Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2007, Pt. 6: Anna Tambour and Susanna J. Sturgis

The first of these next two pieces isn't exactly a list, though it certainly does speak to reading pleasure...

Anna Tambour:

Dear Timmi,

I have been thinking every day about this issue, and have had many things that I almost said, feeling uncomfortable about all of them. This was what I wanted to say, and I realised that it depended upon not saying. Though there is a mixed metaphor there that should perhaps be fixed. So how is this?

". . . and to .........., literary genius, who steered me firmly away from romantic fiction"

These words in the Acknowledgements of the book I'm reading now are both the rightest and wrongest words in any book I can remember reading, in 2007 or any other year. The name of the book is ........ (it matters as much as the name of the "literary genius," which is nothing at all for the purposes of my few words). The book as written IS romantic fiction of the highest order, for it isn't some artificial-sugar-laden thing confected for others who are supposed to like that sort of thing. It is pure as the sap exuded from a cut tree. It is high romance, because the story came from the writer's heart, and it tells about what she most loves. Technically, the words don't flow like they would if she were a real writer. The words taste rough and true, which makes the book only more romantic.

Susanna J. Sturgis:

Words and Music 2007

I spent most of last winter in Russia—nineteenth-century Russia, both the period of the Napoleonic Wars and (indirectly) the middle of that century. I'm a copyeditor by trade and my assignment was the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of Tolstoy's War and Peace, which was published earlier this fall. A demanding job, yes, but intimidating? Not at all. While my editorial mind paid close attention to matters of usage and consistency, my readerly mind was exhilarated by the interwoven stories and my writerly mind was impressed as hell.

At WisCon 30, I was fascinated by the various discussions that either explored or touched on the "generation gap" in contemporary feminism, and in recent years I've been variously exasperated, infuriated, and ultimately puzzled by the notions that many men of all ages in the U.S. left-of-center have about feminism. In part the misconception is willful: it's the prerogative of the privileged—any privileged—to distort, simplify, and misinterpret anything that, if fully understood, might threaten their view of themselves and their world. But something was still eluding my every attempt to see it clearly. My quest eventually led me to Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild, in which Deborah Siegel, Ph.D., seeks to explain the Second Wave to the Third and the Third Wave to the Second, all the while developing a wide-screen picture that encompasses all of us. Siegel's interpretation of the Second Wave was familiar, and fair, but it also seemed pale, wavery—the ghostly image of something I had known firsthand in brighter colors.

At last I got it. Siegel relies heavily on texts, both Second Wave and Third, to sketch her pictures of feminism—and nonfiction texts at that, by writers whose access to mainstream print was way above average. So much of feminism as I knew it was rooted in doingorganizing women's centers and bookstores and health-care collectives and music festivals, etc., etc.—and what we learned in the process. Sisterhood, Interrupted barely glimpsed this, and it didn't tell me much of what I most wanted to know about Third Wave feminists either: what they were doing. Feminism confirmed me in my nearly lifelong conviction that words were important, but it also taught me that words couldn't tell the whole story. With feminism, as with Christianity, Islam, red-state Republicanism, the 12-step program, and probably every other mass movement, the "real thing" exists in the living as well as in the texts. The discrepancies between the text and the practice often take the outsider—especially the outsider who comes with debunking on her/his mind—by surprise.

Ever since I read Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, I've wondered "what if"—what if one of the people she worked alongside by some miracle mustered the skills, the energy, and the access to mainstream publishing to get her story into widely read print? In my wondering I've read, or at least skimmed, books and articles along the lines of What's the Matter with Kansas? and Don't Think of an Elephant and moved on, still not dissatisfied. This past summer I finally found my man, Joe Bageant, in an essay online, and this fall I finally got hold of his book, Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War. Bageant grew up working class redneck in Winchester, Virginia, went on the road, turned into a wild-eyed socialist journalist type, and then thirty years later went back home to live. Deer Hunting with Jesus is raucous, infuriating, livid, heartbreaking—easy to read but once you let it under your skin it's hard to get rid of.

Under my skin in a different—but maybe not so?—way is something that isn't even "text" at all—or maybe it is? In 2006 rock master Bruce Springsteen toured Europe and the U.S. with the Seeger Sessions Band, performing songs sung by, written by, and/or in the tradition of folk master Pete Seeger. For the last several months I've been working, driving, dancing, and singing to The Seeger Sessions: We Shall Overcome, the two-CD set recorded live at the first stop of the U.S. tour. Once in a while I shut up, sit down, and just think about how many generations some of these songs—like "John Henry" and "Erie Canal" and "Jacob's Ladder"—have survived, and how many ways you can dance to "Old Dan Tucker," and how seamlessly Springsteen's new verses fit into Blind Alfred Reed's "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?," and how Bill and Sis Cunningham's "My Oklahoma Home" and Seeger's "Bring Them Home (If You Love Your Uncle Sam)" don't need any updating at all.

Emma Goldman had it right: Don't trust any revolution you can't dance to. Singing is good too.

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