9/30/2008 5:35:54 PM
Baltimore’s Urbanite is a favorite here in the Utne Reader library. It’s a local/regional magazine, yes, but the sheer spunk and variety of its coverage propels its relevance right across the Mississippi. (If anyone further west cares to weigh in, please do so!)
Over the past year or so, I’ve come to think of its reader-submitted “What You’re Writing” section in the same breath as the beloved “Readers Write” section published by the Sun, winner of a 2007 Utne Independent Press Award for best writing. We’ve culled short pieces from both of them for reprint in our magazine—Denise Herrera’s “The Purloined Library,” and Terri Solomon’s “I Just Started Smoking. Again.”
This month, I’m particularly taken with Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson’s mini-essay for Urbanite. She begins:
“Turn off the lights,” he’d say—leaving me in the dark.
“Keep the heat at 62,” he’d say—turning the thermostat to the left.
“Don’t flush the toilet every time.” I’d ignore that edict, even if he did not.
My father was not a conservationist. He was cheap.
Read the rest of it on Urbanite’s website.
9/26/2008 4:31:55 PM
A realization just hit me like the explosion of a roman candle firing across the sky: Sarah Palin isn’t inarticulate; she’s a beat-style poet, extemporaneously constructing stream-of-consciousness, free-verse works of art during interviews. Consider this poem Palin rattled off in her recent interview with Katie Couric:
This is crisis moment for America,
really the rest of the world also,
looking to see what the impacts will be,
if America were to choose not to shore up what has happened on Wall Street,
because of the ultimate adverse effects on Main Street
(and then how that affects this globalization that we’re a part of in our world)
so the rest of the world really is looking at John McCain:
the leadership that he’s going to provide through this,
and if those provisions in the proposal can be implemented
and make this proposal better—
make more sense
John McCain is going to prove his leadership.
Now compare that to the beginning of Howl by Allen Ginsberg:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
Or this quote from the same Sarah Palin interview:
But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the healthcare reform that is needed to help shore up our economy, helping the, it’s got to be all about job creation, too: shoring up our economy, and putting it back on the right track, so healthcare reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief, for Americans, and trade—we’ve got to see trade as opportunity, not as a competitive, scary thing, but one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today, we’ve got to look at that more as more opportunity—all those things under the umbrella of job creation, this bailout is a part of that.
And compare that to a quote from On the Road by Jack Kerouac:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!
You can watch a clip of Palin’s poetic genius below:
9/23/2008 2:46:21 PM
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was one of 25 “geniuses” to net one of this year’s prestigious MacArthur fellowships. We knew we had a special talent in our pages when we reprinted this lovely, touching piece of hers back in our March-April issue. Enjoy the read. And enjoy her reaction to news of the award, as quoted in the New York Times:
Ms. Adichie was celebrating her birthday and taking a bath when the phone call came. “I was thrilled and grateful,” she wrote in an e-mail message from Lagos. “I like to say that America is like my distant uncle who doesn’t remember my name but occasionally gives me pocket money. That phone call filled me with an enormous affection for my uncle!”
9/23/2008 2:31:55 PM
Villains almost always make better characters than heroes. It’s easy to understand why a person would want to be the knight in shining armor, but exploring the psyche of a “bloody, bawdy villain” like Claudius from Hamlet or O'Brien from Nineteen Eighty-Four is always more interesting and fun. The British newspaper Telegraph has compiled a nefariously enjoyable list of the 50 greatest villains in literature. It’s a list so evil, the devil himself would enjoy it.
Image by J.J. McCullough, licensed under GNU.
9/22/2008 11:59:24 AM
British television writer Richard Wilson can’t be arsed to do a lot of things. (Translated from the British, that means he’d rather not do them.) There are 101 such things, to be precise, collected in his new humor book Can’t Be Arsed: 101 Things Not to Do Before You Die, excerpted in the London Times.
Ten of those things are “essential” books that Wilson argues are overrated piles of rubbish not worth our time. His own book isn't on his list of 10 Books Not to Read Before You Die, but you will find such classics as Ulysses, A Remembrance of Things Past, and War & Peace.
Best/worst lists are primarily meant to provoke debate, and one assumes Wilson is being contrarian for humor’s sake. All the same, I’d love to see the angry emails he’s been getting from literature professors and other bookworms in response to this list, and plenty of readers have already weighed in with their comments.
This list made me wonder if there are books I couldn’t be arsed to read. There aren’t many, but I will admit that I have never made it beyond the first hundred pages of A Confederacy of Dunces.
There. I said it. I feel so much better now.
What Big Important Books do you find not-so-essential? Are there sacred cows you’ve always been afraid to slaughter? Let us know in the Great Writing Salon.
(Thanks, Minnesota Reads.)
, licensed by
9/19/2008 3:11:06 PM
Set down that copy of Moby Dick, and grab your bank statement. Colleges and universities are increasingly focused on arming students with a “new” kind of literacy: the financial variety. As education costs balloon and student debt rises, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education, more and more institutions are following the lead of Texas Tech University, which established a financial literacy program eight years ago.
From the basics of budgeting to the principles of managing debt, there’s a lot of heartache that could be prevented if financial literacy were made as central to education as regular old book-lovin’ literacy. The Chronicle cites a recent survey by the nonprofit Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy that found that fewer than half of high school seniors were aware that credit card companies assess charges if cardholders pay only the minimum balance due. Eesh.
Perhaps from personal financial literacy, greater economic literacy will blossom. To get a head start, brush up, or dig into the front-page headlines of late, check out our online feature: Econ 101: A Crash Course of Economics Blogs.
Image by kevindooley, licensed under Creative Commons.
9/19/2008 1:25:41 PM
Philadelphia’s new double-covered two.one.five magazine is a hodgepodge of local events and issues that stretch much further than the borders of Pennsylvania. Paging through one side of volume 1.3 (not yet available online) you’ll find a daring swimsuit spread and tips on executing the perfect road trip. Flip it around and you’ll get lost in a captivating nine-part section of immigration narratives. Echoing with national relevance, the essays meander through the diverse experiences of new Americans' dreams and realities.
These are people who have waited years, sometimes decades, to call the United States their home. One now-permanent resident offers up a humorous account detailing the process of obtaining a work permit through the green card lottery. Though armed with a bachelor’s degree and a job offer from a magazine in New York, it still took “11 years, three lawyers, four instances of being fingerprinted, 23 interviews with immigration officers at 14 different U.S. ports of entry, one near deportation, almost $13,000 in legal fees and 38 two-by-two-inch recent, forward facing photographs in which I am not wearing sunglasses or headgear of any kind” for the Canadian-passport toting American-hopeful to obtain the right to live in the United States.
From an entirely different vantage point, Tara Nurin shares the view from her seat at a stadium packed with immigrant soccer players gathered for the weekly marathon of games. She writes:
This is their reward. This one communal gathering of the Imperial Azteca soccer league that counts 600 dedicated players—some of whom drive up to two hours each way in order to play—is almost as sacred as church. Inside the arena, these mostly Latino immigrants, hailing largely from Mexico, can leave behind their concerns over money and their low-paying, labor-intensive jobs to partake in their home country’s most glorious international athletic obsession, and to share a slap on the back, a handmade taco and a sense of community with their fellow countrymen. This comforting simulation of Mexico protects them from what can be a discomforting reality outside.
From feeling homesick to battling language barriers, these stories revolve around much more than what was left behind: They paint an extraordinary portrait of life after immigrating, in a country whose media largely represent immigrants in a negative light. Beautifully and candidly written by various new American residents, from Burmese to Russian to Iraqi, these diverse narratives share the experience of our growing country and highlight just what it means to be an American.
9/18/2008 11:36:10 AM
In a web 2.0 world, there's apparently no need to labor alone on that unfinished masterpiece. Launched in April, WEbook.com is an online publishing company based entirely on user-generated content. Members can start new books or upload works in progress. Once a "project" is in the sytem, any registered user can add to or give feedback on it. The community even votes for its favorites to get published, which the website creators claim will do for the publishing industry “what American Idol did for music.”
The site has been successful enough to recently net 5 million dollars in venture funding, reports Anthony Ha for VentureBeat. Despite the site's popularity with budding authors, the self-described "wannabe fiction writer" scorns the idea of “crowdsourcing” the novel. “It literally embodies the clichéd insult of ‘art by committee,’ ” he writes. Ha has a point: When’s the last time we saw a bestselling book with more than one author? Then again, the group feedback system is employed in writing workshops across the nation as method for developing one's skills. Ha concedes nonfiction collaborations might be a different story, but will remain skeptical until he sees a WEBook project hit the big time.
Image by Jsome1, licensed under Creative Commons.
9/15/2008 11:49:09 AM
Toward the end of the last century David Foster Wallace appeared on the literary scene and blew the minds of countless readers, overhauling the way they thought about literature and life—first with his debut novel The Broom of the System, then with his superb short story collection Girl With Curious Hair. But as impressive as those books were, they were simply clearing the decks for his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, which landed on bookshelves with a brainy thud in 1996.
Infinite Jest is a sprawling but meticulously constructed epic about addiction, depression, and the insidious toxicity of mass entertainment, weaving intricate plotlines and beloved characters into something far more than a post-structuralist literary stunt. It is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking. It is a clever and complex but eminently readable book that I eventually picked up in college when I read all of Wallace's then-published works in rapid succession. I plowed through Infinite Jest’s 1,079 pages in only three weeks, not because I’m a fast reader—I’m not—but because I was simply unable to put it down.
Until I discovered David Foster Wallace I didn’t really have a favorite author, which was odd for an English major and aspiring writer. I was passionate about Kundera and Brautigan and the Beats, but had yet to fall obsessively in love with a single person’s writing. That semester when I read Infinite Jest marked the moment when I finally left a certain intellectual plateau, transcending everything I thought I knew about literature and entering the next phase of my development as a writer and thinker.
It was a phase marked by fitful, pretentious attempts to emulate Wallace’s writing in my own. As so many novice writers besotted with Wallace probably have, I peppered my short stories with footnotes and digressive asides and sentences whose objects were miles away from their subjects. (Some of these tendencies are obviously still on full display.) Like we inevitably do when we mimic our artistic role models, I approximated Wallace’s style but not his substance. The latter is far more difficult than the former, and I will spend a lifetime attempting to infuse my writing with even a scintilla of the wisdom he could pack into a single sentence, knowing I’ll probably never even come close.
It’s my experience that the people most critical of Wallace’s writing are those least familiar with it, who seize on the surface facts of his books—extremely long, dense, riddled with footnotes and endnotes—without ever addressing their content. These critics write him off as the poster-boy of postmodern irony and literary absurdity while failing to notice that in both his fiction and essays, Wallace was strongly anti-irony, bent on moving beyond post-millennial ennui, satirizing the noise of contemporary pop culture, and exploring life’s perennially unsolvable riddles. The pyrotechnics of his prose were not just there to dazzle; they were put to writing’s best possible use, illuminating the darkest recesses of the human condition.
And they could be pretty dark recesses. His last two short story collections, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and Oblivion, are populated by miserable characters at the end of their ropes and about to let go. While Infinite Jest and Girl With Curious Hair can rightly be described as fun, his latter work was still occasionally humorous but far more somber. One could almost see, on any given page, the author’s formidable mental gears grinding in an attempt to unravel and express the reasons why people do unspeakably terrible things to each other and to themselves.
So it was not, unfortunately, a total surprise that Wallace’s death would be self-inflicted. Time and again, his characters literally destroy themselves, most recently in Oblivion’s “Good Old Neon,” whose narrator describes his own suicide from beyond the grave. A half dozen of Infinite Jest’s primary characters attempt suicide, some of them succeeding with gruesome finality. And Brief Interviews features “The Depressed Person,” a crushingly dense narrative whose title character’s various attempts to avail her own misery are fruitless.
But for as much as Wallace expended his prodigious talent plumbing the harrowing depths of depression, addiction, violence, and loss, and for as much as his biography suggested he’d known those demons intimately, I was confident he’d found a way to transcend them. I took solace in the notion that, by carefully and exhaustively reasoning out the ways in which we destroy each other and ourselves, he’d emerged on the other side whole—if not in a place of understanding, then of compassion—and could help his readers do the same. The few characters in Infinite Jest who manage not to destroy themselves—most notably, the recovering drug addict and reformed criminal Don Gately—seem to have figured something out their peers haven’t: a way to keep the pieces glued together and cope with the pain in their lives while never dispelling it entirely.
Suicide is baffling, the most absurd and haunting end to a human life. Mapping any kind of logic onto suicide is futile, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. I had always believed, perhaps naively, that by examining—with great patience, compassion, and wit—the frailties of human existence, Wallace had found a way to cope with them, much like the damaged but redeemed Don Gately. I had to believe that, like Gately, he was coping, because to imagine that he wasn’t—which, as we learned over the weekend, he surely wasn’t—is so bleak: to think that one of the smartest writers in history had spent his entire adult life wrestling with the absurdities and injustices of the human condition, and still hadn’t found a solution—well, where does that leave the rest of us?
Image by Steve Rhodes, used with permission.
9/15/2008 10:19:02 AM
Very few of us today ever experience true darkness. Artificial lighting smudges out the stars, confuses creatures of the night, wastes energy, and has damaging effects on human health. In “Let There Be Night: Testimony on Behalf of the Dark,” (University of Nevada Press, 2008) , editor Paul Bogard compiled thoughtful and evocative essays from 29 writers, poets, scientists, and scholars. Bogard encourages readers to take “this collection to their own favorite nighttime roost, somewhere with amber light to shade the darkness, somewhere with stars close by, somewhere with the scents and sounds of darkness.”
If we heed Bogard's advice, there's a lot we might glean from darkness. In one essay, environmental activist and writer Janisse Ray draws from personal experience to expound on spirituality: “What has confused us is the double entendre. Our desire for meaning keeps us reaching for greater clarity and luminosity. But we confound lucidity with kilowatts. We confuse artificial light with enlightenment. Therein lies a greater fear: that we humans might be so afraid of darkness that we, for a time, would destroy it, thus banishing the illumination that darkness brings.”
9/12/2008 3:59:31 PM
The lowly blurb is a necessary (though usually hackneyed) part of book jackets, movie posters, and magazine reviews. They’re not generally recognized as a form of literature, but maybe they should be. In an essay for Slate, Ron Rosenbaum waxes poetic about the blurbs used by reviewers and publishers to describe works of contemporary poetry. These blurbs, according to Rosenbaum, can be as lyrical as the works they describe, in many cases are actually “much better than most contemporary poetry, in the sense that [they’re] much more readable, much better crafted, and often beautifully compressed in a dazzling haikulike way.” This kind of praise, Rosenbaum writes, "is underpraised." Rosenbaum’s best resource for these two-line works of art, as well as great resource for essays and literary news, is The Page. You only need to read a few of these short-but-sweet quotes to see what he means.
9/12/2008 11:13:30 AM
After a trip to Delhi, Salon’s Hillary Frey had an idea: “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a travel guide devoted not to restaurants, hotels and museums, but to the literature of a place?” And so Salon’s Literary Guide to the World was born. The result is a collection of destination-specific book reviews, written by accomplished writers who know each location well, and built around the idea that literature can show you a place in an instructive, entertaining, and enriching way. The next time you’re looking for a literary travel companion to Gypsy Europe, West Texas, Armenia, or Togo, be sure to stop by Salon for advice.
9/9/2008 12:44:44 PM
Protruding unglamorously from the middle of Open City’s 25th issue, John O’Connor’s “The Boil” (article not available online) exhibits, in abundance, two of the most important qualities of successful creative nonfiction: self-deprecation and an unflinching devotion to unvarnished truth-telling, no matter how unflattering or unpleasant that truth may be.
And in a piece that stays tenaciously faithful to its subject—in this case, the horrendous dermatological ordeal indicated by the title, which I’m afraid is quite literal—those two qualities are absolutely essential.
O’Connor treats his plight with the perfect mixture of absurdity and bathos, describing the year he follows his girlfriend to Senegal, where his naïve stereotypes about post-colonial Africa are quickly thwarted: “I even packed The Green Hills of Africa thinking Hemingway’s bush heroics would inspire me. … My life there became less like Hemingway’s and more like Clov’s in Beckett’s Endgame; that is, one of almost unrelenting boredom, isolation, and despair.”
Universal truths like boredom and domestic dischord are rendered anew through O’Connor’s elegant turns of phrase: “We’d never fought before, but suddenly we were having apocalyptic arguments in which dishware perished en masse.” From there, the gruesome descriptions of the narrator’s physical decline begin, as he suffers bouts of constipation and infection alongside the growing abscess—which did I mention is located on his right buttock?
“I’m incredibly hairy down there. Every few weeks I have to hack away the overgrown vegetation in my entire Speedo region or I lose sight of the tree through the forest. …I stripped naked in our windowless kitchen and poked along the edges of the boil with a sewing needle, wincing a gasping, hoping to perforate its iridescent halo.”
Definitely not lunchtime reading, but thoroughly engaging and quite often hilarious, “The Boil” provides a compelling account of one Westerner’s encounter with Senegalese culture and the—pardon my word choice—skewering of his naïveté about both himself and the world.
9/4/2008 10:04:26 AM
For five years, writer Nick Hornby’s What I’ve Been Reading column (excerpt available online) has been one of the best known features in monthly lit-mag the Believer. With the September 2008 installment, the magazine announces, Hornby’s tenure is coming to a close.
In his stead, the magazine introduces Greil Marcus, the prolific music-and-cultural critic, who will be writing a monthly column called Real Life Rock Top Ten (excerpt available online). Marcus, known for 1989’s Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century and more recently The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy in the American Voice, is a fantastically engaging scholar, with an eye for dissecting culture through the lens of popular music. In short: Real Life Rock Top Ten, no doubt, will be a gem in the Believer line-up.
I’ll miss Nick Hornby, though: His quirky monthly dispatches of “books bought” and “books read,” and his free-flowing musings on the content therein. In 2003, Hornby described the genesis of the column—and lessons learned from writing it—to the British newspaper the Telegraph:
Before I wrote the first column, I'd just had a particularly happy few weeks of reading, where one book had indeed led to another, and it occurred to me that maybe my book choices always had that sort of interesting shape to them.
But of course once I'd committed to a monthly column, this turned out to be nonsense, and ever since then my reading has been haphazard and whimsical, and therefore my column has been, too.
The Believer has one, and only one, commandment: THOU SHALT NOT SLAG ANYONE OFF.
As I understand it, the founders of the magazine wanted one place, one tiny corner of the world, in which writers could be sure that they weren't going to get a kicking; predictably and depressingly, this ambition was, and continues to be, mocked mercilessly, mostly by those critics whose children would go hungry if their parents weren't able to abuse authors whose books they didn't much like.
To write about writers without delivering any kickings, however, Hornby discovers that he’s best off choosing books he will most likely enjoy. “I'm not sure this idea is as blindingly obvious as it seems. We often read books that we think we ought to read, or that we think we ought to have read, or that other people think we should read,” he writes. Read for enjoyment, he counsels. Wise words.
Hornby's recent columns will be collected into a book (the third such collection), due out this December.
9/3/2008 4:04:26 PM
Manifestos, those elegant, usually vehement declarations of ideas, fell out of favor in the mid-20th century to be replaced by shorter “statements of purpose.” The past few years, however, have seen a resurgence of the manifesto as an art form, particularly by the design industry, as as Ellen and Julia Lupton point out on the American Institute of Graphic Arts website.
That the design industry would embrace the form makes a lot of sense, write the Luptons. “A well-written manifesto is like a well-designed product. It communicates directly, it is broken into functional parts, and it has elements of poetry and surprise. And drafting one is more like writing an ad than writing a novel.”
Designers have come to recognize the manifesto as the valuable tool it once was: a work that helps the author to crystallize his or her thoughts and encourages readers to take stances of their own on the issues. Check out even more modern manifestos at ChangeThis.
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