Monday, March 05, 2012 5:18 PM
As time slips away, we find ourselves looking around in amazement at how things have changed in a flash: a job ending just when you were really getting settled in, children grown well past the magical toddler stage in which you remember them, middle age not some strange far-off place but well behind you now. Author Mark Phillips explores the fleeting nature of time in Notre Dame Magazine, where he writes about meeting up with his daughter at a Manhattan pub for drinks:
As parents often are when they study their grown children, I was moved by banality; during a pause in our conversation … I wondered where the time had gone and felt overwhelmed by love. Or was it self-pity? I pictured my daughter, bluish pink and weakly squirming, placed in my arms for the first time—none of the hair on my forearms yet gray.
It’s this kind of nostalgia, incidentally, that inspired the backlash post “Don’t Carpe Diem,” which recently made its rounds of the mommy blogosphere. That writer, a woman with young kids, is sick of older folks stopping her in the grocery store to say, hand over heart, “Oh, enjoy every moment! This time goes by so fast!” She clearly has not yet entered her time-has-slipped-away phase.
But for Phillips, the question of how rapidly the years disappear is a central theme in his life—and one to which he wants answers. The best answer, by far, comes from his grandmother, a widow:
The question I wanted to ask was in itself benign, but maybe not when directed at a person who is marking time on her final calendar….
…I asked, “Did it go by fast? The time?”
She nodded, dropping the slice back onto the platter. “Oh, yes.”
The raised window glass still rather damp from the steam, she looked through a cotton-plugged screen and past the bug-zapper hanging from baling twine tied to a beam of the white front porch and on past the marigolds and petunias and pansies edging the curving length of gravel driveway, into a pastured distance that I didn’t know like she did. She smiled almost imperceptibly at whatever it was she saw there. “It went like Grandfather ate a piece of apple pie.”
Source: Notre Dame Magazine, Momastery
Image by Nikki L., licensed under Creative Commons.
Danielle Magnuson is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter @DnlMag.
Friday, March 02, 2012 1:59 PM
Déjà vu on steroids—that’s how an epileptic might explain the few surreal seconds before a seizure hits. Aura is the technical term for the pre-cursor sensation, explains Richard Farrell in his creative nonfiction essay “Accidental Pugilism,” published in Hunger Mountain (2011), an annual journal put out by the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Farrell’s essay contains the most beautifully vivid description of an aura that we at Utne Reader have ever read:
One of my most intense episodes happened two years ago, while living in Spain. It was a hot summer day and I was running on a deserted road along the ocean. As the road curved, a large stand of trees appeared before me. I felt a shallow moment of déjà vu, something about the sight of those trees seemed to trigger it. Then it grew rapidly, into an almost mystical series of sensations, images really, which appeared intimately familiar, like the most intense daydream. In those weird seconds, as the aura passed from something subtle to something more sinister, everything that was happening, every detail, every sight, sound and smell, seemed to have happened before in the exact same order and sequence. I became intensely aware of things: the trees, the angle of sun, the curvature of the road, the crisp blueness of the sky, bluer than I’d ever seen it. The road bent around to the right and a guard rail separated it from a low wash filled with reeds. I felt like I knew what was waiting beyond the curve, even beneath the reeds. The world became hyper-real, an intensely emotional feeling, not of the brain or body but, please pardon the over-amped language, of the soul. The moment felt familiar and strange, recursive in a way. I was filled with the oddest sense that something profound was about to happen, something almost indescribably sad but predestined, too. The future felt fully accessible—I knew exactly what would happen next. Then things shifted, and the sensation rose into an almost crippling weariness; I became nauseated, cold and dropped to a knee. The pleasant déjà vu had been infused with darkness, with fear, something Jones describes as the “typical epileptic aura, which is that of terror and impending doom.” But these darker sensations blended delicately for me. As loopy as this may sound, the moment felt life-altering, epiphanous, expansive and eerie all at the same time. Both terrifying and inexplicably peaceful. I felt no panic, just dread and calm, roiled together in a cocktail of lucid emotions.
Then the aura, which had hijacked my consciousness, almost as quickly, let go.
The feeling simply receded. It disappeared, reversed directions, and I woke from the dreamlike trance. The entire episode lasted less than a minute, I suppose, though I was alone and have no way to know for sure. All that lingered after was a slippery sense of uncertainty. Unsure what to do, I finished my run, as if nothing had really happened.
Don’t miss Hunger Mountain’s interview with Richard Farrell, about the author’s inspiration and writing process, or the rest of his insightful essay. The opening line will grab you—“My first diagnosed seizure occurred in the cockpit of a Navy T-34C Mentor, on a formation flight”—and it just gets better from there.
Source: Hunger Mountain
Image by martinsillaots, licensed under Creative Commons.
Danielle Magnuson is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter @DnlMag.
Thursday, January 05, 2012 3:28 PM
Are there any words that you just hate? Maybe it’s the way they sound, or how often they’re said, or how everyone always uses them out of context. My ears start turning red whenever someone describes a situation with possible unintended consequences as a “slippery slope.” “Irregardless” is an old pet-peeve. And don’t get me started on music writers who use “psychedelic” to mean “weird” and “loud.”
That’s why I’m thankful for the faculty at Lake Superior State University in Michigan, who collectively are one of the few vanguards of the English language—not culture warriors, but cultured warriors. “37th-annual List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness,” a list that LSSU cheekily describes as “an amazing list that is bound to generate some blowback.”
The 2012 list includes such offenders as “Thank you in advance,” “trickeration,” and “man cave.” Call me a snob, but I’m all for fewer people saying less-obnoxious things.
So, then, what are the words and phrases that you’d strike out of the Oxford English Dictionary given the chance?
Image by LearningLark, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, December 23, 2011 12:33 PM
For every issue, we at Utne Reader sift through 1,500 periodicals, skim hundreds of websites and blogs, and clamber over a mountain of new books to present the best the alternative press has to offer. All said and done, it’s interesting and often surprising to see which stories readers latch on to and discuss. The following five articles were your favorites from 2011.
5) 25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World in 2011
Every year, Utne Reader picks a handful of world visionaries, people who don’t just concoct great ideas but also act on them and lay their souls on the line for change. This year’s list included pioneers in the fields of ecology, television, progressive spirituality, linguistics, and more. An excerpt:
The 25 men and women in the following pages have probably ticked off a lot of people. That’s what happens when you have creative, boundary-leaping, uncomfortable ideas—and you pursue them. These people also have delivered hope and renewed faith and tangible improvements to the lives of millions. Their vision, paired with their action, has literally brought food, shelter, and medicine where it was needed. Successes that can be measured and held are wonderful—and much needed—but equally important are the new ideas, the new words, and the new dreams that they’ve engendered.
4) “The Dude Abides” interview by Katy Butler, from Tricycle
Right before his starring role in True Grit, actor Jeff Bridges sat down with Tricycle to riff on meditation, laziness, and his “groovy” Buddhist beliefs. An excerpt:
Jeff Bridges enters the living room of his hotel suite carrying a dark blue Shambhala paperback by Chögyam Trungpa titled Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness. “One reason I’m anxious—because I have some anxiety about this interview, like you do,” he says, as he arranges his long body on the couch, “is that I wish I could be more facile with these things that I find so interesting and care about and want to express to people.” He opens the book. “This will be a challenge for me,” he says. “But I’ll attempt it.”
3) “21st Century Sex” by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, from A Billion Wicked Thoughts
Data researchers Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam know that sex was on everyone’s mind this year, including Utne Reader subscribers. Their unconventional study on the nature of human desire provoked immense controversy and debate. An excerpt:
In 2010 we conducted the world’s largest experiment: We sifted through a billion different web searches, including a half million personal histories. We analyzed hundreds of thousands of online erotic stories and thousands of romance e-novels. We looked at the 40,000 most trafficked adult websites. We examined more than 5 million sexual solicitations posted on online classifieds. We listened to thousands of people discussing their desires on message boards.
2) “The Art of the Police Report” by Ellen Collett, from The Writer’s Chronicle
Collett’s surprising portrait of an erudite beat cop from Los Angeles took us inside the head of someone intensely aware of human pain and how it’s dissolved by government of bureaucracy. An excerpt:
Crime reports are written in neutral diction, and in the dispassionate uni-voice that’s testament to the academy’s ability to standardize writing. They feel generated rather than authored, the work of a single law enforcement consciousness rather than a specific human being.
So how can I identify Martinez from a single sentence? Why do his reports make me feel pity, terror, or despair? Make me want to put a bullet in someone’s brain—preferably a wife beater’s or a pedophile’s, but occasionally my own? How does he use words on paper to hammer at my heart? Like all great cops, Sergeant Martinez is a sneaky fucker. He’s also a master of inflection and narrative voice.
1) “Look God, No Hands” by Blaire Briody, from Bust
Perhaps the most salacious story reprinted by Utne Reader this year, “Look God, No Hands” profiled the Dirty Girls Ministry—a Christian group devoted to “cure” adolescent girls of masturbatory habits. An excerpt:
[Crystal] Renaud’s advocacy is labeled antipornography, but it aims to treat all masturbation, whether it involves porn or not. When you peel back the layers, the core of her crusade is against sexual thought—even within marriage—unless those thoughts are about your husband while you are engaging in intercourse with him.
Wednesday, December 07, 2011 4:02 PM
In theory, I love the idea of the newly debuted Man Cave. Hosted by Adams Media, it’s an online bookstore targeted directly at male readers and those who buy gifts for them, according to Publishers Weekly. How perfect! I’m always looking for great book ideas for my husband, who isn’t a big reader but can be drawn in by a combination of good writing and a nice manly topic like roughing it in the wild.
“Men tend to be the most challenging people to shop for,” says an Adams Media marketer. And the Man Cave site boasts of having the solution: “Yes, guys do read—they like it, in fact. It’s here that you’ll find the perfect gift for the man in your life.” But check out the selection of titles: How Do You Light a Fart?, 100 Sexiest Women in Comics, and Sweet ’Stache: 50 Badass Mustaches and the Faces Who Sport Them, to name just a few.
Ahh, so they didn’t mean literary novels and memoirs that might appeal to not-big-reader guys. They meant gifty books that nobody really wants but that are stamped “For Guys.” Books about farts and mustaches. You know, the book equivalent of a tie printed with golf tees.
I’d love to see a Man Cave bookstore that features post-apocalyptic tales like George Saunders’ CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Or books that explore the physical and emotional terrain of the Western mountains, such as Pete Fromm’s Indian Creek Chronicles and James Galvin’s The Meadow. Perhaps some classics like Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki. (See also All the President’s Books.)
Please add your title suggestions below. We can build our own literary Man Cave, Utne Reader style.
Source: Publishers Weekly
Image by Martin Cathrae, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, December 02, 2011 4:29 PM
Consider these page-turners for your next beach vacation: a transcription of all the weather reports from a radio news station recorded over one year, a re-typed issue of The New York Times, a chronicle of the utterances made by one person for an entire week, a similar account of every bodily gesture the same man made over the course of 13 hours, or 600 pages worth of words with rhyming r-sounds. Understandably, you’re probably not tacking these texts onto the bottom of your holiday wish list, much less considering them as notable for anything other than how boring they sound. But Kenneth Goldsmith—an avant-garde poet, experimental radio personality, and professor—considers these litanies to be poetry. In fact, the list is a small sampling of his published works.
“My books are better thought about than read,” Goldsmith said in an interview with The Believer. “They’re insanely dull and unreadable; I mean, do you really want to sit down and read a year’s worth of weather reports or a transcription of the 1010 WINS traffic reports ‘on the ones’ (every ten minutes) over the course of a twenty-four-hour period? I don’t. But they’re wonderful to talk about and think about.” The thing to think about, specifically, is whether this type of writing should be considered literature.
Although he’s more apt to call one of his volumes a reference book or a thought experiment, Goldsmith argues that there’s something experientially interesting that comes from reading an Almanac-like text. “The moment we shake our addiction to narrative,” he says, again in The Believer,
and give up our strong-headed intent that language must say something ‘meaningful,’ we open ourselves up to different types of linguistic experience, which, as you say, could include sorting and structuring words in unconventional ways: by constraint, by sound, by the way words look, and so forth, rather than always feeling the need to coerce them toward meaning.
We live in an information-sodden age, one in which processing is sometimes mistaken for reflection.
“With an unprecedented amount of available text,” Goldsmith writes in The Chronicle Review, “our problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists.” When it comes to artistic content, we’ve made and eaten a Thanksgiving dinner’s worth of verbiage. To continue the metaphor, the challenge, then, is how to burn off all of the calories and look good at the office the following workweek. “How I make my way through this thicket of information,” he argues, “how I manage it, parse it, organize and distribute it—is what distinguishes my writing from yours.”
In addition to “writing” mind-numbing-slash-mind-exploding poetry, Goldsmith was a DJ at New Jersey’s WFMU radio station, teaches a class on “uncreative writing” at University of Pennsylvania, and spear-heads an avant-garde arts website, UbuWeb.
UbuWeb is a radical depository of donated and stolen art of various media, a “completely independent resource dedicated to all strains of the avant-garde, ethnopoetics, and outsider arts.” Much of the website’s content will appeal only to the few high-conceptually inclined art geeks. In an interview with BOMB (which, in a very Goldsmithian way, is reproduced verbatim on the magazine’s website), he explains UbuWeb as “a way of flaunting all the rules, somewhat safely.” Avant-garde, it seems, has been waiting its whole life for the Internet. He continues:
I’ve actually found a major loophole in copyright culture, literary culture, in distributive culture which happens to be, for lack of a better word, the avant-garde—which nobody can understand. It’s so hard for people to understand this stuff. And number two, it’s really got no commercial value whatsoever. It has great historical and intellectual value, but people lose money when they try to release this stuff so most of it goes unreleased. So it’s been this, kind of, really beautiful grey area where it’s all out in the open and it’s all in front but you get a pass on it in a way that legitimate economies don’t give you that latitude.
Goldsmith’s work has garnered him some acclaim of late: He was invited to recite some of his work at a White House poetry event in May. If you ask him if the work is making a difference in literature, though, he’d probably respond cryptically with a handwritten list of all the nutritional information in a supermarket aisle and call it “Serving Size.”
Sources: BOMB, The Believer, The Chronicle Review
Image by Meredith Waterswaters, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, October 27, 2011 4:52 PM
Given Muammar Qaddafi’s recent death and the continued political uncertainty in Libya, tourism will likely not be the country’s boom industry any time soon. Some people, however, get paid to visit the hot, ruined, sand-blasted terrain of North Africa. Journalists, sure, and politicians, too. But also travel writers.
On account of the Arab Spring the third and most recent edition of the Lonely Planet Guide to Libya was never published, according to one of its primary authors Kate Grace Thomas. In a vignette-style article about being a travel writer in a warzone published on Guernica, Thomas explains:
I was writing a guidebook to a country that no longer exists; a country where busloads of Italian tourists gathered around hotel buffets; where billboards advertised the Qaddafi brand—forty-one years, they sang, the leader’s face peering down at the cars on the highways like that of a god who thought he created them. The guidebook I researched was a guidebook to the past.
Thomas’ dispatch from the turbulent Libyan heartland is as riveting as any other you’ve read, even lacking the injuries and explosions you’d hear about from an embedded journalist. But what really made this essay memorable was how Thomas repeatedly blurred the distinction between travel writing and traditional reporting, between natural landscape and political landscape, between tourist amenities and cultural anxieties. For Thomas, they are one and the same. Following are a few of the best tips for savvy tourists.
On the massive geographical rift down the middle of Libya:
“Tripoli and Benghazi are very far apart,” he said. “Not only in terms of kilometers, you understand? Most Libyans must choose; either we are true to Tripoli or we are true to Benghazi.”
On the best way to hire a cab:
“It is safer that way,” the driver told me. “If you want to travel safely in Libya, always ask the driver to bring his wife.”
On luxury accommodations:
“Qaddafi,” said the hotel manager, “has slept in this bed.” . . .
I couldn’t afford to stay there, so I thanked the manager and left to write up my review. This was the private wing of one of Benghazi’s largest hotels, concealed from the public by fat palm trees, elephant grass, and a thousand-dollar price tag.
On scenic routes:
We took the road south from Tobruk, past the World War Two cemeteries with their neat rows of headstones and swept pathways, stippled with aloe vera plants, flowering cacti, and simple dedications. These burial grounds were tidy, orderly, nothing like the mass graves slowly filling in Tripoli.
Back in New York, Thomas reflects on her travels, her commissioned writing, and the rapid changes sweeping Libya. Specifically, she meditates on Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound:
The compound used to be sand. Qaddafi had concrete poured into its grounds, burying the ghosts of footprints, sowing grass seeds around its vast contours. He covered the compound with the concrete of his ideas, his doctrine. He covered Libya with them too. But when the rebels showed up, firing their rounds, chipping away at its surface, pockets of sand became visible.
Qaddafi had tried to turn Libya into rock, his rock, but underneath it was sand, shifting sand, all along.
Monday, October 24, 2011 10:43 AM
As a creative writing student reading Minneapolis feminist Brenda Ueland’s bestselling 1938 book If You Want to Write several years ago, I was smitten. She was funny and fierce and wise and had an utterly engaging voice; there was nothing precious or false or pompous like so many writing guidebooks. It propelled me to read her autobiography, Me: A Memoir (1939), which turned out to be equally dreamy—full of heartbreak and energy and adventure. I was thrilled, then, to learn recently that Utne Reader founder Eric Utne is Ueland’s step-grandson—and that he was editing a book of love letters between Ueland and the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, with whom she had a passionate, albeit largely epistolary, affair. Ueland and Nansen met in person only in one flaming-hot weekend in 1929, when she was 37 and he 67, and thereafter wrote letters overseas for a year until his death.
Titled Brenda, My Darling, the book is being published simultaneously in Norway by Orfeus Publishing as Nansens siste kjærlighet (Nansen’s Last Love) and launched this week. Here in the states, Fridtjof Nansen’s name may be known only to the most ardent Arctic explorer enthusiasts among us, but he’s a hero in Norway—a Nobel Prize winner whose humanitarian work famously saved the lives of millions of refugees and prisoners of war. The letters to Brenda reveal an entirely new side of the austere hero as a sensual and vulnerable lover: “O Brenda,” he wrote, “there is not a corner of my heart or soul which I do not wish you to look into.”
The Norwegian edition of the book also reveals the full frontal: nude photos of Nansen that he mailed to his extramarital lover. These photos have erupted in controversy in Norway, where Eric Utne is currently launching the book (Views and News from Norway, Oct 19, 2011). The newspaper Aftenposten (the Oslo equivalent of the New York Times) reproduced the nude photos in an article—an act that has the public focused more on the sex sex sex than on the romance and humanity of the letters. According to Views and News from Norway:
Utne regrets how the naked photos were used in the media … explaining that he opted to crop them in the American version of his book “because I was uncomfortable” with running the full frontal photos as they’re displayed in the Norwegian version. [Orfeus Publishing director] Høisæther argued that “there’s a different view on nudity in Scandinavia” and he ran them unaltered, but complains the media blew them up and took material in the letters out of context.
It’s reassuring to know the urge to bare body and soul for a heart-thumping romance isn’t limited to the internet-scandal-ridden present but transcends time and place to include stately heroes and old-school feminists. The pictures, by the way, seem quite dignified by today’s standards, with Nansen assuming a series of statuesque poses. And Utne Reader will proudly be publishing an excerpt from Brenda, My Darling in our January–February 2012 issue—although we will primly be abstaining from the nudie pics; for that treat, you’ll have to special-order a copy of the Norwegian edition.
Source: Views and News from Norway
Image from the
Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Friday, October 21, 2011 11:11 AM
Growing up, my mom had serious cred with friends of mine for having palled around with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and other Haight-Ashbury (less famous) standards—once, even kicking Jimi Hendrix out of her house when he’d shown up with a friend of hers extremely drunk (or extremely something). With this history running through my veins, I could never bring myself to take Jim Morrison seriously. He always seemed, in my view, to be trying too hard to force his way into the company of 60s greats. Nothing about him ever felt authentic. (Years later I’d feel similarly about a rock god of my own generation, Kurt Cobain. That’s a different story for a different time, but real quick, try to imagine starting high school in 1993 and not liking Nirvana all that much.) So, feeling like his whole persona was a put-on, I could never bring myself to take too seriously the music of The Doors. Don’t get me wrong, I have fond teenage memories in which The Doors provide the soundtrack. (Driving over a bridge, toward an oncoming thunderstorm, while “Riders on the Storm” played loudly on the radio.) But most of those were fueled by something other than the music, something that always seemed necessary in order for The Doors’ music to feel inspiring, to lose its self-consciousness.
So when I received an email yesterday from the good folks at The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, with the subject line, “Was Jim Morrison a poet?” I had my answer ready before the email even opened: “No. No way was Jim Morrison a poet.” Something, though—maybe some mystical force brought in by some desert wind—made me hesitate before hitting the delete button. (More likely it was simply that the question came from The Poetry Foundation and not some would-be author hawking a book on the great mystic poet, Jim Morrison.)
The email was referencing an essay by Daniel Nester on The Poetry Foundation’s website, where the author tackles that very question: “Should we consider Jim Morrison, rock’s Bozo Dionysus, a real poet?” Nester’s first sentence gets the discussion off on just the right foot: “There are two kinds of people in this world: those who think the Doors are a hokey caricature of male rock stardom and those who think they’re, you know, shamans.” That’s about it, isn’t it? From my story above, you know which camp I fall in. And I’ve known those people on the “shaman” side of the aisle and have no idea where they stand on the matter years later. Nester’s essay assumes most of them, in their elder, wiser years, are slightly embarrassed by their devotion to the man and the band. He’s probably right. But he comes across serious people who have thought about the matter seriously and have concluded that The Lizard King was a serious poet. But maybe it’s all beside the point. As Nester reasons, “I have stopped worrying whether James Douglas Morrison…can join the tenuous tribe of poets. He’s been showing up for the meetings for so long now, there’s no sense in throwing him out.”
I don’t know if Nester’s essay has changed my mind about Jim Morrison, but at one point, after David Lehman is quoted talking about “People Are Strange” (“Lehman types out the lyrics in his email to ‘show how rhetorically balanced the first stanza is, each line divided into two clauses conjoined by ‘when.’’”), I found myself on some lyrics website, rereading those first few lines a bit more seriously than I ever had before.
What’s your take on Jim Morrison as song writer and poet? And after reading Nester’s essay have your views changed? Leave your comments below.
Source: The Poetry Foundation
Image by murdelta, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011 3:34 PM
There are plenty of people who wear morbidity and fatalism as an aesthetic pose—hello, goths, zombies, Diamanda Galas, and black metal fanatics—but after reading Marc Katz’s essay in The Believer about the 1880s literary movement known as decadence, it becomes clear that most of them are mere dabblers in the dark arts.
Consider the protagonist of “the bible of decadence,” the 1884 novel Against Nature, by J.K. Huysmans. Duke des Esseintes is a wealthy, burned-out opium smoker who, tired of hosting funeral-themed dinner parties, holes up in a villa and “spends the novel in pursuit of a final thrill: creating an aesthetic domain so self-contained that it suggests a tomb”:
He starts by ordering specialty items, including a damask cope from a defunct guild of weavers in Cologne, several blue fox pelts, and an aventurine-studded box containing “Pearls of the Pyrénées”—candied lozenges made of orchids and “female essence,” used to enhance his sexual memory. He also covers a live tortoise with a pattern of occidental turquoise and cymophanes. He then lets it roam around in the semidarkness to throw off glints of color, until it asphyxiates in a corner under the weight of the jewels.
Katz’s essay traces the sociopolitical factors that led up to Against Nature—among them “satiety, colonial overreach, and an increasing inability to imagine the future convincingly”—as well as the book’s brief but intense influence on Europe’s creative classes, among them Oscar Wilde, who so loved the doomed elegance of Against Nature that he brought the book along on his honeymoon and used it as an inspirational backdrop for The Picture of Dorian Gray.
And no wonder: For a writer prone to flights of linguistic fancy, the elaborate descriptive language of decadence was a macabre wonderland. To many others, writes Katz,
Decadent taste takes some getting used to, though. Writers like Huysmans worked right at the edge of oblivion, with symbols that were ethereal and obscure: serpents twined with human hair; fields of hemlock; succubi; monstrous, purple-draped catafalques; syphilitic flesh; stagnant lakes engulfed by shadows. This wasn’t mere morbidity. The decadents found spoilage to be exhilarating, so long as it could be used to creative advantage.
After decadent art became something of a sensation, writes Katz, Huysmans found it hard to shed the baggage the novel brought him, and he went in the opposite direction, taming down his writing, undergoing a religious conversion and ending up in a cloistered abbey—an unexpected course, to be sure, but a kinder fate than what his acolytes wanted, which apparently was for him to share the fate of the jewel-encrusted tortoise.
Source: The Believer
(full article available to subscribers only)
Monday, October 17, 2011 2:13 PM
For the past decade, a team of researchers led by Penn State English professor Sandra Spanier has been searching the world over for Ernest Hemingway’s personal letters. They’ve managed to bring together—and clear permission to reprint—6,000 previously unpublished letters that were scattered throughout 70 libraries, universities, and institutions as well as many more from the personal collections of Hemingway’s family, friends, and descendants. “For instance,” reports The Chronicle of Higher Education in an article about the Hemingway letters project, “a descendant of the pilot of the plane that crashed with Hemingway aboard during an African trip in 1954 got in touch to share some letters the editors hadn’t known about.”
It’s an enormously ambitious project that Spanier hopes will span 16 published volumes. The first volume, The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, 1907-1922, has just been published and is now available in bookstores. According to The Chronicle:
Volume I covers not just the budding writer’s childhood in Oak Park, Ill., but also his time as a reporter for The Kansas City Star, his experiences as an ambulance driver on the Italian front in World War I, the heartbreak of his romance with Agnes von Kurowsky—an episode that helped inspire A Farewell to Arms—his marriage to Hadley, and their plunge into artistic life in Paris.
The correspondence is published with the blessing of son Patrick Hemingway, who believes the letters will reveal a truer side of his father, labeled by many scholars as a tortured and tragic misogynist. “My principal motive for wanting it to happen was that I think it gives a much better picture of Hemingway’s life than any of his biographers to date,” says Patrick. “He had the misfortune to have mental troubles in old age. Up until that, he was a rather lighthearted and humorous person.” Spanier agrees that the letters will have a revolutionary impact on Hemingway’s personal reputation. “It’s sort of a commonplace that Hemingway hated his mother, and it’s true that they had a very strained relationship later on,” she says. But “what’s striking about these early letters is the closeness of the family, the loving tone in which he speaks to both his parents.”
Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education
Image courtesy of Cambridge University Press.
Tuesday, October 04, 2011 1:26 PM
Although it evokes the senses through language, poetry typically doesn’t often stimulate the reader’s sensory organs—save some passive recognition by the eyes and, occasionally, ears. Poet Stephanie Barber, however, has found a way to craft verse that tickles your feet and delights the eyes, nose, and mind. Barber writes her poetry with grass.
Over at Urbanite, Cara Ober explains the poet’s methodology:
Barber cut stencils out of Kentucky Bluegrass sod—each letter is two feet long—and laid them into the yard at the Poor Farm, an artist residency and exhibition space in Wisconsin. The poem is too large to read from one vantage point, or even to photograph in its entirety. To read it, one has to walk on it.
“To know a poem one must live with it,” writes Barber in a breezy chapbook lecture about her lawn poetry. “One must dig their toes into its very L’s and O’s.” As an English major, I take issue with the notion that you can’t “know a poem” by simply reading it in a book. That aside, Barber’s approach to the production and dissemination of poetry rings unique. Her lawn poetry is broadcast to passersby, but delicately; instead of dying on the yellow pages of a trade paperback in Barnes & Noble, it grows and becomes a living part of the community.
For those of you further than a stone’s-throw from Eastern Wisconsin, thereby unable to dig your toes into its L’s, O’s, or for that matter, any of its other letters, here’s the text of “Lawn Poem”:
Its hooves were mouse and fire
And it was angry and into counting
Also it was starstruck
Like a complicated Mexican companion cat
Barber’s verse-turf idea reminds one—on the surface, at least—of Walt Whitman’s essential collection of American poetry, Leaves of Grass. I’ll leave you with a brief, appropriate excerpt from “Song of Myself” (lines 82-86), perhaps Whitman’s best-known poem:
I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice.
Images courtesy of Stephanie Barber.
Friday, September 30, 2011 11:12 AM
Despite the overwhelming popularity of the blog as a means of proliferating ideas and opinions, zines—those ever-so-frugally produced mini-books you might see next to the cash register at your community bookstore or stuffed illegally in between issues of USA Today—are flourishing as a literary form. Perhaps this is because zines and blogs attract different kinds of people. While blogging allows writers to (maybe) reach the world with a single mouse-click, producing a zine requires a much greater effort—and the potential audience for a zine is only as large as the number of copies its publisher can afford to print up at Kinko’s. Some would say that makes zines inefficient and unnecessary, but those who produce the little magazines argue that it’s a labor of love. There is a certain satisfaction in producing a physical object, after all, and in the publishing world, zines are the ultimate incarnation of an independent press.
This past weekend, a public gymnasium in Utne’s hometown hosted Twin Cities Zinefest, an annual event designed to bring Minneapolis’ underground publishing community together, and to let the public know that it exists. Below are some highlights from the one-day festival (and yes, after that lead-in, we understand the irony in directing you to the websites of zine publishers):
Creative Ladies Are Powerful (C.L.A.P.) describes itself as “a progressive quarterly zine that celebrates women in all their various forms of creative living.” Feminism—and women in general—had a strong presence at Zinefest, with many tables dedicated to female writers and artists. If that’s your bag, also check out Girl Germs Radio, the hosts of which produce a hard-to-find zine about the horrors of working as a waitress.
Top Secret Nerd Brigade seeks to marry old-school arts and crafts with modern technology. Aside from its author’s various experimental zines, TSNB also sells QR Code Cross Stitch Kits.
Damaged Mentality is a zine about author Synthia Nicole’s experiences coping with a disabling brain injury. Its descriptions of how the trauma affected every aspect of her life go a long way in putting a face on a side of humanity about which few people know much.
A whole bevy of comic artists and illustrators attended the convention, with a wide array of styles and inspirations represented. There was Anna Bongiovanni, whose surreal illustration incorporates pen, watercolor, computer graphics, and even crayons. Multi-disciplinary artist Michael Perez brought a zine called I’d Sleep There, a catalog of places where he wouldn’t mind taking a nap. And Erica Williams showed off Little Constructs, an international collaborative effort between Williams and Londoner Jo Cheung.
But not all zines are tiny expressions of one or two peoples’ ids. Some enterprising self-publishers have made a mini-industry out of printing zines, and chief among them is Portland/Kansas-based Microcosm Publishing, perhaps the closest thing in the zine world to a Pan Macmillan or a Harper Collins. Microcosm’s booth at the show was literally spilling over with hundreds of little publications for the zine-hungry masses.
Images by Philip James Hart.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011 10:59 AM
The September/October 2011 issue of Mental Floss magazine is worth picking up for its “6 Freakishly Effective Ways to Court the Muse” alone. The article offers some excellent tips for conquering writer’s block, provided, of course, that you have a few rudimentary resources at hand:
A Faithful Servant
In the tradition of The Hunchback of Notre Dame novelist Victor Hugo, you could order your servants not to give you clothes until you’ve finished a chapter. Hugo found complete nudity—in the privacy of a room furnished simply with a desk, pen, and paper—to be his most inspiring method of getting work done. That is, until later years, when he found it even more inspiring to pour a bucket of water over his head and then work in an outdoor glass cage, standing up and writing at a podium. A bit eccentric, you say? How long did it take you to finish that last story? Get thee a servant and a glass cage!
A Fresh Fruit Budget
Friedrich von Schiller, otherwise known as Fritz, is a German playwright considered by some to be second only to Shakespeare. He also wrote the poem “Ode to Joy,” which later became the basis for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Fritz’s tried-and-true method of conquering writer’s block was stuffing his desk drawer with stinky, rotten apples. According to Ethan Trex and Linda Rodriguez McRobbie at Mental Floss, “The poet insisted that he needed the smell of the putrifying fruit in the air to write.” If you’re not entirely convinced, consider this: A 1985 Yale study found a correlation between the smell of spiced apples and decreased panic attacks.
Demosthenes, a Greek speechwriter in the 4th century BC, had a simple trick to keeping himself home, focused, and at the writing desk. He’d shave half his head. That kept him sequestered and writing for at least a couple of months. Because, you know, it would be unthinkable to go about in ancient Greece among the other statesmen with a goofy hairdo.
For the other three tips (hint: they involve dogs, nemeses, and coffins), pick up the latest issue of Mental Floss.
Source: Mental Floss (article not available online)
Image by alison e dunn,
licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, September 09, 2011 4:38 PM
President Obama’s summer reading list features five books by men authors (including Aldous Huxley and Abraham Verghese) and just two by women writers (Isabel Wilkerson and Emma Donoghue). That’s 70 percent male, reports Robin Black at Salon (Aug 24, 2011) with a gasp of disapproval even while admitting that this turn of events “is not the greatest crisis facing the arts, much less the nation.”
It’s true, critiquing the author gender ratio of the president’s beach reading at Martha’s Vineyard makes about as much sense as the media castigating Princess Kate for spending too much on candles to furnish the palace. But it is the perfect opening to suggest some terrific books by women that President Obama—and all men—might enjoy reading. Because it is true that, as a general rule, men tend to read men, and male-authored books get more airtime from critics. We know it anecdotally, and we know it statistically: The New York Times, for example, reviewed 524 books by men in a single year versus 283 by women, reveals a VIDA study.
So what books by women authors do you invite men to read? I’ll start the list off with Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout’s beautiful interconnected story collection; Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir of growing up in Somalia; and West With the Night, Beryl Markham’s 1942 autobiography of bush piloting over Africa. What other gems, new or old, do you recommend?
Image by ruifernandes,
licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, September 07, 2011 3:30 PM
Most people assume that because I graduated college with a degree in journalism and English, that I read two books a week, and that I have a reputation for the occasional sharp turn of phrase, that I must be a wizard with word puzzles. But much to my embarrassment, I’m dreadful with letters when they’re presented outside of a tidy little paragraph. Last night I won my first game of Scrabble in literally five years—and only because I was playing with a teammate. So when I read about a clever crossword puzzle author or another such wordsmith, I’m doubly dismayed and awestruck. Add to the list Barry Duncan, the world’s only “master palindromist.”
Duncan regularly writes palindromes—words or phrases that are spelled the same backward as forward—that are more than 1,000 characters long. One particular palindrome, a climate change-themed composition more than four hundred words long, is the product of nearly 90 pages of notes and months of dedication. Duncan is a savant, you must be thinking, as I imagined reading through Gregory Kornbluh’s intriguing profile of the palindromist in The Believer. Or a polymath. Or curiously, hyperactively dyslexic. Or paranoid schizophrenic. But it turns out that Duncan is just a passionate eccentric with a gift for reading words in both directions at the same time.
Although palindromes are an old type of puzzle, Duncan has done pioneering work in the extremely niche field. Dare I say it? You might even call him a thought leader. And being the expert, Duncan gets to write the terms of the discourse. “[Duncan’s] also identified some guidelines for palindrome-writing,” writes Kornbluh,
One cardinal rule to which he always returns involves “doubling in the middle,” which he calls a “near-fatal error” and the mark of an inexperienced palindromist. As he explained in our first conversation about palindromes, “If I say to you, ‘straw,’ and you thought, well, ‘straw warts,’ that’s a palindrome, but the w is doubled, so it only calls attention to the palindrome. What you want is for some letter to be the reversible hinge. So if you said to me, ‘straw,’ I would think, ‘straw arts.’ And then that w is removable, and it could be ‘strap arts,’ ‘stray arts.’” Still getting my bearings, I asked whether the embargo on a doubled middle was a general rule, something that all palindromists know. “I know it.” But how does he know it? “I know it because I know it, not because there’s anybody who said anything. I know it because it’s been my experience.
The profile doesn’t take a side on whether or not palindrome writing has any practical application for humanity at large, which Duncan seems to understand—and disregard. “I mean, I’m writing palindromes all the time,” Duncan told The Believer, “but it’s really unprecedented, the length of the palindromes, the speed with which I’m writing them. I feel like I’m taking this further and further, but I don’t know where it will lead me.”
Source: The Believer
Image by fdecomite, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, September 02, 2011 3:05 PM
When Muammar Gaddafi’s stranglehold on Libya cracked, the public was finally able to peer into the dictator’s compound. Images from inside revealed a life of extreme extravagance—and went viral instantly. Gaddafi was gone—nowhere to be found—but he left behind plenty to gawk at: a golden chaise lounge fashioned in the likeness of his daughter Aisha, a built-in cinema, replica 14thcentury furniture, and a small amusement park, Spinning Teacups and all.
Inspired by the unbelievable opulence of the Libyan compound and the dictator’s disappearance, Salon commissioned eight novelists and short story writers to imagine what Gaddafi’s life in hiding is like. As they put it: “A fall so sudden and dramatic is perhaps best told in fiction.”
In my favorite story, “The Supreme Leader Dreams of Love” by Steve Almond, Gaddafi reminisces about meeting former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. Here’s an excerpt:
He had met her, the first and only time, in a room choked with myrrh. He stood in a corner and she walked toward him, smiling professionally. The cameramen shone their cruel light. She was thinner than she appeared on the television. Her eyes were lighter than expected. Her hair had been carefully straightened and smoothed, like a fine wool.
Much had been made of protocol. She reached to touch his hand and he demurred. This was the term used in the news reports. Demurred.
Later, he had taken her to his private kitchen for iftar, spiced goat and rice, a dish from his childhood. The two of them, and Tarek, who translated. They ate from a common bowl. In the fleeting moment before she applied a napkin, her lips shone.
For two hours and more he told her his ideas, made his little speeches, but neither of them listened. Something else was happening. She looked up at him and he felt like a boy again, wandering after the animals, dreaming of his father’s gun.
Image by ssoosay, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, August 26, 2011 2:15 PM
Book readings don’t usually have the, shall we say, glamour of a rock concert or blockbuster film. Many draw only a handful of people. The sound of crickets may be peaceful when reading a book, but will probably sound mocking when reading a book to complete strangers.
After one spectacularly under-attended reading in Minneapolis, five organizations, including three local independent publishers—Milkweed Editions, Coffee House Press, and Graywolf Press—the Loft Literary Center, and Rain Taxi Review of Books, were downright dejected. This wasn’t the first time this had happened, and they presumed it wouldn’t be the last.
“The five organizations all put on book readings,” said Eric Lorberer, editor of Rain Taxi. “Over the years as things have changed, we’ve all noticed that some of our events have had fewer people than we wished were there. And we’ve had some big events.”
The organizations sought a creative way to get the Minneapolis and St. Paul literary communities together more often. Some bookstores have been charging customers to go to readings, but the literary quintet preferred to attract crowds and support authors with a carrot rather than a stick. Their solution resembles a trick that coffee shops have used to keep customers coming back: a punch card. Or in this case, a Literary Punch Card.
Here’s how the Literary Punch Card works. Take the card to a sponsored author event and you get one punch. If you purchase the author’s book while you’re there, you get a second. Once you complete 12 punches you can redeem the card for a $15 gift certificate for a participating bookstore (so far there are three), and a chance to win a “Mystery Package full of literary goodness.”
Rain Taxi and the other organizations made a conscious choice to only count free literary events toward the punch card. “If every event qualifies,” Lorberer said, “we’re not doing our job of highlighting events that might be in danger of being overlooked.”
So if all works out as planned, the bookstores will see bigger crowds for their events, authors will have an audience, and literature fans will save a little bit of money on their next purchase. Lorberer thinks that there may also be a secondary benefit from the program—one that humanizes the literary and publishing worlds: “My hope for an ancillary benefit is that our local audience develops a sense of what really goes into writing and publishing a book. It’s easy for people to take for granted that people put blood, sweat, and tears into an enterprise.”
Tuesday, August 23, 2011 7:33 PM
Modern literature is uninspired, complains poet Bei Dao, whose acclaimed poems helped fuel China’s pro-democracy movement in the ’70s and ’80s and led to his exile for decades. He blames the literary decline on mindless consumerism and base entertainment, reports China Daily/Xinhua in an interview with the poet:
[Bei Dao] pointed out that previously a clear-cut division existed between “vulgar” culture and “serious” culture, but today vulgar culture is swallowing serious culture like a black hole, and unfortunately, many writers are forced to lower their writing standards to cater to vulgarity.
To overcome this debasement, he calls for a new generation of smart readers to reignite the art. And the place to start is the poetry classroom: “Modern education kills young people’s imagination and creativity, so we need to promote poetry instruction to sharpen their awareness of literature,” says Bei Dao, who teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Critics, it seems, are the key to our literary future.
Bei Dao’s most recent book is The Rose of Time: New and Selected Poems (2010). Best known for his 1976 poem “The Answer,” written in response to an early Tiananmen Square protest, the meditative poet continues to write long-form poetry, saying, “I’ve always believed my best poem should be the next one.”
Source: China Daily
Image by DoNotLick
, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, August 12, 2011 9:49 AM
“The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. ... Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say “and then?” If it is in a plot we ask “why?”— E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel
In Berlin, pretty Berlin, in the spring time,
You are never not wondering how
It happened ...
— Robert Hass, “Bush’s War”
If I knew, even roughly, how Berlin died, I would lay out the facts in a chain of evidence. And if I had a theory, however tenuous, about the city’s post-mortem life, I would argue it straight up: major premise, minor premise, conclusion. As it is, even the rough arc of exposition, rising action, climax, and denouement feels a bit shaky at best. But I can tell you how it feels, in July, on a sunny day late in the month, at the end of my twelve-week stay in the world’s strangest city.
I’m in Berlin for one reason: to explore how fact and fiction might profitably be collided together. I’ve been in town since early spring, teaching a seminar on that topic at the Freie Universität, with two dozen students from all over Germany who were born knowing more about the topic than I can ever presume to teach them.
The course is an experiment, probably not a great thing to try while a guest in a foreign country. But I’ve always wanted to explore, in a classroom, how factual argument and fictive projection, set side by side, might triangulate into places that neither can reach alone. Shaw may be right that “The sign of a truly educated person is to be deeply moved by statistics.” But natural selection has shaped us to be moved mainly by things on our own private scale. Discursive argument models and projects, producing tremendous leverage, but without a hook that hits us where we live, facts rarely compel us to change our lives. Narrative imagination can twist our guts and shatter our souls, but it’s mired in local fates that must be small enough to look familiar.
Suppose, though, that you yoked the two together. Thought and feeling, argument and stories, statistical analysis and good old twists of the viscera: these two inimical modes, played off of one another, might produce a kind of deep parallax, tricking the mind’s eye into turning those two skewed planes into the illusion of three dimensions. I’ve come to Berlin to test the idea in a live clinical trial.
In class, we’ve read many strange and unclassifiable things, works that hover somewhere between factual knowledge about the world and fictional embodiment of the world’s would-be knowers. We’ve read Julian Barnes’s idiosyncratic but entirely reliable biography of Flaubert, told by a wholly unreliable fictional biographer. As Barnes’s invented mouthpiece meditates on either Emma Bovary or his own shadowy wife: “Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this.”
We’ve read Paul Broks’s chimerical excursion, Into the Silent Land, with its collage of neuroscience, clinical case histories, memoir, philosophical essay, and bare naked short story. Broks’s essays prove that there is no Self, no master narrative holding us together; but his fictive personal memoir can’t escape having one. The brain is condemned to think that it’s a soul, and to describe that impossible hybrid state, Broks says:
One has to be bilingual, switching from the language of neuroscience to the language of experience; from talk of “brain systems” and “pathology” to talk of “hope,” “dread,” “pain,” “joy,” “love,” “loss,” and all the other animals, fierce and tame, in the zoo of human consciousness.
My students have swallowed every bastard hybrid genre I’ve thrown at them. Fictocriticism, mockumentary, staged reality, Borgesian simulated lectures, psycho-journalism, unattributed sampling, hip-hop mashup, real actors playing imaginary authors making pixelated media appearances while selling brutally frank memoirs filled with the slightly altered real-life experiences of some other, dissembling author. My sales pitch has worked so well with this group that, by the end of the semester, I’m appalled at what I’ve unleashed. James Frey, J. T. LeRoy, lonelygirl15, COPS and Survivor and America’s Next Top Model: bring it all on, my German students say. The blurrier the better. They have grown up in a world that laughs at the very distinctions that I’ve come here to challenge, and in class, they regard me with affectionate pity for my quaint belief in the existence of boundaries that a writer might still hope to exploit by transgressing.
Read the rest of Richard Powers' essay
Places at Design Observer >>
Image by Frank Schirrmeister.
Wednesday, August 10, 2011 5:41 PM
A bibliophile’s personal library might start out neatly contained on bookshelves—perhaps even organized alphabetically within genre—but soon enough more volumes are wedged willy-nilly above the orderly rows, stacked on the floor, jammed into nooks and crannies around the house, and perched atop the refrigerator.
If this describes your home, you’ll appreciate the seven-story tower of books built by visual pop artist Marta Minujín on a pedestrian plaza in Buenos Aires. Composed of 30,000 donated books encased in protective plastic, the art installation spirals 80 feet above passersby, writes 1-800-Recycling.com. Called the Tower of Babel, the artwork stood in the plaza for three weeks, after which it was dismantled and some of its building blocks given away to visitors.
Minujín, who specializes in large-scale “livable” art events that engage the community, conceived the tower to celebrate the Argentinean city’s designation as the 2011 book capital of the world. Many of the volumes were donated by foreign embassies, creating a multilingual piece of art. As Minujín says, “Art needs no translation.”
Gobierno de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, August 03, 2011 10:05 AM
Think of your favorite environmental writers, and names like Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Terry Tempest Williams, and Gary Snyder may come up. But chances are you won’t bring to mind people like Wangari Maathai, Abdul Rahman, Arundhati Roy, or Ken Saro-Wiwa, even though they too have all tackled pressing environmental issues in their writing.
In the Chronicle Review, University of Wisconsin English professor Rob Nixon urges us to widen our reading list when it comes to environmental literature and criticism. He holds out for special disapproval the keepers of the canon—those college academics who teach environmental literary studies with a glaring lack of color in their curriculum, and a seeming lack of awareness of their on-campus kin in the humanities, postcolonial studies.
The distrust and ignorance cut both ways, contends Nixon, who makes his full case in his new book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Right around the time of Saro-Wiwa’s execution in Nigeria in 1995—the steep price of his activism—the postcolonial literary theorist Edward Said dismissed environmentalism as “the indulgence of spoiled tree huggers who lack a proper cause.” His rancor was no doubt stoked by the fact that Saro-Wiwa’s writing was largely ignored amid the “unselfconscious parochialism” of environmental studies, as Nixon describes it. Writes Nixon:
One might surely have expected environmentalism to be more, not less, transnational than other fields of literary inquiry. It was unfortunate that a writer like Saro-Wiwa, who had long protested what he termed the gradual “ecological genocide” of his people, could find no place in the environmental canon. Was this because he was an African? Was it because his writings revealed no special debt to Thoreau, to the wilderness tradition, or to Jeffersonian agrarianism? Saro-Wiwa’s writings were animated instead by the fraught relations among ethnicity, pollution, and minority rights and by the equally fraught relations among local, national, and global politics.
Teachers—and students—of literature ought to start recognizing the writers who are chronicling the “slow violence” of environmental destruction worldwide, Nixon argues:
To reconfigure the environmental humanities involves acknowledging, among other things, how writer-activists in the Southern hemisphere are giving imaginative definition to catastrophes that often remain imperceptible to the senses, catastrophes that unfold across a time span that exceeds the instance of observation or even the life of the human observer. In a world permeated by insidious, unspectacular violence, imaginative writing can make the unapparent appear, rendering it tangible by humanizing drawn-out calamities inaccessible to the immediate senses.
I hope this call to action finds a receptive audience in academia. In the meantime, I’ve got some reading to catch up on.
Source: Chronicle Review
(article available only to subscribers)
, licensed under
Wednesday, July 27, 2011 11:19 AM
From the front cover to the closing essay, putting together an issue of Utne Reader takes about two months. The editors at Longshot magazine assemble theirs in two days. The next issue of Longshot is about to go into production, and they need your help.
The magazine will announce the next issue’s theme at noon on Friday, July 29 (Pacific time) here. Writers, designers, photographers, and other contributors have exactly one day to submit work. According to Longshot’s website:
We need writers, photographers, illustrators, videographers, information designers, editors, proof readers, fact checkers, baristas, chefs, bartenders, and carpenters. (Especially bartenders). We want submissions ranging from 140 characters to 4,000 words. Please send us your strongly reported narratives, design fictions, interviews, data visualizations, cartoons, family portraits, how-to guides, maps, obscure histories, recipes, war reporting, photo-essays, blueprints, ships’ logs, scientific papers, charticles, wood cuts, curio boxes, product reviews, and box scores.
Longshot is not only crowd-sourced, but also crowd-funded via Kickstarter. As some extra incentive, Longshot will award $2,000 to the writer whose article is chosen as the cover feature.
As project leader and writer for TheAtlantic Sarah Rich says in the promotional video: “Writers from the New Yorker and Wired shared pages with people who had never been published before or even submitted to a magazine.” Good luck, and get ready to write!
Thursday, July 21, 2011 2:29 PM
Many American novelists have tried their hand at what is now widely referred to as “9/11 fiction,” more often than not, to mixed reviews. Often novels by writers from other countries are cited as the most successful books on the matter. Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, who was born in Ireland and schooled in The Netherlands, is often said to be the best novel about September 11, 2001.
This, too, is the conclusion reached by Adam Kirsch in “In the shadow of the twin towers” (Prospect, June 2011). Naming the (in Krisch’s view) failed attempts by some of America’s heavy weights, like Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (“But style defeats itself in these cool, hypnotic sentences, precisely because DeLillo knows that he is wagering everything on style.”) and John Updike’s Terrorist (“Sex, not God, is Updike’s God, which is why he overdetermines Ahmad’s rage by giving him a clear Freudian grievance…”), Krisch is left to conclude that American writers may just be “ill-suited to a subject that, like the sun, does not bear looking at directly.” This conclusion seems a bit simplistic to me, as do others in this article, like when Krisch uses a description from a nonfiction book about one man’s descent from the south tower on September 11 to criticize a novelist’s decision to devote “the last ten pages of his novel to the thoughts of his protagonist, Kevin, while he plunges to his death from the 52nd story of a burning building.” In fact, as we learn from the nonfiction writer, nothing enters the mind, much less ten pages worth of thoughts: “My mind switched off. I didn’t start praying. I didn’t have visions of childhood. My life didn’t flash before my eyes. It was a puzzling feeling.” Putting aside the discussion of how the thoughts of someone falling to his death from a skyscraper might differ from those of someone trying to run for his life from one, no matter what appears on those last ten pages of a novel, it is unfair to compare them to a work of nonfiction. I am not one to claim that there is no imagination in nonfiction—that it’s a simple task of retelling—but surely there is a distinction between someone trying to relay their experience in a book and someone trying to possess “the imagination of disaster” (a term coined by Henry James and used by Kirsch) and fictively tell the story of a character falling through the sky. Now, if the thoughts of the falling character are unbelievable, that’s another story, but comparing them to a work of nonfiction seems arbitrary to me.
Kirsch’s argument also falls short for me when he addresses attempts by writers to focus on the perpetrators of the attacks:
There is something admirable about the dogged attempts of American writers to inhabit the minds of the hijackers. After all, the terrorist act involves a radical refusal to imagine the experience of the victim. By contrast, the novelist’s insistence on his obligation to inhabit the mind of the terrorist can be seen as an exemplary liberal response.
In practice, however, this kind of liberal imagination depends on a psychological and materialist understanding of character, which leaves the novelist ill-equipped to understand religious fanatics whose deepest motives are theological and absolute.
Couldn’t the same be said about any individual throughout time whose “deepest motives” were “absolute”? Isn’t this and the “radical refusal to imagine the experience of the victim” what make up any number of novels about murder?
While I disagree with much of Kirsch’s reasoning, I appreciate his attempt to address these books, writers , and topic with a level of respect. Kirsch reminds us that after a brief moment of a new national “sobriety and sternness of purpose,” most of the country went back to business as usual. The fact that so many American writers to this day are wrestling seriously with this subject matter shows Kirsch that at least that demographic has remained steadfast toward that sobriety and sternness. “American writers, to their credit,” Kirsch writes, “have taken the exhortation to seriousness quite seriously.” And who am I to say that his ultimate conclusion is not correct? Maybe “there is no need for the novelist to re-imagine 9/11 when, on some level, Americans have never stopped thinking about it.”
(Note: The online version of this article includes interesting responses from three American novelists, Siri Hustvedt, Stefan Merrill Block and Teddy Wayne.)
Image is in the public domain.
Monday, July 18, 2011 1:32 PM
This post by Will Braun originally appeared at
The Bible Industry. From Geez magazine, Fall 2009. Credit: Darryl Brown and Aiden Enns.
Most people know now that Rupert Murdoch presides over the News Corp media empire, and that he is fighting for his reputation after being forced to sink his scandal-laiden British newspaper News of the World, the most widely read English tabloid in the world. But few people know that Murdoch also owns Zondervan, the world’s largest publisher of Bibles. For 23 years, the News Corp family has included the leading seller of the best-selling book in history.
I know many Christians see the Bible’s publishing stature as validation of their chosen faith, but a savvy entrepreneur could simply see it as a business opportunity. Or perhaps the 80-year-old Murdoch, like any shrewd businessman, wanted diverse investments – a diversity that in his case ranged from a cleavage-saturated tabloid that ran headlines like, “F1 Boss Has Sick Nazi Orgy With 5 Hookers” to a publisher that offers Little Lamb’s Storybook Bible.
Zondervan, which is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, also sells Precious Princess Bible, Camo Bible (imagine “Holy Bible” on a camouflage cover), Soul Surfer Bible, Holy Bible: Stock Car Racing and 500 other styles of the holy book. The company owns exclusive North American print rights to the popular New International Version of the Bible which it says has sold over 300 million copies worldwide. Zondervan also publishes books by leading Christian authors like Rick Warren (over 30 million copies of his Purpose Driven Life have been sold), Tim LaHaye, Eugene Peterson, Brian McLaren and Shane Claiborne.
For those us of who care about the Christian scriptures, what are we to make of this mix of billionaire media tycoonery, allegations of phone hacking and bribery, and the Holy Word of God? What are we to make of the fact that every time we buy a Zondervan product we contribute to Murdoch’s mogul-dom, which includes a personal fortune that Forbes pegged at $6.3 billion last year.
I asked Shane Claiborne. His books, Jesus for President (co-written with Chris Haw) and The Irresistible Revolution, are number 3 and 4 on Zondervan’s list of its top sellers. He has long been aware of the Zondervan-Murdoch connection and has considered it carefully.
I admire Claiborne, partly because he cares about ethics – he makes his own clothes and off-sets his air travel – and partly because he lives out his faith in what he calls the “abandoned corners of empire.” His particular corner is the impoverished Kensington neighbourhood of Philadelphia where he lives as part of The Simple Way community. Given his relation to “empire,” I wanted to know why he chose a News Corp company as his publisher?
The Zondervan advantage
“I want to have the broadest readership possible,” Claiborne says by phone, “I don’t want to be someone who just speaks to the choir.” He says smaller publishers have their advantages but the books he has written for them cost “two or three times” more than what they would if Zondervan published them.
Claiborne, who has preached his message via Esquire, Fox News (also owned by News Corp), Al Jazeera and many others, says the key is to “protect the integrity of the message.” If he is convinced the medium won’t change the message, he will work with organizations despite not “[agreeing] with all of their approaches or decisions.”
But even if the message is protected, his work helps enrich a rather well-maintained corner of empire. He feels “conflicted” about this. “I don’t think that the world exists in 100 percent pure and 100 percent impure options,” he says.
To judge, or not to judge
The ongoing News Corp scandal concerns him. “The current issues . . . in England raise all kinds of ethical questions,” he tells me, “and I would hope that a company whose mission is explicitly Christian, as Zondervan’s is, would take the opportunity to bear witness and to speak into the culture which is so terribly fallen.”
Claiborne is not sure if he will write for Zondervan again. He doesn’t rule it out.
There’s good and bad in each of us, he says, “we are called to work on the log in our own eye, and I’m sure as heck trying to work on the compromises that I make so that those are minimal when it comes to integrity.”
Point taken. This is not about demonizing Rupert Murdoch or Zondervan. No rendition of the Bible would condone that. Nonetheless, I’m not ready to say, like former Zondervan CEO Maureen Girkin did in a 2008 Christianity Today article, that “News Corp is a wonderful media giant.”
Preferential option for the lucrative
The allegations that sank News of the World, and have now spread to other News Corp papers in the U.K., demonstrate something about News Corp. They do not demonstrate that ethical integrity trumps the drive for profit at News Corp. News Corp is an aggressive business; it’s motive is to accumulate and concentrate massive amounts of wealth. Presumably it acquired Zondervan because it saw profit potential.
But is the Bible a business opportunity? Does it belong in the News Corp fold? Can we not read about “the least of these” without paying our dues to the greatest?
Or perhaps Murdoch is just an entrepreneur who enables the distribution of important materials (after all, he was awarded a papal knighthood by Pope John Paul II in 1998). Perhaps the world is just too gray to worry about the ethics of Bible publishing. Perhaps writers like Claiborne are subverting or redeeming something in need of redemption. Perhaps I overstate the link between News of the World and Zondervan. It’s just that I believe there should be absolutely no link at all. Bald greed has no place in Bible publishing.
Does God need News Corp?
We do not need to accept this arrangement. Christianity does not need to be about the best and biggest deal, and we can trust that the Good News does not require the help of an unscrupulous empire. Part of me would love to see some readers, writers and retailers engage in some respectful, humble, Gandhian non-participation with respect to the big Bible business. But it seems unbecoming to advocate a boycott of a company that publishes the books of a respected friend. It seems unbecoming to boycott the Bible in any way at all. Alas, I too feel conflicted.
Geez magazine editor Aiden Enns – who once cut the Zondervan label out of the spine of his Bible in protest – suggests a self-imposed tax or tithe on Zondervan purchases. If you buy a $20 Claiborne book, give an additional $2 to a good cause (maybe the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility). Call it the “ethical compromise tax,” or the “sin tax” as Enns puts it. You could also look into whether your denomination has any News Corp investments. The Church of England is now publicly threatening to pull its $6 million share in News Corp.
As for non-participation, all I know for sure is that I don’t want a penny of my money going to fuel the News Corp empire, regardless of the path it takes from my wallet to Murdoch’s. Fortunately for me, the last time I crossed paths with Shane Claiborne he gave me a copy of the most recent Zondervan publication he collaborated on, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. I offered him warm thanks – it’s a great book – then said with a smirk, “this way none of my money needs to go to Zondervan.”
Will Braun is a former editor with Geez magazine, where this post originally appeared. Will Braun can be reached at wbraun [ at ] inbox [ dot ] com.
Image courtesy of Darryl Brown, Aiden Enn, and Geez.
Thursday, July 14, 2011 6:07 PM
The epistolary genre bursts with warmth. From love letters to modern e-epistles, personal correspondence may contain little complaints, funny stories, and big successes piled together with equal weight and candor. The reader of such a letter, after all, is generally a sympathetic listener, a person predisposed to find the complaints valid, the anecdotes amusing, and the triumphs worth applauding.
There are charming epistolary fiction books that make me want to write letters, like Anne of Windy Poplars (1936) and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society (2009), but occasionally we are granted the voyeuristic pleasure of reading a real letter between friends, as in Joan McClure’s wonderful 1969 letter to her college friend Aliceann, reprinted in The Brooklyn Rail (May 2011). A mother and graduate student, McClure writes about passing her linguistics exams, grouses about ironing her children’s clothing, and gossips about her neighbors with equal fervor and dry wit.
“I agree with you that housework is a total bore, and the only thing that has kept me going these past few years is my studies,” writes McClure to her friend, clearly a kindred spirit. The letter provides an honest, ungutted glimpse into the late 1960s, when an aspiring linguist felt the pressure to also be a perfect housekeeper and mother:
One day this week it was 90 degrees and [my neighbor] Maria got up at 3:30 a.m. and cleaned, and did three loads of wash and some ironing. By the time the kids got up, she was ready to go shopping. First she gave them baths and washed their hair. Then they went shopping all morning. After lunch she took an hour’s nap, which restored her for the evening’s activity: painting one wall in the playroom, cleaning the paneling, cooking a big meal for her husband…, putting the sprinkler out and watching her kids and mine because I had to teach that evening, and after the kids were in bed, washing the entire living room wall. You can imagine how much she does on a cool day.
Like tiny brushstrokes, the details of McClure’s letter reveal the portrait of her life now, distanced from her college days. It’s a privilege to read such a correspondence, to be privy to the unguarded intimacy between friends. “I’m going to have another party for my students this summer,” writes McClure toward the end of her long, tender missive. “How I wish you could come.”
Source: Brooklyn Rail
Image by Muffet,
licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011 11:38 AM
The art of cursive handwriting is at a crossroads. Touch-typing on a computer keyboard has replaced hand-writing on a sheet of paper so fully that the Indiana Department of Education, in a memo to the state’s elementary school principals (April 25, 2011), has officially canceled cursive writing from the state curriculum, replacing it with keyboarding.
Some educators have been calling for the end of handwriting for years. But handwriting is not an antediluvian method of communication to be tossed aside in favor of e-learning, reports the Los Angeles Times (June 15, 2011). The motion of writing out letters and words and sentences by hand stimulates the brain in a way that keyboarding does not. Perhaps it is not so different than the way reading a book activates the brain differently than hearing the same information or watching it on a television screen. None of this is to say that computers and TV can’t be educational, but the tactile, memory-creating relationship between you and your language lessens once the re-creation of the letters by your own hand is taken out of the equation.
Like math class, the brain-taxing work of penmanship is not simply about its practical application in daily life, Jason Wire reminds us (Matador, July 8, 2011):
I get it. We type more often than we write nowadays. But I also use calculators more often than I long-divide, and I’ve never once used the slope formula in my everyday life. In high school I loathed calculus, seeing it as pointless and irrelevant, until I realized math class is more about exercising the brain than ensuring life-long memories of equations. Why is cursive handwriting not seen the same way?
It bears mentioning that a child who never learns to write cursive will also never learn to read cursive. The neglected art has already created a generation of schoolchildren, from third graders on up through high schoolers, to whom cursive is a foreign alphabet. Claudette Sandecki met the written language barrier head-on (Terrace Standard, July 6, 2011):
Replying to my posted letter written in the cursive style I was taught 70 years ago, a teenager told me bluntly, “I can’t read your handwriting. Type.”
...[A] teen said she leafed through her grandmother’s journal shortly after she died, but could barely read her cursive handwriting. “It was kind of cryptic, like code.”
Is it flimsy nostalgia that makes me want the next generation to be able to read a historic text or a card from their grandpa? I think not. I think, rather, that it’s wildly practical to maintain cursive in the classroom and not turn handwritten documents into indecipherable codes.
And we needn’t fear that classroom time on penmanship will have a luddite effect on our children. The Zaner-Bloser Company, venerable publisher of handwriting lesson plans, has revitalized its handwriting curriculum for the modern era, including interactive whiteboard-ready digital resources that allow students to handwrite letters on a touch screen.
Source: Los Angeles Times, Matador, Terrace Standard
Image by EraPhernalia Vintage,
licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, July 08, 2011 10:21 AM
Ernest Hemingway’s suicide in 1961—fifty years ago on July 2—“remains one of the iconic American deaths,” writes Robert Roper for Obit Magazine. “He has come close to being remembered as much for his death as for his work, a terrible fate for a writer.”
Not only was Hemingway a rock star author in his time, but he also transformed himself into an icon of some his day’s biggest socio-cultural changes. Which is, of course, why American readers are perpetually interested in Hemingway’s suicide. Barrel-chested, he personally stood for liberty and against Fascism before it was fashionable. Paranoid depression crippled him at the beginning of a new era of neuroscience and psychological therapy. And Hemingway’s problematic, overblown masculinity drew near-universal ire from a burgeoning, radicalizing feminist movement.
Summarizing a few of Hemingway’s biographers, Roper notes that suicide was often close to the author’s thoughts:
The times just after finishing a book were some of the worst for him. Even in his robust roaring ‘20s, world-famous as an author already, he talked often about having night terrors, about feeling “contemptible,” about being afraid he was losing control—“you lie all night half funny in the head and pray and pray and pray you won’t go crazy.” In a love letter to the woman who would become his second wife, he wrote, “I think all the time I want to die.” A love letter! The inner Hemingway was agonized, was ever on the cross.
Further, the British journal The Independent argues that Hemingway’s bravura was a misread cry for help, that “when you inspect the image of Hemingway-as-hero, you uncover an extraordinary sub-stratum of self-harming. You discover that, for just over half of his life, Hemingway seemed hell-bent on destroying himself.”
But in a recent op-ed column for the New York Times, his friend and biographer A.E. Hochner posits a new theory: He was harassed to despair by the FBI. Hemingway often speculated that his phones were bugged, that he was under surveillance, that he was in danger. Only after a Freedom of Information Act released Hemingway’s FBI dossier did Hochner discover the truth:
Decades later, in response to a Freedom of Information petition, the F.B.I. released its Hemingway file. It revealed that beginning in the 1940s J. Edgar Hoover had placed Ernest under surveillance because he was suspicious of Ernest’s activities in Cuba. Over the following years, agents filed reports on him and tapped his phones. The surveillance continued all through his confinement at St. Mary’s Hospital.
Not only did the American way of life come to destroy Hemingway, but Hemingway’s suicide came to traumatize generations of male American writers. “In a dialogue published in the June 1986 edition of Esquire,” remembers the Los Angeles Times’ Reed Johnson, “the writers Ken Kesey and Robert Stone cited Hemingway’s suicide as a critical blow to the American male psyche, which led some men to embrace an alternative ideal of masculinity. ‘He tricked us into following his mode, and then he conked out and shot himself,’ Kesey says of Hemingway.”
Ernest Hemingway’s career, personality, and legacy are controversial—and will ever remain so. Closing the profile in Obit Magazine, Roper asks us all to take a step back from our political agendas and literary preferences. He concludes, “That so large and memorable a personage was so entirely without hope so much of the time awakens compassion.”
Sources: The Independent, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Obit Magazine
Image by tonynetone, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, July 05, 2011 1:55 PM
How much would you pay for the latest book from your favorite author? Would you shell out the full ticket price at the local independent bookseller, or would you jump on Amazon and get the e-book or a discounted copy shipped from some centralized distribution warehouse? And how much would you pay to hear the author read a fraction of the book? Fifty dollars? Ten dollars? Nothing?
Partially out of survival, some authors and independent booksellers have begun charging admission for literary readings. The causes are numerous, and mostly digital: cheap e-tailing, social marketing, the popularization of e-books, among others. “It’s ironic, of course, that as writers become more available online, face-to-face interactions may be put behind a paywall,” laments Alizah Salario at The Millions. “And if open access to readings diminishes, will readers grow more familiar with an author’s brand than with the real person behind a text?”
Salario argues that an admission mutates author readings into “artistic commodities” and predicts that economic transactions will change the nature of book readings so that patrons will expect to get (and authors expect to provide) much more than a simple recitation. “Will authors feel compelled to offer something tangible in addition to words intoned?” she writes. “Will they pass out cookies and break into song?” Whether this cheapens or enhances the reading probably depends on the author and the venue. A few years back, Minneapolis’ punk rock concert venue the Triple Rock Social Club hosted Anthony Bourdain to read from his book No Reservations and field audience questions. The gritty atmosphere of the Triple Rock perfectly complemented Bourdain’s off-the-cuff, vulgar personality. With some creative presentation and unconventional venue choices, admissions may expand the realm of what a literary event can be, where it can be held, and who is likely to listen in.
This trend has spurred a lot of conversation and provoked a number of competing viewpoints. Vol. 1 Brooklyn finds nothing wrong with charging admission:
The answer is that (hopefully) you aren’t paying to hear them read. (Hopefully) you are paying to help keep your local indie bookstore afloat . . . Be excited you’re doing this, because you know what else you could be doing? Hanging out in a bar you don’t like, among people you don’t know, who are talking about things you don’t care about, and then, all of a sudden, two hours have passed and you’ve spent double the amount you would have spent had you gone and paid to see Ms. Fancypants 20 Under 40 read from her work of historical fiction.
On the other side, Ellen at Wormbook thinks that free author events are crucial. “They offer a literary culture that is priceless, not priced,” she writes. Literary agent Miriam Goderich of Dystel & Goderich remembers all the literature she’s purchased on a lark after a free reading: “How many times did I walk out of a book store with a title I had no intention of buying when I went in after stumbling upon an author reading from his/her book?” What’s more, charging an admission (even a paltry $5 ticket) may further alienate the literati from the lay readership.
The work that independent publishers and undiscovered authors do is important and always in danger, but it’s still hard to tell whether monetizing author events and making them more exclusive will be benefit the literary community or beleaguer it.
Sources: Dystel & Goderich, The Millions, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Wormbook
Image by BEYOND BAROQUE, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, July 01, 2011 3:29 PM
Here is a collection of poems to take with you as you head off into the long 4th of July weekend, courtesy of Poets.org. Bring one of each color to your family bbq and give your family a real treat. Or, just take William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.” With the wheelbarrow, the (blue) water, and the white chickens, you’re pretty much covered.
The Red Wheelbarrow
by William Carlos Williams
A Red Palm
by Gary Soto
A Red, Red Rose
by Robert Burns
by Barbara Guest
by Amy Lowell
The Red Poppy
by Louise Glück
by Tess Gallagher
will the red hand throw me?
by Matthew Rohrer
by Jean Valentine
Red Quiet, Section 3
by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
by Anne Sexton
The White Fires of Venus
by Denis Johnson
The White Room
by Charles Simic
by J. Michael Martinez
White Box (Notes)
by Laura Mullen
by Marvin Bell
my dream about being white
by Lucille Clifton
The White Horse
by D.H. Lawrence
by Lisa Olstein
by Donald Hall
by Elizabeth Alexander
Waking in the Blue
by Robert Lowell
by Li-Young Lee
At the Blue Note
by Pablo Medina
The Weary Blues
by Langston Hughes
The Blue Terrance
by Terrance Hayes
The Blue Stairs
by Barbara Guest
The Blue Anchor
by Jane Cooper
by David Baker
Vision from the Blue Plane-Window
by Ernesto Cardenal
translated by Jonathan Cohen
Image by buggolo, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, July 01, 2011 1:48 PM
E.B. White is one of my favorite nature writers who’s not necessarily known as a nature writer. His classic essay collection One Man’s Meat, chronicling his life on a Maine farm, sits on my bookshelf near Muir, Lopez, and Leopold for its concise elegance in detailing a life lived close to the land.
A large part of that life, Michael Sims reminds us in The Chronicle Review, was White’s relationship with creatures. Sims, the author of a new book on White’s “eccentric life in nature” that led to the creation of the children’s classic Charlotte’s Web, found during his research that “nothing else about [White] caught my own imagination more than his attitude toward animals.”
In everyday life, White saw animals with the view of a farmer and an amateur naturalist. He knew how to increase egg production among his chickens, how to dock a lamb's tail, how to give a pig an enema. Yet, apparently without a flicker of what a psychologist would call cognitive dissonance, he also saw animals as personality-rich companions on his own fanciful journey. He interpreted a Boston terrier’s bark as, “I’m in love and I’m going crazy." When his henhouse’s brooder stove burned itself out, he said he found the chicks “standing round with their collars turned up, blowing on their hands and looking like a snow-removal gang under the El on a bitter winter’s midnight.” Of his legendarily stubborn dachshund, Fred, White wrote, “And when I answer his peremptory scratch at the door and hold the door open for him to walk through, he stops in the middle and lights a cigarette, just to hold me up.”
The talking animals in White’s children’s books—the spider Charlotte, the mouse Stuart Little, a family of swans in The Trumpet of the Swan—were precursors to today’s pop-culture “babel of talking animals,” writes Sims, but to accuse White of mere anthropomorphism for its own sake, as Paul Theroux once did, is to miss the point:
I disagree that his anthropomorphism resulted in a deficiency of observation. I think that, contrary to Theroux’s indictment, for White personification was a form of empathy—his way of bridging the gap between self and other—that made him more aware of other creatures’ reality, not less.
White researched animal behavior intensely and incorporated natural science facts into his writing. Moreover, Sims contends, animal characters allowed White to convey more than he himself could sometimes muster, especially when he sat down to pen Charlotte’s Web, “a seemingly innocent tale of talking animals that, paradoxically, would be haunted by mortality’s scythe from the very first sentence”:
To write about the most important issues in his life, this emotionally complex and timid man, who had turned 50 before he dived into Charlotte’s Web, returned to the voice that had served him in the past. He hid behind animals, his favorite people.
Read more articles on our relationships with animals in the current issue of Utne Reader.
Source: The Chronicle Review
, licensed under
Thursday, June 23, 2011 1:30 PM
This spring I traveled with two of my professor friends from our hometown of Phoenix to a vacation getaway in the Chiricahua Mountains of southern Arizona. There we did what most writers and academics do while on holiday: we spent part of each day reading and writing. Early one morning we were at our usual posts. Prasad sat in front of his computer at the dining-room table; I was brewing another espresso in the kitchen before heading to a chair on the back porch. Dan had claimed the couch and was halfway through a novel. He was reading a chapter in which the central character, a young man named Jonathan, from New York City, visits his retired parents in Phoenix.
"Are there armadillos in Phoenix?" Dan asked, out of the blue. We looked across the room at him, a little startled and bemused. "Does the pope wear underwear?" I shot back with my own non sequitur. "No, I'm serious," he persisted. "In the book, Jonathan and his father drive to a movie theater and it says here that they dodged dead armadillos on the road in Phoenix. And what about Joshua trees? It says here that Jonathan stood on a frontage road looking out at the freeway through a line of Joshua trees."
"So far as I know," I said, "Joshua trees grow mostly at elevations of 3,000 feet or more in the Mojave Desert. Phoenix lies in the Sonoran Desert at about 1,100 feet." And the only dead armadillo I knew about in Phoenix, I explained, was the one I bought several years ago at an antique store. The whole animal had been turned into a purse, complete with a gold art nouveau clasp and ruby rhinestones for eyes. Maybe the writer was confusing road-kill armadillos with the husks of palm trees, I suggested, which often litter Phoenix streets after a storm. If you're going 70 miles per hour on the freeway, the two might easily be confused. They are, after all, both brown and dead.
I later read the chapter with the armadillos and the Joshua trees. And sure enough, I stumbled across more eco-confabulations. At one point in the book, Jonathan and his father take a nighttime walk into the desert for a heart-to-heart conversation. Jonathan describes looking up at the sky "as the sickle shape of a hawk skated over the stars." A hawk, huh? Hawks are sight-feeders, flying during the day in search of desert rabbits and birds. Could the writer have meant nighthawks, a bird that trolls the sky for insects, primarily after dark? They are unrelated species, as different as, say, a Wall Street broker and a kindergarten teacher. But I can see how the two birds might easily have been confused. After all, they both have wings and fly.
I've been mulling over these eco-bloopers for some time now. Like a dog with a bone, I dig them up every now and again, gnaw on them for a while, and then rebury them in the back forty of my study. Mind you, I'm not one of those readers who goes snuffling through the pages of a book hoping to catch the author with his pants down and then trumpets the fact that I know a butt from a hole in the ground. So why then can't I just let them go?
It wouldn't have mattered so much if the book were some cheap airport paperback. But it was A Home at the End of the World, the 1990 novel by Michael Cunningham, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for The Hours. On the back cover there's an excerpt from a review in The Wall Street Journal that describes the book as "so finely pitched that even the smallest details are sharp-edged and vivid." A review in The New York Times makes a similar point: "Michael Cunningham appears to believe ... that 'our lives are devoted to the actual,' and that, in the rendering of those actualities, a novel discovers its themes." The Times praised Cunningham for his "reverence for the ordinary, his capacity to be with the moment in its fullest truth."
The fundamental issue here, I think, is not that Cunningham got the details wrong, but that he didn't seem to care about getting them right. Neither did his publisher or editor or the critics. But what if Jonathan’s conversation with his father had taken place not in the Sonoran Desert but instead in the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Would Cunningham have had his protagonist refer casually to, say, strolling past the Elgin Marbles? My guess is that this major American writer would not have conflated the British Museum with the Met. Nor would most of his readers. So what makes us think that it's okay to play fast and loose when it comes to matters of natural history?
Read the rest of this essay at
Image by PhilipC, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, April 29, 2011 12:21 PM
Readers of late have been bombarded with literary mash-ups. Who ever thought our culture would survive that Jane Austen/B-horror meme? Well, you might want to sit down for the latest literary spoof.
Playbill commissioned a video dubbed “Jersey Shore Gone Wilde” to promote a current production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The way-too-funny short features one-liners once uttered by the thick-headed, hyper-sexualized, booze-guzzling cast of MTV’s reality series Jersey Shore—but delivered with snarky wit by professional actors in 19th-century clothing.
There’s an odd appropriateness to the combination that The Book Bench’s Elizabeth Minkel touches on: “Imagining Wilde and The Situation in the same cultural sphere isn’t a particularly easy task, but after all, didn’t Wilde once write, ‘We are all in the gutter…’? Yeah, let’s just leave it at that.”
Source: The Book Bench
Wednesday, April 20, 2011 2:55 PM
When we caught up with Steve Earle, he was hanging out in New Orleans on the set of HBO’s Treme, waiting to shoot a scene for season two. It’s the second time Earle has gotten into character for the show’s co-creator, David Simon. In Simon’s critically acclaimed The Wire, he played a bit part as a former junkie turned 12-step guru. In Treme, he plays an insightful street musician named Harley. In both cases, he has drawn on personal experience. “The Wire really required no acting,” he says wryly. “The role called for a redneck recovering addict. I could do that.”
Earle—a Townes Van Zandt disciple and self-described hillbilly—is a storyteller who’s drawn on personal experience and keen observation to create more than a dozen studio recordings, including three Grammy Award winners, and a collection of short fiction. This month, his newest recording, I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive, hits the streets. Next month, his debut novel of the same name will be published by Houghton Mifflin.
In the midst of the most prolific period of his career, the down-to-earth but steadfastly irreverent Earle talked about his move to New York, the craft of writing, and the art of politics.
Let’s talk about the new record. What will we hear when we hit play?
In a lot of ways, it’s the most country record I’ve made in a long time. There’s fiddle on it, pedal steel, and some things I haven’t used in a while. It features the same rhythm section that [the record’s producer] T-Bone Burnett worked with on the Alison Kraus/Robert Plant record [Raising Sand]. Dennis Kraus, who also plays in my bluegrass band, is the bass player. The guitar player is Jackson Smith, Patti’s son. Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek is playing fiddle. There’s a duet with [wife] Allison [Moorer]. And it also includes “This City,” which we recorded in New Orleans for Treme. T-Bone came to town to record that song, and Allen Toussaint wrote the horn charts. The rest of it was recorded in like five days in November.
What does a producer like T-Bone Burnett bring to the table?
When I produce I’m an arranger. I’m a cheerleader. T-Bone is all of that. Over the years he’s assembled a group of players that I’ve heard him and others compare to the Stax house band. But there’s a difference: The Stax group, the Wrecking Crew, and all these other sections were put together to make hit records. This group of people was put together to make art—and to make it appear effortless. It was hard to get us all together because of schedules and other stuff, but once we got in the studio it was the easiest record I’ve ever made.
Death is reoccurring theme on the new record. What accounts for that emphasis?
What happened in the last three years is that my dad died, and he was really sick before he died. My family, which is very close, still hasn’t recovered from it. It got me thinking about my experiences with mortality and spirituality. I’m a hippie basically. I grew up in a pretty wide-open spiritual atmosphere. And it’s one of the things that saved my life. I think that when I finally decided that I didn’t want to die and I could get clean, I had no problem with the spiritual element of it. I never questioned whether there was a God or not. I’m not a Christian or anything close to one, but I definitely believed there was a power greater than myself. That helped a lot. That was half the battle. My spiritual system is 12-step programs.
So you still go to meetings regularly?
Trust me, when I stop going to meetings you’ll read about me somewhere else.
In May, your new novel, also titled I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive, will be in bookstores. It seems you’re really stretching out as a writer.
This is the first full-length novel. I published a collection of short fiction about nine years ago. I’ve written one play. That’s why I moved to New York, because of theater. I’m working on a play now. And while I swore that I’d never write another novel toward the end of this last project, I already have an idea for another one. I just like to write. It was kind of recovery thing. I started writing poetry and prose after I got clean. I also think all the other creative things I do make my home-base craft stronger. I think that’s borne out by the songs on the new record.
As a writer, what is your daily discipline? And where do you get your ideas?
I write what I’m going to write the first few hours of the day before the phone starts ringing. I write with a computer. I don’t use a pencil anymore. I wake up early, like 6 or 6:30, and write most of what I’m going to write by the middle of the day. It’s funny: I don’t understand people who wander around New York City with ear buds in, because you’re just listening to the same shit over and over again, and you’re missing all the music, and you’re missing all the lines, and you’re missing all of that stuff. Writing is not that original. It doesn’t spring full grown from a person. It’s coming from without.
So has relocating to New York affected you creatively?
I moved to New York to breathe the same air as Tony Kushner. I don’t think I could have continued to create anything if I would have continued living in Tennessee. And that’s nothing against Tennessee. It just became more and more of a hostile environment. Not in the sense that people were hostile to me, but I just felt a little stimulus-starved. I was really in danger of becoming an old fart there, just stagnating.
You’re known for your work against the death penalty, and from the stage you can be very outspoken. Does politics fuel your work?
I’m not a political writer. I know people have a hard time believing that. There’s political stuff on my records, but the songs have always been about the way politics affects human beings. But I still write more songs about girls than I do anything. I write and I make things up. And I’m outspokenly political because I think I would be a pussy if I wasn’t. To have realized as much from doing something that I love to do and to not use that position to talk about things that I think are wrong would be irresponsible. If I irritate other people, it doesn’t cost anyone any money but me—and I’m OK with that. I’m just trying to keep from going to hell.
How are you feeling about the current political environment?
I’m pissed off. I’m angry. It’s tough for me. But I try not to be negative, and I’m dedicated to being part of the political process. I’m having a hard time. I’ve always thought that Obama was a little bit too Clintonesque for me to be comfortable with. He wants to make everyone happy so desperately. It does count that he’s black, though. It does count that we elected a black president. We are a better nation for that.
So, a new record, a new book, a play in the works, a new season of Treme—you’re in the midst of one helluva year.
The record comes out in April, and I’m going to do a record store and radio station tour. In May I’m doing a book tour. And then the band starts touring in June. It will be good. If I stay really, really busy, make music, and talk to my sponsor, I should be OK.
Tuesday, February 08, 2011 12:43 PM
Literature, at its pinnacle, strives to reflect the human condition, but it much more often reflects the male condition. At least that’s the conclusion of The New Republic’s Ruth Franklin, who crunched some numbers on whose books are being published, whose tomes are chosen for review, and who’s penning the critiques when they hit the shelves. Franklin found that our litterateurs and cultural arbiters are overwhelmingly male; only about one-quarter of literary books published are written by women. She breaks down her findings:
We looked at fall 2010 catalogs from 13 publishing houses, big and small. Discarding the books that were unlikely to get reviewed—self-help, cooking, art—we tallied up how many were by men and how many were by women. Only one of the houses we investigated—the boutique Penguin imprint Riverhead—came close to parity, with 55 percent of its books by men and 45 percent by women. Random House came in second, with 37 percent by women. It was downhill from there, with three publishers scoring around 30 percent—Norton, Little Brown, and Harper—and the rest 25 percent and below, including the elite literary houses Knopf (23 percent) and FSG (21 percent). Harvard University Press, the sole academic press we considered, came in at just 15 percent.
Unfortunately—and surprisingly—Franklin found that independent and small-run publishers are just as skewed as the bigger publishing houses. “I speculated,” writes Franklin,
that independents—more iconoclastic, publishing more work in translation, and perhaps less focused on the bottom line—would turn out to be more equitable than the big commercial houses. Boy, was I wrong. Granted, these presses publish a smaller number of books in total, so a difference in one or two books has a larger effect on their percentages. Still, their numbers are dismaying. Graywolf, with 25 percent female authors, was our highest-scoring independent. The cutting-edge Brooklyn publisher Melville House came in at 20 percent. The doggedly leftist house Verso was second-to-last at 11 percent. Our lowest scorer? It pains me to say it, because Dalkey Archive Press publishes some great books that are ignored by the mainstream houses. But it would be nice if more than 10 percent of them were by women.
Literary gender disparity, by Franklin’s reckoning, seems to be systemic: the fewer books published with female authors, the fewer books with female authors critically appraised in the press. VIDA, a group that studies gender in contemporary literary arts, charted gender trends in book review sections of magazines and newspapers. Look at Harper’s, Granta, The New York Times Book Review, or even Franklin’s home publication The New Republic, and the stats are depressingly similar. Most that VIDA tabulated from have a similar 2:1 ratio of male to female authors—both as reviewers and as subjects. Franklin even checked her own scorecard and found that only 33 percent of the books she wrote about were written by women.
“As a member of third-wave feminism, growing up in the 1970s and ’80s,” Franklin reflects, “I was brought up to believe we lived in a meritocracy, where the battles had been fought and won, with the spoils left for us to gather. It is sobering to realize that we may live and work in a world still held in the grip of unconscious biases, no less damaging for their invisibility.”
The New Republic
Image courtesy of VIDA.
Tuesday, December 28, 2010 4:29 PM
It’s fascinating to see Atlas Shrugged author Ayn Rand posthumously elevated to the level of saint by conservatives who are allegedly driven by Christian values. For Rand was an aggressive atheist who condemned altruism of all kinds, writes Tim King in Sojourners, and “Grace, by its very definition, cannot find any place within Rand’s philosophy.”
As King explains in his short commentary, “Jesus Shrugged”:
Rand was clear that her philosophy, known as objectivism, was incompatible with that of Jesus. For her, any system that that required one individual to live for others and follow anything beside his or her own self-interest was immoral. For Jesus, any system or behavior that does not take into account living for others and acting on their behalf is immoral. Christians should take Ayn Rand’s words as a warning. To follow her and her vision, one must give up Christ and his cross.
You heard it, libertarians, go-Galters, and Tea Party rabble rousers: If you cheer Rand’s self-worshipping objectivist ideals, you cheer with the devil.
(article not available online)
, licensed under
Thursday, December 02, 2010 4:19 PM
Every week we share links to stories, articles, and other interesting things we’ve come across online for you to enjoy over the weekend. It’s the utne.com crockpot; we add the ingredients for a great online meal.
Maybe we’ve been living under a rock—you know, too caught up in our alternative media over here—but what the hell is going on with Randy Quaid?
A frog dissection made with LEGOs. Seriously.
The animated environmental video short The Story of Stuff went so very, very viral that it launched a cottage industry for filmmaker Annie Leonard. Her latest is The Story of Electronics, about “designed for the dump” consumer tech products.
Artsy folks will love counting down the days until Christmas with this advent calendar on Tumblr.
Also worth checking out: 3rd of May, another Tumblr that will feature an artwork every day, all year long.
Yes, your local community college may have a wind-power technician training program, but don’t be fooled: America is fast falling behind other countries in the push for green jobs.
Lapham’s Quarterly has a really fun chart of gangs in New York from 1840 to 1910.
As we approach the solstice, gray moods and scant sunlight pervade—which makes it a perfect time to wallow in gloomy literature for dreary days.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010 2:36 PM
B.H. Fairchild is afflicted with logophilia, a love for language. He writes in the literary journal New Letters about his lifelong affinity for the well-turned phrase:
I remember, around the age of four, being delighted with the onomatopoeia the writers of Captain Marvel and Batman would invent for certain sounds: KAPOW, VROOM, or my favorite, POIT!, used (without any auditory connection I can locate) to described something soft (the bad guy’s head) bouncing off something hard (a brick wall).
Later, when I was a teenager, there was the poetry of the oil fields … often disguised as profanity: “Colder than a well digger’s ass,” “Colder than a witch’s tit,” “I whipped the bastard like a rented mule” … . My father, who was embarrassed by poetry and refused to read anything but nonfiction, one time for just a moment became the Prince of Language when Joe Whisnatt, a large man who for unknown reasons rode a very small motorcycle, was pulling out of the driveway. As he drove away, my father said, “You know, Whisnatt on that little bike looks like a monkey fucking a football.”
Fairchild traces his taste for colorful locutions back to Keats and, before him, Shakespeare, admitting that he is a “fool for language” and thus the foolishness
of Catullus, Li Po, Villon, Marlowe, Byron, Christina Rossetti, Yeats, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Anne Sexton, and a thousand others, drunk on language—but without the drunkenness, that is, the logophilia, just solid citizens who read the newspaper and pay mortgages and vote regularly and live sensible, organized lives.
Source: New Letters, Vol. 76, No. 4
(article not available online)
Image by hslo, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, November 15, 2010 4:25 PM
It’s hard to pin down novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. Just when you thought you had his meticulous prose and dietary politics figured out, he goes and drops a piece of interdisciplinary fiction on us all. Starting with his favorite book—Polish World War II-era author Bruno Schulz’s collection of short fiction called The Street of Crocodiles—Foer began slicing out sections of text. When all of the scraps of paper were cleared away, Foer had an entirely different story called Tree of Codes.
With the surgery complete Foer’s next hurdle was to find a printer for such an unconventional book. According to Visual Editions, the book’s publisher, Tree of Codes “literally got turned down by every printer we approached–their stock line being ‘the book you want to make just cannot be made.’” Belgian print shop Die Keure didn’t agree, and used a die-cutting method to make the literary sculpture.
Many critics will undoubtedly profess that Foer’s experiment was an overwhelming success, but as Foer told Vanity Fair, there’s more at stake with Tree of Codes’ unusual format than the author’s boredom with the publishing status quo:
I’m not interested in experimentation for its own sake. But I’m interested in works of art that transport a reader. That send you to a different place—pure magic. We’ve gotten used to the notion that art, if it entertains or says something interesting about our time, that’s enough. But there’s something else it can do that nothing else can do. To be genuinely transported, to have your nerves touched, make your hair stand on end, that’s what I think art can do well—or only art can do.
In the following video, Jonathan Safran Foer explains the production process of Tree of Codes.
Images of Tree of Codes courtesy of
Friday, October 08, 2010 2:34 PM
Chris Adrian’s resume is one of those that makes you wonder just what the hell you’ve been doing with your time, since apparently other people—like Adrian—have no problem getting stuff done, while you can’t even seem to find time to do the laundry or catch a movie. On top of writing three novels (Gob's Grief, The Children's Hospital, and the forthcoming The Great Night) and a book of short stories (A Better Angel), Adrian is a pediatrician and a student at divinity school. And he's a fellow in something called pediatric hematology-oncology. And he publishes short stories pretty much everywhere. And he was recently named to The New Yorker’s list “20 under 40,” honoring 20 writers under the age of 40 who show “a mastery of language and of storytelling [and] a palpable sense of ambition.” Ambition seems an understatement when it comes to Adrian. I have yet to read his tome The Children’s Hospital, but it was the opening line of that book, which I picked up when I was working in a bookstore, that first turned me on to this writer: “I am the recording angel, doomed to watch.”
In his forthcoming book, The Great Night, Adrian again ventures into the realm of non-human characters with “fairies, a monster, and the ghosts of [the characters’] recently deceased romantic relationships.” In an interview at Work in ProgressAdrian tells Rivka Galchen (another on the “20 under 40” list) that he tends “to think of those sorts of characters—angels and ghosts and fetuses and talking bagels—as human in pretty ordinary ways, though it always feels like a tall order to write well enough about them that the reader will see them that way, too.”
While there are some other interesting tidbits about the new book and Adrian's writing, my favorite part comes with this fantastically personal answer:
I had the idea for the novel long before I figured out how to write it or became possessed of the sustained inspiration necessary to bring it out of the realm of daydreams into actual words that other people could read. What brought both of those things about was the disintegration of my relationship with my boyfriend. The novel became a sort of open letter to him about why it was in the universe’s best interest that we get back together, and at the same time it was a sort of weapon of mass emotional destruction aimed, rather angrily, at his heart.
A “sort of weapon of mass emotional destruction”…does it get any better than that?
Extra: A Bookslutinterview with Adrian from 2008.
(Thanks, Maud Newton.)
Source: Work in Progress
Friday, October 08, 2010 12:18 PM
When you read a Western novel, you know that cowboy hats may be involved, and when you read Southern lit you might expect the appearance of a moss-covered mansion. But these sorts of expectations from readers and publishers can be frustrating for writers who don’t want to fill their books with clichés.
North Carolina novelist Clyde Edgerton gets at this in an amusing exchange with writer Amy Frykholm at the Christian Century:
What is happening now in Southern fiction?
Fiction writers are still dealing with that species of animal called human in a hot place where there’s plenty of reactionary fundamentalism and family loyalty and a history of living close to the land, along with a poverty that often finds little hope in the promise of America.
You once said, “Because I was born in the South, I’m a Southerner. If I had been born in the North, the West or the Central Plains, I would be just a human being.” Do we make too much of Southern culture generally or of Southern literature in particular?
Maybe we do make too much of it—because it’s often loud and, in the case of good fiction, accurate. Whereas various media interpretations of the South are sometimes only loud. It’s always a bit of a downer for me when those not from the South start talking about front porches and sweet iced tea and quirky characters. I visualize the caricatured life and predict the next string of dead mule generalizations.
Western writer Laura Pritchett makes a more pitched complaint in “The Western Lit Blues” in High Country News:
I’m a writer who writes about the West and the people out here. You know, the tough outdoorsy folks who populate Western books. People who hunt, camp, ride horses, and love to gut fish. Men and women who live on ranches or fall in love with ranchers. Or the folks who have a kayak on their Subaru and suntan marks on their feet from Chaco sandals, and the people who fall in love with suntanned, Subaru-driving kayakers.
… But I have to say: Even though I am similar to my fictional counterparts, I am also not them. There’s more going on with life out here in the West than is often rendered in books. We Westerners are more complex and worldly and unique than what I sometimes find on the page, frankly. And as a writer, a reader, an observer, and a half-assed cultural critic, I’m starting to get a little worried.
Pritchett acknowledges that some of her peers are broadening their scope—“the oil drillers of Alexandra Fuller’s nonfiction, the odd lovers in Rick Bass’ novels, the Spanish-infused language and Chicano influence in Aaron Abeyta’s poetry”—so it’s not that writers can’t and won’t push boundaries. It’s just that a self-perpetuating mythology can stifle artistic innovation:
Co-creation. That’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. How books create our self-identity, and our identity gets captured in books, and back and forth it goes like some frenzied feeding machine. I read, I reflect, I transfer. So do you. Books and life feed each other, and then they create a monster of an ideology that we feel obligated to live up to.
Sources: Christian Century, High Country News
Image by crowt59, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010 10:26 AM
David Byrne’s successful book, Bicycle Diaries, probably would have sold just fine as a traditional audiobook, as well. However, never one for the status quo, Byrne wanted to do something a little more interesting than simply reading the book in silence and releasing it as a download or cd. Instead, he looked to other successful audio formats for inspiration, namely NPR shows that incorporate scene sounds and podcasts.
Starting with the chapter on New York, Byrne experimented with the sounds of the city to bring his book to life. He liked the results so much that he decided to make the whole book a fuller experience, with sounds working in tandem with the author’s essays about his experience viewing the world from his bike. Chapters are also available separately, similar to a podcast model.
Technology had, it seemed, created an opportunity for a whole new format to come into being. I’m not sure anything exactly like this has ever been done before. Sure, there are NPR radio shows with sound effects (Joe Frank comes to mind) as well as ye olde radio dramas (The Shadow was one), but if there’s anything similar out there I’m unaware of it. And yes, there are loads of downloadable audiobooks—but you have to listen to the chapters in the prescribed order, unless you are into self created meta fiction.
You can listen to and download the introduction, and pre-order the rest, which will be released on September 28.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:13 PM
Get ready to practice the arts of martini mixing, gin bootlegging, and inordinate obsessing through Big Fish Games' video game adaptation of the 1925 classic The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Okay, you don't really get to practice any of those things. Mainly you just stare at a computer screen searching for poorly hidden objects (think Highlights) and completing simple word puzzles (Highlights again, I guess).
Creatively titled The Great Gatsby Game, the PC-operated release purportedly allows users to "launch themselves into the high-society, low-morality world of East and West Egg and wade neck-deep into all the excess and depravity of Gatsby, Daisy, Jordan, Tom…the whole gang!"
And all for only $6.99. A steal really, when you consider what excess and depravity normally go for.
Image by yoppy, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, June 24, 2010 5:05 PM
The doyennes of 19th century literature—Charlotte, Anne, and Emily Brontë—reimagined as spectacular action figures. Creators Phil Lord and Chris Miller explain via YouTube that they made this fake commercial in 1998 for a series of educational shorts that never aired. Only one question guys: Why hide it for so long?
Tuesday, June 01, 2010 2:53 PM
Where does the Book of Mormon rank on your list of all time, top five greatest religious texts? Alan Wolfe over at Slate dives into a reader’s guide that attempts to revitalize the literary reputation of Mormonism’s founding text. He comes away a little unconvinced, though:
Mormonism's success suggests that a religion can flourish in spite of rather than because of its founding texts. I do not doubt that Mormons are inspired by the words associated with Joseph Smith. But if another reference to music is permitted, I simply cannot imagine anyone setting those words to music the way Handel did with the Bible in his oratorios. The Book of Mormon has a structure. It does not sing.
To be fair, Handel’s Messiah oratorio draws partly from the über-poetic King James Bible, and I can’t imagine Biblical translations more contemporaneous with the Book of Mormon would provide lyrics that were much better. Still, if the Book of Mormon isn’t the riveting beach read you and Alan Wolfe were hoping for, maybe you’d like to ponder another question Slate poses: Where is the great Mormon novel?
Image by ClarkProductions2008, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, May 14, 2010 10:56 AM
The 1921 Russian novel Dersu the Trapper “is one of the earliest and most powerfully realized examples of environmentally conscious thought in popular literature,” writes Patrick Evans in Resurgence magazine. The book by Vladimir Arsen’ev became a hit upon its publication, enthralling readers with its purportedly true story of a deep nature-based friendship between Dersu, a hunter and trapper, and Arsen’ev, an army captain:
In the story, the persona of the captain is initially placed firmly in the acquisitive “hunting” tradition of shooting wild game, exploiting wild land for the greater good of the empire, and subjugating the natives to imperial command; yet Dersu’s knowledge of the wild forests is so rich that soon the captain in forced to see things differently. Slowly, the soldier relinquishes his killing instinct, only allowing himself and his men to shoot what they can reasonably eat. Increasingly, he spends his time observing nature and soon he begins to despise the advance of civilization into wild areas, seeing it as highly destructive.
The story has held its power over the decades, and was even made into an Oscar-winning film, Dersu Uzala, in 1975 by legendary director Akira Kurosawa. “Today it survives in thirty languages,” writes Evans, “yet outside Russia it remains largely and puzzlingly unknown.”
I read Dersu about a decade ago, after a hardcover English version was published in 1996 by MacPherson & Co. (it remains in print). I was immediately drawn in by the storyline and the vivid descriptions of life on the Russian taiga, but was even more intrigued by the environmental ethic at the core of the tale, especially since “environmentalism” and “Russia” are not typically associated in my mind. Evans is certain that the book still has wisdom to share:
It speaks of a place most of us will never visit, in a language now outmoded. Yet it is time that a new English-speaking readership evolved to champion a long lost but never fully extinguished cause.
Watch the trailer for Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala here:
Source: Resurgence (article not available online)
Tuesday, May 04, 2010 2:31 PM
The fabulous book blogger Maud Newton is celebrating eight years of book blogging by toasting her favorite book blogs. It's a fun roundup. Here's a taste:
Surely by now anyone who’s even occasionally dipped into book and culture sites over the past decade knows about Bookslut, The Elegant Variation, The Literary Saloon, About Last Night, and the other early blogs that tend to be driven by one (or two, or three) perspectives. I know all of the people behind these sites — some are good friends — but I followed them daily long before I met them in person, and I still do.
Among the many smart, independent group sites that have sprung up more recently, I suggest updating your RSS feeds to include one or more of: The Second Pass (run by John Williams; I’m a contributor alongside Emma Garman, Alexander Nazaryan, Daniel Menaker, Carlene Bauer, Jessica Ferri, and others), The Millions (run by C. Max Magee, and featuring Emily St. John Mandel and Sonya Chung, and most recently Lizzie Skurnick), The Rumpus (run by Stephen Elliott, and featuring Seth Fischer, Rozalia Jovanovic, and Elissa Bassist), HTML Giant (run by Justin Taylor and featuring Nick Antosca, Jimmy Chen, and Blake Butler), Words Without Borders (whose blog is edited by the inimitable Bud Parr), and Open Letters Monthly.
What are your favorite book blogs? Me, I don't know what I'd do without The Rumpus.
(Thanks, The Rumpus.)
Source: Maude Newton
Image by gualtiero, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, April 20, 2010 11:49 AM
Kevin Hartnett has a thoughtful burst of an essay over at The Millions. Blogging something posted to the internet one month ago is a crime in somebody's book I'm sure, but it ends with such a lovely quote that I couldn't resist. We'll get to that in a minute. Hartnett wrote the essay after finishing Tolstoy's War and Peace.
...just as it takes specialized knowledge to understand exactly why a magnet attracts metal, yet any five-year-old can identify a magnet when he sees one, it is one thing to apprehend the formal properties of a great work of art, but another, much more accessible question, to assess its effects. And so, having recently finished reading War and Peace, what I want to think about is just what it is that great art does.
If you want to see what he came up with, read the essay. What will hang with me for awhile is the last line in the piece. Here it is, do with it as you see fit:
An encounter with greatness, I would say, is like a bright light fixed in time, a marker that defines memory and makes it clearer than it otherwise might have been, that we were here.
Source: The Millions
Friday, April 02, 2010 2:19 PM
Randa Jarrar grew up in Kuwait, Egypt, and the United States. Her novel, A Map of Home, is the often-hilarious story of a family in Kuwait driven first to Egypt and finally to the United States by the Iraqi invasion in 1990. In a recent column for the fabulous make/shift magazine, Jarrar riffs on an old family photograph. It’s reprinted here with her permission. –Jeff Severns Guntzel
by Randa Jarrar
One of my father’s favorite activities was to stalk writers. He’d grown up in a shack on the side of a mountain, in the West Bank, and fled at age seventeen. He lived on a pension in Jordan and smoked cigarettes. When the Egyptian president made education free to all exiled Palestinians, my father joined his brother in Alexandria, where he lived and studied engineering in the late ‘60s and through the ‘70s. He stalked famous poets and novelists and playwrights, wrote bad poetry, and wooed my knotty-haired mama, a soft-spoken pianist.
After I was born, the writer stalking continued. Here, we are at a café in Alexandria and my baba is presenting my diapered body to Tawfiq el-Hakim, the Arab world’s Molière, Checkov, Proust, and Ibsen all rolled into one. Years later, when I enrolled in a Middle Eastern studies program, I discovered that el-Hakim was a huge misogynist whose female characters have no agency and no positive traits. When I called my father and told him this, he hung up on me.
My father always wanted me to be a writer. When I showed promise in dance and music, he shook his head and said, “Who wants to be a singer when you can be a novelist?” I did, but that didn’t matter. I was meant to write a novel about the history of my family and our struggles. That's what my father always told me.
In this photo, his body is still svelte and solid. My father has, alongside his outward obsession with writers, a secret obsession with his body. He has spent my entire life on diets and exercise regimens. When I was a child, he went off to “fat farms” and came back pounds slimmer. I thought all men were like this until I left home. Even after I succeeded at writing and publishing, my father was obsessed with my zaftig-ness. At a library once, he asked me if I saw myself as beautiful. When I said I did, he told me I was wrong. We were flipping through books and I got up and left in tears. A week later, I saw a man my father’s age sitting in the same seat by the new-fiction collection. I had to resist the urge to ask him if he thought I was pretty.
Most recently, my father has stopped talking to me. He did this once thirteen years ago, when I got myself pregnant. This time, he’s not speaking to me because I wrote a novel. In the novel is a writer-obsessed failed poet, loosely based on my father.
I can see him on the treadmill now. He is shaking his head and woefully thinking, I should have let her be a singer.
Congratulations to make/shift, which is nominated for a 2010 Utne Independent Press Award for best social/cultural coverage.
Subscribe to the Thousand Yard Stare RSS feed
Follow Thousand Yard Stare on Twitter (@1000yards)
Image courtesy of Randa Jarrar.
Thursday, March 04, 2010 9:03 AM
In her latest collection of essays, novelist and essayist Arundhati Roy turns her critical eye to her home country of India. Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers is published by Haymarket Books. In this UtneCast conversation, Roy challenges the mainstream media story of "India shining" and describes the recent laws and military operations inside the country that she says challenge India's image as a great democracy.
Download the UtneCast interview with Arundhati Roy
Subscribe to the Thousand Yard Stare RSS feed
Follow Thousand Yard Stare on Twitter (@1000yards)
Image by Pradip Krishen.
Tuesday, March 02, 2010 1:12 PM
Deeply personal stories are hidden inside the dog-eared pages of ingredient-stained cookbooks. Notes scribbled in margins conjure memories of meals and relationships past. For Sarah McCoy, writing for The Millions, cookbooks are literary treasures. She writes:
The truth is, I read cookbooks like novels. Cover to cover, page by page, the dedication, the acknowledgments, the indexes: I devour everything. Like the literary works on my bookshelves, I can give you the plot, characters, themes and favorite scenes; however, ask me a recipe and I’d be hard-pressed to name one I’ve personally prepared.
Source: The Millions
, licensed under
Monday, March 01, 2010 5:07 PM
“On a Honduran border road, two U.S. journalists are killed.” So began a July 4, 1983 Time magazine report on the deaths of Los Angeles Times reporter Dial Torgeson, 55, and U.S. News & World Report photographer Richard Cross, 33.
More than a decade later Torgeson’s widow, a Wall Street Journal Correspondent in Mexico at the time of the tragedy, finally sat down to write about it all. “I can write about this now only because enough time has passed,” Lynda Schuster wrote in her Granta essay, The Death of a Journalist, reprinted in Utne Reader’s September-October 1996 issue. “I have moved on—covered other stories, found another man to love.”
The story of her love affair with Torgeson zips back and forth atop the violence and chaos of events in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Argentina. And it calls to mind all of the journalists who have died covering the conflicts that have jumped from the front pages of our newspapers to the middle pages and back again in recent years.
The story is bookended by two dramatic events—one of them beautiful and one terrible—both of them engulfed and then swept away by what secondary school students dispassionately call “current events.”
Here’s Schuster writing about her wedding day:
I was in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on August 23, when Dial called from his home in Mexico. “Lynda, I cannot not be married to you any longer,” he announced. “Your birthday is in three days, and if you are a woman of honor, you must marry me. I’m flying down tomorrow with Jordy (his daughter) and two rings, and we’re going to get married.”
“But I have interviews all day,” I said.
“You can still do your interviews. Just be back at the hotel by five.”
I set out early the next morning. There was a dreamy quality to the city that defied the knife-edge atmosphere in the region: the cottony clouds sailing low across the horizon; the tiny, pastel-painted houses that dot the hillsides; the plodding burros.
..For my last meeting of the day, a man I didn’t know, but whose car had been described to me, picked me up at an appointed street corner and drove a circuitous route to a house on the outskirts of the city. The rendezvous was with representatives of the Contras, the guerrilla group trying to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. It was an astonishing interview at a time when the U.S. government was refusing to admit the Contras’ existence, let alone the fact that it was providing them with aid. Suddenly I looked at my watch: it was 4:50. “Gentlemen, I’m very sorry but I have to go,” I said. “I’m getting married in ten minutes.”
And here she is writing about the shapeless days following her husband's funeral (just ten months after they were married):
Not long after the funeral, Dial’s death ceased to be news. Benigno Aquino, the Filipino political dissident, was shot dead on the tarmac at Manila airport by government soldiers. Two hundred and forty-three U.S. Marines were blown up in Beirut. American troops invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada. The world, in other words, moved on. And so, eventually, would I.
What I’ve left out here is Schuster’s description of her husband’s death and the geopolitical implications of it. I’ve also left out the love story—and it’s a fabulous one.
I’ve highlighted the excerpts above because too often we leave journalists out when tallying the costs of war. Perhaps some of them—maybe even Dial Torgeson—would want it that way. I don’t.
Source: Granta, Utne Reader
Subscribe to the Thousand Yard Stare RSS feed
Follow Thousand Yard Stare on Twitter (@1000yards)
Wednesday, February 03, 2010 2:39 PM
For his latest book, Footnotes in Gaza, Joe Sacco traveled to Gaza to find eyewitnesses to an Israeli army massacre of Palestinians in 1956. The book took him more than six years to complete. I interviewed Sacco for the UtneCast. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation:
First, I asked why he makes himself such a prominent character in his books:
Joe Sacco: When I was younger I would read books where people went to these interesting places and it was all such a mystery to me. It didn’t feel like something I could do, so it’s always been important for me to show the process; to completely or as much as possible demystify it; to show the fallibility of the process and the scenes in a story.
Jeff Severns Guntzel: Once you’re finished with the reporting and research phases—I know you spent months in Gaza, you were looking up documents at the United Nations archives in New York City, and you hired Israeli researchers to go through Israeli archives—once you’re done with all of that, what comes next?
JS: I spend quite a long period transcribing tapes and indexing notes. I have hundreds of pages of journal entries and then hundreds of pages of interviews and I make a relatively thorough index of all the stuff and then I start writing. I write the whole script and then I start drawing. If you’re talking about writing and drawing the story, it was about six and a half years [to do Footnotes in Gaza].
JSG: Is there anything you’ve learned about drawing Gaza and Palestine?
JS: Well, I'm always impressed by the number of kids. In my journal I will sometimes write notes to myself, "don’t forget to draw lots of kids." I’m always reminding myself that kids are following you around. They’re curious. There’s shooting and kids are going to show up because little boys want to see what’s going on. That’s the striking visual thing that sticks in my mind when I’m drawing any scene in Palestine.
JSG: Speaking of children, there’s a really powerful passage in your book. You’re interviewing a mother whose son was injured in the Intifada; he lost a hand. She says, “We say the boys who have been killed are martyrs, but when you’ve seen your son crippled, then what? When you see your son with one hand cut off and he’s trying to pull up his pants, you die little by little. And then when someone goes to make a suicide attack, the whole world turns upside down.” It does seem that while children are everywhere in Gaza and in Palestine while things are going on, they’re not really a part of the story we get here. Especially the children—and victims generally—who are injured, not killed.
JS: It's not just there, but almost everywhere. That kind of thing is airbrushed out of historical accounts. It’s almost easier to talk about those who are killed. But those who have to live out the rest of their lives with some debilitating injury, that’s a real hard thing to face, so we don’t face it. We try to avoid the subject.
JSG: There’s another passage in the book where a young boy had gone to throw stones at a military position and an Israeli soldier shot him in the head. You were asked if you’d like to go and take a photo of the corpse, and you said no. You write: “After all, what right do I have to intimacy with the poor kid’s corpse? Only time, history, the bone-bleaching years can strip the dead of their privacy and make them sufficiently decent for viewing.” Was this the only time you were invited to go to a morgue?
JS: What was interesting was later on in the book, you’ll see that I do go to a morgue.
JSG: To see Rachel Corrie’s corpse.
JS: Yeah. And it’s interesting because I’ve thought about that line. And I really meant the line as I wrote it about that young boy in the morgue. But in the end, if you’re there for a long enough period it’s just thrust on you. In the end it’s not about distance—you can’t get that sort of distance from death. I was trying to get a distance from death in a way. But death is thrust upon you and you have to deal with it. There’s no time for the sun to dry the bones. If you’re there long enough, it’s going to be thrust in your face.
JSG: And in the case of Rachel Corrie—the American activist from Olympia Washington who was crushed under an Israeli bulldozer when she and other international activists were protesting home demolitions in Gaza—you went to the morgue when you heard the news and when you arrived there, you found her friends in a state of shock. What was that experience for you?
JS: I guess I haven’t said this to anyone, but I was really shaken up by that. I thought to myself, “OK, now is the time. Are you here to confront what happens, or are you going to not confront it?” And on the way to the morgue, I just couldn’t imagine the whole scene or what had happened really. I was very uncomfortable, frankly. But then I thought, "You know what? You put yourself in this position, you cannot hide from it now. Why are you here? are you going to take up space or are you going to confront this?"
JSG: When you are finished telling a story like this, is there a sense of closure or do these stories still kind of just bounce around in your head and haunt you?
JS: I think it was almost easier while I was doing it. It was very difficult, especially drawing the bodies—I got very sick of drawing the bodies. And now, for some reason, I’m even more exhausted thinking about it than I was drawing it. There’s something purging about just drawing—even though I don’t like what I’m drawing, I’m drawing it, so I’m sort of purging it out of my system. What I've realized is that it hasn’t really purged and I’m no longer drawing. I feel maybe a little less comfortable with all that stuff now.
JSG: Could you talk about what it’s like to draw the bodies? There are so many people who are either dead, dying, or badly injured in this book. Is there a point where you say, “I just don’t want to do this anymore?”
JS: Yeah—and I can’t. I’m obviously not trying to relate this as the experience of someone who’s witnessed these things, but as an artist who’s trying to interpret it. But what you try to interpret is you start to think about, ok, what does a body feel like? What is the weight of a body? How does it slump? You’re starting to think about all this sort of stuff, and when you’re drawing something—not just a body, but almost any figure—you try to inhabit it somehow. And just putting yourself in that frame of mind over and over again, it’s just not a pleasant thing to do. And this is a mass event. We’re talking about a lot of bodies, and what do I do? Do I not draw them, or do I draw them once and leave it alone? I thought, you know what, this is what happened. You just have to draw it the way it is. You don’t have to make it spectacular. You just have to draw a lot of bodies in these scenes, and just draw it as it probably looked and leave it at that—don’t even try to be artistic about it.
JSG: Do you have a sense of what your next project will be? Do you talk about that?
JS: I’m doing some illustrations about Camden, NJ.
JSG: This is magazine work?
JS: Yeah, this is for Harper's magazine. I’m only doing illustrations; Chris Hedges is doing the article.
JSG: Who you originally went to Gaza with?
JS: Yes, that’s right. And probably in February I’m going to India to do a story about poverty there. So I’m still keeping my hand in journalism, obviously, but I think I’d like to step away from journalism for a while. I think this book really exhausted me, and I kind of need a creative break from the world’s troubles.
JSG: What would that look like?
JS: Maybe some fiction, maybe some history, something about theology, something about philosophy, something about ideas, perhaps. I’d like to do something like that. And maybe some funny work too, just some humor. I think I need it.
Subscribe to the Thousand Yard Stare RSS feed
Follow Thousand Yard Stare on Twitter (@1000yards)
Tuesday, January 26, 2010 8:38 AM
“The Call” is excerpted from
Life Is More Beautiful than Paradise: A Jihadist’s Story
by Khaled al-Berry, first published in Arabic in 2001. In his autobiography, al-Berry recalls his involvement as a teenager with a radical Islamic group in Egypt called Jama'a Islamiya, his prison sentence, and his eventual alienation from radical Islam. “The Call” appears in PEN America 11: Make Believe and it is reprinted here with their permission.
Khaled al-Berry: The Call
I descended the mosque steps calmly after the prayer, talking to a friend of mine. The school year had started a few weeks earlier, the university students arriving from their hometowns and the students at the schools returning from their vacations. At the Jam‘iya Shar‘iya mosque—the Jama‘a’s main mosque in Asyut—the number of worshipers was huge, larger than any I’d seen throughout the summer vacation. This was my first school year as a committed Muslim with the Jama‘a. The atmosphere in the city was tense; the government had decided, as it did on occasion, that Islamist activity had gone too far and had to be stopped. At such times, the mosque would be surrounded by thousands of Central Security troops, who would prevent some preacher or other from giving his sermon or terrorize those who frequented the mosque in the hope that they would decide not to take the risk of going. The huge number of those attending the prayer could act either as a stimulus to the police to interfere or a deterrent.
On this occasion, it was a stimulus. The buzz of people talking, the sound of their footfalls, the cries of the stall keepers, the attentive expression on my friend’s face—all froze, and then suddenly everything exploded. Two agitated hands pushed me from behind, feet stepped on the backs of my shoes, dragging them off my feet. Shots were fired in the air and people knocked into one another like bowling pins, moving together this way and that as though by previous agreement. An acrid smoke got into my nostrils and added to the atmosphere’s other ingredients. My face burned, my whole body apparently bursting into flame, just as every atom of the air around me had taken fire all at one go.
I yielded to my instincts and ran away from the shooting, but the roaring of the Central Security soldiers and the deafening sound of thousands of feet pounding the ground to an irregular rhythm started coming from all sides and I didn’t know which way to turn. I had the feeling that our house existed in a different world, one separated from me by frightful obstacles. I would run like a madman and enter a building, then retreat and flee again when the residents refused to open their doors and give me refuge. There seemed no escape from the police with their thick, electrified batons. I ran from street to street, forgetting that my age and my face, without beard or mustache, would be enough to hide me from notice so long as I walked normally. One brother from the Jama‘a was holding high a crutch belonging to another brother, a cripple who sold perfumes in front of the mosque. He was yelling in the face of the fleeing people, “Stand firm! Your religion is under attack! Defend your Islam!”
I saved the scene in my memory but wasn’t strong enough to answer his call. I kept running till I reached our house, where the windows were closed tight to stop the tear gas from the grenades. Through the slanting wooden slats of the shutters I could see the final moments of the battle. The security forces dispersed the people and began chasing those who couldn’t run fast enough to get away, beating them viciously while herding them toward the security trucks. My tears weren’t because of the gas now. I went to my bed and lay down on my back in the darkened room. I remembered the movies I had watched with the brothers, depicting the first Muslims and their confrontations with the tyranny of the unbelievers. I fell asleep before my tears had dried.
I found myself in a dark, deserted place divided equally into narrow paths that all came together at a circle in the middle. Precisely at the center stood a white dog, which was barking. Dogs had always frightened me, and this dog was barring my return route. I looked all around in the hope of finding a path that would allow me to avoid him. I felt a crippling fear in my legs. I couldn’t move. The only light on that dark path was on the other side, but I didn’t have the courage to walk past the dog and get to it. Gathering all my strength, I walked on, trembling, impelled only by the certainty that I would perish otherwise. Walking toward the dog, hastening my steps, I said in a loud voice, recalling a song we sang at the mosque, “No, we shall not die cringing for fear of the dogs. No, we shall not die cringing for fear of the dogs.”
I woke from my dream still weeping.
Copyright © 2001, 2009 by Khaled al-Berry. English translation copyright © 2009 by Humphrey Davies. All rights reserved.
Since 2001, PEN America: A Journal for Writers and Readers has provided a home for literature that speaks across cultural, political, and linguistic boundaries. The journal comes out twice a year. Subscriptions are $18 and single issues are $10.
Subscribe to the Thousand Yard Stare RSS feed
Follow Thousand Yard Stare on Twitter (@1000yards)
Tuesday, January 19, 2010 12:07 PM
It used to be that Middle East reporting was the domain of newspaper and magazine correspondents. Joe Sacco changed all of that when his depictions of Palestinian life first appeared in comic book form in the early ’90s. Today his painstaking portraits of war are revered by comics freaks and journalists alike.
For his latest book, Footnotes in Gaza, Sacco traveled to Gaza to find eyewitnesses to an Israeli army massacre of Palestinians in 1956. To get the story, Sacco also had to confront the history being written minute by minute in Gaza.
He draws it all: the killings in 1956 and the violence happening there today. Any fan of Sacco’s work will not be surprised to find Sacco himself a character in the story as dodges bullets and struggles to parse fact from fiction.
In this episode of the UtneCast, Sacco talks about how he created his new book, which took him six years to complete.
Listen Now: Interview with Joe Sacco
Download the podcast from the UtneCast blog.
Read an excerpt from Footnotes in Gaza.
Subscribe to the Thousand Yard Stare RSS feed
Follow Thousand Yard Stare on Twitter (@1000yards)
Friday, January 08, 2010 5:52 PM
“In reading, we perform the nearly oxymoronic feat of seeking surprise,” Chris Bachelder writes for The Believer. Meditating on the pleasure of the unexpected, Bachelder connects the “vivid surprises” of good literature with those of childrearing, fusing the two kinds of wonder into a delightful short essay. Behold:
Life with young children is full of such unusual associations and combinations, both joyful and disquieting. (I once clipped a tiny sharp crescent of my daughter’s toenail directly into my eye; my daughter once called a tampon a cheese stick; my wife once unknowingly spilled some olive tapenade on our daughter’s infant head and then thought, for a horrifying instant, that the child’s brains were leaking.) It may sound paradoxical, but these peculiar moments with my daughter often feel familiar. The reason, I’ve come to suspect, is that the vivid surprises of child-rearing seem so similar to the vivid surprises of good literature.
Donald Barthelme wrote that “the combinatorial agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they’re allowed to go to bed together, allows the writer to surprise himself, makes art possible, reveals how much of Being we haven’t yet encountered.” Is there a better one-sentence defense and explanation and manifesto of art? It is combinatorial agility—not just of words, but of sentences, paragraphs, images, objects, events, concepts, and characters—that generates, startles, and reveals.
Source: The Believer
Friday, December 18, 2009 2:57 PM
Sarah Gilbert was in her garden planting radishes when the news came: Her husband, a reservist in the Oregon National Guard, would be shipping off for Iraq in two months. "Conflicted, in denial, mixed up," she writes in Oregon Humanities, "I turned to the Greeks."
Gilbert was going to be a "waiting wife" and she was looking for guides. She turned first to Penelope, the wife of Odysseus in Homer's The Odyssey who waited twenty years for her husband to return.
"Next to Penelope or any one of millions of war wives throughout history and our Western literary canon," Gilbert writes, "the modern Army wife has it made."
Blessed with tours of duty as little as five or six months, and no more than fifteen months, and given the possibility of near-daily communication with our loved ones, how can we take a place in the time-honored tradition of epistolary romances, the trope of the waiting wife, the indefinite and virtuous fealty of so many women who came before us? Is “away at war” even, really, away, when fathers can still give good tongue-lashings via webcam and watch on Hulu the same TV shows that their wives watch at home? Today, members of the Army can tweet, post on Facebook and Flickr, and blog. When I consider the technology of “away” in today’s world, I wonder if the Army wife’s relationship with her husband is all that different from that of the wife whose husband works long hours in a tall office building while she comments on his Facebook posts with loving irony.
Ultimately, Gilbert finds a model and a reality check in "the waiting-wife literature of 2009." She discovers an essay in the New York Times by writer and Army wife Melissa Seligman, who writes bluntly about her attempts to control a fractured life: “I wanted to be delighted, to drop everything when the instant messenger paged me, when he gave up badly needed sleep to be with us. But sometimes I couldn’t help being annoyed at the interference. I needed unbroken routines in order to be both a mother and father to my children. At times, I wished he wouldn’t call.”
Gilbert's exploration of the waiting-wife mythology is thick with literary references, but so simple and honest you almost forget you never got around to the last half of The Odyssey. And somehow, though she is still waiting for her husband to leave when the piece ends, she transmits what feels like the authentic sorrow and frustration of an experience she's yet to even enter—and that's an experience we don't hear enough about.
Source: Oregon Humanities
Subscribe to the Thousand Yard Stare RSS feed
Follow Thousand Yard Stare on Twitter (@1000yards)
Thursday, December 17, 2009 5:04 PM
Today alone, there are reports of suicide bombings in Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, and Pakistan. Tomorrow probably won't be much different. Scanning the headlines, I keep thinking back to a piece by Marcello Di Cintio, published in Maisonneuve. Di Cintio tells the story of an Israeli literary landmark in Jerusalem—a bookstore cafe called Tmol Shilsom and it's located in a part of town that has seen its share of attacks. The American author Nathan Englander was in the cafe when a triple suicide bombing nearby "set the cafe's chandeliers swaying," according to Di Cinto.
Swaying chandeliers are far from the trauma we imagine when we hear of these bombings, but Englander captures something of the horrible chaos and stopped time we hear in the testimonies of survivors of these kinds of blasts. Di Cinto excerpts from Englander's reflection on his experience, which stands in sharp contrast to the dry daily reports that obscure human suffering even as they attempt to document it:
Three blasts. Like birds. They come through the window. Wild and lost. They are trapped under the high-domed ceiling of the café, darting round between us, striking the walls and glass, knocking the dishes from the shelves. And we know, until they stop their terrible motion, until they cease swooping and darting and banging into walls, until they alight, come to rest, exhausted, spent, there is nothing at all to do.
Subscribe to the Thousand Yard Stare RSS feed
Follow Thousand Yard Stare on Twitter (@1000yards)
Friday, November 27, 2009 12:28 PM
Having recently acquired my own typewriter (a Smith Corona Electra 110), I really appreciated this charming piece by Matthew Solan in Poets & Writers. Solan describes his hobby of collecting old models of typewriters that the literary greats used. From photos, he’s tracked down replicas of Flannery O’Connor’s Royal Standard, William Faulkner’s Underwood Universal, and Ernest Hemingway’s Royal Arrow, to name a few. Solan’s not shy about using the machines either; in fact, he describes his typing experiences in great detail:
“The Arrow is one of my favorites, and I use it almost every day. I love its deep, muffled sound and the way the glass keys feel under my fingertips. I type addresses on envelopes, school excuses for my daughter, and other correspondence. I also reserve the Arrow for the first drafts of my short stories. The mechanics are far from perfect, though. The Shift key sticks sometimes, so it’s hard to type capital letters and symbols. The lowercase L stands in for the number one. And this model has no tabulator key, so I have to space, space, space, space, space to indent a paragraph. But the extra work makes me a more conscientious writer.… It’s like firing a gun with every stroke. You can’t retract the bullet. If you misspell, the typewriter won’t correct it for you. You have to plow on. With a typewriter you can track your progress like a worn path. This is where I’ve been. This is what I’ve learned.”
Source: Poets & Writers
Image by rahego, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, April 10, 2009 12:01 PM
Slacking ought not be confused with idling, a far more noble activity, according to The Idler’s Glossary (Biblioasis, 2008), a pocket-sized volume that parses such distinctions with intellectual glee. Though constructed as a glossary it’s essentially a manifesto, shot through with author Joshua Glenn’s philosophical outlook on life and quotes from Eastern and Western sages from Krishna to Foucault. By peeling apart the language we use to describe our behavior—from the slothful to the sublime—and celebrating the “spontaneous, chilled, and untroubled” demeanor of the idler, The Idler’s Glossary gives us a great reason to sit down in an armchair with a big ol’ brandy snifter and call it research. Among our favorite definitions:
CAFÉ: Historically, one of the idler’s favorite haunts—a public space in which intelligent conversation, witty repartee, and revolutionary plotting were uniquely possible. Try doing any of the preceding in a Starbucks, though; the laptop- and cellphone-users will abhor you. Online communities aren’t as good, but they’re better than nothing. See: HANG.
DETACHMENT: Religiously speaking, detachment is not so much a form of aloofness or disengagement as it is a loving embrace of, and renewed fascination with, the world—but from a position of critical, even ironic distance. As Krishna counsels in the Bhagavad-Gita, we should renounce the fruits of our actions without renouncing action itself. See: ACEDIA, APATHETIC, INDIFFERENT, NONCHALANT, WAITING FOR GODOT.
SAUNTER: Thoreau, who wrote magnificently about the pleasures of walking aimlessly through nature, speculated that saunterers were, by virtue of their mode of ambulating, not going toward the Holy Land (Saint Terre); they were already in it. He wasn’t far wrong, etymologically. The term actually comes from the Middle English word for “walking about musingly”; it is derived from the word “saint,” as holy men were thought to spend much of their time in this manner. See: BUM, DRIFTER, FLANEUR, LOAF, SCAMP.
TIRED: The supine idler seeks inspiration in that state of consciousness that arises between sleep and waking. The drowsy, languid slacker, however, is merely giving in to the annihilating force of torpor. See: LANGUID, LASSITUDE, RECUMBENT, RELAX, TORPID.
Tuesday, November 04, 2008 12:47 PM
BART [mocking a man with a ponytail]: Look at me, I’m a grad student. I’m 30 years old and I made $600 last year.
MARGE: Bart, don’t make fun of grad students. They’ve just made a terrible life choice.
JACK: We may not be the best people.
LIZ: But we’re not the worst.
JACK and LIZ [in unison]: Graduate students are the worst.
Mocking the idea of graduate school is a pastime enjoyed most, it seems, by grad students themselves. That’s true for me, at least, having recently completed a Master’s of Fine Arts program and masochistically relishing every joke about the usefulness of those extra three letters on my resume. The feeling among many fresh out of grad school, especially in the arts, is equal parts accomplishment and ambivalence: “Well, I’m glad I did that. What the hell do I do now?”
April Bernard makes a more measured case against graduate school in “Escape From the Ivory Tower” (excerpt only available online) in the Fall 2008 “Ways of Learning” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. Actually, to say she is “anti-graduate school” is not entirely accurate; rather, she provides sound reasons why graduate school isn’t for every person—or every discipline. Speaking from her experience with an unfinished English PhD from Yale, Bernard describes the tedious seminars, sexist milieu, and post-structuralist myopia that characterized her time there.
Bernard’s essay doesn’t brim with the same elitist contempt for her own students as Lynn Freed’s infamous anti-MFA screed, “Doing time: My Years in the Creative-Writing gulag” (subscription required) published in Harper’s in 2005. Rather than penning a haughty manifesto, Bernard advances an argument about pedagogy, teasing out the reasons why the humanities aren’t always best served by the kind of highly specialized postgraduate study brought to bear on other fields, such as science or business.
The essay serves as a reminder that education can be found outside the classroom, and good writing beyond the workshop. For her own part, Bernard has made her peace with academia: By publishing poetry and fiction, she’s secured a job teaching writing to undergraduates, circumventing the advanced degrees that retain their stranglehold on the faculty hiring process. Based on her wit and nimble prose, I’d say her students are lucky to have her, even without that almighty graduate degree.
Friday, October 31, 2008 12:31 PM
In the spirit of literary cleverness (and maybe Halloween masquerade) Bookninja recently held a book cover redesign contest. Participants were asked to fire up Photoshop and remix the covers of popular books; in doing so, many of them have altered the book’s entire theme, genre, plot, and more.
For example, Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland becomes a wine-making companion. To the Lighthouse is a pulpy maritime adventure novel. And A Confederacy of Dunces makes the inevitable Sarah Palin joke.
But my favorite is probably The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, rebranded as a parenting manual for fathers:
On a somewhat related note, Minnesota Reads found an odd little game challenging you to literally judge a book by its cover: Guess its average Amazon star-ranking based solely on the cover image. It’s surprisingly difficult.
Bookworms play the nerdiest games.
Monday, October 13, 2008 2:39 PM
Being a music fan and a writer, I am very particular about the music I listen to while writing, and am careful to note which artists and albums are most conducive to a good writing session. (This way, if I get blocked or my prose is lackluster, I can always blame it on the background music.)
It appears I’m not alone; many writers give ample consideration to the relationship between music and their own work, and their musings on the subject are gathered by Largehearted Boy, which stands out from the overpopulated music blogosphere with its thoughtful prose, guest columnists, and mp3 downloads. My favorite department at Largehearted Boy is Book Notes, wherein authors “create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.”
Book Notes includes some big names, like Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Klosterman, who have always made a point of incorporating pop music into their writing. But the roster is dominated by relatively obscure authors and poets (David Breskin, Christina Henriquez, Ander Monson) whose musical tastes are all over the map, from mainstream (The Eagles, Radiohead) to avant-garde (Arvo Part).
There’s also Note Books, which inverts the formula by having indie-rockers write about some of their favorite books. This list includes famously erudite artists like the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, the Jayhawks’ Mark Olson, and John Vanderslice.
(Thanks, Minnesota Reads.)
Image by el monstrito, licensed by Creative Commons.
Thursday, October 09, 2008 1:03 PM
Going for a long drive and want to listen to some classic literature? Before you shell out serious money to buy an audiobook from iTunes or Amazon, check out LibriVox, the completely free, user-driven audiobook library.
At LibriVox, volunteers can upload recordings of themselves reading books aloud, as long as the literature is in the public domain. So you won’t find the latest New York Times bestseller, but if you need Shakespeare, the U.S. Constitution, or (gulp) Ulysses, you can take your chances with the site’s amateur voice talent.
Or, if you notice a gap in LibriVox’s extensive catalog, you can fill it yourself. Check out the guidelines for recording, clear your throat, and get started.
Image by suchitra prints, licensed by Creative Commons.
Monday, September 22, 2008 11:59 AM
British television writer Richard Wilson can’t be arsed to do a lot of things. (Translated from the British, that means he’d rather not do them.) There are 101 such things, to be precise, collected in his new humor book Can’t Be Arsed: 101 Things Not to Do Before You Die, excerpted in the London Times.
Ten of those things are “essential” books that Wilson argues are overrated piles of rubbish not worth our time. His own book isn't on his list of 10 Books Not to Read Before You Die, but you will find such classics as Ulysses, A Remembrance of Things Past, and War & Peace.
Best/worst lists are primarily meant to provoke debate, and one assumes Wilson is being contrarian for humor’s sake. All the same, I’d love to see the angry emails he’s been getting from literature professors and other bookworms in response to this list, and plenty of readers have already weighed in with their comments.
This list made me wonder if there are books I couldn’t be arsed to read. There aren’t many, but I will admit that I have never made it beyond the first hundred pages of A Confederacy of Dunces.
There. I said it. I feel so much better now.
What Big Important Books do you find not-so-essential? Are there sacred cows you’ve always been afraid to slaughter? Let us know in the Great Writing Salon.
(Thanks, Minnesota Reads.)
, licensed by
Monday, September 15, 2008 11:49 AM
Toward the end of the last century David Foster Wallace appeared on the literary scene and blew the minds of countless readers, overhauling the way they thought about literature and life—first with his debut novel The Broom of the System, then with his superb short story collection Girl With Curious Hair. But as impressive as those books were, they were simply clearing the decks for his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, which landed on bookshelves with a brainy thud in 1996.
Infinite Jest is a sprawling but meticulously constructed epic about addiction, depression, and the insidious toxicity of mass entertainment, weaving intricate plotlines and beloved characters into something far more than a post-structuralist literary stunt. It is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking. It is a clever and complex but eminently readable book that I eventually picked up in college when I read all of Wallace's then-published works in rapid succession. I plowed through Infinite Jest’s 1,079 pages in only three weeks, not because I’m a fast reader—I’m not—but because I was simply unable to put it down.
Until I discovered David Foster Wallace I didn’t really have a favorite author, which was odd for an English major and aspiring writer. I was passionate about Kundera and Brautigan and the Beats, but had yet to fall obsessively in love with a single person’s writing. That semester when I read Infinite Jest marked the moment when I finally left a certain intellectual plateau, transcending everything I thought I knew about literature and entering the next phase of my development as a writer and thinker.
It was a phase marked by fitful, pretentious attempts to emulate Wallace’s writing in my own. As so many novice writers besotted with Wallace probably have, I peppered my short stories with footnotes and digressive asides and sentences whose objects were miles away from their subjects. (Some of these tendencies are obviously still on full display.) Like we inevitably do when we mimic our artistic role models, I approximated Wallace’s style but not his substance. The latter is far more difficult than the former, and I will spend a lifetime attempting to infuse my writing with even a scintilla of the wisdom he could pack into a single sentence, knowing I’ll probably never even come close.
It’s my experience that the people most critical of Wallace’s writing are those least familiar with it, who seize on the surface facts of his books—extremely long, dense, riddled with footnotes and endnotes—without ever addressing their content. These critics write him off as the poster-boy of postmodern irony and literary absurdity while failing to notice that in both his fiction and essays, Wallace was strongly anti-irony, bent on moving beyond post-millennial ennui, satirizing the noise of contemporary pop culture, and exploring life’s perennially unsolvable riddles. The pyrotechnics of his prose were not just there to dazzle; they were put to writing’s best possible use, illuminating the darkest recesses of the human condition.
And they could be pretty dark recesses. His last two short story collections, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and Oblivion, are populated by miserable characters at the end of their ropes and about to let go. While Infinite Jest and Girl With Curious Hair can rightly be described as fun, his latter work was still occasionally humorous but far more somber. One could almost see, on any given page, the author’s formidable mental gears grinding in an attempt to unravel and express the reasons why people do unspeakably terrible things to each other and to themselves.
So it was not, unfortunately, a total surprise that Wallace’s death would be self-inflicted. Time and again, his characters literally destroy themselves, most recently in Oblivion’s “Good Old Neon,” whose narrator describes his own suicide from beyond the grave. A half dozen of Infinite Jest’s primary characters attempt suicide, some of them succeeding with gruesome finality. And Brief Interviews features “The Depressed Person,” a crushingly dense narrative whose title character’s various attempts to avail her own misery are fruitless.
But for as much as Wallace expended his prodigious talent plumbing the harrowing depths of depression, addiction, violence, and loss, and for as much as his biography suggested he’d known those demons intimately, I was confident he’d found a way to transcend them. I took solace in the notion that, by carefully and exhaustively reasoning out the ways in which we destroy each other and ourselves, he’d emerged on the other side whole—if not in a place of understanding, then of compassion—and could help his readers do the same. The few characters in Infinite Jest who manage not to destroy themselves—most notably, the recovering drug addict and reformed criminal Don Gately—seem to have figured something out their peers haven’t: a way to keep the pieces glued together and cope with the pain in their lives while never dispelling it entirely.
Suicide is baffling, the most absurd and haunting end to a human life. Mapping any kind of logic onto suicide is futile, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. I had always believed, perhaps naively, that by examining—with great patience, compassion, and wit—the frailties of human existence, Wallace had found a way to cope with them, much like the damaged but redeemed Don Gately. I had to believe that, like Gately, he was coping, because to imagine that he wasn’t—which, as we learned over the weekend, he surely wasn’t—is so bleak: to think that one of the smartest writers in history had spent his entire adult life wrestling with the absurdities and injustices of the human condition, and still hadn’t found a solution—well, where does that leave the rest of us?
Image by Steve Rhodes, used with permission.
Monday, April 07, 2008 8:56 AM
We need more novelists and poets to be translators, writes Stephen Henighan in the April Quill & Quire (article not available online). While he’s addressing mainly his Canadian audience, his observations certainly pertain south of the border: Multilingualism, as he makes clear, used to be part and parcel of a thriving literary culture.
In the 19th century, many Europeans would have read in both their native language and in French, while in times previous, a working knowledge of Latin and Greek predominated among the literati. More recently, translators have acted as aesthetic gatekeepers, spurring affection for Russian literature in the 1930s and for French existentialism in the 1950s and ‘60s.
These days, however, as Henighan points out, two of the most “internationalized cultures—the Anglo-American and the Muslim-Arabic—have the planet’s lowest rates of translation activity,” a claim that lends itself to our image of East-West misapprehension.
Though such socio-politics are central to the argument in favor of translating literature, Henighan emphasizes the creativity associated with multilingualism. He mentions, for two examples, the work of Jorge Luis Borges and Isabel Allende. Both honed their idiosyncrasies through the study and translation of languages foreign to them. Translation is therefore vital not only for the health of communication between cultures, but also for the renovation of literary style.
Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.
Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!
Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of Utne Reader for only $29.95 (USA only).
Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 6 issues of Utne Reader!