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Quantum biology: Nature, the physicist

20 November 2014 - 9:38am

Making sense of scents Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. By Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden. Bantam Press; 355 pages; £20. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.ukLIFE science still hides a few mysteries. How do migratory birds sense direction? How are molecules in the air perceived as a smell? How, precisely, do tadpoles lose their tails? For years, scattered views from the fringes have attempted to explain such phenomena using quantum mechanics, a weird bit of physics that predicts oddities such as particles being in multiple places at once, eerily connected across vast distances or tunnelling through seemingly insuperable barriers.Yet a growing body of experimental evidence suggests that quantum oddities may really be responsible for many of life’s engineering successes. Quantum biology, the name given to the nascent field that draws these diverse data together,...

Children’s literature: Moomins’ magic maker

20 November 2014 - 9:38am

Political animals Tove Jansson: Work and Love. By Tuula Karjalainen. Translated by David McDuff. Penguin Global; 291 pages; $34. Particular Books; £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTOVE JANSSON, who was born in 1914, wrote some wonderful adult fiction, but she is best known internationally for her Moominland stories and her illustrations for children. Jansson was often asked whom she wrote for. For herself, she would reply. But once she added: “If my stories are addressed to any particular kind of reader, then it’s probably a Miffle.” The Miffles were the lonely, timid ones, and their fear was important, she said. “Anxious and self-confident children alike are unconsciously drawn to it, and to destruction.” At first glance, this sits oddly with the easy-going charm of Moominland where, in spite of disasters and the Groke and the sinister Hattifatteners, civility and good humour always...

English family life: Busy people

20 November 2014 - 9:38am

Common People: The History of an English Family. By Alison Light. Fig Tree; 322 pages; £20. Buy from Amazon.com; Amazon.co.ukONE of the inspirations for Alison Light’s book, “Mrs Woolf and the Servants”, which came out in 2007, was her grandmother and her work as a domestic servant in the early years of the 20th century. Here, in “Common People”, are the rest of her family—a miscellaneous collection, stretching as far back as the 18th century, and including needle-makers, washerwomen, bricklayers, shirt-sewers, railwaymen, sailors, postmen, domestic servants and, in every generation, paupers. The workhouse casts a long shadow.“Common People” is an extraordinary piece of research. “Every life deserves telling,” says Ms Light, an English literature professor at Newcastle University. “None is without drama and change.” But few of her family left any trace beyond census returns and registrations of baptism, marriage and death. Hunting through the records, she longs for something more: “I wanted some distinguishing features,” she confesses, “some sign of an inner life.” But the point of her book lies not so much in its individual...

Russia: Band of brothers

20 November 2014 - 9:38am

Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? By Karen Dawisha. Simon and Schuster; 445 pages; $30. Buy from Amazon.com“PUTIN, thief! Putin, thief!” chanted the protesters who marched through Moscow as Vladimir Putin sought his third term as president. Since then the rallies have ended. Russia’s swift annexation of Crimea and its subsequent proxy-war in the south-east of Ukraine have turned Mr Putin into a national hero in the eyes of many Russians, including some former protesters. But they have also led to Western sanctions against Mr Putin’s cronies, and focused attention once more on the issue of theft and corruption, which is the subject of a new book by Karen Dawisha, a political scientist at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.“Putin’s Kleptocracy” is a who’s who of the people on the sanctions lists drawn up by America and the EU. It is also a guide to the crony capitalism that grew out of the nexus of Mr Putin’s...

Collecting modernism: Reconsidering

20 November 2014 - 9:38am

INK is indelible; once printed, books cannot be rewritten. Or can they? Eighteen months ago Rick Gekoski, a London-based antiquarian bookdealer, persuaded 50 authors to scribble second thoughts in first editions of their most famous works. J.K. Rowling wrote in “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, Kazuo Ishiguro in “The Remains of the Day”, his obsessive tale of an English butler in thrall to duty. Lionel Shriver annotated a copy of her 2003 bestseller, “We Need to Talk about Kevin”, and the book was snapped up by the Dobkin Family Collection of Feminism as a totem of its kind. The average price at the auction was $10,000, though for the “Harry Potter” the hammer went down at $235,000. The sale raised $690,000 for PEN, an association that promotes freedom of expression around the world.Now Mr Gekoski’s wife, Belinda Kitchin, has revisited the idea in aid of PEN America. Seventy-five artists and authors have offered additions to their books, which will be auctioned at Christie’s in New York on December 2nd.For artists such as Kiki Smith, Richard Serra and Ed Ruscha, who have long been influenced by books and paper, the auction has been an opportunity to...

German history: Reformed character

20 November 2014 - 9:38am

Reluctant Meister: How Germany’s Past is Shaping its European Future. By Stephen Green. Haus Publishing; 338 pages; $29.95 and £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukJUDGING by the books published about Germany in recent decades, you might conclude that the only subject worth writing about was the 12 years from 1933 to 1945: from when Hitler took power to the end of the second world war. And given the enormity of what happened during that period, it is easy to see why writers return to it over and over again to try to understand the incomprehensible.Stephen Green, a self-confessed lifelong Germanophile (as well as a former chairman of HSBC, a one-time trade minister in the British government and an ordained priest in the Church of England), offers some of his own explanations in this very personal take on the country. He starts a lot earlier than most, in 9AD, when a German tribal leader called Hermann defeated three Roman legions in the battle of the Teutoburg Forest, and ends in the present, with a Germany that, thrust into a leading role in the EU, is reluctant to embrace it. The idea is to show that the roots of that...

European history: Reactionary days

13 November 2014 - 11:47am

Phantom Terror: The Threat of Revolution and the Repression of Liberty 1789-1848. By Adam Zamoyski. William Collins; 569 pages; £30. To be published in America by Basic Books in February 2015; $35. Buy from Amazon.co.ukAFTER the revolution comes always the reaction. That is the central message of Adam Zamoyski’s scintillating and original book about Europe in the early 19th century. Many of those who had been steeped in the European Enlightenment welcomed the French revolution in 1789, and quite a few later came to admire Napoleon. Their common hope was that sweeping away the fusty old order in Europe would pave the way for modernisation, liberty and democracy.Yet the men who freed Europe from Napoleon’s rule—Russia’s Alexander I and Britain’s Duke of Wellington—were no liberals. Rather, they subscribed to the later dictum of Alexis de Tocqueville: that the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform. The policy of Europe’s governments both at and after the Congress of Vienna of 1814-15 (pictured)...

Correction

13 November 2014 - 11:47am

In our review of “The Cambridge History of Capitalism” (“A grand tour”, November 1st) we said that the Abbasid caliphate ruled much of the Middle East from the eighth to the 16th century. In fact its power went into decline from the tenth century onwards.

Fairy tales: Enchanted, I’m sure

13 November 2014 - 11:47am

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale. By Marina Warner. Oxford University Press; 201 pages; $18.95 and £10.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukFAIRY tales have come a long way. On magic carpets and on the backs of winged creatures, they have travelled from preliterate societies, picking up glass slippers and poisoned apples en route, to reach the modern world replete with motifs both fantastical and familiar.The history of these wonder tales, as they are sometimes called, is a favourite subject of Marina Warner, a literature professor at Birkbeck College in London and All Souls, Oxford. In “Once Upon a Time” she draws together her research, touching on anthropology, psychoanalysis, literary analysis and an expansive history. For such a small book it carries a heavy load, but Ms Warner’s insights are both surprising and rewarding.Fairy tales originated in folklore, “not among an elite, but among the...

Cambodia: Miracle or mirage?

13 November 2014 - 11:47am

Hun Sen’s Cambodia. By Sebastian Strangio. Yale University Press; 322 pages; $37.50 and £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukIN A speech he gave in 2006, Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, told his enemies about a particular talent of his. “Even if you farted, I would still know. You cannot hide from me.” What to make of such a boast? For one thing, as Sebastian Strangio, a journalist based in Phnom Penh, recounts in his book “Hun Sen’s Cambodia”, it hints at the mindset of a deeply insecure “peasant king” who, after almost 30 years on the political throne, still needs to remind people that he is in charge.Mr Hun Sen’s reign has coincided with the country’s post-war recovery. He credits himself and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party with transforming the nation from the nightmare of the Khmers Rouges to the stable and business friendly economy it is today. This spin is part of a “mirage on the Mekong”, Mr Strangio writes, a jab at the naive “miracle on the Mekong” phrase that was bandied about during the elections in 1998. In Cambodia “accountability and change always lay on the horizon. But what seemed tangible from a...

20th-century architecture: The ecology of modernism

13 November 2014 - 11:47am

Spectacular Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow. By Anthony Flint. New Harvest; 256 pages; $25. Buy from Amazon.comFEW doubt that Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier, was one of the great architects of the 20th century. Few question that his more than 70 finished buildings and 30 books came to change how people thought about architecture. But there agreement ends. Rationalist planner or poet of space? Path-breaking genius or treacherous guide?Getting Le Corbusier into focus is a challenge for any author, not least because he was all of those things. A great deal has already been written about him, too much of it either worshipful or blindly hostile. He himself worked hard at how he wanted his buildings to be seen and thought about. He was a masterbuilder with an unmatched feel for spaces and materials, but also a natural showman who fashioned a largely mythical personage that it is all too easy to be misled by.Le Corbusier began publishing a...

Landscape in Britain: Pride of place

13 November 2014 - 11:47am

Home: A Time Traveller’s Tales from Britain’s Prehistory. By Francis Pryor. Allen Lane; 320 pages; £20. Buy from Amazon.co.ukRising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place. By Philip Marsden. Granta; 348 pages; £20. Buy from Amazon.co.ukTWO new books approach British history by offering different perspectives on the question of belonging and continuity. One of them is even called “Home”, and for both authors the building or restoration of their own houses is woven into the feelings they have for their subject.Francis Pryor is an archaeologist of British prehistory who has excavated Neolithic and Bronze Age sites at Etton and Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire. “Home” is a rambling, conversational book, but it carries at its heart a strong conviction: that prehistoric Britain organised itself from the “bottom up”, as the author puts it, starting with the family. Mr Pryor rejects the Hobbesian view of prehistory as nasty, brutish and short. The evidence from as early as the ninth millennium BC shows signs of order, stability and even comfort. All of which, he admits, sounds like motherhood and apple pie, but...

Central European history: A successful Austrian invention

13 November 2014 - 11:47am

Paradise lost, paradise regained “THE life of the kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria was short and sad… and few people mourned its passing.” So wrote Norman Davies in 1981 in his magisterial history of Poland. Poverty in Galicia in the 19th century was so extreme that it had become proverbial—the region was called Golicja and Glodomeria, a play on the official name (Galicja i Lodomeria) and goly (naked) and glodny (hungry). The largest and most populous crownland of the Austro-Hungarian empire, occupying a swathe of what is now south-east Poland and far western Ukraine, was also by a large margin its most backward province.Yet since the end of the cold war, and in the past few years especially, Galicia has been the focus of considerable interest, particularly in relation to Polish and Ukrainian national identities. A new exhibition, “The Myth of Galicia”, which has taken four years to assemble, opened recently in Krakow and will later travel to Vienna.The 600 objects include maps, photos, paintings, sculpture and cartoons. They explain the emerging mythology of a region that was taken by...

The fall of the Berlin Wall: The German open

6 November 2014 - 11:40am

The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall. By Mary Elise Sarotte. Basic Books; 291 pages; $27.99 and £18.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukOUTSIDERS seem to think that “it was the opening of the wall that brought us our freedom,” says Marianne Birthler in Mary Elise Sarotte’s new book, “The Collapse”. Ms Birthler, who spent 11 years investigating the crimes of the Stasi, the East German secret police, disagrees. “It was the other way around,” she says. “First we fought for our freedom; and then, because of that, the wall fell.”A widespread misconception of how and why the Berlin Wall came down was one reason why Ms Sarotte, a history professor at the University of Southern California, decided to write this book. After the publication of her previous work, an account of the high politics and diplomacy that followed the fall of the wall, people frequently asked her why she spoke about the wall’s “...

Correction

6 November 2014 - 11:40am

In our essay about the future of the book (“From papyrus to pixels”, October 11th), we mis-stated the revenues of certain publishers in one chart (“Hanging in”). These have been corrected online. Sorry.

New York property: Reason not the need

6 November 2014 - 11:40am

The Liar’s Ball: The Extraordinary Saga of How One Building Broke the World’s Toughest Tycoons. By Vicky Ward. Wiley; 240 pages; $29.95. Buy from Amazon.comTHE property business, goes an industry proverb, is “a circle of men holding a revolver to each other’s heads”. And, all too often, to their own, as Vicky Ward illustrates in her colourful history of America’s most fought-over office block: the 50-floor General Motors Building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.Built for the carmaker’s bosses in the mid-1960s—when what was good for the company was said to be good for America—the white-marble tower was never New York’s tallest or most beautiful skyscraper. But something about it drove the property tycoons nuts. Their pursuit of it was often sordid, and the sums they were willing to risk irrational. One mogul compares the building to “the girl you keep asking to the prom but says no. And each time you ask she gets more expensive.”Ms Ward, whose breakthrough book was “The Devil’s Casino”, about the fall of Lehman Brothers, has fun with...

Economic history: The searing Twenties

6 November 2014 - 11:40am

The Forgotten Depression: 1921: The Crash That Cured Itself. By James Grant. Simon & Schuster; 254 pages; $28. Buy from Amazon.comTHE economic slump that afflicted America in 1920 and 1921 was a nasty affair. Real output fell by some 9% and unemployment may have soared as high as 19%—the statistics are patchy—making it easily twice as bad as the so-called Great Recession of 2007-09.Yet the slump is barely remembered, largely because it was eclipsed by the Great Depression a decade later. In his aptly titled book, James Grant, the founder of a well-regarded financial newsletter, has two missions: to bring this fascinating chapter of economic history back to life, and to demonstrate that a laissez-faire approach can cure slumps better than government activism managed in the 1930s—or indeed in 2008. He is more successful in his first aim than the second.The roots of the 1920-21 depression lay in the boom that came before. When war broke out in 1914, skittish European investors began shipping their gold to America. The influx of gold swelled the money supply, leading to an explosion of spending, credit and prices. American production was stoked first by Europe’s appetite for clothes, wheat and firearms, and later by its own...

Germany at the British Museum: History lessons

6 November 2014 - 11:40am

Goethe im Himmel Germany: Memories of a Nation. By Neil MacGregor. Allen Lane; 598 pages; £30. Buy from Amazon.co.uk“A HISTORY of the World in 100 Objects” marked a transformative moment for the British Museum. A groundbreaking project devised in 2010 with BBC Radio 4, it included a 100-part radio series voiced by the museum’s director, Neil MacGregor. Now “Germany: Memories of a Nation”, a similar collaboration developed to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, sees Mr MacGregor’s erudite, entertaining voice returning to the airwaves. He narrates another project that again hopes to make its audience reassess stories they thought they knew and consider those they never knew at all. This combination of radio series, book and exhibition seems particularly deserving of attention in a year that also marks the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war, an anniversary that has not necessarily encouraged a thoughtful examination of German history.Analysing that history is a...

Peter Carey: Forget-me-not

6 November 2014 - 11:40am

Amnesia. By Peter Carey. Faber & Faber; 357 pages; £18.99. To be published in America by Knopf in January; $25.95. Buy from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.comFELIX MOORE, the anti-hero of Peter Carey’s bracing and abrasive new novel, “Amnesia”, is an Australian journalist, “an ageing breadwinner with a ridiculous mortgage” who nevertheless remains “a socialist and a servant of the truth”. His working life, books and columns have all been dedicated to exposing “the traumatic injury done to my country by our American allies in 1975”.Any reader wondering what that injury is could also be a victim of the “Great Amnesia”, as Mr Carey calls it, which gives the novel its title. It was in 1975 that Gough Whitlam, Australia’s Labor prime minister, was dismissed at a stroke by Sir John Kerr, the governor-general and representative of the country’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth. Whitlam called it a coup and alleged that those who opposed him were funded by the CIA. Mr Carey takes this part of Australian history personally, and has previously spoken of Australia being, throughout its history, “a client state”, first of Britain and then of...

Frogs: Toad haul

6 November 2014 - 11:40am

In Search of Lost Frogs. By Robin Moore. Firefly Books; 256 pages; $35. Bloomsbury; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukIN 1987 Marty Crump, a biologist working in a cloud forest in Costa Rica, witnessed the annual mating assembly of the elusive golden toad: “Over a hundred dazzling bright orange toads, poised like statues—jewels scattered about the dim understorey”. She never saw it again, and nor, so far as the records show, did anybody else. By 2001 the animal was declared extinct.Starting with the golden toad, herpetologists all over the world have been reporting sudden disappearances—probably the consequence of the chytrid fungus, the most lethal destroyer of species of vertebrates in modern times. Hundreds of frog species may have become extinct, but nobody actually knows, since only a small minority have been recorded, and a species that seems to have disappeared may turn up later.Faced with this disaster,...