4/30/2009 4:30:37 PM
In Australia dwells a nearly extinct creature called the boodie, an omnivorous and nocturnal burrowing animal “like a kangaroo no bigger than a modest teddy bear” with “a particular appetite for underground fungi,” writes Tim Winton in “Repatriation: Travels Through a Recovering Landscape” in the beefy environmental lit journal Ecotone (Vol. 4, No. 1&2; article not online). Traveling the desert lands of northwestern Australia in the boodie’s former range, Winton also traverses the puzzles and paradoxes of Australian conservation in this engaging and decription-rich essay. Naturally “leery of wealthy do-gooders,” he nonetheless comes to see promise in privately funded efforts to preserve prime boodie habitat. Part of the fun of the essay, I’ll admit, is the Australian animal names. Winton writes about one researcher, Alexander Baynes, who has
“produced a roll call of troubled species that includes not just the boodie and the woylie, but the elusive wambenger, the chuditch, the short-beaked echidna, and several species of dunnarts, bandicoots, bats, wallabies, and mice.
“Creatures with names like these would be at home in a satire by Jonathan Swift, so it should be no surprise to discover that … coordinates put Gulliver hereabouts. At the time Swift was writing, there was indeed an austral island teeming with creatures more strange and marvelous than even he could imagine, but so quickly have they disappeared from view or from existence altogether that they can sometimes seem a product of mere fancy.”
Winton's article was previously published as "Silent Country" in the Australian magazine The Monthly. Read it in full (pdf) on the website of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.
Sources: Ecotone, Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Shark Bay World Heritage Area
Image courtesy of DEC / Babs and Bert Wells.
4/30/2009 3:28:47 PM
The Nigerian author Chris Abani has written a profoundly sharp and inspiring essay on writing and the human condition. If you care about either, read the piece in the "Dismissing Africa" issue of the annual journal Witness. Here's just a taste:
"This is what I know about being human—that we all desire to live without fear, or disease, or affliction, but that we all refuse to give up our crutches. James Baldwin said it better: 'I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.'
"In making my art, and sometimes when I teach, I am like a crazed, spirit-filled, snake-handling, speaking-in-tongues, spell-casting, Babylon-chanting-down, new-age, evangelical preacher wildly kicking the crutches away from my characters, forcing them into their pain and potential transformation. Alas, or maybe not, I also kick the crutches away from my readers. And many have fled from the revival tents of my art, screaming in terror."
4/30/2009 12:02:36 PM
Obituaries have come a long way from the no-nonsense, just-the-facts-ma’am death notices of old. People now view life as a never-ending story, Stefany Anne Golberg writes in the Smart Set, and modern obituaries reflect that literary shift. The obits are now more like tales condensed out of lives that are invariably messy, sprawling, and chaotic.
“An obituary, any obituary, transforms lives into stories, with interesting characters, a cohesive plot, and most importantly, a good ending. This is what we’ve got as humans—not the ability to understand or be at one with death, but the ability to generate lots of stupid crap to fill in the empty space of the unknown.”
Sources: The Smart Set
4/30/2009 11:05:54 AM
The term “hipster” has become a mark of derision. It’s mostly used in the context of “get out of my way, you damn hipsters,” or “that place is filled with stupid hipsters.” Writing on a personal blog A Fantasy of Flight, former 826 Valencia intern Zoe Ruiz explains why she’s not going to call people hipsters anymore:
At the point in time that I began to use the term hipsters I was very much dissatisfied with myself, with my life, and with anyone I met. I am not now dissatisfied with myself (most of the time). Hipster has become a word that carries a sense of dissatisfaction and a bit of anger. I have no use for a word that carries such a mood.
Better to leave the Hipster Olympics to other people:
(Thanks, The Rumpus.)
Source: A Fantasy of Flight
4/30/2009 11:01:06 AM
Adolf Hitler loved to read. This may not surprise you. What he read, however, surely will. The shelves of Hitler’s private library were burdened with more than 16,000 books. Military history was well represented alongside nationalist and anti-Semitic literature. But there were romance novelettes too, which he is said to have covered with plain paper to obscure them. His popular fiction collection, hundreds strong, also included cowboy-and-Indian tales, British thrillers, and detective stories. There were studies of the Catholic Church and the paranormal. There were the works of philosophers and playwrights. Hitler was well—or at least widely—read, and that is troubling.
In an essay for the New York Review of Books, John Gross considers Hitler’s Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life, a new book by Timothy W. Ryback, and searches for new light in Hitler’s library. Ultimately he fails, and you can hardly blame him. He explains:
“Life for historians would be a lot easier if the Nazi’s had been barbaric in every respect—if their only reaction to the word 'culture' had been to reach for their guns. Often, of course, they were worse than barbaric; but they also represented a hideous distortion of culture rather than just a flat turning away from it. And this is as true of Hitler as of any of his followers. Cruelty, resentment, and the lust for power weren’t the only things driving him. He needed to believe in himself as a thinker as well.”
Source: New York Review of Books
4/30/2009 10:49:27 AM
Sheila Heti began collecting dreams about Barack Obama during the 2008 primaries. Even after Obama’s victory and his first 100 days Heti’s peculiar dream journal is an irresistibly peculiar read:
Then he is in my bed wearing blue striped boxers. I have a perfect apartment in Harvard Square … The room has a bohemian look, all earth tones and Indian prints. The afternoon sun is coming through the window above the bed. I remember the intense conversation we shared … We’re talking less intensely now. I’m reclining on the side of the bed, not touching him … We fall silent and our eyes meet. Then we kiss very softly. I can feel his desire to relax, to be himself, to lose himself here. I realize this could never be kept a secret. I know how disastrous it would be for the man about to be our country’s first black president to have an affair with a white woman twenty years his junior. I cannot risk any chance of being the woman who will cost our country his presidency. I put my hand on his chest and say, This is getting really dangerous really fast.
The venerable Geist magazine has collected the best of these dreams and produced a video of dream readings over a montage of paintings they inspired.
Of course, if you’re more the Obama nightmare type, there is something for you too. Jamal, take it away.
I Dream of Barack
Image by EricaJoy. Licensed under Creative Commons.
4/21/2009 5:02:53 PM
“I asked one Inuit woman how she felt about the land,” Jay Griffiths writes in the latest Orion. “ ‘I remember it was beautiful,’ she said wistfully. The land was still there, a few yards from her door, thousands of miles of land as wide and beautiful as it ever had been but she was weirdly—artificially—alienated from it.”
The woman isn’t alone in her experience: In “Artifice v. Pastoral,” Griffiths riffs on the peculiar alienation that infects modern life—a dangerous estrangement that we’ve wrapped ourselves into with layer upon layer of fakery, from unsustainable energy use to manufactured wealth. The problem, Griffiths writes, is that all this artifice disconnects us from the natural world, confuses us about what’s real, and alienates us from one another.
Only an excerpt of the exquisite essay is available on Orion’s website, but in its stead the venerable, spiritual, environmental magazine offers a gem: A recording of Griffiths reading her entire piece aloud. Lovely.
4/21/2009 3:57:05 PM
In the current issue of Transition, Chinua Achebe talks to David Chioni Moore and Analee Heath about fifty years of his legendary novel Things Fall Apart. It’s a fascinating, lively interview (not available online), in large part because Chioni Moore and Heath bring 20 different editions of the novel to their interview with Achebe, so there’s a lot to talk about: a half-century of author photos, blurbs, introductions, and, often most interestingly, book covers—some lovely, some uninspiring, and some terribly problematic.
“I’m not sure I have ever influenced any cover of any of my books,” Achebe says. “Publishers have their own sense of what and how they want to sell. I come in not as a buyer, but as somebody else, and I would not want to have any violent quarrels with them.”
Moving through the editions chronologically—beginning with the first Heinemann edition, from 1958—Chioni Moore and Heath eventually bring out a pretty shocking 1976 edition that features, as Chioni Moore puts it, “a shirtless African man raging with a bloody knife in front of a burning cross.”
“You know,” Achebe says, “quite frankly I don’t know what to make of this.”
They also touch on the editions Achebe names as favorites—the Anchor Books 50th anniversary edition, pictured above, and the 1992 Everyman’s Library edition—and ask what he expects to see on the cover of Things Fall Apart at 100.
I think that where we’re headed is the final realization that Africans are people: nothing more, nothing less. In another fifty years, I hope we would have gotten there, and that references to the exotic or the primitive or the Other will have gone—and that whatever is happening in Africa will be handled just as something happening in Australia, America or elsewhere. Because, actually, we’ve come a long way in a short time.
4/21/2009 3:52:56 PM
One of the funniest things I’ve read in our library lately is “I’m no decider” from The Week, in which writer T.M. Shine recounts his two-week (and perhaps longer now) social experiment with letting complete strangers make all of his decisions.
For those of us who feel paralyzed by the incessant barrage of decisions to make every day, Shine is a true revolutionary. Instead of stressfully deliberating over choices involving which healthcare plan to choose, what book to read, which class to take, or what time of day to shave, Shine let everyone else do the work—adopting a new “lifestyle” characterized by what he dubbed “random acts of indecision” or RAI for short.
Shine found that nearly everyone was willing to do his decidering, and he could avoid accepting any responsibility for his actions. One morning, he was particularly happy to relinquish his Dunkin’ Donuts choices to a “thick-armed” stranger in line.
“I couldn’t wait to get home and have someone in my family make a face about the two apple crumbs—Why’d you pick the-e-e-se?—so I could reply quite proudly, “I didn’t.”
“The old adage ‘You have no one to blame but yourself’ doesn’t apply to me anymore,” he concludes, “when things go wrong, I will have no one to blame but each and every one of you.”
Source: The Week
Image by The Citizen of Hachioji, licensed Creative Commons.
4/21/2009 12:03:37 PM
If we had not already published our eight best cities for street food article, we’d have to seriously consider finding a way to include Malaysia’s meat bone tea.
In the Spring 2009 issue of Utne Independent Press Award nominee Meatpaper, Robyn Eckhardt traces the roots of this “seductive combination of tender pork meat, stomach and intestines, and fragrant broth that varies from mild and meaty to unmistakably medicinal.”
Meat bone tea, or bak kut, Eckhardt writes, “is comfort food of the first order, with an appetite-rousing aroma and luxurious amounts of fatty meat unfettered by vegetable distractions.”
For more from the current issue of Meatpaper, see Utne Reader librarian Danielle Maestretti’s picks in the latest episode of Shelf Life.
For more Meatpaper, visit their website. Nothing from the current issue is online just yet, but there’s plenty to read and look at just the same.
4/20/2009 12:54:37 PM
Mylisa Larsen is bewildered by her daughter Kate’s passion for fashion. Writing for Brain, Child, she wonders how “a woman whose idea of fashion is to exchange the five short-sleeved T-shirts she has been wearing all summer for five long-sleeved T-shirts in the fall” ends up with a four-year-old daughter who loves clothes with a “deep, unreasoning, helpless love.”
Larsen writes tenderly of her daughter’s relationship to clothes. “When we take her things out of the dryer, she puts each shirt up against her face before it goes in the basket, greeting it with endearments. She mourns the passing of a favorite sock for weeks, despairing until I want to tell her to get on with her life, date other socks.”
She worries that, as Kate gets older, her creative, joyful approach to fashion will become limiting and oppressive, that her penchant for pairing red butterfly tights with pink flowered capris will be lost to an addiction to trends. Uneasy about the world her daughter is so drawn to, Larsen decides that the best thing she can do as a parent is “to learn to play the game but to play it lightheartedly, with a sense of fun that gently signals that it’s only a game.”
To do so, she conducts an experiment: she adds some fashionable clothing to her wardrobe and wears it to church every other Sunday, trying to understand the appeal of fashion and observing how it affects her conversations and relationships.
“This is how it happens sometimes,” Larsen concludes. “You will be following a child into a world that they will someday own…You go out of love, because they want to come here and you want to be with them…You will be stumbling along, trying to keep this child in sight, trying to be useful to them, and then something will happen. You fall in love with a skirt or a pair of shoes, and suddenly you understand that this is how your child feels all the time…Afterward, I feel unsure of myself, as if I should hold very still because there are things all around me that I can’t see.”
Source: Brain, Child
4/10/2009 12:01:00 PM
Slacking ought not be confused with idling, a far more noble activity, according to The Idler’s Glossary (Biblioasis, 2008), a pocket-sized volume that parses such distinctions with intellectual glee. Though constructed as a glossary it’s essentially a manifesto, shot through with author Joshua Glenn’s philosophical outlook on life and quotes from Eastern and Western sages from Krishna to Foucault. By peeling apart the language we use to describe our behavior—from the slothful to the sublime—and celebrating the “spontaneous, chilled, and untroubled” demeanor of the idler, The Idler’s Glossary gives us a great reason to sit down in an armchair with a big ol’ brandy snifter and call it research. Among our favorite definitions:
CAFÉ: Historically, one of the idler’s favorite haunts—a public space in which intelligent conversation, witty repartee, and revolutionary plotting were uniquely possible. Try doing any of the preceding in a Starbucks, though; the laptop- and cellphone-users will abhor you. Online communities aren’t as good, but they’re better than nothing. See: HANG.
DETACHMENT: Religiously speaking, detachment is not so much a form of aloofness or disengagement as it is a loving embrace of, and renewed fascination with, the world—but from a position of critical, even ironic distance. As Krishna counsels in the Bhagavad-Gita, we should renounce the fruits of our actions without renouncing action itself. See: ACEDIA, APATHETIC, INDIFFERENT, NONCHALANT, WAITING FOR GODOT.
SAUNTER: Thoreau, who wrote magnificently about the pleasures of walking aimlessly through nature, speculated that saunterers were, by virtue of their mode of ambulating, not going toward the Holy Land (Saint Terre); they were already in it. He wasn’t far wrong, etymologically. The term actually comes from the Middle English word for “walking about musingly”; it is derived from the word “saint,” as holy men were thought to spend much of their time in this manner. See: BUM, DRIFTER, FLANEUR, LOAF, SCAMP.
TIRED: The supine idler seeks inspiration in that state of consciousness that arises between sleep and waking. The drowsy, languid slacker, however, is merely giving in to the annihilating force of torpor. See: LANGUID, LASSITUDE, RECUMBENT, RELAX, TORPID.
4/10/2009 10:45:55 AM
If terms like “robotics” and “genetic engineering” seem too good to have been made up by scientists, it’s because they weren’t. Isaac Asimov invented the word “robotics” and the adjective “robotic” in his science fiction story Liar! and Jack Williamson coined the term “genetic engineering” in his novel Dragon's Island. The Oxford University Press blog compiled these and seven other scientific terms that actually came from science fiction, including “zero-gravity” and computer “virus.”
(Thanks, 3 Quarks Daily.)
4/9/2009 12:03:43 PM
Politicians and immigration officials have tried to keep Mexico separate from the United States, but as Stephen Henighan writes for Geist, “the border inspires the creative evolution of forms of life that could not exist either in a purely American or a purely Mexican context.” Henighan’s examination of the California-Mexico border reveals a separation of the rich and the poor, rather than of Mexico and the United States. He concludes:
Along this selective frontier, two cultures are merging in a way that consolidates the social stratification common to both. Cultures may blend as globalization proceeds, but the poor and the rich will continue to make separate crossings.
4/8/2009 11:09:14 AM
“Word has just reached us here in Tuscaloosa, that in Halberstadt, Germany, almost two years ago now, two pipes have been removed from the Blokwerk organ in St. Burchardi Church, silencing a pair of E’s that had been contributing to a chord playing continuously for the previous year and a half,” writes Michael Martone in The Oxford American. The chord he mentions is part of a 639-year performance of John Cage’s As Slow As Possible, a concert that began on September 5, 2001.
“I am fond of this admittedly highly conceptual piece,” he reflects. “I admire its hopeful nature, its assumption that someone not only will be around to play the final notes of the coda but that someone will be around to hear the silence that follows. The movements last seventy-one years each, lifetimes. There will be others present, as time goes on, to sound and sustain the decades-long chords, to harmonize with the apparently endless tonic, to engage the score for scores and scores of years.”
The concert serves as a jumping off point for a poignant musing on trains, time, sound, change and sadness. “Listen, I live near trains. And their timely and timeless concerts seem to be a kind of folk version, an unselfconscious rendition of the avant-garde tooting going on in Germany.
“How strange to have this music always there…Disembodied and massive, a moving wall, a kind of static, yet with distant, distinct eruptions of a phrase, a fragment that first asserts then loses its train of thought. Transmitted through invisible air, the hidden source is most often on the move, restless, remote, receding, leaving this polyphonic note floating in a wake… It is the perfect accompaniment…seamlessly incorporated into our emotional wiring, our ambient ache.”
Source: The Oxford American
4/8/2009 10:47:31 AM
David Gaffney has created his own innovative marketing technique on Amazon.com while trying to push his new book, “Sawn Off Tales”. The more aggressively he tries to dissuade customers from buying his merchandise, the more he sells.
The secret formula as revealed in Prospect magazine is more of an exercise in farce. Offering a best-selling book, free, with every purchase of his novel quickly turned into offering a free copy of his book, with each order of a best-seller—books which naturally received much more traffic on Amazon. Brilliantly using the Amazon marketplace as a space for free advertisement, he decided even if customers didn't want his used copy of a best-seller they could read his book's Amazon page, read reviews, and perhaps buy it. He writes, “I identified the top 20 fiction sellers on Amazon, bought a copy of each and put them up for sale, trying to ensure that mine was both the cheapest and—crucially—that no one in their right mind would actually buy the book I was offering, thus maximising my advertisement’s time on the page." Eventually, he started selling random books from his own collection.
Some of the adverts he used: “QI: The Book of General Ignorance. ₤4.50. Dropped down toilet so still damp and a bit smelly. Free sample of David Gaffney’s hilarious Sawn Of Tales with every purchase.”
“A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian ₤3.00. Book stored on pig farm so strong odour of animal feed.”
Or: “Cheap ink used in this edition causes headaches and comas in pets”; “Blood stains on cover and inside from bedroom fight”; “Has had eye-holes drilled through for comedy spy prop”.
The plan ultimately backfired when these decoy books sold like hotcakes, and he was losing money on every transaction, while losing his high-profile ad space. Gaffney realized this type of marketing wasn’t doing him any good, and concludes for next time, “I should just write a better book.”
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