Dave Eggers: We spy on each other

Robert Collins in The Telegraph:

Eggers_illo_rgb_3278654bDave Eggers has just been reminded why he can’t allow himself near the internet. The night before I meet him in Paris to talk about his latest three novels – published in a burst of creativity over the past three years – he has been up until 3am watching videos on YouTube on a houseboat he has rented in Amsterdam. “I got back, and to wind down I watched the comedy duo Key & Peele,” he says, while we sit in a bijou hotel overlooking the Place du Panthéon. “There’s just hundreds of YouTube clips. I couldn’t stop. That’s my thing. I can’t be near that stuff. I can’t have it in the house. I would never work again.” Eggers, you see, has been working very hard indeed. Since his 2000 debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – a bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-nominated memoir about his parents’ deaths from cancer within five weeks of each other and his subsequent rearing of his then eight-year-old brother, Christopher – Eggers has published short stories, novels, anthologies and children’s books. In 2002, he founded a literacy centre, 826 Valencia, for schoolchildren in San Francisco. On the back of its success, he opened a string of them across America, which led to others being set up in Europe. Eggers has come to Paris to visit the latest of these.

In between all this, he has written screenplays – including the film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, directed by Spike Jonze in 2009 – and founded an organisation that helps American university students find funding. He runs his own publishing house and literary magazine, McSweeney’s. And he has set up another literary magazine, The Believer, as well as founding a series of oral histories about human rights crises, a theme he covered in his 2009 book Zeitoun, which recounted the ordeal of a Syrian-American arrested in New Orleans in the chaos following Hurricane Katrina. Eggers is not so much a literary darling as a one-man social enterprise.

More here.

Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will

Salley Vickers in The Guardian:

WillJulian Baggini is that happy thing – a philosopher who recognises that readers go glassy-eyed if presented with high-octane philosophical discourse. And yet, as his latest book, Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will, makes clear, it is in all our interests to consider crucial aspects of what it means to be human. Indeed, in this increasingly complex world, maybe more so than ever. Freedom is one of the great, emotive political watchwords. The emancipation of slaves and women has inspired political movements on a grand scale. But, latterly, the concept of freedom has defected from the public realm to the personal. How responsible are we as individuals for the actions we take? To what degree are we truly autonomous agents?

…The neural information that has made waves, however, is the fact that scans indicates the brain’s chemistry consistently determines a decision prior to our consciously making that decision. So when I deliberate over a menu and finally choose a mushroom risotto over a rare steak, my brain has anticipated this before I am aware of my choice. At first, this looks alarming. I am not the mistress of my gastric fate, my brain chemistry is. But that is to fail to recognise that my brain’s chemistry may be responding to a vast array of accumulated information about my reading of restaurant reviews, my health, the kind of day I’ve had, my relationship to my weight, my dining companion, my views on animal rights. This is a process not dissimilar to intuition, which is no more than the mind’s ability to process a number of clues too complex to be consciously registered.

More here.

Sunday Poem


You stand far from the crowd, adjacent to power.
You consider the edge as well as the frame.
You consider beauty, depth of field, lighting
to understand the field, the crowd.
Late into the day, the atmosphere explodes
and revolution, well, revolution is everything.
You begin to see for the first time
everything is just like the last thing
only its opposite and only for a moment.
When a revolution completes its orbit
the objects return only different
for having stayed the same throughout.
To continue is not what you imagined.
But what you imagined was to change
and so you have and so has the crowd.

by Peter Gizzi
from The Outernationale
publisher: Wesleyan, Middletown CT, 2007

Wislawa Szymborska’s ‘Map: Collected and Last Poems’

Richard Lourie in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_1162 Apr. 25 23.26The mass of men may “lead lives of ­quiet desperation,” as Thoreau wrote, but the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012) did just the opposite: She lived a life of quiet amazement, reflected in poems that are both plain-spoken and luminous. Many of them are gathered now in “Map: Collected and Last Poems.”

Born in the countryside, Szymborska moved in 1931 to Krakow, city of kings and culture, and lived there until her death. Though her life was most eventful inwardly, there was no escaping history in Poland. Indeed, Szymborska lived in four quite different Polands: the anxious interwar Poland that had regained its independence in 1918 after more than a century’s absence from the map of Europe; the Poland of the Nazi occupation, the death camps and uprisings, which began shortly after she turned 16; postwar Poland under Soviet domination, where she herself was a Communist until breaking with the party in 1966, about the time she was finding her voice as a poet; and, last, post-Soviet Poland, free, successful, blessedly ordinary.

Szymborska neither evades nor fetish­izes her country’s travails. She can be tough and blunt toward them, as in the poem “Starvation Camp Near Jaslo,” where “the meadow’s silent, like a witness who’s been bought.” But Szymborska is always more interested in the individual. ­After saying, “History rounds off skeletons to zero. / A thousand and one is still only a thousand,” the poem goes off to wonder about that uncounted individual. In “Innocence,” she muses on young German girls blissfully unaware they were “conceived on a mattress made of human hair,” and in “Hitler’s First Photograph” she has a little macabre fun at the Führer’s expense: “And who’s this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe? / That’s tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers’ little boy!” Of course, as with any newborn, you can’t help wondering what his future will turn out to be: “Whose tummy full of milk, we just don’t know: / printer’s, doctor’s, merchant’s, priest’s?”

More here.

Has Narendra Modi cleaned up India?

James Crabtree in Prospect:

ScreenHunter_1161 Apr. 25 23.23Narendra Modi stood on the walls of New Delhi’s Red Fort on a blustery morning last August, a man at the height of his recently-acquired powers. It was his first Independence Day speech, and also the first given by an Indian Prime Minister born after the end of colonial rule in 1947. Coming just a few short months after his thumping victory in national elections in May, it provided Modi with the most prominent stage afforded to any Indian leader to outline his plans for the nation.

Not a man known for modesty, he began humbly enough, painting himself “not as the Prime Minister, but as the Prime Servant.” Dressed in a white kurta and flamboyant, flowing red polka-dot turban, he stressed his separation from India’s establishment, too: “Brothers and sisters, I am an outsider for Delhi… I have no idea about the administration and working of this place.” His hands jabbing the air for emphasis, he even made brief nods toward harmony between India’s many religions, and the importance of the rights of women—mentions that drew modest praise from anxious liberals worried that Modi might prove to be a right-wing firebrand, in hoc to the Hindu nationalist base of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Beyond the showmanship, there were hints of substance. As wind whipped around the ramparts, Modi laid out themes that would define his early period in power: an economic revival after years of stagnation; transforming India into a Chinese-style manufacturing powerhouse; and a focus on the concerns of the poor, from building toilets to sprucing up squalid streets. Yet on one issue—indeed, perhaps the most important that lay behind his electoral landslide—Modi had surprisingly little to say: corruption.

More here.

The Revolution in Rojava


Meredith Tax in Dissent magazine image (Biji Kurdistan/Flickr):

While the Syrian opposition is understandably bitter that the YPG and YPJ withdrewmost of their energy from the war with Assad, leftists worldwide should be watching the remarkable efforts being made by Syrian Kurds and their allies to build a liberated area where they can develop their ideas about socialism, democracy, women, and ecology in practice.

They have been working on these ideas since 2003, when the PYD (Democratic Union Party) was founded by Syrian members of Turkey’s banned Kurdish party, the PKK. By January 2014, they had established a bottom-up system of government in each canton, with political decisions made by local councils and social service and legal questions administered by local civil society structures under the umbrella of TEV-DEM (Democratic Society Movement). TEV-DEM includes people from all the ethnic groups in the cantons, who are represented by more than one political party, but most of its ideological leadership comes from the PYD.

According to Janet Biehl, who was part of an academic delegation to the Cizîre canton in December 2014, the district commune is the building block of the whole structure. Each commune has 300 members and two elected co-presidents, one male, one female. Eighteen communes make up a district, and the co-presidents of all of them are on the district people’s council, which also has directly elected members. The district people’s councils decide on matters of administration and economics like garbage collection, heating-oil distribution, land ownership, and cooperative enterprises. While all the communes and councils are at least 40 percent women, the PYD—in its determination to revolutionize traditional gender relations—has also set up parallel autonomous women’s bodies at each level. These determine policy on matters of particular concern to women, like forced marriages, honor killings, polygamy, sexual violence, and discrimination. Since domestic violence is a continuing problem, they have also set up a system of shelters. If there is conflict on an issue concerning women, the women’s councils are able to overrule the mixed councils.

In short, the Rojava revolution is fulfilling the dreams of Arab Spring—and then some. If its ideas can be sustained and can prevail against ISIS, Kurdish nationalism, and the hostile states surrounding the cantons, Rojava will affect the possibilities available to the whole region. So why isn’t it getting more international support?

More here.

Karl Ove ­Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle: Book 4’

26-COVER-sfSpanJeffrey Eugenides at The New York Times:

“The last time I was in New York,” Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote recently in The New York Times Magazine, in his account of traveling through the ­United States, “a well-known American writer invited me for lunch. . . . I tried desperately to think of something to say. We had to have something in common, we were about the same age, did the same thing for a living, wrote novels, though his were of considerably higher quality than mine. But no, I couldn’t come up with a single topic of ­conversation. . . . When we got back to Sweden, I received an email from him. He apologized for having ­invited me to lunch, he had realized he never should have done it and asked me not to reply to his email. At first I didn’t understand what he meant. . . . Then I ­realized he must have taken my silence personally. He must have thought I didn’t find it worth my time talking to him.”

Knausgaard doesn’t reveal the identity of the American writer he had lunch with. But I will: It was me. I may be the first reviewer of Knausgaard’s autobiographical works who has appeared in one of them. Therefore, I’m in a perfect position to judge how he uses the stuff of his life to fashion his stories. Ever since Knausgaard turned me into a minor character, I have an inside track on what he’s doing.

more here.

L.A.’s hidden history in ‘Terminal Island’

La-et-jc-looking-back-terminal-isand-pictures--008David L. Ulin at the Los Angeles Times:

When we think of Terminal Island, after all, what do we imagine? Do we know that it was once (in a manner of speaking) two islands, Rattlesnake Island and Deadman’s Island, before they were joined, first by a jetty and then by more direct intervention? Do we know that it was, initially, “a tourist destination with no hotels … a recreational spot for those who loved the outdoors and nature”? As early as 1888, it was declared, by The Times, to be an interesting destination, if “rough looking.”

Hirahara and Knatz are smart and detailed on this early history, framing the development of Terminal Island through the filter of the growth of Los Angeles itself. By 1891, there was a rail line, and the island was renamed, as bathhouses and hotels were built.

A decade later, the authors tell us, “People flocked to Terminal Island for the summer. … The Times extolled the ‘virtues’ of the island: the best French chef, everything was clean and fresh, and … [o]n holidays like July the Fourth, there was such a demand for bathing suits that it was hard to rent a dry one.”

more here.

‘The Vital Question: Why Is Life the Way It Is?’, by Nick Lane

41m4swNgFaL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Clive Cookson at the Financial Times:

There is a black hole at the heart of biology,” says Nick Lane, who is emerging as one of the most imaginative thinkers about the evolution of life on Earth. The hole surrounds the transition around 1.8bn years ago from simple microbes, which had monopolised the planet for the previous 2bn years, to the complex “eukaryotic” cells that went on to become animals, plants, fungi and protozoa. For Lane, a biochemist at University College London, the little discussed origins of cellular complexity are The Vital Question for biologists seeking to understand why life is the way it is.

Yet scientists have paid much more attention to how the first primitive cells originated on the young Earth, when it was some 500m years old. Lane’s latest book, following on from his prizewinning Life Ascending(2009), does, in fact, start with the origins of life. Indeed, he puts forward a convincing argument for the first living cells having formed around alkaline hydrothermal vents. Only in this fiercely hot deep-sea environment could the chemical conditions and energy flow promote hydrogen to react with carbon dioxide and form self-replicating organic compounds.

more here.

Please, not Sabeen. And no, that won’t shut us up

I have lost a personal friend and hero. I have not stopped crying since hearing the news of this brutal murder. In my last note, I had said to her: “May you live to thrive and flourish and blossom and continue to serve your country and your fellow humans with the same sensitivity and humility.” Alas, my darling Sabeen, you have given your life for your cause. It seems Mustafa Zaidi wrote this sher for you my love:

Mein kis kay hathoun pe apna lahoo talaash karoun

Tamaam shehr ney pehnay huay hain dastanay

(Translation: On whose hands should I look for my blood? The entire city is wearing gloves)

SabeenCoffin-board, heavy stone,

Lie on her breast,

I vex my heart alone,

She is at rest.

Beena Sarwar in her blog Journeys to Democracy:

In shock and grieved beyond words at this horrible news that our dear friend and comrade Sabeen Mahmud has been shot dead, her mother in critical condition in hospital. They were returning from the event Unsilencing Balochistan (Take 2) held at The Second Floor (T2F) [NOTE: the facebook event link posted above mysteriously disappeared then reappeared]. It was tremendously brave of Sabeen to allow the event to be hosted there given that Balochistan is essentially a ‘no go’ area. Even as we grieve our friend we refuse to be silenced. “She always spoke out. We must honour her legacy of speaking out,” said Mohammad Jibran Nasir when I spoke to him just now. “We will not let Balochistan be a no-go area”. “They want to make us into a nation of intellectual cripples, no discussion, no dissent, no dialogue,” said Mona Kazim Shah. “How many will they kill?”

This intellecticide cannot continue. Sabeen… all-inclusive humanist, only child of her single mother, cat-lover, a gentle and compassionate soul who did all in her power to create spaces and platforms to give a voice to the less fortunate, the vulnerable, the under-privileged, those whose for whom her heart beat. Rest in peace my friend. I can’t believe you are no more. We will keep speaking out. We will honour your legacy.

More here.

Saturday Poem

The Room Next Door

I want to go to the room next door.
Is it a forest, sad and Slavic
Its old bears barreling past sickly pines?
A sombrous sanctuary
Where beds of brown with vaulted views
Inform the sky of mortal giants
And sweet decay?

I want to go to the room next door.
Is it a beach, where dusty palms
Sway to an ersatz beat of soda pops
In paltry oils?

I want to go to the room next door
Is it a city, chill and gray,
Unmade beds behind steel grids
And melting neon semaphores?
Where asphalt sinks with every step
And cracks jut up like faulty flowers
Before the frost?

I want to go to the room next door
Is it a cave, the mold of ages
Clinging to its dark embrace?

I want to go to the room next door
Where mountain air is thin and fine
Where myths and dreams loom side by side,
While death hones in on willful wings.

I want to go to the room next door,
Where all is well and endings good,
And grass is anything but green.
Or greener.

by Brooks Riley

The Chaos in Darfur

From the website of the International Crisis Group:

ScreenHunter_1160 Apr. 25 11.22Violence in the Darfur region of Sudan’s far west continues unabated. Some 450,000 persons were displaced in 2014 and another 100,000 in January 2015 alone, adding to some two million long-term internally displaced persons (IDPs) since fighting erupted in 2003. The government remains wedded to a military approach and reluctant to pursue a negotiated national solution that would address all Sudan’s conflicts at once and put the country on the path of a democratic transition. Khartoum’s reliance on a militia-centred counter-insurgency strategy is increasingly counter-productive – not least because it stokes and spreads communal violence. Ending Darfur’s violence will require – beyond countrywide negotiations between Khartoum, the rebel Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF) coalition and unarmed players – addressing its local dimensions, within both national talks and parallel local processes.

Darfur’s complex and multiplying local conflicts are increasingly ill-understood, due to lack of information and the limitations of reporting from the hybrid UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). Intensification of combat with rebel factions prompted the government in 2014 to fall back again upon notorious military auxiliaries, this time its new Rapid Support Forces (RSF), thus worsening violence and displacements. Arab militias and paramilitary forces like the RSF attacked non-Arab communities accused of being pro-rebel, fought each other, took part in communal conflicts and even hit at regular government troops.

More here. [Thanks to Wolf Böwig.]