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Advice for start-ups: From one who should know

Thu, 09/18/2014 - 16:01

Zero to One: Notes on Start-Ups or How to Build the Future. By Peter Thiel with Blake Masters. Crown Business; 210 pages; $27. Virgin Books; £16.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukCONTRARIANISM and controversy have long been the hallmarks of Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and Palantir, and the first outside investor in Facebook. He has made headlines advocating seasteading (building new cities in or under the oceans), urging students to drop out of education to start companies and providing financial support for Ron Paul’s libertarian run for the White House. His first book, though, is full of common sense, which may be for the best.The biggest controversy in the run-up to the publication of “Zero to One” has been over Mr Thiel’s unapologetic advice to entrepreneurs that they should avoid competition where possible and aspire to be monopolists. For the record, he is not a fan of monopolies in general,...

French history: Flawed sparkler

Thu, 09/18/2014 - 16:01

Fur real Napoleon the Great. By Andrew Roberts. Allen Lane; 936 pages; £30. To be published in America by Viking in November; $40. Buy from Amazon.com Amazon.co.ukIS ANOTHER long life of Napoleon really necessary? On three counts, the answer given by Andrew Roberts’s impressive book is an emphatic yes.The most important is that this is the first single-volume general biography to make full use of the treasure trove of Napoleon’s 33,000-odd letters, which began being published in Paris only in 2004. Second, Mr Roberts, who has previously written on Napoleon and Wellington, is a masterly analyst of the French emperor’s many battles. Third, his book is beautifully written and a pleasure to read.Mr Roberts admits having taken longer to research and write it than the seven years that Napoleon spent both on Elba and on St Helena. He visited no fewer than 53 of the 60 battlefields, as well as...

The army in Pakistan: Nosebags

Thu, 09/18/2014 - 16:01

The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics. By Ayesha Jalal. Belknap Press; 435 pages; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukFighting to the End: The Pakistan Army's Way of War. By Christine Fair. Oxford University Press; 347 pages; $34.95. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukMOST countries have armies, but in Pakistan the army has a country. Historians repeat that aphorism because Pakistan’s military men have always enjoyed disproportionate political clout. The men in khaki have ruled directly for 33 of the country’s 67 years and have meddled heavily in politics the rest of the time, right up to the present day.The warriors in charge take the lion’s share of public spending. Figures are opaque, but Ayesha Jalal in a new history, “The Struggle for Pakistan”, offers some shocking ones. In 1973, she says, almost 90% of the federal budget went to military ends. By...

Ludwig van Beethoven: Sturm und Drang

Thu, 09/18/2014 - 16:01

A Pastoral moment Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph. By Jan Swafford. Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt; 1,107 pages; $40. Faber & Faber; £30. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk“WHO can do anything after Beethoven?” asked Schubert. Composers who came after him struggled. For writers, on the other hand, the great man left behind a feast. The first biography appeared just over a decade after his death, and they have kept coming ever since. Some have been excellent and are still in circulation. Yet here is another.Beethoven was probably the most famous composer who ever lived. The “Ode to Joy” that concludes his Ninth Symphony (the European Union’s official anthem) is one of the best-known tunes in classical music. The tempestuous story of his life, too, is familiar to millions: a child prodigy pushed by his father (though not as ruthlessly as Mozart was); a consummate keyboard player who soon...

The Wallace Collection: Stuffed full

Thu, 09/18/2014 - 16:01

Wall candy MINUTES away from Selfridges, a department store in central London, is a century-old gallery with unusual origins. The Wallace Collection is named after Richard Wallace, illegitimate son of the Fourth Marquess of Hertford, who grew up in Paris and, by his own account, discovered only after the marquess’s death in 1870 that the nobleman was his father.Wallace had no right to the title or to the family seat, but he suddenly inherited a priceless collection of paintings, sculptures, furniture and decorative objects. In 1872 he and his French wife (a former perfume-seller) moved with their treasures to a grand house in Manchester Square, building a Great Gallery for the larger pictures. When she died in 1897, seven years after her husband, she bequeathed much of the collection to the nation with the proviso that it “be kept together, unmixed with other objects of art”.And so the Wallace Collection has remained an old-fashioned mansion filled with paintings and objects. Now its Great Gallery has been remodelled thanks to a £5m ($8.2m) gift from a charity founded by Simon Sainsbury, the museum’s ex-chairman, who died in 2006....

The Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1978: Loaded terms

Thu, 09/18/2014 - 16:01

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David. By Lawrence Wright. Knopf; 345 pages; $27.95. To be published in Britain by Oneworld in November. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukIN AN era of appalling violence in the Middle East, from Libya to Iraq, one might have expected a book by Lawrence Wright to explain how it all got so bad. An earlier work, “The Looming Tower”, is one of the best accounts of the birth of al-Qaeda and its attack on America on September 11th 2001. Instead “Thirteen Days in September” looks back at a fleeting moment when things might have turned out for the better.In his retelling of the summit at Camp David in 1978, which led to the seminal peace treaty between Israel and Egypt after four major wars, Mr Wright displays a sensitive understanding of the region and a fine pen as he sketches in the characters and motivations of the three main players—the Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin; Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt; and Jimmy Carter, America’s president. All three, says Mr Wright, “saw themselves as living exemplars of prophetic tradition”. Begin wanted to preserve the Promised...

Apology: Slavery review

Thu, 09/11/2014 - 15:54

In our review last week of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward Baptist, we said: “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” There has been widespread criticism of this, and rightly so. Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites were willing participants and beneficiaries. We regret having published this and apologise for having done so.

The South China Sea: Waves of trouble

Thu, 09/11/2014 - 15:54

The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia. By Bill Hayton. Yale University Press; 298 pages; $35 and £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE rocks and coral known as James Shoal are not much: just a raised stretch of seabed 22 metres (72 feet) below the surface and 107km (67 miles) off the coast of Malaysian Borneo. Yet China, 1,500km to the north, regards it as the southernmost point of its territory, at the base of a vast U-shaped swathe of the South China Sea, demarcated by a “nine-dash line” on maps that now appear even in Chinese passports. To compound the apparent absurdity, the shoal’s inclusion on Chinese maps seems the result of a mistake by Chinese cartographers in the 1930s, who thought it was a land feature. But from such historical accidents and blunders has emerged an interlocking network of disputes in the South China Sea that poses one of the most serious threats to peace in Asia, and...

Thomas Cromwell: Henry’s hooray

Thu, 09/11/2014 - 15:54

Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant. By Tracy Borman. Hodder & Stoughton; 450 pages; £25. To be published in America in January (pre-order from Amazon.com). Buy from Amazon.co.ukIN SOME ways Thomas Cromwell is a known quantity. He was King Henry VIII’s favoured minister, the London-born blacksmith’s son who severed England’s ties with the church of Rome. He is the hero of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker prize-winning novels, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies”. Through hard work and bloody-minded ruthlessness, he hammered a new England into shape.He piloted the bills of the Reformation through Parliament, bolstering that institution after a period of inactivity. He dissolved the monasteries. He helped disseminate a flurry of new English Bibles. “His qualities made him the most remarkable revolutionary in English history,” wrote an approving historian, G.R. Elton. His legacy is still hotly debated, but Cromwell was a politician who could get things done. According to Ms Mantel, he could “draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.”But in...

The making of China: Mighty Ming

Thu, 09/11/2014 - 15:54

FROM its early years the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was famous in the West for the magnificent—and inimitable—blue-and-white porcelain made in the imperial factories at Jingdezhen. European collectors discovered it while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, took it home and mounted it in gold, believing it had magical qualities and could detect poison. As early as 1495 Andrea Mantegna, an Italian artist, painted an “Adoration of the Magi” in which one of the three kings is seen offering the Christ child just such a cup filled with gold coins, the first time that a Ming work of art appears in a European painting.China’s recent rise, however, has prompted a wave of new archaeological discoveries and fresh scholarship on the Ming period that show how narrow this Eurocentric view has been. Now an exhibition at the British Museum (BM), based on unprecedented loans from Chinese museums and works borrowed from five other countries, offers a richer and more complex view of how China, as it is today, began to be formed in the early 15th century.In 1402 the ambitious Yongle emperor, Zhu Di, ascended the throne. Over the next 50 years or so, successive Ming rulers, like China’s...

20th-century Spain: Betrayal and atonement

Thu, 09/11/2014 - 15:54

From killer to pillar The Last Stalinist: The Life of Santiago Carrillo. By Paul Preston. William Collins; 432 pages; £30. To be published in America in January (pre-order from Amazon.com). Buy from Amazon.co.ukBY THE time he died in 2012 at the age of 97, Santiago Carrillo had long since become a pillar of his country’s political establishment and something of a national treasure. This unexpected coda to an implausibly long life, spent mainly as a Stalinist apparatchik, was wholly due to his statesmanship during the brief but vital period between 1976 and 1981 when Spain emerged from the 36-year dictatorship of General Franco and became a modern European democracy.Carrillo, who had led the Spanish Communist Party with an iron grip since the mid-1950s, realised that to be a relevant actor in the transition he would have to ditch many of the policies he had cherished. Out went a...

Istanbul: City lights

Thu, 09/11/2014 - 15:54

Welcome all high heels, flat heels, down-at-heels Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul. By Charles King. W.W. Norton; 476 pages; $27.95. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukTHE “Queen of Cities”, as it was known in Byzantine times, was perfectly sited at the intersection of continents, cultures and seas. Istanbul may have been a great and ancient centre of civilisation, but there is nothing serene or timeless about the place. The city has been shaken by abrupt alterations in its physical and cultural landscape, thanks to both human violence and acts of God. It has seen sieges, pogroms, earthquakes, and fires both deliberate and accidental. Between 1569 and 1918 it was transformed by at least 16 huge blazes.Charles King, a historian and social scientist at Georgetown University, has chosen an unusual way of capturing this dizzying volatility. His book, “Midnight at the...

Writing: Talking sense

Thu, 09/04/2014 - 16:08

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. By Steven Pinker. Viking; 359 pages; $27.95. Allen Lane; £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukSTEVEN PINKER’S career began with language in mind—particularly in the minds of children. Since then, he has become a celebrated (and sometimes controversial) public explorer of human nature and the reasons violence has declined. With “The Sense of Style” he returns to his first love, language and thought.Mr Pinker wants to help writers get inside their readers’ minds. The single biggest cause of bad writing, he says, is “the curse of knowledge”. Children have an impossible time imagining that others do not know the things they know, and adults only partially grow out of this. Bad writers dwell on irrelevant details, or make logical connections that are logical only to them.Mr Pinker steers writers towards a “classic style”, in which the writer clearly points out things that may have escaped the reader’s notice, but which anyone can understand with patient guidance. Classic style uses concrete words in straightforward sentences easily parsed by man’s...

Correction

Thu, 09/04/2014 - 16:08

Our review of Rick Perlstein’s book, “The Invisible Bridge”, (“Purpose and worth”, August 2nd) stated that the entire junior class at West Point was punished for cheating in 1976. In fact, the cadets were barred from going on holiday pending an investigation into cheating. Of the 559 cadets accused, 151 were found to have violated the honour code and the rest were cleared. Sorry for the error.

Geopolitics: A bit of a mess

Thu, 09/04/2014 - 16:08

Still a man of influence 40 years on World Order. By Henry Kissinger. Penguin Press; 420 pages; $36. Allen Lane; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukDESPITE being out of office for almost four decades, Henry Kissinger—who left America’s State Department in 1977—still has remarkable influence. Reading this book, you can see why. As Russia plays grandmother’s footsteps in Ukraine, the Middle East falls prey to anarchy and China tests its growing strength, Mr Kissinger analyses the central problem for international relations today: the need for a new world order. He never quite says so, but he is deeply pessimistic.“World Order” sets out how the modern state arose almost by accident, from the interminable warfare of early 17th-century Europe. Worn down, the architects of the Peace of Westphalia agreed to disagree. Each state pledged to accept the realities of its neighbours’ values....

The world economy: How to fix a broken system

Thu, 09/04/2014 - 16:08

The Shifts and the Shocks: What We’ve Learned—and Have Still to Learn—from the Financial Crisis. By Martin Wolf. Penguin Press; 466 pages; $35. Allen Lane; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukMARTIN WOLF is an influential commentator. His weekly column in the Financial Times is required reading for the international financial elite. Paul Krugman of the New York Times may be the darling of the left and the Wall Street Journal editorial page the bible of many on the right, but inside finance ministries few are cited as often as Mr Wolf. He likes to admonish policymakers. As a centrist who favours free trade and free markets, though, he does so from within the mainstream.That makes his latest book striking. “The Shifts and the Shocks” is a fierce indictment of the global economy and a call for radical reform. Mr Wolf is reasonably impressed by the...

Jewellery design: Asian star

Thu, 09/04/2014 - 16:08

IN A smart London hotel Wallace Chan perches on a slouchy velvet sofa, birdlike and intense. He strokes his greying beard, resplendent in a perfectly starched shirt. Mr Chan could well be part of the zoo of his imagination, which is stuffed full of butterflies, dragonflies, fish, insects and dragons. The jewels he makes are delicate and deeply reflect his Zen Buddhist philosophy. They are also technically innovative. Mr Chan has developed many of the techniques he uses for carving precious stones and manipulating titanium and jade, often using tools he has made himself.The jeweller did not grow up sitting on velvet sofas. He was born in Fuzhou, in China, in 1956 and moved to Hong Kong at the age of five. The family was poor and Mr Chan left school at 13 to support them.  At 16 he became a sculptor’s apprentice, carving religious figures. But curiosity led him eventually to study Western sculpture and to establish his own workshop in 1974.It took him 13 years to invent a technique of his own: the “Wallace cut”, a way of carving a human face into a precious stone. The effect is astonishing. From the back of the stone, all you can see is the curve of a...

American slavery: Blood cotton

Thu, 09/04/2014 - 16:08

Patsey was certainly a valuable property The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. By Edward Baptist. Basic Books; 498 pages; $35. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.com“FOR sale: a coloured girl, of very superior qualifications…a bright mulatto, fine figure, straight, black hair, and very black eyes; very neat and cleanly in her dress and person.” Such accounts of people being marketed like livestock punctuate Edward Baptist’s grim history of the business of slavery.Although the import of African slaves into the United States was stopped in 1807, the country’s internal slave trade continued to prosper and expand for a long time afterwards. Right up until the outbreak of the civil war in 1861, the American-born children and grandchildren of enslaved Africans were bought cheap in Virginia and Maryland to be sold dear in private deals and public auctions to...

Africa: The unlucky continent

Thu, 09/04/2014 - 16:08

The Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavour. By Martin Meredith. Public Affairs; 784 pages; $35. Simon & Schuster; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk“DO NOT talk to me of gold…[it] brings more dissension, misfortune and unexpected plagues in its trails than benefits.” So said Paul Kruger, president of the small Boer republic of the Transvaal in 1885 when he was told that gold had been found on the country’s eastern border. Kruger went on: “Every ounce…taken from the bowels of our soil will yet have to be weighed up with rivers of tears.” His prescience was remarkable. Within scarcely a decade his country’s independence had been snuffed out by Britain, which lusted to control the world’s richest gold mines.This anecdote finds many echoes across the ages and from country to country in a sweeping new history of Africa by Martin Meredith, a historian with an acute eye for detail and a firm grip on the forces that swept the continent. Africa’s profusion of natural wealth—whether gold, ivory or the very bodies of its inhabitants—served not to enrich its peoples but to impoverish and enslave...

Michelangelo: The maestro’s maestro

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 15:55

Pietà de resistance Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces. By Miles Unger. Simon & Schuster; 432 pages; $29.95. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukMichelangelo: Complete Works. By Frank Zöllner, Christof Thoenes and Thomas Pöpper. Taschen; 736 pages; $200 and £120. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukMILES UNGER’S biography of Michelangelo Buonarotti focuses on six of the great man’s greatest hits. In an appendix the author tells readers where to find them in Rome and Florence, but, in passing, he makes an arresting remark about the first of them, the “Pietà” in St Peter’s Basilica (pictured). Michelangelo was only 24 when he sculpted...

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