Roving thoughts and provocations

Czech Winter

Francine Prose


Agnieszka Holland’s brilliant, ambitious, and moving new film, Burning Bush, begins at a violent and traumatic moment in Czech history, five months after Soviet tanks had brought an end to the Prague Spring. Part of what makes the film so affecting is the pace and patience with which it documents the gradual change undergone by its protagonists as they come to realize how unlikely it is that anything will change.

Reading: The Struggle

Tim Parks

Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos

The conditions in which we read today are not those of fifty or even thirty years ago, and the big question is how contemporary fiction is adapting. What I’m talking about is the constant distraction we live in and how that affects the special energies required for tackling a substantial work of fiction—for immersing oneself in it and then coming back and back to it over what could be days, weeks, or months. Of course long books are still being written. But there is a battering ram quality to the contemporary novel, an insistence and repetition that permits the reader to hang in despite the frequent interruptions to which we leave ourselves open.

India After English?

Samanth Subramanian

Piyal Adhikary/epa/Corbis

Narendra Modi, the decisive winner of India’s national election, rarely departs from Hindi and Gujarati; his English is serviceable but never elegant. In fact, his election coincides with a surge of confidence in India’s regional languages—a shift that is challenging English as the default medium of Indian public life.

Caged Laughter

April Bernard


Is it possible to feel more ambivalent than I do about Orange Is the New Black? I love the actors and I especially love that it is about a culture of women. It is good to see a light shed on the disgraceful situation of prisons in this country. But the experience of being entertained by this soap opera—which is often extremely funny—turns us into tourists of suffering.

Hitler’s Monumental Miscalculation

Malise Ruthven

Ianthe Ruthven
Seventy years ago, on June 6, 1944, a heroic group of American Rangers scaled the one-hundred-foot cliffs of the Pointe du Hoc, a vital promontory on the Norman coast. They were setting out to break through the Atlantic Wall—the German defenses spanning from the Arctic to the Pyrenees. Today, these fortifications are monuments to failure.

The Tanks and the People

Liao Yiwu

Jeff Widener/AP Images

Twenty-five years have gone by, we have all grown old. But Tank Man in these pictures is still so young. From far away, his white shirt looks like a lily in summer, pure and unblemished. Tanks stopping in front of a lily. A historical moment, a poetic moment. And on the other side of that moment, maybe three thousand lives were taken away, to be forgotten.

You Won’t Get Near Tiananmen!’: Hu Jia on the Continuing Crackdown

Ian Johnson

Sim Chi Yin

Hu Jia is one of China’s best-known political activists. He participated in the 1989 Tiananmen protests as a fifteen-year-old and is currently under house arrest for having launched a commemoration of the June Fourth massacre in January. But on his way back from a rare unsupervised hospital visit, I met up with him for a talk about his work and the twenty-fifth anniversary of Tiananmen.

Britain Lurches

Mary Beard

Facundo Arrizabalaga/epa/Corbis

The real danger of the UK Independence Party in EU and local elections is not the party’s own policies, but the reaction it draws from politicians and supporters of the other parties. On the one hand, there is a tendency to brush its success aside, as merely a fairly insignificant protest vote. On the other hand, there is also a dangerous overreaction by the main political parties—and a drift toward an increasingly rigid policy on immigration, even if their heart is not really in it.

Ukraine: Progress Without Peace

Tim Judah

Vadim Ghirda/AP Photo

Ukraine’s president-elect Petro Poroshenko has his work cut out for him. He needs to end the rebellion in the east, make deals with Ukraine’s powerful oligarchs, fend off a possible threat from Tymoshenko, shore up a sinking economy, and talk to the Kremlin. One Ukrainian journalist told me that some people in Kiev are thinking that it might be better to let the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk go.

The Poets in the Distance

Charles Simic

The poet Bill Knott always had some eccentric stunt, like the time he walked out on stage at the Guggenheim Museum carrying a brown paper bag, from which he’d extract a poem written on a small notebook paper, hold it up to the light, read a few marvelous lines of poetry and then stop, telling the people this poem is complete shit—and then go through the same routine again and again before deigning to read an entire poem.