Edgy Stuff: October 2014 Recommendations
In a new series of monthly posts, the Edge Effects editorial board brings you a handful of recommendations based on the most interesting stuff that’s come across our desks, screens, and speakers over the last month (or so). From books and articles, to podcasts, music, and film, we’ll keep you on the edge.
Mohammed Rafi Arefin
It’s not often that garbage and Cairo are discussed together in popular media. For that reason, I recommend Peter Hessler’s “Tales of Trash” in the October 13 issue of the New Yorker. I’ve responded to some of the troubling aspects of this piece here on Edge Effects. For those interested in current debates in geographies of waste and discard studies, Josh Reno’s recent article, “Towards a New Theory of Waste: From ‘Matter out of Place’ to Signs of Life” in Theory, Culture & Society makes an important intervention.
It’s not hard to find food in the news, but this week had some particularly choice offerings. First, a New York Times article from October 25 featured Brazilian chef Thiago Castanho’s celebration of an Amazonian terroir. Castanho believes cooking, serving, and eating the foods of Brazil’s rainforest might incentivize its protection. Meanwhile, John Lanchester’s article in the New Yorker, “Shut up and Eat: A Foodie Repents,” critiques this notion of individual consumer choice as ethical and political practice, writing: “If shopping and cooking really are the most consequential, most political acts in my life, perhaps what that means is that our sense of the political has shrunk too far—shrunk so much that it fits into our recycled-hemp shopping bags.” Lastly, this essay from McSweeney’s offers a fun but blistering satire of the farmers’ market customer from the perspective of a small-scale organic farmer.
For some time now, I’ve been slowly working through Peter Matthiessen’s massive, National Book Award-winning novel, Shadow Country. Matthiessen, who died in April 2014, was as well known for his nonfiction as his fiction, and was consistently dedicated to exploring the fraught overlaps between humans and their natural environments. Shadow Country is actually three of Matthiessen’s previous novels revised and fused together to make one, 800+ page epic set in Florida at the turn of the twentieth century. Dark, complex, and evocative, the novel loops around and around the story of Edgar J. Watson, folding in the voices of a scattered community as they attempt to make sense of this violent, charismatic figure. Matthiessen’s facility with the distinctive language and culture of his human subjects, as well as his attention to the quiet devastation of the nonhuman environment during that time period, is remarkable.
Ebola here, Ebola there, but little good information anywhere, or so it seems. In a course I’m currently teaching on global health, we have a daily discussion of the latest developments in the epidemic. A few sources I’ve found particularly good on the subject include Helen Epstein’s recent piece in the New York Review of Books; the New England Journal of Medicine’s editorial on why quarantines of returning health workers are counterproductive; and the Ebola fieldnotes series on one of my favorite academic blogs, the medical anthropology site Somatosphere. Each of these gets at the human ecology of the disease with a depth and subtlety that’s been decidedly lacking in the popular press.
Coastal Louisiana is eroding into the Gulf of Mexico at an astonishing rate, with almost 2,000 square miles of land having transformed into open water in just eighty years. USGS National Wetlands Research Center director Phil Turnipseed has called the crisis “the greatest environmental, economic and cultural tragedy on the North American Continent,” with enormous consequences not just for New Orleans and the region, but also for fisheries, energy markets, and shipping infrastructure on which the whole nation depends. For complicated reasons, Louisiana land loss has remained largely invisible outside the state, but a spate of articles appearing over the last few months has given the tragedy much needed exposure:
At the end of August, a collaboration between Grist, The Lens, and ProPublica produced new interactive visualizations of the land loss crisis along with an explanatory story by The Lens’s environmental reporter Bob Marshall.
Just over a week later, New Orleans restaurant critic and Harvard Nieman fellow Brett Anderson published a powerful essay in Matter about the challenges of representing erosion and subsidence in a watery “place with no edge.”
And finally at the close of September, Nathaniel Rich published two pieces in quick succession for the New Republic and New York Times Magazine. The former suggested provocatively that energy facilities are being erected in vulnerable parts of the coast to attract federal dollars for protective infrastructure and restoration. The latter covered the epic and unprecedented legal case to hold the oil and gas industry accountable for its share of coastal erosion.
If you needed additional reason to catch up on last season’s hit drama True Detective, here’s one: history, storytelling, and landscape are central to this police procedural, and show creator Nic Pizzolatto discusses these themes at length in his recent interview with Wisconsin Public Radio’s Steve Paulson. “You know that Faulkner line that the past isn’t over, it isn’t even past?” Pizzolatto says to his interviewer, when pushed to explain the show’s frequent jumps between past and present. “I’ve always felt that to be true. . . . But we’re going to use it as a vehicle to dissect narrative, and motivation, and character.” Metaphysical quandaries and dark humor inspire the writer, as does his religious upbringing. “The first story I ever heard was a noir story called The Book of Genesis,” he quips, but he isn’t quite kidding: the show is littered with religious iconography and its protagonists—whose evolving and antagonist relationship serve as the show’s chief narrative engine—often go to blows over competing moral compasses.
Deliberate in his craft, grounded in his aesthetic, and willing to tackle enormous philosophical dilemmas—Pizzolatto and True Detective are a model of place-based storytelling success. So get your hands on a copy of the show and tuck in for a few indulgent evenings. Surely you can justify eight episodes’ worth of Edge Effects-recommended research. [True Detective is also one of just a few examples of film/television that feature Louisiana land loss as a supporting character—Adam.]
I’ve been in an American Studies state of mind lately, returning to a handful of classics that mine works of high art and popular culture to understand how Americans thought about land and westward expansion in the nineteenth century. I am currently working my way through Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, Alan Trachtenberg’s The Incorporation of America (Chapter 1 in particular), and Amy Kaplan’s “Manifest Domesticity,” a masterful rumination on gender and expansionist ideologies. A little Marx—Leo, that is—would round out this buffet . . . In other news, I recently saw Kelly Reichardt’s “Night Moves,” starring Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning. A riveting, disquieting film, it raises provocative questions about radical environmentalism but ends up being essentially a psychological thriller depicting the unraveling of a deeply tormented soul.