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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Thursday, January 29, 2015

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, by Eve Silberman

cover of the book All the Light We Cannot See

In his best-selling novel set in Europe during WWII, Anthony Doerr follows the fortunes of two adolescents as they struggle for survival, moral and physical. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind French girl who memorizes her village through an exquisitely designed miniature made by her father. German orphan Werner Pfennig, a math whiz with a gift for mechanics, chooses to attend a Nazi youth military camp rather than be sent to work in the mines. In alternating chapters, Doerr tells each young person's story.

Contrasts soon develop. Marie-Laure moves from a doll-like passivity to anti-Nazi activism; she delivers messages hidden in a loaf of bread from a nearby bakery, and later broadcasts for the Resistance on a forbidden radio. The reflective Werner becomes increasingly aware that in aligning his lot with the Nazis, he's crossed over to the dark side—but he sees no way out.

He doesn't openly rebel; his moral conflicts take the form of wistful reminiscences of his astute young sister and the gentle woman who ran the orphanage where he and his sister grew up. His gentle friend, Frederick, finds escape from the Nazi camp—a place where boys are asked to turn on the "weakest" among them—by scanning the skies for birds, using a pair of antique field glasses, but ultimately defies the Nazis at a terrible price. Werner, drafted into the Reich army, uses his technical ability to hunt down –what else?--Resistance wireless broadcasters.

A third story heightens the tension. When it's clear the Germans will take Paris, the director of the museum where Marie-Laure's father works decides he must find a hiding place for the museum's most valuable possession: a diamond named "The Sea of Flames." He enlists the senior LeBlanc in a scheme to hide the precious albeit scary stone—it's rumored that a curse will follow the owner––with the result that even while Germany slides into defeat, a Nazi officer is on the heels of Marie-Laure and family.

The "Sea of Flames" adds some needed suspense to a story that, though it has a lot of beautiful writing, sometimes drags under its reverential telling. Describing Marie-Laure's blindness (congenital cataracts that left her blind by age six), Doerr writes, 'In her imagination in her dreams, everything has color. The museum buildings are beige, chestnut, hazel . . . piano chords loll in the speaker of the wireless in the guard station, projecting rich blacks and complicated blues . . . "

Regrettably, Doerr doesn't develop characters as skillfully as settings. Marie-Laure, her father, Werner, Frederick, even the surprisingly amicable Nazi Sergeant Major von Rumpel remain as lifeless as Marie-Laure's miniature house. A bit weirdly, the book comes most to life life when Marie reads aloud a Braille version of Jules Verne's watery adventure 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. When Captain Nemo and his guys are "flailing away with their axes" at sea monsters, it's like break dancing transforming a dance hall where you're tired of watching waltzes. Guess there's reasons some books are for the ages.


posted by John Hilton at 4:23 p.m. | 0 comments


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A FUTURE PHILOSPHER COMES OF AGE, by Tom Cudney

Tom Cudey, 1998

I was in the inaugural class of the Washtenaw Technical Middle College. Since 1997, the Middle College has let students take college classes while still in high school. When I came to the school, I had barely passed my freshman year at Lincoln High. At the time, I was fourteen years old and reading Darwin's Origin of Species.I enrolled my sophomore year, taking algebra, robotics, and some high school classes, which were easy and uninteresting.

We were a diverse group, so there were some odd ways we spent our time. There were only thirty seven of us, and we were closely-knit. There were no real cliques. Rich and poor kids blended without much emphasis on either polarity. Devout Muslims, skater punks, vague philosophers, and causeless rebels all mixed rather freely. The first student I talked to had bright blue hair, which impressed me, since I wasn't used to aesthetic freedom. There was at least one rock lifting contest in the woods, which I lost.

There was still time to wander around and cause trouble. A typical day that first semester included roaming the lawns and adjacent woods, and annoying people with pointless questions about reality. My friend lost his virginity in those same woods. There were some boulders by a break in the tree line, where we would give each other bear hugs until we fainted. Then there were the drugs. Lots of them.

The ski trip that December was a landmark of our achievement, though not exactly in a scholarly vein. I knew a girl whose boyfriend took all our liquor orders in advance. I personally brought two fifths of whiskey and a pint along in my suitcase. I was well-equipped, but I wasn't alone in that. Everyone had brought contraband to those two cottages, resting by the snowy hills in Michigan. I wonder if the tale is still recounted by students today.

The first night was our triumph. The boys' two-storey cottage had a balcony that looked out into the blackness, lighted over peaceful white. It invited us. There was no moderation in our impulses or appetite. Friends gambled, speculated, and got owned in GoldenEye 007. It was like I had stumbled into a palace of surreal possibility, alive with all my teenage fantasies of indulgence and popularity, a type of madhouse wherein we could be whatever we wanted, and we were all the more glad for it. A kind of existential insurrection through which there were no roles to play or desires to compromise. We were happy then. The girls' cottage was more subdued, though several groups crossed over as emissaries. While a bit more reserved, they partook in the fun, too, and were happy.

I remember standing by a bed amidst the clamor as I looked out past the crowded balcony. The boy next to me was rolling a marijuana blunt, a drug from which I had abstained for several months. I was drinking Canadian Mist whiskey, which is what I had drunk my first night in foster care, when I was eleven. It went down my throat uneventfully. I thought about smoking this blunt. All the conversations in the room weaved together in a whisper. I had a fleeting but clear premonition of myself as having failed and given in to something, somehow; but in the vision, I no longer cared. In that preview of a memory, I saw what it was like to no longer feel how I had in the past. Then I had smoked the blunt, and the experience was relegated to a memory.

We all went outside, up the hill, borrowing thick inner tubes, and were scarcely discreet or stealthy, even though we were quiet and sneaking along in the crunchy snow. We stood atop the hill. We sailed in those tubes, our chariots on a winding track of polished destiny, down to the surface of the everyday. But what a flight it was! We clung to one another, defying the momentum that would see us scattered, flakes gleaming as they danced along in the early morning air.The group did break apart, but my friend and I were stronger than the rest. We sustained our bond, and the force of our imbalanced weight thrust us clear off the hill, narrowly past a tree, and saw us land gingerly yet unfazed, still together in our tubes, ten feet out and below. Only one person was hurt: A chaperone whose reckoning was a bloody lip from the illicit tubing fray.

We went back to the cottage, and a few of us sat on the couches downstairs. I passed around the fifth of Jack Daniels I had brought. We didn't talk. One kid had locked himself in the bathroom. His friend was with him. We didn't care anyway. No one had bothered us. That's what happened.

I took my first philosophy class later that winter. I was fifteen, arrogantly inflated, and most of all, starving to find ideas that were meaningful to me. My philosophy instructor was somewhat of a Nietzschean iconoclast, film critic, and honors advisor at a university up the road. He had been teaching for fourteen years already, and he still does to this day. John was fiercely articulate, honest, and approachable, his lectures were dynamic and conversational. He once told us how he had sat on his car down in Texas, surrounded by coyote eyes that glowed out of the night. I was able to apply myself in the course, largely because I was challenged, and sometimes, clueless.

I ended up dropping out of the Middle College and getting my GED. I finished my associate's degree, earned a BA, learned three languages, and studied abroad before going to graduate school with full funding. I earned an MA in philosophy in 2010.

I came back to Washtenaw Community College and taught philosophy that same year. One or two of my own students were in the Middle College.


posted by John Hilton at 12:09 p.m. | 0 comments


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

HELEN HILL RETIRES, AGAIN, by John Knott

Helen Hill, retired English profession at EMU and memoir writing instruction at OLLI, Ann Arbor, MI

Helen Hill is retiring again, this time at the age of 99. At 2:30 p.m. on December 4, 2014, present and former students will gather at the Turner Senior Resource Center to celebrate her 20 years of teaching memoir writing for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of Michigan. With toasts and presentations they will express their respect and affection for Helen and their appreciation of her role in encouraging and guiding their writing and nurturing a supportive community of writers. Many have remained with the group for years as it has continued to evolve with the addition of new members.

Helen's involvement with OLLI began almost by accident when her friend Jim Robertson persuaded her in 1993 to help him meet the demand for courses in memoir writing. She discovered that this was exactly what she wanted to do and has repeated her course in Memoirs and Personal Writing twice a year ever since. In 2001 she and members of the course published a collection of their writing as The Man Who Eats Snakes and Other Tales. One long-term member who contributed to the book, Donald Axon, suggests why the course has been so successful: "[Helen] enveloped us in an atmosphere of curiosity where judgments were suspended or reserved. We described and discussed incidents that had made living rich, exciting or amusing and others that had troubled us. There was no opprobrium in her class. Light and heavy both went over well, and as listeners we had time to say, 'Something like that happened to me…' and tell about it."

Helen retired for the first time in 1984 after teaching Children's Literature and Writing for 21 years at Eastern Michigan University, where she became Professor of English and co-edited several anthologies of poetry for children and young adults. In retirement Helen continued to research and edit the extensive journals of her seagoing grandfather, Captain Edward Baker of Duxbury, Massachusetts. A book combining excerpts from the journals with her own narrative, A Proud & Fiery Spirit, was published by the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society in 1995. Working with other parents of mentally ill children, Helen and her late husband Donald founded the Washtenaw County chapter of the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill and led the effort to establish Trailblazers, a clubhouse in Ann Arbor for the mentally ill. Due in large part to the efforts of the Hills, the state of Michigan in 1990 passed legislation requiring all of its mental health agencies to have clubhouse programs.

In mid-December Helen will move to San Diego to join her daughter Rebecca, after living in Ann Arbor since 1948. In January, OLLI member Eleanor Linn will assume responsibility for the memoir writing course Helen created, continuing to foster an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect in which those of any age can find their voices as writers.

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of Michigan offers the opportunity to remain active, intellectually engaged, and socially connected throughout midlife and beyond. Drawing on the resources of the university and area communities, OLLI offers its 1300 plus members more than 180 volunteer-led, high quality education, cultural, and social activities each year. OLLI at the University of Michigan also provides meaningful opportunities to volunteer in roles ranging from study group leaders to program planners. Under sponsorship from the Geriatrics Center at the University of Michigan Health System, and with funding from the Bernard Osher Foundation, OLLI at the University of Michigan is open to anyone over the age of 50.


posted by John Hilton at 10:38 a.m. | 0 comments


Monday, November 10, 2014

2014: SPACE ODDITY, by Tomas David

poster for the movie Intersteller

Earth to Christopher Nolan: "There's no crying in outer space!"

Roger that. Houston would have a real problem with the British director's latest magnum opus, Interstellar, which shoots high to put the science--and big ideas--back into the science-fiction movie.

Unpleasantly earthbound after his Oscar-earning turn in Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey dimly stars as an astronaut given the lofty mission of saving humanity from imminent doom. Yes, In a World ... choked by killer sandstorms and dying agriculture, humanity has no hope but to seek out another home in the cosmos. As a corn farmer and former space pilot, McConaughey's Cooper fatefully lands in the driver's seat, prodded on by his feisty young daughter (Mackenzie Foy).

The helmsman behind a galaxy of pop-corn blockbusters including Inception and the Christian Bale Batman reboots, Nolan and co-writer and brother Christopher Nolan launch their multi-stage, multi-hour vehicle designed to reach the rarefied atmosphere of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and other sci-fi classics. The dramatic payload is heavy, often crushing, and the payoff will leave many gasping for air, and not in a good, Space Mountain way. You might say that Interstellar is the anti-Gravity, if it didn't implode soon after lift-off.

Sketchily post-apocalyptic, Nolan's star-crossed epic theorizes that the truth is out there--or at least a new Earth potentially is on the far side of a mysterious wormhole spinning off Saturn. A brain trust of stealthy NASA scientists drafts Cooper for the mission, along with a small crew that includes a young scientist (the anti-Sally Ride, Anne Hathaway) who's the daughter of the project's weary mission controller (a weary Michael Caine).

A weightless hero, McConaughey delivers his lines in a mumbled, over-naturalistic monotone that's the wrong stuff in a spacey movie that comes equipped with the pace of suspended animation. Nolan overloads the script with so many clunky scientific terms ("singularity," "time-shift," ad infinitum.) that they might even make Stephen Hawking's head spin. When Nolan needs a melodramatic booster, he has his actors jettison Kubrickian coolness and lurch into hyper-crying, including Hathaway, the Les Miz Oscar winner who's miserably cast in a retro female role beamed back from 1950s B-grade sci-fi. Where have you gone, Sigourney Weaver?

For all its modern trappings, yawning length and astronomical pretensions, Interstellar is a dismal, fizzling blast from the past--George Pal's When Worlds Collide bogged down with cornball philosophy and an extra hour of unfunny outtakes and overwrought suspense. Rather than 2001, Nolan should have explored the grim fate of Disney's 1979 The Black Hole, which charted nebulously similar territory and quickly vanished into box-office hell.


posted by John Hilton at 5:07 p.m. | 0 comments


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

LEO KOTTKE: ARCHITECTURAL SOUNDSCAPES, by Ray Chalmers

musician Leo Kotke

Informally surveying the line of patient Ark concert-goers in a drizzling October night revealed a number of experienced Leo Kottke viewers. Some were there for the stories, some were there for the singing, but it was beyond a given that all were there for the playing.

Taking the stage with six- and 12-string guitars in hand, Kottke acknowledged his introduction of his regular stop at Ann Arbor's intimate 400-seat listening room with a rueful grin and a muttered "Too close." Launching into the delicate "Ojo", Kottke stopped with a grimace 30 seconds in, saying "That's what I get for making eye contact. Over there."

Hiccups such as these at a Leo Kottke concert are not so much mistakes as more splashes of color on a sound canvas unique at each listening. At 69, Kottke's comfort on stage and comfort in his own skin is as much a presence as his musicianship. Duane Allman's "Little Martha" sang with a sweet innocence from veteran hands, while the dense 12-string "The Driving of the Year Nail" from his Takoma Records debut in 1969 was followed by a declarative "I was a whole other head back then."

Interlaced with stories about everything from best friends drinking their way into their third nursing home to Doc Watson's theory of guitar tuning, Kottke's songs, instrumental and sung, are short stories in themselves, stories read by a respectful crowd that turned each page with anticipation. Indeed, Kotke's soundscapes approach the architectural -- an as-yet unrecorded song from Kottke's new head conjures a vision of sitting in an underground bodega with a very attractive barmaid inquiring how you like the rioja; while a Bert Kaempfert instrumental was as clean '60s cool as a Mad Men cocktail party.

Chekhov famously advised: "Don't tell me the moon is shining: show me the glint of light on broken glass." A Leo Kottke ticket is a guided tour over a much-loved landscape with a tour guide you trust, who then slaps you a hard left and takes you someplace new.


posted by John Hilton at 12:45 p.m. | 0 comments


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

BRING BACK OUR GIRLS, by Fatimah Oumar Ribier

photo of rally in Detroit supporting girls kidnapped in Nigeria, May, 2014

I am 42 and was born in Madagascar. Since 2008, my family and I live in Ann Arbor.

Last Saturday May 10th, I joined the rally for a community awareness and prayers to help bring home the 200+ girls that were abducted from their boarding schools in Northeastern Nigeria.

It was a beautiful crowd that stood up and gathered together. Once home, I wrote this poem that I want to share with our community.

Bring Back Our Girls

There are many women in me

And today, they are crying.

But their tears are not of despair

Their tears are rage, indignation, sadness and compassion.

I cried, but I also prayed.

God help us.

We failed....

The heart of the grandmother cries

My little girls don't come to dance around me anymore;

My little girls are not here for their favorite bedtime stories.

The heart of the mom cries,

My girls have disappeared

My womb is bleeding while remembering these 9 months

9 months creating this unique relationship , blessed by the Creator .

The heart of the sister cries

My confidant, my best friend is no longer here to play

She is not here to make me laugh, and share my dreams.

I am the friend who runs lonely because the others had disappeared from the playground.

I am the woman who cries

For our daughters away from home.

I cry.

For mothers and fathers and families who suffer from their absence.

I am suffering.

I am the Human crying

Afflicted by the society that still today, in the 21st century, continues to create men capable of the worst.

We failed.

Our society keeps creating monsters.

Men who forget that they come from the womb of a woman

Men who forget that women fed them, took care of them, comfort them when they cried or were hurt.

Men who have mothers who sang for them, cared for them, love them.

Men who today are kidnapping, raping, beating, harassing insulting, destroying the life of girls and women everywhere in the world.

Our society is not learning from her History

Our society is missing Unity

Our society is ruled by jungle laws

Ignorance, confusion, and violence.

The dark side is so deep that some men dive into it with passion and faith.

But today in Detroit

My tears were also joy

Today my community embrace Unity

Brothers and sister were shining

Together as One,

I am happy and proud

Our society is also able to bring out the best in US.

Today we stood up,

Today we spoke loud and used our words

Today we said No more.

Today we were the mountain

Rising in the sky.


posted by John Hilton at 2:34 p.m. | 0 comments


Saturday, March 1, 2014

THE INTERESTINGS, by Eve Silberman

Cover of The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

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


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