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I met with Valerie Graves before her interview with Paula Marantz Cohen on The Drexel Interview. She exuded a calm and poised excitement about having so many people discussing her new book. Her memoir, Pressure Makes Diamonds: Becoming the Woman I Pretended to Be, takes a new approach to the average rags-to-riches story — mostly because Graves doesn’t come from rags at all. She starts off in a middle-class, loving family that supported her intelligence and her journey to becoming the woman she is now. Her story isn’t just about gaining success, but about how to reach back and create spaces for other women of color in advertising. Our interview was conducted in two parts, both before and after her interview with Dean Cohen. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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Byshera Williams is a Pre-Junior English Major at Drexel University and the current Assistant Editor for The Smart Set.
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How Fast Can You Run is the first novel from poet Harriet Levin Millan. Though a novel, it is based on a real person, Michael Majok Kuch. Kuch became a child refugee, one of the Sudanese Lost Boys, when his village was destroyed during the country’s civil war. But How Fast Can You Run is more than a survival story; it also preserves memories of Kuch’s early village life continuing onto his experiences getting his education in the United States. We spoke to Millan and Kuch about their collaboration on the book at Millan’s office at Drexel University where she teaches. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.
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There have been Sundays, in bed, in a hotel room, hungover or not, wherein my prospects for getting out of bed seem slim, what with the television right there, and the remote control so near my head. Despite hundreds of channels and the free HBO — generally just showing something directed by Ron Howard over and over and over again — I will stop on Joel Osteen or Rick Warren or some other reprehensible creature in a mega church of some sort. On those Sundays, it’s hard to feel the repulsion I usually have for such views. It’s the perfect hair and the shiny, shiny teeth. These men are always telling me that God has plans for me. “Oh, Joel Osteen,” I say out loud to the television. “Tell me what those plans are.”

Meaning in Life and Why It Matters by… More…

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Poor Saint Augustine. For years now people have drawn the source of the memoir back to his Confessions. As if because of that book, Augustine’s hands now bear the ink stains of James Frey, tales of addiction, incest and mental illness, the word “momoir,” and a dozen Holocaust survivor fakers. Just like Jane Austen, who occasionally bears the blame for the candy-coated chick lit aisle of your local bookstore, Augustine deserves a better legacy.

Memoir: A History by Ben Yagoda. 304 pages. Riverhead. $25.95.

Even Ben Yagoda accuses Augustine of the crime of inventing the memoir in his new book Memoir: A History. It’s a long road from Confessions — written around 400 A.D. — to the memoir’s current dominance in the publishing scene, although the template hasn’t changed much in all of those centuries: I have done some… More…

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Edith Grossman is one of the finest literary translators working today. She has translated some of the greats of the Spanish language — from Marquez to Llosa, Fuentes to Dorfman. Her translation of Don Quixote was masterful and is widely accepted as the new standard text. She is the perfect complement to these writers, translating not only the language but also the emotion and experience of the original work. Indeed, the essays in the final half of her new book, Why Translation Matters — “Translating Cervantes” and “Translating Poetry” — are interesting and careful; they make a significant contribution to the philosophy and the practice of translation. That’s why the first half of the book is such a shame

Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman. 160 pages. Yale University Press. $24.

The first two pieces in this collection of… More…

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Six weeks after Kari and I sat together in the surgi­cal clinic, I drove to Hyde Park to meet him at his grand­mother’s house. The house sat on a narrow two-way street not far off American Legion Highway, which lies just off Blue Hill Avenue, the main road that cuts through Roxbury, Dorchester, and finally Mattapan before coursing out of the city into the suburb of Milton. The house sat midway down a long row of attached two-story houses, a noticeable contrast from the cen­tury-old triple-deckers that lined Blue Hill Avenue standing di­rectly opposite these more modern and modest homes.

Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Trauma and Violence in the Lives of Young Black Men by John A. Rich, M.D., M.P.H. 232 pages. The Johns Hopkins University Press. $24.95.

Kari met me at the door and motioned me to come… More…

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It’s been more than 30 years since Jean-François Lyotard closed the historical door on Modernism. It was 1979, to be exact, when Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Rumors of the death of Modernism had been swirling for years. But death comes in stages, especially when the mortally wounded is a “movement” or an “age.” Lyotard’s book managed to tie all those rumors together and then package the result as “Postmodernism,” the new next thing.

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields. 240 pages. Knopf. $24.95.

Lyotard focused on the idea of narratives. Past periods, Modernism in particular, had been fond of what he called “meta-narratives,” all-inclusive narrative frameworks that explained everything, more or less. Think, for instance, of Marxism and the way that class struggle drives every other part of the story. Look at the… More…

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It is impossible to write about such a book as Best European Fiction 2010 without also writing about America’s disinterest in such a book. Neither Zadie Smith nor Aleksandar Hemon could do it — and they’re the author of the introduction and the editor of the anthology. It’s a well worn angle by now: the fact that only three percent of literature published in the U.S. is work of translation, the fact that most of that work is being published by small independent presses and university presses. How else to explain how this anthology came to being in Champaign, Illinois from a small press named Dalkey Archive, its very name being an obscure Irish literature reference. Rather than from, say, Harcourt Houghton Mifflin, which produces almost identical anthologies of every other subject in the world: travel writing, sports writing, short stories, essays, whatever the hell that McSweeneys one is. Nonrequired Reading?… More…

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I had a dream, which was not all a dream. James Wood and Zadie Smith were doing battle in the sky. James was in silver armor and upon it the starlight did twinkle so. Zadie was in flowing white gowns. Her face was aglow with what I can only describe as a honey radiance. Still, I could see her freckles, which, I recall, pleased me to no end even as the terrible battle raged on and on. Twice, James smote her a heavy blow. Twice, Zadie raised herself up and hurled herself back upon him with swirling gowns and not an infrequent flash of thigh. Then the heavens went dark again and these two titans were seen to retire, he to one side of the galaxy and she to another. I thought I saw them both smile as the dream dissolved and the reality of a new day roused me… More…

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Maybe one of the greatest gifts moving overseas has given me is distance from the absolutely batshit health care debate going on in the United States. Before I left, I could barely stomach the yelling, the sign waving, and the pundits’ pronouncements that “the United States has the best health care system in the world!” Ten minutes of the nightly news was enough to bring me to the brink of a coronary incident.

Danger to Self: On the Front Line with an ER Psychiatrist by Paul Linde. 280 pages. University of California Press. $24.95. Doctoring the Mind: Is Our Current Treatment of Mental Illness Really Any Good? by Richard P. Bentall. 384 pages. NYU Press. $29.95. Healing the Broken Mind: Transforming America’s Failed Mental Health System by Timothy Kelly. 193 pages. NYU Press. $25.95. The Sixties by Jenny Diski. 160 pages. Picador…. More…