Criticism
Review: One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Created Christian America by Kevin Kruse Print E-mail

One-NationUnderGod(The Humanist July/August 2015)

In 1952, with the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower as president, a small, chariot-driving clan of Christian evangelicals stormed the national stage, bent on foisting their religious claims into American law, custom, and ceremony. The chief drivers—the Congregationalist James Fifield, the Methodist Abraham Vereide, and the Baptist Billy Graham—enlisted the pliable Eisenhower, a self-described man of “deeply-felt religious faith,” and used his popularity to foment legislative and judicial changes dear to their cause. In return, these media-savvy pastors, along with fellow-traveling capitalists, delivered audiences to any politician blessing their credo. To vote is a faith-based proposition, believing in what the candidate stands for. The outcome was a new corporate-political movement, later termed “Christian libertarianism,” which mixed piety and patriotism and trademarked free enterprise as every American’s “divine right.”

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Review: Shepherd by Richard Gilbert Print E-mail

shepherd(River Teeth Blog June 1, 2014)

Growing the Soil and the Soul

Sometimes a memoir, spilling into the ken of autobiography, must grapple with an author’s lifelong enigma—his book’s story, the story. As we read, we feel this cyclonic summing-up, the best chance after the life (or as far as the life has got) to say what, in particular, shaped that life’s core meaning. Perhaps the revelation is that we don’t get another go-round (obvious but important), that we never knew the storm was gathering while it happened (as much good as bad), and that the life we thought we lived was not exactly the one we did live (the new self the memoir discloses to its surprised narrator).

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Review: Memoir: An Introduction by C. Thomas Couser Print E-mail

0538480(American Book Review, 35.2, May 13, 2014)

A book that intelligently and capaciously introduces memoir for the general reader is, like a Chicago Cubs pennant or a movie reuniting Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, long overdue. Such a flight I’ve been expecting, and I’m happy to say the bird has landed. So much about the memoir’s individuation in recent years, having gained traction as art and as therapy, C. Thomas Couser addresses. It seems there are few better qualified than he to take on the form. Since the late 1970s, Couser, American Studies professor at Hofstra University, has become a formidable authority on life-writing—with American Autobiography (1979) and Altered Egos (1989), about our national obsession for self-writing; Recovering Bodies (1997) and Signifying Bodies (2009), on the true stories of the ill and disabled; and Vulnerable Subjects (2003), about the ethical landmines authors face, writing about willing and recalcitrant intimates.

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Review: The Griffin of Literature: Three New Books of Prose Poetry Print E-mail

Knossos fresco in throne palace(TriQuarterly January 31, 2014)

I’ll admit it: I’ve never understood the prose poem, although it seems to be going strong in its third century. It’s the griffin of literature—an amalgam of the two literary arts that neither enhances their respective purposes nor makes the result stronger at the fused place. A definition is not much help; here’s the clearest definition I’ve found in a poetry handbook: “The point seems to be that [any] writing in prose . . . is a poem if the author says so.” It’s at odds with itself, which, I realize, may be the point. But when I reflect on the prose poem’s formlessness, I find it leaves me cold. A few descriptors may explain the chill: the prose poem is blocky, spatially inelegant, print-dependent, unmetered, and unsyllabic.

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Review: Cotton Tenants: Three Families by James Agee Print E-mail

cotton tenants(Los Angeles Review of Books June 2, 2013)

Lives Nurtured in Disadvantage

If the contemporary reader of nonfiction knows anything about the universe of American literature — or just its prose galaxies — she knows that James Agee and Walker Evans’s 1941 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is our greatest nonfictional failure and the finest book-length lyric essay ever written. Five years in the making, Agee’s book was published by Houghton Mifflin (after Harper’s dumped it as unwieldy) to scorn, praise, and sales of 600 copies before it went out of print. (Agee didn’t endure well, either. He died in 1955 of a heart attack in a New York taxicab after three marriages, alcoholism, chain-smoking, a self-acknowledged crappy diet, and brilliant forays into nearly every form of writing he tackled. He was 45.)

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Review: How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields Print E-mail

David Shields(The Rumpus March 3, 2013)

ReCollage

Two nights ago, I, a freelance writer, dreamt about an editor who paid me $500 in advance for a new piece, sight unseen, topic my choice. I was fresh out of ideas, so I asked him for one. Write, he said, about why the subject you examine resists your examining it. That verb, resists, filled my 7 a.m. waking. Right off, I knew this meant a tug-of-war between the recalcitrance in me and the recalcitrance in the subject.

Next day, the stork brought the baby in the form of Stephen Kessler’s film, Paul Williams: Still Alive. A wayward sort like me, Kessler spends the first third of the 87-minute movie searching for Williams (that little big man from the 1970s, sad troubadour, TV actor, mop-top blonde, orange-tint glasses), the second third finding the faded star still adored in a few world outposts and Kessler’s relishing the contact, and the final third feeling disenthralled with the 70-year-old, who’s gone beyond the silliness of “Hollywood Squares” and now mimics himself in one on-the-way-to (but-not-quite-there) Las Vegas venue.

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Review: Elsewhere by Richard Russo Print E-mail

Elsewhere(American Book Review Volume 34, Number 2, January/February 2013)

Beyond Blood

For Richard Russo—who, along with John Irving, is a kingpin of New England novelists: ten books, eight of them fiction, one a Pulitzer prizewinner—“love your mother” is not some affirmation he’s noted on a three-by-five card and keeps in his shirt pocket. He does love her. Unfailingly. Undetachably. A long life, both devoted to and trapped by Mom, has proved it. Russo’s mother—Jean to her friends—raised him after separating from her no-count, gambler husband in the small town of Gloversville, New York, home to a glove factory and her family who worked the trade. Early on, Mom secures the boy’s pledge that they’ll stand together no matter what. No matter that they must share a house with her parents, against the latter’s wishes, and no matter that the ensuing friction, along with her eventual joblessness, poverty, and dependency, defines their drama.

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