Criticism
Review: Otherwise Known As the Human Condition by Geoff Dyer Print E-mail

otherwise_known_as_the_human_condition_-_geoff_dyer(Contrary Magazine Summer 2011)

The Non-Expert Expert

No writer I know occupies as many rooms in the storied compound of arts criticism as Geoff Dyer. In Graywolf’s mix of Dyer’s two British-published anthologies (one in 1999; the other, 2010), the peripatetic author traverses photography, film, music, and literary criticism; he also plumbs the well of the personal essay.

Dyer, who’s written three well-reviewed novels, is a world traveler, autodidact, and essayist. He’s a master of the non-expert essay: self-examining pieces and books that use, among other things, photography, D.H. Lawrence, and the Battle of the Somme as his way in. He’s disciplined and ambitionless, an unrepentant time-waster, avoiding, he says proudly, all hard work. Dyer takes his time discovering—and taking apart—his interests, contrasting invention and analysis in each piece he writes.

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Review: Bring Down the Little Birds by Carmen Gimenez Smith Print E-mail

Bring_Down_the_Little_Birds_cover(Contrary Magazine March 2011)

Motherhood, Disenthralled

This slim memoir is soaked in the partum-based worry many mothers-to-be endure. The birth year Giménez Smith covers overlaps with her mother’s prognosis of, and treatment for, a brain tumor. These threads, as well as some fictive turns and angry toddlers, are laced together, making for a strangely eloquent and fragmented meditation on motherhood’s woe. Few joys of pregnancy intrude—pickles and ice cream and padding around the house barefoot. A poet, editor, and teacher, Giménez Smith is too honest a writer to row that clichéd river.

For the author, a second child and the family’s ensuing chaos guarantee lost time—away from her students, husband, and writing. How will she survive? How did her mother do it? How will she bear her mother’s illness? And then how quickly she feels guilty and possessive, constantly making adjustments: “There are no amateurs in the world of children.”

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Review: This Is Your Brain Reading: On Books, On Screens Print E-mail

innovative-design(The Rumpus February 22, 2011)

Books & Articles Reviewed:

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain Maryanne Wolf (Harper)

Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read Stanislas Dehaene (Penguin)

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains Nicholas Carr (Norton)

“From Print to Pixel” Kevin Kelly Smithsonian July/August 2011

***

Will the ironies that plague the demise of print never end? Just as neuroscience arrives to explain how the brain evolved our reading and writing abilities, which leapt the furthest forward via Gutenberg’s press, the once-stable enterprise of discrete book and private reader is being recast by new digital text platforms, Web page, eBook, and iPhone. What’s more publishing on paper, linear thinking, literary hierarchies, metanarrative legitimacy, not to mention the humanist claims of literacy and democracy, all are being remade. Only five hundred years into movable type and the Enlightenment/Romantic/Modern culture it begat—and suddenly we are flummoxed by how short our dwelling in the kingdom of print will be.

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Review: Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas Coupland Print E-mail

coupland(The Rumpus December 21, 2010)

How Badly We Need McLuhan: Now, More Than Ever

Recently, I chanced upon David Propson’s shoddy Wall Street Journal review of Douglas Coupland's new freewheeling critical/personal biography, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! Coupland and McLuhan, though of successive generations, are blood brothers—both Canadians and both writers and artists of New Media. But that's about all Propson gets right. With that oily snark so prevalent in today's hit-and-run reviewer, he declares that McLuhan has exerted much influence over “certain adolescent minds.” But McLuhan (who is inarguably the father of Media Studies) did not influence adolescents—he redirected the media builders, those who took him quite seriously, to package electronic technology for the young because they adapt the quickest to changes in our communication systems.

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Review: Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes Print E-mail

Barthes_-_A_Very_Short_Indroduction_pic0006(Contrary Magazine December 2010)

Alchemical Grief

There is something physiologically aglow about this tapestry of fragments—a fabric of feeling that Roland Barthes began weaving for his mother the day after she died, October 25, 1977. Mourning Diary, keenly translated by Richard Howard, is a set of two-hundred-plus intensities, each a sentence or two at most, written by Barthes over a two-year period following his mother’s demise. The compilation is Barthes’ last writing, and it is unclear whether this was an intentional book.

Barthes lived with his mother, in Paris and in Urt, his childhood home in Southern France, all his life. She adored him, supported his difference, his genius. He adored her, bringing her a rose—and himself one—whenever he could. Since her death has ripped away such affecttion, he quickly diagnoses his condition: “I’m not mourning,” he writes, “I’m suffering.”

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Review: Green Fields: Crime, Punishment, and a Boyhood Between by Bob Cowser Jr. Print E-mail

greenfieldscover(Contray Magazine Fall 2010)

In Murder-Crazy America

Be warned, the writer Bob Cowser Jr is a grappler. He clinches, bear hugs, throws down, and pins his subject to the mat before we know what’s happening. In previous books, Dream Season: A Professor Joins America’s Oldest Semi-Pro Football Team and Scorekeeping: Essays from Home, Cowser often corrals a foe, himself among them, belligerents with whom he grips tight and won’t let go.

Green Fields layers three such struggles: the murder of a child, the author’s link to the long-ago crime, and a polemic against the killer’s state-sponsored execution. Cowser tells the first of these with CSI-like precision: Eight-year-old Cary Ann Medlin is raped by twenty-three-year-old Robert Glen Coe, murdered, and left in a ditch beside Bean Switch Road outside of Greenfield, Tennessee, September 2, 1979. The author pushes us unsparingly into the senseless killing, the harried manhunt, the grisly find, the politically-tinged trial, the purgatory of appeals, a family begging for justice, and the unclean state execution with the pithy naturalism of a Dreiserian narrator.

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Review: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields Print E-mail

952632(Agni Online June 15, 2010)

Driving Cars in Clown Suits: David Shields Terrifies Novelists

Whenever writers of a new era question the purpose of literature, it takes a poet to declare the old aim dead and make the new aim live. In our time, such a poet, or, more accurately, such a prose collagist, is David Shields. His Reality Hunger is an improvised explosive device applied to the sacred cow of narrative. Its troubled, prickly unease is palpable. Hewing to the self-reflexive tenor of our age, Shields provokes us as much as he interrogates himself. Neither nasty nor narcissistic, he makes his case with 618 nuggety fragments, half in aphoristic style, half in the paragraph vein.

As I read, I was mesmerized by Shields’s originality. Until he pointed it out, midway through, that his content was barely his own: “Many (most?) of the passages in this book are taken from other sources. One bonus point for each identification.” In effect, he outsourced actuality, then pushed it, with much subterfuge, back into Reality Hunger.

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