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Archive for the 'Book of the Week' Category

Friday, August 29th, 2014

H. H. Shugart on Comprehending the Earth

Foundations of the Earth, H. H. Shugart

“Are we creating the intellectual environment for creative, synthetic, and revolutionary researchers that can push us across the old boundaries into new paradigms? … Sadly, the politicization and the businessification of science may be taking the intellectual and creative environment in the opposite direction.”—H. H. Shugart

Fittingly enough, we conclude our week-long focus on H. H. Shugart’s Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job with an excerpt from the book’s conclusion “Comprehending the Earth”:

We live in a time of great need to understand our planet. We have the challenge of comprehending Earth as we simultaneously change the Earth. Are we creating the intellectual environment for creative, synthetic, and revolutionary researchers that can push us across the old boundaries into new paradigms? It is a not a question of letting scientists do what scientists do. It is a question for us all. Sadly, the politicization and the businessification of science may be taking the intellectual and creative environment in the opposite direction.

The tools at our disposal for the challenges in Earth-system science would be the envy of the environmental researchers who have come before us. We have satellite systems capable of remarkable measure­ments, along with a repository of innovative new systems on the shelf. Products of several of these are shown as illustrations in this text. However, the satellite constellation of the U.S. space agency, NASA, is falling into a state of disrepair. Some of this lost capability is being replaced by the orbiting instruments developed by other nations or by international and even commercial consortia. But overall, there is a loss of capability at this critical time. The conversion from satellite data provided free to researchers of any nation by NASA to a more nationally oriented, pay-as-you-go system may have a negative effect on creative, small-budget exploratory research.

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Thursday, August 28th, 2014

Can We Change the Weather? H. H. Shugart on the Peril and Promise of Geoengineering

H. H. Shugart, Foundations of the Earth

One of the issues H. H. Shugart explores in Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job is whether and to what extent should humankind should see itself as “masters of nature”.

In the chapter, “Making Weather and Influencing Climate,” Shugart looks at geoengineering, one of the ultimate examples of humans trying to master nature. He examines both the possible benefits, such as remedying global warming, and the possible dangers. Here is the conclusion to that chapter:

It is no surprise that the power to control the weather is a principal dimension of divine omnipotence. Does the sensitivity of simulations of the Earth’s climate to inadvertent human changes in the atmosphere and the planet’s surface imply that geoengineering could be effective to manifest planetary-scale changes? In other words, if we can change the climate by accident, just think what we could do if we really put our minds to it. The stakes to control the weather have always been high.

Certainly, control of weather has both tactical and strategic war-fighting implications. Choosing to fight battles under favorable condi­tions has been an aspect of warfare since time immemorial. Predict­ing these conditions is intrinsic to modern warfare. Modifying the environment to favor one military opponent over another has been deployed in the past but is currently under international injunction through treaties.

If to intensify storms, blizzards, hurricanes, and hail is the ultimate weapon, then to moderate these same calamities is the ultimate magna­nimity. Breaking or causing droughts could control the fates of regions and cultures. Simply being able to produce rain at critical times during the growth and maturation process of crop plants could determine eco­nomic success or failure of agriculture at a myriad of scales. Issues asso­ciated with the geoengineering of the Earth have parallels with these issues. One problem is to know when and how geoengineering might favor one people or one nation over another. This was a persistent con­cern with respect to the USSR’s climate modification plans. The melt­ing of the Arctic Sea was one of the preferred Soviet schemes. The possibility of this event worsening climate elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere was a worrisome consequence of this action. Ironically, at the time of writing there is a decline in Arctic Sea ice attributed to a general warming of the Arctic.

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Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

H. H Shugart, author of Foundations of the Earth, takes the “Page 99 Test”

Foundations of the Earth, H. H. ShugartEarlier this summer, H. H. Shugart, author of Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job took the Page 99 Test. Taken from a Ford Maddox Ford quote, the Page 99 Test asks authors to explain how page 99 of their book reveals larger themes and ideas that shape the entire work.

Here is an excerpt from Shugart’s response:

Page 99 of Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and The Book of Job is the penultimate page of Chapter 4, “Freeing the Onager: Feral and Introduced Animals.” Foundations of the Earth poses global environmental problems in the context of a set of biblical questions, the Whirlwind Speech, found in Job: 38-40. The Joban questions initiate chapter discussions on such topics as, “Where did the solar system come from? How were animals domesticated? How do changes in the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere imply global warming? How do climate and its change alter the world’s vegetation and vice versa?” Foundations of the Earth intends to demonstrate the intrinsic connectedness of the Earth’s systems, their dynamic change and their interactions with humans using these divine questions as a framework to provide additional connectedness. The book emphasizes environmental synthesis at large scales—regional to global scales in space; century to millennia to even longer scales in time. The mutual interactions among different Earth systems provide a unity to the text, so does the framework provided by the extraordinary questions from Job.

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Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Interview with H. H. Shugart, author of Foundations of the Earth

“Science is not likely to produce an ethical basis for proper conduct in cases in which strangers in distant locations are damaged by an individual’s actions involving spending resources, extirpating species, or polluting air and ocean. Help in these matters hopefully can and will come from wise religious thinkers.”—H. H. Shugart

Foundations of the Earth, H. H. ShugartThe following is an interview with H. H. Shugart, author of Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job:

Question: Science and religion are often seen as antagonistic and while you are not interested in “reconciling” the two, you have brought them together in Foundations of the Earth. How can science learn from the Book of Job, and religion more generally, in its approach to understanding some of the issues you consider in your book?

H. H.Shugart: Perhaps it’s best to answer from the specific case to the more general. The Whirlwind Questions in Job 38 to 41 begin with God’s challenge, “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.’” Many of following questions, asked by God to a man, are remarkably current—How did the cosmos form? Where did the oceans come from? What happens to the light that falls upon the Earth? What controls the boundary between ocean and land? What are the consequences of the changes we made to the land through domesticated animals (and eventually machines)? … Today, these whirlwind questions are compelled by scientific observations that we are changing our planet through our actions. It is rewarding to think that some of the questions that I see as immediately important as a scientist have such deep antiquity. They reach back two and one-half millennia to the Babylonian captivity of the people of Judea and likely even deeper in time.

Religion, particularly ethics, occupies a domain that extends from knowledge of how the planet functions to the essential human issue, “If our actions are altering Earth with potential risk to the survival of our species, how can we stop ourselves?” Science is not likely to produce an ethical basis for proper conduct in cases in which strangers in distant locations are damaged by an individual’s actions involving spending resources, extirpating species, or polluting air and ocean. Help in these matters hopefully can and will come from wise religious thinkers.

Q: How can a religious understanding of the “foundations of the earth,” and the environment be deepened by the scientific approach?

HHS: The Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki or “Rashi” (France 1040-1105) distinguished what a biblical text “says” from what it “means” in his Talmudic commentaries. Rashi was a remarkable scholar and his medieval biblical insights transcend history to be read, considered and studied today. His exemplary search for meaning and the consequently deeper appreciation of religious texts is central in many religious studies. I hope that Foundations of the Earth can provide a more profound appreciation of just how powerful the questions from the whirlwind really are from a scientific viewpoint. These questions are not merely clever riddles or tricky puzzles. They challenge us to appreciate Earth from multiple scales ranging from the greatness of the Oceans to the details of migrations of tiny birds. The whirlwind questions identify complete knowledge of Earth systems as the provenance of the Divine. One can pursue these questions but never completely understand them at their fullest depth. Such pursuit of always deepening questions also is the procedural manifesto of the scientific approach.

Q: How do both the “Whirlwind Speech” and recent environmental thinking move us away from seeing humans as masters of nature and more toward understanding humans as in nature?

HHS: The Whirlwind questions and recent thinking about the environment share the view that we lack and need better knowledge of the Earth and its systems. The wisdom to use this knowledge to understand our role in nature is a common thread in both.

From the environmental point-of-view, our modern stewardship of the Earth would seem a substantial disaster. Species are being lost at alarming rates. Local-scale environmental problems involving pollution, erosion and ecosystem misuse are legion. Global systems, such as the oceans and the atmosphere, due to our profligate use of the planet’s resources, are displaying measurable change with potentially dark consequences. If we are the masters who manage the Earth, we aren’t doing a bang-up job of it.

In the Whirlwind Speech, God’s questions are edgy with comments to Job of, “ … —surely you know!”; “Declare, if you know all this,”; “Have you commanded the morning since your days began, …” etc. It is pointed out that it rains in the desert were there are no people to benefit from the water. Through the text, animals laugh at people, ignore them, or conduct their lives independent of people’s actions. The Behemoth, a gigantic semiaquatic creature, is the “first of the great acts of God” and created before man. The Leviathan is a great fire-spitting sea-dragon that thoroughly intimidates humankind. In toto, the interrogation from the whirlwind substantially deflates the notion that the world was created for the mastery of humans.

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Monday, August 25th, 2014

Book Giveaway! Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job

Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job

“In this engaging and illuminating primer on environmental science, world ecosystems scholar Shugart… demonstrates that science knows a lot about the questions God asked Job, questions pertaining to the birth of the universe, the taming of wild beasts, the course of the stars and heavenly bodies… and more.” — Library Journal

This week our featured book is Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job, by H. H. Shugart

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, August 29 at 1:00 pm.

H. H. Shugart, W. W. Corcoran Chair in Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia, calls attention to the rich resonance between the Earth’s natural history and the workings of religious feeling, the wisdom of biblical scripture, and the arguments of Bible ethicists. Shugart offers a universal framework for recognizing and confronting the global challenges humans now face: the relationship between human technology and large-scale environmental degradation, the effect of invasive species on the integrity of ecosystems, the role of humans in generating wide biotic extinctions, and the future of our oceans and tides.

Read the introduction to Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job:

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

Stiglitz and Greenwald’s Introduction to Creating a Learning Society

The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series

“The fact that markets on their own are not efficient when innovation is endogenous raised the question which is at the heart of our lecture and the book to which it gave rise: What should be the role of policy in promoting economic efficiency?” — Joseph E. Stiglitz and Bruce C. Greenwald

This week we are excited to feature The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series, edited by Joseph E. Stiglitz, and are giving away free copies of the first three books in the series (Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress, by Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald; Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles, by José Scheinkman; and The Arrow Impossibility Theorem, by Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen) in our book giveaway! Today is the final day of the book giveaway, and we are featuring the introduction to Stiglitz and Greenwald’s Creating a Learning Society!

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

Arrow and the Impossibility Theorem, by Amartya Sen

The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series

“The informational foundation of modern social choice theory relates to the basic democratic conviction that social judgments and public decisions must depend, in some transparent way, on individual preferences, broadly understood.” – Amartya Sen

This week we are excited to feature The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series, edited by Joseph E. Stiglitz, and are giving away free copies of the first three books in the series (Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress, by Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald; Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles, by José Scheinkman; and The Arrow Impossibility Theorem, by Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen) in our book giveaway! Today, we are focusing on The Arrow Impossibility Theorem, and in this post we are offering Amartya Sen’s essay from that book: “Arrow and the Impossibility Theorem.”

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

The Origins of the Impossibility Theorem, by Kenneth J. Arrow

The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series

“I was concerned with the fact that firms in the modern world typically had many owners (shareholders). If one ignored the time dimension, this posed no problem; each owner was interested in maximizing profits, and therefore they would all make the same choice. In the more general temporal situation, each owner would want to maximize expected profits. But the owners might easily hold different expectations. Therefore, they would not agree what investment policy would be optimal.” – Kenneth J. Arrow

This week we are excited to feature The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series, edited by Joseph E. Stiglitz, and are giving away free copies of the first three books in the series (Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress, by Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald; Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles, by José Scheinkman; and The Arrow Impossibility Theorem, by Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen) in our book giveaway! Today, we are proud to present an article written by Kenneth J. Arrow and included in Sen and Maskin’s The Arrow Impossibility Theorem in which Arrow looks back on the steps by which he came to prove his impossibility theorem for social choices.

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

Kenneth J. Arrow comments on José Scheinkman’s Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles

The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series

“I think José correctly emphasizes that a belief system and a rational information system are not the same, even apart from the logical difficulties I have raised…. Individuals can of course err in self-assessment, but this result does not come from random error.” – Kenneth J. Arrow

This week we are excited to feature The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series, edited by Joseph E. Stiglitz, and are giving away free copies of the first three books in the series (Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress, by Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald; Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles, by José Scheinkman; and The Arrow Impossibility Theorem, by Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen) in our book giveaway! Today, we are focusing on Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles in particular. In this post, we’ll take a look at Kenneth J. Arrow’s Commentary on Scheinkman’s arguments.

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

Joseph Stiglitz introduces José A. Scheinkman’s Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles

The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series

“Much of the research of the past forty years has focused on assessing market behavior in the presence of rational expectations, where individuals use all available information to make inferences about the future, and in which all individuals share the same beliefs. And much of the literature has focused on situations where, even though there may not be a complete set of markets, there are not constraints, such as on short sales. In practice, of course, individuals do differ in their beliefs.” – Joseph Stiglitz

This week we are excited to feature The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series, edited by Joseph E. Stiglitz, and are giving away free copies of the first three books in the series (Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress, by Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald; Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles, by José Scheinkman; and The Arrow Impossibility Theorem, by Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen) in our book giveaway! Today, we are focusing on Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles in particular. In this post, we are happy to present Joseph E. Stiglitz’s introduction to José Scheinkman’s book.

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

Joseph Stiglitz discusses the creation of The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series

The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series

“When we initiated the series, we had hoped that it would open up a lively discussion about a variety of areas within economics, political science, and philosophy. The Committee of Global Thought spans multiple disciplines, and Arrow is one of the few scholars of recent decades whose work has cut across fields, having profound implications on each.” — Joseph E. Stiglitz

This week we are excited to feature The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series, edited by Joseph E. Stiglitz, and are giving away free copies of the first three books in the series (Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress, by Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald; Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles, by José Scheinkman; and The Arrow Impossibility Theorem, by Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen) in our book giveaway! Today, we are posting an excerpt from Joseph Stiglitz’s preface to Creating a Learning Society, in which he discusses the impact of Kenneth Arrow’s work, and the Committee of Global Thought at Columbia University’s decision to discuss Arrow’s work in the yearly Arrow Lectures.

Monday, August 18th, 2014

Book Giveaway! Three titles from The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series

The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series

This week we are featuring The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series, edited by Joseph E. Stiglitz. Kenneth J. Arrow’s work has shaped the course of economics for the past sixty years so deeply that, in a sense, every modern economist is his student. His ideas, style of research, and breadth of vision have been a model for generations of the boldest, most creative, and most innovative economists. His work has yielded such seminal theorems as general equilibrium, social choice. and endogenous growth, proving that simple ideas have profound effects. The Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series highlights economists, from Nobel laureates to groundbreaking younger scholars, whose work builds on Arrow’s scholarship as well as his innovative spirit. The books in the series are an expansion of the lectures that are held in Arrow’s honor at Columbia University.

To celebrate this exciting new series, we are offering FREE copies of the first three Arrow Lecture Series titles: Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress, by Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald; Speculation, Trading, and Bubbles, by José Scheinkman; and The Arrow Impossibility Theorem, by Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the books and their authors on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, July 18th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Friday, August 15th, 2014

Chris Andrews Gives 7 Reasons Why Roberto Bolaño Became So Popular in the U.S.

Roberto Bolano's Fiction, Chris AndrewsIn the following excerpt from Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, Chris Andrews explores how and why Roberto Bolaño’s became so popular in the United States:

The reception of Roberto Bolaño’s work in English began in an unre­markable way. When Christopher Maclehose, publisher at the Harvill Press in England, bought UK rights for Nocturno de Chile (By Night in Chile) in 2001, Bolaño was already a well-established author in the Spanish-speaking world. In 1998 his first long novel, Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives), had won the Premio Herralde de Novela and the Premio Rómulo Gallegos. The second of these prizes, in particular, is a mark of consecration in the Hispanic literary field, and it had been won, before Bolaño, by Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Javier Marías. By the end of 2001, La literatura nazi en América (Nazi Literature in the Americas) and Estrella distante (Distant Star) had appeared in German and Italian, and the French translator Robert Amutio, who had been trying to interest a pub­lisher in Bolaño’s work since 1996, had finally succeeded: Christian Bourgois had bought the rights to the two books already out in Italy and Germany.

By Night in Chile (2003) was positively reviewed and sold modestly (775 copies in the first 12 months). Distant Star (2004) was also well received by critics, but sold more slowly still. So far, this story conforms to a familiar pattern: an author recognized as important in his or her source culture is translated into English and published by a small press after having been translated into several other languages. Often the story stops here. Since substantial sales are not accompanying critical success, the publisher under­standably decides to cut her losses and take risks on more promising new names as yet untainted by failure in the marketplace.

This, however, is not what happened in the case of Bolaño. The Harvill Press bought UK rights for a third book, a selection of stories from Llamadas telefónicas and Putas asesinas, for which Bolaño chose the title Last Evenings on Earth shortly before his death in July 2003. Across the Atlantic, Barbara Epler at New Directions, who had acquired and published the translations of By Night in Chile and Distant Star with a prompt enthusiasm, negotiated with Harvill-Secker (the Harvill Press having been taken over by Random House and merged with the Secker and Warburg list in 2005) to bring out the book of stories in the United States before it appeared in the UK. It was published in May 2006. By this stage a certain excitement had begun to develop around Bolaño’s work in North America. Susan Sontag had provided an endorse­ment for By Night in Chile. Francine Prose read the story “Gómez Palacio” in The New Yorker and discovered in it, as she wrote in the The New York Times, “something extraordinarily beautiful and (at least to me) entirely new.” Bolaño’s reception was already beginning to break with the sadly familiar pattern.

(more…)

Thursday, August 14th, 2014

Chris Andrews, Translator, Critic, and Fan of Roberto Bolaño

“It has been a privilege to be involved, as a translator, in the process by which Bolaño’s fiction travelled from Blanes in Catalonia to Hyderabad and the western suburbs of Sydney, to name just two places where I know it has been read with a passion.”—Chris Andrews

Roberto Bolano's Fiction, Chris AndrewsIn addition to being the author of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, Chris Andrews is also the translator of several of Bolaño’s novels. His roles as translator, scholar, and critic give him a distinct understanding of Bolaño’s novels.

Andrews was recently asked by Publishers Weekly to discuss a book by Bolaño that has perhaps not received as much attention as it deserves, and he selected Distant Star, a novel he translated and was published in English by New Directions in 2004. The following is an excerpt from his essay:

Bolaño knew, at least from 1993, when he was diagnosed with a progressive autoimmune disease of the liver, that his chances of a long life were slim. I like to think that in 1995, as he wrote Distant Star, he also knew that he was finding his way into an enormous and singular territory, and that, as a writer, he would not have to start over. In Nazi Literature in the Americas, under the influence of Jorge Luis Borges and a lesser-known Argentine, Juan Rodolfo Wilcock, he had described imaginary works in a work of fiction. In Distant Star, he took another step, which would prove to be decisive, bringing three more processes into play: expanding what he had already written, allowing his characters to return, and exploiting their tendency to overinterpret their surroundings.

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Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

Bolaño, Epiphanies and Imminence — A Post by Chris Andrews

Roberto Bolano's Fiction, Chris AndrewsThe following post is by Chris Andrews, author of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe. You can also read our interview with Chris Andrews about the book:

At the end of “Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories” (in Between Parentheses), Bolaño writes: “read Chekhov and Raymond Carver. One of the two of them is the best short-story writer this century has produced.” Chekhov died in 1904, so either Carver wins by elimination, or Bolaño is suggesting that with just a toe in the century Chekhov beats all his epigones. In any case, the coupling is significant, for both Carver and Chekhov wrote epiphanic short stories. Describing the cards taped to the wall beside his desk in “On Writing,” Carver says: “I have a three-by-five up there with this fragment of a sentence from a story by Chekhov: ‘… and suddenly everything became clear to him.’ I find these words filled with wonder and possibility. I love their simple clarity, and the hint of revelation that’s implied.”

In Bolaño’s work there are moments when everything becomes clear to a character … or seems to be on the point of becoming clear. Sometimes the character has what the German critic Gunther Leypoldt, discussing Carver, calls an “arrested epiphany”: one that fails to deliver any definite content. This is what happens in “Gómez Palacio” when the director of the local arts council takes the narrator to her special place, which turns out to be a truck parking area in the desert, from which they can see the headlights of cars on a distant stretch of road. The narrator is initially skeptical, and with good reason: his host seems to be slightly crazy and has a taste for practical jokes. But then something happens:

I saw how the light, seconds after the car or truck had passed that spot, turned back on itself and hung in the air, a green light that seemed to breathe, alive and aware for a fraction of a second in the middle of the desert, set free, a marine light, moving like the sea but with all the fragility of earth, a green, prodigious, solitary light that must have been produced by something near that curve in the road — a sign, the roof of an abandoned shed, huge sheets of plastic spread on the ground — but that, to us, seeing it from a distance, appeared to be a dream or a miracle, which comes to the same thing, in the end.

Up to the explanation (“that must have been produced …”), the lyricism of this long sentence suggests something marvelous, and although the green light seems to breathe only for a fraction of a second, the aura created by the descriptive language does not vanish so quickly, partly because the explanation is conjectural, and partly because the final equation relativizes the importance of the physical facts: if dreams are miracles, why not hallucinations and illusions too? And yet this portent leads nowhere, and the narrator interrupts the lyric flight: “Then the director started the car, turned it around and droved back to the motel.”

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Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Interview with Chris Andrews, author of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction

Roberto Bolano's Fiction: An Expanding UniverseThe following is an interview with Chris Andrews, author of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe

Question: How did you discover Bolaño’s work?

Chris Andrews: Chatting with booksellers in Santiago and Valparaíso in 2001. Bolaño was already very well known in Chile: he had won the Premio Rómulo Gallegos, and revisited the country twice in 1998 and 1999. His relations with the contemporary Chilean literary world were stormy (see the end of “I Can’t Read” in The Secret of Evil) but his loyalty to Enrique Lihn and Nicanor Parra (who turns 100 in September) was total. I like to think that he has recruited new readers for those two great Chilean poets.

Q: Did you expect Bolaño’s work to find a large public in English when you began translating it?

CA: No, but not because I didn’t think it deserved to be widely read. With the first two books, I was thinking: This could be it, because that’s the way it usually goes. An author who is well known and respected in his or her language usually gets one or two shots in translation, and unless something special happens straight up, he or she falls into the category of authors who have been tried and found not to work. Luckily, Barbara Epler at New Directions didn’t approach Bolaño in that way: she was committed to waiting for something special to happen, which it did, with the story collection Last Evenings on Earth, and then with The Savage Detectives, which was published by FSG.

Q: What kind of book did you set out to write with Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction?

CA: Well, it’s a scholarly book, but I wanted it to be clear as possible. I wanted it to be as true as possible to the complexity of Bolaño’s work, even if that meant qualifying my arguments quite often. I wanted to do justice to textures and fine details, but also to connect the fiction with large ethical and political questions, such as: Does Bolaño glorify brawling? Is his work romantic? Is it anarchistic? The book as a whole has an arc: it moves, very roughly speaking, from form to content to value, and there’s a shift in the conceptual background from narratology to philosophy.

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Monday, August 11th, 2014

Book Giveaway! Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction

Roberto Bolaño's Fiction

“An indispensable guide to navigating the rich world of Bolaño’s fiction.” — Publishers Weekly

This week our featured book is Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, by Chris Andrews

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, August 15 at 1:00 pm.

Chris Andrews, a leading translator of Bolaño’s work into English, explores the singular achievements of the author’s oeuvre, engaging with its distinct style and key thematic concerns, incorporating his novels and stories into the larger history of Latin American and global literary fiction.

Read the introduction to Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe:

Friday, August 8th, 2014

Househunting in the Homeland — Part 2 of an essay by Wendy Law-Yone, author of “A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma”

“It struck me for the first time how stable, how fixed was the life of a dictator…. He was the immovable, centrifugal force that had sent thousands of Burmese citizens spinning out into the troposphere of permanent displacement.”—Wendy Law-Yone

A Daughter's Memoir of Burma, Wendy Law-YoneThe following essay is by Wendy Law-Yone, author of A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma. This is the second part of her essay (read part one here) looking back at her return to Burma after years of exile:

The young reporters were watching us drive up and down the road at snail speed, peering at the house numbers from the open windows of our taxi. As we approached once more the high wall in front of which they were gathered, I asked the taxi driver to stop.

They crossed the road toward us in a pack: four women and two men in their twenties and thirties, cameras and press ID’s swinging from their necks, a boom microphone leading the way.

“What are you looking for, Auntie?” The sassy girl with the ponytail leaned in through his window to address me.
“House number Fourteen A,” I said. ‘We can’t seem to find it.’ I got out of the car to stretch my legs, and was immediately surrounded.
“Hello, Auntie! Where are you from, Auntie?”
“From this very street. I used to live here. At Number 14 A.”
“When, Auntie?”
“Long before any of you was born.”
“And Auntie now lives in – ?”
“London.”
“London!” Ah’s! and Aw!’s of wonderment. I might have mentioned the moon.
“But tell me,” I said. “What are you all doing here, anyway?”
“Waiting for the prisoner release,” said the girl with the ponytail brightly. Then, seeing my blank look, “Auntie does know about the prisoner release?”

Auntie did know. Only Auntie had been distracted and forgotten the big news: Six hundred political prisoners were to be released that day—yet another earnest of the government’s dedication to reform.

“General Ne Win’s grandsons are coming home any minute!” one of the boys blurted out. “That’s why we’re waiting here, in front of their house.” I stared at the house with the high wall across the street, slow to take in the revelation.

In 2001, the year before his death, Ne Win had fallen foul of the ruling military clique and been placed under arrest together with the daughter with whom he was living. The following year, the daughter’s husband and three sons were imprisoned on charges of plotting a coup.

Ne Win died in 2002; his daughter was released from house arrest in 2006, but his grandsons had remained in prison. It was they who were about to be released.

“You mean,” I said, “they still live here?”

It struck me for the first time how stable, how fixed was the life of a dictator. Since assuming power in 1962, Ne Win had lived on this street, and died on this street, exactly where, as a fifteen-year-old, I had last set eyes on him. He was the immovable, centrifugal force that had sent thousands of Burmese citizens spinning out into the troposphere of permanent displacement.

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Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Househunting in the Homeland — An Essay by Wendy Law-Yone, author of “A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma”

A Daughter's Memoir of Burma, Wendy Law-YoneThe following post is part 1 of an essay by Wendy Law-Yone, author of A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma. For more on the book, you can also read our interview with Wendy Law-Yone

It was last day of my two-week tour of Burma, and the calendar was auspicious. Friday January 13th, 2012. Friday the thirteenth, at the beginning of a leap year! An excellent day to wrap up the business of househunting in Rangoon. That was how I had slugged the page in my notebook listing the homes I had once lived in and was determined to track down. HOUSEHUNTING.

I was born in Burma, but fled the country in 1967, at the age of 20. My father, Ed Law-Yone, publisher and editor of The Nation, Burma’s best known English-language newspaper, was still languishing in political prison when—desperate to escape the crushing police state my country had become—I decided to decamp. Accompanied by my brother Alban, I headed for the Thai border, choosing the “backdoor” route favored by smugglers and insurgents. Long before we reached the border, in the southern port of Moulmein, we were picked up by the secret police, and jailed for two weeks of interrogation.

Eventually, in May 1967, I was granted permission to leave the country—as a stateless person. Since then, I had been back only once: in 2001, after a 33-year prohibition. Some states are particularly pitiless toward their prodigal sons and daughters. The Burmese military regime was one of those states. Or had been.

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Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

An Interview with Wendy Law-Yone, author of “A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma”

A Daughter's Memoir of Burma

The following is an interview with Wendy Law-Yone, author of A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma:

Question: Why did you decide to write a memoir of your father’s life as opposed to a more conventional biography?

Wendy Law-Yone: A conventional biography would have required scholarship and research of the kind that simply wasn’t possible when I set out in earnest to write about my father’s life. Like a great many Burmese exiles of my generation, I was barred from returning home to Burma for such a prolonged period—33 years in my case—that I had pretty much given up hope of ever going back, much less of being allowed to investigate my father’s past in situ. But I never wanted to write a biography in any case, so that was not even in the equation.

The question was what to do with his memoirs, which had been collecting dust for years, for decades. What eventually supplied me with the courage – and the necessary interest—to give them the airing they deserved was the decision to tell his story from two perspectives principally: his and mine. My version of his life—and the ways it impinged on mine—would act as a gloss on his version. Anyone can write a biography of my father, I thought; but I alone can write a memoir. It was the one unique contribution I could make.

Q: What was the importance of The Nation, the paper your father edited, to Burmese society from the late 1940s to the early 1960s?

WL-Y: My father founded The Nation in 1948, the year of Burma’s independence. For the next fifteen years, throughout the post-war era of parliamentary democracy, the newspaper rose steadily in circulation and influence to become the leading English-language daily, with an international reputation. In 1963, following a coup that brought in a military dictatorship, his newspaper was shut down and he spent the next five years in prison.

When he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism in 1959, his citation read: ‘More than any other paper in Burma, The Nation has taken the role of a social conscience, speaking energetically against restrictive press laws, waste, inefficiency, and intolerance, and censuring “apartheid” and racial discrimination …’ The role he himself took on in the public sphere has few equivalents in modern journalism – he appointed himself both watchdog and blood hound.

When he died in exile in 1980, his obituary in the New York Times described him as “the first independent newspaper editor of free, post-war Burma, and also to date the last.”

Q: What role did your father play in the movement to overthrow the military government of Ne Win in the early 1970’s

He instigated the movement, organized it, masterminded it, and watched it die in its infancy. He must have hatched his plans in jail, because the minute he was released, he went into action. He convinced the deposed minister U Nu to spearhead the resistance he envisioned, then fled Burma to set up a government-in-exile in Thailand. The movement was soon joined by prominent politicians from Rangoon, as well as armed dissidents already operating in the border regions. He lobbied key members of the Thai government to provide a safe haven for the former Burmese prime minister—and to turn a blind eye to his subversive activities. He went on an international fund-raising tour with U Nu, banging the drum loudly on three continents. Then he returned to Thailand to engage in more diplomacy and conspiracy, shuttling between jungle camps along the Thai-Burmese border, vetting mercenaries and other would-be supporters of the cause, negotiating with Thai government officials increasingly fed up with the Burmese troublemakers they were harboring.

The movement fell apart within a year or two of its founding. But brief though it was, the coalition it brought together – of a central Burman government and an alliance of ethnic minority armies—was without precedent. It was the first and last bid for the restoration of democracy in Burma—until Aung San Suu Kyi and a new generation of dissidents came on the scene some fifteen years later, in the ‘8888’ uprising.

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