have been curtailed, but not his anger or ambition. His latest book, “Zero Zero Zero”, is an exploration of the global cocaine trade, from the foothills of the Andes to the nightclubs of Europe. It is a well-trodden trail, but the book provides a useful overview of the industry, explaining the incongruous mix of co-operation and cruelty in each link of the supply chain.

Cocaine-trafficking is risky but enormously profitable. As Mr Saviano points out, a kilo of the drug costing $1,500 in Colombia fetches $12,000-$16,000 in Mexico and $77,000 if it makes it to Britain. According to the accountant of Colombia’s Medellín drug mob, the group was trafficking 15 tonnes of cocaine into America every day in the 1980s. Thirty years later, the figures are still staggering. In Italy...

Lacking spark

Thu, 06/25/2015 - 15:48

If you build it, will they come?

IN SPITE of the enormous success of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, the €130m ($145m) design chosen for the Helsinki outpost will not quieten misgivings about the foundation’s aspiration to create a global cultural network.

The competition was won by an indistinct jumble of pavilions faced in charred wood that reflects all too well the ambiguities of the Guggenheim’s intentions. The design, announced on June 23rd, is as quietly deferential as Frank Gehry’s Bilbao design is self-consciously flamboyant. Along a quay now devoted to parking and a port warehouse, the Paris-based Moreau Kusunoki Architectes have proposed nine loosely arranged pavilions, six of which house gallery suites. Glassed-in passages and gathering spaces among the pavilions glue them into an ensemble.

The pavilion roofs turn up in identical gentle curves, with the taller ones huddling at the base of a tower topped by a restaurant—a lighthouse for dining. The visitor experience is rather shapeless, too. Most people will make their way from the city centre along a cheerless esplanade to a broad entrance...

Getty got it, good

Thu, 06/25/2015 - 15:48

IT IS not every day that you get a phone call announcing the discovery of a long-lost Baroque masterpiece, even if you are the director of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. When Alexander Kader, Sotheby’s head of European sculpture, rang Timothy Potts, the boss of the Getty, in March, saying he might have found Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s first marble carving of a pope, Mr Potts booked himself on a plane to London.

“Bernini was the master of the ‘speaking likeness’,” he says. “He found a way of breathing life into marble, of capturing the essence of a person. Not just the physical likeness of the pope, but his personality and stature, his benevolent seriousness and living presence. It makes you go weak at the knees when you see it, even if you know nothing of the artist.”

Pope Paul V’s nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, commissioned the sculpture shortly after the pope’s death in 1621. On its completion it was displayed in Villa Borghese alongside another famous Bernini bust of the cardinal himself. In 1893, when the family fell on hard times, it was sold at auction in Rome, having first been photographed for the catalogue. Along with...

Still in the shadows

Thu, 06/25/2015 - 15:48

Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life.By Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine.Oxford University Press; 610 pages; $34.95 and £22.99.

BIOGRAPHERS of Communist-era leaders in China face enormous challenges. Since Mao Zedong took control of the country in 1949 its most powerful figures have hardly ever given interviews to journalists. Those who have lived or worked closely with these politicians tend either to sing their praises, condemn them out of hand (usually from the safety of exile) or, in most cases, keep quiet. Official policy documents, even secret ones, are often coloured by the biases of their drafters, whose aim may be to distort or exaggerate a leader’s preferences in order to promote the interests of a faction. A plethora of rumour clouds the picture further.

Writing about the life of Deng Xiaoping is one of the toughest challenges of all. For stretches of his career Deng was among Mao’s closest henchmen; separating his views at the time from those of Mao is fiendishly difficult. From 1978, two years after Mao’s death, until the early 1990s, Deng’s was the hand that guided China’s extraordinary economic transformation. Yet during this period he often operated behind the scenes; others held the post of Communist Party chief. After his retirement in 1989, he continued to play an important role with no more title than...


Thu, 06/18/2015 - 15:48

Still life with pair

WHEN it comes to the rich young tech entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, art dealers around the world are clamouring to know: are they buying? The answer is yes, discreetly, and often with the help of a firm called Zlot Buell.

The San Francisco-based art consultancy does not have a website, preferring word-of-mouth recommendations to self-promotion. The firm vets its clients, probing them about their reasons for buying and their willingness to observe a certain art-world etiquette that some may find old-fashioned. If prospective collectors are interested in art only for interior decoration or speculative investment, Zlot Buell would prefer not to work with them, regardless of budget.

Mary Zlot (pictured right, seated) began recommending art in the 1970s while working at an architectural-design firm specialising in corporate interiors. When she broke free to set up her first art consultancy in 1983, she took one important client with her, KKR, an investment firm. From the outset, Ms Zlot steered clear of conflicts of interest. She does not buy and sell art and is paid only by her...

Black and light

Thu, 06/18/2015 - 15:48

Black Hole: How an Idea Abandoned by Newtonians, Hated by Einstein and Gambled on by Hawking Became Loved. By Marcia Bartusiak. Yale University Press; 256 pages; $27.50 and £14.99.

ANY truth, it is said, passes through three stages: first it is ridiculed, then violently opposed and finally it is taken as self-evident. Marcia Bartusiak, a professor of science-writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, points out that black holes have experienced each stage to the fullest. When Isaac Newton’s ideas about gravity were first taken to their natural conclusion, it appeared that a body of sufficient mass could draw in light just as it did matter. That would make it invisible. Cue public ridicule.

Ms Bartusiak’s story seems less about the toilings of scientists than about a phenomenon repeatedly fighting to reveal itself, but being beset at every step. Scepticism played a strong part. The author shows how variants of the mass-from-which-light-cannot-escape meme kept arising, with each being rejected outright. Even Albert Einstein—who came up with general relativity, the equations needed to describe a massive, spinning star—did not think much of the solutions that pointed towards black holes.

The cult of personality had a role, too. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar first suggested that stars above a certain mass would, in...

Breaking out

Thu, 06/18/2015 - 15:48

Strutting its stuff

Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century. By Jed Rasula. Basic Books; 365 pages; $29.99.

DADA was arguably the most revolutionary artistic movement of the 20th century. From its birth in the grim wartime winter of 1916, over the course of a few raucous performances at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, it stretched the boundaries of aesthetic possibility to breaking-point, elevating randomness, cacophony, insult and plain silliness into legitimate forms of artistic expression. The experimental nightclub created by Hugo Ball and his mistress Emmy Hennings introduced many of the techniques that would be deployed by later innovators, from pop appropriation to hip-hop-style sampling, from photomontage, installation, assemblage and other non-traditional mixed-media mash-ups, to performance art and art that consisted of nothing but pure idea.

As Jed Rasula, of the University of Georgia, reveals in an eloquent new history, Dada’s legacy was as much a chronicle of failure as triumph. For those who congregated at the Cabaret Voltaire and then went on to spread the “virgin microbe” across the globe, the goal was not to rejuvenate art—which most rejected as the product of a bourgeois culture they despised—but to remake the...

Unnatural selection

Thu, 06/18/2015 - 15:48

Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir. By Wednesday Martin. Simon & Schuster; 246 pages; $26 and £16.99.

NORTH of New York’s 59th Street and just east of Central Park is the natural habitat of a peculiar breed of higher-order primates. Among the females, a fiercely competitive tribal culture and a dramatic imbalance in sex ratios (reproductive females outnumber males by a factor of two to one) have yielded some evolutionarily extravagant adaptations. Food is plentiful, but calories are severely restricted and often consumed as fluids. To reinforce status and strengthen monogamous pair-bonds, females engage in extremes of ornamentation and elaborate “beautification practices”, which include physical mutilation and gruelling endurance rites. Although they appear powerful, these females occupy a socially precarious position: they rely on males for access to scarce resources and their lives are almost wholly consumed by descendant worship. Because children are such costly status objects, large numbers are a conspicuous sign of wealth.

Such are the customs and rituals of motherhood on Manhattan’s Upper East...

Multiple choice

Thu, 06/18/2015 - 15:48

After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate. By Mary Ziegler. Harvard University Press; 367 pages; $39.95 and £29.95.

WHEN America comes to pick its next president one thing is sure: the two candidates will take opposing views of a 40-year-old lawsuit. As the country has become more tolerant of homosexuality, abortion has been left standing as the prime insignia of affiliation in the culture wars that have raged for decades. One Republican contender, Scott Walker, intends to sign a bill in Wisconsin banning abortion after 20 weeks, with no exceptions made even in cases of rape or incest. Another, Rick Perry, has presided over the closing of most of the abortion clinics in Texas. The arguments on both sides have become wearily familiar. Mary Ziegler’s book on Roe v Wade, the 1973 case in which the Supreme Court struck down state bans on abortion, resurrects the strange ancestry of the pro-life and pro-choice camps, which, in reality, are anything but.

Arguments over whether a mother should have the right to terminate the fetus she is carrying and, if so, at what stage in the...

Men at arms

Thu, 06/11/2015 - 15:51

Fun in tights

Touché: The Duel in Literature. By John Leigh. Harvard University Press; 334 pages; $35 and £20.

FOR centuries the idea of two men facing each other in a duel has seemed anachronistic. Guy de Maupassant, a 19th-century writer, declared it to be “the last of our unreasonable customs”. Two centuries before that Louis XIV, king of France, tried to outlaw it as a feudal archaism. Yet despite this, the literature of the 19th and even the early 20th century is peppered with accounts of swashbuckling men. Why?

“Touché”, an intriguing book by John Leigh, a specialist in 18th-century French literature at Cambridge University, provides some of the answers. Ranging over two dozen examples of novels, poems and plays, Mr Leigh describes how this “medieval anomaly” continued to preoccupy writers, even as they dismissed duelling as an old-fashioned folly. 

In the early 18th century many writers depicted men who fought duels as hot-headed. By the 19th century, although it still seemed to spring from an older, medieval age, duelling was regarded as...

They think, therefore they are

Thu, 06/11/2015 - 15:51

How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People. By Sudhir Hazareesingh. Allen Lane; 427 pages; £20. To be published in America by Basic Books in September.

IN 2003, as America was gearing up for the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a tall Frenchman with a thick silvery mane took the floor at the UN in New York. Dominique de Villepin was then France’s foreign minister, and what marked minds was not only his uncompromising anti-war message, but the way he uttered it: his speech was a magnificent rhetorical appeal to values and ideals. In a deep, silky tone, he spoke for an “old country” that has known war and barbarity but has “never ceased to stand upright in the face of history and before mankind”. As the “guardians of an ideal, the guardians of a conscience”, the UN, like France, he declared, had a duty to plead for disarmament by peaceful means.

There was something quintessentially French about this speech, argues Sudhir Hazareesingh, a professor of politics at Oxford University, who opens his impressive new book with the scene. Mr de Villepin’s words combined “seductive...

Happy birthday, Pierre

Thu, 06/11/2015 - 15:51

Music magpie

ON A dimly lit stage, black-clad figures reminiscent of Japanese bunraku puppeteers carry tall screens on long sticks, silently moving among the members of an orchestra. The screens show the orchestra playing short pieces of music, interspersed with archive footage and video clips of interviews. Sometimes the people in black home in on individual musicians and record them on their smartphones, the images immediately showing up on the screens above.

This strange, immersive multimedia experience, an hour and a half long, is a celebration of an iconoclastic modern composer and conductor, Pierre Boulez, who is 90 this year. Entitled “A Pierre Dream”, with a set designed by the architect Frank Gehry, an old friend of Mr Boulez’s, it was conceived by Gerard McBurney for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and first performed last November. On June 17th it is coming to Britain, complete with the Gehry sets, to be played by the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble. It will be part of a three-day homage to Mr Boulez at the Aldeburgh festival in Suffolk, the latest of many events, concerts and...

Life in the round

Thu, 06/11/2015 - 15:51

Adventures in Human Being. By Gavin Francis. Profile; 252 pages; £14.99. To be published in America by Basic Books in October.

GAVIN FRANCIS, a Scottish doctor, has had plenty of adventures, not least 14 months spent as “Zdoc” for a British research mission near the South Pole, the subject of his engaging memoir, “Empire Antarctica”. His new book, “Adventures in Human Being”, stays nearer to home, a journey through the body, from top to tail, inside out, but is no less delightful.

He weaves together the stories of his own patients and their ailments with the poetry of others, drawing on science and history, myth and legend to explore the functioning of the physical form. His writing is spare; Mr Francis makes a virtue of Scottish taciturnity. But his sense of wonder at the human body is clear. Pale retinal spots remind him of cumulus clouds, the retinal arteries of patients with high blood pressure of “jagged forks of lightning”. Gazing upon a newly transplanted kidney, filling with blood, is, he writes, like “watching a process of reanimation: a refutation of death.” The countless capillaries that join mother and child in the womb, enabling new life to grow, seem to him like “a million tiny hands”, their fingers “locked across the placental divide”.

Mr Francis avoids mawkishness, even when his patients are facing death...