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Christopher Hitchens, writer and intellectual, dies at 62

Christopherhitchenslatfob
Christopher Hitchens, the author and essayist who saw great success with his controversial 2007 book "God Is Not Great," died Thursday in Houston, where he'd been undergoing treatment for esophogeal cancer. He was 62.

Hitchens' "polemical writings on religion, politics, war and other provocations established him as one of his generation's most robust public intellectuals," writes Elaine Woo in The Times' obituary.

Erudition, a roguish sense of humor and passion for intellectual combat were hallmarks of his writing, which was prolific. In addition to Vanity Fair, he was a columnist for the online magazine Slate and contributor to Harper's, the Atlantic and a number of British publications. He wrote two dozen books, including highly regarded biographies of George Orwell, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine,  and co-wrote or edited at least eight others.

A swashbuckling opinionator, he loved few things better than a good argument — and he knew how to pick one. Once described by the New Yorker as "looking like someone who, with as much dignity as possible, has smoothed his hair and straightened his collar after knocking the helmet off a policeman," he tarred Bill Clinton  as a rapist, Mother Teresa as a fraud and Henry Kissinger as a war criminal. He argued in Vanity Fair that women were less funny than men, which stoked the wrath of female comics. "I am programmed by the practice of a lifetime to take," he wrote, "a contrary position."

Hitchens' contrariness ran deep. A former Marxist, he found himself in conflict with his allies in the American left after 9/11, when he declared his support for the Bush administration's war on terror. He stepped down from his column for the liberal magazine the Nation, which he'd been writing for more than 20 years.

Many of Hitchens' essays are online. Vanity Fair remembers him and links to nine of his recent pieces for the magazine, including writing about his illness. Granta has posted excerpts from essays from 1990 and 1985. The New Yorker has posted links to a number of stories by and about Hitchens, and Christopher Buckley writes there of his friendship with the argumentative writer.

Hitchens' death was announced by his agent Steve Wasserman, former books editor of The Times.

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Photo: Christopher Hitchens, right, with author Mark Danner, signing books at the L.A. Times Festival of Books in 2004. Credit: Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

Poets drop out of T.S. Eliot Prize competition over politics

Tseliot_youthTwo poets who were shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize dropped out of contention last week, voicing concerns over its sponsor. Aurum Funds, an international financial firm, recently signed on for a three-year sponsorship of the prize; the company's involvement was announced alongside the announcement of the shortlist, which winnowed 100 poets in consideration down to just 10.

Alice Oswald, who won the T. S. Eliot prize with her debut collection in 2002, raised the issue. "I'm uncomfortable about the fact that Aurum Funds, an investment company which exclusively manages funds of hedge funds, is sponsoring the administration of the Eliot Prize; I think poetry should be questioning not endorsing such institutions and for that reason I'm withdrawing from the Eliot shortlist," she said in a statement.

John Kinsella followed her lead, leaving only eight poets in contention for the prestigious British poetry prize. Its winner will be awarded more than $23,000.

The Poetry Book Society has long awarded the prize, but ran into trouble in April of this year when the British Arts Council announced it would cease funding it. More than 100 poets protested the move; Aurum Funds later emerged as a short-term funder of the prize.

Although the Poetry Book Society did not officially comment on the poets' withdrawals, board member Desmond Clarke told the Guardian that "there is a tradition of financial institutions sponsoring literary prizes such as the Man Booker prize", adding that "Aurum are respected investment managers whose clients include public sector pension funds and Oxford University."

And T.S. Eliot did not have such concerns about the financial industry; he worked for Lloyd's Bank before moving into publishing.

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Photo: T.S. Eliot in his youth. Credit: File

German author Christa Wolf has died

Christawolf
Author Christa Wolf, one of Germany's most significant writers, has died in Berlin, her publisher announced Thursday. The novelist, essayist and literary critic was 82.

Wolf is best known for her novel "Cassandra," published in translation in the U.S. in 1984. The book is a retelling of the Trojan War, and is known for its feminist themes. Her last book was 2010's “City of Angels or the Overcoat of Dr. Freud,” a semi-autobiographical account of a visit Wolf made to Los Angeles in the 1990s; it has not yet been published in English.

Born in 1929 in a part of Germany that is now Poland, the Wolf moved to East Germany in 1945. Wolfe was an outspoken cultural observer, a member of the Socialist party who was both supporter and critic. Her role was multilayered and complex: she wrote critically of the Stasi's police surveillance while later admitting that she herself had been an informal informant. Bloomberg reports:

She took part in an open protest against the exile the East German regime forced on the singer Wolf Biermann in 1976 and campaigned for reform in East Germany. Her privileged status there allowed her to travel extensively in the west after 1978.

Wolf was, though, an opponent of German reunification, and remained a member of Erich Honecker’s Socialist Unity Party until 1989. She delivered a speech to demonstrators at Alexanderplatz in November that year, days before the Berlin Wall fell. She welcomed the calls for democracy, yet made clear she did not support German unification or capitalism.

Her 1990 short story, “Was Bleibt” ("What Remains"), provoked a two-year battle over the merit of East German literature, fought out in the arts pages and chat shows of Germany’s newspapers and television channels.

In her story, Wolf described a female East German author under close surveillance from the Stasi. She was criticized for waiting until the end of the East German regime to publish it and accused of hypocrisy in her tolerance of that regime.

In 1993, Wolf announced that she had worked as an informal collaborator for the Stasi between 1959 and 1962 and published her own files for that period.

Calling Wolf "an enormously significant figure," Georgina Paul, an expert in East German literature at Oxford University, told Reuters that the author was "regarded up until 1990 as someone who carefully and delicately expanded the boundaries of what could be said in East Germany."

Wolf was awarded the Thomas Mann prize in 2010 for writing about "the struggles, hopes and mistakes of her age," with "deep moral earnestness and narrative power." 

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Christa Wolf in 2010. Credit: Rainer Jensen / European Pressphoto Agency

Occupy Wall Street library books stored in a N.Y. garage

Ows_books
The books that librarians and other protesters at Occupy Wall Street feared had been thrown out in a police raid on Zuccotti Park early Tuesday morning have been located. The books are being stored in a sanitation garage in Manhattan. The mayor's office tweeted a photograph of the stored books, saying, "Property from #Zuccotti, incl #OWS library, safely stored @ 57th St Sanit Garage; can be picked up Weds."

The library had more than 5,000 books, which had been catalogued by volunteers. They had been stored in a tent donated by author/rocker Patti Smith.

If activists are able to recover all of those books, where they might be located in the future is an open question. On Tuesday afternoon, a judge rejected the temporary restraining order issued to allow protesters to return, with belongings (including tents and libraries), to Zuccotti Park.

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5,000 books reportedly thrown out in Occupy Wall Street raid

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Photo: Stored books from the Occupy Wall Street library. Credit: NYCMayorsOffice via Twitter.

5,000 books reportedly thrown out in Occupy Wall Street raid

Ows_library
More than 5,000 books in the Occupy Wall Street library were reportedly thrown away when police moved in to remove protesters from Zuccotti Park in New York early Tuesday.

During the police raid, Occupy Wall Street librarians tweeted, "NYPD destroying american cultural history, they’re destroying the documents, the books, the artwork of an event in our nation’s history," Galleycat reports. "Right now, the NYPD are throwing over 5,000 books from our library into a dumpster. Will they burn them? … Call 311 or 212-639-9675 now and ask why Mayor Bloomberg is throwing the 5,554 books from our library into a dumpster."

The Village Voice has asked city officials what happened to the library books, but has not yet recieved a response.

"I watched the stuff thrown into sanitation trucks and just crushed," Lopi LaRoe, a 47-year-old Brooklyn artist, told a reporter. 

The library, which started out as a box of books and grew to a collection of more than 5,000, was originally out in the open air. Rocker, poet and National Book Award winner Patti Smith donated a tent to house the library and protect the books from the weather.

It had hosted readings by authors including Douglas Rushkoff, Jonathan Lethem (along with a quiet but curious Jennifer Egan) and Lynn Nottage; on Friday, a group of volunteers read Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street."

According to the Associated Press, hundreds of police officers in riot gear raided Zuccotti Park, evicting protesters who have been camping out in the Wall Street park since mid-September to call attention to economic inequities and the distribution of wealth. The New York Times reports that 200 were arrested.

Initial reports suggest that the park's occupants were told they would be able to reclaim their items the next day. "But it could be argued that city authorities have junked much that once made up Occupy Wall Street," Time magazine reported. "Perhaps most tragically, Occupy Wall Street's roughly five thousand-volume strong People's Library, compiled through myriad donations and painstakingly catalogued by Occupy volunteers, was reportedly thrown out."

A judge has signed an order allowing protesters to return to Zuccotti Park with their belongings; further court action is expected Tuesday.

What that means for the books, no one yet knows.

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Photo: The Occupy Wall Street library on Oct. 10. Credit: Andrew Burton / Associated Press

Happy 105th birthday, Eva Zeisel

Eva Zeisel

Reaching the amazing age of 105 is an incredible accomplishment, but that's not all Eva Zeisel has done. An immigrant to the U.S. after World War II, she became a noted ceramist. Chronicle Books released a photo book of Zeisel's work as part of a series featuring designers Ingo Maurer and George Nelson.

But -- as they say -- wait, there's more. Living the high life in Berlin in 1932, Zeisel traveled to Russia, where a visit turned into a five-year stay. The last 16 months she was imprisoned, accused of plotting to kill Stalin and often being thrown into  solitary confinement. For many years, Zeisel kept mum about her time in Russia, fearing reprisals by the KGB, although it is said they in part formed the basis of "Darkness at Noon," written by her friend Arthur Koestler.

The literary journal A Public Space has recently run Zeisel's autobiographical prison memoir. Zeisel's daughter told the magazine, "When a friend read these memoirs, he found them disingenuous. He did not believe that one could write about such a serious situation with so much humor and charm. But that is Eva."

Memories of long ago are not true. They have been gilded by time, the way I remember them now, with love for my youth, sentimentally, of myself—slim and energetic, resistant, sad, alert. I speak of myself as much as of the things that happened to me. None of it is true, but I shall be precise reporting my memories....

It never occurred to me that I could have done something wrong. Not even then did it occur to me that something might happen to me personally. I looked around and saw a woman and the building superintendent. I got up and put on my housecoat, a green-checkered one of wool flannel. Suddenly there were more men in the room. I became quite ill at ease. They looked at my letters and at my photographs. They stopped at two of them. One was an enlarged snapshot of me on a beach with my eyes closed. It looked like a mask of my dead face. The men passed the photograph from one to the other and they smiled, and it scared me. I do not know whether I realized then or later that they thought I would soon be dead.

They also found a picture of a pistol, an enlargement I had made. It had been the fashion at that time to make partial enlargements of things so they looked like something else. Like speaking a word over and over again and changing the meaning of a syllable. At the time I got my camera, which I had bought with my first earnings from the Schramberg factory, I was living with the Leichsenring family. They had a little girl, and I took pictures of her dolls’ heads, heads of broken dolls. I also took a picture of her father’s pistol, a tiny one, with many little bullets laid out in a row, and I enlarged it into a pattern. They took other photographs, too. It must have been interesting for them to see what a foreigner had among her letters and photographs and personal belongings.

I remember feeling life receding from me and myself being set apart. They were not rude. They were extremely polite.

Today, Eva Zeisel turns 105. Her prison memoir is in A Public Space 14, available in bookstores and from the journal's website.

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Photo: Eva Zeisel with an exhibit of her pottery designs in 2005. Credit: Talisman K. Brolin / Associated Press

Dave Eggers and Robert Pinsky feted by PEN Center USA

PEN Center USA gala
The gala dinner for PEN Center USA at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Tuesday night saluted so many honorees in a ceremony that went by so quickly that it was almost like it didn't happen. One minute people were milling around the silent auction with pre-event drinks, the next author Robert Pinsky was getting a laurel wreath on his head with his lifetime achievement award and reading a Czesław Miłosz poem to send us on our way. In past years, the event has gone long; not so in 2011.

Dave Eggers was presented with the Award of Honor by John Krasinski, the actor best known for his role in "The Office"; Krasinski co-starred in "Away We Go," the film written by Eggers and his wife Vendela Vida, and has been a supporter of 826, the literary nonprofit founded by Eggers. That nonprofit was just one of the reasons Eggers was given the award, which also recognized his books ("A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius"; "What Is the What"; "Zeitoun") and his work as a publisher at McSweeney's. Krasinski's introduction, which posited that Eggers was an evil genius, was the funniest part of the evening (and without any help from "The Office" writers, he said), and his suit (John Varvatos) was easily the most stylish.

The winners, who had been announced in advance, included four writers receiving special awards like Pinsky and Eggers, as well as those who had been selected by judges from a set of finalists.

Pinsky, who was U.S. poet laureate for three years, was introduced by poet Carol Muske-Dukes. In addition to crowning him with the laurel wreath, she lauded him for his poetry, his nonfiction and his leadership in the creative writing community.

Charles Bowden, a journalist who's spent decades chronicling the troubles of towns along the border of Mexico and the southwestern U.S., was the First Amendment Award honoree. His most recent book is "Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields." E

llie Herman, a television writer turned teacher, was given the Freedom to Write award for her work empowering student writers at the Animo Pat Brown Charter High School.

PEN Center USA has posted galleries of photographs from the event on Facebook. The list of literary award winners, which included local hero Father Gregory Boyle, is after the jump.

Continue reading »

'Online novel' allegedly inspired Georgia terrorism suspects

Georgiasuspects

Former militiaman Mike Vanderboegh's "online novel" "Absolved" inspired Frederick Thomas, 73, one of four Georgia men who were arrested Tuesday for allegedly planning terror attacks, authorities say. The Associated Press reports that "federal prosecutors accused four elderly Georgia men of plotting to use the book as a script for a real-life wave of terror and assassination involving explosives and the highly lethal poison ricin."

Our Nation Now blog reports:

In his introduction to the book, Vanderboegh describes it as a "useful dire warning," a book that is "as much a cautionary tale for the out-of-control gun cops of the ATF as anyone. For that warning to be credible, I must also present what amounts to a combination field manual, technical manual and call to arms for my beloved gunnies of the armed citizenry. They need to know how powerful they could truly be if they were pushed into a corner."

Vanderboegh told Fox News that his work had been misinterpreted, and had harsh words for the suspects, whose plot allegedly included targeting federal workers and buildings and blowing the deadly toxin ricin out of a moving car on the freeway.

But is an "online novel" really a book? It is not for sale at Amazon or Barnes & Noble or used book vendor Alibris. It does not have a publisher. It was not self-published. It was not available in a portable ebook format. Vanderboegh began posting "Absolved" on his blog in 2009. Does putting words on a blog and call them a book make them a book?

Vanderboegh himself has called it "My as-yet-unpublished novel Absolved." Where I come from, that's a manuscript.

Of course, all the attention that has been directed at Vanderboegh and "Absolved" this week means it may not be a manuscript for long. "Well, guys, you were looking for the miracle that would motivate me to get Absolved into print," Vanderboegh wrote Wednesday. "I guess St. Barbara, the patron saint of gunners and fools, just did."

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Image: Ray Adams, left, and Samuel Crump are shown in this artist's rendering as they appear in a federal courtroom in Gainesville, Ga., on Wednesday. The men and two others are accused of planning a terrorist attack. Credit: Richard Miller / Associated Press

 

Turkish publisher's arrest sparks outcry

Istanbul_2005
Ragip Zarakolu, founder and director of the Turkish publishing house Belge, was among more than 40 activists detained Friday in Istanbul. Belge has published Turkish editions of books that are controversial in that country, including books documenting the Armenian genocide and "The KCK File/The Global State and Kurds Without a State" by Mehmet Güler. For 20 years, Zarakolu was prevented from traveling outside of Turkey, and in 1995, his office was firebombed.

His recent arrest was part of an official crackdown on Kurdish political parties that follows a violent attack that killed 24 Turkish soldiers. "It is essential not to confuse the efforts of those who, like Ragip Zarakolu, have worked to bring down barriers of censorship in Turkey with those who press political agendas through violence," PEN American Center Freedom to Write program director Larry Siems said in a statement. "Zarakolu is an honored PEN colleague and an internationally-recognized defender of the right to write and publish freely. We emphatically protest his arrest."

Additional calls for Zarakolu's release have come from the International Publishers Assn., the Guardian reports.

Bjørn Smith-Simonsen, chair of the International Publishers Association's freedom to publish committee, said that Zarakolu "does not belong to prison, he deserves a Nobel prize". Calling him "the pride of publishing" and "the limelight of freedom to publish in Turkey", Smith-Simonsen demanded he be released immediately.

"The trial is likely to begin in a year's time only. Ragip Zarakolu's health is not good. We fear that he will not stand his detention conditions in the terrible F-type (high security) prisons," he said. The IPA is intending to meet the Permanent Representative of Turkey to the United Nations Office in Geneva as soon as possible to urge the Turkish government to release the publisher immediately.

On Tuesday, PEN American Center President Kwame Anthony Appiah said that Zarakolu's arrest was "a disturbing sign of a decline in the climate for free expression in Turkey after several years of hopeful developments."

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Photo: The 16th-century Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. Ragip Zarakolu, founder and director of the Turkish publishing house Belge, was detained Friday. Credit: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Big in Iran

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A 14-year-old book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez has become a surprise hit in Iran. People are snapping up "News of a Kidnapping," a nonfiction account of the connected kidnappings of 10 prominent Colombians in 1990 by drug lord Pablo Escobar's organization. At CNN, Fareed Zakaria writes:

You won't find it on bookstore shelves here in Iran -- they're all sold out. Rumors have floated for weeks that the book has been banned. But any ban that might have been in place was lifted earlier this week. We had a hard time finding a copy for ourselves. What in the world is going on?

Mir Hossein Moussavi is an opposition leader here; he ran against President Ahmadinejad in 2009 and led the Green Movement protests after the election. But he's been under house arrest since February. In a recent meeting with his daughters, he compared his detention to Márquez's account of abductions by a drug cartel in Colombia. Moussavi's word spread. And just like that, "News of a Kidnapping" went viral....

The one lesson I have learned from watching countries like Iran that are distant, complex and often closed to outsiders is to be careful in drawing grand conclusions about the regime, its stability and its prospects. Clearly some Iranians support this regime for reasons of religious loyalty and belief and because they get tangible material rewards from it. Others fear it. And still others are waiting for the opportunity to reform or even replace it. The people who can read Márquez obviously do not make for a majority -- but they are surely a sign of a county where people are gasping for freedom.

The Colombia-born Marquez won the Nobel Prize in 1982. Now in his early 80s, he's one of the leading practitioners of magic realism, in works like his iconic novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude." His most recent book is the 2004 novella, "Memories of My Melancholy Whores" -- which was later banned in Iran.

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Photo: Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Colombia in 2007. Credit:  Jairo Castilla / Associated Press

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