Sad news via Owen Bowcott in The Guardian:
The author and polemicist Christopher Hitchens yesterday announced he was cutting short a promotional book tour in order to undergo chemotherapy treatment.
There were reports that the the British-born writer, who was a heavy smoker until giving up several years ago, had been diagnosed with cancer.
In a statement issued by his US publisher, Twelve, the 61-year-old said: “I have been advised by my physician that I must undergo a course of chemotherapy on my oesophagus. This advice seems persuasive to me. I regret having had to cancel so many engagements at such short notice.”
The firm gave no further details other than asking for his privacy to be respected. Hitchens launched a high profile book tour last month to promote his memoir Hitch-22, which tackles subjects ranging from the Middle East and Zimbabwe to his friendships with prominent writers including Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis. The volume has already entered the bestseller lists.
On a balmy and humid Saturday night, June 5th, we left our apartment on Kikar Masarik Square in Tel-Aviv and walked down to Yitzhak Rabin Square, only 5 minutes away. Recalling our youthful days at similar anti-war and peace marches, we eyed the crowd anxiously. We soon realized that we were joining the crowd, whose size would eventually grow to 6,000 and sponsored by the Israeli Peace Movement (Shalom Ahshav), at the gathering spot of the Israeli Communist Party (Hadash): I noticed many young Arabs carrying the hammer and sickle, along with girls, Israeli or Palestinian, with their khaffiyas, chanting in Hebrew and Arabic as a distinguished looking elderly Arab gentleman addressed that part of the crowd. As the sea of red flags surges around us, I suppressed a tear: Such a sight is hardly visible in any European capital. I recalled all those Jewish communist militants of Europe who gave their lives for an ideal that was hollowed out by history. “Wie eine Trane im Ozean,” I mused –like a tear in the Ocean– recalling that beautiful novel of Mannes Sperber, documenting the decimation of a generation of militants by Stalin and party purges even before the gas chambers reached them. But here now before me were their children and grandchildren, not in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest and Moscow, but in Tel-Aviv.
more from Seyla Benhabib at Reset here.
The political novel – the urgent, morally committed depiction of conflicts and tragedies – flourished during the 1930s and 1940s, amid depression, fascism and total war, when Soviet communism was the socialist star on an otherwise darkening horizon. This era spawned some of the finest political fiction and drama we have known: Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, André Malraux, Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus were all writing at full throttle. In my opinion, the cold war – and the fiction it created – begins in the 1930s with the Spanish civil war. Young writers made the pilgrimage to Republican Spain and some of them died. Orwell escaped death by a whisker, as a bullet passed through his neck. Malraux led an air squadron and produced a novel of electric expressionism, Man’s Hope (1937). Hemingway settled down to the measured, crafted story-telling of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). But if anti-fascism was the point of departure for all these writers, they would soon divide over the nature of the Stalinist intervention in Spain. Dos Passos, the most formally innovative of all interwar novelists, chose to turn Adventures of a Young Man (1939) into a howl of protest against communist chicanery. Orwell himself went for a mix of autobiography and reportage in Homage to Catalonia (1938), an indictment of Stalinist tactics in which he talked himself out of Left Book Club patronage and into embittered isolation.
more from David Caute at The New Statesman here.
When people talk about “natural storytellers,” they are probably paying an unintended compliment to the unnatural. They mean that such writers are unnaturally gifted in artifice; that, better than the rest of us, they can draw us in, sound a voice, shape a plot, siphon the fizz of suspense. Yet the compliment is not merely inverted, since even freakish mastery of such tricks does not account for those impalpable gifts—the tremor of presence on the page, the overflow of vitality—which rival the abundance, even gratuitousness, of nature itself. The English writer David Mitchell belongs to this returning army of nature. Lavishly talented as both a storyteller and a prose stylist, he is notable for his skill and his fertility. Without annoying zaniness or exaggeration, he is nevertheless an artist of surplus: he seems to have more stories than he quite knows what to do with, and he ranges across a remarkable variety of genres—conventional historical fiction, dystopian sci-fi, literary farce. “Cloud Atlas” (2004), his best-known novel, features six interlocked and rotating novellas, each completely different from its neighbor: the journal of an American notary, travelling by boat from Australia to America in the eighteen-fifties; the letters of a young bisexual English composer, sent in the nineteen-thirties to a college friend; a slice of nineteen-seventies paranoid political thriller, in which a young California journalist takes on a sinister energy corporation.
more from James Wood at The New Yorker here.
Vaughan Bell in Mind Hacks:
Frontiers in Neuroscience has an amazing scientific article that has collected all the studies that have recorded what happens when the brain is electrically stimulated in living patients. It's like a travel guide to the unnaturally active brain.
As you might expect, science generally takes a dim view of researchers cracking open people's skulls just to see what happens when bits of their brain are stimulated, hence, almost all of these studies have been done on patients who are undergoing brain surgery but have agreed to spend a few minutes during the operation to report their experiences for the benefit of neuroscience.
This procedure is also essential in some forms of brain surgery to make sure the surgeons avoid essential areas. For example, in some cases of otherwise untreatable epilepsy the surgeons track down the 'foci' or trigger area, and can often stop seizures completely just by removing it.
However, if an area is heavily involved in speech production, you wouldn't necessarily want to give up being able to talk for the sake of being seizure free, so surgeons will open the skull, wake you up, and then ask you to speak while stimulating the areas they are considering removing. They can map your speech areas by seeing when you can't speak as the areas are stimulated, and hence, know what areas to avoid.
John Lancaster in National Geographic:
The Taliban would not be amused. On a sunny winter afternoon in Lahore, the local culturati have turned out in force for the annual show at the National College of Arts. In the main courtyard young men and women mingle easily, smoking and sipping from cans of Red Bull. Some of the men sport ponytails, and one has a pierced eyebrow.
Nearby is a life-size sculpture of a couple holding hands on a swing. Inside, the image of a male torso, viewed from one angle, morphs into a female breast. Yet there is no mistaking the stamp of the subcontinent. Women wear traditional thigh-length tunics over their jeans, and some cover their hair. There are also miniature paintings, which traditionally might capture a hunting scene; here they portray other scenes, as in one bold depiction of a bearded cleric reclining on a couch in front of a bombed-out school.
The jumble of styles and influences—the stew of peoples and faiths Rudyard Kipling captured so vividly in his novel Kim—is a hallmark of Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city and capital of Punjab Province. The wealthiest and most populous of the country's four provinces, Punjab is where East meets West and everything in between. Even the brutal and bloody partition of British India in the mid-20th century could not destroy Punjab's cosmopolitan brio.
But the Taliban and its allies are doing their best.
More here, including a lovely photo gallery.
J. Hoberman in the NYRB blog:
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, which had its world premiere at Cannes last month and will be turning up at other film festivals this fall, is an example of what the radical Soviet documentarian Dziga Vertov called a “film object.”
Culled from a thousand hours of archival footage and four years in the making, this unconventional documentary assembled by the émigré Romanian film-essayist Andrei Ujică is a three-hour immersion in a totalitarian leader’s official reality. Ceauşescu’s Romania, the Eastern bloc’s most brutally destructive regime, is remembered for its systematic repression, its failed industrialization, and its pervasive police state—including a disastrous ban on contraception that produced a culture of clandestine abortions and horrific orphanages. None of this appears explicitly in the film. Instead, Ujică shows Ceauşescu’s public image as fabricated by (and for) the dictator himself during the course of his catastrophic 25-year reign.
Much of the material was shot without sound—only the speeches included an audio component—and Ujică shows the footage largely as found, often in the form of unedited rushes, in Romania’s National Film and National Television archives. There’s neither annotation nor voiceover commentary, although the filmmaker does intermittently add naturalistic sound effects—and, at one point, a slyly-chosen pop song, so that a gaggle of fashionable young Romanians can be seen dancing the Twist to the 1965 rockabilly hit “I Fought the Law and the Law Won.”
Last month, Abbas posted a review of Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch's Ten Walks/Two Talks, which “combines a series of sixty-minute, sixty-sentence walks around Manhattan with a pair of roving dialogues—one of which takes place during a late-night 'philosophical' ramble through Central Park. Mapping 21st-century New York, Cotner and Fitch update the meandering and meditative form of Basho's travel diaries to construct a descriptive/dialogic fugue.” HTMLGIANT has an interview with the authors on their project. It's also offering a free copy of the book to the commenter that's taken the longest walk, for those who may need an incentive to share their story.
Which came first for you, this form or the idea to collaborate? I mean, did you guys decide you wanted to collab on something and come up with this, or what?
Andy Fitch: By our late twenties, both Jon and I felt we had done enough single, solitary work for years to come. We loved each other, and enjoyed talking to each other. A two-for-the-price-of-one aesthetic had long appealed to us, though the idea for this particular book came later.
Jon: Ten Walks/Two Talks combines excerpts from two manuscripts: Andy’s Sixty Morning Walks, and our collaborative Conversations over Stolen Food. After reading Sixty Morning Walks, I told Andy I’d wanted to transcribe dialogues between me and people I met at Union Square Whole Foods while eating stolen food. Something about that space evokes the ancient Greek agora (or marketplace), so it seemed the perfect venue for a project at least loosely connected with Socratic dialogue—plus, Socrates was known to sample delicacies at congregations to which he hadn’t been invited. I thought the project would be called Conversations over Stolen Food, but before long I’d gotten busy with other things and more or less forgot about it. Roughly a year later Andy asked me to record conversations with him. It was exhilarating. We did thirty dialogues in just over a month, all across New York City, though “Union Square W.F.” is our most common meeting-place since it’s hard to pass up a discounted organic meal. These talks became Conversations over Stolen Food. Other people occasionally appear; for the most part the dialogues unfold between us.
The amazing smarts of crows, jays, and other corvids are forcing scientists to rethink when and why intelligence evolved.
Charles Wohlforth in Discover:
Nicky Clayton is no better at sitting still than are the birds she studies. Back in the 1990s, her colleagues at the University of California at Davis would stay at their computers at lunchtime, but she would wander outside and watch as western scrub-jays stole bits of students’ meals and secretively cached the food. During these informal field studies, Clayton, an experimental psychologist, noticed that the birds returned frequently to their stashes and changed their hiding places.
“I thought, ‘This is odd,’” she says. “I assumed birds would cache for a long time—days or months. But this was for minutes.” She theorized that the birds were moving their caches to avoid pilfering. When food was plentiful, they grabbed as much as possible and hid it, then hid it again when they could do so without being observed by potential thieves. That behavior implied that the scrub-jays might be thinking about other birds’ potential actions, a type of flexible thinking that was supposedly beyond the capabilities of a scrub-jay’s little brain.
Clayton realized that if she could capture this caching behavior in the laboratory, she might be able to decode the social cognition of birds—the way they think about one another. She might learn whether they are capable of deception, if they respond differently to individual competitors, how well they evaluate their degree of privacy, and other aspects of their mental processes.
More here. [Photo shows a hooded crow which has made a nest outside my window in Karachi.]
the round orange
sun is about to dissolve
on the tongue of misery
island like the thin body
of god's son smoke black
stacks from salem power
plant ruin the brown
horizon i can smell the
salt hear the foghorn
my father walks on tired
legs we talk about red
sox politics mostly
i listen he is an old bigot
& i love him but the hard drinking
of our lives has left narrow
streets for forgiveness we
can only stare back at time
like two men suddenly alone
in the kitchen over
beers after ma's funeral
we got closer i was nine years
sober he wasn't truth
is i was angry & when i wrote
it down it hurt him
there's an eroded place
a beat down causeway
where cows used to walk
to kettle island now water
rushes over it i touch my father's
arm & we walk in small
silences to the coast
by Jim Bell
from Crossing the Bar
Slate Roof: a Publishing Collaborative, 2005
John Tierney in The New York Times:
In the past, daydreaming was often considered a failure of mental discipline, or worse. Freud labeled it infantile and neurotic. Psychology textbooks warned it could lead to psychosis. Neuroscientists complained that the rogue bursts of activity on brain scans kept interfering with their studies of more important mental functions.
But now that researchers have been analyzing those stray thoughts, they’ve found daydreaming to be remarkably common — and often quite useful. A wandering mind can protect you from immediate perils and keep you on course toward long-term goals. Sometimes daydreaming is counterproductive, but sometimes it fosters creativity and helps you solve problems. Consider, for instance, these three words: eye, gown, basket. Can you think of another word that relates to all three? If not, don’t worry for now. By the time we get back to discussing the scientific significance of this puzzle, the answer might occur to you through the “incubation effect” as your mind wanders from the text of this article — and, yes, your mind is probably going to wander, no matter how brilliant the rest of this column is.
Mind wandering, as psychologists define it, is a subcategory of daydreaming, which is the broad term for all stray thoughts and fantasies, including those moments you deliberately set aside to imagine yourself winning the lottery or accepting the Nobel. But when you’re trying to accomplish one thing and lapse into “task-unrelated thoughts,” that’s mind wandering.
The concrete, material presence of books on our bookshelves transports us back to the time and place where we first read them, we sometimes are pleased and other times shudder when we think of what a book meant to us then, what it has come to mean to us now, we are sometimes comforted to see the continuity of ourselves when we read our earlier marginalia, sometimes disconcerted by its now-alien quality, and occasionally we have dreams about books, like the one I had after my mentor died. When I was in graduate school, he used to lend me his books, their margins overflowing with neat, handwritten questions, objections, notes to himself (I can still picture the fine purple line quality of his felt-tip pen), teaching me how to read in conversation with the author, that is, when I paid attention to the author and not, as I was inclined to do, to the always more interesting thoughts of my mentor. When he died, I dreamt that he had left me a book that he had annotated especially for me and how grateful I was to have it (“who touches this touches a man”) and how sorry I was to wake up.
more from Rochelle Gurstein at TNR here.
RUSTENBURG, South Africa—If you drive outside the main cities in South Africa, you will always find a fire burning. Beside a highway. In a field. On a dirt patch, men huddled around its warmth. I saw many such blazes on the road from Pretoria to Rustenburg as I made my way to the round of 16 match between the United States and Ghana. On Saturday night, the smoke from all of these fires seemed to pool in this hardscrabble mining town. It burdened the air, reducing visibility to a few feet, even with a full moon low in the sky. My traveling companions and I felt the hoodoo: Whatever happy energy once fueled the American adventure here had been replaced by apprehension. Perhaps my mood was colored by the fact that pickpockets had stolen my tickets the day before. With FIFA’s help, I found new ones outside of the U.S. supporters’ section. It didn’t matter. Most American fans had already gone home. Exactly two weeks ago, I’d had to push my way past Donovan and Dempsey jerseys into a nearby bar. Now the place was all but empty. In the smoke outside, I kept bumping into haunted-looking Englishmen who’d banked on their team winning Group C and playing its knockout game here. “Extra England ticket?” they whispered. “Trade? Trade?” We even saw a handwritten sign pleading for tickets, left on the ground, pinned down by rocks. But where were the Yanks? Maybe American fans felt their team wouldn’t make it this far. Maybe fewer of them gave a damn than I thought.
more from Luke O’Brien at Slate here.