Review: Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller by Steve Weinberg Print E-mail

Taking_on_the_Trust(Contrary Magazine Autumn 2008)

A Reporter Reviews a David's Coverage of a Goliath

What we may not remember in a world saturated with a media hell-bent on outing every celebrity’s secret (Goodbye, John Edwards) is that serious investigative reporting about the money and influence of the privileged and powerful has an American Eve. Her name was Ida M. Tarbell, and she invented muckraking, a form of reportage marked by moral outrage, stringent research, and reformist zeal. Tarbell, who died in 1944 at 86, had one of the most successful careers in magazine journalism. She was the sort of writer for whom Pulitzer prizes were made to honor. As writer and editor, she blazed the trail for those rare authentic journalists, crusaders like Ray Stannard Baker and Lincoln Steffens in her time and Seymour Hersh, Robert Caro, and Jane Mayer in our own.

Review: What Is Life? by Ed Regis Print E-mail

9780374288518(Contrary Magazine Summer 2008)

A Fine Question Remains Unanswered

It’s a funny title—What is Life? Investigating the Nature of Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology—the grandest question of all followed by a rather nerdy limitation on it. And yet Regis is too smart an author (with several provocative science books in his oeuvre) not to know that the philosophic query predates and dominates the biological one. We get a bit of the former and a lot of the latter, mostly pendulous drops into the pit of defining life biologically. Such a tack is possible only because of our recent far-reaching knowledge of DNA, RNA, and ATP, chemicals whose nano-engineering, billion years’ adaptation, and relational diversity among creatures great and small have riddled the earth with species only a few of which survive.

Review: The Windows of Brimnes by Bill Holm Print E-mail

brimnes(Contrary Magazine Spring 2008)

Through a Glass, Outwardly: Memoirist Misses Inner Picture

In Hofsós, Iceland, in the land of his ancestors, Bill Holm spends his summers, writing, playing the piano, and being "completely, stupidly happy." The picture window of his modest second home frames a vast mountain range and a fjord of immense beauty. Through it Holm also sees waves breaking (brim) on the cape (nes). He learns a bit of the tongue, digs into Iceland’s myths and history, cobbles together some family narrative while musing on the abject conditions they fled for Minnesota. When he’s not ga-ga with joy and things Icelandic in the midnight sun, he’s fulminating about the USA.

Review: Forging Fame: The Strange Career of Scharmel Iris by Craig Abbott Print E-mail

Forging_Fame(Contrary Magazine Winter 2007)

Study of Fraud Poet Gives Him More Than His Due

Long before the tushy University job for American poets there was a time when a few wrote verse for popular taste, published in newspapers, and eked out a living. In the early twentieth century, pro rhymesters like Ella Wheeler Wilcox and Edgar A. Guest were mainstays. If the poet could sing of democracy and motherhood, of religious awakening and moral virtue, then a modest career in writing poetry—forget selling insurance—might be had.

Enter Scharmel Iris (1889-1967), an extremely minor (Is less than minor possible?) Italian-born Chicago poet, whose writing life was both a fraud and a failure.

Review: On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt Print E-mail

shit-fuck-train-conductor(Free Inquiry August/September 2006 Volume 26, Number 5)

On Bovine Excrement

Words, the poet and playwright Amiri Baraka once noted, have users. But, more important, users have words. Baraka believed that if we want to understand language, we need to get out of its etymological backyard and into its sociological neighborhood. Take the word bullshit. When it’s uttered in a locker room or a closed door meeting between lawyers working on plea bargains, context says the word means "you’re lying." In such a venue, it’s hardly profane. The same word used by a high school teacher or on television would be heavily profane: its rare utterance gives the word a force it would otherwise not have. Our in-group/out-group divisions, our media-mass relationships, cannot be ignored when we interrogate words under the lamp of usage.

Review: Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis Print E-mail

Lunar_park(San Diego Union-Tribune September 4, 2005)

A Big Self-Conscious Mess

If a novelist writes a bad novel, a critic has a duty to say why: The plot is lame, the characters flat, the conflict uncoiled, the theme old hat. But if the novelist is Bret Easton Ellis, who began his career in 1985 with the strangely beguiling "Less Than Zero" and whose newest fiction reads like his last two roundly detested works—the BTK-like screed "American Psycho" (a novel that women's groups vehemently objected to, Simon and Schuster dropped, eating their $300,000 advance, and Knopf published) and the fashionista flop "Glamorama"—a reviewer has to watch it. He shouldn't let his disgust with Ellis' predictably affected infantilism overcome his judgment.

Review: From Dvorak to Duke Ellington by Maurice Peress Print E-mail

Duke_Ellington_1943(American Book Review January/February 2005, Volume 26, Number 2)

The Soul of American Music

The hybridization of racial and ethnic cultures in American art, particularly in literature, film, dance, and painting, did not really begin until after 1950. Before then there was little mixing—not because artists were incapable of cross-cultural influences but because European traditions of song and dance were so set, audiences so white, and barriers so thick, that racial commingling seldom occurred. One notes Mark Twain and Langston Hughes as exceptions, but they also prove the rule. Such a lineage, however, is not true of music. Music is America’s most democratic art, probably because of its, rather than, our nature. And yet the identity of American music—a dialogue and debate with those European traditions—arose from the experiences of slaves.

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