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Archive for the 'Beyond the Headlines' Category

Beyond the Headlines: How to Visit Cuba

Ever since President Obama's December announcement that the United States is resuming full diplomatic ties with Cuba, the Powell's buyers' office has been suffering from an epidemic of reverse island fever. It turns out that almost all of us harbor a secret desire to visit Cuba. Some of us want to eat lobster, swim in a turquoise ocean, and drink mojitos, while others are motivated by politics, music, or wildlife. The origin of my interest is easy to trace. When I was 18, I spent a miserable, sunburnt week on the deck of my grandmother's Palm Beach condo, reading the New Testament for school and watching my family play on the beach. One day, maybe to rescue me from the Bible assignment or my grandmother's morbid habit of inviting neighbors to look at my burns, my parents decided to take us on a day trip to Miami. That evening we had dinner at a sidewalk restaurant in Little Havana, Miami's Cuban neighborhood. It was a little La Cage aux Folles meets Buena Vista Social Club: couples in neon thongs rollerbladed past our table, while old men drank espresso ...

Beyond the Headlines: Lena Dunham and Millennial Feminism

First, a confession: I hate-watched the first two seasons of Lena Dunham's Girls. Every situation and character on the show made me cringe. Most scenes involve unpleasant people having unpleasant sex, or scheming to have (unpleasant) sex, or dealing with the discomfort of trying to avoid or distance themselves from earlier, unpleasant sex. Sure there are scenes about how hard it is to be a fragile young writer/aspiring curator/alluring nanny, but everyone's so vile that their antics elicit more schadenfreude than sympathy. And yet Girls has a brash truth underpinning all its awfulness. As the White House report on rape and sexual assault made clear this year, most young women find themselves in sexual situations that feel out of their control; many blame themselves for these situations (or are blamed by others); a lot of girls and women still believe sexuality forms their primary identity and negotiating tool; and too many of us aim to please regardless of whether or not doing so means shuttering our inclination to say no, or yes, or anything we want without fear of censure and dismissal. One of the reasons ...

Beyond the Headlines: Race, the Inner City, and Books That Delve Deeper

Like many Americans I walk an uneasy line between being appalled by the living conditions of the inner-city and being afraid of them. The educational and socio-economic disadvantages common in inner-city neighborhoods, along with the high rates of drug- and gang-related violent crime, are already hard problems to grasp and tackle. The fact that these problems are primarily faced by minority communities makes it even harder to engage in productive dialogue, particularly one free of the PC sensitivity that tiptoes across issues when a raucous stomp might be more effective.

We've seen some stomping this summer. Not all of it has been easy to understand: the riots and looting following the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, made manifest the community's anger, but it also obscured the crime and troubled the distinction between innocent community and guilty police force. The majority of protestors, however, have been vocal and peaceful, forcing Ferguson and communities across the country to think hard about police militarization, diversity in law enforcement, and the fact that in many American towns and cities, young black people have to be afraid of the police and ...

And So It Goes: Revisiting Iraq

Reading the newspaper these days feels a little like time traveling. After eight years of war in Iraq and (let's be honest) at least three years of societal amnesia, it's startling to wake up to headlines about sectarian violence and the president's requests for resources to fight ISIS, the radical Islamic organization conquering vast swathes of western Iraq, with devastating humanitarian consequences. Haven't we been here before? Didn't we win? And didn't we leave?

The reports remind me of a college class I taught on war literature a few years ago. One of the things that intrigued me was my students' disinterest in learning about Iraq. For them the war was their growing up, just part of the din of the adult world that has no meaning in childhood, like mortgage payments or tax reform. Sure, they had political opinions about the country — what American doesn't? — but no real knowledge of Iraq or the second Gulf War. And, in trying to refute their apathy, I realized to my embarrassment that I didn't either.

Many excellent books have been written on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ...

Beyond the Headlines: North Korea — Paradise or Purgatory?

Satellite image of North and
South Korea at night

Given North Korea's isolation from the rest of the world, it's surprising how many scholarly books have been published on the country's economy, politics, history, and culture. The growing number of refugee memoirs depicting North Korea's cradle-to-grave propaganda machine and its oppression of civilians is perhaps less surprising but more tantalizing for presenting an insider's account. Bestsellers like Escape from Camp 14 satisfy what Christopher Hitchens called our "[preoccupation with the] imposing and exotic forms of totalitarianism" ( 2/1/10). More fascinating, however, than the salacious details divvied out in North Korean histories and memoirs, is that the genre is as contradictory and elusive as the country itself: while everyone agrees that a certain level of brutality and deprivation exists in North Korea, there's virtually no consensus regarding the strength of the Kim dynasty, the threat North Korea poses to the world, or even what the daily life of the average civilian is like. The best a curious reader can do is read a bit (or a lot) of everything, seeking commonalities and making meaning of the mystery that is the Hermit Kingdom.

Here's a list of brilliant titles to get you started.

Beyond the Headlines: Reading Russia, Ukraine, and the West

If you're a news junkie like me, there are times when even the cornucopia of journalism available isn't enough to sate your curiosity or answer all of your questions. It's just too hard to fit the history of the Cold War or the shifting boundaries of Eastern Europe into a six-minute news segment on NPR, or even into the more lavish spread of a newspaper or magazine article. The escalating tensions between Russia, Ukraine, and the West are haunted by the complex specters of the Tsarist Empire and Soviet Russia, with their attendant histories of annexation, persecution, and battling ideologies both within their borders and with the West. If you're feeling lost in the news, or simply want to learn more, try one of the excellent books below.

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