Francysk Skaryna, the Martin Luther of Belarus

(K. Brent Tomer),

THIS year, the 500th anniversary of his “95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, Martin Luther’s legacy is being re-examined. A cacophony of events, ranging from exhibitions to church services, will consider the global impact of the Reformation. But 1517 is worth remembering for other reasons, too. In that year, Francysk Skaryna published a book of Psalms in his native Belarusian: it was one of the first to use the Cyrillic script. Only two years later, he had translated large swathes of the Bible. Beyond the borders of Belarus, where monuments, streets and university buildings bear his name, Skaryna is one of the forgotten talents of the age.

Born in 1486 in Polotsk (then part of Poland-Lithuania), Skaryna lived an outstandingly rich life. As a young man, he went to Italy and became the first Eastern European to graduate as a Doctor of Medicine at Padua. Over a 40-year career, Skaryna variously tried his hand at medicine, philosophy and horticultural design. He also travelled widely, visiting Russia and spending time with the Duke of…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC Francysk Skaryna, the Martin Luther of Belarus


“T2 Trainspotting”: a poignant sequel to a singular British film

(K. Brent Tomer),

“TRAINSPOTTING” was best British film of the 1990s. Based on the novel of the same name by Irvine Welsh (a book one reviewer said deserved to sell more copies than the Bible), it told the interlaced stories of young working-class men from Leith, a then-rough area east of Edinburgh. “Trainspotting” made a star of Ewan McGregor, and showcased the vivid and frenetic style that Danny Boyle, the director, would use in later films like “Slumdog Millionaire”. 

Upon its release in 1996, some critics claimed that “Trainspotting” glamorised drugs. It was an odd thing to say about a film that showed, in graphic detail, the effects of a heroin overdose as well as its withdrawal symptoms. It showed the cold corpse of a baby that had died as a result of neglect by its addict parents. One character, Tommy, dies from AIDS after contracting HIV from sharing an infected needle. True, “Trainspotting” showed a few highs as well as the many lows. But only a Puritan would think it made light of the heroin and HIV epidemic that swept through Edinburgh in the 1980s. 

That “Trainspotting” was set in the 1980s is often forgotten. Released into…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC “T2 Trainspotting”: a poignant sequel to a singular British film

Roger Federer and Serena Williams defy age at the Australian Open

(K. Brent Tomer),

LAST week, in the middle of the Australian Open, the first grand-slam tournament of the 2017 tennis calendar, the International Tennis Hall of Fame announced its annual slate of inductees, which included Kim Clijsters and Andy Roddick. Ms Clijsters earned four grand-slam titles between 2005 and 2011, and Mr Roddick won the US Open in 2003. Both players retired from their respective tours in 2012.

The freshly minted Hall-of-Famers have something else in common: they are both younger than this year’s Australian Open singles champions. At 35 years of age Serena Williams, who won her 23rd major title in Melbourne on January 28th, is two years older than Ms Clijsters, and has won eight grand slams since the Belgian retired. Roger Federer, who defeated Rafael Nadal on January 29th to clinch his 18th major title, is one year older than Mr Roddick, and has reached four slam finals since the American called time on his career.

This year’s champions padded their résumés as two of the greatest players in tennis history, and they set <a…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC Roger Federer and Serena Williams defy age at the Australian Open

A Trumpian biopic of Ray Kroc

(K. Brent Tomer),

IT WAS apposite that “The Founder” opened on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration; Ray Kroc—a businessman who transformed the McDonald’s franchise—was a turbo-charged egomaniac. He neared bankruptcy several times, behaved with questionable business ethics and became successful beyond even his wildest dreams. He was also the offspring of immigrants (Czech, rather than German), thrice married and, obviously, a big fan of fast food.

Unlike the president, however, Kroc was entirely self-made. At the age of 52 he was criss-crossing the Midwest as salesman of milkshake mixers. With normally mediocre sales, Kroc cannot believe it when an unsolicited order for six milkshake mixers comes in. His curiosity is piqued: he drives all the way from Missouri to San Bernardino, California, to check out the business. The restaurant increases its order when he talks to them on the phone.

What he finds in San Bernardino is a bustling joint where customers happily stand in line for burgers and fries that are miraculously prepared in 30 seconds rather than 30 minutes (this is 1954). Kroc meets Richard and Maurice McDonald, the…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC A Trumpian biopic of Ray Kroc

The deep roots of modern resentment

(K. Brent Tomer),

Age of Anger: A History of the Present. By Pankaj Mishra. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 405 pages; $27. Allen Lane; £20.

SOON after the Soviet Union imploded, Pankaj Mishra reminds his readers, The Economist felt able to assert that “there was no serious alternative to free-market capitalism as the way to organise economic life.” Yet today, the notion that a global capitalist economy hitched to a liberal internationalism can bring peace, progress and prosperity has taken a beating. That is evident not only in the violence in Iraq and Syria, where what used to be called the civilising hand has proven incapable of stemming the bloodshed. It is evident, too, in the vitriolic populism resurging at the heart of Western democracies—in Brexit, in the rise of Marine Le Pen in France and in Donald Trump’s tumultuous route to the White House. 

Indian-born Mr Mishra divides his time between London and a retreat at the foot of the Himalayas. He earns a lot as a columnist for Bloomberg, and he sups at the tables of the Western intelligentsia. But he considers himself only a “stepchild” of the…Continue reading

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New histories of Istanbul

(K. Brent Tomer),

It’s not even past

Istanbul: Tale of Three Cities. By Bettany Hughes. Orion; 800 pages; £25. To be published in America by Da Capo Press in September; $35.

Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World. By Thomas Madden. Viking; 400 pages; $30.

FOR more than 2,000 years, the city on the Bosporus has by turns dazzled, enticed, horrified and scared the world. Over the generations, its inhabitants have excelled in art and architecture, wielded political and spiritual power over big swathes of the earth, and suffered in catastrophes ranging from earthquakes to fires. In recent years, the city has surged in importance as an economic and cultural hub and suffered awful terrorist attacks.

Yet for all its colourful drama, the city’s history can be hard to narrate in a way that is coherent and gripping. When studying the Byzantine era, readers can easily get lost in a succession of emperors with confusingly similar names, all embroiled in ruthless family feuds. Bettany Hughes, a prolific British broadcaster and classical scholar, and Thomas Madden,…Continue reading

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The case for compassion, not empathy

(K. Brent Tomer),

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. By Paul Bloom. Ecco; 304 pages; $26.99. Bodley Head; 290 pages; £18.99.

IN an age of partisan divides it has become popular to assert that the wounds of the world would heal if only people made the effort to empathise more with each other. If only white police officers imagined how it feels to be a black man in America; if only black Americans understood the fears of the man in uniform; if only Europeans opposed to immigration walked a mile in the shoes of a Syrian refugee; if only tree-hugging liberals knew the suffering of the working class.

Barack Obama warned of an empathy “deficit” in 2006, and did so again in his valedictory speech in January: “If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation,” he said, “each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said, ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’”

It is a piece of generous, high-minded…Continue reading

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The Sundance Climate Film Festival

(K. Brent Tomer),

Is it hot in here, or is it just me?

ON DECEMBER 5th Al Gore, the former vice-president who has spent the last three decades warning about the dangers of global warming, took the lift to the top of Trump Tower to meet the world’s most powerful climate-change sceptic. The scene, captured in “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power”, which had its debut at this month’s Sundance Film Festival, conveys Mr Gore’s determination never to stop trying to convert unbelievers, no matter how grim the task seems. The film embodies this sober spirit, showing how much worse matters have become since Mr Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” was released in 2006. The past three years were the three hottest on record.

The new film was just one of a raft of environmentally themed non-fiction films at this year’s Sundance, a mecca for independent movies that draws producers, directors, celebrities and civilians to a ski town in the mountains outside Salt Lake City, Utah. Taken together these documentaries had a powerful effect, depressing audiences with stark visual proof of destruction wrought on the environment, while managing to…Continue reading

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“Darke”, an unforgettable figure

(K. Brent Tomer),

Darke. By Rick Gekoski. Canongate; 299 pages; £16.99.

DR JAMES DARKE, a retired teacher of literature who collects first editions of Dickens, has walled himself off from the world. For a long stretch of this unusual first novel, the reason is hinted at, but not revealed. It is an extreme reaction to the pain of loss, the reader learns. Darke retreats and broods, cutting off his only daughter, Lucy.

The plot would not seem promising. But in Darke, Rick Gekoski has created an extraordinarily memorable character. He is an epic misanthrope and equal-opportunity bigot whose every utterance is filled with invective or despair. He trashes Jews and Catholics, the working class and writers from “fucking T.S. Eliot” to “that frigid snitbag”, Virginia Woolf. Literature may have been his life, but in his darkest moment, it lets him down.

It’s a sly turnabout for Mr Gekoski, a British-American academic and rare-book dealer known for chronicling the bookish life in broadcast, and in books such as “Outside of a Dog”. His first foray into fiction, at the age of 72, is nonetheless stuffed with literary allusions,…Continue reading

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Digital immortality for the Holocaust’s last survivors

(K. Brent Tomer),

STEVEN FRANK’S face is calm, his dark eyes sunken and flickering slightly. At 81, he is one of a dwindling number of survivors of the Holocaust who dedicate their lives to speaking with children about their experience. Seated in a red leather armchair, he perks up when the schoolgirl from Nottingham asks the inevitable question: “Are you related to Anne Frank?” There is a slight pause as Mr Frank shifts; his face becomes animated. “Frank is a name as common in Holland as Smith in England,” he answers, smiling.

The question-and-answer session took place last week, like scores of similar exchanges at Holocaust education centres around the world. But it will also take place for decades to come. Mr Frank has been speaking from a screen; he and nine other elderly survivors are the first people to be preserved as interactive witnesses to history, thanks to a pioneering project in 3D and speech-recognition technology.

At the National Holocaust Centre in the East Midlands of England, the “Forever Project” recreates a powerful experience: children engage first-hand with adults who endured the Nazi genocide as children, whether in hiding, in…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC Digital immortality for the Holocaust’s last survivors