Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Book Review: Young Stalin by Sebag Montefiore

Young Stalin — Dynamite and Dialectics

If you want to get a glimpse of a Joseph Stalin  you likely had never conceived of before, just turn to the mug shot taken of him by Tsarist police in 1912 -- opp. p 62 in Sebag Montefiore's fascinating, radically revisionist new biography, "Young Stalin" (2007).

This Stalin is no repulsively pock-marked yellow-eyed dwarf -- as Leon Trotsky, who enacted enduring literary revenge on the man who exiled and executed him, described his foe. Nor does he remotely resemble the dull-witted bureaucrat of Trotskyite lore, a man who sat out the 1905 Revolution, for example, pushing papers in an office. (He happened to be tossing grenades at the time).

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Doris Lessing: Nobel Prize


Finally, Lessing

That Doris Lessing, at the age of 88, has at last won the Nobel Prize for literature is a cause for celebration, and for allowing that some things, at least, however unexpectedly, can finally go right in this world. Why it took the Nobel Committee so long to come to a correct conclusion about her achievement is the remaining mystery. It has, to her many readers, been an open secret for decades she is simply one of the world's most commanding writers, with a range of theme, material, style and genre no other writer in English can match.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Q&A Garry Kasparov

Originally appeared in the Boston Globe,

By Harvey Blume

THE 1985 CHAMPIONSHIP chess match between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov captured the world's attention not just for the gripping chess, but because Kasparov, at 22, embodied an outspoken, anti-authoritarian spirit that seemed a rebuke to the Soviet status quo. Kasparov won the match, becoming the youngest world chess champion in history and a heroic figure to many who would welcome the collapse of Communism.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Q&A Robert Alter

First appeared in the Boston Globe.

ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS OF the Hebrew Bible -- most notably the King James version -- have been key not only for the believers who look to them for instruction and inspiration, but to the evolving literary and cultural sensibility of the West. It's no wonder, then, that the radical approach to translating biblical texts that Robert Alter has taken -- first in "The Five Books of Moses" (2004) and now in "The Book of Psalms" -- has been greeted with responses ranging from delight to irritation.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Q&A William Gibson

First appeared in the Boston Globe.

SCIENCE FICTION WRITER William Gibson has a reputation for forecasting the future that dates to his first novel, "Neuromancer" (1984), in which characters used computers to "jack" into a virtual world Gibson dubbed the matrix, a term that seemed ready-made for the Internet explosion soon to envelop us all. "Neuromancer" won science fiction's top prizes -- the Nebula, Philip K. Dick, and Hugo awards -- and was followed by "Count Zero" (1986) and "Mona Lisa Overdrive" (1988), to complete Gibson's cyberpunk trilogy. These books continued to explore a futuristic matrix while bringing disparate, even supernatural, elements into play. "Count Zero," for example, invokes the voodoo deity Legba -- the "master of roads and pathways, the loa [god] of communication" -- as a lord of cyberspace.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Q&A: Doris Lessing

Originally appeared in the Boston Globe.
By Harvey Blume

THE THEME OF fraught relations between men and women will hardly come as a surprise to readers of Doris Lessing, author of dozens of novels, short stories, and essays. For her devoted fan base, Lessing is unquestionably the greatest living writer never to win a Nobel Prize. Now 88, she belongs roughly to same generation as filmmakers Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, both recently deceased, and like them, she has explored social, psychological, and sexual malaise.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Q&A Helen Epstein

First appeared in the Boston Globe.

THE JULY ISSUE of Vanity Fair, dedicated to Africa and guest-edited with much fanfare by U2's Bono, trumpets the "lifesaving" impact of anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) on AIDS patients in Rwanda, where the drugs are distributed for free by clinics. But when I spoke to public health activist and writer Helen Epstein last week, she said the magazine's version of events fails to acknowledge that the "HIV infection rate in Rwanda began to decline dramatically in the mid-1990s, well before ARVs, which only started arriving in the last four years."

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Book Review: "Zugzwang" by Ronan Bennet

"Zugzwang" by Ronan Bennet:
A Chess Thriller

It's an understatement to say chess has been good for literature; the game has even inspired people not known for the written word to produce memorable prose. Consider the following, for example, by composer Sergey Prokofiev apropos a game he witnessed in pre-World War I Russia: "I watched the . . . board descending into a state of incomprehensible complexity, with virtually every piece exposed to attack; this sent me into a state of pure ecstasy."

One doesn't really need to play chess to recognize the ecstatic state Prokofiev describes; it arises, as well, from other deeply obsessive pursuits. Similarly, one isn't really required to play chess in order to relish the twin peaks of twentieth-century chess fiction, Vladmir Nabokov's "The Defense", and Stefan Zweig's "Chess Story".

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Dennis Ross Q&A

First appeared in the Boston Globe 7/8/07

The professional:

The former Mideast envoy takes a hard look at Palestine, Tony Blair’s new mission, and the failure of American statecraft

By Harvey Blume

LAST MONTH, WHEN Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, threatening the Palestinian Authority with chaos, and Tony Blair stepped into his new role as special envoy to the Middle East representing the "Quartet" of the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations, few people were more in demand to interpret these events than Dennis Ross.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Q&A Pete Hamill

Originally appeared in the Boston Globe

"[Bush and Cheney] didn't grow up in Brooklyn, where you know if you punch a guy in the mouth, he's going to come back with three other guys and punch you back."

NEW YORK CITY has been Pete Hamill's beat for decades, and not a few of its residents are aware of that. When Hamill and I stepped out of a diner south of Union Square in Manhattan last Sunday, a woman got off her bicycle, pointed at him, and exclaimed: "You! How are you!? I love your books!" After complimenting the bicyclist on her flashy helmet, Hamill said he had a new book -- "North River" -- coming out. She already knew, she said, and couldn't wait to get it.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Q&A Natalie Angier

First appeared in the Boston Globe.

When I called New York Times science writer Natalie Angier to discuss her new book, "The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science," I started by asking why, in the new work, is there little of the impatience with religion she has expressed in some of her essays? In "Confessions of a Lonely Atheist," for example, she complained that for nonbelievers like herself America's "current climate of religiosity can be stifling." In "My God Problem" she challenged scientists who felt similarly to step up: "Why is it," she demanded, "that most scientists avoid criticizing religion even as they decry the supernatural mind-set?"

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Q&A George Fifield

"The church of art is very conservative," according to George Fifield, the founder and director of the Boston Cyberarts Festival, the showcase for computer-related art that opens its fifth season on Friday (see bostoncyberarts.org). As for the Boston scene, Fifield, when I visited him at his Jamaica Plain home, summed it up thus: "Even now, you don't find digital art in the MFA."

Despite the city's prevailing high-art tastes, Fifield launched the festival here in 1999 because, he says, he had discovered another side to Boston, a "radical hidden history of artists coming here to work on new technology." Fifield is inspired, for example, by the close collaboration between the photographer Ansel Adams and Edwin Land, founder of Polaroid Corporation. Starting in 1948, Adams helped Land perfect the technology for instant photography, and, through his own much-admired Polaroid photographs, enabled Land, Fifield told me, "to make the case that the camera was a tool for art, as opposed to just a toy."

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Q&A with Lene Hau

Originally appeared in the Boston Globe

By Harvey Blume

As the Danish physicist Lene Vestergaard Hau, a tenured professor at Harvard, explained to me how she slows light down -- and, when it's going at a "comfortable bicycling speed," does something to it that's weird even by the standards of quantum mechanics -- I couldn't resist blurting out the suspicion I'd harbored since reading about her work: "You're going to win a Nobel Prize if you're not careful." Hau, one of nine MacArthur Fellows picked by the MacArthur Foundation in 2005 to represent the history of its "genius" awards, just laughed and went back to energetically explaining the apparatus she had built to experiment with light.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Q&A: Jonathan Lethem

Originally appeared in the Boston Globe.

'I'm suggesting [originality] is an overrated virtue.'

By Harvey Blume | March 4, 2007

WHEN I VISITED the writer Jonathan Lethem he boasted of his new novel, "You Don't Love Me Yet," being "a profoundly unimportant book." He emphasized its irrelevance as we chatted in his Dean Street apartment, in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn, on the block where he grew up and that he used as a setting for "The Fortress of Solitude" (2003), his best known novel. 

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Q&A Elizabeth Diller

First appeared in the Boston Globe.

Elizabeth Diller, of the architecture firm Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, is known in Boston for her role in designing the new home of the Institute of Contemporary Art on Boston Harbor. But in keeping with Diller's refusal to sharply divide art from architecture, the building does more than admirably house and showcase contemporary art; it also exemplifies it.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

John Searle Q&A

First appeared in the Boston Globe

By Harvey Blume

"IN PHILOSOPHY," JOHN SEARLE told me, "the name of the game is disagreement." Searle, who has taught philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, since 1959, shows no inclination to duck dispute. In The New York Review of Books, for example, where he functions as a sort of philosopher in residence, you can regularly find him at fierce loggerheads with a variety of contemporary thinkers -- including Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Ray Kurzweil, and Noam Chomsky -- over questions of mind, consciousness, and language.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Robert Stone Q&A

Originally appeared in The Boston Globe

Q&A with Robert Stone

By Harvey Blume

ROBERT STONE, THE novelist and short-story writer, was not with Ken Kesey and the other Merry Pranksters when their bus steamed out of California in 1964 on its psychedelic journey east. But as Stone explains in his taut new memoir, "Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties," the saying that you were "either on the bus or off the bus" was never meant literally. The real question was whether -- metaphorically and cosmically -- the bus was coming for you. In every sense the bus headed straight for Stone, making its first Manhattan stop outside his apartment, which shortly filled up, he recalls, with "people painted all colors."

More than four decades later, Stone, almost 70 now, resides on Manhattan's Upper East Side, which is where we sipped tea and discussed his work. Stone has revisited the '60s often in his fiction. "Dog Soldiers," for example, his bracing 1974 novel, focused on the mayhem caused by heroin smuggled from Vietnam. But "Prime Green" adds autobiographical detail -- about the sea, for example, which is often the setting for Stone's work. Born in Brooklyn, Stone, the grandson of a tugboat captain, joined the Navy in his teens. But he longed for New York City, and was pulled, when he returned in the late '50s, into the coffeehouse scene growing up around Allen Ginsberg and the other Beats.