Half-Way to a Year: A Quick Editor’s Note

Six months ago, it was cold. So I downloaded WordPress and started this blog. And stayed inside. Time well-spent, I’d say – though it was just the smallest spark that provided a hint of hint of fuel for all the cultural combustion that has come this way since. I just keep the lights on here most of the time: the bloggers and commenters make this place live.

Yes, newcritics is six months old now, a blogging toddler learning to walk. Are you pleased with it? I am, certainly. The range of posts has been stunning. Sure, we trend a bit toward boomer tastes in music, we look backward for film greatness in lieu of the local multiplex, and we obsess over television shows that never saw the light of the 1980s. We write about obscure cartoonists, off-Broadway minutiae, and bands that never existed. Yet, somehow it works – or does it? I’m asking seriously: How can we make this better? Should we continue? Have you learned anything? Met anyone? Read a book you otherwise wouldn’t have read, downloaded a song you otherwise would have ignored, added a strange new title to your DVD list?

Does anyone notice the changing art in the header?

In six months, we’ve had 210 posts from 35 authors, inspiring more than 1,700 (real) comments. Those are the stats that matter. I’ve had the please of meeting many of the authors in person; others are virtual relationships. Yeah, it’s been a rich six months. So what’re you looking for, kid?

Jerusalem on the Jukebox: Chabon’s Yiddish Noir

So lush is the detail in Michael Chabon’s brilliant The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, so developed the back-story, the alternative history, that it’s the rare short novel that feels long – like you want to live in its dark and distinct precincts a little longer.

YiddishChabon has described the book as an ode to Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald, and it continues his long fascination with detectives who descend from the lineage of Sherlock Holmes. A writer of short stories, essays and anthologies, Chabon has produced one other novel of massive creation – the wonderful The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, published in 2000. Like The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, it created a world of characters and places, and a code – or index – to what was happening: an incredibly deep encyclopedia of small chapters, clippings of the “past,” timelines, and people.

His latest work tops that achievement; it feels like Chabon wrote many thousands of pages of extra material and then synthesized it all to a tight crime drama featuring a small circle of dark and damaged characters – like he wrote big, boiled some water, and published the infusion.

The tea drinks well. Of course, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union revolves around an imagination-grabbing premise. A swath of Alaska has been set aside as the Jewish homeland, with its capital in the former frontier town of Sitka. The book is filled with Yiddish, and you’ll acquire more of a working knowledge of that evocative tongue by reading it. And at the center is a detective. A great failed, jaded, sad and sickly shadow of a Jewish dick.
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Ward Cleaver’s Club: the Great TV Dads

Ward CleaverTomorrow, I shall take my breakfast under the covers – a twice-yearly occurrence around case Watson (birthday, too!) – and I shall enjoy the mild but heartfelt tribute to my fatherhood. Later, I’ll give my old man a card and a gift, and char a few burgers in his honor. And I will feel well-satisfied at having appeased the greeting card holiday gods for another year.

But the arrival of the joyous Father’s Day season (rough on the orphans or the abandoned amongst us, I must agree) also got me thinking about how the role of “father” is laid out in the cultural scripture of the land. By which I mean television, of course.

So to the wordpress I dashed to throw down a few words: first off, it’s clear that our common idea of how fathers should behave begins with Ward Cleaver and his clan. Secondly, single fathers actively raising the children would seem to greatly outnumber those found in the general population on a percentage basis by a wide margin; indeed, it appears to be the inverse of single moms – of which there are many in the real world, but relatively few in the Shirley Patridge mode.

The single fathers list is huge: Steve Douglas (Fred MacMurray), Jed Clampett (Buddy Ebsen), Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene), Fred G. Sanford (Redd Foxx) – not to mention the Bachelor Father (John Forsythe) and Eddie’s Father (Bill Bixby). The small town of Mayberry supported two single fathers during its decade-long run on the backlot: Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) and Sam Jones (Ken Berry). Single dads have held a wide variety of jobs – the professor to Juliet Mills’ dishy Nanny (Richard Long), a gun-flipping Rifleman (Chuck Connors), a Florida park ranger who befriends a ridiculously smart dolphin named Flipper (Brian Kelly), and a judge (Tony Randall).
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Richard Thompson’s Sweet Warrior: Battles Everywhere

Richard ThompsonThe earnest thump-thump-thump of the bass drum on Dad’s Gonna Kill Me – the headline-grabbing anti-war single from Richard Thompson’s new Sweet Warrior album – creates a rhythm that doesn’t exactly match that of Baghdad, the song’s setting and the “‘Dad” of its title. The backing rhythm there, of course, is not so regular as deadly, and the thumping, discordant IEDs are clearly on Thompson’s mind these days. The record crashes with songs of warfare, some of the battlefield variety, but more of the type that has typified the work of the prolific singer-songwriter-guitarist for four decades – roadside bombs of the romantic variety being Thompson’s stock-in-trade since the late 60s.

Sweet Warrior is (critical cliche alert!) a smashing return to form for the brilliant Mr. Thompson, if any be needed. The record is filled with hooks and sweet melodies, arcane rhyme and story-telling, rolling staccato guitar leads and buttery chord changes. It suffers only from the occasional over-swinging by the spry 58-year-old (a reaction to the old charge of non-singing from his early post-Fairport days) and the huge expecations of a small but intensely loyal fan-base that expects immense and drawn-out guitar soloes and snarling lyrical charm at every turn.

Thompsons erect the warrior theme and dances carefully through its twists and turns. With 3,500 odd western soldiers dead over the last four years and the echoes of “Islamofacism” lumping together all those who turn toward Mecca (and Thompson has been one of these) in the pall of world violence, concocting a rock record that blends wit with tragedy, war-time violence with romantic disunion, for an audience of Anglo-Americans (and the artist lives half-time in both lands) is, to say the least, a delicate mission. It succeeds.

But ultimately, Sweet Warrior must also pass the hum test – and for this critic, it lands a strong grade on that particular exam.
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Steve Gilliard, 1966-2007

One of the great voices of the shared Internet is gone: blogger Steve Gilliard (who blogged here at newcritics before his illness) died today at age 41.

I didn’t know Steve very well personally, but he was a brother in the virtual sense. His voice was entirely his – a true iconoclast with a strong, unyielding point of view. We met a couple of times. Mainly we corresponded in email, in comments, on his blog, on my blog. Just before his illness, he agreed to join our little cultural blogging group here. I treasure the fact that his name appears there as an author. He wrote about The Magnificent Seven and its place in cold war culture, and Revolver – to Steve, the Beatles’ true breakthrough record.

There is another important aspect to Steve – one that I think may be a true legacy beyond his pioneering political blogging. Gilliard brought real perspective to race relations in New York and beyond. An African-American who was unafraid to talk about race, Steve willingly jumped into the deep end on many issues that frankly scared a lot of the mainly-white, predominantly middle-class, well-educated lefty blogosphere. His work during the transit strike, for instance, brought insight that none of New York’s newspapers even came close to.

And to me, he wasn’t predictable. He did relationship advice. He did military history. He did classic rock. He did food. He did technology. He was a big man in every sense. Steve didn’t suffer fools, but he was an open source kind of guy – bring it, he’d say, and back it up.

His partner in the Newsblog, Jen, told us that Steve came to know just how much his voice was missed during his long, terrible illness. I’m glad of that. But the feed’s been empty for too damned long now. And it’s going to stay that way.

UPDATE: Thanks to Jon Swift, a compendium of links and tributes – some great (and sad) reading: American Street, Firedoglake, Mad Kane’s Political Madness (featuring a short interview with Steve), Sisyphus Shrugged, AlterNet.org, Daily Kos, skippy the bush kangaroo, State of the Day, The Carpetbagger Report, TalkLeft, August J. Pollak, Jesus’ General, All Spin Zone, the talking dog, The Impolitic, Happy Furry Puppy Story, The Democratic Daily, culturekitchen, Comments From Left Field, Brilliant at Breakfast, Digby, Orcinus, Avedon Carol’s The Sideshow, Meteor Blades, Making Light, Off the Kuff.