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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

Getting By Without Russia Pick of the day

Russia has a big history. It has gas and nukes. It looks big on the map, but its size is exaggerated by Mercator projections, and it doesn’t have a lot to offer in any other respect. Its neighbours are not mere “props and brackets for its weight”. Could the world manage without Russia? Yes, and so it should while Russia is in the hands of Vladimir Putin — “the privatisation of a beautiful old prison by one of its former jailers” (777 words)

Sink Or Swim

Ungated today by the LRB; for how long I know not; read it while you can. Reviewing a reissue of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Wood skewers the purple prose lovingly and lethally. “If there’s a tangle in Durrell it’s inextricable. If there’s a treasury it’s inexhaustible. Creatures of habit are inveterate, dusk is blue, shadows and trams are violet, dawn is mauve – but then so are voices and a mosque” (3,280 words)

The Story Of Thaksin Shinawatra

If, like me, you have internalised the idea that there is a long-running semi-interesting political crisis going on in Thailand about which one ought to know more, here is a deeper dive into the people and principles. It’s a class conflict — nobs vs populists. And it’s an archetypal political drama: In a supposed democracy, how does the establishment get rid of an elected but indigestible leader? (3,340 words)

Scalpers, Inc

Review of Michael Lewis’s “Flash Boys”, about high-frequency trading, which has made stock markets “secret and mysterious” to outsiders. “The principle on which much market legislation rests is that it’s illegal to trade on the basis of information that is not publicly available. The fact that the apparent price is not the actual price: does that fit the legal definition of non-public information? I’d have thought it does” (4,000 words)

On Kate Bush

If Wuthering Heights makes you think of Kate Bush before Emily Bronte, read on: “She’s someone you might have known at sixth-form college, or at your Saturday job (the artier kind, obviously: knick-knack stall at the local market); definitely a scream down the pub, with her packet of Silk Cut and pint of scrumpy. She has the soul of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but the robust mien of Mrs Thatcher at a cabinet meeting” (2,767 words)

Diary: “Sh-t, I’ve Had A Stroke” Pick of the day

On having a stroke. “I bent down to push some rubbish into the already stuffed bin. When I stood up half the world had disappeared. It had disappeared but it was still there, sort of. The kitchen wall was visible but it didn’t seem quite right. The mirror had become a window, but all that could be seen in this window was the wall on the other side of the room, behind me or behind where I used to be. Where had I gone?” (4,196 words)

Not The Marrying Kind Pick of the day

A novelist tells his father, a high court judge, that he is gay: “The coming-out speech is a relatively unvarying form because the event has only two parts, a clearing of the throat to demand attention and then a simple phrase that can’t be taken back (I’m gay). After that, as it seems to the person making the declaration, the fixed points disappear. All clocks return to zero hour and the speakers have new voices issued to them” (4,360 words)

The Stuntman

Review of Tom Bower’s biography, Branson: Behind the Mask. Richard Branson “pretends to be much richer than he really is”. His business strategy is “to get as close as possible to the people with power and then exploit the connection for all it’s worth”. His Virgin empire is “a brilliant smoke-and-mirrors operation, driven by the undeniable charm of the man himself, along with his occasionally breathtaking shamelessness” (4,500 words)

Closing Time

From the LRB archives: Review of of How We Die, by Sherwin Nuland, who died this week. “The fascination of this book lies not primarily in its biology lessons for the layman but in the stories it tells of the mysterious places where we die: the insides of our bodies … We learn how sepsis comes to be the terminal event in a cancer patient’s life and why she is so thin; why Dr Livingstone, being attacked by a lion, probably felt no pain” (1,060 words)

Ghosting For Julian Assange

Epic profile, by the ghost-writer of Assange’s abortive autobiography. “He had a strange, on-the-spectrum inability to see when he was becoming boring … I’d never been with a person who had such a good cause and such a poor ear, nor such a capacity to yawn in one’s face … He appeared to like the notion that he was being pursued, the tendency was only complicated by the fact that there were real pursuers” (26,390 words)

Ukraine: Romantics And Realists

President Yanukovich’s willingness to trade Ukrainian sovereignty for gas and cash must have confirmed Vladimir Putin in his belief that “Ukrainians are a greedy and frightened people in their entirety”. But Putin was blinded by his own cynicism. Ukraine proves to have idealists ready to fight. Their goal, a decent government, “may be a fantasy, a paradisal vision. But there are times when visions take charge” (1,070 words)

The Public Voice Of Women

First recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’ comes at the start of the Odyssey — the start of literature itself. “The more I have looked at the threats and insults that women have received, the more I have found that they fit into the old patterns. It doesn’t much matter what line you take, if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say, it’s the fact you’re saying it” (5,200 words)

Ghosts Of The Tsunami

Extraordinary essay on the Japanese way of death. In the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami, which killed 20,000, survivors “described sightings of ghostly strangers, friends and neighbours, and dead loved ones. They reported hauntings at home, at work, in offices and public places, on the beaches and in the ruined towns. The experiences ranged from eerie dreams and feelings of vague unease to cases of outright possession” (7,180 words)

Walter Bagehot

In his Memoirs of Walter Bagehot, assembled from Bagehot’s writings, Frank Prochaska brings to life this “Greatest Victorian”, famed in the mid-19C as a banker and as editor of The Economist. He is remembered today mainly for The English Constitution, a “little book” whose “brilliance and charm have never ceased to attract later generations”, despite its “relentless snobbery and its obsessive contempt for the lower orders” (5,200 words)

Fergie Time

Shrewd, illuminating review of My Autobiography by Alex Ferguson. “It is a hectoring, petty, repetitive book. Ferguson returns again and again to the things that nag him. It’s ugly, it’s grinding, but it gives you the flavour of the man. The only other autobiography I’ve read recently that comes across like this is Tony Blair’s, which was also so disconnected, erratic and self-referential that it had the unmistakeable ring of authenticity” (3,890 words)

Hazards Of Revolution

Notes on the disappointments and contradictions of the Arab Spring, which has brought anarchy in Libya, dictatorship in Egypt, civil war in Syria. “If there was a fair election in Syria today, Assad would probably win it.” The one bright spot in the region may be Kurdistan, which is “close to becoming an oil-rich independent state, militarily and diplomatically more powerful than many members of the UN” (3,220 words)

Where Will We Live?

Britain’s housing policy reaches crisis point. For more than three decades government has been encouraging people to buy houses, while constraining supply. The result is that prices have more than tripled, and the poor are getting squeezed out of the little social housing that remains. How long before the poor are forced back into the slums that public housing policies of the last century were designed to clear? (13,500 words)

Mandela: Death Of A Politician

Grim assessment of South Africa’s prospects after Nelson Mandela. “There is no consensus about what will happen now: at one extreme, the believers in ‘Mandelaland’ (chiefly outside the country); at the other, the dour prophets of ‘the next Zimbabwe’. South Africa is certainly not Zimbabwe, but Zimbabwe was the South Africa of the 1980s, promising racial reconciliation and postcolonial success” (4,000 words)

Al Qaeda: The Right Amount Of Violence

Well-organised discussion of Al-Qaeda’s decline after 9/11, with the loss of Afghanistan, and its resurgence since 2011 with Syria as its haven. Bin Laden went too far in attacking America. His successors have more immediate aims, and greater subtlety. “If a group kills too many civilians, popular support drains away; if it uses too little violence, the government will dismiss it as irrelevant and its cadres will drift off to more active outfits” (3,500 words)

Some Damn Foolish Thing

Review of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark, a “breathtakingly good book” which looks set to succeed Barbara Tuchman’s Guns Of August as the best recent account of the causes of the First World War. Tuchman cast her history in cold war terms: two great power blocks collided. Clark uses a modern template: the war follows from an act of terrorism in Sarajevo, with Serbia as rogue state (6,000 words)

A Portrait Of Lucian Freud

Essay based on two books: Man with a Blue Scarf by Martin Gayford, and Breakfast with Lucian by Geordie Greig. “There is the male gaze in art; and then, beyond that, there is the Freudian gaze. His pictures of naked women are not in the least pornographic; nor are they even erotic. It would be a very disturbed schoolboy who successfully masturbated to a book of Freud nudes. They make Courbet’s Origin of the World look suave” (5,900 words)

El Bulli For All

Lanchester samples Ferran Adria’s free online Harvard course, Science & Cooking, and pronounces it excellent. “Homework involves an experiment to calibrate the accuracy of your oven, and calculations to ascertain the number of molecules in aubergine with buttermilk sauce … It teaches the mystery of how mathematics penetrates into matter. The course is more rigorous, and more educational, than I’d thought it would be” (1,520 words)

The Man They Couldn’t Bore

Affectionate review of The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, last volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s effervescent memoir of walking across Europe in the 1930s, reconstructed by Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron from the author’s notes. In Bulgaria and Greece he is interested in everything and everybody. “Sometimes his boisterous catalogues of detail and epithet grow tiresome: why can’t he shut up for a moment?” (2,700 words)

No One Hates Him More

Scornful review of The Kraus Project, a selection of essays by Karl Kraus with footnotes by Jonathan Franzen and others. “The Kraus Project is Franzen’s bid to force an equation: Vienna a century ago = America today. To prove it Franzen has translated a handful of essays in their entirety, and writing footnotes so extensive that they turn the annotated text into the subsidiary: Kraus’s essays become the headnotes to Franzen’s angst” (3,000 words)

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