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  • Political power and the media

    Wed, 24 Feb 2010 04:57

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    The Financial Times takes a look at three new books that discuss the links between politics, politicians, media and power...

    A vast change has happened in politics in the past half-century. The media have become crucial to the business of governing. Though they do not rule the country, the media sometimes rule the rulers, forcing them to spend long hours wooing, refuting, dodging and complaining.

    The lowly aide who once handed out press releases or phoned correspondents to tell them what the prime minister thought they should know has been replaced by hundreds, at times thousands, of professional communicators, advertising executives, public relations experts, image consultants, voice and deportment coaches and directors of communications.

    There's a conventional view, beloved of journalists, as to why this happened: politicians became devious and shifty, at best controlled by "spin doctors", at worst downright mendacious. But that is unlikely to be true. Governments everywhere in the democratic world -- and even, to a limited degree, in authoritarian countries such as China -- have put more and more information in the public arena. They have made their ministers more available for questioning, have introduced freedom of information legislation, and have brought television into parliaments and parliamentary committees -- and, by doing so, they have rendered them uninteresting to the media, except to specialists. Vast amounts of this information can be accessed in seconds via the internet. Inevitably, the internet has further battered down the once all but unbreachable walls of privacy that surround prominent public figures (more...)

  • The true story behind 'Kidnapped'

    Thu, 18 Feb 2010 11:26

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    It has, according to the Guardian newspaper, been the basis for at least five novels, most famously Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped. But the newly revealed story of James Annesley is more incredible than any of the tales it inspired:

    As yarns go, it pretty much has it all. There's a street waif who's actually an aristocrat, heir to half a dozen titles and estates in England, Ireland and Wales. A dastardly uncle who'll stop at nothing to usurp him. A kidnapping most foul, and a decade of toil as an indentured servant in 18th-century America. Then, against impossible odds, a dashing return, and a quest for justice through the courts that held all society spellbound.

    The extraordinary story of James Annesley has inspired at least five novels, including Sir Walter Scott's Guy Mannering and, most famously, Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, one of the best-loved adventure books of all time. Yet the true story behind a case that was in its day every bit as sensational as those of Oscar Wilde, Myra Hindley or OJ Simpson were in theirs has never fully been told -- and it is, if anything, even more spectacular than the fictions spun around it (more...)

  • New German art books

    Wed, 17 Feb 2010 04:27

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    The Financial Times looks at some new German art books and the growing importance and renown of the German art scene:

    German art differs crucially from that of other western European nations in two respects. First, Germany never experienced a golden age of painting comparable to the Italian Renaissance, the Spain of Velazquez and Goya, the Low Countries of Van Eyck and Rembrandt, or France from the 18th century to early modernism. As a result, Germany from the age of Durer onwards suffered an inferiority complex about its national art. Its artists tended to compensate by not risking formal innovation, and favouring instead the high emotionalism that is a legacy of medieval gothic.

    Second, that insecurity was magnified and confused by the rupture with its cultural past that Germany alone endured in the 20th century. Not even Stalin in Russia -- whose socialist realism consciously looked back to 19th-century practitioners such as Ilya Repin -- imposed so catastrophic a break on the continuity of visual culture as the Nazis did by attacking "degenerate" art in Germany. After the war an essentially fatherless generation emerged that had to reinvent German art, while the nation -- and the rest of the world -- continued to be ambivalent about historic German painting. Only in the global 21st century is this changing. Significant German artists are now enjoying their first-ever retrospectives in the US; German museums in turn are taking note (more...)

  • Now then! I like the sound of this: "Love and the novel, the individual in history, the existential plight of the graduate student: all find their place in The Possessed. Literally and metaphorically following the footsteps of her favorite authors, Elif Batuman searches for the answers to the big questions in the details of lived experience, combining fresh readings of the great Russians, from Pushkin to Platonov, with the sad and funny stories of the lives they continue to influence -- including her own."

    That blurb (above) was from the publisher, this quote below, which only whets my appetite further, is from the New York Times:

    Early in Elif Batuman's funny and melancholy first book, The Possessed, she describes her disillusionment, as a would-be novelist, with "the transcendentalist New England culture of 'creative writing.'" The problem with creative writing programs, she says, is their obsession with craft.

    "What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning?" Ms. Batuman asks. "All it had were its negative dictates: 'Show, don't tell'; 'Murder your darlings'; 'Omit needless words.' As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits -- of omitting needless words."

    Ms. Batuman's search for something more from literature than "brisk verbs and vivid nouns" led her, swooning but alert, into the arms of the great Russian writers: Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Babel.

    And it led her to write this odd and oddly profound little book, one that's ostensibly about her favorite Russians but is actually about a million other things: grad school, literary theory, translation, biography, love affairs, the making of "King Kong," working for the Let's Go travel guidebook series, songs by the Smiths, even how to choose a nice watermelon in Uzbekistan. Crucially and fundamentally, it is also an examination of this question: How do we bring our lives closer to our favorite books? (More...)

  • Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend

    Wed, 10 Feb 2010 05:57

    Writing in the New York Times, Dwight Garner takes a look at James S. Hirsch's new book, Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend:

    In his 1979 movie, Manhattan, Woody Allen made a list of the things that make life worth living. At the top sat Groucho Marx. But just behind Groucho -- and before the second movement of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong's recording of Potato Head Blues and "those incredible apples and pears by Cezanne" -- came Willie Mays.

    By 1979 Willie Mays had been retired for six years, and his best years as a player were at least a decade and a half behind him. But Mays's infectious smile, his casually electric playmaking, his pell-mell base-running style, his rocket arm (Joe DiMaggio called it the best he ever saw) and his home runs that blasted holes in outfield fences still defined -- and continue to define -- what baseball, in a perfect world, should look like.

    Mays's gifts were almost preternatural. "Willie must have been born under some kind of star," said Leo Durocher, his manager in the early 1950s with the New York Giants. The journalist Murray Kempton compared the originality of Mays's plays to Faulkner and the Delta blues. The sportswriter Roger Kahn said that "Willie's exuberance was his immortality."

    Over the years Mays has issued two ghostwritten autobiographies. But James S. Hirsch's new book, Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, is the first biography written with Mays's participation. (Mr. Hirsch and Mays intend to split the book's earnings.) The result is an authoritative if sometimes listless book, one that's less "Say Hey" than so-so. Like a long out to center field that scores a runner, however, it's a book that gets the job done (more...)

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