Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Sunday, May 6, 2007
by Alex Rose

I first came across the writing of Charles D’Ambrosio in the waiting room at Cornell Medical Hospital. I was sitting in one of those demoralizing paper-towel gowns, thumbing through an outdated copy of The New Yorker, when I came across a lengthy story called “Up North.” With some reluctance, I inched my way into D’Ambrosio’s icy, ashy world only to emerge a half an hour later transformed—my own world refreshed and enriched.


The story (first person/past tense) begins with the protagonist, Daly, and his wife, Caroline, driving North to visit her parents in their remote, winter cabin. There, we’re introduced to the rest of the cast—the in-laws, their friends, one of whom, we do not know which, may have raped Caroline a decade prior. Caroline has hidden the truth from her beloved father to spare him the agony, but her continued silence has bred its own agony, a poisonous secret that rears itself in other, destructive ways.


Having read her diary, Daly is aware that his wife has been having affairs; indiscretions about which he must remain as tight-lipped as she, lest he reveal that he’s violated her privacy. Perhaps as a result of her assault, she has been and remains unable to equate sex with love. The paradox of their relationship, then, is that each day, “I lost more and more of my status as a stranger, and our marriage was like a constant halving of the distance without ever arriving at the moment in time when, utterly familiar, I’d vanish.”


Daly’s disclosures are similarly frank: “In defeat I came to feel weak and ashamed,” and amplified through his observations, each a sour reminder of something from the past, not completely gone. The taxidermy flanking the fireplace “suggested souvenirs from some gone, legendary time;” the sweater Caroline borrows from her father retains its girth, “a ghostly, orotund presence in the stiff wool.” Does this imply, perhaps, a pregnancy?


The major events in the story, however, are actually non-events. The first is the hunt. Daly, who finds it “effortful” to be around men with weapons, accompanies the grunting old-timers into the snowy woods to claim their nightly feast, only, when he gets the bird in his crosshairs, he squeezes the trigger to discover that the safety catch has vetoed the shot. Who could forget such a pungent image of impotence?


The second is the feast itself, whose awkwardness is intensified by the fact that Daly is struggling to hear the dialogue through the ringing in his ears, the auditory aftershock of his neighbor’s shotgun. All the while, a mirror in the corner of the dining room is canted in such a way as to reflect everyone but the narrator.


What is clear by the end is that D’Ambrosio is not a dramatist but a holder of oblique mirrors himself, a painter of haunting portraits. Drama, to paraphrase Aristotle, is a sequence of escalating power shifts—events which challenge its characters to make decisions that, in turn, alter the course of future events. Rather, D’Ambrosio feeds us a timeline whose constituent moments form a single snapshot indicative of things as they are. There are no revelations or catharses, simply a masterful rendering of an excruciating silence, the waterlogged weight of unspoken things, which press upon the apparently humdrum present with a dreadful and mighty force, forever unrelieved, unresolved.


But even this doesn’t capture what it is that makes “Up North” extraordinary. There’s something musical about the particular network of contrasts—the muffled, protected cabin vs. the expansive, perilous outdoors—something deliciously peculiar in the laid-backness of the language, his words crisp and exact. At the same time, D’Ambrosio is careful not to tip his hand: his virtuosity is subtle, unassuming and tempered, not ecstatic and splendiferous like Nabokov’s.


I later wondered if perhaps I was too quick to trust him. That in my enfeebled state, sitting there apprehensive and barely clothed in that cold hospital waiting room, I’d allowed a certain obsequiousness to color my impression of the work. Shortly thereafter I picked up a copy of D’Ambrosio’s debut collection, The Dead Fish Museum (in which “Up North” is collected), and was struck to discover the same level of power and precision, the same faint irony and sober lament woven into each piece.


Someone recently told me that, for all its beauty, she couldn’t get through the book because it was too depressing. All due respect, this person was not reading. She was simply taking the D’Ambrosio world at face value—mental hospitals and recovery wards, failing businesses, porno sets—a world which, on the surface, appears to resemble that of William Vollman. But in comparison, Vollman buckles. His bleakness is a fey spectacle, which bullies its readers into a pre-fab discomfort.


Rather, D’Ambrosio does a far harder thing, which is to achieve compassion without sentiment, yearning without nostalgia, understatement without self-consciousness, and in doing so succeeds at everything Vollman fails at.


I doff my hat.


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Wednesday, May 2, 2007
by John Carvill

Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s
by Mike Marqusee
Seven Stories Press
October 2005, 367 pages, $116.95


Bob Dylan has always enjoyed confounding audience expectations. During the 45 years that he’s spent alternately basking in and shrinking from the glare of the public eye, he has presented his fans with more curves than a convention of Brazilian belly dancers.  Probably the most famous and far-reaching early instance of Dylan pulling the carpet out from under his fans’ feet, was the unveiling of his newly electrified music at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.


The traditional Folk contingent’s horrified reaction is widely regarded today as a pitiful case of some hopelessly out-of-touch, die-hard folkies not ‘getting it’, everyone enjoying a rueful chuckle at tales of Pete Seeger trying to cut the power cables with an axe during Dylan’s performance. But Mike Marqusee points out that the Newport Festival “was a nonprofit enterprise with a social mission,” providing “a link between the Southern civil rights movement and the folk community of the urban North,” that the performers and audience shared “a political as well as musical ethic,” and that this was a tradition worth defending from the corruption of market forces. The Newport people were right to cherish their tradition, and wise to be highly suspicious of the likes of Dylan’s dollar-worshiping manager, Albert Grossman. They associated the authentic with the acoustic, whereas to them “the electric guitar represented capitalism.”


Though Dylan was viewed by many as guilty of a double betrayal, turning his back not only on Folk but also on the leftist politics with which it was inextricably linked, Marqusee’s narrative demonstrates that nothing is clear cut. The book is full of paradoxes, contradictions and conflicts, not least within the ‘60s ‘movement’ itself. Dylan was on the platform behind Martin Luther King when he delivered his ‘I have a dream’ speech, having been down South to witness the ‘American Apartheid’ of systemic, state-sponsored racism at first hand (despite Grossman’s grumbles about the cost of the trip). There had been fierce squabbles behind the scenes that day, between those who argued for more confrontational speeches and the relatively compromise-ready King, and the songs he chose to play signaled Dylan’s own “hard-edged, increasingly radical political perspective,” particularly ‘Only a Pawn in their Game’, a song “not about freedom and unity, but outlining a class-based analysis of the persistence of racism.”


Marqusee skillfully traces the convoluted history of the American left, from the 1930s Communist Party which sought to position itself as “a homegrown people’s movement for social justice, not a sect of European proletarian revolution,” through the ‘Social Patriotism’ created by the New Deal’s focus on American identity, to the emergence of the ‘New Left’. Dylan’s songs did a lot to fuel the “mass radicalisation” of the 1960s, which led to the traditional ranks of “red diaper babies from the Northeast” being swollen by an influx of “new recruits from the Mid- and Southwest ... these innocent children of the postwar boom and a conformist culture had leapt from conservatism over liberalism into radicalism. They wore cowboy boots and smoked dope. They were Dylan’s people.”


But Dylan’s people didn’t appeal to Dylan at all, especially when they turned up at his Woodstock home looking for ‘answers’, and he later went out of his way to repudiate the counterculture, perpetuating the idea that he had jumped on the left-wing bandwagon as a shortcut to money and fame. But as Marqusee says, at the time Dylan wrote those songs there was no bandwagon to jump on, as “white American youth subscribed to opinions that ranged only within the narrow band between deeply conservative and cautiously liberal,” and “defying and deriding anti-communism ... was regarded as a serious career risk.”  And Dylan was willing to take that risk. At a rehearsal for what was to have been his first national network TV appearance, on The Ed Sullivan Show, he was asked to substitute another song for ‘Talkin John Birch Paranoid Blues’. He refused, and his appearance was cancelled.


In retrospect, it seems obvious that given the depth of his talent and scale of his ambition, Dylan was never destined to carry on writing what he called his ‘finger pointin’ songs for very long. Instead he embarked on a “creative firestorm,” issuing a series of jaw-dropping masterpieces which transformed popular music and, in the words of Allen Ginsberg, proved that “great art can be done on a jukebox.”


But if Dylan won the musical argument, the accusation that he abandoned political protest is less easily dodged, and the issue is at the heart of this book. Marqusee sets out to dismantle the myth that Dylan first embraced then forsook leftist politics, but he doesn’t shrink from portraying Dylan at his equivocating worst, quoting an exasperating interview Dylan gave to folk magazine Sing Out in 1968 in which despite being repeatedly pressed for his views on Vietnam, he not only refused to state that he was against the war but even went so far as to suggest that he might in fact be for it. Even given Dylan’s established reputation as a cagey, cranky, and contrary interviewee, whose innate irascibility was known to flare up into open aggressiveness when provoked, this is shameful stuff.


On the other hand, Dylan had an overwhelming desire not to be pigeonholed or adopted as anybody’s mascot. When he was presented with the Tom Paine award by the establishment liberals of the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee in 1963, he didn’t so much throw them a curve as suck them into a spiraling vortex of outrage, delivering a drunken speech in which he claimed, only weeks after JFK’s assassination, that he saw something of himself in Lee Harvey Oswald.  For Dylan, the political was always personal, and Marqusee makes the excellent point that his more personal, “bitter-sweet, love-hate songs” were composed in the same vein as the political ones: “moodily aggrieved and tenderly utopian at the same time.”


The critical and commercial resurgence, which Dylan has enjoyed in the last decade or so, has thrown up many treasures. This perceptive, elegantly written book is one of them. In exploring Dylan’s “complex and inextricable linkage to the riptides of the ‘60s,” Marqusee demonstrates that while Dylan’s art can provide a window into the 1960s, the decade and the “cultural and political tumults of the times” can also be used as a prism through which to view all of Dylan’s later work.


Dylan was never as politicised as his more politically engaged fans took him to be, but neither did the political sensibility, which had informed the protest songs, ever really leave his work. It can be felt in such mid-sixties classics as ‘It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ or ‘Tombstone Blues’, and not only did the Weathermen take their name (and a slogan or two) from a ‘post-protest’ song, but when Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale founded their Black Panther newspaper, they did so to a constant soundtrack of Dylan’s ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’.


As Marqusee says, the early protest songs were not just an immense achievement but also “the foundation of Dylan’s subsequent evolution.” And it’s one we can follow all the way through to a song such as the recent ‘Workingman’s Blues #2’, of which everyone, from the ECLC to Huey Newton to the people at Newport, would surely have approved.


Tagged as: bob dylan
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Thursday, Apr 26, 2007

Have you ever lied about reading a book? Christopher Andreae of the Christian Science Monitor has an opinion piece in the Gulf News on the subject, that reveals 40 per cent of 4,000 people surveyed recently have lied about reading the classics in order to discuss those classics with others. Andreae testifies never having stretched the truth as to his reading habits, though he does reveal the arduousness of ticking off Tolstoy on his reading list, and the damage done by lit classes at college that made reading the likes of Eliot and James a grade-driven chore.


I’m with Andreae—I think—that I’ve, too, not lied about having read certain books, although I must admit a slightly superior feeling at seeing the classics on my bookshelf, even though most of them remain unread. Is it lying to situate The Mill on the Floss in plain sight in the office and not rightly remind anyone impressed by the highlights of my collection that they haven’t each been digested? That they don’t inform my every literary opinion? Probably, but I figure it’s okay. I’ll read it one day. Why else do I have it, right?


Tom Roper, a Sussex librarian with an outstanding Typepad blog, saw the survey, too. He makes a great point that while the survey claims to have discovered a list of books most English “readers” lie about having read, it doesn’t point out whether or not these people openly admit they’ve read books they have not, or whether they simply don’t deny having read them when involved in conversation. See, now, while I don’t think I’ve lied about not having read a book, I may very well have simply quietened down, blended into the walls, when Wuthering Heights was the topic of the moment. Would anyone judge me for never having picked that one up (and, yep, I have it)? Would I seem less important? Less educated? Less, god-forbid, interesting?


Well, get this: Roper goes on to reveals those of the top 10 he’s made it through. And while I’m in awe of his tackling Tolstoy, I’m shocked he has little interest in Anne Frank’s diary. Tom! Why? And he’s read Harry Potter! I can judge him, right? Not only does he admit not having read Frank, he admits he likely will not. Damn—now I have to respect, at least, his honesty. I could never admit that—especially in company.


There are, though, lots of thing on this topic to lie about. I’ve lied about my response to a book so as not to offend another reader. I’ve certainly lied about having seen movies I’ve either never gotten around to or have no interest in. I’ve lied about thoroughly understanding a book. And I’ve often made out I know all about, say, the Lindbergh kidnapping based on extensive research than by reading a tiny chapter in Martin Fido’s veritable flipbook, The Chronicle of True Crime.


Still, with my transgressions now on the table, Emily Barton at Telecommuter Talk might chalk me up as a big fat liar, as she believes lying about books we’ve read is something we’ve all done. She writes: “I just love these organizations that spend lots of time and money doing research in order to tell us such things as all humans giving birth these days are female.” Wow, maybe I have lied about this? Maybe I have admitted to having read The Da Vinci Code in order to back up my assumptions that lovers of that book are nuts? Would anyone blame me, really? Wait ... I just did the same thing with Harry Potter. So, I’m a snob. That doesn’t make me a liar!


In part, though, because of this survey, not only do I plan to be more honest with my reading back catalogue (i.e., to not blend into any walls), I plan, too, to get to some of those books I’ve longed wished I’d read. Then, next time someone comments on my Eliot selections, I might proudly express either my loving or loathing of the Mill and its Floss. Or, at least, I’ll know what those words actually mean.


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Thursday, Apr 26, 2007

The first two in a series of book-related media items that must stop:


  • How much longer can we possibly be plagued with stories about how the internet is destroying the ‘serendipitous discovery’ in bookstores?  For readers in most locations—that is, locations not blessed with great bookstores and plentiful used-book stores—this sort of noodling is just pointless.  But the notion that one can’t find serendipity online is pretty ridiculous.  Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguoro allow themselves to be quoted in the article as implying that the only form of serendipitous discovery is Amazon’s “you may also like . . .” feature.  That’s not even especially true as a description of Amazon: One might also find user-created lists of related texts; at the bottom of the screen there are links to cataloging-type descriptors that you can click on to bring up related books; you can see what others who bought a particular book have viewed or bought, etc.  The most important limitation of the argument, though, is that one doesn’t shop at Amazon or any other online bookseller the way one shops at a bookstore.  It’s true that I usually know what I want to buy when I start shopping at Amazon, but that’s because I’ve usually spent hours trawling other sites for things to read.  This sort of trend piece was all very well 5 years ago . . . but it’s done.
  • Likewise, it’s time for so-called conservative groups to recognize that reports like “Vanishing Shakespeare,” commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni manage simultaneously to be false as a description of higher education (as The Little Professor demonstrates easily) and clichéd as a salvo in the culture wars.    I will promise to take such reports seriously when they suggest how to craft a 36-hour major in such a way that it also satisfies the various accrediting agencies, offers needed support to general education requirements, and meets all the other extrinsic pressures brought to bear on the curriculum (including demands for accountability,  transparency in assessment, and responsiveness to employer demands for skills training).  Further, such reports should explain how on earth we would staff such a curriculum.  (My department, which has no Shakespeare requirement, teaches 6 or 7 sections devoted exclusively to Shakespeare every semester.  That’s more than a full-time professor’s teaching load, and doesn’t even take into account that that person would also need to teach 1 or 2 sections of composition, as well as any other courses in general education or in the graduate program.)

Besides, we don’t need to teach Shakespeare any longer.  The University of Guelph has it all sorted:


Reading Shakespeare can be a daunting and even dreaded task for kids. That is, until a University of Guelph English professor added a futuristic spaceship and an outer-space mission into the mix.


Daniel Fischlin has found an innovative way to use Shakespeare’s language to teach literacy skills through a fast-paced computer game called, ’Speare. It was officially launched today on campus and could soon become commonplace in the classroom.


The first of its kind, ’Speare raises the bar on Flash technology and is a pioneer in educational gaming. It was designed to teach students about literacy within a familiar arcade environment, using cutting-edge technology to create a highly interactive educational tool.


“‘Kids love this game, and when we tested it, we found that literacy scores increased by an amazing 72 per cent after just one hour of game play,” said Fishlin, who created the video game with the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP) team.


You can play the game for free online here (registration required).


Between ‘Speare and Dickens World, the times are cushy for English-professor types. 


 


 


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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2007
by Simon Williamson

I’ve reviewed a lot of books, films, and albums, but never my favourites. I’ve always felt unequal to that task.


For the most part, I’ve reviewed works of “art” that I loathe, not love. It’s safer that way. So what if my review reveals Babel sucks? Maybe, due to unfairness or incapacity, I didn’t do it justice. Well, no harm done—it was godawful anyway. Its self-harm dwarfs any injury committed by my review.


But when you love a book, a film, or an album, justice must be done. If you do review it, you must capture the many shades, shapes, and textures of its glory. And if you can’t do that, shut the hell up. Because it’s better to say nothing than something wholly inadequate. Such, I guess, is the chilling effect of great art on reviewing. That’s why, when it comes to my faves, I keep quiet.


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