The Monster

    Famine is a frightful thing to contemplate, not least because we have the ability to contemplate it. If you have not experienced war, the veteran informs us, you have no idea of the reality of combat. But everyone can imagine, by mentally inverting our ordinary experience, how unpleasant it is to be forced to go […]

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    Spy v. Spy: How a Double Agent Won D-Day for the Allies

    IN The Art of War, Sun Tzu says that of the five classes of spies the most important is the “converted spy,” or double agent, because it is only through him (or her) that true “knowledge of the enemy” can be obtained. John le Carré writes that in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—perhaps the greatest literary representation of a counterespionage operation—he wanted to capture “the sheer scale of the mayhem that can be visited on an enemy service when its intelligence-gathering efforts fall under the control of its opponent.”

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    Sad New World

    AMERICA IS A land of hardy individualists who overcame every obstacle, a country of restless spirits who cheerfully traversed the oceans, conquered the West, defended freedom, and invented the modern world. Right? No, that is not quite the whole of it, argues Susan J. Matt in her indispensable new book, which belongs on the shelf of […]

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    The First Celebrity

    IT MUST BE TRUE that human culture has always lavished attention on “celebrities” who boast no readily identifiable talents. No doubt a few poseurs were immortalized in ancient cave drawings just because they knew how to draw attention to themselves. But modern American culture is hard to beat when it comes to the lionization of […]

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    Civilization and Barbarism

    IN A NEW YORK magazine article last spring, a young Chinese-American named Jefferson Mao spoke of the cultural importance of doing well on school exams. “You learn quite simply to nail any standardized test you take,” he told Wesley Yang. Yang’s piece described how Chinese neighborhoods in Queens are filled with “‘cram schools,’ or storefront […]

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    All Mashed Up

    THERE IS NO more tragic vegetable than the potato. Originating in the Peruvian Andes, it was first domesticated by the Quechua-speaking peoples, who could not help but become reliant on a highly nutritional foodstuff that could be grown in large quantities on small plots in regions inhospitable to grains. John Reader, in his ambling new […]

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    Melting Into Eire

    To the Irish, few things are more essential than the land. While perusing an oral history collection from the 1930s at University College, Dublin a few years ago, I was struck by how the most unremarkable field, some uninhabited spot tucked between two rural villages, would be described in deliciously precise detail and given its […]

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    Lords of the Ring

    John L. Sullivan, one of the most celebrated Americans of the nineteenth century, officially stepped into the ring for the final time on September 7, 1892. The flabby champion, a symbol of Gilded Age excesses, faced a fit San Franciscan with a perfect pompadour named James J. Corbett. “Gentleman Jim,” as he would eventually be […]

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    Slouching Towards Brutality

    On Easter Monday in 1916, a tiny army of Irish separatists seized several buildings of middling significance in central Dublin, neglecting to take Dublin Castle, the seat of British power in the country, and ignoring communications outposts essential to any insurrection. With little popular support and no electoral mandate, they issued a proclamation declaring a […]

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      The Deadliest Book Review

      It’s easy to imagine how a novelist might use a real person as a basis for a fictional character. It’s equally easy to imagine how such a person could notice the similarities and perhaps become offended. After all, the fiction writer has pledged an oath to serve a calling higher than mere feelings. Why should […]

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        Visiting Cagney’s Neighborhood

        By Peter Duffy In the final moments of the gangster film “Little Caesar” (1931), Edward G. Robinson’s Rico Bandello, mortally wounded by gunfire, utters his dying words: “Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?” The critic Robert Warshow used this scene to argue that, in the gangster genre, the mobster’s “whole life is […]

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        The Faith of Frank McCourt

        By Peter Duffy Frank McCourt, who died on Sunday at age 78, was the most Catholic of authors. The rites and rituals of Ireland’s Catholic Church of the 1930s and ’40s exist at the core of “Angela’s Ashes” (1996), his great Bildungsroman. That book’s hilarious and irreverent chapter on Mr. McCourt’s preparation for, and eventual […]

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        From Eire to America

        The Irish Americans 
By Jay P. Dolan 
(Bloomsbury, 352 pages, $30) By Peter Duffy Irish people of Protestant affiliation first began settling in British America in significant numbers in the 1720s. By 1790 they represented a sixth of the population of the young United States. Such pioneers are impossible to extricate from the early history […]

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        The Rebel Had Second Thoughts

        By Peter Duffy Thomas D’Arcy McGee By David A. Wilson (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 432 pages, $39.95) In the summer of 1848, during the worst days of the Great Irish Famine, a band of idealistic revolutionaries tried to spark the starving Irish people into rebelling against their cruel British overlords. But the writers, poets and orators […]

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        New York and the Famine

        By Peter Duffy On this St. Patrick’s Day, Ireland is peaceful and prosperous. The animosities of the past will have little bearing on the great parade that travels up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The so-called Celtic Tiger, with its cubs more interested in the strength of the euro than the durability of sectarian differences, appears […]

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          Talk to the Hand

          By Peter Duffy The history of handball, the greatest of New York City street games, has not been written. Instead, its folk memory is passed on through the rich oral tradition of its glove- and eyegear-wearing practitioners. On the benches surrounding the Seaside Courts on Surf Avenue in Coney Island — handball’s holiest site — […]

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                Kenyan Unrest, Jersey Style

                Kikuyus, Luos, and Kisii in Jersey City nervously watch events in Nairobi By Peter Duffy If you know where to look as you travel through Jersey City, you can spot the institutions of one of the most vital Kenyan communities in the United States. There’s the Mallory Coffee Shop, where Kenyans can order ugali, an […]

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