After the fall of the Wall

  • The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia,
    by David E. Hoffman, Public Affairs Books, 567pp.

Up to a point, the life story of Alexander Smolensky reads like a morally uplifting, even spiritually enriching rags-to-riches parable. With an absent father and a mother whose Austrian background qualifed her, in Stalin’s Soviet Union, as an ‘enemy of the people,’ Smolensky grew up in poverty. Refused entry to higher education because of his mother’s background, he worked, in the early 1980s, in the shadowy, black-market economy, printing bibles at night. Continue reading “After the fall of the Wall”

Dancing to Greet the New Dawn

  • Isadora: the Sensational Life of Isadora Duncan
    by Peter Kurth, Little Brown & Company, 2002, 704pp.

Although she lived well into the era of silent movies, there are no filmed images of Isadora Duncan in motion. Because she was camera-shy, there are very few photographs of her either, and those that exist invariably show her draped in togas, striking dramatic poses. Continue reading “Dancing to Greet the New Dawn”

The Best of Companions

  • Poland: A Traveller’s Gazetteer
    by Adam Zamoyski, John Murray in association with Azimuth Editions, 2001, 331pp.

There are countries where it is easy to be a tourist, and countries where enjoying oneself takes a bit of extra effort. Despite my long association with Poland, I must concede that it falls into the latter camp, although not for wholly obvious reasons. It isn’t simply that the communist-era hotels are not up to scratch or that food is indifferent: while sometimes true, that is no longer universally the case. Continue reading “The Best of Companions”

Serendipity Rules OK

  • The Oxford Companion to English Literature
    ed. Margaret Drabble, Oxford University Press, 1995, 1184pp.

It isn’t history, it isn’t fiction, and it isn’t scholarship, although it contains elements of all three: in fact, one might say that The Oxford Companion to English Literature belongs in a genre all of its own. That being the case, one might also say that reviews of Companions to English Literature belong to a genre all of their own as well. Continue reading “Serendipity Rules OK”

Third thoughts on a tricky subject

  • The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon,
    by Anthony Summersl, Gollancz, 640pp.

Do we need another biography of Richard Nixon? Anthony Summers thinks we do, and you can see his point. Long vilified, even before Watergate, as one of the dirtiest players in American politics, Nixon experienced a revival towards the end of his life. Revisionist biographies appeared (not least one by Jonathan Aitken), speeches were made, a Nixon Centre was established and the disgraced president gradually acquired the halo of an elder statesman and foreign policy expert, a man widely consulted by sitting politicians, Bill Clinton among them. Continue reading “Third thoughts on a tricky subject”

Dead Souls: Tallying the Victims of Communism

  • The Black Book of Communism,
    Edited by Stephane Courtois et al, trans. Mark Kramer and Jonathan Murphy,
    Harvard University Press, 1120pp.

Its pages were yellowed, its cheap binding broken, its typeface uneven: there was nothing imposing about the copy of Un Bagne en Russie Rouge – `A Prison in Red Russia’ – which someone once handed me as a curiosity. Nevetheless, the book, published in Paris in 1927, was one of the first to describe the Soviet Union’s earliest political prisons, located on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea. Continue reading “Dead Souls: Tallying the Victims of Communism”