Katie Baker

Stories by Katie Baker

  • Book Review of Beijing Coma By Ma Jian

    China bans all mention of June 4, the day of a deadly 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, but memories remain—including those of exiled novelist Ma Jian and of the protagonist of his new novel, "Beijing Coma." The story follows Dai Wei, who grew up the son of an accused "rightist" in the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, and who falls in with ideological firebrands during his university days. Heady from reading Western books and ideas, Dai Wei and his fellow students press the government for democratic reforms in a series of demonstrations, first in 1987 and then two years later. As the second protest is strained by a hunger strike and power struggles among the youth, the Army opens fire and Dai Wei takes a bullet to the brain. For the ensuing decade, Dai Wei languishes as a "vegetable" in his mother's home, moving back and forth in his trapped mind between memory and the present, and hearing visitors relate how the government has punished his surviving friends—and how those...
  • Book Review: Haruki Murakami's Memoir On Running

    In the annals of literary history, novelists have often been sports maniacs—Hemingway had his hunting, Mailer his boxing, Plimpton his football. Now Japanese cult writer Haruki Murakami has his marathons. In his new memoir, "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running," the author chronicles a season of training (he's completed at least one 42km race per year for more than two decades) with his typically understated, repetitive style—one that mirrors the act of long-distance running itself.The book is mostly a collection of thoughts, jotted down as Murakami runs in climes as different as Tokyo, Boston and Hawaii. Turns out the traits necessary for writing novels for a living (the ability to enjoy being alone and to exercise even when the muscles are tired) also work in a marathoner's favor. Murakami's book is strongest when he moves out of his head and into the wider world of races—as when he travels to the New York marathon and observes a late-autumn Central Park, where "the sky is...
  • Books: Democrats' Pledge of Allegiance

    To compile "Why I'm A Democrat," editor Susan Mulcahy recruited more than 50 fellow party faithful, including celebs like Tony Bennett, Isaac Mizrahi and Nora Ephron, along with farmers, waitresses and one billionaire (insurance mogul Bernard Rapoport). Some of their reasons are predictable (civil rights, JFK), while others are amusing ("because I'm already enough of an a––hole," says Presidents of the U.S.A. guitarist Dave Dederer). But while the values praised in the book may have been exclusively Democratic back in the Depression or even in the '70s—compassion for the less fortunate, opportunity for new Americans—times have changed. As this year's primaries showed, voters now identify with pro-immigrant, socially progressive Republicans like John McCain and tough-on-defense, down-on-handouts Dems like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who ran circles around the populist John Edwards. In this light, the book comes off as simplistic partisan cheerleading, particularly the foreword...
  • World Leaders Won't Boycott Olympics

    Less than a month to go until the Olympics and world leaders are finally announcing their plans, with hardly a party pooper in the bunch. George W. Bush will be there, saying he's going for the sake of the athletes and "the Chinese people." That sentiment was echoed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who backtracked on threats to sit out by declaring, "I don't think you can boycott a quarter of humanity." Even leaders who passed on the invite insist it's not political: both Germany's chancellor and Canada's prime minister said their decision to stay home was due to scheduling conflicts.Sounds like spin—but the politicos may be right. The Games have moved past their days as a stage for ideological battles, most infamously in 1936 Berlin (when Jesse Owens prevailed over Hitler's propaganda) and in the dueling cold-war boycotts of 1980 (Moscow) and 1984 (Los Angeles). Since the Soviet Union's demise, the Olympics have grown free of international politicking: the 1996 Atlanta Games...
  • Salman Rushdie Favored to Win Best of the Bookers

    For the 40th anniversary of the Booker Prize—Britain's annual award for the best novel by a Commonwealth or Irish citizen—a Best of the Booker is being bestowed on July 10. The winner (who gets a trophy and bragging rights) will be chosen by popular vote from among six preselected finalists. The shortlisted names are illustrious: Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee. But none of the contestants truly stands a chance against the supernova shining in their midst, one Sir Salman Rushdie and his incandescent breakthrough novel, "Midnight's Children."Other Booker winners who might have given Rushdie a run for his money—"Life of Pi," for example—failed to make the cut, and Rushdie has already won a Booker of Bookers on the prize's 25th anniversary. While his five rivals are notable examples of English prose, they can't match the ambition and sheer exuberance of 1981's "Midnight's Children," which borrows from magical realism and Dickensian caricature to tackle the entire Indian subcontinent and...
  • Cleanest Tour Yet?

    The countdown is on for the 2008 Tour de France and the scandals keep on coming. In June, green-jersey champion Tom Boonen was banned for a positive cocaine test, making him the latest in a string of expulsions that include defending champion Alberto Contador, whose Astana Team was barred in February for past doping problems. With such a rocky pre-race, fans are wondering: Can there ever be a clean Tour de France?The paradox is that the Tour has to uphold its anti-doping image while still attracting edgy riders whom fans (and sponsors) adore, says cycling commentator Matt Rendell, whose recent book "Blazing Saddles" notes that cheating has been around since the Tour's early days, when turn-of-the-century riders secretly took the train and downed arsenic to boost performance. "There will always be doubt. But I think that's part of the charm of the Tour," Rendell says. "Is this guy superhuman or is he just so smart that no one's been able to catch him? And sponsors want that."But...
  • Hero Of The Steppes

    It's the late 12th century, at a trading bazaar in the Gobi Desert. A ruler from the local Tangut dynasty is buying slaves, and he's drawn to a captive named Temudgin. A seer warns against the sale—this man will bring ruin upon the empire. He chuckles and imprisons Temudgin in a filthy cell and hangs a sign: THE MONGOL WHO WANTED TO DESTROY THE TANGUT KINGDOM. People mock and stare.But the joke's on the Tanguts. For Temudgin is the birthname of one Genghis Khan, whose beginnings are traced (via a light embellishment of scholarly accounts) in Sergei Bodrov's epic "Mongol." The film—which opened June 6 in the States and the U.K.—follows Temudgin from his childhood as the son of a powerful khan to exile after his father's murder and his rise as a formidable warrior. Along the way, there's love in the form of a beauty named Borte, and fighting—lots of it, of the throat-slitting, arrow-piercing variety. Even though the director's an art-house favorite, the film's closer in spirit to...
  • Journeys to the Edge of Science

    "Panic in Level 4," a collection of essays by New Yorker writer Richard Preston, is sure to please science fanatics, or anyone else obsessed with nature's murkier mysteries. Preston roves through darkly fascinating terrain, from the Congolese rain forest—home to the Ebola virus and its unidentified animal host—to the smallest chromosomes of DNA, where one wrong letter can spell a lifetime of misery for sufferers of Lesch-Nyhan, a syndrome that causes a person to self-cannibalize.Along the way, the author meets many colorful types: the tree climbers of the Cataloochee valley, intent upon measuring the dying Eastern hemlocks; the Belgian doctor who gives a choking newborn an "Ebola kiss." But the undisputed heroes of Preston's world are the Chudnovsky brothers. Russian-born prodigies who fancy themselves one mathematician divided into two bodies, the brothers build a supercomputer out of special-order parts in their New York apartment. The machine has the herculean purpose of...
  • A Softer Edifice

    War monuments on Washington, D.C.'s National Mall tend toward the phallic—most famously, the obelisk honoring revolutionary hero and first President George Washington. Hardly surprising, as nation-building and machismo go hand in hand.But if the latest structure to break ground on the Mall is any indication, we're ripe for a foreign-policy sea change. The U.S. Institute for Peace—a federal agency dedicated to war-zone conflict resolution—is erecting a new home that suggests Mahatma Gandhi more than Manifest Destiny. The five-story edifice will boast a stunning curved roof (smooth, white and shaped like the wings of a dove) to envelop offices and an educational peace center. The architecture is a study in juxtaposition: round and angular in equal measure.The shape of the planned headquarters hints at the confusing double role the United States now finds itself in: juggling international peacekeeping commitments with the messy and ongoing Iraq War and the administration's nebulous War...
  • A Safe But Sterile Internet

    In the web counterrevolution that Jonathan Zittrain foresees, users will lose the ability to control content, companies will gain the power to censor data, and security will trump innovation. It's a gloomy scenario that his new book, "The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It," says is already underway.Zittrain, a professor at Oxford's Internet Institute, has long fought against attempts to control the Web and its Netizens. So it's no surprise that the book's biggest concern is the loss of the Web's free, communal ethos. Now, Zittrain says, the Net faces many threats to its openness: rising copyright infringement and identity theft encourage state interference, while viruses and spam are leading users to abandon flexible PCs for safe yet limited access through iPhones and BlackBerrys.For anyone who's lost files to malware, a lockdown may not sound so bad. But as Zittrain points out, corporate devices and services allow makers to exert unprecedented control. They can be censored...
  • Movies: Wanna-Be Carrie

    Much has been made of "Sex and the City's" single-girl mythology, with its four Dolce-clad heroines who set off to conquer a larger-than-life version of New York. Now the prospect of seeing Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda go through one more mythopoetic cycle is causing epic preparations. To fete the film, which premiered May 12 in London and opens stateside the weekend of May 30, devotees will be able to indulge in a "Sex and the City" package at New York's Mandarin Oriental (with cocktails like the "Mr. Big Apple-tini" and outings to Jimmy Choo), brunch with female-only networking groups in Baltimore or enter a "SATC" look-alike contest at Boston's Underbar (break out your nameplate necklaces). Patricia Field, the show's designer, is peddling heart-shaped cosmo flasks on her Web site for moviegoers to accessorize.Most fans, though, are just planning to head to the theater in style. "I've always identified with Carrie," says Rozy Lewis, a Manhattan party planner who's...
  • It’s Biennial Time

    The Whitney Museum of American Art's Biennial show has long been heralded as a survey of the most influential up-and-comers, and also derided as a hit-or-miss exhibit that fails to live up to its hype. The reality, of course, falls somewhere in between, and this year's exhibit—running through June 1—is no exception. Some of the works are sublime: Venezuela-born Javier Téllez films six blind people interacting with an elephant, in a literal adaptation of the old proverb on the limits of knowledge; Jedediah Caesar sculpts Technicolor resin into formations that bubble like the surface of some far-off planet; Daniel Joseph Martinez fills a room with simple yellow plaques giving name to "Divine Violence," groups both well known (The Irish Republican Army, Mossad) and obscure (Nuclei for promoting total catastrophe). Other installations fall short: a room filled with mutilated Bart Simpson photographs and a movie loop of "Pirates of the Caribbean" comes to mind. A common thread throughout...
  • How to Sound Presidential

    The orations of politicians, George Orwell once complained, "vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech." It's an opiate-of-the-masses view of political jargon—one that's soundly rebuffed by William Safire, The New York Times's "On Language" guru, whose Political Dictionary will be rereleased next month in time for party conventions and the general election, both historical hotbeds of new "po-lingo."Safire, a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon, hardly views the language of politics as Orwellian brainwashing. That said, he's the first to acknowledge that our vocabulary shapes, as much as it reflects, the way we think about the world. The names of laws ("death tax," "Clear Skies Initiative") and the characterizations of would-be leaders ("bull moose," "amiable dunce") have unconscious effects on even the savviest voters. It's why spinmeisters stay in business and why a politician's word choice...
  • Skyscrapers: Modern-Day Colossus

    Beijing recently unveiled the earth's largest building, a new million-square-meter airport terminal that will help handle up to 90 million passengers per year. It leaves Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International (84 million) in second place, and marks a new milestone in China's quest to build the biggest and tallest. Other Chinese superlatives:This month, the Hangzhou Bay Bridge—the world's longest transoceanic span—will open to traffic. At 36km, it's the equivalent of 13 Golden Gates.Since 2005, China's had the globe's largest mall. With 650,000 square meters of space and more than 1,500 shops, it also boasts full-scale theme parks.Shanghai's World Financial Center is the second tallest completed skyscraper, 17 meters shy of Taipei 101.