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Showing posts from June, 2015

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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Wrenching.

I don't know a better word for Hanya Yanagihara's novel A Little Life, published earlier this year by Doubleday.

Heart-wrenching, yes. But more than that. Not just the heart. The brain, the stomach, all the organs and muscles. It is a full-body-wrenching experience, this book.

It's too early to say whether this is a Great Novel, whether it is a novel for the ages, a novel that will bear numerous re-readings and critical dissections and late-night litchat conversations; whether it will burn long or be a blip on the literary landscape. Who knows. It's not for me to say. What I can say, though, is that working through (sometimes rushing through) its 700 pages was one of the most powerful reading experiences of my life.

There are passages and situations in this book that many readers will not want to live with, will not want in their minds' eyes, and I can sympathize with that. Yanagihara's own editor said, "I initially found A Little Life so challen…

Return of the Sandman Meditations

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Boomtron just published my latest Sandman Meditation, this one on Chapter Two of The Wake.

"Sandman Meditation?" you say. "That sounds ... vaguely familiar..."

In July 2010, I started writing a series of short pieces called Sandman Meditations in which I proceeded through each issue of Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic and offered whatever thoughts happened to come to mind. The idea was Jay Tomio's, and at first the Meditations were published on his Gestalt Mash site, then later Boomtron. The basic concept was that we'd see what happened when somebody without much background in comics, who'd never read Sandman before, spent time reading through it all.

I wrote 71 Meditations between July 2010 and June 2012, getting all the way up through the first installment of the last story in the regular series, The Wake. 75,000 words.

And then stopped. I read Chapter 2 of The Wake and had nothing to say. I tried writing through the lack of words, but the more I tried…

Wedding Days

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When the Supreme Court's decision on marriage equality was announced, a friend who'd just heard a snippet of news texted me: "Is it true?"
"Yes," I replied. "My mothers' marriage must now be recognized in all 50 states."
This is true and wonderful. As others have pointed out, the ruling lets marriage just be marriage, without the modifiers that have dominated the discourse of the last fifteen years or so — it is no longer gay marriage or same-sex marriage or traditional marriage, just marriage. (Although marriage between two people only. Polyamory is still mind-bending to the mainstream.)
Inevitably, and immediately, there were countless thinkpieces written, plus plenty of grandstanding and righteous gnashing by people who disagreed with the Court's majority decision. Also, and just as inevitably, there were the folks who see marriage of any sort as a tool of neoliberalism and oppression. It really takes a special sort of self-righteousne…

What's in a Book

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I recently bought a miscellaneous set of Virginia Woolf books, a collection that seems to have been put together by a scholar or (in Woolfian parlance) a common reader during the 1960s and 1970s. The set included some volumes useful for my research purposes, as well as all four of the old Collected Essays that I have long coveted because though they have been superceded by the six-volume Essays of Virginia Woolf, they are far more elegantly designed and produced (alas, copies in nice condition rarely seem to go up for sale at a price a normal person can afford, even on a splurge). At about $6 per book, it seemed like a deal I'd likely never see again.

One of the joys of giving books a new home is that they sometimes share glimpses of their history. This is for me the primary impetus to own an old book. They become tools for imagination, not only through the words on their pages, but through their physical presence. I have lived with books my whole life, and have come to imagine t…

The Dylanologists by David Kinney

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So when you ask some of your questions, you're asking them to a person who's long dead. You're asking them to a person that doesn't exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time. —Bob Dylan, 2012
If you've ever spent any time around any sort of fan community, most of the people you meet in The Dylanologists will be familiar types. There are the collectors, there are the hermeneuts, there are the true believers and the pilgrims. Some reviewers and readers have derided a lot of the people Kinney writes about as "crazy", but one of the virtues of the book is that it humanizes its subjects and shows that plenty of people who are superfans are not A.J. Weberman. They seem a little passionate, sure, and if you're not especially interested in their passion they may seem a bit weird, but how different are they, really, from denizens of more culturally dominant fandoms — say, devoted sports fans? (Indeed, the term "fan" as we think of it…

Rhodesia and American Paramilitary Culture

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When the suspect in the attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina was identified, the authorities circulated a photograph of him wearing a jacket adorned with the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and post-UDIRhodesia.

The symbolism isn't subtle. Like the confederate flag that flies over the South Carolina capitol, these are flags of explicitly white supremacist governments.

Rhodesia plays a particular role within right-wing American militia culture, linking anti-communism and white supremacy. The downfall of white Rhodesia has its own sort of lost cause mythic power not just for avowed white supremacists, but for the paramilitarist wing of gun culture generally.

Sense8

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It's possible that Sense8, the new Netflix series from the Wachowskis, is the worst thing ever to happen to humanity. I don't know, because from the second episode it put its hooks into me so deeply that my critical, skeptical mind could not keep up. Certain elements of this show appealed to me so deeply that I was overwhelmed and had no ability to keep critical distance. Those elements were all related to a kind of queer ethic and queer vision, an approach to life that I've been a sucker for for decades, but have hardly ever seen expressed in a mainstream pop culture item.

First, I should note that even in my soggy, sappy, besotted love affair with this show, I couldn't miss some of its more obvious weaknesses. The major one for me is its globalized Americanism, well critiqued by Claire Light at The Nerds of Color in a post I pretty much entirely agree with, especially regarding the lost opportunity of a truly global production — imagine if, instead of writing it all…

On Christopher Lee

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Over at Press Play, I have a brief text essay about and a video tribute to Christopher Lee, who died on June 7 at the age of 93. Here's the opening of the essay:
Christopher Lee was the definitive working actor. His career was long, and he appeared in more films than any major performer in the English-speaking world — over 250. What distinguishes him, though, and should make him a role model for anyone seeking a life on stage or screen, is not that he worked so much but that he worked so well. He took that work seriously as both job and art, even in the lightest or most ridiculous roles, and he gave far better, more committed performances than many, if not most, of his films deserved.Read and view more at Press Play.

Q&A on Open Educational Resources with Robin DeRosa

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My friend and colleague (when I was adjuncting at Plymouth State University) Robin DeRosa has been spending a lot of time recently thinking about and working with "open educational resources" (OER), which Wikipedia (today) defines as "freely accessible, openly licensed documents and media that are useful for teaching, learning, and assessing as well as for research purposes." 

I've been following Robin's ideas about OER, and at a certain point realized I didn't really understand the conversation. Partly, this was because most of what I was reading was Twitter feeds and Twitter can be confusing, but as an outsider to the OER world, I also didn't know what sorts of assumptions advocates were working from. I was especially concerned when thinking about academic labor — all the talk of giving things away and making things free sounded to me like a wonderful idea that would in practice just devalue academic work and lead to further exploitation within the…

Commonwealth of Letters: British Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics by Peter J. Kalliney

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It is unfortunate that, so far as I can tell, Oxford University Press has not yet released an affordable edition of Peter J. Kalliney's Commonwealth of Letters, a fascinating book that is filled with ideas and information and yet also written in an engaging, not especially academic, style. It could find a relatively large audience for a book of its type and subject matter, and yet its publisher has limited it to a very specific market. [Update 22 Nov 2015:Commonwealth of Letters is now, and newly, available in paperback! It's still somewhat expensive, but not by academic book prices, which means that those of us who really really need our own copy can perhaps afford it. I picked it up at the Modernist Studies Association conference this weekend (conference discounts are a nice perk), and told so many people about it that I think it sold out. Which might not have been my fault. Or maybe it was...]

I start with this complaint not only because I would like to be able to buy a co…

Living in a Time of Transition: Two Books by Bryher

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Seeking something else, I came across this review I wrote in 2006 of Paris Press's editions of two books by the extraordinary Bryher. It was first published in the Fall 2006 issue of Rain Taxi. I don't think it's ever been put online, so I'm happy to release it into the wild here. (The quotation page numbers were included for copyediting and not in the published version, but I figure they might be useful, so I've kept them in. Also, for more samples from The Heart to Artemis, see this post.)

Living in a Time of Transition: Two Books by Bryher by Matthew Cheney

The Heart to Artemis: A Writer’s Memoirs Bryher Paris Press ($19.95)
The Player’s Boy Bryher Paris Press ($15.00)

"I found my study of history of great practical value," Bryher writes in The Heart to Artemis."It helped me to assess the future and to be aware of change."[118] Awareness of change runs through the veins of Bryher's body of work, and Paris Press deserves much praise for bringing…

The Perils of Citation

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In my review of John Clute's collection Stay, I had some fun at Clute's expense with his passionate hatred of certain types of academic citation, and I pointed out that often the problem is not with the official citation format, which usually has some sort of logic (one specific, perhaps, to its discipline), but rather that the problem is in the failure to follow the guidelines and/or to adjust for clarity — I agreed that some of the citations used in Andrew Milner’s Locating Science Fiction are less than helpful or elegant, but the fault seemed to me to lie at least as much with Milner and Liverpool University Press as with the MLA or APA or University of Chicago Press or anybody else. Just because there are guidelines does not mean that people follow them.

I now have an example from an MLA publication itself, and it's pretty egregious, though I may only feel that way because it involves me.

The citation is in the book Approaches to Teaching Coetzee's Disgrace and Ot…

Fassbinder at 70

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Yesterday was the 70th birthday of my favorite filmmaker, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He wasn't around to see it, having died at age 37, but I celebrated for him by watching Querelle again. (I was tempted to do a Berlin Alexanderplatzmarathon today, but I do actually have to get some work done...)

I've written various things about Fassbinder over the years, so here's a roundup and then some 70th birthday thoughts:

In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Fassbinder's death, I wrote "30 Years After Fassbinder: Where to Begin", which attempts to offer some entry points into his vast, sometimes bewildering oeuvre. (And proposed that I'd be writing a series of posts about Fassbinder. I didn't get around to it at the time, alas...)The most extensive work I've done on Fassbinder was for Press Play: the text essay "Early Fassbinder: A Romantic Anarchist from the First" and accompanying video essay "First Fassbinder".In 2011, I wrote …