The new British quarterly, The Book, is kicking things off with a poll to determine, by popular vote, “the Greatest Living British Writer.” As Gordon Kerr writes in his essay introducing the poll, “Now, there’s a question! It’s such a big one, in fact, that it requires capitals at the beginning of each word!” Indeed. If you’ve got an opinion on the matter, cast your vote. I couldn’t decide – how does one pick in polls like this? – so I selected John Le Carre, who seems to be sufficiently influential and popular while at the same time a little bit outside of the literary box. Thoughts?
Though the Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley isn't the most "sexy" of critics (Pete Dexter's comments notwithstanding), I've always enjoyed his columns. He will champion anything he believes is worth reading, even naming a book by John Grisham as one of the "best" of the year in 2005. He also clearly loves to read, and it shows in his writing, as opposed to, say, Michiko who I'd imagine dreads every book that crosses her threshold. Yardley also has a wonderful column called "Second Reading" that does away with the tyranny of the new and allows him to select and ruminate over any title from the vast trove of books he's read. This week revisits a classic that I remember warmly from my childhood, Little House in the Big Woods, the first book in Laura Ingalls Wilder's well-known series about life on the frontier.Yardley offers some tidbits that were new to me: Wilder didn't start writing the books until she was in her early 60s, and her daughter, a popular journalist and novelist, co-wrote, or at least heavily edited, the books. In revisiting the book, Yardley doesn't succumb to nostalgia, but he does acknowledge why the books have had such staying power:Some of the readers who've urged me to include one of Wilder's books in Second Reading have said that they can be as satisfying for adult readers as for younger ones. In the sense that I had a pleasant time rereading Little House in the Big Woods, I guess that I agree, but it's not exactly an adult pleasure. Wilder's prose is clean, her people are immensely appealing and the details she provides of frontier domestic life are fascinating, but we shouldn't try to persuade ourselves that these books are more than what they are: very good books for children that -- as I realize far more keenly now than when I was a boy -- paint a rather idealized picture of the American past. Wilder herself never seems to have pretended that she wrote for any except young readers, so let's take her word for it.If you've read the books, you'll enjoy the essay.Bonus Links: The Home-Schooling Book Boom, The Little Men Who Love Little House
This week's New Yorker is already on newsstands, but before last week's issue is a distant memory, I wanted to praise it for being one of the best issues I've read in a while. Calvin Trillin's piece on an episode of vigilante justice in Canada was engaging and well reported and David Owen's profile of the Arup structural engineering firm was an interesting departure from the magazine's usual coverage of cultural luminaries in the architecture field (neither article is available online.)The issue was anchored by Seymour Hersh's most important article since he helped break the Abu Ghraib story in 2004. In this follow up, Hersh delivers compelling evidence that responsibility for Abu Ghraib goes well beyond the handful of soldiers who were said to have acted on their own.But what really capped off the issue for me was Helen Simpson's refreshing story "Homework," which had a startlingly different tone from the typical New Yorker short story. Instead of brooding and cereberal, the story is almost joyful from start to finish, augmented by a wry undercurrent of second meaning. Whereas many contemporary stories are played in a minor key, thriving on disfunction, "Homework" is built on a healthy relationship between mother and son as she helps him complete an assignment to describe a "life-changing event." Rolling her eyes at the silly assignment, the first person narrator mother dictates a made up life to her son, one that includes divorced parents and in particular a globe trotting, carefree mother. There are a few subtexts below the surface as she crafts the story for her son: her own difficult childhood, her desire for a more exciting, less domestic life. But the story is also about imagination and being a kid. I thoroughly enjoyed it.I hadn't read Simpson's work before, but I'll keep an eye out for it now. She's penned several short story collections over the years, including In the Driver's Seat, which came out last month.
As an urban dog owner I greatly enjoyed Jonathan Safran Foer's article in the New York Times about the trials and tribulations of having a dog in a city. This op-ed piece is an argument against a plan to eliminate "off leash" hours in city parks. As someone who has many times appreciated the ability to let his dog "off leash" in parks in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia, I agree with Foer. I also enjoyed his musings on what it means for us (as in humanity) to have this desire to bring animals into unfriendly environs like cities. Kudos, as well, to Foer for letting his guard down in this piece in a way that many other writers might not have. (via Gwenda)
They eat babies in Guangzhou. This appalling side note appeared in this week's issue of Newsweek International in an article about problems with Chinese food safety. The article profiles Chinese journalist Zhou Qing who was nominated as a finalist for the Lettre Ulysses Award for his work covering food safety issues. According to Zhou, Chinese captains of industry blithely pickle vegetables with agricultural strength insecticides to keep flies away and sprinkle preserved fish with "sulphur salt," an industrial additive deadly in amounts as small as three grams.None of this is very surprising, after a recent shipment of poisoned Chinese toothpaste and cough syrup caused a spate of deaths in Central and South America. What is surprising, however, is the inspiration for Zhou's book: an unusual dish he claims was served to him in a Guangdong restaurant. From the Newsweek article:[The soup was] placenta soup... The placentas come from the aborted fetuses of migrant women workers who are unmarried or out of line with the government's one-child policy. During dinner, Zhou peeked into the back kitchen and saw the cooks scooping out fetuses.While this tidbit doesn't seem to have earned even a blink from the jaded staff at Newsweek, I practically spit my morning coffee across the monitor.Could this really be the one child policy in action? Or is it a hoax perpetuated by an overzealous reporter? Poisoning cough syrup is one thing, but eating babies? Although stories of women eating their own placentas abound, the issues raised by the potential commodification of the placenta are profoundly troubling. China's moral compass must be spinning like a dervish.A cynicism well honed on long exposure to fabulist reportage on Asia, immediately took me to Snopes.com, the vaunted debunker of rumors and urban legend. The Snopes team decries a similar story as nothing more than racist claptrap. But a quick trip to Google uncovers a wealth of articles, including one from Bloomberg in the International Herald Tribune (which introduces a new wrinkle... the placentas are imported from Japan) and one from the Daiyuan Times... in Chinese. Who to believe?The blood libel has been around for at least as long as the Jews, and probably well before. There are few crimes more transgressive and titillating than cannibalism, and people with an axe to grind are often quick to call their enemies out as baby eaters. A quick background check on the Daiyuan Times, for example, shows that it is owned by the Falun Gong, a Chinese religious organization that has experienced ruthless oppression at the hands of the Chinese government. If you can't trust the food from China, how can you trust the journalism?Not that the United States is much better. Even putting aside purebred fictionalists like Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, we're still left with a herd of reporters so eager for a good story, they're unwilling to get to the bottom of it. With old hands like Judith Miller selling entire wars based completely on rumor and innuendo, it's hard to find fault with an ambitious tyro for practicing his chops on a bowl of fetus soup.So do they eat babies in China? Newsweek, at least, is sticking with Zhou's account. His book, What Kind of God?, is currently only available in Chinese, but the general hysteria building up around Chinese exports seems to be making room for a bestseller. Eat your heart out Upton Sinclair.See Also: The Lettre Ulysses goes on hiatus