The Purposes of Rituals: Alain de Botton’s ‘Religion for Atheists’

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Atheists and agnostics often dismiss religion’s tenets and rituals as being fashioned to exploit the human need for such things. Our fear of death is assuaged by the promise of an afterlife. Our despair in the face of injustices that we cannot correct is resolved by the assurance that there is a spiritual magistrate in the great beyond that will set things right. Our need for “community” in an increasingly alienating world can be satisfied by formally congregating with others who share our beliefs. The meek shall inherit the earth, the first shall be the last…it all sounds perfectly, cynically, […]

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Regrouping Abroad and Nearby: ‘Contents May Have Shifted’ by Pam Houston

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Like any MFA graduate worth their salt, I have a shelf in my library reserved for the writers I’ve also called my teachers. I mean this in a very literal way, and not in the traditional my-work-is-a-marriage-of-Joyce-and-Tolstoy way of thinking about literary influence; the majority of my artistic mentors have been living, breathing men and women with office hours on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. Pam Houston is one such writer. As the director of the graduate program in creative writing at UC Davis, she’s sold a lot of books to fledgling writers vying for a place in one of her […]

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Who’s Afraid of ‘Khirbet Khizeh’?

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A few years ago, blogging for another consonant-heavy literary magazine, I put my Comparative Literature degree to use in compiling a series of reading lists (Readings for Revolution and Readings for the Next Intifada, for example) composed to serve as introductions to various countries and conflicts in the Middle East. Since then, I’ve done my best to keep up with recent trends in Hebrew and Arabic literature and have discovered a couple writers who might merit a revision of said lists (the Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, for example). But it has been a long time since I came across a […]

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A (Long) Painful Path to Self-Knowledge: Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’

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Close to the beginning of Wild (Knopf, 336 pages), Cheryl Strayed’s compact and potent memoir about hiking 1,100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail, the author finds herself holed up in a remote motel room, assessing her baggage. In a literal sense, this means tallying up the all the things she thinks she’ll need for the trek – a lantern, a tent, a foldable saw, a packet of condoms – and stuffing them into a giant backpack. In a metaphorical sense, it means mapping out her escape from a life punctured by difficult endings: the unexpected death of her mother, […]

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Truly Knowing What You Eat: ‘Field Guide to California Agriculture’

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America’s appetite for all things culinary seems boundless. The saturated media environment tempts with food blogs, hundreds of new cookbooks, and on-line restaurant reviews. Wait staff routinely reel off the provenance of every item on the menu, and some reality television offers meals as entertainment. Visiting with vendors at a local farmers’ market provides a closer encounter with the “who,” “what,” and “where” surrounding California’s food supply. For those wanting to dive deeper, though, the recent Field Guide to California Agriculture (475 pages; University of California Press) offers an illuminating and entertaining trek into what authors Paul F. Starrs and […]

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A Kind of Portraiture: ‘Threshold Songs’ by Peter Gizzi

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In Peter Gizzi’s fifth and newest poetry collection, Threshold Songs (Wesleyan University Press, 108 pages), the poem serves as a place where Gizzi can “talk / to myself through you.” He asks, “what does it mean / to be tough / or to write a poem / I mean the whole / vortex of home / buckling inside.” The collection is a place where Gizzi can articulate the “aboutness” of language, the interval between discursive sounds. This place both urges speech and thwarts the compulsion; it’s the gap where poetry is invented internally and is exonerated externally. […]

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Beyond Life’s Slow Drizzle: ‘Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty’ by Diane Williams

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There are 51 stories in Diane Williams’s new book of short stories, Vicky Swanky is a Beauty (McSweeney’s Books, 118 pages), and not one of them is longer than a page, front and back. I read the collection in a night, and spent a week and a half (with pleasure) working the text over again. Is this flash fiction? It is, except when there isn’t really a narrative. Then the pieces are prose poems. Williams uses a lot of devices consistent with prose poems – the second-person voice, the posing of questions. But whether her book can be classified as […]

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Summoning the Achingly Beautiful Out of Strife: Craig Thompson’s ‘Habibi’

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There are some artists and writers that truly utilize the medium of comic books and graphic novels to create a unique narrative experience that only sequential art can deliver. Craig Thompson is one of those individuals. Following the success of his semi-autobiographical Blankets, Thompson has once again given readers a poignant and sincere tale of love and spirituality in Habibi (Pantheon; 672 pages). Set in a world that is both historical and modern, mixing epic deserts and extravagant palaces with modern city landscapes and industrial wastelands, readers follow Dodola and Zam, two children who escape from slavery by fleeing to […]

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The Wear and Tear of a Boy’s Life: Roy Jacobsen’s ‘Child Wonder’

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Roy Jacobsen’s coming-of-age novel, Child Wonder (Graywolf Press; 239 pages), offers a well-crafted metaphor for the cultural transformations of Norway in the 1960s – a time “[b]efore oil,” as Jacobsen writes in the foreword, “before anyone had any money at all.” The book, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, is also a romance of youth, filled with nostalgia and secrets, rage and violence. And, of course, transformations. Suddenly, for Finn, the story’s narrator and hero, things become “brighter,” eyes become “bluer.” Though he is an emotionally rich, thoughtful and observant character, Finn still acts out like […]

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Living with the Inevitable: Josh Rolnick’s ‘Pulp and Paper’

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In his first book of fiction, Pulp and Paper (University Of Iowa Press; 192 pages), Josh Rolnick offers a collection of eight stories dealing with those various moments of transition in our lives from which there is no return — moments that require his protagonists to confront their losses, weaknesses and failures. “Funnyboy” follows the attempts of a father to avoid confrontation and possible resolution with the teenage girl who accidentally killed his son in a car accident. Through him the reader experiences what it is like for those who refuse to move on, who refuse to cross over and […]

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A Quiet Kind of L.A. Confidential: Ry Cooder’s ‘Los Angeles Stories’

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Going by musician Ry Cooder’s new book of short fiction, Los Angeles Stories (City Lights Publishers; 230 pages), L.A. in the ‘50s was a place where what you didn’t know could ruin your life, or kill you. “Everyone out there is a mad dog from Hell until proven otherwise,” claims the owner of a beauty salon in the book’s opening story, and Cooder seems intent on proving her right. Each of Cooder’s eight stories contains at least one murder, usually more. They center on ordinary people—tailors, mechanics, dentists, train conductors—whose lives are warped, derailed, or ended by the schemes of […]

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Pauline, of Petaluma: Brian Kellow’s ‘Pauline Kael’ and ‘The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael’

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Let the record be clear: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a “Paulette,” the derisive term used for the camp followers of the late, great Pauline Kael, who slavishly faxed her advance copies of their reviews, hoping for her approval, encouragement and career advancement. But to be equally clear, I am a huge admirer of Kael’s body of work, starting with “I Lost It At The Movies,’’ her enormously influential early collection of pieces, many of them from her feisty days as a caustic commentator on KPFA, portions of which are excerpted in the massive, somewhat daunting […]

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