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A detail from Michael Kenna‘s “Cold Dog Decembrist Square, St. Petersburg, Russia, 1999”. “One of the foremost landscape photographers in the world”, according to Artworks magazine, Kenna is known for his use of hours-long exposures and his patient approach to understanding his subjects:

I am not a paparazzi photographer. I don’t run out to a landscape and snap a picture and run away again. I like to know a tree, quite closely. I’ll often spend a long time circling the tree, getting to know it. In a sense I talk to the tree. I try to be very respectful and I like to go back to that same tree two years later, five years later, or as often as I can.

– Michael Kenna, interview in Artworks (June 2007)

Michael Kenna, "Cold Dog Decembrist Square, St. Petersburg, Russia, 1999"
Michael Kenna, "Cold Dog Decembrist Square, St. Petersburg, Russia, 1999"

A fast ride down a narrow valley

Aladdin's Lamp, by John Freely

A prominent literary editor once told me that a good reviewer did not have to like every book that he read, but that he absolutely had to have the capacity to like every book. In this spirit, I make a habit of opening a new book with the greatest optimism and eagerness, convinced that I’ll enjoy both the process of reading it and the comparative chore of writing the review itself.

It doesn’t always come to pass, of course. Fortunately, most books I’ve reviewed have been fascinating and well-written. A minority have turned out to be well-conceived and reasonably well-executed, but significantly flawed in logic or perspective (of course, in some ways these are more fun to review, since they offer more room for argument). But only one book so far has made me want to give up and put it away, and this before I had read even a third of it. To clarify, it’s not an atrocious book at all, but rather one that again and again refuses to rise to its own potential. And that can be a more painful experience than it sounds.

Hooked (and how could you not be)? Then by all means, read on…

Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World
By John Freely
(Alfred A. Knopf; 303 pages; $27.95)

Review published in the San Francisco Chronicle (March 22, 2009)

After nearly eight years of conflict in the Middle East and Central Asia, it is hard to say that the American public is much more knowledgeable about the Islamic world than before the war began.

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Japan’s Open Future



At long last, my book Japan’s Open Future: An Agenda for Global Citizenship (co-authored with Tomas Casas i Klett and Jean-Pierre Lehmann) has landed in warehouses in the UK and the US. My fellow bloggers at Sans Everything will know that this has been a long time in the making, and I thank them for some very helpful feedback on earlier drafts. 


Japan’s Open Future is ambitious, drawing on a range of disciplines and themes including history, communication, business, economics, politics and geopolitics. It seeks to present a grand strategy for Japan by showing how all these issues are connected. Over the next couple of months I will be posting commentaries and excerpts here that draw on specialist topics from the book; as I do I will invite people with a stake in those topics to drop by and join us for a discussion.


Let me start by sharing an opinion piece I wrote for the Huffington Post, “Japan in a Post-American World.” It provides a summary of our argument as it relates to these acutely challenging global circumstances. In our book we argue that Japan has no choice but to look outward and become a global citizen if it would like to have a more secure and prosperous future. The alternative, of remaining insular and closed to new ideas, immigration and trade, would be a loss for the global community and would exacerbate Japan’s current problems. The financial crisis has only served to reinforce our argument on many levels.


Yet more than one recent commentator has underscored the absence of good ideas and creative reform efforts emanating from Japan. Let me share four recent examples. Continue reading

Where Obama Gets His Ideas

Here is some free advice to any any journalist who might be reading this blog: President Obama and his crew are policy wonks. So if you want to know what they are thinking, read magazines like the American Prospect, the Nation, the New Republic, and Democracy.

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The Nakedness of Dr. Manhattan


Dr. Manhattan as drawn by Dave Gibbons (and worth comparing to Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man).

Much has been written about the dangling blue penis of Dr. Manhattan, visible in many scenes of the Watchmen. Over at Tapped Phoebe Connelly defended the showing of the penis on feminist grounds, correctly noting that the film industry is usually much more comfortable with female nudity than its male counterpart (the late Might magazine once did a very thorough analysis of this issue). Cartoonist Eddie Campbell meanwhile queries the decision to make Dr. Manhattan circumcised and all buffed up (as Campbell notes, the original model for Dr. Manhattan was Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man). Connelly and Campbell made astute observations but most of the other commentary on this issue has been mainly juvenile twittering as if the very mention of the word penis should make us giggle.


The question worth asking is, “Why is Dr. Manhattan naked through much of Watchmen (both the graphic novel and the movie)?” There are many reasons, but I think theology can provide some clues. Adam and Eve were as naked as animals in paradise but after eating of the tree of knowledge gained consciousness, and hence human shame. Christ, who was the new Adam, free of sin and sent to bring mankind back to paradise, died naked on the cross.

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A Misunderstood Radical


Steve Ditko’s Mr. A.

She hated religion and thought faith was “extremely detrimental to human life: it is the negation of reason.” She asserted that abortion was “a moral right” and believed the pro-life movement was motivated by “hatred.”  For her, creative work was more important than family, friendship or any human relationship. She had no use at all for conservatives, Republicans, or liberatarians. She was a cultural populist, celebrating pulp writers like Mickey Spillane while dismissing celebrated classics like Shakespeare. She heaped scorn on National Review was “the worst and most dangerous magazine in America.” She despised libertarians as “emotional hippies-of-the-right who play at politics without philosophy or consistency.” She was “profoundly opposed to Ronald Reagan” and thought he was motivated by power lust.

  Continue reading

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A detail from Peter Funch‘s Babel Tales series, “Hommage à Fisher”. Danish-born and educated and now based in New York, Funch had already been a successful photojournalist before turning to art. The photographer’s remarkable urban streetscapes are created by taking many shots from a given corner and then skilfully collaging them together (um, somehow). They repay close observation, and manage to convey a sense of both the hyperreal in the particular and the surreal in aggregate.

I think I once promised myself I’d never write sentences that sounded like that last one.

In the keep of the tree

The "iron-eating" sycamore of Brig o' Turk
The "iron-eating" sycamore of Brig o' Turk

Plants, it is well known, have a remarkable ability — born, perhaps, of their immense patience and gradualism — to physically merge themselves with elements in their environment. Ivy will bind fast to brick, beans will curl around poles, and trees… well, consider the iron-eating sycamore of Brig o’ Turk, a village in central Scotland near Loch Lomond. The tree, well over a century old, stands next to a disused smithy and over long years has subsumed numerous metal items that had been discarded against its trunk or hung on its boughs: items including a bridle, a ship’s anchor and chain, and a bicycle, the handlebars of which are the only part still visible.

Not only is this ability a tribute to the adaptability of plants, but it also provides a particularly moving example of nature’s role as a keeper of time. In the same inevitable way that grass pushes through the cracks of unmaintained asphalt, or a lover’s heart carved into an oak will deepen and slowly scar over, the sycamore in Brig o’ Turk reminds us of the transience of our material possessions, and, of course, ourselves.

All of which provides me with a credible excuse to introduce some beautiful verses on that very theme, written by 25-year-old poet-to-watch Robert Selby (who, as you’ll see from some of the poems on his site, particularly “The Leaving of the Institutions”, has a fine sense of man’s relationship to nature — or should I say, of nature’s relationship to man).

The Sycamore

Up the narrow road beside the tea-room
and you pass an iron-eating tree… (Gazetteer for Scotland)


The black-faced smithy’s boy of Brig o’ Turk
propped his bicycle against the sycamore
before his final shift at the clanging hearth,
soon to head off for war to escape the bore
of pouring coal into the firepot’s girth.
Proud of his young apprentice, the old mentor
drove the new recruit homeward on his dray,
so the bicycle remained in the keep of the tree.

As the smithy’s boy made corporal and set sail,
the sycamore began a cruelly slow advance.
As bugles called from shires their lonely scale,
the bicycle was raised on a timber lance.
When the smithy’s boy died at Passchendaele
and the village darkened in remembrance,
the sycamore drew about the bicycle,
clutching to its bark the spokes and saddle.

Long since the blacksmith sold off the yard,
since war ended, resprouted, withered again,
and the Trossachs became a National Park,
the bicycle protrudes still, a man-made limb
mimicking new growth, the ribbed handlebars
waiting for the smithy’s boy to reclasp them,
to pull free the frame and tour off, roadworthy,
the cast-iron memorial in the skyward lee.

– Robert Selby (Times Literary Supplement, April 18, 2008)

Ware and Satrapi in Conversation


Satrapi’s Persepolis.

On February 26, cartoonists Chris Ware and Marjane Satrapi were interviewed on stage in New York by Francoise Mouly. You can go listen to this very interesting hour-long conversation here. Very highly recommended.

A Watchmen Defense

Responding to my negative take on Watchmen, the cartoonist Frank Santoro — a member of the Comics Comics collective and creator of the fine graphic novel Storeyville — sent in a very smart defense of the Moore/Gibbons book. So smart, I thought it deserves attenton from readers who might not look at the comment section. Here’s what Frank wrote:

Watchmen is a Lutheran reformation text knocking on the door of the Catholic establishment by a devout believer. Or something like that. And why I think scholars of comics don’t really enjoy it because they aren’t superhero fans. The text is an indictment of the form, the laws, by a believer in the form. I don’t know if anyone who wasn’t a “true believer” to start with really “gets” the full impact of the text. It’s like a Muslim saying he doesn’t enjoy the New Testament.