Tuesday, December 20, 2011

On Britain's "Isolation"

Recently a well-known journalist friend, lamenting Britain's "isolation," commented that the "best quote" to come out of the unfortunate meeting of European leaders regarding the EU crisis was from an unnamed French diplomat, that "Britain is like a man who wants to go to a wife swapping party but refuses to bring his wife."

Given that my friend is a woman I was surprised that she was so amused that a French diplomat would make a joke about women as chattel to be used as a bargaining chip.

In any case, as to the matter of isolation, I would say that Britain is isolated in the way was the man who stood on the dock as the Titanic pulled away. The French diplomat's line is funny but rather than offering bon mots shouldn't he have been addressing the issue of French bank's low capital ratios? It was actually on just such a point that British Prime Minister David Cameron made his stand. The Eurozone is in a debt crisis, and behind that in a growth crisis, particularly along its southern rim. That a European diplomat would, at that moment, tell jokes at the expense of another EU country seems a sign of dangerous denial and that Europe has a leadership crisis.

In the conversation cited above that same journalist friend compared this moment, with Britain's perceived isolation, to 1936. Let me get this straight. We're to believe that Britain's declining to enter fiscal union with an EU dominated by Germany is akin to Britain's pre-WWII aversion to confront Germany's increasing militarism and to PM Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler? Something is wrong with that figuration.

The Dark Knight Rises... and Protects the 1%?

... or has Christopher Nolan crafted a movie critiquing private property and its distribution? I'm not sure how this will go over with the Occupy Wall Street crowd, but from the trailer the film looks good, and Anne Hathaway is the best Catwoman since Julie Newmar.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Golden Ages of Travel Writing

Last week I began to wonder whether we are about to enter another golden age of travel writing, which may be another way of saying that we "live in interesting times." The world is in turmoil, in fact we may be at a major inflection point. There is upheaval in the Middle East, changes that once looked promising and now look like a long, grim road to an uncertain future. This week upheaval in Russia as well, and possibly in the near future in China too. There are a number of a small wars on the verge of commencing (here's hoping they don't). Some smaller, long-running conflicts continue. Travel is cheap and, for better or worse, where it once took Patrick Leigh Fermor a year to walk from the hook of Holland to Istanbul, one can now fly there from London in a few hours for a few quid... though perhaps something may be lost in that translation of time and space. For one thing, where we come from life is not cheap, though it is in some other parts of the world. For all of us, wherever we are, it is however short, as I was reminded by a friend just today. I now recall another time when this was brought home so sharply to me, when I was traveling in La Mancha, on a plain southwest of the town of Soria. The woman I was traveling with told me to stop the car and led me on a hike up the single hill on a wide plane... a mountain it began to seem, after a half hour of walking. Atop it was a castle fortress that had crumbled half to the ground and from which one could see on that clear summer day a score of miles across the plain.

"This must be what... five hundred years old?" I'd guessed that it had been destroyed during the reconquista.

She laughed, laughed knowingly, since she'd grown up near here and had gone to university in Valladolid.

"A thousand?!" Something shifted underfoot.

She shook her head. "Older."

"Whose was it?" She shrugged her shoulders.

That was a lesson, but the real lesson she offered there I missed and did not figure for some years.

Aside from cheap airfare, travel now is however wholly different in that with smart phones and email and globalization one never wholly leaves the known world behind. That's too bad, but you can always turn it all off and tell your loved ones the reception was bad.

This month in preparation for my own travels in the new year, to Mexico and Rome and elsewhere, I've been reading "Paddy" Fermor, Robert Byron (not the lord and poet, but the writer and traveler whose rucksack Fermor borrowed when he set off on his own tramp in 1933), along with Norman Lewis and other British travel writers.

One editor, Lorin Stein, recently noted that the English tend to be good at this genre, and its true that late Victorian British travel literature, and the work of those British writers mentioned above is superb, but in fact Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi," a best-seller in its time and a work to put alongside his classic "Huck Finn," is a kind of travel book, and I've just downloaded to kindle Twain's "Innocents Abroad." Hemingway's short stories and novels, though fictional, could be considered travel literature. A few years after he published the Knickerbocker Tales, his quintessential New York work, Washington Irving lived in Granada, Spain, working in the consulate there and residing in one of the apartments carved out of the ruins of the Alhambra. His account, "Tales of the Alhambra" (1832), is essential reading before visiting. Through Irving one can see that, the most beautiful palace in the world, not as it stands today, wonderfully restored, but instead lit up at night, spectral, illumined by the dozens of open-air fires that gypsies and other neighbors made and huddled around in the ruined palace's crumbling rooms left open to the sky. Oh, and then of course there is Paul Theroux, author of the classic about train travel through China is still at work today.

In future posts I'll be writing about Camilo Jose Cela, the early twentieth-century Spanish novelist and travel writer, and Cees Nooteboom, the contemporary Dutch novelist and travel writer, but for now here is a wonderful reminiscence by Josh Lieberman, from the Paris Review Daily, about a great American magazine, Holiday, that once published travel literature for a wide audience.

Here’s how it begins. You are in a bookstore on the main drag of a small town. You walk along the mystery and western paperback sections, and then you see a wicker basket overflowing with Life magazines. You idly flip through the stack because you know Life was once an important cultural force but have never seen the magazine in person. The copies of Life are musty and torn, and in the middle of the heap you come across something called Holiday. It has the same heft as Life, more than a foot tall and surprisingly heavy, but in place of a black-and-white photograph on the cover there is a colorful swirling yellow illustration of the sun and the words “California Without Cliches.” The magazine is from 1965 and you think it would look good on your coffee table. Also the ads are campy and fun (“San Diego Is a See-Do Vacationland!”), so you buy the magazine—why not, it’s only a few bucks—and take it home. You turn on the TV and half watch Seinfeld as you flip through for the ads. Then you come upon “Notes from a Native Daughter,” the Joan Didion essay you read in college but don’t really remember. You read how California is only five hours from New York by jet but really that is just a delusion: “California is somewhere else.” Now you are somewhere else. Seinfeld ends and another Seinfeld begins and you read the entire essay and then discover a piece by Ray Bradbury, your old pal from high school English. You read his rhapsodic paean to Disneyland (“No beatniks here. No Cool people with Cool faces pretending not to care, thus swindling themselves out of life or any chance for life”), and you think that’s pretty good, too. You head back to the bookstore to see if they have any more issues of Holiday.

Whenever I mention to someone that I’ve started collecting old issues of Holiday, the excellent yet forgotten monthly travel magazine that was born after World War II and lived until the late seventies, the response generally falls between bafflement and irritation. “Why would you do that?” people ask, as though I’ve just admitted to hoarding old shoehorns or something truly sinister.

Holiday was composed of almost all long-form travel essays—it was not, like many modern travel magazines, list after list of where to eat, shop, and sleep. (There would be little point or pleasure in reading a 1957 Holiday if it were just about where to get the best goulash.) A handful of the pieces are dated, but, like the greatest travel writing, many are timeless. After all, plenty of people still read The Great Railway Bazaar and Travels with Charley, not to mention the roughly 150-year-old Innocents Abroad.

The most puzzling thing about the lost history of Holiday is that the magazine published so many famous writers: Joseph Heller, Irwin Shaw, Arthur C. Clarke, E. B. White, Arthur Miller, Gay Talese, Paul Bowles, Steinbeck, Saroyan, Kerouac, Cheever, O’Hara, Bellow, Thurber, Faulkner.

But more than the essays by major writers, what I find most fascinating about Holiday is the articles by little-known, or totally unknown, authors. In my first issue of Holiday... I came upon an essay by Romain Gary.

Gary’s essay, published in 1967, is a relatively straightforward travelogue about Guadeloupe, the southernmost archipelago in the Caribbean, but it ends with one of those anecdotes you find yourself recalling at odd intervals in the following days and weeks. As part of Gary’s trip he plans to visit an old Royal Air Force buddy from whom he hasn’t heard in twenty years...

Read the rest of that tale, and the whole of Lieberman's wonderful piece HERE.

And see Paris Review editor Lorin Stein's indefensible characterization of travel writing as an English genre HERE. I encourage you to give him a piece of your mind on that score. Their comment section is open, his email address is available.

Some hot-links to the books mentioned here:



Washington Irving's TALES OF THE ALHAMBRA.



Cees Nooteboom's ROADS TO SANTIAGO.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Oliver St. Clair Franklin on Leadership... and Jazz

Jazz FM recently broadcast a show featuring my friend Oliver St. Clair Franklin O.B.E., the Vice Chairman of Electronic Ink, the Honorary British Consul for Philadelphia, a one-time investment executive instrumental in bringing growth to the new South Africa as it emerged in the 1990s, and a man deeply involved in the civic affairs of my hometown, Philadelphia. It was a jazz-centric "Desert Island Disks." The opening track is one of my old favorites by Grover Washington Jr, the Philly jazz master who also played years ago at the Main Point coffee house.

Franklin is particularly interesting on the leadership style of London mayor Boris Johnson, the eloquent, witty mayor of London, about whom you'll be hearing a great deal, given that he'll be hosting the Olympics next year.

The program is now posted HERE. The tunes are great, as are Oliver Franklin's pearls of wisdom, about leadership, and the challenges of juggling the intricacies to make a city work.

From Pakistan: A Modern and Moderate Voice

In Washington, discourse has been noisy about this being the noisiest of eras. In Pakistan, the decibel level has been rising too, especially since the NATO incident, and in a place where such can have deadly consequences. It was happy therefore to come across, via a friend's facebook feed, an op-ed from such a modern, moderate voice as free-lance writer Huma Yusuf. Her piece, "In the Realm of Fear," was published this week in DAWN:

The world has heard a collective Pakistani howl, further amplified by dozens of private television channels, Twitter feeds, Facebook status updates and text messages. But listen more closely, and the silence seems even more deafening than the noise. The more precarious Pakistan’s domestic and geopolitical position becomes, the longer is the list of what not to say.
You wouldn’t think it while surfing channels or the Internet, but censorship is making a major comeback — not only as a political tactic, but also as a way of life.
The decision by the All Pakistan Cable Operators Association to stop broadcasting international news channels that air ‘anti-Pakistan’ material is only the latest shenanigan in a growing list of transgressions aimed at making Pakistanis see no evil, hear no evil. In a different world, the Pakistani public would have been relieved to see the uncomfortable issue of the ‘double game’, addressed in a recent BBC documentary titled Secret Pakistan, taken out of the mouths of Washington heavyweights and placed in the realm of reliable journalism.
In that other world, Pakistanis might have used the findings of BBC journalists to trigger a reasoned national debate about why our country finds its foreign policy in such a bind. Rather than reconsider the wisdom of Pakistan’s strategic decisions, we have chosen to ban the channel, thereby taking one step closer to the deluded isolationism that states such as Iran have perfected.
Pakistanis may be laughing at our authorities’ clumsy attempts to censor content, but there is nothing funny about a society intent on silencing itself. Talk-show hosts banter, bloggers blog, twits tweet, but this active public discourse often seeks to silence, rather than engage, voices of dissent. More Pakistanis are making themselves heard than ever before, but this collective noise drowns out rather than develops multiple perspectives. Say something contrary on the comment thread of a blog and strident voices will rally to label you a CIA spy, Hindu or Zionist.
But let’s be honest: the strictest censorship is currently being enforced in our most private spaces — dining rooms, office cubicles, private cars. As Pakistani society becomes more extreme, polarised and moralistic, people are becoming equally careful about what they say in private — amongst friends, family members and colleagues — as in public, on air, or in print. Those who were appalled by Salmaan Taseer’s assassination, but couldn’t denounce Mumtaz Qadri vociferously enough; those who believe an amicable bilateral relationship with the US is to Pakistan’s benefit, but dare not praise Washington in the midst of jingoistic ire; those who think Imran Khan is dangerously soft on extremist groups, but fear being labelled cynics or
traitors; those who believe Ahmadis should be allowed to practise their faith freely, but say little for fear of what might be construed as blasphemy — these Pakistanis see the BBC ban as a logical extension of a cultural characteristic. The most basic criterion for a democracy to function is that all citizens believe they have a voice.

I look forward to hearing more from Yusuf. Read the whole thing HERE.

Monday, December 5, 2011

New York City Serenade, at The Main Point (1975)

Some friends have asked about the origin of this blog's name. Mostly, it's meant to suggest that this on-line journal aims to address the main point, whether a cultural or political issue, of any given day that I write... or any given week, since I've been a sporadic blogger.

That said, as one friend just noted, it also pays homage to a coffee house, called The Main Point, in Bryn Mawr, PA, that was at the center of the folk and rock scenes in the Philadelphia area in the 1970s. For such a small venue they had an extraordinary line-up of performers. I grew up nearby though I was too young to ever go, but I still listen to the music, including this bootleg of Bruce Springsteen's "New York City Serenade" from 1975.

Hey vibes man, hey jazz man play me your serenade
Any deeper blue and you're playin' in your grave

Billy, he's down by the railroad tracks, sittin' low in the back seat of his
Diamond Jackie, she's so intact, she falls so softly beneath him,
Jackie's heels are stacked, Billy's got cleats on his boots,
Together they're gonna boogaloo down Broadway and come back home with the loot,
It's midnight in Manhattan, this is no time to get cute, it's a mad dog's
So walk tall, or baby don't walk at all.
Fish lady, fish lady, fish lady she baits them tenement walls,
She won't take cornerboys, ain't got no money, and they're so easy,
I said, "Hey baby won't you take my hand, walk me down Broadway,
I'm a young man and I talk real loud, yeah, baby walk real proud for you.
So shake it away, so shake away your street life, shake away your city life,
And hook up to the train, hook up to the night train, hook it up hook up to the, hook up to the train,
But I know that she won't take the train, no she won't take the train,
No she won't take the train, no she won't take the train
She's afraid them tracks are gonna slow her down,
And when she turns this boy'll be gone
So long, sometimes you just gotta walk on.

Hey vibes man, hey jazz man play me your serenade
Any deeper blue and you're playin' in your grave
Save your notes, don't spend 'em on the blues boy,
Save your notes, don't spend 'em on the darlin' yearlin' sharp boy,
Straight for the church note ringin', vibes man sting a trash can
Listen to your junk man, listen to your junk man,
Listen to your junk man, listen to your junk man,
He's singin', singin', singin', singin'.
All dressed up in satin, walkin' past the alley.
Watch out for you junk man, watch out for your junk man,
Watch out for your junk man.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Microeconomics for Bovines

Sent to me, without attribution... and I'd really like to know who authored this variation because it's my favorite.
- J

You have 2 cows.
You give one to your neighbor.

You have 2 cows.
The State takes both and gives you some milk.

You have 2 cows.
The State takes both and sells you some milk.

You have 2 cows.
The State takes both and shoots you.

You have 2 cows.
The State takes both, shoots one, milks the other, and then throws the milk away.

You have two cows.
You sell one and buy a bull.
Your herd multiplies, and the economy grows.
You sell them and retire on the income.

You have two cows.
You sell three of them to your publicly listed company, using letters of credit opened by your brother-in-law at the bank, then execute a debt/equity swap with an associated general offer so that you get all four cows back, with a tax exemption for five cows.
The milk rights of the six cows are transferred via an intermediary to a Cayman Island Company secretly owned by the majority shareholder who sells the rights to all seven cows back to your listed company.
The annual report says the company owns eight cows, with an option on one more.
You sell one cow to buy a new president of the United States , leaving you with nine cows.
No balance sheet provided with the release.
The public then buys your bull.

You have two giraffes.
The government requires you to take harmonica lessons.

You have two cows.
You sell one, and force the other to produce the milk of four cows.
Later, you hire a consultant to analyze why the cow has dropped dead.

You have two cows.
You go on strike, organize a riot, and block the roads, because you
want three cows.

You have two cows.
You redesign them so they are one-tenth the size of an ordinary cow and produce twenty times the milk.
You then create a clever cow cartoon image called a Cowkimona and market it worldwide.

You have two cows, but you don't know where they are.
You decide to have lunch.

You have 5000 cows. None of them belong to you.
You charge the owners for storing them.

You have two cows.
You have 300 people milking them.
You claim that you have full employment, and high bovine productivity.
You arrest the newsman who reported the real situation.

You have two cows.
You worship them.

You have two cows.
Both are mad.

Everyone thinks you have lots of cows.
You tell them that you have none.
No-one believes you, so they bomb the ** out of you and invade your country.
You still have no cows, but at least you are now a Democracy.

You have two cows.
Business seems pretty good.
You close the office and go for a few beers to celebrate.

You have two cows.
The one on the left looks very attractive.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Relying on the Dream World

"Self-deception seems always to depend upon the dream world, because you would like to see what you have not yet seen rather than what you are now seeing. You will not accept that whatever is here now IS what is, nor are you willing to go with the situation as it is. Thus, self-deception always manifests itself in terms of trying to create or recreate a dream world, the nostalgia of the dream experience."

--Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

The Looming Conflict with Iran - America in Front?

From where I sit, it looks as if writer Amir Oren has buried his lede.

In an otherwise interesting article about the decades of friendship between Israel and Iran that preceded the subsequent three decades of hostility, Oren concludes with an interesting analysis of America's increasing antipathy toward the Iranian regime and its maneuvers:

Even more than the Israelis, the Americans are close to the boiling point vis-a-vis Iran, more because of its actions in Iraq than its nuclear efforts. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey issued warnings in this direction this week at a congressional hearing. On that very day - which was also the day that Gantz appeared in the Knesset - the head of the ruling Military Council in Egypt, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, hosted American Gen. James Mattis, head of CENTCOM, the U.S. Central Command, which covers Egypt and Iran, Iraq and Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

It will not come as a surprise if in the coming weeks, in response to the incrimination of the Revolutionary Guards for a large attack on the American forces pulling out of Iraq, the Americans will land a warning blow on an Iranian target. The table is wobbling and some of the options are in fact under it.

Quite simply it's evident, even to the Obama administration, that the clerical regime did not respond to the president's overtures to dialogue, his "extension of an open hand," when he came into office. More and more it appears a mistake for the Obama administration not to voice support for Iran's Green movement, crushed by the regime in 2009. Secretary of State Clinton recently said, in defense of the administration's silence, that that had been according to the wishes of the Green movement's leaders. Perhaps this is so. And yet here we are.

Read the whole article HERE, and do read to the end. For Americans, Oren has buried his lede.

Update: On reflection, regarding Oren’s depiction of Americans being at the boiling point, I’m sure Martin Dempsey and Leon Panetta are people who weigh and calculate matters. US use of force is not undertaken lightly, nor without contemplation. Nonetheless, Oren’s piece makes interesting reading.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

G. Bruce Boyer - An Ivy Leaguer's Lament

... and it's all about clothes, I'm afraid, but it's witty:

Boyer writes:

"When I was growing up back in the late 1950s, the matter of dress for young men was relatively simple. There were basically three types of clothing stores. There was of course the traditional store for the traditional American business look: conservatively cut suits, safe shirts, and discreet foulard or striped neckwear. Then there was the somewhat “sharper” store, a more courant version of the trad store. Finally there was the Ivy League shop.... For most, the subtleties of double-breasted jackets and grenadine neckwear, of suede town shoes, enameled cuff links, covert cloth chesterfields, and cashmere cabled hosiery were not imaginable. But then neither were exterior logos, Italian designers, or microfibers. There also didn’t seem to be the questions of what to wear when. We certainly knew when the occasion called for a tie, and gym clothes were confined to the gym. It was, as I say, a simpler time."

Read the whole thing at A Continuous Lean.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

NASA Closes a Chapter... while the Los Alamos Fire is Seen from Space

NASA is in transition, no longer reaching for the heavens. Tomorrow's lift-off marks the last mission for the Space Shuttle program.

Meanwhile, here's a snapshot taken from the Space Station on June 28th of the wild fires encroaching on the Los Alamos nuclear lab. I'm awaiting the photographer's identification. I understand he commented: "Looks a little smokey down there."

Indeed. And we look a little tiny. Sometimes it's good we are reminded. But we also need to reach for those heavens.

More about the end of the Space Shuttle program HERE.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Game of the Lost Kingdoms - Chitral VS Gilgat

The polo game between Chitral and Gilgat has been played for the centuries. Indeed Gilgate is considered the birthplace of polo. The game takes place every summer, in July, near the Shandur pass. At 3734 meters, this polo field is the highest in the world.

Hat-tip to Susanna Forrest and to W(EI)BPCT, the official website of The World (Excluding India) Bicycle Polo Championship Tournament. Follow the W(EI)BPCT here.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

James Salter on Irwin Shaw

David L. Ulin, musing about the happy change in the weather, was reminded of Irwin Shaw's much anthologized "Girls in Their Summer Dresses." Shaw is largely forgotten now, his literary achievements oddly overshadowed by the enormous commercial success of his late novels, and yet his short stories not only hold up but are superb. Ulin's post prompted a F'book friend to mention James Salter's remembrance of Shaw in "Burning the Days," Salter's gorgeous if pointillistic memoir. Salter is, of course, the man of the moment, or rather of the month, as elaborated here. I took his memoir down from the shelf and read:

Time with its broad thumb has blurred nothing. He was forty-eight that year and already late for a dinner he was going to on Avenue Foch. He gave me the address—come afterwards for coffee, he said. A few minutes later, paying the bill, he left. Thus I discovered that Paris. There were worlds above, I learned, but there are also worlds below. I found Avenue Foch—the name itself has only a faint resonance now, the century is ending and into its crypt all such things will vanish, marshals of France as well as unknown poilus—and I also found the Île Ste.-Louis, rue de Grenelle, Place St.-Sulpice, and apartments and restaurants as well as other towns and regions, not always in France, because of him. He was my unknowing Virgil, brief in his descriptions, irrefutable, fond of drink. Years later I heard him give some advice: never be in awe of anyone. He was not in awe of Europe. He tossed his coat on her couch.

There may be, as well, a shadow-like depiction of Shaw in "Via Doloroso," a short story in Salter's first collection, "Dusk." From that story, I suspected that Shaw, for Salter, was not so much a mentor as a representative figure of a writer, one to compare himself against, admire, and whose example and aims he would in some measure turn away from. Or perhaps he took Shaw's advice to heart, never to be in awe of anyone.

The Paris Review, who originally published another of Salter's stark classic stories, have made available on-line "Am Strand von Tangere." It shows well how in turning away from the example of Shaw, in taking another route, he become such a fascinating writer. It begins:

Barcelona at dawn. The hotels are dark. All the great avenues are pointing to the sea.

The city is empty. Nico is asleep. She is bound by twisted sheets, by her long hair, by a naked arm which falls from beneath her pillow. She lies still, she does not even breathe.

In a cage outlined beneath a square of silk that is indigo blue and black, her bird sleeps, Kalil. The cage is in an empty fireplace which has been scrubbed clean. There are flowers beside it and a bowl of fruit. Kalil is asleep, his head beneath the softness of a wing.

Malcolm is asleep. His steel-rimmed glasses which he does not need—there is no prescription in them—lie open on the table. He sleeps on his back and his nose rides the dream world like a keel. This nose, his mother’s nose or at least a replica of his mother’s, is like a theatrical device, a strange decoration that has been pasted on his face. It is the first thing one notices about him. It is the first thing one likes. The nose in a sense is a mark of commitment to life. It is a large nose which cannot be hidden. In addition, his teeth are bad.

At the very top of the four stone spires which Gaudi left unfinished the light has just begun to bring forth gold inscriptions too pale yet to read. There is no sun. There is only a white silence. Sunday morning. The early mornings of Spain. A mist covers all of the hills which surround the city. The stores are closed.

Nico has come out on the terrace after her bath. The towel is wrapped around her, water still glistens on her skin.

“It’s cloudy,” she says. “It’s not a good day for the sea.”

Malcolm looks up.

“It may clear,” he says.

Morning. Villa-Lobos is playing on the phonograph. The cage is on a stool in the doorway. Malcolm lies in a canvas chair eating an orange. He is in love with the city. He has a deep attachment to it based in part on a story by Paul Morand and also on an incident which occurred in Barcelona years before: one evening in the twilight Antonio Gaudi, mysterious, fragile, even saintlike, the city’s great architect, was hit by a streetcar as he walked to church. He was very old, white beard, white hair, dressed in the simplest of clothes. No one recognized him. He lay in the street without even a cab to drive him to the hospital. Finally he was taken to the charity ward. He died the day Malcolm was born.

Against all advice, I'm in awe. Read the whole thing here.

Read Ulin on Shaw here (hat-tip Jane Ciabattari and Anna March).

Shaw's story "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses" may be read here.

The Paris Review Daily Glides into James Salter Month

It's James Salter month at The Paris Review Daily, and this coincides with the magazine's blog coming into its own as the model for literary blogs, truly worth a daily read.

At the dawn of the World Wide Web, or the brower-surfable web, in 1994 or 1995, the magazine launched its first on-line incarnation, courtesy of the multi-media company Voyager/Criterion Collection. Really, I think it was simply a page with a few covers, a list of contents, and an address to send a subscription check. Nevertheless, it was chosen by WIRED magazine as one of the top ten sites on the web. Competition wasn't exactly stiff, as there were at that time only a few thousand sites on the web.

All these years after, including a period when the magazine disappeared from the web, and the recent years when there was a handsome site used only for announcements, The Paris Review Daily has become something of another order. In June, new Editor Lorin Stein's introductory note announced:
Since its founding in 1953, The Paris Review has devoted itself to publishing “the good writers and good poets,” regardless of creed or school or name-recognition. In that time the Review has earned a reputation as the chief discoverer of what is newest and best in contemporary writing.

But a quarterly only comes out…well, you know. We have been looking for a way to keep in touch with our readers between issues, and to call attention to our favorite writers and artists in something close to real time. If the Review embodies a sensibility, this Daily will try, in a casual and haphazard and at times possibly frivolous way, to put that sensibility into words.

The first few months began haltingly, and frankly a bit sophomorically. Elizabeth Bowen once said the she tried to not use a word more than once on a single page. In the first few weeks of the relaunched website there was a scatological word or five in every single post... but then it was, after all, Terry Southern month.

The site, under the direction of the wonderfully-named Thessaly La Force, has since expanded to showcase original literature, commentary on design, biography, television, translation, as well as a whimsical advice column, and links to interesting articles on other sites. The sports writing has been surprisingly good... but then the magazine's Maximum Editor George Plimpton did his best writing about sports... or rather used sports to leap into his best writing, a sort of mnemonic device, as he might have said, and did whenever he asked a writer their own gateway to creativity. I especially commend to you Louisa Thomas on the US Open and Will Frears on the recent World Cup... topnotch sport reportage. I only wish there was a bit more about poetry and poets... those "unacknowledged legislators" left unacknowledged again.

But I've especially enjoyed the series of tributes to James Salter, American letters finest living stylist. Of particular note, Louisa Thomas, again, on James Salter's writing about skiing is a fitting tribute to the master. She writes... and I hope I'll be forgiven by TPR Daily for quoting at such length... but it is good:

I read There and Then: The Travel Writing of James Salter for the parts about skiing the way one reads A Sport and a Pastime for the sex. In fact Salter writes about skiing the way he writes about sex: as something luminous, clean, somehow moral. This was a few years ago, when I was obsessed with skiing; I thought about it all the time. In Salter I sensed a sympathetic hunger, the longing for something transcendent, pointless, permanent, and always vanishing. There aren’t many good authors who write about skiing. Hemingway does a little. Salter does it a lot, as a way of writing about something else, just as writing about sex is a way of writing about other things: beauty, courage, obsession, mastery—mostly, someone else’s mastery.

When I skied, or when I thought about skiing, a beautiful skier would stop me in my tracks. He would slide over a lip into a bowl or glade, or drop into a little chute out of bounds. His solid body would become liquid, slipping through the snow, as he found the fall line. I would watch his back and then fly after him, tracking him, fearless and afraid. “What enables you to learn?” Salter asks. “It’s simple: desire.” [...]

“There is always that lone skier,” Salter writes, “oddly dressed, off to the side past the edge of the run, going down where it is steepest and the snow untouched, in absolute grace, marking each dazzling turn with a brief jab of the pole—there is always him, the skier you cannot be.” What Salter is describing is not quite jealousy; it is awe. Awe can create a sense of obligation. In the presence of that skier you can never be, skiing becomes a devotional act. [...] To read Salter on the skiing life is to be aware of this life’s reward: the feeling of a turn, the glide and cut, the nervy edges. The speed and focus. The sun on the mountains. The feeling of being free. [...]

I read “The Skiing Life” now and I miss the skiing life. It is, of course, a life I never really had. Two years ago I did go skiing again, in Jackson Hole. On run after run, I was extraordinarily happy. On the chairlifts gliding up, I looked out for that girl, that beautiful skier. I wanted to see her very badly. I saw more patrolmen pulling stretchers than I could count.

At night I slept on a bench in a cabin in Grand Teton National Park. In the mornings we heard the avalanche warnings. I thought of Meta Burden, a beautiful skier who had died in Aspen in a flood of snow. Salter had written about her. She was a “goddess,” he said. “They dug her out in the dark and carried her body down.”

See The Paris Review Daily HERE. Consider bookmarking it, or even reading it daily.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Arab Uprisings... Arrive in Damascus

After Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the regime in Syria may be next in line. The video below is from yesterday. Weeks ago the Assad regime outlawed protests and made those arrested sign pledges not to assemble again. A very mild response compared to thirty years ago when the current president's father flattened the village of Hama and killed 20,000 to put down an Islamist uprising there.

If any of my readers understand what the protesters are saying, please translate in the comment section.

Henry Jackson... a man for this moment

... who said:

"If you believe in the cause of freedom, then proclaim it, live it and protect it, for humanity's future depends on it."

Foreign Affairs

Freedom is not abstraction when there is a boot stomping on your face. If you care about that cause, this is what happened today...

Middle East

Al Jazeera reports: Bahrain forces attack protesters

BBC reports: Rare Syrian protests in Damascus

The Washington Post reports: Israel intercepts ship it says carried Iranian weapons bound for Gaza

North Africa

The Telegraph reports: Libya: World Leaders reject military intervention

The New York Times reports: Libyan Oil Buys Allies for Gaddafi

The Wall Street Journal reports: Gaddafi Closes In on Rebels

Al Jazeera reports: Gaddafi tells west to stay out of Libya


BBC reports: Libya: UK no-fly zone proposal to enter UN talks


The Telegraph reports: General Patraeus: US to begin sending troops home from Afghanistan in July

The Washington Post reports: Clinton visits Cairo’s Tahrir Square to show support for Egyptian democratic transition


BBC reports: G8 fails to agree on no-fly zone


The New York Times reports: Emperor, in Rare Address, Expresses Deep Concern Over Nuclear Crisis

BBC reports: North Korea ready to talk Nuclear


The Telegraph reports: Four killed in Ivory Coast attack

Hat-tip The Henry Jackson Society for many of these stories. About Henry Jackson HERE.

Spirit of the Times

I'm not sure I agree with all of this, but it sounds familiar and there is some wisdom therein:

"The budget should be balanced, the treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance."
- Cicero (55 BC)

Haruki Murakami's NORWEGIAN WOOD... now a film

Below... the trailer for Anh Hung Tran’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s coming of age novel NORWEGIAN WOOD. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, following on his eery work on THERE WILL BE BLOOD, has written the film’s score.

Can't wait for a US distributor to step up so I can see the whole thing in cinemas.

Hat tip Christine Spines.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Apropos That Metropolis's Uncovering... Donovan's ATLANTIS

It's now evident that the tsunami that hit the north of Japan was immensely more destructive and deadly than the actual 8.9 earthquake that triggered the wall of water. A bow in their direction for Japan's strict building codes, careful preparedness, and fortitude in these times. It's heart-wrenching, especially when one considers what a wonderful people they are, and what a great country they've become.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, archeologists working just north of Cadiz, Spain, believe they've found, submerged in an inland marsh, the remains of another tsunami-hit land, the supposedly-mythical Kingdom of Atlantis. This time the find looks credible. Reuters reports:

A U.S.-led research team may have finally located the lost city of Atlantis, the legendary metropolis believed swamped by a tsunami thousands of years ago in mud flats in southern Spain. "This is the power of tsunamis," head researcher Richard Freund told Reuters.... To solve the age-old mystery, the team used a satellite photo of a suspected submerged city to find the site just north of Cadiz, Spain. There, buried in the vast marshlands of the Dona Ana Park, they believe that they pinpointed the ancient, multi-ringed dominion known as Atlantis. The team of archeologists and geologists in 2009 and 2010 used a combination of deep-ground radar, digital mapping, and underwater technology to survey the site.

Plato, writing in the 4th century BC, described Atlantis as "an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Hercules that in a single day and night disappeared into the depths of the sea."

"In front of the Pillars of Hercules," meaning (from Plato's point of view in Athens) west of Gibraltar... the Cadiz area, pretty much.

In 1965, the bardic Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan offered his own fair account of Atlantis's disappearance in the talky prologue to his classic song... which really gets going around 1:50.

Donovan's song, by the way, was memorably used to very different effect by Martin Scorcese as a flower-child counterpoint to the most violent scene in his masterpiece "Goodfellas."

The Reuters account here.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

US Secretary of State: ""The world is watching the situation in Libya with alarm."


The mad Libyan dictator Colonel Kaddafi addresses the world thusly:

"I want to show that I'm in Tripoli and not in Venezuela. Do not believe the channels belonging to stray dogs," he said, under a large umbrella, leaning out of the front seat of a van.

The video below is in its way truly alarming.

UPDATE: Kaddafi has just pledged to "cleanse Libya house by house." This man has to be stopped NOW. Where the heck is President Obama? Liberal internationalism... is it not alive?!

UPDATE 2: As Lee Smith says in "The President's Deafening Silence on Libya":

The Obama administration would do well to exercise some moral clarity regarding a man whose personal demeanor has long symbolized the most repressively autocratic and obscurantist features of Arab political culture—a man who reportedly has now, among other things, dispatched his air force to put down the people he rules. The White House’s silence is perhaps explained by the idea that a public statement will do more harm than good....If there really is an argument in the administration about what to say and do concerning Libya, we can hope that means that there is at least one faction in the White House that sees the world, and America’s role in it, clearly. U.S. support does not undermine a cause; when it is a factor at all, it lends prestige to it. In any case, neither Qaddafi nor the opposition is waving Old Glory. It is a Libyan affair, a Libyan conflict fought over Libyan issues, with the power to rule Libya in the balance. The White House’s task is to shape events in Libya to suit U.S. interests—and silence doesn’t cut it.

Read the whole thing here.

Monday, February 21, 2011

More Eating the News

... some useful links for top stories of the day:

Gaddafi's son warns of civil war, video via al Jazeera.

The US accuses the UK of legitimizing Gaddafi, via the Telegraph. Seems to me a team effort, though Britain must have second thoughts about their investment in the regime, the release of the Lockerbie terrorist Megrahi.

Saudis offer Bahrain rulers support against opposition, via Jerusalem Post. (I'm astonished the Saudis are not keeping their heads down.)

If true, this is BIG... but it seems unreliable to me... US warships box in Iranian flotilla, delay Suez passage, read HERE.

EU pledges support to Arab World in Transition, via NYT.

Security forces quell opposition protests in Tehran, at the Washington Post.

Top blogger Michael Totten recounts his trip to Libya.

Israel monitoring Suez-bound Iran ships, but sees no real threat, via Haaretz.

A look at Germany's illegal sale of technology to Iran, here.

A series of excellent articles by Lee Smith at the Weekly Standard.

Stacy McCain responds to the NYT's assertion that this is "the end of blogging." The NYT are authoritative on a number of things, but not that.

Blogging During Times of Twitter

Funny to return after some months away from this space only to learn that, according to the NYT, we now live in the time of Twitter. I'd been away finishing a film script and supporting the release of another movie, a truly ancient medium apparently, and suddenly now everything has changed. Frankly, I'm not buying it, and so we blog on...

The other day I was discussing electronic media with a manuscript archivist from Yale's Beinecke Library. When I assembled Paris Review's archives for sale to a research library in 1999 there were an array of artifacts: handwritten postcards and manuscripts, typed manuscripts, international cables between the NY and Paris offices, heavy-bound books recording notes from business phone calls, corrected printers' galleys, reel-to-reel tapes, cassette tapes and so forth. At the last moment, I copied two of the hard drives form the office computers and threw those in as well. The libraries who examined the archives said it was the first time they'd had to consider handling digital archives and they had no idea how best to preserve them. Last week I asked the Beinecke curator about this and she said, "We have all sorts of files composed on processing programs that aren't available anymore. Word Star?"

Friends, in the long term the odds are on objects. In the meantime, we discourse in prose on electronic media.

Stacy McCain refutes the NYT's claim that blogging has died. (The NYT, by the way, attempt to use terms of art in suggesting that blogging on Facebook is not blogging.)

Certainly I've found some useful links on twitter, and some have been composing "six word novels" but by and large it's a river of gibberish, designed to induce ADD. Consider this twitter from a Twitterer considered by the Independent to be one of the top in the UK:

There are many leads to good information here, but there is less information here than a old fashioned news ticker would provide, and what has happened to the voice of this fine novelist? Nowhere.

Give us the blog.

The Main Point, and Its Mission

When I started The Main Point blog I described its purpose as a place for observations on culture and politics, news, very short stories, poems, photos, missives from friends.

On return to the blog I notice that balance has been out of whack and that my first post is entirely consumed with current events and conflict. As a former editor of a literary magazine and an arts journalist such had not been intention at the outset, but it is perhaps a reflection of the times we live in.

With the indulgence of my few followers, and since some of you are new to TMP, I'm going to take another look back now at a few earlier posts more in line with my original intentions and with, um, my actual areas of expertise. So herewith a kind of greatest hits for TMP:

The great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa is best known for his samurai epics, but in the 1950s he was fascinated by hard-boiled crime stories and noir. In Hollywood there is now a cult fascination, led by Martin Scorcese, with Kurosawa's movie "High and Low." "The Bad Sleep Well" is worth similar reverence and has Shakespearean dimensions, but my favorite from that period is "Stray Dog," thoughts on which HERE.

Andres Velasco, until recently the Chilean economics minister, spoke with me in an interview for Monocle magazine, about the proper role of stimulus spending and his notion of counter-cyclical fiscal policies, HERE.

A short story? A very short story... Ernest Hemingway wrote the saddest, and it can be read HERE.

TMP received a missive from the eminent psychoanalyst and business consultant Michael Maccoby on his mentor Erich Fromm, HERE.

Extraordinary times? This month I'm reminded of 1848. Usually though I think back to 1958 and what that must have been like.

Tony Curtis died this winter. Years ago I interviewed Billy Wilder for The Paris Review and he recounted directing Curtis in "Some Like It Hot," as recounted HERE.

A collection of memories about my old boss George Plimpton HERE.

My favorite wine critic Jay McInerney remembered a then-recent bottle HERE.

A number of fascinating missives from novelist and military historian Caleb Carr HERE. Particularly of interest... Carr's speculation on Gunter Grass's life in the 10th SS Panzer division during WWII.

An archive of contributed poetry HERE, including work by Charles Wright, Pierre Martory, and the heroic Jeannie Vanasco.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Look Back at Hard Questions on Iraq and Afghanistan

I'm back, then. Returned after an extended hiatus to finish a film adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel, and to support the release of "The Garden of Eden."

I'd like to start by taking a look back at some hard questions I rhetorically posed in July 2008, during the run-up to the presidential election, on my Standpoint magazine blog to then-Senator Obama. Time changes one's perspective. Iraq is now comparatively stable and may, with its scrappy educated population and its untapped oil wealth, have a promising economic future. Afghanistan continues to be a challenge in terms of conflict, politics and especially development. With both countries there should be no easy answers. Here are the hard questions I posed in July 2008:

1. Why does Senator Obama advocate a surge of troops in Afghanistan though he considers a surge of troops in Iraq to have been a mistake?
2. Why is a stable Afghanistan crucial to US interests while a stable Iraq is not?
3. How long does Senator Obama expect to keep troops in Afghanistan?
4. Why is an open-ended commitment in Afghanistan manageable while the same in Iraq is not?
5. How much does Senator Obama expect to spend rebuilding Afghanistan?
6. Why is rebuilding Afghanistan affordable while rebuilding Iraq is not?
7. Why does Senator Obama consider the ethno-sectarian issues in Iraq to be nearly intractable while in Afghanistan they are something we can overcome?
8. If leaving Iraq will make the Iraqi government behave more responsibly, how will an increased presence in Afghanistan affect the Afghan government?
9. Why does Senator Obama advocate a "surge in diplomacy" and multilateralism in Iraq while simultaneously advocating unilateral action in the Pakistani tribal areas?
10. How large of a "residual force" will be left in Iraq and for how long?

UPDATE: Some of these challenging questions are addressed in a new book I've just run across by Bing West entitled "The Wrong War: Strategy and Way Out of Afghanistan." A comprehensive review, admiring with caveats, is offered by Andrew Exum HERE.