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Writing Worth Reading

Ian Paisley: Turbulent Priest

Enjoyably waspish obituary. Paisley was the loudest of Northern Ireland’s Protestant hardliners. He rejected a British peace deal in 1985 “with what appeared to be a call for the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, to be smote by lightning”. When Pope John Paul II visited the European Parliament, Paisley denounced him to his face as “the antichrist”. He was finally tamed by Tony Blair, and ended up in House Of Lords (950 words)

The Human Cost of South Africa’s Mining Industry

Often grim, the photography that accompanies this story details the human misery that goes hand in hand with the South African mining industry. Zama-zamas (or illegal miners) risk their lives in disused mines, seeking gold. Informal settlements mushroom on mine tails, leaving residents exposed to radiation and ill-health. Includes individual stories from “those whose lives and livelihoods have been destroyed by government and industry neglect”. (541 words)

Satoshi Nakamoto “Hacked”

The who-is-Satoshi mystery may be solved in a bad way: “Last night, an anonymous poster published a ransom saying he or she would release the identity of Bitcoin’s creator, the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto, in exchange for 25 bitcoins. The poster said he or she had learned of Nakamoto’s identity by gaining access to the email account Nakamoto used to communicate with the Bitcoin community” (1,960 words)

Read This: Gene Luen Yang’s rousing diversity speech at the 2014 National Book Festival gala

An unusual peek into the world of comic book writing, when including multi-cultural themes, from a young Asian-American writer inspired by an African-American writer, who in turn was inspired by the Black Panther, a comic book character written by white writers. The bulk of the article is a speech on the need to be brave enough to write beyond one’s immediate experience: “After all, our job as writers is to step out of ourselves, and to encourage our readers to do the same.” (1,375 words)

Philip Larkin: Life, Art And Love

Lovely short review of a new biography. Larkin was “the greatest poet of the 20th century”. He “rather enjoyed drab lodgings and bad food”. He was “unable to share his life with others”. There was a mean streak in his personality, but there was much nobility too. And in any case: “When was it necessary to be a nice person if you wanted to be a creative genius? Wagner was horrible. Orson Welles was difficult” (1,050 words)

Regarding Susan Sontag

Reflections on Susan Sontag, provoked by a “fascinating, moving, and often gorgeous” new documentary film, Regarding Susan Sontag. “It’s a given that Sontag was possessed of an extraordinary mind”. But her brilliance sometimes “curdled into arrogance”; she never much understood others, including her husband, who said: “I think what I wanted was a large family, and what she wanted was a large library” (2,660 words)

An Interview with Okey Ndibe

A US-based Nigerian author discusses his book, Foreign Gods Inc., whose main protagonist is a highly educated cab-driving new New Yorker. Floundering between his expectations and his current existence, the novel’s main character goes back to his village of origin to commune with his god. The conversation covers a thunderstorm/water deity as well as pastors past and present. And the author relates his writing: “a man must dance the dance that reigns in his time” to his life: “Each waking day, each lived moment, I have to figure out what my dance is. It’s all about identity, about one’s place in the world.” (1,226 words)

Freedom Fighter: A slaving society and an abolitionist’s crusade.

Antislavery activisim in Mauritania is not for the faint-hearted. And Biram Dah Abeid has lived to tell his tale in the country with the highest slavery rate in the world. He has head-butted a policeman but believes in non-violence. One slave-owner was released after less than two months in jail. And that is progress. Abeid burns holy books and shelters ex-slaves in his mission to change society’s acceptance of slavery, where deep long-held beliefs about Islam’s teachings keep the subjugated economically (and psychologically) dependent on those who sometimes subject them to abuse. “The masters have begun to worry.” (7,500 words)

The Morning Men: A glimpse into waste collectors’ lives

The solid-waste depot “is buzzing by six thirty in the morning, with orange jackets darting in the sheets of rain” as the crew get ready to manage the 6000 tons that Cape Town’s residents throw away every day. Some things surprise: the depot is clean and smells earthy rather than disgusting. The team is surprisingly efficient, with bins rolled to/fro and levers pressed to pour contents into the truck hold. No breaks, they eat on the go. Their day is punctuated by visits to the landfill sites to disgorge their collection, accompanied by chat about Israel-Palestine, family time and unions. (1,262 words)

Njugu George, The Casanova

A street child forms an attachment with a Kenyan woman of Indian heritage, based on books he spots in her car. He loves reading stories, and gets the chance to write one of his own, which is read by tens of thousands of children. Yet he struggles to get ahead in school when his mother dies. An everyday story of urban poverty warmed by the eating of chicken and the downing of copious amounts of Fanta. “One day, … I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. … I would never have dared have a dream like that. A bloody explorer.” (1,538 words)

All Roads Lead To Willie Nelson

Affectionate portrait of the country-music legend, who turned 81 in April. He “can be forgetful; his hearing is shot, and he no longer signs as many autographs as he used to”. But he still tours half the year — two weeks on, two weeks off. Loved equally by Hell’s Angels and grandmothers, he may be “the one thing that America can agree on”. Only Bob Dylan rivals him as America’s greatest living songwriter (8,250 words)

Peter Thiel Disagrees With You

Profile of libertarian Christian venture capitalist Peter Thiel, described here as “perhaps America’s leading public intellectual”, which overstates things somewhat; “Silicon Valley’s leading public intellectual” would serve better, still counting as no small claim. Thiel co-founded PayPal and midwifed Facebook; his course on start-ups at Stanford has become the stuff of legend; he’s a highly motivated pessimist (4,580 words)

Fallen Angel

In praise of Walter Benjamin, “one of the twentieth century’s more unlikely Marxists”, rediscovered by modern critics after decades in relative obscurity. He had a post-modern sensibility before that term was invented — he was “a stroller around the boundaries between serious thought and everyday pleasures, high culture and low tastes”; he was also, for better or worse, a gambler, a sponger and a libertine (3,860 words)

Obituary: Father Jean-Marie Charles-Roux

“Tall, elegant, and with a theatrically silky voice, Charles-Roux wore buckled shoes and medallions commemorating martyred sovereigns”. He brought “the mystical aura of French royalism to London as a Roman Catholic priest of the Rosminian order”. He celebrated the Latin Mass for 40 years at Ely Place. In retirement he served as chaplain to Mel Gibson during the making of The Passion of The Christ. (1,218 words)

Tower Of Song

Review of Broken Hallelujah by Liel Leibovitz, a biography of Leonard Cohen, already established as a poet and novelist when took up songwriting in 1966, at the age of 32, inspired by Bob Dylan. He enjoyed only a cult success until “the culture caught up with him” in the late 1980s; “the former outcast poet was celebrated as a hero”. Old age, says Leibovitz, has conferred on Cohen the status of a “prophet” (1,830 words)

Obituary: Lauren Bacall

Born Bette Perske, “a nice Jewish girl”, in New York. Spotted by Diana Vreeland, who put her on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar; where her face caught the eye of Nancy “Slim” Hawks, wife of film director Howard Hawks; who shipped her out to Hollywood and matched her with Humphrey Bogart for her first film, at 19, To Have And Have Not. “It was a hell of a way for a girl to sashay into movies” (2,350 words)

Withdrawing With Style From The Chaos

And, while the archive remains open, another classic from the New Yorker. Kenneth Tynan delivers a sparkling profile of the still-quite-young Tom Stoppard, “one of the two or three most prosperous and ubiquitously adulated playwrights at present bearing a British passport”. With a guest appearance by Harold Pinter. Stoppard scintillates throughout: “What I like to do is take a stereotype and betray it” (26,000 words)

The Life Of A Prodigal Son

A new biography seeks to rescue Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel, from obscurity. “As a child he listened as his father conversed with Emerson, Thoreau and Melville”. He was a lifelong friend of Mark Twain. William Randolph Hearst hired him as a roving reporter. He scripted silent films for Hollywood. He “met every major literary and public figure of his time”. A great life. The writing, not so much (1,150 words)

Secrets Of The Magus

I’ll continue to throw in recommendations for classic New Yorker articles as long as the online archive remains open. This profile of magician Ricky Jay, “the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive” is a joy throughout — for the glimpses of his performing skills, the portraits of the great magicians who inspired him, and the excursions into magical history and scholarship which are Jay’s ruling passion (14,800 words)

The Demented Kingdom Of William T. Vollmann

Vollmann’s latest book, Last Stories and Other Stories, his twenty-second since 1987, is a “680-page short-story collection about death, putrefaction, ghosts, and cancer”. He works 16 hours a day with no internet, and inhabits the persona of Dolores, a transgender woman. He could probably use an editor. At 55 he has “mellowed as a man”, but “his subject matter has, if anything, grown even more confrontational” (7,440 words)

Steven Soderbergh: Why I Quit Movies

Soderbergh explains why he’s giving up film directing in favour of television, and starting a liquor business. “There’s no Yoko. The reason is: It stopped being fun. That’s a big deal to me. The ratio of bullshit to the fun part of doing the work was really starting to get out of whack”. Also, he’s worried about America: “This country is too f-ing big. This could turn into Mad Max, like tomorrow. The fabric is so thin” (3,580 words)

Obituary: Leee Black Childers

Protegé of Andy Warhol; personal photographer to David Bowie. “He added an extra e to his first name to draw attention to himself”. Briefly manager of Iggy Pop and the Stooges. Tour manager for Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers. “Although a frail figure in his later years, Childers remained a striking presence in his fake leopard-skin jackets and glitter shirts, his face adorned with mascara” (Metered) (918 words)

Bertrand Russell’s Lofty Pacifism

Rather lovely portrait of Bertrand Russell; his birth into the highest reaches of wealth and privilege; his collisions with Wittgenstein and D.H. Lawrence; his transitions between philosophy and political activism; his not unwelcome stays in jail. In Brixton in 1918 he was allowed to “wear his own clothes, rent a private room equipped with his own books and furniture, eat his own food and employ other prisoners as servants” (3,200 words)

The Lost World Of Stefan Zweig

Renewed enthusiasm for Zweig’s writing, stirred in part by Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, is carrying his reputation to greater heights than it reached in his lifetime. He was complacent about Nazism until it was too late, while easily panicked by smaller dangers. Contemporaries found something “contorted and unresolved” in his character. But we can empathise now with his circumstances and his sensibility (2,530 words)

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