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Recovered Memories, Hard Truths

Last year, that redoubtable rag The New York Review of Books—what my grad-school chums used to call “The New York Review of Each Other’s Books”—celebrated its 50th year of publication. Tonight, HBO will broadcast The Fifty-Year Argument, a documentary directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi feting the journal’s founding, history and legendary editor, Robert Silver. I discovered NYRB in college; it was where I first saw the name Jacques Derrida. I immediately stole the public library’s copy of Of Grammatology, which I won’t pretend I read, back then, with even the petite-est soupçon of comprehension. It was in the NYRB’s pages that I first encountered poems by C.P. Cavafy; one, “The Bandaged Shoulder,” instantly taught me that poetry could set my mind and soul on fire and give me a hard-on, all at once. And the NYRB introduced me to Stephen J. Gould, Garry Wills, Cynthia Ozick, all sorts of writers I never met up with on my syllabi. I think every college student ought to be given a subscription, gratis, on the day he or she matriculates. But enough praise. When assigned this post, I found that thinking about the NYRB tripped two memories I’d plumb forgot I had. The first is both amusing and not. Back in pre–internet dating days, NYRB was renowned for its personals, which purportedly enabled like-minded intellectual types (mostly hets) to hook up for romantic walks on Hamptons beaches and “maybe more.” My dear friend the late Romanian poet Nina Cassian, who 25 years ago was exiled in New York, lonely and hunting for a husband, decided she’d give the Review’s personals a try. Rather to her amazement, her ad worked: She landed scads of dates. But the guys were invariably widowers or divorcés who just wanted to snare a replacement wife to cook for them, vacuum the apartment, do the laundry, etc. They all seemed fundamentally uninterested in a glamorous, scintillating, accomplished, witty, sexy woman who was constitutionally incapable of household drudgery. Nina’s stories about these losers were hilarious, but it was also depressing to learn that most men are pigs—even NYRB readers. (Nina did eventually find herself a suitable mate, but not through the New York Review.) The second memory concerns David Levine, who produced thousands of caricatures (like the one pictured above) for the Review from just after its founding until shortly before his death in 2009. It suddenly came back to me that once, with a mutual friend, I visited Levine’s studio in Brooklyn Heights. How could I have forgotten such a privileged and interesting experience? Levine was grumpily charming and disheveled (as was his studio), and he was timidly eager to show us his “real” work, opening flat-file drawers and pulling out dozens of muddy-hued watercolors—portraits, crowd scenes, beachscapes—that were both delicately rendered and psychologically disturbing, like Prendergasts painted with Daumier’s palette and sensibility. They were really very good, but Levine wasn’t famous because of them. The caricatures were his paying gig, and he seemed to resent it. Maybe I had my first glimmer, then, of the hard truth that what you’re paid to do—especially if you’re great at it—can rob you of who you want to be, and what you’d like to be known for. In The Fifty-Year Argument, writer Colm Tóibín, himself a frequent NYRB contributor, says of his early experience of the journal, “The New York Review of Books actually mattered, as a crucial part of our lives.” I feel similarly. The NYRB opened worlds to me, and I’ve certainly learned a lot from it, both directly and, as you see, indirectly. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia CONNECTS_NYRB

by James Waller

Sep 29, 2014

The Wonderfully Prolific Passenger Pigeon

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, a bird once so numerous in the eastern half of North America that a flock passing overhead could block out the sun for entire days. These wild doves traveled in packs of hundreds of thousands, or even billions. In 1813 John James Audubon described what it was like to encounter their cacophonous, uncountable masses: Afterward, he wrote, it looked “as if the forest had been swept by a tornado.” It’s hard to imagine such a scene today. As Audubon presciently noted, “I have satisfied myself, by long observation, that nothing but the gradual diminution of our forests can accomplish their decrease.” As it turns out, Audubon was only half right. Habitat destruction chipped away at the population of several billion birds, certainly, but hunting also played a great part. At nesting grounds pigeons were slaughtered by the millions—knocked from their nests, smoked out, shot at and netted—then shipped to markets all over the East. The passenger pigeon simply could not coexist with modern humans. Passenger pigeons were colonial, and the huge flock size was a key to the species’ survival. At a certain point its numbers became too few to sustain breeding success. “Eventually,” Errol Fuller writes in his 2014 book The Passenger Pigeon, “the slump to zero began to become apparent, even though there were still millions of individuals left. And when the tipping point came, the fall was unbelievably fast.” In 1857 a committee of the Ohio state senate, responding to a bill proposing protection for the apparently declining game bird, reported: “The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.” Not long afterward, “elsewhere” was nowhere. Soon the hunters, Theodore Roosevelt among them, were fruitlessly searching the bird’s breeding grounds for nesting pairs that would save the species, but it was too far gone. The last passenger pigeon was a bird named Martha who lived her final 12 years at the Cincinnati Zoo, outlasting George, her only conspecific, by four years. The anniversary of Martha’s death has incited reflection on what we have learned—and not learned—in the century since. Conservation efforts took off in earnest at the turn of the 20th century, and have surged and slumped ever since. Martha’s centenary was honored with the release of two publications: the National Audubon Society’s Birds and Climate Change and the U.S. Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative’s The State of the Birds 2014. The Audubon team compiled and interpreted 30 years of data about birds and their whereabouts to conclude that 314 species are likely to lose significant habitat within the next 65 years. The State of the Birds report looks at a century of conservation triumphs and failures as a map for future planning. In hindsight, the Ohio senate’s dismissal of efforts to conserve the “wonderfully prolific” passenger pigeon seems absurd. Climate change denial will undoubtedly appear in the same light one day (indeed, to many it already does), though this time the consequences of inaction will be far more dire than the loss of a single species, even one of seemingly countless numbers. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia CULTUREMAP_Climate-Change-Discontents

by Amy K. Hughes

Sep 26, 2014

What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Race

It often seems easier not to talk about race than to talk about it. Certainly there have been times when I was so afraid of saying the wrong thing that I didn’t say anything at all. But the national conversation about Michael Brown, the unarmed teen shot to death by police in Ferguson, Missouri, makes avoiding the subject impossible. Many people have declared, without irony, that the situation in Ferguson “wasn’t black-and-white.” From a legal standpoint, however, the matter is straightforward: It is illegal for any police officer to use deadly force unless a suspect poses an immediate threat of death or significant bodily harm to that officer or others. The police’s difficulty in making this risk assessment cannot be underestimated. And if you don’t think part of that snap judgment is based on racial stereotypes, you’re not paying attention. Since 2005, a white police officer has killed a black citizen in the United States nearly twice a week. This summer, in addition to Brown, there was Eric Garner, a 43-year-old father of six choked to death by police on Staten Island for selling loose cigarettes. Then there was John Crawford III, shot to death by cops in an Ohio Walmart because he was holding a BB gun the store sold. Ohio is an open carry state, so even if the gun had been real, Crawford wouldn’t have been breaking the law. But I get not wanting to talk about race. Throughout high school I studiously avoided the subject. In college, race came up in a number of contexts, but my denial remained strong. Things changed for me in grad school when I enrolled in an elective called Theories of Race and Ethnicity. Reading works by Frantz Fanon, Chinua Achebe, Mahatma Gandhi and Henry Louis Gates Jr. gave me some grounding in not only how but why I should think about and discuss racial differences. Namely, because my ignorance had blinded me to the full humanity and reality of individuals I encountered on a daily basis, people who lived and worked beside me and were members of my community. I realized that if I couldn’t see through the lens of race I would never understand history and culture across the globe. I began to read African American novelists to better understand race relations in this country. I was so blown away by Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston and always, always Toni Morrison that I chose African American literature as one of my graduate areas of focus. Through my reading, I have been humbled by how much I did not know. I have been humbled by how little my public education taught me about the history of race in the U.S. after slavery. And I have been humbled by what it means that they didn’t teach me this. I probably could have avoided conversations about race for the rest of my life. Before I read these books, I didn’t understand the extent to which my race afforded me this luxury. Now I realize that it’s impossible to ignore discrimination when it affects your everyday life. Still, denial can be powerful, and people of all races have fallen for misleadingly simple arguments based on individual responsibility and viewing the past through the lens of the present rather than contemplating the vast, layered historical reality. Becoming sensitive to the history that shapes present-day racial tensions takes real effort. But we should all make this effort—not because we are guilty of the atrocities of the past, but so we won’t be complicit in those of the present. Photo courtesy of Flickr CULTUREMAP_Harlem-Renaissance

by Emily Burns Morgan

Sep 25, 2014

Time to Dance: Maddie Ziegler in Sia’s “Chandelier”

Unusual for spotlighting a dancing avatar, pop star Sia’s provocative video for her song “Chandelier” won the 2014 MTV Video Music Award for best choreography—and rightly so. In place of the singer, a prepubescent girl outfitted in a flesh-tone leotard and platinum wig shows off her formidable movement skills in a quirky dance solo that journeys through the rooms of a sparsely furnished apartment. Ryan Heffington’s choreography is far from “best” in any qualitative measure, but it got my vote for sheer quantity. The amount of actual dancing in the other nominated videos is negligible, while “Chandelier” shows nothing but dance. Granted, two other contenders contain dance sequences, but Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s “Love Never Felt So Good” largely presents recycled footage of Jackson. And in “Hideaway,” singer Kiesza so artlessly executes the repetitive choreography that it seems more like aerobics than dance. Music video fans and serious concert dance audiences are generally not the same population, and although I fall firmly into the latter category, I paid attention to “Chandelier” because it generated so much dance-world buzz. Also nominated for video of the year, it stars 11-year-old Maddie Ziegler from Dance Moms—a sickening reality TV show I follow only out of obligation to keep current with trends in my field. Dance Moms foregrounds vicious bickering by mothers whose little girls form an elite competitive dance team; the moms are an embarrassment, but their daughters, especially Maddie, are great fun to watch. When music videos debuted, in the 1980s, they were predominantly dance-driven, an apex in the marriage of pop music and dance on television. Dance lovers of all stripes flocked to their TVs to see the latest moves of such talented “terps” as Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul. Sadly, while the backup dancing in live performances has advanced with exciting originality, the dance quotient in videos has diminished. Quick cuts and short dance phrases punctuated by compelling images characterized videos from the get-go, but there was generally also a connective thread of movement drawn from street and stage dance styles. Now it’s all about the images: erotic posing plus short blips of action that don’t last long enough to constitute dance, an art form whose expressive potential absolutely depends upon playing out over time. But before thinking “Chandelier” signals a return to the good old days, remember Sia is a rarity. More comfortable behind the microphone than in front of the camera, she employs on-screen stand-ins, yet very few recording artists work that way. Most figure prominently in their videos, reveling in advertising their sex appeal rather than relinquishing the spotlight to dancers who can develop content-rich choreography. Also, the choreography in “Chandelier” isn’t remarkable enough to inspire imitation. It starts promisingly, with bold, angular body shapes executed with sassy abandon, but it soon scatters into disjointed tricks—walkovers, speedy spins, an ungraceful split, plopping on a bed, pulling an eyelid up when the camera comes in for a close-up. The stylized movements don’t cohere into a clear choreographic statement. Why are we watching a little girl dance around in a bare environment and a suggestive getup, anyway? Contemplative viewers may infer ideas about the exploitation of children or receive the message that women are often viewed as little girls (or may harbor a desire to remain so). Others may just marvel at Maddie’s agility and then rush to send their daughters to dancing school. “Chandelier” won’t rekindle serious dance fans’ interest in music videos, though it may up the ratings for Dance Moms. Oh dear. Photo courtesy of Scott Gries CONNECTS_Sia

by Lisa Jo Sagolla

Sep 24, 2014