Four Years Later: Haiti’s Heartbreaking Failure Pick of the day

Notes from Haiti four years after the earthquake that killed 200,000 and left a million homeless. Port-au-Prince was going to be “built back better” by now: That hasn’t happened. “You see the country’s terrible wear and tear, the old buildings in various states of collapse, the mountains turning gray as the topsoil washes away. On bad days, I think Haiti might be a sinking ship, too far gone, too used up to save” (1,725 words)

How Kafka Actually Lived

Another biography of Franz Kafka. But an exceptional one. Reiner Stachs does an “honest and honorable” job of telling the story without trying to impose his own meaning on it. He “offers no key, no code, no single-minded interpretive precept. The ‘Kafkaesque’ is mercifully missing … The biographer excavates, he does not transcend; and through this robustly determined unearthing he rescues Kafka from the unearthliness of his repute” (7,100 words)

The Greatest Ex-Nazi Writer

Who has heard of the German poet Gottfried Benn? Where is he in the anthologies? Nowhere. Yet Benn was “one of the great German poets of the twentieth century”, and the “equal of Eliot or Montale”. The problem is “not the work but the life”. He was a Nazi — if not for long. He writes “from a cancelled perspective”. A new selection of his writing translated by Michael Hofmann transmits his genius (4,580 words)

The Unwisdom Of Crowds

People-powered revolutions are overrated. Protesting crowds provide good newspaper copy and great photographs. But they may not represent the majority, and they are the antithesis of the highly structured institutions — courts, legal systems, bills of rights — which functioning democracy demands. The crowd may have its moment, but the key to building durable democracy is long negotiation, as in Chile and Poland (1,570 words)

How Silence Became A Luxury Product

Technology has “increased our perceived need for silence and created (or at least improved) the means of attaining it”. From quiet cars on trains, to noise-cancelling headphones, to super-quiet Lexus cars, “there has never been quite so great a premium placed on silence”. We crave quiet as a way “to push back against the gnat-like ticking of technology”. Silence, especially in cities, has become “the ultimate luxury” (1,800 words)

Dmitri Simes: We Carry A Small Stick

Interview on the crisis in Ukraine, critical of US tactics. “Yanukovych is a despicable character. He also is inept. He was the principal architect of his own demise. Yet he was legally elected. He commanded a clear majority in the Ukrainian parliament. And essentially the United States and the European Union have decided to side with the protesters. We clearly were rocking the political boat in Ukraine, a country deeply divided” (3,000 words)

Q & A With Michael Ignatieff

Excellent interview in which Ignatieff talks about “the romance of politics”, the realities of power, the place of intellectuals, Iraq, Obama, and the lessons learned from his own brief political career. “A lot of the demands are about keeping some core non-tradeable inner self that doesn’t get sold in the process of pursuing power. That turns out to be really difficult, you just get really bent out of shape” (1,600 words)

Exit Interview: Michael McFaul

Sad on several levels. McFaul resigns after two years as US ambassador in Moscow. He spoke out for gay rights, democracy; which may well have been counter-productive. As he says: “It’s easy to overestimate the coercive power of outsiders when dealing with Russia. Many times I’ve heard from civil-society leaders and members of the opposition that, in the name of a nice sound bite or photo op, we have done damage” (2,250 words)

Matthew Barney’s Mailer Mash-Up

Matthew Barney’s new film, River of Fundament, is a work of “pharaonic immodesty” loosely based on Norman Mailer’s “universally reviled” novel, Ancient Evenings. The “scatalogical excess” will “leave moviegoers covering their eyes”. It’s a mess, particularly towards the end, but an interesting one. “Barney, like Cocteau before him, understands that an element of camp or porn can be just the thing to recharge the old myths” (1,750 words)

Generation War

A German attempt to make a TV miniseries about WW2 hits all the wrong buttons. “The manipulation of sympathy, the defiance of historical realities, the insistence on showing the exception rather than the rule: These are practically requirements when it comes to making a middlebrow war movie. America has made plenty of them; but when the Germans do it, the rest of the world has a right to be concerned” (1,340 words)

Rediscovering Bartók’s Quartets

“There are moments in Bartók’s String Quartet No. 1 when the gloom lifts, when the densely woven musical lines pause for a spot of pure, consonant sunniness. In Beethoven or Brahms these rare and radiant episodes would bring the argument to a conclusion, or summation, before moving on with a new idea. But in Bartók the effect is almost visual. The music has been pierced, like sun through a canopy of trees” (1,620 words)

Sticker Shock In Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe is one of the poorest countries on the planet. But the prices of goods and services are up there with New York City. A five-minute cab ride to the grocery store costs $7. Coke: $2. Peanut butter: $4. Yogurt: $5. Haircut: $20. Two-week gym membership: $60. Why? Partly because of hyperinflation followed by dollarisation. People have lost their sense of what goods, or money, should be worth (5,240 words)

Bashar Al Assad: Intimate Profile Of A Mass Murderer

Bashar Al Assad used to be a relatively nice guy, but he has grown into his role as despot. He is playing the civil war as a long game, and he thinks he knows how it ends. “Calmly and deliberately, he has painted a picture that in the beginning was not completely accurate: The demonstrators, he said, were jihadists who would bring Afghanistan-type chaos to the country. Then he sat back and waited for it to become true” (5,500 words)

Neil Gaiman, Fantasy Writer

Profile. Lively and perceptive. “Gaiman is a master storyteller and the story he is paid to tell half the time right now is the story of being Neil Gaiman. Quite a lot of writers imagine themselves as a global brand with armies of publicists and fans to appease, but few of them actually expect to get there”. Bonus fact: “His parents were important members of the Church of Scientology in Britain, although he himself is no longer a member” (3,100 words)

The Least Known Masterpiece Of European Literature

Another awestruck review of Zibaldone, Giacomo Leopardi’s two-thousand-page notebook of ideas and reflections, finally available in a full English translation almost two centuries after it was written. Leopardi has long been recognised as a great poet; Zibaldone assures him a high place also in the history of ideas. His preoccupation is with linguistics and etymology, but his interests extend into music, history, psychology, and everything else (4,600 words)

The Problem With Moral Psychology

Review of Moral Tribes, by Joshua Greene, who teaches psychology at Harvard. Our moral values are largely geared the communities in which we live: They bind us together, which is good, but often against outsiders, which is less good. A special morality is needed to resolve conflicts between different communities, both internationally and within pluralistic societies that contain multiple moral communities (3,500 words)

How To Succeed As An Author: Give Up on Writing

“If you really want to write, the last thing you want to be is a success. Now that every village in the United Kingdom has its own literary festival, I could credibly spend my entire year jawing about what I’ve already written. A frenzied calendar is my fault. It is the natural consequence of a profound insecurity that, during a dozen long years when I lived a hair’s breadth from having no publisher at all, worked its way into my very bones” (1,800 words)

The New King Of Trash Publishing

Conversation with Jeremie Ruby-Strauss, editor at Simon & Schuster, who made his name publishing I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, and has been working his way downmarket ever since. His authors include Snooki and a Real Housewife Of Beverley Hills. “It shouldn’t be about the book but the money you can make from the book.” The best author is one who brings his or her own readership from a blog or Twitter feed (1,940 words)

Walmart Can Solve The Inequality Problem

How to nudge low-wage employers to pay above the poverty line. Put symbols and stickers on products to show they are “poverty-free” — meaning that no American involved in the manufacture or shipping makes less than $12.50 an hour. “Walmart could lead the way. On some items, they might want to try putting poverty-free and non-poverty-free items side by side on the shelf and see how many people go for each” (1,550 words)

The Andrew Wylie Rules

No-holds-barred interview with top literary agent about the evils of Amazon and the incompetence of traditional publishers. “The industry analyzes its strategies as though it were Procter and Gamble. It’s Hermès. It’s selling to a bunch of effete, educated snobs who read. Not very many people read. Most of them drag their knuckles around and quarrel and make money. We’re selling books. It’s a tiny little business” (2,390 words)

Margaret Atwood’s Frightening Words

Her latest novel, MaddAddam, completes a trilogy exploring bioengineering and transhumanism. She brings to bear “a sense of the tragic, a respect for the power of malevolence, a grasp of how things go awry … What you’ll take away is not the end of humanity — that happens in every novel these days—but the fertility of Atwood’s paranoia. Her trilogy teems with deliciously ghoulish skewerings of posthuman dreams” (1,290 words)

Britain’s New Isolationism

Kudos to the New Republic for its content-sharing deal with the New Statesman, and kudos again for kicking it off with this well-chosen piece of political commentary. “Britain’s retreat from military intervention in Syria has no proud author. Most of the Tory MPs who defied their whips thought they were dabbling in principled protest. None of them thought they were hijacking British foreign policy” (990 words)

In Defence Of The Wild Child

American schools want to abolish nonconformity. They demand “a composed, conforming kid who doesn’t externalize problems or talk too much or challenge the rules too frequently or move around excessively or complain about the curriculum or have passionate outbursts”. Children who don’t fit the model are assumed to need therapy. “We are stealing their childhoods. We’re suppressing their natural messy existence” (3,700 words)

Eight Stories About Being Gay In The New Russia

Just what the headline says. True tales of being gay and coming out. Lessons drawn: you’re pretty much sure to lose your job in any large organisation if you come out; new laws against “gay propaganda” have led to a “savage” hardening of public opinion; at best, you may find your family responds well; at worst, you may get killed. Linguistic footnote: “Kaming aut has become Moscow slang for any moment of honesty” (1,680 words)

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