Roving thoughts and provocations

What’s Left of My Books

Charles Simic

Abelardo Morell/Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York City

These days, I look in disbelief at many of the books on my shelves, from thick novels and memoirs to works of great philosophers, wondering whether it’s really possible that I devoted weeks or even months reading them. I know that I did, but only because opening them, I find passages and phrases I’ve underlined, which upon rereading I recall better than the plots, characters, and ideas I encountered in these books; what has made the lasting impression on my literary taste buds, to use culinary terms, are crumbs strewn on the table rather than the whole meal.

Normal Nazis

Ian Buruma

Music Box Films

Millions of German and Austrian viewers thought Generation War, first broadcast in three episodes on German TV, and now released as a two-part movie in the US, was wonderful. So why has there been so much fuss about it, especially in Poland, where the filmmakers were accused of “falsifying history”?

All Blue

Michael Gorra

Patrick Zachmann/Magnum Photos

Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium; Russian cats and oysters; Nova Scotians, hair rinse, bluing, bleach…

The Music of the Swindle

Geoffrey O’Brien

Sony Pictures

David O. Russell’s American Hustle declares what it is about with disarming bluntness. The two con artists around whom it revolves confide to us in voice-over right at the start: Sydney (Amy Adams), aka Lady Edith Greensley, wanted “to become anyone else other than who I was.” Irving (Christian Bale) acknowledges that “we even con ourselves.”

Is Christie Using Nixon’s Playbook?

Elizabeth Drew

Paul Beaty/AP Photo

On the basis of what we know and what seems conceivable, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is not a Richard Nixon. But there does seem to be a pattern in Christie’s activities, and indications of corruption on a scale that could be unprecedented even for New Jersey. Christie has morphed from a “bully” into a man who has governed by creating an atmosphere of fear and retribution

Writers Into Saints

Tim Parks

Over the last ten years or so I have read literary biographies of Dickens, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Hardy, Leopardi, Verga, D. H. Lawrence, Joyce, Woolf, Moravia, Morante, Malaparte, Pavese, Borges, Beckett, Bernhard, Christina Stead, Henry Green, and probably others too. With only the rarest of exceptions, literary biographers present their subjects as simply the most gifted and well-meaning of writers, while their behavior, however problematic and possibly outrageous—Dickens’s treatment of his children, D.H. Lawrence’s fisticuffs with Frieda—is invariably described in a flattering light. Special pleading is everywhere evident, as if biographers were afraid that the work might be diminished by a life that was less than noble.

Guatemala’s Shameful Repudiation of Justice

Aryeh Neier

Moises Castillo/AP

If countries were ranked by lawlessness, Guatemala would score near the top. The country is ridden by crime and corruption and has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Now, a decision to remove Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz seems aimed at derailing her pursuit of those who committed genocidal violence in the 1980s.

Taking Down Picasso

Martin Filler

The real estate mogul Aby Rosen is planning to remove a historic Picasso stage curtain from the Seagram Building on February 9. The wall-sized, unframed canvas, which Picasso created in 1919 for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, has hung in the tower’s Four Seasons Restaurant since it opened in 1959. According to the president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, Peg Breen, taking down the delicate work could be its death sentence. The Landmarks Conservancy is seeking a last-minute injunction to halt the removal.

Why Sochi?

Christian Caryl

Rob Hornstra/Courtesy Flatland Gallery

Why on earth would the Kremlin decide to host the Games in an underdeveloped place where terrorists lurk nearby—a place that The New York Times describes as “the edge of a war zone”? The answer is not as complicated as it may seem. Vladimir Putin comes from St. Petersburg. He rules from Moscow. But it is the North Caucasus that launched him on his path to the summit of Russian power.

China’s Way to Happiness

Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson

Are people in China happy?

Richard Madsen: The happiness level is diminishing. The pace of economic growth is not continuing like it was. You still have people becoming fabulously wealthy and crassly displaying it, but that also feeds into a deteriorating moral climate.