Elena Ferrante: ‘Dreaming of a return to the past is a denial of youth’

5 days ago

I love young people who fight to give their time a new form and demand a better life for the entire human race

I very much like recognising myself in my daughters and, at the same time, feeling that they do their utmost to be different from me. Even when this attitude makes me angry, it seems positive. Not a day goes by when they don’t tell me, more or less subtly, that I belong to the past. Not a day goes by when they don’t point out that what I say is banal and out of touch with the present, which is their area of expertise. Not a day goes by when they don’t find a way to pit their intelligence against mine, and the aim is always the same: to let me know that I should keep quiet. Not to mention that whenever I have trouble with the computer or some other electronic device, they intervene to remind me that I am of the era of the fountain pen and the pay phone.

I look at them and, sometimes with satisfaction, sometimes with alarm, see myself in their bodies, in their tone of voice. Bits of me appear for a few seconds, and I barely have time to recognise them, as when, in a page you’ve just written, you see flashes of the literary tradition behind you. They naturally don’t notice, and that’s good. I hope they have as much time as possible to declare themselves miraculously new and set about teaching me a thing or two. I, too, felt different from my mother and pushed out her generation to make room for mine. The cruelty of the latest arrivals, when they feel they’re the first to come into the world, is necessary.

I greatly fear the generations who don’t proudly leave their parents behind. But I’m also frightened by those who, at 20, leave their parents behind to embrace the mores of grandparents and great-grandparents. I don’t understand the young people who would replace the world of today with a golden age when everyone knew their place, that is, in an order based on sexist and racist hierarchies. Sometimes, especially when they declare themselves fascists, they don’t even seem like young people, and I tend to treat them even more harshly than the old people who inspired them. Dreaming of a return to the past is a denial of youth, and it grieves me to discover that young women, too, dream those dreams.

I love young people who fight to give their time a new form and demand a better life for the entire human race. I hope my daughters stay that way for a long time. Then – it’s in the natural order of things – as they get older they’ll find me within themselves, discovering physical details, flashes of personality, thoughts, and will learn to welcome me, make room for me. As happened with my mother and me, they’ll discover that, even admitting they’re partly me, they’ll continue to be themselves. In fact they’ll be themselves more fully, with greater autonomy.

Translated by Ann Goldstein

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The literary life of Michiko Kakutani: the book critic’s best conflicts and reviews

11 days ago

The New York Times writer is stepping down from her role, leaving behind a remarkable career characterized by razor-sharp reviews and intra-literary rows

Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times adored chief volume critic, announced she was stepping down from her post on Thursday after 38 years, marking the end of a career that inspired both appreciation and anxiety in the hearts of the writers whose books she reviewed.

Kakutani was Americas most powerful literary critic, a person who has, with the stroke of a pen, wielded immense influence over the careers of both budding and established novelists. Over the course of her tenure at the Times, Kakutani was remarkably guarded, making few appearances in public and allowing her reviews to speak for themselves. In honor of a critic so widely celebrated the scribe behind pieces that launched the careers of David Foster-Wallace, George Saunders and Zadie Smith and indignation quite a few others here are her best feuds and reviews, broken down.

The feuds

Kakutani v Franzen

Part of what so attracted readers to Kakutanis work was her constant objectivity, a quality that was on display in her ability to write admiringly of an author and then, if underwhelmed by a later release, roast them over a fire. Kakutani praised Jonathan Franzens novel The Corrections as a devastating family portrait and a harrowing portrait of America in the late 1990 s, but was less intrigued by his 2006 memoir The Discomfort Zone, questioning why anyone said he wished to pages and pages about this unhappy relationship or the self-important and self-promoting contents of Mr Franzens mind. The novelist fired back in an interview with the Guardian, calling Kakutani tone-deaf and humorless. Then, two years later, at a discussion with James Wood at Harvard, he upped the bet by referring to the critic as the stupidest person in New York City.

Kakutani v Mailer

Kakutani reviewed Norman Mailers 2006 novel The Gospel According to the Sun, a first-person autobiographical retelling of the Bible from the perspective of Jesus himself. She called it a silly, self-important and at times inadvertently comical volume that reads like a combination of Godspell, Nikos Kazantzakis Last Temptation of Christ and one of those new, dumbed-down Bible translations; Mailer, never one to shy away from a writerly bicker, called Kakutani a one-woman kamikaze in an interview with Rolling Stone. He then indicated the Times merely retains Kakutani because shes a woman of Asian descent: She disdains white male writers, and Im her number-one favorite target, he said. But the Times editors cant fire her. Theyre frightened of her. With discrimination rules and such, well, shes a threefer, Asiatic, feminist, and ah, whats the third? Well, lets only call her a twofer. She is a token. And deep down, she probably knows it.

Susan Sontag. Photo: Lluis Gene/ AFP/ Getty Images

Kakutani v Sontag

After Kakutani panned Susan Sontags book Regarding the Pain of Others, the late Susan Sontag was less than pleased. Her criticism of my books are stupid and shallow and not to the phase, she told the Independent. It was a dumb, bad review as opposed to a smart-alecky, bad review. I expected better of her. As for the review in question, Kakutani called the book, an extended essay in which Sontag probes war different 20 th century visual representations of war, ambivalent, adding, Is it really a revelation that a picture can sometimes is worthy of a thousand terms?

Kakutani v Updike

Fifteen years ago, Kakutani wrote that in John Updikes Seek My Face, a roman clef fiction that drew inspiration from the lives of the artists Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner, its impossible for the reader to find a single believable character. For good measure, she added that the book seemed to be written by a lazy, voyeuristic and reductive hand. Updike returned the favor, telling a reporter that hes largely unscathed by professional reviewers like Michiko Kakutani, who manages so many books that theres a secret hatred of all books that runs through, or a wish to dismiss.

Kakutani v Foster-Wallace

In her 1996 review of David Foster-Wallaces sprawling novel Infinite Jest, Kakutani sprinkled a bit of snark in an otherwise glowing review. While she wrote that the 1,096 -page epic cemented Foster-Wallace as one of the big talents of his generation, a novelist of virtuosic talents who can seemingly do anything, she also quoted Henry James in calling Jest a loose, baggy monster, adding that it read like a vast, encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Mr Wallaces mind. In his 2012 biography of the late Foster-Wallace, DT Max wrote that the writer told a friend he conceals in his room for two days and screamed after reading yet another paragraph to be given to parallels between his first volume and Pynchons most popular novel. In public, though, Foster-Wallace seemed to lend little credence to Kakutanis criticisms: in an interview with Laura Miller, he said: If the length[ of Infinite Jest] seems gratuitous, as it did to a very charming Japanese dame from the New York Times, then it elicits ire.

The glowing reviews

On Jonathan Franzens 2010 novel Freedom

It took Jonathan Franzen nine years to follow up the literary sensation that was The Corrections. When the final product arrived, in the form of his expansive novel Freedom, Kakutani heaped praise upon the author for his expansive, post-modernist narrative of the Berglund family:

Writing in prose that is at once visceral and lapidary, Mr Franzen shows us how his characters strive to navigate a world of technological gadgetry and ever-shifting mores, how they struggle to balance the equation between their expectations of life and dull reality, their political ideals and mercenary personal exhorts. He demonstrates himself as hotshot at adolescent comedy( what happens to Joey after he accidentally swallows his bridal ring right before a vacation with his dream girl) as he is at grown-up misfortune( what happens to Walters assistant and new beloved when she defines off alone on a trip to West Virginia coal country ); as skilled at holding a mirror to the world his people inhabit day by dreary day as he is at limning their messy inner lives.

On Zadie Smiths 2005 novel On Beauty

Kakutani helped launched Zadie Smiths career after reviewing her debut novel White Teeth, but its her assessment of Smiths On Beauty that really sets in prose her greatest gifts as a critic 😛 TAGEND

On Beauty opens out to provide the reader with a splashy, irreverent look at campus politics, political correctness and the ways different generations regard race and class, but its real focus is on personal relationships what EM Forster regarded as the real life, forever and ever. Like Forster, Ms Smith possesses a captivating authorial voice at once authoritative and nonchalant, and capacious enough to accommodate high moral seriousness, laid-back humor and virtually everything in between and in these pages, she utilizes that voice to enormous effect, dedicating us that rare thing: a novel that is as affecting as it is entertaining, as provocative as it is humane.

Michiko Kakutani. Photo: New York Times

On Don Delillos 1997 fiction Underworld

There were few critics who had bad things to say about Underworld when it first came out in 1997, Kakutani included. In her review, she commended Delillo and also seamlessly observed a style to include the word effluvia.

With his astonishing new fiction, DeLillo has written that volume, or at least a close approximation of it. Underworld is an amazing performance, a fiction that encompasses some five decades of history, both the hard, bright world of public events and the more subterranean world of private emotions in which people are connected by a secret calculus of hope and loss. It is the story of one human, one family, but it is also the story of what happened to America in the second half of the 20 th century …

… The same might well be said of Mr DeLillo, who in this remarkable novel has taken the effluvia of modern life, all the detritus of our daily and political lives, and turned it into a dazzling, phosphorescent work of art.

On Toni Morrisons 1984 novel Beloved

If the goal of a positive book review is to give the reader incentive to buy the book themselves, Kakutani was uniquely adept at taking a true work of art Toni Morrisons Beloved, for instance and writing a review almost a trenchant and skillful as the novels about which she opined 😛 TAGEND

At the heart of Toni Morrisons extraordinary new fiction, Beloved, there stands a horrifying event an event so brutal and disturbing that it appears to warp hour before and after into a single, unwavering line of fate. It will destroy one familys dream of safety and liberty; it will haunt an entire community for generations, and, as related by Ms Morrison, it will resound in readers intellects long after they have finished this book.

On Juniot Diazs 2012 short story collection This is How You Lose Her

Kakutani was, like most, an admirer of Junot Diazs 2007 novel The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but her review of his collection of narratives, This is How You Lose Her, provided smart insights into the ways his natural gifts for characterization translated to a smaller, less novelistic scale 😛 TAGEND

The strongest narratives are those fueled by the verbal energy and magpie language that stimulated Brief Wondrous Life so memorable and that capture Yuniors efforts to commute between two cultures, Dominican and American, while always remaining an outsider. Mr Daz evocatively describes Yuniors affection for Santo Domingo: how he loves the plane landing, everybody clapping when the wheels kiss the runway, loves the redhead female on her route to meet the daughter she hasnt seen in 11 years, holding gifts on her lap like the bones of a saint. He is equally adept at eliciting the exotic world of New Jersey that Yunior and his handsome brother, Rafa, are introduced to as children, when their father moves the family to America: the startling sight of snow and snowmen, television as an English language teacher, trips to the Pathmark.

The negative reviews

On Bill Clintons 2004 memoir My Life

Kakutanis review of the former chairpeople 2004 memoir remains a crash-course in the art of the literary takedown and a living testament to the critics often-searing honesty.

The book, which weighs in at more than 950 pages, is sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull the sound of one man prattling away , not for the reader, but for himself and some remote recording angel of history.

In many styles, the book is a mirror of Mr Clintons presidency: lack of discipline leading to expended opportunities; high expectations, undermined by self-indulgence and scattered concentration.

On Haruki Murakamis 1984 novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Kakutani was quite consistently a Murakami skeptic, writing lukewarm its consideration of his other volumes like After the Quake and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. But she was most unenthused by Wind-Up Bird Chronicle 😛 TAGEND

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami.
Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

For most of us, art is supposed to do something more than simply mirror the confusions of the world. Worse, Wind-Up Bird often seems so messy that its refusal of close feels less like an artistic selection than simple laziness, a reluctance on the part of the author to run his manuscript through the typewriter( or computer) one last time.

On Henry Kissingers 2011 history of Chinese politics, On China : Kakutani reared her critical head on nonfiction books as incisively as she did toward fiction. Her review of Henry Kissingers On China, a collecting of the former secretary of states contemplations on a country with which he was well-versed, displays Kakutanis knack for cutting through politician-speak 😛 TAGEND

Lurking beneath Mr. Kissingers musings on Chinese history is a not-so-subtle subtext. This volume, much like his 1994 book, Diplomacy, is another sly attempt by a controversial figure to burnish his legacy as Nixons national security consultant and secretary of state. It is a volume that promotes Mr. Kissingers own brand of realpolitik thinking, and that in doing so often soft-pedals the human costs of Maos ruthless decades-long reign and questions the consequences of recently released American efforts to press human-rights issues with the Chinese.

On Jonathan Littels 2009 novel The Kindly Ones :

Jonathan Littels The Kindly Ones, a work of historical fiction that looked at World War II through the eyes of an SS officer, was understandbly divisive when first translated form French to English in 2009. Kakutani reserved for the book some of her harshest criticisms 😛 TAGEND

The fictions gushing fans, however, seem to have misstep perversity for daring, pretension for aspiration, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness. Willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent, The Kindly Ones the title is a reference to the Furies, otherwise knew of Greek mythology as the Eumenides is an overstuffed suitcase of a volume, consisting of an endless succession of scenes in which Jews are tortured, mutilated, shot, gassed or stuffed in ovens, intercut with an equally endless succession of scenes chronicling the narrators incestuous and sadomasochistic fantasies.

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Gary Shteyngart: ‘As a Queens boy, Trump was very impressive’

19 days ago

As a Russian immigrant to the US, the author grew up looking up to Gordon Gekko and Donald Trump now, he hopes his satire about a hedge-fund manager stops people from becoming bankers

In June 2016, Gary Shteyngart got on a bus. It was a cross-country Greyhound of a kind romanticised by those who don’t have to use them, and that he would describe in Lake Success, his fourth novel, as emanating from a depot in central Manhattan that “smelled like someone had eaten a fish sandwich”. The 46-year-old’s notion was to travel for a few months through the country he had entered in 1979 with his parents, from the Soviet Union, and elements of which he was failing to recognise. “At that point,” he says, “Trump was already a candidate and I didn’t think he would win when I got on the bus.”

Like many New Yorkers, Shteyngart grew up with Trump and had seen him through several iterations. “As a Queens boy, Trump was very impressive,” he says. “You could see his mansion, which back then seemed gigantic. And he was trying to do what we were all trying to do, which was to get the hell out of Queens and into Manhattan. But for Manhattan people he was a joke. And when I later became a Manhattan person, he also became a joke. In a weird way, I made the transition and he didn’t, and the whole country has to pay for that.”

These days, Shteyngart is a Manhattan person to such a degreethat he has found it necessary to move part time out of Manhattan, to his second home in upstate New York. We sit in a park around the corner from his city apartment, and across the street from his old school, the insanely competitive Stuyvesant high school (which has since moved to new buildings in Lower Manhattan), an environment of bone-deep familiarity to Shteyngart that became less appealing to him during the writing of Lake Success. The novel describes, in a slow, hilarious arc, the developing nervous breakdown of Barry Cohen, a hedge-fund manager who walks out on his wife and autistic child to take an odyssey on the Greyhound, just as Trump’s campaign is transforming America.

Odyssey on the Greyhound … Shteyngart took a months-long trip for his fourth novel, Lake Success. Photograph: Alamy

More broadly, it is about what the world of finance and the people in it – characterised by Shteyngart as having “a very small interior life; the families are by the wayside, divorce is rampant, they have many wives, they have a gazillion kids they don’t really keep in touch with”, and this is before one gets to the tax fraud and racism – have done to the world in general and New York in particular. “Writing this book and seeing how the sausage is made has meant cities like New York and London become less attractive,” he says.

It also made wealth acquisition, an unvanquishable ambition in Shteyngart as a child, much less desirable. By the standards of most writers, of course, he does very well. (Shteyngart bought his Gramercy Park apartment eight years ago for $1.1m, the kind of publicly listed information people in Manhattan obsessively Google the second they leave someone’s flat after a dinner party and that Shteyngart puts to good satirical use in Lake Success). Most of his books, including his recent memoir Little Failure, have been bestsellers and although he looks emphatically like a man who just spent six months on a Greyhound bus, he pals around with chumssuch as Ben Stiller and is the kind of canny self-promoter who clearly understands the value of a sales pitch.

And yet, of course, compared with the likes of Cohen, a man obsessing over his priceless collection of watches and worrying about his billions of assets under management, the life of any writer is pathetic. “When I started hanging out with hedge fund guys I was like, oh my God, I’m really not rich! And then I started thinking, ‘All right, I’m not rich!’ And then I started thinking, ‘There’s really nothing it gives you.’ It’d be nice to have a private plane for a little while, but not really. You’d have to think all the time about maintaining it.”

And then there’s the question of meaning. At its heart, like much of Shteyngart’s work, Lake Success is the story of what it means to be happy. In the novel, Cohen has the idea of buying a Rolex for every impoverished child in the land and constantly flogs the story of his dead mother as an alibi for everything he’s done since, neither of which does anything to fix him.

“You hear people stand up and say, ‘I came from nothing, my mother was blah blah blah, and now I’m worth billions.’ And it’s almost like a part of them knows that what they’re doing is of absolutely no help to society, in fact hurts society by creating this kind of inequality, and the only way they can ameliorate their own self-hatred is by saying, ‘Well I came from nothing, I worked my ass off and now I’m trying to help!’”

Don’t they derive some self-validation from being loathed?

“No,” says Shteyngart. “I think at heart they still want to be loved, very badly.”

Shteyngart and his wife, Esther, have a four-year-old son and before moving upstate, they lookedat schools in Manhattan. “We were looking at one – a very liberal school – and the kids were supposed to draw what they did on their summer vacation, and it was all ‘We took our Porsche to our yacht, Miss Bell.’ It’s not normal. And this is a huge part of Lake Success.”

The funny thing is that as an adolescent, Shteyngart wanted to go into finance. It was the 1980s and he and his friends in their immigrant neighbourhood in Queens desperately wanted to make money. They were nerdy kids, too, who after getting into the most competitive high school in the city thought the way to win – to buy their way out of gaucheness and social failure – was to go into banking.

Shteyngart had the advantage of being forced to give up this dream early because he simply wasn’t good enough at maths. For a while, however, the ambition was fierce. “I remember seeing the movie Wall Street, thinking, ‘Well, the key here is not to get caught.’ And because I was a Russian immigrant and couldn’t speak English and kids made fun of me, I thought the only way out of this is to be stupendously rich. So when I got to Stuyvesant I thought, ‘Yes, this is going to be great, I’m going to go to Harvard.’ And then there were 3,000 other kids there who were all smarter than me in terms of maths and science, and I was like: ‘Oh, crap.’”

Inspiration? … Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film Wall Street, directed by Oliver Stone. Photograph: Allstar Picture Library

Instead, he went to Oberlin College, a university in Ohio renowned in the US for being eye-rollingly right-on, and suddenly his Russian heritage had social capital. “You can’t just be a white straight male there; it’s pathetic. So all of a sudden I realised, ‘Holy crap, I’m an immigrant!’ So I started speaking with an accent, making borscht, which is actually Ukrainian but whatever, majored in Soviet politics and my minor was creative writing, but all I wrote about was Russia and I thought, ‘Kerching, I’m in!’ But writing Little Failure was a way to get rid of all the Russian material, because after that there’s nothing left.”

Lake Success is the first book of Shteyngart’s that doesn’t feature a Russian protagonist. (“He’s Jewish, so baby steps here. But he’s an American dude.”) His first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, was published in 2002 and follows around young Vladimir Girshkin, a 25-year-old Russian immigrant to New York; it announced Shteyngart as an expert tightrope walker on the line between exuberant send-up and ludicrously overblown satire.

Four years later, he published his breakthrough novel Absurdistan, which featured Misha Vainberg, the morbidly obese hero and son of the “1,238th richest man in Russia”, who attends an Oberlin-like institution called Accidental College. “As a writer you can’t just keep writing about your own world, because who cares,” he says. “So the last book, Super Sad True Love Story, was about tech, in a way, and the previous book was about oil politics and this is about finance.”

Super Sad True Love Story, published in 2010, was set in a dystopian future in which everyone goes around with their net worth spelled out, and much of which, Shteyngart is amused to note, came true – not least the availability of information about the value of his apartment. (“One thing I learned from the hedge fund world is that you gotta use an LLC,” he says drily, referring to a limited liability company). By contrast, Lake Success was a novel written in real time, a journalistic project transformed into fiction while he was still on the bus, and the trajectory of which changed while he was writing it.

At one point, Cohen finds himself in a bar in Atlanta, casually mocking Trump to a bunch of aggressive men in cargo shorts, all of whom predict “that Hillary is going to lose Ohio and Pennsylvania. And I remember that exact conversation. Them getting angry with me and walking out. But they were right and I was wrong! How the hell did they know that in July 2016?”

The answer is, at some level, that they knew the country better than Shteyngart. “I think racism undergirds all of this, no question. It’s a huge part of it. When we were immigrants and couldn’t speak the language, the one thing this country told us was: ‘You’re white, there’s always somebody lower than you.’ Then you have someone like Obama win, and that whole narrative gets turned upside down.”

There is a gender dimension to the story, too. “My first thought was that I wanted to write about a woman who’s a hedge-fund manager – there are a few. But it’s such a male world, the women are stuck in investor relations. And when I did meet a few women in hedge funds, they were all normal; their decisions were sober. They didn’t take on ridiculous risk and then blow up.”

One of the questions of the novel is to what extent you should feel bad for Cohen, one that Shteyngart says “every reader has to answer” – although he anticipates that “a lot of people are not going to be happy that it’s a hedge-fund guy”. The greater question, perhaps, is why as a novelist he has picked a hero with such severe limitations. Isn’t it pure snobbery to dismiss an entire group of people as having no interior life, compared with the rich mental tapestry of the novelist?

“No, I don’t think so. I see what’s before me and I compare it to the people that I know. On my journey by Greyhound, I found that the people who are really happy are upper middle-class people in places like El Paso, Texas, who had jobs that connected with the community in some way, so professors at the University of Texas, most of whose kids are first generation [immigrants], and where they make a real difference – it shows! And these people don’t live poorly; they have huge houses. Not by the standards of the hedge-fund people, but they actually have a meaningful connection with the world around them. It’s not snobbery. I want them to be happy. They’re stealing all our taxes and even that doesn’t make them happy! It’s like a zero sum game and we’re all losing.”

Shteyngart has a tiny hope that Lake Success may do some good in the world by falling into the hands of an impressionable teen, or someone currently unhappy in banking.

“My dream is that some dude comes up to me and says: ‘I worked in finance and after reading Lake Success I decided to become a teacher.’ Or: ‘I left Canary Wharf and now I’m a social worker. In Wales.’” In the meantime, he says, “the biggest compliment I’ve had is from people who’ve said you made me feel something for a hedge-fund guy.” There is, perhaps, no greater test of one’s skill as a writer.

Lake Success is published by Hamish Hamilton. To order a copy for £14.44 (RRP £16.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

The Chosen Wars review: examine of American Jews uncovers familiar schisms

24 days ago

Steven Weisman determines contention and dispute at every stage of Jewish American history including modern-day politics

On election day 2016, Hillary Clinton won more than 70% of the Jewish election. But that number tells only part of a narrative. In some predominately Orthodox Jewish precincts, Donald Trump’s numbers were straight out of the rust belt or the deep south.

As in the rest of the electorate, religious commitment and educational attainment shaped how Jews voted. In the overwhelmingly religion Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, Trump took 68% of the vote. In New Jersey’s Lakewood Township, he won with a 50 -point margin. By contrast, the island of Manhattan was a sea of Democratic blue.

The political cleavages that mark the broader American scenery existing between America’s Jews. Just as Jews were to be found on both sides of slavery, secession and the civil war, they are again combatants in a political skirmish. Think of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader.

Welcome to The Chosen Wars, a narrative of the Jewish journey in the different regions of the American scenery. Steven Weisman, who covered politics and economics at the New York Times for a one-quarter of a century, marshals an impressive array of facts to argue that the competing tugs of separatism and assimilation have been present ever since Jews landed in the New world in the 17 th century, that even among the devout the broader culture affected religious practice, and that Jewish communal participation has ebbed and flowed with time.

As Weisman frames things,” Jewish belief in the Jewish people’s own unique identity … has been so strong that it remains a foundation of Jewish life in the United States .” He also acknowledges that identity” has always been and is very likely be one of contention and dispute “. Things are alloyed.

The book chronicles how the constitution’s establishment clause led to the laity’s domination within the synagogue. Most notably for Weisman, a schism within a Charleston shul triggered a landmark lawsuit and decision. Unlike Europe, the civil authorities would not pick sides even when asked. Ultimately, a South Carolina appellate court ruled in 1846 that the judiciary must avoid” questions of theological dogma, depending on speculative religion, or ecclesiastical rites “.

In other words, they would let the Jews duke it out among themselves.

At hours they actually did. Weisman describes an actual riot that have broken out on Rosh Hashanah 1850 in Albany, New York, over the nature of the Messiah. The police were called and the congregation scattered, but not before the synagogue chairwoman taunted the rabbi, Isaac Wise, saying:” I have $100,000 more than you .” Yet it was Wise’s rejection of a personal and national Messiah that shaped Reform Judaism. It represented a break from 2,000 years of tradition.

The book also examines how Darwin and criticism impacted attitudes toward the Bible, divine authorship taking a make. Emil Hirsch, a Reform Rabbi and professor at the University of Chicago, declared:” Modern scholarship has spoken, and its voice cannot be hushed .”

To put things in context, even those more traditionally minded were forced to respond or adjust to science.

On the one hand, within the Hasidic movement the dominant mantra remains:” If you are still troubled by the theory of evolution, I can tell you without anxiety of contradiction that it has not a shred of evidence to subsistence it .”

On the other, within Orthodoxy’s more modern circles there was a retreat from taking the creation narrative and Genesis’s timeline literally. A “day” came to be read as eons, and the Divine Hand could be found guiding the Descent of Man.

Said differently, distinctions are now being drawn between the ” historical credibility of biblical narrative “ and its ” theological truths “.

Donald Trump receives a gift at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/ Reuters

Weisman dedicates Orthodoxy its due as a force to be reckoned with. From Long Island’s Five Towns to the Upper East Side, and in the Young Israel of New Rochelle and Scarsdale, the denomination is no longer acting like a poor relation.

The Chosen Wars occasionally loses sight of relevant skirmishes within American Protestantism. Weisman does a deep diving on the battle waged from the pulpit on bondage and secession but constructs no reference to its antecedents. In a sense, 19 th-century Jews arrived late to that party.

In 1700 Samuel Sewall, a Massachusetts businessman and magistrate, penned The Selling of Joseph, which served as a theological rebuttal to the contention that blacks were inferior in the eyes of God, and that their plight as slaves was preordained as the purported descendants of Ham and Canaan, Noah’s cursed son and grandson.

Sewall, a magistrate during the Salem witchcraft trials, contended that” Joseph was rightfully no more a Slave to his Brethren, than they were to him: and they had no more Authority to Sell him, than they had to Slay him “. Against that backdrop, the” Curse of Ham“, invoked in a New York synagogue in the run-up to the civil war, sounds like a recapitulation of an earlier argument posited by slavery-sympathetic southern clergy.

Weisman is optimistic about the future of American Jewry. But if the Puritan ultimately succumbed to the temptations of the figuratively precluding forest, there is no reason to presume Jews will be much different. After all, Jewish immigration to America was about fleeing from the Old World and living the American Dream , not founding a City on a Hill.

Looking at America’s religion scenery, “nones” are now the single most important subgroup among millennials. Among America’s Jews, the narrative is not much different. Three in 10 reject denominational identity. Outside the Orthodox community, the Jewish birthrate is below “the member states national” median. American Jewry will probably endure, but its demographics stand to be different: from the looks of things, more religious but less educated, affluent and influential.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Mohsin Hamid on the rise of nationalism:’ In the land of the pure , no one is pure enough’

1 month, 4 days ago

From Myanmar to Pakistan, the US and Britain, an preoccupation with purity is driving political, religious and moral agendas. But a retired from intricacy is no ensure of future harmony

Perhaps it is living half your life in Pakistan, for Pakistan is the land of the pure. Literally so: the land, stan, of the pure, pak. Perhaps that is why you have come to question the commonly held perception that purity is good and impurity is bad. For a tribe of humans newly arrived in a place never before inhabited by humans, such an outlook is perhaps sensible. Purity in a creek of water renders it fit to drink. Impurity in a piece of meat nauseates those who eat it. Purity is hence to be valued and impurity to be avoided, defied, expelled. And yet you believe the time has come to seek to reverse, at least partly, the emotional polarity of these two terms, to extol impurity’s benefits and denounce purity’s harms.

The issue is, of course, personal. We are each of us is comprised of atoms, but equally we are composed by hour. Since your time has been expended half inside Pakistan and half outside, and your outlook and postures shaped by this, you are in a sense half-Pakistani, which is to say, as Pakistan is the land of the pure, you are half-pure: an impossible country. You cannot exist as you are. Or instead, you are required impure. And if impurity is bad then you are bad. And to be bad is hazardous, in every society. So yes, the questions is personal, and pressing.

But in Pakistan, the questions is political as well, for it affects everyone. Once purity becomes what determines the rights a human being is afforded, indeed whether they are entitled to live or not, then there is a ferocious competition to establish hierarchies of purity, and in that contest no one can win. No one can ever be sufficiently pure to be lastingly safe. In the land of the pure , no one is pure enough. No Muslim is Muslim enough. And so all are suspect. All are at risk. And many are killed by others who find their purity lacking, and many of their killers are in turn killed for similar reasons. And on and on, in a chain reaction. The politics of purity is the politics of fission.

This should not be surprising. Pakistan was founded by fission, the splitting of British imperial India into two separate independent states, Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. And Pakistan has experienced farther fission, the splitting of its western and eastern wings into Pakistan and Bangladesh. In each case, a more complex entity was broken into what was believed would be two more internally harmonious ones. But a retreat from complexity is no guaranty of future harmony. Too often, it is accompanied by the rise of a fetish for purity, the desire to exterminate persisting traces of intricacy within.

Pakistan is not unique. Rather, it is at the forefront of a worldwide trend. All around the world, governments and would-be governments appear overwhelmed by complexity and are blindly unleashing the power of fission, championing quests for the pure. In India a politics of Hindu purity is wrenching open deep and bloody rifts in a diverse society. In Myanmar a politics of Buddhist purity is massacring and expelling the Rohingya. In the United States a politics of white purity is marching in white hoods and red baseball caps, demonising Muslims and Hispanic people, killing and brutalising black people, jeering at intellectuals, and spitting in the face of climate science.

White Neo Nazis, alt-right and white supremacists march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. Photo: Samuel Corum/ Anadolu Agency/ Getty Images

And what of Europe? Europe, too, is rekindling its love affair with purity, with signs of this deadly ardour everywhere, from the rise of the far right in Germany and Austria to the endless emergency in France to the ethno-national cracking of Ukraine and Spain.

And then there is Brexit, particularly saddening for you, since you are not just part-Pakistani, you are part-British( and part-European) as well. Brexit illustrates only too well the politics of fission and the unleashing of the forces of purity. First, or so it was said, the British took back control. But the Scottish and Northern Irish seemed not to want to take back control. So the English took back control from them. And also from Londoners, for London had long ceased to be properly English. And also from the young, addled in their reasoning by the ever increasing numbers of the non-English in their midst. In some English newspapers today dissenters are called traitors. In England’s north-west frontier, which is to say Northern Ireland, a return to violence is feared. The ruling party is paralysed, riven by factionalism. No one is deemed pure enough, brazenly English enough, to govern. Magistrates, journalists, parliamentarians, citizens: everyone is suspect.

How Pakistani it all ten-strikes you.


In these pure days, you believe more impurity is desperately needed. Only impurity can save we are currently. But, fortunately, there are reasons for hope. Our species was built on impurity, and impurity will probably come to our rescue once again, if we let it.

Biology is instructive here. The physical commingling of two human mothers is required to produce a child. Every child is a combination of genetic material from two different sources. Every child is impure, a mixture. There is a clear reason for this: it works better than the alternative. If we simply split in half to create two humen from one, or detached a hunk from our leg or from our buttock, which grew into an identical copy of us, we would all be the same. We would all be pure. But we would be much less capable of coping with the challenges of an environment that always has been, and always will be, in a state of change.

Over time, our inescapable, systemic, basically human impurity dedicates us the capacity to do what has not been done before, to make creative leapings: in our biology, in the diseases we are going to be able defy and the foods we are going to be able digest. And in our thinking and culture and politics too. The coming together of people from different backgrounds, with different ideas, permits breakthroughs to occur. Constitutional democracy as currently practised around the world owes a great deal to America and Britain and France, but it also owes a great deal to the ancient Greeks, and to the Arabs who built on and transmitted Greek thought to a Europe where the ancient Greeks had been all but forgotten. The first aircraft was fabricated in America, but the physics and maths and engineering that induced it possible came from Europe, from North Africa, from India, from China, from the collision and collect of knowledge by all of humanity.

‘The ‘ The coming together of people from different backgrounds, with different ideas, permits breakthroughs to result … think of jazz.’ Photograph: Frank Driggs Collection/ Getty Images

Think of jazz. Of Asia and Africa’s influence on European cuisine- and vice versa. Of the Moors on Don Quixote. Of the foreign-born on Silicon Valley. Of the green revolution. Of cutting-edge research in medicine. These are not victories of purity, designed by cutoff, like-minded people of similar appearance and narrowly shared pedigree. These are what can be achieved when humanity mixes.

Climate change. Mass migration. Rampant inequality. None of the most pressing and daunting problems today facing humanity have simple answers. As a species, we require creative new approaches, yet-to-be-imagined leaps forward. But while we might not yet know what the solutions to these challenges are, we should already suspect from where the breakthroughs are most likely to come. They are likely to come from mongrelisation. From profound impurity. From people and ideas at risk of being inhibited and marginalised in our purity-obsessed age.


We are all impure. But because many of us deny our impurity, those who are most obviously impure among us require allies. And one of their most important friends is literature. Writing. Reading. When, sitting alone, we read a volume, something profoundly strange results. We are by ourselves. We are merely ourselves. And yet we contain within us the believes of another person, the writer. We become something bizarre. Something manifestly impure. A being with the guess of two beings inside it.

A reader, in the moment of read, experiences a pooling of consciousness that blurs the painstakingly constructed borders of the unitary ego. The very possibility of read, the facts of the case that it can occur, that a human being can experience this, the thoughts of another in the same physical place, that place so deep within, where the reader’s own thinks reside- and furthermore that the reader is drawn to this experience, seeks for it, desires it- reminds us that the impure is fundamental to what the fuck is, and calls out to us, powerfully, like the sea calls out to an organism that has evolved to live on the land, and yet recreates the sea inside itself, forms a watery womb, every time it conceives a child.

Writing and reading are, as sexuality is, a commingling. Literature is the practice of the impure. Written words might articulate demands and justifications for purity, but the fact that such terms are written and read means they are, by their very nature, impure- prudes perhaps, but inescapably engaged in an debauchery. Writing cannot help but remind us of the power of impurity, even when some written words claim the opposite.

So yes, writing is among the most important friends of the impure, which is to say it is on the side of the mixing upon which our future ability to thrive as a species depends, and on the side of the mongrelisation that has rendered each of us people; a mongrelisation that, if acknowledged, allows us to accept ourselves as the messy, fertile, multifaceted composites we actually are, rather than the frozen, sterile, monochromatic entities we are told to pretend to be.

( For you, of course, possibly more obviously a mongrel than many others, writing has become a way of life, the route of your life, because it was not clear to you that a life such as yours had a route without it .)

But novelists are easily identified as agents of impurity. And so it does not surprise you, and should surprise none of us, that the forces of purity have identified writing and novelists as in need of suppression.

These suppressions do not occur in a vacuum. For each, there is a context. Individual impurities are cited as harmful. As offensive to a define of beliefs, or to a desired cohesion, or to an economic future, or to the wellbeing of a younger generation. And then a mode of suppression is selected: a legal one, such as libel statutes in Britain or lese-majeste laws in Thailand or national security and official secrecy laws in America; or an extra-legal one, such as abduct by a drug cartel in Mexico, or a religious proclamation by a cleric in Pakistan, or the bullet fired by an assassin, anywhere, everywhere.

Houses Houses of Rohingyas burning in Myanmar, in September 2017. Photograph: NurPhoto/ Getty Images

Such suppression almost never presents itself as an attempt to end free speech in general. Rather, it focuses on the specific. Not the herd, but the lamb. Not the school, but the sardine. On this one particular case of impurity, which has gone too far, and can now, should now, be picked off, swallowed up, in a mighty gulping, never to listen to from or seen again.

Because of this merciless specificity, a scattering pas, even among those who seek to defend the impure who are currently novelists. You have often observed this tendency. It manifests itself in a focus on the threats to those impurities that we like, to the forms of speech we ourselves tend to value. For many in Europe, for example, this is the threat of violent Muslims against speech perceived as anti-Islam. But while this menace is real and dangerous( albeit encountered much more by novelists in Asia and Africa than in Europe ), it is not the only menace. Indeed it is not the largest nor the most significant one, in terms of the numbers of writers it affects and the aggregate quantity of harm that befalls them. Around the world the hazards writers face come from criminals, from the powerful in their own communities, and from their own governments, far more often than from Muslim terrorists.

To focus only on one form of suppression, then, while ignoring the others, operates the risk of seeking to harness outrage as a weapon, rather than as a shield. Of failing to value the impurity of writing, and instead opening a new front in the battle of one purity against another.

When we celebrate writers for their bravery, it is also worth asking if there are writers whose gallantry consists, in part, of standing up not to others but to us. Standing up not to the monsters without, about whom we speak so often, but to the monsters within, which we prefer not to notice. Writers who undermine our cherished nations, militaries, borders, races, clans, beliefs.

For there are many kinds of heroes, or rather many utilizes for them. There are those heroes who inspire. But there are heroes, too, who remind us of our own potential for villainy, impure mirrors who reflect back at us the false purities we conceal. Such novelists may go unsung, understandably. But when they go unprotected, we risk losing with them the possibility for the best within us, that redemptive impurity we shall seriously need in the times to come.

Adapted from a speech dedicated for PEN International Free the Word! at Winternachten 2018. Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West is published by Penguin in paperback on 8 February. Illustration by Christophe Gowans.

Emma Watson starts feminist book group on Twitter

1 month, 19 days ago

Actor pledges to ask stars including Taylor Swift and JK Rowling to join platform for reading deliberation, to be named Our Shared Shelf

Harry Potter actor, UN ambassador and feminism campaigner Emma Waston has announced she is starting a feminist volume group on Twitter, called Our Shared Shelf. Watson, who is a goodwill ambassador for UN Women and figurehead of the gender equality campaign HeforShe, tweeted yesterday that she wanted to start the book club, with her request for indicated names for the group sparking a flurry of responses.

Emma Watson (@ EmWatson) January 6, 2016

Hi Team, I want to start a feminist book club but so far have only brainstormed ‘Feminist Book Club’ and ‘Emma Watson Book Club’.

After suggestions including Wats Up Fems, Watson Your Shelf and Hermiones Army, Watson announced today that she absolutely loved Twitter user @ emilyfabbs suggestion: Our Shared Shelf and portended further information about the book club was still to come.

Emma Watson (@ EmWatson) January 7, 2016

Thank you to everyone who came up with ideas and suggestions. That was VERY cool of you all. More info coming soon … Xxx

Twitters response has been enthusiastic: alongside punters, retired American footballer Abby Wambach, performer Sophia Bush and singer Kate Voegele have all tweeted they would take part in the club, with Watson agreeing to ask Harry Potter author JK Rowling and singer Taylor Swift to join in.

The first volume may have been chosen: when Wambach asked for nominations, Watson elected American feminist Gloria Steinems latest memoir, My Life on the Road, a collection of the authors reflections on her life and activism that the Guardian called illuminating.

Emma Watson (@ EmWatson) January 7, 2016

@AbbyWambach @katevoegele @SophiaBush @GloriaSteinem only released a new memoir? Thought it seemed like a good place 2begin? #MyLifeOnTheRoad

Watson made headlines when she launched the UNs HeForShe campaign in 2014, asking men to help women tackle sexism and for increased awareness of the negative impact masculine stereotypes had on men. Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong, she said, in her speech to UN delegates.

Watson is not alone in her aspirations to start an online celebrity volume club: actor Gwyneth Paltrow operates a cookbook club on her lifestyle website Goop, while fellow actor Reese Witherspoon who has a history of producing film adaptations of her favourite books, including Gillian Flynns novel Gone Girl and Cheryl Strayeds memoir Wild runs a volume club on Instagram, on the hashtag #RWBookclub.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced his biweekly volume club in January last year, focusing on books that have an emphasis on learning about different cultures, faiths, histories and technologies. Zuckerbergs first choice, The Objective of Power by Moises Naim, rocketed up the Amazon bestsellers list, outstripping 18 months of marketings in days after the announcement.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Alan Cumming: ‘If Donald Trump is the president, we are screwed’

3 months, 4 days ago

In an appearance at the New York Public Library, the actor talked about Elizabeth Taylor, Monica Lewinsky and, naturally, the rise of Donald Trump

Many years ago, the actor Alan Cumming happened to attend a birthday party at Carrie Fishers home. He arrived early. He was so early, in fact, that he was the first guest to arrive. The second was Elizabeth Taylor.

Rather than drum up small talk with one of the great Hollywood stars of the 20 th century, Cumming told a mob at the New York Public Library on Wednesday night, he chose to slip into another room and get a drinking at the bar. Fisher, he told, then approached him and hissed, in a kind of stage whisper: What are you doing? Do you know how many homosexuals would like to be in your position? Cumming returned to the living room and promptly he and Liz fell into an enjoyable conversation.

This is the sort of anecdote Cumming tells in his new volume, You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams: My Life in Stories and Pictures, out this week in the US from Rizzoli. I wanted to give people literal and figurative snapshots, Cumming told the NYPLs Paul Holdengraber last night at the first event of the library Live at the NYPL series. Probably the most touching of these is a shot of himself with his grandmother. On the working day the photograph was taken, Cumming told, his grandmother defended him from relatives who are seeking to tease him about his newly bleached blond hair. If I was young, she said, Id be a freak like Alan too.

On the stage last night Cumming was not much like the characters he plays. He was constrained, spoke slowly and carefully and sometimes even sadly. He was wearing a T-shirt that earnestly extol him a Library All Star and implored, Get in video games, read! And at least at one point, he was visibly riled with Holdengrabers topics. This was when Holdengraber tried to draw a parallel between Cummings troubled relationship to his father, and his troubled relationship with the writer and critic Gore Vidal.

Vidal befriended Cumming in the early 2000 s, he told the audience, and he aimed up having mixed feelings about the relationship. He was flattered, at first, that Vidal liked him, but the more he got to know the famously caustic critic the more he was saddened by Vidals lack of exhilaration. I dont think he was a very nice person, he told Holdengraber. He recalled a visit with Vidal and Vidals partner, Howard Austen. The pair had been together for 50 years. But Cumming said he was shocked to hear Vidal say in front of Austen, Well, Ive never loved, of course. This seemed a cruel thing to say.

Still, Vidal had plainly profoundly affected Cumming. He said he had want to get title his book, I Wrote This Book Because Gore Vidal Told Me To, but his publishers hadnt let him.( That title was instead used for the one chapter in the book where he discusses the relationship .)

Another of Cummings disagreements with Vidal, he told, was over the Monica Lewinsky affair. Vidal was unsympathetic to Lewinsky and especially defended Bill Clintons famous statement that he did not have sex with that woman. Cumming is a good friend of Lewinskys and grew very serious talking about it.

The way that, you know, the most powerful man in the world and this 23 -year-old girl who was in love with him, this thing happened, this unfortunate thing happened, yet she was the one, the weak one he said, reaching for the words to describe his feelings. He was the one who abused his power, and she was the one who was berated, and denigrated, and whose life was made a misery.

Cumming also had opinions to share about Donald Trump. If Donald Trump is the president of this country, we are fucked, ladies and gentlemen, severely, he told.

In the book he writes about the style that Cabaret, the musical whose 1993 London revival was Cummings big breakout role, gradually immerses the reader in the prospect of Nazism. Holdengraber called this passageway prescient as to the present trend of politics. Cumming blanched at the thought. Six, seven, eight months ago, it was funny , now its not funny at all, he said.

The fact that he has been a candidate of a major party, Cumming continued, its a victory of the lack of value this country puts on education. We have allowed a generation of people to be uneducated, to not be able to analyze, to not care about what is happening in the world, to also be in a place where if they are told the same thing again and again and again, propaganda basically, they believe it to be true. He cited Brexitas another example of the same phenomenon.

The demographics of this country have changed so radically in the last generation, and Im hoping that rich, white, entitled humen like Donald Trump, their days of being able to say contentious, racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic things, are over, Cumming told. But Im not certain. And that fills me with such horror.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Russell Brand: ‘I was a needy person. I’m less mad now’

3 months, 5 days ago

Hes moved to the country, had a baby and stayed away from politics but is the comedian ready for a quiet life?

The last time I interviewed Russell Brand was in 2008, around the time of Sachsgate, and he was a handful. When I asked him, as a joke, if he was going for world domination, he replied, “Yes, that is what I will do. What am I going to stop for? I’ll just carry on until there’s nothing left.” Nine years on, he has changed in some ways, and in others, not at all.

He still looks amazing: tall, long-haired, Gypsy-George-Best handsome; a dandy highwayman in black leather trousers and goth jewellery. His mind still fires faster than a machine gun, and his speech is just as packed with flowery words and detailed explanations, peppered with references to what he’s read (Jung, Harari, life coach Tony Robbins). And he’s still funny. But Brand is different. His ego is less all-consuming. In 2008, he was difficult with the photographer (not today, he’s fine) and, during our chat, he kept moving his head so that, even when I tried to glance away, he was constantly in my sight-line. It was as if my eyes were the spotlight and his face had to be in it. No more.

“Yes, I’m less mad now,” he says, when I mention this. “I was a needy person. I mean, that condition abides, but I manage it better now, I think.”

Back then, he was also very much a girl-hound – “I love fucking,” he told me. “My house has a hot tub for damned good reasons, and none of them spiritual.” But these days he’s settled, living in the countryside with his new wife Laura Gallacher (sister of Sky Sports presenter Kirsty), baby Mabel, two cats, a brace of chickens and a “maniac” dog. Having burned through his marriage to Katy Perry in two years, and dated Jemima Khan, his relationship with Gallacher, on and off for years, is now settled and domestic. Career-wise, he’s still a standup – he’s on a 71-date tour that will take him into 2018 – but seems to have stopped acting, and has shifted a lot of his public work to activism. In 2014, he began posting The Trews, his political YouTube show, garnering more than 1m subscribers. He’s now studying for an MA in religion in global politics at SOAS University of London. He hosts a wordy, thought-provoking podcast, Under The Skin, where he talks to academics, politicians and writers about contemporary ideas. Is this all less mad? It’s an effort to be more serious, certainly, though his daft performer’s instinct can send him off course in search of the joke, so that he gets ridiculed on political TV shows.

Brand with his wife, Laura Gallacher. Photograph: Alamy

Anyhow, all of this newfound stability and seriousness, according to Brand, is due to his 12-step recovery programme. Though he’s been off drugs since 2002, Brand’s addictive nature meant that his attitude towards sex, porn, money, relationships, food, fame – everything, really – was abnormally compulsive and got him into trouble. So, for the past four and a half years, he has been applying the steps across the whole of his life. He has found this transformative, and thinks many others would, too. In fact, he wants us all to be 12-steppers. “I think that this ideology needs to be proliferated,” he says, “and I think that the more access people have to it, the more people could use it. I’m fascinated by its potential.”

We are chatting in a beautiful hotel in the countryside west of London, not far from where he lives. On a side table, several necklaces have been laid out for Brand to choose from for his photo shoot. A hotel worker delivers avocado on toast while we talk before a vista of perfectly appointed gardens. It’s a setting unlike most representations of an AA meeting that I’ve seen, but let’s talk the 12 steps. The 12 steps form the basis of Alcoholics Anonymous and of all other associated groups (Narcotics Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous). The first step is an admission of powerlessness over the thing to which you’re addicted. The steps aren’t hard to find, but there is a lot of related literature, too, and though this isn’t a secret, it tends to be passed only between those who attend AA meetings. This isn’t enough for Brand. He is so evangelical about the steps that he has rewritten them, in Brand-speak, for his new book, Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions.

Aside from the foreword and conclusion, Recovery has 12 chapters, one for each step, and with each Brand takes the step’s essence, rejigs it, and uses his own life to explain what he means. So the AA step one, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable”, becomes, in Brand’s reworking, “Are you a bit fucked?” AA’s step six, “We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character”, becomes: “Do you want to stop it? Seriously?” You get the gist.

The book is entertaining and easy to read. There’s a chapter about Brand’s daughter’s birth that is graphically real and very moving: “As if touched by the finger of creation, her eyes flash open and life possesses her and exudes from her. Like seeing behind the curtain as she moves from life’s shadow to life.” Still, I’m not sure how necessary the book is – surely, the existing steps literature works fine – so who is it for?

“For people who have drug and alcohol or sex or food issues, but find some of the literature too clinical, or Christian,” Brand says. “But also, I think it could be applied as a sort of model, because now my lens for living is this. I think it’s universal.”

He tells me about a professional, non-AA meeting he recently attended. He asked if anyone felt they were out of control over anything, and one person mentioned their phone use, another how possessive they were about their friends, another how they behaved when dating. These are the people he wants to read his book, he says; addiction is on a sliding scale, and we all, to a greater or lesser degree, display signs of addictive behaviour. “Addiction is just an extreme behavioural pattern, and we all have patterns.”

‘People need to be able to connect with something that is essential and beautiful and valuable and true.’ Photograph: Harry Borden for the Guardian

He may well be right: I just question whether Brand is the person to take us all through the steps. Also, there’s a point, surely, to the anonymous bit of AA? If the support groups aren’t anonymous, then people don’t feel free enough to talk honestly.

He disagrees. “That anonymity was necessary at the inception, I think, precisely because it was 100 years ago [AA started in 1935; the steps were written in 1939], and there were different social attitudes about chemical misuse and alcoholism. The fellowships themselves had a fragility, and needed to be protected from the idea that anyone could claim to be a spokesperson for them. But I think such anonymity now is preventing a technology that people would benefit from being proliferated.”

He points out how easy it is to order drugs, or indeed anything else, from the internet; how consumer culture is designed to make us think that if you don’t feel good, “there is something you can get to make you feel better and you can probably buy it”. Whether it’s the bump of serotonin you get from a heart on an Instagram post, or the one you get from winning an eBay auction, today’s culture is designed to make you temporarily euphoric through consumption, rather than fully happy because you have changed your habits.

“We’re reaching saturation of consumerism, and the antidote to all this needs to be accessible as well,” he says. “In a way, this book is a progression of the last book I wrote.” Revolution, Brand’s last book, was his call for a political revolution, based on destroying capitalism and getting transcendent instead. (Spoiler: it didn’t work.) John Lydon called it idiotic, and even his friend Noel Gallagher, on hearing that Brand was writing another book, said, “What’s it going to be called this time? The Revolution That Never Took Place?” Still, Brand is persistent. “There’s an ongoing sense that this isn’t working. Really, I’d like to address the emotional and spiritual causes of dissatisfaction on a personal level.”

Ah, the Big Idea. It’s easy to forget, when presented with a comedian who threw away several careers, not just his own, by leaving off-colour messages on the answerphone of a Fawlty Towers star, that Brand has always been interested in the Big Idea. In 2008, he said this to me: “The material world is a transitory illusion, and if it is, why organise your life around the systems that it imposes? Particularly if those systems have negative consequences for huge numbers of people, and the planet itself. I wonder if there are ways that that can change… and I don’t mean normal things like, let’s wear a ribbon – I mean the entire economic structure of the planet or the way we look at religion.”

He’s still thinking along those lines. His Under The Skin podcast is an attempt to get clever people such as Naomi Klein, Al Gore, Adam Curtis and assorted professors to explain their own Big Idea and unpick the systems we take as set in stone, whether those systems are economic or social. He’s searching for the meaning underneath. Brand used to be a Buddhist; now, he believes in a higher power, and the steps are his new faith.

“There was an important job that religion was doing,” he says, “but because of the bigotry, the outdated acculturation of the time of its construction, the casual and unaware attitude towards gender and race, we have, possibly quite rightly, rejected it. But the secularisation, the materialisation, the individualisation of the way we see the world now excludes us from a life that has meaning. And I don’t think pop culture can fill that gap any more. I don’t think art can do it any more. I think things are getting too serious. People need to be able to connect with something that is essential and beautiful and valuable and true.”

Brand speaking at the End Austerity Now rally in London in June 2015. Photograph: John Stillwell/PA

This is pretty much what he was saying 10 years ago, I feel. It’s just that, this time around, Brand’s solution is different. For him, the 12-step programme “has the seeds in it, it has the code”. The meaning of life, the Big Idea. It may well do – the 12 steps have saved a lot more lives than me – but I have another issue with Brand’s book. AA and its associated groups are all free. Though there are those who pay to go into rehab, there are many more who just turn up to meetings and pay nothing at all. Brand will be charging money for his book. How much of his profits will go to AA?

“Some I’ll give to abstinence-based recovery,” he says, “but I’ve not made a devout vow to be a mendicant, you know? My hope is that I’ll become a person that lives entirely charitably and entirely philanthropically and entirely spiritually. And a significant percentage of what I earn – 10, 20% – goes into that kind of thing already; it has done for a little while. Aside from that, there is a 12-step message in this book, but it’s coming through me, it’s using me. It’s still me.”

Exactly, I say. The book is about you. It has a picture of you on the front.

“I know that. I know I’m narcissistic. I know I’m no different from anyone with ego problems, showing off, going, ‘Love me, love me, adore me, give me attention’, but it ain’t just that. It’s something else. And that thing, I’ve got to do something with it.”

I believe he believes this. But I still think it’s his ego. Brand is working hard on his narcissism, but not enough to stop him thinking he can save us all. And not enough to stop him making money by rewriting the programme that saved his life for free. Still, here we are. Before he decided to work the 12 steps throughout his daily existence, Brand spent a lot of time searching for how he should live. He read innumerable self-help books, hoovered up philosophy, puzzled away. He has the phone number of Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power Of Now, and for a while would phone him up – “This living saint!” – with his love-life problems. One time, Brand was banging on about the troubles he was having with his then girlfriend, and at the end of his love tirade, Tolle said, deadpan, “Well, perhaps the relationship will work out. And then both of you will die.” This made Brand laugh, and makes me laugh when he says it.

His personal quest means he’s gone through umpteen therapists, regaling each with his admittedly eye-popping life story. It got to the point where it would almost be a performance. He would rattle through being an only child, his mum getting cancer three times, being sexually abused by a tutor, his relationship with his macho stepdad, his sexually profligate dad who took him to Thailand and ordered three prostitutes (two for him, one for 16-year-old Russell), his problems with crack, heroin, with cutting himself, with sex, with food. The therapist he liked most listened to it all and said, “Yes, but Russell, what is it? What. Is. It?”

What is it? In his book, Brand recalls a day he went to London to meet a theatre director. His tale is a litany of minor discomforts, the worst of which is that his phone runs out of juice and he can’t get a cab. For Brand, though, this series of very small annoyances is almost catastrophic. He cannot cope. His mind fires all over the place, taking him back to when he had nothing, flicking over his junkie past, speculating about strangers’ jobs, then painfully picking through small talk to a moment of joy with, of all people, the actor Zoë Wanamaker. As I read it, I was reminded that, in addition to his addiction problems, Brand has ADHD. It must be exhausting being him.

Performing his Messiah Complex standup show in Berlin in 2014. Photograph: Adam Berry/Getty Images

In that chapter, what he’s trying to demonstrate is how emotional we can be when life bashes us about, but also how the steps can provide a form of mindfulness, a technique to deal with the mania and loneliness and resentment that can easily sweep through our system and knock us off course. Or, at least, knock him off course. What his story makes me feel is that I’m not like that; we all have days when everyone and everything is a wind-up, but usually I manage to shrug off the externals and get on with my life. “Yes, I think addicts are outliers, we’re so jittery about the external world that we’re like, ‘Fuck this, I’m going to find something to medicate and alleviate this.’ I know I’m a nutter.”

No wonder he lives more quietly now, though quiet is a relative term. He’s still making the odd Trews show – he’s just put one up about Sinéad O’Connor, sympathising with her mental illness – plus there’s the podcast, his MA, the book, and he’s doing three standup gigs a week. Performing comedy means his adrenaline is all over the shop; up late and wired, he has to sleep more during the day to keep himself steady. He’s trying hard to be reasonable, because “the more I hear myself being reasonable, the more difficult it becomes to transgress those rules and my own behaviour”.

And he likes living quietly. “I’ve never had domesticity before. Most of my life has been an extension of the grandiose idea of what glamour would look like if it had to have a kitchen. And I feel sometimes like a refugee in my house with this woman, this calm, beautiful woman, who in the most beautiful way possible doesn’t care about what I do. She’s not interested, in the most delightful way. ‘Oh, that sounds nice.’”

He’s enjoying having a daughter, too, though the lack of control takes some getting used to. He might have joked about raising her gender-neutral on Jonathan Ross’s TV show, but he’s pretty militant about Mabel’s privacy. He copes better when his little family are indoors; outside the house, things can get tricky, because he has trouble moving from a safe place out into a random world where he is not in command, but also because “I struggle with people touching the kid.” Plus, his celebrity can skew ordinary moments. He writes about being on a boat on a canal with Laura and getting papped and then getting into a row with the photographer – “My unstated plan is to get his camera… I settle for snatching his spectacles to barter for the film”; it doesn’t go well – and tells me of a time when he fell off his bike in Shoreditch and was lying sprawled on the ground, injured, as a selection of hipsters took photographs of him. “The fact that I was a famous person usurped the fact that I was lying on the floor, clearly in pain.” Only a group of older ladies bothered to ask if he was OK.

Sometimes I think Russell Brand is a cautionary tale, almost a mythological figure; a combination of Narcissus, Big Brother, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger – actually, all rock stars at once. But then I remember that, really, he is not like many other people. He’s not ordinary by any stretch: he’s a person for whom fame is like sunlight, who couldn’t have stayed in the shadows without dying. He is built to show off, and that has consequences.

“Yes, but like a lot of people that have access to extrovert behaviour and can seem quite loud and vivid, there’s a fragility also in me. I’ve learned to manage that differently, and I don’t feel so self-damning and self-condemning as I once did, because I’m more aware.” He knows, for instance, that The Trews began promisingly, but descended into political point-scoring, culminating with Ed Miliband visiting his house to be interviewed and Brand deciding that, actually, we should all vote after all, as long as we voted Labour. He admits that the attention the shows generated fed his always-ravenous ego, and he began to use The Trews to feel powerful and get approval. So he stopped. “I still have this tremendous ambitious drive, but now I know, if I give that drive to my ego to contend with, it wreaks havoc.”

Interviewing Ed Miliband for his YouTube show The Trews in 2015. Photograph: The Trews/YouTube

He should stay out of conventional politics, I think. “Yes. I’m on the edge of the community – a trickster, a joker, a playful person – I don’t need to be working out how the Metropolitan police force should be run.”

When I remind him how, pre-Miliband chat, he told his many young fans that there was no point in voting in the 2015 election, he is unrepentant, because he felt, back then, that there was no real difference between the main parties. In the 2017 election, however, he endorsed Jeremy Corbyn, because he feels Corbyn is genuinely different from the Tories. But on the whole he doesn’t have much time for politics, because it gets in the way of individual spiritual awakening. He thinks Trump is an idiot, but questions how much he will actually get done during his term in office; he also remembers Obama’s failings in Syria. On his podcast, Brand interviewed Yanis Varoufakis and what he liked most was Varoufakis saying that when people are in powerful roles, their roles form the extent of their power – so that, in the end, they have no true power at all.

Time is up. Shame. I am enjoying our conversation. “So am I,” Brand says. “I’m happy in this conversation. I’m not threatened.” He has to do big talk, he can’t do small: it makes him nervous, and then he might act inappropriately. I say, “Well, you could talk about football, that’s Esperanto for most men.” But he can’t talk casually about football, either, or comedy, because he’s a nerd about both things. He can’t be casual about much, any more, not even sex.

“No. I want to know what is the mystery, what is driving us, where is this all going. The only line you can draw between any of us is between those that think it’s possible for the world to change and those that don’t. Those who think it’s possible for an individual to change and those who don’t. I can’t think, ‘Well, I’ll just wait out my days, I’ll do my cluck, I’ll do my rattle, I’ll do my bird, I’ll wait it out and then put me in the fucking turf.’ I feel it’s possible to change the world.”

Recovery is published on 21 September by Macmillan at £20. To pre-order a copy for £17, go to guardianbookshop.com, or call 0330 333 6846.

Commenting on this piece? If you would like your comment to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in print, please email weekend@theguardian.com, including your name and address (not for publication).

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Rupert Cornwell obituary

3 months, 14 days ago

Elegantly witty foreign correspondent whose work was proof of the enduring magical of real reporting

Rupert Cornwell, who has died aged 71, was the most gifted of reporters on the foreign scene from Moscow to Washington and many places in between of the past 45 years. Writing for Reuters, the Financial Time and the Independent, he had a distinctive grandeur and ease, marinated with sharp wit. His long pieces were like a classic David Gower innings. As in print, so in life. His dialogue was very funny, very dry and gently subversive.

He was my great friend from student days and companion on the road. After Magdalen College, Oxford, where he read modern Greek, he promptly moved from ad, which he detested, to Reuters. Soon he was on the move, to Paris, Brussels and back to Paris again, where he jumped ship and joined the FT.

At Oxford he seemed somewhat detached. This may have had something to do with the very large darknes of his father, the sometime developer, gambler and convicted bankrupt Ronnie Cornwell better known to wider audiences in fictional form as Rick in several volumes by Ruperts half-brother, David, aka John le Carr. Rupert was the son of Ronnies second matrimony, to the formidable Jeanie Gronow( nee Neal ).

He was mad about sport I recall being dragged to watch Celtic contest the European Cup final with a lifelong passion, and love-hate, for the Arsenal. His occasional athletics writing was top-flight.

It was when he became Rome correspondent for the FT in the 1970 s that things actually took off. This was the heyday of the Mephistophelean eight-time prime minister Giulio Andreotti, the surge of Enrico Berlinguers communists, mafia wars in Palermo and Naples, and exotic soccer scandals. Ruperts reporting technique was a wonder to behold. He used to go into its term of office, slam the door, and build merely two or three telephone call, his fellow FT correspondent James Buxton recollected. Then, an hour or so later out he would come the most amazing, immaculate piece of transcript the subs never needed to touch it.

But this is just ridiculous, he would remark, using a favourite catchphrase. I entail, reporting Italy is just like eating too much chocolate cake. Time to move on. Before moving, he wrote his only volume, Gods Banker( 1983 ), a brisk essay on Roberto Calvi, the rascal financier who was saw hanging under Blackfriars Bridge, London, in June 1982. It dedicated a pacy account of the Banco Ambrosiano scandal that very nearly broke the Vaticans bank.

Ruperts next posting, to Bonn, demonstrated the least happy. He found the place and the story dull, and German the most challenging of all the languages he was to learn he subsequently acquired fluent Russian on the run in a matter of months. His wedding to the Italian interpreter Angela Doria, with whom he had a son, Sean, is broken, though they remained on good terms.

In 1986 he decided to join the newborn Independent as its Moscow correspondent. His writing, portion pin-sharp reporting and proportion sly commentary, has been the epitome of the Independent style. In its pages he became the chronicler of the end of the Soviet empire. Of Mikhail Gorbachev, he wrote: His supreme failing was not to understand that communism could not reform itself. The tragedy of Gorbachev was that he never intended to get rid of communism, but to adapt it to compete with the far richer west. And of the attempt to oust Gorbachev, so moribund had a once ruthless system become, however, that it couldnt even organise a coup.

He loved the sheer quirkiness of the Moscow scene the need to barter paper for secondhand books, the demolition of his elegant Italian suede coat by Moscow dry cleaners, taking a lip reader to a debate in the Duma and matching her account with the official report. He was accompanied by his new spouse, Susan Smith, a correspondent with Reuters, and their son, Stas. His Moscow file brought him foreign correspondent of the year in the What the Papers Say awardings in 1988.

From Moscow he transferred to Washington, where he had two stints as the Independent bureau chief. In between he worked in London as feature novelist and diplomatic correspondent. Among the forgotten gems of this time is the full-page obituary of Diana, Princess of Wales, that he had to pull together in a few hours. It is a masterpiece of social observation, complemented by a mildly subversive undertow. Perhaps she was a manipulator, a strange mixture of the trusting, the calculate and the flaky, but she was forgiven the bulk of her sins, he wrote in a concluding paragraph. Flaky? Golly, If Id written that just a day or two later, I would have been hanged from the nearest lamp-post, he confessed merely a few weeks ago.

In Washington, he regularly skewered the presidents and their dynasties. He disliked the Bush junior years, admired the aloof Obama not least for his writing in Dreams from My Father and writing up Trumpery seemed the call of destiny.

He loved the roaring of the greasepaint and smell of the crowd of athletic above all baseball. Twelve years ago he wrote of the American League Championship contest between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, and the long darknes of the Curse of the Bambino. In 1920 the Sox sold their star batter, Babe Ruth who had won the World Series for them in 1918 to the Yankees. And things ran severely for the Sox thereafter. Attempts to lift the curse spawned this paragraph: They have tried everything to exorcise it. They dredged a lake south of Boston where Ruths favourite piano is said to lie, they leave cans of beer on the gravestone at the Gate of Heaven cemetery 20 miles north of New York, where the famously bibulous slugger is buried.

And of course, there was Trump. In February Rupert choice the chaotic 80 -minute, stream-of-consciousness press conference as the cue to go in to bat for the MSM, the mainstream media. Its a tough chore, maintaining a focus on facts and truth, in the face of a mendacious propaganda barrage from a White House with indisputable authoritarian instincts. Reporting US politics now is about attempting transparency in what is the least transparent administration since Nixons day And the reviled MSM so far has hardly put a foot wrong.

Rupert carried on, acerbic and brilliant, through three years of cancer. In his languid, elegant style there was understated genius. His work is proof of the enduring magic of real reporting in the post-truth age.

A lot of Ruperts quiet feistiness came from and is in favour of his family: his wife, Susan, still pounding the Washington beat for Reuters, brother, David, and sister, the actor Charlotte Cornwell. They and his sons survive him.

Rupert Howard Cornwell, journalist, born 22 February 1946; died 31 March 2017

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Sherman Alexie’s mother’s ghost promptings him to cancel volume tour

3 months, 15 days ago

The author, who was promoting memoir You Dont Have to Say You Love Me, reports that spectacular haunting and depression have led him to cancel dates

Sherman Alexie has cancelled a tour promoting his new memoir about his relationship with his late mom, citing depression and his belief that his mothers ghost has been haunting him since the book was published last month.

In an open letter to his readers, Alexie said that he would be cancelling all his appearances in August and many, but not all of his events for the rest of the year. The tour was intended to promote You Dont Have to Say You Love Me, about his mother Lillian Alexie, a woman the award-winning Native American writer describes as brilliant, funny, beautiful, generous, vindictive, deceitful, tender, manipulative, abusive, loving, and intimidating, and who died in 2015.

Lillian haunted me when she was alive. And she has haunted me since her demise in July 2015. And she has haunted me in spectacular styles since I publish my memoir a month ago. She has followed me from city to city during my promotional book tour, writes Alexie in a moving letter posted to his website and to Facebook. On three consecutive nights, in three different cities, police and ambulance sirens rang out as I told the story about the moment I learned of my mothers death Last night, as I returned to Seattle, I stepped off my airliner to find an airport valet waiting with a wheelchair for one of my fellow passengers. That valet held a sign with a familiar name a name that attained me giggle. That valet was waiting to ferry somebody named Lillian.

Alexie writes in his memoir that he doesnt believes in ghosts, but that he assures them all the time. He adds in his letter that I dont believe in the afterlife as a reality, but I believe in the afterlife as metaphor. And my mother, from the afterlife, is metaphorically kicking my ass.

During the course of his tour to date, Alexie said that he has been sobbing many times a day and rebreaking my heart night after night. He has, he writes, fallen ill with depression, and while he has recovered from the head cold that caused him to cancel events in Tulsa and Missoula last week, I couldnt medicate my sadness my complicated heartbreak. And then his mother appeared in one of his dreams, holding a sign that[ told] STOP.

I think the meaning of that dream is obvious. It means I am supposed to stop this book tour, writes Alexie, apologising to both readers and booksellers for his decision, but promising that he will still be penning, and that he will return to the road when he is strong enough.

When I told Diane, my spouse, about my mothers ghost and about my plans to cancel so many events, she told: Maybe its your mother taking care of you from heaven. Maybe, I said. But I think its probably your subconscious taking care of the rest of you. I think its likely you being a good mom to yourself. You are mothering you. So here I am the son and the mother combined who needs to take a big step back and do most of my mourning in private.

Because of the short notice, Alexie will still appear at events in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco this month. The author of 26 books, he is the win of the PEN/ Faulkner awarding for fiction, as well as the National Book Award for young peoples literature for his bestseller The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The young adult novel is one of the most challenged volumes in US schools, with many objections citing profane language and sexual content.

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