Tag Archives: oxford university press

The Long Hangover

long

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

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Portraits From Life

life

Portraits From Life –
Modernist Novelists & Autobiography
By Jerome Boyd Maunsell
Oxford University Press – £20.00

Every instance of autobiography is as unique as the life it relates.

Let it be said that biographies and autobiographies can be a profoundly risky phenomenon. Especially when one considers that they are the only books some people will ever read; which, given the degree to which those responsible for writing them can pick and choose what to leave in and what to invariably leave out, really is quite something.

After all: ”A character can be caught in a sentence or phrase, or it can be endlessly redrawn over hundreds of pages.”

What’s more, there is a subliminal tendency on behalf of most readers, to simply abide by what has been beguilingly bequeathed.
As if it were gospel.
As if written in stone.
As if forged upon the template of the ever increasingly curious mind.

Forever more.

There is of course a flip side, which is just one of the reasons I was lured into reading Portraits From Life – Modernist Novelists & Autobiography by Jerome Boyd Maunsell.

An overtly compelling read that endeavours to divulge the difficulties and possibilities of autobiography, by investigating seven canonical Modernist writers (Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, Wyndham Lewis, Gertrude Stein, H. G. Wells and Edith Wharton); the book rightfully takes most, if not all of the above to task: ”[…] grasping only a part of life, or an aspect of character, cannot be helped. There is far too much of life to be contained in any narrative. For this reason, biographers cherish the elusive essences which define characters: the telling glances or moments that reveal a whole person […] Yet can any self be fixed on the page for more than a few moments – or is the truest sense of character caught only on the move?”

It is precisely the reflective regaling of said fluidity of most people’s lives – their true ”sense of character caught only on the move” if you will – which wholeheartedly accounts for any form of underlying plausibility within biographical writing.

That said, it is surely all in the telling?
Or perhaps more importantly, the light and shade thereof, which, as Maunsell well knows, is so (cunningly) capable of immense literary sparkle: ”[…] taking heart from Leon Edel’s memorable image of the biographer struggling with the multiplicity of ”intractable” facts, or the ”tons and tons” of material left behind by many lives, Portraits From Life aims to arrive – if only for a moment or two – at that ”tiny glowing particle” which contains the ”human personality.”

And arrive these 216 pages most undoubtedly do, even if one does feel the need, the temptation or the simple desire to actually cross decipher – especially where Conrad (in relation to Ford Madox Ford) and Stein (in relation to Pablo Picasso) are concerned.

David Marx

Traces of Vermeer

vermeer

Traces of Vermeer
By Jane Jelley
Oxford University Press – £25.00

There was a bewildering choice of blacks at the time, and they all had different properties and different uses. It is a long list: earth black; sea coal black; lamp black; cherry stone black; vine black; charcoal black, peach, date, or almond stone black; walnut shell black; bone black; ivory black; even ‘burnt toast,’ described as a ‘bread black.’ Some blacks are warmer in colour than others: bones produce a brownish colour, while vine black, often called ‘blue black,’ was recommended for painting ruffs, or the shadows in the face, when mixed with white. There were recipes to suggest how to prepare and use all of these different pigments in painters’ treatises. ‘Cheristone’ black was suggested as being good for draperies; and if a painter wanted ‘a most extremely deep black,’ then lamp black, and ivory black could be used together; by putting one, as a glaze, over the other. Painters could follow a recipe for making ivory black; and put some bits of an ‘old combe, fanne handle or knife in a closed crucible, with a ‘little salt;’and place it in the fire for a quarter of an hour.

My word, the complexity of choice at the disposal of artists during The Netherlands so-called ‘Golden Period’ – or any period come to that – really was both bewildering and overtly comprehensive to say the least. A daunting feature and something which is resoundingly highlighted in this overtly investigative yet very readable book by Jane Jelley.

A painter of still life and landscape herself, who, as authoress, herein bequeaths the reader with an inexorable intrigue that is altogether contagious. Contagious, because in her pursuit of trying to decipher just how Johannes Vermeer’s paintings were ”made,” she takes the reader on something of a tangential journey that is most illustrative, idiosyncratic and interesting at the same time.

This ultimately accounts for Traces of Vermeer being what it is: ”An absolute delight. A rich and highly original exploration of Vermeer’s life and work seen through the eyes of a practising painter” (Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe).

An example of such richness can be found in Vermeer’s View of Delft, on which Jelley conclusively writes in the book’s seventh chapter ‘A Glimpse of Vermeer’: ”Vermeer had to decide where he would stand to observe Delft, in order to establish his composition. Which window he would use? What might he like to include from here, or from any other viewpoint, and what should he ignore? One of his trademarks is the attention he pays to the construction of his picture, and the dynamics of the movements within it. He thought carefully about the weights of shapes, and where he wanted the viewer’s eye to travel; where he wanted it to rest […]. If this picture appears ‘real’ to us, it is not because things are very detailed, but because Vermeer has grasped the essentials of the tone and the shapes, and has left much for us to interpret ourselves. It is not like looking at a high definition image on screen, or even a photograph; but like glimpsing something out of the corner of our eye, something we feel to be familiar.”

It is precisely this familiarity, that to my mind at least, entices us to admire Vermeer’s luminous sunlit spaces, full-blown, mesmerising skies, glimmers of satin and many eloquent strokes of tranquillity (such as Young Woman with a Water Jug, Mistress and Maid and of course, Girl with a Pearl Earring).

To be sure, Traces of Vermeer is an invitation for us to not only embrace Vermeer’s world, but to also ask or decipher to what degree he may, or may not have used some sort of lens through a camera obscura.

Personally, I couldn’t care less. Surely it’s the final product that counts?

Wonderful paintings that have traversed the years.
The centuries. Paintings which continue to touch us.
And resonate.

David Marx

Epistemic Friction

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Epistemic Friction –
An Essay on Knowledge, Truth, and Logic
By Gila Sher
Oxford University Press – £35.00

The light dove, cleaving the air in her free light, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that her flight would be still easier in empty space.

To describe this book as a little dense is akin to asserting that Donald Trump has made some rather bad decisions of late. Perhaps as much can be surmised in coming to terms with the above quote by Immanuel Kant; which, in and of itself, really isn’t one of his most profound. By an elongated stretch of the imagination might I add.

Having received her BA from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and her PhD from Colombia University in 1989, Gila Sher is current Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, of which this essay (!) really is a more than robust example of her accumulative study and research (her debut being The Bounds of Logic).

Divided into four distinct parts (‘Epistemic Friction,’ ‘A Dynamic Model of Knowledge,’ ‘The Structure Of Truth’ and ‘An Outline of a Foundation for Logic’), Epistemic Friction – An Essay on Knowledge, Truth, and Logic approaches knowledge from the perspective of the basic human epistemic situation – the situation of limited yet resourceful beings, living in a complex world and aspiring to understand it in all its entire complexity.

The two fundamental principles of knowledge are epistemic friction and freedom. Although let it be said, that the assorted (corrupt) powers that be in today’s Venezuela for instance, would no doubt, wholeheartedly contest the idea of freedom being actually considered as knowledge. That said, said ‘knowledge’ must be substantially constrained by the world (friction), but without active participation of the knower in accessing the world (freedom), theoretical knowledge is impossible.

Moreover, might not the actual knowledge of theory itself, be nigh impossible? Reason being, it’s not particularly quantifiable. And as is well known, nothing is more acute, if not absolutely exact, than that of mathematics – it even transcends language: ”While mathematism lacks logicism’s distinguished ancestry and rich body of literature, it shares the methodological advantage of reducing two foundational tasks to one. And since there exist several foundational accounts of mathematics that do not put the main burden of explanation on logic – e.g., naturalism and structuralism – mathematism could, potentially, provide an adequate foundation for logic, provided it employs a holistic foundational methodology” (‘An Outline of a Foundation for Logic – Logic and Mathematics: An Alternative to Logicism’).

Food for logical thought?
Too much to logically take in?
Logic for logic sake?

If anything, this book will most definitely take you on a logical journey – from which you might be a little reticent to return.

David Marx

The Politics of English Nationhood

english

The Politics of English Nationhood
By Michael Kenny
Oxford University Press – £18.99

What counts as culture in England now […] is the detritus left behind by the disappearance of the stolid independence and self-reliance of it’s working class. In its place has emerged a loud, rude, and self-interested individualism which occasionally erupts in the form of chauvinistic nationalism.

At the vanguard of Britain’s deplorable chauvinistic nationalism, stands the overtly vile, dangerous and detrimental excuse of a human being, Nigel Farage; for whom the words intelligence and understanding clearly count for very little.

If anything at all.

As one of the prime, fundamental architects of Brexit, he and his most myopic ilk have a hell of a lot to answer for. First and perhaps foremost, for having promoted Engerland unto the nigh high-octane stakes of it, along with the US, being the laughing stock of much of the western world. Not to mention the ever increasing upsurge in all round general nastiness and hate-crime – wholeheartedly substantiated by the above opening quote.

To be sure, The Politics of English Nationhood absolutely isn’t coy in what it says; and luckily, for those with a conscience at least, nor does it cower beneath the power of the right-wing media and (surely unsustainable) abundance of fake news. A social cancer of sorts, currently doing the elongated and inexorable rounds of ill-advised persuasion.

But herein, Michael Kenny, who is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University in London, offers more than a mere ”powerful challenge” to current day thinking.

These 243 pages (excluding a Preface to the paperback edition, Acknowledgements, Notes and Index) do much to traverse the staid, negative, political behaviour, that is by far, far too prevalent amid Britain’s current political ideology: ”Throughout the EU Referendum campaign, the dual focus of the ‘Leave’ campaign upon the elitist and metropolitan interests served by arguments for ‘Remain,’ and a continual focus upon immigration, were combined with the language of popular sovereignty and national recognition. This rhetoric spoke particularly to English voters for whom worries over migration have served as a proxy for fears about the perceived indifference of the political establishment to their economic position and cultural traditions. The ‘Leave’ slogan ‘Take back control’ proved highly effective in this context, and allowed figures like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to speak simultaneously to concerns about sovereignty, belonging, and nationhood.

Refreshingly and rightly so, Kenny brings in all the relative parties here, and tells it with all the fine nuance of how it really ought to be told.

He also addresses all the terrible, smokescreen bullshit head-on, as he continues: ” Its vernacular companion was the phrase ”I want my country back,” and was repeatedly used by UKIP leader Nigel Farage. This spoke to nativist fantasies of an England unmarked by ethno-cultural diversity and of a socio-economic order that had long disappeared. The Referendum afforded the opening for an outpouring of some of the nationally focused frustration, and the inchoate desire for greater self-determination, which had been building in many different parts of England for the last quarter of a century.”

Equally well researched and illuminating, The Politics of English Nationhood, will in future years, be undoubtedly held in high-regard; not to mention referred to as the book that divulged how, where and why, England got it so horribly and undeniably wrong.

David Marx

The Common Law in Colonial America

law

The Common Law in Colonial America –
Volume III, The Chesapeake and New England, 1660-1750
By William E. Nelson
Oxford University Press – £35.99

As the Professor of History and Professor of Law at Washington University in St. Louis, David Thomas Konig has written: ”This volume continues a multi-volume history of the common law in America by our greatest authority on the foundations of the American legal system. Like his other work, it is the product of unmatched meticulous research into the archival record of legal institutions as they affected the lives of ordinary Americans – male and female, white and black, powerful and weak. It is as much a human study as it is an institutional one, and it takes its well-earned place as a classic in legal history.”

Food for thought? Debate? Incendiary discussion?

The line ”it is as much a human study as it is an institutional one,” does, to my mind, trigger a myriad of legalise speak and divine, humanistic thought analysis; the combination of which, really isn’t that easy to decipher.

There again, The Common Law in Colonial America – Volume III, The Chesapeake and New England, 1660-1750 was never going to be easy to decipher – which may partially explain why William E. Nelson has now reached his third volume of a clearly dense, and highly convoluted subject matter.

‘Convoluted,’ being among many of the pertinent key words throughout these ten, intrinsically (very) involved chapters.

In fact, amid one of the many sub-sections of The Common Law in Colonial America, chapter five’s ‘The Substance of Virginia Law’ leaps forth like no other: ”Slavery was not a major phenomenon in Virginia before the late seventeenth century. Existing scholarship agrees that Africans and descendants of Africans constituted only some 3 percent of the population in 1660 – fewer than one thousand blacks out of a total population of some twenty-five thousand.”

”Only 3 percent?”
Well that obviously makes it alright then…

Nelson continues: ”Most drudge work was performed by indentured servants,who were mainly young men and teenage boys from the British Isles. Although the few blacks present in the mid-seventeenth century on average served longer terms of servitude than whites, including terms for life, many blacks ultimately did become free, and no clear distinctions separated black servants from white ones during the periods of time during which they served. African servants lived with European servants, performed the same work as Europeans, and were subject to the same disciplinary rules and punishments as Europeans. Finally, if they became free, Africans and their descendants could buy and own land, indentured servants, and slaves, just as Europeans could.”

Does the question: why was there an indelible need for servants to begin with – not need to be asked here?

Was it not enough that many a white, young American, slaughtered many a red, native Indian? Did inexorable servitude really need to be imported into the so-called, New World as well?

Clearly it did, for which, in round-a-bout kind of way, The Common Law in Colonial America substantiates some kind of considered reasoning.

To be sure, this third volume begins where volume one ended and traces legal developments within the sphere of the New England colonies – from the years 1660 to the mid-eighteenth century. The fundamental claim of these 134 pages (not including Acknowledgements, Notes and Index) is that the ‘Glorious Revolution’ altered England’s policy toward its colonies.

Prior to said revolution, Charles II and James II sought to centralize power in the English empire, and the means by which they executed thus, was within the realm of centralization – whereby they continued to govern such young American states as Maryland and Virginia through the common law (a law they were to further impose on Massachusetts and the rest of New England).

As such, the trajectory of England’s (legal) imposition, still reverberates throughout much of the United States to this very day; of which this book qualifies as something of a Byzantine blueprint.

To once again quote Konig: ”It is as much a human study as it is a classic in legal history.”

David Marx

Cuba

cuba

Cuba – What Everyone Needs To Know
By Julia E. Sweig
Oxford University Press – £10.99

Fidel Castro may have recently departed his beloved island to join his compadre, Che Guevara amid socialist nirvana, but the Cuban idea, the whole shebang, replete with legacy of he who toted many a Cohiba, will no doubt go on Ad infinitum.

Indeed, it will continue, both beneath and within the slipstream of many an economic fable according to Fidel – the trajectory of which will now continue to be promoted by his brother, Raul Castro.

Or will it?

My guess is, it’s way too early to tell.
Although, failing a visit to the island itself, Cuba – What Everyone Needs To Know might well be considered a most fine literary springboard from which to embark the investigation.

Written by Julia E. Sweig, Senior Research Fellow at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas in Austin, it’s a book that really does pack a rather mighty, academic punch.

Divided into twelve very distinct parts (‘Cuba Before 1959,’ ‘The Cuban Revolution and the Cold War, 1959-91,’ ‘U.S.-Cuba,’ ‘Cuba In The World,’ ‘The Cuban Revolution after the Cold War, 1991-2006,’ ‘U.S.-Cuba,’ ‘Cuba In The World,’ ‘After Fidel, under Raul,’ ‘U.S.-Cuba,’ ‘Cuba In The World,’ A Changing Cuba Under Raul Castro’s Presidency’ and ‘December 17, 2014, and Beyond’), Cuba is a most readable thesis on the complex fluidity of an ever changing political process.

It’s 315 pages – excluding the Foreword, Introduction, Suggestions for Further Reading and Index – almost read as a form of Q&A, in which Sweig answers the questions most of us would really like the answers to – well, some of the ones I would anyway.

Such pertinent questions such as:

Why does the United States have a naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba?
What role did women play in the Cuban insurrection?
Was Castro really a Communist?
Why did Cubans start leaving for exile?
What really happened when Castro visited Washington in 1959?
Why did the Bay of Pigs invasion fail?

And perhaps, the one question which still lingers, still continues to resonate the most:

What was the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Sweig initially responds: ”On October 22, 1962, John F. Kennedy appeared on national television to announce that the Soviet Union had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. Kennedy’s dramatic revelations, based on CIA reconnaissance photos of the missile sites, which Ambassador Adlai Stevenson later presented to the United Nations, came in the midst of the most dangerous ”13 days” in the history of the world. Kennedy announced a naval blockade of the island and warned against the consequences of a ”worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouths.”

Written in a style of writing that by far exceeds that of many other books written on and about Cuba; Cuba – What Everyone Needs To Know essentially reiterates what it says on the tin – or in this case, the front cover.

It’s simple prose, is, if anything, an invitation to read, to assimilate, to discover.

As The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has since written: ”For several years, Julia Sweig, America’s premier expert on Cuba, has been my guide for all matters related to this beautiful, cursed, and consequential island nation. This book – economical, information-packed, and exceedingly well-written – is Sweig’s indispensable contribution to our knowledge of Cuba at a particularly tumultuous time in its history.”

Perhaps never more so, than right now.

David Marx