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  • Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor review – what the British did to India

    A timely book that addresses the need to temper British imperial nostalgia with post-colonial responsibility

    A 2014 poll in the UK found that 59% of people thought the British empire was something to be proud of and nearly half believed countries were better off for having been colonised.

    Tharoor’s passionately argued book provides a crushing rebuttal of such ideas with regard to India. The subjugation of his people was “a monstrous crime” and any positives were mere by-products of actions not intended to benefit Indians.

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  • The Wife’s Tale by Aida Edemariam review – portrait of a mother goddess

    Edemariam deftly traces her grandmother’s life in Ethiopia, taking in Haile Selassie’s feudal reign and Marxist dictatorship

    In this elegant account, Aida Edemariam has sketched her grandmother’s life in an Ethiopia that shifted, within 50 years, from feudal monarchy to Marxist dictatorship. We first meet Yètèmegnu in the years before the Italian invasion in 1935, as a child of nine betrothed to a cleric more than two decades her senior. It is with a deft, subtle touch that Edemariam portrays both the contemporary celebration of the event and the deeper tragedy of it.

    Born into a landowning family in the Gondar region in the north of the then Abyssinian empire, Yètèmegnu boasts distant royal connections. Within her small, pastoral world she is treated as a noble; her larder brims with crops from her husband’s peasant-tilled fields.

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  • Nefertiti’s Face by Joyce Tyldesley review – the creation of an Ancient Egyptian icon

    Why did the bust of a queen carved more than 3,000 years ago achieve such fame when it was exhibited in 1924?

    Even with her blinded left eye, Nefertiti has come to epitomise female perfection. Uncannily symmetrical, and with the second most famous half-smile after the Mona Lisa, her image has been pressed into service to sell everything from cruise holidays to women’s underwear. Even now, when you think she might have earned a rest, she continues to turn up on key rings, T-shirts and, in a sinister turn, adverts for cosmetic surgery. Recently a British woman paid £200,000 and underwent eight nose jobs and three chin implants in an attempt to sculpt herself into a simulacrum of ancient Egypt’s most famous queen.

    Nefertiti was first unearthed in 1912 when the archaeologists of the German Oriental Company went digging in the soft soil of the left bank of the upper Nile valley. At Amarna they discovered the workshop of Thutmose, the court sculptor who around 1350BC was charged with producing a set of images of the reigning dynasty, to replace the existing pantheon of animal-headed gods. By the time Ludwig Borchardt and his colleagues arrived with their picks and sieves there wasn’t much left of the assorted princelings and highnesses – an ear, a mouth, two feet and fragments of faces without ears. But there, in the limestone and gypsum jumble, was a complete bust of the pharaoh Akhenaten’s Great Royal Wife, radiant in her distinctive blue flat-topped bonnet crown. “Really wonderful work,” an enraptured Borchardt wrote in his diary that night: “No use describing it, you have to see it.”

    Tyldesley plunges us into an atmosphere thick with mandarin intrigue, gossip, erotic longing and winged eyeliner

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  • Hard Times review – Northern Broadsides make Dickens a laugh factory

    Viaduct, Halifax
    Deborah McAndrew adapts the classic novel about facts and feelings but comedy drowns out subtlety

    “Is it possible that, despite all precautions, a storybook could have got into the school?” So demands an outraged Mr Gradgrind (Andrew Price) on discovering his children, Louisa (Vanessa Schofield) and Tom (Perry Moore), have visited the circus. Like the current Tory government with its EBacc, Gradgrind doesn’t believe in the imagination. He wants his children taught only facts.

    But as Tom and Louisa – who is married off to the elderly mill-owner, Bounderby (Howard Chadwick) – both soon discover, facts don’t offer the creativity, empathy and love needed to negotiate life.

    Related: Brighton Rock review – ingenious staging curtails Greene's Catholicism

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  • Brighton Rock review – ingenious staging curtails Greene's Catholicism

    York Theatre Royal
    Bryony Lavery’s adaptation underplays the classic novel’s religious theme and focuses on the pleasure-seeking Ida

    By a strange quirk of fate, Bryony Lavery’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s 80-year-old novel opens in the same week as the revival of her own 20-year-old play, Frozen. Both works deal with murderous criminality but their outlook could hardly be more different. Where Greene believes in pure evil, Lavery suggests that violent cruelty is often the result of cerebral damage. But how, I wondered, could she possibly square her views with those of Greene?

    The short answer, in this co-production between the touring Pilot Theatre and their York hosts, is that she does it by altering the whole balance of the story. The focus in Lavery’s version is on Ida: the pleasure-seeking working-class woman who believes there is something suspicious about the death of a man she briefly meets during a Whitsun weekend in Brighton. “I believe in right and wrong,” Ida tells us many times; and it is this that leads her to try to rescue Rose, a 16-year-old waitress, from the clutches of the juvenile gangster, Pinkie. Both Rose and Pinkie are, of course, Catholics, but you could say that Lavery’s interest in the story is moralistic where Greene’s is theological.

    Related: Elephant review – sparky family drama from Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti

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  • Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro review – debut novel from a short-story writer
    Few modern authors deal with Christianity. Is it time for a new ‘viable literature of faith’?

    After millennia joined at the hip, art and faith largely parted ways, at least in terms of art as the aesthetic expression of religion. What dialogue the two have had over the past century or so has been – from art’s side, anyway – a bit antagonistic and largely ironic. Intellectual life generally has become secularised.

    How, then, are we to read a novel in which the protagonists – intellectuals, academics, adulterers – are believers, their struggles conveyed not with irony but with earnestness? How, from the writer’s point of view, to convey the weight of sin, the claustrophobia that must result from its commission, when writing about characters who have faith?

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  • Berlin 1936 by Oliver Hilmes review – Hitler’s Olympics
    Most visitors were dazzled by the 1936 games. This lightweight study dwells not on the dark side, but on the glitz, glamour and gossip

    On a balmy summer evening on 16 August 1936, dozens of searchlights formed a vast dome of light above the new Olympic Stadium in Berlin. The spectacular effect, originally devised for the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg, marked the end of the 1936 Summer Games. Inside the arena, Hitler basked in the success of the games, just two weeks after he had opened them with an equally eye-catching ceremony, involving 20,000 doves, 3,000 singers and a giant zeppelin. As the historian Oliver Hilmes concludes in his lively book, which spans the 16 days of the Olympics, Hitler had “every reason to be satisfied”.

    Nazi leaders pulled out all the stops to wow visiting foreign notables, journalists and tourists. More than three years had elapsed since Hitler gained power, and even longer since the IOC awarded the games to Berlin. Now was the moment to show the new Germany to the world. The Third Reich would be presented as powerful yet peaceful, modern yet steeped in tradition. To reinforce the links to ancient times, German organisers invented the torch relay, which carried the flame from Greece to Berlin, past a rally of uniformed Hitler Youth and into the faux-classical stadium.

    One middle‑aged US tourist slipped through security to plant a kiss on Hitler’s cheek. ‘He seemed so friendly,’ she said

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  • Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb review – how risk should be shared
    Hawkish politicians and reckless bankers never face the consequences of their actions – but they should, according to this arresting but flawed book

    Skin in the Game is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s fifth book. He presents it sometimes as part of a triptych with his earlier works The Black Swan and Antifragile, and at other times as a continuation, each book “just as Eve came out of Adam’s ribs”, seeding the central idea of the next. The Black Swan, a soaraway success praised for its prophetic power and intense relevance, looked – just before the financial crash of 2007 – at “high-impact, unexpected” events; at those disasters that result when you underestimate the complexity of systems and, at its simplest, when you assume that because you’ve never seen one, black swans don’t exist.

    Antifragile, which had more of a pop-philosophy feel, advised how to take advantage of modern randomness and volatility. Skin in the Game has more in common, in the way its ideas are structured and their application, with Black Swan. Yet a style runs strong and consistent through each of the three books, trenchant beyond all imagining, and is its own kind of wit. Every economist, journalist, book reviewer, professor, anyone who is not part of an “active and transactional life” is an inveterate idiot, unless he or she is one of a handful Taleb respects, who also seem to be his very close friends. “I am never bothered by normal people,” he says, though given the emphasis he puts on his “fuck-off” wealth, the reader might be permitted to wonder how many normal people he engages with.

    Every idea that sounds as if it might work in the abstract fails in the particular

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  • Tomorrow by Elisabeth Russell Taylor review – an early 90s gem
    A tale of grief with a beautiful structure and wrenching twist

    Taylor’s reissued 1991 novel feels as though it could date from much earlier in the century, such is its cool, formal beauty and the exquisite portrait of unhappiness it paints. Yet when the protagonist’s glacial self-control cracks, the disturbing images that dart out from the damaged mind beneath the facade remind one that this is indeed a modern novel with a very sophisticated understanding of the depredations of grief.

    Elisabeth Danziger, a Jewish refugee living in London, returns every year to the Danish island where her family once had idyllic holiday homes and where, absorbed in their own happiness, for too long they ignored the gathering storm of antisemitism in their German home town.

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  • Operation Chaos by Matthew Sweet review – spies, Vietnam deserters and a cult of evil
    A horribly readable account of the US military deserters who found asylum in Sweden during the Vietnam War, and their group’s infiltration by the CIA

    It is almost forgotten now what a decisive role Sweden played in the Vietnam war. Even at the time, the armies doing the fighting and the million or so Vietnamese doing the dying may have underestimated the importance Swedish public opinion had on their struggle. But in Sweden it was never in doubt. The starting point for this weird, sad, horribly readable story is the arrival in Stockholm in May 1968 of six misfit and confused US deserters from the Vietnam war after they had been shepherded across the Soviet Union from Japan, where a fishing vessel had smuggled them on to a Russian ship.

    They had been transported across the USSR “on a current of vodka” and with women supplied by the KGB; they had even been questioned by Yuri Andropov, later to rise to supreme power, and helped to make a propaganda film in which one of them, according to Sweet’s account, who had been a ship’s cook and never landed in the country, gave wrenching testimony of all the atrocities he and his unit had committed on the ground in Vietnam.

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