The week in books

April 30, 2009

South Africa's Brave New World: The Beloved Country since the End of Apartheid by R.W. Johnson, emeritus fellow, Magdalen College, Oxford. Allen Lane, £25.00, ISBN 9780713995381

"For Johnson all (literally all) is dross, disappointment, betrayal and corruption. There never was a Mandela miracle - the 'real miracle', he says, was how F.W. de Klerk 'led the white minority to surrender its power peacefully'. Mandela, for Johnson, was little more than a charismatic pawn for the sinister Marxist-communists who had hijacked the ANC in exile and who were really only interested in getting their snouts in the trough."

Ivan Fallon, The Independent

Twenty Minutes in Manhattan by Michael Sorkin, distinguished professor of architecture and director of the graduate programme in urban design, City College of New York. Reaktion Books, £16.95, ISBN 9781861894281

"The image so frequently portrayed of this metropolis is of impatience, intolerance and the neglect of the human. It is depicted as a place to be escaped from - at least in our suburbanised Anglo-Saxon world view. Sorkin's city is the opposite. It is a place of infinite negotiation in which life is only made possible by an almost unimaginable level of co-operation. Whether it is elevator etiquette or the fraught relationship between noisy neighbours and negligent landlords, Sorkin's Manhattan is a densely populated Petri dish of humanity - at its best and most generous, as well as its worst and most self-interested."

Edwin Heathcote, Financial Times

The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels by Tristram Hunt, lecturer in history, Queen Mary, University of London. Allen Lane, £25.00, ISBN 9780713998528

"Hunt struggles (with little original research) to find a reason for yet another biography. He seeks to recover Engels' reputation from those who have portrayed him as responsible for Stalinist excesses, and he suggests ambitiously that a fresh examination of the works of Engels and Marx 'can offer not just an insightful critique of global capitalism but new perspectives on the nature of modernity and progress, religion and ideology, colonialism and "liberal interventionism", global financial crises, urban theory, feminism, even Darwinism and reproductive ethics'. These claims might look good in a newspaper but they are not easy to substantiate in a book."

Richard Gott, New Statesman

Islands: A Trip through Time and Space by Peter Conrad, tutor in English, Christ Church, Oxford. Thames and Hudson, £14.95, ISBN 9780500514719

"Although the sheer scope of Conrad's frame of reference is the main attraction - in one of the book's racier moments he identifies an internet porn site as a modern-day incarnation of Aphrodite's island of Kithira - it is the very abundance of islands that becomes the book's weakness. The island as a metaphor is loaded with so many meanings that its potency disappears and the coherence of the book's subject comes apart. Unlike the fantasists that travel to Conrad's islands, we never feel as if we are being taken somewhere worthwhile."

Edward King, The Sunday Times.

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