The Mail

Reviewing recent issues of Sojourners, America, The Times of Acadiana, and more

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

The Times of Acadiana, February 19, 2009

Whatever Cody Daigle is earning, I’m sure it’s not enough. As the sole masthead writer for Louisiana’s Times of Acadiana, a content-light and ad-heavy free weekly, he seems to be responsible for over three quarters of its February 19 issue. And I’m suspicious about how many people helped compile the “staff reports” bylined article offering Oscar party tips like “make dishes themed to your favorite Oscar-winning movies.” (Liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti, perhaps?)

Mr. Daigle, whose copy passed my technical muster with flying colors, clearly has the pendant’s curse. The Times’s “Hot Links” feature, a curated roundup of four blog recommendations, includes two grammar-snark sites, one of which is, dedicated to chronicling ill-deployed and meaning-distorting quotation marks. The layout staff managed to keep ads with such offending usage away from that spread, but I can only imagine Daigle shuddering while reading the classified encouraging readers to dial “‘235-ROOF’” or while glancing the exterior photo of Pop’s Black Pot (restaurant review, page thirty-nine) with its sign half-heartedly claiming “‘Good ‘Ol Cajun Cooking.’”

The highlight of page fourteen is a quarter-page ad for a local branch of the Stanford Group—yes, that Stanford Group—woefully promising to help clients “fulfill financial goals with a long-term view towards preserving wealth.” As that time capsule would suggest, the issue under review is a bit stale. But that’s lucky, because it came out in the midst of February’s Mardi Gras, and its event listings offer distant readers a peek at how locals view the fun.

Take, for example, the “courirs and bouchiers.” One listing for the former promises a children’s “chicken chase”; of the later, the Times notes that “Among Cajuns anything can be a celebration, including the butchering of a hog.” A short article offering recommendations for readers planning the two-hour trek into urban New Orleans from the Times’s Lafayette distribution area strongly advises the use of public transportation upon reaching the city, and makes the unsettling suggestion that abstaining motorists organize their own convoys: “If you must drive to where you need to be, travel in packs…”

Notice must also be drawn to the giveaway’s film section, where Trey Domingue offers two write-ups of weekend releases accompanied by a letter grade “prediction.” A cursory reading makes it clear that our reviewer has not seen the films in question, leaving this reader to conclude that what’s really being reviewed are trailers, publicity packets, or other reviews. Haven’t we learned our lesson about the dangers of derivatives?

Of one such flick, the tale of two young men who attend cheerleader camp, Domingue writes that “Fired Up at least seems to have taken the teen and ‘raunchy’ comedy sub-genres and blended them together to create a potentially funny hit” before dialing down that hedged bet and honestly admitting that he “may be wrong about the whole ‘blending thing’ mentioned above.”

I can only hope that, by next week, readers got Domingue’s post-screening thoughts. And that Cody found a moment to chat with Trey about his “raunchy” quotation marks. –Clint Hendler

Sojourners Magazine, April 2009

Sojourners is a Christian magazine, and, according to its cover, it’s interested in “faith, politics, and culture.” In tone and subject matter, Sojourners often feels like the magazine embodiment of NPR’s Speaking of Faith, only slightly more preachy, and more narrowly Christian.

The magazine is strongest when covering social justice issues, illuminating topics frequently neglected by mainstream outlets. A short explanatory feature in the front of the book explains the shortcomings of a commonly cited statistic, the poverty level:

Our current way of measuring poverty sets the poverty line equal to three times a subsistence food budget. In 1955 (the best data available when the measure was set in 1964) the average family spent one-third of its income on food; “three times food” became the official formula—and remains unchanged to this day, except for annual updating for inflation. If your family’s pre-tax cash income is below the threshold, you’re counted as poor.

There are many problems with this. Compared to a half-century ago, the price of food today is much less important than housing and utility prices. Medical expenses have grown; child-care expenses have increased as single parents work more.

Here’s the most important problem, however. In the last four decades, the U.S. has greatly expanded help for lower-income families, including food stamps, housing programs, medical care assistance, and changes in tax laws to benefit the poor. But our current poverty statistics are based only on families’ cash income, and none of these programs affect cash income—so none of them affect the official poverty rate.

Another article focuses on the deplorable conditions faced by illegal immigrants held in maximum security facilities around the country: “Centers’ substandard conditions have been partly to blame for nearly 70 detainee deaths in the last five years. Immigrant advocacy groups, human rights organizations, and the media have widely criticized ICE’s detention system—a $1.6 billion industry funded by taxpayers—for being unaccountable and poorly overseen.”

But Sojourners stumbles somewhat when it covers the Christian movement itself. The cover story, “Nashville’s New Groove” documents recent charity projects by Christian country artists: “[Derek] Webb is one of a growing number of Nashville-based Christian musicians who are combining their faith with a commitment to social justice. Rather than simply playing benefit concerts or becoming celebrity spokespeople for charity, they’re taking a hands-on role in serving some of the poorest people on the planet and advocating for social change.”

Yet the reporting feels thin, like the result of one or two interviews, with lots of showing, not telling. And the focus on the musicians’ work, instead of the needs of those they’re serving, reads more like a celebratory profile than a careful examination of the developing world’s needs. Which is fine—there’s nothing wrong with celebratory profiles—but nowhere near as rewarding as the magazine’s harder-hitting stuff. –Katia Bachko

IQ magazine

IQ, as a “magazine of ideas”—its pages slickly designed; its topics of intellectual and aesthetic inquiry (“Media & Culture” and “Music & Performance,” among them) relatively erudite; its layout peppered with nuggets of fibrous wisdom courtesy of Prominent Historical Thinkers; its articles, despite their promise of “original thinking with an emphasis on the visual,” mere synthetic summaries of books available for “Further Reading” (read: sale) elsewhere; its overall aesthetic, therefore, more Cliffs Notes-meets-Amazon than New York Review of Books; its overall sensibility, therefore, almost painfully self-conscious about the appearance of its own IQ—is a publication that is probably best left to those who think themselves smarter than they are. –Megan Garber

America, March 23, 2009

The March 23 issue of America, the national Catholic weekly published by the Jesuits, has a funny photograph on its cover that perplexed me for a good five minutes (and then another five minutes when I was drawn irresistibly back to it). It features a little Toto-like dog sticking its head out from behind the folds of a fur coat. Below the furry one is a pair of pointy green leather boots. Now, having seen many a little dog toted around by denizens of Fifth Ave., I thought it might be a feature on wealthy Catholics, or possibly one on pet ethics. A co-worker asked if it was some Dorothy kind of thing?

As it turns out, the feature it illustrates is an op-ed-like piece about animal welfare; its main message is that concern for animals is not “akin to idolatry,” and that it doesn’t “displace God.” The starkest expression of that argument: “More to the point, when one person chooses to abstain from meat derived from animals raised in unnatural conditions, while a second demands to be served only the tenderest, juiciest cuts of sirloin, it is not the first who is raising up idols.” The piece sticks to its message, but it would have benefited from some actual focus on what America’s readers might actually do. In asking for changed perceptions (writer Kate Blake reminds that it’s not “what that chicken or calf or rabbit can do for me”) or renewed commitment (quoting the Catechism: “Man’s dominion… requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation”), a bit of service journalism might have proved most useful.

The most interesting portion of the issue for non-regular readers of America is, by far, the Books & Culture section, which reviews (and reflects on) books and art from a Catholic perspective: from a Lenten meditation on English painter Stanley Spencer’s “Christ Carrying the Cross,” to a review of Massimo Franco’s book documenting the relationship between the Vatican and the U.S., to a level-headed review of a book that investigates how health outcomes might be influenced by faith. The reviews are short, but written by those with relevant expertise, authoritative and pleasurable to read. –Jane Kim

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CJR Staff is a contributor to CJR.