Archive for March, 2014

The man who tried to stop the Holocaust: Jan Karski’s “report to the world”

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

Last year, Georgetown University Press republished Jan Karski‘s nearly 500-page Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World.  Alex Storozynski, president of the Kosciuszko Foundation, wrote about the man who tried to stop the Holocaust in the Huffington Post here.  The Kosciuszko Foundation kindly awarded Humble Moi a grant for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz a few years back – let me take a moment here to thank the organization; they do good stuff.

Karski was a liaison officer of the Polish underground, who infiltrated both the Warsaw Ghetto and a German concentration camp and then carried the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust. We’ve written about him here and here.  An excerpt from Storozynski’s weekend piece:

First published in 1944, Karski’s book reads like a spy novel on steroids. But you can’t make this stuff up. The truth is indeed more horrible than fiction. That’s why first hand accounts of the war such as The Diary of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel‘s Night, and Karski’s Story of a Secret State must be kept alive for posterity’s sake. Georgetown University Press has reissued Karski’s report to the world with a foreword by Madeleine Albright, an essay by Yale professor Timothy Snyder, and an afterword by Zbigniew Brzezinski that give context to Karski’s memoir 70 years after it was first published.

With the World War II generation nearly gone, opportunities to preserve their memories are fading. Brzezinski was a teenager and his father was a diplomat in Canada during the war when Karski came to visit. Brzezinski was stunned to see that Karski’s “wrists were badly slashed and cut and were healing.” After being arrested and tortured by the Germans, Karski was not sure if he could keep the Underground’s secrets, so he tried to kill himself.

karski2Polish Underground operatives were often equipped with cyanide in case they were captured, and Poles who collaborated with the Germans were killed. Whenever the Underground attacked the occupying German army, the Nazis took retribution with mass murders of Polish civilians. Poles where randomly put up against the wall and shot for minor infractions. Albright writes, “The Nazi’s demanded submission, the Underground mandated resistance. The residents of occupied Poland lived under two wholly incompatible systems of justice and law.” …

The Polish Underground told the world what was going on. Karski secretly traveled to the West, smuggling details about the Holocaust to the Allies. As early as 1942, Karski snuck microfilm out of Poland that resulted in a pamphlet called The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland.

Snyder points out that Karski’s “incontestable heroism reminds us that the Allies knew about the Holocaust but were not much interested.”

Read the rest here.

Susan Sontag to writers everywhere: “Stay home!”

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

sontagThe book has been in my bedside stack for awhile now, but I didn’t realize quite how long awhile until I reread the note that came with it, on cream-colored Yale University Press letterhead, dated 2 October, 2013. “Dear Cynthia, All yours.”

Steve Wasserman, editor at large, had kindly sent me Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stones Interview by Jonathan Cott. The original interview ran in The Rolling Stone in 1979 – but only a third of the twelve hours of conversations were published, hence this book. From the fly jacket: “Few modern intellectuals relished the art of the interview more than Susan Sontag. She embraced the process of thinking out loud. She spoke to Cott not in sentences but in measured and expansive paragraphs. He was struck by her ‘exactitude’ and ‘moral and linguistic fine-tuning’ – as she had once described Henry James‘s writing style. She would confide in her journals that ‘I am hooked on talk as a creative dialogue’ and added: ‘For me, it’s the principal medium of my salvation.'”

I began almost immediately penciling in arguments, cross-references, and approval in the margins. The text is addictive. But what might the Book Haven reader like to read?  Here’s a favorite excerpt:

… you’re not a public celebrity who gossips in the media about whom you’re going out with.

Well, what serious writer ever did?

I could go through a list.

But those people have destroyed themselves as writers. I think it’s death to one’s work to do that. Surely, the body of the work of writers such as Hemingway or Truman Capote would be on a higher level if they hadn’t been public figures. There is a choice between the work and the life. It’s not only a choice between how much you manifest yourself in the ways that the media invite you to, but just how much you go out altogether.

There’s a story of Jean Cocteau – to take an example of a writer I really admire – who, when he was in his late teens or early twenties, went to see Proust, who was already in his cork-lined room. Cocteau brought him some of his work, and Proust said, You really could be a great writer, but you have to be careful about society. Go out a little bit, but don’t make it a main part of your life. And Proust spoke as someone who, in the early part of his life, had lived a very social, what we would call café-society or jet-set life in Paris, but he knew that there was a time when you had to choose between the work and the life. It’s not just a question of whether you’re going to give interviews or talk about yourself – it’s a question of how much you live in society, in that vulgar sense of society – and of having a lot of silly times that seem glamorous to you and other people.


Be careful.

But think of the Goncourt Brothers, who wouldn’t have written what they did unless they frequented parties almost every night in Paris during the Second Empire. In a way, they were extraordinarily brilliant but high-class gossip types.

They were also social historians using both the novel and documentary forms. Even Balzac did that. The problem, however, is a little different in the twentieth century since the opportunities are so much greater. I’m not saying that one has to be in a cork-lined room, but I think that one must have enormous discipline, and the vocation of the writer is, in some deep way, antisocial, just as it is for painters. Somebody once asked Picasso why he never traveled – he never took trips or went abroad. He went from Spain to Paris and then moved to the south of France, but he never went anywhere. And he said: I travel in my head. I do think there are those choices, and perhaps you don’t feel them so much when you’re young – and probably you shouldn’t – but later on, if you want to go beyond something that is simply good or promising to the real fulfillment and risk-taking of a big body of work, then that only becomes a possibility for a writer or a painter after years of work, and you have to stay home.”

Mark Twain in the Monkey Block … plus a San Francisco joke

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

The Monkey Block then…

Here’s a local riddle:


… and now.

Questioner: What’s the best vantage point for viewing San Francisco?

Respondent:  I don’t know, Book Haven, what’s the best vantage point for viewing San Francisco?

Questioner: The Transamerica Building.

Respondent: Why the Transamerica Building, Book Haven?

Questioner: Because it’s the only vantage point in San Francisco where you won’t see the Transamerica Building.


Local boy makes good.

On the other hand, you could enter a time machine and go back to oh, say, about the mid-19th century. Then you’d avoid it completely. Above, you can see what the Montgomery block, at 628 Montgomery Street, looked like when it was the home of a slew of literary Bohemians, among them Bret Harte and Mark Twain. According to the caption, “Lovingly known as the Monkey Block, the 1853 building was demolished in 1959; the Transamerica Pyramid now stands in its place.”  Before and after, which is better?  You decide.

San Francisco Chronicle book editor John McMurtrie dropped us a line earlier today. He thought those of us on his mailing list might get a kick out of the photo gallery he’s put together on Twain’s time in San Francisco. He was inspired by Ben Tarnoff’s new book, The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature. You, too, can see the fruit of John’s labors here.

Another photo in the series: Green Street in San Francisco, looking west, during the memorial march for President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. After the assassination, Harte’s column in the Californian praised this “simple-minded, uncouth, and honest” westerner who, in Tarnoff’s words, “liberated America from the cultural choke hold of New England.”  We’re still working on that, Mr. Tarnoff. It’ll come.


Baltic masterpiece in English at last, in a PEN-awarded translation

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

tammsaare2Since regaining independence in 1991, Estonia has attracted international acclaim in many spheres, but notably in high-tech with the invention of Skype, the development of e-government, and the decision to teach computer coding to school children. In recent weeks, it has been back in the news, but this time because of Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Estonia and her Baltic neighbors worry that their neighbor’s expansionist actions could mean that they are next. After all, in 1940, the Soviet Union swallowed up Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and the nations ceased to exist for five decades. Balts know that in 2005, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin described the breakup of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical disaster of the last century.”

This contemporary backdrop makes the translation of  Anton Hansen Tammsaare’s Tõde ja õigus or Truth and Justice timely and relevant for international observers. Expanding access to a nation’s literary canon, particularly one that is not well known in the West, is critical for understanding that country’s values and worldview. (Read more about the effort here, or go to the publisher’s website, which offers a free pdf version of the book’s first chapter and ordering information for the luxury collector’s edition, here.  The page also includes background on the book and author: “Written during the rise of dictators – Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini – the social epic captures the evolution of Estonia from Tsarist province to independent state. Based partly on the author’s own life, Truth and Justice explores the contrast between the urban middle class and the hard-working peasantry. Tammsaare draws an ironic portrait of urban intellectuals who have absorbed the middle and upper class mores and abandoned their moral principles.”


This is the story of how the translation of Truth and Justice happened, as told by my friend and colleague, the journalist Lisa Trei, who is the daughter of one of the translators, the late Alan Trei.



Translator and daughter

When I moved to Estonia in October 1990 to work as a reporter and teach journalism, I didn’t speak a word of the language or know much about a place known as the “Soviet West.” With its long food lines and Soviet soldiers, it certainly didn’t feel like the West. Despite the challenges of daily life, I longed to connect with and understand the country my grandparents had emigrated from in the 1920s and to which I had moved during the waning days of the Soviet empire. I scoured bookshops and kiosks for anything published about Estonia in English. Very little was available, and anything I could find was usually dull and translated into stilted, awkward prose.


I was familiar with Kalevipoeg, Estonia’s national epic, but I hadn’t read Tõde ja õigus, which is regarded as “The Estonian Novel.” My colleagues at Tartu University and The Estonian Independent talked reverently about its author, Anton Hansen Tammsaare (1878-1940), explaining that he understood the national psyche and, therefore, I should read him. If only I could. The closest I could get to Tammsaare was a statue of him in a park next to Tallinn’s elegant opera house. Truth and Justice was added to the list of books I would read if I ever mastered Estonia’s famously difficult language.


I ended up living in Tallinn and Tartu for six years, and witnessed firsthand the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the rebirth of independent Estonia. During that time I married an Estonian, acquired Estonian citizenship, and learned the language—but not well enough to read literature and poetry. The novels that lined the bookshelves of my friends’ homes remained a mystery; a closed door that prevented me from gaining deeper insights into the unspoken cultural and psychological cues of a nation famous for reticence and introspection. I gained first-hand exposure to these traits in my Estonian husband, a man of few words (so few we later divorced). I had already experienced this in my Estonian grandmother, Alice Roost Trei, whom I loved dearly even when she just stared at me in silence as we sat together in her Manhattan kitchen. When I asked her why she did this, her deadpan response was typically Estonian: “There’s nothing better to look at.”



As close as she could get before…

Despite an Estonian upbringing, my father inherited the brash countenance of his hometown of New York City. Alan Trei was opinionated, intelligent, and often infuriating. He loved books, reciting poetry, and singing show tunes out of key in the car. While his parents rarely wasted words, my father loved telling stories. But he was also thoughtful. From the mid-60s to the mid-80s, our family lived overseas in five European countries. When people complained about the stereotypical loud Yankee, my father would say, “You don’t hear the quiet ones.”


My dad visited me frequently during the years I lived in Estonia. At some point, he met Inna Feldbach, a translator I worked with on stories about Estonia’s ethnic Russians. The early 1990s was a period of great economic, political, and social transition and there was a lot to report on for the international press. Inna spoke fluent Russian and Estonian, and understood the cultural mores of each society. She was an ideal colleague.


My father and Inna, who were both divorced, discovered a shared interest in literature. He began courting her and, eventually, they married. Inna was an established book translator in Estonia and my dad, by then retired, moved to Tallinn to live with her. As he became more engaged with Estonia, he developed a curiosity about the fact that one of Estonia’s greatest works of literature had never been translated into English.


Taking on the challenging task of translating of Truth and Justice was entirely in character for my dad. He liked adventure—in 1980, for example, he tried to plan a crazy camping trip in the Soviet Union so our American family could attend the Olympics on a budget. It looked like it might happen, much to my American mother’s dismay, until the U.S. boycott of the Games. We were living in Switzerland and I remember the day he came home and announced that the Soviet embassy had told him, “Nyet.”



Tammsaare’s farm house, now a museum, in Järvamaa

Later, my dad and I were among the first Westerners to visit the island of Saaremaa. In 1989, it was closed to foreigners and even mainland Estonians had difficulty obtaining permits to visit this militarized, westernmost part of the Soviet Union. But as islander descendants we got permission to go and found the farmhouse that my grandmother had lived in until she emigrated from Estonia in 1929. When my dad returned to the U.S., he convinced a local newspaper to write a story about his plan to become the first Westerner to buy property—his mother’s house—as soon as it was legalized in Soviet Estonia. After independence in 1991, restitution laws made this impossible but my father succeeded, thanks to my mother-in-law, in regaining land awarded to my grandfather for his military service during Estonia’s War of Independence.


During summer visits to Estonia in the mid-2000s, dad told me that translating Tõde ja õigus was high on his “bucket list.” He wanted to contribute something important and meaningful to Estonia. For several years, Inna would translate the Estonian text into English and my father would craft sentences that conveyed the subtle depth of Tammsaare’s narrative. In 2006, the PEN American Center recognized the quality of their work by awarding Inna and my dad a prestigious PEN Translation Fund Grant.


In reading the finished book, which has been further revised by skilled editors, I am impressed by how well the translation flows. The first book of Truth and Justice effectively draws the reader into the world of Estonian peasantry during the period of National Awakening at the end of the 19th century. Tammsaare understood the strong connection Estonians have always had with the land and how this relationship informs the national character. When it is published, I hope you will enjoy the first book of Truth and Justice, a treatise on the meaning of a human life, and then want more. The remaining books of this classic pentalogy still need to be translated into English.




trei2Lisa Trei was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal Europe, and has also reported for the San Francisco Chronicle, New York Newsday, St. Petersburg Times, The Hartford Courant, the Dallas Morning News, the Toronto Globe & Mail, The Moscow Times, The Estonian Independent, and others. She taught journalism at Tartu University between 1990 and 1995. She is a former Fulbright Fellowship to Estonia, and received a Soros Award to organize the first-ever conference on investigative reporting in Estonia and she also wrote and edited an Estonian-language handbook on the subject. She was awarded the Milena Jesenska Fellowship in 2008 to report on security issues in Estonia.


David Mason’s hard birth

Friday, March 21st, 2014


I wrote about Colorado poet laureate David Mason and his quest for “necessary poems” a few weeks ago here.  No sooner said than…  his latest collection of poems arrived in the mail, Sea Salt: Poems of a Decade, 2004-2014. David Sanders‘s “Poetry News in Review” described it as “an almost entirely new poetic voice and his most rigorous and memorable book to date.” Our friend George Szirtes said this: “The language is humane, unfussy, firm, moving but not calculated to move.”

This one grabbed me. See if it grabs you, too.  (I know, I know. You don’t have to tell me  it’s not the Fourth of July. It’s not 2011, either, for that matter. I like this one anyway.)

seasalt4 July 2011

From over the ridge, chrysanthemums of fire
burst into color. One hears the pop-pop-pop
of another birthday, but the heart is flat champagne.

Who cares about freedom, and Damn King George?
Who cares about sirens out in city lights?
I’ve got enough to fight about right here,

the howitzer let loose inside my ribs
the thudding ricochet from hill to hill,
from hurt to hurt. Hard birth. Hard coming to.



Timothy Snyder nails it.

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

We’ve written about Tim Snyder  here and here and here and here and here.


“A profound intellectual joy”: In memoriam, legendary editor Helen Tartar

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

Endless cups of bad coffee

The first impression I had meeting legendary editor Helen Tartar a dozen years ago was … silver.  She was wearing a calf-length silver-gray dress, with silver chandelier earrings and silver bracelets, and her straight hair was a striking complement in the same color. She appeared to be a shimmering silver Christmas tree.  Well, you can get a little of the idea from the thumbnail at left.

In 2002, her position as humanities acquisitions editor had just been eliminated at Stanford University Press … an agonizing wrench for her and for the authors she nurtured.  At the time, I was writing an article about the cutbacks and faculty reaction for Stanford Magazine – it’s here. The following year, Helen was snapped up by Fordham University Press to serve as its editorial director, and is credited with transforming Fordham University Press into one of the leading scholarly presses in the United States. She was on a roll.

Hence her death in a Denver car accident on March 3 came as a shock. She was 62.

No doubt she was in Denver for one of her restless cross-continental ramblings in quest for the perfect book. University of Chicago’s Haun Saussy over at PrintCulture  wrote this: “She was ferocious in the defense of things she thought precious and endangered– for example, first books by academic authors. She could be tough. She could be brittle. She worked herself ragged. Something was always new and exciting. She traipsed from conference to conference, drinking endless cups of bad coffee, knitting while she listened to an infinity of tedious papers, in pursuit of the beautiful book somebody had in them without knowing it.”

“What is less random than the taste, dexterity and care that Helen brought to the reading of proposals, drafts, manuscripts, reports and editorial memos? I trusted her more than almost anyone else (which doesn’t mean we never disagreed). We worked on many overlapping projects, almost continuously, for twenty-four years. She was my friend and I worried about her.”


Saussy and Tartar

In Publishers Weekly, press director Fred Nachbaur called Tartar, “one of the most passionate and dedicated editors in the academic publishing community. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with her for the past five years.”  In a widely circulated email, he added a more personal note: “As I wrapped myself up in an orange hand-knitted scarf given to me as a belated holiday gift from Helen, I thought fondly of her constant desire to thread things together; thoughts, ideas, words, and people. Helen would rarely be seen without her yarn and needles, always managing to satisfy her need for movement and creativity.”

The accolades are endless. From the Stanford University Press website, in an article titled “Without Precedent”: “Her energetic acquisitions efforts during a period of intellectual upheaval within a number of humanities disciplines enabled the Press to play a leading role in advancing critical scholarship in those areas throughout the English-speaking academic world.”

The praise is nothing new. In my 2003 article, I reported how her elimination caused widespread consternation:

Within minutes of Burn’s September e-mail announcement to some 50 or 60 interested parties, scholars from as far away as Cambridge University, Paris, Berlin, Hong Kong and Australia reacted in scores of letters and e-mails. For many, Tartar’s departure was the biggest bombshell. “Helen Tartar has transformed what was once no more than a moderately respectable academic press into a luminous beacon of intellectual creation,” wrote UCLA French professor Peter Haidu. “Her unique combination of talents has built an institution of importance, eminence, and authority without equal in America.” A message from Michael Puett, assistant professor of early Chinese history at Harvard, stated that Tartar had “built up the Press as a community.”

yarnAt the Stanford University Press blog last week, Norris Pope, who was the Press’s director for much of the time that Helen was at Stanford, commented that “Helen’s acquisitions efforts in the humanities were without precedent in the history of Stanford University Press, and they contributed enormously to the Press’s reputation and standing in a number of fields. The high esteem in which she was held by her authors and by scholars in many parts of the humanities was the result of her extraordinary abilities and dedication. Her work will have a lasting effect in a number of intellectual areas and on the careers of a great many authors at all stages in their careers.”

Let the last words be Helen’s, via the Fordham University newsroom:

In a 2004 interview with Fordham magazine, Tartar said that she took pleasure in creating a booklist that displayed what she termed “discursive coherence”—one that included microbiology to sociology to literature to philosophy, drawn together less by theme and more by a quality of mind or thinking.

She said she enjoyed being an editor in part because “you’re a perpetual student . . . you’re constantly learning, even if [the authors] are much younger than you are.”

“Part of [my] task in the job is to enhance the role of the press as an asset to the university,” said Tartar. “I also want to renew a profound intellectual joy I had, a sense of bringing truly exciting books into the world, things that will keep people thinking for decades.”

Naimark on the Ukraine crisis: “It’s scary. Things could get a lot worse.”

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

“What is to stop him next time?” (Photo: John LeSchofs)

“It’s scary. Things could get a lot worse.” That’s how Norman Naimarkan expert on Eastern Europe and author of Stalin’s Genocides, summarized the crisis in Ukraine.

The Stanford scholar was delivering a short, galvanizing talk on the exuberant growth of democracy in the 1990s at the Hoover Institution’s Stauffer Auditorium on Tuesday. In the questions that followed, inevitably someone asked about the Ukraine crisis. And then the situation was like the top pulled off a  bottle of Coke after its been shaken for a quarter-hour. His language was unequivocal and condemnatory: “I think the situation is awful, depressing, and a major challenge, not a minor one, to the international system and how it operates. It’s a terrible thing that happened with the invasion. The real historical analogy is, as Hillary [Clinton] said it, the late 1930s.”


“The Baltics are scared to death.” (Photo: John LeSchofs)

“I think concessions are not going to work, much like the 1930s,” he added, referring to the West’s yielding of the Sudetenland in the 1938, which was followed by other compromises. Despite the analogies with the 1930s, “Putin is not Hitler,” he said, but the international community must nevertheless “show Putin and Russia this will not go.”

 “Crimea is gone,” he said definitively. “The Baltics are scared to death.” Now he said the international community must shore up Ukraine’s Donetsk, Khargiv, and Odessa. “The natural question is: What is to stop him next time?” Naimark was deeply concerned that “we’re not taking charge of actions and steps that will contain the crisis.” He said it was vital to fortify the destabilized government in Kiev.

“We should be there in a big way, and use this opportunity because Putin has broken the rules.” It’s going to have a price tag for the West, in terms of trade, dollars, resources, and alliances, and will require “a serious commitment, a readiness to sacrifice.”

Naimark said he is very irritated by the West’s readiness to accept Russia’s rationale that Ukraine has historically been a Russian territory. Crimea, in particular, has belonged to the Cimmerians, Bulgars, Greeks, Scythians, Goths, Huns, Khazars, the state of Kievan Rus, Byzantine Greeks, Kipchaks, Ottoman Turks, Golden Horde Tatars, and the Mongols. In the 13th century, it was partly controlled by the Venetians and by the Genoese; then the Crimean Khanate and the Ottoman Empire in the 15th to 18th centuries. “It was not part of Russia till Catherine took it,” he emphasized.  That would be Catherine the Great in the 18th century.

In one surprising anecdote, he said a visiting Russian scholar recently told him that  “they’re under pressure from their side” not to partner with reputable American institutions.

As a “humble historian,” Naimark said he deplored the ignorance of the press about history and the negligent media coverage. For example, he said, there has been universal press silence about the 6,000 Russian intellectuals protesting the the invasion. Not quite universal; it was reported in Frankfurter’s Allgemeine Zeitung on Monday, in an article entitled “Sorry Ukraine”:


“It’s mine, mine, mine.”

More than six thousand Russian intellectuals, including the writers Ludmila Ulitzkaya, Boris Akunin, Olga Sedakova, and Sergei Ganlewski have signed a protest letter against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, because … it in no way protects the peace, but only makes a bad situation worse.

The demagogic reporting of Russian media reminds one of the publicity policies of Hitler and Stalin before the outbreak of World War II, according the the text, that carries the slogan of “For Our and Their Freedom,” with which Soviet Russian human rights activists already protested the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Also among the signatories are the composer Dmitri Kurliandski, the Architect Evgeni Ass, the liberal Russian priest Jakov Krotov. The writer and publicist Lev Rubinstein directed, in addition, a personal message to “Ukrainian friends” in which he asks for forgiveness because the few Russians not poisoned by imperial poison gas were unable to prevent this “shameful occupation.” Rock musicians produced a video urging Russians and Ukrainians to resist efforts to get them to fight each other.

Only the reactionary Russian writers union spoke directly for the military action to “protect the Russian speaking population.” Sixty authors signed a similar resolution. In addition the businessman Roman Romanenko from Vologda in Northern Russia directed a satirical appeal to Putin to send troops and money to Vologda because the rights of Russian speakers were being abrogated in terms of education, medical care, and honest elections. A group from Tver demanded the same by return mail.


“Ukraine, forgive us.”

Inevitably, there was blowback. In response to the petition of 6,000 names, the competing “reactionary” petition mentioned above circulated with words to this effect, defending Putin: “In the days when the destiny of Crimea and our compatriots living there are being decided, we, the responsible workers of Russian culture, cannot remain indifferent and cold-hearted observers. Our common history and roots, as well as our culture and its spiritual origins, our common fundamental values and language, united us forever. We wish to secure a durable future for the bond between our peoples and cultures. This is why we firmly declare our support for the Russian Federation president’s position in the Crimea and Ukraine.” I’m told the document bears a striking resemblance to Soviet era “letters in support of the Communist Party.”

The list of 86 signatures includes Russian artists and cultural figures, some of them prominent figures who travel around the world with concerts and performances, exhibitions and book tours, participate in film festivals and conferences.

Names are on the breakover page below. Norm said no one stateside is covering this. Well, now I am.


NYC techie kids buck trend, take on humanities

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

contrariwiseA group of New York City students have taken on an ambitious venture: a finely produced journal, with 128 pages of dialogues, essays, letters, diaries, poems, roundtable discussions, questions, commentary, and art on philosophical topics ranging from time to tyranny. Here’s the kicker: these aren’t lit kids. They’re science kids at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, & Engineering. Not fuzzies, but techies. We keep hearing how kids have to be engaged with gimcracks and videogames and teaching techniques that include smartphones. It’s cheering to see a few kids buck the trend. This kind of thoughtfulness is the very essence of the humanities, after all. (They do, however, have a website here.)

Here’s how the editors-in-chief, Ron Gunczler and Nicholas Pape describe the genesis of Contrariwise: A Journal of Philosophy in a public school that includes sixth to twelfth grade students:  “Juniors in Political Philosophy wrote continuations of Plato‘s Republic, Book VIII – the section in which Socrates and Adeimantus discuss the decay of the kallipolis, city of philosopher-kings. Professor Senechal was so stunned by the breadth and depth of the responses that she felt they necessitated some form of permanence – a booklet, perhaps? She asked the student body for input, and overwhelming feedback indicated CSS needed a literary journal.”

“We had originally anticipated that Contrariwise would be limited to Political Philosophy. It was then expanded to encompass the whole school, and we now represent the entire student body. We didn’t imagine anyone but parents buying copies, but Contrariwise is going national.” And a good thing, too. The first issue was funded by donations. The next will be funded on sales.


Free advice.

Topics in the inaugural issue include Alba Avoricani‘s “Letter from Folly to Platon Kovalyov,” Khadijah McCarthy’s “John Locke on the Nature of Marriage,” and, taking on Hamlet, Sofia Arnold‘s “Claudius: A Flawed Machiavel.” I was rather intrigued by Megan Almanzar‘s essay on freezing time, “The Key to Immortality,” and Fariha Wadud‘s “The Book of Job’s Greater Message.” And especially fond of Daniela Batista‘s cover art, with a peppy bird on the nose of a dyspeptic buffalo. I’d like to know its title, and the story behind it.

The results of their labor arrived in my mailbox unsolicited. I wondered how I got on the mailing list. I scanned the staff page all the way to the end before I recognized the name … ah … this is also the latest venture of the students’ faculty adviser, Diana Senechal, also a translator of the preeminent Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova. Said Diana on her blog here: “This inaugural issue was five months in the making, and here it is. I am honored to have witnessed my students’ inspiration, care, and wit throughout the project—and thrilled to hold and read the book.”

They told him to kneel and kiss the Russian flag. Then he told them to…

Saturday, March 8th, 2014

Get better soon. (Photo: Maciek Król)

Last weekend, pro-Russian demonstrators attacked the activists who had occupied a government building in Kharkiv, the second largest city of Ukraine.

As they were striking him with bats, the writer Serhiy Zhadan said they told him to kneel and kiss the Russian flag. “I told them to go fuck themselves,” he wrote on his Facebook page.  Then they beat him up good.  He was hospitalized later that day, and photos of his face covered in blood circulated online.

“Americans need to understand, in Eastern Europe, writers still have a huge influence on society,” Vitaly Chernetsky, a professor of Slavic literature at the University of Kansas told the New Yorker. “It may sound like an old-fashioned ‘poet stands up to tyranny’ story, like something out of Les Miz—‘Can you hear the people sing?’—but it’s really kind of like that. … He’s a writer who is a rock star, like Byron in the early nineteenth century was a rock star.”

The incident has shaken up Russians as well as Ukrainians.  In a statement, the Russian PEN Center said:  “We are observing a severe noetic crisis, akin to what was described by Orwell: the meanings of the words ‘peace,’ ‘war,’ ‘fascism,’ and ’democracy,’ ‘defense,’ and ‘invasion’ are shamelessly warped.”

Zhadan is a poet, novelist, essayist, and translator – the leading countercultural writer in Ukraine. His works have been translated into German, English, Polish, Serbian, Croatian, Lithuanian, Belarusian, Russian, Hungarian, Armenian, Swedish, and Czech. In 2008, the Russian translation of his novel Anarchy in the UKR made the short list of the National Bestseller Prize. It was also a contender for “Book of the Year” at the 2008 Moscow International Book Exhibition. He also recieved BBC 2010 Book of the Year for Voroshilovgrad. His novel Anthem of Democratic Youth has been adapted for the stage and is being performed at the Ivan Franko National Academic Drama Theater in Kiev.

His most recent book, The Invention of Jazz in Donbass, is work of magical realism that sounds like it’s earned the title. According to Sally McGrane’s article in the New Yorker:

letters-from-ukraine-3In the book, a yuppie type living in a large Ukrainian city is called back to his small eastern-Ukrainian hometown to take over his brother’s gas station. His brother has disappeared—he may have emigrated to the Netherlands, but no one knows for sure. Running the gas station (where fending off corrupt oligarchs is part of the job), he finds that, to his surprise, he is proud of the place he is from—that it is unique, possessed of its own dignity and beauty, no matter how depressed it may be. (Depressed it is: at one point, the narrator is invited to play with his old soccer team in a match against a nearby factory. Only after the game ends does he realize that his entire team was composed of ghosts—friends who had died as the result of crimes, accidents, or alcoholism.)

He’s back in the hospital; his jaw never healed property. Read the New Yorker story here.