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Beyond borders

Thu, 02/26/2015 - 15:44

Hold on

“FEAR is the condom of life. It doesn’t allow you to enjoy things,” declared Alejandro González Iñárritu on February 22nd after his absurdly and deliciously fearless “Birdman” won four Oscars, including best picture. It is the second year in a row that Mexican pluck has triumphed. In 2014 Alfonso Cuarón’s 3-D space-junk drama “Gravity” won seven Oscars, including the one for best director. Emmanuel Lubezki, both men’s wizard behind the camera, has taken best cinematographer for two years running. In America, where most Mexicans are noticed, if at all, sweeping floors and waiting at tables, such a masterful cleanup in Hollywood is a startling result.

The success reflects well on both Mexico and Hollywood. All three friends came of age in Mexico City in the 1980s, when mainstream domestic cinema was financially and creatively bankrupt. They needed to make movies that were profitable, enabling them to break out. They did so, says Adolfo Aguilar, a film critic, at a time when Mexico was opening up to free trade, and global influences were swirling. Two films, Mr González Iñárritu’s “Amores Perros” (2000) and Mr...

Just say no

Thu, 02/26/2015 - 15:44

Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup. By Andrew Zimbalist. Brookings Institution Press; 174 pages; $25 and £18.50.

THERE may be few sweeter siren songs for public officials across the world than the dulcet tones of emissaries from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and FIFA, the global governing body of football. To induce cities to bid to host the Olympics and World Cup, they promise infrastructure investment to modernise blighted areas, a lasting rise in tourism, improved public health, a month at the centre of the world stage and the eternal gratitude of constituents. And as for the costs? Well, the economic ripple effects will surely be so large that the spending will pay for itself, and it can always be financed with debt that comes due long after an officeholder has moved on.

Following the extensive media coverage of the economics of the London and Sochi Olympics and Brazil’s World Cup, it should be no surprise that these lofty assurances rarely come to fruition. But even appropriately jaded readers are likely to be shocked by the evidence in “Circus...

Many masters, many lives

Thu, 02/26/2015 - 15:44

88 Days to Kandahar: A CIA Diary. By Robert Grenier. Simon & Schuster; 443 pages; $28.

ROBERT GRENIER joined the CIA in 1979, just as the Shah of Iran fled to America. It was a low point for the agency, but Mr Grenier, imbued with the ethos of the fine East Coast schools he had attended, particularly Dartmouth College from which he had only recently graduated, was eager to serve. In this engrossing, well-written insider’s account of his time as the CIA station chief in Pakistan and later as a senior bureaucrat at its Langley headquarters, he was drawn, he says, to a career that offered the possibility of high achievement and, because of the risk, some abject failure. He was more an old-school gentleman spy than a new-era secret warrior.

Most of the book is about Mr Grenier’s efforts from inside the American embassy in Islamabad to get Hamid Karzai into the driver’s seat in Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on America on September 11th 2001. Mr Grenier writes of the attempts to supply air-support and weapons to the inexperienced Mr Karzai, who had entered Afghanistan from Pakistan in the autumn of 2001 with a motley group of supporters and a satellite phone he barely knew how to use.

The descriptions of this initial phase of the Afghanistan war are both amusing and hair-raising. The late-night...

In ancient times

Thu, 02/26/2015 - 15:44

The Buried Giant. By Kazuo Ishiguro. Knopf; 336 pages; $26.95. Faber and Faber; 344 pages; £20.

A MIST envelops Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book—his first novel in a decade—but that is by design. “He had felt as one standing in a boat on a wintry river, looking out into dense fog, knowing it would at any moment part to reveal vivid glimpses of the land ahead.” This is Axl, who, at the beginning of “The Buried Giant”, sets off with his wife, Beatrice, on a journey to visit the son they haven’t seen for a very long time. But when that mist parts, the land ahead looks very strange indeed.

The couple—getting on in years, though Axl always calls his wife “princess”—live in a post-Roman Britain which straddles the border between history and myth. There are ogres here, and dragons; King Arthur is not long gone. Sir Gawain (now no spring chicken) comes into the story about halfway through. One way to describe this tale would be to call it a quest, or rather a sequence of quests: for as Axl and Beatrice seek their son, they are joined by a warrior, Wistan, and a strange wounded boy, Edwin, who are hunting the dragon that seems to be the source of the country’s ills.

The mist through which Axl must peer affects everyone, it seems: this land is a place where memories vanish, where nothing is certain, where old companions fail to...

Charging ahead

Thu, 02/26/2015 - 15:44

The Great Race: The Global Quest for the Car of the Future. By Levi Tillemann. Simon & Schuster; 338 pages; $28.

The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World. By Steve LeVine. Viking; 308 pages; $28.95.

ANY doubts that electric cars are the future are rapidly blown away within minutes of driving a Tesla Model S. It is not so much the rapid acceleration, but the smooth and relentless supply of power from its electric motor. That is the thing about electric motors: they produce a twisting force called torque instantly. So much torque, in fact, there is no need for a gearbox. This saves weight and makes more room for all the toys, such as the giant touchscreen that dominates the Tesla’s centre console. It is a shame then that Levi Tillemann did not crown this car the winner in his book “The Great Race”, instead of wimping out at the end by declaring the quest for the car of the future is a “race we all run together”.

Mr Tillemann’s book is about the car guys, mostly those employed by the giant carmakers in America, China and Japan, and their titanic...

Shape-shifting

Thu, 02/26/2015 - 15:44

Evolutionary curve

Curvology: The Origins and Power of Female Body Shape. By David Bainbridge. Granta; 227 pages; £14.99.

TABLOID newspapers take a prurient interest in women who flaunt their curves. The role of the media, and other cultural forces, in constructing notions of female beauty is often discussed. But “Curvology”, a new book by David Bainbridge, focuses on the part played by evolution in men’s—and women’s—understanding and appreciation of the undulations of the female form. Men’s and women’s bodies differ more than is necessary simply to gestate, bear and nourish children. Why?

The simple answer, suggests Mr Bainbridge, a British reproductive biologist and veterinary anatomist, is that those curvy bums and boobs, the straight “enviable pins” that newspapers salivate over, ensure the future of humankind. They are proof that a woman was well-nourished while growing up and carries good child-feeding genes. He explains in such terms the changes in women’s bodies throughout their lives: it makes evolutionary sense for new couples to plump up—in comparison with when...

Reconstruction

Thu, 02/19/2015 - 15:58

All Days Are Night. By Peter Stamm. Translated by Michael Hofmann. Other Press; 192 pages; $22. Granta; £12.99.

PETER STAMM’S new novel opens in a heavily medicated blur. His protagonist, Gillian, is passing in and out of consciousness in a hospital bed. A car accident has killed her husband and inflicted some peculiarly cruel injuries. Her face is unrecognisable—a mess of torn flesh, an ear severed, her nose lopped off—and so is her life. A s a glamorous television presenter, her existence was “one long performance”; no longer can she play her part. “What’s left of me?” she asks herself. “And is what’s left more than a wound?”

Mr Stamm—a Swiss novelist who writes in German and who was shortlisted for the Man Booker International prize in 2013—gives this well-worn set-up real energy with an unsparing account of Gillian’s recovery. His prose, in a crystalline translation by Michael Hofmann, is as sharply illuminating as a surgical light. He is acutely alert to injury’s alienating effects. Gillian’s body feels like “an empty building full of noises”. When she tries to laugh she makes “a whiffling sound” that...

Rolling into town

Thu, 02/19/2015 - 15:58

ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. By Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan. Regan Arts; 288 pages; $14.

The Rise of the Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution. By Patrick Cockburn. Verso; 192 pages; $16.95 and £12.99.

“RUSH, O Muslims, to your state. Yes, it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis.” Thus did Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaim the creation of his new caliphate last summer. He urged all Muslims (Sunnis, that is) to defend it after his fighters had spectacularly pushed Iraq’s American-trained army out of Mosul.

Islamic State (IS, sometimes also called ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) is wrecking the post-colonial states of the Middle East. The caliphate now straddles swathes of Syria and Iraq; Egypt’s Sinai peninsula is becoming a war zone; and the chaos of Libya is giving jihadists a foothold that could become a “province” on Europe’s doorstep. Little matter that ever more countries, led by America, are fighting IS’s brutality: it is the fulfilment of an apocalyptic battle that will take place in Dabiq (in Syria), according to...

Divide and rue

Thu, 02/19/2015 - 15:58

Off the rails

The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry Between India and Pakistan. By Dilip Hiro. Nation Books; 528 pages; $35.

NEARLY 70 years ago the Indian subcontinent was divided. A fifth of the territory and 17.5% of the people formed Pakistan. The rest became independent India. Departing British colonial authorities rushed the split. The result was a bloody mess. Pakistan proved ungainly from the start, composed of two distant Muslim-majority areas, separated by 1,100 miles (1,770km) as the crow flies. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, its first ruler, moaned that his country was “maimed and moth eaten”.

Jinnah had been an unlikely figure to bring Pakistan into existence. A wealthy, anglophile lawyer with a Parsi wife, he had long resisted fervently mixing religion and politics, even as his more successful rival, Mohandas Gandhi, was happy to marry them together. Jinnah’s political triumph came only when he changed methods, stoking Muslim fears of a “Hindu Raj” in India. On August 11th 1947 he told an assembly crafting a new constitution that Pakistan was being born of necessity, as...

A grand celebration

Thu, 02/19/2015 - 15:58

More than a month’s worth of visitors piled into the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester when it reopened after a £15m ($23m) revamp on February 14th. To celebrate, its spirited director, Maria Balshaw, put on a welcome-back show that did both city and gallery proud: Cornelia Parker’s “Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View” (pictured above), an installation of a blown-up shed containing graphene—the wonder substance that was invented in Manchester; the Hallé youth choir belting out Hubert Parry’s “Jerusalem”; and an opening-night curry dinner in homage to the restaurants and kebab houses on south Manchester’s Curry Mile nearby. Enough to make grown Mancunians weep.

Good tech,bad tech

Thu, 02/19/2015 - 15:58

Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It. By Marc Goodman. Doubleday; 464 pages; $27.95. Bantam; £20.

AT A recent cyber-security summit in Silicon Valley, Barack Obama was asked by an interviewer from Re/code, a technology blog, to give his view of the thorny issue of cyber-snooping by governments. Mr Obama drew on a sporting analogy: “This is more like basketball than [American] football,” he said, “…there’s no clear line between offence and defence.”

In the corporate world digital defences are being overwhelmed alarmingly often. A string of recent high-profile intrusions by hackers, ranging from the devastating cyber-attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment to the news this week that crafty hackers had pilfered large sums of money from banks in Russia and elsewhere, have propelled cyber-security to the top of boardroom agendas. Marc Goodman’s book was printed before these attacks took place. But it contains plenty of other episodes that highlight how hacking has evolved into a multinational endeavour run by criminal masterminds and spooks.

Mr Goodman, who worked with both Interpol and the FBI before striking out on his own as an expert on digital criminality, worries that the worst is yet to come. As technology rapidly advances, many more things,...

Freedom fighter

Thu, 02/19/2015 - 15:58

I am condemned to be free

Sartre: A Philosophical Biography. By Thomas R. Flynn. Cambridge University Press; 436 pages; $39.95 and £30.

WHEN the French thinker and writer Jean-Paul Sartre died in April 1980, 50,000 people followed his hearse through Paris. It was a fitting tribute in a country where intellectual life is prized. Philosophers, though, are judged by their arguments, not their funerals. On that sterner test, how has Sartre’s philosophy held up? Thomas Flynn’s thorough new study offers expert guidance.

Most technical philosophers tend to look at the world as armchair scientists. They puzzle about time or knowledge, matter, numbers and chance. They ask how such things really are. Sartre, who also wrote bestselling fiction and plays, thought about the world as an off-duty novelist. He asked what the world was like for people. They were not detached physicists or passive observers. They lived, aided or obstructed by a material world, which included their bodies. For good or ill, they were thrown into contact with others. Sartre’s concern, in a phrase,...

T.E. Lawrence: Enigmatic mystery

Thu, 02/12/2015 - 15:48

The Young T.E. Lawrence. By Anthony Sattin. W.W. Norton; 336 pages; $28.95. John Murray; £25.FROM earliest childhood, Ned Lawrence knew that his family was different, in some unspoken way, from other families, and that he was not at all like his four brothers. Such tough beginnings can either inhibit a personality or stimulate its growth. As is well explained in “The Young T.E. Lawrence”, a quirky but rigorous biographical study by Anthony Sattin, a British travel-writer, the man best known as Lawrence of Arabia fell firmly in the second category.Other books about Lawrence, and a famous film, present him as a hero of the first world war who rallied the Arabs to rise against the Ottoman empire, guided them to great victories and lobbied for the Arab cause, with disappointing results, in post-war negotiations. Mr Sattin, whose book came out in Britain last October and is only now being published in America, looks instead at Lawrence’s life before that: growing up and studying in Oxford, then excelling as an archaeologist in Syria and Palestine. Although every phase of Lawrence’s life has mysteries, the early part is less shrouded by...

Love songs: My funny Valentine

Thu, 02/12/2015 - 15:48

Love Songs: The Hidden History. By Ted Gioia. Oxford University Press; 336 pages; $29.95 and £17.99.TED GIOIA says that when he told people he was writing a history of love songs, some responded “with a dismissive smile. In their opinion, this is wimpy music.” In fact, Mr Gioia argues, love songs are “radical and disruptive”. They have survived repression, expanded human freedom and proved uniquely hospitable to the voices of the marginalised.He largely proves his thesis, with a capacious definition of love that includes bizarre Sumerian fertility rites (a king arouses a goddess’s votary to such heights of passion that “then and there she composes a song for her vulva”), chivalric troubadour songs and, alas, the dreary, repetitive artlessness of Robert Palmer. Calling Mr Gioia’s study “discursive” is an understatement: readers learn that a lament sung from outside a lover’s door is called a paraklausithyron; that “Greensleeves” may have started out as a solicitation song, with the title referring to grass stains on the clothing of prostitutes who entertained their clients outdoors; that among the 64 talents the Kama Sutra recommends for elite lovers are singing, dancing, metallurgy and teaching parrots how to talk; and that Gene Simmons, the lead singer of KISS, has slept with 4,897 women.Mr Gioia proves as gifted at noticing cross-cultural...

T.E. Lawrence: Mystery wrapped in an enigma

Thu, 02/12/2015 - 15:48

The Young T.E. Lawrence. By Anthony Sattin. W.W. Norton; 336 pages; $28.95. John Murray; £25.FROM earliest childhood, Ned Lawrence knew that his family was different, in some unspoken way, from other families, and that he was not at all like his four brothers. Such tough beginnings can either inhibit a personality or stimulate its growth. As is well explained in “The Young T.E. Lawrence”, a quirky but rigorous biographical study by Anthony Sattin, a British travel-writer, the man best known as Lawrence of Arabia fell firmly in the second category.Other books about Lawrence, and a famous film, present him as a hero of the first world war who rallied the Arabs to rise against the Ottoman empire, guided them to great victories and lobbied for the Arab cause, with disappointing results, in post-war negotiations. Mr Sattin, whose book came out in Britain last October and is only now being published in America, looks instead at Lawrence’s life before that: growing up and studying in Oxford, then excelling as an archaeologist in Syria and Palestine. Although every phase of Lawrence’s life has mysteries, the early part is less shrouded by...

Romance in music: My cherie amour

Thu, 02/12/2015 - 15:48

Love Songs: The Hidden History. By Ted Gioia. Oxford University Press; 336 pages; $29.95 and £17.99.TED GIOIA says that when he told people he was writing a history of love songs, some responded “with a dismissive smile. In their opinion, this is wimpy music.” In fact, Mr Gioia argues, love songs are “radical and disruptive”. They have survived repression, expanded human freedom and proved uniquely hospitable to the voices of the marginalised.He largely proves his thesis, with a capacious definition of love that includes bizarre Sumerian fertility rites (a king arouses a goddess’s votary to such heights of passion that “then and there she composes a song for her vulva”), chivalric troubadour songs and, alas, the dreary, repetitive artlessness of Robert Palmer. Calling Mr Gioia’s study “discursive” is an understatement: readers learn that a lament sung from outside a lover’s door is called a paraklausithyron; that “Greensleeves” may have started out as a solicitation song, with the title referring to grass stains on the clothing of prostitutes who entertained their clients outdoors; that among the 64 talents the Kama Sutra recommends for elite lovers are singing, dancing, metallurgy and teaching parrots how to talk; and that Gene Simmons, the lead singer of KISS, has slept with 4,897 women.Mr Gioia proves as gifted at noticing cross-cultural...

Theatre: Grey area

Thu, 02/12/2015 - 15:48

It’s for you-hoo JACLYN has an attitude problem. That, at least, is the view of her boss, Dr Williams. “I don’t think she fits in,” he moans to Ileen, his office manager. But firing people is so difficult nowadays. To appease Human Resources and dodge “those superficial laws about harassment”, he asks Ileen studiously to document Jaclyn’s missteps. No, no, no, this isn’t about race, the doctor hastily clarifies—“That’s not what I’m about.” It’s just that Jaclyn’s prickly demeanour disrupts the “teamwork atmosphere” he wants for his office. With a proper paper trail of her mistakes, he can send Jaclyn packing without fear of a lawsuit.So begins “Rasheeda Speaking”, a powerful new play by Joel Drake Johnson, which opened at New York’s Pershing Square Signature Centre on February 11th. Set in a generic doctor’s office with drab linoleum flooring, this play turns latent prejudice into something palpable and uncomfortable. Jaclyn, performed with stage-dominating charisma by Tonya Pinkins, is black. She is hard-working, but also, indeed, a bit snappish and occasionally rude to patients. Ileen, played with eagerness and fragility by Dianne...

The origins of money: Means of exchange

Thu, 02/12/2015 - 15:48

Making Money: Coin, Currency and the Coming of Capitalism. By Christine Desan. Oxford University Press; 496 pages; $85 and £50.MONEY may feel as solid as the Bank of England, but it is an ever-shifting phenomenon. People have gone from using gold or silver coins through paper notes and plastic cards to the modern practice of “quantitative easing” (QE).To some on the Republican right in America, this evolution is a rake’s progress, in which QE is a debasement of the currency leading to hyperinflation and economic ruin. They want a return to the gold standard, whereby the amount of money would be linked to a country’s gold reserves. Politicians (and central bankers) would be unable to tamper with it.But in a new book, “Making Money”, Christine Desan, a Harvard law professor, challenges the view of money’s history as a fall from grace. She is part of the “cartalist” school which argues that money did not develop spontaneously from below, but was imposed from above by the state or ruler. A sovereign might offer tokens as payments for goods and services, and agree to accept those tokens back to meet taxes or debts. In effect a guarantee...

T.S. Eliot: Time present and time past

Thu, 02/12/2015 - 15:48

Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land. By Robert Crawford. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 512 pages; $35. Jonathan Cape; £25.WHEN Thomas Stearns Eliot died in 1965 few other poets could claim to match his achievement. “The Waste Land”, a difficult and richly allusive work that first came out in 1922, had been hailed as one of the finest poems of his generation. A cottage industry of academic criticism had sprung up around it. But since Eliot’s death, little has been known of the life that led up to its creation. His widow (and executor), Valerie Eliot, refused to authorise any biographies; the poet’s reputation became tarnished with accusations of anti-Semitism. Some 50 years on, a new biography sheds light on a tricky, brilliant writer. “Young Eliot” is the most carefully researched life to date. Robert Crawford, a poet who teaches at the University of St Andrew’s, traces Eliot’s life from his birth in St Louis, Missouri, to the moment “The Waste Land” was published when the author was 34 years old. (A second volume, on his life after the publication, is in the works.) In doing so Mr Crawford charts the creation of one of the finest pieces of literature in the 20th century.Few previous biographies have been able to delve into the early years of Eliot’s life. Partly this is because so few documents exist: between 1905, when Eliot was 16...

Russian cinema: Portrait of a country

Wed, 02/11/2015 - 19:48

TO THOSE in the know, there are two Russian trailers for “Leviathan”, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s new film, which opened in Moscow earlier this month. The official version nods at the praise that has already been showered on the film at the Cannes film festival and the Golden Globes, as well as its nomination for an Academy Award. It intersperses scenes from the film with tributes and endorsements. “One of the few films that will stay in the history of cinema,” sang Kommersant, a Russian daily. “A masterpiece”, declared Le Figaro, a French one. “Zvyagintsev is one of the great directors of our time,” opined the Irish Times.The second trailer, posted on YouTube, is a spoof. The rolling credits state: “The Zionist Occupation Government, US State Department, CIA and the world anti-Russian alliance present…” “A film made according to the principle of ‘shitsky-rusky’,” says Vladimir Medinsky, the Russian minister of culture. A “film made for the Western elites,” preaches Father Vsevolod Chaplin.  “This film is dangerous to show to the Russians,”...

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