Roving thoughts and provocations

The Irresistible Charms of Maira Kalman

Cathleen Schine

Courtesy of the artist

Last Christmas, I gave my mother a copy of The Pursuit of Happiness by Maira Kalman. Like many other adult Maira Kalmanites, I had discovered the book when it ran as an illustrated blog on The New York Times web site. My mother and I have similar taste in books so I thought she would love it. But a few days later, she called me, quite agitated, irate even, saying “What is this bizarre book you gave me? The letters go all over the page. It’s like a children’s book. What on earth gave you the idea I would want to read this?” An hour later, she called back. “Just forget what I said. I just had to get used to it. What a wonderful book!”

AIDS at 30: A Time Capsule

Bill Hayes

Paul Fusco/Magnum Photos

It is difficult now to call up the particular mood that prevailed in the AIDS epidemic’s early years. I am not talking about the first rumblings, when no one knew enough to be afraid, but further in. In those post-AZT, pre-ARV-drug days, there was very little one could do if infected. Primitive prophylaxes against certain diseases offered one’s best bet but certainly no guarantee that one wouldn’t die of Kaposi’s sarcoma or cytomegalovirus or pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. The idea of life without AIDS, much less of being alive in thirty years, was almost unimaginable. Which is why in the late eighties, coworkers and I at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation came up with an idea to get people—gay men, in particular—thinking about the future. We decided to create a time capsule.

Iran and the Bomb: An Update

Jeremy Bernstein

IIPA/Getty Images

With everything that is happening in the Middle East and North Africa, it seems that the matter of the Iranian nuclear program has been put on the back burner. Of course the Israelis, for whom Iran’s nuclear program is matter of existential importance, have continued to monitor the situation closely. Netanyahu made that very clear on his most recent American visit. I think one can assume that the Israelis will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. But I want to discuss the basis of their concern.

China’s Glorious New Past

Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson

Over the past few decades, Chinese cities have seen their historic centers erased by a generic vision of modernization: broad boulevards and highways, office towers and luxury flats. In Datong, that vision had its day in the 1990s and 2000s. Now, this old-fashioned coal-mining city is on the cutting edge of a new urban development strategy: recreating an imagined, glorious Chinese past.

The Wrong Way to Lower College Costs

Anthony Grafton and James Grossman

UCSD Coaliton for Educational Justice

Want to know how to solve the problem of ever-increasing college costs? A lot of people have answers. One of the Very Serious People who can give you one is the economist Richard Vedder, professor at Ohio University, Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. In a recently issued report Vedder and two researchers use data provided by the University of Texas system, which includes nine universities, to argue that the state “could move towards making college more affordable by moderately increasing faculty emphasis on teaching”—and, more remarkably still, do so “without importantly reducing outside research funding or productivity.”

Mladic’s Arrest: What Did Serbia Know?

Charles Simic

RTS

The surprise arrest in northern Serbia of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general believed to be behind the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, is very good news. As one mother, whose son was killed in Srebrenica, said on Serbian TV, “Justice is slow, but it does come.” The big question is why the Serbian government waited so long to arrest him

When You’re Strange

Paul Theroux

Alex Webb/Magnum Photo

Until I went to live in Africa, I had not known that most people in the world believe that they are the People, and their language is the Word, and strangers are not fully human—at least not human in the way the People are—nor is a stranger’s language anything but the gabbling of incoherent and inspissated felicities. In most languages, the name of a people means “the Original People,” or simply “the People.” “Inuit” means “the People,” and most Native American names of so-called tribes mean “the People:’ For example, the Ojibwe, or Chippewa, call themselves Anishinaabe, “the Original People,” and the Cherokee (the name is not theirs but a Creek word) call themselves Ani Yun Wiya, meaning “Real People,” and Hawaiians refer to themselves as Kanaka Maoli, “Original People.”

God Save McQueen

Martin Filler

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Nearly twenty-five years ago I was called into the office of Anna Wintour, my boss during her brief interregnum at House & Garden magazine before she ascended to fashion glory as editor-in-excelsis of Vogue. “You use too many adjectives,” she told me. “I don’t like adjectives. That’s all.” But I now wonder how one could possibly explain the peculiar and pathological art of Alexander McQueen (whose most powerful promoter has been Wintour) without recourse to many multiple modifiers?

Obama’s Middle East: Rhetoric and Reality

David Bromwich

Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

Being president of the world has sometimes seemed a job more agreeable to Barack Obama than being president of the United States. The Cairo speech of June 2009 was his first performance in that role, and he said many things surprising to hear from an American leader—among them, the statement that “it is time for [Israeli] settlements to stop.” But as is now widely understood, the aftermath of Cairo was not properly planned for. Though Obama had called on Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the expansion of settlements, he never backed his demand with a specific sanction or the threat of a loss of favor.

Post-Soviet Pastoral

Elaine Blair

Alex Majoli/Magnum Photo

You often hear the Putin era described as one of exhaustion and resignation on the part of the Russian electorate. Robin Hessman’s documentary My Perestroika, about the fall of the Soviet Empire as recalled by three men and two women now in their forties, fairly pulses with depressed resignation—pulses weakly, of course, resignation not being much of a stimulant. The film, which follows the five Muscovites as they go to work, feed their children, watch TV, and mull over their memories of the late eighties and early nineties, culminates on the day of a presidential election: it is May 2008 and Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s handpicked successor, is about to be elected president. None of the interviewees is in suspense about who will win, none of them believes it is a fair election, none of them, as far as we can tell, votes for Medvedev, and at least two of them don’t vote at all.