The End of the World as We Know It

imagesConsensus is growing that we have entered a new geological era called the Anthropocene. As it does, so does anxiety about our fate as a species. This was the subject of a recent piece I did for Aeon on our love of apocalyptic fiction, film and stories. We fear the end might be near, but we also fear we are part of something from which we have no way to extricate ourselves. If you feel this too, read on.

One day in the early 1980s, I was flipping through the TV channels, when I stopped at a news report. The announcer was grey-haired. His tone was urgent. His pronouncement was dire: between the war in the Middle East, famine in Africa, AIDS in the cities, and communists in Afghanistan, it was clear that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were upon us. The end had come.

We were Methodists and I’d never heard this sort of prediction. But to my grade-school mind, the evidence seemed ironclad, the case closed. I looked out the window and could hear the drumming Hugh-Howey-WOOL-COVERof hoof beats.

Life went on, however, and those particular horsemen went out to pasture. In time, others broke loose, only to slow their stride as well. Sometimes, the end seemed near. Others it would recede. But over the years, I began to see it wasn’t the end that was close. It was our dread of it. The apocalypse wasn’t coming: it was always with us. It arrived in a stampede of our fears, be they nuclear or biological, religious or technological.

Read the rest here.

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A Few of my Favorite Books, 2015

KitchensAs usual, reports of the death of printed books have been greatly exaggerated. There were lots of incredible works published this year (on paper and otherwise), too many for anyone to read, let alone know about. I spent a good chunk of the year reading post-apocalyptic fiction, for reasons that will be clear in the near future. A few standouts from that bunch (not all published this year) are Ben Percy’s The Dead Lands, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Hugh Howey’s Wool, and Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, which sort of took my breath away. Back in the the present day, the best novel I read Two Hoursthis year was one that I never would have picked up, but for some trusted recommendations: J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest. It was brilliant and generous and moving in all the best ways. In the factual world, I loved Ed Caesar’s Two Hours, about Kenyan runners, the likes of which I have been wanting to see for a long time. In it he delves into not just the technical side of East Africa’s running boom, but also the rich, complicated, compelling stories behind the runners themselves.

On The Pitfalls of Self-Promotion

jf16_coverI’m not sure that I should be considered any sort of “branding expert,” but I do have an essay in the current Poets & Writers on my ambivalence about self-promotion, and the struggle to balance promoting your work with promoting yourself. See the print edition if you can get it!

AWP Minneapolis

imgresBefore long, some 12,000 writers and 2,000 presenters will descend on this town (Minneapolis) for the annual AWP Conference & Bookfair. Officially, it’s the largest literary conference in the country. Unofficially (I’m told) it’s a big party for writers. Whatever it is, the number of panels and speakers is mind-boggling, and I don’t know how anyone could choose between them. Fortunately for me that choice is easier, since I’ll be on two panels, both related to travel writing. Both should make for great conversations on important issues.

The first, is called, “Can Literary Quarterlies Save Travel Writing?” and features some people I’ve known for a while, and others I haven’t: Jim Benning, Tom Swick, Pamela Petro and Sally Shivnan. I’ll be standing in for the moderator, Evan Balkan. I expect we will answer this question definitively.

The other is “Wild v. Into the Wild: X and Y Chromosomes in Travel Writing,” featuring Eva Holland, Brian Kevin and Kelly Ferguson moderating, with a focus on the differences between men’s and women’s travel writing.

If that wasn’t enough, there will also be a travel writing-themed reading called “Notes From the Road” on Saturday at 4pm at Honey, featuring many of the same writers, as well as Leif Peterson, Annie Scott Riley and Doug Mack, who kindly organized the event and who is busy finishing his new book about the U.S. Territories.

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The Life and Death of Malls: From Victor Gruen to Karmel Square

moa_mainFrom Thirty Two:

Sometime around 1999, a property developer named Basim Sabri was sitting on a bucket in a building he’d just bought off Lake Street in Minneapolis. For twenty years, the place had sat abandoned and rotting. Now he was trying to fix it up, even though he had no idea what he was going to do with it. Then in walked two guys.

“One of them had a very pleasant face,” Sabri recalls. “He said, ‘Will you guys have a coffee shop here?’ And I said, ‘Sure!’

I asked where they were from and he says, ‘Somalia, and there are so many of us coming.’”

The man only had a couple thousand dollars saved up, but Sabri helped him out and soon, as he tells it, half the Somalis in town were coming over asking for a spot. Sabri, who grew up in the Palestinian Territories, had traveled the world and he loved open-air bazaars. So he decided to recreate a bazaar inside the building. As soon as he did, the building was full.

Issue_5The venture was so successful that Sabri built another entire building next door as an expanded Somali mall called Karmel Square. Today it is the biggest of several Somali malls in town with 175 businesses, including shops, restaurants, grocery stores, a mosque, a learning center, day care, and more. It is, for many of those who visit, a piece of Somalia, salvaged from memories and reborn in an old building. It has zero vacancy.

Read the rest here.

Burning Down the House: Somali malls, Chinese scrap, flammable art and more in Thirty Two #5:

Issue_5After a long gestation, I’m happy to announce that Issue No. 5 of Thirty Two Magazine has finally come out. Regular readers will notice the design has changed, and is the cleanest yet for your clutter free reading. But the content hasn’t!  Here are a few of the pieces you’ll find inside:

1) A gorgeous photo essay by Priscilla Briggs on the the history and current state of the shopping mall, for which I wrote the text.

2) A fascinating interview with Bloomberg View China correspondent and author of Junkyard Planet, Adam Minter, in which he talks about the global recycling industry. He also calls out Apple Computers for their deceptive recycling campaign.

3) Jack El-Hai telling how he went from always thinking of the local angle to panning back and going bigger for his new book, The Nazi and the Psychiatrist. Elsewhere three other writers, Nicole Helget, Deni Bechard and Jen Percy, talk about the places they wrote their books.

There are also essays by Andy Sturdevant, Josh Cook, and a piece by Forest Lewis about Chris Larson‘s Bauhaus inferno that was titled Celebration/Love/Loss. There are profiles, histories, poetry and fiction (the last by Maggie Ryan Sandford).  And of course the lovely photography of Louisa Podlich.

Pick it up at one of these stores here. Or order it online here. Better yet, subscribe here!

The Cost of Fame: Is empathy a casualty of our self-centered age?

Narcissus-Caravaggio_(1594-96)_editedFrom The Rotarian:

Over the years, people have looked at the “vast wasteland” of television and seen the approaching end of western civilization. I try to take criticism of the medium with a grain of salt, but I recently came across some studies suggesting that it wasn’t only me who had changed.

Two researchers at the University of California, Yalda Uhls and Patricia Greenfield, devised a way to measure the values expressed in U.S. television shows. Their idea was not that TV is a corrupting influence or a source of moral instruction, but a mirror that reflects our society back to us.

Given how much the world has changed over the decades, you might not think that TV shows from the years 1967, 1977, 1987, and 1997 would have much in common. But they did. Taking the two most popular programs for tweens from each of those years, as well as from 2007, Uhls and Greenfield looked for 16 values demonstrated by the characters, such as benevolence, popularity, community feeling, financial success, tradition, and fame.

narcissism-epidemic-living-in-age-entitlement-jean-m-twenge-hardcover-cover-art-1For the first four decades, the shows were fairly consistent: Community feeling was the top value for all of them except 1987, when it ranked second. Benevolence and tradition were consistently at the top. Meanwhile, fame ranked 15th in 1967, 1987, and 1997. (In 1977, it was 13th.)

Achievement and financial success hovered around the bottom half of the list; they were never dominant forces in the characters’ lives.
By 2007, however, community feeling had dropped to the 11th spot. Benevolence had fallen to 12th, and tradition to 15th. Financial success had jumped from 12th to 5th since 1997, achievement to 2nd, and fame to 1st.

Read the rest here.