Dave Eggers writes about Eric Idle bringing Monty Python’s Flying Circus to Broadway, in the New Yorker:

Though there are undoubtedly more insomniacs, intellectuals, and burglars in the world now than when the show first aired, Python will always leave some people bewildered. Here in the Jerry Zaks rehearsal room—two floors below the studio where Billy Crystal was rehearsing “700 Sundays,” wherein he does impressions and tells sentimental stories about growing up—there were a bunch of adults practicing a musical-comedy version of a thousand-year-old quest for a golden goblet. This production will make absolutely no sense to a certain segment of the population, but to those who see the point—the absurdities of history, the absurdities of royalty and religion and warfare and songs and stages and lines and outfits and audiences and living—it will mean everything in the world.

More here.

Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh

Among other things, Stephen Mitchell is known for his acclaimed translations of Rainer Maria Rilke. He has now translated the ancient epic Gilgamesh:

Gilgamesh is the oldest recorded story in the world. Tracing its origins back to the times of an ancient Mesopotamian king who ruled in the city of Uruk in the 3rd millennium BC, it predates the Bible and The Iliad by at least 1,000 years. It has been described as the first great book of the human heart.

This new Gilgamesh plants itself on a solid centre ground between the dry and frankly almost unreadable Standard Version offered by an ancient scribe and the exuberantly contemporary but individual takes of such poets as Derek Hines. The scholar may still turn to Andrew George’s translation, but for the reader who wishes to breathe in the spirit of this epic, to relate to it as a work of literature rather than to interpret it as a series of fragments recording some distant legend, Mitchell produces what should become recognised as the standard text. Read it and sense all the wisdom and complexity of the original before film-makers now planning a screen version get their hands on it. Let it settle down into your imaginative depths.

Thanks to Robin Varghese for telling me about this. Read more of the book review by Rachel Campbell-Johnston here in the London Times. And here is another review by Steve Nash in The Globe and Mail.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Plot Against Sex in America

Frank Rich writes about Bill Condon’s film, Kinsey, about the pioneer of human sexuality studies, Alfred Kinsey:

When I first saw the movie last spring prior to its release, it struck me as an intelligent account of a half-forgotten and somewhat quaint chapter in American social history. It was in the distant year of 1948 that Alfred Kinsey, a Harvard-trained zoologist, published “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,” a dense, clinical 804-page accounting of the findings of his obsessive mission to record the sexual histories of as many Americans as time and willing volunteers (speaking in confidentiality) would allow. The book stormed the culture with such force that Kinsey was featured in almost every major national magazine; a Time cover story likened his book’s success to “Gone With the Wind.” Even pop music paid homage, with the rubber-faced comic Martha Raye selling a half-million copies of “Ooh, Dr. Kinsey!” and Cole Porter immortalizing the Kinsey report’s sizzling impact in a classic stanza in “Too Darn Hot.”

Though a Gallup poll at the time found that three-quarters of the public approved of Kinsey’s work, not everyone welcomed the idea that candor might supplant ignorance and shame in the national conversation about sex…

Such history, which seemed ancient only months ago, has gained in urgency since Election Day.

More here in the New York Times.

Being Brenda

This is from a few months ago:

They were meant to show that gender was determined by nurture, not nature – one identical twin raised as a boy and the other brought up as a girl after a botched circumcision. But two years ago Brian Reimer killed himself, and last week David – formerly Brenda – took his life too. Oliver Burkeman and Gary Younge unravel the tragic story of Dr Money’s sex experiment.

John_money_1I was taught about human sexuality by Prof. John Money as part of a physiology course I took as a freshman at Johns Hopkins University. He was quite the showman and eccentric character, and obviously enjoyed shocking the giggly young students with outrageous statements (he also came equipped with very explicit slides and even a movie, if memory serves) about sex. It is sad to learn how wrong he was and how so many people paid for his wrongness.

There’s more here in The Guardian.

Myla Goldberg in Prague

Our friend Myla Goldberg, who’s first novel Bee Season was something of a phenomenon, has just published an elegant little book about returning to Prague after having spent some ex-pat time there in the early 1990s.

Pamela Paul, in last weeks NY Times Sunday Book Review writes:

One of the more well-established literary travel series is Crown Journeys, which has steered authors like Christopher Buckley and Michael Cunningham on walks in cities both foreign and domestic. Myla Goldberg’s TIME’S MAGPIE: A Walk in Prague (Crown Journeys, $16) is this season’s best offering, though it cries out for even more than its 140 pages. It’s nice to travel with a novelist: Goldberg’s language is lush and evocative without sinking into dense or mannered descriptions. Better still, Goldberg was one of those post-collegiate Prague expatriates so prevalent in the early 1990’s, so she retains a rusty grasp of the language and remembers the city’s more obscure attractions. In Prague, she points out, ”for every designated spectacle there are at least three that have gone unmarked and unsung.” Her forays into the Czech National Library and Vysehrad Cemetery, Prague’s Pere Lachaise, make even those who have spent time in the city pine for a return ticket.

Orange Revolution

The story of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine is the most interesting, inspiring, and strange one of the year. It has just been confirmed that Yuschenko was the victim of some kind of dioxin poisoning.

Just to look at before and after pictures of Yuschenko’s face is to see the drama of the whole affair written on skin.

At the same time, the anti-American and European Left seems to have it’s head in the sand, continuing a rather pitiful tradition that goes back to ignoring Eastern European dissidents during the Cold War.

Ms Appelbaum writes,

“Just in case anyone actually thought that all of those people waving flags on the streets of Kiev represent authentic Ukrainian sentiments, the London Guardian informed its readers otherwise last week. In an article titled “US campaign behind the turmoil in Kiev,” the newspaper described the events of the past 10 days as “an American creation, a sophisticated and brilliantly conceived exercise in western branding and mass marketing.” In a separate article, the same paper described the whole episode as a “postmodern coup d’etat” and a “CIA-sponsored third world uprising of cold war days, adapted to post-Soviet conditions.”

Finally, in an interesting tribute to the Orange Revolution in Las Vegas, Ukranian heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko beat Brit Danny Williams at Mandalay Bay last night. Vitali and his brother are actually quite involved in politics and seem like pretty lovely fellows, when they are not bashing your face in.

A hard, simple problem

Has an inventor found the hardest possible simple sliding-block puzzle?

PuzzleSliding-block puzzles look easy, but they can be tricky to solve. The best known is the “15 Puzzle”, which became hugely popular in the late 1870s. This involves square tiles labelled with the numbers 1 to 15, which must be arranged in the correct order inside a four-by-four frame. Another popular one, called “Dad’s Puzzle”, involves moving a large square tile from one corner to another, by rearranging other, smaller tiles around it—akin to moving a piano across a cluttered room.

The best such puzzles are easy to explain, yet difficult to solve. Historically, they have been devised by trial and error. But earlier this year, Jim Lewis, an inventor based in Midland Park, New Jersey, set out to find the hardest possible “simple” puzzle, using a computer-based search.

More here in The Economist.

Questions for Stephen Hawking

Stephen20hawking What is your I.Q.?

I have no idea. People who boast about their I.Q. are losers.

How can we know if you qualify as a genius physicist, as you are invariably described?

The media need superheroes in science just as in every sphere of life, but there is really a continuous range of abilities with no clear dividing line.

Are you saying you are not a genius?

I hope I’m near the upper end of the range.

With all your intense erudition, why do you bother writing pop-science books about the universe, the latest of which is the illustrated version of ”On the Shoulders of Giants”?

I want my books sold on airport bookstalls.

More here in the New York Times Magazine.

When de Kooning Was King

Dekooning184 ‘When we get the chance to look at the whole life and work of Willem de Kooning, the upheaval in American art in the middle of the 20th century comes into clearer focus. That alone makes ”De Kooning: An American Master,” by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, an important book. Several biographies in recent years — of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Arshile Gorky, among them — brought parts of that history to life. But in this book an enormous picture develops.

Stevens, a critic, and Swan, a journalist, both with many years of experience in the art world, have done deep research, but they don’t push it in our faces. We hear arguments among painters and critics and the street buzz about the development of Abstract Expressionism. But de Kooning’s persistence as an outsider to almost any theory or definition — he called theory ”baloney” — sharpens our understanding of the era.’

Book review here in the New York Times.

Did Nabokov Suffer From Cryptomnesia?

Vn ‘An intriguing development on the Nabokov front, a crypto-scandal widely reported in Europe, but not much here: Lolita is causing trouble again. At least, that’s been the way it’s been portrayed in the European press, which has overheatedly raised the specter of “plagiarism”: Did Vladimir Nabokov lift the controversial plot, indeed the very name of Lolita, from a 1916 German short story called “Lolita”?

But more interestingly, there are fascinating implications for understanding Pale Fire, which followed Lolita seven years later. And then there’s “cryptomnesia.”‘

More here from the New York Observer.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Shakespeare the anti-semite

Al“The debate is so old it should have its own place in the Shakespearean canon. Is Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who demands a ‘pound of flesh’ from a debtor, a villain or a victim? Every time The Merchant of Venice is staged, the debate is restaged along with it. Does Shakespeare’s play merely depict anti-semitism, or does it reek of it? Is the Bard describing, even condemning, the prevalent anti-Jewish attitudes of his time – or gleefully giving them an outlet? The papers of a million A-level students are marked forever with such questions.

Yet now they have a new force. Because the Merchant is playing in a new medium, making its debut as a full-length, big-budget feature film – complete with a top-drawer Hollywood star, Al Pacino, in the de facto lead.”

More here by Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian.

A sinister advantage

A possible reason why left-handedness is rare but not extinct:

“It is hard to box against a southpaw, as Apollo Creed found out when he fought Rocky Balboa in the first of an interminable series of movies. While “Rocky” is fiction, the strategic advantage of being left-handed in a fight is very real, simply because most right-handed people have little experience of fighting left-handers, but not vice versa. And the same competitive advantage is enjoyed by left-handers in other sports, such as tennis and cricket.

The orthodox view of human handedness is that it is connected to the bilateral specialisation of the brain that has concentrated language-processing functions on the left side of that organ. Because, long ago in the evolutionary past, an ancestor of humans (and all other vertebrate animals) underwent a contortion that twisted its head around 180° relative to its body, the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and vice versa. In humans, the left brain (and thus the right body) is usually dominant. And on average, left-handers are smaller and lighter than right-handers. That should put them at an evolutionary disadvantage. Sporting advantage notwithstanding, therefore, the existence of left-handedness poses a problem for biologists. But Charlotte Faurie and Michel Raymond, of the University of Montpellier II, in France, think they know the answer. As they report in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, there is a clue in the advantage seen in boxing.”

More here from The Economist.

The End of the Affair

Greene_graham19700312‘Norman Sherry’s Life of Graham Greene has occupied him continuously and exclusively for twenty-eight years, which may be a record of some kind. Greene died in 1991, having correctly predicted that he would not live to read the second volume (published in 1994). He also prophesied that Sherry would not survive to read the third and last volume, a remark in which one might detect some resentment at the ever-increasing scale and scope of the biography, and regret for having authorized its often embarrassing revelations. The prophecy was happily unfulfilled, but at times it was a close-run thing. Sherry promised to visit every country that Greene had used as a setting for a novel, a vow that took him to some twenty countries, entailing danger, hardship, and at least one life-threatening illness. He admits on the penultimate page of the biography that “reaching the end had often seemed beyond my strength and spirit” and superstitiously left the very last sentence of his narrative unfinished.’

David Lodge reviews The Life of Graham Greene,Volume Three: 1955–1991 by Norman Sherry, in the New York Review of Books, here.

Friday, December 10, 2004

How do paleontologists determine the sex of a fossilized creature?

William J. Sanders, assistant research scientist and supervising preparator at the Vertebrate Fossil Preparation Laboratory of the University of Michigan’s Museum of Paleontology, explains:

Living animals have primary sexual characteristics, such as genitalia, that differ between males and females. These are soft-tissue organs that generally do not leave marks on the skeleton and are therefore not preserved in the fossil record. There may be features associated with reproduction that do leave bony traces, however. For instance, in the female human pelvis, the angle of the bony arch beneath the pubis is much wider than it is in males and the sacrum is usually is flatter as well. Both of these features relate to the need for a larger pelvic outlet for birthing infants and are thus reliable sexual markers for forensic scientists and hominid paleontologists.

More here in Scientific American.

Tour of Beauty

‘In “Inventing Beauty: A History of the Innovations That Have Made Us Beautiful,” New York Times patent writer Teresa Riordan gives readers a delightful, quirky account of American cosmetic innovations, from lipstick to silicon implants, from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th. She avoids swerving into pro-feminist or anti-feminist polemics, and instead simply accepts that the desire to be fairest-of-them-all is an impulse as mythic and enduring as a fairytale. With a little Cinderella magic of her own, Riordan transforms patent history into an almost titillating subject, while reminding readers that tanning creams, breast implants, and nail polishes are “not merely articles of fashion but legitimate inventions” – and serious business.’

More here from

The world’s first multinational

Nick Robins, whose Imperial Corporation: reckoning with the East India Company will be published next year, writes:

Cover In The Discovery of India, the final and perhaps most profound part of his “prison trilogy”, written in 1944 from Ahmednagar Fort, Jawaharlal Nehru described the effect of the East India Company on the country he would shortly rule. “The corruption, venality, nepotism, violence and greed of money of these early generations of British rule in India,” he wrote, “is something which passes comprehension.” It was, he added, “significant that one of the Hindustani words which has become part of the English language is ‘loot'”.

For most of the succeeding 60 years, the East India Company sank from view. No plaque marked the site where its headquarters had stood in the City of London for more than two centuries. It was regarded as something that could be consigned to the history books, its deeds to be squabbled over by academics and imperial romantics. But the onset of globalisation has revived interest in a company that could be seen as a pioneering force for world trade. Exhibitions at the British Library and the V&A, plus a string of popular histories, have sought to revive the reputation of the “Honourable East India Company”. Its founders are now hailed as swashbuckling adventurers, its operations praised for pioneering the birth of modern consumerism and its glamorous executives profiled as multicultural “white moguls”.

More here from the New Statesman (via Arts & Letters Daily).

‘The Persian Puzzle’: Misjudging Iran

Pollack184 ‘The Americans who engineered the 1953 coup understood neither Mossadegh nor the shah. Mossadegh believed that the United States thought Iran vitally important and that he could win concessions from Washington by appearing willing to bargain with the Soviet Union — making him look, to American eyes, like Moscow’s cat’s-paw. The shah saw himself as totally dependent on the United States yet so necessary to it that he could squeeze Washington like a protection racketeer — and he did, most clearly in 1973, when he prodded OPEC into its most extravagant price gouging. (”The shah turned around and screwed us,” Robert Hormats, then at the National Security Council, has been quoted as saying.) The shah’s sense of dependency was most nakedly visible in his last days, when he considered trying bloody all-out suppression of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamist revolution but told the American ambassador that he could not take such action except on orders from Washington — orders that President Jimmy Carter refused to give. Pollack is unsparing in his criticism of Carter administration policy making; hard-liners and soft-liners, he says, were both ”operating under completely false assumptions.”’

More here from the New York Times Book Review.

The 10 Best Books of 2004 (NY Times)

“The books we’ve chosen as the year’s 10 best — five novels, a short-story collection, a memoir, two biographies and a historical study — present a broad range of voices and subjects. What do they have in common? Each is a triumph of storytelling, and each explores the past, whether through research, recollection, invention or some combination of the three.”

More here at the New York Times.

Bissell on Vietnam

‘War Wounds,’ Tom Bissell’s great new Harper’s essay on returning to Vietnam with his father, a Marine and veteran of the conflict, is not available online. But his thumbnail sketch of Ho Chi Minh, ‘Was Uncle a Stalinist?‘, has recently appeared on The Old Town Review, a small online journal of culture and politics I help run. I must say that ‘War Wounds’ is one of the best essays Harper’s has published in recent months: full of humor and emotion, often heartbreakingly funny and sad at the same time. Here’s a taster from ‘Was Uncle a Stalinist?’, an excerpt from Bissell’s new project, a travel book about his experiences with his father in Vietnam:

‘Long after lying about it would have served any purpose, many of Ho’s comrades spoke of his lasting disappointment at falling out of U.S. favor, and until the United States dispatched its advisers to South Vietnam, anti-American sentiment was virtually unknown among North Vietnam’s Communists, much unlike their fellows in China and the USSR. Meanwhile, freedom-lovers in the U.S. government delayed the publication of [an OSS officer’s] memoir until the 1980s for the high crime of containing a positive portrait of Ho Chi Minh, and for decades hid from the American public the eleven letters and telegrams Ho Chi Minh had written President Truman, one of which offered to make Vietnam a protectorate of the United States “for an undetermined period” and another of which offered up Vietnam as “a fertile field for American capital and enterprise” in exchange for aid against the French.’