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The “Beautiful Madness” that is Exarcheia (newsletter)

Street map of Exarchia Neighborhood in Central Athens from openstreetmap.org
Street map of Exarcheia neighborhood in Central Athens from openstreetmap.org
“The walls here are like a daily newspaper, trying to make us get off the couch and roam the streets demanding all that is written on the walls.” — Níkos Tρavvós
Breathlessly stumble down the western flank of the Athenian tourist destination Mount Lycabettus and soon you’ll find yourself slack-jawed, taking in a part of the city that looks and feels a whole lot different from the tourist haunts just blocks away. You’ve entered the twilight zone, a compact triangular enclave called Exarcheia, home to artists, poets, intellectuals, immigrants, communists and anarchists, a creative churn of radical visions, defying authority, making its own rules, perpetually decolonizing itself. Wikipedia tells us that in Exarcheia:
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Bringing Home the Bacon (newsletter)

Uncooked meaty bacon, courtesy of Science Meets Food blog

Dear Friends,
Before I get going, let me update you on last month’s used car quest. Craigslist came to the rescue with an ad for a Forest Green 2010 Toyota Corolla EX sedan without frills but in great condition with new exhaust system and tires. Turns out it was traded in by a local couple at 115,000 miles and our seller took it off the dealer’s hands. He’s a Ugandan dude who drives around in a flatbed tow truck, which is how he delivered the Corolla. The next week he returned to make off with our old Honda, which he bought for himself as an extra car. Interesting fellow; at about 130 pounds, he’s thin as a rail and dark as night with handsome chiseled features and likes to share his carefully construed life philosophy. And I when wanted the car checked out, he trucked to my auto mechanic who, it turned out, had known him for years.

When she came down from Vermont to exchange cars, our daughter was delighted with it. I love it when things groove like that. In case you’re wondering, after the exchange of cars we were out around $5K, though sale tax, title fee, and registration bumped that up ten percent. We’re all happy with the deal and I’m particularly happy to be done responding to car ads by shady guys named Bob or Tony.

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It’s Only Money (newsletter)

Dear Friends,

How’s your summer panning out so far, dear reader? Mine already feels booked up, what with cataract surgery for both eyes (now half-completed but fully enjoyable), a big anniversary, and at least one major purchase that’s been taking a lot of my time. That would be a used car for our collegiate daughter, who drives a Honda Civic that’s old enough to vote and has started acting its age.

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Masters of Florid(ian) Political Prose (newsletter)

These are tough times for political progressives in that Disneyland of the Mind called the Sunshine State. (Wasn’t “Orange Sunshine” a popular variety of LSD?) Lefties there recently lost a cherished political journalist, but at least an equally acerbic progressive politician remains to entertain them.

Veteran Miami Herald columnist and gonzo novelist Carl Hiaasen’s retirement last March (read his parting shot) left a yawning sinkhole in Florida journalism. For 35 years his columns had the zing of wit and truth like those of his long-time colleague, humorist Dave Barry. Like his op-eds, his two dozen riotous novels—most with two-word titles such as Strip Tease and Skinny Dip—skewered corrupt politicians, greedy land developers, and know-nothing civic boosters, who often received their comeuppance from wild animals.

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A Penny for Your Ism (newsletter)

Thanks to continuing official outrages against People Of Color piped to me by the media on almost a weekly basis, the corrosive effect of racial prejudice never strays far from my overstimulated mind. Obama’s “post-racial” presidency didn’t change hearts and minds automagically; that takes struggle, such as opposing the hundreds of GOP-filed state laws restricting voting access if not rights, which rub the salt of racism onto our civic wounds, laws that all but Republican lawmakers seem to see as targeting POC.

But racism is a slippery concept, I’ve found. And looking into the word led me to want to know more about how applying that little suffix to a noun turns a thing into a concept, if you can pin it down. Perhaps there’s a better ism to describe racial prejudice. I’ll get to that, but first, a brief tour of the wonderful, wacky world of isms.

Ism is a little noun ending that means, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, a “distinctive doctrine, theory, or practice” at least since the 1670s, noting “the suffix -ism used as an independent word, chiefly disparagingly.” So right off the bat, to some extent, isms are objects of ridicule. Reasons for bashing isms vary, but it seems that their detractors are far more united than their proponents and their rationales for opposing a given ism are far less nuanced and coherent. Consider all the political brands those who embrace “socialism” have to choose from, while those who decry the term indiscriminately despise the lot of them.

The suffix–ism tends to occupy more neutral territory: OED (that is, the above website, not that OED) defines it as a “noun ending signifying the practice or teaching of a thing, from the stem of verbs in –izein [GR], a verb-forming element denoting the doing of the noun or adjective to which it is attached.” As I had expected, the Greeks coined it first.

You can find 322 isms listed at OED, from ableism to Zoroastrianism, many of which are breathtakingly myopic. Some of the more provincial ones include cledonism (literary), dudeism (sociological), incivism (political), melanism (medical), misoneism (cultural), naderism (eponymous), onanism (psycho-sexual), sciolism (snarky), thanatism (anti-religious), and verism (aesthetic—to which I tend to adhere, come to think of it).

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Random Notes of the Season (newsletter)

Hi Everybody,
Spring has sprung, the crocuses are in bloom, and the sparrows are making a racket.

Here in New England, the gray winter days are gone but a lot of grayness remains on the streets. Not the pavement; I’m talking about automobiles. A few weeks ago it struck me that most of the cars I see driving, parked by the curb or filling parking lots are essentially colorless. Around here at least I’d say close to 90% of them are painted in shades of white, gray, and black. The darker ones may have a tint to them, but you need strong light to tell what it is. The most popular color seems to be blue, followed by red. The gaudiest ones are the primary-colored jeeps, but they’re far outnumbered by cars in formal attire. Now, of the ten cars I’ve owned, none were black, one white, and the rest mostly earth tones (if Puce is an earth tone). So either tastes have changed or colored cars are harder to come by these days. Take a survey, next few times you’re out and about (thanks to the weather and the vaccine). Are colored cars as rare where you are? What do you make of this car conformity?

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Getting the Better of a Protagonist and Vice Versa (newsletter)

It saddened me greatly when my principal muse David Cornwell—aka John le Carré—passed away last December twelfth at 89. By my lights, the Brits should make that date a national day of mourning. Were it not for the spell of the holidaze, I would have said something about it at the time, so please allow me to pay my respects now.

David Cornwell / John le Carré, recent photograph

He was a gifted storyteller. It wasn’t just how scrupulously he constructed his characters and how mercilessly he deconstructed them that I admired; he also kept me guessing about outcomes, so many of them equivocal. As in real life, few of his protagonists triumph, and some don’t make it. Along the way, he tends to adjust the attitude of some and lets others slide into more august or shrunken versions of themselves—until, like George Smiley and Peter Guillam in his 2011 A Legacy of Spies, they leap out of retirement. (Le Carré scholars reckon that Smiley would be a centenarian at the time, having cut his espionage teeth in 1930s Berlin.) Being billeted throughout Central Europe by the Foreign Services through the 1960s and having traveled widely since, Cornwell’s settings bubble with both old- and new-world authenticity.

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One Day in Istanbul, the Star of Elliot Ackerman’s Newest Novel

A review of Red Dress in Black and White by Elliot Ackerman. Alfred A. Knopf, 2020, 272 p., with reference to Liar’s Candle by August Thomas, Scribner, 2018, 310 p.

Because I am an American married to a Turk and have written about her country in memoirs and a novel, I tend to gravitate to novels by Americans that are set in that big, messy, volatile country that’s hard for outsiders to get their heads around. Even though it has been a liberal democracy almost a century, modernity still clashes with tradition, poverty mushrooms in the dark shadows of wealth, and as in many countries of late—sadly including mine—its politics have grown distinctly illiberal. As one of Elliot Ackerman’s characters cynically remarks, “There is no Turkey, only Turkish elites.”

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Coronavirus is your friend, in a way

Here in Massachusetts, yesterday the number of suspected or confirmed Covid-19 cases grew 30 percent overnight and will probably top 400 today. Most non-critical facilities are now locked down. And so, with a lot of new-found time on their hands more people than ever in my suburban neighborhood are out and about, enjoying the spring weather — biking or walking alone, as couples, with dogs or kids, and actually stopping to talk. Amid all this tsuris, it’s exhilarating to see such stirrings of a community makeover.

The good news doesn’t stop there, so let’s get on with my facile attempt to divert you from your apocalyptic musings. Instead of enduring a pitch for my work this punishing month, find here a public service announcement of sorts.

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The “Flag Girl” Stumbles but Never Flags

Liar’s Candle, a novel by August Thomas, New York: Scribner, 2018, 310 p. IBSN 9781501172847

 

Liar’s Candle, a novel by August Thomas

When I learned of this book late last year, it struck a chord. It was the first recent political thriller I had encountered set in Turkey, as is part of one I published about six months later. And so, to compare notes, I gave it a read and found that our books are different animals with kindred spirits. Here is my book report.

The title of August Thomas’s debut international thriller comes from a Turkish proverb, “A liar’s candle burns only until dark,” an appropriate motto for the full helping of duplicity that Thomas serves up. This fast-moving tale whips the reader between locales in Turkey and the US, plus a brief, tense incursion into northern Syria. Changes of scene are datelined, dispatch-style, helping to keep one oriented as the action shifts from one exotic setting to another, for example the presidential palace in Ankara, a hotel in Istanbul, a city in far-eastern Turkey, a monastery in Syria, and even into ancient cave dwellings. Thomas also regularly transports us across the Atlantic to an even more inaccessible location, CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. There we find hard-boiled uber-spy Christina Ekdahl remotely rattling the cages of agents and diplomats working in Turkey in the service of American national security and her own self-serving designs.

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Undoing Dystopia

Douglas Rushkoff Wants Us to Rewind

Buy Team Human from an indie bookstore

Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff (W.W. Norton, 2019, 256 p. hardbound), ISBN 987-0-393-65169-0, $23.95. Also available in eBook and audiobook formats.

The entities called computers were originally human beings, people like the accounts clerk Bob Cratchit in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. In the mid-20th century, computers were (mostly) women who worked calculators and slide rules, tasked with tabulating data and solving numerical problems. Nowadays, says Douglas Rushkoff, computers run us as extensions of applications that abuse us for fun and profit. Rushkoff has had it with the soul-sucking “innovation economy”; to retrieve the human agency and dignity that technocracy has usurped, he proposes not a revolution but a renaissance of pre-industrial, even pre-enlightenment, societal values. Rushkoff emerged as an early member of the digerati, but has since been a longstanding critic of those who control digital media and manipulate its users, not to mention capitalism itself. Now a professor of media studies (CUNY Queens), public intellectual, and podcast host, he’s quietly assembling an army of change agents. Their mission is to “challenge the operating system that drives our society” by organizing the (better-educated) masses to throw off their (block) chains by imagining and building human-scale alternatives to giant financial institutions, public corporations, and their enablers. Given how overarching and well-wired global capitalism is, that’s a tall order, but Rushkoff asserts that the battle can be won if we stick together.

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Donald Trump Goes to Heaven

Location, date, and perpetrator unknown. Sheer genius.

After suffering a cheeseburger infarction, Donald Trump finds himself queuing toward eternity. He shuffles up to the Pearly Gates in a foul mood for not being accorded élite status. Not relishing taking a deposition from the addled gentleman, St Peter sloughs him off to Paul, his Deputy Secretary for Lost Souls, who asks Donald to name three things that qualify him to enter the realm of eternal peace, harmony, and brotherly love.

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Knowing the Enemy

The United States Government must be very proud of how many enemies it has identified and created through dint of hard work over more than seven decades. Americans can sleep well knowing that its 17 official intelligence agencies (not to mention unofficial ones) are working around the clock to keep them safe from subversion, seamlessly coordinated by the Director of National Intelligence (currently Dan Coats, but perhaps not for long). Here they be:

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