7/31/2008 1:10:51 PM
Beginning August 9th, the late George Orwell’s diary will be published as a blog, each entry appearing 70 years to the day after the British writer first penned it. Orwell (1903-1950) is best known for the classics 1984 and Animal Farm, although he was also a fiery essayist. The online publication of his diary is a project of the Orwell Prize, a British award for political writing.
Orwell kept his diary from 1938 to 1942. Gearing up for August, the Orwell Prize folks hint at what the entries contain:
What impression of Orwell will emerge? From his domestic diaries (which start on 9th August), it may be a largely unknown Orwell, whose great curiosity is focused on plants, animals, woodwork, and—above all—how many eggs his chickens have laid. From his political diaries (from 7th September), it may be the Orwell whose political observations and critical thinking have enthralled and inspired generations. . . . Whether writing about the Spanish Civil War or sloe gin, geraniums or Germany, Orwell’s perceptive eye and rebellion against the ‘gramophone mind’ he so despised are obvious.
Image by mushroom and rooster, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/30/2008 1:15:43 PM
Brick-and-mortar bookstores, take note. The next hurdle to your continued existence has arrived, and it’s called Zoomii. Perhaps a bit cute of a name for a nemesis, but don’t underestimate its powers: Zoomii is a website that approximates the browsing experience for the online shopper—synching up its virtual shelves with Amazon.com’s selection.
Zoomii’s shelves—or bays, as they’re called in the biz—hold over 20,000 books, which are displayed as cover images. Zoomed all the way out, the array looks like something Chris Jordan cooked up, but a spin of the mouse wheel pulls you in on a particular shelf for high resolution browsing. See a book you like, click on it, and all the information you’d find on Amazon pops up. The search function displays results as cover images too, culling from a bank of 170,000 titles.
I’m a fan of real-life bookstores, and here at Utne we’re well aware of their struggles and victories in adapting to an online-retail-driven world. While Zoomii doesn’t offer the smell, feel, or chance to crack a book open (yet?), I can’t say it’s not bittersweet to report on a website that cuts into browsing as an exclusive perk of the bookstore experience. That said, it’s darn near impossible not to marvel at developer Chris Thiessen’s ingenuity. Zoomii is nothing more than a portal. All of the actual shopping is done through Amazon, and Thiessen gets a percentage cut as a member of the Associates Program.
Check out Zoomii here:
(Thanks, A Public Space.)
7/29/2008 10:38:41 AM
The Translators Association of the Society of Authors is 50 years old this year, and to mark its anniversary, the group has released a list of 50 outstanding translations—from the past 50 years, but of course. Are your favorites on the list?
Translating is a noble but complicated endeavor, as we’ve discussed in some recent posts, which is why I’m happy to partake of the organization’s expertise, in spite of its modest claim that the list is “a sampler… by no means definitive.”
Image by Kenny Louie, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/28/2008 5:51:15 PM
The Los Angeles Times published its last standalone Book Review (LATBR) on Sunday, July 27. It must have been difficult reading for subscribers who’ve been lamenting the loss of the LATBR since news of its demise broke on July 21. L.A. Times book coverage, what remains, supposedly will be grafted into the larger paper. Cue my unimpressed cheer.
It’s not that you couldn’t have seen this coming. Over the past year, death knells have been sounding ad nauseam for every subsidiary of the printed word. Newspapers are dying; publishers are struggling; essayists are flopping; book reviews are becoming extinct. No one is reading, at least not as much as they used to, and with less patience.
It’s still remarkable to witness one of the Goliaths fall—if only for how it exposes the flawed sense that something so established couldn’t be flushed away so fast. A July 7th memo from the Tribune Company’s chief innovation officer seems to rail against just this outcome. “Heard a conversation about how Book reporting doesn’t generate revenue and may have to go away,” writes Lee Abrams. “WAIT! Maybe Book reviews and coverage are one of those things that don’t generate revenue right now, BUT—are trademarks for newspapers and elicit high passion from readers.”
Abrams is on to something, until he offers a less-than-innovative plan for revamping book sections—which are “maybe too scholarly”—by including more popular, retail-oriented picks. If the Tribune Company messed up in axing the LATBR, at least it got one thing right: Abrams’ fix wouldn’t have made anyone any less upset.
We want our culture, and we want it uncompromising. In a public letter, four former editors of the Review condemn the decision as a “philistine blunder that insults the cultural ambition of [Los Angeles] and the region.” All around the literary blogosphere, folks are dismayed at the loss of cultural cachet, angered that the Tribune Company could fail to see the edifying nature of the section. A less-literary book review only would have prompted a different strain of disgruntled hand wringing.
Maybe it’s not reasonable to petition a for-profit organization to recognize and uphold the cultural value in a non-revenue-generating section. Maybe it’s not even fair. Even the letter-writing editors concede that problematic reality, closing their reproof with the one threat that matters: “Angelenos in growing number are already choosing to cancel their subscriptions to the Sunday Times. The elimination of the Book Review…will only accelerate this process and further wound the long-term fiscal health of the newspaper.”
If the demise of the Los Angeles Times Book Review has one thing to offer, perhaps it could be a kick in the derriere, a reminder that we’re on our own out here (and that big, stalwart publications can and will drop the ball). Scott Esposito, editor of the Quarterly Conversation, puts it nicely. Esposito is reflecting that as the LATBR folds he’s begun paying his contributing writers:
I think there's a corollary to this, and it's that just as periodicals have certain responsibilities to their contributors, so do readers have responsibilities to their periodicals. That is to say: I'd like to strongly encourage everyone who reads online book reviews, literary journals (and here I'm grouping in print publications like Rain Taxi that continue to support good criticism), literary blogs, and whatever else out there is fighting to keep intelligent literary discourse alive, to support the publications they read. I'm not just talking money here, although I've never met someone who didn't appreciate a little cash; I'm also talking buying a subscription when you could read it for free on the Web, offering in-kind support and/or volunteering, offering submissions and contributions to places you like. Even something as simple as buying through a site's Amazon links adds up in the long run.
, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/24/2008 4:46:58 PM
Yossi Gutmann demonstrates the elegance of frugality in a concise, almost sparse essay for Gastronomica, “My Father’s Kitchen, Tel Aviv” (pdf). Gutmann’s crisp writing shrewdly captures the timelessness of a long-occupied apartment and its tenant:
My father does nothing fancy in his kitchen. He prepares the same thing every day: for breakfast, one small cucumber a hard-boiled egg, five tablespoons of low-fat yogurt mixed with cottage cheese (each time he eats it, he tells me how much he likes that particular combination).
Photographs rich in color accompany the brief essay, which—in all its elegance—calls to mind another lucidly written glimpse of family gathering around a table: Toni Mirosevich’s “The Prize Inside,” which we reprinted out of Gastronomica in 2007. For readers interested in more background on Gutmann’s father and his Tel Aviv apartment, Gastronomica offers an online exclusive interview with the writer.
7/23/2008 1:33:13 PM
John Crace is sort-of like CliffsNotes—except cheeky, erudite, and with a nice accent. In his column for the Guardian, The Digested Read, the British journalist condenses contemporary books into pithy 700-word stories. Sometimes satirical, always spot-on, Crace’s abridgements often reveal as much as traditional reviews. Compare his take on the latest Bond novel, Devil May Care, with the New York Times appraisal. Same message, disparate delivery.
Lately, Crace has made a couple of appealing changes. First, he’s started doing an audio version of select columns. Then, around the same time he commenced podcasting, Crace began condensing the occasional classic, such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
The digested classics are a kick, in column or podcast format, because they offer readers and listeners a chance to compare (perhaps foggy) recollections of a text with the freshly condensed version. Even if you haven’t read Heart of Darkness for decades, Crace’s digested version sings with familiar phrases and nimbly selected scenes: the memorable bits that lodged in your brain even as the rest faded away. Identifying those bits, that’s where a good excerpt begins.
Crace’s column is weekly, and the podcasts show up intermittently. The most recent content, just posted today, is a reading of the digested Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. The column version ran this past weekend.
Image by wmshc_kiwi, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/22/2008 5:38:55 PM
Whether or not books established the environmental agenda, Stephen Bocking writes in Alternatives Journal, “they certainly record its evolution.” Examining nearly six decades of environmental tracts, Bocking sees trends and revelations in a genre that graduated from relative obscurity to a coffee table mainstay.
No survey of environmental literature can get off the ground without a hat tip to Aldo Leopald’s A Sand County Almanac (1949), but from there, Bocking charts an impressive course, weaving over 25 influential authors into his modest, 1,500-word essay. As a professor of environmental and resource studies at Trent University, Bocking’s familiarity with the genre is palpable, but even more valuable than his fluency is his knack for canny observation.
Environmental lit is vital, Bocking argues, because “only in books do authors have the space to explore big, complex arguments—especially those that connect distinct worlds of ideas,” such as Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature (1969), which called for beneficial collaboration between architects and ecologists. It can be confounding, as well: “It is worth remembering that every book is framed by subjective ideas about how the world works,” Bocking writes. He sees evidence of Cold War anxieties reflected in some texts, rebukes others for “expressing a convenient ideology, while masquerading as objective analysis.” He also observes the way gorgeous coffee table books “are implicitly defensive; they inspire action through visions of what may be lost,” although he reflects that they “neglect those places where humans and nature live in harmony,” as well as the front lines in the battle for environmental justice.
Image by gabofr, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/21/2008 5:46:01 PM
Vanity publishing takes on a new meaning at PulpStar.com, where noir and sci-fi junkies can pay to have their names and physical descriptions inserted into prewritten texts. There are two choices—Reunion with Death and The Stars are Screaming—although for extra dough tacked on top of the $50 fee, you can fiddle with the title, too, or have your face photoshopped into the cover art. PulpStar.com also hawks equally spendy customized greeting cards and poster prints.
(Thanks, Venus Zine.)
Image by Hryckowian, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/15/2008 4:34:41 PM
Fan fiction, in which DIY writers lift characters from books, films, TV shows, and other creative works and insert them into their own story lines, is booming—but its legality is murky, writes Canadian copyright lawyer Grace Westcott in the Literary Review of Canada.
U.S. law offers “significant copyright protection to distinctive fictional characters” and “derivative works,” reports Westcott, and in her view this would include most fan fiction. But she gives air time to an alternative argument put forth by Rebecca Tushnet, a Georgetown University law professor and a fanfic writer who argues that the form constitutes fair use. Tushnet founded the Organization for Transformative Works to push the view that fanfic is a “new expression of transformed ideas” and thus protected.
“It may be that [fan fiction’s] shadowy status—largely tolerated, but legally vulnerable—leaves it just where it ought to be, in a healthy state of tension between fans and authors,” Westcott concludes. “Because the fact is that fan fiction has so far been able to operate as a tolerated use, if not a fair use.”
Her lawyerly advice? Keep it out of the courts by establishing “an online code of respect that recognizes and addresses authors’ rights and legitimate concerns.”
Westcott doesn’t even consider the thornier question of fan fiction based on real and often living people, for instance, the “bandslash” or “bandfic” phenomenon (see the Utne Reader’s recent “Slasher Girls”) built around rock-star characters and often homoerotic subplots.
Her hope for some sort of handshake agreement seems at once practical and unrealistic: practical because fanfic might lose ground in court, but unrealistic because the very sort of independent creative spirit that created fanfic will bristle against any sort of conduct code. And because any day now, Sting will Google himself, find an account of himself blowing Stewart Copeland, and phone his lawyers.
Thanks, Arts & Letters Daily.
7/14/2008 1:47:56 PM
Whether you like it or not, midsummer calls attention to the body: our surplus of salty sweat and the smell it leaves behind; the way our leg muscles cramp after a long bike ride; lake water and wind messing up our 'dos; and emerging from a bumping concert at 4 a.m. into the damp night air with an insatiable craving for powdered sugar.
Hot air and hedonism go hand in hand, as Sammy Mack outlines in MAP magazine’s recent Pleasure Issue (pdf). In “Pleasure City: Overnight in New Orleans,” Mack takes us with her friends from outdoor bar Pravada, to Decatur Street, to a Soul Rebels show at the Republic, with little fuss or deliberation.
“Where to now?” she writes.
“I could use some food.”
Mimi’s is closed, so the group ends up at the Mardi Gras Zone noshing on Cajun Dill Gator-Tators and muffalettas, then Café Du Monde for beignets:
The patio chairs are stacked upside-down on the tables so the ground can be hosed clean of powdered sugar, so we duck inside and find tables. It’s a cheery, well-lit space frequented a this hour by sorority girls and older men whose hands are stamped like passports from all the shows they’ve seen this week. . . . The only food item on the menu is a plate of beignets. They arrive in triumphant little stacks of three fried dough pillows, buried under a healthy snow of powdered sugar. I am convinced that these sugar-dusted darlings are the bedrock of this town. I imagine if we dug up the streets, below 300 years of cobblestone and dirt, we would find beignets. Still warm, still chewy.
wallyg, licesned under Creative Commons.
7/14/2008 1:17:40 PM
In the sensuous essay, “Aphrodisiacs,” an AGNI online exclusive, Michelle Wildgen suggests a laundry list of unusual culinary options over—eek!—Spanish fly for that little extra something. In what turns out to be much more than a gastronomic love manual, Wildgen’s essay revels in nature’s overt display of sex and fertility, yet subtly reminds the reader of the gory origins of Aphrodite, from which the term aphrodisiac is derived.
Image by _william, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/9/2008 2:16:52 PM
Anyone who’s tried to conquer a foreign language at a certain age is familiar with the requisite textbook formula: You follow a few characters on adventures that somehow expose you to the vocabulary for fruits, polite greetings, and how to get medical help all within a simple, tidy storyline. (“Excuse me,” said Heidi, “I don’t mean to bother you, but I ate a poisonous apple and require emergency care.”)
In a recent Washington Post opinion piece, Harvard Law student Joel B. Pollak rails against the narratives available for the 24,000 students of Arabic in the United States. His main gripe is a political one—there’s too much Gamal Abdel Nasser-loving and too much Israel/America-bashing in his class materials—but it’s his description of the forlorn protagonist of his textbook that struck me:
We learn in Chapter 1 that Maha is desperately lonely. In later chapters, we are told that she hates New York, has no boyfriend, and resents her mother.
Soon we encounter her equally depressing relatives in Egypt—such as her first cousin Khalid, whose mother died in a car accident and who was forced to study business administration after his father told him literature "has no future."
The characterization jogged my memory to one of my favorite readings in the last year, a piece by Anand Balakrishnan in the Summer 2007 issue of Bidoun. In it, Balakrishnan recalls the primary theme of his Arabic studies in Cairo: failure (or fashil).
The Arabic word for failure is built from the tripartite root of f-sh-l to become fashil, the harshest, most damaging word in the language, at least the way my Arabic teacher pronounced it. The word often twisted his dyspeptic mouth, spattering our lessons like ordnance from a cluster bomb. Everything was fashil. Me as a student, himself as a teacher, Cairo as a city, Egypt as a state, the Middle East as a region, Asia as a continent, communism as a theory, democracy as an ideal, Islam as it was practiced, humanity as a species, and, in the summer when the smog congealed, the sun as a source of light.
Balakrishnan’s is a beautiful meditation on the theme of failure throughout Arab literature and Arab society. Pollak may or may not have a legitimate beef regarding his own lessons, but his polemical demand for a language neutered of politics and feeling rings hollow after reading Balakrishnan’s “Muse of Failure.” More important than the sterile reformulation of one language into another is the transcendent project of cultural translation.
Image by “Dr. Yuri Andreievich Zhivago,” licensed under Creative Commons.
7/7/2008 9:47:11 AM
This fall the Olympics will bring us the spectacle “of the human body at the height of health, beauty, discipline, power, and grace,” writes Rebecca Solnit for Orion (article not available online). In her elegant essay, "Looking Away from Beauty," Solnit points to the frail connection those bodies have to the nations they represent—“as though this feat of balance really had something to do with Austria, that burst of power really represented Japan.”
Of utmost importance, Solnit writes, is to consider the way those pristine bodies, those symbols of national pride, exist in conflict with bodies less revered, less public:
It serves the nations of the world to support the exquisitely trained Olympian bodies, and it often serves their more urgent political and economic agendas to subject other bodies to torture, mutilation, and violent death, as well as to look away from quieter deaths from deprivation and pollution. . . . The celebrated athletic bodies exist in some sort of tension with the bodies that are being treated as worthless and disposable. . . . But the associations between the two are crucial to our sense of compassion, and of what it means to be part of a global community.
7/3/2008 12:22:54 PM
These days, poets can’t honestly argue “Why Poetry Pays Well,” but they can truthfully defend the modest statement, “Why Poetry Matters,” as poet and teacher Jay Parini does in the June 27 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education's Chronicle Review. Parini's book of the same title was published this April by Yale University Press.
Poetry’s virtue, Parini writes, lies in stilling the disorder of the outside world:
We listen to the still, small voice of poetry when we read a poem, and that voice stands in ferocious contrast to the clamor in the culture at large and, often, to the sound of society's explosions. . . . [Poetry] doesn't shift the stock market or persuade dictators to stand down. It doesn't usually send masses into the streets to protest a war or petition for economic justice. It works in quieter ways, shaping the interior space of readers, adding a range of subtlety to their thoughts, complicating the world for them.
Image courtesy of Scott LaPierre, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/3/2008 11:40:08 AM
The website for Portland, Oregon’s literary journal eye-rhyme is dead. The only print issue I can track down is three years old. And my favorite piece from it was written by *gasp* a musician.
Subtitled “Roses Are Red,”the seventh issue of eye-rhyme is the only one in the Utne library. Having never lived in Portland, my first-hand knowledge of its literary scene is virtually nonexistent, and in an era when I should be able to learn everything about anything via the Internet, I am able to find precious little information about eye-rhyme online, even on the site of Pinball Publishing, which printed the journal. Some back issues are available for purchase there, including "Roses are Red" and the latest (and final?) installment, a book of portraits by local photographers.
What I do know is that Issue 7 of eye-rhyme documents a diverse population of literary talents who were writing in Portland in 2005. There are healthy doses of poetry (both prose-poetry and verse) and a long interview with Walt Curtis, the “Unofficial Poet Laureate of Portland.” There’s an absurdist piece of fiction by Kevin Sampsell called “In Jail,” which owes a great debt to Mark Leyner; there are drawings by Zak Margolis; there’s an interview with some upstart rock musician named Stephen Malkmus, who sounds like he’s destined for great things.
But my favorite piece, “Sadness: A Field Guide” is by local singer/songwriter Nick Jaina, whose album Wool was released in March of this year. Jaina’s also an elegant prose writer, and his taxonomy of all things sad is darkly funny and also very, very true. In just seven pages he takes us through the various states of sadness, including but not limited to wistfulness, lethargy, torpor, regret, sorrow, unhappiness, and happiness (this last one is actually just another form of sadness, Jaina’s sorry to inform us).
I wish this piece was available online. I wish I could afford to buy a copy of “Roses Are Red” for all my friends. I wish I was somehow affiliated with a national magazine that reprinted great writing from alternative media and small literary journals.
For now, though, I’ll just have to leave you with my favorite moments from the piece.
On melancholy: “This is a thrilling type of sadness. Your body screams with joy, if joy can be taken out of its normal association with happiness. The sadness of a grocery store that is well lit and full of pretty girls you’ll never talk to. … The sadness of loving a song, wanting to live inside a song, wanting to kiss everyone you see.”
On torpor: “This is a similar sluggishness to lethargy, only livened by the dictionary’s whimsical suffixing of the word for adjectival use into torporific.”
On unhappiness: “This is not sadness. This is temporary. You spend your whole life at a cocktail party, hosted by influential and powerful people. Rich people. Not to say that you are rich or powerful or influential yourself necessarily, but you’ve been invited to their party. You belong there. … Unhappiness is when you step outside the party for a brief respite. You walk out on the veranda and you are momentarily surprised at how dark and cold it has gotten since you arrived at the party. … You sense something wrong. Nothing is wrong. You can turn around and go back to the party. The door is unlocked.”
On dismay: “This is only for kings and vicars.”
On happiness: “This is perhaps the most desperate form of sadness there is. Think of all the lists you make, full of reasons why you should be happy, why you are happy, dammit. Apple wedges with cheese. City parks. The volatility of the stock market. The way she hugged you from behind, unexpectedly, at that New Years’ Eve party. Aren’t those all the same items on your list of reasons for being sad? Happiness is running with a mix tape to the post office, just before it closes, having quickly thrown on a baseball-style shirt with a number on the back because of the heat. But it’s only for the moment, what you call happiness. It won’t last. You’re wearing a t-shirt with pleated pants, which looks stupid. Everyone can see that.”
Loving this piece but being unable to share all of it; knowing that eye-rhyme is defunct or at least missing in action; browsing the shelves of the Utne library knowing that I’ll never have the time or energy to read everything there—it’s all remarkably similar to the image with which Jaina closes his entry on melancholy: “The sadness of walking through a library, feeling like you’re in a morgue, wanting to rescue every ignored book with an unexciting cover, knowing that no matter how many books you read, you’ll still never read one tenth of one percent of all the books at your shitty local library.”
7/2/2008 3:54:45 PM
From the John Jay College of Criminal Justice comes the new J Journal: a strange and delightful hybrid of literary, creative writing on crime, criminal justice, law, and law enforcement published by the college’s English department. The inaugural issue contains a fair amount of poetry in addition to the expected prose—which, alas, is not classified, making it difficult at times to distinguish between short stories and creative nonfiction.*
One of the standouts in the issue is Jason Trask’s “New Plantation,” a frank recollection of teaching writing to high school students on Rikers Island. In his first week, Trask tries to earn cred by doing a lesson on the origins of profanity, an attention-grabbing routine that opens with writing FUCK, then INTERCOURSE on the board:
I picked up the chalk again and wrote “INTERCOURSE.” I waited. “You guys know this word?”
“Intercourse,” a couple of them said.
“Right. Now is that a bad word?” I asked.
“It mean ‘fuck.’ ”
“Well then, why isn’t it a bad word too if it means the same things as ‘fuck.’ ”
. . . They sat there waiting for me to tell them. I looked around at them. “You’ve got two words that mean the same thing. How does it happen that one of them is a bad word and one of them is a good word?
I waited, but no one said anything. I returned to the board and wrote, “SHIT.”
But this is no Dangerous Minds Part II. Trask pulls off no mind-boggling feats of academic resurrection; for every success he recounts a perfectly human blundering or insecurity. It’s a good story, and perhaps a nonfiction one, if Trask’s contributor bio, which cites an early 90s stint teaching at Rikers, can be considered as evidence.
* I often grumble about this decision to not classify prose, which is shared by many publications in the Utne Reader library, but truth be told, I’m torn. There’s a rigid part of me that just wants a piece of writing plopped down in the appropriate category. But then I have to admit: It’s the hybrids of the writing world that most excite me. What’s more interesting: What actually happened—or how someone remembers it? Is that any less of a true story? Or consider David Carr’s new “memoir,” Night of the Gun, a fully-reported account of his life. Perhaps this band of magazines and journals that refuse to identify their prose are doing all of us a favor, kicking us out of literary ruts.
dideo, licensed under
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