“If we don’t cherish the work of Flann O’Brien,” said Anthony Burgess, the late English novelist (he of A Clockwork Orange and Earthly Powers), “we are stupid fools who don’t deserve to have great men.” Burgess can rest in peace on that score, at least. Flann O’Brien’s work is becoming about as cherished as avant-garde literature can ever expect to be, and not just among the cognoscenti. Flann O’Brien is chic. University courses on his writings proliferate. Smart pubs in such disparate places as London, Boston, and Graz, Austria are named after him. Numerous Web sites offer slick packages of info on his life and works. And, the ultimate accolade: in the second season premiere of the television series Lost, a copy of O’Brien’s masterpiece, The Third Policeman, was briefly shown onscreen, resulting in a sudden uptick in sales—more than 15,000 copies in three weeks, equaling total sales of the previous six years—and enhanced name recognition for its author, who’d been dead four decades. Of course, he’d been dead a year by the time The Third Policeman was finally published in 1967, whereupon it was an instant critical success. An ironist to his bones, he would not have been surprised at that, but he might have been surprised at Everyman’s Library releasing, forty-one years later, all five of his novels—At Swim-Two Birds; The Third Policeman; The Poor Mouth; The Hard Life; and The Dalkey Archive—in one handsome volume. Such an honor implies literary respectability, which he scorned but yearned for, in the way of so many true originals.

more from Boston Review here.

hitchens improved, the final installment


It could be argued that those who seek to make themselves over into a finer state of health and physique and fitness should not put off the job until they are in their 59th summer. As against that comes the piercing realization that, if you have actually made it this far and want to continue featuring in the great soap opera of your own existence, you had better take some swift remedial steps. It was all summed up quite neatly by whoever first said that if he’d known he was going to live this long he’d have taken better care of himself.

Then there’s the question of whether you want to feel good (or better) or whether you want to look good (or at least a bit better). Having tried everything from body wraps to Brazilian bikini waxes, I rather suddenly became persuaded that all cosmetic questions had become eclipsed by the need to survive in the very first place. In short, I became obsessed with the imminence of my own demise.

more from Vanity Fair here.

Kerala stars in Santosh Sivan’s English debut

Mairi Mackay at CNN:

Screenhunter_02_aug_01_1219It is roads, of all things, that Indian director Santosh Sivan cites as the inspiration behind his exquisite English-language debut “Before the Rains.”

“As a kid I used to travel to all these fantastic hills which had all the spices and there used to be these beautiful curving roads going deep into the jungles,” he remembers.

In “Before the Rains” Sivan has managed to conjure up the Kerala of his childhood recollections — and there can be few films that evoke India’s natural beauty more breathtakingly.

“I got to know that these [roads] were made by the British people and it always interested me how British people must have interacted with my forefathers because we never had a chance to interact with them,” Sivan continues. Watch a clip of Santosh Sivan talking to CNN about “Before the Rains.”

It is in the dying days of the Empire among the colonialists of the 1930s — the ambitious men who hacked paths through the Keralan jungle to their fortunes in the spice plantations — that Sivan sets his tale of passion and nationalism.

More here.

Gavin Menzies: mad as a snake – or a visionary?

From The Telegraph:

China Six years ago, the retired submarine commander caused apoplexy among historians with his controversial theory that vast fleets of Chinese adventurers in multi-masted junks beat Christopher Columbus to the Americas and mapped the entire world centuries before the European explorers. It made him rich and infamous. Whole websites sprang up devoted to debunking his claims. Scholars called him a fantasist. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, professor of history at the University of London, dismissed his book, 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, as “the historical equivalent of stories about Elvis Presley in Tesco and close encounters with alien hamsters”. But while boiling oil was being poured on him from the ramparts of academe, Menzies’s book was surging up the bestseller list. It has sold a million copies worldwide, and run to 24 editions in 135 countries.

Menzies, 71, could have anointed his bruises, pulled up his stumps and gone to live in Venice on the proceeds of 1421, satisfied that his revisionist view of history had at least got a good airing. Instead, he has ploughed his profits into more research and produced an equally contentious sequel, 1434, claiming that the Chinese, once again sailing under the eunuch Admiral Zheng He, sparked the Italian Renaissance and that Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions were directly influenced by Chinese technical drawings.

More here.

Bracing the Satellite Infrastructure for a Solar Superstorm

From Scientific American:

Storm As night was falling across the Americas on Sunday, August 28, 1859, the phantom shapes of the auroras could already be seen overhead. From Maine to the tip of Florida, vivid curtains of light took the skies. Startled Cubans saw the auroras directly overhead; ships’ logs near the equator described crimson lights reaching halfway to the zenith. Many people thought their cities had caught fire. Scientific instruments around the world, patiently recording minute changes in Earth’s magnetism, suddenly shot off scale, and spurious electric currents surged into the world’s telegraph systems. In Baltimore telegraph operators labored from 8 p.m. until 10 a.m. the next day to transmit a mere 400-word press report.

Just before noon the following Thursday, September 1, English astronomer Richard C. Carrington was sketching a curious group of sunspots—curious on account of the dark areas’ enormous size. At 11:18 a.m. he witnessed an intense white light flash from two locations within the sunspot group. He called out in vain to anyone in the observatory to come see the brief five-minute spectacle, but solitary astronomers seldom have an audience to share their excitement. Seventeen hours later in the Americas a second wave of auroras turned night to day as far south as Panama. People could read the newspaper by their crimson and green light. Gold miners in the Rocky Mountains woke up and ate breakfast at 1 a.m., thinking the sun had risen on a cloudy day. Telegraph systems became unusable across Europe and North America.

The news media of the day looked for researchers able to explain the phenomena, but at the time scientists scarcely understood auroral displays at all. Were they meteoritic matter from space, reflected light from polar icebergs or a high-altitude version of lightning? It was the Great Aurora of 1859 itself that ushered in a new paradigm. The October 15 issue of Scientific American noted that ‘‘a connection between the northern lights and forces of electricity and magnetism is now fully established.” Work since then has established that auroral displays ultimately originate in violent events on the sun, which fire off huge clouds of plasma and momentarily disrupt our planet’s magnetic field.

More here.

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Slate’s interactive guide: Who in the Bush administration broke the law, and who could be prosecuted?

Emily Bazelon, Kara Hadge, Dahlia Lithwick, and Chris Wilson:


The recent release of Jane Mayer’s book The Dark Side revealed that a secret report by the International Committee of the Red Cross determined “categorically” that the CIA used torture, as defined by American and international law, in questioning al-Qaida suspect Abu Zubaydah. The question of criminal liability for Bush-administration officials has since been in the news. It’s also getting play because retired Gen. Antonio Taguba, lead Army investigator of the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib, wrote in a recent report, “There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes.” (Update: And today, the ACLU released three new memos from the Department of Justice and the CIA, which for the first time show DoJ explicitly authorizing “enhanced” interrogation tactics for use on specific detainees. One of the memos states, in this context, that “interrogation techniques, including the waterboard, do not violate the Torture Statute.”)

One response to the amassing evidence is Nuremberg-style war-crime prosecutions. The opposite pole is blanket immunity for all lawbreakers in advance. Somewhere in the middle lies a truth-and-reconciliation commission that would try to ferret out the truth.

To enter into the debate, you might ask which Bush administration officials did what and which could actually be prosecuted. Slate has answers.

More here.