Everyone's a Critic
The Observer's culture blogSaturday, March 1, 2014
THE INTERESTINGS, by Eve Silberman
In her new novel The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer dances between two time-tested tropes. It's a tale of artistically ambitious young people who will have to reshuffle their career cards in adulthood. It's also a study of what happens to a group of close friends when some are visited by great wealth and fame.
It all begins in the summer of 1974. Six teenagers at the artsy camp Spirit In the Woods express mild contempt for president Richard Nixon, then departing the White House in disgrace, but spend most of their time preening: "We could be called the Unbelievably Interestings Ones," says Ethan Figman, talented animator. Beautiful Ashley--known as Ash--suggests just "The Interestings." Plain, less-talented suburbanite Julie Jacobson, who can't believe her good fortune to be accepted into this group of New York sophisticates, is delighted to be renamed "Jules."
Most members of the group will remain friends for the next four decades, but its tightness cracks early on when would be-dancer Cathy accuses Ash's brother Goodman (really) of rape. He flees to Iceland, only to reemerge decades later--at still-functioning Spirit-in-the-Woods.
This ugly drama is peripheral to the long, complicated friendship between Jules, who, failing to land work as a comic actress, becomes a not very effective therapist, and Ash and Ethan, who marry each other, though Ethan has buried feelings for Jules. Thanks to his animated TV series, "Figland," Ethan becomes an international success, both famous and wealthy. In one of the book's most telling scenes, Jules sends her husband to pick up a magazine that lists the 100 most powerful people in media. Ethan just barely makes the list, at number 98, but that's small comfort to Jules, who loves and resents the Ash-and-Ethan team in equal measure. "They act like they're in the same world we are," she complains to her husband, "but they're not." Despite, or maybe because of her resentment, Jules is the best-developed and most appealing character in the book.
Wolitzer is a smart, perceptive writer, and the book is a good read, but it's got a couple of annoying lapses of plausibility, especially in its portrayal of filthy rich Ethan. At one point, he has to beg Jules to accept a $100,000 check so she can move her family out of their crummy walk-up. (I guess there might be people so noble.) Then there's the occasion when Ethan visits a factory in Indonesia that manufactures "Figland" T-shirts and other products tied in with his cartoon show. He is shocked--shocked--to find kids working in the factory. Ashamed, he makes a phone call or two, and presto, some of the work done there is transferred to "struggling factories in upstate New York," where presumably, kids aren't exploited.
Garment factories moving from Indonesia to New York? That's a headline I'd expect to see in the Onion.
posted by John Hilton at 3:23 p.m. | 1 comment
Sunday, February 9, 2014
BLUE FRONT MEMORIES, by Mike Gould
Back in the early sixties, the Blue Front Cigar Store was my home away from home.
Our Saturday morning ritual was to load us kids into the family station wagon and "Let's go trade in bottles at the Blue Front!" After a short drive down Hill St., we unloaded a week's worth of pop bottles into the little area next to the door, and went deeper into the store to spend deposit money (and allowances) on comic books and candy.
Growing up in that era, I also spent a lot of time biking to the store to peruse their fairly large selection of science fiction paperbacks. After becoming a familiar face in the place, I was finally able to score my very first summer job there in 1965, working as stock boy, janitor, and occasional cashier. I think I made around $1.75 an hour or so.
My duties were to haul in the morning news papers, unclip the heavy wires bundling them together, and set them out in their places to the right of the door. In those days, the store was one of the few places selling the New York Times, and we got a lot of early morning traffic due to that. I also remember that the NY Times was delivered out front very early Sunday morning, and early-rising readers desperate for their fix would dig the papers out of their bundles and leave money on top, or scattered around on the ground.
The Daily Racing Form was also popular; I vaguely recall it was printed on pink or green paper or something, and we sold five or ten of these every day.
We were also one of the few places in town where you could get out-of-town papers, and we stocked several international magazines: Der Zeit, La Monde, USSR Magazine, and the like. Even some Chinese propaganda magazines, which I found fascinating as I had just studied their revolution in High School.
My boss was Ray Collins, and he was a crusty little guy, who in later years made me think of Danny DeVito. There was also an older lady who worked the cash register and spent most of her time chain-smoking and reading the German magazines.
Back to my routine: after setting out the new papers and moving the older issues to the back of the stacks for eventual culling, I would straighten out the comic book section and clean up the candy area, re-filling boxes of bars and gum as needed. Then I got the interesting duty of tidying up the porn area.
Back in that day, the Blue Front was one of the few places in town where you could get that era's soft porn magazines such as "Stag", "Spy" and "Real Balls". I may have made that last one up, but you get the gist. We even had gay mags involving beefy guys dressed as sailors and such. Not much for the ladies, as I recall. Anyway, it was my job to straighten up these gems and then get out of the way for the crowds bustling in and out to browse and buy.
Continuing on to the back of the store, we had racks and racks of paperback books of all genres and descriptions. Big sellers I remember from back then were "Cybernetics", "Valley of the Dolls", and the various joke/cartoon books put out by Price Stern and Sloan: "Elephant Jokes", "MadLibs", and the various "Happiness is Dry Martini" parodies. These last were kept up at the register and sold pretty well.
Porn paperbacks were also available, and I have vivid memories of a local pervert claiming he had forgotten his glasses and could I read a chapter of "Leather Lads" to him. I declined.
I did all the processing of pop bottles, hauling them down the back stairs for storage until the monthly deliveries brought in new stock, and the empties went back up the stairs to the truck.
The place was a pit. There was dust and cobwebs everywhere, and my boss never had me do any cleaning. Finally, I got fed up and brought in a vacuum cleaner from home and had at it for a couple of days while home from my first year of college on Christmas break. Ray begrudgingly let me do this and grumpily acknowledged its effect. He had a theory that people were attracted to this level of funkiness, part of the "charm" of the place. He did have me wash the windows occasionally and put newer books on display out there for passersby to admire.
Most of my afternoon time was spent sitting on a crushed cardboard box of old magazines at the back of the store, reading through the pulp paperbacks. Shell Scott books were a favorite. When a customer wanted a particular book, Ray would ding the little bell he had and I would come trotting out to find what was needed. It was summer and there was no air conditioning. It got very hot in there.
I was also called in to run the cash register from time to time. I remember selling condoms to a local car mechanic, which was awkward to my teenage sensibilities.
Much later, in the eighties, I wrote a song about this for my band, Mike Gould and the Gene Pool Band. This was a pastiche of the tune Born in Chicago. My song was called Born in Ann Arbor, and the relevant verse goes:
My first job went down
At the Blue Front Cigar Store...
Selling gum and porn and papers,
Wash the windows, sweep the floor.
We should also remember the fine jump blues band, the Blue Front Persuaders, that was active around the time I was running my band. As I recall band leader Steve Wethy described the name as a combination of the funkiness of the store and the slang term for a honking big wrench. Great band.
All in all, a pretty good first shot at the job scene for high schooler. Good times. I'll miss it.
posted by John Hilton at 11:59 a.m. | 0 comments
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
BUMPED FOR JUDY COLLINS, by Bert Stratton
Last year at The Ark, my klezmer show got bumped for Judy Collins. She took our slot.
Ann Arbor's ukulele-master Gerald Ross, who was a sideman emailed me then: "I saw The Ark schedule. I don't think we're playing Feb. 9 , because you're not Judy Collins."
I had a lock on that date! I emailed The Ark. The Ark said how about another date? I suggested a couple more Saturday nights. The Ark said how about a Friday night.
I don't play Friday nights if I can help it. I like to stay home for Friday nights - the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat). Sometimes my Shabbats are just a couple hours, but they're always on Friday night! I once heard a Reform rabbi say, "Say a prayer over your pizza if you're out with your kids on Friday night." I'm all for that. I "hold" by that. ("Hold" is a Jewish verb for "I follow that custom.")
I reluctantly took the Friday night slot last year, but didn't put "Friday" in my publicity.
I got up to Ann Arbor on Friday afternoon and met up with an old college friend, Charlie Burch. He had just donated his 196070s political buttons (No!/Nein/Nyet/Non/Lo, March on Washington, Go Michigan Beat Thailand) to an archive in the Graduate Library. I wondered who still used the library. The answer: Charlie.
He pointed out where various buildings don't exist anymore. Like Centicore Books, Borders Books, Orange Julius and Miller's Ice Cream.
I like touring Ann Arbor. It's the only place I've lived other than Cleveland. I graduated U-M in 1973.
I said a private Shabbat prayer in a Mexican restaurant, Sabor Latino, before my gig. I opened the gig with "Shalom Aleykhem," a well-known Friday night song, and I wished the Jews at The Ark a "Shabbat shalom."
I had a good one - a good Shabbat. But playing publicly on Friday night is not optimal for me.
Yiddishe Cup is playing on a Saturday this year Feb. 8 . Praise the Lord!
posted by John Hilton at 5:58 p.m. | 0 comments
Friday, November 22, 2013
SEEING KENNEDY, by Eve Silberman
I see him!” someone shouted and we all broke in applause. I jumped up and down, as ten-year-olds will do when they’ve been standing and waiting for half an hour.
A small line of us stood on Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s main artery, across from my dad’s college textbook store. My older brother Alex and a couple of Wayne State students stood next to me. One student held a camera.
It was Saturday, October 6, 1962, and President John Kennedy was in town for some sort of meeting—with the unions? Democratic leaders? I don’t remember. But word had gotten out that afterward, he would be driving down Woodward Avenue. No one knew for certain if this was true, but it was exciting waiting, and the weather was perfect.
A police car came first, then a long convertible with the top down. Up front were the driver, and someone I guess was a Secret Service guy; in the back seat, Michigan Governor John Swainson, and next to him—our president. My first reaction was shock: his hair looked redder than in the pictures! Not orange red, but what you’d call copper.
He looked toward our group, smiled like he’d been waiting for this moment, and waved. I felt disappointed that he didn’t look directly at me but I shouted out “Hi, Kennedy! Hi, Kennedy!” My brother shouted “Hi, John!” Someone else added “God Bless You, Mr. President!” The Wayne State student clicked his camera. The president waved again, the convertible continued down Woodward trailed by a security car, and it was over.
“You’ll be able to tell your grandchildren you saw the President of the United States,” the Wayne student said to me.
Barely a week later, the country was caught in the terror of the Cuban Missile crisis. We kids picked up the fear, too, and talked about our country being bombed by the Reds. I found some comfort in remembering the handsome man who smiled from his car. He would take care of us, wouldn't he?
On November 22, 1963, when the president’s shooting was announced, I felt a terror that made the Cuban Missle crisis scare pale. Frightened, I raced home, eager to be with my mother, for comfort and to tell her the news that somehow I was convinced she didn’t know. But when she opened the door, her first words were, “He’s dead. I know.”
Like everyone, our family hunkered around the TV set the next few days to watch the now-iconic scenes: Jackie in the blood stained pink suit; Jack Ruby killing Lee Harvey Oswald; John John, age three, saluting his father’s casket.
When my elementary class gets together at reunions, we always talk about where we were when it happened, and how our principal dismissed school early and asked us to leave quietly. Although a lot has been written about how Kennedy’s killing impacted the generation of kids growing up, we don’t speculate on what it did to the deep places where we kept our fears and emotions. We stick to the facts. Where were you when you heard? Who told you?
I didn’t have grandchildren to tell about that day. And after Kennedy’s death, I seldom told anyone my story of seeing the president in person. Partly, as an adult, I realized it wasn’t that much of a story; I’d seen President Kennedy for a few seconds; his hair was redder than in the pictures. Also, as the years passed—my dad died, the store demolished—the ride down Woodward Avenue took on a dreamlike aura; it was pastel pink, not the brilliant pink of Mrs. Kennedy’s pillbox hat. I wished I’d gotten the phone number of the Wayne student to see the photos. Almost for proof.
In 1982, at some Michigan Democratic fundraising picnic, I met former Governor Swainson. I asked him if he remembered the ride down Woodward Avenue. Swenson, who has since died, took a bite of cake and told he remembered it very well. It wasn’t every day, he said, that you met a president.
posted by John Hilton at 5:23 p.m. | 1 comment
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
BIRDS OF A FEATHER, by Caroline Sutton
Birds of a feather flock together.
My mother used to always say this to us as we ran across the lawn in the summer, spreading our wings (arms) and flying across the grass… jumping over the sprinkler and carrying on until we came to the small hill in our backyard that was my 'lift off' spot and I'd spring off soaring down with arms outstretched until I landed thunk at the bottom as us human birds are apt to do. Gravity always prevails, even in children's imagination. But oh, how I wished in those days of my youth, that I was a bird.
Birds have always been the most magical of creatures to me. The vast expanse of wing, that folds up so neatly until needed. Those small bodies, so unlike other mammals, with a beak instead of a mouth and feathers instead of hair. They are fascinating. To look in the eye of a bird is to know that it has seen things that you will never see…. felt the breath of clouds on its wings and pierced the rays of sunlight before those rays reached the ground. They trill a whole orchestra of sounds that are distinctive to their type – sometimes musical… sometimes just plain loud! Or aggressive … or squawkingly annoying. But they communicate - and if you've ever had a parrot sit on your shoulder you realize how much they communicate if they choose.
When my mother used to comment on how my sister and I 'flocked together' she did it with a smile in her eye. Because growing up as the oldest sister made me the leader. Everything I did, my sister did too. Today, as adults, my sister and I are nothing alike and we live far apart. But we share stories back and forth across the miles and we laugh a lot on the phone. She, in fact, has a pet bird named Chili - a black capped conure - who sits on her shoulder and flaps around her apartment. He is the merriest little friend, always singing and repeating words and stunningly pretty. He chirps into the phone sometimes to say hi to me (yup) and I get the occasional iphone picture of him doing something astounding. My nephew with wings.
My flock is larger than hers and composed of human children, who have grown into bird lovers in their own rite. We've wandered through many a bird related adventure over the years – from hand feeding baby robins before returning them(successfully ) to their parents…. to sitting quietly for an hour so I could capture a picture of a chickadee on my sons hand. When we moved to Ann Arbor 7 years ago, my husband – who knows my passion for feathered creatures- went out and bought me a book about Michigan bird watching and we've studied it frequently to learn the names of birds that visit our yard. Our first winter here, when we didn't quite know what to do with ourselves (we'd just moved from California and we had no mittens, no boots, and a newborn), we sat by the window and spent hours watching the birds come to the feeders we'd set out along our deck and in the trees. It was, in a single word, magic.
Now, having been here a number of years and grown accustomed to the flocks that fly overhead and the ducks that waddle through our backyard, we've sorted our lives according to the seasonal visits of some of our feathered visitors . In June we eagerly await the cedar waxwings, and in October I keep my eyes open for the cardinals that live in our back pine tree all winter. In April a family of Mallard ducks come for a week and splash around in the small puddles of water that collect from melted snow in the back yard. It's as if they are vacationing before they drift off to a larger pond to build their nest and lay their eggs.
Often, on Sunday mornings early and crisp, my flock and I will flap to the trails of Ann Arbor - we particularly like Nichols Arboretum and that long well walked path along the Huron River. The four kids like to run the path until they get to the steps that lead us all up up up to the shade of the pine grove and mini fairy garden and then peony garden which blooms brilliantly in late May / early June. While they are all running along, my husband and I walk slowly and I keep my eyes peeled for songbirds and raptors - we've seen owls and hawks, Herons and Hummingbirds, Warblers and Thrush.
It surprised me, when we moved to Michigan, that I could become so mesmerized by bird sightings. As I sit at the playground while my children play tag, I'm gazing at the Sand Hill crane that has landed in the marsh not 20 feet away from me. As I drive down Washtenaw Avenue I gasp and have to pull over so we can all stare at three turkey vultures sitting on a sign post by the side of the road. The kids and I keep a running tally of types of birds we've spied over the years in unusual places. The hawk perched on our deck railing two years ago was stunning. But the kids are just as entranced by the doves dancing across the railing and cooing their soft lullaby sounds on early May mornings.
Ann Arbor has become so many things to us, but the beauty of nature constantly within our vision is its most powerful allure. Stopping to let a turtle cross the street. Seeing a family of deer feeding in the woods by the road. Listening to coyotes howling on quiet autumn nights. We take none of this for granted.
Meanwhile, my youngest, my four year old – she wants to be a bird – as I did when I was her age. She likes to pretend she has feathers and hoots like an owl. She runs across the yard with arms outstretched, flapping and pretending to lift off. She wants to see birds up close and talk to them. Outside on our deck she'll sing to them all and put out birdseed. On occasional days we go to the Leslie Science and Nature Center and watch them feed the raptors – today we learned what the Barn Owl eats and watched the Peregrine Falcon spread its sharp talons on its perch thinking about what it would be like if those talons slammed into your arm. Ouch! As we turned to leave, the Bald Eagle screeched loudly and spread its wings until its full wing span was splayed out across its enclosure. My daughter screeched back and spread her 'wings' out in response. It was a moment – the two of them looking intently at each other and, seemingly, communicating.
And why not? Perhaps this is what attracts us, what attracts my daughter to the feathered world. The song and sound and communicating that goes on constantly, naturally. A flock of crows is not so unlike a playground full of 6 year olds… all leaping and shouting and diving and gasping and waving of arms and wings.
I watched them and considered those oft used words of my mother. Birds of a feather may flock together. It's true. But 'birds' of different feathers can flock together too sometimes, especially if you are willing to spread your wings once in awhile and attempt lift off.
posted by John Hilton at 1:55 p.m. | 0 comments
Tuesday, October 8, 2013
LIFE CHAIN, by Iris Hanlin
On October 6, a cool, overcast Sunday afternoon, the intersection of Huron Parkway and Washtenaw Ave. in Ann Arbor was lined with over 250 pro-life activists for National Life Chain Sunday 2013. From 2 to 3:30 p.m., men, women, and children of all walks of life stood on the public sidewalks, holding signs including those which read “Women Do Regret Abortion,” “Adoption: The Loving Option,” “Defend Life,” as well as signs with numbers to various crisis pregnancy help lines.
“I think it’s important to put a smile, and a happiness, and a positive face to the pro life movement,” says Heidi Bratton, mother of 6, ranging from age 5 to 23. “Because life is good.”
Barb Brown, who works with the youth of Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor agrees, and believes the public display of the Life Chain adds an important element in raising awareness of the cause and the issue at hand. “I think it’s important that an issue this big in our nation is kept in the eye of the public, and this is one of the most family friendly ways to do it,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be confrontational. It can be peaceful and prayerful.”
Here in Ann Arbor, pro-lifers are trying especially to reach the students of the University of Michigan. “We are here to stand up for life and for babies,” says Paul Dobrowolski, regional director for the Ann Arbor chapter of 40 Days for Life. “I believe this is the perfect place to be – right in the heart of liberal Midwest. We need to get the word out – there is a lot of laissez-faire feelings in this town, and we are here to get people motivated, and to let people know these are human beings in the womb.”
Half the crowd was young people, who believed their presence was just as important. “The young people are the fire, and I feel like when young people are out here, people can see it’s just not older people,” says Brigid Lennon, 17, of Ann Arbor.
Life Chain is devoted to prayer and peaceful, family-friendly protest. Life Chains occur in other nations on different dates, and all Chains make a point of remaining peaceful. More than 20,000 Chains have been held worldwide this far, and no known pro-lifer has been cited or arrested.
Ann Arbor’s Life Chain was one in over 1550 cities and towns in the U.S. and Canada, who, again this year, proclaimed the irrefutable message of the pro-life movement: Human life is to be valued and protected from the moment of conception. Participants credit the faithful assistance of God, and praise him with grateful hearts.
posted by John Hilton at 4:59 p.m. | 0 comments
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
KARL POHRT REMEMBERED, by Tom Fricke
Shortly after Pohrt's death, Fricke, chair of the U-M Anthropology Department, shared these thoughts with his colleagues. They are reprinted here with his permission:
I wanted to pass on the news, especially for those of you who don't check the Ann Arbor media, that Karl Pohrt, owner of the Shaman Drum Bookstore, died last Tuesday July 10 just before midnight. He was just 65. Karl was diagnosed with a very rare form of thyroid cancer last Fall -- late September or so -- and, after a period in which he participated in experimental trials as an outpatient at NIH, prepared himself for death in a brave and clear-eyed way.
I bring news of Karl's death to you because he was in the most essential way one of us, a lively and engaged member of our department community as surely as each one of us is. Many of you listed your course books with the Shaman Drum; many of you celebrated the publication of your own books at the store; many of you were probably told by one faculty member or another as you prepared your prelim bibliographies, "Go over to the Drum and look at the titles on the shelf. Begin there." But it never stopped at the book part of things for Karl -- he'd often appear at our talks and colloquia, be guaranteed to buttonhole one colleague or another at the store and take him or her for a coffee to talk anthropology, or continually ask those of us who he saw the most about where the discipline was going, what was new.
Rapid on the heels of Karl's dying, his family arranged the memorial for yesterday, in part as a gesture toward keeping down the crowds. In spite of this, about 300 people showed up to see Karl off. The sheer variety of those who came -- his family, of course, but also at least one dean, a good number of faculty, the largest single gathering of former Shaman Drum employees since the closing of the store, working people friends from Flint, artists, poets, leftie political types, spiritual seekers,members of his church, people who flew in on the shortest of notice from outside, people who fought and argued with Karl in life, people who regarded him as a teacher -- tells much about Karl all by itself.
The service included verses from Isaiah, from the Gospel of John, from Buddhist sutras, and enough song to rock the joint. All organized by Karl. Joe Summers and Geoff Eley spoke about Karl and his life. Keith Taylor read a poem by Gary Snyder. I read the Heart Sutra (wearing Don Lopez's tie with the sutra twined into its weave -- in Chinese). One daughter and a son-in-law brought it down to the family. It was Karl through and through.
Geoff's comments, in particular, came from over 30 years of friendship of the deepest sort, a friendship that dates from the birth of the store itself, when Geoff walked in and chatted with Karl, ending up going out for coffee. Through coffee, movies, and nearly daily conversations at times, Geoff grew to see in Karl a version in nearly pure form of the kind of big-hearted, giving, always generous community intellectual that could keep the academy moored to its best engagements with everyday life. Geoff recognized not only his friendship with Karl, but also his role as an exemplar, when he named his distinguished university professorship after his friend: The Karl Pohrt Distinguished University Professor of Contemporary History.
I go on at length so we don't forget. Karl and the Drum were vital parts of the life of this University, representing a vision of the tapestry, community and academy, into which we need to be woven. It is a threatened, perhaps irreproducible, reality approached so closely by this simple bookstore. The Drum in its heyday had a national, even international, presence (The Los Angeles Times headlined its story about Karl's passing as "Karl Pohrt, Legendary Owner of the Shaman Drum Bookshop, Dies at 65"). The sheer density of artists, poets, writers, scholars, and just plain folks you'd find in that tiny store on State Street is without compare. One day, you might be startled to find Patti Smith browsing the shelves next to you. Another day it would be Allen Ginsberg, or maybe Gary Snyder, or Jim Harrison, ducking into Karl's office. Visiting speakers at our department asked to find free time to browse the Shaman Drum. We used the Drum as a feature of our recruitment for new faculty and graduate students. It was a known and cherished place. Romances and steamy affairs, the planning of conferences, the parsing of theory, the debates of scholars, the free roaming of children, and maybe a glass of wine at a reading all jostled together among the books.
And Karl presided over it all with delight. This was what he wanted. This is what he would never compromise. The refusal to compromise his vision of the store is likely one of the things that led to its demise, since what others saw as terrible business decisions were linked to Karl's commitment to his vision of a bookstore as a community space. That business decisions based on such a vision can kill a bookstore is a challenge and a puzzle in need of solving.
And now Karl, too, has gone. I want to mark his importance to us, to hope somebody figures out a way to make his vision work, and to acknowledge the passing of this Zelig-like character who seemed to know everybody and to have been present at so much: an early member of Students for a Democratic Society, a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War, a lecturer called out of his classroom by FBI for questioning, a scrappy guy from Flint unafraid to throw somebody messing with his staff or books out of the store, a welcoming presence to others, a pacifist and a meditator, a lover of truly terrible movies...
Gary Snyder, after a visit in April, wrote in a note, "I'm grateful that at least I got a chance to visit again with him, and that it was a good day for him. He was remarkably present -- and warm, expansive, calm, and beautiful." Geoff and Joe Summers said much like this, and more, at the memorial.
And so, Karl is gone and those of us who knew him will miss him. I'd like others, who maybe didn't know him or didn't know the many parts of him, to wish they did.
posted by John Hilton at 1:28 p.m. | 0 comments