Let The Past Collapse On Time

Russia’s lurch towards democracy in 1991 was not so much a revolution as an interlude. With Putin, the Soviet mindset has returned. “The country automatically becomes hostage to the psychosomatic quirks of its leader. All of his fears, passions, weaknesses, and complexes become state policy. If he is paranoid, the whole country must fear enemies and spies; if he has insomnia, all the ministries must work at night” (1,820 words)

My Carcass And Myself

Somewhat elliptical review of Marcel Theroux’s “wondrous, uncanny” novel, Strange Bodies, which takes as its theme the interplay between mind, body and identity. “The reader learns in the opening sentence that a man named Nicky Slopen has come back from death … What if a person could survive past his bodily death, to be reconstituted in another form? It no longer seems so farfetched, and it might not be pretty” (1,547 words)

The New Gilded Age

Review of Thomas Piketty’s “truly superb book”, Capital In The Twenty-First Century, which “will change the way we think about society and the way we do economics”. It “melds grand historical sweep with painstaking data analysis”. Piketty argues that we are heading for “patrimonial capitalism,” in which “the commanding heights of the economy are controlled not by talented individuals but by family dynasties” (4,320 words)

The Mental Life Of Plants And Animals

How worms, jellyfish and other living things think. “If one allows that a dog may have consciousness of an individual and significant sort, one has to allow it for an octopus, too”. Plants “are capable of registering what we would call sights, sounds, tactile signals, and much more”. They cannot learn, however; all information must be there in their genomes, which is why some plant genomes are larger than ours (3,770 words)

Dick Cheney: He Remade Our World Pick of the day

He was “the most powerful vice-president in American history”. His “singular genius” was to take “an oddly archaic constitutional office” and to energise it “by force of will, quiet audacity, and a peculiar institutional brilliance”. Much of this gripping piece turns on a conflict between the White House and the Justice Department over NSA surveillance programmes, later to be the stuff of Edward Snowden’s revelations (4,250 words)

Imaginary Jews

David Nirenberg’s “brilliant, fascinating, and deeply depressing” new book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, is “an intellectual history of Western civilization, seen from a peculiar but frighteningly revealing perspective”. It shows how centuries of “Christian heresies, political tyrannies, medieval plagues, capitalist crises, and revolutionary movements” have been blamed upon the imaginary behaviour of “imagined Jews” (3,900 words)

The Secret Auden

On the “secret life” of W.H. Auden. In public he portrayed himself as “rigid or uncaring”, but in private he was “generous and honorable”. He gave freely to needy friends and charities. He helped young and struggling poets. He was “disgusted by his early fame”, and preferred to be seen as “less than he was”. He was not a Christian, but he felt “an absolute obligation” to love his neighbour as himself (3,740 words)

Kingpin At Rest

The arrest of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, head of Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel, was so easy that it feels as though he must have arranged it himself — “tired of the hard life of transporting thousands of tons of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, in addition to the daily agony of deciding whom to kill, whom to trust”. But his capture will not diminish the drug trade; it will merely create a vacancy for somebody else to fill (2,100 words)

The Parthenon Enigma

Britain bought Lord Elgin’s “Sculptured Marbles” grudgingly in 1816. Experts said they were not great art. Some doubted Elgin could have taken them legally from the Parthenon. Parliament paid Elgin half the £75,000 he asked. Opinions of the frieze have since improved; but art historians still debate what story it depicts. Most say a religious festival, the Panathenaia. Others see preparations for a human sacrifice (1,900 words)

The Case For Blunder

Review of Brilliant Blunders, by Mario Livio, telling how five great scientists — Darwin, Kelvin, Pauling, Hoyle, Einstein — proposed five wrong theories. “The inventor of a brilliant idea cannot tell whether it is right or wrong. Humans need beliefs in order to live, and great scientists are no exception. Great scientists produce right theories and wrong theories, and believe in them with equal conviction” (3,850 words)

In The Darkness Of Dick Cheney

Fourth part of an epic reflection. In Danner’s view, Cheney, though almost always wrong, and blind to his mistakes, possessed “a kind of stark amoral grandeur” that enabled him to reshape American values and institutions for the worse. More even than President George Bush, Cheney normalised the use of drones, black sites, invasions, torture and special courts as instruments of American policy. “We live still in Cheney’s world” (4,550 words)

In The Shadow Of Sharon

Notes on the character of Ariel Sharon. “He was either untrained for, or simply distrusted, any form of abstract thinking. Sharon’s abhorrence of abstract thinking included distaste for law and morality, and ended in a total mistrust of ideology. He was a pre-ideological general who fought in ideological wars. Part of Sharon’s dark charm, of which he had plenty, was the feeling that in him you could encounter primordial elements” (1,700 words)

Turkey: The Fakir And The Pharaoh

Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan saw off last year’s challenge from liberal protesters occupying Gezi Park relatively easily. His new power struggle, with “exiled spiritual leader” Fethullah Gulen, is more intimate and more dangerous. Gulen’s five million followers include top officials in the police and judiciary. Gulen can paralyse Erdogan’s government, and it is hard to see how Erdogan can stop him (1,660 words)

The Greatest Catastrophe

Review of six recent books about the causes of WW1, of which “the most consistently subtle, perspicacious, and thought-provoking” is Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers. Most take the view that the European powers should share the blame — “All sides had taken risks and been complicit in decisions that made war likelier” — although Max Hastings, in Catastrophe 1914, sees Germany as the major culprit (4,500 words)

On Breaking One’s Neck

“I am a physician with over six decades of experience who has observed his share of critical illness — but only from the doctor’s perspective. That changed suddenly one morning in June, ten days after my ninetieth birthday, when I fell down the stairs in my home, broke my neck, and very nearly died. Since then, I have made an astonishing recovery, in the course of which I learned how it feels to be a helpless patient close to death” (4,069 words)

Afghanistan: The Desert Of Death

Notes from Kabul and Helmand. “Obama’s failure to seek talks with the Afghan Taliban during his first years in office, when US and allied forces were driving the Taliban back, was an error that should be apparent from a freshman’s course in negotiating strategy. Overtures that might have received a positive Taliban response in 2010 receive a far cooler response with US forces already beginning to withdraw” (2,220 words)

A Twelfth Night Epiphany

Five-star review of Tim Carroll’s production which “brings this play to life in a way I have only very rarely seen equaled”. With quite a cast. Mark Rylance is “one of the greatest Olivias of all time”. Stephen Fry is “certainly the finest Malvolio I have ever seen”. History is being made. “You may, if you’re lucky, see another Shakespearean production that’s as good as this one, but it’s unlikely you will ever see one that’s better” (1,850 words)

The Daggers Of Jorge Luis Borges

Review of Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature, edited by Martín Arias and Martín Hadis. Literal transcription of a course in English literature that Borges taught at the University of Buenos Aires in 1966. The 25 lessons begin with Beowulf and end with Oscar Wilde — but skip straight from the Norman Conquest to Dr Johnson, avoiding Shakespeare, whom Borges didn’t much like (3,730 words)

Learning About Isaiah Berlin

Review of Building: Letters 1960–1975, by Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle. A difficult time for the world in general — Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, first oil crisis — but for Berlin, the peak of his career: “He had attained worldwide fame as a historian of ideas whose essays were read with admiration and envy both inside and outside academe; he was the confidant of presidents and statesmen” (3,740 words)

The Financial Crisis: Why No Top-Level Prosecutions?

Senior sitting US judge calls out the Department of Justice. Official investigations into the 2008 crash make repeated reference to “fraud”. Signs of fraud are everywhere. So why has no top-level financial executive been prosecuted (and probably never will be, given the five-year statute of limitations)? One main reason is that prosecutors find it easier to go after companies than individuals. But that is a “failure of justice” (4,420 words)

China: Five Pounds Of Facts

Review of Endymion Wilkinson’s magnificent Chinese History: A New Manual. “It comprises fourteen supremely learned book-length parts, in seventy-six chapters, including entries on language, people, geography, and the environment, on ideas and beliefs, and on technology and science”. All enlivened by Wilkinson’s passion for minutiae — a history of chopsticks, how to shake hands, how to seat twelve at a banquet (1,220 words)

The Turkish Menace

The Turkish model of secular state and religious nation has come unstuck. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan rightly loosened the military straitjacket of Kemalism; but in doing so he made space for a liberal constituency; the liberals have turned against him; and now he is fighting back. “A vindictive authoritarianism is taking hold of Turkey. To the prime minister’s supporters this is regrettable but necessary”. (3,900 words)

Lenny!

The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by Nigel Simeone, show flashes of wit and brilliance, but they bring us little closer to an understanding of Bernstein’s deep self: “Is he for real or is he an act? Do we love him or do we want to kick him in the ass? Is his heart only on his sleeve, or is there another one inside him? The confusion between genius and narcissism, heroism and self-pity, generosity and exploitation remains unresolved” (4,340 words)

Thoughts On Ukraine

Excellent commentary on Ukraine’s perilous turn. “Yanukovych seems to have thought he could simply ask the EU for cash, on the logic that Putin was offering him the same. There is a point where cynicism turns into naïveté.” If disorder spreads, and if Yanukovych cannot prevail, then Russia may intervene. “Putin is no doubt too canny to really believe in some fairy tale of fraternal assistance. But it would be wise to make very sure” (1,485 words)

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