12/27/2007 1:58:28 PM
Since trends in popular culture are often cyclical, it’s high-time people brought back jelly shoes, Madonna, and pinball. In an article for the Riverfront Times, Kathleen McLaughlin tells of a pinball resurgence taking place in the small, riverside community of South Roxana, Illinois. McLaughlin’s nostalgic reportage evokes Depression-era speakeasies and 1980s pool halls, filled with flashing machines spitting shiny silver balls. The story features a colorful cast of pinball enthusiasts, or “pinheads” who espouse their matter-of-fact wisdom. "Once you understand how it works,” says pinhead Mike Kassak, “then you have to make the shots."
Image by Ben Tesch, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/21/2007 4:44:04 PM
Before praising John Barry’s recent review of Simon Sebag Montefiore's Young Stalin biography for the Baltimore City Paper, I should probably disclose that the last biography I read was Chester Brown’s brilliant comic-strip biography of Louis Riel. Before that, there was something about Jackie Robinson and his imaginary stick-ball friend, maybe when I was about five years old?
Perhaps I’m just not the biography-reading type. It’s hard for me to get excited about the secret lives of sports figures, politicians, celebrities, and Civil War generals. So forgive me as I pay Barry’s article perhaps the most underhanded compliment you can give a book review: It’s so well-written and informative that it could stand alone. I finished feeling educated, rather than teased. I felt like I didn’t need to go read Montefiore’s book. Barry capably details Montefiore’s insights into the life of Stalin, then gets down to the brass tacks explaining why this book is important.
So, thank you informative book review. And for biography-lovers, well, you can’t ruin a good book by disclosing the plot. After all, we knew more or less what going to happen to Stalin from page one anyway.
12/21/2007 4:23:31 PM
Before Spiderman, there was Sir Gawain. His 14th-century superhero-styled story begins when a mysterious Green Knight makes him strange offer: Sir Gawain can take one swipe at the Green Knight as long as the Green Knight can return the blow exactly one year later. Sir Gawain accepts and promptly, cleverly lops the Green Knight’s head off. But when the Green Knight picks up his head, Sir Gawain realizes he’s been punked.
It’s a great story, a fantastic poetical tale, an important piece of literary history. Trouble is it’s written in a tortured 14th-century Middle English dialect. Here’s a sample:
and fer ouer þe french flod felix brutus
on mony bonkkes ful brode bretayn he settez
where werre and wrake and wonder
þez hatz wont þerinne
and oft bo
þe blysse and blunder
ful skete hatz skyfted synne
Hardcore fans of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight say that the poem blanches in translation. Well, writer Adam Golaski has embarked on an ambitious new translation called Green that will be serialized by the arts and literature review Open Letters Monthly as it is completed. Although the style’s idiosyncrasies might lead one to think this is just another exhibit of literary acrobatics, Golanski’s translation truly seems to keep the force of the original. Here’s that passage above, from his translation. Read them back-to-back for the full effect:
+ far o’er th’French floods Felix Brutus
on many full banks built Bretayn + sits
where war’nd wreck’nd wonder
by surprise has went therein,
+ oft both bliss’nd blunder
fool hope shifted t’sin.
It’s as close to the original as you can get without learning obscure Middle English.
12/21/2007 3:54:34 PM
If you have a passion for food and words, check out Ort of the Week, an online feature from Gastronomica, the journal of food and culture that just won a 2007 Utne Independent Press Award for social-cultural coverage. In the delectable column, Mark Morton, author of Cupboard Love: A Dictionary of Culinary Curiosities, picks apart gastronomical vocabulary, discussing meaning, history, and linguistic origin. Past entries include cornucopia, aperitif, and plague-water—a brew that was supposed to cure the Black Plague. An ort, by the way, "was originally a scrap of food or leftover fodder not eaten by cattle or pigs," which later came to refer to people-food leftovers, as well.
12/21/2007 3:25:54 PM
Commentary managing editor Gary Rosen doesn’t necessarily recommend traveling to China for the first time the way he did: with a delegation of American journalists, or "media friends" as the Chinese called them, whisked from one fancy hotel to another for canned official speeches. But the two-week trip did provide an “extraordinary education,” according to Rosen, a fascinating peek inside China’s complicated bureaucracy that he recounts in the December 2007 issue of Commentary.
“For the Chinese government, every visitor, even the casual tourist, represents an opportunity to make a positive impression—to let the world know of China's progress under the sage guidance of the Communist party,” Rosen writes. “But American journalists fresh off the plane are potential troublemakers and have to be handled with special care.” Rosen tried to ask hard questions of his hosts. A party official's answer:
Thanks to a range of measures, he informed us, two-thirds of the days in Beijing now had “good air quality.” As he spoke to us in a glass-walled conference room, the smog outside was so thick that nearby buildings were visible only in outline. “Is this a ‘good’ air day?,” I asked, pointing toward the street. Without missing a beat, he replied, “it takes an expert to determine that.”
12/14/2007 10:39:21 AM
They’re the best of times, the worst of times. It’s Dawson’s Creek meets Waiting For Godot set in a high school lunchroom with all the melodrama of Days of Our Lives and all the pathos of a war-zone. It’s the horror of being 15.
The Australian newspaper The Age has put together a multimedia report on what life is like during this “pivotal age, on threshold of adulthood, but not quite there yet.”
The report takes a look at three big issues: sex, alcohol and technology. (Apparently the internet has edged out rock ‘n’ roll in the good old trifecta.) Not too surprisingly, 15-year-olds are drinking, some are having sex, and they’re basing a lot of their identities on a mashup of social networking websites, e-mail, and text messaging.
More gripping are the video interviews with actual 15-year-olds. In these visceral clips, young people struggle with how to express themselves on important issues—not as children but, for the first time, as adults. As they describe the world they live in (one of parties made tipsy with sugary alcoholic concoctions and surreptitious make-out sessions), it’s evident they’re trying to figure out who they are, where they stand, and what they’re going to do about things. All the burgeoning responsibilities of adulthood.
12/14/2007 9:54:43 AM
J.P.S. Brown is a badass writer in the tradition of Hemingway and Henry Miller—talented, adventurous, and aggressively masculine. His novels evoke Cormac McCarthy: gripping tales of violence and vengeance in America’s wild, blood-soaked Southwest. But these comparisons reveal little of the man, nor do they do his writing true justice.
While McCarthy’s life is marked by academic pursuits and literary grants, Brown’s life mirrors those of his characters so closely they’re almost indistinguishable. He has been many things: itinerant caballero, movie stuntman, boxer, smuggler, soldier of fortune. And his writing reflects his experiences.
“Brown writes about the real West, not the myth,” writes Leo Banks in the Tucson Weekly. “His calling card is authenticity. When readers put down one of his books, they have dust between their teeth.”
Until recently, Brown’s books have been difficult to find; many are out of print. But this October, the University of New Mexico Press published The World in Pancho’s Eye, his memoir told through the guise of a fictional narrator. (As Brown told Banks: “I didn’t want to spend five years writing ‘I’ and ‘me.’ ”) And with another novel on the way, his first new fiction in years, there are plans to reissue some of his older works, and Brown is getting some long overdue attention.
12/11/2007 12:27:01 PM
You probably don’t need an excuse to spend more time lurking in the stacks at your favorite bookstore. But here’s one anyway: To find the prizes offered in a nationwide literary treasure hunt orchestrated by lit mag The First Line, you should chart a path to the fiction anthologies section of “a national chain of bookstores” near you, read deeply into the “bad poetry” clues they’ve provided, and behold your reward: a free subscription. There are just two planted in each state, so hunt wisely.
And while you’re at it, craft a story for The First Line’s Spring 2008 issue. They’re looking for 300 to 3,000 words beginning with that issue’s preselected first line: “Sometimes the name they give you is all wrong.”
12/10/2007 2:51:08 PM
If, like me, you tend to obfuscate the meaning of your sentences using abstruse yet mellifluous words, or if you have a penchant for going all sesquipedalian on your interlocutors, have I got a social networking site for you. It’s called Wordie.
On Wordie, which is “like Flickr, but without the photos,” lovers of the English language can list their favorite words and share their lists with other linguaphiles in a supreme act of literary didacticism. Just don’t get wordasphyxia.
12/7/2007 8:48:44 AM
After the Virginia Tech massacre, much of the public conversation focused on the tension between community safety and individual privacy. We heard from members of the university’s English department, who referred Seung-Hui Cho to counseling after reading his disturbing creative writing assignments. Could they—or should they—have done more to prevent the shootings?
Writing in Academe, Monica Barron addresses a more fundamental, less-discussed question: long before a creative writing teacher has to decide whether to call the counseling center or the police, how can she be attentive to the emotional realities of writing and reading—and in a way that both attends to safety concerns and honors the vocations of writing and teaching? For Barron, a professor at Truman State University and an editor of Feminist Teacher magazine, the answer lies in cultivating within the writing classroom an emotionally sensitive community that is itself capable of authorizing certain readings of its shared narratives, de-authorizing others, and discerning boundaries.
One highlight is her brief recounting of the Virginia Tech tragedy itself:
One April morning in Blacksburg, Virginia, a young man packed up his guns and went to school for the last time. He was done struggling to be part of any community of readers or writers. He was entering the community of killers. His fellow writers had noticed and remarked that he wasn’t simply retelling the stories of the tribe or trying to scare peers with over-the-top, out-of-control representations of experience; he himself was scary. His teachers were faced with a kind of reading they were unequipped to do: reading as diagnosis.
Our national community of readers is familiar with this narrative, with the riveting blow-by-blow of a shocking event. Barron retells it from a perspective few understand—that of the people charged with nurturing creativity, thought, and community in young adults.
12/6/2007 3:42:00 PM
You know what I did last night?
I’m nearly hesitant to confess: I curled up with a book of poetry. Not just any book, either. One of the books of poetry, a big book of poetry: The Best American Poetry 2007. For whatever has been, could and can be said about anthologies—their limitations, biases, and oversights—this series never fails to delight me.
Even as I was reading, I could barely contain my excitement. Poems! Christian Bök’s “Vowels” dared me to read it aloud: “loveless vessels / we vow / solo love / we see / love solve loss…,” and Galway Kinnell’s tiny poem, “Hide-and-Seek, 1933,” summoned a twist of giddy nostalgia.
Reading poems felt luxurious, almost strange, and I realized: I haven’t been reading much poetry these days. For the past couple of years, I’ve been permanently on the hunt for the next great essay or article to reprint in Utne Reader’s pages. We generally don’t reprint fiction or poetry (preferring to leave those areas to their experts), and it seems I’d gotten in the habit of overlooking the stuff.
Brazenly overlooking, apparently. In the index of magazines where the 75 poems were first published, I spotted no less than 21 titles familiar from the Utne Reader library: Alaska Quarterly Review, Antioch Review, BOMB, Bookforum, Colorado Review, Conduit, Fence, Five Points, Hanging Loose, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, New England Review, New Letters, Ploughshares, Poetry, Raritan, Sacramento News & Review, Southwest Review, TriQuarterly, and Virginia Quarterly Review.
Seeing a slew of independent publications represented in such a big-time anthology of contemporary verse only deepened my appreciation of the 20-year-old series, and moved me to wonder if it wasn’t some small reflection of how lively and accessible this year's lineup is, selected by guest editor Heather McHugh.
12/6/2007 12:46:16 PM
There are over two million men and women trapped within the booming U.S. prison system, and their personal stories rarely make front-page news. To bring prisoners’ lives to the free world, the Texas Observer has published two long narratives from prisoners in the Texas prison system. The biweekly magazine introduces the essays, cautioning “under the circumstances, we can’t vouch for the purity, veracity, or motivation of their voices. But we do believe there is value in letting different voices to be heard.”
Andrew Papke is serving two back-to-back twenty year sentences for killing a young couple while driving drunk. “Death by lethal injection is but a circle come full,” he writes. “Lady Justice is not blind. She has 20/20 vision. Her actions shriek, ‘How you live is how you die,’ assuring us that all ends are born of their means.”
Papke reminds us how shakily thin the line is between being a prisoner and a free person. “There is only a small degree of separation between any of us,” he writes. He asks readers to imagine making the small decisions that would land us in death row:
These seemingly insignificant decisions, the small mistakes that compromise us, can veer out of control quicker than we can react. Suddenly we are blindsided by something happening, and though before we would have said, “Oh, I could never end up like that,” it doesn’t turn out that way. Once the hooks are set in our souls, things we could never have imagined doing can explode into acts that require a price to be paid.
Sid Hawk Byrd kidnapped, robbed, and sexually assaulted a woman in 1980—and then was placed in segregation eight years ago after an escape attempt. He writes about the banality of life and the struggle to stay sane living in a cell so small he can take only three steps from one end to the other. He has no television, no recreation, no release at all. He has few joys, one of them being the prison’s population of feral cats.
I have raised a kitten named Sox for two years. He lives in my cell, but comes and goes as well. They have made me put him out, but he comes back. He is potty-trained. He thinks he is human, I believe, and he is a smart cat. But he lives in a cruel world where danger, even for cats, is real. A guard not long ago stomped on and killed a friendly cat named Limo. He was a tiger-striped, gray-and-white fellow that loved to play and would jump up into any prisoner’s cell if the tray flap was open. He was too trusting, and this guard kicked him to death.
12/5/2007 4:22:44 PM
In addition to shelling out for the now-customary slew of “how-to” parenting books and magazines, Amanda Nowinski confesses in the San Francisco Bay Guardian that when her child was born, she paid a breast-feeding consultant $200 to coach her through the experience. “I certainly had two boobs but no idea where to put them,” she writes. “In the baby's mouth? Are you serious?”
Thing is, her experience isn’t all that unusual. For those who can afford it, Nowinski writes, having a child is now an anxiety-filled chase after the “rarified art of parenting.” And the proliferation of parenting materials only serves to egg on parents into believing they can’t fulfill their roles “without hitting the ATM.”
As Nowinski pokes fun at herself, other parents, and the parenting industry—declaring the city of San Francisco “overrun with decaf-latte-sipping, thousand-dollar-stroller-pushing, CFO–Noe Valley–ish, overly together supermoms”—her writing also points to the disconnect between a generation of parents and the experienced guidance they crave. Behind the annoying facade, in a way, spendthrift parents are simply trying to buy some slim assurance that they will raise happy children.
Instead of using this disconnect to apologize for profligate parents, Nowinski implores them to take their heads out of their bassinettes and consider spending some of that play money on someone else’s kids—perhaps the tens of thousands who go homeless or hungry everyday.
12/4/2007 4:03:34 PM
Sometimes, it feels like a lifetime’s efforts at living green will just be swallowed up by big business the way a little kid’s sandcastle gets engulfed by the inevitable, indomitable wave. Sure, you can turn off lights when you leave the house, recycle old newspapers, use public transportation, write letters to your congressperson, and avoid bottled water—but at the same time multinational companies are busy pouring chemicals into the air, water, and soil, getting drunk on profit like it was 1899.
In "The Green-Thumb Blues," for Maisonneuve, Pasha Malla writes about how being environmentally conscious isn’t just about recycling and composting, it’s about getting over that hopeless hump. It's about realizing (or perhaps remembering) that a lot of little actions can add up to big change.
The modern environmental movement hinges on the hope that tiny real-world actions can build up to create sustained, potent change. This requires considering the world from a broad perspective, and pulling back to a viewpoint in which car exhaust turns to acid rain and CO2 bestows Minsk with the climate of Antigua paradoxically makes human beings look like tiny, ineffectual gnats. “Environmentalism can make you feel small,” Malla writes. “You are fighting against something unwieldy and ingrained—like trying to combat the idea of winter with a PowerPoint presentation and a shovel.”
But the thing is that there is plenty we can do. We just have to do it. Malla writes:
What can you do? You can do what you can do. Can you type? Type something. Can you walk and talk? Walk around and talk to people. Can you use your Ph.D. in environmental science to test for and uncover the alarming release of polyvinyl chlorides from shoreline industry into the Great Lakes, then publish a report, coordinate a media campaign and pursue legal action based on your findings? Then by all means please do that, too. Ride a bike, write a letter, save a plant. We are not powerless against the They we’re up against. Let’s take Them down, whoever They are, wherever They’re hiding, in whatever way we can.
— Brendan Mackie
12/3/2007 1:22:53 PM
Much of the world’s best writing is simply unavailable to most people: If you don’t speak every language on the planet, you are no doubt missing out on great literature. The website Words Without Borders (WWB) tries to bridge the language gap, exposing foreign-language writing to English speakers by offering a plethora of translated pieces online. According to their website, 50 percent of all books in translation are translated from English, but only 6 percent are translated to English. WWB does its best to correct this imbalance, with new offerings each month.
The November issue highlights great writing from many tongues, allowing even the monolingual among us to get a taste of literature from around the world. Stories, poems, and reviews in the issue have been gathered from France, Estonia, Germany, China, Spain, Arabia, Korea, and Albania, among others. The pieces range from the pleasant and humorous tone of “Quim Monzó” (I Have Nothing to Wear), which talks about getting dressed for a blind date, to the more serious and introspective poem “Ra Heeduk” (Crying Over Light Green), which traces a Korean man’s thoughts.
Offering the translated works for free, Words Without Borders makes international art accessible to the greatest number of people possible. “Our ultimate aim,” according to the group’s website, “is to introduce exciting international writing to the general public—travelers, teachers, students, publishers, and a new generation of eclectic readers—by presenting international literature not as a static, elite phenomenon, but a portal through which to explore the world.”
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