Jun 26, 2022
This uneven account of the Ukrainian president’s three years in power is aimed at his home market, but offers glimpses of the man behind the wartime facade
Until 24 February this year, Volodymyr Zelenskiy was a name that was not widely known outside Ukraine. True, he’d enjoyed a cameo role in the impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump, when it appeared that the former American president had tried to pressure the new Ukrainian president into serving up dirt on Joe Biden’s son Hunter by allegedly blocking payment of a military aid package.
But even then, he was just another leader of Ukraine, the largest entirely European nation, no more recognisable to the general populace than any of his five predecessors – the likes of Viktor Yanukovych and Petro Poroshenko. With Vladimir Putin’s catastrophic decision to invade Ukraine, however, he suddenly became a global figurehead, an international hero, a modern David standing up to the brutal Russian Goliath. Continue reading...
Jun 20, 2022
In this analysis of six national leaders, the grand old man of US politics offers a broad-brush history of international statecraft but ignores the death and destruction that sometimes resulted
Christopher Hitchens once called Henry Kissinger a “stupendous liar with a remarkable memory”. Leaving judgment aside on the first part of that description, at 99 Kissinger seems set on proving Hitchens right on the second.
While many people who make it to that age struggle to recall their own name, the grand old man of realpolitik has produced a study of six national leaders – Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher – entitled Leadership. As is evident from the subtitle, Six Studies in World Strategy, Kissinger, the geopolitical guru, is most interested in how leaders act on the world stage rather than, say, if they lie to their parliaments or transgress their own laws. Continue reading...
Jun 05, 2022
Personal testimonies humanise the Stalingrad author’s mesmerising study of the bloody battle for power after the collapse of the tsarist regime
The Russian Revolution is an event that, even over a century later, remains buried under layers of myths, lies and ideological romance. In a crude sense the fiction still persists in progressive circles that Lenin was an enlightened leader whose premature death led to Stalin’s betrayal of the revolution’s great promise.
One problem historians have encountered when attempting to disinter the truth is the sheer level of chaos that reigned after the collapse of the tsarist regime of Nicholas II in early 1917. Every colour of reactionary and revolutionary emerged to lay claim to the future, of which the Bolsheviks were far from the largest grouping. Continue reading...
May 08, 2022
A survey of the global response to coronavirus draws together fascinating data but fails to construct a compelling narrative about the spread of the virus
At the end of her wide-ranging analysis of the pandemic, Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, Guardian columnist and Good Morning Britain contributor, raises the dark question of whether Covid-19 will “be the spark for the third world war”.
Written before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Sridhar’s book is the story of a global crisis that has since been supplanted, at least in the headlines, by another global crisis. This is the problem with writing about still unfolding events – it’s easy to look out of date. Continue reading...
Apr 17, 2022
This incredible account of being framed by the Russian authorities – and the deadly fallout from fighting back – reads like a thriller
In terms of western relations with Vladimir Putin, Bill Browder has performed the role of the canary in the coalmine – or perhaps goldmine would be more fitting. A graduate of Stanford Business School, he arrived in Moscow in the late 1990s, via a stint in London, determined to make his fortune.
As his previous book, Red Notice, detailed, that’s exactly what he did. He set up Hermitage Capital Management, with the help of the Monaco-based billionaire Edmond Safra (later to die in a fire started by one of his servants). Continue reading...
Mar 28, 2022
This journalist’s fond look at the history, development and significance of the automobile is supercharged by wonderful writing
“Within a few years owning a car,” writes Bryan Appleyard in this entertainingly forthright history, “might seem as eccentric as owning a train or a bus. Or perhaps it will simply be illegal.”
Although Appleyard’s intention is to document a way of life that he believes is passing, his book is not a lament or a eulogy, nor really a celebration, but instead an acknowledgment of the extraordinary cultural and environmental impact the car has had on this planet in the last 135-plus years. Continue reading...
Mar 07, 2022
In this slim, elegant book, the author of The End of History outlines with crystalline precision why the liberal spirit, for all its qualities, cannot grow complacent
I read this book, which is a thoughtful critique but ultimately a stalwart defence of liberalism, as Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, and it felt urgent and timely. Vladimir Putin, as Francis Fukuyama reminds us, has declared liberal democracy “obsolete”. His is not an uncommon opinion, even in liberal democracies. Thirty years ago, following the inglorious collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, Fukuyama gained international recognition for his book entitled The End of History and the Last Man. It argued that liberal democracy was essentially “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution”.
As events such as 9/11, the Afghan and Iraq wars and the 2008 financial crisis took their toll on liberalism’s self-confidence, Fukuyama’s work was denounced as the height of Hegelian hubris. He was seen as a naive believer in the inevitability of a western-defined idea of progress, and as someone who was blind to liberal democracy’s failings. Continue reading...
Feb 07, 2022
Ideas are a little submerged by biography – and soft furnishings – in this account of how Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, Mary Midgley and Philippa Foot sought to refute logical positivism in wartime Oxford
Few people read books about philosophy nowadays, if they ever did, but there is a larger audience for books about philosophers. One of the more successful examples in this flourishing genre was David Edmonds’s and John Eidinow’s Wittgenstein’s Poker, published in 2001, which examined a brief and tense meeting between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper that took place in Cambridge in 1946.
Metaphysical Animals bears some resemblance to that book insofar as it has two authors – the philosophers Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman – and concerns roughly the same period. It even features an influential walk-on part for Wittgenstein. Continue reading...
Jan 23, 2022
A conscientious account of the corporation’s first 100 years focuses on boardroom politics at the expense of brilliant programme-making
With the culture secretary Nadine Dorries’s announcement last week that the licence fee will be frozen for two years, the BBC’s future is at best uncertain and possibly terminal, at least in the form that we’ve come to know and often love it. In its centenary year the corporation is under existential threat not just from this government but also the streaming companies that have most benefited from the digital revolution. One hundred years ago the BBC was itself a startup attempting to exploit a relatively new but not very well-understood technology: wireless.
There’s a modern-day wisdom about startups that says only three people are really needed – someone to build the product, someone to make it attractive, and someone to sell it. Or to put it in today’s language, a hacker, a hipster and a hustler. David Hendy, a professor of media and cultural history, opens The BBC: A People’s History with three men looking for an office to house their new enterprise, the British Broadcasting Company, as it was then called. The men are Cecil Lewis, a former fighter pilot still in his early 20s with an idealistic sense of culture’s edifying value; John Reith, a rather stern moralist with an organising zeal; and Arthur Burrows, the only one who actually had experience of working on wireless. Continue reading...
Jul 11, 2021
The neuropsychologist and author articulates the thoughts of profoundly disabled patients in an imaginative, beautifully written study of consciousness and the fragility of life
A couple of years ago, the neuropsychologist AK Benjamin (a pseudonym) published an unclassifiable memoir-cum-case-study titled Let Me Not Be Mad. It was based on his experience of dealing with patients with severe brain impairments and psychiatric conditions, and on his own struggle to find meaning and purpose as a recovering alcoholic and drug addict.
The writing was at once powerfully precise and yet disturbingly elusive, as if the more carefully the author attempted to render a neurological reality, the more he was compelled to question its metaphysical basis. The same tension recurs in his new book, The Case for Love: My Adventures in Other Minds. Continue reading...
Jun 27, 2021
WW Norton withdrew Bailey’s Roth biography after a series of allegations about its author. As generational conflict rages in the book world and across culture, we ask: who decides whether we can separate the art from the artist?
There was something dramatically overwrought about first the publication and then the pulping of Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography. The themes, the moral issues and the ironies involved in the rise and fall of both the book and its author were all so conspicuously pointed, as if they had been conceived by a hack writer seeking to pay homage to a more skilled documenter of cultural conflict like, say, Roth himself.
First there was Bailey’s all-too-evident pride, bordering on hubris, at having landed the Roth gig. The last giant of American letters, Roth was in many respects a biographer’s dream – a semi-reclusive enigma with a rich and disputed private life, a trove of disguised autobiographical fiction to unpack, and a genuine literary celebrity who was revered as a genius and reviled as a misogynist. Continue reading...
May 31, 2021
Lawrence Wright’s deep research reveals the oversights and errors that fatally hampered the US reponse to Covid
It has become an embarrassingly well known fact that in the 2019 Global Health Security Index, the US was ranked No 1 in the world for preparedness for a pandemic (the UK, almost as embarrassingly, was No 2). Exactly how the US became the worst affected country in the world – more than 590,000 Americans have so far died from Covid – is now the subject of much finger-pointing debate.
Recently, Michael Lewis’s Premonition looked at a group of people in public health in the US who warned of what was coming but were ignored. Lawrence Wright, who is a master of knitting together complex narratives, takes a much broader view of the proceedings in The Plague Year. Continue reading...
May 23, 2021
The author of Stiff Upper Lip examines his own family history to expose the extent to which the fortunes of the UK’s wealthiest relied on a dehumanising trade
This is an important book and not just because it is a chilling account of slavery and commerce in the West Indies in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s important because it establishes a vital link between then and now, cause and effect, history and its long and damaging legacy.
If Alex Renton’s last book, Stiff Upper Lip, exposed the wealthy’s perverse complacency about abuse in Britain’s boarding schools, Blood Legacy lays bare the ruling class’s most heinous historical crime: the brutal project to reduce human beings to the condition of working farm animals for financial profit. Continue reading...
May 17, 2021
This dizzying history tour of disasters takes its lead from Covid, and China’s role in ‘cold war II’, but offers little clarity or relief from Ferguson’s flawed certainties
Is there such a thing as a timely history book? If the point of history is to gain objective distance from past events, then timeliness can only be a pleasing accident rather than an outcome that is consciously sought. Yet with a column-writing historian such as Niall Ferguson, someone who is engaged prolifically in current affairs, the call of the now appears nigh on impossible to ignore.
And so his latest book, Doom, takes its lead from the Covid pandemic and seeks to place it in a historical context of other natural and manmade disasters – the two, as he rightly points out, are usually conjoined. The subtitle is The Politics of Catastrophe, and Ferguson’s basic thesis is that all disasters are grounded in “a history of economics, society, culture, and politics”. Continue reading...
May 09, 2021
In his new book, the author of The Big Short has turned his attention to Covid and the people who could have prevented it sweeping the US – had they been allowed to
An event as large and devastating as the Covid pandemic was always going to attract a rush of authors seeking to uncover the story behind the decade’s biggest story. Leading the pack – not for the first time – is Michael Lewis, the man with an unerring knack for finding narrative gold in the most well-mined territories.
He did it with notable success in the financial crisis of 2008, by smartly identifying the people who made money from the banking collapse, those who bet against the collateralised debt obligation bubble. That was The Big Short, a bestseller that was turned, like a previous book, Moneyball, into a successful Oscar-nominated Hollywood film. Continue reading...
Mar 06, 2021
There is too much messianic passion and not enough enlightening psychology in Peterson’s follow-up to the bestselling 12 Rules for Life
Few books in recent years have had quite so noisy a cultural impact as Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. With its odd mixture of Darwinian determinism, Jungian myth-interpretation and Heideggerian ontology (Being written with a capital B!), it was an unlikely self-help manual and an even unlikelier bestseller. But its dozen behavioural rules for leading a meaningful life rode a steep wave of frustration with the shibboleths of postmodernity.
Peterson’s radical traditionalism was seen as a bracing corrective to the notion that there was no objective truth, only a matrix of prejudicial power relations. Social hierarchies, he argued, were the product of evolution rather than of capitalist exploitation. Continue reading...
Feb 21, 2021
Is social mobility possible or even desirable in Britain today? In a timely polemic, an Oxford historian sets out her egalitarian vision
Although no book published when bookshops are closed can be said to be well-timed, the historian Selina Todd’s Snakes and Ladders arrives at a moment of particular relevance. Just when society feels as if it has ground to a halt, Todd looks at what she calls in her subtitle the Great British social mobility myth.
Of course the fact of social mobility is not a myth. As Todd shows, at various times over the past century or more there have been significant surges in dynamic social movement. In the postwar years, for example, there was a large expansion in the managerial class as industry modernised. Continue reading...
Nov 09, 2020
From the underrated octopus to Dante, the Italian physicist fuses his deep knowledge of science and the arts
We live in a golden age of science writing, where weighty subjects such as quantum mechanics, genetics and cell theory are routinely rendered intelligible to mass audiences. Nonetheless, it remains rare for even the most talented science writers to fuse their work with a deep knowledge of the arts.
One such rarity is the Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli who, like some intellectual throwback to antiquity, treats the sciences and the humanities as complementary areas of knowledge and is a subtle interpreter of both. His best-known work is Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, which was a bestseller, most notably in Italy, where he is also well known for his erudite articles in newspapers such as Corriere della Sera. Continue reading...
Aug 11, 2020
A study of bunker sites and the people preparing for the worst couldn’t be better timed
When we refer to someone as having a “bunker mentality” we usually mean they are so stuck in their ways that they’re unable to look around and see the world for what it is. But is it possible that the rational response to the state of the world is to retreat into a bomb-proof, virus-free bunker? Continue reading...
Jul 26, 2020
A philosopher’s contribution to saving the world is welcome but requires a huge leap of faith
There is much talk these days about decolonising – statues, buildings, curricula. All of that has to do with legacies of the past, but there is also a growing discussion among environmentalists about decolonising the future.
The idea is that colonised people are those who are denied representation and, as future generations have no say in the decisions taken today that will later affect them, they are effectively colonised by our present actions. Continue reading...