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Stifling

Cairo’s Revolutionary Lit Scene

Ugurhan Betin/Getty

With Cairo still in turmoil and bombs exploding, writer Ahdaf Souief shares her worries over the stifling of cultural life, her love for Naguib Mahfouz, and the power of the Nile.

Ahdaf Soueif is a pillar of Cairo. Coming from a family of activists (she has a nephew in jail for allegedly encouraging a demonstration, a sister whom, after her son was faced with a court marshal, went on hunger strike, and a niece in full-time human rights activism) she is held in high regard in the city in which she was born. Soueif pens a weekly column for a national paper, has written two novels and three story collections, and then, during the Egyptian revolution, produced Cairo, an often very personal account of the inception of the Arab Spring.

Homefront

Between Boredom and Terror

Damon Winter/The New York Times

From the frontlines of America’s war in Afghanistan a Yale graduate turned Army warrior reflected on his experience in letters home. Now he’s put those letters together and they reveal a man comforted by the trivial and questioning why he is there.

If war is the true oldest profession, then perhaps the soldier’s letter is the origin of the form. The particular constructs and constraints of a military campaign—necessary separation from loved ones, daily news and hardships, hours of tedium that must be filled, not to mention the prospect of death—combine to create perfect letter-writing conditions, and average soldiers have been communicating existential insights large and small since the moment they became literate.

Office Humor

The Temp's Literary Debut

Jennifer Rocholl

‘One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories’ is an absurdist, scathingly funny literary collection from Ryan from ‘The Office.’ B.J. Novak on his surprisingly personal fictional debut.

Plenty of actors have written books lately, but none as original, smart or literary as B.J. Novak’s collection, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories. It’s a sign of his freshness that reviews, most with extravagant praise, have strained for comparisons. Woody Allen’s sketches? Sort of, in their comic philosophical questioning, but Novak can be far more narrative. David Sedaris? Novak is less autobiographical; his characters include “The Man Who Invented the Calendar.

Treasure Hunt

The Real Monuments Men

Claudette Barius/Columbia Pictures

In this excerpt of the bestselling book ‘The Monuments Men,’ on which the film of the same name, directed by George Clooney and released Friday, is based, the platoon comes across four coffins containing the remains of Germany’s greatest leaders—and discover what they were intended for.

George Stout arrived at Bernterode on May 1, 1945. Just as fellow Monuments Man Walker Hancock had hinted in his phone call, the mine was in a rural area, with nothing to see but forests. Even the tiny village nearby had been evacuated by Nazi officials so that no one would know about the frantic activity at the mine. The only sight of civilization, if that’s what it could be called, was an internment camp for displaced persons, mostly French, Italian, and Soviet slave laborers who had worked in the mine.

Hail Mary

Seduced by Il Duce

Culture Club/Getty

A new book makes a compelling case that the Catholic Church should pay greater penance for its support of Mussolini and the rise of fascism—and what they got in return.

In 1995, Pope John Paul II issued a message on the 50th anniversary of World War II, stating that “the Christians of Europe need to ask forgiveness, even while recognizing that there were varying degrees of responsibility in the events that led to the war.”Over the next several years, against the advice of certain cardinals, John Paul made a startling call for the church to engage in “the purification of historical memory.”For a church that considers popes to be infallible—perfect in truth on matters of dogma—the idea of acknowledging its failures in the mud of history was a dramatic shift.

Monuments Man

Bob Balaban: How I Write

Victoria Will/AP

The prolific actor, who stars as Private Preston Savitz in this week’s ‘Monuments Men,’ is also a successful children’s book author.

Where did you grow up?Well, I was born in Chicago. My family moved there in about 1898 or so, escaped from some pogrom in Russia, got there, and eventually set up a chain of movie theaters. I got hooked on movies as a little kid and never really got over it. I love Chicago and I go back whenever I can.Is there a film that you remember seeing, an earliest one that you really loved and made you want to be in the film industry?One of my earliest memories is going to see, when I was 7 or 8, Guys and Dolls, which was playing at one of my dad’s theaters.

Grrr

No Jokes Please, We’re Russian

AFP/Getty

As journalists descend on the Winter Olympics the most chilling effect may be Russian pride when it comes to the truth about Sochi.

Everyone is aware of the Asian cultural preoccupation with saving face. Less well known is the pervasive Russian spin on this social dynamic, which is not so much saving face as resenting those who make one lose face—and punishing such tactless types with cold-shouldering, scolding or sterner measures, depending on the level of embarrassment they cause. It is called “being offended,” and it is an age-old Russian national pastime, both on an individual level and more broadly.

Racy

Revolutionary Cross-Dresser

Bettmann/CORBIS

In the American Revolution a woman named Deborah Samson donned men’s clothes and fought the British. Now transgender novelist Alex Myers has told her story and explores sexual identity in the 18th century.

Alex Myers’s debut novel, Revolutionary, reimagines the true story of Deborah Samson, a little remembered Revolutionary War soldier who disguised herself as a man to fight the British. Samson has fascinated Myers, 35, since childhood, not only because Samson is a distant relative, but also because Myers is a female-to-male transgender person. In the edited interview below, Myers discusses how his sexual identity informed the novel, the limits historical fact placed on him, and his own gender transformation.

Origins

This Week’s Hot Reads

From a look at the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the life of the American poet E.E. Cummings.

Karate Chop by Dorthe NorsWhen describing many works of Danish art, adjectives like unnerving and disturbing often come to mind, but these are far from criticisms. It is precisely because of how unsettling Dorthe Nors’s stories in Karate Chop are that leave her words festering in the mind long after reading their four or five pages. Aside from “The Heron” (recently published in The New Yorker and included here), Nors’s work has gone largely unnoticed in America.

Masters

Alice Walker on Screen

Anthony Barboza

A new PBS documentary about writer Alice Walker finally tells her powerful story and has already moved audiences with its message writes Agunda Okeyo.

The documentary Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth is a cascade of impressive words and images revealing the life’s journey of a renowned author and activist. Although, British filmmaker and activist Pratibha Parmar has been a friend of Alice Walker’s for twenty years, she only decided to do this documentary when she realized that American Masters, perhaps the most prestigious televised U.S. documentary series, launched in 1986 by Susan Lacy, mostly featured men and often white men at that.

BOOKS

Farewell to Maupin's 'Tales'

As he writes his final ‘Tales of the City’ novel, Armistead Maupin talks sex, drugs, marriage, mortality – and lapping up Burning Man’s craziness - with Tim Teeman.

When I ask how his book tour is going, for what Armistead Maupin swears his last novel in the phenomenally successful Tales of the City series, the 69-year-old author laughs. Instead of giving a cursory “Fine thanks,” he tells me in his delicious, rich Southern drawl that he’s just had a discussion event with Don Bachardy, the artist and surviving partner of the novelist Christopher Isherwood. “We talked about the time Angelina Jolie sat for Don during one of her pregnancies,” Maupin says by phone from Los Angeles.

PTSD

Veteran Exorcisms

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

A new book about a veteran undergoing exorcisms to purge himself of demons struggles with important questions about the costs of war and the nature of PTSD.

Tribal cultures differed in their approaches to reintegrating warriors. One common practice was to purify combatants after the fact, cleansing them of any evil spirits that might have trailed them home from battle. Sometimes, this purification centered on storytelling. A tribe would gather to hear a warrior recount his exploits, going into graphic detail, the bloodier the better. But in other societies, to tell war stories risked conjuring the dead and was considered dangerously taboo.

Feminine Mystique

A Life of One’s Own

Francois Duhamel/DreamWorks, via Everett

Jenny Offill’s second novel, 15 years in the making, looks at how a mother’s life can keep her from ever writing her second novel.

Jenny Offill’s first novel, Last Things, was published in 1999 and told the story of an 8-year-old girl named Grace, living in a small lakeside town in Vermont, being raised by a mother who at first appears whimsical and eccentric, but who the reader gradually comes to realize is mentally ill. It is easy to see why readers and critics compared it to Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping at the time—both novels tell the story of young girls growing up with absent or damaged parents, in a starkly rural setting, and employing a lush, pointillist prose style.

The Real Beehive State

The Land of the Permanent Wave

Jason Reed/Reuters

In the '60s South, long hair was a signifier and a deal breaker for men. In East Texas, they took this up a notch, as Bud Shrake discovered when Mrs. Shrake got ostracized, too.

The late Edwin “Bud” Shrake was part of a rich crop of writers that came out of Texas in the ‘50s and ‘60s and included Dan Jenkins, Blackie Sherrod, Larry L. King, John Graves, Larry McMurtry, Grover Lewis, and Cary Cartwright. Shrake was a newspaperman, a magazine writer, screenwriter, and a fine novelist. “The Land of the Permanent Wave,” first appeared in Harper’s during the magazine’s heyday in the ‘60s. Willie Morris, their celebrated editor, said that along with Seymour Hersh’s devastating account of the My Lai massacre, Shrake’s was his favorite story.

J’accuse!

Robert Harris: A New John le Carré

Corbis

A Jewish officer falsely accused and an intelligence chief out to clear his name are the centerpiece of novelist writer Robert Harris’s exceptional take on the infamous Dreyfus case. This novel puts him in the first category of spy thrillers says Michael Korda.

Nothing is more difficult than writing a “historical novel” about a real event (and real people), and few people are better at it than Robert Harris, the author of Fatherland. One problem with this kind of fiction is that all but the most ignorant reader knows how things turned out in the end, there are no surprises. In the case of his new book An Officer and a Spy the subject is the Dreyfus affair, so we know before opening the book that Dreyfus will be found guilty and that eventually, after nearly a decade, his name will be cleared—there have been innumerable books about “the Affair,” and even a movie (actually, by my count there are at least sixteen movies about the Affair, including the most famous one, made in 1937 and starring Paul Muni as Emile Zola, the firebrand French novelist whose accusations against those who had connived in finding Dreyfus guilty help free him), so the element of suspense, one of the most valuable tools of the novelist, is entirely missing.

Carry That Weight

The Beatles and JFK 50 Years Later

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Many believe that The Beatles’ invasion was so popular because it helped America recover from the death of JFK. No way.

Fifty years after The Beatles’ historic Feb. 7, 1964, arrival in New York, it’s no surprise that for many their early success in America is still best explained as an antidote to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The enthusiasm The Beatles aroused, especially in 1964, was so outsized that it remains hard to attribute it just to their music and personalities.The problem with such thinking is that it distorts both The Beatles’ talent and America culture in the year after John Kennedy’s death.

Recipe for Love

Inside ‘Labor Day’s Sexy Pie Scene

Dale Robinette/Paramount Pictures and Indian Paintbrush

Four years after writing ‘Labor Day,’ author Joyce Maynard was teaching Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet to bake pies for a scene so sexy it’s being compared to the pottery sequence from ‘Ghost.’

When an author’s book is being made into a movie, it’s common for the writer to have a certain list of demands: script approval, final say on casting, access to the set. Joyce Maynard thought all of that would be nice when Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) approached her to turn her novel, Labor Day, into a feature film. But there was really only one thing that she insisted on as a stipulation of the adaptation: she personally must be the one who teaches its stars how to bake pie.

Longreads

The Week’s Best Reads

From the rise of a Christian cult in Wells, Texas to the confessions of an ex-TSA agent, The Daily Beast picks the best journalism from around the web this week.

Sinners in the Hands Sonia Smith, Texas Monthly When is a church a cult?Dear America, I Saw You Naked Jason Edward Harrington, Politico Magazine And yes, we were laughing. Confessions of an ex-TSA agent.Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars Michelle Goldberg, The Nation Empowered by social media, feminists are calling one another out for ideological offenses. Is it good for the movement? And whose movement is it?A Botched Operation Eyal Press, The New Yorker Steven Brigham’s abortion clinics keep being sanctioned for offering substandard care.

THE FUTURE

Self-Perfecting Machines

John Lund/Getty

Psychopathic machines? Lethal AI? These are the concepts we should be thinking about when we talk about the benefits of self-improving software. An excerpt from James Barrat’s ‘Our Final Invention’.

“… we are beginning to depend on computers to help us evolve new computers that let us produce things of much greater complexity. Yet we don’t quite understand the process—it’s getting ahead of us. We’re now using programs to make much faster computers so the process can run much faster. That’s what’s so confusing—technologies are feeding back on themselves; we’re taking off. We’re at that point analogous to when single-celled organisms were turning into multi-celled organisms.

XXX

Hollywood's First Sexplosion

20th Century-Fox Film/Everett

The story of how 20th Century Fox’s Richard Zanuck and David Brown led the doomed charge in sexually adventurous cinema with a pair of disastrous movies—in 1969.

Slowly, once again, the movies are edging toward respectable triple-X fare that features such porn staples as penetration, ejaculation, and erections along with superior screenplays, acting and direction. Of course, leave it to the French to push the boundaries, with Blue Is the Warmest Color and Stranger by the Lake.Curiously, it was mainstream Hollywood, i.e. 20th Century Fox, which over 40 years ago led the way with sexually adventurous cinema—only to be felled by the head-to-head crash of Myra Breckinridge and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

How I Write