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In high school, we swooned to boy bands and carried quarters so we could “arrive alive” after a teenage drinking binge. In middle school, we walked straight to airport gates to greet our grandparents as they tumbled off flights, rumpled in button-down shirts and pantyhose. And in elementary school, we read piles of books to earn personal pan pizzas from Pizza Hut and people told us we were special.

And we were special. As the high school graduating class of 1999, early on in our academic careers, administrators, teachers, and parents lauded us with the exclusive title of “last class of the century.”

Throughout our elementary, middle, and high school years, we got by on microwavable meals and believed our brains could look like fried eggs — any questions? — but we partied like it was 1999 anyway. On the brink of Y2K, my graduating class of 374 gathered on a warm evening in late May to fulfill our legacy. We were a large class crammed into a small gymnasium in West Central Wisconsin, our family members packed onto the bleachers after months of trading and haggling for coveted graduation tickets.

As one of 17 valedictorians in my class (yes, you read that right), I’d talked my way into what I considered to be the desired final speaking position. I wanted the proverbial final word—and it wasn’t about friendships or memories, thankfulness or nostalgia. What I had to offer was a simple piece of advice: “Wear sunscreen. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience . . . I will dispense this advice now.”

That’s right. The class of 1999 was also the recipient of the spoken word piece, “Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen),” released by Baz Luhrmann in 1998 based off of music from the film Romeo + Juliet and an essay written by columnist Mary Schmich that was published in the Chicago Tribune in 1997. Though Schmich’s essay (and Luhrmann’s original rendition of the song) addressed the class of 1997, it was the single released in 1999 with its salutation addressed to “ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’99” that implanted in our minds after playing the song endlessly on our Discmans. More… “Trust Me on the Sunscreen”

JoAnna Haugen is a writer and editor working at the intersection of ethical travel, wildlife conservation, environmental preservation, community-based development, and cultural exchange. Her writing has been published in more than 60 print and online publications.

 

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When I was writing my first book, my editor advised me to put everything I wanted the review-reading public to know in the first and last chapters, because those are the only chapters that most reviewers read. In the years since then, I have discovered that indeed most of the quotes pulled by reviewers from my books have come from the first and last sections. In nonfiction books at least, reviewers tend to skim the middle section and read only the summaries of the argument at beginning and end.

But this is only one of many crimes against authors committed with impunity by many of their reviewers. Most elements of the art of the book review serve the purpose of making the reviewer look more intelligent or erudite than the author whose work is under review. There is The Omitted Subject: “For all its merits, this book about the South Pole suffers from the lack of any discussion of the North Pole.” And there is The Book the Author Should Have Written: “By focusing on the South Pole, the author misses the opportunity to discuss a far more important subject: the Equator.” More… “The Art of the Book Review”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

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The origins of the limerick are vague
But the style came after black plague.
And in today’s modern age
This boyfriend may wage
Spats in rhyme, though his girlfriend may beg.
(Stylisticienne, The Smart Set)

Let’s take a critical eye to the profane and the obscene. (Los Angeles Review of Books, The Smart Set)

What’s the value of paper in the digital world? If you’re biting your nails over the imminent demise of the paper book, relax — technological doomsayers have been around for ages. And before you hit send on that e-résumé, consider putting your skills on paper. (National Endowment for the Humanities, The Smart Set) •

Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.

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Aspiring writers must navigate the legions of advice from the legends who came before — not a simple task in a world that idolizes both Faulkner and Hemmingway. Read about teachers who advise their students against the use of the word “said,” and graduate programs that reject the use of anything but. (The Wall Street Journal, The Smart Set)

Romanticism, though hard to define, aims to transcend medium, create pure feeling, and remain subject to the whims of chance, sometimes resulting in art that takes the form of blank canvases and bathroom fixtures. Read about unusual copyright claims to John Cage’s romanticist piece “4’33” and Duchamp’s lifelong struggle to find the paradoxical non-medium. (Pigeons and Planes, The Smart Set)

They bite at night and are the scourge of humanity. Read about the math of mutually-assured vampire-human destruction and the existential dilemma of bedbugs. (Atlas Obscura, The Smart Set) •

Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.

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It is standard advice to state that the main character or characters should want something. That it is wanting — desire — that motivates characters to act and action that creates the story, novel, perhaps even the persona in a persona poem. It’s not bad advice; genre fiction can get a lot of mileage from it. But if you are after something that goes deeper than the usual mystery novel, sci-fi, romance novel, or YA book, note that characters don’t always know what, or which, they want. They want to rob a bank but also fall in love. They want to fall in love but also rob a bank. Humans are ambivalent, and if characters are to come alive for a reader, they need to be ambivalent too. Sometimes they want what they want and at the same time do not want it. They are conflicted. The conflict within the character creates a subtler drama, a deeper layer of meaning. The reader ponders the character’s choices, the various possibilities open to the character. The reader is now paying attention to the character, not just what the character does, but what the character feels, what the character believes.
More… “Everybody Wants More than Just One Thing”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is now available.

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I recently finished college and a competitive, labor-intensive internship. I’m going to be starting a new job in a couple of weeks, but instead of feeling proud or relieved to have completed my studies, I feel nervous. Why does The End seem so ominous? — Patrick E.

 

Well, as the old adage goes, the end is the beginning of something else. It is the beginning of the unknown — that’s why it can be so scary. That’s why it can fill us with unease, but remember that we would get bored if life were predictable. We love the unknown in books, for example. We love movies that shock and awe, stories that end with a twist. We love poems whose endings make us hoot in delight:

“Endings”

Part II

Setting the V.C.R. when we go to bed to… More…

Something weird keeps happening to me. I order one book online, then I get all these email updates — “Maybe you’ll like this book…”  These online marketing tactics generally work. I think, “Wow, I would like that book,” and so I order it, and I LOVE IT. So now I’m afraid that these marketing tools have tapped into some secret of my soul. What else do these online gods know about me? — MW

 

I don’t think the book recommendation tool is any cause for alarm. The recommendations come after an author, subject, and keyword search, so really the recommendation has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the books you’ve been ordering electronically. My Kindle recommends books that I like all the time. Now, it does get a little creepy when Gmail syncs its… More…

My daughter is in a coma. She’s non-responsive. Her brain damage is extensive. Her doctors aren’t hopeful. Since you have relevant experience in this area, what do you think I should do to help her? What can I do to help myself, to keep thinking positive? — J

 

Wow. From my experience, I think you should read to her; who cares if she’s not responsive right now? Something immeasurable could be going on. Keep reading to her, talking to her, surrounding her with language and the soothing cadence of your voice. She probably has a valve inserted into her brain that monitors the pressure, and I think you’ll find that her brain pressure will decrease when you read to her. That’s what my parents did for me when I was in a coma. I think this… More…

Is there a particular poem or collection of poetry you’d recommend for 2 bookish types, carefree in spirit but both simple and practical in their daily lives, who are getting married? I am also contributing to a Crate and Barrel gift card for them but I think marriage demands something a little more meaningful than a salad bowl with matching spoons. Any recommendations? — F

 

There are many poems on the theme of marriage (take a look at the anthology Wedding Readings, edited by Eleanor Munro) but I’ve been trying to find a poetry book for you that “two bookish types” probably haven’t read. I think I found one that’s appropriate:  Stephen Dunn’s Everything Else in the World. The poems contained therein reflect the wisdom that is gained through age, but one poem in particular leads me… More…

I’m depressed by how 2011 is going. It’s been one bad thing after another, starting with the car bomb at the Coptic Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve. Now there’s the war in Libya. Is world peace a happy delusion that we inscribe on greeting cards and nothing more? Can you help restore my faith in humanity? — MJ

 

I hear you. You would think that with all our advancements, we would finally learn how to make peace with one another.  Sometimes I think we really haven’t moved forward at all, like we’re stuck in the Middle Ages where corrupt leaders slice off people’s heads. But I always try to remember that earnest individuals have tried to make world peace a reality. By establishing peacekeeping organizations and conferences, we have tried to rise above violence. And we… More…