The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.
- Germany's culture and media minister is speaking out in support of a campaign by more than 1,000 German-speaking authors who have accused Amazon of manipulating bestseller lists and delaying deliveries. In a statement translated into English by the English-language paper The Local, Monika Grütters said she "welcomes and supports" the campaign, adding, "Market power and domination over central distribution channels should not endanger our cultural diversity." Amazon has been embroiled in a dispute with the German publisher Bonnier Group, a fight that in many ways resembles the retailer's standoff with Hachette Book Group in the U.S. Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
- Meanwhile, for Salon, Laura Miller argues that Amazon's problem may be a PR one: "Amazon much resembles a political party that hasn't figured out how to recalibrate its rhetoric to appeal to voters outside its base. Its pronouncements come in Amazonspeak, a language bred in a corporate echo chamber and the cheerleading threads of its self-publisher forums. ... The retailer is now up against a whole lot of people whose expertise is exactly that: communicating with the world. The real war between Amazon and Hachette, the economic one, remains up in the air, but the war of words is all over but the shouting."
- Elusive Italian novelist Elena Ferrante gives a rare interview to Vogue: "The most difficult achievement is the capacity to see oneself, to name oneself, to imagine oneself. If in daily life we use ideologies, common sense, religion, even literature itself to disguise our experiences and make them presentable, in fiction it's possible to sweep away all the veils — in fact, perhaps, it's a duty."
- For The Paris Review, Jonathan Guyer writes about Arabic noir: "The golden age of illicit crime fiction translation — from the 1890s through the 1960s —corresponds to the construction of the Egyptian nation, from colonial rule and monarchy to President Gamal Abdel Nasser's nationalization project."
- For a feature on diversity in publishing, NPR's Lynn Neary talks to Ken Chen, director of the Asian American Writers' Workshop. She writes: "Too often, Chen says, publishing companies say they would publish more diverse books, but the market just isn't there for them. Chen doesn't buy that. 'Your ability to imagine that there is a market has to do with your ability to imagine that those people exist,' he says. 'And if [you] can't imagine that people of color actually exist and can buy books, then you can't imagine selling books to them. That's not just about a company corporate diversity policy; it's about actually knowing what's going on in communities of color.' " (See also: Junot Diaz's essay from a few months ago about the overwhelming whiteness of MFA programs.)
From its start nearly 25 years ago, The Simpsons was different. Not only was it animated, it had a Murderer's Row of voice actors and writing talent. It was absurdly funny and more than occasionally touching. Today, the show still embraces an uncommonly wide range of comedy, from slapstick to laser-guided wordplay.
History's longest-running scripted TV show also has its recurring obsessions, from politics to religion to sports (Marge, watching basketball: "How come they never call traveling anymore?"). Classical music has come up again and again on the show, even from its earliest days. The second episode, from January 1990, includes a trip to the opera — Bizet's Carmen, performed, as a sign says, "Tonite Only in RUSSIAN." Over the seasons, there have been references to composers, singers, instrumentalists and even, in one memorable case, the architect of an iconic concert hall.
In September, members of the cast, series creator Matt Groening and guests including Conan O'Brien and Jon Lovitz will join the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and music director Thomas Wilkins for three concerts featuring scenes from the show. For a program that honors the entire tradition of animation and film scoring, it's fitting that they'll be where Bugs Bunny conducted.
Today, a 12-day marathon of every Simpsons episode to date begins on the new Fox network FXX. All 552 shows are running in their premiere order, from 10 a.m. ET/PT today to midnight Sept. 1. Here's a guide to a few of the episodes with classical cameos — note that Aug. 28 is an especially highbrow day. (All times Eastern and Pacific.)
Thursday, Aug. 21, 10:30 a.m. "Bart the Genius" (1990)
Bart switches IQ tests with a legitimate genius. Feeling guilty about not having encouraged Bart's brilliance, Marge buys tickets to Carmen. Bart sings along: "Toreador, oh, don't spit on the floor. Please use the cuspidor, that's what it's for." (Yet this may be only the silver medal sitcom Carmen — the gold still goes to Gilligan's Island.)
Thursday Aug. 28, 3:30 a.m. "Margical History Tour" (2004)
In this elaborate Amadeus spoof, the shelves of the Springfield Public Library are suddenly empty. Marge fills the void by telling stories about historical figures, including Mozart, played by Bart: "Hello, Vienna! Are there any aficionados in the house?" A concert hall has entrances marked "FOPS" and "DANDIES."
Thursday Aug. 28, 4 p.m. "The Seven-Beer Snitch" (2005)
Springfield is being mocked by rival Shelbyville; Marge's answer is to commission a concert hall from architect Frank Gehry (designer of Disney Hall in Los Angeles, and one of Groening's neighbors). Flanders agrees: "We could use a new HQ for the Springfield Philharmonic. They're playing Gustav Mahler in abject squalor!" Gehry (playing himself) reads a letter from Marge, tosses it aside and then realizes the crumpled sheet is the design for the hall, exclaiming, "Frank Gehry, you're a genius!" But in 2011, Gehry told CNN that the joke has had an exasperating afterlife, as clients ask him to wad paper: "People who have seen The Simpsons believe it."
Thursday Aug. 28, 11:30 p.m. "The Italian Bob" (2005)
One of the lesser-known aspects of The Simpsons is the show's strong connection to the magnificent Dr. Seuss cult film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, a comic horror musical about piano lessons. Simpsons villain Sideshow Bob Terwilliger (played by Kelsey Grammer) is named for the movie's title character, and one of Mr. Burns's songs, "See My Vest," is a blend of "Be Our Guest" from the Disney Beauty and the Beast and the unbelievable "Dressing Song: Do-Mi-Do Duds" from Dr. T. In this episode, the Simpsons are in Rome, where Krusty is appearing in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci at the Coliseum (Homer, exasperated: "Ohhhhh, opera? They have that here too?"). Bob is on his usual murderous rampage.
Friday Aug. 29, 8:30 p.m. "The Homer of Seville" (2007)
After accidentally crashing a wake, Homer falls into an open grave. The bad news: back injury. The good news: He's now a singer, but only when lying down. Burns recruits him for a leading role in Puccini's La bohčme anyway. In a locker room backstage, a shirtless Placido Domingo snaps Homer with a towel and says, "Nice set, Homer. That was a hot one." "Thanks," Homer says. "You know, of The Three Tenors, you're my second favorite. No, wait, I forgot about that other guy. Sorry, you're third."
Monday Sept. 1, 3:30 p.m. "The Kid Is All Right" (2013)
Last season included one of the show's finest musical moments, a celebration of Walt Disney's Depression-era output, made in the form of a couch gag (all Simpsons episodes open with the family assembling on the sofa to watch TV). "Music Ville" is based on "Music Land," a cartoon from Disney's "Silly Symphonies" series. Simpsons music editor Chris Ledesma has a fascinating account of the episode's production, complete with character sketches and the original Disney cartoon.
Millions of families are heading to Target or Wal-Mart this month to make sure their kids have what they need for the first day of school. And, as many parents know, those glue sticks and gym clothes can really add up.
This August, Americans will spend an estimated $8.6 billion on back-to-school shopping, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. A lot of that spending is driven by the lists that schools and teachers give out, detailing what students need to bring on that first day.
To get a handle on what's on those lists and in those backpacks - and how much it costs to fill them — we pulled a sample of schools around the country, one from each of the U.S. Census Bureau's nine geographic regions. Then, we examined each school's lists for grades one, three and five.
This isn't a formal survey, just a snapshot of what parents are expected to provide.
Pencils and notebooks. Paper. Scissors. Cleaning supplies. A quick look reveals not a lot of variation. Kids in Ambler, Penn., or Dover, Ohio, need, basically, the same kinds of things.
Yet, teachers say they put a lot of thought into what they ask students to bring and parents to buy.
"The longer the list, the more unhappy the parents become with major purchases," says Katherine Els, a fifth-grade teacher at Bethany Community School in Bethany, Conn. "We try to just keep it to a very bare minimum of suggested items."
For Els' classroom, she plans out exactly what her students will need, down to the color.
"They need the skills to organize themselves, especially in fifth grade," she says. "So, it's time to take our your writing folder, that's the blue folder, and they pull it right out. It makes things so much easier."
Other teachers are mindful of how much space their students will need to work.
For daily morning lessons like spelling exercises, the familiar composition notebooks will do, says Meaghan Casey, a fifth-grade teacher at Long Branch Elementary in Arlington, Va.
But for subjects like math and writing, students need the thicker three-subject notebooks, which have a lot more pages. "We have computers, but we like them to have enough room for drafts."
The math notebook gets used up by the third quarter, she says, "so we have extras, just in case."
Of course, some of the lists included things like backpacks and sneakers. We omitted those, since many students already have those things. And so that left us with the kinds of supplies you can find at your local office supply store.
Or, the Office Depot website, which is where we went to price out the items.
We tried to bargain shop. Without using coupons, we selected the least-expensive option, except when schools named a specific brand. In that case, we bought that one, even if it wasn't the cheapest.
Sometimes, the lists and the website didn't quite match. For example, a list might call for 10 pens, but they're sold in packs of 12. In those cases we went with the closest number above the minimum.
With those guidelines in mind, let's look at some prices. As you might guess, we learned almost every parent already knows: School supplies are expensive.
There's quite a lot of variation on our list, from $14.58 at Butte Elementary School in Palmer, Alaska, to $122 at Atherton Elementary School in Arlington, Texas. But for the most part, the average was around $60. Few families could slide away for less than $50, again not including items like clothing, shoes and backpacks.
If you're one of the 20 million families in this country with more than one child, your costs can easily hit the triple-digits.
It's worth noting here that these numbers don't include many of the other costs and fees that schools these days are placing on parents: sports equipment, art lessons and musical instruments, to name a few. One study from Huntington Bank suggests that all of these fees combined can run, over the course of a school year, to more than $1,000.
Nor did we examine the large sums that teachers themselves often pay - out of their own pockets- for school supplies.
Enough To Last All Year
As we said above, there wasn't much variation in the kinds of things kids have to bring - the variation comes in the amounts.
At Long Branch Elementary School in Virginia, for example, kindergarteners are bringing 10 glue sticks.
"In the lower grades, there are more communal supplies, because they don't have desks," says Casey. "They're all sitting at tables, with a little caddy full of pencils, markers, colored pencils, glue sticks. But when you get into the upper grades, they have a desk that they're responsible for."
The other underlying goal, teachers say, is to make these things last throughout the year.
Els' list, at $42.99, was one of the least expensive on our list, with just 9 different items. The basics, mostly: five notebooks, five two-pocket folders, a dozen No. 2 pencils, etc.
"In today's economy," Els says, "teachers really have to think long and hard about the supplies they ask for from parents."
Since Richard Nixon declared War on Cancer in 1971, the National Cancer Institute has poured some $90 billion into research and treatments. Yet a cure remains elusive. Experts have plenty of targets for blame, including a flawed emphasis on treatment over prevention, and Big Pharma betting on blockbuster treatments that cost billions to develop.
But a new study raises a sobering possibility: Cancer simply may be here to stay. Researchers at Kiel University, the Catholic University of Croatia and other institutions discovered that hydra — tiny, coral-like polyps that emerged hundreds of millions of years ago — form tumors similar to those found in humans. Which suggests that our cells' ability to develop cancer is "an intrinsic property" that has evolved at least since then — way, way, way before we rallied our forces to try to tackle it, said Thomas Bosch, an evolutionary biologist at Kiel University who led the study, published in Nature Communications in June.
To get ahead of cancer, he said, "you have to interfere with fundamental pathways. It's a web of interactions," he said. "It's very difficult to do." That's why cancer "will probably never be completely eradicated."
Cancer results from DNA mutations that throw a wrench into the molecular circuits that regulate the cell cycle. Unregulated, cancer cells multiply uncontrollably. They also evade a process known as apoptosis, in which cells with genetic mistakes essentially commit suicide.
Bosch and his colleagues have investigated hydra stem cells and tissue regeneration for years. In an earlier study, they showed that these pulsating polyps carry genes that can cause cancer in humans. But, they wondered, did those genes also trigger tumor growth?
Sure enough, they discovered tumor-ridden polyps from two hydra species. Oddly, the tumors ravaged only female polyps. They bred them for five years, generating several clones of each.
To unravel the tumor-causing mechanisms, the researchers observed cell division in hydra with and without tumors. They saw that stem cells programmed to turn into female sex cells, or eggs, divided uncontrollably. They accumulated in vast qualities without being naturally culled through apoptosis — resembling ovarian cancer in women. They then sequenced the tumorous hydra's DNA and discovered a gene that halts apoptosis, and the activity of which runs amok in tumor tissue. Turns out a similar gene hijacks apoptosis in humans and also spurs unbridled cell proliferation.
So we know that tumors can grow in hydra, but are hydra tumors invasive the way they are in humans? To find out, the researchers transplanted tumors into healthy polyps. The cells from tumors transplanted in the midsections of healthy polyps migrated all the way to both ends of their bodies.
All this means that cancer genes, and the mechanisms that allow tumor cells to evade death and invade healthy tissue, "have deep evolutionary roots," the researchers wrote. "Any crucial cell in your body can at any point make a mistake," and there's no way to prevent it, Bosch said.
"You carry a time bomb in your body when you're born," he said. "It can explode early in life, or middle age or later."
But, Bosch adds, "that doesn't mean that, with a patient who develops cancer, there's nothing you can do."
While our cells probably always will have the ability to make mistakes that trigger cancer, Bosch believes "medical technology will allow us at early time points ... at least in some cases, to successfully treat and clean a patient completely and forever of troublemaking cells."
One strategy might be to unleash the immune system against these cells. Yervoy, a drug that does just that, eliminated melanoma in 20 percent of clinical trial patients for up to 12 years — and counting. An infusion of Yervoy and a similar drug, nivolumab, has kept some lung cancer patients disease-free for about six years so far. "Their cancer hasn't come back yet. It might never come back," said Ben Creelan, an oncologist at Moffitt Cancer Center. "I think it's the most exciting thing in decades."
And of course, basic research on the evolution of cancer's arsenal remains crucial.
"Knowing your enemy from its origins is the best way to fight it and win many battles," Bosch said.
Our goal, then, if we can't slay the beast, is to learn enough about it that we render it harmless.