Natural history is not just a grab bag; it’s not neutral, and it’s important that in fiction it not be allowed to become a playground where white people, characters, and authors can retreat into an allegorical fantasy land, as it has functioned in real life for hundreds of years with extreme consequences.
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UK students have until December 31, 2012 to record a 60-second Very Short Film on any topic of their choosing so long as it can “fire up an audience’s curiosity.” The winner will earn £9,000 (~$14,465.70) for their education, and top submissions will be featured on the Guardian website.
Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike discuss yet another brilliant, depressing book. Would it kill them to do an episode about, say, a Dave Barry book? One where he talks about aging, and maybe how politicians are sometimes bad at their jobs? Yes. Apparently it would. Discussed in this week's episode: Delicious Foods by James Hannaham, Houston, crack, Louisiana, Jennifer Egan, tours de force, slavery, astrology, goats in the sky, starlight, white liberal guilt, unceasing bleakness. Animals featured in this episode: Maeby the pug, who did a mostly good job not barking during the filming, and was rewarded with a treat and her favorite tennis ball.
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Any writer who has felt the sting of rejection---that is, all writers---will be inspired by the story of Dick Wimmer, who has died at the age of 74. Over the course of 25 years, a total of 162 agents and publishers rejected Wimmer's first novel, Irish Wine, before it was finally published by Mercury House in 1989. The New York Times called it a "taut, finely written, exhaustingly exuberant first novel." The L.A. Times invoked James Joyce in its review. Wimmer, the iron man of the rejection wars, went on to publish two sequels, Boyne's Lassie and Hagar's Dream (All three books are now available in a single volume from Soft Skull.) The moral of Wimmer's story? Never give up.
When he set out write The Orphan Master’s Son, his 2012 novel set in modern North Korea, Adam Johnson faced a seemingly insurmountable problem: Very little is known in the West about daily life in modern North Korea. The government of the ruling Kim family pumps out a constant stream of propaganda, but nobody believes a word the country’s official news agencies say. More accurate information comes from defectors, but residents of the capital city of Pyongyang, where much of The Orphan Master’s Son is set, rarely defect. Even when Johnson wangled a rare visit to the country, his government minders never let him out of their sight and ordinary citizens wouldn’t risk looking at him on the street, lest they arouse the suspicions of the country’s brutal secret police. Johnson’s solution was to write The Orphan Master’s Son as speculative fiction, mixing the facts he was able to gather with his own fertile imagination to create a fictive world he calls, for the sake of convenience, North Korea. Just as is the case with most speculative fiction, many of the underlying facts of this fictive world, such as North Korea’s vast system of gulags and the government’s bizarre ban on owning dogs in the capital city, are real. But many other details, such as a gruesome program to drain the blood of dying prisoners to provide fresh blood for healthy citizens elsewhere, serve as literary metaphors for life under totalitarian rule. After Johnson’s surprise win of the National Book Award last week, many readers will be rushing out to buy the winning book, Johnson’s 2015 story collection, Fortune Smiles. But readers new to Johnson’s work may also want to make room on their Christmas wish lists for The Orphan Master’s Son, a brilliant, compulsively readable novel that blends the fine-grained emotional texture of literary fiction with the big ideas and world-building pleasures of the best speculative fiction. At the heart of The Orphan Master’s Son, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, is Jun Do (“John Doe”), a young North Korean raised in a work camp for orphans. In the first section of the novel, which reads like a dystopian thriller, Jun Do joins a secret government unit tasked with kidnapping valuable foreigners and bringing them to North Korea. When he succeeds at that, he is sent to language school to learn English and assigned first to work as a spy stationed on a fishing vessel and then as a translator on a diplomatic visit to a senator in Texas. The antic disaster of Jun Do’s sojourn in the American heartland sets the stage for the novel’s far more ambitious and strange second half, a cockeyed love story told in standard third-person narration, intercut with a heartbreaking first-person tale of a gung ho government interrogator, and the creepily chirpy voice of the government's propaganda office piped via loudspeaker into every household in the country. For much of this section, Jun Do is either under interrogation by the state’s secret police or an inmate in a barbaric prison mine, but Johnson leavens the bleakness of his hero's daily existence with breathtaking narrative leaps and deftly understated dashes of barbed humor. In one of the chapters narrated by the propaganda office, the voice reminds its listeners that the loudspeakers serve as a vital early warning system in the nation’s still-simmering war with its American-backed southern neighbor: "The Inuit people are a tribe of isolated savages that live near the North Pole," the voice explains. Their boots are called mukluk. Ask your neighbor later today, what is a mukluk? If he does not know, perhaps there is a malfunction with his loudspeaker, or perhaps it has for some reason become accidentally disconnected. By reporting this, you could be saving his life the next time the Americans sneak-attack our great nation. When you stop laughing, you realize this is precisely the sound of a police state quietly, gingerly tightening its ideological stranglehold on its population. In a recent New York Times article, Alexandra Alter noted that, with his Pulitzer and National Book Award wins on successive books, Johnson joins an elite literary club of consecutive prizewinners that includes the likes of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Wallace Stegner, and Eudora Welty. Of these four, only Roth is still alive and he is now retired. Johnson, on the other hand, is 48 years old, with just four books behind him. If there is a more promising writer at work in the U.S. today, it would be hard to name him.
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We get it, you're into finance -- but what can you tell me about lit crit? This piece from The Atlantic purports to show how literary theory has its place in the world of finance: "The act of imagining the future in finance goes by other names—'vision' and 'invention' are among the more respectable euphemisms—in order to disguise the presence of the non-rational in financial activity. But rarely do scholars explore the role of imagination in economic life systematically. In a realm dominated by economic and financial scholarship that aspires to be 'scientific,' fantasy and creativity in envisioning the future are often ignored; they don't fit well into a model of research whose aim is to reduce unknowns and to eliminate surprises as much as possible."