March 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
MR SELDEN’S MAP OF CHINA: The Spice Trade, A Lost Chart and the South China Sea by Timothy Brook (Profile, 212pp; 18.99)
In 1659 a unique map dating from the Ming dynasty was bequeathed to the Bodleian Library by John Selden, a distinguished lawyer, provocative politician and scholarly Orientalist. Since its rescue from obscurity in 2009, the map has markedly altered our traditional perspectives of China and its relations with the rest of the world. It has been particularly provocative in the modern context of China’s claim to historical right of sovereignty by discovery over the South China Sea. First assuring himself that the Selden map is genuine, Timothy Brook, an expert in Chinese history, ingeniously and minutely deconstructs it, releasing dragons that fly along global trade networks, breathe over the shoulders of scholars labouring to decipher the map and discover the secret significances of compasses, sea law and magnetic signatures. The great charm of this book lies not only in its illustrative, erudite detail but in the serendipity that regularly seizes Brooks and adds spice to a spellbinding story.
TURKISH AWAKENING: A Personal Discovery of Modern Turkey by Alev Scott (Faber, 312pp; £14.99)
The rioting last year in Gezi Park took Alev Scott by surprise. She had moved to Istanbul to live and work in her mother’s country and there she was choking in an alley with an old woman who kindly gave her lemon oil to counteract the effects of tear gas. Living near Taksim Square, her view of Turkey was that of her friends who were leftist, progressive, creative and sexually diverse. As a young European woman, she resented being invisible to shopkeepers when out with her boyfriend, but she was respectful of ingrained Islamic attitudes and came to realise that European influence is more conceptual than actual. Without downplaying abuses of human and minority rights, Alev Scott discusses them frankly in terms of Turkish national pride. Turkish culture may incorporate elements of European life, but she believes that traditional, patriotic Turkishness will always prevail, uniting all Turks of all political tendencies. In a colourful survey of a complex, often paradoxical country on the cusp of social and cultural change, Alev Scott is an open-minded, fresh-eyed reporter.
THE SIXTH EXTINCTION: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (Bloomsbury, 324pp; £20)
If ‘The Sixth Extinction’ sounds like the title of an apocalyptic Bruce Willis movie, be very afraid: it’s worse than that. Bruce can’t save us from ourselves. In terms of our predominance as a species, our fifteen minutes of humanity is almost up. Five times there has been an extinction event. This time it’s personal. We are not only our own worst enemy; we are the worst enemy for every other living thing on the planet. Even our best intentions and empathetic humanity are deadly. The Panamanian frog has nothing to thank us for: it is now extinct in the wild. Also on their way out are a third of fresh-water molluscs, sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles and a sixth of all birds. Look no further than your own back yard, says Kolbert, for evidence of extinction. Among the prophetic Cassandras of global catastrophe, Elizabeth Kolbert’s voice rings out clearly and convincingly.
February 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
OUR AMERICA: A Hispanic History of the United States by Felipe Fernández-Armesto (Norton, 402pp; £17.99)
It may please the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants of New England to claim that American history began in 1607 with the settlement of Jamestown by English immigrants, but historian Fernández-Armesto points out that San Juan was the first city now in United States territory to be settled by Europeans in 1505. Nowadays, the first Spanish colonies in Puerto Rico, Florida and the Southwest have a more significant meaning for 21st century American immigration policy and electoral politics than the founding families of the Mayflower. Rotating the historical perspective away from the standard Anglo-centric narrative usefully reinforces the pluralism of modern America which unites in its national symbols– the flag, the founding legends, the law and the Constitution. Even fictional Hispano-American characters such as Zorro and the Cisco Kid, who battled bad gringos in defence of poor Californios, reinforce its heroic character. Just as the sense of being American brought British and Spanish colonists closer together in the eighteenth century, so the Hispanic history of America confirms the capacity of Americans to construct a cultural unity founded in diversity.
THE GAP: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals by Thomas Suddendorf (Basic Books, 358pp; £19.99)
Humpback whales sing songs they learn from each other. The good news is that the information content of the songs is as simple as a pop lyric – “hey, babe, I’m over here and I’m hot.” The bad news is that there is no conversation beyond basic mate-attraction. Whales, like other animals, are intelligent in their own way; just not in our way. Suddendorf, a psychologist, strongly reinforces the point that it is the human capacity to articulate, develop language and tell stories that distinguishes us from animals. Our success as a dominant species, he says, has depended on our ability to imagine and link our minds together. But he goes further, suggesting that the gap between humans and animals is widening not because we are becoming smarter but because we are killing off our closest intelligent animal relatives and potential rivals. Suddendorf brilliantly fills in the gap with telling detail and acute analysis.
EROTIC EXCHANGES: The World of Elite Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century Paris by Nina Kushner (Cornell University Press, 296pp; £$35)
The careers of the great French courtesans (les grandes horizontales) of the 19th century are well known: less well known are the lives of the kept women of mid-18th century Paris, the dames entretenues, also known as femmes galantes, famous for their glamour and beauty. The dossiers of 550 women under surveillance by a Paris police unit from 1747 to 1771 are the basis of Nina Kushner’s inquiry into the complex structure of the demimonde. One thousand women flourished in this libertine culture that tolerated pre-marital sex and adultery. Men of the financial, political and social elites gained status and a reputation for virility from their liaisons with professional mistresses who provided sex, company and an escape from arranged marriages. Sex workers have rarely had a better reputation, though the career of a certain Mlle. Dallière resembled a fast-moving Feydeau French farce on one occasion when she had to deal with two paying patrons, one who bought her dinners, and a one-night stand. With a nod and a wink to Casanova and other contemporary sexual adventurers, Kushner paints an alluring, amusingly anecdotal, authoritative picture of a Parisian culture in love and at ease with itself.
February 16, 2014 § Leave a comment
THE A-Z OF EATING OUT by Joseph Connolly (Thames & Hudson, 256pp; £16.95)
Between the wipedown oilcloth of the greasy spoon and the spotless napery of the Ritz there falls a shadow … that of the restaurant reviewer who has had more hot dinners than there are stars in the Michelin Guide. Connolly, who is a professional diner/ critic, will harden the hearts of indulgent parents but hearten everyone else’s by declaring that the blasted kids tearing up good restaurants would be much happier eating at McDonalds; that fusion food is just confused; that cooks should stay behind the scenes and not be seen cooking; that bad restaurants play music; that the phrase “excuse fingers” should never be uttered by anyone over the age of four, that hungry men are better at lunching than the slimline ladies who lunch; and condiments no longer come in crusted cruets but in phallic grinders or squeezy sachets. Saucily, and with relish, the etiquette of eating out is explained by a peppery expert who saltily subverts the formalities of foodism and wittily indulges the pleasures of dining.
INSIDE THE DREAM PALACE: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel by Sherill Tippins (Simon and Schuster, 458pp; £20)
From first visionary construction as an idealistic co-operative residential building in 1884, to listing as an architectural and cultural landmark in 1966, to final purchase, stripping out and closure by a property company in 2011, the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan was a bolt-hole and safe haven for a shifting avant-garde creative community. From the fatal grunge of a drop-in, drop-out visit by punk rocker Sid Vicious to the glitz of waspish long-term resident composer Virgil Thomson on the top floor, it was a world within a city within a counterculture within a legend. It was Bohemia on West 23rd Street. Though Tippins has a hearty appetite for gossip, she underpins the life of The Chelsea with the social history of its times. The Chelsea was always more about people than profit, but its fortunes rose and fell with the economy of the city. Her salty stories of hope, heroin, heartbreak and heroism revive the hotel’s heartbeat
WE ARE OUR BRAINS: From the Womb to Alzheimer’s by Dick Swaab (Penguin, 418pp; £20)
Dutch neuroscientist Dick Swaab describes the several stages of the human brain from pre-infancy to post-senility. He can even tell you what goes on in the mind of an adolescent and strikingly depicts Alzheimer’s as a reversion to infancy. As a machine for processing information, he dramatically likens the brain to Churchill’s 1940 war room which coordinated incoming information, analysed it and prioritised the activities of the armed services. We are born, he says, with our embryonic brains neurologically imprinted; free will therefore is “a pleasant illusion”. He takes issue with the 1960s and ‘70s belief in social engineering as the causes of gender-based behavioural differences: we are born, not made, straight, gay, bi or any other variant. Don’t blame a dominant mother (or Joan Crawford movies). This is a book to keep beside the First Aid Manual. It may not save your life, but Swaab’s liberal theses and lively case studies will vividly improve and illuminate it.
February 11, 2014 § Leave a comment
SHEILA: The Australian Ingénue who Bewitched British Society by Robert Wainwright (Allen & Unwin, 410pp; £14.99)
The story of how pretty, tomboyish teenager Sheila Chisholm left a New South Wales sheep and horse station for London in 1914 and became the regal, sophisticated Princess Dmitri Romanoff is hardly a fairy story. To get there, she first had to marry Lord (‘Loughie’) Loughborough, then Sir John (‘Buffles’) Milbanke and fascinate a string of fancy pants suitors. She declared later in life “I married all my husbands for love. I certainly didn’t care about titles, and none of them had money.” Her biographer characterises her as a newsworthy ingénue, but she was disingenuous enough – or rather enough of a demi-mondaine – to have an affair with the sexually inexperienced Prince Bertie – the future George VI. Wainwright rather overstates Sheila’s friendship with smart writers such as Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford and Noel Coward; but if you’re looking for a literary reference to pin her like a steel magnolia, try Patrick Dennis and imagine Sheila as a seductively helter-skelter antipodean Auntie Mame.
THE ORG: How the Office Really Works by Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan (John Murray, 308pp; £14.99)
Why does it make more sense for Los Angeles cops to go gangbusters on hoodlums than build friendly community relations with them? Because the objective of the LAPD is not “customer satisfaction guaranteed.” What makes a billion dollar CEO able to say, “I’m worth it”? Because exactly like a professional card-counting gambler, he has a two per cent edge on the competition. And how did Starbucks get to be the third space between home and the office? The Organisation is a machine for getting stuff done that you can’t do alone and the bottom line in any Org is how to incentivise people to do what you want them to do. You buy them, sure, and you get what you pay for; but people are also motivated by incentives which are basically trade-offs between managers and the managed. With energy, wit and attitude, Fisman and Sullivan explain how the dysfunctional Org ticks and how it ticks off everyone working in it.
BEYOND WORDS: Sobs, Hums, Stutters and other Vocalisations by Steven Connor (Reaktion, 240pp; £25)
Aristotle, who thought that “nothing which does not have a soul has a voice”, might have been confounded by sound artist Alvin Lucier who, in 1969, enhanced the resonant frequencies of his voice in a room to “let us hear the sound of how the room listens to the voice”. You can almost hear the sound of one hand clapping in applause. “Noise is accident”, says Connor; “voice is intent.” But the voice, like Caliban’s isle, is full of noises – not all of them coherent. The voice, according to McLuhan, is an organised stutter. Voiced sounds are interrupted by unvoiced sounds such as sneezes, sobs, sighs, groans, roars, lisps, chokes, hisses, whistles, pops, palatal burrs and purrs. The functions and dysfunctions of vocal utterances are enjoyably treated here with full professional linguistic snap, crackle and pop by a soul-searching connoisseur of the myths, beliefs, literature, history and and philosophy of spoken language.
February 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
THE LIVING YEARS: The First Genesis Memoir by Mike Rutherford (Constable, 242pp; £20)
In Scotland, there’s a pithy remark you never want to overhear: “Aye, I kent his faither”. The implication is that you’ll never be as fine a man as your father. Mike Rutherford’s memoir is about discovering, to his surprise and joy, much of himself in his father, a WWII naval captain, who stoutly supported his son’s career from his first days as a Charterhouse schoolboy in a band called the Anon to global success as a musician. The Anon’s metamorphosis into the progressive rock band Genesis happened in the days of late ‘60s Swinging London, the breakthrough moment coming in February 1970 at the Marquee Club where they were spotted by Tony Stratton-Smith, the heavy drinking owner of Charisma Records which at that time had its offices over a dirty bookshop in Soho. “The Marquee Club smelled horrible – beer, cigarettes, sweat … But it was such a figurehead of a venue and, for me”, writes Rutherford, “the realization of my dreams.” From grit and grime to glitz and glam, Rutherford tells the story of his mildly subversive schooldays and the forty years of his high-flying career in a mellow, laid-back, forgiving style that celebrates love of family, loyalty to friendship, passion for music, and – in his father’s tradition – devotion to duty.
LOVE LETTERS OF THE GREAT WAR edited by Mandy Kirkby (Macmillan, 212pp; £11.99)
At the heart of noisy war, the most terrible thing is silence. For a soldier in the front line, and for the family at home, the lack or loss of news could surpass the terrors of present danger. During the First World War, delivery of letters and parcels to and from the trenches was given a high priority. In a foreword to this collection of wartime letters, Helen Dunmore makes the point that “for as long as it took to read or write a letter, a soldier might think himself back into the world of home.” It was a small comfort, but separation was sometimes too much to bear for those at home and the anguish of some letters is very touching. On 17 March 1917, Mary Corfield wrote of parting from her husband Frank with “a terribly heavy heart which felt just like breaking … I shall feel better after a good old howl when I get to bed tonight.” And Amy Handley writes to Private John Clifton: “- My heart – surely it will burst – Jack – Jack – I want you –“. Soldiers on active duty were encouraged to write a letter of farewell to their families in case they should be killed. From the front in France Captain John Coull wrote stoically in April 1917 to his beloved son Fred: “I drop you these few lines to say ‘God bless you’ and keep you in the true brave manly upright course which I would like to see you follow.” The passions of war are universal: these letters reflect the constancy of gallantry, intimacy and grief.
THE CONTEST OF THE CENTURY: The New Era of Competition with China by Geoff Dyer (Allen Lane, 308pp; £20)
In an intriguing riposte to the received view that the rise of the East signals the decline of the West, foreign correspondent Dyer considers the first stages of “an old fashioned struggle for influence and power between China and the U.S.” He believes that China intends to shape the world according to its own national interests in a contest based less on ideology and more in a global balance of power and coalition-building. Chinese hard political power is reflected in its soft cultural power. Down in the streets, Dyer discovers both resistance and resignation to Western influence: Li Yang teaches English to huge classes but peppers his talks with put-downs of the West; while Mo Yang was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012 but dissident Chinese writers were barred from speaking at the Frankfurt Book Fair. This is just round one in a long contest played to rules that still have to be negotiated, far less observed.
UNDER ONE ROOF: How a Tough Old Woman in a Little Old House Changed My Life by Barry Martin with Philip Lerman (HarperCollins, 262pp; £11.99)
There are situations which, with any luck, you can learn to love, or at least just learn from. Barry Martin had that luck. When octogenarian Edith Wilson Macefield refused to leave her ramshackle little house to make way for a Seattle shopping mall, she found a friend in Barry Martin, the fifty-something construction supervisor who conceded that the irresistible force of progress could easily build around this elderly immovable object. She was gutsy and cranky, demanding and difficult, and how could he believe her stories about famous musicians and movie stars, even her claim that Hitler helped her to escape from a concentration camp? Then the “stubborn old bulldog” died, and Barry was bereft. And then he discovered what was real about her and himself His funny, tender, big-hearted memorial to Edith is about two heroic characters who gave as good as they got from being the best friends they ever had.
I SPEND THEREFORE I AM: The True Cost of Economics by Philip Roscoe (Viking, £16.99)
You are about to buy a bunch of Himalayan orchids for your beloved. Stop right there. You don’t understand what you’re about to do. Read this book before you make another move, because “the art of purchase”, says management guru Roscoe, “is the distinguishing characteristic of contemporary life.” We spend. We commit an act of self-interested economic transaction. Right there at the checkout, simple economics becomes complex moral and political philosophy. Or, in a culture less driven by the bottom line of a balance sheet, it should. Were those cheap T-shirts made in a sweat shop? What are your body parts worth to you after death? Or your kidneys in life? The job of economics was to “economise on love, that scarce resource”, said economist Sir Dennis Robertson in 1954. Philip Roscoe’s lively, radical book challenges that dry, dismal principle and prioritises the greater values of charity and civic virtue.
January 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
OWNING THE EARTH: The Transforming History of Land Ownership by Andro Linklater (Bloomsbury, 484pp; £20)
“It’s the neighbourhood, stupid”, is Linklater’s sound bite conclusion to a thoughtful analysis of land ownership from traditional communal civilisations to the Western capitalist ideal of individual, exclusive ownership of land. The question of private and public ownership always and fundamentally informs government and social responsibility. Modern democracy is founded on the concept of personal freedom, particularly to own property. That a piece of ground is owned is less important to humanity, says Linklater, than how it is owned. In a powerful polemic of breathtaking scope and scholarship, reviewing historical and global concepts of land ownership and distribution, the focus of his book is the ownership of the earth in every form. Linklater concludes that the current sole measure of success imposed by market values is unviable. More important to humanity is that “matters of law, of rights and of politics become crucial, take precedence over economics.” We may possess the land, but we do not own it.
THE WHY AXIS: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life by Uri Gneezy & John List (Random House, 270pp; £12.99)
Do you want to know why women earn less than men and occupy fewer top management positions? Do you understand why some people are charged more than others for products and services? In the 1980s, through the new concept of computerised empirical analysis of real-world data, economist John List discovered that discriminatory behaviour (on the grounds of gender, race, sexuality, age, etc.) by real people in real economic settings was based less in dislike, distaste or plain hatred, than driven by the desire to make money. The true story behind economics is the complexity of our thinking and reactions as human beings: homo economicus is only one of our roles; economics is only one of our rules. Though this is published as a book for business people, it is also a breezy, intelligent guide for the rest of us, the suckers who need to understand ourselves as consumers a bit better.
WHERE MEMORIES GO: Why Dementia Changes Everything by Sally Magnusson (Two Roads, 386pp; £16.99)
“I hate this disease. I hate it with a boiling fury”, writes Sally Magnusson who speaks not only for herself but directly to all others who are dealing with the living loss of a family member or friend through Alzheimer’s Disease. Mamie Baird Magnusson was an attractive, energetic, intelligent woman, an accomplished storyteller and journalist, the wife of Magnus Magnusson (who was later to become famous as the chairman of the BBC quiz show ‘Mastermind’) and the adored mother of five children. She is well served not just by her eldest daughter’s respect for a joyful, spirited life well lived and regret for the painful cost of its wearying decline into dementia, but by the effort Sally Magnusson has made to reach beyond her own bewilderment and grief. In this moving memorial, she seeks a deeper, better understanding of the disease, the medical services it requires and its devastating effect on afflicted families.
January 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
ACTS OF UNION AND DISUNION: What Has Held the UK Together – and What Is Dividing It? by Linda Colley (Profile, 172pp; £12.99)
On one point Professor Colley is very firm: “It is history, more than geography, that accounts for the current situation of the United Kingdom.” In a bald and bold, usefully succinct review of four hundred years of the legislative acts, historical events and political processes that predate but underpin the current state of the United Kingdom, she is frank about the strengths and weaknesses of political bed-sharing. Union is never a happy marriage of equals: there are bound to be fault lines and bitter divisions. Like many others, she regards the devolution measures of the 1990s as “insufficiently thought out”. A ‘no’ vote for Scottish independence in this year’s referendum may lead to irresistible pressure for more devolution, with significant consequences for the other countries of the United Kingdom; but a ‘yes’ vote will radically change politics both nationally and internationally. Furthermore, the lack of a discrete level of government for England “fuels resentment, and makes Westminster appear by default an English parliament.” In a personal, “semi-detached” view, Linda Colley makes a case for the development of the UK as “a more openly federal system” which will require a written constitution. Since no nation is an island in the globalised world, she also examines issues of union in the context of a possible referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. “The level and quality of negativity in some areas of these islands towards ‘Europe’ are relatively recent phenomena,” she says. Acutely, she points out that the corollary to Euroscepticism could be an “unfocused uncertainty at home,” which of course is directly linked to the present uncertainty about devolution. The unity of these islands is not old, she concludes, but we are an old country resistant to governmental change. In the present state of flux, a policy of drift is not an option.
IMAGINATION AND A PILE OF JUNK: A Droll History of Inventors & Inventions by Trevor Norton (Coronet, 438pp; £16.99)
The success of books like ‘Horrible Histories’ are clearly inspirational to professionals looking to bring pep and pop to their fields of study. Professor Trevor Norton, having successfully publicised self-harming nutty professors in a previous book, catchily titled “Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth: a celebration of scientific eccentricity and self-experimentation”, repeats the trick by picking up the pieces from a bunch of other experimentally undercooked and/or initially useless experiments to show how scientific failure can be turned to triumph. And yet, Norton humanises honest science and sincere endeavour with humour and respect. Not everything turns out well – a modern pioneer of flight maybe shouldn’t have used chicken feathers – but without the imagination of an Edison and other inventors that pile of junk in the lab, workshop or garden shed would not have become the phonograph, the radio, the electric light, biro pens, and television.
MOZART: A Life by Paul Johnson (Viking, 164pp; £17.99)
“A great deal of nonsense has been written about Mozart’s fatal illness, death and funeral,” snorts Johnson, who proceeds con brio to sort it out. He is confident that the composer’s death was certified as “severe camp fever”, his wife was advised against an ostentatious funeral, his rival Salieri – who had greeted Zauberflöte with enthusiasm – attended, and “there were no lasting money troubles.” We must all now feel much better about the short, busy, brilliant life of Mozart who, in Johnson’s estimation, “never once disgusts.” He never wrote a dirty little canon. Briskly, joyously even, Johnson presents a miniature portrait of Mozart as a man who was happy, healthy, energetic, prolific, occasionally short of money, virtually a model son and husband, and sincerely religious. It has to be said that many lengthier biographies are available and readers may wish to consult these to understand the “nonsense” that Johnson dismisses.