Graeme Wood

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A Question for Islam

Excerpts from Sherry Jones’s The Jewel of Medina do not make it sound like fiction worthy of the novel’s latest defender, Salman Rushdie. Denise Spellberg, an Islamic historian who reviewed the manuscript, called it “soft-core pornography,” and “ugly” porn at that. Consider a first-person passage from Aisha, who, according to some traditions, married Muhammad at age 6 and had sex with him at 9:

This was the beginning of something new, something terrible. Soon I would be lying on my bed beneath him, squashed like a scarab beetle, flailing and sobbing while he slammed himself against me. He would not want to hurt me, but how could he help it? It’s always painful the first time.

Yeesh. But do these sentences sound grotesque because of the author’s prose, or because of her subject? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, , ,

Notes from the First-Class Car

Theroux has been writing travel books for 35 years, and for almost as long, reviewers have been slandering him (repetitively — they hunt in packs) as “prickly,” ornery, or otherwise disagreeable. I must be unusually tolerant. To me, Theroux seems a model of evenness, neither too crabby nor too tolerant. More to the point: Have these reviewers ever traveled? Long-term travel is misery and loneliness. It is trips in buses where children puke out the window, in filthy boats captained by drunk Albanians, in trains where porters warn you to keep your windows open, so thieves can’t gas you as you sleep. It is grim hotel rooms with stained sheets. A little crabbiness is the only sane response. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, ,

An Air-Conditioned Nightmare

In Afghanistan, some soldiers are pampered. Should they be?

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD—Being on a big military base, even one in a relatively dangerous spot, can feel a bit like being on a cruise ship. Grand exertions are made to ensure comfort, and leisure is organized: basketball at six, bingo at 11. B-list celebrities, armed with camera-ready smiles, are on deck to shake your hand. The food is rich and plentiful, and cooked with the primary goal of not sickening anyone. And there’s no exit, other than jumping overboard, or over the concertina wire. Base life is, as Samuel Johnson might have said, like being in prison, with a chance of being mortared. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, , , ,

Pus in Boots

Originally appeared in The Smart Set.

In No Laughing Matter, the novelist Joseph Heller outed his friend Mel Brooks as a world-class hypochondriac. “He is the only person I’m acquainted with who subscribes to The Lancet,” Heller wrote. “Principles of Internal Medicine and Dorland’s Medical Dictionary are Mother Goose to him.”

I grew up in a two-doctor home strewn with medical curiosities. Among my childhood toys were plastic models of inner ears, femurs, and gastrointestinal tracts. Every day, our postman delivered a stack of medical journals dense with text broken up by gruesome clinical photographs. Every morning while eating my Cheerios, I used the magazines as placemats, read the articles absentmindedly, and stole glances at repulsive skin conditions. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Smart Set, ,

The Battle for the Skies

Judging by James Fallows’s latest photos, Beijing’s skies are the color of rice water, and they aren’t trending in the direction of clarity. The public pronouncements of the weather-bureau spokesmen, once bold and Promethean, are now humbler: “The Beijing Olympic weather center will issue monitoring and weather warning and will update the weather information on a rolling basis,” said Wang Jiangjie, who just last January boasted of having a team of weather modifiers to clean up the skies for the Games. Her colleagues allude vaguely to techniques that are supposedly still up the Chinese meteorological sleeve, but even they note that these techniques are “only on the stage of experimentation.” Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, ,

Hail to the Chief Scientist

Originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines

By Richard A. Muller

W.W. Norton; 380 pages; $26.95

The late William F. Buckley famously said he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard University. No one, to my knowledge, ever asked him to choose between the Berkeley phone book and the UC Berkeley faculty. I suspect the conservative Buckley would have held his nose and opted for the faculty – if only in hopes that a few right-wing economists might compensate for the liberal yahoos that he imagined made up the rest of the professoriat, to say nothing of the population at large. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: San Francisco Chronicle, , ,

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