Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Women's History Month: Nellie McKay

With three albums (Get Away From Me, Pretty Little Head, and Obligatory Villagers) and an ep (Rumor Has It....) under her belt, Nellie McKay may be the most consistently brilliant performer I know of. While some of her recordings are better than others, she hasn't made an serious missteps yet, and I can think of none of my other artists who I can say that about. (Okay, I suppose Buddy Holly, but he died so young.) She plays nearly as many instruments as Prince, she garnered rave reviews for her stage acting in Threepenny Opera (and she may have done well in P.S. I Love You if her character had been given enough space for McKay to breath life into her). She has written at least sixty songs, which is more than many artists can claim over a whole career. Her arrangements are fresh and inventive. I savedNellie for last this month simply because she is the best. I can think of no contemporary musician who is half as inspiring.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Women's History Month: Kimya Dawson

Sesame Street has always been hip, but I don't think they've ever solicited the participation of anyone stranger than Kimya Dawson. Of course, it seems less odd given that she recorded a children's album, titled Alphabutt, late last year.

Dawson came to prominence last year with the release of the soundtrack to Juno. The soundtrack features several solo compositions, as well as her work with Antsy Pants and the Moldy Peaches. The soundtrack climbed to the number one spot, giving her mainstream coverage. Of her selections on the soundtrack, my favorite remains "Loose Lips," a song that manages to make references to World War I related-slogans and Scrabble, all while being a simultaneously anti-war and anti-suicide song. Good stuff indeed.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Women's History Month: Maxine Hong Kingston

Maxine Hong Kingston has added at least two literary masterpieces to the American canon, and in different genres. This is more than most writers can claim. Even Mark Twain, for better or worse the quintessential benchmark of American prose, arguably only managed to create a masterpiece in one genre (depending on your opinion on Innocents Abroad).

Kingston's memoirs, published as Woman Warrior, and a brave exploration of identity both as woman and Asian-American. Her novel Tripmaster Monkey is an even more impressive work. It adapts the central character from Wu Cheng'en's folk novel Journey To the West and places him in the more contemporary context of late-1960s San Francisco and that whole Haight-Ashbury scene. It is a fantastic read, bursting with energy.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Women's History Month: Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood has a reputation as a science fiction writer, based heavily on recieving the Arthur C. Clark award for Handmaid's Tale. While the setting is futuristic, there is nothing about it to suggest that it is based on any sort of fantasy world. The novel presents a dystopian future that calls to mind George Orwell's 1984 and seems like a future we may still head into. In it, women are stolen from their husbands, given to men of power, are renamed as their property (Offred, Ofglen, etc.), and forced into an emotionally unfulfilling life of enforced alienation. The characters are memorable. Serena Joy plays a complete Tammy Faye Baker, a female (and therefore supposedly more palatable to a female audience) version of Pat Robertson. Fred, a framer of this republic, realizes the pitfalls of the society he helped to create, but has created a society so vile that even he is helpless against it. The book is an entangled web that weaves a powerful spell.

Other books of note include Cat's Eye, The Robber Bride, and Oryx and Crake. Atwood is also known for her poetry. While much of her poetry is about myths and fantasies, the poem she is best known for is a much-anthologized imagist piece that sets up an Eisensteinian contrast:

You fit into me like a hook into an eye;
a fish hook, an open eye.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Women's History Month: Mary Lou Lord

Mary Lou Lord is an underrated singer-songwriter. Existing virtually completely off the radar, it is difficult to find anything but her one semi-major label album, got no shadow, that was released on Work Records in the mid-90s. Highlights of that fine album include "His Latest Flame," a unique and poppy reworking of the Elvis hit "Marie's the Name (His Latest Flame)." A cover of the folk classic "Shake Sugaree," the only song on the album she didn't write, is the best performance I have ever heard of the song. Simply stunning.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Women's History Month: Missy Elliott

Missy Elliott is one of the dopest rappers in the game, and not only is she creatively talented, but also empowering. She has come under fire for explicitly rapping about female sexual dominance, but as she says herself on Under Construction:

"I be representin' for the ladies, and we got somethin' to say. We've been quiet too long -- lady-like and very patient. .... We've always had to deal with the guys sayin' how they are gonna wear us out on records. So I had to do records that were strictly representing for my ladies, and how to keep your man's eyes from lookin' around. And sex is not a topic we should always sweep under the rug."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Women's History Month: Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell, pictured here in a self portrait circa the late 1990s, is a powerful musician and stunning songwriter. Her most popular album, Court and Spark, launched the style of pop she is most known for, one that blends folk and jazz into a unique sound. That album features many memorable tracks, like "Free Man In Paris" and "Raised On Robbery," in addition to the well-known "Help Me." Later albums that explored this musical style to great effect, but which have been unfairly underrated, include Mingus and Hissing of the Summer Lawns.

Mitchell established herself, of course, in folk, writing songs like "Chelsea Morning," "Woodstock," "The Circle Game" and "Big Yellow Taxi" for her first several albums. Her fourth album, Blue, is the peak of her folk phase. The whole album is stunning and features excellent session work from James Taylor and David Crosby. I think it surpasses anything they ever did on their own. In addition to its well known songs -- "The River," "A Case of You" -- overlooked gems like "The Last Time I Saw Richard" and "This Flight Tonight" pop up all over. Every time I listen to Blue, a number of times that must now number near the thousands, I walk away with a different song off of it as my favorite. Few albums can hold the kind of consistency.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Women's History Month: Julia Alvarez

One of the group of recent Latina writers to add her voice to the American pantheon, Dominican Julia Alvarez is proud of her peers such as Sandra Cisneros. While she has yet to reach the same level of acclaim as Cisneros, she has been much heralded for her fiction, most notably How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent.

Her poetry, while not quite as well known, is just as interesting. One thing that makes Alvarez's poetry interesting is that she often works in or adapts traditional forms, such as in her "Bilingual Sestina." The Woman I Kept To Myself, her 2004 collection of poetry, is composed entirely of a nonce form of her own creation; each poem is made up of three ten line stanzas. Within this framework she is able to carve out a place for female discourse, and within that space a niche for specifically Latina discourse as well.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Women's History Month: Harper Lee

Harper Lee may be something of a one-hit wonder in the literary world, but what a hit it was. To Kill A Mockingbird is an amazing tale, and it fills me with amazement and wonder at the world of Boo Radley and indignant rage at those who would shame the children for their tolerance.

After rereading this book for the umpteenth time last summer, I watched the film version with Gregory Peck again. People always talk about how great it is. For me, it fails not because its necessarily a bad movie, but because Lee's words are so vibrant and powerful. After that book, she helped Truman Capote research In Cold Blood and then faded into obscurity. I with that now, at 83 years old, she'd release a second book. If she only had one to give, though, she packed a life full of passion into it.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Women's History Month: S. E. Hinton

Susan Eloise Hinton, better known as S. E. to her hordes of fans, was the writer who had the greatest impact on me during my high school years. I first read That Was Then, This Is Now in eigth grade because I liked the font on the cover (yes, I've always been one to judge books by their covers). It was okay. The next year, I read Outsiders, not knowing it was a prequel to That Was Then, This is Now, and that got me hooked. I remember reading it straight through in one sitting. I started crying off and on right brom the start, but then about halfway through, hot tears started streaming down my face and didn't stop until some time after I'd finished the book. In rapid-fire succession I devoured Rumble Fish and Tex, with Tex affecting me the same way Outsiders had.

My senior year, I discovered that the main branch of the city library had Taming the Star Runner. I convinced my parents to take a special trip downtown to the main branch, a place I'd rarely been to. It matched Outsiders and Tex, which I didn't expect since it is so much more rural. Recently, Hinton has begun writing for adults and Hawkes' Harbor is near the top of my summer reading list this year.

I've often wondered why she is known as S. E. In high school, I thought those were her names, like the S. in Harry Truman. I always intuitively knew she was a woman when I read her books, but thinking back I wonder if, since her subject matter was stereotypically boys' stuff if she wasn't pressured to do so just so no one thought her books were for sissies. When I was a tweenage boy, I don't know if anyone understood me better.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Women's History Month: Loretta Lynn

Loretta Lynn has long been a controversial figure in country music, releasing songs that tackled tough topics, like "The Pill," but that still managed to become hits. She insisted that any topic that related to women was worth writing about, and women's rights have been a stalwart thematic feature of her lyrics since she started her career. A decade before that song "Dear Uncle Sam," a mother's lament for her dead son, was one of the first songs to address Vietnam; Lynn has resurrected the song live since the United States entered with war on Iraq.

In 2004 Van Lear Rose, produced by Jack White, revitalized her career. Her followup album is set for release later this year. If Van Lear was any indication, Lynn still has what it takes and her strongest work may be ahead of her yet.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Women's History Month: Angela Davis

Angela Davis is where the women's movement met the Black Power movement. An active member of both the Black Panthers and SNCC, the Studen Nonviolence Coordinating Committee, Davis has been a prominent activist since the 1960s. After standing trial as accesory to the murder of Judge Harold Haley and being found not guilty, with the support of such international celebrities as John Lennon and Mick Jagger, Davis became a staunch opponent of the prison system.

Davis fled to Cuba and later visited Soviet Europe and ran for office on the Communist Party ticket in the United States before quitting the Party and re-identifying herself as a democratic socialist. Though all of this time, she has remained strong, and is currently a professor of the History of Consciousness at the University of California.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Women's History Month: Jill Sobule

Jill Sobule is an amazingly talented songwriter and musician. Each of her albums is remarkable in its own way. She is most well-known for the original song titled "I Kissed A Girl," which is a tongue-in-cheekier lesbian tale than Katy Perry's take on it. She is also well known for "Supermodel," an anorexia ode which graced the soundtrack to the nineties cinema landmark that was Clueless.

The above two songs came from her second album, 1995's Jill Sobule. Sobule's best album, though, is likely 2004's Underdog Victorious. One song is a compassionate narrative biography of It-girl Joey Heatherton that comes off as being about Britney Spears. "Cinnamon Park" is a pot-infused hippy song complete with a Chicago sample. The real gem is "Jetpack," a story about being in love with a girl too rich and self-absorbed to appreciate her, and the strain the social class difference causes in their relationship. It's Marxist heartbreak at its finest.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Women's History Month: Elizabeth Grosz

Elizabeth Grosz is a post-structuralist theorist who focuses on the body as text. She analyzes and defines the human anatomy along a gender spectrum which bends and curves to accomodate the multiplicity of human forms. Her book Volatile Bodies explains this spectrum and how, just as gender is constructed, we can de-construct it by recontextualizing our bodies.

Although I haven't read Grosz's later works, I have heard her lecture from them. Sadly, she only sees the possibility of gender deconstruction for females now. In her theory, men are robbed of that agency, which is a bit sexist, though I still think her work on gender theory is overall a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Women's HIstory Month: Odetta

Odetta sadly died earlier this year, and she is sorely missed. Known for being a civil rights leader as well, her fame came foremost from being a folk singers. The Tradition label reissued her first two albums not that long ago on CD in a collection called Odetta: The Essential Masters. If it is still available, check it out. It has some powerful performances of obscure material you are unlikely to hear elsewhere. I listened to it the morning she died and it pounded in my ears like rain.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Women's History Month: Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates began her career with what may be her best piece of writing, a little short story named "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Published in 1965, it tells the story of a naive teeny-bopper named Connie who necks with the boys from the other side of the tracks just to escape her boring family. Unfortunately, her adventures with the boys take a decidedly darker turn when she gets noticed by a sadistic serial rapist named Arnold Friend. Friend stakes out her house, and when her parents leave he mentally torments Connie until she loses her mind and can do nothing but obey him. She leaves her house, gets in the car and rides toward must what be imminent doom.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Women's History Month: Mavis Staples

Even when Pops Staples was running the show back in her early days with the Staples Singers, Mavis was obviously the star. She has one of the most powerful voices ever to grace vinyl, strong and sure of itself.

When she tapped Ry Cooder to produce We'll Never Turn Back, she was able to create what may get my vote for the best album of 2007. If it wasn't the best, it was certainly among them. In it, she takes gospel standards and tweaks them a bit to make them sing to today's concerns. I was blessed to be able to see her perform in support of it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Women's History Month: Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton is a poet none for taking the female body as her subject matter. Her most famous poem to the general public may be "homage to my hips," but other poems like "ode to my uterus" and a series of poems about the experience of going through menopause provide her with even stronger evocations of the female experience. Using folksy language to talk about a subject most shy away from, Clifton has forged herself a unique voice in American poetry.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Women's History Month: Malvina Reynolds

You have to love Malvina Reynolds if for no other reason than she is eating the ultimate foo in the picture above. Luckily, though, there is an abundance of other reasons to love her as well. An old folky, Reynolds was a writer of political anthems. Her two most notbale compositions are "What Have They Done To the Rain, Ma?" and "Little Boxes." The former is about the effects of nuclear bomb testing on the environment and was made popular by artists including the Seekers and Joan Baez. "Little Boxes" is a song about the boringness of conformity. It has recieved increased popularity in recent years after appearing as the theme song to the comedy Weeds. "What Have They Done To the Rain?" is ripe for an even larger resurgence.

Its a shame Malvina's not still around. I bet she'd have a whole lot of praise toe the country in electing its new president, and a whole lot to say about how most of us could still be living our lives quiet a bit differently.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Women's History Month: bell hooks

bell hooks was born Gloria Jean Watkins. She is the female counterpart to Cornel West, having authored volumes with him, and in addition to being interested in issues central to the Black community, bell hooks also is interested in women's issues, and particularly is interested in how these issues intersect and how oppression is layered for those suffering from double or triple jeopardy, a condition which describes being oppressed because of multiple categoricals, i.e. race, gender, class, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity. She believes that these idea are so important that she chooses not to capitalize her name, so that attention is drawn to her ideas rather than to her.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Women's History Month: Joan Baez

Joan Baez began her career as an interpreter of traditional song. Her first albums are a treasure trove of obscure, ancient balladry. Slowly, Bob Dylan songs started to creep on, and by the fifth album the majority of her albums were made up of covers of Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, etc. They were important songs for the time, but Baez didn't really come into her own as a singer of popular songwriting until Diamonds and Rust, an album which she wrote much of herself. The title track chronicles her relationship with Bob Dylan and how it has evolved over time, taking him to task for psuedo-deep vagueness and crescendos to its peak with a moving description of the lovers in Washington Square.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Women's History Month: Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti may only be remember by some as the sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but it is unfair to her masterful talents to undermine her so. Rossetti's epic poem Goblin Market is a fantastic Victorian fairy tale. In a very repressed society, the poem is oozing with sexuality. It is the tale of two sisters sexually abused by a horde of goblins selling forbidden, but extremely sweet, fruit. Rossetti's use of sound is fantastic throughout, and the narrative is clear and easy to follow. For that reason, Goblin Market is my favorite Victorian poem.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Women's History Month: Flannery O'Connor

The queen of Southern fiction, Flannery O'Connor explores some of the most unique takes on religion that I have ever read. She is most well-known for her short stories, though her two novels are excellent too. Wiseblood, her first novel, is a classic tale of faith, but ironically the most faithful character in the story, Hazel Motes, seems to be faithful only to nihilism. The blind street preacher, Asa Hawks, is an imposter who can really see, and Enoch Emery, Hazel's foremost disciple, steals a mummified midget to serve as an idol in place of Jesus, an action which draws nothing but derision and contempt from Hazel. A terribly stern and complex story, it seems so surreal that it ends up coming off as austere. A remarkable achievement in American literature.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Women's History Month: Suzanne Vega

Suzanne Vega is probably most well-known for the DNA-headed dance remix of "Tom's Diner." What most listener's don't know is that the song was originally performed a capella on Solitude Standing, followed several tracks later by an instrumental reprise on acoustic guitar. The album's other well-known track is "Luka," a top five hit which features stream-of-consciousness lyrics from the point of view of an abused woman attempting to, but scared to, reach out to a neighbor she bumps into in the apartment elevator.

My avorite song on Solitude Standing, Vega's most well-known album, is "Ironbound / Fancy Poultry," a song which seems like it takes place in a foreign land, but could just as easily take place here. It reminds me of the handmaids going on shopping trips in Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale. Shopping for chicken, the narrator is really shopping for meat, or women viewed as pieces of meat. "Fancy poultry parts sold here: breasts and thighs and ... hearts" she chants repeatedly. The monotony is haunting. "Night Vision" and "In the Eye" are other strong tracks off the album. If looking for something beyond Solitude Standing, Nine Objects of Desire is an album almost equally as good; it deserved to fare better commercially, though the market isn't always fair to what isn't young and new.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Vicky Christina Barcelona

I recently got around to seeing Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona, Woody Allen's most recent film about two American girls, Vicky and Christina, one engaged, who fall for the same troubled artist, Juan Carlos, who is on-again, off-again with his violent exwife, Marie Elena. I had two thoughts on it.

First, the kiss between ScarJo and Penelope Cruz has been blown way out of proportion.

Second, I was surprised by the ending. Not that Vicky went off with her husband to start their life together -- I expected that. What surprised me was that when Vicky went to meet back up with Juan Carlos, I expected him to get killed by Marie Elena before they had a chance to meet again and ruin her newly-cemented nuptials. Instead, Marie Elena shows up right when they start to kiss, but rather than kill Juan Carlos, manages only to injure Vicky's hand. Fed up, Vicky decides Juan Carlos is stupid and decides to ditch him because of that. Sure, Vicky may learn more in Woody's version, but I still like the tragedy of mine a little bit better.

Women's History Month: Northern State

Hesta Prynn, Spero, and DJ Sprout form the hip-hop trio known as Northern State, the female's answer to the Beastie Boys. The Beastie Boys are the reigning force for a certain type of hip-hop that revolves around a dope series of pop culture allusions spit over a phat beat and conjuring up a vague sense of political awareness, if not activism. The only reason the Beastie Boys reign still is that not more people know about Northern State. They bring not only the pop culture allusion, but a slew of literary allusions, lines randomly stolen out of folk songs, and a sharp enough political focus to articulate their enemies with style.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Women's History Month: Annie Dillard

Many writers have tried their hand at the whole metaphor-relating-nature-to-some-kind-of-overarching-spirituality thing, but few, if any, have been as successful as Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. What I like best about the book is that, while it is mostly centered around Judeo-Christian viewpoints, it achieves a wide arch by occasionally citing outside of that context, exploring the Koran and Darwin's Origin of the Species within its pages. Still, perhaps the best part is her interpolation of Jaboc taking the speckled lambs.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Women's History Month: Judy Blume

I'll admit, I was first taken with Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, followed of course by Superfudge and Fudge-a-Mania. By the time I entered middle school, though, I'd read the majority of everything Judy Blume had written. Then, in ninth or tenth grade, while researching a genealogical project, I went to the main library. By the circulation desk, they had a display of banned books, probably for banned books week, and there among them stood out Judy Blume's Forever, a book I had never seen in my school library. It was the first book I'd ever read where I was sure there was a sex scene, even thought it was much less sensual than I expected. You couldn't miss it as a sex scene though, as the whole book served as a guide on how young people engaging in sex should prepare and protect themselves for the act.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Women's History Month: Gloria Anazldua

Gloria Anzaldua is the author of Borderlands / La Frontera, a multi-genre work that explores the emerging mestiza, or mixed-race chicana, consciousness. In reality, the borderland are the physical space that lies on the border between Mexico and the United States. Theoretically, it is the space between indigenous and european, female and male, gay and straight. Borderlands is a multi-genre work, blending personal essay, theory and poetry to create a form as unique and influential as Anzaldua herself.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Women's History Month: Harriet Beecher Stowe

Because Uncle Tom's Cabin boiled over with more gushing drama than a bad romance novel, it is unlikely it would find much literary favor with critics today. It did mean, though, that it was extremely popular in its day, which means its still important even if only for historical context. When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he famously quipped, "So you're the little lady who started the Civil War?" How can you get a more badass compliment than that?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Women's History Month: Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick's novella The Shawl is one of the strongest Holocaust narratives I know of. I find it more affecting than Primo Levi's Survival In Auschwitz and in the same league as Elie Wiesel's Night. What makes this feat amazing is that, while she is up with the very best literature on the Holocaust, she was never interred like Levi and Weisel were.

The Shawl is a masterstroke of magical realism. A young Jewish girl in a concentration camp gives birth to a skeletal infant. So long at it is in the shawl it stays quiet, and sucks milk from the shawl in order to nourish it. At several points it is questionable whether the baby exists or is a figment of the narrator's fractured mind.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Women's History Month: Anne Sexton

A leading feminist poet, Anne Sexton explored the same confessional veins as Sylvia Plath, but she seemingly mined them deeper, and often to greater effect. At the same time, her work seems less confessional, relying less on shock and more on craft. Her series of narrative poems based around nursery rhymes are a fantastic example of how poetry can make new something readers thought they knew all too well.