Roving thoughts and provocations

Russia’s Reckoning with Katyń

Timothy Snyder

Why does it matter that the Russian parliament has just declared the Katyń mass murder of 1940 to be a Stalinist crime? Seventy years on, no one doubts the responsibility of Stalin, Beria, and the Soviet NKVD for the murder of about 21,892 Polish citizens in the Katyń Forest and four other sites. Yet, according to an opinion poll, more than 80 percent of Poles believe that the gesture, which confirms something that in effect all Poles already know, will improve relations between the two countries. Moscow understands that better relations with Warsaw will remove an obstacle to closer ties with the EU, and that for Poles history can be central to diplomacy.

John Lennon: Bull in Search of a China Shop

Giles Harvey

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

When the Beatles called on Elvis at his rented Bel Air mansion in August 1965, the odds of a pleasant evening were always going to be long. Whereas the Fab Four, with five number one albums behind them, were currently basking in the high noon of their creative prime, Elvis had spent the past half-decade squandering his prodigious talents on awful movies and now, at only thirty, looked to be in permanent eclipse. And so, having taken a seat beside a sun-bronzed Elvis on the sofa—where, like any other night, he was simultaneously watching TV with the sound off and listening to music—John, Paul, George, and Ringo suddenly found themselves with nothing to say. “If you guys are just gonna sit there and stare at me,” said Presley at last, “I’m goin’ to bed…I didn’t mean for this to be like the subjects calling on the King.”

The evening seemed to turn a corner, though, when Elvis proposed a jam session and summoned the guitars. “This beats talking, doesn’t it?” said John Lennon, once the music was underway and it seemed as though they would get along after all. Later, however, Lennon began to press Elvis on why he’d abandoned rock ’n’ roll for Hollywood. The star of Tickle Me and Kissin’ Cousins bragged defensively: “I’m making movies at a million bucks a time and one of ’em—I won’t say which one—took only fifteen days to complete.”

Well, we’ve got an hour to spare now,” replied Lennon, unable to help himself. “Let’s make an epic together.”

Tajikistan: The Next Jihadi Stronghold?

Ahmed Rashid

AP Photo/NTV

It is autumn in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, and for a brief moment, the weather is stunningly beautiful—perfectly crisp and sunny, but not cold. Much of the city’s low-lying, subdued architecture—a particular Central Asian hybrid—is quite attractive; the broad avenues, lined with large pine and chestnut trees, remind you a bit of Paris. But the atmosphere in Tajikstan, which shares an 800-mile border with northern Afghanistan, is anything but calm.

The Things I Learned at Dinner

Charles Simic

Magnum Photos

Back in the early 1970s, when I was teaching in California, I had a colleague named Bob Williams who taught fiction writing and was famous for beginning each semester with a lecture on the art of cooking. He’d tell his students, for example, how to prepare a dish of sausages, onions, and peppers—elaborately describing how to chose the right frying pan, olive oil, and sausages, explaining next how they ought to be cooked till browned and then removed from the pan—so that the sliced onions, garlic and peppers, and whatever fresh herbs could be introduced in their own proper order—until he had the entire class salivating. The point, of course, was not just to stimulate their appetites, but to show them the degree of love and devotion to the smallest detail required to turn this simple Italian dish, often poorly made, into a culinary masterpiece. Writing stories and poems was like that too, he told them. Instead of the ingredients he had just conjured, there would be words, experiences, and imaginings to combine. Actually, what he demonstrated to his students was the ancient relationship between cooking, eating well, and storytelling.

How Google Can Save America’s Books

Robert Darnton

Félix Vallotton

Google represents the ultimate in business plans. By controlling access to information, it has made billions, which it is now investing in the control of the information itself. What began as Google Book Search is therefore becoming the largest library and book business in the world. Like all commercial enterprises, Google’s primary responsibility is to make money for its shareholders. Libraries exist to get books to readers—books and other forms of knowledge and entertainment, provided for free. The fundamental incompatibility of purpose between libraries and Google Book Search could be mitigated if Google were willing to contribute some of its data and expertise to the creation of a Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).

Google has demonstrated the possibility of transforming the intellectual riches of our libraries, books lying inert and underused on shelves, into an electronic database that could be tapped by anyone anywhere at any time. Why not adapt its formula for success to the public good—a digital library composed of virtually all the books in our greatest research libraries available free of charge to the entire citizenry, in fact, to everyone in the world?

NATO’s Dangerous Wager with Karzai

Ahmed Rashid

At the close of its summit meeting in Lisbon on Saturday, NATO announced it had reached an agreement with the Afghan government to continue combat operations in Afghanistan for years to come. But it is far from clear that these plans—which postpone a transfer of responsibility for security to Afghan forces until 2014—will find much support in Kabul. Afghan president Hamid Karzai is a changed man. His worldview now is decidedly anti-Western. When I spoke with him earlier this month at the presidential palace in Kabul, Karzai told me that the US has been unable to bring peace to Afghanistan or to secure cooperation from Pakistan, which continues to give sanctuary to the Taliban. He rejects the barrage of US criticism at his government on issues like corruption and poor administration and says the original sin of all these faults lies with the Americans.

Brazil in the Shadow of Lula

Lilia M. Schwarcz

Ricardo Stuckert/PR

On October 31, a former bureaucrat named Dilma Rousseff became the first female president of Brazil after easily winning a runoff election with 56 percent of the vote. Yet this outcome—in which she defeated Jose Serra, the candidate of the Social Democratic Party—had very little to do with Rousseff’s appeal among the Brazilian public or any distinct political platform of her own. Instead, it reflected the overwhelming popularity of outgoing president Luís Inácio Lula da Silva.

Obama’s Torture Problem

David Cole

In the face of overwhelming evidence that numerous US detainees were tortured during the Bush years, President Barack Obama has famously said he wants to “look forward, not back.” He prohibited the use of torture and cruelty in one of his first executive acts, but since then he has consistently resisted all efforts to hold accountable those who, under the prior administration, authorized such mistreatment. He has opposed a commission of inquiry, failed to order a criminal investigation of high-level officials who authorized—and concocted legal justifications for—torture, and successfully defeated all suits seeking damages for victims. Unacknowledged guilt, however, has a stubborn way of sticking around. In recent days, torture has been back in the national conversation, raising once again the issue of what we (and others) should do about it.

My Reading Life

Claudia Gonson

Le Poisson Rouge

Caveat: I am nursing a 2 month old baby right now, so remembering anything, like what I ate for breakfast today, has become very difficult. Remembering what I have read throughout my life is going to be pretty much impossible, but what the hell. Here goes. I don’t have a great recollection of my reading before about 12, but my childhood room is amazingly still there and when I go back to Cambridge I sit and gaze at the most wonderful books, like Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books and all those pre-teen girl titles like Julie of the Wolves and Island of the Blue Dolphins, etc. etc. One of my favorites from early days was Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang, about a kid who said everything twice, and it turned out to be his super power. I also read Judy Blume, yes it’s true.

The Playful, Grumpy, Over-Literate, Fixated, Flummoxed Brain of Stephin Merritt

Dan Chiasson

Emma Straub, courtesy of Variance Films

The Magnetic Fields is the name Stephin Merritt calls the band he often plays with, when he isn’t playing alone or with several other bands he invented. The core group is Merritt and his old friend Claudia Gonson, who started as a drummer but now plays piano, “toys” (wire whisks, xylophone, sleigh bells—it’s a long list), sometimes sings, and, as her day job, manages the band; plus Sam Davol, a former lawyer who plays cello and sometimes flute and sometimes other things, too; and John Woo, a guitarist who often plays banjo. Merritt himself plays just about everything, including ukelele and a Greek instrument called a bouzouki.