Porochista Khakpour’s audacious coming-of-age novel

Hermione Hoby in The Guardian:

PoroFor the last 13 years, any New York novel in the realist mode has had a problem on its hands: how to write about an event whose significance is so huge that it is known by a date rather than a name? To ignore 9/11 entirely would be too conspicuous an omission, but repurposing it in fiction is both stylistically and morally tricky. Porochista Khakpour’s audacious second novel, which has been much acclaimed in the US, is set during 2000 and 2001, and the impending attacks are foreshadowed explicitly. First, there are the premonitions of Asiya, an anorexic, mentally unstable young artist who obsessively photographs dead birds and who becomes ever more convinced that something terrible is about to happen to Manhattan. Second, there are the delusions of Silber, an ageing celebrity magician, intent on pulling off one final stunt to crown his career. After wowing audiences with the illusion of flight he craves something bigger, and alights upon the idea of “disappearing” the World Trade Center.

Khakpour’s imagination is similarly ambitious in its scope. The narrative is not Silber’s, or even Asiya’s, but belongs to the young man who fascinates them both – Zal, the last and 19th child of Khanoom, a demented woman living in a small village in Iran. Zal’s mother is so horrified by her son’s paleness, by this “sickly yellow-white thing in her arms”, that she calls him “White Demon” and locks him in a cage in her aviary. There he grows up (if his stunted early life can be described thus) eating bugs and birdseed and mimicking the shrieks and squawks of the canaries that surround him. As the novel’s preface indicates, this is a reimagining of one of the most famous tales in theShahnameh, the epic Persian poem in which an albino child’s parents are so horrified by his whiteness that they abandon him on a mountaintop, where he’s raised by a huge mythical bird.

More here.

Why Homer Matters

Bryan Doerries in The New York Times:

King“Homer has become a kind of scripture for me, an ancient book, full of urgent imperatives and ancient meanings, most of them half discerned, to be puzzled over. It is a source of wisdom.” So begins the third chapter of Adam Nicolson’s highly accessible new book, “Why Homer Matters,” in which he compares his relationship with epic poetry to a form of possession, a “colonization of the mind by an imaginative presence from the past.” The world needs more Adam Nicolsons, unabashedly passionate evangelists for the power of ancient poetry to connect us with our collective past, illuminate our personal struggles and interrogate our understanding of human history.

…Nicolson contends that the epic poems reflect “the violence and sense of strangeness of about 1800 B.C. recollected in the tranquillity of about 1300 B.C.,” though not captured in writing until roughly 700 B.C. And so he believes that whoever wrote the poems down belonged to “a culture emerging from a dark age, looking to a future but also looking back to a past, filled with nostalgia for the years of integrity, simplicity, nobility and straightforwardness.” It is difficult to assess Nicolson’s theory, which is based on a conjecture that the “Iliad” describes a pre-palatial warrior culture that seems to align well with the “world of the gold-encrusted kings buried in the shaft graves at Mycenae,” now dated to the 17th and 16th centuries B.C. But as a thought exercise, it is often gripping and, at times, electrifying. According to Nicolson, “Epic, which was invented after memory and before history, occupies a third space in the human desire to connect the present to the past: It is the attempt to extend the qualities of memory over the reach of time.” The purpose of epic “is to make the distant past as immediate to us as our own lives, to make the great stories of long ago beautiful and painful now.”

More here.

Sunday Poem

To Live in the Bordlerlands

To live in the Borderlands means you
are neither hispana india negra espanola
ni gabacha, eres mestiza, mulata, half-breed
caught in the crossfire between camps
while carrying all five races on your back
not knowing which side to turn to, run from;

To live in the Borderlands means knowing
that the india in you, betrayed for 500 years,
is no longer speaking to you,
that mexicanas call you rajetas,
that denying the Anglo inside you
is as bad as having denied the Indian or Black;

Cuando vives en la frontera
people walk through you, the wind steals your voice,
you're a burra, buey, scapegoat,
forerunner of a new race,
half and half – both woman and man, neither –
a new gender;

To live in the Borderlands means to
put chile in the borscht,
eat whole wheat tortillas,
speak tex-mex with a brooklyn accent;
be stopped by la migra at the border checkpoints;

Living in the Borderlands means you fight hard to
resist the gold elixir beckoning from the bottle,
the pull of the gun barrel,
the rope crushing the hollow of your throat;

In the Borderlands
you are the battleground
where enemies are kin to each other;
you are at home, a stranger,
the border disputes have been settled
the volley of shots have shattered the truce
you are wounded, lost in action
dead, fighting back;

To live in the Borderlands means
the mill with the razor white teeth wants to shred off
your olive-red skin, crush out the kernel, your heart
pound you pinch you roll you out
smelling like white bread but dead;

To survive the Borderlands
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads.

by Gloria Evangelina Anzaldua
from Borderlands -The New Mestiza
Aunt Lute Books, San Francisco, CA

Antonio Muñoz Molina: Narrative Across Time

51w2fQt7tiL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_James Santel at The Hudson Review:

The handy metaphor for time is a river: the swollen rapid that hurls us forward, or the placid current that rolls along, barely noticed until we find ourselves deposited far downstream. The comparison serves a few purposes. It captures our sense of time as continuous. It assures us of the present’s connection to both past and future, and therefore of our current selves’ connection to the people we have been and the people we will become. Above all, the metaphor confers a teleology upon time, makes a narra­tive of it. And narrative, of course, implies logic.

By virtue of his vocation, the Spanish author Antonio Muñoz Molina relies on narrative. But in the latest of his novels to appear in English, In the Night of Time(beautifully translated by Edith Grossman), Muñoz Molina is interested not in time’s flow but in its rupture.[1] In the Night of Time fixates on time not as an organizing principle, but rather as a partition that cordons off one period of a life from another with cruel suddenness.

more here.


Qdx7nub6gaxoqe77m493The Editors at n+1:

FOR MORE THAN TWO CENTURIES, time has been felt to be passing more and more quickly. Scholars tell us that since the twin revolutions of the 18th century — industrial and political — a general sense of time speeding up has been recorded with regularity in documents of all kinds. Political and technical progress somehow meant that people were always losing ground, unable to keep up, out of breath. Rousseau spoke in Émile of the encroachingtourbillon social irresistibly overtaking everything, and the enduring popularity of Waldenno doubt owes something to its condemnation of the way we squander rather than savor our time. Marx’s bourgeoisie, of course, “cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the means of production,” and toward the end of the century, Nietzsche diagnosed the malady of the modern age in “the madly thoughtless shattering and dismantling of all foundations, their dissolution into a continual evolving that flows ceaselessly away, the tireless unspinning and historicizing of all there has ever been by modern man, the great cross-spider at the node of the cosmic web” — lines that come from the aptly titled Untimely Meditations.

So, naturally, reformers and revolutionaries sought to show how a better future would deliver us from relentless acceleration. In the hands of socialists, utopia became depicted not as beyond time — Thomas More’s was intended to be a timeless idea, not a prediction — but as something located in the definite future.

more here.

Jean-Luc Godard’s 3D film Adieu au langage

Adieu-au-langage-TrailerPhilippe Theophanidis at berfrois:

There’s no doubt that Adieu au langage, like many of Godard’s previous films, has the potential to feel “baffling”, “incoherent”, “irritating and often incomprehensible”, as some critics have suggested. American film theorist David Bordwell remarks about Godard’s work in general: “The brute fact is that these movies are, moment by moment, awfully opaque.” Borrowing from Proust, one could say that Adieu au langage is a film that resists the viewer’s gaze. It offers images “which the eye cannot penetrate”.

A simple way to understand this experience would be through the title of the film. Could Godard be suggesting, in his idiosyncratic style, that we must bid farewell to language as a means of communication? After all, it is nowadays a rather common observation: the world has become incommensurable to the various means of expression we have at our disposal. The words we could use to account for the ongoing mutations are failing us. In one of his previous films, Éloge de l’amour (2001), Godard has one of the characters reciting a line from Jean Cocteau’s diary: “Too many changes are in the air that still lack a means of expression” (1988:299; my translation). In Adieu au langage, a similar idea is conveyed by a quote from a book by Alain Badiou:

What is happening to us in the early years of the century – something that would appear not to have any clear name in any accepted language? (2012: 1)

more here.

The Royal Commoner

By Ullekh NP in Open The Magazine:

Kumud singhKumud Singh has had an unusual childhood. Born into the royal family of Darbhanga, also known as the Khandavala dynasty, in the early 1980s, her early childhood memories are of growing up on an estate of 51 bighas in Bargoria, now in West Bengal, along with three elephants and some 100 people, including members of the family, extended family, numerous house helps, hangers-on and bodyguards. Over the next decade or so, she saw her home shrink rapidly and all the elephants and most dependants disappear. “Many of the orderlies and bodyguards got richer than us,” she recalls. A descendant of a family that once commanded the destinies of people spread across more than 6,000 sq km, including parts of Bihar and West Bengal, a family which owned the Rambagh Palace, the Lakshmeshwar Vilas Palace, the Nargona Palace, the Bela Palace, as well as properties in almost every prominent city in British India, by the time Kumud was a young adult, there was no television, refrigerator or computer at home. “I learnt the uses of all these only after I got married in 2002. I had never watched television programmes before,” says the bespectacled lady, seated attentively in the verandah of her husband’s modest home in the quiet Sri Krishna Puri locality of Patna.

Her father Nandeshwar Singh, now 59, lives with her mother and a few relatives on what now remains of the estate in Bargoria. “There are not more than five people who live in that home where I grew up and the family doesn’t even own a bicycle now,” Kumud Singh says ruefully, with a tinge of wounded pride. Singh never went to school because even in the 80s the family had a sheltered existence and it wasn’t considered wise for girls of the dynasty to sit alongside other children, that too in a school founded by her ancestors. Instead, she was given private tuition at home and was educated to the level of the 10th standard exams. “I am currently pursuing my 11th through the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) programme,” she says, as her two children, Tesu Trishna (like her, Kumud’s daughter is also named after a flower) and Bhusit, run past playfully.

Kumud Singh is not exactly a good conversationalist, but is aggressive and direct in her interactions on Facebook where she has begun to play a pivotal role in a discourse meant to resurrect what she terms as “the good deeds” of her family that many, including local historians, claim are not acknowledged and recorded. In the process, she has also reinvented herself from a homemaker to the editor of what is arguably the first weekly news portal in the Maithili language, Esamaad.com.

Read the rest here.

Why American Jews Eat Chinese Food on Christmas

Adam Chandler in The Atlantic:

LeadThe circumstances that birthed Jewish Christmas are also deeply historical, sociological, and religious. The story begins during the halcyon days of the Lower East Side where, as Jennifer 8. Lee, the producer of The Search for General Tso, said, “Jews and Chinese were the two largest non-Christian immigrant groups” at the turn of the century. So while it’s true that Chinese restaurants were notably open on Sundays and during holidays when other restaurants would be closed, the two groups were linked not only by proximity, but by otherness. Jewish affinity for Chinese food “reveals a lot about immigration history and what it’s like to be outsiders,” she explained. Estimates of the surging Jewish population of New York City run from 400,000 in 1899 to about a million by 1910 (or roughly a quarter of the city’s population). And, as some Jews began to assimilate into American life, they not only found acceptance at Chinese restaurants, but also easy passage into the world beyond Kosher food. “Chinese restaurants were the easiest place to trick yourself into thinking you were eating Kosher food,” Ed Schonfeld, the owner of RedFarm, one of the most laureled Chinese restaurants in New York, said. Indeed, it was something of a perfect match. Jewish law famously prohibits the mixing of milk and meat just as Chinese food traditionally excludes dairy from its dishes. Lee added:

If you look at the two other main ethnic cuisines in America, which are Italian and Mexican, both of those combine milk and meat to a significant extent. Chinese food allowed Jews to eat foreign cuisines in a safe way.

And so, for Jews, the chop suey palaces and dumpling parlors of the Lower East Side and Chinatown gave the illusion of religious accordance, even if there was still treif galore in the form of pork and shellfish. Nevertheless, it’s more than a curiosity that a narrow culinary phenomenon that started over a century ago managed to grow into a national ritual that is both specifically American and characteristically Jewish.

More here.

Friday Poem

Bow City

First abandoned was the telegraph.
(The railway had found a straighter course).
The silos emptied. The bank foreclosed itself.
The last live bullet soothed the last lame horse.
When the saloon snuck out, so did its drunk,
followed by his shadow constable
who faded like a red serge into fable.
Even the cemetery, somehow, shrunk.
No one noticed the cartographer
paint over them a gloss of sand. One day
the silence spooked the magpies from their perch.
Time, in geese’s arrows, flew away,
and the town’s two founders disappeared together,
as they’d come: the whorehouse and the church.

by Michael Lavers
from 32 Poems, Fall/Winter 2013

This Is Not a Vermeer™

Can anyone own a masterpiece? In part one in this series about artistic authenticity, five very dissimilar people share a common desire: To own a Vermeer.

Rex Sorgatz in Medium:

ScreenHunter_929 Dec. 26 11.42I wanted a Vermeer.

I knew this would not be easy. Johannes Vermeer, that seventeenth-century Dutch “master of light,” produced only 35 known paintings, which today are among the most valuable objects in the world. Art historians reserve a certain adjective for precisely these types of cultish obsessions, which are not beyond value, but rather are, as they say, priceless — that is, without price, simply because the marketplace has not publicly accessed numerative value.

For most of the last century, no one really had any idea what a Vermeer was worth. Most of what we call modern art — Dali’s droopy clocks, Warhol’s soupy cans, Pollock’s drippy drips, Rothko’s blurry blobs — didn’t even existthe last time a Vermeer met an auction gavel.

Nonetheless, if you decided to buy all 35 Vermeers in the world, you would need billions of dollars.

More here.


Stephen Smith in Esquire:

ScreenHunter_928 Dec. 26 11.31“Who’s behind me?” hisses Martin Scorsese with a voice like bologna hitting a hot skillet. “I’m Sicilian. We don’t sit with our backs to the door. We never sit with our backs to the door. Who’s behind me? Who’s got my back?”

This is the way you dreamed it would go down, of course. The sit-down: the milk-fed veal, the carmine carafes, the rubber of post-prandial card games abruptly abandoned. The diminutive figure of the maestro bristles across the table from you. As he reacts to the sound of voices from the darkened doorway, a tremor of unease transmits itself through Scorsese’s people, his crew.

The director himself reaches for his piece. You watch in astonishment as the garlanded Hollywood insider fingers the barrel of his… inhaler.

It’s nighttime in New York City, and Scorsese has called a meeting at a favorite low-key joint a block or two from his home. But instead of the spaghetti house straight out of the old country, this is a chintzy suite in a boutique hotel, with its surprising lacunae: the pelmets concealing foxed wainscoting, the MDF boxing and panelling that shuts away eyesore cables.

The filmmaker, 72, is briefly between pictures, the gab and hustle for his most recent outing The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is behind him, and he is generously putting aside some time after standing me up on a previous date.

More here.

George Clooney’s Downton Abbey Skit Is Better Than Anything on TV This Week

June Thomas in Slate:

ClooneyThe holiday season may be a TV wasteland here in the United States, but in Britain it’s always a veritable fiesta of Christmas specials and Boxing Day bonus episodes. This year, though, the Brits have outdone themselves: A Downton Abbey comedy sketch created for a charity fundraising campaign is better than anything we’ll see on U.S. television until 2015 rolls around—and George Clooney, who makes a cameo, is the least interesting part of the skit.

It’s lovely to see the familiar Downton characters once again, but it’s especially fun to learn that everyone is aware of the show’s tendency toward repetition. In the first part of the sketch, a declaration of family happiness is followed—as it always seems to be on the show—by bad news. A telegram arrives with word that Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) has managed to lose the family fortune. “Not again!” says his wife, Cora—and everyone who has ever watched Downton Abbey. The sketch then morphs into a version of It’s a Wonderful Life, with Joanna Lumley (Patsy Stone on Absolutely Fabulous) as an angel, showing Lord G. how terrible life would’ve been if he had never been born. (If you’re wondering why Jeremy Piven shows up as retail pioneer Harry Selfridge, it’s because, like Downton, Mr. Selfridge airs on ITV in Britain.

More here.

a christmas memory

From DelancyPlace:

CapoteSeven-year-old Truman Capote, abandoned by his divorced parents, is taken in by depression-poor cousins in the rural South. One of these cousins, a distant, elderly cousin, becomes his closest friend and only refuge — but she is only in his life for two more short years. As Christmas approaches, they make fruitcakes as presents for people they barely know: Imagine a morning in late November. A coming-of-winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar. “A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable — not unlike Lin­coln's, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. 'Oh my,' she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, 'it's fruitcake weather!' “The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something. We are cousins, very dis­tant ones, and we have lived together — well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, rela­tives; and though they have power over us, and fre­quently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other's best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was for­merly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880's, when she was still a child. She is still a child. …

“The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweet­ens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whiskey, bask on window sills and shelves. “Friends. Not necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share are intended for persons we've met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who've struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt.

More here.

A Punch Line In The U.S., Christmas Fruitcake Is Big In Calcutta

Sandip Roy at NPR:

Kanchan-cakes_custom-dca9f6bda9192db1e7ae4571e79468a8cfefab5c-s800-c85The British are long gone from Calcutta, but they left behind the fruitcake. The West jokes about indestructible fruitcake as the gift that keeps on giving, but Calcutta — the old British capital — embraces it. Around Christmas, bakeries set up counters just to sell these treats, which also are known as plum cakes.

Flurys, a legendary European-style tearoom, stays open all night on Christmas Eve, says manager Rajeev Khanna. He says the big draws are the old favorites: “It's the plum cake which has been marinated just last week of November. Dundee. Rum and raisin. Mince pie.”

In Goa, the former Portuguese colony, where the Saldanhas are from, Christmas still has a strong Catholic feel to it. But here in Calcutta, a far more mixed city, Christmas is simply called Boro Din, or Big Day. And it's universal.

Cake knows no religion. At Nahoum and Sons, the city's only Jewish bakery, a lady who gave her name only as Mrs. Maxwell waits in a long line as her grandson plays with a toy pistol. She says that despite all the fancy new patisseries in malls, she comes here every year. “Nothing to beat Nahoum,” she says. “You buy the same plum cake from somewhere else at a much higher price, you immediately find the difference.”

At Sheik Nuruddin's storefront bakery, there's a photograph of Mecca on the wall. But in December, you can rent his oven and his bakers for your own Christmas cake. The wood-fired oven turns out seven cakes an hour, from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., says Nuruddin.

Read the rest here.

The Folly of Mars

Ken Kalfus in n + 1:

ScreenHunter_927 Dec. 25 14.49A half-century after the conclusion of the Apollo mission, we have entered a new age of space fantasy—one with Mars as its ruling hallucination. Once again stirring goals have been set, determined timetables have been laid down, and artist’s renderings of futuristic spacecraft have been issued. The latest NASA Authorization Act projects Mars as the destination for its human spaceflight program. Last month’s successful test flight of the Orion space vehicle was called by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden “another extraordinary milestone toward a human journey to Mars.” The space agency’s officials regularly justify the development of new rockets, like the Space Launch System, as crucial to an eventual Mars mission.

But human beings won’t be going to Mars anytime soon, if ever. In June, a congressionally commissioned report by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, punctured any hope that with its current and anticipated level of funding NASA will get human beings anywhere within the vicinity of the red planet. To continue on a course for Mars without a sustained increase in the budget, the report said, “is to invite failure, disillusionment, and the loss of the longstanding international perception that human spaceflight is something the United States does best.”

The new report warns against making dates with Mars we cannot keep. It endorses a human mission to the red planet, but only mildly and without setting a firm timetable. Its “pathways” approach comprises intermediate missions, such as a return to the moon or a visit to an asteroid. No intermediate mission would be embarked upon without a budgetary commitment to complete it; each step would lead to the next. Each could conclude the human exploration of space if future Congresses and presidential administrations decide the technical and budgetary challenges for a flight to Mars are too steep.

The technical and budgetary challenges are very steep. A reader contemplating them may reasonably wonder if it’s worth sending people to Mars at all.

More here.

Thursday Poem

Old Man Leaves Party

It was clear when I left the party
That though I was over eighty I still had
A beautiful body. The moon shone down as it will
On moments of deep introspection. The wind held its breath.
And look, somebody left a mirror leaning against a tree.
Making sure that I was alone, I took off my shirt.
The flowers of bear grass nodded their moonwashed heads.
I took off my pants and the magpies circled the redwoods.
Down in the valley the creaking river was flowing once more.
How strange that I should stand in the wilds alone with my body.
I know what you are thinking. I was like you once. But now
With so much before me, so many emerald trees, and
Weed-whitened fields, mountains and lakes, how could I not
Be only myself, this dream of flesh, from moment to moment?

by Mark Strand
from Blizzard of One: Poems
Alfred A. Knopf Publishing 1998