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Category: April 2009

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PEN World Voices Festival underway

PEN World Voices Festival

The annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature kicked off Monday and will continue until Sunday. Those of us who aren't in New York for the panels, readings and parties can keep up, luckily, with the many blogs that are following the proceedings.

PEN has 12 such blogs of its own. Dedi Felman, for example, went to see new Nobel Prize winner Jean-Marie Le Clézio as interviewed by Adam Gopnik.

In person, Le Clézio has the sharply carved features and stoic manner of an Easterner’s stereotype of an inhabitant of the American West; more Sam Shepard, perhaps, than true cowboy, but a man of the “en plein air” — outdoors — nevertheless. In Le Clézio’s enthusiastic embrace of J.D. Salinger, his kinship with non-Old World writers, his love of sun-etched landscapes, and his grounded earthiness, even his thick shoes and white socks, one imagines him perfectly at ease on a ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico (a reported origin of the Marlboro man) as on this NYC stage.... “I’m a writer. I now work in closed places. I write at a plain table in Albuquerque.”

Deji Olukotun of Fiction That Matters wrote about the panel "Prison Deform."

Four phenomenal writers gathered at the CUNY Graduate Center to discuss the relationship between writing and prison.... Hwang Sok-yong of North Korea, Khet Mar of Burma, Susan Rosenberg of the U.S., and Jose Dalisay of the Phillipines had each been incarcerated for their political beliefs.  The panel discussed the influence of prison upon their writing — and the answers were both surprising and inspirational.... When the world changes, so too must prisoners.  And they view the world with a new set of assumptions. "I had just stepped out of a smaller prison," Dalisay realized upon his release, "into a bigger one."

Many of the posts on the PEN site are detailed and thoughtful, but if you're feeling time pressure or a bit short-attention-span-y, the festival is also encouraging tweeting (with the hashtag #PWVFest). Some tweets include:

@miriamberkley: Neil Gaiman's PEN World Voices appearance has moved - more seats.

kimberlyburnspr: Of the 70+ events at PEN World Voices, one I'm super excited for is living legend Nawal El Saadawi

@TimeOutNewYork: PEN World Voices Festival: Adam Gopnik apologizes to France on behalf of Canada

— Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: FiskFisk via Flickr

Arianna Huffington and others on the future of media

Arianna HuffingtonLA Times Festival of Booksmedianew medianewspapers

Ariannahuffington"Sorry we started late," James Rainey announced. "There were a lot of people who wanted to get in here once they saw Arianna’s helicopter circling."

Rainey, an L.A. Times media columnist, moderated Sunday’s panel, “Media: Where Do We Go From Here?” which featured writer Marc Cooper, editors Sharon Waxman (The Wrap) and Andrew Donohue (Voice Of San Diego) and the doyenne of new media herself, Arianna Huffington, editor of the Huffington Post.

Earlier this month, Huffington announced the new nonprofit Huffington Post Investigative Fund, which will support pieces that "range from long-form investigations to short breaking news stories and will be presented in a variety of media, including text, audio and video. And, in the open source spirit of the Web, all of the content the Fund produces will be free for anyone to publish."

Apparently, she doesn't see this as being in direct competition with more traditional news outlets; she said that newspapers and websites could coexist peacefully by "integrating the inevitability of technology."

But old media outlets -- including organizations like the L.A. Times, the N.Y. Times and the Washington Post -- were painted early on as craggy strongholds of institutionalism that deign only to let certain voices be heard. New media organizations, we were told, provide new and very necessary public forums where the gatekeepers of the press could be surpassed by citizen journalists with handy tape recorders and low-overhead websites like the Wrap and the Annenberg School's digital news website.

Sharon Waxman, who had a post up on the Wrap about the panel just a few hours after it concluded, was previously employed by not one but two "towers of arrogance." At the panel, she said, "only when you work at the New York Times do you understand how the New York Times is part and parcel of the establishment, rather than an engine for pure accountability or for transparency among other pillars of the establishment. It is the establishment."

Marc Cooper, who reviewed the "demise"of his old LA Weekly stamping grounds in January, compared the present cultural atmosphere to that of 1490, not long after the Gutenberg printing press had been invented. Cooper noted that the printing press, built nominally to distribute copies of the Bible, led directly to such non-Christian events as the creation of secular humanism and the French Revolution. Progress begets progress, it seems. “I will take mass amateurization, or the mass democratization of publishing any day,” he said.

It was Andrew Donohue, editor of the 4-year-old local news website Voice Of San Diego, who offered the most salient point of the afternoon. It's after the jump.

Continue reading »

Elizabeth Edwards on John's affair: I threw up

affairElizabeth EdwardsJohn EdwardsmemoirResilience

Johnelizabethedwards The memoir of Elizabeth Edwards, cancer survivor and wife of former presidential candidate John Edwards, hits bookstores May 12. "Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life's Adversities," is billed by publisher Broadway Books as "an unsentimental and ultimately inspirational meditation on the gifts we can find among life’s biggest challenges."

One of those challenges was dealing with her husband's admission of carrying on an affair. Elizabeth Edwards took the news hard; according to the New York Daily News, which has acquired an advance copy of the book, she writes:

"I cried and screamed, I went to the bathroom and threw up."

The Daily News has more details from the book:

Hunter initially seduced Edwards using a worn come-on line, Elizabeth writes:

"You are so hot," Hunter told him outside a swank New York hotel. The campaign ultimately paid Hunter $114,000 to produce a batch of short films on his candidacy.

She lashes out at Hunter, now 45, whose name she never actually uses in the book, as a parasitic groupie who invaded the Edwardses' life.

Her own life may be tragic, she concludes, but Hunter's is "pathetic."

Even when Edwards confessed to his wife, he lied, claiming he had slipped up just once, Elizabeth writes. His original version of the story "left most of the truth out," she writes.

Geoffrey Hill: the poet's public burden

Geoffrey Hill

Geoffrey-hill Who is that man glaring out of the book pile? Is he the same one I knew in school? He is.

Geoffrey Hill’s "Selected Poems" (Yale University Press) comes with a confrontational cover -- not disturbing like those you learned about here -- but with the British poet’s face looking agitated, if not angry, at the thought that you might dare to reach and pick up his book.

I had the privilege of studying with Hill: He was genial, good-humored and tended to rephrase our dumb questions so that we sounded much smarter than we were. Once, to begin a session, he set up a CD player and played the music of John Dowland; for 10 or 15 minutes, we listened to an unnatural-sounding male falsetto accompanied by lute, before Hill went on to discuss Dryden. It was lovely.

That was the private man. Hill's view of the public obligation of the poet has always been strained. Some poets are activists, like our state’s new laureate Carol Muske-Dukes, who hopes to take poetry-writing to prisons and youth groups. Not Hill. In "Selected Poems," from "Speech! Speech!," he writes of technology:

No time at all really a thousand years.
When are computers peerless, folk
festivals not health hazards?...
on Internet: profiles of the new age;
great gifts unprized...

Yet despite his opposition (or ambivalence) to the public and its modes of communication, he still has many fans, and fansites.  He draws traditional forms of critical acclaim: Hill recently received the 2009 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism. There's a Facebook page dedicated to discussions of his work. He's on YouTube. Andrew Nixon, at Think of England, provides a recent (January 2008) interview Hill gave to a French interviewer, which contains this biting remark:

The great poet has no social function. The mediocre, yes, he finds himself delivering fashionable platitudes to the public. The true poet is completely isolated.

Which brings me back to his scowl on that book cover. It's the mask he uses in order to produce his poetry. Read me, it seems to say, but otherwise keep your distance.

-- Nick Owchar

Hill photo credit: Chris Floyd / Contour by Getty Images

Kristin Chenoweth sings 'Over the Rainbow' at the L.A. Times Festival of Books

Kristin ChenowethLA Times Festival of Books

Courtesy an enthusiastic fan at the LA. Times Festival of Books, you can see Kristin Chenoweth, the author of "A Little Bit Wicked" — who is also a Tony Award-winning actress — sing the classic "Over the Rainbow" before leaving the stage Saturday, April 25.

— Carolyn Kellogg

How does your garden grow? Lethally?

Amy StewartVroman's BookstoreWicked Plants


In 399 BC, Socrates suffered punishment by death by drinking a tea of poison hemlock. Over the years, hemlock has gotten no less poisonous, although it appears perfectly innocent -- pictured, above, its leaves resemble parsley and flowers, Queen Anne's lace. Now poison hemlock finds a place in the pages of "Wicked Plants" by Amy Stewart, along with coca, the betel nut, the strychnine tree, ratbane, the opium poppy and killer algae. "I confess that I am enchanted by the plant kingdom's criminal element," she writes.

I love a good villain, whether it is an enormous specimen of Euphotbia tiucalli, the pencil cactus with corrosive sap that raises welts on the skin, on display at a garden show, or the hallucinatory moonflower, Datura intoxia, blooming in the desert. There is something beguiling about sharing their dark little secrets. And these secrets don't just lurk in a remote jungle. They're in our own backyards.

Stewart told our Home & Garden section that Southern California's most common wicked plant is oleander, a quick-growing shrub with attractive white or pink flowers that is often used in landscaping. It's accidentally killed children, she says, and is, sadly, commonly used by suicidal nursing home patients.

But for all the death and destruction in the book, it's a lot of fun. There are lots of old-style etchings by Briony Morrow-Cribs accompanying Stewart's encyclopedia-like entries, which include historical cases of death, poisoning and experimentation. More than once -- more than you'd think healthy -- curious doctors have given themselves minor doses of lethal plants to chronicle their effects.

And the experimentation hasn't stopped there. The book includes plants like peyote and mushrooms that are wicked enough to alter your reality but wouldn't really hurt you.

From May 31 to Sept. 5, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden will feature the exhibition Wicked Plants: Shedding a Dark Light on Suspicious Species, based on Stewart's book. Tonight, she'll be in Pasadena at Vroman's Bookstore (with her new poison case, maybe), talking about the plants she loves, covets and fears, including the most deadly plant of all -- tobacco.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: Briony Morrow-Cribs

S.E. Hinton, a.k.a. Your Majesty

Jane SmileyLA Times Festival of BooksS.E. Hinton

Sehinton “I don’t know what I should call you,” Jane Smiley said as the crowd at Moore Hall gave a warm welcome to S.E. Hinton.

“You can call me Susie, or Your Majesty,” S.E. Hinton said.  We all laughed, but in a way, it’s kind of true. There are few authors who grab a whole genre by the soul and shake it up, but at 16 years old, when S.E. Hinton wrote "The Outsiders," that’s just what she did for young adult fiction (also known as YA). 

Smiley began by reading from Hinton’s lesser-known and newest work, "Some of Tim’s Stories," and then the two spent most of their conversation talking about that book and her adult novel "Hawks Harbor." 

The one thing she guaranteed about the book, is that Hawks Harbor is not the typical S.E. Hinton novel.

 “I wrote that book for fun,” she said of her adult novel.  “And it was the loosest I felt about writing since writing 'The Outsiders.' ”

When asked what books she read as a child, she said that she wasn’t a good reader back then but that she liked animal books such as "The Black Stallion" or those by Will James.  She thought she might grow up to be a cowboy. She read David Copperfield while stuck in a cabin on a lake and discovered Jane Austen while in college. Now, she rereads Austen every year, and a few years ago she took an Austen course. 

“It was one of the best things I’ve done in my life,” she said of that class.  “Believe me. I’ve been hugged by Matt Dillon.”

Continue reading »

Terry Pratchett's L.A. Times Book Prize speech -- with cat

NationTerry Pratchett

Many people at the L.A. Times Book Prizes on Friday night were dressed up, even nervous -- but Terry Pratchett, who won for his young adult novel "Nation," filmed his acceptance speech at home in England wearing casual pants and a black t-shirt. And he was accompanied by his cat, who stood on his desk -- although not on ceremony -- determined to be part of the goings-on.

So many in attendance were charmed by Terry Pratchett and his cat that we just had to put the video online.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Festival of Books: Newsmakers on newspapers

LA Times Festival of BooksnewsnewspapersRuss Stanton


Saturday's panel on "The Future Of News" featured Slate Group Editor in Chief Jacob Weisberg, USC Annenberg School of Journalism director Geneva Overholser and Los Angeles Times Editor Russ Stanton. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR’s Los Angeles correspondent, fresh from cuts that swept through NPR West’s offices was the moderator.

Overholser started things off by making a case for the future of her business: the academy. “This is a crisis of the economic model of journalism,” she said, noting that the functional model of journalism and the skills required to practice it remain relatively unchanged. “Journalism schools should be like law schools, in which you learn skills that can affect a number of different fields."

Weisberg, who started with Slate under the late-‘90s editorial flag of Michael Kinsley, was energetic and confident as only a man who got into the Web early can be. He noted that the art of the blogger, of writing without editors and copy editors, was a “high-wire act” but that it worked to produce less error. “You know you’re not going to get away with anything on the Web. Someone is going to catch that mistake.”

Weisberg compared print journalists to Medieval monks after the first Bible was printed; that we as a society are in the unique position of getting news and information disseminated without the help of the “priestly class.”

Addressing the audience, Weisberg explained that the media communityhas "confused the economic problem (which is our problem) with the democratic problem (which is your problem)."   Still, Weisberg acknowledged, Web-only sites such as Slate and others “in no way substitute for the primary news organs.”

Cue Russ Stanton, from the Los Angeles Times. What he said ... after the jump.

Continue reading »

Classic California crime

AlcatrazDavid WardLA Times Festival of BooksRichard Rayner


(We originally wrote that David Ward interviewed 100 inmates of Alcatraz; we’ve changed the post to note that some interviewees were inmates and others were not. Additionally, the post originally noted that one inmate tried to escape from Alcatraz again after a successful attempt; that has been changed to show that his other escape efforts were from other institutions.)

Sunday's panel on criminal literature showed that perhaps there's been too much written on what makes a criminal turn to a life of crime and not enough written about what makes a writer turn to a life of crime reporting.

"My dad was a crook," explained Richard Rayner, whose nonfiction book "A Bright and Guilty Place" (coming in June) follows two men as they navigate the Los Angeles crime scene in the 1920s and '30s. He has a very personal reason for asking, "How does someone go down that road?"

"The interest for me was in trying to figure out what made Leslie White go one way and Dave Clark go the other way," he said of his main characters, one of whom finds himself in a downward spiral of vice and corruption. (No spoilers here!)

"These were human beings that weren't any better or worse than the rest of us," added Larry Harnisch, whose Los Angeles Times blog The Daily Mirror looks at historical crime cases in California. He's chronicled cases of the Black Dahlia and the Changeling.

But David Ward had reason to disagree. His latest book, "Alcatraz: The Gangster Years," follows the criminals deemed "the worst of the worst." For the book he located and interviewed 46 guards and staff members and 54 former inmates, most of whom never returned to prison.

"The Alcatraz inmates aren’t like the rest of us," he said. They are the leaders, the highly intelligent, the very articulate, the type-A criminals. He told a story of one former criminal he interviewed, the only one to ever escape from "the rock," who swam all the way to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, where he was sighted by tourists and assumed to be a jumper.

“It’s great, hearing his story and what it was like going along with the current, floating past Ghirardelli Square.” He was taken to the local hospital and treated for hypothermia. Then he was returned to Alcatraz. (After he was caught, he was transferred to other prisons, from which he also tried to escape).

“But," Ward said, "he proved it could be done."

— Stephanie Harnett

Photo: Christina House / For The Times


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