Review: Two Katrina Books by Dan Baum and Dave Eggers Print E-mail

zeitoun(Open Letters Monthly December 1, 2009)

Books of the City

For readers, what’s exhilarating about great crimes and tragedies in the American South is how quickly, how necessarily, they are translated into literature.

The most recent maelstrom eliciting literary remembrance is Hurricane Katrina, late-August/early-September 2005. But this time it’s not fiction that rushes in. We’re too wired to wait for fiction. It’s nonfiction, and the coverage is personal—memoir, reportage, biography. Fiction will come. But for now the urgency of the witness/participant story is driving the boat. The reason is, Katrina played so well on TV. The writer bounces off that reality, feels the charged immediacy of those pictures of families waving at helicopters from rooftops.

Review: Frankly, My Dear: Gone With the Wind Revisited by Molly Haskell Print E-mail

mhaskell-390-jacket_jpg_3(Contrary Magazine Autumn 2009)

America's Great Feminist Icon

Every culture has its enduring art—Rome The Aeneid, Italy The Last Supper, Russia the Pathetique Symphony. In those pre-modern societies, the value of art was based on its creator’s mastery and its national or religious cast. Art had not yet been tainted by its earning power. Not until the mid-twentieth century, when mass production of art and mass audiences for its consumption arose, was art’s intrinsic value exchanged for commodity value. Shares in its intrinsic value continue to fall. The art work’s preeminent worth today lies in that cuddly American euphemism, its commercial appeal.

To be viable in the commercial era, art works need social and technological currency: they must court controversy to fuel their sales; they must seek publicity to supplant their merit; and they must be reborn, where apt, in another medium. The prevailing works of the past century are those bent most by commodification. The most bent, in turn, become cultural icons.

Review: The River Lock: One Boy's Life Along the Mohawk by Stephen Haven Print E-mail

river-lock-190(Contrary Magazine Summer 2009)

A Poet's Memoir

You’re not likely to read a memoir as good as Stephen Haven’s. Its brilliance lies in his fearless blend of the past in the present. In his mid-forties, the author is haunted by a wounded adolescence. On a pilgrimage, he returns to his hometown to discover why he's so obsessed. There, the still-ripe memoires of twenty and more years past unleash a torrent of wonder and regret. The only way to manage the deluge is to stir the past into his feeling for the past. Doing so, Haven crafts nuances and complexities about memory and loss few memoirists achieve. It may be that his ability springs from his primary calling. Haven is the author of two fine poetry collections, Dust and Bread and The Long Silence of the Mohawk Carpet Smokestacks. To say The River Lock is a poet’s memoir invites questions. How does a poet recall? Does he remember differently from us non-poets?

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.

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.


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.

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