Criticism
A Secular Founding Father: On Ian Ruskin's "Thomas Paine" Print E-mail
Criticism

Thomas Paine(The Truth Seeker May, 2016)

The one- or two-hour biography, whether film or play or documentary, is fraught with landmines: the portrayal reduces the life, redacts the ideas, rings the subject’s good bells, tosses in a token failure or two, and pumps up an artificial destiny. All was meant to be, we see in hindsight, ’tis great-man history. Such unnuanced bios—I’m thinking of films like Ali and Steve Jobs—re-mythologize the life to salvage one on whom history has been confused or ungenerous. We make a flawed man great again if we carefully rehab him. Think of the slow Teddy-Bearing of George W. Bush.

There may be no better candidate for reconstitution than Thomas Paine, secularism’s favorite anti-British British hero of American independence, perhaps the finest polemicist our republic has ever known. During his life (1737-1809), Paine was loved and reviled, the latter, the loudest. In his sixties and an American citizen, he became the “filthy little atheist” and the “devil incarnate,” a pariah to the cause of liberty. One obituary said Paine “had lived long, done some good, and much harm.” His haters’ wrath centered on The Age of Reason (1794-6), a lucid refutation of religion. In days of yore when dissent in print or speech led to the guillotine, Paine disavowed all creeds and clerical authority, judged the Bible a scurrilous tale of a cruel deity, and thought Jesus Christ just another wayward stargazer. A deist, Paine marveled at the Creation and lovingly called the Creator, God.

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Review: Interlude by Jamie Cullum (CD) Print E-mail
Criticism

leprotti(Music & Musicians Issue 41 2015)

Some vocalists take wing as teen sensations and circle the port; some launch as adults and fly transcontinental. Few make the shift—few as driven as England’s Jamie Cullum: 7 albums in 15 years. He of the bedhead, the suit-and-Converse-wearing Phenom, the 20-year-old crooner who hit pop-smart with 1999’s Heard It All Before. Cullum’s latest, Interlude, meshes jazz and near-jazz: 15 tunes in search of his comfort zone, which, gorgeously produced, still sounds a touch over-comfy, a tad couch-safe. On “My One and Only Love,” the song’s yearning plods, lacking the vibrant candor of his 1999 trio recording. Same with Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues,” a ribald honky-tonker too slow-to-pop, though the band’s country funk is heel-toe firm. Several gems here do shine with an inner ferocity, especially when Cullum and an orchestra parlay. Of the album’s two duets, Gregory Porter’s preacherly conviction on the Animals’ classic “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” unbuckles the ride. The sound is brassy, torch-bearing, and the balladeer gets it. Best of show is Jule Styne’s “Make Someone Happy,” the voice/solo piano blend bleedingly sincere. Here a full-grown Cullum crosses conflicted emotions; he’s as much pained by as he’s possessed of the tune’s declaration. Overall—less pap, more tart, please. The talent’s undeniable.

 

 
Review: Three Kinds of Motion: Kerouac, Pollock, and the Making of American Highways by Riley Hanick Print E-mail
Criticism

Hanick.THREE-KINDS-MOTION.web(Essay Daily October 7, 2015)

#literatureasexhaustion

Around 1910, Vasily Kandinsky, the Russian artist, began a revolution in seeing by finishing the first abstract paintings in Europe, though the Navajo, the Chinese, and the Muslims had been making design art for centuries. It took a few years before he quit portraying mountains and horses’ heads and drew, instead, a phantasmagoria of floating and cellularly busy flat forms. The surprise was that Kandinsky’s subjectless swirls and smudges, lines and dots, said something, despite not representing recognizable images like peasants or churches. Voila, as he’d intended, form in itself was rapturously beautiful. As if the Western eye knew all along that a triangle and a splotch, when layered on canvas, would animate the space like geometric ballet. Why had we avoided the disjunctive so long in art?

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Review: One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Created Christian America by Kevin Kruse Print E-mail
Criticism

One-NationUnderGod(The Humanist July/August 2015)

In 1952, with the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower as president, a small, chariot-driving clan of Christian evangelicals stormed the national stage, bent on foisting their religious claims into American law, custom, and ceremony. The chief drivers—the Congregationalist James Fifield, the Methodist Abraham Vereide, and the Baptist Billy Graham—enlisted the pliable Eisenhower, a self-described man of “deeply-felt religious faith,” and used his popularity to foment legislative and judicial changes dear to their cause. In return, these media-savvy pastors, along with fellow-traveling capitalists, delivered audiences to any politician blessing their credo. To vote is a faith-based proposition, believing in what the candidate stands for. The outcome was a new corporate-political movement, later termed “Christian libertarianism,” which mixed piety and patriotism and trademarked free enterprise as every American’s “divine right.”

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Review: Memoir: An Introduction by C. Thomas Couser Print E-mail
Criticism

0538480(American Book Review, 35.2, May 13, 2014)

A book that intelligently and capaciously introduces memoir for the general reader is, like a Chicago Cubs pennant or a movie reuniting Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, long overdue. Such a flight I’ve been expecting, and I’m happy to say the bird has landed. So much about the memoir’s individuation in recent years, having gained traction as art and as therapy, C. Thomas Couser addresses. It seems there are few better qualified than he to take on the form. Since the late 1970s, Couser, American Studies professor at Hofstra University, has become a formidable authority on life-writing—with American Autobiography (1979) and Altered Egos (1989), about our national obsession for self-writing; Recovering Bodies (1997) and Signifying Bodies (2009), on the true stories of the ill and disabled; and Vulnerable Subjects (2003), about the ethical landmines authors face, writing about willing and recalcitrant intimates.

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Review: The Griffin of Literature: Three New Books of Prose Poetry Print E-mail
Criticism

Knossos fresco in throne palace(TriQuarterly January 31, 2014)

I’ll admit it: I’ve never understood the prose poem, although it seems to be going strong in its third century. It’s the griffin of literature—an amalgam of the two literary arts that neither enhances their respective purposes nor makes the result stronger at the fused place. A definition is not much help; here’s the clearest definition I’ve found in a poetry handbook: “The point seems to be that [any] writing in prose . . . is a poem if the author says so.” It’s at odds with itself, which, I realize, may be the point. But when I reflect on the prose poem’s formlessness, I find it leaves me cold. A few descriptors may explain the chill: the prose poem is blocky, spatially inelegant, print-dependent, unmetered, and unsyllabic.

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Review: Cotton Tenants: Three Families by James Agee Print E-mail
Criticism

cotton tenants(Los Angeles Review of Books June 2, 2013)

Lives Nurtured in Disadvantage

If the contemporary reader of nonfiction knows anything about the universe of American literature — or just its prose galaxies — she knows that James Agee and Walker Evans’s 1941 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is our greatest nonfictional failure and the finest book-length lyric essay ever written. Five years in the making, Agee’s book was published by Houghton Mifflin (after Harper’s dumped it as unwieldy) to scorn, praise, and sales of 600 copies before it went out of print. (Agee didn’t endure well, either. He died in 1955 of a heart attack in a New York taxicab after three marriages, alcoholism, chain-smoking, a self-acknowledged crappy diet, and brilliant forays into nearly every form of writing he tackled. He was 45.)

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