At least this much is true: Doris Lessing did not give a speck about winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. This amazing video catches her reaction to the news: it begins with an 'Oh Christ' and an artichoke, and gets better from there:
At least this much is true: Doris Lessing did not give a speck about winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. This amazing video catches her reaction to the news: it begins with an 'Oh Christ' and an artichoke, and gets better from there:
-- John Cheever on trial at Sing Sing. I swear, this writer shows me more and more ways to open me up.
-- Salvador Dalí's rare and beautiful illustrations of Montaigne’s essays. Published 1947.
-- Science Fiction and Prophecy: Arthur C. Clarke interviewed in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
-- "Vassar, Unzipped." In Vanity Fair, Laura Jacobs writes brilliantly about Mary McCarthy's The Group, fifty years after its publication. The Group is one of the strangest and most fascinating novels I've ever read. I actually wanted to write an essay hooked to its fiftieth birthday, but then I read this piece by Jacobs, and thought, welp, she's done just about exactly what I would've hoped to have done.
-- Speaking of literary birthdays: The New Yorker takes a look at "Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, at Twenty."
-- Here's what Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster thought of Jane Austen's fiction.
-- On witches, Paris, and the bewitching: Toby Barlow and Rosecrans Baldwin talk it up.
-- Teju Cole hangs out with Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka at his home in Abeokuta, Nigeria.
-- NPR on how Scholastic came to pitch literacy (and bookish joy, as my memory holds it) to generations of children.
-- I adore the poetry of Maurice Manning, its mix of magic and voice and nature. His interview with the Poetry Foundation is worth your time. Worth it!
-- "All students—and I mean all—ought to think seriously about majoring in English." Mark Edmundson writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
-- Novelist Nadeem Aslam learned English by copying out Moby-Dick.
-- Two translators talk over at Bookslut about, among other things, pet peeves.
--On the rise of beer-drinking, and its discontents, in Africa. (For the record, I dug the ubiquitous Tuskers, as well as the porter at Brew Bistro in Nairobi.)
-- The "best books on Kenya," according to The Guardian.
-- Watching Like a Girl: I can relate to a great deal of what Stacey Mae Fowles writes about being both a sports fan and female.
-- SBNation on the "death of a ballplayer" -- Billy Dillon, the woulda-been Detroit Tiger who instead spent 27 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit.
-- Underwritten or undercut? The Columbia Journalism Review on how to solve our foreign coverage problem. (Spoiler: Non-profit funding isn't it.)
-- In Harper's: Rebecca Solnit talks about "how personal stories can fail to satisfy, the architectural space of the book, and the pleasures with which the landscapes of our lives are salted."
-- Ariel Levy in The New Yorker on what amounts to 13 ways of looking at justice in Steubenville.
-- Bill Moyers and Marshall Ganz talking about making social movements matter.
-- This is what happens when you buy a 91-acre island in the Great Lakes, and give it over to artists and writers. (h/t Chris M.)
-- Beyond the Moomins: A look at Tove Jansson's gorgeous writing for adults, ahead of the Jansson centenary that looms in 2014.
-- Rachel Kushner, interviewed, over at The Rumpus.
-- The always-provoking Tim Parks on Thomas Hardy, Anton Chekhov, and writing to death.
-- Words Without Borders is featuring literary Brazil this month.
-- Nina Sabolik makes a case for why Ismail Kadare should win the next Nobel Prize in literature.
Image credit: The New Yorker
There are ten thousand reasons why the fire at the Nairobi airport, Jomo Kenyatta International, is tremendously sad, and this is the very least of it, but: I feel marked by that place, the arrivals gate, because of what I felt when I met it. Shivery and alive, unsettled and quiet, watchful while easing over to the edges. There is sacredness there.
For more on the devastating fire -- there were no injuries, amazingly -- see stories from Al Jazeera, The New York Times, and Kenya's The Nation (see also). The haunting photo above was taken by Tristan McConnell, a freelancer photographer in Nairobi.
-- George Packer writes about Depression literature and journalism, comparing the 1930s to our era now. Above, an unemployment line in Kansas City -- the kind of jarring manifestation of hard times that is less present in our public space these days, despite similar economic hardship; Packer discusses how this influences the different ways we're telling stories now. Appalachia, Detroit, Edmund Wilson, James Agee, and Occupy all discussed in the piece. The article is behind a New Yorker subscription wall, but if you can access it, it's a must read. Locals, ask me if you want to borrow my print copy.
-- Not a joke: "NASA seeks poets."
-- The exhumation of Pablo Neruda: The Boston Review on the investigation into whether or not the great poet was assassinated in Chile by Pinochet's gang. Early tests confirm that Neruda had advanced cancer when he died.
-- "The Interestings," indeed. Two great writers in conversation at Bookforum: Roxane Gay and Meg Wolitzer.
-- Spare Rib, the radical British feminist magazine, is relaunching this month.
-- 164 years later, the error on Anne Bronte's gravestone is corrected.
-- "Beautiful, natural, free." Haruki Murakimi -- the writer who is also a marathoner -- writes in the New Yorker about what happened in Boston.
-- In central Michigan, bikers become advocates for children's literature.
-- Library of America has updated its all-time bestselling titles. I'm surprised by #1, pleased by #4 and #14, delighted by #10, and chagrined that only one female writer is in the top fifteen. LoA says that the bestsellers stay pretty consistent, though they did see a surge on Ulysses S. Grant's writing. It also posts its top-selling backlist titles -- a more literary list, and an eclectic one. Still only one female writer though. The same one.
-- Navajo Nation names its first poet laureate.
-- Caroline Kennedy on the fun of memorizing poetry.
-- transcript is "Europe's online review of international writing." This month's theme? Armenia. "Ask any Armenian to tell you about his or her country's literature, and nine times out of ten you'll get the very beginning of the story, the creation of the Armenian alphabet in the 5th century..."
-- Writer Aminatta Forna's books "reflect a fascination with 'joining the dots to see how a country implodes,'" according to The Guardian.
-- Come create in Detroit this summer. Part of what you'll get in return? "Bicycles" and "occasional eggs from our chickens."
-- There is a single surviving letter written by Willa Cather to Edith Lewis. And it's full of mysteries.
-- What's going on at Granta?
-- The House of Orwell falls.
-- World Without Borders focuses on North Korean Defectors this month. "In compiling our September 2003 issue, we discovered North Korean writers can publish only propaganda, and are restricted to official outlets. As this opaque nation becomes more visible, and threatening, on the international stage, we turn for insight to the only writers free to tell the truth: defectors."
-- Old and new media in Cairo: The death of Egypt Independent. Via Chris M.
-- The United States is ranked 26th in the world for press freedom. Politics and corruption are the most dangerous beats for journalists worldwide.
-- "Marx after Marxism."
-- "That introduction is better than the book." James Salter, interviewed in Guernica.
-- The tragedy of Cooper Union: a radical education model is succumbing.
-- See also: how humanities don't fit into the "elite universities" model -- forcing a choice.
-- "When the Earth Moved." Fascinating article on how the environmental movement (de)volved since 1970.
-- Writer Etgar Keret lives in the world's thinnest house in Warsaw (1.52m at its widest).
-- "Nice Poem: I'll Take It." Sandra Beasley, on the feeling of being a plagiarized poet.
-- Interesting backstory in the New York Review of Books on how Wikipedia took all the female novelists out of the "American novelists" category.
-- Kurt Vonnegut writes to John F. Kennedy, offering to volunteer for his campaign.
-- Where is the fight for high-speed and affordable, or free, internet?
-- As late as 1978, Aaron Copeland posited that there might be something innate to women that made them incapable of writing ambituous classical music. Alex Ross writes about "evening the score."
-- Out of the Critical Mass movement comes bike parties. "The secret? More joy."
--Actually, Jason Collins isn't the first openly gay man in a major sport. The one who was -- true story -- also invented the high-five.
-- See also: Brittney Griner and the quiet queering of sports. I wish I'd written the article on this.
-- "The Silence of Science."
-- Breakfast at Tiffany's, the weird and wonderful Truman Capote novella that was (heavily) adapted into the famed Audrey Hepburn film, is opening as a Broadway play. On WBUR's "On Point," Tom Ashbrook revisits the classic with the director and two culture writers, questioning what has given the story "such staying power, such magnetism."
-- "Capote's Co-conspirators." Via The New Yorker.
-- The letters of Willa Cather were once banned. Next month, all will be revealed.
-- Stephen King and his wife Tabitha pledge $3 million to their local library in Bangor, Maine.
-- "In the Kingdom of the First Person." Looking back and forth between James Baldwin and the New York Review of Books.
-- Amazing news: Independent bookstores are doing better than they've done in years.
-- "Do-It-Yourself Language." On the inventions of languages -- including the language of mathematics.
-- Please, no more "Found in Translation" headlines! That said, here's an account from a woman learning Vietnamese-to-English translation. Mentions Ezra Pound as a translator of Chinese literature.
-- The Authors & Translators blog specializes in the relationship between ... well, you know.
-- "Looting: Mary Jo Bang’s Dante and Anne Carson’s Sophocles show that translation can be more creative than dull obedience to an original text." Via The Boston Review.
-- "The thing is, I do feel like growing up in Detroit sort of naturally forces most of us to deal with trauma. ... I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Detroiters are not spoiled. We are used to disappointment in a weird way, so we don’t go through life thinking everything has to go our way. We’re OK with change. With deterioration. And I mean, in that transcendental way. We know things die. We love them while they last. I think that kind of familiarity with decay is somewhat particular to Detroit. It allows for a kind of duende in the art, I think." Poet francine j. harris, people.
-- Arcadia: author Lauren Groff speaks with Guernica about "the art of optimism, gender bias in the literary world, and donning public personas."
-- "Around the liberal arts there is this horrible self-regard and complacency that art is always good and therapeutic." It's about time: The Tim Parks Interview.
-- Good work from The Investigative Fund: "Inside Baseball's Dominican Sweatshop System."
-- The making of the Black Panther Party.
-- I always look forward to Evgeny Morozov's smart, incisive tech criticism and "work of creative destruction" -- so decidedly unflustered by fads and assumptions.
-- Hello, writers: here's a great residency opportunity at the Thurber House.
-- Katherine Boo, artist of narrative nonfiction that she is, thinks you should read these three books.
-- Taiye Selase, author of "the eagerly anticipated novel, Ghana Must Go," write in The Guardian: "The Afropolitan."
-- "We're thrilled to hear that Marianne Boruch has been awarded the $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for 2013, while Heidy Stiedlmayer has won the $10,000 Kate Tufts Discovery Award."
-- "Working Girl." On the life and work of Edna St. Vincent Millay. "... she wrote and she wrote and she wrote."
-- I am so excited to have in my hands an early copy of Muriel Rukeyser's previously unpublished novel, Savage Coast, released this year for Rukeyser's centennial by The Feminist Press.
-- Looking back at Angela Carter, and her harnessing of the power of fairy tales.
-- "The Missing Half of Les Mis" ... that is, revolution.
-- "Neil deGrasse Tyson is stepping up his game, roaring, cajoling, stomping his big, considerable, eloquent self to say we have got to, got to, GOT TO, step off this planet and go places, back to the moon, on to Mars, that we can't afford not to, that if we don't, if we don't support a manned space program, we are robbing ourselves, we are stepping on 'the foundations of tomorrow's economies,' without which, 'we might as well slide back to the cave, because that's where we're headed now, broke!'" With video.
-- This, then, is the final act of Nora Ephron.
-- How designers over the years have interpreted the cover of Andre Breton's very strange book, Nadja.
-- At The New York Times: "Favorite Book Cover Designs of 2012."
-- "Poshlost Highway." Celebrating the writings of Dubravka Ugresic, alongside Nabokov, Mandelstam, Plato, Michael Jackson, Isaac Babel, and Buster Keaton.
-- Libraries win in a Supreme Court case about books published overseas.
-- The Paris Review celebrates sixty years of literary livelihood, in part with a special issue featuring an "Art of Fiction" interview with Deborah Eisenberg that I am salivating over already.
-- Kevin Smokler on "why you should revisit the classics from high school."
-- A fabulous literary center called City of Asylum is opening in Pittsburgh next year.
-- How novelists bring to life the past, for better and worse.
-- It became hot news after it was horribly taken out of context. But regardless of that nonsense, you should read Booker-winner Hilary Mantel's marvelous and haunting speech, Royal Bodies, in full in the London Review of Books. Reading Mantel makes me want to be a better writer. Her mind and her honesty both shimmer.
I found out that Chinua Achebe died, a writer and thinker that made a real imprint on my heart, just moments before I found out that John died -- the man who was a grandfather to me my whole life, who salted his beer and cheered for Notre Dame, and who I dearly love. I'm feeling all kinds of things right now, not all of which I feel like articulating just yet. But as I reflect on loss and change, the different textures of it, I thought I might offer a toast to Achebe by turning to the essay I wrote for the Los Angeles Review of Books on the emergence and cultivation of African literature, with Achebe at its beating heart.
Chinua Achebe's life is as interesting as I've ever encountered. And he did as much as anyone to both write and cultivate literature by and about Africa.
IN THE MIDST of a continent’s roar of independence, the African Writers Series was launched 50 years ago by Heinemann, a London publisher. This was the same year Uganda, Algeria, Burundi, and Rwanda emerged from colonial rule. Tanzania and Sierra Leone did the same the year before; Kenya, Malawi, and Zambia were next. It is no coincidence that the cascading declarations of independence came just as African writers were afire with their own stories. Unsatisfied with a colonial canon that filtered stories of Africa through the perspective of white Westerners and pretended those were the only stories worthy of the printed page, the independence generation of artists claimed space for their own voices, their own leaps of imagination, their own fanciful styles.
An ambitious group gathered in that pivotal year, 1962, for the African Writers Conference at Makerere University in Uganda. Among the attendees were Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, as well as Ngugi wa Thiong’o of Kenya (then James Ngugi) and Rajat Neogy, a Kampala native who would soon launch Transition Magazine. Langston Hughes, who had a particular interest in anthologizing African writers for publication in the US, made the trip from America. The young and thoughtful group discussed the formidable legacy of colonialism for African writers. How do you cultivate emerging literatures? Is it inauthentic for African writers to write in colonial languages like English and French, rather than indigenous languages? Are there certain kinds of stories that are more or less ‘African’?
These questions are hardly settled today, but the literary experiments attempting to resolve them reached a global audience thanks to the unprecedented African Writers Series. The series published authors like Achebe, who advised the project for its first 10 years. Indeed, the first title published was Things Fall Apart, a new issuing of the book that first appeared in 1958, just shy of Nigeria’s independence. Shortly after the AWS launch, Things Fall Apart became required reading by the Cambridge School Certificate Examinations for overseas students in the United Kingdom. This singular move led to Heinemann immediately selling 20,000 copies.
AWS published fiction, poetry, plays, and nonfiction, including reprints and original work, from a list headlined by authors like Ngugi, Ama Ata Aidoo of Ghana, Tayeb Salih of Sudan, Bessie Head of Botswana, Dennis Brutus of South Africa, Ayi Kwei Armah of Ghana, and Nuruddin Farah of Somalia. While many titles were written in English, others were translated from French, Arabic, Portuguese, Swahili, Achioli, and Yoruba. While the series brought international attention to the diversity of literature in Africa, Heinemann paperbacks were primarily designed in affordable editions for African students. Achebe, in his collection of essays Home & Exile, writes:
The launching of Heinemann’s African Writers Series was like the umpire’s signal for which African writers had been waiting on the starting line. In one short generation an immense library of new writing had sprung into being from all over the continent and, for the first time in history, Africa’s future generations of readers and writers — youngsters in schools and colleges — began to read not only David Copperfield and other English classics that I and my generation had read but also works by their own writers about their own people. The excitement generated by this […] was very great indeed and continues to delight many people to this day, in Africa and beyond. The British poet and broadcaster Edward Blishen said of the African Writers Series, “I saw a whole new potentially great world literature come into being.”
The taste and scrutiny of the editors is evident in the number of authors who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature: every African Nobel laureate in literature, save one — J.M. Coetzee — is an AWS author. (As well, AWS published one of the earliest books by Peace Prize-winner Nelson Mandela.) Wole Soyinka became the first African writer — in fact, the first black writer — to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1986. Two years later, Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz won, a first for a writer in Arabic. South Africa’s Nadine Gordimer took the prize in 1991, and Doris Lessing in 2007. While Lessing is now a British citizen, her roots are in Zimbabwe. The series published her novel, The Grass is Singing, in 1972. Lessing’s Nobel lecture discussed the dream deferred for writers raised with a dearth of literary resources. She spoke of a Zimbabwe library she visits, where the only books on the shelves are “tomes from American universities, hard even to lift, rejects from white libraries, or novels with titles like Weekend in Paris and Felicity Finds Love.” In such a context, Lessing said, there are bound to be “books never written […] Voices unheard. It is not possible to estimate this great waste of talent, of potential.”
The last of about 350 AWS titles published by Heinemann came in 2000. By then, books were appearing sporadically under quick-shifting ownership. But after more than a decade of silence, and now in its 50th anniversary year, the African Writers Series was revived this June by Penguin Classics, with the release of two early novels by Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Weep Not, Child and A Grain of Wheat. There is nice symmetry in Penguin picking up the mantle of the legendary series. As James Currey writes in Africa Writes Back, a history of the Heinemann project:
The Series was to become to Africans in its first quarter century what Penguin had been to British readers in its first 25 years. It provided good serious reading in paperbacks at accessible prices for the rapidly emerging professional classes, as the countries became independent.
The original AWS paperbacks visually gave a nod to Penguin by borrowing its distinctive orange color for the covers.
For its part, Penguin (which shares a parent company with Heinemann) publishes Ngugi’s novel Petals of Blood, which John Siciliano, series editor, told me is a “steady seller.” It seemed natural to relaunch AWS with two additional Ngugi titles. As they get the Penguin Classics treatment, AWS titles will appear with introductions (unlike the Heinemann books) from prominent writers. The cover design gives no indication that AWS titles are distinct from traditional black-spined Classics, but their first page features a “Message from Chinua Achebe,” in which the series’ former curator gives his endorsement to Penguin’s project: “Through the series, the creative exploration of those issues and experiences that are unique to the African consciousness will be given a platform, not only throughout Africa, but also to the world beyond its shores.”
The new AWS will be ongoing, rather than finite. Siciliano “aims to make the series as diverse as possible” while ensuring that selections are driven by editorial quality. He’s also interested in titles in translation and, if necessary, would consider commissioning new translations that would put the novels “in the best possible light.”
“This is not a passive thing,” Siciliano said about launching AWS with Penguin. “This is something I pursued […] This is about enlarging the canon.”
Read Things Fall Apart (again, anew). Read Home and Exile. Read Arrow of God and Anthills of the Savannah. Read There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra and The Education of a British-Protected Child. These stories that he put in the world, both flawed and monumental, are worth your attention.
UPDATE: All day, I've caught myself trembling.
-- "Peddling 'democracy' as if it were a popularity contest..." A really interesting look at the radical renovations of the New York Public Library.
-- This is 13-year-old Elvis Presley checking out a library book.
-- A mystery donor rescues rare books at the Boston Public Library.
-- Doctors in England will soon start prescribing books to their patients suffering from anxiety and depression.
-- Meet HIPPO Reads: "Think of us as TED Talks for readers."
-- Tagore and the poetics of modern India.
-- Listening for the Jabberwock: The tendencies of literary translation.
-- Charles Baudelaire translated Edgar Allen Poe into French, and you can't imagine how giddy I got when I learned this.
-- Fifty years ago, the modern Welsh language movement began when activists shut down a bridge.
-- How did I not know until this weekend that Ai's collected poems are newly published this month?!
-- Not unrelatedly: on the worth of memorizing poetry.
-- What does it even mean for a writer to retire?
-- The phantom bookstores of Manhattan.
-- Fill the Shelves: this is fun. H/t Katha Pollitt.
-- What's up with the backlash against Kwani?, the Kenyan publisher and literary agitator?
-- Chika Ugikwe, who just won a $100,000 Nigerian literary prize, is interviewed in Vanguard. Of interest, she is working on an update of the Igbo dictionary. "It's a labour of love." Via The Literary Saloon.
-- Via the Boston Review: Latin American constitutions established some of the most significant guarantees of human rights. So why is the on-the-ground reality of those rights so often distorted?
-- "Evil is one of the most interesting themes for me." Jorge Volpi, interviewed at The Quarterly Conversation.
-- On the myth of women's ascendence. This is a great book review. H/t Jina Moore.
-- Rebecca Solnit: "What we don't talk about when we talk about gender."
-- This is what the reclamation of Detroit looks like.
-- The Rumpus interviews comics artist Natalie Dee.
-- "All of your book reviews are just advertisements for Amazon, says Amazon."
-- A startling wintertime image of the town where I grew up.
-- The forgotten legacy of three Swiss writer-travelers.
-- "Jews are best understood as a people with a shared literary history."
-- The library press gets hot.
-- Edwin Mellen Press sues a librarian for libel.
-- Sister Arts: The provocations and promise of the friendship between Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde.
-- Vi Hart: A music box, Bach, and a Möbius strip.
-- The Smitten Word: Writing sex.
About the Image: The public library in Montrose, Scotland.
-- A manual on sex and pregnancy from 1680 (above) has been banned from sale for more than 200 years in the United Kingdom. But Aristotle's Compleat Master-Piece will be in bookstores this month.
-- "George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You'll Read This Year." I'm not surprised. Also: thrilled. I can't wait for this.
-- Natasha Trethewey takes up residence in the nation's capital as our new poet laureate. "I like the idea that people might even get to sit down and have a conversation about poetry with me."
-- Sharon Olds: "I want a poem to be useful."
-- The American Reader, a new literary magazine, is getting a ton of top-tier buzz. I feel both intrigued and .. put-off by it. I'm skeptical about the literary interest of a magazine that seems to start, from Day 1, on an elite status that seems to already inspire pandering media attention, commenting on the editors' fashion sense. On the other hand, it does have lot that's unique and smart and beautiful going for it. For one, it's helmed by a 25-year-old African Catholic who just graduated from Princeton who speaks fluently about the view from the cultural margins on literary white privilege.
-- Zadie Smith writes about joy.
-- Edith Grossman on love and translation, via Words Without Borders.
-- Four Way Press is kicking it.
-- "The House Eudora Built." Visiting Ms. Welty's home in Jackson, Mississippi.
-- The Sorrows of Young Forster: E.M. Forster's journals and diaries are reviewed by Alan Hollinghurst.
-- "...at the hour when the parricide feels a cat purring against his feet..." Worldly Thornton Wilder, via Harper's.
-- Reader favorites: 12 incredible webcomics.
-- Zeno in court.
-- In transit: people caught reading.
-- Edmund White offers sex tips for writers.
-- I constantly find myself arguing for the value of "objectivity" in journalism as a practice, rather than a state-of-being: a critical value in reporting that is not to be confused with the "he-said, she-said" journalism known as false balance. Margaret Sullivan, public editor of the New York Times, pens a column on just this issue: "When Reporters Get Personal."
-- An oral history of Newsweek magazine.
-- Here's why front-page obituaries more than doubled in the New York Times in 2012.
-- The amazing story of the woman who "at 22 almost single-handedly wrote women’s rights into the Constitution of modern Japan, and then kept silent about it for decades." She was one of the last living people who wrote Japan's postwar constitution.
-- Fact: For the first time since 1984, this past presidential election featured not one question on global warming. Four out of 10 people on earth have never heard of climate change, even if they've experienced its harsh consequences. Bill Moyers on "Moyers & Company" talks about ending the silence on climate change with Anthony Leiserowitz, who spends his life doing just that.
-- And, as federal action on climate change is seriously lacking, some cities are taking real leadership. Here are 12 cities with the best workable policies on sustainability.
-- A gorgeous black meteorite from Mars has more water than any other we've found in Earth.
-- NASA marks fifty years of space photography.
-- One Hundred Years of Solitude persuaded Francine Prose to drop out of her PhD program.
-- Christian Wiman is leaving Poetry magazine for Yale Divinity School and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.
-- Jessa Crispin on materiality and the power of religious relics.
-- "I want women’s history to be legitimate, to be part of every curriculum on every level." Gerda Lerner has died. She almost singleheandedly made women's lives a legitimate subject of study for historians.
-- One of dictator Pinochet's last acts was to ban abortion in Chile in all circumstances. It had been legal since 1931. Today, there's a nervy effort to push back with an abortion hotline that walks a heated grey area.
-- Egad: 2012's deluge of "Africa is a Country" moments.
-- Arundhati Roy speaks on the misuses of democracy.
-- "Survival of the wrongest": How personal health journalism does it all wrong.
-- On the class politics of vaccination.
-- Civil Eats: The best food and agriculture books of the last year.
-- Physicists consider the rise and fall of words.
-- Why don't more girls study physics?
-- Gender in academia: men dominate philosophy and history, but aren't much of a show in education. There's a big difference in how gender participate on campus. Diversity will lead to better science. Misconceptions of the school-to-prison pipeline.
-- Reading aloud, fashionably.
-- "The last word is beauty."
Offering my money to people, places, and organizations I believe in is one of my great joys, and is something of a year-round activity. But as this solstice season brings our year to a close, I know many of us are looking for what we might have missed. I offer here 12 suggestions that would be great homes for your end-of-year generosity and love. Please also check out Katha Pollitt's annual column in The Nation dedicated to wonderful causes -- I always look forward to it -- in which the clarion call is: "This year, be more generous than ever." And don't forget that in Choose Books: A Gift Guide for People Who Care About Stories, I profile several outstanding places for your gift donations, all with a distinctly bookish bent. And of course, if you value Isak, I'd be unbelievably grateful for your support for my work on this site: see the "Support Isak" box on the right.
But here are others.
National Center for Science Education
One of my all-time favorites. This nonprofit provides tools, resources, and advocacy to ensure that evolution and climate change are taught well in public school classrooms. It was founded in 1981 to provide support for legal and political challenges against science education, to educate the public through media outreach and journalist training, and to support educators who want to do their work well. NCSE states that, "Our 4500 members are scientists, teachers, clergy, and citizens with diverse religious and political affiliations." NCSE's good work resonates with me because it is both about the teaching of scientific fact (how our world works) and scientific process (how to make an evidence-based search for truth). Subscribe to the free "Education and Climate Education Update" newsletter here. Donate here.
Medical Students for Choice
I love these folks. After years and years of hostile politics, and violence targeting abortion providers, you might not be surprised to learn that fewer medical students are choosing to go into abortion care ... or even learning how the procedure works, given that many schools are ignoring it in the curriculum. This translates into a scary dearth of people with skills to provide needed health care. (More of the story here.) MSFC, based in Philadelphia, is dedicated to creating tomorrow's abortion providers and pro-choice physicians. It is an effective and whole-hearted intervention, shaped in a participatory way by chapter organizations at medical schools in the U.S. and Canada. Here, there are resources to donate, shop online in a way that supports MSFC, and throw a house party to benefit MSFC.
Okay, I'm biased. I used to live and work here. But I'll tell you from the inside that this Boston-based nonprofit and live-in community is worth your time and love. It is home to a soup kitchen that works in a radical community-based model, a food pantry (I used to run it! Say hi to Demetrius, one of the regulars, for me if you stop by), affordable housing, and a bakery that provides employment for people who have recently left incarceration or rehabilitation programs. Haley House extends its "food with purpose" model to providing cooking classes to community members and schools.
I've read that, despite their urgency, direct services are a distant third behind other, sexier, charitable giving to education and media/arts initiatives. Please don't forget people who need practical things like food and warmth. Donate here.
Picking up on the thread of providing for basic human needs: Forgotten Harvest is both food-rescue and hunger-fighting nonprofit based in Detroit. Since 1990, it has saved prepared and perishable food from waste, and distributed it, via 250 food banks and pantries, to people in need across the metropolitan region (2,000 square miles). Surplus food is culled from "grocery stores, restaurants, caterers, dairies, farmers, wholesale food distributors, and other Health Department-approved sources." Over 93% of funds go toward food programs. If you're local, here is how you can give food. Donate (the traditional way) here.
THAW (The Heat and Warmth) Fund
I know of several deadly fires caused by space heaters and other patchy solutions used by families who have had their heat cut off in the chilled Michigan winters. THAW provides emergency energy assistance to people who need warmth. Most of these people are elderly, unemployed, underemployed and/or disabled. Since its founding in 1985, THAW has 1985 distributed more than $110 million in assistance to more than 160,000 Michigan households. Donate here.
Women, Action, & the Media
This is gender justice in the media. This is about shifting the dynamics of whose stories get listened to, and how well those stories are told. WAM has been a crucial part of my journalism life: the community at WAM events and on its vibrant listserv effectively mentored me from the newbie who submitted print-letter queries addressed "to whom it may concern" into a person who can actually make a living from freelance writing. I like it so much, I carried it with me to Nairobi. Detroit, too. You can become a WAM member and get all sorts of discounts and services. Or donate straight-up here.
"Because the earth needs a good lawyer." That's the tagline for Earthjustice, and it's a good one. This nonprofit has provided free legal representation for more than 1000 clients, ranging from big nonprofits like the National Resources Defense Council to small community groups. Headquartered in San Francisco, it builds hundreds of cases each year, defending laws like the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Earthjustice helps "safeguard public lands, national forests, parks, and wilderness areas; reduce air and water pollution; prevent toxic contamination; preserve endangered species and wildlife habitat; fight the causes and effects of climate change; and defend the right of all people to a healthy environment." Donate here.
Natural Resources Defense Council
Considered one of the most effective environmental nonprofits in the country, particularly in fighting climate change, NRDC is a potent force. Besides sustainable energy (on a broad scale), NRDC is also focused on ocean revival, defending endangered animals and plants, ensuring a safe and abundant supply of water, and sustainable urban development. NRDC is a policy advocate and movement-builder: here are the successes it counts for 2012. Donate here.
Union of Concerned Scientists
Scientists and citizens unite here under the belief that rigorous scientific analysis, rather than political and corporate hype, "should guide our efforts to secure responsible changes in government policy, corporate practices, and consumer choices." UCS is also considered one of the most effective organizations in combating climate change. Its policy work and advocacy also prioritizes scientific integrity, clean vehicles, clean energy, and food and agriculture, among others. Donate here.
This is a temporary home in Detroit for survivors of violence and persecution from around the world who are seeking asylum in the United States and Canada. In thirty years, it has never turned anyone away who needed shelter here: men, women, and children are regularly living here, where they have access to food, shelter, legal support, social services, education, job training, and support in finding transitional housing. Freedom House also works to educate the public on refugees and the human impact of international political crises. Learn ways to volunteer or partner with Freedom House, and donate here.
RAINN (The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network)
This is the largest and maybe the most effective national organization dedicated to ending sexual violence. It provides services to victims, including a very effective National Sexual Assault Hotline (free and confidential), and it spearheads numerous education and prevention efforts. It also is an advocate for sane public policies, and it provides technical assistance to over 1,100 crisis centers nationwide. It's been a major force in getting untested DNA from a backlog of rape kits examined. Donate here. If you give by December 31, your gift will be matched.
Center for the Art of Translation
Because international literature matters. Being able to share our stories across borders is both urgent and joyful. CAT publishes and champions extraordinary literature in translation. It publishes the wonderful Two Lines journal, runs a bilingual reading series in San Francisco, and facilitates poetry translation workshops with children. Donate here.
That's the question that Jina Moore explores in an interesting piece for Foreign Policy -- particularly pertinent because at a conference beginning tomorrow, the World Intellectual Property Organization will decide if it will proceed with a treaty that would dismantle a nonsensical ban on sharing accessible texts from one country to another. The American publishing industry opposes the treaty (because of its "current language"), and the Obama administration has not taken a stance one way or another; official statements amount to equivocations. Because WIPO has a consensus-based decision-making process (a fact that amazes me), the U.S. needs to back the treaty, or it's toast.
One of the issues here is a copyright exception (or lack thereof) that would allow organizations "to copy, in a variety of accessible formats, a copyrighted work without getting permission from or paying a fee to the copyright holder." Moore explains.
"Accessible books" includes Braille print copies, but the more important issue is digital files. Specially coded audio books allow the blind to navigate between chapters, bookmark their reading, and otherwise interact with a text as a sighted person might with a print volume. There are also various text-to-speech programs that can adapt a book for a visually impaired reader. All of these are based on digital files that blind resource organizations say would be easy to share with visually impaired readers, if not for the current regulations.
"Let's say the United States produces the book," says Melanie Brunson, executive director of the American Council of the Blind. "Canada has to produce their own version; England has to produce their own version; Australia has to produce its own version, even though all of them are producing it in English Braille or an English talking book."
That's no small thing. Take Britain's most lately beloved literary export, Harry Potter. It cost the National Braille Press in Boston roughly $80,000 to set and print one volume of the series, though the work had already been done in other countries. Pescod says the resources his Royal National Institute of the Blind used to duplicate a single Harry Potter text could have paid for another four titles in Braille and another seven accessible audiobooks.
It sounds like a lot of red tape and a whole lot of money. And what's at stake here?
Current copyright regulations are contributing to a global "book famine" for blind or visually impaired readers, who number around 285 million, according to the World Blind Union (WBU). The WBU estimates that less than 1 percent of all titles are available in accessible formats in the developing world, and only 7 percent in the developed world. Only 8,517 books are accessible to the blind in Chile, Columbia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Uruguay combined, according to the WBU, yet Argentina has 63,000 accessible titles and Spain has 102,000. Spanish, of course, is a national language in each of those countries, but current copyright law doesn't permit Spain or Argentina to share its converted texts.
So, basically, a huge number of people, especially those living in developing countries, have very little to read, and those of us in wealthier countries can't legally donate materials to them. This doesn't just diminish their ability to read for fun (though I'd argue that's significant enough), but to advance in school and in the workplace. It's the systemic suffocation of the talents and skills of people who are visually impaired.
This story, incidentally, is exciting my interest in how books, especially of the literary ilk, are translated into Braille, or in audio formats specifically tailored to visually impaired people. What books are chosen for Braille conversion, and why? How does the rate of fiction books Braille-ized compare to nonfiction, and poetry? "Classic" authors and contemporary authors? Are there multiple translations of some texts available? What makes a Braille version of a book "good" or "not good," and what kind of training do the translators go through? I realize this is a tangent that assumes a certain amount of resources (and laws) for Braille books to even exist, but ... I'm curious. If any readers can point me to stories or information about this, let me know.
-- I'm five kinds of excited for the debut of Symbolia, a new digital magazine of comics journalism helmed by the talented Erin Polgreen. "... incendiary storytelling from around the world. We’re merging longform journalism and sequential art ..." Yes, please! See also an extensive profile of Symbolia in the Columbia Journalism Review (illustrated, naturally) and listen to Erin talk Symbolia on WBEZ.
-- "We lose the subject of animals when we move out of childhood." Bookforum talks with fiction writer Lydia Millet.
-- Zoe Heller is swiftly becoming one of my favorite literary critics. Here she is on Salman Rushdie's new book about his life as Joseph Anton, in hiding after the fatwa pronounced upon him for his novel, The Satanic Verses.
-- Kwani Litfest kicks off this weekend in Nairobi, themed Conversations With The Horn: Writers, Artists In Exchange. It's bringing together Somali poet Hadraawi, Sudanese-English novelist Jamal Mahjoub, Eritrean writer/historian Alemseged Tesfai, Egyptian writer/activist Nawal El Sadaawi, Nigerian novelist Helon Habila, and Ghanian novelist Kojo Laing, among others. I utterly wish I were there. Friends in Kenya, tell me all about it.
-- Cultivating Bulgaria into a dynamic and world-renowned literary center. Novelist Elizabeth Kostova is doing some very interesting work.
-- "I feel like I have to earn my breakfast." Jane Fine interviews A.M. Homes for BOMB Magazine.
-- Remembering the Montreal massacre: The 1989 mass killing targeting female engineering students has been memorialized in ways that have scrubbed the atrocity from its political repercussions. The 25-year-old man who shot the students screamed: "You're all a bunch of feminists, and I hate feminists!"
-- U.S. state science standards are "mediocre to awful," according to a new report.
-- Oscar Niemeyer, the modernist architect who designed Brasilia, died at age 104.
-- "The Fracking of Rachel Carson." Via Orion Magazine.
-- What's it going to take to go home by the home through the United States, retrofitting them for energy efficiency and reducing our massive residential carbon footprint?
-- A liiterary look (sort of) at our taste for oil.
-- This exists: a Calvin & Hobbes search engine.
-- The Hawkeye Initiative pictures male comics characters in the same extraordinary positions as female comics characters. Hilarity ensues. An important point is reaffirmed. Here's the submission from Matt Bors.
-- A graphic turn for academic librarians.
-- On the hunger that young readers have for dystopian fiction.
-- High school journalists try to figure out newspaper economics.
-- Brendan Nyhan discusses the future of fact-checking in the wake of the 2012 election.
-- In Guernica: what does it mean when your name doesn't mean anything?
-- Rebecca Solnit essays on urban agriculture and "revolutionary plots."
-- Herman Wouk on writing novels in his late-90s. (Via Chris M.)
-- See it here: "Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap." This is the documentary Ice-T made about the writing craft of rap, which is, amazingly, not talked about too much.
-- It's about time that this source of exploitation got more attention.
-- "Teach for America's Deep Bench." The American Prospect looks at how "the education nonprofit is also training the next generation of politicians, who have very specific ideas on school reform." Curious stuff. And did I ever tell you how I almost joined the TFA teacher corps in Las Vegas? Left a shadow life behind there...
-- "Writing is about specifying individuals, being very attentive to them and caring for them. It insists on nuances." Guernica interviews Israeli author David Grossman about war, art, Palestine, and tragedy.
-- Sifting through the poems of Octavio Paz over at Bookslut.
-- Roxane Gay's Year in Reading, part of the annual series at The Millions, which I always look forward to.
-- Tim Parks on growing up with an artist.
Adam Thirlwell: The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by ... Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes
This nonfiction book of blinding brilliance and rare pleasures -- one that I will easily name as a favorite -- orients itself on questions of literature in translation. How does style translate, or not translate, across not only language, but also time and country, politics and personality? How does the map of the imagination match up with the map(s) of our literal world?
Read the review here.
Joe Kelly: I Kill Giants
Here it is: a compilation comic of striking artwork and an unnerving story of fantasy, monsters, and disaster. Barbara Thorson is the eccentric and geeky young girl of great confidence who guides us through the pages. I Kill Giants is a work of beauty.
Read my brief review here.
Bonnie Jo Campbell: American Salvage (Made in Michigan Writers Series)
These stories shake in the bones. Their telling is agile and nuanced; while concise, each story has a sort of lingering feel about it. One reads this book feeling as if we, like the characters peopling a post-industrial land, are on the edge--a way of life ended, or begun; the ground shaking beneath our feet; lives strained and transformed; the smallness and bigness of it all.
Read the review here.
Junot Diaz: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Yes, I hear you, I get it: I’m several years behind in joining the clamor of appreciation for Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel – his only novel (so far) and the slow-coming follow-up to the magnetic story collection, Drown. All the same, reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao feels like a discovery. This is a wild, soaring, stylized, hilarious, heartbreaking, and highly-voiced novel, one that indulges in tale-telling and, in the ample footnotes, passionate essaying.
Read my review here.
Norman Mailer: Miami and the Siege of Chicago (New York Review Books Classics)
Let me be sure to not bury the lede: This book is a lit fire.
Read the review here.
Josh Neufeld: A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge
The author's passion for documenting these tales is evident, as is his honest concern for the failures that trapped citizens in a winless game of futility and danger. But I don't really like the book he made.
Read the review here.
Rainer Maria Rilke: Duino Elegies: A Bilingual Edition
Rainer Maria Rilke began writing Duino Elegies one hundred years ago this year while visiting -- I am not making this up -- a princess.
Read the review here.
Carla Speed McNeil: Finder: Voice
McNeil shifts between humor and the grotesque with unnerving dexterity. She plays with our expectations of gender. Class reigns heavily on the story. McNeil collects myth and futuristic technology, and collides them together in a way that dis-locates the reader.
Read the review here.