Links

Links — March 24, 2011, 3:52 pm

Links

Trailer for the film Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, by Tamra Davis, screening on PBS’ Independent Lens on April 16. See John Berger’s essay on Basquiat in the April 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine, out now. In memory of Elizabeth Taylor, a weird old Harper’s story about her; The Wire seen through Victorian eyes; carbon dioxide is ruining everything; on losing a dog The 44-year-old ex-heavyweight champion is in bed by 8 and often up as early as 2 in the morning, at which point he takes a solitary walk around the gated compound in the Las Vegas suburb where …

Links — March 3, 2011, 1:08 pm

Links

By the time I come aboard in late September, Tara has been drifting for one year. The sun makes a complete revolution around us each day, while slowly spiraling downward. The crew has been using the ship’s bulletin board to keep time, posting the sun table and the weekly weather forecasts, conjecturing how far the ship will drift in the coming week. On October 4 the sun sinks below the horizon, and a season of perpetual twilight begins. The transition is like walking around with your eyes half closed. You get sleepier and sleepier; your eyelids drop another millimeter each …

Links — February 16, 2011, 2:29 pm

Links

The strange thing about this is that at twenty I imagined I would spend my middle age reading books that I didn’t have the patience to read when I was young. But now, at forty-one, I don’t even have the patience to read the books I read when I was twenty. At that age I plowed through everything in the Arnoldian belief that each volume somehow nudged me imperceptibly closer to the sweetness and light. I read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Ulysses, Moby-Dick. I got through The Idiot even though I hated practically every page of it. I didn’t …

Links — January 20, 2011, 1:57 pm

Links

Another policewoman points out the entrance to Pavilion B, housing the Shining Path inmates. I’m signed in a third time, and am being escorted up a staircase when a figure darts forward. Trout-brown eyes, long dark hair parted in the middle, and a muslin scarf draped over her shoulders, embroidered with small flowers. Her face is thinner, more striking than in photographs. She wears loose black trousers and blue high-heeled shoes. “Maritza?” She nods, smiles. Instinctively, I embrace her. —“The Dancer and the Terrorist,” Nicholas Shakespeare, Intelligent Life McGovern recalls Sarge’s gift; how to make a disaster-proof home in Haiti; …

Links — December 19, 2010, 11:11 pm

Links

There’s a peculiar comfort in imagining the companionship of great composers, for it is among them that a child prodigy is at home. Mozart rules the hopeful parent: homeschooled, composing harpsichord minuets at the age of five, playing the Viennese court at six, visiting Johann Christian Bach in London at age eight. He was one of the earliest celebrated child performers, and like Barbara, he was born to the profession—his father was a violin master. Then again, in some arts, there is almost an inevitability to the appearance of prodigies. Pablo Picasso’s charming Bullfight and Pigeons—drawn in 1890, when he …

Links — December 14, 2010, 9:44 am

Links

It is hard today to convey the significance and implications of the timetable, which first appeared in the early 1840s: for the organization of the railways themselves, of course, but also for the daily lives of everyone else. The pre-modern world was space-bound; its modern successor, time-bound. The transition took place in the middle decades of the nineteenth century and with remarkable speed, accompanied by the ubiquitous station clock: on prominent, specially constructed towers at all major stations, inside every station booking hall, on platforms, and (in the pocket form) in the possession of railway employees. Everything that came after—the …

Links — November 2, 2010, 3:29 pm

Links

That’s important for later: the simplicity and brevity of Werther is what made it ripe for mass consumption, which also made it ripe for parody. People could read it fast, and it could be printed fast. Unofficial –- since there wasn’t such a thing as “official” –- Werther merchandise filled the cultural landscape. Tailors sold outfits that let men look like Werther, the Edward Cullen of the story. Guys began carrying around Werther pistols. Napoleon wrote fan-fiction. At least one woman committed suicide with a copy of it in her pocket. This international obsession was referred to as “Werther-Fieber,” (Werther …

Links — October 27, 2010, 11:52 am

Links

I once asked an old, tired-looking black man to play James P. Johnson’s “Snowy Morning Blues” and he obliged after first turning around to take a better look at me. That tune was written in New York in 1920s and recorded a couple of times by Johnson himself and a few others. Its name already sets up a scene in one’s imagination. Someone has woken late, drawn open the curtains and found the rooftops and streets covered with snow. It must be a Sunday, because the tune evokes the melancholy and the quiet joy of someone lounging around, reminiscing about …

Links — October 20, 2010, 12:21 pm

Links

The three-power occupation of Iran, which began in 1941 and did not end until the Russians finally left in 1940, took the form of zoning. It therefore tended to reduce communications, not to improve them as they were improved in Egypt or Syria. Thus the provinces retained their ancient isolation, and the peasant his ignorance of anything beyond his immediate surroundings and his daily needs. Moreover, allied preoccupation with the long, thin lifeline to Russia caused impoundings of transport and a dislocation of supplies which rendered the foreigner unwelcome and unpopular. So did a tremendous upset of prices and an …

Links — October 14, 2010, 8:53 am

Links

Bradley Manning, still effectively a boy, had few friends, and his family had all but fallen apart. In a time before Facebook and sustained long-distance friendships, he was leaving his two best friends for what could easily have been the last time (for Shanée Watson, it was). He didn’t need to tell them he was gay in order to confess a hidden affection, to explain a behavior or even to allow his friends to know him better–in a short time he would be gone. And yet, presumably for no other reason than that he was who he was and wanted …

Links — October 13, 2010, 11:23 am

Links

Teaching often facilitates a relationship with one’s own ignorance: only by confronting the limits of my knowledge can I begin to ask questions, begin to imagine how questions will be asked of me. This is a confrontation I have learned to accept readily, as a useful practice, a gentle intellectual and spiritual stretching in the safe and narrowed context of a classroom. But outside the door of the San Quentin classroom is a prison yard, and beyond that, stairways that lead to cellblocks and dorms where thousands of men live literally stacked against each other. I do not understand how …

Links — October 12, 2010, 9:30 am

Links

Gladwell, who has built a wildly successful career curating and synthesizing other people’s research for the common reader’s consumption, has been surprisingly remiss in examining the social web’s impact on various forms of activism. In a recent New Yorker article, in fact, he declared that “the revolution will not be tweeted” — that social media are practically useless when it comes to serious activism. While I don’t question his remarkable intelligence or unique talent — I fully subscribe to the work of psychologist Howard Gardner, whose latest book, Five Minds for the Future, demonstrates the value of the kind of …

Links — October 8, 2010, 8:51 am

Links

Because I am a Jew, and a New York Jew at that, and because I am furthermore employed in publishing, I am, as is well known, bound by tradition and perhaps even natural law to sign a book deal. And so I have. It’s a rather pleasant thing to do, entering into a writing contract, despite the mental labor required to produce a book (I grow weary even now as I think of it). I do, however, work for a monthly magazine at which several colleagues have either written a book, are currently writing one, or are mulling the idea …

Links — October 5, 2010, 9:03 am

Links

To read The Kreutzer Sonata after one has read the diaries of both Sophia and Leo Tolstoy is to realize two things simultaneously: one, the story line (except for the murder) is very nearly a transcript of daily life inside the Tolstoy marriage; two, the marriage itself is something that Dostoevsky more easily than Tolstoy might have written. In Tolstoy’s writing we have characters who, at once in thrall to both inner limitation and the force of circumstance, are placed on a landscape of world-and-self that steadily widens and deepens. In Dostoevsky we have these same characters living so completely …

Links — October 1, 2010, 12:01 pm

Links

Gaitskill’s compassionate analysis of sexual urges that could be lazily labeled “extreme” or “subversive” is most explicit in her recent collection, Don’t Cry (2009), which often invokes suffering and its alleviation through reflection rather than dialogue and action. In “Folksong,” the narrator reads a news item about a woman who has sex with 1,000 men in a row in hopes of breaking a world record. The narrator then imagines the complexity behind this woman’s attempt to turn herself into a “fucking machine.” Unlike Millet, whose sole concern would seem to be a graphic representation of her couplings, Gaitskill describes the …

Links — September 29, 2010, 6:52 am

Links

President Obama, according to many Republican politicians and media personalities, is not only the most liberal President in American history, he is a mortal threat to the American way of life. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently described Obama as “the most radical President in American history,” and right-wing entrepreneur Dinesh D’Souza describes him as “the most anti-business President in a generation, perhaps in American history.” Over the course of his administration, the President has been alternately accused of being a Socialist, a secret Muslim, an atheist, a foreigner – and now a Kenyan anti-colonialist. Oddly enough, Obama has largely …

Links — September 27, 2010, 7:30 am

Links

There’s no doubt that in Somalia, crime pays—it’s about the only industry that does. There is even a functioning pirate stock exchange in Xarardheere, where locals buy “shares” in seventy-two individual pirate “companies” and get a respectable return if the company is successful. Most of the money, though, is frittered away. Boyah, who personally has made hundreds of thou- sands of dollars if not millions, asked me for cigarettes when I met him. When I asked what happened to all his cash, he explained: “When someone who never had money suddenly gets money, it just goes.” He also said that …

Links — September 23, 2010, 8:42 am

Links

I make a medium-sized chunk of my less-than-medium-sized income writing about books in print publications. So it’s pretty annoying when some guy corners me in a hallway at a party while I’m trying to get my crunk on (often the case), sticks a sweaty thumb on my nose – nail nubbed to bone – and tells me that the book review is dead, no one cares anymore, we are the citizenry of ADD-America with no interest in the written word, and, in fact, no tolerance for texts longer than 350 words. Usually this speech is followed by my interrogator – …

Links — September 20, 2010, 5:50 am

Links

Who is it this time? The biggest celebrity of all, Barack Obama. Following in the footsteps of Theodore Roosevelt’s Hero Tales from American History, and Jimmy Carter’s The Little Baby Snoogle-Fleejer, the president has come up with Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters, a set of 13 “inspirational tales” of American pioneers. Frankly, just the title makes me want to stick my fingers in my ears and scream. Even though it is taken from My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, it reeks of patronising, pseudo-didactic, blood-freezing smarm. And that’s not mentioning the subtitle – honestly, what children’s book …

Links — September 17, 2010, 11:12 am

Links

Do you date men or women or both? Both. Is dating men and women different? Normally with women you have to play all kinds of little games. You have to make vegetarian sushi even if you’re not a vegetarian. And we all have to be sensitive. It’s a long project. Whereas with men, it’s much easier to seduce them. Just yesterday I wrote a really naughty email to a spiritual master. And I met him in a course, I was listening to his talk but I didn’t stay for the ritual afterward because I knew I would stay to impress …

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The Wood Chipper·

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I was tucked in a blind behind a soda machine, with nothing in my hand but notepad and phone, when a herd of running backs broke cover and headed across the convention center floor. My God, they’re beautiful! A half dozen of them, compact as tanks, stuffed into sports shirts and cotton pants, each, around his monstrous neck, wearing a lanyard that listed number and position, name and schedule, tasks to be accomplished at the 2019 N.F.L. Scout­ing Combine. They attracted the stunned gaze of football fans and beat writers, yet, seemingly unaware of their surroundings, continued across the carpet.

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Common Ground·

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Thirty miles from the coast, on a desert plateau in the Judaean Mountains without natural resources or protection, Jerusalem is not a promising site for one of the world’s great cities, which partly explains why it has been burned to the ground twice and besieged or attacked more than seventy times. Much of the Old City that draws millions of tourists and Holy Land pilgrims dates back two thousand years, but the area ­likely served as the seat of the Judaean monarchy a full millennium before that. According to the Bible, King David conquered the Canaanite city and established it as his capital, but over centuries of destruction and rebuilding all traces of that period were lost. In 1867, a British military officer named Charles Warren set out to find the remnants of David’s kingdom. He expected to search below the famed Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, but the Ottoman authorities denied his request to excavate there. Warren decided to dig instead on a slope outside the Old City walls, observing that the Psalms describe Jerusalem as lying in a valley surrounded by hills, not on top of one.

On a Monday morning earlier this year, I walked from the Old City’s Muslim Quarter to the archaeological site that Warren unearthed, the ancient core of Jerusalem now known as the City of David. In the alleys of the Old City, stone insulated the air and awnings blocked the sun, so the streets were cold and dark and the mood was somber. Only the pilgrims were up this early. American church groups filed along the Via Dolorosa, holding thin wooden crosses and singing a hymn based on a line from the Gospel of Luke: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Narrow shops sold gardenia, musk, and amber incense alongside sweatshirts promoting the Israel Defense Forces.

I passed through the Western Wall Plaza to the Dung Gate, popularly believed to mark the ancient route along which red heifers were led to the Temple for sacrifice. Outside the Old City walls, in the open air, I found light and heat and noise. Tour buses lined up like train cars along the ridge. Monday is the day when bar and bat mitzvahs are held in Israel, and drumbeats from distant celebrations mixed with the pounding of jackhammers from construction sites nearby. When I arrived at the City of David, workmen were refinishing the wooden deck at the site’s entrance and laying down a marble mosaic by the ticket window.

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The Black Axe·

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Eleven years ago, on a bitter January night, dozens of young men, dressed in a uniform of black berets, white T-­shirts, and black pants, gathered on a hill overlooking the Nigerian city of Jos, shouting, dancing, and shooting guns into the black sky. A drummer pounded a rhythmic beat. Amid the roiling crowd, five men crawled toward a candlelit dais, where a white-­robed priest stood holding an axe. Leading them was John, a sophomore at the local college, powerfully built and baby-faced. Over the past six hours, he had been beaten and burned, trampled and taunted. He was exhausted. John looked out at the landscape beyond the priest. It was the harmattan season, when Saharan sand blots out the sky, and the city lights in the distance blurred in John’s eyes as if he were underwater.

John had been raised by a single mother in Kaduna, a hardscrabble city in Nigeria’s arid north. She’d worked all hours as a construction supplier, but the family still struggled to get by. Her three boys were left alone for long stretches, and they killed time hunting at a nearby lake while listening to American rap. At seventeen, John had enrolled at the University of Jos to study business. Four hours southeast of his native Kaduna, Jos was another world, temperate and green. John’s mother sent him an allowance, and he made cash on the side rearing guard dogs for sale in Port Harcourt, the perilous capital of Nigeria’s oil industry. But it wasn’t much. John’s older brother, also studying in Jos, hung around with a group of Axemen—members of the Black Axe fraternity—who partied hard and bought drugs and cars. Local media reported a flood of crimes that Axemen had allegedly committed, but his brother’s friends promised John that, were he to join the group, he wouldn’t be forced into anything illegal. He could just come to the parties, help out at the odd charity drive, and enjoy himself. It was up to him.

John knew that the Black Axe was into some “risky” stuff. But he thought it was worth it. Axemen were treated with respect and had connections to important people. Without a network, John’s chances of getting a good job post-­degree were almost nil. In his second year, he decided to join, or “bam.” On the day of the initiation, John was given a shopping list: candles, bug spray, a kola nut (a caffeinated nut native to West Africa), razor blades, and 10,000 Nigerian naira (around thirty dollars)—his bamming fee. He carried it all to the top of the hill. Once night fell, Axemen made John and the other four initiates lie on their stomachs in the dirt, pressed toge­ther shoulder to shoulder, and hurled insults at them. They reeked like goats, some Axemen screamed. Others lashed them with sticks. Each Axeman walked over their backs four times. Somebody lit the bug spray on fire, and ran the flames across them, “burning that goat stink from us,” John recalled.

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Who Is She?·

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I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t get up—­just couldn’t get up, couldn’t get up or leave. All day lying in that median, unable. Was this misery or joy?

It’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it? A habit or phase, a marriage, a disease, children or drugs, money or debt—­something you believed inescapable, something that had been going on for so long that you’d forgotten any and every step taken to lead your life here. What did you do? How did this happen? When you try to solve the crossword, someone keeps adding clues.

It’s happened to us all. The impossible knowledge is the one we all want—­the big why, the big how. Who among us won’t buy that lotto ticket? This is where stories come from and, believe me, there are only two kinds: ­one, naked lies, and two, pot holders, gas masks, condoms—­something you must carefully place between yourself and a truth too dangerous to touch.

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Murder Italian Style·

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The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1,280 pages. $40.

In a quiet northern suburb of Rome, a woman hears noises in the street and sends her son to investigate. Someone is locked in the trunk of a Fiat 127. The police arrive and find one girl seriously injured, together with the corpse of a second. Both have been raped, tortured, and left for dead. The survivor speaks of three young aggressors and a villa by the sea. Within hours two of the men have been arrested. The other will never be found.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A federal judge in South Carolina ruled in favor of personal-injury lawyer George Sink Sr., who had sued his son, George Sink Jr., for using his own name at his competing law firm.

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