Acorn Watchers Wonder What Happened to Crop

Brigid Schulte in the Washington Post:

ScreenHunter_05 Dec. 01 14.15 The idea seemed too crazy to Rod Simmons, a measured, careful field botanist. Naturalists in Arlington County couldn't find any acorns. None. No hickory nuts, either. Then he went out to look for himself. He came up with nothing. Nothing crunched underfoot. Nothing hit him on the head.

Then calls started coming in about crazy squirrels. Starving, skinny squirrels eating garbage, inhaling bird feed, greedily demolishing pumpkins. Squirrels boldly scampering into the road. And a lot more calls about squirrel roadkill.

But Simmons really got spooked when he was teaching a class on identifying oak and hickory trees late last month. For 2 1/2 miles, Simmons and other naturalists hiked through Northern Virginia oak and hickory forests. They sifted through leaves on the ground, dug in the dirt and peered into the tree canopies. Nothing.

“I'm used to seeing so many acorns around and out in the field, it's something I just didn't believe,” he said. “But this is not just not a good year for oaks. It's a zero year. There's zero production. I've never seen anything like this before.”

More here.

James Baldwin and V.S. Naipaul

An excerpt from Vivian Gornick's The Men In My Life, in the Boston Review:

It was in India that Naipaul realized that he didn’t fit in anywhere: never had, never would. It had been an illusion to think he could make himself into an émigré English novelist. His mind, he realized, was his only home. He must occupy it. To go on looking hard at the kind of place he had come from—to see things as they are, in the here and now, without blinders or sentiment—was the rock on which he would build his church.

Refusing to put a good face on things became Naipaul’s article of faith. The countries where everything and everyone within living memory had been subjected to empire, where no one had ever belonged, especially not the natives, these were countries, he came to believe, that were overwhelmed by the task of making modern society, and thus hopelessly disposed to lassitude, terror, and an overriding self-deception. Everywhere he went, he experienced—and didn’t hesitate to say he experienced—intellectual deficiency and moral blindness masquerading as an assertion of “authenticity.” He despised the Africanization of Africa in the 1960s and ’70s, as well as Black Power in the Caribbean, the super spirituality of India, and the ever-present social illness of political Islam. He thought it all the mark of a fatal self-division within cultures that had vast need of a compensating single-mindedness if they were to go forward. He was, he felt, watching “people who are really ill-equipped for the twentieth century, light years away from making the tools they’ve grown to like.” And for this he had no pity.

In a 1981 interview, Naipaul, speaking of the breakdown he had suffered thirty years before, revealed that, at the time, he had seen a doctor who recommended treatment. Everything the doctor had said Naipaul had recognized as true, and he had hated him for saying it and stopped seeing him. He had cured himself, he told the interviewer. It had taken two years, but he’d done it. “Intellect and will,” he said, “intellect and will.” This is exactly what he expects of the Third World: that it will “cure” itself, not through some long, harrowing search for self-understanding, but by an act of will that simply pushes back the hysteria of magic and myth, employing the kind of disciplined mental work it takes to create a society ruled by reason and historical analysis.

The Triumph of Roberto Bolaño

Sarah Kerr in the NYRB:

Like Borges—whom he loved and from whom he learned much—Bolaño was attracted to the idea of literature that could speak to the Americas.[2] He introduced a Spanish edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and elsewhere suggested that The Savage Detectives had been his stab at an adventure tale in the spirit of Twain. He hinted at another model worth thinking about: Melville, tackling the overwhelming subject of evil in Moby-Dick. Writing a brief note on a book by the Mexican reporter Sergio González Rodríguez, Bolaño sounded a similar theme. In 2002, González Rodríguez published his reportage on hundreds of unsolved murders of women and girls in Ciudad Juárez, just south of the Texas border. The murders had begun to accelerate in the early 1990s, in tandem with the drug trade and a proliferation of new assembly plants for exports.

As it happened, Bolaño wrote, the novel he was currently working on dealt in part with the murders, and he had struck up a correspondence with González Rodríguez, frequently seeking his grisly expertise. To the novelist, the story González Rodríguez was reporting on was becoming “a metaphor for Mexico, for its past, and for the uncertain future of all Latin America.” It belonged not to the adventure tradition but to the opposite pole of stories of the Americas, the apocalyptic—”these being the only two traditions that remain alive on our continent, perhaps because they're the only two to get close to the abyss that surrounds us.”

2666 was published in Spanish in 2004, a year after Bolaño's death. It runs to 898 pages in English and was not quite finished—yet one doesn't really feel the lack of final revisions doing much to diminish its power. At many points, one feels about to be able to compare the book to something else. When a former Black Panther reminiscent in a few details of Bobby Seale gives a sermon on such topics as “danger” and “stars,” it feels like a nod to the sermon scene in Moby-Dick. Elsewhere there is an ominousness reminiscent of David Lynch, whose method of digging into his unconscious—whatever may come spilling out—seems an inspiration. Bolaño liked detective pulp, and once claimed he would have liked to be a homicide detective, facing the worst, with access to the scene of the crime. The grimy atmosphere of unsolved mystery should, to most readers, feel utterly familiar. Yet despite all the signposts, we quickly discover that we're no good at guessing what comes next.

Claude Lévi-Strauss at 100

Levi1_190 In the NYT:

Claude Lévi-Strauss, who altered the way Westerners look at other civilizations, turned 100 on Friday, and France celebrated with films, lectures and free admission to the museum he inspired, the Musée du Quai Branly.

Mr. Lévi-Strauss is cherished in France, and is an additional reminder of the nation’s cultural significance in the year when another Frenchman, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Mr. Lévi-Strauss shot to prominence early, but with his 1955 book, “Tristes Tropiques,” a sort of anthropological meditation based on his travels in Brazil and elsewhere in the 1930s, he became a national treasure of a specially French kind. The jury of the Prix Goncourt, France’s most famous literary award, said that it would have given the prize to “Tristes Tropiques” had it been fiction.

Mr. Lévi-Strauss, a Brussels-born and Paris-bred Jew, fled France after its capitulation to the Nazis in 1940. He spent the next eight years based in the United States, where he taught at the New School for Social Research in New York and was influenced by noted anthropologists like Franz Boas, who taught at Columbia.

On Friday, the culmination of several days of celebration, there were no false notes. At the Quai Branly, 100 scholars and writers read from or lectured on the work of Mr. Lévi-Strauss, while documentaries about him were screened, and guided visits were provided to the collections, which include some of his own favorite artifacts.

fukuyama on the new america

Francis-fukuyama

Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria has labeled the world ahead a “post-American world.” I do get a very strong sense that conditions in the global economy are changing in very dramatic ways. The assumptions that undergirded either the Cold War world, or this extended period of American hegemony since, are not going to be sufficient to guide America in the world that is emerging. The first obvious change the United States faces has to do with the emergence of a multi-polar world. This is not a story about American decline. The US remains the dominant power in the world, but the rest of the world is catching up. The power shift in terms of economic earnings is very dramatic. Russia, China, India and the states of the Persian Gulf are all growing while America is sinking into a recession. This underlines how the rest of the world has become decoupled from the American economy.

more from NPQ here.

the jews of the other europe

Brumlik_84x84

In public perception, eastern European Jewish thought continues to be surrounded by an almost mystical veil. Particularly after the systematic murder of at least three million Polish Jews by National Socialist Germany, the perception of this culture is accompanied by a justifiable sense of irreparable loss. An outward sign of this melancholy, which is never precisely specified and often borders on kitsch, is the playing of klezmer music at any suitable – or indeed unsuitable – occasion. “Eastern Jewry” is itself a culture that is still seen as a mixture of nostalgic perceptions regarding impoverished shtetl life and the sometimes nebulous sayings of miracle-working rabbis. This narrow point of view fails to do justice to the reality of this destroyed culture, to the fact that at least just as many Polish or indeed Russian and Romanian Jews lived in large cities, that – in addition to the largely Hassidic miracle-working rabbis – eastern European Jewish culture also had at its disposal the intellectually demanding philosophy of the misnagdim, a Vilnius-based school of rational, even rationalistic interpretation of the Talmud.

more from Eurozine here.

No Curfew On Bombay, Please

Rahul Bose in Outlook.India:

Rahul It started with the smses. Ten or 12 from around the world, asking if I was okay. I did what every Bombayite does at such moments: turned on the TV. It makes you wonder about the pre-sms terror days: could we have stopped, for instance, the damage caused by rumour-mongering if we had mobile phones and smses in 1992-93? With all that Bombay has been through, I was still unprepared for the news—the sheer audacity of Wednesday night’s attacks. Bombay is going to suffer internationally for the next five to 10 years, was my first thought when I saw the news. It’s not merely a cricket tour being called off, but the inevitable perception that Bombay is now unsafe for foreign tourists and businessmen. This attack is very different from bombs going off in Jhaveri Baazar or the stock exchange, which were meant to shatter the morale of the ordinary Bombayite. Last night was intended to send a message to the world.

I stayed glued to the TV screen till 5.15 am. It was an especially poignant moment to watch the Taj go up in flames. The Taj has an emotional connection, especially for those of us in south Bombay. I’ve been closely associated with it since I was in advertising—been to the rooms which were now burning, to the dome, to the presidential suite. I’ve marvelled at its antiquity and structure. It’s not just a five-star hotel but is iconic for the values of old Bombay, where the best and brightest walked through its doors.

But what do last night’s events signify to the ordinary Bombayite?

More here.

Sunday Poem

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Some People

Wislawa Szymborska

Some people flee some other people.
In some country under a sun
and some clouds.

They abandon something close to all they’ve got,
sown fields, some chickens, dogs,
mirrors in which fire now preens.

Their shoulders bear pitchers and bundles.
The emptier they get, the heavier they grow.

What happens quietly: someone’s dropping from exhaustion.
What happens loudly: someone’s bread is ripped away,
someone tries to shake a limp child back to life.

Always another wrong road ahead of them,
always another wrong bridge
across an oddly reddish river.
Around them, some gunshots, now nearer, now farther away,
above them a plane seems to circle.

Some invisibility would come in handy,
some grayish stoniness,
or, better yet, some nonexistence
for a shorter or a longer while.

Something else will happen, only where and what.
Someone will come at them, only when and who,
in how many shapes, with what intentions.
If he has a choice,
maybe he won’t be the enemy
and will let them live some sort of life.

Poems New and Collected, 1957-1997(Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1998),
translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.
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The magical mirror of The Arabian Nights

From The Guardian:

Arabian Although The Arabian Nights became widely known in Europe after the Crusades and inspired countless artists and writers (from Chaucer to Dickens to Rushdie in Britain), Sir Richard Burton's translation in the late-19th century brought it a new level of popularity on these shores, not least because it was purported to expose the vagaries of the Muslim mentality and Arab way of life. Perhaps these injudicious perceptions, callusing over time, even laid the foundations for present-day Islamophobia.

The Arabian Nights is that magical mirror that reflects Islam's genius, its vast cultural scale and its incalculable contribution to the arts and sciences. The tales celebrate life and the blessings it offers. Praising love, joy, courage, defiance, compassion, they negate the teachings of such death-worshippers as Khomeini, Al-Qaida, Taliban et al. For those wondering where the true voice of Islam is, be assured it is here in these 1,001 tales.

But what of the brutality they contain? What about their obsession with death?

True, Death, “the destroyer of delights”, is forever on the prowl. Indeed, even before Shahrazad, the teller of these tales, utters a word, it has claimed 3,000 virgins – all deflowered and executed, at the rate of one each day, by Sultan Shahryar, as punishment on womanhood for his wife's infidelity. However, when Shahrazad volunteers to be Shahryar's next victim, her intention is to defy Death, not to surrender to it meekly. And as she secures her daily reprieve with a fresh story, she denounces summary brutality and exalts the sanctity of life. Eluding Death is The Arabian Nights' raison-d'être.

More here.

trust truss

How-to-grill-food-31

Q: A caller just said she forgot to baste every 10 minutes. I advised her to serve the turkey anyway. Was I correct? A: Not at all. The turkey is merely the vehicle for the basting. In a recent poll, nine out of 10 people would rather sit down at the table and suck on the end of a baster full of buttery juices than gnaw at some dry old wing. Bad call. Q: I just overheard my co-worker advising a home cook to truss the bird. I arrived late at the “Talk Turkey” seminar last week and missed the trussing segment. Can you advise? A: Trussing, while not the chef’s best friend, is that pleasant acquaintance you see about once a year and always have a compliment for. Trussing is legal in every state. Trussing comes from the word “truss,” which means to truss, or tie string or put pins in a turkey to help it stay in a pretty poultrylike shape that is pleasing to the eye. Cooks must remove pins and string before consuming. If a caller wants to know if she should truss, you should tell her you only go around this crazy world once. Trust truss.

more from McSweeney’s here.

felix salmon explains synthetic CDOs

Market-movers-illo-medium

Over the past few days, two very smart people have asked me about a passage in Michael Lewis’s cover story for Portfolio in which he talks about synthetic CDOs without actually using the term. They said that they didn’t quite understand it, so I’m going to try to explain what a synthetic bond is. Once I’ve done that, the Lewis passage should be a lot more comprehensible. Let’s start with a simple single-credit synthetic bond. You’re an investor, and looking at the credit markets, you see that IBM debt is trading at attractive levels, especially around the 5-year mark, where they yield about 150bp over Treasuries. You’d really like to buy $100 million of IBM bonds maturing in five years, but IBM isn’t returning your calls (they have no desire to borrow money at these spreads), and there aren’t any IBM bonds with exactly the maturity you want. What’s more, even the bonds with maturities nearby are illiquid, and closely held: there’s no way you can just blunder into the market and buy up that many bonds without massively skewing the market, since the overwhelming majority of the bonds are just not for sale.

more from Market Movers here.

Original Sins

David Gates reviews Toni Morrison's “A Mercy” in The New York Times:

Toni “A Mercy” has neither the terrible passion of “Beloved” — how many times can we ask a writer to go to such a place? — nor the spirited ingenuity of “Love,” the most satisfying of Morrison’s subsequent novels. But it’s her deepest excavation into America’s history, to a time when the South had just passed laws that “separated and protected all whites from all others forever,” and the North had begun persecuting people accused of witchcraft. (The book’s most anxious moment comes when a little white girl goes hysterical at the sight of Florens and hides behind her witch-hunting elders.) Post­colonialists and feminists, perhaps even Greens and Marxists, may latch onto “A Mercy,” but they should latch with care, lest Morrison prove too many-minded for them. This novel isn’t a polemic — does anybody really need to be persuaded that exploitation is evil? — but a tragedy in which “to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.”

Except for a slimy Portuguese slave trader, no character in the novel is wholly evil, and even he’s more weak and contemptible than mustache-twirlingly villainous. Nor are the characters we root for particularly saintly. While Lina laments the nonconsensual deaths of trees, she deftly drowns a newborn baby, not, as in “Beloved,” to save it from a life of slavery, but simply because she thinks the child’s mother (the “mongrelized” girl who goes by the Morrisonian name of Sorrow) has already brought enough bum luck to Jacob’s farmstead. Everyone in “A Mercy” is damaged; a few, once in a while, find strength to act out of love, or at least out of mercy — that is, when those who have the power to do harm decide not to exercise it. A negative virtue, but perhaps more lasting than love.

More here.

Mumbai: The city I love

Amit Chaudhuri in The Guardian:

Mumbai The Indigo is only a five minutes' walk from the Taj Mahal hotel. In the past 12 hours, I have been watching pictures of the Taj taken from different angles: trapped guests leaning out of windows; the top storey burning; swathes of smoke covering the majestic dome. I have also seen pictures of two very young men with AK 47 rifles, one of them in a T-shirt with Versace printed on it in large letters. People, including my wife calling from India, have mentioned 9/11 and New York, and I suppose there is a comparable degree of strangeness – combined with the inevitable sense of having been betrayed and outwitted – in these attacks. The comparison also possibly arises from the joy-loving nature of both cities, capitalism and the new world order after the collapse of the Soviet Union having transformed them both decisively – New York into the world's first city, Bombay into India's great metropolis.

My parents moved to Bombay from Calcutta in 1965, when I was an infant – they stayed at the Taj for two weeks while the company found them a flat. This was the beginning of Calcutta's decline, companies and professionals fleeing labour trouble, and relocating at this optimistic seaside metropolis in western India. It was a charmed life – from at least two of the flats we lived in when my father was finance director and then chief executive of Britannia Biscuits, flats in Malabar Hill and Cuffe Parade, the city's two richest localities, you could see a skyline that, with its lissom, tall buildings (Bombay is the only Indian city to have had an obsessive romance with the vertical, the skyscraper), approximated Manhattan in some ways; in its sunniness, its palm trees, its disguised but obvious carnality, it echoed what we knew of California from films; and the gothic buildings were remnants of the old history that had first brought together these seven fishing islands.

More here.

I, too, am a Mumbaikar today

Adil Najam in All Things Pakistan:

Mumbai-terror-attack I know what living with terror feels like. I have thought too much and too deeply about what it feels like to be the target of violence propelled by hatred. I know the pain of helplessness one feels as one stands stunned in grief, wanting so desperately to do something – anything – but not knowing what to do. This is why I identify with the expression on the face of the woman in this picture. This is why, like so many others in the world, today I too am a Mumbaikar.

This is why I stand with Mumbaikars everywhere, in prayer and in solidarity. At a loss for words but with an urge to speak out. My words of condemnation will not change the actions of those who have committed such heinous murder and mayhem. Nor will my words of sympathy diminish the agony of the victims. But speak out I must. In condemnation as well as in sympathy. To speak against the inhumanity of hatred and violence. To speak for the humanity in all of us that we all must hold on to; especially in the testing moments of grave stress.

But, today, I have no words of analysis. What words can make sense of the patently senseless? I do not know who did this. Nor can I imagine any cause that would justify this. But this I know: No matter who did this, no matter why, the terror that has been wrought in Mumbai is vile and inhuman and unjustifiable. And, for the sake of our own humanness, we must speak out against it.

And, so, to any Mumbaikar who might be listening, I say: “I stand with you today. In prayer and in solidarity.”

More here.