1/30/2009 9:54:42 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).
1/29/2009 4:47:37 PM
All the world’s a microblog, and all the men and women merely tweeters. It’s tough to present an intelligent thought in the 140 characters allowed by Twitter, but someone has managed to summarize Shakespeare’s entire canon into tweets. Here are a few highlights:
H: Mommy issues are just the beginning for a prince with a murdered father and new Uncle/Step-dad. Most everybody ends up dead.
TGoV: Two guys overcome both temporary exile from somewhere and their impulse-control issues and marry their long-suffering sweethearts.
KL: Old king learns too late that two of his kids only wanted power. He and most main characters die. One just gets his eyes gouged out.
Update: The blogger has moved on to translating the show MASH and the Best Picture Oscar winners into tweets, too.
1/29/2009 1:23:56 PM
It can be tough for writers to cobble together a living, so I’m always fascinated by stories of the ones who jettison the safety of a day job and insist on making their words pay the bills. Vice’s recent interview with Lee Israel, included in the Fiction Issue, paints an extreme version of this portrait. After publishing two best-selling biographies in the 70s, Israel bombed a third attempt and found herself scrambling to make ends meet. Her solution? Literary forgery: She penned and sold fake letters by literary giants like Louise Brooks and Edna Ferber, keeping at it for two years before finally getting caught.
The story of the hoax makes for good reading, but the interview is also intriguing because Vice doesn’t care much about weighing in on the ethics of Israel’s actions. Without the burden of moral outrage, Vice is able to explore the episode from other angles. The interviewer treats the letters as literary works, so many of the questions deal with Israel's writerly process—her research techniques, for instance, or the pains she took to replicate an author's tone. A few of the original letters are reprinted alongside the interview, so you can judge their merits yourself.
1/28/2009 9:18:12 AM
I am forever in awe of William T. Vollmann's ability to drill to the dark centers of humanity and emerge clear-thinking despite the "slimy, filthy grief" he experiences there. He's done it again in the latest issue of Book Forum, where he manages to articulate the most fundamental horror of the holocaust while writing his way through a sharp essay on the ethics of photography. I could feed you an excerpt here but I'm going to resist the temptation. You ought to read and wrestle with the entire piece. Snack if you must, but don't say I encouraged you in that wrongheaded endeavor.
1/23/2009 11:52:40 AM
Over at Nerve, Steve Almond parses his desire for uberconservative pundit Sean Hannity, the “angry, engorged and totally hot” object of his affection. Almond acknowledges the flaws in Hannity's character—"I find you, as a moral actor, repulsive," he writes—but a few years after appearing on Hannity's Fox News show, he just can't shake his lingering fascination with the man. "[W]hile I find your demeanor shrill and brutish," he writes, "I also find it strangely . . . alluring."
[W]hen I appeared on your show I couldn't see you. But I could hear you—loud and clear. And that's what really captured me. The liberal in me was appalled by your hectoring. But the insecure male in me felt, I don't know. . . ravaged is probably the best word. Within ten seconds, you were interrogating me. Within twenty, you were insulting me. Within thirty, you were disgusted. There was something so raw and personal about it all.
Check out the rest of the letter here, or revisit Almond's treatises on candy bars, writing about candy bars, and how to write a sex scene.
Image by bobgo29, licensed under Creative Commons.
1/22/2009 1:49:10 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.”
1/22/2009 8:15:06 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.
1/21/2009 9:42:51 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.
1/20/2009 2:58:32 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.
1/19/2009 3:18:04 PM
At just a year old, poet Elizabeth Alexander was in the crowd on the National Mall when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the country and proclaimed, “I have a dream.” This week, at age 46, Alexander will be in Washington D.C. for another historic moment—but this time with a front row seat.
Alexander, who is a professor of African-American studies at Yale, is the writer selected by President-elect Barack Obama to deliver an original poem at his swearing-in, a privilege bestowed on only three other poets in American history: Robert Frost, who read at JFK’s inauguration, and Maya Angelou and Miller Williams, who lent their voices to Bill Clinton's ceremonies.
In an interview with Newsweek, Alexander summed up the feelings of many art lovers, hailing Obama’s choice to include poetry in the inauguration as “an affirmation of the potential importance of art in day-to-day and civic discourse.”
For Alexander, joining the distinguished ranks of inaugural poets is certainly a high honor, but actually writing an occasional poem—verse composed for a specific event—with staying power can be a tricky task for a poet. “Once the function has passed,” writes Jim Fisher for Salon, “the poem loses the immediacy of its audience, and with it the power to summon meaning and emotion over time.”
But Alexander told NPR’s Melissa Block that she’s “challenged, not scared” by the assignment. And she seems to have crafted her poem with the predicament Fisher describes in mind. “[W]hat I’ve been able to do is ask myself how I serve the moment," she told the New York Times, “but hopefully in language that has value and resonance when the moment has passed.”
You can read some of Alexander's poems at her website, or listen to two recitations at NPR.org.
1/15/2009 9:55:04 AM
Tom Engelhardt of the Nation Institute and TomDispatch.com has drafted an inaugural address for Barack Obama. "For a president who wants to set us on a new path amid global disaster," Engelhardt says of his speech, "what better time to remember the experimental modesty with which our first presidents anxiously embarked on their journeys?"
Here, reprinted with permission, is Engelhardt's full inaugural address:
In a Dark Valley: Barack Obama's Inaugural Address
In my lifetime, presidents have regularly come before you, the American people, proclaiming new dawns or hailing this country as a shining city upon a hill, an example to the rest of the world. But on this cold, wintry day, I hardly need tell you that we seem to have joined much of the rest of the world in an increasingly shadowy, sunless valley.
We -- not just we Americans but all of us -- are living in a world in peril, one in which we have far more to fear than fear itself. And don't imagine, having just taken the oath of office on the Bible Abraham Lincoln laid his hand on in an earlier moment of national crisis, that I don't have my own fears about the task ahead. I can't help but worry whether my abilities are up to challenges, which would surely have been daunting even to a Washington, a Lincoln, or a Roosevelt.
Nonetheless, you elected me. You have, I know, invested your hopes in me in these trying times. And fortunately, I sense that you are at my side now and will, I hope, remain there, encouraging and criticizing, praising or chiding as you see fit, through the worst and, with luck, the best of times. I'm thankful for that. Without your support, your wisdom, what could I hope to accomplish? We -- and in this presidency, when I use that word, I will mean you and me, not the royal "we" to which American presidents have become far too attached -- we can, I think, hope to accomplish much, but only if we're honest with ourselves.
This nation was founded in the immodest modesty of experimentation by men who hoped for much but were aware that they did not always know what might work. They were ready to falter, to fall on their faces, to fail, and yet not to quit. We -- you and I -- must be willing to do the same. In this difficult moment, we must be willing to acknowledge our limits, to admit our mistakes, and to welcome all others who care to join us, or want us to join them, on the path of experimentation in a needy world.
Let me, then, start -- not simply as your new president but as a human being, a proud American, and the father of two children who deserve a better future, not a thoroughly degraded world -- with two simple words: I'm sorry.
In the last eight years, we Americans have in no way lived up to our better natures. Our country has, in fact, repeatedly caused grievous damage to others and to ourselves. The mistakes, the misguided policies, have been legion. We -- you and I -- must do our best to correct them and make amends. For Americans, at home and abroad, there must be a better way.
The kidnapping of people off the streets of global cities, the disappearing of suspects who have no chance to face judge or jury, the torture, abuse, and killing of prisoners, these are wounds inflicted on the world and on ourselves. There must be a better way.
Shock-and-awe assaults on other nations, whether by ourselves or allies we've green-lighted, lead -- it should be clear enough by now -- to horrors beyond measure visited on civilians. There must be a better way.
The repeated firing of missiles at, and the bombing of, villages halfway across the globe, the repeated killing of innocent farm families while on missions to protect ourselves, constitutes a global war for terror, not against it. There must be a better way.
The twisting of our Constitution into whatever shape a president (and his lawyers) find useful or power-enhancing constitutes a body blow to this nation. There must be a better way.
The offering of vast bailouts, without strings or oversight, to the most profligate and greediest among us, while ignoring the daily suffering of ordinary Americans inflicts grievous harm on our society. There must be a better way.
The turning of our government -- your government -- into a surveillance state, a spy society, meant to eternally watch you cannot represent the fulfillment of the dreams of Washington or Jefferson. There must be a better way.
Transforming the heavens into a storage depot for greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels is like passing a death sentence on humanity. There must be a better way.
Considering war and military action the solution of first, not last, resort whenever a difficult or painful problem arises represents a disastrous path. There must be a better way.
Of all times, this is no time to be at war. For our recent wars, all of us have paid a heavy price, not just in lives that should never have been lost, but in distraction from what truly matters.
We were once proudly a can do nation. For the last eight years, we have been a can't do nation, incapable of rebuilding great cities or small towns, replacing failing bridges or shoring up our systems of levees. And yet we've had the presumption to believe that we, who had lost the knack for rebuilding at home, had a special ability to rebuild other societies far from home. All of this has to end now. We need to do better.
Everywhere on this shaky planet people feel insecure and unsafe -- and we have only sharpened such feelings in these last years. To feel secure and safe should be the most basic of rights. It is, however, far past time for us to give the very idea of security new meaning. Yes, we must protect ourselves. Any country must do that for its citizens, but you, the American people, must also hear a truth that has not been said in these last eight years. It is a fantasy to believe that, in the long run, we can make ourselves secure to the detriment of everyone else. On that path lies only insecurity for all. We need to do better.
In policy terms, tomorrow is the day to roll up our sleeves and begin, but today I want to say to you: Don't despair. Yes, the news is grim. Yes, as Americans and as citizens of this world we should know our limits and the increasingly apparent limits of our small planet, but we should also dream, and struggle, and plan, and innovate.
I repeated one phrase many times during the long presidential campaign, and I emphatically repeat it today: Yes, we can!
And when we do, we have to reach out to the world with our discoveries and ideas, but without the sense that those discoveries, those ideas, are the be-all and end-all. We have to learn how to listen as well as teach.
Our planet will either be an ark, which will carry us, and our children and grandchildren, through time and space, or it will be our grave. This is a stark choice that seems no choice at all. But believe me, to choose the ark, not the grave, is the hardest thing of all. Nonetheless, may that be the choice to which we Americans consecrate ourselves on this day and in all the days to come.
Thank you and God bless us all.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site and an alternative history of the mad Bush years now ending.
Image by Joshua Bentley
1/12/2009 2:33:26 PM
Cuba’s renowned health care system has a blind spot: It is failing people with mental illness. The island nation has the highest rates of suicide and depression in the Americas. Writing for the Virginia Quarterly Review, Lygia Navarro skillfully weaves the stories of individual Cubans with a broader perspective on the government’s refusal to acknowledge the dramatic suicide rates and the prevalent prescription drug abuse. She exposes secretive lives without exploitation and pays homage to the setting with telling descriptions.
After days of talking about mental health and black-market meds, one afternoon Mirta stops me midconversation. She can tell from my questioning that Cuba’s passion for sedatives is something of an anomaly. Do Americans take sleeping pills? she asks. I do not want to offend her, and say carefully that it isn’t as common there, and is stigmatized by the stereotype of unhappy housewives downing bottles of Valium. Mirta laughs. The possibility of falling over the precipice is all around her—almost everyone she knows takes sedatives. “Because people know that they have to get up and start all over again. This has been going on for so long here in Cuba that if someone doesn’t take sleeping pills, that’s abnormal.” Both she and Alejandro are uneasy about their underground pharmacist’s corruption in profiting off people like them. But they keep buying.
The more I talk with health workers and Cubans hooked on sedatives, the more I am convinced that the government has strategic reasons for making meprobamate available primarily on the black market. With no aboveground market or statistics, who knows how many tablets are produced or how many Cubans consume them? If meprobamate were conveniently available in pharmacies—and more affordable than on the black market—how many more Cubans would rush to drug themselves? And, the question ultimately is, how afraid is Havana of its citizens unsedated?
(Thanks, Untold Stories.)
1/12/2009 1:53:20 PM
With their kid gloves on, British parents are plucking classic fairy tales like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Hansel and Gretel from their children’s nightstands, replacing them with more innocuous bedtime stories like The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Fairy tales are just too scary and no longer politically correct for modern parental tastes, according to a new survey of British parents. The Telegraph reports:
Two-thirds of parents said traditional fairytales had stronger morality messages than many modern children's stories.
But many said they were no longer appropriate to soothe youngsters before bed.
Almost 20 per cent of adults said they refused to read Hansel and Gretel because the children were abandoned in a forest— and it may give their own sons and daughters nightmares.
A fifth did not like to read The Gingerbread Man as he gets eaten by a fox.
George Murray at Bookninja is not one of these parents. Responding to the Telegraph story, he writes, “Guys, if my kid isn’t lying awake in bed each night, staring at the ceiling and thinking of what he’s just read or been read, then we’ve got the wrong books.”
1/9/2009 3:18:07 PM
Cuba’s Heritage Council, in partnership with the U.S. Social Science Research Council (SSRC), recently opened up access to thousands of documents that belonged to Ernest Hemingway, reports the BBC. Hemingway scholars and enthusiasts know little about his 21 years on the island, and those connected with the project believe the archive will help fill in the blanks.
According to the Guardian, the collection includes some obvious points of interest: an unpublished epilogue to For Whom the Bell Tolls, a screenplay for The Old Man and the Sea, and letters from Ezra Pound and Ingrid Bergman. But many are also excited about the insights to be gained from the more mundane pieces. Sandra Spanier gushes in an article on SSRC’s website:
You don't always think of Hemingway as the guy who has to change the oil in his car and fix his roof, but he was very much in touch with the texture and rhythms of his daily routine in Cuba, and there are many domestic notes in there. There's a recommendation letter he wrote for a carpenter. There are meticulous notes he wrote, in Spanish, to the cook . . . explaining extremely involved recipes, how to do the carrots, and which days of the week he wanted avocados in the salad instead of tomatoes.
Digital copies of the papers have also been sent to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, and will hopefully be made available to the public in the future.
1/9/2009 12:54:38 PM
Who Owns the Sky? The Struggle to Control Airspce from the Wright Brothers On
by Stuart Banner (Harvard University Press)
Nowadays, aviation law isn’t something the average person thinks about, but when the Wright Brothers stunned the world in 1903 the phrase “aerial trespass” popped into the lay person’s lexicon—and trespass suits by worried landholders claiming control of their skies were soon to follow. In Who Owns the Sky: The Struggle to Control Airspace from the Wright Brothers On, Stuart Banner narrates the fascinating story of the challenged legal status quo cujus est solum ejus est usque ad coelum—he who owns the soil owns up to the sky—and lands at our current understanding of aviation law for landowners and nations respectively.
The UCLA law professor has clearly done his homework: Banner documents an exorbitant amount of information about the changing proprietary values of our atmosphere over the past hundred years. Perhaps more importantly, Banner demonstrates that legal chronicles aren’t exclusively engaging to lawyers. This book is a fascinating read about a forgotten issue—unless, of course, you live next to an airport . . .what, what did you say?!
1/8/2009 2:26:57 PM
Many writers have ridiculously specific routines that they adhere to. Charles Darwin’s son Francis once mapped out his father’s daily habits down to the half-hour. Darwin’s daily schedule, and those of many other famous writers, are compiled in the Daily Routines blog. Truman Capote provides one of the funnier entries on the site:
I am a completely horizontal author. I can't think unless I'm lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I've got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis.
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