Celebrating the Tenderloin

(K. Brent Tomer),

SAN FRANCISCO was one of several cities dubbed the “Paris of the West” in the early 20th century. The description was inspired by the charms of the Tenderloin district, an area that bustled with commerce and high culture after it avoided the worst of the 1906 earthquake that levelled three-quarters of the city.

From that high point the Tenderloin’s reputation foundered, but its vibrancy did not. It became the place where San Francisco’s supposed undesirables—including a century’s worth of immigrants, as well as gay men in the 1950s and transgender women in the 1960s—found refuge in affordable, centrally located housing and a dynamic community. The area takes its name from the days when policemen working the area accepted sufficient bribes to be able to buy the best meat.

Today, descriptions of the neighbourhood tend more towards the gritty. But these miss the point. The Tenderloin—or simply “the TL”, as locals know it—does have its problems with crime and public drug use. But it is one of America’s most ethnically diverse communities, and its mural-adorned residential hotels and increasingly cleaned-up playgrounds…Continue reading

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Feel the beat

(K. Brent Tomer),

Music, rhythm and dance are the beating heart of two vibrant exhibitions in Paris. “Beauté Congo” at the Fondation Cartier puts André Magnin’s long experience as a curator and collector of African art to good use, from the discoveries he made at the Africa Museum at Tervuren, Belgium, of Albert Lubaki’s watercolours of the 1920s to the boisterous recent works of Pierre Bodo, who died earlier this year, and J.P. Mika’s “Kiese na Kiese” from 2014 (pictured), which feels almost as if it is pulsating. Across town, at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Suzanne Pagé has overseen the assembly of a dynamic show of music and video art: from the gunshot-operatics of Chris Marclay’s “Crossfire” to the ever more menacing trombones in “Viva España” by Pilar Albarracìn and “The Krazy House”, Rineke Dijkstra’s rediscovery of the joys of youth.

The old ways are best

(K. Brent Tomer),

IN 2013 the American Society of Civil Engineers released its four-yearly report card on the state of the nation’s infrastructure. It estimated that $3.6 billion of investments were needed across the country, and gave the roads an abysmal D grade for their condition. Bridges fared a little better with a C+.

Such results stand in stark contrast to those merited by a 500-year-old road network that is currently being celebrated in an exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. The present-day condition of the Inca Road, which runs through the Andes and links hundreds of communities from Argentina to Peru, is a testament to its age-defying properties. It was recently put on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites list.

Built at the height of the Inca Empire, the 24,000-mile (39,000 km) network is revered by millions of Quechua- and Aymara-speaking natives of Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador. Stretches of the road are still used for transport, but it also has spiritual associations: it led to Cusco, the Peruvian town believed to be the centre of the Incan…Continue reading

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Goldenballs

(K. Brent Tomer),

The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger. By Greg Steinmetz. Simon and Schuster; 283 pages; $27.95.

ALBRECHT DÜRER’S portrait of Jacob Fugger shows a man with thin lips and unforgiving eyes. He wears a fine fur tippet about his shoulders and a brown cap; for the time, his dress is strikingly plain. Greg Steinmetz, formerly a journalist with the Wall Street Journal and now a securities analyst in New York, declares that he was the most influential businessman who ever lived. He makes a better case for this extravagant claim than for his assertion that Fugger was also the richest man in history.

A late-medieval banker from Augsburg in southern Germany, Fugger has never been as celebrated as Cosimo de Medici and his Florentine sons and cousins, whose reputation as bankers was burnished by their excellent taste in Renaissance art. But Fugger was the better banker. Were he alive today, he would have cut a swathe through Wall Street and the City, and yet his remarkable history is still little known. Mr Steinmetz’s prose does not always sparkle and some arcane…Continue reading

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Did I lock the back door?

(K. Brent Tomer),

Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History. By Francis O’Gorman. Bloomsbury; 173 pages; $20 and £14.

WHEN he is not teaching Victorian literature at the University of Leeds or writing books, Francis O’Gorman admits to doing a lot of unnecessary brooding. “Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History” is his affectionate tribute to low-level fretting—what the author calls “the hidden histories of ordinary pain”—in everyone’s life.

The word itself is comparatively new. Although it was used in the 16th century, in all of Shakespeare’s works “worry” appears just once—as a transitive verb denoting strangling or choking. Only in the Victorian era did its contemporary meaning come into widespread use. The advent of literary modernism in the 20th century placed the personal inner world centre-stage. From James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom to Virginia Woolf’s Mr Ramsay, worriers came to abound in the modernist canon.

Humanity’s sense of anxiety has deep roots. Contemporary angst is inextricably tied up with living in an advanced, hyper-modern society, and yet, when worrying takes hold, it…Continue reading

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Poppy love

(K. Brent Tomer),

A sharp price to pay

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. By Sam Quinones. Bloomsbury; 368 pages; $28 and £18.99.

AMERICA is battling a massive epidemic of heroin and its pharmacological substitutes. By 2008 drug overdoses, mostly from opioids, overtook car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death. In a related development, the number of annual users of heroin jumped from 370,000 in 2007 to 680,000 in 2013.

The epidemic, as Sam Quinones, an American journalist, outlines in “Dreamland”, a meticulously researched new book, has two root causes. One is a failure of regulation in the pharmaceutical industry; the other is retail innovation in the black market.

In 1995 Purdue Pharma, a drug company in Stamford, Connecticut, was given permission by the Food and Drug Administration to market a powerful new opioid called OxyContin for moderate pain. Doctors, wary about prescribing opioids because of their markedly addictive nature, had previously used it for severe pain only. Many patients duly became addicts and “pill mills”, pain clinics that handled…Continue reading

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When the cloud parted

(K. Brent Tomer),

Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War. By Susan Southard. Viking; 389 pages; $28.95 and £20.

AMERICA dropped its atom bomb on Nagasaki at 11.02am on August 9th 1945, three days after Little Boy fell on Hiroshima. In the years that followed, the story of Nagasaki’s hibakusha (the “explosion-affected people”, or survivors of the atom bomb) took second place. The best-known symbol of the world’s first use of nuclear weapons was always Hiroshima.

It is this imbalance which Susan Southard’s searing account of the experiences of five teenagers who lived through the attack on Nagasaki tries to redress. The second nuclear bomb, which killed over 70,000 civilians (with many more dying afterwards), struck as Japan’s wartime leaders, shocked by Hiroshima, were already deliberating how to surrender. So, there has long been a sense that this second fireball was less justified than the first.

For a time, Nagasaki’s citizens were thought by many Japanese to have accepted their city’s obliteration more stoically than their fellow hibakusha in…Continue reading

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Blind alley

(K. Brent Tomer),

Russia and the New World Disorder. By Bobo Lo. Brookings Institution Press and Chatham House; 341 pages; $34 and £25.50.

SEEN from the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy is a series of triumphs. He has killed NATO expansion, regained Crimea and exposed the weakness and hypo-crisy of the West. In Russia’s eyes, argues Bobo Lo in a thoughtful new book, “the humiliated nation of the 1990s has metamorphosed into a resurgent global power”. It is now “more independent, more indispensable, more self-confident, and more influential than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union”. As a result, it believes it can dictate the terms of its engagement with the West. The outside world must adjust to Russia, not the other way round, treating it as an equal, respected partner.

Mr Lo, a former Australian diplomat who now works at the Chatham House think-tank in London, adopts a commendably calm approach to a topic which attracts plenty of polemic. At every stage he outlines Russian views of the world fairly, and highlights Western mistakes and misapprehensions, before proceeding to paint the full picture in precise and sometimes scathing terms.

The fundamental problem is that the Kremlin’s perception of the world is skewed. It exaggerates the West’s weakness and its own strength. It prizes hard power, which it…Continue reading

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On to the beginning

(K. Brent Tomer),

Wind/Pinball: Two Novels. By Haruki Murakami. Translated by Ted Goossen. Knopf; 256 pages; $25.95. Harvill Secker; £16.99.

IN 1978, over the course of six months or so, Haruki Murakami juggled running a Tokyo jazz bar with writing a novel. A year later, using the same routine, he penned a sequel. “Hear the Wind Sing” and “Pinball, 1973”, to give the two books their full titles, launched the author’s career in Japan and went on to comprise the first two-thirds of his “Trilogy of the Rat”. Never before published in English outside Japan, these two early works now appear in a single volume expertly translated by Ted Goossen.

“Hear the Wind Sing” follows the summer escapades of an unnamed narrator and his friend, known as the Rat. The hero spends his university break propping up J’s bar with the Rat, listening to music, meditating on writing, reminiscing about ex-girlfriends (mourning one who hanged herself) and chasing a potential new one who has nine fingers.

The meatier and more surreal “Pinball, 1973” follows on directly. The narrator has moved on from university and away from the Rat. He now manages a translation company in Tokyo, lives with identical twin girls and becomes obsessed with the “occult world of pinball”—a turnaround from the previous novel in which he scorned the pinball machine…Continue reading

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