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Murder, she wrote

5 March 2015 - 11:49am

Watts, Los Angeles, 1966: What future awaited them?

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. By Jill Leovy. Spiegel & Grau; 384 pages; $28. Bodley Head; £16.99.

VIOLENT crime in America has dropped dramatically in the past 20 years. In both New York and Los Angeles, the number of murders fell from about 2,000 a year in the early 1990s to a quarter of that number today. But though far fewer are being killed, black men are still dying at alarming rates in the toughest urban pockets. One such is a part of Los Angeles known as Watts, the subject of a harrowing investigation by Jill Leovy, a veteran police reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

In 2007, frustrated that so little attention was being paid to these street murders, Ms Leovy started a blog for her paper called “Homicide Report”, describing every single murder in the city. Now, after a decade shadowing an LAPD homicide squad, she has gathered all she learned into a book to stress that this epidemic of murder is still raging. At a time when the Twitter hashtag #BlackLivesMatter is a rallying cry...

Heading towards disaster

5 March 2015 - 11:49am

The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East. By Eugene Rogan. Basic Books; 442 pages; $29.99. Allen Lane; £25.

“UNTO us a son is born!” It was with great excitement that Enver Pasha, the most powerful of the triumvirate of Young Turks who ruled the Ottoman Empire, greeted the news that two German warships had sailed into neutral Turkish waters on August 10th 1914. The Goeben, a heavy battleship, and the Breslau, a light cruiser, had bombarded French Algerian ports at the start of the first world war, and were being pursued by French and British vessels across the Mediterranean.

The Turks extracted a high price for granting the ships haven, including recognition of their demands for the recovery of territories lost in earlier conflicts and financial help if they entered the war. To avoid immediate hostilities, though, the Turks ostensibly bought the German ships (and the services of their crews), replacing two dreadnoughts that had been ordered from, but requisitioned by, Britain.

Thus did Germany appear to gain a new ally, and Turkey a...

Two butterflies, one wheel

5 March 2015 - 11:49am

McQueen’s crown of horns

Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. By Dana Thomas. Penguin Press; 420 pages; $29.95. Allen Lane; £25.

Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin.. By Andrew Wilson. Simon & Schuster; 369 pages; £25. To be published in America by Scribner in September.

“SAVAGE BEAUTY”, a glitzy retrospective of the designs of Alexander McQueen, will open at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London later this month, just over five years after his suicide. This is being advertised as something of a homecoming for a London-born designer, and a commercial coup for the museum: the show attracted 661,000 visitors to the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2011, making it the eighth-most-viewed exhibition in the Met’s history.

John Galliano, another British designer, has also been in the news recently. Few would have been willing to predict a successful rehabilitation after footage emerged of him yelling anti-Semitic abuse at a woman in a Parisian café. But earlier this year Mr Galliano’s comeback show...

Making a good Impression

5 March 2015 - 11:49am

When Paul Durand-Ruel, a French art dealer, fell for the works of the Impressionists in the early 1870s, they were reviled, almost unsellable. He bought some 12,000 paintings, including 1,000 by Monet (above, “The Artist’s Garden in Argenteuil”) and eventually created a market for their work. A superb new exhibition at the National Gallery in London tells his story. See for a full review

The end is not nigh

5 March 2015 - 11:49am

Captain America demonstrates his soft power

Is the American Century Over? By Joseph Nye. Polity Press; 152 pages; $12.95 and £9.99.

“AMERICANS have a long history of worrying about their decline,” notes Joseph Nye. Puritans in 17th-century Massachusetts lamented a fall from earlier virtue. The Founding Fathers fretted that the republic they had created might dissipate like ancient Rome. Modern scholars are a gloomy lot, too. Michael Lind of the New America Foundation, a think-tank, has written that, with America’s foreign policy in a state of collapse, its economy ailing and its democracy broken, the American century ended last year.

Mr Nye, a veteran observer of global affairs, is more optimistic. He expects that America will still play the central role in the global balance of power in the 2040s. What, after all, is the alternative?

Europe is hardly a plausible challenger. Though its economy and population are larger than America’s, the old continent is stagnating. In 1900 a quarter of the world’s people were European; by 2060 that figure could be just 6%, and a third of...

A mismatch made in heaven

5 March 2015 - 11:49am

Mr and Mrs Disraeli: A Strange Romance. By Daisy Hay.Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 308 pages; $27. Chatto & Windus; £20.

QUEEN VICTORIA once thought her “very vulgar”; she was inclined to say “odd and startling things”; she might turn up “like the savages” in “a wreath of red feathers”. Mary Anne Disraeli, wife of the prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, and 12 years his senior, was roundly ridiculed as unworthy of her clever husband. But not by their friends. Yes, they rolled their eyes, yet they also saw her shrewdness and her warm heart. One even thought she matched him: “equally clever in her way”. What no one knew was that Mary Anne was a hoarder. Examining her papers after her death in 1872, Disraeli was astonished: “She does not appear to have destroyed a single scrap I ever wrote to her.” Until Daisy Hay took on the task, no one had mined them for her sake rather than his.

Ostensibly, “Mr and Mrs Disraeli” is a portrait of a marriage once considered an absurd mismatch. But the pair had much in common, as Ms Hay, an academic at the University of Exeter, shows. Both were outsiders: Mary Anne, a sailor’s daughter thrown among political aristocrats; and Benjamin, a novel-writing dandy in a huntin’ and shootin’ party, and of Jewish descent in an anti-Semitic society. Both...

Beyond borders

26 February 2015 - 11:44am

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 Arturo 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

26 February 2015 - 11:44am

  • Sarajevo, September 19th 2013. Abandoned ski jump on Mount Igman. Most of the Olympic venues in Sarajevo have been reduced to rubble by neglect and the 1990s conflict. Source: Reuters
  • Sarejevo winter Olympics 1984. Two men ride their luge sled down the bobsleigh track. Source: Corbis
  • ...

Many masters, many lives

26 February 2015 - 11:44am

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

26 February 2015 - 11:44am

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

26 February 2015 - 11:44am

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...


26 February 2015 - 11:44am

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...


19 February 2015 - 11:58am

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

19 February 2015 - 11:58am

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

19 February 2015 - 11:58am

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

19 February 2015 - 11:58am

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

19 February 2015 - 11:58am

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

19 February 2015 - 11:58am

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,...

Enigmatic mystery

12 February 2015 - 11:48am

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...

My funny Valentine

12 February 2015 - 11:48am

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...