9/7/2012 9:11:18 AM
Every day, new books arrive in the offices of Utne Reader.
It would be impossible to review all of them, but a shame to leave many
hidden on the shelves. In "Bookmarked," we link to excerpts from some of
our favorites, hoping they'll inspire a trip to your local library or bookstore. Enjoy!
Is the world coming to an end in 2012? According to the Aztec
calendar (different from the Mayan calendar), this is actually not the
case. The Dawn of the Sixth Sun (Blossoming
Books, 2012), by mystic and teacher of the Toltec/Aztec lineage Sergio
Magaña (Ocelocoyotl), discloses an in-depth understanding of the Aztec
calendar from a rich oral tradition. Magaña explains how the changing of
the Suns will end one era and begin another with great opportunity for
change in human consciousness. Read
Chapter 1, “How Did It All Start? The Sowing of the Name…”
The Polluters (Oxford
University Press, 2010) is an unflinching story of the onslaught of
chemical pollution and the chemical industry's unwillingness to face the
devastating effects. The research by Benjamin Ross and Steve Amter
reveals new documents that show industries knew of toxic hazards long
before they were public, and reveals the political conflicts in which
economic interests prevailed over environmental ones. Read Chapter 1, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentices.”
In a story that travels beyond borders and between families,
acclaimed Dominican novelist and poet Julia Alvarez reflects on the joys
and burdens of love—for her parents, for her husband and for a young
Haitian boy known as Piti. A Wedding In Haiti
(Algonquin Books, 2012) is an intimate, true account of a promise kept.
Alvarez takes us on a journey into experiences that challenge our way
of thinking about history and how it can be reimagined when people from
two countries—traditional enemies and strangers—become friends. Read Chapter 1, “Going to Piti’s Wedding in Haiti.”
3/5/2012 5:18:59 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.
3/2/2012 1:59:56 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.
12/23/2011 12:33:43 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.
10/27/2011 4:52:51 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.
9/7/2011 3:30:03 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.
8/12/2011 9:49:54 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.
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