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18/11/2008

Magazine Roundup

Magazine Roundup, which appears every Tuesday at 12 p.m., is originally published by Perlentaucher.

Portfolio | Bookforum | Gazeta Wyborcza | The New Yorker | Polityka | The Economist | Le Monde diplomatique | London Review of Books | HVG | The New Republic | Al Ahram Weekly | The New York Review of Books | Le Nouvel Observateur | Magyar Narancs | The Guardian


Portfolio 11.11.2008 (USA)

The writer and former market analyst Michael Lewis has written the best reportage yet on the financial crisis. Gripping as a murder mystery, it explains the background in language the general reader can actually understand. His hero is another analyst, Steve Eisman, who earlier than most, recognised the ramshackle and degenerate state of the real estate market, speculated against CDOs and at some point, realised that by shorting the market he was actually feeding it liquidity. "The second company for which Eisman [as an analyst for Ames Financial in the 90s] was given sole responsibility was Lomas Financial, which had just emerged from bankruptcy. 'I put a sell rating on the thing because it was a piece of shit,' Eisman says. 'I didn't know that you weren't supposed to put a sell rating on companies. I thought there were three boxes—buy, hold, sell—and you could pick the one you thought you should.' He was pressured generally to be a bit more upbeat, but upbeat wasn't Steve Eisman's style. Upbeat and Eisman didn't occupy the same planet. (...) 'You have to understand,' Eisman says in his defense, 'I did subprime first. I lived with the worst first. These guys lied to infinity. What I learned from that experience was that Wall Wall Street didn’t give a shit what it sold.'"


Bookforum 01.12.2008 (USA)

Keith Gessen read William V. Spanos's biography "The Legacy of Edward W. Said" as high intellectual drama, which places Said in the poststructuralist, antihumanist camp: "This means, for Spanos, placing him in the tradition of Heidegger and the later Foucault instead of Adorno and Gramsci. This doesn't sound terribly interesting or important, but in truth it's weirdly moving. First, you must imagine Spanos. As he reveals toward the end of the book, he was born in 1925. A first-generation Greek immigrant to America, he had barely arrived in Europe to fight the Nazis when he was taken prisoner. Like Kurt Vonnegut, who was in his division, he saw the Allies' vicious firebombing of civilian Dresden. 'I now believe the Dresden attack,' he writes, 'like the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the indiscriminate B-52 bombing of North Vietnam, to have constituted mass murder in its utter indifference to human life.' With his fellow POWs, Spanos was forced to clear the rubble looking for bodies. Very early on, then, he developed a jaundiced view of 'American exceptionalism' - and also, maybe, some small exposure to German culture."


Gazeta Wyborcza 15.11.2008 (Poland)

Ukrainian writer Yuri Andrukhovych is deeply concerned. The tribal factionalism in his country is not making relations with the west any easier, and the Europeans are not offering Ukraine much - visa easing, for example. He also touches on Russia's influence: "The majority of Ukrainians associate the neighbours with a high standard of living and a large labour market. Thanks to oil and gas the GDP is much higher there than in our country. We share the same media world as Russia – despite the official ban on broadcasting Russian TV. You could say that the average Ukrainian family shares a living room with the Russians. And the Ukrainians who mentally live in Russia might be decreasing in number, but they still represent over half our population."


The New Yorker 24.11.2008 (USA)

This edition is all about food and drink. Burkhard Bilger examines the growing appetite for unusual beers. He portrays Sam Calagione of the Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware, which has even concocted a beer with fresh oysters and constructed a huge barrel from Palo Santo wood to lend the beer some Inca spice. (It's slogan: "Eccentric beer for eccentric people"). "America used to be full of odd beers. In 1873, the country had some four thousand breweries, working in dozens of regional and ethnic styles. Brooklyn alone had nearly fifty. Beer was not only refreshing but nutritious, it was said - a 'valuable substitute for vegetables,' as a member of the United States Sanitary Commission put it during the Civil War. (...) In America, brewers have long followed the German model: our major industrial breweries were all founded by German-Americans. But Calagione and others have lately wandered over to the Belgian side - and kept on going. 'I'd probably be arrested, tarred and feathered, if I stepped off a plane in Berlin,' Calagione told me." (Probably only in Bavaria. In the rest of Germany, his product would be sold not as beer, but as oyster lemonade with a woody beer note.)

Further articles: Calvin Trillin spills the beans on where to get the world's best Texan BBQ. And James Surowiecki explains how we got ourselves into the current food crisis.


Polityka 14.11.2008 (Poland)

Separation of Church and state? There's not a hint of this in Polish schools, as Joanna Podgorska reports. Religion is not only a school subject, "it has extraterritorial status in schools. The Church decides on the form and content of religious education and the ministry of education has no say at all. The bishops have exclusive control on filling catechist positions. (...) In many schools the catechist fulfils the function of an ideology officer, who ensures that the Church's recommendations are followed in school life. 'In my school they managed to schedule the timetable so that religion was taught either at the beginning or the end of the school day. The low attendance levels which followed prompted the priest to inform the city council. The headmistress had to explain herself and change the timetable,' reports a maths teacher from Stettin. Another describes how a priest put a stop to the dungeons & dragons group at his lyceum, because he thought it was satanist."

The Economist 17.11.2008 (UK)

Don Tapscott, the man who christened the "net generation" in his 1997 bestseller "Growing Up Digital," has spent the past two years researching for his new book "Grown Up Digital", in which he shows that our computer-savvy youngsters are not the no-brainers they are made out to be: "'As the first global generation ever, the Net Geners are smarter, quicker and more tolerant of diversity than their predecessors,' Mr Tapscott argues. 'These empowered young people are beginning to transform every institution of modern life.' They care strongly about justice, and are actively trying to improve society - witness their role in the recent Obama campaign, in which they organised themselves through the internet and mobile phones and campaigned on YouTube. Mr Tapscott's prescient chapter on 'The Net Generation and Democracy: Obama, Social Networks and Citizen Engagement' alone should ensure his book a wide readership."


Le Monde diplomatique 17.11.2008 (Germany / France)

"Eight years after its first real democratic elections, Mexico is a land of blood and bullets," writer Juan Villoro takes stock bitterly. "Undisguised addiction to instant gratification has linked arms with impunity in Mexico. The world of drugs and the over-valuation of the present come to fruition in a triad of fast money, heavily armed crime and the dominance of secrecy. Past and future, traditional values and optimistic plans are stripped of meaning in such surroundings. Only the here and now exists: the market place of mood where you can have five wives, or a killer for 1,000 and a judge for 2,000 dollars, where you can live on the margins of good taste and normality, between hideously gaudy Versace shirts and giraffes of solid gold, bits of jewellery which look like rain-forest insects, a watch for 300,000 dollars or ostrich leather boots in turquoise. (...) And everyone gets their fifteen minutes of impunity."

And the historian Eric Hobsbawm advises the USA to learn a lesson from the British empire. "The British occupied and ruled over a larger part of the world and its inhabitants than any other state before or after it, but they knew that they would never have world dominion. Which is why they never attempted to achieve it. Instead they tried to create as much stability in the world as their interests required. But they did not try to dictate to the rest of the world."

London Review of Books 20.11.2008 (UK)

Michael Wood is fascinated (if not in every detail) by new book featuring Kafka's legal and clerical writing. The word Kafkaesque takes on an entirely new meaning for him. "Reading these office writings I began to wonder whether the Kafkaesque is not, as the /OED/ tautologically says, the name of a 'state of affairs or a state of mind described by Kafka', but rather a form of strangeness that is more ordinary than we think. We call it strange because we want it to be strange. Kafka didn't simply describe it, and he didn't invent it. He blew its cover, and more important still, revealed its alarming frequency. It's not for nothing that one of his weirdest, most wonderful stories is called 'A Common Confusion', literally 'an everyday confusion'. In an afterword to 'The Office Writings', Jack Greenberg, a lawyer on the case, recalls the 1954 US Supreme Court decision on 'Brown v. Board of Education', which instructed school administrators to desegregate with 'all deliberate speed', that is, either as quickly as possible or as slowly as possible, take your pick. He also mentions a more recent district court opinion regarding the phrase 'no longer enemy combatants', used of people who may never have been enemy combatants at all. The opinion itself in this case uses the word 'Kafkaesque'. Elsewhere in the volume the editors employ the word to characterise 'terminological inaccuracy' and the practice of 'calculating with dubious figures'. These usages are mildly opposed to each other, or mark out a range from deliberate ambiguity to helpless incoherence, but that is precisely the scope of the word, and we cannot pretend that any place on the spectrum is really unknown to us."

Further articles: the writer and editor-in-chief of n+1, Keith Gessen, who currently lives with his grandmother in Moscow, describes how the financial crisis in now impacting Russia. In an online exclusive, Slavoj Zizek explains why he is not interested in joining the Obama sceptics from the radical left, or right, and explains why this is just another illustration of cynical naivete. Among the reviews we read about two CDs featuring audio recordings of British authors – Andrew O'Hagan is shocked to discover that Arthur Conan Doyle sounds exactly like Gordon Brown. Author Tim Parks writes about "Gomorra" the book, which he found very convincing, and "Gomorra" the film, which disappointed him.


HVG 15.11.2008 (Hungary)

Aladar Horvath, the chairman of the Roma Civil Rights Foundation in Hungary gives a euphoric welcome to the US president elect and asks when it will be possible in Eastern Europe to elect a head of state from an ethnic minority. "We shouldn't hold our breath. [...] Obama's fantastic election victory can at least give a lot of Roma children 'the courage to hope': Yes, we can. It is very rare that a potential Obama makes it out of the oppressive enclaves of the Gypsy ghettos, because the swamp pulls them down. [...] Even though every epoch, this one included, produces its own Roma Obamas. The question is when Hungarian society will be in the position tp see Hungary's Roma as equal citizens or even as potential saviours of the country. Only then will it be possible for us to occupy high political offices or even become head of state. But today, Hungary seems to be pushing in the opposite direction. While the world celebrates Obama, here – especially in the countryside – the 'Klu-Klux-Klan' is gaining power. This monster is driven by Nazi ideology and the 'democratic constitutional state' – unconcerned for the country's international reputation – has proved feeble in comparison."


The New Republic 03.12.2008 (USA)

Despite the somewhat distanced tone to his article, Noam Schreiber does seem rather impressed by the collection of headstrong individuals on Obama's staff. Like the future chief of staff, Rahm Emanuael "one of the most volatile and profane people ever to don a congressional lapel pin" Then there's the famously "famously undisciplined" Vice President Joe Biden. And Obama's campaign managers, David Axelrod and David Plouffe, both famous for not mincing their words. For Schreiber this "reflects a side of Obama that's often overlooked: His taste in confidants runs toward the strong-willed and direct. Thanks to his writer's sensibility,Obama tends to view such specimens with anthropological fascination. Lest anyone forget, he chose as his pastor Jeremiah Wright, a man who rivals Laurence Olivier in his flair for the dramatic. These days, one of Obama's most trusted aides is a salty Southerner named Robert Gibbs, who first signed on as a communications strategist for the 2004 Senate race. Gibbs is known for his unyielding bluntness with the boss. One day at the outset of his Senate term, Obama sidled up to Gibbs and asked him to name the president of Tanzania. 'Who the fuck cares?' was Gibbs's response, according to Obama biographer David Mendell. Obama began to laugh."

Adam Kirsch picks apart Slavoj Zizek. All that talk about violence wasn't meant like that? Nonsense. Irony, all of it? Absurd. Zizek is so left he's can almost see the fascists, Kirsch writes. The Slovenian philosopher doesn't give a damn: Kirsch quotes him (pdf, p. 29)as saying: "There is a lesson to be learned from Hermann Goering's reply, in the early 1940s, to a fanatical Nazi who asked him why he protected a well-known Jew from deportation: 'In this city, I decide who is a Jew!'... In this city, it is we who decide what is left, so we should simply ignore liberal accusations of inconsistency."


Al Ahram Weekly 13.11.2008 (Egypt)

Nehad Selaiha is over the moon about Sameh Mahran's political satire "Puzzle One", which the playwright directed himself: ""Mahran managed to distill the essence of what it meant to be alive and growing up in the 1950s and 60s and living through the cataclysmic 1967 military defeat." It is the story of the young Laila who is forced by her father, a feudalist pasha, into a marriage with one of the stooges of the new regime. "Chafing under the yoke of this travesty of a marriage, Laila (a palpable symbol of Egypt) insists on calling the daughter it produces 'A Lie', escapes into western fantasies of sexual freedom by conjuring up the phantom of Emma Bovary and making of her a bosom friend, falls in love with an inflatable rubber doll in the image of popular singer Abdel-Halim Hafiz, the idol of the 1960s and 'voice of the revolution', as he was often officially described, indulges her physical cravings in a shabby extra-marital liaison with a self-confessed gigolo and dirty blackmailer, consents to having her daughter's legs lopped off to stop her dancing on the advice of a crazy psychiatrist, and ends up a lonely, sad woman, robbed of all illusions, pathetically hugging her rubber image of Halim, now pierced flat." (Here and here some wonderful videos starring Abdel-Halim Hafiz)

The New York Review of Books 04.12.2008 (USA)

Mark Danner looks at scandal as a growth industry in the US. Scandal which "unpurged and unresolved unpurged and unresolved, transcends political reality to become commercial fact." And the tolerance level of the public is high:"'Now you have shown independence, commendable independence,' Barack Obama said to John McCain in the third debate, 'on some key issues – torture, for example.' Torture has metamorphosed, these past few years, from an execrable war crime to a 'key issue.' From something forbidden by international treaty and condemned by domestic law to...something to be debated. Something one can stand on either side of. Something we can live with. The story of how this happened is long and elaborate but one thing is clear: it has not happened for lack of revelation."

And Ian Buruma describes the Kirchner exhibition which has just ended in the MoMA. George Soros makes some suggestions of what to do about the financial crisis. The magazine also prints an interview that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave the paper Yedioth Ahronoth. There are reviews of a number of books on Iraq, books by Paul Auster and Sue Halpern's book "Can't Remember What I Forgot: The Good News from the Front Lines of Memory Research"

Le Nouvel Observateur 13.11.2008 (France)

Do we face a future of drinking water wars? After writing "White Plantations. A Journey through the Globalised World", a book about the cotton production, Erik Orsenna, has now turned his attentions to the problem of the uneven distribution of drinking water. Now that a third of world's population has no access to drinking water – "the minimum amount of water required to sustain life is one freely accessible tap per street" – he explains in an interview, adding that the water deficit is a man-made problem. "Water is not oil. Oil is running dry, water isn't. Global warming is melting the ice, annual rainfall is increasing and the water cycle is intensifying. ... This cycle is quite natural. What is not natural is the intensification of this cycle through human intervention: in fifty years time regions which had water already, will have more; and those that had none will have to prepare to get even less! And all the while the world's population is growing and concentrating in the cities! And these climactic inequalities will be compounded by brutal economic inequalities. Too much or too little water: the future of mankind is increasingly violent."


Magyar Narancs 13.11.2008 (Hungary)

To help Hungary fend off looming state bankruptcy brought on by the global economic turmoil, the IMF has pledged a 25 billion dollar loan package. To guarantee this loan, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany announced a pay freeze for the civil service, to which the civil service unions promptly responded by threatening strike action. The weekly paper Magyar Narancs fears that the political instability that would result from such strikes could squander Hungary's last chance to save itself. "The government and the civil servants are just going to have to reach an agreement somehow. The government cannot give in; and it of little comfort that if does collapse, the next government could not give in either. The road ahead is narrow. (...) If they cannot build consensus, it's all over for Hungary. And whoever wins the elections in the 2010 election - will have to go to start again with cave painting."


The Guardian 17.11.2008 (UK)

The novelist Jeanette Winterson remembers how she clung to a poem in her grim teenage years. She was 16 years old and her mother tolerated no books in the house except the Bible and mystery stories and was on the brink of throwing Jeanette out for having sex with another girl. One day Jeanette was sent to the library to fetch a book for her mother – "Murder in the Cathedral". "She thought it was a saga of homicidal monks. In the library, I opened it - it looked a bit short for a mystery story. I hadn't heard of TS Eliot, but I read the line about "sudden painful joy" and I started to cry. Readers looked up reproachfully, and the librarian reprimanded me, because in those days you weren't even allowed to sneeze in a library, and so I took the book outside and read it all the way through, sitting on the steps in the usual northern gale. The unfamiliar and beautiful play made things bearable that day, and the things it made bearable were another failed family (I am adopted, so being packed off for a second time was very hard), the confusion of sexuality, and the straightforward practical problems of where to live, what to eat and how to get on with my A-levels. So when people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn't be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language - and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers - a language powerful enough to say how it is."

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