Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781--1997 by Piers Brendon

The true symbol of the British empire is the moustache, says Piers Brendon in this lively history, reaching its "apotheosis in the crossed scimitars of Lord Kitchener". The last British prime minister to sport a tache was Macmillan ("Dorothy Macmillan also had a faint moustache," observes Brendon). But the moustache vanished as rapidly as the empire itself, becoming at best a joke (Chaplin), at worst a symbol of villainy (Hitler/Stalin). This extended riff on facial hair is a good example of Brendon's irreverence, but if his default mode is to debunk, there is serious scholarship behind the jokes. The British empire was inspired by the loss of the American colonies, says Brendon (the book starts with the British defeat at Yorktown in 1781) and it ended with the Hong Kong handover of 1997. The British saw themselves as the "spiritual heirs of Rome", which gave them abundant confidence, but also made them anxious: would their empire decline and fall? In the end the simple rule that brings down all empires came into play: occupiers are never welcome.

Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes : In Search of Blind Willie McTell by Michael Gray

"No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell," declared Bob Dylan; in this engaging, meandering biography Michael Gray follows in the footsteps of the great prewar bluesman. Willie spent his life travelling ("Baby, I was born to ramble," he told his first wife) and seemed almost magically to transcend his blindness (he was also a crack shot with a pistol, provided his target made a noise). Gray makes his research a large part of the story, soaking up the atmosphere of the American South and describing the brutal, racially segregated world into which Willie was born, although as an entertainer Willie's personal experience of whites was comparatively benign. Willie never had a hit record and eventually became an alcoholic. Rediscovered in 1956, he made his last recording in a record store in Atlanta, Georgia, where his career had begun in 1927. "I don't want this ever published while I'm alive," he said, "'cause if I did ever get any money for it, I would just drink myself to death."

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Whisperers : Private Life in Stalin's Russia by Orlando Figes

Russians have two words for a "whisperer": the first suggests someone who fears being overheard, the second someone who informs on others. The distinction, says Orlando Figes in this truly impressive history, has its origins in the Stalin years, when Russia became "a nation taught to whisper".

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Beyond Chutzpah : On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History by Norman Finkelstein

Can Israel be criticised? Jewish American academic Norman Finkelstein, author of The Holocaust Industry, argues that legitimate criticism of Israeli policy is possible, although, as he discovered, it may mean losing your job and being labelled a "Jewish anti-Semite".

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