What would Jesus do?

(K. Brent Tomer),

TOO many evangelical Christians—so one mordant criticism runs—are pro-life right up until a baby is born. Their sermons rarely seem to address the problems that mar the lives of American youngsters, and sometimes violently curtail them. This hypocrisy, and one evangelical pastor’s dawning appreciation of it, is at the centre of “The Armor of Light”, a debut documentary by Abigail Disney (yes, Walt’s grandniece). The film follows Rob Schenck, a well-connected minister and passionate anti-abortion campaigner, as he struggles to reconcile his religious faith, Republican politics and the mounting toll of gun-related tragedies.

In the film, Mr Schenck attributes his awakening to two particular atrocities: the murder of five Amish children in Pennsylvania in 2006, and the killing of 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard, close to his home, in 2013. As his understanding of the sanctity of human life expands, he visits a shooting range, where he thinks of the dead children of Sandy Hook, and a National Rifle Association jamboree, where he concludes that good people can be complicit in wrongdoing. To be pro-life yet pro-gun, he comes to see, is a…Continue reading

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A life in shapes

(K. Brent Tomer),

Complete with period features

FRANK GEHRY’S buildings often come to define the cities where they are built. Think of Bilbao, a down-at-heel northern Spanish steel town until Mr Gehry’s confection of beaten metal, which opened in 1997 as the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, changed the way people thought of architecture and collecting—and put the city on the cultural map. Mr Gehry helped create the era of big-name “starchitects” and he has become a frequent lightning rod for society’s mixed feelings about urban spectacle and celebrity.

None of this could be predicted early on, for his career did not take off until middle age. He is now 86, and shows little sign of slowing down. “I get excited about working on new things,” he said recently. On the list is a shimmering tower that he is creating in Arles, France, to mark a lushly funded private arts complex called LUMA and a series of wriggling slabs for the vast Battersea Power Station in London which is being converted into luxury flats. He is adding to the quarter-mile-long building he recently completed for Facebook in California. And he is supporting arts education…Continue reading

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FDR for beginners

(K. Brent Tomer),

The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism and Secured a Prosperous Peace. By Eric Rauchway. Basic Books; 305 pages; $28.99.

OLD-FASHIONED historians recoil at the idea of learning from the past to inform the present. But in “The Money Makers”, Eric Rauchway, a historian at the University of California, Davis, tries to do just that. His book looks at the economic policy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a four-time American president from 1933 to 1945, and how he was influenced by John Maynard Keynes, a British economist. Mr Rauchway argues that policymakers today could learn “valuable lessons” from Roosevelt, who shook up the economic orthodoxy to rescue America from the Great Depression of the 1930s and to keep the Allies going during the second world war.

In what ways was Roosevelt so radical? For one, in the depths of the Depression he launched a series of public works—building bridges, dams, highways and schools—to put people in jobs. (Studies show, however, that the macroeconomic effect of these efforts was slight.) More important, says Mr Rauchway, in 1933 he took America off the gold standard, a system whereby the amount of dollars in circulation was determined by the country’s gold reserves. Despite vocal opposition by bankers, whose interest lay in preserving the gold…Continue reading

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All the world’s a stage

(K. Brent Tomer),

The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923. By Sean McMeekin. Penguin Press; 576 pages; $35. Allen Lane; £30.

FEW international relationships are as volatile and important as that between the Russians and the Turks. Although they were a formidable combination when they occasionally teamed up (against the French in 1798-99, for example), the tsars and the sultans were more often at loggerheads. In fact they clashed in 12 wars between the 16th and the early 20th century. Not much has changed since. In the early 21st century Turks and Russians have veered between warm commercial relations and war by proxy over Syria.

The last big Russo-Turkish war, which formed one of the fronts in the first world war, is a source of continuing fascination to Sean McMeekin, a history professor at Bard College north of New York who previously taught at two universities in Turkey. In “The Ottoman Endgame”, a sweeping account of the last 15 years of the Ottoman empire, the most original and passionately written parts concern the fight between Russians and Turks in eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus.

Two things distinguish Mr McMeekin from many other writers in English about this period. First, he has a deep empathy with Turkish concerns, and he hews closer to the official Turkish line than to the…Continue reading

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Hot town

(K. Brent Tomer),

City on Fire. By Garth Risk Hallberg. Knopf; 944 pages; $30. Jonathan Cape; £20.

NEW YORK in the late 1970s was coming apart at the seams. People would be strung out in broad daylight, tottering down streets strewn with spent Pall Malls and “nickelbags like punctured lungs”. The Bronx was burning, graffiti spread like kudzu and muggers owned the parks after dark. Donna Summer oozed out of radios (“Love to love you babeee…”) while Patti Smith’s punk sermons drew acolytes downtown. The city was broke and on its way to hell. Or maybe it was already there.

 This is the New York—vital, homicidal and seedy—of “City on Fire”, Garth Risk Hallberg’s dizzyingly ambitious debut novel. Like the city itself, the book sprawls unapologetically, teeming with punks, suits, cops, junkies, hacks, strivers, losers and artists. It is crammed with tattooed nihilists talking Nietzsche in the Village, uptown moguls writing tenderly defensive letters to sons (“what you see is not the whole of me”), scrawny painters stumbling into Coney Island methadone…Continue reading

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The spy who came in from the cold

(K. Brent Tomer),

John le Carré: The Biography. By Adam Sisman.Harper; 651 pages; $28.99. Bloomsbury; £25.

JOHN LE CARRÉ’S novels study human treachery, ideological conflict and geopolitical upheaval with a rare intelligence and sympathy. Of the author himself, whose real name is David Cornwell, not much is known beyond (sometimes contradictory) snippets offered in interviews and facts masquerading as fiction in his most autobiographical novel, “A Perfect Spy” (1986). Now, Adam Sisman, the author of acclaimed biographies of A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper, has got behind Mr le Carré’s mask to unravel the enigma.

Mr Sisman makes it clear at the outset that he is an admirer and that Mr le Carré (whom he refers to throughout as “David”) wished him to write “without restraints”. What could have been a cloying hagiography or a lurid warts-and-all exposé is instead a balanced, focused and compelling study of a man of depth and individuality.

Mr le Carré’s childhood was marked by heartache and disruption. His mother left when he was five. The following “16 hugless years” consisted of a…Continue reading

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Woman of substance

(K. Brent Tomer),

An Eyre of importance

Charlotte Brontë: A Life. By Claire Harman. Viking; 446 pages; £25. To be published in America by Knopf in March 2016, $30.

“MISS AUSTEN and Thackeray have admirers; Charlotte Brontë has worshippers.” So it seemed to one critic half a century after her death. But it was less the novels than the life itself that stirred the public imagination. The lonely genius of the Yorkshire moors and her doomed sisters, Emily and Anne, touched a romantic nerve. So much so that Henry James was driven to complain that the Brontë legend had “fairly elbowed out” “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights”. A photograph in Claire Harman’s excellent new bicentennial biography, of a crowd jostling towards the Brontë parsonage when it first opened to the public in 1928, seems to bear him out.

Ms Brontë would have despaired. Not that she was a shrinking violet. Aged 20, she sent a poem to Robert Southey, the British poet laureate, with a letter declaring her desire “to be forever known”. But it was as an author that she wanted fame, and even then she…Continue reading

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Would the world be a better place if James Bond had never existed?

(K. Brent Tomer),

EVERY now and then a Bond film will hint that its hero might actually be a human being. In the very first film, “Dr No”, we were granted a peek into James Bond’s bachelor pad. In “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, 007 was vulnerable enough to get married, and in “For Your Eyes Only” he laid flowers on his wife’s grave (before, of course, being nearly murdered by a remote-controlled helicopter). But it wasn’t until Daniel Craig took over the role that Bond finally became a man with a past. In “Casino Royale” we saw him earning his 007 designation and acquiring a taste for Aston Martins and vodka martinis. In “Skyfall” he returned reluctantly to his ancestral home in Scotland. And the new film, “Spectre”, digs even more deeply into Bond’s personal history. It digs so deeply, in fact, that it threatens to undermine the foundation of the whole series.

Directed by Sam Mendes, who also made “Skyfall”, “Spectre” opens with a bravura pre-credit sequence set in Mexico City on the Day of the Dead. In one breathtaking, unbroken take, a roving camera follows Bond as he dodges parade crowds and nips in and out of hotels until he is pointing his…Continue reading

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The meatiest roles for women were written thousands of years ago

(K. Brent Tomer),

ON THE bloodied Boeotian plains outside the seven gates of Thebes, Ismene struggles to persuade her sister Antigone to obey the edict of their uncle Kreon, the new head of state: “We’re girls,” she cries. “Girls cannot force their way against men.” Antigone will have none of it. She is determined to perform the sacred burial rites for her brother, Polyneikes, who was slain in a brutal civil war when he refused to relinquish the throne. Having deemed Polyneikes an enemy of the state, Kreon forbids any citizen from mourning his corpse. But Antigone is not easily cowed by the seemingly arbitrary decrees of men.

Classical Athenian tragedy was written and performed by men for a largely male audience. But that didn’t mean ancient playwrights shied from creating powerful, flawed and fiercely independent female characters. Euripides’s Medea responds to her husband’s betrayal by murdering him and her children. Sophocles’s Electra avenges her father’s death by conspiring in the murder of her mother. Antigone is as striking a force in Greek tragedy as any Oedipus or Agamemnon. This helps explain why Sophocles’s play endures: having premiered in the late 440s BC, it…Continue reading

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What is the point of music competitions?

(K. Brent Tomer),

THE Warsaw Philharmonic bristled with competition last week. No less a figure than Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, presented the top prize for the Chopin Competition on Thursday night. Other politicians used the gala event to make subtle pitches for their respective parties. On October 25th Mr Duda’s right-wing Law and Justice party decisively won Poland’s parliamentary elections. The outcome of the Chopin Competition, however, was less straightforward.

Seong-Jin Cho, a 21-year-old South Korean, won first prize, followed by Charles Richard-Hamelin of Canada and Kate Liu of the United States. But it was a close race between Mr Cho and Mr Richard-Hamelin, and any difference between the two pianists was lost on most listeners. Indeed, with nine of the competition’s ten finalists performing Chopin’s piano concerto in E minor (Mr Richard-Hamelin alone chose the concerto in F minor), attendees could be forgiven for feeling that they had heard the same piece nine times.

The Chopin Competition,…Continue reading

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