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Archive for the ‘Literary’ Category

Some of the world’s greatest art has been inspired by revolution, but how often does a work of art become part of the revolution itself? Watching the protests in Cairo last week, Egyptian poet  Tamim Al-Barghouti was inspired to write a brand new poem — its Arabic title roughly translates as “Oh Egypt, It’s Close.”

With the internet down, he faxed the poem to a Cairo newspaper, copies of which were distributed in Tahrir Square.  Then Al-Jazeera asked him to record it. The video of his reading was projected in the Square every couple of hours on makeshift screens, helping to fuel the protests in real time.

Al-Barghouti did all this from the United States, where he teaches at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. This isn’t the first time his poetry has gotten him a lot of attention. Al-Barghouti’s poems opposing the Iraq War led to a temporary expulsion from Egypt; he could only return once the war ended. And in 2007 his poem “In Jerusalem” became a viral YouTube sensation after he performed it in an American Idol-style competition called “Prince of Poets.”

Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen reached Tamim Al-Barghouti this week at his home in Washington, DC. He said that under Mubarak, freedom of expression wasn’t exactly forbidden — but people never knew when the government was going to crack down. “Mubarak had this motto: ‘you say what you want and we do what we want.'” Now the poet whose words helped provoke the uprising is optimistic for Egypt’s democratic future: “This is one of the very rare moments where our hopes and expectations are not so far apart in the Middle East.”

Listen to Kurt’s entire interview with Al-Barghouti here.

–Michele Siegel

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Anyone else feeling a little political déjà vu?  Fifteen years ago this month a salacious political novel called Primary Colors was published.  It offered a thinly veiled account of President Bill Clinton’s election campaign and was written by…well, no one knew. In spite of this, or perhaps, because of it Primary Colors became a huge bestseller and eventually a movie starring John Travolta.  Now, as if on cue, we get O: a Presidential Novel, a juicy bit of speculative fiction that purports to be about  President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. The book features cartoonishly large ears on the cover and another “Anonymous” author.

Joe Klein

During Primary Colors run atop the bestseller list Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen was editor of New York Magazine at the time.  Aided by professor Don Foster, a Shakespeare scholar who analyzed writing styles, Kurt publicly outed TIME journalist Joe Klein.  Now that there’s a new mystery author, Kurt is back on the case, this time with the help of New York political writer John Heilemann.  Heilemann has a terrific Obama cover story out this week and is working on the sequel to his dishy 2008 (nonfiction) campaign book Game Change.

He told Kurt that the biggest clue to the author of O is hiding in plain sight, on page two no less.  It involves a specific real-life anecdote in the text that, according to Heilemann, was never reported in the press.  Apparently the story could only be known by a senior strategist to John McCain, and since only one of McCain’s advisers has any real writing experience, Heilemann has narrowed the list to one probable suspect.

Mark Salter.

Mark Salter

Salter is a McCain confidant and former ghostwriter whose name has come up before.  But as far as we know no one, until now, has pointed out the revelatory passage on Page 2.  We’ve yet to reach Salter directly, but he recently told the New York Post, “I’ve been asked by the publisher, as apparently many other people have, not to comment. So, no comment.”

Hmm… did we mention that back in 1996 after Joe Klein spent months vehemently denying writing Primary Colors he eventually came clean, proving Kurt right?  But don’t take our word for it.  We’re relying on the wisdom of the crowd for this one.  If you do a little sleuthing and come up with a better guess, by all means add it to the comments below.  We’ll keep an open case file until the mystery is solved.

-Derek L. John

UPDATE: Salter has been revealed as the mystery author.  Gold star, Heilemann.


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Like the rest of the twitterati the novelist Walter Kirn quickly tried to make sense of the Arizona shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and several others.

As events unfolded, Kirn’s tweets stood out. By Sunday night, Kirn realized the uncanny similarities alleged shooter Jared Loughner shared with Kent Selkirk, the socially-inept-loner-on-the-internet protagonist of Kirn’s novel, The Unbinding.

“It was a sense of recognition,” Kirn told Kurt Andersen. “The forces that created this Loughner may be spawning more of him.”

Kurt reached Walter Kirn in Montana to talk about how a confusing violent tragedy has spurred such an  intense cultural moment. Kirn explained, “If we look at this story as a story, and not as a basis of issue oriented argument, we see all sorts of characters who defy stereotypes and partisan description.”

–Michele Siegel

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One hundred and twenty-five years after The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published, a new edition of Mark Twain’s classic is purging some of the book’s most objectionable language. On Monday Publishers Weekly reported that NewSouth Books will replace the word “nigger” with the word “slave,” in a new edition due mid-February.  They will also change “Injun” to “Indian” in the Tom Sawyer companion text, and just to be safe, “half-breed” to “half-blood.”  What the Huck?  In a statement posted to New South’s website, the publisher said the change “replaces hurtful epithets that appear hundreds of times in the texts with less offensive words.”


There’s no doubt that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is filled with regional dialect, often expressed in offensive, racist language.  It’s a vernacular that reflects the cultural racism of the time, and Twain uses it to fire off satirical charges against the old South.  But it can also make the book uncomfortable for many modern readers, and as a result fewer schools are assigning the work.

The man responsible for the changes, Auburn University professor Alan Gribben, says that’s exactly why he’s stripping out the controversial language.  But should the text of a classic work be altered simply because it makes readers uncomfortable?  Studio 360’s Kurt Andersen spoke with Gribben earlier today and cited Twain’s own words:  “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”  As Kurt told Gribben, “I guess what you’re doing here is cutting up the steak for the babies.”  Hear Gribben’s response and the rest of the interview here:

Gribben says his version of Huckleberry Finn is only one of several editions that are already available. The milder text is intended to keep the book in classrooms and open it up to readers who might otherwise be turned off because of censorship or personal taste.  But is a wider readership really worth such a re-write?  What is lost when we no longer confront the complicated ugliness of our own past?  Tell us what you think.

-Derek John & Michael Guerriero

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Prejudices: The Complete Series
by H.L. Mencken

This is the handsomest set of the essays that made H. L. Mencken famous. Mencken was indignant about a lot of things, and he did not hold fire. Many of his reference points are forgotten, but it’s still bracing to read Mencken’s vitriolic attacks on what people of his time (and ours) hold sacred. We have plenty of outraged conservatives and a few indignant lefties, but nobody alive today can use “democratic” as a pejorative. If Mencken came back to life today, we’d crucify him.

– David Krasnow

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Ah, Christmas. Time to sit around the fire with eggnog and tell stories of… extraterrestrial spies?

This holiday week, Studio 360 presents a new kind of holiday tale.  “Human Intelligence” is by none other than Kurt Andersen, and was published this year in Stories: All-New Tales, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio.  Studio 360’s Jonathan Mitchell created this audio cinema adaptation.

Ed Herbstman (narrator) is a co-founder of the Magnet Theater in New York City.  John Ottavino (Nicholas) has performed in 36 states and 7 countries, including a role in the Tony Award-winning production of “A Doll’s House” on Broadway.  Melanie Hoopes (Nancy) is a writer, actress, and the host of “Laurie Stanton’s Sound Diet.”

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Lee Friedlander, Montana, 2008, from the series America by Car, 1995-2009. Collection of the artist; courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco © Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

In the 1960s and 70s, the photographer Lee Friedlander took his family on summer road trips.  Along the way, he took pictures that established him as one of the most acute, celebrated, modern chroniclers of America.  He captured vast swaths of the American landscape, lonely billboards, drive-thru kitch in stark black and white.

Forty+ years later, he’s still at it — and these new images feel just as remote and nostalgic, maybe more so.  “Lee Friedlander: America By Car” (featuring work from 1995-2009) is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, through Sunday November 28.

For those initial expeditions, Friedlander’s young son Erik was sitting in the back seat.  He grew up to be an innovative cellist – and he made an entire album of music inspired by those trips, all performed on solo cello: Block Ice and Propane.  The tracks recall Erik’s summers on the road: picking up big blocks of ice to keep the food fresh; sitting above the cab with his sister, watching the stars as his father drove through the night.  It’s a quiet, varied album ranging from rootsy Americana to tracks that sound dissonant and modern.  Much of the music was generated while improvising in the studio.

Back in 2007, Kurt asked him to improvise in our studio.  We were working on episode around the theme of “On the Road” (it was the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s novel).  When Erik came by to talk about his album, Kurt asked him to riff on a passage from Kerouac’s travelogue.  The result was pretty terrific:

(Kurt reads the passage at 8:30, followed by Erik’s response at 9:25)

– Jenny Lawton

In the 1960s and 70s, the photographer Lee Friedlander took his family on summer road trips.  Along the way, he took pictures that established him as one of the most acute, celebrated, modern chroniclers of America.  He captured vast swaths of the American landscape, lonely billboards, drive-thru kitch in stark black and white.  You can see some of those photos in “Lee Friedlander: America By Car,” an exhibition now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, through November 28.

Friedlander’s young son Erik was sitting in the back seat.  He grew up to be an innovative cellist – and he made an entire album of music inspired by those trips, all performed on solo cello: Block Ice and Propane.  The tracks recall Erik’s summers on the road: picking up big blocks of ice to keep the food fresh; sitting up in the cab with his sister, watching the stars as his father drove through the night.  It’s a quiet, varied album ranging from rootsy Americana to tracks that sound dissonant and modern.  Much of the music was generated while improvising in the studio.

Back in 2007, Kurt asked him to improvise in our studio.  We were working on episode around the theme of “On the Road” (it was the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s novel).  When Erik came by to talk about his album, Kurt asked him to riff off of a passage from Kerouac’s travelogue.  The result was pretty terrific.  (Kurt reads the passage at 8:30, followed by Erik’s response at 9:25)

– Jenny Lawton

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