Criticism
Review: Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life by John Adams Print E-mail

Hallelujah-Junction(Contrary Magazine Spring 2009)

The Composer's Advocate

It’s arguable whether or not John Adams is America’s most prominent living composer. But after reading his autobiography, I have no doubt that he’s our most knowledgeable. No other composer can embody in writing the variant weather of our storm-tossed electronic, pop, classical, and contemporary music as lucidly as he can. Composer, conductor, innovator, controversialist, author, Adams is the deacon of New Music, whose career joins that of other great American mavericks—a tradition, it should be remembered, that exists for the likes of John Cage, not John McCain.

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Review: Safe Suicide by DeWitt Henry Print E-mail

Safe_Suicide(Contrary Magazine Winter 2009)

DeWitt Henry and the Anxiety of Self-Discovery

As it must, a collection of nonfiction pieces assembled into a book lacks the core theme of a single narrative, a focused memoir, or a book-length essay. DeWitt Henry’s Safe Suicide is no exception. What is exceptional—and perhaps less noticed in the variety of forms Henry fancies—is his self-disclosure, the knottiest labor the personal writer faces. How do I disclose to myself things I did not know before I began writing? After all, the lure of personal narrative is for the reader to discover the author’s vagaries of being as he or she does in the writing.

We get Henry’s truest self in his layered stories of family intimacy. In more than half of the twenty pieces (fourteen were previously published), we find Henry, who is in his 50s and 60s for most remembrances, writing about the quotidian lives of his affirmatory wife, Connie ("sexy and beautiful, in an openhearted, wholesome way"); their withdrawn son, David; and their self-reliant daughter, Ruth. The father’s anxiety far outweighs the husband’s.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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