Here’s the latest installment of Baltimore writer Joseph Martin’s Ivy Bookshop-sponsored column for the Baltimore Fishbowl, “The Lit Parade,” a celebration and thoughtful examination of the epic local lit scene that too often goes unreported, unread.
In the world of academic analysis, few things madden quite like trying to treat an artist’s entire oeuvre. And that goes double for movie directors: even amongst the most stylish and singular of moviedom’s “auteurs,” like David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino, there are head-scratching incongruities (Lynch’s The Straight Story), conceptual clunkers (Lynch’s Wild at Heart, the Tarantino-scripted From Dusk ‘Til Dawn), money-grabs (Lynch’s Dune), or simple toss-offs (Tarantino’s smug addition to Four Rooms) with which to contend. Unlike a painter or a writer, a director’s vision is subservient to cast, crew, funds, marketability, etc. — he or she is in a true artistic bind: a movie has to be sellable, critically viable, and a financial “hit” in order for a director to even keep making art. What gets made is, ultimately, what can get made, a problem that’s led to many a messy, difficult-to-parse film corpus.
Luckily, Maryland Institute College of Art professor and longtime Christian Science Monitor film critic David Sterritt’s Spike Lee’s America (Polity), a breakdown of the director’s decades-long career, manages to embrace his subject’s inherent chaos via a classic critical trick: good old framing. Rather than trying to link barn-burning late thrillers like Inside Man, 25th Hour, and well-loved Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke, with early “joints” like School Daze, She’s Gotta Have It, and, yes, Do the Right Thing, Sterritt defines his book’s terms in the intro (features take precedence, docs and sundry get the short shrift) and pitches Lee’s entire aesthetic as an outgrowth of “dialectical thinking” – a narrative recasting of the titular America’s “melting pot” mythos. The result is a sort of rhetorical jujitsu: by taking the spotlight off Lee’s inconsistencies, he instead allows readers to focus on the films’ Shakespearean density, presenting them as discrete puzzles whose complexity Lee’s towering media presence often obscures.
In fact, it’s such a smart, head-clearing trick that a reader may even forget that America is, at root, an academic text. Sure, the book has all the basic earmarks of a scholarly monograph – sections on linguistic code-switching in School Daze, feminist analyses of Girl 6 and She’s Gotta Have It, and a truly epic gloss of Do the Right Thing’s sociopolitical context, filmic allusions, and semiotic hierarchies – but, thanks to Sterritt’s plainspoken scrutiny and cineaste enthusiasm, America has more in common with the passionate erudition of Pauline Kael or A.O. Scott than his professorial bona fides might suggest. Though America gets deep with its subject, it never disappears into the ether, making it a welcome oddity in the sea of humanities academe: 254 pages of cinematic arcana that reads with the page-turning ease of Michael Pollan’s breeziest pop food tracts. It’s an absolute gift to Spike Lee fans looking for an elegant, thought provoking take on the director’s wild, patchy ride.
+ Local author Laura van den Berg traveled to Boston simply to tie the knot with fiction writer Paul Yoon, but found herself battling the full pall of Boston Marathon bombings as she walked down the aisle; a thoughtful meditation on the experience is up at the Vogue website.
+ Johns Hopkins English professor (and erstwhile Matmos band member) Drew Daniel’s The Melancholic Assemblage (Fordham University Press), a multifarious run through melancholy’s many facets and, to quote Berkeley professor Julia Reinhard Lupton, “why fashion makes us sad,” is finally available to the public. Reportedly t10 years in the making, the book is Daniel’s first since 2007’s Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats (Bloomsbury Academic).
+ Nearly three years after her memoirish and madcap Drinking Closer to Home (Harper Perennial) hit shelves, local fictionist Jessica Anya Blau is finally prepping for the May 28 release of a new book, The Wonder Bread Summer (Harper Perennial). The story, a comic threnody of Alice in Wonderland-style set pieces, accidental drug running, and family drama, may be her most ambitious yet – P.R. blurbsters compare its frenzied scope to bestselling comic mess-makers like Christopher Moore and Carl Hiassen – but readers can rest easy: if Home proved anything, it was Blau’s ability to wrap plotty action in human, emotionally satisfying togs. The book can currently be preordered at Amazon and Powell’s.
+ Hot off the success of her recent novella diptych Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books), Jen Michalski continues to vie for the title of Baltimore’s Most Prolific Writer: Her short story “The Goodbye Party,” originally published in The Literarian, was recently picked up by new-fangled iPad app/magazine Paragraph Shorts; her 500-plus page tour de force The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press) drops June 11th; and her second book of short stories, From Here (Aqueous Books), arrives this November. The Tide King has received plenty of advance praise and its release will likely be a true local lit event, so watch this space for more info.
+ Not to be outdone, Lit Parade fave Michael Kimball – still riding a wave of Big Ray (Bloomsbury) press and plaudits – recently bound his NPR-approved Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a Postcard) blog into a handsome, honest-to-Gutenberg pile of pages via now-defunct publisher Mud Luscious Press. The papery new edition, which includes updates on each of its subjects (including a poignant addendum on Kimball himself), can be found at Mud Luscious’ website.
+ Speaking of Mud Luscious Press, poet Adam Robinson and his Publishing Genius Press helped defray the collateral costs of its sudden implosion by snatching Gabe Durham’s Fun Camp – a “freewheelin’ summer camp novel smashed to bits,” according to the Pub Genius site – from Luscious’ proverbial ashes. Genius’ latest publishing efforts haven’t all been quite so far-flung, however: in March and April, the press released Stephanie Barber’s Night Moves, a chopped-and-screwed Flarf ode to Bob Seger’s YouTube comments, and Megan McShea’s, A Mountain City of Toad Splendor, lyrical word salad in the vein of post-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets like Cole Swensen and early Ben Marcus. In honor of late local poet Chris Toll, the press has also instituted the Chris Toll Memorial Writing Prize, a chapbook contest angled at poets “whose work indicates the belief that poetry is the best of all callings”; though details have yet to emerge about its submissions process, the prize is explained in full here.
+Booker Prize Winner James Kelman comes all the way from Scotland to The Ivy Bookshop to discuss his latest book, Mo Said She Was Quirky on May 7. The book tells the story of Helen – a sister, a mother, a daughter, a very ordinary young woman. Her boyfriend said she was quirky, but she is much more than that. Trust, love, relationships; parents, children, lovers; death, wealth, home: these are the ordinary parts of the everyday that become extraordinary when you think of them as Helen does, each waking hour. The next night, May 8, Pulitzer Prize-winner David Sanger comes to The Ivy to discuss his new book Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars Surprising Use of American Power.
+ Artichoke Haircut’s You’re Allowed reading series returns on May 2 at the Yellow Sign Theater (the former Zodiac, right next to Club Charles). The reading, which starts at 8:30 P.M., will feature Furniture Press writers Ryan Eckes and Christophe Casamassima, as well as an open mic and plenty of the lit mag’s usual raucous vibe.
+ Baltimore Fishbowl contributor R.M. O’Brien’s WORMS closes out for the summer on May 14 with writers Dale Beran, Michael Heald, Michele Poulous, and Rod Smith. Doors open at 8:00 P.M. and, as usual, attendees should show up early for a good seat – WORMS has a following and tends to fill up fast.
+ Baltimore-born expat Moire Egan’s Hot Flash Sonnets (Brickhouse Books) – admiringly described by former National Poet Laureate (and all-around lit gadfly) Billy Collins as “unabashed admissions” full of “craft and disclosure” – gets the “official release” treatment May 31 at Minás Gallery in Hampden. The author’s reading begins at 7:00 P.M. and will be followed by a reception.
+ Finally, Atomic Books will host This American Life fixture Pete Jordan – a.k.a. “Dishwasher Pete” – on May 9 in support of his book on Amsterdam’s bike culture, In the City of Bikes (Harper Perennial). Fans of the TAL “brand” (Sarah Vowell, David Sedaris, John Hodgman) would do well to peek in and get a taste of Jordan’s bright, good-natured slackerdom.
Lit Parade is sponsored by The Ivy Bookshop. For more information, visit the Ivy’s website.
- Lit Parade’s Special Spring Issue: Sterritt on Spike Lee, Michalski’s Magic Streak, van den Berg in “Vogue,” and More - May 3, 2013
- The Baltimore Lit Parade for January, Part II: Jen Michalski’s Double-Novella Smackdown, Stephanie Barber’s “Night Moves,” WORMS News, and More - January 31, 2013
- The Extra-Large Baltimore Lit Parade for December: John Barth, Stephen Dixon, Justin Sirois, Jen Michalski, and More Greats! - December 28, 2012