Sunday, March 05, 2006

1. "Dylan’s Vision of Sin": Christopher Ricks. As soon as critics began to take rock music seriously, critics began calling Bob Dylan a poet, and critics started taking rock music seriously at about the same moment that critics first heard Bob Dylan. Problem is or was it always seemed like kind of a bad joke. Dylan was just a rock n roll guy, right? He was a guitar slinger, a streetwise songster with the voice from hell that could take you to heaven. Not so fast. Christopher Ricks is one of our most learned men of letters, a true critic of the stature of Kermode or Kenner or Harold Bloom, an impeccable scholar. In this 500-page masterwork Ricks brings to the works and words of Dylan all the gravity he has previously employed to bring light upon such masters as Keats, Beckett, Tennyson, Eliot and Milton. In so doing, he puts an end to the argument about whether or not Dylan is a poet and simultaneously brings Dylan closer to being a poet of the status of Keats etc. How can there be any doubt?

2. "On the Justice of Roosting Chickens": Ward Churchill. Churchill rips into American history with the passion of an avant-garde artist or a punk rock guitarist. He tells the story of an America most Americans have not heard. Certainly they did not read about it in school. The United States he writes about is a corrupt cannibalistic empire of greed without end. His work is carefully researched and endlessly referenced but never dull. This recent title is one of dozens of his anti-colonial histories; yet it is the one that contains the essay that resulted in his name being tossed to the dogs of the demagogic right, that ugly vast conspiracy that becomes so obviously real everyday to those of us who worry about such things. This book is also perhaps not coincidentally one of his best collections yet. Read it while you still can.

3."What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States": Dave Zirin. In the America of today sports and sports reporting has become the narcotic of the masses, the barbiturate of middle class America that keeps most of us from thinking about, well, much of anything. Under the pen of Dave Zirin sports becomes something quite different. He writes regularly in places such as Alexander Cockburn’s Counterpunch website, about sports from a decidedly radical point of view. In this new collection of essays, Zirin finds the great moments in the history of 20th century sport, moments when someone stood up and mattered, most picturesquely when Tommie Smith and John Carlos lowered their eyes and raised their black gloved fists during the national anthem at the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City. As a nine year old I remember two things when this event made the newspapers the next day. I remember my Republican parents saying it was shameful and un-American and worse. And I remember thinking how very cool that picture looked. I cared nothing for Olympic sports. I knew nothing of the civil rights movement or the anti-war protests then sweeping the country and the globe, but I recognized something important and exciting in that image, something that stuck. Zirin looks for such moments, and finds them in such places and people as Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in baseball and Muhammad Ali doing just about anything when he was young and exciting and “the greatest”, not the readily acceptable and pitiable figure he has become. This is the sports book everyone should read if they only read one sports book or if they’ve read hundreds.

4. Encyclopoaedia Anatomica. These disturbing images are the art of the pathological, forensic sexuality, plastic erotica, sick shit. The boy next door, serial killer to be, at the breaking point, on the way to his first capital crime might well see these pictures flash before his eyes. Beyond hope, past redemption, our boy on the brink perhaps finds comfort in these tasty freeze frames. The rest of us can only wonder at their strange horrible beauty, their graceful perversity.

5. Losing Moses on the Freeway: Chris Hedges. Hedges writes about the 10 Commandments of Moses in a way that makes them vital and necessary, not as the fodder for the rightwing war against the secular left, not as a weapon in the leftwing fight for the separation of church and state, but as something real and moral in the best sense of the word. Even for someone not the least interested in organized religion or spirituality, Hedges strikes a chord. His sense of “moral values” is more than the cliché of a media campaign. For Hedges moral values are as real as war is ugly and politicians are corrupt. He shows how these ancient laws that exist in one form or another in all the major world religions, should and do remain a part of everyday life in this seemingly amoral contemporary moment that we are living.


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