Two Men at Dickens World

Sam Anderson on Asad Raza in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_23 Feb. 12 11.40A few words about Asad, who appears in the essay only as a shadowy figure: my anonymous “friend.” In reality, he was a huge part of my trip: driver, companion, interpreter, guinea pig, canary in the coal mine. Asad and I met 10 years ago in grad school, where I found him to be so intimidatingly smart — so effortlessly fluent about esoteric subjects that I’d never even heard of — that I almost dropped out of the program after two weeks. I stuck with it, though, and eventually Asad and I became friends. He’s still the most naturally critical person I know — not in the narrow sense of being negative about things, but in the large and exciting sense of taking things apart, analyzing them, concocting theories. Walking around with him feels like carrying a philosopher in your pocket.

Because we studied Dickens together at school, and because Asad lives in London now, it seemed only natural for me to bully him into coming to Dickens World. He agreed and, true to form, kept up a brilliant running commentary about everything we saw.

In my favorite picture from the trip, Asad stands on top of a very high railing in order to peer ecstatically over the wall of Miss Havisham’s garden, still discoursing.

Asad was on fire, interpretively, for the entire trip. Only Dickens World, it turned out, could make his critical motor grind to a halt. As soon as we entered the park, it was like he’d been shot by an arrow. You could feel the energy draining out of him.

More here.

The Catcher in the Rye, Illustrated

Michael Norris and David Richardson in Literary Kicks:

ScreenHunter_22 Feb. 11 16.41Salinger’s early life parallels that of Holden Caulfield. He grew up in Manhattan, and there he attended the McBurney School. He showed promise in drama, wrote for the school newspaper, and, like Holden, managed the fencing team. Nevertheless, McBurney expelled Salinger because of his failing grades. He then went to Valley Forge Military Academy near Philadelphia, from which he graduated in 1936. It was at Valley Forge that he started writing stories.

After graduation from military school, Salinger bounced around, attending New York University for a year and working for a meat packing company in Vienna, Austria (at the urging of his father) until the eve of Austria’s annexation by Hitler in 1938. On his return to the States, he briefly attended Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, and then took a writing class at Columbia. His writing teacher was Whit Burnett, the editor of Story magazine. Burnett recognized Salinger’s talent, and accepted one of his stories, “The Young Folks”, for publication in the spring, 1940 issue of the magazine.

With one story successfully published, Salinger began submitting to The New Yorker. The magazine rejected most of these efforts, but did accept “Slight Rebellion off Madison” for publication in late 1941. However, due to the outbreak of World War II, and the content of the story, it did not appear in The New Yorker until 1946.

“Slight Rebellion off Madison” marks the first appearance of Holden Caulfield. It contains an early version of the Sally Hayes episode which appears in Catcher in the Rye.

More here.

Are We on the Brink of War With Iran?

Trita Parsi in The Nation:

30804_125050027527964_125027330863567_170642_4761707_nOnly twelve minutes into his presidency, Barack Obama reached out to the Muslim world and Iran, offering America’s hand of friendship if Iran would in turn unclench its fist. Yet three years later, we are closer to war than we were in the last years of the Bush administration, with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta telling the Washington Post there is a “strong likelihood” of an Israeli strike this spring. How did we get here?

Conventional wisdom in Washington is that Obama’s diplomacy with Iran failed. It did not. As I argue in my new book A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy With Iran, it was prematurely abandoned. Obama’s intention was genuine, but his vision for diplomacy was soon undermined, for four reasons: pressure from Israel and its powerful allies in Congress, and to a lesser extent from Saudi Arabia and France, to adopt a confrontational policy; the June 2009 election mayhem in Iran and the subsequent repression and human rights abuses, which hardened the regime in Tehran and narrowed Obama’s space for diplomacy; Obama’s early adoption of a contradictory “dual track” policy, combining diplomacy with escalating pressure on Tehran; and Obama’s unwillingness to create more domestic political space for diplomacy by challenging a status quo in Washington that is set on enmity.

The Netanyahu government and its Washington allies compromised Obama’s vision in four ways.

More here.

Tree-Dwelling Primate Called Tarsier Sends and Receives Ultrasonic Calls

Farris Jabr in Scientific American:

ScreenHunter_21 Feb. 11 16.23Let’s be honest: tarsiers look odd. Among the smallest of all primates, most species of tarsier would fit easily in the palm of your hand. They have long, slender, largely hairless tails and elongated fingers with knobby knuckles and mushroom-cap finger pads.

To fully confront the tarsier’s bizarre anatomy, you must stare it in the face. It will stare back at you with the largest eyes relative to body size of any mammal—eyes that shimmer in the daylight like peeled grapes. Surely such eyes—each of which is as big as the tarsier’s brain—belong on the face of a frog or a squid or an alien, rather than that of a furry tree-climber.

Now, scientists have discovered that the tarsier is even stranger than we realized. Apparently, these tiny primates can send and receive ultrasonic calls, joining a select club of mammals with the same acoustic talent—namely, whales, dolphins, cats, rats and bats. Researchers already knew that tarsiers make at least 15 distinct calls—all of which are audible to people—but until now no one had good evidence that they also communicate with ultrasonic shrieks, although some scientists guessed they might.

More here.

Ella Fitzgerald: Something to Live For

From PBS:

EllaBorn in Newport News, Virginia in 1917, Ella Fitzgerald moved with her mother to New York after the death of her father. Living in Yonkers, Fitzgerald attended public school, where she sang in the glee club and received her musical education. After her early success at the Apollo, and as a popular performer at a number of other amateur venues, Fitzgerald was invited to join Chick Webb’s band. Within a short while she was the star attraction, and had made a number hits including her trademark “A-tisket, A-tasket” (1938). After Webb’s death in 1939, Fitzgerald led the band for three years.

…By the 1970s, she was performing with a trio headed by pianist Tommy Flanagan, and regularly with dozens of different symphony orchestras. Though her voice was not what it had been, Fitzgerald’s enthusiasm and charisma continued to excite crowds well into the 1980s. After a successful appearance in the United Kingdom in 1990, she retired due to ailing health. Two years later President Ronald Reagan awarded her the National Medal of Honor. Suffering continued health problems, Fitzgerald spent the last few years of her life in her Beverly Hills home. On June 15, 1996 she died at the age of seventy-eight. Of Fitzgerald, Johnny Mathis said, “She was the best there ever was. Amongst all of us who sing, she was the best.” From those early days on Harlem streets to the upper stratosphere of musical fame, Ella Fitzgerald’s life was the quintessential American success story. Through fifty-eight years of performing, thirteen Grammys and more than forty million records sold, she elevated swing, bebop, and ballads to their highest potential. She was, undeniably, the First Lady of Song.

More here. (Note: In honor of African American History Month, we will be linking to at least one related post throughout February. The 2012 theme is Black Women in American Culture and History).

Groupthink: The brainstorming myth

Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker:

BrainIn the late nineteen-forties, Alex Osborn, a partner in the advertising agency B.B.D.O., decided to write a book in which he shared his creative secrets. At the time, B.B.D.O. was widely regarded as the most innovative firm on Madison Avenue. Born in 1888, Osborn had spent much of his career in Buffalo, where he started out working in newspapers, and his life at B.B.D.O. began when he teamed up with another young adman he’d met volunteering for the United War Work Campaign. By the forties, he was one of the industry’s grand old men, ready to pass on the lessons he’d learned. His book “Your Creative Power” was published in 1948. An amalgam of pop science and business anecdote, it became a surprise best-seller. Osborn promised that, by following his advice, the typical reader could double his creative output. Such a mental boost would spur career success—“To get your foot in the door, your imagination can be an open-sesame”—and also make the reader a much happier person. “The more you rub your creative lamp, the more alive you feel,” he wrote. “Your Creative Power” was filled with tricks and strategies, such as always carrying a notebook, to be ready when inspiration struck. But Osborn’s most celebrated idea was the one discussed in Chapter 33, “How to Organize a Squad to Create Ideas.” When a group works together, he wrote, the members should engage in a “brainstorm,” which means “using the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.” For Osborn, brainstorming was central to B.B.D.O.’s success. Osborn described, for instance, how the technique inspired a group of ten admen to come up with eighty-seven ideas for a new drugstore in ninety minutes, or nearly an idea per minute. The brainstorm had turned his employees into imagination machines.

More here.

Saturday Poem


Rough, wet winds
parch my agonised face
as if salting the wound of
……………………… Bulhoek
……………….. Soweto,
unbandage strip by strip
the dressings of Hope;
I wade my senses
through the mist;
I am still surviving
the traumas of my raped soil
alive and aware;
truths jump like a cat leaps for fish
at my mind;
I plod along
.. into the vortex
of a clear-borne dawn

by Mafika Gwala
from Jol’iinkomo
publisher: AD Donker, Johannesburg, 1977

Editor's Note: Bulhoek: A tiny village in the Eastern Cape where, in 1922, the police and army shot about 180 members of a religious community.

Sharpeville: At a peaceful protest against the Pass Laws in 1960 at the Sharpeville Police Station in the Vaal Triangle, 69 people were killed and 180 injured.

Soweto: At a march of high school students protesting the imposition of Afrikaans as an official language of instruction in black schools, 23 students were killed.

spring not over


Yet, for all the pain and the setbacks, there is no doubt that the political upheaval has transformed the consciousness of Arabs. Last year’s revolts, particularly the drama in Tahrir Square, opened Arab eyes to the tantalising possibility of change. In a region held back by authoritarianism and bedevilled by social divisions and sectarian tensions, people were brought together in a rare show of unity, the liberals embracing the Islamists, the Muslims praying next to the Christians. Beyond the revolutionary countries, people looked on hopefully, believing for the first time in the possibility of overcoming decades of tyranny and inequality. For those hoping to relive the moment it all changed, novelist Ahdaf Soueif, author of the Man Booker-shortlisted The Map of Love and also a leftist activist, takes you into an unfolding revolution almost day by day. In Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, the story of Egypt’s uprising is intertwined with biographical detail and wrapped in an overwhelming passion for Cairo, a city that she feels had been disfigured by previous regimes and only now can be reclaimed as her own.

more from Roula Khalaf at the FT here.

Distrust That Particular Flavor


Herein lies one of Gibson’s most incisive gifts: his appreciation for the undersung, the copy, and how it can proliferate. Not the original, because as recontextualization, mash-ups, memes and other clever varietals of simulacra have possibly forever detonated our sense of originality and authenticity, the first is simply the start of an idea and not necessarily the best iteration, at that. Instead, Gibson knows that each copy adds more nuance to the object of our cultural fascination, imparted in its own weird, sometimes trashy but wholly individual code. The moments in “Distrust” where he translates the details of those codes are among the collection’s best. London, he says, “can reflect Japan, distort it, enjoy it, in ways that Vancouver, where I live, never can.” In Gibson’s writing, he functions as London does but to the past; he reflects it, distorts it and then projects it into the future. Or more precisely, he finds certain fun-house experiments already happening in the culture and then he takes those ideas and extrapolates them to their hysterical end in fiction. Take his massive urban environment, the Sprawl, used in “Neuromancer” and other books and short stories, a city that spawns so much of itself that it’s monstrous.

more from Margaret Wappler at the LA Times here.

Our nation is coming apart at the seams


For some decades now, a popular conservative narrative of modern America has gone something like this: Our center-right nation, devout and industrious, is ruled by a politically liberal elite that disdains family, despises religion and celebrates indolence with government handouts. Many people find this story convincing. It helped fracture the postwar Democratic Party and midwifed the culture wars. Today it feeds the political frustrations of the Tea Party movement. Charles Murray, the influential conservative scholar and provocateur, believes this story is wrong. In his new book, “Coming Apart,” Murray flips the script that has energized Republican politics and campaigns since Richard Nixon: the white working class, he argues, is no longer part of a virtuous silent majority. Instead, beginning in the early 1960s, it has become increasingly alienated from what Murray calls “the founding virtues” of civic life. “Our nation is coming apart at the seams,” Murray warns — “not ethnic seams, but the seams of class.”

more from Nicholas Confessore at the NY Times here.

A Peaceful, but Very Interesting Pursuit

Lisa Levy in The Rumpus:

ScreenHunter_20 Feb. 10 13.30From 1917 until 1925, T.S. Eliot worked in a bank. A simple, declarative sentence, a biographical fact. Not the subject of dissertations or the reason two hefty volumes of The Letters of T.S. Eliot (Volume 1: 1898-1922; Volume 2: 1923-5) have just been published, but along with his disastrous and draining marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood, Eliot’s employment at Lloyd’s Bank of London was the driving force of his life in the years of these letters, until he left Lloyd’s in October 1925 for a position as an editor at the publishing house Faber & Gwyer (later to be Faber & Faber).

There is a general antipathy about hearing too much about a writer’s day job once he has become successful, and Eliot’s successes piled up as he rose at Lloyd’s: Prufrock and Other Observations was published in 1915; his essays collected in The Sacred Wood in 1921; The Waste Land stormed both sides of the Atlantic in 1922, etc. Like Eliot at the bank, we know Wallace Stevens sold insurance, but nobody wants to think about the poet at the water cooler, or, even worse, pouring over actuarial tables. Same goes for William Carlos Williams being a doctor: Do we want a man so skilled with words to perform our annual physicals? It’s fine for a writer to have a quirky or strange day job, like nude model, “oyster pirate,” even garbage man. Yet the point of the writer’s life must remain to end up at the writer’s desk somewhere, with all that nonsense left behind.

More here.

Friday Poem

Welcome Morning

There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry “hello there, Anne”
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.
All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.
So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.
The Joy that isn't shared, I've heard,
dies young.
by Anne Sexton
from The Awful Rowing Toward God

Toni Morrison: The Day, and Its Splendid Parts

From The New York Times:

Toni_morrison_01On June 10, 1973, a few years after Toni Morrison had published her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” the Book Review asked her for an essay, for its annual Summer Reading issue, about, of all things, cooking out. The essay Morrison delivered is lovely, and hard to read without conjuring summer and blankets spread across shady lawns. With spring almost in the air, here is Morrison’s essay again, plucked from our archives. At the time, we identified her this way: “Toni Morrison, the author of ‘The Bluest Eye,’ cooks on a proper stove in Spring Valley, N.Y.”


Uncle Green was late so that meant all the Blue Gums would be late too. He was up from Alabama for 20 days with a $500 bill which never broke because nobody – nobody – had change and so he had to borrow whatever he needed until the time he could get to a store big enough to handle it. Mama and Aunt Millie looked at his big bill, then at each other, then at the sky that stretched overhead with precisely the infinite patience they had lost. The fish were already awake, the potatoes were sliced and simmering next to the onions, and this whole tribal effort to have a day-long fish-and-cookout at Turkeyfoot Lake in honor of the eldest member of the Alabama wing of the family was beginning to draw Mama’s and Aunt Millie’s lips together in annoyance.

More here. (Note: In honor of African American History Month, we will be linking to at least one related post throughout February. The 2012 theme is Black Women in American Culture and History).

Syrian poet Adonis introduces his artworks

From The Guardian:


A major tribute to the great Syrian poet Adonis, including an exhibition of his stunning drawings and a series of literary events. Adonis is today considered one of the most important figures in the Arabic literary history of the last fifty years, and the Arab world’s greatest living poet. His work has spanned poetry, literary criticism and history, Sufism, politics and contemporary cultural affairs. His drawings are inspired by and include sections of poetry, handwritten in Arabic calligraphy and collaged with layers of found objects. These pieces, like his literary work, combine traditional and contemporary influences. Exiled to France after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, he worked to bring to Arabic poetry the international recognition it deserved. Even today, when he is more than eighty years old, he retains his fresh and critical outlook on the events of his homeland, attracting controversy and debate because of his cautionary and critical words on the Arab Spring. In 2011, Adonis was awarded the highly prestigious Goethe Prize.

About 10 years ago the Syrian poet Adonis started making images using calligraphy, colour and figurative gestures which he calls 'rakaim'. Here he talks about the inspiration behind some of his latest work, currently on show at the Mosaic Rooms in London.

Picture on right: 'This is the only rakima where I've used a photograph. It's a young woman protesting against the wall in Palestine. The text is an assemblage of pre-Islamic writings which speak of peace and against oppression.'

More here.

Notes from the Undercity

Article00Jonathan Shainin in Bookforum:

On December 9, 2011, the ABC News program 20/20 aired a dramatic report from India, presented by the show’s Emmy Award–winning anchor Elizabeth Vargas. In an uncharacteristically long piece devoted to social issues in a foreign country not recently liberated from tyranny by an American invasion, the fifteen-minute segment set out to reveal what its title dubbed “India’s Deadly Secret.” The deadly secret in question—so secret that the Times of India has only mentioned it about six hundred times in the past two years, according to LexisNexis—is the propensity of Indian families to abort female fetuses: a disturbing and disturbingly widespread practice, which has produced badly skewed child sex ratios (as high as 129 boys for every 100 girls in certain districts) that indicate the “disappearance” of tens of millions of women over the past several decades.

This is a subject of unquestionable significance, but 20/20’s report on India’s “growing gender gap” turned out to be a kind of master class in how deeply a group of well-meaning journalists can drown their good intentions in a warm bath of patronizing condescension and pity. Backed by the requisite sitar-and-tabla sound track, Vargas strode bravely down dusty, crowded roads with nary a female in sight. “Walk down any street, as I did throughout India,” she said in a voice-over, “and you notice something startling: In every direction you see men, and very few women.” Cut to a slow-motion shot of four uniformed schoolgirls walking past the camera: “Now look closely at the faces of these girls. They are the lucky ones—they’re alive.” (Figures from the 2011 census suggest that they have the company of 572 million other living Indian women.)

If you were playing Sentimental Orientalist bingo while watching at home, your card would have filled up pretty fast. Obligatory reference—“in a land where men revere female goddesses”—to “spiritual” India? Check. Needless (and erroneous) recourse to “ancient tradition” as an explanation for contemporary behavior? Check. Failure to acknowledge that the scourge of sex-selective abortion afflicts countries from Albania and Armenia to South Korea and Vietnam? Check. Concluding with ponderous and vaguely uplifting quote on-screen from Mahatma Gandhi? Check. Spelling his name incorrectly? Bingo.

If I had to tell you one thing about Katherine Boo’s astonishingly fine new book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I might start by noting that what a team of journalists from ABC News failed to accurately convey with fifteen minutes of video and who knows how many thousands of dollars, Boo manages in a single sentence. After describing how Fatima, one of the Mumbai slum dwellers whose lives this book chronicles with remarkable precision and a bracing refusal of pity, had drowned her own two-year-old daughter in a bucket, Boo encapsulates the whole terrible phenomenon of female feticide in India in thirty-two unadorned words: “Young girls in the slums died all the time under dubious circumstances, since most slum families couldn’t afford the sonograms that allowed wealthier families to dispose of their female liabilities before birth.”

Hungary’s Government Tightens Grip on Arts

Hungary-gripJulia Michalska in The Art Newspaper:

Already under attack from the European Commission for its policies on banking, the law and the media, Hungary’s national conservative government is now facing a tide of protest from the arts community. The government, led by Viktor Orban, stands accused of systematically replacing key figures in cultural institutions, staging pro-government exhibitions, rethinking permanent museum displays and replacing historic statues to fit its political agenda. “The fact that an authoritarian government wants to control the arts is in itself not surprising,” says the Hungarian economist Janos Kovacs. “But it’s incredible that this is happening in the middle of the European Union without provoking angry reactions in Brussels.”

Since coming to power with a two-thirds majority in 2010, Orban’s Fidesz party has passed more than 350 laws and rushed through a constitution which, the international community argues, endangers Hungarian demo­cracy. Last month, to celebrate the official inauguration of the constitution, Orban opened a government-organised exhibition at the National Gallery. It chronicles 1,000 years of Hungarian history, focusing on sovereign statehood and Christ­ian­ity (until 16 August). The show includes 15 large state-commissioned canvases depicting important historic events spanning 150 years, including an image of Orban. The event contributed to the decision by the National Gallery’s director, Ferenc Csak, to resign before the show opened. “The government shouldn’t have the power to order exhibitions with such a high political agenda. Museums shouldn’t be getting involved in politics,” says Csak.

There have been other government-instigated changes in personnel at leading institutions. Laszlo Simon, a Fidesz party MP and chairman of the parliamentary cultural and press committee, has become the head of the National Cultural Fund of Hungary—which up until now was a body independent of government, monitored by the culture committee. It is one of the most important organisations that funds Hungarian cultural institutions, including museums, libraries, theatres and archives.

Mikhail Lomonosov and the dawn of Russian science

FigureVladimir Shiltsev in Physics Today:

As a scientist, Lomonosov was equal parts thinker and experimenter. He tested his theories and hypotheses with experiments that he planned and carried out himself. Although proficient in math, he never used differential calculus. He would work on research topics for years, even decades at a time, always with an eye toward turning discoveries into new practices or inventions.

Lomonosov believed physical and chemical phenomena were best explained in terms of the mechanical interactions of corpuscles—“minute, insensible particles” analogous to what we now know as molecules.1 Giving name to the philosophy, he coined the term “physical chemistry” in 1752.

He is perhaps best known for being the first person to experimentally confirm the law of conservation of matter. That metals gain weight when heated—now a well-known consequence of oxidation—confounded British chemist Robert Boyle, who had famously observed the effect in 1673. The result seemed to implicate that heat itself was a kind of matter. In 1756 Lomonosov disproved that notion by demonstrating that when lead plates are heated inside an airtight vessel, the collective weight of the vessel and its contents stays constant. In a subsequent letter to Euler, he framed the result in terms of a broad philosophy of conservation:

All changes that we encounter in nature proceed so that . . . however much matter is added to any body, as much is taken away from another . . . since this is the general law of nature, it is also found in the rules of motion: a body loses as much motion as it gives to another body.