the contextual life

thoughts without borders

Posts Tagged ‘history

New in Paperback for April

with 10 comments

When you head out to the bookstore this month, keep your eye out for these new paperback titles and you won’t be disappointed.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
Beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison’s visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about each other? How can we feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? By confronting pain—real and imagined, her own and others’—Jamison uncovers a personal and cultural urgency to feel. She draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory—from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration—in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace.

Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel by Philip Gura
From the acclaimed cultural historian Philip F. Gura comes Truth’s Ragged Edge, a comprehensive and original history of the American novel’s first century. Grounded in Gura’s extensive consideration of the diverse range of important early novels, not just those that remain widely read today, this book recovers many long-neglected but influential writers—such as the escaped slave Harriet Jacobs, the free black Philadelphian Frank J. Webb, and the irrepressible John Neal—to paint a complete and authoritative portrait of the era. Gura also gives us the key to understanding what sets the early novel apart, arguing that it is distinguished by its roots in “the fundamental religiosity of American life.” Our nation’s pioneering novelists, it turns out, wrote less in the service of art than of morality.

Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda
Summer in Red Hook, Brooklyn, an isolated blue-collar neighborhood where hipster gourmet supermarkets push against tired housing projects. Bored and listless, fifteen-year-old June and Val take a pink plastic raft out onto the bay.

But on the water, in the humid night, the girls disappear. Only Val will survive, washed ashore, bruised and unconscious, in the weeds. The shocking event will echo through a group of unforgettable characters, including Fadi, an ambitious Lebanese bodega owner; Cree, a lost teenager who unwittingly makes himself the cops’ chief suspect; Jonathan, Julliard drop-out, barfly, and struggling high school teacher; and Val, the grieving girl who must contend with the shadow of her missing friend and a truth she holds deep inside.

Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel
Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely follows a cult leader, his ex-wife, and the four people he takes hostage. It’s about loneliness in America, North Korea, espionage, a city underneath Cincinnati, cloud seeding, and eavesdropping. It’s also a big, sweeping love story.

Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam Grant
For generations, we have focused on the individual drivers of success: passion, hard work, talent, and luck. But in today’s dramatically reconfigured world, success is increasingly dependent on how we interact with others. InGive and Take, Adam Grant, an award-winning researcher and Wharon’s highest-rated professor, examines the surprising forces that shape why some people rise to the top of the success ladder while others sink to the bottom. Praised by social scientists, business theorists, and corporate leaders, Give and Take opens up an approach to work, interactions, and productivity that is nothing short of revolutionary.

Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side by Rayya Elias
When Rayya Elias was seven, her family fled their native Syria to settle in Detroit. Bullied in school and rebelling against her traditional home-life, Rayya turned her sights to fashion and music. She became a hairdresser and started a band that played the club scene in the early 1980s before she moved to New York at age twenty-three to further her musical career. She lived on the Lower East Side at the height of the punk movement and had passionate affairs with both sexes, but her casual drug use turned to addiction and Rayya was often homeless—between her visits to jail. Yet, her passion for life always saved her.

Written by Gabrielle

April 3, 2014 at 6:49 am

A History of Hip-Hop in Six Easy Listens

with 7 comments

This post originally ran on Longreads, where I now contribute a monthly podcast roundup.

Radio RaheemHip hop began in the 1970s as an underground movement; today it’s everywhere. From house parties in the suburbs to national television advertising campaigns it’s recognizable, celebrated, and imitated. Snoop Dogg made headlines when he changed his name to Snoop Lion and Jay Z and Beyonce were given the same treatment as the British Monarchy when they had their first child.

Since its start on the street of New York, hip hop has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry. The cash flow now includes not only music but art shows featuring graffiti as well as successful clothing lines.

2Pac vs. Biggie

1. Stuff You Should Know: How Hip-Hop Works (52:13)

In this episode of Stuff You Should Know, hosts Chuck and Josh discuss the history of hip-hop, from The Sugar Hill Gang to the present. They add their own personal history, which includes stories of attempted breakdancing and well-intentioned clothing choices. You can read more about it on their site.

2. Los Angeles Review of Books: 2pac and Biggie (1 hr.)

Co-authors Jeff Weiss and Evan McGarvey speak with host Colin Marshall about their book 2pac vs. Biggie: An Illustrated History of Rap’s Greatest Battle. They talk about the artists’ rivalry, their beginnings, how their styles differed, and why you’re missing out if you only listen to one and not the other.

3. NPR Fresh Air: Questlove (45:14)

Questlove

The drummer for The Roots talks about his influences growing up, how he listens to music, and his favorite part of Soul Train. (Bonus: Also check out Terry Gross’s classic 2010 interview with Jay-Z.)

4. Bullseye (formerly Sound of Young America): Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback (44:00)

Dan Charnas, a veteran hip-hop journalist and one of the first writers for The Source, talks with Jesse Thorn about the history of the hip-hop music business and how executives and entrepreneurs turned an underground scene into the world’s predominant pop culture.

5. WBUR On Point: Fame and Fortune of Jay-Z (48:00)

Jay Z

Andrew Rice, contributing editor for New York magazine, spoke about his article on Jay-Z’s business acumen with James Braxton Peterson, director of Africana Studies, professor of English at Lehigh University, and founder of Hip Hop Scholars. Together they delve into the financial side of Jay-Z’s career.

6. KCRW The Treatment: Michael Rapaport, “Beats, Rhymes & Life” (28:29)

If you were around in the ’90s, you might recognize Michael Rapaport from movies like Zebrahead, Poetic Justice, and Higher Learning. In 2011, he came out with a documentary on A Tribe Called Quest. He talks to The Treatment’s Elvis Mitchell about his love of hip-hop, his childhood in New York City, and his experience filming his favorite artists.

Written by Gabrielle

August 27, 2013 at 6:47 am

The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by W.H. Davies

with one comment

Autobiography of a Super-TrampAs a New Yorker, every day I pass homeless people on the street, sometimes a group of them before I leave my neighborhood. One man sits on the corner store steps, babbling to himself, wasting away, dirty, feral; another, a young man, a little too friendly for comfort, asks what time it is and how I’m doing. A lifetime of training keeps me from making eye contact. Then there’s a woman who travels with these men, mumbling as she picks through garbage, wearing a thick wool hat, even in summer. Many times I’ve seen her with bruises on her face–from beatings, from a hard life, who knows. In the East Village, crust punks line the brick wall outside of McDonald’s–alternating between nodding off and begging for change. On the west side of town, a homeless poet hawks his work, boasting having once been published in The New York Times.

I’ve never pay them much mind, other than when they’ve gone too long without a bath, their meds, or a stretch of sobriety. With the poet on the street, I’ve walked by him so many times I can repeat his pitch, but never once have I considered that his writing might actually be good. Luckily, there are people like George Bernard Shaw in the world and every so often the talents of these unlikely characters are discovered.

In 1905, Shaw received an unsolicited manuscript delivered from a place called The Farm House, located in London. It was not unusual for him to receive aspiring writers’ work and, although undoubtedly busy with his own writing, “knowing how much these little books mean to their authors,” he felt bad if any of them went unread. This is how W.H. Davies, a poet and a tramp, was given a chance.

Based on the letters that often came with the manuscripts, Shaw would assess the nature of the sending author or publisher. However, when he held Davies’ book, he “could not place him. There were no author’s compliments, no publisher’s compliments … The author, as far as I could guess, had walked into a printer’s or stationer’s shop; handed him a manuscript; and ordered his book as he might have ordered a pair of boots.” Furthermore, in his letter, Davies asked for the price of half a crown or the return of the book.

After discerning that the author was “a real poet,” finding his work free from “literary vulgarity,” and considering it “like a draught of clear water in a desert,” Shaw sent money, along with professional advice–that one cannot make a living on poetry alone. But he didn’t stop there, he sent additional money along with a list of critics with instructions for Davies to send his collection to them as well. Shaw wondered if they would “recognize a poet when they met one.”

The Farm House was one of many public houses where Davies stayed during his time traveling up and down the East Coast of America, visiting the South and Midwest, and occasionally returning to England. These years, 1893 to 1899, are recorded in his memoir, The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, first published in 1908 and reissued by Melville House in their Neversink Library series.

WH DaviesAlthough born and raised in Wales, it was The United States that Davies set his sights on and, despite receiving a weekly sum from his grandmother’s inheritance, he chose to travel as a hobo: hopping trains, sleeping in the elements, begging for food, and cohorting with unstable characters.

The book starts with a brief survey of Davies’ childhood. His father died when he was young, his mother remarried, and his brother was, as Davies called him in those pre-PC days, an “imbecile.” Davies’ family had a “great interest in pugilism” and encouraged his fighting. However, possibly altering the course of his life, his friend Dave introduced him to the joys of reading.

Through him I became a reader, in the first place with an idea of emulating his cleverness, which led to a love of literature for its own self. Of course I began with the common penny novel of the worst type, but acquired a taste for better work in a shorter time than boys usually do.

It’s this familiarity with physical abuse mixed with a sharp mind that helps Davies’ navigate the inhumane conditions and life-threatening situations he encounters.

Throughout The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, Davies writes his fellow travelers–and experiences–so large, the book often reads like a novel. The first person we meet is Brum, a quirky tramp with a keen business sense, a “notorious beggar.” Together, he and Davies “beat” from New York City to Chicago, the former playing the tutor to the latter as they look for suitable winter lodging and migrant work.

Through these companions, Davies learns to manipulate the Midwestern prison system for a warm place to stay; he witnesses firsthand the dangers of picking fruit in fields shared with snakes; and what comes to those who keep their money visible. His travels through the South bring him face to face with lynchings; meanwhile in Canada he finds “a kind-hearted race of people.”

Davies’ keen observations make The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp a work of cultural commentary, capturing a moment in history as seen from the ground. It’s How the Other Half Lives meets On the Road, one of those books that opens your eyes, changes your perspective, and makes you reconsider the world as you know it.

Links
Find The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp at our local bookstore
Read a chapter
Check out the other titles in Melville House’s Neversink Library 

Written by Gabrielle

February 5, 2013 at 6:48 am

New in Paperback for January

leave a comment »

Welcome to 2013. To kick off the new year, here are a few paperbacks coming out in January that have caught my eye. As always, feel free to add your picks in the comments.

Heroin Chronicles

The Heroin Chronicles edited by Jerry Stahl
The latest entry in the Akashic Drug Chronicles Series, featuring brand-new stories by: Eric Bogosian, Lydia Lunch, Jerry Stahl, Nathan Larson, Ava Stander, Antonia Crane, Gary Phillips, Jervey Tervalon, John Albert, Michael Albo, Sophia Langdon, Tony O’Neill, and L.Z. Hansen.

Me and Mr. Booker

Me and Mr. Booker by Cory Taylor
Looking back, Martha could’ve said no when Mr. Booker first tried to kiss her. That would’ve been the sensible thing to do. But Martha is sixteen, she lives in a small dull town — a cemetery with lights — her father is mad, her home is stifling, and she’s waiting for the rest of her life to begin. Of course Martha would kiss the charming Englishman who brightened her world with style, adventure, whiskey, cigarettes and sex. But Martha didn’t count on the consequences. Me and Mr. Booker is a story about feeling old when you’re young and acting young when you’re not.

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
Throne of the Crescent MoonThe Crescent Moon Kingdoms, home to djenn and ghuls, holy warriors and heretics, are at the boiling point of a power struggle between the iron- fisted Khalif and the mysterious master thief known as the Falcon Prince. In the midst of this brewing rebellion a series of brutal supernatural murders strikes at the heart of the Kingdoms. It is up to a handful of heroes to learn the truth behind these killings.

Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, “the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat,” just wants a quiet cup of tea. Three score and more years old, he has grown weary of hunting monsters and saving lives, and is more than ready to retire from his dangerous and demanding vocation. But when an old flame’s family is murdered, Adoulla is drawn back to the hunter’s path.

Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia

Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia by Jose Manuel Prieto
Thelonius Monk (not his real name) travels to Russia and meets Linda Evangelista (not her real name) in Saint Petersburg. They journey to Yalta, where he promises that he will make her red hair famous in the fashion magazines. In fact, he’s drafting a novel about her—his notes for the novel comprise this Encyclopedia. Thelonious and Linda think of themselves as avatars of consumer culture, navigating the border between art and commerce during the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. Unwittingly they parody Russian fascination with America and its fixation on beauty and celebrity. Their conversations combine advertisement copy and art criticism, their personalities are both bohemian and commercial, and their aspirations revolve around frivolity and enchantment.

Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia is a novel that defies chronology and conformity, and finds the sublime in the trivial, ranging from meditations on Bach and Dostoyevsky to Italian alligator shoes and toothpaste.

My Autobiography

My Autobiography by Charlie Chaplin
Chaplin’s heartfelt and hilarious autobiography tells the story of his childhood, the challenge of identifying and perfecting his talent, his subsequent film career and worldwide celebrity.

In this, one of the very first celebrity memoirs, Chaplin displays all the charms, peculiarities and deeply-held beliefs that made him such an endearing and lasting character.

Re-issued as part of Melville House’s Neversink Library, My Autobiography offers dedicated Chaplin fans and casual admirers alike an astonishing glimpse into the the heart and the mind of Hollywood’s original genius maverick.

Castle Waiting

Castle Waiting, a graphic fable by Linda Medley
Castle Waiting is the story of an isolated, abandoned castle, and the eccentric inhabitants who bring it back to life. A fable for modern times, it is a fairy tale that’s not about rescuing the princess, saving the kingdom, or fighting the ultimate war between Good and Evil — but about being a hero in your own home. The opening chapter tells the origin of the castle itself, which is abandoned by its princess in a comic twist on “Sleeping Beauty” when she rides off into the sunset with her Prince Charming. The castle becomes a refuge for misfits, outcasts, and others seeking sanctuary, playing host to a lively and colorful cast of characters that inhabits the subsequent stories, including a talking anthropomorphic horse, a mysteriously pregnant Lady on the run, and a bearded nun.

Testing the Current

Testing the Current by William Mcpherson
Growing up in a small upper Midwestern town in the late 1930s, young Tommy MacAllister is scarcely aware of the Depression, much less the rumblings of war in Europe. For his parents and their set, life seems to revolve around dinners and dancing at the country club, tennis dates and rounds of golf, holiday parties, summers on the Island, and sparkling occasions full of people and drinks and food and laughter. But curious as he is and impatient to grow up, Tommy will soon come to glimpse the darkness that lies beneath so much genteel complacency: hidden histories and embarrassing poor relations; the subtle (and not so subtle) slighting of the “help”; the mockery of President Roosevelt; and “the commandment they talked least about in Sunday school,” adultery.

Written by Gabrielle

January 2, 2013 at 6:53 am

What to Read: Lapham’s Quarterly

with 2 comments

Lapham’s Quarterly is a journal of big ideas. It takes its lead from Cicero’s observation that “to know our history is to know ourselves” and, with writings from the past, proves “that valuable observations of the human character and predicament don’t become obsolete”.

Each issue explores a single theme using archival material, newly commissioned essays, and “history’s underutilized scrapbooks: letters, diaries, speeches, navigational charts, menus, photographs, bills of lading, writs of execution.” When put together, Lapham’s is as elegant as it is meaty.

Lewis Lapham, former Editor of Harper’s Magazine and author of numerous left-leaning political books, launched the journal in 2008, bringing his political sensibilities with him. Although political criticism is included in each issue, one of the quarterly’s greatest strengths is its ability to explore society without becoming dogmatic.

The most recent issue, Spring 2012’s “Means of Communication,” while it features pieces dating back to nearly 3000 B.C. up until the modern day, there is a striking overlapping of preoccupations in many of the poems and essays.

Looking at historical correspondence we see that the 21st century doesn’t have a monopoly on hand-wringing over the disintegration of language. In a letter from Benjamin Franklin to Noah Webster the former praises the latter’s 1789 Dissertations on the English Language: “It is an excellent work and will be greatly useful in turning the thoughts of our countrymen to correct writing … I cannot but applaud your zeal for preserving the purity of our language, both in its expressions and pronunciation, and in correcting the popular errors several of our states are continually falling into with respect to both.”

A poem composed in 2800 BC predicts a singular language, an idea that feels echoed in H.G. Wells’s premonition of a singular encyclopedia. In his 1936 essay about a “Permanent World Encyclopedia,” a phrase that calls Wikipedia to mind, Wells says,“the idea of an encyclopedia may undergo very considerable extension and elaboration in the near future. … our contemporary encyclopedias are still in the coach-and-horse phase of development”.

One can then find the thread to language columnist, linguist, and lexicographer Ben Zimmer’s essay ‘Word for Word,’ where he explains Roget’s intentions when first creating the thesaurus: to “create order out of linguistic chaos”. After naming a few thesaurus naysayers, he continues, “Roget intended for his readers to immerse themselves in the orderly classification system of the thesaurus so that they might better understand the full possibilities for human expression. As Roget first conceived it, the book did not even have an alphabetical index—he included it later as an afterthought. His goal, then, was not to provide a simple method of replacing synonym A with synonym B but instead to encourage a fuller understanding of the world of ideas and the language representing it.” If you continue on, Zimmer ultimately asks the question, “what does it [Roget’s Thesaurus] have to offer the modern reader?”

The pieces range in length anywhere from a quote …

“The only authors whom I acknowledge as American are the journalists. They indeed are not great writers, but they speak the language of their countrymen, and make themselves heard by them.” — Alexis de Tocqueville

“When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep.” –Ursula K. LeGuin

… to a sidebar-sized excerpt; to a three page essay, perfect for weekend mornings in the coffee shop.

If you only thumb through Lapham’s Quarterly you get the sense that everyone working there sifts through an incredible amount of information each day. Even the short contributor bios contain obscure facts; before reading Plutarch’s “Tone of Voice,” I never knew his “paired biographies of eminent Greeks and Romans . . . [became] a source for several of William Shakespeare’s plays.”

Near the back of the book there’s a section called “Miscellany”. It has the feel of an outtake reel, a place born out of finding a mind-blowing fact and not having a place to put it. I know my life is better knowing this: “Before the entire palette of modern mathematical notation existed, Johannes Kepler relied on musical notation to describe the planets’ rotation around the sun in his Harmonies of the World, published in 1619.” To leave it out would have been criminal.

With contributions from Jorge Luis Borges, Toni Morrison, Oliver Sacks, John Cheever, and computer scientist Jaron Lanier, I’m afraid that if I gush as much as I’d like this post will be longer than the issue itself. Lapham’s Quarterly, whether tackling celebrity, food, or fantasy, delivers a quality experience every time.

::[Links]::
Listen to this issue’s podcast, an interview with Simon Winchester, whose essay “Native Tongues” was in “Means of Communication,” and Dictionary of American Regional English chief editor Joan Hall. Then, I highly suggest you subscribe to Lapham’s Quarterly.

The Jungle Books and Tarzan of the Apes: Imperialism Explored

with 3 comments

There’s a certain amount of bracing one does before reading books about boys in the jungles of India and Africa written in the early 1900s by white authors. It was the height of the British Empire and feelings of racial and cultural superiority ran rampant; many viewed the native inhabitants of far-flung colonies as barbarous and backward.

As I began The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling, published in 1894, I expected outdated and offensive language and uncomfortable representations of the local people. Other than a cursory glance at Just So Stories I’d never read him before and my preconceived notions stem from my tendency to conflate him with Joseph Conrad, an author of dubious reputation. Reading The Jungle Books was less about coming to a supposedly enjoyable classic than embarking on a sociological experiment.

The Jungle Books, as I found out, is not a novel but rather a collection of short stories, the bulk of which make up the the well-known tale of Mowgli, the Indian boy orphaned in the jungle and raised among the animals. The other stories, dispersed between, are unrelated sketches of other animal stories set in various locations.

After reading The Jungle Books all the way through, I found the ancillary stories a distraction, and of mixed quality. Some were cute while others are entirely skippable. However, going back to my reason for reading the book in the first place, I was surprised to find that, with the exception of one mention of “Mohammedans,” a derogatory term for Muslims not often used today, there was very little, if anything, that bothered me. It could be that I missed something but I believe I gave it a good, close read.

Instead, it was Tarzan of the Apes, first published in 1912, another story about a boy raised by animals in the jungle, that made me cringe. Unlike The Jungle Books, which can be found in the fiction and literature section, Tarzan of the Apes, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, is found in science fiction. Because of this connection with genre I expected Tarzan to be the more enlightened of the two. With few exceptions, sci-fi tends to be progressive, often questioning society’s norms and pushing the boundaries of cultural understanding through use of metaphor. For me, science fiction has always seemed forward-thinking.

Like Mowgli in The Jungle Books, Tarzan is orphaned at an early age. His father, John Clayton, an English nobleman is commissioned to investigate conditions in a British West Coast African colony. He brings with him his pregnant wife, Lady Alice, but soon there is trouble on the ship. Officers are murdered and the couple is left ashore with their belongings — marooned in Africa. John builds a small fortified cabin and Lady Alice gives birth to a boy. A year later she becomes ill and passes away in the night; shortly after, John meets his death at the hands of a king ape. The baby, thereafter known as Tarzan, is adopted by the king ape’s mate and treated as her child. He grows up with no memory of his birth parents.

The story continues, following Tarzan through his adventures in the jungle — biologically a man but part ape, strong and agile, by nurture.

The problematic part of the story comes when Tarzan spies other humans and stumbles into a nearby tribal village a number of miles away. They are native Africans and portrayed as the typical savages you see in old movies and cartoons: naked children and adults in dried grass skirts with brass and copper jewelry and large nose rings. They are superstitious and practice torture and cannibalism. The scenes were difficult to digest and I found it hard not to wince.

As if that weren’t enough, the only other representation of black people is Esmeralda, the nursemaid of Jane Porter, an American woman who arrives when Tarzan is a man. She is part of an exploratory group who also find themselves stranded on the island. Esmeralda is the only character in the group who speaks in dialect — a near-incomprehensible Southern pigeon-English — while everyone else speaks proper English. Gore Vidal, in his introduction to the Signet Classic edition says this:

Aside from the natives who are underdeveloped flat characters, Esmeralda, an African-American, is the only other black character that appears in the novel. Weighing in at 280 pounds, she is nonetheless a trembling ‘frightened child’ (page 131) rolling her eyes from side to side before fainting in the face of the ‘terrifical’ (page 177) circumstances and ‘carnivable’ (page 242) animals roaming the ‘jumble’ (page 243). Her character is a convention, her malapropisms a joke. She functions as nothing more than a stereotype of black superstitious fear for purposes of comic relief. . . . Blacks are treated mostly badly in this novel as they were during the period in which it was written.

Unfortunately, for the liberal-minded, the story as a whole is interesting and highly readable, more so than Kipling’s comparable novel. While The Jungle Books suffers from its disjointed nature, the main story of Mowgli continually disrupted, Tarzan of the Apes is a novel in the proper sense — coherent and linear.

But this begs the question, a question many avid, careful, and contextual readers often ask themselves: “how much can one with twenty-first-century sensibilities bare to overlook?” For guidance we can, once again, look to Gore Vidal:

Reading ourselves into Tarzan’s adventure is not, however, without problems. From a twenty-first-century perspective, the book doesn’t always feel like an escape, because it can so easily be arraigned as an unfortunate manifestation of the period’s assumptions about race, class, and gender. If one were in a prosecutorial mood, it might be tempting to cast off Tarzan of the Apes and simply catalogue it as politically incorrect for its social and cultural values, but to reject the book on such grounds would provide, in effect, a rationale for editing out many of the writers contemporary to Burroughs, including Hemingway and Fitzgerald. . . . A more productive approach is to recognize that such attitudes were pervasive in the culture contemporary to Burroughs, a strategy that doesn’t excuse or mitigate them but that attempts to create a better understanding of the novel.

The amount of forgiveness given to books and authors varies based on the offender and the offended. As someone who loves philosophy but with a strong aversion when it comes to anti-Semitism, I still haven’t read Heidegger. So, while Tarzan of the Apes, racism aside, is a great book, consider yourself warned. The Jungle Books, on the other hand, skip the stories in between and you’ve got yourself a great story.

::[Links]::
Buy The Jungle Books at IndieBound or find it at your local indie
Buy Tarzan of the Apes at IndieBound or find it at your local indie

Written by Gabrielle

March 27, 2012 at 7:08 am

The Silence of Our Friends, a Graphic Novel Takes On Civil Rights

with one comment

You know how it seems like once you’ve heard about something — a new word, a film, an author — it starts to pop up everywhere? When I picked up The Silence of Our Friends, the graphic novel written by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos and illustrated by Nate Powell, I had the same feeling. I’d just seen ‘Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975,’ the documentary about the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and found that without the background the film provided, I wouldn’t have appreciated the book nearly as much. I should note that prior information about these historical events is not at all necessary but knowing about them will make the story more familiar.

Set in 1960s Houston and based on Mark’s childhood, The Silence  of Our Friends is a snapshot of Long’s life in the notoriously racist town. The story focuses on his father, Jim, the local television station’s “race reporter” who may have also been the town’s only white person with sympathy for the black community’s struggle for equality. One of the first scenes, the one that makes more sense having seen the documentary, takes place on the campus of Texas Southern University, one of the nation’s largest Historically Black Universities. The dean of the school has just denied approval for the Friends of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to form a committee on campus. About this time, Stokely Carmichael, the leader of the organization, having lost patience with lack of progress, was moving the group away from its nonviolent roots in favor of the Black Power ideology.

Alex’s father, camera in hand, the only white person on campus, was there to film the reaction of the students. With tension and distrust in the air, especially for the media (“He’s just another liar with a camera”), the students attempt to chase him off campus. However, to Jim’s good fortune, Larry, one of the respected organizers at the school, having met Jim through a mutual friend, stopped the crowd and escorted him to his car (“He got a God damn white car too!,” noted one of the students).

The story doesn’t lock itself into a retelling of the historical facts of the day, instead it pivots around the personal experiences of both men living in the same town, trying to raise children and provide for their family, under very different circumstances. Larry is refused service in restaurants and his daughter is thrown from her bicycle by a bunch of white thugs in a pickup truck; Jim is threatened at the station by his superior in an attempt to get him to skew the reports in favor of the status quo. In one scene he’s forced to throw an old army buddy out of his house after the down-on-his-luck friend unleashes a stream of racial epitaphs in front of the kids.

The racial conflict comes to a head in The Silence of Our Friends with a student-organized protest that turns chaotic when the police start to shoot. Jim is on the scene and witnesses a cop’s bullet ricochet off a wall. One officer is killed and another wounded. In an attempt to frame the the black students, five men are arrested and put on trial for manslaughter, a charge that carries the death penalty. Their fate hinges on Jim’s testimony but for some reason, he wavers on the stand, much to the frustration of the reader who’s rooting for his heroism.

There are moments of humor to break up the dark reality of this story. When the two families get together in Jim’s home — a radical and potentially dangerous move at the time — their children, all of whom are around the same age, express a mutual interest in the texture of each others hair. Before rolling your eyes, this scene, which could have been trite at best and offensive at worst, is actually quite sweet — probably because, as the book is a partial autobiography, it rings true to Long’s own experience and therefore feels sincere. Meanwhile, as the parents sit around in the living room thinking of what to say next, Jim’s wife puts on Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” and Larry asks, “is this for us?”

Nate Powell’s artwork truly makes this graphic novel come to life. Nate, whose 2008 graphic novel Swallow Me Whole won both the Eisner and Ignatz awards, uses his intricate drawings to bring the story places where words aren’t enough. In a near wordless scene, Larry and his son head out on a fishing trip. First they stop for food at a kitchen counter where Larry is told by the white owner to go elsewhere. Unknowingly, the son, having waited in the car, asks for his lunch. The powerful exchange between the two — Larry, filled with shame, loses his temper and hauls off and smacks the kid — is heartbreaking. The intensity of the moment is pulled off by the close cropping of the father’s face as he realizes what he’s done: the loosening of the facial muscles and pensive furrowing of the brow. Ultimately, the two come together, reconciled by soda and an embrace. The mutual pain and confusion is made palpable often as it is in real life, without the need for speech.

Sometimes it takes looking back on the horrors of yesterday to make one want to be a better person today. The Silence of Our Friends is a needed reminder of where this country once was and where it still needs to go.

::[Links]::
Buy The Silence of Our Friends at IndieBound or find it at a store near you
Nate Powell’s website

Written by Gabrielle

January 31, 2012 at 7:14 am

What to Read: A Brief History of Clocks

with 2 comments

Normally, the most popular links I share on Twitter are the ones that direct people to “Top 10” lists. Going along with the nature of the rapidly moving news feed, these posts lend themselves to quick skims that are easily mined for fun facts. Knowing this trend, I was surprised to see that the other day one of the most clicked on articles I’d posted was about the history of clocks, a 4,300 word essay describing the way we’ve come to measure time.

That morning the headline, “A Brief History of Clocks,” had caught my eye because, apparently along with many others, I have a deep fascination with time. I often look for articles on how to make better use of my time. Lifehacker is a site I go to daily to look for the latest organizational software along with time-saving tips. I check out Behance’s 99% for productivity tips. One of my favorite articles, which I believe I found on DesignTAXI, was how best to use those few minutes in between tasks to get (even) more things done.

While I wait for friends to show up to restaurants, or for a coworker in the lobby of our office building for a coffee run, I’m usually early, I check my cell phone continually to see what time it is. Inevitably, as I hardly know anyone who uses a wristwatch, I think about how we all live on the same time now — no more need to “synchronize Swatches” as Parker Lewis and his friends once did in 1990: our cell phones, thanks to towers, are now uniform — or at least that’s my understanding of it.

If those who follow me on Twitter are anything like me, I shouldn’t be surprised by the interest in the article. However, I do wonder how many of those who clicked over actually read it. If I’m to be honest, I finally had the chance four days after finding it. “A Brief History of Clocks: Our Conception of time depends on the way we measure it,” is what one now calls a “longread”. As mentioned, it clocks in at a little over 4,000 words and these days you might as well ask someone to read Moby-Dick. However, I’m here to argue that it well worth the time. It may not help you squeeze in those few extra chores or errands but you will walk away with a few hard-earned fun facts to impress your friends.

Here are a few highlights but I suggest you read it in full.

  • Humankind’s efforts to tell time have helped drive the evolution of our technology and science throughout history.
  • [B]y the 13th century, demand for a dependable timekeeping instrument led medieval artisans to invent the mechanical clock. Although this new device satisfied the requirements of monastic and urban communities, it was too inaccurate and unreliable for scientific application until the pendulum was employed to govern its operation.
  • According to archaeological evidence, the Babylonians, Egyptians and other early civilizations began to measure time at least 5,000 years ago . . . They based their calendars on three natural cycles: the solar day, marked by the successive periods of light and darkness as the earth rotates on its axis; the lunar month, following the phases of the moon as it orbits the earth; and the solar year, defined by the changing seasons that accompany our planet’s revolution around the sun.
  • [T]he growth of urban mercantile populations in Europe during the second half of the 13th century created demand for improved timekeeping devices.
  • Because the initial examples indicated the time by striking a bell (thereby alerting the surrounding community to its daily duties), the name for this new machine was adopted from the Latin word for “bell,” clocca.
  • With uniform hours, however, arose the question of when to begin counting them, and so, in the early 14th century, a number of systems evolved. The schemes that divided the day into 24 equal parts varied according to the start of the count: Italian hours began at sunset, Babylonian hours at sunrise, astronomical hours at midday and “great clock” hours (used for some large public clocks in Germany) at midnight. Eventually these and competing systems were superseded by “small clock,” or French, hours, which split the day, as we currently do, into two 12-hour periods commencing at midnight.
  • The sectioning of the day into 24 hours and of hours and minutes into 60 parts became so well established in Western culture that all efforts to change this arrangement failed. The most notable attempt took place in revolutionary France in the 1790s, when the government adopted the decimal system.
  • [B]y the 15th century a growing number of clocks were being made for domestic use.
  • Astronomers in particular needed a better tool for timing the transit of stars and thereby creating more accurate maps of the heavens.
  • The advent of the pendulum not only heightened demand for clocks but also resulted in their development as furniture.
  • Before the expansion of railroads in the 19th century, towns in the U.S. and Europe used the sun to determine local time. For example, because noon occurs in Boston about three minutes before it does in Worcester, Mass., Boston’s clocks were set about three minutes ahead of those in Worcester. The expanding railroad network, however, needed a uniform time standard for all the stations along the line.
  • The U.S. established four time zones in 1883. . . . At the 1884 International Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C., the globe was divided into 24 time zones. Delegates chose the Royal Observatory as the prime meridian (zero degrees lon­gitude, the line from which all other longitudes are measured) in part because two thirds of the world’s shipping already used Greenwich time for navigation.
  • The American Waltham Watch Company, as it eventually became known, benefited greatly from a huge demand for watches during the Civil War, when Union Army forces used them to synchronize operations.
  • With the help of a substantial marketing campaign, the masculine fashion for wrist­watches caught on after the war. Self-wind­ing mechanical wristwatches made their appearance during the 1920s.
  • The precise measurement of time is of such fundamental importance to science and technology that the search for ever greater accuracy continues.

::[Futher Reading]::
Here are some books about time. They range from the scientific, to the philosophic, to the fantastic. Enjoy.

The History of Time: A Very Short Introduction by Leofranc Holford-Strevens
Why do we measure time in the way that we do? Why is a week seven days long? At what point did minutes and seconds come into being? Why are some calendars lunar and some solar?

The organization of time into hours, days, months, and years seems immutable and universal, but is actually far more artificial than most people realize. For example, the French Revolution resulted in a restructuring of the French calendar, and the Soviet Union experimented with five and then six-day weeks.

Leofranc Holford-Strevens brings us this fascinating study of time using a range of examples from Ancient Rome and Julius Caesar’s imposition of the Leap Year to the 1920’s project for a fixed Easter. Those interested in time, history, and the development of the calendar will enjoy this absorbing exploration of an aspect of our lives that we all take for granted. [via IndieBound]

Introducing Time: A Graphic Guide by Craig Callender; Ralph Edney (Illustrator)
Granted, philosophy professor Craig Callender’s Time: A Graphic Guide isn’t exactly a graphic novel, but it does borrow from the genre’s signature visual storytelling to explore the history of time with a fascinating philosopher’s lens, from Augustine’s contention that there is no time to Newton’s fluid time to the static time of Einstein to the contemporary theory that there is no time in quantum gravity, coming full circle. Callender covers a wide range of facets — clocks, psychological time, entropy, spacetime curvature, the Big Bang, Gödel, endocrinology, and just about everything in between — to deliver a sum total of illumination that will leave you with newfound awe for the intersection of philosophy and science. [via Brain Pickings]

In Search of Time: The Science of a Curious Dimension by Dan Falk
In his latest book, award-winning science writer Dan Falk chronicles the story of how humans have come to understand time over the millennia, and by drawing from the latest research in physics, psychology, and other fields, Falk shows how that understanding continues to evolve. In Search of Time begins with our earliest ancestors’ perception of time and the discoveries that led—with much effort—to the Gregorian calendar, atomic clocks, and “leap seconds.” Falk examines the workings of memory, the brain’s remarkable “bridge across time,” and asks whether humans are unique in their ability to recall the past and imagine the future. He explores the possibility of time travel, and the paradoxes it seems to entail. Falk looks at the quest to comprehend the beginning of time and how time—and the universe—may end. Finally, he examines the puzzle of time’s “flow,” and the remarkable possibility that the passage of time may be an illusion. [via IndieBound]

A Geography of Time: On Tempo, Culture, and the Pace of Life by Robert V. Levine
In this engaging and spirited book, eminent social psychologist Robert Levine asks us to explore a dimension of our experience that we take for granted—our perception of time. When we travel to a different country, or even a different city in the United States, we assume that a certain amount of cultural adjustment will be required, whether it’s getting used to new food or negotiating a foreign language, adapting to a different standard of living or another currency. In fact, what contributes most to our sense of disorientation is having to adapt to another culture’s sense of time. We travel back in time to ancient Greece to examine early clocks and sundials, then move forward through the centuries to the beginnings of ”clock time” during the Industrial Revolution. Levine raises some fascinating questions. How do we use our time? Are we being ruled by the clock? What is this doing to our cities? To our relationships? To our own bodies and psyches? [via IndieBound]

The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination by Chrisoula Andreou
When we fail to achieve our goals, procrastination is often the culprit. But how exactly is procrastination to be understood? It has been described as imprudent, irrational, inconsistent, and even immoral, but there has been no sustained philosophical debate concerning the topic.
This edited volume starts in on the task of integrating the problem of procrastination into philosophical inquiry. The focus is on exploring procrastination in relation to agency, rationality, and ethics-topics that philosophy is well-suited to address. Theoretically and empirically informed analyses are developed and applied with the aim of shedding light on a vexing practical problem that generates a great deal of frustration, regret, and harm. [via IndieBound] You can listen to Chrisoula on PRI’s To the Best of Our Knowledge

Time by Eva Hoffman
Novelist, cultural commentator, memoirist, and historian Eva Hoffman examines our ever-changing perception of time.

Time has always been the great given, the element that establishes the governing facts of human fate that cannot be circumvented, deconstructed, or wished away. But these days we are tampering with time in ways that affect how we live, the textures of our experience, and our very sense of what it is to be human. What is the nature of time in our time? Why is it that even as we live longer than ever before, we feel that we have ever less of this basic good? What effects do the hyperfast technologies–computers, video games, instant communications–have on our inner lives and even our bodies? And as we examine biology and mind on evermore microscopic levels, what are we learning about the process and parameters of human time? Hoffman regards our relationship to time–from jet lag to aging, sleep to cryogenic freezing–in this broad, eye-opening meditation on life’s essential medium and its contemporary challenges. [via IndieBound] Listen to Eva Hoffman discuss her book at the Los Angeles Public Library

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
A dazzling novel in the most untraditional fashion, this is the remarkable story of Henry DeTamble, a dashing, adventuresome librarian who travels involuntarily through time, and Clare Abshire, an artist whose life takes a natural sequential course. Henry and Clare’s passionate love affair endures across a sea of time and captures the two lovers in an impossibly romantic trap, and it is Audrey Niffenegger’s cinematic storytelling that makes the novel’s unconventional chronology so vibrantly triumphant. [via IndieBound] Slate has a physicist take a look at the novel

Kindred by Octavia Butler
Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin. [via IndieBound]

Written by Gabrielle

January 26, 2012 at 6:10 am

Posted in books, on the shelf

Tagged with , , , , , ,

What to Watch: The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975

with 2 comments

In the early 2000s, Swedish film director Göran Hugo Olsson was working on the documentary “Am I Black Enough for You” about 70s soul musician Billy Paul. While researching he found an archive of 16 mm tapes in the building of Swedish Television, the country’s broadcasting company. The footage had been shot by a group of Swedish television journalists sympathetic to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the US. In 1967 they’d traveled to America to document the lives of both ordinary black Americans as well as those politically involved in the struggle for equal rights.

This footage, nearly 85 hours of it, sat in a basement for 30 years. In the 70s, Olsson was a student in Sweden. It was a time when his generation developed an interest in the Vietnam War and America’s role in it. This was the time of author Stieg Larsson’s political activism, when he was a photo journalist working with revolutionary groups in the Horn of Africa. There was something in the air and the group of filmmakers had caught it. Years later, Olsson was, once again, inspired by it, which led him to create The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975.

Deciding “to riff on the popular ‘70s ‘mixtape’ format,” Olsson was careful not to cut the footage into pieces. Instead he kept the interviews at length and assembled them in chronological order.

The first public figure we see is Stokely Carmichael, someone I’d never heard of before this film. Carmichael could be considered a bridge between Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Panthers. He started out as a leader of a nonviolent student organization, taking part in the 1961 Freedom Rides, a group that originally relied on civil disobedience. Soon, he’d lost patience with MLK’s message and found a new role model in Frantz Fanon. After reading Fanon’s seminal text, Wretched of the Earth, Carmichael took the organization in a radical direction, adopting instead, Black Power ideology.

Co-producer Danny Glover, whose production company helped secure funding for the film, when he saw the footage, was taken with how clearly it showed the link between the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Highlighting this connections, and following the flow of history, the film moves naturally from Stokely’s words to those of the Black Panthers’.

There are echoes of Stokely in the footage that follows. Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panthers’ Minister of Information, gives a speech about the presidential nominees in San Francisco in 1968, Bobby Seale, the Chairman, explains the all-encompassing nature of the organization, and Huey P. Newton, the Minister of Defense, in 1971, released on bail after his arrest on allegations of manslaughter, discusses the “abusive” and “oppressive” treatment he experienced while in jail.

For anyone familiar with Europe’s views of the American criminal justice system, it will come as no surprise that the Attica prison riot, fueled in part by the prisoners’ desire for better living conditions, and the murder trial involving Angela Davis, whose ancillary role as owner of guns used in a hostage situation, put her in the precarious position of defending her life.

Adding a contemporary component to the film is commentary from black thinkers today. Those featured in voice-overs are musicians Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, and Questlove of The Roots. Throughout the film they, along with poets Sonia Sanchez and Abiodun Oyewole and academic Robin Kelley discuss their memories of and experiences with the figures and moments in the archival footage.

The Black Power Mixtape takes an often-unquestioning and sympathetic view of its subject. However, this fact is stated in the opening of the film with text on the screen: “It [The Black Power Mixtape] does not presume to tell the whole story of the Black Power Movement, but to show how it was perceived by some Swedish filmmakers.” While it shouldn’t be taken as a sole account of this time period, the film is both a fascinating and educational contribution to the documentation of American history. For anyone looking for a place to start — but not a place to end — The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975 is a fantastic primer.

::[Links]::
Official Website
Watch Instant on Netflix (available for streaming at the time of this posting)
Stokely Carmichael’s essay “What We Want” (PDF)
Okay Player Interview with Film Director Goran Olsson

::[Dig Deeper]::
Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements by Malcolm X
“These are the major speeches made by Malcolm X during the last tumultuous eight months of his life. In this short period of time, his vision for abolishing racial inequality in the United States underwent a vast transformation. Breaking from the Black Muslims, he moved away from the black militarism prevalent in his earlier years only to be shot down by an assassin’s bullet.” [via IndieBound]

Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
“By turns shocking and lyrical, unblinking and raw, the searingly honest memoirs of Eldridge Cleaver are a testament to his unique place in American history. Cleaver writes in Soul on Ice, “I’m perfectly aware that I’m in prison, that I’m a Negro, that I’ve been a rapist, and that I have a Higher Uneducation.” What Cleaver shows us, on the pages of this now classic autobiography, is how much he was a man.” [via IndieBound]

Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton
“Eloquently tracing the birth of a revolutionary, Huey P. Newton’s famous and oft-quoted autobiography is as much a manifesto as a portrait of the inner circle of America’s Black Panther Party. From Newton’s impoverished childhood on the streets of Oakland to his adolescence and struggles with the system, from his role in the Black Panthers to his solitary confinement in the Alameda County Jail, Revolutionary Suicide is smart, unrepentant, and thought-provoking in its portrayal of inspired radicalism.” [via IndieBound]

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis
“With her characteristic brilliance, grace and radical audacity, Angela Y. Davis has put the case for the latest abolition movement in American life: the abolition of the prison. As she quite correctly notes, American life is replete with abolition movements, and when they were engaged in these struggles, their chances of success seemed almost unthinkable. For generations of Americans, the abolition of slavery was sheerest illusion. Similarly,the entrenched system of racial segregation seemed to last forever, and generations lived in the midst of the practice, with few predicting its passage from custom. The brutal, exploitative (dare one say lucrative?) convict-lease system that succeeded formal slavery reaped millions to southern jurisdictions (and untold miseries for tens of thousands of men, and women). Few predicted its passing from the American penal landscape. Davis expertly argues how social movements transformed these social, political and cultural institutions, and made such practices untenable.” [via IndieBound”

The Black Panthers Speak edited by Philip S. Foner
“For over three decades, The Black Panthers Speak has represented the most important single source of original material on the Black Panther Party. With cartoons, flyers, and articles by Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver, this collection endures as an essential part of civil-rights history.” [via IndieBound]

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
“The Wretched of the Earth (published 1961) is Frantz Fanon’s most famous work, written during and regarding the Algerian struggle for independence from colonial rule. As a psychiatrist, Fanon explored the psychological effect of colonization on the psyche of a nation as well as its broader implications for building a movement for decolonization.” [via Wikipedia] Jean Paul-Sartre’s preface.

Quality by Talib Kweli (2002)
“Talib’s elation here strikes as sophisticated, distinguishing itself from the materialistic acquisitions, drug binges and sexual conquests that pass for contentment on many hip-hop albums, with a spiritual center attained through an on-record intellectual honesty and emotional transparency that’s still rare in a culture that feeds off inflated stereotypes of machismo posturing and stands on the political platform of fatalism and resignation. In fact, Kweli’s unabashed positivity and emotional vulnerability feel almost transgressive to these ears. Even when he confronts the ills of society, as he does on the wrenching “Where Do We Go” and “Stand to the Side”, there’s a certain optimism and belief that by illuminating the darkness through hip-hop, we can hope to transcend the pain.” [via Pitchfork]

Written by Gabrielle

January 10, 2012 at 5:54 am

portrait of an artist as a tormented man

with one comment

Theo decided to give a party for Vincent’s friends. They made four dozen hard-boiled eggs, brought in a keg of beer, and filled innumerable trays with brioches and pastries. The tobacco smoke was so thick in the living room that when Gauguin moved his huge bulk from one end to the other, he looked like an ocean liner coming through the fog. Lautrec perched himself in one corner, cracked eggs on the arm of Theo’s favourite armchair, and scattered the shells over the rug. [Henri] Rousseau was all excited about a perfumed note he had received that day from a lady admirer who wanted to meet him. He told the story with wide eyed amazement over and over again. Seurat was working out a new theory, and had Cezanne pinned against the window, explaining to him. Vincent poured beer from the keg, laughed at Gauguin’s obscene stories, wondered with Rousseau who his lady friend could be, argued with Lautrec whether lines or points of color were most effective in capturing an impression, and finally rescued Cezanne from the clutches of Seurat.

The room fairly burst with excitement. The men in it were all powerful personalities, fierce egoists, and vibrant iconoclasts. Theo called them monomaniacs. They loved to argue, fight, curse, defnd their own theories and damn everything else. Their voices were strong and rough; the number of things they loathed in the world was legion. A hall twenty times the size of Theo’s sitting room would have been too small to contain the dynamic force of the fighting, strident painters.

Lust for Life, the classic biographical novel of Vincent Van Gogh / Irving Stone /1934

painting: Coalmine in the Borinage / Van Gogh / 1879

Written by Gabrielle

March 13, 2011 at 9:07 am

Posted in art, books

Tagged with , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: