The Hedgehog’s Array: August 12, 2016

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Noteworthy reads from the last week (or so):

“Monstrous Births,” Sarah Blackwood
“Perhaps it might be time to abandon altogether the idea of childbirth as a moral experience?”

“Are you dating a Fox News spy? Read it at Gawker, as the news site careens toward bankruptcy sale,” Matt D. Pearce
“It is time to soak up Gawker Media’s final days of freedom before the irreverent, influential and financially doomed media company goes up for sale next week.”

“Lives and Misfortunes of Lorenzo Da Ponte,” Antonio Muñoz Molina
“We imagine a very old man walking in New York in the twenties and thirties of the nineteenth century, recalling as if in a dream all the lives that he had lived, as remote as the opera performances that he used to attend in the Vienna of his youth, in an extinguished world.”

“Make America Austria Again: How Robert Musil Predicted the Rise of Donald Trump,” David Auerbach
“Trump is one of the most emotionally needy figures in American political history.”

“Delusion at the Gastropub,” Heather Havrilesky
“Food is personal. It’s sensual, it’s nostalgic, it’s political. But contrary to the slogans of our officious foodie overlords, food is not everything.”

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Desperately Seeking Relevance

Andrew Grill via flickr.

Andrew Grill via flickr.

“Relevance is the only job security that exists in today’s uncertain business world” proclaims the subheading of “4 Ways to Become More Relevant,” Geoffrey James’s 2013 piece for The struggle for “relevance” isn’t restricted to anxious employees; it is said to be the burden facing movie stars like John Travolta, ambitious college basketball coaches, authors of children’s books, Baby Boomers, and, if the Trump campaign is to be believed, Mitt Romney.

In the strict dictionary sense of the word, relevance is neither virtue nor vice. That which is relevant could be true and good and beautiful, or it could be false and bad and ugly. Martin Luther King, Jr. was relevant to the American Civil Rights Movement, but so was Birmingham’s Commissioner for Public Safety Bull Connor. To grasp the former’s wisdom and the latter’s brutality, the discussion must extend beyond mere relevance.

In its current wave of usage, relevance talk tries to transcend this vacuity, if only slightly. According to motivational speaker Ross Shafer, for instance, “relevance is taking action to make sure you matter to your customers, your clients, your members, and your teams. If you don’t matter to your constituents, they can go away and not care if you exist.” Malevolent actors can “matter” and in the strictest sense meet Shafer’s criteria, but he obviously means to link relevance to success, popularity, and profit. Continue reading

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The Murderer’s Reckoning:
An Interview with John J. Lennon


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John J. Lennon’s essay “The Murderer’s Mother” appears in our 2016 summer issue. In this interview, Lennon, who is incarcerated at Attica for a drug-related murder, tells us more about his background, how he came to writing, and what it’s like to be a journalist behind bars.

The Hedgehog Review (THR): What was life like growing up?

John J. Lennon (JJL): I grew up poor, with a single mother, in a Brooklyn housing project. But I had more opportunities than most kids in the projects because my mother made money running hot dog stands. She was able to send me away to boarding school from fifth to eighth grade. It was mostly upper class, privileged kids, about thirty of us, living in a mansion on the Hudson River. In the seventh grade, I won second prize in an essay-writing contest. They gave me a $75 savings bond. (Two years later, I would swipe it from my mom’s drawer, cash it at a discount, and buy drugs.) Things got bad in my adolescent years. I’d learned my real father committed suicide and then we moved to Hell’s Kitchen. Mom enrolled me in public school, and all of a sudden, life was much less sheltered. At the time, the reputation of a murderous Irish mob called the Westies—most of whom were sent away to federal prison in the 1980s—seemed to rule the neighborhood.

Just to give you a flavor of the time, here’s a short anecdote: It was 1991 when I first met Danny, a then-thirty-something Westie who had somehow managed to avoid indictment. My friend Terrence and I were holding down our street corner. Full of swagger with dark hair and blue eyes, Danny winked at me when he walked by, “What’s up, kid?” “You know,” Terrence told me after he passed by, “Danny killed a guy before.” When I heard that, it wasn’t just fear I felt, but admiration, too. It was then that I began to see murder more as a revered deed among gangsters than as the mortal sin it was among civilians.

THR: Tell us more about the crime that sent you to prison.

JJL: Alex, the man I killed, was, like me, in the drug game. At the outset, the murder was about money, drugs, and respect. As sick as it sounds, it was also about this need for me to complete my image. (I think many murders committed within gangster culture have a lot to do with broken boys and young men who want to earn status in a subculture that they otherwise cannot earn in mainstream culture.) I shot Alex several times with an AR-15 while he sat in a car, then dumped his body off a pier. It was a terrible crime, for which I’m deeply sorry. This all happened in December 2001. Continue reading

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Hacking Moneyball: What We Can Learn from the Cardinals

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Baseball is the most arcane of modern sports. For a typical fan, it takes years to learn its intricate, often counterintuitive rules and its odd terminology, let alone its statistics and their acronyms—BA, ERA, RBIs, and OBP. It was as if in embracing baseball, Americans made sport out of the statistics, managerial sciences, and bureaucracies that were coming increasingly to characterize their professional and civic lives.

Professional baseball, however, turned up the statistical game several notches during the early 2000s. Sabermetrics, or “Moneyball” as it came to be called, entailed the invention of all sorts of new metrics—BsRs, PERA, WARs, and numerous others—to predict better and more efficiently player performance and team success. Major league baseball front offices started hiring not only MBAs, but also PhDs with expertise in data science, programming, and other areas of statistical wizardry.

However, coming as it does out of a tradition of ritual and loyalty, a certain brand of American wholesomeness, even comic associations (“Who’s on first?”), baseball was distinctly uncomfortable with its turn to sabermetrics. Baseball executives lit up at the new profts promised by metrics, but they sheepishly hid the Moneyball operations in the back office. Continue reading

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Outlaw or Criminal?

The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper, a 1981 film version starring Robert Duvall

The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper, a 1981 film version starring Robert Duvall

Last week the FBI announced that it was ending its forty-five-year manhunt for D.B. Cooper. In case you are unfamiliar with the case, Cooper (real name unknown) famously hijacked a passenger plane from Oregon to Seattle in 1971 by claiming he had a bomb on board, freeing thirty-six passengers in exchange for $200,000 in cash (equivalent to about $1.2 million today), and taking off again with the pilot and a small crew. What made Cooper a legend in our popular imagination, however, is that Cooper subsequently managed to parachute out of the plane with the ransom money—and was never seen again. Before formally ending the search last week, the FBI interviewed hundreds of people, amassing a file that reportedly measures more than forty feet long (much of it now on-line) including information on more than 1,000 suspects.

Viewed dispassionately, the case against Cooper is straightforward and obvious: Cooper threatened violence, endangered the lives of many people by forcing an emergency landing, and stole a lot of money. These are serious crimes. Yet, he is viewed by many as more of an inspirational outlaw who pulled off an amazing heist than a true villain. His story has inspired movies, books, songs, a pretty funny Far-Side cartoon, an annual festival with a look-alike contest, and Mad Men conspiracy theories. Google “D.B. Cooper,” and if you are like me, you’ll get a little thrill at the fact that he pulled off something that seems so impossible today. Continue reading

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Black Oxygen: Suttree Reconsidered

suttree mcwilliams

Yes, there’s Blood Meridian. But it’s Suttree, published six years earlier (in 1979), that stands as Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece. At first pass, it hardly seems so. Suttree is a novel in which Homeric language appears to do little more than adorn a plotline that moves slower than the Tennessee River around which much of the story takes place. During my initial reading, twenty years ago, I thought: Wait a second. McCarthy is asking me to grapple with nearly 500 pages of thick, idiosyncratic blocks of wordplay without even offering up some cheap narrative excitement? Who does he think he is? Joyce? Faulkner? Melville?

Well, yes. McCarthy, especially in his Tennessee novels, invented a literary idiom to explore questions bearing on existence, place, sex, and death. But the quality worth admiring most isn’t the language driving his explorations of these universal phenomena. It’s rather how language and storyline fuse to create characters who viscerally negotiate violence, loss, hope, and love. McCarthy’s tight weave of prose and plot makes a novel that, after several readings, appears to be the twentieth century’s Moby Dick, and perhaps even a viable transatlantic counterpart to Ulysses. Continue reading

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Introducing the Summer Issue: Meritocracy and Its Discontents

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A-1, 1962 (acrylic on canvas) by Robert Indiana (b.1928), photograph © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images; © Morgan Art Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Whatever lies at the end of this surprise-filled electoral season, most observers would agree that it has already exposed a widespread distrust of those whom we selectively call our elites. Even before this election season, the word elites had become one of the nastier epithets hurled back and forth across America’s cultural and political divides, each side having its own catalog of particularly loathsome nabobs.

Today’s leadership class inspires remarkably little confidence. Explanations for this abound, from the anecdotal to the systemic. Elites are distant, aloof, and increasingly selfish. They are deracinated. Their orientation is global, not local. They have no loyalty to their nation or their fellow citizens. In a winner-take-all economy, they are grossly overcompensated for the questionable services they perform. They are condescending toward, even contemptuous of, the poor, the working stiff, the small-town provincial, or anyone else who lives outside their narrowly circumscribed socio-economic ambit. Seeing themselves as winners in the meritocratic contest, they lack the humility to acknowledge the advantages or good fortune that helped paved the way to their success and exalted station.

How, then, have elites and the system that selects and forms them fallen into such disrepute—or at least become the objects of widespread calumny? That is the question that lies at the heart of our thematic essays in our summer issue, Meritocracy and Its Discontents.

Traditionally, we’ve released ten articles from each issue for free and then held back the rest of this issue. This is great for browsing, but means that a few articles tend to eat up all the attention. This time, we are trying something slightly different—rolling out the articles a few at a time so that they have a chance to stand on their own.

To that end, enjoy our two launch articles:

For subscribers, of course, the whole issue is available right now, whether in print or ePub form. In addition to the above, they’ll get to read the contributions of Robert Frank and Wilfred McClay, and great free-standing essays like John J. Lennon’s “The Murderer’s Mother.” They can dive straight into our special symposium on Richard Rorty, in which Susan Haack, Matthew Crawford, and Robert Pippin discuss a previously unpublished lecture that Rorty delivered at the University of Virginia in 2004.

If you aren’t a subscriber, it’s an easy problem to fix: click here and subscribe today.

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The Hedgehog Recommends: Summer Reading

A member of the editorial staff on vacation. Calle Eklund via Wikimedia Commons.

A member of the editorial staff on vacation. Calle Eklund via Wikimedia Commons.

Hedgehogs have scattered far and wide for the summer—but we’re determined to get through that stack of books. Here are some of the things we’re reading. What about you?

Jay Tolson (Editor)

russo coverIf you want a good a take on the inner lives of the people who are said to be the core supporters of Donald J. Trump—that is, the underemployed and deeply discouraged members of America’s white working class—then you could do no better than pick up a copy of Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool. Take this not on my own authority but the author’s. He recently said so, with a touch of ruefulness, in an interview on NPR. Russo has been exploring this social terrain long before Trump became a serious (did I just say serious?) contender for the presidency, in eight previous works of well-wrought fiction and a memoir.

This, Russo’s most recent novel, revisits the same fictional territory (the upstate New York town of North Bath) and takes up many of the same characters he explored so compellingly in Nobody’s Fool. Donald “Sully” Sullivan (played by Paul Newman in the 1994 film adaptation of the earlier novel) is back, the stoic anti-hero who retains his quiet philosophical calm as things human and physical (including one of the town’s major buildings) fall apart. The novel opens fittingly with a description of the town’s cemetery, the only thing that seems to be growing in North Bath: “The plot of land set aside on the outskirts of town became crowded, then overcrowded, then chock-full, until finally the dead broke containment, spilling across the now-paved road onto the barren flats and reaching as far as the new highway spur that led to the interstate. Where they’d head next was anybody’s guess.” That, we soon learn, is not the only way the dead affect the lives of North Bath’s struggling survivors. If the novel is elegiac, it is also deeply funny, a comedy for our times.


Leann Davis Alspaugh (Managing Editor)

barkskins-9780743288781_hrThe great book upheaval after moving house continues and I’m rediscovering several old favorites that I want to re-read. A friend mentioned that he’s re-reading Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree for the fifth time and while that is one of my favorites, too, I read it (for the third time) about a year ago. This summer, I plan on heading into the sunset with another McCarthy novel, Blood Meridian, a happy tale about marauding scalp-hunters led by the quasi-mythical and brutally violent Judge.

New reading will include one (or all) of the three Barbara Pym novels that I recently found at the Decatur Bookstore in New Orleans: The Sweet Dove Died, Quartet in Autumn, and A Glass of Blessings. I also have Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Arthur Lewis, World War I flying ace and BBC co-founder. I just finished Y.T. by Alexei Nikitin, a short novel about surveillance, conspiracy, and nostalgia for the past. Nikitin’s book has hilarious elements of surrealism blunted by the banality of Soviet bureaucracy still lingering in 1980s Ukraine. Ultimately, the book was a little 9781612195124disappointing, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that that was the part of the author’s intended effect. (Extra credit to Melville House for a fine new English translation by Anne Marie Jackson)

At present, I’m working my way through Annie Proulx’s latest, Barkskins. This generational saga of early settlers and native people in New France (Canada) progresses—gallops, really—from the seventeenth century to modern times, traveling between the New World, Europe, and Asia. At times, one senses that Proulx is trying to keep the horse from bolting, but, she still has a knack for detecting human absurdity and I’m grateful that she keeps what is surely a novel disguised as an environment admonition from becoming a tiresome screed. (Thanks, William T. Vollmann, for the spoiler in your New York Times review.)


Continue reading

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