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Tag: politics

The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

I read this weeks ago as part of the MBI longlist (it has since made the shortlist) and I thought it was excellent. I’ve put off reviewing it because I didn’t feel I could do it justice, but here we go.

Vásquez is an acclaimed novelist who has won prizes for his earlier books. This latest release is a long and complicated set of stories focusing on two political murders in his home country of Colombia. One occurred in the 1940s and the other nearly half a century earlier. Both politicians were Leftists who presented a threat not only to the ruling parties but to powerful Colombian elites. The character who becomes involved in understanding these historical events and the conspiracy theories to which they’ve given rise has the same name as the author, and shares many characteristics and experiences as the author, but is not exactly the author. Yes, we are in the world of autofiction, but this version is quite different, to my mind, from the kind of autofiction practiced by Rachel Cusk, Olivia Laing, or Edouard Louis.

Whereas those authors tend to look inward, Vásquez the character acts as the reader’s guide to the histories, showing at first the kind of skepticism a “rational” reader would, but then slowly recognizing the ways in which conspiracies can represent a way to make sense of official explanations that aren’t entirely convincing or satisfactory. We also learn quite a bit about Vásquez the person (the character Vásquez, that is), and he doesn’t hesitate to show us both his more and less admirable qualities. The result is a novel in which the reader swings from long discursive sections about political murders in 1948 and 1914 to poignant, heart-in-mouth descriptions of Vásquez’s wife’s pregnancy and the birth and infancy of their twin daughters.

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Courtesy of the Chronicle, here’s a depressing story about the decline in reading (both the act of reading and reading comprehension):

The scores of fourth- and eighth-graders on reading tests have climbed steadily since the 1990s, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But those of 12th-graders have fallen. Just 37 percent of high-school seniors graduate with “proficiency” in reading, meaning they can read a text for both its literal and its inferential meanings.

The problem seems to extend to life after college. In 1992 and 2003, the National Center for Education Statistics studied American adults’ prose, document, and quantitative literacy (respectively, the ability to do things like read news articles, to read maps and food labels, and to balance a checkbook). The results, experts said, were “appalling.” College graduates’ math skills, statistically, hadn’t budged. But their prose and document literacy had declined. While those with bachelor’s and graduate degrees maintained the highest levels of literacy overall, those groups also experienced the steepest declines. Just 31 percent of college graduates were considered proficient readers in 2003, by that test’s definition, down from 40 percent in 1992. (International studies show similar trends. More data allowing comparison of adult literacy over time is expected this year.)

I teach a writing-intensive course for upper-level undergraduates every year, and I force them to write short response papers on the readings (you can’t write about a subject if you don’t understand what you’ve read on it). I teach at a highly selective institution, my students work very hard, they are able to devote most of their time to their studies, and yet they mostly don’t complete the assigned reading unless they are penalized for not doing so. It’s frustrating but it’s something we need to confront. Reading is just not that popular an activity anymore, even among the most highly educated. And even prestigious, selective colleges emphasize social and other non-academic aspects of student life as much as they do in-class learning, so there are more officially certified, built-in distractions that we didn’t have when we were in school. I don’t want to make college only about class experiences, but if people who clearly do enjoy learning aren’t treating scholarly and leisure book and article reading as integral to their daily lives, how can we expect it of everyone else?


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I’ve only watched one episode of Game of Thrones (don’t @ me, I read the first three books and that was more than enough). But I was fascinated by this NYT Magazine article on visiting the Westeros sets and locations in Northern Ireland, written by an Irishman. The blending of the real and the artificial, and the way in which the artificial overlays the real, is understandable but also troubling. What happens when we create Disneyfied landscapes in places with real history? And what happens when our mental images are dominated by the way they stand in for fake worlds and start to erase the real ones?

Less than half an hour after the tour bus left the pickup point, I realized we were no longer in Northern Ireland, but had entered the realm of Westeros. We were passing Stormont Castle, on the outskirts of Belfast. This was theoretically the seat of Northern Ireland’s government, but for over two years now this executive office — jointly controlled by the right-wing loyalist (and largely Protestant) Democratic Unionist Party and the left-wing republican (and largely Catholic) Sinn Fein — had languished in a state of indefinite suspension thanks to a densely complex sequence of disagreements. The tour guide made no mention of this notable landmark, and the reason he made no mention of it, I further understood, was that it had nothing to do with “Game of Thrones.”

This has already happened in a non-political way in New Zealand, with the landscape being associated with the Lord of the Rings movies rather than its own history.

Somewhat relatedly, I was listening to a radio report on the Notre Dame fire as it was happening, and there was an interview with someone who had immediately set about creating online video libraries of photos of the cathedral and its interiors. Which is great, but virtual visits aren’t substitutes for actual visits. I understand not everyone can visit historical and artistic monuments (I’ve never visited the Parthenon, and I doubt I’ll ever see Petra), but we do a disservice to them and to ourselves when we elide the difference between looking at a two-dimensional or even three-dimensional virtual representations with the actual tactile and optical experience of seeing the real thing. For my whole life I’ve told people that however many photographs you’ve seen of the Taj Mahal, it will not prepare you for its beauty. Marble in person is just different than marble in a photograph or video, and you can’t fully appreciate the Taj’s perfect proportions until you see it in situ. It’s OK not to have seen it (none of us will see everything we want to). It’s not OK to act as if Google Earth is a satisfying substitute.

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I stopped using my Twitter account last June, but I still visit friends’ and others’ feeds occasionally, and I found a link to this gem of an article. Ignore the headline, the real title is in the URL: “Buckle Up Twitter is cancelled.” We’ve all experienced Buckle Up Twitter, i.e., those hectoring Tweetstorms that can only be written by someone who doesn’t actually know much about the subject they’re lecturing the Twitterverse on.

Buckle Up Twitter will not be vanquished by things like “historical accuracy” or “profound embarrassment.” The other day I saw evidence of a thread, now sadly deleted, with the premise that the writing maxim “show, don’t tell” expected and indeed demanded an act of emotional labor from the reader that was similar if not identical to the emotional labor extracted by white men in their dealings with the rest of the world. There was a thread “calling out” King Leopold of Belgium.

I have seen threads that would make your eyes water, and in all cases, the responses were not what I personally would have anticipated. Things being what they are, I would have thought that a thread that began like “LISTEN UP DICKHOLES: TIME FOR A RANT ABOUT HOW LAVRENTIY BERIA WAS A TOTAL JERK AND A REAL PERV” would end with an apology and a promise never to do it again, but why would you apologize when you are met with joy and delight? The thing about Buckle Up Twitter, hard as this may be for right-thinking people like me to accept, is that a lot of other people LOVE IT. They absolutely love to be told that they are morons and that all of this is actually Beau Brummell’s doing.

The Beau Brummell thread which introduces the piece is so eye-wateringly bad (and yet so equally sure of its brilliance and wit) that it’s hard to imagine there’s a better illustration. Except, of course, for the Greatest Buckle Up Twitter Thread of Them All: Time for Some Game Theory. I shudder to think what it would take to dethrone that one.

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Review: Tell Me How It Ends, by Valeria Luiselli

This is a shortish essay whose full title is Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. It is drawn from work Luiselli did in 2015/16 with unaccompanied immigrant children who were in deportation and removal proceedings in New York. Luiselli served as a translator, working through a 40-item questionnaire prepared by organizations and lawyers representing and assisting these children in the legal process. The children range from five years old to mid-teenagers, so their ability to answer these questions and help to build a case to fight removal varies quite a bit.

Quite apart from the literary merits of the book, which are considerable, this is an excellent introduction to the process children who arrive unaccompanied at the border go through. They are brought from the Central American nations (unaccompanied children from Mexico can be legally and summarily returned without proceedings), and once they have crossed into the United States they give them themselves up to detention by DHS/ICE. The lucky ones are united with family in the US and go through the legal process with them. The specific children Luiselli works with have been placed with family in the NYC area and have had their cases taken up by organizations who try to find grounds for them to be granted legal resident status.

Our recent conversation around immigration has understandably revolved around the draconian policies and cruelty of the Trump Administration’s immigration efforts, but one of Luiselli’s critical contributions is to remind us that harsh treatment of children and other undocumented immigrants is not unique to Trump. Her entire experience as related here takes place during the Obama administration, and the reader is shown why he was called the Deporter-in-Chief in his second term. And Bush before him, and Clinton, laid the groundwork for these policies. What distinguishes the current administration’s approach is its scale, racism, and barbarity, but the policies themselves are extensions of past practices, not major departures from them. 

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