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.
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.
Thursday, June 09, 2011 12:51 PM
Boredom is still a driving—semi-popular even—force in art. Just look to the wide acclaim bestowed on Terrence Malick’s latest slow-burning film, Tree of Life, or David Foster Wallace’s epitomic The Pale King, a novel about (among other things) American tax law. But there is also a long-standing, all-or-nothing divide between those who seek out art at its most arduous and those who crave entertainment at its emptiest. The disagreement resembles a stalemate trench war, with intellectual critics and cultural arbiters pontificating on the importance of high-and-boring art against the masses that spend $186 million (so far) to guffaw through Hangover Part II. Of late, the snobs are fighting back—a courageous defense of boring art.
Just like eating a pile of wax beans and cauliflower, getting enough cultural vegetables can make you healthy and nauseous at the same time. Writing for New York Times Magazine, Dan Kois describes his love-hate relationship with high art:
As a viewer whose default mode of interaction with images has consisted, for as long as I can remember, of intense, rapid-fire decoding of text, subtext, metatext and hypertext, I’ve long had a queasy fascination with slow-moving, meditative drama. Those are the kinds of films dearly loved by the writers, thinkers and friends I most respect, so I, too, seek them out; I usually doze lightly through them; and I often feel moved, if sleepy, afterward. But am I actually moved? Or am I responding to the rhythms of emotionally affecting cinema? Am I laughing because I get the jokes or because I know what jokes sound like?
Boredom isn’t supposed to be fun or easy, but it can be progressive and rewarding. “I’m saying that boredom is a productive and indeed revolutionary force, by the way,” writes Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, “not that its results are always or everywhere pleasant.” O’Hehir is writing specifically about cinematography, but his case can be made just as well for literature, visual arts, or independent music. Hehir sees his fellow critics’ frustration as systemic:
I think what gets critics all het up about contemporary culture from time to time is the sense that the tyranny or hegemony of entertainment has pushed boredom so far into the margins that it’s no longer available, or at least not in the density or quality required to produce cultural revolutions. What we have instead is the meta-boredom of a pop culture that’s all bells and whistles all the time, can’t be switched off and watches us while we’re watching it, rather too much like the telescreens of Orwell’s 1984.
In a joint rant, New York Times’film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis largely agree: Scott argues that the entire movie business is geared to maintain the “corporate status quo” of Hollywood and asserts “the primary purpose of movies is to provide entertainment, that the reason everyone goes to the movies is to have fun,” while Dargis scoffs at the assumption that moviegoers find that “thinking is boring.”
But, really, it’s not thinking that’s boring, but life. Ultimately, all of the aforementioned critics are taking issue with bald escapism—and O’Hehir pins down the crux of the high-versus-low divide in a few short sentences:
What remains of aristocratic high culture in the art-house tradition really does embody some of the finest aesthetic values of the post-Renaissance West, but it can also be a masochistic and exclusionary ritual, like Odysseus tied to the mast and listening to the Sirens sing. What is boring? A lot of human life is boring, and we’ve all got to pick our poison. Most people, most of the time, prefer to be distracted from the boredom of everyday life with movies that labor to entertain them—and they may get understandably pissed off at those of us who claim that those things, too, are boring.
Sources: New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Salon
The images are screen-stills from Hangover Part II and Meek’s Crossing.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009 12:40 PM
The American public loves science, but scientists don’t love the American public back. The Pew Center for People & the Press reports that Americans hold scientists in high esteem, while “many scientists offer unfavorable, if not critical, assessments of the public’s knowledge and expectations.” (The Pew Center offers a test to see how you well your knowledge stacks up to the rest of the American public.)
The admiration given to scientists is also mixed with fear, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum write for Salon. Americans tend to view scientists “as idiosyncratic nerds or actively the villains,” in the words of Hollywood director James Cameron. That’s an unhealthy place for science in American culture. Kirshenbaum and Mooney write that the wide canon of movies depicting mad scientists hell-bent on destroying the world has fostered a deep mistrust of scientists in real life.
Many scientists blame the media for the science’s image problems. Almost half of scientists polled by the Pew Center believe that media oversimplification is a “major problem.” The flaw in that view, according to Kirshenbaum and Mooney, is that real science would make for really boring movies. Scientists need to “connect with Hollywood on its own terms,” Kirshenbaum and Mooney write, and help them see that science doesn’t need to be the enemy to make a good film. Then, perhaps, science in the public could live happily ever after.
Sources: Pew Center, Salon
Image adapted from a photo by
, licensed under
Friday, July 10, 2009 8:49 AM
You’ve used a toilet today. We both know it. You did your business, flushed, washed your hands, and forgot about it. And why not? Your waste has been whisked away to who-cares-where, and so long as you don’t have to see or smell it, there’s no second thought to think.
The distance we’re able to maintain from our feces allows us the luxury of forgetting, but four in ten people—that’s 2.6 billion—have no sanitation, not even an outhouse or a pit. There is no choice but to squat in fields, alongside roads, or near doorsteps, a practice known as “open defecation.” This lack of access forces those affected not only to see, smell and walk amongst their own feces, but also to face the health consequences wrought by contaminated food and water. According to Rose George, journalist and author of The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste (Metropolitan), one gram of human feces can contain 10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts, and 100 worm eggs. Community sanitation advocate Kamal Kar estimates that those living in places where open defecation is common inadvertently ingest more than ten grams of fecal matter every day, and the consequences are clear. Children face the greatest risk; playing in the mud can lead to deadly disease. George highlights statistics that are difficult to stomach: A child dies every 15 seconds as a result of diarrhea—90 percent of which can be attributed to fecal contamination—and the number of children who’ve died of it in the past decade exceeds the number of people killed in armed conflict since World War II.
For those who survive childhood, issues of dignity and risk to personal safety compound the health risks—especially for women and girls with no access to sanitation. The New Internationalist has reported that in the name of modesty, women in India often wait until darkness falls to venture to the fields and forests, risking snake bites, scorpion stings, and sexual assault. Daylight hours are spent holding it in, leading to an increased risk of urinary tract infections and chronic constipation. George writes that the education of young girls in South Africa is severely limited by the capacity of schools to provide privacy and clean toilets. When menstruation begins, educations often end.
These sobering facts are perfect fodder for celebrity advocacy and fundraising—so why isn’t Bono hawking Project(brown) totes and baby tees? An initial investment of $95 billion could achieve universal sanitation by 2015, George writes, and would save $660 billion in averted health costs and increased productivity. George believes a celebrity advocate would do wonders for global sanitation and has hope that Matt Damon will lead the charge. “Damon has started to talk about school latrines, which is great news,” George told Salon. "It’s inevitable because he does a lot of great work on clean water.”
The truth is, governments and NGOs can install shiny new taps in village squares all they like, but access to clean water is temporary at best without effective sanitation. The United Nations dedicated 2008 as the International Year of Sanitation, but it was also the International Year of the Potato. This kind of thing will never be enough, and due in no small part to the broad swath of cultures affected by the problem, one-size-fits-all solutions won’t be enough either—solutions will have to be tailor made. Stanford reports on a research project in Tanzania that aims to determine the most effective ways to convince people to alter their hygiene habits. With expenses like food, clothing, and cell phones to contend with, health considerations alone are not enough to compel those with limited incomes to invest in latrines. “When you ask people about the importance of [water] treatment,” says researcher Agnes Lwitiko, “they say they know, but it’s expensive and my grandfather and grandmother didn’t do it that way.”
Sanitation may be short of snappy phrases fit for bumper stickers, but if we want to save lives, we must break the silence on shit. Somebody get Matt Damon on the phone.
Sources: New Internationalist, Salon, Stanford
, licensed under
Thursday, April 23, 2009 10:12 AM
1. Write a letter: Writer Jonathan Hiskes wrote one letter a day for each of the 40 days of Lent. “I sent letters in the real mail,” he writes in the Spring 2009 issue of Geez (article not available online), “because there’s just nothing exceptional about email.” He wrote old roommates, old teachers, and an ex-girlfriend. He wrote to his family too. “I tried to find a nugget worth sharing with someone every day,” he writes. His hope was that the letters “would both solicit responses and prod me to pay more attention to the world around me.” He was successful on both fronts.
2. One month off: “I turn my computer on too often. For work, for pleasure, just because,” writes Geez editor Will Braun, also in the Spring 2009 issue. “I check my email too often. Even though I am generally disappointed both if there is new mail (more shit to do) or not (need to go back to what I was trying to distract myself from).” Braun hatched a plan: he'd go one month without using the computer at all on Sundays and Tuesdays; he wouldn’t use the internet when he wasn’t at work; he would not visit any news sites; and he would not use Google: “that almighty gateway to info-overload.” He fell off the wagon straight away, but he hopped right back on. Ultimately, the experiment was a success. “It was a good month,” he writes. “I was more present to my son, my wife, my work and the world … I spent a bit more time in the lovely, conflicted, eternal present.”
3. Forced deprivation: “I bet I am not alone in my near frantic desire to be released—for very brief periods, always with an escape hatch—from the tyranny of my own wandering attention,” writes Rebecca Traister in Salon. “I may not have known it, but for some time, I have wanted something forceful, computerized and beyond the realms of my own self-determination to come and muffle the beeping, buzzing, ringing, flashing distractions of our technological age so I can get some goddamn work done.” Her solution? She downloaded Freedom. This is not some abstract notion, it’s a program. “Freedom will disable the networking, only on a Mac computer, for periods of anywhere from one minute to eight hours. No Web sites, no e-mail, no instant messaging, no online shopping, no Facebook, no Twitter, no iTunes store, no streaming anything. Once it is turned on, as it hilariously claims, ‘Freedom enforces freedom.’”
Sources: Geez, Salon
Wednesday, March 25, 2009 11:13 AM
The old joke is never put two economists in the same room if you want to know how the economy is doing. But what if you want to know how Timothy Geithner is doing? On Monday the Treasury Secretary unveiled his plan for a private/public partnership to buy up bad loans, in the hopes of getting money to flow from banks to the public once again. While mainstream media focuses on Wall Street’s reaction to Geithner, here are a few alternative sources:
The Hotline provides a detailed summary of the reaction to Geithner’s plan from both the liberal and conservative blogosphere.
Recent reports labeling Geithner as “embattled” or “beleaguered” have Christopher Beam over at Slate wondering if our Treasury Secretary will either resign or lose his job. “Embattled is one of those words that creeps into news reports,” Beam writes, “when a figure reaches a certain threshold of controversy.”
Mike Madden at Salon thinks that the key to Obama’s successfully selling Geithner’s ideas is to focus attention on the plan, not the man, citing the Treasury Secretary’s pronounced lack of media savvy.
And over at The New Republic, Jonathan Chait wonders why we care whether or not the stock market likes Geithner at all. What’s good for stocks isn’t necessarily what’s good for the economy as a whole. “The fact that the market is rallying doesn't mean [Geithner’s plan] will work,” Chait writes, “it just means that the rich folks think they'll come out ahead.”
Sources: Hotline, Slate, Salon, The New Republic
Monday, January 19, 2009 3:18 PM
At just a year old, poet Elizabeth Alexander was in the crowd on the National Mall when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the country and proclaimed, “I have a dream.” This week, at age 46, Alexander will be in Washington D.C. for another historic moment—but this time with a front row seat.
Alexander, who is a professor of African-American studies at Yale, is the writer selected by President-elect Barack Obama to deliver an original poem at his swearing-in, a privilege bestowed on only three other poets in American history: Robert Frost, who read at JFK’s inauguration, and Maya Angelou and Miller Williams, who lent their voices to Bill Clinton's ceremonies.
In an interview with Newsweek, Alexander summed up the feelings of many art lovers, hailing Obama’s choice to include poetry in the inauguration as “an affirmation of the potential importance of art in day-to-day and civic discourse.”
For Alexander, joining the distinguished ranks of inaugural poets is certainly a high honor, but actually writing an occasional poem—verse composed for a specific event—with staying power can be a tricky task for a poet. “Once the function has passed,” writes Jim Fisher for Salon, “the poem loses the immediacy of its audience, and with it the power to summon meaning and emotion over time.”
But Alexander told NPR’s Melissa Block that she’s “challenged, not scared” by the assignment. And she seems to have crafted her poem with the predicament Fisher describes in mind. “[W]hat I’ve been able to do is ask myself how I serve the moment," she told the New York Times, “but hopefully in language that has value and resonance when the moment has passed.”
You can read some of Alexander's poems at her website, or listen to two recitations at NPR.org.
Friday, September 12, 2008 11:13 AM
After a trip to Delhi, Salon’s Hillary Frey had an idea: “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a travel guide devoted not to restaurants, hotels and museums, but to the literature of a place?” And so Salon’s Literary Guide to the World was born. The result is a collection of destination-specific book reviews, written by accomplished writers who know each location well, and built around the idea that literature can show you a place in an instructive, entertaining, and enriching way. The next time you’re looking for a literary travel companion to Gypsy Europe, West Texas, Armenia, or Togo, be sure to stop by Salon for advice.
Thursday, February 14, 2008 11:16 AM
Would Sen. John McCain be a good environmental president? Don’t bet the planet on it. Joseph Romm at Salon writes that although the Republican nominee-to-be is the only GOP candidate who believes in the science of global warming and who has proposed legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, his green credentials are shaky at best.
“While McCain may understand the scale of the climate problem, he does not appear to understand the scale of the solution,” writes Romm. Unless a President McCain appointed judges and agency heads who would not gut efforts to address climate change—something he’d be unlikely to do—he wouldn’t make much headway. Romm also points out that McCain has backed huge subsidies for nuclear power, yet he “remarkably” told Grist in an interview last October that wind and solar need no such help.
Over at Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington also calls out McCain on his environmental wishy-washiness in “End of a Romance: Why the Media and Independent Voters Need to Break Up With John McCain”:
“The old John McCain talked about trying to do something about global warming and encourage renewable energy. The new John McCain didn’t show up for a vote last week on a bill that included tax incentives for clean energy, even though he was in D.C. And then his staff misled environmentalists who called to protest by telling them that he had voted for it.”
McCain is still getting mileage out of the “maverick” label that no longer applies, Huffington claims. But perhaps he’s still a maverick when compared to green voters: He’s got almost nothing in common with them.
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