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

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
Criticism

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
Criticism

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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Now, Where Was I? On Maggie Nelson's "Bluets" Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Jet

(TriQuarterly February 2011)

The author Maggie Nelson, born in 1973, has authored half-a-dozen books, among them poetry collections, memoirs, and nonfiction. Bluets may be her finest work. It is a set of two-hundred-and-forty loosely linked fragments. Each numbered fragment is either a sentence or a short paragraph, none longer than two-hundred words. The book totals some nineteen-thousand words. The work hybridizes several prose styles and verges on the lyric essay. The themes of lost love and existential aloneness come to dominate, bathed in a kind of blued longing.

Nelson utilizes memoir, philosophy, quotation, analysis, scientific exposition and query, meditation, and more, each in stylistic miniature. Subjects include an ex-lover and a friend who’s been paralyzed, but the majority of the text features her analyzing her reading, often deferring to others’ comments (including Leonard Cohen, Joseph Cornell, and Joan Mitchell) on blue. She’s not the only one so smitten by a color. Nelson combines spiritual inquiry with erotic obsession, searches for beauty and gets hung up on memories. As she criss-crosses sorrow and wonder, doubt and desire, her tone darkens.

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

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
Criticism

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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Music and War's Grief Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Platoon_village_scene(San Diego Union-Tribune, Veterans Day, November 11, 2010)

The degree to which we mourn our war dead as a nation is matched by the music for mourning our composers have given us. In America’s case, it’s virtually none. The reason our composers have been so stingy with writing elegies—contrast this with the Irish ballad or the fiddle dirge, keening traditions that go back 1,000 years—is that our culture has not demanded they write sad music.

We attend to public loss with private grief. We have a funeral, a memorial, a wake; we pay tribute, shed tears, tell stories and play a brief, favorite tune to remember the departed and to evoke a modicum of sorrow. We grieve not for the dead. We lament the individual who lost his or her life. If the remembrance has a religious bent, someone sings “Amazing Grace.” If it’s military, the tune is “Taps.” We watch the casket lower or the ashes scatter, and return to our separate lives, changed only in personal ways.

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