A new home

Note: New site may not be exactly as appears

Note: New site may not appear exactly as shown

Well, I’ve finally completed a long deferred project: Archipelagoes has moved to a paid hosting provider and now has both its own domain name (www.iangarrickmason.com) and a fresh design. The new site will be my primary location on the web, though of course I’ll maintain the same cross-posting relationship with sans everything, and my plan is to move my existing published articles archive there as well. I’ve already transferred all of the past postings and comments from this current site to the new one, so there’s no need to return here to look something up.

That said, please go visit the new place, update your bookmarks, and don’t be afraid to bring some flowers or a nice housewarming gift.

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Magnetic suns and moth balls

Joaquin Phoenix and Vinessa Shaw in James Gray's <i>Two Lovers</i>

Joaquin Phoenix and Vinessa Shaw in James Gray's Two Lovers

Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) does not on the face of it seem like the kind of man who would end up with two attractive lovers at the same time. He is in his mid-thirties and lives with his parents. He works as a delivery man for his father’s antiquated dry cleaning business. He takes black and white photographs as a hobby, but shoots only buildings. He takes medication for a variety of bipolar disorder. And in the opening scene of the film, he attempts to commit suicide (not for the first time, his worried parents remind themselves) by jumping off a pier.

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Crime without punishment

A moment of great rejoicing for human rights activists and champions of the rule of law came at the beginning of this month as former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years in jail for “crimes against humanity”, having authorized murders, kidnappings, and torture as part of a severe anti-terrorist campaign in the 1990s. Fujimori’s sentencing, one must hope, will send a powerful message to government leaders around the world that maintaining public security is an insufficient excuse for violating fundamental human rights, and that even presidents will be held to account for the crimes they commit in office.

But not in America.

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We’re doin’ it for the kids

afghan-civilian-casualties

An Afghan woman and her daughter grieve after an air strike in Shindand district last summer. Photograph: Fraidoon Pooyaa/AP

A very interesting article appears today in the Independent, discussing some policy concessions proposed by representatives of the Taliban who have been quietly negotiating with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government. Among the proposals: a commitment to refrain from banning the education of girls, measuring the length of beards, or making the wearing of burqas compulsory.

This puts in a new context yesterday’s revelation that President Karzai recently signed a law that codifies the rights of Afghanistan’s Shi’as to be governed by family law based on traditional Shi’a jurisprudence, which (it is believed, since the law itself has not yet been publicly released) prevents women from refusing to have sex with their husbands or leaving the house without their husbands’ permission.

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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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Banner image

More fiddling about with themes, and as an unexpected result (since WordPress erases any custom banner images when changing theme), a new banner. This one is a detail from David Burdeny‘s “Five Icebergs, Weddell Sea, Antarctica” (2007). The Canadian photographer’s ability to capture the sublime character of sea and ice is redolent of the great nineteenth-century landscape artists. Browse his site and you’ll see what I mean.

I’m fascinated with the quality of light and the spatial immensity the ocean possesses. I have an enormous reverence for feeling so small in the presence of something so vast, where perspective, scale, time and distance momentarily become intangible. My photographs contemplate that condition, and through their reductive nature, suggest a formalized landscape we rarely see. The glory lies not in the act of this removal or reduction, but in the experience of what is left – sublime experience located in ordinary space: a slowly moving sky, the sun moving across a boulders surface or sea foam swirling around a pylon.

– David Burdeny

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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)

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