This week, we’re sharing stories from Lawrence Wright, April Wolfe, Mayukh Sen, Dan Jackson, and Ben Kuchera.
It’s hard to pinpoint the most Texan detail in Lawrence Wright’s magnum opus in the New Yorker on the state’s changing politics. (Seriously, it’s 19,000 words long.) It might be a nighttime hunt for wild pigs, with Democratic lawmakers armed with pistols, wearing cutoff jeans and tennis shoes. Or perhaps it’s the “Poo-Poo Choo-Choo,” a train that shipped toxic sludge from New York City to El Paso in 1991.
For Wright’s purpose, which is to map the permanent shift right — far, far right — of the Texas State Legislature, it would likely be the 2003 redistricting plan, which involved a run to the border, an old fashioned manhunt, and a standoff at a Holiday Inn.
Tom Craddick, an ultra-conservative Republican lawmaker, became the Speaker of the House that year. Spurned by a lifetime of Democratic obstruction, he came up with a plan not just to win elections, but to make winning a foregone conclusion through gerrymandering. The Democrats, faced with a bill that would create a permanent Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, left the state house and hightailed it to Oklahoma.
Under Craddick’s leadership, the Texas legislature began carving historical congressional districts into new fiefdoms. Taking care not to violate Supreme Court guidelines on minority representation, lawmakers jigsawed Texas into shapes that would decisively capture the state for the right.
In May, 2003, the redistricting plan came up for a vote in the Texas House. Fifty-three Democrats, sensing a lethal threat to their party, fled to Oklahoma, denying Craddick a quorum. He locked the capitol chamber, to prevent any more defections, and called out state troopers to hunt down the missing members, who became known as the Killer Ds.
In the midst of this hubbub, Pete Laney, the former speaker, flew his Piper turboprop from the Panhandle to Ardmore, Oklahoma, where he joined his Democratic colleagues at the local Holiday Inn. Someone from DeLay’s office obtained Laney’s flight plan from the Department of Homeland Security by implying that Laney’s plane was overdue to land and might have crashed or been seized by terrorists. Texas troopers and national reporters swarmed into Ardmore. The Democratic faction remained in Oklahoma for four days, until the deadline for considering new legislation had passed. The governor, Rick Perry—by then a stalwart Republican—called a special session for late June, whereupon eleven Democratic state senators decamped to New Mexico. It took two more special sessions to ram the vote through.
It was a successful gambit. So successful that redistricting has become the key tool in elections all over the country, resulting in a Congress with a steadfast and confident Republican majority. So should we watch Texas for what the future will bring? The future, writes Wright, is already here.
Because Texas represents so much of modern America—the South, the West, the plains, the border, the Latino community, the divide between rural areas and cities—what happens here tends to disproportionately affect the rest of the nation. Illinois and New Jersey may be more corrupt, and Kansas and Louisiana more out of whack, but they don’t bear the responsibility of being the future.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Katherina Grace Thomas, James Lasdun, Kyle Chayka, Tay Wiles, and Buzz Bissinger.
For the past few years, I’ve been fascinated with a bizarre murder case in Kingston, New York, where I live.
A local dentist, Dr. Gilberto Nunez, was charged with the 2011 death of his close friend Thomas Kolman, husband of Linda Kolman, with whom he was was having an affair. Kolman was found dead in his car early one morning in the parking lot of a Planet Fitness. He had the sedative midazolam in his bloodstream — a drug Nunez not only used in his practice, but which he’d also just read up about on his computer.
In newspaper reports Nunez came off as both a cold-blooded killer and a bumbling amateur straight out of a Coen Brothers movie: failing to cover his digital tracks, faking emails from a CIA agent, as well as inventing emails from his mother begging Linda not to dump her son.
Scientists say cockroaches are one of the few things that will survive a nuclear holocaust. Add prog rock to that list. Defined loosely by its intentional complexity, over-instrumentation, jazz elements, and classically-trained, ambitious musicians who rejected simpler, visceral forms of rock, the “progressive” form known as prog rock has been dissed and dismissed since it paraded its feathered hair onto the scene in the early 1970s. Even though its progressive ethos progressed itself out of existence, the prog oeuvre still has legions of fans and just as many enemies.
Why? In The New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh examines the genre to search for answers. Did prog ever achieve its lofty goals of pushing rock into “a higher form of art”? I mean, where do you go when you’ve already reached the stars? Down into hell? For some, hell is an Emerson, Lake & Palmer synthesizer solo without end, or even one with an end.
The genre’s primary appeal, though, was not spiritual but technical. The musicians presented themselves as virtuosos, which made it easy for fans to feel like connoisseurs; this was avant-garde music that anyone could appreciate. (Pink Floyd might be the most popular prog-rock band of all time, but Martin argued that, because the members lacked sufficient “technical proficiency,” Pink Floyd was not really prog at all.) In some ways, E.L.P. was the quintessential prog band, dominated by Emerson’s ostentatious technique—he played as fast as he could, and sometimes, it seemed, faster—and given to grand, goofy gestures, like “Tarkus,” a twenty-minute suite that recounted the saga of a giant, weaponized armadillo. The members of E.L.P. betrayed no particular interest in songwriting; the group’s big hit, “Lucky Man,” was a fluke, based on something that Greg Lake wrote when he was twelve. It concluded with a wild electronic solo, played on a state-of-the-art Moog synthesizer, that Emerson considered embarrassingly primitive. An engineer had recorded Emerson warming up, and the rest of the band had to convince him not to replace his squiggles with something more precise—more impressive. In the effortful world of prog, there was not much room for charming naïveté or happy accidents; improvised solos were generally less important than composed instrumental passages.
The audience for this stuff was largely male—Bruford writes ruefully that, throughout his career, women “generally and rather stubbornly stayed away” from his performances. The singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding, an obsessive prog-rock fan, suggests that these musicians were “afraid of women,” and that they expressed this fear by shunning love songs. What they provided, instead, was spectacle. As the American crowds got bigger, the stages did, too, which meant more elaborate shows, which in turn drew more fans. Weigel notes that, in one tour program, the members of Genesis promised to “continually feed profits back into the stage show.” (At one point, the show included a stage-wide array of screens displaying a sequence of hundreds of images, and, for the lead singer, a rubbery, tumorous costume with inflatable testicles.) Yes toured with sets designed by Roger Dean, the artist who painted its extraterrestrial album covers. Dean’s innovations included enormous, sac-like pods from which the musicians could dramatically emerge. Inevitably, one of the pods eventually malfunctioned, trapping a musician inside and prefiguring a famous scene from “This Is Spinal Tap.” The competition among bands to create bigger and brighter spectacles was absurd but also irresistible, and quite possibly rational. American arena stages, like LPs, needed to be filled, and so these bands set out to fill them.
In 1989, during a performance of Hamlet at the National Theater, Daniel Day-Lewis walked off the stage. Like Hamlet, he claimed, he’d seen his father’s ghost. He never took to the stage again. With this week’s announcement that Day-Lewis is retiring from acting, it looks like his film days are over, too. And when Daniel Day-Lewis commits to something, he really commits.
Cue the public mourning for one of our most dedicated actors, a man as famous for avoiding the cameras as he is for standing in front of them. Day-Lewis embodied Acting with a capital A, embracing all of its finicky pretense. The end of his career may also be the end of an era for the great method actor — and the brilliant, if reluctant, male movie star.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Caity Weaver, Marisa Meltzer, Jiayang Fan, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, and Jeff Maysh.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Matthew Shaer, John Woodrow Cox, Bethany McLean, Robin Wright, and David Sedaris.
At The New Yorker, Robin Wright reports on how the Mosul University Library — once home to books and documents dating to antiquity and destroyed by ISIS militants — is becoming the epicenter of Iraq’s cultural rebirth as the homemade mines are removed, Mosul University is rebuilt, and the book drives begin.
I could smell the acrid soot a block away. The library at the University of Mosul, among the finest in the Middle East, once had a million books, historic maps, and old manuscripts. Some dated back centuries, even a millennium, Mohammed Jasim, the library’s director, told me. Among its prize acquisitions was a Quran from the ninth century, although the library also housed thousands of twenty-first-century volumes on science, philosophy, law, world history, literature, and the arts. Six hundred thousand books were in Arabic; many of the rest were in English. During the thirty-two months that the Islamic State ruled the city, the university campus, on tree-lined grounds near the Tigris River, was gradually closed down and then torched. Quite intentionally, the library was hardest hit. ISIS sought to kill the ideas within its walls—or at least the access to them.
“My life’s work,” Jasim said, when we spoke by telephone two weeks ago. “I’d rather my house be destroyed, not the library. All my memories, all the people we helped there—we helped develop the city and the country. Whenever I speak about the library, it’s as if I’m putting my hand on an open wound.”
Then, there’s the problem of books. On May 25th, students organized a book drive outside the gutted library, even as battles between the Iraqi Army and isis militants echoed from across the river. Four young musicians performed in front of the library steps. Three students pinned their photographs of people and places and life in Mosul on a long clothesline and recounted the stories behind them. Four painters displayed their work, propped on easels. The event was the brainchild of Mosul Eye, a pseudonymous historian and blogger who chronicled life under ISIS rule until he fled Iraq, last year. (He spoke on the condition of anonymity, since he still has family in Mosul.) Before the ISIS invasion, in 2014, he spent long hours in the library each week doing research, he told me. From abroad, he’s now trying to coördinate a cultural rebirth in Mosul, beginning with its university.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Rebecca Solnit, Robert F. Worth, Margaret Talbot, Porochista Khakpour, and Frank Bures.