Criticism
Review: Death & a Return to Wholeness: Joe Garrison's "The Broken Jar" Print E-mail

22426581 368017880304136 934533691096048969 o(San Diego Troubadour November 1, 2017)

Few composers push so many musical moods onto their listeners—shifting from ecstatic to brooding on a dime—as much as San Diego’s Joe Garrison does. He interrupts his pieces with silence only to shock them awake with sonic surprise. His unconventionality is twin-engined: sound’s nature to vanish before us and music’s design to take us somewhere. We do get somewhere but Garrison stops regularly for coffee like a night-driving trucker. He loves studying the territory’s map, momentarily pondering the road he went down—and then, shifting gears, heading off in a new direction.

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

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

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

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: The Little Locksmith by Katherine Butler Hathaway Print E-mail

little locksmith cover(River Teeth Blog October 1, 2015) Neglected Nonfiction Classic

An Inner Exuberance

One of the most poignant, absorbing autobiographical memoirs I’ve ever read is this gem from 1943, The Little Locksmith. I say autobiographical memoir for Katharine Butler Hathaway’s is old school, telling an outwardly undramatic tale about an exuberant inner life: she died at 58 just after this book, the first of several planned, was published. What gives it its memoirish intensity is her probity: she plunges into self-entanglements that would trip up most authors but gives her the freedom to invent herself in prose.

Old school autobiography has about it a fly-over quality. The ego and its accomplishments sees the life’s totality, plainly, in retrospect, as though the author has lain awake, waiting for just this later-in-life moment to reconfigure the whole. Written before the scenic enslavement our show-all memoirists practice today (The Little Locksmith has none of the yeasty worldliness of Eat, Pray, Love), Hathaway courts her own muse and style. Hers is a Thoreau-like capacity to paddle over a clear lake and behold the sandy bottom, the water a lens enlarging the world below.

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

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: Shepherd by Richard Gilbert Print E-mail

shepherd(River Teeth Blog June 1, 2014)

Growing the Soil and the Soul

Sometimes a memoir, spilling into the ken of autobiography, must grapple with an author’s lifelong enigma—his book’s story, the story. As we read, we feel this cyclonic summing-up, the best chance after the life (or as far as the life has got) to say what, in particular, shaped that life’s core meaning. Perhaps the revelation is that we don’t get another go-round (obvious but important), that we never knew the storm was gathering while it happened (as much good as bad), and that the life we thought we lived was not exactly the one we did live (the new self the memoir discloses to its surprised narrator).

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