Friday August 7, 2015

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Midsummer, Midwest

We played a game called 4-Square
With a lemon-yellow ball
In the street after dinner.
We kept awaiting a call

From somebody’s parent, ordering us in,
But (amazingly) no call came,
The still-bright ball
Went round, we went on with our game—

Voices no doubt lifting
To where the Dawkinses’ grandmother lay
Winded by emphysema,
Who hadn’t been out all day

And had now minutely to ponder
How this evening’s sunset would fall
On the plaster homeland of hummocks and craters
Of the guest-room wall.

“Midsummer, Midwest” by Brad Leithauser from The Oldest Word for Dawn. © Knopf, 2013. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of anthropologist and archeologist Louis Leakey, born in Kabete, Kenya (1903). His parents were Anglican missionaries to Africa, and he lived in Kenya until he was 16. He studied anthropology at Cambridge at a time when most anthropologists believed that human beings had originated in Asia. But Leakey had read Darwin’s theory that human beings might have originated in Africa, because Africa is the home of our closest relatives: chimpanzees and gorillas. As soon as he graduated from Cambridge, he moved back to Africa to prove Darwin right.

In 1948, Leakey and his wife found one of the earliest fossil ape skulls ever discovered; it was between 25 and 40 million years old. It is now believed to be the skull of the ancestor of all large primates, including humans. Then, in 1959, they turned up another hominid skull, which was 1.75 million years old. It was the oldest skull of a close human relative ever found at that point, and it helped persuade other anthropologists that Africa was indeed the place where human beings had evolved.

It’s the birthday of the Dutch dancer and spy Mata Hari, born Margaretha Zelle in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands (1876). She attended a teachers college and then married an army officer, Captain Rudolph MacLeod, in 1895. They lived in Java and Sumatra for a few years, and that’s where she picked up her eventual byname. “Mata Hari” is a Malay term for the sunrise, and means “the eye of the day.” The MacLeod marriage was marked by infidelity on both sides. He gave her syphilis, which was in turn inherited by their two children. After their son died, the parents began to hate each other. They returned to Holland and divorced, and MacLeod took out an ad in the local paper telling shopkeepers not to give his ex-wife any credit, because he would not be supporting her any longer. In order to make some money, she began dancing professionally in Paris in 1905, and occasionally worked in a high-class brothel.

The exact nature of her spy activities is not clear, but she probably didn’t engage in much actual espionage. She was well known by sight all over Europe. She had apparently sold some outdated information about France to the Germans in 1916, and then later made a deal with the head of French intelligence to spy on the Germans in exchange for a pass to visit her Russian lover in the eastern war zone. The French became suspicious that she was a double agent, and she never was able to provide much useful information, so she was tried, convicted, and executed by firing squad in 1917. One of her prosecutors later admitted, “There wasn’t enough evidence [against her] to flog a cat.”

It’s the birthday of American journalist Jane Kramer (1938) (books by this author), whom Newsweek magazine once called “a writer who combines the skills of a social historian with those of a novelist.” Kramer was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and educated at Vassar and Columbia University. In the early sixties, she began writing on culture for The Village Voice. Those early essays became her first book, Off Washington Square: A reporter looks at Greenwich Village, N.Y. (1963). Her work caught the eye of legendary New Yorker editor Wallace Shawn and she became a staff writer for that magazine in 1964.

Kramer’s oeuvre varies: she can write evocatively about food, the American militia, and European politics with the same apparent ease. She said, “I do not believe much in sociologies [...] It is the triumph of these private people over their public ‘sociology’ that [interests] me.” She became the New Yorker’s European correspondent (1981), contributing the “Letter from Europe” column. Her dispatches have covered Holocaust museums, wars, the Muslim veil controversy in France, and the election of former Nazi officer Kurt Waldheim as president of Austria in 1986.

Of Waldheim’s election, Kramer wrote: “He learned one gesture for his campaign: whenever he was at a loss for something to say or something to do, he would open his arms in a kind of big, empty welcome. The gesture was automatic, like the movement of a windup toy [...] It was clear, once the rumors about him started, that a man with a murky past could easily become president of Austria if he was a victim of Jewish conspiracies, just as a country with a murky past could easily become a democratic republic if it was a victim of Nazism ...”

It’s the birthday of essayist and journalist Anne Fadiman (books by this author), born in New York City (1953). She’s best known as the author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997), which is about the culture clash between a Hmong family, whose daughter has epilepsy, and the American medical establishment. She started the project as an assignment for The New Yorker, but she turned it into a book when the original assignment was killed. The book won a National Book Critics Circle Award. She also wrote a best-selling essay collection, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (1998).

Fadiman says her journalistic tendencies come from her mother, Annalee Jacoby, who was the first female war correspondent in China. Fadiman’s father, Clifton Fadiman, was an essayist, a radio host, and a book lover — her childhood home boasted shelves full of thousands of books — and Fadiman credits him for inspiring Ex Libris.

Fadiman’s literary heroes include John McPhee, Joan Didion, Ian Frazier, and Gay Talese. She has a stack of books by her bedside at all times, and prefers media you can hold in your hand to anything you can read on a computer or e-reader. She says, “Even when e-books are perfected, as they surely will be, it will be like being in bed with a very well-made robot rather than a warm, soft, human being whom you love.” And she thinks a newspaper is just better for society than the news you get online, or over email. “People who read a paper paper have to flip through a lot of international news before they get to what they think they’re interested in. They at least glance at the headlines, and maybe they read a few stories they hadn’t expected to. More and more, online news sources will give them only what they wanted in advance. [...] Custom filters are going to make Americans even more ignorant than they already are, which is plenty.”

On this date in 1947, Thor Heyerdahl’s raft Kon-Tiki crashed into a reef in French Polynesia (books by this author). The Norwegian ethnologist had set out from Peru the previous April, determined to prove that early South Americans could have traveled across the Pacific and settled in the Polynesian Islands. Heyerdahl and his five-man crew did carry some modern technology, like a radio, navigational equipment, and watches, but the raft itself was made entirely of pre-Columbian materials. The body was made of balsa logs lashed together with hemp ropes, and had gaps between the logs for the water to drain out. The cabin was built of bamboo and had a thatched roof of banana leaves. The mast was made of planks of mangrove, and it held a square sail. It was a replica of the rafts that native Peruvians were using at the time of the first European contact in the early 1500s. Heyerdahl named it after a legendary Incan sun god who was believed to have walked across the Pacific.

In three and a half months, the raft traveled 4,300 nautical miles, weathered two major storms, and proved that Peruvian Incans could have made the voyage themselves. Heyerdahl wrote a book about the adventure, The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas (1948), and made a documentary film of the same name.

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