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The Daily Briefing 1/11/05
1 The spectre haunting the Arctic
The Arctic has been much in the news of late because of the rapid pace of global warming induced melting and the Bush administrations push to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. Peter Canby touches on both of those issues, and the prospect that oil supplies are running out, as he reviews a number of books and articles related to the area, which he visited. "Some argue, moreover, that the administration's intense emphasis on drilling in the refuge may be a deliberate deception. For many environmentalists, the refuge is an ideal, pure wilderness. In his book, Jonathan Waterman refers to the wildlife refuge as a "Garden" and "our last natural paradise." Those who question the administration's motives have speculated that the controversy over drilling in the refuge has been manipulated as a distraction from more significant but less emotional issues such as the pressing need to raise the fuel-consumption standards for vehicles. It may also divert attention from the administration's efforts to undermine the moratorium on drilling in federal coastal waters."
Canby, by the way, is the head of the legendary fact checking department of the New Yorker, so presumably this is an article that can be trusted. And he makes reference to the superb series of articles by Elizabeth Kolbert on global warming which TDB linked to at the time and can be found in Archives.
PETER CANBY/NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
2 Fantasy islands, real damage
Journalists around the world, including a few home growns, recently enjoyed junkets to Dubai to report on the billion-dollar fantasy tourist islands being built off the coast there - and if anyone of them had a sceptical question about the project, TDB didn't notice it. However Aljazeera (link below) has reported on the environmental damage the project has caused. "Environmentalists say the futuristic island developments have taken a heavy toll on the present ecosystem. The only known coral reef off the shores of Dubai was destroyed during the dredging work, turtle nesting sites have been destroyed, natural currents rerouted and silt has muddied what were crystal-clear waters, they say."
The New Yorker recently ran this slide show and commentary by Ian Parker about the "architectural weirdness of Dubai".
And still on Aljazeera, the International Herald Tribune reports on the launch of its international service, and wonders if it might have trouble selling ad space in the US market. "With the expected start of Al Jazeera International about six months away, the broadcaster faces some pressing questions: Given the notoriety of Al Jazeera, will the English-language service be able to persuade enough satellite and cable services to carry it, particularly in the U.S. market? Will advertisers sign up, or will they prefer to steer clear of associations with Al Jazeera?"
3 Reading up on Israel
The New Statesman has a special issue out on Israel featuring a collection of essays that TDB is still working through. Introduced by Mario Vargas Llosa, it includes pieces by Avi Shlaim, Robert Fisk, Samir el-Youssef and Haim Baram. Vargas Llosa describes a country that arouses extreme passions. "These bright democratic colours fade considerably, and indeed at times disappear, when we turn to the 1.4 million Israeli Arabs - Muslims and a minority of Christians - who make up 20 per cent of the population. In theory they are full citizens, with the same rights and duties as the Jews. But in practice they are not. They are subject to many dis-advantages and do not enjoy the same opportunities as Jewish citizens. Their access to public services, and even their physical movement, is often limited or prevented, with the argument that these measures are indispensable to the security of Israel."
For readers who are not NS subscribers, choose carefully which essay you would like to read first - the magazine allows you to read one each day for free.
4 Bush's new court nominee
He is a judge, and his record has been applauded by conservatives and attacked by liberals, so it looks like political business as usual in the US. The link below is the Post's news report, and above the article are links to other background pieces. SCOTUSblog, as usual, has some useful material; as does Andrew Sullivan.
THE WASHINGTON POST
5 Gulf of Tonkin incident
Faulty intelligence being used to justify a US war. It must be ... Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which President Lydon Johnson used to escalate American involvement. Historian Robert Hanyok reported in 2001 that the National Security Agency had deliberately distorted critical intelligence, but the agency has refused to release his findings, prompting Hanyok to speak publicly. "The historian's conclusion is the first serious accusation that communications intercepted by the N.S.A., the secretive eavesdropping and code-breaking agency, were falsified so that they made it look as if North Vietnam had attacked American destroyers on Aug. 4, 1964, two days after a previous clash. President Lyndon B. Johnson cited the supposed attack to persuade Congress to authorize broad military action in Vietnam, but most historians have concluded in recent years that there was no second attack."
And that is as good an excuse as any to mention again a must-read essay by Merlin Laird, Richard Nixon's Secretary of Defence, for Foreign Affairs.
6 A chance for Syria
With the NYTimes reporting that Britain, France and the US are threatening "Syria with economic penalties if it does not give full cooperation to the United Nations investigation that has identified high-ranking security officials as suspects in the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri", veteran Middle East commentator Patrick Seale in Lebanon's Daily Star (link below) reports that the situation is an opportunity for the country's president. Seale says president Bashar Assad should purge his government of "undisciplined barons of his regime", rival power centres many of whom he has inherited from is father's regime. "This is a moment of great fluidity in Syrian affairs. The present situation is untenable. The country is expecting some sort of a showdown between rival forces. In these difficult times, the inclination is to keep one's head down and not take sides. For example, leading luminaries of the Baath Party have not spoken. The new Regional Command formed after the party congress last summer has so far not issued a statement in support of Assad, who is the party's secretary-general."
PATRICK SEALE/THE DAILY STAR
7 Music censorship under Islam
A report on what sounds like a fascinating conference held in Beirut earlier this month on the censorship of music, looking mainly, but not exclusively at the Arab world. "Another Iranian woman singer described an album she had made entitled "Lullabies from the Axis of Evil," prompting an amusing dialogue between the Black-American rap historian Davey D, who was shocked that Iran was considered at home in the U.S. as an 'Axis of Evil' country. The three Iranians countered that they were supposed to consider America as "The Great Satan." Perhaps both epithets will, in time, be used by American and Iranian musicians as bridges of understanding to positively describe new styles of singing."
THE (BEIRUT) DAILY STAR
8 Dresden, its church and the fire bombing
Like the proverbial festering sore, the decision by Bomber Command to fire bomb Dresden in the last months of WWII still troubles the British memory of the war. As has been widely reported, the city's Baroque masterpiece, Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), has been rebuilt. Military historian John Keegan (link below) revisits the debate over the decision to bomb it (made famous by Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughter House 5") and says it still cannot be resolved. "In the last, remembering Dresden forces one to recognise that there is nothing nice or admirable about any war, and that victory, even a victory as desirable as that over Nazi Germany, is purchased at the cost of terrible human suffering, the suffering of the completely innocent as well as of their elders and their parents in arms. It is right to remember Dresden, but chiefly as a warning against repetition of the mass warfare that tortured Europe in the 20th century."
JOHN KEEGAN/THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
9 The problem with p*rn
Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas, with the best essay on the ethical problems posed by p*ornography you'll find this side of Andrea Dworkin. Importantly, Jensen brings the issue back to the personal and the cultural - the power p*rn has to shape our s*xual imagination. "No one can tell others where their sexual imaginations should go. Imaginations are unruly and notoriously resistant to attempts at control. But our imaginations come from somewhere. Our imaginations may be internal in some ways, but they are influenced by external forces. Can't we have a conversation about those influences? Are we so fragile that our sexual imaginations can't stand up to honest human conversation? It seems that propornography forces live with their own fear of sex, the fear of being accountable for their imaginations and actions. The defenses of pornography typically revert to the most superficial kind of liberal individualism that shuts off people from others, ignores the predictable harms of a profit seeking industry that has little concern for people, and ignores the way in which we all collectively construct the culture in which we live."
ROBERT JENSEN/AMERICAN S*XUALITY
10 Making a difference
Magazines and lists of bright people - there is a lot of it around at the moment. Prospect and Foreign Affairs magazine polled readers recently to find the world's leading intellectual. As noted previously, the winner was Noam Chomsky who is the subject of this interview and profile by Emma Brockes, who is no great fan. "It's clear, suddenly, that Chomsky's opinion can be as flaky as the next person's; he just states it more forcefully. I tell him that most people I know don't believe anything they read on the internet and he says, seemlessly, "you see, that's dangerous, too." His responses to criticism vary from this sort of mild absorption to, during our subsequent ratty exchange about Bosnia, the childish habit of trashing his opponents whom he calls "hysterical", "fanatics" and "tantrum throwers". I suspect that being on the receiving end of lots "half-crazed" nut-mail, as he calls it (he gets at least four daily emails accusing him of being a Mossad agent, a CIA agent or a member of al-Qaida), has made his defensive position rather entrenched."
And the link below is to the Smithsonian Magazine which has marked its 35th anniversary by revisiting articles about 35 scientists, artists and scholars it describes as "innovators of our time". They include Wynton Marsalis, Annie Leibovtiz, Bill Gates and Edward Wilson.
11 My quest for Bolero
Though blithely accepted in the mainstream, the cochlear implant remains a contentious issue in the deaf community. Michael Chorost has no doubts. He lost his hearing in June 2001 (his mother had rubella when she was pregnant) and began a quest to be able to again listen to a favourite piece of music, Bolero. (And no, not because he saw "10" as an adolescent.) Chorost's article is a journey with his efforts to update the implant's software to be able to hear it fully. "As it turns out, I couldn't have chosen a better piece of music for testing new implant software. Some biographers have suggested that Boléro's obsessive repetition is rooted in the neurological problems Ravel had started to exhibit in 1927, a year before he composed the piece. It's still up for debate whether he had early-onset Alzheimer's, a left-hemisphere brain lesion, or something else. But Boléro's obsessiveness, whatever its cause, is just right for my deafness. Over and over the theme repeats, allowing me to listen for specific details in each cycle. At 5:59, the soprano saxophones leap out bright and clear, arcing above the snare drum. I hold my breath. At 6:39, I hear the piccolos. For me, the stretch between 6:39 and 7:22 is the most Boléro of Boléro, the part I wait for each time. I concentrate. It sounds … right."
12 I hate the Brits
Fifty years living in England and Scot AA Gill still can't call himself English, nor love his adopted tribe. "The truth is I don't know what it is that makes the English so dreadfully English. So impervious to fondness, sympathy or attraction. If the English could award themselves one attribute it would be fairness, whether it's embodied in referees, High Court judges or gunboats. So perhaps it's a good place to start. But actually I think it's the wrong way round. What the English are eternally concerned with isn't fairness, it's unfairness. There's a constant mutter of grievance at the deviousness, mendacity and untrustworthy nature of the rest of the world."
AA GILL/THE SUNDAY TIMES
13 Horror in Washington, plotting in London.
TUESDAY BOOKS: a selection by donn wood.
If you loved 'The World According to Garp', 'The Hotel New Hampshire' and 'The Cider House Rules', read on. "First of all, in hardcover, Until I Find You is almost freakishly heavy. Just shy of 850 high quality pages, your arms fall asleep and your neck cranes to odd angles. If, like me, you read in bed at night before falling asleep, you are in danger of being KO'd by your reading material if you nod off. Physically, then, Until I Find You is a dangerous book." Linda L. Richards reviews John Irving's new book in January Magazine. "There are readers who would likely say this is a dangerous book in other ways, as well. The sexuality of children is always considered by some to be a verboten topic, no matter how delicately handled. There are elements in John Irving's 11th novel that will have some readers loathing it, while still others will likely want to use the book to start fires." After the misstep of, 'The Fourth Hand', Irving's "disastrous" novel of 2001, the author is back on track, says Richards. "While Until I Find You will clearly not be for everyone, it is a darkly beautiful book that will stand shoulder to shoulder with the best work this author has produced."
Have you ever put Decartes before de horse? Not funny? I'm aFreud you may be a little too Jung to get it. Okay, now that that's out of my system, in the New Statesman, John Gray reviews 'Descartes: the life of Rene Descartes and its place in his times' by A. C. Grayling, calling it a "... brilliantly illuminating reassessment of the philosopher and his times... ".
"It's a rare book that combines intellect with sensibility, that acknowledges emotion but doesn't rely on it to make its points. I can't help admiring Anne Manne for treating motherhood as seriously as it deserves, for delving into every angle-personal and political-with remarkable intelligence and thoroughness." Sarah Dowse in Eureka Street reviews 'Motherhood: How should we care for our children?' by Anne Manne. If you scroll down a little further on the same page, you'll also find Phillip Harvey's review of 'The Life and Death of Harold Holt' by Tom Frame. Would you believe it? Apparently Holt wasn't really taken away by a Chinese submarine. Well I never!
"No one writes about contemporary New York like Nadelson, and here she explores its rough edges: the old railways, the food markets in the South Bronx, the now hyper-chic Meat Market District where, on hot days, Artie feels he can still smell the blood." Helena Kennedy, writing in the Guardian about 'Red Hook' by Reggie Nadelson, the sixth in the Artie Cohen crime series. "Red Hook is about Russian oligarchs and their rich kids, about sex and friendship and love, about New York's high life, from the glass condos on the Hudson River to the rotten docks in Brooklyn. It's about how the past is always interfering with the present, about race, money and fear. Everything comes together on the waterfront in a finale so involving you won't sleep until you turn the last page."
Coming up to the 400th anniversary of one of the most inept terrorist (non) attacks in the history of the world, 5 (count 'em) books about the Gunpowder Plot are variously reviewed in the English press. Murrough O'Brien in The Independent looks at three of them, Ronald Hutton in The TLS does four, as does Neil Hanson in the Sunday Times. "Why do we still "Remember, remember the fifth of November", commemorating a 17th-century terrorist who wanted to strew the streets of London with bodies and blood? The quatercentenary of history's most famous failed act of terrorism has produced a flurry of books, including some sparklers and some squibs."
It's graphic novel time again. In The Washington Post, Ben Schwartz says that ... "Charles Burns's new graphic novel, 'Black Hole', offers a variation on that theme: a coming-of-age nightmare in which the children no longer get the nightmares, they give them." Darkness seems to be the theme of the ... umm... night. "Burns's art is thick with black ink -- so much so that even daylight scenes sop with pools of shadow and dark ooze. His kids drag clouds of despair with them. Often drawn in photo negatives, Black Hole depicts a world in which the white lines of order hold back the nocturnal depths of emotion, but just barely. "Anyone who has driven the lonely highways of Washington state and seen the eerie moonlit silhouettes of pine trees lined up against the road knows that the instinct is to drive faster, to press the pedal harder, as if hidden eyes are watching your every move. Don't listen to Charles Burns; this is where he wants you to pull over." What worries me is that I've got friends who I'm sure would enjoy this book.
Melvin Burgess has written provocative books for older teenagers, such as 'Junk', "Doing It', and 'Lady: My Life As A Bitch'. In 1999, he wrote 'Bloodtide', which re-worked the ancient Volsunga Saga of Iceland into a futuristic, dystopian London. Repulsive, compulsive, disgusting and classic were just some of the descriptions of that book, and its sequel, 'Bloodsong', seems sure to elicit the same breadth of judgment. In The Guardian, Kathryn Hughes (if her name's familiar it's because she wrote last week's linked book about Mrs. Beeton) reviews Burgess' latest and concludes ... "All the things that worry people about Burgess's work for young adults are here. The sex is explicit, even erotic, confined neither to heterosexual nor to human couples (one of the best characters in the book is the camp, lusting dog-boy Hogni). The violence is truly awful, a clanging, smashing, burning storm that comes at you without mercy. In fact, of course, there is nothing here that is not already in Homer, and Burgess's great triumph is not so much in inventing new stories as in finding fresh ways of retelling the ones that are themselves in danger of falling into extinction."
It must have been Monster & Horror week at The Washington Post. Ron Charles reviews 'Fledgling' by Octavia E. Butler, a vampire story; but not your common-or-garden vampire story. The novel "... doesn't just resurrect the pale trappings of vampire lore, it completely transforms them in a startlingly original story about race, family and free will." Butler, an multi-award-winning African-American SF writer, has written a morality tale with bite. 'Do you love me, Shori, or do I just taste good?', one of her characters asks. "How many of our happy relationships involve a degree of dominance or dependence that we can't acknowledge? This is Butler's typically insidious method: to create an alternative social world that seems, at first, alien and then to force us to consider the nature of our own lives with a new, anxious eye. It's a pain in the neck, but impossible to resist." As a bad punster of some (low) repute, I am deeply envious of that last line.
And as if that wasn't enough to get your teeth into, the last of this week's offerings from the Washington Post is Michael Dirda's review of 'The Book Of Imaginary Beings' by Jorge Luis Borges with Margarita Guerrero, translated from the Spanish by Andrew Hurley and illustrated by Peter Ss. (Who else?) This mythic masterpiece, first published in English in 1969, is given a new translation and new images, and is "... altogether so handsome and enjoyable that it is certainly the one to acquire now."
'The Long and the Short of It: Poems 1955-2005' by Roy Fisher is reviewed by William Wootten in The Guardian. "Arranging the poems of 50 years by type rather than chronology, The Long and the Short of It makes it possible for readers to pick their own Roy Fisher. Those with light appetites can, if they want, head straight for the sharp-tongued comic verse of section three before searching out favourites among the wide variety of other short poems. It's not a bad way in. Sooner or later, however, not only will you come across short poems that are unusually speculative or self-reflexive, you'll also have to spend some time and thought on the long poems and sequences."
The Guardian again. Annie Proulx writes that ... "Cormac McCarthy has chosen one of the most interesting Texas figures as the central character in No Country for Old Men - the county sheriff. The old Texas sheriffs served as law men, psychiatrists, Mr Fixits, social workers, medical aides and lonely hearts advisers. McCarthy's sheriff, Ed Tom Bell, a happily married, decorated second world war veteran, is respectful of life, and, like nature writer Barry Lopez, stops his vehicle and removes crushed animals from the roadway to the grassy verge. He has a sense of humour so dry it is almost incendiary. He cares enormously about the people in his county and decided to become a law officer almost as a monastic choice to atone for something that happened during the war. He speaks in the purest Texan with the idiosyncratic quirk of saying "kindly" instead of "kind of". The dialogue is perfect. No one has McCarthy's ear for regional talk, nor eye for details of place. The writing transforms a standard western good-guy-bad-guy plot into serious literature."
After all that dark and weighty stuff, Sara Peyton's San Francisco Chronicle review of 'Saving Fish From Drowning' by Amy Tan sounded just the ticket. "Tan's hilarious new novel arrives at a time when we aren't laughing much at the news of the day. How much you enjoy "Saving Fish From Drowning" may have to do with how willing you are to be bewitched by a superbly executed, goodhearted farce that is part romance and part mystery with a political bent. With Tan's many talents on display, it's her idiosyncratic wit and sly observations about the nature of illusion that make this book pure pleasure. And by the end, all the travelers, including one charming tiny dog, seem like old friends."
Last month I linked to articles discussing Michel Houellebecq and his new novel, 'The Possibility of an Island', and called him "the bad boy of French letters'. Unfortunately for that terrible pun, the review by David Horspool in The Times of the english translation of the book, says that it "...suffers from overstretch." Eww. Bad boys and overstretched french letters. Not a pretty thought.
Robert Conquest is a thinker, poet and historian, and is perhaps best known as the author of 20 books on Soviet history, politics, and international affairs including 1968's 'The Great Terror', which is regarded as a classic in its field. Conquest has won awards and honours from many countries, and is a fellow or member of organisations as diverse as the British Interplanetary Society and Harvard University's Ukrainian Research Institute, and many others in between. In Sunday Times Books, John Carey reviews Conquest's latest book, 'The Dragons Of Expectation: Reality And Delusion In The Course Of History'. "If Robert Conquest's thought were not so challenging, it would be easy to dismiss him as a colossus from a past age." One of his thoughts is that Britain should withdraw from the EU and form, with the US and others, a confederation of english-speaking countries (how did the US get in there?) called the Anglosphere. Guaranteed to be a conversation-starter at the next Fabian Society knees-up. "This is a book that leftist intellectuals should read a little of every day, being sure to breathe deeply and loosen any constrictive clothing beforehand."
And lastly, in Sunday Times Books, Nicolette Jones reviews 'Clay' by David Almond, and calls this children's novel "...funny, mysterious, moving, frightening and so deftly constructed as to be fiercely compelling", and "... extraordinary storytelling, not beneath the attention of adult readers."
LINDA L. RICHARDS/JANUARY MAGAZINE