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History of fashion: Nonparelli

16 October 2014 - 10:59am

Save your soles Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography. By Meryle Secrest. Knopf; 363 pages; $35. Penguin; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk“AS A child Schiap was definitely difficult,” Elsa Schiaparelli wrote in 1954 in the opening chapter of her auto-biography “Shocking Life”. In fact, she continued, “she still is.” As Meryle Secrest, the author of a new life of the Italian couturier notes, Schiaparelli tended to use the third person “whenever she was feeling evasive”. This was often: the autobiography barely mentions her husband or daughter. Ms Secrest’s incisive, sympathetic life demonstrates great skill in unpicking the web of myths that Schiaparelli wove to reveal the shape of the woman beneath.As a girl Schiaparelli decided to plant flowers in her face: down her ears, up her nose, in her mouth (a visual trope later copied by her friend Salvador Dalí). This, she thought, would make...

Polish history: Shtetl of honour

16 October 2014 - 10:59am

There used to be thousands of these FROM the 1600s until 1939 Poland was the global centre of the Jewish people, home to the world’s largest Jewish population and its greatest nexus of religious, cultural and political activity. Yet for many more recent visitors, such as the thousands of Israeli schoolchildren who tour the sites of Nazi death camps each year, the telling of Polish Jews’ history has been overwhelmed by the story of their extermination. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, whose permanent exhibition opens this month, attempts to restore some balance. “We have a moral obligation to honour the way that [Polish Jews] lived for 1,000 years,” says Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the exhibit’s programme director. “The Holocaust is not the beginning of the story, and it’s not the end.”Ms Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a Canadian-Jewish curator whose own father emigrated from Poland in 1934, has a sophisticated exposition philosophy that resists grand narratives. She prefers to immerse visitors in the material and let them draw their own conclusions. But politics clearly plays a role in the exhibition’s design, as well. Post-war...

American politics: The great might-have-been

16 October 2014 - 10:59am

On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller. By Richard Norton Smith. Random House; 800 pages; $38. Buy from Amazon.comTHE Republican Party’s nomination of Barry Goldwater for president in July 1964 marked the effective end of Nelson Rockefeller’s lifelong ambition to win America’s highest office. It also brought to a close the whole “liberal consensus”, that era in the mid-20th century when American politics were ruled by an unwritten pact: at home, most Republicans grudgingly accepted the liberal policies of the New Deal; abroad, most Democrats accepted conservative anti-communism.As the grandson of the co-founder of Standard Oil, Rockefeller embodied and promoted that consensus to the best of his considerable abilities and resources. He worked for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in Washington and in Latin America. He worked too for Dwight Eisenhower; during the Eisenhower years his Special Studies Project brought together an astonishingly diverse body of pundits, from New Deal veterans to cold-war generals and even Ronald...

Education in America: Back against the blackboard

16 October 2014 - 10:59am

She needs feedback too The Teacher Wars. By Dana Goldstein. Doubleday; 349 pages; $26.95. Buy from Amazon.comBuilding a Better Teacher. By Elizabeth Green. W.W. Norton; 372 pages; $27.95 and £18.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukWHAT is to be done about America’s schools? Students are graduating, if they graduate at all, with a poorer grasp of writing, reading and maths than their counterparts in other countries. And the poorest students are often warehoused in the worst schools, ensuring that public education is a poor vehicle for social mobility. Reformers have spent decades reducing class sizes and introducing standardised exams, to little effect. Lately many have taken a new tack—blaming bad teachers and the unions that protect them.Studies on...

Germany and the euro: Ordoliberalism revisited

16 October 2014 - 10:59am

Don’t even think about it The Euro Trap: On Bursting Bubbles, Budgets, and Beliefs. By Hans-Werner Sinn. Oxford University Press; 380 pages; $45 and £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukThe 13th Labour of Hercules: Inside the Greek Crisis. By Yannis Palaiologos. Portobello; 270 pages; £14.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE euro crisis never seems to end. From an acute phase of worries about public debt and whether the single currency might break up it has moved on to a chronic condition of near-zero growth and fears of deflation. The signs are that the euro zone is now back in recession, with even the German economy, the central...

Fiction: Jamaica gangs: Gang stories

9 October 2014 - 10:58am

A Brief History of Seven Killings. By Marlon James. Riverhead; 688 pages; $28.95. Oneworld; £18.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukWEIGHING in at nearly 700 pages and spanning three decades, there is nothing “brief” about Marlon James’s third novel, “A Brief History of Seven Killings”. What’s more, before readers get to the start, they have to wade through a four-page cast list which would be forbidding were it not so useful. But Mr James’s chronicle of late 20th-century Jamaican politics and gang wars manages consistently to shock and mesmerise at the same time.The story is told through various points of view. Bam-Bam, Demus and Weeper are gang members under the tutelage of Papa-Lo, “the don of the dons”. They all safeguard their turf and, as Jamaica’s tense national election looms in 1976, “remind people how to vote”. Barry Diflorio¸the local CIA station chief, is given the task of monitoring the spread of communism on the island after “that Bay of Pigs flop show”. Alex Pierce, a reporter on assignment for Rolling Stone magazine, smells a bigger story and sets out to discover “what’s ticking in this...

Fondation Louis Vuitton: Winged victory

9 October 2014 - 10:58am

YOU can just see its glass wingtips flashing above the treetops of the Bois de Boulogne. Close up, the new museum designed by Frank Gehry looks like a futuristic ship with sheer slanting sails. As befits its patron, Bernard Arnault, chairman and CEO of LVMH, the world’s largest luxury-goods conglomerate, the Fondation Louis Vuitton is meant to make a statement.The museum opens on October 27th. It has taken six years and, sources close to the project say, cost a third more than its €100m ($125m) budget. The museum was funded by LVMH and bears the name (and logo) of its flagship brand, Louis Vuitton. But the building is a personal triumph for Mr Arnault, who had wanted Mr Gehry on board as soon as he saw his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in 2001.The Frenchman is one of several rich patrons opening private museums around the world. Earlier this year two huge new showcases for contemporary art opened in Shanghai: the Long Museum, commissioned by two collectors, Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei, and the Yuz Museum, built by an Indonesian Chinese businessman, Budi Tek. Next year, Eli Broad is set to open his museum in Los Angeles.American cultural institutions are often...

Tennessee Williams: Making Tenn out of Tom

9 October 2014 - 10:58am

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. By John Lahr. W.W. Norton; 765 pages; $39.95. Bloomsbury; £30. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukWHEN Thomas Lanier Williams III decided, in his early 20s, to become a playwright, he had, by his own admission, “not seen more than two or three professional productions: touring companies that passed through the South and Middle West”. Of his first professionally produced play he wrote, “Probably no man has ever written for the theatre with less foreknow-ledge of it.” But he had one thing going for him: he was raised in a supremely dysfunctional family anchored by two parents who loathed each other.His father, Cornelius Coffin “CC” Williams, was a taciturn and loveless travelling salesman prone to fits of drunken rage (he hailed from one of the first families of Tennessee—whence his son’s pen-name). Edwina, Williams’s mother, was judgmental, frigid and pious, but also...

A memoir of gratification: Desire delayed

9 October 2014 - 10:58am

Stuffing your face means more than you’d think The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. By Walter Mischel. Little, Brown & Company; 326 pages; $29. Bantam; £20 Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukIN THE 1960s Walter Mischel, then an up-and-coming researcher in psychology, devised a simple but ingenious experiment to study delayed gratification. It is now famously known as the marshmallow test. In a sparsely furnished room Mr Mischel presented a group of children aged four and five from Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School with a difficult challenge. They were left alone with a treat of their choosing, such as a marshmallow or a biscuit. They could help themselves at once, or receive a larger reward (two marshmallows or biscuits) if they managed to wait for up to 20 minutes.Mr Mischel, now of Columbia University, reveals in his first non-academic book, “The Marshmallow Test”, that the purpose of the...

End-of-life care: Helping hands

2 October 2014 - 11:00am

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. By Atul Gawande. Metropolitan Books; 282 pages; $26. Profile; £15.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukWOULD life still be worth living if you could watch football on television and eat chocolate ice-cream, but not walk, feed yourself or use the bathroom unaided? How much pain would you accept for the chance of a few extra weeks? And how would you use the time you had left if you knew that no such chance remained?For most people in the developed world, conversations about such topics never take place. Young people remark in passing that they would rather be dead than go into a nursing home; that they do not want to die in hospital; that they do not want a drawn-out, agonising end. The closer that end is, the less it is talked about. The result is that hard choices are made without an understanding of their consequences. More and more people spend their last hours exactly as they wished not...

Marriage in America: The new merry-go-round

2 October 2014 - 11:00am

Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage. By Isabel Sawhill. Brookings Institution Press; 209 pages; $32. Buy from Amazon.comLAST week the Pew Research Centre, a think-tank, predicted that one in four young Americans will never marry. Among the advantages of this are that you “will get to have sex with a different attractive person every night for the rest of your life” and can live “unfettered by [an] oppressive institution that represents undying love,” suggests the Onion, a spoof newspaper. Isabel Sawhill takes a more serious view. A former budget aide for Bill Clinton who now works at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, she has been pondering the state of the family for decades. “Generation Unbound” is clear, concise and admirably fair-minded.It describes the vast changes that have occurred since the sexual revolution of the 1960s. No-fault divorce has been good for many adults, she writes. Because they can walk away, unhappy partners have more power to demand change. Spousal suicide,...

The impact of economics: The worldly wonks

2 October 2014 - 11:00am

Trillion Dollar Economists: How Economists and Their Ideas have Transformed Business. By Robert Litan. Wiley; 385 pages; $40 and £26.99. Buy from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukIN 1953 Robert Heilbroner, an American economist, published “The Worldly Philosophers”, an inspirational account of what economists do. Dismal scientists like Adam Smith and Karl Marx, said Heilbroner, mixed mathematical genius with complex ethical reasoning to craft policies to better the lives of the average Joe.Robert Litan, of the Brookings Institution, would never use the word “philosopher” to describe an economist. Instead in his new book he wants to show that economists, often unnoticed or scorned by the public, are actually the plumbers of modern society. Mr Litan focuses on America but his argument applies more broadly. He takes the reader through countless topics—climate change, intelligent dating websites and ever cheaper telecommunications, among others—to show how everyone has benefited, or could benefit, from economics. In so doing he gives an easy introduction to some key economic ideas.An introductory economics book works best...

Cooking: Time to get serious

2 October 2014 - 11:00am

Dab hand with a knife Dabbous: The Cookbook. By Ollie Dabbous. Bloomsbury; 224 pages; £50. To be published in America in November; $90. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukHOW does a relatively unknown London restaurant suddenly become the hottest joint in the country? Two essential ingredients are universal praise and a waiting list that stretches months ahead. Ollie Dabbous leapt into the limelight as soon as his eponymous restaurant opened in an unprepossessing corner of the city in 2012. A Michelin star followed less than a year later and now there is a lavishly illustrated cookbook that juxtaposes grim industrial detail with exquisite dishes of identifiable simple ingredients.It isn’t all hype. Mr Dabbous is creating delicious affordable food. A set lunch is £32 ($52) and the priciest evening tasting menu is just double that. He trained at Raymond Blanc’s Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons...

Performance art: Say it with mirrors

2 October 2014 - 11:00am

Scent of a woman IN 1970 a young New York artist stood naked before an audience, inspecting her body with a small round mirror. “Mirror Check” was Joan Jonas’s silent commentary on women’s fixation with self-image, and it helped establish her reputation as a pioneer of performance art.The artist, now 78, is opening her biggest exhibition ever at HangarBicocca, a former locomotive factory outside Milan, which Pirelli, an Italian tyremaker, has turned into an art space that resembles Tate Modern. The show comes just months before Ms Jonas will represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. Like a number of women artists before her, including Louise Bourgeois and Yayoi Kusama, she is achieving art-world stardom late in life.Ms Jonas took up performance from the outset, eager to find an artistic language that was fresh. Drawing inspiration from avant-garde dance, she developed her own repertoire of movements. At first she used mirrors a lot. Then after a visit to Japan she started including masks and the hypnotic gestures of Noh theatre in her work. And she began filming her performances, using the footage both live and for subsequent installations. In her...

Scientific curiosity: Questions, questions

2 October 2014 - 11:00am

Link up with Lego What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. By Randall Munroe. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 320 pages; $24. John Murray; £14.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTAKE any child outside on a clear night and science becomes exciting. But science lessons at school are often dismal. Teachers drone on in front of whiteboards that are filled with perfect spheres rolling down frictionless inclined planes (usually in some strange airless world without any wind resistance).But it does not have to be this way. Randall Munroe is a former NASA roboticist who now draws the webcomic “xkcd”, which offers up an eclectic mixture of science, maths and whimsy three times a week. One of its spin-offs is a website called “What If?”, in which readers can submit questions to Mr Munroe that he will attempt to answer to the best of science’s ability. That website has, in turn, spawned a book full...

Francis Fukuyama: The end of harmony

25 September 2014 - 11:03am

Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy. By Francis Fukuyama. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 658 pages; $35. Profile Books; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukA BASIC rule of intellectual life is that celebrity destroys quality: the more famous an author becomes the more likely he is to produce hot air. Superstar academics abandon libraries for the lecture circuit. Brand-name journalists get their information from dinners with the great and the good rather than hard digging. Too many speeches must be given and backs slapped to leave time for serious thought.Francis Fukuyama is a glorious exception to this rule. Mr Fukuyama earned global applause with the publication of “The End of History and the Last Man” in 1992. He won more plaudits in the early 2000s with his broadsides against the neoconservative movement that had nurtured him. But rather than milking his fame he has devoted...

Oil in Ecuador: Murky truth

25 September 2014 - 11:03am

Oil-troubled waters Law of the Jungle. By Paul Barrett. Crown; 290 pages; $26. Buy from Amazon.comCrude Awakening: Chevron in Ecuador. By Michael Goldhaber. Rosetta Books; 84 pages; $2.99 (only available as an e-book) Buy from Amazon.comWHEN a judge writes that an “extraordinary” case “include[s] things that normally come only out of Hollywood”, you can be sure that a book will soon follow. In March Lewis Kaplan, a judge in New York, ruled that a $19 billion award for damages levied by an Ecuadorean court against Chevron, an oil company, was based on fraud. Sure enough, two new works have just come out to clarify a case of unparalleled notoriety and cost.“Law of the Jungle”, by Paul Barrett, a business journalist, offers a good starting point. His tale goes back to the Wild West atmosphere of Ecuador in 1970, when the military government invited Texaco...

New fiction: Another Yalta conference

25 September 2014 - 11:03am

The Betrayers. By David Bezmozgis. Little, Brown and Company; 240 pages; $26. Viking; £12.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHIS compelling second novel by David Bezmozgis takes place in Crimea in August 2013, before the province was annexed by Russia. Baruch Kotler, a famous Soviet Jewish dissident turned Israeli politician, has fled to Yalta with his young mistress after an attempt in Jerusalem to blackmail him.Kotler can flee his enemies in Israel, but he cannot escape his past. He has been haunted for decades by his nemesis, Chaim Tankilevich. The two men were once friends, secretly studying Hebrew in Moscow. But Tankilevich was also a KGB agent, spying on the gatherings. He denounced Kotler in an article in Izvestia, a Russian newspaper, and Kotler was sent to prison for 13 years.Both men seek a kind of redemption when they meet in Yalta, apparently by chance, although more powerful, celestial forces may be...

Decrypting Google: Don’t be modest

25 September 2014 - 11:03am

How Google Works. By Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg. Grand Central Publishing; 286 pages; $30. John Murray; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukAS A service, Google has become indispensable to people’s interactions online. As a business worth $400 billion after 16 years, its success has been breathtaking. Yet in terms of management, it has set up radically different ways of organising itself from those of traditional businesses. Few people have focused on this.Now two of Google’s architects have analysed what they think worked and why. Eric Schmidt, the current chairman and former chief executive (and also a board director of The Economist Group, this newspaper’s parent company), and Jonathan Rosenberg, a former senior manager, decrypt the firm’s methods for other business leaders to learn from.Most important is thinking extremely big—the “moonshot”, as it is called in Silicon Valley. Google’s leaders often have to wrest employees away from seeking a 10% improvement and towards finding one that is “10X” (that is, ten times better)—something that requires them to do things in an entirely new way, not just optimise what...

The Boston Symphony Orchestra: Electric conductor

25 September 2014 - 11:03am

Admirable Nelsons WHEN Andris Nelsons takes the podium for his first official concert as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) on September 27th, it will mark an end to more than three years in the wilderness for a venerable musical institution. Having been troubled by the ill health of its previous musical director, James Levine, the orchestra endured a long interregnum of guest conductors while a replacement was sought. The selection of the ebullient Mr Nelsons seems calculated to banish memories of that period.When his appointment was announced, Bostonians celebrated in characteristic fashion. June 25th 2013 was designated “Andris Nelsons Day” in the city and he was invited to throw the first pitch at Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox baseball team. The ritual was symbolic on many levels. The presence of the six-foot-two (1.88-metre) Mr Nelsons on the pitching mound seemed to signal the start of a new, more vigorous era at the BSO where musty halls would open up to let in sunshine and a boisterous crowd.Even before the abrupt ending of Mr Levine’s tenure in 2011, the orchestra had suffered on account of his poor health. Frequent absences—...