Roving thoughts and provocations

Reading It Wrong

Tim Parks


How far is language really able to communicate something new, something that runs contrary to my expectations? One of the intriguing aspects when teaching translation is watching students struggle with sentences that say things they didn’t expect them to say. In many cases, if a writer should come up with some perplexing idea, or, worse still, some declaration running contrary to received wisdom or political correctness, students, but also practiced translators, will end up reducing the text to something more conventional. Do we as readers subconsciously make these “corrections”? How far can they go?

Chavismo After Chávez

Alma Guillermoprieto

Luis Acosta/Getty Images

From one moment to the next it wasn’t so funny anymore: Nicolás Maduro Moros, the late Hugo Chávez’s chosen successor, had gone on the campaign trail with the full backing of the chavista state, chavista judicial system, and chavista coffers. Everyone, possibly including the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski himself, expected him to win an easy victory. Yet on April 14, according to the officially impartial but unashamedly chavista electoral council, Maduro scraped out a tiny victory. Or perhaps he lost. And then chavismo collapsed into a scary collective insanity.

Imelda’s Sweet Sauce

Ian Buruma

Joan Marcus/The Public Theater

Turning the life and times of Imelda Marcos into a piece of musical theater set in a disco is almost too obvious. And yet Here Lies Love, the musician David Byrne’s imagining of Imelda’s inner landscape, mostly works very well. The pop opera, brilliantly staged by Alex Timbers and choreographed by Annie-B Parson, is performed in a made up disco with constantly shifting stages sliding across the floor. As video clips are flashed onto the walls, in a kind of light show of Imelda’s public life, the mostly middle-aged audience is coaxed by a raucous DJ and pink-suited ushers into bopping along with the actors.

My Psychic Garburator

Margaret Atwood


Most dreams of writers aren’t about dead people or writing, and—like everyone else’s dreams—they aren’t very memorable. If you keep a dream journal, your mind will obligingly supply you with more dreams and shapelier ones, but you don’t always want that, nor can you necessarily make any sense of what you may have so vividly dreamt. Why, for instance, did I dream I had surged up through the lawn of Toronto’s Victoria College and clomped into the library, decomposing and covered with mud? The librarian didn’t notice a thing, which, in the dream, I found surprising. Was this an anxiety dream? If so, which anxiety?

LA’s Alternate Realities

Martin Filler

Alan E. Leib Collection

How can the most architecturally innovative part of the United States also be such a thoroughgoing urban mess? This spring and summer, two complementary exhibitions seek to bring the unfathomableness of LA into focus. The first, Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990,” which is at the J. Paul Getty Museum through July 21, explores how the city emerged through fitful initial development, explosive postwar growth, and a distinctive built legacy. The second, “Never Built: Los Angeles,” which opens at LA’s Architecture and Design Museum on July 13, examines a stunning array of unexecuted projects to show why the city didn’t become something else.

Guantánamo and Torture: It’s Up to Obama

David Cole

Yahya Arhab/Corbis

Until now, President Obama has put the blame for failing to deal with Guantánamo on Congress. Without question, Congress has made his job more difficult by obstructing detainee transfers with onerous “certification” requirements. But there are steps the president could nonetheless take. For example, the current law permits the executive branch to waive some of the requirements when the transfer “is in the national security interests of the United States.” Moreover, eighty-six detainees have been “cleared for release” but remain in detention. Fifty-six of them are Yemeni citizens, and it was President Obama, not Congress, who placed their release on hold.

Someone Else’s Memories

Francine Prose

Strand Releasing

The most intriguing and moving scene in Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux takes place at a meeting of a local twelve-step recovery group. One by one the men get up and describe, in what we intuit are their own words, the personal crises that drove them to seek help from the group. The camera pans the room. The assembled participants, whom we glimpse only briefly, are clearly not professional actors; they are as unconventionally attractive as the Mennonite characters in his earlier film Silent Light. Their highly condensed confessions are spellbinding and affecting. I was sorry when the scene ended and we returned to Juan and his neurotic preoccupations. It makes one wish that Reygadas will, in the future, redirect his attention away from the work of his cinematic heroes and his own memories and feelings—and return to the lives of others.

Octopus: The Footed Void

Caspar Henderson

Ethan Daniels/Getty Images

In a celebrated poem Ogden Nash begs the octopus to tell him if its limbs are arms or legs. Textbooks have a no-nonsense answer: they are arms, not legs (and emphatically not tentacles). But super tongues would be at least as good. Each octopus arm is a muscular hydrostat, like a human tongue, and each of the tens or hundreds of suckers on it is lined with tens of thousands of chemoreceptors—taste buds to you and me—and a comparable number of nerve endings that provide an exquisite sense of touch.

Wikipedia’s Women Problem

James Gleick

There is consternation at Wikipedia over the discovery that hundreds of novelists who happen to be female were being systematically removed from the category “American novelists” and assigned to the category “American women novelists.” Categories are a big deal. They are an important way to group articles; some people use them to navigate or browse. Categories provide structure for a web of knowledge—not a tree, because a category can have multiple parents, as well as multiple children. It’s fair to say that Wikipedia has spent far more time considering the philosophical ramifications of categorization than Aristotle and Kant ever did.

Misha’ Speaks: An Interview with the Alleged Boston Bomber’s ‘Svengali’

Christian Caryl

AP Photo/The Lowell Sun, Julia Malakie

As the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombings continues, one of the more clouded aspects is the tale of “Misha,” a mysterious US-based Islamist who has been accused by members of the Tsarnaev family of radicalizing Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of the two alleged bombers. “It started in 2009. And it started right there, in Cambridge,” Tamerlan’s uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, told CNN after the attacks. “This person just took his brain. He just brainwashed him completely.” These accusations set off a frenzied search for what some reports have called an Islamic Svengali, and over the past few days, the FBI has said it has located and has been talking to “Misha,” though his identity has remained unknown. Today I was able to interview “Misha.”