Right out of the gate…a political slant. How can I not go there? Art this past year has been yoked to politics in ways not historically seen since the late 60s or quite possibly, at the most recent, since Bill Clinton played the sax on Arsenio’s show. Given that whether we like it or not, we live in a progressively post post post modern world, it’s no shocker that the artistic community would viscerally rebel against a actually living trope of backwardness. In this dichotomy stands the koan (a word I learned recently and am just now putting to use) between what constitutes art and what drives social progress.
Some thought on Gregory Freeman’s The Forgotten 500
Gregory Freeman’s narrative of the daring rescue of some 512 servicemen and diplomats from Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia is more of a sensational journalistic exploration than true historical monograph. This distinction is not necessarily bad since it creates a quick-flowing and exciting story that pulls the reader into the complexities of the rescue mission. Still, it would be nice to have some footnotes to see where some of this research is coming from.
What makes this book commendable are the tangential explorations of the battle between Mihailovic and Tito during their civil war in WWII. Balkan history isn’t necessary mainstream, so much credit goes to Freeman bringing notice to a region that is often passed over in western histories as a “tinderbox.” A kudos also should go out for Freeman’s criticism of intelligence agencies in both the US and Britain who were overly influenced by communist employees and fear of stepping on the toes of Italian and Yugoslavian leaders during the Cold War.
My main criticism of this book is that it is melodramatic much of the time and seems to have an overt bias in celebrating Serbians under Mihailovic while harshly criticizing communists of all colors. This seems like a cheap shot instead of an actual merited criticism since he does absolutely nothing to show the horrors of communist rule under Tito; instead, it seems like a convenient bandwagon punch to satisfy his reading public’s inherent bias.
The Magician’s Nephew (A-)
It’s been about ten years since I last sat down to read this series, and the first time that I’ve engaged it in my post-romantic Christian youth. I’m not sure what drove me to take it up this time, but I’m determined as I move through the series to look past the leaden symbolism and into the stranger nooks and crannies of Lewis’ work. Magician’s Nephew was one of my two favorites when I first read the Chronicles, and I believe it will remain so. The image of Aslan singing a world into existence has lost some of its earlier magic, but the landscape of a new Narnia is more appealing than ever. I had completely forgot about the scene of Digory flying to the grove of apple trees and confronting Jadis. I have to admit that this scene captures the arrival of sin (or at least its new expression) in a manner slightly less doctrinal but more emotional than the actual Genesis account. The character of Jadis became even more fascinating to me, especially compared to how she is expressed is The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Aslan’s descriptions can counter on caricature at times, but something rings true about his terrifying yet beautiful nature. It was also baffling to me that Digory and Polly actually buried the rings, which I feel is inconsistent with most Narnian characters constant refusal to fully obey Aslan’s mandates. Perhaps, like God, Aslan never meant for all his orders to be obeyed; He(he) is way more open to surprises than we may have ever guessed.
Genre: American Class History, Cultural History, Goodreads Choice Award Nominee, Nonfiction
Review: This incredibly dense cultural history of class in the United States seems to be the final product of decades of passionate following of class in America as well as research of the intricacies of class over the last 500 years. What makes this monograph incredibly engaging, however, is the consistent intrusions of film, books, and movies that show the cultural change over time of popular views on American lower class whites.
I picked up this book from Barnes and Noble this past summer since it seemed a timely comment on a history of a group of people that had somehow been given a voice by a self-proclaimed “one of their own” in Donald Trump. I was incredibly curious to see how poor whites, “redneck trash,” and educated riff-raff (not necessarily my own labels) could elect a man who was actually sourced from the New England elite. Since I’m a history teacher, I knew that Trump’s message wasn’t necessarily novel but more-so was well timed and incredibly well branded. Anyone who read Isenberg before the election would have been 100% convinced that Trump would win in the end.
At times Isenberg seems to overly focus on our Presidents as caricatures of themselves, especially in the chapters leading up to the end of the book. I found it somewhat startling there is no mention of Jeff Foxworthy since it seems like he would be the pre-eminent focal point in discussing how “rednecks” were pulled into mainstream American culture and even celebrated. There is a bit of ivory tower condescension with Isenberg, but her valuations are not necessarily unjustified. The Epilogue seems to be filled with more editorializing than I would expect from a tenured professor, but if I’m honest I have to say I loved it. One particularly poignant-even prophetic-point (and there are many) is Isenberg’s proclamation that:
“A corp of pundits exist whose fear of the lower classes has led them to assert that the unbred perverse–white as well as black–are crippling and corrupting American society. They deny that the nation’s economic structure has a causal relationship with the social phenomena they highlight. They deny history (emphasis mine). If they did not, they would recognize that the most powerful engines of the U.S. economy–slaveowning planters and land speculators in the past, banks, tax policy, corporate giants, and compassionless politicians and angry votes today–bear considerable responsibility for the lasting effects on white trash….and on the working poor generally.”
I have been amazed to see (maybe I shouldn’t have been) that the students I teach, mostly upper class male whites, have no sense that class and race is an inherited imbalance, almost as much genetic as cultural. They have already constructed the “other” in the base white class whether they realize it or not and condemn them as “shiftless” or “lazy” to the extent that other eugenicists may have done a century ago.
Overall, Isenberg’s work has made me grapple with my own class leanings, specifically the fact that I’m running from my own background. I would value myself as staunchly middle-middle class but have relatives that relish a constructed Redneck characterization. I have distanced myself from that branch of my family, and if I’m honest look down on them. I view my own education (I’m the only Masters degree in the family) as an elitist accessory instead of a burden of responsibility. Just as our early Founding Fathers would have been uncomfortable with sharing power with the “mudsiller,” I’m just as loath to share a dinner table with a group out of which I am molded.
This morning my wife was featured in Morning Edition, NPR’s comprehensive and wide-sweeping news show. She was quoted twice, the second being the piece’s final words. Below is the link to the excerpt and below that her full email to NPR re: Women’s Basketball.
It took 44 minutes for my dad to drive me from practice at my high school in Rowan to Huntersville Elementary for AAU basketball practice. I would fill that time reading the books and solving the math problems assigned to me for homework. Though my dad’s red jeep and his talkative nature weren’t ideal for any kind of productive studying, to me, it was worth it. I wanted everything I could get out of basketball…I wanted every moment to propel me forward in getting better.
I spent my weekends with my team, the Carolina Angels (an intimidating mascot, I know) playing up to 3 games a day. Honestly, we were just okay. We won some, loss some…probably coming out with a mostly winning record. But having the team on my shoulders, having to be the one to box out for the rebound while also getting the ball down the court forced me into improving out of desperation to win. My dad loves telling a story about spending the weekend in Asheville, NC and me being so upset about how I played I didn’t even say a word all night. He guessed a decent order for me from McDonalds and threw it in my direction, accepting my dramatic somber attitude that was probably uncalled for. What an angel, my dad. Driving me twice a week to practices, giving up his weekends to go to tournaments, dropping who knows how much on hotel rooms, and all without a complaint and filled with pride at his daughter delighting in the sport she loved.
I filled every summer with all the camps I wanted. I went to Duke so I could play on Coach K’s court, and went to High Point University as 1 of the 50 people invited and accepted to the “Focused 50” boot camp. There was not one opportunity to play hard that I neglected. Summer optional workouts? Went all out. Pick-up games in PE when really no one important was watching? “Broke the ankles” of Bradon Wherrit as a resounding “Ooohhhhh” came from watchers. Saturdays? Played pick up for HOURS at the YMCA, the only girl. Basketball was everything to me.
I made Varsity Freshman year, had to really work for playing time both mentally and physically. I had every intention on playing in college. I went to organized shoot-outs where you got a number, was thrown on a random team, and college recruiters watched for their next player. I began receiving letters and “questionnaires” for small colleges in my state who were interested in me as a player. By my junior year, I was starting. At the time, my county’s competition for girls basketball was tough. It was not only acceptable, but an honor to play…some of the most popular and desirable girls played basketball. There was even a rumor when we played our rival high school that they wanted to switch the girls and guys games as the girls game would be the climax of the evening.
Here’s the thing- despite giving up dreams of playing in college, my love for the game never diminished. My pure enjoyment of playing didn’t waiver, and the part of me that identified myself as a basketball player did not shift whatsoever. I never let up on effort, and never let up on extracurricular playing.
I headed on to UNC-Chapel Hill to subsequently get body-slammed in academics for the first time. I missed playing. I showed up to play on the club team, but eventually decided that for the first time in my life, I should explore new things. I volunteered with a non-profit that works with high school kids…and guess where I ended up. Coaching JV basketball. While some of my old teammates were playing at smaller colleges and living out what I thought I dreamed of…I was still involved in the game- coaching and playing occasionally with the varsity team. I also began playing pick up with some guys I became friends with every Thursday night at Woolen gym, a historic gym with about 10 courts that have pick up games almost constantly. Again, playing pick-up…I was the only girl.
And this trend has continued. I ending up working for this same non-profit full time…again, ended up coaching. This time, I was an assistant to the state champion team, and was part of the team of guys that they played against to heighten their competition. Again, the only girl. I played pick up as often as I could with friends…again, the only girl. I now play pick up with my husband and friends…again, the only girl.
There’s been ONE situation where I became aware of a legitimate women’s league. I joined a terrible team, but loved every second of getting whooped by 30 points. Joining a game of pick up doesn’t hold a candle to playing fundamentally sound, competitive, organized basketball. I think that’s why most women don’t play anymore. It’s just not the same game when we play with men who mostly are not fundamentally trained. The selfishness in a pick up game, the suppressed sexist decisions, and the sloppy fundamentals can borderline ruin it. I’m so desperate to keep basketball in my life, I’ve grown a thick skin and put up with it. But it sucks when you are constantly paired with the super-unathletic spaz who plays defense with zero body control, making you susceptible to being clothes-lined or injured. Who is the worst player on the team? Oh- you get “the girl.” As if I have nothing to contribute and as if I don’t have a name. Word to the wise, if a girl has the gall to show up and play pick up, chances are she can shoot, so DEAR LORD set her a screen!!!!
All this is to say, my two best friends who actually played college basketball NEVER play anymore. I think I am an anomaly. They enjoyed 4 more years of this beautiful, graceful game full of rhythm, smart decisions, and passion. But they never play anymore. Why? I can’t really figure out. This game captured my heart long ago…and maybe that’s why it didn’t really matter if I played college or not. I love playing. I’m willing to put up with arrogant men, playing with a ball sized for men’s hands, and being matched with hazard in order to feel what its like to drive and connect to the basket, to feel what its like to hit a 3 in transition, and to RUN- to run without abandon, with hope and desire to be a part of the next play.
I hope so. Until then, I guess I’ll keep guarding the 12 year old.
Criteria: 1. Visual Rhetoric Excellence (album cover) 2. Classical fashion/personification resonance (how close can you get to making your art resemble a coke can or a 1940s overcoat in Brooklyn) 3. The marathon song (special points if past 9 minutes) 4. Are you young or new? (b/c for some reason the best music was more divided on these parameters). 5. You had a Macklemore haircut (which will look stupid by May) 6. It sounds good in Dan’s treble-fest speakers (not the Rodeo this time…that damn CRV has better speakers, but Dan turns up the treble setting to +6) 7. Auras of black and white? (I don’t know, ask Ansel Adams about it) 8. Paste vs. Pitchfork factor (how much either overlap or omission an album had from both publications) 9. Overall, did I like it?
Top 10 Albums of the Year with visual analysis:
1. Quiet Light | Roadkill Ghost Choir
2. Random Access Memories | Daft Punk 3. Days are Gone | Haim
6. Reflektor | Arcade Fire
7. Overgrown | James Blake
8. Trouble Will Find Me | The National
9. Anxiety | Autre Ne Veut
*all photos from @anthonysamaniego
10. The 20/20 Experience | Justin Timberlake
*Honorable Mention* Ghost on Ghost | Iron & Wine Cupid Deluxe | Blood Orange Wondrous Bughouse | Youth Lagoon Muchacho | Phosphorescent Paracosm | Washed Out
I wouldn’t necessarily call 2013 a seminal year in music history, but there was some very good art produced in spurts and bubbles. Since I have quieter tastes (as I’ve been reminded on quite a few online music forums) I guess I’m not as qualified to comment on some of the louder genres (metal/death-metal/precious metals/hard-rock but almost metal/steel drum reggae), but the other musical spheres are mine on which to prey. A couple of adjectives that come to mind for 2013 are “patient” and “classic.” My number one album of the year, Quiet Light (really an EP), is a dusty, banjo-plucking, dark folk album with about as much prairie merit as the ubiquitous oil-drilling units bumping up and down along the interstate. Like those midwestern fleas constantly at the helm of production, Roadkill Ghost Choir produces a steady, foot-stomping opus backed by swelling horns and hazy, reverb guitar. The product is a delay of time…a return to rural Americana (they are from rural Florida after all) where geography determined culture and time was measured from the true travel of the sun and seasons. Other works, like the Civil Wars’ Self Titled, Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City, and The National’s Trouble Will Find Me are re-workings of great American themes: road trips, civilian strife, and depression in the modern age. I don’t think it’s an accident that these three albums artwork is almost all greyscale sans Autre’s wooden frame (that actually has Edvard Munch’s The Scream embedded in it on earlier versions), reflecting not only the modern transition of American folk music but also the stern and segmented allocations of its arguable qualities. These albums are equally terrifying, limited, and vague-all tangential qualities for normal American folk. The more poppy albums of the year, JT’s 20/20 Experience, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, and Haim’s Days are Gone are further artistic commentaries on American images or historically loaded pop generalizations. Daft Punk uses jazz-infused, early 90s dance-club vibes loaded onto disco beats to basically create a genre that netted grandmothers to budding adolescents into a woven mesh of hip-hop, Euro-synth burlap. Although this album isn’t necessarily an American exploration, it still uses African-American pop influences dubbed over machine-washed synth, maybe augmenting traditional hip-hop with a modern element. JT’s 20/20 is a more austere play on the cliche of big bands of the earlier 20th century. He transforms himself into a 21st century band leader of a supporting cast aptly named the Tennessee Kids which has more than a few historically (and by extension, racially) loaded assumptions about making “swing” music for the live masses. JT narrowly avoids making a caricature of himself by being so damn good at his job and by fulfilling the born-again image of Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman with nearly effortless zeal. Haim’s Days are Gone is the only album that offers the feminized take on the shift of American folk/pop. As sisters, Haim is able to create the image of the “girl next door” motif hinged to American hipsterism (perhaps the true intersection of folk and modernity in our culture) that is also more than capable of creating sweeping pop music. Their proximity to adolescence makes their music strangely spritely but also a terrific mess, reflected by their aversion to mass media glamour via tangled hair, disdain of Lululemon casual flair, and love of team sports (see video for “Don’t Save Me”). The implications of their image for coming-of-age American girls is only thinly veiled, however, since they offer a full rejection of traditional female roles in favor of a life that may be more blue collar, sweaty, and grounded in independence. By extension, these qualities make Haim almost overt flag-bearers for the American “folk woman” more shaped by frontier ideology than urban opulence. Perhaps as we enter into another decade where the term “America” gets scrutinized to death in postmodern scalping, 2013 offers a brief return to traditional American mores. It’s no secret that traditional folk music is dead in the mass media, but small extensions, even thematic ones, can’t help reveal the fact that deep inside our own modernity are questions of background that challenge what American art is becoming. Musically, this transition is faster than other genres but also more circular. If the last century could be shaped by a periodic function, 2013 stands as a return to the midline…whether we are rising or falling depends on what’s next.
Having just finished Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for perhaps the second time of my life (the first was in high school I believe), I am now free to find what is profound in whatever pronounces itself at the moment. And what is profound is Kurtz, his character, his sentience of his surroundings, movements, and barbarity. So much can be said, of course, about this novel’s “social implications”: the overt racism, imperial arrogance, etc. But this novel isn’t really about all of these CliffsNotes sidebar themes (high schoolers stop reading upon peril to your AP test). This book is mainly about one man, his mystery, his profound effect, profound death, and phantom nature. Kurtz starts as a ghost and ends as perhaps the most terrifying specter in modern literature. As Marlow wrestles with the end product of his Congo trance, we all sit upon the deck of his ship in the Thames contemplating not the nature of the Occident to marginalize and belittle, but of how we can meet Kurtz and somehow escape intact. And it hit me that Kurtz is perhaps some sort of mortal deity, a mixture of Jesus and the God of the Old Testament zapping whole cultures out of righteous indignation. In this light, Kurtz’s ivory moves far beyond personal accumulation of wealth and turns into gleaming souls: a hoarding of pain and sorrow, a reaping of lifetimes of hope in the struggling, sputtering wilderness. And like Jesus, we are attracted to Kurtz, to the “voice,” that screams out “horror, horror,” in gasping breaths, knowing that in the terrible freeness of nature, in the limits of the social spectrum, we all know the truth of life: there is a feeble line between horror and beauty and we must internalize both to make sense of the other.