4/29/2008 1:21:50 PM
Calling a book a “cult novel” doesn’t mean that it’s a great read. In fact, cult novels are sometimes infuriatingly bad. What makes a cult novel is the devotion of its fans. The British newspaper Telegraph recently published a list of the 50 best cult books of all time. There are some great books, including Catch-22 and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and some notable exclusions, from Paul Coehlo’s the Alchemist to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. At a minimum, the list is worth a read, for memories of books past or ones you should put on your to-read list.
Have a favorite cult book? Leave them in the comments section, or visit the Utne Salons.
4/24/2008 6:03:15 PM
Messages conveyed through bathroom graffiti exist in a world of their own, somewhere between the bounds of taste and repugnance, lacking the privacy of a diary but too ephemeral and obscure to truly be part of the public domain. They are personal statements momentarily pushed into view, yet destined for erasure. In part, this transience is what makes Steve Featherstone’s visual essay in the Walrus about graffiti in the latrines of U.S. soldiers serving in Kuwait and Afghanistan such an appealing project. His pictures capture something that those of us living stateside could never otherwise have seen. The scrawlings are both foreign and familiar: macho anger, smack-talk between soldiers and, above all, homesickness. The messages don’t come together to form some cohesive, revelatory narrative, as much as we might wish them to.
Featherstone doesn’t read too much into what’s written on the privy walls. As a whole, the messages serve as a window into one of the world’s shitholes, not a codex for understanding conflict in the Middle East or the meaning of warfare. They are what they are, “fleeting moment[s] in a six year-old war—nothing more. The words on these walls are snatches of an overheard and ongoing conversation that changes by the day, soldier’s talking to other soldiers at a time when soldiers are being asked to give more than they have been giving, which is already too much.”
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4/24/2008 3:31:01 PM
Ian Fleming, the man who created James Bond, is a cult figure. Since Bond is often thought to be a romanticized version of Fleming himself, many people take a keen interest Fleming’s real life and inspirations. Tourists flock to his Jamaican estate, and Bond fanatics obsess over trivial aspects of his life.
The British Times is currently hosting a virtual museum dedicated to Fleming’s life. The three virtual rooms house some surprising and illuminating insights into his character, including this one: “Fleming traveled in a vary particular way: With maximum luxury and minimum culture.” The museum also comes equipped with a characteristically Bond-like, sleeping security guard.
4/22/2008 10:58:54 AM
High-end prostitutes are all the rage, both in politics and, now, in bookstores. Howard Jacobson does a roundup for Prospect of recent memoirs and novels written by former prostitutes, with the intent of examining both the insight and the fairytales they offer readers. This is not a compilation of book reviews, but an airing out of controversial opinions and an unflinching examination of societal views regarding prostitution.
Jacobson examines three books—Belle de Jour: The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, and The Scorpion's Sweet Venom: The Diary of a Brazilian Call Girl—in an attempt to understand the dichotomous perception of prostitution and its effects on its practitioners. It is apparent, based on both the amount and manner of coverage Ashley Dupré received following the Eliot Spitzer scandal, that we are divided on what to make of the sex trade. While one would be hard pressed to find a person willing to recommend it as a career choice, prostitution is a guilty pleasure that tantalizes our imagination, men and women alike. And while most of us see the selling of one’s body as a sad and dangerous act, we also fantasize about being so desired as to merit Dupré’s $1000-an-hour price tag and career-sacrificing allure. It isn’t just high-end call girls like Dupré that hold this forbidden appeal. In Story of O, the infamous 1950s French tale of erotic submission, the protagonist derives pleasure from her debasement at the hands of her lovers. “Isn't that what O pursues,” Jacobson asks, “the sensation of nothing mattering, least of all herself? And isn't that why some men visit prostitutes, for the intense experience of abnegation associated with payment, for which next to nothing is given and next to nothing is felt?” The three prostitutes-turned-writers seem to think so.
It would be unwise to read too much into these books, or to form an opinion on the complexities of the sex trade—or sex trades, as Jacobson argues that there are multiple castes within the prostitution industry—based solely on their authors’ stories. There seems to be two basic motivations for writing about one’s tenure as a hooker, neither educational: The prostitute either wants to glorify or vilify the industry and its consumers. Either of these seems simplistic and disingenuous. After all, not only are we talking about the oldest profession, we’re also trying to understand arguably the most complicated physiological aspect of nature—sex—through books about themes that, if authored by anybody other than former prostitutes, would fall under the “teen” section in the local library, as Jacobson points out.
Jacobson’s article makes a thoughtful case for infusing the prostitution debate with more perspective. The exchange of sex for money among adults is a multifaceted issue, one that deserves more than the hysterical diatribes of opponents, sensational portrayal by media, and perfunctory “keep laws out of the bedroom” refrain from decriminalization supporters. While the books themselves don’t offer a solution, at least a critically astute discussion of them raises the level of discourse.
4/21/2008 5:55:01 PM
“For an obscenity to work, it must be both inside and outside speech,” Ian Coutts explains in Quill & Quire (article not available online). Obscenities begin as ordinary words until, as children, we are told they are bad. “The power of obscenity comes from this paradox,” Coutts writes. “We must never say those words, but obviously we do—or they would be lost to all time.”
Obscenities are more than just paradoxical pleasures: They both separate us from and join us to the animal world, writes Coutts. Whereas an animal might yelp or cry in pain, humans have words to articulate these feelings. (Oh, s#$% that smarts!) But even as obscene language separates us from our animal kin, these naughty words also often refer to copulation and defecation, two of the fundamental functions we share with other living things.
Obscenities evolve with our culture, so as society becomes increasingly comfortable with bodily functions, Coutts predicts fresh swear words will emerge to reflect whatever is deemed newly unmentionable.
4/17/2008 11:13:57 AM
Looks like 2008 is going to be a bumper year for graphic adaptations of U.S. history. Metropolitan Books just released A People’s History of American Empire, based on a chapter of Howard Zinn’s 1980 classic A People’s History of the United States. Cartoonist Mike Konopacki and historian Paul Buhle collaborated on the luxurious 8½-by-11 book, which utilizes Zinn’s text as narration. (Check out his style in our Sept.-Oct. 2007 excerpt of A Power Governments Cannot Suppress.) Historical photographs play into some of the frames, providing a cool contrast to Konopacki’s lively illustrations.
Then—and you’ll have to wait awhile for these—we recently received a booklet previewing two more graphic adaptations, both of them forthcoming from publisher Hill and Wang. Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón, the duo responsible for The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, will be back in bookstores this August with After 9/11: America’s War on Terror (2001- ). Then, in October, look for The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation, written by Jonathan Hennessy and illustrated by Aaron McConnell.
4/16/2008 10:20:22 AM
Now’s your chance to join Utne Reader’s first Conversations Collection online book discussion, taking place Tuesday, April 22, in Utne.com’s Great Writing Salon. We’re kicking things off with Rock On: An Office Power Ballad by Dan Kennedy, a hilarious dissection of the music industry. We hope you’ll join us on Tuesday, when senior editor Keith Goetzman will be logged on to field questions and moderate a spirited discussion.
If Rock On is already sitting on your nightstand, head over now to our Great Writing Salon, where Keith has gotten the discussion ball rolling. Or come back to Utne.com on Tuesday, click “Salon” on the upper right-hand side of the page, click “Great Writing,” and visit the “Conversations Collection April Discussion: Death of the Major Labels” discussion. Be sure to log in to make your voice heard.
If you haven’t gotten your copy yet, you can order it here.
We look forward to hearing from you.
4/15/2008 11:13:28 AM
Poetry magazine steps into the international realm in its April 2008 issue, “The Translation Issue,” which contains poems from around the globe translated into English from 18 languages. The conversion of words and ideas from one language to another can be a challenging task, and it's not always that readers get a glimpse of this involved process. In this case, however, a short essay written by the translator accompanies each poem. “Like the ‘columns, arches, vaults’ of an edifice, the abstract proportions of poetry—as of any art—make promises they cannot keep: a world of perfection, beyond chance and change,” writes Hoyt Rogers following his translation of Yves Bonnefoy’s, “San Biagio, at Montepulciano.” Three poems are featured on the magazine’s website, so you’ll have to pick up a copy of the issue if you want to read them all.
4/10/2008 9:14:39 PM
Heidi Swanson, the writer-photographer-foodie behind 101Cookbooks.com, made me fall in love with Brussels sprouts last year, when she published Super Natural Cooking. Seems she impressed some, ah, slightly more professional palates as well: Swanson's cookbook has recently been short-listed for a 2008 James Beard Foundation Award in the category of "healthy focus."
We caught up with the multitalented Swanson in our July/August 2007 issue. Check out what she had to say about her award-worthy cookbook and getting away from processed foods, and then go cook up some of her signature golden-crusted sprouts.
Tell us about your favorite cookbook in the Great Writing Salon.
4/10/2008 10:25:02 AM
Now here’s a mission I’ll happily support: Two grammar nerds are traveling across the country, cleaning up America’s mistakes one typo at a time. It’s the Typo Hunt Across America!
Armed with high-powered markers in many colors, and some seriously potent white-out, Jeff Deck and various punctuation-minded friends log their progress in each city with lively blog posts at Deck’s Typo Eradication Advancement League website. They’re out to fix as many typos in signs, posters, and restaurant menus as they possibly can, sometimes working with business owners to rectify an errant apostrophe or an unfortunate misspelling. Some fixes look pretty good, like this much-needed apostrophe addition from Los Angeles, CA (one of 79 typos Jeff and his pal Jeremy corrected that day):
That has to be good for business. People sure are passionate about their grammatical pet peeves.
(Thanks, Next American City.)
Images courtesy of Jeff Deck.
4/9/2008 8:26:28 PM
Think of poetry as dry or inaccessible? First, read Utne editor Julie Hanus’ post on why readers shouldn’t dismiss the field of poetry as a whole. Next, check out poetry set to animation on YouTube; it may change your mind yet. Ad agency JWT-NY has produced videos that feature former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins reading his poems set to delightful animation. Collins’ poems are known for being popular and accessible to begin with, but the added animation is intended to draw people in with even greater ease. I especially enjoyed the eeriness of “Some Days,” embedded below.
(Thanks, The Tyee.)
4/8/2008 4:07:47 PM
This year’s NCAA basketball tournament was so riveting, what with its history-making Final Four and subsequent upsets, it even drew Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous attention. Blogging as Papa Hemingway for McSweeney’s, John Frank Weaver recently predicted which teams would proceed to the Elite Eight, based solely on the teams’ presumptive prowess in battle. Weaver is hilariously pitch-perfect in emulating Hemingway’s macho, bellicose style when describing Duke’s coach, Mike Krzyzewski: “He can lead men to war. Men would gladly die for him. They would run over barbed wire. They would charge into a battery of machine guns. They would limp toward a field of death on his word.” As it turns out, Papa (Weaver) knows college hoops. His only misstep was favoring the Hoyas over the now-victorious Jayhawks.
4/7/2008 8:56:00 AM
We need more novelists and poets to be translators, writes Stephen Henighan in the April Quill & Quire (article not available online). While he’s addressing mainly his Canadian audience, his observations certainly pertain south of the border: Multilingualism, as he makes clear, used to be part and parcel of a thriving literary culture.
In the 19th century, many Europeans would have read in both their native language and in French, while in times previous, a working knowledge of Latin and Greek predominated among the literati. More recently, translators have acted as aesthetic gatekeepers, spurring affection for Russian literature in the 1930s and for French existentialism in the 1950s and ‘60s.
These days, however, as Henighan points out, two of the most “internationalized cultures—the Anglo-American and the Muslim-Arabic—have the planet’s lowest rates of translation activity,” a claim that lends itself to our image of East-West misapprehension.
Though such socio-politics are central to the argument in favor of translating literature, Henighan emphasizes the creativity associated with multilingualism. He mentions, for two examples, the work of Jorge Luis Borges and Isabel Allende. Both honed their idiosyncrasies through the study and translation of languages foreign to them. Translation is therefore vital not only for the health of communication between cultures, but also for the renovation of literary style.
4/4/2008 5:37:45 PM
Mary Oliver is slight, silver-haired, and sweet-mother-of-mercy, as wily as the day is long. She’s superbly sharp and has impeccable timing, a bemused smile often nipping at the corners of her mouth. So as I sat, rapt, this past Sunday at the State Theatre, listening to the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet read, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why wasn’t there a line around the block? Why don’t more people get fired up about poetry?
Don’t get me wrong: A robust, enthusiastic crowd turned out for the event, which kicked off the Literary Legends Series, a joint venture of the Hennepin Theatre Trust and the Loft, Minneapolis’ literary center extraordinare. In box-office terms, I’ve no doubt it was a success. But Oliver’s reading was so damn good—so powerful, so lively, so entertaining and uplifting—that I yearned to fill a coliseum with people at her attention.
Oliver read from her new collection, Red Bird, from 2006’s Thirst, and from her memoir of last year, Our World, which pairs her prose with photographs by her partner Molly Malone Cook, who died in 2005. As Oliver read, the friends who had demurred to come rattled through my head, followed by people I hadn’t even originally thought to invite, but who I now was certain would have relished the reading too. Almost everyone who’d turned me down had offered the same (ahem, old) excuse: It doesn’t sound like my thing. I don’t really like poetry.
A bemused smile nipped at the corners of my mouth when Oliver herself sagely addressed the issue. “A long time ago, I realized that people who read poetry were pre-converted,” she said. “And that people who didn’t, rarely convert.”
“But,” Oliver continued wryly, “that anyone who has a curiosity to start a sentence would finish it.” So, sometimes, she challenges herself to craft windy, multi-line poems that, with a little help from creative punctuation, carry a reader along from start to finish in a single swoop. By way of illustration, she read “The Sun,” which begins with a simple question (“Have you ever seen / anything / in your life / more wonderful”) and then diverts into a circuitous celebration of the heavenly body. “Have you ever felt for anything / such wild love—,” Oliver wants to know.
Just when I thought my heart was going to burst, she concluded:
“or have you too / turned from this world / or have you too / gone crazy / for power, / for things?”
Oh, and my heart did burst, but in a good way—in a very Oliver way. “I tell you this / to break your heart, / by which I mean only / that it break open and never close again / to the rest of the world,” she writes in “Lead.” It was that moment that made me wish I could share that evening at the State Theatre with everyone I know. Oliver’s humanistic approach to the world is exquisitely bittersweet, full of rich humor and mindful observation, equal parts joyful and sad.
We pay ourselves a disservice every time we dismiss poetry as a lump sum. Oh, I don’t like poetry. Really? None of it? It’s as strange a statement as saying you don’t like music (nope, not one note). But we don’t say strange things like that about music, because for the most part we’re equipped with sufficient acoustic literacy to recognize genres, make aesthetic judgments, and sort out what is pleasing from what is displeasing to our ears.
With poetry, such facility is hardly the standard, and that’s OK; I’ve no illusions about poems suddenly gaining top-40 appeal. But I do secretly suspect that somewhere out there, there’s a poem or a poet that would tickle everyone’s fancy, as instantly and effortlessly as you know that you love a certain song the first time you hear it play. Encountering a few poems, however, and then dismissing the entire field, seems a bit like scanning the radio for a few minutes and then deciding all this noise, this so-called music, is not for you.
The loss, of course, isn’t that people might miss out on poetry; certainly not everybody must have affection for every single art. It’s that the broad-stroke dismissal throws a hurdle up between people and great thinkers like Mary Oliver, whose work would otherwise most likely startle, electrify, and delight.
Love poetry? Hate it? Tell us what you think in the Great Writing Salon.
4/3/2008 11:47:00 AM
In 1991, the de facto republic of Somaliland declared independence from Somalia, after a brutal four-year conflict during which tens of thousands died and even more became refugees. As the displaced return to their homeland, “the scope of the war’s psychological toll is just beginning to register,” writes Tyler Stiem in the Walrus. Stiem offers a brief glimpse into the only mental health facility in a country that has none of its own psychiatrists.
Aden Ismail is a Somali-Canadian doctor who has visited the hospital every year or so for the past decade, treating hundreds of patients during every visit. He estimates as much as two-thirds of the country experiences post-traumatic stress disorder. “Six or seven years ago, all of the patients suffered from acute mental illness,” Ismail tells Stiem. “Now I see more people like Mohamad. They’re hard to diagnose, because their symptoms are diffuse: anger, depression, malaise, insomnia. And it’s the tip of the iceberg.”
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4/1/2008 5:54:57 PM
Apparently the best way to get youngsters to read is to tap into the book’s inferior media cousin: the television show. According to NDTVMovies.com, Indian media company STAR India recently teamed up with Prakash Books to turn television serials into books. One bookseller told the Indo-Asian News Service that books with a TV series counterpart sell 10 times as many copies as those that don’t. The plan is to publish 300 such books by the end of the year, which raises the question: Is it better that kids read them than nothing at all?
(Thanks, Quill & Quire.)
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