Learning how to wander as a family

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A pro-surfer friend described Sayulita as a kid-friendly artist hamlet where you can surf in warm water year round, gorge on heaping plates of Mexico’s best fish tacos for two bucks, and have your morning latte. I was on the prowl for an unsanitized destination to get my son, Kai, his first passport stamp (which meant no Club Med within spitting distance). Yet I also craved a reasonably safe vacation spot to relax with my four-month-old baby. As it turned out, Sayulita fit the bill.

Though the community originated as a coconut harvesting and fishing village, after the highway from Puerto Vallarta was completed in the 1960s, surfers — hearing rumors about an epic right and left reef break — sojourned to Sayulita for waves without the masses. Today, Sayulita, located on Mexico’s newly rebranded Riveria Nayarit, is one of those beach towns that travelers whisper about for fear it will wander the road of Mexico’s other former fishing “villages” (locals are adamant about their hamlet not becoming another Cabo or Cancun). Yet even as the town swells with enough American travelers that I scratched my head and wondered how so many people know about this intriguing mix of surfers, funky galleries, local families, gourmet eateries, and rich Mexican culture, Sayulita still feels like a secret. More… “Shifting Expectations in Sayulita”

Reconsidering Malcolm McLaren's opera album

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Everyone has a first time. My initiation into the sublime and absurd world of grand opera came not with my attendance at a legendary performance or under the tutelage of an impassioned connoisseur but through a chance encounter with a bizarre musical experiment conceived by Malcolm McLaren, former manager of the Sex Pistols and craven self-promoter. It happened like this. One day in the mid-‘80’s I was half-listening to an innocuous pop ballad on the radio when there arose from the drum machines and synthesizers a surging female voice unlike any I had ever heard — or at least paid attention to — before. As the aria, which turned out to be “Un bel dì” from Madame Butterfly, floated over me, my only thought was: How can anything be so beautiful?

I wish I could say that from that moment I became a passionate convert to all things operatic, but in fact I went on listening to rock ‘n’ roll and even now have got around to only a dozen or so works in the operatic repertory. Yet one of those works is Madame Butterfly, and if on the radio that day I hadn’t heard Malcolm McLaren’s gleefully debased six-minute version — identified by the disc jockey as the first of six workings of Puccini on an album by McLaren called Fans — I might never have known grand opera at all. Although I no longer need to listen to opera with the electric guitars, drum tracks, and pop vocal choruses so helpfully provided by McLaren, I occasionally go back to Fans to marvel at its audacious and bizarrely sympathetic settings of some of Puccini’s most sumptuous music. More… “A Fan of Fans

The legacy of an American writer

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Recently, while packing for a move, I came across a letter that Gore Vidal sent me from his home in Ravello, Italy, in the late 1990s. Vidal, a slight acquaintance, had provided me with a blurb for my book Up From Conservatism and we corresponded a few times and met once. I had forgotten about this letter, and on deciphering the handwritten scrawl on monogrammed blue paper I found Vidal complaining that a critic who had panned one of his books in the New York Times had been hosted the following weekend at their seaside home in Connecticut by Vidal’s arch-rival William F. Buckley, Jr. and Buckley’s wife Pat. Whether this occurred or was Vidalian paranoia, I cannot say, though given the interlocking circles of that world, anything is possible. After all, at one of Bill and Pat Buckley’s parties I met Tom Selleck, whose career break came in 1970 when he played a young stud propositioned by the elderly Mae West in the X-rated movie version of Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge. More… “The Empire of Gore Vidal”

The Soviet Union through Vasily Grossman’s unfinished novel

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In the Soviet Union, the name of the game was denunciation. One person would denounce another. A third person would denounce the second, i.e., the first denouncer. And so it went, the denunciations resulting in the executions of countless citizens, many — perhaps most — of them innocent. Others were sent to Siberia, which was simply a somewhat slower death. The game was an infinite recursion or regress, and if Boris Yeltsin had not mounted a tank to announce the end of the system, at some point there would have been nobody left to guard the crowded prisons. More… “The Soviet Illusion”

A groundbreaking exhibition in Frankfurt investigates early human-bear interaction.

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The moon was shining on the night in January 1856 when Leopold von Schrenck, a Russian-German zoologist, geographer, and ethnologist, reached Tebach, a village in the barren Amur region in easternmost Siberia. He was traveling in the name of the St. Petersburg Academy of Science, following in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt, who had made it all the way to the Chinese border. Von Schrenck is among the handful of Westerners who had the opportunity to participate in a bear festival with the Nivkh people (formerly called Gilyak). As he approached the village, the inhabitants were out and about. The women stood in front of the houses carrying babies and watched as the men and the older children held hands and spun rapidly in a circle. Once the dance was over, von Schrenck accompanied the group into a yurt — a kind of oversized tent. Three bears were bound to the two central support poles. Care had been taken to allow the bears room to lie down, stand up, and move from side to side. The visitor also had to take care “not to be struck by a bear’s paw.” More… “Bearing Witness”

The fate of the universe hangs in the balance.

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When I was a teenager I read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Instead of taking this beautiful book as a path to something useful, like a career in theoretical physics, I mainly used it as an excuse not to tidy my room. And I don’t mean I sat there screaming “Mum! Not now, I’m reading a book!”: if I understood it correctly, A Brief History of Time said that tidying my room would (in an absurdly, ridiculously tiny way) hasten the end of the universe. Surely, I argued, a tidy room wasn’t worth that…

That the argument was asinine should go without saying, but an argument can be asinine and still technically correct. More… “Don’t Tidy Your Room”

Larry Levis’ latest (and possibly last) posthumous collection

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A writer’s choice in friends may never matter more than when he dies. We could have had Byron’s Memoirs, but his sister and his friends quarreled over the manuscript and it was torn and burned to ashes. Virgil gave instructions for the same to be done to the Aeneid, but Horace (and Augustus) wouldn’t hear of it. Franz Kafka begged Max Brod to incinerate The Trial and The Castle, but Brod’s better angels prevailed. Fred Kaplan recently announced in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement that he’s in possession of “four substantial loose-leaf volumes” of Gore Vidal’s witty and delightful letters but that he won’t be publishing them or turning them over to anyone else while he’s alive, as “a small bit of revenge” against the dead man. More… “Friends of Dead Poets Society”

In Istanbul, exploring Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk's museum of the future – a museum of modest, everyday life.

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Çukurcuma is an unusual neighborhood on the European side of Istanbul. Though quite central, just a short walk from the Bosporus or Taksim square, it has survived the recent wave of modernization: its many wooden houses in different colors give it a similar aura to the photos taken some 50 years ago, except that the cobblestones have mostly given way to more modern paving. Antique stores are typical for this quarter, and over the past couple of years, gourmet coffee shops have sprung up on almost every block. Then there are the cats: they are ubiquitous, dreaming their days away on car roofs. On the corner of Çukurcuma Street and Dalgiç Street, just a few blocks down from the hammam, there is a house that fits in perfectly — and yet it doesn’t. It has an unusual dark red color, and the windows hint at the fact that no one actually lives here. There is something otherworldly, almost ghostly about this house, especially during evenings and nights when it seems abandoned in the dark.
More… “The Museum of Innocence”

As the Oscars approach, analyzing what our Best Actresses say about us

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A Presidential race limps into its first few rounds, the NFL nears its 50th Super Bowl, and “Best of” lists trickle out, yet they all sit bloodless next to my personal favorite horse-race: the Oscars.

The Academy Awards is a glitzy, glamorous evening of over-produced and stupendously boring television, but I love to watch it: the thrum of a seeing a favorite victorious and the satisfaction of seeing artistic taste vindicated are powerful emotions. But for all its flaws — or perhaps because of them — the Oscars do feel oddly vital, like it matters and like it says something about us, if for no other reasons than how much we talk about it and its reported purpose: to measure the ambit of that year’s dreams. More… “Our Oscars, Ourselves”

Links from The Smart Set and beyond

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Cock-a-doodle-news!

The origins of the limerick are vague
But the style came after black plague.
And in today’s modern age
This boyfriend may wage
Spats in rhyme, though his girlfriend may beg.
(Stylisticienne, The Smart Set)

Let’s take a critical eye to the profane and the obscene. (Los Angeles Review of Books, The Smart Set)

What’s the value of paper in the digital world? If you’re biting your nails over the imminent demise of the paper book, relax — technological doomsayers have been around for ages. And before you hit send on that e-résumé, consider putting your skills on paper. (National Endowment for the Humanities, The Smart Set) •