State of the Union

Carrie White Will Never Die: “Carrie: The Musical” at the Studio Theatre

Carrie is the only book I ever put down because I knew I was too young for it. It was the summer between fourth and fifth grade and I was staying with cousins, taking the opportunity to raid their bookshelves. I flipped idly through the book’s opening, got to the shower scene (“Plug it up! Plug it up!”), and–for once in my life–realized I was in over my head. The combination of nudity, menstruation, and sadism, all happening to kids just a few years older than I was, overwhelmed me. I’m not ready for this, I thought.

Part of Carrie’s power is that it’s a story about the universal experience of not being ready: for change, for moral responsibility, for life after high school. It’s a story which speaks to the boy sitting in jail, the girl staring at the pregnancy test waiting to see if the second line will show up. We treat youth as a Las Vegas of the soul, but what we do in our youth is as irrevocable as what we do everywhere else.

Spoilers for Carrie–the book, movie, and musical–below.

Read More…

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Nixon’s The One

nixon 100

I’ve spent the day reading Pat Buchanan’s The Great Comeback—his history cum memoir of Richard Nixon’s capture of the 1968 Republican nomination, and then the presidency. Buchanan was a key part of this. Hired as a 27-year-old who had spent three years writing newspaper editorials for the St. Louis Globe Democrat, Buchanan joined Nixon’s staff in 1966. He traveled with the candidate, handled much of his correspondence, wrote or drafted articles in his name, and wrote Nixon countless strategy memos, which came back with Nixon’s handwritten comments. This trove of historical documents was kept by Buchanan in several filing cabinets in his home, and after literally decades of entreaties by his agent Fredrica Friedman, Buchanan produced this book. It’s probably my favorite of Buchanan’s books, rich in Republican Party and journalistic gossip, full of insight into Nixon, and at the same time deeply personal.

At 27, a time when many young people then or now are in school or trying to figure out what they might really want to do , Buchanan had already compiled a formidable resume as right-wing newspaper editorialist; then in a deftly executed maneuver of ambition and nerve, arranged to meet Nixon and suggest himself for a get-on-the-bus-early campaign role. (He had actually met the former vice president a decade earlier, as a caddy at Burning Tree—a fact which he conveyed to Nixon in that first professional meeting. )

Buchanan was valuable to Nixon in great part as a representative of the New Right, that part of the GOP which had nominated Goldwater two years earlier. He and Nixon saw eye to eye that the next Republican candidate would have to represent the right, but probably not be of it. There was then at least the potential of Ronald Reagan looming, and a subtext of the book is the worry that the charismatic Reagan would somehow get untracked, and a deadlocked convention would be stampeded into going for the movie star governor. Nixon, by contrast, had no political sex appeal: he was deeply intelligent, hard working, fascinated by the issues and personalities of politics. (He seemed bored by the practice of law, and in one unguarded moment told Buchanan that if he had to practice law for the rest of his life he would be “mentally dead in two years and physically dead in four.”)

But one major hurdle to overcome was the sense that Nixon, after the 1960 campaign and his failed 1962 California gubernatorial bid, was a loser who could never win a national election. Liberals hated him for his early campaigns in California, and the left (where they weren’t the same thing) hated him for being right about Alger Hiss. But the right also (correctly) sensed that Nixon was not one of them. Buchanan quotes one Nixon memo where the candidate noted that he disagreed with liberal aides (who were urging him to get to the left of LBJ on various issues.) But he also said (to one of his more liberal aides) that “the trouble with the far right conservatives is that they don’t give a damn about people and the voters sense that.” Buchanan comments that this, too, was “authentic” Nixon. He notes that,

Nixon had grown up in poverty, lost two of his four brothers, one to meningitis, the other to tuberculosis, and likely did not look on the New Deal as taking us ‘down the road to socialism’ but as an effort to help folks like his family.

Part of Buchanan’s job was to smooth out the rough spots between this complicated man and the National Review-reading, Goldwater-admiring, Young Americans for Freedom-belonging Republican right. He did this effectively enough, causing Bill Rusher once to ask him whether he was more the right’s emissary to the Nixon camp, or Nixon’s to the right. The answer: the latter, always.

Romney and Rockefeller were more glamorous Republicans, generally more favored by the East Coast media, and they regularly scored higher in midterm presidential polls. But Nixon outworked them, in a Stakhanovite schedule of campaigning for Republicans in the midterm elections, picking up IOU’s from congressmen and state committeemen all over the country. Eventually Romney and Rocky’s weaknesses displayed themselves. If you were ever of the age to once have wondered how it was that Nixon managed to become the Republican nominee in an era when there were few primary elections, Buchanan’s book is the best possible guide. Read More…

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Reading & the “Attention War”

Focus is a difficult thing to muster these days. As David Brooks wrote in a recent New York Times column, we are all “losing the attention war. … Many of us lead lives of distraction, unable to focus on what we know we should focus on.” This affects many of our daily activities, especially things that require special mental concentration. It creates a minute-to-minute challenge for the reader, who will always feel the pull of the next Twitter story, the latest email, the newest Facebook post, etc. Whether reading news articles or books, we feel the distractions itch at our brain.

Yet despite our society’s general lack of focus, we aren’t necessarily abandoning long books—the Goldfinch, one of the most popular novels on the market right now, is 771 pages long. But this lack of focus does mean that modern books increasingly cater to the short-term attention span. Tim Park explains at the New York Review of Books:

Never has the reader been more willing than today to commit to an alternative world over a long period of time. But with no disrespect to Knausgaard, the texture of these books seems radically different from the serious fiction of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. There is a battering ram quality to the contemporary novel, an insistence and repetition that perhaps permits the reader to hang in despite the frequent interruptions to which most ordinary readers leave themselves open. Intriguingly, an author like Philip Roth, who has spoken out about people no longer having the “concentration, focus, solitude or silence” required “for serious reading,” has himself, at least in his longer novels, been accused of adopting a coercive, almost bludgeoning style.

The author suggests that, in this world of limited attention spans, the serious writer may have to parcel out his or her writing into shorter sections or volumes, in order for anything like the eloquent and verbose reading of prior eras to remain. An idea worth considering: could this trend toward short reads give rise to a deeper appreciation of poetry in the future? It’s thought-provoking and often mind-taxing, true—but it’s short. Or at least, some of it is. It would be interesting to see whether poetry makes a comeback in the future.

Another possibility worth considering: what if we brought back the short story, or syndicated novel? The New Yorker publishes short fictional works, but few other large journalistic publications do. Yet these fictional stories used to occupy a considerable portion of the news cycle. What if modern novelists, like Charles Dickens in days past, published their novels in publications like the New York Times or TIME magazine—one chapter at a time? I think the public would love it—and it could also help print publications build an audience that they seem to be steadily losing. Read More…

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The Value of Young-Adult Fiction

As the movie adaptation of John Green’s young-adult fiction novel The Fault in Our Stars hit theaters this past weekend, teenage and adult fans of the book have reignited a debate on the merits of the genre, termed “YA fiction” for short. It began with Margaret Talbot’s profile of Green in The New Yorker, in which he lauded YA fiction for using the emotional intensity of first encounters with love and grief to relate to teenagers and to remind adults of the persistent weight of the issues they faced in their youth. Ruth Graham decried Green’s view in a viral post for Slate, saying that, while she does not “begrudge young adults themselves their renaissance of fiction,” adults’ encroachment into the genre will discourage teenagers from aspiring to “grown-up reading.”

Surprisingly, the most common objections to both Green and Graham question the legitimacy of the YA genre itself. After Graham’s article was published, writer Casey Cep tweeted, “Teenager was a marketing term invented during the Cold War; Young Adult was a more recent invention. Both are meaningless.” In Cep’s view, YA fiction is indistinguishable from literary fiction generally. Similar points were made about the youthful perspective and subject matter of many literary classics, like Romeo and Juliet and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

But the genius of both books, and of YA fiction today, is its very age-specificity. Authors like Shakespeare and Twain were adults using a youth’s perspective to critique adult norms, producing ageless lessons. There is, more or less, no meaningful literary distinction between the bildungsroman and the young-adult genre.

But there is a powerful historical difference. As Adam Roberts explains, “youth culture” has taken over “popular culture” since the 1950s, from pop music to pulp fiction to comic book movies. YA matters as a separate category because it is the literary incarnation of a culture obsessed with youth, but also one that has “made a fetish of adulthood,” in which many adults “secretly feel that we’re immature individual souls walking around in grown-up bodies.” Erasing the YA fiction genre erases the entire virtue of the category: its proclaimed age-specificity speaks to a wider audience because the invention of childhood was not a meaningless cultural experience. If we draw lines more strongly in our bookstores, it is because we draw lines more strongly in our relationships to one another. Read More…

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Why Fairytales Are Dangerous

Dear Mr. Dawkins,

You’ve said lately that fairy tales are quite harmful. Your reason for thinking this is simple, and true: you told attendees at the Cheltenham Science Festival, “I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism … Even fairy tales, the ones we all love, with wizards or princesses turning into frogs or whatever it was. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it’s statistically too improbable.”

But shortly after, you did add a caveat to those statements—you noted that you do not “condemn fairy tales. My whole life has been given over to stimulating the imagination, and in childhood years, fairy stories can do that.” But you still wondered, understandably, if fairy tales “inculcate into a child’s mind supernaturalism … that would be pernicious. The question is whether fairy stories actually do that and I’m now thinking they probably don’t.”

There are two reasons I think fairy tales are important, and I wonder if you’d consider them—especially the first reason. I don’t know if you’ll like the second reason—because I think it could bring life to your worst fears.

The first reason is one that C.S. Lewis (I know you’re probably not a fan of his, but bear with me) first posited. In a longer essay on writing for children, he suggests that fairy stories present important—and very real—courage to their readers, through a metaphorical means:

… Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end the book. … It would be nice if no little boy in bed, hearing, or thinking he hears, a sound, were ever at all frightened. But if he is going to be frightened, I think it better that he should think of giants and dragons than merely of burglars. And I think St. George, or any bright champion in armour, is a better comfort than the idea of the police.

Lewis saw a potent metaphorical force in the fairy tale: it helped children battle the pains and frustrations of reality through its images of valor and heroism. None of us ought to read children news stories about serial killers and tragic accidents. These things are too graphic and frightening for their young minds. But by reading them stories of evil monsters, and by telling them of knights and heroes who bravely stood up to such monsters, they receive greater mental and moral strength. When they grow older, they’ll have to fight their own real-life villains and calamities. The fairy tale’s metaphorical power gives real strength to them as they grow. Read More…

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Before #YesAllWomen, There Was The Gift of Fear

I had the vertiginous experience of reading Gavin de Becker’s 1997 bestseller The Gift of Fear in the midst of the reporting and reaction to the killings at UC-Santa Barbara. I read Gift for the same reason as hundreds of other women: A close friend told me to. And there’s a reason the book gets passed along. It’s pushy, it’s overstated, it’s flawed—but it’s a powerful guide to recognizing potential violence and listening to your intuitions.

It’s also a sketch of how relations between the sexes go wrong. I’d give it to girls for their protection; but de Becker also explains clearly why some of the strategies with which well-meaning guys often try to get girls’ attention backfire, because they take place in a context where women fear violent assault. There’s sharp commentary here on how men are conditioned to feel entitled to women’s attention, and how they’re trained to overlook the exact kind of violence and harassment that sparked the #yesallwomen hashtag discussion.

The tone of the book is mostly empathetic and reassuring. De Becker (a security expert who is quite willing to let you know about the presidents, celebrities, and CEOs he’s worked for) is trying to give you permission: to listen to your fear, to say “no” and expect that to be respected, to notice when you’re being hustled rather than trying to talk yourself out of your intuitions. There are a lot of common-sense notes—for example, the person you choose to help you is more likely to be genuinely well-intentioned than the person who seeks you out at a vulnerable moment and offers you his help—and good, clear descriptions of pressure tactics that attempt to extract concessions from others by playing on our dislike of confrontation, our desire to be nice, or our feelings of reciprocity and guilt when someone forces a favor on us.

The book deals with harassment that lacks any kind of sexual edge, e.g. the man who becomes enraged when an employer rejects his business plan, and de Becker suggests that these situations have more in common with domestic violence and other violence against women than it might appear.

You have to get over a certain slickness in the presentation. The thing was clearly written to be a bestseller. De Becker strains to connect grabby stories about presidential assassination attempts to more local-news horrors of stalking and rape. Gift is a page-turner for sure, but you’ll notice that there are no stories where intuition ever turns out to be wrong.

There’s no mention of race in the book, which is important because racism warps our intuitions. De Becker alludes to the fact that cultural messages can misinform our intuitions and lead us to fear the wrong things, but he doesn’t get specific, and the absence of any discussion of racial mistrust really leapt out at me. He uses the decision not to get on an elevator because you don’t like the look of the guy who’s already inside as an example of rational fear, which made me think immediately of that old, sad urban legend about Stevie Wonder’s dog Lady. Casual encounters between white women and black men are shaped not only by the context of violence against women, but by the context of racial violence; we mistrust one another or misread one another’s signals against the backdrop of that violence. Read More…

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A Journal of Poetry and Place

Study of a Warrior's Head by Leonardo da Vinci / Wikimedia Commons
Study of a Warrior's Head by Leonardo da Vinci / Wikimedia Commons

The New Trad is a poetry journal and self-described experiment, published by a small press in Sydney, Australia. This little literary platoon is determined to revive poetry’s place in the public consciousness, come what may. They are well aware that they face an uphill battle, but their resolve to eschew free verse and highlight the importance of place and rootedness is admirable.

The introduction makes a valiant effort—and largely succeeds—in describing the two-part decline of poetry in the public sphere. On the public side, the song and novel largely replaced the poem’s literary value during the second half of the twentieth century:

 The people’s poet of the nineteen-sixties was not Ted Hughes but Bob Dylan. The popular song is what impinges on the traditional territory of the poem, forcing it to deform itself to justify its existence, much as the photograph did to painting, film to theatre, or science to philosophy. (p.9)

But changes in popular taste are not solely responsible for poetry’s endangerment. The editors accurately observe a recalibration amongst the intellectual milieu and academia writ large from a vertical to horizontal orientation: “Above was replaced with ahead; the promise of a kingdom of heaven was exchanged for the promise of the Enlightenment: a self sufficient humanity, striding forward into a future of progress, peace and self-mastery.” (p.7) The unfortunate byproduct of this rearrangement is the poem’s obfuscation; there is a resulting lack of connection between poet and reader. A true commitment to form is replaced with lines devoted to the author’s own internal monologue, decreasing the impact on his readers.

Now that the poem is more a means of expressing individualism, it has lost much of its original potency of evoking a particular time and place. Poetry is a cultural heirloom in a way the novel is not. Novels, by design, are narratives subject to the author’s vision. Poetry, even in epic poems that have a narrative, is imbued with historical and cultural ties that are tantamount to identity. Homer’s cultural influence on the Ancient Greeks, for example, was inestimable not only in terms of its artistic contribution, but also in its cultural legacy. In other words, poetry has a rootedness—both in its structure and in the themes it evokes.

In its first volume of poetry, New Trad seeks to bring back the locality of metered verse, mostly modeled on the Ancient Greek rhyme and meter patterns. What the editors describe as the raw emotional power of the confessional poetry that dominated post-modern poetry (Ariel by Sylvia Plath was the groundbreaking work in this arena) is preserved in the poems printed in this edition, but the rhyme scheme and meter is the invisible structure holding it all together. The journal’s first edition is divided into three parts: the first is a spate of a few short poems submitted by writers and academics; the second contains two academic papers on meter. The second paper is an introduction to a segment of an epic poem written in an Icelandic style that constitutes the final section of the journal. You can get through the volume in an afternoon. Read More…

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Every Day Is Like Sunday: Rediscovering Wilfrid Sheed’s “The Hack”

Don’t call Wilfrid Sheed’s 1963 The Hack a forgotten Catholic classic. I don’t want it to be dismissed so easily.

Sheed was the scion of Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, the Catholic publishers and apologists; he knew that pre-Vatican II world of professional religion from the inside. The Hack is a satirical tragedy about Bert Flax, a man who supports his wife and five children by writing pabulum for the lower levels of the Catholic press: angels with cotton-candy wings, Irish-surnamed Fathers playing improving outdoor games with hearty children, sub-Chestertonian cutesy polemics. Over the course of a particularly harrowing Advent (in a nice touch, it isn’t ever called Advent but always Christmas) Bert slowly realizes that his work–and perhaps his faith–have always been childish, sickly-sweet, and unreal.

The Hack comes from a specific immediately pre-Vatican II subculture, but its emotional and spiritual concerns feel totally at home in our mommy-blogging, #soblessed performance culture. This is a book about meta-emotions: what we feel about what we feel. It’s a book about knowing yourself utterly inadequate to the mystery of God, but not knowing how to express that without tinsel and puff; and about the duty we feel to manufacture and display the correct emotions. You have to stay strong for the children! You’re an inspiration.… You should be grateful, you should be present in the moment, you need to really feel it.

Read More…

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Why I’m Leaving Goodreads

Back a couple years ago, I started using Goodreads: it’s a useful tool to keep track of books read and enjoyed, and it’s a great place to discover books not yet read. But now I’m considering a step away. And it has nothing to do with the social network itself—it has to do with me, and the susceptibility to self-consciousness as a reader.

Tania Unsworth, an author of three books, described this tendency well in her recent post on Nerdy Book Club. She reminisces on reading as a child, the utter abandonment it proffered, and compares it with her reading now:

There was an intensity to reading then, a kind of total involvement in story that is hard to reproduce as an adult. I know too much now about tired plots and clichés. I am always comparing one thing to another, recognizing devices, identifying styles. No matter how good or bad I find something, I’m always aware of my response, slightly detached, consciously enjoying or not enjoying.

She writes of a time when she was a “girl of eleven, with a flashlight under the covers, devouring The Chronicles of Narnia”—when there was a complete immersion in the world of the novel, when one connected with a book’s protagonist and experienced the world through the eyes of the “other” in a powerful, beautiful way.

Why do readers lose this sort of joyous abandonment?

Perhaps it starts with book-based essays and college papers: with the constant call to analyze, quantify, and measure what we’re reading. This is, to some extent, unavoidable. But it doesn’t end there: the social media world encourages us not to do things for their own sake, but rather for the approval and attention of our burgeoning online audiences. We don’t just read according to the suggestions of others; we don’t just join book clubs. Rather, we Instagram pictures of ourselves reading, join a social network where we can show off our huge bookshelves, and post smart-sounding quotes on Facebook. I’ve done this—perhaps we’ve all done this. The problem is that it uses the author, the book, and the protagonist for our own personal, selfish ends. It makes the book about us, rather than about the story itself.

There’s also the siren call of list-making: we all love watching a list of accomplishments grow and grow. This is perhaps the largest reason I find Goodreads dangerous, personally: it enumerates the books I’ve read, and organizes them into admiration-worthy lengthy lists. It encourages me to look not at the quality of reads, not at the specific beauties of various works, but to admire and venerate the amalgamated monstrous whole. Thus, I begin to rush: I want to finish this book, that book, and the next—not to meet a deadline, necessarily, not because I’m so engrossed in the book I can’t stop—but merely because I want to check another book off my list.

Perhaps, as a writer and occasional book critic, this sort of self-conscious reading will be somewhat inevitable in the future. But I do want to re-experience the animation and passion that Unsworth describes in her article. There is a beauty to the imagination that deep-reading requires.  Whenever we read for criticism, for an audience, or for the joys (and dangers) of list-making, we will always have another besides the story in mind: whether it be ourselves, or our audience. Read More…

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Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Henry IV”: The Story of Prince Hal

Matthew Amendt as Prince Hal and Edward Gero as King Henry IV in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Henry IV, Part 2. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Matthew Amendt as Prince Hal and Edward Gero as King Henry IV in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Henry IV, Part 2. Photo by Scott Suchman.

A prince sits disconsolately in a royal palace, alone—save for a stoic attendant. The prince tries, without success, to get a reaction out of the attendant by making funny faces at him.

Later, he sits at his father’s bedside, staring angrily and fearfully at the crown lying on the covers. He makes a face at the crown, and rebukes it for the weighty worries it holds.

The prince watches his former friends fade away from his life, as an image of England glows behind him—symbolizing a future of duty and difficulty.

These were some of the highlights of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Henry IV,” in which Matthew Amendt’s Prince Hal was truly the production’s strongest character. The company’s productions of Parts I and II are being played together at Sidney Harman Hall, and are worth seeing close together, I think, to help the watcher better follow the detailed plot.

Both parts must be understood within the context of their predecessor, “Richard II,” and within their larger tetralogy as a four-part series (“Richard II”, “Henry IV” Parts I and II, and “Henry V”). In “Richard II,” the king of England is deposed through civil war, and King Henry IV takes his place on the throne. But Henry is plagued by guilt over this past, and is determined to go on a crusade, to rectify any wrongs he may have committed in obtaining the throne. Unfortunately for his plans, an outbreak of regional conflicts force the king to stay at home: the discontent and discord quickly foment into rebellion. The main instigators of this rebellion lie within the Percy family, led principally by the young Henry Percy (nicknamed “Hotspur”), a noble but hot-headed young man.

Meanwhile, Henry IV’s eldest son Prince Harry (fondly known by his friends as “Hal”) is living a reckless, dissolute life under the mentorship of a fat and jolly knight named Falstaff. Though Hal knows that, at some point, he will have to take on the mantle of leadership and reform his ways, he is quite content to enjoy a carefree life with Falstaff and his tavern friends for the present. However, underneath Hal’s seeming jollity, there is a shadow of determination and brevity. Amendt captures this inner conflict brilliantly. He noted in an essay that his love for Prince Hal’s character started at a very young age: when he was seven years old, Amendt woke up to find half his face paralyzed. In the weeks of medical tests that followed, Amendt’s mother brought him comfort through an unusual gift:

My Mom, ever the good English teacher, in an effort to still the heart of a panicked, weepy little boy, introduced me to some plays she thought I might like. They featured a young Prince with two sides to his character, almost two faces, one could say, who struggles against all odds to live up to the expectations of the adults around him, who is simultaneously everything, and nothing, to the people he loves. The journey of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, from reprobate drunk to leader of the “band of brothers,” held me in thrall.

Amendt embodies this struggle, as Prince Hal develops from utter carelessness in the first act of Part I, to somber humility in the final scenes of Part II. It’s a remarkable development. Read More…

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