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  • James Lamont reviews Gandhi: Naked Ambition by Jad Adams (via the FT):

    A section of the popular Bahri Sons bookshop in New Delhi's Khan Market is devoted to books about Mohandas K Gandhi, India's liberation leader. Now, 62 years after the Mahatma's death, yet more books are about to be added to its well-stocked shelves. Ramachandra Guha, a Bangalore-based historian and author of India after Gandhi, is writing a two-volume biography, while former New York Times editor Joe Lelyveld's book on Gandhi is to be published next year.

    Jad Adams has got in there ahead of such distinguished rivals with his readable and provocative Gandhi: Naked Ambition. A British historian and research fellow at London University's School of Advanced Study, Adams has already published books on Rudyard Kipling, as well as on India's ruling Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Here, he focuses on Gandhi's personal and political contradictions in a chronological account of his life. He begins with Gandhi being married off at the age of 13, when he was a not particularly promising student in Gujarat, and ends with the body of one of the world's most celebrated advocates of non-violence being drawn by 200 uniformed servicemen in a state funeral in Delhi (more...)

  • "Who is the notorious lover of women? The author gives us an unexpected portrait that challenges the traditional ideas surrounding him." Natasha Randall reviews Don Juan: His Own Version by European master Peter Handke (via the LA Times):

    Peter Handke isn't interested in damnation. He said as much in an interview published in the Drama Review in 1970: "Morality is the least of my concerns... To me, morality in a society that -- however moral its pose -- is hierarchically organized is simply a lie, an alibi for the inequalities that exist in society." And so Don Juan: His Own Version is a story without a moral. It is episodic and uncapped, a text that neither delivers nor allows judgment.

    The legend of Don Juan may be one of the most retold stories in literature. More than 1,500 versions of the tale have been written since the 17th century. The earliest known version was published in 1626, called "El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra" by the priest Tirso de Molina. As you might expect from a priest, Tirso's Don Juan was a villainous scoundrel sent to hell for his sins. Subsequent stories tend to damn Don Juan variously -- and to damn the women who succumbed to or partook in the seduction too. But Handke is defiant of these versions, and his Don Juan isn't corralled into any tidy deliverance (more...)

  • Paul Davies' The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence gets its New York Times review:

    The scientific project known as SETI -- the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence -- began in earnest 50 years ago, when an astronomer named Frank Drake pointed a radio telescope toward a few nearby stars and began to sift through the aural static. A half-century later SETI has matured and remains a bustling enterprise, even though it no longer receives government financing and even though E.T., if he's out there, does not appear to have Earth on his speed dial.

    Paul Davies's new book, The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence, is a birthday card of sorts to SETI, an appraisal and acknowledgment of the interesting (if quixotic) work the project has done thus far. It's also a pointed wake-up call. Mr. Davies believes that SETI has grown conservative in its methods. He thinks we're looking for alien life in all the wrong places, and in all the wrong ways.

    Mr. Davies is a British-born physicist and cosmologist, an astral popularizer in the Carl Sagan mold. He's written more than 20 books, and has made BBC radio documentaries and Australian TV shows with titles like The Big Questions. He is the director of "Beyond, the Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science", at Arizona State University, which according to its Web site (, seeks "to create new and exciting ideas that push the boundaries of research a bit 'beyond'."It looks like the kind of place where you wouldn't be embarrassed to put some Jean Michel Jarre space music on your iPod and get sort of heavy.

    More saliently, for the purposes of this book, Mr. Davies is chairman of the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup, dedicated to thinking about how Earthlings might react, and how we should react, to a signal from beyond. He's an interesting and sometimes funny thinker on this topic...

    Mr. Davies's arguments in The Eerie Silence are multiple and many-angled, and difficult to summarize here. But among other things, he thinks we need to pay as much attention to Earth as we do to the cosmos. If we can find evidence that life began from scratch more than once on our own planet -- a "second genesis" -- it would vastly increase the odds that the universe is teeming with life. What's more, because it's as likely that alien civilizations visited Earth a million years ago as last month, they might have already been here, and we've missed the signs (more...)

  • 'The Magnetic North'

    Thu, 22 Apr 2010 03:55

    Just longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction is Sarah Wheeler's The Magnetic North: Travels in the Arctic reviewed in the Guardian late last year:

    To many British people, the word "Arctic" may still conjure up the Canadian High Arctic, the ice-locked wonderland of whalers and lost Victorian expeditions. "Arctic peoples" probably suggests the Inuit, with igloos and sleds. Alternatively, "Arctic" may mean the home of climate change. Ice is frightening, but so is the sudden lack of it. With the Chukchi and Sami peoples we are less familiar, as we are with the "taiga": the vast band of pine forest reaching across the extreme north of Europe and Russia.

    "What is the Arctic?" is a question Sara Wheeler sets out to answer. It's important we update our imaginations, and set aside the igloos, because whatever the Arctic is, "everyone wants what the Arctic has": land, oil and minerals.

    Fifteen years ago, then a younger woman and one without children, Wheeler wrote Terra Incognita, about the Antarctic. After that unpeopled emptiness she was, she admits, prejudiced against the "complicated, life-infested north". There is, however, an irrepressible flavour to Wheeler's writing, and to her sense of project. She sets out on a series of journeys to different parts of the extreme north, travelling into all the Arctic-holding countries: Russia, the US, Canada, Greenland, the Scandinavian states. In a lovely image, she likens the Arctic to a bracelet made of antler horn, which she was given by a Sami man with whom she stayed. It was cold and hard and white, and "I fancied that it smelled of smoke and beechwood". What she discovers, though, is a sorry mess of brutality and ignorance, cruelty and environmental pillage -- and resilience and beauty (more...)

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    Three great recent foodbooks (Foer's Eating Animals, Kessler's The End of Overeating and Standage's An Edible History of Humanity) reviewed in the Financial Times:

    Suppose that you and your partner go out for dinner tonight. You order steak and salad while your partner has chicken with rice. Now inspect your plates. Your cow spent almost all its life in a shed, burping methane that heats the planet. It was then slaughtered, often incompetently: it may have been still alive when its head was skinned and its legs cut off. Your "salad", doused in dressing, is really "fat with a little lettuce".

    Your partner's chicken lived for six weeks, diseased and crammed so closely with other birds that it cracked several bones. After torture, came slaughter: the bird was shoved into a truck, taken to the slaughterhouse, and shackled upside down. It died screaming and excreting on itself in terror. The rice comes from plants bred by scientists in the 1960s. Both your meals are lathered in the extra fat, sugar, salt and chemicals to which you have become addicted. Enjoy your meal.

    Three sterling books by Jonathan Safran Foer, David Kessler and Tom Standage examine a new era in food. Until about 20 years ago, people mostly thought about how to obtain food. Then, in rich countries, they began thinking about how to enjoy it more. Cookery and diet books invaded the bestseller lists. Now people are increasingly wondering whether they should enjoy today

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