Bernard Malamud’s anomaly: ‘The Natural’

Thenatural-243x366Max Ross at the LA Review of Books:

THE NATURAL might be considered an anomaly within Bernard Malamud’s oeuvre if it didn’t so closely resemble nearly everything else within Bernard Malamud’s oeuvre.

Actually, it’s considered an anomaly, anyway.

Earlier this year, the Library of America published two volumes containing all of Malamud’s work up through the 1960s. (A third volume, with the rest, is said to be on its way.) His novels and stories have subsequently received a fair amount of press. Conspicuously, The Natural, his first novel, hasn’t — in some cases, it’s been mentioned only so it can be dismissed. “The reviewer has not read and is not likely ever to read The Natural, a baseball novel said to incorporate a mythical theme,” Cynthia Ozick wrote in TheNew York Times in March. “Myth may be myth, but baseball is baseball, so nevermind.” In his survey of Malamud’s work for Harper’s, Joshua Cohen dedicated to The Natural fewer than 10 words — it “concerns baseball, a.k.a. frustration” — before moving on to discuss the author’s more discussed narratives.[1] Likewise James Campbell, in The Wall Street Journal, cast it aside; he called The Natural “[Malamud’s] anomalous debut novel,” and quickly noted: “The two books that followed are probably his best.”

more here.

Anya Ulinich’s “Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel”

La-ca-jc-anya-ulinich-20140720-001David L. Ulin at the LA Times:

It's tempting to frame Anya Ulinich's “Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel” in terms of its antecedents: Bernard Malamud and Anton Chekhov, on the one hand, both of whom are referenced in the narrative, and on the other, graphic novelists such as Marjane Satrapi and Harvey Pekar, whose work is rich, allusive and (perhaps most important) alive with words.

What's more accurate, however, is that “Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel” has no antecedents, that it transcends its influences so thoroughly it creates a form, a language, all its own. Ulinich wrote a previous (nongraphic) novel, 2007's “Petropolis,” which tells the story of a Russian mail-order bride named Sasha Goldberg, who ends up in Brooklyn by way of Arizona. Something of a similar set of migrations is at play here, but don't let that mislead you: This new book is a departure in nearly every way.

Most obvious, of course, is its status as a graphic novel, the interplay of words and images through which so much of the narrative unfolds. Ulinich has an MFA in painting from the University of California and has done her share of portrait work and illustration, but this is a different order of magnitude.

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What Writing and Running Have in Common

Rachel Toor in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Photo_51947_wide_largeWhen people ask me what running and writing have in common, I tend to look at the ground and say it might have something to do with discipline: You do both of those things when you don’t feel like it, and make them part of your regular routine. You know some days will be harder than others, and on some you won’t hit your mark and will want to quit. But you don’t. You force yourself into a practice, the practice becomes habit and then simply part of your identity. A surprising amount of success, as Woody Allen once said, comes from just showing up.Or perhaps I’ll mutter something about sought-after outcomes: You want to nail it; you want, if nothing else, to beat yourself, to beat your best self. You want something to show for the effort. You want the applause that comes when you’ve finished, and finished well. You want the markers of achievement—you’d like to think you are just doing it for you, but most of us are not that self-realized. The material rewards mean something.

When I think harder about it, what I believe running and writing have most in common, at least for me, is the state of vulnerability they leave you in. Both require bravery, audacity, a belief in one’s own abilities, and a willingness to live the clichés: to put it on the line, to dig deep, to go for it. You have to believe in the “it,” and have to believe, too, that you are worthy. That is hard because the results always seem impossible. At the beginning of every track practice, when the coach gives us a workout, I think: I can’t do that. No one could ever do that. When I line up at the start of a marathon, I imagine driving from Hopkinton to Boston or from Staten Island to Central Park and I tell myself that’s too far to run. At longer races, when I know the unimaginable elevation of the peaks I’ll have to climb and descend in 30 or 50 miles of tough trail, I wonder what’s wrong with me to believe I could do something so challenging. It’s too hard, I think. I can’t do that.

Which is exactly how I feel when I’m starting on a book project.

More here.

The Woman: The Honorable Clare Boothe Luce

Maureen Dowd in The New York Times:

DOWD-master675-v2Clare Boothe Luce has a lot to answer for. As the grande dame of the Republican Party, she introduced Richard Nixon to Henry Kissinger at her 1967 Christmas cocktail party. As la belle dame sans merci of Manhattan’s smart set, she took whatever she wanted from life without regard to moral consequences, even after showily converting to Catholicism. As a glamorous World War II correspondent, she wrote a book so self-­regarding that Dorothy Parker titled her review “All Clare on the Western Front.” Her colleague at Vanity Fair in the 1930s, Helen Lawrenson, wrote about the author of the venomous 1936 play “The Women”: “I can think of no one who aroused so much venom in members of her own sex.” “Throughout her life she had aimed for the best of everything and usually gotten it,” Sylvia Jukes Morris writes in the second volume of her exhaustive biography of the relentless enchantress who had more hyphens in her résumé than Barbra Streisand. Clare Boothe Luce was an actress-editrix-playwright-screenwriter-­congresswoman-ambassador-presidential adviser. And as the wife of Henry Luce, father of the Time empire, she was the clever half of the predominant power couple of the mid-20th century, even giving Luce many ideas for Life magazine, though she was barred from its masthead. She was “an accomplished seductress” who married once, if not twice, for money and position, Morris writes. Yet Luce always asserted that “in every marriage there are two marriages. His and hers. His is better. . . . What man now calls woman’s natural feminine mentality is the unnatural slave mentality he forced on her.”

In Morris’s first volume, “Rage for Fame,” Luce — the illegitimate daughter of a violet-eyed, conniving Upper West Side beauty who urged her daughter to use her blue eyes, blond hair and luminous skin to ensnare wealthy men — is on the ascent, driven by “her perpetual hunger for power in yet more spheres.” She had few real friends, as Lawrenson wrote, because “she seemed to trust no one, love no one.” Yet, Lawrenson said, Luce “could enter a room where there were other women, more beautiful, ­better dressed with better figures, and they faded into the background, foils for her radiance.” Luce flourished as a coquette and courtesan in bows and ruffles, but she once told male diplomats at a well-lubricated dinner: “Women are not interested in sex. All they want is babies and security from men. Men are just too stupid to know it.” Her sometime escort, the French artist Raymond Bret-Koch, appraised her this way: “It’s a beautiful, well-constructed facade but without central heating.”

More here.

Documentary Art

ImagesArthur Lubow at Threepenny Review:

What makes a documentary photograph also a work of art? When does its news remain fresh, even after the daily paper or monthly magazine that printed it has faded? Bruce Davidson is a documentary photographer with a sixty-year track record, the most distinguished survivor of a time before photography was sold profitably in art galleries or studied widely in universities. It was only in the 1970s that the idea of “art photography” was recognized as being not a contradiction in terms; before then, someone wanting to earn a living with a camera relied on advertising agencies or periodicals. Many pictures that later entered museums began their lives in fashion and news-feature magazines.

Walker Evans once said that his photographs were not documentary pictures but “documentary style.” He explained: “An example of a literal document would be a police photograph of a murder scene. You see, a document has use, whereas art is really useless. Therefore art is never a document, although it certainly can adopt that style.” As one looks through the wealth of Davidson’s body of work, this distinction is helpful to keep in mind.

more here.

The Saddest Poem Ever Written

Dürer_Melancholia_INick Ripatrazone at The Millions:

Spring and Fall,” written by Gerard Manley Hopkins in September, 1880, and collected in his Poems and Prose, is the saddest poem ever written. I have been moved by other poems, including “Rock Me Mercy” by Yusef Komunyakaa, “Saying Goodbye to Very Young Children” by John Updike, and “Aubade Ending with the Death of a Mosquito” by Tarfia Faizullah. There are countless more poems, published and unpublished, seen and unseen, that could scar my heart. Yet in 15 lines and 94 words, Hopkins builds a melancholic, elegiac sentiment that still affects me now, hundreds of reads later.

The poem is invoked to a “young child,” Margaret, who is the silent recipient of the adult narrator’s lament. Hopkins composed the poem while serving as a parish priest in Lydiate, England, and occasionally celebrated Mass at Rose Hill, a private home. He was not a successful preacher, and, devoid of a “working strength,” soon left pastoral work. He taught intermediate Latin and Greek for three years, and then became Chair of Classics at University College, Dublin. He found little joy in any of these professional endeavors, and died of typhoid fever on June 8, 1889. His poems were not published until 1918, by his friend, British poet laureate Robert Bridges.

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Iraq Illusions

Maliki_al-081414b_jpg_250x1139_q85Jessica T. Matthews at The New York Review of Books:

The story most media accounts tell of the recent burst of violence in Iraq seems clear-cut and straightforward. In reality, what is happening is anything but. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), so the narrative goes, a barbaric, jihadi militia, honed in combat in Syria, has swept aside vastly larger but feckless Iraqi army forces in a seemingly unstoppable tide of conquest across northern and western Iraq, almost to the outskirts of Baghdad. The country, riven by ineluctable sectarian conflict, stands on the brink of civil war. The United States, which left Iraq too soon, now has to act fast, choosing among an array of ugly options, among them renewed military involvement and making common cause with Iran. Alternatives include watching Iraq splinter and the creation of an Islamist caliphate spanning eastern Syria and western Iraq.

Much of this is, at best, misleading; some is outright wrong. ISIS, to begin, is only one of an almost uncountable mélange of Sunni militant groups. Besides ISIS, the Sunni insurgency that has risen up against the government of Nouri al-Maliki includes another jihadi group, Ansar al-Islam (Supporters of Islam), as well as the Military Council of the Tribes of Iraq, comprising as many as eighty tribes, and the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, a group that claims to have Shiite and Kurdish members and certainly includes many Sunni Baathists once loyal to Saddam Hussein.

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Violence, voices and visibility

Laxmi Murthy in HimalSouthAsian:

ARTICLE_Jesse_Washington_Lynch_MobOn the morning of a hot day at the end of May, the thick branches of a mango tree in dusty Katra Sadatganj village in Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh bore not luscious mangoes, but a macabre burden: the distended bodies of two adolescent girls. Pictures floating on the internet show the bodies of two teenagers strung up on the tree, a crowd standing witness, unable to tear their eyes away from the horrific sight. Children gawk, women mourn, men bristle with anger. The two young cousins, aged 14 and 16, had been abducted in the evening when they had gone into a field to relieve themselves. Their families went to lodge a complaint soon after they realised the girls had not returned, but the police refused to search for the missing girls, even though an eyewitness had seen them being dragged away, screaming. The next morning, the village woke up to the gruesome sight. It did not take long to conclude that the girls had been gang-raped and murdered. The culprits were also no secret. The villagers refused to take down the bodies in protest. Several hours later, only after one of the five accused had been arrested, did the families take the bodies down and allow themselves to mourn. The videos of the two girls are no longer easily accessible on the Internet. “Child sexual abuse imagery is illegal,” Google reminds us. Yet other videos, of a seemingly ‘copycat’ killing in Uttar Pradesh a few weeks later, show flashbacks of the young girls, their faces clearly visible, as is the embroidery on their colourful kurtas. Some video archives on news websites also show the gruesome images, albeit with the faces blurred and bodies indistinguishable. The pixelation serves to sanitise the killing – if you can’t see the faces, it can’t be so bad. One website shows passport size photos of the two girls held carefully in the work-worn hand of one of the girls’ father. They have names, they had aspirations. The mother of one of the girls tells the media that her daughter wanted to study, was keen to get a job.

The manner in which the bodies were strung up is reminiscent of the lynching of African-Americans in the late 19th century. What does this spectacle of violence serve to do? Lynching, or mob-inflicted punishment, was most infamously used before the American Civil War to discipline rebellious blacks and show them their place.

More here.

a gene that links stem cells, aging and cancer

From Medical Xpress:

GeneAn organism is healthy thanks to a good maintenance system: the normal functioning of organs and environmental exposure cause damage to tissues, which need to be continuously repaired. This process is not yet well understood, but it is known that stem cells in the organs play a key role, and that when repair fails, the organism ages more quickly. Researchers from the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) have “discovered one of the key genes that make up the maintenance mechanism for tissues” says Miguel Foronda, the first author of the manuscript. The target of this research, the Sox4 gene, is expressed during embryonic development —it contributes, for example, to the development of the pancreas, the bones and the heart, and to the differentiation of lymphocytes. It is also active in the adult organism, but in a very limited way, being mainly restricted to some stem cell compartments. Furthermore, when Sox4 malfunctions it becomes an oncogene. Practically all human cancers have too much Sox4, which translates into more cellular proliferation and less apoptosis—programmed cell death; a mechanism that protects against cancer. It is also known that Sox4 plays a role in metastasis.

Both of these facts—that Sox4 is expressed only in some cells in the adult organism, and that it favours cancer development when there is too much of it—indicate that Sox4 is a powerful gene, with important consequences if it is not properly regulated.The CNIO group, therefore, wanted to study more in depth the role of Sox4 in the adult organism. It was not an easy task, because mice in which Sox4 had been eliminated die before birth. The authors' working strategy consisted of generating a line of mice that do express Sox4, but at lower quantities than normal. These animals survive and are fertile, but they have several peculiarities: they are smaller than normal, age earlier and do not have cancer. Conversely, they do develop other age-related illnesses. As stated by the researchers, the mice with less Sox4: “show signs of premature loss of tissue homeostasis (maintenance), shorter telomeres, and, as a consequence, accelerated ageing and the appearance of pathologies associated with ageing, as well as cancer resistance.”

More here.

ephemeral compositions of sound

LF_GOLBE_AMACH_AP_002Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set:

We want, sometimes, to hold on to the physical body of an artist because art is so elusive. The jumping spluttering paintings of Jackson Pollock, for instance, are hard to pin down. But the paintings, like prayers, eventually point the viewer away from the canvas and toward the unseen energy that created them.

Maryanne Amacher’s art was especially elusive. Amacher sculpted with sound, that most invisible medium. What is sound anyway? Paint makes a painting — even words can be looked at, and the words produce objects in our minds. Sculpting with sound is like sculpting with time. Is a sound artist like a clock? Maryanne Amacher’s temporal art was site-specific, composed for and in and of rooms, houses, monasteries. Architecture — the place where her sounds were physically located — was essential to the work of Maryanne Amacher. Most of her compositions had to be heard in the places they were made for, creating, as she wrote, “intense and dramatic sound experiences that [could not] be realized in home listening environments.” Her compositions were sonic worlds. When you walked into a Maryanne Amacher composition you entered her story of sound. Walls and floors shaped the tones but so did your body. Your body became architecture. When the listeners left and Amacher went home, the art disappeared. You wonder if it ever existed.

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Informal settlements and urban poverty as cultural commodity

Ozkan_468wDerya Özkan at Eurozine:

Informal urban settlements, otherwise known as slums or shanties, appeared at various moments during the twentieth century as the spatial manifestation of urban poverty. Their histories differ from one socio-geographic region to the other: the gecekondu districts in Turkey developed under different circumstances to the favelas in Brazil, and so on. However, what unites these settlements is that they make visible uneven capitalist development on an urban scale. Urban researchers have studied these districts extensively, focusing on a variety of issues. Urban planners, for example, made an effort to develop ideas about how to normalize irregular urban settlements, while sociologists have studied the structural and economic causes for the emergence of such districts. Anthropologists have focused both on questions of gender in shanties as well as on their potential for resistance in everyday life. Until twenty years ago, informal settlements were studied mainly as an urban sociological phenomenon under rubrics such as “urban poverty” or “rapid urbanization”. Recently, however, they have begun to appear in very different contexts, for example in architectural/urban planning projects and debates, contemporary art and popular culture.

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What is the Great American Novel?

Donuts_Web_1081966hSarah Graham at the Times Literary Supplement:

Introduced in print by John W. De Forest in January 1868, the phrase “Great American Novel” had already been used by P. T. Barnum to mock publishers for puffing their latest books, Buell writes, confirming that the GAN is at least as much a marketing device as a reliable measure of literary merit. The first novel to be named “the Greatest Book of the Age” was Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which supposedly provoked the “great war” that ended slavery in the Southern states. For this reason, Buell deems it the preeminent American example of activist art: it “changed the world” and so its status endures despite criticism of its depiction of black people. It also shows that it is possible for a GAN to be written by a woman, although critical consensus suggests that hardly any have been. The heyday of serious debate over the Great American Novel ran from the 1860s to the 1920s, when the promise of the American Dream was equally prominent. After The Great Gatsby(1925) killed the Dream, along with its hero, interest in pinpointing GANs waxed and waned in popularity, perhaps because an increasingly heterogeneous nation found it hard to believe that a single novel – even a very long one – could represent America in all its variety.

Since the function of the GAN is to represent Americanness, Buell proposes that its aims are best fulfilled by a body of work rather than a single novel.

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DETERMINATION AGAINST ALL ODDS

From More Intelligent Life:

Rita%20L-M_MILRita Levi-Montalcini was a scientist in Italy at a time when few women were scientists. She was born into a rich Jewish family in Turin and studied medicine against her father’s wishes, building a lab in her bedroom where she grew nerve fibres using chicken embryos. Then war broke out, and being a woman scientist and Jewish—both of which were banned by the Fascists—she was under threat of persecution. But instead of halting her research, she moved her lab into the cellar and continued her work. This determination to carry on against all the odds impressed me very strongly. She put research above everything else, and pursued it with a passion that was never diluted by age. Even well into her 90s, she would go into the lab every day, always immaculately dressed in old-fashioned clothes with lots of ribbons.

After the war she moved to Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. And it was there, working with Stanley Cohen, that she proved the existence of nerve-growth factor, a substance produced in the limb buds that stimulates nerve growth. I was just starting my PhD in 1986 when she won her Nobel. Suddenly—boom!—she was known to everyone in Italy. I started to be interested in her life; that she was a woman and Italian was a huge inspiration. She represented what I wanted to do: research, the pursuit of knowledge, exploring new territories and going beyond what is known. Later on, as I got older and more mature, her life provided an example of how a scientist should behave—with humility and modesty. Newton said: “What we know is a droplet; what we don’t know is an ocean.” It is still true today—we know so little about our universe.

More here.

Weight-loss surgery: A gut-wrenching question

Virginia Hughes in Nature:

Stomach1Every week, about 20 people visit the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Pennsylvania to be evaluated for weight-loss surgery. They tell a nurse their medical history and have a routine physical examination. Then they sit down with a surgeon to discuss their options. Anita Courcoulas, head of minimally invasive bariatric and general surgery at the centre, has had thousands of these conversations in the past 25 years. During that time, the information she shares with her patients has changed dramatically. Thanks to clinical trials, she can now tell them with some confidence that surgery not only spurs remarkable weight loss in most people, but also significantly lowers the risk of heart attack, stroke, cancer and death. And with the most popular procedure — Roux-en-Y gastric bypass, which shrinks the stomach to the size of an egg — up to 60% of patients with diabetes go into remission for at least several years after the operation1. There are drawbacks for her to discuss, too: the cost (around US$25,000); the small risk of surgical complications (on a par with that of gall-bladder removal); and the chance of developing nutritional deficiencies or an intolerance to certain foods. But perhaps the toughest issue for patients is the uncertainty. Surgery does not work for everybody, and weight loss can be transient.

Doctors are not sure why gastric bypass and similar procedures curb diabetes and other diseases. The conventional view has been that the benefits stem mostly from the weight that patients shed — typically one-quarter of their body mass1. But in the 1980s, some patients were found to show rapid changes in their metabolism after surgery, suggesting that other factors are at play. Now, a slew of high-profile animal studies is identifying potential mechanisms in how the gut adapts to its strange new configuration: with sweeping changes in bacterial populations, bile acids, hormone secretions and tissue growth. The hope is that more research on what happens after bariatric surgery will enable physicians to identify who will respond best — and even lead to ways of altering metabolism without resorting to the knife.

More here.

Wrong Answer

Rachel Aviv at the New Yorker on a middle-school cheating scandal that defines the era of No Child Left Behind:

140721_r25253_p233One afternoon in the spring of 2006, Damany Lewis, a math teacher at Parks Middle School, in Atlanta, unlocked the room where standardized tests were kept. It was the week before his students took the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, which determined whether schools in Georgia had met federal standards of achievement. The tests were wrapped in cellophane and stacked in cardboard boxes. Lewis, a slim twenty-nine-year-old with dreadlocks, contemplated opening the test with scissors, but he thought his cut marks would be too obvious. Instead, he left the school, walked to the corner store, and bought a razor blade. When he returned, he slit open the cellophane and gently pulled a test book from its wrapping. Then he used a lighter to warm the razor, which he wedged under the adhesive sealing the booklet, and peeled back the tab.

He photocopied the math, reading, and language-arts sections—the subjects that would determine, under the No Child Left Behind guidelines, whether Parks would be classified as a “school in need of improvement” for the sixth year in a row. Unless fifty-eight per cent of students passed the math portion of the test and sixty-seven per cent passed in language arts, the state could shut down the school. Lewis put on gloves, to prevent oil from his hands from leaving a residue on the plastic, and then used his lighter to melt the edges of the cellophane together, so that it appeared as if the package had never been opened. He gave the reading and language-arts sections to two teachers he trusted and took the math section home…

Parks Middle School is three miles south of downtown Atlanta, in Pittsburgh, a neighborhood bordered by a run-down trucking lot and railway tracks fallen into disuse. Founded after the Civil War, Pittsburgh was a black working-class area until the nineteen-sixties and seventies, when residents began leaving for the suburbs. Half the homes in the neighborhood are now vacant. Lewis’s students called the area Little Vietnam and Jack City, because of all the armed robberies. Once, when Lewis stopped at a convenience store to tell his students to go home and do their homework, a prostitute approached him. “I’m, like, ‘Whoa, whoa, I’m a teacher!’ ” he said. “And she’s, like, ‘I don’t care. Teachers get down.’ ”…

His students, who came to school with bad breath and parkas that smelled of urine, seemed to lack the conviction that they would ever leave the neighborhood. Parks was run by an older woman who was not inclined to innovate. Homework was a joke. There was litter in the hallways, and students urinated in trash cans. A veteran teacher told Lewis that only twenty per cent of his students would grasp what he was teaching, so he should go over each lesson five times. “Please—I’m a better teacher than that,” he remembered thinking. “She was just making excuses for why she spiralled in circles.”

Read the rest here.

Thursday Poem

.
Now
emerge the seeds
the biting morning light catches the hands

The bare shed
lays down its walls before us

Now – divine miracle rumbles the thunder

piercing rays light up a slow stage

the dark bull that undresses its love
and mates in a far corner

dutifully the banners fly
mutedly fruits fall in the sand

Barely audible the day had gone
final subsiding cries
.

by Marije Langelaar
from De rivier als vlakte
Publisher: Arbeiderspers, Amsterdam, 2003

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The Skeleton Garden of Paris

Justin E. H. Smith in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_724 Jul. 17 08.14I am at the Jardin des Plantes, in the Fifth Arrondissement on the Left Bank of the Seine. Here we find one of the world’s oldest zoos, still officially called a “menagerie,” various greenhouses and rows of brilliant dahlias book-ended by statues of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. We also find the various galleries composing the National Museum of Natural History. These include, not least, the Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy, a two-floor exhibition hall built in preparation for the 1900 World Fair, where the skeletons and preserved tissues of thousands of animal species are on display: the massive jaws of sperm whales, cross-sections of elephant molars like great petrified mille-feuilles, countless miniature bat skulls under tiny glass domes.

It is here, among the many bones, that I have been drawn since my arrival in this city, as if it were the true center of Paris. I sometimes have trouble explaining or even understanding why I moved here, I who care nothing about fashion or fine cuisine or shortened work weeks, who loves wine but is happy as long as it is red. I love art, but I can barely survive 30 minutes in an art museum without my cafeteria-homing instinct kicking in.

Why do I keep coming back to this bone menagerie? What pull do the skeletons have that the artworks lack? How do they call out when the living beasts across the garden, in spite of their barks and howls, remain silent to me? I return at every opportunity. I offer to give out-of-town visitors a private guided tour, which, after dozens of iterations, is now taking on the quality of a bravura performance.

More here.

How I Write: William Dalrymple

From Mumbai Boss:

ScreenHunter_723 Jul. 17 08.07“I have two different routines depending on whether I’m writing a book or not. I write a book once every four-five years, and it normally takes the best part of a year to put the thing down on paper: the shortest was nine months for Nine Lives, the longest From the Holy Mountain which took 18 months.

Writing up one of these history books is like a final year of a four-year course in university. The first year is easiest and lightest, I’m going on book tours—to Paris or Rome or Milan or America—doing lectures and readings on the previous book, and while I’m doing that I finalise what the next book is about. It’s the least-hard working year, I’m popping into libraries, sending emails to other historians in the same fields. Year two is more secondary reading, so I’m reading all the stuff that has been put in previous books about what I’m writing about. Year three is about archives, sitting in Delhi National Archives or Lahore archive, or in Kabul, as I did for Return of a King.

During that time, I’m usually stuck in a library with nose in a laptop. I have a very highly tuned filing system which I’ve got down to an art. All the material has to be properly prepared and perfected. I liken book writing to Chinese cooking—the real effort is chopping up ingredients, all gingers in one pile, beets all marinated, so at the very end when all the things are ready to go, I put pan on heat and start the cooking. And if you’re well prepared the cooking should go easily, and you should have it ready in nine months to a year.

More here.

Palestinians die in the most cynical of all military games

Hussein Ibish in The National:

ScreenHunter_722 Jul. 17 07.58Lost amid the carnage, the key fact about the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflagration remains largely unrecognised: Egypt’s new and pivotal role. Egypt has always been the default broker between Israel and Hamas, since it is able to deal with Hamas without according it any greater international and diplomatic legitimacy.

But this time it’s different. It’s no longer about Egypt playing a crucial mediating role. Instead, Hamas is mainly seeking to extract concessions not from Tel Aviv or Ramallah, but from Cairo.

Hamas, or more likely loosely affiliated rogue elements based in Hebron, deliberately lit a fire by kidnapping and murdering three Israeli teenagers. This unleashed a brutal series of tit-for-tat attacks between Israelis and Palestinians that spiralled out of control.

Certainly, the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah had no control over what was going on in occupied East Jerusalem, let alone unrest among Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The Israeli government, too, clearly lost control of the situation when fanatics grabbed an innocent teenager and tortured and burnt him to death. Even Israel’s security forces seemed to be acting beyond any bounds of restraint as they brutally beat a 15-year-old Palestinian-American cousin of the murder victim.

Passions ruled the day. Years of incitement and frustration on both sides boiled over.

As rocket attacks on southern Israel from Gaza increased, it also seemed that Hamas leaders perhaps didn’t control their own military, and certainly not that of other, more extreme groups like Islamic Jihad.

Yet Hamas sought some kind of benefit in the chaos.

More here.