1/29/2008 8:58:10 AM
The collaborative fiction website One Million Monkeys Typing satisfies every picky reader’s urge to stop in the middle a story, grab a pen, and have a go at the damn thing yourself. Each story starts with a central trunk, to which writers can then "graft" story-parts. (There are a lot of tree metaphors on the site.) The resulting collaborative fiction is an innovative mix of crowd-sourcing and choose your own adventure. Participating merges the great thing about writers' workshops—being able to critique other people’s writing—with the ability to cut off boring writers and make the stories go wherever you want. It’s genuinely fun, too.
1/28/2008 2:40:04 PM
How angry would you be if President George W. Bush gave a speech in your community on Earth Day? I would be angry. For one, the eco-hostile president has a lot of nerve giving any speech at all on Earth Day, given his environmental track record. I’d be even more upset if his speech applauded an environmental initiative that has succeeded without government assistance. But that’s just what President Bush did in Wells, Maine, a town of some 10,000 people, including writer Michelle Cacho-Negrete. Her account of the maddening presidential oration, “In My House” (excerpt only available online), was published in The Sun, winner of a 2007 Utne Independent Press Award in the category of best writing.
Bush chose to speak at Laudholm Farm, a 1,600-acre nature reserve, because it had excelled with little governmental support. “Sure enough, during his speech,” Cacho-Negrete writes, “Bush would say, ‘Good conservation and stewardship do not rely on the government, and Laudholm Farm is a great example of people seizing the initiative.’ ” As Cacho-Negrete struggles with her decision to protest Bush’s speech and the farm’s decision to welcome his visit, she eloquently describes feelings of futility, anger, and guilt over the current administration’s dealings with the environment.
“None of my friends voted for Bush, yet every single one of them, like me, experiences some guilt simply by virtue of being an American,” she writes. “We are a nation ripped apart, furious with each other, half of us racked with remorse, half of us drenched in smug certainty, nearly all of us wondering what went wrong.”
1/28/2008 1:37:57 PM
I’ve been both repulsed and sickly fascinated by the Bumfights saga ever since 2002, when lawsuits over the violent stunt-and-brawl videos broke into national news. For the uninitiated, the story begins with a few young men wandering the streets of San Diego, getting homeless people drunk before filming them performing dangerous and degrading stunts. The “filmmakers” sold the videos on the Internet, raking in millions, leaving the homeless men they filmed out in the cold.
In a recent article for the San Diego CityBeat, David Silva provides some much-needed closure. It’s precisely the sort of coverage absent from sensational headlines—the resolution, even a happy ending of sorts. Silva chronicles “stunt bums” Rufus Hannah and Donald Brennan’s chance encounter with San Diego property owner and manager Barry Soper, who became deeply involved in the men’s lives, helping them find legal representation and escape the filmmakers’ increasingly sadistic abuse.
These days, Hannah has become a passionate advocate for the homeless, speaking around the country and lobbying for legislation that would make attacks on them a hate crime in California. (Since Bumfights was first released, Silva reports that violence against homeless people has risen dramatically, and copycat videos now proliferate online.) And Brennan, recently married, told Silva: “I have a wife, food in the refrigerator, money in my pocket. I’m living life the way it’s supposed to be lived.”
On a related note, CityBeat runs a Homeless Person of the Week feature, to put “names on the faces of San Diego's homeless.”
1/28/2008 11:10:33 AM
Gastronomica editor Darra Goldstein talks to Utne.com about her savvy, luscious, and provocative food journal
interview by Sarah Pumroy
You could say Darra Goldstein has her plate full. She’s the founder and editor in chief of Gastronomica, the journal of food and culture that won the 2007 Utne Independent Press Award for social/cultural coverage. The quarterly is a labor of love she produces with the help of a part-time managing editor and design director while managing her work as a professor of Russian studies at Williams College. She’s also the author of four cookbooks and numerous scholarly books and articles.
Each issue of Gastronomica bursts with articles that inform, conjure the senses, and reflect on the cultural impact of food. And each issue brings a bounty of content that ranges in style, format, and gravity, from playful poetry to weighty investigative pieces. Utne.com spoke with Goldstein about how she got the idea for the journal, what makes for good food writing, and why the glossies’ food coverage is worth reading, even if it sometimes falls short.
You have a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literature. How did you become interested in writing about food and where did the idea for Gastronomica come from?
I’ve always been interested in food. When I started graduate school I wanted to write my dissertation on food and Russian literature. Because there are so many themes of eating in Russian lit, I just thought it would be a wonderful dissertation to write. This was back in 1974, and my professors told me it was not a serious topic. So I did a different dissertation on a Russian modernist poet. I’m not sorry that I did that because it enabled me to enter into a really wonderful world, but I couldn’t stop thinking about food. I got the job at Williams and was teaching Russian literature but I was also continuing to write about food on the side. The two lives were very distinct: the Russian scholar and the food writer. It was almost as though what I was doing had to be secret, a little bit illicit, because I wasn’t supposed to be doing it. But I couldn’t help myself.
I thought there must be other people like me who were working in their own disciplines but were really interested in food and culture, and there was no place for us to talk to each other. That’s when I got the idea for Gastronomica. I wanted to create a journal that would give legitimacy to food studies in academia. It’s very much a crossover journal; I don’t want it to be a dry, academic thing. I want lively writing but I also want it to help food studies be seen as a valid discipline.
What makes for good food writing?
One of the problems that I’m seeing now in academia is that food has become very hot. A lot of people are starting to write about food but are coming at it from the intellectual side, which is important because not enough people think about food in serious ways. But if they haven’t ever spent any time in the kitchen, if they’re not thinking about the textures of food and the smells and the taste and the way food is transformed in the kitchen—the sensual side—then the writing ends up sometimes informed, but more often a little bit flat because they don’t have that more visceral connection to it. Sometimes I’ll accept a piece that’s entirely sensual. It doesn’t always have to be overlaid with cerebral thinking.
How do you find a balance between the creative and academic pieces?
I try to put the issues together so that they feel balanced. The poetry appears in every issue; that’s really important to me. The artwork is another way of exploring the sensuality, the beauty, and the aesthetics of food, which I know isn’t food writing but it captures a certain dimension of it that otherwise would be lacking. There are always two articles in the investigation section that are the ballast for each issue, and those are the most scholarly ones. And with the others I try to find a good balance between something that’s more like a memoir and something that’s more like investigative journalism.
You’ve criticized the popular press for its upbeat, candy-coated coverage of food. Why do you think this is the tendency of the mainstream magazines?
First, I want to say that I subscribe to all those magazines and I take them to bed at night. I enjoy reading them, and I write for them, so even if I critique them it’s not that I don’t think they should exist. But there is also a place for a deeper and darker exploration of issues surrounding food. With the trade magazines people want to be entertained and enter a fantasy world. It’s a larger problem with American culture—the happy face, as though we should always be smiling. Smiling is good, but we also need to explore things critically and analytically. When you talk about food, the pleasure component is important, but there are also problems of hunger, food security, the environment, the food chain and the toxins that are introduced into it. These issues need to be explored.
How has the magazine changed since it was founded in 2001?
When I started, I was insecure. I felt strongly that Gastronomica had to be serious to prove itself as an intellectual journal. I no longer feel that insecurity; I think that it has proved itself. Now I feel freer to be more playful, to have articles that are pushing against certain norms. For instance, in the May issue there will be an article that I find very disturbing, and I think readers will, too. It’s about an artist who harvests her own eggs. It’s a social commentary on caviar and the egg as a luxury good and the way women sell their eggs to make money. It’s a perfect Gastronomica article because it’s looking at food, but it’s also horrifying and pushing against the edges of good taste. I would not have had the courage to publish that early on, when Gastronomica was still getting established.
What do you hope readers will learn from Gastronomica?
I hope they will take tremendous pleasure in discovering how wide-ranging the world of food is; that it’s not limited to cooking. You can take almost any aspect of life and look at it through the lens of food and discover something new about it.
1/25/2008 3:40:14 PM
The Anacostia River is a filthy, liquid wall separating the politicos from their hardscrabble, mostly invisible constituents in Washington, D.C. And like everything else in the capitol, the garbage-clogged tributary flows through the lies and empty promises of the city’s dons. D.C. is on its way up. Crime is on its way down. The river will be baptism-water clean. But it takes a group of inner-city youths to cut the paths, sift through the garbage, and actually follow up on the promises. Holly Jones, in an article for McSweeney’s, tells the story of three of these kids as they work on the Anacostia and deal with the demons of growing up on the streets of D.C.
1/25/2008 2:40:56 PM
Gangs are spreading across the United States, seemingly immune from general decreases in violent crime, advancing a tide of hopeless violence. Writing for the LA Weekly, Peter Landesman delivers a long, sensitively reported piece on the deepening gang crisis. Landesman reports from the notorious cradle of gang activity, the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles. He never gets bogged down clichéd assumptions, however, eschewing all caricatures of rap-infused gang life and instead writing about the real, complex causes of gang violence, which frighteningly has become "more codeless, more arbitrary and more brutal than ever" as it spreads outside of its traditional urban strongholds into suburban and rural communities.
1/18/2008 9:56:05 AM
This Sunday, Utne Reader reprint author Annaliese Jakimides will have an essay featured on NPR’s This I Believe series, a weekly radio segment broadcast during the Sunday morning Weekend Edition. I’ll definitely be tuning in, and you should too.
Jakimides first popped on our radar in 2006, via an excellent essay we reprinted from the parenting zine Hip Mama. In “My Son the Marine,” she describes coming to terms with the positive impact military life has had on her child—who she raised on “organic carrots and wheatberries and peaceful resolutions,” but “could not comfortably hug or kiss.”
“My son is a Marine,” Jakimides writes, “and the Marines have taught him to love, at least given him voice to the speaking of love and showing of love to his mother.” Her frank essay prompted a rash of impassioned letters in our mailbag, and I can’t wait to hear what wise words she has to share this Sunday.
1/17/2008 5:26:27 PM
Open up a copy of Bookforum and press your dirty little hands up against a window that peers into a covetable world of literary glory. Within its pages is a place where the walls are lined with well-stocked bookshelves, people chat about the latest authors like revered sports heroes, and everybody (presumably) drinks classy wine. In short, Bookforum is a slice of booklover’s heaven.
The Dec.-Jan. 2008 issue serves up a heady dish of high criticism, starting with two articles on Henry James: Peter Brooks takes on the first two volumes of James’ letters, while Colm Tóibín writes about The Mature Master, a new biography of James by Sheldon M. Novick. There's also John Banville's discourse on pulp fiction, and a depressingly intelligent essay by Billy Collins on the new book How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read—detailing, naturally, why the reviewer resisted the temptation not to read the book he was reviewing.
1/15/2008 5:19:11 PM
The British literary magazine Granta recently released its 100th issue, an erudite event chronicled by The Guardian’s Simon Garfield, who reports on how the literary institution—powered by the fedora-clad “inspired ‘lunacy’ ” of impresario Bill Buford—rose from a dusty Cambridge student magazine to a modern literary bellwether.
Since its 1979 launch, Granta discovered Salman Rushie, and has published screeds from Susan Sontag, Doris Lessing, and pretty much anyone else you’d ever want to pick up. It is, in Garfield’s words: “almost always an exciting and rewarding and illuminating thing to read.” His brief history is full of colorful tales of the gargantuan Buford. Here’s a taste:
When Hanif Kureishi met Buford in the mid-Eighties after the success of My Beautiful Laundrette, he found him to be “everything I thought literary people were like— this tough, hard-drinking, eccentric, charismatic, very talented man who knew everyone.” And of course, Kureishi suffered for his art along with the rest. “Bill was a savage editor—he would come round to your house almost at random and start cutting into your stuff. Ed White rang me up one day and said he didn’t realise he was a minimalist until he ran into Buford.”
“How was that experience?” I asked Kureishi. “Was it humiliating, rewarding, enriching, infuriating?”
“Yes,” he replied. “Write all those words down. I wouldn’t stand for it now.”
1/14/2008 1:30:54 PM
The English language has at least one glaring deficiency: There is no gender-neutral pronoun to refer to other people. English speakers have always been forced to use either “he” or “she” when referring to others, until now. According to a recent study in the linguistics journal American Speech, Baltimore students have begun using the word “yo” as a gender-neutral pronoun, effectively replacing both “he” and “she.”
Examples of usage include “Peep yo,” meaning “Look at him or her,” or “Yo’s wearing a coat” meaning “(s)he is wearing a coat.” In an interview on Fair Game from Public Radio International, Margaret Troyer, a teacher who helped identify the pronoun and co-wrote the study, said that it’s considered extremely difficult to invent a new pronoun. When asked how these young students were able to inject more gender equity into the English language, Troyer said, “Maybe they just invented a new pronoun because they didn’t know that they couldn’t.”
1/14/2008 1:23:33 PM
Detroit is a city in motion. Demolition and new construction projects hum alongside the never-ending journey of the homeless to stay warm and find shelter. The city is abuzz with action. If you’ve never experienced Detroit firsthand, a staggeringly comprehensive tour of the city by the Detroit Free Press is a satisfying and enlightening alternative to travel. In fact, it’s so unbelievably thorough that it probably trumps, at least in sheer detail, the experience of actually seeing the city. The project, called Driving Detroit, was conceived by columnist and Motown native Bill McGraw. And his love and aching hopefulness for his hometown are evident in every aspect of the project.
The Free Press describes the mission of Driving Detroit as “extreme, even a little preposterous,” and it is. McGraw drove all of Detroit’s roughly 2,100 streets, which took him four intense months and spanned 2,700 miles. The outcome is impressive. The series is divided into four parts: McGraw’s narrative tour; a photo and video guide; a map of McGraw’s course through the city, with the neighborhoods broken down into color-coded sections by level of decay; and a discussion board filled by readers.
A common theme throughout McGraw’s narrative tour is the purgatorial nature of the “New Detroit,” a campaign by Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to revitalize the crumbling infrastructure of the historic city. Ultimately, the Detroit McGraw describes seems like a chaotic, unfinished project, the work of an industrious child with severe ADD. The images McGraw’s prose evokes are like frozen moments in the midst of a major change: half-finished construction, single blocks bizarrely divided in two by thriving, solid edifices next door to empty, gutted husks. Even the people of McGraw’s Detroit are cleaved between those almost naively hopeful for change and those either too apathetic or worn-down to care. His description of Detroit and its paradoxes are as much intimate travelogue of the Motor City as they are hard copy by a veteran beat reporter.
The real gem of the project is the visual tour, created with the help of a large team of photographers and reporters. The still photos bring the city’s partition between blight and prosperity into stark focus. And the video footage, paired with some spectacular Motown sounds, is so fly-on-the-wall brilliant you’ll just have to see it for yourself. Taken as a whole, the project offers a voyeuristically intimate look at Detroit that only the most knowledgeable of tour guides could provide.
1/9/2008 10:03:30 AM
I first encountered Toni Mirosevich’s elegant prose in the Spring 2007 issue of food and culture journal Gastronomica. “The Prize Inside,” a dreamlike account of dinnertime rituals in her Croatian-American fishing family, was so gripping we rushed to reprint it in our September-October 2007 issue.
That essay and 24 others are now collected in Pink Harvest, Mirosevich’s first book of creative nonfiction, published this past November by Mid-List Press. Having previously published a few volumes of poetry and prose, Mirosevich demonstrates no less linguistic prowess in her nonfiction foray. Her words, above all, seem impeccably timed. She beckons great surges of language with sequences of commas, and then tempers her prose with judicious breaks, periods, and alternations of sentence length and structure.
Of course, rhapsodizing about her writing, I don’t mean to neglect the content; Mirosevich’s personal narratives are touching, often funny, and sharply recounted. In “Tilting” a suitor interrupts a widow’s gardening. Mirosevich writes:
There was a rustling, leaves or the scrape of grapevines on the trellis. He cleared his throat. “I don’t mean to change the subject but will you marry me?”
The breeze died down, and with the question, as if slapped, she revived, her sense of smell suddenly keen, as if she could smell the man who had inhabited the suit jacket before Dragovich, could remember the way her husband’s scent laid on the pillow in the mornings, a mix of cigar and fish and the sea.
She stopped, weighing the proposition. “What you got?” she asked.
1/8/2008 5:34:25 PM
In the same spirit as our recent post on Dear Rockers, you ought to peruse the archives at Catherine Wald’s Rejection Collection, which is the internet home to dozens of rejection letters aspiring (and established) writers have received from publishers, literary presses, and magazines not accepting their submissions. You may not find any heart-spearing prose here, but some of these accounts convey such a simplistic slap-in-the-face that you can almost feel, Braille-like, the misery and dejected worthlessness etched in raised, reddened skin.
Take, for example, the four letters that reject a book about the frustrations of having your work rejected. One particular rejecter even praises the book’s wit and cleverness. Still, he rejects the rejection book. It’s cute to the point of calling into question the authenticity of the supposed book and its rejection, but in the interest of Rejection Collection’s numerous pleasures, I choose to accept it.
1/8/2008 8:41:43 AM
At first glance, Paul Riddell sounds like a nice guy, but don’t tell that to the victims of his insect-devouring, killer plants. In an entertaining article for the Dallas Observer, Andrea Grimes profiles Riddell, a sci-fi writer-turned-horticulturist who found his true passion among carnivorous flora. Riddell loathes the perception of urban gardening as a tame pastime. He wants to make plants exciting at any cost, even if it means feeding a poor cockroach named Archy to Bub the pitcher plant in a viscera-bathed insect sacrifice. That gruesome scene formed the centerpiece of the first issue of his newsletter, the Hell’s Half-Acre Herald (unfortunately not available online, but you can read about it on Riddell’s blog).
1/7/2008 6:01:55 PM
Nestled in a cornfield, deep in the heart of Iowa, the Hobo King presides over his court of tramps in an ancient ceremony dedicated to America’s rusty rail-horses and the even rustier men and women who ride them. It's the annual National Hobo Convention, which has been held in Britt, Iowa, for over a century. Before that, the convention popped up in cornfields and junkyards throughout the country, as ephemeral as its attendants, dating back almost to the Civil War. Chris Simunek documents the ritual in his article for High Times (excerpt only available online), and his credentials as a writer for the elite stoner mag are the only reason he’s given access to the Hobo King’s shadowy world. The story unfolds through the smoke of campfires and reefer—bringing to life the denizens of America’s oldest counterculture and their father’s magic carpets made of steel.
1/4/2008 3:35:11 PM
Serious bicyclists are undoubtedly familiar with the concept of a paceline, a group of cyclists riding in a tight, single-file line in order to reduce wind resistance and increase efficiency. Writing for the literary journal Matter (article not available online), Mark Hinterburg elegantly argues that the humble paceline demonstrates keys concepts for a more conscientious society.
The paceline’s first lesson is to share the load. Like a flock of geese flying in V-formation, riders in a paceline take turns riding the front and breaking the wind. Weak or inexperienced riders aren’t expected to spend as much time there (known as a “pull”) as the stronger riders. Hinterburg suggests society should behave in like:
Society degenerates, and the paceline is broken, when an unreasonable burden is expected from the lesser-abled groups. Are rising drug prices and inadequate insurance a fair way to treat our elderly? Likewise, the paceline loses efficiency when stronger riders take shorter pulls than weaker ones. Is it sensible to cut taxes on the ultra-rich, while the buying power of the middle class continues to decline?
The paceline also prescribes to a common cyclist credo: the “no-drop” rule. When a flat tire or other problem strikes, one or two riders stay behind with the afflicted cyclist until the issue is resolved. We fail to behave this considerately as citizens, Hinterburg writes, pointing to the U.S. health care system as a clear case of no-drop violation:
In the United States, people are left behind with reckless abandon. Those that are stricken with cancer or other chronic illness are left to life of high insurance premiums, at best; or lack of proper coverage, at worst. Through no fault of their own, they are randomly dealt a flat tire, and the society continues without them, as healthy citizens are convinced that the same thing cannot happen to them.
The paceline’s most compelling lesson, however, isn’t one of its rules of conduct, but rather the underlying concept. At face value, the paceline serves a simple purpose—reduce wind resistance, make the journey more efficient—but underneath, Hinterburg writes, there is greater meaning:
The paceline represents an ethos that ties us all together, across time and geography. Find those that are going the same direction, and help them along, and have faith that others will help you as well. Convince others to join in on the journey, and ride with a smile.
Photo by Gary Dykstra, licensed under Creative Commons.
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