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A memoir of hawking: Birdsong

24 July 2014 - 10:58am

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

24 July 2014 - 10:58am

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...

Margot Asquith and the first world war: Telling tales

24 July 2014 - 10:58am

Margot Asquith’s Great War Diary, 1914-1916: The View from Downing Street. Edited by Michael Brock and Eleanor Brock. Oxford University Press; 417 pages; $49.95 and £30. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukDID a British prime minister ever have a more indiscreet wife? Or one more politically important? Margot Asquith gossiped and rowed with Westminster’s great and powerful. They liked receiving her invitations to Downing Street, where Tories broke bread with Liberals. Her bookish husband Herbert Asquith profited politically from these soirées.A recent television drama portrays Margot Asquith as a flibbertigibbet, who was only interested in trivia. Her wartime diaries, published for the first time, reveal an astute woman who relishes political argument. The diaries start with the lead-up to war and end with the fall of the last Liberal government and David Lloyd George’s extraordinary coup against the prime minister...

The future of the Maeght Foundation: Sunshine and colour

24 July 2014 - 10:58am

Calder cat WHEN Aimé Maeght, a French art dealer, lost his young son to leukaemia in the 1950s, a trio of formidable modern painters—Georges Braque, Joan Miró and Fernand Léger—persuaded him to turn the family’s summer retreat above the hills of Nice into an artists’ haven. The Marguerite and Aimé Maeght Foundation is 50 years old this month, and still bears abundant traces of the artists who made it happen: a magical Miró labyrinth, mosaics and stained glass by Braque. Its collection of 12,000 works includes 35 sculptures by Alberto Giacometti, as well as masterpieces by Pierre Bonnard, Marc Chagall, Miró, Léger and Alexander Calder, among others. On average, 200,000 visitors tour its colourful galleries and garden every year.Behind the idyllic exterior, though, the institution is vulnerable. The foundation is finding it hard to raise its €3m ($4m) annual budget. The 12-person board—led by Maeght’s son, Adrien, an ageing gallerist, and including Adrien’s daughter, Isabelle, as well as three representatives of the French government—is divided over strategy. Adrien’s youngest daughter, Yoyo, who eight years ago wrote the family...

Singing: Voice-overs

24 July 2014 - 10:58am

A History of Singing. By John Potter and Neil Sorrell. Cambridge University Press; 355 pages; £19.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE first music that humans made was song. All music arrived, the early Hindus believed, through the yoni, or birth canal, of Vedic chants. The Abrahamic religions also based their music on the chanted word, often equating instruments with pagan frivolity. From the earliest known praise songs of the Sumerian king Culgi of Ur, 3,000 years ago, singing voices have celebrated, seduced and bound tribes together.Yet this obvious truth cannot be proven. Until recording technology arrived, hard evidence was limited to images of open mouths on walls and pots, and medieval singing manuals. Luckily, this has not stopped musicologists from trying to sketch out a history of singing. John Potter, a singer formerly with the Hilliard Ensemble, and Neil Sorrell, a composer and expert in Asian music, approach this challenge with brio.Their survey bristles with facts. Though written for the expert, it is equally accessible to the amateur alto. Who knew, for example, that...

Crime and punishment: Lashes and lashing out

24 July 2014 - 10:58am

The Punisher’s Brain: The Evolution of Judge and Jury. By Morris B. Hoffman. Cambridge University Press; 352 pages; $30 and £21.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukON A February afternoon in 1978, Freddie Hall and an accomplice kidnapped Karol Hurst, who was 21 years old and seven months pregnant. They drove her to nearby woodland where she was beaten, raped and murdered. After dumping her body, they used her car in a botched robbery of a corner shop, during which they killed Lonnie Coburn, a sheriff’s deputy. The facts have never been in dispute. On the jury’s recommendation, Mr Hall was sentenced to death in accordance with Florida law.In a long string of appeals the debate centred on whether this was the appropriate punishment. Mr Hall has an IQ of about 71, well below the national average. He is now the longest-serving inmate on death row, and his case became news again recently when the Supreme Court ruled on executing people who are mentally disabled. The court struck down the state’s rigid policy that anyone with an IQ of more than 70 is mentally fit to die, regardless of other evidence. Mr Hall’s lawyers insist that...

Clare Boothe Luce: A woman of substance

17 July 2014 - 11:01am

Beauty was her masquerade Price of Fame: The Honorable Clare Boothe Luce. By Sylvia Jukes Morris. Random House; 735 pages; $35. Buy from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukBEAUTY was an asset Clare Boothe Luce used to her political (and financial) advantage. But so, too, were the other characteristics summed up by Sylvia Jukes Morris in this second and final part of her exhaustive biography of one of the most remarkable women of 20th-century America: “charm, humour, coquetry, intellect, ambition”. These brought her marriages to two wealthy men, two outspoken terms in the House of Representatives, an ambassadorship in Rome and an array of honours that culminated in the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Not bad for a woman born illegitimate in an unpromising part of New York.But the package of characteristics, to which should be added a ferocious capacity for hard work, also brought much more: a...

Alan Stanbrook, 1938-2014

17 July 2014 - 11:01am

In March 1984, when The Economist expanded its books section to include coverage of the arts under the name Books Plus, Alan Stanbrook was just the man for the job. He had joined the paper in 1975 as a financial writer. But his life’s passion, discovered while doing a year of National Service before going up to Oxford, was film. He began freelancing for Films and Filming, squeezing in screenings whenever he had a spare moment. He developed a particular liking, long before it was fashionable, for Asian cinema and was a regular visitor to the popular Busan film festival in South Korea. He kept meticulous notes and never forgot a film. Reviewing “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998, he was able in less than an hour to produce an elegant history of great Hollywood war films going right back to “All Quiet on the Western Front” and its much better second-world-war equivalent, “A Walk in the Sun”. He had seen them all.

New art from the Middle East: Shifting chronicle

17 July 2014 - 11:01am

ASK most American museum-goers, even avid ones, to name a prominent artist from the Arab world, and they will probably draw a blank. Now an ambitious show at the New Museum in the Bowery district of Manhattan aims to put that right. “Here and Elsewhere”, which opened on July 16th, does not propose to define Arabic art as a unified whole or even try to pin down a regional aesthetic. Instead, it presents more than 45 artists working in a wide range of media, who chronicle or bear witness to political and social change in the Middle East in all its heated confusion and messiness.The exhibit borrows its title from a French film of the same name, “Ici et Ailleurs”, made by Jean-Luc Godard and his partner, Anne-Marie Miéville, with Jean-Pierre Gorin, about the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The project ran into trouble during filming in 1970, when King Hussein ordered the raiding of PLO camps in Jordan. Many of those who had been filmed were killed. Uncertain at first about how to proceed, Mr Godard and Ms Miéville decided to recast the unfinished work, mixing what they had shot with file footage, voice-over narration and...

French fiction: Unhappy families

17 July 2014 - 11:01am

Happy are the Happy. By Yasmina Reza. Translated by Sarah Ardizzone. Harvill Secker; 210 pages; £12.99. To be published in America by Other Press in January 2015; $20. Buy from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukYASMINA REZA has set herself a challenge in her latest novel, and she rises to it beautifully. “Happy are the Happy”, vivaciously translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone, charts the conjugal, parental and romantic woes of 18 interconnected characters. Each chapter is a monologue delivered by one of them. The cast includes Robert, a journalist who is unhappily married to Odile; Odile’s father Ernest, who is unhappily married to Jeannette; and Ernest’s sister Marguerite, who is unhappily single. There are also the Hutners. They appear to be happy, but are in fact hiding the secret of their deranged son. The structure could have given the book the staccato feeling of short stories. But in Ms Reza’s hands it has...

Volcanoes: Vulcan’s twins

17 July 2014 - 11:01am

Vents of fury Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of Laki, the Volcano that Turned Eighteenth-Century Europe Dark. By Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe. Profile Books; 224 pages; £10.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTambora: The Eruption that Changed the World. By Gillen D’Arcy Wood. Princeton University Press; 293 pages; $29.95 and £19.95. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukFOR most of history, volcanoes embodied the capacity of the natural world to wreak havoc on human societies. Recently though, global warming—invisible, subtle, the very opposite of volcanoes—has displaced them as the incarnation of environmental threat. Two recent...

Burgundy: Amazing grapes

17 July 2014 - 11:01am

Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of a Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine. By Maximillian Potter. Twelve; 304 pages; $27 and £19.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk“THE true story of a plot to poison the world’s greatest wine”. The subtitle of “Shadows in the Vineyard” makes Maximillian Potter’s first book sound like a real page-turner. Indeed, much of the detail that the author, an American journalist, has unearthed about an extortion attempt made in 2010 against Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC), the French estate that makes the world’s most expensive wine, is ripe for a Hollywood film.A mysterious criminal digs a hidden space next to vineyards so beloved that no one has ever seen the need to protect them. For over a year he spends his days listening to Mozart in his lair, and his nights meticulously mapping every vine on the estate, some of whose Pinot Noir sells for $10,000 a bottle. With help from his son, he drills holes into the roots of hundreds of vines, and then kills two of them with a herbicide. He writes to Aubert de Villaine, the head of DRC, demanding €1m ($1.4m) in exchange for keeping the rest of...

Architecture: Building societies

17 July 2014 - 11:01am

Bricks and Mortals: Ten Great Buildings and the People They Made. By Tom Wilkinson. Bloomsbury; 340 pages; $30 and £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTOWARDS the end of the 15th century a boy traipsing along a Roman hillside stumbled down a crevice and landed in a subterranean gallery. That dark grotto turned out to be the Emperor Nero’s first-century villa, or what was left of it. Nero’s successors, eager to rub out all traces of the hated ruler, had built over it, and the vast villa had been forgotten.Nero’s Domus Aurea (“Golden House”) is one of the case studies in Tom Wilkinson’s “Bricks and Mortals: Ten Great Buildings and the People They Made”. Mr Wilkinson sets out to demonstrate the full complexity of a building. It takes on the personality of the people who built or occupied it, and its public image evolves in line with theirs.To illustrate his point, Mr Wilkinson (who teaches at University College London) uses examples as old as the Tower of Babel and the Djinguereber Mosque in Timbuktu, and as recent as Oscar Niemeyer’s curved footbridge in Rio de Janeiro. He shows how each building has a...

Israel and its neighbours: Blood brothers

10 July 2014 - 10:59am

Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories. By Ahron Bregman. Allen Lane; 416 pages; £25. To be published in America by Pegasus in May 2015. Buy from Amazon.co.ukONE of the products of Israel’s half-century of military rule is the surfeit of literature it has produced about Jews bullying Arabs. Ahron Bregman’s account, “Cursed Victory”, is better than most. He unmasks the administrative brutality beneath Israel’s claim to “enlightened occupation”. He recalls how in the aftermath of the 1967 conquest Israel’s government trucked a quarter of Gaza’s population to Jordan; how General Moshe Dayan’s celebrated “Open Bridges” policy, which gave Palestinians a respite from occupation and the chance to travel to Jordan, opened only in one direction for many; and how the Golan Heights were emptied of their 138,000 people, bar a few thousand Druze. The more people Israel displaced, the more land became available for Jewish settlements.A former Israeli soldier in Lebanon, Mr Bregman knows his subject first-hand. In...

A Soviet memoir: Lost in translation

10 July 2014 - 10:59am

I’ll tell the story, Grandpa The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind. By Nina Khrushcheva. Tate Publishing; 320 pages; $22.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukNINA KHRUSHCHEVA is the great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev; her mother was his granddaughter. Yet Nina grew up calling the one-time Soviet leader “Grandfather” because her real grandfather, Leonid, had been written out of the family history. “The Lost Khrushchev” explains what happened, and rebuts a smear which arose after the Soviet Union’s collapse: that Leonid, in truth a brave wartime pilot, had been a traitor.Ms Khrushcheva has adopted her mother’s surname as an act of solidarity with her family, who lived in a curious limbo in the Soviet Union: privileged in material terms, of high status socially, but political outcasts. Her father, Lev Petrov, was a cosmopolitan foreign correspondent (and...

Correction: David Niven

10 July 2014 - 10:59am

In last week’s review of Richard Flanagan’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” (“Remembrance”, July 5th) we claimed that David Niven was the moustachioed actor in “Bridge on the River Kwai”. We should have said Alec Guinness. Sorry. This has been corrected online.

Scottish contemporary art: Expanding universe

10 July 2014 - 10:59am

Room with a view IT WAS always going to be a big year for things Scottish: 2014 marks the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, when the Scots beat the English in the first war of independence. It is also the year in which the Scots will take on the world, or at least 52 parts of it, at the Commonwealth games in Glasgow. Long before the date was set for the referendum on independence on September 18th, Scotland’s main museums, its corporate culture vultures and those who approve Scottish public funding for the arts decided this was the year to host a retrospective showing the art the country had produced over the past 25 years.Over the next few weeks 60 galleries across the country—from the grand old Scottish National Gallery in the centre of Edinburgh to An Lanntair, an arthouse in the Outer Hebrides—are preparing to display work by 100 artists, covering paintings, drawings, photography, film, sculpture and conceptual installations.Spanning decades of artistic study, GENERATION shows the many different ways the Scots imagine the human universe. Across all four walls of one room in the National Gallery, Steven Campbell has...

The Spanish empire: Border line

10 July 2014 - 10:59am

World Without End: The Global Empire of Philip II. By Hugh Thomas. Allen Lane; 463 pages; £30. Buy from Amazon.co.ukIN THE 1580s King Philip II of Castile ruled over a huge empire. Iberia, much of Italy, the Low Countries, the Americas from California and Florida to Buenos Aires, the Caribbean and the Philippines were all under his suzerainty. Spanish officials even went as far as to consider the conquest of China; one thought it could be taken by fewer than 60 “good Spanish soldiers”.Hugh Thomas, a British historian, has devoted much of his life to chronicling the achievement of the Spanish conquistadors in America. In “World Without End” he completes his trilogy on imperial expansion in the century after Columbus’s first transatlantic voyage. This final volume covers the period of consolidation, the “age of administration” in which professional officials, many of them clerics, gradually took over from conquistadors.Philip and his empire have had a bad press. Lord Thomas wants to rehabilitate both. He portrays the monarch not as an intolerant control-freak but as a cultured and modest man, devoted to duty, though one who was also cautious and mistrustful. Philip liked all information to be presented to him in writing, which helped the...

New fiction: Sounds of silence

10 July 2014 - 10:59am

The Silent History. By Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffett. FSG Originals; 528 pages; $16. Jonathan Cape; £17.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukMANY animals communicate, but none as successfully as humans. When a group of completely language-deprived deaf children were gathered at a school in Nicaragua in the 1970s, their improvised communication soon became a fully functional sign language like any other. Humans seem born to talk.But not in “The Silent History”, a novel about children who simply do not speak. With otherwise normal brains, they neither try nor seem to care. The novel, by Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffett, was originally serialised for a smartphone and tablet app, with new instalments appearing periodically and special “field reports” added when readers appeared physically at locations in the novel.But the book fits well into hard covers. Despite three authors, and the...

The diamond-necklace affair: Queen, thief, wife, lover

10 July 2014 - 10:59am

How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette, the Stolen Diamonds, and the Scandal that Shook the French Throne. By Jonathan Beckman. John Murray; 386 pages; £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukWHEN the scandal of Marie Antoinette’s diamond necklace broke in 1785, the testimonies of those implicated spooled out into the public eye to be picked over like so much carrion on a battlefield. Cardinal Louis de Rohan, the principal member of an influential, aristocratic French family, stood accused of forging the queen’s signature in order to gain possession of a necklace containing 647 diamonds and weighing 2,800 carats.Rohan, protesting his innocence, insisted the real criminal was Jeanne de la Motte, a penniless member of the Valois royal dynasty and Rohan’s former lover. She, in turn, laid the blame at the feet of Count Cagliostro, a Sicilian con man and occultist. Cagliostro denied everything—except the assassination of Pompey the Great on the orders of a pharaoh in 48BC.For Jonathan Beckman, of the British Literary Review, this is a good subject. The events are as gloriously rococo as the farces beloved of...