Graeme Wood

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Review of Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.

Review of No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

Long before Edward Snowden selected Glenn Greenwald as the bucket into which he would direct his NSA leaks, Greenwald enjoyed a reputation among his fellow American political bloggers as a man to avoid provoking. He lives in a compound in Rio de Janeiro, surrounded by his beloved dogs, and his style in argument resembles the behavior of a mastiff protecting a beloved chewtoy. Counterargument meets growls and indignation, and long after the arguer has decided to move on to another subject, Greenwald continues to snarl and fight, publishing post upon post, update upon update, and never conceding anything at all, even when he is clearly wrong.

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Review of Words will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot by Masha Gessen

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.

One of the virtues of thuggish dictators is that their thuggishness makes their opponents look good — even opponents who have glaring faults of their own. Masha Gessen’s previous book, The Man Without a Face, argued that Vladimir Putin’s thuggishness borders on psychopathy; in her current one she turns to a portrait of three of his female antagonists. These antagonists are callow, juvenile, and sometimes vulgar. But as if by alchemy, the juxtaposition with Putin makes them into heroes, and makes their publicity stunts into sublime acts of political defiance.
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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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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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Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

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

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Bob the Destroyer

The Fear

By PETER GODWIN
Reviewed by Graeme Wood

The word “autogenocide” came to English from a French coinage in the 1970s, meant to convey the self-slaughter of Cambodia in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge. The category has been a rather lonely one since then, with just a few instances of mass death that were truly self-inflicted, and could not plausibly be explained away as collateral damage in a fight against an outside enemy. The pre-eminent current example of autogenocide is Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and Peter Godwin’s new book The Fear is the most enraging account of what has happened there yet published.

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