‘Nabokov in America’ looks at how U.S. shaped novelist

Michael Dirda in the Washington Post:

ScreenHunter_1204 Jun. 01 10.40Robert Roper isn’t a specialist in the study of Vladimir Nabokov or his fiction. In fact, he is himself principally a novelist, though one who has also published a study of Walt Whitman and a biography of legendary mountain climber Willi Unsoeld. Still, as Roper says in the introduction to “Nabokov in America,” he has loved his subject’s sometimes controversial books for 50 years, “especially the ones written while he lived in the United States.” The most famous of these is, of course, “Lolita” (1955).

Today Nabokov’s early works, composed in his native Russian though later translated into English, tend to be respected rather than loved. “The Gift” (1938) has been called the greatest Russian novel of the 20th century, but most readers — this one included — find it hard slogging. The late books, starting with “Ada” (1968), tend to be overly fancy and precious, self-reflexive exercises appealing only to the most ardent devotees. In effect, these lesser works are European, whether composed by a young exile fleeing the Russian Revolution or a world-famous candidate for the Nobel Prize (which he never won).

But the work of the roughly 20 years from 1940 to 1962 reveals, in Roper’s words, “the sheer flabbergasting Americanness of Nabokov’s transformation, the way he opened himself to ‘local influences’ ” once he arrived in this country at age 41 with his wife, Véra, and son, Dmitri. Before then, he’d been too much the aesthete, while “the American context . . . fed meaning and amplitude into fancy’s brew.” Nabokov’s finest work celebrates what his character Humbert Humbert calls “the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country” that he and Lolita see by car.

More here.

Was Picasso a misogynist?

Jonathan Jones in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_1204 May. 31 19.31It is the six million euro question – or much more, if you are Picasso’s granddaughter enjoying reverse retail therapy by selling inherited art and property. What were the great modern artist’s relationships with women really like?

Picasso has been characterised by many as a misogynist, a bully who put “his” women on a pedestal only to knock them off it, a man who feared, as well as desired, the female body and who was a selfish, demanding, narcissistic husband, lover and even grandparent. You get the picture, recognise the cliche. But is any of it really true?

There is another side to Picasso, and an exhibition opening at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery offers a glimpse of it. The photographer Lee Miller had a relationsip with Picasso that was neither abusive nor carnal. In a word, they were friends. Lee Miller and Picasso documents that friendship through their mutual portraits – she took more than 1,000 photographs of him; he painted her portrait six times – and adds up to a much more gentle, sociable image of Picasso than biographers tend to create. But was Lee Miller the only woman to tame this minotaur?

More here. [Thanks to Tunku Varadarajan.]

Israel Has Been Bitten by a Bat

Lawrence Weschler in TruthDig:

AP792210472373-bitten-by-a-bat590I know, I know, and I am bone tired of being told it, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is plenty of blame to go around, but by this point after coming on almost 50 years of Israeli stemwinding and procrastinatory obfuscation, I’d put the proportionate distribution of blame at about the same level as the mortality figures—which is, where are we today (what with Wednesday morning’s four children killed while out playing on a Gaza beach)? What, 280 to 2?

For the single overriding fact defining the Israeli-Palestinian impasse at this point is that if the Palestinians are quiescent and not engaged in any overt rebellion, the Israelis (and here I am speaking of the vast majority of the population who somehow go along with the antics of their leaders, year after year) manage to tell themselves that things are fine and there’s no urgent need to address the situation; and if, as a result, the endlessly put-upon Palestinians do finally rise up in any sort of armed resistance (rocks to rockets), the same Israelis exasperate, “How are we supposed to negotiate with monsters like this?” A wonderfully convenient formula, since it allows the Israelis to go blithely on, systematically stealing Palestinian land in the West Bank, and continuing to confine 1.8 million Gazans within what might well be described as a concentration camp.

More here.

The Untold Story of Silk Road: How a 29-year-old idealist built a global drug bazaar and became a murderous kingpin

Joshua Bearman in Wired:

ScreenHunter_1203 May. 31 17.06He peeked through the front window and caught a glimpse of the postman hurrying off. The guy was wearing a US Postal Service jacket, but with sneakers and jeans. Weird, Green thought. Also odd was a van Green noticed across the street, one he’d never seen before: white, with no logos or rear windows.

Green opened the door. It was winter, a day of high clouds and low sun. A pale haze washed out the white-tipped Spanish Fork Peak rising above the valley. Green looked down. On the porch sat a Priority box—about Bible-sized. His little dogs watched him pick up the mystery package. It was heavy, had no return address, and bore a postmark from Maryland.

Green considered the package and then took it into his kitchen, where he tore it open with scissors, sending up a plume of white powder that covered his face and numbed his tongue. Just then the front door burst open, knocked off its hinges by a SWAT team wielding a battering ram. Quickly the house was flooded by cops in riot gear and black masks, weapons at the ready. There was Green, covered in cocaine and flanked by two Chihuahuas. “On the floor!” someone yelled. Green dropped the package where he stood. When he tried to comfort his pups, a dozen guns took aim: “Keep your hands where we can see them!”

More here.

Don’t be intimidated by museums. They belong to everyone.

Darby English in The Guardian's Comment is free:

F2b8ab3d-cdc5-4815-a2d8-3c430972dbe3-1020x612For those who inhabit our condition, strolling confidently into imposing architectures filled with works of accomplished art may appear to entail a particular risk. Because yes: judged by the makeup of their collections, staffs, supporters and by some of their methodologies, many art museums are the predominantly “white spaces” that critics have long said they are.

But museums are typically sited in the public realm, in the commons – a place of encounters and collisions wherein diverse peoples become a public. Judged by their use, museums can only be as white as visitors allow them to be. And they’ll remain white, in this political sense, only for as long as people of color regard them as discontinuous with the sort of spaces we would never dream of avoiding, such as public schools or the cinema.

People’s feelings of unwelcomeness must be honored absolutely. But it is unwise to essentialize museums – to presume to know in advance which ones corroborate those feelings and which do not. Activist lobbying against prohibitive entrance fees or for more inclusive displays are both more practicable and more likely to change the social complexion of museums than simply capitulating to the idea of these institutions’ “whiteness” or to soft science about the “threshold fear” that effectively bars nonwhite visitors.

“Threshold fear” revives the historical perception that art is the exclusive property, right and concern of the affluent upper classes and the upwardly mobile. It reinforces that invisible but quite effective wall separating inhabitants of the commons from the most privileged artifacts of the historical process in which we together participate, albeit in uneven ways. “Threshold fear” throws up images that are hugely disempowering: it stops the striding citizen in her tracks, abstracts from her the curiosity that brought her to the threshold in question, reduces her to a category, denies her imminent claim on the space of the museum, impedes her assumption of a place in the narratives it offers up and severely constrains her relationship to art.

Read the rest here.

Why we must never forget the war in Afghanistan

Patrick Hennessey in The Telegraph:

Kabul_3317182fOnly a brave journalist would agree to be the guest of honour at a military charity dinner at which more than half of the other invitees are cocksure junior officers just returned from Helmand who think they’ve seen and done it all. Only an exceptional one would leave those same guests in no doubt as to who had actually seen and done more in Afghanistan. Christina Lamb is just such a journalist, and in Farewell Kabul she has produced a brave and exceptional book. A brave book because it cannot have been easy for Lamb – whose love for Afghanistan comes across on every page – to have written what is necessarily a downbeat and at times despairing account of the past, present and likely future of that beguiling, benighted country. And an exceptional one because among the many books which have now been written on the recent history of the region, few have succeeded in distilling such a vast and tangled mess of geopolitics, conflict, strategy and vibrant personal memoir into a single, readable volume. There are more weighty, academic treatments, more wonky, strategic analyses and gritty combat histories, but it is tempting to say that if you had to recommend just one book on Afghanistan then Farewell Kabul should be it.

I was lucky enough to be sitting near Lamb at that same charity dinner – fresh from my own tour of Helmandand no doubt insufferable with bravado – and it was obvious then that not only did she have the best war stories of anyone at the table, more importantly she had an understanding of the country we could only have dreamed of. Plenty of high-adrenalin moments pepper this book, but it is the background colour and impressive access that really bring it to life. Big names drop nearly as frequently as the bombs, as Lamb recounts not just fleeting conversations but lengthy interviews with a Who’s Who of Afghanistan and Pakistan in the past three decades. She reveals a touching intimacy with Hamid Karzai, who she presents as a more complex and perhaps more sympathetic figure than the two-dimensional hero-turned-corrupt-villain of the stereotype here and in the United States.

More here.

The House of Hidden Mothers: A tale of life, love and surrogacy

Yasmin Alibhai Brown in The Independent:

MeeraSyal-GettyHow would an artist portray Meera Syal? Perhaps figuratively, as Durga, the Hindu Goddess with many arms carrying flowers, conches and weapons, strong yet susceptible, mischievous, wise and womanly. Syal is a theatre and screen actor, comedienne, screenwriter and author. Oh, and a wonderful singer too. I have known her for several years, admire (and sometimes bitterly envy) her profuse talents. Her first novel Anita and Me (1997), based on her own childhood in a small Midlands village, is now a GCSE text. Beautifully written, funny and poignant, it was made into a film, as was her next novel, Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee, about three Asian women in their 30s. The archetypal story of female bonds and treacheries had great reviews, got on to the bestseller list. I didn't share the widespread enthusiasm, maybe because I don't care for friend gangs, never have done.

But this new novel had me gripped. It has the verve of Anita and Me but is more intense and knowing. Syal's writing is finer, contemplative and layered. Beneath the pacy narrative and emotional journeys thrum observations about youth and age, East and West, wealth and poverty, love and sex, pain, joy and resilience. The central character, Shyama, 48, is a lone Asian mother of a teenage daughter, and has a young lover, Toby. They want a child, go for IVF tests. The doctor gives her the bad news: she has no eggs, so can't have a baby. As her hopes are dashed, Shyama's internal monologue takes over: silly old woman of modest means falls for a predictably handsome younger man without a steady career. She gets an ego boost and boundless energy in bed; he gets use of the house, the car, the soft-mattress landing of her unspoken gratitude. He kisses the scars left from a disastrous marriage. Cruel fate and biology cannot stop her; the dream lives on. Shyama decides to try surrogacy in India.

More here.

Attempt to shame journalists with chocolate study is shameful

Rachel Ehrenberg in Science News:

Culture_chocolate_flickr_free“I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here's How.”

That’s the headline on a May 27 article by science journalist John Bohannon that revealed the backstory of a sting operation he conducted earlier this year. Bohannon and a German television reporter teamed up to “demonstrate just how easy it is to turn bad science into the big headlines behind diet fads.” So they recruited subjects and ran a small clinical trial purporting to test whether eating dark chocolate helped people lose weight. The team used real data from their real trial and published their results in a real (non peer-reviewed) journal, the International Archives of Medicine. The study did find an effect, but that was likely due to a statistical sleight-of-hand; it was impossible to say whether chocolate really helped people lose weight.

To lure reporters into covering the flimsy research, Bohannon and his colleagues ginned up a press release describing their chocolate results. The team sent the release out via Newswise, a site that aggregates press releases and distributes them to some 5,000 journalists. And some of those journalists took the bait.

From the big headline on Bohannon’s piece describing the con, you might think that it was a roaring success. But the “millions” that Bohannon and his partners-in-crime fooled weren’t millions of reporters, but millions of regular people, the consumers of journalism, who believed the reporters covering his study. Not only was Bohannon’s con ethically reprehensible — he lied to the public, undermining their trust in both journalism and science — but also Bohannon is guilty of the very practices he claims he exposed.

More here. [Thanks to Jennifer Oullette.]

Why Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri quit the US for Italy

Sheila Pierce in the Financial Times:

At ScreenHunter_1202 May. 30 18.47Bar Glorioso, Jhumpa Lahiri stirs her daily espresso next to Roman workmen sipping beer, and converses in shy, fluent Italian with the barista. She speaks with the vocabulary of a bibliophile, the faint accent of an unidentifiable foreigner, and the serenity of a neighbourhood regular.

If the barista knows that Lahiri received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction when she was 32, he does not treat her any differently because of it. And that’s one of the many reasons why she loves living in Italy: she has recovered the anonymity she cherished before becoming a literary celebrity.

After a lifetime of feeling that she never quite fitted into either India or the US, Lahiri feels a casa (“at home”) in Rome. She recently wrote about her Italian metamorphosis in a “linguistic autobiography”, titledIn Altre Parole (“In Other Words”), which hit Italian bookstores in January. “I waited a very long time to really go away from the world I knew,” she says. “Rome has given me a sense of belonging.”

Three years ago, Lahiri, 47, fulfilled her life-long wish of living in Italy, and moved to Rome from Brooklyn with her husband and their two children, Octavio, 13, and Noor, 10. A fan of Roman mythology as a child, a student of Latin at Barnard College, New York City (where she majored in English), and a PhD scholar in Renaissance studies at Boston University, she had always felt attracted to Rome.

More here.


From More Intelligent Life:

He’s one of the great villains. But why exactly does he destroy Othello? As the RSC casts a black Iago, Irving Wardle 
(first half) and Robert Butler (second half) pick nine of the best readings of the role.

Iago1964 FRANK FINLAY, National Theatre
Olivier took care that his Othello should not be overshadowed by giving the part of Iago to Frank Finlay (below left)—who duly sank to the occasion as a plodding squaddie, in lowly contrast to his glamorous general. Olivier, however, always at his best in physical contact, granted that privilege to his unsavoury underling, who seized the opportunity to cling round his neck like an incubus pouring poison in his ear. As a character, his motive was erotic; as an actor, it was self-preservation. In these scenes, Olivier was not the boss.

1976 TIMOTHY WEST, Nottingham Playhouse
Taking advantage of Daniel Massey’s flyweight Othello, Timothy West used every trick in Iago’s repertoire to push the play towards farce. The most plain-dealing character on stage, he enlisted the audience as conniving accomplices in the farcical pleasure of knocking a big shot off his plinth. Forget plot motive; the show’s mainspring was that we are all Iagos.

More here.

Floridapocalypse: The End of the Sunshine State

FPS15861Nick Moran at The Millions:

There are many ways to die in Florida, and a hurricane is only one. For example, you could be undone by the effects of sea-level rise — more than 3.7 inches since 1996 — which will soon turn Miami into America’s Atlantis. Then there are sink holes swallowing subdivisions into the state’s limestone maw. Florida is where Americans are most likely to be bitten by sharks and struck by lightning.

There are also trends that, while they may not immediately kill you, will completely alter the state’s identity, and could end life as we all know it. The reefs are being destroyed, the citrus is greening, and the swamp has been invaded by massive pythons, cat-eating lizards, and titanic rodents.

And that’s just nature. Pay attention to the “Florida Man” news stories long enough and you’ll wonder how anyone survives for more than a day in the state. It’s distressing enough to worry about natural furies beyond your control, but now you’ve also got to watch out for face-eating madmen and self-proclaimed demigods with dendrophilic tendencies. Even the act of dying seems particularly terrible in Florida, a state where corpses buried in the fertile soil can rise again on their own. (In that context, one suddenly understands the meaning behind that Patty Griffin song.)

All this considered, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Florida has been the setting for several works of pre-, post-, and regular apocalyptic fiction for more than 60 years.

more here.

An interview with Masha Gessen

When-they-made-it-clear-t-007MH Miller at The Guardian:

The book begins by tracing the Tsarnaev family’s movements between 1985 and 2012, from locations in Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Kalmykia and Istanbul to Boston and elsewhere, though they have become predominantly associated with Makhachkala in Dagestan – “a backwater”, as Gessen describes it, in the North Caucasus. They were rovers, endlessly looking for a place to belong and never finding one. Their problems were constant, but the real tragedy, Gessen argues, began with the Russian apartment bombings of 1999, which killed nearly 300 people. Putin, the former KGB lieutenant colonel and recently named successor to then president, Boris Yeltsin, blamed these events on Islamist Chechen rebels. The first Chechen war ran from 1994 to 1996, and the Tsarnaevs, recently relocated to Chechyna, were present for its beginnings. The war left hundreds of thousands of people dead or displaced.

When the conflict ended, the North Caucasus remained unstable, and the accusations of Putin were enough to catapult the region once again into turmoil – and Putin to national popularity. As the second war raged on, centred inChechnya and Dagestan (the Tsarnaevs were now back in Makhachkala), evidence began to accumulate, according to Gessen, suggesting the Russian secret police had arranged the bombings for the purpose of bolstering nationalist fervour and securing Putin’s public reputation.

more here.

‘The Meursault Investigation’ re-imagines Camus’ ‘Stranger’

La-afp-getty-france-algeria-literature-files-jpg-20150527David L. Ulin at The LA Times:

Give Kamel Daoud credit for audacity. In his debut novel, “The Meursault Investigation,” the Algerian journalist goes head-to-head with a pillar of 20th century literature: Albert Camus' existential masterpiece “The Stranger.”

First published in France in 1942, Camus' novel tells the story of Meursault — like the author, a French Algerian, or pied-noir — who under the influence of heat or fate kills an Arab on the beach at the peak of a summer afternoon. “I shook off the sweat and sun,” Meursault informs us. “… Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.”

“The Meursault Investigation” takes place on the other side of that door, offering a glimpse of the fallout from Meursault's futile violence. Its narrator is the victim's brother, an old man named Harun who looks back, from the perspective of the present, on the killing and what it signifies. “And there,” he observes, “I've always thought, is where the misunderstanding came from; what in fact was never anything other than a banal score-settling that got out of hand was elevated to a philosophical crime.
more here.

Psychosomatic disorders: When illness really is all in the mind

Suzanne O'Sullivan in The Telegraph:

Illness_in_mind_3320789bI qualified as a doctor in 1991. I knew from an early stage in my training that I wanted to be a neurologist. When I made that choice I thought I knew what it meant: I enjoyed the detective drama, unravelling the mysteries of how the nervous system communicates its messages, and learning all the things that can go wrong. I started my first training post in neurology in 1995, expecting to look after people who had diseases of the brain and nerves and muscles; conditions such as multiple sclerosis, stroke, migraine and epilepsy. I could not have predicted how far I would find myself drawn into the care of those whose illness originated not in the body, but in the mind. Examples of how the mind affects the body are everywhere. Some are commonplace: tears are a physiological response to a feeling. Blushing occurs when the blood vessels of the head and neck dilate and become infused with blood. It is an instantaneous and uncontrollable physical change seen on the surface but reflecting a feeling of embarrassment or happiness that is held inside.

The word psychosomatic refers to physical symptoms that occur for psychological reasons. Tears and blushing are examples of this, but they are normal responses that do not represent illness. It is only when psychosomatic symptoms go beyond the ordinary and impair our ability to function that illness results. Modern society likes the idea that we can think ourselves better. When we are unwell, we tell ourselves that if we adopt a positive mental attitude, we will have a better chance of recovery. I am sure that is correct. But society has not fully woken up to the frequency with which people do the opposite – unconsciously think themselves ill.

More here.

Saturday Poem

Shackleton's Biscuit

Of ox and luncheon tongue, six hundred pounds;
of Wiltshire bacon, seven-tenths of a ton.
Seventeen hundred miles they walked, and it was
pony meat that saved them. But one biscuit, this one
Of thousands, baked by Huntley & Palmers, a special formulation
fortified with milk protein, survives—the men
Long dead, and the ponies, whose lives flew through
Bullet holes easily over the frozen labyrinth of the Fortuna Glacier,
all gone to powder. Found a century later in the wrecked
Larder of one of Shackleton's way stations, it remains
perfectly nutritious, and sold at a Christie's auction
Is worth a thousand-some sterling. We had seen God in
His splendors; we had reached the naked soul of man,
He wrote. And: This biscuit, said a Christie's director,
is an object that really catches the imagination.

by T. R. Hummer
from Skandalon
Louisiana State University Press.

Ernest Shackleton

Science: Humblebragging doesn’t work. If you want to brag, just brag

Derek Thompson in The Atlantic:

Lead_960Praise and sympathy: They are two of life’s essentials, the oxygen and carbon dioxide of social interaction. The first is most directly elicited by bragging, and the second, by complaining. The humblebrag—e.g. I’m exhausted from Memorial Day weekend; it’s soooo hard to get out of Nantucket—sits at the center of these competing needs. It is a boast in sheepish clothing, kvelling dressed in kvetch. And, like nearly all forms of multi-tasking, the drive to satisfy two goals at once typically results in double-failure.

“Two fundamental goals in life are to get people to be impressed by us and feel sympathy for us,” said Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of the paper Humblebragging: A Distinct–and Ineffective–Self-Presentation Strategy. “People think they can get the best of both worlds by being indirect. Instead they are perceived as insincere.”

False modesty is not a recent invention, as Jane Austen proves. But the humblebrag portmanteau, Norton said, might be a product of the social media age, due to the space limitations of platforms like Twitter. Stories that once cautiously mixed humility and boastfulness now appear, suddenly concentrated in the crucible of a Twitter box, to be inelegant attempts to disguise pride.

More here.