Sunday, May 31, 2009

Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism by Michael Burleigh

The stated aim of this impressive history is "to demystify and deglamorise terrorist operations". Michael Burleigh sets out to belittle terrorists as "morally insane", attention-seeking, resentful nobodies (Osama bin Laden, for instance, is "a millionaire loser harbouring delusions of victimhood"). His compelling account of various strands of terrorism - from Russian nihilists to the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof gang - ends with the emergence of al-Qaida. Here, Burleigh really warms to his theme, lashing out at asylum seekers, Britain's lax judicial system, credulous left-liberals, multiculturalism, human rights lawyers and the London School of Economics. The conclusion he would like us to draw is that modern Britain is a ticking time bomb. There is undoubtedly an unsavoury Daily Mailishness about many of Burleigh's asides (he describes himself as a "conservative realist"), yet while analysing the mindset of the terrorist over the past 100 years, Burleigh has also exposed the mindset of Middle England today.

A Daughter's Love by John Guy

If it hadn't been for his eldest daughter Margaret, Sir Thomas More - author of Utopia, uncompromising lord chancellor, and Catholic saint - would have been "just another footnote in history", claims John Guy in this gripping double biography. It was Margaret who published More's collected works; she even rescued his boiled and tarred head (and was buried with it when she died in 1544). When More was imprisoned in the Tower prior to his execution, Margaret was his main channel of communication with the outside world. Guy shows how she comforted More in those dark times, and their clandestine correspondence is moving, some of More's letters written "with a coal". Guy maintains that More's fictionalised dialogue with his daughter - composed while he was in the Tower - was in fact a collaborative effort. After all, the Margaret Roper presented here is a courageous, highly intelligent, enterprising and accomplished scholar, despite her proud father's uneasiness about - and sometimes zealous opposition to - the idea of a woman putting pen to paper

Friday, May 22, 2009

Save Salt

Salt Publishing needs your help. Big and small publishers are feeling the pinch during the recession, but it’s the small ones that are in danger of going to the wall. Owners of small publishing houses make many sacrifices in the course of running their businesses, often not drawing a salary themselves. Don’t let the recession finish them off and ravage our cultural climate, buy a book from Salt today.

Here’s Chris Hamilton-Emery’s message:

“As many of you will know, Jen and I have been struggling to keep Salt moving since June last year when the economic downturn began to affect our press. Our three-year funding ends this year: we've £4,000 due from Arts Council England in a final payment, but cannot apply through Grants for the Arts for further funding for Salt's operations. Spring sales were down nearly 80% on the previous year, and despite April's much improved trading, the past twelve months has left us with a budget deficit of over £55,000. It's proving to be a very big hole and we're having to take some drastic measures to save our business. Here's how you can help us to save Salt and all our work with hundreds of authors around the world.

Please buy just one book, right now. We don't mind from where, you can buy it from us or from Amazon, your local shop or megastore, online or offline. If you buy just one book now, you'll help to save Salt. Timing is absolutely everything here. We need cash now to stay afloat. If you love literature, help keep it alive. All it takes is just one book sale. Go to our online store [UK and International/USA] and help us keep going.”

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped The World by William Bernstein

Primates share food, but only Homo sapiens trades, William Bernstein says in this fascinating and well-written history. We merely traded blows with the Neanderthals, but after that we quickly grasped the concept of handing over something we had a surplus of in return for something we lacked. Early farmers, for instance, gave grain to hunter-gatherers in exchange for animal skins. And when you're used to hot and heavy animal skins or scratchy wool, just imagine how wonderful silk must have felt, Bernstein explains. He shows how trade has adapted to shifting tastes over the centuries, bringing consumers silk and spices, sugar and tea, but also opium, tobacco and slavery. And because trade requires control of shipping lanes it has also been a constant source of conflict and war. Plus it gave us the Black Death. In fact, trade always makes someone unhappy, concludes Bernstein. "Although free trade benefits mankind in the aggregate, it also produces losers who cannot be expected to passively accept the new order." He predicts crises ahead.

Stalin's Children: Three Generations of Love and War by Owen Matthews

Owen Matthews's Russian grandfather Boris, a senior Communist party member, got on the wrong side of Stalin and was executed in 1937. Boris's wife was imprisoned for 11 years. In this bittersweet family memoir, which was shortlisted for the 2008 Guardian first book award, Matthews tells their story. He also reveals what happened to their daughter, his mother Lyudmila, who was only four when her parents disappeared. A robust, intelligent woman (who sensibly prefers Daniil Kharms to that "incorrigible show-off" Vladimir Nabokov), Lyudmila fell in love with Welshman Mervyn Matthews in Moscow in 1963. When he was suddenly deported they were separated for six years, during which time they exchanged daily letters of love and longing. With hindsight, it was the happiest period in their relationship. Mervyn sacrificed a successful academic career in his battle for Lyudmila's emigration to the west, but when he finally succeeded and they married in 1969, the romance faded. "I thought I would be deliriously happy when I got her out," he told his son, "but I wasn't."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry by Stephen Burt

Anyone familiar with Stephen Burt’s reviews in the Times Literary Supplement or the London Review of Books will know that he is one of the best poetry critics around. This excellent essay collection from Graywolf Press doesn’t disappoint and is highly recommended. There’s no index, sadly, but you can’t have everything. Anyone interested in getting to grips with modern poetry – especially American poetry – should get hold of a copy.
You can read the book's “sheepish introduction” here and Stephen Burt also has a blog.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff

Is it harder for a writer to face death than for anyone else? If writing is a means of evading mortality, then do all writers cry out in the night, as Julian Barnes has described, at the prospect of their inevitable dissolution? The main theme of this raw and personal account of Susan Sontag's death in December 2004, written by her son, is that "she died as she had lived: unreconciled to mortality". As David Rieff points out, his mother's fierce desire for more time to write was a major factor in her refusal of death. This finely nuanced meditation on "the brute fact of mortality" perfectly captures the oddly disembodied experience of receiving bad news, as well as confused feelings of filial gratitude and guilt. When a parent dies there is always something left unsaid or undone, as Sontag's last words to her son would seem to testify: "I want to tell you ..." Burdened with the choice of where to bury her, Rieff wisely opted for Montparnasse cemetery in Paris, "the most literary of cemeteries".

Hitler's Empire : Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe by Mark Mazower

It was always a source of puzzlement to the Nazis why the British didn't support their imperial ambitions. After all, as Mark Mazower reveals in this impressive history, the British empire was held up as a model by the Nazis. "Hitler's reading of how the British ruled India showed that what counted for him at bottom was force," says Mazower, adding that "a stance of such crudity was not unknown among the British themselves". Mazower also detects similarities between the "racial authoritarianism" of European colonial administrations of the past and Nazi treatment of the Untermenschen. However, Mazower's greatest achievement is to show how the Nazi project, which ended in a programme of racial extermination, began as an expression of narrowly defined nationalist ambitions. As he puts it, how a war for Germans became a war against Jews; how the concept of a Greater Germany evolved into Hitler's policy of Lebensraum, then was hastily recast - after a run of military successes that surprised even the Nazis - as a plan for a whole New Order for Europe.