Common Sense

Meredith Tax’s A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State is a book of revelations about life during wartime in Rojava—the autonomous region in Syria led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is linked to (what Tax terms) the “Kurdish liberation movement network.” Readers should be inspired by PYD’s experiment in secularism, radical democracy, pluralism and feminism. Tax’s reporting certainly gave me a lift. Her take on Rojava, though, may be a little too rosy.  In this review, I’ll try to touch on what’s iffy about her positivity without undercutting her effort to cultivate solidarity with Middle Eastern women who fight the Islamic State.

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“To Free A Family” (Distilled)

Underground Airlines‘ alternate history (see First‘s review above) calls to mind Sydney Nathans’ actual history, To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker (2012).  That journey began when Mary Walker ran away from bondage, leaving three children behind (along with her mother) after her master announced he planned to send his “impudent” slave to a plantation in Alabama, far removed from her family in North Carolina. Once Mary Walker got settled in the North, she spent years trying to free her family and Nathan provides a gripping chronicle of her efforts. (Struck by the drama of the book and its cast of characters, more than one reader has invoked Dickens.)

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Two Joes and a Jill

On December 12, 1942, The New Yorker published a 7000-word profile, entitled “Professor Seagull,” by Joseph Mitchell.  The subject was Joe Gould, a 53-year-old Greenwich Village eccentric, who was said to be writing an “Oral History of Our Times,” consisting of a record of conversations he had overheard over the last decades and essays related to these conversations. It was, Gould claimed, several times the length of the Bible and, most likely, the longest book ever written. 

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Irrevocable

During the last years of her life, Diane Arbus visited institutions for the mentally ill to photograph the residents, people often physically as well as mentally disabled. I remember being repelled by these photographs, and gathered that Arbus had by now crossed a line in her own mental state, becoming engulfed by a spiritual/emotional darkness from which she would never recover. She committed suicide by slitting her wrists in 1971 at the age of 48.

I happened to come across a French edition of the photographs while I was reading Diane Arbus: A Chronology 1923-1971 and they didn’t look the same. Arbus writes in A Chronology of the gossamer quality of the light in these images, which were taken mostly outdoors at sunset, and the photographs now seemed suffused with the deepest tenderness. It’s as if Arbus is photographing the soft underside of the human psyche — the pre-rational child that can scarcely navigate. It isn’t a pretty picture except that it looked now like only another natural part of the whole operating system of reality, including the light in which she finds it.

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Love in the Western World

“I have a confession,” he said to his wife. The children were watching something in the other room. A cooking show. A cooking show about cupcakes. “I am besieged with artifacts and associations and they are cluttering my mind to the point of not being able to function.”

“Does that mean you are ready to throw them out? Because they are cluttering the house.”

“Let me tell you about one of them, ok? An artifact in my head. One example. Then we can see.”

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Trump and the Media

“Let Trump be Trump his aides has always insisted.  And let his convention serve as an unapologetic tribute to his singular, erratic, untamed persona.  ‘I want,’ the candidate has often said, ‘to be myself.’” (“In Trump’s Voice, It’s a New Nixon,” Michael Barbaro and Alexander Burns NY Times, July 19.)  But who is that myself?  If one looks to his political identity in the views that he has expressed over the years, one is baffled by their contradictions, incoherence and vacuous expression, unless, that is, one sees them as symptoms of a mental condition.

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Like, A Prayer

“To the victor belong the spoils!” That was Camille Paglia’s reaction, reported in a May Salon article, to what she referred to as “the sexiest picture published in the mainstream media in years”—a photo showing a besuited Donald Trump looming possessively over his seated date at a banquet in the early 90s, his pendulous necktie practically tracing the word “phallus” in the air for the benefit of all easily impressed onlookers. Paglia apparently being one of them, although she wasn’t invited to the banquet—for her, the tie is a “phallic tongue” and Trump resembles “a triumphant dragon,” his “spoils” worthy of Rita Hayworth comparisons.

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Norton’s Big Check

This story poem about a working class hero’s lost weekend, which First originally published in 2012, is a favorite of Mark Dudzic and it brings home class struggles that inform Dudzic’s analysis of Trumpism. (See Mr. D.’s post below.) Like Dudzic, Smucker is alive to the difference between the collective idea that still shapes aspects of working class culture and the ethos of “The Golden Boy on the Way Up.”

Smucker finds lyricism in lives at risk of being trumped now, if only in the society of spectacle. Whenever this editor re-reads “Norton’s Big Check,” I’m reminded of Hemingway’s memorable mockery of proletarian lit in the bar scene late in To Have and Have Not. But “Norton’s Big Check” is no joke. Though it’s not solemn. It even has something like a happy ending. While Smucker isn’t beamish, that finish is a sign he believes in more than Hem’s nada.  B.D.

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The Origin of the Species

Back in the day, two knucklehead members of my old union local at a Union Carbide plant in New Jersey fashioned KKK hoods out of chemical filtration paper and paraded through the lunchroom on Halloween. The corporate HR executive sent to investigate summarily terminated both workers within hours of arriving at the plant. She loudly proclaimed the company’s “zero tolerance” to racial harassment.

Now this was very interesting considering that her employer was the prime suspect in the unpunished industrial murder of 764 mostly African American workers on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in the 1930’s and its current corporate chairman, Warren Anderson, was a fugitive from justice wanted by the Indian government in connection with the 1984 criminal manslaughter of at least 15,000 Indians in Bhopal.

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Pro Love

Corinne Bailey Rae’s husband Jason Rae died in his sleep, his breathing suppressed by an accidental overdose of methadone.  It’s difficult to listen to her singing “I’d Do it All Again” and not imagine you are hearing a woman coming to terms with the death of her lover.

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