Ffortsa reads 2009
Liity LibraryThingin jäseneksi, niin voit kirjoittaa viestin.
Tämä viestiketju on "uinuva" —viimeisin viesti on vanhempi kuin 90 päivää. Ryhmä "virkoaa", kun lähetät vastauksen.
- an amusing article on inspecting kosher food providers in China, by Patricia Marx
- an article on the strange ways of the musician Will Oldham, who I freely confess I'd never heard of.
- an article on international relief workers by Jonathan Harr, which I couldn't quite bear to read
Not an auspicious start
Lots of political news, of course, as the inauguration was pending. One really interesting article by Adam Kirsch on Hannah Arendt, and how her personal need for distance influenced her philosophy and writing.
More political writing, an article about the Obamas in 1996 in Chicago. The lead article, however, was Judith Thurman's essay on the resurgence of Scrabble.
- An article on health care reform by Atul Gawande, who outlines how the British National Health began as an outgrowth of World War II and both military and civilian casualties. By the time it was instituted in peacetime, 90% of physicians signed up for it and found their incomes greater and steadier. And, as we found with the ACA, the country discovered the pent-up demand for health and dental services from people who simply couldn't afford them before.
In contrast, the prescription drug plan here in the US was instituted without thinking of the difficulties eligible people would have choosing the 'right' private insurance program for them. Such efforts tend to give government programs a bad name.
Gawande goes on to discuss the Massachusetts system, which was also based on private insurers. Not perfect, but actually pretty much a success. I have a friend who became ill after it went into effect and found it extremely helpful.
That said, in the intervening years, ACA has run into trouble as just those people who need long-deferred medical care have strained the private insurers, and state providers vary wildly. Again, the reputation of government has been harmed by the problems of implementation in an atmosphere that tries to satisfy all objections.
As a member of the Medicare generation, I can attest to the difficulty of navigating not the program, but the list of doctors willing to take the low payments Medicare offers. Too many physicians opt out, because the system is still fee for service in all but the Advantage plans, and doctors who are dissatisfied with those plans leave fairly frequently. We need a national plan, but I don't see that coming any time soon.
- Jill Lepore, whose historical writing I love, has an article on newspapers and the American Revolution, if anyone is interested.
And that was January, much attenuated, and mostly read a long time back.
Kelefa Sanneh (a New Yorker staff writer) writes a comprehensive review of Booker T. Washington, his biographical details and philosophy of how black America should behave. Since I recently read Invisible Man, in which Washington's approach was both detailed and challenged, the piece really resonated.
Washington wanted to avoid violence at all costs, and became adept at 'satisfying' white men in power, so that he could get the funding and commendation for the Tuskegee Institute to prepare black men and women for jobs and a more middle-class life than they had access to after the Civil War. But his acceptance of silence and knowing one's place didn't accomplish what the restive black population wanted. W. E. B. Dubois and others effectively countered his arguments and representation, and the rest we know.
Laura Secor writes of the plight of economists in Tehran, notably Mohammed Tabibian, a free market economist in a country whose leaders find the idea of a free market too unconstrained, in spite of the fact that their economic policies are ruining the middle class engine that had existed in Iran before them. Quite fascinating look at the effects of doctrinal economics.
Larissa MacFarquahar writes of the odd political do-si-do of Caroline Kennedy, who was offered Hillary Clinton's senate seat after Obama appointed Clinton Secretary of State. It's an occasion to review Kennedy's life and choices, and explain why, ultimately, she took herself out of contention and went back to her life.
John Lanchester analyzes the book The Lords of Finance which examines the Federal Reserve, the wreck of the post-WWI economy on the the gold standard, and the implications for our current economic predicaments.
and Alex Ross takes $100 and sees how much classical music in New York he can enjoy for the money. As it happens, he sees 10 top notch performances in 7 days and only spends $81. It's almost 8 years later, of course, but I bet it wouldn't cost much more today.
Feb. 9 and 16:
This is the anniversary issue following John Updike's death, and of course there are a lot of memories, as Updike was so important to the magazine, and it to him. In addition,
Jerome Groopman reviews the medical condition tinnitus, how much or little we know about it and what can be done to relieve sufferers (not too much).
John McPhee adds to the New Yorker's meditations on itself with a long article on the art of fact-checking, for which the New Yorker has been justifiably famous.
John Packer writes of the people caught in the then-current Florida real estate speculation bubble, some of them living in the midst of hundreds of empty homes, and how easy credit and the boom before the bust left them there, or evicted them. As the economy collapsed and jobs disappeared, more and more people were stranded with no work, no funds and nowhere to go. Of course, by now those 'ghost subdivisions' may have filled up a bit, thanks to a rising economy, foreclosure pricing and endless optimism. Florida is like that.
Claudia Roth Pierpont details James Baldwin's life and self-imposed exile during which he wrote essays and fiction on the facts of black life in America, and sometimes gay life in America, and sometimes both. The occasion for the article is the publication of Magdelena J. Zaborowska's biographical James Baldwin's Turkish Decade. But Pierpont doesn't restrict herself to the book review, instead covering all of Baldwin's life and writings and mentioning other biographers, David Leeming and James Campbell. A great review of a life in an inflection point of history.
Evan Ratliff investigates the dream of one man to make robots wielding shotguns (yikes).
Daniel Zalewski writes a long profile of novelist Ian McEwan - I've recently read Enduring Love, which is definitely not the romance its title implies, so it was interesting, and I may read the piece again.
and Louis Menand reassesses Donald Barthelme = another piece I will have to read again before I let go of the issue. ETA I've saved the article to read when I tackle Barthelme again.
Alex Ross discusses Felix Mendelssohn on the occasion of the composer's 200th birthday. Again, a personal interest, as I heard only Saturday a marvelous performance of a Mendelssohn quartet written when he was only 18.
And Anthony Lane reviews 'Gomorrah', a film based on Roberto Saviano's non-fiction treatise of almost the same name, Gomorra, about the Neapolitan Mafia, known as the Camorra. Saviano was in hiding as of this date. I first encountered the idea of the Camorra in Italian police procedurals, particularly Cosi Fan Tutti I think.
February was a much better month.
March 2, 2009
Ariel Levy, in a piece under 'AMERICAN CHRONICLES', relates the story of an early lesbian motorcycle group, the Van Dykes. A deep dive into the lesbian separatism movement of the 1970s, it is also a very personal portrait of what Levy calls a big pirate of a woman, Heather Van Dyke from her coming out to her current joyful life.
Also, a profile of the opera soprano Natalie Dessay, by Rebecca Mead, an essay on Damon Runyon by Adam Gopnik, and a review of Lynn Nottage's play "Ruined' by Hilton Als. I vividly remember this dazzling, heart-rending work.
March 9, 2009
Iceland post-crash, by Ian Parker, was quite interesting
D.T. Max wrote a piece on David Foster Wallace that made me so thoughtful of Wallace's work that I saved the article. Max includes a lot of biographical detail, but also interesting commentary about The Broom of the System which I read and didn't really understand, and the other novels, along with a liberal sprinkling of quotes from Wallace's letters. I just finished a book of essays by Jonathan Franzen, who is referenced in this article, and it seems the two authors were well acquainted and suffered from some of the same depression. Franzen, of course, has worked his way out of it much more successfully than Wallace.
March 16, 2009
I wonder if I read this issue. I will keep it to read an essay on the playwright Yasmina Reza, by Judith Thurman, and an article titled 'Why Dracula Won't Die' by Joan Acocella.
March 23, 2009
First a great cover on Rush Limbaugh, if you can remember back that far.
Ron Chernow - an essay on Bernie Madoff and other swindlers through the ages
Dan Chiasson - a critical view of C.P. Cavafy, which I will read (or reread) before I let the issue go.
March 30, 2009
Atul Gawande, in an essay named 'Hellhole', discusses whether solitary confinement should be considered torture. I may review this one as well, as I just read a piece by Jonathan Franzen from earlier in the decade on ultra-max prisons that asks the same question.
No other titles spark my memories of when I read these some months ago.
April 6 -
Rebecca Mean wrote a fascinating story about twin men who decided to become poets. They are not quite identical (one is half an inch taller), and their poetry isn't either. They grew up sound of Portland, Oregon, in a neighborhood that was rougher than it seemed because their little block was pretty good. But it was rough enough that their mother sent them to Catholic school, wrangling scholarships. Still, they used drugs, even though the family moved north of Portland to try to improve the situation, and got into dangerous scrapes, and discovered books. Fascinating, which is why it took so long to record and recycle this issue.
There was also a very intelligent review of "Exit the King" on Broadway, which we saw. Nice to revisit it.
April 13 -
I had to refer this issue to Jim, because it contains an essay on debt in the early years of the nation, written by Jill Lepore, one of our favorite historians. The work focuses on John Pintard, a contemporary of Washington, Hamilton and the rest, and one of the men who made sure that debtors' prison was outlawed in the new country. It's a fascinating story of how society treats debt, andin an incidental remark, Lepore mentions that Pintard founded the New York Historical Society because he had such a profound sense of the worth of knowing one's history. Another case of holding on to this because it was too interesting to recycle.
April 20 -
Dorothy Wickenden wrote about Rosamund Underwood, Dorothy Woodruff, and the man who hired them to travel from Auburn. New York to Hayden, Colorado in 1916 to teach a school that he would build. His mission was two-fold - to provide education, and to attract eligible young women to the cattle-town and environs for himself and his fellow ranchers. A delightful essay on how the West was really won. Another case of ....
Burkhard Bilger explores for the reader the enormous influx of non-native reptiles to Florida, particularly to the Everglades. Florida is a hotbed of animal smuggling, but the most dangerous effects have been the pythons, which in the Everglades environment have grown to Disney-imagination size and number.
April 27 -
Not much I recall here, except for two theater reviews, for a revival of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone", and "Mary Stuart". And yes, we saw them both.
Traveling soon, but when I come back, I will try to read and annotate more simultaneously.
May 4 -
Annals of Medicine
Jerome Groopman, who frequently writes of medicine for the New Yorker, discusses a new kind of drug that 'restores function to the abnormal protein' that, when working properly, allows cells to get rid of chloride ions which otherwise cause the terrible mucus and congestion of cystic fibrosis. The hope is that if this drug can activate or reset proteins that are malfunctioning, it may have implications for all sorts of illnesses we have trouble treating today. Another drug in trials stimulates alternative routes to channel chlorides out of the cells.
Groopman has a nice facility for explaining what goes wrong at the genetic level, and what novel alternatives might exist to correct genetic errors, without resorting to overly scientific language or dumbing down the result either. He also shows how frustrating it can be to know of a drug that has helped in trials but is not yet approved to save your life.
The Life After
Philip Gourevitch went to Rwanda 15 years after the genocide to find out if and how efforts of reconciliation were working. He relates the history of the country after the genocide, when the country was staggering with the tragedy of the extremist Hutu uprising against the Tutsi population. When Paul Kagame won the civil war and forcibly repatriated the refugees in Uganda, the unrest and suspicion continued, and many were jailed for genocide.
The country, under Kagame's orders (he is, after all, authoritarian), established gacaca courts, local courts where people could confess to their part in the genocide, ask forgiveness, and receive release for time served. But the confessions are often unbearable to hear, and the forgiveness pro forma. Confessors and survivors avoid each other anyway. The hope is that after such horrific events, the country can at least move toward a more peaceful future.
In the meantime (this is 2009), civil and tribal war still engulfs Rwanda's neighbor Congo.
May 11 -
Annals of Innovation - How David Beats Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell
Musing about the collection of razors (not the classy kind, the multi-blade kind) that he has collected, Gopnik has a deep think about the true conditions for innovation. He gets an adequate shave, even the same shave, from a two-blade, three-blade, or even a five-blade razor, from the ones with batteries in the handle that vibrate. Why keep inventing. He then thinks about mousetraps:
We make a better mousetraps only in the increasing absence of mice. The first mousetrap patent, for the snap trap, didn't appear until 1894, when the rodent was already in retreat, a victim of improved sewer systems an more stringent public-health measures... When mice are on the run, we have time to think of how to kill them better; when we are overrun by mice, w turn to cats, prayers, and hope
and muses about whether the elimination of warriors as hereditary leaders (what if the next one is a wimp?) let to the invention of constitutional monarchies, etc. Scarcity encourages people to hold the rites of scarcity sacred. What encourages novelty is the confidence that the new things - like the inventory of a novelty store - aren't really necessary. Frivolity is the real mother of invention.
Do I buy this? I'm not sure. But he then segues to evolution, and gets to the guts of the argument. When all energy is concentrated is just getting by, differentiation without purpose is too costly. Why should a bird invent a new song when he's already exhausted from getting that earthworm? It raises interesting questions about what look like frivolous differentiations and why they might be, especially as they don't seem to do what we thought they did, entice reproductive selection.
When he comes down from these musings, he reflects again on technology, his frustrating search for a satisfactory book light. I could have suggested a tablet, but he tried a candle on the nightstand. Voila!
Onward and Upward with the Arts: The Art Doctor
Christian Schneidermann is at this writing the go-to guy to fix all your damaged art, especially the newest kind done without paint or canvas. From patterned latex stretching out over a silk-screen to dung falling off Chris Ofili's work, he is called in for creative solutions that maintain the integrity of the art, even if it means changing it just a little. A tree stump with beetles? Get another tree stump of the same kind. An installation's live pigeons shit on the coffin under them? Well, the artist decided he liked it. Other insect infestations are fumigated and filled with resin to hold them up. A backing canvas that used tasty glue is also fumigated and replaced by plastic. Creativity, problem solving, and patience.
There was an article on charter schools I couldn't bear to read without an update on the outcome, so I skipped it.
Profiles: Brain Games by John Colapinto
The profile is question is of Dr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, a behavioral neurologist who is, as Schneidermann is, creative and problem-solving. He is most fascinated with how the brain is influenced by vision to hold to strange obsessions, illusions, or sensations. He's worked most successfully with the phantom limb problem, and in the process, among others, has dramatically increased our understanding of what the brain is capable of and how our senses are interpreted and misinterpreted. And he's been involved in the study of 'mirror neurons' and their possible use in explaining autism, and the mystery of why some people want to amputate their perfectly good and pain-free limbs. It's a fascinating article.
There's a review of a biography of Helen Gurley Brown. OK.
There's also a review of a biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins, by Paul Mariani, that is also an analysis of why his poetry was so radical, brilliant and sensory. It pains me to think that this poetry might have required the desperately unhappy life he led, even as he dismissed it as a waste of time.
There's more, but that's what interested me.
May 18 -
Annals of Finance: The Death of Kings by Nick Paumgarten
It's been nine years since the financial meltdown, but this essay is still bleeding from those wounds. Paumgarten does an exceptional job of explaining the nature of the the problem, without sparing us the occasionally sarcastic or maybe sardonic tone of voice. Bank consolidation, IPO filings that let partnerships cash out, discount commissions, derivatives, colateralized mortgage obligations (his description of these is especially succinct), and the ratings agencies all get skewered. At the bottom of it all is debt. He references Margaret Atwood (not that Margaret Atwood) to remind us that debt and sin are the same words in Aramaic, and quotes her as saying
The whole theology of Christianity rests on the notion of spiritual depts and what must be done to repay them, and how you might get out of paying by having someone else pay instead.
It rests, too, on a long pre-Christian history of scapegoat figures - including human sacrifices - who take your sins away for you.
Later, much later (this is a long essay), someone says at a meeting Capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity without Hell
I feel like saying that if you liked The Big Short, you'll love this essay. Even if you lived through it all.
and almost as a comment on high prices and debt, there's this:
The World of Business: Drink Up
In short, this is the tale of Two-Buck Chuck and the man who makes it. Fred Franzia knows what he sells, and likes to sell it and rub Napa Valley's pretentious nose in it. He has an abiding ambition to beat Gallo (he probably has), a family-held business, a cut-throat take-over ethic and a crudeness that can make you blink. He's not nice to his workers, but as of this essay he was supporting a unionization effort that would enforce rules about water, shade and safety. He's a hands-on manager who checks his own vines.
I've never had Two-Buck Chuck, which I understand is now three bucks, but I'm not much of a wine drinker.
The Critics: Books: Slang-Wanger by Arthur Krystal
Duncan Wu's biography of William Hazlitt is the impetus for this essay regarding a man I've never read, a contemporary of Coleridge, Wordsworth, etc., a prodigious writer, reporter, critic - a journalist on all topics during the rise of journalistic writing. He was also a radical, extremely compustible, and according to Krystal,
We don't for a moment believe that he's inept, or unatractive, or capable of behaving like a lunatic. You can't write well and behave badly.
But, of course, you can, and Hazlitt did. He cheated on his wife, alienated friends, and when Napoleon as defeated at Waterloo he stayed drunk for weeks. For all the insouciance of his prose, Haslitt could be a social disaster. HIs friend P. G,. Patmore said that he entereda room "as if he had been brought back to it in custody." Coleridge famously described him as 'brow-hanging, shoe-contemplative, strange." He was obviously combative, but, according the Wi, he was afraid of his housekeeper.
and so on. But Krystal goes on to say
Perhaps that's one reason that bookish people are drawn to Hazlitt: he's terribly self-conscious in public and acutely conscious of the self in private; like the, he gets buffeted by fate or by people with more power, but unlike them, be buffets back, which makes him, well, heroic.
Sorry for the long quotes. I think I have to read this biography, and some Hazlitt.
And the last piece to interest me
The Theatre: Panic Attack by John Lahr
This is a review of the wonderful revival of 'Waiting for Godot' that I saw, with John Glover, John Goodman, Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin. Lahr has some claim to this play above his role as critic, as his father played Estragon when it bombed in Florida and smashed on Broadway. A basically good review, I disagree only with his opinion of Nathan Lane as Estragon. He doesn't see Lane's awareness of the terror at the heart of the play, but I saw it in a flash of pure fury, so brief that if I had blinked, I might have missed it. Lane needs a director who can keep him compressed, but the explosion was there.
May 25 -
A Reporter At Large: The Sixth Extinction? by Elizabeth Kolbert
Kolbert has since this essay come out with the full-length book, but this is a fine taste of what is to come. Bat-killing and frog-killing fungus features prominently, but Kolbert also gives us the history of mass extinction episodes and our increasing understanding of them. We know the story of CO2 acceleration in the atmosphere, but this essay takes us into the bat caves and jungles where the effects can be seen.
The Critics: The Real Rhett Butler by David Denby
Victor Fleming was not an 'auteur' film maker, but as they say in 'Hamilton', he could get the job done, and he did it a lot. In the same year, he made 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Gone with the Wind'; many other films we know even if we don't know he directed them. You wouldn't know a film was his by looking at it - each one was given the look and direction it needed.
The most famous two films he did, cited above, each have stories around them, but the best story concerns GWTW, which he was brought in to save. Ben Hecht was also brought in, but refused to read the book, so Selznick and Fleming acted it out for him in a marathon session fueled by 'Dexadrine, peanuts, and bananas' according to Selznick's oddball beliefs. This story led to one of the funniest shows Jim and I ever saw, a play called 'Moonlight and Magnolias'. If it comes your way, make sure to see it.
And here's a reason I will endeavor to read the art reviews of each new New Yorker even if I don't read the rest of the issue - yet.
The Art World: Wild Life, Alice Neal's People by Peter Schjeldahl
Alice Neal (1900-1984) was an American painter who refused to learn to be an impressionist, right from the start. I can't speak about her paintings because I don't recall ever seeing them (I'm not a big museum-goer), but she lived hard, painted unknown and famous people (Annie Sprinkle, for instance), and championed telling the truth in art. I missed the gallery shows that inspired this short review, but I will look for her from now on.
July 6 and 13-
Profiles: Nora Knows What To Do by Ariel Levy
A pleasant profile of Nora Ephron that reviews her writing and movies and leaves me thinking she'd have been a joy to know.
On Television - "Hung" by Nancy Franklin, not a rave by a long way.
July 20 -
Books: XXXL by Elizabeth Kolbert on why we are fat, or rather, the books that seek to figure out why we are fat. The upshot seems to be that we are fat because food tastes so good, and the food industry keeps upping that measure. Having just eaten the best cheesecake of my life at Christmas dinner, I cannot dispute the claim.
The Theatre: Sex in the Head by John Lahr
Helen Mirrin plays Phedre in a production broadcast through NTLive. How did I miss this? Lahr has some quibbles with casting, but declares Mirrin triumphant in a difficult play where the action happens offstage or in Phedre's head.
July 27 -
Annals of Crime: At the Train Bridge by Calvin Trillin
The story of Scott Johnson, a lost man who ends up killing teenagers teenagers for no reason he could account for, other than to attract law enforcement so that he could kill them too. Chilling.
A Reporter at Large: The Kindest Cut by Larissa MacFarquhar
The growing movement to donate a kidney to a stranger. Lovely story.
Aug. 3 -
Annals of Reading: A New Page by Nicholas Baker
A hopelessly outdated and complaining view of the Kindle 2.
A Reporter at Large: Travels in Siberia I by Ian Frazier
A fascinating story of traveling through van - barely - from the west to the east through the southern tier of Siberia, continued in the next issue.
Profiles: Party of One by Kelefa Sanneh
A profile of Michael Savage, and more than I ever wanted to know about the man.
A Critic At Large: Judas Reconsidered by Joan Acocella
A review of all the permutations of thought about Judas Iscariot from the biblical stories through the various interpretations and philosophical discussions. I suspect they still go on today, almost a decade later, since they've been going on for 2000 years. An interesting survey.
And a review of Thomas Pynchon's "Inherent Vice", written by Louis Menand. About all I recall from it is the meaning of the title, which in the insurance world means the problem with the thing itself. For instance, as Menand explains, the inherent vice of eggs is that they easily break, after which they are of no value.
Aug. 10 & 17 -
Politics and Prose: The Courthouse Ring by Malcolm Gladwell
It was very timely for me to read this essay on Atticus Finch, as I was about to see the play "To Kill A Mockingbird". As Gladwell discusses, Finch, while seeming rather saintly, was essentially a gradualist who didn't really understand the urgency and the inherent viciousness of prejudice in the South. In the play I just saw, when Finch muses over the outcast status of the man who accused his client of rape, how he now walked in fear all the time because of what his fellow townspeople knew about his abuse of his daughter, Calpurnia says rather caustically, "I can't imagine what that feels like." Right.
Ian Frazier continues his two-part essay on his trip through Siberia. I learned a lot of geography.
A Critic at Large: The women behind the Little House stories, by Judith Thurman
A rather eye-opening view of the relationship of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who seems to have shaped her mother's books and in some ways paid her back for what she felt was "no affection". And interesting portrayal of an idealized family that was anything but ideal.
Aug. 24 and Aug. 31
Nothing I care to recall.
Letter from Canada: The Return of the Native by Adam Gopnik
I don't keep track of Canadian politics, but it seems that in 2009, Michael Ignatieff decided that it was more important to enter politics than remain an ex-professor at Cambridge, England and Harvard (in another Cambridge). Gobnik's essay/interview during which Ignatieff states "It's very odd. I've spent my life as a writer, but you have idea of the effect of words until you become a politician. One word or participle in th wrong place and you can spend weeks apologizing and explaining."
Welcome to the real world. He also seemed to be very optimistic about his chances to lead the nation. Funny, I don't recall his government.
Literary Lives: Me, Myself and I - the Essays of Michel de Montaigne by Jane Kramer
A lovely essay about Montaigne, whom Kramer calls the first modern man. She reviews his life, his heritage (half from conversos from Saragossa), his writing, his health, his travels, his friends. A lovely essay. I've read about Montaigne but never the essays themselves. High time I did.
Books: Bootylicious by Caleb Crain
Pirates! A review of "The Invisible Hook" leads to a discussion of pirate history, pirate economy and pirate morality, with its whiff of democracy - or maybe socialism - among the participants as they shared the booty. Pirating was once licensed as a sort of sniper action of one nation against another on the high seas, but once created, it continued on its own right through to the Somali activities we hear about now.
and for theater buffs, Hilton Als delivers a scorching review of Joanne Akalaitis's production of "The Bacchae" in Central Park. Glad I missed it.
Sept 14 -
This was the style issue, not of much interest to me. But there was one lovely piece.
Onward and Upward with the Arts: Road Show by Anthony Lane
In 1955, Robert Franks, an immigrant from Switzerland, started a journey across the U.S. to photograph and thus 'find' the Americans. It took him a year, during which he shot twenty-seven thousand pictures, eventually whittled down to a thousand work prints and ultimately 83 images in a published book. This article is a companion to an exhibit of these 83 photos, along with contact sheets of more, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Sorry to say, I missed it. The few photos reproduced for the article make me yearn to see the book.
Sept 21 -
Yet another article on the financial crisis. Too late.
Books: It Happened One Decade by Caleb Crain
Subtitled 'What the Great Depression did to culture', the review discusses the style of banter that is so present in screwball comedies.
Sept 28 -
Politics, politics, politics. And an article on chickens. sigh.
Books: Trial of the Century by Adam Gopnik
Gopnik reviews several books on the Dreyfus affair, and states that "The Dreyfus affair maters not because of the parallel with our own time but because it was one of the first tests of modern pluralist liberalism and its institutions - a test that those institutions somehow managed to pass and fail at the same time." After a comprehensive review of the details and the timeline of the case, he ends by saying "The urge to protect the nation from its enemies by going around the corner to get them is natural, but what you get is usually not the enemies, and going around the corner, you bump into something worse. Breaking the law to defend the nation ends up breaking the nation."
Annals of Economics: Rational Irrationality by John Cassidy
Cassidy reviews the studies done on how short-term competition among investors big and small results in distortions of the markets, bubbles on which everyone wants to ride until the bubble bursts. Keynes compares markets to games like musical chairs or Old Maid, where everyone moves faster and faster, striving to secure their place or get rid of their losses just before the game is over. Cassidy also surveys the 'prisoners' dilemma' underneath the competition among large institutions such as car companies, and others, where it results in a race to the bottom where no one wins. A good review of the repeating situation.
A Reporter At Large: Gangland by Jon Lee Anderson
An essay on who controls the streets of Rio de Janiero, run by competing territorial drug lords who act as godfather to their particular favella. Difficult to read because of all the off-hand violence, and the attempts by good people to change the system.
A Critic at Large: Happy Haneke by Anthony Lane
An essay on Michael Haneke, the German/Austrian film director, someone of whom I had never heard. His films are described in this piece, and they seem terribly dark and. oin his own words, about 'the roots of evil'. Growing up after WWII,he has had a lot of reason to explore that. Lane says there are reasons "for the aversion to Haneke's work. It feels hard-- not just tricky to elicidate but as clean and resistant as a kitchen counter, or a marble slab." Haneke goes on to state that his work isn't personal expression, but about 'hurting'. "It's not a private disappointment. There are wounds in every kind of life...If you look at the suffering around you, you can't be happy." Maybe I'll explore his work.
Reviews in this issue concerned the Met's production of Tosca with Karita Mattila, Peter Sellar's take on Othello, featuring John Ortiz and Phillip Seymour Hoffman (sorry I missed that), The Coen brothers' movie 'A Serious Man', and an essay by James Wood on the writer Richard Powers, who wrote "The Gold Bug Variations" and "Galatea 2.2". I'm not familiar with these books, and Wood seems to feel that the author is more philosopher than novelist.
October 12 -
We are still deep in the throes of the financial crisis analysis, especially as this is headed 'The Money Issue', but there are a few articles that really pop out.
Our Local Correspondents: The Secret Cycle by Nick Paumgarten
Martin Armstrong is one of those odd, focused people who see patterns other people miss - or he imagines them, take your pick. He noticed, for instance, that "a recurrence of major turning points in the economy and in world affairs that followed a distinct and unwavering 8.6-year rhythm. Six cycles of 8.6 years added up to a long-wave cycle of 51.6 years, which separated such phenomena as Black Friday and the commodity panic of 1920, and the Second and Third Punic Wars." He further noticed that 8.6 years was exactly 3,141 days, or pi times 1000. He became a financial consultant and very rich. He called the Nikkei high in December 1989, and the collapse of the ruble that wrecked Long Term Capital Management. He attracted the interest of the CIA, in a good way.
And then it didn't work, at least for Armstrong. He was charged with defrauding Japanese investors of nearly a billion dollars, and ended up in jail.
His cycles, however, marched on, at least in hindsight, when 2/23/2007 was seen as the day the credit spread was at its tightest, meaning the easiest credit, or the top of the credit bubble.
Paumgarten segues into a history of cyclomaniacs, including obsessions with Fibonacci sequences and what is now called the Elliot Wave Theory. By the time he gets back to Armstrong, he has been held in jail for contempt for seven years before trial, until he finally agreed to plead to one count of fraud, and then ended up in a New Jersey prison. He's still working on his theory. It's not pi per se. It's energy, waves of energy. It started with the Big Bang.
Letter from California: Call Me - Why Hollywood fears Nikki Finke
I know nothing about Nikki Finke. But it appears she is a major force of serious and sometimes damaging gossip and insider business information in Hollywood. And she does it all on the phone, never leaves her home, distributes it all via blog. Mesmerizing.
The Critics: Not So Fast by Jill Lepore
This review of "The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong", starts out with Frederick Winslow Taylor and his made-up observations and statistics, which have ruled industry forever, it seems. But the most fascinating part of the story of management and efficiency studies is about the Gilbreths. This is the couple who raised a dozen biological offspring and were memorialized in Cheaper By the Dozen, but the real fascination is how much of efficiency studies is the work of Lillian Gilbreth (who supported, edited, and wrote much of her husband Frank's work), and who, when scheduled to give a lecture at M.I.T., "got five children ready for school, nursed her four-month-old, handed the two toddlers over the the housekeeper, and caught a ten-o'clock train". When asked to stay late after the lecture, "she told her host that she had eight children to get home to." So I guess she said no. But Lillian couldn't cook or clean or do laundry. Note the housekeeper. That didn't stop her from engineering model kitchens, which her housekeeper refused to use.
Lepore notes that rather than allowing more of what Lillian Gilbreth called 'happiness time', the results of management and efficiency have added cell phones, extended hours, and agita to our lives. "Eating dinner standing up while nursing a baby, making a phone call to the office, and supervising a third grader's homework is not, I don't think, the hope of democracy."
October 19 -
Profiles: The Secret Keeper by William Finnegan
This long profile of Jules Kroll outlines the the creation of the field of 'corporate intelligence', by which we don't mean smart companies, but "forensic accounting, crisis management, competitor analysis -- tooled for a globalized business world, in which industrial espionage, counterfeiting, computer fraud, identity fraud, and sophisticated financial crimes have flourished." Interesting article about a business that rarely makes news.
Annals of Medicine: Offensive Play by Malcolm Gladwell
Football and the recognition of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. And dog fighting.
And a review of "Wolf Hall"
October 26 -
A Reporter At Large: The Inferno by Christine Kenneally
A breathtaking report on the deadly wildfires that hit southeastern Australia in 2009, reporting that definitely presages the California wildfires of these past two years.
Profiles: Man of Extremes - By Dana Goodyear
James Cameron, during and after the making of 'Avatar'. Riveting, but I don't think I would want to work for this man.
It's the cartoon issue. You had to be there.
November 9 -
Onward and Upward with the Arts: Talk This Way by Alec Wilkinson
Tim Monich is the premiere accent coach in Hollywood these days (I checked, he's still around at 69). This article is fascinating for the descriptions of how he coaches, complete with phonetic clues, the premiere actors of his day. He's the modern Henry Higgins, although it seems he's much, much nicer.
Annals of Gastronomy: The Scavenger by Dana Goodyear
After reading this profile of Jonathan Gold, "the high-low priest of the Lost Angeles food scene", I looked him up on Wikipedia. Sure enough, 9 years after this article, Gold died at 58. It's hard to imagine the amount of food he seems to have inhaled in his quest for authentic cuisine - you might call him a completist of traditional foods. Fearless (except for scrambled eggs - what's with that?) - and exquisitely discriminating in his appreciation of taste and texture, he changed the way L.A. ate. Let's hope most people take more time to make the rounds than he did.
Life and Letters: Possessed - Did Ayn Rand's cult outstrip her canon? - by Thomas Mallon
This exploration of Ayn Rand, the Objectivist pseudo-philosopher who brought us Nathaniel Brandon and Alan Greenspan, is sparked by the joint review of two biographies of her, "Ayn Rand and the World She Made" by Ann C. Heller, and "Goddess of the Market:Any Rand and the American Right" by Jennifer Burns. But it's no so much a review of these books as a review of Rand herself, her books, her heros, and the uneasy way postwar conservatives view her - economics ok, atheism and opposition to the war in Vietnam not so good. What would she have made of today's political landscape, I wonder?
Books: Flesh of Your Flesh by Elizabeth Kolbert
A review of Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals" leads to an essay on the moral merits of a vegetarian diet, Foer's stories of his struggles to accomplish his intentional vegetarianism, and other discussions such as Michael Pollen's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and even "The Face on Your plate: The Truth About Food" by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. In between, Kolbert notes the flesh-eating barbarism of her backyard chickens, and her sons' awareness of where their food comes from.
A Critic At Large: Rap Sheet - Why is American history so murderous? by Jill Lepore
Lepore is a wonderful historian of details, and here she describes how the U.S. statistical trajectory of murder compares to those of European nations. We are clearly not talking about war, but about face-to-face, brutal and often senseless death of a person or persons by another person or persons. The U.S. is much more murderous than any of the European countries. That's not so much news. But the attempt to find out why is interesting. Lepore discusses Pierre Spierenburg's book "A History of Murder: Personal Violence in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present" , which focuses on the 'civilizing process', and which anthropologists sometimes call 'the replacement of a culture of honor with a culture of dignity'. I can see how this can play out in many strata of society in the U.S. But besides that, the U.S. statistic rolls up and down quite a lot, from colonial times (falling) to recent times (in 1991 it was 11 per hundred thousand, very high, and since fallen to a little above 5 as of 2009).
Spierenberg speculates that the U.S. got democracy before it was comfortable with a state monopoly on force. Certainly our federated system spreads out the possibilities of force, not to mention the 2nd amendment and its interpretations. "We are backward, in other words, because we became free befor we learned how to control ourselves."
Historian Eric Monkkonen hypothesized that factors of mobility (breaking social ties), federalism (a weak form of government), the violent culture of slavery and its aftermath, and a pattern where judges and juries are less likely to convict murderers, citing racial murders and crimes of passion (to which we can add all the inchoate murders of recent days). Randolph Roth, author of "American Homicide" attempts to explain murder statistics by correlation. For instance, in the post-war eras, fewer young men were available to commit murder, having themselves been killed in a war. Or, citing criminologist Gary LaFree, he observes that the crime rate correlates inversely with public faith in government.
Lepore quotes Roth. "The statistics make it clear that in the twentieth century, homicide rates have falled during the terms of presidents who have inspired the poor or have governed from the center with a popular mandate, and they have risen during the terms of presidents who presided over political and economic crises, abused their poiwer, or engaged in unpopular wars".
But she also quotes Cesare Beccaria's treatise "On Crimes and Punishments" from 1764, where he argued that to be true deterrents, punishments must be 'swift and certain but not necessarily severe", and that capital punishment was no effective as a deterrent. In addition, "The countries and times most notorious for severity of punishment have always been those in which the bloodiest and most inhumane of deeds were committed."
Now which of these thoughts apply to us today?
November 16 -
Life and Letters: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood by Arthur Krystal
Krystal writes a bit of a biography of Fitzgerald, concentrating on his Hollywood years, which were lucrative but incredibly frustrating. Fitzgerald did not work well with others, and Krystal cites examples of scripts Fitzgerald was asked to write or rewrite, and how Fitzgerald always wanted to deepen the story, inject philosophy into what was just an entertainment.
"He was alternately sensible and reckless; worldly and adolescent;down to earth and somewhere above Alpha Centauri....In life, he simply wanted too much. He wanted to be both a great novelist and a Hollywood hot shot. He wanted to box like Gene Tunney and run downfield like Red Grange...He wanted the trappings of wealth but was drawn to the social idealism of Marx...He wasn't so much a walking contradiction as a quivering mass of dreams and ambitions that, depending on whom he was talking to, created a dizzying array of impressions....his own schoolmaster at Princeton, Christian Gauss...said Fitzgerald reminded him of all the Karamazov brothers at once.
And yet Krystal quotes Fitzgerald himself on "Gatsby", describing the burden of the novel as "the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world so that you don't care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory."
November 23 - The Food Issue
Before we get to food. The Talk of the Town starts with an essay by Jeffrey Toobin on the history of abortion in the U.S., and the situation with the ACA rules in 2009. We are still at it.
I seem to have misplaced the issue, but there is a wonderful story on following a Michelin evaluator in New York, how she maintains her anonymity, and how much she has to eat! Other articles were beguilingly interesting, even to a non-foodie, non-cook.
November 30 -
First of all, a great cover with an enraged turkey chasing a Pilgrim, by George Booth.
A Reporter at Large: Either/Or by Ariel Levy
This essay on Caster Semenya is as pertinent today as it was in 2009, as the runner is in the news again, and still running. Our perceptions of neat divisions of gender are being challenged everywhere, and Semenya's case is both poignant and disorienting. Was it here or elsewhere that I read that Michael Phelps benefited from a genetic quirk that produced much less lactic acid than other athletes? How do we deal with advantages, and for that matter, levels of competitiveness and skill?
A Critic at Large: The Politics of Death by Jill Leporre
Lepore revisits the Karen Ann Quinlan case in the light of the ACA, right vs. left politics, and what we have worried about since the founding. In the eighteenth century, it was liberty from the Crown. In the nineteenth century, it was conspiracies against property. And in the 20th, and now 21st, centuries, it is a consipiracy against life.
Ultimately, the courts determined that Karen Ann Quinlan had a right to die, and her father could exercise that right on her behalf. So make sure you have a medical power of attorney and all the documentation required to either keep you alive or let you die, depending on the circumstances. A huge portion of Medicare is spent on the last year of life, and I personally know of cases where there was no agreement from the patient that lifesaving treatments should continue. We have gotten far away from the natural rhythms of life and death, and our need to control it all is distorting these rhythms and our right to participate in them.
The Critics: Good Vibrations by John Lahr
In which he reviews Sara Ruhl's "In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play", which was just as delicious as he claims.
Books: Shallow Graves (the novels of Paul Auster) by James Wood
In this essay, Wood skewers (there is no other word) Paul Auster, as a cliche-ridden post-modernist wannabe.
"Auster is a peculiar kind of post-modernist. Or is he a postmodernist at all? Eight per cent of a typical Auster novel proceeds in a manner indistinguishable from American realism; the remaining twenty per cent does a kind of postmodern surgery on the eighty per cent, often casting doub on the veracity of the plot."
and "The classic formulations of postmodernism, by philosophers and theorists like Maurice Blanchot and Ihab Hassan, emphasize the way that tcontemporary language abuts silence. For Blanchot, as indeed for Beckett, language is always announceing its invalidity. Texts stutter and fragment, shred themselves around a void. Perhaps the strangest element of Auster's reputation as an American postmodernist is that his language never registers this kind of absence at the level of the sentence. The void is all too speakable in Auster's work. The pleasing, slightly facile books come out almost every year, as tidy and punctual as postage stamps, and the applauding reviewers line up like eager stamp collectors to get the latest issue. Peter Aaron, the narrator of 'Leviathan,' whose prose is so pressureless, claims that "I have always been a plodder, a person who anguishes and struggles over each sentence, and even on my best days I do no more than inch along, crawling on my belly like a man lost in the desert. The smallest word is surrounded by acres of silence for me." Not enought silence, alas."
Portraits of Power: a portfolio by Platon
In September of 2009, Platon set about photographing the powerful men and women who came to the United Nations. Most are or were presidents of their countries. Some, like Qaddafi, chose more flowery titles. Some are in color, others in black and white. Most are face portraits, some are more encompassing. All, somehow, from the perspective of 2019, are unsettling.
Annals of Law: The Celebrity Defense by Jeffrey Toobin
A review of the case against Roman Polanski.
I missed the last two issues of the year. So this concludes 2009.
Our Far-Flung Correspondents: The Ice Retreat by Fen Montaigne
The author spent months with Bill Fraser, an ecologist and expert on Adele penguins, specifically on Litchfield Island in the Southern Ocean. Climate change is vivid in this part of the world, and Adele penguins are casualties of it, because of retreating sea ice, which nourishes the krill and other sources of food, and because, strangely enough, the Adele can't successfully breed on snow. Climate change has created both less ice and more snow, and colonies that used the island for breeding are gone. Remember this was in the years directly before 2009, and it's now 2019, and it can't be any better.
Annals of Invention: Hearth Surgery by Burkhard Bilger
It would be interesting to see what has happened since this article was written. Scientists, engineers and amateur tinkerers were trying to come up with a better stove for the poorest parts of Africa, so that the soot and carbon monoxide and other chemicals that weakened women and children (mostly) would stand a better chance of a healthy life. The text relates both the engineering problems (an efficient stove is hard to build for $6, or build by hand without careful measurement), and the cultural problems, where people in rural groups are still wedded to their traditional ways, including the shape of their stoves and the poison of their sweatbaths. The rocket stove, so-called, may have made progress since then. The stories of the people, the mistakes, the successes, all are wonderful.
A Reporter At Large: The Monkey and the Fish by Philip Gourevitch
Greg Carr is one of those tech multimillionaires that got out early and looked for purpose, and he found it in a national park in Mozambique. To restore it, he discovers the complex ecology includes water from a nearby forested mountain that is falling to clear-cutting by the local population. But the people of the area are yet over their colonization by Portugal, and the question becomes who has the right to determine to save the park or not. An interesting clash of cultures, as one person sees irretrievable harm and the other sees interference.
Profiles: The Abstractionist by John Seabrook
I had heard of Zaha Hadid, but I hadn't seen her buildings or heard tell of her personality. This profile explores her life, her quirks, her huge idiosyncratic presence in the realm of architecture and design. Now I want to see her buildings, those that were actually finished, in person, and will be on the lookout for shows that include her unbuilt designs.
A Critic At Large: Road Warrior - Arthur Koestler and his Century
I have more than heard of Koestler, of course, and read his most celebrated work Darkness at Noon, but this review of a biography by Michael Scammell let me see a lot more of the man's history and journey, as well as his personality. I wouldn't have liked him. But his experiences are worth noting, his political views interesting in how they changed, and his time in a prison in Fascist Spain fascinating and painful.
One interesting review to finish, on Chaucer, on the occasion of reading Peter Ackroyd's translation from Chaucer's English to our own.
eta: The book review is titled 'All England: "The Canterbury Tales" retold, by Joan Acocella,and she doesn't like Ackroyd's prose translation at all, and points out why. But before she gets to him, she gives a lovely tour of the poem and Chaucer's life. Incidentally, she recommends a couple of interlinear translations, one by Vincent F. Hopper from 1948, and another (although not a complete text) by Larry Benson. If one doesn't want the Middle English at all, Penguin has a couple of verse translations as well.
And with that, the year is GONE. FINALLY.