Atlantic Monthly

The Disease of Jumping From the Sky

I review two books about compulsive aviators, for The Atlantic.

Barnes & Noble Review

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.”

American Scholar

Artful lies

Solar Dance: Van Gogh, Forgery, and the Eclipse of Certainty, By Modris Eksteins, Harvard University Press, 341 pp., $27.95

“People who buy pictures on the basis of authentication alone deserve to be cheated.” Julius Meier-Graefe delivered this expert opinion—a high-culture take on “never give a sucker an even break”—on the witness stand in 1932 Berlin. He was one of Germany’s best and most respected art critics—and, it turned out, a bit of a sucker himself, having fallen victim, along with other pillars of the art establishment, to a young German forger named Otto Wacker. A dancer and art dealer, Wacker had offered for sale 30 paintings attributed to Vincent Van Gogh, some of which Meier-Graefe had authenticated. His verdict had carried a great deal of weight, and the paintings sold rapidly until their poor quality began to raise doubts. Wacker was convicted at the trial and sent to prison, and Meier-Graefe’s reputation fell. But even as late as the 1980s, some people doubted what we now know for certain: Wacker was a fraud.

Barnes & Noble Review

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.

Wall Street Journal

Invisible Hand to Mouth

Originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

An Economist Gets Lunch

By Tyler Cowen

Dutton, 293 pages, $26.95

“Let’s be clear,” Tyler Cowen writes in “An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies,” an eccentric first-person hodgepodge of gastronomic thoughts, strategies and travel stories. “Every meal really matters to me.” Readers of his blog, Marginal Revolution, know that he means it. Nominally devoted to economics, the site also catalogs meticulously the ethnic restaurants in the Washington area. In a typical post, he’ll review a new Bolivian restaurant and compare it not only with other Bolivian restaurants but with others serving food from the Cochabamba region.

The Daily


Originally appeared in The Daily.

The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind

By Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer

Hachette, $22.95

The best-known photograph of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, admitted mastermind of the September 11 attacks, is one of those images that cannot be unseen. Bleary-eyed and disheveled, he sports a stubbly double-chin, and so much body hair that you’d think he could be lifted up by the scruff of his neck, like a kitten. Within hours of the photograph’s release, shortly after his capture in Pakistan in March 2003, Internet jesters noted a resemblance to the hirsute porn star Ron Jeremy (himself a prolific producer of cannot-be-unseen images).

The Daily

States of Failure

“Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty”

By Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

Crown. $14.99.


To find out how screwed up a country can be, sometimes you just need to get breakfast. A couple years ago in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (C.A.R.), the only eggs I found for sale were marked as imported from Cameroon, some six hundred miles away, and they cost more than the cage-free organic variety on offer at my local yuppie mart here in America. Raising chickens is easy and cheap: At these prices, someone should have been able to make good money producing eggs locally. But C.A.R., like many countries, is disordered at a deep level, and the old laws of microeconomics apply there only in the same sense that the law of gravity applies on the moon.


“Why Nations Fail,” the large and ambitious new book by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, aims to explain this disorder and come up with a general theory of how places with reasonably similar cultural and natural-resource endowments end up either poor or prosperous. They point to Nogales, the city that straddles the U.S.-Mexico border near Tucson. Ethnically, the two sides of the city are identical twins. But the American side swims comfortably in cash, and the Mexican side is poor and violent. This same mismatch is visible across countless other political borders: North Korean kids are malnourished because they have no food; South Korean kids are malnourished because they skip meals to play Starcraft. Haiti exports refugees; the Dominican Republic exports shortstops. (For more on this check out “Natural Experiments of History,” the fascinating volume Robinson co-edited with Jared Diamond last year.)

Barnes & Noble Review

The Man Without a Face

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.

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.