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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog


Archives for February, 2010

Sunday, February 21, 2010

WJN's journalistic triumph

More than twenty years ago, I met a new neighbor while we mowed our back yards. We were amused to learn that we both were editors (not a common occupation, even in Ann Arbor). I'd recently taken over the Ann Arbor Observer, while Nina Gelman ran the Washtenaw Jewish News.

Though Gelman has long since moved on--she married and moved to California--I've read the WJN ever since. And recently they've published two extraordinary stories. The December-January issue features an article by former Ann Arbor News staffer Art Aisner about the anti-Israel protests outside Beth Israel congregation on Washtenaw. Many publications, including the Observer, have written about the handful of people who picket the synagogue's Saturday services, but no one has done it as well as Aisner. Working with WJN editor Suzie Ayer, he's produced a compelling picture of the protesters, their motives, and the Jewish community's response. Smart, thorough, and fair, it's journalism at its best.

Some WJN readers felt Aisner was too fair. In the February issue, retired anthropology prof Steve Pastner riposted with a scholarly expose of the picketers' connections to groups advocating Israel's destruction. (The names of two protesters are misspelled in photo captions, but that's no reflection on Pastner--they're right in the text). The real eye-opener, though, was an op-ed piece by Laurel Federbush. "The few and the just" is a first-hand account of life inside the tiny cadre of protesters, as seen by a former member.

Federbush recalls how she joined the protests; her deepening involvement--"I digested the idea that the Zionists controlled the world, a tight-knit, elite cabal"; and her decision to break with what she now considers "a cult of sorts." But to her credit, this time, she's determined to resist polemics. "The few and the just" scrupulously maps the rugged landscape where emotion and politics meet. Candid and unsparing, it's an illuminating Ann Arbor memoir.

posted by John Hilton at 1:08 p.m. | 0 comments


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Holden in Heaven, by Eve Silberman

In mid-February, forty people were waiting their turn to check out a 60-year-old novel from the Ann Arbor District Library. Of course it's not just any novel--it's the high school classic Catcher in the Rye.

The recent death of reclusive author J.D. Salinger has caused a resurgence of interest in the man and his best-known book. "It's been flying off the shelf," says a Borders clerk, estimating that that since the author's death on January 28, the Liberty Street store has been selling between 30 and 40 copies a week, compared to 1 to 5 copies previously. Adds the clerk, " I read it when I was a senior. Loved it!"

An author's popularity often surges after death. Following the suicide of novelist David Foster Wallace, "People were asking about [his book Infinite Jest] for weeks, " says a staffer at Dawn Treader. But Salinger's death hit especially hard because so many young readers empathized with its angst-ridden teen hero, Holden Caulfield. who wonders around late 1940s Manhattan fulminating at "phonies."

"Compared to a lot of classics we teach, that's one book [teenagers] connect to," says Huron High English teacher Bob Fox. Judith DeWoskin of Community High says her students still find Holden as endearing as ever: "In a class of thirty students, I'll get twenty-six who respond to his voice and four who say he's a whiner and should shut up." Increasingly sophisticated about mental health, today's young readers debte whether Holden was bi-polar (DeWoskin has brought in shrinks to contribute to that discussion).

In this post-Salinger era, anyone treasuring a first edition of Catcher could unload it for up to $15,000, says Jay Platt of West Side Book Shop. Wistfully, he recalls that he sold one about twenty years ago--when the price was just $75.

posted by John Hilton at 2:57 p.m. | 0 comments


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