The Germany Illusion

illusion

The Germany Illusion –
Between Economic Euphoria and Despair
By Marcel Fratzscher
Oxford University Press – £25.49

Merkel’s declaration ”Wir schaffen das” is likely to be the sentence that defines her chancellorship historically. Her mindset and attitude became even clearer in fall 2015, when under attack from German critics who wanted her to be much tougher in rhetoric and action, she stated, ”if we now have to start excusing ourselves for showing a friendly face in an emergency situation, then this is not my country.”

     ‘The Refugee Crisis’

What I rather like about this book is the fact that it traverses a number of very pertinent issues facing today’s Germany.

As Marcel Fratzscher makes clear in the Introduction: ”In particular, I focus on the roles of economic and social issues, where they have succeeded and where they have failed. I highlight Germany’s impressive economic successes, but I also try to puncture some of the myths about Germany’s economic might and identify the key economic and social challenges for Germany in the years ahead.”

To be sure, Fratzscher succeeds in most coherently doing just that throughout, even if on occasion, he does occasionally fall into a staid trap of slight repetition. There again, given some of the dry density of the subject matter, this is understandable.

Admittedly, not the most inspired title in the world, The Germany Illusion, does nevertheless, shed an abundance of new light on the much mis-perceived perception of Germany being the so-called economic powerhouse of Europe. Hence the secondary title, Between Economic Euphoria and Despair, upon which the author further deliberates: ”The central argument of the book is that Germany suffers from two illusions. The first is the perception that Germany’s economic policy is impeccable and that the future for Germany is bright – thanks to its strong industrial base, its successful export sectors, and its flexible economy […]. The second illusion is the widespread belief in Germany that what is good for Europe is bad for Germany. This illusion is shared by many other European nations, where bashing Europe, the euro, and EU institutions has become a popular sport.”

So popular in fact, that the deplorable rise in populism has nigh taken over the whole shebang of Europe’s questionably faltering future. One need only surmise the disastrous fork-in-the-road that the United Kingdom has chosen to take with Brexit; not to mention Le Pen in France and the most hideous rise of populism in such countries as Hungary and Turkey. The latter especially, which really is responsible for some of the most fraught, economic repercussions throughout Germany as a whole. Berlin in particular.

Perhaps all the more reason to come to terms with the German illusion.

Let’s face it: what economically effects Germany today, will fundamentally effect the rest of Europe tomorrow. Something Fratzscher endeavours to clarify throughout these 183 pages, as substantiated by Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator with The Financial Times: Marcel Fratzscher has written a book that is both excellent and important. It provides an analytically-balanced and historically-informed account of the remarkable strengths and significant weaknesses of the German economy. But it is also an effective plea for Germany to abandon resentments and play the role it alone can play, in leading Europe on the essential path of reform and revitalization.”

Essentially written with succinct, clear clarity by someone who obviously knows (as well as cares about) their stuff, The Germany Illusion – Between Economic Euphoria and Despair, is as Wolf has said, an important book.

The probable outcome of which, will, to some degree or another, effect us all.

David Marx

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Hamlet – And The Vision Of Darkness

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Hamlet –
And The Vision Of Darkness
By Rhodri Lewis
Princeton University Press – £30.00

Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colour in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.

     Vladimir Nabokov (Good Readers and Good Writers)
     ‘Hamlet as Poet’

Surely the writer of fiction – or the writer of whatever for that matter – follows his or her instinct? Closely followed by the persuasive urge of the heart? Either way, it ought to be somewhat accepted that Vladimir Nabokov does have a point; even if only to suggest that the quintessential instinct of ones’ heart, could well be steeped within the gravitational sphere of nature.
Or should that be Nature with a capital N?
After all, Niccolo Machiavelli, to whom William Shakespeare is oft associated within these pages, was always one to rely and readily assert himself within the rather fraught parameters of human nature: ”Shakespesre is again closer to writers like Tacitus and Machiavelli, for whom it is vital to acknowledge that cunning, delusion, and self-interest are simply the currency of human affairs” (‘Hunting and the Nature of Things’).

One might also deduce that cunning, (definitely) delusion and (relative) self-interest are also the erstwhile currency of one of Shakespeare’s most complex characters, Hamlet.

Throughout these 324 pages (excluding Preface and Acknowledgements, Note on Text, Bibliography and Index), Hamlet – And The Vision Of Darkness, is a dense, explanetry dissertation of as much. So if one has come to this book expecting a mere skim of the surface with regards the relationship betwixt Hamlet and all that of which they deem darkness to scholastically represent, then perhaps think again.

Rhodri Lewis – a professor of English literature and a fellow of St. Hugh’s College at the University of Oxford – has herein written a revisionary account of not only Hamlet himself, but also the deeply troubled character, the ever widening trajectory of play’s philosophy, not to mention the actual setting of the play within both its time and its place: ”Hamlet thus offers a representation of the cultural dynamics shaping human existence that is rich, sustained, compelling, and completely at odds with early modern convention. Its moral universe is an unyielding night. One that self-exploration, inwardness, honour, loyalty, love, poetry, philosophy, politics, moral scruple, military force, and religious belief are powerless to illuminate.”

To be sure, all of the above and then some, are meticulously addressed amid this book’s five most comprehensive chapters. As Lynn Enterline of Vanderbilt University has since been noted as saying, the book makes for ”a significant contribution to recent reassessments of humanism’s unintended consequences.”

That’s not to say Hamlet – And The Vision Of Darkness reeks of nothing other than academia – far from it.

In the final chapter, ‘Hamlet As Philosopher,’ Lewis cuts to the philosophical chase, by inserting perhaps his own irreducible quest for discovery, when he writes: ”Shakespeare uses Hamlet and Hamlet to explore the notion that humanist philosophy is a confidence trick; that, like humanist historiography and poetics, it is bullshit. Something expounded by actors who, despite their commitment to maintaining the illusions of their craft, are constrained to perform scripts that misrepresent both themselves and the worlds – moral and natural – around them.”

The notion of ‘humanist philosophy’ being something of ‘a confidence trick,’ really does bequeath those whom subscribe to the (in)famous six words of ‘to be or not to be,’ something (else) to think about. Talk about. Turn about.

There’s no deliberating upon the fact that Hamlet – And The Vision Of Darkness goes way beyond any actual vision of actual darkness. It soars to such an intrinsic height of thorough investigation, it’ll be really hard to read another book on Hamlet without referring back to this one. The bar has indeed been raised.

David Marx

That’s How Whales Are Born

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That’s How Whales Are Born
By Anxos Sumai
Small Stations Press – £8.99

[…] precisly because she didn’t hit me, I cried on account of the tendernes I felt, and the tears rolled down my cheeks like streams of caustic soda. They hurt. They hurt and left marks I am still able to see and feel when I look at myself in a mirror or when I place my fingertips, all ten of them, on my face.

That’s How Whales Are Born is a book of such immense depth and literary persuasion, such beauty of life’s veritable clarification; it’s a wonder how authoress Anxos Sumai reached its shimmering and most thought provoking end. Just one of the many reasons being that from the very opening page, one instinctively knows one is in for a roller-coaster ride of the most implicit, yet exquisite emotion:

”Mother looks elated in these photographs, with a bright smile and a joyful look in her eye. Father, handsome but serious, seems distant, aware of something that was not actually taking place at that moment. I think I remember the day when Mother tore up the rest of the photos. I was still very young and lacked the exact words to ask her why she was ripping herself up like that. I was also unable to intuit the meaning of the wrath and misery they held for her.”

Without wanting to give too much away, these 272 pages traipse the exceedingly thin line betwixt familial loyalty (which in this case, just happens to be laced with a profound sadness), and that of the need to follow ones’ own, resolute path of independence.

In other words, a tough dilemma; but, which in the most delicate words of Sumai, ends up bequeathing some sort of inspired beauty – where in truth, only struggle ought to surely prevail:

”She knew too well the sounds of her son’s most intimate ceremony, and knew it barely lasted a minute. She recalled that when Ramon was younger, he’d thought to do it in front of Natalia, who screamed, outraged, that the boy was a damned ape in heat. Immaculate, exquisite, and elegant, Natalia didn’t consider Ramon a human being. At most he was a baby in a man’s body, and babies were asexual beings to her. Sexless angels, innocent souls dancing in limbo like dust motes cavorting in a sunbeam. Mother had to teach him that satisfying desire was a personal thing […]. She even allowed him – on more than one occasion – to lie beside her and touch her. But that was an unutterable secret, something that tormented her every time it happened […].”

I’m hard pressed to think of a recent novel so emotionally fraught with anywhere near as much subliminal hubris, combined with harrowing heartbreak. As such, That’s How Whales Are Born is unquestionably up there with the likes of Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things. No mean feat.

David Marx

The Presidency of Barack Obama

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The Presidency of Barack Obama –
A First Historical Assessment
Edited by Julian E. Zelizer
Princeton University Press – £20.00

Obstructionism tended to hurt liberals more than the right.

     Julian E. Zelizer
     (‘Tea Partied – President Obama’s Encounters with the
     Conservative-Industrial Complex’)

America’s system of mass incarceration provides BLM (Black Lives Matter) activists with their most compelling evidence of contemporary racism in all of it’s tragically panoramic glory. The fact that this system continued to thrive under a two-term African American president is one of the great ironies of our time.

     Paniel E. Joseph
     (‘Barack Obama and the Movement for Black Lives – Race, Democracy, and Criminal           Justice in the Age of Ferguson’)

There might admittedly be something to be said for Joan Walsh’s comment: ”This book captures the paradox of Barack Obama’s presidency better than any so far: Conventional wisdom aside, Obama was a better policy maker than a politician.”

Equally, there might also be something to be said for she who penned What’s The Matter With White People? having surely missed one fundamental point: it was the very acute acumen within the sphere of Barack Obama’s policy making, that enabled the former President to become President to begin with. Not to mention having set, as well as left the presidential bar so morally high, that it will no doubt take a number of high-reaching, soul-searching, ethically astute induced politicians to come anywhere near as close.

And what with the current American President being so utterly and morally bankrupt, he doesn’t even warrant comparing, let alone mentioning – other than to perhaps mention that it’s surely only a matter of time before Donald Trump will be reprimanded and globally invited to attend the International Court of Human Rights and Justice at The Hague in The Netherlands.

Moreover, what accounts for these seventeen chapters being so invitingly readable – the second of the above opening quotes from chapter nine being a good example – is the degree to which the reader is so readily drawn into the clarity and the persuasion of The Presidency of Barack Obama – A First Historical Assessment.

Indeed, to refer to these knowingly engaging, 279 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Timeline, Notes, List of Contributors and Index) as thought provoking, might be construed as substantiating the obvious. As such, a continuation of the aforementioned quote from Paniel E. Joseph’s chapter nine (‘Barack Obama and the Movement for Black Lives – Race, Democracy, and Criminal Justice in the Age of Ferguson’), does go some way in honestly reflecting this book’s rather inflammatory anchor: ”Black Lives Matter activists, although no less inspired than the president, interpret the movement as exemplifying the destructive power of state-sanctioned violence, racial oppression, and economic injustice. The movement’s most radical edges were surveilled, harassed, imprisoned, even killed at the hands of white vigilantes working in concert with local, state, and federal authorities, with the FBI being the most well known offenders but far from the only ones. The continued persistence of racial segregation in neighbourhoods and public schools, high rates of black unemployment, and continued assaults on voting rights by no less than the Supreme Court of the United States underscores the rank hypocrisy of a nation that annually celebrates a King holiday and Black History Month.”

Likewise, the following from Julian E. Zelizer’s altogether brazen Introduction: ”Few Republicans were willing to buck the party line. When the president repeatedly reached out to Republicans to support him on pressing legislation such as the economic stimulus package and financial regulation, both of which seemed to command strong popular support in the middle of a severe economic meltdown that had depleted the nation’s wealth and left millions unemployed, most Republicans refused to go along with any deal. And even though much of his response to the financial crisis built on the policies of President Bush, including the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP, which Eric Rauchway calls the ”Bush-Obama financial rescue program”), many Republicans acted as if Obama were virtually a socialist.”

The Presidency of Barack Obama is a most stimulating and refreshing read. As The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb has so succinctly put it: ”The essays in this volume are among the most nuanced, thorough, and incisive perspectives we’ve yet seen regarding the complex, contradictory, and besieged tenure of the first black president.”

Besieged being the most unfortunate, yet operative word.

David Marx

 

Hull

hull

Hull
Pevsner Architectural Guides
By David and Susan Neave
Yale University Press – £14.99

There’s something about the city of Hull that is both fascinating and alluring, yet oddly off-putting in equal measure. What’s more, it’s hard to decipher which of these feelings ultimately take precedence. Although either way, this all together authoritative, practical and wonderfully illustrated guide of one of England’s leading ports since the Middles-Ages, really isn’t hard to decipher.

In fact, it’s something of a shame that there aren’t many more books like this on more British cities. Reason being, it’s far more than that which it’s secondary title proclaims. It’s just as much an all round guide and essential background reference, as it is an architectural guide.

For instance, this Pevsner Architectural Guide of Hull also includes a number of Excursions toward the rear of the book. ‘Excursions,’ being something, which in all honesty, one wouldn’t normally associate with Hull.

As such, from page 187 onward, there’s background information as well as maps, on the surrounding environs of: Hessle and the Humber Bridge, Cottingham and West Hull Villages, East of Hull: Hedon and Burton Constable, not forgetting of course, the absolutely wonderful small town that is Beverley.

The latter of which, I had the utmost pleasure of enjoying for a morning, and cannot help but agree with the following: ”Beverley is one of England’s most attractive country towns, and deserves to be better known. Its historic core, with medieval street plan, is remarkably intact. The town has many fine houses, predominantly Georgian, a rare medieval brick gateway, a handsome market cross, and a superb Guildhall, but its greatest architectural works are the Minster and St. Mary’s. No other town in England can boast two parish churches of such exceptional quality […]. Any exploration of the town should start at the Minster, where the history of Beverley really begins. Bishop John of York, who founded a monastry on the site of of the Minster in the early C8, was canonized as St John of Beverley in 1037, and it was the development of his cult which encouraged the growth of a town to provide for the needs of pilgrims and churchmen” (‘Beverley – 8.5 miles from Central Hull’).

Moreover, the bulk of the book really does focus on the city of Hull itself, which all told, lends the city a certain panache; especially when one colour photograph of a delightful old building is placed alongside, another. And then another.

Augmented with maps and an array of drop boxes which feature something most idiosyncratically indicativeof Hull itself – the Georgian Docks, Hull’s Victorian Sculptors (Earles and Keyworth’s) or Hull’s Telephone Boxes (cream-painted for the city’s independent telephone company), this book is resoundingly well detailed considering the amount of information it has set out to ultimately convey.

At 233 pages in length (excluding a really helpful Glossary and Index of Artists, Architectects and Other Persons Mentioned), Hull may be conceptual in application, although it really is concise in its appreciation of a much overlooked, very English city.

David Marx

 

Belgium & Luxembourg

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Belgium & Luxembourg
By Helena Smith, Andy Symington & Donna Wheeler
Lonely Planet – £14.99

This sixth edition of Lonely Planet’s Belgium & Luxembourg is every quintessential, literary expectation one has come to expect of said publisher’s assimilation of the most informative of travel guides. At 310 pages (excluding Glossary, Behind the Scenes and Index), it both informs and inspires the reader in equal measure.

For instance, even before reaching the fully explained, full-colour ‘Top 15’ (which, in chronological order consists of Bruges, Brussels, Grand Palace, Carnival Capers, Flemish Primitives, Luxembourg City, Chocolate, Castles, Belfries & Begijnhoven, Belgian Beer, Flanders Fields, Art Nouveau, Antwerp Art & Fashion, Museum of Remembrance, Art Cities and Caves of the Ardennes); one of the book’s three authors writes: ”My childhood bedroom in Sydney was decorated with postcards of Van Eyck Madonnas, but it wasn’t until a couple of decades later, during a couple of Europe’s coldest winters, that infatuation turned to love. My first impression of Antwerp was one of sheer wonder, the guildhalls of Grote Markt glinting as snow fell at the Christmas market, and the dimmed, richly cosy interiors of the Rubenshuis and the Museum Plantin-Moretus. This sense of quiet magic has accompanied each subsequent visit, whether it’s to galleries or gigs in Ghent, or for family time in a 17th-century farmhouse” (‘Why I Love Belgium & Luxembourg’).

In so doing, she has already inadvertently – or perhaps not so inadvertently – bequeathed the reader with a sense of anticipation – if not beguiling wonder. And in a round-a-bout kind of way, this already confirms that the book has done its job.

Before getting into the actual body of the book itself (which invariably kicks off with the country’s capital, Brussels), there are assorted sections entitled ‘Need to Know,’ ‘First Time Belgium & Luxembourg,’ ‘If You Like…,’ ‘Month by Month,’ ‘Itineraries’ and ‘Travel with Children,’ which, for all intents and the most helpful of personal purposes, is self explanatory.

Following an abundance of information on the various regions, the travel guide concludes with ‘History,’ ‘The Belgian People,’ ‘Creative Cuisine,’ ‘Arts & Architecture’ and naturally, a rather hefty section on ‘Belgian Beer.’

So in all, Belgium & Luxembourg makes for a rather fascinating read in its own right. That it just happens to include an assortment of maps and tips, makes it all the more so.

David Marx

The Long Hangover

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The Long Hangover –
Putin’s New Russia and The Ghosts of The Past
By Shaun Walker
Oxford University Press – £20.00

Evgeny had been invited to Red Square for the parade and planned to attend; he liked the fact that 9 May was still celebrated. But although he enjoyed wearing his army jacket, festooned with medals, and he took understandable pride in being part of the victory, his bearing and tone were very different to the official propaganda. He spoke of the war as a terrible, not a glorious, experience: of loss and violence and unspeakable imagery. I doubt he would have wanted to dress his great-grandchildren up in Red Army uniforms, as if for a party.

We don’t need blind patriotism. We need the truth!

If you really want to know the truth about modern day, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, then read this overtly courageous and compelling book.

Written by Shaun Walker, The Guardian’s Correspondent in Moscow (and previous Correspondent for The Independent), The Long Hangover – Putin’s New Russia and The Ghosts of The Past, does, as its title might suggest, address both the past and the current. Or, to be a little more blatant, the good, the bad and the ugly; in which all three, the biggest and without any shadow of a doubt, one of the most captivating countries on the planet is deeply mired.

Thorough, to the point, occasionally melancholic, yet exceedingly readable, Walker has herein captured all the inflammatory essence of modern day Russia, by way of re-telling what ought to have been told many, many years ago.

Furthermore, a lot of the said telling is more than humanistic, if not quintessentially regal in its execution. This is directly due to The Long Hangover being wholeheartedly anchored within a sphere of real people. Ordinary people.

Quite often, extraordinary people, of which the following excerpt from the conclusion of chapter two’s ‘The Sacred War,’ is a most pertinent example: ”Evgeny’s lines were well rehearsed. He rattled off figures and dates with the precision of someone who had told his story a thousand times before. If I had returned a month later, I suspect he would have repeated the same sentences almost verbatim, in the way that distant memories coagulate into set monologues. And yet, despite that, the old man’s voice became rasping and he would gulp for air, as if he had surprised himself by the emotions the stories still raised, seventy years and hundreds of tellings later.”

Indeed, there are many occasions where one has to simply put this book down – and reflect upon what one has just read.

Be it Walker’s account of the entire Kamlyk people being deported en masse in 1943 (”People think only dogs can sense this kind of thing, but the livestock also knew something bad was happening. It was such chaos, such a terrible, terrible scene. The dogs ran after the trucks as we drove away, howling like mad. I’ll never forget that scene”), or recounting the words of former President Yeltsin – and now Putin’s – Chief of Staff: ‘I was delighted that the end of Communism had come about. But the Soviet Union was my homeland. That was different. How can you be happy about your homeland collapsing?”

In the words of Peter Pomerantsev (author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible): ”in this skilful and vivid book, Shaun Walker allows us to understand the region’s current affairs through ordinary and extraordinary people’s experience of an un-dealt with past.”

As a further caveat, I’d also like to add that The Long Hangover may well be the best book I’ve read on modern-day Russia in years.

David Marx