Monthly Archives: July 2013

For The Love Of Beer: How Empty Cans Made A House A Home


The Beer Can House in Houston on June 12, 2011.


Bill Rand/Flickr

The Beer Can House in Houston on June 12, 2011.

The Beer Can House in Houston on June 12, 2011.

Bill Rand/Flickr

At first, all John Milkovisch wanted in 1968 was a covered patio where he could drink his beer at the end of the day. But a bigger idea was brewing. For years, he had been saving his empty beer cans.

“While I was building the patio I was drinking the beer,” he said in an interview in 1983. “I knew I was going to do something with them aluminum cans because that was what I was looking for … but I didn’t know what I was going to do.” (Milkovisch passed away in 1988.)

Over time, Milkovisch’s love of beer and work with his hands — he was an upholsterer) fused into one project. In his retirement, he covered his entire home with beer cans — all different parts, in various shapes and functions. It’s estimated that more than 50,000 cans were used.

The Houston home is now dubbed the Beer Can House, and is run by a local arts organization.

Ruben Guevara, head of restoration and preservation for the house, says what catches the attention of passersby most are the strands of can tops that hang outside the home.

The garlands are anywhere from 2 to 10 feet long, he tells Melissa Block, host of All Things Considered. The aluminum “just dances when the wind blows. And it makes this song, like this wind chime that never stops.”

A detail of The Beer Can House, in Houston.


David Brown/The Beer Can House

A detail of The Beer Can House, in Houston.

A detail of The Beer Can House, in Houston.

David Brown/The Beer Can House

In some ways, it was a community project — he and his wife needed help with the drinking, after all.

“It was a six pack a day, him and his wife and friends and anybody who was passing by, wanted to stop by and hang out,” Guevara says.

But the vision was all Milkovisch’s. He worked on the house as long as his health allowed. Mary Milkovisch, his wife, lived in the house until 1996. She died in 2002.

John and Mary Milkovisch in front of their Beer Can House, in Houston in 1987.


Milkovisch Family Archives/The Beer Can House

John and Mary Milkovisch in front of their Beer Can House, in Houston in 1987.

John and Mary Milkovisch in front of their Beer Can House, in Houston in 1987.

Milkovisch Family Archives/The Beer Can House

So after all that drinking, what was Milkovisch’s favorite brand? “Whatever was on sale,” Guevara says. “All beer was great. He enjoyed it all.”

Lady In Black: ‘Burka Avenger’ Fights For Pakistan’s Girls


Mild-mannered teacher by day, masked superhero by night, the Burka Avenger fights corruption and oppression, and aims to empower the girls of Pakistan.


Unicorn Black Studios

Mild-mannered teacher by day, masked superhero by night, the Burka Avenger fights corruption and oppression, and aims to empower the girls of Pakistan.

Mild-mannered teacher by day, masked superhero by night, the Burka Avenger fights corruption and oppression, and aims to empower the girls of Pakistan.

Unicorn Black Studios

A caped crusader is on the loose in the mountains of Pakistan, but she’s not your traditional superhero. The Burka Avenger wears a flowing black veil — only her brown eyes are visible — as she fights corrupt politicians and religious zealots. Her weapons of choice: pens and books.

Burka Avenger, which made its debut on Pakistani TV this week, aims to empower young women in a country where attacks on girls’ schools and repression of women remain enduring problems. It’s the brainchild of Pakistani entrepreneur and pop star Haroon Rashid, who tells NPR’s Audie Cornish that he was inspired by current events in Pakistan. “I thought of an idea of sort of, like, a protagonist protecting a girls’ school. And that’s how the idea for the Burka Avenger developed.”

Interview Highlights

On the Avenger’s secret identity

“She is a schoolteacher named Jiya. She is a warm, bubbly, intelligent young woman who’s concerned about education, and concerned about the city and the people of Halwapur [the fictional city where the show is set]. … And then of course, to fight the bad guys, and to hide her identity the way superheroes do, she puts on the burqa. And it’s a really cool, sleek burqa, and she can leap off buildings and glide from, almost like a flying squirrel … and she only fights with pens and books, because I wanted a nonviolent message. Her message is, ‘Justice, Peace and Education for All.’ “

YouTube

Watch the English trailer for Burka Avenger.

On feminist criticism of the Avenger’s costume

“We chose the burqa because of course we wanted to hide her identity the way superheroes do. She doesn’t wear the burqa during the day — she doesn’t even wear a headscarf, or a hijab or anything like that; she goes about her business as a normal teacher would. And so she chooses to wear the burqa, she’s not oppressed … and on the other end of the spectrum, a lot of female superheroes in the West are objectified, and sort of sexualized in their costumes, like Catwoman and Wonder Woman, and that certainly would not work here.

“Nobody is compelled to wear the burqa in Pakistan; nobody is compelled to wear the headscarf or hijab, like they are in other parts of Muslim countries. But some women who do choose to wear the burqa or do choose to wear the hijab, the majority of them do it out of choice, and I’ve learnt this over the years.

“People know about superheroes. People know that Bruce Wayne wears the cloak and the mask and his utility belts to fight crime, but he’s not going to walk around like that all day. And kids know that she is a great, strong role model.”

On his hopes for the show

“There’s a huge space for children’s entertainment in Pakistan. There’s practically no local entertainment; … a lot of the entertainment is imported from the West; it’s not relevant, socially relevant or culturally relevant, and most of it’s just entertaining junk, like, let’s say, Ben 10. … They don’t have any social messages, and I think it’s important to have positive social messages and themes and morals. And a lot of young children who don’t get the opportunity to get a great education need programming which is entertaining and yet also educational.”

Coffee Break: People Arguing And Counting And Singing And Getting Gassed Edition



iStockphoto.com

A cup of coffee.

* If you’re anywhere near Winston-Salem, please note that Tonya Pinkins, whose chops are so considerable that I don’t entirely know where to start with her amazingness, so just Google her, is in cabaret thereabouts, as part of the biennial National Black Theatre Festival. This is a thing that makes me want to go to North Carolina. [Winston-Salem Journal]

* It is awesome that the Feds have revised the way they calculate the GDP to include “artistic originals” — in other words, the value of the art and entertainment newly created for us to experience. But can we please not call it The Taylor Swift Effect? [Yahoo Finance]

* In less alarming biz-of-show news, Oscar has a new boss — Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a reputedly savvy marketer who’s run publicity for Paramount and other outfits, was elected president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She’s the organization’s third female boss, and the first African-American to run the ship. [Entertainment Weekly]

* I was hoping our guy Gene Demby had written about the Jay-Z/Harry Belafonte business, so I was glad to find this. [Code Switch]

* Sub-Saharan politics aren’t generally our bailiwick here, but I’ve got a personal fascination with Zimbabwe, and today’s elections could be a real turning point. Plus, the astonishingly durable Robert Mugabe has inspired plenty of protest art, so I claim thin-edge-wedge privilege. And this is a good read anyway. [The New York Times]

* Writers and directors, STILL AT ODDS. [Huffington Post, via Twitter and Vulture and Think Progress and a public symposium, so basically a big game of Telephone]

* Nerds will be nerds, even when they’re getting tear-gassed. [The Guardian]

10 Awkward, Unexpected, Or Otherwise Curious Press Tour Moments


Actors Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul speak onstage during the Breaking Bad panel on July 26.


Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Actors Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul speak onstage during the Breaking Bad panel on July 26.

Actors Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul speak onstage during the Breaking Bad panel on July 26.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

The Television Critics Association press tour, a two-week event in which press conference after press conference parades through a hotel ballroom, is about half over, so it’s time for a few stories.

In a room of 250 or so reporters and a rotating set of actors, producers, and executives, there’s likely to be a conversation here and there that perhaps doesn’t go as everyone involved was expecting. After all, I’ve already been to 57 panel discussions or presentations (according to our transcripts list), and we have a week to go.

And so, I present to you: Press Tour Tales, The First Week Edition.

1. NBC’s first panel was for its new comedy Welcome To The Family, about a teenage couple that decides to marry after an unplanned pregnancy. The girl’s family is white and the boy’s family is Latino, and the panel got off to a rough start when the NBC executive introducing the actors called Justina Machado, who plays the boy’s mother, “Justin.” (She later apologized profusely.)

Things got significantly more impressively strange when, mere minutes later, a reporter questioning Ricardo A. Chavira, who plays the boy’s father, called him “Richard.” “Ricardo, not Richard, but hey, cool, awesome,” he said. The reporter apologized. “No, no, you’re good. I’ll hold it against you for the rest of your life,” he said smoothly. Between that and the fact that star Mike O’Malley made some lovely comments about his affection for Cory Monteith, his Glee co-star who died recently, that panel deserves some kind of an award for Gracefully Handling Odd Things.

2. During the panel for Showtime’s Masters Of Sex, an upcoming series about the human sexuality research partnership of Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson, the entire cast was asked, “Tell me in your own words how you interpret your characters.” Star Michael Sheen, who plays Masters opposite Lizzy Caplan as Johnson, was invited to go first.

He went on to suggest that the question struck him as perhaps simplistic. He gave the following explanation of the golden age of television, the importance of character depth, and the blessings of nuance:

One of the great things about why I think TV is going through a golden age at the moment is because, in a sort of multi-episodic format now, with also cable channels like Showtime being at the absolute forefront today and saying, ‘Off you go. Any subject matter is open to you,’ you can take risks. You’ve got amazing people working on it, and you’ve got 12 hours, roughly, per season, to be able to tell a story. You can get to the complexity of a novel almost, you know. It’s very, very multilayered and complex, and so you can start to treat people and characters with the complexity that they deserve, that we all deserve.

The problem is that, in this modern age and the way we talk about this kind of stuff and the situations like this, everyone wants to reduce people to, kind of, bite size, easily understood chunks. And why I think people are responding so much to television at the moment is that it refuses to do that. It totally flips that over so that people are revealed the being the complex, interesting people that they are and that we can have more and more compassion and understanding and feel more connected to people. So it becomes, then, very difficult to say, “Well, my character is,” and then I trot out three lines about it.

Bravo, right? Impressive!

“But … can you do three lines about it?” the reporter persisted.

What I cannot do justice to is the tone of Sheen’s voice as he went on to say, “William Masters was an OB/GYN surgeon who was a fertility expert and a man who liked a lot of control in his life, and in our show, we see him struggle with trying to hold onto that sense of control when confronted by a woman who awakens something authentic within him.”

(As the show gets closer, we’ll talk more about Caplan on this panel — at one point, she talked about the importance of Masters & Johnson’s research in removing guilt from women’s sexuality, and ended with, “Before Masters and Johnson, nobody was telling women that. It was always their fault.” There was a long, long pause. “And that’s some bull——,” she finished firmly.)

3. Rupert Friend, who plays Quinn on Homeland, showed up for the panel in suspenders that caused one reporter to tweet that he looked like he was doing a revival of Witness. (Kind of true.) Late in the panel, Claire Danes mentioned that he’d only this year gotten a phone. The next question: “Rupert, you just got a phone this year. Given the way you’re dressed…” Everyone laughed, including the entire cast. “Are you Amish, or …?” Everyone laughed more. “That’s by far the best question,” Danes said. “He left his pitchfork backstage,” offered producer Howard Gordon. And then Claire Danes turned to Friend excitedly and said, “Is this your rumspringa?”

4. Robin Williams is in a new CBS comedy called The Crazy Ones, with Sarah Michelle Gellar and James Wolk. (You may know Gellar as TV’s Buffy, of course, and Wolk as Bob “Not great, Bob!” Benson from Mad Men.) At one point, with what seemed to be sincerity, Williams was asked about the mix of comedy and melancholy that the questioner saw in the show. “It reminds us that there’s nothing more heart-wrenching than the sad clown.”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Robin Williams try to avoid going off before, but that seemed to be what happened. He immediately looked like he might crack up, and then he held it, trying to really answer the question, and then he started laughing, which he turned into theatrical crying. “Please don’t say that. Thank you for the cards you sent.” And then it was on. He leaped up and made his way to the edge of the stage. “I’m a sad clown. Help me God, please.” Gellar reeled him back to his seat by his microphone cord. After that, he actually gave a very thoughtful answer about the mix of comedy and seriousness, which ended up with another reference to the sad clown — or, as he said, “the melancholy mime, which sits next to the sad clown. He’s in a box by the window, looking out.”

5. Michael J. Fox got a lot of questions about Parkinson’s during the panel about his new NBC comedy. How was his health, how is it different now, did he consult with “the Parkinson’s community,” that kind of thing. But he mined it for comedy during the panel just like he does on the show (where the character also has Parkinson’s). At one point, he was having the same experience a lot of actors have where they have trouble figuring out where, in the giant room, the question is coming from, since the stage is so brightly lit they can barely see us. “Around your 11 o’clock,” the questioner said, waving. He looked back and forth, back and forth, whipping his head around. “I have Parkinson’s,” he said. “I’ll see all of you sooner or later.” (The transcriber has “I’ll be seeing double of you sooner or later,” but I’m pretty sure I have the joke right.)

6. MTV has a reality show called Nurses coming up, which we haven’t seen yet but which their promotion suggests you can think of as Jersey Shore with traveling nurses. (Of course, the nurses on the show are all hot, but stress that they are also serious people. WOOOOOO!) At one point, one of the nurses, a guy named Chris, was asked what he’d like to share with people as they think about their interactions with nurses. He stressed that patience is crucial — in the ER, you may have a different sense of an emergency than the nurse does. They may not be able to get to you right away. You have to understand how overloaded they often are.

Reasonable, right?

Then he said, “The nicer you are to us — we determine what size needle we use. You know what I’m saying? Like, that’s true. I just have to say that. It’s true. There’s no guidelines for size on an IV or gauge to use for IM injection and stuff like that, so we do figure out what size catheter you need and stuff like that.” One of the other nurses immediately started to object, at which point he claimed to have been kidding. Despite having said “that’s true” and “it’s true.”

7. Some questions seem to have something that they’re trying to be about, and they get weird anyway. Jerry O’Connell is in the new comedy We Are Men, in which he plays one of several guys living in an apartment community kind of like the one Milhouse’s dad went to on The Simpsons, if that means anything to you. O’Connell spends a lot of time in a very small bathing suit, so somebody drew the connection between playing a studly dude now and an athlete in Jerry Maguire, versus having been a pudgy kid in Stand By Me many years ago. He was asked whether it’s “fun to see yourself, to say boy, this is what I wanted to grow up to be?” O’Connell blanched a little. “Well, I don’t wake up in the morning and go to a full-length mirror and go, ‘Oh, yeah. Look at this.'”

I actually ran into him later at the CBS party and asked him about that exchange and whether he found those questions odd, and he assured me that he wasn’t — as he put it — waking up the morning and just “taking selfies.”

8. The Breaking Bad panels are always great, and this one — largely a victory lap as the show heads into its last eight episodes — was no exception. The highlight was Bryan Cranston purporting to drop the huge spoiler that the ending would be entirely happy and uplifting as Walter White “spreads his joy” over the season. “I think everybody will be satisfied with the ending, where we hug it out.” [SPOILER ALERT: Don’t e-mail me. They will not hug it out.]

9. Actor Stephen Merchant is really tall, and we haven’t seen his HBO comedy pilot Hello Ladies yet, meaning we were pretty much stuck with questions about how tall he is. One, I kid you not, was about whether he ever thought about inviting some of the actors from True Blood to come on the show, since they’re also tall. (Moral of the story: Really try to give us screeners if at all possible. Otherwise, it’s hard to ask awesome questions.)

10. Patrick Dempsey is going to be in a documentary about his love of racing cars, and as part of that panel, he spoke about how boring it is being on Grey’s Anatomy, basically. “And when you’re in a long show, there’s less discovery and more of an endurance of having to be present and to do your job and find ways to keep yourself turned on in something that you know is going to be A, B, and C. It doesn’t change.”

Later, he said, “And when you’re on a show that’s been on for, we’re coming up to 200 episodes, it’s about surviving, you know. And you find ways to turn yourself on with the material that you’re given. But it’s like being in a band. You have a specific note that you play, and that’s what you do. So you just try to play that as well as you can. So for me now it’s much more just discovering in the moment. There’s not a lot of homework that goes into it. You learn your lines, and you try to be present and try not to get caught acting. And you, you know, I’m grateful I have the gig, but it’s not the same as being in a race car. It’s just not.”

I just wanted to share that, and if you think it’s a little odd that this didn’t become a headline-making story, while Katherine Heigl’s much briefer comments about the limitations of her material on Grey’s still come up whenever people write about her, then you and I think alike.

Book News: Booksellers Irate Over Obama’s Amazon Visit


President Obama greets people after making a speech about the economy and jobs Tuesday at an Amazon Fulfillment Center in Chattanooga, Tenn.


Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

President Obama greets people after making a speech about the economy and jobs Tuesday at an Amazon Fulfillment Center in Chattanooga, Tenn.

President Obama greets people after making a speech about the economy and jobs Tuesday at an Amazon Fulfillment Center in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • President Obama’s Tuesday trip to an Amazon distribution center in Chattanooga, Tenn., has raised eyebrows (and hackles) in the bookselling community. Publisher’s Weekly ran a provocative story titled “Does President Obama Hate Indie Bookstores?” that called Obama’s visit “a slap in the face” to booksellers. In an open letter to the president, the board of the American Booksellers Association called his choice “greatly misguided.” It added, “The news this weekend that Amazon is slashing prices far below cost on numerous book titles is further evidence that it will stop at nothing to garner market share at the expense of small businesses that cannot afford to sell inventory below their cost of acquisition.” Deputy Press Secretary Amy Brundage told PW that “what the president wants to do is to highlight Amazon and the Chattanooga facility as an example of a company that is spurring job growth and keeping our country competitive.” As NPR’s Bill Chappell reported Monday, Amazon announced a day before Obama’s trip that it planned to add more than 5,000 jobs in the U.S.
  • In the wake of J.K. Rowling’s recent admission that she wrote under the pen name Robert Galbraith, The New York Times asked several prominent writers what their pseudonyms would be and what kinds of books they would write using them. Carl Hiaasen said he would conceal his identity as “Rick O’Mortis,” a fantasy author who would write “a series of vampire-romance novels set at an assisted-living facility in post-apocalyptic Boca Raton, Fla.” He added, “Perhaps there could also be trolls and pythons.”
  • Adam Johnson, who won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with his novel The Orphan Master’s Son, has a new story in Esquire:Nirvana,” which is set in the Silicon Valley of the future. Johnson is known for his playful futuristic writing: In one memorable sentence, he writes, “The drone offers up its firewall like a seductress her throat.”
  • The Oxford English Dictionary has put out a public appeal for anyone with documentation of the word “def” (in the sense of “cool” or “great”) appearing before 1981 to come forward. The dictionary has recently been crowdsourcing some of its more problematic words.
  • An excerpt from George R.R. Martin’s upcoming novella was published Tuesday on the Tor website. The novella, The Princess and The Queen, or, The Blacks and The Greens, is set two centuries before the events of his popular Game of Thrones series, and recounts “the Causes, Origins, Battles, and Betrayals of that Most Tragic Bloodletting Known as the Dance of the Dragons.”

The Scope Of The 20th Century In Sweeping, Sprawling ‘Joy’


The Art of Joy

There’s nothing soothing or easygoing about this massive novel, which was first published obscurely in Italy in the late 1990s. Goliarda Sapienza, a novelist and actress who worked with the likes of Pasolini and Visconti, spent more than a decade writing The Art of Joy, and on balance, she must have felt it a massive disappointment, given that no publisher wanted to go near its chaotic, handwritten blend of ambisexuality, religion, feminism, and politics. The book only (finally) saw the light of day two years after her death in 1996, when her husband financed the publishing of 1,000 copies for posterity — and it’s since gone on to become a literary sensation in Europe.

It’s not as if The Art of Joy was somehow waiting around for its moment. It overflows with elements that might be at home in any sweeping, epic European novel of the 20th (or any) century — a simultaneous engagement with and undermining of religion, along with fallen aristocrats, inbred grotesques, Sapphic ecstasy, complicated marriages, sudden deaths, murder, fascists and communists. It lacks for only one critical thing: editing.

Not that it ultimately matters. A 700-plus-page-turner, propulsively translated by Anne Milano Appel, The Art of Joy colonizes your attention like some rollicking, manic mashup of Lampedusa, Laurence Sterne, Dante, David Foster Wallace and Margaret Atwood. Perhaps it needed the shattered attention span of the Internet era to succeed. In the 1980s and 1990s, tightly written minimalist fiction, whittled to an often bleak perfection, ruled the day, but we now inhabit a readerly landscape in which 10-year-olds routinely ingest multivolume fantasy series while teen bloggers produce great sprawling hunks of overshare. Sapienza’s Italian adventure may be just the racy, weighty tome that the age of unexpurgated information needed.

The story revs forward like a Ducati pursuing a Ph.D. in Italian studies. The preposterously named Modesta is born in Sicily on Day 1 of the 20th century: Jan. 1, 1900. Everything that happens to people living in Italy and Europe — and for that matter, planet Earth — over the course of the coming, momentous decades will happen to her. Her tale begins explosively, with quasi-incestuous rape and fire: Soon after discovering self-pleasure, she’s accosted by a man claiming to be her father, who then torches her house and along with it her mother and mentally disabled sister.

Goliarda Sapienza was an Italian actress and writer. The Art of Joy is her posthumous novel.


Archivio Sapienza Pellegrino/Courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Goliarda Sapienza was an Italian actress and writer. The Art of Joy is her posthumous novel.

Goliarda Sapienza was an Italian actress and writer. The Art of Joy is her posthumous novel.

Archivio Sapienza Pellegrino/Courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A twisted Sound of Music escapade follows, as the orphaned Modesta is taken into a convent, where she discovers — and revels in — the secretive, ritualistic onanism of the nunnery. Then it’s on to the estate of the Brandifortis, and an ascent from poverty that will both define Modesta’s destiny and provide her with the polish to defy fascism as it invades Italy. Along the way, she finds her very own Beatrice (literary reference very much intended) to satisfy her lesbian urges. Then comes a husband to solidify her social rank and empower her subsequent political independence.

Sapienza’s prose is breathless throughout, urgent, driven forward by the twin engines of sex and history. A typically transformative interlude between Modesta and Beatrice goes like this:

“Surrendering to her, I left behind that inferno of qualms and bands and lava walls. The convent receded when I stared into her eyes. It collapsed behind me and I could see the stars again. Was that what paradise was: love?”

But the relentlessness is balanced by the compression of each chapter, a consequence of Sapienza’s writing process: She composed the novel on single, folded sheets of typing paper. This keeps everything tidy and actually encourages a focus on events as they unfold through the narrator’s perspective. It’s a feast delivered on small plates.

The sexual boundary-breaking may be what made the novel appeal so strongly to French readers, who gobbled up a recent edition. But what makes Sapienza’s ragged masterpiece uniquely Italian is the way it grapples with fascism. Italian artists — and particularly the dramatists and directors with whom Sapienza worked — have compulsively forced themselves to examine their country and their culture’s disturbing embrace of Mussolini and the midcentury jackboot. How did it come to be, exactly, that the nations that produced la dolce vita and Mein Kampf joined forces? Sapienza didn’t live to see the full, corrupted flowering of Berlusconi’s Italy, but she no doubt would have recognized it as one more remnant of all that, a sign of some ongoing submission to an authoritarian undertow.

Sapienza’s verdict is pretty clear: Resistance is the only moral option. That resistance can take many forms, with sexual liberation in the face of crude patriarchy just one of them. This resistance has shaped the overarching drama of the 20th century. And it needed, perhaps, a novel of this scale and seductive libertinism to tell its story.

Maria Russo is the editor-in-chief of Pasadena Magazine and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

Book News: Booksellers Irate Over Obama’s Amazon Visit


President Obama greets people after making a speech about the economy and jobs Tuesday at an Amazon Fulfillment Center in Chattanooga, Tenn.


Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

President Obama greets people after making a speech about the economy and jobs Tuesday at an Amazon Fulfillment Center in Chattanooga, Tenn.

President Obama greets people after making a speech about the economy and jobs Tuesday at an Amazon Fulfillment Center in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • President Obama’s Tuesday trip to an Amazon distribution center in Chattanooga, Tenn., has raised eyebrows (and hackles) in the bookselling community. Publisher’s Weekly ran a provocative story titled “Does President Obama Hate Indie Bookstores?” that called Obama’s visit “a slap in the face” to booksellers. In an open letter to the president, the board of the American Booksellers Association called his choice “greatly misguided.” It added, “The news this weekend that Amazon is slashing prices far below cost on numerous book titles is further evidence that it will stop at nothing to garner market share at the expense of small businesses that cannot afford to sell inventory below their cost of acquisition.” Deputy Press Secretary Amy Brundage told PW that “what the president wants to do is to highlight Amazon and the Chattanooga facility as an example of a company that is spurring job growth and keeping our country competitive.” As NPR’s Bill Chappell reported Monday, Amazon announced a day before Obama’s trip that it planned to add more than 5,000 jobs in the U.S.
  • In the wake of J.K. Rowling’s recent admission that she wrote under the pen name Robert Galbraith, The New York Times asked several prominent writers what their pseudonyms would be and what kinds of books they would write using them. Carl Hiaasen said he would conceal his identity as “Rick O’Mortis,” a fantasy author who would write “a series of vampire-romance novels set at an assisted-living facility in post-apocalyptic Boca Raton, Fla.” He added, “Perhaps there could also be trolls and pythons.”
  • Adam Johnson, who won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with his novel The Orphan Master’s Son, has a new story in Esquire:Nirvana,” which is set in the Silicon Valley of the future. Johnson is known for his playful futuristic writing: In one memorable sentence, he writes, “The drone offers up its firewall like a seductress her throat.”
  • The Oxford English Dictionary has put out a public appeal for anyone with documentation of the word “def” (in the sense of “cool” or “great”) appearing before 1981 to come forward. The dictionary has recently been crowdsourcing some of its more problematic words.
  • An excerpt from George R.R. Martin’s upcoming novella was published Tuesday on the Tor website. The novella, The Princess and The Queen, or, The Blacks and The Greens, is set two centuries before the events of his popular Game of Thrones series, and recounts “the Causes, Origins, Battles, and Betrayals of that Most Tragic Bloodletting Known as the Dance of the Dragons.”

The Scope Of The 20th Century In Sweeping, Sprawling ‘Joy’


The Art of Joy

There’s nothing soothing or easygoing about this massive novel, which was first published obscurely in Italy in the late 1990s. Goliarda Sapienza, a novelist and actress who worked with the likes of Pasolini and Visconti, spent more than a decade writing The Art of Joy, and on balance, she must have felt it a massive disappointment, given that no publisher wanted to go near its chaotic, handwritten blend of ambisexuality, religion, feminism, and politics. The book only (finally) saw the light of day two years after her death in 1996, when her husband financed the publishing of 1,000 copies for posterity — and it’s since gone on to become a literary sensation in Europe.

It’s not as if The Art of Joy was somehow waiting around for its moment. It overflows with elements that might be at home in any sweeping, epic European novel of the 20th (or any) century — a simultaneous engagement with and undermining of religion, along with fallen aristocrats, inbred grotesques, Sapphic ecstasy, complicated marriages, sudden deaths, murder, fascists and communists. It lacks for only one critical thing: editing.

Not that it ultimately matters. A 700-plus-page-turner, propulsively translated by Anne Milano Appel, The Art of Joy colonizes your attention like some rollicking, manic mashup of Lampedusa, Laurence Sterne, Dante, David Foster Wallace and Margaret Atwood. Perhaps it needed the shattered attention span of the Internet era to succeed. In the 1980s and 1990s, tightly written minimalist fiction, whittled to an often bleak perfection, ruled the day, but we now inhabit a readerly landscape in which 10-year-olds routinely ingest multivolume fantasy series while teen bloggers produce great sprawling hunks of overshare. Sapienza’s Italian adventure may be just the racy, weighty tome that the age of unexpurgated information needed.

The story revs forward like a Ducati pursuing a Ph.D. in Italian studies. The preposterously named Modesta is born in Sicily on Day 1 of the 20th century: Jan. 1, 1900. Everything that happens to people living in Italy and Europe — and for that matter, planet Earth — over the course of the coming, momentous decades will happen to her. Her tale begins explosively, with quasi-incestuous rape and fire: Soon after discovering self-pleasure, she’s accosted by a man claiming to be her father, who then torches her house and along with it her mother and mentally disabled sister.

Goliarda Sapienza was an Italian actress and writer. The Art of Joy is her posthumous novel.


Archivio Sapienza Pellegrino/Courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Goliarda Sapienza was an Italian actress and writer. The Art of Joy is her posthumous novel.

Goliarda Sapienza was an Italian actress and writer. The Art of Joy is her posthumous novel.

Archivio Sapienza Pellegrino/Courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A twisted Sound of Music escapade follows, as the orphaned Modesta is taken into a convent, where she discovers — and revels in — the secretive, ritualistic onanism of the nunnery. Then it’s on to the estate of the Brandifortis, and an ascent from poverty that will both define Modesta’s destiny and provide her with the polish to defy fascism as it invades Italy. Along the way, she finds her very own Beatrice (literary reference very much intended) to satisfy her lesbian urges. Then comes a husband to solidify her social rank and empower her subsequent political independence.

Sapienza’s prose is breathless throughout, urgent, driven forward by the twin engines of sex and history. A typically transformative interlude between Modesta and Beatrice goes like this:

“Surrendering to her, I left behind that inferno of qualms and bands and lava walls. The convent receded when I stared into her eyes. It collapsed behind me and I could see the stars again. Was that what paradise was: love?”

But the relentlessness is balanced by the compression of each chapter, a consequence of Sapienza’s writing process: She composed the novel on single, folded sheets of typing paper. This keeps everything tidy and actually encourages a focus on events as they unfold through the narrator’s perspective. It’s a feast delivered on small plates.

The sexual boundary-breaking may be what made the novel appeal so strongly to French readers, who gobbled up a recent edition. But what makes Sapienza’s ragged masterpiece uniquely Italian is the way it grapples with fascism. Italian artists — and particularly the dramatists and directors with whom Sapienza worked — have compulsively forced themselves to examine their country and their culture’s disturbing embrace of Mussolini and the midcentury jackboot. How did it come to be, exactly, that the nations that produced la dolce vita and Mein Kampf joined forces? Sapienza didn’t live to see the full, corrupted flowering of Berlusconi’s Italy, but she no doubt would have recognized it as one more remnant of all that, a sign of some ongoing submission to an authoritarian undertow.

Sapienza’s verdict is pretty clear: Resistance is the only moral option. That resistance can take many forms, with sexual liberation in the face of crude patriarchy just one of them. This resistance has shaped the overarching drama of the 20th century. And it needed, perhaps, a novel of this scale and seductive libertinism to tell its story.

Maria Russo is the editor-in-chief of Pasadena Magazine and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

Buttermilk Makes Everything Taste A Little Better



T. Susan Chang for NPR

Double Fluffy Buttermilk Biscuits

It started happening about 15 years ago. I’d be paging through a new cookbook or browsing through recipes online, and I’d suddenly stop. “Mmm, buttermilk biscuits. Doesn’t that sound good?” I’d bookmark the site or dog-ear the page. The next week I’d see a recipe for waffles — buttermilk waffles, as it happened. What a splendid idea. Out came the yellow stickies.

Then it was fried chicken, first bathed in buttermilk brine. Buttermilk pork chops and buttermilk cornbread. Buttermilk ice cream and buttermilk panna cotta. Buttermilk okra. It became apparent I was developing a thing for buttermilk.

Yet I couldn’t quite put my finger on the cause. It’s not like having a thing for chocolate, where the chocolate always plays more or less the same irresistible role, like a kind of confectionary Hugh Grant. No, buttermilk is subtle and chameleon-like — a supporting actor that makes ensembles shine and quietly steals every scene, until years later you realize it’s been shamefully ignored and is overdue for its Lifetime Achievement Oscar.

Some of its miraculous properties are purely physical. Mildly acidic buttermilk activates meat’s own enzymes, gently sundering protein links without leaving the surface flaccid, as stronger acids can. Like a dairy Delilah, buttermilk saps the Samson-like strength of gluten, too, making baked goods more tender even as it makes them more moist.

Personally, I just like the taste of buttermilk — the way it evokes cream without cream’s over-the-top heft; the way its tanginess goes up to the threshold of yogurt and stops just shy. Buttermilk somehow seems perpetually cool and unruffled — in custardy icebox desserts, it seems to drop the temperature by 10 degrees just by being there. It’s tart but not biting, rich yet understated. Never mind wanting to eat and drink buttermilk all day long — I want to be buttermilk.

Buttermilk purists will tell you that you should really make your own buttermilk — simply mix one part of active, cultured buttermilk with three parts of regular milk, shake and leave it out on the counter for a day before refrigerating. Or you can culture it with cream and make your own butter, too, in the food processor. For that matter, you can go ahead and buy a dairy cow, milk it, hand-churn the cream into butter and siphon off the left-behind buttermilk. People will tell you that store buttermilk is a sleazy substitute for the real thing, and that true buttermilk makes the store kind look like a dime-store floozy.

I’ve tried making “real” buttermilk with the 3:1 method, and it’s true that it’s spectacular. But does it matter that much? You may not have a cow. You may not have a churn. You may not even have an extra 24 hours. But don’t let that stop you — no matter where you get it and no matter how you cook it, a little bit of buttermilk has a thousand ways of making life taste better.

Recipe: Double Fluffy Buttermilk Biscuits

This recipe appears in Nathalie Dupree’s and Cynthia Graubart’s Southern Biscuits (Gibbs Smith, 2011). It seems long, but it’s not really — it’s just that Dupree and Graubart offer particularly thoughtful and detailed directions in this book. It’s good to pay attention to the details — they’ll pay you back tenfold. You’ll get different levels of rise and texture with different types of fat, but all are good.

Makes 14 (2 1/2-inch) biscuits

2 1/4 cups self-rising flour, divided

1/4 cup chilled vegetable shortening, butter, lard or a mixture, roughly cut into ¼-inch pieces, plus ¼ cup chilled shortening, roughly cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 1/4 cups buttermilk, divided

Softened butter, for brushing

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Select the baking pan by determining if a soft or crisp exterior is desired. For a soft exterior, use an 8- or 9-inch cake pan, pizza pan or ovenproof skillet where the biscuits will nestle together snugly, creating the soft exterior while baking. For a crisp exterior, select a baking sheet or other baking pan where the biscuits can be placed wider apart, allowing air to circulate and creating a crisper exterior, and brush the pan with butter.

Whisk 2 cups of flour in a large bowl, preferably wider than it is deep, and set aside the remaining 1/4 cup of flour. Scatter the 1/4-inch-size pieces of chilled shortening over the flour and work in by rubbing fingers with the fat and flour as if snapping thumb and fingers together (or use two forks or knives, or a pastry cutter) until the mixture looks like well-crumbled feta cheese. Scatter the 1/2-inch-size pieces of chilled fat over the flour mixture and continue snapping thumb and fingers together until no pieces remain larger than a pea. Shake the bowl occasionally to allow the larger pieces of fat to bounce to the top of the flour, revealing the largest lumps that still need rubbing. If this method took longer than 5 minutes, place the bowl in the refrigerator for 5 minutes to rechill the fat.

Make a deep hollow in the center of the flour with the back of your hand. Pour 1 cup of the buttermilk into the hollow, reserving 1/4 cup buttermilk, and stir with a rubber spatula, using broad circular strokes to quickly pull the flour into the buttermilk. Mix just until the dry ingredients are moistened and the sticky dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl. If there is some flour remaining on the bottom and sides of the bowl, stir in 1-4 tablespoons of reserved buttermilk, just enough to incorporate the remaining flour into the shaggy wettish dough If the dough is too wet, use more flour when shaping.

Lightly sprinkle a clean surface using some of the reserved flour. Turn the dough out onto it and sprinkle the top lightly with flour. With floured hands, fold the dough in half, and pat dough out into a 1/3- to 1/2-inch thick round. Flour again if necessary and fold the dough in half a second time. If the dough is still clumpy, pat and fold a third time. Pat dough out into a 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick round. Brush off any visible flour from the top.

For each biscuit, dip a 2 1/2-inch biscuit cutter into the reserved flour and cut out, starting at the outside edge and cutting very close together, being careful not to twist the cutter. The scraps may be combined to make additional biscuits, although they will be tougher.

Using a metal spatula if necessary, move the biscuits to the pan or baking sheet. Bake the biscuits on the top rack of the oven for 10 to 14 minutes until light golden brown. After 6 minutes, rotate the pan in the oven so that the front of the pan is now turned to the back, and check to see if the bottoms are browning too quickly. If so, slide another baking pan underneath to add insulation and retard browning. Continue baking another 4 to 8 minutes until the biscuits are light golden brown. When the biscuits are done, remove from the oven and lightly brush the tops with softened or melted butter. Turn the biscuits out upside down on a plate to cool slightly. Serve hot, right side up.

Recipe: Buttermilk Ice Cream

This subtly tart and swooningly creamy recipe — perfect for savoring with fresh blueberries — is adapted from Sweet Cream and Sugar Cones by Kris Hoogerhyde, Anne Walker and Dabney Gough, (10 Speed Press, 2012). But I use a technique from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home (Artisan, 2011) to cool down the custard base quickly: Fill a deep, 2-quart vessel with ice water. Carefully tip the warm ice cream custard base into a sturdy freezer-grade sealable bag and place the bag in the ice water (with the opening kept well clear above the water level). Stir occasionally and gently, over the course of 10 minutes until the base is cool. It’s much, much faster than the bowl-within-a-bowl technique.


T. Susan Chang for NPR

Buttermilk Ice Cream

Makes 1 very scant quart

5 large egg yolks

3/4 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

1/2 cup 1- or 2-percent milk

1 cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For the base, in a medium heatproof bowl, whisk the yolks to just break them up, then whisk in half the sugar (6 tablespoons). Set aside.

In a heavy stainless steel pan, stir together the cream, milk and the remaining sugar (6 tablespoons) and put the pan over medium-high heat. When the mixture approaches a bare simmer, reduce the heat to medium.

Carefully scoop out about 1/2 cup of the hot cream mixture and, whisking the eggs constantly, add the cream to the bowl with the egg yolks. Repeat, adding another 1/2 cup of the hot cream to the bowl with the yolks. Returning to the pan of cream on the stove, use a heatproof spatula to stir the cream as you slowly pour the egg and cream mixture back into the pan.

Continue to cook the mixture carefully over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thickened, coats the back of a spatula and leaves a clear mark when you run your finger across it, 1 to 2 minutes longer.

Strain the base through a fine-mesh strainer and into a clean container. Set the bowl into an ice bath, wash your spatula and use it to stir the base occasionally until it is cool. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate the base for at least 2 hours or overnight. (In this recipe, it’s particularly important that the base is cold before proceeding to the next step, or the buttermilk will cause the mixture to “break” and lose its emulsion.)

Add the buttermilk and vanilla to the cold base and whisk to blend.

Freeze in ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions. While the ice cream is churning, put the container you’ll use to store the ice cream into the freezer. Enjoy right away or, for a firmer ice cream, freeze for at least 4 hours.

Recipe: Buttermilk Roast Chicken

This is very loosely adapted from a recipe originally found in Nigella Express (Hyperion, 2007). For speedier results, you could use chicken parts such as thighs or drumsticks, which would take a half-hour or so in the oven. The potatoes are my addition and they’re not to be missed.


T. Susan Chang for NPR

Buttermilk Roast Chicken

Makes one chicken

2 cups buttermilk

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 cloves garlic, bruised and skins removed

1 tablespoon crushed peppercorns

1 tablespoon Maldon salt, sea salt or 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 whole chicken, split in half or butterflied (backbone removed)

4 large Yukon gold potatoes, chopped into 3/4-inch cubes

For the marinade, in a large freezer bag, combine the buttermilk, 1/4 cup of oil, the bruised garlic, the crushed peppercorns and salt. Sprinkle in the ground cumin and add the maple syrup, then squish everything around to mix. Add the chicken halves, massaging the marinade into the meat through the layer of plastic bag. Leave the buttermilk marinated chicken in the refrigerator ideally overnight or unrefrigerated for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Film a cast iron skillet with 1/2 tablespoon of the remaining oil and scatter the potato dice over the base of the skillet. Place an oven-safe wire rack over the skillet. Take the chicken out of the bag, shaking off the excess marinade, and then arrange on the rack. Drizzle over the 1 1/2 remaining tablespoons of oil. Working carefully — the rack/skillet arrangement may be slippery — transfer the pan to the oven and roast for about 40-45 minutes, or until brown, even scorched in parts, and juicily cooked through. Serve hot or warm, scraping the potatoes out with a metal spatula and spooning over the juices.