Thursday, February 16, 2006

Paula Fox: The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe

I had really high hopes for this book. The potential for greatness is definitely present. Reading about the experiences of a young woman writing in postwar Europe is a subject that sparks the imagination. Unfortunately, The Coldest Winter is more of an outline than a memoir.

Fox makes statements about things she experineces and then fails to develop her ideas. There is also very little reference to Fox's experiences as a writer. In fact, if not for the second part of the title, the reader would be hard-pressed to explain what, exactly, Fox was doing in Europe in the first place. It seems that Fox moved from country to country fairly frequently. Very little page time is given to any one place, keeping the reader from getting a feel for the atmosphere of any one place.

People Fox encounters are barely introduced, ideas are never fleshed out, and the few complete narratives of individual experiences are small and alone in the desert of Fox's seemingly unfinished work. Despite these horrors, Fox does write her few sentences in an engaging manner. Perhaps if there had been more of these lovely sentences devoted to her skeleton-book the work could have been saved. The lack of cohesiveness and completion The Coldest Winter suffers from would almost certainly keep it from being published if it had been written by someone who was not an award-winning author already.


I promise I will write a positive reveiw eventually. I've just had a short run of bad luck. I do have a growing backlog of books to write about - I'll try to catch up on that soon.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

C. Vann Woodward: The Burden of Southern History

C. Vann Woodward is my hero. I want to be an academic just like him one day. Reading The Burden of Southern History, a collection of essays written about various southern history issues ranging from John Brown to the Civil Rights Movement, was extremely enjoyable, especially since it was so well-written.

Instead of giving a synopsis of the whole collection, I'll include my favorite passage from the essay "A Second Look at the Theme of Irony." A response to his own essay included in the first edition of Burden, "A Second Look" ruminates upon the escalation of the Civil Rights Movement from the late '50s to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, as well as the Vietnam conflict. His thesis is that Americans have suppressed the realization that they are invincible. He writes that Southerners, even after losing one war and barely coming through the first Reconstruction period, hopelessly cling onto several lost causes, both in the historical sense as well as the present.

This passage is eerily relevant for our present times:
"...[H]istory has begun to catch up with Americans. The fabled immunity from frustration and defeat has faltered its magic on several fronts, foreign as well as domestic. National security, traditionally perceived as free, a natural right of Americans, has been stripped away by revolutions in weaponry. Such security as remains, far from free, is purchased at frightful cost. With more power than ever before, more than any nation has ever had, we enjoy less security than we did in an era of national weakness. And we have found that all our power and fabulous weaponry can be ineffective in a war with a weak and undeveloped nation torn by a civil war of its own. In the meantime the innocence and virtue with which we assume American motives are natively endowed, especially in relations with other nations, had become a stock subject of jeers and ridicule even among our friends and allies. Not only were we threatened with failure and defeat in a commitment of national honor, but we were convicted of guilt and perfidy in the court of world opinion."


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Amy Raphael: Grrrls: Viva Rock Divas

Reading a book about contemporary music that is twelve years out of date is an interesting experience. Amy Raphael’s Grrrls: Viva Rock Divas is a collection of interviews first published in Great Britain under the title Nevermind the Bullocks: Women Rewrite Rock. Because of this, there are several segments dedicated to groups that are not as well known in the States, such as Echobelly, Huggy Bear, and Sister George. As both titles indicate, the book presents itself as a study of women in rock, but there’s very little study and not all of those profiled can even be categorized as working in rock, such as Bjork.

The better segments of Grrrls are the interviews with Courtney Love of Hole, Tanya Donelly of Belly, and Liz Phair. They wander off-topic – it would be nearly impossible not to do so at some point or another – but the reader comes away with a strong impression of a strong relationship between these women and their music. Love’s segment is the first in the book. Her segment is the longest in the book, owing largely to the fact that she had two interviews instead of one. Both interviews took place a few months after the suicide of Kurt Cobain. Many of the interviews allude to Cobain’s death in some way or another. The grunge and Riot Grrrl movements were too intertwined for it to be any other way. Love mentions Cobain a few times, but for the most part she steers away from the subject and focuses on her own music rather than her connection with Nirvana. As a whole, Love comes off as reasonably well-read and intelligent. However, the span of twelve years never seems as poignant as when Love says “I’ve got the Madwoman under control and I don’t know how I had the good grace to get that, but I did. I will die before I go mad.” The Love of 1994 is a very different creature than the Love of today, who is dismissed as a joke by entertainment media.

Tanya Donelly focuses on her own songwriting, her relationship to music, and (most importantly) her role as a woman in the music industry. Her segment is only a few pages long and is very on-message. The low page count isn’t surprising. Donelly admits she finds it “incredibly hard to trust people,” leaving her segment one of the two least confessional and most relevant in the entire collection.

Liz Phair ends the book on a high note. Like Donelly, she gives away little about her personal life and talks about her relationship to music, her songwriting, and performances. She illustrates how different it is to be a woman in the industry by relating her experiences with sex as a marketing tool and how her groupies aren’t “those who want after-show sex.” She has the honor of having the very last line in the book, a fine example of the precarious position women in music had in 1994: “I told Matador to watch out for repeat writers that might be psychotic.”

As the book progresses, the segments become shorter, creating the impression that Raphael was losing interest in her project and/or her subjects and was trying to finish up as quickly as possible. The segments highlighting Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), Ellyott Dragon (Sister George), and Huggy Bear are poorly executed. Kim Gordon, while being hailed as “the godmother of alternative rock” and “the original Riot Mom,” is barely given time to open her mouth. Her interview is only a little longer than the introduction. Raphael is content to praise Gordon, but doesn’t give her much time in which Gordon can talk about herself as a member of Sonic Youth. Ellyott Dragon’s chapter is interesting for highlighting what an anomaly Dragon is – a lesbian Israeli ex-corporal who happens to also be involved in the alt-rock scene. Her narrative is the only one to explore lesbianism juxtaposed with alternative music, but the latter is briefly addressed, keeping the focus on the former. This is an interesting concept, and I would encourage anyone to write a book on the subject (hey, there’s an idea!), but it is distracting from the work as a whole.

Huggy Bear’s section is the only one to highlight an entire band. This interview is a definite, glaring break with the pattern of the book. On top of that, not all members of Huggy Bear are female. This is the most disjointed section – there’s some music, some books, some feminist theory, and a sprinkling of nonsensical sentences written without any sort of context scattered throughout (“Joan of Arc. Angela Davis. Elizabeth Tudor. Sarah Bernhardt. Martha Reeves.”). This last element is reminiscent of the school notebook of an angsty teenager, covered in “deep” quotes from all kinds of sources.

Grrrls certainly has shining moments, but they are unfortunately outnumbered by the book’s shortcomings. The meandering quality of many of the chapters leaves readers wondering what the point of the book is, exactly. It appears that Raphael didn’t so much interview these women as turn on a tape recorder and let them babble. The end result closely resembles a record of what goes on in a psychiatrist’s office when the doctor is seeing patients who are in love with their own voices. This sometimes pays off, but the overall effect is often sloppy. Raphael may have done this on purpose, believing that a strict tape-to-page transcription would render a more authentic experience, but all of the segments would have done better with editing to keep them on focus.