Friday, February 20, 2015

You can pre-order HOOD now!

My book of cultural history, HOOD, will be published by Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series on January 28, 2016! 

"We all wear hoods: the Grim Reaper, Red Riding Hood, torturers, executioners and the executed, athletes, laborers, anarchists, rappers, babies in onesies, and anyone who's ever grabbed a hoodie on a chilly day. Alison Kinney's Hood explores the material and symbolic vibrancy of this everyday garment and political semaphore, which often protects the powerful at the expense of the powerless--with deadly results. Kinney considers medieval clerics and the Klan, anti-hoodie campaigns and the Hooded Man of Abu Ghraib, the Inquisition and the murder of Trayvon Martin, uncovering both the hooded perpetrators of violence and the hooded victims in their sights."

You can pre-order it directly from Bloomsbury, or from Amazon!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Essaying and Storifying: a handy guide to my short pieces!


"Although memorials survive as precariously and arbitrarily as we do, when they endure, they defy frail human powers. Unconstrained by news cycles, human attention, or lifespans, they operate on timescales grander and more frightening. The memorial through time offers the terrifying—but, remotely, liberating—possibility that rocks, textiles, and castles, and ideologies, injustices, and cults of power, might change."

Art by Ayun Halliday,
The Leading Lady v. The Loser

" piano teacher made me watch the horror movie Amadeus, based on Peter Shaffer's play. Then I knew myself. The third-rate composer Antonio Salieri, railing at God for depriving him of genius, was my kind of people, the patron saint of mediocrities: yearbook deputy editors, marching band auxiliary percussionists, Salieri partisans.... And I knew my Mozart. Highlander had taught me that there could be only one. I couldn't behead Rosalie, so I snubbed her in the cafeteria."

Cielo & Mar, my 3rd-prize travel writing piece for the Iceland Writers Retreat (as dear Gertrude says, "alas a dirty third, alas a dirty bird")
"Languages and forms, clouds and shorelines overlap, and I'm magically traveling to the nineteenth, then the seventeenth centuries, holding The Rough Guide to Iceland in my hands. Then, refreshed by unheard melodies--by contrast, cunning, and art--I look again, to see the cold, gray clouds and waves before me, busy with whale watches, commercial ships, and gulls, more clearly than before."

photo by Pete Checchia/Carnegie Hall

Disinter & Reconfigure: A Conversation With Composer Philip Miller
The Mantle

"Working with William [Kentridge] has allowed me to know that while there are processes I think could be interesting, I seldom know the outcome. I have to trust the process, trust that some things don't work, but you shouldn't fear that, just say, 'Let's see what happens.' An element of chance or risk, because you're not aware where it'll end. It's not like some compositions, where you know where every note will land, soft or loud. With none of this work did I have an idea, when I started, what I'd end up with. Not one in the Paper Music Suite."

Illustration by Eric Palma
Lessons From a "Local Food" Scam Artist

They wanted to know where I came from, originally, and how selling them melons fulfilled my American Dreams... To some of them, my provenance was far more suspect than that of the produce.... The idea that I might know something about vegetables that they, with their sophisticated-yet-earthy palates and vaunted vegetable-selecting skills, didn't, was a disruption to their foodie performance. They never even learned that, if you hector a nonwhite teenager about displacing white people's jobs, she's going to hide rotten tomatoes in the bottom of your bag.

Der Animatograph: Odins Parsipark
Christoph Schlingensief: Blood, Blackface, and the Total Works of Wagner
The Mantle
MoMA PS1’s retrospective “Christoph Schlingensief” documented the late German director and performance artist’s anti-authoritarian, anti-racist, and anti-colonial work. Schlingensief devoted much of his professional life to engaging with, or assaulting, the operas of an even more provocative artist, the composer Richard Wagner. Although many Wagner fans, like me, try to separate our abhorrence for the man from our helpless adoration of the music, Schlingensief sought better solutions, revealing the complicity of the audience every time we clamor for simple, easy beauty.

Daniel Berset, Broken Chair (photo: MHM-com/Wikimedia)
Philistine, or What Happens When You Break A Sculpture in a Gallery
"I was a philistine. I had broken the pact that art-lovers make with artists, to see art as art. Not to walk past it, or be one of those people who gaze at it and see only a void, garbage, scams, hipsterism, things that their kids or cats or the past 50 years of praxis have done better. People who are so trying to see through art that they don't see it at all, much less with curiosity, openness, or understanding.... But I can truly say that I will never think harder about a work's quiddity, the space it occupies in a room and in time, the fragility of it, the thought and labor the artist put into it. I will never forget it."

Vicks VapoRub and Me
The Atlantic, Object Lessons Series

"'Breathe life in,' the Vicks website exhorts me, and I do: microbes, pollen, skin mites, spit, gnats, fumes, gas leaks, street nuts, farts. I exhale bits of me into the air; I inhale bits of everything else. Even while those things enter, lodge in, or even bind to me, Vicks makes me less aware of the mingling, the breakdown of boundaries--a
s unaware as I am of the constant multiplying or destruction of my own cells, and as personally involved. I'm huffing Vicks and feeling none of it; I am virtually veneered; I am dissolving and rebuilding myself in the world."

photo © Minjas Zugik 2015
23 Questions for Jonas Kaufmann, a comic fantasia
Madcap Review, republished by Operagasm
"Q: Werther: a young man who kills himself for love of a married woman. The Act III aria, 'Porquoi me réveiller?"--
that's what I ask the cat every morning. You sing it like you have a cat, too: 'Why awaken me, o breath of spring,' a lilacs-out-of-the-dead-land lament for one's meaningless existence, fed and then blighted by vain hope, ringing the rafters with agony, then whispering, beseechingly, for it to desist. There's no way you don't have a cat."

"A filthy process in which I was engaged": Revising Frankenstein
Avidly (a channel of L.A. Review of Books)

"Terror, nausea, and the solitary slog of patching together cold, dead bodies in the workshop: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus created a fantastical, searing metaphor for the horrors of revision, that process by which writers try, fail, and try again to animate the corpses of their ideas."

Breasts: Suffrage, Suffering and Cecily McMillan
New Criticals

"Once a social justice movement, like women's suffrage, has succeeded in enshrining its goals in law and social acceptance, it is all too easy to dismiss the state violence against it as a relic of less enlightened times. But such violence often looks the same with each recurrence: wildly disproportionate; reifying racial, gender, class, and other biases; and trampling civil liberties... The word 'violent' has a sneaky way of attaching to protest even--perhaps especially--when the protesters are the ones being bloodied; state violence, on the other hand, is supposed to be hygienic, orderly, responsible, sane, and necessary."

Fifty Shades of Brontë
The Hairpin

"Jane's choice of a manipulative, predatory, married boss as her soul mate; the seething sexual provocation and coy submission; and Rochester's domination of Jane all look darker, scarier, and more complicated to me. But also happier: a different kind of self-determination and feminism is going on. Now that we impressionable 10-year-olds have grown up, and some of us have bookworm daughters of our own, it's time that we talk frankly about Jane Eyre's sadomasochistic overtones within a literary culture that popularizes but confuses issues of violence, love, and, above all, consent and coercion."

Jon Stewart cursed me out

"[T]he writing team aimed always to satirize the powerful, rather than bullying their victims; to mock voluntary shenanigans, and not circumstances outside people's control. That is how ethical comedy works. And if somebody raises a criticism about the content, the ethical way to respond is not to automatically silence the critics.... Death and rape threats are being made against an Asian woman and her supporters, many of them women of color, to punish them for supposedly misunderstanding anti-racist rhetoric. To punish them for not having a sense of humor."

Gene Therapy
The Inquisitive Eater
"Whatever genetic inclinations I may have once had were now mingled with memories, the exhilaration of a new relationship, and a palate that had been shocked against its will into expanding. The disgust I'd felt at that church supper was real, based on the incontestable evidence of my senses, and visceral in the most literal way.... But one of the privileges of growing up is to be given the chance to re-feel, re-sense, reinterpret out reactions, and discover pleasure where we'd previously only known bleh. Our gut reactions can change."

Gastronomica (available with JSTOR access)

"Maybe kieflies are religiously neutral; maybe they used to be our Rosh Hashanah treat; maybe we converted to them with Catholicism.... But I'm not threatened by the shifting of origins, of either patisserie or grandfathers, because my origins have never been stable: I'm Korean, more or less, I'm adopted, and I've adopted the role of last kieflie baker to the family."

Term (link to buy the print version)
The 2005 Robert Olen Butler Prize Stories; first published by The Literary Review (Charles Angoff Award)

"He thought of the rice, beans, applesauce, and milk; the blood, water, and oxygen; the flesh, the genes, the tests charts thermometers tubes locks swabs frustration fear fucking love--everything that had gone into the making of these vibrations under his hand. He felt the kicking and knew it was only a reflex, a neural glitch produced by the spinal cord, like suckling, like blinking, like everything else that babies were supposed to do. All these things--the growth, the anticipation, the kicking, the rooting in deeper--were their child's portion in life, its personal best."

Blue Mesa Review (unavailable online, sorry!)

"Straining her eyes one last time over the Ceiling, she saw, in the upper right corner of the Deluge, a large white hole. During the 1797 Castel Sant'Angelo explosion, the plaster had crumbled off, leaving a blank that the restorers couldn't fill. When she rested her eyes in the emptiness, blurred colors swirled in her peripheral vision. But she knew what the blank had contained, knew about the discovery of an eighteenth century engraving that had reproduced the missing image: a bolt of lightning, the wrath of God, destroying his great work in order to create it anew."

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Read read read

I'm working on a nonfiction book project! So I've been reading different stuff from the usual.

  • Robert Mills, Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure and Punishment in Medieval Culture
  • Louis P. Masur, Rites of Execution: Capital Punishment and hte Transformation of American Culture, 1776-1865
  • Robert Johnson, Death Work: A Study of the Modern Execution Process
  • Pieter Spierenburg, The Spectacle of Suffering: Executions and the evolution of repression: from a preindustrial metropolis to the European experience
  • Enrico De Pascale, Death and Resurrection in Art
  • Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish
  • Romanic Review, special double issue on "Examining Heretical Thought"
  • a bunch of essays and articles on anti-Semitism, Richard Wagner, Theodor Adorno, and the Ku Klux Klan.
  • Rereading: Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking
  • Rereading: Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose

It would be fair to say that my promise to deliver a "jaunty" book is looking increasingly insane.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

My most popular book report evah: ILIAD

Get yer filthy hands off my krater.
Homer, The Iliad
Trans. Robert Fagles, 1998

Read May 2008
I'm often kept up at night brooding on my troubles, wishing I could find some solace that would help me sleep. But now I know that the best way to keep insomnia at bay is to get out of bed, hitch up my chariot, tie the corpse of my mortal enemy to the back, and drive around for a few hours, dragging him, until I cheer up and can go back to sleep. The Iliad is unmatched, in my reading, for works that describe the bloody, ridiculous, selfish lengths people will go in order to feel better. The sticks and stones fly (and gouge out eyes, smash skulls, slash livers and veins until the blood sprays--this poem is definitely not for the squeamish), but the real weapons of the Trojan War are name-calling, cheating at games, and stealing your best buddy's girlfriend or mixing bowl or ox. Most of the action occurs when somebody gets his feelings hurt, the baddie won't apologize, and the sensitive one throws a fit, which can involve letting all of his friends die while he gets an olive-oil massage, or else razing a city, raping the women, and joyriding over other men's bones. The Iliad suggests that even at its most glorious, war can be advocated only by people with the emotional lives of spoiled four-year-olds. 

Indeed, most people are like spoiled four-year-olds, and truisms like that have resulted in some very tedious books and movies, but the Iliad is never tedious, or rather, only ever horrifically tedious (more on that below), first because it's good art, and secondly because, while many artists have stated, "My emotional life is a shambles," Achilles' emotional life results in the destruction of the rules of engagement, of "civilized" warfare, and of a civilization itself: babies thrown from ramparts, old men cut down at their altars, generations murdered, while Zeus snickers. The Iliad demands that the individual reflect on his or her engagement with the world at large, and the world is not a comfort zone: is it okay to decimate a town, in retaliation for your best friend's death? (Yes.) When you're kidnapped from home and thrown to the soldiers for sexual sport, are you supposed to be grateful? (Yes, and cook them some cheese to show it.) When a man murders your son and desecrates his corpse, what will the gods, to whom you and your son have given many, many sacrifices, do to help you out? (Send you groveling to kiss the murderer's hands, give him some fancy shirts, and have him treat you to some barbecue.) 

What else does The Iliad say? That every life matters, and every death. The poem is a rolling casualty list, in which every man who dies has a name, a home, friends, and family who love or mourn or curse or disown him, sometimes a specified quantity of livestock who wonder where he is at milking time. Characters are introduced only to be killed, but their deaths are unique, and nobody dies without causing a change in the fortunes of his comrades or enemies, mostly by precipitating their own deaths. This is where the tedium comes in, but it's a harrowing kind of tedium: gruesome deaths, piled on, can cease to move Achilles, Agamemnon, or us, but they don't stop happening just because we've ceased to pay attention.

And what else? That war can make for great poetry. Fagles' translation is awesome (apart from a couple infelicities--the first "So help me" was hilarious. The fourth one was a little old). The verse is crisp, lucid, immediate, and very, very violent: the accessibility of the syntax and vocabulary make you read faster and faster, so the terrible scenes come upon you like an onslaught, entrails flying, chariots mowing people down, goddesses getting punched in the boobs, and behind it all the ever-present weeping. Egad.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


Herman Melville
Read July 2008

Avast! Here be spoilers!

I loved this book. But I don’t really want to talk about my feelings; I want to talk about how Melville wrote a truly radical book, a book that turns the world upside-down, one of the Best. Books. Ever.

Moby Dick begins as the story of a fastidious Yankee schoolmaster who signs onto a whaling voyage but finds himself in the realm of topsy-turvy. At first he is terrified and disgusted by his boarding house's filth and by his bedmate, Queequeg, a South Pacific cannibal, idolater, and tattooed guy. But Queequeg's affection, integrity, and bravery destroy many of our whaler’s prejudices about race, nation, religion, and relationships between men: "Thus, then, in our hearts' honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg—a cosy, loving pair." He even consents to worship Queequeg's little carved idol Yojo: after all, if his own Presbyterianism demands that he do unto others blah blah blah, and if he would have Queequeg join his own faith, "Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator." So far this is all charming, funny, and slyly subversive. But Melville's project seeks to upset even more fundamental prejudices about humans, nature, and God: that these categories exist in hierarchy, that they are not interchangeable, and that they possess any discrete characteristics at all.

Our narrator tells us that whales are more or less fish, and that they are often deadly to their human hunters. This combination of baseness, bestiality, violence, and superiority in the whale unsettles the assumption of human ascendancy in the food chain, evolution, and/or God’s Creation. This is unsettling stuff; in a typically 19thC (and 20th) way, there follow dozens of approaches to understanding –and delimiting--the whale: biological, historical, fabular, anecdotal, commercial, religious, etymological, archaeological, all intended to quell uncertainty and establish a chain of command: man on top, fish bottom (even rejecting the possibility that such a brute of an animal could be a mammal). But Captain Ahab’s mission—to exact revenge on the whale who bit off his leg—upsets all of these rational claims.

“’Vengeance on a dumb brute!’ cried Starbuck, ‘that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.’” A man who regards a fish as his antagonist also acknowledges a kind of equality with that fish: either the man becomes less a man, or acknowledges the fish as more than animal. Ahab does indeed blaspheme; in claiming Moby Dick as his enemy, his tormentor, his ambition, and his end, he rejects both the divine mandate in Genesis for men to dominate animals, and the supposed resemblance between God and man. His obsession puts his ship and sailors in the deepest danger: not of being killed, but of ceding their special relationship with God, i.e., their in/difference to animals, their humanity. And the sailors give it up, willingly, in stupendous cult scenes sealed with blood! If a man can give up the attributes that heretofore defined him as a man, choosing to seek equality with the non-white, the non-Christian….then why not seek equality with a fish? If this is madness, it is the madness of the utter destabilization of authority and identity: Ahab, devilry, Moby Dick, animality, humanity, and godlike aspirations—all are mixed. 

In some of the strangest and most wonderful passages, Melville uses form to demonstrate the disintegration of the crew’s humanity: the intense characterization vanishes, to be replaced by theatrical choruses, incursions from one point of view into another, the occasional struggling return to a kind of documentary objectiveness, which gives way to further dissolution of reason (see our narrator’s impassioned rant on what Moby Dick means, personally, to him: whiteness itself, the very element of divinity and horror, according to him). As a character, our narrator virtually disappears: his confident first-person gives way, even his name ceases to be mentioned. Other characters persist, but increasingly do so only in worshipful apprehension of the whale—some numbly, some eagerly, but all of them looking forward to the whale’s coming as the denouement of their endeavor. Form unravels; human aspiration to godliness unravels; and our narrator, who has accepted a great many paradoxes and uncertainties, must finally suffer the consequences of his acceptance.

If Ahab is a portrait of a madman struggling between his bestiality and his sublimity, then what of the whale? The reader who has been tracking these disruptions will be waiting for Melville to recognize the whale’s rights as an individual being, to explore the moral implications of his uncanny anatomical , behavioral, and emotional likeness to men, and to feel compassion for his plight (our narrator’s increasing use of the epithet “poor whale” is telling); that is, we expect to see the whale humanized. But in the last pages of the novel, Melville accomplishes a wondrous feat: we see the whale not as humanlike, and certainly not as a mere symbol of any of these embattled traits, but as a whale qua whale, which is an animal, which is divine.

“A gentle joyousness - a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale. Not the white bull Jupiter swimming away with ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horns; his lovely, leering eyes sideways intent upon the maid; with smooth bewitching fleetness, rippling straight for the nuptial bower in Crete; not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.” And, “warningly waving his bannered flukes in the air, the grand god revealed himself, sounded, and went out of sight.”

The most confounding moment of all, when everything we understand of this world comes to its fulfillment, is when we see that Moby Dick is beautiful, that he is a happy whale who delights in his whalishness, that he has sea-fowl groupies who love him. He is the most powerful, lovely, destructive, peaceful, astonishing thing in the world. He has an existence of his own, self-sufficient, without regard for human intention, and inscrutable to human regard. He is a mystery who refuses to be understood by science or history. These are the attributes of God, and Moby Dick is a fish. To aspire to godliness is to aspire to fishiness. The human-God equation has been shattered.

In this world, what room is there for humans? Well. Ahab gets real mad at all this; he and Moby Dick tussle it out to the end. The Pequod sinks, taking down all the sailors; Tashtego, who’s climbed to the top of the mainmast, is last seen as an arm reaching over the waves: “at that instant, a red arm and a hammer hovered backwardly uplifted in the open air, in the act of nailing the flag faster and yet faster to the subsiding spar. A sky-hawk that tauntingly had followed the main-truck downwards from its natural home among the stars, pecking at the flag, and incommoding Tashtego there; this bird now chanced to intercept its broad fluttering wing between the hammer and the wood; and simultaneously feeling that etherial thrill, the submerged savage beneath, in his death-gasp, kept his hammer frozen there; and so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.”

Only one man witnesses this last snub at heaven; one man survives utter dissolution, and he asks us to call him Ishmael.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Stories of John Cheever

John Cheever
The Stories of John Cheever
Read May 2011

We read Cheever not because we love stories about the suburbs, but because Cheever shows us that a wild imagination can't be bound even by the suburbs. We enjoy the quality of observation, the dialogue, the air-tight construction (and what he teaches us about form both in every example and over the course of the collection), but we read him for those moments when his stories take wing to escape cliche, banality, and the mundane. The stories "Goodbye, My Brother," "The Five Forty-Eight," "The Country Husband," and, famously, "The Swimmer" are purely astonishing. Even a fairly low-profile story will spring upon you with a a single perfect paragraph ("The Death of Justina" with its English muffin). There are gothic horror, a sudden, latent sensuality, and a tenderness for little children; there are collages and fantasies and ruptures that remind me of Barthelme; there is a whole world riding that commuter train.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Katherine Mansfield, The Collected Stories (includes The Garden Party)

Katherine Mansfield
The Garden Party and Other Stories
The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield

Read: April 2009, March 2010

After reading The Garden Party in April 2009:
This will not be a terribly thoughtful review, just an expression of excitement. I don't know how I got this far in my life without anybody telling me what a wonderful writer Katherine Mansfield was. She was a master of the Chekhovian and modernist types of short story. When I consider most of the 20C short story collections I've read, I think that Mansfield got there first, and did it better. And even when she didn't get there first, she still did it better: take that, Dubliners!!! And there was a terrible moment when I saw why Virginia Woolf felt so threatened by her, because, if I'd read the book with no cover or front matter, I'd have thought, Wow, Virginia's in really good form here! I'd only have been puzzled by the references to New Zealand.

I was tempted at first to give this book 4 rather than 5 stars, because the prevalence of the beautiful upperclass frustrated yearning blond woman character type raises my hackles--maybe because it's such a stereotype, and from Paul Bowles to Michael Ondaatje I've seen it played out so many times (with all due respect to The English Patient, which I loved). But Mansfield made such wonderful variations on the character, even within its self-imposed limitations, and treated it in such ruthless ways, that I have to up it to a 5. And there were other things I noticed and regarded as imperfections, of course, but no more than I'd find in any other great work.

It pisses me off that more writers don't appear to feel threatened by her.

Then in March 2010, after reading the Collected:
I love Katherine Mansfield, and I was determined to read all her stories. So this time around, I read only the ones I hadn't read previously in The Garden Party and in another Stories collection. So, while I give Mansfield a five-star rating for her best achievements in TGP and the other widely collected/anthologized stories, reading anyone's Complete Works does rather broaden the experience, at the cost of dragging down the rating. She published only three collections during her lifetime, and there were good reasons why she rejected several of the other stories, now included here, from the books she was compiling. And she later disowned her first collection, In a German Pension, refusing to allow it to be reissued until such a time as she'd amassed a solid reputation as a serious writer. IaGP is, in fact, rather well written, but seriously obnoxious, jingoistic, and vulgar. So a newbie reader should keep in mind that not all the stories here met Mansfield's own standards. However, I loved the inclusion of the unfinished stories. She sure could write an opening! Many of the unfinished stories contain such vibrant action and characterization that, at the end, one feels that one has read a complete work; sometimes, there are little dangling sentences and teases of what was to come, which illuminate her thought process.