Posts tagged ‘news’

March 4, 2011

Ch-Ch-Changes!

by thiszine

Hey friends, writers, readers, and ardent fans of THIS!

I’m thrilled to tell you that later this month changes will be happening at THIS. As we grow our readership, we’d like to become a greater part of your daily conversation on all things literary. We’ll soon be expanding the scope of writing in THIS by offering new columns, new reviewers, and lighthearted literary tidbits to pull you through that excruciating three o’clock meeting. If you’re a writer, blogger or reviewer, keep an eye on our blog for further information on how you can work with us.

In the meantime, happy reading!

Yours,

Lacey N. Dunham
Editor

January 10, 2011

Whitewashing History In Mark Twain

by thiszine

BY SWEETMAN

Mark Twain has been surrounded by controversy since he began publishing his writing. Witty, satirical and irreverent, William Faulkner hailed him as “the father of American literature.” Twain was born in 1835 and died in 1910, and his novels and essays were a reflection of his life and times. Twain’s writing is often light and humorous but he was equally infamous for his penchant to delve into sobering societal hypocrisies and inhumanity toward others.

For these dark themes, Twain’s most notable novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) have been mired in controversy over the appropriateness of teaching them to young readers. They have been banned from libraries, schools and curriculum since they were first published. The controversy surrounding Twain’s these novels still rages into the 21st century; his two most famous novels still rank in the top 100 of the American Library Association’s most frequently challenged and banned books.

Enter Auburn University Professor Alan Gribben, a Mark Twain scholar who decided, after forty years of studying and teaching the writings of Twain, to change the content of both The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His changes substitute racially derogatory words for African-Americans and Native-Americans for, in Professor Gribben’s opinion, the more socially acceptable 21st century terms “slave” and “Indian” (wouldn’t “Native American” be the more politically correct version?). He reasons that by substituting the n- and i-words for more socially acceptable words he is eliminating “preemptive censorship” of the novels and thus preventing further cries of inappropriateness in public schools. Professor Gribben defends his edits as offering to teachers and general readers “an option for a more palatable reading experience.”

Well doesn’t that just make altering a dead author’s work The Right Thing To Do! And maybe the politically correct white-washing of Classic American Literature will revise our unsavory and uncomfortable history of slavery, segregation and racial inequality!

Censorship is censorship. No matter how earnestly one feels he/she is defending an author, alteration of the author’s final text to make it more “palatable” to the masses is censorship. Mark Twain did not use the word “slave” 219 times in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and no amount of good intention by Professor Gribben gives him the right to change Twain’s work. Furthermore, using a less inflammatory yet definitively wrong word as the substitution for a highly offensive, racially charged word sets Professor Gribben squarely on a path of whitewashing then rinsing an unfortunate part of American History.

There is a word for Professor Gribben’s particular brand of censorship as he is not the first well-meaning expert to try to gloss a work of literature to make it less offensive. Thomas Bowdler, an English physician, decided to expurgate the works of William Shakespeare and Edward Gibbons to render them more appropriate for the delicate eyes of 19th century women and children. His edits were soundly ridiculed and rejected. The term bowdlerize is now eponymous with literary censorship.

Gribben’s bowdlerization of Twain’s writing is an act of incredible vanity. During a reading as part of the NEA’s Big Read Program in Alabama, Gribben read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and routinely substituted “slave” for the n-word to make for a more comfortable reading. Apparently Professor Gribben liked the swap so much that he is perfectly comfortable tweaking Twain’s works in writing to make it easier on our modern eyes.

Censorship of Twain’s novels does both the author and the content of the novels a tremendous disservice. It is impossible to know if Mark Twain would make politically correct changes to his novels today and we can only guess what he would want. Twain wrote in the vernacular of the time. The derogatory slang use of the n-word in the 1870s is not burdened with the unspeakable weight that it carries in the 21st century. Yet that unspeakable weight is the burden of a society that has to live with the acts and deeds of its predecessors, like it or not. Difficult as it is to read, write and speak, censorship of a novel that reflects true historical times does not protect or teach young readers and bowdlerizing literature to make reading more palatable teaches nothing.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are tremendous novels with a sad truth still present today: our capability for committing inhumane acts. As a society, we haven’t changed enough to read Twain’s novels with any historical distance. To the contrary, the power of Twain’s writing has drastically changed to make his words uncomfortable, taboo and unspeakable in classrooms. Expunging those words changes nothing within our present culture. It’s just censorship.

November 3, 2010

THIS Reads: NaNoWriMo Killed the Literary Star

by thiszine

BY LACEY N. DUNHAM

I always find myself frustrated by all the books I’m not reading. My “to read” list is always miles longer than the list of books I’ve finished. Compounding my frustration is that I’m a slow reader. I have friends who readily soar through three or four books each week and, unless all I do is sit in a chair for six hours a day intently focused on one book, knocking through multiple titles only days apart is something I rarely accomplish.

Then again, at least I’m reading, right? In an article at Salon in which she rails against National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), Laura Miller complains that there aren’t enough readers and far too many writers. And while there are statistics revealing that many folks in the U.S. spend more leisure time watching television or using a computer than reading, I don’t believe the argument that there is a dearth of readers in the U.S. People are reading; what people are reading has changed.

In the age of technology, reading occurs outside of books with an increasing frequency, something Miller doesn’t acknowledge in her article (which I “read” online although, because it doesn’t occur between the pages of a bound book, might not count as actual “reading” in Miller-world). Each Sunday I read the New York Times Book Review, in print; I try to read most of the New Yorker each week. When I travel, I frequently pack back-issues of magazines and literary journals I’ve been meaning to get around to and haven’t: Bitch, Poets & Writers, Zone 3, Zoetrope, The Normal School. I don’t work at a typical desk job, but if I did, I imagine that a chunk of my day would be spent reading articles and blogs online. Does all of this, because I’m not purchasing my reading from a traditional bookstore or downloading it on a Kindle, mean I’m reading-deficient?

To be fair, Miller’s article mostly deals with the reasons why someone shouldn’t participate in what she calls the “self-aggrandizing frenzy” of NaNoWriMo: “…while there’s no shortage of good novels out there, there is a shortage of readers for these books.” She’s right: getting published is not half as hard as getting someone to purchase your book, read it, and recommend it to others who will also purchase it once you’ve been published. And it’s true that few authors are commercially successful. But reading novels and writing them isn’t a zero-sum game.

Maybe I’m touchy because I am participating in NaNoWriMo and I take it personally that Miller refers to writing as a “narcissistic commerce,” even if I’m not sure where the “commerce” part comes in. If I’m supposed to be getting wealthy from all this, I wish someone would have told me long ago so I could have the last laugh over my friends who elected law and business school.

Miller implies that Wrimos (NaNo parlance for participating writers) aren’t reading any books or, at least by her judgement, not enough of them. I disagree with this assumption, too. Maybe Wrimos aren’t reading the same types of books Miller would read (she goes on a long rant against self-help books in her article) but reading is reading, regardless of the material. And, unless it’s Nicole Richie’s latest novel, I don’t think reading in all its many forms is making anyone more stupid.

So in addition to all the magazines, lit journals (both in print and online), book reviews and newspapers this particular Wrimo has read over the last month, I also enjoyed Julia Glass’s novel The Widower’s Tale, a story shaped by four voices that represent various corners of modern American culture. Set against the backdrop of eco-terrorism, limousine liberals, and a longing for the past in the face of rapid change, Glass succeeds in illuminating the darkest corners of our hypocrisy and hopes, all with her characteristic tenderness and humor.

Leslie Marmon Silko has been a favorite writer of mine ever since I read Ceremony. The Turquoise Ledge is her first book in ten years and a beautiful memoir that fuses elements of her family’s mixed-race heritage with Native myths and reflections on the natural world. Her imaginative storytelling travels across boundaries of time to share aspects of her life as they are remembered; for example, her first divorce is discussed alongside the eradication of the Laguna language.

University of Chicago historian Thomas C. Holt presents a generational and nuanced portrait of African-Americans in Children of Fire, a uniquely framed history that traces the shifts in culture, policy, and social norms that have defined race relations and institutions of oppression in the U.S. from when the first Africans were sold in Jamestown in 1619 to the election of President Barack Obama. Holt’s history reminds us that lives mired in history as it is lived are far more complex and dynamic than the flattened accounts textbooks would have us believe. I don’t generally read histories but appreciated Holt’s perspective and sharp narration. Children of Fire is a long book but it doesn’t lag.

Finally, confidential to all the Wrimos clattering away at their keyboard out there: Carolyn Kellogg is on our side.

October 25, 2010

CanLit Award Predictions

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

CanLit awards season is heading into its last few weeks (our big three prizes will all be handed out by mid-November). Thus, it’s time for predictions, and, if you are a real lit-junkie, some serious bets. First, a few quiet observations.

What everyone is perhaps not so quietly talking about is Kathleen Winter’s triple nominations for the Giller Prize, Governor General’s Award and Writers’ Trust prize for her novel Annabel. It is Winter’s debut novel after her 2008 Winterset Award winning short story collection boYs.

Feeling two-thirds the heat as Kathleen Winter is Emma Donoghue, up for the Writers’ Trust and GG for her novel Room. The novel was also short-listed for the Man Booker earlier this fall.

There are lesser hopefuls that may surprise Canada with a big win after all. David Bergen’s new novel The Matter With Morris has had its share of recognition this season. It is up for the Giller and may just take the cake out of Winter’s mouth.

That said, it would be doggishly ironic if Sarah Selecky’s This Cake Is For The Party won the Giller. This is her debut work and has created considerable buzz in critic’s circles. Perhaps if the GG and Writer’s Trust accepted story collections, it would also approach taking those awards.

On to my predictions: be warned, the following is purely unfounded speculation.

On November 2, Michael Winter’s The Death Of Donna Whalen will win the Writers’ Trust award for fiction. In non-fiction, Sarah Leavitt will win for her graphic memoir Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me.

A week later on November 9, Emma Donoghue will win the Giller Prize for Room.

And in mid-November the Governor General’s Award for fiction will be presented to Kathleen Winter for Annabel. In non-fiction, Allan Casey will win for Lakeland: Journeys into the Soul of Canada.

October 11, 2010

National Coming Out Day: 10 Recommended LGBTQ Books

by thiszine

Today lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and queer folks across the U.S. celebrate National Coming Out Day, a civil awareness day to bring attention to issues that impact LGBTQ communities nationwide. With media attention on the number of teenage suicides connected to homophobic bullying and the stalled repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the U.S. military ban on gay and lesbians in the military, we decided to contribute something positive to the negative news.

10 RECOMMENDED LGBTQ BOOKS

1. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
Bechdel, who penned the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, reached both new audiences and a greater artistic depth with her autobiographical graphic novel about a family falling apart. Bechdel quietly examines how secrets and lies can undo the truth while simultaneously becoming their own reality.

2. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
This illustrated children’s book topped the list of the most banned and challenged books in the U.S. for three years running; this year, it fell to third on the list. The true story of two male penguins at the New York City Central Park Zoo who are given and egg to hatch is also a moving tale about love and family.

3. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler
Frequently critiqued for her obtuse writing style, Butler’s academic text has been a constant critical companion to gender and sexuality courses at universities ever since its initial publication in 1989. Drawing from French philosophers like Lacan, Foucault, Sartre and, of course, de Beauvoir, Gender Trouble is a seminal work on the paradigm and politics of gender identity that is not for the casual reader.

4. Three Junes by Julia Glass
Glass’s debut novel won the National Book Award – and rightly so. A compassionate, moving tale that weaves the lives of three characters over the course of three vital summers is both gently humorous and dramatically compelling: Paul, a widower, his self-protective gay son Fenno, and Fern, a young artist searching for love and meaning in her life. Through these and her supporting characters, Glass tells a tender, beautiful story of the circular nature of life and love.

5. Lockpick Pornography by Joey Comeau
With its fierce, hybrid cover that mashes the face of the Sesame Street character Bert over a pencil drawing of a leather jacket-wearing, crowbar-wielding thug, Comeau’s debut novel picked up considerable word-of-month buzz that sold out its first printing in just three months. Described as a “genderqueer adventure story” Lockpick Pornography is also a wild romp through violence, gender, family and societal values, and sex. It’s also not a recommended title to Google without quotation marks.

6. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
Winner of the 2004 Man Booker Prize, Hollinghurst’s novel fully encompasses England during Margaret Thatcher’s reign as prime minister and the fast gay culture of the ’80s while also examining the tangles of class, politics, and lust.

7. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
Aciman’s coming-of-age novel centers on the erotic longings and desires that frequently define our youth, whether left unconsummated or not. Seventeen-year-old Elio is attracted to the confident American university student Oliver. Their friendship gradually becomes a passionate and clandestine affair. Aciman draws a portrait of youthful obsession with intensity.

8. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
Another coming-of-age novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is semi-autobiographical; the narrator and budding evangelical, Jeanette, must reconcile her Jonathan Edwards-style religious beliefs with her growing same-sex attractions.

9. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Following up on the lesbians-in-Victorian-England theme begun with her novel Tipping the Velvet and continued in Affinity, Fingersmith is a Dickensian melodrama replete with pickpockets, orphans, sooty London streets, and asylums. It’s also a sharp critique of Victorian moral and sexual hypocrisy.

10. The Night Listener by Armistead Maupin
Another writer whose novels are frequently compared to the works of Dickens, Maupin’s protagonist in The Night Listener, finds himself drawn to an abused but devoted thirteen-year-old boy and fan of the radio show he hosts. Suspenseful, humorous, and filled with pathos, the anxiety of the midlife crisis is examined alongside greater questions of the blurred line between art and reality.

September 30, 2010

Poetry Against Censorship: Musings on Terry Jones

by thiszine

White Moustache
by John Coleman

I read in the newspaper
about a man with a white moustache
who said he wanted to burn the Qur’an.
His moustache looked just like Hulk Hogan’s,
and it reminded me of white bread.
Fake, like white bread –
so overworked and distant from nature.
Bleached, misshapen, manipulated, unnatural.
Unreal – like wrestling.

The moustached man said that
if they built a mosque where
(people can pray)
so many innocent people died,
that would comply with the enemy.
He didn’t have mighty arms like Hulk Hogan does,
but he worked in the same way:
to bring down the enemy.
And I thought,
I belong to the most violent generation.
But not like,
My generation is so violent, it’s absurd.
My thoughts wandered to the conclusion that
I live in the most violent generation ever.

That’s all burning the Qur’an is anyway, right?
Violence.
Instead of burning the Qur’an,
this man really wants to burn the enemy.
He really wants to burn human beings.
But burning the Qur’an sends the same message:
red-white-and-blue
(so easily, how it flows)
wants you to die.

Target, burn, kill your enemy
preached the white moustached man.
It made me want to burn
red-white-and-blue mentality.
I want to burn my Wonder Bread.
I want to darken my white bread mind.

Because my side
(culture)
is being strung up
(hung)
like a(n) flag
(enemy).
I feel misrepresented.
I don’t believe in flags.
Because of the man with the white moustache
I will never believe in God
because believing in God means being hung.

There is a mosque in my neighbourhood in the GTA.
Little mosque on the concrete prairie.
It’s like a church in a school gym
with a Coke machine in the entrance
where my neighbours pray to
Jesus.
But opposite
(wrong).
Right, white moustached man?

I later read that Hulk Hogan
stepped down from his challenge
and that bruised his integrity
because he was fake.
If he was real he would have
burned all the Qur’ans.
But some Hoganites were still going to
carry out the crusade,
the original plan.

They said:
This is the right thing to do.
The only thing left
but more so right
thing to do.
Burn people that burn you.

And a friend, or two, or many of mine read the Qur’an.
Read, or pray, or wander in thought,
then we all watch wrestling.
Hulk Hogan on the screen in fiery yellow and red.
When he powerslams the enemy, the violence is
fake, thin, blank.
Like Wonder Bread.
But there is always a small city who thinks
it is worth standing up to say
“Hulk Hogan is the best,
I would do anything he tells me.”
It is the most violent generation.

September 6, 2010

Letters from Beirut: Of Paradigms and Cockroaches

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BY ELLEN HARDY

In Beirut, August is the cruellest month. As Ramadan begins and strings of bright paper cut-out lamps light up the city, anyone who possibly can leave town, does – social lives and business meetings are put on hold, and those who remain (such as hapless journalists, for example) can only try and stay sane in 40 plus degrees Celsius and 60 per cent humidity – we lurch from air conditioning unit to air conditioning unit, mimicking the movement of the drugged cockroaches we share our apartments with. This is all very well until the 3-12 hour power cuts kick in and people start burning car tires on the roads in protest. The country’s civil war ended twenty years ago, but corruption, Israeli bombs and Syrian occupation have kept the infrastructure in a third-world state, and 2 million or so tourists in town this year only make more ridiculous the incapacitated service system.

Estella

But one thing that Beirutis have always been good at is carrying on regardless. Restaurants open, bougainvillea blooms expansively, books are launched, film festivals abound, and hapless journalists go about their business. Despite a friend telling me that Mein Kampf is on the Downtown Virgin Megastore’s bestseller list (It could be innocent. Could it?), the city is full of bright and beautiful ideas. Estella and I (my 1991 Kawasaki Estrella – she lost the ‘r’ in homage to the anti-heroine of Great Expectations) have had plenty to do sounding out bookish thoughts all over the city.

Just last month, local sweetheart Maya Zankoul launched her second volume of “sherbet lemon” cartoons on all things Beirut – sweet on the outside, with a sharp kick if you care to get any closer. And one sunny Sunday, Estella and I climbed up into the mountains above Beirut to Broumanna, to get a sneak peek at a Feminist writer’s retreat. The program grew out of the work being done to create a feminist webspace for the Middle East, with the aim of bypassing the agendas of mainstream news and comment, much as indynews and True/Slant have done elsewhere, though with a different focus. The workshop was a pilot for longer future programs aiming to cultivate stronger writing for the website, which has big plans to also become a print publication. Postcolonial literature and Arabic poetry was on the agenda – man-hating was not.

From the mountains to the dingy Beirut streets, and from feminists to transsexuals – paradigm-busting seems to be the order of the day. I met with the completely delightful Randa, fiercely brave author of Mouzakarat Randa al Trans, or The Memoirs of Randa the Trans. She fled Algeria last year under a death threat, finding some sort of security and possibility of progress in Lebanon. As we spoke, her voice was gentle and hesitant, but her sentiments strong and brave. For her, identity is a personal decision in which no state or religion has the right to interfere, and she is still fighting for that right against some of the world’s most repressive ideologies.

Another day, another trip, this time to Dar al-Saqi, Beirut branch of Saqi Books, where they surprised me with an interview with co-founder André Gaspard, childhood friend and publishing partner of Mai Ghoussoub. Chatty to the point of rambling, he was immensely positive about moving from publishing books in London to Beirut. Sales targets and e-readers leave him cold, and the Arab market is full of surprises and possibilities, like Joumana Haddad’s new book, I Killed Scheherazade, which is causing a stir before it’s even out. A rave (p)review in the Guardian sparked a long response from local “queer arab magazine” Bekhsoos. I’m looking forward to reviewing it, though not without the feeling that whatever I say will be wrong.

Finally, August commemorated the assassination of Naji al-Ali 23 years ago in London. The Palestinian cartoonist and creator of the “Handala” character was shot in the face by an unidentified youth outside the offices of a Kuwaiti newspaper and eventually died from his wounds, without regaining consciousness. A statue of him put up after his death at the entrance to a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon was twice damaged before finally disappearing – and so it goes. RIP.

Some of Ellen Hardy’s articles are available on www.timeoutbeirut.com.

August 17, 2010

Mind Yer Manners

by thiszine

BY SWEETMAN


JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater is a national folk hero thanks to his dramatic and well-publicized “Take this job and shove it!” exit via the emergency chute from his aircraft.

The full story has yet to be revealed: is he truly a heroic underdog who reached a breaking point after years of abuse from rude, nay assaultive airline passengers? Or is he a bona fide wing-nut who finally cracked on the tarmac of JFK Airport after publicly humiliating a passenger who legitimately required assistance?

The fall out of his dramatic actions, weather viewed as right, wrong, heroic or insane have sparked a number of interesting debates with a common thread: rude behavior has become routine in America.

It is clear, across the board, America needs help with its manners. Pronto. What if we all lived as if we believed like Emily Post: “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others?”

Luckily this is a topic that has been written about for centuries. Unfortunately, it is also a topic that brings about eye-rolls, yawns and disinterested shrugs as most people dismiss it with, “Who cares what fork I use?” (confusing manners with etiquette.) Both are important because both help all interact with others, especially in uncomfortable and awkward situations.

Perhaps now is the time to re-introduce the idea of good manners and etiquette to help navigate through our busy and stressful days. Here are a few suggestions:

Children: It is never to young to start learning manners.

Manners by Aliki
Adorable characters in simple scenarios. It’s a fun read for both parents and adults and it has a delightful ability to spark “What if…” conversations about manners.

Oops! Exuse Me Please! And Other Mannerly Tales by Bob McGrath
This is both a great read-aloud and independent reader children’s book. The focus is on good manners instead of harping on what shouldn’t be done.

How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food? by Jane Yolen
This book is funny, with hilariously illustrated examples of “What not to do at the table.”

Let’s move on to teens. Unfortunately this group is often overlooked in expectation of good manners. Is it due to a cultural belief that all teens must be rude? What a shame!

Teen Manners: From Malls to Meals to Messaging and Beyond by Cindy Post Senning and Peggy Post
You have to love those Post women! The daughter and daughter-in-law of Emily Post have continued her quest to help us all navigate this life in a sophisticated and mannerly fashion. This is a terrific guide for teenagers on manners and why they matter.

Dude, That’s Rude! (Get some manners)
by Pamela Espeland and Elizabeth Verdick
A great book for pre-teens. Very funny age appropriate. Comedy is a better teacher than edicts and ridicule.

Last but not least: Adults. We are never too old to be polite. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all were able to follow guidelines to help prevent the some of the misery that drove Mr. Slater down that literal and figurative emergency escape?

Emily Post’s Etiquette, 17th Edition by Emily Post
First written in 1927, it’s been revamped and updated a by her daughter-in-law Peggy Post so don’t worry, it’s current and it matters. Yes it’s a big book so displayit on your coffee table with other art books!

The Little Pink Book of Etiquette by Ruth Cullen
This is a portable little book, just the size of an address book (remember those?) that is full of helpful bits of information on entertaining, electronics, dating, conversation, job interviews, travel and table manners. If you have to get one small book on etiquette to refer to discreetly and often, this is the one.

Better Than Beauty: A Guide to Charm by Helen Valentine and Alice Thompson
This fabulous book was written in 1938. It has been resurrected by Chronicle Books and how fortunate we are that it’s available! Siimple and delightful, insightful and funny. Good manners work best when one is charming the socks off those around him or her! It’s really quite simple and if we all behaved as if we respected and enjoyed one and other, what a world it would be.

August 9, 2010

Legends of the Front Lines: What Makes Great Reportage?

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BY ELLEN HARDY

Sometimes, a book must be content with the dubious accolade that its shortcomings serve as a reminder of what one loves about a genre more generally. Finishing Roxana Saberi’s Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran, I immediately began to meditate on why it left me cold. It’s a vital project; Saberi’s account of her one hundred days’ imprisonment by Ahmadinejad’s regime in early 2009 on fatuous charges of espionage is a riveting account of the Kafkaesque posturing she was forced to undergo, a disarmingly honest tale of courage, and a delicately balanced description of the variety and challenges of daily Iranian lives. But it doesn’t tick any of my literary reportage boxes, though Saberi, a Japanese-Iranian-American and former Miss Dakota with Masters degrees from Northwestern and Cambridge, England, seems an ideal candidate to shake things up a little.

We can speculate on why – the rush to cash in while Iran still dominated the headlines? A clash between a journalist’s dispassionate eye and the need to tell her heartrending story? Perhaps we expect too much. More usefully, and enjoyably, we can turn to explore some of literature’s finest reportage, the stuff that thrills and inspires even as it documents humanity’s grittiest realities and history’s most critical events. Let’s consider these five for the sweaty, dust- and blood-spattered crown of reportage:

1. To the End of Hell by Denise Affonço

To go deeper than the headlines surrounding the thirty-five-year prison sentence given to notorious Cambodian Khmer Rouge leader Comrade Duch in July, turn to Affonço’s memoir. She spent almost four years in the regime’s camps, having turned down the opportunity to escape to France in order to keep her family together, convinced by her passionately Communist husband. How she survived and what she lost – including watching her daughter die from starvation – will stay with you forever.


2. Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War by Robert Fisk

Reporting out of Lebanon since 1976, Fisk lived and breathed every gruesome twist and turn of Lebanon’s convoluted civil war. To be sure, at the end of 700-odd pages, you’ll feel like you did too, but it’s a peerless testament to the single-minded devotion of a top war journalist to delivering as much of the truth as possible, and to the dreadful dance of history and power struggles in the region. Though more or less peaceful today, Lebanon has a worthy biographer should it wish to remind itself: ‘never again’.


3. Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Romeo Dallaire

Dallaire is no journalist, and the urgent, painful drive to recount what he saw and experienced during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide rings out even truer as a result. Commander of the UN force charged with keeping the peace as events unfolded, his first response to his posting was ‘Rwanda? Isn’t that in Africa somewhere?’ He returned to Canada disillusioned and suicidal, haunted by the butchery and rape of Hutus and Tutsis that claimed around 800,000 lives in the space of approximately 100 days. Dallaire spares us no detail of the horrific events, nor of the obtuse, elephantine bureaucracy that left him almost powerless to help.


4. The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi

Auschwitz survivor Levi’s last literary will and testament; he committed suicide in 1987, shortly after completing it. His writings on the concentration camps are world-famous, and If This is a Man usually the first choice. But ‘The Drowned and the Saved’ is of crucial importance, not just for the well-known clarity and lyricism of his writing, but also for the unnerving contemplation of the role of memory for the witness, and how it can never be taken for granted. His contribution goes far beyond that of a survivor; he is relentlessly critical of the act of witnessing itself.

5. Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuściński

A timely reminder that reportage doesn’t have to be unrelentingly blood-soaked, and how a damn good book can make all the difference to your work. Famously, Polish international correspondent Kapuściński survived 40 revolutions and four death sentences; but for all that, he was as concerned to celebrate the countries and the people he encountered through literary endeavour as he was with the balder side of reporting. This alternative autobiography uses Herodotus’s The Histories as a frame for the story of Kapuściński’s work; a delight.