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This Anomalous Experiment

New Criticism was a movement among early 20th century writers and critics of English that argued a strict adherence to a series of absolute truths, the most important of which was that everything that can be known about a work of literature can be found in its published text. Almost a century later, technology and media distribution have changed the mean of the most important word in that description – “text.” These days, the text is never finished and it goes far beyond the written word. Further, criticism, once the province of a few well-educated, semi-cloistered academics, is now the work of the masses. Critics today must either wade into the crowd, or be left on a remote shore.

In this WordPress-powered “anomalous experiment” – TS Eliot’s description – we do not adopt the principles of close reading so favored by the New Critics of old. But there is one element of the namesake school that is the key to this group blog – ambiguity. Different critics see different books, films, television shows, music, poetry, performances in vastly different ways. Further, the best works about human life are far from absolute, even the most moralistic of tales. Here, many different voices explore iconoclastic reactions to media – and the rest of us react to those reactions. That’s the goal; we’ll see how it works out.

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Richard Ford’s Jesus of Suburbia

A fortnight after I finished it, Richard Ford’s trilogy-ending novel The Lay of the Land was still with me. And yet, I cannot tell you what happens in the book, what plot developments drive the last chapter in the saga of Frank Bascombe, what the story really is. There are some bits about a funeral, cancer treatment, real estate sales, and broken marriages. A lot of driving around New Jersey. And there’s a violent ending that doesn’t fit at all. But like a good cover of an old blues song, the latest Ford does not get by on what happens in its 800-plus pages, but how it makes you feel. Here’s how: thoughtful. Even more mortal. A little sad. But ultimately less cynical. A strange combination, and that’s the book’s brilliance.

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In Our Time

James Wolcott beat me to a post I’ve been meaning to write for a while: praise for a wonderful BBC radio program that I’ve enjoyed as a podcast on many a train ride:

I also want to direct attention to the excellent trove of replayable broadcasts of Melvyn Bragg’s superb In Our Time series on BBC 4. Each weekly installment is devoted a historical theme hosted by Bragg, with frighteningly articulate guest experts, and provides an invaluable tutorial on a vast range of topics–everything from negative numbers to Catherine the Great to the Scottish Enlightenment to the evolution of pastoral poetry to (my most recent listen) Samuel Johnson & his circle.

I can’t recommend it enough (my last listen was the Alexander Pope segment). The range of topics is brilliant, the style straightforward and occasionally humorous, the total, enlightening.

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Zoinks Scoob…

Shakespeare’s Sister writes a brief and heartfelt homage to Iwao Takamoto, who created Scooby Doo, and died at age 81:

I can’t begin to explain how much I adored Scooby-Doo as a kid. For my birthday one year, all I wanted was a Scooby-Doo record player. Never mind that they didn’t make Scooby-Doo record players. Mama Shakes bought a little blue record player and decorated it with Scooby-Doo stickers. When I opened it, I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen in my life. Many an evening was spent in my room dancing to my single of Eddie Rabbit’s I Love a Rainy Night spinning away on that Scooby-Doo record player.

Shakes also notes that he also created the wonderful Muttley from the Penelope Pitstop oeuvre. And she puts some great faux final words in Takamoto’s mouth: “…would have made it to 82 if it weren’t for those meddling kids!”

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Eminence Front

Elderly rock stars have this gift for introspection and analysis; they look back with a clarity not present during the drug binges, and there’s a received wisdom that comes with the long-term attainment of stardom – a been there, done that shrug. Two of ’em – roughly half a rock generation apart – write a couple of fine personal journals. In recent posts, both David Byrne and Pete Townshend give homilies on performing and the current scene. Great reading, guilty pleasures.
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We Can Be Highline

Twenty years ago, a friend of mine pointed to the rusted and abandoned elevated railway bed in Chelsea, which I’d barely noticed before, and proclaimed: “There are a couple of real estate bigshots fighting for that – it’s gonna be valauble some day.” That day has come, but not in the developer-oriented vision my friend once had. Friends of the High Line, which is redeveloping the old passage for open space and limited mixed use building, is planning to hold the first Highline Festival this May. Chairman? One David Bowie, newly sixty and readying for a public celebration of that advanced age. Apparently, he found his glam venue. Fred Wilson has some details. Will this become a permanent part of the New York festival scene?

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Overlooked Calvin Baker

A great post from the always inventive, eminently book-worthy Maud Newton, the famed literary blogger – read it all but here’s a taste:

Calvin Baker’s strangely neglected Dominion is one of the books I admired most this year. I understand that a novel so allusive, in which invocations of myth abound and the richness of language recalls the King James, isn’t going to appeal to everyone. But I look at some of the hyped-up claptrap that has critics pulling out their trumpets this year, and am amazed that a story this good hasn’t garnered so much as a review in a major newspaper.

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London Calling

I’m not a film completist; with three children and a limited window of screening opportunities outside of video-on-demand, my year’s best, non-kiddie category, is scant by definition. So my “best of” list in the cinematic arts is limited to exactly two pictures, the only two to really cut through the mist of over-production and bad popcorn, and to stick to my intellectual ribs like butter on a toasted corn muffin.

Both are deeply English, more so in language than in culture. Both have all their crucial action scenes in and around London. And both deal with government and with the power of perception in the masses, a crucial factor in self-governance and the source of legitimacy of power.

VqV for Vendetta caused one right-wing reviewer to rant that the film was “a vile, pro-terrorist piece of neo-Marxist, left-wing propaganda filled
with radical sexual politics and nasty attacks on religion and Christianity.” Others took it as a parable of neoconservatism run wild: its core story of America in ruins, and Britain run by a brutish totalitarian regime is filled with torture, secret imprisonment, the end of fair trials, and a government spying on its citizenry.

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