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This 'Suitcase' Is Packed With Sharp, Funny, Tragic Tales

Jul 31, 2014

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At some point in the past decade, the word "Brooklyn" became cultural shorthand for a certain type of young, nouveau riche hipster. The borough has a history that goes back centuries, and a huge, notably diverse population, but to many Americans, it's now mainly associated with fixie-riding arrivistes sipping artisanal espresso drinks while they work on their painfully autobiographical novels about escaping suburbia.

Like any other geographical stereotype, it's wildly reductionist, and not just because a lot of hipsters have moved on to kombucha. There's obviously a lot more to Brooklyn than skinny jeans and indie rock bands, though you wouldn't necessarily know it from today's dominant cultural conversation. That's one of the reasons why Panic in a Suitcase, the excellent debut novel from New York-based author Yelena Akhtiorskaya, is such a breath of fresh air.

Panic in a Suitcase is set chiefly in Brighton Beach, the neighborhood known for decades as home to immigrants from the Soviet Union. The novel follows the Nasmertov family, recently arrived from Odessa, Ukraine, as they adjust to life in a new country, 5,000 miles away from the city they called home for generations.

It's not as much of an adjustment as you might think, though. When the family is visited by Pasha, a troubled poet and his family's lone holdout (he can't bring himself to leave Odessa), he observes that Brighton Beach isn't too different from his hometown: "His fellow countrymen hadn't ventured bravely into a new land, they'd borrowed a tiny nook at the very rear of someone else's crumbling estate to make a tidy replication of the messy, imperfect original they'd gone through so many hurdles to escape."

The first part of Panic in a Suitcase centers on Pasha, whose family has brought him to visit in the hopes that he'll decide to join them in Brooklyn. Pasha is stubborn to a fault, terrified of any kind of confrontation, and even as a child exhibited a "catastrophic intolerance for the idiocy of others." His mother, Esther, and sister, Marina, treat him with a mix of affection and exasperation — they can't abide his seeming lack of interest in his career, his surroundings, and even his own son, whom he barely acknowledges.

Jumping forwards 15 years, the second part of the novel focuses on Pasha's niece Frida, a precocious but aimless girl who doesn't initially seem interested at all in her homeland. (Asked, as a child, if she likes living in America, Frida is nonplussed: "Here — as opposed to where? If there had been a somewhere else, Frida was currently engaged in an immense struggle to extract every last trace of it from her DNA.") Years later, she returns to Ukraine for her cousin's wedding, and finds herself just as adrift as she was in the States.

Pasha and Frida don't have too much in common except for a tendency toward caprice and a nagging sense of anomie. But Panic in a Suitcase is less a novel about them than it is about the Nasmertov family as a whole — Akhtiorskaya treats the clan almost as a single character, functioning as a whole, even as its constituent parts are in a constant war with themselves.

And it works, because of Akhtiorskaya's patient, understated prose. She's a deeply perceptive writer, and her observations about the family's experience as immigrants to America are sharp and sometimes heartbreaking. On the family's habit of literally counting the days since they moved to the States, she writes, "It'd seemed that if not counted, the days might either not pass or sneak by in clusters, two or more at a time. One thing a Soviet upbringing taught you was to pay attention."

And as sad as the novel is in parts, it's leavened by Akhtiorskaya's dry, brilliant sense of humor. She tackles both normal and comic moments with a straight face, which makes them even funnier — at one point, she gives the somewhat snobby Pasha credit for gamely making conversation with "a woman among whose wisdoms was that a Virgo and a Cancer should never mix except for in the bedroom and who saw logic in wearing a crucifix, a kabbalah bracelet, and a bindi simultaneously."

Panic in a Suitcase isn't just remarkable as a literary debut, but also as a uniquely American work of fiction. It's a testament to how diverse and unexpected the Brooklyn literary scene can be, but more than that, it's a testament to Akhtiorskaya's wit, generosity, and immense talent as a young American author.

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Argentina's Economy Minister Axel Kicillof speaks during a press conference at the Argentina Consulate in New York on Wednesday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Argentina's Default: 5 Headlines That Tell The Story

by Eyder Peralta
Jul 31, 2014

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Eyder Peralta

Yesterday in New York, representatives from Argentina and some of its creditors emerged from negotiations to announce that they had failed.

As NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, this meant that the country had fallen into default for second time in more than 12 years. The repercussions of the default are unpredictable, but it could mean that the country is shut out of the international debt markets, perhaps pushing interest rates and inflation higher.

With that here are five headlines that tell the story of Argentina's default:

— "S&P Cuts Argentina To 'Selective Default' Rating" (Barron's):

Even before Argentina technically missed its first payment to bond holders, the credit ratings agency Standard & Poor's issued a rating that means the country had defaulted on "some of its foreign currency obligations."

A glimmer of good news in S&P's move: it didn't dive the rating of the country's currency further into junk status because "the potential disruptions to interest payments on Argentina's external debt are not likely to further erode its ability to service its debt issued in its local currency and under its local law."

It's important to note that this all started with an order from a U.S. court. Back in 2001, Argentina also defaulted on some of its debt. Out of that mess, some bond holders accepted a restructuring agreement, in which Argentina agreed to pay back a portion of what it owed them. A U.S. court, however, ruled that Argentina could not pay those bond holders without concurrently paying other bond holders who did not come to an agreement with the country in 2001.

"In Hedge Fund, Argentina Finds Relentless Foe" (New York Times):

Speaking of the so called "holdouts," the New York Times talks about the hedge fund of Paul E. Singer, which has a staff of 300, but has "managed to force Argentina, a nation of 41 million people, into a position where it now has to contemplate a humbling surrender."

The piece is worth a read. Here's a bit from it:

"As a hedge fund, Elliott's pursuit of Argentina is motivated by a desire to make money. Having bought its Argentine bonds for well below their original value, the firm stands to make a killing if Argentina pays the bonds in full. Legal filings indicate that the face value of its Argentine government bonds was around $170 million, but the firm most likely acquired many of them for much less than that. Elliott and other investors are now seeking more than $1.5 billion, which includes years of unpaid interest.

"Still, there is also something of a crusade about the battle that reveals the worldview of Mr. Singer, who is 69. A Republican donor with libertarian leanings, he has spoken out when he thinks that governments and companies have damaged the rights of creditors.

"'He doesn't get into fights for the sake of fighting. He believes deeply in the rule of law and that free markets and free societies depend on enforcing it,' said a fellow hedge fund manager, Daniel S. Loeb."

— What Are the Ripple Effects if Argentina Defaults? (Bloomberg):

So does this accomplish the less liberal fiscal world that Singer may be looking for? Here's a good round table from Bloomberg addressing the issue:

— World Weighs Fallout of Argentine Bond Case on Other Indebted Nations (Wall Street Journal):

The Journal captures the big fear some observers have:

"The International Monetary Fund and others are warning that the legal rulings that forced Buenos Aires' hand could imperil future debt restructurings. Already, they say, the case is driving bond issuers to rewrite their contracts to ensure that a small group of creditors wouldn't be able to hold bond deals hostage.

— Argentina Is Already Unwelcome In The Debt Markets (The Guardian):

The Guardian's Heidi Moore tells us why she thinks that's overblown:

"Absolutely nothing is riding on an Argentina's default. The entire conflict is composed of absurdities.

"Here's one: Argentina's president, Cristina Kirchner, maintains that Argentina can't afford to pay the hedge funds. But it pays for the rest of us to be skeptical of that claim: if Argentina can pay some of its bondholders, it can pay all of them. The country owes the holdouts roughly only $1.5bn, a fraction of the $23bn it will pay its other bondholders in a single payment.

"Here's another: Argentina's fight with hedge funds sets no precedents for any other countries. The US will feel no impact, beyond a few investors losing some completely manageable amounts of money on their own. Argentina's mulishness centers around a relatively paltry set of 13-year-old, $1.5bn bonds that were badly negotiated and haven't been imitated by any other country since.

"And another insanity: Argentina is already unwelcome in the debt markets - avoiding your creditors will do that - so a default wouldn't make it any worse. Argentina has been so financially isolated for so long that it has nearly no global weight to throw around."

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Argentina's Economy Minister Axel Kicillof speaks during a press conference at the Argentina Consulate in New York on Wednesday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Pushing A Brussels Sprout Up A Mountain — For A Cause

Jul 31, 2014 (Morning Edition)

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Argentina's Economy Minister Axel Kicillof speaks during a press conference at the Argentina Consulate in New York on Wednesday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Red Robin's 'Monster' Burger Wins Xtreme Eating Awards

Jul 31, 2014 (Morning Edition)

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Eduard Egarter-Vigl (left) and Albert Zink (right) sample Italy's mummified iceman for genetic analysis in November 2010. Previous research suggests he, too, was predisposed to heart disease. (Samadelli Marco/EURAC)

What Somebody's Mummy Can Teach You About Heart Disease

by Maanvi Singh
Jul 31, 2014

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We think of heart disease as a modern scourge, brought on by our sedentary lifestyles and our affinity for fast food.

But a few years ago, a team of researchers discovered something puzzling — CT scans of Egyptian mummies showed signs of hardened, narrow arteries. Further scans of mummies from other ancient civilizations turned up the same thing.

How could it be that these preindustrial people without donuts or desk jobs suffered from atherosclerosis, a condition we know to be associated with smoking, unhealthy diet and lack of exercise? And what does that tell us about heart disease today?

We may be getting closer to understanding. In a study published this week in Global Heart, researchers conclude that factors like inhaling smoke from open fire pits, and inflammation triggered by dirty living conditions may be to blame.

While inflammation isn't considered one of the main risk factors for heart disease today, studies have found that it's associated with atherosclerosis. And ongoing clinical trials are testing whether reducing inflammation might help reduce risk of heart disease.

The researchers behind this report pored over autopsies of mummies from the various communities they've studied — including ancient Peruvians and Native Americans in the U.S. Southwest, as well as in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Many of the mummified people, they discovered, had endured a host of infections known to exacerbate inflammation — including malaria and tapeworms.

Since female mummies showed more evidence of atherosclerosis than male mummies, the scientists also theorize that exposure to smoke from fire pits played a role. "In each of the cultures we studied, the women were cooking," says Dr. Greg Thomas, a cardiologist who led the study. These ancient peoples also used fires to keep warm and ward off insects, he says, "So they were exposed to a lot of smoke." In many ways, inhaling billowing smoke from a fire pit can be as harmful to the heart as smoking cigarettes or breathing highly polluted air, Thomas notes.

"The data presented here are quite provocative," says Dr. Nathan Wong, a cardiologist and professor at the University of California, Irvine. "It gives us more of an appreciation for factors we don't think about as much these days."

The findings suggest that atherosclerosis may be baked into our genes more than we thought, Thomas says.

"It's incredible," he says, that people from both ancient and modern times, with a range of different diets and lifestyles all suffered from the same condition.

Of course, in general, the atherosclerosis found in the mummies wasn't too severe. "It was really pre-clinical," Thomas notes. Modern humans who want to stave off heart disease should continue to exercise and watch what they eat, he says, but "When I see a patient now who has a heart incident, I assure them that this is a problem that's been with us since before writing — so they shouldn't blame themselves too much."

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