This week, or so, in criticism, #5,801

“Born in Russia, Andrei [the hero of Keith Gessen’s novel A Terrible Country] is returning to a country that he left as a small child, a place now changed beyond recognition. Gone are the late-socialist stagnation and the post-Soviet poverty; in their place is something familiar to Western readers: a hip capitalist carnival for trend-chasing urban consumers side by side with economic insecurity and political malaise.” Gregory Afinogenov examines Keith Gessen’s fictionalized nostos, and what it reveals about the constraints that capitalism places upon politics, both in that terrible country and in this one (The Nation).

“One of my professors crossed out that line with the comment, ‘STUDYING LITERATURE IS NOT FUN!!’” Timothy Aubry looks into how and why the disavowal of aesthetic pleasure came to be the paramount sign of professionalism in the academic study of literature (Chronicle of Higher Ed).

“We are reminded of two axiomatic truths: that Aretha Franklin makes secular music sound sacred and vice versa, and that no matter how good the originals, her covers are invariably better.” Melissa Anderson praises a new Aretha Franklin documentary (4 Columns).

In the 1930s, Philip Johnson designed a speaker’s platform for the pro-fascist American politician Father Coughlin and subsidized a pro-Nazi pamphlet. He socialized with Nazi leaders in Germany until as late as 1940, and narrowly avoided being charged with sedition. And then, after the war, he started designing synagogues in New York State and nuclear reactors in Israel. “A nearly sociopathic ability to tune out every voice but one’s own can lead to Nuremberg or Jerusalem, and in Johnson’s case it led to both,” writes Armin Rosen, in a review of Mark Lamster’s new biography (Tablet).

“What [Hugh] Grant brings out is the self-delight, and eventually the perplexity, of a man who is also somehow acting himself, a confected chancer in double-breasted waistcoats, watch chains, and a trilby hat.” Alan Hollinghurst is entertained by Russell T. Davies’s and Stephen Frears’s television adaptation of the real-life story of a British member of Parliament who conspired to silence his gay lover by having him killed (NYRB).

“The struggle to find out what’s really going on in the world isn’t as wearying as the realisation that on the rare occasions you do find out, not everyone is waiting eagerly to hear about it.” Reviewing Alan Rusbridger’s new memoir of running the Guardian, James Meek explains the demoralization that has accompanied the undermining of print journalism’s business model (LRB).

This week, or so, in criticism, #724

“Hamrah’s answer was to find a literary voice so coiled, combative, and ironic that no marketing department could find its way into or out of it.” Max Nelson praises A. S. Hamrah, “the sharp-tongued, rain-lashed drifter of American movie criticism” (The Nation).

“‘Most of my peer group just isn’t thinking about homeownership anywhere,’ said Peter Hess, 31, who wrote the Popular Science article ‘These will be the best places to live in America in 2100 A.D.,’ and lives in New York City, despite knowing the risks. “I guess we will stay here and drown from coastal flooding with our friends.” Alyson Krueger profiles the forward-looking who are pre-disastering their real estate.

“The overall abundance of flying insects in German nature reserves has decreased by 75 percent over just 27 years.” A similar study in Puerto Rico’s rainforest found insect biomass has decreased sixtyfold over 40 years. Is it because of climate change? Pesticides? No one is sure, according to Brooke Jarvis. But given that the Creator was once hailed by biologists for his inordinate fondness for beetles, it seems ominous that he is now willing to do without them (New York Times Magazine).

“The crisis, [Crashed author Adam] Tooze writes, ‘was a devastating blow to the complacent belief in the great moderation, a shocking overturning of the prevailing laissez-faire ideology.’ And yet the ideology prevailed.” Robert Kuttner argues that Tooze’s Crashed will long be “the authoritative account” of the international financial crisis of 2008 and its compromised resolution (NYRB, subscription required).

“In an illuminating analogy [Moneyland author Oliver] Bullough likens the Bretton Woods system [which managed international currency exchanges and capital flows for the three decades following World War II] to

an oil tanker, a ship full of oil. If a tanker has just one huge tank, then the oil that fills it can slosh backwards and forwards in ever greater waves, until it destabilises the vessel, which overturns and sinks. That was the system after the First World War, when waves of speculative money capsized democracy. At Bretton Woods, the delegates designed a new kind of ship, where the oil was divided up between many smaller tanks, one for each country. The ship held the same volume of oil, but in a different way. The liquid could slosh back and forth within its little compartments, but would not be able to achieve enough momentum to damage the integrity of the entire vessel.

No sooner had the Bretton Woods conference in Hampshire, USA ended in 1944 than bankers applied their wits to a new challenge: how to break down the inner walls of the stable Bretton Woods ‘tanker’ that constituted the new international financial architecture.” Ann Pettifor explains in a review of four new books how financiers, in search of profits, figured out how to puncture the safeguards, known as capital controls, that had been devised at Bretton Woods to keep international banking from collapse (TLS).

This week, or so, in criticism, #723

“Any literary work staking a serious claim to glory is not going to reveal itself entirely on a first reading.” But “your moderately but not seriously good book tends to work well on first reading.” Tim Parks channels Giacomo Leopardi on the many reasons literary glory is probably unattainable by people who merely write well (NYRB).

“His writing is deeply musical—not just in the easy rhythm of his words, but in his sonic descriptions: piles of pistachios crackling in peoples’ hands in Iraq; the metallic rattling of the van on bumpy roads in Afghanistan; the croaking of frogs in the Barakar river on the edge of Bengal.” Geeta Dayal praises the late Deben Bhattacharya’s photo- and audio-enhanced diary of his twelve-thousand-mile quest in 1955 for folk music (4 Columns).

“Feuds draw us in for the joy of the spectacle, but in this case there is enough at stake—how we, as individuals and societies, might address suffering and depression—to make a more thorough assessment of the background vitally important.” Alexander van Tulleken tries to distinguish light from heat in the ongoing argument between Johann Hari and Dean Burnett about the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of antidepressants (TLS, subscription required).

“He couldn’t escape the sense that hitting on someone in person had, in a short period of time, gone from normal behavior to borderline creepy. . . . At first, I wondered whether Simon was being overly genteel, or a little paranoid. But the more people I talked with, the more I came to believe that he was simply describing an emerging cultural reality. ‘No one approaches anyone in public anymore,’ said a teacher in Northern Virginia. ‘The dating landscape has changed.’” Kate Julian investigates five possible reasons young people are having less sex, and less romance, than previous generations did (The Atlantic).

“In the 1840s, Joshua Giddings, an abolitionist who represented Ohio in the House, concluded that too many of his colleagues from the free states were ‘afraid of these Southern bullies’. He resolved to express ‘boldly and fearlessly’ his abhorrence of slavery. . . . ‘The most dramatic innovation in congressional violence,’ Freeman writes, was that in the mid-1850s ‘Northerners fought back.’” Eric Foner extols Joanne Freeman’s chronicle of violence in Congress in the decades leading up to the Civil War (LRB).

“Among journalists, the project generated mild derision of the who-cares-what-Joe-Schmo-ate-for-breakfast variety, but also enormous excitement among researchers, roughly four hundred of whom wrote during the project’s first three years with requests to use the data. So far, not one of them has gotten a hand on it.” Nora Caplan-Bricker looks into the moral and logistical hazards of archiving the internet (Harper’s).

Pleasant discoveries

Not only does Elif Batuman have a blog, but she has just posted a long and favorable review-essay of a self-published collection of short stories by Ezra Koenig, a former student of mine who happens to be the front man of Vampire Weekend, a preppy Afro-pop band whose new album goes on sale tomorrow, 29 January 2008. Pitchfork calls the album “one of the most refreshing and replayable indie records in recent years,” and Elif calls Ezra’s short stories “really fun.” I happily concur with both assessments (though I don’t think the stories are for sale anywhere), and also recommend the “takeaway concerts” that Vampire Weekend recently did for La Blogothèque. (I’ve linked to the French version of the page, because the descriptive prose is wonderfully plummy. The geniality of the French comments caused me to spin a largely evidence-free theory that perhaps the Francophone blogosphere has a sunnier and more generous disposition than the Anglophone one. Please don’t disabuse me right away, anyone.) Be forewarned that, in general, watching Blogothèque concerts causes one to overlook the inconvenient truth that one is without musical talent and wish that one were twenty-five and living in Paris as an indie rocker. Fortunately, with practice it is possible to keep the daydream so vague that one need not specify an instrument.

While I’m on the topic of recommending miscellaneous pleasures, I’ll also link to Amy Elkins’s photographic portraits of shirtless young men of unorthodox body-types in front of floral wallpapers (the one reminiscent of the young Beau Bridges as he appeared in the bathtub scene in Hal Ashby’s The Landlord is currently hanging in the Yancey Richardson gallery in New York, which is how I happened across Elkins’s work), and to Alan Hollinghurst’s very funny review (online for subscribers only) of Sheldon Novick’s second volume of Henry James biography.

“Steamboats” is moving

All nine of you who read this blog regularly, please adjust your bookmarks. I’m moving to a new location: steamthing.com. Mostly because of the elephant, which you’ll see if you click through. But also because it’s a shorter URL to type, because there’s the promise of allowing comments again (if the anti-spam tools work as advertised), and because this server goes down a lot. I’ll leave this site up for a while, anyway, as an archive, but not forever.