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This is what xenophobia looks like

5 Apr

9780374277895Americans are enamored of assimilation. After all, if our country is the best, the greatest, the most spectacular in the world, then why wouldn’t its newest residents want to be a part of that? Who doesn’t want to fit in with the best?

But when we demand that immigrants assimilate, what are we really asking them to get on board with? Chain stores and fast-food restaurants? Income-inequality and underhanded racism? We want immigrants to learn our culture, but only a fraction of American culture isn’t appropriated from somewhere else. We want them to learn English, to ensure that their kids fit in with our kids, but it’s our kids, American kids, who are bombing in test scores against students in other countries. We act like the path to assimilation is laid out in lights, warm friendly lights—but in practice it’s a difficult road with plentiful setbacks. And at the end of it? Well then you’re an American. Gone are the head scarves and exotic foods of your past life, swapped out for fanny packs and frozen chicken nuggets. Assimilation to many Americans means not mutual respect for myriad cultures, but sameness. For a country so embroiled in its own partisanship, in its own divisions and drawing of battle lines, methinks we spend far too much time expounding self-righteously on the importance of cohesion.

There are a few endgames to this kind of aggressive insistence on cultural (or religious or national) unity, none of them pretty. Assimilation can be forced, at a government level, through bans and regulations that chip away at the traditions of a particular culture. Or assimilation can be won (or lost) through fear, through a zeitgeist of intolerance that suggests otherness is to be avoided, otherness is potentially dangerous, otherness should be shamed. In this worldview, allowing otherness means diluting us. Continue reading

I would not have survived the ’70s and other lessons from Please Kill Me

17 Mar

51G3XZDQ5ALEarlier this week, Joseph Corré—son of designer Vivienne Westwood and late Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren—announced festive Thanksgiving plans. On November 26, Corré says he’s going to burn his entire collection of punk memorabilia, worth an estimated $7 million.

The bonfire coincides with the 40th anniversary of the release of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” and is meant to be a protest of more official 40th Anniversary of Punk celebrations in London. “The Queen giving 2016, the Year of Punk, her official blessing is the most frightening thing I’ve ever heard,” Corré said this week. “Rather than a movement for change, punk has become like a fucking museum piece or a tribute act.” He’s urging others to burn their punk memorabilia as well. All in all, a pretty punk move.

The birth of punk music may go back 40 years, but one of the genre’s most definitive histories was published a bit more recently: Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Continue reading

5 old favorites to kick off 2016

20 Jan

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 12.43.11 AMMore than once in the past five years of writing this blog (sidebar: five years!) have I searched my own archives for a review of a book I later realize I read pre-2010, in those lackadaisical years before I decided to commit my amateur opining to the Internet. After all, I didn’t have ST in fifth grade, when I read Dean Koontz’s Watchers for the first time and truly fell in love with fiction. Or in ninth grade, when I read 1984 for the first time, thereby cementing a lifelong love affair with dystopian novels. I didn’t have ST the first time I read David Foster Wallace, or David Sedaris, or Chuck Klosterman. I didn’t have it when I read Middlesex, or White Teeth, or Running with Scissors, or when I went on that weird Ray Bradbury bender in late 2009. For five years and roughly 250 books (sidebar: !!!) I’ve had the pleasure of cyberspace ranting in such a way that I can parachute back into a novel I read last year almost as well as one I read last month. Before that though, it’s all just a literary stew: half-memories of plots from one novel cut with the characters from another, vague recollections of life lessons learned or at least considered in the wake of angsty Greater Messages. I know I read things—I must have—and yet all but a chosen few titles have been relegated to the dustbin of reading recollection.

So like Professor Snape (RIP) bequeathing his memories to Harry Potter, I give to you here my own old favorites, to slip into your Pensieve for lazy Sundays or late nights, long bus rides or beach-side binges—or wherever else you remember reading books about which you forget everything except that you loved them.  Continue reading

Three book that say it’s all downhill after college

18 Nov
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Good times were had.

A mere six months into my 30s, I find myself already looking back on college with the same abstract nostalgia one might apply to say…fax machines. Like, wasn’t that so neat at the time? How you could totally put a sheet of paper with stuff on it into a machine and then a machine somewhere else would, moments later, spit out an identical sheet of paper with identical stuff on it? That was cool. Good times were had. Documents were faxed. But now is better: We have email now. Cell phones. AirDrop. Dropbox. The cloud. And if all else fails, the NSA.

I loved college; I made some of my best friends there. College was the last time one could wear pajama pants in public, or don costumes for spontaneously invented themed drinking nights, or go for second helpings of frozen yogurt at no additional charge. But I also enjoy being an adult, and I know—in whatever corner of my brain isn’t penetrated by models and actresses and the implications of every movie and television show ever—that being young is for the birds. Being young is like fax machines: Wasn’t it neat when you could say “I’m going to hit up three different parties tonight” and then you would actually do it? That was cool. Good times were had. But now is better: Now it’s happy hour and then a good night’s sleep. Continue reading

Maggie Nelson Should Explain Everything to Everyone

12 Aug

argoo-e1430933863404Sometimes—often, if you’re lucky—you’ll read a book you want to share with the world, the kind of book whose praises you sing to family, friends and coworkers. The kind of book you gift so indiscriminately come Christmas—”and YOU get a copy! and YOU get a copy!”—that loved ones are convinced you must be making a cut of the proceeds. For me those books come few and far between; in the last 12 months I’d say only The Martian and We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves qualify (and you’re welcome). But it would be a mistake to assume that the accessible books are the most memorable, or the most important. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts isn’t a share-with-the-world type of book, but it’s one of the most elegant and insightful things I’ve read in recent memory.

I should start out by admitting that I am a Nelson virgin, and further that I’m not intellectual or academic or literary enough to know whether that’s something to be, if not ashamed of, then distressed by. But there’s something pure about going into a book as intimate as The Argonauts knowing nothing of its author or her prior work. TA is a love story of sorts, told in snippets of thought and anecdote interspersed with heavy philosophizing—and quoting of philosophers and other intellectuals—on such subjects as love, gender, sexuality, parenting, feminism and identity. If that sounds like a freshman seminar in Women’s Studies, it should—except Nelson does it with such nuance and efficiency that one never feels overwhelmed by the breadth of knowledge, or browbeaten by dogma. Her story is personal, which makes her vulnerable in telling it, which makes any invocation of philosophy more inquisitive than pretentious. Continue reading

The Cartel Ruined My Week

30 Jun

51vc-6vtUzL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Sitting across from crime novelist Don Winslow, I’m finding it hard to reconcile this soft-spoken, bespectacled man of 61 with the scene I keep replaying in my head: a drug kingpin throwing two children off a bridge to send a message to a rival. I’ve had nightmares about this scene.

The kingpin is Adán Barrera, heir to a Mexico-based international drug syndicate and a main character in Winslow’s 2005 novel, The Power of the Dog, which documented the birth of the Drug Enforcement Administration and its much-maligned war on drugs. In The Cartel, the hefty sequel that came out in June, Winslow revisits that war and America’s role in it, while Barrera revives his longtime enmity with DEA maverick Art Keller—the so-called “Border Lord”—and everyone from local dope boys to corrupt police officers to prostitutes-turned-traffickers gets caught up in their blood feud, or killed. Often both.

In the past 25 years, Winslow has written more than a dozen novels, many of them also focused on California, Mexico and the drug trade. The SoCal native specializes in thrillers whose breezy pacing and casual language belie the seriousness of their subject matter. In 1997’s The Death and Life of Bobby Z, a hapless prisoner is asked by the DEA to infiltrate the compound of a deceased drug lord with whom he happens to share a resemblance. In 2006’s The Winter of Frankie Machine, a retired hit man tries to outrun his mob past and a lengthy list of would-be killers. In 2010’s Savages, two best friends and marijuana dealers are recruited by a cartel after their shared girlfriend is kidnapped and held for ransom. Continue reading

Judd Apatow’s Sick In the Head Is the Ultimate Ode to Comedy

17 Jun

judd-apatow-640x960In an interview on ESPN last week, Jerry Seinfeld became the latest comedian to decry a culture of political correctness that he says is ruining stand-up. “I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me don’t go near colleges,” Seinfeld told ESPN Radio host Colin Cowherd. “They’re so PC.”

Seinfeld’s sentiments—which sparked predictable backlash and several op-eds by affronted college students—echoed complaints made by Chris Rock in an interview with New York magazine last year. “I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative,” Rock said. “Not in their political views—not like they’re voting Republican—but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody.”

The comedian outcry against PC culture—Bill Maher, Jeff Ross, Dave Chappelle and others have publicly empathized with complaints about audience oversensitivity—is predicated on a certain belief about comedy: that it’s an art form worth protecting, even when its practitioners cross traditionally sacrosanct lines. “You don’t want comedy watered down; you want it potent,” Ross said during an appearance on HBO’s Real Time last week. “[Comedians] have a responsibility to shine a light on the darkest aspects of society.” (Incidentally, a Comedy Central special in which Ross “roasted” criminals at a maximum-security Texas jail aired on Saturday.)

Stacked up against the cultural institutions of film, music, literature and art, it’s easy to forget the legacy of comedy, which goes back as far as Ancient Greece—or Lenny Bruce, depending on your perspective. After all, we have roughly 84 reality shows focused on singing, and just one—NBC’s middling Last Comic Standing—devoted to stand-up. That’s as many shows about comedy as there are about dog grooming, diving from extreme heights or dating naked. Continue reading