26 junho 2009

The return of blood diamonds

Six years ago, the world came together to stop a trade in gems that was fuelling civil war in Africa. Now the architect of the deal has quit, warning that jewels 'have blood all over them' again.
The leading architect of the international system to stop the trade in blood diamonds has warned that the safety net is close to collapse with governments and the industry failing to act against gross violations.

Ian Smillie, the "grandfather" of the landmark Kimberley Process, that was agreed in response to appalling civil wars in Africa fuelled by illegal gems, said he had "stomped out" on his scheme as it was no longer working.

"It isn't regulating the rough diamond trade," the Canadian expert said yesterday. "It is in danger of becoming irrelevant and it's letting all manner of crooks off the hook."

The Kimberley safeguards came into effect in 2003 and helped restore consumer confidence in precious stones. Today they regulate 99.98 per cent of the rough diamond trade, but if the process loses credibility, experts say criminals will re-enter the trade with conflict diamonds quickly reappearing in shops in London, Paris and New York.

Mr Smillie was one of the authors of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), the UN-backed agreement credited with breaking the link between the diamond trade and vicious conflicts, mainly in southern and western Africa. His comments came as the 49 members of the Kimberley Process – made up of governments, industry and civil society – met in Namibia with a growing list of concerns.

Top of those is Zimbabwe, where hundreds of diamond miners were massacred by the army as the government effectively militarised a key mining area late last year. Some in the industry have questioned whether Zimbabwe's gems match the definition of conflict diamonds as they are helping to fund a government, not a rebel army, but Mr Smillie rejected this: "They are blood diamonds, they have blood all over them."

Zimbabwe is not alone and a host of other cracks have emerged in the system of safeguards meant to "ensure that diamond purchases were not funding violence". Monitors have pointed to the illegal trade flourishing in Ivory Coast, Guinea, Venezuela and Lebanon.

One-hundred percent of Venezuela's diamonds are being smuggled, according to the UK-based Global Witness; Guinea has reported an unfeasible 500 per cent increase in diamond production year on year; and Lebanon is exporting more rough diamonds than it imports despite having no local deposits. None of those countries have been suspended from the process and while inspection teams have been dispatched and reports commissioned, no action has been taken.

"The Kimberley Process is always the last to wake up and smell the coffee," Mr Smillie complained. It was claimed that he had "retired" from his role as one of the group's chief monitors earlier this year but the Canadian dismissed this report, saying he had "stomped out". "If it was working I would be there in Windhoek arguing with them or celebrating with them... but governments want to pretend that it is working." He said the mantra of KPCS has become "let's not do anything now" and accused them of "fiddling while Rome burns".

The KPCS is under strong pressure to act against Zimbabwe. "Hundreds of miners have been killed by their own government," said Annie Dunnebacke, lead campaigner from Global Witness. "How can that country still be part of the Kimberley Process? What's the point of having a stick if the stick is never used? Zimbabwe should be suspended."

The Namibia meeting which ends today has agreed to send an inspection team to the troubled southern African nation next week but it's unlikely they will be given serious access to the Marange area where the killings occurred. Inspectors have privately admitted that people they want to interview have been arrested or intimidated already.

Global Witness and Mr Smillie's Partnership Canada-Africa NGO were among the pressure groups who put blood diamonds on the agenda of the UN Security Council in 2000. At that stage rough gems were helping to pay for vicious civil wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Angola that cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

A UN resolution in December 2000 launched the Kimberley Process, and it was signed three years later. On its own website the organisation trumpets its success: "Diamond experts estimate that conflict diamonds now represent a fraction of one per cent of the international trade in diamonds, compared to estimates of up to 15 per cent in the 1990s. That has been the Kimberley Process's most remarkable contribution to a peaceful world."

The key to that success was ensuring that it reached all countries involved in the trade. Its future depends on ensuring there are no grey areas for blood diamonds to exploit. "Diamonds travel quickly," explained Mr Smillie.

The consequences of a collapse of the Kimberley Process would be twofold, he warned. "The diamond trade would go back to its criminal past and rebel armies would have no problem finding buyers for their blood diamonds. The potential for diamonds fuelling conflict would be back," he said.

Does your ancient history let you down?

In her book, A Classical Education, Caroline Taggart says the ancient Greek and Roman influence is still alive and well in many aspects of the modern world, from language, architecture and science to art, maths and astronomy. But do you know your Plato from your Pluto?

Solar system

You scored 10 out of a possible 10

By Jupiter! A stellar performance. Your knowledge of the Greco-Roman world is impressive. Top marks!

Good to know my brain still works... then again, it's ancient history ;)

RIP Farrah Fawcett

Because she was beautiful and strong, and a capable actress, one who tried to start changing the sempiternal beauty-versus-brains dogma.

Even this past Monday:

Though Farrah Fawcett is "fighting for her life," Ryan O'Neal tells Barbara Walters, "I've asked her to marry me, again, and she's agreed," ABC News reports.

"We will, as soon as she can, say yes," O'Neal, 68, says about his companion since 1980. "Maybe we can just nod her head," he said, with a laugh.

"I used to ask her to marry me all the time," O'Neal said for the interview to air Friday on 20/20. "But ... it just got to be a joke, you know. We just joked about it."

But now with Fawcett, 62, deteriorating from cancer, "I promise you, we will," says O'Neal. "Absolutely."

25 junho 2009

Are We Having Sex Now Or What?

Copyright 1992 Greta Christina.
Originally published in The Erotic Impulse, edited by David Steinberg, Tarcher Press.

Note: This is probably my best-known piece of writing, and is certainly my best-known essay. It's been reprinted numerous times (including a butchered version that appeared in Ms. Magazine with all the references to kinds of sex they don't approve of removed), and it's been studied and cited all over the damn place. No kidding. I Googled myself once and found a reference to this piece on a university's on-line midterm exam question. Perhaps my proudest moment as a writer ever.)

The New Male Beauty

When Paramount Pictures decided to remake Footloose, the 1984 teen romance that made a young, lanky actor named Kevin Bacon famous, the studio looked to Zac Efron of the High School Musical trilogy. He could sing. He could dance. And most importantly, he could summon the teenage girls to theaters with one strategic toss of his swoopy hair.

But then Mr. Efron abruptly ditched the picture. He didn’t want to be typecast as the guy who does musicals, he said. The suits at Paramount barely flinched. There were no threats of delaying the filming, set for next spring. They simply found a quick but suitable replacement—another swoopy-haired, pretty-faced actor, named Chace Crawford.

Mr. Crawford, 23, bears a remarkable resemblance to Mr. Efron, 21. In fact, these men are perhaps the youngest incarnation of something eerie that’s been happening in Hollywood. Male actors have become increasingly indistinguishable. And not only are they all starting to look alike; but they also sort of act alike, too.

Here’s a fun experiment. Turn on the TV, flip through the most recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, take a trip to the Union Square Cinema and try telling the young men apart. Having trouble? Don’t feel bad. Even that typically pop-culture-savvy friend of yours has been referring to them as “that guy” from Twilight or Gossip Girl or Star Trek for months. Not only do Mr. Efron and Mr. Crawford resemble each another, but they both look a lot like Ian Somerhalder (Lost), who sort of looks like Chris Pine (Star Trek), who sort of looks like James Marsden (Hairspray, 27 Dresses), who sort of looks like Ryan Reynolds (The Proposal and the guy who married Scarlett Johansson), who sort of looks like Chris Evans (Fantastic Four), who sort of looks like Robert Buckley (Lipstick Jungle), who is a downright doppelgänger for Scott Speedman (Felicity). (Slideshow here--it might help.)

Let’s call it the New Male Beauty: those wide-set eyes, the narrow nose that flares up at the tip just so, the childish puffy cheeks and the not-too-rugged jaw lines, topped with carefully placed strands of layered hair. It’s a face that used to be found in Tiger Beat, fold-out pages to be tacked onto a petal-pink wall. Now it dominates the weekend box office.

‘A Softer Look’

It used to be the other way around. Women were the interchangeable “types” in film—the bombshell platinum blonde, the gamine brunette—whereas the men, well … they were the Men! Their distinctive faces carried the pictures. If Paul Newman suddenly dropped out of a movie, you were in trouble. There was the brooding brow of Marlon Brando; the hook nose of Sean Penn; the wicked eyebrow arches of Jack Nicholson; and, more recently, the gentle mouth of George Clooney. You didn’t want to pinch their cheeks so much as you wanted them to (ahem) pinch yours.

“We talk about this all the time!” said Randi Hiller of the Randi Hiller casting agency in Los Angeles. “If you go back to these iconic movies, everybody wasn’t super-beautiful, but a lot of them were sexy. But there’s also something about young women today being more comfortable with a boy-man; they’re less threatening sexually than a man-man.”

Ms. Hiller, who has worked on films like Iron Man, Pride & Glory and Fast & Furious and has auditioned a lot of these actors, said that a few years ago, audiences were complaining about not being able to distinguish between Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana and Hugh Dancy, who all shared the tall, swarthy look in the ensemble piece Black Hawk Down. But the New Male Beauty is different. In fact, it has a precise science.

They all have a nose with a slight hump and then a minor depression and then a prominent tip—not big, but just a gentle S-curve, and the tips are slightly broad,” said Dr. Steven Pearlman, former president of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. “If we had this conversation a couple of years ago, we’d be talking about Orlando Bloom, Justin Timberlake and Leonardo DiCaprio.”

Indeed there seems to have been a slow but steady evolution of the New Male Beauty. In 2001, the cover of People magazine’s Hottest Bachelors issue featured Matthew McConaughey; in ’03, it was Ashton Kutcher, arguably the forefather of the look; in 2005, it was Orlando Bloom; in ’07, Adrian Grenier and Justin Timberlake topped the list. But even Messrs. Grenier and Timberlake had a certain distinctive, grizzled appeal. The same can’t be said of the purported Hottest Bachelors of ’09: the bland, smooth Mr. Crawford, Mr. Pine and Shia Lebouf.

“Everyone has a little bit of facial asymmetry, but these faces barely have any, which is very unusual,” said Dr. Minas Constantinides, the director of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at N.Y.U. Medical Center, Google Image–searching while on the phone with The Observer. “They don’t have features that can be distracting, like a strong jaw line, so we spend a lot more time around their eyes and mouths when we’re looking at them.

“There is a trend towards a softer look with younger guys,” Dr. Constantinides continued. “Chace Crawford, Shane West, Ryan Reynolds and Zac Efron all share an interesting set of features: heavy upper eyelash and eyebrows, not super-strong cheekbones and very soft jaw lines, which is what really distinguishes them from someone like Brad Pitt or George Clooney. Scott Speedman and Chris Pine have stronger jaw lines, but neither have particularly strong cheekbones.”

Historically, male sex appeal used to be about just the opposite.

“High testosterone is about prominent chins, deep-set eyes, heavy brows, full head of hair and strong features,” Dr. Pearlman said. “That’s the caveman that could inseminate you and procreate.”

But according to Leonard Lee, a Columbia University professor who has written about physical attractiveness, recent research has indicated that women are now finding common features of the New Male Face—like big smiles, smaller chins and a wider distance between the two eyes—more compelling.

“Large eyes, for example, are a ‘neotenous’ cue, one people associate with babies and that elicits female nurturance,” Dr. Lee said.

In other words, perhaps in parallel to their own filler frenzy (see Jonathan Van Meter’s 2008 cover story on the New New Face in New York magazine), women have literally become attracted to men who look like babies. Is this what feminism has wrought?

“Maybe the guys in their 20s are now the first children of children of divorce, and so maybe that is when fathers started getting more involved, and does that make them softer and more thoughtful?” theorized Ms. Hiller, the casting director. “Or maybe the lines of men and women are getting very blurred. Guys have just started becoming increasingly more approachable.”

Twilight of Brad Pitt

Andrea Oliveri, the editorial projects director at Details magazine, books the magazine’s cover boys, along with the magazine’s editor, the himself slightly baby-faced Dan Peres, 37. But her job has changed recently, she said. In order to keep up with Hollywood’s hyper-metabolism, Ms. Oliveri, 33, spends her days cruising teen blogs and fan sites to find the new Zac Efronites. Ms. Oliveri got the original Mr. Efron for the cover of the magazine’s January ’08 issue. “I can’t give you figures, but it did very well,” she said.

According to Ms. Oliveri, it’s not evolutionary biology but the Hollywood factory that’s responsible for cranking out, Stepford-like New Male Beauties. The projects engender these stars, not the other way around. “High School Musical was successful not because Zac Efron was in it, but Zac became famous as a result of the huge phenomenon that is High School Musical,” she said. “I mean you didn’t know who Rob Pattinson was a year ago—you never even heard his name! And now he’s this phenomenon as a result of Twilight.”

What if the studios, growing tired of the whopping salaries, conflicting schedules and odd caprices of actors with “character,” decided to resurrect the trusty old system of interchangeable parts: an army of look-alike, antiseptically handsome boys to be inserted into this action flick or that romantic comedy? (One wonders, also, if this is a look with legs; will we be left with a troupe of out-of-work baby-faced actors in their 40s?)

“The Brad Pitts and the Clive Owens aren’t necessarily the ones bringing people into theaters,” Ms. Oliveri said. “You look at the Star Treks and the Twilights, and I think Hollywood has realized that it’s the formula that works, not necessarily the individual in it.”

A prime example is The Hangover, which doesn’t have a single star actor, and at press time had grossed nearly $153 million. Meanwhile, Sony Pictures’ adaptation of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, with Mr. Pitt set to star and Steven Soderbergh to direct, was scrapped this week due to an unsatisfactory script.

Ms. Oliveri traced the whole thing back to Spider-Man, when Tobey Maguire threatened to pull out of the franchise and the studio cavalierly prepared to replace him with Jake Gyllenhaal. Mr. Maguire eventually came to his senses, but …

“I think people realized that at the end of the day, if it’s written well, and directed well, and marketed right, then it’s going to work,” Ms. Oliveri said.

Dr. Lee, the Columbia professor, further suggested that the rise of (what else) the Internet, which allows big studios to better track the audiences’ likes and dislikes, may be in part responsible for this army of light-eyed, interchangeable drones.

“New media helps measure how successful a company’s marketing actions are, so the studios might say, ‘Who are the most popular people now?’” said Dr. Lee. “‘And let’s try to replicate it versus building up the new Robert De Niro.’”

And the New Male Beauty is spreading, inevitably, beyond Hollywood. Dr. Pearlman’s nonfamous patients have begun to refer to Mr. Efron’s face as their ideal; Dr. Constantinides’ clients have begun requesting noses and chins that make them look less manly.

“Fifteen years ago, when men came in, they absolutely wanted to maintain that rugged look, which meant that higher bridge and stronger features, but now they want a softer look,” he said. “Our culture is leaning towards a more empathetic man who can understand a woman’s feelings, and that comes out in new facial features.”

The New York Observer

24 junho 2009

I miss my Cat

Tandem Films

Miyazaki does it again: Ponyo

Será que há Tradutores?

Nesta república das bananas, nós, os invísiveis:

Como sempre, leio com grande interesse os últimos números das revistas sobre livros. E constato que em mais de cem recensões às obras estrangeiras recentemente publicadas não há uma única referência à tradução, à excepção da indicação do nome de tradutor. Será que a tradução de A Montanha Mágica de Thomas Mann, directamente do alemão (832 páginas), de Mar de Papoilas de Amitav Gosh, finalista do Booker (456 páginas), de Vida em Surdina de David Lodge, um autor cujas traduções tantos desafios apresentam, não merecem um comentário? Será que nem os críticos se lembram de que, sem os tradutores, essas obras não chegariam aos leitores portugueses?

Obviamente, não é o facto de os livros que referi terem tantas páginas que justifica o destaque que deveria ser dado à tradução. É o trabalho que isso envolve, as longas horas de entrega, de dúvidas, de pesquisa, de esforço criativo a que qualquer tradução obriga para ser bem feita.
Infelizmente, enquanto há sempre qualquer coisa a dizer sobre as obras publicadas, nem que sejam abjectas, nem que não sejam literatura, nem que sejam obra, não dos autores, mas dos editores, dos revisores, sobre a tradução não há nada a dizer – excepto se for má, porque então – aha! – então, vamos falar da má qualidade da tradução.
Isto não é um bom serviço prestado a esta arte maior. É, pelo contrário, a descrédito, o lugar menor, a que ela é votada por todos, incluídos os editores.
Sei que estas palavras são duras, mas é muito frustrante assistir há tanto tempo a esta tendência e não haver forma de a inverter. Aliás, ela tende precisamente a agravar-se – como o provam os preços cada vez mais baixos pagos pela tradução literária.
Caros leitores: têm agora ao vosso dispor a versão dessa obra fundamental que é A Montanha Mágica, traduzida directamente do alemão por Gilda Lopes Encarnação. Pensam nela quando estiverem a ler o livro, pois é graças a ela que podem lê-lo.

[16-06-2009] | Maria do Carmo Figueira


Por indicação da Poison Ivy ;)

A First Look Through the Looking Glass

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland

23 junho 2009

Kicking Vampire Ass ;)

Seventeen years ago a high school cheerleader in Southern California learned that she was the one girl of her generation chosen to stop the spread of evil -- namely, by slaying vampires. The cinematic incarnation of Buffy Summers wasn't a notable success, but when she returned five years later, this time to the small screen, a cult classic was born.

Though it's been off the air for six years now, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" lives on, in the theses of hundreds of culture studies grad students, in a series of comic books by creator Joss Whedon, in persistent rumors that some or all of the TV show's cast members may unite for a film (with or without Whedon), in seemingly countless spinoff novels, and of course, in fan fiction. But Buffy persists in other, less obvious ways, as well.

Whedon's original idea, to take "the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie" and make her the hero of the story, mutated into a remarkably flexible and inventive way to portray the terrors of adolescence. The supernatural elements of the stories provided Buffy and her friends with more than just monsters to kill; they served as metaphors for everyday identity crises and social anxieties, most famously when Buffy and her boyfriend, the redeemed vampire Angel, consummate their love, whereupon a gypsy curse renders him suddenly cruel and hateful.

This hybrid of teen angst and pulp adventure may not have made for the kind of mass-market success demanded by network television, but it was too yummy to simply subside into a cultural footnote. The spirit of Buffy Summers is perpetuated not just in official "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" media, but also in a thriving genre of popular fiction, usually labeled "urban fantasy," in which young female protagonists get to battle monsters and demons while working through the conundrums of early adulthood -- which often amount to the same thing. If you don't feel like schlepping to the comics store for the latest sliver of Buffy (or you don't like negotiating the ick factor in Whedon's current series, "Dollhouse") you can satisfy those cravings by getting to know Rachel Morgan, Mercy Thompson or Anita Blake.

Or, for that matter, Sookie Stackhouse. HBO's "True Blood," based on the Southern Vampire books by Charlaine Harris, may have underwhelmed critics initially, but it's proven itself to be highly addictive, like many urban fantasy series. The first episode of the show's second season was HBO's highest-rated single episode since the finale of "The Sopranos." At a time when, except for a handful of shows like "Lost," TV has begun to back away from imaginative serialized dramas, urban fantasy novels make for a tasty substitute. More and more often, on nights when my brain is just too weary for Ian McEwan but not soft enough to settle for "The Mentalist," I find myself switching off the set and nestling into the sofa with a page turner about a girl who reminds me of nothing so much as the savior of Sunnydale High.

"Urban fantasy" may seem a peculiar label for the Sookie Stackhouse novels, which are set in the small town of Bon Temps, La. In fact, the label is contested, since the term "urban fantasy" (meaning fantasies set in the contemporary world) was first applied to the work of such writers as Neil Gaiman and John Crowley, whose aspirations are more literary. Sometimes these Buffyesque novels are called "paranormal romances" after a subset of the romance genre that specializes in human heroines finding true love in the arms of supernatural beings, usually vampires, à la the hugely popular Twilight Saga.

But the genre breaks several of the core tenets of romance fiction, most notably by eschewing the conventional "happily ever after" ending and depicting romantic relationships as uncertain and ambiguous. Bookstores manifest this genre confusion by shelving the books haphazardly, in their romance, science fiction or horror sections, none of which is a perfect fit. With that caveat, since a better label has yet to present itself, we'll stick with "urban fantasy."

Most fans would agree that one of the genre's pioneers was Laurell K. Hamilton, whose Anita Blake series began even before Buffy's television incarnation, with the novel "Guilty Pleasures," published in 1993. Anita is an animator-for-hire, licensed to temporarily raise the dead so that they can be questioned by the living on matters both legal and personal. In essence, she's a private detective of the hard-boiled school, but operating in a version of the contemporary world in which creatures from folklore -- vampires, werewolves and more -- have been uneasily integrated into human society. The early Anita Blake novels are dark and grisly, shadowed by Anita's ambivalent relationship to her own capacity for violence and her fear of becoming "one of the monsters." She's isolated and angry, like many a noir protagonist, with no real love life to speak of. She lavishes far more attention on the finer points of concealed weaponry (at any given moment she's packing a couple of guns and four or five blades) than on the charms of any of the men around her.

If, like me, you approached Hamilton's series haphazardly, reading the first book and then inadvertently skipping ahead to, say, Book 14, "Danse Macabre," you'll be in for a shock. The Anita who hunkered down every night with a collection of stuffed penguins in a poignant effort to cling to the last shred of her innocence in "Guilty Pleasures" had been transformed into an erotic ringmaster. She's sleeping with seven different men, often several at a go, with the occasional one-shot tryst on the side. Hamilton offers an elaborate rationale for this erotic explosion; it involves a communicable "metaphysical" infection Anita contracted from her main vampire squeeze, Jean-Claude, but I confess that I've never been able to make much sense of it.

This change led to consternation among some of Hamilton's longtime fans, who insistently voice their dismay on the Amazon reader reviews for each book. "Orgy after orgy," complains one reviewer of "Danse Macabre," "[Anita] is naked for nearly the whole book. For someone who started out so shy and modest in the first book, she has certainly gone hog wild." The outcry occasionally provokes a grumpy response from Hamilton, who accuses her critics of resisting "uncomfortable" material. In truth, there's far less sex in the later Anita Blake books than there is talking about sex and about Hamilton's byzantine and unfathomable explanations for why Anita has to have it with so many men when she supposedly doesn't really want to. Still, I sympathize with the fans' exasperation. Despite their objections, the most recent Anita Blake novel, the 17th, "Skin Trade," zoomed instantly to the No. 1 spot on Publishers Weekly's bestseller list.

Even if the Anita Blake refuseniks are, as Hamilton maintains, merely a "minority," the fuss over Anita's personal life exemplifies a perennial argument in urban fantasy: the ratio of crime to sex, or more broadly, of mystery to relationships. In a posting in the Publishers Weekly blog Genreville, novelist John Levitt explained that he regards his own books as urban fantasy, as opposed to Hamilton's and Harris', which he considers paranormal romances. Grouping himself with Jim Butcher, whose Harry Dresden novels about a P.I.-wizard in Chicago were inspired by the Anita Blake series, he claims a shared "lineage" with Butcher that includes Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The urban fantasy hero, Levitt writes, is a "troubled loner," who "has romantic hopes, but they're never the focus of the books." Harris and Hamilton, he claims, come from "the romance tradition," where "an essential element always remains about whether or not it's a good idea to do the vampire, werewolf, or both."

This grievous misrepresentation of both the Sookie Stackhouse and the Anita Blake books makes sense when you realize that all the other writers with whom Levitt claims kinship are male authors of detective fiction, a far less despised genre than romance. In his haste to dissociate himself from girly books, Levitt overlooks the fact that neither Sookie nor Anita enjoys a love life anything like those customarily depicted in romance novels, and Harris' Southern Vampire novels always revolve around the need to solve a crime. (Harris started out as a writer of conventional mysteries.)

Furthermore, while nothing about Anita's personal life bears much resemblance to the experiences of the average woman, Sookie is another matter. She misses her dead grandmother, worries about her feckless brother, baby-sits her friend's kids, commiserates with her co-workers, goes shopping with her best friend, quarrels with her neighbors and so on, in addition to wondering whether it's a good idea to do the vampire or the werewolf. Like Buffy, she exists in a complex web of relationships, which Harris has the temerity to consider as important as anything else in her imagined world. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was in part a critique of the self-pity and emotional poverty of noir heroism, in which the loner hero's efforts to save innocent people leaves him too damaged to connect with them. Buffy, by contrast, steadfastly refused to give up on having a life. Or, as she once put it while fighting off a demonic attack on her high school prom, "I'm gonna give you all a nice, fun, normal evening if I have to kill every person on the face of the Earth to do it."

The best urban fantasy doesn't just set a detective story in an alternate world where vampires, werewolves, demons and fairies are real. Like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," it also uses the supernatural material to reimagine the challenges of young adulthood -- the quest for love among them -- on a heroic scale. Kim Harrison's Rachel Morgan series (another bestseller-list staple), about a witch trying to make a place for herself in a world where she doesn't really fit, is one of the most inventive and popular. After getting squeezed out of a job in law enforcement, Rachel hangs out a shingle with two other oddball refugees. Her close friendship with her roommate and business partner, a vampire named Ivy, is complicated by Ivy's history of abuse at the hands of her vampiric mentor and her attraction to Rachel, who considers herself straight, and can't sort out her genuine love for Ivy from the hypnotic attraction that vampires exert over their human companions. Let's just say that -- bloodsucking aside -- it's a situation not unfamiliar to many women during those muddled post-collegiate years.

In your 20s (the age of most urban fantasy heroines), love and sex can seem like a powerful magnetic field, distorting your perceptions of yourself and other people. If you succumb, will you be surrendering control over your own destiny, which is still coming into focus? It's a question with particular relevance to young women, and the mesmeric power of vampires and other supernatural lovers in urban fantasies speaks to the fear of losing your bearings should you fall under the spell of an especially irresistible suitor. Mercy Thompson, the heroine of a series by Patricia Briggs, is a part-Native American shape-shifter with the ability to transform herself into a coyote. Independently minded, she's nevertheless strongly attracted to her neighbor, Adam, the alpha of a pack of werewolves and therefore the absolute head of their hierarchical society. If she agrees to be his mate, she'll become just another subordinate figure in the pack, in thrall to his sheltering, but ultimately controlling personality.

Whether vampire, werewolf or even djinn (as in Rachel Caine's Weather Warden series), the urban fantasy heroine's lovers usually possess superhuman powers, while her own special abilities (Sookie Stackhouse's telepathy, the shrouded heritage of Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels, the hybrid potential of Jeaniene Frost's Cat Crawfield) have yet to be fully explored. He's unlikely to feel threatened or unmanned by her emerging strength, which is nice (this is fantasy, after all), since many of the heroines are formidable, physically as well as preternaturally. Candy, a blogger at the delightful Web site Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, has suggested that the genre is really "about women, and putting women in control, and how we're still not comfortable enough to put it in real-life/realistic fiction terms yet" -- which is why the typical, kick-ass urban fantasy heroine cuts her swath through a fantastical version of our world.

True, but part of the pleasure of genre fiction is the license it offers to explore the desires we have in spite of ourselves, and urban fantasy seems equally concerned with the erotic allure of masculine power and how women come to terms with it. The teenage narrator of Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" may swoon in the arms of her masterful vampire boyfriend without a second thought, but the adult heroines created by Hamilton, Briggs, Harris and dozens of other authors oscillate between resistance and consent, worrying away at insolvable romantic algorithms. Is it possible to bed an alpha male without submitting to his will? Does his protection come at too high a cost? And can a man who sometimes needs your protection ever be quite as exciting?

A surprising number of urban fantasy heroines get into romantic triangles with a vampire and a werewolf, a rivalry redolent of more than a B-movie monster feud. If vampires are upper-class -- rich, well-dressed, owners of nightclubs and vast yet shadowy business interests -- werewolves tend to be blue-collar types, working in construction and driving pickup trucks. Vampires engage in labyrinthine political intrigues, while werewolves prize loyalty to their pack mates over everything else, potentially at the expense of their commitment to the heroine, who can feel excluded from the intense, nonverbal connection they share and their obsession with pecking orders.

Class as much as sex is an urban fantasy preoccupation. Mercy Thompson works as an auto mechanic and owns her own garage, so the self-sufficiency she fiercely cherishes is won by the sweat of her brow. Among the stream of thoughts Sookie Stackhouse unwillingly picks up from the human beings around her is contempt from middle-class people who foolishly regard her -- a barmaid who never went to college -- as negligible. Anita Blake and Rachel Morgan take jobs as bodyguards. Damali, the heroine of L.A. Banks' Vampire Huntress series, is an African-American spoken-word performer. Most of these women (in classic private-eye fashion) worry about paying the rent, which can make the blandishments of those wealthy vampires even more tempting. The werewolf, a creature of the day, feels closer to home, but the nocturnal vampire promises a whole new life.

Where working-class characters in literary fiction are often depicted as tragic and helpless, the urban fantasy heroine gets to surprise everyone by using her talents to save the world ("a lot," as Buffy's famous -- and premature -- epitaph added). Sookie, who turns out to have a good head for strategy as well as detection, consults for the vampire bigwigs, and Rachel bravely rescues a local tycoon from a netherworld known as the ever-after. Which is not to say that our heroines are always virtuous. Like the male protagonists of detective fiction, they tend to be hotheaded, smart-mouthed, petulant and even selfish, flaws that distinguish them from the typical romance heroine, who (to my mind) is a bland goody-two-shoes. Perhaps the trait that most distinguishes urban fantasy from its genre ancestors and bedfellows is its cheeky humor -- sharp-edged, slangy and wised-up, ever ready to stick a pin in the portentous and self-important -- a direct inheritance from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

Urban fantasy has its own conventions -- it is a genre, after all -- and like any convention they can be employed mechanically or lose their luster with overuse. You won't find much in the way of deathless prose on these pages. (Harris' and Briggs' books are probably the best written of the bunch while Harrison's are the most original.) Nevertheless, urban fantasy -- a cross of fairy tale, noir and classic coming-of-age narrative -- is peculiarly suited to wrestling with the quandaries of early 21st-century womanhood, which is itself a hybrid of age-old preconceptions and fledgling, undreamed-of promise. Buffy, I think, would be proud.

Vezes que o Ewan McGregor aparece nas minhas traduções

Raios. Nádia bateu com a cabeça na porta quando se tentava afastar. Quando espreitara pelo intervalo de dez centímetros entre a porta e o chão, dera consigo a olhar para as pernas esqueléticas com meias cor de creme de Andrea.

Andrea, que tinha olhado para o espelho, vira dois olhos escuros a espreitarem debaixo da porta atrás dela, tornou a guinchar, girou nos calcanhares, e deixou cair a bolsinha das pinturas no lavatório.

— O que raio se passa aqui? Não posso! Levanta-te — gritou Andrea — levanta-te e sai daí! Mas que raio de brincadeira vem a ser esta?

Nádia chegou a pensar em fazer o que Ewan McGregor fizera no filme Trainspotting, mergulhar de cabeça na sanita.

Melhor não. Toda torta, lá conseguiu pôr-se de pé.


— Dormiste com ele?

— Quem? — Nádia estava contente por ter o Sol a bater-lhe nos olhos, e pestanejou com força.

Laurie fez tss-tss.

— O Ewan McGregor. Tu sabes de quem estou a falar.

— Ah, não dormi.

— Vês? Erro crasso. Devias ter dormido.

— Talvez, mas em contrapartida dormi contigo.


Moulin Rouge? Não entra o Ewan McGregor?

— De certezinha. Espero que mostre o rabo.

— Convenceste-me. Vamos embora. E não te esqueças —


— Não, tu ficas aqui a ver o filme. Eu só... só preciso de apanhar ar.

— Tens a certeza?

— Absoluta. Não me demoro. Volto a tempo de ver o rabo do Ewan. — Mesmo que eu quase sentisse o olhar aflito que Stevie Rae me cravava nas costas (e ouvisse as Gémeas discutirem com Damien se iam ou não ver o rabo do Ewan), saí a correr do dormitório para aquela noite fresca de Novembro.

Enfim... **


13 junho 2009

The Strain: A Review

Flight 753 from Berlin lands without a hitch at JFK International Airport, taxis towards the terminal and then abruptly shuts down. The emergency services are mobilised and the incoming jets are hastily rerouted, while Flight 753 simply sits out there on the tarmac like some beached leviathan. Inside, at first glance, the crew-members and passengers appear all to be dead in their seats.

The scene provides an appropriately cinematic curtain-raiser for The Strain, a modern-day vampire yarn cowritten by the Mexican film director Guillermo Del Toro with author Chuck Hogan. Reputedly the first instalment of a trilogy, it is the sort of fast-paced, high-concept outing that seems tailor-made for either a big-screen adaptation or - as Hogan has enthused - "a long-form, cable-type TV series". And yet at the same time this opening salvo also looks to the past; doffing its cap to an illustrious ancestor. For what is Flight 753 from Berlin if not a winged update of the Demeter, the stricken Russian schooner that brought Dracula to Whitby?

This is one of Del Toro's endearing qualities: he wears his influences with a ready abandon. In a directing career that straddles exotic Spanish-language chillers such as Pan's Labyrinth and Hollywood spectaculars such as Blade 2 and the Hellboy films, he has referenced everything from Goya to Arthur Rackham, fairy-tales to horror comics, plundering a wealth of antique sources and lavishing them with a fresh lick of paint. The Strain, a pulpy, apocalyptic fable that uses Bram Stoker as its springboard, is no exception.

Exploring the underbelly of the passenger jet, biohazard expert Ephraim Goodweather discovers a refrigerator-sized ebony box, empty except for acoating of thick black loam. Whatever it contained has now made good its escape, and soon afterwards the plane's inhabitants go awol too. Four survivors - ailing and initially taken for dead - break out of quarantine and run amok. Across town, corpses vanish en masse from the local morgue. They are later seen shuffling through the streets of Manhattan, naked and ruined and flaunting recent autopsy scars. All of them, it transpires, are heading home to feed.

As the city toils to contain a pandemic, Del Toro and Hogan wheel in their Van Helsing figure. Abraham Setrakian is an elderly Romanian Jew who now earns his crust as a pawnbroker in Spanish Harlem. Setrakian has first-hand knowledge of these creatures, having once tussled with "the dark thing" Jusef Sardu in the death camp of Treblinka. Where the flummoxed authorities are still regarding the infected as hapless victims, the pawnbroker trumpets a more alarming diagnosis. "Think more along the lines of a man with a black cape," he explains. "Fangs. Funny accent. Now take away the cape and the fangs. The funny accent. Take away everything funny about it."

It is at this point that The Strain makes a break from Stoker's model. These vampires are not the silky Transylvanian aristocrats of yore. Nor, for that matter, are they the troubled, emo-style heart-throbs featured in the novels of Stephenie Meyer or the film of Let the Right One In. Instead, they are mindless, undead leeches, more akin to the zombies from a George Romero movie.

Del Toro sketched The Strain in the form of a 12-page outline which he then turned over to Hogan, creator of the thrillers Prince of Thieves and The Killing Moon. When one considers that the bulk of the book was written while the director was shooting Hellboy 2, it seems safe to assume that most of the heavy lifting was performed by his co-author. One might even think of Del Toro as the literary equivalent of an executive producer; on hand to dream up the concept and sign it off at the end.

Undeniably the director makes his presence felt in a tale that blends genre thrills with eccentric detours into folklore and mordant comedy (an infected Marilyn Mansonesque singer removes his make-up and black contact lens only to discover that his disguise has become a reality). But at times one detects his absence here as well. Emboldened by the success of his Oscar-winning Pan's Labyrinth, Del Toro has spent the past few years clamouring for a revolution in movie narrative and predicting the imminent demise of the traditional three-act story structure. Pointing to videogames as an agent of change, he prophesies an eventual melding of films, TV, games and print into what he describes as a long-form "public story engine"; a kind of democratic folk-tale in part dictated by the audience itself.

So where does The Strain fit with this bold vision of the future? What we have here is surely the epitome of established, mass-culture storytelling. Del Toro's vampire saga is diverting and never less than expertly crafted. But it is also tightly formatted and ultimately disposable - a tasty piece of literary junk-food, spiced with reheated action set-pieces and great reams of expository dialogue. I'm guessing that some crucial element was perhaps mislaid in transit; in that shadowy period between conception and delivery. Del Toro delivered the red meat to the kitchen. Hogan came out with a hamburger.

The Guardian

A Sequel to Dracula

Dracula The Un-Dead, by Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt, is the sequel to Bram Stoker's classic novel Dracula, written by his direct descendant.

Bram Stoker's Dracula is the prototypical horror novel, an inspiration for the world's seemingly limitless fascination with vampires. Though many have tried to replicate Stoker's horror classic-in books, television shows, and movies-only the 1931 Bela Lugosi film bore the Stoker family's support. Until now.

Dracula The Un-Dead is a bone-chilling sequel based on Bram Stoker's own handwritten notes for characters and plot threads excised from the original edition. Written with the blessing and cooperation of the Stoker family, Dracula The Un-Dead begins in 1912, twenty-five years after Dracula "crumbled into dust." Van Helsing's protégé, Dr. Jack Seward, is now a disgraced morphine addict obsessed with stamping out evil across Europe. Meanwhile, an unknowing Quincey Harker, the grown son of Jonathan and Mina, leaves law school for the London stage, only to stumble upon the troubled production of "Dracula," directed and produced by Bram Stoker himself.

The play plunges Quincey into the world of his parents' terrible secrets, but before he can confront them he experiences evil in a way he had never imagined. One by one, the band of heroes that defeated Dracula a quarter-century ago is being hunted down. Could it be that Dracula somehow survived their attack and is seeking revenge? Or is their another force at work whose relentless purpose is to destroy anything and anyone associated with Dracula?

Dracula The Un-Dead is deeply researched, rich in character, thrills and scares, and lovingly crafted as both an extension and celebration of one of the most classic popular novels in literature.

09 junho 2009

5 Myths about Women's Bodies

And from the Comments section of the article, many many claim Girls don't Fart ;)

Historically research has focused on men. As one example, women are under-represented in major clinical trials for cancers that affect both sexes, a new study found. Researchers say several factors could be responsible, from childcare issues to reluctance by researchers to expose women of childbearing age to trial drugs and treatments.

In other areas where research into women's medical problems is lacking, the issue is not just about sexism. Women's hormone fluctuations are, well, complicated and can confound basic findings. But in recent years, women have been getting increased attention.

Still, much misinformation about the female body circulates in mainstream consciousness.

Myth: A women can't get pregnant during her period.

While a woman is unlikely to conceive during menstruation, "nothing, when it comes to pregnancy, is impossible," said Aaron Carroll of Indiana University and co-author of "Don't Swallow Your Gum: Myths, Half-truths and Outright Lies About Your Body and Health" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2009).

Once inside a woman, sperm can wait for an egg for up to a week. Ovulation can occur soon after, or even during, the bleeding phase of a woman's menstrual cycle, giving patient sperm the chance to get lucky. The timing method of birth control doesn't work well, Carroll said, agreeing that couples who practice it are often called: parents.

Myth: Menopause causes sex drive to nosedive.

The Change is not necessarily one that happens in the bedroom. A comprehensive survey of sexual habits in the United States, completed by Edward Laumann and colleagues in 1994, found that roughly half of women in their fifties have sex several times a month.

While hot flashes and other discomforts may make a women temporarily not in the mood, there is not a direct link between menopause and sexual desire, Vreeman said. So if you are entering the Big M, there is no reason to say good-bye to the Big O.

Myth: Antibiotics make birth control pills unreliable.

"Many physicians even believe this," Carroll said. Alone, birth control pills fail about one percent of the time. And that failure rate is unchanged when taken with the vast majority of antibiotics, Carroll said.

A possible exception is rifampin, the antibiotic prescribed for tuberculosis. Rifampin does lower pregnancy-protecting hormone levels induced by birth control pills, but whether the effect is large enough to increase pregnancy risk is unclear. Carroll thinks rifampin research spurred the antibiotic/birth control rumor. "Sometimes people say things and they just take off," he said.

Myth: Women and men need equal sleep.

Tossing and turning not only causes women more psychological distress, it also raises their insulin and inflammation levels -- risk factors for compromised health, found a 2008 study of 210 people led by Edward Suarez at Duke University.

A study of more than 6,000 participants, led by researchers at the University of Warwick in 2007, found that women who slept five or less hours a night were twice as likely to suffer from hypertension than women who slept for seven or more hours. Among men, there was no such relationship. Sleeping Beauty may be better off waking up on her own watch.

Myth: A doctor can tell if a woman is a virgin.

Even when using 10-fold magnification, doctors can not accurately sort virgins from the sexually-active, several studies have reported. It is not as simple as looking for a hole in the hymen because, well, there is always a hole in the hymen.

"Some people think the hymen seals off the vagina [until virginity is lost], but that is just not true," said Dr. Rachel Vreeman of Indiana University and Carroll's co-author of "Don't Swallow Your Gum." In the rare cases when it is sealed, period blood builds in the uterus and causes severe medical problems, she said.

*My favorite! (and we're the ones losing sleep over our children...)

Thanx to LiveScience

After Conspicuous Consumption

Why do some people pay a 100,000 percent premium for a Rolex when a Timex is such a sleek and efficient timepiece? Why do others kill themselves at work just so they can get there in a Lexus? Why do we pay 1,000 times more for designer bottles of water when the stuff that gushes from our taps is safer (because it’s more regulated), often tastier, and better for the planet? And how do we convince ourselves that more stuff equals more happiness, when all the research shows that it doesn’t?

In Spent, University of New Mexico evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller contends that marketing—the jet fuel of unrestrained consumerism—“is the most dominant force in human culture,” and thus the most powerful shaper of life on Earth. Using vivid, evocative language, Miller suggests that consumerism is the sea of modern life and we are the plankton—helplessly tumbled and swirled by forces we can feel but not understand. Miller aims to penetrate to the evolutionary wellsprings of consumerist mania, and to show how it is possible to live lives that are more sustainable, more sane, and more satisfying.

Spent is about “display” consumerism. It leaves aside strictly utilitarian purchases like baloney or tampons. Understanding display consumerism, according to Miller, requires adding one part Thorstein Veblen to one part Darwin. From Veblen’s classic Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Miller appropriates the concept of “conspicuous consumption,” whereby people live and spend wastefully just to flaunt the fact that they can. From Darwin, Miller appropriates sexual selection theory—“costly signaling theory” in modern parlance—whereby animals compete by sending signals of their underlying genetic quality. As with the gaudy displays of peacocks, purchasing decisions frequently represent attempts to advertise “fundamental biological virtues” like “bodily traits of health, fitness, fertility, youth, and attractiveness, and mental traits of intelligence and personality.” Why spend $160,000 on a prestigious university degree? To make a “narcissistic self-display” of one’s intelligence and diligence. Why stuff yourself into a push-up bra and smear pigment across your lips and cheekbones? To try to enhance—or fake—your fertility signals.

Miller is an entertaining and charming guide, moving with a nimble insouciance across domains of science, popular culture, and high and low art. And there is an undeniable power in his analogy between the way that animals—including humans—market themselves via sexually selected traits, and the way that people try to send exaggerated signals of their personal merits through the products they display. For Miller the process of runaway sexual selection that gave rise to energetically wasteful ornaments like the peacock’s tail and antlers of the Irish Elk is precisely what gives rise to Hummers and McMansions.

Critically, Miller’s point is that the human urge to put on a show is biologically inevitable—consumerist culture is not. By changing the way we display, we can reduce the high individual, societal, and planetary costs of rampant consumerism. Miller offers suggestions for modifying social norms to stigmatize crass consumerism, along with sensible, though unoriginal, advice about resisting the consumerist urge (“just don’t get it”). More boldly, he proposes tax reform that would inhibit, rather than promote, the impulse to consume—rendering unto Caesar as money leaves the wallet (a consumption tax) rather than as money enters the wallet (the current system of income taxation). Unfortunately, Spent was clearly wrapped up before the economy pancaked, for Miller writes in the context of boom times. It would have been interesting to hear his take on a society that is schizophrenically limiting its flourishes—CEOs ditching their corporate jets, the new First Family proudly sporting J.Crew—while doing everything in its power to goose consumption via colossal government spending bills.

Spent is, effectively, the sequel to Miller’s The Mating Mind (2000), in which he argued that many of the most salient features of human behavior are rooted in sexual selection. Spent simply extends the premise to marketing and consumerism. And, like its prequel, Spent’s almost monomaniacal focus on sexual selection to the exclusion of other evolutionary processes is its greatest weakness.

For example, the book unaccountably neglects exciting developments in the field of evolutionary economics, which have helped retrieve the concept of group selection (or “selfless genes”) from the dustbin of scientific history. Why do students on college campuses dress in their indistinguishable Abercrombie and Hollister uniforms (accessorized with obligatory iPhones and iPod Shuffles, Ugg boots for the girls, and low, tattered caps for the boys)? Is this best explained as a biological trait display that is meant to distinguish young people from their sexual rivals? Or, on the contrary, is this a conformity display, which advertises in-group membership? Doesn’t so much consumer behavior reflect our evolved groupishness—our fear of being left off the bandwagon? Because Miller has evolutionary tunnel vision—examining his subject only in terms of one of several possible evolutionary concepts—he doesn’t ask questions like this, much less try to answer them. And can Miller be serious when he speculates that sinking $50,000 into a glittery stainless-steel kitchen is less about flaunting wealth—as Veblen and most other evolutionary psychologists would argue—and more about flaunting the partially heritable personality trait of conscientiousness (serious diligence is required to keep the spots off of all that steel)?

But even if Miller, like many a marketer who came before him, flogs his product too hard, his broadest point is well taken: We are awash in an ocean of consumerism, and we can’t fully understand that ocean (much less struggle out of it) until we recognize that it wells up from evolved biology as well as culture. We live in a turbulence of signals and counter-signals, with every human madly displaying his personal qualities, tribal affiliations, and social position at all times.

In fact, Miller may have made this final point a bit too well. I was not many pages into Spent before I found myself helplessly attuned to Miller’s own “narcissistic self-displays.” Miller reminds us frequently of his elite education, tells us that he owns several thousand books, lets on about his sophisticated taste in avant-garde art, makes offhand displays of his mastery of musical jargon (“timbral richness,” “isorhythmic motets,” “polyphony”), stresses his impeccable liberal credentials, and shows off his authentic verbal flair, his cosmopolitanism, and his soaring IQ (he argues —tendentiously —that elite university degrees function as covert IQ guarantees). So Spent functions not only as an attempt to popularize a vein of scientific research, but also as a means of selling the audience on the virtues of its creator: Geoffrey Miller—a smart guy, a bit of a Renaissance man.

There are two things to say about this. First, it is Geoffrey Miller, Renaissance man, who gives Spent so much of its winning personality, its narrative tang, and its consistent good humor. Second, Spent cued me in not only to its author’s self-marketing, but also to my own. For what is a book review if not—at least in part—a narcissistic self-display? What am I doing now, if not flaunting my penetration, my learning, my tough-minded yet charitable judgment, and—most narcissistically of all—my ability to take a decade of Miller’s life as a scholar, scientist, and close observer of American pop culture, and wrap it up neatly in a 1,200-word package—complete with an artful, preening flourish at the close?


they call them The Kindly Ones

This remarkable book was first published in France in 2006, as Les Bienveillantes. The first significant work of Jonathan Littell, Francophone son of American spy author Robert, it was an entirely unexpected success. Gallimard, the publisher, originally printed 5,000 copies. Within months, Les Bienveillantes had sold 300,000 copies, had been welcomed by critics as the most important book for 50 years and had won the Goncourt and Femina prizes. Stupendous sums were paid for its foreign rights and it went on to sell more than a million copies across Europe. Now it has been translated into English and will surely cause a similar fuss.

What accounts for the attention? A 900-page work written in impeccable French by an American, albeit one educated in France, was always going to be talked about. But the main reason for the book's notoriety is its subject matter. The novel tells the story of the Holocaust and Nazism through the eyes of one of the executioners, an SS Obersturmbannfürher on the Eastern Front who is attached to the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile execution squads whose task it was to kill Jews, partisans and other "undesirables" in the wake of the German advance. Both in France and across Europe, there were fierce debates about the morality and feasibility of giving voice to such a character. In Germany, Littell was accused of being "a pornographer of violence".

But The Kindly Ones also owes its success to its quality as a work of fiction. Notwithstanding the controversial subject matter, this is an extraordinarily powerful novel that leads the stunned reader through extremes of both realism and surrealism on an exhausting journey through some of the darkest recesses of European history.

Max Aue, the narrator, is a jurist by trade, a classicist by training and an aesthete by nature. He reads Flaubert as he treks through northern Pomeranian forests escaping oncoming Russian forces and savours the finest claret. (As German critics pointed out, Littell is more at home with French cultural references than German ones.) Aue is interested in the potential philosophical justifications for the mass murder of Jews and regularly consults Plato. At the same time, he is a closet homosexual who once had an incestuous affair with his sister and is a suspect for the brutal murder of his mother and stepfather. Whether all these elements add up to a plausible character (or even a plausible Nazi) is debatable. But as Littell has stated, with his interest in Greek philosophy and his cold, ironic eye, Aue is an excellent prism through which historical events can be examined.

One of Littell's purposes with this novel is clearly a documentary one. Whatever other criticisms have been levelled at it, no one has questioned the thoroughness of his research, an exhaustive process that took five years and included walking the terrain he describes. (The book was written quickly, by hand, one winter in Moscow.) Littell inserts the character of Aue into a landscape of impressive historical exactitude; the pages describing his arrival in Stalingrad are especially rich in detail, pace and clarity. This is narrative photo-realism, the work of a gifted writer who in lean, sharp prose conjures a powerful sense of place and action. His fingernail sketches of senior Nazis, including one of Hitler in his bunker, are superb. No wonder French critics hailed the return of 19th-century realism and even spoke of a new War and Peace.

Yet it would be wrong to value The Kindly Ones only for its contribution to history. The novel is also a gripping military adventure story and a study in collective pathology. Above all, it is a sophisticated exploration of issues of morality, evil and luck. Littell told interviewers that the character of Aue allowed him to examine what he himself might have done had he been born in different circumstances at a different time. In the preface, Aue assumes a creepy complicity between himself and his readers. His opening sentence - "O my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened" - recalls, especially in the French original, Charles Baudelaire's: "Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère." Littell's point is that there is no firm line separating ordinary people from those responsible for acts such as the Holocaust. There is no absolute evil, banal or otherwise. There are, as Aue says, simply "reasons, good or bad ... human reasons".

The novel as a whole brilliantly shows how "ordinary men" become killers. Through its first 200 pages, we follow an Einsatzgruppen about its grisly work. Though many of its members are vicious antisemites and sadists, most are distinctly normal. As massacre follows massacre, they are progressively brutalised. At first, some balk at shooting unarmed civilians, but soon such reluctance becomes a thing of the past. The men eat sausages and drink beer in pauses during the "Aktion" at Kiev, which saw more than 30,000 Jews killed in two days. Their commanders have difficulties holding back volunteer shooters. By the time Aue arrives at Auschwitz, this process of collective desensitisation has reached a new extreme. Industrialised death on a vast scale, conceived in part to spare troops direct involvement in mass killing, is seen as a rational, indeed inevitable, solution to "the Jewish Problem".

This view of Nazi actions is certainly in keeping with the latest Holocaust scholarship, which has destroyed the "I had no choice but to follow orders" excuse. Recent work has shown that those rare individuals who refused execution squad duty were not punished. The truth is that though many found shooting unarmed Jews, especially women and children, highly disagreeable, there was no great desire to step out of line. An unswerving belief in the necessity of their task meant that initial qualms were overcome and they came to see killing as a job like any other.

The Kindly Ones, unsurprisingly for such an ambitious novel, does have flaws. The copious scatological and sexual references may strike some readers as excessive. From the lengthy descriptions of Aue's diarrhoea to the dying slave workers in the Reich's factories who shit standing up because to stop working would mean certain death, this is a novel preoccupied with faecal matter. At one point, Max, living his own Armageddon as Germany collapses around him, sodomises himself with a tree branch.

Likewise, the incestuous and murderous subplot, that sees Aue pursued across half of Europe and half the 900 pages by two police officers, is overwrought and far-fetched. Littell often allows his narrative to ramble, devoting 60 pages to an impossibly bureaucratic argument between the SS and the regular army over the precise definition of Jews in the Caucasus, and other long passages to turf wars between senior Nazis. These sections make important historical points, but readers may struggle to get through them.

Having read the novel in French on its publication, I also found the translation overly literal. Aue's words seem much more foreign, stilted and sententious than they did in the original. Littell chose to write in French because it best renders Aue's mix of viciousness, chilly irony and confidentiality. In that language, he is precise, ironic, almost intellectually playful and certainly provocative. In English, at least in this translation, he often comes across as precious.

Littell's final message is naturally bleak. Our relative relegation of this greatest of European traumas to memorial days, museums and books is a useful way to avoid confronting the most difficult questions of all, which are not about the victims, but about the killers. Any attempt to portray the perpetrators of the Holocaust as human, such as the recent film of Bernard Schlink's book The Reader, provokes massive controversy. It will thus be interesting to see how this book is received in the English-speaking world.

Whatever reaction his novel sparks, Littell has undoubtedly succeeded where many ambitious writers have failed. The Kindly Ones reveals something that is desperate and depressing but profoundly important, now as ever. Max Aue, the SS executioner, states the truth with typically brutal clarity: "I am a man like other men, I am a man like you."

My bold, these ppl are never satisfied :|

Helen's face launched a thousand ships. Inspiration is harder to come by these days

Whatever happened to the Muse? She was once the female figure -- deity, Platonic ideal, mistress, lover, wife -- whom poets and painters called upon for inspiration. Thus Homer in the Odyssey, the West's first great work of literary art: "Sing to me of the man, Muse, of twists and turns driven time and again off course." For hundreds of years, in one form or another, the Muse's blessing and support were often essential to the creation of art.

Poets stopped invoking the muse centuries ago -- eventually turning instead to caffeine, alcohol and amphetamines -- but painters, musicians, and even choreographers have celebrated their actual female inspirers in their work up until recent times. And now, we learn, having a muse isn't a benefit restricted to artists.

According to a recently opened exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, "The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion," the muse lives on as the fashion model who inspires masses of women to dress in ways that capture the spirit of the age. With all due respect to the Met's curators -- and to the alluring fashion photographs that now grace the museum's walls -- such a definition of the muse would have made traditional muses run for the sacred hills.

The original muse could not have been further from an exemplar of style. Her function was not to inspire imitation, but to create new insights and new artistic forms. She was effectively invisible, a gust of divine wind that blew through the human vessel lucky enough to be graced by her attention.

In ancient times, the muse was a divinity, daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. At first, there were three muses, then the Greek poet Hesiod expanded their number to nine: Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Erato, Terpsichore, Thalia, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Urania. It was the bureaucratic Romans who assigned a particular function to each muse: Terpsichore was the goddess of dance; Thalia, of comedy; Melpomene of tragedy and so on.

They were benign, helpful beings, who -- according to Hesiod -- approached a deserving poet and conferred on him three gifts: a laurel branch to use as a sceptre, a "wondrous voice" with which to sing his verse and knowledge of the future and the past. Still, they could be cruelly protective of their ethereal turf. When a Thracian poet named Thamyris challenged the nine muses to a singing contest and lost, they blinded him and struck him dumb. Legend has it that the Sirens, no mean crooners themselves, also tried to compete with the muses. They too were defeated and, as a result, lost their wings and fell into the sea.

From the start, fierce competition characterized the relationship among the poets who required the muses' services. There were countless aspiring artists and only nine goddesses to go around (think of the muses as the first Guggenheim grants). Hesiod is emphatic about the fact that the muses approached him and only him, making sure to tell us that "they taught Hesiod fine singing as he tended his lambs."

By the time Virgil sat down to write his epic, the Aeneid, in the late first century B.C., he had to assert himself against his daunting precursor. Whereas Homer invoked the muse in the very first words of his epic, Virgil forcefully proclaims in his opening line that he alone will be singing "of arms and the man." Eight lines later, he tersely requests the muse to merely tell him the "causes" of the founding of Rome, the implication being that Virgil himself will use his own powers to spin the causes into the story of their extraordinary effects.

About 20 years later, the Roman poet Ovid greedily did both Homer and Virgil one better. At the outset of his "Metamporphoses," he embraced not one muse, but all nine: "Inspire me, O gods...." Yet for sheer chutzpah, you cannot beat Dante Alighieri's invocation, in the Paradiso -- the last part of his Divine Comedy -- not just to the nine muses, but also to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, and Apollo, god of poetry and music and the muses' boss, as it were.

Dante's Divine Comedy, completed in the early 14th century, is a turning point for musedom. By the end of his massive poem, the muses have been left behind by the heavenly Christian music of the spheres, "a song," writes Dante, "that excels our muses." The pagan nine had been replaced by the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. That, in turn, freed artistic inspiration to go seek more earthly sources.

Dante's source was an actual person, a young girl named Beatrice Portinari whom Dante claims he first saw on the street in Florence when they were both nine. He fell in love with her, but she died in her early 20s. Dante paid tribute to Beatrice first in a breathtaking volume of sonnets and prose poems he called "La Vita Nuova" -- "The New Life" -- and then made Beatrice a central figure in The Divine Comedy, where she is cast in the roles of teacher, guide and sacred ideal.

Beatrice symbolized both earthly love and Christian truth -- the poet's lust became "sublimated," as we would say, into spiritual longing. From then on, generally speaking, muses appeared in two varieties: unattainable ideal, like Beatrice, and sexual object.

In the first category, Dante's contemporary and immediate successor, Petrarch, addressed over 300 poems to Laura, a woman believed to be Laura de Noves. Petrarch outdid Dante by making his muse unattainable on two counts: She was married when he met her, and she died 11 years later. Death, like myth, protected the artist from real entanglement and real obsession with his muse. He was free to let his imagination run wild without the encumbrances of physical desire.

That began to change in the Italian Renaissance, when painters invented a new tradition of muse-worship. Whereas the muses of the 14th century took on the heavenly character of the untouchable Madonna, the muses of Italian painters in the 15th and 16th centuries were often earthly, and very touchable, women, whom the artists had sit for them for long stretches of time and then portrayed as the paragon of the unreachable female.

The model for two of Raphael's most famous Madonnas was a Sienese baker's daughter named Margharita di Luti, who was probably Raphael's lover. The painter Fra Filippo Lippi went in for a riskier muse relationship: He seduced a young nun named Lucrezia Buti and went on to live with her, using her as the model for several portraits of the Holy Mother.

Up to this point an artist could not have asked for more cooperative inspirers. Then came Andrea del Sarto, who had what you might call the first really bad muse experience in Western art. According to the standard accounts of del Sarto's life, his wife Lucrezia drove him to distraction with her demands, her jealousy and her amorous adventures with his apprentices. But such was her physical perfection, that he gave and forgave her everything.

A roundup of notable muses throughout history.


One of the nine muses of Greek mythology, her specialty is epic poetry. She was the inspiration for Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.

Lucrezia Buti
A muse deviously gained by the painter Fra Filippo Lippi. She was the model for several portraits of the Holy Mother.

Gala Dalí
Salvador Dalí's wife and muse Gala, whom he met in 1929, tortured her sex-averse husband with her flagrant affairs.

Zelda Fitzgerald
Along with basing several of his characters on his wife, F. Scott Fitzgerald inserted material from her diaries directly into his fiction.

Rachel Feinstein
Artist and muse to her husband, the painter John Currin. Ms. Feinstein's pale likeness can be seen in many of his paintings.

Even when they were vixens, Renaissance muses were comfortably subordinate to their artists, bound to the latter's aesthetic and sexual needs while the artists were free to disport themselves around town.

Most modern muses were powerful and often creative women in their own right, like Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) who didn't just inspire photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but influenced the direction of his art. Salvador Dalí's wife and muse, Gala, whom he met in 1929, shrewdly tortured her sex-averse and masochistic husband with her flagrant affairs. Suzanne Farrell, George Balanchine's astonishing dancer-muse, allowed the legendary choreographer to fall in love with her while rejecting his advances, only to marry another dancer the very day Balanchine obtained a divorce from his wife.

There were some famous exceptions to the growing equality between muses and their clients. Picasso met Marie-Thérèse Walter in 1927 on a Parisian street when she was 17 and immediately made her his mistress, sometimes having his chauffeur wait outside her private school to pick her up when school let out and take her to the artist's studio, where she modeled for countless paintings and sculptures. She later bore him a daughter though he refused to marry her, and killed herself in 1977, four years after Picasso died.

But if a muse can breathe divine air into the imagination, she can just as easily blow out the flame of attention and hard work. William Butler Yeats's relationship with Maud Gonne, an Anglo-Irish heiress, was one of particular muse-havoc. Gonne was an Irish nationalist and revolutionary graced with flowing waves of red hair. Yeats met the great beauty in 1889 when he was 24 and that, he later wrote, was when "the troubles of my life began."

Gonne rejected his several marriage proposals, explaining that he was neither a true revolutionary nor a Catholic. By the time they finally consummated their relationship in 1908, almost 20 years after their first encounter, Yeats had soured on her overbearing views. Her role as muse ended the instant they embarked on their night of love. "Was there another Troy for her to burn?" Yeats wryly wrote about her chaotic effect on his life, not long after their tryst.

F. Scott Fitzgerald might have expressed the same sentiment about his wife, Zelda, but in fact their mutually ruinous marriage inspired him to produce his greatest work throughout the 1920s and 1930s, not least because along with basing several of his characters on Zelda, he inserted material from her diaries directly into his fiction.

Nowadays muses are hard to find. There have been a few celebrated ones in recent years: the photographer Lee Friedlander's wife, Maria, whom he photographed over four decades; John and Yoko Ono (mutual muses); painter John Currin and his Botticellian wife, the artist Rachel Feinstein.

Yet the muse-world has thinned out. Artists may still have a muse, but the once-standard and then legendary relationship is no longer part of our common vocabulary. These days a muse's role as equal partner and/or equal talent now outweighs her or his function as inspiration. Who, in our proudly individualistic culture wants to feel like a valet to someone else's imagination?

Then, too, the recession of the muse -- if not her outright disappearance -- has to do with a general discomfort about ideals on pedestals, not to mention a feminist rejection of women as objects. But it is also related to the diminishing value attached to the idea of originality. More and more people seem to feel comfortable with cultural experiences that are familiar, rather than original ones that they are encountering for the first time. Witness the current popularity of Hollowood sequels and prequels, as well as familiar facial lineages on screen -- Linda Fiorentino to Sean Young to Anne Hathaway -- not to mention universal storylines -- from the flying house in Wizard of Oz to same in Pixar's "Up" -- that we can all vicariously enjoy together.

That could be why contemporary muses, such as they are, exist as highly public presences, universally available. Think Nicole Kidman, Beyoncé, Miley Cyrus. Contrary to the Met's new show, the muse's role has not been taken over by the fashion model so much as by the celebrity-performer who appears to masses of people. Rather than acts of creation, our mass-muses inspire escapist daydreams. And indeed the daydream is where art begins -- the universality of the idle trance makes all of us potential Picassos. Considering the toll artists and muses traditionally took on each other, this might not be a bad development. It certainly seems appropriate for our new age of more modest ambitions.

The WSJ - there's a slideshow of Muses ;)