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Body of An American

We went to the Hartford Stage to see a performance of The Body of an American which will run there until the end of January. The play offered a great deal in a ninety minute, two-man performance. I scarcely felt the time pass, so quick and intense the shifts in characters’ voices and in the vignettes from the life of the photo-journalist , Paul Watson [Michael Cumpsty], who is the focus of the play. The playwright, Dan O’Brien, as his character [Michael Crane] makes clear, found Watson’s reporting from war zones, scenes of genocide, civil conflicts, and Artic Canada unavoidably compelling. He engaged in email correspondence and phone calls in an attempt to know the man who had taken such risks and witnessed appalling modern conflicts. The characters then offer the playwright’s personal search and the photographer’s response to his troubled experiences.

To make compelling theatre out of a series of stage interviews, by phone, email and finally in person, is a testimony to O’Brien’s art. The canny use of projected visuals and remarkable sound effects helped suspend disbelief. But in fact there was a distancing reassurance in the play’s mechanics, its notion of being a made thing. This was an imitation of an action – and with Aristotle in mind, there was a conflict, complication, and a muted climax, or perhaps series of high points.

The work of getting the story told, which could have caused awkward exposition, appeared effortless, in part because of the pace of the play and the ease with which the actors changed roles, dove-tailed their lines, and gave convincing portrayals.

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Staff Picks: 'Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs'

I read a lot of book reviews, have edited quite a few, and written dozens myself. The best reviews convey essential information about the book under consideration, but more important, either the reviewer’s honest disappointment or passionate endorsement. Dwight Garner is perhaps the most engaging, and fair-minded, of the daily New York Times book critics. I always make a point of reading him, and after coming across his utterly smitten review of the celebrated photographer Sally Mann’s Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, I went right out and plunked down $32 for the hefty volume. As usual, Garner was right. Not only is Mann an exceptional photographer, a fan of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and Graham Greene generally, but she is also a remarkably talented writer with a gift for acute social observation and disarming personal confession. The woman writes one beautiful sentence after another. On the challenge of landscape photography, for instance: “Working in the inexhaustible natural pageant before me, I came to wonder if the artist who commands the landscape might in fact hold the key to the secrets of the human heart: place, personal history, and metaphor.”

The daughter of an artistically inclined family doctor and a liberal-minded mother who ran a bookstore, Mann grew up in the 1950s and ’60s near the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Her father was an iconoclastic atheist from a wealthy Alabama and Texas family, her mother from more cramped and unconventional circumstances in Boston. As was the region’s custom, young Sally was raised by the family’s desperately poor but immensely dignified black nanny, always known as Gee-Gee, whom Mann remained devoted to as an adult. A rambunctious child and rebellious adolescent, Mann once returned home boasting of how she had defied local taboos by giving a young black man a ride in her car. Gee-Gee wasted no time in making it clear that what Mann had done was not an act of liberal-minded generosity, but had in fact greatly endangered the young man.

In writing about both her Southern and Northern ancestors, Mann is perfectly attuned to local culture and customs, whether the racial politics of the post-Civil War South or the social hierarchies of Brahman Boston. She also paints a disturbingly vivid picture of the thwarted ambitions and shocking murder-suicide of her husband’s parents, who struggled to climb the greasy pole of one of New York’s tonier suburbs. Mann herself graduated from the progressive Putney School in Vermont, and attended Bennington, only to return to her beloved Virginia where she and her husband raised their three children in modest circumstances. One of the more touching, if not astonishing, parts of Mann’s story is that she has been married to the same man since she was eighteen, a record of constancy hardly common among us baby-boomers.   

Mann is perhaps best known for a series of photographs of her young children, many of them nudes. The book, Immediate Family, was published in 1992, and caused quite a stir, with critics suggesting the material was exploitative, if not pornographic. Mann’s defense of herself and her art is rigorous and persuasive, and the photographs themselves have more than survived the test of time. On this controversy and others, Mann is as feisty as she seems to have been hard-headed as a teenager. Another of the great rewards of Hold Still is Mann’s detailed commentary on the process of making art, both as a photographer and a writer. As she ruefully notes, failure is far more common than success, and success when it comes is mostly a gift.

My only criticism of Hold Still is that Mann and her editors do not know what the Immaculate Conception refers to. Readers should also be aware that Mann is as fearless in confronting, photographing, and writing about dead—and even decomposing—bodies as young and healthy ones.

Staff Picks: 'Twenty-Thousand Roads—The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music'

Armed with my Ferrante (Elena) and my Levi (Carlo) and various guides and phrasebooks, I had plenty of Italy-specific reading to enjoy while visiting the southern region of Puglia last summer. Instead I spent most of the time with the biography of a singer-songwriter from Winter Haven, Florida, who died of a drug overdose when I was eight years old.

Ask ten music fans about Gram Parsons and you’re likely to get eight negative responses, at least some of those hostile. But I’ve long been hooked on his music, the blend of country, western, and rock he christened “cosmic American.” But I knew far less about his life. There's the post-war, Southern-gothic, baby-boom upbringing (father a suicide at Christmastime; mother perishing of alcoholism the night of his high school graduation; a doting, flashy, and alcoholic stepfather who lent Gram his surname but helped plunder the family orange-grove fortune). There's the stint in the University Heights section of the Bronx while fronting the short-lived International Submarine Band. There's his “collaboration” with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, his symbiotic “involvement” with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones around the time of Exile on Main Street, and his “discovery” of Emmylou Harris (quote marks, because the stories are complicated).

After Parsons’s death in 1973 in a California hotel room, a group of acquaintances intercepted his body on its way to the funeral home, brought it to Joshua Tree National Park, and set it ablaze, purportedly to grant Gram his wish to be cremated in the high desert—a tale author David N. Meyer positions as the comi-tragic climax to this thoroughly researched, novel-like bio. No besotted fan, though, he leaves it to the reader to decide where Parsons went right and (sadly all too often) wrong.

Parsons’s harshest critics have called him a poseur and manipulator, a good-looking rich boy whose wan musical progeny include groups like The Eagles. Others point to his talent for wedding un-weddable genres and note we’d otherwise not have had the alt-country band Uncle Tupelo and their progeny (Wilco, Sun Volt), or performers like Bonnie Raitt, Steve Earle, and Lucinda Williams. Read Twenty-Thousand Roads for the story of Parsons’s life and music; hold onto it for the end notes, discographies, and Meyer’s own extensive (and, I’ve found, indispensable) listening guide.

Staff Picks: 'Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph' & 'Journey by Moonlight'

I usually avoid thousand-page biographies, but I’ll make an exception for Beethoven. Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph is excellent on Beethoven’s life but truly superb on the music itself. I didn’t think there was much new to say about his Third Symphony (the world-changing Eroica), but Swafford’s thirty pages of analysis and musical examples not only draw fascinating conclusions from early sketches but propose a revelatory view of how the entire work fits together. The last movement, which can sound trivial and even anticlimactic after the energy and drama that come before, Swafford claims is based on a dance form that, to Beethoven, represented a true ideal society, a dance of equals. Long after I finished the book I was digging out recordings of other Beethoven pieces just for the pleasure of rediscovery. And what more can you ask of a composer biography than that?

Antal Szerb’s 1937 Journey by Moonlight (recently reissued by NYRB) was my fiction discovery of the year, a remarkable combination of luminous Italian atmosphere, haunting thoughts of suicide, and perhaps the funniest, most tumultuous baptism in fiction—a baptism that also, unexpectedly, saves a life.

Martin Sheen's Spiritual Activism

I was a student at Fordham when Martin Sheen came to screen 1983’s In the King of Prussia, a hastily and inexpensively produced “film” shot on video about the Ploughshares Eight. A friend active in social-justice issues, knowing I was a fan of Sheen for his performances in Badlands and Apocalypse Now, encouraged me to attend the daytime event. Certainly the organizers must have been counting at least a little bit on Sheen’s celebrity appeal, but as I recall the screening was lightly attended. As for the film—well, Sheen’s performance as a judge in the re-enacted trial of the group that entered a General Electric plant in 1980 and damaged nosecones designed for nuclear warheads doesn’t quite match the work he did for Terrence Malick or Francis Ford Coppola. That said, the appearances in the film of Molly Rush, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, and the rest of the Ploughshares Eight did leave an impression. So did Sheen’s evident interest in social justice and other issues—which my mere fandom at the time had not previously admitted the possibility of.

Though still more partial to Sheen as Kit Caruthers and Capt. Benjamin Willard than as Jed (The West Wing) Bartlet or Thomas (The Way) Avery, I’ve since continued to follow his faith-driven activism. It’s what prompted me to catch up with his appearance last week on Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast. Now, I’m not much for Tippet’s style of interviewing, but this wasn’t such a problem with the garrulous Sheen on hand.

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From St. Nicholas to Santa Claus: An Interview

Christmas was an especially big production at my parents’ house. If you drove past our family’s white stucco bungalow, you could not miss the giant inflatable Santa Claus on the front lawn. If you ventured inside you would find a festive five-foot rug featuring another Santa, a fabric Advent calendar taking up three feet on the wall, stained glass angels in the window, and more than one crèche. That my father, Gerry Bowler, is a historian specializing in the social history of Christmas explains some of the enthusiasm. When we decorated the tree, he would lovingly insist on explaining the mythic history of the “Christmas pickle” to his daughters as soon as one of us reached for the pickle-shaped ornament. Around this time of year, reporters would call to ask him why we kiss under mistletoe or about the history of coal-filled chimney stockings. This year, I joined the fray and posed him some questions about St. Nicholas over email.


Hi Dad. First: How did St. Nicholas become associated with Christmas?

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Christmas with Richard Yates

If the prospect of your annual encounter with Dickens, O’Henry, or Jean Shepherd isn't providing the usual anticipatory joy this Christmas season, consider Richard Yates. True, spending time with the author of Revolutionary Road and other generally gloomy tales of domestic discord might seem counterintuitive. Even fans bemoan his projected self-hatred, with novelist Richard Russo (in the introduction to The Collected Stories) allowing that there “may be some truth to the charge” by critics that Yates revels “in the failures his characters must endure.”

Yet I’d submit there’s something to be gained, even or especially at this time of year, from reading two Yates stories in particular. One is “Fun with a Stranger.” It will probably resonate with anybody who can recall what it was like to be a child stuck in a classroom at this time of year. I actually hadn’t thought about “Fun with a Stranger” for a while, until my daughter recently complained that her seventh-grade class would not be having a Christmas party. So I told her an abridged version of Yates’s story, about a class of third-graders under the tutelage of the “strict and humorless” Miss Snell, a woman of sixty or so who “seemed always to exude that dry essence of pencil shavings and chalk dust.” She’s a recognizable type—“preoccupied with rooting out the things she held intolerable: mumbling, slumping, daydreaming... and, worst of all, coming to school without ‘proper supplies.’” The children fear and dislike her, yet “they could not hate her, for children’s villains must be all black, and there was no denying that Miss Snell was sometimes nice in an awkward, groping way of her own.... [they had] a certain vague sense of responsibility toward her.”

The story is driven by the teacher's promise of a classroom celebration on the last day before Christmas vacation, with a possible surprise in the bargain.

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Brett Foster, 1973-2015

It is a sad fact that a writer’s death is often what gets us to read him or her in the first place. We put off reading a poet or a novelist, telling ourselves that we’ll get to the work eventually, that the next book will be the one we try. And then, only when we know that there won’t be a next book, we finally start reading. 

Over the last few years, several readers who I trust praised the work of Brett Foster. I borrowed his first, wonderfully titled poetry collection, The Garbage Eater (2011), from the library last year, but life—classes to prepare, papers to grade, essays to write—intruded. The book sat unread on my bookshelf for several months before I brought it back to the library, promising myself that I’d return to it soon.

Two weeks ago, Foster died at the age of forty-two. An associate professor of English at Wheaton College, Foster was a poet-scholar. In addition to publishing poems in Raritan, Salamander, The New Criterion, and many other places, he translated the work of Cecco Angiolieri (a contemporary of Dante), taught courses on Donne and the Renaissance lyric, and produced scholarship on Shakespeare, Marlowe, and others. As with the best poet-scholars, Foster’s verse was sustained by his research, and his research was informed by his verse. Both circled around the same issues: literary tradition, Christian theology, the meaning of Scripture. He was beloved by his students and colleagues. You can read moving remembrances here and here and here.

Last week, after hearing of Foster’s death, I checked out The Garbage Eater once again. It is as remarkable as I had heard. Fitting for someone so versed in poetic tradition, Foster regularly shows the possibilities enabled by formal constraint, using some of the most simultaneously restrictive and liberating forms available to the poet—the sestina, the sonnet, the rondeau. Just as varied as the poems’ forms are their subjects. Foster writes of snow days and of Advent calendars (“You’re left / with only days, bare and perforated, / a liturgy of doors, perfect symbol”), of having tea with John Milton and, in a poem that delighted this baseball fan, of the former Kansas City Royals closer Dan Quisenberry: “He’d be clutch in the ninth, seal the game after afternoon bullpen slumber: / those summer doubleheaders in the grim bubble of the Metrodome.”

Foster is a superb poet of place, writing about spaces both sacred and profane. In one poem, “At the City Church of San Francisco,” Foster asks, “How to preach with so much that’s beautiful // around us?” describing the “Golden Gate in the distance, those orange altars, / the bay beyond with its long, silver wings, / and perfect bursts of plant life everywhere.” In another, he opens with the speaker’s mean upbringing in “a backwater / cavity in the South, a rat-shit / state of peach-eating race haters, / debutante belles, and chain gangs / singing their exhausted souls / back to the stockade yard.” There is even a poem that takes place inside an Olive Garden:

No Menicus-threaded grove restful with panpipes and shepherd life,

just the chain restaurant off Sherman Street. But the manager

intends to make me think so—pastas on the poster, carafes

of Mantuan wine lined up by shades of red and gold and white.

In Palo Alto, Sunday sunlight stimulates the atmosphere

as do the lively, prerecorded violins’ piazza overtures.

Cormac McCarthy has said that the only writers worth reading are those who “deal with issues of life and death”—that is, those who take seriously the fact that life is always shadowed by death.

Foster’s poems reside within the shadow of death. The Garbage Eater begins with these lines, precise and enjambed:

Fear of dying, fear of death:

those phobias came easy, shaped

nightly by a little boy’s breath


talking out a clockwork afterlife

with parents till I fell asleep.

And it ends with these lines from “Longing, Lenten,” similarly precise, similarly enjambed, similarly concerned with how we live our mortal condition:

… The rest

of the blessed ash has vanished to a gray

amorphousness, to symbolize … not much.

Except a wish for those hallowed moments

to be followed by sustaining confidence.

Except spirit, which means to shun its listless

weight for yearning, awkward if not more earnest

prayer and fasting in the clear face of dust.

But in between these death-haunted bookends, Foster fills his collection with that which sustains: work and love, the dance of the mind, senses, and soul as they encounter the world. Here, for instance, is a sonnet, “Devotion: For Our Bodies,” that describes the joy found in work and in language: 

Yes love, I must confess I’m at it again,

struggling in vain with my Greek declensions.

I know it’s common, but I want to show

you what I found in Praxeis Apostolon,


chapter one, verse twenty-four: this exquisite

epithet, kardiognosta. Forget briefly its context, that the Eleven,

genuflecting, implore the Lord to give


wisdom. Between Justus and Matthias,

who replaces Judas? Let this word pass

to private sharpness toward love’s dominion.

Let me kiss it across your collarbones—


knower of hearts. Its sweetness fills my mouth

and our twin lots, as if they’d chosen both.

“The Foreman at Rest” ends with the desire to remember the world in all its particularity: “Thirsting for detail, / I want to notice the juice / on that pear, half-eaten and still / glistening in the lamplight.” “Passage” includes several litanies of human achievement—“water clocks, mercy seats, clay tablets / of Mesopotamia, lock and key, Jericho”—each a sign of “bright wonder transumed from modesty.”

As “Via Negativa” puts it, poetry is a form of celebration, even when what it celebrates is unassuming:

This could have been many things: the barren

field of elegy, a mass sung at Lourdes,

or some harmonious bed made of chords.

Instead, it celebrates its reticence.

The loss Foster’s family and friends feel right now is immense. So are the gifts that he offered—in his life, in his teaching, and in his poetry.



A Visit to The Museum of Feelings

Two blocks from the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan on a plaza facing the East River, behind a gleaming mall, sits a temporary museum. Or that is what Glade, a brand of SC Johnson, is calling it. The Museum of Feelings is housed in a small building with shifting colored lights projected on its white walls. Tuesday night, its opening night, a young man in black clothes ushers confused people inside or makes them wait at the door when it becomes too crowded.

The subway advertisements for the Museum promise only a URL, a street address, and the dates the exhibit is open. If your curiosity is sufficiently piqued by these ads or the Facebook event and you visit, the first thing you are cued to do is to create a MoodLens — a “living, emotional portrait that changes to reflect feelings,” the page explains. If you click “Get Started,” your computer’s built-in camera will photograph your face and with another click, your computer’s microphone can pick up your voice. This data is collected along with the weather in your current location and the “general feelings on social media in your region” to calculate your mood.

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The Necessary Ordinariness of 'Spotlight'

The movie Spotlight depicts how the Boston Globe in 2002 broke the story that the Boston archdiocese was covering up the abuse of children by scores of priests. Coincidently, one of the abusers portrayed in the film, former priest Ronald Paquin, was just last month released from state custody after serving a criminal sentence for repeatedly raping an altar boy over a three-year-period beginning when the victim was twelve. (Paquin also admitted to molesting fourteen other boys.) Medical specialists determined Paquin no longer met the legal criteria for “sexual dangerousness,” and so the district attorney’s office had to withdraw its bid to keep him in custody.

“The church thinks in centuries,” one character remarks in Spotlight, and in watching it I thought of all the people—if you aren’t one you probably know one—who’ve decided to take the very long view themselves. Mark Ruffalo plays Globe reporter Michael Rezendes; in one scene, after learning of the archdiocese’s systematic cover-up, he says he used to like going to Mass as a child, and that he’d always expected to go back someday. “But now…” he says, leaving the obvious unspoken: Never. 

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What Makes These Writers 'Unprofessionals'?

Moby-Dick sold all of two copies in the United States in 1876, and a total of 3,180 by the time it went out of print in 1887, a tally of futility that in the words of James Wood soon “narrowed Herman Melville into bitterness and savage daily obedience as a New York customs inspector.”

Melville--along with custodian/postal worker William Faulkner, insurance lawyer Wallace Stevens, editor-teacher-single-mother Toni Morrison--came to mind when reading the table of contents and introduction to The Unprofessionals, a new anthology of pieces that originally appeared in The Paris Review. Editor Lorin Stein sets up a superfluous distinction between “professional” writers and those who appear in these pages. The latter are apparently unconcerned with commercial riches--as evidenced by their commitment to short forms of fiction, essay, and poetry--unlike the many MFA students whose idea of success is to “leave school with a six-figure advance.” By this criterion, they’re unprofessionals--never mind their awards, their novels and book-length collections, or their masthead positions at well-known literary magazines. I’d wager that Melville--to say nothing of the many lesser-known and anonymous adjuncts, high school teachers, working mothers, service-industry employees, and others who struggle nobly to place work in respectable but low- or non-paying publications--would welcome so modest a designation if it came with the chance to appear alongside fellow scribblers Ben Lerner, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Zadie Smith, to name a few. They could also reasonably wonder whether being published by The Paris Review in the first place makes one a professional .

In any case, don’t blame the writers featured here. The work is almost uniformly excellent.

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The Illuminations

True personality floats beneath surface consciousness, obscured by the fog of dementia or the fog of war. To meet what one is can affirm or destroy. This theme works its way ever so deftly through the parallel developments of two characters in Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations. Anne Quirk resides in a care home on the Scottish cost, west of Glasgow. Luke Campbell, her grandson, soldiers for a Scottish regiment in Afghanistan. Their self-recognition, respectively and jointly, is the climax of the novel’s plot; hence the novel’s title, the grand lighting-up of the English seaside resort of Blackpool. 

O’Hagan is a writer of many voices: he impersonates Marilyn Monroe’s dog in his earlier Life and Opinions of Maf, The Dog, and a pederast priest in Be Near Me. [The latter a work of insight and justice.] His third person narrations in The Illuminations offer us the surface life of the failing Anne through fragmented speech in dialogue and in carefully observed gesture or facial movement. In effect, O’Hagan takes on the fears so many of us have – the blank of demented senescence. He offers a conditional hope mediated by great respect. His male protagonist is a soldier, an officer, committed to his men, if not to his mission. Certainly his fractured self is alive in marvelously sustained dialogue, the “slagging” vulgarity which constitutes the verbal shield under which his squad operates amid the ambushes, the haze of marihuana, and the deceits of the Afghan war. The novel alternates its scenes between Lochranza Court, Anne’s care home, and a mountain road in Afghanistan where Luke and his men are in convoy on a so-say humanitarian mission. The venture ends in massacre and disgrace – the ignominious fall of Luke’s mentor, Major Scullion, and Luke’s own disillusionment.

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Alice McDermott on Rules that ‘Subvert Compassion and Common Sense’

The New Yorker is currently featuring a new short story from Alice McDermott, “These Short, Dark Days.” The protagonist of the piece, set in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, is a nun named Sister St. Savior who endeavors to effect the burial in a Catholic cemetery of a young husband who has asphyxiated himself. In those days, recall, it was just as one character puts it: If word of suicide gets out, “there’s not a Catholic cemetery that will have him.”

The story exhibits a bit more in the way of traditional narrative drive than I’ve come to expect from McDermott’s short fiction, and it hits on familiar themes in the usual compelling fashion: certainty vs. uncertainty in belief (“There were moments when his faith fell out from under him like a trapdoor,” one character thinks); awareness of sin; the reality of human suffering; the limits of compassion. And, importantly, the limits placed on compassion. It’s this last that McDermott confronts in a fairly explicit way, by noting how the burdens of compassion have typically fallen to women (of the church and not), even as men (of the church and not) seem to have been bent on making its expression more difficult:

In her forty-seven years of living in this city, Sister had collected any number of acquaintances who could help surmount the many rules and regulations—Church rules and city rules and what Sister Miriam called the rules of polite society—that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular, and poor women in general.

But this all takes place more than a century ago, doesn’t it? Yes, but that doesn’t make it history. Lest anyone doubt McDermott’s intent, she makes it clear in an interview that accompanies the story.

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'The Leech Woman'

I confess I didn’t know there was a third Berrigan brother who was also a political activist and peace protester, though not an ordained one. Nevertheless, he appears to have possessed the characteristic Berrigan sense of vocation and certitude.

And did you know that the gangster (Paulie) played by Paul Sorvino in Goodfellas (was it pasta he was cooking to serve with the lobsters in his posh prison cell?) was based on a Brooklyn mobster named Paul Vario? Or that it was an undercover cop, who also happened to be a former teenage delinquent from Brooklyn, who set up Vario and hundreds of other gangsters in one of the NYPD’s most successful sting operations? “As soon as the guy thinks you’re a cop, it’s just like him knowing you’re a cop,” explained Douglas LeVien, the detective who infiltrated the mob. “If he’s suspicious, he’s gonna ask you who’s your mother and who’s your grandmother. And that test you’ll never pass. Then you’re dead.” Ah, gangsters and their mothers. What’s up with that?

Or what about noir and B movie actress Coleen Gray, she of the “luminous skin”? Gray, born Doris Bernice Jensen, played an ingénue opposite John Wayne in Howard Hawke’s classic Red River (1948), and often complained of not being cast as more of a seductress. Later in her career that wish was evidently granted when she starred in The Leech Woman (1960), playing a predator who somehow used fluid from men’s brains to forestall aging.

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Prominent Ladyjerk Gets Happy Ending

In the movie Trainwreck, the comedian Amy Schumer stars as a reckless but successful magazine editor who has been drinking for love in all the wrong places. Like Schumer’s sketch-comedy series Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central), Trainwreck contains its share of off-color humor. (“You dress him like that just so no one else wants to have sex with him? That's cool,” she asks her sister about her husband.) She may not be everyone’s cup of tea; critics deride her work as self-gratifying, crude, and offensive. But her fans call her a brilliant, courageous feminist leader. Whatever one makes of her work, there’s no denying that she is unapologetically herself. It’s not a shtick. Schumer wants to challenge the ways in which we talk about feminism—as loaded a term as that may be.

As my friends and I left the theater after seeing the movie, all we could say was how much we love Schumer. Her voice is refreshing in a time when the culture seems to see feminism through one or the other of two opposing lenses. There are those who believe that feminism means that women should be able to do anything they want sexually without any criticism or fear of consequences – “if men can do it, so can we.” Suggest otherwise and you’re keeping women down. And then there are those who believe that by policing our own behavior, we can flourish as true women. “True empowerment” means being modest, thinking about consequences, and avoiding risky behavior.

In the movie, Amy drinks and sleeps around and explicitly avoids seeking a long-term relationship—at least at first.

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Summer Reading

Maybe no scene from a television series speaks so perfectly to my life as this one from season two of Gilmore Girls:

Like Rory, I spend far too much time debating which books I should bring with me when I leave the house. And like Rory, I always decide that loading up is the safer option than winnowing down. Just last week, I went to the doctor’s office and, before leaving my apartment, convinced myself that I needed to bring a book of poetry (Marie Ponsot’s Springing), a work of nonfiction (Clifford Thompson’s Twin of Blackness), and a novel (Octavia Butler’s Dawn). Rationally, I know that this kind of overpacking is unnecessary, even neurotic; emotionally, I’m panicked if I’m not carrying a library with me.

(For the record, I didn’t end up reading any of the above books in my five minutes in the waiting room. I found another novel, Adam Thirlwell’s Lurid & Cute, in the car and read that instead.)

This tendency to overpack causes a real problem when I go away for vacation. If I need three books for a trip to the doctor, how many do I need for a week away from home? In the hopes of helping out others out who suffer from this very particular literary problem, I’ll list five books that I’ve read so far this year that would be worth the precious space in your suitcase:

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What is "I Refuse"?

The fiction of the Norwegian writer, Per Petterson, particularly his Out Stealing Horses, published almost a decade ago, has received general critical acclaim. Character, setting, mood and landscape open up a world familiar and strange. When I read him, I find a singular point of view, a consciousness shaped in a world in extremis – and all the more dramatically powerful for that.

The phrase, “I refuse” occurs three times by my count in Petterson’s new novel of the same name. It is spoken as an encouraging assertion of life over death – as in “I refuse to die.” So Tommy, one of the chief characters, to his mortally sick, adoptive father Jonsen – who dies soon after.  It is also a denial of family or marital obligation. Tommy refuses to bear responsibility for his aged, abusive, real father; and a waitress, Berit, refuses to wear her wedding ring, despite her husband’s demands, to free herself for an assignation with Tommy. Refusing becomes a form of independence, an assertion of the self, against the constraints of family ties, vows, or the menace of death. In their contexts, the refusals seem desperate, and ultimately unfulfilling. The sources or motivation for the decisions “to refuse” lie unexplored, rather stated as facts.  The Norwegian world of Per Petterson is not simply physically chilling, but deeply emotionally so.

This is a complex and teasing narrative, built around sharp disjunctures in time sequence and narrative voice. First person accounts by the two principals, Tommy and Jim, extremely close boyhood friends, reveal their chance meeting at the very beginning of the novel.  They have not seen each other for over thirty-five years. There are third person accounts of the events that caused the break in their friendship and reveal how Tommy’s mother disappeared and how he came to be raised by Jonsen. Siri, Tommy’s sister, recounts her brief romance with Jim, and his painful, inexplicable rejection of her.

The plot, if plot there is, takes its energy from the first, chance meeting, and through time shifts, alternation of voices, works its way to the frustration of any future meeting, and suggests the major theme of the novel – the isolation of each of us, and the corresponding inability to know the other person. Deeper still, Jim, whose adolescent ability in school, and his blond good looks, appear to set him apart and give him the advantage over his rough and unpredictable friend Tommy, suffers deep emotional depression, and scarcely survives a suicide attempt.

One typical Petterson scene points both to the inscrutability of motive and the lingering effects of guilt.

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Atticus Lish and Next Lives

Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish’s extraordinary novel seems material for the perfect melodrama: a vet returned from the horrors of war, Byronic wounds setting him apart; the plucky immigrant woman, a survivor, canny and intent on saving the wounded hero. The backdrop: New York City where anything is possible. Given the pretext of the work, a reader can’t help but wonder if the love affair can not generate the compassion to redeem the soldier and make real the dream of the woman? Lish’s world is not that of melodrama: he subverts the expectation through unsparing realism. In the process, his vision leaves desiccated flabby assumptions about PTSD and the underworld of illegal aliens. Love simply is not enough to buoy the pair above the wash of the City’s violence and exploitation. 

The novel has had high praise in many reviews, principally for Lish’s ability to create dialogue, or perhaps more accurately, the speech, demotic, of the outer boroughs of the City. The progress of the plot is almost cinematic – by way of montage, scene juxtaposed on scene. The abrupt changes of place and character create a sense of energy, almost manic energy, particularly in so far as Skinner (the Iraqi vet) and Zou Lei (the part-Uighur, part Chinese illegal) share an obsession with physical training. They literally pursue each other in sweat drenched, convulsive runs – or rival each other in squats and lifts.

In remarkable explorations Lish takes us into the shadow economy of undocumented immigrants – the punishing work in over-hot kitchens, or clattering rag-trade sweat shops. Skinner’s altercation with the son of his landlady puts him in the holding cells of a local precinct, and Lish manages to channel in rapid fire speech all the riot, aggression, taunting and fear of the men jailed. He has the same ability to convince that he knows the many different Chinese dialects and the Pidgin English that serves as common speech as well as the clannish tensions that push Zou Lei down the pecking order of kitchen hierarchies.

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Jacob Lawrence—Again

Following up on a column I wrote about Jacob Lawrence's "The Great Migration," here is a NYTimes book review of the catalog accompanying the show now at MOMA (through September 7).

The review is by Isabel Wilkerson whose own master work, The Warmth of Other Suns, tells the migration story through the lives of several of those who made the journey. An impressive work in its own right.

Lawerence's great 60-panel work will open at DC's Phillips Gallery in 2016.  All of this apropos of so many events of the last several weeks, beginning with Charleston.

John Boyne's Lonely Priest

John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness asserts through its title that we will be confronted with a story of one isolated or excluded. The history is a confession, addressed to readers as “you” and by extension the history is a testimony. The narrator, Father Odran Yates, is a witness to the transformation of the Irish Catholic church – particularly to the esteem accorded priests and the institution of the church by lay people. At the end of his priestly career, Father Yates finds himself disillusioned and alone – divided in his self-condemnation and his remaining faith in his vocation and the church.

One would expect a hostile review of forty years of recent Irish Catholic history from a John Boyne who said in an interview: “my priests and educators made me feel worthless, and disparaged and humiliated me at every turn.” Indeed the author is gay, and records callous beatings and harsh spiritual strictures leading to extensive bouts of depression. His subject in the novel is the pedophile scandal that scarred so many boys and adolescents and which was willfully hidden, despite the risks to so many young people. The salvific aspect of the novel is that his narrator is a good priest, one who recognizes the strength of his own vocation, and in so far as he trusted the hierarchy which he obeyed he fell into the sin of omission. He refused in an unsettling denial to suspect those closest to him of “interfering” with children.

I use the word “salvific” carefully: the novel should be read as way to a just response to the great crimes of abuse. Boyne’s handling of Father Yates’s voice is the central achievement. The viewpoint is one of hindsight; the revelations of duplicity and complicity in suppressing the predatory treatment of children isolates Yates. He seems, in self-accusation, to lose affect, to view his ministry as one lived by false surmise – about the integrity of his superiors, the honesty of his fellow priests. The narrative tone resonates with the “loneliness” of the title; indeed, Yates might feel as if he alone did not see what was going on around him, particularly in the life of his oldest friend and fellow priest Tom Cardle.

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