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Writing Worth Reading

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 Uses Of Adversity

All of the New Yorker’s content is temporarily available free on line while the web site is updated; browse and enjoy previously gated favourites. Here is a Malcolm Gladwell piece on a very Gladwellian theme: how an underdog can triumph. The case study is that of Sidney Weinberg, who rose through Goldman Sachs from janitor’s assistant at 16 to senior partner at 40, making his outsider status work in his favour (4,424 words)

Musical Gold

Portrait of three thirty-ish New York siblings, the Carpenters, who deal in rare stringed instruments. They can find you a good Stradivarius “in the low millions”. They seem pretty accomplished at selling themselves, too: “The combined effect of their personalities can feel overwhelming, like an elixir that is more potent than anticipated”. Their aim is to create “the Gagosian gallery of the fine-instrument business” (6,960 words)

After The Crash

Commentary on the crisis in Ukraine, with remarks from former Kremlin spin-doctor Gleb Pavlovsky, who thinks Putin has gone too far: “The audience is warmed up and ready to go. It is waiting for more and more conflict. You can’t just say, ‘Calm down’. It’s a dangerous moment. Forty per cent of Russia wants real war with Ukraine. Putin himself doesn’t want war with Ukraine. Putin needs to lower the temperature” (1,110 words)

Wrong Answer

Sad, moving, almost tragic tale. Principal and teachers of desperately struggling middle school in Atlanta start rigging pupils’ test scores to raise overall grades and save school from closure, with connivance of local education authorities. Everybody means well. The pupils have no part in it. The scheme works, but too well. The implausibly good scores are flagged by a local newspaper, and investigators move in (9,000 words)

Gay, Jewish, Mentally Ill, And A Sponsor Of Gypsies

The author returns to Romania, whence his grandparents fled pogroms and poverty. “I looked at the local peasants and thought that, if their forefathers had not burned down the houses of mine, mine wouldn’t have left. And I looked at what had happened to us in two generations, and looked at what hadn’t happened to them in two or three, and instead of feeling outraged by their history of aggression I felt privileged by it” (2,370 words)

New York’s Shadow Transit

Riding New York’s unofficial public-transport system — the “dollar vans” which go where subways and buses don’t; mostly out to low-income neighbourhoods with large immigrant populations. Vans from Chinatown link Chinese communities in Elmhurst, Flushing, and Sunset Park. Travel comes with all the comforts and discomforts of home: “It could easily be a ride on a bus in rural China” (2,900 words)

Sixty-Nine Days: The Ordeal of The Chilean Miners

How 33 Chilean miners survived for two months, a mile below ground, after their mine collapsed around them. Their rations: One can of salmon, one can of peaches, one can of peas, eighteen cans of tuna, twenty-four litres of milk (eight of which turned out to be spoiled), ninety-three packages of cookies, and ten litres of bottled water. “In exchange for good wages, the men accepted the possibility of death” (13,600 words)

Save The Elephants

The rise of terrorism and the weakness of governments in parts of Africa is putting elephants at risk of extinction after a quarter-century of successful conservation. Some 45,000 African elephants — about 10% of the surviving population — have been slaughtered for their tusks in the past three years. Rare breeds of rhinoceros are also being wiped out; rhino horn sells in Vietnam for $25,000 a pound (1,130 words)

How “Frozen” Took Over The World

Disney’s latest classic, “Frozen”, is already the highest-grossing animated film ever, not to say the fifth-most-popular film of all time. But why? Its central elements are common to many children’s films: dead parents, royalty and palaces, the quest for true love, intervals of slapstick. The winning difference seems to be the character of Elsa the princess: She means well but does harm. Everyone can identify with that (2,340 words)

The Absolutist

Full-length portrait of Ted Cruz, US Senator, Tea-Party Republican, likely presidential contender in 2016, brilliant debater, “best appellate litigator in the state of Texas”. He denies man-made climate change, opposes comprehensive immigration reform, rejects marriage equality, wants Obamacare repealed. “His message is that, on the issues, a Cruz Presidency would be roughly identical to a Sarah Palin Presidency” (8,570 words)

Screenwriting Isn’t Writing

Scott Fitzgerald failed as a screenwriter because he didn’t understand the process. He thought screenwriting was like novel-writing, and his job was to write a finished script. He didn’t understand that screenwriting was a collaborative effort in which the screenwriter’s role is to provide material for the director to work with, and other hands will pitch in. William Faulkner, no less a writer, understood this and thrived (1,690 words)

Isis’s Savage Strategy In Iraq

Illuminating note on the ideology of Isis and its differences with Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda sought to be “a kind of Sunni foreign legion, which would defend Muslim lands from Western occupation”. The aim of Isis and its forerunners was and is to provoke a Sunni-Shiite civil war, starting in Iraq, that will destroy the states of the Middle East and open the way for a fundamentalist Muslim caliphate (1,015 words)

The Disruption Machine Pick of the day

Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruption, accepted across American industry as “the gospel of innovation”, is wobbly at best. It rests on a group of handpicked case studies that prove little or nothing. The first of them gets the disk-drive industry quite wrong: “Most of the entrant firms celebrated by Christensen as triumphant disrupters no longer exist, their success having been in some cases brief and in others illusory” (6,000 words)

The Madness Of Queen Jane

Jane Bowles. “Hard drinking, hard living, and neurotic, the outlines of Jane’s exhaustingly dramatic persona very often overshadowed her art. At forty, while living in Tangier, she suffered a debilitating stroke that would send her into premature convalescence. She died sixteen years later, alone, in a Spanish convent. And yet her literary output, small but perfect, puts her on a stylistic planet all her own” (3,300 words)

What We Left Behind

Prescient portrait of Iraq’s prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, shortly before the election that returned him to power. The threat of Sunni insurgence could be said then to work in Maliki’s favour, at least in the sectarian calculus of Iraqi politics; his fellow-Shiites rallied round to vote for him. But with the election past, the insurgents have grown stronger still, taking Mosul. Maliki and his country are in danger (11,200 words)

Partial Recall

Profile of Daniela Schiller, specialist in affective neuroscience, daughter of Holocaust survivor, researcher into connections between memory and fear. “She and a growing number of her colleagues have a more ambitious goal: to find a way to rewrite our darkest memories”. False memories can be created by suggestion. Can true but insupportable memories — of suffering, addiction — be physically removed? (6,627 words)

Tiananmen At Twenty-Five

Eyewitness accounts of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 were so plentiful at the time, that “publishing houses worldwide were rejecting them, citing the saturation of the market”. But now within China the event has been airbrushed from public history. If the violence is mentioned at all, it is portrayed as something “insignificant in the grand scheme, because it came amid broader gains in human development” (1,350 words)

Those Who Frighten China

After a double car-bombing kills 43 in Urumqi, apparently the work of Islamist radicals, China comes to terms with domestic terrorism, to which it may be peculiarly susceptible: “The only way to truly wage war on the state is to alarm the majority — to shake their faith in the state and its ability to protect any of its citizens adequately, thereby undermining the legitimacy of a regime that has left its minorities so little recourse” (780 words)

Translating “Frozen” Into Arabic

Disney has opted to translate “Frozen” into Modern Standard Arabic, rather than the more usual Egyptian Arabic. A curious decision. The effect is rather akin to using the English of the King James Bible. The chorus of ‘Let It Go’ renders roughly as: “Discharge thy secret! I shall not bear the torment! … I dread not all that shall be said! Discharge the storm clouds! The snow instigateth not lugubriosity within me” (1,370 words)

Inheritance: Edward St. Aubyn Pick of the day

Profile of the novelist as “monster of snobbery”, recovering drug addict, “sorrowful egomaniac” and survivor of an extraordinary life combining inheritance, abuse, hedonism, eventual literary success. Koestler and Ayer were family friends; the Duc de Talleyrand a step-grandparent. St Aubyn has “the unhurried accent of English privilege that is part of his inheritance from a father who tortured him” (12,500 words)

The Chaos Engulfing Eastern Ukraine

How civil war begins. “The fighting has taken on its own grinding, self-perpetuating momentum, independent of developments taking place in Kiev, Moscow, or the West. An array of militia forces on both sides launch attacks almost daily, and within each respective camp the proliferating paramilitary brigades do not necessarily communicate, or even care for one another. The men with guns are the ones in charge now” (2,780 words)

Sixty Years Later, We Need A New Brown

America is ending affirmative action programmes long before they have finished their intended job of restoring social equality to historically disadvantaged minorities. New concern about inequality of wealth is replacing old concern about racial disadvantage. Segregation is returning de facto to schools. The political philosophy behind Brown vs Board of Education needs to be revived, not retired (2,450 words)

The World As We Know It

Zia Haider Rahman’s “dazzling” novel, In the Light of What We Know, is “astonishingly achieved for a first book”. Two friends meet after forty years; this is their conversation. “It is wide-armed, hospitable, disputatious, worldly, cerebral. Ideas and provocations abound on every page, and if they sometimes seem a little carelessly abandoned, there is nonetheless an atmosphere of intellectual pluripotency” (4,000 words)

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