Friday, June 5, 2015
Michael Pye’s new book is bristling, wide-ranging and big-themed. It’s the sort of historical work whose thesis is virtually impossible to prove, but it’s also a reminder that history isn’t an exact science. At its most meaningful, history involves a good deal of art and storytelling. Pye’s book is full of both.
In “The Edge of the World,” Pye concentrates on a murky era — the Middle Ages — and on a region of Europe that seems always to have been blanketed in mist, the North Sea. “This cold, gray sea in an obscure time made the modern world possible,” he declares in his introduction. In the pages that follow, he doesn’t prove that grand statement so much as toss handfuls of paint at it, in many places coloring it in while obscuring it in others.
Continue to my review in the New York Times Book Review.
Friday, May 15, 2015
Sandro Magister is the most astute Italian journalist covering the Vatican. He has a better read on its inner workings than anyone else. He has just written a remarkable piece in which he peels away the media hype surrounding Pope Francis and shows what is actually happening in Francis’ pontificate. Magister says that while in the media Francis is a revolutionary who is sweeping out the old guard and old ways and instilling a new focus on the poor and, much to the consternation of conservatives, calling for change in the way the Vatican looks at homosexuality, divorce and climate change, the reality is quite different. The central power in the Vatican is the Curia, and, Magister notes, there has been no change in it: The Curia “is still there and completely intact. Nothing has been dismantled or replaced.” The Vatican’s career diplomats, he goes on to say, “are more firmly in power than ever.”
As for the big issues of homosexuality and divorce, the Pope talked publicly about them, and made a huge stir with his “Who am I to judge?” comment. But Magister notes that since Francis encountered hostility to change from the inner circle he has largely returned to boilerplate language on these topics, “without swerving a millimeter from the strict teaching of his predecessors Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI.” Magister says the Pope has since last October spoken out against these issues 40 times, and has refused to give a “placet” to France’s proposed Ambassador to the Vatican, who is gay.
Magister concludes: “the media continue to sell the story of the ‘revolutionary’ pope, but the true Francis is farther and farther away from this.”
Meanwhile, the conservatives in the Vatican have by now realized that they have an unexpected gift in Francis. He has turned around the Vatican’s largely negative image. He is providing cover. And, for them, business can continue as usual.
Saturday, May 2, 2015
For the few people who may be interested in the thinking behind my decision to put my name with 144 other writers in speaking out against the decision by PEN to give its Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the French magazine “Charlie Hebdo,” here is a brief outline. I fully agreed with the “Je Suis Charlie” wave of support in the aftermath of the attack in Paris. I am an advocate of unfettered free speech. I abhor violent efforts to restrict it. Further, I am no fan of religion, of any sort.
The PEN issue, however, is somewhat different. It is an award. An award ought to go to the best exponent of whatever it is honoring. While I support Charlie Hebdo’s right to speak and criticize, and found that it certainly took courage to do what they did, I concluded that, in terms of the larger effort to reduce the influence of religion on humanity, which is what I view the magazine’s purpose to be, and which is laudable in my mind, it was muddled. Its writers and artists may not be racist at all, but in my estimation the overall effect of the magazine has been to play on puerile racial and religious stereotypes. I don’t see this as an especially damning criticism, and I believe that I am largely in agreement with the objectives of Charlie Hebdo (as far as I understand them, and my knowledge of the French language and French culture is limited). But to me it means that such an award should go to a different advocate of free expression, of which there are many. I understand that awards like this are often meant as broad gestures, but smaller issues—such as the quality of the effort to achieve one’s ends—should be taken into consideration.
Finally, I strenuously reject the tendency to see such matters in black-and-white terms. I think it’s possible for a reasonable liberal thinker to come down on one side or the other. I imagine that a great many people who have strong opinions for or against the decision to give the award to Charlie Hebdo essentially share a similar set of beliefs, but differ in where they place emphasis.
Monday, April 20, 2015
My friend Michael Martin has just published a book of poetry, and I would like to recommend it to anyone in need of medication or other form of reorientation. I won’t quote from a poem but will instead speak of titles. The first poem in the collection is called
On The Eve Of Her Retirement, On A Cross-Atlantic Flight, A United Airlines Stewardess Picks Up The Microphone And Says Goodbye
Public Service Announcement From Last Night’s Dream
Car Wreck Outside The Dinner Party
And so on. It’s beautiful stuff, especially if you are open for redefinitions of beauty. And you can find it: here.
Friday, April 17, 2015
I will arise and go now…
Surprisingly often, when I get up from a chair to leave a room, those six melodramatic words will unfurl in my mind. Somehow William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” which, like millions of other people, I first read in college, stays rooted in me:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree…
And I’m off, not to the dentist or the shopping mall but, mentally, striding emerald slopes, making for a place of myth…
Latest piece in the NYT Travel section…
Monday, March 23, 2015
My South African pal Mike Morgan has a great memorial to a fellow Anti-Apartheid figure in “Counterpunch”…
Walking With the Angels
Remembering Anti-Apartheid Organizer Don Morton
by MIKE MORGAN
The first time I met Don was at an Indian curry parlor in Brick Lane, London. We each had a plate of Prawn Vindaloo and it was mother-in-law hot. We spent the rest of the evening cooling down on pints of John Courage. The combination of warm beer along with fire-engine red fish curry had a dire effect. But in between refills of the Directors Bitter and trips to the can, Don recruited me to come to America. That was August of 1978. I was twenty-three years of age…
go to the story
Sunday, March 8, 2015
Guilderland Public Library, Adult Book Discussion Groups
Great Books – Thursdays at 7:00 pm
Are the “classics” still worth reading? We think they are! These are the books that continue to be read in times, places and cultures far removed from those in which they were written. Since these books have had so much to say to so many different people, they’re very likely to hold meaning for us as well. Join us as we discuss books that you’ve always wanted to read, or may have read growing up but want to read again!
February 5: Silas Marner, by George Eliot
March 5: Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Franki
April 2: The Island at the Center of the World, by Russell Shorto
May 7: Henry V, by William Shakespeare
June 4: The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
Saturday, January 31, 2015
Mandred Henry was a health care sales rep from Hartford whom people often stopped on the street, saying he was a dead ringer for Morgan Freeman. Throughout his life he identified strongly with his African-American background. He was president of the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter. He remembered his mother keeping her grandmother’s slavery manumission papers in her top drawer…
My cover story in the New York Times travel section.
Monday, September 8, 2014
The calendar says that today is New York’s birthday. But is that true? See my op-ed in the New York Times.
Tuesday, September 2, 2014
“You know that the first settlers called Manhattan “New Amsterdam,” right? But the Dutch didn’t just bring their sailing prowess and placenames with them. Russell Shorto thinks that liberal Dutch ideas about politics and society came too, and shaped the New World.”
Listen to a walking tour that links two cities, Amsterdam and New York.
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