Culture & Criticism Since 2003
In Tell The Court, Virginia historian Peter Wallenstein has written a timely and absorbing study of the history of marriage in the United States, exploring the people and movements that bucked old tired trends in the interest of equality and liberty.
Just a half century ago, miscegenation (inter-racial marriage) used to be a crime in America — a crime that that could actually get you killed if you lived in certain parts of the country where ideas were narrow and men full of rage. In examining this aspect of our history, Wallenstein has done a first-class job in demonstrating just how wide-spread the power of the State used to be – power that could determine the person you were allowed to marry and the kind of life you were going to live.
To illustrate this point, Wallenstein tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, a Virginia couple who was arrested for marrying outside their race. Hounded and run about the country, their case would become the impetus for the Supreme Court to review the topic of inter-racial marriage, and in doing so, re-regulating the government’s ability to enter people’s bedrooms and determine a marriage:
“Connecting race with privacy, Chief Justice Warren explained: “To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law.’”
Wallenstein has done a fantastic job in organizing this book, and in taking us through the story of America. Through his careful analysis, he shows us that the way we’ve dealt with inter-racial marriage is directly related to how the country and its many different citizens have interacted. Tell The Court would be important for that reason alone, but given the present state of America — the post 9/11 Patriot Act with its redefinition of the Constitution — and this book becomes required reading. Look close: the way the government is trying to control the thoughts and ideas of its citizenry has led to the erosion of individuality and creativity. Look close: it’s as though we’ve forgotten how hard it was to get here, forgetting the struggles we had to endure in order to emerge upon the limitlessness of the new millennium.
At its best moments, Tell The Court reminds us that these struggles were about the rights of a person superseding the dictums of the State (See: San Francisco, Caifornia, where gays and lesbian couples fight for the right to be recognized as married people). Tell The Court is an important book on a timeless subject. In theory, it speaks to the same subjects which are supposedly at the root of why America is in Iraq fighting a war.
Author Larry “Ratso” Sloman was appearing on ‘The Howard Stern Show’ plugging his book “Steal This Dream,” a biography of activist Abbie Hoffman. During the course of the interview, Sloman declared, “Well Stew Albert likes my book,” to which Stern replied, “Who the hell is Stew Albert?” Answering this question in full would take me well beyond the scope of this thought provoking memoir. In retrospect, ‘Stew might have continued to be an “almost”-nice, blonde haired, Jewish boy living in the basement of his mother’s house in Brooklyn, but something very important happened’ – we called it “The Sixties,” and no one has ever been the same.
It has been suggested that “if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there.” Well, Stew Albert was most certainly there, and “there” for all of us who longed for social change. Change is hardly the most descriptive word for the complete dismemberment of the existing socio-political hierarchy, and Stew placed himself squarely on then radical front line in Berkeley. Those of us who were there in any capacity can well remember the smell and feel of the intriguing air surrounding the little card tables set up along Sproul Plaza. Madeline Murray (O’Hare) was there in the first support for abortion rights, Mario Savio was there warming up for the moments that would freeze the university system and much of the nation in free speech, as Stew was there representing The Vietnam Day Committee (VDC), which became the prototype to anyone and everyone with the sand and heart to step up against our government’s illegal war in Southeast Asia.
The trenches were not very deep in those days and suffering the consequences of freedom at the end of a billy club breathing tear gas was not an uncommon way to end the day. Stew was there for the rest of us – and didn’t give in to the strain of being under the gun. The fun was only just beginning.
It was the Pranksters, the Hippies, Diggers, Yippies, Pacifists, Provocateurs, Black Panthers, Alternative Press, Beat poets, the Weather Underground, the FBI and finally, the CIA who were making and molding the scene, LSD was the sacred ritual of transit, money was a grand illusion, a pig named “Pigasus” was about to make a run on the presidency, and Chicago was just around the corner. All history now, well documented in the past, yet as I read Stew’s more than reasonable accounting I became so incredibly angry I had to put the book down at least twice – remembering so clearly how I felt about the government, conscription, the war and its benefactors at a time when my own revulsion was far more than an emotional rebound.
Stew’s personal rendering of socio-polical upheaval, as an anti-establishment consort standing up for the betterment of mankind with his shoulder hard pressed to the wheel brings back to life the emotional roller coaster experienced on so many levels throughout the sixties and seventies. And there is a rejoicing here as well, tempered to the page in humorous vignettes including many of the visionaries, poets and pundits of the day, all garnered from out Stew’s unrelenting participation, and courageous leadership in the agit-prop bringing down the house within the rather psychedelic comedia del arté that filled our lives on a daily basis.
So who the hell is Stew Albert?” He is a gentle and honest man of his times, harboring a politically astute, intuitive mind – a collaborative man with a Marxist’s edge on the past, and a Futurist’s eye on the heartbeat of (r)evolutionary change.
This is a timely and important memoir. READ THIS BOOK!
THE BRIDE STRIPPED BARE. Anonymous. Fourth Estate. Who wrote this novel? Is this a real diary or a seamless and wondrous piece of fiction meant to ravage and attack the senses at their very depths? What’s best about this book is the slap-you-in-the-face way it reads: rather than focusing on such questions, it simply swims forward – forcing each of us as reader to lose ourselves in the multiple faces of the narrator, forcing each of us to grapple with the cores of our own secret identities.
In more ways than one, The Bride Stripped Bare is a ground-breaking book; alas, it’s almost too honest for the watered-down and sanitized war-time mentality that now grips America. Make no mistake, Bride is revealing in the way that the best fiction is revealing – the author taking the kernel of an idea and recreating a universal voice with her story. Still, what makes this book so profound is that its subject matter is sex – this deep passion intertwined with the forbidden temptation of desire (right versus wrong taking a secondary position behind the concepts of need and want):
“There’s a beauty to his carefulness, his intent; you think, with some amusement, that he learns with the focus of a first-time driver whose never before sat behind the wheel. He’s so earnest and grateful. You teach him to touch with assurance, confidence; you teach him to mask his fear, but you can tell that love, for him, will be a vice when it comes, will grip him hard, will swallow him complete. Your heart already bleeds for him, for what is ahead.”
The plot centers around the sexual awakening of a married woman whose blood burns hot with secrets and mystery. However, because of decorum, because of the mores of the society, she cannot tell anyone her thoughts. Thus, she commits them to word and paper; it is her only outlet:
“You’re a good wife, a good actress: it’s surprisingly easy, the cover-up. You were acting all along and scarcely realizing it. But you want to grow old with Cole, you still want that. You’d be perfectly happy never to have sex with your husband again, except to create a child…”
The writer of Bride has kept her name hidden to avoid self-censorship. Without anyone knowing who she is, she is free to pluck the mystical ripeness from her feelings and expose herself without fear or shame; in the blink of an eye, anonymity offers a perfect and delectable liberty:
“Ease down, slowly, feel him all the way. And then you just sit for a moment, you are filled up and you smile into his eyes and very slowly you tighten your muscles and gather him inside you: you feel Gabriel with your skin. He looks at you, all wonder and surrender and shock, and you throw your head back, you can’t look at him any more, you need to savor this moment alone…”
As we devour passage after passage, the truth glows with crystalline clarity: each of us creates ourselves, creating our beauty and our denials and our madness. We create these eyes and faces and the ways that we move through these tangled mouths of time. It is all illusion. In truth, our hungers are quite simple: we are only looking for warmth and acceptance and another person to hold us:
“But where does desire go? Will this fugitive feeling eventually die out? Or now that it’s loosened will it lurk within you into old age, all rangy and discontented, just waiting to trip up your life?”
The Bride Stripped Bare is exciting and multi-layered erotica: piercing and honest and slathered in the feminine voice of desire – a beautifully written confession of hunger this half-wrapped statement of the self rising page-by-page like a stormy wave. And like the work of Henry Miller and Anais Nin that preceded it, The Bride Stripped Bare commands our full and complete attention.
THE LAST GOODBYE. Reed Arvin. Harper Collins. As a reviewer, I don’t believe in retracing the plot of a work of fiction line-by-line (it’s the reader’s job to arrive here on his own). Instead, I like to touch on the bigger picture of the story — I want to cut to the meat of the book and identify how it affects and speaks to us as a collective whole.And in this regard, Arvin has made my job easy to do, for Last Goodbye is a top-notch thriller that packs action as well as intellectualism. Read on — each of Arvin’s characters has body: written in dimensions, swollen with contradiction, lost in the dirty haze of the human condition:
“The shape of pain changes over time. In the beginning, it’s all jagged edges and serrated knives. After a while – hours, in my case – it gives way to great encircling waves, crushing you under its weight. Then the nausea begins, pushing you out to sea, farther, farther, with no chance of swimming against its angry tide. Eventually – God knows how long later, because by now time has lost its meaning – it shifts again, turning and towering, unscalable mountains of ice.”
(from Page 229 of the advance galley)
In short, Last Goodbye tells the story of Jack Hammond, a attorney down on his luck, scraping cases from the bottom of the junk heap, a court appointed lawyer who has to take what he can get in order to get by (in this sense, the novel strips away some of the illusion about being a lawyer showing that a lot of these suits are no better off than we are). As we follow the story, we stand beside Hammond and watch him fall victim to the smell of lust mimicking love, a man drunk on the thirsty danger of shadows, a memory consumed in darkness:
“Robinson nodded. ‘You have to be willing to take chances or lose. Grayton was trying to hang on, but it’s hard to compete with the multinationals. And I knew more about hepatitis than anybody, including Ralston and his team. For all its beauty, Horizn’s drug is one generation removed from the most cutting-edge proteomics…’”
(from Page 197 of the advance galley)
What’s best about Arvin’s fiction is that real people with real faces populate these pages. A cut above most fictive works, Last Goodbye reveals secrets about the reader, telling us new things about our own mirrors along the way. Obviously, Arvin knows our voices and how the street talks, and he records his recollections of our collective sound in a sharp and compelling way. All the advance critical praise for Last Goodbye is dead on – in the world of mysteries and thrillers, they don’t come any better. This is Mickey Spillane good.
DOUBT (A History). Jennifer Michael Hecht. Harper San Francisco. The questions and themes explored here are vast, almost bottomless: is there is a God? Did we evolve from another life form or from the hand of the Supreme Ruler? Should I question or just believe blindly?
All this and more is the subject matter of this brilliant book by Jennifer Michael Hecht. Hecht is an accomplished poet and deep thinker whose work is breaking new ground by merging the poetic with the historical: This woman on a private journey, sorting out the craziness of the world by retracing its past, magnifying its grandest successes and most deplorable failures so that we all might see and understand.
One of Hecht’s finest pieces (included on her web site jennifermichaelhecht.com) is a poem called “History.” The piece ruminates on Eve, looking back at the first lady’s road, wondering openly of the things that might have flowed from her heart, bleeding across the inhuman edges of the mind:
“Even Eve, the only soul in all of time
to never have to wait for love,
must have leaned some sleepless nights
alone against the garden wall
and wailed, cold, stupefied, and wild
and wished to trade-in all of Eden
to have but been a child”
And from the slim and svelte lines of this poem, we can see the seed of Doubt take shape in the clusters of earthly space: More than anything else, this book looks back at the great doubters of the world, examining their wanderings through a maze of indecision and revelation:
“Descartes decides he will fight the evil spirit: he will force himself to believe that everything – the sky, the earth, colors, numbers, sound – is an illusion. Furthermore, ‘I shall consider myself as having no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, nor any senses…I shall remain obstinately attached to this idea…’ “
And so you have it — this is the matter of poetry, the warm knotted sinew of thought. As Hecht notes, thousands of years and many great minds have passed before us into thirsty mirrors of invisibility (Christ, Shakespeare, Galileo, Einstein, Aristotle), these men with brave and meaningful minds bent on figuring out themselves in relation to the world outside the window. Some of them rose gloriously like new born stars, while others only plummeted into flames of obscurity — lost in the bitter taste of doubt, chained by the inability to see beyond consciousness into the throes of perfect and thoughtless enlightenment:
“We are in age of intellectual uncertainty and we are in age of science. We are in an age of cosmopolitan secularism and an age of ardent, doubt-conscious faith. We are marked by moral ambiguity. We investigate graceful life philosophies and various transcendentalist and therapeutic meditation…”
What is the answer? Where do we go from here? Which road do I take? Many men before us were asking these same questions, and Hecht traces their journey with masterful precision: her prose, woven with such intricate detail, creates not only a chronicle of doubt but also a counter-chronicle of faith and passion, of dark and dirty truth, of depth and beauty (for as Bob Dylan wrote in his 1965 epic “Gates of Eden,” it’s all only a mad quest to know “what’s real and what is not”).
And perhaps that’s the ultimate lesson of this book: To remind us that 1) men have been searching since the dawn of time; and 2) that they will continue to search until death in the grave frees them. Perhaps the answer and the key to our earthly purpose is that simple .
Highly recommended for all college and public sector libraries. Would be appropriate as a teaching text in philosophy and history courses at the undergraduate level. One of The Electric Review’s picks of the year.
AUTUMN OF THE MOGULS: My Misadventures with the Titans, Poseurs and Money Guys Who Mastered and Messed Up Big Media. By Michael Wolff. Harper Collins. Michael Wolff , who writes a weekly column for New York Magazine (“This Media Life”) is a journalist of great gusto and profound insight who holds nothing back. In Moguls, he gives us an insider’s break down of just what has gone wrong with the media, illuminating how the snakes took hold of the empire.
Simply, Moguls tells the story of the behind-the-scenes deal making that has rendered the media of this new America meaningless. Today, our biggest papers and magazines are not so much objective news gatherers dedicated to the dissemination of information, but instead, corporate traders looking to control the bank vaults; consequently, they dictate the things we’re allowed to see and hear. In one especially piercing passage on the rise of Martha Stewart, Wolff writes:
“Here is the first postmodern media empire. The Martha business is the ultimate guerrilla-marketing strategy: using the media to promote your media […] everything you did promoted everything else you did – you had to come up with an approach that allowed you to get paid for promoting yourself…”
What’s best about Wolff’s book and the way it’s written is that it’s about telling the truth. In one fine swipe of his pen, Wolff reminds journalists everywhere that it’s not about who you piss off, but about the reader’s right to know. This is why we do what we do — we have an obligation to educate communities and individuals so that they can protect themselves and their personal liberties.
However, the ones who own newspapers and magazines and television stations aren’t interested in such noble endeavors. No sir. They want power and wealth and control of the market share. In reality, they’re human predators capitalizing on the public’s “need to know,” manipulating the business side of journalism until nothing but the skeleton of a story remains. You see, they always leave a skeleton — scant meat on the bone — because they need something to sell.
Market share. Wall Street power. Advertising dollars. The monopolization of democracy. Michael Wolff had the guts to write a book about what’s really happening with the folks that sell us the news. Turn everything else off and focus your attention here.
LEECHCRAFT: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing. Stephen Pollington. Anglo-Saxon Books.This is the most comprehensive study of the healing arts in the Anglo-Saxon world since Henry S. Wellcome’s “Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft” (published in 1912 and long since out-of-print). Pollington’s book covers everything from healing through prayer and witchcraft to the use of plants as medicine — an interesting and absolutely thorough exploration of the way cultures have evolved, using a classic reportage style to show how communities once dealt with the suffering of the sick. In these ancient worlds, much of daily life was predicated upon prayer, and people beckoned God forth though meditation and words, requesting that He heal them through the wondrous elements of nature:
“Blessing of the plants. All-powerful , eternal god who from the world’s beginnings set up and made all things, both trees of their type, and plants with their seeds, the same ones as you have hallowed, consecrating them with your blessing…”
(from Page 247 of The Lacnunga Manuscript)
What’s best about Pollington’s book is the effortless and clear way that it is written and edited: Pollington is a master lecturer who knows how to present complex and layered material in a concise and thorough manner, always careful to place data in its proper historical context. Further, Leechcraft’s format includes a detailed index which allows the reader to search for specific information without needlessly wasting time. Complimented by Lindsay Kerr’s first-rate illustrations.
Highly recommended as a teaching text at the college level for all history and anthropology courses that touch on the subject matter of early English healing.
MAYADA (DAUGHTER OF IRAQ). Jean Sassoon. Dutton. Mayada Al-Askari, a single mother with two kids, barely made enough money to survive by printing pamphlets on broken down computers. Her life in Iraq was non-descript and modest — just one more hard-working Iraqi trying to get by. In hind-sight, this existence could never predict the suffering and tragedy that would quickly become Al-Askari’s life.
In the summer of 1999, Mayada Al-Askari was arrested by Saddam Hussein’s secret police and banished to the Baladiyat Prison, accused of circulating anti-government propaganda. The charges were obviously ludicrous — the by-product of a dictator whose paranoia was ascending with the force of a bullet. As a prisoner, Al-Askari became just another “shadow women” — these women who lived in the same cramped cell and endured constant torture without even knowing their “crimes”:
“The shadow women were so close that each woman was touching the woman in front and the woman in back, a train of terrified women…They quickly arrived at the end of the corridor and were herded like sheep through the narrow door. As they entered the room, a collective gasp swept through the line. The strange room was a cave. The walls were pitted and dark. Buckets lined the floors, containers filled to the top with urine. Human excrement was piled high….”
How would you survive such a hideous nightmare? Like Mayada and the others did: by looking backward into memories of sweeter times. By looking forward to the day when you might escape your captors and flee beyond time, unto a place where Hussein and his legacy do not exist.
We’ve heard a lot about Iraq over the last 20 months — too much in fact. However, this book switches gears. Written by Jean Sassoon (Princess: A True Story of Life Behind The Veil in Saudi Arabia) in a clear and inviting prose, it offers a first person account of the scope of the pain and suffering that for decades besieged these people. But the real core of the book is the way it poignantly depicts how women were treated under Hussein’s mighty rule. Startling and daring. You don’t need a lengthy critical summation from a reviewer. If you’re curious about what happened “over there,” buy this book.