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Michelangelo: The maestro’s maestro

28 August 2014 - 10:55am

Pietà de resistance Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces. By Miles Unger. Simon & Schuster; 432 pages; $29.95. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukMichelangelo: Complete Works. By Frank Zöllner, Christof Thoenes and Thomas Pöpper. Taschen; 736 pages; $200 and £120. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukMILES UNGER’S biography of Michelangelo Buonarotti focuses on six of the great man’s greatest hits. In an appendix the author tells readers where to find them in Rome and Florence, but, in passing, he makes an arresting remark about the first of them, the “Pietà” in St Peter’s Basilica (pictured). Michelangelo was only 24 when he sculpted...

Food writing: Filling up

28 August 2014 - 10:55am

The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue. By David Sax. PublicAffairs; 318 pages; $25.99 and £17.99. Buy from  Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity. By Sandra Gilbert. W.W. Norton; 377 pages; $29.95. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk“TELL me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” declared Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, an 18th-century French gastronome. Food is necessary for survival, but, as two new books show, it also reflects society’s values, needs and desires in an ever-changing paradigm.In “The Tastemakers” David Sax, a Canadian journalist, embarks on a lively culinary tour of America, consulting chefs, producers, foodies, food buyers and trend forecasters to find out why one day sriracha sauce is all the rage, and the next people are adding kale to every meal.Mr Sax identifies four trends...

Technology: Will the internet eat your brain?

28 August 2014 - 10:55am

Mind Change: How Digital Technologies are Leaving their Mark on our Brains. By Susan Greenfield. Rider; 368 pages; £20. Buy from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukA PICTURE doing the rounds on social media a few months ago showed two Hong Kong lovers hugging on a train. Resting their heads on each other’s shoulders gave the girl and her boyfriend an ideal vantage point to gaze lovingly at the smartphone that each was fiddling with behind the other’s back.It was meant to be funny. But for Susan Greenfield, a British neuroscientist, this is no joke. For several years Lady Greenfield has been warning of what she sees as the dangers of computers and the internet, as they move out of the office and into people’s living rooms, pockets and personal lives. She has written newspaper articles and given lectures about the dangers of the digital world. She frets, worrying that smartphones and social networks are sucking users into an unsatisfying digital facsimile of reality, frying their memories, atrophying their social skills and generally rotting their brains.These are familiar worries to parents. As a working neuroscientist, Lady...

Modern Asian leaders: No unity in diversity

28 August 2014 - 10:55am

Makers of Modern Asia. Edited by Ramachandra Guha. Belknap Press; 385 pages; $29.95 and £22.95. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE cliché of the “Asian century” is usually presented as an economic argument: that the startling growth of a number of Asian countries is shifting the centre of gravity of the global economy to the continent where the bulk of its people live. But, argues an Indian historian, Ramachandra Guha, in the introduction to this entertaining and illuminating collection of essays, “the politics matters just as much as the economics.” Modern Asia is of course also the result of the anti-colonial movements, wars and revolutions of the previous century. The justifiable conceit behind the book Mr Guha has edited is that a good way to understand this is to look at the national leaders thrown up by the tumult.The strength of the idea lies in the 11 leaders it covers and the expertise of the writers...

Prison in America: Protection rackets

28 August 2014 - 10:55am

Nothing beats a tattoo The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System. By David Skarbek. Oxford University Press; 240 pages; $99 and £64. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukIN 2009 Edward John Schaefer drunkenly swerved his motorbike over a pavement in the town of Marin, California. He hit a father and his daughter. The girl died. Schaefer was jailed for life. Some ten days after arriving at San Quentin State Prison, Frank Souza, another inmate, stabbed Schaefer to death with a “bone-crusher”, a seven-inch homemade metal spear.The murder was not a random act of violence. Nor was it an example of the haphazard terrors of prison life. Mr Souza was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a prison gang. When asked why he did it, Mr Souza replied: “All I got to say, nine-year-old girl.” The killing was justice, determined and meted out by the gang. It was one...

Fiction: Multiple imaginings

28 August 2014 - 10:55am

The Bone Clocks. By David Mitchell. Random House; 624 pages; $30. Sceptre; 595 pages; £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukDAVID MITCHELL’S novels are often made up of interconnecting novellas. His first, “Ghostwritten” (1999), started the trend, and his most accomplished, “Cloud Atlas” (2004), transported the reader through six distinct eras, from historical past to post-apocalyptic future. Mr Mitchell says he had hoped to write 70 stories for his sixth book, “The Bone Clocks”, but stopped far short. Even so, he takes greater risks than ever before—and, for the most part, pulls them off.The link in each section is Holly Sykes. At the start in 1984 she is a teenager in Gravesend on the south bank of the Thames, opposite Tilbury in Essex. After a row with her mother she runs away from home. In the book’s final novella, set in 2043, she is nearing the end of her days and fighting for survival on the west coast...

China in Africa: Empire of the sums

21 August 2014 - 11:15am

China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa. By Howard French.Knopf; 304 pages; $27.95 and £22.50. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk“NI HAO” and “chi ku” may be the two commonest phrases in this riveting worm’s-eye account of the Chinese in Africa. They mean, respectively, “hello” and “eat bitter”. The first is relentlessly used by Howard French, a veteran American reporter with a Ghanaian wife who has been based in both Africa and China for the New York Times and speaks Chinese, enabling him to converse with an array of Chinese people in Africa, from rugged bricklayers in Zambia and brothel madams in Liberia, to engineers in Mali and farmers in Mozambique. The second phrase is used by many of Africa’s new Chinese diaspora to denote their ability to live rough in remote and inhospitable places and to work...

The history of Texas: Clinging to religion

21 August 2014 - 11:15am

Taking their hats off to the Lord Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State.By Robert Wuthnow.Princeton University Press; 654 pages; $39.50 and £27.95. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTEXANS miss few opportunities to boast of their history. The capsule version, peddled by politicians and populists, is as follows. Inspired by the deaths of a small band of fighters at the Alamo in 1836, Texans wrested their land from Mexican rule. Texas duly became an independent republic for nearly ten years, before joining the United States in 1845. This independence, brief as it was, left a legacy of freedom-loving self-reliance that is the stuff of today’s endless mythologising.Reality, of course, is muddier, as Robert Wuthnow shows in his commanding sociological history of this fast-growing state. He begins his tale with the “strange and desperate men” (in the words of a mid-...

Venetian history: Travails of a modern city

21 August 2014 - 11:15am

Italian Venice: A History.By R.J.B. Bosworth.Yale University Press; 352 pages; $40 and £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE 20m tourists who visit Venice each year come to see a heritage site, possibly the best one in the world. For most of them, Venice’s history ended in 1797 when Napoleon conquered the Serene Republic. This is a matter of regret for R.J.B. Bosworth, an Oxford don, who contends that those visitors jostling for glimpses of the city’s art and architecture are wrong to ignore its recent past. His book concentrates on Venice under Italian rule, which began in 1866 after 69 years of French and Austrian occupation. It is a melancholy story.Venice sacrificed its identity to Napoleon—the city’s council voted for its own termination—and since then it has struggled to find another. Venetians have not been able to resolve a conflict that began in earnest just over 100 years ago, between modernity and the demands of the city’s principal source of revenue. Modernists were keen to develop a great industrial centre across the lagoon. Preservationists, encouraged by art historians and visitors in love with the idea of a...

Innovation: It takes two

21 August 2014 - 11:15am

Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. By Joshua Wolf Shenk. Eamon Dolan; 339 pages; $28. John Murray; £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukSOCIETY has long romanticised the creative power of the loner, be it the scientist who works all night in a laboratory or the cloistered writer wrapped up in the world of his own imagination. “For centuries the myth of the lone genius has towered over us like a colossus,” writes Joshua Wolf Shenk at the start of his new book, “Powers of Two”. Unimpressed, he tries to debunk the idea that “world-changing things” come from single minds, and makes the controversial claim that it is the “creative pair”, rather than the individual, that has produced the most imaginative work in history.Mr Shenk, once a writer for this newspaper, backs up his assertion with reference to three archetypal creative duos: “the liquid and the...

Vittore Carpaccio: Venetian love affair

21 August 2014 - 11:15am

Ciao, Carpaccio! An Infatuation.By Jan Morris.160 pages; to be published in Britain by. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTO FOODIES, carpaccio conjures up an image of thin slices of raw beef. Jan Morris is more enthralled by the painter after whom the dish was named in Venice in 1970 (its colour brought to mind his red pigments). Vittore Carpaccio had worked in the city over 450 years earlier. His paintings captivate Ms Morris, though she freely admits that this predilection is mainly confined to people who have been able to see them in Venice. The experience, she says, is like reading a lively travel writer. Since she herself has been just such a writer for 50 years, she is the perfect companion for readers of this short, copiously illustrated panegyric.Her favourite Carpaccio hangs in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, a guild house near St Mark’s Square. The painting (pictured) shows St Jerome, the scholar-saint, in his study...

New film: Two days, one night, no fuss

21 August 2014 - 11:15am

Thrills, not frills THE remarkable thing about “Two Days, One Night” is that it looks at some of today’s heftier political issues while seeming as modest and unassuming as a film can. Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgian brothers who have won two Palmes d’Or at Cannes, it stars Marion Cotillard as Sandra, a low-ranking employee in a low-ranking manufacturing firm. Her bosses are planning to make her redundant, but, rather than take responsibility for the decision, they have presented their staff with a cruel choice: if Sandra’s 16 colleagues vote to forfeit their annual thousand-euro bonuses, she can keep her job. On a Friday afternoon, Sandra learns that the ballot will be held on the Monday morning, leaving her one weekend to persuade her co-workers that her need is greater than theirs.Despite the presence of its famously glamorous, Oscar-winning star, “Two Days, One Night” looks and feels like a typical Dardenne brothers film. That is, it is a no-frills social-realist drama, shot on location and in natural light, and populated by largely unknown actors. The performances are restrained, the pacing is steady...

Phone-hacking: Mucky paps

14 August 2014 - 10:59am

Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch. By Nick Davies. Chatto & Windus; 448 pages; £20. Buy from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukThe News Machine: Hacking, the Untold Story. By James Hanning with Glenn Mulcaire. Gibson Square Books; 288 pages; £14.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE slow-motion car crash that was Britain’s biggest media scandal for decades began in 2007, when Clive Goodman, the royal correspondent of the News of the World, a tabloid newspaper, and Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator, were jailed for intercepting the voicemail messages of the royal family. The News of the World and its parent company, News International, insisted that the hackings were a one-off, the work of a rogue reporter. That was nonsense. Five years later the story blew up, revealing that News of...

The IMF: Everybody wants to rule the world

14 August 2014 - 10:59am

Money and Tough Love: On Tour with the IMF. By Liaquat Ahamed. Visual Editions; 208 pages; $40; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE International Monetary Fund (IMF) is the most powerful financial institution on the planet, capable of dictating economic policy to governments; Liaquat Ahamed is the author of a bestselling portrait of central banking in the Great Depression, “Lords of Finance”. Putting the two together ought to be a match made in heaven.Sadly, the result is a rather bland book replete with photographs that are about as exciting as one would expect pictures of IMF officials and meetings to be. As Mr Ahamed admits, the IMF gave him permission to follow them around since he was “unlikely to be a troublemaker”. Having accompanied fund officials on a mission to Ireland, he was prevented by Irish government staff from attending the private talks. As a result, Mr Ahamed has no real dirt to dish; he clearly admires the work that the fund does and believes in the dedication of its workforce.What he does possess is a thorough knowledge of economic history, and those who want a general idea of the IMF’s activities will...

Invisibility: All that is unseen

14 August 2014 - 10:59am

Dead-lift Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen. By Philip Ball. Bodley Head; 336 pages; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukIN both Plato’s “Republic” and Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” unlikely heroes—the shepherd Gyges in the former, Bilbo Baggins in the latter—stumble across magic rings. While the characters discover that the rings render them invisible, and go on to use them for their own ends, neither seriously questions the trinkets’ strange abilities. As Philip Ball explains in the opening lines of his new book, this is because in traditional magic tales, all that was needed to make something invisible was special knowledge or powerful friends. The feat itself was not awesome. Once invisibility had been secured, “no one was particularly surprised or impressed” by it.People today can show a similar lack of curiosity at the invisible forces that surround them: how many...

Charles Scott Moncrieff: Remembrance of lives past

14 August 2014 - 10:59am

Proust translator, soldier, spy Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff: Soldier, Spy and Translator. By Jean Findlay. Chatto & Windus; 368 pages; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukCHARLES SCOTT MONCRIEFF was used to living in the shadows. As a gay man in Britain at a time when homosexual acts were illegal he kept his fleeting relationships quiet. As a spy working in Mussolini’s Italy he moved from place to place. And as a writer he found fame not in his own right—by his own admission, he was a second-rate poet—but as a translator of Marcel Proust.“Chasing Lost Time” is the first comprehensive biography of Scott Moncrieff. Written by his great-great-niece, Jean Findlay, it sheds light on an “elusive, swift-minded and faun-like” man. In doing so it also describes the genesis of one of the definitive translations of the 20th century.Born into a well-to-do Scottish...

The internet: Too much of a good thing

14 August 2014 - 10:59am

The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. By Michael Harris. Current; 256 pages; $26.95. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk“SOON enough, nobody will remember life before the internet. What does this unavoidable fact mean?” It is with this sobering question that Michael Harris, a Canadian journalist, begins his debut work, “The End of Absence”.To arrive at an answer, Mr Harris combs through what remains of our pre-internet lives, separating the things we will carry forward into the connected world from the worthy things we may leave behind. Our insatiable appetites—for information, stimulation, validation—will come with us. But when all those wants are met no sooner than they have been felt, the knowledge of what it is to be left unfulfilled may not.Without such absences, Mr Harris argues, “we risk fooling ourselves into believing that things matter less.” He cites the...

Pat Metheny: Guitar hero

14 August 2014 - 10:59am

PAT METHENY, one of the world’s leading jazz guitarists, has assembled a typically unusual band for his current tour. The five-man Unity Group could well be the only one on America’s summer concert circuit that peps up its performances with an orchestrion. A machine containing more than a dozen instruments, it serves as a sort of mechanical orchestra on which mallets pound a vibraphone, sticks hit cymbals and drums, and so on—all triggered by Mr Metheny’s guitar and foot pedals. The orchestrion may not be to all tastes, but its use in these concerts is emblematic of Mr Metheny’s fresh approach to contemporary jazz, which shows no signs of wilting after more than four decades.Mr Metheny has been showered with accolades, both for his guitar-playing and for his composing, since he began performing in local clubs at the age of 13. He has won 20 Grammys and sold about 20m records, a rarity for a jazz musician. He has collaborated with a pantheon of musical legends that includes the likes of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. He has been copied and studied by his peers and by students. Last year DownBeat, a magazine devoted to jazz, inducted...

Revolution and war in Ukraine: I witness

7 August 2014 - 11:01am

Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev. By Andrey Kurkov. Translated by Sam Taylor. Harvill Secker; 262 pages; £9.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukSATIRISTS and surrealists are at once fortunate and challenged in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Their nefarious rulers and eventful politics volunteer themselves for parody, yet the lurid reality often outpaces satire and renders invention superfluous. Thus in his “Ukraine Diaries”—an account of the tumultuous past winter that saw his country’s president ousted and its territory dismembered—Andrey Kurkov whimsically imagines Russian tanks searching for the American commandos who are rumoured to have parachuted into western Ukraine. A few weeks later this fancy is superseded by events, as Russian forces do indeed invade, and Ukraine descends into chaos.Best known for gently absurdist novels that combine affection for his region with deadpan despair—especially...

America’s bureaucracy: Sins of commissions

7 August 2014 - 11:01am

Is Administrative Law Unlawful? By Philip Hamburger. University of Chicago Press; 638 pages; $55. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukBOOKS that address not who but what runs America may lack for personal interest, but they do have a growing appeal. An interesting new work by Philip Hamburger, a law professor at Columbia University, dispenses with the tiresome back and forth between Republicans and Democrats. Instead, it focuses on Washington’s permanent administration—the ever-expanding federal bureaucracies that have come to play a central role in health care, finance, housing and work, and large roles in education, energy and whatever else constitutes the American system.The title of Mr Hamburger’s book, “Is Administrative Law Unlawful?”, is both a strength and a weakness. It illuminates the shallow legal foundation of these agencies, but it also creates the misperception that the book deals merely with a subset of law rather than with how America is governed and how the current structure was anything but inevitable. This is particularly important because the conventional wisdom about this process, as Mr Hamburger documents,...