Graeme Wood

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Book review: The French Intifada

Review of The French Intifada by Andrew Hussey.  Originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal

Nowadays it’s neither fashionable nor conscionable to feel nostalgic for the colonial era. But it’s clear that some colonial powers left more fragrant legacies than others, and one of the smelliest of them all was that of France. The country amassed a near perfect record of mismanagement, everywhere from Algeria and Indochina to the Central African Republic, and France is the only great colonial power whose misdeeds abroad keep haunting it, more or less constantly, at home.

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Save the Old City

At The New Republic, I have a piece about one of my favorite places in the world: the Old City of Damascus.

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Trouble in Timbuktu

At the Boston Globe Ideas section, I wrote about the history of Timbuktu.

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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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The Twin Towers

Originally appeared in The Daily.

The World Trade Center site is now hallowed ground, and to denigrate the architecture of its enormous rectangular towers is vaguely uncouth, as if to denigrate not just the towers but the great city that produced them. But critics were not always so respectful. When the towers went up in the early 1970s, everyone found something to hate. Those who liked shiny glass skyscrapers moaned at these opaque figures now marring the skyline. More classically inclined critics asked whether this was where modern architecture had brought us — to big rectangles, witless and inert, as ugly as they were inhuman. The unkindest cuts came from those who said they were not up to the Big Apple’s standard — “so utterly banal,” wrote the critic Paul Goldberger, “as to be unworthy of the headquarters of a bank in Omaha.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Jersey Gore

Originally appeared in The Daily.
For today’s summer vacationers, the Jersey Shore presents few dangers worse than bad calzone, unwanted encounters with reality TV stars, and venereal disease. But the beach bums of yesteryear faced a danger much more terrifying, and not curable with a dose of Imodium or penicillin. It measured about 10 feet long, stalked swimmers along a 125-mile stretch of coastline, and feasted on human flesh throughout the summer of 1916. No one can be sure, but most scientists now think the culprit was one or several great white or bull sharks. Read the rest of this entry »

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A Vanished Heir

The last days of a missing Rockefeller

Originally appeared in The Daily.

Michael Rockefeller, heir to a fortune in the hundreds of millions and the son of the governor of New York, was last seen 50 years ago tying a pair of empty red gas cans to his back and swimming for the shore. “I think I can make it,” he said. Then he swam away from his capsized catamaran into the Arafura Sea, toward the coast of New Guinea, where cannibalism may still have been practiced.

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