Roving thoughts and provocations

The Singular Sound of Sonny Rollins

Christopher Carroll

Magnum Photos

No one knows why exactly Sonny Rollins, the tenor saxophone colossus, hasn’t recorded a good studio album since the 1960s. Though he ranks alongside Charlie Parker and John Coltrane as one of the greatest jazz saxophonists in history, some say that his style was irreparably damaged by years spent experimenting with funk, disco, and fusion in the seventies and eighties. Yet anyone who has seen Rollins perform on a good night knows that, even at eighty-one, he is still capable of playing with the same brilliance that first made giants like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk take an interest in him in the 1950s.

The New Olympic Arms Race

Ian Johnson

Adam Pretty/Getty Images

You can follow the Olympics two ways. First, there’s the right way: you pay attention to the athletes and root for great performances. You see them cry and hug each other in joy or look away in disgust at a bad performance. You empathize with them as human beings and debate issues like whether Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time or just the greatest swimmer. You wonder about doping but try to believe that the sports agencies have it more or less under control and that Dick Pound is just another Canadian curmudgeon. Then there’s the way I watch the games: as a statistical survey of geopolitics and destructive public policy.

Posing for the Senate

Christopher Benfey

Left: Melina Mara/The Washington Post; Right: Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

It is hard to watch the verbal sparring between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown, the candidates in this fall’s closely watched Massachusetts Senate race for the “Kennedy seat,” without recalling the classic 1949 comedy Adam’s Rib. In that Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn vehicle, Adam and Amanda Bonner are husband-and-wife lawyers who battle in the courtroom before ending up as Democratic and Republican rivals. “I’m not sure I care to expose myself,” Amanda says, “to typical instinctive masculine brutality.” Which invariably meets with Adam’s “Oh, come now” response. Now, we have Warren adopting the Amanda pose, to Brown’s Adam.

A Treasure Trove of Edward Gorey

Eve Bowen

All images courtesy of the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

Edward Gorey’s work tends to combine whimsically grim storylines with dour yet dancerly protagonists. Whether they are Edwardian ladies, fur-coated gentlemen, ill-fated children, or unusual animals, his characters are almost always on some kind of journey. His stories often unfold in wallpapered rooms, on barren estates, or among statues, beast-shaped topiaries, and urns. “Few seem to return from the borders to which I’ve sent them,” he wrote.

Bo Xilai: The Unanswered Questions

Perry Link

AP Photo/Andy Wong

The word “embarrassment” has been used around the world in press reports about the murder charges against Bogu Kailai, the wife of disgraced Chinese official Bo Xilai. But I doubt that anything as mild as embarrassment is what fills the minds of Party leaders in Beijing. Much more is at stake. What did Bo Xilai’s police chief Wang Lijun tell the Americans, and what agreement did the Americans make with Chinese authorities when they released Wang to their custody? Normally the Communist Party completely suppresses news of murders and other “embarrassments.” The fact that it decided to make a public announcement in this case must be, at least in part, because the Americans hold information that they could, if they wanted, divulge.

Floodplain Fantasy

Geoffrey O’Brien

Fox Searchlight

To say that Beasts of the Southern Wild was filmed in southern Louisiana understates the case—it seems like an enormous construction made from pieces of southern Louisiana, and inhabited by the people that the film’s young director Benh Zeitlin, a New Yorker who has been living in New Orleans since 2008, found there. Yet this is no documentary but a work of purest fantasy, set in a world just adjacent to the real and operating with all the liberties of folklore.

After Aurora: No End to Grief

Charles Simic

Alex Webb/Magnum Photos

One of the blessings of rural life is that newspapers are not readily available and cell phones often don’t work outside larger towns, so the news of the world reaches us late, unless one has the TV or the computer turned on at home. I didn’t hear about the shooting in Colorado till late the next day on my car radio, while driving to the town dump. The monstrosity of the act struck me with full force of its vileness in the peaceful surroundings. My mind wandered back to the morning of September 11, when after watching the unfolding tragedy that culminated in the collapse of the twin towers, I finally took my dog, who had been nagging me for hours, for a walk.

After Aurora: The Devil We Don’t Know

Francine Prose

If we no longer believe in Satan, then what do we make of our sense that something is wrong with the world, that a random malevolent shooter lurks in the schoolyard or the cinema lobby? Our collective disquiet about the mass murders of our time is intensified by the sense that they select their victims at random; that they have come from different backgrounds and harbor dissimilar grudges, and that we have failed to come up with an “explanation” for their actions, or a reliable template to help predict or avert an attack. And yet we remain reluctant to accept the possibility that evil is not a problem that can be solved or a question that has a solution. How do we reconcile our wish to prevent further violence and to protect ourselves and our families with the suspicion that, as those who believed and believe in Satan would argue, evil is an element in the universal order, an aspect of nature and of human nature, a force and a constant threat that exists—and will continue to exist—despite our best efforts to understand and eradicate it?

The People’s Republic of Rumor

Richard Bernstein

Imaginechina via AP Images

The official Chinese media have reported that seventy-seven people died as a result of torrential rains last week, but the Chinese blogosphere tells a different story: of hundreds and possibly thousands of deaths, and widespread damage and chaos. Apart from describing the flood itself, these reports suggest that, once again, Chinese officials were striving to downplay the scope of a disaster to avoid public dissatisfaction. China is a country where there is no truth, though there is certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence that if there is a truth on a subject deemed sensitive, whether about the feelings of Tibetans or the number of dead in a storm, it is to be found online, not in official accounts.

The Republicans’ Medicaid Cruelty

Jeff Madrick

AP Photo/Eric Gay

The essential American soul,” claimed D.H. Lawrence, “is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” While the rejection by five state governments of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion may not precisely illustrate Lawrence’s heated observation, it does suggest a contemporary vein of cruelty in America that is deeply disturbing.