The Mail

Reviewing recent issues of the Baltimore City Paper, Mother Earth News, 2000. The European Journal, and more

People send us their newspapers and magazines. Sometimes, we review them.

Mother Earth News, December 2008 / January 2009

For a grizzled urbanite like me, there is something strangely appealing about Mother Earth News: The Original Guide to Living Wisely, whose editorial offices are in Topeka, Kansas. The cover lines beckon with the promise of a healthful, rustic existence: “Back to the Land,” “Easy Crusty Bread in 5 Minutes a Day!” “How To Grow Potatoes,” and “Anyone Can Raise Chickens.” And, unlike slick lifestyle books like Real Simple or Ready Made, there’s nothing intimidating about the magazine. It won’t judge you even if you have never grown a garden, let alone a “Bigger, Better” one. In the movie Funny Face, Kay Thompson, playing Maggie Prescott, editor-in-chief of Quality magazine, says that a magazine is like a person who comes into your home every month. Well, if Mother Earth News were a person, it would be your lovable, plaid-wearing family friend Sally from Indiana who just loves Prairie Home Companion.

But your nice friend Sally also has an interesting political streak: In the “News From Mother,” which is like an anonymous editor’s note (but signed “Mother”), the author writes that the world faces three challenges in route to sustainable living. Number two? Population control.

We must choose to stabilize human population, or we’ll make more of a mess of our habitat and then nature will exert the control we abdicated…. To slow our rapid population growth won’t require Draconian measures. Consider what would happen if the international moral consensus were that each human being should reproduce himself or herself once — two children per couple? That’s all it would take for populations to begin slowly shrinking. It’s a simplistic solution, but the ultimate solutions are often the simplest. We’ll have to negotiate some difficult routes through political conflicts to reach the top of this mountain.

Not a commonly discussed aspect of environmentalism, that’s for sure.

The rest of the magazine offers some advice that even city dwellers can use—like how to stop unwanted junk mail (hint: use a Web site called Catalog Choice. or how to cook with a forgotten grain, millet—and some stuff that’s interesting, but too far into the whole country living thing for me—a feature on farming in the wilderness. But even if the content about “rotational grass farming” is too much, there are cute pictures of llamas and cows to sustain interest.

I was tempted by the teaser line about raising chickens, but got turned off by the line about “pasty butt,” a condition that can develop if chick droppings cling to their booties and clog the anus. Yuck. (Also, I had always thought ‘pasty butt’ was an insult used against very pale people.)

As a whole, Mother Earth News has a lot to offer. Recipes based on small-batch farming are accessible for city slickers with backyards and country folks alike, such as the adorable burr gherkin. And the lifestyle stories steer readers toward a less frenetic, more reflective lifestyle by spending time outdoors or baking your own bread.

The articles aren’t preachy or judgmental; the tone is positive, but not unrealistic. It won’t be easy, but you can do it, the magazine says. And the photography is good, without being too alienating and slick. For families that find lifestyle magazines too consumerist in flavor, Mother Earth News would be a welcome bi-monthly visitor. - Katia Bachko

The Bark, January/February 2009

Though The Bark bills itself as “the dog culture magazine,” you won’t find any glossy features on the latest in collar trends or the most chic cuts for your Shih Tzu; instead, the “culture” being referenced here is that of the human-canine relationship.

Take, for example, the column “Both Ends of the Leash,” by Patricia B. McConnell, PhD. In the current issue, McConnell examines the phenomenon of dog owners who are unable to verbally communicate with their pets. Anyone who has ever faced the infuriating predicament of house-training Fido knows that the words “Outside! Outside!!” carry no meaning for a new pup. But McConnell lauds the benefits of the non-verbal bond between man and dog, saying the relationship is “a connection beyond speech, born of primal emotions and a deep-seated understanding shared by two mammals living together in a cacophony of sights and sounds and smells.” In the article, she urges her fellow homo sapiens to write down all the things they wish to say to their dogs in a letter, and to be more conscious of those feelings when interacting with man’s best friend.

Then there is “Fair Share,” by Amelia Glynn, which dissects the role of dogs in the breakup of human relationships, and attempts to navigate the uncharted territory of shared-pet-custody among exes.

Another good read, “The Making of a Guide Dog,” by Jane Brackman, PhD, gives the reader a rudimentary understanding of the traits and training of service dogs, with tidbits such as “The cornerstone of the training work is to, through repetition and praise, teach the dog to learn to judge a barrier or dangerous situation—for instance, the speed and distance of moving vehicles.” But it, like the other feature articles, leaves something to be desired in its brevity. Still, The Bark proves its worth in the blurbs of dog news that pepper the magazine, such as the popularity of facilitating animal adoption via Twitter, and the recent use of DNA technology to identify uncollected feces and fine dog owners in the town of Petah Tikva, Israel (watch out!).

For any serious dog lover, The Bark is worth the single-issue price of $4.99. However, the magazine could use a layout makeover. Several articles sported uneven columns, and the graphics department would be well advised to feature fewer, larger images instead of the myriad thumbnails that are too small to leave much of an impression. Until then, hold off on the subscription and use the money to shell out for Fido’s gourmet kibble. - Sara Germano

Baltimore City Paper, December 31, 2008

The solid year-end issue of the Baltimore City Paper devotes its cover story to “People Who Died” in 2008 (shunning The New York Times Magazine’s euphemistic year-end convention, “The Lives They Lived”). The story is billed as a collection of “alt-obits,” and starts out somberly enough with a roundup of 2008’s catastrophes: “Genocide, war, terrorist attacks, disease—yikes.” Among the ten “semi-famous, semi-obscure folks” here memorialized is Larry Harmon, who didn’t invent Bozo the Clown but “standardized his visage, manner, and blue and red costume,” and whose “size-83AAA shoes will be hard to fill.”

Fans of The Wire will want to check on the “Mobtown Beat” section—this edition features postal pooches fighting crime the Western District way. Specifically, drug-sniffing “K-9s” Britta and Ozzy found several pounds of marijuana in packages en route to ostensible stash houses. Agents also found 519 grams of opium hidden in a magazine mailed to Baltimore from Mumbai. The section also includes a murder blotter that tracks Baltimore-area murders by the week (five this week) and by the year (232 in 2008).

The Arts and Entertainment section profiles avant-garde Indian musician Ami Dang, whose music writer Michael Byrne calls a “synthesis of classically trained, traditional Indian vocals and nimble, adroit sitar playing.” Byrne’s a fan, though he reserves a special place in “the hell of torturous instruments [for] the 20-plus stringed, mutant guitar-looking thing.” Incidentally, another notable 2008 passing the paper mentions but doesn’t detail is that of Transcendental Meditation Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whom George Harrison encountered through his own fascination with Indian culture and the sitar.

Some fun, if anodyne, ’90s-era social science research is brought to you by Brian Morton in the “Political Animal” column. Morton argues that “conservatives, by dint of media saturation and message discipline, managed to change the accepted norms of policy discourse.” Social scientist Joe Overton claimed that there is a range or “window” of policies that are acceptable on any given political spectrum. Morton says that Bush “moved the Overton window” further right by “mak[ing]… ideas that are so far off the edge part of the discussion,” thereby making “ideas that were once mildly unpalatable seem reasonable.” Luckily for the alt-weekly demographic, universal health care, also outside the window at one point, is poised to climb in. - Kathy Gilsinan

2000. The European Journal, December 2008

“Dear Colleagues,” writes Vincenzo Merolle, editor of 2000. The European Journal, a biannual newsletter printed on thick yellowish paper, “We have finally crossed the Rubicon, putting to the internet –with many imperfections to be corrected – the part of the European Dictionary which we have compiled up to now. It is a small part, indeed, but has cost us a lot of work.” A visit to the European Journal’s Web site shows that, indeed, a portion of its European dictionary project is available in PDF form, hatched from what Merolle calls the need for demonstrating “the substantial unity” of European history and creating, “where it is lacking, the consciousness of such a unity.” Merolle notes that several well-known publishers “accepted the cultural aim of our project. Nevertheless they were not ready to invest the sum necessary even for the first of these volumes… They did not believe that these dictionaries would sell enough to reward the investment.” Merolle’s response? “Wir werden sehen.” To Merolle: Viel Glück!

For dedicated readers, the rest of The European Journal is comprised of four articles, two in English and two in French. The first, written by an F. L. van Holthoon, compares David Hume’s History of England against Thomas B. Macaulay’s The History of England, From the Accession of James the Second with the hope that it would be “useful for asking how near they approached historical truth,” and more importantly, to see how each fits “with our view of English history.” Whose? European posterity’s, I assume. In the parsing, there are some fun turns of phrase: “Hume regarded Charles I as basically a sincere and virtuous prince. In this he was undoubtedly wrong and Macaulay right.” And from Hume himself, a sentence (describing the reign of Charles II) that I dare Maureen Dowd to serve up:

Thus the two parties, actuated by mutual rage, but cooped up within the narrow limits of the law, leveled with poisoned daggers the most deadly blows against each other’s breast, and buried in their factious divisions all regard to truth, honour, and humanity.

It should be noted that, in his day, Macaulay himself quoted the above sentence “with approval.”

On page three, we find the presumptive reason this pluckily didactic publication reached the CJR offices: an article about Johann Peter Friedrich Ancillon, tutor to the Prussian crown prince and later Prussian Minister of Foreign Affairs, who in 1816 wrote a mostly-forgotten defense of press freedom. Cheers for history-of-press-and-the-law articles! The author, John Christian Laursen, a professor of political science at UC Riverside, argues that Ancillon has been misunderstood—in fact, miscast—as a conservative reactionary (and remembered in the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie for his receptivity to “the needs of the tender souls of court ladies”). The proof, Laursen writes, is in Ancillon’s text, “On Press Laws,” which begins by “noting that abuse of the press is bad for a country,” and ends with the strong conclusion that “there should be the least restraint on the press as possible, giving liberty the greatest latitude.” Reactionary, schmreactionary. Laursen’s kicker? Don’t trust secondary sources.

The two other articles are printed in French. One puts aside (for a second) Montesquieu’s theory of separation of powers and chooses instead to shine some light on his contributions to international politics—writings on the dangers of overextension, the importance of respecting natural boundaries and the benefits of governmental alliances—as they pertained to despotisms, monarchies and republics. The other proposes that dictionaries be considered literature, with the alphabet serving as the skeletal framework—the squelette—and the quotations in the entries themselves the narrative meat. The author applies this idea to Diderot and D’Alembert’s Dictionnaire raisonne des arts, des sciences et des métiers,” and finds that the quotations accompanying the definitions are inspired, naturally, by the clichés and myths of the day—such as in the characterizations of the English and the Germans, respectively. That was 1751. This inspires me to go check out my Merriam-Webster.

Everyone else: go check out the European Dictionary. - Jane Kim

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.