Friday, February 19, 2010 4:24 PM
For Prospect’s William Davies, receipts are a sign of the growing depersonalization of our social interactions. The purchase of a cup of coffee to start off the day is no longer simply a pleasant trade of cash for caffeine, but an Official Transaction, accompanied by an official document—the receipt. “The receipt seems to cleanse transactions, to seal them off from the social ambiguity that accompanies two strangers interacting in public,” he writes. “Whereas its cousin, the bill, can be issued in a range of moods—from mint-laden and charming, to red and angry—the receipt only ever arrives with the blank gaze of the auditor.”
Image by ArnoldReinhold, licensed under Creative Commons.
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
Monday, October 19, 2009 9:01 AM
“For environmental, business, and political organizations alike, the term that has come to stand for the hope of the natural world is ‘sustainable,’ ” Curtis White writes in Tin House. “But you would be mistaken if you assumed that the point of sustainability was to change our ways.” In the essay that follows, an excerpt from his latest book The Barbaric Heart, White offers a vivid critique of the mainstream response to the environmental crisis.
At the core of our problems, White argues, is something he calls the Barbaric Heart—visible in the ways that our culture considers violence a virtue—and its fundamental discord with the professed values of sustainability. He writes:
The artful (if ruthless) use of violence is obviously something that we admire in those sectors of the culture that we most associate with success: athletics, the military, entertainment (especially that arena of the armchair warrior, Grand Theft Auto), the frightening world of financial markets (where, as the Economist put it, there are “barbarians at the vaults”), and the rapacious world we blandly call real estate development. . . .
The idea that we can “move mountains” is an expression of admiration. When it is done with mammoth machines provided by the Caterpillar Company of Peoria, Illinois, it is also a form of violence (as the sheered mountain tops of West Virginia confirm).
To any complaints about the disheartening destruction and injustice that comes with such power, the Barbaric Heart need only reply: the strong have always dominated the weak and then instructed them. That is how great civilizations have always been made, from the ancient Egyptians to the British in India to Karl Rove and George Bush.
It’s a whirling, complicated critique—but wholly worth reading. Tin House also followed up with White in a delightful e-mail interview.
Source: Tin House
Friday, September 25, 2009 12:45 PM
Move over Sesame Street. Clever skits that target older generations (remember Sesame Street’s Bruce Springsteen parody, “Born to Add”?) have been replaced by the hyper pre-teen SpongeBob SquarePants.
Though it's hard for many adults to feel comfortable with such tinsel flashing before our youngsters’ eyes, James Parker, writing for the very mature Atlantic magazine, embraces that change. Parker offers up a philosophical view of SpongeBob, dissecting the “postmodern place” that is Bikini Bottom (SpongeBob’s home), and explaining why kids love—and should love—the golden sponge:
As a cartoon, SpongeBob SquarePants absorbed the advances made by John Kricfalusi’s The Ren and Stimpy Show—the mood swings, the fugue-like interludes, the surreal plasticity of the characters—but without the earlier show’s edge of psychic antagonism […] But where Ren and Stimpy seemed bent on freaking out the more fragile (or stoned) sectors of its audience, the SquarePants writers are interested in stories, even in lessons. Again and again, a kind of innocence triumphs—over fear, over snobbery, and over skepticism.
If your eyes hurt at sight of SpongeBob’s manic grin, try reading this story and consider Parker’s plea: “Embrace him, drained adult. Where you see his little yellow flag, salute it; it’s a sign of life.”
For more, watch Parker analyze a few scenes from the show in the video below:
Source: The Atlantic
, licensed under
Tuesday, September 01, 2009 3:58 PM
We struggle with how to write about poetry at Utne Reader, and it’s not because we don’t read it and love it. The closest we’ve come lately in our pages is an interview with undertaker and writer Thomas Lynch: “The reason poets aren’t read,” he said, “is that we don’t hang any of them anymore”:
We don’t take them seriously; we don’t think that poetry can move people to do passionate things. But poets did. Poets could change cultures. Before there was so much contest for people’s attention, poets were the ones who literally brought the news from one place to another, walking from town to town, which is how we got everything to be iambic and memorable and rhymed and metered, because the tradition was oral before it was literary.
That was the last best thing I had read about poetry—until I stumbled upon an essay by Karin de Weille in the Writer’s Chronicle. Lynch’s spiel was profound, but it was almost like he was eulogizing poetry. Not so in de Weille’s piece, How We Are Changed by the Rhythms of Poetry. “A poem designed to evoke anger,” she writes, “does much more than give us information about the triggering event; it shapes our energy into the very rhythms of anger. A series of words is chosen because it literally causes us to sputter and spit, stirring up memories and experiences from our personal past, reviving the emotion itself.”
Poetry, de Weille adds, “asks us to pump this life into our throats and out through our mouths. Then it can circulate among us, with total disregard for the distinctions that otherwise rule our lives.”
Visit our new homepage for great writing, curated by Utne Reader editors and always changing.
Source: Writer’s Chronicle (Article not yet available online)
Sunday, August 09, 2009 7:45 AM
By now you’ve heard of the staycation, touted as the recession-friendly cousin of the vacation. But, as political comic Will Durst writes in Funny Times, “The problem with most folks planning a staycation is they focus on the high points of local landmarks but forget to include all the little moments that truly distinguish memorable holiday excursions.” He then offers up his own list of tips for having an authentic vacation experience at home, adding all the waiting and frustration that happens in reality. You can find all of Durst’s suggestions for “Staycation Fun” in his column archives, but here are a few favorites:
Pack luggage like you’re really headed on a trip, then pick a piece to misplace for the duration.
Duplicate inevitable airport delay by wasting four hours at a 7/11.
Sit on curb outside your house for 90 minutes because your room isn’t ready yet.
Every two hours, burn 60 dollars.
Set alarm for 6 a.m. to receive wake-up call for room next to yours. Knock on door at half-hour intervals with a cry of: “Housekeeping!”
Eat at a strange restaurant and grunt and point at the menu, unable to speak the native language, even if it’s only Floridian.
For full tropical experience, dump sand in your bed.
Source: Funny Times
Image by masochismtango, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, July 13, 2009 9:57 AM
In the latest issue of Meatpaper, Chris Ying deconstructs our love for watching men masticate curious things on television. His equation—dubbed the "unattractive men/unattractive meat narrative" or "UM/UM"—is this: “the weirder-looking you are, the weirder the food you have to eat.” He writes, rather scathingly, that UM/UM explains why “an acid-washed porcupine” like Guy Fieri is forced to scarf the slickest, homeliest burgers in the country (though he seems to dig it), while bitsy Giada De Laurentiis tucks away much tidier pieces of chicken and the occasional mini meatball. After grappling briefly with the consequences of his media equation, Ying has these final words:
In all honesty, we can’t really blame television for overfishing, or for lousy, overpriced renditions of street food in upscale restaurants. Nor can we blame TV for aspiring housewives lusting after organic home gardens and Hamptons beach houses. It’d be like blaming porn for teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. It’s all just entertainment. And at the end of the day, food television, like porn, is irrevocably and essentially unsatisfying. They keep turning us on, but we keep watching, mouths watering and agape in horror.
Image by sashafatcat, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, July 01, 2009 4:44 PM
A mother drops off her 12-year-old daughter and her friend—with ground rules in place—at the mall in Bozeman, Montana, with three younger children in tow. Within an hour, mall security calls her back. She returns. Two police offices are waiting there to tell her that she’s going to be arrested for endangering the welfare of her children.
In “Guilty as Charged: Her biggest crime? Trusting her own parenting,” Bridget Kevane patiently recalls the details of that day and the ones that would follow, plumbing her confusion, frustration, and guilt for the readers of Brain, Child. “During the months between my arrest and the deferred prosecution agreement that my lawyer eventually worked out, I began to feel that I was being reprimanded for allowing my daughter to develop [a] sense of responsibility,” she writes. What emerges is a courageously unadorned examination of her family’s ordeal, and an opportunity to reflect on the shrinking space available for parents to simply trust their instincts.
Source: Brain, Child
Thursday, May 21, 2009 4:30 PM
Faith—how we find it, hold it, and sometimes lose it—gives people some of their finest stories to tell. And some of the best I’ve read lately are in the April issue of The Sun, in the eight-page smorgasbord that the magazine calls “Readers Write.” Yes, yes they do.
You can get a taste of Sun readers’ faith online (pdf). Of the vignettes not included in the excerpt, here are two of my favorite passages:
On a child’s decision to pursue a career in dance: “I watched my daughter dance with joy on her face, and I finally understood that to be an artist requires faith. People who paint in garrets, rehearse in walk-ups, write poetry in parks, and practice en point until their toes bleed do it because they believe in art. They believe that their passion will sustain them. And somehow it does.” —Gerry Befus
On a sister’s joyous announcement that God has spoken to her: “When I read her e-mail, I laughed out loud. Then I felt embarrassed for her. I imagined her friends forwarding it to their co-workers for a good chuckle. Even my religious parents acknowledged it was strange. My other sibling and I still talk about her story with puzzlement and disapproval. But part of me is jealous that my sister believes in something so firmly that she doesn’t care if others laugh or not. Part of me envies the comfort she finds in God and religion. Part of me wants badly to have her faith.” —C.E.
Source: The Sun
Tuesday, April 21, 2009 5:02 PM
“I asked one Inuit woman how she felt about the land,” Jay Griffiths writes in the latest Orion. “ ‘I remember it was beautiful,’ she said wistfully. The land was still there, a few yards from her door, thousands of miles of land as wide and beautiful as it ever had been but she was weirdly—artificially—alienated from it.”
The woman isn’t alone in her experience: In “Artifice v. Pastoral,” Griffiths riffs on the peculiar alienation that infects modern life—a dangerous estrangement that we’ve wrapped ourselves into with layer upon layer of fakery, from unsustainable energy use to manufactured wealth. The problem, Griffiths writes, is that all this artifice disconnects us from the natural world, confuses us about what’s real, and alienates us from one another.
Only an excerpt of the exquisite essay is available on Orion’s website, but in its stead the venerable, spiritual, environmental magazine offers a gem: A recording of Griffiths reading her entire piece aloud. Lovely.
Monday, March 02, 2009 11:55 AM
In a tongue-in-cheek essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey H. Gray takes aim at present-day poetry commentary, which, in his opinion, tends to inflate an author’s importance. Critics once rationed accolades carefully; as he observes, even well-regarded poets like William Cullen Bryant have been labeled irrelevant and forgettable.
Today’s poets could use some tough love, according to Gray. “[I]n spite of the vast numbers writing," he observes, "we have no minor poets. Everyone today, like those above-average children of Lake Wobegon, is brilliant and sui generis.”
What’s changed in poetry criticism? In part, Gray sees shifting priorities, a move away from the language of a poem. Instead, reviewers focus on the poets themselves, particularly the ways that their voice should be considered unique. And unique becomes equated with important. If “everyone yesterday seemed dispensable,” he writes, “today no one is.”
He also blames the hyperbole on an increased output of work and argues that poets are better supported than they have been historically, and that even subpar poets can find publishing opportunities, grants, and residencies to lengthen their resumés and bolster their reputations.
In short, Gray longs for a critical climate in which all “poetry that is not magnificent” and where “satisfactory” is “good enough.”
Image courtesy of Third Eye, licensed under Creative Commons.
Sources: Chronicle of Higher Education
Friday, February 13, 2009 2:00 PM
“I was never an avid reader until I was 11 or 12,” writes Alastair Harper on the Guardian Books Blog. "Before I started reading," he remembers, "I was a rather subservient, slow little boy who never really did anything wrong, but never did much right either. Books inspired me to be very naughty indeed; and, with the simple moral logic of youth, I perceived them to be on my side, not authority's, which was what made me want to read them.
Harper is responding to a flurry of public projects aimed at getting more kids to read. These initiatives tend to assume that reading is edifying, producing well-behaved, wholesome citizens, a logic Harper doesn’t really understand.
"Perhaps a little bit of literature does make you well-mannered," he concedes sarcasticly. "A sprinkling of Austen will probably be fine. But the government should point out that an excess of reading can be very dangerous indeed. Acknowledge that many books are far more horrifying, perverse and immoral than anything in Grand Theft Auto. Perhaps print warning labels on dust jackets. Now, if that happened, a real children's reading revolution would begin!"
Image by Pedro Simões, licensed under Creative Commons.
The Guardian Books Blog
Friday, January 30, 2009 9:54 AM
For the Winter 2009 issue of The Hudson Review, the quarterly's editors have assembled a primer on non-English works from around the world. This "Translation Issue" is a heady collection, featuring excerpts from seemingly every genre and time period: classics like Antigone and Le Cid up through A Doll's House; 19th century Japanese and Russian poetry; elegant contemporary reviews on books about language; and much, much more. Such a phenomenal swath of literary history in a single volume can't help but whet the appetite for more translated works (works that Utne, incidentally, has been championing for some time).
Thursday, January 22, 2009 1:49 PM
This Tuesday, we witnessed a milestone in U.S. race relations as Barack Obama was sworn in as this country’s first black president. His inauguration rightly gave us occasion to celebrate our progress, but when the glow from the day wears off, we’re still left with a racial reality that’s far from perfect. Writing for Colorlines, Andrew Grant-Thomas cautions against rosy declarations of a ‘post-racial’ America and offers some well penned advice for (what he hopes will be) a continuing dialogue on race and justice.
Claims that Obama’s election proves we’re beyond race, Grant-Thomas argues, stem from some problematic understandings of race and racism:
The post-racialism claim builds on the all-or-nothing approach Americans often take to making racial judgments. So President Bush’s tepid response to Hurricane Katrina revealed him to be a “racist,” but then his selection of several people of color to prominent cabinet posts proved that he is “not a racist.” Either Obama’s unprecedented achievement affirms what the Wall Street Journal calls the “myth of racism” or it is completely anomalous. Too often, we insist that race mean everything or nothing.
Such pronouncements also assume that racism is only perpetuated by individuals.
Because Americans generally take individual people to be the main vehicles of racism, we often fail to appreciate the work done by institutions and structures that are racially inequitable. But, in fact, all societies feature institutional arrangements that create and distribute benefits, burdens and interests in society. This often has nothing to do with our conscious intentions.
Consider the example of college admissions. Grades earned by high school students in Advanced Placement (AP) and other college-prep courses may be the single most influential factor in admissions decisions (often more important than overall GPA, class rank, or test scores, and far more important than “diversity” considerations). In a society where white students are much more likely than Black and Latino students to attend high schools that offer such courses, and offer more of them, weighing AP performance heavily in admissions decisions is racially inequitable.
We don’t need to conjure up racist admissions officers to get this outcome.
Grant-Thomas hopes we might take these insights into account in crafting more complex ways of talking about race. To do so, he maintains, we’ll need to acknowledge that it isn’t all or nothing, but more often, “something, but not everything.” We’ll also need to recognize that racial justice means more than treating each other well; it also means addressing systems that favor certain groups over others. These are commitments best made together, because, as he writes in closing, “Barack Obama may prove willing and able to lead the way on the next stage of the journey, but he can’t get us there by himself.”
Thursday, January 22, 2009 8:15 AM
Barrelhouse is currently holding its “Barrelhouse Invitational: Office Life Edition.” The DC-based journal invites “cubicle drones to submit your fiction, essays, and poems about the highest highs and lowest lows of the disproportionate amount of time you spend in an Office Of Some Sort.”
According to the hilarious and snarky Interoffice Memorandum (pdf), your account of office life doesn’t have to resemble Dunder Mifflin, but still should have some relation to the official theme. “Barrelhouse understands fully the nature of the flexible situation vis a vis the modern office environment, in that this circumstance is increasingly flexible. . . . Therefore, submitted works of literary merit need not seek to portray said topic in a strictly cubicle-defined locality, but rather should ideally represent the mindscape of The Office in the broadest and most effective terms deemed appropriate for each specific work of literary merit.”
Submissions are due by March 1, and winners will be published in Barrelhouse #8, released in June 2009.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009 9:42 AM
Edgar Allan Poe would have turned 200 this past Monday, and the occasion has inspired a torrent of commentaries on the horror writer’s legacy. Many offer pretty run-of-the-mill observations: Poe was a weird guy . . . he wrote some macabre stuff . . . gee, we still read him today. Nick Mamatas’ Smart Set essay on Poe presents one alternative, breaking out of the typically plodding retrospective mode to venture some compelling thoughts on why Poe still matters, or could matter, if we let him.
The insights are a bit buried in the uneven piece; Mamatas has a lot to say and sometimes gets mired down in tangents and sarcasm. But he’s interesting when exploring the way that Poe’s best work faces evil unsparingly, without judgment.
“[Poe] was not interested in resolving the social trespasses his work depicted with pat morally correct endings or appeals to cosmic justice,” Mamatas writes. Instead, as H.P. Lovecraft asserts in his 1920s survey piece "Supernatural Horror in Literature," Poe was the first to perceive "the essential impersonality of the real artist. . . [that] the function of creative fiction is merely to express and interpret events and sensations as they are, regardless of how they tend or what they prove—good or evil, attractive or repulsive, stimulating or depressing….”
Much of what we consider horror today can’t resist the impulse to moralize:
The bloodiest slasher flicks often betray a Puritanical ideology, with only the virginal characters allowed to survive. Gangsta rappers love their mamas and write songs about them. Noir writers made sure their sleuths had a code of ethical conduct, even if it only consisted of a single line they would not cross but that the baddies they hunted would. Stephen King's novels summon up dark miracles that threaten families, towns, and occasionally civilization itself, but these evils are put down more often than not thanks to the power of friendship.
Too often, says Mamatas, we overlay scary stories with an ethics that simply isn’t there. And in so doing, we protect ourselves from two unpleasant thoughts: one, evil doesn’t always have a moral; and two, we don’t always find it as baffling or reprehensible as we believe we should. Ultimately, Mamatas wishes we’d dispense with what we know about Poe’s life and work and allow ourselves to really read him—to see what happens when we take a look at evil without shielding or exempting ourselves from it.
Image by Bob Jagendorf, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009 2:58 PM
The Fall-Winter 2008 issue of Oregon Humanities is all about civility—that virtue too often confused with its less polished cousin, politeness. That’s a shame, Amanda Waldroupe argues in her feature article “Not Rocking the Boat,” since politeness is the Great Destroyer of democracy—hamstringing intellectual exchange—whereas “civil conversation” gives us “the opportunity to. . . critically discuss and fully understand a political issue.”
“In [civil] conversations,” Waldroupe writes, “we are not necessarily polite, but we do have respect for the other’s political positions and opinions. Neither party thinks that the opposing view is necessarily illegitimate or flat-out wrong. Rather, each willingly makes an effort to understand the premises of the other’s views.”
Waldroupe’s assertion evokes something now-Vice President Joe Biden said back on the campaign trail, during his debate with Governor Sarah Palin. The question posed was how each candidate would endeavor to “bring both sides together,” how he or she would “change the tone” in Washington. Biden answered by sharing a vivid lesson he learned in his first year in the Senate: Don’t question people’s motives. Question their judgment.
In other words: Be civil.
This isn’t just a critical lesson for Washington, however, it’s an ethos equally employable in cities and neighborhoods, among family and friends, even around the lowly kitchen table. When President Barack Obama delivered his inaugural address, he asked Americans to embrace “a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly.” That starts with coming together, and coming together starts with civility.
For more sage advice on how we can talk (meaningfully!) when we disagree, check out our Nov.-Dec. 2007 issue, when I had a chance to catch up with Stephen Miller, author of Conversation: A History of a Declining Art. Plus, in our next issue (March-April 2009), I’ll be writing about reconnecting the public with its public servants.
Friday, December 12, 2008 3:22 PM
“Finding oneself in a good conversation,” writes Alain de Botton for Standpoint, “is rather like stumbling on a beautiful square in a foreign city at night—and then never knowing how to get back there in daytime.”
In his fun and thoughtful essay, "It's Good to Talk," de Botton charts the way back, in the full light of day, to that beautiful square. Despite living in a society that prizes sociability, he argues, most of us are struggling amateurs at the art of conversation. Our first mistake is accepting the idea that conversational ability is a god-given talent, not a practiced skill. And then there’s shyness, the most frequent barrier to fruitful exchange.
His prescription: rules. He suggests that guests at a dinner party should be given a conversation menu with questions like, “‘Is sex overrated?’” to help them get over their inhibitions about broaching such subjects with strangers. While the idea may seem artificial, says de Botton, the result—access to the “elusive, spontaneous and sincere bits of ourselves”—could be worth it.
Image courtesy of jemsweb, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008 3:32 PM
So many pieces by and about ageing people are depressing meditations on mortality and the meaning of life. Edith Iglauer's essay “What?” for Geist, a Canadian magazine of ideas and culture, stands out with its light, comic tone. Iglauer and her husband Frank both use hearing aids, and she writes about the trials of wearing—and more often searching for—them. The challenges are sometimes tragicomic (fumbling with tiny batteries) and sometimes just comic (dropping aids in a glass of water). Whatever the situation, Iglauer comes at it with vitality and a sense of humor that’s a welcome change from darker fare.
Photos by Mavis
, licensed under
Tuesday, December 09, 2008 1:02 PM
College kids don’t like writing papers; no newsflash there. But the behavior that accompanies this assignment anxiety can look very different depending on the student. Some plan ahead, crafting outlines and slogging through multiple drafts. Some procrastinate, pulling all-nighters and drinking boatloads of coffee. Some, according to Nick Mamatas for The Smart Set, whip out their credit cards, forgoing the work and buying an essay from a term paper mill.
“The Term Paper Artist” details Mamatas' stint as the writer on the other side of this transaction. For several years, he wrote term papers for students willing and able to dole out the money for one. A broker connected him with the students, who he identifies in three camps: “DUMB CLIENTS,” one-timers, and non-native English speakers. Mamatas bluffed his way through their requests—be it theological reflections, literature critiques, or historical investigations—and earned the funds that helped him buy his first house.
The essay reads salaciously, kind of like a bad Dateline exposé. It’s full of cheap thrills, particularly those that come at the expense of his former clients, like the one who needed a paper on “Plah-toe” or the one who couldn’t identify the body of the paper without help from Mamatas. For his part, Mamatas spins himself into the kind of character who ought to occupy such a narrative, presenting the term paper artist as a largely unrepentant bad boy. He hints at a vague guiltiness, but any such feeling seems to get drowned out by his obvious scorn for the students he sold papers to.
That is to say, there’s little big-picture reflection about term paper mills or post-secondary education. This seems to be mirrored in the thin response to the essay. Even On the Media treats the story as a sleazy curiosity. It’s a shame, because Mamatas’ story highlights a string of breakdowns in post-secondary writing education that might merit deeper exploration: admissions policies that accept students unprepared for college coursework, overcrowded classrooms that allow struggling students to slip under the radar, and lack of access to auxiliary writing help, to name a few.
Image by Yuval Haimovits, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, December 01, 2008 10:33 AM
As food magazines go, Diner Journal sits triumphantly atop a slew of mediocre reads. Whether you have the inkling to delve into a bit of gastronomic prose or tie on your favorite apron and cook the night away, Diner Journal seamlessly melds the literary and culinary arts.
Read Charlotte Kamin’s “Donut Peaches & Time” in the Fall 2008 issue, an excellent swatch of food writing on pickling with her ex. Kamin tells the charming, yet awkward, story of how the two former lovers learn and relearn the canning process to cope with the discomfort of no longer being a couple. Further paging through, you’ll discover recipes to pickle your own everything: cucumbers, kimchi, and green tomatoes.
In “A Matter or Mouthful,” Jess Arndt and Amos Owens disclose the making of moonshine, or rather, the consuming of it:
Moonshine, bootleg, white lightning, crazy Mary, popskull, panther’s breath, hooch. One night in the hot armpit, of a country summer I thrashed through the buggy backdoor and into my bare-bulbed kitchen. My roommate (who also likes taking pictures of himself standing in used car lots wearing Mexican wrestling masks) was making moonshine. There was a mason jar on the table. Clear as water, thick ripples beckoning small greasy hurricanes on its surface.
I drank it.
Meanwhile, people all over New York are carting in soil to cultivate their own food, according to Peter Hale in his essay “A Series of Gestures.” He reminds the reader of World War II's Victory Gardens, community vegetable patches grown in support of the troops and to alleviate the financial burden of war. Victory Gardens produced 40 percent of the food consumed annually in the United States. Hale contends that growing your own food, even in the city, is both responsible and possible.
Published quarterly out of Brooklyn, New York, the ad-free Diner Journal is the rural-minded urbanite’s dream come true, sharing an appreciation for fresh, natural foods from the center of a bustling metropolis.
Thursday, November 20, 2008 10:28 AM
At the beginning of 2007, news concerning the war in Iraq made up 10 percent of Fox News’ total air time. News and opinions on Anna Nicole Smith’s death occupied almost the exact same amount of time.
How can the passing of a TrimSpa spokeswoman/graverobber wife make as much noise as fallen soldiers? Well, death has frequently been called the great equalizer, and it proves that stars are just like us after all: mortal. In the Fall 2008 edition of The Antioch Review, writer Daniel Harris offers up "Celebrity Deaths," a brilliantly bitter essay investigating the cult of tabloid-style mourning (excerpt only).
The author theorizes that celebrities are like the monarchs of Europe and ancient Egypt; they have a physical body, subject to pain and disease and bad hair days, and a symbolic body, the one the public sees during premiers and TV interviews. It is rare that the public gets a glimpse of a celebrity’s private self, but when it happens, we latch on tight.
A celebrity dying seem to bring normal people to their knees. The outpouring of love started with Rudolph Valentino’s death in 1926 and continues to this day (minus the suicides). But that grief genuine? Not at all, concludes Harris. The flood of sorrow following any famous fatality is part of what he calls “recreational grief,” where loss is turned into an entertaining spectacle every time. “Because Internet mourners grieve for the fun of it, they eulogize stars indiscriminately, the virgin as well as the whore, the saint as well as the sinner, Princess Diana as well as Anna Nicole Smith.”
A star’s death gives the public the opportunity to connect with them on an intimate level, for once and for all. “Our contact with celebrities is so limited that we view them as mirages until the one event that restores to them their real physical presence, their deaths, the moment of our greatest intimacy with them”
And even the act of death is heightened: How many times have we read that a star didn’t just fall ill, they “collapsed”?
Despite all the attention we pay to these events, our celebrity worship (both in life and in death) goes against our better judgment. Somehow famous people “retain their hypnotic sway over their followers even if they set a deplorable example of ostentation and promiscuity.” Diamond-studded phones and “sex addiction,” anyone?
But these demigods don’t exist in a vacuum. We, as spectators and consumers of culture, are complicit in the breakneck lifestyle of celebrities. Our adoration smothers them and our expectations for their talent force them to produce or get shoved out of the spotlight for someone who can.
Harris wraps up his essay by exploring the notion that stars drink and snort themselves to death in order to numb the pain of being famous. But what if, instead of partying to death out of misery, they’re just having fun? What if they’re celebrating instead of self-medicating?
“There is no link in popular culture between creativity, unhappiness, and death. The link is between happiness, death, and the money to purchase the pills, coke, and intravenous drugs necessary for a glorious if inadvertent exit out of the gossip columns and into the obits.”
Image courtesy of Bob Jagendorf, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, November 13, 2008 10:10 AM
Pulitzer-winning author Alice Walker has written a brief but beautiful open letter to Barack Obama.
Unlike many letters addressing the President-elect, hers does not caution him to forward an agenda or else. Instead, she begins by absolving Obama of the impossibly high expectations placed on him by some voters. “I would advise you to remember that you did not create the disaster that the world is experiencing, and you alone are not responsible for bringing the world back to balance.”
What he must take responsibility for, she insists, is his own happiness and that of his family. He cannot succeed without remaining a good husband and father, for “it is the soul that must be preserved, if one is to remain a credible leader.”
Tuesday, November 11, 2008 6:51 PM
Utne Reader contributor—and extremely well traveled journalist—Andy Isaacson dropped us a welcome line today: Isaacson recently had been in Kenya, where he met Abebe Feyissa, an Ethiopian refugee living in the Kakuma Camp and author of “Traveling Souls,” an essay about camp life that we excerpted in our Sept.-Oct. 2008 issue.
“I came across the article online while I was searching for Kakuma,” Isaacson writes. “I then visited the camp, last week, and found Abebe Feyissa. We spent several hours together over a couple days, talking and walking around the camp. I took him to the camp’s only cyber cafe so that he could see the article on Utne’s website—I wanted him to know where his words are reaching.”
Feyissa is an interesting, thoughtful man, writes Isaacson. “His predicament—he’s been in the camp for 17 years, and will not be leaving in the foreseeable future—was rather saddening.” All the same, we were heartened to hear that Isaacson had visited him.
During his month-long journey to Kenya, as it turns out, Isaacson also spent some time with U.S. president elect Barack Obama’s grandmother. Read his pre-election story on Slate, and then check out Isaacson’s account of post-election jubilation for U.S. News & World Report.
Isaacson’s previous stories for Utne Reader concerned indigenous medicine, the social significance of tea, and better design through biomimicry.
Image courtesy of Andy Isaacson.
Friday, November 07, 2008 4:16 PM
So much of the world’s great literature is lost for lack of awareness. Sure, Harry Potter has been translated into 60 or so languages, but it’s not as easy to find lesser known written works. That’s why it’s quite exceptional to find an anthology that translates the writings of up-and-coming authors the world over.
Two Lines: World Writing in Translation
, is the Center for the Art of Translation’s annual collection of poems, short stories, and essays that “could never have been written first in English, as their necessities so clearly reside in the soil and local waters of their cultures,” according to co-editor Sidney Wade. This year's anthology, edited by John Biguenet and Wade, is titled Strange Harbors, with original works in Bengali, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Turkish, to name a few, side by side with their English translations.
In "Thirteen Harbors," Vietnamese author Suong Nguyet Minh blends a local folk tale with the consequences of Agent Orange, the poisonous chemical herbicide the U.S. military sprayed during the Vietnam War. In the story, translated by Charles Waugh and Nguyen Lien, a young woman repeatedly fails to carry children to term. Unaware of the source of her birthing troubles, she believes herself to be cursed. Only later does she find out that her husband, Lang, was exposed to Agent Orange while he fought in the war:
“How could I know?” said Lang. “I feel fine. But after speaking with the doctor, I thought about the defoliated forests we had to cross. We drank water from streams running through them and even put some in our canteens. Once, in the jungle, we watched American planes flying slowly overhead spraying a dense white mist. A few days later, the leaves shriveled and came down easily in the breeze. All the trees withered and turned the color of death.”
Wrapped in my husband’s heart, I felt a pain there like one I’d not yet seen. Withered and bitter myself, I had no comfort to pour into him.
More lighthearted is Teolinda Gersao’s story “Four Children, Two Dogs and Some Birds,” a wry account of one woman’s difficulty trying to do both the traditional tasks of a wife and mother and take care of her career. Originally written in Portuguese, Gersao’s story presented a challenge for the translator, Margaret Jull Casta, because first-person narratives have a distinct tone of voice that is not easily carried over to another language. In stripped down syntax, Casta succeeded in capturing the humor and latent sadness of Gersao’s main character:
The number of times I regretted having given in to the children and bought the animals. And the number of times, too, that I regretted having had the children. Not, of course, that I said as much.
Anyways, what was done was done, and now I just had to get on with it and look after the whole lot of them.
And then one day, I got really angry; enough is enough, I thought, and it was then that I decided o look for a live-in help.
A loving help, asked the concierge, puzzled, mishearing what I said when I informed her of my plan.
Exactly, I said, and the sooner the better. Today. Yesterday even.
Because I’ll be dead tomorrow, I thought, starting up the car. Tomorrow I’ll be dead.
Nothing in translation can be exact. Obscure connotations can throw an intricate metaphor off balance or lead it astray completely. Alliteration and quirks of diction are often forfeited, and cultural idioms may go tragically unnoticed. For this reason, reading literature in translation can be a strange experience, shrouded in doubt about the translator’s adherence to the original text but spiked with awe at the thought that you have the opportunity to read it at all. A good translator, however, can deliver a story as close as possible to the way in which it was initially written, and for that I am grateful. The stories and poems within Two Lines open the reader up to a world that would otherwise be closed entirely, and to connect with that world is truly fortunate.
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.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008 9:47 AM
Non-profit literary firm Dzanc has taken the marathon fundraiser to a novel place (pun intended). On November 15, the Michigan-based organization will hold its first write-a-thon to raise money for its writer outreach programs and publishing operations. Dzanc, which was founded in 2006, works with new or outside-the-box writers to publish their writing without worrying about the “the marketing niches of for-profit presses.” They also fund writer-in-residence programs for schools all over Michigan and beyond.
Volunteers interested in participating in the write-a-thon must find sponsors, who can pay them either a flat fee or a per word rate. The topic of the write-a-thon will be posted the day of the event, and the volunteers’ essays, poetry, and stories will be compiled on the site afterwards for all to read.
You can read more about Dzanc’s history and mission here.
Image courtesy of
, licensed under
Friday, October 17, 2008 12:55 PM
Houghton Mifflin recently published its 2008 edition of The Best American Essays with Adam Gopnik serving as guest editor. The Best American series is always a good showcase of the year’s finest offerings in a genre, and a reliable gauge of each form’s contemporary direction.
While this collection is led, as usual, by standout pieces from the New Yorker and Harper’s, it also culls some brilliant offerings from smaller magazines and literary journals, providing a modest cross-section of the essay-writing talent in the independent press. Pieces from PMS (Poem Memoir Story), Transition, Pinch, Swink, and Open City have all made the cut.
Part of the fun of these collections for essay-geeks like me is to see which luminary they’ve invited to guest edit. David Foster Wallace presided over last year’s collection, and the essays he chose had an immediacy that previous editions lacked; several of them addressed pressing issues like war, class, and politics, contradicting the frequent charge that personal essays are too solipsistic.
Gopnik’s introduction is similar to previous editions’ in that it makes a compelling case for the importance of good nonfiction in today’s literary world, and continues to defend the form—especially the subgenre of memoir—against the too-frequent charge of self-indulgence. But Gopnik provides a solid argument about the universal urgency of even the most personal essay:
Certainly people attack the memoir, and the memoir essay, in exactly the way people once attacked the novel. . . as vulgar and above all self-indulgent. But “self-indulgent,” fairly offered, means that expression is in too great an ascendance over communication. . . .In truth, the impulse to argument that is part of the essay’s inheritance. . . makes the memoir essay, even of the mushiest sort, the least self-indulgent of forms, the one where the smallest display of self for self’s sake is practical. A novelist can muse motionlessly for pages on the ebb and flow of life, but if an essayist hasn’t arrived at the point by the top of page three. . . if the leap into a higher general case, from the specific “I” to the almost universal “you” doesn’t take place quickly, the essay won’t work. . . . Memoir essays move us not because they are self-indulgent, but because they are other-indulgent, and the other they indulge is us, with our own parallel inner stories of loss and confusion and mixed emotions.
Gopnik and the series editor, Robert Atwan, have chosen big names like David Sedaris, Lauren Slater, and Jonathan Lethem to sit alongside relatively obscure writers: Joe Wenderoth, Patricia Brieschke, and the British-Sudanese novelist Jamal Mahjoub.
I’m personally hoping John O’Connor’s “The Boil” makes it into next year’s collection—but I won’t hold my breath.
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.
Wednesday, October 08, 2008 2:41 PM
At the Lalgadh Leprosy Hospital in Nepal, amputations and skin grafts are routine procedures. Caregivers see a dozen new patients every day, with many more returning for continued treatment. With this sort of bustle, it’s surprising that we don’t hear or read more about the disease. Enter Conor Creighton, who wrote a provocative, vividly detailed essay for Vice magazine about his trip to the hospital. With Steve Ryan’s accompanying dramatic photos, the captivating account leaves no doubt in our minds that leprosy is as real and gruesome today as it was in the days of Moses.
Creighton tenderly describes Bakumari, “a tiny woman with short gray hair and frail limbs that poke out from under her sari like the branches of a blackthorn tree.” In 14 years with the disease, Bakumari's eyelids have disintegrated, robbing her of sight. She’s lost most of her toes. The worst part is that she has no way of protecting herself from further damage, having lost all sensory capabilities in her extremities.
Creighton captures the horror of the disease, both physically and socially. Called a neglected disease by the World Health Organization, leprosy carries a stigma in many countries, leading to negligent medical attention from doctors who simply turn people away at the first sign of infection. The most disheartening aspect of knowing that this seemingly archaic disease exists in the 21st century is that it's very easily cured if treated properly: A six-month schedule of medication, although physically brutal, flushes leprosy bacteria from the body. Creighton’s essay is an eye-opener, fluidly told, effortlessly carrying the weighty importance of reengaging people with the appalling realities of the forgotten disease.
Thursday, October 02, 2008 10:01 AM
What begins as a snarky takedown of cell phone culture evolves into a meditation on love in Jonathan Franzen’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” from Technology Review (free registration required). Moving from a discussion of the technological developments that have shaped the past decade—most notably, the cell phone—to a careful consideration of the various ways people say, “I love you,” Franzen begins to wonder whether the person bellowing those three magic words into their cell phone in the checkout lane at the grocery store might not be honoring the sentiment’s spirit.
Having garnered plenty of acclaim for his 2001 novel The Corrections—and plenty of scorn after turning down Oprah’s book club invitation—Franzen has since evolved into a prolific writer of nonfiction, navigating his personal essays through moving, humorous territory in two collections, How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone. “I Just Called to Say I Love You” is no different, winding from stand-up comedy-style observations on the annoyances of cell phones to 9/11, then taking an unexpected turn into his parents’ marriage and a funny passage where a teenaged Franzen does everything in his power to avoid having to explicity reciprocate his mother’s affection:
The one thing that was vital was never, ever to say “I love you” or “I love you, Mom.” The least painful alternative was a muttered, essentially inaudible “Love you.” But “I love you, too,” if pronounced rapidly enough and with enough emphasis on the “too,” which implied rote responsiveness, could carry me through many an awkward moment. ... She also never told me that saying “I love you” was simply something she enjoyed doing because her heart was full of feeling, and that I shouldn’t feel I had to say “I love you” in return every time. And so, to this day, when I’m assaulted by the shouting of “I love you” into a cell phone, I hear coercion.
It’s this blend of the personal and the universal that draws me to Franzen’s essays. His observations on technological annoyances are astute and just this side of cantankerous, but he injects his arguments with enough personal matter to remind us of his—and by extension, our—humanity.
Image by Ed Yourdon, licensed by Creative Commons.
Friday, September 19, 2008 1:25 PM
Philadelphia’s new double-covered two.one.five magazine is a hodgepodge of local events and issues that stretch much further than the borders of Pennsylvania. Paging through one side of volume 1.3 (not yet available online) you’ll find a daring swimsuit spread and tips on executing the perfect road trip. Flip it around and you’ll get lost in a captivating nine-part section of immigration narratives. Echoing with national relevance, the essays meander through the diverse experiences of new Americans' dreams and realities.
These are people who have waited years, sometimes decades, to call the United States their home. One now-permanent resident offers up a humorous account detailing the process of obtaining a work permit through the green card lottery. Though armed with a bachelor’s degree and a job offer from a magazine in New York, it still took “11 years, three lawyers, four instances of being fingerprinted, 23 interviews with immigration officers at 14 different U.S. ports of entry, one near deportation, almost $13,000 in legal fees and 38 two-by-two-inch recent, forward facing photographs in which I am not wearing sunglasses or headgear of any kind” for the Canadian-passport toting American-hopeful to obtain the right to live in the United States.
From an entirely different vantage point, Tara Nurin shares the view from her seat at a stadium packed with immigrant soccer players gathered for the weekly marathon of games. She writes:
This is their reward. This one communal gathering of the Imperial Azteca soccer league that counts 600 dedicated players—some of whom drive up to two hours each way in order to play—is almost as sacred as church. Inside the arena, these mostly Latino immigrants, hailing largely from Mexico, can leave behind their concerns over money and their low-paying, labor-intensive jobs to partake in their home country’s most glorious international athletic obsession, and to share a slap on the back, a handmade taco and a sense of community with their fellow countrymen. This comforting simulation of Mexico protects them from what can be a discomforting reality outside.
From feeling homesick to battling language barriers, these stories revolve around much more than what was left behind: They paint an extraordinary portrait of life after immigrating, in a country whose media largely represent immigrants in a negative light. Beautifully and candidly written by various new American residents, from Burmese to Russian to Iraqi, these diverse narratives share the experience of our growing country and highlight just what it means to be an American.
Friday, September 12, 2008 3:59 PM
The lowly blurb is a necessary (though usually hackneyed) part of book jackets, movie posters, and magazine reviews. They’re not generally recognized as a form of literature, but maybe they should be. In an essay for Slate, Ron Rosenbaum waxes poetic about the blurbs used by reviewers and publishers to describe works of contemporary poetry. These blurbs, according to Rosenbaum, can be as lyrical as the works they describe, in many cases are actually “much better than most contemporary poetry, in the sense that [they’re] much more readable, much better crafted, and often beautifully compressed in a dazzling haikulike way.” This kind of praise, Rosenbaum writes, "is underpraised." Rosenbaum’s best resource for these two-line works of art, as well as great resource for essays and literary news, is The Page. You only need to read a few of these short-but-sweet quotes to see what he means.
Thursday, September 04, 2008 10:04 AM
For five years, writer Nick Hornby’s What I’ve Been Reading column (excerpt available online) has been one of the best known features in monthly lit-mag the Believer. With the September 2008 installment, the magazine announces, Hornby’s tenure is coming to a close.
In his stead, the magazine introduces Greil Marcus, the prolific music-and-cultural critic, who will be writing a monthly column called Real Life Rock Top Ten (excerpt available online). Marcus, known for 1989’s Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century and more recently The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy in the American Voice, is a fantastically engaging scholar, with an eye for dissecting culture through the lens of popular music. In short: Real Life Rock Top Ten, no doubt, will be a gem in the Believer line-up.
I’ll miss Nick Hornby, though: His quirky monthly dispatches of “books bought” and “books read,” and his free-flowing musings on the content therein. In 2003, Hornby described the genesis of the column—and lessons learned from writing it—to the British newspaper the Telegraph:
Before I wrote the first column, I'd just had a particularly happy few weeks of reading, where one book had indeed led to another, and it occurred to me that maybe my book choices always had that sort of interesting shape to them.
But of course once I'd committed to a monthly column, this turned out to be nonsense, and ever since then my reading has been haphazard and whimsical, and therefore my column has been, too.
The Believer has one, and only one, commandment: THOU SHALT NOT SLAG ANYONE OFF.
As I understand it, the founders of the magazine wanted one place, one tiny corner of the world, in which writers could be sure that they weren't going to get a kicking; predictably and depressingly, this ambition was, and continues to be, mocked mercilessly, mostly by those critics whose children would go hungry if their parents weren't able to abuse authors whose books they didn't much like.
To write about writers without delivering any kickings, however, Hornby discovers that he’s best off choosing books he will most likely enjoy. “I'm not sure this idea is as blindingly obvious as it seems. We often read books that we think we ought to read, or that we think we ought to have read, or that other people think we should read,” he writes. Read for enjoyment, he counsels. Wise words.
Hornby's recent columns will be collected into a book (the third such collection), due out this December.
Wednesday, September 03, 2008 4:04 PM
Manifestos, those elegant, usually vehement declarations of ideas, fell out of favor in the mid-20th century to be replaced by shorter “statements of purpose.” The past few years, however, have seen a resurgence of the manifesto as an art form, particularly by the design industry, as as Ellen and Julia Lupton point out on the American Institute of Graphic Arts website.
That the design industry would embrace the form makes a lot of sense, write the Luptons. “A well-written manifesto is like a well-designed product. It communicates directly, it is broken into functional parts, and it has elements of poetry and surprise. And drafting one is more like writing an ad than writing a novel.”
Designers have come to recognize the manifesto as the valuable tool it once was: a work that helps the author to crystallize his or her thoughts and encourages readers to take stances of their own on the issues. Check out even more modern manifestos at ChangeThis.
Friday, August 29, 2008 2:00 PM
Can better stories help repair the broken bonds between people and nature? Granta seems to think so and its latest issue, “The New Nature Writing,” is a collection aimed squarely at that goal.
“The new nature writing,” writer Lydia Peelle told Granta editor Jason Cowley, “rather than being pastoral or descriptive or simply a natural history essay, has got to be couched in stories—whether fiction of non-fiction—where we as humans are present. Not only as observers, but as intrinsic elements.”
Peelle continues, “In my thinking, it is the tradition of the false notion of separation that has caused us so many problems and led to so much environmental degradation. I believe that it is our great challenge in the twenty-first century to remake the connection. I think our lives depend on it.”
Select essays from the issue are available online as well as web-only features including photo essays and interviews with some of the issue’s authors.
Image by Sea Frost
, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, August 25, 2008 9:00 AM
The idea is familiar: Success is sexy. I’ve often blithely declared it myself, most often when paging through gossip magazines in the supermarket check-out lane, positing how odd couples came to be. But as for the nature of that particular brand of attraction, how it functions, how it feels—that’s a rarely told story. Writing for Oregon Humanities, Alexis Nelson takes readers for a frank spin through an attraction rekindled in the heat of accomplishment. “That night, I understood for the first time how closely success and money are bound with attraction and sex,” she writes. “This was a truth I experienced intuitively, on a physical level I couldn’t deny.”
Thursday, August 21, 2008 10:30 AM
Is dividing science-fiction lit into “Adult” and “Young Adult” (YA) classifications a way for the genre to better connect to specific audiences? Or are those labels a deterrent for both age groups? Two staffers from the hip sci-fi website io9, part of the Gawker network, argue the issue, and the end result is intelligent discourse that extends to any genre.
News editor Charlie Jane Anders credits YA sci-fi with almost singlehandedly pushing the entire genre forward: “Luckily, we can have both grown-up science fiction and the YA version. But to the extent that one is shrinking and the other one is growing, that may not be entirely a bad thing. Look at it this way: is it better to have [sci-fi] written for a subculture, or anybody of a certain age?”
Editor Annalee Newitz, on the other hand, insists that the YA classification is off-putting to both teens and adults: “You will certainly alienate possible adult readers, who feel vaguely nasty for cozying up with a genre aimed at teens. And I believe in the end you will lose teen readers, who are exactly the sorts of people who dislike being told that their youth bars them from understanding adult novels. What self-respecting 15-year-old wants to read ‘young adult’ fiction when she could be reading stuff actually written for adults?”
Photo by Phillie Casablanca, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, August 08, 2008 3:07 PM
Black people in the United States are in dire need of a more versatile narrative, Charles Johnson argues in the American Scholar. “No matter which angle we use to view black people in America today, we find them to be a complex and multifaceted people who defy easy categorization. We challenge, culturally and politically, an old group narrative that fails… to capture even a fraction of our rich diversity and heterogeneity,” he writes.
In challenging the 21st-century usefulness of a “narrative of pervasive victimization,” Johnson calls for “new and better stories, new concepts, and new vocabularies and grammar based not on the past but on the dangerous, exciting, and unexplored present.”
Perhaps Johnson should pick up a copy of Shawn Taylor’s new book Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity. The provocatively titled book seems to have been born from the very same vein of frustration, of a need to break through and tell new (or rarely told) stories. Rachel Swan describes the book’s genesis in the East Bay Express:
[Taylor] was mad. Mad at wiggas; mad at BET and MTV; mad that he grew up in poverty; mad at his father for disappearing; mad at the proliferation of "the N-word" and terms like “bling-bling”—especially when they gained currency in suburban communities; mad at CNN's Black in America (which, he said, imposed a kind of false unifying narrative that was supposed to stand in for the African-American experience); mad at movies like The Best Man (which, he said, made it seem as though adultery had to be the main theme in all black relationships); mad that men "can't just hug, we have to pound the shit out of each other's backs. . . . Pretty soon, Big Black Penis was more than just a provocative title; it was a move to bring authenticity into the discourse around black male sexuality.
Thursday, July 24, 2008 4:46 PM
Yossi Gutmann demonstrates the elegance of frugality in a concise, almost sparse essay for Gastronomica, “My Father’s Kitchen, Tel Aviv” (pdf). Gutmann’s crisp writing shrewdly captures the timelessness of a long-occupied apartment and its tenant:
My father does nothing fancy in his kitchen. He prepares the same thing every day: for breakfast, one small cucumber a hard-boiled egg, five tablespoons of low-fat yogurt mixed with cottage cheese (each time he eats it, he tells me how much he likes that particular combination).
Photographs rich in color accompany the brief essay, which—in all its elegance—calls to mind another lucidly written glimpse of family gathering around a table: Toni Mirosevich’s “The Prize Inside,” which we reprinted out of Gastronomica in 2007. For readers interested in more background on Gutmann’s father and his Tel Aviv apartment, Gastronomica offers an online exclusive interview with the writer.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008 5:38 PM
Whether or not books established the environmental agenda, Stephen Bocking writes in Alternatives Journal, “they certainly record its evolution.” Examining nearly six decades of environmental tracts, Bocking sees trends and revelations in a genre that graduated from relative obscurity to a coffee table mainstay.
No survey of environmental literature can get off the ground without a hat tip to Aldo Leopald’s A Sand County Almanac (1949), but from there, Bocking charts an impressive course, weaving over 25 influential authors into his modest, 1,500-word essay. As a professor of environmental and resource studies at Trent University, Bocking’s familiarity with the genre is palpable, but even more valuable than his fluency is his knack for canny observation.
Environmental lit is vital, Bocking argues, because “only in books do authors have the space to explore big, complex arguments—especially those that connect distinct worlds of ideas,” such as Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature (1969), which called for beneficial collaboration between architects and ecologists. It can be confounding, as well: “It is worth remembering that every book is framed by subjective ideas about how the world works,” Bocking writes. He sees evidence of Cold War anxieties reflected in some texts, rebukes others for “expressing a convenient ideology, while masquerading as objective analysis.” He also observes the way gorgeous coffee table books “are implicitly defensive; they inspire action through visions of what may be lost,” although he reflects that they “neglect those places where humans and nature live in harmony,” as well as the front lines in the battle for environmental justice.
Image by gabofr, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, July 14, 2008 1:47 PM
Whether you like it or not, midsummer calls attention to the body: our surplus of salty sweat and the smell it leaves behind; the way our leg muscles cramp after a long bike ride; lake water and wind messing up our 'dos; and emerging from a bumping concert at 4 a.m. into the damp night air with an insatiable craving for powdered sugar.
Hot air and hedonism go hand in hand, as Sammy Mack outlines in MAP magazine’s recent Pleasure Issue (pdf). In “Pleasure City: Overnight in New Orleans,” Mack takes us with her friends from outdoor bar Pravada, to Decatur Street, to a Soul Rebels show at the Republic, with little fuss or deliberation.
“Where to now?” she writes.
“I could use some food.”
Mimi’s is closed, so the group ends up at the Mardi Gras Zone noshing on Cajun Dill Gator-Tators and muffalettas, then Café Du Monde for beignets:
The patio chairs are stacked upside-down on the tables so the ground can be hosed clean of powdered sugar, so we duck inside and find tables. It’s a cheery, well-lit space frequented a this hour by sorority girls and older men whose hands are stamped like passports from all the shows they’ve seen this week. . . . The only food item on the menu is a plate of beignets. They arrive in triumphant little stacks of three fried dough pillows, buried under a healthy snow of powdered sugar. I am convinced that these sugar-dusted darlings are the bedrock of this town. I imagine if we dug up the streets, below 300 years of cobblestone and dirt, we would find beignets. Still warm, still chewy.
wallyg, licesned under Creative Commons.
Monday, July 14, 2008 1:17 PM
In the sensuous essay, “Aphrodisiacs,” an AGNI online exclusive, Michelle Wildgen suggests a laundry list of unusual culinary options over—eek!—Spanish fly for that little extra something. In what turns out to be much more than a gastronomic love manual, Wildgen’s essay revels in nature’s overt display of sex and fertility, yet subtly reminds the reader of the gory origins of Aphrodite, from which the term aphrodisiac is derived.
Image by _william, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, July 09, 2008 2:16 PM
Anyone who’s tried to conquer a foreign language at a certain age is familiar with the requisite textbook formula: You follow a few characters on adventures that somehow expose you to the vocabulary for fruits, polite greetings, and how to get medical help all within a simple, tidy storyline. (“Excuse me,” said Heidi, “I don’t mean to bother you, but I ate a poisonous apple and require emergency care.”)
In a recent Washington Post opinion piece, Harvard Law student Joel B. Pollak rails against the narratives available for the 24,000 students of Arabic in the United States. His main gripe is a political one—there’s too much Gamal Abdel Nasser-loving and too much Israel/America-bashing in his class materials—but it’s his description of the forlorn protagonist of his textbook that struck me:
We learn in Chapter 1 that Maha is desperately lonely. In later chapters, we are told that she hates New York, has no boyfriend, and resents her mother.
Soon we encounter her equally depressing relatives in Egypt—such as her first cousin Khalid, whose mother died in a car accident and who was forced to study business administration after his father told him literature "has no future."
The characterization jogged my memory to one of my favorite readings in the last year, a piece by Anand Balakrishnan in the Summer 2007 issue of Bidoun. In it, Balakrishnan recalls the primary theme of his Arabic studies in Cairo: failure (or fashil).
The Arabic word for failure is built from the tripartite root of f-sh-l to become fashil, the harshest, most damaging word in the language, at least the way my Arabic teacher pronounced it. The word often twisted his dyspeptic mouth, spattering our lessons like ordnance from a cluster bomb. Everything was fashil. Me as a student, himself as a teacher, Cairo as a city, Egypt as a state, the Middle East as a region, Asia as a continent, communism as a theory, democracy as an ideal, Islam as it was practiced, humanity as a species, and, in the summer when the smog congealed, the sun as a source of light.
Balakrishnan’s is a beautiful meditation on the theme of failure throughout Arab literature and Arab society. Pollak may or may not have a legitimate beef regarding his own lessons, but his polemical demand for a language neutered of politics and feeling rings hollow after reading Balakrishnan’s “Muse of Failure.” More important than the sterile reformulation of one language into another is the transcendent project of cultural translation.
Image by “Dr. Yuri Andreievich Zhivago,” licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, July 07, 2008 9:47 AM
This fall the Olympics will bring us the spectacle “of the human body at the height of health, beauty, discipline, power, and grace,” writes Rebecca Solnit for Orion (article not available online). In her elegant essay, "Looking Away from Beauty," Solnit points to the frail connection those bodies have to the nations they represent—“as though this feat of balance really had something to do with Austria, that burst of power really represented Japan.”
Of utmost importance, Solnit writes, is to consider the way those pristine bodies, those symbols of national pride, exist in conflict with bodies less revered, less public:
It serves the nations of the world to support the exquisitely trained Olympian bodies, and it often serves their more urgent political and economic agendas to subject other bodies to torture, mutilation, and violent death, as well as to look away from quieter deaths from deprivation and pollution. . . . The celebrated athletic bodies exist in some sort of tension with the bodies that are being treated as worthless and disposable. . . . But the associations between the two are crucial to our sense of compassion, and of what it means to be part of a global community.
Thursday, July 03, 2008 12:22 PM
These days, poets can’t honestly argue “Why Poetry Pays Well,” but they can truthfully defend the modest statement, “Why Poetry Matters,” as poet and teacher Jay Parini does in the June 27 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education's Chronicle Review. Parini's book of the same title was published this April by Yale University Press.
Poetry’s virtue, Parini writes, lies in stilling the disorder of the outside world:
We listen to the still, small voice of poetry when we read a poem, and that voice stands in ferocious contrast to the clamor in the culture at large and, often, to the sound of society's explosions. . . . [Poetry] doesn't shift the stock market or persuade dictators to stand down. It doesn't usually send masses into the streets to protest a war or petition for economic justice. It works in quieter ways, shaping the interior space of readers, adding a range of subtlety to their thoughts, complicating the world for them.
Image courtesy of Scott LaPierre, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, July 03, 2008 11:40 AM
The website for Portland, Oregon’s literary journal eye-rhyme is dead. The only print issue I can track down is three years old. And my favorite piece from it was written by *gasp* a musician.
Subtitled “Roses Are Red,”the seventh issue of eye-rhyme is the only one in the Utne library. Having never lived in Portland, my first-hand knowledge of its literary scene is virtually nonexistent, and in an era when I should be able to learn everything about anything via the Internet, I am able to find precious little information about eye-rhyme online, even on the site of Pinball Publishing, which printed the journal. Some back issues are available for purchase there, including "Roses are Red" and the latest (and final?) installment, a book of portraits by local photographers.
What I do know is that Issue 7 of eye-rhyme documents a diverse population of literary talents who were writing in Portland in 2005. There are healthy doses of poetry (both prose-poetry and verse) and a long interview with Walt Curtis, the “Unofficial Poet Laureate of Portland.” There’s an absurdist piece of fiction by Kevin Sampsell called “In Jail,” which owes a great debt to Mark Leyner; there are drawings by Zak Margolis; there’s an interview with some upstart rock musician named Stephen Malkmus, who sounds like he’s destined for great things.
But my favorite piece, “Sadness: A Field Guide” is by local singer/songwriter Nick Jaina, whose album Wool was released in March of this year. Jaina’s also an elegant prose writer, and his taxonomy of all things sad is darkly funny and also very, very true. In just seven pages he takes us through the various states of sadness, including but not limited to wistfulness, lethargy, torpor, regret, sorrow, unhappiness, and happiness (this last one is actually just another form of sadness, Jaina’s sorry to inform us).
I wish this piece was available online. I wish I could afford to buy a copy of “Roses Are Red” for all my friends. I wish I was somehow affiliated with a national magazine that reprinted great writing from alternative media and small literary journals.
For now, though, I’ll just have to leave you with my favorite moments from the piece.
On melancholy: “This is a thrilling type of sadness. Your body screams with joy, if joy can be taken out of its normal association with happiness. The sadness of a grocery store that is well lit and full of pretty girls you’ll never talk to. … The sadness of loving a song, wanting to live inside a song, wanting to kiss everyone you see.”
On torpor: “This is a similar sluggishness to lethargy, only livened by the dictionary’s whimsical suffixing of the word for adjectival use into torporific.”
On unhappiness: “This is not sadness. This is temporary. You spend your whole life at a cocktail party, hosted by influential and powerful people. Rich people. Not to say that you are rich or powerful or influential yourself necessarily, but you’ve been invited to their party. You belong there. … Unhappiness is when you step outside the party for a brief respite. You walk out on the veranda and you are momentarily surprised at how dark and cold it has gotten since you arrived at the party. … You sense something wrong. Nothing is wrong. You can turn around and go back to the party. The door is unlocked.”
On dismay: “This is only for kings and vicars.”
On happiness: “This is perhaps the most desperate form of sadness there is. Think of all the lists you make, full of reasons why you should be happy, why you are happy, dammit. Apple wedges with cheese. City parks. The volatility of the stock market. The way she hugged you from behind, unexpectedly, at that New Years’ Eve party. Aren’t those all the same items on your list of reasons for being sad? Happiness is running with a mix tape to the post office, just before it closes, having quickly thrown on a baseball-style shirt with a number on the back because of the heat. But it’s only for the moment, what you call happiness. It won’t last. You’re wearing a t-shirt with pleated pants, which looks stupid. Everyone can see that.”
Loving this piece but being unable to share all of it; knowing that eye-rhyme is defunct or at least missing in action; browsing the shelves of the Utne library knowing that I’ll never have the time or energy to read everything there—it’s all remarkably similar to the image with which Jaina closes his entry on melancholy: “The sadness of walking through a library, feeling like you’re in a morgue, wanting to rescue every ignored book with an unexciting cover, knowing that no matter how many books you read, you’ll still never read one tenth of one percent of all the books at your shitty local library.”
Wednesday, July 02, 2008 3:54 PM
From the John Jay College of Criminal Justice comes the new J Journal: a strange and delightful hybrid of literary, creative writing on crime, criminal justice, law, and law enforcement published by the college’s English department. The inaugural issue contains a fair amount of poetry in addition to the expected prose—which, alas, is not classified, making it difficult at times to distinguish between short stories and creative nonfiction.*
One of the standouts in the issue is Jason Trask’s “New Plantation,” a frank recollection of teaching writing to high school students on Rikers Island. In his first week, Trask tries to earn cred by doing a lesson on the origins of profanity, an attention-grabbing routine that opens with writing FUCK, then INTERCOURSE on the board:
I picked up the chalk again and wrote “INTERCOURSE.” I waited. “You guys know this word?”
“Intercourse,” a couple of them said.
“Right. Now is that a bad word?” I asked.
“It mean ‘fuck.’ ”
“Well then, why isn’t it a bad word too if it means the same things as ‘fuck.’ ”
. . . They sat there waiting for me to tell them. I looked around at them. “You’ve got two words that mean the same thing. How does it happen that one of them is a bad word and one of them is a good word?
I waited, but no one said anything. I returned to the board and wrote, “SHIT.”
But this is no Dangerous Minds Part II. Trask pulls off no mind-boggling feats of academic resurrection; for every success he recounts a perfectly human blundering or insecurity. It’s a good story, and perhaps a nonfiction one, if Trask’s contributor bio, which cites an early 90s stint teaching at Rikers, can be considered as evidence.
* I often grumble about this decision to not classify prose, which is shared by many publications in the Utne Reader library, but truth be told, I’m torn. There’s a rigid part of me that just wants a piece of writing plopped down in the appropriate category. But then I have to admit: It’s the hybrids of the writing world that most excite me. What’s more interesting: What actually happened—or how someone remembers it? Is that any less of a true story? Or consider David Carr’s new “memoir,” Night of the Gun, a fully-reported account of his life. Perhaps this band of magazines and journals that refuse to identify their prose are doing all of us a favor, kicking us out of literary ruts.
dideo, licensed under
Friday, June 20, 2008 4:06 PM
BikeSnobNYC is an outspoken and occasionally antagonistic blogger, offering candid and provocative opinions about biking and bike culture. But recently he published a thoughtful post outlining some of the fears that prevent people from getting on bikes in the first place, reasons why such fears are unfounded, and suggestions for overcoming them. Far from letting his snobbishness intimidate would-be bikers, he wants to convert as many to biking as possible:
For all my derision, the last thing I’d want to do is discourage someone from riding a bike. If anything, I’d like to think I poke fun at the things that are actually barriers of entry to new cyclists, and not at new cyclists themselves.
To each of the most common apprehensions—I’ll get hurt; I’ll get honked at; I’ll look ridiculous; I can’t afford it; etc.—he offers several commonsense counterarguments. In doing so, he’s provided a valuable service to those who want to become dedicated riders but aren’t quite sure where to start, and also chipped away at some of the perceived insularity and pretension surrounding bike culture.
One of the greatest things about cycling is you can do it with 10,000 people or you can do it alone. And you don’t need to engage in the “secret handshake” of name-dropping, proper equipment usage, and wardrobe in order to do it. . . . If nothing else, you’ll never, ever be bored again. There will no longer ever be a daunting empty window of time in your day, as you’ll always have something to fill it with. Even if you’re all by yourself.
Image by mandiberg, licensed by Creative Commons.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008 5:50 PM
The Summer Reading issue of fiction-juggernaut Tin House arrived today, but it was an essay that caught my eye: “A Good Creature,” by Chris Adrian (excerpt only available online), which darts fluidly between the present and the past, weaving together recollections of fabled family dogs and reflections on a recent breakup.
“My ex-boyfriend tells me he’s thinking of getting a dog,” Adrian begins. “This is significant to me for a few reasons. We have only been broken up for about a month, and in that time I’ve managed to put off absolutely none of the habits of mind I developed when we were together, so it still feels like we are together, and so in some pathetic way I consider him to be thinking of getting a dog for us.”
It’s clear, though, that the tendency to develop habits of the mind—those tenacious neural connections and associations—has served Adrian well as a writer. As “A Good Creature” unfolds, his ability to make gentle, slightly surreal connections between disparate threads of thought is a pleasure to read. By the end, everything is touchingly jumbled: "My ex-boyfriend wants a dog, and I want to be like a dog," he writes. "You'd think we could come to some sort of accommodation."
Wednesday, June 11, 2008 12:47 PM
For nearly seven years, Mark Richardson has been quietly but consistently writing a column for Pitchfork called “Resonant Frequency.” His funny and far-reaching pieces tie all kinds of loose musical and cultural threads together in a cogent way that somehow cuts through a lot of the pretension and dismissive snark that typifies today’s music writing (a complaint often leveled against Richardson’s employer, in fact).
“Resonant Frequency” is at its best when trying to bridge the yawning gulf between mainstream popular music and the insular subculture of independent music. For example, Richardson’s most recent column makes some points about American Idol that I’d never considered, despite its being today's most ubiquitous pop-cultural phenomenon. And he makes compelling arguments for why and how hipsters have finally embraced Bruce Springsteen.
Richardson is also adept at putting certain artists or songs under the microscope, as he does with the Silver Jews, Brian Eno, or "I Only Have Eyes For You." His voice is honest and searching, never wonkish or condescending, and always seasoned with just the right amount of autobiographical detail. Anyone hungry for really smart music writing should check out Richardson’s column archive.
, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008 10:55 AM
Post-partum depression and body image woes are part of the psychic price new moms pay for their bundles of joy. Delivering seven-pound, six-ounce twin girls took a hefty physical and emotional toll on Melissa Stanton, which she describes in MotherVerse (excerpt only available online), a journal of writing by moms.
Stanton learned the only way to regain her former figure would be a tummy tuck, which required too long a recovery for a mother caring for a preschooler and infant twins. Without surgery, Stanton faced scrutiny from strangers and surgeons. “Looking pregnant after delivery is a cruelty few first-time moms are prepared for,” she writes. “But with the twins, the balloon-like remains of my pregnancy were so pronounced that a doctor sent to check on me dared to declare, ‘Are the twins still in there?’ ”
Though her “wobbly belly” caused Stanton stress, she managed to find a use for it. “When the twins are teens, I fully intend to show them photographs of my expanding—and by month-nine torpedo-like—pregnant belly. I’m hopeful that seeing the images will make my daughters sexually responsible and cautious. Girls! If you have sex, this can happen to you!”
Eventually, Stanton decided to have surgery to repair her abdominal damage, “if only to keep my uterus and innards in place.” She did, however, refuse the cosmetic trims and tucks the first plastic surgeon suggested: “…as I really looked at my changed body, which for years I had shied from seeing, I wondered at what point does one generation cede youth to the next? ...I’ve come to realize and accept that I’m now of an age when it’s more important for my body to be healthy than fashionable.”
Image by Mahalie, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, March 06, 2008 4:56 PM
Colors. They define and characterize our lives. But so often we fail to recognize their impact or unpack their individual stories. As I type this I’m surrounded by no less than three shades of gray, and that saddens me. The quarterly arts magazine Cabinet has a piece in every issue that tells the unique story of a single color or a writer’s personal experience with that particular hue. The pieces are sometimes powerful, sometimes academic, and sometimes pretentious, but always engaging and illuminating.
Image by Steve Ryan
, licensed under Creative Commons.
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!