4 May, 2009Issue 9.2Review of Reviews

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Review of Reviews




Who are the winners when swine flue strikes? Stock traders are betting on GlaxoSmithKline (manufacturer of the anti-viral drug Relenza) and Roche Pharmaceuticals (which owns the rights to Tamiflu). 3M hopes that it will reap rewards from its mask-making operations. And Penguin Books, publisher of John Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, has seen sales surge. By Friday, it was #81 on Amazon.com’s bestseller list. Author Barry notes that the 2009 outbreak is a turning of the tables: in 1918, humans passed the virus to pigs.

Meanwhile, immunologist and infectious disease expert Nathan Wolfe is cashing in. The Stanford scholar, whose previous publications have tantalizing titles such as “Emergence of unique primate T-lymphotropic viruses among central African bushmeat hunters”, has signed a $300,000 deal with publisher Henry Holt to write The Viral Storm, a book about “how viruses and humans have evolved side-by-side over the millennia” and “how viruses have often had the upper hand in the relationship”.

While publishers race to churn out flu-related titles, politicians bicker over how to title the flu. Israeli Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litman of the ultra-orthodox United Torah Judaism Party wants to call it “Mexican flu”; swine, after all, is not kosher. He might be more upset when he picks up Thursday’s English-language edition of the left-leaning newspaper Ha’aretz, which reviews The Whole Hog: Exploring the Extraordinary Potential of Pigs. Author Lyall Watson argues (convincingly) that swine are very clean creatures—leading Ha’aretz to conclude that “swine have grounds for a class-action slander suit against humans”.

The New York Times heads to the public library and checks out America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918. That’s something the paper wouldn’t have been able to do during the actual 1918 pandemic: libraries stopped circulating in case books themselves had been circulating the infection. Other precautionary measures that New York took in 1918: movie theatres sold half as many tickets and told patrons to sit one space apart; Boy Scouts stood on street corners and slapped spitters with cards that said “You are in violation of the Sanitary Code”; and businesses staggered their opening times to alleviate congestion on the city metros. Evidently, the measures had some salubrious effects: New York’s death toll (20,000 to 24,000) was lower, per capita, than Boston’s and Philadelphia’s.

Introducing… the New Poet Laureate. After months of suspense, and high-stakes bets at bookmakers, the new poet laureate has been named: Pierre DesRuisseaux. With the world’s attention turned to Carol Ann Duffy (the first female, openly gay, Scottish poet laureate in UK history), Canada quietly announced its own national bard: a 63-year-old Francophone who is the author of such mass-market favourites as Dictionnaire des expressions québécoises.

After speculation as to whether Duffy would accept the poet laureate post (Sir Walter Scott, William Morris, and Philip Larkin have turned it down), Duffy has said yes—under one condition: she wants her “butt of sack” (600 bottles of sherry) delivered up front. Ben Jonson received his butt in full, but Tennyson did not, and current laureate Andrew Motion is still awaiting payment.

National Treasures. DesRuisseaux will engage Canada in a “dialogue about the importance of verse in our national culture”, according to a parliamentary press release. Meanwhile, Art Institute of Chicago curator James Cuno has engaged philosophers (including K. Anthony Appiah) and fellow museum directors (including the British Museum’s Neil MacGregor) in a dialogue about the importance of artifacts in national culture: his new anthology Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate Over Antiquities, considers claims by China, Egypt, Greece, Italy, and other “retentionist” nations who want their purloined relics repatriated. Cuno takes top billing in the new issue of New York Review of Books. Canada’s National Post reviews Cuno’s work as well and asks the question: what’s the fuss about the Rosetta Stone? The text on the rock is “utterly boring but it’s trilingually boring”. As opposed to the nation of Canada, which is only bilingually so.

Is Four One Too Many? US universities are in crisis—and some might look to the Oxbridge model for a bailout. No proposals for a tutorial system yet, but the New York Review of Books floats the idea of a three-year baccalaureate track as a cost-cutting device. Ultimately, NYRB concludes that “the American idea of college has always made room for some form of liberal or general education”—and the extra year allows students to sample from a menu of disciplines. Perhaps more importantly, it allows students to spend one year abroad and to “pick[] up some social polish in Europe”. Up town at the New York Times, columnist Roger Cohen reminisces about his undergraduate experience at Balliol (and takes a pot shot at St. John’s College, “a too-beautiful refuge of sporty underachievers”). Social polish indeed.

Over at the other Times, columnist Mary Beard touts her Oxbridge college (Newnham), which has produced “a range of the best, and best known, writers of the twentieth century”. She wrote the post on her Don’s Life blog after she “quaffed—I confess—a lot [of] claret” with three fellow Newnham ladies at a recent college event. They’re not the only Newnham ladies whose foursomes are featured in the Times. A new biography of Newnham’s own Frances Partridge proves that even if you live to be 103, and even if you translate more than a dozen major works of Spanish- and French-language fiction, you will always be remembered for an ill-advised ménage à quatre from your mid-20s.

Bonus Babies. US judge Richard Posner, known for his free-market philosophy, has issued what almost amounts to a mea culpa, and NYRB takes note. In his newest book, Posner acknowledges that “dangerous compensation practices” at financial firms made it “irresistible to focus on the short run and skim off mind-boggling paychecks and bonuses”. Meanwhile, the Financial Times looks at “using and misusing incentives” in another context: toilet training. Apparently, Australian economist Joshua Gans experimented with a scheme that gave his first child one jelly bean per urination, two per defecation. As Gans recounts in his new book Parentonomics, a single jelly bean wasn’t quite enough to address liquidity problems, “so the reward was then ratcheted up to chocolate frogs”. That generated a problem of its own: the incentive was so strong that the child would spend hours in the lavatory trying to churn out exotic derivatives and structured products.

Close to home, the Cherwell announces that Ian McEwan’s next novel will tell the tale of a “a short, fat man who was possessed of a disposition that was utterly irresistible to women”… In the London Review of Books, James Woods dissects McEwan’s “manipulative distortions”…Portuguese doctor-turned- novelist Ant√≥nio Lobo Antunes is out with a new volume of essays and short stories, titled The Fat Man and Infinity. The New Yorker’s Peter Conrad considers Antunes’s attempts to “dissect his country“. Meanwhile, Dissection, a photo album of turn-of-the-20th-century medical students slicing skeletons, garners gasps from Slate and the NYT.

Crime fiction guru Daniel Mallory—better known on campus as the New College MCR welfare officer—reviews two new books on art theft in the Washington Post. The Telegraph reviews Turf Tavern down New College Lane—and reveals that it was “once the venue of choice for the discerning cockfighting fan”. Independent columnist Dom Joly, in Cambodia while researching a new book, asks: “Why have cocks been chosen to fight through history as opposed to, for instance, ducks or geese or swans?” The Economist notes that wiener-dog racing is gaining popularity in the US and catches up with the director of the new documentary Wiener Takes All. And speaking of popular Portuguese natives: President Obama’s six-month-old Portuguese water dog Bo is the subject of a new biography, America’s Commander in Leash.