Roving thoughts and provocations

The Master of Fireproof Modernism

Martin Filler

Michael Freeman

If all politics is local, then much architectural history is also a neighborhood matter. Thus I harbor an abiding fondness for the Spanish émigré master builder Rafael Guastavino. Time and again in old New York buildings, it’s a delight to lift up your eyes and unexpectedly find Guastavino’s distinctive herringbone terracotta tile patterns overhead.

China After Tiananmen: Money, Yes; Ideas, No

Perry Link

David Turnley/Corbis

Deng Xiaoping, the man who said “go” for the final assault on thousands of Chinese citizens protesting peacefully for democracy, has died. But what happened in and around Tiananmen Square twenty-five years ago haunts the memories not only of people who witnessed the events and of friends and families of the victims, but also of those who stood, and still stand, with the attacking side.

Obama’s Putin Delusion

Amy Knight

Ilya Naymushin/Reuters

To anyone who has followed the Kremlin closely over the years, its actions in Ukraine should not come as a great surprise. To the contrary, the recent events bear out longstanding policy aims of the Putin regime, which for years has worked to roll back US and European influence and rebuild its own suzerainty over post-Soviet states.

New York Schools: The Roar of the Charters

Diane Ravitch

Bryan Smith/ZUMA Press/Corbis

New York City’s charter schools enroll only 6 percent of the student population. Contrary to popular myth, they are more racially segregated than public schools and performed no better on state tests. How, then, did a privately managed school franchise that serves a tiny portion of New York families manage to hijack the education reforms of a new mayor with a huge popular mandate?

Sex: The Terror and the Boredom

J. Hoberman

Christian Geisnaes/Magnolia Pictures

Although too capricious (or should we say promiscuous?) to be a taxonomy, Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is designed to illustrate and exhaust every popular theory of nymphomania, including, of course, the idea that the condition exists only as a male fantasy.

Escaping Beirut

Robyn Creswell

Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos

In Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman, the narrator is a septuagenarian literary translator in Beirut—“the Elizabeth Taylor of cities,” as she calls it, “insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart.” But Aaliya does not feel at home in her native city. For most of the novel, she walks through her neighborhood in West Beirut, remembering past lovers and favorite books.

Chinese Atheists? What the Pew Survey Gets Wrong

Ian Johnson

How Hwee Young/epa/Corbis

According to a new opinion survey by the Pew Research Center, only 14 percent of Chinese think that belief in God is necessary for morality—the lowest percentage in any country. But if there’s one trend in China that is hard to miss, it’s the growing number who are taking part in organized religion. Could it be that the Pew study asks the wrong question?

Betrayed

Charles Simic

Jerome Sessini/Magnum Photos

Every time I see a large crowd on TV demonstrating against some autocratic government, I have mixed feelings: admiration for their willingness and bravery to take a stand, and a foreboding that nothing will come of it. I’ve watched too many worthy causes fizzle out over the years. But even by that grim reality the defeat of democracy movements across the Middle East and North Africa is staggering.

Quiet, Sensuous Piero

Sanford Schwartz

Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Piero della Francesca: Personal Encounters,” is the first ever exhibition about Piero’s devotional works. They are small-size paintings created for bedrooms or set-apart areas in the home. In spirit they take us to much the same austere and bare-bones realm as his more public pictures. Yet they present more directly and pleasurably the qualities that make Piero such a special figure, even by the heady standards of the fifteenth century, when so many Italian and Flemish artists, were finding one personal way after another to portray the actual, corporeal world they lived in.

Where I’m Reading From

Tim Parks

Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Books began, in my case, when my parents read to me, so I knew from the start that reading must be a “good” thing. Later I exploited this faith of theirs in the essential goodness of literature to plot my escape from the suffocating world in which they lived. It was perfectly clear to me in adolescence that each member of the family would choose quite different books, and that what you were reading inevitably declared where you stood on the things that mattered in our house. You had to be careful when you chose to share a book.