John Edgar Wideman: the voice of America’s great divide

Erica Wagner at The New Statesman:

John Edgar Wideman’s profound new book begins, as it must, with the American Civil War. The first story in this collection, “JB & FD” imagines a kind of conversation between two of the most important figures of that conflict, the white anti-slavery crusader John Brown, hanged in December 1859 for treason, murder, and inciting slave insurrection, and the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who had himself been born enslaved.

The story begins as historical fiction but swiftly moves away from the conventional, its ten sections shifting between the voices not only of Brown and Douglass but also that of the author himself, looking out of a motel window on a snowy morning, trying to imagine himself into his characters’ lives. He considers John Brown as a boy, driving cattle through a blizzard: “I compare his predicament to mine, and I’m ashamed.”

more

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The strange cult of Emily Brontë and the ‘hot mess’ of Wuthering Heights

Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian:

Over this ecstatic high summer, visitors to the Haworth parsonage museum will be able to watch a film that simulates the bird’s-eye view of Emily Brontë’s pet hawk, Nero, as he swoops over the moors to Top Withens, the ruined farmhouse that is the putative model for Wuthering Heights. You’ll be able to listen to the Unthanks, the quavery Northumbrian folk music sisters who have composed music in celebration of Emily’s 200th anniversary. If that’s not enough, you can watch a video installation by Lily Cole, the model-turned-actor-turned-Cambridge-double-first from Devon, which riffs on Heathcliff’s origins as a Liverpool foundling. Finally, Kate Bush, from Kent, has been busy on the moors unveiling a stone. In short, wherever you come from and whoever you are, you will find an Emily Brontë who is sufficiently formless yet endlessly adaptive to whatever you need her to be – a rock, a song, a bird in flight.

That’s assuming, of course, that you are female. Nearly all the activities mentioned in connection with the forthcoming anniversary of her birth on 30 July involve women as makers, demonstrators, celebrators and educators. Likewise, nearly all Emily Brontë’s biographers and scholars over the past century have been women. If you do spot a man in the mix, chances are that he has been shuffled off to the side, rather like Branwell Brontë, though hopefully without the urge to get drunk and set fire to himself. The only other author who has become the object of such an intense female pash in the last 200 years is Sylvia Plath, who happens to be buried less than 10 miles away from Haworth at Heptonstall. The parallels are uncanny. Separated by a century, both Brontë and Plath were poets who remain most famous for writing a single intensely autobiographical novel. There’s even a pleasing bit of intertextuality in the way that in 1956 Sylvia Plath actually managed to marry Heathcliff in the form of her own glowering man-of-the-moors, Ted Hughes. Together the newlyweds tramped up to Top Withins and wrote poems about it, an event that Hughes was still mulling over 40 years later in his valedictory Birthday Letters. Both Plath and Brontë died at the age of 30 and then only gradually started to attract the cult-like devotion of female fans, who responded rapturously to their heroines’ status as exiles from the twin kingdoms of heteronormative happiness and literary fame.

More here.

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Suspicious Minds

Steven Kurutz in The New York Times:

It was barely two hours into Day 1 of AlienCon and 500 years of accepted history and science were already being tossed out. Three thousand people had gathered inside the Civic Auditorium here for a panel discussion featuring presenters from “Ancient Aliens,” a History Channel documentary series. Everyone had questions: about whether we were alone in the universe; about what our government really knows; about humanity’s very origins. One of the network’s most popular and longest-running shows (Season 13 resumed on July 20), “Ancient Aliens” is itself a series of questions. Many are posed rhetorically by an unseen narrator intoning over a wide shot of a rubbly archaeological site. According to the show’s talking heads, extraterrestrials may have had a role not only in the extermination of the dinosaurs, but also in the construction of the Egyptian pyramids.

Carl Sagan, the popular scientist who captivated television audiences of the 1970s and ’80s, once said: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

But Mr. Sagan has been dead for years, and many Americans of the internet age have been in a mood to challenge established ideas. There has been a resurgence of the flat-earth theory. More than a few believe that global warming is a hoax, that survivors of mass shootings are crisis actors. Yet for many at the conference, and elsewhere, this is not simply a political divide. We now know that the history that had been taught for years excluded the experiences of so many (African-Americans, women, the working poor). What else had been left out? Trust in the government and leaders who could set it all straight is historically low.  And there are so many people ready to believe that aliens visited Earth before recorded history that some 10,000 attendees paid to visit this conference over three days.

More here.

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Saturday Poem

A Green Crab’s Shell

Not, exactly, green:
closer to bronze
preserved in kind brine,

something retrieved
from a Greco-Roman wreck,
patinated and oddly

muscular. We cannot
know what his fantastic
legs were like –

though evidence
suggests eight
complexly folded

scuttling works
of armament, crowned
by the foreclaws’

gesture of menace
and power. A gull’s
gobbled the center,

leaving this chamber
–size of a demitasse-
open to reveal

a shocking, Giotto blue,
Though it smells
of seaweed and ruin,

this little traveling case
comes with such lavish lining!
Imagine breathing

surrounded by
the brilliant rinse
of summer’s firmament.

What color is
the underside of skin?
Not so bad, to die,

if we could be opened
into this–
if the smallest chambers

of ourselves,
similarly,
revealed some sky.

by Mark Doty
from Atlantis
Harper Perennial, 1995

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July 20, 2018

Tariq Ali talks to David Edgar

David Edgar in the London Review of Books:

Would you say a few things about your family background.

My family belonged to the Khattar tribe in the Attock District. It was a landed family. Genealogists traced its descent from the 11th-century Rajputs whose conversion to Islam began a hundred years later, boosted by intermarriage with the offspring of marauding Muslim adventurers from the North. It was completed two centuries before the Mughals arrived. The head of the clan had the right to keep ten thousand men under arms. By the mid 19th century the family had become a laboratory example of a decaying aristocracy quarrelling over property. Absentee landlordism further complicated matters. My parents, for instance, had no idea how much land they owned but it was a hell of a lot since its sale kept them going for a long time.

Initially both my grandfathers belonged to the faction that supported the British. The big divide in the family began during the Sikh wars, with one side supporting the Sikhs and the other the British. With the first Indian war of independence in 1857 (known in English history books as the Mutiny) there was the same division. I used to think, cynically, that the top echelons of the family did this deliberately: support both sides so that whichever faction of the ruling class wins, the family never loses. That was often the case. Not this time.

More here.

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The Peculiar Math That Could Underlie the Laws of Nature

Natalie Wolchover in Quanta:

In 2014, a graduate student at the University of Waterloo, Canada, named Cohl Furey rented a car and drove six hours south to Pennsylvania State University, eager to talk to a physics professor there named Murat Günaydin. Furey had figured out how to build on a finding of Günaydin’s from 40 years earlier — a largely forgotten result that supported a powerful suspicion about fundamental physics and its relationship to pure math.

The suspicion, harbored by many physicists and mathematicians over the decades but rarely actively pursued, is that the peculiar panoply of forces and particles that comprise reality spring logically from the properties of eight-dimensional numbers called “octonions.”

As numbers go, the familiar real numbers — those found on the number line, like 1, π and -83.777 — just get things started. Real numbers can be paired up in a particular way to form “complex numbers,” first studied in 16th-century Italy, that behave like coordinates on a 2-D plane. Adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing is like translating and rotating positions around the plane. Complex numbers, suitably paired, form 4-D “quaternions,” discovered in 1843 by the Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, who on the spot ecstatically chiseled the formula into Dublin’s Broome Bridge. John Graves, a lawyer friend of Hamilton’s, subsequently showed that pairs of quaternions make octonions: numbers that define coordinates in an abstract 8-D space.

More here.  [Thanks to Ali Minai.]

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‘Find Your Passion’ Is Awful Advice: A major new study questions the common wisdom about how we should choose our careers

Olga Khazan in The Atlantic:

Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, remembers asking an undergraduate seminar recently, “How many of you are waiting to find your passion?”

“Almost all of them raised their hand and got dreamy looks in their eyes,” she told me. They talked about it “like a tidal wave would sweep over them.” Sploosh. Huzzah! It’s accounting!

Would they have unlimited motivation for their passion? They nodded solemnly.

“I hate to burst your balloon,” she said, “but it doesn’t usually happen that way.”

What Dweck asked her students is a common refrain in American society. The term “Follow your passion” has increased ninefold in English books since 1990. “Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life” is another college-counseling standby of unknown provenance.

But according to Dweck and others, that advice is steering people wrong.

More here.

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When a U.S. citizen heard he was on his own country’s drone target list, he wasn’t sure he believed it. After five near-misses, he does – and is suing the United States to contest his own execution

Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone:

Bilal Abdul Kareem is an expert in staying alive.

Born Darrell Lamont Phelps, he grew up just north of the Bronx in Mount Vernon, New York. He did what lots of kids in his neighborhood were doing in the late Seventies and Eighties: He spent his time rolling on the floor laughing to comics like Flip Wilson and Richard Pryor.

Later, after college at SUNY Purchase in Westchester, he decided to try stand-up himself. Hecklers were a problem.

In upscale white clubs where he sometimes performed, audiences would clap politely if his jokes missed. Not so much in the Brooklyn clubs he worked. The mostly black audiences there let him have it when he was off.

“Black folks always want to get involved in the act, you know what I’m saying?” he recalls, laughing. “Then you gotta respond with some ‘Yo mama’s so fat’ jokes just to get them to sit down and shut up.”

Over a decade later, after some major life changes – he’d converted to Islam and found himself working as a TV reporter in the Middle East under his new name, Bilal Abdul Kareem – he again drew upon his stand-up experience to stay alive. Only he wasn’t worried about dying on stage this time. This time it was more serious.

More here.

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Sisters in Arms

Members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other protesters at a rally on International Women’s Day, Chicago, March 2018

Alissa Quart and Barbara Ehrenreich in The NY Review of Books:

Is the #MeToo “moment” the beginning of a new feminism? Coined by the civil rights activist Tarana Burke in 2006, the term took off in 2017 when celebrities like the actress Alyssa Milano began using it as a Twitter hashtag. Extensive reporting in The New York Times and The New Yorker on harassment in the entertainment and tech industries helped the movement bring down some of those fields’ most powerful figures. By speaking out, a number of famous actresses—some of them better known previously for their not-so-feminist roles as cute witches and beguiling prostitutes—have done so as well. To date, most of #MeToo’s attention has been aimed at the rich and influential: for instance, abusive talk show hosts and other notorious media figures.

#MeToo has too often ignored the most frequent victims of abuse, however, such as waitresses or hotel housekeepers. These are among the invisible people who keep society going—cleaning homes, harvesting our vegetables, and serving salads made of these vegetables. Who among those of us who depend on their labor knows their struggles or even their names? It can seem like an uphill battle to bring attention to the working-class victims of harassment, even though these women are often abused in starker and more brutal fashion than their counterparts in Hollywood.

Bernice Yeung, an investigative journalist for the reporting nonprofit organization Reveal, has helped correct this imbalance. Yeung is no tourist in the lives of the working poor women she covers. She has been writing about the plight of farmworkers and maids harassed and raped by their overseers for more than five years, in places far from executive offices—fields, basements, and break rooms. Her new book, In a Day’s Work, is a bleak but much-needed addition to the literature on sexual harassment in the US.

More here.

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Material Witness The novelist and the liar

Amitava Kumar in The Baffler:

THIS WAS A FEW YEARS AGO. A publisher called from Delhi to ask if I would write a short book about my hometown, Patna, in eastern India. I thought of the rats that had carried away my mother’s dentures and said yes.

My model for the book about Patna, a book about a city, was E.B. White’s classic essay Here is New York. “This piece about New York was written in the summer of 1948 during a hot spell.” The first sentence of White’s foreword: a promise that my book, too, could be done quickly. When summer came, I went to Patna. Each day I would step out of my parents’ home, a little Moleskine notebook in my pocket, and return at night with stories.

When my book was about to be published, a newspaper editor asked me to write a piece about the process of putting the book together. Using my notebook number eighteen as an example, I simply described a day, starting with a 9:00 a.m. visit to the railway station and ending with me coming home at 10:00 p.m. after watching a rehearsal for a play about caste. I’m telling you all this because this is what my newspaper piece had gleaned from my notebook about what happened at 10:00 p.m.:

My sisters are talking in the room that is at the far end of the house. This used to be my room when I was a boy. I’m downloading photographs on my computer, but I eavesdrop on their conversation. My elder sister is a doctor, married to a doctor. He has a sister, who is a doctor—and her husband, also a doctor, is having an affair. The woman with whom he is having the affair is not a doctor. She is the receptionist at his hospital. They meet for sex at a gym that is across the street from the hospital.

The newspaper in which this essay appeared is a national daily; on the morning of its publication, my elder sister called me. She was upset. I was in Delhi on my book tour and she was in Patna. She said that her brother-in-law would be furious. I laughed. I said, “Don’t worry, don’t worry, he’s not a reader. I doubt he reads an English newspaper anyway.” I was laughing, but I was also nervous.

More here.

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Friday Poem

Frederico’s Ghost

The story is
that whole families of fruitpickers
still crept between the furrows
of the field at dusk,
when for reasons of whisky or whatever
the cropduster plane sprayed anyway,
floating a pesticide drizzle
over the pickers
who thrashed like dark birds
in a glistening white net,
except for Frederico,
a skinny boy who stood apart
in his own green row,
and, knowing the pilot
would not understand in Spanish
that he was the son of a whore,
instead jerked his arm
and thrust an obscene finger.

The pilot understood.
He circled the plane and sprayed again,
watch a fine gauze of poison
drift over the brown bodies
that cowered and scurried on the ground,
and aiming for Frederico,
leaving the skin beneath his shirt
wet and blistered,
but still pumping his finger at the sky.

After Frederico died,
rumors at the labor camp
told of tomatoes picked and smashed at night,
growers murmuring of vandal children
or communists in camp,
first threatening to call Immigration,
then promising every Sunday off
if only the smashing of tomatoes would stop.

Still tomatoes were picked and squashed
in the dark,
and the old women in camp
said it was Frederico,
laboring after sundown
to cool the burns on his arms,
flinging tomatoes
at the cropduster
that hummed like a mosquito
lost in his ear,
and kept his soul awake.

by Martin Espada
from After Atzlan
publisher, David Godine, 1992

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The wonders of bee life

Melissa Harrison in The Guardian:

Early on in Helen Jukes’s A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings she ponders the increasing popularity of urban beekeeping, referring to the idea that “one possible psychological response to the apprehension of a threat is to begin producing idealised versions of the thing we perceive of as being at risk”. That’s also a good explanation for the current crop of bee books: not just A Honeybee Heart and Thor Hanson’s Buzz, but Kate Bradbury’s wonderful The Bumblebee Flies Anyway and Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees, among others. Books, like hives, are ways of capturing something and holding on to it: either helping to preserve it, or looking at it closely before it’s gone.

A Honeybee Heart is in the tradition of H Is for Hawk and other recent works that combine natural history with memoir. Some have felt rather stale and derivative, or have overplayed the author’s emotional link with the creature in question. Happily, Jukes avoids this: she’s interested in bees because, well, bees are interesting, and if anything the personal side is played down, particularly at the start of the book. Having had some experience helping a beekeeper in London, she decides to get a hive not long after moving to Oxford. Bored in her job, restless and lacking stable attachments, Jukes discovers that keeping bees helps to anchor her, and she explores the way in which they change her, just as her efforts alter the behaviour of the bees. There’s some satisfying (if at times slightly pat) mirroring as the personal and apine sides of the book progress in tandem, but she wears her considerable research lightly. I only wish I could have envisaged her hive better: it’s a “top bar” type rather than the more familiar Langstroth, and her descriptions of what the bees were building each time she opened it seemed fascinating, but went clean over my head. It is not unreasonable to ask how many more nature memoirs the market can support; the answer, I think, is only the best. Finely written and insightful, A Honeybee Heart is surely one of them.

More here.

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Leukaemia follows a blood-vessel track to enter the nervous system

Frank Winkler in Nature:

If malignant cells from solid or blood cancers enter the central nervous system (CNS) and grow there, the treatment options and clinical outlook deteriorate rapidly. In a type of leukaemia called acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), invasion of the CNS commonly occurs. To try to limit this, people with the condition often receive radiation or chemotherapy that targets the CNS. If more-effective and less-toxic approaches became available to prevent disease spread to the CNS, this might benefit many people with ALL. Writing in Nature, Yao et al.1 report a hitherto unknown route that ALL cells use to enter the CNS, and suggest a possible therapeutic approach that is worth investigating.

When leukaemia spreads into the CNS, this process, termed metastasis, is mainly limited to the region known as the subarachnoid space, which contains cerebrospinal fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord. The subarachnoid space is surrounded by membranes called the dura mater, the pia mater and the arachnoid, which are collectively called the meninges and are also colonized by cancer cells (Fig. 1). Yao and colleagues used mouse models of ALL to investigate how human leukaemia cells spread into the CNS. They focused on the enzyme PI3K, which is a key regulator of signalling pathways needed for growth, survival and invasion by cancer cells.

More here.

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July 19, 2018

Why identity politics benefits the right more than the left

Sheri Berman in The Guardian:

Over a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, commentators are still trying to understand the election and the explosion of intolerance following it. One common view is that Trump’s victory was a consequence of pervasive racism in American society.

Studies make clear, however, that racism has been decreasing over time, among Republicans and Democrats. (Views of immigration have also grown more favorable.) Moreover, since racism is deep-seated and longstanding, reference to it alone makes it difficult to understand the election of Barack Obama and Trump, the differences between Trump and the two previous Republican nominees on race and immigration, and the dramatic breakdown of social norms and civility following the elections. (Social scientists call this the “constant can’t explain a variable” problem.)

This does not mean racism is irrelevant; it matters, but social science suggests it does in more complicated ways than much commentary suggests.

Perhaps because straightforward bigotry has declined precipitously while more subtle, complex resentments remain, understanding how intolerance shapes politics requires examining not just beliefs, but also the relationship between beliefs and the environments people find themselves in. This distinction has important implications for how we interpret and address contemporary social and political problems.

More here.

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