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An informal monument to Julio Cortázar on the streets of Buenos Aires. (Getty Images)

Hopscotching To 100: An Appreciation Of Julio Cortázar

by Juan Vidal
Aug 30, 2014

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Juan Vidal

First thing I noticed on the cover was his mouth, which was half open, midlaugh. Next, his teeth; not the best set I'd ever seen. After that, of course, his pronounced unibrow — thick and equally unbecoming. There was the cat, too, posted on the windowsill. Its eyes were dead set on the playful man with the camera and the mouth and the teeth and bushy eyebrow. All this and the words Save Twilight. I thumbed through the little book some and paid for it — cost me about a dollar at the used book shop. I didn't know I was about to be introduced to an author so intelligent and inventive, so able to draw me in with his words. (Or that he'd named the cat on the cover Theodor W. Adorno, after the German sociologist and philosopher.)

This week marks 100 years since the birth of Julio Cortzar, the Argentine novelist and short story writer. Although people pay less attention to his poetry, it too was exceptional, imbued with his great love for music, history and art. Cortzar remains one of the most revered writers of the past several decades, and also — naturally — among the most emulated. Through the years, his distinctive prose style has spawned scores of copycats.

Born in Belgium in 1914, Cortzar settled with his family in Argentina after World War I. There, he was educated and began taking steps toward what would become a career in literature. In 1947, he published his first story, "Casa tomada" ("House Taken Over"), in a magazine edited by Jorge Luis Borges. He moved to Paris, finding work as an interpreter and translator — and it was in Paris that he hit his stride, publishing his first novel, The Winners, in 1960.

But Cortzar's second novel, Hopscotch, is his masterpiece. It's an open-ended story made up of 155 episodic chapters, and in it, Cortzar invites the reader to participate in a game of sorts, where time is a blur and entire sections of the book are "expendable" — the reader being exhorted to skip chapters and reread others. Its peculiar nature, in essence a story of love and loss, has earned Hopscotch a reputation as one of the most innovative works to come out of any place, any time.

Along with Gabriel Garca Mrquez, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, Cortzar was a prominent figure in the Latin American boom of the '60s and '70s. It was the era that brought us some of the most influential works of the Latin American canon, such as One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Time of the Hero. While much of that period was steeped in political turmoil, it was also a kind of renaissance — a time where many writers and critics from around Latin America were beginning to gain recognition in America and Europe.

As for short stories, Cortzar did much to raise the bar, challenging norms and breaking the rules of traditional storytelling. Many of his stories and sketches, in fact, read like hallucinations, muddying the waters between reality and fantasy; his characters often seem to straddle alternate worlds. Take "Axolotl," in which a man turns into a salamander and watches the outside world through the aquarium glass. Or "Letter to a Young Lady in Paris," one of his most striking tales. It's a suicide note of a kind: While it starts off sweetly enough — with a man agreeing to move in with his girlfriend — it takes a turn for the horrific as the man starts to vomit up rabbits, one after the other. Some of his fellow boom writers worked the realms of magical realism — but Cortzar walked in entirely different territory.

He was also an amateur jazz musician, who once said he "played the trumpet as a relief." His obvious passion for the instrument turns up in his work, in the improvisational techniques and the many references to jazz players.

I remember it so clearly, standing in that bookshop all those years ago, killing time on a lunch break. To this day, that tiny book — and Cortzar's poetry in general — just resonates. There's a subtle beauty to it that I've never been able to articulate, like the rhythm of a dream, but real and raw and chock full of fire. Of all his works, it's what I come back to the most.

Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR Books. He's on Twitter: @itsjuanlove.

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A campaign called Behind The Brands, led by Oxfam International, is trying to make the inner workings of the 10 biggest food companies in the world more visible to consumers. (iStockphoto.com)

Can Oxfam Nudge Big Food Companies To Do Right?

by Allison Aubrey and Dan Charles
Aug 30, 2014

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It's not always easy to connect the dots between the food we consume and the people who grow it, or the impact of growing and processing that food on the health of our planet.

But a campaign called Behind the Brands, led by Oxfam International, an advocacy organization dedicated to fighting poverty, is trying to make the inner workings of the 10 biggest food companies in the world more visible.

They include General Mills, Associated British Foods, Danone, Mars, Coca-Cola, Mondelez, Unilever, PepsiCo, Nestle and Kellogg. Those companies, as you can see from the infographic, control much of what we consume.

Oxfam's goal is to nudge them by scoring them on a scale of 1 to 10 on a whole host of fronts, from worker rights to climate change.

We sat down to talk with Chris Jochnick, one of the architects of this campaign and Oxfam America's director of private sector development. We touched on how social media is giving activists more power, why big food companies respond to pressure, and whether corporate executives are his friends or his enemies.

We also wanted to know: Will the promises that these companies make really translate into concrete changes on, say, cocoa farms in West Africa?

If you listen to our conversation above, you'll hear Jochnick explain some of the tactics he and others have used to influence corporate leaders.

Those tactics include speaking up as shareholders at annual meetings or earnings calls, and staging public events, such as the one featured in this YouTube video of activists in Time Square drawing attention to the plight of female cocoa farmers in Africa.

These efforts led to agreements with three large chocolate companies — Mars, Mondelez and Nestle — who have committed to doing more to help the female cocoa farmers in their supply chains escape poverty.

Credit for photo on the SoundCloud audio: iStockphoto

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

This is the first in a series of conversations on The Salt where members of NPR's food team chat with intriguing people in the food world.

Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR
Tiny Desk Concert with Sturgill Simpson on July 8, 2014. (NPR)

Sturgill Simpson: Tiny Desk Concert

Aug 30, 2014

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Sturgill Simpson doesn't fit today's common image of a country singer. When he arrived for his Tiny Desk Concert, the 36-year-old Kentucky native sauntered in sleepy-eyed, wearing jeans, a pair of old canvas tennis shoes, no socks and a well-worn button-down blue shirt, one of only two identical shirts he said he had in rotation while on tour. (He appeared a few nights later on Letterman wearing either the same garment or its twin.)

Simpson's songs don't sound like what you'd expect, either: Mostly, it seems, he writes about taking drugs and drinking. Opening his Tiny Desk performance with the seemingly existential meditation "Turtles All The Way Down," Simpson tells the audience it's "about some other stuff, but mostly drugs." He follows that song with "Time After All" ("I wanna roll off the tempo, lay back and get high") and "Life Of Sin" ("Every day I'm smokin' my brain hazy ... I keep drinking myself silly") before closing with "Water In The Well," a tamer, comparatively melancholy reflection on loneliness and failed dreams.

Regardless of the themes, Simpson is a force. His acoustic-guitar work in this solo performance is phenomenal, and he possesses a thundering voice that made the NPR offices shudder. "Turtles All The Way Down" and "Life Of Sin" are from this year's incredible Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, while "Time After All" and "Water In The Well" both appear on Simpson's 2013 debut, High Top Mountain. (Get it?)

Set List

  • "Turtles All The Way Down"
  • "Time After All"
  • "Life Of Sin"
  • "Water In A Well"

Credits

Producers: Denise DeBelius, Robin Hilton; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; Videographers: Denise DeBelius, Colin Marshall; photo by Sarah Tilotta/NPR

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

This is the first in a series of conversations on The Salt where members of NPR's food team chat with intriguing people in the food world.

Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR
Rapper Prodigy, shown above performing in New York City, published his debut novel, H.N.I.C., in 2013. (Getty Images)

Hip-Hop In Print: Brooklyn Publisher Looks To 'Reverse Gentrify' Literature

by Baz Dreisinger
Aug 30, 2014

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At this summer's Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica, thousands turned up for readings by big-name authors: Salman Rushdie, Jamaica Kincaid, Zadie Smith and Albert Johnson. Odds are the name Albert Johnson doesn't ring a bell. But if you're a hip-hop fan, you might recognize the author by another name: Prodigy. Off and on for the past 20 years, he's been one half of the acclaimed Queens, N.Y., duo Mobb Deep.

Prodigy says he began his debut novel, H.N.I.C., over a decade ago and, with the help of co-writer Savile, it wasn't hard to translate the somber realism he expresses in songs to the page.

"Writing lyrics, I pull from my real life," Prodigy says. "A lot of negativity that goes on in my world, in my neighborhood, with my friends, negative things I had to deal with — I take that negative energy and instead of doing something bad with it, I put it into my music."

Rappers taking on book publishing has become something of a trend. 50 Cent has his own imprint with Gallery Books; Simon & Schuster has Cash Money Content, run by the heads of Cash Money Records, home to Drake and Nicki Minaj. Titles on these imprints are often classified as "street lit" or "urban fiction": gritty, hard-boiled stories about gangsters, crime and the streets. But Prodigy's not a fan of those labels, and neither is his publisher, Johnny Temple, of Akashic Books.

"So-called 'urban lit' is the closest thing publishing has to hip-hop music," Temple says. "And just as when hip-hop came around, everyone thought it was going to last two years, and now it's transformed the landscape of the world of music, I've always believed strongly that urban lit has great potential."

The genre has its roots in the 1960s and '70s, with such authors as Iceberg Slim, Donald Goines and Chester Himes. Its current renaissance goes back about 15 years, to The Coldest Winter Ever, a hit novel by rapper Sister Souljah. That book's blockbuster success transformed an indie genre into a corporate money maker, says K'wan, an author with more than 20 novels under his belt.

"Initially we weren't getting advances," K'wan recalls. "We made our money from our hustle, the out-of-the-trunk hustle. So when the major publishers came in, they started throwing these advances like, 'Hey, this is what it is: I'll give you six figures if you write two or three books.' And you're like, 'Wow, you're going to give me six figures up front — all mine?' So, off to the races."

Kwan's latest, Black Lotus, is published by an imprint of Akashic that's curated by Prodigy. It's called Infamous Books, and publisher Johnny Temple says Akashic's goal is simple: "Akashic's slogan — it's slightly tongue in cheek but not really — is 'reverse gentrification of the literary world.' And Infamous Books is, in some ways, the ultimate manifestation of that motto."

For his part, as curator of Infamous, Prodigy says he's interested in titles that teach — books with a moral. And that grows in part out of the three years he spent in prison on a gun-possession charge.

"Having that time, it helped me to learn what other inmates were going through, and the system and how it works," Prodigy says. "So I guess when I'm writing something that pertains to that, it's a little bit more authentic than if I didn't live through it. 'Cause I've seen it, I lived through it, I know what's going on in there.

"So it definitely made me want to talk about it and let people know what's going on in there, and let young people know: That's not where you want to be. 'Cause you can go to jail for something small and end up doing 10 years, life, for something that happens in there — a lot of things happen in jail. So it definitely influences the way I tell the story and the stories I choose to tell."

And it's not just his stories he wants to tell through Infamous Books.

"I like Malcolm Gladwell a lot," Prodigy says. "His books are real good. Books where you can learn something: health, religion, the food industry, government, politics, federal reserve system, monetary system — how things started and got to the way it is today."

Topics, in other words, that don't bear labels.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

This is the first in a series of conversations on The Salt where members of NPR's food team chat with intriguing people in the food world.

Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR
Syria: The Trojan Women inserts current events into an ancient Greek tragedy, performed here in Amman, Jordan, in 2013. (Lynn Alleva Lilley)

Syrian Artists Denied Visas, And A Voice In The U.S.

Aug 30, 2014

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The Trojan Women, by Euripides, is a Greek tragedy written 2,500 years ago that war keeps timely.

It's about a group of women who struggle to survive in Troy after the town has been sacked. When one of the women cries out, "Our country, our conquered country, perishes ... O land that reared my children!" it's hard not to hear those words echo today, through Syria, in Iraq, and in Ukraine.

A new production, re-staged by two American filmmakers and Omar Abu Saada, the Syrian director now living in Cairo, was set to open next month at Georgetown University, then move on to Columbia University. It's called Syria: The Trojan Women, and it has already been presented in Amman, Jordan, with a cast of twelve Syrian women who work in their own real-life stories of loss, death, and exile.

But the play's scheduled U.S. performances have been postponed, and may have to be canceled. The U.S. State Department rejected the women's applications for entertainer's visas because they are refugees, now stranded in Jordan. The State Department worries that they might try to stay in the United States, even though they have families and small children in Jordan.

Section 214b of the Immigration Act requires people who want to come to work in the United States to prove they have a home overseas and "no intention of abandoning it." That sounds like especially ugly language to turn on refugees, whose homes may be bombed or burned.

Jonathan Ginsburg, an immigration lawyer hired by Georgetown, says that since 9/11 the Department of Homeland Security has gotten more involved in approving visas for artists — or not.

"And it is affecting the arts across the board," Ginsburg told the Washington Post. "It is more difficult than it has been in years to get the underlying petitions approved" for artist visas.

The US State Department is probably not silly to think artists who perform in the United States may get a taste of fast food and freedom and try to stay. The ballet companies of America are richer because of Cuban and Russian dancers who took the stage here and stayed. Quite a few US baseball clubs are better, too.

But Cynthia Schneider, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands, and co-chair of Georgetown's Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, says it's American audiences who may lose out on hearing Euripides' classic lines, uttered with the passion and poignance of Syrian women who now struggle through their own tragedies.

"This is the greatest tragedy," says Ambassador Schneider, "because in the United States we really don't have access to the voices of the Syrian people. Who are we hearing from? ISIS."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

This is the first in a series of conversations on The Salt where members of NPR's food team chat with intriguing people in the food world.

Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR

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