a writer of place


It’s tempting to call Richard Ford a writer of place. Beginning with his first novel, 1976’s “A Piece of My Heart,” the 68-year-old author has tended toward the border among landscape, language and character, using setting to help drive his narratives. Think of Frank Bascombe, who in “The Sportswriter,” “Independence Day” and “The Lay of the Land” drifts across the bland surfaces of New Jersey, seeking not stimulation but a stasis similar to that of the suburbs where he resides. Or the people of Ford’s Montana books, “Rock Springs” and “Wildlife”: etched by the stark environment in which they find themselves, staring down the elements of their lives. It’s as if, Ford wants us to imagine, we live at the mercy of larger forces, forces outside ourselves, forces that determine who we are. And yet, he insists by phone from his home in East Boothbay, Maine, that’s not the case — or not exactly, anyway. “Growing up in Mississippi,” he recalls, “and being told that this defined me, set me on a path away from place as generative. When I started writing, I took the Toulouse-Lautrec attitude that place is background scenery. I didn’t want the place I came from to be responsible for me.”

more from David L. Ulin at the LA Times here.

land of promise


Whatever their political party, American leaders have generally subscribed to one of two competing economic philosophies. One is a small-government Jeffersonian perspective that abhors bigness and holds that prosperity flows from competition among independent businessmen, farmers and other producers. The other is a Hamiltonian agenda that believes a large, powerful country needs large, powerful organizations. The most important of those organizations is the federal government, which serves as a crucial partner to private enterprise, building roads and schools, guaranteeing loans and financing scientific research in ways that individual businesses would not. Today, of course, Republicans are the Jeffersonians and Democrats are the Hamiltonians. But it hasn’t always been so. The Jeffersonian line includes Andrew Jackson, the leaders of the Confederacy, William Jennings Bryan, Louis Brandeis, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. The Hamiltonian line includes George Washington, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, both Roosevelts and Dwight Eisenhower. Michael Lind’s “Land of Promise” uses this divide to offer an ambitious economic history of the United States.

more from David Leonhardt at the NY Times here.

Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life

JehsbooksJeffrey K. McDonough reviews Justin Smith's Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life:

It is widely recognized that Leibniz's philosophical thought is deeply influenced by the mathematics, physics and philosophical theology of his era. Justin E. H. Smith's Divine Machines argues that many of Leibniz's most central philosophical doctrines are similarly bound up with the life sciences of his time, where the “life sciences” are understood very broadly to include fields as diverse as alchemy, medicine, taxonomy, and paleontology. Smith's groundbreaking exploration represents an important contribution to our understanding of both Leibniz's philosophy and the study of life in the early modern era. It is to be recommended to historians, philosophers, and historians of philosophy alike. Below I highlight four central topics in Smith's book, raising some reservations along the way.

1. First Things

The first part of Divine Machines is divided into two chapters, the first of which explores Leibniz's views on medicine. As Smith shows in detail, Leibniz, like many of his early modern contemporaries, was deeply interested in the study of medicine and its ancillary fields. Thus in a letter of 1697, Leibniz declares medicine to be “the most necessary of the natural sciences” and maintains that it is “the principal fruit of our knowledge of bodies,” since the promotion of health may allow us to “work for the glory of God” (26). This lofty aim no doubt bolstered Leibniz's interest in (what we would call) chemistry and anatomy (28-33, 48-58). In connection with the former, Smith provides a rather detailed account of Leibniz's treatise on the “purgative power” of the ipecacuanha root, a treatise that Smith calls, with (I assume) unintentionally faint praise, “the most comprehensive and influential of Leibniz's contributions to the history of medicine and pharmacy” (40). In connection with anatomy, Smith chronicles what he sees as a shift in Leibniz's enthusiasms away from vivisection towards microscopy.

Ideology Never Ends: An Interview with Daniel Chirot

Chirot_468wAlmantas Samalavicius in Eurozine:

AS: Recently there has been a revival of leftist ideologies and discourses all over eastern Europe. Younger intellectuals have set out to reanimate the “Left” with a set of western discursive practices (multicultural, feminist, queer critique and the like). Do you think such “revivalism” has any potential?

DC: The “end of ideology” proposed by Daniel Bell a half century ago was exaggerated even then. In fact, not long after that book, which was based heavily on the death of the old Left as a dynamic ideology, a new kind of Left surged, and by 1968, it was very clear that ideology was far from ended. I once asked Bell if he had abandoned the idea of the end of ideology. His answer, which was no answer at all, was that this was like asking him when he had stopped beating his wife. In other words, whether or not he did (and there is no evidence he did!), once the question was posed that way, he could not answer without seeming foolish. Later, with the fall of European communism, Fukuyama and others made the same claim. But ideology never ends. Yes, of course, there will be a resurgent Left, though it is more likely to take the form of protest against the unfairness of the existing economic order. We see this slowly forming in the United States. A large part of the population wants a fairer taxation system, greater toleration of gays and racial minorities, and greater investments in education. But there is also a very active Right that does not want these things. What are called the “culture wars” in the United States is actually another form of a quite traditional left-right struggle. In Europe, both the Right (think Viktor Orban or the anti-immigrant parties in places like the Netherlands or Denmark) and the Left, particularly in southern Europe, are going to get much stronger. Economic crises have a way of doing that, and the one we have now is not going to go away so quickly.

Should Hate Speech Be Outlawed?

Stevens_1-060712_jpg_470x504_q85Former Justice John Paul Stevens reviews Jeremy Waldron's The Harm in Hate Speech in the NYRB:

…Waldron reviews his debate with Anthony Lewis about freedom for the thought that we hate. Lewis argues that we should learn to tolerate hate speech because codes regulating it would create a danger of overenforcement that could seriously threaten the expression of unpopular ideas. Waldron believes Lewis undervalues two points: first, that what is regulated by hate speech laws is not hateful thought but hateful expression (a point that seems unimportant to me, since thought and expression are closely intertwined in this context); and second, as Waldron often repeats, that toleration of ugly speech is easier for liberal bystanders than for the target of the speech.

Waldron and Lewis agree, however, that “Americans are freer to think what we will and say what we think than any other people.” They also agree, up to a point, about the history that led to that freedom. In 1798, when Congress enacted the Alien and Sedition Act, the United States was a young country and federal authority was precarious:

George Washington was denounced as a thief and a traitor; John Jay was burned in effigy; Alexander Hamilton was stoned in the streets of New York…. Republican militias armed and drilled openly, ready to stand against Federalist armies. Over everything, like a specter, hung news of the Jacobin terror in France. It was by no means obvious in those years—though it seems obvious to us now—that the authorities could afford to ignore venomous attacks on the structures and officers of government, or leave the publication of such attacks uncontested in the hope that they would be adequately answered in due course in the free marketplace of ideas.

It was over a century later—in the aftermath of World War I—that federal judges began to see the power of the state as much more of a threat to the individual than vice versa.

The interesting and informative discussion of history in this chapter omits any comment on the importance of a unique aspect of American history: the fact that during the period under discussion the dynamic growth of America was fueled by immigration of several different ethnic groups, each attracted by the freedom of opportunity here but also each engaged in economic and political competition with other groups of immigrants. What might now be classified as “hate speech” included not merely comments by members of the majority but exchanges between rival ethnic groups.

The University Poem

By Vladimir Nabokov, in the LRB:


‘So then you’re Russian? It’s the first time
I have met a Russian …’
And the lively, delicately bulging
eyes examine me. ‘You take your tea
with lemon, I already know.
I also know that you have icons
where you live, and samovars.’
A pretty girl. A British glow
spreads across her tender skin.
She laughs, she speaks at a quick clip:
‘Frankly, our town is dullish,
though the river’s charming!
Do you row?’ Big girl,
with sloping shoulders, hands that are large,
bereft of rings.


Thus, at the vicar’s, over tea,
brand-new acquaintances, we chat,
and I endeavour to be droll.
In troubling, dulcet worry lost
at the legs that she has crossed
and at her vivid lips I peer,
then, once again, I quickly shift
my cheeky gaze. She, as expected,
has come with aunt, although the latter
is busy with her left-wing patter – ,
and, contradicting her, the vicar,
a timid man (large Adam’s apple),
with a brown-eyed, canine squint,
chokes upon a nervous cough.

The Precarious State of the Literary Interview

From The Atlantic:

Fay_authorinterviews_postThe 2010s may rightly be called the age of the interview. Interviews appear regularly in magazines and newspapers, on blogs, websites, videocasts, television, and podcasts. On iTunes this week, eight of the top-ten podcast revolve around or include conversations or interviews. The popularity of interviews indicates that although we may be isolated in our technology-clad bubbles, we still like to listen to people talk and engage, reflect and share, even if we've stopped doing it ourselves. According to some, literary interviews—which were oncethe apotheosis of the form—have become platitudinal and monotonous. In 2006, Pico Iyer attributed the decline of the literary interview to an overreliance on sound bites about authors plucked from search engines like Google and recommended that interviewers actually read an author's work. “[I]nterviews,” he wrote, “have become a circular form in which almost every interviewer asks the same questions as every previous interviewer.” Although some writers and readers have given up on literary interviews, now is not the time to abandon the form; some of the best examples of literary interviews are available on the Internet.

KCRW's weekly half-hour broadcast and podcast “Bookworm” with host Michael Silverblatt reminds us that the literary interview can function as art. Silverblatt prepares for each interview by reading almost everything a guest has ever written. He is a sensitive and careful reader who shapes his questions based on a guest's responses rather than a set of rote queries. Silverblatt's questions spark analysis, discussion, and storytelling. As a result, his guests break subjects apart and examine them more closely, entertain multiple points of view, and create narratives rather than blab anecdotes. Silverblatt takes the role of “host” literally. He is cordial and considerate without being sycophantic. (Silverblatt's Lannan Podcasts are also available via podcast.)

More here.

Designs for a New India

From Harvard Magazine:

IndiaThere are two Hyderabads. One, a historic city in the heart of India, established with a hilltop fort built by Hindu rulers in the fourteenth century, is rich with ancient palaces, tombs, and mosques built by the Muslim rulers who came later. The other is HITEC City, the northwestern suburb booming with industry linked to that acronym: Hyderabad Information Technology Engineering Consultancy. The two worlds rarely mix. Workers from HITEC City’s towering office buildings—emblazoned with their logos: Motorola, Novartis, Deloitte, Tata Consultancy—tend to live in equally monolithic apartment towers near their offices. They rarely come in contact with old Hyderabad, a densely populated district of winding medieval streets, inhabited mostly by poor Muslims. Rahul Mehrotra, M.Arch. ’87, has seen both Hyderabads. His Mumbai-based architecture firm designed a corporate campus in HITEC City and restored a palace in the historic center. In his work, Mehrotra—now professor of urban design and planning at the Graduate School of Design—endeavors to engage disparate worlds with each other, reminding the inhabitants of each to consider the existence of the other. “Softening thresholds” between different sectors of society is one of his guiding principles.

More here.

Friday Poem


My father’s in my fingers, but my mother’s in my palms.
I lift them up and look at them with pleasure –
I know my parents made me by my hands.

They may have been repelled to separate lands,
to separate hemispheres, may sleep with other lovers,
but in me they touch where fingers link to palms.

With nothing left of their togetherness but friends
who quarry for their image by a river,
at least I know their marriage by my hands.

I shape a chapel where a steeple stands.
And when I turn it over,
my father’s by my fingers, my mother’s by my palms

demure before a priest reciting psalms.
My body is their marriage register.
I re-enact their wedding with my hands.

So take me with you, take up the skin’s demands
for mirroring in bodies of the future.
I’ll bequeath my fingers, if you bequeath your palms.
We know our parents make us by our hands.

by Sinead Morrissey
from The State of the Prisons
publisher: Carcanet, Manchester, 2005

the backpack


There is an unavoidable truth about traveling: To travel is to make oneself a figure of potential ridicule. Travel makes us vulnerable. Most experienced travelers know their basic needs can be met wherever they may be. You just have to ask for what you want and accept what you get. This is not as easy as it might sound. It takes confidence. It takes faith. It is usually easier to bring your own stuff. This is not the backpack’s fault. Anyone who has experienced being dropped in the middle of a Warsaw winter with nothing but a giant suitcase on wheels that must be dragged over bumpy old cobblestones as it careens and falls over and over again into the snow knows the so-called comfort of this kind of luggage to be a farce. Wheeled-luggage travelers are like an army of Queequegs who strap their sea chests to their wheelbarrows only to carry the whole bundle up the wharf. The very act of packing is a confrontation with who we are at home and who we can be when we are away. It’s never easy to leave home and harder still to make oneself temporarily homeless. This is true if you are traveling with a carpetbag or a steamer trunk. But no luggage more bluntly — or more honestly — expresses the fears about packing than the contemporary backpack.

more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.

a notebook


—“Your life is a number,” says time, being a Pythagorean. —“My life frees itself from you at every moment.” —“It realizes me, proves, fulfills, affirms.” —“I am that which lies beyond time. Like a melody, which sounds completely only after the last note is played.” —“Time and music. I’m both at once. I don’t know myself how it happens. Music is written into time, but gives it a value beyond numbers.” • Little Jakub, a technological child, sees the world as a great machine, a computer on which he presses buttons. He asks: “Who turned off the storm?” • “Night of the Senses”: St. John of the Cross. No poetry, since poetry needs things, the ladder of things along which the angels of poems ascend and descend. • Freud thought that each person possessed a fixed stock of affection. So if you love someone else, you love yourself less. Freud’s wrong. Love doesn’t run out. It’s the miracle of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. The more we love another person, the more we love ourselves, and everything else, and the world.

more from Anna Kamienska at Poetry here.

darwin’s footstools


Given the apparent serenity of the photographic portraits for which he sat, it is difficult to imagine Charles Darwin fretful. But only a month after the publication of his Origin of Species in 1859, he became very anxious – not, as one might expect, about reviews of his book, but about a letter chastising him for failing to acknowledge his predecessors, the men who had published evolutionary ideas before him. Haunted by the ghostly presence of those who had struck out before him but who had since disappeared into oblivion, Darwin decided to write a proper acknowledgment, in the form of a list of his scientific forebears. He already knew the names of some of them: the Comte de Buffon, who flirted with evolutionary speculation in the 18th century; Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the professor of invertebrates at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris who first made his evolutionary claims publicly in 1800; his own grandfather Erasmus Darwin, who had slipped evolutionary ideas between the lines of his poetry and his medical treatises at about the same time; and then there was the anonymous author of a bestselling book of 1844 entitled Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Here his list began to break down. There were “some Germans”, he wrote, and “an American (name this minute forgotten)”.

more from Rebecca Stott at The New Statesman here.

Mechanical Matchmaking: The Science of Love in the 1920s

From Smithsonian:

LoveThe April 1924 issue of Science and Invention magazine ran an article by Hugo Gernsback, the magazine’s publisher, which examined the different “scientific” ways to determine if a marriage will succeed or fail.

How much would the average man or woman give to know beforehand if his or her prospective married life is to be success or failure? At present, marriage is a lottery. It seems impossible to predict beforehand how your prospective mate will turn out in the future. Through certain fundamentals, which can easily be ascertained, one can be reasonably certain as to one’s choice. We take extreme care in breeding horses, dogs and cats, but when we come to ourselves we are extremely careless and do not use our heads nor the means that science puts in our hands for scientific breeding. There are certain basic tests which can be made today and which will give one a reasonable assurance of married happiness.

In the article Gernsback explains four different tests that can be administered to a couple in order to determine scientifically whether a marriage will work.

More here.

Off the Clock: Disrupted Daily Rhythms Hinder Fertility in Mice

From Scientific American:

Off-the-clock-disrupted-daily_1“My biological clock is ticking.” The phrase typically pops up in movies about middle-aged women who want to start a family before menopause makes it impossible. But a new study published May 23 in PLoS ONE indicates that another clock may also be important for females trying to conceive: the one that regulates our waking and sleeping cycles.

A strong body of evidence links daily wake-sleep cycles to feminine reproductive cycles. When scientists remove a female mouse’s suprachiasmatic nucleus—the pacemaker in her brain that regulates daily circadian rhythms—her estrous cycle ceases, and she becomes infertile. In human females, working night shifts and frequently traveling across time zones has been associated with menstrual irregularities, reduced fertility and a greater number of negative pregnancy outcomes such as low birth weight, preterm birth and miscarriage. But “one of the issues with these epidemiological studies,” says Keith Summa, a medical and doctoral student at Northwestern University, “is that there are other factors associated with shift work that may also be playing a role.” For example, women who work night shifts also tend to sleep less. “Our study provides stronger evidence that reproductive problems are due to circadian disruption itself,” Summa says.

More here.

Thursday Poem


A blue stain
creeps across
the deep pile
of the evergreens.
From inside the
forest it seems
like an interior
matter, something
wholly to do
with trees, a color
passed from one
to another, a
to which they
submit unflinchingly
like soldiers or
brave people
getting older.
Then the sun
comes back and
it’s totally over.

by Kay Ryan
from Poetry, Vol. 195, No. 5, February
publisher: Poetry, Chicago, 2010



By my count, though I may have missed a few, this is the 25th volume of Ezra Pound’s highly distinctive correspondence to see the light of day. The first selection of his letters, edited by D.D. Paige and culled from the years 1907-41, was published in 1950, when Pound was four years into what would be a 12-year sojourn in St Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, to which he’d been confined indefinitely after pleading insanity at his trial for treason in 1946. Paige’s selection introduced to the world madcap Ez the compulsive letter-writer, all hectoring capitals and italics and doolally spelling, here berating recalcitrant magazine editors, there puffing his chosen (in the main, pretty well chosen) band of modernistas; here, somewhat less happily, solving the world’s political and economic woes by promoting Social Credit, there championing the achievements of his great hero, Benito Mussolini. Coming the year after the scandal caused by the decision to award the Bollingen Prize to The Pisan Cantos, the book’s publication caused something of a furore – as indeed did all things Poundian in the immediate postwar era.

more from Mark Ford at the LRB here.

The Yankee Comandante


For a moment, he was obscured by the Havana night. It was as if he were invisible, as he had been before coming to Cuba, in the midst of revolution. Then a burst of floodlights illuminated him: William Alexander Morgan, the great Yankee comandante. He was standing, with his back against a bullet-pocked wall, in an empty moat surrounding La Cabaña—an eighteenth-century stone fortress, on a cliff overlooking Havana Harbor, that had been converted into a prison. Flecks of blood were drying on the patch of ground where Morgan’s friend had been shot, moments earlier. Morgan, who was thirty-two, blinked into the lights. He faced a firing squad. The gunmen gazed at the man they had been ordered to kill. Morgan was nearly six feet tall, and had the powerful arms and legs of someone who had survived in the wild. With a stark jaw, a pugnacious nose, and scruffy blond hair, he had the gallant look of an adventurer in a movie serial, of a throwback to an earlier age, and photographs of him had appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world. The most alluring images—taken when he was fighting in the mountains, with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara—showed Morgan, with an untamed beard, holding a Thompson submachine gun. Though he was now shaved and wearing prison garb, the executioners recognized him as the mysterious Americano who once had been hailed as a hero of the revolution.

more from David Grann at the New Yorker here.



“May I call you my morphine?” Robert Browning asked Elizabeth Barrett the month before they married in 1846. Barrett, who had been taking opiates every day since she was fourteen, replied “Can you leave me off without risking your life?”. Jean Cocteau later reversed the trope, describing not the woman as an addiction but the addiction as a woman – “Opium is the woman of destiny, pagodas, lanterns” – while for Baudelaire the solipsism of the opium addict resulted in “an appalling marriage of man to himself”. You can always rely on an opium-eater for a fancy prose style. Opium also brings out the stylist in doctors: “What”, asked Dr John Jones in The Mysteries of Opium Reveal’d (1700), “can cure pain and all its effects better than pleasure?”, and he compared the effect of the drug to “the sight of a dearly-loved Person etc thought to have been lost at Sea”. The Victorian physician Sir William Osler described morphine as “God’s own medicine”, but the sap of the Papaver somniferum was enjoyed long before the worship of Osler’s own God. Fossilized poppy seeds found at the remains of a lakeside village in Zurich suggest that opium was first consumed in the late Stone Age; Egyptian scrolls reveal that Ra recommended opium for headaches; Homer relates how Helen, pitying the dejection of Telemachus at the absence of his father Odysseus, pours an ointment into his wine called “no sorrow” (nepenthe); Sibyl sedates Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog at the gates of Hades, with a soporific, and Galen prescribed opium as an antidote for “confusion” in the elderly.

more from Frances Wilson at the TLS here.

Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life

Michael Scammell in The New Republic:

Brodsky1Joseph Brodsky caught the attention of the outside world for the first time in 1964, when he was tried in Leningrad for the crime of writing poetry. That is not how the indictment read, of course: his “crime” was that he did not have a regular job, and was therefore a “parasite.” But a scurrilous article attacking Brodsky in theEvening Leningrad newspaper not long before his trial gave the game away. He was charged with being a “literary drone,” a writer of pointless doggerel, and therefore useless to society unless he was made to do “real” work. The newspaper attack and the subsequent trial were badges of honor for someone as young as Brodsky. He was only twenty-four and virtually unknown outside the narrow circle of his admirers, and campaigns of this sort were ordinarily reserved for famous older figures, such as Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova.

Brodsky was in fact the victim of political events far beyond his control.

More here.

Tracking The Junk Food The World Eats After Dark

Ted Burnham at NPR:

ScreenHunter_08 May. 24 10.32People around the world show remarkable similarity in their daily eating habits: meals start off healthy in the morning, but get progressively worse throughout the day – until by nightfall we're deep into junk food territory. Just take a look at these images from mobile startup Massive Health. Focus on the dots over North America in the upper left, which indicate the healthiness (green) or unhealthiness (red) of people's meals at different times of day.

At 10 a.m. Eastern, North America is covered in green as people dig into healthy breakfasts. But by 10 p.m., red and orange splotches dominate most of the continent. And at 1 a.m., there's hardly any green to be seen. Similar trends appear according to local time in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. View an interactive version showing the whole day here.

The data was culled from Massive Health's iPhone app, Eatery. Users record, rate, and track the healthiness of their meals over time. The images reflect ratings on about 500,000 meals from users in 50 countries, collected over 5 months.

The data doesn't explain why we eat worse the later it gets – it just tells us that we do. But there's something profound about such a consistent, worldwide pattern.

More here.