Books

And Then There Was Light, Man

Mimicking a familiar format, Alan Lightman's Mr. g fails to create a unique world.

As an undergraduate student, in order to acquire financial aid, I agreed to take a special first-year seminar called The Creative Process. In the class, we discussed such questions as “What is art?” and, in more concrete form, “Why do we refer to the urinal in the bathroom as simply a place for waste when we call the urinal on the gallery wall a masterpiece?” Halfway through the semester, the professor, a 50-year-old woman with dyed-black, bobbed hair and a necklace that featured a grapefruit-size bust of Jack Skellington, instructed us to consume—to consume —the book Einstein’s Dreams , which, despite its name, was fiction. I did not have high expectations. I could already imagine that the experience was going to be something of a “groovy” ticket to the mother ship. In many ways, I was right. What I hadn’t expected, though, was author Alan Lightman’s uncanny ability to turn psychedelic scientific concepts and abstract philosophy into concrete images and scenes. Which is precisely...

Scarcity Came to Town

Two leading minds on our lean times

Jeff Madrick , the author most recently of Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present (Knopf), exchanges questions and ideas with Thomas Byrne Edsall , whose book The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics (Doubleday) is out this week. Madrick : Your book places the current extreme partisanship in its critical economic context. There are cultural and religious conflicts in America, but it is economic scarcity that underlies much of our political paralysis. Is that so—scarcity lately more than culture? And scarcity has tended to favor conservatives? Edsall : Scarcity trumps culture, but it would be a mistake to view culture and the economy as inhabiting discrete spheres. Diminishing resources tend to push people in a conservative direction by increasing pressure to protect one’s own interests while simultaneously lessening generosity of spirit. Scarcity sharpens survival instincts, leading to a dog-eat-dog worldview that...

Yes, It's "Rape" Rape

Last week I heard two pieces of good news about rape—one local, one national. The local news: While Boston's serious crime reports dropped by 8 percent overall, rape reports spiked by 12 percent, according to police; the rise was especially dramatic in some lower-income sections of the city. So why is that good news? Well, no one believes more rapes occurred—primarily because there was no increase in reported rapes by strangers, which are most likely to be reported but only make up an estimated 20 percent of all rapes. Nope, the good news was that Boston women decided to report it when acquaintances, boyfriends, dates, friends, and family members forced them to have sex. Public-health and criminal-justice statistics folks know that's happening; according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's recently released sexual violence survey , nearly one in five women is raped in her lifetime, and more than one million women are raped each year. Far fewer are reported to police...

International Adoption or Child Trafficking?

Maria Fernanda Alvarado lies at the center of Erin Siegal's true-crime investigation into the Guatemalan adoption system. Photo by Erin Siegal.
Between 1998 and 2008, nearly 30,000 Guatemalan-born children (mostly infants and toddlers) were adopted by U.S. parents. In some years, that meant that an astonishing 1 out of 100 children born in Guatemala was adopted by an American family. For most of that time, everyone but the prospective adoptive parents knew—or in some cases actively chose to “ unknow ”—that the country's international adoption system was a cesspool of corruption and crime, and motivated by money. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and news organizations reported in detail, repeatedly, that the country's babies were systematically being bought, coerced, or even kidnapped away from families that wanted to raise them. But because healthy babies and toddlers kept on coming at a regular pace that kept up with demand in America, and because powerful Guatemalans were getting enormously rich off the baby trade, the system did not shut down until January 1, 2008. Finding Fernanda is a true-crime page-turner about...

Christopher Hitchens, Contradiction

Where did the literary luminary go wrong?

C hristopher Hitchens was never one to refrain from pissing on a fresh grave if the occupant seemed to have earned it. So now, monitoring Google from the afterlife he didn’t believe in, he can’t be surprised at the steady downpour. And surely it’s a watered-down tribute to treat his final decade of polemics as incidental—to insist that, no matter what you thought of them, Hitchens was, after all, a bon vivant and wonderful stylist the likes of which we will not see again. Of course we will. The ability to be witty on TV and meet deadlines while pickled may be rare, but there are always candidates out there practicing. Give it time. No, the most fitting way to mark his passing is to pose about Hitchens the old question inspiring many a debate among radicals about the Russian revolution: At just what point did things go irrevocably bad? Hitchens and I were not friends, really, but we shared certain mutations of the Trotskyist genome—with a particular affinity for the Trinidadian Marxist...

From London, With Angst

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy chronicles the last days of Britain as a superpower.

AP Photo/Matt Sayles
Spying is popularly conceived of as a glamorous line of work. The James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Mission Impossible films are all cocktails, trysts, gunplay in the tropical sun, and evil brought to heel. The audience gleefully absorbs the antics of the hero-spy, a romantic figure who easily escapes the institutional harnesses of his superiors. Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy takes place in a different world. There is no super spy here, just a vision of the claustrophobic, embittered world of the intelligence community and its human cost. Based on the novel by John le Carré, Tinker, Tailor is concerned with the hunt for a Soviet mole who has infiltrated the highest levels of the British intelligence establishment, an agency known at “The Circus”. (Le Carré’s work popularized “mole” as a term for a double agent.) Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, Tinker Tailor ’s rumpled, aging hero. Smiley, enmeshed in a corrupt institution, represents an elite obsessed with perceived...

Life, Monetized

In Deadly Monopolies, Harriet A. Washington asserts that corporations now own life itself.

I n 2010, Rebecca Skloot published The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks , a New York Times bestseller about a poor black woman in the late stages of cancer in 1950s Baltimore whose doctor removed cervical tissue from her without her knowledge. By remaining viable outside of Lacks’s body, the cells became “immortal” and thus quite valuable; scientists using them have been able to pursue research that would have been unimaginable beforehand, leading to achievements such as the polio vaccine and advances against cancer and Parkinson’s disease. Skloot’s book captivated readers by revealing the story of exploitation behind the development of what have become known as “HeLa cells.” Similar episodes of scientific advancement on the backs of vulnerable subjects have been exposed before, from J. Marion Sims’s gruesome mid-19th-century experiments on black slaves that laid the groundwork for the modern field of gynecology to recently uncovered evidence that in the 1940s, U.S. researchers...

Why Are They So Angry?

An Israeli dove in Jewish America

"He's lying! He's lying!" the man at the back of the hall shouted, in a tone as desperate as it was angry. "He hasn't read the Geneva Conventions. You haven't read them, so you don't know he's lying." The primary object of his rage was me. The secondary object, it seemed, was his fellow congregants, who'd allowed me to lecture at his New York-area synagogue. I'd spoken about threats to Israel's democracy, including those posed by ongoing expansion of West Bank settlements. This was the first time, I'd been told, that the congregation had hosted a speaker on Israel from outside a spectrum running from right-wing to very right-wing. During the question-and-answer period, I was asked about my statement that the legal counsel of Israel's Foreign Ministry had warned before the first West Bank settlement was established that it would violate the agreement of the Fourth Geneva Convention. That's when the man in the back came unstuck. The congregation's rabbi, who was moderating the Q&A...

More Thoughts on Football

I should have posted this poem in October. But since I'm on a football jag now, here's a famous poem about what young men are channeling when they play football. Written in 1964, it includes some offensive language from its era. But I love this poem and have known it by heart for decades. Autumn Begins in Martin's Ferry, Ohio -- James Wright In the Shreve High football stadium, I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville, And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood, And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel, Dreaming of heroes. All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home. Their women cluck like starved pullets, Dying for love. Therefore, Their sons grow suicidally beautiful At the beginning of October, And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.

Decoding Michele Bachmann's New Book

Michele Bachmann—or at least her publicity manager—did her research. The Prospect received an early copy of Bachmann’s new book, "Core of Conviction: My Story," last week. In honor of the book’s release today, we’ve compiled the five “Best of Bachmann” moments from the book. 1. Bachmann’s great-great-grandfather won a farm from Jesse James in a game of poker. Bachmann claims that Halvor Munson won a farm in Iola, Kansas, playing poker with Jesse James on a river raft. According to a short biography on Munson, written by a family genealogist, it is likely that Munson did meet Jesse James (before his name became synonymous with outlaws of the American West), but the claim that he won a farm from James is nothing more than family lore. 2. Bachmann is not a fan of Gore Vidal. She even goes so far as to insinuate that Vidal’s book, Burr , prompted her to change her party affiliation to Republican. She refers to Vidal as “snotty” and “disgusting.” She spends two pages slamming the novel for...

Cold Warrior

The four-decades-long confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union—a Cold War that periodically threatened to turn hot—spawned many warriors, but few more interesting or complex than George Frost Kennan. As a midlevel American diplomat based in Moscow during the late 1940s, he articulated the “containment” doctrine that defined American policy toward the Soviet Union. Warning that the leaders in the Kremlin were driven by a quest for global power that could be restrained only by vigilant application of “counter-force,” this hitherto obscure diplomat, far removed from the centers of decision-making, provided a strategy for America’s confrontation with communism. For policy-makers, eager to spread American influence, containment—political, military, and economic—offered the means to turn a threat into an opportunity. Yet as the deadly contest between the two giants spread across the globe and periodically threatened to erupt into a cataclysmic nuclear war, Kennan became...

Who Has the Castle Now?

A new biography gives Kurt Vonnegut his due.

On Sunday December 7, 1941, as reports of the bombing of Pearl Harbor poured in, the night editor of The Cornell Daily Sun rushed to lay out the pages for a special edition. A chemistry student who was flunking his classes, he spent more time penning columns and pulling campus pranks than studying. His name was Kurt Vonnegut Jr. By Charles J. Shields Henry Holt: 544 pp., $30 The Pearl Harbor issue and the night editor who helped put it together are legends at the Sun . Many since, myself included, have flipped through those old issues and read the now-world-renowned author’s columns. One recurring item in the paper, The Berry Patch, featured a witticism framed by a design of berry-heavy vines. As an editor of the Sun , I wrote a number of my own Berry Patches, sometimes quoting lines from Walt Whitman or publishing a newsroom quip. Other days, I reprinted one of Vonnegut’s. The Sun was a link to the past, a record of what had transpired years before we ever took charge. It was also an...

Good Night, Sweet Prince

The tooth fairy visited our house recently, which made me remember the time—many years ago, when tooth redemption brought only a quarter—that the tooth fairy kept forgetting to claim the tooth under my pillow. After a week, I put a sign on my bedroom door: TOOTH STOP! The next morning, I had my quarter, and a signed note. The tooth fairy explained that he had an extraordinarily large territory that included the Indian Ocean, and apologized for having been delayed by recent monsoons. The note was signed “Prince Oberon.” Of course I recognized the handwriting; I was eight, and by then I knew who the tooth fairy really was. But the note’s full delight didn’t really hit me until, in college, I read Midsummer Night’s Dream and laughed out loud. I loved that about my father: Playfulness that I would only fully appreciate years later. He was ordinary and extraordinary, like everyone: a Korean war vet who went to grad school on the GI bill, a mathematician who helped the Air Force's prime...

Are You Pink- or Blue-Brained?

(Flickr/TZA)
Think that single-sex education is a sensible idea, since boys and girls learn so differently? Think again. In Slate recently, neuroscientist Lise Eliot , who researches child brain development, and social psychology professor Rebecca Bigler explained their recently published peer-reviewed article in Science , which examines an “overwhelming body of research on the topic.” They had three main findings: “Decades of research on academic outcomes from around the world has failed to demonstrate an advantage to single-sex schooling, in spite of popular belief to the contrary.” “Thousands of studies comparing brain and behavioral function between adult men and women have found small to insignificant differences, and even smaller differences between boys and girls.” “Single-sex schooling facilitates social stereotypes and prejudice in children.” If facts, not ideology, have any hope of carrying the day, this article should be essential reading in the Mars/Venus-at-school debates. Part of the...

The Family Album

A journal of grief and aging, Blue Nights is missing Joan Didion's razor-sharp prose.

W hat matters are the details. The 60 baby dresses on miniature wooden hangers, the loose pearls in a satin-lined jeweler's box, the bright red soles of the wedding shoes, the white stephanotis in the bride's braided hair. These specifics do not add up to a story; they are a compilation of the past, a messy collage of what used to be. Some are memories to be avoided, "reminders of what was, what got broken, what got lost, what got wasted. " Author Joan Didion's latest memoir, Blue Nights , is more journal than narrative, a meditation on grief and aging that jumps in time and place and sucks its readers into its fears and anxieties. Blue Nights comes as the companion to the 2005 National Book Award winner A Year of Magical Thinking , another autobiography, in which Didion grapples with the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and with the long illness of their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael. In August 2005, Quintana, who was adopted at birth, died at the age of 39,...

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