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Pakistan Tales

What Went Wrong


Pakistani-American Shahan Mufti set out to investigate the poisoned relationship between his two countries in his powerful new memoir about terrorism and family history.

“If we meet at a party in New York you might ask me where I’m from,” Shahan Mufti wonders at the start of The Faithful Scribe: A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family, and War. He has two answers. Born in Ohio to Pakistani parents, Mufti calls himself “100 percent American and 100 percent Pakistani,” his life “a year here, four years there, five months here, two weeks there.” Sorting out origins and identity are how Mufti narrates a history of modern Pakistan and the political turmoil of a country often described by some variation of “the world’s most dangerous place.

This Week’s Hot Reads

From a legend of Mexican crime fiction and a biography of Modest Musorgsky to a giant of Spanish literature.

The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernal, trans. by Katherine Silver. Rafael Bernal was a legend of Mexican crime fiction, but he never achieved international renown. Thanks to translator Katherine Silver, his 1969 masterpiece El Complot Mongol, or The Mongolian Conspiracy, is available for the first time in English. Filiberto Garcia is a hitman who knows exactly what gun to use for killing at short range, but not much beyond that. A chance assignment lands him in the middle of an international conspiracy that gives Bernal’s book its name.

Life Studies

One Year to Live

Eleanor Bentall/Bloomberg News, via Getty

If you had one year to live, how would you spend it? That’s a question most of us wouldn’t know how to answer but for one British publisher and translator it was easy: to translate Tolstoy’s great story about a dying man, “The Death of Ivan Illyich.”

Not many people would choose to spend the last days of their life translating a book that describes the agonies of a dying man, but the renowned British publisher Peter Carson, who died in January of this year, did exactly that: he was working on his version of two of Leo Tolstoy’s late works, the spiritual memoir, Confession, and the great novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which tells the story of a Russian lawyer who succumbs, slowly and painfully, to an unspecified illness, when he was diagnosed as terminally ill himself.

Natural Born

What Made Anders Breivik Kill?


When Anders Breivik launched his killing spree in Olso that left 77 dead, people immediately put blame on the far right, but his childhood of abuse might explain more says a new book.

The failed businessman who became Norway’s worst killer, was a victim not of Muslim immigrants, but of childhood trauma.At approximately 17:20 on Friday 22 July 2011, after having attacked Oslo’s main government buildings with a fertilizer bomb, Anders Behring Breivik arrived on the lake island of Utøya dressed as a policeman. Armed with a Glock pistol and a Ruger rifle, Breivik walked calmly around the island, systematically killing members of the Youth League of the ruling Labor Party who were there on summer camp.


Rube Goldberg's Impossible Art

His name has become an adjective for anything too complicated for its own good, but cartoonist Rube Goldberg’s gifts extended far beyond his cockamamie inventions.


The Man Who Invented Vampires

Jonathon Hession/NBC

One of the most famous literary gatherings ever—when Byron, Shelley, Mary Shelley told ghost stories on the bank of Lake Geneva—is vividly brought to life in a new book about the man who invented the modern vampire and was spurned by Byron.

Earthly celebrity and supernatural immortality were, in 1816, the intermingled obsessions of the notorious clique, presided over by Lord Byron, which convened at Switzerland’s Lake Geneva during a torrentially rainy summer and produced some of English literature’s most seminal works. So it’s spookily fitting that the exploits of those young bohemians, all then under 30 and most not long for this world, have been granted an apparently eternal afterlife, exerting as powerful a fascination as ever almost 200 years after Byron reclined at Villa Diodati’s fireside, reading ghost stories with fellow aristocrat-poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Shelley’s 18-year-old lover and the mother of his young child), Claire Clairmont (Mary’s stepsister and Byron’s lover, also 18), and a new doctor named John Polidori, engaged as Byron’s personal physician but, like everyone present, a burningly ambitious scribe.


The Punk-Rock Preacher

Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post via Getty

She went from punk rebel to Lutheran minister, and now she’s using her profane, confessional style to make mainline Protestantism cool.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is everywhere. A former drug user and alcoholic turned Lutheran minister, she’s gotten attention for her eye-catching appearance—colorful tattoos, cropped hair, hipster glasses—and her reputation for dropping the F-bomb. Her edgy-preacher image landed her a number of mainstream media profiles, and her memoir, Pastrix: The Cranky Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint snuck onto the New York Times Bestseller List. She’s not the first Christian minister to break into the mainstream media consciousness and become a bestselling author.

Poets on Paper

Plath & Dickinson's Paper Trail

The Estate of Sylvia Plath

The drawings of Sylvia Plath and the envelope scrawlings of Emily Dickinson afford rare glimpses into the minds of two great poets.

In the odyssey of 20th-century English literature, large looms the myth of Sylvia Plath—talented, tortured, fame-hungry and ferocious. The feminists claimed her as their own modern-day Sappho, a doomed Iphigenia sacrificed on the altar of genius by her philandering husband, Ted Hughes. Her fellow lyrists, meanwhile, declared her “hardly a woman at all, certainly not another ‘poetess’” but—in the words of Robert Lowell—a great classical heroine, “a Dido, a Phaedra or Medea” whose poems played “Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder.

Damned Spot

Ethan Hawke’s Murderous Turn

T Charles Erickson/Lincoln Center Theater via AP

What’s it take to play Macbeth? Ethan Hawke on the seductive darkness of the mad Scotsman, the Shakespeare mania in New York , and why he loves the theater versus movies.

New York is currently giddy with Shakespeare. Tony and Oliver-winning actor Mark Rylance is going the distance in a Bard biathlon on Broadway, starring in both Twelfth Night (as Olivia) and Richard III (as the king). Orlando Bloom has been mooning under a balcony as Romeo, and Ethan Hawke brings a bold and modern interpretation to the murderous Macbeth. Hawke may be best known for movies, including Before Midnight which opened this summer to rave reviews.


The Week’s Best Reads

From the inside story of an elderly adjunct professor’s death in poverty to MOOC pioneer Sebastian Thrun’s admission of defeat, The Daily Beast picks the best journalism from around the web this week.

Death of a Professor L.V. Anderson, Slate An 83-year-old French instructor’s undignified death became a cause célèbre for exploited academics. But what really happened to Margaret Mary Vojtko?Wall Street Isn’t Worth It John Quiggin, Jacobin Cutting the banks down to size isn’t just got politics—it’s good policy.The Godfather of Free Online Education Changes Course Max Chafkin, Fast Company He captivated the world with visions of self-driving cars and Google Glass and has signed up 1.


Ohio 1842: The First Great Vintage

nicholas belton

Before Napa was even a glimmer in anyone’s eye, the first great American wine was made on the banks of the Ohio River by a land speculator in 1842. The story of how he inadvertently made a Champagne-style wine that even wowed Europe and inspired a poem by Longfellow.

America’s first great wine is one you’ve probably never heard of.  The Pilgrims did not produce it.   Despite his dreams of flourishing vineyards at Monticello and his belief that America could produce wines “doubtless as good” as Europe, Thomas Jefferson did not create it either.  American’s first great wine was a pink sparkling libation made from a hybrid grape called Catawba, grown in the Ohio River Valley outside of Cincinnati.  The visionary behind it, Nicholas Longworth was convinced Catawba would become the greatest grape in America, possibly the world.

Against the Declinists

America Isn’t Over Yet

Universal History Archive/Getty

No China will not beat us soon, our economy still dominates, and the American dream is held the world over. German intellectual Josef Joffe makes a stirring case against the Fareed Zakaria and Thomas Friedman’s of the world that America is strong and getting stronger.

It may be hard to fathom today, but there was a time when the existence of a 23-inch-long satellite heralded America’s downfall. The tiny contraption in question was Sputnik, the launching of which by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957 simultaneously set off the “space race” between the United States and its communist adversary. That Moscow had beaten the US into space cast a pall over the nation; one commentator noted Sputnik was “a shock which hit many people as hard as Pearl Harbor.


Who Should Kill?


The founder and CEO of controversial military contractor Blackwater is out to defend his record and celebrate his success in his new memoir, but veteran and military contractor Brian Castner says that the book misses the big questions here.

Who should do the killing? Civilians or soldiers, government employees or private contractors? Does it even matter? Should it even matter? Does a decorated soldier become a villain when he performs the same actions in the same war as a contractor? Are some jobs, to use the standard idiom, “inherently governmental?”This is the fundamental question posed in the new memoir, Civilian Warriors, by Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater. It may be buried under layers of legal defense and rationalizing and being “done keeping quiet” and setting the record straight, but it is a worthy one, and a debate worth having, if Prince could get out of his own way.

Life Story

Judi Dench: My Inspiration

Alex Bailey/The Weinstein Company

The extraordinary true story of Philomena Lee, the Irish mother played by Dame Judi Dench in Stephen Frears’s new film.

Philomena is the extraordinary story of an extraordinary woman. Philomena Lee was a naive teenager, whose only sin was to get pregnant out of wedlock. “Put away” in a convent by an Irish society dominated by the Catholic Church, she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. For three years she cared for young Anthony, working all the while in the convent laundries. Then, like thousands of other ‘fallen women’, Philomena was forced to give up her child as a condition of being released from the near slavery she found herself in.

Sibling Tales

All About Jane

Universal History Archive/Getty

Jill Lepore’s ‘Book of Ages’ about Benjamin Franklin’s sister Jane didn’t win the National Book Award last night, but it reveals profound truths about sibling relationships and how far women have come since that time.

Jane Mecom was Benjamin Franklin’s sister. They were two among a group of seventeen siblings, an unfathomable number to we who live in the land of an average 2.5 children per couple. That they were part of what we would call today a “blended’ family—seven of their siblings were the product of their father Josiah’s first marriage—makes their circumstances no less astounding. Even being among the cohort of Josiah and Abiah Franklin’s ten children puts Jane and Benjamin’s situation far outside the experiences of current day Americans.


National Book Award Winners Announced

Victoria Will/AP

The Good Lord Bird takes fiction prize.

The winners of the National Book Awards were announced on Wednesday night. James McBride won the fiction prize for his novel The Good Lord Bird, beating out heavily favored authors George Saunders and Jhumpa Lahiri. The novel is about a young slave who joins John Brown’s posse of anti-slavery crusaders in antebellum Kansas; typical of McBride’s darkly comic tone, the slave, Henry Shackleford, is forced to pass as a female named ‘Little Onion.’ The non-fiction prize went to George Packer for The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine: Poems won for poetry and Cynthia Kadohata’s The Thing About Luck won for young people’s literature.

Read it at The National Book Foundation


Brazil’s Ban on Bios

The Daily Beast

Thanks to an arcane law, the country’s rich and famous are able to block publication of books on their lives—but the Supreme Court may be set to loosen the publishing stranglehold.

Like torture and curfews, book banning in Brazil went out with the military dictatorship almost 30 years ago. Back then, intellectuals, artists, and politicians hailed the end of the long night of authoritarian rule (1964 to 1985) with a burst of creativity and civic commotion. É proibido proibir—“Prohibition is prohibited,”—proclaimed singer and songwriter Caetano Veloso, who was censored under the military and spent years in exile. Veloso’s slogan became the meme for the new era of democratic liberty.

Final Days

The Essential JFK Books


Of the countless books written about JFK’s death 50 years ago, these are the only five that count—from the boiling hate pot of Dallas to definitive debunking of all the conspiracies.

Oswald’s Tale By Norman MailerOne of the rare books by Norman Mailer that got good reviews and sold poorly. British critics were more enthusiastic than their American counterparts. Mailer’s attempt to make Oswald if not sympathetic at least human did appall many on this side of the Atlantic. But Andrew O’Hagan praised Mailer’s fictional account of “Oswald’s struggle to become a man—to become an important and effective male character—as the foundation of much of his adult distress …” Allen Massie found Mailer’s Oswald, “both likeable and repulsive; to be pitied and feared.

Family Album

Jane and Serge in Love

Andrew Birkin/Taschen

Andrew Birkin provides a trip down memory lane with rare photographs of the public relationship of his sister, Jane, and her decade-long lover Serge Gainsbourg.


Judging a Book by Its Cover

What if you really could tell something about a book by its cover? With the National Book Awards impending announcement of the National Book Award winners color expert Jude Stewart weighs in on what the covers reveal.

You might not be able to tell what a book is about, but on first glance a book jacket will attract or repel you, or (perhaps worse) leave you indifferent. Brian Gresko talks to color expert and design critic Jude Stewart about the covers of the National Book Award Finalists, in order to find out what makes a successful book jacket.As the first thing you see, the cover is how a book introduces itself, and just like a limp gripped handshake leaves a less-than-perfect first impression, so too can a mishandled book jacket set you against the contents before you’ve even cracked the spine.

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