Archive for June, 2010

Stalin and Shostakovich, by Solomon Volkov

This account of the perilous, unremitting battles between Stalin and Shostakovich charts an engrossing history which extends well beyond the book’s protagonists. Lacking incisive political perspective, Volkov nonetheless unearths a wealth of detail on the whole structure of state-regulated cultural production during the Stalin era. With disaster an ever-present threat, figures such as Shostakovich, Eisenstein and Pasternak engaged in a compex set of cat-and-mouse relations: often barely surviving through a combination of guile and Stalin’s uncertain desire for international recognition. Incorporating fascinating analysis of Shostakovich’s key works, Volkov’s readable fusion of the musicological and the social is a clear success. AB

Little, Brown and Company; 2004; 384 pages

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No Place Like Home: A Black Briton’s Journey Through the American South, by Gary Younge

Premised on The Guardian columnist’s journey along the route of the 1961 Freedom Rides, this somewhat confused book mixes travelogue and political analysis, sometimes to the detriment of both. Younge is at his best when talking to civil rights stalwarts, discussing contemporary social relations in the South and their intersection with history and sharing his experiences growing up in Britain as the son of immigrant parents from Barbados. He frequently returns to the nexus of race and class. But the book is weak in parts, occasionally slipping into banal description or simplistic cliché: like Bill Bryson but without the laughs. SS

Picador; 1999; 280 pages

Red Riding Quartet, by David Peace

Through four novels, innumerable ruined characters, the Yorkshire Ripper murders and more than a few scenes of utterly shocking intensity, Peace’s Red Riding quartet interrogates a core of disturbing themes with hypnotic single-mindedness. Returning constantly to sadistic police brutality, unconquerable sexual obsessions and the torture of children, Red Riding succeeds overwhelmingly because the horrifying cruelty depicted is borne not of abstract evil nor incomprehensible psychology, but simple greed (the motive which is, of course, indispensable to all free-market economic theory). Wealth buys immunity from democratic control; Peace’s exposition of this process is as cogent as it is viscerally, terrifyingly powerful. AB

Serpent’s Tail; 1999-2002

Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century, by Giovanni Arrighi

This expansive work seeks to understand differing paths of capitalist economic development and portends tectonic shifts in world capitalism as China emerges as challenger to US hegemony. Beginning with a theoretical discussion of Adam Smith’s political economy, Arrighi contrasts Europe’s historical development with the purer market economics of the contemporaneous Far East. By examining historical transitions from one world-leading centre of capitalism to another, considering the role of financialisation in these processes, Arrighi ponders the future of US dominance after a series of monumental political and military failures. In the background China is rising; the new workshop of the world. SS

Verso; 2008; 418 pages

We Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War, by Paul Preston

We Saw Spain DieFacing reactionary press barons’ hostility to socialists and Western governments’ deals with fascism, foreign reporting on the Spanish Civil War was accurate only through constant struggle. We Saw Spain Die recounts the stories of the many correspondents who risked lives and careers to carry out this struggle – international journalists whose bravery and determination informed a mass audience of the astonishing, tragic courage of ordinary Spaniards battling fascist military onslaught. Weaving together personal, professional and political detail Preston offers unusual insight into the defeated Revolution and journalistic practice, and through individual experiences constructs a valuable addition to the Revolution’s historiography. AB

Constable; 2009; 512 pages

The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, by Erich Fromm

Regarded as one of Fromm’s masterworks, this book mixes psychology, palaeontology and anthropology in its endeavour to address a simple question: why are humans violent? The underlying answer for Fromm is rooted in this social animal’s general condition of unfreedom since the Neolithic revolution some 10,000 years ago. In lengthy meanderings he takes in animal behavioural science, sketches the structure of Neolithic society and produces psychological biographies of Hitler, Stalin and Himmler. But for large parts of the book his central argument takes a back seat. While much of the material is fascinating its fragmentary character surrenders its polemical force. SS

Pimlico; 1997; 688 pages

Pimlico

Absolute Friends, by John le Carré

Despite being a Cold War author who successfully reconfigured his writing for the post-Soviet era, John le Carré doesn’t always remain as sharp in his contemporary storytelling. Such is the case in Absolute Friends, a book whose shifts in time and place sharply juxtapose the le Carré of old with his modern approach. The best of this book is the tension built around our protagonist’s adventures among Cold War double agents but the narrative is far weaker in other places, especially the finale – intended as an indictment of “war on terror” politics and subterfuge – which is bewildering and unconvincing. SS

Coronet Books; 2004; 338 pages


Language ought to be the joint creation of poets and manual workers. George Orwell

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