Recently on The Takeaway

A round-up of some of the segments I’ve particularly enjoyed working on for The Takeaway recently:

Listeners Respond: Things You Would Have Said  A funny thing happens when you call up strangers and tell them you’re a public radio producer: They tell you things, personal things. After doing a short interview with Jackie Hooper, the author of The Things You Would Have Said, we were flooded with listener comments about things they wished they’d said to people in their past.  I had the task of calling up a handful of listeners for longer phone interviews. We finally aired the stories of three listeners.

An Argument Against Happiness  Last month the United Nations took up the topic of moving beyond conventional economic measures in a session called “Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm.” As a follow-up to our segment on this move, we invited Wake Forest University English Professor Eric Wilson, author of Against Happiness, onto the program.  He argued the virtues of melancholy. “In America there is a sense that we can have all up with no down and all light with no dark — that we can be happy all the time,” he said.  “I’m in favor of honestly facing the world as it is and trying to make the best of it.”

March Heat Breaks Records Across the Country According to figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 15,000 weather records were set in the United States this March.  John Harold, a farmer in Olathe, Colorado described the dilemmas the unseasonably warm weather had presented on his farm.  Andrew Revkin of The New York Times’ “Dot Earth” blog summed things up this way: “Expect more of the same as the climate warms.”

Walmart’s Mexican Bribery Scandal Charles Fishman, author of The Wal-Mart Effect joined the program from his home in Mexico City to provide some perspective on reports of widespread bribery in Walmart’s Mexican operations.  When Fishman was working on his book years before, he’d been struck by how rigidly ethical the company’s practices were in the US. “What’s interesting is instead of Walmart changing the culture of Mexico, Mexico changed the culture of Walmart,” Fishman said.

Baby Boomers Squeeze Savings to Support Parents and Children  According to a new survey from Ameriprise Financial, more than half of baby boomers help their parents pay for groceries, medical expenses, or utilities. What’s more, a stunning 93% provide their adult children with financial support too. “Boomers’ attitudes about spending and saving have changed dramatically,” Suzanna de Baca of Ameriprise Financial explained. Boomer Mark Niedt in Denver described his own predicament. “While I’d love to be socking away some money for my own retirement, I’m really forced to derail that and give some assistance when I can,” he said.

Men — You Talk Too Much  Yale organizational behavior professor Tori Brescoll shared her fascinating research about just how much powerful men and women talk in the workplace. “Give men power and they’ll talk a lot — but that wasn’t really the case for women,” Brescoll found.  What’s more, women who were particularly outspoken paid a price: They were perceived as incompetent and unlikeable. “Indeed what I found is that whether it was politics or business, really talkative women were really slammed,” she said.

A Sign of the Times: Underearners Anonymous  Genevieve Smith‘s cover story in the latest issue of Harper’s magazine describes her experiences in “Underearner’s Anonymous,” a 12-step program for the chronically underpaid.  She explained how following the country’s economic recovery had made her a “connoisseur of financial pessimism” and why she was drawn to the program.

Behind the Scenes Diplomacy for Chen Guangcheng NYU Law Professor Jerome Cohen has maintained a friendship with Chinese dissedent Chen Guangcheng for more than a decade and remained in touch with him as he tried to navigate between US and Chinese officials in the days following his daring escape from house arrest.  “He was confronted by two unattractive opportunities,” Cohen explained.

I Am an Executioner: Love Stories

Dangerous, misunderstood creatures—a man-eating tiger, a wild elephant, and of course, the title executioner, to name just a few—populate Rajesh Parameswaran’s debut collection of short stories. I Am An Executioner offers a fiercely creative—and deeply morbid—vision of what it takes to stay alive. The struggle for survival dominates the lives of these characters; it’s finally their most feral instincts that carve their fates.

I reviewed I Am an Executioner: Love Stories for Newsweek/The Daily Beast.  The full review is here.

A Partial History of Lost Causes

For Newsweek/The Daily Beast, I reviewed A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer DuBois:

Jennifer DuBois’s debut novel opens with an epigraph from Vladimir Nabakov: “We are all doomed, but some of us are more doomed than others.” Perhaps an equally appropriate selection for this tender but sharp-edged book would have been the refrain of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art”: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” This is a story about learning to face loss and failure—if not with grace or composure, then at least with personal integrity.

The full review is here.  (Also, here’s what Gary Shteyngart had to say about this book: “Hilarious and heartbreaking and a triumph of the imagination. Jennifer duBois is too young to be this talented.  I wish I were her.”)

Schoolgirl

I reviewed Osamu Dazai’s Schoolgirl for Words Without Borders.

Written in 1939 but only now translated into English for the first time, Osamu Dazai’s Schoolgirl—a slim, precocious novella narrated by a schoolgirl of indeterminate age—was stylish and provocative in its time. Almost three-quarters of a century later, its prescience seems eerie; hardly anything about this book seems to have aged, least of all the narrator herself, who is perfectly preserved somewhere along the road to adolescence. Though she’s still young enough to entertain herself with nonsensical songs and inventive daydreams as she walks home from school (“I thought today I will try to pretend that I am from somewhere else, someone who has never been to this country town before”), she’s old enough to know her childhood is fast coming to a close. “It made me miserable that I was rapidly becoming an adult and that I was unable to do anything about it,” she reflects.

The full review is here.   It’s also definitely worth spending some time with the rest of this month’s Words Without Borders issue (which happens to be all about sex).

We Are Equal

The more things change, the more the stay the same.  At least that’s the feeling I’ve been getting reading through some of John Kennedy Toole’s fifty-plus-year-old writings in Butterfly in the Typewriter, a new biography of the writer that recently landed on my desk.

Entertainingly, many of Toole’s observations on New York still seem fresh all these years later.  For example, Toole describes — with a certain grim glee — “the masochism of living in New York, which has become the Inferno of America” (that is to say, it typifies “the American Dream as Apocalypse”).  But I was especially struck by this response to an exam question Toole wrote in 1955: 

Our government tells us we are equal, even though we enjoy economic freedom.  There are, of course, many citizens who believe wholeheartedly that this is true.  It is taught to all school children as the catechism of our government, as dogma.

But when these children are faced with the stark reality that school is over, that they are no longer “actives” in their fraternity, that they have their degree in Business Administration and that the regular checks from home are no longer forthcoming, the dogma which they so firmly believed explodes in their faces.

I was immediately reminded of a recent college graduate who joined The Takeaway a few months ago.  “We also were told a narrative our whole lives that if we did well in school and attended college, you know, there’d be good middle class jobs waiting for us,”  Chris Galloway said.  As he explained on the show, when Chris finished his degree and found himself jobless — and tens of thousands of dollars in debt — his perspective changed dramatically.

One could argue that the factors Toole observed exploding “the catechism of our government” half a century ago were in many ways different from the factors Galloway and other young graduates experience today.  But the tension between that “dogma” and the reality — the tension between a promising young graduate’s expectations, aspirations, and prospects — seems pretty much the same.

(For more on Toole, check out Cory McLachlan’s wonderful essay in The Millions about the process of researching Butterfly in the Typewriter).

The Principled Quit

To get a little perspective on Greg Smith’s “I quit” letter to Goldman Sachs while brainstorming at work today, I decided to call up Evan Harris.  Back in 1995 she was pretty much the poster-child for quitting.  She quit her job, boyfriend, and city, and started a zine called Quitters Quarterly.  She was featured in an episode of This American Life, and she wrote a book called The Quit.  Seventeen years later? She’s married with kids, back in her hometown. Here’s what she told me.

Recently on The Takeaway

Here are just some of the segments I’ve recently worked on for The Takeaway:

A New Legal Challenge to Affirmative Action “Since George Washington, universities have been thought of as places where the American melting-pot idea could be realized, in part,” Columbia University President Lee Bollinger told The Takeaway.  Nearly a decade ago, Bollinger was part of two landmark Supreme Court Cases on affirmative action, Gratz vs. Bollinger and Grutter vs. Bollinger.  He weighed in on how the new challenge to affirmative action posed by the Fisher vs. Texas case could change the face of the student body of universities of the future.

NYPD Surveillance Program Monitored Muslim Students at 13 Colleges A recently leaked New York Police Department report provides a startling picture of just how far the NYPD’s intelligence division went in a surveillance program targeting monitoring Muslims students at 13 colleges in the northeast. CUNY student Jawad Rasul told The Takeaway he was shocked to find out he’d given an undercover agent a ride to a student whitewater rafting trip. “These things come out which really are kind of a slap in the face to the people who are trying to assimilate into the country and lose our foreign identity to become American,” he said. (More on this story from the WNYC Newsroom.)

Electoral Demographics and the History of Presidential Primaries  Ken C. Davis, author of Don’t Much About History joined the show to help  fact-check some claims made by writer Timothy Egan in a recent New York Times op-ed.  “There is no other way to put this without resorting to demographic bluntness: the small fraction of Americans who are trying to pick the Republican nominee are old, white, uniformly Christian and unrepresentative of the nation at large,” Egan claimed.  Davis explained why that comparison is somewhat — but not entirely — accurate.

60 Lives Connected in the Largest Chain of Kidney Transplants  Candice and Michael Ryan, a husband and wife kidney recipient and donor shared their moving experience as part of the largest-ever chain of kidney transplants.  “It’s life-changing,” an emotional Candice Ryan told The Takeaway.  Check out The New York Times’ incredible multimedia coverage of this story here.

Chinese Vice-President Xi Jingping Visits The US  The Atlantic Monthly’s James Fallows explained how the Communist Party’s role in business has evolved in China.  Kirk Leeds, CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association also joined the show to discuss how Vice-President Xi’s visit to the state would reinforce a multi-billion dollar trade partnership.

California’s Ban on Gay Marriage Struck Down  “You cannot give a right to marry and then take it away solely on the ground that the individuals that you are taking it away from are a despised or disfavored group,” explained NYU law professor Kenji Yoshino.  While working on this segment, I also recorded a short audio interview with John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, a phenomenal couple.  Read more about them here or listen to a longer interview with them from 2010 here.

Tebow Bill May Allow Home-Schoolers to Play on High School Teams  Homeschooler Patrick Foss is a talented soccer player heading to University of Virginia in the fall to play college soccer. He told The Takeaway he wished he’d been able to play soccer on the local high school team. “My parents are taxpayers just like next door neighbors, just like the person two doors down who is the starting point-guard at our high school,” he said.

Inscrutable India

As promised, more reflections on this year’s eventful Jaipur Literature Festival:

Up until the day before JLF began, there were rumors that Rushdie — who reportedly had been dropped from the official program due to “a very real threat of violence at the venue” — planned to make a surprise appearance. Then, on the first day of the festival, Rushdie issued a statement: “I have now been informed by intelligence sources in Maharashtra and Rajasthan that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to Jaipur to ‘eliminate’ me,” he wrote. “While I have some doubts about the accuracy of this intelligence, it would be irresponsible of me to come to the Festival in such circumstances.”

To voice their disapproval of the circumstances of Rushdie’s absence, four writers, Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil, and Ruchir Joshi, read from The Satanic Verses — a book that has been banned in India — in their sessions later that day. They were subsequently advised to leave the festival, and the local police opened an investigation into their activities. There were still four days of panels left.

What was left to discuss? Anything but Rushdie. On guidance from the event organizers, everyone from Shashi Tharoor to David Remnick was talking around the debacle, momentarily alluding to it — knowingly, coyly — but never quite addressing it or the full array of issues it raised on India’s thorny history with censorship, religious fundamentalism, democratic and bureaucratic processes (and Salman Rushdie himself). It was a strange predicament for a symposium of ideas to find itself in. “So many awkward Rushdie references,” I scribbled in my notebook after day three. That’s all they were, though — fleeting references, fleetingly observed.

The show must go on! the organizers seemed to be saying. And, with 200-some authors still lined up to speak, it did. Lively on-stage conversations abounded. High-profile ones did too. Amy Chua debated economic policy. Teju Cole riffed on why it wasn’t necessarily only African writers who inspired him to become a writer. Oprah advocated for women’s rights. Fatima Bhutto discussed the future of Pakistan. Akash Kapur meditated on India’s changing rural landscape. Yet the topic of Rushdie continued to remain largely untouched, and a nagging question lingered in my mind: What kind of real intellectual discussion could go on in a setting that had proved itself so hospitable to self-censorship? When you gathered a hundred-thousand writers and book-lovers and then stripped away the opportunity for a truly free public exchange of ideas, what was left?

Head over to The Millions to read my full essay,  “Inscrutable India: Jaipur Literature Festival’s Baffling Bazaar of Culture and Commotion.”

photo by me: creepy art on display at Diggi Palace during JLF

Mr. g

I reviewed Mr. g by Alan Lightman for Newsweek/The Daily Beast:

For a book with no hidden plot twists—the reader knows that Mr. g’s experiments in cosmos-building in his pet universe, Aalam-104729, are bound to lead to the birth of mankind—Mr. g is strangely suspenseful. It turns out that the act of creation is profoundly transformative, even for a formless, timeless, all-powerful primogenitor. The plot moves forward as the universe gradually unfolds, but the real story here is about Mr. g’s inner awakening.

Jaipur Lit Festival

I’m at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India this week.  It’s a riot.  Between the panels, the parties and after-parties, the crowds, the chaos and the competing theories about just what really went down with Salman Rushdie (and what happened to the writers who read The Satanic Verses in protest), the last several days have been action-packed.  Not much time to write more just yet — still running around and taking it all in.