Going to London for news of the US

For parts of my childhood on a sunny wooded hillside in California, we got our international news from this damp country where I now live, in the overseas weekly edition of what was then called the Manchester Guardian. We got that paper not because my parents had any connection to England – neither of them had even been there, or done any foreign travel at all other than my father’s time in the Pacific during the war. But it was still the depth of the Cold War and the escalation of the Vietnam war and the perspectives on international affairs published in US daily newspapers were, shall we say, limited. Hence the subscription.

So my breast wells warm with nostalgia to see in today’s Guardian that the US Army is blocking access to the Guardian on large parts of its network: the paper is still playing the same role of bringing in news that’s a bit hard to find at home.

Zoe Heller award nominee

Zoe Heller’s book reviews are skillful, gleeful demolitions, and fun to read. Hence the title of this post, which has no other connection to Heller. This artilce by Afiya Shehrbano comes close to Heller’s standard, and does so in the difficult territory of polygamy, provoked into action by Jemima Khan’s recent BBC program.

The Control Revolution

Brad DeLong helpfully links to Cosma Shalizi’s 1995 review of (the now late) James Beniger’s great book, The Control Revolution (first published 1986). It’s always worth recommending, though of Shalizi’s four-and-one-half complaints the most valid, in my view, is about Beniger’s long-windedness (and if Shalizi doesn’t like that aspect, he shouldn’t be complaining about Beniger’s failure to discuss the world outside of America, or the arts … think how long the book could have been!) My take on Beniger – and some comparison of his understanding of information and control in the economy with the similar view of Alfred Chandler and the very different one of Friedrich Hayek – can be found on pp. 98-102 of The Global Environment of Business.

Eric Hobsbawm – late interview

When I was first at Birkbeck, this guy was still a regular in the staff canteen – so I must be getting on a bit myself! The interviewer is the current Master of Birkbeck, David Latchman. The revelation that several of Hobsbawm’s best books were essentially his Birkbeck lecture notes does raise the bar for the rest of us, just a bit.

They read them so we don’t have to

Zoe Heller is among the many who’ve had a good time demolishing Naomi Wolf’s book Vagina in the New York Review of Books (such fun it has been reading the demolitions that I’d never consider reading the book itself, which couldn’t possibly be as good as the rollicking critiques). Heller has a nice way with the demolishing phrase. I liked this characterization of Roald Dahl’s stories for adults, from Heller’s review of his authorized biography: ‘[They] … tend to focus on perverse forms of human vengeance and cruelty. At their best, they have a sinister sort of élan. More often they evince an oddly naïve idea of “sophistication,” an adolescent confusion of amorality with worldliness’.

Ma Jian’s Odyssey

Red Dust (2002) is marketed as a travel book, and I picked it up because travel books are appreciated in my household – any interesting one is a good present to bring home. And it is a great travel book, an account of Ma’s wanderings around China in the mid-1980s, with the travel book requisites of an outsider’s empathetic but detached and wry observations about people and places we don’t know ourselves. The sense of the separation between places – especially in the countryside, where the country’s big cities, or any city at all, seem to have mythical status – is vividly conveyed, as are the institutions of party and state, which bind together and control even the most remote parts. Poverty and emerging wealth, material progress and pollution, cruelty and kindness are all delivered economically, showing rather than telling, mostly in sketches of people Ma meets and of their circumstances. Whether for understanding people, or the country in a particular period, the book is well worthwhile.

But if Red Dust is a travel book, then Homer’s Odyssey is a travel book. Continue reading

A beautiful teaching story

… although it doesn’t say much for the teacher training requirements in California in the late 1940s. From the New York Times’ obituary for Karl Benjamin, an abstract painter from Los Angeles:

he began teaching fifth and sixth grade in the public schools in Bloomington, Calif., where, in addition to the three R’s, state law required him to teach art. He had not thought much about the subject before.
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They read them so we don’t have to

From Sunday’s (London) Observer:

Victoria Coren explains that what draws readers to Fifty Shades of Grey is not sex, but – I’ll let her explain why – pancakes and maple syrup.

Which will not be as kinky as some had hoped, but probably taste better than stale British upper crust: Alexander Larman reviews discards the Memoirs of former Times editor William Rees-Mogg:

“Meaningless name-dropping … Virtually everybody significant in his life he met while up at Oxford… Pooterish banality … collection of measured banalities and grandly privileged utterances.”

The review is followed by a helpful link for ordering the book.

Canal towpath as security threat

The Olympics have actually emptied much of London. I cycled in to work yesterday, and it was quiet. Russell Square, between the tube station of the same name and the British Museum, has been made into some sort of Olympic(TM) bus hub, with all the regular bus stops closed. There aren’t many cars about. A student came to see me at 5pm and had to get security to let her in because our building was locked up tight – usually, the front door’s open until 9. All very nice, if you’re riding a bike, though I expect most restaurants in central London will lose quite a bit from this big festival.
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