Graeme Wood

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Salman Rushdie’s “Joseph Anton”

The prospect of a hanging may, per Dr. Johnson, “concentrate the mind wonderfully,” but the prospect of ritual execution by an Iranian death squad evidently has the opposite effect. On the morning of February 14, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini announced Salman Rushdie’s death sentence for The Satanic Verses, and Rushdie made his final public appearance for years. At the funeral of the travel writer Bruce Chatwin in London, he listened to Greek Orthodox monks groan out their liturgy while swinging thuribles of incense. Already he was stunned, his mind preparing to unravel. Paul Theroux — an exemplary defender of Rushdie over the next several years — at the time hissed unhelpfully from the pew behind him, “I suppose next week we’ll be here for you, Salman.”

Rushdie has taken over a decade to tell the full story of his subsequent descent into mental vertigo, panic, fear, paralysis, and depression. His memoir Joseph Anton – which touches briefly on his pre-fatwa years before he was whisked away by British cops and sheltered by a network of literary luminaries — derives its title from Rushdie’s fugitive alias, a combination of the first names of Conrad and Chekhov. (It perhaps has an echo, too, of Kafka’s Joseph K., that other victim of interminable persecution.) His British police bodyguards, provided somewhat controversially at public expense, referred to him on daily basis as “Joe.”

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Paul Theroux’s “The Lower River”

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.

If the purpose of travel is to be disabused of illusions, then Ellis Hock, the protagonist of Paul Theroux’s novel The Lower River, has spent his airfare wisely. Recently separated from his bullying wife, Hock sells his Medford, Massachusetts haberdashery and sets out to the village in Malawi where he taught English as a Peace Corps volunteer forty years ago. As a young man in that village, he found and lost love, became adept at handling serpents, and spent his life’s happiest years improving the village. Everything in his life since then — a marriage undermined by his wandering eye, a business crashing toward obsolescence, a daughter greedy for an early taste of her inheritance — has reeked of failure, and eventually the temptation to escape to Africa proves irresistible.
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The Man Without a Face

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.

By MASHA GESSEN
Reviewed by Graeme Wood

The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir PutinThere is a case to be made that Vladimir Putin is the only world leader operating today with a coherent long-term strategic vision for his country. Russian policy has been derided as amoral, wicked, and misguided. But for the last ten years, since the departure of the stroke-addled boozer Boris Yeltsin, Russia has never been called unguided, and its mysterious steersman is unquestionably Putin himself.

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This Very Old House

Originally appeared in The Daily.

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East

by Anthony Shadid

Mariner Books; 336pp.
A century of warfare in Lebanon has sent most Lebanese into exile, flung to the corners of the earth like shrapnel from a rocket blast. These 12 million overseas Lebanese — three times the number still in the country — keep their identity strong by marrying other Lebanese, sending their kids to Lebanese schools and, often, tithing money to their co-religionists in the old country.
Among the Christian faction of this diaspora was the late Anthony Shadid, the two-time Pulitzer winner who died of an asthma attack while reporting in Syria earlier this month for the New York Times. He grew up in Oklahoma, in many ways disconnected from Lebanon: He spoke English at home, and he never visited Lebanon until his early 20s. But the Lebanese force was strong in this one, and eventually he returned to the site of his family home, the subject of “House of Stone,” his third and final book. Read the rest of this entry »

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Cullen Murphy’s new book on the Inquisition

Originally appeared in The Daily.

God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World

by Cullen Murphy

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320pp.

“Inquisition” is among the least cuddly words in the English language — an odd state of affairs, when you consider that some of its linguistic cousins are perfectly lovely. The ultimate Latin root means simply to ask a question, and its English relative “inquisitive” is something we typically laud children for being. But to be the object of any sort of inquisition, whether headed by a hellbent bureaucrat or a man in a scarlet cassock, is very bad news for you indeed, with a guarantee of psychological discomfort and strong hint of the physical sort as well.

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Tongue-Tied

Review of Michael Erard’s Babel No More.

The ability to speak multiple unrelated foreign languages fluently counts among a short list of showstopping talents, like the ability to play a Bach fugue or fly a helicopter (assuming one isn’t a harpsichordist or pilot by profession). It impresses in part because it suggests discipline, time, and effort — and, perhaps, other hidden skills.

But what if the languages came effortlessly? There are, in the history of polyglottism, a few examples of people who seem to have found a way to cheat the system and acquire languages so easily and quickly that what would normally appear a feat of discipline and erudition looks instead like savantism. These hyperpolyglots chitchat fluently in dozens of dialects, and they pick up new ones literally between meals. For the rest of us who have to slave over our verb tables, their talent resembles sorcery.
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Arms and the Men

A review of Andrew Feinstein’s The Shadow World.

Originally appeared in The Daily.

The premise of Andrew Feinstein’s book “The Shadow World” is that humanity owes much of its war and misery to a dark cabal of arms dealers, corrupt politicians and defense contractors. This cabal runs on money (lots of it), cocaine and influence. Its major players are total amoralists, millionaires virtually to a man, and responsible for looting the treasury of nearly every developed country and spilling the innocent blood of every undeveloped one. Law enforcement nips at the feet of these men, yet most of them remain not only free to enjoy their network of mansions and kept women, but also toasted as statesmen and royalty. Read the rest of this entry »

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Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

The Barnes & Noble Review published a few of my words on the death of Hitchens.

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