Roving thoughts and provocations

Changing Our Stories

Tim Parks

Grandville

Until a couple of years ago, a reviewer observes, Tim Parks’s novels were remorseless in suggesting that we are who we are, can’t change, character is destiny, family is destiny, habits of mind are destiny; any thought of changing these things drags us toward madness and self-destruction. The reviewer feels a little let-down that in my recent work there is some movement away from this position.

Short Days and Long Nights

Charles Simic

Metropolitan Museum of Art

My favorite writing implement continues to be a stub of a pencil and my favorite writing surface the back of an electric bill. I like to sit at the kitchen table my wife uses to chop onions and shed tears on, because every time I’m unable to think of what to write, the refrigerator opens and here comes a plate of cold pasta.

The Hidden Face of Russian Security

Amy Knight

Abdula Magomedov/AP Photo

As the US prepares to send more than two hundred athletes to Sochi, concerns about terrorism continue to mount. The December bombings in Volgograd might have been anticipated or even thwarted if the FSB had not botched an earlier investigation. Meanwhile, continued threats provide a convenient pretext for more crackdowns on civil rights.

Ukraine: The New Dictatorship

Timothy Snyder

Danil Prikhodko/Demotix/Corbis

President Viktor Yanukovych, in having the deputies of his Party of Regions endorse an extraordinary packet of legislation, has arrogated decisive political power to himself. In procedure and in content the laws “passed” by the Ukrainian parliament this week contravene the most basic rights of modern constitutional democracies: to speech, assembly, and representation.

Ice Cool Brooklyn

Martin Filler

Michael Moran/OTTO

The theme of Bill de Blasio’s successful mayoral campaign was “a tale of two cities,” his metaphor for the widening gulf between the privileged and the powerless. In urban design, nothing could have made that split clearer than the contrasting fortunes of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s two heartfelt contributions to New York life—their new ice rink in Prospect Park and their American Folk Art building.

Love Objects

Elaine Blair

Warner Bros. Pictures

Spike Jonze’s film Her is a story about machines and humans and human-like machines. Skin is important. The unnatural appearance of Catherine, the soon-to-be ex-wife of the hero, makes her seem something other than a flesh-bound fellow human with Theodore.

A Smaller, Meaner Scandal

Francine Prose

John Moore/Getty Images

What has made “Bridgegate” simultaneously risible, demoralizing, and destructive is that it’s so quotidian, so simple. Being stuck in traffic is a familiar experience, a lot easier to imagine and to understand than the details of Obamacare or of the technical glitches that nearly sabotaged the inception of the new health-insurance laws.

MoMA Loses Face

Martin Filler

Diller Scofidio + Renfro

The only conceivable rationale for the removal of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s Folk Art building would have been to replace it with something better. Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s sad little sellout does not come close. They have violated the golden rule of opportunism: if you forfeit your soul, at least get a good price for it.

Writing to Win

Tim Parks

Why do we have this uncritical reverence for the published writer? Why does the simple fact of publication suddenly make a person, hitherto almost derided, now a proper object of our admiration, a repository of special and important knowledge about the human condition? And more interestingly, what effect does this shift from derision to reverence have on the author and his work, and on literary fiction in general?

Dancing to Nowhere

Alexander Stille

Janus Films

Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza is a visual feast, one of the few films that takes full advantage of the hallucinatory beauty Rome. The overripe city stands in stark contrast to the dull, futile, and empty life of the film’s main characters—the frenetic partying, the not-so-hidden desperation and the endless “blah, blah, blah” of their conversation.