by Karen Engelmann

ScreenHunter_671 Jun. 02 17.17Memoir can be a dangerous choice for a writer; they reveal a slice of themselves that must cut deep in the extraction, but in the best examples, the genre is healing for both author and reader. Maria Chaudhuri's “Beloved Strangers” (Bloomsbury, 2014) is one such healing memoir. The story creates a circle from birth to rebirth, with Miss Chaudhuri's long and arduous journey into adulthood detailed in elegant and, at times, dreamlike prose.

Born to devout Muslin parents in Bangladesh — a newly formed nation still in turmoil from its own difficult birth — Miss Chaudhuri's prologue begins, literally, in the womb. In three brief, powerful passages set in different stages of her young life, the author introduces the theme of separation — a condition that is her greatest challenge and serves as the book's central query. The first passage is a poetic exploration of her own birth in Dhaka, the initial departure from the safety of the mother. The second examines a child's wish to run away, fueled by the wishes of the mother to be alone and free of the burdens of children. The third is a self-imposed displacement to a foreign land — the northeastern U.S and ultimately New York — the author describes as “rancid.” And yet a return to what was home in Bangladesh literally causes a kind of asphyxiation; the prodigal daughter cannot breath the air of her native city. In these first six pages, we enter a world where the author feels estranged from all that she is supposed to hold dear. Chaudhuri addresses this estrangement fearlessly, tackling topics like religion, familial dysfunction, gender roles, sex, depression and obsession with painful candor and surprising lyricism.

The author's questions regarding belonging begin with the family's strong religious traditions. Chaudhuri's innocent inquiries about God are rebuked and punished. She is taught to pray in Arabic — a foreign language that was only memorized and never learned or even translated. The pir sahib, a holy man who makes an annual visit to the family, tells the young Maria that he named her after a beautiful Christian slave that was a gift to the Prophet from the Byzantine Emperor. The pir's explanation is accompanied by a lecherous sexual tension that hints of intended pedophilia, arrested only by the arrival of her parents. Beauty, promiscuity, danger and desire are often connected in the work, a source of confusion and shame. When crowds of the devout arrive at the house to pray with the pir in the evening, the young Chaudhuri runs to the roof of the house to stare at the sky:

My grandmother said it was in the moment between twilight and darkness that all heavenly creatures left their earthly sojourns to fly back up to the heavens. The pink streaks in the sky were Heaven's doorway, flung open for the return of its inhabitants. I was always hunted down before the multi-colored easel of a sky had coagulated into a deep charcoal. (pg. 15)

Escape as a solution to life's problems is a method Chaudhuri dreams about often, inspired (and simultaneously terrified) by her mother's clearly expressed desire to escape the drudgery of home and family to pursue her own thwarted artistic dreams as a singer.

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A Dangerous Method: Syria, Sy Hersh, and the Art of Mass-crime Revisionism

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

SyriaOn the day the London Review of Books published a widely circulated article by veteran journalist Seymour Hersh exonerating the Syrian regime for last year’s chemical attack, 118 Syrians, including 19 children, died in aerial bombing and artillery fire. Only the regime has planes and heavy ordnance.

Since last November, Aleppo has been targeted by helicopters dropping explosives-filled barrels from high altitudes. Between last November and the end of March, Human Rights Watch recorded 2,321 civilian deaths by this indiscriminate weapon. Only the regime has helicopters.

For many months after the chemical massacre, the targeted neighborhoods and the Yarmouk refugee camp were kept under a starvation siege. Aid agencies were denied entry. Only the regime controls access.

The regime’s ruthlessness has never been in doubt. Reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry, and myriad journalists and on-the-ground witnesses have repeatedly confirmed it. The regime has demonstrated the intent and capability to inflict mass violence. The repression is ongoing.

So when an attack occurred last August, employing a weapon that the regime was known to possess, using a delivery mechanism peculiar to its arsenal, in a place the regime was known to target, and against people the regime was known to loathe, it was not unreasonable to assume regime responsibility. This conclusion was corroborated by first responders, UN investigators, human rights organizations, and independent analysts.

When a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and a respectable literary publication undertake to challenge this consensus, one reasonably expects due diligence.

More here.

Does Big Data Threaten Political Inequality?


Andrew Mayersohn in Boston Review:

Few Americans claim to follow “very closely” stories that are not above-the-fold headlines, even ones with a strong partisan valence and widespread coverage such as the Keystone XL pipeline (16 percent of Americans as of March, per Gallup) or last year’s IRS scandal (20 percent as of May 2013). That small population of news junkies likely overlaps the minority of Americans who are devotees of Fox News or MSNBC, further diminishing the number of citizens engaging in actual political dialogue. For better or worse, our politics are already fragmented.

The extent of the gap between the politically engaged and disengaged is what makes Anthony Fowler’s findings troubling. He and his coauthors report that get-out-the-vote operations “increase representational inequality” by bringing “more rich, white, educated, churchgoing citizens to the polls.”­ Knowing that their efforts are more likely to affect some than others, campaigns assign “propensity scores” to prospective voters in order to zero in on those who just need a nudge to vote.

This is where big data is most valuable. The Obama campaign’s major analytical accomplishment was to improve propensity scores by combining traditional voter rolls with consumer data and huge numbers of voter contacts, but even before Obama’s 2012 campaign, political operatives were getting much better at honing in on the best prospects among potential voters. For example, political scientist David Nickerson, who served as Director of Experiments for the Obama re-election campaign, has demonstrated that voter contact in Ohio was vastly more concentrated among high-propensity voters in 2008 and 2012 than in 2004—a triumph of intelligence-gathering from a campaign’s perspective, but one that reinforces political inequality. The better campaigns get at concentrating resources on prospective voters, the more they can focus on turning out their base and the less they need to worry about broad mobilization. Senate Democrats have apparently already adopted this strategy to some extent, according to Sasha Issenberg, who says that candidates’ strategy for this November is to “mobilize their way into contention, then persuade their way across the finish line.” In short, even if big data doesn’t inaugurate an era of personalized campaign messaging, it’s already fragmenting our democracy in another way by widening the gap between the engaged and the disengaged.

More here.

Britain Lurches


Mary Beard in NY Review of Books (Facundo Arrizabalaga/epa/Corbis):

The UK Independence Party, it seems, has drawn its support from across the political spectrum. It attracts—in addition to the xenophobic—the socially conservative (against same-sex marriage and in favor of “traditional British values”), and those who are deeply suspicious of the European Union (“Why be run by Brussels?”). Certainly it includes among its supporters and party candidates some people of extreme right-wing inclinations. But most of all, UKIP appeals to those who feel distanced from modern politics and politicians. They hate the sense of a political class, which consists of those who have never worked in anything other than professional politics, who speak only in carefully controlled, on-message sound bites, and never really engage with “us voters.”

This explains the extraordinary popularity of the party leader, Nigel Farage—a privately-educated, ex-city financial trader who left the Tory party in 1992 to set up UKIP, and who since 1999 has been a Member of the European Parliament, an institution which he is committed to undermining. Farage appears to speak his mind without concern for political correctness (and it is, of course, largely appearance). He relishes nothing more than being photographed outside a pub, with a pint of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. There’s hardly another British politician who would be seen dead in public within ten yards of a packet of Marlboro Lights, whatever their secret smoking habits. This looks like a breath of fresh air.

And Farage is not averse to offering his German wife as a defense against the suggestion that there is any personal hatred of “foreigners” in the UKIP campaign – whether on his own part or that of his followers. The party’s official message (and it is, I have no doubt, sincerely believed by some members) is that they are personally a pretty tolerant bunch; they simply want to end the dominance of the EU over British politics, and they want to stop the inflow of EU migrants, particularly from Eastern Europe, who are taking British jobs.

This is troubling enough. But the real danger of UKIP’s success is not its own policies, but the reaction it draws from politicians and supporters of the other parties.

More here.

Animal Magnetism


David P Barash in Aeon (Photo by Lisi Niesner/Reuters):

I like zoos. Really I do. I applaud today’s zoological parks for their increasing emphasis on naturalistic exhibits, their breeding programmes for endangered species, and their efforts to educate the public about wildlife conservation. But the truth is, I mainly like zoos for the same reason that other people do: because I love watching animals.

Animals in captivity might satisfy our desire to cross the existential barrier that separates us from other creatures. Yet the sad reality is that, for the most part, zoo animals have become, as the art critic John Berger put it in 1977, ‘a living monument to their own disappearance’. The greatest pleasure of animal-watching still comes from observing free-living creatures in their natural environment. With enough disposable income, you can go to India, South America or Antarctica on animal-watching trips, ‘bag’ a view of the African ‘Big Five’ (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, and buffalo), or take a boat to admire great whales exhaling geysers of salty breath.

The wild animals of the world have long inhabited the depths of the human imagination no less than they have occupied the natural habitats of our shared planet. There isn’t a human society on Earth, however primitive or high-tech, that doesn’t concern itself with animal imagery, whether the critters are domesticated or free-living. Indeed, the human fascination with animals is so ancient and so widespread that it seems to be a cross-cultural human universal.

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How the West Embraced Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book


John Gray in The New Statesman:

The editor of Mao’s Little Red Book writes in the preface that this is “the first scholarly effort to understand Quotations from Chairman Mao as a global historical phenomenon”. It is an accurate description, but the collection has the shortcomings that are to be expected in a book of essays by academic authors. The prose style is mostly stodgy and convoluted, and the contributors seem anxious to avoid anything that might smack of a negative attitude towards the ideas and events they describe. “As a group,” the editor continues, “we are diverse with respect to age, gender, ethnicity and political sympathies.” He is right that, judged by prevailing standards, it is a well-balanced group. All of the relevant disciplines are represented – history, area studies, literature, political science and sociology – and although ten of the 13 contributors teach in the US, the collection is representative of the range of views of China that you will find in universities in much of the world. However, the fact that it reflects the present state of academic opinion is also the book’s most important limitation.

Reading the essays brought together here, you would hardly realise that Mao was responsible for one of the biggest human catastrophes in recorded history. Launched by him in 1958, the Great Leap Forward cost upwards of 45 million human lives. “When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death,” Mao observed laconically. “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” He did not specify how those condemned to perish would be made to accept their fate. Ensuing events provided the answer: mass executions and torture, beatings and sexual violence against women were an integral part of a politically induced famine that reduced sections of the population to eating roots, mud and insects, and others to cannibalism. When Mao ordered an end to the horrific experiment in 1961, it was in order to launch another. The Cultural Revolution was nothing like as costly in fatalities, but it left a trail of broken lives and cultural devastation, the memory of which is one of the chief sources of the post-Mao regime’s legitimacy.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Private Parts

The first love of my life never saw me naked.
There was always a parent coming home in a half hour,
always a little brother in the next room, always too much
body and not enough time for me to show him.

Instead, I gave him a shoulder, an elbow, the bend
of my knee. I lent him my corners, my edges:
the parts of me I could afford to offer, the parts of me
I had long since given up trying to hide.

He never asked for more. He gave me back his eyelashes,
the back of his neck, his palms. We held each piece we were given
like it was a nectarine—might bruise if we weren’t careful—
we collected them like we were trying to build an orchard.

And the spaces that he never saw: the ones my parents
had labeled “Private Parts” when I was still small enough
to fit all of my self and worries inside a bathtub,
I made up for them by handing over all the private parts of me.

There was no secret I did not tell him,
there was no moment we did not share.
We did not grow up, we grew in: like ivy wrapping,
molding each other into perfect yings and yangs.

We kissed with mouths open, breathing his exhale
into my inhale and back. We could have survived
underwater or in outer space, living only off the breath
we traded. We spelled “love” G-I-V-E.

I never wanted to hide my body from him.
If I could have, I am sure I would have given it all away
with the rest of me. I did not know it was possible
to keep some things for myself.

Some nights, I wake up knowing he is anxious.
He is across the world in another woman’s arms
and the years have spread us like dandelion seeds,
sanding down the edges of our jigsaw parts that used to only fit each other.

He drinks from the pitcher on the night stand, checks
the digital clock, it is five AM. He tosses in sheets and
tries to settle. I wait for him to sleep, before tucking myself
into elbows and knees; reaching for things I have long since given away.

by Sarah Kay

I Hate Everyone… Starting With Me

Natalie Hope McDonald in PhillyMag:

JoanGay Pride month may be the perfect time to buy a copy of Joan Rivers’ latest book – I Hate Everyone… Starting With Me. Not only is she one of our favorite comedians, but she provides a hilarious summer read for anyone who may be hitting the beach or enjoying a mental health day after a jam-packed Philly Pride weekend.

Don’t believe us? Here are some of our favorite lines:

On growing up:

“My earliest childhood memory was watching my parents loosen the wheels on my stoller.”

On celebrities and their babies:

“Everyone thinks Angelina Jolie was the first celebrity baby hoarder, but she wasn’t. Before Angelina there was Mia Farrow. Mia had an entire farm full of children. I think she got them at Costco.”

On gay and lesbian parents:

“I love gay and lesbian parents. But I think we need a law that says lesbians and gay men have to raise their children together. This way, the kids would not only know how to build bookshelves, but they’d also instinctively know how to decorate them.”

On Tom Cruise:

“I hate Tom Cruise… In TV interviews Tom laughs inappropriately and much too vociferously at non-humorous declarative statements, which is ironic because in real life he can’t take a f – – – ing joke at all. All you have to do is make one simple, little, harmless, innocuous aside like, ‘The Scientology spaceship was late today; it had to stop by Fire Island to pick up Tom Cruise,” and he has a pack of lawyers at your door faster than Katie Holmes can say, ‘No, really, he loves me in that way, I swear.’”

More here.

‘The Scorpion’s Sting: antislavery before Civil War’

Ira Berlin in The Washington Post:

BookIn 1856, as the matter of African American enslavement heated to a boil in the cauldron of American politics, Abraham Lincoln freely admitted that “if all the earthly powers were given to me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution.” Here Honest Abe fudged a bit of the truth. He, like most Republicans, had devised a solution to end slavery peaceably over time. James Oakes, a professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who recently received the Abraham Lincoln prize for his book “Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States,” argues that Lincoln and other Republicans not only had a plan but had even given it a name: the Scorpion’s Sting. In his new book of the same name, Oakes places the history of this powerful image in the context of antislavery politics.

The Scorpion’s Sting refers to the fearsome arthropod that, when in mortal danger — for example, “surrounded by fire” — stings itself to death. Republican politicos believed that this striking image showed how Southern slavery would eventually self-destruct. Southern leaders took note. Sen. Robert Toombs, a leading secessionist, characterized the Republican strategy as “to pen up slavery within its present limits — surround it with a border of free States, and like the scorpion surrounded by fire, they will make it sting itself to death.”

More here.